"I know no other way out of what is both the maze of the eternal present and the prison of the self except with a string of words."
- Lewis Lapham
I always know when I am not going to do well. It starts with the same mental traipse every time. I spent all last night fantasizing/having a nightmare about my rapist dying, getting a phone call out of the blue, some old friend from high school informing me, slightly breathless and appropriately crestfallen, as if it were far more simple news than I could ever take it. I am never sure whether I am happy or sad or confused or angry or numb at the phone call, the telling of my friends who know, the funeral. I try on a single emotion, and let the movie reel go. I test it, create new situations, like a choose-your-own-adventure book, try to determine if that is the feeling I'd wear to his funeral. Does my acting feel forced? Does the scene feel too contrived? None of the emotions ever fit, although sometimes I cry, in real life, just imagining it. So I rewind the tape, put on another emotion, and then play the movie in my head again from the beginning.
The process takes hours and hours while I lay in bed, the night receding. It was both the harbinger and the cause of why I am teetering today.
It wasn't going to take very much to throw me off this morning. I opened this month's Harper's, which I'd not yet gotten to, at the dining room table, coffee in one hand, and read Lewis Lapham's final Notebook. The Notebook has been the opening essay to the magazine for as long as I've known it. Which is a long time. I discovered David Foster Wallace in its pages as a teenager. It was the first thing I did as an adult once I knew the address of my soon-to-be apartment right after college - I got a Harper's subscription. There are two things that especially remind me I am a grown-up - re-subscribing to Harper's and getting it delivered every month, and buying a shower curtain. I have no explanation for the shower curtain.
* * *
When I am as busy and stressed and pressed as I am, I am very good at managing. And I manage by concentrating on all the little joys I accumulate during the day. Going for a run always assures I will have enough tiny ecstasies to keep me going - the shockingly white egret, looking like a deity in bird form, walking through the marshes, the cardinal that belts out song just as I run by, the big fat toads sunning on logs beside the trail. And then the other little things - a kind word by someone, some particularly fantastic tights a girl is wearing, the way the light from the setting sun hits the trees, being grateful that the train is coming just as I get to the platform or the rain holds off until just after I have slipped into the building.
It's a wonderful coping mechanism, this. The big things come, and I just roll with them. I take them in stride. And I can do this while I collect all my little bits of happiness. But it does mean the little things can throw me. Throw something giant at me, I can dodge it, but put a grain of salt in my path and I may trip.
* * *
I needed the Notebook, and Lapham, in 2003. And 2004. And 2005. When it was especially hard to be a good American citizen. When you were either with them or against them, and if you were against them, the whole country was telling you you were a traitor, a bad American, a crazy person, when you were really fucking sure you were not the one who had gone insane. I cried when we invaded Afghanistan; I marched in the protests where 100,000 people managed to show the world how to become invisible en masse and I wept again when we invaded Iraq. There were few ways to stay moored in the sea of that rabid, dogmatic, murderous patriotism. I was pushed online, where I discovered blogs; and I gripped onto my Harper's, where Lapham managed to take my rage and confusion and outraged feelings of impotency and fashion them into lethally sharp essays, spearing the idiocy and ignorance I saw all around me right through the heart. There were few voices that spoke Truth, and they weren't loud, nor did they hold much sway. But they were a lifeline.
I remember some of my favorite Notebooks. One, about privacy, came the month I stopped attending to my Facebook account, and I was so pleased to see someone put into words all my annoyances with the performative aspects of living exposed. Another I happened to read on the train right before taking a law final over which I was having the worst anxiety. It was by Lapham, and it was about what we can learn about living from the dying. I can assure you, perspective was had on that train ride, and I walked into my final, and everything after for a long time, as cool as a breeze. One of Barbara Ehrenreich's Notebooks, which boiled down to essentially, "Fuck hope," made me cheer aloud, especially as a former friend the very night before had spent ages telling me why we "need" god.
Still, it was the political ones from Lapaham every month through the first 8 years of the aughts that I drank down like water after being marooned in the desert for days. I do not remember them individually, I merely remember the simultaneous relief and righteous anger I always felt in reading them. They were, in short, a haven.
* * *
So today was off. I was struggling. Walking back from the train this evening I contemplated my coping options of which, honestly, cutting myself was on the table. I spent some time wondering in Whole Foods while getting yogurt for tomorrow how it is that I am still not done and over being raped three and a half years ago, sexually harassed and assaulted a bit over a year ago, and throttled last month. Then I took the chance to berate myself for being overly precious and pathetic.
After dinner, I decided to re-read the essay that had so moved me this morning, even though the essay was the trigger for my sadness. The essay was not to be blamed, after all; the overwhelming despair that came from losing a monthly touchstone for so long was still disproportionate, the true source of the anguish bleeding out of my brain all kinds of wounds not yet healed. Lapham's words have always been a balm, and still they were tonight. For he ends his final Notebook saying, "I know no other way out of what is both the maze of the eternal present and the prison of the self except with a string of words."
Of course. I knew before I had even put the magazine back down on the table: I can write my way out of my melancholy (that is, after all, why this blog even exists, why I keep at it, writing even when I have no idea what I am saying or where I am going, because I know, eventually, through sentences and under paragraphs I will escape from whatever demons are hounding me). I can find my way out of this sadness tonight if I could just begin to get down the words.
And so here we are.