Stories of Loneliness
Hurt people hurt people. The guiding lights in those words are many. Our own hurt is unavoidable. There's no such thing as a life without it, and I think that's something to be grateful for. There's no light without dark, and no dark without light, and all that. But what the words can do is make us more aware of our hurt-driven missteps and show us the general origins of others'.
Hurt people hurt people.
I don't know who first said it. But since I'm writing this mostly for myself, and humor helps me through, let's just say it was Michael Jackson's old pet chimpanzee Bubbles.
Bubbles' words didn't reach my ears until a year or two ago. But a recent look in the rearview made it pretty clear that I've been writing about them in some form or another for much longer.
About a month before I returned to the US from Colombia in 2014, I decided to put together a small batch of handmade books. Here's how I introduced the project at the time:
I’m planning to release a limited number of handmade books in January 2015. The books will include some of my very (very) short stories and a few of my slightly longer ones (written between April 2014 and December 2014). Each book will be numbered and made to order from store-bought notebooks.
I titled the book Stories of Loneliness from the Foot of the Eastern Hills and Elsewhere: Oh Land of Sun I Yearn to See You. A handful of friends placed orders, and I got to work on their books shortly after Christmas 2014.
The first few copies I made were pretty rough and should probably be burned if they haven't already been. But midway through I found my groove, as well as my preferred notebook, and from there the process became a kind of meditation.
Each book took about a week to make. I would go to the Harold Washington Library in Chicago and write until my hand stopped working. It was a learning experience. I kept thinking how glad I was that I was doing it and how I never wanted to do it again. Looking back on it now, I'm flooded with feelings of both joy and sadness.
The joy, I think, is in brushing up against all those things long forgotten. The pains in my head and heart (and hand). The ones that hurt the most then are the ones I think most fondly of now.
The sadness is in the sense of loss. The friends I've drifted apart from since then, both literally and figuratively. The erasure of possibilities between the years 2014 and 2022. There's no going back. Only forward. And yet, something keeps compelling me to look back lately.
That something, I think, is my current hurt, which I would describe as a mixture of (manageable) depression and (laborious) apathy. One of them seems to be driving the other. I'm just not sure which is which. Anyway, I'm doing my best not to let this hurt turn into my hurting others. But the truth is, it's a struggle. And the harder truth is, I sometimes lack the grace to overcome it. Which of course just brings more hurt.
Around Veterans Day, I reread George Saunders' short story "Home," about a US vet who's returned home from an unnamed war, presumably with PTSD. I looked at my Kindle copy to see if I'd highlighted anything in the story, and I found this:
I flew down the hill, pushed Ma inside, sat her on the stairs, grabbed Harris by the shirt, put my foot behind him, dropped him to the floor. Then held a match to the carpet on the stairs and, once it started burning, raised a finger, like, Quiet, through me runs the power of recent dark experience.
They were both so scared they weren’t talking at all, which made me feel the kind of shame you know you’re not going to cure by saying sorry, and where the only thing to do is: go out, get more shame.
I related to it then and still do now, and I had a couple moments recently where it hit much closer to home than I would have liked. Because hurt people hurt people, and I'm no different.
Earlier this week, for the first time in a long time, I reread some of the writings in Stories of Loneliness. And there again ran the waves of joy and sadness. Here are the last two parts of a piece from the book that I titled "Four Songs" (after a Superjoint Ritual song of the same name).
I live above an all-night coffee shop now. I spend a lot of time writing letters to all the people I've hurt. But no one ever writes back. Because they don't know my address. And I don't know theirs.
Guy's been out walking the streets for hours. Someplace faraway. Thailand or Taiwan or some shit like that. Anyway, it starts to rain so he stops at a coffee shop. Place called Frank's Beans, believe it or not. Gimmicky place. Supposed to be like an old American diner. Only it's not really. Anyway, guy sits at the counter and orders himself a cup of coffee. No cream or sugar. Just black. You have to ask for that sort of thing special there—Thailand I think—otherwise the coffee just tastes like candy. So, guy drinks a little coffee, pulls a notebook out of his bag, writes in it a little, drinks the rest of his coffee, then orders another one. He starts to unwind a little, takes a long deep breath, lets it roll out real slow. Then he turns to his left and says, "So how are we going to explain all this stuff to the people back home?" But there's nobody there with him. So, guy just keeps drinking his coffee, wanders around his head some. An hour or so passes. Guy smiles real calmly, turns to his left again and says, "It wouldn't be the same if anyone else was here with me anyway." A little after that he gets up and packs up his stuff. Pays his tab. Leaves a big tip. Goes back out into the rain. Wanders off toward some mountains and gets hit by a car and dies right there on the side of the road. Turns out his notebook was full of letters to a bunch of the people who came asking about him after. The people working at the coffee shop told the reporters the guy seemed nice, quiet, sort of sad and windswept, but harmless enough. They don't really tip over there, you know. Thailand I think it was. Someplace like that.
They're the same guy. Neither of them is me, but both of them are me.
Note the line about how people came asking about me/not-me after. I think it was Hunter S. Thompson1 who, when challenged about the facts in something he'd written, brushed it off and said he gets to be the hero of his stories. And I guess this was my version of doing that. Like, yeah, okay, he/I did some damage, inside and out, but in the end it was worse in his/my head than in reality. In the end, the people hurt by his/my hurt still cared. And he did, too. And I think that's beautiful. I say this as an impartial observer, by the way. Like the guy in the story, the person who wrote it is both me and not me, a light in my shadow, or a shadow behind my light. But just as Wednesday can never be Saturday, and morning can never be afternoon, we can never be exactly who we were. Not even who we just were.
Here's another "story" "written" almost entirely from the questions asked in a Lucinda Williams song:
Interrogated by Lucinda Williams
LW: Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright? Could you give me some kind of sign? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you sleeping through the night? Do you have someone to hold you tight? Do you have someone to hang out with? Do you have someone to hug and kiss you? Are you alright? Are you alright? Is there something been bothering you? Are you alright? Are you alright? Is there something you want to say? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright? Is there anything I can do? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you sleeping through the night? Do you have someone to hold you tight? Do you have someone to hang out with? Do you have someone to hug and kiss you? Are you alright? Are you alright? Are you alright?
BL: Fuck you.
If upon reading the last two words you thought something like, jeez, what an asshole, that's fair. Like many interpretations and conclusions, it's even partly right. But no one is ever just an asshole. There's always more to the story. I am wary of speaking in absolutes. But I'm comfortable making an exception this time. There's absolutely always more to every story.
One of the people I made a book for emailed me shortly after receiving it to tell me that he enjoyed the Lucinda Williams piece more than his girlfriend did. I honestly can't recall if I gave any thought to how people would interpret what I wrote. I just knew that it hit me in a way that felt good. But like I said, there's always more to the story. And like Bubbles said, "hurt people hurt people." So I decided to explain myself.
For whatever it's worth, I wrote that Lucinda Williams "story" in the days or weeks after I was robbed. I spent a lot of that time sitting in my kitchen listening to music, feeling kind of lost and alone. That LW song seemed to keep coming on, and I found myself answering "no" to all of the questions. In fact, in the first draft, my response was "No." But then the song kept coming back and my frustrations about various things kept increasing and I started to feel more like I was being interrogated than consoled by the song (which, if I'm being honest with myself, is often my reaction when people try to help or console me). So I made a slight change, which I also thought was kind of funny. Hence the 2nd/final draft. Anyway, that's just my interpretation. Please don't let it get in the way of yours or your girlfriend's. I'm only sharing it here because I think that's one of the cool things about doing this book, to have these little exchanges.
There are a lot of mediocre writings and raw emotions in Stories of Loneliness. Some of them make me cringe. Others make me smile or laugh or feel nauseatingly sentimental. But almost all of them make me feel something, which is at least not nothing. I felt more then. The feelings were more intense, and a bunch of them hurt, and I was lucky enough to have found the right instrument for turning that hurt into something more creative than destructive. It's a reminder that I can still do it now, and a sign/comfort that I am still doing it now. And despite what that poor pet chimp Bubbles said, it's a testament to the small-t truth that hurt people have options.
I'll leave you now with the last piece in the last few books I made, which I believe was also one of the last things I wrote while in Colombia. (So long for now, past me, my oldest friend and only lasting enemy. It's been a good trip, but I must be traveling on now.)
Amateur Experiments in Existential Cartography
I thought I heard a knock at my door. But then I realized it was just the rain. So I sat with it and told it everything. I told it about the abuse I feel I should have suffered as a child. I told it that child abuse would explain a lot. I told it about the women I didn’t love who broke my heart, and the ones I didn’t even know who did the same. I told it about my past lives and guilt. I told it about Señor Slinky and Dr. John, a cat and dog respectively, who both lived harder lives than they had to at the hand of my blind selfishness and irresponsibility. I told it about the world’s magical network of smells. I told it how coconut = Eagle River and the streets outside pizza joints = Youth. I told it about the town where I was born. And how it was made mostly of concrete and boredom and bars, and how I swear it was built on top of me. I told it about the cheap beer and costly depression, and the late nights and early mornings that almost always ended badly but just as often should have ended much worse. I told it about the blue sparks that went off in me in my early twenties and sent me running through the world in my early thirties. I told it about the strange joy of standing wordless in strange places and watching the sun rise and sink at strange times. I told it about the naked sun-carved children jumping off the bridge and into the river in Siem Reap. I told it about the boy navigating the streets of Prachinburi in a boat after the rain and river sank much of the town. I told it about the hot healing steam of my Saturday morning bike rides in Lampang. I told it about the bond I forged with a friend on the front lines of our small imported wars in Paris. I told it about the astral tears that fell daily from atop the Andes and rushed through the streets and the people of Bogota. I told it about the concentrated grace of the knife and hand that slow-danced at my side in La Soledad, bruising me again and pushing me running over some new dark edge. I told it how running is really just an accelerated form of walking, and walking is really meditation, and meditation is peace. But peace is hard to sustain. Slippery and impossible to domesticate.
Then I stopped talking. And the rain didn’t respond or offer advice or a disappointed tone.
Then I admired the rain until it let up and the months passed and nothing changed.
I'm still bruised. I still have a strong desire to run. Have I found a lasting peace? I have not. Do the weekends slip away from me as I sit staring at maps, contemplating my next move, examining the relationship between my geographical relocations and my amateur experiments in existential cartography? They do. Do I want to talk about it? I do not. Do I want to know that someone else out there struggles with the same things, or feels the same way, or just gives a damn? I do. Do I want to hear that same someone knocking at my door instead of the rain? I do not. Do I want to wrap my arms around that same someone and feel their arms wrapped tightly around me? I do. Do I want the things I want to be more conveniently aligned? I do. Do I want to feel less at odds with myself and life? I do. Do I really want these things? I honestly don’t know what I really want. Do I experience great joys in the spaces between the great aches? You have no idea. Do I feel this contrast is necessary for the sake of the greatness of the joys? I do. Do I think the greatness of the joys makes the greatness of the aches worth it? I do. Do I want it all to stop anyway? I do. I said, Do I want it all to stop anyway? Well, no. Not exactly. Not completely. I mean, I don’t know. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Usually no, mostly. Do I wish to be born again, bright and new inside, bright and new to those around me? Is this why all the running? Is it all just for that spotless sensation, that illusion of fresh fur, that soft fleeting touch of cleansed skin? Is it necessary to believe that there are answers? Is it senseless to believe that answers matter? Is it possible to just keep running without wondering why? Is it possible to sit still and do the same? Is there a chance that there’s a large hand at my back guiding the way, and that all I really need to do is live or die and cause as little pain as possible on my way out?
Is there only a monofilament holding it all together? Is it pretty? Do the stars sing to it at night? Where?