Notes on an Existential Crisis (10/20-10/21)

Do you ever have moments where you’re overwhelmed by the arbitrary nature of your existence?  I’ve been feeling it periodically since at least 2012, which is the year I relinquished that comforting notion that everything happens for a reason.  Now and then I still find myself free-falling into some strange brand of existential dread that centers around the happenstance.  For example: a couple of Fridays ago, I worked at the store til 10 p.m. and biked home alone.  I circled around back of the house I live in to the gutted “back house” where we store our bikes, and as I was unlocking the padlock to the basement door, I was overcome by this odd feeling of not-me-ness: Is this really my apartment?  Do I live here?  Is this my home?  …Why?  Why here and not anywhere else?

It struck me in that moment that I could just as easily put my bike in any other building, that I could sleep anywhere that night, in another house, in a field, in another city, that the possibilities for my evening were nearly endless.* This is pretty much always the case, but we manage not to think about it most of the time.  Acknowledging the infinitude of possibilities can be terrifying.  But, I put my bike away and went upstairs to make dinner because that’s what I usually do.  I generally think about the inertia of life in a negative way: that it gets me stuck in ruts I don’t want to be in and I end up going along to get along without thinking things through.  But I suppose inertia can be a valuable force in our lives, in that it anchors us to our identities enough to keep us from spinning wildly out into the existential void.  (Why am I here?  Why do ANYTHING?  Because it’s what you do—so you better get on that.)

*It can spiral quickly, from “Why do I live here?” to “Why am I me? Why am I human rather than some other mammal? Or insect? Or object? Why any of this, when it could just as easily have been any other thing, or no thing at all?”

When I get sucked into one of these spirals at an inopportune moment, it can make it hard to function, because it’s hard to see the point in doing anything.  Work and school are the worst times for existential crises.  I refer you to my favorite dearly departed webcomic, Pictures for Sad Children.

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In the midst of one of these crises at work—trying to figure out why I was here and what was the point of being at all—I called my mother and asked her why she decided to have children.
“Because little babies are sweet!”
I mulled this over.  “Really?  So, like, maternal instincts? That was it?”
“You think about things WAY too much.”
“I mean, obviously.  But was that really your only reason?”
“No.  I figured, God gave me this body, and I might as well see what it can do.”
This did not help me deal with my existential crisis, but I really don’t know what I expected.  It’s sort of unreasonable to expect your mother to bail you out of that one.  (I’ve since related this to a few friends, and they’ve told me that those are actually pretty good reasons, that most people decide to have kids because they get knocked up, and that’s about it.)

Oddly enough, taking biology has been stirring these thoughts up too.  The more we talk about the evolution of cells and organisms, the more I think, God, I’m a weird mammal.  Sitting here in class stressing out about grades is actually a pretty weird thing for a mammal to do.  Shouldn’t I be out looking for food or something?  Spending quality time with other mammals?

Which brings me to the shore upon which this two-day existential voyage crashed, where I’ve been stranded ever since:

—The Infinite Loneliness of Mortality—

It’s a thing that’s always been there, I think.  Sometimes it’s just a quiet undercurrent that’s easy enough to ignore.  I can blot it out pretty thoroughly for short periods of time with alcohol, with dancing, with intimate interactions with other humans—but it’s always there waiting for me in the background.  When I was younger, I thought that I would someday be able to escape from it—that that’s what true love was for, or failing that, perhaps enlightenment.  At this point I’m pretty sure that it’s the human condition and I’m stuck with it.

I’m very much an introvert.  Even so, I sometimes feel guilty because it seems like no matter how many people I interact with on a daily basis and how many meaningful relationships I have in my life, it’s never enough to extinguish the loneliness.  Why is no one ever enough?  The only answer I can come up with is because I fear death—or rather, I fear nonexistence—and somehow it feels like the more of myself I share with other people, the more I exist.  Which is silly, because we will all ultimately be forgotten.  Why fight that?  But I can’t reason with it; it seems to be something deeply wired into my brain.  It’s not that I’m afraid of being alone, exactly, either—like I said, introvert—I need and enjoy my alone time—but it’s more that I need to connect with people on a deeper level on a regular basis.

And the cultural model of having one person—boyfriend/ girlfriend/ partner/ lover/ spouse—with whom you connect deeply and who knows you better than everyone else does not suffice for me.  If life is just one big meaningless social experiment, we might as well make the most of it, right?  Each of us is isolated in our own head in a way we can never completely transcend, and we each get to experience our own tiny existence while we’re here, but this whole experience is so much more worthwhile for me when I get to share my weird brain space with amenable company, and I get to hear in detail about their unique experiences and fucked-up thoughts as well, and we grow closer as a result.  That’s kind of hard to come by in our social structure.  Maybe it’s not even a modern problem; maybe it’s always been this way—I don’t know.  But although pushing back against the Infinite Loneliness is necessarily a losing battle, I suppose it’s a hill I’m willing (destined) to die on.

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The Fallout: Some Personal Shit

(…and lotsa bad analogies.)

That feeling when you know that your emotional equilibrium is hanging by a thread and you can see the void yawning open below you but this thread you found, though tenuous, is shiny and soft and lovely, and you let that soap bubble joy well up while a tiny voice in the back of your head is whispering that it’s going to pop at any minute and you’re going to go plunging into those depths so you better fucking brace yourself… and somehow it still takes you by surprise when it happens.

You know what this is.  You’ve been through it before.  It’s been a long time, maybe, but still.  You know it doesn’t last.  You know you won’t feel like this forever.  But in the moment, that knowledge helps approximately not at all.

You can try punching walls at work, but you know, try not to actually put holes in them, because getting fired won’t help.

What do you do when you have all the emotions at once?  They’re so intense and all mixed up and washing over me in waves, and I’m just drifting in the surf, clinging to debris in the aftermath of the shipwreck, trying not to get carried all the way out to sea.

Maybe it could help to break them down.  Emotion-olysis.  (There’s some biology class humor for you.  While swimming in this stupid fucking sea, I’ve also got to try to teach myself about the Krebs Cycle.)  Maybe I can lump them into categories.

First we’ve got all the hurt/sadness/grief/longing… these are the products of the chemical reaction in which the reactants were pleasure, hope, affection, joy, and attachment.  This is what they directly transform into.  My brain tries to take me down one of those pathways to pleasant thoughts, but where those used to be is just pain.

Then there’s a set of emotions that are sort of begotten by the sadness and my efforts to cope with it with a modicum of self-preservation.  These would be anger, frustration, resentment, and indignation.  First I care for you, then I miss you, then I’m FUCKING PISSED at you for… what?  For putting me in this position by not being up-front with me.  I realize it’s hard to tell people things you think will be unpleasant for them.  But we’re all adults and that is the task before us and there’s no good excuse for wussing out of being honest with people.  What the fuck.

Then, of course, there is CONFUSION, which deserves its own category.  Because you STILL haven’t fucking told me what is going on.  You just left me to deduce it for myself.  Which I have done.  Correctly or incorrectly, we may never know, if you don’t suck it up and fucking talk to me.

Finally we have shame and embarrassment.  Because to a large extent I’ve brought this on myself, and I’m well aware of that.  Because I’m a fucking moron.  Because I shouldn’t be trusted to make decisions for my own life.  Who gave me the keys to this body?  I’ve probably been drinking and I don’t have a license.  I should have seen this coming.  Maybe I did, but I was hoping I was wrong.  There’s that odd little dynamic that happens at the end of things sometimes, where the other person starts pulling back and I follow them to compensate, putting in more of myself to make up the difference, before it registers that they’re pulling back on purpose and I should just fuck off.  And that’s pretty awkward and embarrassing.  It’s like taking your clothes off for someone who’s putting on extra layers.

It’s hard to make yourself vulnerable with people.  It’s really fucking hard.  But you have to do it because it’s the only thing that makes this human existence worthwhile.  And I am an insecure person and I have a huge fear of rejection and when I open up to you and you just stop fucking talking to me out of nowhere like I am nothing to you and we’ve never met, what the fuck am I supposed to make of that?

Some more angst, in case that wasn’t enough for you:

Late September Thoughts

I can post more than once a month if I want to, eh? Here’s another shitty poem. I wrote it a week ago, between classes, but it’s taken me a while to make it even vaguely presentable.

Take it in while you can.
These leaves won’t be green for long.
These days won’t keep lingering languidly,
procrastinating on sundown.
The asters and goldenrod lining our path
will wither and fade, the crisp topaz sky
turn harsh and pale, these vivid hues wash out
to grayscale.
We know what we’re in for. What can we do but
soak up these colors while they last,
drink the sunlight down to our bones?
Time shows no mercy, you know, and I
can do without regret—
so I don’t know why you haven’t
kissed
me
yet.

My September Jam

I heard this song a few times at Grindhaus, our local vegan cafe, this past winter, and it wound its way into my head. I dug the lo-fi 80’s vibe. The song is basically a list of all these cute romantic images, and the singing is strangely monotone, which at first perplexed me. I kept listening. The next detail that bothered me was that apple blossoms and wild cherries do not happen at the same time of the year, at least around here: apple trees bloom in May, cherries ripen in June, and other “wild berries” are usually raspberries and those aren’t ready until July.  Whatever, I thought, not everyone knows these things about plants. Then I sort of forgot about the song for a while until the past couple crazy-warm weeks of September, when I started playing it again.

Finally I decided that I wasn’t giving the band enough credit. The lyrics are adorably nostalgic, and the vocal tone conveys to me that the singer is fully aware of that and maybe a little cynical about it. Maybe the timing of the blossoms and berries is off because he’s reminiscing, and memory is rosy and inaccurate. And at the end of the first verse, when he mumbles “…and go our separate ways,” it’s the only line in the whole song that isn’t enunciated clearly, and it sounds like he’s trying to ignore the inevitable ending of things, but by the end of the song he’s staring it in the face. The last few lines (“cover me with rain,” etc.) sound pretty flat-out sarcastic to me, like he’s throwing together a bunch of clichés that people say when they’re in love and want to believe at the time but never really do—because deep down they know everything is ephemeral—because that, if nothing else, is the human (and universal!) condition: impermanence.

But also, he’s not saying that those fleeting moments aren’t worth it. He wrote a song about it, after all.

I like it.

Also, disclaimer: all songs are open to interpretation, and I don’t claim that mine is more valid than anyone else’s. I haven’t listened to anything else by this band, so there’s a lot I don’t know.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

In the time-honored tradition of students returning to school (which I am! for the first time in 7+ years), I’ve decided to treat you to the ol’ summer vacation essay.

First of all—I moved!  R and I found an apartment together.  The place we were living in before had been his first post-co-op apartment, and I had moved in after his first two roommates moved out, so it never felt as much mine as this place does.  The new apartment is beautiful.  The neighborhood is full of families with children, which is lovely, and the children have spent their summer running around the neighborhood shrieking.  Children are very high-pitched.  I don’t dislike children, but I definitely dislike shrieking, so the move has reinforced my decision to remain childless for now.  Helpful, right?

Shortly after moving, I spent a couple of days in a little town north of Toronto, visiting a couple of retired science teachers I met when I was couchsurfing in Tucson back in the fall.  We went on a cool bog hike where I saw wild orchids and pitcher plants in bloom!  It was a lovely weekend of exploring Canadian parks and catching up.  Later I got a bill in the mail for $27 Canadian because I apparently drove on a private toll road.  Beware the secret insane tolls in Ontario!

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Pitcher plants – Sarracenia purpurea

At the end of June, I drove back out to Six Circles Farm to lend a hand with garlic scape pesto production.  Got to chill with some of my favorite people, see a whole friggin’ mess of stars that I sometimes forget are up there, sleep to the rhythm of katydids and crickets, forage for berries, and swim in the deepest of Finger Lakes, the magical mystical Seneca.  It’s still so hard to spend most of my time not there.

R and I spent a week in July tent camping in the Adirondacks.  This is the third summer we have gone.  We picked a campsite we had to canoe across a lake to get to, with all our gear, which is a more challenging camping adventure than I had done before I met him.  I’d like to eventually work my way up to backpacking, where I would have to be able to carry all my gear on foot all day.  Haven’t tried it yet.

We spent one day just canoeing around, exploring; and we spent the next day climbing a mountain (not one of the high peaks but a very nice mountain nonetheless).  The third day was drizzly and overcast, so we took some psilocybin mushrooms we’d brought along and wandered around the woods looking at mushrooms.  Found a bunch of cool slime molds.  I had not tried mushrooms before so I only took a little bit, but I found it enjoyable.  I stood in one spot for about an hour and turned slowly, taking in every tiny detail of my surroundings, staring at all the plants—and what do you know, I spotted a wild orchid!  A rose pogonia.

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Rose Pogonia – Pogonia ophioglossoides

On our way back from camping we stopped at a place called Cathedral Pines, where I got to meet the oldest Eastern White Pines I’ve ever seen.

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Cathedral Pines – Pinus strobus

After hearing about how great it was for at least a year and ignoring it, I finally listened to the soundtrack of the musical Hamilton and fell completely in love.  I listened to it probably five times in two weeks, and then I had to stop because I had all the songs stuck in my head at once.  Even R got into it, and he’s not really a big musical fan.

I grew a porch garden!  Honestly this ate up a ton of my time this summer.  The idea was to grow everything I would need to make and can pasta sauce, because I am poor and 1/4 Italian and therefore pasta makes up a ridiculous percentage of my diet.  Most of the things that could possibly go wrong with a garden went wrong this summer, and I still have fruit to show for it, so I guess I can’t complain too much—but it was definitely a challenging season.  I might get into it in a separate post sometime, but it would be super long and super boring for anyone who doesn’t garden.

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My biggest tomatoes. The variety is called Gold Medal.

When I moved into the housing co-op in the fall of 2013, I moved a lot of my possessions into my parents’ basement for temporary storage, and they want it gone by the end of this year—so one of the things I did this summer was start clearing that stuff out.  It’s a terrifying mess of useless crap that I somehow thought I would want in the future.  The burden of stuff stewardship strikes again.  I’m organizing a clothing swap next week to try to unload some of it.

My car got broken into while it was parked on the street right in front of my new apartment, but oddly, instead of smashing the window they seem to have jimmied the door open with a wire.  My stuff was thrown everywhere around the car, but the only things missing were a bag of quarters for meters and a CD of British folk music.  The part that really pissed me off was that the person sat in my car and smoked a cigarette, leaving ashes in the cup holder and their butt on the floor.  I can’t stand weird smells in my car.  It’s taken me weeks to get it back to normal-ish.  I had to drive it to my parents’ house to use their upholstery steamer machine.

My friend Amber invited me to busk with her as part of a local grassroots art festival.  She did tarot readings and I did plant identification.  I’d like to think that I might be the world’s first plant-ID busker.  I only got one customer, though.
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My busking setup.

And finally, I got sexually harassed at work in a really absurd way!  This 60-year-old local hippie/artist dude spent AN HOUR staring deep into my eyes and doing dramatic poetry recitations, dancing around the store, telling me he loved me and wanted to “lie with” me,  asking me to marry him, etc.  I didn’t want to be rude to a customer, and I wasn’t quite sure how unhinged he was/how much acid he’d taken (he couldn’t seem to figure out whether it was day time?), so I kept trying to bid him good day, but he would not take the hint.  He finally held out his hand as if to shake mine and I thought, good, he’s about to leave—so I extended my hand and he KISSED IT.  Shudder.  He came back again a few weeks later and started to launch into that whole routine, but this time I was prepared.  I refused to engage and kept saying that I knew he meant well but he was making me uncomfortable and I wanted him to stop, and he blathered on a little more and left. I didn’t even have to pull out my plans B and C.  Hopefully that’s the end of it.  Fun times in customer service!

You can take the girl out of the ‘burbs…

I’ve lived in the city, for the most part, for the past thirteen years.  Prior to that, I spent 18 years in the suburbs.  That is to say: when I turned 18, I gleefully grabbed my high school diploma and got the hell out.  I fled to the second-largest city in my state, a Rust Belt playground of crumbling grandeur in 2004, still years away from any sort of economic revitalization, its post-grunge crust not yet worn off.  I went to coffee shop open-mics and small record stores, I took the subway downtown to ice-skate on a frozen fountain, I wandered the streets and people-watched, relishing the feeling of being a part of what was going on.  I had a blast.

But I missed the trees.  I spent the summers home from college wandering through the lush greenery of my hometown in thrifted maxi skirts, lighting candles in tree forts, chasing fireflies and dreaming to the rhythm of the crickets.  I longed for my college loves to come see this vibrant other world of mine, but few did.

Ever since college, aside from a few rounds of WWOOFing on organic farms, I’ve been choosing to live in the city.  On some level, I pride myself on being an urban dweller, on embracing the diversity of my neighborhoods and participating in the city’s thriving cultural life—but here and there, my suburban roots start showing.

For example:

Every Fourth of July—hell, from Memorial Day into August—the entire West Side explodes with illegal amateur fireworks.  I don’t set off fireworks.  I rarely sit out and enjoy the fireworks.  I sit at home grumbling about the noise and making sure my smoke detectors are in working order.

My next-door neighbors throw a birthday party for a two-year-old with a rented bounce house.  Once the kids are in bed, the party devolves into raucous shouting that lasts far into the morning.  We close the windows and turn up the fan to drown it out and fantasize about living somewhere we can have peace and quiet.

I live next to a vacant house that the owner is presumably sitting on until the neighborhood gentrifies to the point where he can sell it for a profit.  The back door is unboarded, hanging open, and the neighborhood teenagers are sneaking in to do teenage hooligan things, smoking weed and fooling around away from adults’ eyes.  I don’t like living next to it.  I call the City repeatedly asking them to come board it up properly.  Failing that, I attempt to contact the management company myself.  I don’t want to take it upon myself to board it up because I don’t want the neighbors to know it was me who ruined their fun.

The thing to do for fun in my neighborhood in the summer is to cruise around in the loudest vehicle you can find.  It might be an old sports car or a truck without a muffler, or it might be a bicycle with a tiny motor attached—either way, the louder and faster, the better.  Every time one of these speeds past my house, which is quite often, I resentfully pause the conversation or the movie and roll my eyes toward the ceiling, fantasizing about caltrops.

What a curmudgeon.  Apparently my old suburban sensibilities are alive and well: keep up your property, pick up your trash, drive carefully, be respectful of your neighbors and of noise ordinances.  But if you live surrounded by decaying properties, if your own landlord demands rent while refusing to fix things, if your street is full of pot holes and people on your street are selling drugs and it seems like the city couldn’t care less about you or your neighbors, then what do you do?  Toss your own trash out to join the debris at the curb and peel out in your noisy sports car, forcing the world around you to acknowledge your existence for a few seconds, anyway.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

The fact remains that this isn’t how I really want to live.  I don’t think the solution is to change my neighborhood to my liking—my neighborhood was what it was before I moved there, and what right have I to demand it be anything else?  I can try to be less of a grump and learn to appreciate city life more fully, including its noisy intrusions—but making peace with what irritates the crap out of you is no mean feat.  The only remaining option is to move somewhere that is more to my liking, like the country.  But would I really just be capitalizing on my privilege (the privilege of having the option and the means to move and of reasonably expecting to be accepted by new rural neighbors) to go live in a bubble of people who are more like myself (liberal vs. conservative aside)?

That is the crux of what I am asking myself here.

June Post, Egregiously Backdated

I couldn’t think of anything to post in June that was polished enough to put on the internet.  Here it is, July 21st, and I’m hanging out alone at the beer store listening to Radiohead piano covers and going through old writing on my Google Drive, and I thought, what the hell, I’ll throw one up on here for “June.”  (As with most of my writing, it’s not great, but it’s one of the great truths of my life?)  July post soon to follow, I hope.

To more than one person, none of them lovers:

Would it surprise you to know
that although it’s been weeks, months,
even years since we’ve spoken—
you inhabit my thoughts
like blood in my veins, like breath
in my lungs?
The crossing of our lives left its mark
indelibly upon my soul.
You are the measure
of everything I do,
at every step glancing back
over my shoulder, seeking
your approval.
I can only guess at what you’d think.
I know I don’t cross your mind so often,
but that isn’t the point,
is it?
You hold the match that lights this wick.
I never feel so acutely, painfully alive
as when I’m with you—
and I’m just grateful
to hold my finger
in the flame.

(9/29/16)