I have not lived in an “apartment building” in nearly ten years.
The last apartment I had, before I was married, was a cute little place above some stores in Milwaukee. I haven’t lived in a “complex” since 2011ish.
And so this complex is a novelty to me. I like the sense of close-proximity neighbors. I like smelling their dinner in the hallway. I like hearing their footsteps above (I’m on the first floor). I like knowing there are lots of us here. In the afternoon, I see children playing in the parking lots. Sometimes, I see teenagers skulking back from the high school across the street.
When I lived in Flagstaff, we lived across from Flagstaff High. In the mornings, on my way to my school, I would run into Flag High kids sneaking cigs and weed in the alley behind our duplex. Never bothered me. This is a thing teenagers do on their off time. I did these things, too, and . . . I turned out fine, I think? Frankly, I have no regrets about the fun times I had as a teenager that included cigs, weed, and yes — alcohol. I had some fun times as a teen. No regrets there. And if you, reader, are having any regrets about your teen years, I’d like to offer the following advice: stop.
Teen shit is kid stuff. Would you hold a teen in your life forever responsible for their child-mistakes? I should think not, reader. And if you can extend that courtesy to a child in your own life, you can extend it to yourself.
I used to regret not doing better, academically, in high school.
I used to think had I done better, academically, in high school, I would have ended up at a better college and my whole life would have been better somehow.
And I’ve also done this in re: undergrad.
My undergrad grades weren’t great, either.
And I was lucky enough to get a graduate degree at a prestigious art school that took me on the merits of my work, my mind, and not a GPA.
My aspirations have always been (like since I was little) to be a writer, and to make my living teaching. And I’ve accomplished that end.
If you’re wanting to be a neurosurgeon or an astronaut, you will need better grades than I needed to get into an art school. That said, if you’re a young artist and fucking your life up right and left, things will probably be okay. Just stay off the really hard shit, please.
Regret of the past is ridiculousness, foolishness, worthlessness.
I mean, it’s never done me any good. Maybe it does you good, reader. Though I’ve yet to meet a well-adjusted, reasonably happy person I’d-like-to-be-when-I’m-grown-up who stews in resentment and regret. I used to sometimes be that person. Wasn’t fun. Do not recommend.
Let that shit go. Truly.
I paired down when I left Tucson. Meaning, I left the vast majority of my shit for future burning. So I don’t have much. When you’re just trying to survive, everything is a question of “need.” And my leave-taking of Tucson was delightfully luxurious compared to the leave taking that’s happening in Europe. My having to leave behind a few “nostalgic books” pales in comparison to what is happening to human beings en masse right now. And if you are not following the news, if you are not having thoughts and feelings about Putin’s murderous aggression, his talk of “societal purification,” I understand. We’ve all been through far too much.
However, you have to pay attention to this.
You have to think on this. Study this. Feel this.
Indifference will only bring this horrible conflict to our door sooner, and the more I study on war (the current war, wars of the recent past), and the more I talk to friends who are knowledgable on such matters, this war will be on our doorstep before long. Particularly if we collectively remain indifferent, disengaged.
This is not a drill, reader.
Mark my word on this.
In 2001, I was living in my first “grown up” apartment above a hair salon.
I had very strange neighbors.
In August of 2001, I quit drinking for the first time in my life, on a hunch that I might be drinking “abnormally.”
This abstention did not involve any program, any tools, I just white knuckled it to September when I promptly resumed drinking on 9/11/2001 because I could not handle what was happening in my country that day and ever after.
I did not stop drinking again until March 6, 2021.
Big life changes used to increase my drinking.
Moving. Relationships ending. Shocking global events.
Say nothing of scary health issues.
And now, in the midst of the Big Life Stressors, I have still not had a drink since March 6, 2021.
And I don’t spend my days soaking in angst, in rage, in terror.
Frankly, most days contain a fair amount of joy. Sometimes extraordinary joy, like when my friend Kelly dropped by the other day (we’ve been friends since Kindergarten and hadn’t seen each other in nearly 5 years), and we picked up a conversation like it was a continuation of the one we’ve been having, since circa 1980, in our Catholic school’s kindergarten classroom.
Sometimes ordinary joy, like when I put together a complicated little piece of “diy” furniture (after hours of struggle) and leapt up, cheering myself, “Fuck yeah, Gruber!”
Sometimes simple joy, like when I watch my evening chants on my phone, live from a monastery in Tucson that changed my life, chanted by the monk who changed my life, from my own small shrine in my own apartment thousands of miles away.
And sometimes I feel fear. Sometimes I feel great sorrow. And in those times, I let myself vent to friends, or cry, or eat, or pray. The bad feelings pass just as the good feelings pass.
We are eager to acknowledge (sometimes bitterly) that good feelings are transitory, and we sometimes acknowledge that bad feelings are transitory (i.e.: “this too shall pass” — pretty phrase, largely unhelpful as consolation). And yet we often let the bad feelings eclipse the good feelings, as though bad feelings carry more weight than good feelings, as though bad feelings are harder to move than good feelings . . .
I’m puzzled by this aspect of human nature. I’m puzzled because I see this in myself, reader. I don’t have to “overcome” a good feeling, and yet I have to “overcome” a bad feeling. We aren’t at war with the good feeling, and yet we’re locked-and-loaded the minute we see even the faintest shadow of a bad feeling.
I used to make my high school students laugh in Creative Writing when I shared my thoughts on “happy stories.” Which went something like this:
I mean, fine. Write a happy story. I just feel like literature, like good art should help me understand something. I don’t need to understand why I am happy. Like no one is sitting there going “Oh, lord, why am I so happy? Please tell me! Help me!” However, we do question why we are sad. We beg God or the bottle or a lover to relieve us our sadness . . .
If you’re rolling your eyes, then roll. yo’. eyes. baby.
I think I’m onto something about myself. About this life. About capital-T-Truth. Rather, I think the Buddhists are onto something about this. The teachings of Lord Buddha are onto something. For me. Maybe not you, reader. That is fine.
There’s an old episode of South Park where a character dies and ends up in hell and he’s totally baffled and he’s ranting at Satan, “I was a good Christian. I went to church every Sunday. I never harmed my kids. I never cheated on or abused my wife. I volunteered my time to the poor . . .”
And Satan replies, in this dumb-surfer voice, “Yeah, well, it was Mormonism. The correct answer was Mormonism.”
I feel this way, for myself, about Buddhism.
I’ve been to hell. The correct answer is Buddhism.
And staying away from anything that drags you into your darkness.
For me, that was alcohol. Alcohol is my Pennywise, luring me into the gutter on the false promise of a reprieve from suffering. This is not possible. Life is suffering. Buddhists are right.
My cousin has two children who attend the Catholic school I attended as a kid. The other day, picking up her daughter in middle school, she took a picture of this photo of me up along the walls of the old middle school building where photos of graduates are kept. I cried when I saw it. I could see myself in the photo which is not true of many photos from this era where I was trying so desperately to be many things I was not. Such is the nature of human adolescence, teenage-hood. In this photo, though, I don’t know what the camera man (it was always a man) said to me, but I look a little more relaxed in this photo than in other formal photos of me. Relaxed and also weary and worried. I see all these things in my own face here. So I cried because in so many photos from my long ago past, the face in the photo feels foreign, but I recognized this girl.
When I first got “serious” (quotes because this is a weird way to use “serious”) about my Buddhist practice, I found this picture of myself at about age 2. Summertime. I am staring directly into the camera, and I look confident, curious, smart, feisty. I put the picture on my shrine at home. I would look at myself every morning, and I would consider what is best for her, what I would want for her, that baby in the photo who was me and is me.
Now I think I will be putting this graduation photo on my shrine.
Baby-me is easy to forgive. I struggle more with teen-me.
One of the great ironies of my life is that I have an almost instinctive gift for working with and relating to young people, and yet I have the hardest damn time forgiving myself the very ordinary, and quite PG-13, sins of my own youth.
And I look at that girl in my graduation photo, and I cry because I know what will befall her after that year: a surgery that nearly killed her (missed almost her whole freshman year in h.s.), a medical experience that will traumatize her in ways so complex she will be 45 before she even begins tugging at the threads necessary to disentangle the genetic mental health problems from the trauma, stunning loss in vision that would get progressively worse and worse, touch of a drinkin’ problem, and cancer. Oh, the cancer.
And I don’t want to tell her. Because the other side of her story is pretty fuckin’ cool. Not quite what she thinks she wants, what she expects (silly thing — so many expectations), and very interesting and exciting and strange nonetheless. Mostly I’d want to tell her that her fears of being lonely were completely unnecessary because once she learned to like herself a little more, once she learned to care less about what others wanted her to be, once she learned that her life had much value, much worth, she would be wealthy in loved ones.
I would say nothing of the financial wreckage. Might advise her to take out fewer loans. Drink and drug a little less in college, learn Spanish, take a minor in something easily marketable.
And if I told her about any of the “unpleasant” things in her future, I would tell her, By the grace of God, you will.
And worry less. And drink less. And travel way more. And try LSD once because you’ll never dare try it as an adult.
On the drive back to Chicago, Megan and I listened to podcasts about MK Ultra (knew nothing about this — if you are a podcast person: Last Podcast’s five-part series on MK Ultra is . . . whoa), and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. The latter being something Gen-Xers like Megan and I remember well.
One of the themes in the Satanic Panic (which was just, you know, America’s usual classist-racist-xenophobic bullshit — couldn’t be the Commies so it had to be Satanists) was that Satanist would have really cool recreation rooms in their homes and they would use these spaces to brainwash (often child) victims to become Satanists and then they would like sacrifice babies together in the rec room. None of this ever happened anywhere ever, though. It was all made up. And as with any American myth, actual people were harmed in the perpetuation of this toxic fiction.
Anyway, as I was setting up my living room yesterday, I texted Megan to tell her I was building “a rumpus room in which to brainwash you for Satan.” To which she replied, “Sweet. I can’t wait.”
And on that note, I’m going to go back to building my Satanic romper room or whatever. Also, if you donated/are donating to my GoFundMe, you have helped me get organized, get some of the little details arranged in my apartment so I can feel “at home” in my hermitage. Thank you.
And if you’ve just been praying for me, sending me vibes, reader, thank you just as much. Love is infinitely more valuable than the currency of men.
Be good, hooligans.