“Do not look around thee to discover other men’s ruling principles, but look straight to this, to what nature leads thee, both the universal nature through the things which happen to thee, and thy own nature through the acts which must be done by thee.” – Marcus Aurelius
I was supposed to work on the book the other day. Instead I went to the beach with the dogs. The sky was overcast, and I wore my boyfriend’s hoodie and my black leggings and tried to remind myself to be present in each moment, to not feel the heavy burden I’d placed upon my chest, to let the guilt of not writing wash away. After the beach, I fed the dogs burger patties in the back of my car and put vodka in my smoothie from Jamba Juice and dyed my hair. I didn’t write at all.
I think if I could give my younger self advice that I probably wouldn’t listen to it would be to actually learn to enjoy life. Which when said out loud seems silly and self-evident. But I spent a lot of time refusing to do anything that would sway me from the goals that I had (I remember becoming furious at a boy in college for wanting to spend time with me, because it was taking time away from writing), unaware of the reason for why I was doing such things, or that refusing to take a break would burn out the enjoyment for anything.
There are days when the existential (or life-event) depression becomes crushing, like a visceral weight in your chest making it difficult to breathe. Every motion feels like its underwater. Your skull seems to be floating outside of your body. Maybe you’re suffering from an illness, a loss, a kind of Kafka-esque nightmarish awareness of your environment. Maybe it’s PTSD, or a night job, or lack of money.
There’s no easy cure or simple fix for depression, but there is food.
I used to be anti-meditation. Whenever someone suggested meditation as a method of relaxation, I imagined sitting cross-legged on the floor in some expensive studio, dragon blood incense filling the room and soft chimes blowing as a chirpy voice commanded “Breathe in. Focus on the magic inner being…”. It was another facsimile of peace, something that “spiritual” white people did to make them feel better about themselves. It was right up there with laughable suggestions that warm baths, sunlight, and chocolate would cure me of a lifelong depression wrought from trauma. (Those things do help, but not in the way that most people simplify it. I might write a post about that later.)
The first time I meditated – really meditated – with posture straight, mind fully focused on the breath and the countdown, I realized the purpose wasn’t to relax at all.
I haven’t written anything in nearly two weeks. I needed to take a break, but sometimes even when I feel like I don’t have the energy to write the engines keep burning. It makes it difficult to accomplish the goal of relaxation when you’re ready to spring at any time. I could sit down with a beer and a pizza and watch “Rich Kids of Instagram” on youtube to try to relax, but my shoulders would feel the tension of work unfinished and when I pressed my thighs together I’d feel the roughness of a match ready to ignite. Then I’d dream of upheaval, the hours would go by as I “relaxed” and then I’d haul my body as it smoked to my computer, to feel I was even more tired than I was before.
For one of my essays I wrote for my UT admissions (I did get accepted, by the way, but California called to me instead) I wrote about how important it was to have playtime, not just in a philosophical sense, or that it’s “nice to take care of yourself”, but because of mental processes that are taking place when the brain is disengaged from its task. Something called the default mode network, which is only active when you’re not focused, solidifies memory and enhances creativity. It’s not noble to work yourself to death, it’s inherently foolish. Think of the brain as bicameral, bifurcated. It needs dreams and waking, night and day, elation and sadness, stress and relaxation.
It’s easy to forget, that every process is purposeful.
Even the ones we don’t want.
Sometimes I wake and cling to a cup of coffee because I feel like if I don’t have something to hold onto, I’ll be thrown off the Earth.
Some days there is no center to me.
I drink gin and brush my hair and I try to force the Californian sunlight to make me into something better than myself.
Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of state, coined the phrase “Unknown unknowns.” There are known unknowns, things we don’t know, and unknown unknowns, things we don’t even know that we don’t know.
I know that I could improve upon my Spanish, I know that I write too much about crazy mothers and small-town prophets, I know that I panic and freeze in moments of crisis, I can snap at people I love when I feel irritable, I don’t take enough time to appreciate consciousness.
I can work on these things, because I know that they’re there.
But I also know there’s a dark side I can’t yet comprehend just behind me, something mysterious, a void glinting in the shape of my shadow.
And that -thing- whatever it is, might be crucial to the years coming forward.
Except, I don’t know what it is.
That’s where the default mode network becomes crucial. It fills in blank gaps, makes connections that you cannot while you’re stuck staring intensely at a problem.
I know that once I started actually searching for the answers then I found them – epiphany upon epiphany unearthed themselves, like a shower of rainbows that came bursting from my dirty clawing fingernails. Even when I’m not working, the subconsciousness is set upon the answers. There are things I know now that a year ago would have been incomprehensible to me, that if someone had explained them to me I wouldn’t have understood, not until I felt their shape.
I think one of the most difficult things to write about is a character experiencing epiphany. Knowing something you didn’t know before, because all the pieces that you’ve acquired throughout the time before have suddenly converged into a full understanding. Written poorly, it can seem like magic, like the writer trying to force a plot point forward, shoving the character through a hole in the pages. That’s because epiphany isn’t really a conscious process. It’s something underwater and deep, but still, crucial to our understanding.
But oftentimes, it’s really the only way to learn – great effort yielding nothing but dirt and more dirt, and then suddenly-
Jewels and blood, showering you with resplendence, gnosis.
I want to learn how to write about that moment. I think it’s one of the most beautiful human experiences.
And I want more of it for myself.
To turn the unknown unknowns at least into known unknowns. That’s all I’m asking for now.
Tomorrow I go back to write, back to the page with all its mysterious terrors, turning over stones. The perpetual questing machine. Maybe it will yield nothing – but searching always has a way of turning up more answers than inertia – doesn’t it?i
Those fantasies of happiness used to always be so far away, in a future that I knew I’d never get to.
They were reclusive fantasies, hermit-like, in bubbles of isolation that had the gray edges of a dreary afternoon. I’d live in Oklahoma or Iceland, writing and raising sheep, eating alone in diners to the whispers of strangers who’d be frightened of my wild hair and my dream-shot eyes and the way I never quite answered questions how they wanted me to. There was no real romance, no money or prestige, or feelings of satisfaction. Just me, a computer, maybe someone I loved, coffee and a moon.
See, even in my fantasies I wasn’t really happy. I just imagined I’d gotten to the point where my heart could slow down to a familiar rhythm, and I wasn’t spending most nights scratching at my inner thighs and waking up with a gasp from a nightmare in which I couldn’t breathe.
We took our dogs out today. And Robert said “Baby, what are we?” as we were in the car, as Pris pushed herself up onto the arm-rests as if she was trying to press her nose against the windshield.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We’re going to the beach with our dogs on the weekend,” he said, as if he can’t quite believe it.
Maybe I’m imagining that there’s a new kind of vibration in the car with us. A tentative hesitancy, that we’re right on the cusp of a transition. That maybe we just get to be happy, that we can live instead of surviving, trying to tie together blood vessels with our teeth just to gain another second. I know that I’m not the only one who feels it.
Three years ago, I never imagined I’d be taking dogs to the beach, or that my heart possessed enough space to love so much. Or that I’d wake up like I was on a precipice with my body pounding, a new lightness that I’m unsure of, like little pieces are finally flaking off of the hard dense ball that I’ve carried inside my chest my entire life.
I think, I’ve never wanted anything more.
I think, in a few years maybe that density will no longer define who I am.
It’s a new kind of terror.
Nobody writes horror books about opening up your heart after 9000 days of living like a crustacean, keeping your softness and your blue blood inside untouched.
About learning to love again after all those days spent wondering how you could reduce your feeling and your empathy because -fuck- you felt so much and it hurt so much and god, how does anyone just exist without pressing their throat into glass and their hands to their faces and turning away inside, inside, hide, don’t look or touch because if anything comes inside it’ll destroy whatever floating fragments of you that are left.
About finally looking up from the floor you’re crouching on and seeing the patterns in the ceiling and on the woodgrain and realizing how much time you’ve spent refusing to look, and just how much there is to see that you were missing. That you exist in a world that is more than gray edges, bad dreams, Bukowski fiction, and whiskey burn. Infinitely more.
There is no horror fiction about crying while building a bookshelf from Ikea, finally realizing you can look at the pieces in your hands, that you’re not turning away from your own knowledge, and when your boyfriend asks you what’s wrong you say, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
When he laughs and says, “It’s going to get so much better, in ways you can’t even imagine.”
Not believing him, but then a day passes, and another, and then it’s been a whole year and you realize he’s right, that happiness has a depth you are only beginning to explore.
Sometimes I actually look people in the eyes now and I want to reel back because of how much information is contained there. Entire full humans, like me. Two consciousnesses intersecting, acknowledging each other. They had been there the whole time, and I’d never even realized.
The waves of the Pacific Ocean go further than my comprehension.
I cry, because of how scared I am in this unfamiliar world. Robert catches me doing it all the time, realizing that I’m happy, that look of fear like I’ve woken up from sleepwalking, into a room I don’t recognize. He sees the whole transition.
“It’s okay,” he says, and he doesn’t have to explain. “You get to have this.”
He’s on the edge of the water, looking out, and so are the dogs, playing right up to the edge of the rocks. It’s cool from ocean spray and all my sense are humming. Happiness is not Iceland in forty years, in interminable space. It’s happening in real time, here, and so I must teach myself to keep being
That’s my family, I think, and if a thought could touch you that one would be an embrace that burns.
The more I read about Edgar Allan Poe, the more that I can feel his loneliness permeating every word, how the trauma of being denied love in early life can chase you until you’re exhausted with the pain. For all my suffering – I can’t fathom what it’d be like to be Poe, with a father who abandoned him and a mother who died when he was barely three. With an engagement that was broken off, several mother figures who died, a wife that died, and a storm of poverty and broken poet-loves and rivalries and lost jobs.
Trying to live haunted by loss in such a way that the loss begins to define you. So that when he writes, he can only see beautiful things through how they’re framed by melancholy.
To have the people that he loved reject him, turn away from him. A cruelty that was heartwrenching, but often, self-imposed.
In his letters, Poe often lashes out like a child.
He writes to his aunt, Maria Clemm, after learning that Neilson Poe offered to take her and his wife Virgina in:
“I am blinded with tears while writing this letter — I have no wish to live another hour. Amid sorrow, and the deepest anxiety your letter reached — and you well know how little I am able to bear up under the pressure of grief. My bitterest enemy would pity me could he now read my heart. My last my last my only hold on life is cruelly torn away — I have no desire to live and will not ”
I see myself in those words and it hurts, to feel the childish gray warmth of sadness. Its familiarity. To think that if other people knew my pain, they would take pity on me, love me.
But it was never pain that drew people to me – it was all the things that’d survived in spite of it.
When I read about Poe, I see a sort of learned helplessness. He longs for other people to take care of him. Over and over I see him put himself into danger and poverty as if he’s trying to shine a beacon for help. He writes several letters to his adoptive father, John Allan, alternating between lashing out and asking for money and pity, until he’s forced to cut him off. He gets drunk so that his Maria Clemm must put him to bed. He broadcasts his pain, blaringly loud.
There were so many moments in his life where he could have found a way to pull himself together – to have his own magazine, or get steady employment, or after Virginia’s death – to have someone to love. But he deliberately destroys all of it with a startling, steadfast deliberation. Over and over again he puts himself into misery because he wants love to pull him out of it.
Poe never learned how to take care of himself. One of the greatest American writers of all time, a brilliant mind who actually wrote about the Big Bang years before it was an actual scientific theory, and his childlike desire to be picked up and helped and given affection often seemed to supercede all of his intelligence and insight.
It hurts to see the slow, spindling destruction of a life. An unnecessary destruction. It hurts because I see in many ways how he could be me, and I could be him, and all the paths my life could go.
I would not wish Poe’s life upon anyone. The writing hardly seems worth it for the constant, drilling, abject suffering that he puts himself through.
Not for the writing. He doesn’t suffer for the writing. He suffers for the child inside of him that comes out to wear his skin and sob across letters, desperate for the love of a mother that he can never have
I spent so long waiting for something beautiful to happen to me, that I thought maybe I could make waiting and sadness and inertial longing beautiful.
I often dreamed of Edgar Allan Poe coming through my window, holding out his hand to take me away from the hole that was my life. Virgina, Edgar, and I often played hide-and-go-seek in the dark woods. In my dreams, we weren’t exactly happy, but we were at home, together. Two melancholy writers holding out for the sun, one wife between us.
But nobody is going to come through my window and give me all of my dreams just because I want them. The beacon of my sadness doesn’t even penetrate my skin.
For all the ways I’ve struggled to stay independent and support myself, the child inside of me wants to be rocked and held and loved without conditions. It wants people to see our pain and take pity on us. As if by the virtue of our pain – we deserve affection.
But the reward for suffering is only more suffering.
He wept on her grave. He pressed his cheek to the cool dirt.
He wrote about the inception of the universe in “Eureka”, its expansion and eventual contraction, to try to come to terms with the way things died.
Women in his stories died, but they rarely stayed dead. They moved through death like a transformation. They lingered in the narrator’s mind, in the walls of his home.
I feel like he was trying to come to terms with the way things you loved died and left holes so enormous that it was as if you were forced to now live life looking up from their bottom.
We’re so afraid of loss that after a while, it felt like all we knew how to do was scream, to cling -please don’t go-. We built our lives around the fear of it. We tried so desperately to see it before it happened that we ended up perpetuating it. Loss becomes the raven, perpetually sitting on a bust of Athena. It is the constant, cawing companion.
But a life cannot be built around the fear of loss. Stability is a dream and nothing is permanent. If you could see the atoms of a boulder it’d look like the swirling of a catastrophic ocean.
Even the dream of forever doesn’t last forever.
One day you will lose the greatest thing that you possess – yourself. Your molecules will collapse in on itself, rearranged in infinite combinations, and continue on, but it will never recreate you again.
I can’t cry for the things that I lost anymore. Maybe one day I will become a brilliant writer, but I’ll never be able to enjoy it, entertain it – as long as I nurse the brink of loss and struggle to keep the ocean from slipping out of my hands.
You are always going to lose.
So I think – if I want any kind of peace, I have to ride the waves of loss, and write about the things that hurt, but also the little wondrous things, and look eastward, past all the sepulchres, to see what gifts that loss will bring me next.
Because loss did not just take things away from me. It is the same mechanism that brings me new joy, and people to love, and inspiration, and surprises, and warmth.
I wonder if Poe understood that, when he wrote Eureka, so close to his death. When he saw the universe perpetually unraveling and curling up, over and over and over again.