There is a reason I have been quiet lately. In phrases and allusions I have hinted at other explanations – work and travel and the busy-ness of a day job and pursuit of a creative dream and the demands of brokeness – but there is a truth lurking behind all of these, one harder to admit, one less acceptable than the promise and possibility embedded in so much doing.
I have been depressed.
There are reasons for this, too. Genetic predisposition, of course; it comes from both parents for me, the flip side of the alcoholism that other relatives have grappled with. I’m typically an optimist but I took Zoloft once before, eleven years ago, in between Caltech and Georgetown; at first it liberated me through a regular sleep schedule and enough energy to keep working out in spite of my calorie restrictions (I was coming out of anorexia at the time) but when I went back to school I slept seventeen hours a day and my roommate – my friend – grew concerned.
I’m typically an optimist but it is hard to stare down thirty marginally employed, pulling down less than 25k per annum, living on a friend’s couch and applying for food stamps, waiting for the next paycheck to get your phone turned back on. It is even harder to stare down thirty alone: I have tremendous friends and family but my brother and sister-in-law moved in August, six hours away by car where they were once twenty minutes, their presence offering roots in a place where I came as an adult, to build my own community. Persistent singleness grows tiresome in time but it’s a habit, too, and if depression makes writing difficult it makes the vulnerability of human connection harder still.
I’ve lived long with these same failures, romantic and financial and genetic, and the spur to this bout of I-can’t-get-out-bed-from-the-worthlessness was not only my looming Significant Birthday but also the comedown from my remarkable summer; specifically, the disappointments of America after Australia, even the small inhumanities of our society sharpened by witness of how easily we might live differently, if only we could choose it. And, as the government shutdown made all too plain, our inhumanities are hardly limited to the small.
The hardest truth is this: if a loaded firearm had been accessible to me during the month of September, I would not be typing this now.
Suicidal ideation (I majored in psychology, you see) is a new twist on the old story of my biochemical sadness. It flared briefly, the impulse only momentary, here and then gone; chased off less by my will to live than by my laziness, by all the complicated choices involved in ending one’s life. After last year’s shooting in Newtown we were besieged by ludicrous justifications for gun ownership – you never know who might come after you! – but the fact of the matter is that the most likely person to come after anyone is yourself. A gun safely stored, locked and unloaded, is no use against a sudden intruder; but the sneakiest assailant of all is our own darkest thoughts.
That a thirty-year-old with a college degree would be earning my wages would be laughable Down Under, but then, their minimum wage is set to fifteen dollars per hour; a living wage, one might call it, and it’s not even controversial. But I have chosen to wring my day job from the nonprofit life, to make myself cannon fodder for impossible ideals, to embody the values I was taught in a deeply Catholic household and at Catholic schools, imparted every Sunday at Mass (never missed, never in jeans) and over family rosaries – I thought this was all about love, you see, hope and charity and mercy and justice and love, love above all else. There is love on the front lines of social action, sometimes, bubbling through all the stress, the lack of resources or money, the judgment and the ass-kissing and the need, the bottomless, unending, unyielding need – the need of those whom society has forgotten to care about or for, which is more and more of us by the day, the elderly and the young, the black and the brown and the indigenous, the poor and the working-class and everyone but the rich.
What is so revelatory about Australia is not its difference from the US but its similarities – its culture of fairness is built not on the intellectualism of France or the secularism of Germany or the historicism of England or the politeness of Canada; no, much like America Australian culture is proudly stupid (and I mean that with affection), defiantly rugged, deeply individualistic. It’s where Rupert Murdoch got his start, after all, but he had to come stateside to make it big, stymied by Australia’s commitment to equitable and subsidized health care and higher education. Mass in Randwick was not apolitical but its call to arms was for compassion for immigrants, a blessed respite from the American College of Catholic Bishop’s seemingly endless years of dog-whistle (and often just blatant) politicking against not just abortion but birth control and health care reform. Somehow capital punishment and the violent, anti-human atrocity of America’s prisons – which make a mockery of Australia’s penal-colony heritage – never earn quite the same reproach as a woman’s desire to get laid.
Australia is not without its problems. It is not a perfect place. But it is a better place, and America could be too. Australians, as individuals, were friendly and funny and outgoing and wonderful, but then so too are many Americans – the people of America are not the problem; people in any one country are not inherently better than people in any other. But Australians have made better decisions, and built better systems, than we have.
From my nadir I reached out: to some local friends and to the many who live at a distance. If I believed in universal intelligence I would say that it responded to my need, emails from old friends appearing in my inbox before I could contact them first, and it is wonderful to have so many people to turn to but they are also disparate – writing from different states or coasts or countries, from so many different parts of my life. There is no coherent community to any of it and this is supposed to be a feature of modern life, not a bug. We are nothing but mobile now – not economically mobile, of course, because we have committed ourselves to income inequality and its gross consequences because capitalism! – but we can roam the country, move year to year or month to month; international borders are permeable and technology allows us to carry our social networks with us always. Our affections are mediated across screens and keyboards and cables, relationships etched in facsimiles and simulacra, emotions inscribed by hashtags.
It is not enough.
American society is mean. We have made it mean, by our own choices and by the choices of our parents; we have built something uncaring and resistant towards generosity. The structure of our culture and politics is to split community apart and what technology offers us in its stead is a shadow, a panacea, something less-good and less-effective and just plain less but which we devour anyway because the alternative might be that perfectly legal and fully loaded gun.
There are many justifications offered for this fundamental but not intrinsic meanness of America, especially that we are so many and so diverse; but open-heartedness knows no upper bound, and nobody’s love is finite. It is said to take ten thousand hours to develop a high level of skill and loving-kindness is, if nothing else, a skill – not a feeling, not a rule, but a skill which any of us can cultivate, if only we commit ourselves to its practice. Even the deepest-rooted community is impermanent, but amidst so much digital ephemera there is the clamor for something more and deeper and we can build it, together, if we would submit ourselves first to listening; a monument not to any individual but to our collective capacity for wisdom and compassion, a better and more loving society for everyone.
I have not written much lately but this is why I write now. The gap between the actual and the possible is yawning and painful but beneath the thousand tiny cuts of our daily injustices there is still such beautiful potential, begging to be awakened in each of us. It takes practice; it takes community; it takes reaching out; it takes kindness, not only to others but to our own hearts, to surmounting the deadly thicket of our worst selves.
But it is possible, manifest not only in social policy thousands of miles away but in friendly conversations on the bus and smiles on the sidewalks and hugs between friends, even hugs that look more like emails (or blog posts).
And in jokes, and stories, and all of those other things that I write.
I have not been posting much lately and I don’t know when I will begin posting in earnest again; not because I have nothing to say but because I have too much, too many irons in the fire, and for the past couple months the quietude of this space has felt like an accusation, just another indicator of my inability to get my shit together. But this truth is not so hard, after all: sometimes writing about the world as it is can be exhausting; sometimes other projects take priority, and those other projects can be sustaining, and by that sustenance we might once again find the strength to face the world head-on.
Tom’s “Daria” posts will continue apace. I’ll write if and when the impulse strikes. Others are welcome to share their voices. I am on a vacation of sorts from this blog, but I do plenty of other things. Have you listened to my X-Files podcast yet?
There is no longer any need for quiet. I am still here, and I am listening.