There is so much depth in the world, lurking beneath the surface, hiding in the shadows, forced beneath the bubbly facades by fear and by capitalism.
I know it is out there because I see the way one or two out of every hundred people respond to the things I try to express on ill-fitting platforms like Instagram. It is out there because the Wildes and Didions found an audience for their words and a vessel for their pain and even lived long enough to receive some of their accolades pre-humously.
The struggle of art and honesty, then, is not always that you have to die tragically young in order to be recognized and missed, but that you still have to go to work, still have to face your friends and family in mundane settings after attempting to speak truths that go far beyond “pass me the rolls” or “I don’t really care where we eat.”
And the closer you get to hitting the mark, the more you will receive kindly little one-off messages about how good your words are and how brave you are and how everyone hopes you are well. When perhaps it is being unwell that gives you a clairvoyant eye into the true state of the world, it is not having the placating trappings of the American Dream that lets you question if it is really a dream at all.
After all, if you never flip the table over and run away from all the contracts and bills and that sounds good to me’s, then you can get along with almost anyone, can do or be almost anything. Except whatever it is you actually want.
This is why we set goals that involve purchases, toys, upgrades, laurels to rest on. It lets us feel a sense of agency in a life that is fundamentally not for us. If all of our hard work for The Boss Man lets us buy a shiny new car from The Big Car Company, then we feel like we are winning. When in fact it is all the Boss Men and Big Car Companies and Loan Officers who win. It is far easier to accept selling 40-70 hours of our weeks to the highest bidder when we get to drive home with heated seats or wear shoes that cost us a full day’s work, because this is the system we were thrust into.
I can write poetry about cool cars and I idly browse Zillow almost daily, torturing myself with lives I could’ve lived if I had made “better” choices and said “yes, sir” a little more often. I sincerely, desperately wish for a life that didn’t require text arguments with greedy landlords who live off of the money I Venmo them every month for the “privilege” of living in their run-down, moldy income properties. I wake up often from dreams about a girl who doesn’t actually exist, because the person I loved was one fraction of a wildly traumatized and self-motivated whole. I go to my side job so I can afford to get takeout because I am too time-strapped to cook between hours on my feet and hours on my computer, answering two-day-old emails from a camping chair, trying to sound professional on the phone while I knock over enormous stacks of recycling that I have not yet found a place to take it to.
It could all be different. I’ve had this conversation with countless friends, with siblings, with girls who might’ve been The One. A property with a stream running through it, a pole barn for working on old cars, an acre or more for Hank to romp around on all the rest of his days. Splitting a mortgage, slowly chipping away at outright ownership, paying too much interest to one day be closer to Opting Out. Imagine spending a third of what I spend on rent for a miserable place with no central air for not just a house but a home, filled with the alchemy of multiple lives, with paint that cost more than ten dollars a jar at the closeout store.
I am not alone in this generation that inherited a burning, dying planet from predecessors who are accustomed to everything working out in spite of their best efforts to fuck it up. A mere forty years ago, you could make the same salary I made out of college, but a house cost one tenth what it does now. Forty years ago, nobody bothered to read history books that were more honest about this bloody soil we stand on. Forty years ago, DDT was thinning bald eagle eggs to the point that a mama bird would crush her own brood while trying to incubate them. Finally, a few devout scientists proved this and changed the agricultural chemical industry for the marginally better. If only our mama birds recognized that the weight of their own skewed expectations were crushing us all to death.
The funny thing about life is that we are so busy surviving it that there is barely any time left over for introspection or self-work. I spend at least four hours a week in therapy, which is less than 10% as many hours as I spend working to earn enough money to pay my bills. This balance feels hugely skewed and leaves me exhausted and riding my bike less than ever. I am too tired to escape, so I dig deeper into the brutal depths of therapy and the shallow pit of professional despair, watching each day of work tick by, one amorphous day of my fleeting life down the drain, zero hours closer to being a writer. It’s like my dad always said, “Why not get a real job and write on the weekends?” By the time I make it to the weekend, I am so tired and so behind on chores that all I do is spiral in indecision about how to spend my weekend and what order to do things in. There is no time and certainly no brain space left to be freely creative. Creativity is not valued the same way productivity is. The two are almost wholly inversely correlated.
Just yesterday, the family group text contained the asinine comment, “John you could have a career as a dog portraitist.” I am not sure how much dog portraitists make, but it certainly cannot be enough to exist in a world where the 4Runner I wish I still owned is now worth $15,000 more than it was when I bought it new four years ago. And I am positive that I could not have a sustainable career as one when I recently sold my dream camera just to pay my car payments and Obamacare health insurance bills.
Are we supposed to pull the punches to be pleasant, to be a favored son or a person who is “easy to be around?” In my last relationship, I stayed silent for nearly two years and was still loved only conditionally, was tormented with ultimatums and half-truths that were triangulated to activate the softest parts of my character. In my life, I have spent the better part of thirty years being just vocal enough to be mocked yet not committed enough to achieve escape velocity.
There is so much conflicting “advice” from writers, ostensibly for aspiring writers, to “write as if everyone you know is dead.” The problem is that they are not, and we will receive text messages and voicemails about the things we say. We still have to find people who will actually invite us on bike rides or will want to hang out with us after we are more honest in one breathless morning essay than most people have been in their entire lives combined.
The gift is that everyone we know is not dead, yet. One day, we all will be. Hopefully at least a few of us will take up the profound questions of our lives with a relentless sincerity, will humble ourselves enough to admit to being wrong when we are, will choose the uncomfortable truth over the comfortably numb bullshit that is forced down our throats from all the corporations that make a living off of our complacency. Worst of all, the entire national mythology of a country built on genocide and “manifest destiny” and the ridiculous myth that anyone who works hard is essentially guaranteed a house and a family and upward mobility. Perhaps this was true when we cared not about our neighbors or the planet as a whole, when there were half the people trying to survive on this sphere that there are today, but it is not true now.