I can’t throw boomerangs, anyway

I started to write a piece called “Boomerangs All The Way Up”, in implicit answer to the title “Turtles All The Way Down” by John Green. The day before, I picked a fortune cookie (one of the browner ones, on purpose) from the breakfast buffet table at the Alumni Brunch. It was a good day; the fortune read “It’s time to complete some unfinished business”.

I loved it instantly. My whole psyche yearned aloud for that. Old novel ideas, revived. Unaccounted missteps in my career and personal life, redeemed. My silver-plated trumpet, returned with high polish. Cactus imagery, rendered in new depth. Whatever came to mind. One by one I would fling every crooked thought at the perfect angle and watch it return, straight and true, to exactly where it should be. Every loop would finally be closed and I could begin to move-on with living, with finally becoming successful…

Now, I am listening to “A Love Supreme” as recorded by John Coltrane and the rest of his quarter in 1965. I need this to be a spiritual experience. The boomerangs are not flying back into my controlling palm, not making their mathematically divine trip through the atmosphere in stunning displays of mastery, but are hung in bushes, lodged into river banks, and disappearing into unseen wormholes. My crooked thoughts trace no rings.

I never believed I qualified as a perfectionist. No number of accusations from friends or family made any difference to me– I never understood how anyone could mistake me for a perfectionist. Imagine the scrolling list of things about which, I know, I am lax. I do. Perfectionists always impressed me as people who were moderately successful but not satisfied with the result– high-functioning people. How could being a perfectionist lead to so many miscarriages of function, on my part? I wasn’t a perfectionist because, it seemed to me, that I had multitude problems to solve and errors to correct, boomerangs to catch and rings to close, but people were trying to lower my standards. Misguidedly benign, they were trying to impose systematic-soldiering on me. Then, I would be doomed to failure, unable to defend against mistakes, never able to– to– well…

A new thought bloomed. The kinesthetic pumping of my arms as I did push-ups drew it from the depths: I had an ideal for perfectionism. A perfectionist had to be someone who was already high-functioning and I did not qualify. In my mind, I was too far from the ideal to qualify for that pathology. My perfect idea of perfectionism was a central, uncontested Gordian-knot.

I’m going to earn that analogy: Alexander the Great cut the knot with his sword. What a horrid solution– yet, what a pointless challenge. What does untying the knot prove? Sometimes, a mother-fucker needs to be cut.

But who doesn’t know that? I burned something in my stir-fry. I missed a spot on the window. I cut someone off in traffic. I don’t care about any of those things. Doing things imperfectly was synonymous with not truly caring. Writing. Research. Relationships. I cared about those things so I tried to do them well– up until now, “well” has meant striving for the ideal. Even when a good-natured professor warned that “the great is the enemy of the good” I always assumed that “great” was a mark further afield, one that I could not see, and that “good” was SECRETLY the true ideal and I needed to get closer to the ideal, regardless. The problem might be in how I construct ideals. Unfortunately, I probably cannot untie that knot so… I need to cut a mother-fucker, even when I value the process. The central tension in the word “praxis” is the assumed customary ideal versus the process of practice and reflection. Put into less abstract terms, it means we scoop our ice-cream into balls that are imperfect because perfecting a ball of ice-cream destroys it before it can be enjoyed. My analogy doesn’t perfectly encapsulate this concept but my agonizing over this paragraph demonstrates it perfectly: this paragraph is turning into a scoop of ice-cream that’s good enough to eat, not put on display in a museum — and which is more likely? Eat this and tell me how it tastes, readers.

Is this piece of writing an act of practice and reflection or am I trying to reach…

Could this piece of writing ‘speak’ better by being less processed, more raw and rough-edged?

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Cactus Adonis

I wept Sunday. Cradling an iPhone in my lap, earbuds like IV-lines between my father and me, I sat on the floorboards of my friends’ attic, near the brightly-lit hole leading to my room, and finally found my fountain.  Bizarrely, I had not wept at all during this entire painful period and I was aware. Aware of all the heavy blows that could have made me cry, aware of a melancholy trying to bloom in tears but lacking– what? It was not simply a matter of energy (or lack) nor a matter of time and events, not of distance or proximity to (whatever, whomever). No. The missing piece was of perspective: the moment of self-pity. “Sometimes,” I said, choking, “I feel like I’m a handsome and smart guy and none of this should be happening to me — it’s really not fair.” “I feel that way about you all the time,” replied my father, “–these things happen but they shouldn’t. I’m always here for you.” Afraid self-pity would turn into a tar-pit, I skimmed past recognizing the tragic in my condition; my time in the attic marked a point where my self-love exceeded the artificially high standard I set for myself — something I called “self-respect”. In full humility I recognized that I could be clever and handsome but still vulnerable. No accomplishment, improvement, skill, or trick would make me immune. Rather than linger in despair in the attic, I climbed down with a piece of my confidence restored: I deserve better…

The idea of a “Cactus Adonis” has marinated with me all of the past week. When I bobbled and broke a beloved cactus mug, I recognized the opportunity to write a poem that intentionally seeks renewal. As the weather improved, so had my exercise habits and last Saturday I started my trail-run with the vague sense that I was… pretty. I’m still in my physical prime. In fact, the title for this piece came to me as I was cresting a hill, enjoying the breeze in my face and composing ideas as I dashed through OW FUCK MY ANKLE– SHIT– (pay attention for stones)

–but I was still on my feet and soon regained my stride. Without stopping, I decided that I need not let an ankle-sprain stop my psychological upswing. For the next three miles I pounded my left ankle as if it were my depression; I am not pulling punches about my unwillingness to pull a punch. By the time I got home my foot was swollen and discolored but still able to support weight. Unfortunately, by sunset of the next day my ankle needed rest and I needed… coffee? A challenging personal-life milestone and some missing java brought me down… and then up into the attic. I digress.

Waking has been difficult. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday my goal was the same: exercise first, stride through the day as an ‘adonis’. Each time I woke, limped downstairs to use the restroom, and returned to bed for a long time afterward. The tactile ambiance of bed suffuses me with contentment… which ends, sometimes leaving a residue of disappointment. Yet this time I cracked the code: I’ve never exercised consistently in the morning and I often feel restless in the afternoon. I used to benefit greatly from running after work. I recognized that my morning objective wasn’t merely difficult but fundamentally unnecessary– just something to which the negative residue could stick. If I wanted to conquer the morning, I could restructure my goal and make it about WRITING… if there is anything I can do immediately after waking, it should be COMPOSITION–

Artist and art-teacher Julia D’Ambrosi Major made me this cactus in a gesture of friendship. I hope it keeps its soul for a while.

Naturally, I forgot all about that and slept an extra two hours Friday morning and Saturday. My inertia is not for lack of reflections to share, here, but rather a function of itself. Inertia is like that. I did run Thursday, in the cold winds of a low-energy day. I ran Friday in the warm glow of a higher-energy day, despite the late start. For the first time, it occurred to me that I should run my route backwards and appreciate how all of the inclines turn downhill and all those breezy, space-out hills become fresh inclines. Kinesthetic powers worked upon my ideas and I began to brainstorm– how to better form a writing habit? How can I shape other aspects of my life so that they funnel me into such a practice? To share the full breadth of my thoughts would do less than to keep chewing them, to implement them rather than try to fully conceptualize them. A little past half-way through my run I felt something important: primal hunger. I forget how I love that feeling, the feeling of my body wanting what it deserves. That feeling of hunger signals the return of my will to live; as I tread-out my thoughts, I recognized how exercise could be a means rather than an end. I’m not going to get much sexier; the essence of ‘Cactus Adonis’ must be artistic– however I construct that idea in writing, it’s valid regardless of my physique. Before the sprain, after the crying, between all the sleeping, and wedged between whatever else I was doing (which wasn’t worth noting), I was writing a poem.

[As Yet Untitled]

I broke the cactus mug I
hand-painted green with staccato-marks
of yellow thorns, pink handle and insides
to represent the juicy fruits. ‘Twas
marked with Arabic script meaning
both “patience” and “prickly pear”
in remembrance of Palestinian harvests.

A desert dessert in a difficult jacket, bristles
that demand deliberate undressing, yet
portend of an addictive delicacy. My lost
lover used it as a pet-name:
“Sabr” —
a prized pick. It held sweet
memories (and liquids) for me.

Dustings of coffee inlaid its surface
graced with fine cracks, like wrinkles,
to mark years. I drank heavily of natural
stimulants. It crackled more than once under
the heat of morning pours and I wondered
if it could crack beyond repair. The sabr
cracks underneath the shock of what brewed

in February: seasons of fragmentation,
of widening gaps, of atrophy… of course,
I dropped it while carrying too many
things. Too many objectives bristled
against my patience. Sabr fell between
the once careful hands that painted
and peeled — caresses rotting into tremors.

The cup broke apart but I continued, clearing
the shards:
intentions, fractured — the smooth surfaces,
jagged. A vision crashes, splinters, threatens
to scar but the exposed edges reveal the texture
of substances within, conjuring memories
to illuminate my losses. In Belize,

I pilgrimaged a cave. I descended past
a stone jaguar-god of death who seeded
embers in my imagination. I swam through
narrow passages into sacrificial
caverns where Mayan priests had faith
they could stall calamity if
human bodies were pierced.

In an alcove were piled pots, vases, and
ceramic cups, all rendered broken
or marked with drill-holes
because, as the guide explained,
“by breaking the vessel, they believed
its soul was released as an offering
and allowed to join with the universe.”

Thus, my cactus mug became
a sacrifice so a soul of Sabr can be
freed to regrow like the cactus hedges
after a slash-and-burn, rooted deeply in
high, holy mounds and secret fissures, alike
in sweetness across oceans: pink or
jaguar-orange fruits of vitality.

[Fair use only; don’t take advantage of me]

In feedback from friends, I may find some grace for myself and the sleepy tendencies of this past week. One friend advised that we work on things in our dreams and heal through sleep. That became Saturday morning’s justification. I wish there were a better way to convey this but I got an encouraging personal-message from another contact, on Facebook, with whom I don’t have a deep friendship or frequent contact. She encouraged me to keep talking about mental health journeying; she said it was refreshing to see someone be real about not living their “100% best-life”, the image we love to project on social media. We believe don’t set out to deceive each other; we want to be living that life so we construct our image on social media without it. In the spirit of my poem, my extra sleep seems like time in warm soil. My roots run deeper than the superlative scorch of the past six months but my green parts may still be straining to find the surface.

At my psychological intake last week, the screener and I discovered I have an unusual amount of resources with which to fight: theater, music, running, and writing to name a few. I met my therapist in Olney, MD and found-out that she has also done improvised theater; I felt positive energy building between us in ways that were not possible with my sedate practitioner in Washington. At risk of seeming ‘broken’ right now (I admitted I saw a therapist– it’s almost like I saw an orthopedist for my ankle or something else shameful *sarcasm*), I am bringing my image and my hidden self into one place so that they can join forces and gain momentum on the way to the sun. There are plenty of reasons to believe I will rebound stronger. If I will embrace my role, writing about this topic, I might bring some others to the surface with me. Beneath these bristles, I really am the sweetest fruit. Sabr fans know what I mean.

This blog post is not perfect, either. It needs reader criticism. There is so much to say… and I’m going to be alive to say SOME of it.

 

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.

The Great Fortune Cookie Spiral

“The Szechuan Pepper Daddies” were the improvising-troupe who threw fortune cookies at random as they entered, inviting an audience member to open one as a prompt for their show. I saw the ‘Pepper Daddies’ in the second-round of the Fighting-Improv-Smackdown-Tournament (b.k.a. “FIST”) that Washington Improv Theater hosts every year. They lost to “The Prosecution” in round 4 (I promise all of this is relevant). I volunteered as an usher the night the cookies were flying, gathering six to consume later; my stated reason was ‘starving and unemployed’ but, my attentive readers, we know I was hungry for words from the universe. Fortune (with a capital F) is just one of my themes; ideas of supra-ordinate agency at work have been salient currents in my nonfiction writing and, here, it mingles with some periodic undercurrents I am trying to better trace.

Only four “fortunes” remained in the detritus of my car, when I started writing on these themes together. Some might say we would be fortunate (lucky?) to retain 75% of what we have learned but, once the cookie has crumbled, the value within may be questionable–

“Never forget that a half truth is a whole lie” [a fundamental misunderstanding of ‘truth’, in my opinion]

“A new adventure awaits you this weekend” […which weekend? I can’t recall what happened that weekend…]

“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive” [I am genuinely intrigued but not sure how it applies, now]

“A calm sea does not make a skilled sailor” [this one is painfully apropos; nevertheless, I am not the only person in the world struggling and fortune-cookie writers are well aware of that]

[A promising contingency was to find a fortune written in a different font on the floor of my friends’ home] “Welcome the good change coming soon into your life,” says this more serendipitous fortune.

If all of these leave no impression, do not despair: an unopened fortune cookie sits within its wrapper on the corner of my desk — its claim to Serendipity is much stronger, too. Existential suspense waits, manifest as a hollow cookie, for both writer and reader. I have tried to thresh the happenings of my life for seeds of meaning through two decades; inside the cookie, we hope there is something worth remembering and using. The unopened cookie is a plot-device to pull us down, down through denser thoughts together. I thought about using my figurative powers to flood your spaces and open a maelstrom, so that you readers could follow the twirl of my vortex. Heavy things fall past the groovy spinning disc of water into the slurping column of bubbles in the middle.

Let’s be real: if a section is going into too much detail, scan for a set of asterisks and try the next ‘cookie’ in this sprawling, compound entry.

In honor of “The Szechuan Pepper Daddies” I offer this levity: a playful figurative device. I step onto stage and start turning around saying “I’m the vortex of a maelstrom!” and other improvisors rush from the wings to help; two of them run in circles around me saying, “we’re water swirling around!” and another pretends to be thrown away, saying “I am light, fluffy debris ejected by centrifugal force or whatever!” Finally, a large man walks up to me and declares “I’m heavy; I’m sinking,” and jumps on my back. We both fall to the floor and spectators cheer, laugh, clap, cough like the sound of white-water rapids. The lights go down and we see only a faint glow from the sound-booth…

 * * *

The Beige Jungle Ninja-Beasts

As a first-year university student, I called it the “Beige Ninja”. I concocted this archetype to represent ‘the fatal embedded in the mundane’. Its ubiquity made its outlines impossible for me to distinguish with only eighteen years of perspective. Walking the off-white corridors of my residence hall, I envisioned the heaviness I felt as an assassin creeping in my wake, dyed the shade of sweat-stains on old t-shirts. There was a constant, nebulous impression of something amiss even in excellent times, though it sharpened into psycho-social, figurative bear-traps as winter deepened in Michigan.  I found a point of reference and resonance when we studied Henry James’ novella “The Beast in the Jungle” in English 210; I wrote an A paper comparing John Marcher with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. My growing literary prowess did not slay the Beige Ninja. To the contrary, I convinced myself that there was a metaphysical conundrum in the universe for me to unravel, that the sinking feeling represented an artistic or spiritual duty meant to become clear. Cruelly, by becoming the hero of a psycho-analytic narrative I couldn’t allow myself to be the object of deeper care. I refused to apprehend that I could have a chemical conundrum, or have need of cognitive restructuring that was beyond my self-contained abilities.

My self-contained abilities included writing and playing trumpet– and sometimes circumscribing the entire campus on the soles of my running-shoes. I used to play in an alcove under a bridge. I intuited an affirmation of belonging in that space. I wrote a piece of psycho-analytical fiction of my own, based on a dream I had that tender Fall. Much of the imagery from the dream was orientalist by my present understanding (therefore unusable?)– but an image of conscious creation, during the process of writing, has never been more relevant:

“A chimera carved from the dust and earth, two headed and grotesque. Perhaps, it is better described as a set of mismatching conjoined twins, actually. Both faces were somewhat human, and one face was clearly blindfolded. His arms, however, were free. He seemed to be frozen in a state of searching: his arms were extended as if to grope for a wall. Nay, he reaches for a weapon I think. Of course, what insight do I have? It is not as if I carved it, right? He is the right side; the left’s predicament is different. His eyes are wide open and lidless he stares at me, without pupils. His iris is like a pie with no hole cut to relieve the pressure of cooking. His mouth gapes, as if to roar… he is bound in chains. Unlike his humanoid companion, he is scaly and horns jut forth from his back in no particular pattern. His arms are tied down to his sides, and in one reptilian hand he holds a machete. Now that I look more closely, I see that one is connected to the other only through a juncture near the back of the ribs. The smooth and man-like figure on the right need only cut away his scaly mate. However, the scaly one has the weapon and cannot use it because his arms are bound. He looks at his companion in malice, as if he would raise the blade to destroy him if he could. Instead, he simply remains. I notice now that the left ‘twin’ is manacled to the wall of the labyrinth. I wonder what the sculptor was thinking when he made these. […] “The right twin should’ve taken the machete from the left and severed himself,” I chuckled to myself silently. I suppose he’s too blind to do so, and quite petrified too. He’ll keep reaching out into thin air.”

My writing was less polished at eighteen but the idea was sophisticated. This was an especially creative, early attempt to grapple with the slippery apparition of my malaise. I kept waiting for a sign more superlative than those I had already received; my fiction professor once gave me a braid of sweet-grass, a token to encourage me to continue in the writing-life. Occasionally, I self-motivated to write fiction but generally I needed the pressure of an assignment to overcome my inertia and doubt. My blogging continued in a LiveJournal account I haven’t used in years (maybe it no longer exists?), driven for a while by the conviction I would find Beige Ninja’s outlines and I would become free in a sudden, surprise flush of greatness. I started a new blog, hoping to make a transition; “Reverse Exiled” is the third blog, another fresh start that didn’t signal instant transformation. The long discouraging process of practicing and learning would melt away, for me, because I would find the fortune– a portal through reality or else a revelation like John Nash’s in “A Beautiful Mind”. Recall that Nash’s revelation about economics did not save him from his mental health struggle, not coincidentally. Years later, I found that ‘cookie’– ate it and pocketed the revelation: a housemate told me “you know life has no meaning, right?” and I grappled with his words. I realized that life is a medium to be filled with expressions of meaning. To live is to make meaning and life has all meaning, not a particular meaning. I subsequently wrote “The Meaning of Life & Suicide in a Bathtub” , where I visit a younger version of myself staying the weekend with my now-deceased paternal grandparents — none of this changed Beige Ninja.

I pursued study in Interpersonal Communication, trying to fix my parents marriage and ensure my own future in love. My studies in fiction and poetry continued as long as I was still studying English. Yet as the end of my time at MSU neared, I was listless. I couldn’t account for why I seemed to repeat the patterns of inertia that characterized the transition from high school to college, as well as from graduate school to my present state. I cultivated even more self-hate as I developed many ways to distract myself but no criteria for forgiving myself. All, despite and even in concert with my better knowledge: the two halves of the chimera, locked in stone together.

I never became fully invested in my creative talent (I’ll never be *best*), yet never quite relinquished it as important to my identity (this is what I *do* best): two-halves, two minds, two visions of self. Throughout, I have experienced glimpses of how strong and marvelous I am. The most profound transformation was emerging from my dark alcoves to play trumpet at sunset along the Grand River, in open spaces. My musical abilities evolved from trying to achieve proficiency in the universe of ‘little-black-dots-on-lines’ to playing by ear, then learning to improvise, and further still to create audio manifestations of feelings. For however long both lips and lungs last, the beast or ninja or dragon or octopus-of-sadness or WHATEVER cannot bind me entirely with its tentacles. The dynamic chain between my heaving diaphragm and the music streaming from the end of a trumpet bell: I taste freedom. Why couldn’t my writing follow suit?

Now, I know. Writing happens at a smaller aesthetic distance from the Beije Ninja– that phenomenon I have since named “Charie” to rob it of mystique. It is depression. Whether it is chemical and remediated through pharmaceuticals or is rooted in years of toxic family dynamics, to be addressed in therapy, it is still depression. I couldn’t unravel it with my writing but I don’t need to let it stop me from writing– now I see that it masked my own potential from me. Since I am able to look this Ninja in his eye, and see his outlines clearly (so close to me), I have the ability to make art despite or even because of it. My music led the way. I can live-on and love again, probably sooner and better than I imagine. Still, I need to contend with my mother’s role in the cycle of suffering…

A word from the curator: Originally, I wrote this entire entry with the intention of it being for public consumption. Though the next two sections are still here for those who want to journey with me, I recognize that they are “process writing”. I may spend more time working on that material another day. I recommend skipping ahead to the section titled “An Osprey in Finlandia” to glean more thoughts about fortune. Criticism is welcome: I am writing ‘volume’, for now, rather than agonizing over quality.

* * *

Family Hierarchy of Suffering

I wrote the italicized paragraphs below just after I broke contact with my mother; I am going to honor that moment by not revising extensively. My feelings about Momma too easily become a tar-baby– whether by trying to polish them into something transcendent, when they have always been too raw, or by indulging their rawness for too long. Let these paragraphs stand.

Now, I want to bring an entire history with depression into a story-arc so I can exercise my powers without a trumpet: in writing. The obvious place to start is exactly where I never wanted to begin: my Mother. Since writing “1562 Pennies Later…” I have parted ways with my Mother, who reacted negatively to my need to get control of my suicidal voice in writing. The irony is that my mother identified ‘Charlie’ first and encouraged me to seek help at eighteen– but I assumed she was projecting her own conditions onto me. She has misery to spread around. I vaguely recall seeing a therapist when I was quite small but I made external attributions about my struggles: Dad lost his job and the long, slow dissolution of my parents’ marriage was underway. In seventh grade I struggled but I was twelve– no one escapes that. Being thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen stands-out the most, to me, because I was happy, successful, and as intelligent as ever. I rose to first-chair in the band, to leading roles on stage, and I even ran the fastest mile in my physical education class. Friends from high school point-out, correctly, that I had an inflated ego. Imagine my confusion and disappointment with myself at seventeen when I didn’t feel like researching colleges– when practicing classical pieces on my horn only frustrated me and when I was regularly in to the dermatologist for acute acne.

‘It must be because I’m ugly,’ I convinced myself– the smart, artistic, quasi-athletic teenager. Mom obliged, tacitly agreed with my rationale: I was ugly and the doctors could fix it. Then ‘it’ was the acne medicine; anxiety was a side-effect. Dad shuttled me to university, so I could leave behind my histrionic ex-girlfriend (“it’s her that’s making you this way,” they said). Failing to audition into the school of music, I limped onto campus as an English Major.

As long as “1562 Pennies Later…” has driven my mother away, I might as well tell you: I didn’t know what happiness looked like, really. ‘The Problem’ was always her job or my father (or her siblings or…)– or something happening to my sister and myself. Vacations were the exception. In her element, planning our itinerary and exploring new places, I saw how my Mother should have been, perhaps the version my father had loved. My relationship with my mother runs a tight parallel to how I related to my depression. The flashes of joy seemed to validate the long periods of suffering, pain that I thought belonged in life. If only all of those things, those external things, would just go her way — or go Dad’s way — then we could be virtually on vacation all the time! Maybe I could be as impressive and care-free as when I started high school rather than fatigued and angry, the way I finished high school.

Interestingly, my Dad showed me how to stay active and befriending people wherever I went– so that I convinced myself I could always put ‘Charlie’ (depression) into the rear-view mirror via character triumphs, never accepting this struggle would be anything other than temporary. Contradictory but true, Mom was a reminder I did not want and my supposed ally. It seemed to me that it was her depression casting the shadow over my life– but I would lift her up, in the end, not “abandon” her as Dad had (so I thought). Thus, I kept both my depression and my mother close to me so I could keep proving, over and over again, that I was going to be permanently impressive. Each time my mother suggested I get help, I counter-suggested. Dad always insisted I was strong, exceptional, worth loving– sometimes, I thought he was full of shit. What my Dad taught became part of my knot. His optimism is so unflagging, his colors always flying in the strongest head-winds, that I doubted him along with myself. How could I ever improve under the influence of such uncritical optimism (“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive”)? I thought Mom was my ally, telling me the awful truth about life.

Eventually, my mother started threatening to commit suicide. So much did she threaten, I was convinced she had actually made an attempt but, my sister corrected, she only got as far as waving the bottle of pills at my Dad. Yesterday was the first day I went beyond forgiving my father to feeling happy for him. My father was struggling while I went through college but he never forced me to feel his pain; my mother called me regularly to air grievances– she needed family support. I told her to leave her job, to leave Dad, to do anything it took but to do something about all-those-things-to-blame. I bore her pain with her, not intuiting that my Mother should have been someone upon whose shoulder I might need to lean– but which of us was in need? Ponder that, reader. I never thought seriously about suicide before, just mused about it… so I said to myself all those times. Both of us were in need, really, but how would I be able to see my need in the shadow of hers? Mom’s needs always seemed greater, seemed like the reason for suppressing my own (what if I sent her over the edge?); contrast-effect was a constant… when have I never been more depressed than my mother? Now. When I was an adolescent, I worried she would hurt herself and didn’t dare burden her with my own sadness (“…when I get to college…”). In college, I wouldn’t go to the doctor because I knew my mother would worry about the cost of insurance and medications (“…when I get out of college…”). When my grandparents died after college, I stayed strong for her while her divorce was happening (“…after I get back from mission service…”). When I returned from the middle-East with PTSD symptoms, I pretended for her (“…when I finish graduate school; when I have a job; when someone finally loves me…”). Now, I have my MA but I’m unemployed, my relationship collapsed, and depression has crept like mold over every thought and feeling. And I caught a nasty cold that kept me from running. Somehow, I found the impetus to write “1562 Pennies Later…” and reap the insight and energy that germinate in the writing process.

My mother responded with bitterness and shaming. Her problems are supposed to be greater, as always. Her new husband calls me, angry because I upset her with my writing. Good for him. I’m glad he’s there, loving her with genuine passion. I can be free because of my step-father; thank you, sir. I cannot love my mother more than my writing anymore– even mediocre writing is better than a toxic mother-son relationship. She was an excellent mother to me as a small boy, and supportive of my education throughout, but I can’t be her son right now. Yet for the first-time I feel confident saying both that I am depressed and that I will overcome. This is the bottom but there will be higher heights to reach before I am done. I am gaining separation without engaging in denial or blaming– as if it were all my Mother’s “fault” and punishing her were the solution. A terrible truth crystallized as I withdrew from my mother: if I committed suicide she would blame herself but I no longer would feel responsible if she made that choice. For my part, writing about those dark thoughts brought more relief than acting upon them (“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive”?). I’m not afraid to talk about my darkness anymore because being honest has created the possibility of greater healing for me– I have legitimate hope that this is ‘the last worst time’.

“Some friends have approached me– people who care about you– to ask me how you’re doing since you wrote that,” said Brian, who welcomed me into his home three months ago. Later he commented, “–it was scary reading that, because it was really dark but you used story and imagery so well,” or perhaps he said something different to the same effect. I was doing push-ups and sit-ups for the first time in over three weeks.

“I thought,” I said between sit-ups, “that my short-falls were character flaws I needed,” sit-up, “to… I don’t know…”

Brian replied, “No one who knows you would say you have a character flaw.” Those words are going to ring in my ears for weeks. It bodes well for me that it was not until this very moment that I remembered how I used to curse fate for giving me my mother, my class-D high school, (and) this or that circumstance, yet I hadn’t thought in those terms these past three months because I cannot get past how lucky it was to have a friend from graduate school with a house (and a spare room) who cares and sees the potential in me. My family-cookie is problematic but my friend-cookie is magnificent. I sorely need to recover but I know without a doubt that I can.

As I was trying to come-up with an ‘improv-troupe-name’ for this section about my mother, the wise words of my supervisor in Palestine surfaced: “We do not want to have a hierarchy of suffering or compete for victimhood.” Going forward, I hope I do not miss opportunities to understand others’ struggles fully. I feel like Mom was willing to put others’ needs first only with the acknowledgement that her suffering was greater, that she was always making the truer sacrifice. I’m relinquishing our relationship to break that cycle: our suffering cannot be compared– it must be separated.

* * *

A Huge Cathartic Stream

I wondered if this section could be written; I’ve had trouble deciding if it is essential to the arc of the post or if it is just too emotionally difficult. Before I started writing these words, ate a sandwich and some roasted coffee-beans chased with dark chocolate; I called a beloved cousin and turned on my full-spectrum light-bulb. There has never been a fortune so powerful that it can override our choices; I write these painful things to reinforce the belief that depression is not immune to the agency that I claim. The long, dark tunnel of this piece has light on both ends but the thesis is like a jewel wedged into an obscure niche along the way: fortune is a necessary supra-ordinate agent but its powers are not sufficient. Whatever the Mystery of God is and does, I am not excused from the role I play in my own fate. Duke Ellington wrote scores to showcase his musicians but they had to perform, to be guided while growing and rehearsing, and to persist with tenacity in order to make legendary music a reality.

The river is my device. Sitting under a bridge, in the echoes of passing cars, I remember my denials. To keep from being bogged with them, I must render them crystalline moments rather than as exhaustive tales. I cannot easily summarize the whole journey. It’s all so imperfect and imperfectly rendered. Sitting on a stump watching chunks of ice going down-stream, I pray for signs that never seem completely clear. Why did I have such difficulty beginning and concluding important class projects? I flunked college Algebra. I lost hope in making the school of music, yet I could never completely leave the trumpet behind. I struggled to relate to roommates, to approach classmates, to… to… no, I finally connected to my crush and she had a crush on me! Yes… but…

Once, I sat on a futon in K’s dormitory room, waiting for her to return from the coffee-shop with her friends because I wasn’t feeling well, again, and I quarantined myself. “I need you to be less clingy and less crazy,” she said and I earnestly desired to be free of the feelings that so inexplicably overwhelmed me. The medicine hadn’t helped; the long period of sickness, coldness, darkness, and loneliness seemed never to subside until April, after we broke-up, when I returned to the alcove beneath the bridge and blew the ashes from my soul, playing exuberantly into the Spring air and attracting the attention of a good-natured photographer… I recovered and volunteered to lead the music at our campus fellowship that fall.

Learning that K was dating J, my good friend, I felt a momentary twinkle of happiness for them– then the irrational anger. Why didn’t they tell me, first? Did they think I couldn’t handle it– everyone thinks I can’t handle anything! I’ll show everyone that I can be strong– I have reasons to be angry. Everyone wants to minimize my feelings but…now the band is failing. I’m visibly desperate and no one wants to work with me. I failed at something, again. I’m an imposter…

AC and I used to lay together for hours, drinking a trickle of wine and watching reality television. She never judged me but I felt, always, like there was something I should be doing. I was better but not the best. When apart at our separate campuses, I would call her for a half-hour to break apart the monotony of silence. Perpetually dissatisfied with myself, with the ways I distracted myself, I finally broke-up with her– something needed to change. A week later, we were together again because I couldn’t endure the lack of cuddling — and I couldn’t explain to anyone why I thought we needed to break-up — I recall her saying “This isn’t the change you’re looking for! I know you’re trying to piece your way through whatever is going-on in your head but please don’t push me away–” She helped me re-do college Algebra, shared her own struggles with me, and generally… I was never quite satisfied… I was waiting for something to happen to make me sure?

Between AC and AE, I was single for barely a breath; we all worked at the summer camp together. For the week remaining before the children arrived, I went to the chapel on the top of the hill to pray… and to scream at the top of my lungs. My parents were divorcing and my grandfather had just died– Thom later said, “we heard you in anguish but we didn’t know what to do; I knew you were going off the edge but confronting you about it seemed impossible. Before we knew it, you and AE were together…”

She didn’t want to touch me anymore; March was becoming April of the next year. Friends said it was because she didn’t understand what it meant to go through family difficulties, to see both grandfathers die in less than a year. I convinced myself I needed to endure and become a better Christian, to read the books she wanted me to. Sometimes I would beat myself about the head, when she wasn’t looking, and try to release the pressure with tears. What a relief it was when she showed-up and loaded her things into an SUV, driving into the sunset. The following November, I burned all of the conservative Christian literature and… and…

Get in the boat, reader. A kayak has appeared. Every nugget of suffering from before this moment is left behind, beneath the bridge, as we embark. Imagine my joy as I fly to New York City to interview; imagine my sense of purpose as I begin mission-training, knowing I was bound for Bethlehem, Palestine. I became part of an office of warm, determined people and spent my lunch-hours sipping tea and eating falafel beneath a Mediterranean sun; I defy the guard-tower, the dystopian check-points, the doubting voices of the ignorant…

…and at night I cannot resist the lure of pornography. I lay myself on a stone floor and cannot transcend the urges of my body. Why? How can I be Called by Whatever-God-Is and have so little self-control? The trauma of working there has not seared the darkness from me. I am a contradiction: in my strongest form and so obviously weak.

The day Mustafa Tamimi died– I never knew him personally. The story was so powerful, I could not stop thinking about it on the bus-ride home. A rocket propelled tear-gas canister — a nonlethal weapon used lethally — hit him in the head and the Israeli soldiers delayed his ambulance on purpose. They made sure he was dead. The essential flavor of The Occupation’s evil was evident. Tears started forming in my eyes but I noticed a group of young men looking at me, gesturing. I repressed it. I stuffed all of the poison back into my core. If I had just been honest, I wonder if we might have all grieved together… but I was ashamed of my emotions…

Fucking Jerusalem PD. I couldn’t stop thinking about the smug look on that cop’s face, now attaching to my reveries about soldiers breaking into my apartment in the middle of the night. Soldiers used my apartment for a crows nest during the siege of Bethlehem, years before I arrived. That week, four international aide workers had been taken from their homes: deported. The feelings and images started blending in the crucible of my mind. Soon, I was imagining how I would escape when they came for me. Maybe I would use a bed-sheet to slide down the television cable, or jump twelve feet down to the roof over the parlor, or… blast out the door with a knife in hand and stab one of them! BANG BANG BANG; I would die. I wasn’t ready…

“We want to celebrate life; this is not the way I want to celebrate your life,” Zoughbi said to me when I asked him if I should chain myself to a house about to be demolished. “Maybe,” I replied, “I could save someone’s home. Or if I die, it could draw attention to the house demolitions again.” “Oh John…” he said with compassion in his eyes, “the US media will ignore you; they will forget about you in one day.  We want you to keep working with us for the rest of your time here; we care for you. But the news media will forget you, if you try to die for us. I’ll think about more things I can have you do– your work matters, John.”

Fuck the Dutch therapist in France. I’m not even going to dignify those people with descriptions.

I hit my head over and over again on the roof of my first Washington apartment, until I collapsed crying. My father joined me on the floor and whispered “–it’s going to be okay, John.”

I felt something stilted in her hug. A few days later I heard from her: she hadn’t felt a spark but still wanted to be friends. My new therapist tried to lesson the blow but I felt as if I had failed to be lovable. The image of a beautiful woman pulling away and into the subway car–

This is a cluster of moments: the television is always too loud. It’s Emerson on O street. It’s Nick on Hampshire West Ct. It’s Michael playing ‘Planet Destiny’ and Alec talking loudly to him about the news. I harbor angry, even murderous thoughts until I finally emerge and ask for the television to be turned-down. “Sure, of course. Are you okay? Do you want a beer?” –and I felt ridiculous. Because I was.

“–I got ghosted. I thought I’d finally done everything right, Janice. I can’t get over it.”
“I’m dying of cancer. You’re going to be fine, John Daniel. But I’m dying of cancer and I just–”

Readers, I need to take a big breath. We’ve made it to an island in the middle. By the end of preschool staff training, I had found my greatest love. We picnicked by the river, embracing. It’s almost more painful thinking about how great it was to fall in love with N. Someday, maybe I can bear to recap why this romance was so different, so precious, and ultimately capable of helping me see the truth. First, I lost her.

Working at a preschool fed my deteriorating thought life nightmarish reveries that I still feel uncomfortable sharing. I recently dreamed about one of our difficult children; I was playing with him, embracing him, and speaking to him in Spanish– we were happy. When I awoke, I shivered. It made a terrible juxtaposition with all of the thoughts I had about him as the year had progressed, wishing he and many of the other children would…

Sitting on the porch of the cabin, high in Shenandoah National Park, I cannot overcome my impatience with her children. It must be them? Why did she want to bring me? Why weren’t they better disciplined?! What kind of unrealistic expectations do I have? What’s wrong with me? Am I stressed from my job? I’ll never forget the hurt look on her face when I vented my frustration. I blamed the whiskey I had drank the day before… two days before… I couldn’t understand why everything seemed to grate on me.

Sometimes, I would put my headphones on for long car-trips.

I exploded at her daughter. I didn’t understand why I felt so passionately, didn’t expect to feel so passionately…

My times alone were punctuated by fantasies about beating-up her ex, beating-up her stalker, beating-up that friend of hers I was sure wanted to come between us, beating-up my exes’ exes, beating-up myself for being an ex-peace-activist having so many violent thoughts…

We hardly talked for hours on the drive down the Michigan coast. We were both tired. I had said something nasty about the road-crew impeding us. I’m imagining myself rubbing my hands together vigorously, losing my grip, maybe pounding on the steering-wheel. We managed to endure, with the help of some coffee. The next morning, everything seemed wonderful again… my denial continued…

“Sometimes, I wish I was dead,” I told her. I’ll never regret any words more than those. That began the end.

Stunned, part of me is still sitting perfectly still at my grandmother’s house reading “The Sound & The Fury” and “Turtles All the Way Down”, one right after the other. John Green finally got me to see it: I have a mental health struggle, too. It’s finally okay. On the telephone with N the next day, I assured her that I now understand I needed to do whatever it took. “–I still have reservations,” she said. No words will ever hurt so much as those. Nothing any of my ex-girlfriends, my bad first-dates, my misguided acquaintances, or even my toxic mother could equal those words. This was the first person other than my Father and sister to love me the way I deserved, so much. My depression robbed me of her. My depression… I could have overcome all the other challenges so much more adeptly, without this handicap. I always believed I would become better, rendering this struggle moot. There was always another benchmark, another mountain peak, and once I reached that point I would be fine. I’ve run out of peaks and now I must go through the valley. Wadi nahr? *ponders*

Here’s something much more quintessentially ‘beige ninja’: applications for higher-education jobs ask if the applicant has a disability. Major depression and anxiety are listed. I always answered “No”– I suspected I suffered but I didn’t want any employer to think it was significant– I didn’t want to lose an opportunity by being honest with them, nor lose my self-respect by being honest with myself. I couldn’t see a way forward, believing that I was afflicted. I would have rather…

DAMN YOU CHARLIE! IT COULD HAVE WORKED! DAMN IT! I MIGHT AS WELL JUST…

JUST… WISH I COULD JUST… I WANT TO…

*echoing* “–that’s not the way I want to celebrate your life,” said Zoughbi.

“You’re one of those shiny people,” K once told me. She was right but I hadn’t gained a handle on that elusive enemy from within. Yet, here we are: I’ve got Charlie in a headlock. My neck tingled a little as I wrote that; it’s true. I’m getting the best of Charlie, after all these years of wrestling. I’m learning so much, lately…

I am not denying the inherent challenges in events and relationships. Rather, I wanted to reinterpret my memories to reflect the truth: Charlie exacerbated each and every situation and my denial made me unable to counter that successfully. My latest and best romance might have survived its challenges if I had been able to counter Charlie sooner. The fact that I am still alive is proof that I am in the process of mitigating Charlie: I have hope of a next greatest mission, a next greatest romance, and a next greatest piece of music or writing. I needed to turn sharply into this field of painful memories in order to curve back toward The Light again. All of this doesn’t even begin to describe the totality of my experience but perhaps it is enough catharsis for today. I can’t stay on this island– she’s gone but there could be a next time, provided that I don’t… just… no. I won’t die like that. I promise. This valley matters– the cycle will not go on as before. It’s a spiral going forward.

Now I check the box next to “I prefer not to answer,” on my applications. I wrote all of this so I would not be so eager to just fold everything nicely and place it in the past. The majority of my time and contact with other people is positive; I have swathes of good friends in my wake. I have a Masters’ Degree and a career ahead of me, guiding students on their path to success. I write all of these things so I don’t need to be afraid of how darkness has damaged my Light, anymore. I confess the darkness and it loses power; it’s been losing power ever since N broke-up with me, though it comes back in flashes (terrible reveries I’m learning to shut-off). The Truth is my friend, after all. I am a special presence in the world. Everywhere I turn, friends appear to support me as I continue. I will continue.

* * *

An Osprey in Finlandia

Musical serendipity is a hard-copy of a piano score, delivered over a week late in the mail. The shuffling songs of an iPod seem like a scrolling buffet of fortunes when our ears are hungry for significance. Earlier this week my health had recovered enough to allow me to start exercising again — the difference in my mentality is mounting but still vague. Some days, I struggle to awaken before 8 AM. Monday was such a day and I was wading through the estrangement from my mother, hung-over from the previous day. When I had finished doing lawn-work for some friends, I hit the trail for the first time in over a month. The perfect Jimmy Hendrix song flows through my earbuds at the very moment I stop running and ascend the outcrop of rocks over-looking the stream where a week ago I wanted to die. “And castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually,” he says just before singing a verse about the disabled girl who goes to commit suicide but sees the golden winged ship. Without changing artists, the device plays “Red House”. I sang along with Jimmy from the top of the rocks, bemoaning the long absence of love (“–I haven’t seen my baby in 99 and one-half days”). Perhaps we lend more credence to the songs we here by coincidence over the radio. It is so quintessentially human to construct meaning from the songs we encounter. Whatever we make of them, I think music’s power to elicit thoughts and feelings cannot be discounted.

Just as I finished Monday’s run, an osprey flew overhead with a fish in its talons. What a superb sign. On the other hand, there would be no sign for me if I had retreated to bed or the distraction of youtube videos (“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive”?). Everywhere I look, I want to see a bird carrying signs of eminent victory. Before this ill-fated winter began, I saw a barred-owl sitting in a tree by the road in daylight; I later learned that seeing owls in daylight is considered by some to be a bad omen– should we believe the owl was warning me? If I do, can I believe the osprey carried my blessing? There is a certain degree of entanglement between our choices — to run, to play, to interpret the universe — and the feedback we get from existence. Never have I ever believed in predestination; rather, I can entertain there is Mysterious Agency at work… but I have to stay aware of my own agency and practice using it. Tuesday I rose early and ran. Wednesday I faltered.

The score arrived in the mail that day; for a couple weeks I’d prepared to play trumpet in the Easter program at a church in Washington. Cynically, I decided I would rather gig-it-up that Sunday and avoid the complexity of seeing my ex-girlfriend on a major holiday. Because I only had the trumpet part in front of me for two weeks the middle of the song I rehearsed, the section where I am resting, was a complete mystery to me. After rehearsing my part a few times, I became curious and opened the score to the middle. As soon as I started to play the melody I recognized it was Finlandia. This melody has followed me, linking stages of my life with the same notes graced by different lyrics. In the Methodist Hymnal it provides the backdrop for a song called “Be Still my Soul”, which I first heard in the turbulent weeks following my parents divorces and the subsequent death of my paternal grandfather. In Palestine, I heard Finlandia again at the Ramallah Friends Meeting as the melody for “A Song of Peace” — “A Song of Peace” reduced me to tears when I started attending Adelphi Friends Meeting, two years later.

This is my song, O God of all the nations.
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is.
Here are my hopes,  my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean.
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations:
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Notice, readers, how I keep Faith on the perimeter of my musings so far. As a practicing Quaker, I shy from proselytizing in favor of waiting, expectantly, for possibilities to blossom on their own merits. Whether that happens in Mosque on Friday, Church on Sunday, or on the subway, wherever, I hope the chains of revelation are NOT confined in any way, not belonging strictly to one sect, never entirely robbed of mystery by trite explanations. For reasons unexplained, the hard-copy of the entire score was delayed. I practiced the trumpet part out of context, counting huffily through a long series of rests in the middle. On Thursday night I finally rehearsed with the organist and choir director — we are all so skilled, the practice time was brief. As everyone nodded their approval, I felt a longing to keep practicing together. Unworried by the prospect of Sunday, I simply wanted to keep playing my triumphant trumpet line while the organist played Finlandia beneath. He confessed that he’d never liked that melody and I silently marveled at how that was possible and whether it had any effect on the message I found in all of these happenings. The Maunday Thursday service commenced, with its ritual foot-washing. Forsaking the long line to the senior pastor, I yanked my socks off awkwardly in front of the ministry intern. As she took my feet into her hands, she smiled and looked up at me to ask my name– she was impossibly beautiful in that moment but I tempered that observation by reminding myself that it was a beautiful act when Jesus did it for his disciples. For a moment, I reminded myself of whom I used to be, before I was a very very quiet Quaker not proselytizing. Not that I ever was an evangelist: I was a social justice missionary in Palestine. I once washed the same dirt from my feet that Jesus washed from Peter’s. And I told the Methodist church to repent of its investments in the instruments of oppression– I thought about that as I threw my socks into the pew and took communion.

While I was marooned in Jordan watching the proceedings of the United Methodist General Conference, I sketched an osprey. Since high school, I had put a great deal of stock in red-tail hawk sightings. They are quite the common raptor next to roadways, though. The only sighting I cannot immediately dismiss as coincidence was when a hawk followed me during orientation at Michigan State University. Raptors, to me, are a reminder that Something with a higher perspective is looking after me. Yet I missed the water terribly while I was in the middle-East, so I sketched an osprey because I know they love to fish. I saw the osprey again Friday morning when I ascended the rocks, again; as if to reinforce that, I also saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers. I took all of these as a sign of hope, watching the stream in the distance.

The stream continues in my mind as I kneel by the alter rail, side-hugging my good friend Kristen. Another ex-missionary, now working for a Quaker agency. I’m always trying to coax her to Quaker Meeting, where we are intentionally contemplative, and where anyone might say anything but its possible the silence will go unbroken– sometimes that’s better. In Quaker Meeting, I live the Faith I found on a remote island near Hong Kong when I strolled past the Taoist cemetery and an old couple gestured emphatically to the beach. It was low-tide and I felt an overwhelming sense that I was exactly where I belonged, though I was fully two-worlds away from where I was born. No theology needed articulated. Yet this week the assurance that some things were going to happen– it’s Holy Week and I used to work in the Holy Land. Liturgies are not as empty for me as for most Western, white Christians– when clergy start preaching about Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus waited for his inevitable arrest, I get tingles (I mean right now, writing this, I am shivering all over) because I also felt the overwhelming sense of belonging there, among the olive trees, at a time in my life when I could fully articulate a theology of liberation. “Do this in remembrance of me,” the parishioners say, parroting Jesus Christ. My ideas of atonement aren’t sacrificial. I don’t think any of you are sinful and need an ultimate human sacrifice to be cleansed. I think our world is broken and we all need to symbolically die, as our old selves, to become the agents of change needed in this world. I call this Exemplary Atonement: where Jesus shows us how to be compassionate in fulfilling our purpose, courageous in the face of death, and then rises again to show us that new life is possible. That is my reading of the text because, after all, The Bible is a piece of inspirational literature, not a magical spell-book. Our fortune is not in The Bible; our Biblical Interpretive abilities are crucial to Fate — and we are readers of much more: of beaches, of birds, of…

–I return a day later to the same pew for a ‘Good Friday’ service. Another hand claps my shoulder: a friend from Michigan State. Everywhere I turn, people are guarding my way forward and offering reassurance: I cannot doubt that I want to keep living. The more I engage my world, the more possibilities open. Staying confined to my apartment, or to my friends’ house, or to my mother’s home, or to wherever I am waiting… when I linger, I am fading. Yet at that service, my mind was alive and rifling through the possibilities: many and sundry, I won’t make you read them all, until my eyes settled upon the choir director. This dark handsome man invited me, not knowing he would put me into the melody I needed (Finlandia). On the sly, I opened the Methodist Hymnal to “Be Still My Soul” to see what wisdom the first verse’s lyrics could bestow to me at a transitional time of life:

Be still my soul the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide
In every change He faithful will remain
Be still my soul thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end

The fact that there is something about “every change” and “thorny ways” was enough. I almost ‘lifted’ the hymnal but I caught hold of my senses. At just the right moment, Finlandia returns to me in an Easter setting. This elicits chicken-and-egg questions: does Finlandia carry fortune so well because it is beautiful ([organist] “it’s boring”) or become more beautiful because it carries fortune? Finlandia is fortunate for me because it binds these differing ideas together: first of pain in times of uncertainty, then panoramic visions of world peace, then in the Easter setting with reference to both painful uncertainty and the ultimate promise of peace. Finlandia didn’t really string those ideas together, though: I did.

On the drive home, I became possessed of the idea that I would go to the stream, collect some of its water, then run the water through a filter and drink it! “Instead of releasing my blood into the stream so I can flow into it, I will release its water into my body so it can flow into my blood.” I drove home as if I were riding on an oceanic wave, muttering to myself about all the bodies of water that were part of my body. The next morning it was ‘too cold’ and I had trouble getting out of bed. My grand plans to absorb the power of the stream into my being were thwarted. Almost immediately, the Charlie-voice leaped onto my shoulders and chided

“–what hope is there? Is there nothing that can break this cycle of–”

“WHOA WHOA!” I chided back, “–can a man sleep-in on a Saturday? Jesus slept through that Saturday– it was the mother-fucking Jewish sabbath! The day is NOT ruined, Charlie– shut-up.”

I spent most of the day writing the difficult parts of this blog post that I advised you all to skip. After I had played my trumpet part ONE MORE TIME, I became possessed of the notion again: I was going to run around the park, climb the escarpment of stones, and go down to the stream to collect its water. I ran without music, this time. Whenever I started to feel weak, I thought about that scene from Black Panther where [spoilers]– nevermind: go see “Black Panther” while it is still in theaters! When I emerged from the woods into the meadow, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to run further to be in good physical shape, yet it was vital to my mentality to be running until I was closer to knowing my limits.

For all the suspense — and wondering if I should also bath in the stream — my touchstone moment at the stream (oh no! I meant to pick-up a stone, too!) was sublime for being so comfortable. First of all, I realized I was right to chose that place to die: I would be honored to bleed-out in that spot if I did not believe there were so many sublime moments awaiting me in life. There was nothing wrong with my suicide vision except for the suicide: I am not sorry I felt that way. Nonetheless, I might get to sit near or in that stream many times. *drinks* –water never tasted so divine. I feel like this section is finishing. I saw a fox, dashing quickly away, and followed the osprey across the meadow again. Easter morning is at hand and I am toasting Resurrection. There were a few things I realized as I capped my bottle of stream water and climbed the escarpment. I think I need to ponder them longer, first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * *

I rollover my unused material to a new blogging box, just as I did to start this entry. The lights go down on me, sitting atop the high pile of rocks. Darkness lasts only a moment before we are again in the theater. “The Prosecution” competed against “Thank-you for Playing” and “Double-date” in the FIST finals — on Palm Sunday, of all days. Since then, I’ve shared the stage with W.I.T. house troupe “Commonwealth” and had a heart-to-heart with a good friend (and former improv teacher) who plays with the troupe “Madeline”. I am becoming part of that community again, with its inherent but unknown possibilities.

It was a stroke of luck I could be at the finals: they needed volunteers on short-notice and I decided it was worth the trip into Washington. “Double Date” won the competition with a set that few of us will soon forget– and jubilation ensued. The winning team-members were taking photos with the FIST trophy, still star-struck at having won. I made another choice: I grabbed a garbage can and started dutifully picking-up trash as people celebrated around me. No one told me to do it– it was the right thing to do. I won’t scene-paint for you any more, readers, because I know you’re wondering why this is important. Tucked under a step, beneath a riser, was a fortune cookie left-over from a Szechuan Pepper Daddies show. They were eliminated but this fortune cookie was missed– it waited there for me.

I am tired. I have Easter ahead of me. This cookie has been on my desk all week. I endured the process-writing about my mother and several bad memories — it’s far from complete. I took the time to dig into ideas of fortune, the apparition of raptors, and the serendipity of “Findlandia”. I promise to engage with that long-past version of myself that started this blog, in fact. However… NOW I’ve earned this fortune cookie:

“The real essence of work is concentrated energy” [I swear I finished writing before I opened it; I love it]

This is an acceptable ending. *eats the cookie’s shell* Mmm.

1562 Pennies Later…

I hit a concrete column as I tried to enter a slot in the underground parking structure at Safeway grocery store. My surprise at my nonchalance did not quite overpower an ambient numbness. I hit the same spot on my bumper’s edge (right-side, under the headlight) that struck the stump when I slid off the road in Michigan this January. My life started visibly falling apart from that moment forward, though ‘the beginning’ was surely over a decade ago. The smear of red-paint on concrete, though, was just another brushstroke in my figurative portrait of wreckage. “Hey Pontiac,” some one called to me as I opened my door, “I could take that out for $100.” I waved him off and said it wasn’t worth his time. He insisted, so I confessed I was too broke and it wasn’t worth it to me anymore. My errand at the grocery store added another, sublime layer; I opened the passenger compartment and lifted two pasta jars of pennies I inherited from my deceased grandfather in 2009. It was a Tuesday, almost nine years later.

I came to that store location for the change-machine. Safeway has a green box with a glowing stats-screen and a chute into which a person can stuff unknown sums of coins, receiving a cash voucher. The 11% fee did not deter me. Just a minute ago, I had climbed the stairs in a public place cradling glass containers mostly full of pennies! Each time I changed residences for the past nine years I carried them with– not anymore. I started dumping. The machine requires using fingers to feed the change into a slot. I glutted it, shoving droves of pennies into the slot until the display screen read “Woah! That’s a lot of change you have. Give us time to catch-up.” I watched the penny count climb, eying my old Sobe bottle half-full of nickels and dimes (a mere parenthetical compared to the river of pennies): so much change in so little time.

Uninterested in the voucher, I watched the overall penny count mount 1000 and keep going. Of course, the title gives this part away: by the time I emptied the bottle of nickels and dimes (with a few, odd pennies in it) over fifteen-hundred pennies went through the maw of the cheeky, green machine. “Seventy-three dimes?” I coughed, “holy-shit-monkeys, I had seven dollars of dimes in that bottle.” The voucher crested twenty-two dollars, though the actual value had been closer to twenty-five. The machine fed me the slip, in return; I tucked it into a sagging jeans-pocket and walked away with my empty jars to get a shopping-cart. I will never forget how I forgot them on purpose– I’ve hauled-around that Sobe bottle (with the change-slit in the lid) since the fall of 2004– no more. The beginning of the rest of my life was at hand. It always technically is but the meaning of life is whatever significance we attach to its moments so, really, the rest of my life was at hand because I chose to create a narrative turning-point from $22 of groceries, three glass containers left in the bottom of a shopping cart, the brushstroke of car paint on the concrete column, and the scabby texture beneath the headlight of my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire left from collisions two-months apart. “When I get the chance, I need to sell ‘Fiona’ like my stepdad says I should…”

I was not drunken, just a bit loopy. For two weeks I had been fighting a cold in my sinuses and chest while doubling my dosage of antidepressants. Whether the medicine or my immune system is the reason, I cannot know yet, but I was improving. Unfortunately, I cannot think about who I lost for very long before– I need to make this the critical turning-point, even if by pure story-making– to regret is necessary but I cannot let it become overwhelming — dude, do not begin to ask “what if” or else…

Earlier this year, I imagined walking to the beach. Readers, banish visions of a cleansing sun, the saltine smell of the surf, the chortles of playing gulls mingled with children’s antics, and the rainbows of beach balls and shade umbrellas. In my reverie, I walk toward Lake Michigan chasing the last amber of sundown through a knotted fabric of clouds. The wind bellows to life, driving snow into my tearing eyes; I ignore snow creeping down my boots. The silhouette of an unlit lighthouse looms over the red and green beacons marking a channel. I try not to think of the day we– but it is easy to think only of ICE. I scramble over the boulders marking the seawall, onto a crunchy moonscape of frozen H20. I can escape all signs of human life. The sound of breakers draws me far from the beach, to a glacial cliff-face that only exists in the darkest phases of winter. Second-thoughts shriek for dear life, beckon to me as I glance over my shoulder at the merry lights of docked boats, smudges of light from nearby condos, and even a few stars. A hand clamps over my face: it’s mine?! I run. I run to the sound of the waves and I finally jump, not quite knowing what kind of shock awaits me. I remember the Cliffs of Mohr, in Ireland, and the exhilaration of wondering what it would be like to jump from such great heights, not wanting to ever hit the water. This time, I want the water: the overpowering cold to finally end– “no, not the cold, Charlie, no…”

By the time I stopped that suicide fantasy completely, this February, I had already lost her. I know that I loved her because I don’t want her to suffer through this process with me; I know I still love her because I cannot bear to know how she is moving-on. Instead I live each day– March is turning to April– I’ve been unemployed since June– she couldn’t– I can’t– I am–

I ambled back to Olney, MD a month ago with hopes of a speedy recovery. Since, reality has dawned. Just Wednesday I discovered a new reverie, the incubated egg of an unseasonable blizzard in greater Washington DC. Last Autumn, when I lost my apartment and had to move-in with a friend from graduate school, I discovered a moss-lined creek down the hillside from a fun outcropping of rocks in a public park. Those were better times, even with the trees already naked of leaves. I imagine walking toward the creek with my 1974 Benge* Trumpet in my left hand and (in my right) a small, sharp pocket-knife with a bear depicted on the handle. The moss is frosted with snow, the stones lacquered to a dim shimmer by ice, but the water is flowing freely away. Poetic death is at hand. In my grandfather’s jacket, wearing my shoes from Ramallah and my kefia from al-khalil, I lower myself into the stream. I ready myself to lay flat into the tingling rush of the stream like a Viking upon his funeral pyre once my blood can escape into the stream. Bravely, I slash the soft underside of my left forearm. I transfer the trumpet to the other hand–

No, I don’t have my horn: I left it with the repair technician Tuesday. I cannot complete my suicide fantasy without it– I refuse to die without it– and thus I am spirited away to a plaza across the street from the Catholic University of the Americas in Washington. In one hand is my battered instrument case, in the other an umbrella to block the sleet. This was just before I went to the grocery store. The day matches my gloominess. A young woman with a dog greets me warmly and gives me directions to Randy’s shop. As soon as I walk-in among the instruments I clear the snot from my nostrils so I can smell them, smell his livelihood, reconnect with the smell of Ed Bagatini’s repair-shop next to Lake Michigan– insert all the sunny images that came to mind earlier. Of course I cannot die until my trumpet is repaired: I would not have lived this long without medical intervention if not for the hours of musical interventions across a score of years: my self-administered panacea for gloom. Maybe. “Take all the time you need to get her playable again; I want this instrument around for a long time.” That is my voice, speaking those words: meaning those words.

I found ‘a guy’ to meet my needs– beyond fixing a bracket. Randy and I talked shop for a long while; it may not be interesting to general audiences, except to note how special ‘Sugar’ is and the fact it will cost me at least $200 to make her playable again. “Oh,” I said, “that was about what I expected to have her repaired well.” It’s worth more than my front-bumper to me; I will never sell ‘Sugar’. Now, I imagine the police lifting her from my regal body– over my dead body! Don’t touch her. Forget it. The slash on my left forearm is closing; I ease from the water and the wet sublimates from my clothes; I stand by the frosted banks and play with the stream. I stand on the glacial cliff and play with the waves. I ignore the fairy-rings of death-caps and play with wind rustling the trees. I lay flat on porcelain and play to the bathtub as the drain-cleaner wells from my stomach and pours from the flared end of my trumpet– like a fountain.

“Fuck you, Charlie!” I say as I turn momentously onto New Hampshire avenue. A container of discount St. Patrick’s Day cookies from the grocery store slides across my dash. My reverie ebbs. Raucous eruptions of laughter blast from my frosting-crusted mouth. “Fuck-off, Charlie!” Charlie is what I call the gloomy voice. It’s the name I attached to my reflection in the mirror when I was three years old. Charlie was an imaginary friend with a real image, the inflection of my own. When it was suggested to me that I name ‘it’, at first I gave him names that were as vague as they were powerful: my dragon, the shadow beast, or (oldest of all) The Beige Ninja archetype– the deadly facet of mundane life. I could have addressed it so much sooner but– “Fuck you, Charlie, not because what you say is wrong but because you’re Charlie– I am going to beat you for the sake of beating you. So fuck-off, Charlie. You’re just Charlie.” I was ecstatic for a minute. I rewarded myself with a cheap sugar cookie gobbed-over with frosting; I loved the way they skidded across my dash as I drove my car. “That’s a taste of the old pep; that’s the spirit to continue.”

 

Charlie’s suggestions are more easily dismissed than a week ago, my own characteristics more potent to fill the breach. Then again, is this really the first-time I have started from ashes? It is a first time for some things.

To be continued…

P.S.: I also cannot die until May 18th, 2018, because I want to see the next “Deadpool” film. May 18th was my due-date over thirty years ago. Coincidence? Yes, I believe it is.

*Silver-plated, extra-large bore. Randy noted how the marking on the base of bell-pipe, which should be turned outward to be seen, was turned inward where I had hardly noticed it. “It looks like it was re-plated at some point. Huh… and you don’t know anything about that?”

Of course…

“Do you have something else to play in the mean-time?” “Yes! A Bach Mercedes II from the ’90s.” “Oh, those are nice.” “Yeah.” “Does it have the shepherds’ crook near the bell?” “Nope; straight-out.” “Well, I bet it still plays beautifully.” “Definitely; I won’t be SO lonely without my Benge. I have my ‘Sadie'”

Red Car versus Cold Blues

“This is it,” I whispered as my 2005 Pontiac Sunfire lost traction, sledding past the edge of the sloping curve, down a snow-swamped bank, and into an inescapable pocket next to a stump. My luck made itself known immediately: an officer from the county jail found me and let my chat with him in his truck. I was one county away from home after a half-day’s drive from Washington DC, I explained, and once I got into South-west Michigan I decided to take country roads so I could be in from the blizzard faster. Officer John and I discussed life transitions and my employment situation; I accepted what had happened, waiting there for my stepfather and trusting that all would be well. I was impressed with my own calm. The journey had already changed my perspective in small ways — listening to pop music, realizing what was important to me back in Maryland, convincing myself that my time in Michigan would be formative. It is becoming formative but, believe me, losing my car off the side of the road has not been the greatest challenge. The tow-truck driver treated us terribly the next morning, due to a miscommunication between county and state police about the status of the vehicle, but even that seems like a funny anecdote now.

Unemployed and in debt, I returned at the suggestion of my mother and stepfather, for no more than eight weeks, to help them with my grandmother and earn some money to pay my back-rent. I thought it might be a simple respite from feeling stuck. I did not realize how deep my rut in Maryland has really been… nor did I fully appreciate how it was affecting someone else until… …mind if I skip around a little? This is going to be gloriously POORLY written because I just need to—

* * *

Fiona at camp, 2009

I named her Fiona Sunfire. One day in April my paternal grandparents shocked me with the gift of a key-fob… with a key in it. They walked me, in a half-stunned state, into the driveway to meet a red compact with gorgeous lines (I don’t care what anyone else thinks about Pontiacs or Sunfires– I was elated). Fiona didn’t make my life instantly better; I was finishing my undergraduate studies and unsure how to find employment. A then-girlfriend (AC) invited me to work with her at the summer camp where we had met– by awful coincidence my parents split-up and my maternal grandfather died in the same weekend. Just like that, I was climbing into Fiona Sunfire to find a space of peace, a space I could control, and a means of going forward. Undercurrents of emotion that had laid dormant or else stifled during college came to the surface like geysers. One relationship ended while another began; my circle for friends became different, smaller; I was angry at my father for initiating the divorce and as for my mother– nothing I said seemed to make a difference to her but… …gradually, I found an abandoned cabin on camp grounds where I could scream, sing, pray. All of the nameless angst seemed to suddenly have labels. Two years later, I changed all the labels and moved out of the country. While Fiona sat in a garage on the farm in Michigan, I was angry with the apartheid regime in Israel. In Washington, the feelings followed even as the attached issues continued to change. I notice, as I reflect, the anger faded into irritability, that into anxiety, and sometimes that would wear away to reveal… …nope. For a long time I went to therapy and kept-up the story: there were irritations, injustices, and worries. I gave all of my feelings the same level of dignity, assigning them real-life causes and explanations. I was tentative to suspect what I suspect, now… …or perhaps I suspected but refused to indict. Is the effect the same?

* * *

My friend Megan poses in Charlotte, NC

I once loaded Fiona and drove overnight to visit my friends in Charlotte. I knew my mood was slipping and I believed that seeing friendly faces in a different climate would make the difference; I wanted a quick fix. Quickly, I hustled through the snowy night, across the plains of Ohio, and into the mountains of West Virginia. Then, Fiona had siped tires (tiny grooves cut into the treads for better ice-traction). Despite the falling snow, I sped through the mountains and into Virginia and North Carolina at speeds in excess of 70 mph, passing other cars with confidence and glee. The snowy weather moved even faster. A few friends makes some difference but the glum pall lingered even there. It seemed vanquished in the Palestinian summer, six months later, but at a year-to-date from my Charlotte trip it was raining in Bethlehem, and in Ireland, and it might as well have been dark in Amman by the time I was there… alone with no orders to busy myself with nor means of going forward…

* * *

It gets worse, first. Last May I had a terribly job and a wonderful girlfriend. I lost the former. My car became my greatest financial asset, something assured and safe. It was the vehicle of our vacation, my means of shuttling back and forth to her home, to Quaker meetings, and would-be interviews — there were few. The labels and explanations became her stalker, her ex, my former supervisor, our current president, myself… …this part is hard to explain. I thought I had outrun decline, at last. Fiona carried me out of the house where my room was too small into a beautiful apartment that cost much more. Fiona carried me back to somewhere every day/night I wanted. The apartment became the symbol of my tunnel-vision for the past several months. As long as I could stay there, I thought everything would be okay. Even as the spaces of that apartment became haunted with — intrusive thoughts. The disappointment seemed to ferment and distill into bitter thoughts. To go into detail is painful. A steady trickle of intrusive, bitter ideas had followed me since I first packed Fiona for camp, they born from tensions in college that, themselves, I had always found ways to catalog and explain. My trickle became a stream, then a river. It overflowed its banks — I stayed two months extra in my apartment without paying, convinced that a job break-through would become the dam. Becoming displaced seemed like the worst possible thing. At the same time, I was apprehensive to share how dire my situation was becoming — except with my girlfriend. I would explain further but I think I should just repeat: my girlfriend was fully aware of the state I was gradually working myself into but the rest of my network remained largely un-activated — I imagined waiting until my breakthrough, to break the good news that I was going to be okay, that I had overcome the adversity of my own power, that I had worth, that I should be loved by… … …me? Meanwhile, she has way too much on her plate already…

* * *

The 1970 Stingray I got to TOUCH under the hood.

When we finally got her away from the tow-truck driver, Fiona had a bad case of the shakes. I recognized the end of an era creeping upon me. I was ready to accept. Yet what I surmised and what I felt were not the same. Soon, Fiona was in the auto and boat shop with my stepfather and his cohorts. We gleaned the snow and grit out of her undercarriage and the shaking ceased. I learned to change the oil and the oil filter, watched a broken headlight repaired, and worked with Mike and Paul to secure my loosened muffler. Fiona was going to be okay but I was not.

For a while, the carpenter with whom I was supposed to work was out of contact — but he called and I worked with him this week. That was not the problem. In the mean time I spent some time looking after my 94 year old grandmother; she is increasingly frail and confused– but that is not the problem, either. I went to work with my stepfather in the car and boat shop many of these days but that is definitely not the problem. His coworkers have been downright sweet and supportive to me; Paul let me help him check fluids on a 1970 Corvette Stingray. For just a moment I sat in the driver’s seat to pop the hood… but that doesn’t make it all better.

The sinking feelings became heavier and heavier — I am having some right now. I felt the cold, the distance. Text messages are not enough. Sitting next the lamp, reading to distract myself, I couldn’t stop checking. Most days are overcast like dull nickel and just as dark, the temperatures often below… below…
I imagine myself walking down the beach at lake Michigan. I imagine myself walking onto the pier. I imagine the end is icy, that there might be ice going out for yards, that there is a lapping edge… “If THAT happens, then…” and etc. and etc. I know it’s toxic but. I know but what will I do? I don’t know what to do. It’s dark. If something good happens, then. Is she…? We’re okay? I know I should be doing. Which? I can’t decide. I just want. If THAT happens. What’s? Is something wrong over there? What’s wrong with? Me? The Lake. That would work. Every thing, all of it, would finally.
These thoughts hearken-back to others had throughout the Autumn.  I said to her once “I wish I was dead,” and I’ve regretted it ever since. That should have been when I called the therapist but I was habituated to the morbidity in my thoughts.
“Maybe I’ll… maybe I’ll” “Staying the course, quit panicking…” “I need to check, I need to stay close with her…” “Maybe I’ll drive back, since Fio–” “The Lake, it’s cold enough, if THAT happens on top of everything else–” “Don’t let any of this show… you can’t show. Don’t talk about it. Just. I should be doing some–” “Maybe we’re okay–” “I’m not okay but–” “But the Lake is cold enough if–” “Don’t become a self-fulfilling prophesy–” “Why? Whywhywhywhywhywhywhy” “Don’t let anyone see…..”

One morning I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit washing over me like waves on a shore; I cried and understood it as a reassurance. I ought to know by now that God is the sort of parent that pats me most tenderly right before an even greater level of pain and difficulty. Don’t stop reading– come all the way to the end with me.

Finally, the power-cord to my computer died. Let me take a deep breath instead of explaining my luck with electronics. As soon as the power-cord died, I decided that what I was doing was not working. I decided I needed help. It was prescient of me. The next day I had a conversation I had been dreading and– it was private. Nothing is completely under water. There are reservations. There is the need for space. There is… more passive voice to describe without giving details. How much is too much to say? I understood; I found clarity. The anxiety issues are becoming more clear in hindsight. I feared to see them because the way forward is not … my apartment. I wish it were daylight when I am writing this. Where is daylight? How am I going to prove… What am I doing?  Not jumping into a cold lake. Never. That line of thinking and all similar are now flagged as invaders. They cannot be reconciled, or ‘solved’ — they must be dismissed. Not by ignoring. We’re going to. I promise there is hope. The cycle is going to end, even if THAT happens. If THAT happens, I’m still going to hang-in-there. I’m never going to threaten The Lake to try to prevent THAT; that’s not what I want! I want to LOVE! I want to be here to show support.

What am I doing?

* * *

I have been taking action ever since. It’s mostly because I love her, I can’t lie; I couldn’t get started down this path any other way– not with my history. Someone had to love me as the adult I am, not get hungover on loving me for the child I was. As the support network comes alive, they say the things they should say, things that are correct but not resonant. I am supposed to focus on taking care of myself. Something people have difficulty understanding is that my self-respect and self-love are not the same; that conceptual difference escapes most people. Someone said “but they go hand-in-hand” to which I said “yes, and one of them is limping.” My self-respect is what I believe about my capabilities and the ideals I should represent– it’s high. Self-love is more nuanced. For the first time, I am willing to entertain that getting treatment is not a temporary course to correct something detrimental in my experience but a life-long course to do whatever it takes to be functional — to love myself and others as best as I can. In the former case, medicine seems like something to be avoided because it introduces variables that could prolong. The latter accepts that this struggle is already prolonged –it denies the narrative I’ve told myself: that I have successive, separate struggles. All struggles are one because she loved me for as long as she did– because she said she still does, despite reservations. Inherent is a threatening uncertainty but a basic truth remains: somebody loved me, finally! Wonderful! Terrible! Wonderful because this cycle of labels and escapes and and and would continue but now it is going to end. Terrible because I might have come to this point too late to save the love that made it possible? Too late to become strong and return that love twelve-fold? It would be such a shame and I won’t let that happen without putting forth the best effort…

I am doing things…but I will not do them alone. This is the time to contact everyone I was shy to ask for assistance. I’m trying not to judge myself anymore as I spit all of this out. I was so afraid to discover that there wasn’t any hope at all and boxed myself into that apartment. Yet. Yet there was always this will to go forward, ever since I first put Fiona into gear. I remember a counselor I saw for just eight weeks, named Lennox Forester; he had the aura of a church-uncle but I’ll never forget his answer to my assertion that ‘nothing had worked yet’ — “you haven’t given-up yet, though…” he said, smiling at me. Some might call my elevated self-respect ‘pride’ but it also does not allow me to ever fully despair. When my thoughts about Lake Michigan became a near-plan for suicide, I made even more explicit plans to see my cousin in North Carolina if “THAT” happened… even if I had to repeat my feat with Fiona, driving 70+ through the mountains in the winter. A major source of hope is actually tangled-up in my bad behavior. All of my coping mechanisms, misleading categorizations, and other not-quite-enough efforts… all of that is evidence of my determination to overcome, even when my understanding of “what will I do?” was less clear. I am actually just as strong as I always wanted to be– I just have a greater handicap than I ever wanted to realize. I can be worthy of love (of self-love?)… I can get where I need to be, I’ve always had the WILL. I need help with direction and, yes, there is help…

I called my old therapist and set an appointment for two weeks from now. Fiona and I are running into the sunrise together — we’re stopping to see good friends in Pennsylvania (arranged). My Quaker Meeting is creating a support committee that will help me discern what my next steps should be. When I lost my apartment, I was welcomed into the home of a former classmate… who works in my career field. He told me to “hang-in-there”. A friend from college: “hang-in-there”. A close mutual friend of my girlfriend and I: “hang-in-there”. Mike and Paul in the auto-garage: “hang-in-there”. Old friends on the telephone, with whom I haven’t spoken in months, say “hang-in-there”. I got notification about a possible interview, I told myself “hang-in-there”.

Pessimistic thoughts. Impatient thoughts. Angry thoughts. Fatal thoughts. Jealous thoughts. Prejudiced thoughts. Self-righteous thoughts. Tired and discouraged thoughts, panicked thoughts: I told them all “Well, that’s not helping.” I’m talking back to them — like they are coming from somewhere else. They are not coming from my core-intentions. They were never coming from my core intentions. That’s why I was always of ‘two-minds’ about my girlfriend’s children or her ex or whatever thing… this anxious streak has trouble with uncertainty but I, me, myself, JD, am a loving person. I intend love, strength, and support. I’m going to talk back to these errant thoughts with a new confidence. I used to discuss with them as if they were part of me but not I am going to shout-them-down because they are not ‘me’. They are gliches, bad-wiring. I am a noble machine with a few cross-threads and crossed-wires… I’m not going to the junkyard, I’m a classic. I need T L C from my communities…

 

This turned from a story into a long vent. A vent that I needed. There is so much more……….

This piece ought to end with some neat piece of information. Over two years ago my sister met a man at a costume party in Fort Wayne, IN hosted by mutual friends. They dated long-distance. I met the guy several times and thought he was okay — yet I was reluctant to put much ‘heart’ into getting to know him. I knew my sister loved him but the distance in their relationship made me wonder if they would last. He and I finally talked… about relationships, anxiety, depression, and the processes involved. He talked about feeling like he was ‘smart’ and supposed to “think his way out of it” — Me Too. He shared about his reluctance to talk about it or get any attention for his struggles because… people would laugh? He didn’t deserve the attention? — Me Too. We both took years. Both of us, each of us, sunk years into trying to attach whatever-it-is to outside reasons, to circumstances or other people. Though I’ve spoken with many people since THAT-almost-happened, this conversation was the most comforting of all. He understood so well — and he could be my brother-in-law. It was uncanny how relieved it felt to finally connect to him; I felt a little pang of resistance at the beginning but I let it go. That little pang of resistance is something I’m learning to let go, even though it didn’t appear to be related to the BIG aches. There are many small appendages to ‘this’ … and none of them quite belong but all of them require more patience, more love, from me. Love for me from myself for the sake of addressing these ‘impulses’ that are not welcome in myself. Not anymore. Even if THAT happens and no one loves me again, I’m not letting the love I experienced go entirely to waste.

Even if Fiona breaks-down (she will)… I suppose I don’t need her to run forever because I have stopped running forever.