State of the Union
The place where I watched my first sunset of the New Year is called Constitution Square.
Over the past few years, benches and a pathway have sprouted. Bounding the lot is a small plaza with a hair salon on one end, a massage parlor, an organic food spot, a gun store, a driver’s ed shingle and Ming Moon, our local Chinese restaurant. Further down the line is a bar and a group of sandwich shops. And across the lot from those, a dentist’s office next to a Century realty shop, a small community bank and a Weight Watchers gym. I was facing westward towards Main Street and since the sun had already fallen behind the naked tree branches and the tallest spires and roofs along that drag, I contented myself with tracking the orb’s progress via the slow un-gilding of the cumulo-strati above. I snuck in a small black menthol cigarillo given to me in a bout of rebellion by someone close a few days earlier.
I had come, earlier, from the public library, my first such visit since I came home. Maybe the change in temperature was responsible for the moisture welling in my eyes as I browsed the small New Fiction corner and made my way down the halls stroking the spines of William Styron and Peter Matthiessen and Elizabeth Bear and China Miéville. The shelves in my home are similarly laden with tomes read and unread.
The physical presence of books offers me a different genre of comfort than I’ve found anywhere else, but I hadn’t realized, until that visit, just how explicit was my attempt to recreate in the house where I grew up the public library where I had spent so much of my adolescence. My homecoming wasn’t complete until I found myself wandering down the L’s and pausing at the S’s.
Among the perils of having spent so much of my life learning the art of storytelling is the tendency to contort my life into singular narratives, or, rather, narrative strands. Plot threads. Even the messiness and unfinished-ness of lived reality acquires the polish of a narrative in the course of completion. Apophenia, the experience of seeing patterns in meaningless data.
Writing in the service of the breathing has become breathing in service of the writing, the very act of living co-opted by narrative, the consequence being that one can concoct ever more elaborate and articulate lies and almost-truths to explain, to one’s satisfaction, a turn of events or destructive behavior or a cosmic wrist-flick that insists on eluding explanation. One accustoms oneself to living in a world crafted by myth. Convincing, eloquent myth, but myth nonetheless.
And the better you get at myth-making, the more difficult it becomes to face up to your own inexplicability.
The beginning of 2014 found me relatively clear-headed. That spring semester, the thawing of the snow brought to mind an image of a Band-Aid being removed, or gauze, rust-colored with dried blood, being peeled away. Our protagonist has emerged from 2013’s climax, broken and weary but very much alive, ready for his next adventure.
Enter Summer and the near-attainment of a thing for which he’d quested for the past decade and a half. Bottled up in that summer were the hopes and ambitions that had guided me through much of college and, subsequently, film school. That job would be the ticket to financial security, revenge against the yearly ritual humiliation of a decade’s worth of FAFSA forms. I’d gone to great pains, prior, to shore up as much of a reminder of my humble origins as possible, a way of keeping at bay the fatuous and excessive lifestyle that seemed to come with the profession. A main dish of overwork with a side of $500 cufflinks and missing-your-children-grow-up. I wouldn’t complain about luxuries, and I wouldn’t groan in the midst of excess. Until I found myself joking about shitty Blackberries and complaining about how often, that week, I’d had to lunch with lawyers at Del Frisco’s.
But then came August and the end of a journey. Frightened at what he has become, our protagonist floats like driftwood in catastrophe’s wake. Precisely at that time, our protagonist looks around and sees his loved ones more or less financially secure, capable, and taking care of themselves. What did I need to do all that for?
Identity crisis, the disruption of personal narrative.
For many reasons, it is not fortuitous that I was then jettisoned across the ocean to the first half of my stay in Paris. Personal relationships suffered for my absence. But fortuity did lay in my having this place at my disposal while I walked through crisis. The fire does not burn as badly here as it does in New York where, that same fall, friends confronted police and the conflagration that resulted from the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo burned paths of scorched earth through Jerome Greene Hall. If I’m to wander through the wilderness for my requisite forty days and forty nights, like a proper protagonist, I’d rather Paris than New York.
I don’t know what personal narrative the events of the last four or so months of 2014 disrupted, but December became a sort of culmination when I found myself shouting my indignation to a crowd of Americans and Parisians and internationals who had come to hear me roar and to see us hold placards declaring that #BlackLivesMatter, building solidarity between the oppressed on both sides of the Pond. My beard was thick and my voice was thicker.
If one looks closely, one can detect in the paragraphs immediately prior the construction of another myth: the corporate stooge turned activist.
The ordinary messiness or the messy ordinariness, the version of this whole thing mercifully lacking in nobility, lies in the understanding that neither such course nor its reverse has concretized. I don’t know where I will be this time next year, whether my suit will have pinstripes or not, and here I am already laying claim to the course my future Wikipedia entry will take. Maybe that is why I’m often drawn to thick-spined books. Their heft attracts me. Their sprawl. So much world can fit comfortably in a 900-paged book. So much that one begins to believe one is actually witnessing the infinite and irreducible. You close the book and you walk out the door and a bit of life that wasn’t captured between those hard covers rides by you on its bike, and you’re pulled out of the hallucination, out of the hands of the myth-maker. The world is ordinary and messy and inexplicable all over again.
Fear has been my response for much of this past year. A personal narrative, a myth, is ruptured, and the first oxygen mask I reach for when I’m sucked out of my failing spacecraft into the inky void is the one that pumps fear.
A mid-life crisis arrives when one stops thinking in terms of how much time has passed and begins thinking in terms of how much time is left. Desire to change the world turns into a desire to spend more time with one’s children. The future is theirs, isn’t it? Contemplation begins to occupy more of one’s day. One consumes news of the world less than one is consumed by it.
My, how much time has passed. How much time is left?
I have one semester left of law school, and three more years left as a twenty-something. I am eager for both to end. Despite the terror, I am more prepared for the future than I was four months ago.
I’ve poked my head and my shoulders through the broken seam of this chrysalis, unsure even now of my new form, having not yet seen it in its entirety. The breaking is where much of the pain is concentrated. And sometimes the rending is the result of trauma. But sometimes it is the logical conclusion of a protracted stretching. One reaches towards something, held back by one’s own corporeality. By one’s own constructed narrative. By one’s own myth. But one stretches a bit farther and is freed, having left behind some rusted-over part of one’s self, some husk or pericarp that had clung to a familiar, safe tree, but which is now an evacuated shell for which the butterfly has no more use.
When Ferguson burned and when New York stood on the cusp of doing the same, were we witnessing America’s emergence from its own chrysalis, or were we witnessing the latest iteration of the country’s arthritic stumbling towards some ignominious end? Standing at the podium, having just given a rousing speech congratulating itself on having elected its first black President, had America let dementia force out of its mouth the obscenities that were Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s and Tamir Rice’s and Aiyana Jones’s deaths? Did we not notice the effluvium of discriminatory voter ID laws America had earlier vomited on the floor backstage? After having worked to purge much of its hideous history from popular memory, after having scooped out the bits regarding the early treatment of Native Americans, the racial animus animating the War on Drugs, and the Original Sin of slavery, had Alzheimer’s then removed from America’s memory all traces of ethics, of neighborly benevolence, of general welfare and domestic tranquility?
Fear has been America’s response for much of this past year. A personal narrative, a myth, is ruptured, and the first oxygen mask the nation collectively reaches for when it is forced to reckon with its own messiness, when it is jettisoned into the inky void, when its myth-making abilities collapse, is the one that pumps fear.
I’m reminded of the chrysalis and myself.
Is my country growing up or growing old?
How much time has passed.
How much time is left?
Previously published in The Morningside Muckraker, Issue IX