Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Different Kind of Life

I was going to wait until I was feeling better to write this, but here I am anyway… writing on one of those days when something feels profoundly wrong in the universe or in the world or maybe just in me. I should have written a few days ago when I emerged from the blissful beauty and solitude of the woods where the big oaks still grow and the flowing water trickles like a meditation foundation and roars like a symphony. It always seems so clear to me, after a few solid hours of trudging down muddy trails and plunging my face into icy forest streams, what I’m supposed to be doing in this life, the things I need to let go, the precious few I’m supposed to keep and hold close. It seems so simple out there to just breathe the animate air, close my eyes, and let the sunlit autumn leaves paint my eyelids with the answers to all of my questions. It seems so easy to be free.

But this week has been a week like so many others, when my mind has become clouded with habitual worries and anxieties and it won’t let me sleep at all. I can feel it pushing at the back of my eyeballs and tensing all of my muscles. My words feel too clumsy and too numerous, my perception of safety limited to the walls of my own house. The world outside seems way too loud and far too fast – over-stimulated, overmedicated, over-processed and overwhelmed. It is at times like these I always return to the same question:

If this is the world we’ve built for ourselves, why are we so often unhappy living in it?

I think part of the answer lies in the fact that progress has now become synonymous with commodification to the point that even personal growth and transformation seem to require a vast array of products in order to be fomented in our lives. Our brand preferences have become our identities and we’ve been thoroughly convinced that changing them somehow changes us, too. From fashion to pharmaceuticals, we’re not just being sold products anymore; we’re trying to buy our own redemption.

The problem is that with each new product we buy, we become increasingly comfortable with the notion that the cures for our unhappiness exist somewhere outside of ourselves and that, by obtaining them, we no longer have use for the much tougher internal processes of reckoning and discernment. As I’m sitting here trying to write this, I’m fighting nearly constant urges to check my email, scroll through Facebook posts, turn on the TV, see what there is to buy on Amazon… anything to distract me from feeling how I’m feeling right now. With everything at my fingertips, I could easily stay distracted and detached until the discomfort passes. In fact, I could easily stay distracted and detached for my entire life. We all could. And sadly, many of us will.

Which is why I chose to write today, dear friends, even though I feel like such a mess. Tonight I’m hiding in my house, but tomorrow I’m going to try again – not to go out and buy things but to do things to get me just a little bit closer to where I want to be. Tomorrow I’m going to try to live a little more openhearted and a little less distracted. I’m going to try to pay attention to all of the beauty and the pain around me and not bury my face in my iPhone. I’m going to try to hold a few precious things close and let the rest go. I’m not going to run back into the woods this time. I’m going to stay right here.

I’m going to keep trying to live a different kind of life.

Breaking Brave

I was trolling the news feed per usual this morning, wading through the daily litany of clever quips, obnoxious reposts (“like” if you agree!), kid pictures, pet pictures, food pictures, inspirational quotes (the posting of which I am a chronic offender) and the like, when I came across this status update from an old friend:

I have recently come to terms with the fact that I have bipolar disorder. I see now that it has been plaguing me my whole life and doing damage to those I love most. Took my first step towards changing that today. I’m getting help. It’s going to be a long road. Thank you to those who have been there for me.

A simple statement, really – a message so basically earnest that it could easily suffer the swift and certain fate intrinsic to the billion other digital updates and proclamations pushing through the feeds, each one bumping the last into cyber-oblivion, someone’s deepest confession briefly replaced by an Instagram of someone else’s delicious garlic mashed potatoes – before they are both buried in the information graveyard forever. This one stuck with me, though, long after it had been replaced by the latest moronic thing Ted Cruz had to say about, well, just about anything and the new Buzzfeed list, “13 Telltale Signs You’re Stuck in the 90’s.” (I’m listening to Pearl Jam while I write this, so… yeah)

Apropos though, since I think this all started for us back then – back during the time when we were the ones to shake off the shallow indulgences of the 80’s and reclaim some of that righteous anger that had faded as all the hardcores OD’d or burned out and all the straightedges grew up. Maybe grunge didn’t save rock ‘n roll, or maybe it ruined it, but it led us back to Minor Threat and Black Flag and The Clash and everything else that made us feel angry and broken and brilliant and saved all at the same time. We weren’t riding the bleachers at the pep rally; we were walking the rusty beams of abandoned bridges, suspended and suspect, using the dizzy edges to measure our will and our worth.

It’s a miracle we lived through it. Yet, in the years between then and now, we haven’t been without casualties. We’ve watched each other be broken, one by one, in ways both subtle and spectacular. When Tony died, I made a drunken backyard bonfire of my old journals and poetry books and sent their ashes swirling into the sky – to try to shake the stubbornly clinging past – the one that would never let me back away from the ledge we once peered over together. But that aching urgency was burned into us to begin with, and no fire could ever consume it.

For better or for worse, this is who we are.

Which is why, my old friend, your update from this morning hit me so hard. While I’m still playing the tortured poet and grasping at ghosts, you’ve made the tougher choice – to look up and live on. Picking a fight with your demons is one of the hardest things we can do in this life, but you never were one to shy away from a challenge. I remember you standing under those stage spotlights and belting out your lines years ago.  I want you to know how brave I thought you were back then. I want you to know how brave I think you are right now.  And I want you to know I think you’ll win.

Aflame

Over the past few weeks, the maple down the street has changed from dingy, faded summer’s-end green to splendorous burnt orange and crimson, like blood and fire against the azure autumn sky. Every year it sparks in me a memory, or maybe something deeper than a memory; an image emblazoned in the archives of my past, filed away but far from forgotten.

There was a massive maple tree just like this one on the winding avenue that led up the hill to the house where I grew up. Every year it would ignite with the same impossible colors before yielding its leaves to the unrelenting autumn winds. I biked past it hundreds of times as a kid, returning from some friend’s house or some adventure deep in the woods, then drove past it hundreds more as a teenager, coming back from some keg-strewn bonfire in some gravel pit outside the city limits, racing to get home before curfew.

It isn’t just the image that has lingered with me, though, but all of the longing and turmoil spilling over at every moment in those days. I used to wear an old canvas army surplus jacket in the fall, full of rips and bloodstains and cigarette burns – each one hard-earned. I walked its threads like tightropes, dancing while they frayed beneath my feet. We were all so close to the edge back then and we wanted to be – to see just how close we could come, how much we could feel, how much beauty and pain and inspiration and heartbreak we could take.

I always felt those things the most in the fall, when somehow the world dying all around made me feel like I was being reborn.

But those flames have turned to embers now, glowing faintly beneath the years and layers of habit and routine. I’m not sure it’s possible to ever feel anything as intensely as we do when we’re young – or if we do, maybe it’s us who can’t last. After all, we’ve already said goodbye to some friends who tried to walk that edge for too long.

Last time I was back in the old neighborhood, I saw that they had chopped that old maple down, removing the last landmark by which I had tried to navigate my way back to the wild heart that used to beat in my chest. I sat at the stop sign blinking slowly, trying to make it reappear, until the honking of the cars behind me tore me from my reverie. For a split second, I swear I could see its jagged outline in the rear view mirror as I drove away.

This autumn is warmer and later than it should be, with the leaves in my neighborhood just starting to change and clinging tenaciously to the trees. All except the maple down the block, that is. It hasn’t been willing to wait for the colder weather to set itself aflame. It glows and burns like a personal protest against the slow death of winter it knows will come far too soon.

Though I know it, too, I just can’t seem to burn like that anymore. But I’ve still got those embers glowing somewhere inside of me, and I’ve still got a chance…