In Fiction and In Life: A Racial Autobiography
My hope with these vignettes is to explore my personal history with race from my earliest memories of the use of derogatory language, and my experience of racial privilege, while also thinking of the art and literature I was exposed to and which I studied in my formative years; as well as the repercussions of consuming material primarily by white authors and performers.
- Grade School Playground
As a white kid, transplanted from northeast Ohio suburbia to northeast Ohio rural farmland, there wasn’t a lot I was confronted with when it came to seeing race. Even as I was raised to be kind to everyone, to find in a person’s eyes their tenderness, to laugh with anyone about the mundanity of the everyday — that with any difference at all, no one wants less than to be treated with a sort of casual solemnity and respect and comradeship — I don’t remember meeting a person of color my age until long after we moved out to the country. And even then, as I reached high school, there were perhaps a dozen people of color among a class of over 300.
Totally unbeknownst to me, and never mentioned in my family so far as I can remember, the Medina and Summit counties, where I came of age, have a dark history. In 1920s era Akron, Ohio, the KKK boasted its largest city chapter in the country, numbering in the tens of thousands. Among its members were elected officials and public figures. In the 1970s, in Lodi, Ohio, the same town at the heart of which my grade school was situated, former Ku Klux Klan “grand dragon” Dale Reusch was forming the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan, which had the dubious task of seeming a sort of progressive version of the original doctrine, as it would “include women, children, Roman Catholics and naturalized citizens.” One can easily deduce the irony of a former member of a white supremisist terrorist organization forming a different white supremisist terrorist organization and resolving to include as many more white people as possible to better take on their task in executing the overarching version of terror they were wishing for the same. Whiteness in general was the point. And children? all the better to indoctrinate as early as possible.
At Lodi Elementary in 1996, I was one afternoon somewhere on the playground, sitting awkwardly among a circle of other third graders, boys mostly, all white. I remember I listened as the most popular of the group told racist jokes, with language to this day I recall as the first time I ever heard being used by a real person. Some boys giggled and guffawed, hands on belly, maybe spitting out a “that’s not funny” through the laughter, but laughing nonetheless.
I recall that I didn’t understand the jokes. I didn’t understand why they could be perceived as funny or true, didn’t understand the words I’d never heard yet knew were bad, bad, the worst words; I didn’t understand where a child might hear these jokes, and I didn’t understand why they felt confident enough to tell the jokes to their fellow students and expect the laughs they got from them — these kids who before that moment were just other kids to me, maybe they wanted to be my friends, maybe they didn’t. It was the callousness of it all, the hatred veiled in supposed good-natured fun, the unnatural-to-me carelessness of treating people without the regard I was told everyone deserved.
It’s all a vivid recollection. Except that I don’t remember if I laughed just to fit in. I’m not sure I didn’t.
- On the Sidewalk
Stories written about Daniel Prude explain that he was a Black man who died of asphyxiation after being violently detained by police while he was in the throes of a psychotic episode. They seem to wonder about his drug use, his criminal record, the specifics of his relationships and if he had contact with his children. They note these things to offer context, I suppose. A brief bullet pointed list of offenses, as if any of it had much to do with the incident itself. Violence is violence. But violence by police against people of color, namely Black men, is something else entirely.
It’s a whole complicated mess as to how I got to Portland, Oregon, why I made yet another move in my young life (it would become the eighth city I had lived in in just under four years) as if a brand new city and brand new people would be enough to find something valuable. That life of mine was slowly slipping like sand through the proverbial sieve, with little gold to be found among the grains. I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. It’s a fascinating illness, and offers a whole lot of things to think about and write about and to generally inform an outlook on life that strives for peace and understanding. But it’s also one that makes you do the kinds of things that Daniel Prude was doing when he was attacked by those police officers, shoved to the ground, and forcibly met with a bag pulled over his head until it effectively smothered out his life.
Now, I never ran down the streets naked, to be sure, but after I fell into another full blown manic episode, quit my job, lost my lease, and spent all the money I thought I had, I was indeed sleeping on them. Or, really, not sleeping. Sitting sometimes, but walking mostly, thinking out loud, and sometimes losing control, always somewhere on the sidewalk, out for anyone to witness. No one ever called the police on me. I was never imagined as a threat to others. Because I wasn’t one. Neither was Daniel Prude.
I think about those weeks a lot. I think about the things I was believing, the fear and loathing, the frustration and paranoia. I think about the handmade cigarette I bummed from someone that was laced with a drug I never intended to do. I think about yelling at strangers, crying outside coffee shops, sleeping in and stealing from grocery stores. I think about my audacity in actually calling the police myself a few times, during situations I was probably making worse by being there. I remember finally being arrested (for shoplifting fruit) and I remember after I was released and eventually admitted to the hospital that all charges were dropped, all records erased.
I remember all these things. My being white has a whole lot to do with my ability to do that. Because if I were Black? If I had been a Black man doing what I was doing? There’s a good chance I would’ve been killed. Maybe I wouldn’t have been killed. But it all nevertheless would have looked different for me. A whole lot more like it did for Daniel Prude.
- Number One Fan
There is hope that this is slowly changing, but English and Language Arts classes in the 90s and early 00s were fairly colonized. Of all the books I remember reading in school growing up, I can’t recall any but a handful that were not written by white men. From Shakespeare to Poe to Mark Twain, etcetera, school taught the “classics,” which because of the history of institutional racism tend to exclude people of color. We perhaps read Black authors and poets during Black History Month, but that was the long and short of it.
Books were a huge part of my upbringing outside of school too, but even those titles were littered with the names of white men. My Dad was a Classics major, which says as much, and his favorite authors were dime store mysteries and Louis L’Amour. Meanwhile I was reading everything I could find about The Beatles and Bob Dylan, the 60s music world in general (which has its own problems with race representation and mistreatment of Black musicians and appropriation of Black culture), the Civil Rights Movement, and the War in Vietnam. I devoured books about the history of baseball. I spent a lot of my early years in the library. As I got older, I went to the Beats and Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. And hovered around there for a while.
I didn’t think about my continuing to read novels by mostly white male authors until very recently. I had spent years cultivating what I imagined was a fairly diverse taste in literature. I read all sorts of different mindsets and sensibilities, but all or mostly, I’ve realized, coming from similar seats of privilege. In my 20s, I dabbled in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was obsessed with Milan Kundera, but was also just happy rereading Vonnegut novels.
It was pointed out to me I had this habit, and it was framed in a way that had me contributing to the racism that allows such literature to gain its fame and notoriety, be taught in schools even, and ultimately make the money and earn the respect that authors of color were and are often denied.
I was livid. But I was also wrong. Just as no voice deserves to be silenced, it is also our responsibility as art appreciators and patrons to seek out those who are marginalized. Because people who are made to be silent by the system need the most to be heard by readers. And to be given the opportunity to make a living and continue to contribute to the American canon.
And so even though I wasn’t being actively racist, I was nonetheless an active participant in a whole line of occurrences that led me to pick out the mostly white male authors I was reading. I’ve come to understand that racism isn’t just distaste and name calling, stereotypes, harassment and violence. It can be an unconscious bias and a play into the system that allows the exclusion of real and meaningful voices essential to the history of thought and experience. In fiction and in life.
- Comedy On Purpose
There’s a well known sketch from an early episode of Saturday Night Live, circa 1975, with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase in a mock interview word association test that suddenly becomes a shouting match of racial slurs hurled back and forth between them, including just about every piece of racist terminology they can come up with.
Fast forward some 25 years, and there I was, a teenager watching this on DVD. I think I understood the point. That it is a satirical piece about the power and histories of language. But I had reached the sketch through a long line of television and movie comedy — the Marx Brothers, Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson; George Carlin, Monty Python, and then the original cast of SNL — that is very white. It is interesting to me now how oblivious I was to the fact that all of these writers and performers were white. Never once did it even come to mind. None of these comedians had to tend with race at all. And neither did I.
What that sketch showed at the time was a blurring of lines, but also the fury inherent in the terms they used. Poetically, it wasn’t just a sketch about race, but race in the workplace. Pryor’s character is interviewing, we find out when the insults subside, for a janitorial position. A dig at racial capitalism, one could surmise. One that still resonates today.
It’s important to note what subversion and satire do for the enlightenment of the audience members if they’re paying attention. I think I was through everything I consumed. But so much of it for me came from the voices of the privileged few, in terms of race. It goes to show the difficult position in which entertainers of color are placed before they even perform the material. That sketch, for instance, needed doing and only Richard Pryor could have done it. Yet strangely, there is some question as to who actually wrote it. And there are implications of a white man taking false credit.
What is most obvious about it though is that the slurs hurled at Chevy Chase by Richard Pryor don’t come close to carrying the magnitude of the ones hurled at Richard Pryor by Chevy Chase. Because along with them come generations of violence and a history of oppression.
The One on the Train
I moved there to grow as a writer. But New York City isn’t any sort of place worth staying too long. In my three years of being there I was never quite myself yet also never quite a New Yorker. Queens, however, where I lived with my partner, is a mostly kind and forgiving place. So home felt like it well enough, however oddly shaped and unnecessarily expensive.
As there were no jobs for me in Queens, living there meant spending a lot of time on the train, where the strangeness of humanity and its simultaneously distant and hostile relation to itself shows up more times than not. The compulsion to ignore the whole of it, engrossed in headphone music or a book, is mostly the feeling in the air. As most any confrontation witnessed on public transportation is rarely a good thing, the journey from here to there relies heavily on what you’re listening to or reading. Anyone who was not passively staring at their phone, I could immediately see were my people. The graceful antiquity of the written word combined with the lush 21st Century reality of collections of nearly infinite digital material, presented a freedom that collided with the overarching appreciation for it all. These were people who loved their art out loud. And they were somehow everywhere.
It was with this spirit that, within the first couple months of my living in the city, I got a job at Strand Bookstore, an iconic bastion of popular culture, art and literature. I would soon learn that the lives of those who have been granted a chance to work there, surrounded by the past and present of literary creation (along with what sometimes seems like every sort of person on the planet), exist to serve those numerous patrons of what they professionally appreciate. Among these coworkers, my lifelong obsession with reading, watching, and listening to anything and everything was finally reinforced. Yet they, like me, were also makers, writers who drew upon the entire history of literature, music, and film to fuel their work. A history that was surely then combining with the startling reality of the world in 2017, at once a simpler time than now, while still a fresh and open wound of Trump’s america poised to destroy itself, warbling on the edge of total insanity, the threat of the Bomb and camps at the borders all a stark scene for people who mostly can’t do much about it.
I found, oddly, that after a year at Strand I was barely reading anymore. Writing even less. So I decided that I could no longer waste time stagnating, working retail. Not when there was so much to be said. So I began saying it more, writing it down, and singing with a bit more intent. Yet I could sense that I needed structure. I needed practice. I needed guidance. I needed school. And what was more, I wanted it.
By the time I would attend Laguardia Community College in the spring semester of 2019, a much shorter train ride from our apartment took me to finally study literature seriously and hone a raw ability to put words to paper. As I came to spend time not just professionally appreciating, but with a newfound consideration for what and how to create, my words began to morph into something I could better understand. Writing under direction, guided by different, older, more professional professional appreciators, gave me confidence and my work began to strengthen and crystalize.
I understood early in life that art in its popular form can be a formal revolt, a long-sighted look to the histories of authorship and how ideas can be formed to describe universalities with wisdom and wit as guiding hands. I have watched and studied many of the great ones in many forms of entertainment with as much care as I have read for classes, and produced opinions and arguments about them with just as much dedication as I have devised my academic rhetoric. At Laguardia, I began to harness this ragged interest in form and beauty and began to practice writing–not just producing a piece, but editing it and finalizing a product deserving of a mind or minds to ponder and decide it was worth the effort.
After graduation and with my partner’s acceptance into an MFA program in Rhode Island, we moved to Worcester, Massachusetts at the height of the pandemic, Summer 2020. I was to attend UMass online that year to finish a Bachelor’s and lived like all of us through another kind of odd reality: the beginning of the end of Trump, but a life consolidated and confused. In all the complexities of a life further lived, I was no longer thinking of a college degree and a job in the future, but a present of productivity, of pruning my words and music and making work that spoke beyond my internal struggle, using it to show myself and whoever would listen that there are things to be known if you try your best to know them. Professional appreciators stocking shelves and selling books, immersed in a culture that is dependent on each one of us looking around the train and then back to whatever we’re using to pass the time, can be enough for a while…I think, on some level, it is the underlying purpose of a life of learning. To gather worlds and think through them while keeping in mind the complexities of a conscious existence. I have always wanted in equal doses to be the one on the dance floor and the one playing the music; the one reading on the train and the one being read.
So though there hasn’t been one thing or another to tip my hat to in thanks, there have been a thousand small occurrences which have led me to a presumptive graduation at the end of this term and a growing body of work still maturing. From finding someone a book whose title I only sometimes recognized, to reading authors who would remind me of greatness, to lectures and discourse in the spirit of a divine intellectual pursuit, I have begun to make the work that will one day define me. What I have learned being back at school is to further expand the possibilities of what is taken in, what should influence a voice still being formed. That the work most warranting appreciation lies within lived histories and that even to think about and to analyze a piece of writing isn’t quite enough. One must revere and covet the innermost workings of the great ones, their ability to create something vast and eternal. One must mind the eyes around the train and use all that pulsing life to perceive a reason for it all and craft something important to at least yourself; to know what you already know, get reminded of something you may have wondered about, or be introduced to something else entirely. In the end I mostly try to do just that. And want nothing more than to add my voice to the canon. To be that element for someone somewhere, perhaps on a train, reading or listening closely.
A Journey to the Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf took me by surprise. There is a quality to her writing that has deeply affected me, now six months removed from the first time I read her in a class built around her and her cohort, the Bloomsbury Group of Bloomsbury, London of the early 20th century. Among the authors we read that fall semester were Lytton Strachey, EM Forster, Virginia’s husband Leonard, and of course Virginia herself. I enjoyed, to some extent, everything we read in that class (Forster’s Howards End notwithstanding) but the immediate reading of two novels, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse really stood out. I was transfixed by the prose, its aesthetics, its flow through a process of thought that seemed to me so natural. The way sentences ducked and dodged their way forward; the comma so intrinsic to that style, inserted where so often a period might be yet somehow making perfect sense on the page. As I finished Mrs. Dalloway, I wasn’t sure exactly what had just happened. But I had the notion that this might be the most dynamic writer in the English language.
To the Lighthouse became my favorite and is a special kind of book. It manages to be at once a story of the differences in gendered experience and patriarchy, the soul and its yearning for greatness, and a rumination on time and the meaning of creation. Arranged in three parts, the first takes place in barely an evening, the third basically an afternoon, but the middle section is what really pulled me in. Taking up ten years, it is the shortest in text, just a few pages long, condensing a family’s relation to itself as to the summer house they once frequented in simpler times. The house has become decrepit, but is brought back to life to its once grand standing–the same sort of renaissance the Ramsay family is trying at for themselves. We find, in uncharacteristically curt, bracketed statements, that in those ten years that have gone by, Mrs Ramsay has passed, so have a couple of the children. The collective nostalgia of those who remain leads them to eventually undertake a journey by boat to the titular lighthouse across the bay, a trip that they had put off in the beginning due to weather. Or, more truthfully, due to Mr Ramsay’s own desire for control over his family, if not over himself. As they sail, he sits on the floor of the boat, buried in a book, relating to his surroundings in little more than passing gestures. A final kudos to his son James for steering is all we get from the man who is as preoccupied as ever with academia, with that feeling in his own mind that he could never be a truly great thinker and that his is a life of failure.
I related in no small part to the construction of the novel, its three parts standing for the three acts of life presented over a period of time that is secondary to the way it is told. The passing of ten years is a strange block of time to look back on so briefly. My last ten years–my 20s basically–was wrought with mental illness and a yearn for something more for my words and music. Mr Ramsay’s own declaration that his intellect could never be all he wanted it to be runs concurrently within myself, and that belief has often tripped me up over the past decade as I’ve strived to arrive at the proverbial letter Z of the alphabet: a metaphor for reaching some state of final clarity within a life lived; to make a perfect work of art for everyone to see and judge rightly. In my reading, Mr Ramsay somehow reflected my own ambition. My feeling of being small within a wider context. I could see the anguish he was in, even while disliking his character and its machismo.
In essence, however, the character Lily Briscoe, a Ramsay family friend, is the soul of To the Lighthouse. And ultimately the piece of the story that gives it its great depth. She is at first denigrated, told by one Mr Tansley, the proverbial antithesis, that, “women can’t paint, women can’t write.” Such an idea obsesses her and leaves her to prove the man wrong, which she does quite beautifully in the end. Her circular story of what it means to create in spite of something drove me to a point of reflection. I’ve been doing a version of that for over a decade. As she paints the remaining Ramsays on that final journey to the lighthouse and the closure it may come to bear, we as readers are resolved to see that she can indeed paint. And Virginia Woolf can really write. It is all a perfect reminder to the Mr Tansleys of the world, but also a showing of a strength of conviction. Lily Briscoe cares to show Tansley that he is unfounded, but she does so in a way that transcends his very being, creating a work of art that is of the Ramsays’ boat, the bay, the sail, but also a part of her own soul. Maybe the painting is good but what matters more is that it exists at all. Its existence is its own retort. Its completion, its own obsession.
Woolf in her way masterfully takes us somewhere that I had never been: Somewhere between the notion of linearity and the immediacy of particular moments, and the grand statement of a perception that to have agency over oneself is to own a particular outcome. I could see in Lily Briscoe a touchstone of an artistic nature, compelled by an internal devotion to prove something within herself and do it in a way that is in tune with that act of creation. To come to a conclusion amidst a context that is surely trying to beat you down. The linear presentation of a collection of moments can then condense into a vision that can be put down on canvas. Or, in my case, paper or tape. To see something as a complete piece of work is enough to drive forward a bit longer, even if you–like Virginia Woolf herself actually–are more in tune with the process than whatever reaction the finished product might incur. With everything I’ve ever finished, whether it be prose or music, there comes the feeling that it is either in a vacuum or not quite right. But it is still a portion of my mind recorded, to exist in perpetuity. And this is important. With every installation of such a body of work, to me there will always be an element of despair. Yet that connection with the idea that it simply is can often be enough.
In this way To the Lighthouse, like any truly great work of literature, is alive. The relationship between time on the page and time in the story seems the thread that ties together the question of how literature can both move as an extended piece of writing and exist in a space that defines itself. The Ramsays house being brought back from the decrepit state it was in after ten years of inattention claims that time, in life, moves strangely, quickly, beyond our understanding. Ten years is a long time. Enough to change the art that is created. My last ten years have felt like a hundred years, a lifetime, yet still just moments to recall. A complete picture is bound to omit something, though that something will inevitably come back around sooner or later. Moments in an evolution are as acts in a story told and they are often what we are left with. In reading To the Lighthouse, wondering where a Virginia Woolf could be these days, the continued existence of her work takes us to a hundred years ago and a hundred years from now, living the present as a function of the past, and looking to the future as just a sailboat’s ride away. It all works to take one totally by surprise and to desire more. In a life built mostly around chaos, the simple feeling of a path forged and documented can be enough to carry on. Even if it seems but a vision.
A Necessary Evil or, Like Being Kicked In the Gut
I have often found myself viewing creative writing workshops the same way I do playing music in front of people. A necessary evil perhaps; a means to some end I am generally not privy to, or at least not fully engaged with. It isn’t to say that I loathe either pursuit. Hearing the opinion of one or a group of people is a fantastic way to bring a piece to life, the act of experiencing what other people might think about it, a brightening of the mind. A mind that, in my case, is usually pretty tunnel visioned. I have a difficult time seeing in my periphery. The honest reactions given by others in an attempt to illuminate something in the work that I may not have given a full thought to, all help to reflect. But the way I write is like how Hunter S. Thompson described it, like being kicked in the gut. It is an automatic and essential release of the thoughts that bumper cars around my mind. Writing, to me, has usually been the sort of thing that if I don’t do it, it hurts a bit, stagnates and dissolves and something inside of me is lost forever. In this same way, I have looked at revision as an act of sabotage. I had already thought the thing and worked really hard to make it a cohesive and complete thought and it’s already exactly how I want it. I labor over my first draft. It is a practice of love and devotion. A draft in motion is a draft constantly being edited, even as it seems like a stream of consciousness.
Needless to say, as I have grown over a decade of writing this way, practicing my craft and honing an ability, I have come to understand the importance of the act of taking a piece, picking it apart and putting it back together again. It took being fully engaged in that process of furthering an automatic impulse and working to make it something that allows the singularity of the piece to not be so wrapped up in my first impression of a moment. To not have an original thought be what lasts forever and ever, the piece seemingly already complete and soon to be published. I have made and released a lot of work this way. And it suffers because of it. It may have been good enough at the time; hell, it was possibly a transcript of a part of my soul. But are impulses and compulsions always so soulful? Certainly not.
At Laguardia Community College in 2019, I was one of many students on track for a degree in Writing and Literature. I was coming back to school after seven or so years, having dropped out of three colleges between the ages of 18 and 23. I wasn’t ecstatic to be back, mind you. I was coming off a series of unfortunate events that had left me rather disheveled, and I didn’t have any idea what else I should do. Simultaneously, I had it in my head that I may as well get an Associate’s, then a Bachelor’s, an MFA, and a doctorate, and settle into a life of academia. Maybe that was the way to finally be anything but self-released. And hell, I’d taught before and maybe I was okay at it. These had been 5th and 6th graders, mind you. But still. Maybe the bug was in me somewhere. Maybe it made the most sense. Maybe a part of me had always wanted to be Dr. McGuire. Really all I wanted was to write.
It was in my second year at Laguardia that I happened into a class that, with no deceit, was simply called Creative Writing Workshop. I was mostly writing poetry then. Or rather, lyrics that read well and didn’t suit a melodic structure. I had been self-publishing written work–poetry, essays, a few novellas–along with a whole lot of music for a number of years. It was the prime reason I wanted that first degree in writing first and literature second. There were so many words in me. Too many. What was it all for? Editing was to become a learned obsession.
Dr. Maata was a tremendous presence in that classroom: a booming voice, a penchant for exclaiming her appreciation before, during and after a student’s reading of their work, a seemingly endless library of paperbacks and chapbooks she would bring in stacks each time we met. There was no mystery to her. She loved writing. And she loved teaching it. She loved to read. She loved her students. And she loved our work. As I settled into her class, I became fully engaged with showing people what I had written. Not just making it and tossing it into the ether. Really being open to whatever should happen through discussion. But I still wasn’t sure I would ever want to substantially edit a finished piece of my work. It was nearly certain I wouldn’t, or would only because it was a requirement.
My apprehension with gigging, in some respects, matches that path of resistance. I have very rarely had fun playing a show. My nervousness comes out either in random pseudo- cleverness or contempt for the audience and usually in equal doses. I rush through songs, I glare at people talking, and I balk at applause the way many musicians do at indifference. I might perform well. But I don’t enjoy myself. It’s a chore. And I’m not very good at it. I am mostly a recording artist, mostly always have been, and live for the process of writing a song, recording it myself, and composing as I go. It mirrors that notion of the kick in the gut mentality. I don’t even have bandmates. There is nothing keeping me from making exactly what I want.
With workshopping, I learned quickly that any feedback for a piece that I worked over and over before showing it to anyone, was inherently a good thing. I treasured when someone had something to say. It was almost always something interesting and at times dead on. I learned that a piece of writing can always be better than its early stages. To really attempt at something that it may not have been at first fits with the notion of work. And hard work. Us students, and professors as well, are constantly churning ideas around silently, evaluating an inclination, discussing the possibilities and working them over again. Human beings are active, nervous creatures. Everyone just wants to do their very best. And see the best in each other.
A few weeks into this class and I in a way understood people more, and not just their relation to a work of supposed literature on display for comment. Expressed ideas are just so wonderful. So interesting. Even the flippant ones. Especially when those flippant ones evolve into good ones, or at least offer a frame of mind unseen. Thinking out loud is so different from writing. Or rather, the edit of the writing that comes from a spoken understanding simplifies that process itself. As the semester went on, I began to no longer feel like every version should be perfect. Perfect is such a silly thing to be anyway. I say strive for perfection and hope to get halfway there.
Looking back on writing for workshop as well as all of the other writing I’ve done in and out of school since then, I am honestly not removed from that yearn for the perfect first draft. I will never want to compose something that I would eventually need to re-imagine. The improvisation is essential to the soul of it. I want to make imperfection so pleasing that it is deemed perfection. I want a lightbulb above my head and a quickened heartbeat. I want to downright know that what is happening is as true as I can make it. Hopefully with a bit of humility. And a whole lot of soul. And though I am fascinated with the randomness of where writing comes from, putting in the work is its own reward. It’s like playing music in front of people: there should be intrinsic joy in the whole of it. Even if there isn’t, the sharing and feedback are quite lovely aspects of the artistic process. I am privileged to make art. I know I shouldn’t waste any opportunity to get better.
I suppose what it all comes down to is a positioning of a mindset to not be so concerned. Editing is important. And though I am almost done with school and the confines of the organized classroom, the spirit of the workshop will remain with me. I will continue to make work, to write, to record music, to somehow hopefully mine for some further opportunity, all the while hearing feedback with grace and trying to find fun in the performance. I will, in any case, remain kicked in the gut. Flirting with the halfway point to perfection.
The Words Sing the Tune
I could never really tell the difference between the music I’ve loved to make and the words I’ve loved to write. With the depiction of the literal lyrical content of such works of art, there is enough to ponder if there really is a difference between the two, other than the ways in which they are performed. A good song will hopefully affect you with a literary bent, the words expressing some kind of common hope or anxiety, the melody in perfect harmony with the arrangement; the story in perfect conjunction with the aesthetics of the prose, the paragraph breaks like verses in some attempted form of a particular truth. Indeed, it is more like storytelling when a pop song slides into a middle-eight and back out again to a chorus, and more like music when sentences slip forward, perfectly arranged by punctuation, each in their way garnering an appreciation for the greater work at hand. I have always wanted my music to say something interesting. And I have always tried to write in a way that can be remembered like a melody, hummed like a tune.
I should maybe start this off, however, with a simple statement of what it means to me to consider time, regardless of an artistic output. I am about to turn 34 years old, which means that this is the last year I’ll be closer to 30 than 40.
I don’t know what this means. It’s a blessing, really, that I am out of my 20s. Those were strange and convoluted times. Much more strange and convoluted than being 33 almost 34 and just now finishing my undergraduate degree with a mound of debt and no career in the works. But considering all the things that I have done and that have happened to me since I was “college age,” finally finishing ten years later is a near Herculean feat. Ten years is a hell of a long time. And my past decade has been laced with unfortunate realities. I wanted, back then, to fast forward until now, for the building blocks that had already been laid to prop up my soul and be a cornerstone for a life I knew I could never fully appreciate until I was older, wiser; my world somehow changed; a sanity evolved.
What has become clear in finally continuing my education – not in the getting of a degree, per se, but actually participating in something beyond myself – is that I am not on a path now that I might have been on a conventional timeline. In or out of college as a relative teenager, I was constantly tempted to throw in the towel when it came to thinking about a future. I had just watched my Dad die of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a completely and utterly brutal thing for anyone to witness, not least of whom a 17 year old boy prone to instability, anger and sadness. Life seemed so impermanent. That my family had his last week to huddle and say our goodbyes and I love yous means more to me now than it did at the time. I was in a hurry to get out of Dodge. And our familial bonding was a burden on someone who just wanted to be ten years older, putting together a life built around music, words, friendships and good times. I wasn’t ready for whatever the so-called real world had in store for me. I didn’t care.
Which brings us to the present, which is, for me, a different kind of up in the air. Thoughts of a presumptive MFA are daunting. I have spent the last two years watching my partner go through a program in photography, and I am fairly certain that I’m just not that kind of intelligent. I can write some complete thoughts. I can dance with words around a philosophical meaning. I can cradle language until it bursts forward onto the page or through the amplifier. I can sit down, totally straight, and give five pages of myself. I can spend ten hours in a row, crafting every aspect of a song and emerge completely awake with a finished product. I can do these things well, sometimes. And even as that seems ripe for further education, I just don’t know if I can do it. At least not right now.
Intrinsic to the whole of my life and where it’s going is the memory of my 20s. Beyond the work-a-day madness and the writing of the whatever, was a madness all its own, burgeoning since childhood but right up on me as my Dad died, as I went to school and dropped out, as years just sort of went by, until at 22 a full blown manic episode went to bare its teeth, and I landed in the hospital with a diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder. I would be in and out of hospitals over the years in three very serious instances.
As much as that remains tiresome to write down and look at, the experience of having such a disease is much more often fascinating than it is detrimental. That isn’t to say it’s a walk in the park, far from it, but all of the things that have happened to me since that night ten years ago when I entered the ER with racing in my heart and numbness in my arms are, to look back on, sort of amazing. A few months of not taking the diagnosis seriously, a move out to the Pacific Northwest and a further drip of a twisted mind had me living on the streets of Portland with nowhere to go and wanting no help. I give my Mom the most credit for those weeks: how she dealt with her only son denying anything was wrong when everything was wrong, with answering phone calls in the middle of the night from a number she didn’t recognize just to hear me babble about what I thought was happening to me, is beyond my comprehension. Others have played similar roles. But aside from how it has affected those close to me, I have some stories – stories that I’ve tried to tell at least in part in a plethora of written and recorded works – that you wouldn’t ever believe. And god dammit anyway, I survived. Sometimes I wonder how that’s possible.
Even so, the fact of my illness dictates that I will never work a 40 hour week, and certainly not for the next 35 or so years. That I was ever able to go to school full time is somewhat unbelievable considering the tenuous nature of my illness, though I could point to a few complete meltdowns to describe just how tricky it has been to toe the line between what is manageable and what is not. Certainly everyone has these moments. Moments thinking about giving up, thinking about quitting. All just moments in time slipping onward, it sometimes seems.
I am, most importantly, getting married this summer, in July, to a woman, Allie, who I am complete with, who has witnessed along with me seven or so years of growth in the right direction. It is no longer a question as to who I am going to spend a life with, even as what I will be doing for a job is mostly unknown. For the immediate future, it’s Allie looking for teaching jobs and grants; it’s me giving up the idea of writing my great American novel (I don’t have one in me or I’ve already published it) and focusing on what I’m better at: an adequate dialogue, a furthering of a madness on paper and tape, that formidable day job and a wait to see where we land. Massachusetts has been kind to us, but the driving force behind an eventual or inevitable move is a wait and see what happens for the next six or so months.
What is most important is the joining of our lives. It is more than I ever thought possible. But since I know that with this major life change comes all the rest of life’s changes, I have but a short list of things I actually want to do for money: a day job at a bookstore, I’ve done that before; getting really into the world of coffee, that sounds rewarding; giving myself over to the life of a sort of house husband, being with our children as they’re born into our world – that would be lovely…perhaps simply struggling financially, with two freelance artists fighting the good fight, living as each day comes. People do these things, right?
It should come as little surprise that it is my partner who gives me the strength to keep going. Allie was, is, and will forever be why I’m good with waking up in the morning, doing what I have to do, and sprinkling in some utter silliness to celebrate life the way I always wanted to. Within the depths of a general darkness, there is the matter of what makes the shadows. Whether it’s holding hands at a stop light, laughing at things quoted or absurd, dancing to an empty stage, there is a common thread of perseverance and faith in the unknown that has allowed my continued existence, what has shown me that life is so much more than what you do and what is done to you. A very serious mental illness can show you the beauty in everything or that nothing really matters. I can claim the truth for you here in writing that it’s both. I think that is very much the point of life at all. We tremble for the unknown. We know that we will live until we don’t, and everything in between is a bonus. I am sure that the fascination is enough. It allows me to always do things my own way. And often get away with it.
Regardless of the whole of my late teens and 20s – with life little but a relentless wave of uncertainty even with an outpouring of words and music, a mental illness shattering a perception, raking me through mud – I’ve learned to appreciate the minutia and mundanity of the day to day. I can sit in my chair and write or read, waiting for Allie to get home. Daily life shapes a worldview and brings into sharp focus that an understanding of time with a partner allows for a more free and willing appreciation for a life lived at all. Finding that kind of love is the purpose. Whatever the reality of a dreaded day job might entail, I have something most people only dream of. So hold hands. The song tells the story. The words sing the tune.
To Fathom an Eventuality
People don’t play in the dirt enough. I want to play in the dirt more; to sit beneath a Maple tree, covered in sap, making dirt pies out of fresh mud and sticks. I want to walk until I can’t see houses or roads, encased by the brilliance of a fully green forest peppering my sights with tulips and daffodils. I want to leave only footprints, take only photographs. I want to be one with the natural world, at peace with the infinite.
If only this was life. But it is not, at least mostly, though there is always the opportunity to take time away from reality and dip into your local trail system, take trips to national parks and sleep beneath the canopies of leaves and the stars beyond. Without question, this is our natural state: to be strewn by the wind and correct with the dew. To be quiet with the divine and even with the heavens.
Coupled with my desire for nature is an adjacent memory of my time with the city. New York most of all is a hell of a place, but Portland too, beasts of burden on all things alive. There is a lot to like about a city, true. When I wanted a slice of pizza in the middle of the night, I could make that happen. When I wanted to play a show at a bar, there were ones who would gladly take me, pay me my few dollars, give me a drink or two, and send me on my way. And when I wanted to just travel with no destination, the train held me in its palms, allowing me my trek for just a one time fee or, when I didn’t have the money, a stolen fare. My seat to nowhere wasn’t so different from my place in the dirt. There is clear reason for either venture. But best to keep things clean, perhaps.
With cleanliness, though, comes little absolution. There is imagination in the dirt, there is hope in a train ride, there is playfulness in feeling in step with their respective divinity. Where there is too much thought about why, there is a guilt in being so sedentary. I mean, why pretend the dirt can be eaten when there are times when all that there is to be eaten is dirt? Is it the idea of what’s possible? or is it a premonition of what is to come? Is sitting and waiting for nothing so in tune with the sacred? Is standing in front of a small crowd of people playing songs any less a fantasy than an open flame within a campsite? Is there meaning in a performance after a long ride on the rails? I am not myself when I am on stage. I transcend reality when I offer my creations of sticks and dirt. I do not hear the hum of existence without singing in my ears. And so I am left to idle. To feel God when communing with the forest. To wonder if It is on the train.
Acts of creation are neither here nor there. They perform the author’s bent for description or pontification. Stories told sideways never have nobody cheering them on. The probable sin of art lies at the heart of the creator: portions of processes of thought so often work against the truth of the situation. No eyes wide shut for a dancing fact; no mind shuttered to the passing exact.
As close as one can get to the hum of the universe also lies bare upon the sidewalk. Congruent with the dust of the wilderness is the grime of the city. Yet no one living in one place can subsist on the other. The woods mark their own territory and lead you to their fruit; the city finds you begging for cents or stealing from grocery stores. There is no less barbarism in the vagrant than the mountain man. Each is rough as hell with no regard for their fellows. A sandwich costs as much to a starving city bum as big game beckons to the tented camper. I suppose what connects them is the fact that neither barely eats.
I am not a mountain man, though I have spent some time in the forest, viewing trees upon trees as little but in skewed perspective, all of them surrounding me and hugging me close. And I am not a vagrant, at least anymore, though at one time I begged for scraps, for dollars, for cigarettes, playing my guitar and then weeping when it was stolen. I busked for a while and was able to eat, then alone, without the music to churn me, without the hope of some help.
It is that concept of Help, capitalized, that seems the thread by which these concurrent notions are held together. There is nothing keeping the forest from existing without you. And there is nothing time spent on the streets won’t teach you in retrospect. Sleeping on the ground is a funny thing, and it relies mostly on the context by which it is performed. True that my time spent living on the streets was not time spent sleeping there. I walked and walked, finding people to bum me a cigarette or buy me a drink, sat in bars and coffee shops manically writing poetry that I have long since given up wondering what it meant. Panic set in at some point. And the feeling that God was ever present was probably the only thing that kept me alive. God in the eyes of strangers, in the random patches of green, and not in the skies peering down. The divine sat in my escape into city parks, where I could still see houses, but where I could sleep for a while on the grass, pretending it was what I had always planned to do, my eyes closed to the realities of my predicament, if only for a moment. I’ve often enjoyed sleeping outside.
Life is a funny thing. It takes you all sorts of places. There is a randomness to existence that I have learned to feel more comforted than terrorized by. My time spent on this plane has been littered with strange occurrences, with manic impulses and portioned regret. Every time I think about my childhood, I am met with memories of a very shy, nervous, sad and lonely boy, smaller than his peers but still a bit athletic, obsessed with The Beatles and rewatching Marx Brothers movies until he could recite each absurdity as it came across the screen. I was always much older than my years: an 11 year old watching Annie Hall should probably not understand it as well as I did. I studied such things the way a child does, remembering jokes and lyrics in equal measure, allowing their meaning to reverberate within me. In this way, I haven’t changed all that much. The Beatles are still the gold standard of musical expression. Marx Brothers movies remain mostly allegories for stupidity, hilarious in their attempts to act that stupidity out. These are literary figures, high on the totem pole of artists I care about. Always with me. Somewhere deep inside even as I paced Portland, wondering just what there was for me to do to get to where they were. Even without a bed, I was never homeless. Creation was my home. Memories of art were my currency. Conversation about which was my creed.
The hospital has a different sort of ordure than even the city streets. It is a more squalid and decrepit thing to experience than I care to recall. Psych wards hold a strange energy, a simultaneously barren and overcrowded space, fit for no person to actually get better when they won’t even let you go outside, its own grime stagnant, forbidding wellness and mostly dead with the pushing of drugs. Psychiatry is as experimental a science as is allowed in the western world. Doctors rely on anecdotal evidence and the entire space is set up to gauge a patient’s reaction to their surroundings. Staff means well perhaps, but the inpatient system is a ruin.
The fact of my Bipolar diagnosis as a 21st century affliction is startling enough, but knowing what would have been done to me not 60 years ago with the same illness is terrifying. A depiction of the system like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not too far removed from my experience, with the Nurse Ratched character an all-encompassing figurehead for many of the dozens of healthcare professionals I interacted with. Without bitterness, I silently thank their existence in my memory for good examples of how not to treat a man who is more terrified than anything, and a danger to no one. Psychosis is simply not understood by medicine. And treatment is often riddled with a “let’s see what happens with this one” mentality. It took a decade to get my medications right. Literally.
But they’re right now, and I do thank whatever God there might be. I was a bizarre creature in my insanity, and fit to be tied with the reality that I was as abnormal as could be in those times I was unmedicated, hoping it would be a different case without the dreaded handful of pills I was so often furious I had to take to be well. I believed in science. But there seemed something beyond medicine that allowed my humanity. When I went off it in New York, I was as sure as I was years prior that there had to be truth in my natural state; that some begotten faction of my mind needed to be awake to be honest with my animation. It seemed so obvious. But I was wrong, of course. When one has a broken leg, they wear a cast. When you’re born without a leg at all, you at least use crutches.
Life now is a sort of personal retaliation on my past self. But also a mediation with that young man who didn’t know any better, and a meditation on what it means to be well. I am an appreciator of life now. The sunshine gives me life and I even like the rain. I have a home, a life partner, and an artistic practice that is just as if not more fruitful than it was when I was compelled to spew words onto the page. I am still compelled and am now much more focused. I can sing better with a breath I am allowed. I can scream the same but I don’t need to as much. I can see the end before I begin. And the path leading from creation to appreciation and back again is built with the sort of dirt again one with its inherent sacredness. When I choose to sleep outside, I am more one with the heavens than I ever was at my most intrepid. I take my medication. It allows the whole thing to survive. It keeps me playful in my imagination. It sees me both reliant on the world as it is in the forest, with the trees a roof over a body not anymore forced to walk and walk until there is nowhere left to go; I am tranquil with the knowledge that the dirt path underfoot always leads somewhere. If not to somewhere better, always to somewhere absorbing. Life is the kind of beast that shouldn’t be a burden. Not when it is so clear that its mystery is the whole point. A decade of finding a balance leads to a subsequent understanding of the disparity, its cohort a mind keen on keeping on. The forest is no farce. And the train might take you anywhere. In either case, the elements are in line. Always with a purpose that will one day show itself. Absurd as Groucho’s wit and Harpo’s horn. Alive as Abbey Road spelling the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. If one can only fathom its eventuality.