- I am grateful for my friends. My sanity, my strength, my joy–I am where I am because of you.
- I am grateful for my family. I am fortunate that the people I was born into love me and look out for me. A mother who has been the model of unconditional love and maternal sacrifice, a sister who has been my biggest cheerleader, a brother who somehow manages to look up to me despite my screw-ups (and who has been taller than me most of our lives), and a brother to whom (I am confident) I will one day be restored.
- I am grateful for the state of Minnesota. I may pick on you for your (in my view) weird culture sometimes, but so many of the good things in my life have come as a direct result of living here. Whether the grad-school gods keep me here or take me elsewhere, this great place will always occupy a sizable part of my heart. Donchano.
- I am grateful that I am always warm and well-fed. Three-and-a-half years ago, I was dangerously close to becoming homeless. A bit of determination and a lot of luck kept me from that fate. There are few things I want more than to save every man, woman, and child across the world from that same fate. I work for a world where we will do that. And I remember every day that I am fortunate to have what I have.
- I am grateful for music. It is my heartbeat, almost literally, as there is always a song in my head. I am grateful that I know how to sing and can play a few musical instruments, so that, in my awkward little way, I can share this most wonderful of human creations.
- I am grateful for art. I am grateful for the artists who train and work tirelessly, often with little real reward, to share the most intimate parts of their minds and hearts with the world.
- I am grateful for literature. I am grateful for every book that is on my shelf and the million more that are not. I marvel at the infinite power of the written word, and am humbled by the fact that I’ve had a little bit of training to wield this tool.
- I am grateful for every second I have to be alive.
I can feel it coming on. Most years, it comes around the end of September. I fall into even poorer dietary habits than usual, and pizza, cereal, and ice cream become my mainstays. I have to push myself more to socialize. I run out of energy even if I feel like I’m in a good mood.
And there’s the trick. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that I can think I’m in a good mood when I’m not. I can be happy with some of the more peripheral things in my life–like school or chorus–but still have a deep-seated discontent.
And right now there’s plenty of reason for deep-seated discontent. It really all began a couple of months ago, when I turned 39. Now, I don’t buy into this silly game of being ashamed of how old you are. You should be proud to be a survivor. But, as my hair falls out more and my joints betray me more often and my metabolism disappears, I’m acutely aware that I am middle-aged, and that, unlike in my twenties, I cannot take anything about my future for granted.
It was right around my birthday that I got word that a friend of mine had died. We weren’t really close but we weren’t just nodding acquaintances either. Her death has haunted me these past two months. I don’t think I’m thinking about her any more often than I did before, but now I have to stop and remind myself that she is no longer alive. All the good things I’d hoped to see her do will never come to pass. My next time to see her in class or on the bus or what have you will never come.
All of this transpired not long after I had come to the realization that I am now an atheist. It was a long time coming. For most of my Christian experience I had grave doubts about the existence of God, but I could not express or explore those doubts because of the culture I found myself in. It all came about bit by bit. I left evangelicalism because I was expected to do the impossible and punished when I was unable to do so. I left Christianity when I realized that the narrative of Jesus didn’t make much sense. But the exit from theism was more gradual. When I identified as an agnostic, I explained that it wasn’t really that I wasn’t sure about the existence of God. It was more that there were days I believed there was a God and days that I didn’t. And as time wore on, the days I didn’t grew more common, when one day I realized that I couldn’t remember when exactly was the last day I believed in God.
So I’ve been adjusting to a new paradigm, which is never easy for anyone–even and especially if they tell you otherwise. And, as my thoughts, for all the reasons above, have drifted to the nature of mortality, I’ve had to understand what that looks like, in a very literal sense. In the past, I could picture what existence after death looked like. And that picture changed over time, but it was always there. Now, it is like a friend of mine who was born without eyes. The best that I can imagine what the world is like for him is that he sees nothing but black. But this is not the case at all. My friend sees nothing, and this is impossible for me to grasp. So it is now with death.
Now, this is not to say it’s an impossible concept. The majority of people can assent to the idea that the world existed before they became conscious of themselves and the world around them, that there was a time and place that there was no “me”. And of the remainder who do believe they existed before they were conceived, most will still state that there is no way for them to mentally access a perception of the world before their present existence. And so, I can conceive that existence after I die is just like existence before I was conceived (or was born, or became self-conscious, take your pick).
But just because I can conceptualize this idea, however abstractly, doesn’t mean it is at all comfortable. In fact, I find the whole affair depressing. And I’m learning to cope. And I’m arranging some therapy.
But this round of depression isn’t solely influenced by such morbidity. There is also the sorry state of American politics. Right now, the House of Representatives is quite willing to throw most of us under the truck because it best suits their own interests. And the lower you are in the socioeconomic pile, the more screwed you’re going to get. And I’m pretty low in the pile.
We’re facing a federal-government shutdown come October 1. Now, I remember going through a government shutdown once or twice in my life (I’m not bothering to Google for the dates). And the shutdowns were just for a few days, and the only thing you really noticed was that you didn’t get any mail for three or four days. Then Congress resolved their issues and it was back to business as usual. But the two parties (oh, don’t even get me started on the impracticality of a two-party system) are much further apart now than they were ten or fifteen years ago. I anticipate that this shutdown is going to last a long time. Even as it is, the current sequestration is seriously damaging the United States. Our research labs are having to lay off scientists. Wildfires rage as the fire service can’t provide adequate containment. Preschoolers have lost educational enrichment at a crucial point in their lives. And that’s just for starters.
I’m having to scramble, coming up with alternative plans for finishing my degree, for work and for housing. Twice I’ve had to leave my undergraduate studies because of financial issues outside my control, and I will not allow that to happen a third time. I tire of always scrambling, yet it’s almost all I’ve known.
And so comes the black dog (what C. S. Lewis called depression), not because of some quirk in our orbit around the sun (for the record, I’m not diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, but with major depression), but because of factors outside my control.
Now I have to soldier on. I have to keep appointments and visit friends and keep up on chores and so many other things, regardless of how little energy I have, regardless of how much it physically hurts to do these things. Because if I don’t, I could fall into a deep vortex. I have been at the bottom of that vortex before, though it’s been awhile. I’ve worked really hard to stay out of it, and I will not allow myself to go there again.
I haven’t been about on the blog the past few weeks because I’ve been charging head on into my final year of undergraduate study. (Today marks the beginning of my fourth week.) I describe my time as going to school, working on schoolwork, and recovering from school and schoolwork.
At the exact moment, I find myself awake in the middle of the night after about four hours’ sleep. At one time, this would have panicked me, as I struggle with a circadian-rhythm disorder. But then, several months back, I learnt of the discovery of first sleep and second sleep. It appears that, when humans live apart from electricity, it is quite natural for them to awake for about an hour in the middle of the night. When we who live high-tech do the same, it is a matter of the body seeking to return to what is more natural. So now I’ve learnt not to panic, and to spend the hour relaxing.
And at this exact moment, I am relaxing in much the same way as I have been unwinding from studies lately: by watching British panel shows and sitcoms. I am at present working my way through Keeping Up Appearances, one of my all-time favorites. The show, in its pitch-perfect performances and skewering of class consciousness, truly is one of the greats of British television.
I realized tonight another part of its genius. The main character, Hyacinth Bucket (which she insists upon pronouncing “bouquet”) is a punctilious, obsessive social climber who makes all around her miserable in her attempts to show herself of a higher class than that to which she belongs. It would have been so tempting to leave the character at that, and if the writers had done so, the show would have fallen completely flat. But the writers wisely gave her one redeeming characteristic: Her sisters look up to her, and routinely call upon her to come to the rescue when things go awry in her lives, and in her love and devotion, she comes through–however reluctantly, and with hilarious results.
Patricia Routledge‘s character has an American parallel in Archie Bunker. The main character of All in the Family was ten times as prejudiced as Hyacinth, yet the writers gave actor Carroll O’Connor moments of great pathos and tenderness. And Archie’s views evolve, if ever so slowly.
Both of these hallmarks of television point out that three-dimensional, realistic characters are key to even the most over-the-top comedies. If a character is wonderful, give him some awful trait. If a holy terror, give him a redeeming quality. Every writer should bear this in mind.
I half-joke that I don’t write fiction because I don’t care about entertaining anyone. That’s not entirely true. For my writing, I can appreciate entertainment as a means to an end, but entertaining someone is very much not what drives me as a writer. To inform, to inspire, to motivate, to challenge: these are what I hope to accomplish.
However, I avoid writing fiction mostly for a fundamental reason: I can’t. Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve crafted entire universes within my head, replete with curious characters, and have worked to translate it all onto the page. But the effort always falls short.
Last fall I took a course in short fiction. I set one of my stories in a pub in northwest England, and spun a tale of struggle and despair that repeated itself from one generation to the next. The premise was strong, and it made a solid point. However, when we workshopped* the piece in class, my instructor (the phenomenal Ed Bok Lee) said that my story was like a stillborn baby–it had all the pieces but it had no life in it. My classmates all said that, though I had created an interesting story, they didn’t care about any of the characters. And I asked–begged–Ed, “How can I breathe life into my writing? How do I get people to care about my characters?” He replied, “I can’t answer that for you; you have to figure it out for yourself.”
Well, I have finally figured out what my big problem is, and I can best explain it by talking about The Sims. If you’re not familiar, The Sims is a series of computer games in which you “create” people–looks, personalities, everything–and then have them live out their lives in neighborhoods you create. You can basically do whatever you want with the game. You can have lots of control over their lives, or very little. (You want to have some control, though–they have a nasty habit of not getting to the bathroom in a timely manner.) Sims can have well-matched personalities and live in harmony, or you can create them to be in constant conflict. There are also cheat codes that allow you to make their lives easier or harder.
Guess which I do? I provide them unlimited money so they can have the best of everything and so that they invest zero time in a career, focussing solely on relationships and hobbies. And those relationships? Pure bliss.
In The Sims, I create a perfect, conflict-free utopia. It reflects the way my imagination works–the same imagination that ends up on paper whenever I write fiction. And conflict is necessary to motivate the action in a story.
I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. I created the utopias in my mind precisely to buffer the harsher realities I’ve had to face in life–and those realities have given me plenty to write about in the form of nonfiction. On the flipside, my utopias stem from my ideals, and my ideals in turn show up in my nonfiction.
The only thing I have lost is the ability to invite others into the paradises in my head. I wish I could–they’re quite lovely.
*In writing, to “workshop”means to work with a group of writers in order to gain constructive critique of specific pieces of their writing.
For a while, I have been describing myself as “very single”. I haven’t been in any sort of relationship in 2 1/2 years, and in that time, I’ve only dated a handful of times with no serious outcome. And I know some of my friends get exasperated with my conversations about why I am single, why it is so hard to find anyone to go out on a date with, why, when I do go on a date, a second date rarely follows but not because I don’t want one.
And I’ve been puzzling through this. I went to a party on Saturday and got in a wonderful conversation with a new acquaintance on the subject of dating in general. We both agreed that OkCupid seemed to be the best way to meet men in the Twin Cities, but that “best” is not very good at all. We both lamented the fact that the gay culture in the Twin Cities is so heavily focused on bars (it doesn’t interest me at all).
But then he asked me, “What’s your type?” And I fumbled around with this. “Compassionate… intelligent… ” But he said, “No, what’s your type? What kind of guy are you attracted to?” And I couldn’t really answer beyond what I’d said.
I thought about this conversation after I got home. I wondered if the problem was that everyone was playing Monopoly, and I was trying to get in the game, too, but was using the rules for Scrabble. I don’t know about other cultures in the US, but the gay male culture, when it comes to dating, is deeply segmented according to physical traits and romantic and sexual proclivities. And, in all seriousness, those things don’t matter to me. Most men have some trait I find physically attractive. I don’t need to date an Adonis, I just need to have enough physical attraction to sustain the relationship. It’s about being realistic–there has to be some attraction, but the Adonises are very few and far between. I haven’t made sexual compatibility a factor in dating, either (though not doing so actually ended one relationship I was in).
My primary goal isn’t romance (which is great) or sex (which is also great) but companionship. And for me to know if a guy is going to be a good companion, we have to be around each other awhile. Unfortunately, the amount of time I need to determine this is much longer than most men (who may be more focused on romance) are willing to give me.
For the longest time, I figured there was something horribly wrong with me. All these wonderful guys (and I assumed they were all wonderful since they left before I had a chance to find out anything bad about them) left me; therefore, I assumed I was bad, wrong, damaged. And I had to work really hard on my self-esteem and self-image to get beyond the idea that my value and sense of self-worth depended on others’ opinions of me.
I got to the point where I started being happy about myself and my life. But still, though I thought myself a good guy now, I was still single. And as I saw all the happy couples around me, as my closest friends settled down and I saw them less and less, the idea was sinking in that I would always be single. I’m no spring chicken, and I came out relatively late (by today’s standards, anyway) , so I’ve felt like I’ve been in this massive game of catch-up. And I’ve wondered if it’s too late for me to catch up enough.
At the party, my acquaintance said, “If you want to date, then there will be someone to date.” But that hadn’t been my experience at all. Or had it?
Today a friend of mine posted an article from Cracked (an aptly named website if ever there was one, it is so addictive). It highlights the reasons why someone might not be having success with online dating. And I read through the article, and realized I’ve had one or two of these issues at various points. There was a time when I was terribly needy and lonely, and not fostering good mental and emotional habits. I think (most days, anyway) that is all behind me.
But it was reason #4 that really stuck out to me. My acquaintance said Saturday that if I wanted to date, there would be someone to date. And the article states that some people can’t land dates because they present themselves as having lives so full that there is no room for anyone else.
And you know what? There’s not! I spend a lot of time on school, extracurricular activities, and the chorus I sing in. I don’t have much time. Plus, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going to be in a year–that is up to the grad-school gods to decide. And the application season is heating up, and that is only going to take more of my time. I would feel sorry for any guy who tried to enter my life for a long-term relationship right now. He would find himself suffocated by my trying to get my career off the ground, and stuck with the uncertainty of whether to follow me around the continent for the next little while.
And you know what else? That’s not a bad thing. I’m going to school for a reason. I’m writing for a reason. And those reasons are all good. Just because there isn’t the sort of space and stability for a relationship right now doesn’t mean it will always be that way. And even if it doesn’t happen, even if I’m always single, there are certainly greater tragedies in the world, and I can still lead a rich and fulfilling life.
I think part of the challenge lately has been the drive for same-sex marriage in Minnesota. It has been almost the sole focus for the gay community in Minnesota for over two years, first to turn down an amendment to ban it, then to support a law to endorse it. Those of us who are not presently engaged in relationships sometimes feel totally left out of the picture–I know I’m not the first to express this sentiment.
And so, I’ve felt that if I’m not at least maintaining a pretense of wanting a relationship, even if I’m not really looking, then I’m somehow defective. And again I’m placing my self-perception in the hands of others.
But it took a random conversation at a party and random article from a comedy website for me to realize there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time, and I see myself getting happier by the day. My future is quite bright at the moment. And if I’m happy and working on good things, isn’t that all that matters? I know that singlehood can’t possibly negate someone’s attempts to make the world better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
So, if you are reading this and are single, ask yourself why. And if there are good reasons why, then rejoice!
Yesterday I celebrated my thirty-ninth trip around the sun. I enjoyed various celebrations for a couple of days, spent with friends old and new. It was a time of merriment and gratitude and laughter (with just a hint of debauchery–hey, I’m no angel). Yesterday began my fortieth trip.
Today I found out about the death of a friend. She was not a close friend, but I had wanted to be closer. Though she died nearly a month ago, many of her friends are only now finding out. This reminds me of how the modern age leaves us less connected than we like to think we are. She was intelligent and talented and beautiful, with a biting wit and a great laugh. She was a gifted actress, and I had longed to write a piece especially for her.
Today people are writing on her Facebook wall, wishing “Rest in Peace”. I’m not going to interfere with others’ grieving process. I will say, however, that I don’t believe she’s “resting”. I believe that the part of her beyond her flesh and bones, the part that we cherished as “Monica”, is no more. This is the sort of thing for which religious people often think that the nonreligious are cold and heartless, with such a grim and bleak view of the world.
I do, however, believe in immortality–it’s just not immortality as portrayed in religious texts. Monica has left an indelible print on all who knew her. Many times she entertained, encouraged, and comforted us, and that impact will not be lost just because she is no longer with us. And those good, beautiful things about her influence us, even in the subtlest ways. And then we pass that influence on to the others around us in our lives. And so that influence passes even after I and everyone I know will be dead and gone as well.
She left behind two sons, nearly adults, who, though I don’t know them personally, are by all accounts good kids. And I hope they continue to be good kids. I hope they carry with them all the good things about Monica and pass them on as well.
And as I look 364 days in the future, at which point I would unarguably be middle-aged, I reflect on my own mortality. And I recognize that I might not even see 40. Life is so very fragile, and so unpredictable. Which is why, each day, I must commit myself to living my life such that, upon my passing, I have left behind good things.
So today, I live with joy and sorrow, with comedy and tragedy, with triumph and pain. I carry the loss of my friend and the spark she left inside my soul.
Today I live.