The Archive of Self-Absorption

full-back tattoo of a crane
“To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.” ― Dogen


That didn’t happen.

What it Means to Try

These introspection pages began with a virtual Camino during the lock-down. My formal participation in the group didn’t end well. The host didn’t believe that alternative perspectives were admissible in discussions. I disagreed with her declaration that no one could disagree with her. I was blocked, which was an easily foreseen consequence. And a reminder that all prophets are fragile – regardless of gender or denomination – because they are human. And even when it’s undertaken unintentionally, without conscious ambition, it’s a rickety climb upward, prodded on by people holding the ladder, proclaiming their trust in you.

I learned a lot. But maybe not enough.

It is one thing to have a healthy skepticism of the map. It is another to toss it out entirely. One winds up walking in circles.

Using one’s own memory of experience as a guide to find something novel is absurd. It’s, in affect, an exercise in solipsism masquerading as therapeutic “work”. At least, this has been a thought adding to the pulp that is sealing me off from the world, like regurgitating the plug that seals the entrance to a potter-wasp’s nest. But in this metaphor I am both the egg and the caterpillar. And yeah, no, believe me, this inside-out stuff looks nothing like an ouroboros.

I am going to archive these blog entries and start again.

There is a terrible catch-22 in all of this ambition: wanting to write means wanting to be read, seen. Self monitoring, self-flagellating, self-loathing, self-aggrandizing. But no one wants all that to be seen. This is what I need today, is not the same as This is who I am.

When I was a teen I kept a diary full of poems. I would write, knowing my mother would sneak in and read them when she got the chance. I would write. I would leave it there one day, two days, then rip out the pages. Gambling with fate. But really only adding to the cloud of uncertainty. What did she really know? What did she really care about?

This morning I listened to a New Yorker article about a writer whose entire life was fiction. I think he traded one fear for another. But at least now I understand better the allure of writing novels. And understanding that maybe that that is a truly braver endeavor. How often is authenticity used as a cloak to repel criticism? But look at all the stories sticky with patronizing reviews.

One fear for another.

I started a Medium project. I shut it down. I started a Substack project. I shut it down. What begins as something avocational and creative. An attempt at something Catherine Price calls “true fun” (marked by the presence of playfulness, flow, and community), always seems to soak up thoughts around “entrepreneurship” and the zeitgeist of virtual influence and status. I feel like a farmer whose every crop becomes infested.

The community element of writing is a puzzle for most of us, I think.

Yesterday I watched the final episode of The Last of Us, wondering how it would end, needing to see the end, but consciously considering how the end was just a choice made by a writer (or writers), not a real thing. But I wanted the story so badly. I wanted to know the true ending. I believe this desire/belief is a form of and a recognition of community. We need the truth from one another. We need a truth from one another.

I got an email yesterday for a workshop conference held by a respected publication. Of course the question of whether MFA programs or any kind of writing program belongs in the university system has always been up for discussion. But this time, this kind of workshopping struck me as something deadly. Let us teach you how to write the kind of work we want to publish. This isn’t about assuming there will be readers listening. It is about organizations securing their branding (which began long before branding was jargon for the masses.) This seems like a closed loop. A single story. A petrified truth.

Rebecca Solnit has offered 10 tips for writers. One of them is about finding your vocation. Hardly shocking: this iteration of “find your why”. But here is my woo woo rising again – the words come when we need to read them.

I would be lying – and convincing no one – if I said that I didn’t write to be seen. That every one of my poems wasn’t me waving as drowning. But it is also true that wanting to be seen is the first step towards belonging. Which is still an ego-centered (not necessarily egocentric) motive, but sounds better.

When I read, I’m moved by poems that open me to the world that is not me. Show me you and weave your story into the world somehow so I know it to be true. Show me mermaids where we never dreamed there were mermaids. Show me all the monsters.

I don’t think any of us begin with an urge to create something for dissection. But everything that comes together falls apart as we try to make sense of it. And it is in the fragmenting that we find the whole.

If I have a vocation as a writer, I wonder if it is a branch of the same passion that I have as a reader: a passion to uncover everything. Everything belongs and deserves attention.

“Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” he was so excited that he said, “Both,” and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, “but don’t bother about the bread, please.”

― A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

At some point we choose to see the expression unchecked desires as either comically charming or terrifying, depending on the safety of our current position in the pecking order.

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”

― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Maybe I just want to say that while something may be undesirable, unpalatable, ugly – it is not unnatural. We can’t handle the natural world – to make a pop culture allusion. It terrifies us, as it should.

Maybe the truth is always in our blind spot. A shadow on the periphery. Best told at a slant, as she said.


I think I remember someone telling how to drive in the proper lane, by eyeing the corner of the car’s hood with the solid white line instead of looking straight ahead to try to center the car on the road. He said something about not trusting perspectives.

It was terrifying.

Hell. I have no idea what I am trying to say.

Approaching a Venn Diagram of Poetry and Theatre

I cooked last night. Salted cod, kale, mashed cauliflower, roasted beets and garlic. I made dukkah, and feta cream-cheese with lemon zest.

After nearly a week of feeling ill, this was good. After literally years of not enjoying cooking, not being creative in the kitchen: this is great.

I am a cook. I am not a cook.

Fever gone, I’m heading back to work today. I’ve had several nights of bad dreams, which I’m choosing to use as a lens to examine my real insecurities.

I think that my interests are changing. It’s not that my passion is waning, but it is shifting direction. I keep fighting the desire to know that this time I will uncover it: my authentic calling. Goo to clearly-identifiable butterfly. Finally.

I remember being crushed when I read about how Robert Frost was very protective of his reputation. Of his image. I remember thinking that if even he is not good enough in his authentic shapelessness, who is?

How can one live in a body and view it simultaneously? Every mechanism for that reveals at least one, inherent distortion. Even the smoothness of a baby’s skin is an illusion of uniformity. The truth will out. Of not under a magnifying glass, then with age.

We have a new curriculum point in the rehashed version of what used to be primarily Theater History. It is about the theatricalized self. And while I am still uncomfortable with the inclusion of this subject in the classwork, I am fascinated by it.

The whole idea seems to lie in a realm between psychology and performance studies. While the education department has basically dumbed-down the academic requirements, it has ramped-up the quasi-philosophic elements. I think it attempts to turn the arts into a soft science.

When I first began teaching, I did impose a lot of my subjective perspectives on the students. I thought I had the life experience and the wisdom to interpret things correctly. If not correctly, certainly as a (implied: the more) “valid” conclusion. I have no doubt that I unintentionally played the guru of theatrical interpretation, as had so many of my instructors before me.

At some point, I began moving away from that. I try to keep my precious insights out of the classroom: “Just the facts, Mam”, and Devil’s advocate. This kind of humility has made me a much better teacher. It’s also left me with the freedom to continually question my own perspective. I think this is when I really began/begin learning.

Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.’

W.H. Auden

I do agree with the concept behind the new curriculum goals, with their focus on continual learning rather on the absurd goal of “mastering” something that will always be subjectively evaluated.

But I am still at a loss in term of how to evaluate this kind of thing. It still begs the question of there being a linear progression to learning itself, and that someone somewhere sits with an unequivocal conclusion, measuring the distance crossed by each student.

It still puts lines down and says: this peg in this hole.
This perspective.
This association taints it all, so throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Maybe the arts will never find a real home in academics? After all, don’t all good mentor-ships require rebellion? Shouldn’t every living have the freedom of shapelessness?

I am not going to worry about all this for a while. I have exams to compose.

An Argument for Amorphous Stories

Every Brilliant Thing is categorized as a documentary. It’s actually a filmed stage production based on a book. A memoir. It touches on bipolar disorder and suicide. (Well, it points to it at any rate.) The film is streaming on HBO, and what I spent an hour or so of my sick leave watching this week.

It reminded me of Ross Gay’s Book of Delights in terms of what I assume was the story’s intention. But it also reminded me of Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself. Complete with celebrity audience members credited in iMDb.

DelGaudios film, in which DelGaudios plays himself, rates 8.2/10 on iMDb. Duncan Macmillan’s film, in which an actor portrays the protagonist, 8.4/10.

Both feature a form of role-playing with the audience in an almost quasi-therapeutic position. The attentive listener. The empathetic community. Both protagonists serve up their parent’s fallibility and the evolution of their personal coping mechanism.

Sharing with us. And letting us play along in character.

One review of Every Brilliant Thing describes the play as “exploring mental illness.” Yeah. I saw a lot of storytelling, but little exploring.

This morning I read an article in The New Yorker titled Agnes Callard’s Marriage of the Minds. It’s about a philosopher whose entire career is centered around her experience of marriage and divorce. She publicly ruminates about both. In light of historical ideas, I would presume. She examines her own learning-process as an adult. Her shock at her own naivete in the face of a second waning love story. I have so many mixed feelings about exploring these things with the interviewer who was exploring them with Callard.

We tell our stories and risk being called “brave”, which is sometimes intended earnestly, but often a euphemism for breaking social norms of exposure. It’s a passive-aggressive rebuke. We’ll be applauded and mocked. Definitely judged. The comments on the Facebook post were scathing. And nearly without exception unrelated to the contents of the actual article.

In his film on visual comedy, Rowan Atkinson said that character always comes down to a half an inch off the cuffs. I am taking this out of context, but yes. You need to recognize the subtle difference between sexy and slutty. Heroin chic or heroin addict. And your crafted performance will be perceived as character.

I read somewhere that the the social elite invited Rimbaud to one of their soirees. He stood on a chair and shook himself to rain lice down over all on them. (I do think my memory is adding details here: the chair, not the lice.) They fell out of love with him then.

Only for a while because, like everyone does, he died. Once someone is dead you can pin down a story and no one can let you down or force you to deal with it in the present tense.

Head lice, a bloody gun wound, a severed ear, a water-logged corpse, all quite romantic if you don’t have to smell them. Mouches (French for flies) were fashionable as long as they were a bit of play-acting: a bit of self-irony for the syphilitic over-class. The problem is that self-irony can’t help but be self-conscious. I will damn myself before you damn me, and before I am actually damned.

Flies are gross. And I have to admit that the thought of them buzzing around me to get at an actual wound on my body is nearly intolerable. There is a fascinating logic in taking on the costume piece mouche. It’s like a form of Neo-Classical LARP-ing! Cathartic.

I’m not claiming to be making keen observations here. Not by any stretch. How many movies fetishise the seedier sides of life and death? We play out our wildest fears as though bringing them to some kind of life will exorcise them from our future. Nothing new here.

Stueren: the Norwegian word for what is considered appropriate conversation in the drawing room – at least that is my take on the cultural connotation of the word: appropriate for a drawing room. And when we dress-up our naked stories with feathers and bells we can call it burlesque, and giggle a little. Call it a soiree and read our nonsense poems and strain our hallucinogens through sugar cubes poised on beautifully crafted spoons.

Definitely heroin chic, at least as a historical anecdote.

What is whispered over the the smell of Tide in the laundromat is another story. Literally.

I once read reviews of one woman’s memoir about the sexual abuse she suffered as a kid. One reviewer said that the descriptions of the sex acts were too graphic, and questioned the author’s motives. Another described the passages as titillating. Also questioning the author’s motives. “Why is she telling this story?”

Some real things are nearly impossible to place in an appropriate space. Or nearly impossible to dress-up appropriately for the space at hand.

Every Brilliant Thing really is a thing with feathers. It offers hope. And in a very earnest way, it is a brave thing to offer. Especially since the brilliant things the author logged for so many years saved no one. And there is no reason to believe it will save anyone. There is a naked truth. The bit up under the skirt.

The author as the theatricalized self. Is it even possible for the author not to do so? Is it possible for any of us not to do so?

I can say that what moves through these live performances is not the same beast that moves through a real group therapy session.

It demands more from you than a bit of role-playing and applause. What moves among the people there has no feathers at all. No bells. It’s amorphous. It demands from you the ability to sit with something undefined.

And that is just fine. It’s not fit for the drawing room, or the theater, but it is fine.

I know next-to-nothing about narrative psychology. But I am not entirely convinced that being guided away from exploration and into construction is always a good thing.

Life stinks sometimes. And sometimes it smells like tide, sweat-soaked quarters and machine oil. Is the point of our lives to bang the elements of it into a performance as we go along?

Callard’s second husband is an expert on Socrates. If I met him, I’d ask him if Socrates meant that the examined life was only worth living if certain plot lines were drawn and feathered?

D3, Sharp at the Edges

I am sitting at the desk. Slight fever. The space heater’s white noise is filling the room. And I notice myself hum. On the exhalation. A single note. And again. Hum.

It’s a D, according to the app on my phone. Too sharp to be properly flat.

It’s as though white noise invites more noise. I used to sing when I vacuumed. I’d forgotten that. “I’m on top of the wo-orld, looking _ down on creation…”

Down by another pill today. Just another two weeks before my moods are entirely my own again. This week B. chastised me (gently) for hiding my speedy days from her all these years. I guess it is because these days she has no choice in the matter. I recognize the ambivalence of needing to be seen and knowing there may be something to hide – something right around the corner at the end of a sentence. Something you don’t see coming until it’s too late.

There is so much uncertainty around whether this or that social filter is functioning, and which are okay not to worry about, with whom. But I don’t have an added pressure that she has: of thinking there is so little time left.

Now. And then never.

It’s fascinating that context really determines everything. Even what is “considerate” behavior. I would have been more considerate perhaps to let her have my manic days as a touchstone for unconditional love. To allow her to have demonstrated it, maybe especially to herself, since I have felt shame, but never fear.

I think I have spent most of my life wanting do-overs. I take that backs. There is the dark side of all the therapy. How can you reframe this and that? How can you find a brighter perspective? Not that anything was ever your fault. You are responsible for your response. But don’t over-think it. Think it differently, though.

Self-absorbed is an amazing metaphor really. A tendril of sponge consuming another tendril of sponge on the sea bed. It is a zero-sum game, really.

  1. Sea sponge is structured like a jelly sandwich.
  2. They are described simultaneously as “masters of survival” and as “threatened species” today.

Fun facts.