Tag Archives: Grief

15 Chapters

img_05862This story was rejected for publication. Who can say if a rejection letter is worse in content or form? The content is—a given—bad news, but the form, intended to give comfort or at least not offend, often has the opposite effect. The generic manifestation:

Dear You,

Thank you for submitting “Your Title Here” to the Our Title Here. We had an exceptionally large pool of over XXXX submissions. The editorial staff was impressed with the consistent quality of the work, and we struggled to choose. Unfortunately, your submission was not selected. Please Read Our Title Here on this date to discover our choices.

We hope to see your work again in the future!

Best regards,
Us

P.S. To subscribe to Our Title Here… website

How the supplicant might read this letter:

Dear Spurned,

It’s easy to thank the unsolicited, and we get a shitload of said unsolicited. If it makes you feel any better, yours was consistent with all the rest of the rejected, and we were pretty damn pleased we received so many (feather in our cap). It was hard to go through them, but we did. Unfortunately (we’re saying “unfortunately” but our decision clearly indicates, from our perspective, NOT) your submission was rejected. Please blunt your disappointment with money in our direction.

By all means, waste our time again if you like!

Best we can manage regards,

Us

Bitter? Maybe, but what’s wrong with “Listen, not this time, but don’t give up. We know it sucks to get a letter like this one…”?

Oh well, here’s the story anyway:

1.

On an errand some years ago, he found himself lost. He’s been trying since to make his way home. At first he seemed near. Each fresh vista promised landmarks to lead him back, but little seems familiar now. He glimpses a tree outstretched or a low-hugging cloud. They could be from before or a memory from this journey, he can’t be sure.

2.

The day he departed, he left his love in bed. Dipping his face close to hers, he watched her eyes flutter under their lids and wished he could join her in sleep, in dreams. “I’ll be back later,” he whispered, and let his hand rest on her upper arm, naked above the covers. She didn’t wake. He’s sure she didn’t, having so many hours to revisit the scene, but she did moan, and in her moan, he heard their desire.

3.

At first, some of each day was knocking. Few people answered, and those who did opened doors just a sliver, their bodies blocking golden, glowing interiors where, sometimes, other curious faces lurked. On occasions they spoke instead of shaking their heads, they loaded their directions with distrust. He heard reluctance and couldn’t remember beyond the third change of direction or the sign he was supposed to know on sight. He couldn’t go back to ask again.

4.

He leaves doors alone now and is well past crying out. Having used every name he’s ever known, his voice has died, its squeak no more than vocal chords rubbing. He said his love’s name most, and, in the end, his mother’s. Before he set out though, before he took whichever wrong turn, his mother was already gone. Even after all these years, he still sometimes imagines her form up ahead, back turned, bowing into her hands and sobbing over his loss. That, he supposes, is a wish. In life, she wasn’t demonstrative. In his old world, she never seemed surprised to see him.

5.

When he was young, a measure of pride arrived if his parents called him “Little Man,” as it meant he’d stood up to some unanticipated injury or fury, dammed his tears, been complete in himself without needing instruction or help. The name brought him closer to separation he sensed they desired. They seemed exhausted, and his deepest affection was to grant them peace, let them rest. One dim afternoon, his mother waited at the door when he came home, and she said his father was gone. For a moment, grief stood before him—amassing as unaccountably as a wave—but he squared his legs. “Little Man,” his mother whispered, and turned inside.

6.

The neighborhoods he passes through are orderly. Houses reach a natural average, less different with every reiteration. Windows stare back blankly, bored. And the streets’ angles of north, east, south, and west are razors. He turns like blinking. Suddenly the sun is behind or ahead or rising.

7.

No matter what he does, the world goes on. A day comes when birds sing again, or he notes their songs again. There’s pleasure in those moments’ thaw and the softening air and earth. The slant of sun across his face is revelation. “If I’d learned to pay attention,” he thinks and sighs. The intake of breath plants him. If it placed him were where he wishes, he might be happier, but he only ever wanted to be happy enough.

8.

Not very often, but sometimes, he stops. Pausing in the blue shadows of dusk, he takes inventory, checks to see if he wants to keep searching, how much hope remains. He always goes on because the sun rises and sets. The cycle of days and his mind run furrows scored by habit.

9.

Dreams visit randomly. In one, he turned and stood on the walk leading to his house. He closed his eyes to be sure he was awake. When he opened them again, he detected someone moving in an upstairs window. The shadow shifted like a ghost. He knew (without knowing why) that it was his love. He had waited to find her, and she’d waited too, was even then rushing down the stairs to let him in. He woke weeping, his wet cheeks having ended the dream.

10.

He may be home now. Had he chosen wandering, he wouldn’t care about living in this overlap of spaces. Home would be an idea easily carried. His trouble is expecting recognition, someone to say they’ve seen him before or someplace announcing he belongs.

11.

As a boy, he wanted a horse, and that fantasy returns often. Then, he knew not to express such extravagant needs, but he feels a right to it now. When he was young he consoled himself by being the horse, galloping, forming lazy S’s in imagined meadows. More than anything else, he delighted in the twitch of musculature, the power and purpose and stateliness and certainty. The horse was his, he thought, and he was the horse. They shared honest love. He believed his daydream as only children can.

12.

Every step leaves a little behind. Fatigue rises tidally, and eventually he’ll close his eyes for good. The darkness that awaits him may or may not be welcome, may or may not be familiar, may or may not be final. But he has his desires, which he dares not state, even to himself.

13.

One memory lingers—his love’s breath. He smelled the spices she loved and, occasionally, he discovers some echo of them in fallen leaves or the faint smoke of someone’s fire. A light rain can raise the scent or sudden warmth on a winter afternoon. The day he left, that smell hung about her, clinging to her warm skin, and, though he felt embarrassed by the rapture it incited, he took it in. Of everything he misses, that matters most, just that much of her.

14.

Another turn looms.

15.

And night. In gray twilight, he recognizes streets beginning to settle, a sky assuring snow.

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Trespassing

Today, fiction:broken-window2

“A stack of photos”

He didn’t need to say it. His brain labeled what he saw, and he was alone. Yet, something said he should push his voice into the air, so he did.

These pictures didn’t belong to him and captured moments he never witnessed. They depicted strangers, and, though he felt something in the smiles, he was sure he’d feel more if he, like the photographer, turned a camera to returned affection.

His mother once took photographs on Easter and Christmas. Evidence had long disappeared, but they’d been a family. His father stayed over. He slept, as other fathers must—he thought—in bedrooms dim with sleep and company, curtains heavy and drawn, light seeping only where privacy allowed. So often, on Saturday mornings, he’d found his mother and father entwined. Before it became just her.

After his father left for good, she snapped at him. He might fight back.

This stack of photos described time. Some of the subjects aged, and the places seemed somehow aged too, as if they’d absorbed the colors of an era—harvest gold, avocado, a gray indigo no one liked much but chose anyway.

He shuffled rectangles and found so little to impede him. “Yes, yes, yes,” the images slid by, greased by months and years insisting on progress.

“You bastard,” he said. He hit a patch where the same woman’s face stuttered through frame and frame, neck tipped back, eyes half shuttered, smile stretched because nothing, nothing, nothing restrained it.

One evening, his sister asked, “Do you remember how she was with him? Did she love him?”

He said, “Yes,” less out of belief and more because his sister desired an answer.

When she invited men home, he knew not to believe. He looked into their smiles and sought warmth. He found need akin to his own, expedience.

Tilting sun and fading will told him he must leave soon, but he’d seen no image he had to have, no moment irrepressible, no intimacy to borrow. He hated taking just anything when, if he waited, at any moment, the choice might land as in a saddle, perfect for galloping.

The usual panic rose. He’d be seen, known. Slipping past image after image, he saw lives piled in undifferentiated masses, misery compounded by desperation, desire by short-lived satisfaction, dreams by waking.

He chose nothing to carry away. He swept past the broken lock on the sliding glass door, through the yard, over the fence and into the alley. Looking left and right, he spied no other soul.

He went on.

 

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Two)

basho-loc-01518vAs I wrote last Thursday, I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

xli.

Many days I pass the same man begging. I know his name now—Jimmy—and he often asks for money by saying, “Make Jimmy happy.” Though I’m sure I can’t, I give him a dollar, easy enough for me to spare, a greater source of relief for him than for me. When he shakes my hand, I feel the leather of his palm—winter, summer, a life outside I don’t know. When I smile, he recognizes the sign and smiles back.

His eyes never smile.

this hour

sun takes cover—buildings

won’t hold light back

One day, walking to work, having just given Jimmy his dollar, another pedestrian doubled back from just ahead of me.

“You shouldn’t be giving him money!” he said.

I said nothing.

“He spends it on crack! He’s a crack-head. I know. I was on it too, and he said, ‘Give me some money, I’ll bust your ass!’”

Anger streamed from him. His expression stretched, neither smile, nor snarl, nor surprise. He touched me on the upper arm.

“Sure,” I said, “I hear you.”

at intersections

waiting for clearance—the street

slick with weeping

 xlii.

I suppose it’s nothing special that after some runs—during the time I was really running—steam rose from my shoulders and chest as it does from horses. I felt like an animal.

What must I do to have that moment happen again?

sun glances

from the lake’s horizon and

stops ascending

 xliii.

too early,

your voice blunders into quiet—

we both know now

I wonder if you sensed us stepping around you. The evening creeping from the sliding glass door drew the ornate shadow of the la-z-boy’s reach. Your neck, vulnerable, rolled like a snake to the side. You snored.

“let statues lie,”

she said, as if choice lay

with them

xliv.

In another life as a sleeper, I run from words. They seem too plain to evoke. They define and refine until they speak exactly. Say what you will of abstraction, it eludes reality and the relentless chore of logic.

from the window,

a rectangle of light, marking

a far wall

In a recent dream, I spoke to the freshly departed. They entered the room one at a time and greeted me as old friends even when we’d barely spoken. I tried to be polite, offering what I had, which, in this dream, was a pair of mittens and a broken wine glass—the base, the stem, and half the blossom.

wind ruffles

open books, smiling pages

touched

Finally I settled with someone I didn’t know, exchanging phrases and listening enough to pick up the twisted thread of precedents.

you read loss,

lines of levels dropping—

eyelids half-fallen

Closing time arrived. I rose to leave. I shook a hand I wasn’t certain I knew. I left a card on a table, sure it wasn’t mine.

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Bleaker Than Fiction

348sMy condition has no name I know. You might call it “impatience,” but that label seems too generic and mild:

  • I race through all the instant view options on Netflix, half reading each, without settling on one, or, settling finally, watch ten minutes and say, “Stupid. Unbearable….”
  • 625 pages into the 779 pages of The Goldfinch, I find myself irredeemably bothered and think, “Enough.” I can’t stand another mistake, another boneheaded decision.
  • My wife says, “You have to watch House of Cards!” and I do, only to find I can’t watch more than thirty minutes before anguishing over events that make me want to howl.

Empathy is the most flattering explanation. “If only I didn’t feel so much!” I think, “I might not be so bothered by every downturn and mishap!” I say. “It’s just that Pete Russo was such a good man,” I reassure myself.

Truth is, I’m an ice cube in a frying pan, spinning in the steam of its own disintegration. Empathy has less to do with my state than raw discomfort, agony akin to mild electrocution… willingly, deliberately, undergone.

As a boy, television used to agitate me profoundly. The Beaver’s next blunder would certainly send me running into the kitchen, and every Brady seemed, at one time or another, bound for humiliation. Even Petticoat Junction might lead me into baffled territory. My hand over my eyes, I wanted to retreat to a corner, hide myself from myself.

You might think forbearance might grow—certainly my exposure to literary and cinematic turnarounds should have grown. The outcome always settles on a steady note, experience ought to tell me. Yet, with age, my condition worsens. I try to figure it out. “Think of yourself in a room sealed tight,” I say to my wife, “when you pull the door closed, you trap another gulp of air and it’s too full and the pressure jumps. It’s too much.”

“Huh?” she says.

Maybe this is the problem, I think: I’m indulged. I’ve grown accustomed to the proper fit of circumstances, controlled environments where fulfillment is assured. I want complacency, worrylessness, satisfaction, pleasure. No challenges please, I’m tired of those. Give me candy.

I try convincing myself each strange development won’t be that strange or may even enhance my satisfaction when events, improbably, reverse. The present calamity could—ultimately—delight more than frighten. “Give it ten minutes,” I say, “then decide.” These fictions aren’t happening to me. I should stand above, drolly saying, “How interesting.”

The true issue, I say, is faith…or faith and courage… or faith, courage, and remove. When you believe in a positive outcome, suffer bravely through seemingly hopeless moments, and stop to breathe outside the fiction, you’re fine.

I’m not fine. Theo kicks drugs, he picks them up again. Finally, the poor influence of Boris is gone, and Theo runs into him on a New York street. Kitsey gets caught in infidelity, and Theo might easily leave her for Pippa—we know he loves Pippa best—then stays with Kitsey because Kitsey says, “My mother loves you. Leaving me will kill her.” I want to hurl the book and might, if my wife didn’t put her hand on mine and repeat, “It’ll be okay. I promise.”

I sometimes wish I lived in a naïve fantasy where everything, everything, everything will be so okay in the end. Maybe it will, but this world, the one I live in, is depraved, and nothing in reality persuades me (enough) fiction will be different. Nothing I experience convinces me, “Believe!”

 

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Thursday Haibun (Episode One)

basho-loc-01518vI learned this week that I missed NaHaiWriMo (Haiku a Day Writing Month), which was March. But, no matter, I write a haiku a day anyway, and I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) with extra vigor, writing haiku and prose in haibun. I also cheated by starting early—I’m on spring break right now and won’t be next week—and so I’m writing more than one haibun a day.

As promised, I’m posting them on Thursdays during April. These are today’s output. I’ve kept the numbers assigned to them.

xx.

Some rains keep the world dark all day, and some people appreciate steady half-light, steady pelting, steady captivity. I enjoy rain too if life waits. On days I’m happy to rest, I stand at my window, watch the lake form at a nearby intersection, and study people leaping it as if in a steeplechase or, like ants blocked by a finger, weave left and right seeking the proper place to ford the more-than-puddle before them. It’s just a puddle to me… or will be until the clock demands departure, need calls, or some summons insists. Then I learn all this time my study has been practical, teaching me how to enter the unwanted, to bear it instead of looking from afar.

sitting in a bath

I listen to the faucet’s

persistent tears

 xxi.

In fourth grade, when I returned from Christmas vacation, Molly’s desk sat empty. I wasn’t surprised because she missed so much school, and, when she was there, she skipped music and art and recess to fill worksheets she hadn’t seen yet. Molly’s skin was as near translucent as I could imagine, blue networks visible just beneath the surface—every visible surface—and her blonde hair grew thin like grass in poisoned soil. She didn’t look at me much, and we hardly ever spoke, but I knew her eyes even when I closed mine. They said surrender. Their pale and weary blue slid from the sky, too tired to stay aloft.

chalk dust

on the blackboard’s edges,

ghosts on the border

I was sitting in my desk as Mrs. Mitchell gathered Molly’s things—a few books, some supplies, but nothing that said Molly really, nothing like the eccentric mess under everyone else’s desktop. When Mrs. Mitchell told the class Molly died before New Year’s Eve, some people already knew and a few cried or fought tears. I must not have believed it. The whole day seemed temporary to me, every worksheet another Molly would have to do.

beyond curtains,

outside the window, you see

air stirring

 xxii.

 last night, a cheer rose

from many neighbors’ houses—

I don’t know why

In any alphabetical list I’m almost always the middle. I like to count how many precede and follow me, happy when it’s even.

xxiii.

On the first day of a Shakespeare class I asked the students why they were there. One of them answered, “Because he’s famous.” I’d heard that response before, of course, but never so baldly put.

My daughter was in kindergarten that year, and, on the drive home, I asked her, “Honey, do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“He wears pumpkin pants,” she said.

unbound,

the newspaper still holds

its curl

xxxiv.

When I can’t sleep, I look for morning’s signs—the first defined shadows, a car sweeping by, a word uttered on the sidewalk in front of our house. The alarm often comes first.

in skyscrapers

half a mile away, checkered lights

of company

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Then Silence

two_shadows“Silence propagates itself,” Samuel Johnson said, “and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say.”

When I’m sleepless in the middle of the night, I think about lost friends and wince over unreturned phone calls, emails, and letters, all the thank you notes, flowers, and thoughtful gestures I meant to make to show affection. Most of the people who haunt my insomnia have likely forgotten me or think no less of me for drifting on, but life would be richer with their continuing company. I find plenty of time to work, to engage in activity I forget a few days later. I put tasks before people, and, if I could reverse that, I might sleep better.

I enjoy company and find sympathetic souls everywhere. Only recently, though, have I tried to cultivate and keep friends. Carl Jung said the meeting of personalities is like a chemical reaction—both personalities are transformed by contact. His statement only makes sense if you and the other personality are reactive, if you’re willing to venture outside yourself. Most of my life I haven’t been willing. It’s easy to converse, to slot in personal stories your listener doesn’t yet know. You rifle through relevant and appropriate remarks and, like a good raconteur, offer your most skillful talk. Or you can take the more secure stance of bouncing everything back to the speaker. Now you see. I’m well-practiced at the familiar and accepted steps of civil discourse.

But careful and polished steps aren’t dancing. Dancing is chemical and requires more than keeping up.

One of my first real friends welcomed me to his lunch table after I’d been exiled from another. Middle school cool failed me, and my usual companions froze me out. My new friend barely knew me, knew only that I had nowhere to sit and invited me over, but vulnerability proved a good place for us to start. His kindness endeared him to me, but hurt created our relationship. No purpose in pretense, we began with honesty instead.

His family invited me on vacation, he ate over my house whenever I could make him stay, and, even after I moved away, we exchanged antic letters full of imaginary schemes for becoming treasure hunters or famous tag-team auctioneers or dueling butter sculptors or engineers specializing in converting schools to bumper cars. We laughed, I think, because we knew we needed to. We were seldom comfortable except in the company of the other.

Some people believe no true friendship can ever cease, that, even after years of neglect, friends feel the same old understanding and affection. That thought consoles me at 3 am—though, in most cases, I can’t verify it. I wouldn’t know how to start looking for many of the people I’ve lost. In some cases, I remember how I felt with them and not their names. And though we might achieve familiar rapport if we were thrown together, what I’ve missed would be just as telling.

Next weekend my younger brother is going on a golf outing, and some of the people are part of a group of friends he sees frequently, old friends from high school and college he’s seen through every stage of life. I don’t care about golf—it’d be horrifying to even try playing—but I’m jealous. My oldest and best friends are, right this second, elsewhere, expecting and accepting the usual distance between us. We will talk when we talk. His friends wouldn’t let him neglect them. He wouldn’t allow it either.

After receiving a commission to West Point, my friend came home in three weeks. He wrote a letter that was meant to be funny but threw me. I wasn’t sure how I felt, how to console him or whether he wanted consolation and can’t recall now what I did say to him, if I did. Some nights I can’t convince myself I wrote back. I continued to hear reports of him—he went to college locally and then law school, he excelled in moot court and sang in his church choir. He married and had a daughter.

But by the time I looked for him—finding him was why I joined Facebook—someone told me he was gone, killed in a traffic accident a couple of weeks before. I read the obituary and thought again and again of writing his widow, his daughter, his mom. Perhaps he mentioned me. They donated a bench in Central Park because he liked to visit New York, and I could find it and sit on it.

I didn’t. I haven’t. It isn’t just that my right to speak seems lost, and that every day pushes him and our history further into the past. I’m beginning to think the best way—the only way—to honor him is to try harder to be an actual friend, the sort he was to me.

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No Buddhist

11621426-big-golden-buddha-with-lotus-flower-at-da-lat-vietnamEvery moment, a Buddhist might tell you, possesses infinite promise and infinite futility. “Promise,” however, doesn’t imply some potentially positive future outcome but instead an opportunity to know that moment as itself.

“Futility,” they might say, is a misnomer. Nothing can be futile if you live it. Each instant is full. You only need to pay attention and accept every sensation, thought, and feeling as what life is… with emphasis on the present tense. The butterfly doesn’t resent a storm, and the storm does not object to the butterfly.

I’m paying attention. This week, as I was going down stairs I’ve traveled hundreds of times, I missed a step and, finding my foot somewhere I didn’t expect, I landed awkwardly. I turned my ankle, which I’ve done and mended many times, but this time I fractured the long bone leading to my little toe, the fifth metatarsal. I walked home a kilometer sensing what happened, cursing my stupidity, punishing myself for mindlessness, and hoping I imagined the pain.

The emergency room physician confirmed my misfortune. She said I had six to eight weeks of recovery ahead of me and gave me that look doctors often do when you’ve done something hapless, that mixture of amusement and chagrin and regret and sympathy. Sometimes they tell you they’ve done something as dumb. Not this time. Before offering the diagnosis, she said she was sorry. I appreciated that.

Apparently, my injury is quite common among the aged.

A Buddhist might not cry as I did. Exercise is such a central part of life for me, and now I face one trial as I seek to heal and another as I regain fitness I’ve lost healing. We all need challenges, I suppose, but we don’t desire adversity we haven’t engineered. As much as you’d like to be calm and accepting, you can’t help re-imagining (and re-re-imagining) the wrong second, wondering how fate screwed you over.

There’s a Buddhist parable where a farmer loses his horse and a neighbor says, “How unlucky!” and he replies, “Maybe.” When the horse returns with two other wild horses, the neighbor changes his mind, but the farmer still says, “Maybe.” The next day, one of the wild horses throws his son, and the son breaks bones. The neighbor says he’s “unlucky” again and the farmer says again, “Maybe.” Then the army comes seeking soldiers and passes over his son as unfit… you get the idea.

I’ve been stumbling around on crutches wondering what benefit might come from my regret, what test this calamity signifies. I’ll pass through grief, and that’s necessary. I’ll learn new ways to live with myself that don’t involve punishing my body every day. That’s good too. I’ll need patience, which is what I’m worst at.

Intellectually, I’m fine. I can handle it. On the other end of these six to eight weeks, I may be a better person. But right now, honestly, I feel lost.

Perhaps this event meant to remind me how far I am from becoming Buddhist. This second—this very second—I’m pissed, I’m pissed as hell. I’ll be better because I must. The next few weeks, I hope, will determine how.

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Broken

breaking-wine-glassAnother fiction...

The broken glass lay at his feet, the base a disk and the stem and bowl a threatening tulip. Looking around, he saw shards several feet away. The red splash spread everywhere.

“Sorry,” he said.

Strides carried her from the kitchen. He assumed she meant to retrieve a broom, but, waiting, he realized she wouldn’t.

When he grabbed the broom himself, he saw their bedroom door closed.

The next moment, he found himself, hands and knees, plucking pieces of glass from the wine spill, the broom nearby, watching him. When he put his palm on a fragment, he felt the alert and lifted up immediately.

The pain reached his brain and still the blood flowed from the cut as from someone else. He sat back, disgusted, unconcerned he might be sitting in his own spill.

And then tears. What didn’t trouble him: the wine glass—it’d been a wedding gift and they’d been married 25 years, the mess—he’d made bigger messes and, no matter what his state of mind, had erased them, the kitchen—it’d seen greater debacles, greater tragedy.

He wasn’t quite sure why he wept. Lately emotion came from hidden places, great streams from untraceable springs, but no bounty. He found so little to be happy about. He didn’t know himself.

She might be crying back in their bedroom, and he’d have to say he was sorry again for something that meant little but stood for more. She’d told him. He’d known how little room he had for mistakes. She’d told him.

And still the moment spun.

“I’m well aware—“

“’Well aware?’ Professorial bullshit! And what are you aware of, exactly?”

“I’m only trying to explain—“

“Excuse!”

“What?”

“You mean you’re only trying to excuseprofessor—“

He threw the glass—not hard, but he knew he did—and didn’t properly remember it. He returned to being fourteen, the fist thrown from oblivion, words spit like poison he couldn’t swallow. Once, in college, he’d discovered his hand covered in blood and hadn’t known if it was his. Once, after that, he’d opened his eyes to bodies towering over him, his jaw an ache.

Blood dropped in tears from the cut on his palm and still he collected the glass, piling pieces to create what order he could. He staggered from his knees and surveyed the scene.

“After I clean this up and she’s realized…” he told himself, “I’ll knock on the door. I’ll apologize again.”

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Shrouded

Dark_house_by_F3rd4I’m so busy this week, I worried I’d have nothing to post today and actually only have this, a vignette and an exercise of sorts. I opened Chronicle of a Death Foretold to page 54 and stole (with adaptations) one sentence. Then I set off,  just to see what occurred next…

He drank the second bottle more slowly, sitting down, looking insistently toward the house on the sidewalk across the way, where the windows were dark. The night hid him, and he felt sure if she looked from one of those windows, she wouldn’t see him. But the familiar wave of vertigo rolled through his body—maybe he was more visible than the thought.

He knew how foolish he could be and how wrong he often was when drunk. He put the bottle down gently beside him, determined he’d had enough.

She might not be there at all, and he hoped instantly that was so. Why had his feet carried him there when he had no more to say and she said every word already? At first, he’d believed if—as she spoke—he held his love in his mind like a candle, she might see it behind his eyes or feel its faint warmth. His silence might speak. Staring at her house in the dark might speak.

Ridiculous. He pulled his feet into the shadows from where they’d edged into moonlight.

He knew her mother didn’t like him but hadn’t heard her speak in her mother’s voice until the last night they were together. “You have no plans,” she said, and it was true. He had no plans except her.

Closing his eyes, there in the night, he whispered, “Except you.” His voice startled him. He grabbed the bottle and took a long swallow. His head swung to the space behind him, and the world momentarily blurred in flux.

He wished again for something else to say but, anyway, he had only himself to say it to.

Down the street, a couple passed through the intersection. She laughed at a witticism he couldn’t hear and shouted, “You have no idea!” The rest tumbled inaudibly between them, her and him, all of it incomprehensibly but vividly intimate.

Once he’d said to her, “I’d like to say what I feel,” and she’d said, “Then do it” and he tried, but it never sounded right, even when he thought ahead to what he ought to speak.

“You aren’t what I need right now,” she’d said. That was the last time they touched.

Another swallow, and the bottle emptied.  He lifted it over his mouth, and a drip missed and rolled off his chin and down his neck. He wiped the tear away. He stood unsteadily, dusting himself off, straightening his pants with a tug.

Before he stepped into the streetlamp, he’d gather himself. Drunken dignity was still dignity. If she saw him, she might think he had purpose, that he was between her and someone else, marching still.

He took the greatest volume of night air he could, sighed, and stepped onto the sidewalk.

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My Blue Kingdom

manic-depression-joe-macgownWhen I was young, a margarine called Bluebonnet used the slogan “Everything’s Better With Bluebonnet On It,” and their jingle always set my imagination reeling. Everything? Shoe leather? Pine cones? Guano?

But my brother, who loved to argue, refuted possibilities. He said each would be a little better.

I feel similarly about the term “high-functioning,” which seems ambiguously redemptive. Who would want to be a plain alcoholic if they could be high-functioning? Autistics who are high-functioning explain their perspective and make the condition seem almost romantic. Even a coma victim, were he or she described as “high-functioning,” would be better off.

Forgive my black humor. I feel a right to it because I’m a high-functioning depressive, someone who struggles to see light in the gloom, who expends a lot of energy keeping his mouth above the waterline, who regards every moment of laughter—even dry and dark laughter—as immense relief, proof of life. At the same time, I’m competent. I make what contribution I can and hide the cost. I fool many by appearing as normal as possible.

The icon of high-functioning depressives is Abraham Lincoln. Because he used his unhappiness to spur his aspirations, historians regard his acute melancholia with the sort of awe reserved for superpowers. Depression made Abe more ruminative. It granted him greater empathy and contributed to his deepest devotions, his humility, his tolerance. Abe could deal with rivals’ criticisms without rancor or resentment, was immune to jealousy, because no one could possibly think less of him than he thought of himself, and relentless work was the only successful diversion for his blackest moods. He kept going and, in going, gave more than other mortals might.

Regular depression is nothing like that. People have trouble sitting up, and their emotions can be so painful the low-functioning depressed learn how to avoid them altogether, trading pleasure and pain for anhedonia, a feeling of feeling nothing at all. Battling a perpetual sense of inadequacy leaves depressives little energy for family or relationships. And, because a constantly unhappy person can be so very annoying, friends and family (and just about everybody) tries to cheer depressed people up with a zeal that ultimately humiliates them. Depressed people don’t need reminding they should be other than they are—that may be all they can think about—and yet their well-meaning loved ones and co-workers tell them, ad infinitum, how normal people appreciate the world.

My symptoms aren’t so severe, but I understand well enough.

Maybe the sort of attention a depressive gets explains high-functioning better than Lincoln’s model of noble suffering. Everyone wants you to get on with life, and the course of least resistance is to do so. Getting on with life, whatever the cost to your well-being, might at least spare you constant reminders you’re broken. You won’t be any happier, but fewer people may know it. You take muted pleasure—and, for a depressive, every pleasure is muted—in being undiscovered. Your acting improves with practice as the gap grows between the true you and the one others see, splitting gradually, inexorably. The complete rupture is a high-functioning depressive’s feared and cherished dread and desire, a moment of exposure arrived at last.

Lincoln was extraordinary, my hero as a human being as well as a leader, but historians’ version of his depression—or Winston Churchill’s depression or Charles Darwin’s depression or fill-in-the-blank’s—is the happy world’s wish. All these despondent people, history suggests, ought to get off their asses, buck-up, and carry-on like great ones did.

If I had more courage and energy left after fighting to think myself worthy of existence, I’d create a new model of high-functioning depressives, one that includes righteousness. “Why aren’t you depressed,” I might ask, “when the world seems so imperfect and most people too deluded to do anything about it, when those most sensitive to pain are instructed, overtly and covertly, to pretend otherwise, when the neediest people require so much more care than the world is willing to acknowledge?”

Abraham Lincoln might disapprove, but I like to think he’d at least understand. Everything isn’t better by being “high-functioning.” Maybe a little, but mostly the mask fits better.

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