And Finally, One About Dating

I have scars on my forearms. Both forearms. They stitch their way to my wrists like sloppy zippers or flesh frozen centipedes. They were once open and bleeding. Now they’re tattoos I sometimes forget about, but can find myself unthinkingly stroking when anxious. I was really scared to explain that I did this to myself to my first girlfriend after that bad night. I thought I’d be as ugly to her as the action itself was. Instead, she held both my arms in her hands like one would a sacred item and she started to kiss my forearms. Even though the scars are thick and I couldn’t feel her lips, she filled me with something both simultaneously soothing and enlivening. I think it was a little bit like love.

She hasn’t been my only girlfriend since that night, and she has been the only girl to kiss my forearms. I thought, cynically, that it would only feel good or be special that first time, but that’s not true. Every woman that’s put her lips to my arms has made me love her and myself in that moment. It doesn’t fade with repetition.

I have this starved attitude when I date, like, if I don’t make it work with whatever girl I’m on a date with then the jig is up, the apocalypse is in, she was the last person on the planet and I’m going home alone for good. I don’t really fully get why I think that way because, frankly, it just doesn’t jive with those intimate moments that refuse to be anything but life giving, the ones that never get old.

Dating is fucking weird for everyone involved. You take two people, each with their own labyrinth of neuroses and turn ons and hang ups and histories and funny bones and then expect them, with in a couple hours, to navigate the odd turns of some stranger (not to mention their own unexplored alleys) in hopes that there’s some kind of “chemistry” (a word that denotes a strict science, but might better be understood as alchemy).

But there’s something else. When Nietzsche lamented that God was Dead, it was the lament that some great spiritual dearth had descended on us. Who was to know that, at least in popular culture, and many of our own private wishes, another single human was supposed to pick up the slack (if you doubt me just think about the implications of the phrase “You complete me” and how easily G-D might fit in there).

And also, of course, if you guessed I’m intellectualizing to delay some inevitable tale of hope and woe, you would be right, but there’s been a bunch of them so lay off while I get my playlist ready.

There was that time I met a woman for coffee and we talked for four hours and towards the end of the date had nothing to say so just furtively glanced at each other and looked down and beamed then laughed about how awkward and non-awkward it was and both just kind of glowed. And, in a burst of enthusiasm I’ve come to fear and expect from myself, I wrote a journal entry that was just a wedding speech I’d give to our eventual marriage audience (they weren’t vows, and I don’t think grooms give speeches themselves… so I don’t know what I was thinking there). And I was so sure it would work because she’s smart and beautiful and sensitive. Until it turned out she had some stuff she felt she needed to work on and I probably definitely texted her too much.

Or that other time when I finally got to go on a date with this woman I just knew I liked (from her online profile) and the date was great. We sat on the lake shore in the budding spring and laughed and talked about serious stuff and she was playfully touching my leg when I teased her and I asked her what she looked for in a guy and she described basically me (I thought) and said she’d go on a second date when she vibed with someone and said we should definitely do that and when I texted her “So what do you think? Did we vibe?” She just said, “No, sorry we didn’t vibe.” OH, and I had already written another wedding speech about how my first one was dumb and this one maybe I was being foolish but I was pretty sure this was the right person. That was a shot to the ole ego. Lots of long bike rides in the rain and Sufjan Stevens after that one.

Oh! Or that time when I went out with that woman who was smart and funny and pretty and we went to a movie, then a restaurant. Then we did the same another night. And another. Then finally she brought me back to her apartment… Actually I’m gonna keep that one for myself. If I’m being piggish it both did and didn’t work out.

Look, there are plenty of other stories despite the fact I’m about as much of a Lothario as George Castanza. The point is, there is a kind of rinse wash and repeat cycle to all this that in some ways seems to directly contradict that sterling label of LOVE and INTIMACY, both of which sit so high up. And frankly it’s hard not to get downright cynical about the whole fucking thing, all of it: dating, women, society, humans, existence. I do not want to become some jaded misogynistic prick that’s too scared to get hurt again so he arms himself with the kind of dehumanizing attitudes that all this is just a game instead a really intricate dance no one knows the moves to (except we know a bad dancer when we see one). Because that’s what this is about. Can I be open enough to let myself be hurt in a very real way again and again until I’m not? It’s easy to say yes, it’s harder to live yes and in a lot of ways yes does not make sense, especially as an overly sensitive dude that used to drink a lot when things when wrong.

I’m not a person that believes I need someone else to become happy. In fact, I don’t really believe in happy, at least not as a consistent state of elation that last years. And yes we are in the land of clichés, but this is an important one. I would not want that. Can you imagine how out of touch someone has to be to live that way? What a drag it might be to be around them? If at every moment they were so emotionally frozen so to be incapable to reaching out to you when you were having a rough day. That’s what you might lose with that idea of happy: connection. Happy doesn’t keep me sober, connection does.

And really, I have to think that’s all any of us are looking for, really, when it comes to dating. That might look entirely different for different people, but isn’t that the goal? Not to find happiness in another person, but to be less alone in a tangible, consistent, and fluid manner? If that is the case, then no wonder dating is so Goddamn weird. How can any of us be expected to take such a huge leap of faith that some stranger might receive our weird labyrinth with grace and understand? A labyrinth (remember) we probably don’t full get ourselves.

I had this one date that was kind of a game changer for me. It was actually our last date, but at the time I didn’t want to believe that was the case. Because, she finally opened up to me. I thought we were connecting. She was beautiful and smart and successful, and we were talking as we walked down towards the setting sun (an orange and pink that evening) at Lake Champlain’s picturesque shore. And she told me that she was afraid to tell me what she was about to tell me. But I wanted her to. And she told me that she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder a few years back and she fought hard to get her arms around it and would have to be on meds for the rest of her life and assured me she had a handle on it now and that things were so good and as she was telling me this her eyes started to drift out towards the lake itself and she stopped looking at me, or really even talking to me. She was just talking. And I tried to assure her I was entirely comfortable with it, there was probably little she could scare me away with when it came to mental illness, and I was so involved in my own effort in sincerity it took me a moment to realize how distant her gaze was. And I asked her why she was so distant. She said, “Sometimes you’re used to getting a certain response and when you don’t get it you don’t know how to handle it” a kind of monotone flattening the pitch of her otherwise lively voice. And when I asked her what she meant she said that her ex had belittled her for her disorder. Called her crazy. I tried to tell her I’d never do that. She broke up with me the next day. And what stands out to me her is the real core of dating. That, whether we want to or not, we are putting some of our essence up for grabs, and have no idea really how others will react to us or us to others. And that, every date, as buffoonish as it might seem, as bull-in-a-china-shop-awkward, there is some gentle element we must treat in kind, even if it just means we feel hurt, especially because we know what its like to feel hurt.

But look, I’m not trying to give dating advice. What I’m saying, if only to myself, is this: what if my first girlfriend had seen the scars on my arms and recoiled. I’d probably be wearing long sleeves as we speak. Instead the best I can do is continue putting my arms out hoping that eventually someone might hold them again and kiss them again. That it is important that I hurt when I date, and I understand everyone else has and will too. And I try to be as amenable as possible. Trite? Maybe. But the scars on my arms and her long gaze into the distance, a gaze away from me, one seeking comfort from itself we encouraged by someone who refused to realize what kind of hurt they could inflict.

It occurs to me that there’s something really bizarre in approaching dating as a kind of duty to another person, but I don’t know how else to see it, how else to deal with my own hurt and the confusion of it all, how else to remember the delicate balance of these oddly intimate moments, but with a kind of diligence about some (possible) importance to it all. Could be I’m heavy handed, which would explain why I don’t vibe to much with others. Who knows.

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Band

Sometimes, when I would drink by myself til I was bleary eyed, I’d try and make myself feel right by searching for the perfect song. This was always in the depths of the night and I would always be hunched at the computer, alone, an inebriated embryo in the yolk of the opalescent glow of the screen. It might be Pink Anderson or The Beatles, but it was usually Philip Glass, specifically Philip glass as performed on piano by Aleck Karis. Glasses’ looping movements in minor keys that opened up a theme only to close it by repeating it back felt exactly like the dark center at the core of this conveyor belt of addiction I’d grown into. The music and thus the effort simultaneously worked (I felt that emptiness in me from somewhere outside myself and was a smidge less alone) and didn’t work (I would always end up drunk again). Sometimes though, part way through the search I’d just pass out.

In many ways, he was a small town savior. He came in after the previous band director, who was well loved, was caught engaged in some seedy behavior and thus resigned. There was a fill in year where the interim director, an understandably unconfident young woman who, knowing her Sisyphean task, before stomping up the stairs for our first concert, shouted to the confused parents, “it will sound better when the new auditorium get’s built!” Under her guidance, it never really sounded better because high school boys can be assholes and assholes don’t easily make wonderful high school musicians. And in many ways his arrival was a kind of second coming for our high school music program. A talented director with an admirable pedigree, a degree of professionalism that only barely held back his burning love for music and his desire to get the best out of us. We played simple classics (I remember him wisely explaining he’d let us play the usual Christmas tripe because, he explained in his baritone voice, “you don’t mess with tradition.”) to truly avant garde contemporary pieces that made use of 5:14 time signatures and, unfortunately, prominent Euphonium sections. He was, as I would later say in a passive aggressive rap about him, given to the senior class on a tired bus ride on our Disney trip “big and he’s bald, but he’s got the plan.” He was rotund in a Falstaffian manner. He was the kind of man who twisted his wedding ring when he was talking. He was good to many students. I was not one of them. And so when he died under circumspect conditions, I was not sad and I was not happy and I was disgusted with my ambivalence. But in coming to understand my own drinking, I’ve come to love this man in a way I do not know how to explain. But, I’m going to try anyways.

This is the part where the writer usually I casually, but dramatically drops the subject’s name in an understated, but powerful fashion. I’m not going to do that. Partly because this blog goes out to people that knew him, and partly because I have no right to insist the story I’m about to tell is really his story. It is not his namesake. It is the ghostly shimmer of memories I’ve been left to make sense of and that is what I want to do. Because he was many things to many people. He did plenty veritable capital “G” Good. He convinced students who were unconfident that they should attend college, he nurtured talented musicians to be something even more, he demanded excellence and from many (some of whom now make their living as musicians) got it.

To be fair I probably shouldn’t have been in “Wind Ensemble”, the “good” band. I didn’t belong. In a way I only got in on a technicality. Under the interim band director’s whim I switch from trumpet (which I was passable at) to the Euphonium (or Baritone, mini tuba looking thing) because we were going to play the Jurassic Park Theme Song for the summer concert and it required a euphonium. The instrument’s keys were the same as the trumpet’s, the notes were the same and I happened to know that song really well (I was a dinosaur kid). She put me in wind ensemble. There weren’t any other people in the school who played euphonium. Except me, I did now. I was the one playing the euphonium in wind ensemble.

Of all the team sports I had to play baseball was my favorite sport. In baseball I got three tries. My first strike I’d be too nervous to even understand I was supposed to swing at the damn ball. The pitcher could lob a fat meatball over the plate and I’d watch it like it was a UFO. My second strike I’d be getting used to the feel of the creeping neurosis throughout my body, maybe look downfield, squint, start feeling like this was something I could do. I felt determined and nervous. And so, usually I did okay the third time around. Most of which is to say I’ve always had near crippling performance anxiety for everything and I did not have a handle on it as a sophomore in the good band in high school. So when he went around, with a matter of fact demeanor that seemed to invoke coattails and black bowties, on our first day of class I started wondering whether I should piss myself before or after I ran to the bathroom. But instead, while tuning, he got to me and asked to play a G (just the bread and butter of a horn) and my shaking lips on the damp cold mouthpiece managed to eek out something that sounded like a leaking balloon. He said “that’s okay, again” and was dismayed when I did little more. I’m not entirely positive, but I might have asked him to pass me. By the end he went to the piano and, with his pointer finger slammed the G key over and over until he agreed to pass. Some of the older students looked dismayed. And honestly, I didn’t blame them because I didn’t know what I was doing there. And from that moment forward I would dread band class for the next two years. And from that moment forward his dislike for me, or what I was, or what I represented, or what I meant to him, only increased. As did the humiliation.

I remember once, much later, in college, I was home from school with a debilitating depression. I was in my bedroom and it was sunny, but I couldn’t feel anything but a weird sort of numb fire that made life throb with a queasy feel. And I had music playing. It wasa the blues. Pink Anderson. And Anderson’s nearly anti-musical moaning over his deliberate repetitive guitar as he sang, “Baby please don’t go” started to settle something in me “Oh baby please don’t go” and I was watching this great hot weight simply dissipate “back to new Orleans” and for a moment, no, two, no, an entire minute “Baby please don’t go back to new Orleans I know you man done gone, baby please don’t go” my depression was gone. That moment was a jewel I did not know how to handle, I didn’t want to move and have it crack or have the owner come and demand it back. The blues seemed to cure me. But on the car ride to the record shop I felt the old wet wool ghost dripping with fire as my fathers face turned from elation back to a resigned concern.

I don’t want to be melodramatic about this. It’s not as if he constantly verbally harassed me or threw things at me or even really raised his voice to me. It was often mild disdain in the face of adulation for others. In many ways I wonder if I was a different, less sensitive (or touchy if I’m being unkind) person, if all of this would have simply passed me by, not been a big deal, if I wasn’t already predisposed to self-loathing and fear of punishment, if this might have been a laugh in some ways. What it did lead to was a measure of time every weekday I could count on being thoroughly disappointing. I could count on hating myself for my inability to perform. I soon learned how to make a joke of myself after he stopped the band for the fourth time and asked me in that frustrated, growl, “Mr. Mango… again?!” to which I’d yell, shamefully, “Oh God, this is why we can’t have nice things!” or something just as obviously desperate in its design to cover my hurt. He was not a bad man, but to him I guessed I was an impediment to the success and esteem of the band. At that time, with that neurotic frame of mind, I hated him as thoroughly and deeply as any teenager has hated any authority figure. I became a kind of joke with some of my friends. Never a joke that really came to prominence or was passed around with joy, but we joked about how much him and I hated each other. And still I don’t know why I was there, why I didn’t leave.

There was one day in particular, we were getting ready for some nationwide competition that I still don’t really understand the details of, and we were playing a particular (and lovely) piece that required one full measure of unadulterated Euphonium melody. At home I played the part feverishly. Again, again, this floating, dulcimer measure, that propped one small moment of a beautiful song, I would play it until my fingerprints knew it better than my thoughts. Like if I could outrun my head with sheer digit speed, I might be free from that damn demon neurosis that seemed to choke me so often. And so we were in practice and the feel of the band room was heavy, as if everyone was sweating, including the walls. And he was certainly sweating. And it was in fact raining out, the large wall that was just a window in this lovely spacious place colored a burgundy and complementary grape-like purple, and he stood on the podium and his sleeves were rolled up. He lifted his wand (and he was so wide that it was like watching the continents of the globe carry themselves of the face of the Earth only to smash back down, it was silly and powerful), made swift eye contact with the room and we began. And percussion was thumping as the clarinets ran and the flutes drifted in to the sound of rising horns and they dimmed to the sound of beating thunder in my ears, my own heartbeat breaking my feel for the music and he looked, and up went the wand, and down, and a flubbed sad note, a schlemiel of a thing tumbling into a pool at a party where no one was swimming. And from the top and yet again. And the thunder was so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own anxious self-hatred, and I felt the sweat on my back and the eyes of the room and looked up in diminutive stature and great contrition, as if apologizing for my existence, to see a furrowed brow staring straight down. And I looked around the room and caught some quizzical glances, some gentle looks of concern, but mostly unreactions, refusing to engage or comment. And he began to say, in that baritone, he didn’t know what to do, this was turning into a failure, all a failure. He looked me in the eyes and said, with a kind of gravity I cannot myself muster, “Mr. Mango, you’re bringing the band down.” And then I was the black hole in the room that sucked in all attention only to destroy it. And part of me now wants to laugh, because this scene is so fucking ludicrous. It was just band. And yet, even as I think of it now it hurts. It was not the first time I was humiliated, nor the last, but it was the most notable time in front of a group of peers, some of whom Ioved, or admired, or crushed on, or wanted their approval and all I heard was my own inner voice telling myself I’d been rendered into a paste under the thumb of his words. But this of course is not the entire truth of the situation. Because, you see, I also sat there with a straight face, and kept my internal hatred internal and this is what is so difficult about this memory, to me at least, is that compared to so much I’ve lived through that moment is a goddamn cake walk, but it hurt like hell. Sometimes it still does. I even got nightmares. Does that make me weak? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but how are we supposed to process humiliation? For a long time I didn’t know what to do with that question.

He was kind to my brother and sister. My brother is a superb drummer, my sister was a good flutist, it was weird being the oldest and a disappointment to a man that was not my parent. And after we’d made some uneasy peace (finally one day when he stopped me I just yelled at him “what the hell do you expect from me! It’s always the same” and he did lighten up) and after I left for college I’d come home to the local gossip. Most of which suggested that things were not as professional as I’d thought. That .he’d shown up to the parade reeking. That his wife was leaving. That he couldn’t function well in the morning. You know, that kind of nasty hearsay that’s as ugly in content as it is in intent. And part way through college my mom called me and told me that he’d died. Just, he’d died. And at that moment I was callous enough to say I didn’t care. And like any early death, the gossip didn’t stop. It stank of booze. I do not know how much or in what way, but it reeked of hushed whispers passing around the idea he’d died of alcohol poisoning. I didn’t want to care. I wanted to drink and get laid. I sure did drink.

Maybe the strangest thing about grace is not only the experience of it, but where you find it. Two months into sobriety, I had a dream where he stood at the podium again. The seats were black folding chairs with lush burgundy cushions, he was dressed in a smart looking suit, the lights seemed to follow us as if we were on stage and everything else was soft shadow. But this time, instead of playing music he came down and sat next to me and told me very earnestly he was an alcoholic. And I said that I knew. And his big round face and bald head, all colored an kind of light crimson changed without changing. The colors remained the same, but instead of some indication of a buffoonish bully I should eject from my mind, it was the hue of someone who was struggling with a drink, someone who could be warm and creative that was as riddled with demons just as I was and doing his best just like I was. And his best didn’t work. And in the dream he told me that. And when I got of from the chair and left, feeling lighter, I was thankful for that solidarity. And when I woke up I didn’t hate him anymore. I just, I didn’t. He made sense.

But here’s the hard thing and the true thing. I have no idea if any of that is true. That moment of closeness that I never felt with him in real waking life was my dream, my illusion, my fantasy. Even the evidence it was based on was gossip. I didn’t know the man or his insides. His cruelty was the realest thing I knew, the most confirmable. When I remembered him I remembered bringing the band down. But that particular not knowing is the exactly loveliness to this all. My subconscious did me a favor my conscious mind never could have. It forgave him. Those moments still hurt yes, but I don’t begrudge him. I feel a kind of cool sadness, a resting sadness, like the still water of a moonlit pool. And the thing is, that forgiveness ends up being more real than the gossip or the perceived cruelty. Forgiveness gets to exist where total ignorance and fear hovel up, because forgiveness wants me to loosen my grip on all this shitty stuff I thought was happening. He may have been an alcoholic, he may not have, but he definitely suffered and for that, some part of me better than my waking mind could forgive him.

It’s strange to realize that an internal act that reorients the way we might see the world is in some ways more real than the way we received said world.

And I have a special new freedom now. It’s this: I get to see him as just a man. A man I didn’t know a whole lot about, a man who I felt hurt by, a man who did good things, a man who struggled, and whether imagined or not, I get some sense of closeness to him.

Perhaps this is all deeply solipsistic, and in fact I’m only waxing poetic about how great I think my inside world is, but I think something else is going on. I think that, this was the kind of internal violence each of us experiences every moment of every day, just in this case it came to a tragic end. I do wish I’d known the good side of him like others did, but at the very least I can appreciate it was there. It is always there.

His favorite band is The Beatles. I know this from one strange mid-morning I shared with him. I was about to be a senior and he had asked to come in and meet with him. That morning he talked to me like I did matter and I was good. He even took an interest in me and when I told him I’d been really into the Beatles he said he shared that interest. I remember wanting to feel connected, so I asked him why he thought they were so good and he said something along these lines, “They were revolutionary right from the start. Right in Love Me Do you’ve got that thumping country drum line with a pop melody resting on top, but it’s so seamless you don’t even realize the blending is there. And they never stopped writing music that way.” It’s usually the first thing I tell a person when I want to sound smart about the Beatles brilliance. And part of me wishes I’d had more moments like that with him, where I felt appreciated, listened to and informed, but I also know that that part is misguided. That moment lives in me forever, just like the forgiveness, like the alcoholism. It is uncoupled from time. Now, while I might still remember I brought the band down and feel hurt I also know I was always and still am listened to. The really weird part is that now I wish I could tell him how much he means to me, how much I appreciate him, even if that ‘him’ is some facsimile of my own imagined solidarity. I hope somehow he knows that. I hope it’s not impossible.

How the Hell I Get Here

Hey, what’s up, glad you’re here. Listen, before you read this, if you’re struggling to stay sober or thinking about suicide now is not the time to read this article. There are some pretty raw descriptions. Do me a favor and call a friend or a family member. If you’re struggling with a drink go find a meeting here: http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/find-aa-resources and if you’re thinking about suicide call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Don’t let the fire go out.

 

The walk from my campus office to my old apartment was, by all means, a nice one. It had the things anyone would want, a little hidden sandwich shop, some old grand colonials that seemed to yawn their wings onto the corner of Pearl and N. Willard, young families hustling kids into forest green mini-vans, a few porch couches with undergrads practically melted into the cushions, and a corner store with a parakeet in the back. And by all means I had some nice times walking there. Towards the end of my stay, it was harder.

I made a deal with myself; if I could pass the corner store on my way home without going in then I’d get a treat. I never really knew what that treat was, but I still saved them up like a kid with quarters for some dreamed up Disney trip. Some days I walked right by the store. A few times, I even forgot it was there.

I do not know why I became dependent on booze. I also don’t know if I always was. I have no idea when it changed from good fun to abuse. I don’t know if I have a genetic proclivity and I don’t know if my upbringing made me inclined towards addictive tendencies. I won’t ever know this stuff. I do remember the moment that the veneer of control I held up over my drinking was tugged, then ripped away like a silky curtain in a hurricane.

I’d made it back to my house (a cozy, even beautiful place I was staying in that [thank Christ on Crisco] I never messed up as it belongs to two generous professors). I was kneeling on their thick bristly rug in the living room. It still had a VHS player and a CRT television, but all three Godfather movies on DVD. If I wasn’t embroiled in my own sinkhole of a head I might have noted that the turquoise motif was nicely complemented by the nature sunlight, making a veritable sensation of Little Mermaid, but you won’t drown. I was kneeling and I was working out another deal. John, kneel here and meditate. You’ve meditated before. You only have three hours until bed. Just sit with these feelings and desires for a mere three hours. Sit here, sit still and you can go to bed early and I’ll give you an even better treat tomorrow. I sincerely wanted to do this. There was no sense of irony about it. I would meditate my way through alcoholism.

Here’s the thing: meditation is hard when you’re not all fucked up on really wanting to get drunk. And so as I sat there, watching my mind wander and focusing on my breath as it conjured up images of a cold can of Heady Topper, dripping with that oddly sexual condensation, listening to the hiss and crack and raw bending of the open mouth as I drank that bitter, fruity, manly (yes, manly, all of this was incredibly weird) nectar I found that I was up and walking. But that’s fine because I was still watching my breath. And then I was outside and I’d put my jacket on, and then I was opening the door to the corner story and I heard the ratty squawk of the parakeet, and I bought of twelve pack of All Day IPA (didn’t want to drink shit and get a hangover of course) and I couldn’t look the college kid behind the counter in the face. I fucking hated myself in this moment. I always did. If you think addicts aren’t self aware and don’t hate their own behaviors then try again. I hated damn near ever moment.

And so by the time it was ten o’clock I’d finished off a twelve pack, but that aching, that stomach level sadness born from some unknown tragedy was still there. And I was out of booze. So I could either go to a bar and talk to strangers, or I could drink Listerine (I wish I could tell you the latter never happened, but it did, and I can tell you that that didn’t do my head any good either).

So this night I go to my usual spot. I’m not stumbling when I walk, but my minds a washing machine of sadness then brief, stunted, elation, then memories and anger, and everything is being seen through this kaleidoscope of nonsense and regret and self-hate. In that moment I try not to think of my family and how bad I’d hurt them if they knew.

And I get to the Other Place and get a pitcher of beer (to drink straight from) and sorta eye the room. I have to squint to keep things in focus.

I really don’t know how this next part happened. I think I was talking to someone who seemed nice and they invited me over to listen to music and it was dark out and I wanted company. I remember he drove me to his apartment.

And it was fine. We talked about music. I don’t remember his name. I do remember escaping to the bathroom because I was paranoid he was a murderer and then I ran out of the toilet room declaring he must take me home that instant. He probably still thinks I did something devious to his toilet.

The next day was worse. Hangovers had gotten worse. I don’t need to describe the physical pain. I would spend all day in bed watching a screen of people laughing, wearing bright colors and I felt nothing. No, worse than nothing, I felt like nothing was too easy. I felt, in fact, that life was not just apathetic, but inherently twisted and elegant in its cruelty. Every honest attempt to connect was lost to a labyrinth of misunderstand that all led back to shame. I thought Kafka was being instructive rather than ironic.

And all of that stinks. It’s not good time, it’s rough, it’s bad. But it was something else entirely when I woke up in the chicken coop in the backyard, shivering in the early evening air, having tried to hang myself with an Ethernet cable. And I was lucky enough to realize this thing I did was in some ways new  and in some ways the logical continuation of my behavior. Because at that point, having my life handed back to me for another try, I couldn’t pretend I was the only one who was suffering from my actions. As I shivered on the wood floor under the slate sky feeling the slight cold breeze and looking at the primary colors inside the snapped Ethernet cable I could only picture my dad’s sorrow, which I’d only really seen once. It is something I saw and will live in me until I die a quiet, sober death.

It was in a psych ward a few years before. My family came to visit. When my father saw me and he saw the bandages on my wrists he let out a choked sob and turned away and cried. It is the only time I’ve ever seen him do so. Laying there, on the floor, straw and fetid dirt in my hair, I didn’t want to imagine what it would do to him or my mom or brother and sister if I continued to be so self-destructive, in solipsitically selfish.

And I wish I could say that that was my bottom. But, it wasn’t. That’s another story for a different time. I’d spend months trying to control my drinking. Trying to treat myself into sobriety. I think the truly scary thing about all this is how much it resembles chance. Why an Ethernet cord? When did it break? I want to say this stuff doesn’t matter, the sheer absurdity of the fact that I’m still alive, but it does. You see, there’s a whole lot of morals I want to keep from this moment. They flip in and out of my mental grip like writhing fish. But right now the one word that sounds again and again is How? How did all this happen? How am I still here? How am I not dead? How am I not dead? And isn’t that one of those questions at the core of everything? Why am I here? There are a lot of answers I’ve been told (some terrible, some good, some great) that ring with various vibrations of cliché (the answer’s clicheness does not correlate in any way with its truth), but right now I want to sit in the wide open space that question provides.

Because in some ways that was the same thing I was fighting when I was drinking, that question, why the fuck am I here? But this time I get to have the tacit assumption that I should be here. And that trust gets to guide my actions. I just didn’t have that before. Not in middle school or high school or college, even now some days might be a little harsher than others (course I can live with it). Sometimes, before I can even practice gratitude for all this,  I just want to sit in awe of all this immense shit and wonder at how sublime and bizarre it is.

I guess, it’s important to let you know that I didn’t get better by myself. I work a program, I have community, family, friends and my own desire to be willing to work, that’s what keeps me sober and doing okay.

And I guess, if you read this and some part of it feels real to you, maybe too real, then just remember that that stupid cliché is true. If you ask for help and you put in the work it (whatever your particular “it” is) will get better.

Look, there’s no good way to end this story and frankly I’m happy that’s the case. This story is still happening, now, as I type these things and you read them. I’m still here and so the story is still happening. But, if not for some complex confluence of events you would not be reading this and I would be a statistic. Thank you for reading this.

The Pathless Land

Look, it used to be I’d wake up to a black ocean. I didn’t want to get out of bed because I was already soaked from the waves that night. It was sooty water, or not water at all, just oil, distilled black death. And I’d wake up and already be submerged, because it used to be I thought my soul was broke, or my brain, or just me. I thought, and it hurt when I thought, but I thought I’d deserved to be in this big dark place that took all the light and that the best and only thing to do was think my way out, because that’s how people get saved from drowning, right?

And it used to be really very ugly, like the kind of ugly you don’t bring up in polite conversation, and so when I brought up my unsleeved forearms around someone else I’d meet their eyes (furtively of course) to try and guess by their dilation whether I should tell them the story of the long red centipede scars crawling up my arms and how I was ashamed every time I saw those scars’ wiggling legs.

And it also used to be that I built up a pretty hearty defense against this floating psychic fuck storm and then, you see, I’d blame myself as the sole cause of everything wrong with me because that way I at least had some control over something, even if it really was just my own self hatred masquerading as power, a power that did in fact continue to fuel that same psychic fuck storm I was defending against.

And it used to be that even in moments the Romantics wrote about (Coleridge in an Ode to Dejection) I’d feel the like I was floating, a gentle swaying on a rickety, but rhythmic boat in that same black ocean and I could hold on and hope maybe it would be okay for a while. And it used to be that it never was. Okay, that is.

And it used to be I could only veil fear and shame and mental disorder… or suffering if we wanna cut to the chase, in thick fancy words like a king’s bathing attire. As if that was enough to change the color of the sea itself.

It’s not like that anymore. It’s just… not. And I don’t know fully how it happened. I really don’t. There’s some willing to tolerate horrendous emotional shit, and some sense of community, and a gratitude I had to practice before I felt it, and the right cocktail of meds, oh, and sobriety, and faith in something I don’t understand, and certainly financial privilege, and maybe a whole massive structure I have yet to see or realize or understand yet.

St. John of the Cross calls that ineffable suffering “the pathless land.” Because it’s really hard to leave a trail out of a big soot filled ocean. But, for now at least, I’ve left it.

The other day I sat on a rickety wooden bench and watched the dogs in the dog park running laps. And it’s silly, but I understood them. As I watched I could fully see the joy of their musculature, the hefty panting, the bumping of bodies, the warmth of the exercise and the act and the pack, there was a whole new flow of their own I’d never been able to sit and see. And I did not feel that black ocean drawing me back. I could be submerged in something new.

That’s a lie. I do feel drawn back, but for something else.

Just because I don’t wake up to the same dread doesn’t keep others from it. And while it isn’t my place to try and drain an ocean (I’m not God, goddamnit) and while I might like to berate myself for not leaving clearer “This way to the exit” signs, or a string, or (so we can fit this metaphor) a few buoys, I just sure as shit am gonna yell from the shore. They might not hear me. Sometimes you can’t in the tear and torture of the waves. But sometimes you can. Sometimes I did.

It used to be that way for me, black ocean and all. Just because it’s not doesn’t mean it’s time to turn my back on it all.

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.

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.