Apologies for the late letter. Tuesday was one of those days where several things went wrong in small, but mildly devastating ways that required a lot of constant, strained attention. Do you have those days? Where you’re flinging yourself from place to place, unable to do anything to immediately improve your situation but also unable to stop and let go. I had one of those slightly manic, dissociative feelings. The weather didn’t help. It was heavy and gray, the kind of day when you sweat because it’s hot and you sweat because you’re running around and you sweat just to sweat, and nothing dries because there’s no wind and the humidity is so incredibly high. The collar of my shirt was sad and limp. My feet hurt at the end of the day. My thighs were sore. When I got out of my clothes, they dropped to the ground with a wet smack. It was so awful.
I also realized that I had fallen behind on my emails. Behind is a generous term. I went into an administrative and clerical fugue state in January, and I didn’t emerge until about three days ago. I guess I mentioned my emails first because it’s acceptable to be behind on emails, and it’s more difficult and painful to talk about the other dimensions to being totally checked out of my life, which is to say that my apartment has been squalid. I think part of why I developed a routine of going on a circuit of cafes in Iowa City is because it allowed me to get out of my apartment and avoid confronting the mess of it. Not even a particularly novel mess. The usual mess that signifies something has gone wrong in the routine maintenance of a life: no food in the fridge except old, moldy containers of half-eaten things; boxes of takeout containers strewn over the carpet; crumbs and discarded bones everywhere; fruit flies darting in every direction; dirty clothes on every surface; not a pile of books so much as a spread of books and junk mail that I had taken to just launching at the floor the minute I came through the door, so much so that one of the doors into my apartment was wholly impassable; a sink full of dishes that had grown a fur coat like they had big plans on a Saturday night. I began each morning by climbing out of my bed and onto a pile of boxes that snapped and shifted underfoot. I stepped on a fork. An open bag of bread had turned first black then green then gray like it had given up. Bags of chips. Bags of old fruit. Crumbs in the bed. Everything busted up and hardly working. I’d wade through all of the trash in my bedroom, navigate the trash in the kitchen and living room, and then find my clean clothes, shower, and leave for the day. I hid the mess from the couple of friends who would come to visit. I pushed mounds of trash into the living room closet. I hid things in my bedroom closet with its sliding doors. I swept and sprayed air freshener. I kept doors closed and prayed no one asked to use a restroom. I hoped no one would look too closely, and when they were gone, the house relaxed into its filth once more, and out came the boxes, the old clothes, the stale smell of water in the sink.
I think in some ways this must be a family trait. All the houses of my childhood were cluttered and messy. Things sprouted out from every direction. My parents and I lived in a trailer that had no running hot water. We had to run water into a pot to heat on a stove. We bathed in plastic bins in a deep jacuzzi tub. The only bathroom window was a narrow horizontal strip of screen nailed to the upper part of a wall. Sometimes, birds built nests in the recession there, and parts of those nests fell into the bathroom. There was this filthy mirror in the bathroom that no one cleaned. I couldn’t bring myself to look at it because its wood casing had grown moist and damp and full of dust, and I have this intense revulsion for wet things, clotted things, water where it shouldn’t be. I couldn’t bear it. I always thought, I can’t wait to leave this place, for many reasons, but chief among them was that I’d never have to bathe with my eyes closed in order to avoid the filth. But here I am, living among piles and piles of garbage and rotting things because I lack some necessary animating force to do anything about it any of it.
In Chekhov’s The Seagull, there’s this character named Masha. She wears black and smokes and does a lot of coke. She lives with her father and mother on the estate of a wealthy actress and landowner. A schoolteacher is in love with her, but Masha only loves the actress’s son. There’s a moment when the schoolteacher asks Masha why she always wears black, and Masha says I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy. Masha is not the main subject of the play, but her iconic line serves as a kind of thematic core. Masha’s desperation at the ongoing stasis of her life is played for slight comic effect, but in the true sense of comedy, in that something painful and true is sublimated via humor to allow catharsis. We laugh uncomfortably at the line because it is so painfully familiar. We laugh because we recognize ourselves. I think I’ve been in mourning for my life. I’ve said as much on Twitter and Instagram and to almost any person who will listen. I’m miserable. But I think some people must imagine that this is a part of a schtick of the Dread Economy. Oh, I get it, buddy, we’re all miserable, have you seen the latest climate data? It’s funny to imagine that in a world that is rapidly dying and amid a populace that is rapidly destroying itself, our misery feels like a cool ironic attitude or a signifier of knowledge. Misery is the 21st Century Prometheus Flame, the sign of the elected, in a Calvinist sense.
This is a bit unrelated, but I saw the recent film adaptation of The Seagull, starring Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, and Elizabeth Moss (as Masha!) something like three or four times in the local theater here. I then bought it on Amazon Video. It was the first time that I really understood Chekhov, I think. The perceptiveness of his lines. The frankness of his writing. The clarity and precision of his narrative. It’s a really lovely adaptation, and for me, a connoisseur of wealth porn, it was visually gorgeous. The set design was impeccable. Plus, the film stars low-key thick boi Corey Stoll. What I find remarkable is that the play is so thoroughly gay. Not in a, men making out with men sort of way. But in the white-knuckled desperation to say something, to live life finally one’s own terms, everyone is miserable and prickly with insecurity and jealousy and they say horrible things to each other when they love each other fiercely sort of way. Plus, there’s this one moment that’s truly breathtaking in which Annette Bening’s character is being nurturing and kind to her son who has just wounded himself. They’ve been at each other’s throats over her new boyfriend (a famous writer) and over her son’s new play (a highly poetic and metaphorical nonsense fest). She’s jealous and easily spurned. He’s violently desperate for approval. But here they come together in a moment of kindness and love and you’re reminded that they are a family, but then he says something that irritates her, and they begin to quarrel, and she ends up calling him a “snide little non-entity” and shoving at him. And it’s so absolutely and viciously gay that I squealed in delight the first time I saw it. She was withering. Oh, it’s amazing. Besides, Chekhov was notoriously hot. There’s also a hot doctor in The Seagull who is in love with the actress and with whom Masha’s mother is in love, and we all know that there is nothing more gay than unrequited love among desperate people. Anyway, see it if you want.
I won’t get into it here. But there was a reason for all of this. I received some disappointing and devastating health news in January, and it set me on this path of intense fear and alienation from my own body. My doctor was not a good doctor, and she primed me to be afraid of myself, and so I spent months in bed, thinking that if I did anything at all, I might die, suddenly and painfully, and it would be all my fault. So I checked out of my life. Totally. But it’s a boring and tedious and incredibly embarrassing story, so I won’t tell it here. Someday maybe. I bring it up only to explain that the stasis of my life, what felt to me like the immutable parameters of my very existence shifted suddenly and violently, and I felt like I’d have to live the rest of my life feeling weak and helpless. I felt, I guess, deprived of agency. Violated in some way. But I didn’t have language for it. Because I was too afraid to confront my body and myself. I was too afraid to seek answers or to think through my situation critically and at depth. I felt alone. And unable to contend with all of my commitments. It felt like purgatory. This was my life for the last six, seven, eight months, I guess.
Anyway, I decided that I’d had enough. For reasons that are personal and not personal at all. I decided that what I really wanted was to feel strong and good and okay again, and not in the temporary ways I’ve felt. I wanted to really climb back into my life. It started with getting the books under control. Making them into neat stacks and putting them back on the shelves. Then came the deep cleaning of the apartment, sorting and throwing out and hanging up and putting away and putting into trashbags and hauling said trashbags to the dumpsters on the side of the house, sweating and hurting but still working, trying. It took several days. But I finally got there. I can see the floor again. It’s not perfect. There’s still so much to do, but it felt good to have this one part of my life under control again. I sleep easier, clearer now.
Then the mountain of emails. Then the other things I’ve been delaying. When yesterday happened, I had been feeling reasonably okay and upbeat. But then I didn’t get paid when I should have, and I spiraled into anxiety about money, about whether I had missed some crucial form. I hated myself for all of the delaying and for all of the lying in bed for months at a time instead of doing something. I was cruel to myself. I had self-loathing thoughts and ideation. I was afraid. I had class work to prepare for my students. I had plans with a friend to see a movie. I had to be here and there and everywhere. I forgot to eat anything for ten hours. I was dehydrated and hemorrhaging water via sweat. It was not a great day.
But a curious thing happened, or didn’t happen. I didn’t just go back to bed. I didn’t withdraw. I didn’t give up and take it. I wrote the emails. I asked the questions. I sought solutions. I saw the money, which was really excellent and transporting, and even though my mind was racing and my pulse was too high and my body was sore, I didn’t just roll over. I fought back against the day. Anyway, I say all of this to say that yesterday was difficult, but not impossible. And I survived. I imagine this is how tolerance for life is built. Surviving one day and then the next and then the next.
It was nice, after hiding away and feeling puny and crushed underfoot, to feel like I was myself again. Capable if not competent. Back in the game after all this time.