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Syndic Literary Journal

Tell Us Watchman, Of The Night


Richard Baldwin Cook

The prospect of imminent death can focus the mind. Let me rephrase that. The prospect of imminent death can unfocus the mind. Putting these conundrums another way: will monogamy exist after the pandemic is done with us? Will locked in be replaced by locked out?

As I write this sentence, over two million occupants of this land have sickened from covid-19 and about 5% of them have died. Some with passports or other tickets to ride and some of the deceased with no ID at all. It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to the Covid.

Strange to report, no one in my close circle has died or gotten sick from Covid. Sad to report, Commander-in-Chief Bonespur is still kicking it.

In 1952, Thomas Merton, new then, to the Trappist monastery, Gethsemane, in Kentucky, spent the night of July 4th as night watchman. Merton, after his priestly ordination, having been renamed in the community of the monastery as Father Louis, kept a journal and made observations about this Independence Day nightwatch experience.

Merton wrote, “in the silence of the 4th of July, it is my time to be the night watchman, in the house that will one day parish.”

What? Parish?

Looking ahead from 68 years ago, Father Louis admonishes me. “Perhaps the most urgent and practical renunciation is the renunciation of all questions.”

Ok. Wha’chu got, Father? Another question, but not untimely. We keep the right social distance, so What’chu got?

Merton’s comments about his July 4th night watchman duties sixty-eight years ago, are much influenced by darkness, but with a romanticized spin: “You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me.” I used to pretend I could make sense of this kind of writing. You’re on your own.

Merton did, back in the days of my late adolescence, cast a spell over me. I read his journal when I was 17 and was half ready to sign on to the monkish life. I had spent a weekend at Gethsemani Monastery, liked it, the silence, the poverty, the obedience. Well, the silence, anyway. The engineered simplicity was very appealing. Did not see a downside. But being Southern Baptist, I didn’t have access to the paperwork.

Besides, about the same time I was considering monkdom, I could be found leafletting cars around a Catholic church in Louisville, about how John Kennedy was not qualified to be President. It wasn’t that he was Catholic, you understand, it was because he would take orders from the Pope.

Merton again: “Darkness brings a semblance of order before all things disappear.” Maybe that’s the relief we seek. Back then during my anti-JFK leafletting days, and at various points since, I could have used a semblance of order, along with less certitude and arrogance.

At age 15, I spent a week with my dad when he had a summer job as night watchman. That was 61, maybe 62 years ago. This gig was a temporary pastime for my father. He was night watchman in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, at a Baptist retreat called Eagle Arie. Dad was on the committee that organized and founded the place and he was the one who came up with that name.

Cecil, my father, enjoyed being the night watchman. The flash-lit darkness, awake while others were asleep, having the quiet run of the place, going into the kitchen, making himself a sandwich and one for me. I think Dad would have agreed with Merton; darkness is a taste of the end of all things. Agree or not, Dad would taste the end ten years later. Lung cancer. Lucky Strikes.

Dad’s father, Cecil Sr., asked Dad to promise that if he would stay away from cigarettes until age 21, his father would give him $50. Dad made the bargain, turned 21 in 1934, collected the 50 and started smoking. A win-win for the young man. Who never became an old man.

I have lived a quarter-century longer than the span allotted to my father, dead these 50 years. Exiting life in helpless angry protest, my father never had a chance to become the watchman that my brothers and I would have benefited from.

I often think of my father? I did, reading Juan Rulfo, the Mexican writer of timeless stories, who said, “Every time you exhale you’ve used up one of your allotted breaths.”

Dad, with his allotted breaths running down, died alone, gasping, after the nurses convinced mother to go home. “Get some rest” they would have said, knowing what was going to happen that night, knowing they weren’t going to answer the buzzer from his room, knowing Merton’s darkness was to envelop him, and not wanting Mother to suffer, helplessly, through his final agony. Merton had predicted all this. “In the night the end of all things has come before me.”

Events resonate down time and around us, beyond understanding even after the facts are laid before us. In 1968, Thomas Merton died, making headlines, even before my father did, at 53, absurdly electrocuted by a fan in a hotel room in Bangkok.

Is there any point in asking the muses why the darkness settles upon us as it surely will? Walt Whitman thought, maybe so. Or maybe not. A Quaker boy who became a sturdy agnostic man on a lifelong mission of self-understanding, Walt wrote a poem about, “the terrible doubt of appearances” which if you like details, is both the title and the first line.

“OF the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all, that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful fable only,
May-be the things I perceive, the animals, plants, men, hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms,
may-be these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions, and the real something has yet to be known.”

Whitman does not leave us treading in uncertain waters full of what all:

“To me these and the like of these are curiously answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends,
When he whom I love travels with me or sits a long while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that words and reason hold not, surround us and pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom, I am silent, I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances or that of identity beyond the grave,
But I walk or sit indifferent, I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.”

Father Louis, watchman, back in ’52 wrote: “There is greater comfort in the substance of silence than in the answer to a question.” Ok, then, Fr. Louis, the silence wins, you win. But you died in Bangkok not in the monastery, not necessarily following the trinitarian rules: poverty, chastity and obedience.

And Walt Whitman, sitting in silence, jotting down his musings but not alone, also a winner, is “completely satisfied.”

Where was I? Oh yes. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and President Bonespur has the run of the place, while we are stuck in lockdown monogamy.

We’re never going back to the world as it was. This is primarily because we are residents of a rapacious Empire, built for comfort, not resiliance. An Empire that cannot restrain itself. Even as the Empire appears to tire of placating Israel by wrecking Moslem countries, the Empire does not tire of bringing on the ruination of the delicate, temperate environment that makes our own lives livable and possible.

Post covid-19, we will try to go back to normal but without a plan. We’ll go back to full grocery shelves and myriad restaurants, and find ourselves momentarily contented but then surprised when the food supply systems begin to fail. We’ll go back to jobs and again be surprised that jobs ain’t there unless we can work remotely from home. Remote jobs, once again, will shove to one side folks in the color-defined ghettos, without Wi-Fi. These brutish warrens of neglect have been contrived to hold people who have been living in them for impoverished generations, people whom we do not manage to notice unless they’re making a fuss. They didn’t need Wi-Fi before. Why start now?

We’ll go back to the weather forecasts and be shocked to discover there’s less predictable westerly global weather systems but instead, shifting north-to-south weather. We won’t need to go to the beach to get a tan or by it’s proper name, a radiation burn. Half a generation on, survivors will look back on today with envious nostalgia, when our greatest fear could be countered by a face mask.

There’s money to be made in the reordering that is coming. But not for those of us of a certain age. Soon, our fondest hope will be the watchman’s darkness and the spouse waking up beside a corpse, the operational definition of monogamy.


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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