Apocalyptic Arithmetic

March 11, 2012

Fragments for the End of Time   presented by Da Camera 2/26/2012





“For every one of us, living in the world /means waiting for our end…” Beowulf,

Seamus Heaney translation [1386-7]


Prophetic Minutes

There is a certain static that invades the front of my head when I’m overwhelmed with little tasks I could do, but for a thousand reasons, haven’t. For me it starts as a barely perceptible mechanical noise that pumps away like an old engine flooding the kitchen floor with waste water, or drilling someone’s tooth while I await my inevitable turn. It continues. It grows into a force that rumbles in  the joists, threatens to shake away my life. Usually it takes the form of forms, where each following page to me is like holding on to something electric and insulting.  Walk past a desk piled with papers, or behind a sagging soul carrying sidesprung bags of three ring binders and you can feel the sad struggle of panic on a leash. That annoying hiss is the constant pressure of the end of the world, a fundamental knowledge that has no real name. It would be a mistake to believe that it isn’t so powerful that it takes all the power of every divinity to put it to order, and every second of our conscious effort to ignore it.

Last summer I purchased an unused leather Franklin Covey planner at a yard sale for $5.00. Although it was a well-made piece of leatherwork with  pockets and double zippers, no one seemed interested in it except me. It was just another failed time machine, a fill-in calendar to divide out hours into spiritualized business  appointment goals, like Palm Pilots, hand held tape recorders and the cacophony of digital alarms that stand in for the Grim Reaper; they are our weapons against the day when there are no more days, the End of Days. Depending on the number and quality of tasks on your To Do List, we’ll greet that day with relief or lamentation.

I don’t think the End of Days, or Last Judgement, shouldn’t be confused with the mere End of Time. Generally the ends of time are calculations that give specific data a dramatic form such as a kalpa, the current Mayan 12/21/12  b’ ak’tun mania, when the sun explodes into a red giant, or my personal favorite, double life plus ninety-nine. The end of our time is the logical extension of all knowledge; we run the numbers on everything until everything is used up, then make bets on the exact day it will happen. The entire universe can disappear down a black hole without guilt or purpose, and all we have to do is develop a few details into the pitch for a screenplay. Really you can’t expect to do better than that from a cubicle. It seems an odd dissonance in my observation that people who are constantly flirting with rescheduling the Last Judgment find a calculation like Global Climate change so repellent. Perhaps our neurology is limited to only embrace one form of cosmic destruction at a time. However we all do seem to crave some form of that hug.

Last Saturday in one of my favorite spaces, The Rothko Chapel, I attended a concert featuring works from the 9th and 10th Centuries focused on music reflecting the End of Time. During the hour and a half program two of my life’s desires were fulfilled. I heard sections of both Beowulf and Icelandic Eddas sung in a great hall accompanied on harps and swan bone flutes as they may have been originally performed.  Assuming my mortification is limited to uncomfortable seating and the music is in performance (as opposed to recordings) I feel connected listening to music from the middle ages. I heard a lot of Gregorian Chant in my youth; it still echoes. Although my medieval Frankish, German and Anglo Saxon are limited to recognizing a cognate here or there, and I found a few as I tried to follow the program translations. A lifetime of intermittent study was fulfilled in two twelve minute fragments of song (which is about my span of attention anyway).  Apart from the varieties of dragons, angry archangels, black suns and celestial destruction, the End of Days is a formal accounting, the double red line.. Every person and deed being brought forward and then held to judgment was a common theme.

Assuming I can correctly do some arithmetic for the Apocalypse, it looks like it might be a good day to actually buy those magazines at the grocery checkout, there could be waiting. The current estimated life expectancy in the US is 78.7 years. I subtracted the 8.7 years to allow the soul to reach the age of culpability as I believe St. Thomas Aquinas discerned it. So I began with 70 years to account for 16 hours a day of conscious discretionary sin time. This allowed for an average eight hours of sleep, assuming the slothful will make up for the insomniacs. Then I factored in 60 second periods for offenses considering the thoughts, words and deeds possible that’s 1080 daily entries into the golden book, if you’ll pardon the pun, on a good day. On a day you’re stuck in traffic and the kids from someone else prior marriage are demanding McDonalds, you’re late in the maze to go through airport security, or the new girl at work wears the wrong outfit,  the numbers leap exponentially.  Our minimal maxima mea culpas average out to 394,200 events to account for per year, or 27, 594,000 discrete sins over 70 years. The current population of the United States on the Sunday I’m writing this is 313,086,790.  8,639,316,883,260,000  faults to enter into the Cosmic Quicken just for people currently alive and holding citizenship in the United States to file. The world population is estimated at 6,996,927,144, if you try to calculate in every person who has lived since Adam, it really adds up. We’ll have to imagine that number since I don’t have a device that can show it to me.

If you find that difficult, remember the 1080 events a day you’ll be called on to confess? This year we had a Leap Year day. Can you recall even one thing you did last Leap Year’s day? Unless it was the day your murdered  your parents or won the lottery, it’s a task that will require a couple calendars, a phone call to a friend and spacey ambient background music.  Any behavior analyst will tell you that it takes at least three times as long to explain what you did than it did to do it. If the sequence of events that brought time forward was reversed there wouldn’t be enough time since the Big Bang to apologize for all that we had done regardless of where or how you believe time began.

Decades ago, as a youthful theology student, I learned that trying to anthropomorphize divinity was an inaccurate reflection of our own human limits. That stopped me from enjoying paradoxical riddles about the comparative size of God’s appendages, or if God could make a rock too heavy for God to lift. (I also learned that God may play, but doesn’t joke, but I don’t want to put too fine a point on my pointing out.) However when I visualize the schedule, my initial notion of panic returns to me, I’ve got to empathize with whatever has to pencil in those events.  Anthropromorphs aside, it would put any conceptualization of omnipotence and omniscience to the test. I believe, of course it can be done, but just like those piles of forms, when would it be done might be a different question. And as any procrastinator can recite in their fitful sleep, the longer you wait the harder it gets. It’s a juncture where my belief overtakes my reason. It’s something I can’t imagine without my private static growing into a computational tsunami, a devouring horde of fantastic equations. In our collective unconscious we’ll all have to go rogue to comprehend not a prophetic Last Day, but just the astonishing counting to bring events to account.

Still, we all desire at least one day when someone can explain everything with undeniable certainty. How will the world exist without me?   What was everyone else really doing and thinking? Does suffering mean anything? What suffering did I cause?  Call the role of all the forgotten dead. Reveal all that’s hidden. Explain why my cousin Ronnie, who was better, braver and more deserving than me in so many aspects, died at the beginning of his adolescence of a mindless horrid disease while I saunter through days as if I were a character on a television program. I would like to at least confirm that each life has some kind of Freudian vine rooted in primal events that bind past to the future. But within the genetic code of knowing there is also destruction. To possess your life and know your life are two different realities.

Let me confess one of my sins into this tenuous now of words. When I was twenty-one I had a sordid summer affair with a married woman. I expect no forgiveness. As part of our dissembled romance she drove me to rural Kentucky where in a fly-filled trailer home a part-time short order cook and psychic was going to predict our future. It was sweaty hot, but he still wore a knit stocking cap that kept seven black stones arranged against his head. She wrote the check. He described a few detailed privacies from my past interspersed with visions of my future including reptile-like butterflies that lived beneath the surface of the colonized planet Venus that could breathe in ammonia and twilight in a pastel desert of stone houses. For the love affair he found nothing beyond apologetic tics and twitches. Then as if he were following stage direction, he changed his tone from frazzled and flailing to conversational. “You are the last male in your family line.  If you don’t have a male heir, your name will die out. You will never have a son.”  I was sitting on a bent folding chair next to my partner in adultery with one of my most secret fears got casually tossed out next to a half-eaten baloney sandwich. Such is my personal experience with prophesies of private Armageddon.

One sunset twenty years after I was married, I was standing beneath the Congress Street Bridge in Austin, Texas. A million waking bats came fluttering like dark butterflies out from their colony beneath the bridge. The stench of ammonia from the guano seemed unbearable. A few years later I visited my daughter in Terlingua where for her own reasons she had taken up residence in a primitive stone house. To my reckoning the single feature to recommend it was its view of morning and evening moving through the Chesos Mountains. I traveled to my grandfather’s village in Italy; he was right about the son as well. What we think we know about the past, or the future is as malleable as what we know about the present. If a guy with a b.o. stained truck stop tee shirt can see into my future and someone singing thousand year old song fragments in languages I don’t understand can speak in concert to my past, I find myself more inclined to accept my community with those poetic voices of prophesy, than judge them.

At the end of Fragments for the End of Time, with all the ravening,harrowing, earthquakes, celestial blood storms  and monsters I walked home still hearing Beowulf “The Lay of the Last Survivor “the last of the Geats  who “…wandered joylessly through day and night, until death’s flood covered his heart.”  He stopped counting the treasure, sealed the dragon’s cave and waited for his measure of oblivion with a calm kind of elegance, equanimity of acceptance. I’d like to believe he didn’t hear the static then.