On Nothing: A Summer Essay

by John Samuel Tieman

I love being alone. I love staring out my window at nothing, and sitting here thinking of nothing. This is an essay about nothing at all, an essay addressed to the whole world, which is to say no one in particular. The world is a nice, but you just can’t hang out with the world.

First, a few disclaimers. I love my wife. I’m one of those folks described as very married. In twenty-two years of marriage, in thirty-four years of friendship, I’ve not so much as raised my voice to Phoebe. Our compatibility is, frankly, remarkable. When folks ask me how we do it, what can I say? Marry someone with whom you’re remarkably compatible? Then be conflict avoidant? Anyway, so, first, I love my wife.

Then I love my friends. I have friends that go back forty years to my army days, thirty-five-plus years to my undergraduate days. Folks like that. I love them all.

But I also love being alone, staring out my window at nothing, sitting here thinking of nothing and all that.

I love my home. I live in St. Louis, although, staring out my window, it’s just a city. I stare at just a backyard with a street running next to it. The street I stare up ends with the crest of a hill about two-hundred meters from here. There’s a little public school on the other side of that rise. When the wind is blowing from that direction, you can hear the kids play. My wife went to school there back in the mid-60’s. There’s also a Catholic church on the other side of that hill. I attended that church, went to that parish school, and, indeed, was Confirmed there. I can hear the noon Angelus bells. But I can’t see the school or the church from my window. I sometimes pray the Angelus.

Occasionally a firetruck rushes up to the corner, where it turns to go somewhere, north, south. But once it stopped. Now that was Big Time. Rumor had it that someone at the corner had a meth lab which exploded. But I don’t know. It didn’t make the Post-Dispatch.

On the other side of my backyard, the closest neighbors are a Black family, friendly enough folks, although I don’t know them as well as I know the other neighbors. I call the wife “The Empress Dowager”, because on her left hand she has three fingernails each over a foot long. I’ve got to wonder what that’s about. But I don’t ask, because the fantasy is a lot more fun than any actual answer.

Not long ago, I saw the movie Into Great Silence. I love it so much that I bought the DVD as well as a book about Carthusian monks. That’s what the movie is about, monks, a Carthusian monastery full of them. Carthusians make Trappists look like weenies. They are hermits, who, while they live in a monastery, spend almost all of their time in their cells. I get that. I really get that. I don’t get why they don’t want to get laid. Or, for that matter, why they don’t want to catch a few innings of the Cardinal’s game on the tube – who doesn’t want to watch the Cardinals at bat? But the great silence, staring out the window at nothing, praying my rosary for no one about nothing. Yea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a good Catholic. I am very, very Catholic. But I have never wanted to be a good Catholic. The Trappist Thomas Merton once said something like, “God, protect me from all right thinking men, which is to say men who agree perfectly with their own police.” I used to love Thomas Merton. I still like him, but I like him better dead. That way I can pick and choose the bits I like from his life. The actual monk, I think I would have found him annoying. Pretty much like I find my whole Church these days. I belong to a very annoying religion. I love the St. Louis Cathedral when it is cool, dark and empty. But Catholic I am. I can no more stop being a Catholic than I can stop being a Midwesterner, both of which I’ve tried. But what a Jewish friend says of his religion, I say of mine. I wasn’t born to a faith: I was born to a fate. Which leads me to nothing at all.

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