Happy birthday to me. If this is February 23, I’ve made it. I’m threescore and ten. Also known as seventy. I’m a bit superstitious so I’m posting this a week early.
With God’s help, then, I’ve made it to seventy years old. There were a few times I didn’t think I’d make it. And there were more than a few times when I didn’t want to.
I got here anyway. Hier steht ich, ich kann nicht anders. Thank you, Martin Luther.
Something like that.
I suppose this is where I’m supposed to say something profound about all that I’ve learned. But I remember the last chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s V, still my personal contender for the Great American Novel. One of the principal characters, Benny Profane, is sitting with some girl in Valletta, Malta, trying to scheme his way into her pants. He’s less than thrilled with himself and the girl picks up on it. “But the experience, the experience!” she cries. You must have learned so much. “I’d say,” says Benny, with uncharacteristic introspection, “that the experience hasn’t taught me a damn thing.”
I’m asking not so much about what we learn as about what I’ve learned. I can’t answer for a We. And I won’t be as dismissive as Benny about what I learned or didn’t. I’d say it comes down to very little, maybe to one maxim. Love wisely, love too well, love anyway. I’m starting to sound like the Beatles even when I feel like the Rolling Stones.
You will be hurt, you will be crushed. But love as though your life depends on it. Because, believe it or not, it does. And learn to trust only the right people. The problem is you will spend most of your life trusting the wrong people, one of whom will almost certainly be you. But you may eventually find the real pearls in the sand at the bottom of the sea. It may take you all your life.
You’ll be nipped at by sharks and stung by Portuguese men ‘o’ war. But you’ll keep moving. Believe there is a God. He’s out there, he’s in you. And you are not him. He likes to in-dwell. The Jesuit poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins understood this. God may be a pain in the ass but he’s all you’ve got at 4:30 on a cold, rainy night when it seems like death is a perfectly valid alternative to what you’re enduring. Sure–put your head in the stove and get it over with. Pick up that sharp knife and open your veins. Crack open a quart of vodka and pour it down your snout. God will know what’s in your heart, and he will know it’s not ill-intentioned, just desperate.
So how did I get here at long last? What is that famous “end of the day” we keep hearing about? Suicide really is a solution but it’s a lousy one. You know the common wisdom about suicide, right? It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. So how did this happen? It began even before I moved back to the Jersey Shore in June 2012. It just peaked over that summer and burst like a nasty boil during the following winter and spring. And in the process I lost everything. That’s not an exaggeration. It means what it says.
- I lost my clothes.
- My books.
- My music.
- My home.
- My car.
And I also lost my cat. Oh yes, my cat too. My best friend for 11 years, and I had to give him up because I could not take him into a homeless shelter–for I knew that’s where I’d be going.
I lost two laptops because some junkies in the shelter stole them. I lost an iPod in the Paterson Public Library. I didn’t lose money because I didn’t have any.
So what did I get back? Because if I hadn’t gotten back anything, where did I leave the stove and the knife again?
It’s been a ghastly year-plus leading up to this birthday.
It started before Hurricane Sandy hit the Jersey Shore on 10/26/2012. Years before, in a welter of physical illness and increasing mental confusion. In a world populated by bedbugs, panic, and resignation.
In a world of just giving up on myself.
See, at some point–hard to remember the exact moment–I’d stopped caring whether I lived or died. So I kept going because of inertia. That’s the scary part. It could just as easily have gone the other way.
What did I learn?
- That I’m a survivor.
- That I have been knocked down often enough so bruised knees are not a deterrent to getting up again.
- That I am an intensely angry person but that anger will kill me if I allow it to do so.
- I often deeply resent God whether I wish to or not. Why me, God? Well, the answer is Why not me? Who the hell am I? Who am I that I can’t have the shit kicked out of me now and then?
- I have some serious and increasing chronic health issues. Diabetes. Bipolar disorder. High blood pressure. Neuropathy, which causes me not to walk too well. Chronic back pains, which I’ve had since I was 29 years old.
- I exhaust easily. And my sleep patterns are somewhat unreliable.
For all that, I would still rather be where I am, in cold western Massachusetts, than almost anyplace else I can name. Jersey is no longer an option. I don’t suppose moving to Barcelona is an option. I don’t speak Catalan.
See, I lived for about six months in a residence for homeless men in Paterson, New Jersey. When I didn’t let it get to me, it became almost acceptable. I paid weekly for the privilege of religious lectures and mediocre food that nevertheless kept me alive. The shelter was where I was robbed several times, but somehow that does not entirely bother me. One guy on staff there said I came back to life in the Jericho Road Men’s Home. Maybe that is so. Perhaps there would have been an easier way, but I must’ve been out of the room when God made the announcement.
Right, I am indeed an almost genetically angry person. And oh yes, I paid tons for my anger. It cost me a marriage, it cost me money, it cost me relationships, it cost me the respect of my children. It cost me a lot of self-disgust. I may never recover any of that. It’s the “cost of doing business” when you inhabit my skin.
Mercifully, it didn’t cost me sobriety. I don’t know why, even now. I’m sitting here afloat on coffee and cigarettes (oh shut up, you prissy little poofs!) but there’s nothing to drink here, nor–pray God–will there ever be. Even though I’d like a night off from my oh-what-a good-boy-am-I routine.
What am I supposed to add to this?
That I can still pray.
That I can still write. For me, that’s as inclusive and critical as prayer.
That people have appeared and reappeared in my life who had no reason to love me, but who have shown themselves compassionate and giving beyond all reason. And I bless them. They know who they are. And this is not an Academy Award speech.
That I have a cat again. Don’t discount that. Cats have helped hold me together since 1997. The period from March until late December when I had no cat was certainly among the worst periods of my life.
I don’t live outside of pain, but there are compensations that make my life desirable and possible.
We’ll see how it all plays out.