They Cut The Cord and Released You Into The Broken World
My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single world–soon it will all be gone. In a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me. –From Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness
I’m terrified of flying. I’ve taken classes, popped pills, read countless safety statistics and articles penned by pilots and engineers, yet after two decades of climbing to a higher altitude, every time I board a plane I wonder if it’ll skid onto a highway or plunge into the ocean. You’d have more luck getting killed on the 405 than in an airplane, everyone pantomimes, always. I’ve flown through severe storms; I’ve been on planes that had to make emergency landings due to mechanical failure, and I’ve experienced drops so precipitous and turbulence so violent I went fetal and numb only after I stopped screaming. Kind strangers have held my hand. Seat mates have tried to assuage my fear by comparing turbulence to a roller coaster ride or a boat caught in a storm — both of which I countered with the fact that death could come easily in those instances too. In several attempts to face my fear, I’ve dissected every incident of major plane crashes and strapped myself to my couch, Clockwork Orange style, to watch the movie Flight so many times to only discover that I’ve developed a new and more terrifying way of torturing myself.
But this isn’t a story about flying machines and spectacular crashes, it’s about my inability to control the unknown. We’ve little influence over our arrival and departure times and it’s the betweens, life, that preoccupies us most.
In my twenties I had an almost mythic sense of invincibility. Although I’d seen my fair share of death as a child — heart attacks, drug overdoses; bodies covered in sheets and zipped up in bags — I focused on the life stretched out before me. I treated the two deaths of friends I’d known in their early twenties as anomalies, nature’s cruel and unfair faulty wiring. The rest of us, ensconced in the privilege of first jobs and apartments, were deemed safe. Death could kick back in the nosebleed section while the rest of us popped open champagne backstage.
One day you wake and realize you’re not the popping champagne backstage type anymore. You’d rather spend evenings home with friends watching old movies. You’ve become content to sit still in the quiet. After the winnowing down, your friends are fewer but beloved. You balk because the bands you loved in college are now repeats on the oldies station. The words vintage and classic take on a whole other meaning. And sometimes we sneer at the kids because our youth has forever been embalmed in nostalgia and there they go breaking ranks and doing the things we secretly wanted to do. Your adventures are minor and involve scheduling negotiations and back-up plans on the level of the CIA. You can’t roll into work a hot mess anymore because the stakes are higher; you’re no longer able to hide under your desk or in your cubicle because you have contracts to sign, decisions to make, four-alarm fires to put out with only a squirt gun, meetings to stay awake through, and a whole generation of people who want to pick your brain. You live by a routine and the days repeat themselves with minor variations.
I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.
After all, there are many ways to die — peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead — one either is or isn’t.
The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause — to memorize moments of the everyday. — Bill Hayes from Insomniac City
It’s only when you grow a little older do you confront your own mortality. Once a whisper in the back of a crowded room, death sits center stage, arms waving. Death doesn’t feel real until you’ve had to reckon with it. Until you endure the first mammoth loss and the succession that follow. I’ve lost friends to suicide, cancer, and tumors and I’m only 41. My faith was a salve but I no longer believe, and all I have is this one life and the hope of something other. Sometimes I bolt out of bed at night and plant my feet on the floor, my hands on my lap. I am here, right now, I think, but not always. One day I will be gone and I probably won’t have memory or consciousness or being and I’m frightened of the thought that I’d fall asleep into blackness.
“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”
There was a time, not too long ago, when I wanted to take my own life. I liked the idea of having some sort of dominion over that which is unknown and seemingly infinite. A year later, after medication and a lot of uninsured talk therapy I laughed and talked about the irony of wanting to die and now returning to my fear of it. I asked my psychiatrist if he was afraid to die, and he said of course. Who wouldn’t be fearful of stepping, foot first, into the unknown. It’s only when we’re truly present in our lives do we comprehend the full stretch of it. Who wouldn’t miss the things that made us who we are — our body and everything that lay beneath it? We would also miss all that we’ve accumulated — books, knowledge, lovers, memories, family, the word I and the ability to freely say it.
Once a lover asked me, why do you have to feel everything so damn hard? And I wondered what was so wrong with feeling things.
A lawyer talks about rising above his body and taking in the scene around him. We hear talk of a white light (DMT), and for six months last year I had a recurring dream about a world that was similar to this one but different. Our consciousness remained and we lived a life similar to the one we inhabited among the living, however, the game was different. The binary heaven and hell didn’t exist, rather, we all co-existed and had rules in which we had to abide. There were rules about living in this new place and even more stringent rules guiding our ability to return to that from which we’ve come.
Four years ago I boarded a flight from Laguardia to Philadelphia and the takeoff and ascent were so brutal elderly businessmen next to me, frequent suited flyers, cried out loud. They held their phones in their hands. I screamed and screamed until 15 minutes later when we leveled at a cruising altitude. When we landed, everyone tacitly agreed that our flight was the worst we’ve known. Do you know what I thought? Was I really going to die on a work trip? Was this how I was going out? Taking a connecting flight to fucking Minneapolis?
I still hate flying. I still fear death. I still search for the kind of faith that will give me logic and shelter. Until then I focus on the chaos that is the big, beautiful, crazy, bombastic, chaotic life.