View From a Cave

I counted four birds. They weren’t really birds. They flew, though, and I didn’t have a name for them. They more closely resembled 80-pound dragonflies but I lacked the stomach call them that in my head. Dragonflies had unnerved me back home. It made me feel better to refer to these things as birds, and from a distance, a great distance, that’s what they could have been.

Grace Mote

Grace Mote built a raised bed and in the spring she planted sunflowers. The bed was in the patch of dirt just beneath her kitchen window. The sunflowers bobbed when the wind blew and the people on the sidewalk just steps away would reach their hands through the bars of the fence to try and bat the swaying heads.

She wasn’t a gardener by habit. Before this spring she’d never planted anything, and she’d never built anything of wood. The raised bed was enclosed by chemically treated planks of pine, and when she’d lifted the planks they’d drifted in her grasp as if they were subject to a different and less stable gravitational law than the one she was used to, and it had felt good to corral them.

The scent of the soap rising made her calm. She spent a moment watching the people on the sidewalk strain at the bars. She could hear Val scratching at the corrugated pink strip where his sweatpants dug into the flesh of his waist. He was waking up.

They scrape them off yet, he called to her. Not yet, she said.

Green carpet

I had a house, and there was a room in it I particularly loved—a room with a thick green carpet of indefinable species, somewhere between shag and pile. It was composed—the carpet, not the room—of coarse cillae. Or perhaps fronds. Things that would have waved under water. The color green has always smelled like dust to me.

And the walls—they were paneled in imitation wood. A previous owner with a spastic brush-arm had given them a single coat of white paint.

I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to.
I wouldn’t trade the happiness, the sense of balance, the self-reliance, or the improved relationships I’ve gained from medicine for writing. And perhaps I don’t have to decide between mental health and creativity. It seems that, whether mad or not, people are driven to create in order to understand something about themselves, the world, or their experiences and perceptions. Perhaps Freud was as wrong about art necessarily stemming from neurosis as he was about penis envy. I agree that powerful art is created out of a deep need, and bears the imprint of the essential raw self or soul. But if my anxiety really is a biological disorder, as doctors and psychologists have repeatedly insisted, then my essential self isn’t the anxious thoughts and existential dread I used to constantly feel. My essential self would lie underneath the layers of catastrophic images and anguished mental chatter. It’s possible that the medicines I take could help me travel a clearer and more direct path to that place, avoiding the potholes and back alleys of phobias, anxiety, and panic. Though it takes more discipline to sit down and write now, since I am not doing so to save my life, I am practicing writing from a place of curiosity rather than pain, fascination rather than desperation, forging my way more safely into a different dark.