Addicted to a Universe in a Nutshell

Carl Sagan famously suggested that human consciousness is the way the universe comes to know itself. Long before, Hamlet had showed the tragic irony of this position by knowing, but never acting the way he could or should have.

The life of an addict is very much the latter. I insist this because I am one, just like a lot of us.

Another amazing irony about addiction is as follows: I am scared and don’t want to feel vulnerable so I engage in behavior that becomes compulsory until that behavior starts hurting me and leaving me vulnerable until I am constantly afraid of everything and now must most definitely engage in said compulsory behavior because it will actually work this time.

This is maybe one core paradox of addiction, but I want to, for the moment, put that bit of madness aside and look at another weird aspect of this thing I have only so much control of.

It’s been a pretty good chunk of time since I’ve imbibed in booze or drugs (and honestly the only real good chunk of time will be demarcated when I hopefully die sober in some old man bed somewhere) which I thought would make me less of an addict (and in many ways does… kind of, this is all deeply complex) but that initial impulse to control how the world affects me in order protect myself that then dovetails into a whirligig of misery is alive as hell.

Here’s a major thing I’ve realized lately, for the past couple years I’ve fallen asleep to some kind of video on my laptop. The LED narrative kind of sinks into the first couple layers of my subconscious and gives a laugh track to my dreams. I’ll wake up mostly exhausted and get on with the day. Now, there’s nothing initially terrible about this behavior (don’t listen to all those damn blogs about the dangers of sleeping with your phone, you aren’t going to hell for it, and we’ve all got better fish to fry) I refused to pay attention to what I was feeling laying in bed, waiting to nod off. And I was ignoring on purpose. I would lie in bed knowing what I was feeling, but suppressing it enough that the word never popped into my head and then maybe I wasn’t actually feeling it, but hey hearing other people laugh on a screen did make it (the thing I refused to admit existed) ebb just a little. And nothing big made me realize it, probably I just strained my neck to hard and thought “Jesus I feel lonely.” And I did, like painful lonely that intimated I was never close to anyone and never would be and the whole world was robbed of my rich inner life and that inner life would collapse like the sacked city of Troy if I didn’t have someone to vomit it onto and ultimately this all meant that I truly didn’t matter and could never be loved or even feel loved because if that was the case I wouldn’t be lonely. And if that sentence made total logical sense to you, perhaps you too should watch your inner state before bedtime.

Because I was doing the exact fucking thing I did when I was drinking. I was trying to deny a very real emotional reality, or at least lessen it’s phenomenological impact by distracting myself. And booze is effective. And TV is effective, but not as much as booze. And so when I found myself spending hundreds of dollars on Amazon using money I didn’t have for back issues of New X-Men because I thought it could plug that God sized hole, I refused to look at what was actually making me so desperate.

Look, here’s the thing, we humans have it stacked against us from the start. Desire itself is structured in such a way that it can never be truly satiated. As soon as I possess the thing I lusted after, it is no longer the thing I lusted after, but simply the thing I possess. This cycle is almost endless (unless we learn to simply sit with that desire and see it for what it is, just another drive, another mood). This is difficult enough, but when you weave in our healthy and human need and want to belong and our ability to believe we do not possess what we actually might, this endless emptiness becomes our own little black hole, a dark god that calls the shots as it tells us to shut our eyes.

I have found, through a whole lot of angst rolling around on the floor while I listened to The Cure or The National or Beethoven or anything edgy and dark (maaaan) that the best thing I can do turn and be humble enough to accept that that loneliness, or desire, or emptiness is what I should feel in that moment. All of it. As painful as it is I can take it simply for the fact that I am alive and conscious and if it really was too much then I wouldn’t have the faculty to feel it. And I love this choice that isn’t a choice. I can suffer or I can say yes, I will suffer and suffer. And when I do the former I hide like dog from a thunderstorm and when I do the latter I grow resilient for the next time I have to do it again.

Of course community and family and support networks and exercise and love and love and love and also love are also needed, but it is that bizarre little choice with big consequences that helps me free myself from self-enslavement through addiction.

I might add to Sagan’s maxim: there is no point in knowing the universe if we do not attempt to know ourselves first, and to Hamlet: keep dreaming of that Walnut shell and you’ll never escape your own torment enough to see the universe as it might be.

Thank you for reading. I hope you could take something from this. Thank you.

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Love! Like Lightning, Life, and Light!

What’s a heart break? It’s strange to ask that question.

I think that, like light bulbs, people hang in the dark when disconnected. Thin glass skin simply letting pass what exists outside already, the warm sun of the day, the visible dark of the night. But, link us up, connect us, and that thing that was always there starts to heat, to burn, to immolate with an innate science of survival that lets us really hear each other and ourselves.

We are not so strong alone. I am not. Together we come into the joy of our own light. We exist, and declare we exist, and make note we exist because we are light in that moment.

When I was in my heartbreaker’s apartment (this is an entirely unfair way of referring to her as, like all people, she’s vastly more complicated than her relation to me, but I only have so much to work with here so give me a break) I remember being tired and low blood sugared, but kind of soppy with hormonal curiosity. And we were both sitting on stools in her studio apartment and the counter was smooth and I was leaning on it and looking at her face and eyes and lips. And I asked her, based on some stuff about her sister having her shit together and not knowing how to run her own life, did she see herself as broken? And, with a crusted edge of defiance she looked at me and said yes. There in the dark and cold, ready to bear the whips and scorns of some petulant judgement from me, no doubt a readiness from her own inner flagellations (something I’m also trying to quiet) and I said I wanted to hug her. Really I wanted to kiss her, but a hug would be good too. The critical part of me tells me it’s because I get off on saving others (a critique that’s so bland and common that it’s hard to take seriously anymore) and the better part of me admired the strength it took to be so vulnerable. I wanted to hold that vulnerability. So we hugged and as I clutched her, and squeezed her back and felt the goosebumps on her arms against my own skin, I fell into that forgotten yet familiar state in which physicality gets lost amongst a person’s being. Holding their body is holding them. And in that moment I felt something stitch back up in my, as if I was a torn pair of jeans mending itself, a pocket watch resocketing itself, I felt a primeval hurt, one all of us are born with, receive the first moments of awakening analgesic.

It was a surprise to get a text saying she wasn’t interested. I spent the next couple weeks pulling my hair out, like any infatuated teenager, parsing with friends whether to text back or not (again, something familiar that I’d forgotten about, and in this case wish I hadn’t started to remember). And, besides for that part of me that believes everything exists in perpetuity (my parents will never die, my dog will never die, I’ll feel this way forever, this misery will never change, the US will always exist, love will exist to the last human and then even further, I will never die), most of me is ready to “move on” (what is moving on? Fading feelings? Heaping mounds of time on a coffin of memories? Regrowing an old limb?) But I can’t help feeling tinges of bitterness and cynicism and self-hatred and confusion and desire and plain ole hurt. I can’t. These things will all pass (except that part of me that thinks they won’t) and that part of me wants to celebrate my ability to feel these things at all. Structurally I’m capable now of feeling this kind of nasty stuff because I’ve fought tooth and nail past flat out depression, and it reminds me I am, right now, alive. But, there’s something else I’d like to do. You see, I hate the weird impulse (I don’t know if it’s cultural or social or what) to hurry pain out the door like an unwelcome guest. I’d like to sit with it, not so we can both hang in my own filth, but to hear its story. Pain and suffering speak in many ways, with many other voices, sometimes violently, with passion, sometimes in a drone. However if can be brave enough to be quiet enough to get to the point where we can simply sit was pain proper we can here its whisper like the song of a ghost. And it says, to me at least, my pain, something like this: delight that this all passes, not because it is hard to stand, but because it is the most intimate way we humans get to know the world as it is, by watching the whisps of time rend everything apart, sometimes gently, sometimes cruelly, and delight in this constant change because it will happen so often, so frequently, that all this will occur again and again and again, just like its new, and even then, as you live this all again, delight.
When we listen to this quiet song we are reminding of things joy forgets. We are reminded of the past in a sober light, with a certain serenity. Joy would have us exist only right now, and that is good, but we are nothing if now the time given to our stories.

I’m sorry if I’ve been talking to you in an overwrought manner, it’s just another way of dealing with hurt, to dress it up. I could be wrong, and pain just hurts and I just need to wait for better days. Maybe. But then again, I’m never one to pass up a good story, even when it’s from something deep inside that sometimes feels like a haunting. Let’s not banish our ghosts, but learn what it’s like to hang with them.

So what then is a heart break? It’s hurt. It’s frustration and all that joyless stuff. It’s also the effervescent weave that frays and braids in those forces larger than us: Time, Love, Memory. It’s life, man. However banal that might sound.

Not Yet the Second Coming

I’m in my bedroom, alone. The TV is giving off a pond green, paused on some Netflix show I was half watching. My grandfather’s leather chair is pitch and comfortable and comforting, I have a sense of history in it, a history of flawed men who loved their best. I spent the day doing chores and finding a way to store comics, benign quotidian things of creature comfort that set the stage for a larger clear head. I’m heading in a direction.

I talked to my dad on the phone today. I love my father. I like talking to him. We can laugh. Our politics are off.

It’s raining on the snow outside leaves massive sloshy mounds of heavy gray that look like they want nothing more than to slough off this mortal coil.

I live in a country that just banned people of Muslim faith from entering. I’m not sure what sentence should follow up to the previous. It has the same blank stupidity of every monstrous thing I’ve encountered in my life.

Stupidity is complex in its simplicity. It is so glaring and loud that it demands to be read deeply, and yet it is nothing but surface, it is a place of pure, swift control. The whole “act first think late” comes to mind.

I do not know many Muslims. But I am not out of my depth by assigning Muslims the same qualities non-Muslims have. They want to love, they want to belong, they desire contentment and safety and purpose, they want to work as we all do. They don’t want to suffer.

Some Muslims, a slim few among the Billions suffered so much that turning that suffering out, whether in quick acts of vehicular slaughter or diabolical protracted espionage that changed the expression of the world’s face, maybe because it seemed right, maybe because they had so few options, maybe because the wanted an eye for an eye, maybe because they’re just evil and stupid. It does not matter. Truly, those questions are only helpful if we’re actively looking to stop our own influences of suffering.

What does matter? We just went dark on a big part of the world. There are people who need to escape war that are now turned away out of stupidity. From one stupidity to another. And somehow, along the way we infused these refugees with a fear so moronic that they somehow become the embodiment of that they flee: stupidity. Death.

This is a bad thing. We are doing the wrong thing. And it isn’t out of any grand Super Villain Evil. Nor some Cthulhu mentality that drives men insane. It is simply stupid. Deadly stupid.

Of course, we must engage in political action. Of course, we must support the ACLU. OF COURSE, REFUGEES AND MUSLIMS ARE PEOPLE AS FALLIBLE AS YOU AND I AND SO, WE MUST ABSOLUTELY INVITE THEM INTO OUR COUNTRY. Of course.

I’m afraid now, in this comfortable chair which has lived through so much American change, my ass is seated at a time when things are dimmer. And the words of Yeats come to me, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” And right now my conviction is tested, my faith is wavering. But Yeats was wrong, so many of us don’t lack conviction. So many of us are fighting. I side with those who do not let sheer stupidity blind them from the basic fact that humans need humans no matter what nation or religion.

And so maybe I say this to myself more than anyone else, but now is not the time to get uncomfortable, to engage in ways I have not before. Now is the time to march. Now is the time to write, and organize.

I’m going to sit in my chair a bit more. But it gets less comfortable by the moment. Because it makes me remember that if I sit too long I’ll have let another kind of stupidity win, I’ll just have gone about my day forgetting that people are suffering and dying outside my bedroom and there is action that can be done.

I needed to say that.

Thanks for reading.

Attached to the Secrecy

“Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.”

-Infinite Jest

I don’t really get high anymore, but it’s hard to let go of secrecy. I’m in a small VT forest behind my house, it’s shady and verdant and the wind is blowing enough to be a constant shush. The old broken log I’m sitting on has been chewed by termites leaving slight indentations in the shape of a Maori tattoo. My legs are sweating and splayed and I have my UVM baseball cap on to keep the smoke from my hair.
I’m engaging in a daily ritual I don’t want anyone to see, not even myself.

Every evening I take one American Spirit cigarette from its cellophaned blue box and trudge hustle from my front door, then down between close knit houses into the woods where, after I’m deep enough that I pass the huge oak and make it onto the well-groomed dirt trail, I flick on the neon green lighter and, with cigarette filter gently squinched between my teeth, I take a deep drag from the fire lit tip. I hold it in the bottom of my lungs and breath in some real air then take another deep drag. After a few moments I release a few spinning wisps of smoke into the air. It’s bad for me and part of me hates that I do it, but it also, in those very brief moments feels satisfying, like a need I didn’t know I had is being soothed. It’s probably just mild nicotine addiction, but it feels like something more.

Then I make my way to the horizontal tattooed trunk to sit and smoke the same way (I’m able to get three full drags and a few puffs with this method) as I watch bits of ash pull up and away like flies from a hot corpse. By the end my mouth is dry and tastes bitter and the slight buzz has worn from a quick beating crescendo of mental freedom to a thick heart beat that accompanies a headache. I hate the end part.

The thing is, I don’t think it’s the actual nicotine that keeps me smoking; sure it’s a great catalyst when I’m avoiding work; rather, I think I like having something hidden, because it’s both a mirror and an actualization of the fact that I hurt all the time (like everyone) and I don’t know what exactly to do with that hurt.

Okay, that’s a pretty fuckin’ huge leap. Let me back up. I was lucky enough to attend the David Foster Wallace conference at Illinois State University. It was a dense period of time saturated with brilliant thoughts by kind people in a relentless onslaught that left me simultaneously overwhelmed and intellectually well fed. I met people that had nothing to prove except their own enthusiasm for the writer. In short, I was engaged for 72 straight hours in the manner I engage best, deep listening and deep conversation with people open and interesting.

It was a high in itself and coming back I’ve felt a certain withdrawal. Like, I still haven’t had the energy to do laundry (or that’s what I tell myself) and more importantly I’ve felt the weight of loneliness more acutely than I’m used to. And that’s a difficult thing to complain about because it’s so… amorphous, it bleeds into the folds of perception and hangs out in my chest like an ugly medallion.

I don’t think people are supposed to be alone. Even introverts like myself need a sense of cohesion, that I’m not just drifting along in time taking up space eating frozen pizzas on the tan and beige colored house in the corner of my neighborhood. But fervent purpose is difficult to stir up without at least a little bit of mania. And the tough thing is, it’s socially ugly to admit to loneliness. It’s a bizarre cycle where a general admittance leads to a pariah like status that increases loneliness (this isn’t always the case, tight knit groups like the Wallace folk, or AA, or healthy family connections, or good friends annihilate this kind of thing). But I want to see my own free floating pain, that has very little external explanation (I have a writing room full of books and can afford food, what am I complaining about?) articulated. I want to see it made substantial. But I usually do this all in secret because I’m so afraid my basic human desires to connect will make it impossible for me to connect.

A cigarette is an easy way to feel some kind of control over the shame I feel. If I hide that, it’s okay I’m hiding other more essential, but less explainable things. That’s how I justify it to myself. I can be ashamed of cigarettes (as stupid as that shame might be) and feel like that shame is in my control. Loneliness is not. Consequently, Apps are not a great way to ameliorate it.

Sometimes I sit in the woods until the sun goes down. I do this on purpose. I like to come out at the far end of the trail and take the sidewalk back. Still ashamed, I like to see the red orange glow of families in houses. Some sitting on grey and white pinstriped sofas, near each other, not moving, the TV projecting across their tired faces. I don’t know what they feel. I don’t know how to know. I would like to. Sometimes a family is shouting, maybe about leaving behind a slip of paper with an important number on it saying things like “Don’t back me into a corner Frank!” Sometimes it’s just the blue glow of the TV as talking heads silently and overly enthusiastically mime to each other while caked in foundation. Sometimes the TV is on and no one is in the room.

I don’t imagine things will stay this way forever, I mean in terms of my smoking, or the separation of houses, the secret retreats to private places, but loneliness is a longtime companion. It outlasts us just as it has outlasted others, and yet we have the ability to disrupt it.

I found that in the Wallace convention as I did in AA. I think my people are those that see this baseline pain and are willing and brave enough to talk about it. I think most people can be my people and me? I can be one of their people.

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.