I no longer believe in the conventional understanding of time and experience. Not like in LOST, although after two years of contemplating it I think maybe I’m starting to understand a tenth of what they were talking about. Not wormholes or that whole threaded Brian Greene universe thing. I’m not that smart, and I don’t think I’d want to be. What I like best is that I can forget altogether about time and it loses its meaning. When value isn’t placed on each moment, they can slip by, but when certain moments are seared into your brain—those potent, rich, powerful moments—happy to sad to tragic—those take on a significance that surpasses our years.
For twenty nine years I talked of writing a novel, but I had nothing to write. I know, it’s fiction. You can make it up. You can create faraway universes like Douglas Adams or make the benign impotence of life interesting like Jonathan Franzen. You can twist things just slightly, like Junot Diaz and Adam Levin, or you can pervert things in true Updike-ian fashion. There are a million ways to draw an audience, and there’s no blueprint for art. That’s the beauty of fiction, but you still have to have lived. I’m not talking about seeing the world or forcing yourself into dangerous situations. I’m not talking about giving up electricity for a year so that you have a book to write or moving to a farm and leaving your city life behind so that those who’ve dreamed of doing what you’re doing will shell out the $19.95 for your pedestrian musings on the simple life and the direction in which the world is heading. That’s the stuff of bad journalism and the stuff of even worse fiction. I’m not talking about having to have an alcoholic father or to have lived as a gay man in a mormon community. We can’t control those things. I’ve had a beautifully normal life. Your characters, if you know what you’re doing, are alive, and they’ll live lives of their own, but how do you know what they’re supposed to do—what living is—if you haven’t lived yourself?
Maybe that’s why I pushed out two books in seven months. Maybe I started living life, or living through life, depending on how you understand it. I don’t believe life is endured. I believe life is experienced, and at its best, good or bad, it’s savored. I used to wake up everyday to swig the bottle of water next to my bed, washing out the remnants of a mild hangover, and then flip on SportCenter over a breakfast of peanut butter toast and strong coffee. Then it was off to work, where I read, edited and wrote stories about the wonderful community and natural world around my home. After that, maybe the gym. Often the brewery. Home for a nice dinner. I’d swing by Farmstand and pick up something fresh and local. Ann would already be home. We’d pour a beer or a vodka soda and watch crappy TV while we vented about things we thought mattered in our day to day lives. Some of them did; many of them didn’t. I enjoyed just about every minute of it. I still enjoy elements of that time. We share funny or infuriatingly stupid Facebook status updates from our feeds and make fun of the losers on The Bachelorette or laugh at the illusive, discreet, brilliantly-subtle humor of Community, feeling like we’re getting most of it, and not worrying about the stuff that’s over our heads. It’s simple. It’s life. Sort of.
That was before I understood what anxiety is. That was before we saw Ann’s beautiful, vibrant grandmother transformed into an almost alien life form—dehydrated, stretched out of shape, kept alive by machines, and then suddenly lifeless in a wooden box. That was before I’d had the experience of writing my first novel after losing my first job. That was before Ann took on the challenge of commuting one hundred and thirty miles a day to make a better life for her and for me. That was before I really started to understand pain. And as soon as I started to understand pain the sadness came. The irrational anxiety-driven madness came, though they weren’t related. There is no cause for that madness—this madness. The ability to stop time came. I started to understand. A strange thing happened. A lot of very strange things happened. In the end, I’ve come to find that life isn’t so much more than the stuff of great fiction. Life isn’t art, but maybe I see it that way, and maybe that’s OK for me. It probably wouldn’t work for you. Who reads fiction anymore anyway, let alone writes it? Don’t lie. I’m not talking about the recent book turned movie or Oprah selection. I’m talking about the good stuff. The classic and the soon-to-be-classic. I’m talking about understanding that the sweetness in life comes from not understanding something. The simplicity in life is actually boredom. Sadness brings richness. Pain is important.
I wrote a book and I celebrated it here and hundreds of you showed up in one day at this site and on Facebook to share your words of encouragement with thumbs pointed upward and a deluge of exclamation marks. I tried to share some of the anxiety that I’d thought was born out of that experience. I was wrong. And I didn’t share enough. I always thought I understood my friends and family who suffer through the debilitating difficulties of anxiety or depression. I knew nothing. Jack shit. Zero. I hadn’t lived it. My mom wrote me shortly after the I FEAR I MAY SUCCEED essay was published to say she was sorry she hadn’t realized what was causing some of my anxiety. Well, I hadn’t either, until I started to write that. It got worse as I edited We Are Not Now That Strength because there was so much I wasn’t happy with, but so much of what I wasn’t happy with was correctable if my brain would turn off for just a second and stop telling me the terrible things it was telling me for days that turned into weeks and then into months—half a year. Paranoia ensued. Sleepless nights. Tears. Rage. Deep sadness. I called my mom about six weeks ago because Ann was at work and couldn’t get to her phone and all I could do was sit on the couch and cry. I couldn’t turn the TV on because I’d see floaters in my vision, caused by stress and my obsessive compulsion to stare at the bright white parts of the screen or into the sun in the background to confirm that I was, indeed, seeing a floater. I genuinely thought I was going blind. Ann and I went out to dinner the night after my book was finished. We ordered fancy cocktails. They had something with a Hemingway twist, the Old Cuban, I think. Most of what I remember was trying to smile and trying to tell myself that the bright candle behind Ann’s head was not going to cause permanent vision damage. Some of you are laughing. Some of you are nodding your head. Both are OK. “I’m not doing so well,” I told my mother. Tears washed my voice. I searched for a reason. We talked for over an hour in the middle of her work day. I have wonderful parents.
I had seen a lot in a couple months. I’d seen a job I loved disappear. I’d watched a woman I loved die. I finished a book and felt the pain and fear of success. A screenwriter, Richard Rush, in the movie Tales From the Script described writing as pushing constantly against a wall and success as the wall being removed quickly when you least expect it. I know exactly what he meant. I started to write again. It was all I could do. I couldn’t edit. I couldn’t reach out to editors with story pitches because rejection was crushing. I mean that. I don’t waste words. Crushing. I couldn’t eat right. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get through a quiet afternoon without having to call my mom and my wife. I talked to my father. He told me the science behind what I’m going through. He told me I wasn’t going blind. I wanted to believe him and I wanted to understand it but my brain wouldn’t let me. I had cancer, I was now certain of it. I was going to get evicted for not trimming the two large pines in our front yard. Someone was going to read my essays and sue me for something I knew nothing about. My book was shit. The voice would never turn off. It only amplified. Real stresses, even the subtle ones, weren’t distractions, they were hands reaching out and turning the volume knob up. I ran into a photographer friend of mine at the grocery store and spent the entire conversation blinking and looking past him, trying to tell myself that it was normal to have a little trouble seeing after staring at the computer screen and now standing under the nasty UV lights of Safeway. I could go on forever. Celebrations ruined. Conversations forgotten. I sat through whole movies and I remember only what was running through my head, not what was on the screen. I could write. I could do that. For whatever reason, I’ve always had that one singular gift. Ann thought it was a good idea. My mom agreed. I was going to write a second novel. Who cares if it was shit. This voice in my head was going to become a character.
The first day, I wrote ten thousand words that made me cry. I looked through foggy eyes at the screen. Floaters danced in the white spaces. The text was hard to focus on, but the writing, it took my brain somewhere else. I read the first few paragraphs to Ann. I had gone six full months on the first book not sharing even the name of a character and here I was reading fresh, untouched prose to my wife. Something was different. This book was alive. It was the book that was living inside me, not just my attempt to complete something I’d hoped I’d be able to do my entire life. Both of those are great accomplishments, but this book was writing itself. Day two ended at eighteen thousand words. A month later, a book. A novel that talks about the things no one wants to talk about. It talks about the things we have to talk about. It talks about the potency of time. It talks about our darker thoughts. Our compulsions, anxieties, sex lives, drug use, drinking, hate, love, fear, panic, depression, erections, lusts, turn offs, ejaculations. It talks about the way the world smells and tastes to one man, a boy really, and through his differences, his interpretations, his anxiety, his habits, and his ability to freeze the moments of his life that he wants to freeze so that he can distill and share them, we come to talk about and explore ourselves. It’s potent. It’s dark. It will make you sick to your stomach. You will want to punch this kid in the face and by the end you will want your daughter to marry him. It all takes place in one day. It is the inside of a character’s head written by a writer who is learning to savor even the sourest parts of life.
I got help. I take a little pill each day. I’m not going blind. I still lose some sleep. I still get some cold sweats only to have to toss the covers back and take a few deep breaths, then pull them back over my shivering body. The panic lasts only moments now. It may come back. They say anxiety ebbs and flows quite a bit. That’s OK. I’m learning how to handle it and I’m being proactive. I can get excited when I feel it coming on; it might mean I write another book. It’s not perfect, and I think I prefer it that way. I can honestly say, though I can’t necessarily explain how in under a hundred thousand words, that I prefer life this way. Things seem richer now. Sadness still comes. Sometimes its the irrational stuff that haunts my mind while I sit alone in this empty house waiting for my wife to come home and fill the living room with her voice, her laugh, her smell. Sometimes it’s the real kind of sadness, but even that I feel better equipped to handle.
One of Ann’s best friends from college and one of my close friends since moving to Oregon was at our house on Sunday when he got a call that his father had died. I can hear his sobbing voice through the open kitchen window as he leaned against the side of our house even now. I can feel it in my chest. I can feel the short stubby hair on the back of his head as he was embraced by three of his friends, but none of us could reach him then. Tragedy is real. Because it’s real, it’s a part of our lives. We tried to say the right things. We tried to help. You can’t help in helpless situations. His best friend was also with us. He drove him home. The funeral is today. We’re all thinking of you, friend.
Ann picked up the phone to call her father as soon as their car was pulling away. I called my mother in tears again. I had talked to my dad a few hours before. It was father’s day. Our friend said exactly that. “My dad died,” came out choked and curt—louder than expected. A few moments passed. Nothing could be said. Hugs. Tears. Distant, confused looks from minds that were rolling to their own fathers, their own lives, what the next hours and days and weeks were going to be like all of a sudden. “God, It’s father’s day,” he said. He stood up. He took a deep breath. Time was stopped. He went on.
We’re thirty. All four of us that were here Sunday. We’re not supposed to be losing our fathers. Even grandparents are hard enough. Those of us in the Wittenberg family, we lost a classmate and friend a few months ago to a stupid fucking bar fight. I’ve lost peers and friends to cancer, heart attacks, drug overdoses and suicides. I wasn’t the best of friends to one of my best friends when his mother died while we were in college because I didn’t yet understand what that meant. It’s not an excuse. Maybe I wanted to duck my head in the sand—hide in a year’s long cloud of marijuana smoke. But it wasn’t just avoidance, it was a lack of understanding—a lack of empathy due to a lack of experience. It was not knowing or getting that that day, that one day, would come to define huge swaths of my best friend’s life. I won’t forget Sunday. None of us will.
Why is today one of the best days I’ve had in weeks? It’s not the pill. It’s not that easy. If it were, I’m not sure it’d be worth it. I’m beginning to come to an understanding. I’m coming to realize that I’m younger and less experienced and dumber than I thought I was. That makes me feel better. Yes, better. When Ann’s grandmother died I can count a hundred moments I’ll never forget. They were moments born out of the emotionally raw, exposed feeling we were sharing with her family. I’ll never wash away the feeling of Rob’s hand on my back asking me if I was OK. I’ll never forget the way the bright lights made it hard to look at my new family, my in-laws and cousins, sharing beautifully written stories of their grandmother at the podium. I’ll never forget that more people laughed than cried at that funeral. I’ll never forget the typo that slipped into the obituary I wrote for her, but I’ll also never forget my words being used to sum-up someone’s life. They weren’t my thoughts. Those belonged to my mother-in-law, Phyllis, to her sister, Ruth, to Jerry, Kevin, Ann, Rob, Andrew, Heather, Blaine, Davis. They were closer. They knew her best. Now I know each of them so much better. My life is better because we shared one of the most difficult challenges in life together: saying goodbye to someone you loved. A forever goodbye.
I cry and smile at the same time a lot now. I understand my favorite movie, American Beauty, more than ever. I try to be a better friend, a better son, a better husband. I need to try to be a better brother. A better brother-in-law. I don’t think I’d have gotten here if it weren’t for the sadness. The anxiety would have come no matter what. It’s a chemical inevitability given my family history. The sadness, though, that I can be truly grateful for. Bring on the pain.
I wouldn’t have this second book that I can’t wait to edit and share. It’s going to get picked up by a major publisher. I hope McSweeney’s editors are ready for what I’ve crafted. I can’t wait to get back to the first book and to add in the human element, the experience, the weirdness and the esthetic that I’ve learned to craft since the first draft’s completion. I can’t wait to give our friend a hug when he gets back to Oregon after the funeral. I wouldn’t have landed a story in a major, reputable publication if I hadn’t started to understand and stare-down the fear and anxiety and the richness of life born from the tears shed in tragedy. I wouldn’t be hugging my wife tighter. I wouldn’t be writing so well. It’s not easy to admit all these things, and I wouldn’t be able to do that either.
I’ve been given a gift. I’ve been blessed in many ways, and I always would have told you that, but I wouldn’t have meant it in the same way if it weren’t for the last half-year of my life. My anxiety disorder is a gift. My writing is an outlet for that gift that allows my words to dance through the minds of others. I can change moods. I can crystalize life. I can stop time, or at least I can manipulate it. Moments can stretch on for days and even lifetimes; I get that now. Forgetting isn’t always an option. Nothing really slips away. The waves take a piece of the shoreline each time they kiss the sand. I can’t say I don’t still long for the moments wasted in front of the TV. Now that I can watch a basketball game or The Challenge without my internal voice screaming at me to run for cover, to hide, to fear, to call the doctor—I can enjoy the quiet time. I laugh more now that I did a month ago and a hell of a lot more than two months ago. More things give me goosebumps. Kids make me smile. Death doesn’t scare me. I can look beyond myself more because I’ve looked within myself more. I’m not afraid of digging deeper. The only regrets I have are all born out of not coming to this sooner, but time is irrelevant—at least I’ve come to it at all. Maybe my life had to become the stuff of great fiction before I could write great fiction, but I think it’s more in the interpretation. Nothing happens for a reason. The world is random and cruel and beautiful at all at once and no one is controlling that. I control how I see it, though. I control how I capture and share that. I don’t control the anxiety and I don’t control the sadness and I can’t even control my reaction to it, but seeing the world a little more as art and a little less as a daily endurance certainly helps to sweeten the bitter.
At the end of American Beauty, Lester Burnham’s voice, which has narrated the whole movie from the grave, returns. Kevin Spacey plays his character, and the actor is face down in a pool of blood on the kitchen table. He’s been shot. There’s a smile on his face. Not a happy, bright smile, but a slight upturning at the corners of his mouth. He’s lost his job, his wife, probably his daughter, and then his life. The narrator is looking back on the final days in the life of this one mixed-up, unimportant man, and to close the movie, as the camera jumps around from character to character to show where they were at the moment the gun went off, the voiceover says it better than I can say it myself. As the final shot zooms out above the street where the Burnhams live, where so much of their sadness, anger, rage, love, hate, confusion, lust—as the movie leaves us, the viewer, breathless and teary-eyed in contemplation of our own miserably wonderful, puny existence, the last line is, “And I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.” Well maybe I can’t say it better myself, but I can say it in my own words, I feel so fortunate for all the sadness, anxiety and tragedy in my insignificant, splendid life. We can’t ask for the gifts we’re given, but we can control how we use them. We can’t change what happens in the flashing moments of our lives that come to define so much of who we are, but we can take comfort in our shared experience. We all have sadness, and I think, maybe, we’re all better for it.