92 – The Last One

Poetry inspired by poetry. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge bitchard (gender-neutral form of “bitch/bastard,” tell your friends) about poetry. I’m only willing to admit to liking a poet if I’ve been blown away by literally everything I’ve read of theirs. 100% quality or nothin’. It’s not about mechanical aptitude; it’s not about format. Mostly it’s about the poet’s heart. I recognize a heart like mine when I see one, by how it’s constantly bleeding all over everything.

One of the three poets who have managed to pass muster by this completely bullshit standard, Rainer Maria Rilke, was a German Romantic, better known for his passionate letters to his loved ones than his poetry in this country. The first poem of his I ever read is still my favorite, and I’m going to reproduce it here, because it’s short and great and he’s very dead now, and because it inspired the sonnet today:

“I In Flames,” May 2008
 Come thou, thou last one, whom I recognize,
unbearable pain throughout this body's fabric:
as I in my spirit burned, see, I now burn in thee:
the wood that long resisted the advancing flames
which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing
and burn in thee.

My gentle and mild being through they ruthless fury
has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.
Quite pure, quite free of future planning, I mounted
the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering,
so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs,
while in my heart the stored reserves kept silent.

Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.

It’s the last poem Rilke ever wrote, the last entry in his notebook two weeks before his death of leukemia at age 51. I love his personalization of Death as a friend, someone kindly who comes to pull him away from the suffering of his body. Rilke believed that we grow our deaths inside us from the moment we’re born. I find that idea elegant.

There’s something morbidly lovely about the idea of nurturing and building our particular Death within us all our lives, our one duty in life to bring this being into the world – Death is an infant born the second we die. It takes every second of our lives to create her, every pain and every joy, every scar and sorrow and mistake. That’s why she has such kind eyes – because she knows that all of your mistakes make her wiser, more tender, more understanding. All of your life is part of her, indispensable, even the bad parts, do you see? If you let her, she heals your wounds with her hands, as if every touch laid skin grafts over your raw and aching soul. She’s the only person in the universe who loves you more when you fail.

There are a lot of voices in my head,
and then there’s someone else who never speaks.
She smiles a lot, and dresses like a priest.
The others say that she’ll talk when I’m dead.

I’ve found she’s more softhearted than you’d think –
cries whenever we go to the movies,
always the begger
never that choosey
but when I mention suicide, she winks

and shakes her head. Refuses to be rushed.
I’ve tried to make her speak a thousand ways –
She has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen,
and when the hammer falls she’s never crushed,
but she won’t take command of this machine,
just hangs around, awaiting the end of days.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

75 – Roll the Bones

Lot of people from my generation – Millennials, there-I-said-it – tend to say that they don’t have good luck. That, and… how do I put this… trauma attracts trauma? Not always in a negative sense, just, you surround yourself with people who understand what you’re going through, and the ones who stick around will be the ones who can hang when your life gets deeply fucked. Some people interpret this pattern – Party Acquired! Oh wait, rocks fall, all die – as bad luck.

I don’t, really. I think that the rocks falling, the goblin invasions, the bad credit, the abortions, the birthing and dying and all the other adventures… they’re adventures, which means most of them are going to be primarily a sequence of bad shit happening to people who don’t deserve it. Maybe you, maybe someone you love, definitely at least once in your life. That’s not luck. A lot of times it’s the way the game is designed.

Luck comes into it when you roll initiative, when you decide whether you’re okay with that sequence of bad shit, and if you’re not, how deep you’re ready to roll on putting a stop to it. Sometimes you win. If you don’t play a lot, you’ll get the feeling that you win about 50%. About a crapshoot. The effect of luck takes longer than the occasional flutter to perceive.

Luck is about repetition. Luck is about trying, and trying, and trying until one day, something’s different. For no good reason, just because it was time, because you showed up and tried every time and this time was the one time. Yeah, you see the people on TV who won the lottery because they got a Powerball ticket in a birthday card, never gambled before, but the reason those stories blow up is because they’re astonishing. Most of the time, the guy who hits the jackpot is the guy who’s spent $6,000 at the slot machine this winter. That’s how odds work. The more you play, the more opportunity you have to make them better.

Everywhere I go, I try doors. Just turn handles in walls, all of ’em, any of ’em. It’s a policy. See a door, think of it, give it a try. You’d be shocked how many things are unlocked that probably shouldn’t be. People see me open the steel door behind which a treasure trove of brooms and cleaning products hides, and they call me lucky. They didn’t see all the other locked doors I’ve tried since I was tall enough to reach the handles.

Getting better, healing from trauma, is in my experience very much like that. You have to do something that they tell you will work for a long time, watching it not fucking work, before it even kinda works. I know I’m saying “a long time,” and you’re hearing me, but I heard that too, and I was underestimating how long. It’s longer than you think. There will be a moment when you go, “This was supposed to help me, this was supposed to feel good, I was supposed to be getting better, I’ve wasted all this effort, I know it’s supposed to take a long time but surely I’m doing it wrong if it’s not helping by now.” The point when it starts actually helping, in my experience, is two weeks to a month after that.

You have to stick with it. You have to be willing to roll deep. You have to be ready to fail again and again and again and call the one time in a hundred that you succeed “good luck.” Because that’s how you keep getting luck: by rolling the dice.

“Restless,” July 2012.

Always said that I’m a lucky person.
What you’ve got to understand about luck
is that you need to stop passing the buck –
luck’s not a judgment, it’s an assertion.

They say that luck is when preparation
meets opportunity. What they don’t say
is that preparation gets in the way
and good luck comes from repetition.

Everything takes just a little too long
before it starts to function like it should.
You have to punch a lot of planks of wood;
it stops hurting only after you get strong.
But it never hurts quite like the fear could,
and each scar speaks more clearly:
we belong.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

67 – The Curious Ones

Today is my birthday! I’m as old as Jesus now. Not quite ready for martyrdom yet – you’ll be the first to know! Mostly I spent the day running errands, which isn’t as dreary as it sounds; I find errands pleasant most of the time. I wear my headphones and just bop along in my own little world.

I see weird stuff in my little world sometimes. As I’ve mentioned, I fixate on color and composition, and I’ll catch these frozen moments, these random tableaux that stop me in my tracks and make me forget what I’m doing.

When I was about twelve, I remember being in the passenger seat of the car, driving down Columbus Boulevard in Tucson. Tucson doesn’t have a lot of grass, because it’s the desert, and it doesn’t have a lot of sidewalks, and I don’t know why that is. Most streets just have dirt, curb, and then pavement. We’d just passed the park with the YMCA in it when I saw a woman standing in the dirt at the side of the road, wearing a white sundress and a hat. She looked pretty in an old-fashioned kind of way, and she stood with her feet together, leaning almost precariously to one side as her fluffy golden dog pulled its leash straight out. On the other side, a child about four or five pulled her other arm just as far. I caught this perfect moment: the slant of her body and arms, like architecture, like the sound a blade makes in the air; the stark color of her dress against the dirt and the furious burning blue of the sky, the way her face was alive, just on the edge of laughing, and the faces of her charges were too, consumed by their own totally incompatible pursuits.

That’s it. Just a woman with her kid and her dog pulling her in two directions at once, for a second. I still remember that, every detail of how she looked, twenty years later. In my mind she transubstantiates, shifting from woman to edifice to weapon to woman again, always smiling.

If I ever tell you I saw an angel, that’s usually what I mean: I saw someone who pulled me out of myself, someone frozen in a moment so flawlessly arresting that I can keep it forever, step back into it anytime I want. My brain embroiders them with power, magic, strangeness, significance. That’s what it is to be human, I think – to imbue things with import that way, to point at a thing and declare it to be meaningful, and thus to make it so. My life is a sequence of moments like that, in some vague order. Everything in between is just bloodless data, nothing but names and dates.

“Memory, prophecy, and fantasy; the past, the future, and the dreaming moment between – all are one country, living one immortal day.”

– Clive Barker, “Everville”

I saw a couple of angels today –
a woman stood at the side of the road
out of her open palms a river flowed
that bit by bit washed all her skin away.

They’re easy to spot in the afternoon –
their wings get tangled in the golden light.
They can’t escape or fall, but hang in flight,
stuck there dreaming till the rise of the moon.

On the ground, you can tell them by their eyes,
flat and bright like silver coins, reflective
and, of course, the peculiar things they do.
Though people still expect them to be wise
and ask them questions till their lips turn blue,
all they’ll show is you, from their perspective.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

65 – Saturated

Some free associating around sensory images from growing up in the desert. I spent a lot of time outside when I wasn’t confined to my room, because being at home generally sucked, and I remember many long hours just wandering the streets of Tucson, walking into construction sites and washes and under bridges, taking pictures, finding cool rocks, listening to my Discman. Mostly alone, sometimes with my best friend or my dog.

It’s easy for me to lose myself in a sensory experience. You’ll catch me making faces at memories and taking pictures of brightly-colored trash, convergences of lines and shadows, stark contrasts. I can lose an hour on an interesting pile of stones. I’m really fond of this sculptor and photographer named Andy Goldsworthy, and I fall into similar kinds of activities, building little patterns or arranging debris just so.

Andy Goldsworthy, “Winter Moss and Fog.”

Thus, the poem, I guess. Thus, I tend to make a mess. Thus, when things go badly, I pretend to be worried about real things – money, house, other people – but deep within the private spaces of myself, I’m only truly concerned with whether it was the most poetic and interesting catastrophe that could have occurred at this point in the story. It doesn’t bother me much when my life is full of failure and chaos – that’s life in the wasteland. It bothers me when the chaos is not interesting, when the struggle is banal rather than beautiful.

Ultimately that’s a matter of how you look at it, though. I choose to steer toward the rocks, so I can see them very well, and when I do that, I almost always discover something beautiful. A lot of times, that thing is my own blood, the taste of a new and novel form of failure. Sometimes… sometimes it’s a new island, the shore of a vast new world to explore, one that takes apart my life and stitches it back together full of love and wonder and data.

Thing is, if there’s an island, you can’t see it until after you hit the rocks. The only way you ever get to the island is if you find the rocks, or the crash, or your blood beautiful enough to keep steering that way.

There are distinctions between sand and dust
that you can feel, and some that you can taste –
never let a sensation go to waste! –
dust tastes like coffee, and sand tastes like rust.

My senses don’t lie, they’re just overwhelmed.
So much more happening than you can see,
it’s like the colors are shouting at me.
Without asking, the painter takes the helm.

The painter steers us straight toward burnished rocks.
The sailors, so fatalistic before,
throw their hats and cheer when they see the shore.
The ship cracks up and unfolds like a box.
The painter tastes his own blood. He’ll need more
to make a shade of red bright enough to talk.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

57 – Fine Print

I have this… pathological aversion to the legal babble that occurs at the end of commercials for cars and drugs. It provokes this violent physical response in me, like I want to scratch my skin off. This is the shitty side of being synesthetic. It’s awesome when a pretty girl takes me to a laser show and I can feel the lasers dancing on my skin, every color a different texture. It’s less awesome when someone starts wittering about zero percent APR and I can feel the words skittering on my skin like ants, more and more every second trying to crawl into my brain through my ears.

Having fallen ass-backwards into graphic design as a career, I end up having to write a lot of corporate bullshit. I find it disturbing and also funny, like many things. George Carlin says it well.

Still, I find myself saying to a lot of people these days… there isn’t any other farce I’d rather be a part of than this one, this planet, this life, this experiment. Being alive is the most interesting thing to do for a hundred light-years in every direction from this spot. Even when it hurts, your life is still a totally unique and arresting experience, never to be repeated, and entirely private to you. It’s hard to want to look away.

I think sometimes it’s useful to remind ourselves that existing really is a choice. People who haven’t been suicidal might not think about that choice very often, but it is a choice you’re making every day. Why not make it with intention, or even enthusiasm? Why keep on living by accident, just because nothing has made you want to die yet?

Welcome to living! Side effects include:
Nausea, dizziness, physical pain,
burning in sunshine and waiting in rain,
a childish fixation on the crude.

Some users report hallucinations
(though most of those users come back for more)
We’re not sure what that pumping muscle’s for;
seems like all it’s good for’s palpitation.

Some may experience shortness of breath;
exhaustion’s basically guaranteed.
But if there’s any kind of fruit you need,
existence has the only fruit trees left,
and all the love, and sandwiches, and seeds –
nothingness is even less fun than death.

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

The End of the World

The Bosnian Chick Magnet is warm and clicking against her back, like a sleeping animal.  Ava stands with her eyes closed, enjoying the quiet. It’s the only car left at the gas station, which is why she hears the mourning dove calling.

cooOOOO-hoooo-hoooo-hoooooo…. coooOOOO-hooo-hooo-hoooooo….

There are always mourning doves at the end of the world.

The thought ignites like a bomb in her brain, so swift and bright that it’s gone by the time the bird falls silent.  The sound throws her, spinning, down the years of her own life, as if the dove’s calling the name of another dove somewhere in the past they share, and she’s gone to find it.

Instead, Ava finds Ava, twelve years old, standing in her driveway in Tucson, Arizona, looking up at the sky.  The mourning dove is still calling, and now it’s not alone. Its plaintive coo cuts through the treble chatter around it, soft but impossible to miss.  For Ava it’s as much a piece of the desert, the city she’s growing up in, as the smell of creosote in the rain, the drone of cicadas, the murderous heat.

She loves it, that’s all, loves every goddamn part of it.  She’d never tell anyone – she hides the things she likes much more carefully than her fears and loathings.  But she feels a savage, atavistic love for this city, the valley it sprawls in, the miles of scruffy landscape on every side.  The sharp-edged mountains are etched in red and black at sunset, the sun is a screaming white ingot in a sky the burnished blue of molten metal, and even ten, twenty years later, she will still be able to close her eyes and draw both from memory.

Whether or not she happens to be grounded, taking the trash out in the evening is the one chore she always wants to do.  She makes sure to maintain the appropriate hangdog manner when asked, of course. Mom loves to sneer at what she calls “the teen look,” but any other expression just gets her interrogated, sometimes for hours.

“What’s that face for?  Don’t give me that look.”

“Did you just roll your eyes at me?”

“What’s that eyebrow about, huh?  Why you making that face?”

“Oh, you thought that was funny, huh?”

“Can you at least try to look like you’re having a nice time?”

No.  The truth is, she has tried.  She’s tried to construct a face that can survive their scrutiny and still be sweet and charming on command, and she can’t.  It will take her years to learn and then to vanish inside that trick.

So instead she finds safety in books, and she learns from history.  She reads about how the countries that resist occupation are put down, brain-drained, destroyed, and the ones that bend can survive, by pretending to obey and hiding their culture away inside their secret hearts.  This teaches her that there’s no shame in submitting the way she does, in trying to please the people who abuse her. She reads accounts from slaves, how they constructed a face to hide behind, a neutral expression their masters could project whatever they liked upon, and carefully does the same.  “The facade,” she calls it when talking to her best friend, the only person who sees her without it.

Settling her features into the facade is simple – a twitch of the nose and mouth that realigns her expression, the kind of thing you’d do to adjust your glasses.  It produces a fixed, dead-eyed look that she can sustain through hours of browbeating. There’s no joy in it, and no interest – the best her parents get from her most days is silent, sullen submission.  They try – they drag her out of her room regularly, sit her down in the living room, and stare at her with a greedy, demanding eye while she listens to something on the stereo. What frustrates her is that she does like most of their music.  She just never, ever likes it enough.  She doesn’t think it’s possible to like it enough.  It’s as if they expect her to transform after each song, to begin ringing in harmony with it maybe, or change color.

“Well?  Weren’t you listening?”

“I guess you think it’s all just bullshit, huh.”

“See if we ever try to include you in anything again, god.”

“Nah, you don’t give a shit, we’re just trying to share something with you, whatever, right?  Go be a teenager, go on, go pout in your fucking room. Aren’t you grounded?”

Ava learns what they want, over time.  They want the same thing the teachers at school want: “Restate the lesson in your own words.”  They want her to rapturously parrot whatever they say, but repeating word-for-word what she’s told gets her slapped – they say she’s mocking them.  So she becomes an expert at knowing what to say, capable of an extemporaneous rant that leaves strangers gaping and friends laughing, the girl who can talk any teacher or parent out of a rage – except her own, of course.

She can’t talk to them at all.  She feels it all the time, like a timer that begins ticking the moment she enters the visual range of her parents.  This timer goes down each second, but it also goes down an extra second for every word she speaks. Sometimes it goes down by chunks and jumps all on its own, for no reason she can see.  Sometimes it’s wrong. But it’s always, always there. And when the timer runs out, something bad happens.

They don’t like her face, and they don’t like her silence, but it protects her fragile things – the few things she lives for.  A few minutes a day, a place or a sound or a person, that frees her and gives her space. Like the sound of the mourning doves.  Like the smell of the creosote bushes after it rains. Like taking the trash out at night.

She carefully closes the screen door behind her – they don’t like slamming doors.  She keeps her head down, her shoulders tense, until she clears the back of her mother’s car, which blocks the view of the yard from the living room window.  There’s about ten feet of driveway that can’t be seen from the house, and she can see the sky from there. She sets the trash bag down and looks up.

cooOOOO-hoooo-hoooo-hoooooo…. coooOOOO-hooo-hooo-hoooooo….

The moon is white and flat like a paper plate, and the night is clear.  Ava tastes the air, cooler than the house, sweeter. It feels pure in her mouth, and she takes great gasping breaths for a moment as she lets her shoulders fall from around her ears.  Like she’s been drowning for hours. Sometimes tears cross her face. She stares at the moon, or the stars, and listens to the sound of traffic, and thinks about the other world that isn’t this place, a new world where she could be anyone at all, where she could disappear.  A world where for just a minute no one is watching and waiting for her to fuck up.

She doesn’t stay out there long.  Taking out the trash should take five minutes, and she can stretch it near to ten before anyone will trust their sense of time enough to question it.  Turning away from the road, the moonlight, the other world, she twitches her nose and mouth like a rabbit and the walls close around her again. The naked need falls out of her face so quickly it should shatter at her feet.  By the time she’s tossed the trash in the dumpster the tears are gone from her face. Her eyes never redden or swell – she’s spent so much time in the mirror with Clear-Eyes, practicing this emptiness, that now she can cry for whole minutes and you’d never know.

She walks back to the house slowly, and takes a deep breath before she goes back in.  Someday she won’t have to go back in. It’s a promise she’s been making to herself often, since she was very small.  She makes it again as the mourning dove calls her back into the sunshine, into her grown-up body, into the end of April, 2011, where she stands leaning against her car on the border of Kansas and Colorado.  Behind her are two states and the city they left yesterday, and her family, who made it clear that this willful flight was the final insult they’d take from their prodigal. You can’t quit, you’re fired!

In front of her is a stretch of hills that rises steadily and never stops until it reaches a sharp-edged, ferocious mountain range, the same one she remembers from a different angle.  Living in the plains makes her uncomfortable, agoraphobic, makes it hard to navigate. The light pours down the hills like paintings of very Elysium, and she feels a wild, leaping joy that makes her laugh and cry at the same time.  For the first time in twenty-six years, she feels free.

It’s the end of that world.  I never have to go back in.

She’s dashing the tears from her eyes when her boyfriend returns, holding out a sandwich.

“Are you okay?”

cooOOOO-hoooo-hoooo-hoooooo…. coooOOOO-hooo-hooo-hoooooo….

The dove calls out another spate of tears and she grins, squinting up at him through rainbow splinters of sun in her eyes.  “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. Let’s go – I think we can make Denver before the sun sets, and I want to drive through that view.”

At the Miracle Sausage Factory

I haven’t had a lot to show you this week, but it’s not that I haven’t been writing – there are a lot of words in a few drafts here, they’re just sprawling and unfocused and I can’t toss up any kind of conclusion.  I’m having a hard time right now if you want to know the truth.  A lot of stressful, expensive life shit coming up, but also the journey to mental health isn’t a straight line, as they say, and sometimes you fall in the Well again.

Last weekend I stumbled, because the previous week was too good.  Yep.  That’s the exciting world of trauma.

“Hey, so I see you got a gig.  Seems like somebody thinks your work is good.  I see you went on a date.  Someone wants to be your friend.  Of course… you know what’s going to happen, don’t you? 

Of course you do. 

You’ll show them that you’re utterly worthless and they were foolish even to offer an opportunity, and they will be angry at you for wasting their time by continuing to exist while not matching their exact specifications. 

That person you went on a date with will discover any moment that you’re too broken to be a good friend, can’t offer anything to anybody, and then they’ll be hurt because you were so callous and stupid as to accept their offer of friendship.

You should have known better than to accept any of those things; look at you, you’re going to drop them any minute, and then everyone will find out how worthless you really are.  It’ll happen sooner or later.  Why not speed up the inevitable?”

I know I sound like I’m being dramatic here.  I wish I could say that this isn’t exactly what happens inside me every time I’m offered any kind of opportunity.  Any kind of help.  Any kind of reward beyond the barest minimum I’ve earned.  But this is it, the bottom of the Well.  This is where I’ve lived for a very long time.  I’m just starting to get out of it now.  Last few weeks have been a little setback.

electrified steaks with legs and hats

But I am getting out.  What’s interesting about that is… the first time, it was instantaneous.  A bit of a mind flip.  I’ve tried to write about this, and that’s one of the huge, sprawling drafts I’m failing to finish, because it’s very simple and yet very complex to explain.  The short version is, I saw it one way, and then I found the right words to look at it another way, and suddenly my perspective shifted.  I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, and that was part of my certainty that if I ever fell down again, I would never get back up.  How could I?  How can you reproduce an epiphany?

It turns out that an epiphany is like anything else: if you slow it down enough, you can see that it’s composed of many different parts.  Like anything else, it’s a chemical process, because that’s what we are, arrogant sacks of protoplasm, electrified steaks with legs and hats.  Everything is chemicals, including all our emotions, and all the physical responses they create in our meat machines.

pick the miracle apart

How do I get back up again, when finding any kind of self-worth the first time was so hard that it felt like a miracle?  Walk through the miracle again, slowly.  Slower than that.  Pick the miracle apart.  Yes, this will diminish its glory.  No, it doesn’t matter, because there are more miracles ahead, and this one you must know how to execute in your sleep.

Walk through all the steps we took again.  We started with self-care.  Eating food.  Remember food?  Drinking water, not just Coke.  Man cannot live on caffeine alone.  You slip on this stuff, not a lot, just a little over time.  Usually when things are going well.  Your good mood doesn’t feel as precarious, so you don’t stress too much when you forget to eat a time or three – this is different, you’re busy, you’re feeling better.  And then it all crumbles away under your feet in an instant, and you’re right back where you started.

Remember the words we said.  The things that really mattered, that expressed what we needed to say.  Say them again.  It feels so much stupider the second time, and it felt stupid as hell the first time, but grit your teeth harder if you have to, okay?  Do it when nobody else is home.  Take it seriously one more time for me.  Just one more time, say the stupid words out loud.

I love you.  I am right here beside you.  I will never, ever leave you.

You’ve said that to a girlfriend or two, right?  A child, maybe?  Probably more than one.  You can’t say it to yourself?  I know, you’re rolling your eyes, what’s the point, that’s dumb.  Sure, okay, if it’s dumb then why wouldn’t you just do it?  Just do it for me, because I asked you to, and it’s dumb and it doesn’t matter, right?  Why can’t you look yourself in the fucking face and say what you said to at least four girls in your twenties?

I love you.  I believe in you. 

I will not abandon you, no matter how many mistakes you make.

You are worth it.  You are worth anything.  You are worth the whole world to me.

If it makes you cry when you say it, that’s a sign that you need to say it more.

If you really, really don’t want to, if you’re ostentatiously not giving a shit, if you’re still rolling your eyes at me?  That’s a sign too.  You can ignore them as long as you like.  Recovery isn’t a straight line, as I said, and I’m gonna mix my metaphors here, it’s like riding a bike.  Sure, sure, with the falling and getting back up again business, that’s part of it.

What I mean is, when you’re learning to ride a bike, there’s this moment when you’re going, it’s working, you’re pedaling, and you get excited.  You’re doing it!  You’re really doing it!  And you look back to see if your parents are watching – and turning around makes you wobble and crash.  That crash is bad, the first fall where you had any kind of speed built up behind it, and it feels like you never want to try again.  And when you do, you hesitate – you know what it feels like to fall now, how much it hurts, and you don’t want to feel that again.  But when you hesitate, the bike wobbles.  You have to pedal fast to stay up.  So your fear makes you more likely to fall.

You’re going to fail at getting better again and again, and it’ll make you want to hesitate, make you scared to trust yourself.  It’ll make the steps you took feel stupid and trite.  You’ll doubt, you’ll look back, and when you look back, like Orpheus, you’re lost.

Go through it all again.  Don’t just go through the motions – do it like a priest going through a ritual, a doctor doing their pre-surgery wash.  You’ve done it a thousand times, and each time you do it carefully, lovingly, mindfully.  Not because every time is important, but because that’s the kind of person you are.  Because it’s important to you, not to anyone else, and what’s important to you matters.

“If you find yourself at the edge of a cliff and you’re wondering whether or not to jump… try jumping.”

John Lennon

What can you hope to gain if you scoff your way through everything you do?  That’s the thing about magic they’ve been telling us since the beginning, right?  It only works if you truly believe that it will.  Step forward with surety when you’re at your most unsure.  If you’re headed at the cliff anyway, don’t walk off the cliff, god damn it, leap.  Because it’s only exciting when you commit.  Because it’s only fun when you try.

This is the thing.  It’s not that every single day is going to be worth your time.  It’s not that every single person is going to be good to you.  It’s not that every single occasion is really worth putting on pants and getting all styled up for.

It’s that you are.  You are worth doing those things, and a thousand things more.

Be honest with yourself.  When you say, “Is it worth it?  Should I bother?  Should I ask for what I need?  Should I insist on being treated well?  Should I put effort into this thing that matters only to me?”

What you’re asking is, “Am I worth it?”

Start from the baseline assumption that you are.  That’s your rock.  You are worth any amount of effort… to you.  You are worth any trouble, any amount of time spent making you happy… to you.  This really shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but for a lot of us, it is.  The idea that we have a right to prioritize self-care, the authority to decide what that looks like… the society we live in would like very much to squash that idea.  It would like very much to decide what your self-care should look like, so that it can sell it back to you at bargain summer prices.

That means that self-care is a radical act.  So stick it to the man.

Say it.  Once more, with feeling:

My needs and boundaries do not make me unreasonable or crazy.

I can and will defend my self-care ferociously.

I am entitled to decide what constitutes self-care, and to change that definition as I see fit.

When I disregard self-care for even a few days, I quite literally risk my own life.

I am worth the trouble.

In Defense of Making a Mess

I made a big mess of my desk this weekend playing with pastels.  Pastels are wonderful because they’re so damn forgiving while being incredibly imprecise.  If you make a mistake, just go over it with a different color, or smudge it into something else.  I think, against all reason, this is what a pathological perfectionist like me needs from a medium.  Bob Ross would say that art is about happy little accidents, and if you draw or paint or happen to be the kind of traumatized that makes you watch a lot of Bob Ross to calm the howling animals in your brain, you know what he’s talking about.

I can’t draw

There are people who can grab a scrap of paper and a pen and dash off a clean five-minute sketch that will blow your mind.  I am not one of those people, but I grew up surrounded by those people.  My living room walls are covered with my mom’s art, screenprints of giant pies over hallucinogenic patterns, photocopied pages from zines she pasted together in the 80s, shreds of tissue paper painted with contorted human figures, dark collages of book pages, cut-out letters, and splattered acrylic that cracks and flakes onto the carpet with each passing year.  My stepdad is a sculptor and potter and painter; I grew up with paintings of his that were bigger than me, canvases eight feet to a side that I imagined could crush me if they ever toppled off the wall.  My father was in a rock band when I was a kid, and his grim, restless devotion to staking out time for his art regardless of the consequences made a deep impression on me.  So I grew up saying, “Oh no, I can’t draw.”

Then I met a few more people, and realized that there’s a level of “can’t draw” that should shut me up saying that forever.  I realized that what I call “can’t draw” is actually “a pretty enviable natural talent with no practice.”  I realized that the reason the people around me were good was because they spent every free moment they could spare working on what they made, screwing up, making messes and figuring out how to salvage the work from the mess.  This is… hard for a perfectionist to hear, and it’s harder when you’re a child.

There’s something inside you that deserves to take up space out here

I’m not going to say that artists don’t make good parents, because I think that’s unfair and untrue, but I do think that artists have to work consciously to be good parents, especially around the subject of art, because artists are by definition egotistical.  We have to be.  The very idea that a stranger should give a shit what you think, what you see – to assert that as hard and continuously as you must, to declare that your vision is worth the time and money you’ll put in and the time and money you’re asking from your audience in return, you have to believe it yourself.  You have to be able to fall back on the private certainty that even when you make mistakes in getting it out, there’s still something inside you that deserves to take up space out here.  You have to be certain that what you’re doing matters, and that even if it only matters to you, that’s enough.

That is not what I was taught, unfortunately.  I was taught to be seen and not heard, taught that even when asked to participate, I was to be as unobtrusive as possible, while displaying lavish gratitude for being allowed to remain in the room.  To quote David Sedaris, a writer of funny essays about his abusive family that my family bonded over in between abusing one another: “My parents did not live in a child’s house, we lived in theirs.  Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator, or anywhere near it, because our parents recognized it for what it was – crap.”

Don’t drag a bunch of shit out

I was about five when I saw my parents reading and drawing and talking in the living room, and I wanted to sit with them and draw too.  Not to interrupt, I knew better, I would just listen, just be part of the happy artist family creating side-by-side.  I brought out my markers and my notebook to draw in, only to be told, “Don’t go dragging a lot of shit out here.”  It became a favorite line.  Whenever I was caught exiting my room with more than one object in my hands, I heard, “Don’t drag a bunch of shit out here.”  The message was clear: our art is real and deserves to take up space, deserves to make a mess, deserves to inconvenience others.  Your art is shit and we had better not see it in the public areas.  I’m trying to remember the houses I grew up in, whether you would have known my parents had a kid if you’d just walked in the front door and looked around, and I don’t think so.  There was no evidence for my existence outside of my room, and that was called “keeping the house clean.”

Do you understand, child?  You are a mess.  Your art is a mess.  It is never acceptable to make a mess, even just for the duration of an art session, even if you intend to clean it up.  Don’t drag a bunch of shit out here.  This space belongs to our art, which is real, and our mess, which is necessary.

You know what?

Fuck that.

I’m here to make a mess.

I’m here to make a big mess, the kind you’ll spend centuries cleaning up.  I’m here to make mistakes, the kind that’ll scar me for life.  I’m here to make art, and it’s going to be bloody, and it’s going to stain, and I’m not here to apologize.  I’m not the kind who can throw out a clean ballpoint caricature that you could sell for twenty dollars, and the guy who can do that couldn’t do it ten years ago either – ten years ago he was swearing because the side of his hand was stained blue from all the time he spent scribbling.  Ten years ago he filled a trashcan with a whole ream of paper and didn’t draw a single thing worth saving.  He made such a huge mess, for so fucking long, that he took down whole forests with his mistakes.  And now he’s at Comic Con or his publisher’s office, staring at the clean, polished prints of his work, and he doesn’t recognize them… because all he can remember is the mess he made.  The mess that somehow brought him here.

This is my desk while I was working with the pastels this weekend.  Normally I do my drawing over on the couch by the window, because the light’s good and it’s an excuse to get out of my chair and keep my ass from putting down roots in the cushion.  But I was mixing media here, trying to find a good way to lay linework over pastels (charcoal pencil, turns out!), and I needed the hard surface, so I sat at my desk.

2019-05-18 12.48.20

For the first twenty minutes or so I fretted, in the back of my mind, about the pastel dust I was repeatedly blowing off the page onto the desk.  I saw the colored fingerprints I left on my keyboard and mouse while I worked, and I cringed.  I imagined my wife coming into the room, imagined her scolding me for the mess.  She’s never done that, not once… but I can imagine her doing it in vivid detail.  I’m an artist.  My brain is excellent at inventing villains who tell me to give up.

But there were moments – these pure, arresting moments – when it wasn’t simply that I was no longer bothered by the mess, no longer worried about cleaning it up… no, I felt its necessity, its essential role in the process.  My first finger is black with pastel residue, so that when I brush away dust from my page, it leaves dark streaks there.  A mistake.  Then comes in another finger, this one golden from smudging another part of the picture, and it softens the dark streaks, gives them depth and dimension, and suddenly there’s something there that wasn’t there before.  A ghost in the paint.  A happy little accident.

I try to enhance it, not by selecting another pastel but by dragging my fingers over the desk, picking up undifferentiated dust and debris and probably some skin cells and then going after the paper like a toddler, all ten fingers clawing and stroking and shoving the color where I want it to go.  I feel like a caveman – thoughtless, seeing only the lights in my head, I seize the most colorful thing in my vicinity and crush it in my fist, watch its neon-bright blood pour between my fingers, slap my palm on the wall to make it splatter.  Nothing but this.  No money, no fame, no love, no possible future could be brighter than this, could be more important than making this mess and immersing myself in it.  Even the art that results – you know as well as I do that it’ll be a fragile, tenebrous shadow of the thrashing, violently colorful vision in my head.

how can I get that perfect blue out of your eyes

No one will ever see what I really wanted them to see, and that’s part of the misery of being an artist – that we must always be cursed to know how far what we made is from what we imagined.  But… in a way, this is also the only reason to make art.  Not the followers, not the mails, not the likes, not the reposts, not even the finished product, because the finished product doesn’t capture that vision, can’t ever quite satiate that need to get it out.  It’s the feeling of sinking my fingers into clay, into paint, into earth.  It’s the scrawling, feathery symbols I draw when I spill the pencil box.  It’s that moment when I’m so immersed in my work that when someone comes along and says, “Hey, you’re making a pretty big mess there, are you gonna clean that up when you’re done?” I stare at them in feral silence, thinking, “How can I get that perfect blue out of your eyes and onto this paper?”  Maybe they can see it in my face.  Maybe that’s why they fuck off so fast.

Getting your hands dirty is the only thing that matters.  The doing, not what you’ve got when you’re done, however much or little it is.  The villain in your head starts to rant, shouts, “You’re making a mess, and for what?  You made a mistake – now it’s ruined.  You made something imperfect – so you’re worthless.  You took too long, and you wasted our time.”  And what I’m trying to say is this:

The mess deserves to be here.  It lives here.  It works here.

The doubt does not.