Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sign Language

Before my very eyes, this blog seems to be turning into Postcards from Ohio. I don't know whether it will continue going that way; somehow, it seems safer and more interesting and more lasting for me to keep sending you snapshots of this place I inhabit--and of the places within this place that I try to stay vigilant against. But you never know what might change. (That's your narrative hook, by the way, in case you're missing it: the possibility of a twist, an eleventh-hour switch now that you're baited, the chance I might turn out to have Pete Postlethwaite as my driver and a knack for making stories out of bulletin boards.)

All of these thoughts are collecting around a single image:

The resolution on this one is going to be pretty terrible, because it's a tiny fragment, heavily zoomed in upon, of a picture I took through a bug-bespattered windshield while driving my car south on I-71 on the fourth of July this year. (My parents were, rightfully, concerned when I showed up in Indiana a few hours later brandishing the picture; one is not supposed to take pictures, digital or otherwise, while moving at 70 mph. I know this. But part of the reason the original picture is so crappy is that I was actually watching the road while taking the picture. I pointed and shot; I got lucky all around.) If you look closely, or if you click on the picture and it opens up for you in another window, you'll see that the billboard at which I was trying to aim without looking reads "Hell is Real." Oh, wait, make that "HELL IS REAL." I know that some of you have heard this story before, but forgive me this trespass: it's going somewhere different this time. This billboard is one of a pair, and they live in a field about 30 minutes south of Columbus, in the long, open stretch of farmland between Columbus and Cincinnati. The second billboard reads, "Where would you spend eternity if you died today?" Northbound drivers are treated to the ten commandments, five on each billboard.

I have a pretty clear sense of where I'd spend eternity if hell is real: having to drive past those screaming billboards, on
that open stretch of Ohio interstate, alone on a humid patriotic holiday, in a car with no air conditioning, forever. And the reeallly hellish part, to my mind? That the farmer who owns that field saw fit either to erect those billboards himself or to sell the space to whoever put them up, that they might chasten, shame, convert, or otherwise terrorize passersby. And that kind of self-righteousness creeps its coldness right under my ribcage and pokes around: a lean knife, a brass beak, an arid scimitar. And maybe the worst part is that I find myself wanting to strike back, wanting to get my own sharp object and to plunge, again and again, into this heart of darkness. (If you think I'm exaggerating, look at that picture again. The "H" in Hell is on fire, baby. This billboard means business.) During the last election season, lots of people in a nearby town posted ten commandments signs in their yards, presumably in solidarity with those maligned, misunderstood public officials in Alabama who were instructed to keep their church out of the state's buildings. Those lawn signs also chilled me. It's not that I don't think the ten commandments are good ideas; their basic principles seem mostly okay, to me. It's the self-righteousness that galls.

And how about this one, for communicating basic principles? I did a lot of traveling this summer, and for awhile in late July and early August, I was touching down in my small town for about 24 hours at a time before jetting off for the next stage in the closest thing to a high-flying life I'm going to have, if I stay in academia. One morning, I was leaving for the airport at about 7 and needed to mail something on the way out. I headed to Gambier's one postbox (and if you think that's something, wait until I write about our utter lack of stoplights), and as I turned the corner, I discovered that a vandal had been hard at work while I was away on my previous trip. I'm sure that defacing postboxes, even with chalk, is some kind of federal offense, but I thought this graffiti was brilliant. By the time I got home a week later, it was gone, of course (though I think the chalkwork across the street, thanking the local coffeehouse for feeding our brains, was still there). Which leads me to wonder: why should a message so simple and inviting, so geared toward establishing or continuing connection with someone else, be the ephemeral one of the two I've offered you here? Why doesn't the request, the plea, the friendly imperative get to trump the belligerent declaration, the ridiculous pretense at certainty, that's been hanging around 90 minutes south of here since I moved back to this state? I hope that the bigger significance my mind is reaching for, in reading these signs, is wrong and forced; I don't want to believe that anger and brimstone have a longer shelf-life than love and happy longing.

Unless happy longing wasn't what prompted that graffiti. I turned those three words over in my mind as I sped through green cornfields, past moseying cows, over and around and up and down serpentine asphalt, heading to the plane that would take me to California, that July morning. Who chalked "Send me love" onto the Gambier postbox? Who was the implied reader? Was the postbox itself meant to be speaking? Less trivially, what was the chalker feeling? I have been single for quite a long time; when I see a request for postal love--whether paper or electronic--I tend fairly swiftly to reach assumptions about desiring the vanquishing of loneliness. That Sunday morning I pushed further, and I'm pushing it further this Sunday morning as well: it feels like a big, high-level request, a taking it to the top, to whatever powers might or might not be running this complicated and sometimes dispiriting show, for some kind of clemency, for the elemental, impossible grace of communicated feeling, for the world-clearing simplicity of reciprocated love. Or even for a refill of one's own store: send me more love, for I might be wearing out, running dry, emptying, when what I want is to keep giving, flowing forth, holding up, hoping. It was such a stripped-down, no-frills expression of what everyone I know--and maybe everyone I don't know, including the people behind those billboards--is speaking and spelling, verbally or otherwise, consciously or otherwise, all the time, that I was still thinking about it when I boarded my plane.

I have my reasons for thinking about it again today. Maybe I'll write about them some other time.

Bonus points for you if you caught my modernist allusions a few paragraphs ago. And if you get the Victorian one nearer the end, I might just make you a pie, all for yourself.

4 Comments:

Blogger Nick Davis said...

To the Lighthouse up in this joint! Since I spotted 'em before you prompted us to go looking, I'd like at least a piece of that pie, and I'd prefer your key lime. (Ed: Dr. S makes a key lime pie that deserves its own billboards, on both directions of the highway.)

2:44 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger KYlitprof said...

I missed all the (literary) allusions, but I think that your juxtaposion of the signs is brilliant. Speaking as just one person of faith, I happen to believe in a creator whose love and happy longing are more powerful and more enduring than hate (or commerce, as I wish people could rememeber at this time of year, but I digress. Sending a little love and hoping I'm not the only one!

8:13 PM, December 18, 2005  
Blogger Poking-Stick Man said...

I think you owe me a pie, but I'm not 100% certain. Please make me one anyway; if you need further convincing, I would be willing to chalk "Send Me Pie" on the side of Gambir's solitary mailbox.

11:41 PM, December 21, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Dude, you didn't even play along! You have to *name* the Victorian reference in order to get the pie.

If only I could make a pie and bring it to MLA. Why didn't we go for a hotel with pie-baking facilities?!

11:46 PM, December 21, 2005  

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