Friday, December 15, 2017

Dec 15, Brian Oliu: Scaffolding

I am about to close on a house. It is a nice place in a fabulous location. There is a lot of brick. Like most houses in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it is very long—there is something about the South that wishes you to turn left or right the second you walk through a front door; as if there is nothing good to be found in stepping forward. It is move-in ready, although there are always projects that need to be done; the wallpaper steamed off, some doors replaced. My father is the type of man who can do anything—many weekends of my childhood were spent doing intensive work around the house, whether that is grouting a shower, or digging a trench for a man-made pond. The thing I remember more than raking rocks is setting up scaffolding—blue iron bars coated in paint, the lopsided weight of the T-bar to hold the rungs in place. My father has offered to help when it is time to knock down a wall—he is already planning on renting a truck for all of his tools. I can picture the clanging of pieces all the way down I-65.

During my first year in Alabama, before I could ever imagine owning a house in the Deep South, let alone surviving more than three years away from home, Colin Rafferty called me and asked if I wanted to see if I wanted to try to find this place that had a really good cheeseburger. The cheeseburger was nothing special—I never went back to that particular place again to eat a cheeseburger or otherwise, but it was a moment of kindness that kept me afloat during a year where nothing was stable; there was no reason to believe in houses. Instead it was a world where nothing was concrete—everything, at its heart, was an attempt to lock the wheels on the ladder.

When I met Colin, he was working on an essay collection on monuments. We were both in Michael Martone’s nonfiction workshop where we had carte blanche in whatever we chose to write about—I don’t believe that anything that I wrote during that workshop “became” anything other than what it was; I had not latched onto the concept of a larger project in the same way that I do not know what is going to happen tomorrow, or how many coats of paint it will take before the yellow color in the kitchen stops bleeding through the primer. However, I remember Colin’s work in the same way that I remember anything these days: in moments that exist in haze, but other images that stand forth like concrete.

The essays from that class became a book, Hallow This Ground, a better title than Monumental! a working title that like most great ideas, was half joke and half serious. It is strange to think of these essays of anything more than complete: they are, after all, impeccably crafted. Furthermore, the subject matter is something that we never regard as fluid—we think of monuments as Excalibur planted into the ground with such force and authority that it would take an act of God to move it.

And yet as we close out 2017, a year where we recognize the fact that monuments are not meant to be eternal in the same way that the demolition of ideals that we hold dear are ordered with a quickness, it is strange for us to consider the essay as anything but stable. If we are to believe that all essays are attempts, then we must consider writing that we once deemed complete is capable of sliding off the green like an unlucky putt that skidded just past the pin. And yet I remember these essays in their original form before they were put in the concreteness of a book; some changed wildly after long conversations, others simply rounded themselves into form. It is incredibly daring to write nonfiction and have it released into the world, as the truth of the world could change at any moment, making what once seemed complete go back into simply an attempt.

This might seem like a scary and awful thing: to never be done with your own writing because the world can shift everything in an instant. But on the other hand, it can be this beautiful and liberating thing—to know that for every essay that you write, you have to be at your most present. The zeitgeist may be a ghost, but we are able to grab onto it, if only for a moment. There is nothing preventing us from building new monuments to our lives—writing an essay is less about telling a story that once happened and more about telling a story about you coming to the realization that this story needed to be written.

I am writing this on the eve of the 2017 Special Election for United States Senate. You have, presumably, heard of this. My wife and I, the ones buying the house, have been working tirelessly for the Doug Jones campaign. You know Doug Jones’ name only by proxy—he is the “other” here, he is the aforementioned “Roy Moore’s opponent”. You, presumably, know Roy Moore—he of riding his horse “Sassy” to the polls, he of theocracy, he of hating everyone and everything except himself. You may also know of his original claim to fame—his insistence on mixing religion and government leading to the unveiling of a 5,280 pound block of granite with the Ten Commandments engraved on it right smack in the middle of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery. I am thinking about how it got there—of how it was installed in the middle of the night without the knowledge or approval of other circuit court judges; of how the granite was shipped in from Vermont, of how Moore videotaped the installation of the monument in order to sell copies to pay for Moore’s inevitable legal bills. In all senses of the word, this monument is false: a piece of stone that existed only to be removed. As Rafferty points out, monuments are meant for the observers—they are crafted after the fact. They are discussed and crafted meticulously. They are political. They are for something.

The essays in Hollow This Ground are, at their heart, a documentation of Colin documenting. There is a moment in the titular essay where Rafferty is playing tour guide in Washington D.C. for his father-in-law.

One of the side effects of learning a bunch of things is that my head is crammed with them all the time. I used to think of my memory as a giant card catalog, thousands of index cards cross-indexed against each other. Now I think of it as a waterslide that twists and turns, leading down through a dozen angles to where it could have reached much more quickly had it just gone from A to B.

This tendency is usually annoying, but it’s tremendously useful when I get to play tour guide, like I am right now, pointing out the spot on the Washington Monument, about one-third of the way up, where the color of the stone changes slightly.

“Construction got held up in the first part of the nineteenth century for a few reasons,” I say. “Lots of groups had donated stones for the construction, and anti-Catholic groups actually stole the stone that the Vatican sent.”

My father-in-law looks up the obelisk. A circle of flapping flags surrounds us, snapping in the wind. From our vantage point at the top of this small hill, I point out our path, saying that we’ll head down past the World War II Memorial, along one side of the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial, then around the Tidal Basin through the FDR Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial. 

After I point out our path, I look across to the White House. Even though I’ve visited DC a few times since we moved to Virginia, I’ve avoided the White House as a protest—quiet, useless—against its current occupant. But now, with four days left in his presidency, I feel only a mild apathy toward Bush. He’s irrelevant now. What can he do besides issue a few pardons?

My father-in-law looks out at the White House with me. Not looking at me, he speaks. “Well, Colin, do you think Obama can do it?” We’ve never spoken about politics before this moment. To our left, across the drained Reflecting Pool, a large stage stands ready for tomorrow’s star-studded concert. In a landscape obsessed with the past, it is strange to think about the future.

The future that Rafferty is referring to is now the distant past—but what still stands is the memory of it all. This, here, is a monument to this essay; it will exist in one context for an instant before it freezes in time and needs a new coat of paint.

By the time you read this, the 2017 Special Election will, presumably, be concluded. This could take on a weight heavier than the granite, or it could be as light as what it stands for. The day after, we will point at tile that needs to be replaced. We will take our photograph with our realtor in the front yard. It is necessary for you to know this—to know that as I write this I exist in a place other than when you read these words. It is something to let you know that I was here. It is a testament to how, as writers, we must always show our work, for we are the ones constantly under construction.


Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently lives and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks and four full-length collections, most recently the lyric-memoir i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), and Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press), a collection of essays on NBA Jam. Recent essays on topics ranging from long distance running to professional wrestling appear in The Collagist, Catapult, The Rumpus, Runner's World, and elsewhere.

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