Late night, December 25, found me in the Toronto Greyhound bus terminal–my usual last stop for Christmas proceedings these past few years. Around me I heard people talking quietly on cellphones about their own, ruinous festivities, while all about us persons who do not celebrate the holiday sat in various stages of exhaustion with their families, or friends.
I had a book with me–a 1993 anthology titled Modern Classics of Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois. I had been taking a leisurely stroll through these stories in the weeks prior–right at home with a classic by Damon Knight; breathless with envy at a story by Keith Hughes; humbled by Gene Wolfe’s novella–and though my head pounded and my eyes were rather raw, I forced myself to read on while waiting for the last bus home.
The next story was achingly appropriate, too, considering the circumstances; Dozois calls James Tiptree Jr.’s “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” “one of the bleakest science-fiction stories ever written”, and I concur. Through a series of vignettes encapsulating one man’s life, the story raises the notion that some part of us does indeed survive death: the part that lived and felt most intensely; the part that is ever-crowned in pain, even if its base is love. An imprint of existence made up solely of moments such as these: Tiptree had, it seemed, put my greatest fear to paper years before I was even born.
It requires considerable restraint not to expound upon my reasons for grief that night, though they really do hardly matter. Suffice it to say, I swing with often tedious regularity between thoroughly enjoying my life, and making methodical plans to bring it to as non-intrusive an end as possible. Though my Christmas morning, spent amid the joy of children, epitomized the former height in this arc, the rest of the day yielded events that brought me so swiftly to the latter that I could hardly recognize my morning self anymore. This, then, was the wisdom of Tiptree’s story, writ very large and very real: pain overwhelms all pleasures in its time.
However, I have lived with this emotional see-saw for some time now, and experience has brought with it a great many countermeasures. For the first time ever, I even had enough foresight to cancel all appointments with other persons for the ensuing break–not because good company cannot be a great salve; but because I know that, for me, the fear of being poor company among loved ones will only exacerbate the perceived burdensomeness that reinforces my most negative thoughts at times like these.
I then went straight to bed–sleep being of vital importance during these situations (as are good nutrition and frequent exercise)–and in the morning beelined straight to the store for a little mp3 player, so I could drown out my thoughts with song wherever I went. Thereafter, I spent most of the day in large crowds–around people at all times, even if I was not yet prepared to be with any of them. (Though Waterloo is of moderate size, and Boxing Day a tumult of bodies, I was fortunate only to run into one person I knew.)
By the time I got home, my thoughts were beyond even the music’s power to dispel, so I went with the flow: The Brain Worm demands that I make plans? Fine. Here’s the bucket list, intentionally replete with items that read “Learn X skill” or demand other long-haul investments for just such emergency situations. (An excellent tip I learned years ago, to counter the rhetoric of despair, is the “What Have You Got To Lose Now?” gambit.) I therefore dusted off the old electric guitar and made a terrific mess of Springsteen’s “The River” for a few hours–after which, it was easily time for bed.
What strikes me, though–and what serves as reason for sharing this at all–is how little writing has come to the fore during this time. As an adolescent dealing with these incessant thoughts, writing was a pretty standard recourse for distracting myself, or at least for working through the pain. Honesty and “the genuine” were my central pursuits in fictional form; for this reason, most everything I wrote for years was very dark, and very punitive–poetry of lamentation, minimalist stories about the failure to communicate. Even on the first page of the notebook I’d brought with me for Christmas proceedings (an old, half-used book I’d pulled from storage), there lay the following message, written almost seven years back:
Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.
– Don Delillo
That act of survival, for me, used to be bound up neatly in two drives: write and learn. While education was meant to be a way out, an escape from the anxieties of my youth and into a place of real agency, it instead became a major point of contention during exchanges intended to cut as deeply as they could. By attending university, I was routinely accused of thinking myself better than those around me, though never–not ever–have I imputed inferior intelligence to someone who avoids the post-secondary education system; I know damned well that there are an immense number of bright persons outside such institutions, and worse, an immense number of bright persons trapped inside such institutions, whose talents are wasted under the pressure to “get a degree”. (There is something about my vernacular, and general zeal for discourse, that absolutely does not help this perception, though; it is hard to know how to fix the former, but I am working on the latter.)
Guilt from these encounters took their toll, and in my darker periods–not yet equipped with a trusty survivor’s pack of coping mechanisms–I let a couple terms fall entirely away and even avoided convocating for as long as I could, just so I wouldn’t have to endure (I hoped) so much resentment for making anything of myself while around me so many people still hurt. (It had also been drilled into me that counselling was not an option, so I would not get help until a long ways into this process, and even then it would take years for me to understand how to help myself.)
Writing, though: writing was something I could always turn to in times of need–or so I thought until late Christmas Day, in the Greyhound terminal, when I discovered that I had no desire to write fiction (and haven’t since). In part, this is simply due to the exhaustion that often marks these moments, and which seems to have especially broken me this time. I am tired of the pain. I am tired of swinging between extremes. I am tired of the ceaseless struggle to make of my life something I am not, at a moment’s notice, eager to cast away.
And yet I suspect there is a greater cause for this inability to write for release: the fact that I am now more routinely writing for publication. Because the work I produce professionally (while inevitably influenced by real life, and my many moods therein) is not meant to be a deluge of personal grievances. Because the aesthetics of the work I have grown into writing focus more on questioning “intuitive” perceptions, while any writing I do from a place of personal grief cannot hope to be removed enough for that task.
I prefer this optimistic reading, at least, of why a Christmas break that was supposed to be filled with little but writing has been ground so abruptly to a halt. I am tired now. I feel very weary of the world and my life. But I know, too, that this is just one temporal moment; that the veil of fleeting joys, of children’s wonder, of that precious intimacy that threads sometimes from life to life, will fall upon me again, and for a while anew blind me to that deeper current of feeling, that all-consuming grief.
“There Will Come Soft Rains,” Bradbury’s post-nuclear landscape assures us–as does the short story title’s origins, Sara Teasdale’s post-WWI poem. And when they fall, I will be in a space again for writing, and for laughter.
I just wish they would come swifter, stay longer, and dampen beyond repair the columns of Tiptreean smoke ever readying, once more, to rise.