Log in

No account? Create an account
Previous Entry Share Next Entry
diary of a mad essayist: a canticle for Saint Jude
morning fire
I start the days with the strike of a match, in a swirl of smoke and sulfur and the golden flash of fire, touching the wick on a new candle in an old place, bringing light into the dark mornings. In an inexplicable incantation, I say "good morning" to someone I never met, stand and watch for a moment, and then head for the stove to make a pot of tea.

Sometimes I think I was meant to be Catholic, and not just because the lifelong infusion of guilt adds a certain squalid glory to every moment of moral uncertainty. When I got my first adult-sized bike, a dull red Western Flyer touring model with broad, sweeping handlebars that was a hand-me-down from the boys next door, I had to ask my neighbor what the little oval metal badge screwed onto the front was for.

"That's a Saint Christopher medal," he said, touching the oxidized badge with a reverence that didn't make much sense to me in those days. "He's the patron saint of travelers, a kind of guardian angel."

It nearly took my breath away, the idea that there'd be an angel for a bicycle.

Bouyed with a sense of invulnerability, I launched that dull red Western Flyer off every impossible cliff and hurtled down every rain-carved orange clay ditch and rode slowly through every bad neighborhood, secure under the outstretched arms of a stamped-tin Saint Christopher. In time, that bike came apart at the seams, worn out by forty years of abuse under the Saint's watchful eye, and there were new bikes to come, but never magical ones, protected by the complex systems of celestial patronage.

Naturally, I landed on my head a lot, which might count for something.

If I'd been raised Catholic, I'd probably have come to adopt Saint Sebastian, the unofficial patron of homosexuals before Judy Garland came along, but I came of age as a Presbyterian instead, and our patron saints were the collection plate and plastic punchbowls of sherbet and ginger ale punch in the Fellowship Hall, so I've had to strike out on my own.

If I'd known about such things earlier, it'd have been obvious.

My father came down to the basement to see what I was up to, and I was there in his leather work gloves, holding a propane torch to a solder joint in a odd little sculpture of roof flashing I was assembling. He stood over me and watched as I bent the thin metal into a curved, flat box and carefully sealed the seams with acid-core plumber's solder, even as I swore and scowled, frustrated by the way the flashing wouldn't hold the liquid lead.

"What are you building, son?"

"A cyclotron."

There was a pause, a familiar hesitation, and he asked again.

"What's that?"

"It's a particle accelerator," I explained, showing him the pages from the 1962 issue of Popular Mechanics that went into meticulous detail about "atom smashers," and told him how I'd worked out that I could build a smaller scale version of the same thing, right there in a basement in Scaggsville. He scratched his head and bit his lip, taking pains not to completely deflate my enthusiasm.

"Well, let me know if you need anything."

In the end, I had him get me dry ice and an old watch with a radium dial, and I sat in the basement, ready to play with the forces of creation, and fired up my ramshackle cyclotron. The dry ice sizzled and smoked, the electromagnets I'd wound from wire pulled out of the flyback transformers in abandoned TV sets down at the dump hummed as they were meant to, and I watched the swirling mist in the cloud chamber, and not one damn thing happened, at least not until one of the electromagnets shorted and started to burn.

My father smelled the distinctive scent of burning varnish filtering up through the vents and clumped down the basement stairs to check on my progress. I sat there, coughing in a wreath of smoke and vapor from the dry ice, just looking over it all and wondering why it just wouldn't work.

"It's pretty hard to build a cyclotron, son," said my father, hoping to dull my frustration. "I think it usually costs millions of dollars to build one, and that's when you already know how to build one."

I switched off the lights, peered into the cloud chamber again, but didn't see a damn thing beyond the usual trails of particles zinging off the radium watch dial at the center of my ridiculous homemade cyclotron. I didn't get it. I thought I did everything right.


Saint Jude is the official patron saint of lost causes, impossible missions, and desperate situations, and there's no better patron for the life I've led. I've spent a lifetime banging my head against the wall, chasing after impossible dreams, and reaching out for unreachable things, but I've just kept on anyway, even when it becomes painfully clear that I'll never get where I'm going.

Sometimes, it's just all too much, and that's when I need a Saint.

That's when I need a sympathetic ear.

I've been thinking of Saint Jude a lot lately, as I've been sitting here, chained to my desk, editing my writing in the hope that some day, somewhere down the line, all this work will have counted for something and I'll make a little money off my work. I sit and write and I'm pretty proud of what I write, but when I start to edit, it just turns into a jumble, an embarassment of badly placed commas and my signature endless sentences, and I read and read the same passages over and over until they just turn to gibberish in my head. I sit and stare and think "no one's going to read this shit," even if I've got a highly-dedicated group of readers who say otherwise. I read and reread and type and cut and paste until my head starts to hurt and the loneliness starts to bite, interrupted only by the increasingly frequent calls from bill collectors out for blood.

I'm a few weeks away from being unemployed for a year, though I've been working harder than I ever did at my often-maligned desk job. I've written and composed and studied for almost a year, and burned every penny of savings and my entire 401K and run myself back into debt, and it's still just impossible, and I'm no closer to having something to publish than I was six months ago, or maybe I just can't see it. The lure of the impossible is so much stronger when you're not hanging on by your fingernails, and I'm even beyond that, slapping at the grass on the edge of this cliff as I slide further down, as I head for the abyss.

If I'd been smart, I'd have waited until I was ready, right?

Like most kids, I grew up with a complete tracker pipe organ stored in the attic. It was my Dad's little pipe dream (as it were), something he'd salvaged from a church that would've otherwise just dumped it all, and it sat there in the attic, in rank after rank of dull grey lead pipes and warm wooden reed pipes stored in long, flat boxes, along with all the valve boxes and other hardware, for what seemed like forever.

One day, I came home and found my father out in the yard, by his workshop, pounding something with a five pound maul hammer. I looked and saw that he'd pulled out the boxes of pipes and was flattening the lead ones, folding them up, and dumping them into trash cans.

"What are you doing!?" I asked, horrified to see something familiar being destroyed.

"I'm getting rid of these pipes," he said, and paused to smoke.

I couldn't understand his motives. There was more than enough space to store them forever, even if he never got around to building the organ he dreamed of owning.

"But-but-but you were gonna build this thing one day," I stuttered.

"Son, sometimes you just gotta know when a dream's over," he said, took a drag, and went back to flattening pipes. I stood and watched and something in me just hated him, and was ashamed at what he'd become, at his rejection of the impossible.

"Why is it over now?" I asked.

"It just is, son. It just is."

I kept on chasing the impossible until it ground me down, too, and in time, I found a way to be that was warm and safe and comfortable and entirely possible, and I let love and ambition and desire go because those things are nothing but trouble, nothing but pain and frustration and humiliation, and the most primal urge in all living things is to be safe and happy. For a time, it was an equilibrium that worked for me, and I loved that cold, deep winter, where I could just hunker down and accept the lesser rewards of a half-lived life, even as I knew that it just wasn't me, that I'm just not made of that kind of fabric.

I start each day lighting a candle, and sometimes I don't even know who I'm doing it for, whether I'm lighting it in memory of someone I never met or for my father or me or for all my abandoned impossible dreams, or if it's just my way of calling on Saint Jude when all I want to do is give up. I get up some mornings and think I'll just leave it, that I'll let yesterday's candle sit there, cold and burned out, and for a moment, the urge is unbearably strong. I'm not lighting that damn candle. I don't owe anything to anyone who's not here and real. Fuck rituals and observances.

I'm tired, I'm lonely, I'm broke, and all I want to do is give up.

I've been applying for jobs, but no one will hire me, and there's a train thundering towards where I'm standing with my foot caught in the tracks, and it's already too late, even if I found a job right now. My finances are in ruins and will be for another decade, no matter what happens in the next several months. I spent ten years stitching up my worn-out underpants and never traveling or spending on anything fun or frivolous to get to a place where I was living a balanced life, and it's all gone. I look in the mirror and I see tired eyes staring back at me, and I wonder if it's all been worth it.

It's easy to leap around in a triumphant dance of zen bullshit when there's still something holding me up, when I can write endless celebrations of the virtue of hurling yourself off a cliff because something will come along to catch you in the nick of time, when it seems like there really is such a thing as "karma" or saints or fairy godmothers or just something. When the bills come due and there's no way to pay them, it's another story, optimism be damned.

It turned out, in the end, that Saint Christopher was never even a saint, and that there are doubts in the church that he was even a real person at all. I found that out while researching something else a while back and was sorely disappointed to find that the little badge that'd been protecting me on my dull red Western Flyer was just nothing, just a pointless talisman made of base metal, and yet, it'd worked, after a fashion.

With Saint Christopher on my side, I pointed my Western Flyer towards the future and, as often as not, found it along the road somewhere, but now I'm trying to be my own saint, to motivate myself even when all I can do somedays is leave the computer on, crawl into a nest of pillows and blankets on the couch, and find escape in sleep.

I carried the record player home on the back of my big red bike, holding it steady with one hand and steering with the other, riding the long straight stretch from the dump at the dead end of Scaggsville Road as quickly as I could without losing my precious cargo. I carried it down the basement stairs with difficulty, careful not to hit the narrow concrete walls of the stairwell with my ungainly prize, and my father put down his rake and followed me down to see what I was up to.

"Where'd you get that, son?" he asked.

"The dump," I said, and set it gently on the scarred top of the workbench.

"What are you going to do with it?"

"I'm going to fix it."

He looked at the case of the old record player, which had been outside long enough for the sun to bleach the color out of the vinyl that was coming off the plywood case in dangling strips. I tipped it forward and it gushed algae-choked water through the speaker grille.

"I don't think you're going to be able to do it," he said, pointing out how the ivory plastic tonearm had left a trail of shadow burned into the faded brass color of the top, working like a sundial over years of exposure. "I think that old thing's pretty much done for."

"Maybe," I said, and started to unscrew rusty screws in the base panel.

"Try not to electrocute yourself or burn the house down, son," Dad said, and he tromped back up the stairs to resume his yard work.

I sat with that thing in pieces for days, extracting the old metal chassis with its vacuum tubes and cloth-insulated wiring and just staring into the circuits until certain things came into focus. I resoldered and rewired, replaced the drive belt for the turntable with a belt I stole out of the vacuum cleaner, and tweaked and adjusted everything until it was all exactly right. When I was confident enough, I carried it back up the stairs to the back porch, plugged it into the the outside outlet, and put on my sister's copy of Abbey Road.

It was not hi-fi, but it was clean and clear and right.

My mother came out and found me there, grooving along to "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and smiling the kind of smile I rarely smiled in those days, the kind of smile that crosses your face when everything in the world is exactly right. She went back in, found my dad, and brought him out.

"Can you believe it?" she said, pointing to the old record player, which played on merrily in spite of looking like something salvaged from a shipwreck. Dad shook his head, chuckled, and put a hand on my shoulder.

"Well, I'll be damned, Joe."

Life is impossible.

It'd been so long since I'd pulled off anything impossible that I'd forgotten that, and how it doesn't matter if most of our dreams are destined to go nowhere. It just doesn't matter, and as soon as it starts to become important to us, we just go to sleep, and get comfortable and quiet and burrow into ourselves. Right now, I'm tired and lonely and worn-out and overwhelmed by so many demands on my time and energy that there's not a chance that I'll get through the next six months unscathed, but I've got no choice but to keep on going until I electrocute myself or burn the house down.

I've got no choice.

Pema Chödrön wrote a great book called The Wisdom of No Escape, and it's a book I'm revisiting, just to remind myself that there really is no escape from all this, that life is impossible and we can either deal with that and get on with our lives or just live in fear. I let nearly a decade pass me by while I was hiding out and waiting to be ready for what the world's gonna throw at me, and I lost that time forever, because I stopped believing that I can do impossible things.

I am chasing two impossible careers, and I'm in love with an impossible man, and I'm dedicated to impossible values, and I'm trying to do it all in an impossible timeframe, and sometimes it all just beats me down until all I want to do is give up, but I'm not going to be beaten, not again.

If you're Catholic, you've got places to go and sources of intercession at hand, and I'm so damn jealous of that that I'm just gonna fake it and let Saint Jude be my very own patron saint, someone to reach out to in the very worst moments, when I'm sitting at my desk with my stomach churning, trying not to accept the cold, hard facts at hand, which say I'm chasing a bunch of impossible dreams at once. I've chased them before and I've failed over and over, but I've beaten the odds once or twice, too.

This time around, I'm going to beat them all or burn the house down trying.

I start my days with the strike of a match, but I end them with a whisper, just four little words that are the last thing I say out loud each and every night, and so I bracket my day with items of insane faith, even if such things are not always central to my nature. In the last year and a half, I've learned a lot of lessons about insane faith, and for once, I'm ready to shut up, override my doubts, and leap.

The world is impossible, but then again, so am I.

  • 1
I've sat and stared at this blank box for a good five minutes - but I'm going to step up and offer.

I have always been a good editor. It's something I can do very, very well. No, I've never worked for a publishing house - but I've edited works that were later published and I've done a good bit of writing for feature articles and such that were published under my own byline - so I'm not a complete newbie.

If you want someone 'faceless' to read your work and offer editing suggestions, to help cut down the hamster-wheel effect - I am here.

Don't just read this and dismiss it. Think about it. I 'get it' - I really do - and I think I can help, in my own way.

And yes, I am no longer catholic - but I have a St.Christopher's medallion in my car.

When I get back from Austria I am going to try my darndest to get down your way and kidnap you for at least a day.


As a card carrying geek (or is that my ID card for work - same thing I think), Christine Lavin is one of my Divas (Divae?) and she wrote a song that John frequently plays for me:

What can you do
When it is clear to you
That your dreams
Will not come true

Where can you go
When everything you think you know
Disappears from view

You can hang your head
Roll over and play dead
Curse the world
And all it's evil schemes

Or you can
Adjust your dreams
Adjust your dreams
Adjust your dreams

We have adjusted so many dreams in our twelve years together that we should earn honorary degrees in Oneiropracty. Subtle adjustments can be amazing.


Saint Christopher is still my favorite saint and the probablity that he is a myth makes him even more appropriate. He should be the patron saint of dreamers and explorers.


Er' perehnne (ok so I am over using it but, but, but...)

... or at least take you shopping for some new underwear...


HUGS! Mr. Storytellerfriend

Wow, just wow.

That is so me sometimes, and probably millions of others. You speak the honest truth Joe.

I am crying in my cube, turning up my music so no one will hear me. Sometimes it just seems so hard.

Thank you again.

the lifelong infusion of guilt adds a certain squalid glory to every moment of moral uncertainty.


Funny...when I left the church, my saints did not leave me. Your champions, both spirit and flesh, surround you. Impossible Joe, so full of faith and despair all at once. If there's anyone that can understand that, it's a saint. ; )

Do you ever wish to just be hit by lightning so you can be burned into a little pile of ash that gets blown away by the wind?

I do.

oh joe, your essays lift my spirits. yes, it's all impossible. but we keep on keepin' on.....

I admire your tenacity directed at impossible things, even if you think you're losing it.

Tenacious people win and do remarkable things. And I have no doubt that they doubt the possibility of the impossible along the way.

"they" say "knowledge is half the battle"...I've heard it at least a dozen times.

So if you know what you're attempting is impossible, you've already fought half the battle. And you have already proclaimed you're not giving up. SO it seems it's all pretty much in the bag-you're gonna do something dang near impossible. Have I read this essay right?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if at all possible, and/or feasible-invite us into your brainstorming... could we prepurchase your book? Could we set up a another Joe Wall event whose proceeds benefit Joe Wall? I don't know many things, but I have learned one thing for sure-its damned hard to ask for help/advice but it often doesn't get offered UNTIL you ask.

you lovely crazy bastard,

this entry,
this passion,
this fire,
this beauty,
this is the reason I defriended you.

I can not bear the glorious pain.

Ah the passion you put forth into living your life scalds me.
Destroys me,
and revives me at the same time.

I won't defriend you again, I'm extremely grateful you asked me why, and tonight when I sleep I'll be open to the dreams again.

Bless you
you beautiful

Lots of love

I like this entry Joe.
Anything is possible when you put your heart into it.
Don't lose hope and always pray to Saint Jude on Thursdays.

this week I'll 'celebrate' the third anniversary of my quitting corporate life and going at it solo. It was scary then, it's still very scary now, I've come to realize that it's my addiction to the impossible which propels me, against several odds I've managed to stay on course in large part thanks to meeting St. Jude at every corner, there waiting for me as my pusher... I sense that the moment I lose my taste for the impossible it will be the begining of the end...

Hi, I'm new.
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<lj_user="bunnyfuzzy">') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

Hi, I'm new. <lj_user="bunnyfuzzy"> recommended your writing. This was absolutely beautiful.

You are impossible, but your dreams aren't.

hello, you write beautifully. Would you mind if I added you as a friend?

Hamlet might also be a candidate to be a fellow sufferer. St. Sebastian certainly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But as you found out, the saints and their talismans are not magic, per se. They do nothing but put you in touch with traits you already possess. These amulets are souvenirs, in the literal sense. That is, they remind you of the stories of these good people's lives, and what they overcame, and what they stood for.

Can I be honest? You're a good writer, but it sounds to me like you're being stubborn about how you get where you're going, as though it must be thus-and-so or it's worthless. Your loss of your job notwithstanding, I've never heard of a writer who did nothing but write before they got their breakthrough, and many did other work even afterwards. Richard Russo, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, had published three books and was, at that, still teaching creative writing at Colby College for his living. It was only when his third book was made into a movie that he was able to quit teaching and write full-time. What I'm saying is that it would have served your career (both in writing and whatever else) better for you to have spent the year hunting for the kind of work, as Barbara Hambly described it, which would allow you the time to write. She had something like half-a-dozen such jobs.

Have you ever thought of being something like a night security guard? That way you could probably even write on-the-job, during slow periods.

Or was all that, fiction, above? I find myself uncertain after reading some of the other posts.

  • 1