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1 essay
by Sam Price

Sam Price lives in Pennsylvania.

Minor Optimisms

I

            I sat at my desk. An early morning spring breeze worked in steady. The room was cool and dimly lit; the sun rose on the other side of the house. Even though I was on the wrong side of the world and my coffee was too hot to sip, I wasn’t sad to be alive. Don’t go reading excitement into it, though. Day arrived and I remained, exhausted.

            Still, I figured it could be a good day if I could write my way to one. If I didn’t feel accomplished, I could feel productive. But I sat there all morning pruning any line I wrote back to nothing.

            I’d started a scene about a room full of people—none of which I got around to describing, failing at one of the simplest tasks of a writer—taking a moment of silence before an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I only wrote this scene, I mean I was only interested in writing it, because it’s me they’re thinking about. Well, me and others like me: Drunks or dry drunks who haven’t stepped into the circle. In trying to write the scene, I’m trying to decide if I need AA. I’m sober but a drunk. I’m not drinking but I might again. I exist in two places at once like some unanswerable physics problem or a philosopher’s pet cat, the furry mongrel that somehow outlives the brilliant thinker.

            The answer remained buried. I came to no conclusions. Instead, I let myself get sidetracked and went out for a run. My brain jostled in its membrane until out flopped a memory from the Catholic church services of my youth. Near the end of mass, our priest, Father Marty, used to lead the congregation in a prayer for those too sick to attend. If you stayed too long away, it didn’t matter, Father Marty would continue calling out your name and the people in the pews would keep considering your mortality. There wasn’t a strict timeline to suffering. For some it went on a long time.

            I didn’t know what to do with that knowledge then, and I don’t know what to do with it now. I pled for those people—more time, man, just give them and their families more time.

            Quite often, our prayers failed. Once a person died, Father Marty would pray for them until the calendar page turned, and that was all. A new month brought more dead to consider.

II

            When I was in college, some of the writing courses I took began with moments of silence. The teacher gave a prompt and we curled over our notebooks, creating snippets of scenes, outlines of characters. These exercises pull-started the mind, forced inward spirals of thought outward. Through the act of writing, we had to consider the world, not only our place in it.

            Then we’d turn to discussions around stories written by some genius like Carver, Gaitskill, or Hempel. I eagerly followed the templates but, being such a beginner, when I thought I was imitating Hemingway’s iceberg all I did was obscure the story entirely. I turned my life into a cosmic Hunter S. Thompson jaunt and my friends into Denis Johnson characters. I wrote ten thousand sentences in John Edgar Wideman’s voice trying to find my own. I wrote sickly poems that coughed out globs of Paul Celan and John Berryman. I took Bernhard’s elliptical anger and turned it into an angsty teen novel. My work was coarse and unseemly, but my teachers—having seen thousands of student submissions tottering on Bambi legs—were patient, helpful, and, best of all, optimistic. They promised me I had promise, which simultaneously gave me the strength to write through all those awful attempts as well as think of them as far better than they actually were.

            As much as my anxiety allowed, I tried to become a part of the writing community. There was a “Writers House,” a small, homey building dedicated to workshop courses, readings, and crammed with comfy chairs and couches and even a kitchen for people to hang out in during the in between times that came often in my uppity liberal arts education.

            My anxiety was often ratcheted up because I’d show up to anything and everything stoned. I’d stumble in and sit in the back asking myself if they knew. (They knew.) By nineteen and twenty, I’d convinced myself that getting high made everyday life more fun, even if the direct evidence told me that it often complexified shit when it wasn’t done in the proper situation. Yet, I persevered. Weren’t my writerly heroes rebellious and raucous, drunks and drug addicts? I thought substances could enhance creativity, break minds free of workaday patterns, and did not second guess that not only were my immediate returns not sustainable, I may have been holding losing tickets all the while.

III

            One night I went to the Writers House for an after-hours reading. After the event, the visiting writers and the writing instructors sipped wine as I rode out my usual high. I stood near enough a circle of people where nobody would approach me yet far enough away where I did not have to participate in the conversation. The talk revolved around aging. One of my writing teachers said, “I was so much happier after I turned thirty.”

            I made a mental note. You’ll have it figured out by then, I told myself. It was the way of the world. Everyone struggled through their twenties, and then the world starts to slow down, make sense. I spent my twenties doing drugs and drinking too much and reading a lot of books and writing about myself or people like me. Then I turned thirty and I did drugs and drank too much and read a lot of books and continued to write about myself or people like me.

            I slinked toward that holy age of thirty-three, when Jesus found himself abandoned and largely alone as he died on some lonely hill. Figured it was fifty-fifty that my visitors, if any remained, would not be knocking to come party but would be arriving sallow-eyed grievers like Mary Magdalene and the other women who visited Jesus’s tomb. Upon arrival, Mary and the others found the stone rolled back, the tomb empty. Fearful, the women fled. Mark ends his gospel with the line: They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Later someone added some lines to his manuscript. I guess Mark’s wasn’t a good enough, or Christian enough, ending. But I think it’s the best line of the whole book.

IV

            A frightful turn of events. Let’s tell it from the perspective of my younger sister, who lives in Alaska, far away from me and the rest of my family—another sister and a mother—in Pennsylvania. She comes home to visit for Christmas. We haven’t seen each other in almost two years. We go for a hike. Ostensibly, I’m doing well. I talk about other people, people we both know.

            A few days later she’s at my door but I won’t answer. Inside, I’m not doing well. I don’t want to be alive, but I’m too scared to kill myself because of the people I’ll hurt. Which, well, what am I doing, when I am inside and won’t answer the door when my sister is outside, terrified for my well-being?

            I blurred over some details. For that I apologize. Perhaps I will have the strength to tell them later, upon revision. Or, maybe, in editing I will decide that I have already added enough details for this part to be inferred. Fairly or not. The fact is I have problems, big ones, ones I am unable to get a grip on. I gambled away all of my money, plus money I didn’t have. My girlfriend is out of state, on business, and she can’t help me, reach me, I’ve terrified her—perhaps enough that she’ll never take me back. My terror grows and my shame grows and I can’t stop drinking or doing coke and when I get high and drunk I gamble insane amounts of money.

            Even after I stop drinking and doing coke, I can’t stop gambling. I lose it all. Everything I’d earned and saved over the last decade of working. Then I stop for a little, thinking about how dumb I am every single day, before I do it again. It’s like all my other addictions. It seems so necessary at the time and fills me with such regret afterward. That regret leads me to staying away for a time, yet after some time softens the memory into something less devastating and, remembering the almost-wins more than the actual losses, I return.

            I tell myself, prodding my soft underbelly for an excuse, that all that gambling was so I would finally give myself the go-ahead to roll the stone over the tomb’s entrance. Once I’ve lost it all, what could stop me? But something does. I imagine the knocks on the door going unanswered not until I sober up, but forever—or at least until my family figures out how to locate my landlord and get a spare key.

            Sure, I imagine the tears, the questions, the what-could-we-have-dones, but mostly I imagine my little sister having to wade into the god damned stench.

V

            As I wrote my first attempts at stories I tried to illuminate only the tip of the iceberg. But rather than finding ways to use subtext, I made a hash out of it. Eventually it dawned on me that I wasn’t Hemingway and maybe I should begin with clarity.

            It similarly took me a long time to realize that my life path did not follow anyone else’s. That aging did not necessarily equal maturing. Through my mid- to late-twenties, I held onto that throw-away comment by my old professor, thinking life would make sense once I rounded the corner. Instead, it got worse. My depression deepened and self-medicating no longer offered a way out; it only complicated things. At thirty-two, I’d had enough. I began praying again, something I hadn’t done since I was much younger, but now I was praying that when I fell asleep it would be for the last time. To fade away peacefully would save me so much struggling and suffering, and nobody would know that I asked for it, that I took the coward’s way out. They would think that my body had simply had a shorter timeline than theirs. My family and friends would grieve, but they would not be able to blame me for their grief.

            I’d go to bed at 3 or 4 A.M.. after drinking heavily since 7 or 8 P.M. My girlfriend would already be asleep and I’d wake her up as the bed groaned under my weight. She’d roll away from me and, some mornings, she’d tell me that my sweat stank, sweet and sharp. Once she even said she thought one of my organs might be failing, that’s how sickly and unnatural I smelled. I’d apologize on behalf of me and my overworked liver, only to do it all again a few days later.

VI

            I want to pry my mind open and let you peer in. But instead I have to settle for rough diagrams and outlines of its contents and hope you find them honest enough.

            It’s not voyeurism, I don’t think. Or wanting to be found interesting. It’s searching for connection. Wanting to contribute to an already-ongoing conversation. Here’s another way to be human, I want to say. It’s not ideal or all that effective but it’s what I got.

            Maybe it’s to make up for lost time. For years I said nothing to anyone because I was afraid.

 

VII

            While trying to figure out what I could do with my life, my therapist asks me about my earliest memories about a flow state, when I found myself lost in an activity. I tell her about reading the Narnia books, how I felt the world opening up as magic rushed in. A closet could hold a universe.

            Writing expands the world. Possibilities abound. I remember a tingling feeling reading Narnia, like lightning had shot through my body as it simultaneously stabbed the heavens. Fantasy novels felt like a sexual excitement before I even knew what that was. I don’t tell my therapist that part. I don’t know why I withhold it, but I do. I don’t know why I put it down on the page right here, but I do that, too. Maybe honesty will set me free; maybe that’s what my life was missing. But I fear that won’t work either. Or that there will always be a part of myself that I will be ashamed of.

VIII

            Why did I ever start? I asked myself about so many different things. For me, it usually boils down to escape. I wanted to escape. Of course I could have also asked this question about the good things in my life, like reading and writing. These habits were born of similar desperations yet they served me better.

            I imagined turning this piece in for a writing workshop. I don’t know why; it’s a setting I haven’t been in for a decade. Other writers, acting as readers, would beg for more detail. What was your drink of choice, your drug of choice, what game of chance was your downfall? Dutifully, I would’ve given it to them in later drafts. I would tell them everything. But I know I lose them either way, eventually. I could give them everything and they’d have nothing to come back for or I could withhold and they would leave out of frustration.

            Of course this isn’t true. There’s more of me I’d like to reveal. When it’s time, when I’m able. That’s one thing to keep me going: There’s so much more I want to write and read and talk and yell and dream about. Yet there’s downfalls in this, too. When the writing goes poorly, my self-worth spirals. I start to want to throw it all away for the thousandth time.

IX

            In the earlier imagined scenario, the next time it was my turn to get workshopped I would have turned in a piece that was magical realist or dystopian, thinking to protect myself from others reading into my own work that all of it is about me. But they probably would anyway—who else would it be about?

            And what’s wrong with that? Read into anything I write all you’d like as long as you realize that there’s plenty of you in this the same as there’s plenty of me.

You are the person not in the room. You are the one I am thinking about.

X

            Paul Celan, whose parents were tortured and killed by Nazis, called the Holocaust “that which happened.” He wrote about his grief in German. His language; the language of his parents’ murderers. In his poems, Celan often repeats words or phrases until it’s clear that the words are only words, and the acts themselves are too horrific and world-ending to be held by language. They can only hope to cradle a bit of the reaction: sorrow, terror, that life-long search for meaning.

            Celan ended his own life in a river. Perhaps, in a swift enough stream, that final sin—if it is a sin as I learned in church all those years ago—can be washed away. I pray for him; I pray that it can be. One must consider the circumstances, even God.