I feel uncommon, running in the woods.
Well, the word “running” applies less and less, these days. But I blame that on Time, as it seems like every month or so I lose one more spring out of the once bouncy mattress of my step. But I do what I can.
As I was saying. Uncommon.
I don’t follow paths. In moments, that bores me. It’s “the road less traveled” and all that, even though when you leave the path altogether, you’re no longer on ANY kind of road, and the path you tread, taken as a whole, has NEVER been traveled. The heart of true creativity has a lot to do with it. I find it easy to create, and find myself fearless in it, and I’m not someone who doesn’t see connections between similar aspects of the self.
Do I hunger to try new things in writing? Yes. In baking? Yes. And does that relate to a hunger to try new paths in life generally? I think so.
The other day, my father and I talked about the prospect of visiting national parks. He’s only ever been to Acadia, in Maine. I’ve never been to any at all, but after watching the below-pictured PBS documentary series…
…I have a craving to see more.
My father and talked about what people usually do at such places. See all the sights in the usual way. Take the tours. Join the crowds. Buy the souvenirs. Snap the photographs, while standing erect and smiling at the camera, to prove to others you were there.
And we both talked about how that’s not for us.
“Let me wander off somewhere wild,” I said.
Of course, you’re often alone when you don’t follow the path. You see what no one else sees because you go where no one else goes. And then you find yourself more isolated, even when you return, because less and less does your experience match up with the experience of others. You cut yourself off from the ordinary, to mix with the true dynamism of things, only to lose frames of reference with Humanity.
I shouldn’t say “only.” There are benefits. In particular I like seeing how Nature does just fine all on its own. It’ doesn’t need to be “redeemed,” as the US Census Service used to call the tumbling westward acres of land once the frontier swallowed them up.
A garden, you see, for all its grandeur, can instill a kind of god complex in a person. You partake, but you don’t feel insignificant.
This life exists because I planted it.
This life continues because I weed out the encroaching wilderness of weeds.
This life ends because I need flowers and flour.
One of the most clear things to me about Humanity’s relationship with Nature is that… we have to deflate and move aside our sense of tremendous centrality in it. All of our stories sing to us, over and over, from birth, that only Humanity matters. And stories build us. Of course, we can use logic to push back against the song that is everywhere, but how many people, when push comes to shove, operate on rationality? Rationality, for all but a tiny minority in this massive democracy, is an armchair warrior’s game.
Just look at what happened to people after 9/11.
Does seeing that image, again, remind you how many people (as a friend of mine once put it), “want to build a wall around Afghanistan and fill it with water”?
And, now that things have calmed down, how many people still feel that way?
We, we Americans, put Japanese citizens in a concentration camp, after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. And many wanted to do that to anyone that looked like a “towel head” in the wake of 9/11.
Why take the risk? They MIGHT be anxious to kill our loved ones….
They might even destroy our national parks.
The Grand Canyon.
And so, perhaps, preemptive strikes are the best thing….
Being able to… step out of the emotional tide at such times is, I think, partly contingent on having practice stepping out of the tide generally. How often do you yearn to not “go with the flow”? How often do you put yourself in a position to feel that, at the moment, you are not partaking of this grand communal civilization? How often do you step off the path in the woods and remember that, for 99.999% percent of the history of the Earth, life did just fine. And, in fact, we would not exist if that were not the case.
And then there’s the fact that this is, as John Muir put it while defending the lands of Yosemite in California, “the morning of creation.” Creation is not done. It is not completed, ready for us to take the reins at last and to reign at last.
What kind of sentient life might evolve from other life forms, were we not creating the 6th great global extinction in Earth’s history? What might Humanity become? How might it further be polished, in the forge of Evolution?
Are there pictures beyond this? Are there more to be drawn?
And is it even a progression from “worse” to “better”? Is it just “change” and “experimentation” in the forge of life?
Sometimes when I run in the woods, I feel uncommon.
I often crouch on top of a rock, watching the distant path when people run by, in that monotonous, jogging way that makes certain the exercise of no more than the minimum muscles. The exact same pace. The exact same course. No change. No dynamism. No creativity.
No partaking of what exists off the path, other than the occasional “what a nice view” glances at the background scenery.
No communion WITH the scenery.
I sometimes feel like that method of exercise is the perfect symbol for Humanity’s manner of interacting with the natural World. It is safe. It is comfortable. And it seems profoundly limiting.
Sometimes I wish I had others to run my exact route with me, the way I run, or rather the way I aggressively wander. Over rocks and under branches. Around bushes and through ravines. And beneath the canopy that dwarfs me. The green leaves the color of money, but as yet not transformed into it. The music of the wind in the trees where the birds, out of sight, add their un-monied notes.
Yes. Sometimes I wish I were not the only human being, seeing what I see in the way and order I do.
And, then, sometimes I do not.
Quite a few years ago, back in 1995 at a time that has almost become a time two decades past, I was a newborn college student.
Heady times. I remember, that fall, two very good and hard-to-watch movies came out.
One was “Leaving Las Vegas,” in which Nicholas Cage played an alcoholic who, fed up with life, decides to go to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. And even Elizabeth Shue, as a prostitute who in another film would have “saved and redeemed him,” in then end cannot help. Somehow, she didn’t judge him in the end, for quitting on her, and on life.
The other film was “Dead Man Walking,” a film based on a non-fiction book by Sister Helen Prejean, and telling the story of a nun who tries to help a man sentenced to die on death row. He was accused of partaking in the grisly murder of a young girl, with a friend, and while he protests his innocence of being anything more than an unwilling accomplice, the evidence doesn’t back him up. Much like Elizabeth Shue in “Leaving Las Vegas,” she attempts to redeem him, but in the end cannot. It turns out he was the primary murderer, and one of the harder sequences I’ve ever had to watch in a film was the beginning of his walk to the moment of his death.
I’m here mostly to talk about the latter film. To me, it’s notable for two reasons that wouldn’t matter to most people.
The first, and much smaller reason, is that it contains maybe the first notable role for Jack Black, who played Sean Penn’s unfunny younger brother before later becoming a great and famous comedian.
The second, and much larger reason, is that the film started a major transformation inside my sprit, a transformation revolving around the word “judgment.” I still remember, that freshman year in college, getting caught up in the “perspective” the film offered. All films give you just perspective. They lead you by the nose to care about certain other real people, while preventing you from caring about other equally real people. And in so doing, it creates drama, focus, and more.
Of course it’s baloney. Another film could lead you by the nose to empathize with other characters, and everything would be different. And we would not mind. In that other film we would be content to see Sean Penn’s character as a monster. And we would likely not imagine our perspective being “partial” either. It would feel like… “the” perspective.
It reminds me of “Slaughterhouse Five.” In it, aliens not constrained by Time, the Tralfamadorians, try to teach Billy Pilgrim about the terrible limitations of Human perspective.
The quote from the book that I always think back on goes as follows:
The guide invited a crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The flat end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped–went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “that’s life.”
I watched “Dead Man Walking,” in college in 1995, and there was a scene in it when Sister Helen Prejean is visiting the family of the murdered girl. At this point, the audience has been led by the nose to sympathize with her and the murderer. We expect them to see that, but what they expect is that she is at their home to help them, the victims.
She tells them she is helping the murderer, in prison. And they turn on her. They tell her to leave.
I still remember the shock I felt. It was the feeling of being terribly tricked. And I noticed. And what’s more, I didn’t merely say “oops” and then, to protect my ego, go on again as if I would just naturally get it right next time.
I changed. I started to notice the limitations of perspective. I, perhaps, took those first steps to leave the “know it all” region of teenaged youth and the “much to learn” realm of adulthood. I remember, as I’ve done few times in my life, walking around in a daze, feeling my insides… transmogrify (to borrow a word from “Calvin and Hobbes”).
Except it wasn’t an easy zap.
It did start me down the road of someone who, perhaps to his detriment in other ways, was always most interested in a deeper understanding and not merely “going with the flow.” It affected many things. Religion, of course, though “blind faith” already did not sit well with me. Classes too, and the way they were taught by teachers. But it also affected my view of people.
You could say it led me toward that Bob Dylan quote I keep using.
Hurt. Pain. Holiness. Love.
That’s right, Bob. You ponder these issues too. I could use your help. They’re big issues. And I don’t have enough perspective to manage them all by myself.
Why am I talking about judgment? Various reasons.
One side reason is that I had a dream some months ago. In it, I dreamt I was playing basketball on the old, stone gymnasium floor of the Danville School that ceased existing when the addition was put on in the early 90s. I still remember a kid in my class, a vile kid who seemed destined for evil, falling once and breaking a tooth on the stone as if Fate were warming him up for a waiting curb stomp.
So. I played basketball. And for some reason, I was judging and criticizing all the other kids on my team. I needed them to play better. They weren’t doing it right. I had to fix things.
And then, in the dream, a high school friend of mine called me out for it. He was the same friend who once called me out for a very out-of-character attempt to cheat at poker during a friendly Friday night game. For some reason I felt it would be a good idea. Interesting. And then, as has become so common in my life, I hurt someone I care about or respect, or make them angry, and a nuclear bomb of guilt goes off inside me and it’s days before my body is suitable for life again.
But the dream.
In the dream, when my friend called me out, with anger, in an instant I fell into “fuck it all” depression. And I… had to get away. I left him, the game, the gymnasium and the school. Some people tried to follow me, like my high school basketball coach and my high school soccer coach, tried to find out what was wrong, and to help.
But I had to get away. Being around them, being a part of any system, disgusted me. And, in the dream, though dreams are almost invariably a respite from depression, depression fell out of the sky and only my soul like God’s own dead body.
And then I woke up. I felt better. And the memory confused me.
The other reason I’m talking about judgment? It relates to the blog entry I put up a while back, which I trashed when I realized not only that the musings should’ve been a journal entry, but that the musings were incomplete, judgmental, and even dangerous. It had to do with work, entitlement, a desire for society to make it easier for people to be of value….
Artists feel that. They get into their work, with all their heart, and then the “money” that makes up the bones of Life leaves that artistic ego feeling like nothing more than a jellyfish stranded on a hot, equatorial beach.
And what was more? It came at the expense of someone who tried to help me, a person who I was, during that depressed post, seeing only through that limiting pipe. Maybe the train’s motion lulled me to sleep. Maybe it was just an attempt to turn the anger away from myself and onto not just a person but on a system in general. Ours. I don’t want it to be so hard to be of value.
But then, when my blindness and judgment got pointed out, I felt the readiness of that nuclear bomb to explode inside me. Thankfully I was on the phone with a good friend when I was alerted to how I’d fallen into one of those ridiculous disconnects that human beings fall into all the time. Sometimes it’s as if I know that blogs are for reading by others, and that people read mine, but that, somehow, I just don’t fully believe it. Sometimes it’s as if I’m still just doing what I did for a decade, which is write in my journal while no one at all listens.
But you are listening, aren’t you. You are. Somewhere.
I kept the bomb from going off, just barely. And I made amends, quite thankfully. But it disturbed me nonetheless. What other kinds of blindnesses am I setting myself up for, in “doing what it takes” to succeed at writing rather than “being a good person”? A man can only focus on so many things at one time.
In both “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Dead Man Walking,” it was women who, on some level, failed to save men. But on another level they did save those men. Nicholas Cage knew he was loved, and Sean Penn accepted his truth.
There’s so much to learn. And there’s so much to be happy about. And there are so many people out there worth knowing.
And the bones of Life aren’t all of life. It’s a gamble to stay in Las Vegas where Reality has become nothing but the skeleton of something larger. The sure bet, as I judge things, is with the people who care about you.
Yes you’ll fuck up. But people know almost nothing, and they make mistakes. You know this at least. Forgive yourself.
We’re all dead men and women walking. The only question is whether we march toward our death with the truth in our hearts. Well, maybe it’s not the only question, but it’s a good question. And, not being a teenager anymore, I can say that I am a big fan of good questions. Leave the judgment to the higher powers.
Baby’s got book! And brains… and inner beauty… and… my kind of hotness.
Barbara Kingsolver, Black Holes, Death, Depression, Drowning, Drugs, Dune, Fear, Fine, Food, Games, Ghosts, Hope, Hyperbole and a Half, Joy, Life, Love, Meaning, Philosophy, Sadness, Sex, Trees, William Styron, Wisdom
Forgive me for blogging about depression. I don’t want to be a downer.
But it’s important.
There have been times in my life when I’ve struggled with it. A lot of artistic types struggle with it, given the way Reality conflicts with truth and beauty. Most of all I struggled with depression through parts of college, and right up to the clear September day in 2007 when I got fired from a shit job and used that insult to finally find the switch in my head that turned me into a real writer at last.
Since then, I’ve had a shield against depression. A jewel-encrusted, heraldic, mighty shield against which depression beats its brutish, arctic form in vain.
But I remember depression. Sometimes I feel the old horror latch onto me in a dream. And, like now, sometimes I feel the beast get a grip on the edges of my shield, with its crackling tentacles and claws, and pull….
Depression is an awful dead seeping numbness of a feeling, for those who don’t understand it. It’s not crying. It’s not pain. It’s not remorse. It’s an infestation by the cockroaches of meaningless, vile insects that attach themselves to everything in your live and corrupt all those once beautiful everythings with aversion.
I think a lot about why our culture is so vulnerable to mental illnesses. I think about other cultures, cultures more in synch with the way Human beings are truly evolved and built, cultures more lined up with the ideas in the book “The Continuum Concept” and much more plugged into the entirety of Earth and not just Civilization’s madman, selfish, tyrannical fantasy.
Many cultures have existed where meaninglessness was almost unknown. Many of the most successful are cultures we’d tragically call “primitive.” You know. Cultures from “prehistory,” from before the time when important things of any kind happened.
Oscar Meyer doesn’t manufacture that baloney. But if the owners of the corporation did have a patent on it, they’d be bazillionaires.
I’d contend that our fundamental disconnection with the “whole” of earthly reality is a main source of meaninglessness. We don’t feel like we’re a true part of the system. We make it an art to sequester ourselves away from it, and then to view the rest of the system as if through the bars of a zoo. Other life forms are not our kin, they are our pets and our fodder.
Other cultures in Civilization don’t have true diversity from us. They seem diverse to us, but their similarities are much more significant than the diversity of Evolution advocates. In fact, the dream of a “unified World government and culture” is… depressing, from an evolutionary standpoint. Yet even now, our Civilized World’s cultures have enough similarity to be more like the fragile parts of a narrow and genetically engineered farming ecosystem. Other places do not have vital gods of their own, they have malls and resources.
An ability to love.
These are key components in a life insulated from the cancer of depression. And in a giant, insular World that often feels as though it’s spinning out of futile control, they are easy components to lose.
Recently, when I felt more insulated, I had a friend struggling with depression.
Immediately my sympathy and empathy rose to attention. But it wasn’t that simple.
I wanted to help, but was acutely aware how hard it is to help someone “with depression.” I remembered the recoiling from help in myself, the fear of being sniffed out, ridiculed, and made to feel even more worthless. I remember the desire to hide. And so often sufferers of depression either wish to say, in that ancient way, that they’re “fine”…
…or to only entertain agreement with their view that the World is black and meaningless. Depression does not want to be helped. Help is something positive, and which has meaning. And depression sucks the life out of each.
My attempt to help was not very helpful. She lives four hours away, so I could not do much. And she stopped talking to me since then.
She may talk to me again. But I’d still feel uncertain I could help.
It’s sad. She’s wonderful.
The one thought in my life that I feel I could add to the stable of quotations about depression is as follows:
“Depression is an insidious injury. A broken bone spends its time trying to heal itself. Depression spends its time trying to convince all the other bones they’d be better off broken too.”
How does one find, and hold on to, meaning in this World?
Many say children and family. Many find meaning there. Evolution backs that up, of course, but there must be more. If one’s family does not seem to be part of a real, healthy, and sustainable larger system, even it can lose meaning. And lost meaning, as anyone who has lost faith in God knows, can be like lost wine poured down a kitchen drain. It won’t come back.
I read William Styron’s book once, “Darkness Visible,” about his battle with depression which only a long stay in a the clean routine of a hospital rescued him from. I remember him concluding the book with a line from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
There is something of… dark comedy in depression, once you escape. But it can take almost divine power to do so.
‘In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”
Styron felt it to be the cleanest, best, and most succinct of the descriptions of depression.
There are times when I fear the frigid monster of depression will succeed in prying from my grip my great shield of writing. I imagine my exposed nakedness. I imagine abject, spiraling terror. I imagine watching as the monster, with it’s dead shark eyes, snaps off great pieces from my shield with adamantium and obsidian teeth. I watch, horror struck and laid bare, as my shield descends into the stomach of the monster. It is a translucent stomach, and, frozen myself, I observe my shield’s digestion in acid.
And then a black hole takes me.
But I have people who care about me. I have people who suffer as I suffer, and would suffer more were I to lose my grip on this life’s experiment in the illusion of duality. I have no interest in torturing them.
So how to battle depression if it comes, on their behalf?
Yet while I keep fit, I do not know if depression can be outrun, or ejected by the kidneys and liver by vigorous blood flow. Travel is in many ways only an assisted breed of running. Wonderful food is a wonderful and enlivening thing. But it all turns to shit. The recreation of intelligent games? Depression makes them seem even less relevant to “what truly matters.” Money? I cannot make love to dead presidents surrounded by eagles, arrows, and the hard stone of pyramids. Music? Depression destroys harmony. Sex? Depression is about taking love away, not making it.
I have no interest in becoming an alcoholic in a valiant but vain attempt to wash away the deadness. And I have no faith in coffee and its attendant nerve pain to wake me out of such a blanketing stupor.
Other drugs? Who knows? But I have heard stories….
My life is not just about me.
Loved ones say “you are important.” Depression bellows “you are worthless.”
I have no interest in buying a bottle of sleeping pills and keeping it by my bedside, sealed tight, against the day when I decide the time is right to drive with it to a beautiful place on a high green hill, lie down, remove the foil and cotton, consume the contents, and wait to die as a golden sun sets over evergreens in the West.
I have no interest in going through life with a mind always repurposing things as the means to an end.
But life must feel worth living, for true living to go on. How does one keep a grip on value, pulling it close and owning it forever the way depression wishes to own my shield?
Much of my life has been an existence without a future in mind.
Even at the best times, I have lived in the moment. I have not visualized a “career path.” I have not pictured the growing old while a family with children grows less young around me. I have not seen myself retired and in a dream home.
I wish to ensure writing and peace in the present. And a lack of foresight can be a problem.
Sometimes it seems tied to “not having the right woman in my life.” For many years I lived with women I loved but who I could not picture marrying, and because of that, with whom I could picture no future.
A few times I have been with women I could picture marrying. And from that, joy of joys, a tree seemed to begin to grow. It was a kind of softwood tree, perhaps a balsam fir. It could be said to be a Christmas tree. And I could begin, just begin, to picture it growing up through marriage and the future, and being the vessel on which I might hang a planned and full life.
But, as they say, if you want to make God laugh, make a plan.
Oh Jesus, you nut.
But depression can taint even one’s faith in the love Christianity tries to teach us that you have. But maybe that just makes your forgiveness and grace all the more precious.
At least once, that seedling found itself pulled up by the roots. It found itself thrown aside, and the dirt from the naked tendrils got in my eyes. And depression… call it Depression… saw an opening, latched claws and tentacles around the edge of my shield, and began to pull….
Shields are not built to defend against such an attack.
And then, what is a man to do?
When can he find time to plant another tree?
And what woman would feel safe even aiding him in the attempt?
Perhaps a man should get a dog. Dogs are so full of love that they are like the image of God. Dogs love trees. And women like cute dogs.
I can’t imagine getting a cat, for that, though. The vibe of “you are not important now feed me” does not smack of “cure.”
I don’t want to be a downer.
But I’m of the opinion that a good blog, and good writing in general, should be capable of bearing the writer’s soul. And the pen is mightier than the sword, perhaps especially when brandished beside a shield. Laughter may be the best medicine, but without a full understanding of one’s soul, how far into it can laughter truly penetrate?
Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing.
I can finish on a light note. Have any of you read the wonderful blog “Hyperbole and a Half”? I first stumbled across it when a friend posted the link to a staggeringly wise and hilarious entry about a boy ruined by his dinosaur costume. But earlier today, while doing an image search for “depression,” another marvelous entry came up. It’s hard to express just what a job the personalized, unique artwork does to aid the writing, as opposed to me who just scours the Internet for photos.
Give it a read. It’s insightful. It’s colorful. And it ends with nothing short of inspiration and the death of fear. Sometimes I feel I’d give away my very happiness to have drawing and general talent like this.
And, as “Dune” taught us, fear is the mind-killer.