Fair warning: this is introspection, or whining, or growth. Let me know which.
Monday mornings have been fine. Many have been great, which is a strange feeling. Soft dark keeps the streetlight out, secret time before the alarm takes notice. The cat curls by my face, the only time he’s interested in cuddling. I have a place to go and things to do. I think of someone new I’ve met and give the cat a squeeze. He stretches his paws a little harder; he likes her too. I have the antithesis of complaints. It is a different world from the desperate spring and summer.
Abrupt change isn’t startling for the change itself, but for how alive memory becomes.
Then this Monday, a Monday like the bad old days: Sunday night a tense rush, tossing and turning, the headache starting before sleep. Monday brings work and worry I won’t be able to do it; it’ll go wrong. So the night goes skimming along the surface, never really asleep but dumbed out from meds meant to encourage it.
No reason for it. The weekend was good–gatherings with friends and arctic sun and hanging Christmas lights in the brilliant crystalline cold with my fingers as wooden as after too many snowballs. Everything is fine. But nothing is fine this Sunday night facing what’s coming.
When the cat scratches me awake my room is a hard black box. The gut-kick surprise is the worst: a double shock at recognizing the anxiety I thought was gone. It’s the exact species I shared too much of the year with: fretty, mindless, grasping, vacuous and glassy. All it wants it comfort but everything it touches turns to smoke.
Who are you? Why are you here? It doesn’t answer. It’s a mindless sense everything is wrong, filling my head with rusty springs. It isn’t Monkey. I realize I miss Monkey, in the way you can look back fondly at a harrowing escape: his solid voice, always a reasonable-sounding opinion deduced from the pure logic of failure. He had personality. This thing is just an empty mouth.
I didn’t sleep. I bump into walls, emery paper grown inside my eyelids. It isn’t that bad. You’ve been through a lot worse. It’s a college Sunday morning, my brain turned to steel wool after working until 3am. A tiny voice inside reminds that millions are sharing this same stress, dreading work, having heart attacks. I make it down the stairs and have a liquid breakfast to NPR’s mocking competence, get to the car, get on the street, get going.
This Monday unleashes all the wrongness I thought gone but instead secretly gathering in an invisible black lake waiting to pour in. It’s Christmas but I don’t feel it at all, am not even interested: shouldn’t I be interested? Thanksgiving passed as a surreal dream on two ends of an airplane ride, the place I returned to not home, not ever home, and now it doesn’t bother me in a new, dreamy way. Should’t it bother me? I forgot it is the one year anniversary since Roger the Cat came into my life, flown home just like I did. Should I not have marked this in some way? Should I get a tree? This is a magical time and it has no more grip on me than a Hindu.
A woman has come into my life, unexpectedly, a whole airdrop of relief. She is complex, shy and loud, tall and withdrawing. She likes to read; she has a torque wrench. She is going through a divorce, facing up to unhappy decades and breaking the logjams to out. She is free, easy, no trouble, aligning in every way, but guilty about her kids. A child of divorce, she knows they’ll blame themselves, make it their mistake. She cries at this. Monday morning I believe I am causing this, responsible for warping two kids’ fragile eggshell minds.
Work is the corporate stone and glass cube holding the steel and fabric cubes, the edifice broken up by the waste of parking lots. The silent shouting anxious thing knows I am wasting my life here, have wasted my life every place I have gone, misspent all my time and talents, and my duty to go inside and do work is proof of this: no brilliant star-shaker those talented-and-gifted classes said you were, just another schmendrick with bills and forgotten passions.
And what of those? This writing you keep working on? Last week I was happy with the slow but steady progress, understanding where things were going, the characters’ shapes, good second draft ideas. It’s growing organically, feeling more alive and real. I was okay with not trying so hard. But this mindless mouth knows it is all a lie: pointless, wasted, never good enough, doomed to irrelevance, an invisible mountain no one will see, not even its maker. The last chapter I finished was late September. Over two months now on the same chapter, when I promised myself a chapter a month. Now I can’t even keep promises to myself.
So that is Monday, before I even walk in work’s door. Monday is a tense blur dividing up the sudden crush of work required before bigwigs take off for the holidays.
And this is nothing compared to April, May, June.
How much easier would it be if anxiety were visible? susceptible to touch? Anything bound to the world instead of bouncing around inside my head? Then meeting it would be easy work, availing of chisels, hammers, explosives. As it stands the work feels like drowning. Or pushing a clown car full of elephants.
I wonder, says the kind friend on Independence Day night. The anxiety is at its worst as I sit on the bed, my predominantly Asian neighborhood beyond the window surreal with phosphor light, cat hiding underneath. What is it in this terrible time that you are meant to learn?
Elephants cram in, elephants stumble out.
Monday anxiety sniffed around in later elementary, but exploded in middle school, then ebbing and reasserting itself through high school and after. Placement tests begin, the heavy college talk: wholesale belief in “your permanent record” has replaced Santa Claus. I felt doomed. The first test said I had already failed and I scrambled to catch up, to get it figured out. I feared nuclear war. Also: Jesus talk and the sense the people intent upon Him have ulterior motives; money and status; all the girl stuff.
(Monkey, is this where I met you? We should sit and talk some time.)
The girl stuff was hardest. My strategy was sidestepping it: they had no interest in dork kids with glasses, bad haircuts, and science fiction paperbacks. I remember them as looming, monstrous and sneering, given to rages. Artificial strawberry was their predominant scent. The school bulged in its invisible cloud.
Girls didn’t know about Solidarity in Poland or nuclear war or secret wars in Central America or clearcut forests or clubbed seals. I remember a few teasing me that I didn’t know Madonna, but saw it as weirder, softer bullying.
High school was better. I have a clear memory walking to the band hall after dawny hours of marching band practice in the student parking lots: pink light, quiet traffic, trees steeling themselves for late August’s afternoon heat, and a a deep, convincing sense that was almost a voice: it’ll be better. People had firmer places and were content to stay in them, under the watchful eye of adults concerned with order. If you were intent on grades and scores, they left you alone. The girls did too.
High school Mondays had a gloomy anxiety carried over from Sunday. By Monday evening it was piano lessons or band practice or the next pile of inscrutable math to blot it out. I started writing, looking over my mother’s Writer’s Digest-produced self-help books and the Writer’s Market. I wanted to tell great stories, but getting fifty bucks dazzled my high school eyes. After all other homework and chores I worked on stories, first on the pistachio-green manual Smith-Corona my mom used in college, later on various Eighties-era computers. I printed hard-copies on school printers and sent out first drafts to the magazines the Writer’s Market listed as paying the most per word. It wasn’t fun, really. I had to do it, to quiet that sense of failure.
They returned with form rejections, though occasionally an editor on his last nerve would scribble a personal note on my story’s standout awfulness.
I kept going. I doubt I improved. Postage was my biggest expense.
Junior year was different. It opened into vacuum. No uplift came with summer, just a long stretch of flat-pan heat and a job bagging groceries. Exhaustion dogged me; sweeping the store’s floors my vision greyed out, and I felt starved for air. I didn’t want to eat and couldn’t sleep, drinking Dad’s beers from the garage fridge to force myself unconscious. I went to work, wrote, mowed the lawn. Life’s long tunnel stretched out.
Anxiety increased as school neared, but it was cocooned inside this flatness. The best I can remember my thinking now is a hopelessness that school would ever end, that the end of school just meant more school. Nothing was as they promised. Stories kept coming back.
October of 1986, my junior year in high school, I wrote some notes and talked about how much better it would be if I was dead: lower grocery bills and more free space for everybody. It was more an unstructured novella than a note: it filled a yellow legal pad, a mess of wonderings and diatribes I now imagine as something like a juvenile version of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. I gave it to someone. I was in a psychiatric hospital by evening. It wasn’t a long stay, but time is different when you’re that young.
A roaring paranoia built from depression and anxiety met me back at school. Everyone knows, everyone is talking: look, the crazy kid. This panicked animal defense coated everything. I remember realizing how much I wanted to be invisible but how this would look to those I knew were monitoring me. I worked very, very hard at school, head down.
(Ironic aside: meeting with a psychiatrist twenty years later, I recounted these events, my paranoia. I felt like I was closely watched. The doctor looked down his beard at his scribbling pencil. Oh, I’m sure you were.)
I bought a computer, both thrilled and driven to learn MS-DOS and WordStar. I took the SAT: the first time a girl held my hand was to stop its pre-test nervous rattling against the cafeteria table. I had to get out of here. My scores indicated that was unlikely.
I needed to engage more, they said. Be more social. Have more fun. And still get your work done, of course. I remember a church youth group visit. Everyone looked at me and chewed their gum. (Thank you, sole other wisecracking poor kid who just came for the pizza. Because of you I could breathe.)
My mother arranged for girl visits. It seems as strange now as it did then, something out of some Southern novel full of awkwardness and things unsaid. My girl strategy was unchanged, and I presume the doctors advised my parents (or my mother took it as her task) to get me in front of them. The first one was a girl a year ahead of me, daughter of one of my mother’s teacher friends. She brushed past me without speaking as I opened the door. Later, she modeled bathing suits for my mother and her friend and me. (Yes, this really happened.) I remember thinking a rabid mismash of she’s really thin, is this objectifying women, I don’t feel right about this at all. I retreated to my room. She lounged by the pool and played with the dog.
My mother tried again. A girl was coming over on a school evening and I needed to be home, to meet her. I remember a dread of the approaching event, nausea and sense of fugue stronger than usual. It was another expectation to meet. Another extracurricular activity that would look good. And it was Monday.
But the school day had a twist ending. A nominal acquaintance–the next grade up, more accomplished, more brazen, not a shadow–asks if I want to come along after school to Sound Warehouse. A girl in my class was going, and a jerky transfer student. I remember freezing, my mouth open, directives and assessments dueling in my head: make friends, be social, obey parents, have fun, meet obligations. I must have looked like a stroke prodrome. The best memory provides is a sense of confusion as two strong forces pulled–shrinks, teachers, parents, all the fear and responsibility on one side; and rebellion, dark streets, unrepeated escapades, a sort of anti-responsibility to people your own age reaching out, and a different flavor of fear. It was sunny. My mouth said: Yeah. Thanks. I’ll go.
Sound Warehouse was the largest record store in Dallas-Fort Worth, with dozens of locations and encyclopedic coverage. While the selections were thinned out for North Texas–nothing as all-out as a Tower Records–flipping through albums could occupy a long weekend afternoon. It was fall, bright and clear, the lights brighter with the broken heat. I had gone in a strange car with people I knew only as names to a record store in Fort Worth, the big city. They flipped through records, compared, were quiet and absorbed. I remember the long rows and how bright it was, the judgmental kid “approving” selections. Looking back from this long distance, I most remember how easy it waas–nothing crazy, just time out of the choreographed sequence of growing up. I bought some records on clearance: Bach, I remember, or Mozart. Nobody refused me a spot in the car because of it. The record store in the bright retail maze shone out with excitement’s promise.
They drove me home. My mother was livid in the driveway. Where where you? They just left. You were supposed to be here to meet that girl. She was crying.
Sometime between the decision and the trip up the freeway, I had forgotten. In the bright store, rows and rows of bins, the sodium lights outside, there had been no choice. I was free the way we can be when we have forgotten we have forgotten. When my mother was in the driveway I knew something was wrong, and then I remembered.
It was dark, the driveway floodlights harsh. The others had exited the car, standing in the sheepish silent way of adolescents showing as much solidarity as they dared as my mother continued. They were here for hours. You made that girl cry. Do you have any idea how she feels? The kid who had judged everyone’s music purchases spoke up. He sided with my mother. Dude, way to blow it, or something. His outrage matched my mom’s.
The other people must have left in the awkward childhood leaving of the one kid in trouble and the others powerless but for escape. I trailed my mother scrambling for excuses, desperate to not be in trouble–desperate to not return to the psych hospital. I forgot, it was a mistake, I’m supposed to make friends and they asked me. My father was there, trying to calm things; they had a low talk in another room. I’ll call her, tell her it was my mistake. Just a mistake. We can try again. My mother would not provide the girl’s number. All this is swirly, recalled from a different person in a different age, but I remember, with no distortion, my mother’s hard face as she said: I hope you realize how much you hurt that girl.
It’s just some Monday night in the early fall of 1986. It’s a trifle compared to what others were going through. But that was a point when I lost faith in my choices.
Monday this week was not at all like that, like any of that. This Monday I let myself get worked up and I relearned the lessons that some anxiety is a choice. I feel fine now, though tired. Being worked up is exhausting.
I don’t know if the writing is junk or not, if I am wasting my life, if I will disappoint or fail this new woman. A Jack Kornfield quote I like is: forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. So much of what we do is habit, striving to meet old expectations we don’t even remember. Those expectations were too high anyway. I’m not sure mine were even mine.
This Christmas is not about lights or crass commercialism or the Ponzi scheme economy. It is about peace. It is about not being sorry, not being afraid, forgiving everything and letting it dissolve into the brilliant, happy lights. Why else do we put them up?
If you are out there, reading this, I have thought about you. I never learned your name. I would have called to apologize, to explain. Maybe you were into music and would have understood. I tried a couple times, but my mother’s reaction made me decide to drop it.
I have learned my mother is an unreliable narrator. That’s not an excuse. I am sorry if you cried, but I didn’t make you cry. I don’t think I have that kind of power. I am letting go of my guilt over that, of all the running I started then. It would have been so much easier to call you and have whatever happen, happen. I think you ended up stronger faster, got the better end of the deal.
Listening to people recount old girlfriends and boyfriends, random passings in airports and truck stops, even voicemails left to wrong numbers, I don’t think it’s strange I’ve thought about you. You are a blank canvas: you can be anything. In 1986, I assumed you could only be negatives. Now I am opening up. You will always be open. You are always possible.
I hope you have a great Christmas to top off a kind life.