The last year has been rough. I’ve done my best to show up, be kind to everyone I encounter, and remain hopeful that the steady stream of next-level bad news will one day end, but that’s about all I can do: the bare minimum to stay sane, or at least appear sane. The fact is that I’m going apeshit on the inside. Sometimes the vitriol escapes through a crack in my armor, and I curse a blue streak about toothless people in red ball caps who vote against their own best interests, the volume and tone of which make my cat run and hide behind the couch.
Something’s got to give.
I’ve written a few things since last summer, but it was writing-as-expectorant, a veritable Mucinex for the psyche. I’ve always thought this type of writing was good for me but bad for any poor soul who may have to read it. I didn’t share it because I didn’t want to bring anyone down. The people who “get it” are already feeling it and don’t need my validation. Sure, we can bitch and moan together, but that grows tiresome and accomplishes nothing. Beauty lurks somewhere beneath the shit heap of life. I just need to dig deeper.
Twice in the last week I’ve stumbled upon the concept of being the curator of my own experiences. The first time was on a podcast — one of many that I listen to on my soul-crushing commute to work in the hopes of hearing the odd nugget of inspiration that will restore my will to live. The second time was in the book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. He refers to the things, people, and experiences that influence our work as our “cabinet of curiosities.” In another twist of synchronicity, my kids insisted that we visit the curiosity shop Uncommon Objects on our recent trip to Austin. It was a wondrous place and exactly what my spirit needed at that moment.
Yes, Universe, I hear you. If I’m not more careful about what goes in my cabinet, I have no doubt I’ll end up in a mental hospital. Even worse, I won’t write anything worth a damn.
So, off I go to stock my cabinet with more nerdy podcasts, iced coffees, dog kisses, lip balms, hikes, ukuleles, and cats in tutus.
My first memory: climbing out of my crib.
I couldn’t have been even two years old, but people tell me no one has memories of being that young. The idea of someone invalidating my very first memory, probably when I first told the story around age 8, explains a lot about my psychological makeup. I’ve had a rich fantasy life since I first learned truth from fiction, but I made up magical, fantastical stories, mostly about being in a more interesting place with a creative, eccentric family. Why would I make up something as pedestrian as clambering out of a baby bed?
To be fair, my memories of traumatic events, and of events that occurred during and after my heavy drinking days, can be hazy, but I have a clear picture of this episode in my head. As a toddler, my brain was fresh and absorbent, untouched by anything more innocuous than cow’s milk and the occasional sip of Coke. I know this happened.
I remember waking up in the morning and hearing Mama in the kitchen talking to a neighbor. I knew they were sitting at the robin’s egg blue formica table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes because that’s what she and most mothers who didn’t work outside the home did in 1973 to unwind. Normally, I’d cry for her to come lift me out of the crib, but I didn’t that time. My grown-up mind tells me that I once and for all decided to stop crying unless there was something to cry about. I wasn’t hurt or scared, so why start wailing like a baby? And I didn’t want to yell out to her. Yelling felt like a vulgar bid for attention, but did my child’s mind already grasp the concept of suffering through life with a quiet dignity? It’s hard to say, but that was the first instance of my consciously deciding to do something my damn self that I can recall, and it became a lifelong trend.
The crib mattress was set as low as it could go. I grabbed the top of the railing with both hands, hoisted myself up, and slung my right leg over the top. Now, how to get the rest of my body over the edge? I hung there, sideways, willing my weak upper body to maintain its grip while I moved my chubby left leg around to feel for something to give me a boost. Finally, my foot landed on a toy (my Jack-in-the-Box?), and I pushed on it hard enough to throw my whole body onto the other side. I clung to the top of the rails desperately and looked down over my shoulder at how far I was from the floor. I may as well have been dangling from the top of a skyscraper. Years later, I would remember this feeling when watching Harold Lloyd’s silent film Safety Last with Daddy, who laughed like crazy at the character’s predicament of hanging from the hands of a giant clock on the side of a building. I didn’t laugh. Instead, my stomach lurched with empathy for that poor fool.
I had no choice but to let go. Maybe I landed on my feet. Maybe it was my hands and knees. I can’t remember, but falling is one of those things that happens thousands of times when you’re a kid with rubbery bones. The pain is short-lived and forgettable and feels nothing like falling as an adult.
I shook it off and walked into the kitchen. I must have stood in front of my mother for a full minute before she noticed me standing there. She jumped, because why would she expect me to not still be in the confines of my baby bed?
“How did you get out?” She took one last drag on her cigarette and stubbed it out. I’d like to say she waved her arms to clear out the smoke, but parents didn’t much care about their children’s virgin lungs back then.
In my ideal version of the story, I told her, “I climbed out. It wasn’t so hard. You can put me in a normal bed now,” but I’m sure I wasn’t that articulate. I probably just shrugged and asked her to turn on Sesame Street, or maybe I went and turned the TV on my damn self.
I should not be surprised
when a scorpion stings
as a scorpion does.
It’s his nature,
just as it is mine
to expect the sun
when the sky is pissing rain,
and the weatherman warned me
I decided I could get by without a soul, so I gave it up to the highest bidder. His name was Reginald, and in exchange for my soul, he delivered words to me in a Mason jar adorned with raffia ribbon. Printed on heavy white cardstock in Proxima Nova font, the words were tossed together, imperfect on purpose, behind the glass like any other photo-worthy collection you’d find on your favorite social media site. I could envision them receiving likes and favorites alongside jars of lavender bath salts, river rocks, and layered soup mixes.
Every night, Reginald slithered into my room through the heating vent and replaced the previous day’s words with new ones. Sometimes I was there to witness the spectacle of his slimy body shredding to pieces as he made his way through the vent cover and him reassembling himself on the other side. Once he regained his wits and the use of his appendages, he’d make a few hocus-pocus gestures over the jar on my desk and ooze back from whence he came.
The nights I didn’t see him, I was out doing what I thought soulless people might do. I started off tailgating scared teenage girls who were making their way home after working the closing shift at Taco Cabana. I’d lean out the car window and yell at panhandlers to get a job. I bought malt liquor and filterless cigarettes for skater punks who loitered outside the 7-Eleven. I yelled at store clerks and left twelve-cent tips for waitresses at Denny’s. My pièce de résistance was rearranging the letters on readerboards in front of churches, making sure everyone in town knew that Jesus loved everyone but them.
At dawn, I’d go home, shake my word jar, and toss its contents to the floor. The words fell together in perfect sequence every time, and I’d spend several hours transcribing the next chapter of my novel. Then I’d sleep until I had to go out into the world and be an asshole again.
My dirty deeds felt neither satisfying nor regrettable, but spreading negative energy in the dark of night was part of the deal. One night, I came home earlier than usual and went straight to bed. I awoke to the moistness of Reginald’s finger tapping my forehead.
“We need to talk,” he said.
I knew what was coming: He wanted me to step up the depravity. With visions of cockfights, arson, and grand theft auto in my head, I sat up and faced him.
“I need you to engage more with your social media followers.”
“You know, network a little. If another writer says he liked your latest story, go read one of his and pay him a compliment. Give people an update on what you’re writing. Post a word count. Congratulate a fellow writer on her success. Say something about your obese cat. Be genuine.”
“But that’s so embarrassing. I’m not one to put myself out there like that.”
“I know, but you’re building a readership. And when your novel comes out, maybe people will want to buy it if they know you’re a real, likeable person and not a total wanker.”
“But you’re supposed to take care of the audience.”
“No, you asked for a novel to be delivered to you.” He pulled a small black notebook from his back pocket and flipped through the pages until he found the right one. “Yep, right here. ‘Novel,’ written in your own blood.”
“But the audience and the sales are implied.”
“Nope, you still have to work for that.”
“Then what’s the point of this deal? I already know how to write, and if I still have to do my own promotion on top of that, why should I bother going out and doing evil things for you?”
Reginald laughed. “I never asked you to do evil.”
“Of course you did.”
He shook his head. “That was all you.”
“No, that’s not right.” I tried to remember the night we struck the deal at Terry’s Roadside Tavern, but all I could recall was drinking tequila and crying in the corner booth because the vilest human being I knew had just announced his new publishing contract on Twitter. Reginald waited while I racked my brain and came up with nothing.
“I want my soul back.”
“I never took your soul. You turned your back on it.”
Reginald placed his cold fingers around my upper arm and led me to my desk. I sat in front of my laptop and read a few paragraphs of what I had transcribed earlier in the day. It conveyed a hollowness I hadn’t noticed before.
“Any semi-literate schmo can string words together,” Reginald said. “But without the right energy behind them, the words won’t resonate with anyone.”
My head hung, I surrendered the jar to him and went back to fighting hard for every word like a good soul does, stopping once in a while to thank a reader for his kindness or comment on a photo of someone’s sandwich.
Originally published in Kazka Press Monthly, April 2014
Everyday Life Through the Filter of Depression:
In the lunch room at work I hear snippets of conversations about a cat’s special diet, an oil change for the Honda, and a trip to Ikea to purchase a trivet.
And on it goes. As if anyone cares. But then I look around and see that others do care, as indicated by their smiles and nods. They even ask questions.
“What color was the trivet? Was it silicone?”
“No, it’s made of cork.”
“Oh, yes, I really like those.”
“But I did get some silicone oven mitts. They were green.”
“Nice! Lime green?”
“No, I’d say more of a grass green.”
Then I picture myself standing and saying to anyone who will listen, “You’re going to die one day. No matter how much you talk about dumb shit, you’re going to die, and endless chatter about the cheese ball you sampled at Costco won’t change that.”
I feel better just thinking about saying those words. I also feel better knowing I’m going to die one day.
Monday, February 6, 2017.
I’m at a private university, in a graduate-level memoir writing class that costs $1,869, which I couldn’t afford even if I get more than my usual 2-3 percent raise this spring. I’m not even in the damn master’s program. I’m just an employee of the university, using my tuition benefits. I know I can write, but do I belong here, with these six women who are so studied and polished? During our in-class writing exercises, they all have the most poetic prose on tap and pour it out on command like the finest craft IPA into a growler. I thought all writers cranked out shitty first drafts like I do and then whipped them into shape later. That’s what Anne Lamott taught me, but maybe that’s just me and her, and all other writers are brilliant their first go-round. I gather that some of these women are afraid to be less-than-perfect as they can’t even dumb down their writing when the assignment calls for it, like when the professor asks us to write in a child’s voice. Upon hearing one story, I want to comment, “How impressive that your four-year-old self used the words ‘bailiwick’ and ‘aubergine’ in casual conversation.” I’m a bitch like that, but not quite bitchy (or brave) enough to say those things out loud.
In the span of our three-hour class, I manage to split myself open. The professor had spent many years working as a therapist and assures us that we are in a safe space to share so that we can get to the truth in our writing. In an uncharacteristic moment of actually believing I’m among kindred souls, I leap at the opportunity to do some purging. When I’m done, I receive a smattering of awkward feedback from classmates and a concerned look from the professor, who asks if alcoholism and/or mental illness runs in my family.
People don’t quite know what to make of me. It’s a recurring theme in my life.
I walk out of class feeling raw and mangled, like I have just run my soul through a meat grinder. The night air is warm, but I zip up my jacket as if to hold myself together. This scattered feeling has me worried that I lost a few vital chunks of myself in the classroom, but I am still able to put one foot in front of the other and find my car, so maybe those pieces weren’t so critical after all. Maybe they were just familiar. In any case, I do not have the energy to sort it all out. I have to halt the racing thoughts and shift back into survival mode. Ahead of me is a 45-minute drive, in which I will need to stay vigilant and avoid cops because my registration is expired. Then I have to stop off at the grocery store, walk the dogs, and find out if my children had a good day.
When at last I get to close my eyes around midnight, I see faces I don’t want to see and hear a low hum of angry chatter, a garbled mix of those who have reinforced my feeling of wrongness over the years. My mother’s voice figures prominently, or is it my own? At some point, I took over where she and others left off and can’t differentiate among us. These voices are what those of a religious bent might call demons, but I know it’s just my mind running a loop of old stories that no longer serve me, stories I’m tired of telling myself. I decide that these stories belong somewhere other than my head, and I must free them with all the truth and love my fractured self can conjure up.