A Splash of Liquor to the Earth for David Foster Wallace

I just randomly came across a piece in NY Times that seemed to be an obituary for David Foster Wallace. I didn’t understand how this could be, as he was still a young (relatively speaking) author full of potential. I was saddened to discover that he had hanged himself 2 days ago.

I had just picked up a book of his in the library, Oblivion, a collection of short stories published in 2004. I stopped reading it after a couple of stories because the author seemed disconnected from his subjects and just a little too clever for his own good. But I had loved Infinite Jest when I read it in my senior year of high school. It is a postmodern tour de force: indulgent, discursive, wordy, subversive, parodic, witty, and just plain intelligent and well-written fun.

I also loved his collection of essays and articles in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, most especially the one on his acerbic take on the culture of cruise ships. David Foster Wallace (it seems impossible to state just his last name) possessed an intelligence and irony so penetrating that it seemed almost to turn in on itself, wrapping his writing in a blanket of disassociative tangents and footnotes that were all the more entertaining for their self-conscious stylization, ridiculousness, and biting wit.

It is truly a loss to the literary world that he chose to take his own life rather than stoop down to bestow the rest of us with another work of cynical genius. We will cherish Infinite Jest all the more for its singular—now, tragic—majesty.

Anxiety as an Inability to Voice What is Within

A man is programmed to hold his suffering within. And when this becomes too great to bear, his body turns on him, his throat constricts, his arteries strangle his own blood flow, his mind takes control of his lungs and subverts the most basic and essential of functions–breathing. How can this lonely, inexplicable impotence in the face of oneself be shared, voiced, exorcised?

The rush of adrenaline that comes in the face of danger, the so-called fight-or-flight response, is a residue of our evolutionary past, the reptilean brain survival mechanism. When the adrenaline fires without any visible signs of danger, without any immediate reason, how can this be explicated to anyone else? The fight and the flight is activated by oneself, against oneself, almost like an act of spite, an act of contrition, as if you are making yourself suffer for things that you are unable to define. It is not in the vernacular of our society to voice such things. How can one say, I am hurting, I am bleeding, watching people I care about destroying themselves, watching my nation destroy its future? How can one say, I cannot ignore this death around me, I cannot ignore all of the hidden suffering of everyone around me, I cannot pretend to be OK, I cannot pretend that everything is as it appears? How can one say, I am an open wound, I am not healing, I am scared that everyone else is also suffering alone, and there is nothing I can do, and nothing I can say to reach them?

So it is held within, to the point of bursting. It pushes away everyone you love. It expands a gigantic void within yourself, and you stumble through the day like a hollow husk, not knowing what is wrong, fearing the coming of the night, where you will toss and turn despite utter exhaustion, where you will feel like a track runner right before the gun goes off, where you will gasp like a fish at air seemingly devoid of oxygen, no matter how much you take into your lungs.

And how sweet, and how bitter, is the release when the tears suddenly well up in your eyes and your heart springs open to this hidden, inarticulate world of suffering that we smooth over so well everyday. This world of death, and pain, and suicide, and addiction. These are things we do not discuss. These are the things we fear.

Everytime someone you know passes from life, you sense the rupture in the barrier that you had put up between yourself and them. You feel guilty, as if you were involved in their death. Because you pretended that death did not exist, that they could never die, that you could never die. And now what is there to say, when you know how everyone is suffering, alone, hiding it, smiling, working through the day? How can you possibly reach one another across this void that keeps you apart even from yourself? How can you say anything to heal this, when you know that there is no healing of this wound?

To Rod

He was 45 years old. He had two small children who loved him very much, even though he was far away. He was the kind of guy that would make an off-the-wall joke on the first thing that came into his mind to anyone within proximity, and then bust up laughing. He would push girls. He would punch guys. He was the most loveable asshole you knew. He was also one of the kindest older guys at camp, always ready to help you out, no matter what he was doing. He would help you fix things, he would help you heave heavy linen bags up into the truck–even when his back was hurting him and you told him to cut it out–he would buy you a 6-pack for things you didn’t even really expect a “thank-you” for. He had tousled brown hair and shocking blue bloodshot eyes, and he would drive around on truckster with his shirt off without sunscreen, his overweight dog Olie sitting proudly beside him. He seemed to strike stuck-up guests as some kind of wild animal. He would order his dog around in Mandarin. He was like a sailor that had somehow drifted into a lake from the wide sea. He was known long ago to have eaten a bag of uncooked rice one night after he came back from a party and couldn’t find any food. He had a cat which was just as overweight as his dog. He drank too much, he laughed too much, he felt too much. He had one of the biggest hearts in this world.

We miss you.

Insomniac Scribbling

I can’t sleep right now, so I’m back here, writing again, just trying to work out the anxiety and tension that won’t allow me to fall into sweet unconsciousness. I’ve realized that there’s this strange swirl of emotions going on inside of me, and I need to work through it, consciously, so that I don’t turn into a basket case. I’m simultaneously sad and happy at the same time. Sad, because someone I respected and looked up to (even as a father figure of sorts) died unnaturally. Happy, because I am in love and my love grows ever stronger and deeper every single day. This is indeed a confusing mix of emotions, because when I am feeling happy, I suddenly remember the sadness, and then almost feel guilty for the happiness, even though I know that I shouldn’t. And when I am feeling sad, my beloved gives me so much comfort and love that it is impossible for me to remain sad.

Which is to say, I guess, that dealing with untimely death this time around is more bearable simply because I have someone to support me.

And it is this love that I am so grateful for. And witnessing the heartbreaking self-destruction of people I know only makes me more grateful. I am incredibly blessed. I know what it feels like to be lonely, depressed, and only wanting to die. I’ve been there. I’ve been taken back there through Rod and Toby. And this only makes me realize just how important it is to have deep love and connectedness in life. It is the only thing that saves us from ourselves. When we tunnel down deep into the emptiness, the only thing that ties us to life is this knowledge that we are more than only ourselves. If you can go deep into this darkness with love in your heart, open to your suffering, then you can withstand the loneliness, you can withstand the surface storms of circumstance.

I had thought that maybe this place I work and live in is cursed. And while there are certainly some problems there that are in need of some major healing, I just got an email from a friend, and he also just heard about one of his friends killing himself. And I know someone else whose friend killed herself last year. So this sickness is not only in this place I’m at. It is in all of us, everywhere. This sickness of loneliness, inertia, and addiction. This sickness of disconnectedness, detachment, and disassociation. And all I can say is that we need a lot of love in this world right now. We need a lot of healing.

And when I say love, I’m not talking about finding some perfect person like in Hollywood movies. I’m talking about loving yourself. I’m talking about loving strangers. I’m talking about loving being alive, loving the light that comes through the trees, loving the mountains, loving the skyscrapers, loving the fall of clean water from your faucet, loving every minute, every second, every day.

To Suffer, To Heal

Something I thought of while feeling my heart cracking open and tears streaming out–I could feel how in some strange way, pain is the only way in which to heal, grow, and expand. It is the numbing of emotion that is the greatest of danger. Human beings numb themselves with alcohol, drugs, TV, dead-end jobs, abusive relationships, destructive gossip, religion–you name it. The only way for us to keep moving is by opening ourselves to what we know will cause us suffering.

When you are addicted to something, then you seek to alleviate the suffering of withdrawal by continuously getting more and more of what you are addicted to. You seek to numb yourself into normality, just so you can get by. This is not a disease or abnormal behavior. Everyone in this society is addicted to something, whether it is money or weed or sex or wanting other people to think of you as good looking. We look down on those who shoot up heroin or smoke crack, and then we turn around and purchase the latest video game system, or we pretend to laugh at someone else’s stupid joke just because we want them to like us.

The point being that all of us, in some way, seek to numb ourselves so that we don’t have to suffer. To suffer is to lay open your heart, surrender your illusions, and look fully at reality. And once you do that, then you have to change, you have to evolve, you have to accept responsibility for your life.

There is no more pain then when you see someone you know and respect and love destroy themselves. There is no denying suffering in the face of that. It overwhelms you, it overcomes you, it plows you into the emptiness beyond yourself, it rips your soul out of your body. And in this storm of emotion, you begin to see the light of love. How you are not only yourself–you are everyone connected to you. Because you can feel the hole torn from you where that person once was. There is no denying, in the face of such pain, that for someone to tear themself from life prematurely is like pulling a full grown tree from the earth. All of the roots extend into the same soil that nurtures you. All of the limbs and leaves reached out into the same light that bathes your days. That tree was you, is you, and will always be you. There is no isolated, separated, detached individual here in this world.

So to know of this man’s suffering . . . this is to know of my own suffering.

And then it comes

winterroad.jpg

I guess I was just in shock. I was standing in the middle of the room drinking wine when the pain hit me, the soul-ripping emptiness that collapses everything in your life into pure suffering. Beyond words, beyond logic, beyond anything but what it is. I think it was when I had to tell someone who didn’t know yet what had happened that brought it home to me. There’s no avoiding it when it comes. It hits you like a truck and runs you over. It seems like it was a long time ago that it happened but it was just yesterday afternoon. Still trying to associate the body with the man that I knew and connect the pieces. I just realized that it is actually more healing for the grieving to see the body, to visually and viscerally know that that person is indeed gone, that it is real. Then you can’t pretend or dissociate things with your mind.

I feel like an old man, tired and depleted. I feel like I’m living in a warzone. There’s really no words for this.

The Morning After the Cold

Ollie, Rod’s Dog

Given some more time to reflect, I’ve found that I am not emotionally devastated by Rod’s death the way I was by Toby’s. And I think that has to do with the knowledge that all of Rod’s friends were doing all that they could to help him. And he was reaching out. But then he decided to refuse all help. He consciously made his decision. This was a slow burn and downward spiral that everyone could see. When someone deliberately chooses to die rather than discover new life, it is sad–but ultimately you can only respect that decision. In a way people could see it coming–but no one ever wants to acknowledge just how horribly real the prospect of demise is. You think that with time they will pluck themselves out of their self-created mire, and find a new vision and purpose with all the life left before them. And everyone involved wanted him find that new path, but he refused to let go of the past. So there aren’t as many of those confused feelings of guilt and inaction that is generally involved in this kind of death. Like a cornered lion, he cleared out the space around himself, he readied others for what was to come. I feel really bad for his kids and family and for his closest friends, who still have to work through the bricolage of anger and pain for years to come.