“But to be able to lose one’s understanding and with it the whole of the finite world whose stockbroker it is, and then on the strength of the absurd get exactly the same finitude back again, that leaves me aghast. But I don’t say on that account that it is of little worth; on the contrary it is the one and only marvel”
-Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard
And a freight train running through the
Middle of my head
…Oh Oh Oh
I’m on fire
-I’m on Fire, Bruce Springsteen
The drive from my home town to my current home is about 4 hours. The highways start congested with adjacent strip malls and concrete jigsaw parking lots and shocks of weeds that look as surprised to be alive as their stiff and stilted stance indicates until, after winding through a more or less suburban Massachusetts breaks into the beauty of the silence of a grey brown winter in Vermont. It is quitter here on the road, not just because I feel it necessary to turn down the pop country, but because the road is left to itself, to simply be a road. One that still cuts through sheer mountains of granite (the little scars of dynamite shafts still visible), but one that looks out on currently vacant cow dung pastures and jutting hills. Maybe most importantly, there are no billboards in Vermont. And this eye clutter is just one bit of unclenching my brain gets to do as I drive home, it doesn’t have to filter out another piece of surface shouting at me to buy something. I slump in something like relaxation and feel the chumming percussion of my Subaru carry me forth into these three days of isolation. My only consistent companion through this pip of the trip back is the wet shred of the tires and the slightly irregular beat of my heart muscle.
My side of the duplex is unnaturally still when I open the door. I’ve left the lights on because it feels less lonely, a kind of trick on myself “maybe someone is actually here”. But the wood floors are cold and the couches are still and even the cats don’t stir. I’ve arrived before noon. This is the shape of today.
It’s hard to hold the oblong figure of an off day when its usual rituals and trials are removed. Unconsciousness, in both sleep and rote repetition, squeeze in from both ends like recoiling bungees, leaving the rest that’s there a mash of semi-conscious habit and thought. I end up shuffling from room to room only to regard each with the confused surprised of an early onset dementia patient. I walk around and around in a daze and enter the den of night with an equal feeling of uncentered spinning. What am I doing? Like, with anything? But, it dawns on me now, as I enter another brief period of unstructured time, that much of my life has been spent this way, circumambulating space half attuned to that otherly something. And just as this something is haunted with thoughts of people, places and moments that are now to present in mind only, it is equally filled with the hope that I can try and rescue something from the dregs of forgetfulness; that maybe if I give this aimless time and the memories that pop up therein a dollop of caring attention, I can witness wasted time until it unveils itself to have always been time lived and thus time honored. That there is something quietly magisterial in the sound of slippers milling about on half lacquered wood floors, and on the day my death bed fulfills its name sake, I’ll remember the ambled paths around my house with fondness rather than dejection. I honestly want to know, is there any value in those semiconscious moments that stretch across the span of a week or month or holiday break that can seem as bleak as a faded photograph found in a crumbling hut.
I don’t feel like eating lunch. It’s grey out and my appetite has been shit for a while. It tends to return at night like a werewolf. Instead I lay my head on the faux-leather couch, cringing for a moment as its chill is warmed by my skin and I flip open Batman #12 written by Tom King with art by Mikel Janin. The title of the arc is “I Am Suicide.” The comic opens with a poised and frowning batman as a series of notebook like panels narrate a letter Batman has written to Catwoman with a kind of warm syncopation. “Cat” he calls her. “Bat” she calls him. The inside of batman’s cape is a velvety purple, a delicious twist that emphasizes the theatrical camp of the character. He writes to her, “it’s not time to fight. It’s time to acknowledge what we are.” The next page, a double page spread, answer just what it is they must realize: it is silliness, and gonzo vigilantism, and fantasy, violence, it is the fantastic realm of self-consciously overblown hysterical theatrics that move at the edges of all our internal worlds. Batman sternly jumps across multiple machine gun firing henchmen while continuing his letter to Catwoman. And he acknowledges directly that he plays dress-up and that it’s funny and his parents would’ve laughed and that this absurd play is the one way this fictional creature has been able to scrounge some ability to make sense of things from the throws of trauma. And Cat feels this same way. Isn’t it funny to have a comic book try and talk about love? Isn’t if funny that we cloister love in such granular ways that it seems hyper-silly to talk of it in the genre of superheroes? As if love or its specter isn’t lurking everywhere at all times? The very trouble Batman has in reconciling his stupid state is the state of the comic itself posing as art, art trying to say anything valid. And it’s the continued exasperated effort of one writing this very essay may feel trying to wring some validity from this material, and trying to find some actual conceivable meaning in his own life when he reads this pulpy stuff. It’s the shame of reminding myself there may in fact be love in everything I do as I flip the page to see Batman punch a naked Bane in the face as the villain Psycho Pirate looks on and laughs. Batman is not done though, he is never done, so neither am I. Bat says to Cat, as he, like me, tries to reconcile in words this sense of lingering pain, “After the alley and the gun. And the pearls. What was I?… Every chance given to me, every promise I’d made, all of it was pain… And what use is pain… It’s not dignified, it’s not kind. And if it’s not dignified and it’s not kind, then maybe it’s not worth anything. Maybe it’s better off as nothing.” Maybe this tone is melodramatic, but the hurt in my chest that’s always there flairs. Because maybe its better off “Gone.” Gone? That seems a little much “Dead.” And now it is afternoon and I am on my couch in the quiet of a gray day and I can remember quite thoroughly other, more dire days that I spent glued to my floor wanting laugh because I was in so much pain, my mind and body, that I wanted to be gone and dead, but I just couldn’t move to do it. And the well in me is opened, opened by a man in bat suit. On the next page Batman continues his fight and his letter. And he talks about the scratches in his arms that could have easily been divots, scratches he put there until he found this: devotion. “I let the razor fall, and I understood. It was done. I’d done it, I’d surrendered. My life was no longer my life and I whispered-“ But before he whispers! I must bemoan how little surrender is ever discussed with the necessary glow of gratitude. I have fought so many exhausting battles in my life. And I lost all of them until I surrendered, only then did I understand the terms of victory have little to do with the triumph of domination. So young Bruce Wayne whispers, “I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on criminals” NOT defeating criminals, but in the act of war, in a perpetual state of motion that does not rest. It is a leap of faith in the truest sense. The fact that it is a silly war on crime with weird political undertones doesn’t undermine the existential moment, but props it up: Those things we can only talk to ourselves of because they are so private and outside the realm of language appear as bizarre and ghastly as a man in a purple cape. It is the fantastic realm of self-consciously overblown hysterical theatrics that move at the edges of all our internal worlds. Grace is like this. It is absurd. Batman’s cowl is splayed out like a hand palming the page, feeling the solidity of the emotional truth of this fiction as Batman utters, having surrendered his pain to commitment, “I am suicide.” Not the suicide of despair, but the suicide of change.
I decide on mac and cheese for dinner. I start to boil water. The icicles outside my kitchen window refract no light from the iron sky. I wish I had someone to write to in that way, someone to spill my secrets and love unreservedly. It’s an unfitting feeling to have over a sink full of used spoons.
It is 5:00 and it is dark. The night colored windows feel like dark glass drapes. I find myself, at moments like this, quiet moments with the whisper of melting water, looking out and expelling all sorts of colorful thoughts into what goes on in the windy places outside my apartment where I am not. Why is the image of someone looking longingly and trapped behind glass so ready and so trite? Because it captures that feeling that this transparent thing, this hard air, both restrains and offers the freedom of vision. And at night, the freedom to paint out my own fantasies about what the world is doing without me? Is it having fun? Laughing? Fucking? Perhaps one of the most bizarre twists of feelings I’ve come across living in my quiet suburb is how ashamed I feel for feeling lonely to begin with. I remember a thousand conversations of my mom lovingly and annoyingly telling me to join some kind of club to meet people. Like a running club or a writing club. It seems so absurd and tragic, that in this cultural moment we need excuses to be around other people. That there is no real public place to gather under the warmth of those familiar and strange. My apartment, alone, is warm enough for my skin, but not the isolation of my person.
I’ve been eating Annie’s Mac and Cheese this whole time by the way. It’s warm and good. Not healthy good—I use at least a half a stick of butter, my own kind of soul food—but comforting good.
I put on the Office before bed. The chatter of characters warms the house with a blue glow rather than a gold one. The familiarity warms the house. The noise warms the house. This is my closest thing to a polis, to a place to gather and commune. Then sleep.
The days, though shaped by time and place are marked by thought. It is the whishing of musings that really passes time, and passes it just as the ocean does, with seismic ebbs and flows indiscernible from the surface. Ones that can only be felt ripping and sliding down in the inside, flowing like the moods in my gut. Time, more than anything, ,is marked by the shifting change of affect in my body, from anxiety of heart releasing into a dullness in my chest to a spark of creativity in the front of my brain and back down to a tired slump in my intestines, all played upon by the whirl of thoughts of Dad and Mom and dog and school and failure and friends and women and catastrophes and fears and nothingness and sublimity and Batman and joy and sorrow and finally, always finally, loneliness. Loneliness. This is the taste of the tonic today; loneliness. How strange and unpleasant and effervescent and persistent. It is the emotional leitmotif of my apartment, it is the hue in the glint behind all the glass covering the painting prints on my walls. Loneliness is a treacherous and loyal companion–dogged, I think. But more on him in a bit.
Because it dawns on me that an empty day lends itself to one of my favorite pastimes, which is just musing. I’d prefer to muse with someone close, but I can do it by myself. It’s an activity more whimsical than thinking and less serious than contemplation. It sits somewhere between onanism and hermeneutics.
By the way, I’m up at this point, like laying in bed and blinking and looking at the wall with that gauzy mindscape of mid morning wake ups.
My mom calls and asks if I’m still in bed. She knows I am. We talk for a while which may render the title of this whole essay false, but if Thoreau went into town for pie once a week, I’m allowed a phone call… I’ve been irritable too, as you can tell. Mom tells me that dad got back from the doctor today. My dad’s ribs had been hurting for a couple weeks or so from, presumably, walking my galloping old basset hound (dad rigged up this harness that hangs around him like a hunter’s bow because Chloe has so much tork). His ribs weren’t getting better. He has osteoporosis.
I didn’t know really how to react. I didn’t feel empty so much as smudged. Something in me was expecting her to tell me in that clipped, rushed, confidential way she talks with me on the phone that he had a kind of lymphoma or dementia. I just, with all the things our family has been through–many of them my fault–I do the normal human thing of imagining the absolute worst, like my mom was going to tell me Hiroshima was just reenacted in Hebron, or really, that she would finally confirm my deepest fears (death, horror, loneliness) and in doing so relieve me of having to worry they may come true. It is suddenly apparent to me that I am the only person in my room.
Osteoporosis is not good and, forgive me for my lack of sensitivity here, it seemed perversely fitting for my father–this disease of leeched strength leaving sponge pillars to stand where once there was a frame in full. I could not help but think of my dad’s own isolation in the past decade. An isolation I was beginning to repeat, like father like son, stanza after stanza. Because as much as I’ve seen my mother grow through her quickness to anger, I’ve seen her move with compassion into a community provider role, I’ve watched, not quite as my father regressed, but as the world grew around him and he did not keep up. And now it is him and my mom and my dog. I admit I am deeply afraid for when my dog passes, because all I can think of is the coldness of my dad’s life. A man I knew to be warm and gentle seems to be buckling under the march of time. He has not sought to follow life the way my a younger me hoped he would.
And maybe I’m doing him a double disservice here, worrying about an internal life that does not match at all with his reality while plastering this misprision on public walls, but I know the irritation in his voice, the pettiness of his obsessions. It is painful for me to remember the quiet gentle man I love, a man still quiet and gentle, but sapped in a way. His lips hang down with the curves of curtains, his shoulders hunched. I am selfish here as well. Because I wonder, will time do this to me too?
I worry about my dad’s bones. I was surprisingly stern with my mom. I wanted to take the helms of the family and steer them towards openness and discussion rather than these weird back alley chats where nothing is said in person. But, I was doing so out of fear, and so felt that same reactive anger my mother must have when she yelled at us when we were little, because we were loved. Mom seemed hesitant to the idea of all sitting down together (was it the way I said it? Making too big a deal? Pushing my own agenda? Is it wrong to wish to see my father share his humor and generosity with a wider world than his cramped and stuffed study?). I still decorate my bedroom with the kind of plastic dinosaurs dad bought me when I was little. My siblings were much more open to it. I’m not sure what real influence I have though. “Hey dad, go hang out with toddlers or your bones will break” what kind of bizarre time reversed nursery rhyme am I privately wishing on him? Why have I already so thoroughly abandoned the idea that he might listen to me?… probably the fact that I have a hard time feeling heard as an adult from a lot of experience of not feeling heard. My main problem with musing is that I treat it as a stand in for action until I can’t tell the difference.
I’ll pray tonight. I’ll do what I can with what I’m good at. I can hold images, even three-dimensional ones with weight and heft in my head. So I’ll picture rebuilding my dad bone by bone, or better yet, refilling those porous bones, all the gnawing cavities refilled with bright white calcium. I place my hands on his exposed shins and feel as they warm with the crawl of strength back in their lengths. And as I do so I’ll wish, not for my dad to fulfill my hopes for him, but his hopes for himself. I must remember that. A person must be happy according to their self-directed set, even if that just drains him again. Even if. This all seems too much to think about, alone, in my bedroom, lazy and lacking food and exercising, excoriating my father for the very thing I sit here doing. I wish we could just feel close to a person in a single moment, rather than navigate these vast treacherous waters of confusion. But then it’s that whole journey becomes destination thing right? There’s that hope that if I love him as he is and do what I can rather than what I can’t, intimacy follows like a shadow.
The day seems to pass like one (a shadow that is) devoid of content beyond its own contentlessness. There is a peace to this. In many ways it is a reminder that I cannot exist alone. I need others to substantiate me. But eventually these reminders metastasize into earnest warnings I’ve downloaded from a fervently capitalist culture. “A man pulls himself up by my bootstraps” I actually verbally think this about my own emotional listlessness, like I should be able to pull my entire body off the ground by the strength of my arms alone. I must admit how much I hate this cult of self-reliance (not responsibility but reliance).
I would like, for a moment to muse a bit, rest from old bones and family tension, to take the notion of the self-made man to its logical conclusion, which is to say a completely fantastical point of imagination. The purpose of the self-made man seems thoroughly political in nature, already putting the argument in bad faith as it aims to explain away how some folks succeed and others fail in a totalizing manner, so let us suspend that bad faith and take the argument in its purest form. I want to spend a bit of time destroying this American myth that nips at my heels until I feel constantly inadequate. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you have other things to do with your time, otherwise I invite you to vent with me.
The self-made man makes only himself. This is to say, to even be produced or born, he must have been dragged from his own already formed womb, like an Ouroboros in reverse, full headed skull and bulky body sliding out of his canal formed into a body that already needs nothing of sustenance. He is a big bang, a something from nothing in organic form. He could not be asexual as that would imply he is his own descendant, growing other selves off of him like a mantis. Those selves would be too reliant on the parent self. Instead, he has miraculously emerged without even needing a miracle. In fact, there would be no need for him to be a he, or any gender, or even genderless, as gender implies a dalliance with sexuality of some sort, and the self-made one has no need for the reliance on others. This idea of others would be truly repugnant to the self-made one as it never needed others. But then, of course, in never needing others it never needed a way to interact or understand others and so, walks about the earth amongst them as if they are inert things, stones and sand to be stepped over and on. We of course view the self-made one with its smooth, genitalless, thick grey skinned body as just as inert. Because from the outside it would be. In fact, its intelligence would be so alien to even those who position themselves as self-reliant survivalists or mountain men–any gruff live off the land stereotype–that the best understanding of the self-made one is one of Lovercraft’s terrible old ones. The self-made one is totally indifferent to everything, conscious only of itself, but whether this is self-awareness is hard to determine as attempting to enter its mind presupposes a dialectical relationship of subject and object that the self-made one has one capacity or need to enter in. It’s eyes and ears are sown shut, but somehow its mouth remains moving as we can discern it still yells of its own self-importance over the land. And how could it not? It is all it knows and therefore is the greatest and worst of all. An absolute unto itself. It yells, not for others to hear, but because why wouldn’t the self-made one, who thinks itself as the essence of all things trumpet its call.
The self-made one, brought to its ultimate point is as dim and dull as any nihilistic god we’ve ever known, in comparison, the kind of silence we find in our own souls that seems unreachable to others, the paradox of our individuality among a need for a community is immediately transcendental it all its complications and paradoxes. Our places of silence are not indicators of our nature to be alone, but indicators that it is our nature to wrangle with the feeling of aloneness. Do not abandon yourself to self-madeness unless you too wish to be one of these pitiable repulsive grey skinned titans that roam the land, socially deaf and dumb, a self even they cannot understand. I have to tell myself this again and again.
But as I lay myself down to sleep that night (it’s been the whole day already) I can not help but feel deadened. Because my own behavioral patterns and the world I find myself inhabiting have cast me as one of these stony giants of self regard and loveless wandering. But this isn’t really right. I ache still. And the paradox of this ache is that it is good in proportion to the ache. Because it reminds me a day in isolation should not fill me up. It reminds me that I do not end at the confines of my own skin. In fact in this ache something smarter than I am (that is equally a part of me) refuses to be alone. The only time I am not alone is when I am with others, and yet the fabric against which my selfhood rests pulls on that sense of other at all times and so I am never fully alone. If I were, I would not yearn for connection.
Some days I wake up and the sheets look like the sheets I used in the house I grew up in. And the dreamscape I emerge from is the same place my mind wandered when I was in college. And I wake up to the taste of a memory lived as if it is the current moment. Some days, alone, I spend in the past. I do not however see this as a waste of time, but a kind of gathering, the way one might twirl their finger in a shallow pond delving deep enough to collect a cracked toy ship.
I am very lonely. Sometimes I lose myself in this thought. Which is to say I take the responsibility of loneliness upon myself. It is my fault I have not found or built community. It is my fault I am not enough to myself. And when I feel this way (and I feel this way as I eat my Life cereal with Lactaid milk glancing over issues of Matt Kindt’s Grass Kings comic) I am reminded of how few truly communal institutions exist.
This day, it is decided, is dedicated to remembrance.
I was a student at Providence College, a small private Catholic College (home to the Dominican Friars). I was having a hard time there. I loved the newspapers and the friends I made and my professors, but things in me and my place in the community was out of joint. I do not fully know why I did what I did next: depression, confusion, drugs, alcohol, despair. I tried, one night, after barring myself in my bedroom, to take my life. I must express my eternal gratitude to all three of my roommates (Tom, Paul, and Dave) for finding me and saving me. They kept what blood that wasn’t spilled in me, and they kept was hope hadn’t been snubbed out smoldering.
I do not remember exactly how this all happened, but I was disinvited from campus. I was deemed a threat to the community by a hierarchy that involved the dean of students. I was encouraged to keep from visiting friends off campus because it could be dangerous. Because it was implied I was dangerous.
Now, they were right to be concerned. I made a violent action and had I not already been in excellent care, I could understand their hesitance to leave me unsupervised. But suicide is complicated. And this time, as both my therapist and psychopharmacologist wrote the dean, it was an impulse action that should be considered an aberration rather than predictive of future behavior.
I was told that the Providence College community would have to think if I’d be ready to return to campus the next semester. In short I’d been kicked out of school under the cover of the health of community.
I hope that, as you read this, I do not come off as too poisoned by resentment, though I must admit I feel an unforgiving weight as I mull these things over.
All of this disinvitiation and talk of community took place in a strange tribunal with an assistant to the dean (I never got to talk to the dean himself, his decrees were handed down through subordinates). The assistant was a kind enough man, handsome in a more shrewish Rob Lowe way. But he seemed as if he wanted the best for everyone. The room we met in (we met at least twice, maybe three times) with fluorescent lit. It was one of those terrible meeting rooms that had a series of two seater desks placed in a square instead of a solidified table. He sat at one end. My dad and I sat at the other.
My father just wanted me to be able to go to school. He wanted me to be okay. I don’t think he could comprehend the horror that had taken place and he was fighting through his confusion on my behalf. Just please let John back into school. That was the feel I got from dad. I felt close to him when he advocated for me.
The meetings would start with the PC community’s concerns. They said people could be talking and that’s not good for the community. They said they didn’t know what I might do if I was let back in. They said I committed a violent act and they wouldn’t be able to scrub the image of a bathroom covered in blood from their memory. Forgive me, dear reader. I need to let my fingers quake with rage at the thought that my spilled blood offended their sensibility. It is not charitable of me to say this, but then again it is not charitable to treat a mentally tender student as a monster. There was some truth to each statement they made. But, very few were concerned with my wellbeing. And as the assistant leaned in in his sober and concerned and serious way to deliver his thoughts about the damage I threatened the community with I felt my father next to me lean close to catch himself from withering. And to be closer to me. The PC community’s reasoning’s continued. How could I continue my studies after being through something so traumatizing? How could they be assured two letters from professionals was really enough of a guarantee? I could feel each doubt as one lock that secured PC’s reasons they were justified in, what felt like, doing away with me. Could I understand this was for everyone’s best? My father, strong in his love, but quivering in voice, reminded them that I was in the hands of excellent clinicians. And the assistant, in a gentle and compassionate voice responded that he just couldn’t see how it could work. My dad, his voice breaking, prostrate before Providence College told me how far he would go to help me. He would stay with me in hotel rooms if supervision and being on campus were a problem. He would drive me from CT to RI every day if staying too long in the state was a problem. He would—he was letting these loose as a torrent, his body forward, scrounging with courage for any reason I might be able to continue.—he would do anything, anything, absolutely anything. And I loved him so fervently in that moment because it was so plain how he loved me. And when the assistant asked my father to exit the room so they could give me a verdict in private my dad started crying as he got up to go. And I cried too as I grabbed him from my chair and clutched him and asked him not to cry because it was okay. It was okay that things were not okay.
I was not allowed on campus. I was not allowed to finish classes. I had to be escorted by security guards to retrieve my belongings.
Six months later, after I’d transferred schools and contacted school to ask permission to attend a school newspaper reunion I was informed I was still a danger to campus.
This is one way I came to understand what constitutes community in American culture. It made sense. The school wanted to cover its ass because at its core it is a business and, as vulgar as this is, even the thought of the possibility of a suicide on campus makes very bad press. I felt myself near mortal sin that had to be expunged.
It’s somewhere around midafternoon. Class starts tomorrow. I don’t fully remember what I wanted out of these three days. Something about recovered time, moments made valuable. In some ways that happened, right? We sat here with me as we went over the past and present comb for moments of clarity.
What I’m left with, more than anything (perhaps what I’m always left with and will eventually leave with) is my need for others, to hear the patter of their steps in the living room, a roving gwaff at a remembered embarrassment, the call of my name in the lovely voice of lightly sprinkled irritation. This need is as big as I am, it is as much of me as all the rest of this stuff is.
And it’s not impossible for me to find this, temporarily at least, but in terms of a solid place, a communal bowl that sits center stage in the public arena? I’m not sure what it would be.
I do not blame myself for feeling lonely. Why would I? When nearly everything I live by points to the comfy confines of myself, solitude’s ugly cousin is of course a close part of the family. I sleep alone, eat alone, think alone, wash alone, drive alone, shop alone. Again, not out of necessity, but convenience. Things are quicker this way. Easier. I don’t need to bother folks all that much. But then again, bothering is kind of the whole point. Its my point. To bother with other people.
Sometimes when I think back to my father and I hugging in the large white meeting room on the Providence College campus, with the assistant delivering the verdict on the far side of the table, I can feel my dad’s forehead against mine. There’s a pressure, our skulls kissing, the skin adhering just a bit, enough to leave a red blotch when he has to leave, but it strikes me that that bit of pressure–that little reminder of this man who loves me and who I love–was and is here, and it should feel ineffable and strange, that closeness. Because it is in that very moment that I duel with the idea that our minds might never fully, truly know each other and yet we have taken two leaps of faith into care for each other no matter the outcome or recourse. I suppose, in these days alone, I realize I want to feel that pressure more rather than less. That, as trite as it is, there are different kinds of discomfort, and the ghosts that chill my mind on lonely days empty me more than the points I meet others and see how they hurt. I will always want to hurt more if it means being with others more.
Nighttime. Dinner’s the same.
I am glad I’m alive.
I flip through a comic and hang around twitter.
I wish I could get to know everyone.
I sit on my bed and press my temples and massage the lump in my throat.
And I hope these three days meant something.
Maybe just as alone, but still, another crack tomorrow.