We’re Dyin’ Out Here

I woke up this morning when it was still dark, and wanted to get out of bed, a great sense of many-things-to-do sudden in my head. 

What I was thinking about most immediately was that I understand people’s skepticism, their hesitation to be encouraging, the subtle suggestions to aim low, to be happy to just write.

“It doesn’t matter if you never get published. It’s about writing.”

Wanting to be a published writer is a fruitless and frustrating endeavor for a lot of folks.

“It’s not about being a published writer. I don’t give a shit about that…” Her voice had trailed a little, opening the door of the car at the far end of student parking. She could hear the band and briefly thought about other times she had been in this scene, going to the highschool on a Friday night.

She’d never been talking on the phone before, distracted and pulling at her bag, wondering if she even had money to get into the game. She remembered that she wasn’t going to the game, wasn’t going to sit by the band and watch the players on the field and in the stands. Wasn’t going to see the half time show, the last home game of the season, her oldest child’s first year of high school.

She was going to help with Haunted High, the fundraiser for the band, an eerie old school, an elaborate plot of tragedy, a search for survivors. “There will be more jump scares this year!” That was what the email said, a page and a half long, planning and prep schedules, calls for volunteers.

“It’s not about being a published writer. It’s about a book doing something in the world, and what I want is to make a book that does something in the world.”

Her friend spoke with the neutrality of a mental health professional, “What do you want it to do?”

The pressure to have a good answer was a whoosh in her head and in her chest.  She felt a pulse of vacuum, nothing to say. Her mind a blank, black space, and she was just a woman in a parking lot, a phone to her ear while her family was scattered around the bleachers.

As quickly as it contracted, the truth rushed back into her.

“I’m not just a writer. I am also a…a…wounded healer, or something like that. I want to be able to help more people.”

The night was warmer than the day had been, an ocean-tinged humidity in the mountains. She was wearing the brown wool hat that her kids’ dad had gotten her 16 years ago, the first year they were married, when their son was a baby. She hadn’t really thought about it, but her head was warm and the hat felt strange, but familiar.

There are photos of her wearing that hat on a fall day in South Carolina, holding her son at his waist, kneeling down beside the slide, smiling. The wool was itchy on her forehead, and she propped her knee on the car door, put the phone in her other hand, scratched around the edges of the hat, left it on.

“So, you know that a lot of the people who get called psychotic or schizophrenic or bipowhatever are…are…” She allowed for a pause, felt her breath rise up in her, a feeling of expansion, of her voice getting bigger. She wasn’t, in that moment, thinking about the game at all.

“They are geniuses, you know that, with all sorts of strengths and talents and…you know, we’re fucking dying out here.”

She allowed her voice to drop and stretch, a weak wave breaking into foam, the word dying. Felt a brief flash of sorrow and outrage and sheer conviction, sitting there in the parking lot at the high school, already running late. 

She knew that it was right to speak in the we, to use the Royal We.

“Yeaaaahhh…” She could picture her friend’s face, could feel this obvious thing she’d said hanging in the air around the car.

“…we’re dying.” She said it again, letting her voice drop in timbre, some gravity, and felt satisfied that her friend did very much know that what she was saying was true.

“It’s not just about people with whatever mental health diagnosis though, it’s not like a sensationalized mental health memoir. That’s not what it is.”

“I want to help people learn to understand things differently, to see things differently. I want to undo bad ideas and help people figure out how to put their world back together when everything they counted on to be real starts to slip and everything they relied upon to be true just falls the fuck apart and you’re, like, this quivering heap on the floor.”

There was a gestalt rush of everything she wanted to explain and everything she wanted to do, all the ways that she might be able to do these things that she wanted to do. She felt a little woozy as she pulled her body out of the car, began to walk. Checking that her keys were in her bag, feeling for her phone even though she was holding it.

“There are a lot of people who are losing their minds.”

A sheepishness creeps in at the edge of her audacity. She doesn’t want to be grandiose. She likes the conversation, doesn’t want to be overwhelming or confusing, outlandish. She wants to listen, to talk about a lot things. It is a good conversation.

Her friend called while she was driving on the alternate route home, avoiding sitting on the interstate in Friday traffic to sit at stoplights. She had just broken onto a stretch of light traffic, out of the neighborhoods, finally past the school and was thinking about her friend, listening to songs on the radio and thinking about friends. She felt good, happy. Optimistic in the early evening, tight black jeans and librarian glasses. She feels good, these past few days, like she is coming into something.  She is still pretty, and she knows it. She is still smart and she knows it. She understands that she has no choice but to keep trying, and she feels better about this than she has in recent years, a little more hopeful that she is not just a crazy person who has been deluding herself that thereay be something important that she needs to do in the world. She is not scared. She is ready to go. 

45 minutes later, after brushing her teeth and letting the dogs out, cleaning up the house a little, driving to the school, her head in different places, talking on the phone, paying close attention, she is less confident.

“I should be tired,” she thinks, and feels just the slightest edge of weariness. She left the house twelve hours ago, and ended the day at work by laying in the sun by the river with people who will likely die sooner than later. On the way home, she listened to Gary Jules sing a song that seemed to tell about a conversation she had had in the morning, with a person who wants to die, who has wanted to die for a long time. They were talking g about love.

Driving on Sweeten Creek Road, she thought about suicide and how she’d probably not want to live if she hurt so much all the time, that she could understand that. She didn’t want to live when she hurt all the time, and her back had never been broken.

She thinks about writing the conversation down, or maybe segments, the things she said too the person, because she knew that she was inhabiting some clarity and grace and she sat knee to knee and said goodbye without saying goodbye, a last ditch effort to say the right thing. She wondered if just because she felt moved, could feel her heart physically ache a little, could feel tears gather in here eyes, if that meant that there was grace. 

They’d been in a back and forth, this person she has know for while now, about decisions and reasons, equations for living. The person looked exhausted. Withered. For a long time, she wanted the person to keep living, but sitting with them that morning she only wanted them be free from pain. She knows, as it is happening, that she will remember listening to that song on Sweeten Creek Road, the settling understanding that the person would probably die.

She lit a cigarette as the next song came on, a relationship, a compromise, with good guitar and backbeat. The traffic opened up a little. Just like that, her thinking about the person began to fade.

Still, she almost didn’t answer the phone when it rang, and was surprised to see the number. She didn’t know how to talk on the phone while driving at the edge of town, heading home from work and feeling the way she was feeling, full and jangled in a pleasant way, alive and happy, holding heaviness in its proper places.

She wasn’t worried about whether or not would be able to go the school. She didn’t think it’d be hard, she wasn’t anxious, but she didn’t want to go.

She wanted to do other things, to talk on the phone, to write, to sit in her home, to draw. She’d hardly been able to volunteer for the band, the away games and competitions. She had not once run the concession booth. She hadn’t risen a bus once.

Tonight, the 6 hour shift at the fundraiser, was going to be her redemptive effort.

A good, normal, well-adjusted parent. That is what she is. She can show up for things. She can be relied on.

She is an hour late as she waits for her friend to respond to what she said, looking at the mountains and rising moon over the line of lines at the edge of the lot. 

She knows that her friend knows enough about her to get that she is smart, she works hard, and has been through what they talk about as difficult times. She doesn’t think they really get it though, can’t possibly grasp the enormity of the scope and the galvanized conviction in her belly that this is something that she ought to do in her life. 

They have no way of knowing what it is to her, and what she has been trying to do. The summarizing statements of working on something for a long time do not impart what that really means in a person’s life to work on something for a long time, and only indirectly suggests that a person is passionate. One can assume passion, because most people who work on things for a long time are passionate about those things. 

They don’t really know, though, her friends, much at all about her or what she imagines for herself, what she had determined her purpose in this life might be, how big the idea is, her calculations of potential and efficacy, relevance and need. She has been working on a book for years. Most of her friends forget this about her. Her family doesn’t talk about it. Her passion is a thing that is not spoken of. 

It feels like a double-life, to be this person who has compiled hundreds of thousands of words spanning years and years, who wants to do something tremendous and generative and worthwhile and interesting in the world, who really believes that is possible, that she might write a book that matters. That she ought to write a book that matters. To be this person who has a big, semi-secret dream, a down-low dream, who quietly works and works at this thing, this project, and who then moves out into the space of home and family and work, her writing self only a brief mention, a thing that barely exists. 

She walks along the row of pines toward the school. The band gets suddenly loud, and the announcer in the press box is saying something in that amicable authoritative voice, that Friday night spirit drifting over from the field. The phone crackles and her friends voice breaks up. She covers the phone with her hand, shielding it from wind, making a cup with her hand, strains to hear as she walks. 

“It seems like this is really important to you.” 

Her friend is a kind person. 

I thought, for sure, that I would sleep for a long time, wake up tired. I didn’t leave the high-school until midnight last night, two hours of running up to nervous clusters of eye-rolling teens and smirking parents, anxious kids pushing through the door, “A terrible thing has happened, we need your help! Please hurry, come join a search team!”

I was in the historic rotunda, running the entry to the haunted school fundraiser for the band.

(Essay about why it is so fucking hard for me to say, hey its screwed up that you have a “homeless” person in your haunted house, and that there is a “psych ward” – that’s fucked up. Desire for a platform that allows me to say these things to people in a general way, instead of creating an awkward and imperious social vibe in the rotunda when I am trying hard to be a normal, neutral mom that doesn’t weird people out.)

(Thoughts about not being a real adult.)

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