Narrative, Observations, People, Reflection

Whale Guts on Monday

I hurtled a fallen tree trunk. Last I passed that way, I only vaulted the trunk but the crispness of the morning lashed at the feelings I was trying to tread– I wanted to leap. Whatever internal obstacles I milled on the loop of trail beyond escapes my memory, and I imagine myself hurtling the trunk again; later I juked around a puddle, going momentarily weightless. Far from a premier athlete (or model *scoff*) as I am, these moments emphasize the preciousness of my body, the vehicle. “I’m young and spry,” I thought. An iPod playlist of songs with strong drum-lines whispers of the recent “Black Panther” film soundtrack– a connection I welcome. Yet no run can last; I opened my car-door, lifted and slung a messenger bag over my shoulder. This is the first day in what I hope becomes a new pattern: returning to the pile of rocks overlooking the stream to engage in Silent Reflection. The weather in Maryland is indicative of how I am rather than how I want to be; the clouds are pewter sacks of frozen dead-weight invading April and leaking snow flurries. Each uplifting milestone of the past six months seems undone as Spring repeatedly approaches and flees. My thoughts darkened. Then, a flag of black and white waved, fluttered. I sat-up and watched for the red-cap and riveting bill: a pileated woodpecker. S/he flashed me again with a pair of checkered wings and perched on another trunk; s/he works; s/he probes; s/he chips; s/he continues. Shivers rocked my body: not enough outer clothes. An idea dawns in the lingering winter; I often bring my problems with me into the woods and seek resolution, restoration, yet it is also valuable and restorative to seek the woods — in running, in sitting, and watching for messengers. ‘Twas a miracle I awoke and went outdoors, even if I felt like a frozen microwave-shit-burrito.

Often, I maintain that being a musician is what keeps me alive. That is basically-true without being exclusively-true; I think that having a writer’s mind is the final safety net. This comes as a surprise for several reasons. My musicianship is more consistent and the feedback is both instantaneous and dramatic: I love to hear myself on a good day, which is stiff competition for even the peace of death. Then, my lips get tired. My skills on guitar and piano feel rudimentary; words can interfere with singing, likewise. If I did not play trumpet, I might have flicked the existential “off-switch” before now, though I really want a “reset-button”. Remember those? I would have jammed the point of a pen into a tiny hole in my skull to depress the red-button beneath and be reincarnated. …if I had a reset button. Instead, I am like a book partially read. All of my speculations about suicide ring pyrrhic; a good ending for my story seems many pages away. This is disappointing for an author wanting denouement– I got sick of myself as a protagonist. It is strange to refer to myself as “the author” when so much that is terrible in my story is not what I wanted to create but the antithesis. My agency feels meaningless. With even a moment of readers’ perspective, though, I can see that compelling narratives are marked by wonderful and terrible plot-points– my story is interesting. I felt a moment of curiosity about what happens to me next– paradoxically pesky and miraculous. The peace of final resolution was usurped when I wrested from the chrysalis of bed –instantly complained in my journal– and began a (procrastinated) e-mail to my ex. With so many plot-lines at play, so many loose-ends to be tied, no resonant ending is at hand.

The suggestion of agency (as I reread last night’s paragraph, after today’s run) reconnects me to an article I thought was irrelevant. The water is on and getting hot for a shower. The author describes how childhood trauma causes a “misfire” that hangs-over as depression in adulthood. Victims of abuse may find themselves at fault for horrors during childhood, believing they had agency; the alternative is to accept horrible moments happen at any time. As adults they assume a tint of blame, not relinquishing the sense of agency over pain. Articles like these can lead to isolation and confusion: I was not abused. My childhood environment was relatively stable; I “feel bad about feeling bad”. Yet as I climbed into the shower I lamented the dissolution of my relationship and the bad timing that caused its failure— there, something in my brain misfired and said “but it’s because of my inability to–“. Just as I lathered, I made the connection. My childhood home was stable but my parents did not love each other. I neither was– nor wanted to be– the child who “blamed” himself, yet I tried at many points to take responsibility for making things right. At age ten, I suggested a family game night that never got traction. At age twenty-two, I tried to share scholarship from the field of interpersonal communication. When things go wrong, I do hold myself responsible because I have not wanted to accept that bad things will continue to happen despite noble intentions and better execution. Realizing that I am not completely responsible is terrifying. I am not T’challa, with the position and power (agency!) to ensure. My mind drifted to experiences and analogies gained in Palestine but I reeled-it-in: my need to feel expert stems from assuming responsibility, clinging to a tainted agency. I needed to rinse-off. Epiphanies fix nothing but perhaps I won’t be prevented from uncovering tools I need to heal.

My ponderings need punctuated by noticing. Sitting across the table from a friend, I listened as she spoke words of reassurance that weren’t especially illuminating; yet I knew she cared and was sincere by noticing her eyes and smile. The woods was bristling with messengers as we took a walk through a park: a fox, a hawk, some deer I didn’t find special significance in, and a lucky clump of greenery growing in a stream. My childhood friend, who is far away in Montana, spoke words of reassurance and laughed heartily into the phone– I laughed with him. He said there were just too many good things to experience in this world and I accepted it because his unfailing levity and his oddball jokes are pieces of a ‘home’.

My major problem while attempting to write this is having too many touchstone moments I want to share, not overwhelming futility or a lack of ‘characters’ to mention. Futility hangs around my neck but my natural tendency is to swim seas of meaning– life from a writer’s eyes. Last Tuesday I arrived early for the 9 o’clock freebie-show at Washington Improvised Theater and, ambling leisurely from an upstairs bathroom toward a doorway, I met eyes with a man named Sebastian. We were both looking and open. That vulnerable moment of eye-contact turned into a deep conversation, from which I wish I could recall more details. He said he wants to reduce suffering, in life, first for himself and then for others. He wants to get into real-estate (and doesn’t like working regular hours) since spending a week in the Brazilian jungle that affected him significantly. He mentioned something about Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”– once, a stranger gave me a copy of the book because they “sensed” I should read it. Sebastian said he’d seen my show the previous week, confusing me with a regular Harold performer–  the troupe “Commonwealth” welcomed players from the audience a week before, so he had seen me on stage indeed. Later, a friend from an improv-class I attended years ago checked on me– he’d seen some prior posts. That night I wanted to write something like this just to show progress… I felt significant… I glimpsed hope… it fades and returns like the teasing Spring…

Out of silence and fevered journaling, during Quaker Meeting, I arrived at an important realization: doing versus being is a false dichotomy. I might need to give that idea its own piece. All of the Internet gurus of mindfulness can take a seat– the tension is between accomplishing and engaging, nor is their relationship precisely antagonistic. Do we orient our attention to what we expect to accomplish or emphasize opportunities to engage, to connect to a process of living (whether doing or being) and keep that attention piqued? That is a whale of a thought to explore… I cannot accomplish ‘it’ in the space provided but I can begin. That raises this question: what do you readers think? Your engagement could fuel future reflections. Think about it.

I may more often ask myself “am I doing this to engage or to disengage?”, as well as wonder “has accomplishing something become more important than staying engaged?”, since engaged people do accomplish things and derive benefit from asking “what might I accomplish while engaged?”

There are characters and wisdom, yet, in the cluttered front room of the nominal barbershop where I jam with other blues people on Saturdays. Someone asked Skip “how are you?” and he replied, “In some aspects, I’m doing great,” and proceeded to cherry-pick aspects in which he’s doing well. It seemed credible because he’s incredible on mandolin and guitar; I’ve already started recycling his answer, naming music as a positive aspect. When I reflected on my trajectory with trumpet I discovered, indeed, I became more oriented to engaging than accomplishing. That enabled me to practice in ways that (so gradually) improved me. I rediscovered a Miles Davis songbook yesterday– I purchased it in college before my shift. Depression gnawed on me sometimes but I didn’t recognize it, back then, so I constantly attempted feats to “break the spell”. Playing Miles Davis melodies note-for-note would be quite an accomplishment. I never got past the first line of the first song; I buried the book in a folder and tried to forget. Looking at it yesterday I thought, “well, the first song was over-my-head– and what did I want from it, anyway?” I thumbed through until I saw a piece called “Tune-up”, in an easier range. I just sight-read straight through it, doubling back on mistakes without pausing to judge myself. It was like the woods and I was running through it. I tried to notice how Miles phrased the solo. What I wanted was to become a more flexible soloist via his influence, not prove I could play like Miles Davis. Importantly, I put the song away after I finished sight-reading it because that was enough for one day. ‘This music’ or ‘that music’ is something to chew and digest, to engage. There must be a similar piece of wisdom regarding books and writing, right? And improv. And… and…

A while ago I read a book about engaging with spiritual darkness. I only retain one, glittering shard of insight: there is meaning and value in engaging our darkness, not only for ourselves but the communities we will touch. I felt a descent happening as last Autumn decayed but I did not fathom it would cause so much loss: my finances, my apartment, my partner, my mother, and (now) nearly forfeiting my life. There is more to my backstory than “1562 Pennies Later…” and even “The Great Fortune Cookie Spiral” can possibly represent. My car crash in Michigan became a symbol of the beginning of whatever phenomenon is currently unfinished, demanding to be engaged (I only wished it could be the beginning of endings). Talking about the abject depths of my mental health ebbs slightly, now, because I suspect its depths are bounded by limitations of breadth. Joy is always at risk of calamity so misery, I hope, is vulnerable to strokes of luck– if I stay engaged. After all, I hadn’t stumbled upon SIGNIFICANT happiness I wouldn’t be hurting to such an extreme.

A harmonica and bones player at jam told me, “–if a whale has swallowed you up, don’t worry about it for too long. It’s going to spit you up somewhere better eventually.” The Biblical referent is the prophet Jonah but I think the allusion distracts rather than adds. Another referent might be the story of Pinnochio (think of the Disney movie– and “Finding Nemo” too?). Pinnochio does reach his goal of being ‘real’ but not without going through a whale’s guts. He gets lost on his way to something noble– unlike Jonah, who tries fleeing to an easier destination and is caught. Either way, it is a dark and putrid stage. I fear that some of our lives are just chucked from one whale’s guts to another’s; to plumb the depths of that, read “Turtles all the Way Down” by John Green. I think John would agree, nevertheless, that we keep living to appreciate the time we spend regurgitated… on a beach, somewhere, happy to be out of the dark for however long we can be.

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