A River to Wash the Pain

I feel like I need to get this off of my chest: I lacked courage all along. Just now I asked myself “why don’t I feel like writing even though I know I want to be an author?” yet another instance in scores of times. This time I answered myself honestly: “because I don’t want to feel how far from excellent, perfect, and totally confident I am at that art.” I know that I need to go through an awkward, even repulsive exploratory stage and I do fear that time will soon be biting my heels, since I could have chanced writing garbage in my teens and twenties rather than waiting for a Light from Heaven to make the task easy. I did not suffer from lack of encouragement. I suffered from always finding some cramp or another in my life to rob me of extra energy, and therefore provide me with endless excuses, distractions, and even responsibilities. The final category is most insidious because those things are easily mistaken for things I ‘should’ be doing. All the while, I’ve often kicked myself both for not reading enough and not writing enough, for not reviewing what I’ve already done enough and for not doing new things enough. I’ve been like an overly strict parent to myself.

Not so with music. My passion burned hot at a tender age, then slackened under the corrosive influence of my teenage days. At only seventeen or eighteen I had to shoulder the heartbreak of not being good enough for the two schools of music I auditioned for– yes, I only auditioned at two schools and expected life to hand me a success. I failed in auditions and excelled at application essays. Dr. John T. Madden, then director of athletic bands, urged me to continue at Michigan State University… as an English major because I wrote eloquently. Yet when I spent a month away from the trumpet, I swear to you that an alcove under a bridge enticed my sixth sense. I knew its acoustics would be exquisite; I went beneath the bridge to nurse the musician in me who would not die. In Creative Writing classes I did well but was plagued by the need for deadlines, sometimes even for whiskey, to get me over my speed-bumps. Meanwhile, I found even more nooks in which to keep my embouchure dredged, toned, and ready in case I miraculously returned to music as a career.

Reality eventually hit me hard. After my undergraduate days, my writing became inconsistent — as it is to this day. My personal life collapsed, which is an inevitability in life. Something remarkable happened: I gave myself permission to be the shitty musician who plays in a riverside park every day. Again, some space was calling to the musician in me. This time, I gave myself wholly to the notion that I had no future — I was only playing to be playing. Fully present with the instrument, I could be absent to the rest of my failings. Despite or even because of having less talent and promise as a musician than as a writer, I became a musician in the truest sense: I’d rather die than not play, I’d rather not die so I could keep playing. The voice of the inner musician saved me at age 24 and then again just a few weeks ago– I play at a blues jam. The funniest part is that I am a better musician after seven years. I knew it was possible but I could not set my sights on something that took so long. I had to close my eyes to the future because I lacked that kind of patience… yet the patience to be imperfect on my instrument, in the present moment, was something that I gained automatically.

I never stopped believing in myself, neither as a writer nor a musician. As a musician, I stopped worrying about myself as much. The black dots and lines of classical training went away and I relied wholly on my ears, probing for sounds, and getting better at improvising… rehearsing the feeling of getting lost and finding my way in scales, lately in blues chord progressions or attempted variants of familiar tunes. There were no more ‘mistakes’, as if I were performing for invisible audiences, as whatever I played would go forward and backward in imagined time like tides rising and falling– trying this combination of notes, then another, then changing the inflection again…

…it’s easy to forget how difficult it used to be. Those first few weeks by the river, with a broken heart, hearing my mistakes on trumpet was still painful. My resolution was to feel the pain in the presence of the river and my music, feel the pain of my imperfections on trumpet along with the rest of my decaying life. Practice makes happy, as music students sometimes say, and I gave myself the gift of a facet of life that I could improve upon. Moreover, I am so much an audiophile that I eventually became my own supporter; who else but me can play me what I am feeling? I can play you all what I am feeling without feeling as vulnerable, since my faults are transliterated in music; listeners are free to interpret.

Here, in ink, I am still my own biggest critic and I fear my words are less elastic. Glancing at my guitar, the one I can’t actually play, I am reminded of how much striving goes into art. Terms like “process-oriented” versus “product-oriented” are missing the crucial dialectics of art. Is the art a module to add on top of yourself, to try to stretch your outline bigger in this world, or is it an emulsifier — something you use to blur that outline and transform?

 

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Conflux #1

Vocabulary.com offers conflux as a synonym for confluence, as “a flowing together” or “the act of blending together components thoroughly”; its connotations are slightly different from the riparian ‘confluence’, which is the name of a nascent entry that I never wrote because I could not get it perfectly in-mind.  After browsing an entry by a blogger who liked my previous post (in August), I wanted to answer his critique of diversity-driven comic-book plots but I lacked a good angle. Firstly, I do not read comic-books. Secondly, I did not want to offer any more trite ‘white-privilege whack-a-mole-ing’ that fails to benefit anyone disadvantaged. It also grows boring to read white people’s empty castigations of each other– its just another film on the surface occluding our view of the channels beneath.

Still, my reader needs to realize that diverse identities, encounters, and relationships (especially the intersection of all these) are global society’s fascination de jur; we thirst for a broader palette of stories. With practice, the new generation of storytellers can develop characters just as strong as past-protagonists, yet whose settings are not only more complex and intriguing by virtue of heterogeneity but also having immediacy, relevant to a moment in history where the world is webbed by circuits. I intended to describe an allegorical space where multiple streams come together, as well as feeling sadness for the other blogger who wants to stay upstream in the limited beauty of a single channel, suggesting some are disdainful toward the rapids of confluence because they…

There is an impasse. Because I do not want to cannibalize someone who actually read my post, I recognize my envy: I know the blogger I critique has written extensively, whereas I have only waded again and again into the confluence and allowed it to churn me. That explanation is faux-artistically figurative, misleading: I’m unemployed and broke. I wanted to feel better about myself before I aimed a hose of cold water at my reader– I would rather not play ‘white-privilege whack-a-mole’ without a mallet. Therein lies the ugly truth, eh? How could I swing a gavel when…

And now, for a brief word from out sponsor…

‘BAM! BAM BAM!’ goes a hammer against a table-top. Were you skimming? This could be an excellent place to put your keel in the water: a new stream enters. I thought about killing myself, often. Do not misunderstand: I never had a plan or strong impetus toward suicide; I just entertained those thoughts as my guest. Suicide would join me for dinner, a walk, reading on the futon, perhaps waiting with me for my lover, and in all manner of domestic settings and tasks.
“Isn’t it a shame you don’t own a gun? It would simplify matters were you to need to end your pain, hypothetically,” said a dry, morbid voice over tea.
“I concede that,” I say, sipping, “but I’d hate to give the weapons industry any profit whatsoever, you understand.”
“Yes, indeed, but what if you were to put a note in your hand that said ‘it’s the gun industry’s fault — promote gun-control’. You could make an example of yourself.” (“It’s an idea.”)
While I washed dishes, he’d say “I love the romantic ideal of a long knife to the heart– a pity it would be so painful.”
“Oh! It would be gruesome and I can scarce imagine mustering the gumption,” I shuddered.
“Unless you were to imbibe something quite numbing–” he interjects, “–but not nauseating. Can you think of anything?” Plates clinked together for several beats. “Probably not: a shame that the buildings are not taller in Washington nor that the river stays too warm to cause hypothermia quickly enough nor…”
“–hypothetically… but indeed,” I concede as I towel my hands and reach for a cookie.
“Yes, you might get others to understand that ‘right to die’ has dignity,” said he, then asked, “life is really worth indefinite suffering?”
“Someone else’s life might be,” I’d say, catching his mood, “it’s a pity I can’t sacrifice myself to save a child from slavery or donate my organs for medical research– just as options. I suppose I’ll go on living; things could get better if I’m lucky.”
While playing trumpet, more recently, my morbid voice came calling: “It’s a pity you’re in your friend’s home– if you hadn’t lost your apartment you wouldn’t have to worry about emotionally scarring his family by impaling yourself–naturally, just a hypothetical scenario.”
I looked at my trumpet, played a few notes, and muttered ‘this is not normal for me.’ Entertaining suicidal thoughts is not quintessentially who I am– but playing the trumpet IS. My skills may rise and fall (no forthcoming albums) but playing music is quintessentially ME living into my OWN being, continuing as my SELF. The suicidal thoughts had seemed like part of my fabric, like dye, but they were only deep stains awaiting a superior solvent; my history with music predates their premises. “Intrusive thoughts: you don’t belong. Get thee behind me!”

“‘Sex’,” I say warmly, ringing the rim of a wine-glass with a silver spoon. Skimming, were you? That’s quite fine because another stream joins here, its entrance raising a swirl of eddies where readers can linger. As you all see, the name of this entry is conflux, not confluence. I chose the obscure synonym so I could tailor its connotations to the purposes of this evolving piece; I learned the word while, finally, searching ‘confluence’. I improvised. I dove into this torrent for a sunken branch and emerged with a polished stone. ‘Conflux’ has similarity to ‘influx’ or ‘in-flux’, each bringing their whispered meanings to confluence like the wind rustling leafy branches overhanging a river. ‘The influx brings me into-flux’. New material is discovered and introduced, now that a writing process is allowed to proceed and a dam gate opened; the presence of newness creates the state of change and heightens uncertainty. The perfection I called precocity must weaken and the pain of living becomes sharper. Life is not worth all of this pain; life is worth the pain, pleasure, and presence. Life is actually bigger than both the pain and the temptation to end it by ending my life. Suicide is the ultimate stifling of expression and my inner-musician would not tolerate it.

And this conflux is an imperfect reflection of the idea, of itself, much like a fast-flowing stream provides a poorer reflection yet is a natural, forward vehicle~

Bog Flowers, Nut Armor, and the Paradox of Precocity

Cattail in swamp foregroundSeeds germinated. Burial makes life possible two-thousand years later: bogged-resurrection, the wait that moves life forward. Ending and beginning are impossible as opposites before they have fused together in one moment. Something is dissolving in me: let me set the scene…

My dearest is a botany teacher; I will call her Apricot from now on. She suggested we go to the Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens, here in Washington, DC. Look East of the Anacostia on a map to find them, nowhere near the National Mall nor the affluence of the Northwest quadrant. Tucked near marshes that bear a vague sheen of pollution is a series of submerged beds brimming with exotic plants. We have a quirky, sweet love — nerdy, too. She peers knowingly into the pores and gills of capsized mushrooms. We share a compulsive curiosity for the aboriginal world and the interwoven ribbon of human culture. She relishes books but her PhD is in Plant Pathology. I hungrily read pop-science articles but my BA is in English, my MA in International Education. Accidentally, we studied to be partners: the consummate biologist and the nascent intellectual — the writer to be.

Sacred Lotuses, dozens of themApricot and I prowled from the garden gate to the marsh boardwalks behind, among hundreds of ‘sacred lotuses’. They might have seemed common to me by morning’s end if not for their enormous, pale-green leaves and quinceañera-pink blossoms. Yet as we prepared to leave we noticed an ancient jewel in a murky bathtub. An unburied treasure resides in the concrete basin behind the green-house: lotuses cultivated from seeds that were 2000 years old. The revelation surprised me less than it impressed me but, that morning, I had not fathomed the depths of its significance.

An opening blossom next to a seasoned seed podShe read an autobiography by respected female scientist Hope Jahren, a fellow plant-lover. It is called “Lab Girl” and Apricot regaled me of a part from the middle, one long weekend. I considered the book ‘spoiled’ but more than a month later she insisted I should read it. I am simultaneously nibbling the posthumously published “Letters from the Earth (Mark Twain writing in the voice of Satan), taking regular doses of “Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity”, and big gulps from a book of Thomas Merton excerpts (”Echoing Silence”). Each is thought-provoking but, one long weekend, I started Jahren’s book in hungry need of a story to follow.

Lotus seed-podsWhen I told Apricot excitedly about the third chapter — the one about seeds — it was elementary to her. She is a plant scientist: she enjoyed connecting to the author in the discipline they both love. She knew seeds were alive all along… all along. I cried, of course, because I connected to the stories of seeds! The idea that an embryo was already alive, already waiting, waiting for just one chance to grow, still alive when the muck rises (the decades too), ready to split safety asunder and begin when the conditions are right — it all seemed an epiphany to me. The lotus pods sank into Chinese peat bogs and neither died nor flourished for millennia: they waited. It should not have been surprising yet I was deeply impressed. I thought about armor-clad black walnuts — and the jacket of bitter green material around their nuts, too. Miraculously, the walnut embryo can stay alive and suspend its arboreal ambitions until that thick, pungent ball of impossibility finally wears away. Apricot nodded and smiled over her tea, adding, “it can travel a long way, too.”

A large, glistening dew-drop on a leaf“This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up the hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell. …I wonder where it is right now,” Jahren muses. I saw its contemporaries well into their growth, their glorious residency in the concrete basin at the Kennilworth Gardens. “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

Giant amazonian lily-padsI told Apricot, “whatever it is I’ve been desiring, I’m going to have to let it go,” in so many words, to favor germinating as myself — primarily a writer. My seed-coat could be made of precocity. As a child I was possessed with not only curiosity and originality but a pernicious precocity. I really thought my place at the front of the parade was assured and I would adapt and excel quickly at each juncture of my vocation. Instead of accepting short-falls as lessons from experiment and exercise, I felt them as holes missing from my self. Precocity’s opioid is the delusion of an instant opus, a redeeming work with no basis in trial. In lieu of excellence I dreamed of significance, a budding desire to play my role in global society. I attempted to cultivate bulbs of justice or else gild my own suffering, trying to hammer the shape of my own significance onto the surface of the pervading Internet. As I scrolled I became both partner and thrall to the addictive tapestries of “new media” and cocooned myself there, with the masses. I could not forge myself faster into something greater (precocious) but I ache to create meaning, still. Still, I am alive inside. The shells of my dissatisfied adolescence are not predictive of my deeper essence; the inner-child and the nascent elder are continuous (weirdly eternal!) and tend to muse rather than accomplish, to complicate as much as resolve — qualities that create existential drag but also eddies of provocative writing. I can accept the long processes of growth and discovery, if my protective coat of precocity dissolves in the promise of generative praxis.

'Impressionist' photo of a lily-pondMillions perish in a season, yet thousands of embryos retain viability, waiting for the right conditions to make one (only one) attempt to grow or perish. The paradox of the seed-coat holds me in suspense. Seeds get kicked to sunnier places, survive being eaten, float from coast to island — or wait on their parent tree until a raging fire melts the seal on their cone. The lotus’ coat entombed them in the bog — intact. Yet a seed might lose viability before its chance: split open on pavement, shat into a sewer, sunken in sediment to be fossilized, or imprisoned in cones on Mackinac Island where brush-fires are quenched by human authorities. So goes, also, my viability as an artist. Just over a year ago, a gardener about sixteen years older than me invited me to the U.S. Botanic Gardens to check-out an enormous corpse flower. To love and be loved mutually is a liberating condition. All of my gushing is distilled to one sentence: my ‘sweet apricot’ is the fire that opens my cone and, after this love, the cone cannot be resealed. Rather than patching the holes in myself, I sense they are necessary for my destiny to unfurl. My pungent, overwrought shell is cracking and the loam enveloping me is warm and wet. This soil is acceptable and my shoots and roots declare that emergence is NOW.

“Yes, we have to learn to write disciplined prose. We have to write poems that are “Poems”. But that is a relatively unprofitable and secondary concern compared with the duty of first writing nonsense. We have to learn the knack of free-association, to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely. Rather than making an intellectual point and then devising a form to express it, we need rather to release the face that is sweating under the mask and let it sweat out in the open for a change, even though nobody else gives it a prize for special beauty or significance.”

-Thomas Merton, “Why Alienation is for Everyone”, 1968
(emphasis mine)

'Apricot' stands on the boardwalk

Love wears a purple rain-jacket and walks with me on misty mornings.

Like all towering trees, I will begin in near insignificance and make sugars in the shadows. The canopy is far away. As Hope Jahren indicates later in her book, some lucky little trees have the benefit of being in symbiosis (with fungi). Someone established is nestled close to me, sharing in the journey upward.

Finding Balls on my Walk (another fragment)

Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

Photo-Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

I needed to go walking. How I knew I needed to walk can be the subject of a longer reflection, some other time. I varied my pace as I meandered through my Northeast D.C. neighborhood casting glances into obscure alleys or across the surface of familiar houses in order to hook something new with my eyes. I plugged my ears with the sounds of a band I liked before I left Michigan; I plugged into the lyrics of a song by Fireflight:

[Verse] “I want to know you/
There’s so much at stake/
Can’t face the memories/
They bend me till I break/
Hiding from the past/
But it’s eating me alive/
Can’t block it out/
When it’s coming from inside”

“Precious denial, a stone to break my back/
The chains I carry won’t cut me any slack/
Imprisoned by fear with no room for my heart/
My only hope, only you can heal the scars…”

“Every turn leads me to a new dead-end/

lost again, I’m screaming your name/

[Chorus]

Come close come close and call my name/

How can you turn your back on me when you know my pain?/

Stay close, stay close; light up the night/

Save me from the part of me that’s begging to die”

‘John Daniel’ used to mean something but I prefer to be called ‘JD’ most of the time. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and started to turn my palms upward. Quickly, I opened one eye and started to look around: was someone watching? Instead, I kicked a chunk of concrete up the street, up the route I had almost traveled, and took a sharp left toward home, toward the prospect of continuing a project for graduate school. The way downhill to the bridge that spans the train-tracks was punctuated with patches of asphalt, as out of place as tuxedo jackets laid over potholes, and buckled sidewalks like broken saltine crackers. A little rivulet ran along one edge. I weighed staying in D.C. versus looking for adventure abroad. Then, I thought of a friend who said she was moving to Iowa (with a boyfriend) and what a dismal idea that is if she wants to work in our field (International Education). There are solid reasons I might voice my dissent to her but sometimes I varnish better motives with my own vocational tensions — and I know it. These are both the sheen and the stain on my opinions. I stay silent, supportive.

I noticed the rivulet again: its speed, the way it carried debris, the volume of water moving down this little side-street to a storm grate by Vista street. For a second I imagined a capsized pot, the size of a car, spilling an endless supply of water onto the street from its absurd depths. I wondered from where the stream flowed, whether from a broken water-main or an unseen mountain of snow. Only a week ago I meandered through a groove in the snow piled on both sides of every road. A week ago I inhabited, I wandered, I explored a different scene in the same place.

Kirby's Dreamland Villain (cute, stationary)The water disappeared into the curb inlet and I went left, again, along Vista. On Vista my hooking eyes caught dozens of visions. Dropped from some unknown tree were a multitude of… spikey-balls? A fruit or nut of an unknown species, they looked all at once like giant cockle-burs or wilted, alien flowers. They reminded me of cartoon maces or generic, stationary foes from NES video games: “Kirby’s Dreamland” and its ilk.

Mines at sea.Before I could unhook them, they all turned into choices. I could step on them intentionally, with glee or curiosity or even sadness or, rather, I could fix my gaze on the distance and allow myself to trample them like wine-grapes. I could have embraced them, could have allowed them to happen, but I avoided them. Which choice of hundreds could be best? What if they really belonged to someone else and I ruined them? What if they made a mess on my shoes? These multitude futures, I decided, need to be left as they are until I could be certain. I want to come back with a machine, like the ones at the Bethlehem co-op, and pour all of them down its diesel-scented gullet and turn them into oil: dream-oil. Like olives, that cannot be eaten unless they have cured or are processed, I left them all alone. I did not pick one up, because I could not be sure that one of them was not my dream, or a dream I might regret, or…

Each spine became a button, a trigger-ball floating in the stream of my life. No, I did not touch all of those choices and their multitude of futures. They could be mines! Am I ready to explode? Am I fully qualified as the bomb? Have I practiced blowing-up enough? Can I find the time for combustion? What if my explosion isn’t as good as someone else’s… no…

A block further and many sidewalk-cracks later, I stepped in some dog-shit that I had not expected. That was probably gushing with symbolism, too, but I wish it had not gushed into the sole of my shoe. The copious, cleansing snow-piles that covered the sidewalks just a week ago succumbed to time. So I walked back to the minefield on my way to the stream. I wanted to stomp on one of those choices and see what future was inside but it was too late. Going backward, they had all turned into memories. They were all the past, now. Now, my dreams were flowing through the past. I stood on one leg, almost ready to reminisce — but how could I be sure that… how could I be… could I… how?

As I washed the dog-shit off my shoes, I wondered what what secrets bathed and clung to my shoes, what came next, and why this walk made me feel like writing…

Smashed Pear (entry fragment)

He left when he heard I was graduating. I wanted to follow him into the hallway and plead that I could drop my capstone class and hang around for another year but too many pieces of me were invested in matriculating. I wished him a good day and listened to the door shut behind him. A voice from the front of my brain, sitting on the tip of some pessimistic wrinkle, volunteered that he wanted eighteen months to get me into shape. Yet somewhere deeper inside the skull, buried between my hemispheres, I knew that he thought I was ready to play. Another musician — the director of jazz-bands — had affirmed that I was worthy of joining. But it all happened a year too late.

In my chest I felt something like a smashed pear. My heart felt cold, bathed in a cool ooze as if it had been dropped on the floor of that practice room. Everything seemed perfectly normal in the wake of his leaving, as if my life were wrapped in a plastic bag. A layer remained between me and the possibility of being recognized and developed as a jazz musician but the impact, the thrust of falling, could not be stopped. I wanted to lay on the floor, smashed. My heart was still beating but its skin was broken and it dripped cool sweetness into my chest, pumping it out into my extremities. I put my instrument to my mouth as if I were pressing it to the abrasion on my bruised heart, sealing the wound with a quick lip of my lips and the long buzzing kiss against cold metal. I played something familiar — “Love Gets Old” — but much bluer, with some new twists. The music and the motif met: a real musician with real blues.

Wrestling the Anchor: Dredging for Treasure

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

the-past-visits1

This is so weird to see: Omitted-ex & I

In 2010, I bought a journal at a store in Grand Rapids Michigan with that quotation on the cover. Yesterday I read and annotated those hand-written reflections from five years ago. My brief but sweet romance dissolved, a week ago; it was an amicable split that left me both deeply ‘blue’ and hopeful for new opportunities. That is all I need to say of my “Fli” (my so-fly “former love interest”; “ex-girlfriend” sounds negative); the break with “Fli-girl” left me on a higher level than when we met in February, much unlike the scuttled commitment with “Omitted-ex” that burned and sank in 2010. This seems like the perfect chance to understand my ‘story-arc’ better through intentional reflection.

For my sake, take a few steps back to an earlier point in the causal chain, readers; allow me to look more closely at this period to understand the subsequent stages. The journal begins with an unironic “Dear Jesus,” –an earnest salutation that heads all of its entries, starting on April 25th 2010. “I want desperately to shed my skin right now.” it reads, “I think I am still learning it is okay to be inconsistent that way, so long as I draw closer to our Father. […] My own feelings have been hard to reign in. I feel that I have been put back up against familiar struggles in an unfamiliar stage. [Omitted-ex]’s initiation of this stage has put me on a continual defensive. But the point of this journal is to buck-off the past a little and get focused on the building…”

My first sticky-note annotation notes that, “[f]rom the beginning, reigning-in his emotions and defensive” referring to my younger self in the third person.  Near the end of April, the comments begin to get tart. “My prose, here, relies on a Western Christian idiom even though I am talking to myself…” Here is the 29 year old man, the man whose lived between Jerusalem and Washington’s orbit for an accumulation of four years, dissecting a former-self that had not left Michigan. “Where is all the fucking profanity? He was hurting but he won’t say shit.” Rather than following the annotations’ course I decided to focus on unpacking my reading of this old journal.

My five-years-aged emotions were impossible to connect with because the prose was a continual swirl of self-deprecations, as well as generic frustration, coated in this alien phraseology. Especially between mid-May and mid-June of that year, I wrote permutations of the same, impotent ideas — I said little about friends, my job, or events happening in the world. Everything revolves around the grinding de-escalation of this one romance and my corresponding attempt to rewire my spirituality (my ways of thinking and feeling at the intersection of ontology and epistemology). Omitted-ex and I became entangled pursuing a narrow vision of mutuality. There was an idea of “we” whose parameters came from conservative ‘Christian’ authors that she read rather than from improvising together — in absence of an “us-groove”, there was this misfit-chart for securing love. “The haptics do seem to be indicative,” I annotate, referencing how she stopped touching me, “I can see [Omitted-ex] hanging-on when she shoulda’ known it was over.”

May 15th, 2010 marked a critical down-turn. The entry begins with some sharp relational analysis: I speculate that she is chasing an abstract sold to her by publishers, that there could be months of “toil” punctuated by an ultimate rejection or, worse, a miserable courtship leading to “an emotionally abusive relationship of withholding”. This slice of sophisticated pessimism appears like an anachronism but it is the rest of the journal that is out of place. Things I knew before and have known since about Life, The Divine, and relationships were inaccessible to my mind that spring. I start building a wall over my common-sense in the next paragraph, brick-by-brick using the ideas of ‘Faith’ gleaned from those toxic books she wanted me to read. That Faith was made from inertia and introspection, which explains my over-correction a year later: I built a Faith on perpetual activism.

عدالة!

Sticky-note annotations.

Sticky-note annotations.

I could already sense The Dragon trying to cannibalize The Boy; I often refer to my hardened, social-justice-obsessed persona as The Dragon. His breath reeks of burning tires, his claws are like exposed re-bar, and he compares all previous suffering to the burn of tear-gas against the eyes. He emerged from the hot ashes of ‘her’ books when I burned them and fed on hookah smoke in the West Bank while Gaza burned in 2012. “Be compassionate to yourself,” I annotate. When I see things like “I am a very loved stupid person” it is tempting to separate myself from that by starting to mock. That affirms the label rather than recognizing the circumstances that tied my cognitions in a knot: deaths, unemployment, family tensions.  My sense of determination was like a dangling tentacle, eager to wrap itself around that romance because my parents had recently divorced. Perspective was missing, not intelligence– as is the case with many people.

Some paleogeologists postulate there was a period of total glaciation in Earth’s history — Snowball Earth — which delayed the onset of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. The diversity of life’s forms accelerated rapidly in the Cambrian period and the phyla of animals we know today appeared. June 15th, 2010, three days after Omitted-ex and I split, the first signs of life appeared. “My thoughts stretch on. This growth cannot be about her now. It is quickly going to become about *page-break* vocation.” The word “vocation” slapped me awake as I wiped my brow, sitting on a patio in DC summer humidity. By July 1st, I start to write in ways that I recognize as my own voice. On the 7th, momentum is building: “Wow. My history is discouraging in this department. Yay? Yay for an excuse? No. Not yay or guilt. Move on.” That final imperative struck a bass-string in me, five years later: move-on.

Cross and maskJuly 30th shows me more about who I was, then, than any entry before. “Then I looked in the mirror and saw how odd I looked. I didn’t see a handsome guy with flaws. I saw an odd son-of-a-bitch but… I felt like I could like him. Maybe I want a friendship with myself. To put it through a Faith lens, I knew that your love was unconditional [to Jesus]. Your grace doesn’t un-kink my image or even my insides. You love each ugly bastard.” In that paragraph I see a fragment of myself. This idea of Grace has no Salvation in it. I was unable to see my beauty and felt as if I had to accept feeling ugly, as if there was nothing I could do. Quickly, I ran from the patio into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I looked so good: a runner’s body, manicured soul-patch, grandma Gore’s eyes, grandpa Rice’s crooked smile, and an anchor tattoo. Where he saw a weed I saw a fragrant herb.

Dredged + Salvaged

To my mild surprise, the first mention of “mission” appears in the entry for September 8th, 2010. It is still partially lodged in the same, dislocated ‘Christianese’ scaffolds but it’s there: “My stumbling blocks seems easier to see and process. It is so strange to see the skeletal structure of hidden assumptions I have, even if it is such a mere glimpse. I have the basics of a spiritual plan and one for career (ish) ~ yet I find myself toying with the idea of a mission. What is your will? Am I ready to be sure?”

Reading later entries, I discovered an incarnation of myself with whom I wanted to connect. I remembered him reaching for a sense of balance, often handling things in his life with a basic sense of graciousness that shames my snarky ‘Dragon’ self. At times when I might be angry, he responds with a disciplined humility. At the same time, I see his damaged self-respect and his desire for something exterior to define him. The stage was set. Still, I find it comforting to know that I am returning to myself, again, with some perspective that he lacked. Endless hell will not claim me.

The anchor represents a sense of perspective. Now, I can start talking about my journey abroad. “Do you realize,” I whispered to my past self, “that you are two years away from swimming in a waterfall in Southeast Asia?” Then I realized that it had been three years since I swam in that waterfall — since losing my first anchor necklace. To think that I will probably never see that waterfall again makes me much sadder than the loss of Omitted-ex. The difference between depression and the life-giving blues is clear now: Fli-girl is like the waterfall and I wanted her to stay that way. I said goodbye. I said “move-on”.

To be continued…