I’ve spent a lot of life looking back. This wasn’t always the case; Michelle reminds me that, in our twenties, I was the guy who said “Fuck the past, I’m all about the now!” We were living exciting lives. It was the 80’s. Central America and Ronald Reagan were in the news every night. Michelle and I became young activists. We lived in Nicaragua during the Sandinista-Contra war, reporting on atrocities committed by the Reagan-backed Contra forces. We worked a few years with the Mayan Q’eqchi’ people in the northern Guatemalan jungle, with periodic stays in my other blood country, El Salvador. Too much injustice was going on in Central America for a man in his mid twenties to dwell on the past.
Then we started having kids; we had to settle down; we moved back to the states, bought our first home, a safe, calm, stable place in the woods, and where, as though waiting in the wings for the right moment, the past decided to fuck with me.
We all have our shadows, the ones that follow us all our lives. Some prefer to spend little, if any, time thinking about them. I get that. Too much dwelling on past events sometimes leads to nowhere but more ache, especially if you decide to do it on your own. Some of those events carry along with them the added violence of the echo, Speak not of it. If you do, horrible things will happen, and you will be to blame. I’m talking about victims of trauma, specifically, trauma that occurred in childhood, especially in the single-digit years, though I don’t mean to limit it—trauma at any point in life jerks the person into a new existence; the soldier who has witnessed war atrocities in Iraq does not come home the same man.
For those who suffered atrocities as a child, our lives, and our soft, still-forming brain cells, got twisted up early on. Life is more than just life; it becomes a reckoning. Not of your own past actions, but others’, and how their behavior reshaped your subconscious and the rest of your days.
Most of us look for meaning in our lives. We look for the significance of suffering, and say things like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” in order to endure. Or someone has said it to you, to try to package your suffering in a sound-byte. Still, it is an endeavor to find meaning—you’re alive, you made it, you’re here. The problem is, it’s a cliché, a way of wrapping things up in a package. It doesn’t allow for exploration.
When I was a teenager, my way of finding meaning was through writing. I’ve written journals since 1978 (I was sixteen), forty years that track my life in detail, as well as the lives of those around me. In college I wrote my first novel, which was never published and is now stuffed in my mother’s bedroom closet. It was an important failure; that manuscript taught me what writing is all about: sweat, discipline, obsession, aesthetic studies, love of the written word. It was a search for meaning, yes; but, more precisely, it was a search for a narrative.
My writing life began with the journals. The magic happened: a specific pain was in my head, and as I wrote about it, something appeared—not meaning, but story. I had written about the three people who could not be spoken of. I remember how painful it was the first time I wrote their names down (it still is). The journals became a document of travails, the struggle to figure out what I was feeling, and why. As I wrote, a semblance of order slipped in; I had captured something—specific moments and their physical details, hard, jagged; they now existed on the page.
A rush of fear and glory swelled in every vein, a sense of strange accomplishment. It helped; the pain abated a while, but inevitably came back. So I wrote again. And again. The journals became more than just a slipshod chronology of anguish; I started to pay attention to how I wrote, what words were best to describe a moment, which turn-of-phrase made the moment more interesting—not just raw data, but a story. A well-told tale.
There’s a risk to this—to rely only on writing to make sense out of chaos is a dangerous thing. First, the writing will, at one point or another, go to shit. Then you realize that, though it’s down on paper, it still lives in silence—only you and the journal know what happened. After we settled down with the kids and I had my first psychotic break at age thirty, I knew that writing wasn’t going to fix anything, not on its own; nor should it.
I needed other people. My family. Friends who I trusted with my life. A psychologist. I needed to tell the story, out loud. I learned the power of breaking the silence, going against what was whispered in my ear in childhood Don’t tell anybody. There is nothing more liberating that sitting in the confidential hermetic seal of a therapist’s office, blowing out the poison, knowing it’s safe to do so because the woman sitting before you is a professional helping you through the inflamed dungheap toward a happy, healthy life. I needed more than writing; and my writing needed me to find other ways of dealing. It no longer had to carry, alone, the weight of my entire psychosis and the delusional paranoia that boils in the brain of the hunted.
Of course, my psyche still pulses in my work. There are hints and winks in my novels and poetry that allude to the darkness. But I’ve never written about it straight-on; I am still afraid of the whisper in my ear. Then I say to myself what Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid,” which I think is a really, really good philosophy to live by. I just put his words into my own: Fuck fear! So here I am, once again, writing.
Narrative. Telling the story. I build a narrative with my psychologist, with the sounding boards of my beloved, and with my words. I strive to yoke the past with the intellectual and visceral rumination necessary to make sense out of it all, which is another flight of delusion; there is no sense in the evil actions of others. There is no meaning. But the very act of telling it has kept me in the game. And I love the game.