I've been quite occupied the past couple of weeks, so sorry about the radio silence on this end. But I'm (sort of) back, and I've dredged up something from distant memory that only now makes sense to me.
There was a period of about a week in I think 2005 or 2006 when I experienced what I now realize was the deepest and most crushing depression I've ever felt, so much so that it literally paralyzed me.
I spent a week doing absolutely nothing. I was only roused out of the house to go to the post office and take mail from the P.O. box, and I think I only bothered to do that once during that time. I didn't read, I didn't play music, I didn't talk to people (I barely spoke to my own wife), I didn't get any work done, creative or otherwise. I just sat there and looked at my computer screen. The only thing that roused me to activity was knowing if I didn't answer some email and accept some assignments, my wife and I would starve.
This may not sound bad compared to what some other people have gone through, but most people who know me know I'm a whirlwind of energy. For me to do nothing for an entire week is tantamount to being dead. And it all stemmed from a realization I had, the kind of thing I imagine most people have to wrestle with at least once in their lives if they have any soul at all.
Most of us have, I imagine, a moment in our lives when we say to ourselves, "At some point I'll be dead." I had, I thought, already wrestled with this and won — I'd very nearly been killed in a car accident when I was five years old, and that impressed me from a very early age on with a strong sense of the ephemerality of things, my own existence chief among them. My response to this gloomy fact was to create things. I would write, or I would make music, or explore all the other things one could do that could fall under the general label "self-expression".
By '05 or '06 I'd reached a point where all that had evaporated. The last time I'd finished anything book length had been ten years back. An ambitious collaborative project with another creator fizzled out when it became clear no amount of effort on my part would suffice to move the stone. Another well-meaning collaboration went nowhere. Attempts at music-making ended with me throwing the resulting discs into a landfill. A programming project that was meant to be a community-building exercise had a bright first few years, but had by that point entered a long, slow phase of senescence.
I felt like a waste of life and promise. Someday I was going to die, and nothing I could make would ameliorate that fact. None of that would stave off the inevitable, or even armor me against the cruelest of its truth. Nothing I could make, or even do, would help. I couldn't take any of it with me. (What was I going to do, stick the books into my coffin?) It would offer me no consolation at any point between now and the end. It wasn't even something I had to put into so many words. I knew all this the way one knows you will choke if you try to breathe underwater.
As I mentioned above, the death spiral sort of burned itself out when I realized I had to get back to work, and I spent some months in a state of functional numbness. But under that I had another realization coming to light, one that took me a while to put into words, but which I felt the effects of long before that.
About a month or so of this functional numbness, I remember being on a train headed into New York City, where I was going to visit a mini-tradeshow and maybe get some material out of it for work. They had food, and I always made use of any excuse to go into the city. I wandered off the train and headed downtown, and somewhere in the middle of the noise and the walls of the buildings around me and the people crushing in close, I felt the return of a feeling I had experienced from time to time previously in my life. It was the sense that the world was mine, because I was it and it was me — a sense of total freedom that doesn't present itself as megalomania, but rather as grace. It's the kind of thing that sound awesomely stupid when put into words.
But after some trudging along, I saw this feeling lift away the weight of the stone I had been crushed under. It was not that I had to create anything to justify my existence. It was that my existence was already justified, and that creating was just another aspect of that existence. I didn't create things because I wanted to make a case for being worthy of occupying some corner of the universe. I created to celebrate the fact that I could create at all, that I was here at all. That was reason enough. I did not have to try and do any of this so I could have, so to speak, something laid to rest with me in my coffin. And again, this was something I knew first, and only found whatever clumsy and stumbling words for later.
None of this had any immediate effect on me. It wasn't an euphoria, exactly; more like having a toothache that wouldn't go away. I went to the mini-tradeshow (they had platters of sliders), puttered around downtown, bought some books, went home. But that psychic toothache stayed with me for months after. It prodded me in the direction of trying to do something for NaNoWriMo 2006. That project became Summerworld, the first book I felt really worthy of signing my name to, and the start of what would eventually become the Infinimata imprint.
I've always had hang-ups about enjoying and making the most of the moment in front of me, when I know it's all bookended by death. Yes, even if the bookends are ostensibly decades away in either direction. Not because "none of it is worth it", but because it's easy to believe that somehow, somewhere, there is more we can do than shake our fists at the encroaching dark. But that presumes making stuff, living our lives, is just a mere shaking of the fists. I got a note once from a reader who told me Flight Of The Vajra was the one good thing in their life at a time when everything else had gone to crap. These aren't just words on a screen, or wads of paper. There's something bigger here, and the greatest sin is not to overestimate their power but to underestimate them.
Life isn't spoiled by being limited or troubled. Of all the misconceptions I've carried around with me all these years, that may be the one I've had that's closest to a cardinal sin: the belief that life is only worth enjoying, is only enjoyable, when it is not stained by worry or regret. There is no life that can be lived without those things, because even what seems like an unstained life from the outside will have such soil in it somewhere. Grace is learning that you can be happy right now, with the meal in front of you or the person next to you. Grace is in not needing to hope for eternity, because what's in front of you is plenty. Grace is knowing all these sad things and making something of it anyway, because otherwise it gets dull sitting there with your hands folded. I do not always know this grace every day of my life, but I know it often enough to know it is real, and that it is always close at hand, if you know where to reach for it. What matters is that you never stop reaching for it.
Ebert said it very well, as he so often could (I have copied this quote so many times):
"A person has to participate," Studs Terkel liked to say. That's how I feel. Meditating on futility - that's no way to live. One of the most useful pieces of advice ever given me, at a time when I despaired, was: Act as if. Act as if you make a difference. If infinity is too big for you, live in the day. Shakespeare as usual expressed this better than anyone else, and it took him six words: To be, or not to be. That wasn't simply an expression of the Existentialist choice between choosing to live or die. It was the choice to act, or not to act. To participate.
Note the wording. Not to believe, or to disbelieve, because the universe does not revolve around our thinking, but embodies itself in our actions. But the choice to act, or not to act; to participate. Whenever I retreated into myself and longed for the world to go away, things only got worse. When I turned around and got involved, things didn't always get better, but they didn't have to be good and they didn't hurt if they were bad. I was an active part of them, not just a passive observer. That's something you only know for yourself through action — not thinking, or wishing, or mulling it over with friends and beer.
As John Cage also put it very well: "Let us say Yes together to our presence in Chaos." Because we might as well learn how to do that properly, for all our sakes.