Desires and devices

And so, with my devices I both connect with others and separate myself.

The glimmering screen–television, cell phone, computer (and now watch, and now corner of my eyeglasses?)–swallows me with a promise of ending my isolation. In a series of clicks that takes only seconds, interactions unscroll themselves at my bidding. I can float on them; I can plunge in with morsels (carefully chosen) from my own life. Amusement. Engagement. Empathy. Anger. Camaraderie. Enmity. Let your fingers do the walking.

In the background of the space my body inhabits, everyone and everything dims and fades out of focus. The screen never forces me to hear questions I don’t want to answer. It never asks me to resolve my inconsistencies or unravel my dilemmas. It takes my word for it, whatever “it” is.

I can project myself a mess (even if I’m fine). I can convincingly (or not, since I don’t have to answer to anyone for it) style myself a fine and together and even enhanced human being, even as chaos swirls within me. My devices can shield me, even from myself.

You know, the words “desire” and “device” spring from a related sense, as in “leave him to his own devices.” Meaning “leave him to his own means of attaining what he wants.” Is it me, or do we increasingly want the devices themselves?

This is not a lament about technology. This is not a nostalgic yearning for a simpler time when we faced one another, committed to interactions that consisted of uncomfortable silences or uncomfortable words.

My childhood was filled with devices, even before the internet and laptops and smartphones. We found our own ways not to talk, and not to notice that we weren’t talking. I took walks, argued about sports or politics, buried my eyes in books, fantasized about the future; I went to Mass; I played board games with my brothers. These devices were only less expensive than those we use now. Low tech.

No, I’m not looking for a return to some mythical golden age. I want to find a way to unravel or fulfill or even name desire without using devices, accompanied by the risks of misrecognition, pursued without an on/off switch. I want something I’m not sure how to do, something I’m not sure is possible.

I want “conversation.”

Can we talk?

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Who’s way?

“What way is this?…What dark is this?
Equus

“Get out of your own way” repeated itself in my head yesterday. A mantra.

But that means I have to know what my way is.

Thirty-three years ago this month, I fled from college. Dropped out, they would say, and so I used to say. I had really been checked out for weeks, stopped attending classes. And I had been muddling for years.

Was I getting in my way all those months I was a poor student? Was I getting in my way when I stopped going to my classes? Was I getting in my way when I left?

Or was I on my way? Was the act of leaving, and all the messy prelude to it, simply me groping, seeking the escape hatch that would set me free, point me in the direction I should have been traveling all along?

“All the way to heaven is heaven,” St. Catherine of Siena once wrote.

Can that be true? Can even my mistakes, my transgressions, the harm I’ve visited on others, simply be my way to heaven? I might be able to convince myself it were so if I believed in that supernatural concept of heaven anymore.

But without the comforts of that usefully, beautifully, unsatisfactorily vague utopia, I am left with this: To try coming to terms with not knowing where my way leads. To settling on the practice of certain acts (meditating, running, writing, caring) that seem to ground me and keep (generally) the dismay at bay. I’m left, in short, with uncertainty, and with what devices I can find to forgive myself and the universe for our shared lack of clarity.

So maybe that’s my way. Maybe, in the end, that’s the only way any of us has.

 

Dispossession disposition

Emptiness, as with so many states of being, arrives in different forms: sometimes a welcome exhaustion following the pleasure of heavy exertion; sometimes the white of bleak, winter landscapes; sometimes the despair of a non-existent balance on an overdrawn account; sometimes the clean space of beginner’s mind.

Sages and alchemists understood that survival often lies in transforming the things we encounter–both within ourselves and between ourselves and the world–from one form to another as the situation indicates.

Each day I ask myself whether I can turn this emptiness I so often possess (and which possesses me) into another form, from despair to presence. Can I make absence and lack into openness and receptivity?

Winter’s frigid sleep and slaughter becomes the blank canvas for spring; the jungle’s living cacophony bursts from a tangle of unending decay. In each instance, absence–emptiness–lays the foundation for birth and growth.

Life and death coil about one another like snakes roiled in combat. Or the rituals of mating. Or both.

I can’t get to necessity by clinging; I can arrive there only by emptying. What a cold and terrifying place it can be to dwell. Yet nothing matters more than letting go because the essence left behind becomes the material to be transformed into whatever comes next.

It may turn out dispossession is nine tenths of the law of existence.

This transformation needs to happen inside/out. I’m trying to teach myself to let go: of states of mind, of habits of thinking, and of the carbon dioxide–clenched in my lungs–that keeps clean oxygen from coming in.

Possessions

I’m thinking tonight about how the things that I possess possess me back. Or maybe it works the other way around. Maybe I was first possessed by wayward hands reaching out to grab me from the universe that swirls around, and I’ve returned the favor by attaching myself.

To clarify, I don’t mean just–or even mostly–physical objects. So often I’ve found it easy to blame objects pushed into my lap by expectations and advertising, by shame and embarrassment, by all the inadequacies I wrangle with within.

But now I see it’s the wrangling that possesses me so insistently.

The objects serve as stand-ins, talismans to which I can attach my yearning, an infection of absence that spreads so easily. The most virulent of airborne viruses.

I can’t see the possessions that matter most. More ethereal than microbes, they leave me feverish in their wake. They transform me into possessor and possessed, like the old notions of people enthralled by demons. I’ve been seized: by ideas, by fears, by failures, by visions of future and past.

My possession by these ghosts of myself turn the present tense with the terror of emptiness. How do I exorcise them? How do I un-string myself from these webs that make a puppet of me? How do I break the fever?

How do I make myself believe that I have enough without my possessions?

 

Some days…

“Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.”

And some days, and nights, not content to get you, he climbs inside your skin and roots around in it a while. He stretches your bones until they crack and ache. He pulls this way and that against your tendons and muscles, bulging your flesh in all the wrong places.

And when the bear feel particularly mischievous, he climbs along the inside of your spine, using your spinal cord as a kind of rope. When he reaches the top, he rifles through the files you’ve stored away there.

He finds the ones about wetting the bed. He makes photocopies of the ones about the girl in elementary school that you had a crush on, and in whose name you used to call the radio station and request Paul McCartney’s “My Love” while everyone else in the house was asleep. He knows how you’d listen on the earplug when the song played on your transistor radio, wondering whether she was awake too, listening. The bear knows you never found out.

The bear ransacks your memories of embarrassment: how you couldn’t throw or catch or dribble a basketball or hit a baseball. How even your own brothers would choose you last when they picked teams for football in the muddy field down the road. How your thick glasses and high water, plaid, polyester slacks marked you (not to mention the brown skin; don’t forget the skin).

But the bear doesn’t have to go that far back to find fodder to use against you. He has video on you losing your temper with the kids, being grumpy with your partner, wanting to hide away as winter settles in. He has all the receipts that prove your loneliness, your self pity, your disappointment with almost every aspect of who you are.

Of course, like all bears, after a while he loses interest (a commentary in itself), climbs back down, and goes away to where ever bears come from.

I wish I could say something profound about the bears and their comings and goings. I wish I could draw some hopeful lesson about life and its cycles and resiliency. I wish I could dispel despair and pretend that it’s all going to be okay.

I can only remind you (me) that there’s more to life than bears and their inconvenient visits. I can only remind you (me) that we’re more than our failings (and more than our successes, too). And for reasons obvious (love, loved ones, friends, small joys) and reasons I can’t even name, I still want to see what the next day—bears or no bears—brings.

Get Up

“Are you going to get up?”

He wrote it on a 4 by 6 index card and taped it to the wall beside his desk.

That’s his question.

Get up from depression. Get up from anxiety.

Get up from the memories of childhood, from the musings of how the course of his psyche and life might have run “otherwise.”

Get up from the expectation–inflated and underestimated–because of his skin or his speech or his test scores or his shyness or the capacity he eventually grew to cover over that shyness. Get up from all expectations, including his own.

Get up out of his own way.

Get up from the mistakes he made, the harm he’d done, the pain he’d caused to others and to himself. Get up from his indictment of himself for being human, for not being better, for not being perfect. Get up from the shame he felt for being human.

Get up from history, from the history of his people, from the history of the nation he’d been born into, from the weight of all that had been taken and was still possessed by the dispossessors. Get up from weight of the silence hovering over past and present, the weight of the stories woven to enforce that silence.

Get up from the way the world names strange his desire to find a way to see himself whole, to face and taste the world whole, not precut into bits flavored to make them more digestible.

Get up to breathe. Get up to write. Get up to learn. Get up to grow.

Decades gone and you gotta get up.

Tears shed and you gotta get up.

So much and so many burned down to the ground and you still gotta get up.

No time to lay down, man. You gotta get up. Can you hear the bell chiming?

You gotta get up.

Get. Up.

Peelings

The progress of my life consists mainly of peeling.

Through long stretches, beginning with childhood, I wanted wanted wanted.

Independence. Money. Recognition. Positive regard. Love.

In my early adulthood, my wants graduated: More money. More freedom. More acclaim. More love.

You are what you can get, I told myself. Not in words, but in urges. In preoccupations. I wondered what I could get; I wondered how to get it.

The peeling had begun by college, most obviously when I dropped out, but even earlier. Sometimes I thought it was the depression. Later—much later—I realized that the depression arrived when the desire to peel and pare down and make space had presented itself but I had ignored it for too long.

Long winter days strung together, I would retreat into a book and stop going to my college classes. The work I was supposed to do would fall away. Walking. Reading. Going to movies in the middle of the day. Drinking in the wooden, peanut-strewn bar I frequented, eating the sub sandwiches they made in the back for dinner.

I treated it like cowardice; I felt ashamed, not knowing. Something in me was trying to clear a path that I kept refusing to walk. And at the end of each cycle of this clearing and then refusal, the depression would rush in on the back of fear and failure.

Decades can slip through your fingers this way. I worked, lived, loved, married, parented, worked. I broke down, then patched myself together, then broke down. Not so visibly. Mostly it manifested itself in a numbness that I instinctively knew how to hide, which wasn’t that difficult because, really, most people don’t want to see it anyway. Calling it “hiding” implies that I had to prevent people from looking at it when, really, they were mostly perfectly content to look away.

But the peeling, persistent, kept returning, and now I listen to it. Or rather, I hear it. I don’t turn away from it anymore. I don’t know that I can answer what it wants from me, but I don’t try to quiet it either. Well, not most of the time.

It sounds like a wind blowing continually, ebbing and flowing. It sounds like a tropical rainy season, weeks of the music of water falling, running everywhere, unceasing. Like the sound of something inexorable.

Slowly it calls me to strip myself clean. Slowly.