29 July 2008
The Year of Magical Thinking
Here summer hums busily, the trees and flowers and insects madly propagating and procreating whilst the sun is high in the sky. Vines crawl up the oak and ash trees, and the native undergrowth is as lush as a carpet. Where there was snow and ice, there is now verdant life, bubbling and vibrant. As we mere mortals swim, canoe, hike and carouse through the increasingly stultifying heat, the natural world is more aware, however, of what is to come, as the planet incrementally tilts back on its axis. Winter is never far from one’s consciousness here in the best of times, and even as sweat beads form on one’s forehead and upper lip, as the vine climbs upward, one casts a nervous glance behind, towards the glowering ice already passed through and that also calmly, silently, awaits its inevitable return.
Such cyclical rhythms have proved to be my dangerous siren song this past year. I have been fascinated by the riddle of the pattern, the details of the convergences and divergences. I have been living in a world of totems and miracles, of fever visions and symbolism. However, I remain unsure of the meaning of it all. For instance, the same November week my five and half year relationship ended with finality in a misbegotten telephone conversation in rush-hour traffic, a student filed a complaint against me with my Dean, and my car irrevocably broke down on the interstate in the middle of the night. Whilst waiting for the tow truck in the dark, smoking cigarette after cigarette and wiping the tears from my face, I did not then immediately think of the coincidental patterns later apparent to me. Such ironic talismans returned at the closing of the year, the last day of school, the cleaning out of the office, events matched by other vibrations, closings and voids. They seem relevant, in a morbid fashion, but are resistant to all but the most intimate analyses, outside of the colloquial observation that it has been a real shitty year.
Such patterns have haunted me, strange coincidences that brought together the narrative threads of a disastrous year: a long and difficult break-up, a fellowship year that was not what one would have hoped it would have been, a severe financial crisis that has dogged me from beginning to end (partially informed by the reduction in salary assumed by the fellowship year), an unusually trying and dark winter. The resonance of each element amplified the effect of the others, leading to crescendo points of painful introspection that at times seemed insurmountable. It would not be dramatic, I think, to describe the past year as the absolute worst of my life. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, goes the truism, but what gets missed in such haimische dichos is the scar tissue that remains: thickening, constraining, disfiguring.
I would like to think of myself over the past year as Alice in Wonderland, in a beautiful red silken dress, having to pass through an unavoidable hedgerow maze filled with razors and grabbing hands, beasts and unseen traps. Of course, my experience was not nearly so cinematic, although almost as surreal— crying on the interstate then appearing in class with swollen raccoon eyes, often an inability to focus on details, missed appointments and strange adventures, odd conversations with strangers and acquaintances, hours spent too much inside my head, occasionally raging neurasthenia, pins and needles and exhaustion and depression and morosity. The normal dynamic unsettled by disequilibrium, vertigo, nausea. My “process,” as I have been calling it, like a pet, has been a queer sort of evolution, a Darwinian experience of metaphysical proportions, with the exception being that I have felt every cell division, been highly conscious of the protrusion of flippers, the recession of wings, the closing of gills, the elongation of the spine in preparation for upright walking.
Darwin’s theory, of course, was predicated on a much longer window of time. My hyperawareness of personal mitosis over the course of the last academic year, the slicing of the cell, is not something one should live within for very long. It is unhealthy to be so aware of one’s own transformation into an as-yet unknown creature. Our immune systems have been designed to respond to known and unknown threats unequivocally, unthinkingly, as a tenet of survival. Most traumas are best forgotten, but the body remembers, and the apparatus of self-defense responds free of conscious will, sometimes threatening a deadly response to a mild irritant, to an echo of the past, a swollen closing of the throat, a sudden choking. All of which is to say that, in many ways, the past is prologue, both on the corporeal and existential level.
How that prologue becomes a different narrative, how we shape it to become a different narrative rather than simply a rush of anaphylaxis, has been my challenge of this year, the struggle of my process. The long half-life of trauma was apparent in my reactions to events at school, exacerbated by more intimate and fiduciary crises, the challenge to a particular vision I had of myself as a man, a professional, a "partnered" boyfriend protected by propriety and stability. Ultimately, the larger meaning of the moment, the lesson to be gleaned from the layers of hematoma and laceration, is lost in the effort to stay alive. Perhaps one day I shall be able to look back at this time, this painful year, and honor it with substantial significance, figure the algebra of the dreamwork more effectively. For now, for the moment, I am happy just to have survived.
As nature busily propagates, as the vine climbs upward, so do I too plan for the future under the regime of summer heat, making hay while the proverbial sun shines. At the end of this week, I begin a long road trip striking several points on my personal archipelago, with a combined 52 hours of driving over two weeks. The symbolic value of this journey is both literal and figurative, a closing of the book, a turning of the page, the curtain call on a particular and in some ways peculiar year of personal examination, lost in hours of interstate driving. It is a refusal of totemic signs, a turning away from the talisman, and an emergence into something else, something new, a creature similar but different, the relearning of upright walking— an end to my own personal year of magical thinking and a return to the material world.