I want to write a column about why I haven’t been able to write a column. No one gave me a hard time about failing, temporarily, but I’d like to write it anyway, since we live in a time of secrets and gaslighting. I’d like to write it anyway, and in a way that doesn’t ask any emotional labor from you, Reader. I’m not saying it’s bad to ask emotional labor of a reader—rather, I grew up in Seattle in the 90s so I have really only ever done that. It feels freeing, now, just to write.
It isn’t that I didn’t know how to write a column. I can write a column. I used to write hundreds of words a day, and publish them instantly on a blog I named “nighttime // anytime,” after the Constantines song. Because of this blog, I moved from Indiana to Chicago, and later, national editors hired me to take notes at local shows for “Additional Reporting By-“ lines. I got other jobs too, I met family, and I worked past midnight most nights. The blog kept me in laundry quarters, cereal, rent, and wool, which was all I needed at the time. I am proud I made a living on it.
“Teeth make notches,” I wrote here. “They comb and latch and grip. That’s why I call this column TO THE TEETH.” Instead of writing another longform column about movies, books, and people—about full shapes, blooms, and durational time—I wanted to focus on “choruses, paragraphs, lines, and shades”—on things we can grip and keep for safety and luck, not buy or stand in front of aggressively. And I did focus on those things. The plan made even more sense because at the same time, I was editing a manuscript about Greek tragedy and starting a big new job. Why push it more than I already was?
I did focus on those things. I also published three columns in the course of a year. To be clear, I wrote more. And then I sat and looked at them. They felt like feral cats I had no idea how to feed. I was sure that if I launched them in public they would turn into bats with strange eyes, and after causing trouble in neighborhoods across the country, those bats and their eyes would fly home to me and roost in the corners of my studio apartment, waiting for meat. Their existence was a terrible idea.
And so I thought: okay. You guys! What else is going on? And for the first time in my life, I couldn’t publicly narrate everything as it was happening, because holding it up for you too would have snapped my neck. This is the first time I remember—truly, in my gut—comprehending situational depression. Always before, writing critically and publicly had brought me clarity and, secondarily, relief, but now it felt like screaming around other people screaming.
So I stopped worrying about writing in public. I also did a lot of things I don’t need to document here, because I am my own witness now, often, and also because what I did to help myself might not be anything that helps you. Like, maybe you don’t need to lie on the floor in a certain position for hours. Maybe you don’t need to shift your rituals. I am not the boss of you, and even if I was I would not assert that power in a column ultimately about poems, movies, songs, and paintings.
For a long time, it was truly awful and then, miraculously, it was not. Ultimately, and because depression first hit me like a piano in a cartoon when I was sixteen, because I was freelancing fulltime during the 2008 crash, and finally because I was in graduate school during the Trump Administration, this miraculous shift took me twenty years. I feel like I grew a new heart, or like it changed color like that horse in the Emerald City.
A major cause of this shift was realizing that the quiet and space I experienced in graduate school were not in fact dangerous, a fact that continued to confuse me long after I realized it was true. In the city, quiet and space mean you’re being watched or you’re not making money. In graduate school, they are goods.
Another cause was sitting alone for hours, and reading about Greek tragedy and the prison industrial complex. This was violent, especially because at the time it seemed no one else at school felt urgently about these things, or saw the sadness and anger I knew I was growing like tumors. That was violence too, and I feel justified saying so because I have also taken that violence in public, bloody ways—though again, because this column does not require emotional labor from you I will not describe those experiences here.
It took muscles I did not know existed to teach myself that this particular sadness and anger were not also intuition that my decision to go to graduate school was wrong. I begged my friends’ patience, repeatedly, and I hope they will beg mine in return.
Death is in all of this. “Death makes a new cosmology,” writes Bayo Akomolafe. “Death is not a black hole where things cease to be.” What, he asks, would it be like to treat “grief as power? Even our hopelessness as a form of decomposing and falling away that is sacred.” I think this is different than needing pain to trust, or mistaking pain for intuition. And I think, as Saint Chiron has said, that many people in political power right now are afraid of death, because it will take away their money and influence. This is also why they are afraid of growing old. Ultimately this too is why I have decided never to be afraid of these things. I made a blood pact with myself.
Ultimately writing helps me make sense of everything, and ultimately this is not a purely narcissistic process, because I have the good sense to step aside when equity is at stake (though I suppose this is narcissistic too. I’m better with you). I write for me, I write for you, and hopefully we circle—or rug, like in Lucky Dragons’ “make a baby.” Hopefully we take space and transform it, like the pearls and serpentine coating Kathleen Ryan’s moldy fruit sculptures. Sometimes that yuck sparkles. Sometimes it makes a new shape. This is a hopeful process.
I think a lot about the poem Elizabeth Bishop wrote for Buster Keaton. In it, she imagines “a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands / and everything works.”
“I am not sentimental,” the poem ends.
“Yes risk joy,” writes Louise Glück, in a another poem. It starts “I did not expect to survive.”
While I was getting better, many terrible things happened. A violent drunk broke into my apartment, a stranger totaled my car, and I accidentally deleted all the music I’ve ever had. All the mixes I ever made for anyone, all my old radio shows, and all the silly sounds we recorded in hot dog parking lots. Often, my personal life felt like that scene where Lucy and Ethel are working in the chocolate factory and the belt speeds up so much they start using their hats as hands. Somehow I reminded myself, daily, what my mom taught me regularly and since I was young—your brain is always listening. So, if you say it will get better, part of your core always believes it will. This too is a hopeful process, and it is not at all like pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. I do not know how I lived through some of these days, but I know I did, and now some of them are a little bit funny too.
Anyway, I couldn’t write to you in any healthy way, and I don’t want to pretend like I wasn’t trying. As a teacher, as a scholar, I don’t want to pretend like I didn’t know what was happening, because I want to tell people to keep faith, to trust the work, and to be clear that I am not saying so naïvely. (Being naïve is different than being vulnerable—the latter means you’re just born; the former means you’re able to be hurt. I am okay with that. Mice and lizards can both lose their tails and keep living. They are still recognizable as themselves. They are still mice, and lizards.)
Once I got a little better, I started listening to music again. Here are fifteen songs I was grateful to remember:
- “Mesmerizing,” Liz Phair
- “Bonnie and Clyde,” Luna
- “The Passenger,” Iggy Pop
- “Little Baby,” The Bristols
- “Learning the Game,” Buddy Holly
- “Patricia,” Florence + the Machine
- “Slip Away,” Perfume Genius
- “Drone Bomb Me,” ANOHNI
- “Lost Ways,” Pye Corner Audio
- “Days of Dust,” Molly Nilsson
- “No One,” Jenn Champion
- “On to You,” Constantines
- “Ha Ha Armageddon,” The Julie Ruin
- “You’re Not Good Enough,” Blood Orange
- “Fall Asleep,” Big Joanie
They helped me.
While I healed, I remembered that habits—this includes the mind—take at least three weeks to stick, and teenagers need five positive interactions for every other one. So I pretended I was my own teenager. I held her tight, kept her in the light, and I told her she could do this, which often sounded more like trust yourself. Trust what you’re doing.
If you almost lost it, it means you didn’t.
If you write it down, it means it is in the past.
It means you can stand in the burning house and not be the burning house.
I wanted to write this column because Mariame Kaba says that if we can pass down trauma, we can pass down healing.
I am glad I remembered how my writing works, and I will write another column soon. It will be to the teeth. This is important. I want to believe our work can record our healing, and hold it.
If there is something you’d like to read about, please let me know.
| mairead.case @ gmail