The Old Ghost

I’m confronted by the impossibility of beginning. I used to be good at this, I figure, or at least I used to be naïve enough to act like I was good at it so I could just dive into things. Now I’m so worried about a good start that the start sucks and so does the rest of it.

I’ve gotten sick of slamming futilely on the pump of the long-emptied hand-soap dispenser in the bathroom so with the fifth episode of True Detective still replaying in my head and the knowledge of a hefty tax exemption in my wallet I dig my keys out of my umbrella (no kidding, that’s where I found them) and head out into the un-customarily warm February air towards the nearest promise of perpetual low prices. My heart is surprisingly light, and I sing along to some Owl City with the front passenger window half rolled down (at least some of the windows in that piece of junk still work) and the fear that every pair of headlights in my rear-view mirror is a cop car keeping the drive interesting.

I find myself a spot and wander in through the exit, working my way back around past the registers to the entrance where a guy who doesn’t really have a solid handle on English can’t tell me why they don’t have hand-baskets and gives me a shopping cart. I tell him it’s okay and head for the “personal care” section where I grab the cheapest bulk bottle of soap I can find. I get ten feet away before realizing it says “antibacterial” exactly nowhere on that bottle. Trip two secures me something uglier but less bacteria-friendly. Trip three is me remembering the body wash at home is almost empty and being shocked that body wash costs so much more than soap. Trip four is a “sensitive skin” can of Barbasol and hoping for no trip five.

And then I wander. I don’t really know if I want anything in particular, but there’s something about the place that says if you’re here you may as well make the most of it. I take it as a challenge, though in retrospect I’m pretty sure I lost.

Passing through the kitchenware aisles I come extremely close to buying a Mr. Coffee so that I, too, can guzzle a pot a day instead of settling for the meager, watery output of successive K-cups. I note incredulously that a generic rival brand coffee maker is positioned beside the official Mr. Coffee. The joke isn’t so much the presence of a generic brand, but that the brand is literally Rival.

I come to the corner of the store and discover the clearance section, marked with a giant banner with the Aquafina logo on it (though for the life of me I can’t imagine what water and the overstocked inventory have in common, except perhaps both are largely tasteless). Near the entrance I discover shelves filled with discounted seasonal candles one season too late, which would normally fill me with glee except I made the mistake a couple years ago of purchasing a pumpkin candle from the store back home which ended up smelling exactly like stale urine (our family lovingly dubbed it “the piss candle”).

The thought crosses my mind that someone might wonder what I’m here for (I do not know why such a stupid thought crossed my mind) and the answer I’m pretty sure I would blurt out if asked is “morbid curiosity.” I guess that goes for the whole of Wal-Mart but doubly for back here, where the person for whom buying gaudy neon glow signs at full price is too lofty a proposition can find them for 50% off, and where the truly adventurous souls can find food and flavored water even less fit for human consumption than it was six months ago when they put it out originally.

I overhear one guy, maybe twenty years old, telling his friend (who is sporting bleach-tipped spiked hair straight out of a 90’s music video) rather urgently “but her birthday’s only a month away” and I hope for both his sake and hers that the impending celebration and his presence in this godforsaken wing of Wally-world aren’t related.

But then, somewhere between the inception and execution of whatever smug laugh at my own joke is about to surface, it occurs to me yeah well either way at least he has someone. And suddenly here I am, humbled between a Brutus Buckeye lawn gnome and a can of Pringles tortilla chips, wishing I were in his shoes, with a girl whose birthday I’m expected to do something special for.

The new money in my checking account suddenly takes on new import. Sure, I could blow it on luxuries for the next year or so and still probably be fine. Or I could make a point of holding onto it. I could put it away, out of sight, because maybe one day there will be a birthday I’m trying to make special, a smile I’m trying to conjure via rose or rosé. Hasn’t happened even once in all these years but then they say there’s a first time for everything, right?

I choke down that egregious use of cliché and head towards the exit, no longer even morbidly interested in shopping here. Along the way, remembering an impending lack of printer paper, I turn down the arts and crafts aisle, and an array of sketchbooks and rubber stamps causes my memory to ripple like water under skipping stones. I see a young me faintly, and then the sensation is gone.

The next aisle brings me my paper, but it also brings me chills. Surrounded by pads of paper, a myriad of expensive pens, and index cards, my past floods back. Nine years old, and I’m going to be an author. I adore stationery. I’m reading a Hardy Boys book. I’m taking important notes on some bird I saw while sitting in a tree. Draft after draft. An old laptop. Dreams. Say What? “We’ll solve any crime by d—”

I blink at the steno pads in front of me, and I want to fill their pages, all of them, with the stories I never bothered to tell, with the ones I thought I’d live instead of the one I actually did. I lift one of them and examine the cover, which tells me the pages within are Gregg-Ruled. I wonder who Gregg is and (as I flip open the cover) why he had to write so large. At twenty-seven cents I decide to indulge the writerly impulse and toss a small pad into the cart beside the pack of printer paper. As I once more aim for the exit, this time for real, I can’t shake the feeling that if I just turned around, right now, I’d see him, looking wide-eyed at all those overpriced designer pens, too caught up in his dreams of all the important things he’d write with them to notice the lonely, cynical man staring wistfully in his direction.

The optimism and naïveté that had sent me into the night are gone as I shuffle out to my car trying to remember who I used to be. Paramore sings of burying idealistic dreams, which stirs something, but it’s the next song that really gets to me:

Well I can see behind the curtain: the wheels are cranking, turning; it’s all wrong the way we’re working towards a goal that’s nonexistent. It’s nonexistent but we just keep believing. And the worst part is before it gets any better we’re headed for a cliff. And in the free-fall I will realize I’m better off when I hit the bottom.

My mind turns to everything I’ve seen and heard in the last few weeks regarding this world I’ve chosen to find myself in, the nigh-crippling cynicism giving way to a kind of reserved something to make it all work. Yesterday I told someone that when I set out to be a professor I had no way of knowing what that meant to the people along the path to getting there. It truly has been like visiting Oz in more ways than I care to articulate here.

A week ago someone called me idealistic and it angered me. Tonight, I’ll take it as a compliment. Because so long as I can hold out hope that this life is anything like what I once believed it to be, that little boy is still alive. The mysteries I read have grown darker. The hands reaching out for mine have grown farther. The words have gotten longer. But I’m still in there somewhere.

And, wouldn’t you know it, I’m as obstinate as ever.

Sometimes all it takes is a dirty bathroom

Both hands were moving vigorously: the right hand violently sawing my toothbrush across my gums, the left hand trying to unstick the globs of toothpaste which had managed to affix themselves to the bowl of my sink over the last couple days. As I brushed, I looked past the sink to the counter, and then to the lid of the toilet, and my disgust led to spitting with noticeably more gusto than usual.

Okay, that’s it. After this week, I’m going to take care of this mess. I just don’t have time right now.

That’s probably the fifth time I’ve said that this semester. You can tell if you look at the bathroom. Luke and I have mastered the system of mutual indifference, where saying nothing means not having to claim responsibility. It does wonders for avoiding cleaning duties, but leaves something to be desired where cleanliness is concerned. Naturally.

But as I watched the saliva, liquified paste, and blood swirl around the drain, I had the sort of epiphany which only ever comes at 1 a.m. and leads to me writing things like this: I will probably never have as much time as I have right now, again.

Seriously, though. My fellowship liberated me from the time-sink that is teaching, and my newness to academia freed me from the typical weight of research productivity a more ideal me might have been generating (after all, it’s hard to do what you are actively being taught the basics of how to do). So if I can’t find the time to do things I want, or need, to do now, the outlook’s fairly bleak for my future.

A professor recently responded to an inquiry about the workload of professors, and balancing it with “life,” that you don’t have time. You make time. His point was that it’s incredibly easy to always be too busy, but that if you decide that you’re going to do something, and are committed to that, then it works out that you do that thing. We find the time to do what matters, and everything else does indeed get pushed to the fringe.

I’ve been pushing a lot of things to the fringe lately, and blaming it on a lack of time; and I’m not just talking about the overambitious dust bunnies on my bathroom floor. I don’t much like that. I think it’s time that I start making time for all the things I don’t have time for. Because let’s face it: if I don’t have time for who I want to be, what do I have time for?

Identity Crisis

Under a lavender moon, so many thoughts consume me:
Who dimmed the glowing light that once burned so bright in me?
Is this a radical phase, a problematical age that keeps me running from all that I used to be?
Is there a way to return? Is there a way to unlearn that carnal knowledge that’s chipping away at my soul?
Have I been gone too long?
Will I ever find my way home?
~ Michael W. Smith – Missing Person

The purpose of my life is _____.

I don’t know how to finish that sentence. Broadly, vaguely, universally, I can fathom some answers that might sound good on paper. But when it comes to me, when it comes to where I’m headed and where I want to be headed (and whether those are the same things), and to who I am and whether that person is fit for either of those destinations, I am at a loss.

A book I’m reading for a class instructs beginning writers to start their work by flatly stating that “the purpose of this [blog] is…” Knowing how to finish that sentence gives confidence and direction, to the reader sure, but more importantly to the writer as he embarks on the paragraphs and pages to come. A brief outline. A statement of purpose. And they’re off!

For a couple years I touted an epigram with great pride as the most brilliant summation of my output I’d ever conceived: “My life can be summed up in this: I write / With words (in ink) and photographs (in light).” For one, it’s probably the closest I’ve come to brevity.

For another, it no longer seems to be true. This is the first time I’ve touched this blog in almost four months, and as such I think it’s fair to say I don’t write. It’s been roughly the same length of time since I used my DSLR, so the medium in which I have not been writing is likewise irrelevant.

I hung up those hats for another, that of the scholar (though let’s be honest, if I actually wore a scholar cap I’d be playing the role of pretentious). I’ve done a tremendous amount of reading, and am about to be doing plenty more, all of which is in preparation for further reading. Somewhere along the way I have been and shall continue to be expected to produce a few words of my own, but by and large they are the kind of words no one wants to read (and, what’s more, the kind that are outrageously expensive to read… though I’ll leave my ranting on the cost of academic journals and the economic knowledge gap it perpetuates for some other night).

What precious personal writing I’ve done in the interim since my last blog is of the rather frivolous variety, which is not to say it has been juvenile (frankly, I wax pedantic in the most mundane of contexts) but rather that it has been largely inconsequential. I have suspected for quite some time, but am only now willing to vocalize the suspicion, that I am a terrible media critic in the layman’s sense of the word: I love some things with wanton abandon and am unimpressed by many things others love, but I’m dreadful at communicating why. That the bulk of my self-published “writing” for the latter quarter of 2013 consists of “reviews” of comics is tragic not merely in view of all the writing I should have been doing (but did not) but also because some people were actually subjected to the experience of reading it.

I find myself, then, a non-writer who spent the better part of the last decade looking forward to being a writer more than actually trying to be one, now in a field where writing is demanded but not Writing writing, as it were. And that terrifies me more than the prospect of simply not writing would: that I will be writing, but only after a certain fashion, and frequently, and with high stakes behind mastering that kind of writing. Without an outlet such as this — something informal, something personal, something potentially readable by people other than the inhabitants of the so-called Ivory Tower — whatever panache I once had (and please, indulge me by pretending I did indeed possess panache) will slowly ossify and flutter away in the wind.

I am this semester taking the only real course in my department that willfully acknowledges the existence of qualitative research without disparaging it, which is a much-needed breath of fresh air for this one-time autoethnographer whose heart is still very much nestled between the dusty pages of Shakespeare and a Bachelor’s degree in English. And there’s the rub: after this, it’s on me to either decide to convert over to the way almost everyone in (and certainly almost everyone running) the department views research and the pursuit of knowledge, or else remove the tongue from my cheek when calling myself an outcast and accept that I actually don’t fit here and actually will need to work extraordinarily hard to maintain my identity as a scholar and a person while producing the kind of work that keeps me funded and enrolled in a program that eschews both of the identities I walked in with.

When I reflect on the last several months of my life I notice a trend of insulation. That’s not to say I’ve become introverted — likely my social media presence is more present than ever before — but rather that the “real me,” or the person of whom I used to be sure, the person I claimed (and desired) to be, has nearly vanished. Those who’ve known me the longest can recall when I was “a nature person,” who owned Audubon field guides, spent long hours climbing trees or walking through the local forest trails, and talked about hunting down poachers in the Amazon rainforest (no, seriously). I went through a science phase, read books about outer space and dreamed of seeing Saturn (specifically Saturn…I’ve always envied the rings). I read mystery books and fantasy books, played platformer video games, eschewed violence and profanity in favor of the mystical and wonderful. I wrote a book about talking animals that criticized abuse and alcoholism.

And I was clearly a Christian. You couldn’t avoid that fact, and it wasn’t just because I contested your political views, but because I wore embarrassingly straightforward t-shirts, carried a Bible, couldn’t hang out because I was busy leading worship in my youth group and still needed to put together and pray about a set list. There was a time when people avoided cursing around me because they knew it bothered me. There was a time when I could say with actual honesty that I graduated high school having only ever cursed two times myself. There was a time when the way I spent my time and the way I held myself around people clearly conveyed not only that I was different but that I was at peace with being that way. People felt comfortable asking me questions because I wasn’t a longwinded verbal duel waiting to happen. Granted, I was never the most docile of folks, but there was still more of a drive of love than a drive of pride or “rightness” behind my interactions with people.

The fact of the matter is, I have no idea who I am anymore. I look in the mirror and I’m about ready to break into some Zac-Efron-in-every-High-School-Musical-movie montage of identity crisis and self discovery — and I like that, not only because I legitimately enjoy those songs and think they’re apt for this particular blog, but because Disney always used to make me happy and it didn’t embarrass me to admit that.

I didn’t set out to create some watershed moment in my life with this post. This isn’t a declaration of turning point or a late New Year’s Resolutions post. It’s just a first attempt to put down some thoughts that have been bubbling to the surface a lot over the last several weeks, prompted by a variety of catalysts and the realization that even if I can’t finish that opening sentence right now, I can at least start thinking about what needs to happen in order for me to be able to do so.

I’m pretty sure that means more writing here, more reflection. And to the extent that that’s personally utilitarian — not necessarily unfit for, but at least not tailored for, mass consumption — I’m going to disconnect this blog from social media. Feel free to unsubscribe (or subscribe, if you’re weird like that and want what may well prove to be navel-gazing).

I’m looking forward to this semester. I don’t know what my identity is going to look like at the end of it, but I do know I’ll have played an active role in reshaping it. Perhaps you will have as well. Most importantly, God willing, so will He.

Weightless

A couple days ago I was shuffling through the (ridiculous amount of) music on my phone when I ran across what I had, on numerous occasions over the past several years, called a sort of theme song for my life. At once a declaration of exasperation and hope (towards present pitfalls and future triumphs, respectively), All Time Low’s “Weightless” encapsulated well the way I felt whenever I would fail to achieve the many goals I set for improving my life. The song’s optimistic chorus, which begins “Maybe it’s not my weekend, but it’s gonna be my year” resonated strongly; yet by year three, the optimism was empty; the certainty that the bad would turn around: anything but certain.

Life has been good lately, and so I came quite close to skipping past “Weightless” when it came on, thinking of it as a relic of some bygone and happily-forgotten era of my life, a thing to which I had once related, but (happily) would no longer. But I didn’t skip it. And as I listened, I began to realize my graduation celebration had come a bit prematurely; I wasn’t onto the next track. I had merely made it to the second verse.

All Time Low – “Weightless”
Verse 1:
Manage me, I’m a mess.
Turn a page, I’m a book half unread.
I wanna be laughed at, laughed with just because
I wanna feel weightless.
And that should be enough.
But I’m stuck in this fucking rut, 
Waiting on a secondhand pick-me-up
And I’m over getting older.
If I could just find the time,
Then I would never let another day go by.
I’m over getting old.
Chorus:
And maybe it’s not my weekend
But it’s gonna be my year
And I’m so sick of watching while the minutes pass and I go nowhere.
And this is my reaction to everything I fear
‘Cause I’ve been going crazy.
I don’t wanna waste another minute here.

Anyone familiar with my life for the last several years can appreciate the aptness of all that. My life was the perfect image of stagnation, and time and again I would make excuses for the failure to go anywhere. I really was in a rut. My rut’s name was “Pawling,” and frankly, the profanity fits the frustration I felt towards being in that rut. Even as I wasted time I lamented not having the time. I committed to changing my life tomorrow — and of course, tomorrow never comes. Which is why, of course, no weekend was my weekend, and the year that would have been mine never arrived.

Until this year. Or, more accurately, until last year, when I began to make proactive choices which led to where I am this year. And while there were some parts of the early 2013 I’m not proud of, I feel confident that this is, especially in a comparative sense, “my year.”

So flash forward, and I’m here, a graduate student. But in many ways the naive, immature person who preferred having a catchy pop song to relate to over worrying about the implications thereof, has lingered. He and I are in an outright fight to the death. And I don’t think I realized that until this week, and tonight in particular, as I listened again to the song while reflecting on the night’s class and subsequent bus ride, wherein I — or he — outright dominated the so-called discourse. He is the Adam who does NOT know how to shut. the hell. up.

I wrote, several years back, about the surreal effect I’ve experienced wherein I feel like I’ve lost agency over my own behavior, and I sit, mouth agape, watching myself say or do things that I want to stop, am almost screaming at myself to please stop, and yet despite this being me we’re talking about, who wants me to stop… I don’t. Times like this my eyes wander even as my mouth moves. I can see the rolled eyes. I can see the people whose looks communicate to one another “here he goes again.” I hear the person I just interrupted, again, and I hear the unspoken curses nested in the tight corners of the forced smile they feign to stop themselves from reaching across the table and slapping me.

It occurs to me that it would likely be better if I truly were just completely oblivious — if I had a degree of plausible deniability, and honestly didn’t know that I was behaving in unacceptable ways. Not only could this be used to excuse it — he’s socially inept — but it would save me the added frustration (added, that is, to my own self-criticism) of wondering just how many conversations have been had between peers about how obnoxious I tend to be. It’s one thing to be paranoid that people dislike you or speak ill of you. But this is something else; this is a full-fledged awareness that I do things for which I ought to be disliked or ostracized. That phantom me on the periphery wants to stick around after I leave so that when someone says “I thought he’d never stop talking” he can say “I know, tell me about it!”

Of course one of the issues, the one I have no doubt I subconsciously cling to and use to justify my impropriety, is that on occasion someone will compliment one of my diatribes or tell me I’d more or less spoken their mind. And so while I’m off in the corner of my mind discussing with half the class how much I wouldn’t mind if Adam suddenly lost his tongue, someone’s telling me they can’t get over “how smart you are.”

Verse 2:
Make believe that I impress,
That every word, by design, turns a head.

…yeah, make believe.

Make believe that I’m half as smart or put together as those folks seem to think. Because it’s simply not true. And if you need proof, you need look no further than the faces of the people in the room.

Perhaps it’s my social ineptitude — or my seeming inability (is it merely refusal?) to take the reins and make myself less impudent — that has led me to live such an introverted life. As much as I love being around and talking with people, I have tendencies which invariably drive people away. Once more with paranoia, it’d be unreasonable for most people to constantly wonder whether they’d said or done something to make someone avoid them. But me? I can point to specific, empirical evidence in the form of a dozen shattered friendships I broke by clinging to too tightly.

I have trouble letting things go — not for good, but just in general. I like being sure. I like knowing what happened, what’s happening, what is supposed to happen next. I don’t jump from one rock to the next; I slowly shift my weight from one foot to the other, lifting only when I’m sure I’m on stable ground. I don’t do well with uncertainty. But my neediness in that regard means I rarely leave the ground.

Verse 2, continued:
I wanna feel reckless,
Wanna live it up just because.
I wanna feel weightless,
‘Cause that would be enough. 

I’ve said it to folks but I don’t think most people understand the extent to which the trip I took with some new friends a few weeks ago was extraordinarily beyond my typical comfort zone. I did not know where we were going. I didn’t even really know who was going. I didn’t know where we’d stay, or what we were going to do. Yet despite so many years of assuring myself that leaving the ground would most likely result in pain upon landing, I jumped anyway.

Bridge:
This could be all I’ve waited for.
This could be everything!
I don’t wanna dream anymore.

I’ll be honest. Blogs like this one? I’m not sure which Adam writes them. Is it the one who’s excited about making progress, overcoming shortcomings, pulling the zipper across my lips? Or is this in some convoluted way the utmost of narcissism, a meta-faux pas? Does it engender empathy, or merely exacerbate the problems?

All I can really do is be optimistic and take solace in whatever value sheer honesty may be said to have. If it turns out that someone I’ve been driving away is encouraged to know that I’m aware of my unsavory idiosyncrasies, cool. They might rightly point out that recognizing a problem and actually solving it are hardly the same thing. And to that I can simply say I’ve made a lot of progress recently — a lot more, in fact, than most of the previous three or four years combined can boast. I’m still making a lot of mistakes.

And hey.

Maybe it’s not my weekend.

But it’s gonna be my year.