I forgot how to write in 2019. I was still doing it to some extent, nouns and verbs here and there, publishing the odd post and scribbling notes to myself in the various places I stash ideas, but I had become confused. The internet soured. Each time I logged on, I felt myself permeated by incoherence, as if each day’s assault of random interestingness was a kind of cosmic radiation, weakening my bones, shredding DNA, mutating my sense of self, place and purpose.
At the same time, my twenty year career as a college librarian was unraveling. I lost connection to the work I was doing, had done and had felt to be important. The place I was working became poisonous, a place that celebrated mediocrity and prized uncritical conformity. The feel-good phraseology of employment as “work family” took hold, and directionless “innovation” masked an institutional rot that still breaks my heart.
The larger world seemed no better. Everywhere I looked, I saw once-trusted systems breaking. “We can’t keep living like this”: the mantra circling like smoke in my mind.
I started talk therapy (again) with an affable, but himself exhausted, therapist who helped me understand the turn a mind often takes in midlife. We talked a lot about the physical experience I had of staring into woods at night and feeling myself being swallowed by darkness, which seemed the inescapable fact of death — mine, yours, everyone and everything. It was, in psychological terms, a depression. It was, in spiritual terms, liberation. He helped me see that I didn’t have to do the things I had been doing. I didn’t have to continue thinking myself a plaything of what others deemed important or useful or vital. I could define these things for myself. He prescribed James Hollis and Robert Bly and poetry and writing and running and meditation. He prescribed family and friends and community.
And then: the pandemic.
My sense of darkness and the inescapability of death came to seem prescient. I felt also a kind of global kinship as we all moved our lives onto the internet to keep ourselves physically apart to help “bend the curve” of hospitalizations and death around the world. There was a brief moment of togetherness, beauty and wonder as my feed filled with video of people all around the world leaning from balconies to clamor and praise the work of nurses, doctors and emergency responders daily placing themselves in harm’s way. I saw cellists and opera singers perform in empty town squares for people who needed the courage that music and art bring. We stopped driving cars so much and air quality got better. And the thought “we can’t keep living like this” became “Oh. This is how it can feel to be a human.”
And also, then, the “work from home” experience which, for me, dovetailed with remote onboarding into a new job inside a completely different profession. I made my escape from the broken place that had been my professional home, a place that had been making me physically sick. Painful as it was to leave behind my own team and friends via web conferences, I found a new opportunity to do meaningful work in a place I respected and that respected me.
I turned my mind again to the possibilities of writing but my mind was worn with constant thought of pandemic, the gathering strength of anti-democractic politics, economic stress and the inescapable fact of climate crisis. I didn’t know what to write, where to start. And then, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. My feeds were full of protests, the swell of pent up people coming together to demand accountability for the unaccountable. And then, tear gas and billy clubs as the state’s answer to the gathered people. And then, the gassing of Lafayette Square to make the way safe for the vainglorious president and his ego handlers to strike sanctimonious poses in the borrowed shine of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
And then, a white teenage gun nut became a Fox News hero for carrying his AR-15 into the midst of chaos so he could feel like a bad ass. And later, America went full Watchmen when Texas deputized all citizens to enforce its heinous forced birth law. Everywhere I looked, the people saying “America First” most loudly were actively putting American values last. Metastatic dumbness grew rampant, aggressive and violent.
In the midst of all this, I lost my words entirely. As a white, professional, affluent male, I had no idea what to say. Everything that seemed possible to say also felt like a gross exertion of privilege. Who should care what I had to say? What could it possibly matter?
I am not proud of this reflex. In the moment, I could have used my voice to elevate the voices of Black lives, female lives and queer lives — people who already understand the violence and chaos I was feeling as a more or less normal part of their whole lives. I didn’t. I let myself vacillate too long trying to decide if using my voice was an act of aggression or an act of hubris. I couldn’t discern which. My silence became an exertion of my privilege. I spoke quietly to those people who already agreed with me, who saw what I saw and felt what I felt and tried to ignore the stupids and crazies.
Except, the stupids and crazies were everywhere. People I knew. People I had worked with. People I once had liked. People I had invited into my home. They were all on social media saying outrageously dumb things with a galling lack of shame.
I left Facebook because it was making me hate people I was meant to love. And then, I left Twitter because the richest man in the world decided he could fix America’s so-called “free speech problems” by buying the speech platform. Nothing to see here. Just one more self-righteous billionaire writing a check to feel like they are actively solving problems they daily help make worse.
And also the failed January 6 coup which was broadcast live for all the world to see, but for which the right people will never pay.
And then, the week the Supreme Court declared war on all of us. States cannot enforce hundred year old gun restriction laws but can force women to give birth against their will.
It is all too much. It has been too much. It will be too much.
And now, I am here, with you, to tell you that I never meant to leave this place and I never wanted to stop writing. For a while, I thought it hurt too much to try and now I find it is hurting too much to not be trying. Silence is making me sick. All of this not writing has become a thing I feel in the viscera of my body, in the hot reach of my soul.
And so, I am trying to return. I am trying to return with a new sense of what’s actually possible. Reading back on so much of my writing, I find a person struggling to declare what he believes he knows and understands. I stopped writing when I realized I know nothing. I understand nothing.
It takes a while to find humility, to accept your limits and realize that what you have to offer isn’t your certainty about things. It is your curiosity, your courage in uncertainty, your willingness to show your doubts to others in hopes they might recognize some of it as familiar, that some piece of your confusion about the world and these lives we are making can resonate and be helpful.
So I am trying to find a new way into my writing. Not as a declaration of what I know but, rather, as a joyful celebration of everything I don’t know, what I cannot perhaps ever understand. I still like the title Ubiquitous Quotidian but the meaning has changed. It is a journey of thought, feeling and community through what I am encountering everywhere (ubiquitous) everyday (quotidian).
I can only promise to show up in my writing. What we might do together with any of this remains to be seen.