After Image

Splintering, alternate realities come to you just around the bend, like a train down a subway tunnel, lights shining, horns blaring, but it’s a doppler effect–sound warping before and after, and what it feels like to realize that the thing is never really the thing.

It’s experiencing a population bottleneck, soil polluted, seeds ungrowing, waters fetid and stationary. It’s going away, always away, to find something that always eludes, a staircase that adds stairs the more you climb. Taking a bus to a destination unplanned, cloudy-headed, foggy-brained, and yet seeing things so clearly, the beginner’s mind, shapes and places unfolding organically around you till you can almost see the pop-in of the simulation loading.

It’s hiding the real story inside the story you present, the bubble worlds you make yourself live in, worlds where suffering is allowed to be a concept and not an all-encompassing reality. It’s being hit by thoughts and memories of the past, breath hitching, eyes clouding into their own bubble world, having to go to the bathroom to turn on the fan

and stand

and breathe

and remind yourself that you are alive. You’re here, and you haven’t died, although you almost did, haven’t left this planet even though it sometimes feels like you’re only renting your body.

And this is the reality that we don’t want to face, this meat-sack body we’re all stuck in, making the most of it, thinking of passersby as nothing more than NPCs but knowing (hopefully knowing) deep down somewhere that they all have stories as rich and varied as our own, perhaps more rich and varied, stories that we can never possibly know (unless we ask), stories that we only catch passing snatches of, in phone conversations and whispered self-talk and childhood songs hummed anew.

This is what we mean by living, this listening in on states (both internal and external), or not, not listening and so moving always toward or away from something else. There’s launching mental states into the deep past or future, anywhere but here, while waiting in line at your local coffee shop. The woman in the apron sweeping after patrons is thinking about her family back home, the people she hasn’t seen in years, and this propels her to another image, of barbacoa and surf smell, water frothing on beaches that look like moving postcards, sitting in hamacas with friends and swaying, swaying to the beat of a tune she can barely hear anymore. Because when she recalls it, it isn’t the tune itself she’s recalling but instead it’s her last recollection of it, this permutation of memory from single-celled original recall to vertebrate myth, a story that becomes itself, separated from the truth of the occurrence, whatever that can be described as being, because the thing once gone is not the thing any longer. Not the thing itself but an after image, a double-exposed photo that you might’ve once discarded but instead,

here,

now,

you crop and touch up and frame and display.

Feral

I always said I might as well have been raised by wolves, with that practiced smile meant to shut down further inquiries, smile hiding sadness, no crows feet next to eyes so you can tell it isn’t real.

Not a sob story, really, not anymore. Just day after day of pushing through pain, learning to accept it, even embrace it, in a fucked up way, convincing yourself that this hole in your chest builds character.

It gave my brain a way of darting through temporal realities, flying backward and forward through time and space, because if you’re sequencing the genesis of man among hominins or imagining our ultimate end in the (hopefully distant) future, then you rarely notice the horrible reality you’re living in right now.

It makes you open to possibility, being feral does.

I’ve tried fasting, gorging, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, walking 37 miles at a stretch, biking all day, eating an entire pumpkin pie, drinking nine or ten beers in a row; water fasts and exsanguination and meds and meditation and breathing. I’ve tried breathing.

And now I’m here, scribbling words on a page that will be transferred to a screen, used to have to do this at the public library for the internet access and working AC, but now I’m at my desk, before work, with little more than the glow of my screen and the mechanical hum of the office, before anyone else gets here. Now I know comfort.

And you feel guilty for the most ridiculous things. Guilty for hot water, and an ice dispenser, and a coffee maker, guilty for no longer having to scrape by but instead, somehow, miraculously, being allowed to thrive. A survivor’s guilt that marks the death of souls and not bodies, others just like you from that same neighborhood, feral kids who never found a way out of the pit they were left in, could only make that pit as comfortable as possible–a home that became a grave. There are these facts, these realities.

So I walk. I move. I write and I draw and I read and I try to make sense out of this crucible childhood I was given, this tremendous heat I survived and escaped, that I can now chart and describe for others. I don’t want to go over the same ground, God knows I don’t ever want to be there again, but there’s a power-taking in the naming of it. If it can be seen clearly, with a light shining into even its darkest corners, then it need not have power over you. Over me, over us.

I read this over, think of deleting it but don’t. I click submit, because there was never any other choice but this.

Patience

As I write this, I’m listening to Tame Impala’s latest song, “Patience” on repeat. It’s the first single from an upcoming album that will break a four-year dry spell since their last one: Currents. You can listen to that song while you read this, if you want. “Patience,” I mean. Might help set the tone. Couldn’t hurt, at least.

I discovered Tame Impala during a Dark Night of the Soul of sorts, although of course I didn’t know it at the time. Denial works wonders, and we can never fully grasp the heavy shit we’re going through until we’re not going through it anymore. For me, it was being in a toxic relationship–one I’d sunken nearly a decade of my life into–with no way out in sight, and working at a job that was slowly chipping away at who I thought I was, who I thought I’d be. That and the onset of mental illness I’d been outrunning since my teens by engaging in compulsive, self-destructive behavior.

Short laps on foot around my work’s office building, at the time, maybe playing Tame Impala out of tinny phone speakers, listening to those songs of regret and loss (but hope) on repeat, alternating between that and placing calls to people I hadn’t spoken with in years, old friends I’d broken away from, trying to cling then to something familiar in the weight of all that Hurt.

Short laps growing longer, even during Chicago winters, bundling up and trudging through snow in boots, self-commentary becoming as biting as the wind, tears to clot my eyes in the cold and threatening to freeze, and having nowhere to go but going there with purpose anyway.

I fell, and when I did, I fell hard. In and out of the psych ward. Bandaged arms. Prescribed pills only taken at certain times for certain purposes. Relinquishing my dignity to get help, or so I thought, or so it felt. But going with it. Moving forward. Every day. Living life in stages and exercising (exorcising) patience.

Listening to those same Currents songs on repeat, writing out my story in fictionalized words that were basically the truth but which had been changed just enough to make me comfortable enough to share them.

But I don’t want to mask my words anymore.

So this song. It pops up in my YouTube notifications as I wake up to go to work, at a new job, in another state, a job I actually love. As I wake up next to someone who treats me right: an effortless love. As I have tickets sitting in my inbox to see Tame Impala in Asheville, in a couple months, for the first time.

It can’t be helped that I smile. All of this, all of this growth and change and experience. At the time, it felt like it took everything from me.

And yet all it really took was patience.

Sliding

Pet the cat. Thoughts coalesce when you pet the cat. It’s tactile, like a grounding method or something. You read that somewhere. Where did you read it?

It’s lost.

Do something. Touch the fabric of your shirt, smell the inside of a melted candle, but don’t touch the hot wax to your nose. Or maybe do. Maybe that’ll make you remember more. What are you trying to remember?

Lost.

Check your pockets. Some change, wrinkled receipts. A lighter. You don’t smoke, do you? You’re losing it. Okay, okay, what else? Keys. A little Buddha on a bent keychain. Buddha. Shakyamuni or Hotei? Skinny and serene or chubby and smiling? Why do you know these distinctions?

Gone.

Back to your pockets. Wallet, phone, knife. Phone. Unlock it with your password. Can’t remember what it is, but you’ll remember once you get there. Good. Check messages first. Nothing newer than three days old. You must’ve dropped off the face of the Earth. Vanished like a ghost. Ghost, spirit, scary stories, campfire, cold tent.

Gone.

Okay, sensory perceptions, then. Stale air on tongue, rusty breath. Need to brush. Itch on arm that’s getting worse the longer it’s ignored. Lifting up sleeve and finding a perfect, filled-in black square tattooed there. Three inches on each side, perfect lines, like it’s been stamped there or something. It hasn’t, though. Rubbing, scraping, and scratching do nothing. Spit shine. Nothing.

Gone.

Nowhere neighbors nesting near nurses, nails nipping notations (nevermind nightwood), notwithstanding nestled noses; nearsighted nuns negotiating Nicean niceties.

Name.

Gone.

Feel around darkened corners of a room you remember smelling once, like a dusty old book this room, and the feeling of remembering a memory that’d been missing for decades, that book with a page ripped out of same, crumpled up, burned, flushed down waterways only to reassemble in its current form, somehow, a simple impossibility, but here it is, a memory coming up and out of this inner abyss, this inward twistedness, can even taste its metallic clinging bitters like nettles on the skin, running water over same, cold in temperature but not in feeling, still burning, and isn’t it fucked how this is a memory you cling to, simply because It Is A Memory That Refuses To Fade, so you let it play, let it cycle through without stopping, because the celluloid will jam and burn if you don’t, so the picture flickers through.

Stop.

But it won’t, not now, not when you want it to, it will send its information filter flying through filament traps in your mind like shutters clocked at twenty-four, blistering past, data cascades like avalanches of ones and zeroes, interpretable only in sleep, in dreams that you accept at face value during the course of but doubletake at once awake, wondering what the fuck it is you just dreamt, and why, dreamt not dreamed, and that’s something else you remember now too, scrolling through this fetid feed like galoshes sloshing through sewer contents at night, running through the innards of your city like an intrepid intestinal traveler, tapering this way then that when your feet don’t make purchase, then do, contact imminent with bricks laid centuries before you were born, and you’ve never felt more alive than in this moment with the balaclava tucked tight over your nose, filtered breathing, thinking that a Cockney accent might render it bolly-clahv, can’t help but think in this accent now, internal monologue going British, that’s a right nasty meat piece you’ve got there, in prime primal fashion brandishing a peace that can’t be bought but can be sold, mass-produced and disseminated like so much newscopy to chew on, Chungus Leafleg V is your name, there’s a line of them, a lineage, all the Chungi really had a time, and it’s something to do anyway, watch the words tumble out your mouth like a 19th century Freak Show, acquiring language even as you’re speaking it, and the thing about multitasking is that you can never do every task completely well–call it an overclock of the soul, a restructuring of the mind, gathering memories like drops in a bucket that keeps overflowing from a summer storm, power flickering out, and heat like its own separate entity–you know this place (not consciously, but it won’t exactly leave your mind either), and it gets trapped to the point where all you can do is rattle off names and dates, your personal history, like you’ve got the textbook memorized (social studies class as a child taught you well), yes just names, dates, and places but nothing of their substance, none of the really juicy details that make up a personality and individual; anyone could have these facts, could spew these words, so you’ll need those things that can’t be replicated–you’ll need the look of realization when a memory of a childhood barbecue comes back with waves of heat refraction shimmering off the top of the grill, and the way that every burger managed to disassemble itself and flop onto your T-shirt before it could find your mouth; you’ll need the image of sliding down a plastic slide that’s been baked in the sun, nearly melted, with a garden hose propped under one of the handrails at the top, sending down water that should ostensibly cool it down but doesn’t, not really, but it doesn’t matter because you’re sliding down now, sliding toward an inflated pool at the bottom, sliding for a second, sliding for a week,

a month,

a year,

a decade,

a lifetime.

Interregnum

I could pinpoint the place between recognizing something was wrong in my neighborhood and taking action by the golden glint of a Winchester shell tucked safely between the cracks of sidewalk slabs, sidewalk right next to some kid’s chalk art, probably the kid I passed on my walk to work every morning, waiting for the bus, and I could see a younger me when I looked at him, a version of myself I’d forgotten about, the one whose baseline was anger and uncertainty, fear mixed in, knowing only poverty and its effects on people. This kid reading stories of superheroes and wondering when they’d come to his neighborhood, why they never showed when he needed them most.

There was the interregnum between action and inaction, going along with the status quo and assuming that That’s Just The Way Things Were. Only it wasn’t. Not necessarily. Because we are the deciders of our fate, the makers of community. Badges and words can only do so much, offer so much lip service to a community that’s bleeding out, day after day, unable to help its most vulnerable. There’s an antecedent to every action. Newton’s law. Etc.

So you can walk down these streets now, at night, barely different than you were before, but with purpose now, green excitement, green nerves, can walk past the tenement buildings with boards over windows here and there, spreading like pox of sickness, and the way the dying fire alarms inside these apartments beep at different pitches in their life cycle, batteries just about to go out.

You can see the side of the city that everyone would rather hide in its closet or shove under its bed, the monster that no one dare speak of, not even report on in the papers, for fear that Development should stall, that Progress might halt. The divide of crossing over the highway and going from marketing startups and hipster coffee shops to abject poverty, of seeing this stark reality on a daily basis, on walks both during the day and at night, and the knowledge that something has to change.

Of getting started.

Something New

Waking up before my alarm in after-season cold–in a melatonin haze meant to replace the lithium days. Can’t eat much in the mornings anymore. Is that just part of getting older, or is something else at play?

Cat’s got to eat, so I might as well wake up and open a can for him. I still have to chastise him for scarfing his food down too fast, warn him that he’s going to choke until he finally listens, stops eating, and starts licking his chops instead. Same routine every morning just about, and the way that we’ve bypassed trying to cross the language barrier–now I just grunt at him and he murrs back.

I cut my hair the other day, and in doing so found a gray patch I’d never noticed before. A memory: The first gray hair I ever plucked from my head, and how I pressed it into one of my old journals at the time. I don’t know where that journal ended up. I probably lost it in a move.

Aches and pains last for days at a time now, and there are muscle striations there that I’d never seen before. There’s also this great patience, this abiding calm that’s as foreign as it is welcome, a non-Pollyanna attitude that reminds me that things will be okay, that I can and will get through anything.

I treasure simple things like walking to work in the mornings as the sun is just starting to rise, a time when people honk less and drive slower, their consciousnesses in a reboot state.

Waking up early has never been difficult for me. Eighth grade days of waking up at 5:30 in the morning to catch an episode of Ed, Edd, n Eddy that I’d already seen ten times before. Now it’s getting up before dawn to sit in a quiet room alone, to write stories like these, and to hear only the sound of my cat purring on my lap before I leave, the birds as they wake up outside.

Coming home is choosing focal lengths on the walk back, whether mottled sky or shaking branches or the inside of my skull and its constant turnings.

I’m trying to eat healthier now. I’m getting good sleep. I take time to meditate, or at least time to breathe. I want to be here a while. And that’s something new. So I guess that’s progress.

Even the Good Ones

Sitting on a reclining chair with my cat on my lap before 8 a.m., watching the city come to life through my window, hearing its faraway trains blare on horns that from this distance sound more like suggestions, watching the sky wake up by degrees as well, its oranges and blues fading to something more muted, something more mature.

Being used to chaos, you end up craving quiet while not knowing what to do with it once you get it. It’s a paradox. You can do the breathing exercises, you can sit still with your hands forming a perfect circle in your lap, and you can light that incense and wait as the smoke fills the air, all while battles and carnage play through your mind. You learn how to quiet this a bit, or at least make it appear invisible from the outside, invisible to the people who don’t know you enough to recognize, but that deep breath has something more behind it, that tension in your shoulders isn’t just stress from work, and they will ask their questions and you’ll do your best to answer them, all while memories come in scattershot–in sawed-off sprays of light, waking you up when you try to sleep.

Not all of them bad memories, but all of them vivid, even the good ones, the moments you’d forgotten about: running around town at seventeen, shooting a short film with friends, using a crappy old JVC you thought was state-of-the-art at the time, and kind of was, it’s all relative, and you’re kind of glad this was the hobby you guys chose, because you can still find some of these short films on YouTube (the ones that are still up there), and you can download them in case ancient accounts ever get deleted, and you can watch these living time capsules and remember even more.

It’s amazing how much things stick, now more than they ever did before, or maybe just in a different way–the objective versus subjective, digital to replace analog, and the way that you will sometimes not want to watch the video because it will change what really happened, or at least what your brain tells you happened, filling in the gaps with fiction and coloring all the facts with bias, because in this world of data it’s if-then arguments, binary constructs, zeroes and ones–hardly any more sophisticated than the dots and dashes of the Morse code days and yet worlds apart technologically. So sometimes you just want to let the truth have its day. Sometimes you want to keep the memories as they are.