I read this tonight at an artist’s gathering. My thanks to Karen Kunkel and all the other performers.
I have chosen to write this in epistolary form to you, my best beloved, flower of my heart. Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “She does not mean me. Not me, here, on this chair, on this couch, hiding in the shadows, light strong on my face. She means some vague and amorphous you.” No. I mean you. You with your skin mites and bacterial suites and arrogance and anxiety. All your organs burbling away. All your desires and problems rattling around in your brain. Because you are specific. We are all made after a template, yes, but you are unique. You complete the universe. Not solely, but uniquely. This isn’t one of those secondhand Goodwill universes with bits missing so you can never build the mousetrap without the whole thing falling to pieces.
If this idea is to hold, then that means that I, too, am integral to existence. And this is where I struggle. Not with the idea that I have value, I was too fortunate in parents for that, but in what my role is. What my place is. If it’s even true that I have one, or that one is necessary.
I grew up with King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. I grew up with many stories of different sorts of knights, be they men or women or dragonish, canny children or tired old ladies, they were bound into one form by the transforming nature of The Quest. Indeed, there were so many of these stories that I quite naturally assumed that this was the order of things and that in my due time I would receive my own quest, set off into the world with sword and self, and life would unfold pleasantly and easily in prescribed story format. I waited. For many many years, I waited for my quest to make itself known. I egged it along where I could, climbing out of my window at night all through my adolescence and walking to the wildest places I could find in urban Minneapolis to stare, frustrated, at the sky, waiting for something supernatural to snatch me. I did homemade spells with spit and hair and blood under the swings by the soccer field after dark, trying to bring my will to bear on destiny. I tailed strangers, other night people, for as many blocks as I could, testing, waiting, maybe this one, maybe this one, maybe this one will start it, will spark the story. What I got were some freaked out dog walkers, a lot of colds and a taste for being alone. Well, what I got was bitterness and deep betrayal. Life was not as I had been lead to believe. There was no cohesion, no unifying principle. There were no proper monsters, only people so cold and dull and unimaginative that they became evil for money. My heart broke, quietly, over a period of years.
Well, if life would not hand me an adventure, I would manufacture one. When I was sixteen, I went to live in France as an exchange student for a year. All my fierceness and watchfulness brought to bear on a new situation, a foreign country, surely stuffed with surprise and wonder, magic and danger. Alas. I learned, more than I had ever wanted to, about what petty power does to decent people. I learned that middle class values are surely based on fear whatever country you end up in. I learned that the heat and energy I felt in my blood and my breath back home, that I had climbed out my window all those nights to find an answer to, only wanted an outlet. That the night walks met and soothed those feelings on their own terms, without squishing them or judging them. But night walks are not permitted to decent people. I learned that quiet plain folks do not want surprise and glory disrupting their tidy lives. I broke in several more places.
I had wanted this thing so badly, you see. I was embarrassed once, or perhaps I was so intensely private that to speak of my desire was to hurt myself, which is almost the same thing as embarrassment. I wanted beautiful strangers to come to me and say, we need you. You are the hero. You must help us. You must save us. We will bring you to our faerie country, where rules are upside down, and the wonder of it will feel like fire and you’ll win the day and we’ll have a feast and it will all work out perfectly because you’re Elizabeth and that is your destiny.
It was the demise of this dream that dropped me on the shores of adulthood, alongside a brand new panic disorder and the onset of mental illness.
When you are a teenager becoming an adult and suddenly everything feels different, dull and spiky at once, it does not occur to you that it might be mental illness. You just think this is what adulthood feels like. You think all adults feel this and that is why the world is as it is, that is why everyone is so sad and bad and wicked. You begin to understand brawlers and alcoholics and serial killers, because who would not do any mad thing they can think of to get a rest from this feeling.
I spent eight years in that place. I drank a lot. I meditated a lot. I prayed a lot. I learned slowly that, though they were beneficial, the meditation and praying were being used by a hard faced little ringmaster in my head. I had obsessive compulsive disorder and that was why sometimes praying could lead to starving, or sleeplessness, or nesting in a cliffside motel room with my two cats and no money and pacing and pacing. I learned that drinking was a not unreasonable response to this cycle. If the only way that you can switch your hyperaware binary moral sense of your self from 0(BAD) to 1(GOOD) is by blindly following a vaguely felt path of perfect choices, and that same broken sense resets you to 0(BAD) after each one of these choices, why then drinking seems downright sunny in comparison.
I had lost my wildness in madness. I was afraid now all the time. Afraid of making the wrong choice. Afraid of going right when I should be going left, literally. I flipped coins while I was driving so the onus of the next wrong decision (it was impossible that they not be wrong) would land on the coin and be diverted from me. Fear will pull you inside out. Or maybe not. Maybe fear makes caves in you, pits, that you fill up with everything bad or unexpected that might happen. You crawl in after them, huddle up to them. They keep you warm, don’t they.
That driving fear left me in a lot of weird places. A lot of motels. A lot of parking lots. Beaches. Driveways. Rest stops. Circling cities, afraid to roost anywhere. Throwing the I Ching in truck stop bathrooms. Crying in Applebees. Ahh, Applebees. In a way, this period was an antidote to my early desperate rejection of bourgeois life. When you are coming from a technicolor hell of self abuse, Applebees seems like paradise. An oasis of order and kindness and maternal ladies bringing you coffee and asking you if you’re okay. I had to stop hating under the onslaught of casual, effortless love from these women, almost always women, who might not even name what they were doing as love, just keeping their body and soul together and by unthinking generosity with their hands and eyes and time, mine too. Diners are still my refuge.
I’ve been coming out of those pits for a while now. The last couple of years. Popping my head out like a gopher and staring around suspiciously, but all I see is sky. Spending more time under that sky. I’m some better. I am not compelled with as much strength or as much frequency. I know now that you do not give an inch to those thoughts or they flood you, they own you. I do not drink myself to sleep. I rarely pray until I choke. But I am perplexed by the same problem of my childhood. The problem of my story.
I have told you a story of my life. I have pummeled chaotic chronological events into a narrative. But it irks me, it IRKS ME I TELL YOU, that I have to be the one to do that. That I cannot float down the concrete lined lazy river of an external narrative delivered to my address for me expressly. O no, o no. I just realised that’s what country music is about. That’s an attainable narrative. Having a truck and marrying someone from your high school, they just took the thing that was already there and poured syrup and arpeggios over it. Ah God. Huh. I wonder if the Knights of the Round Table were a boring/horrible narrative that was already there that got syrup poured over it. Dang. Conned by history.
So maybe there was never that kind of a path laid out for me. Or if there is and I’m on it, I won’t be able to see its shape until it’s over, like any proper story. Am I acquiring skills right now? Have the last thirty years just been a training montage? No. I won’t collapse myself into that format, because it robs me. Trying to tell myself to you as a story robs both of us. Because what I am, and what I think most of us are, is a flavour. Or a tint, if you’re more visually minded. There are so many things in our lives that try and get us to conform, to consolidate, to make our flavour be just salty or just sweet, to make our tint be just blue or just yellow. But we aren’t. We are complex. We’re massive. We are unending. We have motifs, to be sure, but our whole life is an evolution of our flavour, not a repetition. There’s an incredible density to every moment, that wants to be experienced by us, in all our variety. From this perspective, trying to induce a particular event chain is, well, it’s not silly exactly but it’s not really necessary. Because each event, whether we want it to or not, solidifies us. Makes us more ourselves. People fight against that, for popularity? Or something? For fear of who they are, maybe. Systems try to prevent it, because systems want interchangeable pieces. You are not interchangeable. You are only you. And I pray you become as rich and as vivid and as uncompromisingly yourself as you can possibly be. I pray that for myself. I pray that for all of us.
I hope it’s warm where you are. I hope you’re okay, or wonderful, or miserable but in an interesting way. I hope we see each other soon. Take care.