No, this is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
And you love until you don’t
And you try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
And you cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath
No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
Then you take that love you made
And you stick it into
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in armRegina Spektor
You hope that don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again
Well, well, well, look who it is. It’s been nearly nine months since I last sat to write in this space. Ansel Atlas Bennett was born on July 8th, happy and healthy. The adventures of Kilimanjaro and Kenya and Paris and Cape Town had exhausted my desire to travel, and I was set to rest and read and write. But a funny thing happened not long after the baby was born. The words escaped. I couldn’t find them or even the desire to even look for them. Maybe it was sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the load shedding. Maybe it was the demands of my last two grad school courses. Whatever it was, they were gone, and so was the clarity of thought that came with them. I still enjoyed adventuring, the hiking and biking and running, but the cohesiveness of a story and reflection had dried up in dust and the late winter sun. Not only did I not want to write, I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. During this time another change occurred, one I knew and feared was coming. Since leaving the U.S., the teacher in me, my professional identity of the last twelve years, has been sliding away, evaporating. I lost touch with many of my co-workers and students and parents, the local politics, and curriculum developments. When the writer I aspired to be also began to recede over the horizon I felt adrift, not here anymore and not yet there. I think this is common experience of expats and people changing career trajectories. I recognized it, but in this space I felt that I was losing touch with me.
Then in late November, I received a 3AM text from a former student. His friend and a former classmate who had been battling with mental illness had taken his own life. Devastated, I felt immediately and deeply for for his parents and friends and the wider community. In his obituary I learned that his memorial service would be the day after we arrived home for the holidays. I made plans to attend.
Six hours after reading the message, the rainy season arrived in Pretoria in full force and the flooding began. Ten days of cold torrent. Big drops, heavy with the weight of the sky. A year’s catharsis. After day three, South Africa started rolling blackouts as the nation’s coal supply had become saturated. The power would be cut twice a day for up to four hours at time. No heat, no sound, no light. The days were gray and the nights were black. Atlas caught a sniffle and struggled to sleep. For me the light at the end of the tunnel was our planned home-leave, booked ten months ago. If I could just get home, just re-tether to a known world. But our travel was a series of misadventures of the Odyssean kind. Last minute flight itinerary changes left us scrambling to find seats together, missed connections, lightening strikes, lost luggage. We didn’t meet Cyclops on our journey, but there was a pretty ugly encounter with a gate agent in Atlanta that I think counts. By the time we went to bed in Nashville, my emotional gas tank was empty and the jet-lag only compounded the exhaustion.
Early the next morning I headed to the church for the memorial service. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Memorials for older people are easier in many ways compared to someone so young. What do you say or do for parents and family and friends of someone with such creative energy and potential? Again, I had no words.
The service was warm and welcoming and a beautiful tribute. The pastor recognized the shared grief and the uncertainty of how to grieve felt by many in the room and addressed it frankly and with empathy. The family of the young man spoke. Friends shared memories. And the community did its best to offer comfort both immediately and in the coming months and years. After the closing prayer, I hesitantly approached the young people who at one point were the awkward teenagers that populated my class rosters. Each face full and grown into itself, now free of braces and bad skin and awkwardness. These young men and young women who once wore their uncertain identities buried under their oversized clothes, these kids who were trying so hard to be something for someone else now stood before me having arrived as themselves. And they started telling me about grad school applications and fellowships and honors programs. They told me about papers they wrote, books they read, and publications they were submitting to. It was delightful to see the light in their eyes. But I also heard about challenging semesters and unexpected obstacles and the disappointment of taking a semester off, of transferring, of dropping out, and the uncertainty they felt about their future. There was both pride of what they had done and that acceptance of what life was dealing. Some were excelling and some were managing, and a few were only just getting by, and to them I offered what support I could. After all, I wasn’t their parent or teacher or coach any longer.
Again, what could I say to a young person really hitting the wall of disillusionment for the first time? It sucks? I’m sorry? You’re not alone? I felt hollow and empty and unworthy and unqualified of offering any sort of advice. And I felt like my un-teacher-like reaction compounded the confusion as well.
A day later I started feeling the symptoms. My body was breaking down. Sore throat, headache, congestion. By Monday I had a full blown illness. By the week’s end it was in my lungs, and I was suffering despite antibiotics, a steroid shot, and a ton of Advil and Sudafed. The trip only spiraled from there. In Maine, I stayed in a hotel room down the hall away from my wife and boys. I felt like I was walking-dead. Three weeks passed before I started seeing improvement. It was gone though, the holidays, my time with my family and friends, the opportunity to enjoy being home. In a flash I had lost the energy to celebrate Christmas morning with my boys, and to connect with the people I care about to a haze of decongestants and cough suppressants. On New Year’s eve, I went to bed early, wishing only to wake up in the warm sun of South Africa, and to be able start again, to see the last of 2019 disappear in the rear view mirror. I was sad at what was lost and what wasn’t gained.
The ups and downs and meanders of life take their toll on everyone. And it has taken me a long time to learn to read the patterns and hear the rhythms of my emotional life. When I withdraw from friends and into books and reading, it’s because I’m sad. When I’m surly and sarcastic, it’s because I’m sad. When I get angry, it’s usually because I’m sad. When I want to destroy a part of myself out on the roads or the track or the trails, it’s usually because I’m sad. And when I feel self-righteous, it’s also because I’m sad. These habits are how I’ve learned to deal with the welling-up of disappointment or loss. Fight or flight. Withdrawing is easy, isn’t it? Hide behind a book page, a screen, and wait for it the feeling to subside. Anger shows well too and people certainly take you seriously for a short while after. And it never lasts long either, blowing through like straight-line wind before of an impending summer storm. And my chosen forms of self-immolation are socially acceptable too. I mean going to the gym or on a long hard run doesn’t scream sadness, but sometimes it is.
Fight or flight. Those are our options, right? As Americans we are good at fighting, at anger. In fact, I think we are so good at fighting and anger that it fills in when for us when we don’t know how to express what we are feeling. Feeling scared? Get angry. Pride? Anger. Sadness? We might be the best at hiding and rebranding our sadness as something else. Substance abuse and self-medicating and eating and consuming do well at hiding sadness. Whole generations of Americans were and are still sad about Vietnam and 9/11. Those two events alone are responsible for most of our government spending year after year. And I would venture that most visits to Target and Wal-mart and Amazon are driven by the loss or longing for something like acceptance or community or status. We even have a term for it, retail therapy. Our economy is based on the idea that spending will make you feel better, if only for a short while. We are sad about our bodies, about our jobs, about disappearing friendships, and a world changing too quickly. We are sad about loss. Sad about the distance between expectation and reality. Everywhere I look, I see evidence that we as a society, as a species, are wrestling internally and individually with sadness. But we still can’t say that to each other, can we?
Tonight, its storming outside. The loves of my life are sleeping in the next room. Illuminated by the pulses of lightening, the rain drops race down the window pane beside me. The glass reverberates with the growling thunder. I’m writing from a place that is warm and dry. A place of safety and comfort. I appeal to gratitude to lift me from this bone deep sadness. I appreciate the fates which, like a game of cosmic Plinko, have landed me in a time and country and with a language and a family and an education to be able to navigate 40 years plus years virtually untouched by most forms of hardship. Gratitude is usually my magic bullet. Re-centering and focusing on my present and my people often helps. But tonight not even that is working.
I had a friend once who named my waves of sadness. Alligators, she called them. She said some people just have creatures who come up from the depths every now and again and try to pull them down. And I think that’s right. Because while I can laugh with my wife and boys at the dinner table, I can be healthy and run, and I can spend time with friends and love my life and I can also be sad. So for this New Year, I am going try to sit with this feeling when it surfaces. No running, no wine, no Netflix, no music, no Amazon, no anger and no sarcasm to drown or avoid or numb it. Just me and and the quiet acceptance of this storm. I don’t know if I’ll ever understand these sharp toothed visitors, and maybe I’m not meant to. They rarely overstay, and soon I will feel more like myself again. Tomorrow I will keep pursuing a life that brings meaning and will try again to let go of the absurdity of it all.
And someday soon, I know the words will return.
Be good and keep in touch.
(I started this post in December 2019, and it has seen no fewer that 30 revisions. I want it to see the light of day, even if I’m still not entirely happy with it. I’m finding it more and more important these days to express how we are doing, not just what we are doing. I hope you are safe, and you know that you matter.)