Praying the Pen is Mightier

Yesterday I was in therapy creating this terrifying choice: graduate and get a nine to five and work my way into a position with a title something along the lines of “Assistant Vice Executive Sales in Marketing Strategy” and enjoy a steady income, but see a large part of myself leak out or die or be forcibly removed from my sense of self or just wither away in darkness like a now useless memory OR exist as a self-imposed starving writer, struggling in to make meaning while hating myself for knowing, deep down, the fact that this was self-imposed made it a front and thus meaningless. Like I said, I don’t rationally think my future will go either way, but emotionally those two lanes represent very real fears that I’ve been carrying along for a very long time.

Earlier in the week I’d needed to use an old external hard drive to show a movie clip in one of my classes and I found my first “real” journal on the hard drive. It’s almost a decade old at this point. The first entry was titled “Why Do I Want to Write?” and it reeked of the same self-obsessed confusion my binary future reeks of. There was an Ouroboros like element to both the question and the entry in that I was attempting to deal with a feeling or drive by trying to write/think my way out of it, hoping that the action of writing/thinking might be enough stave off the feeling or drive which in turn begs the question of why I want to write to begin with.  Many writers who are asked why they want to write (wisely) reply they just always have. There’s no need to go making up stories over it. None the less sometimes knowingly crafting a fiction and holding it as truth can settle things if it’s crafted in a way that the emotions are similar in both truth and fiction.

Mine might go something like this: In third grade I spent a lot of time wishing things were different; more interesting. I wanted monsters to plod through the woods while I slept, so I willfully created some. Our house was surrounded by woods and prickers and I’d spend lots of time with my brother and sister carefully traversing all the pricker bushes. It was a labor intensive process. There was one bush that was so dense and wrapped up in itself that it looked like a cave, there was even an opening. And like the best imaginary places, it was impossible to get inside the cave because the walls and floor were bloodletting thorns. I imagined a group of giant foxes lived there; foxes that sneered before they chewed your neck. My siblings and I treated the whole forest this way. Different plants were places of mystery and fear and joy. Dionysus was still very alive in my woods.

In sixth grade I wrote a short story about the time my dad and my brother and me rode the wooden rollercoaster at Lake Compounce. My dad loves rollercoasters (aaand so do I) and belonged to a rollercoaster club (I still don’t know what that was or is). One of the best things about wooden roller coasters is their sounds. They actually clack in a way that’s nearly soothing. My dad, instead of yelling, would burst out laughing while he was riding. I loved those moments because he was exuberant and alive and I had no idea what he was laughing at. I was seated with my dad and brother and being in sixth/fifth grade between us, when the restraint bar was put in place it secured my dad more than us. This was supposedly the longest rollercoaster in the northeast or something, but the story didn’t start until the end of the ride when there was a series of hillocks you road over at great speed. My brother, not being well strapped in, started hitting his head on the bar, and my dad, alive and exuberant and unaware of my brother’s head banging, started laughing. Sitting between two people I loved, I heard the clacking of the track, the laughter of my dad, and my brother yelling at my dad between forehead hits to the bar saying, “Don’t!” Whumph “Laugh” Whumph “AT ME” Whumph. I gave this story to my teacher and she laughed and it felt good. And it felt good because it hadn’t happened that neatly. My dad laughed and my brother yelled at him but the rest was my invention.

And this is what seemed attractive and good. I could invite experience, scary experience, traumatic experience and pull yarn from it, weave and knit with it. I felt some control. It’s no wonder my fears have to do with losing control and moreover losing the thing that gives me the fantasy of controller.

But there’s something else, that I haven’t told you yet.

There have been too many times I’ve found myself lying in bed, immobilized by thought, praying it might mean something. The answer something gave me to give to myself was writing. It can be fodder John, all of this. I didn’t have any way of knowing if it was a good or a bad thing to fetishize writing in this manner, to turn it from a pastime to a lifeline. The older I got the more it took on that role. But here’s the thing about really good fiction, believe it long enough and it comes true.

There was a night with my brother where we fought. It was bad. It left me with PTSD. It was no one’s fault but it would have been easy to turn an evening where I thought my brother was going to kill himself so in stopping him he almost killed me into a belief that the world was cruel, he was cruel, but I didn’t do that. That night, under the light of a single lamp, in the near dark, my rage against his rage it was as if my consciousness was broken into different strands. One of them was screaming, crying, reacting in a human way, a caring way. One of them was simply seeing, comparing how big he’d grown from when we’d wrestle when we were younger, another simply told me over and over you will write about this. That was the only strand that sought to rescue the moment from what it could have become. In a perverse manner, what I’d been through with Tom became valuable. I could still love him because of it. Or, that’s what I tell myself. Probably I would still love him no matter what.

Of course all this still leaves me in a pretty complicated place. I love something I’ve fetishized, something that’s sometimes unrealistic in ambition, something I’m doing right now. And I think I love it out of fear. I think I love it the way one loves a golden calf: because it feels like it protects me in a world that feels very scary. And I know cognitively that the world isn’t always scary, but for now, for me, it is. And for now I have this.

What We Do We Do in the Dark

The other evening I was meditating. I had not meditated in a long time. I was sitting in my room. There’s a sodium orange streetlamp that hangs level with my bedroom windows. At night it casts my room, with the windows’ rough cotton curtains, in a pale orange, like a red light district as dawn creeps in. To be honest, the light glow of the room is quite nice, the orange-pink light is received by the bed and bureau, but not reflected, as if the light itself is consumed. It looks empty and lifeless outside. Sometimes a cars  pass, and sheering sound of tires of on a wet road are muffled by the fact that I am inside.

Eventually I get to a point in meditation where thoughts appear like comets, leaving flecks of themselves on earth as they pass my point of consciousness. Often times I simply sit and hurt. Though you would not be able to tell.

I was meditating and an old voice that hangs around at the dive bar that is my head and started miming words, so I started paying attention. Or rather, my attention was effortlessly drawn to in idea I’d known intimately once, but long forgotten, like the way one forgets the precise and peculiar peccadillos of a lover. And it was saying, “Everyone deserves love” “why?” “Just for existing, there is no why” “Everyone deserves love.” And in that moment my chest and bowels and throat were tight but I felt a lifting, as if sighing actually worked again. I felt a valve open and some of this weird faith comes in.

I remember the last time I started thinking this way. It was, maybe six years ago, maybe more, it was everything my continually skeptical, cynical, unknowingly nihilistic self-hated. And to be honest there was some decent reasoning in disliking the mantra: it was a cliché. It hurt when people would chant something to others as advice or comfort (these are totally different things that tend to be mixed up. Never ask for comfort from someone who traffics primarily in advice) and there would be a totally lack of connection, as if the cliché itself kept people from engage with each other.[i]

And of course, this makes sense. Intimacy is scary, we aren’t taught much about our emotions and what we’re taught tends to be really fucked up and maybe most importantly, it is so difficult to capture any essence of what travels around in us from one moment to the next and hope to share that in an understandable manner. It’s damn near impossible and yet we have to continue trying. Don’t ask why; just take my word for it.

I used to ask why after every question. I loved my curiosity, but it kills cats for a reason: it’s not that it delivers us dangerous answer, but rather, that we can’t live on a life line of constant questions, or at least I can’t when basic self-acceptance is something I have to work for. And this, I think, is the purpose of faith; not to believe in ideas or constructs, but to trust certain feelings that are in themselves explanations of why they should stick around. I could just as easily put faith in depression and start thinking (again, like a rational egotist/neo-Darwinian who doesn’t seem to care about existential problems) humans are by default self-serving and desire is the only thing to satiate (or will, or whatever other boogeyman like drive you want to insert). The world is a much scarier place if it put faith into that feeling of fear and competition and domination. I would rather leave it in the hands of a generous idea and an intelligently compassionate feeling: everybody deserves love. Even when I hate myself for being a jealous, self-serving bastard: still deserve it. And you, yeah you deserve it all the time. And it’s sappy and that’s hard for me to stand behind such a sappy cliché and evangelize it, but, fuck it: I do.

The thing is, I have to remember this emotionally which is really hard to do during the day when I’m busy with less meaningful shit. I have to do it in the dark and hope that I can share those dark moments with someone might agree.

[i] Quick example: Trevor walks into the office. “How are you Trisha?” he says with good intention. “Not great Trev, broke up with Jake a few days ago. I’m having a hard time.” “That stinks, but life goes on, right? Now’s a great time to work on yourself” “Yeah… So how are you?” “Same, not great. We caught Jeremy starting a fight. I don’t get it. I never fought, I feel like I might be spending too much time here.” “Well, this too shall pass, right? Maybe it’s a phase” “Yeah” Trevor goes to his cubicle and later talks to Trisha about the weather. Then they get in separate cars and drive on separate roads and sleep.

Q is for Questioning

One wonderful thing about anxiety disorders is the moment the anxiety takes a break. At nineteen I was deep inside my first extended bought of anxiety; the kind of anxiety that made me feel as if there were maggots having an ungodly orgy under my skin, squirming relentlessly. I was sitting on the couch in my room; it was a dark and otherwise pleasant summer night. I was trying to pay attention to “Mind Games” by John Lennon when the anxiety broke, if only for a moment. It was as if my subconscious had heard his lyrics and decided to cut me a break. I felt relief. I felt like a gently rocking rowboat in an endless ocean, slowly bobbing, waiting for the next wave to come, but laughing in the meantime. What else could I do?

In retrospect it’s hard to make sense of this initial anxiety order. It came out of nowhere and clung to me like an Alien face-hugger for months (until I started taking the numbing, but welcome medication Paxil). I was afraid and convinced I was gay.

Full disclosure: when I was in middle school I was a fearful bigot. It was actually my church Pastor that challenged me about sexuality. I was a 12 year-old and we were discussing sexuality in relation to the church for some Boy Scout thing. She asked me if I thought it would be alright for two men or two women to get married. I said I didn’t agree with homosexuality (whatever the fuck that actually means[i]). She asked me why and answered that I couldn’t answer. In fact, part of me thought she wanted to hear that I agreed with Leviticus and Romans II and that it was a doggone sin. That was not the case—in addition to that neither Leviticus or Romans II, when read critically, actually say much about homosexuality, but that’s a whole ‘nother argument.

So I was 12 and in middle school and trying to make sense of  what the hell queerness was and why everyone seemed to hate it so much. I probably let a lot of that environment leak into my own opinions. I probably got afraid I could be gay, the same way someone in the USSR might have gotten afraid they didn’t really believe in Stalin and his communism. I problem held deep seated and uncomfortable feelings that queerness was still “bad” despite consciously trying to change this idea.

I cannot date when it really started, but I do remember driving with my father up a hill in Glastobury, CT thinking, okay, if I’m gay I’m just gonna accept it right here and now. I had an anxiety attack. I kept it hidden from my dad by clenching every muscle in my body. He didn’t know because I was scared to let him. The ironic part? He would have talked to me in a calm and levelheaded manner, telling me that being gay was fine. It was also fine if I was straight.

Not only was this uncomfortable, it was new. I didn’t know anything about anxiety disorders; my mind was a great untamed landscape that was more to be feared than trusted, with its roving thought patterns and flora that would lash out with stinging words. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to accept my gayness. Mostly because I wasn’t gay; but, I don’t think I had a compassionate place inside me to examine these frustrations without judging myself, so instead I started developing obsessive compulsive tendencies.

I spent hours researching “ways to tell if you’re gay” (even writing that still makes me shudder with trepidation). I came across a now infamous and largely stupid study that showed gay men had a longer ring finger than pointer finger… or was it that the fingers were about even? It had something to do with testosterone because obviously gay men are less masculine than heterosexual men (again an entire ‘nother problem to unpack). But this wasn’t enough because I could make my fingers look about equal or make my ring finder look longer; and I did, for hours.

Things started reaching a fever pitch. I was working at a golf course taking care of golf carts and I stopped talking to my fellow co-workers because I was going over that last fact I’d just looked up on the internet, like: a gay man’s hair tends to swirl counter-clockwise, mine is clockwise, why doesn’t that make me feel better?

Eventually it reached a point where I decided to masturbate to gay porn as some ultimate test. I waited ‘til the house was empty, opened up my laptop, did the search, watched for a moment and felt a deep and ugly revulsion come up inside me that I was sure could have been arousal. Shaking and shaken, I went to the garage and grabbed a sledgehammer and went to the woods and smashed a boulder until my hands blend. Then assume this hammer use was just sublimation.

The thing is, I felt like I was wrong for daring to asking these questions, like sexuality was a given and everyone knew theirs. I took it as a sign that if I was struggling I was by default gay. Most of this anxiety came from a homophobic place and I knew it. If I was queer I just wanted to accept myself as being queer, but something kept getting in the way. In a weird way, I’d dug out a closet that never existed before; I was hiding from people the fact that I felt hurt because I couldn’t find a solid foundation in my sexuality. Yes, I recalled the countless times I’d had some awkward woody around a girl I thought was attractive, but my anxiety riddled mind just assumed those were all fetishized moments or repressed homosexual urges or whatever psychological/psychoanalytic theory I’d recently read.

And then there was that break: John Lennon singing “Mind Games.” It was an unexpected moment of synchronicity. My mind was at rest for a moment and I saw the structure of what was going on. In a very strange way my obsession with sexuality had nothing to do with sexuality and I certainly wasn’t going to learn what turned me on in my homemade laboratories. You see, the best I can understand was that I had a lot of failures with girls in the past and I took that to mean I wasn’t ever really attracted to them, or not meant to be with them. Girls scared me, sex scared me, but everything I saw told me I needed to be having sex as much as possible all the time. And, living in a society that emphasized sexuality as a binary rather than a spectrum or a multiplicity, the only logical alternative was the seeming fact I was gay. That’s why there were some girls I wasn’t interested in. That’s why I felt uncomfortable having sex with the idea of sex at that point in my life.

This insight didn’t “cure” me (it goes without saying that queerness never needs curing, it’s a compassionate take on sexuality that widens what we know to be human) but, it did give me some weird insight I could repeat to myself once I started slipping into another anxiety pit.

But this still left me with something I was not at all comfortable with: my desire to prove I wasn’t gay. Why was it such a big deal? And it was answered after I got to know some gay men and women: it shouldn’t be the sole signifier of a person. It is not the single most important definition. Important, yes, but the definitive statement on who someone is? No. I cared because there were still vestigial religious traits in me that said your sexuality is your self-worth. I’ve found sexuality to be an expression, whether alone or with someone else.

The best part? I now know a whole lot of people that have gone through something similar. I just wished we talked about this more, everyone. Why is it a weakness to admit you’re unsure, let alone tell others?

[i] I actually think a lot of this ugly homophobia comes from the well-worn tread of ignorance, but maybe more importantly, a lack of compassion. It’s hard to be compassionate for someone, some group of people you know nothing about, it’s hard to imagine their pain.

Tension in the Transition

Again, trigger warning. The following contains a discussion of suicide. If you yourself are dealing with suicidal desire please, I beg you, call someone, a friend, a family member. You won’t be bothering or burdening them, I swear it. If that seems like too much right now then call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. I swear they help.

You can always tell a cheap New Age self-help movement by its emphasis on “Visualizing Your Successful Future.” It asks you to imagine when you’ve moved up three pay grades and can finally get that company lease and other sleazy middle-class marginalia that has nothing to do with who you actually might someday become.

I might be a little bitter with all this forward thinking stuff because I suck at imagining the future. I can imagine a complex beehive type dystopia where each person is genetically mutated to fit somewhere on a new food chain of differing hominids, but five years from now? Hell no. You could tell me I’d find ruby shoes and end up in Oz and I wouldn’t doubt you.

Like all things with me, this isn’t due to lack of imagination or work ethic (I like to think), but because, since I was seven years old my future plans were suicide. I am not being hyperbolic. I spent a grand total of twenty something hours anxiously thinking about how I could hurt or kill myself between 5th grade’s fall ball and spring baseball. It mostly amounted to dropping a rock on my foot. Or walking into the pond near my Connecticut family house with a rock. Or dropping a rock from my top bunk bed onto my head. I was hung up on rocks, and as inappropriate as it seems to laugh here, it always makes me smile. I was a bright kid who made up colorful worlds. The best I could do was drop rocks on things? But, as I’ve gotten older and more knowledgeable in adult ways, the scenarios have become more complex and feelings have gotten stronger.

There’s a pattern. There’s two general time’s I start thinking suicide (please forgive my casual use, but I’ve lived with the proclivity for suicide for so long, thought about it so much, lived through it, wrestled with the fucking thing that it’s not scary to me anymore… in certain situations. It’s scary when I start to desire it, when it feels comfortable. Somehow I still get flustered when I hear someone casually remark “I’ll kill myself if I have to—fill with inane complaint”[i]). I start thinking of suicide when I feel bored, purposeless and when there’s a transition, say for example, driving home from my VT digs for a week to sit in my house only to drive back to life as a graduate student.

I can tell you that I spent my Friday night buying a bunch of crap (actually graphic novels, so it was pretty awesome stuff, but you get the picture) on Amazon to assure myself I wouldn’t crash my car on the way to Burlington. I had to dangle a carrot in front of my nose so as not to purposefully drive off the road.

The thing is I’m not sure this desire actually comes from a dislike of Burlington, VT or a special love for my house in CT. I think these tensions are built into my changes. I think I’ve been so afraid of being hurt for so long that my immediate thought has been to head it off at the pass because no one can hurt me if I’m dead. I think I’m at the point where this is not useful anymore because the one thing I’m most afraid of hurting me is myself.  Through involuntary practice (were talking starting around seven) I’ve used suicide as a way out and now I’m afraid it’s the only a through.

But that’s not true, is it. Every morning is a reminder that that isn’t true. Actually every ticking second is proof to me that my future is not suicide, if only because of the basest fact: I’m not committing it. Not now, not this next second, or the one after, or again, the second that is now.

This might seem small but there’s a deep reclamation in it for me. It allows me some small feeling of control, and a very strange metaphor for life at large.

In Infinite Jest one of the struggling heroes of the story, Don Gately, tells himself,

Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of these seconds—he couldn’t deal. He could not f—-ing deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second—less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless Now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he’d never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive. Living in the Present between pulses.

To parrot Wallace further, it’s hard to be present and alive, for me especially, but enough of this type of unspoken faith gets me between crossroads and through them and into whatever the fuck the future holds.

[i] I think my comes from the fact that I know that person has not suffered as I have. I don’t say this in any kind of sanctimonious manner, but rather, to point out that it would be easy for me to be righteously indignant all the time. Think of all the jokes about suicide: the biggest losers are the people who can’t even kill themselves etc. This stuff bothers me but I know I would just start to pity myself if I was angry over it all the time. And sometimes I do get angry and self-pitying about the whole thing, but then that’s followed by shame because who am I to say what suffering really is? And what if everyone I meet really is suffering worse than I am and the starving children, the starving children in Africa and gratefulness and… It just turns into a fucking mess.