By D.L. Bragdon
This work is copyright 2016 by DLBragdon. All rights reserved.
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The Lies We Tell
The cars pass by incessantly, the approaching and receding hum of tires on pavement fill my ears on a nightly basis. I say nightly, because in the bright light of day there are more important matters for the mind to occupy itself with than mere background noise. But in the evenings the more pressing white noise of daily life gradually fades with the setting of the sun and all that is left are the cars, the cars and my own thoughts.
There are all sorts of cars, as there are all sorts of people driving them. It is useless to attempt to name all the makes and models, as it would likewise be pointless to inquire into the lives of their owners. They are all liars, that is all I need to know. Worse yet, they lie not to others but to themselves, the worst sort of liar. They tell themselves that they have a destination to achieve, a purpose to their hurry. It’s a great and monstrous lie, and they don’t even realize it.
There is only one destination, a common destination at which we all arrive at in due time, death. The masses comfort themselves with the knowledge that, yes perhaps the death of the individual is inevitable but there will always be another generation to carry on in their stead. They may die, but the species, humanity will survive on. Again, another lie.
Besides they say, life is only a phase, a period of transition preparatory to some fashion of eternal life, whether for good or ill. There is an ultimate judge somewhere beyond the earthly plane that grades our lives and pronounces sentence. Once again, a lie.
Why all these lies? What compels the human spirit to sing itself to sleep with soft lullabys? Fear I fear. The very idea of a universe without a future, without purpose, and without guidance just scares the absolute crap out of people. That’s really all there is to it. They choose the lie because the truth is just too damn scary to handle.
Ask a young woman, sold into sexual slavery as a little girl and who has never given a sincere smile of happiness to any of their countless customers. Ask a young man, the sole surviving member of a family exterminated for no other reason than the ethnic identification of their last names. Ask a young child, its belly bloated, its limbs shrunken from hunger, its future measured not in decades but days. Ask them all, where is God? Must they die to receive his beneficent love? Has he abandoned them in this world in return for a place in the next?
As you hop into your car and scurry off to work do you ever think of these people? If you do, is your immediate response “There go I for the simple grace of God?” Let me ask you though, where is God’s grace for them? Why are you spared and not they? Is it because of a line drawn on a map, because of the language they speak, or the color of their skin?
I say it is not God that has abandoned them to their fate; it is we, as in you and I. We force away all thoughts of these unfortunates for the good and sufficient reason that we feel powerless to correct such injustices. To focus our minds on such horrors on a daily basis would drive us mad with impotent rage and despair. We tell ourselves there is something special about ourselves, that somehow our faith in a higher being protects and guides us to a kinder fate. That it won’t, it can’t happen to us. We lie.
The truth is something far less comforting, far more disturbing. Simple chance has spared us and nothing more. What’s worse, chance is fickle and today’s lucky roll of the dice can easily turn into tomorrow’s snake eyes with a flick of nature’s wrist. And it will, make no mistake. I have seen death come upon a person I loved. There was no moment of transcendence. There was only a series of slow breaths, one after another, until at last there wasn’t. That’s the reality of death. She was there, and then she wasn’t, her essence not freed to salvation, but merely released into nothingness. And the world moved on with narely a hitch, and only myself to mourn for her.
It’s a fate that awaits us all eventually, not just as individuals, but as a species as well. When that moment comes, and there is nobody left to lie to themselves what will have been the point to it all? With all of mankind’s vaunted intellectual and cultural achievements left behind to rust into oblivion under an unforgiving and uncaring sun what will have been purpose to it all? Honestly I do not know the answer to that question any more than anyone else does. I only dare to ask the question, without the hubris of faith providing an expedient response.
Perhaps there really is an answer out there somewhere. Perhaps there is a purpose to it all. I simply cannot see it. I do not see it in the world around me, I do not see it in church hymnals or holy scriptures. All I see is a world filled with people willing to utter lie after lie to themselves, afraid to see the truth. If there truly is a meaning to life it is something we must search for within ourselves, not something bestowed upon us by a mythical higher power. We must stop the lies, and seek out truth.
I sit and stare at the computer.
The words refuse to come.
I’m trying to begin the next chapter in my book. It’s a book I’ve been in the midst of writing for at least three years now. Not three continuous years though. If that were true it would be indicative of a dedication to the craft of writing. I have nothing of the sort. What I have, what I’ve had for those three years is an idea. It’s an idea that came to me, as most do, indirectly; beginning in its earliest form as just a simple short story. Usually I ignore such ideas, allowing them to fade away with time like a dream that slips away and becomes something less than a memory upon waking. It’s probably for the best that I do this. My ideas are rarely of the practical sort. However this time I did something very different. I wrote the short story. And having completed it, that story has led me on a winding path to this point, to this moment in time when I sit and stare at the computer in the hopes that the words will somehow come to me.
It’s not what you might think. Your first thought may be that it’s a simple case of writer’s block, that demon that has plagued every potential author of any written work throughout the ages. No, it’s not that, or at the least it’s not only that. You see, the idea is still there. Once the short story was completed the idea took on a life of its own, claiming a permanence that was not completely of my own choosing. But finishing the short story was not enough, it demanded expansion, into something more. It screamed for completion in the form of a book. Once alive it would not easily die.
No, what prevents the words from coming tonight is something more profound, more troubling. It’s a lack of faith. Not that I don’t have faith in the story, surprisingly I do. It’s a good story, or at the very least I believe it is. I don’t think it would have survived this long in my head if it were not. What I lack faith in is myself. Both my own ability to tell it well, and ultimately, that the telling of that story will have the slightest consequence, either for myself or for anyone else.
You see, the problem in a nutshell, is that I am a writer without a reader.
I know that there are many authors, perhaps even a majority, that will busily churn out entire books in secret, never allowing a soul to read so much as a word until the work is completed. I am not one of those authors. Actually I am not an ‘author’ at all, because to be one you must first finish and publish, and I have never done this. I am as yet, just an aspiring writer with an idea that won’t die.
I have great admiration for published authors. I always have. I suppose it comes part and parcel with growing up as a reader. When I was young I was an insatiable reader. I would devour entire books overnight, feasting on the words like a ravenous patron at an all-you-can-eat buffet. There were many times when I would ‘begin’ the day by closing the last pages of a Steven King or Dean Koontz novel, bleary eyed from lack of sleep and knowing full well that I would need to somehow survive the coming day despite my self-imposed exhaustion. And yet, in my heart I was content to do so if this was the price to be paid for my addiction to the words. I’m older now, much older, and I do not indulge nearly as often anymore. That brand of binge reading is for someone that still has faith, and as I mentioned earlier, I no longer have it.
I’m not entirely sure where I lost the faith. If it were a physical object the logical thing to do would be to retrace my steps until at last I found it, laying discarded by the sidewalk, waiting for me to simply pick it back up again and place it in my pocket where it belongs. But faith is an elusive thing; incorporeal and flighty. It comes and goes on its own whims without so much as a by-your-leave. I suspect that it left me at a thousand different points along my life-path, each such time not leaving completely in one whole chunk, but a fraction here and there.
And so it would be utterly pointless for me to attempt the describe the moment when I lost my faith. I would need to detail my entire life history and I have no inclination to do so. It’s a long story without any theme or plot, and the protagonist completely unrelatable to anyone except the most desperate. As a book my life would be a boring one. I sincerely doubt anyone would care to finish it, there are even times when I have contemplated closing the covers before the end, though I know this is something I can never do. It’s the one book that once begun, must be read in its entirety, you really aren’t given much of a choice in the matter.
In any case it’s really not that important that you know where I lost the faith anyway. All you need to know is that I have. That really tells you all that you need to know about me, because everything that I have become is in a sense, a result of that loss. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that everything that I am not is a result. Again, when I was young I believed the old sayings; ‘That you could be anything you wanted to be, do anything you wanted to do if you only worked hard enough at it’. I suppose I still do believe that. So how do I explain my present situation? If everything I’ve ever desired is still out there just waiting patiently for me to claim it and yet I can not see the necessary path what does that say about me?
My ambitions were great when I was young, they have simplified over time, and yet I still find even the most basic of them far beyond my reach. All I desire now is the means to support myself on a basic level, a career that engages and fulfills me, and someone to be at my side to share my life with. That’s it. That’s really all I want now. And I have none of those things. Worse yet, with each passing of the seasons I begin to doubt ever more that even those simple needs will ever be filled.
Ahh, but we’re getting a little far afield now. It’s time to return to the immediate matter at hand. The words.
As I said earlier there are many that hold their words like cards in a poker game, only revealing the hand when the last stake has been raised and called. I am not one of those. I want my words read, I need my words read. As quickly as possible, by as many as possible.
Writing is the loneliest of arts. If you are a musician then every performance is in essence practice among your public. If you are a painter you can set up your easel on a street corner allowing any curious passer-bys the opportunity to see your work in progress. The point being that with almost every form of art you can practice and perfect even as you share your art with others. It’s expected in fact. Not so with writing.
With writing you labor long hours in solitude. For the actual act of writing it is not only expected, it is required. Who can write a coherent sentence, much less an entire work among the babble of outside voices intruding at every turn? If you’re fortunate then at the end of a session, when you have put in your daily allotment of sweat and tears and have something remotely presentable you have an opportunity to pass it off to another, hopefully someone who’s judgment you trust and value, so that they may criticize, praise or condemn the work as is appropriate. I am not quite so fortunate.
Oh, on occasion I do manage to find an unlucky soul here or there that will take the time to peruse my work. And when this happens my heart soars for a short time. My art, whether loved or hated is at least being shared. For that instant it matters. In that instant something that I have created matters, which means in some small way that I matter.
But such times of joy are fleeting. Time is a precious commodity to spare this day and age. It must be divided and rationed among a multitude of tasks. And my bruised and battered ego craves for more, so much more than any one person can provide. Well, that’s not true. It could be provided by one, and by only one, if it were the right someone. I would gladly write for all eternity, or at least my small share of it, for an audience of just that right one. But again, I’m not so fortunate as that.
I truly wish that my talents lay in one of those other, more public forms. They do not. What small talent I may possess is here, with the words I learned to love so much as a child. I do not claim any great talent mind you, only some small, untrained stub of a talent. Best to make the most of what nature does provide you. So I write.
When I begin a session the words are always reluctant. They hide among my thoughts, buried under my doubts and fears like pixies in a forest, requiring me to be patient as they are slowly coaxed out one by one. If I have the necessary time to devote, they eventually become bolder, coming out to dance upon the page, and I like a satyr with a flute, direct them hither and thither until at last the breath fails me for the time being and I must sound the last note, sending them back to the oblivion from which they came, having left behind evidence of their existence in the form of a completed page or two. While they dance there is fulfillment, and if it were possible to always write without need to stop I would happily do just that.
But that’s not reality. In reality you must stop eventually.
That is when I so desperately want to share what I have created. But I can’t. I have no reader.
So, in the absence of an audience I become my own. I reread what I have written. I correct, and criticize my own efforts ad nauseum until every last ounce of creative spark has been extinguished. Nothing is ever good enough, there is always a better way to phrase any thought. A paragraph that I believed to be inspired as it was written transforms into a trite slice of pretension before my eyes. The process is a cruel one, and once done leaves me feeling empty and more alone than ever.
That’s why in the dead of night, when I have all the time in the world to call forth the words, and a good story to tell, I hesitate. Not because the words won’t come, but because I know that eventually they will. Without faith I’m afraid to summon them. I’m terrified that their departing wake may threaten to swamp me anew in a despair deeper and darker than that which prompted their gathering in the first place.
In the end it really is not so complicated after all. I’m just lonely.
I sigh. The words have begun to call out to me again, they wish to dance once more. They have a story to tell. Does it really matter if the story is heard? Perhaps not, perhaps it’s enough to merely tell it to the air. It’s the story you see, it’s alive, and it wants to be told. It wants me to tell it and no other. It has gifted itself to me. It whispers to me that she is mine and I am hers, and I must accept this terrible gift, for I shall have no other.
I sit and stare at the computer.
I begin to write.
“What’s up? Everything ok?”
I look up and see the man standing over and beside me. I was so focused on my own thoughts I never heard him approach. I affix a small thin smile on my face as I reply, “Yep, everything’s fine.”
He looks at me for a moment. It’s clear he doesn’t believe me for an instant. “You look down again.”
“Nope, everything’s hunky dory. A-ok.”
He shakes his head in mystified frustration and walks away. “You think too much man.” A parting bit of wisdom as he exits the scene.
My head lowers back to its initial position. My eyes gaze out on the same fixed spot as before. The smile vanishes, the effort to maintain it no longer required. “Yes, I know.” I mutter quietly. “It’s who I am. It’s what I do.” It’s the truest response I’m capable of giving, though he is no longer near enough to hear it.
It’s good that he never hears me. If he had it may have caused him to pause and try again. Then again it might not have, you never know. It’s not as though he’s really a friend, just a roommate, a temporary acquaintance. He’s a nice enough fellow, I have no complaints about him, but he’s got no skin in the game so to speak. The question was asked more out puzzlement than true concern. That’s ok though, I don’t want his concern. I don’t want another friend.
Most of my former friends have abandoned their quixotic quests to fix me and left me to my fate. Once again, that’s good. It’s how I prefer it. No good ever came of their efforts, my capacity to drag them down always greater than their ability to lift me up.
You might think, as I’m sure my roommate does, that I’m sad. I’m not. Not really. Sadness, is an emotion and requires feeling. I feel nothing. Sadness, happiness, anger; they’re all mere words that have no meaning in my current state. If I feel anything at all it’s fatigue, as though all emotions have been washed away in a flood leaving only the empty vessel of my mind robbed of its impetus to even care.
Depression you say? Well, give a cookie to the genius out there in the third row. You got it in one. Congrats!
Don’t get the wrong impression though, I’m not always like this. Well, ok maybe just a lot of days, ok perhaps even most. But not all. I vaguely remember what it feels like to be ‘normal’, but the memory of it recedes a little more with each sunrise and sunset. That’s the thing about depression, when you’re in it you can see out of it, but you can’t feel out of it. If you’ve never been depressed I’m sure that statement makes absolutely no sense to you, if you have then it just might.
If you’re reading this and you’re wondering about that taboo phrase ‘suicide risk’ let me allow you to put your mind at ease. There’s no immediate danger of that, nor do I sincerely believe there will ever likely be. How can I say that? Because I have seen death. I stood at my mother’s side as she lost her struggle against the inevitable. I saw no peace on her face afterwards. All I saw was the awful finality of it. She had gone, only an empty shell of a body remained behind, and nothing would ever bring her back. For a period after that I considered the option, had my plan in hand, and found I could not execute.
Even on the darkest of days there will always be some small nugget of hope buried deep inside. Depression will certainly take its lion share but it cannot fully claim every last vestige no matter how hard it pulls. Hope is a stubborn thing, it hides in the crevices of my heart and clings on for dear life, for my life. It’s a hope that things will be better tomorrow than they are today, that I will be able to feel something, anything, once again. Frankly there are times when I curse that hope. It ties me to the world when I might wish otherwise. But there is no such thing as temporary, trial-sized suicide. If you succeed at your attempt the results are final and irrevocable, if you fail you only worsen your present situation. Either way you lose. And so I go on, hoping, yet not truly believing. Life under those conditions becomes a life sentence, nearly unbearable, yet inescapable.
My mother was a diabetic. If you’re at all familiar with diabetes, either from your own personal experience or from having watched it consume someone you cared about, then you know it’s a gateway disease. It weakens the body to such a degree that any and all sorts of pernicious afflictions assail the victim with a vengeance. In the end it was congestive heart failure that won a close race with lung cancer for the honors of ending her life.
What diabetes does to the physical body, depression does to the mind. First come the self-doubts, the self -directed recriminations, the memories of past failures that will not fade. In time your faith, bit by bit fades, and on its passing takes all motivation as its companion. Without motivation there is no action, no further effort on your part to right the listing ship. So you become passive to your own fate, content to merely breathe in and out as you await the end you clearly see approaching. You despise yourself for your own weaknesses and yet do nothing to correct them. Finally you pull away, away from anything that might remind you of life. Friends, hobbies, work, loves; all these things you allow to slip away from you one by one until there is nothing left and you are but a hollow shell. This is depression. This is what I've dealt with to varying degrees of success and failure for most of life.
If you’ve never suffered from depression count yourself fortunate. Do not make the mistake of thinking however that you are somehow immune. It strikes most often and most severely at those genetically predisposed, but nobody is immune. Nor is it simply a matter of whistling away your doubts and fears with inspirational catechisms. Depression alters your brain chemistry as surely as any drug, at its worst rendering you completely incapable of effective resistance without outside assistance.
Ok, next you’ll ask what I’m doing about it. Getting therapy? On medication? Keeping busy? Trying to think happy thoughts? Eating my veggies and getting my exercise? Therapy-yes, meds-no, the rest-as I can. I’ve tried all of the above before, with decidedly unimpressive results. I’m not really a fan of the meds route to be honest, so for the time being I’m giving them a rest. But otherwise I’m being a good little boy and doing my best to get back into the game.
That’s the reason I’m writing this, it’s a form of self-therapy of my own devising. Prick the emotional zit and allow all the pus to run out in the form of letters on a page. Will I ever allow another to read this? I don’t know to be honest. I suppose if there is anyone out there currently reading this then that question has been answered. I’m really not sure it makes a great deal of difference, not to me at least. If I did release this to the world and it came as some small bit of comfort to another that would be a good thing, but how would it benefit me? I don’t want pity, I’ve had enough of that, it sours the stomach and just serves to remind me how pathetic I must appear.
So many hopes when I was younger, so many lost opportunities strewn along the path of my life. Such a waste. It’s not the things that I’ve done that I regret, for those are precious few, it’s all the things I’ve not done. It’s the chances not taken, the efforts not given, that weighs most heavily on me. I’m 48 now, at that age when your body begins to let you know your time on earth has its limits. When you’re younger you think you have forever to set the wrongs to right. You don’t. Every day that passes, every ache and pain emanating from my body, every unbidden memory of an opportunity lost; all remind me of that fact daily.
So…I’m soldiering on, doing my best in my limited way to salvage what time I have left, however long that may be I cannot say. Then again I’m not unique in that regard, nobody else can either. Whether it’s an hour, a year, or many decades, my future is hidden from me as it is to all. My only choice is to continue on, trying my best to make it count for something.
A tune comes into my head as I write, it’s the iconic song from Annie, we all know the one. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps tomorrow will be a better, sunnier day. Perhaps. Guess the only way I’ll know is to wait and see. After all, there’s always that damnable hope.
The morning sunlight hits the lenses of my eyeglasses at an angle and showers a prismatic spray of color across the path of my sight. I experience this in much the same manner as I’m experiencing everything at this moment; as one small, yet vital element of my setting. I’m sitting outside on my balcony and allowing the totality of the scene to play across the full spectrum of my senses. I feel the cool morning breeze on my bare arms, I hear the rustling of squirrels in the leafy undergrowth below as they search for breakfast, I breathe in the mostly fresh air only slightly tarnished by the fumes of car exhaust wafting over from a nearby city street, my mouth still has the lingering complimentary tastes of coffee and tobacco deposited there a few minutes prior.
There are many more elements to the scene, far too many to list, but my senses records and registers them all. It’s wondrous how the mind can do that. All that sensory input taken in simultaneously and blended together to paint a portrait of an instant.
The morning is peaceful and I am thankful for that. It’s a weekday and soon I will be required to leave this comfortable chair and face the challenges of the day. But now, right now, that is all in the future. Now there is only peace, and for all it’s briefness, it’s rendered all the more precious to me.
I watch a pair of cardinals dancing around each other, one a dull orange female, the other the bright red of a male. I see a neighbor leaving his apartment, heading down the stairs to the parking lot below bound for only he knows where. I hear the morning traffic as people go about their lives, each lost in their own thoughts for good or ill. I light another cigarette and smell its acrid aroma seconds before I taste it as well. The sun’s rays begin to warm my skin.
Perhaps this is the purpose. To experience. Not to judge the moment, or worry about its implications, but just to experience it. I don’t know. Far wiser people than I have tried for millenniums to define the purpose behind life, each crafting their own definitions in the process. But their ideas do not speak to me with even a fraction of the power as this moment does. Maybe it’s something that cannot truly be told or imparted, but must be learned for oneself.
I make a mental note to myself; record as much of this as possible in writing before it slips away. Give it some tiny measure of permanence. Make it a memory that can be recalled at dark times when its emotional essence is most in need. Offer the experience up to others. Yes, share it with anyone that cares to listen. Oh how I would love that. To share something good with another human being, even if we never meet, never speak to one another directly. Let my words here speak for me.
The morning continues, the sun rises slowly, the lens flare on my glasses vanishing. It’s good, it’s all good. One moment has passed, and another awaits its turn. I patiently sit, eagerly anticipating what life has to teach me next.