“The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:
The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.
The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.”
-Walker Percy, “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book”
From what I can tell, there are just two kind of people in the world: those who make New Year’s Resolutions, and those who make fun of those who make New Year’s Resolutions.
By now, we’re knee-deep in a chilly January, and it appears I’ll be casting my lot with the Resolvers, once again. I can’t help it. It gives me hope, and after this past year I’ve had, I’m sort of hungry for hope, even of the platitudinal variety.
I’ll admit that I’ve spent a good portion of the past season calling 2015 all sorts of nasty and unkind names. I’ve railed and screeched about all the not-so-nice things the Universe had in store for me these past 12 months. I’ve whined and winged and then grown stubbornly silent. I’ve abandoned two diaries, mostly because I haven’t yet felt removed enough from the disappointments of 2015 to travel backward in time to the moments just before they befell me. It’s hard to reckon with dashed hopes, and even harder to re-confront the dumb despair that accompanied their demise.
But, oh, that is dramatic! And at the start of any new year, what better cure for the stylized theater of self-absorption than a bit of existential philosophy?
The American novelist Walker Percy liked to refer to serious writers as “ex-suicides.” Meaning: we humans begin as nothing, with nothing, owed nothing, and often given nothing, and a writer’s mightiest task—the only one that can save any of us from our own particular portion of dumb despair—is to wrestle with all that bleak, expansive Nothing until we’ve poked and prodded and pleaded it into a structured chunk of Something.
When facing an unwritten story, the writer faces, too, his or her as-yet-unstructured self, and must work toward meaning by constructing a brand new reality within which to place that unformed self.
Life is deeply, fundamentally heartbreaking and heartbroken, random and chaotic, rendered practically meaningless by its potent brew of tedium and brevity. And yet. We can triumph over that heartbreak and heartbrokenness by infusing the events of our lives with after-the-fact meaning. Even if it’s all just overly wrought make-believing.
In short: the key to surviving our own lives, the key to emerging from the Shit Years intact and not completely undone by bitterness, lies in our capacity for retelling those painful stories, an act which offers salvation to writer and reader alike.
But this requires, first-most, facing oneself in ugly, unvarnished form, and in doing so, taking ownership of one’s own particular portion of Shit Luck. And this requires that we finally take that backward glance we’ve been so long avoiding. So here goes.
2015 was, for me, a year punctuated by additions and subtractions. The additions, when they came, were joyful: a new husband, better-paid writing and editing work, and a sweet-smelling baby on the way, who is dancing frantically about inside of my belly even as I write this, making me jump and start and occasionally pee myself, just a teeny bit.
The reductions, when they came, fucking hurt. A lot: two painful miscarriages, broken up by a long and (again) painful bout of pneumonia. All of this bled the pages of February through August into an ugly, luckless smear. Truly, it would be hard to remember clearly, even if I wanted to. And I sort of don’t.
These losses were hard to think or write about, and they remain hard to think or write about, even as the passage of time files away their pricklier edges, even as I try to shape them into a master narrative that points to anything but more platitudes, or more bitterness. All I want to do is forget, shut up, focus on what is still right and good with this life of mine: the man I married, this third rainbow baby who did not die inside of me, these lungs that breathe free and clear and carry me handily through my days once more. But if I desire to count myself among the world’s Ex-Suicides, I’ve got to acknowledge those darker bits, too. I’ve got to conjure them up. And then I’ve got to let them go.
As 2016 limps in, I find myself desiring mightily to be cleansed, in a ritualistic and raw and not-necessarily-gentle kind of way. Even if it hurts. Because of course it will hurt! Perhaps “shorn” is perhaps a better word for what I’m wanting. I want to shed a bit of metaphysical skin. But it is taking time.
Which brings us to goals. I’ve played around with a few of them, but as I say goodbye to that person I was, to those babies I loved so briefly, and as I prepare to welcome my first living child into this multiverse, the word I keep coming back to is: Patience.
My wish for 2016 is to have patience with which to face life’s processes and pitfalls and betrayals as well as with which to accept, with a more grateful heart, its quiet gifts. Like: the cold dregs of a third cup of tea. The kick of a tiny, thimble-sized foot deep inside my middle. The soft threads of winter sunshine, rendered more lovely by their weakness, by the places where they break and falter. And, most of all, the patience to examine the cold, cold corners where that light couldn’t penetrate. Because it wasn’t time. Not yet.
Patience with all that. And patience for the joyful turmoil of getting to be anything, anywhere at all.