An expert in the medium of lack…

an expert in the medium of lack

Giacomo Leopardi was a poet, philosopher, essayist. A radical, forward thinker whose erudite progressivity blossomed and bloomed despite the conservative constraints of his context, much in the same way a dandelion summons the subtle but relentless strength to breach concrete. But this is not to say that he was not troubled by the constriction and the strain. Carlo Rovelli conveys this palpably when he says that “Perhaps if [Leopardi] had immediately succeeded in escaping from Recanti at his first attempt, propelled by his youthful enthusiasm and the awareness of his own talent, if his father had not discovered and stopped him, clipping his wings, Leopardi’s life might have turned out better”.

I recognize a kind of kinship with Leopardi. I am clear-headed and self-aware enough to realize that I am far from being Leopardi’s equal, but I am all too familiar with the claustrophobia of being pent up and hedged in by the circumstances and surroundings of the time and place in which I find myself; the thrown-ness of my happenstance. I’ve long felt caged and closed-off by the creative and intellectual vacuum created by Central Florida’s conservatism. I know what it’s like to live at odds with both place and populace, to be different, to not belong. I’ve thought about what it would be like if I lived somewhere different, surrounded by people who are different. If I had been taken under the wing of mentors who offered guidance with clarity, care, and attention. But, no matter how lonely or debilitating, I can personally attest to the ways seclusion and self-reliance can require a greater degree of tenacity and creativity from a person. “[W]isdom gained through frustration”, Michael Finkel says, “pays dividends”. And, Rovelli points out that if things had been easier for Leopardi perhaps “we would not have had his poetry“.

I understand Leopardi’s angst, but even more so, I understand his hunger. A hunger that mirrors my own. A hunger that is my own. A hunger that owns me. A hunger that is me. “[T]he me-ness that I know as pure, inescapable self”, says Amal El Mohtar and Max Gladstone, “is hunger”. It is a hunger “with edges like teeth”, writes El Mohtar and Gladstone, “Sharpened so keen and bright that it [can] split you open; break a new thing out”, a new thing “longing…to become, to break like a wave on a rock and reform, and break again, and wash away”. An offering of libation poured out to a limbic craving upon a water wheel that turns into power. Dissatisfaction shoveled into a furnace like coal, meting out desire into an opening, an empty space of lapping flame that fuels the engine of creation. “Hunger, El Mohtar and Gladstone make clear, “is a many splendored thing”.

To know hunger, to form it, and fashion it, to be formed and fashioned by it, is to be an expert in the medium of lack. An artist crafting something from the nothing of an absence. It is to bend the want until it becomes something else. Hank Green says that this is “the most amazing ability that…anyone in the world can have ..the ability to control and direct want”. To study the hunger with deep analytical scrutiny. To take apart the weapon of want and put it back together with reflexive precision, and to finally reassemble it into a spindle that turns hunger into gold. “[L]ife,” Green says, “is not about actually satisfying the want; it’s about using it”. That’s the key. That’s what changes everything, and that’s what Leopardi does.

Leopardi mines the insufficiency of his want, “seeking nourishment for his soul”, Rovelli says, “he speaks the language of the heart when it is lost, disillusioned, naked before the truth”, and, in so doing, he finds a way to “give meaning to the beauty of the world; [to] give significance to everything”.

A shoulder set to rock…

a shoulder set to rock

“it wasn’t just the old worry, the one he’d lived with all his life, as long as he could remember that weighed on him. It was also the dreams.”

J.M. Micro, Ordinary Monsters

Worry carries a weight. A stress. A strain. But, it’s one I’ve grown accustomed to carrying. There are worn grooves in the surface of the worry where my fingers have continually found purchase; the indentations of an on-going effort to hold it steady. It’s the devil I know, perhaps too well. The demon I meet for tea, perhaps too often.

But, there is also a kind of girth and burden built into dreams too. There is a tension to expectation; a force carried across a flexible medium. A flexible medium like hope. A hope made taut because it pulls against something seemingly immovable. Something like me. The stretching is its own kind of suffering. Its rigidity exists in the anticipation that everything tight will snap and eventually, or perhaps inevitably, go slack.

A dream cresting closer to the cusp of opacity is often more tenuous and burdensome than the downward press of our usual fears. “That’s the odd thing about depression”, says Matt Haig, “It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.” For those of us riddled with melancholia, the experience of happiness, or just serenity, is allusive and one not easy to understand, even, and perhaps especially, when it is present at hand. “A psychological upturn, for a person who rarely enjoys one”, says John Kaag, “can be more unsettling than the condition of perennial sadness”, because “It signals a departure from the norm, and…the possibility of an unforeseen but immanent relapse.” Calmness, of any kind, feels like the invitation of a crash, and thus, “fair weather”, Kaag goes on to say, “is viewed, and even experienced, with intense suspicion”.

Depression may be the unbearable density and mass of the world compressing down and closing in, but the unalterable sameness of depression, the predictability of its sadness, is often easier to bear than the unprecedented alleviation of a yoke made easy and a burden made light. It’s sureness and certainty can feel like safety. As Brene Brown explains, “It’s easier to live disappointed than it is to feel disappointed.” It’s simpler to stay in the shadow of the valley, than to feel the fear of falling back down once you’ve climbed out. And, so we cease to climb.

I’ve been vacillating between suffering and anhedonia. Between angst and apathy. Between anxiety and listlessness. But mostly I just feel tired and lost. I see through a glass more darkly than I ever have. For so long my sole focus has been on survival, subsistence, and stability. My days, as Tamsyn Muir describes, have “dissolved like ashes in front of a fan—scattered beyond any hope of retrieval—blown back into [my] face [and] fluttering upward beyond [my] grasp”. The question “what now?” is the weight of an albatross around my neck; a koan I can’t quite find an answer to. Maybe, like most koans, it’s simply unanswerable. Maybe all you can do is wait. Maybe St. Thomas Petty of the Heartbreakers was more right than I care to admit when he said that “the waiting is the hardest part“.

Patience isn’t a virtue. It’s a dog fight. A brutal melee at close range. A breathless eternity between stimulus and response, between the action and the equal or opposite reaction, between the event and the aftermath. It takes grit and courage and fragility. “It feels more vulnerable to dip in and out of disappointment”, Brene Brown says, “than to just set up camp there”, because it is. It’s much easier to sip the sweet arsenic of cynicism than it is to bite into bitter truths. It’s easier to give up. To give in. To stay down. But, “The true act of resistance”, David Ulin says, “is to respond with hope.” 

Hope is recalcitrant. Gracefully poised upon the edge of strength and vulnerability, it cuts through our callousness and is insubordinate enough to believe and to keep believing. To reach. A truly rebellious hope is not a false hope. It is not a hope divorced from reality and bedded to delusion. It is a hope without guarantees. A Sisyphean hope embracing the absurd. A hope that daily sets its shoulder to the rock rolled along a worn uphill path. A hope that knows any happiness worth having is one that can only be imagined in the work.

The anomaly of us…

The anomaly of us

“Reality can get dismal”, says Andrew Solomon, and “Human beings are fundamentally absurd”. In both cases, I couldn’t agree more. We are the most arrogant of all species. We are so entranced by our own self-assuredness, so intoxicated with our own self-importance, that we fail to see how the incredible brevity of our temporal span makes us infinitesimally inconsequential, especially in comparison to the gargantuan scale of the cosmos.

It is a somber and sober truth that all of the most monumental and self-congratulatory achievements of human history combined don’t make a damn bit of difference to an ever-expanding universe. As the author of Ecclesiastes says “Everything is meaningless“; it is “the vanity of vanities.”

John Green writes that “The future will erase everything, there’s no level of fame or genius that allows you to transcend oblivion. The infinite future makes that kind of mattering impossible.”

And, elsewhere he says that

“There will come a time…when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this…will have been for naught… There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after.”

(Side note: John Green is my Spirit Animal)

Perhaps, it seems pessimistic. Perhaps, it even seems nihilistic. Perhaps it’s both. But this doesn’t mean that such knowledge isn’t integral to our understanding of the world and our place in it. Nor does it mean that it is antithetical to either joy or wonder.

Maybe such sentiments are disheartening and angst-ridden, but, as Solomon goes on to aptly point out, “A sense of the absurd is good armor for life”, and “Sometimes, it’s good to feel sad”. Sometimes, as Green concurs, “Worrying is the correct worldview” because “Life is [indeed] worrisome”. It is a disconcerting, and, perhaps, even a discouraging comfort to recognize that not only will the world “survive us”, and not only will life “go on even when we don’t’, but that, as Green suggests, “in some ways it will be more alive.”

And yet, it is because we are so absurdly irrelevant, so fleetingly ephemeral, that we are also so wondrously unique , so unusually lovely, so provocatively peculiar. We are not built to last, especially not forever. Almost nothing is. Almost nothing does. Every passing moment, then, is a beautiful embrace of memento mori. Although it’s not always easy to see, it’s vital that we try to find ways to.

Rollo May says that “the essence of being human is that in the brief moment we exist on this spinning planet, we can love some persons and some things in spite of the fact that time and death will ultimately claim us all.” Our life is an anomaly in the night sky that we are lucky enough to witness and privileged enough to be a part of, even if oblivion will one day wipe it all away. For this one moment, however brief, we are here, and that is the only thing we need to be.

The stillness of cradled concerns…

the stillness of cradled concerns

“My body loves inertia, my brain loves oblivion”

Louise Erdrich, The Sentence

I’m restless with the craving for constant motion. Ever needing to avoid the evil of idle hands, the devil can make playthings of whatsoever he chooses as along as I can keep moving. Better the devil you know, after all.

And yet, my mind longs to be at the center of the void; floating freely in the quiet spaces between the clangor of calamitous thoughts. Suspended within the edges of the abyss at my center without ever touching the sides, and without ever tumbling down; a pressurized cabin hung aloft in the clouds of the middle distance, lolling the roar of my own inturnedness into a mesmerizing mixture of awareness and unfeeling.

I look for ways to be engulfed by an economy of monotonous activity so that the fickle seasons turning endlessly in my brain can find their way into the bleak blankness of winter. I keep away from conversations and crowded places. Everything feels too fast, too loud, too heavy, too much. But, “[t]he thing about avoiding other people,” says A.G. Slatter, “is that you spend a lot of time with your own thoughts”. And, my thoughts, when left alone on infinite loop are often anything but helpful or comforting. Musings turn to tightening gyres burrowing into flesh and festering with no answers or conclusions.

“This is exactly [the] problem in life”, says Pablo d’ Ors, “the hesitations, the fears, the systematic doubts”. But, I think that’s only half true. Our doubts can, and often do, lead to a paralysis of a kind; cloistered and closed, spinning the silk of suspicion around ourselves until its all we can see or breath. And, yet, as John Green says “your doubts make you more real, not less.”

Placing a question mark next to something that feels either immovable or muddied can help to bring a clarity of real and tangible conviction, especially the conviction about how inarguably real we are; an immovable comfort when we feel our lives are becoming ghostly and phantasmic. When all our days feel as if they are little more than the hallucinatory fictions of a maniacal demon’s fever dream, doubt can be the touchstone of something solid.

The right person doesn’t try to neglect or mask your doubts, nor do they suggest that you should. Instead, they sit in them with you. They embrace your doubts as fully and as wholly as they hold you, realizing that the kinetic energy of your questioning is the animating force that makes you who you are. In doing so, they break the cycle. They separate the circuit. That’s what love does. It tears a hole where there wasn’t one before. It creates a breach in the closed-network, claustrophobia of our outer-defenses.

The trick, then, is to remain unarmed and unarmored. To let the cut come to our hermetically sealed sense of self. To feel the stinging relief of openness. To let the bricks and barriers of our inner anchorage turn to thistledown, and watch as they dance away on the breeze. Unfastened and unbarred, safe in the still of someone who cradles our concerns.

what persists…

“Maybe this is what grief is…Maybe this is how loss feels. Like nothing. Like wind in a hollow…Grief and hate are close cousins.”

J.M. Miro, Ordinary Monsters

“The weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary.”

Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower

Hope and loss are lovers, swaying wordlessly with steady equanimity. Faith and doubt dance together, in an effortless elegance of give and take. The loneliness of a heart that feels different, no matter the reason, makes even the smallest of spaces feel as overwhelmingly wide and anxiously sprawling as the world itself. The horizon, if one can even be seen, is always out of reach.

And yet, there is a magic that happens in the heavy dark. Perhaps, that’s where all magic takes place, where it all comes from; someplace crepuscular and cavernous. Buried deep. Somewhere in the bones of things. After all, “magic”, Caldwell Turnbull says, “resists being known so intimately, resists even being detected.” In the juxtaposition of antitheses held in close proximity, we get a sense of it. We realize that “every light makes a shadow”, as J.M. Miro says, “and there can’t be one without the other.” When the texture of trust moves beneath the proof of all that we can neither see nor say. When the substance of something hoped for becomes the invisible evidence of a tangible belief. When we are navigating and negotiating negative space; a cartography of contrast mapping the craters and canyons left by all our varying collisions and calamities. In an exploration of absence there is an invitation into a seemingly empty place. We are present to what persists, heightened by the strength of what remains. And what remains, in the grievous dusk, in the twilight of idols turned to ash, after all the arbitrary cruelties and injustices have stolen the stablest parts of our world, the parts that we know and love the most? After windswept unfairness sounds across the expanse made fallow, what remains is us…always us.

tomorrow will hurt less than today

tomorrow will hurt less than today

Every day that I read I am taken down from the ledge that looms over my total annihilation, and every day that I don’t finds me drawing ever closer to it. Most days, in one form or another, I am found mourning a loss of life. I am mourning the death of day in my life lost to inconsequential matters, lost to irrelevancy; all the minutes and hours buried in the desolate cold of a cubicle shaped tomb, a sepulcher in the service of subsistence, seething with fester and rot. Or, at least that’s how it feels on days when the melodrama of my own melancholy is more unchecked than usual.

And yet, “In the stillness of reading,” says Dani Shapiro, and in “the silence save for the sandpapery sound of my fingers turning the page, I [am re-]born.” Often it is only a temporary rebirth; a promethean cycle of regeneration in which I am made whole only to be devoured again and again. But, those moments of generative completeness in which the dawning awareness of feeling unmistakably less alone, of recognizing “that I [am] not insane”, and “That my heart [is] not so very different from everyone else’s”, of feeling “less ashamed,” or “Less weird”, or “Less different”; those moments that “[connect] me deeply to my own humanity” are the moments when I not only feel the most alive, but they are also the moments when I am the most glad that am. And those small, fleeting gifts of gladness are reprieve enough to make the daily ritual of being ripped open and torn apart more bearable.

Perhaps books cannot rescue me from the slow erosion of being eaten alive, but every day they manage to save my life from the agony of utter despair by providing me with the highest form of hope a person can have; the hope that tomorrow will hurt less than today.

there is only writing on…

there is only writing on

Muses are fickle and unpredictable. Graceless guests that cannot be trusted to arrive on time, nor counted on to show up for work ready to do their jobs, if they even show up at all. When creativity is a no call, no show, the writer must be prepared to carry the weight of covering the shift alone. “Writing can be thankless” , Amy Poehler says. Contrary to what many might think, it is far from an elegant task. Instead, as Poehler makes clear, “it’s usually lonely and isolating”. It’s pulling a double, working open-to-close, with little hope of being truly compensated for it.

Stephen Pressfield says that “Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying…Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen… we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. insights accrete.” But it happens slowly, agonizingly; never all at once and never alone.

The greatest of writers give up on all desire for glitz and glamour, graciously gulping one tepid beverage after another, each gone cold too soon because inspiration couldn’t be bothered to come in. We promise ourselves that one day soon we’ll clasp our hands around a steaming cup and consume its contents the way it was intended. We know it isn’t true. We know that it’s a lie, but it’s a good lie; one that makes us smile, if only half-heartedly and if only for a moment.

there is only writing on

The one profound secret that all writers of the past, present and future can quietly and unquestionably agree on is that when there is nothing; nothing left, nothing there, nothing to find, when creativity is either gone or never arrives, you write on. When “I am not at all in a humor for writing”, Jane Austen says, “I must write on until I am.” In truth, there is only ever this one thing; only this one thing that stays, only this one thing that remains, there is only ever writing on.

to read with the eyes of an artist…

read with the eyes of an artist

I wish that I could read faster. I wish that I could absorb information more quickly. But, I also recognize that when I’m reading I’m doing more than just interpreting the markings that make up a strung together series of words. I’m scouring through sentences and syllables in the hopes that, maybe, I’ll be able to slip into the small spaces between the structures of language, where seemingly secluded and separate things start to seep into one another.

Amanda Palmer says that “artists connect the dots”. She goes so far as to say that “This impulse to connect the dots and to share what you’ve connected is the urge that makes you an artist”, but she points out that “we can only connect the dots that we can collect”. In other words, it is not enough to find and follow the trail of bread crumbs dotting the path, we must also saunter slow enough to stuff our pockets full of as many of the fragmentary particulates as possible, especially if there is to be any hope of connection.

“It is tedious” as Jab Abumrab points out, this arduous task of spinning arbitrary words into gold; this Sisyphean labor of “eyes and brain” cracking open the “elaborate husk” of signs and signifiers “to extract out meaning”. But this is the unfolding of the artistic endeavor: collecting, connecting, considering, conspiring, continually.

When we read closely we discover that each collected crumb is a microcosm; a half-opened window to a world bigger than ourselves, a small inkling of an expanding universe beyond our comprehension feverishly punctuated by the possible . When we uncover the ways in which all the crumbs conjoin “Every page is a whiplash” that, according to Abumrab, pulls us from the normative patterns of daily living. And, we discover that “Each page contains a portal”, Abumrab goes on to say, an intricate network of wormholes that reveal rifts through time and space; places where the past is made prescient, where the future becomes present, where now becomes perpetual. We escape from the claustrophobic constraints of all that we cannot control through the doorways of what Abumrab calls “a self-transcending structure”, and when we emerge on the other side of our literary meandering, we find the radicality of our realness more fully real-ized.

Perhaps this is simply what means to read with the slow and steady eyes of an artist…

the way the world opens…

“Whenever I am alone, I sit with books. If someone behaves badly with me I go home and sit with books.”

– Martha Nussbaum, A Velocity of Being

There is nothing quite like the physical presence of books. I enjoy the welcomed ease with which an audiobook can speak to me through my headphones while I’m at work or in the car or on a run. I appreciate the incredible convenience of being able to hold a digital library hundreds of books strong in the palm of my hand and ever at-the-ready in my pocket. But when I’m tired, lost, stressed, anxious, alone and overwhelmed, none of these alternative forms of books can comfort me with the same kind of consolation I’m afforded from simply sharing the materiality of space with a collection of physical books.

Martha Nussbaum says that “Reading opens up worlds inside your head, worlds you can explore, play with, roam around in.” She says that not only are these “Worlds…in you”, they “become part of you.” I know first hand how every closed and constricted corner of who I am releases when I read. How all the strangled parts of myself, gasping for air, start to breathe without constraint. Every book I open, opens me up a little more, and the whole world opens in response. When I breathe, the world breathes too; richer and deeper. Everything expanding. All at once.

Anne Lamott says that “we think we are drops in the ocean, but that we are really the ocean in drops, both minute and everything there is.” It’s not only that we are a world unto ourselves, it’s that we ARE THE world; not simply a part of it or a piece of it, but the entire cosmos intricately and meticulously condensed to a person sized scale. We are the whole world made miniature. In which case, there is no inside/outside distinction to be made between ourselves and the world. To explore ourselves is to explore the world, to open ourselves is to open up the universe in total, to expand who we are is to expand all that is. “When you read, you become bigger”, Nussbaum says, and when you become bigger the whole world becomes bigger too.

The immutability of books…

the immutability of books

“Book…are immutable…We like books because they stay the same ”

– David Byrne, The Velocity of Being

Nothing can be relied upon as concrete. Nothing is immune to that all-pervasive ephemerality inherent to existence itself. Nothing except books that is. Books are the only true unmoved movers I know of. It is their immovable fixity in the face of a world that is unfastened and always tottering that helps to keep us moving forward. Books give us the stability of a sure structure even, and, perhaps, especially within the chaotic randomness of this place we haphazardly and hesitantly call home. Despite all the capriciousness of our attempts to clearly define things, and in spite of the fact that the factual can often prove to be fickle, books are still there, ever-reliably present and unchanging.

They are unflinching when we are at our most unsteady. They are unafraid when our thoughts are flailing. When the path is faltering, when the ground itself feels unreliable, books are the offer of assured footing. When the light in the heavens and at the end of the tunnel begins to flicker and wane, books, Matt Haig says, are “salvation from the dark.” And even when we feel confined, cornered, and closed off, when are so impossibly stuck and stagnant, “Books are possibilities”, Haig goes on to say; “They give [us] options when [we] have none,” and “Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.”

It is the stable solidity of books that show us that things can be different, that our circumstances can be altered, that things can always change, that they always do, and we, ourselves, can always change too. They do not guarantee that all our questions will be answered in the end. Nor do they guarantee that the ending will always be a happy one, but they do guarantee that the story is going somewhere, and that the surety of it’s unfolding is meaningful.