The last 13 months have been one hell of a journey for me but I finally decided to pull myself up by the bootstraps and sit down to work intentionally on a book. Well, it’s actually a collection of essays and I’m not really sure where I’m headed, or what to do when I get there. I only know one thing, and that’s writing.
“What shall be my legacy? The blossoms of spring, The cuckoo in the hills, the leaves of autumn.”
Ryokan, deathbed poem
On April 16, 1972, Japanese Nobel-winning prize author Yasunari Kawabata committed suicide. In his essay “Eyes in Their Last Extremity,” he writes:
“However alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form of enlightenment. However admirable he may be, the man who commits suicide is far from the realm of the saint.”
In Japanese culture, beauty is cherished, but also inextricably wedded to death. About one of his friends, an avant-garde painter who died young, Kawabata continues:
“He seems to have said that there is no art superior to death, that to die is to live.”
Kawabata neither admired nor sympathized with suicide. The title of his essay comes from:
“[t]he suicide note of the short-story writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927). It is the phrase that pulls at me with the greatest strength. Akutagawa said that he seemed to be gradually losing the animal something known as the strength to live.”
Akutagawa Ryunosoke was an influential Japanese writer. His suicide note reads:
“I am living in a world of morbid nerves, clear and cold as ice…I do not know when I will summon up the resolve to kill myself. But nature is for me more beautiful than it has ever been before. I have no doubt that you will laugh at the contradiction, for here I love nature even when I am contemplating suicide. But nature is beautiful because it comes to my eyes in their last extremity.”
In Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura explores pain and suffering through the work of Shusaku Endo. He unravels the hidden mysteries present in the darkness and the ways that silence speaks with hidden beauty and truth:
“In a culture in which the suicide ritual of seppuku is beatified as courageous, as a moral way of dealing with injustice, it is hard to convince a Japanese that suicide is not noble.”
Fujimura says it was his wife’s “care for his soul,” her psychotherapy, and faith in Christ that may have been what saved him from carrying out the unthinkable. He points out that, even though Endo wrote with a sadistic darkness, he faced that darkness head on with a will to live in stark contrast to other writers who wrote in a pattern notably headed towards suicide.
“Kawabata’s writing is lyrical,” Fujumura surmises,” but he did not survive his own lyricism; Endo lived through darkness and illnesses–stubbornly, often with much humor–resisting the temptation to end his own life.”
Originally created July 7th, 2019 when things started spinning out of control for the first time and I began questioning my career as a teacher.It’s the first time I ever experienced…doubt.
You said go to college, and I did.And when I couldn't find a job, I went back again because You said to do better, so I did.
And when I had a job, I went back to get better, to get more, to get noticed.
And when I still couldn't make it enough, make you notice, make the cut, I still kept trying hard-- To get more, to feel better-- Harder-- To do better, and feel more-- harder-- to be better and do more because you said, he said, she said...
So I did. And I thrived. Because you said--
But you lied.
It’s a tangle of thorns that keeps cutting into my flesh. I crave the validation, the recognition, the approval, but from no one except my family, my sisters, my husband–the people who should know me the best. I’ve been after their approval my whole life.
Not the point. The point is that I know myself. Or knew myself. I had a stable, firm, strong sense of self and identity. Purpose. Drive. Direction. Ambition.
Where the fuck is the real me?
I had it all. I was all of her. She was all of me.
All of my life, I have been told I deserve nothing, not even God’s love, and that’s why he sent His one and only son, grace, salvation, etc.
I'm lost and it kills me inside.
All of my life, I have never been ENOUGH. For myself, for someone or something else. By my own merit or through my own faults. Inherent or acquired. Mileage varies.
I’m angry. I am angry and I’m not that tough bad ass girl anymore. I’m lonely and I can’t fight anymore, (please protect me. I’m so tired.)
Never tired of living.
But I’m not surviving either.
I’m in a place somewhere in between trying to figure it all out. And I’m terrified that if I don’t get my writing under control, out in the world, in the open, away with the fear and shame, that I’ll never recover control over my mind, body, emotions, intelligence, over my identity evermore. And I’m terrified I am going to die, but not literally. In my spirit.
And I feel like I don’t want that to happen.
When did I become so cold? Where is the person that I have known? I have no feelings. Why am I not moving? Get fucking moving!!!
I penned the following verses over the lyrics of “Paralyzed” by NF. The title refers to the sensation of encountering a cycle of shame and guilt, something I still wouldn’t even begin to understand for several for months. These were written just a few months into lockdown when I had hit the deepest stage of depression I’d ever had before.
A few days later, I hit rock bottom.
Someone died, and I think it was me.
That’s what it feels like
At least, that's what I think.
All my words, the ink leaving my pen.
These are not mine.
Something is just not right
Ever since that one night
Am I moving?
I’m stuck on rewind.
What is moving?
It’s getting crowded
Nowhere to go.
Why aren’t we moving?
We’re in a movie
And I’m terrified.
Where did I go?
Nowhere is home
No one can know
Nowhere to go.
No one can see
I wrote the following piece late last spring in the midst of a struggle to understand what I wanted out of life and what my life had amounted to so far. Since it’s representative of a certain state of mind, I’ve not altered the original text or made any revisions.
As far as chronology, this internal monologue really belongs at the beginning of the blog. I think it’s more important to post it on today’s date to show how long the journey has really beenand how much courage has been needed to finally reveal the hidden parts of myself.
Maybe it was discovering the mysterious circumstances surrounding Princess Diana’s death, dressing up as Abraham Lincoln to give a presentation about his life, or a biography about Jim Carrey my older sister had said was completely fascinating, even though she’s not much of a reader. But somewhere under these fleeting memories is a singularly distinct impression: I’ve always wanted to write an autobiography.
Success, fame, and celebrity status–none of that interests me. The idea that I might live a life worth preserving with paper and ink intoxicates me. A life worth living, a life that is mine, defined, shaped, and molded by the choices I make, and an autobiography epitomizing all of this, all of what I actually achieve and become and all I ever believed and bemoaned.
Be kind to me. Belittle me. Be me.
An autobiography is always capable of stoutly defending, if not outright shouting, a singular truth: this is my story and you cannot have it. It is not yours to tell. It is mine. It is my story, and I will do your character justice, but if a lion never learns how to write, all stories will only ever glorify the hunter, and I’m sorry, but you’ll need to write your own because I don’t want to be a hunter anymore. Please prey for me.
This story is mine, and I am her, and she is me, and we are together an immense galaxy trying to coexist in one singularly blessed, bruised, unbalanced body.
But who cares, right?
Exactly. The worst feedback for any writer to hear is interrogative: why is this story being told? It means someone’s time has been wasted, the writer has not delivered, the reader is disappointed, the story is pointless. What is the purpose for telling the story?
Readers, I don’t know yet.
Somewhere wrapped in vintage are memories stored haphazardly near the back of my mind, practically falling out, forgotten and potentially priceless. Around that area in the geography of my mind is a line struggling to clarify a connection between a long-standing, deep seated appreciation for autobiographies and a neurological disorder making it a struggle for me to function as a sentient being I’ve yet to overcome. Since I haven’t stumbled upon a cure yet, I’m still searching for one.
A blog is born.
For some asinine reason, I want to tell my story, and that’s not the asinine part. It’s how badly I crave validation from telling my story, not approval or attention, but a meaningful meeting of the minds between mine and the listener, between a writer and a reader, an artist and an apprentice, a parent and a child. Telling my story is not enough; I want people to care. I can’t stop there because caring isn’t enough, either. Not for me.
Whenever we have a family gathering on my side, no one has any stories to tell. We have no memories. We remember everything. She remembers nothing. I can’t remember anything.
Whenever I’m at a family gathering on my coparents side, all the cousins tell funny and sentimental stories about their childhood growing up, slipping between English and Spanish. Though he `is normally one of the entertainers at any party, he’s engrossed in the past, remains silent, and so does not always translate these memories for me. Instead, his memories play out nostalgically across his mind while I try deciphering whatever emotion the images have left burned behind in his eyes. I don’t know these stories, so it’s hard for me to use any context to figure out what’s being said. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling.
The pathological cause of whatever disease I have is circular and maddening. I must tell my story, people must care, but how do I get them to feel the experience I’m attempting to write?
Graced with hyperlexia, there’s no power like that of the written word, speaking precisely the meaning you intend to convey. So I thought I’d write an autobiography, so I think I’m writing, and I thought I would share my story, so I think I’m righting things gone wrong, but I’m lost and paralyzed by the past that won’t catch up with me, still leaves me breathless. It’s maddening.
And circular. Want to know something about my past? I can’t share that with you, I’m sorry. It’s a piece of me, one I’ll never get back, and one you’ll never appreciate. So I think I want to write an autobiography, but nobody will care, so I give in to a tendency for giving up trying to talk about experiences no one can relate to, an experience in absolutely black nothingness.
Someone had to make that word up just so we could have the language to describe what I now realize I’m not the only one experiencing. It’s the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because you know no one will relate.
And you want it so fucking bad. To relate. To sympathize. To understand. For empathy.
You see, the onus isn’t on the listener. It’s on the storyteller. It’s up to you and me to make people feel what we want them to feel. I don’t mean by using sharp words to cut someone else down. You shouldn’t do that maliciously. What I mean is cutting your words for a sharper focus on the story. The best advice writers ever hear is an imperative: Kill all your darlings.
An intense fascination with words combined with advanced decoding skills and overzealous reading habits makes for unrivaled command over the meaning embedded in language. That equals me.
Add to that a capacity for empathetic understanding, picked up through literature, which is also the best medium for expression, and the easiest to analyze…when you’re an English major.
Subtract empathy from the three or four people who are the real audience for your story. The ones whose lives you want to change. The generational curses you’re trying to break. Gaps that need to be filled.
Multiply that by a yearning to be understood at the same level at which you’re capable of empathizing with others, and divide it all by the inadequacy of trying to tell the same story over and over again. Carry the why.
Why do I have to tell my story?
Why do I want people to relate?
Why do people not relate?
Why can I relate?
Why can’t anyone relate?
Why can’t I tell you something about myself, unless I know you’ll relate?
Why are we not related?
And why, just why,is the one thing I must accomplish hindered by the one thing I want to accomplish?
I’ve always wanted to write an autobiography for seven reasons still unknown to me. When I do, I imagine exulansis will be purged from my soul satiated, but not really satisfied; liberated, but not really free.
Right now, a fluorescent light shines through the kitchen windows like the police are going to bust in at any moment. It’s bright, distracting, and annoying.
Nearly every view from a window in this house is the same. Living in a house within a neighborhood is not like taking up residence in an apartment within a complex. It’s only been a year and half since we moved in–the house is not mine–and the flesh on my body has not stopped crawling since the October we first arrived.
The women carried cigarettes and wine glasses instead of fruit baskets to greet us. Nobody from our side of the street really talks to anyone on the other side of the street, they tell us. The couple next door to us come over in the summer–they have four kids and the couple has been together for 13 years.
High school sweethearts.
The woman cleans houses and her husband works in a warehouse at night. Their cars go in and out of the driveway throughout the day. One or the other is usually out front or in back. They’ve been inside our house and we’ve seen the inside of theirs.
On the other side of us is a house with two-stories and windows overlooking our driveway. An old man lives there. His daughter comes over to take care of them. Someone is growing weed in the garage. Someone also leaves the light hanging outside the garage on even during the day.
I’ve never seen the old man, but I’ve overheard a fight one time. I can’t remember what it was about; they lowered their voices when they noticed I was walking past with my daughter, who had no qualms about stopping to stare. I tried to discreetly move her forward.
Two of their basement windows are almost even with the garden on the side of our house. One of the windows facing down on our driveway always has a light on. The window above the kitchen sink in our house faces theirs. When I’m writing late at night, the light is enough to make me pause mid-thought to wonder why their light is also on still and if they’re also wondering the same about me.
One of the rooms in our house has a sliding patio door that leads to the driveway. That room used to be the one where I did my writing. I was sitting on the concrete step in front of the doors when a loud noise startled me. The woman next door was pulling down the trash can to the end of her driveway.
It was 4am. A black cat passed by on the sidewalk.
Black cats prowl through the neighborhood. One night a black cat walked right past me in the driveway while I was using my phone to write something. I don’t know whose black cats they are or how many there are, but I first noticed them when we moved in. The cats always remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Black Cat.” It makes me shudder.
The following night I was doing the same thing: smoking a cigarette and using my phone to write something. No noise startled me. A black cat passed by on the sidewalk.
I quit smoking.
Across the street and three houses down is a small brick house with a red door and a fence to keep their dog in. The fence isn’t tall. There’s a sign telling us to “Beware of dog.” Another sign that’s just as confusing is one that says “We call police.” I’m not sure what either one means. Both seem intended to protect someone. I’m not sure whom.
On the other side of the house with the fence is an old man who gets a newspaper wrapped in blue plastic delivered. I’ve thought about stealing it a few times but I don’t know if it’s The Times or The Tribune.
He drives a dusty car that reminds me of Arnold Friend’s gold jalopy from Joyce Carol Oates’ story. It’s an old, beat up sedan with yellow tape hanging in shreds from the back driver’s side tail light. He parks it on the street right below the eerie streetlight so that the entire scene looks like the set of a Stephen King movie.
I’ve never talked to the old man; he’s never smiled or waved, only stared. He lingers. When he pulls his vehicle into the driveway, he does so at a decrepit pace, dramatically slow, opening the door to reach down and take up his newspaper before stepping out of the vehicle and scanning the neighborhood looking for who-knows-what. He lingers.
Perhaps what makes me miss having an apartment the most is the house across the street with a bright blue truck backed into his driveway so that the front grill is always directly facing our house like an aggressive boxer.
One day during the summer I had gotten so fed up with what appeared to be a power move that I turned into his driveway to back into my own. Then I left my car parked that way for a few days to see how he liked it.
I drive a Jeep.
He’s a serial killer, my coparent says. The truck is always coming and going at all hours of the day.
There was another late night close to midnight he had arrived home just after me. He always seems to be getting home just after me. He doesn’t leave at the same time every morning either. One morning he left at 5:58am exactly. I had been just about to shut the outside lights off because the sun was coming up, but I noticed the headlights glaring and waited until he was gone to turn off the lights.
When most of the world is on a 9-5, it’s hard for a writer to admit that they do not work on a 9-5 schedule, let alone explain that writing isn’t really an occupation one would call a part of the paid workforce. When I first moved in, I pretended to work a 9-5 because explaining the schedule of an adjunct was just as complicated. Now I don’t fake anything anymore. I’m mostly just freaked out.
My neighbors are all either vampires or writers, like me. One of them may or may not be Dexter Morgan.
Sometimes I pretend they’re all CIA operatives watching me when I really want to crank up the referential mania and have some fun. Writing at night yields different creative results.
The backyard is my cherished sanctuary now. The reason I had leaned into a yes for this particular house was actually for the outdoor space–the driveway was long and made of concrete with a carport to protect the car (and me) from rain and snow; the backyard was small enough not to need extensive maintenance, had a healthy tree in the center for shade, and a deck, albeit relatively purposeless, attached to the back of the house (beneath two other windows–ours, this time).
That’s my favorite spot: the deck. When you stand with your back against the tree and face the deck, it looks like somewhere Shakespeare in the Park would play.
I have spent countless hours on that deck, made-up dramas playing through my mind, balancing a chair on its two back legs, my feet kicked up on the railings and staring unabashedly into the window of the home behind us because there is no where else to look, except the windows to the right of that house, and the windows to the left, or the windows looking down on our backyard from the house that makes a large enough salary to have had a second floor story built.
That’s my favorite spot to look though because there’s an American flag flying from a pole in front a black and white house with gargoyles on their roof.
“Scary,” my daughter says when we walk past.
The window I can see through from the backyard makes me uncomfortable, not because the woman who stands over the sink is also apparently a night owl, but because it’s the window that has made me aware of how many of our own we have that people can stare into all day long, all night long, especially during the night when the lights are on and I am writing.
( I write this in front of the glow of a laptop against better advice to avoid technology when I’m writing–desperate measures).
Curtains are claustrophobic. Curtains make it seem like someone has something to hide. Curtains are decorative, I think. I used a can of spray to frost the front windows of our kitchen. The job is shoddy. I want new windows.
I wonder what our neighbors think. I don’t think they’ve ever met a writer before.
Juxtaposed means adjacent or side by side. The word can refer to words, images, pictures or photographs. It’s a writing technique I first learned by looking at Working by Studs Terkel, and now a technique I’m exploring in a visual form to move in more creative directions.
Today I drew a comic that juxtaposes four images together and made a word play on the title.
Meaning “remembrance,” Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory in Greek mythology, sometimes called the mother of the nine Muses, and credited with inventing words and language to name all the objects in the world.
Mnemosyne remembers everything. Her purpose was to preserve stories in history and oral tradition before there was ever an alphabet or words to write down our thoughts. She doesn’t remember just anything, though–she remembers the most important aspects about life: the laws of the universe, the cycle of life, and how to live in the world.
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
The city of Chicago has never been more than a fifteen-minute drive away from where I’ve lived my whole life. For one summer, I managed a bar in the South Loop when the Blackhawks lost their chance at the Stanley Cup and crowds of tourists swarmed in front of our windows to watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brasil.
Throughout the city are baby blue bikes that can be rented by the hour to make getting around easier, even segues that can be booked for tours. Something I’ve always wanted to try is the bus that takes a group of people around to sample the best pizza at different spots.
My sister and brother-in-law work in the hospitality industry downtown too, depending on the season: at the Hilton, The London House across from Trump tower, Park Plaza near the Bean (Cloud Gate), and The Walnut Room in Macy’s on State.
Spending time in the city is something we do; parallel parking is a must-know to get anywhere. It’s always easy to tell who is a native and who is just visiting: the visitors always ask where “Willis” Tower is, the one natives still call Sears, and almost always have a map wide open in front of their face.
Chicago is built on a grid but the tall buildings make it hard for me to find North and South easily. If you know where the lakefront is, you can find pretty much anywhere you want to go. If you wind up somewhere near Lower Wacker, chances are you’ve gone too far.
There are names for every street and areas across the city. Not just the names on the sign. Names like “The Mag Mile,” where high-end shops and designer stores display mannequins dressed in the latest haute couture. There’s China Town, one of the best places to walk around, the North Loop where most people who work downtown actually work, and lesser known places like Jeweler’s Row where you can pawn basically whatever you want.
When my sister worked at a jewelry store in the suburbs, her and her boss often made trips to Jeweler’s Row to get inspections, estimates, and inventory for the store.
The most amazing part about Chicago is that it looks and feels like an entirely different place no matter how many times you visit, no matter how many pictures you see. A day in the city is a novel experience. So many suburbanites take “staycations” for that reason. I fall in love with the city every time I set eyes on the skyline again and again. The sense of astonishment comes from the feeling of not having done this before. The view is awe-inspiring. That’s a really hard feeling to replicate, the feeling of experiencing something again for the first time with fresh eyes, especially for writers.
When I think about what it means to live in the world, I think about my city.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future's sakes.
Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mudtime"
The work of writers is divided: half of the time is devoted to writing, and the other half is not devoted to writing. Art, craft, hobby, calling, work, labor, or play? What to call the nature of what writers do is equally divided. Increasing the divide is the intimidation of writers by those in the 9-5 workforce.
Writing is devotion: of time, of resources, and of attention. Very little about writing is not frustrating. Finding the time, finding the space, finding the means. Very few people know that writing is a privilege.
Writers who write are compelled to do so. Writers have also freely chosen writing as their occupation whether or not it yields any dividends. Writers write for the sake of their art.
“We’re in service to the art, bent to it,” says Eula Biss, “There’s pleasure in this posture, in being bettered by the work. it isn’t the pleasure of mastery, but the pleasure of being mastered.” Her book Having and Being Had explores the nature of her work as an artist, teacher, and writer alongside ideas about capitalism.
In being mastered, the writer is not being subjugated but subdued; their intensity for the art as a desire and necessity is not being conquered, but curbed. Art, including writing, brings immense satisfaction and pleasure, though the process itself is one of frustration, setbacks, and failures.
Writers combine love and need to create pleasure in the making of something. There’s no unity in an unfinished work; writers must finish and come to the end of their process to arrive at something new. Only then does the unity, the totality of all the parts, reveal something new to them.
It’s not a sense of accomplishment, but one of revelation. “That word accomplishment bothers me,” says Eula Biss. “I don’t want, I think, anything to do with it. Still, I pursue it. Except at the piano, where there is no question of accomplishment. This is practice. And practice is all I want out of art.”
Writers work and labor, toil and play to practice their art, hone the craft, compelled by a deep desire and driven by a burning necessity to write, to gain an internal sense of unity out of the chaos that is life. Writers put the parts of their life together on the page.
In Robert Frost’s poem, he refuses to pay someone else to chop wood because he likes the work. He never says it isn’t hard. What he finds hard is unity.