Every city I’ve lived in, long term, has felt like some part of the body to me. Guayaquil felt like a heart, and I found myself often listening for its beats. Sometimes they eluded me, other times I was caught in the midst of them, unable to hear anything else. Rochester was bones, stacked oddly, a woman lying on her back, one leg extended, the other knee bent, foot on the earth. It was a hollow place, for me, and when I recall it, it’s often from the perspective of standing in that ribcage, wondering where the organs were, and looking out, all around me.
Atlanta is like a pair of lungs. Huge, beastly, heaving lungs. Its breath is audible, at times becoming an almost mechanical or accordion-like wheeze. The exhales, to me, are particularly satisfying; an orchestra of noises, of diminishing weight, of momentary release, all cascading into a few seconds of perfect quiet. Until, of course, the lungs begin to expand again.
I’m not sure what any of this means, except, perhaps, that maybe I’m crazier than previously suspected.
But Atlanta also feels like something else: a big exam. Maybe a quarterly, or a midterm, but not the final (is that not death?) but something massive and expansive. It’s an open-book test, I can review my notes as I look at the questions, as I try to select the best answer. It’s also full of alarms, often painful, garish noises that sound hideously and endlessly when I fail myself, when I ignore my notes and pick the answer I want even when it’s wrong. Life is funny like that: what we want is often the wrong answer. Life is even funnier: sometimes, picking the wrong thing is the only way to the right thing. Sometimes, so many alarms sound, it becomes almost like a symphony.
I’ve even administered additional tests that were not in the original booklet. I went skydiving: largely because I’d become obsessed with falling, with feeling gravity more intensely; but also because I knew it would terrify me beyond all words. And it did–there was that final moment on the plane, staring out into the bright sky, the sunny tops of clouds, the cold, loud air rushing in–when I lost the capacity to make any sort of noise, to say a word, to do anything but go slack and let the man behind me carry my body out of that door and into nothing. Everything about it scared me: I don’t like flying, I very much dislike small planes, I am afraid of high heights, I am terrified of death. But I wanted to look at all of those things and say: so what? And I wanted to feel the earth’s only means of loving pull me back toward its surface. Feeling gravity on the ground is so commonplace we forget how strong it is, how fierce that attraction. So: try dropping out of the sky. The earth loves all of us, in its own way. Do we all love it, in ours?
Other little tests I’ve tacked on to the big one: give a few guys my number, go on some awkward and unnecessary dates, make myself go to social mixers, apply for a commissioned art project, resume waiting tables (a job I said I’d never, ever do again)–these are things I’ve chosen to do. But Atlanta has thrown several questions my way (mostly word problems, reading comprehension, various puzzles, and short-answer essay) that I had no interest in answering. But I had to. They were unavoidable, and largely unpleasant. Sometimes, for days, even weeks. They have all made me seriously question my place here: why this city? Why now? What the fuck am I doing?
And I suppose that’s what a good test does: it makes you question your own knowledge, it makes you dig deeper, read your notes very carefully and wonder if you’ve paid sufficient attention. It also makes you ask more questions. In my quest for answers: that’s often what I find the most. Deeper, longer questions, perhaps the kind that will never have answers–and so the mission then becomes: find peace in that.
I am missing so much information. At times, I become desperate to put together the big picture, to make sense of everything, and particularly the past 5-8 years (why were they so difficult, lonely, maddening, unlucky? What is the reason for it all!? Is there one!?). Sometimes so much so that I make wild connections, dizzying loops of color are formed in attempt to string together that with this. And then I realize it is all wrong, the tapestry comes apart, and I want to just give up. So I am adjusting my technique. I save the little bits of fabric as they come in. I organize them into stacks, groups of similar patterns or colors or textures. I am not trying to stitch them in right away, to finish the piece. I have my whole life to do that, and while it might take longer than I want to figure this next part out, sewing and then un-sewing everything will only prolong it, and exhaust me.
In my state on constant-morbidity I am required to ask: but what if I only have a few months or days left on the planet!? I will never figure this out all by then! What sense would any of this make if I were to just die in the middle of it? Well, I don’t know. I suppose that’s one of those questions that has no answers; at the very least, it will not have answer for a long, long time.
It scares me, actually, to write such words. As if writing them makes them real, as if they will become a sort of premonition. I’ll die and someone will read this and say, “deep down, she must have known…”. But I don’t know. I want to live forever, but since that’s impossible, my goal is one hundred. And even then, I suspect I’ll be working on some puzzle I’ll never finish, and I’ll die surrounded by a patchwork of colors, spools of unused thread, needles and stitch markers, some vast image I’m trying to piece together in m mind, but will have to be left for someone else younger and more agile and clever. It makes me wonder: whose unfinished tapestry am I working on now? Who did die, in the middle of this one?
I have so few answers, if any, but I can say this: I write every day, almost everything feels like it could become a poem, my mind is alive with images, wild emotions, ridiculous dreams. I have barely enough money to pay my bills, I have shit health insurance, and there is no sweet man who will adore me anywhere on the horizon. I have no idea, really, what I’m doing, or where I am headed, or what any of this means, but most of the time, I’m OK with all of it. Because this is what has been missing from my life for the past five years, and I felt empty and horrifically lost with out it. Everything will come together; eventually. All I can do is observe, organize, piece things together slowly until I can see enough of it to know what it will be. I know I’ll fuck it up and race to insert a color here or there only to have to later remove it, and its arcing threads, but that is a part of the process, too. And I must love all of it–even the arduous and painful parts–because, oh, TO BE ALIVE HERE ON THIS PLANET. That alone is enough, really, isn’t it?
And I’m happy to be here, navigating this pair of green and giant lungs, learning their anatomy, their geography, their sounds. Learning what makes them quicken, what allows them to slow down. And breathing alongside them, within them, all around them.
And to finish, a little bit of wisdom from Wendell Berry:
Form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.