It would have once yapped about
The seven folks in China who signed into my Netflix
Account this weekend & how
I am okay with this breech.
“More rom-coms for everyone!” would have said this poem
Likely as it was ending.
Six years ago, roots freshly
Cut, my ideal poem might have harnessed a fair amount
Of inward spiral, much like
Kenneth Koch’s “The Circus,” mine
However circling back to my poem of a rooster
In the flower bed, image
Obsession flowered beyond
Its emotional baggage, stretching beyond lyrical
Tentacles. That poem might
Have some similarities
Shared with the poem I told Andy I was writing last
Month, following this nature
Hike with the birding dude
Victor Emanuel. I told myself I wouldn’t touch
My phone & forgot a pen
So I trusted my flat brain
Never the trusty cup to catch, to capture, to contain
The facts fluttering below
His mustache like those hooded
Warblers in that cypress. See, I cannot quite promise you
A bit of this here stanza’s
Accuracy. Does he have
A mustache? Did we spot that particular warbler?
I do remember a thought
“Can’t believe the relatives
Of a pineapple,” a quip quacked after Victor’s holding
The ball moss, cousin of
That thick-skinned fruit. I once hoped
To start a poem, “I am much like ball moss in your palm,”
But I’m not so sure that’s true
Or still relevant these days.
Since then, I have eaten quail eggs & fish eggs, have witnessed
A baby doll foot gnarled by
The charred mouth of a fellow
Grown man. For some people, these are ideal topics, starting points
At least for the ideal poem.
Not me, here in the middle
Of elsewhere. Since then, I wrote the phrase “middle of nowhere”
Out of existence (come on)
Though maybe since it was prose
It doesn’t count the same if positioned in the ideal
Poem, clustered with a line
Like “The middle of nowhere
Is left for the dead,” though clearly this is not that order
Of ideal poem. Likewise
An ideal poem refuses
To say “love is in my cells” or “my shadow already
Disfigured, debunked.” Today
My ideal poem admits
In my lifetime, I will behold a breakdancer head slide
Straight into a gold medal
In the Olympics & yes
Honestly, I'll cry. It’s what I do, I weep when I watch
You do what is truly love
At such impressing levels--
Yes, I’m talking to you, Katie Ledecky, flip-turning
In my un-ideal poem.
After a little hiatus & a move home to Indiana, DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE returns with the first Biscuits Calhoun poem back in Hoosierland, a nod to our summer playlist, some reflections on the democratic debates, & a litany of good nutrition advice from our friend Marie, a fitness coach in LA.
I had this dream the other day where I was swimming down the creek that leads from Barton Springs, well, more like I was being pushed by the current, perhaps we’d recently had a big Texas spring rain, out to the lake, what folks around here call Lady Bird Lake, which is actually a river, Colorado River, though not the Colorado River, but a Colorado River. It’s a familiar float, of the poor, unemployed days, of the puppy-swimming-practice era, of the more recent, just-about-outta-here period. In this dream, it didn’t pop with the canine spirit & freeing feeling of usual. The water, like the sky, was dim & I was alone, treading along. I kept intersecting something like lily pads, plastic bags, pudding skins; when turned up, they turned out to be faces, the faces of folks I’ve lost in my time in Austin--buddies come disconnected, friends who moved away or moved on, loved ones that done died. I arrived at the last one, a face I couldn’t recognize, & right before being spit out into the lake with the nutria, some plastic bottles, & those bravest paddle boarders, I put it on; in the reflection of the water, it was my own.
“We are not who we were not very long ago.” - Rebecca Solnit
I’d lived in two towns, one state, before I came to Austin, Texas six years ago--my hometown of Elwood & my college city of Muncie, Indiana. Coated in a layer of naivete & lack of exposure back then, I still navigated the world with the Golden Rule, learned from the banner in Mrs. Jones’ fourth grade class -- “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” -- a worldview laughable, lacking nuance, & unstable, to say the least.
There’s a part of me still a child, & yeah, I know that’s how most adults feel, but often they crush it to keep it down deep. The ones that do let it out, often let it run wild, bloating on gummy bears or passing out in the ditch over too much fun. For me, it’s a touch more literal, this fragmented little feller that has needs & moments, fears & joys. Honestly, he still likes the smell of dirt & is more than a little bit scared, though he’ll go in, of natural bodies of water. It’s also the part of me that finds comfort in list-making.
Here, let me tell you about some of my favorite nature spots in the Austin-area. Like the Flying Armadillo Disc Golf Compound, which was once a big patch of briars & a whole lot of dust & is now a strange disc golf paradise, complete with camping, a disc golf putt-putt course, & a surely-built-without-a-permit three-story gazebo thing. Like Turkey Creek Trail, which we just did our last hike at the other morning, a pretty three-mile, off-leash loop where Bo occasionally goes missing for eight minutes & Ginny always gets very wet. Like Red Bud Isle, a closer, smaller looped off-leash park where the pups love to meet each & every dog & human, except for that one guy who stuck a stick in his back pocket & then acted weird when dogs chased his butt. Like McKinney Falls State Park, which has to be high on the list of most beautiful spots within shouting distance of a major airport. Like the property owned by our friends The Pryors in Dripping Spring, which is where you’ll mostly hear me say things like “goodness gracious, will you look at that.”
Hanging with my childhood friend KC the other day, her last of three-summers-in-a-row visits, we admitted how we both always carried this natural openness to others, to folks who are different than us, be it culture or ideology or neurological make-up, but it wasn’t until we found ourselves in more-diverse (though still admittedly segregated & not-all-that-diverse) college towns did we finally have the exposure to put that drive to the test, in terms of growth & connection. It was also in this stepping-out of our small town, that we first met people who were actually similar to us, be it the rough-around-the-edges multipolar empath or the neurotic well-meaning over-rationalizer, introductions that allowed us to see ourselves more clearly. We both love book-learning, but it’s the oral story, the shared experience, & the hands-on missteps & relations that drive us forward.
I’ve met many folks who abandoned the small town lifestyle of their raising, never to look back. On the flipside, I still have many friends & family members who never left. I’m realizing how necessary it was for me to leave as a mechanism for seeing clearly the parts of that culture & those experiences that I don’t value or agree with, but also to reconnect with the traits & activities that feel necessary & truly a part of my identity. When I entered the Michener Center for Writers on a poetry writing fellowship back in 2014, someone joked that I was a “feller,” over a fellow. It became this running gag, my hickishness as my sign of other, be it in the hollering of my poems, my distrust of city living, or the cliches of drinking, anger, etc. Separated from the rural culture that honed me, I could see more of that hooting & hollering within myself, whereas back there, I was the artsy one, the weird one, the less-masculine one, the more liberal one, you get my point.
“I give away a little bit about myself each time I speak.” - Camille T. Dungy
I’ll never forget being one of four white people at the Huston-Tillotson basketball game on the night of the 2016 election. I’ll never forget Quentin & Sam, the fellers who lived in the alley behind my first apartment here, who truly were my first friends in town. I’ll never forget when I thought Shake Shack was a dance club & the city folks howled with laughter. I’ll never forget meeting a person who claimed to have never seen a cow & being like, “I’m pretty sure you passed like seven on the way here.” I’ll never forget Octavious, who was on a meth-bender & thought I was following him, the day after I had just spent three days on the couch, convinced I was in a Truman Show-type situation, & we found footing together in our paranoia.
Starting with my premonitions of the deaths of my grandma & my uncle, I’ve been haunted by weird feelings, spawned of odd coincidences. After their deaths, every headache meant someone was brain dead, every cough meant someone was choking to death, & every moment away from a parent meant they’d never return.
I’ve been forced to accept that paranoia is another tripwire I often fall over. A few months ago, I was watching a basketball game at a bar near the house & they started a trivia round. It was half-time & I was reading a Suzanne Buffam poem that included the alternate name of the Mona Lisa, La Gioconda; at the exact same moment, the question blared through the loud speaker, asking “What famous painting is also called La Gioconda?” This inexplicable connection ignited a “somebody’s watching me” feeling that caused me to spiral into delusion, a regular feeling I hid for many years.
“I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time.” - John Ashbery
Since I was about twelve, I had this hunch that my psychological make-up was a little screwy, had been bumped outta whack. Growing up in Indiana, I had well-intentioned, caring therapists who unfortunately lacked the worldview to understand what I was going through & the progressive / intellectual values I felt building up inside. When I moved to Muncie & even more so when I moved to Austin, I met well-educated & specialized mental health professionals, but they lacked the understanding of my Midwestern culture & morals, often viewing me instead as a caricature. I became a bit of a hypochondriac, though not of the I’VE GOT LUPUS & I KNOW IT sort, but of the SOMETHING’S WRONG WITH MY BRAIN kind. Sitting around a dinner table with friends recently, telling the story of how my therapist finally landed on the DID diagnosis, I realized I was a psychological / neurodiversity hypochondriac, though the medical idea of a tumor did pop up from time to time. I’d come to an appointment with SW convinced I was a psychopath, sure I had autism, believing I was touched with some new unknown malfunctioning of the mind. I’d have my list of symptoms & my research ready, but she’d turn me away with even better counter-arguments & her solid professional opinion. Until one day, she came ready with her own idea & lists of reasons why, a connection literally life-changing, which set me on the path to better understanding my inner workings & the necessary practices to better myself, the least of which was my diagnosis with DID.
In my early twenties, I had a hometown therapist explain thinking errors to me--fortune-telling, all-or-nothing thinking, & catastrophizing were my main charges--& more importantly, how to adjust that mindset to stay grounded & move beyond. In this new era of Tyler Gobble, post-essay & post-diagnosis, I had to recreate my motivation, my self-esteem, & my trajectory. My first tattoo was my favorite Dean Young line at the time: “We are clouds & terrible things happen in clouds.” I was 23 years old, fresh out of undergrad, out on the road for my first out-of-state poetry reading. I was also divorced, jobless, & living again with my parents. My mother asked, “Why did you have to pick a quote so sad?” I didn’t find the quote sad; it’s relieving & motivating. I’m not special & the universe doesn’t give a shit about me; now we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can move on, can move beyond.
A big step I’ve been taking is actually find some grounding & entertainment in discomfort & unknowing, a trait I celebrate in poetry but until recently, haven’t been able to appreciate in life. The other day I had an intersection that typically would have flipped me distraught. I was having lunch, reading a Chuck Klosterman essay about Truth in interviews, when two young boys sat down at the table beside me. One said something & the other said, “You’re lying.” Then the kid who pointed out the lie began to fake interview the lying one, holding a pretend microphone up to the liar’s mouth--”How often do you lie?” “How many times a day do you lie?” “Have you ever lied to me before?” Before I would have collapsed under the interconnectedness of this experience, but this time I took my breaths, thought about the wild probability of this parallel, & chose instead to rejoice in the weirdness of this moment, the boy’s cleverness. Instead of distress, I found comfort in knowing that we, no matter the age or the situation, are often concerned with the same battles throughout our moments--truth, human connection, death, etc. It’s been a necessary revamping to live more concerned with meaning-making, the process over the product.
In this last two years of life in Austin, I’ve been obsessed with podcasts. They fill spots of my day with the sensation of doing something productive in those moments that otherwise feel voided (driving, dishes, showering, etc.)--it’s social without having to talk, educational while allowing multi-tasking, entertaining without the sour taste of pop culture’s fakeness. When I’m feeling lonely or anxious, my favorite podcaster is there to say, “Hey. Here’s something else, something bigger than you, to ponder.” It’s probably similar to how my Mom loved watching Oprah after a long day of teaching kiddos or how my Dad loved listening to Bob & Tom goof & giggle while he drove his semi-truck down the white ribbon of death.
Podcasts such as Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Armchair Expert w/ Dax Shepherd, & the Bill Simmons Podcast, provided me something I never knew I needed; they were the first place I ever remember hearing two men have a genuine open conversations about art, feelings, & one’s personal history, a necessary example for me.
As I’ve said before, my fragmentation creates a multiple-choice question type scenario for each intersecting moment, a jumbledness that often overwhelmed the self & overrode the intent of the moment. That is, till I learned an easy solution--waiting!--though sometimes it takes several of the same lessons to get it through this thick skull. On Armchair Expert, John Kim advises men to focus on responding over reacting. My friend AP articulated it as “waiting three seconds before speaking,” allowing that time to process & choose. I want my reaction to be listening-then-waiting, because as my wife said in a paper, “How someone instinctively reacts will reflect what one sees as givens in the world.”
“I’ll say / That ye may love in spite of beaver hats.” - John Keats
I did my fair share of reading about DID & doing the work in therapy, but I’ve still felt an urge to see more of others’ everyday living with DID. Thus, I turned to social media. To be honest, the expression I found there seems immature, leaning instead on the performative & kitschy possibilities of the disorder rather than the reintegration & state-oriented approach. The disorder took a name change from Multiple Personality Disorder to Dissociative Identity Disorder to shift the emphasis from the media-driven, fully-fledged personality to the imbalanced, unfixed states of identity formation. Things like alters having individual Instagram accounts or recording moments of “switching” seems to both further perpetuate that stereotype & keep the primary person from integrating those parts. Maybe I’m being judgemental. Maybe I’m jealous. Maybe I’m just too old, though I do appreciate many of the DID memes floating around.
Three Favorite DID Memes:
Baby On The Highway
Honest-Ass Pie Chart
The Look Back Blur
What is the difference between a dream & a memory? For most of my twenties, I had a recurring dream that I died on my thirtieth birthday. Jumping out of an airplane with my buddies, I say “What a way to celebrate three decades,” & out comes one of those gym-class parachutes. I blow out the 3-0 candles on my cake & it explodes in my face. Someone shoots me thirty times. This past September, I turned thirty.
“What’s happening now can’t predict what I’ll dream tonight.” - Lyn Hejinian
I often have dreams, both in the night & in the day, recounting dissociative spells I’ve had. I’m never quite sure if I’m retrieving those memories, rebuilding them from others’ accounts, or making them up. It’s probably some combo of the three. Anywhichaway, it’s a strange reality to have a memory of something I did, but didn’t remember, & then all of a sudden there’s a recording playing in loop in my head. My dad is a truck driver & one of my favorite parts of riding was the CB radio. On a frequency, anyone within a certain radius can speak up, listen in, & move on. There’s no solidity, no trace, no definitude. That’s kinda how my head feels.
Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker reminds us that one is better than zero, two is better than one, when it comes to evolution, as opposed to this big leap as is often misconstrued. I’ve been learning that self-improvement, be it healing or reintegrating or learning new skills or whatever, is the same. Getting diagnosed at first felt like a slow working-backwards thing--you figure out what you have, you begin to understand what triggers it, you figure out the parameters of it, you figure out the cause of it. But I later realized those slow, steady discoveries bring unseen strides that tighten the self in important, forward-focused ways.
It was hard, but I had to step away from teaching, in order to protect others, reevaluate my own needs, & tighten up my expectations of the lifestyle I hope to lead. It was hard, but I had to let certain folks go whose own journeys were incompatible with my own. It was hard, but I had to admit that certain desires I hold, such as having children, are not wise ideas with my mental make-up. It was hard, but I had to accept that my reality is not the reality of many situations, instead built up of my projections, delusions, & misperceptions.
I’ve written about this before, but one of the first observations my therapist SW noted was how I frequently live on the edge of extreme feelings, not able to stably be simply happy or sad, & certainly unfamiliar with neutral or content. What LR called “black outs,” what psychiatrists called “states,” & what my loved ones call “my spells” represent the intersection of these extremes, these animal states that overcome me. I call them thus: (D)anger, Dizzy, Lizard, Party Ghost, Sponge, Sensitive. These are the dissociative states I can fall into, in & of themselves contributors to my most prevalent dissociative symptoms like memory loss, erratic behavior, & depersonalization. It’s when the (D)anger, Dizzy, & Lizard combine that we get Vinny, my overly enthusiastic Protector. It’s when the Sponge, Sensitive, & Party Ghost overlap that we get The Kid, my grieving people-pleasing Little.
I didn’t realize it for awhile, but Biscuits Calhoun is a kind of alter, a character based on the kind of hick men I admire, a combo of Lizard, Party Ghost, Sponge, & Sensitive, the one to unleashes the poetry & the party..I didn’t realize it at the time, but being free to explore these selves & allow the various voices to meet in my work is why I was drawn to poetry back during my freshman year of college. When LR shared her essay, it was the final permission to process out in the open. The polyvocality in my brain, the manic trips towards self-harm, an empathic struggle with over-absorption of sensory & emotional elements, local & global, it all can be reconstituted as curiosity & inspiration. A part of me finds comfort in the study of evolution, neuroscience, & birds. A part of me feels emboldened by increased political awareness. Though I’m still learning how to live with these parts integrated, writing with my disjunctive demons, angels, & gods out in the open allows me to process fully as me, whatever that might look like on a particular day.
“How exhausting it is to be constructed / of a thousand parts--or is it several thousand?” - Timothy Donnelly
I’m not just my disorder, I know that, but there is always the fear of losing sight of the primary self. Who is Tyler Gobble? He is a husband & a family member & a puppy dad & a friend & a teaching artist & a community member. But he’s also the organizer of this system, & through that, my main focus right now is being the one that can contain the wildness, the one able to process. I’ve realized it is not Biscuits Calhoun that writes this blog, or organizes the podcast, or reads the books, or edits Biscuits Calhoun poems. That necessary role belongs to Tyler Gobble.
“to some / I am six foot & lizard // to others / I am considered a mange lamb / returned from the tropics” - Will Alexander
At the end of this month, we move into my grandfather’s house, him just down the road in an assisted living facility. As my wife approached graduation from seminary, we decided to lean into a quieter, more spacious life, my wife wanting to try out the small-town country life & me stoked to return to my roots. For me, this decision has been reaffirmed by the perspective many folks have shown when hearing about this transition. My Grandpa thinks our college-educated, artsy selves are “too good for Elwood,” my mom's therapist friend worries the space & change won’t be good for my mental health, & many folks still seem misinformed, assuming meaningful art, community, & progress can only be made in big cities. Contrary to these misguided beliefs, we are a perfect match for my hometown, a place where we can work & feel seen, as well as helping others do & feel the same.
One of the main reasons I’m moving home is to be closer to my Grandpa. I want to show gratitude to he who is left before he heads back into the ether. It feels right to show him thanks now--for the family land, for the lessons, for the great memories & love--rather than share that appreciation as they plant him in the ground.
It’s not fair to say, “I wish I hadn’t moved here,” though some of that wish’s retractions would poof away some major trauma & mighty heartaches for folks I love dearly, not to mention myself. But that wish also erases the monumental impact of my time here: the meeting of my wife & several other crucially influential friends, mentors, & artists, without whom I wouldn’t have gotten diagnosed, would’ve likely quit writing / art-making, & definitely would not have made the strides I’ve made in dealing with my disorder & my rougher redneck tendencies. As my time here wraps up, I’ve been reflecting on what parts of myself have solidified in Austin--my steadfast belief in cooperation (between citizens, between all creatures, with our landscape), my focus on shared well-being, & my commitment to being project / hobby-oriented.
For the first time in my life, I care the most about being in relation to people, other creatures, & even objects in my life, rather than maintaining a predetermined form like friendship or a job. The extension into ongoing relationship, be it through hobby or art-making or simply proximity in a park, opens up a field of awareness, empathy, & curiosity that feels natural, but is often overwhelmed by societal expectation or personal hang-ups. The same vantage point can be harnessed to relieve anxiety or embarrassment from my journey with my states, alters & symptoms flowering out my particular strand of DID. It’s about showing up, it’s about keeping on, it’s about setting each up to be their best selves, it’s about collaboration, it’s about the on-going expansive list of living.
I’m so thankful that I had the experience of organizing a monthly performance series (Everything Is Bigger), learning how to balance the needs of a community with my own selfish & stoked desires. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of working at Down Home Ranch & with VSA Texas, learning how to approach disability & neurodiversity from an angle of camaraderie. I’m so thankful that I had to experience the insanity of big city traffic navigation on a daily basis, learning to better appreciate the gridded system of open backroads & quiet streets of my hometown. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of doing Shitty Band with MT, learning how to better collaborate with a close friend & how to be vulnerable as an adult learning a new skill. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of volunteering with Meals On Wheels, learning about the power of simply showing up for the elderly. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of attending this city’s meetings & marches for organizations like Black Lives Matter, learning more effective ways to be an ally. I’m so thankful that I had the experience of being in a more vibrant LGBTQ+ community, learning more about my own sexuality & gender identity, as well as how to better support other LGBTQ+ folks. I’m so thankful for the experience of Sunday date nights with Diana, learning to discuss how we fit into our community, what we want out of a home, & how we might head towards that imagined future.
“eternity looms / in the corner like a home invader saying don’t mind me I’m just here to watch you nap.” - Kaveh Akbar
I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many of the world’s religions. Compassion, awe, devotion, and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have. What is irrational, and irresponsible in a scientist and educator, is to make unjustified and unjustifiable claims about the structure of the universe, about the divine origin of certain books, and about the future of humanity on the basis of such experiences.
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
If I listen to many of the folks I respect the most for their intellectual & spiritual work, from my Episcopalian wife to my favorite atheist thinker / neuroscientist quoted above, belief--of any sort-- is a thing of the present, a part of oneself that should always be in process, constantly held up to the light to consider, reconsider, & reconstitute. I’ve spent the last three years doing that, through gobs of self-reflection, rejuvenating engagement with Christians, & plenty of reading, as an atheist living at & surrounded by a seminary, as my wife pursued her Master of Divinity here in Austin, TX. When folks find out this division of belief, they expectedly ask, “How does that work?” My answer varies depending on which fragmented part of me is bubbling closest to the surface, but each variation holds a cone of cooperation & mutual respect for our individual, continuous intellectual pursuits, not to mention a comparable worldview & value system.
Recently, my wife declared that her religion, like her belief in theater, is currently an active symbolic system of meaning-making, rather than an empirical stone; similarly, my disavowal of gods doesn’t discount the need & preciousness of spirituality, mysticism, & contemplation. As Sam Harris’s opening quote highlights, my concern with religion only becomes frustrated when it is wielded as a weapon, when it interferes with what I believe to be the objective truth of human living--the necessity of cooperation between all creatures; otherwise, I engage with religion to understand why it exists & how I might better pursue important questions of living through scientific, artistic, philosophical, & psychological avenues.
My history with religion, namely the Midwest’s brand of fundamentalist Christianity, is as flawed & flimsy as many other parts of my identity have been over the years. Yes, we went to church on holidays & even regularly here or there--at the damp church across the railroad tracks, at the sleepy church in the stoplight-less town called Leisure just north, at the mega-church in Anderson, the home congregation of one Sandy Patty. But the actual engagement with the ideologies & cause/effects of the doctrine were as vapid as the t-shirt I rocked in sixth grade that declared: “Basketball is a game, but Jesus is life.”
My true belief never went further than hoping to be reunited with Grandma Tyner & Uncle Ricky in Heaven. Like Bill Burr, I could never get over the fact that the pastor in the pulpit was “just some guy,” as was the guy before him standing there before him, as was the guy before him who taught him what he knows of preaching, as was the guy before him who wrote the book. My total lack of faith in the people & their obviously flawed logic burst forth at a youth group in high school. We raised a hunk of cash through slipping whatever part of our teenage allowance wasn’t spent on KFC & condoms into the offering plate; now, the leaders offered two choices to us teens: donate it to an organization that frees child sex slaves or buy new skateboard ramps & rails for the parking lot. Our recreational pleasure was chosen over the well-being of others.
It’s funny that morality, then little more than gut feelings & random observations, was the push that toppled my chance at religious belief. When I first told my mom that I didn’t believe in God, she said, “So what keeps you from being bad?” Even as a teenager, I knew it wasn’t a god or an ancient text or a threat of Hell that made me be good, to not kill, to help the poor, etc. As Albert Einstein said in 1930 in a New York Times article, “A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.”
But beyond my frustration with god’s people, how did my belief that God is a fiction come to be? It started with my friend in high school, HC, the first person I knew self-labeled an atheist. Just the possibility of a none-of-the-above option was freeing. Mostly through reading in college, I came to understand that god doesn’t exist & is a system man made up to control & console, mainly based on the wide understanding that religious documents have historically inaccurate & man-based origins, the West’s gods have gone demonstrably silent in the last couple thousand years, & science continues to upend many “facts” of religion through reasoned experiment (the age of the universe & the origins of man, in particular).
Never married to god or propped up by a religion’s tenets, thus I was never an angry atheist, the division not divorce, the way others I’ve known have experienced the feeling of being hoodwinked & betrayed. It is obvious that not all religions or its aspects are bad; if I’m going to acknowledge the significance of facts, I must not ignore both the local & global positive contributions various religions & their practices have had--from my mother’s church offering free, non-proselytizing dinners to the positive effects AA & similar church-based programs have had those with addiction issues. Particularly, I most admire the community religious institutions can create, groups that can find necessary, ethical contributions to help provide basic needs, like food, clothing, & emotional support for the needy of all varieties.
Instead, my natural combo of curiosity, empathy, & social draw have led me to rephrase the focus as such: the important question isn’t “does god exist”(since the answer is no), but “why--& in many cases, how--does god exist” (for certain people)? We know that why is a major, natural question in life as conscious creatures. As Bill Nye said on a recent episode of Armchair Expert, all kids are scientists, are driven by that natural curiosity; I am reminded of how Dean Young in The Art of Recklessness said something similar regarding children’s relationship to poetry prior to socialization, the natural inclination towards language & its experimentation. Religion has been harnessed for like impulses too, though unfortunately, nowadays it most often is utilized as a control system, ancient arbitrary standards for morality & worldly understanding.
The other day heading to Mississippi for our friends’ wedding, my wife & I loved listening to Marc Maron prod & poke fun at both our crews of belief--the silliness of Christian evangelicals & the annoyingness of atheist know-it-alls. In the midst of those bits, I heard him say, as have many other thinkers, that religion springs from our need to understand this body, this world, this spin we’ve found ourselves in, an itch to feel connected to something bigger than the self. In his book An Atheist's History of Belief, Matthew Kneale offers much better word count to the topic, but basically, it goes like this: once we had no idea what made the sun rise (literally & figuratively), what made the sun set (literally & figuratively), & nearly everything else in between, so over time we made up myths & models for how it might have happened, & as human pressures for power, survival, & meaning-making took hold, various webs tangled & toppled. Other scientific areas of study such as evolutionary theory have shown us how religion has guided our understanding of the world, the evolution of our cultures & communities, & the effects on social functioning.
My viewpoint, which isn’t novel but is important to note, is that we now have others more-reasoned, less-baggaged methods for those answers to the universe’s biggest questions, from science to philosophy, psychology to history. My worry is that in the wake of that lack of utility, left with religion as merely tradition, a protected cultural artifact can be a dangerous weapon against reason, against one another, in the name of power. In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett lays it out like this: “A hypothesis to consider seriously, then, is that all our “intrinsic” values started out as instrumental values, and now that their original purpose has lapsed, at least in our eyes, they remain as things we like just because we like them. (That would not mean that we are wrong to like them! It would mean--by definition--that we like them without needing any ulterior reason to like them.) (69).”
I hear this fondness often in my wife’s rationale for her continued attachment to Christianity, its mythologies, & its virtues; it circles back to how she feels, the symbolism & the stories as her chosen system to filter the trials, triumphs, & everyday of life. In exploring why humans are religious, one uncovers nearly-universal needs to have matters of mystery, storytelling, community, parameters, & some feeling of something bigger than you. It is no wonder then that religion has inspired some beautiful art, that human-specific mode of wrestling big questions, experimenting with reality, & growing the self. Art, like secularism, reframes the world around not as thing a god created for us, but this thing that literally created, sustains, & often, overwhelms us & everything we love. I actually prefer the term “secular humanist” over “atheist” these days, shifting the focus from higher power to this miraculous evolved conscious creature I find myself to be one of, to be among.
The bigger-than-me something is science, is the natural world, is the extraordinary abundance of people & creatures & objects & mess that sprung through time. Like for the poet Mei-Mei Brussenbrugge, “physical perception is the data of my embodiment.” I’ve talked about it before, but it’s why poetry is so important to me, as the playground to control the chaos. Sports once & often still does act that way for me, a rectangular container for the body’s firing synapses & muscle spasms, for the mind’s logical constraints & split-second decision-making, for humanity’s cooperation & need to be in relationship with ourselves, others, & the world around us.
That said, I’m not anti-religion like I once was, which is probably the main result of the openness of the seminary. I was able to see the wider scope of contemporary, progressive Christianity, one that leans more to the symbolic over the literal, thus creating space for necessary & ethical means of human-centrist acts like interfaith dialogue, including with secularists, & social justice reform. From the seminary’s trip to the border to greet & support migrants to my inclusion in sermons & community events, I’ve witnessed a needed progressiveness, in all people, in fighting that natural impulse that I learned from Harris who learned it from Slovic: to care more about a person than people, to not “grow more callous as the body count rises” (69).
Thus I’ve become more accepting of reframing religion as a symbolic system, as an acknowledged collection of metaphors and stories to guide us, like other systems. As David Shields tells us in Reality Hunger, “Reality is what is imposed on you; realness is what you impose back (287).” In America’s current faux-conservative climate & evangelical tyranny, it is clear the danger if the two are confused. Like my wife & her classmates have shown at the seminary, in the areas it is dangerous, we need to treat aggressive, harmful strains of religion the way we do other extreme hateful views or broken power structures. It must be interrogated, from the basis to the effects; Daniel Dennett put it best in Breaking the Spell: “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether other religion, or not religion at all, does better (56).”
Like nearly everyone I know, I have “an anxious fear of future events,” to quote Hume, mine own panic revolving around the volatility of my still-slippery, fragmented person. When will my wife have enough of the episodes, the night terrors, the memory loss, etc.? When will I do something again that I can’t remember that debilitates someone I love? Why do I collapse every three months, seemingly destroying any progress I’ve made? In this anxiety, though, I find myself thankful for the progress away from religious worldviews to a more scientific, humanist perspective; personally, my Dissociative Identity Disorder would have been labeled demonic, a thing to exorcise with ritual & prayer, rather than a complex reality needed to be studied & addressed.
For me, a quiet god or ancient book provides no relief & no truth; instead, I am comforted by what we do know empirically & what we can explore through both science & art as a means of understanding & healing. I’m not a fuck-up (“God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups,” sings Sarah Shook in my skull) & I’m not special; I’m a product of my own brain in the natural world, the particular chemical firings of just another guy.
'Peering is kind of a rural thing, “just looking at stuff,” as my dad says, as he often fills his time. As I’ve discussed on here before, many of his hickish activities promote the importance of seeing (& thus, pondering)--fishing & hunting, porch-sitting, building, etc. My dad & his kin passed along to me the slow “just-looking-at-stuff” mindset; there’s family lore about how my uncle once ran his truck off the road because he’d been hypnotized by staring at a set of old wagon wheels stuck in the mud down the hill, imagining where he might plop them in his own yard. As a whippersnapper, I would ride atop a pillow in the passenger seat of my dad’s semi to see what we were passing, what we passed over. He taught me at an unusually young age the difference between the solid yellow lines & its dotted brethren in the center of the highway, a lesson, he jokes, that backfired, what with me calling out “don’t pass, don’t pass, don’t pass” into “okay, you can pass now” for hours on end.
I’ve always floated on a curiosity in how others see the world & how I might borrow their techniques & perspectives to get more goodness out of my own living. My dad sees the world through the movement around him--from the perch of his semi or his deer stand alike--but he compartmentalizes & retains it through humor & storytelling. My mother similarly passed along her ways of seeing, both literally & figuratively. My mother’s vision was always poor, “the worst non-legally blind person in town,” I (mis?)remember the local optometrist once declared; this condition eventually led to a double-corneal transplant. Though not nearly as bad, I couldn’t tell my own wife from Barry Manilow without my corrections, an advanced prescription that costs me an extra forty bucks on those cheap glasses sites.
Where her eyes lack, my mother’s soul extends very strongly, passionately, be it with love or frustration, protestation or faith. I am reminded of Donald Revell’s assertion that “[t]he poem’s trajectory is an eyebeam, not an outline,” in The Art of Attention (7). It is not necessarily what we see or the linear logic of that vision, but rather how our natural selves go forth & bring back what is found. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know a good buddy, TA, who is blind, a friendship that has taught me much about inclusion & perspective, but also about seeing.
He utilizes sight words like “I saw this play” or “He looks really cute” with much flippancy. This usage jarred me at first, but what I’ve realized is the expanse of seeing that life renders us, regardless of our literal ability to see, through our other senses, through our emotions, & more importantly through our collecting mind. In my own life, I have been forced to see angles & visions, perspectives & delusions throughout my three decades that are otherwise foreign or seemingly irrational to others. What the subconscious throws. What the unconscious uncovers. What dreams deliver. What my spells dictate, what my delusions skew. Without meaning to, I think of Breton, rightfully: “This world is only very relatively in tune with thought...Existence is elsewhere” (Manifestoes of Surrealism 47).
After diagnosis, the past really opens up under a new lamp, the word dissociation written in mud on the clean white wall. In the introduction to his great book, The Wandering Mind, Dr. John A. Biever says that dissociation is “as mysterious and unsettling as it is commonplace,” ranging from daydreaming to disorder. I admit that such a large percentage of my life has been spent inside that spectrum, often only grounded when tied to another, more stable human. As child & teenager, once I lost the connection with the person, I lost the connection to the grounding activity. When I got grown enough to hunt in my own hunk of the woods or work on 4H projects independently without my dad, I could no longer stay entrenched in those activities. Same went with sports; as I cut ties with the teammates, I lost the signal for the game.
These days I stay tethered by the joy of doing--learning new skills, indulging in hobbies, completing projects--as a means to solidify something as an identity, as a mechanism for putting the wolves in a fence. But truly, for something close to a decade, say 12 to 20, I don’t think I did much of anything that grew my understanding of self, built any true connection with the parts of me, or stabilized my place in society. I admire my wife as the antithesis of my experience; her confidence, her skillset, & her social skills blossomed from an early age, despite familial hard times or other struggles, because of her commitment & self-actualization as a theater artist.
While many years passed before my diagnosis, my dissociative misdirections found some solid footing, an avenue for placing that fragmented framework, when I found poetry. I’ve laid it out elsewhere--stumbling into my university’s Writers Community organization, being tagged by a Dean Young poem, finding my first real cohort in the writers there--but that’s the what, & this essay is more concerned with the why. My friends & mentors there often threw out words like discursive, elliptical, polyvocal, & dissociative to describe the work I somehow found the most relatable, clarifying, & honest. In reading poetry, as Matthew Zapruder said in the introduction to Why Poetry, I felt, in a jiffy, kin to “its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative day-dreaming movement,” & as I’ve spent the last twelve years with my nose returning to books I just can’t get enough of, I see a pattern of these particularities surfacing in the ones I most enjoy to revisit, where those Zapruder-identified characteristics still feel surprising & disjunctive in a way that rhymes with distinct & natural.
I haven’t always “gotten” John Ashbery; take his long poem, “Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror” written after a Parmigianino painting, for instance. It is a poem I hated, then loved, then liked, then finally let myself fall even further into confusion, into something like admiration. Title on, there’s something there about looking, comparing, understanding the self in relation to others, even if that others is one of your many selves, or the extension one finds in others--selves, artwork, relations, a hodge-podge, etc.. My love of poetry the same, there are other things I could be doing instead of following the breadcrumbs. But I appreciate the echoes. It wasn’t till Dean Young, my second year of grad school, wrote this Ashbery quote in all-caps on the board--“Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.”-`that I finally got a sense of why I felt so engaged, enthralled, with this man & his poems.
Others might hold sharper critical interpretations of Ashbery’s work, but for me, I carry comfort & camaraderie in his endless spiraling through the self of / in many realities; I’m shit-housing it a bit, & perhaps it’s not even Ashbery, since the internet & this stack of books is failing me, but it’s something like, “All my poems are autobiographical; I just don’t know who they’re about.” Again & again, he reached for the voice, the frame, or the collective that hasn’t been conjured or combined, what can & can’t go in a poem exploded & explored.
That isn’t to say Ashbery doesn’t carry his core with him into those choices. As Ashbery biographer Karin Roffman said on The History of Literature podcast, the trauma of his brother dying & the reverberations of that was persistent in his work till his death. We see a childhood of interior life, his love of comics, & growing up on a farm in “Farm Implements & Rutabagas in a Landscape,” a poem that takes Pop-Eye & his cast of characters as ensemble, held together miraculously in sestina form. Through its repetition, the sestina was a form, both as reader & writer, that from early on felt both a harrowing constraint but also immensely freeing, unwieldy. I remember a sestina being the first poem I ever shared, text lingo like omg & brb as the end words, that folks in the BSU Writers Community responded positively to.
The first of the undecoded messages read: “Popeye sits in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain’s hue, a tangram emerges: a country.”
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: “How pleasant
To spend one’s vacation en la casa de Popeye," she scratched
Her cleft chin’s solitary hair. She remembered spinach
And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
“M’love," he intercepted, “the plains are decked out in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish.” He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. “But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my country.”
Like the sestina form, I know I love a poet by how often I return to their work, not because I know what I’ll find, but because I know I’ll find something as surprising, as imbalancing, as layered as much of my “reality” often feels. This is true of Lo Kwa Mei-en’s mind-boggling second collection, The Bees Make Money in the Lion, a book that takes as its focus aliens, immigrants, ancients, & sci-fi, & frames them within complex versions of forms & modes like the sonnet or the elegy. I’m reminded of a point in Lyn Hejinian’s Positions of the Sun that stuck to my skin, how form is an attempt to control the chaos of experience, of synthesizing through language.
My world, my world, its legendary grief, alive as a paper dragon
nesting or burning. I documented my life so am two worlds seam
-less and reeking of aping, of animal ashes, a No the state let go
off record. Fat reels of systemic fruit tumble in the feed to fill
kingdom and custom. My world full of agents, wired air. If I keep
passing to pass their test—planet without its star, an email stuck
In these poems though, that structure carries its own disjunction. I’m fascinated by Lo Kwa Mei-en’s use of what I call abecedarian fuckery, poems where the left side will start with a-through-z & the right side will end lines z-through-a, or other variations of that craftiness. Re-reading the poems this time around, her take on the sonnet crown, “The Alien Crown,” struck me as if for the first time. The poems feed into each other, as one’s ending line will come modified as the next sonnet’s first line, but the poems elevated use of abecedarian techniques, like one where the first line starts with a ‘m’ & ends with a ‘n’ with the next line starting ‘n’ & ending ‘n’ (see above), is also a way a poem feeds into itself, thus an entanglement. I call these poems humanizing -- the message they swerve for but also the rapidity they induce. I want to believe her hopeful as she proclaims “[W]e conquer the footwork of being.” The revolution of doing, writing, processing feels more apt presently --“Voltas fail, but here we are, unhurt nowhere, / editing violence until we dawn.”
& when I think of “doing,” I think immediately of C.D. Wright, a poet of project & of place, who has mesmerized me into a never-ending quest to read the entirety of her body of work, a journey I’ve taken only with a few poets of considerable volumes. In her work, various iterations of the project get sprung outta a moment, a relation, a thought, a situation--a question about language, the problems with the prison system, etc.--& this is Wright’s charm. The first book I ever read of hers, Deepstep Come Shining, its vices is its viscerality of experience, memories, & signs, as she says, “the aim...to feel wholeness itself,” that drives me deeper & again into her work. Whether as observer, experiencer, or medium, or possibly all three, the poems remind us, “I was there. I know.”
“Everything Good between Men and Women” appeared as C.D. Wright’s first stand alone poem that popped for this bungle-brained hick, capturing the complexity of the domestic, the ever-after, & the relationship I was just beginning to learn the long-lasting significance of--“Eyes / have we and we are forever prey / to each other’s teeth.” I felt the pressure of poetry, how it intertwined inevitably, both as reader & writer, a twisting that thumped the motor of many of Wright’s projects. My most significant Wright read, though, was just barely posthumous, me still freshly flagged with her death, when I read The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures…, described on the back cover as “[p]art study, part elliptical love song to poetics.” In short, joyful chunks, like the recurring “In A Word, A World,” I finally found someone who felt the pressure of language, down to its micro-levels like I did, who hangs on & needs its every syllable.
And I know fifteenth letter O is the best of all: O my black frying pan. O my flying arches. O my degenerating fibroids. O what’s the point. O little man at the foot of my bed, please don’t steal my pillow. (20)
& that, my friends, is why I can’t shake poetry, why I have adopted & adapted poetry as my main therapeutic mechanisms, my trusted lonesome-killer, my never-ending pang. Yes, it is the feeling of where’d that come from & where’s this gonna go, but also just as importantly where’s this been & where the heck am I now. Poetry, not because of its contrast, but because of its similarities, is a rare comfort in making non-sense of my dissociative, fragmented world, a container for the mess.
As I chase this “naked sound on the run” (Abraham Smith in Hick Poetics intro), I am lucky & million-chickens thankful to have found a form to take my focus, how some people sigh deep with needlepoint or others nod out with a needle. Once I had a spell, once I came to in the middle of a cornfield, once I was not diagnosed, once I was overwhelmed by anxiety & confusion & embarrassed, once I watched Abraham Smith reading HANK at the Racine library. The former bits an early indicator something was “off;” the latter clunks the first true signs that reading poetry could be grounding, could be a safe space to be a mess, could be my mechanism to meet others where their anxious vision meets the hateful world, the encroaching void.
*NOTE: The lyrics contained in this post are as I hear them / remember / believe them. Apologies to the artists for any fudging (hopefully minor).
Always this noisiness has been rambling in my head--various voices, a cacophony of images, a push-pull between extreme feelings. My therapy before my DID diagnosis centered around “thinking errors,” instead choosing rationality & thoughtfulness over reactionary paranoia or cyclical mania; as I’ve learned more about my delusions, the main focus has been on integration, sorting through these parts, attempting to understand them, & satisfying the full self through decision-making, both preventative & reactive. Often, all four parts speak in a given heightened situation, a chorus of competing (re)actions to take in & choose from, even in the simpler situations, say, someone cutting me off in traffic. Day upon day ticking off & accumulating, that racket can be quite overwhelming & exhausting, to say the least.
In times of quiet aloneness, like lonelier days when D is away or when I am working on the farm for instance, it has been helpful to rejuvenate myself with necessary distractions & substitutions, input that can influence positive output in the future, especially in terms of perspective & language; this is also true in times where a dissociative cycle, manic moment, or paranoid thought might otherwise consume me. The accumulation these days includes conversation-based podcasts, logic-oriented nonfiction, most poetry, & deep talks with the trusted folks, be it therapists, my parents, or my wife. From the earliest age though, listening to music has been the most reliable, influential medium for grounding me, providing the emotional (re)charge to cut through / beyond the noise.
I love how-to videos on YouTube. Some ding-bat in Ohio videotapes himself changing his fuel pump on his ‘99 S10 & can’t help but do the play-by-play. That language among the doing, even if unrelated, is what the inside of this head hums, the logical steps & the personal bumps rubbing against one another to accomplish a / any thing. It is probably why I’ve always collected quotes, obsessing over lyric sheets in the CDs of yesteryear, able to learn lyrics of the screams I loved as a teenager, or using song quotes how others use cliches or metaphors in normal conversation.
For this month’s blog post, I hoped to explore how three significant periods of young adulthood music-loving shaped my identity, my worldview, & my morals, examining the songs that hold together the fractured oddity of me. Sure, my alters have their own music; The Kid insists on listening to “MMMBop” over & over when he’s restless, & Crazy Vinny keeps a playlist of the loudest, most boneheaded stuff when he’s lifting weights or blowing off steam. Here though, I want to focus on Container Store Tyler™, the affectionate nickname for primary me, & how my journey understanding my identity--as someone with DID, as a hick, as a poet, as a two-sided angry/friendly dude--has been positively propped by my favorite Hoosier bands, the contemporary country musicians that don’t suck, & the band I’d now declare my favorite..
Hauling ass into my teen years, I met up with buds on weekend nights at the bowling alley in town; around 8th grade, I noticed the place getting emptier, friends opting instead to hop an old ledge (just remembered: a pet store there burnt down when I was a whippersnapper) & head into The Cove, an all-ages pool hall complete with punk shows in the back room, first shitty bands from our little town & eventually some cool groups from the surrounding areas. A classmate named Kevin told my mom he saw me smoking cigarettes (not true) & fighting (possibly true) one Saturday night (question: wouldn’t it be mighty hard to do both at the same time?) while him & his mom got Blizzards at the adjacent Dairy Queen, but despite what Kevin & his mom think of me, I dare claim that those shows at the Cove & the community I fell in love with there was the most positive influence I had in my first two decades on this earth.
It was there I learned what Straight Edge was, seeing these folks come in & out with Sprite cans & X’ed up hands. Sure, the Straight Edge lifestyle can be corny, can be toxic & masculine, but that choice, to abstain from all drugs, including caffeine, from age 13 to 22 might have literally saved my life. As I bumbled through balancing my sexuality, coming to terms with my anger, & other bullshit bullet points of Midwestern teen dude life, I now am so thankful I had a clear(ish) head to think through my mistakes & my meanings.
The influence of those folks in that scene went far beyond keeping this numbskull off the sauce, though. I made friends with an older group of female punks, often the only boy in the van going to out-of-town shows; they taught me how to be platonic friends with gals, as well as being the first folks I knew who chatted through big subjects like the existence of god & gender equality. Also, as I tagged along with bands in the scene, it was the first time I befriended folks who identified as artists, an impulse I had but knew not what to do with. They were the first people I knew who went to college, who read books for fun, who shared albums & poems & thoughts they were stoked about. While plenty of music could be the soundtrack for my expanding life, the tunes the central Indiana bands I loved made were the only art I knew made from the actual life I was living.
In The Face Of War
Lead singer Ben Sutton shouted it best: “Let’s get one thing straight / It’s not about the songs, the music, or the words / All that matters is what we do for each other.” That’s the hum at the core of every ITFOW record, the ethos of community, friendship, & making powerful, good choices. In their ten-year run, they went from Christian metalcore to positive punk-hardcore; during that same run I went from pasty barely-teen / barely-person to recently-divorced / recently college graduate bumble brain. Going to ITFOW’s shows, I was in a place that both encouraged reflection & camaraderie, but also provided an environment to jump around & sing along, a reminder you can have fun, you can be rowdy, & still be thoughtful & caring.
“August Is Good For Goodbyes” from Self-Reliance Is Self-Destruction
“You’ve been with me / for my whole life / We’ll be much stronger / when we say goodbye.”
“If You Knew My Friends” from Live Forever or Die Trying
“The best way to take care of yourself / is to take care of someone else.”
“Who Will Be There” from We Make Our Own Luck
“But I’m hardly growing older / definitely not growing up / so what am I / who am I / and who will I become?”
Away With Vega
After pushing down the Away With Vega impulses for a couple years, I dusted off their tunes during my last breakdown & discovered something truly rejuvenating: wherever that confused, sensitive, & intense teen Tyler lives inside me, he’s still wearing his AWV t-shirt, the one with the sock on it. For a glob of years, I called Away With Vega my favorite band, & while their dissolution & my aging might have slipped them from the rankings (more on that in a second), these tunes still connect me to that side of myself that still firmly believes, “What a miracle it is to be loved at all!”
“Oh Heaven, Ain’t Ya Heard?” from A Baby Boy Sleeps
“Our hair is bound together / mystery in the back of our minds / oh heaven ain’t ya heard / that I’m alive”
“Catastrophe Bag” from Recovery
“Why are you still sleeping / Wake up / you’re missing everything”
“Race Street” from A Year At Home
“We pray with our crooked hearts / that someday we’ll find a way / to make straighter paths ahead / and still acknowledge our mistakes”
Upon seeing Mike Adams At His Honest Weight perform here in Austin, my wife declared Mike Adams to be Indiana’s best export; looking back on the last fifteen-plus years of his music-making in my home state, yup, she’s right. From clangy, Jesus-wrestling pop-punk to iconic Hoosier superband to whatever this is, Mike Adams captured the moments, his moments, growing up in Indiana. His two hallmark bands, husband&wife & the aforementioned MAAHHW, bring together what I think make all the musicians on this list so influential to me: they’re not just one thing--loud or sensitive or funny or whatever--they’re all of it at once, sincerely.
“Cross-Fingered Handshake” by Husband&Wife from the self-titled debut
“If you ever need rest / please don’t forget me / I’m always here when you’re running / and I’m waiting here / when you’re tired for love”
“Market Fresh” by Husband&Wife from Proud Flesh
“I’m completely unaware / of the market for grumpy old men / trapped inside the bodies / of twenty-five year-old kids.”
“Good Thing Going” by Mike Adams At His Honest Weight from Best of Boiler Room Classics
“We’ve got a good thing going / so we better get going / before the good thing goes.”
There is this misperception about rural &/or country folks: our parents only listen to country music & good country music at that. Yes, I was around good country music a lot as a kid, be it listening to Hank with my dad, the Dixie Chicks with my mom, or hearing “Take this Job & Shove It” blare out of Uncle Jimmy’s shed during a trip to North Carolina. But it’s important to note that my dad also loves Al Green (awesome), my mom loves Barry Manilow’s Christmas album (not awesome), & my favorite country band for the first half of my life was Sawyer Brown (still kinda awesome).
Just for fun, here are two playlists I’ve been working on: 90’s Country & Classic Country.
Yes, I did what a lot of kids do: I latched onto new challenges & viewpoints (for me, via college, books, & young adulthood world-widening) as modes & means to stretch away from my small town, my roots, & my parents’ influence. Then, my early 20’s figured out what parts of that culture was me, needed keeping. When I moved to Austin, I discovered there was a great gob of good contemporary country music, actually sharing many of my experiences & values. It reminded me of when I discovered the pulsing contemporary poetry scene--”THEY’RE NOT ALL DEAD? THANK GOODNESS!”
11 Contemporary Country Singers I Love
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers -- Frontperson Sarah Shook leads with the multiplicity of the modern artist -- atheist, queer, & vegan country artist, kind & intellectual punk, rowdy & progressive at the same damn time.
“God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups.” - “Fuck Up” on Sidelong
Tyler Childers - I am glad I gave this feller another chance. Like Sturgill (produced this record; more on him below), Childers never falls into the honky tonk rut, ranging from the spacy & bold (“Universal Sound”) to the quiet & personal (“Lady May”).
“I recall when I was a baby / I didn’t need nothing around / But a little bitty rattler and the universal sound” - “Universal Sound” on Purgatory
John Prine - As an aspiring old man, I appreciate the example John Prine is lending--witty, funny, & caring. I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again: Prine’s latest record Tree of Forgiveness is the best album by someone over the age of 70 ever.
“I can see your back porch / If I close my eyes now / I can hear the train tracks / Through the laundry on the line” - “Knockin’ On Your Screen Door” on Tree of Forgiveness
Margo Price - In her interview on Marc Maron’s WTF, she praises what pulled her out of her small Midwestern town, like a cheerleading scholarship & years in a van touring dive bars, yet in her music, we see her not moving away from those roots, but moving beyond them by tackling the misogyny, addiction problems, & family relations that haunts those places.
“Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me.” - “Weakness” on All-American Made
Kacey Musgraves - Let me get this out of the way: I think Golden Hour is a boring not-really-country album. Her first two albums, though, are pop-country gold, bringing her liberal, uniting worldview to the forefront; also there is no denying she is the Queen of Couplets.
“So hoe your own row and raise your own babies / Smoke your own smoke and grow your own daisies” - “Biscuits” on Pageant Material
The Deslondes - This five-piece band is probably my second favorite band right now. All five members write songs, all five members sing, & all five members completely rule. I had never heard of them when I saw them open for Spirit Family Reunion right after I moved to Austintown, but I’ve never missed them since.
“Don’t you wanna be a beautiful friend / Don’t you wanna be a beautiful to me / I wanna be a beautiful friend / I just wanna be a beautiful friend to you” - “Beautiful Friend” on Hurry Home
Possessed by Paul James - Some folks might argue with PBPJ’s inclusion on a list of country musicians, but I’d argue right back that his multi-instrumental string-instrument + stomp box one-man band vibe, his teacher-honed passion & advocacy, & his barn-burning energy make him just the kinda country artist we need right now.
“Yes oh yes / There will be nights when I’m lonely / As we cry ourselves to sleep” - “There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely” on There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely
Luke Bell - I clearly take my trucker hat off for folks pushing contemporary country music forward, but some folks like this Luke Bell are made for that old-school working-boy honky-tonk sound. Listen to the bouncing sadness of this track I’m quoting down yonder or the stretched-out syllables in “Loretta” & tell me I’m wrong.
“Sometimes I’m alright / Sometimes I get you on my mind / And other times / All I do is cry” - “Sometimes” on the self-titled album
Sturgill Simpson - This post avoids much DID talk, but Sturgill’s track “Voices,” while not intentionally about such issues, has been a big comfort to me in my journey. Sturgill’s sound has evolved (straight honky-tonk into the psychedelic country & further to a conceptual, orchestral sound). It proves that country artists--not only musicians, but also poets & storytellers & comedians, etc.--can stay rooted while also nodding to & incorporating their other influences in a sincere way.
“How I wish somebody make them voices go away” - “Voices” on Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Colter Wall - His big voice & thoughtful lyrics loom much larger than his 23 years. I respect Colter’s adherence to being a singer-songwriter, many of his tracks, both live & recorded, existing with only him on the mic & strings. Yes, it fits the desolate (Canadian) prairie sound he’s chasing, but it also headbutts this sucky stadium-country megaphone thing that’s happening.
“The grave & the garden won’t be satisfied till your name is next to mine.” - “Caroline” on Imaginary Appalachia
In college, I bounced through six majors, roughly a billion clubs / intramural teams, & several social circles, but through it all, I did know two things: I loved my girlfriend / soon-to-be wife / sooner-to-be ex-wife SH & I loved going to shows at Village Green Records, Muncie’s finest DIY record store. Usually the shows were on the lawn, but this one particular day it was raining so they pushed aside the shelves of records in the record-shop & that was when I saw State Champion play for the first time (I believe, 2010), crammed in with friends & strangers, including some friends who would later be strangers & a few strangers who might later become friends.
I’ve been a fan every day since, feeling a certain pull through time with their music, as if their particular brand of rock n’ roll (I like to call it emo-country) let loose a thread that I’m always pinching right behind in my own journey. When that first divorce happened, I bought my first record player because I had just bought my first record, SC’s Stale Champagne, & it was the only one I needed for a long while, a consoling listening experience that blew on the embers that became the fire of my first chapbook. Silver Jews leader & best-poet-to-only-put-out-one-book David Berman summed it up best, speaking to SC’s own leader Ryan Davis’s songwriting: "If Bob Dylan was funny, if Tom Waits was relevant, Ryan might not be peerless at what he does best, which is writing large gregarious circles around his pitiful colleagues in the field. He's the best lyricist who's not a rapper going."
From that first show to their fourth & most recent album, Send Flowers, I have found miles & miles of comfort & laughter & surprising insight in Davis’ sweeping (often well over five minutes long) songs full of the big questions (religion, mortality, sexuality) rubbing against the stupid objects / moments of Midwestern life (Big Gulps, Jeff Foxworthy, a transformed bucket of water, mopeds & vans driven by friends to the edge of town). This past November, home for Thanksgiving, I saw State Champion play again for the first time, nearly nine years in the waiting, the latest notch in a relationship, an attachment, & a loyalty to State Champion’s music over these four albums, one built on a mutual respect for language, in how it opens up boundaries & solidifies worries.
I’ve tried for years to make an “Intro To State Champion” playlist, but lordy, I can’t do it. I can’t name a favorite track, I can’t pick a favorite album, & I’m damn sure I wouldn’t wanna. In this world of singles & playlists, I’m so fucking thankful for these albums, all four of them as lids for the time capsules of some pretty grueling growing pains this last decade--Stale Champagne (divorce), Deep Shit (moving back home), Fantasy Error (moving to Austin), & Send Flowers (DID diagnosis).
9 State Champion Lyrics I Often Mutter To Myself For Comfort
“Some lay flowers on the side of the highway / to note the death of the ones they loved / while other flowers spend their whole lives out on the highway / standing for nothing / it’s just where they’re from” - “Help Me Sing” from Stale Champagne
“It’s always shining on Kentucky when you’re sad / but I ain’t mad about the weather / I just ain’t trying to feel much better about my past” - “Bite the Dust” from Stale Champagne
“I guess it gets harder and harder / changing colors everyday / oh and I think I’ve been feeling blue / I’ve been feeling pink and yellow / green and golden too” - “Old Green Room” from Deep Shit
“I still smell her hair on the horizon sometimes / you know I can’t get past it” - “The Basement” from Deep Shit
“When the hourglass shatters on your shithead friend / the montage upon us is easy / even a broken clock is right two times a day / and even a thug gets sleepy / even the darkest and deepest of this apartment’s secrets can be seen by the light of the TV” - “Wake Me Up” from Fantasy Error
“You left a note that said our love it would prevail / I left a prank call on the county coroner’s answering machine” - “There is a Highlight Reel” from Fantasy Error
“Some people love playing the bad guy / some people love playing his friend / some people love playing the pass line / odds are it’s all the same in the end / if you know what I mean” - “My Over, My Under” from Send Flowers
“How’s a wound gonna heal / without a room and a meal / How am I to live up to my end of the deal / if you don’t show me / if you don’t show me / if you don’t show me how alone to feel” - “If You Don’t Show Me” from Send Flowers
“There’s a styrofoam Big Gulp waiting on our grave / you can see it when the light shines through” - “Lifetime Sentence” from Send Flowers
There are some glaring marks in this sort of reflection. In time with the time is the obviousness of the whiteness & dudeness of this list. It is not only in what I find / search out, but it is also an example of what is being held up. I certainly can’t or wouldn’t deny it, but as a white dude, it is an important observation as I work to integrate my dissociative parts, along with my roots, my upbringing, & my past, in my next incarnation, hopefully in producing the better version of myself. Despite these perhaps narrow frames, as a white kid who grew up without siblings & in a town with no music culture & a thick racist past, I’m thankful for the positive artistic & life models provided here; I very easily could’ve ended up loving Nickelback or Kid Rock or ICP.
This is also a good place to nod at the phases that didn’t stick, that didn’t make a lifelong impact. There was the pop punk phase that bled into the local Indiana punk / hardcore / rock scene, complete with DORK beanie & black rubber bracelets from Hot Topic (see, I didn’t even include a band name in the first draft of this). There was the two years I was obsessed with Ludacris & T.I. in high school. There were the other local bands that, for whatever reason, probably social as much as music-oriented, haven’t had the longevity in my life, including a purposefully offensive punk band whose drummer married my ex-wife, Indiana's best band name, & a post-AWV project. There are also the barrels of other music-makers that might still need time to dig down into my cells (possible nominees: Courtney Barnett, my favorite Austin bands, & Gillian Welch / Dave Rawlings / Willie Watson).
The posts on this blog illuminate how my artistic self has become so entangled with my personal self, specifically the questions & the journeys continuing to spring from me. The three categories of music scratched at above represent both the most influential artistic examples coming out of my culture(s) & my biggest comforts in the ups-&-downs of this crooked living. As I look ahead to the hopes I have for my own artistic work, I see the vulnerability, the allegiance to place, & the necessity of difficult-but-necessary loving relationships reflected, be it in my hopes to record an audiobook of long poems about hick identity in my grandpa’s barn, the AN NEWSLETTER podcast keeping a running document of the important things I intersect / learn, or the burn to write my own songs. These heroes have taught me that it is about taking the artifacts of the life you’re living & turning them into the artifacts of the life you’ve lived, thank you.
I try to be the best man that I can.
I don’t have much practice.
I was hoping you might help me out with that.
I can’t do this on my own.
All I’ve known is what I’ve been shown
& I can’t live up to my dad. - Canterbury Effect.
Most people would have left me by now. Let me rephrase: most people have left me by now. Before diagnosis, I stammered & stumbled & tumbled through relationships--platonic, professional, & romantic (on one significant occasion, all three). Through the trust & the “lean on me” moments, the adventures & the advice, you can only hide crazy so long, as I’ve learned time & again. I finally got to the point where I just started talking about it--the confusion, the weaknesses, the fears, the faults, the failures--with potential partners--platonic, professional, & romantic (on one significant occasion, all three). Yes, it started on my first date with Diana, telling her about the abuse of my ex-girlfriend, the voices, the pending diagnosis, & more. The fact that she finished that pizza with me, that she never even looked at the door through the now-years of ups-and-downs, that she’s always insisted on “together,” even though who could have blamed her if she had, it has literally been life-changing, life-altering, life-saving.
If pressed up against a brick wall with a finger under my rib, I’d declare that my favorite poem is “Provenance” by Mary Ruefle, primarily because of that ending that I so often quote / unleash: “I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive[.]” So corny & so simple, but coming at the end of this poem, where among other things, she admits the frustration & difficulty of giving a paper-mache pony to a sick classmate as a child, it is earned & powerful & all encompassing. I find comfort in its direct confession. I, too, love being alive despite the confusion & heartache, despite the hopelessness & ugliness of life.
But, like for most people at certain points, it gets hard to keep going. In my earlier undiagnosed days, in the wake of the situation with my ex-girlfriend, in the cycle of some of my worst spells these past few years, I’ve flashed my fair share of panic & mania, not knowing how to respond, not knowing how to control or prevent these dreadful moments.. I’ve chosen flight & I’ve chosen fight; at times, I’ve sunk into both. I’ve spiraled into deep depressions. I’ve fallen into deep sleeps. I’ve brushed against suicide a time or three. I’ve been engulfed by my disorder, my alters, the resulting anxiety, what I call the cycle of spell-anxiety-spell-guilt-repeat. I’m reminded of John Ashbery: “He is a monster like everyone else but what do you do if you’re a monster[.]”
This past week, I’ve been in the pits of that cycle for longer than ever before since my diagnosis a couple years ago, going on six days now. With D gone on a trip to England, as well as my primary self starting a new job & my alters continuing to learn to coexist, I tried to be strong & focused. Four days in, I failed, I collapsed, & I fell, once again into the cycle. All of the normal components--tons of switching followed by heavy exhaustion, lots of yelling followed by crying, lots of forgotten moments & delusional filler. But, in addition to the length, one element set this cycle apart from the others: I gave into the (for lack of a better term) “monster” feeling. I cleared my calendar & bowed out of most relationships / responsibilities in order to truly, finally, allow myself to grieve the things I’ve lost & might never have, to spend days conversing with my selves, & to think about the life I can lead, not the one I want or don’t lead. While this time was tinted a little differently, the staffing was the same, with D, even while thousands of miles away, listening & helping & continuing alongside me.
With the help of thoughtful friends, loving family members, & beloved members of the therapeutic community, I’ve found many great answers to that question of what to do if you’re the monster. After a panic attack the other day in conjunction with a new year’s reminder that I can’t function professionally, socially, or even domestically as I once had hoped, I sat with my tear-soaked skull in D’s lap & she listened to my cycle with my hand hovering over the eject button & my mouth spinning. That moment was a reminder of how D has completely transformed my journey with DID, holding me accountable for the past, holding my head in the present, & holding my hand tightly as we step into the future.
Other partners & best friends have done their best, especially in the dark of an undiagnosed psychological disorder, my young-man foolishness & frustration, & each one’s own growing pains & gains. By sheer good fortune on my end & noble hardwork on hers, D has approached every moment of our relationship with bravery, commitment, & joy, often in the face of mighty confusion & many cracks. February is her birthday month, so for this post I wanna look at my particular example of having DID & our attempt at maintaining a loving, balanced partnership. I owe a lot of this thinking to my time spent with my therapist SW, where, beyond my diagnosis, we’ve spent many hours uncovering what kind of partner I can be & also need, thinking through our successes & failures together, & building a vision for the future, first in individual sessions & now with D in couples therapy.
As I’ve adjusted my life to my newest understanding of self, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that many of the qualities I find most appealing, necessary, & admirable in being a partner are not supported by my actual capabilities, namely my disorder & the value system I’ve been creating. Regardless of progress, there are gonna be issues. Being honest with partners & collaborators, not to mention myself, about my emotional & mental inconsistency has been a key. I don’t have the day-in-day-out stamina that I once did, or had convinced myself I did; likewise, I’ve learned, possibly too late, that it is irresponsible & possibly harmful to be in positions of power around groups of people, especially vulnerable & less-understanding populations like in education & traditional publishing. My particular combination of dissociative symptoms, multiple-personality-ness, & opinionated hickness also requires certain, perhaps radical or progressive, approaches to committed relationships, living environments, & routines. But through this collaboration with D & SW, I’ve begun to see how those things can be worked in unique ways, especially with the right partner & having all the information.
Last summer when I had the terrifying realization that the professional avenues I had spent a decade cultivating--teaching & publishing--were no longer available to me, I had to reassess what I am capable of, as a partner, as a citizen, as someone in multiple significant relationships. In the TV show Parenthood, when Max’s parents finally talk to him about his Asperger’s they do so by laying out both the difficulties & the strengths. While acknowledging my shortcomings was freeing & necessary, D & SW, along with many other loved ones, were quick to remind me of the positives, like my creative energy, my penchant for planning / organizing, & my love of working hard, that both my disorder, my personalities, & my core offer me.
Lucky for me, the answer to “what kind of partner / collaborator do I need?” was sitting right next to me on the couch. Any relationship, partnership, what-have-you that I get into needs to lead with the understanding of the “reality” of the situation; as Rupert Spira says, “All illusions have a reality to them, and if we are experiencing an illusion, we are, by definition, experiencing its reality.” Because of the way my mind works--the polyvocality, the misremembering, the gaps, & the fears--my reality needs some radical nudges to maintain a sustainable life for all. In recent years, I am crawling with fears, often bubbling just under the surface: Is this childish? Am I / did I hurt someone & forget it? Will I ever get better? Am I a sociopath / psychopath / schizophrenic? When will D leave?
When people find out that D is a Christian in seminary & I’m an atheist, they often ask, “How does that work?” The real “how does it work?” question, to me, seems more appropriate for our varied psychological states, her of the very “normal” & consistent & predictable variety & mine, well, I think you get the idea. But that distinction of states is also the answer to the question. Her stability & her particular Christian values have equipped her with the steadfastness, grace, & hope to do the hard work of living with & holding me accountable.
The other day my panic attack started the moment I woke, having had a dream that I murdered D, sending me into the normal spiral of “what’s wrong with me,” “you’re not safe,” “I should go.” But admitting that dream to her & seeing her clear, rational eyes & hearing her comforting words reminded me of what has made this partnership thrive these past four years; it’s the openness that keeps us both safe, happy, & collaborating. From me explaining the LR incident on our first date to conversations about spells, from that dream to things I can admit (about my dissociative symptoms, about my needs, about my sexuality, etc.), I am so thankful to be able to be so open & supported, without fear of betrayal, manipulation, or shame.
As we’ve built & adjusted our vision for our future, it’s shown me how important it is to have a partner that listens, compromises, & works hard, alongside the various I. As we’ve come to understand my disorder & my realistic capabilities, we’ve had to take specific measures. We’ve adjusted budgets to match my work capabilities. We’ve set up clear plans & signals for triggers & spells. We’ve been more deliberate about our social situations.
I’m feeling pretty good about where we are right now in our relationship. We’ve got some big steps together coming up. We’re planning for a move, hopefully back to the Midwest. I’m also contemplating going back to graduate school to get my MA in Mental Health Counseling, focusing on anger & personality disorders in rural males. These new adventures will only be successful if we continue to trust & collaborate with one another. I must, for my self & for Diana, separate my disorder from my choices. I must make sure Diana has the support & outlets she needs as she goes through her own transitions & continues to support me well. Most importantly, we must both lead with transparency--honest about our own realities, feelings, & needs.
The lessons I’ve learned from my four years with D have been useful, too, when applied to any of my major relationships--romantic, friendship, artistic, or familial. I must be pickier than I once was about who I trust & lean on; yet, somehow also I must be transparent, when I do decide to connect, about my limitations, my capabilities, my history. On a recent episode of the Armchair Expert podcast, the guest Sarah Silverman says you can’t change if you’re in defense mode; D has taught me that if I hope to continue to be the best man I can be, solid relationships are my best offensive tools. In that same conversation, host Dax Shepherd says it’s not right to define yourself by who you hate. I can no longer hate any parts of my self, people who have abandoned / hurt me, or the partnerships I create; instead, I must more deliberately & more effectively stroll into the future holding hands with hope & joy, which I’m lucky enough to know appeared to me in human form.
My earliest memories of joy involved some creek or lake--floating in an inflatable raft as my dad wade-fished in the White River, trekking across a farmer’s cow pasture to try our luck in its center pond, controlling the trolling motor on the boat as we scooted into a little inlet that looked right for some bass fishing. Hunting was similarly gleeful, many whippersnapper days spent in the woods waiting on a doe to turn the corner or a rabbit to dart out of a thicket. Those were the places I first bonded with my dad, felt connected to my country culture(s), & learned how to occupy time with sitting, thinking, & waiting.
In The Liberal Redneck Manifesto, those three redneck comedians talk about how hunting is the place rednecks lean closest to meditating, their own little section of peace & quiet. Fishing is on par with that notion as well; the activity is marked by shutting up & doing a repetitive activity, inevitably clearing the mind at least a bit, all while under the beautiful glow of a big sky. When you haven’t done much of it, you might think it’s all about the shooting or the hooking, the dead thing you carry home. Truth is, that’s such a smidge of it, which is why I have kept coming back to these two hillbilly hobbies.
I don’t like the killing, plain & simple, which has chased me with three decades of inner turmoil about whether or not I truly “like” the dang sports. The problem is, I freaking love the other individual parts so much--the connection to nature, the literal being in its midst, the patience & the persistence, the camaraderie with your fellow hunters / fisherpeople. But is it the killing that makes it hunting? Is it the hook through the lip that makes fishing what it is? I stumble here to stumble through my personal connections with hunting & fishing, hoping to find a way to fit these activities in my current life while adjusting them to match my sensitivities & desires.
Raised an only child (my half-brother, ten years older, was sent away when I was four; you can read about that elsewhere on this blog), my dad & I spent gobs of hours together picking out baits, casting our lines, & chit-chatting as the bugs bounced off the polished glass of the water. Each weekend, we’d leave mom at the campsite or the house & find the closest pond, lake, reservoir, creek, river, what-have-you. From my first Mickey Mouse pole to the two rod-and-reels he sent with me to Texas, fishing meant father, meant our shared culture, meant home.
I’ve talked here, too, about my Uncle Ricky, my dad’s older brother who died in a car crash when I was eight years old, a death I had a premonition about that has been linked to my case of DID. Before I began writing this essay, it didn’t dawn on me how much fishing was threaded to my memories of Uncle Ricky. There is the large-mouth bass mounted on my parents’ bedroom wall all my days, a fish my dad caught while with Ricky, illegally fishing in a Petty’s pond. There is an early family camping trip where I caught a catfish on that aforementioned Mickey Mouse pole, Uncle Ricky instructing me on how to reel it in.
My most vivid memory of fishing with Uncle Ricky was shortly before his death. We--my dad, Ricky, his son DG, & myself--snuck onto a fancy golf course to fish the various ponds. As a little boy, obviously, I didn’t have the attention span as the others, but when I began my whippersnapper-whining, Ricky chose to take me on a walk pond-to-pond hunting for golf balls, while my dad & DG continued their fishing.
I think of this moment often--Ricky & I barefoot wading into the ponds to snag the balls we’d eventually sell back to the club house in exchange for ice cream. It is in this memory I find what I love about fishing--the chance to go places & have experiences we might never see. This stupid world is robbing us of our reasons to get wet, to get dirty, to get lost in the woods & the water, etc. I realize fishing in my childhood was what disc golf was to my twenties; anywhere & anytime, it can be the reason & the excuse to get into nature, to always find a space to inhabit in unfamiliar / visiting places, & to have a reason to get up / get out.
I’ve always been a sneaky twerp, able to “adjust” a situation to fit my desires & needs, for better or for worse. The Uncle Ricky story is a prime example; I got the nature, the inhabiting a new space, the reasons to get out, but I got to forego the parts I don’t like about fishing--the possibility of repetitious uncontrollable failure, the masculine comparisons, & chiefly the injuring / killing a living being. Those other dislikes were mostly exaggerated because really the only thing I don’t like about fishing is the hooking a fish in the fucking mouth.
I know that fish don’t have the same pain receptors as larger animals. I know they aren’t as smart. Catch & release. Catch & fillet. It don’t matter; I have little interest in that final goal, the transition from hook to hand. Catch & release, to me, is like catching a bear in a bear trap & then petting it & letting it go. I’ve touched fish; I’m not that desperate to do it again. It doesn’t gross me out, don’t go thinking that, nor does the filleting. I simply don’t like eating fish; most stuff that gets fried outta the water tastes like bugs.
But god damn it, I like an excuse to wade in / set sail on the water, y’all. We need to get our toes wet. We need to travel distances on that watery highway. We need to make notice of where the bank turns from muck to trees. See here a compromise, the act of getting in the water / boat minus the fish killing. No, I’m not talking about rowing, or kayaking, or even canoeing. I’m talking about sitting, the mind-clearing brush across the water. Or, maybe, I should catch litter instead.
There was a time I enjoyed the hooking & the fight of the reeling in, was fascinated by the gutting & the filleting in the fishing cycle, but truth is, with hunting, I never had that intrigue. Instead, as a little fella, I went hunting because of the build-up. I didn’t recognize it then, but how special were those early winter morns with my dad, bundling up & being the only folks on the highway heading up to our tree-stands? We’d stop by a local diner & fill-up on some biscuits & gravy or stuff our pockets at the gas station with cans of Dr. Pepper & peppermints for the wait for daylight.
The conversations between bites & those earliest feelings of camaraderie with my dad, & later his friends & other kids, were the real “what I like about hunting.” That, & the feeling of being in the cold, damp woods before the sun even peeks its fat, glowing head through the trees, hearing the squirrels & birds wake up; now that, oh what a feeling. It was the first place I remember being alone with my thoughts, deciphering bullshit from venom, insight from nearsight. Till a big buck stepped through the thicket, that is.
Truth is, I’ve never killed a deer, though I’ve lied & said I had. It started in high school, someone teasing me about it, so I caved & said that I had, having been on enough hunts to know how to shoot, how to gut a deer, how it is processed. Then, somehow, like lies do, it rolled on, not a snowball building into an avalanche, where I was the best deer hunter on god’s green earth, but just that one-kill lie continued & spread.. Even though I don’t value the killing or buy into the bullshit of “I got the bigger buck” that permeates our culture, I still feel less of a hick, stupidly, somehow less of a man, for never having killed a deer, those beautiful, amazing creatures that I let walk under & beyond my treestand again & again.
My friend AG keeps promising me he’s gonna take me bird-watching & in his insistence & stories, I find I’ve been doing my type of deer “hunting” for years. Those dozens of times letting the animal graze beneath me & move on without firing a shot. The joy of meeting the deer on Roy G. Guerrero Park’s disc golf course. The sunset strolls at McKinney Falls State Park with D, counting “1-2-3…” living, breathing hooved heroes in the pasture by the parking lot. Sitting in the airport at 5:30 am like I am now, no natural light in sight, I’m wondering now what it looks like, what it feels like to get up early again, maybe a couple times a year, stroll into the woods, & just wait.
As the Liberal Rednecks hinted at, that waiting is what hunting & fishing provides my dad & others in my culture that they would otherwise miss among their scraping work days, familial drama, & the sudden (misperceived or not) onslaught of a world passing them by. The preciousness of the thoughtflow, the chit-chat time over coffee, the stories that burst forth--these are the things that fill that void in waiting--no Twittering or scuffling, no worrying or wasting.
Yesterday, my dad sent me a three-second video as eight turkeys scooted across the field in front of him during one of his last hunts of the deer season. As we soared through the sky on the way out to see D’s momma here in California, I thought of this video & then I started reading a random book I snagged from the new non-fiction shelf at the library--Being Aware of Being Aware by Rupert Spira. He’s working towards an understanding & emphasis on narrowing that self-focus back beyond “objective experience.” Nature, in general, lends itself to that core seeing, which is where I think my inability to let go of the appeal of hunting & fishing rings strongest. Both activities, but especially hunting, has given me a connection to my senses & an emphasis on awareness--the way I’m behaving, the clues of what’s going on around me, etc.--that continues to bring me safety & experiences I’d miss otherwises.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rural (blue-collar, hick, redneck, what-have-you) dudes’ allergy to self-care & therapeutic means of betterment; this thought-train intersected with this here essay’s meditation on my own relationship with gaming, as hunting & fishing, despite their grotesque flaws, remain the most culturally acceptable, socially unifying, & downright most effective avenues for building solid bonds with relatives & friends, for connecting the self to something gratifying, & for allowing the space to think through the questions & simply hunker down to the base-level of thinking.
I saw many of my heathen, numb-skulled friends growing up turn into thoughtful fathers/husbands & hardworkers, thanks in large part to the responsibility & dedication they honed through hunting & fishing. I saw some of my would-be crazier, lazier, or drug-addled peers given purpose & community through these activities (another similarity to disc golf). I’ve seen myself bond with my father & his buddies, along with those peers of mine, in ways I might have neglected or avoided; most importantly, I’ve seen that father develop a true sense of self steeped in weekend hunting trips, marked more by hilarity over card games, the bacon & eggs shared at 4 a.m., & the contemplative time staring from his edge of the woods across the greater Indiana cornfields beyond than the sense of killing. Here in 2019, that’s one of my resolutions: to figure out how to adjust these activities to both preserve those special cultural attributes & adjust them beyond killing to still fit my particular worldview.
It’s true I had plans, hopes, & certainly reason to knock out more of these essays about my journey with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) this year for this here blog. There’s plenty of parts of myself / my life I could blame—busy opening days as a freelance handyman, a recent renaissance in poetry penning, the dang holiday season(s), the expected scattered brain, a surprising stint of stability within that brain. Right now, I’d like to blame the last essay of 2018 that was the mud I got stuck in: a set of ruminations inspired by photos I began to write after moseying back to Texas following my Uncle Jimmy’s funeral in North Carolina back in late October.
In order to become grounded & remain present, but also most importantly to be attentive to my dad & reconnect with my Gobble / North Carolina family, I vowed to stay off my phone. However, I found in this attempt a sensitivity to the visuals around me & a quickly-revealed inability to retain much detail separated from those visuals. So I budged a bit & began snapping photos, a few a day.
The essay I didn’t finish brought together the dozen best of those snapshots, each followed by a meditation on the photo. A photo of my dad painting the letters on a tire bright green & a sigh for the artistic / creative life he is just finding later in his life. A photo of my one remaining uncle’s two donkeys & some personal insight into the importance of what we let surround us, the purpose we gift ourselves in the caring for other creatures. A photo of my dad & three of his siblings around a table & how I see myself fitting in, fitting beyond, fitting around this family.
To be honest, the first entry, inspired by a photo of the first place I stopped after flying into Charlotte, a greasy spoon breakfast joint, is the only one that felt finished, the first & the foremost. So here it is now:
Whether a homeplace or a new spot or somewhere in between, when I land or find land, I hunt the comfortable place to stretch & fill up, ground myself & refuel, to be alone among strangers. A diner is a place I’ve always felt settled, the lingering smell of smoke from the days they allowed that sorta thing, like maybe last Tuesday when no one was looking, the can’t-mess-it-up (as long if you’ve got decent) biscuits & gravy, the families & old folks sipping their coffees & starting this particular day surrounded by one another. I go in, content to be alone with my book & their sounds, but end up, almost always, accompanied. Here, for instance, I settled into the only table available, a six-seater, & moments later when a couple & their teenage son stepped through the door way, the father & I, our words bumped – “Y’all can sit with me.” / “Can we sit with you?” The wife & the son sat at the other end facing each other, but the father evened it out, sitting right across from me. I did not want to impose, to take up any further room in their local spot (I knew it was theirs because they had ordered ahead – “the salmon cakes take longer,” the father said). The wall, it was theirs to break, & they did. The mother first commented on the book I was reading (WHY POETRY by Matthew Zapruder), the son later complimenting my jacket, his own jacket quite nice itself (faded denim with the neck layer of wool). But it was the father who played a welcoming version of connect-the-dots with me, swapping life checkpoints, discussing tattoo choices, & unearthing our similarities. Down here in Texas, I drive on many of the roads he helped construct. Two old ladies in Carolina Panthers jerseys teased a young man in a New England Patriots hat. Then my biscuits were gone, I scooped the last of the gravy with my spoon, & just like that, it was time to head on down around the bend. I shook each hand & relayed how much I appreciated having breakfast with them. Right before I left, the mother whispered something to the father, who chimed this goodbye--“Hey buddy, by any chance did I sell you a Ford Bronco in 2004?” I said, “No, sir, you did not, but maybe one day.”
Another essay to file under “drafted-but-didn’t-finish-in-2018" was a post about extreme feelings. I’ve always been befuddled by my natural inclination towards extremes, overwhelmed with its effects. Five years ago during our first session, my therapist SW said the core of my problems was easy to spot, the fact that my emotions so often solely operate on extremes, one or five, as she put it, furious / devastated or ecstatic / wound up, no happy, no sad, no bummed, no content. My choices often mirrored this shakiness; in moments of conflict, I chose fight followed by flight, the two locking hands & steam-rolling; unleashed, I’d react aggressively, irrationally, insanely & then instead of repairing, I’d run away, destroy the relationship, the moment, any chance beyond repair.
One reason I didn’t finish this essay is that I was also feeling inspired to think more on how this plays out across our modern society, but I’m clearly not up to that challenge yet. Too close in time to LR’s essay to make judgments on accountability vs. punishment. Too raw from all that I’ve done, all I’ve learned I’ve done, all I’ve learned I’m capable of doing to contemplate feelings vs. facts. Too new at this whole (less) extreme thing to dispel good vs. bad, to rebalance reaction vs. prevention. I stalled writing this essay because simply, I couldn’t pound the pavement as deeply as I yearned to because I’m still mid-swim in regards to reframing how I perceive the world as I live it with this disorder, with this history, with this future.
Another essay I didn’t write in 2018 was about my relationship to substances, chiefly beer. It came from a still nagging annoyance, how a random acquaintance tried to spin the narrative of the incident in LR’s essay to be about misperceived alcoholism & his own self-righteousness, instead of LR’s pain, my struggle with anger & mental health, & the importance of accountability.
In the first draft, I explained how I was straight edge from thirteen to twenty-two—no booze, no drugs, no smokes, no caffeine even—inspired by a rowdy but positive scene of Midwestern punk & hardcore kids, as well as a rare stroke of early-teen good decision-making. I had heard enough of my dad’s story of abuse from his alcoholic father & seen first-hand my uncle’s wild drunken behavior to know I was susceptible to such booze-induced bad decision-making.
I also wanted to explain how the most embarrassing part about not drinking into my mid-20s wasn’t being the guy who didn’t drink, it was being the guy who had just begun to drink in his mid-20s. I realized that when one starts drinking at twenty-two, one goes through the same phases, but they’re a little skewed & you look a different kind of dumb because of the age difference. Falling down wasted for the first time or not knowing the differences between types of alcohol is one thing when you’re sixteen, but an adult’s mistakes cannot be passed off as an ignorant kid move.
I also felt ready to admit I drank too much for a couple years, but I kept tripping back on excuses, who I was dating, where I lived, etc. Why is it so hard to admit I had that problem? I remember the one time someone accused me of having a drinking problem; my girlfriend-at-the-time & I both wondered how it could be a drinking problem if it wasn’t causing any actual problems—no drinking & driving, no financial problems, no professional problems—& yet right here a problem was staring us in the face.
A major part of this essay would have been about how starting my relationship with D in early 2015 brought with it the realization that I needed to do some intense self-reflection & problem solving around drinking, for my health & for the construction of my self (selves). I was facing the fact I was struggling with some sort of undiagnosed psychological issue. As Dr. Marlene Steinberg says, many dissociative disorders go unregulated & undiagnosed because people self-medicate with booze & drugs. In my mid-20s, I smoked pot to ease my increasing anxiety & thus the true symptoms were obscured.
Still, that essay threatened to veer towards the back-patting & proof-giving I was avoiding (like how I had never had a “spell” while intoxicated, & booze & weed even seemed to settle these symptoms), some blah-blah about my drinking plan in the years since. I wanted to prove that asshole wrong. Instead, I’d rather that essay be one of apology for any stupidity my drinking caused to anyone actually affected by it, to be one of reflection for how drinking bisects & blurs mental health, & to be one of gratitude for D for all her encouragement about my health, both physical & mental. She urged me to take better care of myself, not out of shame, but concern, because as she said, she wanted me to live longer & healthier alongside her. It’s hard to say no to that.
Another essay I didn’t finish, though I had a substantial draft, was about confidence & anxiety. About two years ago, I decided it was time to try medication to temper some of the inner feelings that spark my spells & the anxiety that re-cropped up with my diagnosis, the nerves firing in fear of having a spell. During my last year of grad school I had to storm out of several classes / meetings due to early signs of dissociative spells, later had to quit three jobs that didn’t coexist well with my journey, & abandoned / let down countless friends & opportunities as well. Nowadays, I take a low daily dose of Fluoxetine, an antidepressant belonging to a group of medicines known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). As my physician says, it takes the edge off, my edge being particularly jagged, variant, & unpredictable.
It’s likely I’ve always been this way, though I’ve clearly pushed it down to great success at times; as I said in a poem once, “My dad said I’d have a heart attack before I turned 18. I showed him.” After my beloved grandma & my favorite uncle died within a year, those deaths I had premonitions about, not long after my brother was sent away, I became very nervous, mood-swingy, & possibly paranoid.
I later realized the fear of having these outbursts, spells, fits, breakdowns, whatever you call them always ran deep inside me; the constant fear of possibly hurting someone or blabbering something awful (& worse, not knowing it!) or just generally being crazy unfortunately made those moments worse. Anxiety of embarrassment or loss of loved ones leads to an episode which brings more anxiety, thus bringing guilt & embarrassment, which leads back into another spell, which causes more anxiety, which causes another episode. We see how it becomes a cycle.
Yes, I accept the things I do in moments of dissociation or poor decision-making, & I hope to make amends & continue to be better, but the pill’s surprising insight on minimizing the initial anxiety has reopened some wonderful doors to confidence, focus, & collaboration in steps towards that goal.
In 2018, I meant to write an essay about how I internalize, understand, & feel about physicality, violence, & my body in the world. I couldn’t quite get the engine revving, so here are a few failed starts:
I would never say I grew up in a violent environment; my parents never hit me, though there were some much-deserved threats, & the social altercations of my youth were pretty on par with what I’ve heard from other rural Midwestern boys of the late 90s/early 00s. However, after I moved to Austin & became more capable of intellectualizing my past choices, habits, & episodes, I realized many people are not conditioned to see physicality the same way I was. Physicality—be it violence, sexuality, dare-devil stunts, whatever—is processed in my brain similarly to emotional & psychological areas of life—choices & habits to be trialed, misused, wielded, & eventually, hopefully, abandoned, or at least integrated into, adult life, not something to be totally shunned & ridiculed.
In what I call my “wake-up years,” last year of undergrad to now, I’ve come to realize many people my age, especially ones I’ve met in Austin in more “liberal” circles, trust the evolution & growth of emotional & psychological challenges & choices, but have completely banished physicality, especially violence, to the dumpster or abstracted it in words or video games, let’s say, that it doesn’t ring or fade into life, even if it’s tied into psychological or emotional struggles.
From an early age, physicality was presented to me as something to wield, like strong words, for power, control, & negotiation. Through movies, sports, & the ol’ “don’t start a fight, but finish a fight” wisdom, I, like many sensitive boys (or so I’ve been told by several therapists), became very swirled in the unwritten rules & difficult feelings of life. As my particular traumatic moments accumulated & my emotions & physicality intertwined heavily, I lost track of the control & consistency I should have had.
My best friend from school got spit into a rough family--substance abuse, violence, verbal barrages—& I chose, strangely enthusiastically, to be engulfed in it.
Central Indiana isn’t quite the beacon of mental health care; though full of kind-hearted, well-intentioned folks no doubt, the therapeutic community I bounced around in much of my life did more to suppress my struggles & feelings than to actually resolve or work through them. It wasn’t till I moved to Austin & found my first therapist here, SW, that I realized how backwards my therapy had been in Indiana. From school counselors who explained my anger as the devil working inside me to the various sports coaches & male confidantes who repeatedly told me to suck it up to my university therapist who convinced me to give up on my first marriage after only three sessions to my post-graduation therapist back home who taught me a three-step rule (1. Say your feeling. 2. Shout your feeling. 3. Make an aggressive gesture). I was trained to run around with these intense negative feelings bottled up, out of fear & shame, instead of learning constructive ways to re-channel them.
The essay I didn’t finish in 2018 that I most wish I had was one about writing letters, the importance they’ve taken on as I understand my disorder, past / present / future. Writing letters of apology, of explanation, of atonement for my past actions, forgotten or not. Writing letters asking for an account from folks who witnessed a spell, in the process of getting to know my parts / reintegrating.
I also meant to write letters to each of my alters, thanking them for their helpful intentions, explaining what I need from each of them moving forward, asking more about their needs. I wanted to write about how important letters from friends, family members, & even more distant folks have been, telling me about their own / loved one’s mental health journey (sometimes even with DID!) & encouraging me to continue this exploration.
It was going to end with a letter I wrote to LR, breaking her request to never contact her again, but I couldn’t find a way that wasn’t self-serving & exploitative, so now there’s just this.
I wanted to write an essay exploring what I wish I would’ve done & what I hope I’ll do in the future when faced with moral dilemmas like knowing someone who did or has been accused of doing something pretty rough. I was mostly thinking about the editor / publisher BC who published my first poetry collection & was later accused of sexual harassment. I didn’t engage him in the way I should have, out of peer pressure & fear; after having gone through my own journey with public shaming & disconnected community, I have some clarity on how to treat others the way I’d like to be treated, thanks in large part to the accountability, grace, & solid communication thrown my way by my own loved ones.
Luckily in the past several years, I’ve been blessed to work in more thoughtful, open-minded educational settings that emphasize natural consequences over punishment. Sometimes it is a literal difference; other times it is about framing. When I worked with adults with intellectual disabilities, this difference was crucial. Likewise, later teaching three-year olds at a preschool, instead of time-outs & stern, negative statements, we leaned on modeling, information, & patience.
This positive societal shift occuring in our society—folks like BC & myself being called out in the literary scene, the entertainment industry’s attempt at keeping abusive men out of the workplace, & the calling out of political figures who don’t live up to their offices’ ethical standards—has done great work in giving victims a voice, protecting vulnerable people from abuse, & hopefully, provided abusers & troubled, potentially harmful folks the accountability to better themselves.
It’s also reminded me that unintentional yelling & controlling, unfocused tactics create an impasse that is its own void or silence. Oh how I wish I had talked to BC more directly, both as men called out by women in the poetry scene, in need of revisiting our behaviors & place in society. An old friend of mine tweeted something about not being able to love someone enough to make them better; this person, however much they loved me, never discussed this situation with me, never provided her perspective & never pushed me towards being a better me. Instead, like many in the literary community, I was given the silent treatment. The path is still being paved, but I can’t imagine the best or right move in this day & age is exile, punitive ignoring.
That feels like punishment & I have come to believe what we need are natural consequences, good or bad. I am ashamed I did not do this with BC, to be more communicative & helpful, instead of ignoring him out of fear for myself & some unrealistic good-bad binary. The straight-forward-ness, this “calling in” idea, seems to be best, a community holding up victims & holding others accountable. I now see this as a natural consequence to the situation for everyone—the necessity of me being accountable & in-process regarding my actions, no matter the cause. As outsiders to a situation, we must hold ourselves accountable as community members, friends, & family.
Leading up to my one-year wedding anniversary with D, I wanted to revisit my vows, write a more direct / less family-friendly, redacted & rehashed version. My relationship with D has been my steadiest rock in the last several years. I nodded in that direction, my appreciation & my admiration. But in the familial cluster of wedding hoopla, I couldn’t say everything I need to say. I couldn’t say, “Thank you for immediately creating the space for me to be honest about my past blunders & my mysterious brain blisters, allowing me to tell you on our first date about how I choked my ex-girlfriend in a parking garage.” I couldn’t say, “Thank you for not letting me run away & live in my van, for not giving up on our mutual attempt to understand my disorder, for being bold about your own needs for safety, comfort, & decompression, for separating my states & recognizing the nuance in your own memory & experience.” But now I have.
I also wanted to check in on my own vows I did make that day—”I promise to always give you the tools & knowledge to be your best self. I’ll be your biggest fan at the desk, in the woods, at the theater, on the couch, wherever. I’ll be your best friend, listening when you need, playing together always, & giving advice when asked.” As I was rereading my vows for the first time in a good long while, this ending strikes me as truer than ever—”I will always love you, & with you being such a lovely freaking person, I’ll always like you, & because of that, I can promise, I’ll follow you wherever this stupid life takes us. You have taught me nothing less.”
I wanted to write an essay about cultural representations of DID. Here are some quick thoughts / rundowns:
Fight Club - Wouldn’t it be nice to blame my embarrassing teenage obsession with this movie as an early sign of my dissociative traits, how I “saw myself” in the movie, how I related to the struggle, if on a much smaller scale? But truth is, I was just like other midwestern weirdo teens, enamored with Edward Norton &/or Brad Pitt, aroused by the intense plot & giving into a typical teenage escapism. Truth is, I didn’t even connect this movie to DID or my journey till someone texted me a few months ago & said, “Just watched Fight Club & thinking of you,” which, to be honest, securely makes the top 10 weirdest text I’ve ever received list.
United States of Tara – This certainly takes the sponge cake as the most relevant (& surprisingly accurate) to my personal journey with DID. D & I, watching the series together, had some amazing connective tissue reflected in the show—the exhaustion after a spell, the struggle with treatment / public shaming / getting to know the alters, & the importance of art, most notably. We could also laugh at some scary moments in our own lives for the first time, seeing them reflected back in the safety of the screen.
Certain stand-up bits – This is another case of retroactively lacing my experience with something I love, but still, I think it checks out. Mike Birbiglia’s whole story told in Sleepwalk with Me about his rare sleep disorder, his original refusal to deal with it, & the physicality of this psychological issue rang particular bells for me. My favorite comedians have taught me to laugh at myself more & to not be so bummed about the things my disorder prevents, like having kids; I’m thinking here specifically of Bill Burr’s desire to not have kids because he doesn’t want to download all his fucked-up thoughts onto their precious, empty hard drives.
Sybil - This is the one that people most often reference when I reveal I have Dissociative Identity Disorder; even my therapist walked it out as a point of reference when doing the final chisel on my diagnosis. To her credit, it was a comforting move, a launching off point in contrast & contextualizing. I still haven’t seen it. It’s a scary movie, right?
Split - This is another one I haven’t seen, but I’ve seen the trailer like two dozen times. D doesn’t like me watching negative representations of DID & related disorders / scenarios, a good looking-out-for-you move. I often worry about the things I’ve done or am capable of while in spells or during moments I lose time. For years, I worried I might be a psychopath or sociopath; still, I’m terrified of discovering a nutjob (or should say, nuttier) alter. I surely don’t need this fella’s completely unhinged image as a mirror hanging in my imagination.
“Pretty Pimpin’” by Kurt Vile – D confessed that she’d always had a special connection to this song & recently realized its DID vibes. I must say I’ve always felt a special camaraderie to Vile, along with other more elliptical, dissociative lyricists like Courtney Barnett, Bob Dylan, & State Champion; like I’ve said before about poetry, this kinda work feels natural & somehow clearer to me. I heard him play it live the other day alongside my buddy BM, & when he started out, “I woke up this morning / Didn’t recognize the man in the mirror / Then I laughed & I said, "Oh silly me, that’s just me,” I laughed, too.
Hereditary - What’s the deal with Toni Collette & DID? United States of Tara & now this. When TC’s character says early on in this movie that her mother had been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, knowing it was a horror movie, D & I both leaned forward & put on our worried faces. Would this movie fuel the fright train with the energy of DID? Like Split (or so I assume), would it add another person to the crazy-multiples list, thus inducing my worry & notching another fear in D / the world’s belt? Instead, DID turns out to be about the least weird thing in this movie & through the terror, that felt nice.
The last essay I wanted to write in 2018 was about endings & abandonment, & I quickly realized it’s best suited for another format. I have this intense urge to revisit, though not necessarily reconnect or reconcile, lost friendships & relationships, to move beyond the grievance, embarrassment, & hurt together. I want to understand how to have a job, how to quit a job, how to develop a career with DID. I want to know how to take a trip or have an argument or suffer loss without completely losing it, without destroying it. I’ve started that work here & over in AN NEWSLETTER. I hope to take both of those deep dives further as I poke & prod, knead & nod towards exploring these big questions in a podcast in the Spring of 2019. Thank you for all the love & support in 2018; see y’all in 2019!
In the recorded flailing of my first thirty years—overly-sensitive kid that predicted two loved ones’ deaths, the gelatinous teen years, the “oh-shit-I-got-married-too-young” phase, the peak of the anger days, the acceptance of what happened in that parking garage, my flip-flop towards diagnosis—I latched onto silly things like Myspace surveys & the fucking internet to showcase “the real me,” some grasping at an(y) identity. As I’ve talked about a little bit & plan to write more about in the future, I have always lived in extremes for much of my life; my therapist described it simply as always being either a 1 (severely depressed, furious, manic, obsessive) or 5 (stoked, head-over-heels, blindingly blissful). It is both a symptom of my fragmentation & the literal cause of the exhaustion entangling all of this.
Truth is, I didn’t really have hobbies until I was in college; instead I had obsessions. As opposed to providing as a space for contemplation & a mechanism for self-improvement, I spent my time doing things that nurtured my paranoia, mania, & general inability to look closely at myself & my impulses—from porn to video games, from my decade of being straight edge to my rushed first marriage. For good or for evil, I was balled up in distractions & excuses, rushing towards those 1s & 5s than confronting the issues of my childhood, building a firm sense of self, & providing myself any sort of relief.
I think this is the best example of that: in middle school, we had to build first aid kits for a particular purpose, but I fell into obsession & created one for every function I could think of—each parent’s car, each sport I played, each activity we did as a family, several strung throughout the house; I always viewed that story as funny & mildly pathetic, but a thoughtful person recently pointed to the tragedy & sadness in the fear & paranoia in that obsession.
In high school, I quit sports because of fear of effort—to work hard in a team, to confront the issues of masculinity & white supremacy hardening around me, to manage my time. Even my social life up till recently has often pushed towards being about a fear of being alone or disliked & less about building meaningful, sustainable, multi-faceted relationships. I realize now this preference of surface-level knowing & wild focus came from the abandonment I felt (the two deaths I predicted & the separation from my brother) & the fear & anger coming out of that.
My psychological life also took towards obsession as I got older. In my early twenties, just after the divorce, I had recurring night terrors that I was dying on my thirtieth birthday (note: I turned thirty a couple weeks ago & I ain’t dead yet). Skydiving for the first time & my parachute is full of t-shirts of bands I don’t listen to anymore. Friends bring out a cake with the big wax 3-0 & when I blow it out, it explodes. Jumping in the ocean in a party hat & I get gobbled up by a shark. The trick I’ve been learning, my whole life I now realize, is how to shape those obsessive tendencies, those fears & paranoias, & those energies into something productive; that’s where hobbies came in.
The other day I was bragging on my wife, about how good she is at choosing presents for me, & then a friend said, “Sure, but you’re like the easiest person to shop for.” So, yes, I’ve always been obsessive—basketball, Jesus, first aid kits, disc golf, poetry—the length of my life seeing myself painted in interests & likes/dislikes, & in newer days, I’ve learned to be more vocal about that stokedness as a way to piece together the self, relate to others, & position my selves in the world, rather than a long ball heave towards being noticed. It’s like when a friend asked me about why I sign emails “stay stoked,” & I replied with how it’s a reminder for both of us.
That reframing—hobby not as time-filler or obsession, but as meaningful self-building time—has operated so well in recent months. I’ve never been much interested in (& my disorder has kept me from) career-thinking, family-planning, asset-gaining. I prefer to think of it all through the lenses of creation, living in the melding. I’ve also begun holding my hobbies as treatment for my disorder, thinking back to the benefits ATW stresses. It allows me to flex the repressed, fragmented sides of myself without having to necessarily fully switch, although, of course, sometimes I do, & in that, I’ve found myself more & more capable of practicing co-consciousness, the ability for my main personality to be present while another side takes a turn. Ultimately, my focus on purposeful hobby engagement has made me less tired, more in touch with my alters, & capable of less spells.
When new folks find out I’m a poet, I usually get some perplexed eyebrow combo plus the question, “How did you become a poet?” Emphasis theirs. My earliest memory of poetry was a high school English teacher assigning us Dover Beach & some printed out Bob Dylan lyrics. Other than that, no poetry much stuck to my skin or my skull till I followed two kind older students at Ball State University to a Writers Community meeting, a group of students who got together weekly to share stuff they loved & get feedback on what they were working on. At some point, the faculty advisor shared a new Dean Young poem from an issue of Forklift Ohio & I was gone, lost to a fresh wild corner of poetry.
What is poetry? I always toss out this basic question for an opening discussion in poetry classes I teach, no matter the age group, as a way to bring each student’s personal perspective to the forefront as we dive into this wacky world of poetry. For me, I realize, for reasons that have stayed the same the face of many shifts & growths in my aesthetic, knowledge, & relationship with the art form, poetry has always been the best place for the pieces of me to co-exist, collaborate, & shine, a fact that drew me to that Dean Young poem in the first place.
I have learned to love so many aesthetical variations & particular schools of poetry, but the gut of me is lined with poetry that is polyvocal, collage-like, & disjunctive, what some might call dissociative, a connection I didn’t make till nearly a decade into poetry life. As someone dealing with personal fragmentation & a dissociative disorder, I find strange comfort & surprising clarity in work by poets like Dean Young, Will Alexander, Mary Ruefle, & more, as well as their predecessors such as Aimé Césaire, the French Surrealists, Marianne Moore, the New York School, & more.
Before I scooted off to college, I finally started a relationship with my physical adult body through working out & playing sports again. In college, I found an odd peace in the gym at the university rec center, even on the most crowded of days. It was a culture I had avoided in high school, one that I knew could push my buttons (particularly my frustration with embarrassment & my lack of patience with disrespect), possibly revealing my anger issues. But with my headphones in, I could disappear, a feeling I chased three or four times a week for five years.
Earlier this year, my wife asked me to teach her to lift weights, a nudge to get back into shape after five years out of gym life following a series of shoulder dislocations (another post for another day perhaps). It wasn’t the same, as much as I loved spending that positive time with her. After her schedule forced us to quit our couple’s workout sessions & I began lifting alone again, I noticed a change that really connected the dots on all those “forgotten” days in the gym.
My alter Vinny, the testosterone-fueled, very intense control freak that developed from years of shame hiding my anger, my competitive edge, & my fear of embarrassment, was stepping in to do the lifting. Encouraged by a therapist who told me to “lean into the alters” & other literature that supported that advice, I’ve been seeing some amazing results with that alter in the last month of lifting alone, allowing him to be present or even in charge when I lift.
With a playlist of heavy songs from my college years & the often-empty gym in our community, Vinny is able to do what he most enjoys—take care of our body, follow the structure of the workout plans, & release some serious energy. It’s also a great place for Vinny & I to work on co-consciousness, a feat that’s happening at least every other time now & only once have I had amnesia about a full workout; co-consciousness with this alter, as my therapist has explained, is a major key to my integration as he holds the most dangerous & societally-taboo sides of me. So far, so good, as Vinny has come out, as far as we know, only a couple times this month, outside of the gym, & the physical feelings that often allow space for him have majorly reduced.
I’ve never really been one of those writers to call myself “an artist,” the idea of artist always reserved for the visual makers & as my art teachers made very clear in every grade growing up, I just didn’t have the gift. My motor skills sucked. My vision, literally & figuratively, was bad. I just couldn’t represent the world in that way. My brain was much more inclined to babble.
However, as we learned more about the various ways I’m fragmented, the desire to create objects & images has never been resolved inside of me. After a spell a couple years ago, my wife found three very precious Playdough figurines upstairs—a dinosaur, a basketball, & an airplane. She had not made them, & even when I tried, I couldn’t reproduce them. This was our first realization of The Child’s interest in making visual art.
As part of my self-work, I’m committing to do visual art two times a week, as much as I don’t often enjoy it & as much as it brings up embarrassment from my childhood. But I do believe it’s something The Child wants to explore, just as he enjoys being silly with my wife or walking the dog (again, leaning in). The Child seems to be one side that’s easily put at ease through my own delving into the “childish things” he likes, such as drawing, watching cartoons, & playing games, a concession that isn’t productive or fair for me to hold back.
I was raised an only child, so spending time with my older relatives & my parents’ friends meant playing games. These memories are embedded in my psyche & the comfort & joy of reliving those moments have been an amazing experience as my wife & I organize a couple game nights a month. Just as a good stress reliever for adults is doing activities that make one feel like a kid again, playing games has that effect on me.
While I don’t dissociate during the playing of games, like with the visual art, feeding those needs of my alters by surrounding myself with safe competition, child-like energy, & total joy has done wonders for both of my main alters. It sounds so odd to talk this way, but I can feel The Kid & sometimes Vinny enter into co-consciousness, though I stay in charge, during competitive games with friends. I never played poker till recently, but it has a redemptive quality that lifting also has for Vinny, a place to be sly & competitive. I’ve also been enjoying revisiting the games of my childhood, particularly euchre.
A decade ago, I was freshly out of my teen years, had finally found something (poetry) to obsess over that didn’t cause me complete grief, & stumbled into my first ever Creative Writing class, an intro course with a wild man named Sean. He was one of the first male adults I ever met who was upfront & sort of unwieldy about his interests—writing, running, nachos, & disc golf, most notably. When he cancelled class one Friday because he was going to be out of town for a disc golf tournament, I figured what better time to learn about a new thing; a friend took me to the Muncie course & I was hooked.
Last week, I was in Portland for my birthday, visiting my wife’s family, among other things. We took her younger brother, his wife, & their two young children out for a round. It proved that old saying I always blabber, that disc golf is “for everyone,” which is of course not true unfortunately, but what I am beginning to realize more is that I mean that disc golf is “for all my sides & maybe yours, too.” My two main alters & the fragmented parts of myself they carry—Vinny’s controlling, aggressive, & competitive side & The Kid’s tender, comfort-oriented needs—are satisfied in part, both inside & sometimes outwardly by disc golf.
Also, what makes disc golf such an important ritual for me is how completely adjustable & controllable a space it is. With the variety of courses, the ability to play alone or with any number of people, the company of my support animal, & the pace, I am able to craft each individual round to fit my unpredictable mental health needs. If you or someone you know is looking for a fun, relaxing, & inclusive sport to play, I suggest giving disc golf a hurl.
Here are some suggestions for reading / watching to get you familiar:
How to play
Where to find discs
Where to find courses
I know I’m privileged & lucky to have a lifestyle so conducive to hobby exploration, seeing my parents & other role models get stoked on activities, & to live in a city that provides such space & access to great disc golf courses, fantastic arts scenes, & stellarly stoked folks to know. Like I said, a couple weeks ago, I visited Portland, OR for the first time. I got to show several of my in-laws & a dear friend the joy of disc golf, as well as play a world-class course at Pier Park. I got to dig deep into the poetry collection & other stacks at Powell’s Books, buying new books by old favorites (Terrance Hayes), out-of-print books by new favorites (Stan Rice), & a new book about my hometown hero Wendell Willkie, among many others. We watched a roller derby match. We drank local beer. We sang karaoke as a family.
I’m realizing more than ever how my definition of success—because of this disorder, because of my anger issues, because of the harm I’ve caused—has a lowered bar than it did a decade ago. Everyone always talks about living their “best life,” which often boils down to the same old traditional buckets I, too, once threw my washers in—money, career, recognition, etc. But now I’m just happy to be here, focused on creating rituals & routines, relationships & reviews that recognize my condition, set myself up to be my best self, & communicate with the world this big joy that is a signal flare fired from within me.