Hosts assume that persons dining alone want to sit at a bar, presumably where they won’t feel so alone. They’re often wrong.
“Nope. Booth, please.”
I slide into a cavernous coop made for six people, back to the kitchen, face to the door. Plenty of room for me and my friends, the ghosts of past conversations, the phantoms of a long memory, or for worlds conjured up by words.
I dine alone once each week, an introvert’s allowance, a pittance for my sanity. I need time to process. I need time to observe and reflect. I need to do a little life summary, take my pulse, make sure I am still living and not just existing. I need to get away from the phone, the screens, the. . .well. . .people. I recognize that it would be problematic to do this every day. But I don’t.
“Hi, I’m Penny.”
Penny is the server. She calls me honey. But here in this corner of the South, in this particular restaurant that doesn’t cater to transplants or the hip, there’s no romance in that sweetness, just hospitality.
“Is Penny short for Penelope?” I can’t hear Penny without hearing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” its “in my ears and in my eyes/ Here beneath the blue suburban skies.”
“Yep, but that’s a mouthful.”
Sure is. Penny is probably in her Forties but looks like she’s in her Sixties, aged by smoking and life’s burdens. Penelope seems too fussy; Penny, too girlish. I give her my order. She whisks away yet continues to supply copious amounts of ice tea to fuel my meditations.
I’m reading an article in the New York Times Magazine, a lengthy feature by Jack Hitt entitled “The Strange Case of the Missing Joyce Scholar.” Hitt is chasing down what became of a renowned Boston University professor, John Kidd, a James Joyce scholar who two decades ago simply disappeared. I have never heard of the man. Never read Joyce’s Ulysses either, and certainly never knew of the insane obsession that the novel is for certain folks. None of these people would deign dine with a denizen like me. The author ultimately locates the Gandalf-ish looking Kidd in Rio de Janeiro (of course) still very much alive and obsessed with yet another novel.
While I read Hitt’s article mostly for the journalistic chase, his dogged pursuit of the facts, the heart of it was found in what was to Hitt perhaps just an aside, a tangential observation. Hitt is commenting on Kidd’s compulsiveness, such as his obsession over the size of a period at the end of a paragraph of Ulysses, a giant black dot on the page at the end of the last chapter featuring the novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom. Essays have been written on the dot which, according to Hitt, “ends a long, hilarious chapter that parodies the kind of crisp, cold tone associated with scientific discourse,” as if Joyce is saying, “Just shut up.” Essayists opine otherwise, of course. As Hitt summarizes, “Some see the big dot as Earth, viewed from the heavenly throne of God, who is often understood to be the annoyingly precise narrator of this chapter. Some think it’s a black hole or maybe Bloom’s open mouth, finally collapsing into sleep at the interrogator’s moronic questions.” I won’t even mention some of the more lively (or profane) interpretations. What I can say is that reading about such tripe in a place frequented by blue collar workers, to people who deal in the brick and mortar of life, is a surreal experience.
“You need anything else?”
“Thanks Penny. I don’t. I’m just reading.”
“Stay as long as you like. We’re open until eight.”
“I won’t make it quite that long.” It’s only noon.
Hitt gets to the point later in the article, as he addresses Kidd’s compulsion for completeness:
“Theorists who study folk art sometimes describe those crowded, image-packed creations, like Howard Finster’s ‘Paradise Garden’ or Grandma Moses’ ‘Country Fair,’ not merely as a prominent theme but as a kind of mental illness common to the form. They argue that these artists’ works are expressions of a compulsion to fill an existential emptiness. This anxiety has its own Latin name, horror vacui, fear of the void — and Kidd brings this intensity to his understanding of every book he reads.”
Horror vacui. People like Kidd and other “artists of completion” help us see in sharp relief the void in a human life lived apart from God, even if that void is hidden beneath a veneer of distraction or steady soliloquy of self-love . Considering why people commit suicide, Walker Percy said “We do not know where we came from, why we are here, or what comes at the end. We do not know what it means to have a good life or a good death.” Kidd’s compulsion masks the fear of the void; obsession hides emptiness. All of which is tragic of course, part of the brokenness of a God-denying yet Christ-haunted world.
“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man, said Blaise Pascal, “which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” God gives us someone like John Kidd to show us the extreme, to bring to the surface what lies at the soul of every person. For Christians, Christ is our holy obsession. Completeness is found only in Him. The Apostle Paul says “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Meaning can’t be made up. We can’t self-define. Meaning is part of the givenness of life, a gift.
Penny is back, this time a bit awkwardly (for me, anyway) she sits across from me, refilling the sweeteners and jellies at the table. For a moment I wonder if she is aware of the void in her life and how she fills it.
“Don’t mind me,” she says, as if she were non-existent, a non-entity. I know better. Everyone is to be minded. Everyone matters.
As for John Kidd? Pray for him, that his void might be filled to overflowing with the death and life of Christ. God takes strange cases. He gets to the bottom of our empty. Then, He fills us up.
I left Penny a good tip, but I should have offered her more. Next time, I just might.
[The photo of present-day John Kidd was taken by Lalo de Almeida for The New York Times.]