Cartography 10: Ten of Hearts
On the necessary conditions of resurrection
Cartography is a 52 week essay series mapping the interior life.
WE ARE FEROCIOUSLY RELIGIOUS and, in so far as our existence amounts to a condemnation of everything that is known today, an inner necessity demands that we be equally unyielding.
What we are starting is a war.
George Bataille, The Sacred Conspiracy
Names are important to my family.
This should be no surprise; most families take the act of naming a person with a level of gravitas. It sets the tone for a person’s life; it’s often the first encounter of a person, even before meeting them in the flesh. A name on a school roll, an application, a name on an invitation- if we never get a second chance at a first impression, then a name should be a person’s first consideration.
To that end, the tradition in my family is common. The first son takes the name of the father, but with a separate middle name. We don’t number ourselves. By any metric, I may be the 6th Stephen Welch, or the 16th, but with my own personal middle marker to separate me from the rest of the flock. My inheritance though, to be named Stephen, is my first introduction to the world.
My father told me when I was young that we had a strong name, a good Christian name. And he was particular on one very important point: we’re named for Saint Stephen of Hungary, the king who converted from paganism to the true faith and established Archbishoprics, bishoprics, and several monasteries. We were named for royalty, we were men who built civilization up, we died peaceful deaths. This part was crucial to an understanding of our mythology and our legacy-- we were not named for Saint Stephen, the first martyr who had his skull cracked for blasphemy. This marks one of my first breaks with family tradition:
I want to die.
I say that not as a declaration of suicidal intent, but an acceptance of fate. I am going to die. This is a natural fact of life. If I have to do something, if anything is required of me in life, I want it to be deeply, uniquely, irrevocably my own.
Nothing is promised to the living except death. I want to die because wanting anything else is insanity. My name should reflect that. The first thing anyone should think when they see my name is a willingness to embrace my fate and to have a hand in creating it.
Of course I want to die. I just get distracted thinking about sports.
Pictures for Sad Children
My grandfather’s death was like whispers. I heard stories at holiday check-ins about his progressive dementia, how he would wind up in the neighbor’s house insisting it was his. By the time I realized what was happening to him, how serious it truly was, I couldn’t bring myself to go visit. This wasn’t the man I knew, and I knew if I showed up, he would not know me.
Stephen Francis (Xavier) was the most charming man I’ve ever known, and I’ve modeled myself after him. One of his favorite tactics when we would go out on his visits was to order a Manhattan, no matter what type of setting we were in, and whatever was brought back to him, he would take one sip and tell the waitress exactly what was off in the proportions. I watched him send them off with detailed recipes to have them bring back second or third rounds, and each time he would give a little praise with a little critique in equal measure with a joke here and there for good measure. By the end of every meal, these waitresses would be treating him like royalty.
He knew I had a good memory and took to it in turn. He once bet me $10 I couldn’t learn Tom Lehrer’s The Elements Song, knowing full well I would have it down in a week just to impress him. Once he told me an old bedtime story about a woman coming home from a fair with her prize-winning pig, only to have to go through a long chain of negotiations just to get home that evening. I repeated it back to him word for word the next day, and even now if I’m asked for a story, it’s the one I reach for. He was a card-carrying musicians union member and nobody in his jazz group was allowed to play a non-union gig under pain of excommunication. I never saw him without a cigarette and a glass of Crown Royal.
One evening, when I was in my early adolescence, I saw him drunk and crying to my mother about my grandmother. They had divorced before I was born, or shortly thereafter. And this man I loved with all my heart, an icon in my mind, had let his mask of control slip away and he had become vulnerable in our living room. The pain of lost love was flooding the house, and all I could do was retreat in fear.
When I went to his wake, I was surrounded by pictures of him at my age, in his late 20s, tall and lithe and grinning. I saw that same face in the mirror most days; devilish and ready to enact mischief wherever possible, full of love for those around him.
I’m glad I didn’t see him before he died. I want to remember him with those elements I consider my inheritance, my youthful education in how to flirt with a cocktail waitress and to tell a story by candlelight. I’d rather remember him sobbing in his whiskey than looking at me and failing to recognize. In my memories, I can give him the death he deserved.
Attain death with all your appetites, all your selfishness, and all the capital sins!
Rimbaud, A Season In Hell
Emily and I spent our senior year of high school getting closer than we had been since we were in preschool. I can’t call our community small-town; there was one town and many unincorporated areas around it. It was a small community in a pocket of the North Carolina hills. The people you graduated high school with had been near you at varying degrees across the years.
I had a crush on Emily that I never told her about. I didn’t tell any of my friends, either. She was kind to me in one of the cruelest years of my life, when I was recovering from a long-term relationship and watching the dramatic dissolution of my parent’s marriage. I was spending my free nights either going to punk shows in Charlotte or hanging with various friend groups, anything to keep me out of the house and away from work, where the partner of my aforementioned relationship was my supervisor.
Over the months we spent dozens of nights at the movies, at a friend’s house, laughing and enjoying every second. She had fallen out of favor with one of her friend groups and one of mine was where she landed as a political refugee in high school. She even stayed with us during Senior week after we graduated; Myrtle Beach was a battleground and our condo was far enough away from the action to serve as a HQ and retreat.
We kept up a bit when I went off to college, and would see each other on breaks. Our friend group spread out but would come together when we could manage. We assumed this cadence would keep up for years; we would float in and out of each other’s lives, and maybe in a few years when she wasn’t dating someone and neither was I, I could tell her how I felt.
That summer after my freshman year I was living in a house by myself while my roommates were out spending their summers with their families. I was working and keeping to myself, eating microwaved foods and flirting with girls at the mall while occasionally visiting friends who had also decided to stay in town.
At the end of June I woke up to a phone call from our friend, Kenzie, telling me that Emily had hit a downed tree on her way home and died. The tree pinned her in her car and she died alone, undiscovered until someone else came round the corner and called the police.
When I went to her funeral, I was going through the line to pay my respects. I held myself together until I got to her mother who asked who I was. I told her. She lost her composure and hugged me as deeply as anyone ever has. She told me how much Emily loved me and how highly she spoke of me.
I stayed through the service but I left before they interred her. I’ve never visited her grave.
Still, picture the noble snake, having molted, slithering away, newly glistening. There’s the skin, in a big disorganized pile behind it. Is the snake asking you to notice that a snake was here earlier? No; the snake doesn’t care one way or the other. It has moved on. No, indeed, you can’t call a snake sloppy or careless or fault it for leaving tracks in its wake. Besides, who are you? Snakes have been here for millions of years.
John Darnielle, Universal Harvester
Death is real to me. It might be the only thing that is real to me. My physical body is a shell composed of any quadrillion number of cells that are being born and dying every second of the day. I am an engine of regeneration, and each death pushes me forward into the future.
If I am my work, I have lived over 2 dozen lives in 34 years.
If I am my love, I have lived dozens and dozens of lives, many overlapping or creating webs to other lives.
If I am my ambition, I have been born and died any number of times.
If I am the sum of my parts, then I die every day as I accrue more pieces to construct myself.
If I am the wake I leave behind me, then my lifeline stops and starts in my palm like stream in drought.
I cannot be my life. I can only be my death. It is all that I own.
In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So death created time to grow the things that it would kill... and you are reborn but into the same life that you've always been born into.
Rust Cohle, True Detective Season 1
Maransanti. Kadampa. Hagakure. There are any number of ways to meditate on your own death and to explore the end.
The first time I fixated myself to my own death, I wrote a poem about my sky burial. Having my body carved and fed to the birds, having my bones tossed into the seas. I submitted this poem as part of my senior thesis in my program and later distributed it in a self-published chapbook on a weekend tour. But this was not my death. It was my funeral.
Recently, I’ve been rotating through a stream of images. I see myself symbolically, the ten of swords, the body pinned to the earth by the wisdom of the mind. But a dead body is a liberation of the soul, a coming home.
The image I return to most frequently is this:
I am standing on a cliff at the edge of a vast country estate. The beach is visible below, and the rolling hills are green and lush. I’m in Ireland or Scotland or England. I’m in my 60s, maybe 65, and there’s a cold breeze whipping around. I’m staring out at the sea, the sun at my back, and I am full of a deep peace and contentment. I raise a service revolver to my temple and I pull the trigger. The shot rings out and I fall down, staining the grass red.
This is my faith. This is ground zero of my belief system, and if I am going to make my death a sacred act, then it demands a sacrifice.
I ask nobody else to follow my faith, but this is my embrace of fear and love as one. When I come to my appointed time and my appointed place, I will meet my God with gratitude. I will thank my death for the completion it can, it must, give the totality of my life.
In no sense do I feel the need to reduce the idea of my chosen death to a redemption. My ecstatic and conscious death, ecstatic because conscious, will not be a desperate cry intended to wipe away, in blood’s convenient glory, the listlessness of a broken life. My death makes imperious demands for an existence that is worthy of it, overwhelmed and overwhelming, other.
Pierre Andler, Moriar, Ergo Sum