February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

The Tao of columns

By |2018-03-21T18:54:15+01:00March 31st, 2013|At Large & Sports|
This is the story of a Taoist girl who is looking deep into a hole...

hat do you say about yourself and your life when you feel like you’ve written too much, talked too much, and that you’ve said nothing, and yet there’s nothing left in you? What do you talk about when you are tired of all topics? When quirkiness starts to sound trite? When you are kind of over your decade-long existential dilemma? How do you keep words like ontological and post-modern and hermeneutics out of your language when you are steeped brow-deep in graduate level Humanities?

What happens when you’ve pulled every part of yourself out for investigation under a torch and cast the parts all aside? Then started pulling out all parts of cultural history, investigating them, casting them off, until there is nothing left, but the glaring negative presence of absence? You look around you and see an array of pieces of things without any sense. Is this where all your investigations have left you? You feel so complete and knowledgeable and yet you can’t say one sensible thing about yourself or this great and beautiful globe. You can’t say a simple or complex thing about it. You can’t, or you won’t?

This is the story of a girl.

This is the story of a girl in the world.

This is the story of a world and a star.

This is the story of a star and a galaxy.

This is the story of a galaxy and a universe.

This is the story of a girl at a wooden desk with a lamp.

Someone imagined this desk, and through the power of their imagination, created this desk. This girl, though, can create nothing. This is a story of a crisis of imagination.

I shall write about the time in Rome when I was caught stealing a “Scientology Now!” DVD from a Scientologist’s tent by a Scientologist security guard who I’d last seen asleep on a table of Scientology books. “How dare you!” said the guard in what was clearly an American accent. “Would you steal from your own home?” Did he realize then or later the absurdity of his statement?

No. I can’t tell that story. It’s so quirky. I feel like my quirkiness is no longer unexpected to me, to others. What does quirkiness become when it’s no longer a surprise? Irony perhaps. Play-acting. Another kind of conformity.

I shall write about being stalked in Rome and a high-speed chase from the Laurentina metro stop to the city-center, me on a Vespa and he in a 500. My boss barred him from the restaurant as soon as I arrived breathlessly so he stood outside the window staring at me for hours. He used to send me text messages saying things like, “I can hear you laughing,” and “I am going to build a hospital for you in Sierra Leone.” A strange breed of stalker is born in Italy.

But no, not that story either. I am tired of my past. Tired of my style and my words. They must be deeper and more meaningful, I think, but the meaning is all gone, excavated, and scattered. I feel very post-modern in this moment, and saying things like “I feel very post-modern” makes me feel like a graduate student drone, who can’t tell a simple and elegant story without labeling it and dissecting it, trying to instill in it some great truth. I feel like I lack sincerity and have replaced it with a dedication to quirkiness.

A scholar and a Taoist were in the woods and faced with this problem: they each needed to fit a square peg into a round hole. The scholar walked the woods for hours drawing plans and retrieving material with which to reconstruct the peg into roundness. The Taoist took a peaceful trek through the woods, he thought about the birds he heard chirping, he thought about the wind, and as he circled back towards his starting point he by chance picked up a round stick, the perfect size for his round hole.

This is the story of a girl, a Taoist herself, who is looking deep into a hole, and every story she tries to fill her hole with is the wrong shape. She knows the story that will fill it, replace cleverness with sincerity, and it is the one story she is unwilling to tell. She constructs stories every month, every day, to fill that hole, but they are all artificial, quirky and superficially philosophical, and they all miss the point.

The story she wants to tell is not constructed, it is as organic as the sprouting crocuses that made her smile today and as simple as a breath. It begins with one thousand sparkles on a pond and the two closest stars in the sky. She hopes she doesn’t yet know how it ends.

About the Author:

Julianne VanWagenen wrote the "Wonderland" column form 2008 through 2014.