I remember the fire, the fuel and the willingness to scribe down the epics. I remember the heat that tempered, the hate that soothed and the “I NEED TO GET THIS OFF MY CHEST BEFORE I KILL SOMEONE!”(s).
Where did my greatness go? It and I, cut seemingly from the same cloth, used to dwell in this same space, both occupying this very moment in time. Did I lose it? My gusto? My mind? Did I ever have it in the first place? I think I can still remember…
When I was younger I enjoyed art in its entirety. My inability to focus on one thing for extended periods, coupled with my switch-like ability to become bored with a mental or emotional thread in an instant, meant I needed many outlets with which to express and assess myself. Acrylic painting, spray painting, poetry, origami, daydreaming, that time I ruined an entire classroom’s desks with nothing more than a ballpoint pen and flashing hot rage – the world was my outlet. “Wayne’s World” was a colourful place. Demented, perhaps, but colourful.
And now I feel as though I am just blue. Not “blue” as in “to feel sad” – blue like the colour of the bottomless ocean I drown in right before I wake up out of breath, overexerted by the weight of the nothingness I am. Blue like a palette with only one colour: ocean-fucking-blue.
I fear for my art and my sanity. It feels as though a lifetime of introspection and (occasionally) healthy dealings with my demons has left me with no more stories to tell. I feel like that up-and-coming rapper who drives an Escalade at the shoot, but drives home in a Hyundai.
Returning to nature is a grounding experience. Vital. And every so often it’s necessary for humans to feel the dirt beneath their feet again, to breathe the clean air, and to stand in awe of things truly awe-inspiring.
I went to Erindi this past long weekend. This is my story.
Prologue: The road to nowhere
“A man grows most tired while standing still” – Chinese proverb
Chapter 1: Hit the road
“We meet no ordinary people in our lives.” – C.S. Lewis
Chapter 2: Rock on!
“And I can’t get it on without you. No way!” – The Rockets
Chapter 3: The scenic route
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost
Chapter 4: Welcome to Erindi
“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t.” – Lewis Carroll
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
Chapter 5: Carnivores
“This is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it.” – Charlie Chaplin
Chapter 6: Herbivores
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” – Gandhi
Chapter 7: The Lone Ranger
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson
Chapter 8: Sunfall and Sunfly
“My sun sets to rise again.” – Robert Browning
Chapter 9: I saw the signs
“The only source of knowledge is experience” – Albert Einstein
Chapter 10: When giants walk
“What we do now echoes in eternity” – Marcus Aurelius
Epilogue: It was all a blur
“The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” – Henri Bergson
I take another hard drag, hoping to finally end it.
It’s days like these I hate myself the most.
She sits slumped over, cross-legged and sobbing on the carpet. I’ve clearly fucked up again. Done my worst, which, over my course, I’ve become far too good at.
“I wonder if I’ll ever truly understand her,” the voice in my head connives as I nod in feigned comprehension at the snap of her words when she hooks me back in with
“ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME?”
A pause. Finally,
Yes, I’ve done a great many horrible things to many people, but this, I tell you my friends, is the worst:
To look at the woman who loves you in spite of yourself – not your fake self, or your work self, or your bar self or your Facebook self – and to see her hurting because of the person you are inside, and you’re too selfish to let her go when you know you really should…
That’s pretty fucked up.
But don’t be too hard on yourself. That’s just how your Mama raised ya.
And how school charged its tuition.
But know that there’s no class in life that can prepare you for it. I propose that maybe if I knew the value of delayed gratification over the definition I wouldn’t be stressed so much. And maybe if I learned vulnerability instead of viscosity when dissecting the human heart I’d be able to reach out to her like a normal fucking human being.
But I am the product of my experiences, the majority of which are shit. I have the makings of greatless and she deserves a hell of a lot better than me.
Yet in spite of that, and me, and my cold words and explosive reactions, her hand still rests on my thigh, squeezing it white-knuckled as she works out her demons in frantic exorcisms on the floor.
She sees what I could be, drawing attention to everything that I’m not. Her praises pierce the weak points in my armour and I stand defenseless against her innocence. How alien my black-and-white world must seem to her childlike wonder. She is everything that is good and pure in this life. She is colour. She is the sun.
As he was sat on the parquet floor – back against the splattered wall, slumped over and nursing a bite wound in a bloody arm – Daniel Woodman couldn’t help but stare dimly at the family portrait mounted on the wall before him.
It was four years ago – Emma’s first birthday. Dana was stressing herself out as per her usual tall order of “Best Mom Ever!”, proving both to herself and stay-at-home mothers everywhere that overzealous organisation skills serve well beyond the tertiary years.
Dan was on his back on the living room carpet, looking up.
“Who’s a cutie? You are! Yes, you are!”
He was talking to the baby Emma cradled lightly in his upheld hands, looking down at him like innocence incarnate.
Emma laughed, and Dan responded in kind. It was one of those pure and beautiful moments you almost hate to have because it makes you forget that life won’t always be this way.
Here he was, after all, sat on the parquet floor, nursing a bite wound in a bloody arm. It was a Tuesday. Maybe.
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
While lacking the cerebral capacity now to articulate such emotions,
Dan, or what was left of him anyway, had a deep and visceral sense in his gut that this picture on the wall, the video streams in his head like hallucinations and cigarette burns, these people, evoked distinct feelings of *something* within him. He felt the cocktail of laboratory chemicals and viscous saliva course through his veins. The light burned his eyes. He screamed torturously; his already-rotting arm convulsed violently – clenching and twisting, scraping up the floor, pulling splinters and leaving behind shreds of ripped fingernail. His head jolted side to side like a malfunctioning piece of machinery and even through the epilepsy Dan could sense his legs were entirely lame by now.
The outside chaos of machine gun fire and civilian screams grew thick and Dan found himself drowned out and lost; swirling the drain in delirium.
And yet, somehow, through the void he could hear her… calling out to him. It was faint; blurry at first. But the tone and timbre – the way she played the air like a pained violin – resonated with his soul. He knew her. And then it all came back, piercing through the haze in one brilliant display of desperation:
The blackness cracked beneath Dan like a thin sheet of glass and he fell through into the awaiting light below. He threw his head back in surrender as every joyful memory came rushing back and the most lopsided smile cracked like a fault line across his face.
Partial rigor mortis set in and caught the corner of Dan’s mouth, pulling it higher than muscle can go without snapping like sun-perished rubber bands. He felt the pain. In some sense of the word at least. Yet whatever he felt was left wayside to the tranquility he was experiencing deep within his being.
And there it stayed – his twisted, psychotic, serene smile. Dan lingered in limbo for an eternity as his eyes glazed over and his reptilian brain worked through it all:
He remembered… a beautiful baby girl… and how small her hand was, wrapped around his little finger. How sick she was for three weeks with fever and every night he had to pass out beside her because sleep eluded him.
He called out to her, but could feel the deadened sensation of his vocal cords melting and giving way like fishing line above the heat of his distress. His sounds came out garbled and raspy, filled with coughed up phlegm and blood.
It started to taste good.
The sobbing broke Emma’s breathing into pieces small enough for her to manage. Dan corkscrewed his head to the side. The sound of grinding bone and snapping twigs complemented its rickety movement well. Dan was barely able to keep his head off his shoulder as his remaining muscles relaxed with his fading consciousness. He could feel his sanity slipping; his grotesque mask still plastered across his once handsome face.
Through the flickering spots of colour, Dan managed to lock eyes with his daughter for what he knew would be the last time.
“Mommy’s asleep! What do I do?”
Dan watched the vignette encroach on his field of vision, the picture of Emma – the most beautiful girl in the world – fading with the light. He tasted metal.
Dan gathered every last scrap of sentience and muddled it together with what faint heart he had left to form one coherent word, screamed as a whisper through layers of bile and with all the love a father can muster: His daughter’s only hope.
“MAYDAY! MAYDAY! We’re coming in hot! Fuel’s on E, Carlito’s dead, and I think we just sucked a bird through the blades again! This bitch’s coming down!”
Life was a mess to say the least. And you’d never suspect from his current predicament – his reckless abandon and apparent disregard for human life; screaming into the radio handset of a Cessna 172 hurtling towards the thick South American Jungle below* – the growing pains of someone who once could be so mindful and precise.
“The comfort zone’s there for a reason,” the Ego said to The Sucker.
“Yeah, seated between Mediocrity and Death!”
“You’re going to die right now…”
“Will you shut up? I’m trying to land a metal box on a tree!”
His mind raced back quicker than the altimeter – space whizzing past the windows providing the backdrop to the visual theater as it replayed that last phone call he made, and how poorly he had treated her ever since they arrived on the this damn island… That college degree he never achieved all those years ago, knowing full-well how proud it would have made his mother. It would certainly have kept him grounded.
Back further… His first kiss, and how in that moment – with the sun pouring over him through the trees, as he sincerely accepted love for the very first time – life just seemed so enthusiastically, incredibly possible.
And here it all laid, spread out before him: Failures and regret like piercing branches disemboweling the fuselage and the suffocating vines of Mother Earth calling her son home.
“It’s been nice knowing ya,” he said to himself bitterly.
Sometimes life can get crazy.
Everything piles up over time, with us (blissfully and) ignorantly thinking there’ll be more time tomorrow, and somewhere along the line it all starts spiraling out of control. “You’re fucking it up,” the face in the mirror spits back at you self-righteously, always so quick to give you a hard time as if it wasn’t responsible for getting you there in the first place. Sometimes we as “humans”, with all our philosophy and science and sentience, can be pretty fucking stupid.
I wasn’t doing too well. I was freaking out about life. Again. I was doing everything I thought I should be doing but the happiness just wasn’t there. It’s hard to feel trapped within yourself – just you and your thoughts. And the voice is never helpful. The voice usually sounds like that kid who teased you back in school, or your parents, or that ever-present subconscious thought that ultimately you’re not good enough.
Life can get crazy. And bet your ass it will! But when it does, it’s important and helpful to remember that it’s okay to be feeling the way you do. I’ve been connecting with a lot of people lately, both out of my active interest in establishing new and strengthening current relationships, and also entirely out of the happenings of the Universe. And during the course of my relating, I’ve come to find more and more just how incredibly hard everybody is on their self – how much we expect from ourselves, and the limits and deadlines we install by which we grade and measure our existence. We feel so entitled to endure the pains of life our brains tell us we should be feeling.
“I loved him so much, gave everything, and in the end I just wasn’t enough!”
The thing to realise, however, is that giving in to those thoughts and feelings is a choice. It’s making the choice between 1) this bad thing happened to me and I want to feel bad about it, and 2) this bad thing happened to me and no matter my thoughts or feelings about it, it won’t change the past so I may as well try and find happiness in the present.
“I’ve been struggling with this my whole life and it just feels as though I’ll never be happy!”
I don’t know why we gravitate towards self-deprecation and assault. Why we have to be the ones telling our inner voice, “I’m confident! I’m successful! I deserve this!” I don’t know how we can put a man on the moon but not know how to be happy; truly happy.
Eckhart Tolle postulates that the ego’s need for suffering is to create a sense of identity within the individual. It adds drama to “our story” and makes us unique in comparison to the rest of the world. “This is me and this is what I’ve been through!” The irony being that self-identification is maintained towards the promise of happiness, yet is characterised primarily by misery and suffering.
“When I get that promotion, THEN I’ll start living!”
I’m doing really well now. I think the breakdown was necessary. Sometimes it takes life crashing to the floor to force you to look at it realistically. The reality being that life, ultimately, is only ever as hard as we make it on ourselves.
So be kind to yourself today, forever. Listen out for that voice which tells you you aren’t good enough, or that your teacher was right, or that being skinny will make you happy. And then kill it.
Because the voice is lying to you, man! And we are all idiots for believing it. If there’s anything I’ve learned since connecting more, and just being receptive to the stories so many wonderful people have shared with me, it’s this:
You are not alone.
There is a world of beauty out there, filled with misery and heartache. 7 billion humans scared to reach out and touch each other**. Living in fear of rejection, or the wealth gap, or the colour of his skin. But I tell you this: For every single one of you reading this, for any problem you have been through or are going through right now, there is someone else on this ridiculous spinning rock going through the exact same thing.
And regardless of how entitled we feel to experience hurt and heartache, ultimately the only purpose it will ever serve is to make us feel like our lives suck.
Life is hard; give yourself a break. You are, after all, only human. Just like everyone else.
The words foamed out her mouth and may as well have had “you insolent little shit!” affixed to the end of them. The year was 2000 and I was in grade 8.
I always loved mathematics. It was one of those subjects that appealed to both my creative and logical natures. Some, as experience enlightened me, were not content merely allowing young minds to grow, however, but took to the “molding” concept of edification a little more seriously than I would have deemed necessary. Or healthy, for that matter.
As for most, my life since school diversified: I went off to study new skills; to live in a new country; met a lot of different and differently-minded people; found, grew and lost my longest, most complicated relationship to date; and made a lot of self-discoveries along the way. This is what people mean when they list “School of Life” as their education on Facebook.
Yet I always think back to that day. I recall realising in that moment how it didn’t matter how “right” or “wrong” I was. All that mattered was that she was the “teacher” and I was the “student”. This suspicion persisted for the remainder of my internment – the thought that school is not so much about raising great thinkers as it is about raising people who do as they’re told and remember that information really really well. Like, A+ well.
Today marks the ten-year anniversary of my matric farewell. It’s also my late grandmother’s 90th birthday (Happy B-Day, Oumi! I miss you!). Both of these factoids come compliments of my mother, who remembers every single date since the big bang. I dropped history first chance I got. But it got me thinking…
What have I learned since high school?
If you weren’t one of the “populars” (read: untouchables), you may have tried your best to forget that you even went to a place called “school”, but I’m sure you, too, have your very own list of things you’ve learned since escaping. Feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Here a couple things I’ve learned along the way:
There are no grades, just your ass
In school, it was all about the grade: “Oh no! Tommy got 80%; I got 78%. By definition he’s more successful than I am!” Well here’s the big boy lesson: Real life don’t give a shit about your grades, son! You got an A in chemistry? Here, unclog this toilet, Heisenberg. Won the regional prize in art? Better get crafty filling out those tax forms*!
In life, there is no B- or A+. There’s only, “you get that shit done yet?” Because if life had an actual grading system, people would be forced to be evaluated on merit, and I’m sure you know how often that happens.
The people “educating” you were just as misguided
In school, teachers were hailed as the grandstands of supported authority. Their dogma touted as the be-all of information – “Seek no further, children. All answers lay hidden within these walls, beneath these rules.” And while it’s easy to get angsty and start screaming “fuck the system!”, it’s important to remember that they too were just people… Some had failed marriages, some were suffering financially, some hated being there every damn day as much as you did. As a child we are so captivated by this concept of being “an adult”, that it becomes difficult to see a figure such as a teacher as being anything close to human.
But they are, and are as completely and hopelessly flawed as you sit here today. Now imagine good ole, messed up YOU carrying the responsibility of helping to raise a nation on your back.
The most practical lesson was recess
For the most part, the old adage of “it’s not what you know, but who you know” holds true. The simple fact is that regardless of how hard you studied, how well you did on that test or, overall, how much you deserve that job/position/raise, unless you can back up your shit with a crafty mouth and leading personality, it won’t get you very far.
I’m not saying that nobody gets by on the merit of hard work. I’m just saying that, in reality, there are much more important factors to consider, such as: Does your boss like you?
Being likeable is good. And I would generally put “likeable” ahead of “great education” on the list of important life skills to have because in the long run it’s likely to get you further. Having a solid set of social skills and a wide network of friends is how most influential people left school. Probably wasn’t enough room on the syllabus for social interaction facilitation with all the algebra and Mao Zedong trivia to learn.
Life is not a competition
I think this was the biggest one for me. I’ve always been a pretty competitive person and, if you are anything like me, school may have at times brought out the worst in you. There’s a great deal of pressure, both from above as well as from our peers, to be “the best.” They gave out medals to the best, and certificates and gold stars and favourable words and degrees of latitude. And those not at the top had to be careful to not allow this to negatively affect their self worth.
But, in reality, everyone has their own truth in life, and being the best almost always comes secondary to experience in terms of “the soul”. Nobody has “A+ student” etched proudly into their tombstone, yet we grow up with this mindset of happiness coming from displaying superiority in some way over others.
“He scores well every test.” “She only wear designer clothes.” “He sleeps with all the hot chicks.”
These were actual benchmarks when I was in school. We were valued and evaluated on and by everything besides the contents of our hearts and the circumstances we were growing up in. I believe any attention to this at all would have kept a lot of children from feeling alone in their problems. But it wasn’t about compassion back then. It was about dominion. How much of the pie could any one student accumulate before their time was up? And we went out into the world to perpetuate that exact same way of thinking.
Baz Lurhman famously said, “The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.” He also passionately taught us the importance of sunscreen… An incredibly valuable life lesson I don’t recall being covered even once during my years of formal study.
I guess there were more important things to learn…