“There will be people near me, and to be a human being among human beings, and remain one forever, no matter what misfortunes befall, not to become depressed, and not to falter — this is what life is, herein lies its task.”
– Dostoevsky, writing to his brother about his 11th hour stay of execution. Obviously nobody told him about the Wuhan Flu or George Floyd.
Businesses are starting to reopen, albeit with all that reduced capacity. This is when I realize how much I rely upon ritual. Not routine – I can take or leave routine. But ritual. Especially with food. I do not run out and grab a quick coffee, and I try very hard not to just throw some food down my gullet on the way to somewhere. There’s a deep breath and centering sensation that I work into everything that I can. I don’t drink coffee while I’m cooking breakfast, for instance, because I can’t pay any attention to it that way. It makes the coffee pass through my morning like some banal accessory – a function of need or a simple rote transaction. An item on a list. I prefer to pay attention to it. I eat when I can notice what I’m eating, where I’m eating, with whom I’m eating. Not that I give it an exhausting, oppressive degree of significance; it’s just that I tend to try to relax into it.
The ritual is scattered and abused by six-foot intervals and masks. Especially by the stress and tension of wondering whether I’m doing it right. I’ve always been a little paralyzed by the wondering, even in the normal times. If I’m joyfully planting plants outside, spreading fresh dirt and mulch, feeling good, a person walking down the street past me will send me into internal fits of worry and doubt. I assume they’re a horticulturist who can see with a second’s glance that I’m using the wrong kind of soil, putting the wrong kind of plant in the wrong place, not digging a big enough hole, etc. In short, I’ve always believed that I’m the only person in the world who isn’t an expert at the thing I’m doing, so I’m doing it wrong, and that everyone else can see it right away. Choosing produce is a brutal exercise in anxiety suppression. Everyone’s watching me grab the worst possible cantaloupe on the pile and thinking “what a noob.” It’s the sense of observation and evaluation.
I found it out in high school, after I first learned that it was possible to skip a class. What nobody told me was what it would feel like, for me, to return to class the next day. The shame and embarrassment, the unshakable belief that it mattered to everyone what I did. The knowledge that it didn’t – that nobody cared in the least what I did – but the inability to marry that knowledge to the opposite belief. So I skipped class, but then was unable to face my classmates and teacher, and wound up, predictably, almost never going back. I failed all my classes one quarter. Every single one. Seven F’s.
I’ve been that way since the start of the quarantine. Believing that if I go out I’ll be wrongly estimating six feet, standing in the wrong place, wearing the wrong kind of mask in the wrong way, etc. And literally everyone else in the world will be able to see my errors right away, and wonder what in the hell is wrong with me.
So I don’t want to go for coffee where I have to adapt to a prescribed ritual that’s fraught at every step with ways to do it wrong. Distances observed and instructions taped to the floor, nowhere to sit, wear your mask, get your things and move along. That’s no way to live, and I don’t have that little off switch that keeps me from worrying about it all. Not the virus, mind you. I doubt very much we have anything left to worry about there. Worried instead about the way a simple, insignificant misstep can make me feel like a villain, while starkly highlighting the embarrassing condition of our public insecurities. Like I’m in high school again, walking back into the classroom after skipping a day.
There’s no room for my ritual in a place like that. No rest. No deep breath or centering.
I have a lot of dreams about still being in the Army. Usually it’s a lot of confusion about why the heck I’m still in the Army, mixed with dread and disappointment about the fact that I’m still in the Army, combined thirdly with some tremendous panic because I’m supposed to be on a plane to my next deployment, but I don’t have any of my stuff. They’re generally weird and exhausting. Sometimes the whole dream is an escalating frustration – I’ll order a soldier to do something simple, he’ll refuse, and the rest of the dream will be me increasing the rage, volume, and invective of my order until I’m screaming fitfully at him to just fucking do the thing, all while he’s just standing there, perfectly, obviously, blissfully disinterested in anything I have to say. Total impotence.
Anyway, last night I dreamed that we were invaded. By the French (I know, right?). I was up in the booth at some big stadium, the place was full of American soldiers. I had no weapon, but everyone else did. It’s just that nobody seemed to care. I kept grabbing a weapon from someone, popping out into the hallway to kill a few French soldiers (who were dressed, by the way, in some kind of 18th century (19th, 17th, I have NO IDEA) uniform with long red coats that looked waaaaay to heavy for the warm weather), then popping back into the booth to try to rally some support. Again, nobody cared much about what I had to say. I just kept shooting the French, and they were always slumping back sadly against the wall, with very young faces, boys and girls alike. The whole thing wasn’t completely emotionless, but it certainly lacked urgency or passion. There wasn’t any blood. Nobody bled.
There’s an easy parallel, of course, between all that impotence in my dreams and the paralysis of doubt from which my rituals free me, but I’m going to make sure I keep them six feet apart.
It’s freakin’ Juneuary here in Seattle. Low 60’s and rainy. Nice for the plants, bad for heart, hard on the kids. The Boy, as I’ve mentioned, is really feeling it. The weather and the lockdown. He has more bad times, hard days, breakdowns, etc. Here he comes now, down the stairs – let’s take the temperature:
“I was awake at 5:22. I remember because Rae was climbing all over me.”
“I thought your door was closed.”
“It was open. Just a crack.”
“Oh, sorry about that.”
“It’s OK, I like her.”
He’s starting strong, but he almost always does. Things often begin their downward turn at bout 10:15, which is when math starts for the day. But that couldn’t have anything to do with it, right?
Don’t just stand there shouting, Comrade Citizen!