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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 6: January 2021
Essay: 671 words
By Sarah Massey-Warren

Should I Stay or Should I Go?


The ability to halt a line of abstract thinking once you see it has no end is part of what usually distinguishes sane, functional people—people who when the alarm goes off can hit the floor without trepidation and plunge into the concrete business of the workaday world—from the unhinged.

—David Foster Wallace [DFW]1
 

If you drive northeast on I-76 in Colorado as it curves into I-80, you notice a sign on the right. A cheerful sunrise announces, “Nebraska: The Good Life.” A look in the rearview mirror reveals an ugly brown and white sign twenty-five yards back proclaiming, “Welcome to Colorful Colorado,” colorful no doubt because no helmet law in Colorado protects motorcyclists. In that interim space between signs, you flail—not colorful, not the good life. Later, a bridge crosses I-80 near Paxton. On one side, a sign reads “Mountain Time”; on the other, “Central Time.” The bridge lies in the Twilight Zone.

For over a decade, I’ve assigned my students “place essays,” in which they must evoke a place without saying the word “place,” and narrate that spatial concept in storytelling. Place, I tell them, exists in your head, not on the ground—out there is only space. Humans define political, social, and psychological boundaries. Things get screwier when one accounts for changes in location over time—is it the same place?

Reading David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact Theory of Infinity makes my head explode. Tracing mathematical theory about infinity over hundreds of years in his pyrotechnic prose, DFW obliterates all sense of place—one can’t even admit to points on a line, let alone motion, which only exist in theory. DFW enumerates the brilliant math theorists who have literally driven themselves crazy, having moved infinity further into provable abstractions and complex equations.

Why am I teaching students to write place essays when place doesn’t really exist?

Marc Augé writes about nonplaces: airports, billboards, and other locations not tied firmly to the ground or existing as unique identities.2

As I drive to and from Omaha, an eight-hour drive one-way with wide plains where the mind runs free, I ponder place. I don’t know where I can live next, given financial and personal constraints, and I don’t know what will feel like home. Little has. I’ve inhabited so many locations—Toronto, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Amherst, Dallas, Omaha, Boulder—that one wouldn’t think moving again would derange me. I love liminality—sunsets, sunrises, spring, fall—why am I so unhinged? If place doesn’t exist, if it’s only a concoction in my head, what difference does it make? It will be a new place with each passing second.

I should put DFW down.

I can’t.

Meanwhile, I-76 is shrouded in grey-out with the high winds, smoke from the fires, dirt lifted like the Dust Bowl. Towns vanish. In over twenty years I’ve never experienced such post-apocalyptic horror. Omaha drifts into nonplace as my mother slows into her nineties. She remains sharp; we watch the VP debate, and although we form political binaries, we agree that we heard content, although none that answered the questions asked.

Maybe I made all these memories up.

DFW concludes by observing that Gödel and Cantor, two of the greatest mathematicians, died in confinement, driven insane lacking that final proof, leaving an unconfined void. “Mathematics continues to get out of bed,” he observes wryly.3 DFW did not continue to touch the floor—he hung himself in 2008, silencing one of the most brilliant essayists in this century.

I’m still lost, in space and time, undecided.

 

 

1. From page 17 of Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004; reissued 2010), by David Foster Wallace (1962–2008)

2. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso Books, 1995), by Marc Augé and translated by John Howe

3. From page 305 of Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004; reissued 2010), by David Foster Wallace (1962–2008)

Sarah Massey-Warren
Issue 6, January 2021

has worked as a landscape architect and writer for businesses and nonprofits, and is currently teaching writing (professional, CNF, and environmental writing) at the University of Colorado. She loves the land, lyric, literature, and the intersection. Equally, she loves her daughters, now grown, her succession of cats and dogs, and her garden. Although she stopped writing creatively when she began teaching writing, as giving others voice subsumed her own, she has previously published her work in Creative Nonfiction, Cream City Review, Architecture, Historic Preservation, and other journals and venues, and now is venturing forth again with some trepidation.

 
 
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