Meaninglessness, powerlessness, and the inevitability of death. Also, nothing is fair, not the good things I have and not the bad. I didn’t ask to be born. Sometimes I’d rather not live at all.
It was a tall order for a Saturday afternoon, the laundry humming in the basement, the sun crossing low in the sky. She crumpled down onto the kitchen floor, the weight of the world bearing down in the form of homework, of housework, of not being Greta Thunberg. Why bother? she asked. Why? Typical teenager stuff maybe, but that doesn’t make the despair any less real or the core of the problem any less true. There are plenty of arguments to be made about meaning and personal power, but death is pretty hard to deny. And this wasn’t about reasons and arguments anyway.
First the tears and the talking, then the rage. Screaming into a pillow, then screaming into the sky, barefoot and throwing dirty snow at the house, the fence, the shed. Obviously it could have been worse. But it’s unsettling to be confronted so blatantly about the basics: meaning, power, and death. I couldn’t tell her that one day it would all make sense, that fairness would prevail, or even that much of what she was upset about wasn’t true. I could only mitigate and manage another day. There was still work to be done. Floors to clean and proofreading to do.
Going from that to this—from the kitchen floor to the work of this journal— revealed some suprising resonances. Rereading the pages here didn’t feel like avoidance or denial, and it wasn’t like wallowing either. It was more like the continuation of a conversation, or maybe the echo of it, now with more nuance and a strong sense of faith in words and imagination to make sense enough at least to carry on. Everyone in their different rooms, their different worlds, alone with their questions, but also part of something larger now, and definitely not capitulating.
There are so many losses chronicled in this issue. From the loss of a parent or child to the loss of a language and heritage. There’s abortion. There’s suicide (and not just for humans); there’s the loss of ice on a Siberian lake, maybe forever. As for death, it is “also marketable,” one poet says. Another describes an ideal coffin, “long as a kayak,” while another, examining a scrap of wood marked off in fine pencil, writes, “Friends, / we die like that: // the whole starry sky goes black while these little nothings last.” There’s no denial of that inevitability here, but it is leavened by attention and curiosity, even as it is resolutely confronted and described.
There are feelings of powerlessness, too, and of limitations imposed from within and without, then pushed back against. The limitations prescribed for the
role of “wife.” The limitations of a new language when the tongue still bends to shape the old. Powerlessness in the face of age, decay, and ominous political momentum. Writing is one way to get past those limitations—or not, painful as that can be—and a way to see more and tell more of the truth, even if it’s never all of the truth, nor true for everyone. And other questions too: what do I do with my freedom, my choice, and which questions will I be left to answer “for myself alone”?
But just as significant here are the moments of beauty, of breakthrough, and of wonder. The amazements of a frog pond or a street in Paris in June, the tenacity of certain teachers, the mystery of sun, clouds, and stone. And there’s solace in company—those poems on purple mimeograph sheets like a voice calling back, those runners stretching together on the infield. All of this, tracked down and pursued with all the precision and imagination a person can squeeze from language alone.
These attempts at understanding, confronting, and recognizing loss and limitations don’t necessarily answer why why why when we’re just going to die anyway, or explain how to make one’s life into a heroic journey. Even when you’re not a teenager, there’s no denying that loss and futility are always close at hand. But in the meantime here are a thousand stories and a thousand ways to live anyway.
Will any of that help a despairing, raging adolescent? Suggestions were not welcome—not of reading material, certainly (nice try, Mom), but not of anything else either. She’d have to find her own way out of this, and not for the last time.
She did finally come back into the house. It was cold and the history poster was still not done and Monday was coming. She did eventually sit down and work on that poster—it’s about the separation of powers in the US government, at least I know that’s important—and she did suffer through the French homework. Buttered noodles helped, an old Justin Timberlake concert video. And she stayed up late alone, because she could. That, and the way she did the poster—drawing by hand and imagining the branches as frosted doughnuts— were some things she did have control over.
I’m sure she’ll come around to the tears and rage again. No state of detente with meaninglessness, powerlessness, and inevitable death is permanent. For my part, I’m glad for her company, and for the company of all these writers, continually pushing up against their own obstinate questions.