Don’t Say “Desk Arts”
By Marvin Payne

I’m sitting on the front porch, not playing guitar. Instead, Colby Bench, college-aged son of our next door neighbors, is.

This is not a comment on Colby’s existential condition-young Brother Bench is playing guitar. Next door. But of course he also Is, as in “state of being.”

This is more important than it sounds. Also more sensible. The philosopher Ren Descartes said “Cogito ergo sum.” This is Latin for (usual translation) “I think, therefore I am.” Had he been a guitar player, he could as easily have said, “I pick, therefore I am,” (“Jammo ergo sum”). Descartes, a French person, used Latin because he didn’t want when other people said it for them to sound like they had just tasted something nasty. Also, in French it would have taken many more letters to say. “Cozhiteaoux airgot zieuxm.”

But Descartes (if you say “desk arts,” watch out) was already using too many letters, too many words even, to speak the breathtakingly fundamental truth that he was dangerously close to sniffing out. I don’t know if Colby Bench is thinking right now (probably is, a little) but, unlike Descartes, he needn’t bother. Colby just flat Is . If he Wasn’t, there would be legions of young women up at Utah State who would think that t’were better not to Be, themselves.

WARNING: Slow down, or you’re not gonna get this.

(The foregoing warning ought to be included in any intellectually demanding text, like by Stephen Hawking or Hugh Nibley or Douglas Adams, who was at least sensitive enough to the need for such cautions as to write “DON’T PANIC” on the front of his book.)

With the use of “t’were” (above) I have opened the Pandora’s box of poetic language here because of Shakespeare, who’s next up to bat. (Shakespeare sure as blazes Was, no matter what the Baconians or Sausagians have to say about it ((their contention being that a simple country boy couldn’t possibly have written so cogently about the world and other smart stuff without hobnobbing with royalty and taking lots of luxury cruises.)) The reason that I know that there could be a seemingly impossible Shakespeare is that I know there was a seemingly impossible Joseph Smith. Those skeptics who aren’t equipped to accept the immensity of the prophet’s mind and spirit have much less fun at the theatre than those of us who are thusly equipped. Also they have lots more conjecture, hassle, research, and creativity to waste in trying to explain how all the beauty got there ((“there” meaning both the plays and the Restoration of the Gospel.)) )

Shakespeare’s Hamlet (are there others? I mean, how many “Hamlets” are there on your ward list? Ours has a ” Cam ” and a “Janet,” but even taken together, which they’re not, we don’t quite have a “Hamlet.” We used to have a Gertrude, but she was childless and not, strictly speaking, a Queen of Denmark.) pondered the question “to be, or not to be” when life seemed, to him, unlivable (or Being, to him, unBeable).

It was a painful pondering. Gallons of thespian sweat have been sweated before paying audiences in the demonstration of how painful was this pondering. Shakespeare let Hamlet sweat like that because Hamlet was paying the price for being no brighter than Descartes. Descartes reckoned (for a time, anyway) that if he didn’t think, he Wasn’t-Being was either on or off, and the switch was “thought.” (This is the logical inference, whether Descartes likes it or not.) We don’t know if Hamlet figured he had to think in order to be, but he looked at the issue with that same “switch” mentality-except that in his case, the switch was not relatively harmless thought, but a razor-sharp, pearl-handled bare bodkin.

But of course, there’s no switch. There’s no option. We Are. Hamlet, Descartes, Bob Dylan, you, me, D. Todd Christofferson. Because of the Light of Christ. But that’s a column for another day.

Back about the time we were married, my wife and I went down to Arches National Park and walked around, just thoroughly walloped into a profound reverence by the magnificence. (We were back there again with the kids last week and Landscape Arch, which is more impossible than Shakepeare and Joseph Smith combined, was just as we’d left it, one of the most beautiful and illogical splendors of the universe. (Those among you Meridian readers who have seen more of the universe than I have, being inter-galactic beings and takers of luxury starship cruises whose attentive readership of Meridian Magazine is the pillar of the editors’ encouragement to this particular columnist who calculated yesterday that he has been writing for said audience ((y’all)) for the last twenty percent of his professional life ((gasp)), may feel free to point out some natural splendor on your planet ((or on one you’ve visited or conquered or proselytized)) that is more beautiful and less logical than Landscape Arch, and I will arrange for Steven Kappp Pperry, whom I know personally, to interview you on “Cricket and Seagull” ((these are earth creatures that are used by Brother Pperry in a figurative, not gastronomical, way. If any of you are cricket-like life forms, he means no offense, I assure you on his behalf-nay, on his bewhole, even ((more poetic language-it’s the proximity to Shakespeare)) ).

And my wife and I said to each other (taking turns) that what we saw around us there in Arches represented such an awesome (I mean, you know, what “awesome” used to mean) passage of time that it was hard to imagine. We felt (again, taking turns) that our lives were just a gnat’s finger-snap against those immeasurable epochs. (An epoch is bigger than an age, my dictionary tells me. Really long time.) But then we remembered (not taking turns, but that was okay) that we, ourselves, existed from before the very foundations of Arches National Park . We were both thinking (therefore being, according to Descartes) and playing some prototype of celestial guitars along with Colby Bench before the foundations of the rotten state of Denmark . This might be why “Hamlet” is so good-Shakespeare had more time to think about it than the Colorado River had to carve the Grand Canyon .

I wrote a song sometime in the first twenty percent of my professional life in which the Divine Architect of both Arches and the Grand Canyon (played by me and backed up, lo, these many years later, by my sons, who conspired in dark places and made a band and drafted me to be the lead singer ((I play a Stratocaster in the band-did I tell you this?)) ) sings “Child of mine, do you know you’re older than suns and the stars?” (Then my son Joshua takes a solo.) It’s true, you know, we are.

Whenever I see Landscape Arch, I’m afraid to look away, because I’m certain that it’ll fall down. Well, for sure it will tumble long before you or I are much further along, relatively speaking, on the highway of “be.” (One particular comfort that flows into my heart from this realization is that for anyone to qualify as a “has-been,” they once have to have been a noticeable “is.”)

I feel old, sometimes. (Thinking this hard doesn’t help, much.) But the other day I wrote in my journal the following:

21 May 2009

“For a guy who feels more and more like a plowhorse that’s heading from the field to the barn, I had a profoundly challenging realization this morning. Whatever good I may have done or success I may have enjoyed in the last forty years needs to be surpassed in the next twenty.”

This is not because of some notion of unfulfilled ambition. This is because I have a family to support, a talent to account for, and because my mind is getting deeper and deeper as time goes by. That’s why it’s so hard to get stuff out of it. (Shortly before his death, Michelangelo shook his head and confessed, “I am just learning the alphabet of my craft.” Dude.) Wherever we are in our earthly sojourn (poetic, again-can’t help it-it’s either because of Shakepeare or my Mormonism ((I say things like “shadow of a doubt” without blushing)) ) we’re just starting out. Resting on our laurels ought to be as uncomfortable to us as sitting on acorns. There are oak forests to grow while we’re here-not so there can be nice shade and someplace to hang our hammocks, but so there will be material from which we can then build ships to sail to where there aren’t yet oak forests.

I can’t discern the lyrics to Colby’s song from here, but I think he’s faithful enough not to employ for his “hook,” the words “Cogito ergo sum.” Besides, it’s already been done-was a hit, even, on the philosophical charts. No, Colby understands his Heavenly Father’s plan well enough to sing just “Sum.” When Moses shielded his eyes against the burning bush and asked the Lord His name, the answer was “I AM.” No “therefore”s about it. It wasn’t “I think, therefore…” It wasn’t “I pick, therefore…” It was just “I AM.” The biggest name there is. The name we take upon ourselves.

To Descartes and the rest of us, He explains that He has come that we may Be, and that we may, like Christ, Be more abundantly. And suddenly, though it makes no real difference to whether or not we Are, there’s something to think about.


“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)

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