Last week I sat in a chocolate shop with a belly full of warm milk and my new computer, trying to write about how I like the Shida neighborhood best when its dripping and dark.
I’d just walked around the narrow market streets watching bored jewelry vendors picking their nails and twirling their hair, past women sorting just-delivered merchandise inside closed shops, cooks dumping buckets of dirty water into gutters, Taiwanese hipsters ducking out of low lit cafes and record shops to smoke cigarettes. The rain smelled bitter, a little like raw meat (the vendors had already filled their carts with chicken) or celery. A thin but foul trace of stinky tofu dashed through the unusually clean air. I saw a woman struggling to get a stroller out of an apartment building. The back wheel slipped on the wet edge of a tile stair, and, after a doomed pause, I heard the wail of the baby. For a while I heard only that terrible crying. I heard it so well I felt it like a cold wire beaded through my spine.
It’s interesting to me that I wrote some sentimental paragraphs about that neighborhood on that particular day but nothing about the baby crying. That is what I most want to write about now. It fits as an introduction to this post because it is a moment when the experience of a single thing knocked every other thought or sensation clean out of me and rang me hollow as a bell.
I have had a couple of good cries lately. Max read somewhere (I always find myself writing that, “Max read somewhere”) that when you cry you release toxins. They pour from you in the tears--different toxins for different emotions. I felt unburdened after I cried hard last Tuesday. My eyes burned and glittered and I was glad Max was there to witness what felt like a turning inside out. Maybe turning inside out seems right because those tears originate in my body, from the good body I forget about until the tears arrive still warm with the work it does to remind me of it.
I have had an unbelievably good life. I know this, in part, because the spiraling thoughts that recently made me sad enough to detoxify are incredibly puny. And because the cause of my sadness is so shallow the relief is shallow too. I only felt turned inside out for the rest of Tuesday evening, so when I called my parents on Wednesday I cried all over again. In search of explanation I attributed these tears to being far away from home or to the great bearer of blame--poor hormones. I even shared with my parents some of the puny and vicious thoughts that seemed to draw out the tears, and the questions weighing on me: How much does this shallow stuff really mean to me? If other things made me sad, would I give this shallow stuff so much of my time? Do I need to feel sad to feel alive? My dad said sadness comes inevitably, like a wave on the ocean, and it is okay to let it move you around a little bit even as you start to swim out of its pull. My mom reminded me to swim. She also asked the right question, “How long do you want to feel sorry for yourself about this?” and added, “It’s a decision you make.” I am unquestionably grateful for sadness--it can do me some real good. What bothers me is the cause of my sadness and the issue of looking for causes in an effort to bring it about. Like I wrote before, the relief was shallow.
I think I could just pull deprecating thoughts out of me like weeds but instead I let them grow in my conscience. This is in part because I secretly think this constant scolding will motivate me to be better. By better I guess I mean perfect. On one hand, being perfect sounds like being a robot, and of course no one wants to be like that. “Who wants to be perfect?” I say, like everyone says. But the truth is that I have some vague idea of who or what I could be if only I had the willpower to be it. And I’m constantly punishing myself for not being it. I also half believe (how unfaithful belief can be!) that once I flesh out this “better” self, “could” will stop bullying me. In truth I know that my relation to perfection is stupidly endless.
I realize that this is all so dull. I think self-deprecation and self-pity are terribly boring things to endure in oneself and in others. With this in mind I’ve spared readers the details of my pity parties. But, I think it can be worthwhile to express these habits of mind when one really aims for honesty because these isolating features of self experience too often overwhelm love. I am as nearsighted as anybody, but as far as I can see a lot of people are incredibly burdened by the ego and are missing the good stuff it cheats us out of. After listening to an NPR interview with Joan Didion about the book she wrote after her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, I tracked the book down at the library. I had heard Didion gagging on her grief and it affected me deeply. I thought I might find some honest things in that book, and I did. At times it was difficult to read. When I finished it I felt relieved to have a break from Joan Didion, and that seems to me to be proof of her honesty in some way. There is something brave about going to such ugly places in one's own mind. My own issues do not begin to compare with the experience Joan Didion went through when she lost her life partner, I only mean to make a loose connection on the points of self-centeredness and honesty.
There is a particular brand of sadness that knocks me out. It visits unexpectedly. Sometimes it comes when Max asks me if I “remember that time when” and I don’t because I wasn’t around. Tiredness reminds me of it. The year I wasn’t with Max I stayed up late into the night with my friends just to distract myself from my thoughts. That was the year I started waking up before dawn to finish all of my work or to take drives. The year my eye started twitching from fatigue and the year of themed dance parties and Chinatown. Often I think back on that year without feeling much, like now. Other times the inkiest sadness floods my throat and a very specific fear twists my stomach. When that happens I may as well be curled up in the stairwell of my sophomore dorm. When the feeling visits, it is as fresh as it ever was. When it brings me to tears and turns me inside out my relief is deep, even now. I feel tender and open and alive and these feelings linger. As difficult as that year without Max was for me, I was too desperate and exposed to play mean mind games. I was more forgiving of myself and others. The puny, shallow stuff is the stuff of a foolish fear that had no authority that year. For what I learned about the scope of my own humanity I hold that year in reverence.
Last Tuesday I said words that hurt Max because they were aimed at me. I think I knew they would hurt him. I manipulate words to hurt people--that is the way I am mean. It is the meanness of insecure people. Because I cannot bear to see Max feel bad I usually put down all my weapons before him. This how I came to realize how I am mean (there were the weapons at my feet) and how I am in love (there were the weapons at my feet). I love other people but not with the same abandon. With Max I come closest to feeling “selfless.” I admit there is something troubling about that declaration. It sounds weak and conventional. I erased a sentence like “I come closest to feeling like my "self."I will never stop wondering what the difference is between what we think and do and experience and who we are as selves. I do know that a self can be mine OR yours. “Ourselves” are two or more separate selves. If that’s the case I would rather feel like love. I don’t know many things, but I know that Max cherishes my self so that I might feel like love. I cherish his self so that he might feel like love. I know I am happiest to be a self, most grateful for what I am able to experience as a self, when I am with Max. I wish I was as good to other selves as I usually am to Max’s. I am probably the worst to my own. I have heard it said that monogamous relationships limit us, that we give to only one person what we might give to so many more. This makes sense to me in some ways but I also say it can be difficult to feel like love and that you should allow yourself that joy however it comes to you.
I like to sit at the Starbucks on the corner of Heping and Roosevelt in the morning before I go to work. I sit at the booth along a wall of window and look at people’s toes, hairs falling over foreheads, expressions of exasperation or amusement, a purple mole as big as a fist, hands like an old friend’s somehow. I enjoy this collage of life and the spotty thoughts and feelings it rouses. But if I pay close attention to my thoughts and their implications I find that many take root in criticism and fear. I have spent so much of my life this way, just barely connected to the world around me, or connected by shoddy wires. But sometimes sadness peels the plastic coating just a little bit and the point of connection spits and fizzes and for a time I am differently exposed.
I’ve tossed out at least a dozen lines with no idea of what I might catch, without any expectation I’ll catch anything at all. I realize I returned to talk of wires--the wail of the baby strung my spine and now my connection to the world comes down to dated technology. I wanted to write something honest to myself about self-pity. In doing so I learned something about how much I’ve grown out of old hesitations and into new ones.
I wanted to throw a line out about the potential of sadness, about the issue of its inevitability and about how the quality of sadness seems to matter. I wanted to articulate the difference between the feelings and thoughts that clutter and those that present themselves to us in overwhelming isolation, that hollow and ring us. Love overwhelms like that, Joan Didion writes that grief does, a baby wailing on an empty street brought every cell to shudder and the thought of not having Max in my life does, too.
Why do I like Shida best in a melancholy mood. I feel like it has something to do with the allowance of sadness, especially quality sadness. And so it might just be as simple as this: I probably could not bring myself to write these things on a sunny day. And so, every now and then, bring on the rain.