Tales of a maladjusted adult pt 5

I haven’t been able to put anything down on paper for a good minute. Some people suffer from writer’s block – I wish that was my issue. I have acute writer’s schizophrenia. Spare sentences and loose thoughts have been running amok in the mind. I’m permanently tuned in to every station and quite frankly it’s been overwhelming. 

I’ve spent the last few months in the throws of deep self restructuring. Neither the first or last time this has or will happen, but the nature of this crisis was particular. It wasn’t the standard “you can do better” affair. I spend so much time criticizing myself I forget that there are things I’m good at. I focus on one flaw with such intensity the rest of me melts away. I have isolated myself, forbidden myself any close ties and all for what? To stay safe, to not have to deal with the reflections of the parts of me I think are ugly.

Alone.

I don’t fear my own company, I quite like it actually but in the midst of life and all it entails I had forgotten how to live with me. I didn’t take care of me. I’ve finally forced myself to look at all of it. To admit that I secretly resent my abilities, my thoughts, constantly preoccupy myself with how what I am will be received. My own success terrifies me. I’m afraid of responsibility even though I keep finding myself in positions that require just that, afraid that someone will actually listen to me, think I have “the answers” and turn to me for direction – I don’t know where the hell I’m going. This is all unchartered territory.

I was unable to fully open up to those closest to me as if I was impossible to love, unworthy of it really. I was too ashamed to ask for help from those I fully knew would draw blood for me. I refused to admit that I was in pain. I might get to a point where I am as strong as I want to be but I’ve let myself ebb and flow so aimlessly through the currents of life that I’m grabbing on to this raft for dear life. It’s like shedding old skin, cleansed through fire and baptized by water. I have accepted what I refused to look at and turns out I’m in love with it, with what it isn’t, with what it can be. I welcome the struggle, the occasion existential loneliness, but I will not dwell on the downsides of truly allowing myself to live, feeling like I have a right to exist in my entirety, a right to take up space, to shine. Because why not me?

I love not lying about who I am, what I love, the weight I shoulder. I can’t pretend not to be who I am whether I think I deserve to be or not. I can only accept all that will inevitably come from developing this self. If there is something to be said why not through my mouth? If there is something to be done why not by my hands? I’ve finally re-allowed myself to be in the company of others, reconnected myself with the intensity of feeling I once feared. I do want to give but people take too much. I had to insulate myself and find me, recenter my own desires, my own wants, my own goals, completely separate from any expectation. Let my cup overflow.

It’s frustrating to wear a mask. I wore it for so long I never bothered to find out who was behind it. As long as everything looked fine on the outside I just kept on moving. Sporadic achievements, loving friends and family, all of whom I kept at arm’s length selectively revealing parts of myself under duress. Never too much, always enough to keep up appearances. I lost myself in years of ‘I’m OK’ and ‘everything is alright’. It wasn’t. I wasn’t. I was always afraid. Of saying the wrong thing, of pushing the wrong buttons, of being rejected. I’m not as carefree as I would love to pretend I am. I can hide from the world but I can’t hide from me. I broke the mask and I can’t put it back together and frankly I don’t care to. For better or for worse I’m stuck in this meat suit and I do love it, all that it entails. I’m a mess and I’m proud. I take risks, I push myself to the extreme, I fall on my ass, but I do good.

I do good.

“In my unbelief I’m a believer, in a way, and though having changed I am the same, and my torment is none other than this, what could I be good for, couldn’t I serve and be useful in some way, how could I come to know more thoroughly, and go more deeply into this subject or that? Do you see, it continually torments me, and then you feel a prisoner in penury, excluded from participating in this work or that, and such and such necessary things are beyond your reach. Because of that, you’re not without melancholy, and you feel emptiness where there could be friendship and high and serious affections, and you feel a terrible discouragement gnawing at your psychic energy itself, and fate seems able to put a barrier against the instincts for affection, or a tide of revulsion that overcomes you. And then you say, How long, O Lord! Well, then, what can I say; does what goes on inside show on the outside? Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently, but with how much impatience, await the hour, I say, when whoever wants to, will come and sit down there, will stay there, for all I know?”

Vincent Van Gogh

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People: A Broken Pencil review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, Joe Ollmann, 242 pages, Conundrum Press, http://www.conundrumpress.com, $20.00

With his new collection of graphic short stories, Hamilton based cartoonist Joe Ollmann returns with his peculiar brand of dark humour and biting cynicism. Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People is anything but; we are thrown into a world where the boredom of living is replaced by the horror of living. Do not expect any heroes or knights in shining armour, just a ragtag collection of men and women struggling past their fair share of existential angst and, even if only for a short while, rising above it. 

You sense a bit of Ollmann in all his characters. His penchant for self-deprecation and self-reflection is made apparent in his short introduction, presented in the same style as his stories. His illustrations are rather rough and cartoony, quite fitting considering his rather capital A Absurd (think Camus) plots.

Loyal fans will recognize some of these tales from his older short story collections Chewing on Tinfoil and This Will End in Tears. His newest additions, “Johnny Pinetop” and “Otherwise, Arachis Hypogaea”, are just as representative his rather bleak vision of the human experience. The first follows Gary Bunet, less than mediocre cleft-lipped ventriloquist. The second depicts the life of Devi, a young southeast asian girl with a deathly allergy to peanuts.

These characters do not invite us to pity them. On the contrary, their acute self awareness reveals a sense of stubborn perseverance in the face unending trials and tribulations. They may be broken but they survive, a somewhat hopeful message in the midst of all this darkness.

The Hedges

Do you remember the day it dawned on you that this thing called life would one day end? That all those around you: your father, mother, siblings and friends would one day cease to exist? Expire, never to be held, cried on or played with again. When it occurred to you that unlike Coyote, there was no next episode after that cliff fall. The realization of your impermanence on this earth can be quite a destabilizing experience especially as a child; it tends to leave ripples in your subconscious you feel well into adulthood. It may have been when your favourite grandfather passed away, or when the scruffy girl with the cornrows who always sat at the back of the class unceremoniously stopped coming and your teacher had to keep explaining every day for the rest of the year in cushioned words and a coddling tone that it would never be filled by her again. Even with promises of the afterlife, you can’t quite shake off the fact that you, as you are in this vessel, will one day simply not be. With that realization comes a certain type of awareness, a particular blend of fear, acceptance and caution privy only to those in tune with the ephemeral nature of their existence. Fun times with mortality. How do you accept this finality, complete obliteration from this earth but for memories that, too, will not last the test of time? How do you learn to put this inevitability in the back of your mind and carry on? Mine was a rather rude awakening.

It starts, as most existential realizations of my childhood, in our plant-heavy backyard. There was one particular hedge that ran parallel to the high walls surrounding our compound, lining the inside with its dark green waxy leaves. My siblings and I’s bodies could easily fit between the ledge on the wall and the trees and, on hot afternoons, we could sometimes be found exploring the treacherous terrain of our makeshift jungle. Said hedge was a source of conflicting emotions: it could go from playground to arsenal in split seconds. Our house boy (without our mother’s blessing mind you) would send us down to pick branches from it whenever we misbehaved or caught him watching porn for what seemed to be our semi-regular flogging sessions. There was something remarkably cruel about personally selecting the rod that would become to your body as paint was to canvas. It was the hedge’s hermetic character however that left the deepest wounds: while it was designed to keep people from looking in, it had the unintended consequence of not letting us look out.

It was here that I first tried to kill myself. Very melodramatic considering the circumstances. My mother had once again found her grievous actions towards me fiercely engraved in my seven year old self’s black book, the particulars of which do not matter considering the frequency of such occurrences. While most would threaten to run way, I had the genius idea to off myself in a rather twisted effort to hurt her. I could never quite understand how I came to that conclusion but my money’s on the questionable viewing material courtesy of your standard 0000 DSTV parental code. “See your life” she said as I blasted off threat after threat. I was livid, how could she not take me seriously? I would show her. I stormed to my room and rummaged through my closet for my karate belt. Indignant dead man walking that I was, I made my way to the garden. I would show her I wasn’t to be taken lightly. I don’t think that I truly wanted to die. In retrospect it scares me how far I was willing to go to prove her wrong, how inconsequential and disposable my life suddenly was. The problem wasn’t that I hated my mother, though very much a factor at the time. I simply didn’t understand what it was I wanted to do, the finality of the consequences. Taking my life was on the same level as burning her favourite dress. I knew I was dear to her and at the time it made sense. You take from me, I take from you. Very dangerous child logic. To everyone’s relief – mine especially – my exit from the world of the living was unsuccessful. After tying one end of the belt to my neck and securing the other to a branch I let myself fall from a staggering two feet. The branch snapped as my skinny frame met the ground. My mother made no mention of my outburst at the dinner table.

Death had taken a bite. With blood in the water, it began circling, a predatory spectre looming over me. It would rear its head again during one of my favourite pastimes.

My sister and I had a number of go-to games for those days where the television wasn’t enough to keep us busy and my nose wasn’t buried within the pages of what ever new chapter book I’d discovered that week. Our dolls would always get stranded on desert islands with nothing but their wits and our imaginations to keep them alive. On this fine day they had found some nice plantains and yams they would pound to make foufou. I went to make a round of the hedge trees to find the empty nests birds usually left as my sister readied the pillar and mortar. My search quickly bore fruit and I rushed to her side, put the nest in the mortar and started pounding. One, two, three. I heard the muffled sound of chirping and suddenly, I was frozen. Ever wish you could reject a reality by simply refusing to acknowledge it? For a while I wouldn’t to put words to what was becoming evidently clear: I hadn’t checked the nest. How could I have been so careless? Like a seed taking root, the weight of this death thing began to settle itself in my young mind. I had taken away life for no reason. Every fibre of my body was suddenly consumed in shame. My sister had heard it too. We took the nest from the mortar. A mangled mess of flesh and egg shells. We stared at it. We didn’t know what else to do. We just stared, suspended in time. One of the birds was still alive, a hatchling that had managed to escape the blow of my pillar. We buried the nest under the pine tree in the backyard and tried to find him a new home. He obviously didn’t survive. Left to fend for himself, the tiny bird, no bigger than a finger, didn’t even make it till evening.

That night at the dinner table, I could suddenly hear the pain that had coloured my mother’s voice during our heated exchange on the day of my not so fateful suicide attempt. As a child I had this uncanny ability of replaying conversations surrounding my offences. Her words always stayed the longest, sometimes for weeks, letting me relive the shame, hurt or anger of her scoldings. I passed by the bird tomb many times that week, noting how the birds remained in the ground, the implications of which opened a door of unending questions with such force that till this day I’m not sure I’ve managed to shut.

“We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died — in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life”

Sherman Nuland

Religion (not to be confused with spirituality )* seems to be a veneer, a shroud that covers us from a world we don’t understand, assuages fear, gives meaning and purpose because for some reason, we’ve become convinced that nothing is worth anything without meaning. Must the symbol be a symbol, can it not just be, in and of itself, devoid of any intrinsic meaning? Is its existence not enough? Why the “why”? What’s so scary about “just because”?