I recently had a short adventure with a close friend that had me reflecting on reading Shel Silverstein and other poetry as a kid and loving it. I loved how much someone can say with saying so little. It served a constant lesson in the power of brevity, something I have struggled with for most of my writing career. I knew peers hated seeing my hand raised waiting to showboat out with, "How many pages is the upper limit?"
The sighs echoed throughout the room. I mostly did it for the sake of fucking with everyone. So cocksure. So nonchalant. So in your face and yet pushed to the skull's furthermost recesses. And towards the very end of college, my favourite professor put me in place with a gut check bombshell during a lecture.
With so few words it has caused me to question, what do I want to write? Who do I want to write about? Is there anyone off limits that I can't write about? Who decides? Who even gets a fucking say for that matter? Do I want to prove something or do something? Do I try to make some grand narrative with a moral about the soul of man? Or do I just write a story about one man's soul? What separates the two?
All of this from a single sentence to a classmate in response to something I thought witty to counter her argument. He reassured her, "Don't worry, some people will never do this stuff again."
In the immortal words of Tyler Durden, "We have just lost cabin pressure." In less than three seconds I had teleported back to my senior year wrestling season, which, let's face it, hardly counts as a season at all. I did the bare minimum needed as I felt the world around me crumble when I needed support the most. My dad would later tell me he let me struggle to see if I could do it on my own.
Spoiler: I couldn't.
Sitting in the corner of my room stood a ever-growing foot-high stack of unopened college applications and info packets sent to me because of SAT and ACT Placement scores. My only real relationship in high school shattered more and more with each step taken towards each other trying to hold it together with mangled fingers and bleeding beating hearts in exposed chests. I couldn't even decide where to apply much less any other significant decisions. I felt no support to strive for more from a wrestling season I had worked for 9 years to have. I felt out of control, dizzy, lost, confused, scared, and alone.
So I let the season pass by. But I'll always remember a day in the room when Coach S called everyone into the corner by the outside door.
I can trace so many memories back to that door from 8 years old on through high school and to the present evening as I lay in bed listening to a playlist of 883 of the most influential songs of my life while reflecting on one of hundreds of team meetings and huddles. It seems so bizarre a rather innocuous doorway could play such a significant role in the course of a life as a metaphor for changing mentalities and understandings as much as the demarcation established between two seemingly arbitrary points in space and time. It creates the perfect opportunity for the creation of an Einstein bridge linking the points together, simultaneously infinite and, yet, so finite as to exist for just a fraction of a second of an aged and faded memory with frayed edges.
This meeting went on for longer than my attention span could handle at the time, much as it has while writing this, but eventually he got to the matter at hand, the brass tax, the realest realist, and though he never directly called anyone out, I've always understood it as such. He focused in on not just going through the motions out of habit and not putting your heart into it because it passes by so quickly but stays with you forever.
When days look like forests and thinking of the future feels like getting lost beneath the canopy of Amazonian wildernesses, trying to stay afloat takes a different set of skills while on dry land.
In the end I've come to learn that whether or not you decide to put your heart into it or not, life very well may cost you it all the same.
In my hands-down-favourite anime, Shingeki No Kyojin (Attack On Titan), the newly selected recruits for the Scout Regiment selflessly stand at full attention in the torch lit expansive parade grounds, tasked with the riskiest and most desperate mission of humanity by reclaiming territory lost in the generation-spanning war during the last attack by neighboring peoples. Many choose to walk away for "safer" roles and positions, unable to make or live with the voluntary decision of pushing everything that makes each one an individual to the utmost degree standing shoulder to shoulder in true equality with brothers and sisters willing to sacrifice themselves for any and all of the team in the most dangerous situations imaginable.
So they stand, left fist clutched behind in the small of the back, right elbow straight out and forwards at the shoulder, right fist clutched thumb down over the breast in a showing of stabbing a knife into and gouging out their hearts, their souls, their all to the cause. Those that stay go on to build unflinching relationships and friendships based on this unwavering faith and trust minted in the heat and pressure forgeries of pain, sacrifice, dedication, and determination.
I felt like dead weight at the pity of my team. I dropped 30+ lbs for the 160lbs spot in mere weeks. I shredded my body as the sacrifice at my altar. One morning, I remember sitting in Ms. S's class staring at a bottle of water sitting on I's desk wanting nothing more in the entire world than that fucking bottle.
So, I basically...ok...I did stop eating for probably 3-4 days a week for a month while burning over 3000 calories a day. Wrestling practice essentially consisted of running for the majority of two hours. For the final push I gave up water for 2.5 days except for maybe 20oz after each workout. That bottle stared me down as the day before weigh-ins loomed and I wanted to destroy it as much as drown my sorrows in it.
I got there though...
I couldn't cut the last 3 lbs and had so little energy I literally felt I could collapse. I probably would've, looking back now. I had worked so hard, never felt better in shape, never felt leaner and meaner, and had nobody really there cheering me on for any of it. I had pushed most everyone away or had started to go through a period of straining friendships and just felt isolated and alone in it all. I do not know how I neglected to pay mind that the road to improvement and growth doesn't always have fans regardless of how many spectators it may attract. To quote the amazing Amanda Fucking Palmer, "To all the ones who tried the most was I supposed to cheer your efforts?"
The stress from all of that building up built up more buildings constructed of indecisive anxiety ridden journeys into any escape I could find, which largely consisted of smoking weed alone in my room, fighting with B constantly as our flame fizzled and struggled to stay lit, and spending hours losing myself in an iTunes library the moment I got home until I went to sleep.
So, during the early wrestling season, I just...checked out. I showed up everyday. I did my job helping my sparring partners and got a good workout. But I stopped there. I didn't push it. I didn't work hard. I didn't give my all for it. And by the end of the season I paid for it dearly. The season ended and I didn't even wrestle in district as I gave up my spot to a sophomore that I never challenged for my spot back after one nervous, anxious day leading to poor performance at practice. My senior-class teammates would all come to share the established experience of leaving their shoes on the mat to signify the last match ever and I didn't even bother going to the state tournament.
I just...didn't go. Got out of school and never left my room. I sat in a cage of anxiety, indecision, and hopeless exasperation.
When the banquet came around I didn't go to that either. I told myself that charging seniors $10 dollars to attend it made the whole idea preposterous from the start. I followed with rationalizing how I didn't even have the $10 despite working because of paying for gas to and from school just as it shot up to $5 a gallon and while putting in 330+ miles a week.
But, truthfully, I couldn't think of anything else to say that proved more effective at keeping my eyes from turning into faucets in the middle of the student center at lunch. Time crept by while standing there trying my best to hold in the agony and pain seeping from between the fingers interlaced over a gaping chest wound.
How could I say, “Nobody in my family even asked about it?”
How could I say, "I feel my world crumbling beneath my feet as my eyes blur and I strain to see anything beyond the fog of a heartbreak on such a scale as to shatter the fabric of space and leave me adrift, lost in a sea of emptiness?"
How do I tell him, “I don't have the heart to collect any award or letter I may have 'earned' because what have I really achieved?"
How do I show him the long-since-cold, four-chambered-mass of muscle that once roughly resembled the shape of wound in my chest?
How do I tell him none of this and place another brick in the wall?
How do I tell him all of this and invite no more questions?
How do I escape to somewhere the air weighs less than my heart, less than my gut, less than my feet that cemented and pinned me to the floor until I had neither the strength nor the will to move the slightest inch, towards the door, towards an empty hallway, towards any galaxy far, far away from that conversation where I could gasp and choke on the air of my soul once left all alone, desperate, destitute in the emptiness?
How do I say all of this in so few words, so few lines?
How do I compress all of these suppressed thoughts that have never seen the light of day until they burst forth from the cave in which they once felt chained?
How do I take so much pain from this now hauntingly vacant cave in my chest and, for a moment, for an hour, or for eternity, squeeze it into the palm of your hand as a grain of sand?
How do I say,
I can't tell you the truth because
I don't have it.
All I have are these
stained glass portraits from
the shards of each broken heart
I've held in my bloodied hands and
behind this tarnished, dented, scarred
armor, now washed clean with the tears
of a thousand lonely nights spent under
the stars holding a guitar like a lover in arms.
Please take them.
Hold them up to the light and behold the story of each piece, pristine.
No, I don't know what they mean.
But they sound pretty, right?
I call them, 'Shel Silversteins'."