This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch, published last month.
I flew into Washington the day the government shut down. I had come back to America to scatter my mother’s ashes in the sea. It was her last request: to put her to rest in the Atlantic Ocean, off Myrtle Beach, where she had spent some happy times more than half a century ago.
I made my way to Tennessee, where her ashes were waiting in a black plastic box on the mantlepiece in our family home. All along the line, facilities and services were shutting down from a dispute over a corporate boondoggle — “Obamacare” — based on a conservative Republican template drawn up to enrich the rapacious insurance-healthcare complex, whose heavy, grinding gears had harrowed both my sick and aged parents to their graves, one inch from bankruptcy. But now, in the bizarre and ugly weirdness of our failing United States, this plan — once the farthest feather on the rightest right-wing — had become a commie monstrosity to be resisted at all costs.
While bullshit ruled the public world, private life — and private death — went on. My brother and I, the family’s last remnants, set out on the 600-mile journey through the old Confederacy to carry out our filial duties. Beer, whisky, Coca-Cola, BC Powder and beef jerky carried us through Marietta, Atlanta, Lithonia, Augusta, Red Bank, Columbia and finally down the dark, moonless ribbon of Highway 501 to the coast.
Near midnight, we reached the sprawling, garish tourist trap that had grown up where that stunning young woman and her handsome soldier husband had once stolen away from his Army base for quiet seaside weekends. We found the town had been besieged, occupied, overwhelmed by swarms of growling, roaring hogs: it was Biker Week in Myrtle Beach! Up and down and around the streets they rolled, gunning their engines in bravura displays, hour after hour after hour. A motley mix of part-time hobbyists — pudgy accountants and middle managers, hauling their soft bulk on wide, well-appointed suburban machinery — and hard-core, black-leathered, tattooed lifers, leaning back on bad-ass Harleys.
Not quite the dignified setting she might have imagined for this last act, but what the hell. “It is what it is,” my brother said, as he always says, and we set off for the beach. It was nearly empty in the post-midnight hour. The deep white sand was indirectly lit from the hotels behind, but the sea itself was black, fused with the black sky. The whitecaps seemed to emerge from utter darkness and disappear into it again. The rhythmic roar of the invisible waves filled the air. Only days before, I’d finished a reading novel about the Zen master, Hakuin, and now it suddenly struck me: this is what he was talking about – this is the sound of one hand clapping.
Such exalted thoughts vanished in the bleary morning after. The day of the scattering was at hand. The public world, where normally I spent hours greedily scarfing the news, had shriveled to nothing more than a few headlines glimpsed in a box on the street. The shutdown was still going on, and apocalyptic default was imminent; the entrails of polls were being examined to assess the all-important political ramifications. The Peace Prizer had kidnapped somebody in Libya; one of his hit squads had been chased out of Somalia. The never-ending, all-devouring, pointless, heartless psycho circus rolled on.
We drove down to nearby Murrell’s Inlet, where our rented boat awaited. The two-lane road was lined with bars, roadhouses, restaurants, all of them crammed to overflowing with bikers. Cops were out to direct traffic through the metal morass. We finally found the rental place. They brought the boat around. We went three miles out to sea, as the law requires. We did what we came to do. Then we headed back to Tennessee, to clear out and close up the house for good.
In the inevitable self-centeredness of grief, I couldn’t help but see it all as the emblem of something larger, the end of an era. My mother was born in the depths of Depression, to a sharecropper who’d been born in the 19th century. She worked the tobacco fields, helped in the hog-killing, wore flour-sack dresses until she was 10. Public schooling, electrification and government work lifted her family up. She got out of the holler — though not far enough to suit her — and lived the long, post-war, middle-class life that is now ending, in blood, absurdity and degradation, all around us.
The American Dream, I guess. But we know now its seeming solidity was built on sand — or ashes. Built on the death and suffering of countless, faceless “others” around the world, and in our own streets. Built on the poisonous myth of “exceptionalism,” the cargo cult of “the market,” and the tragic denial of our commonality.
It didn’t have to be that way — but it is what it is. Her life rose and fell with this historic arc, like a wave going back into the dark. She is free now, drifting on the open sea; where are we?