Scratching at Spirit

Today I had, by all accounts, a full day. I met a friend for coffee, sent an e-mail to a professor, talked on the phone to my best friend, kept myself mostly fed, went for a run, sat recumbent by the lake and thought, was friendly with neighbors, met my sponsor and worked on the steps. But throughout I’ve found myself in a kind of lacuna of meaning. Maybe purpose is a better term. I think part of this is too much time thinking and not enough working and teaching, more of it is the fear and frustration at my inability to act on finding a job, and another part wonders if this large emptiness, a thing like a great twilight shadow, is a consistent, a perpetually historical phenomenon that digs into all of us through specific historical trappings. Right now it is the demand to produce and be a productive capitalist (a thing that can fulfill, but by and large is not enough in its own right). But, I think, throughout history there has been a great malaise, lying about like a tepid puddle at the feet of all those who try and trod on.

To my mind, humanity was not born to be alone. No one comes from themselves. If we were to boil down our real existence into an image it might be the campfire, all of us or some of us huddled together in the ongoing night, doing our best to communicate the pain we feel and at times, at moments transcending this state of things with stories and laughter. True bonds. Those are (the bonds in their true form) hard to come by, but deeply sacred. It wards the dark away, flashing like a flare gun and alleviating that persistence inky light of night.

It makes sense to think this, at least, for me, now. I miss my friends, I have so few who are here, who I can touch and be touched by. I am, despite being shy and fearful, someone who craves connection. AA would have me act, as would Hegel, with this knowledge, but the rub is that the mediums through which we reach each other are quite distant themselves. Dating services and Facebook and phones and the like deny our basic physicality and are to wrapped up in being services that want us to return to their service rather than finding a way to share the necessarily unwholesome completeness of human encounters.

To particularize: I can go on Facebook (I don’t mean to pick on it, it’s simply holds the zeitgeist of current state of connection) and maybe, after remembering that my friend does want to hear from me and I’m not burdening their already busy work schedule, send a message. And maybe we trade messages, and maybe even talk on the phone and for a moment there is a feeling of reaching, but we can’t physically grasp each other. There’s nothing skin on skin. We’re left with our own globe shaped skulls spinning their own confused thoughts, with no immediacy to momentarily transcend pointless thoughts that keep us apart.

And I often ask myself, is there a place designed for adults to meet and share sincerely and unabashedly without the aid of social lubricant (I mean booze). Not really. We lack common grounds that are designed specifically for meaningful interaction. Churches do something, parks do something, plenty of places do a little bit, but he tribe around the fire is much smaller than it might have been at other times.

Our families might not be big enough. Our idea of family might not be big enough.
I feel a bit impotent saying all this. It’s not detailed enough, it’s still so abstract, but I know that when I’m alone in the dark and afraid that maybe I could do more, and maybe it never had to be this way.

I live on a quiet little suburb. It’s a long U, with reasonably kept houses that have glowing yellow lights around sunset and flickering TV screens at night. The pavement is cracked enough to feel broken in, comfortable, like the earth and the tar have negotiated a spot for it to stay and moss and weeds can grow without too much hassle. There are kids that play basketball in the street and stand respectfully on the side of the road as I drive by. Some houses endorse Trump, others Clinton, some Sanders. They coexist without much friction. There are small boats and old and new cars that shine on sunny days, and the occasional wave to one another. But sometimes it feels we’re locking ourselves away from each other out of a weird kind of choking privacy. And maybe some of these houses, the house across the street, a deep blue colonial with a lovely stained wood porch and an in ground pool hidden in sight by a tall fence (but not in sound) are actually happy. I see the dad trying to show his four year old how to hold and throw a basketball and the son squeals with delight just to be running around with his father. This could very well be my own troubles outsourced onto the neighbors.

But what if it was different. What if it wasn’t a neighborhood, but a community? With a shared area to gather and cook or read or talk. Is that possible? In fact, maybe a better question is why doesn’t that exist?

There’s a dog park nearby. I love walking past it. The dogs have no trouble meeting and running and sniffing, thick haired German Shepards and beagles and terriers and mutts and the owners mostly stand alone. Some talk, but it’s in a strange cliquish manner where they stand in a corner of the fence and share stories about dog surgeries and trouble training and favorite dog toys. Light stuff, nothing too personal.

I have no idea if we were designed to be together in large tribal units or simply nuclear families. I don’t think the origin story really fucking matters. I know the closest I feel to full is with friends or in an AA meeting, with other fellows sharing laughter and “private” embarrassments. I know I am full when I am open to trusting those that have not proven trust whether and yet in some way, maybe through a story, reciprocate that trust. This is hard to come by day to day.

I think that, if there is to be some radical shift or revolution or change or second coming that the necessary things are already here: Us. Something geared to encourage us to invest in each other. Again, I know how insipid this sounds, how utopian and silly, but it seems vital. Real important change, as far as I can see it, is not a move towards better technology or booming markets and symbolic victories like Caitlyn Jenner gracing Vanity Fair. What is needed is a move towards spirit, or, to put it another way, the recognition that I am not as separate from others as I’ve been taught to think, that it is only through interaction and full recognition of others, as many others as possible, that this great ennui starts to decline. Won’t fix a whole lot of stuff, but a lot of the stuff we (I) worry about will sort of fall away. And I think that, again, with the notion of spirit, it requires social structures that allow each person to find purpose in their own self-directed manner which, I think, points us back towards one another.

I’m afraid this is all a bit… hazy, and lacks nuance, but it’s my least cynical belief. It’s my most humanist belief. It’s one of the few things that lets me suffer the indignities and pains caused by myself and others and continue to firmly assert things can in fact get better. Besides, I think sincere, loving beliefs often tend to be a bit out of focus.

I’m not quite sure how to end this because I don’t think any of this ends. I want to work to turn “prays and thoughts” into spirited efforts to create community that abandons its slavery to the barriers of our own homes, be they psychological or physical.

Does this itch anyone else?

A Trial of Skirmishes for my Soul Like Thing

Honestly, I feel some kinship with Buridan’s ass. Somewhere between faith and cynical skepticism. Right now, as I sit here in my apartment bedroom, looking at the growing sentence on the screen in front of me, surrounded by Nabokov (the new grey Vintage printing) and dog eared copies of David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre, a bunch of Joan Didion, C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, comics by Grant Morrison and Chris Ware and Jack Kirby and little plastic bobble heads of famous movie/video game/TV characters (a personal favorite is Walt as Heisenberg holding a tiny baggy of blue meth) I feel sort of empty in creepy way, like all this doesn’t mean much, and if a fire burnt it down I wouldn’t have to worry about this shit I keep accumulating. But, before you get afraid I’m going lecture about the importance of simplification and the dangers of materialism, I actually really fully love all of these items. I’m talking completely cathected. I remember where I was when I was reading the very end of Infinite Jest (the steps of some library in a breezy and noisy and vivacious NYC waiting to visit a college friend who’d also recently finished the book). These items tell me stories and right now I don’t give a shit about them.

Honestly, it’s a tough night, just because it’s one of those nights, not for any devastating reason. So I said a prayer to myself, asking to release the burden of self so that I might be an example of His/Her power to those I might help, the usual thing, and at the end I added a bit about how even if I don’t feel faithful I’ll try to still carry it forward.

Right now I’m in a pathless land between two states and a reliance on feeling alone isn’t enough to navigate from one to the other.

Here’s something: so many discussions of religious conversion are talked about as cataclysmic or orgasmic instant turns of thought (Saul to Paul and all that) but my conversion to whatever it is I’ve found as be slow and full of moments of decision and action and moments that simply happened to me. So much needed to be in place before I could get anywhere close to something like trust in the future.

You see, my emotion wetworks just weren’t functioning in a way to make sense of experience as anything accept a kind of bare knuckles, bare teeth, cruel world of threat. Even at my most optimistic I was forcing back deep fear that I’d unknowingly practiced over the years (and had been reinforced by a lot of trauma).  A friend could call me up and tell me that I meant a lot to them and they’d love to see me and I’d be left with a slight haunted feeling that I’d done something wrong, to hurt them.  This feeling was so subtle it never made sense to name it, until I felt trust.

So here’s another thing, even though this pathless place can’t, as of now, be determined solely feelings, it’s only through feelings that I’ve become convinced of its importance.

I didn’t used to like to exercise around others, but I’d do it if there was no other choice. And so recently I was running on the local bike path and there were two girls, average in every visible way, slicked ponytails and matching yoga pants, walking and chatting I was quickly coming up on their heels. My initial reaction was to slow down and just shuffle my feet behind them to make it seem like I was still jogging. This was seriously my solution to the situation. The idea of running around them was not on the table. Then I asked this thing that’s bigger than me “Do I trust everything will be okay” and my mind thought about how stupid an idea that was, just totally pathetic, of course it would be, but I just didn’t want to pass them, did I ever think that? And a subtler, calmer voice that I felt in the nerves of my fingertips, and the butterfly garden in my stomach, and the cooling breath in my chest asked again, “Do I trust everything will be okay” and it responded to itself “Yes” and I ran around them.

I could still hear a sort of emotional bickering, but it not as loud as weightless quiet I was left with. This thing, this way of thinking and being, this appeal to something more made me feel free from my own imposed bonds. How can I give that up? How could anyone? It was both a freedom from (anxiety) and a freedom for (anything I thought important enough to put energy into). And the large blue lake on my left and the sun resting behind the ski trail tattooed mountains in the distance and the placid waves of breath that moved in and out and this new kind of hum felt like some kind of living.

And yet, by the time I got back to my apartment I was arguing with my head again (about the best way to be nice to myself, but the discussion was politics-at-Thanksgiving heated) and I thought back to that moment and my wide puppy eyes and oh-too-bushy beard and pasty legs and okay to shapely calves and thought to myself what a sap, what a smark, rube, dolt, boob, sucker. The cynical side, the one that wanted to keep me from getting taken in by something that was outmoded and uncool, the side that feared and hated authority and kept telling itself it would change things from the inside, in just that small amount of time it wasn’t just denying this freedom, but actively ridiculing it. And so suddenly I was trying to figure out how this self-deluded argument started, if it was my feelings or thoughts, and how the fuck did I end up like this in the first place? Within seconds it was one fat chicken and egg orgy that wanted me to decide: cynical or spiritual? Faith or folly? Make a decision.

And I did. I decided I’d only gotten hear by trying to listen to that quiet voice that might belong to us all, that forced decisions weren’t freely made decisions, that if I was to choose to follow something greater it would not be driven by whips of my old master anxiety. I would wait until things calmed. They did. And it turned out there was no decision to be had. This, all of this, is happening to me just as much as I am happening to it. I can only be open and try to be humble. Faith, right now, seems to have less to do with certainty in ideas and more to do with openness towards moments that are not evidence of faith, but the result of it. That seems like part of it.

And so now, this stuff, books, toys, junk, all of it has to do with this struggle with faith and none of it has anything to do with faith. It’s another place to project these abstract concepts. Right now my mood likes to make a case that my projections onto this material stuff really matters or that it has fuck all to do with anything. That’s going to keep happening and I’m going to keep remembering to wait, be open for those bits of grace. Also I don’t want to get rid of Walt.

Back From the Shroud Again

Jesus, it’s been a year. I’ve wanted to continue this blog, but like everyone else who drops out of writing I thought I had better stuff to do. In my case, sometimes this was true. Right now I’m clean and sober. Nine months so. Tonight before I go to bed I’m going to pray to a thing I don’t understand and thank it for my sobriety today. Tomorrow morning I’ll say another prayer asking that thing to give strength (Courage? Wisdom? Guidance?) to those I care about and, more importantly, those I dislike.

Here’s a few things about me. I’m not suicidal anymore. My mood is more stable. My foundation, the thing that lets me feel like I have a right to exist has started to root firmly. I’m okay. More than anything I am and I am becoming okay. I guess, and the cynic in me is embarrassed (yet fucking delighted) to admit I’ve found faith, or at least some kind of faith.

I can’t go into all of it now, but if this is at all helpful or interesting or I just feel like writing about it I’ll give you the gross pieces of the journey, every step  of the way (nearly hit by car, crying on the phone, desperate and sullen eyed in a yellowed church basement surrounded by lumps of people as desperate (I thought) as I was, Styrofoam cookies and luke coffee, seat neighbors hemorrhaging phlegm, the days upon weeks of wanting a drink, the thousands of soda’s to curb the desire, and more than anything the fear).

Honestly, right now I don’t know how this all fits together, alcoholism, depression, suicide, desperation, pining for community, finally finding it. But right now, today, it does.

A little while okay I was preparing for the biggest test in grad school (my comprehensive examinations). I’d have a few hours to write 15+ pages in response to three lists of books I was supposed to have read (and in a few instances did read) and I was sitting in my office, staring at the ceiling, unable to move because my body would itch with the kind of hateful anxiety only procrastination can produce and I was trying not to image how I’d fail and drop out and get a shit job as a shit cleaner cleaning up shit at shit houses and everything was shit and if only I had a drink to take the edge off then I’d probably start studying and maybe I’d meet some girls at the bar[1] and I’d feel that glowing feeling in my stomach again and God damnit was I lucky to realize my thoughts spiraling out of control and so I called my sponsor.

He asked me “How’s your relationship with your Higher Power”

And in my head I said, “God fucking fuck” as in that moment I didn’t want to think about anything outside myself and in some ways was not capable of attending to anything but these obsessions  and so then I said to him “Well how’s your, um, what do you do, when uh—“
And he followed with this, “Listen man, do you trust that even if you fail these exams you’ll be okay?”

And I said to myself “Fuck.” And I said to him “Fuck.” I told him “No, I guess I haven’t I mean, but Jesus, okay I think I might—“

“Say it right now, ‘even if I fail these exams I trust I will be okay. I trust I will be okay”
So I did. And something changed. I’d never tried trusting the future. I was too scared to. The future isn’t a sure bet and if you ain’t taking a sure bet you’re a chump. Of course I was at my wits end every other Friday night. It was probably time I bet on something new. Finally time I wagered something. So I did. And I still am. And something is different.

I can walk across campus or the grocery store or most places without emotionally assuming everyone is eviscerating me with their x-ray vision of my soul. And it’s not that I’m hidden and safe from others, it’s more that I trust that were I to meet any one of them, by and large I could relate to thing about something, there is some community still between us all. If I can do it with the guy coughing up phlegm and talking about government satellites in the seat next to me when I’m in the rooms I can probably do it with a lot others.

And that’s what a kind of faith looks like. A kind of God even. It is both a thought and a feeling, a feeling that opens up possibility, the possibility of being hurt, but also discovering something new, new people, instead of cowering in my own desires.

You see, I think the Program (AA) has shown that my imaginative faculties were serving the wrong master and I simply was not aware of it, nor was I in a place to be aware of it. And I don’t think this trust is a singular thing that can save me, it relies on so much more: my family, my friends, the AA community, meetings, step work, exercise, eating enough, not drinking. Each is one element that leaves me grateful to have this thing that feels like faith. Do I trust I will be okay? Do I trust this will keep me sober? Day by day I can say yes. I can reorient my overactive imagination to serve up hope and trust, words that are tired on the lips but revitalizing in spirit. Do I trust I will be okay? Right now it’s a tentative yes. If nothing goes my way and I step in dog shit and get mugged and kicked out of school and a loved one dies in a car accident do I trust I will be okay? As delusional as it sounds I give another tentative yes. That’s how it needs to be right now and perhaps that’s how it will continue to be.

Do you trust you’ll be okay? No matter what?

[1] So here’s the thing about my mentally obsessed mind space: at pretends to offer me a solution to an emotion and that solution comes in the form of emotional fulfillment. But the fulfillment isn’t a feeling, it’s just perpetual desire pretending to be something else and that something else is an impossible creation. When I image booze and girls, and girls especially, it’s an amalgam of a whole lot of girls I knew and know and images I’ve seen from magazines and movies and porn, all rolled into one soulless Frankenstein’s monster of my own desire. It is a total objectification of women as a way to satiate my insatiable appetite for self-destruction and it is very convincing. Even when this takes the form of a day dream where we get ice cream and talk at length about James Joyce and Jack Kirby it is tailored to fit my every desire. This is not a good relationship if only because it would not challenge me or help me understand others in a vaster and probing human way. It would be the same conundrum the protagonists face at the end of Ex Machina. My mind is great at coming up with impossible objects of desire it wants but can’t really ever love.

Hi! on hiatus

I’m going to need to take a few weeks to gather myself. Also I have a four papers and a common place book to write, which leaves my tank hovering over E when it comes to blog posting. I plan on putting things back in motion in mid-May, returning with weekly posts and a widened topic (depression will still matter, but I want to open up the emotional lexicon of the site). That’s all for now.

Keep Kickin’ Ass

John

Weightless Burdens

This brief Easter Morning I was sitting on a picnic table in my friends’ apartment’s backyard. They’d invited me for brunch, but had yet to return from Church service. The sun was blunt and hot despite the drafty air and intermittent clouds. A few minutes earlier their landlord had come outside, (understandably) asking what I was doing, as I didn’t look like one of his tenants. I explained and he went off to talk with a tall man with a jaw the shape of a dangling slide. I noticed how much I was staring and tried to refocus.

I watched the sky for nothing and I heard the two men talking over each other. There was nothing sharp about their conversation, but in my head it was getting barbed. Soon enough I was sitting outside on a lovely Sunday afternoon imagining the jawless man shooting the landlord in the upper shoulder. As a few song birds twittered by I imagined the blood gurgling from his shoulder and mouth as I applied pressure. I was also somehow talking to an ambulance driver who was the 911 operator who was telling me I was killing the man, and if I let up pressure he would bleed out. Then I was arrested, my face pressed up against the girth of his chest. A bird tweeted and I looked up from my clenched hands at the nice morning and wondered why I’d slipped into a thought pattern that was so frightening.

There’s a wonderful misnomer about mental illness: it’s all in your head. It’s wonderful on the basis of how patently false it is. Sure without a brain I wouldn’t live with mental illness, but without a brain… need I even continue that line of thought? Feelings tend to live in our bodies. Those butterflies are in your stomach, not because you ate them, but because the nervous system as a lot of receptors in the guts. Things are literally felt in your guts.

See, when I came to and convinced my thoughts they were way off base, my body was the shape of a clenched fist and held just as tight.  In fact, it had been tense and clenched before I started thinking of such grisly stuff.

One of the stranger parts of PTSD is that it keeps the Sympathetic Nervous System (this would be the part of us that gets sent into fight or flight mode) on high alert. I am constantly set to run up on someone or run off. Eventually this state is the new normal. I don’t even really register that my hands are shaking, I’m staring out the window to feel safe, or a single loud noise gives me a small anxiety attack, because it all happens so often that it seems par for the course.

The thing is, my idle imagination picks up a lot of clues from my bodily state. My mind and body, like some karmic wheel rolling to hell, set each other off. I physically feel like I’m prepared for a threat so my brain starts thinking about something threatening using whatever’s at hand (and does a pretty good job, not to be too self-congratulatory or anything). I’m torn over whether to tell you any of the gruesome chains of thoughts I’ve had because they’re horrific enough that I feel ashamed of them, like they’re my fault or something. And yeah, they do come from me, but should I add shame onto the pile difficult emotions? The easy answer is no. But try this on for size. I was sitting on a beach next to a lake and there was a little kid five feet away. He seemed a year and a half at the oldest. He had this lovely dopey smile with his tongue sticking out has he smacked the dirt in this spastic burst of movement. And there was his father who looked young enough, had a beard, sunglasses, was reading. And I wondered what would happen if the little kid tried to fit his shovel (it was about the size of his head) into and down his throat? What if the father got sick of the child and did? What if I did? That was the worst question. What if I did? Because I stopped trusting myself. What kind of person could think of this evil shit? That’s what I thought to myself. I’m not a bad person and I’d never do that. That’s how I comforted myself. Why did these terrible thoughts keep popping up? I still didn’t trust myself.

And if you thought that way quite frequently, could you forgive yourself? If every time your brain idled, you thought of the most gruesome scenario (run someone over, bash your teeth out one by one with a rock) and they weren’t even desires, they were fears (tear out that girl’s fingernails, snap that dog’s leg feeling the fur and bones in your warm hands) that you were afraid could exist because you’d been a part of something equally as frightening and brutal and objectifying and humiliating, then what? How would you comfort yourself? It becomes very difficult not to blame oneself, if only to feel like you have control over something, even if that something does not help you.

When I was younger I spent my imagination of friendly creatures in the woods and giant animals and planet hopping aliens landing to find friends. There were darker moments, but not like this, not like the inner slaughterhouse I’m afraid to show anyone (should anyone even see it? Does that help?)

I am certain it’s exhausting. I am certain exercise really truly helps. I am certain my friends and family (as fraught as I might be around them) help. I am certain writing does something. But who am I, this person that thinks these sinful things? Certainly I don’t think these things and something else should be blamed. In my desperate moments everyone would be my priest and I’d spill my evil thoughts and beg for forgiveness; but that wouldn’t really help.

I can tell myself they’re just thoughts, but when that grow out of nothing but a conversation in the distance on a lovely spring morning while I’m waiting for my friends; it’s hard to see these thoughts as just thoughts.

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.

Will You Give an Ear for a Moment?

I’m lonely right now. And I’ve been lonely for a while. Everyone gets lonely; it’s such a basic idea it might be considered trite. I know all this and I’m still ashamed to admit I’m lonely. It’s even hard for me to tell my friends. A silence tends to waft in and settle after. I’m lonely. I’m scared of telling people that. And all that makes me ashamed. Thing is, I don’t know where this shame came from. It’s not like anyone sat me down and said “John, look, sometimes you’ll be lonely and it’s a bad thing” but admitting loneliness is socially uncomfortable enough to be seen as a social faux pas. Again, let me repeat, we are all lonely at point in our life and it generally isn’t by choice. It’s not like we’re revealing an intimately placed tattoo of the “WHASSSAAAPP” Budweiser commercial to a group of strangers. Loneliness is not only normal, it’s inevitable, and can in fact be capital “g” Good at the right moments and in the right mind mindsets. But what about when it isn’t Good and we need to be able to talk to someone because we feel locked away? I remember I was in group therapy years ago and a woman was describing how she and her husband had grown apart. She described in great detail, the gentle but firm way he used to hold the space between her breasts and push his chest against her back and would quietly exhale on her neck as she slept. She said that in the past months they’d inched farther and farther from each other until they were on opposite sides of the bed, both slightly colder at night. She described the weight on her shoulders and the weight in her stomach. Then one day she just got out of bed and just drove. She was supposed to bring her daughter to school, but her husband could handle it so she just drove until she got to the great American void all of us at least consider visiting: The Grand Canyon. She said she stood out there and it was grey but it didn’t matter because she felt free, but sad. And yet it was a better sensation than the cold bed. The group psychiatrist, a wizened old fellow who commanded a room by being soft spoken said, “Sometimes it’s the moments that we feel alone that mean the most, because not only do we die alone, but often times we live alone as well. It is actually the moments we connect that are rare. It sounds like you felt, for the first time, that it was okay to be lonely.” To which she responded with a reactionary staccato, “Oh no, I wasn’t lonely, I think it was just nice getting away from my husband and our kid.” I remember being uncomfortable with how defensive she was, or at least, being uncomfortable and picking up on her defensiveness. The easiest thing to do with anything uncomfortable is shove it away (but loneliness is inside us, maybe even when we’re with others) or make fun of it. I do a whole lot of the latter. Doesn’t help much. I also know I picked that one up from TV. I could talk about being lonely without upsetting the mood. I could have my lonely cake and sit in the corner watching it as it sat on the table too. Of course, these efforts at humor (lord, how not-funny is that phrase?) were passable about best. Maybe I’d go on about wondering if there was a kind of lycanthropy that turned people into a cat lady. I think I got it when I started feeding the neighborhood stray every morning etc. etc. This didn’t work, the humor that is. Then there’s another attempt at defending myself: drinking and going on social media. This is another thing I do an uncomfortable amount. It’s the usual ploy of trying to drown a feeling and heal it with the third best thing: digital interaction. I think loneliness may be the most common Western-Developed-Nation form of suffering. It is a key part of depression (which might be thought of an acid loneliness that seeps into every cell). I think we aren’t very good at talking or working with loneliness. To me, Camus was right to ask is suicide worth committing. Not because I think it’s a valid question, but because the drive behind it was, is there something in all this (lonely) suffering worth hanging on to. He recommended we imagine Sisyphus happy. The unspoken key to this philosophical as that we are there to witness Sisyphus endlessly role his boulder. We are there to be happy with him. Loneliness might be considered the foundation of modern philosophical thought. When Descartes wrote Cogito Ergo Sum (I think therefore I am) he was only proving the existence of the one who thought. When he realized this cast everyone else’s existence into doubt, it meant he had to scrabble to prove other’s existed. He decided that by viewing other’s over time, one could surmise they really exist. There’s something absolutely wrong and something dead right about this idea. People around us do tend to be shades. We don’t know their passions, how they interact, how they make love. And we can’t know the exact experience someone is having at a single moment: their thoughts, bodily sensations, rising temperatures, and swirling passions are forever locked inside them. But just as they are locked from us, we are locked from them. What I’m saying is loneliness is etched on human bones. It is a fundamental difficulty of being a singular subject that we’re forced to struggle with. Sometimes we’re given the tools to do it, sometimes we aren’t.  The rituals we practice, whether in private social circles, institutional places (school, church etc.) end up determining how we feel about and handle loneliness. So why am I so fucking afraid and ashamed of mine? I cannot conclude this topic. To be totally honest I had this silly notion that I could write my way out of the hurt in my chest, write my way out of my loneliness. I think that’s why I write in general. To feel like someone is there, listening. I guess that’s what I might want (not that I don’t already have it), probably something everyone would want, a person to listen, to share with. I’m not the only one who feels like this, right?