Ghost Stories #5: American Colonialism I
In 2014, I self-published an ebook called There Were These People. The book was a mix of fiction and nonfiction. The title came from a misremembered line in my favorite scene from the film Paris, Texas. For all the flaws in that movie, I still return to it almost exclusively for the slow build-up to that scene, written by the late great Sam Shepard.
The story I shared last week, "James," a dialogue between a man who's mad at God and God's assistant, made me think about the first text in There Were These People, which came to mind several times again this week as my depression climbed on top of me.
That piece of writing, a kind of intro to the book, is more or less about a man who feels broken, wants to be fixed, and daydreams about being fixed via writing a kind of intro to a book in which he's fixed by something like God's assistant.
I called it "American Colonialism I" for reasons I only sort of remember now. I think the idea was that I (an American) was traveling to and living in different countries to exploit their resources for my personal nourishment (a kind of colonialism). There are five fictional pieces in the book that I linked together in this way. So it's really "American Colonialism I–V," with the intro being part one. It's not really a story. And when I read it now I see at least as many flaws as I do in Paris, Texas. But I'm going to share it here now as a passageway to recent events and further examination.
American Colonialism I
You should probably know that I often want very badly to believe in something more than just my struggle to survive and forget about myself. I want for there to be something or someone great and healing waiting for me on the way out. I want to see the proverbial white light. I want to go toward it and I want to hear a voice saying, It’s okay now, it’s okay now, it’s okay now. Everything will be better starting right now. You’re so going to see that soon. But, first, I need you to just listen. I am really sorry about everything before. I mean I’m, like, really really sorry. Many of the others were strong enough to handle it no problem. I’m not saying you weren’t strong. I’m just saying there were a lot of others who had it much harder than you did and they got through it okay. We’re not sure what the deal was with you. But we recognize that there was definitely a deal, and that it was no joke. And we know you did your best and we accept full responsibility for the many massive inconveniences we most certainly caused you during your stay. And so anyway, guess what? We’re going to send you back as a lion! Haha. Yep. Thought you’d like that. But first we’d really like it if you’d come in and talk with us for a few hours slash human years, take a little pit stop before you start your new life—AS A LION!!! Oh, and there’s no guilt here, by the way. So I think you’re in for a real treat. Yes, it’s all free. There’s no currency here. There is, however, a small shit-ton of sandwiches and cookies and fresh coffee. You don’t actually require food or nutrition here. But you can still eat just for fun and good taste sensations if you want. Oh, and while you’re here we’re going to run some quick tests to see exactly what went wrong with you and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else ever again. No no, you don’t need to do anything. In fact we’ve already started. Oh, wait, nope, my bad, looks like we’re already finished. Yep. And it looks like we’ve already identified and put the fix in for all the others like you. Yeah, it was something to do with a certain chemical not being set for regular release in your brains. Wow, yeah, humans need way more than what you were getting. Sorry sorry sorry!!! By the way, the fix is unfortunately not immediate. It can take up to 48 hours. But most people will wake up tomorrow morning feeling like a million bucks. And it’s all thanks to you. Hope words like hero don’t embarrass you. Because you’re probably going to be getting a lot of that around here. Haha. Anyway, sorry again about the glitch. We tried to get to you before you got to us. We just get really backed up sometimes. You know the score. Big world. Billions of people. All with billions of problems. Etc., etc., etc. Anyway, thanks again for powering through. We know how hard it must have been for you. Actually, here, we have these neat charts showing exactly how hard it was for you. See this line? See how it darts way up here and then stays there for a bunch of years? Yep, that’s you. And for no apparent reason other than that chemical thingy we just found out about. Ouch. Haha. You’re going to love being a lion though. And not just a lion, but a lion with perfect brain chemistry! Ha! Yep. Okay so for now just come in and take a load off and before you know it you’ll be gliding elegantly atop the plains of the Serengeti feeling fearless and happy and free.
Some of what I wrote hasn't aged very well in light of what we know now about depression. But the basic idea still works for me and makes me feel good: broken man longs to be fixed and eventually—cheerfully—is.
Just as "James" was inspired by a Dave Eggers story, "American Colonialism I" was inspired by the closing paragraphs in George Saunders' "The 400-Pound CEO." I've written about my relationship with that story and those particular words from it before, so I won't get into that now. But just so we're all on the same page, here are those words again:
I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us. He gives us a need for love, and no way to get any. He gives us a desire to be liked, and personal attributes that make us utterly un-likable. Having placed his flawed and needy children in a world of exacting specifications, he deducts the difference between what we have and what we need from our hearts and our self-esteem and our mental health.
Maybe the God we see, the God who calls the daily shots, is merely a subGod. Maybe there’s a God above this subGod, who’s busy for a few Godminutes with something else, and will be right back, and when he gets back will take the subGod by the ear and say, “Now look. Look at that fat man. What did he ever do to you? Wasn’t he humble enough? Didn’t he endure enough abuse for a thousand men? Weren’t the simplest tasks hard? Didn’t you sense him craving affection? Were you unaware that his days unraveled as one long bad dream?” And maybe as the subGod slinks away, the true God will sweep me up in his arms, saying: My sincere apologies, a mistake has been made. Accept a new birth, as token of my esteem.
And I will emerge again from between the legs of my mother, a slighter and more beautiful baby, destined for a different life, in which I am masterful, sleek as a deer, a winner.
It gets me every time. What's new to me this week is the connection between Saunders' "subGod" and my "God's assistant" in "James." So I'll credit Saunders with inspiring that story as well. Call me unoriginal if you want. I won't fight it. I press the gas on whatever feels right and true and worth exploring to me. If I catch a spark from someone else’s fire, and it burns and guides me enough to start a fire of my own, I'll do it every time.
Depression is useful. It just needs time to become so, to find its direction and application.
The daughter of a teacher I know has been battling her demons for a while now. It's a battle that has landed her in the hospital several times. She was never a student of mine when I was teaching, but I saw her from time to time at two of the schools where I used to teach—the one where she was a student, and the one where her mom is a teacher. Whenever I saw her, we would exchange a few words. Nothing significant. Just checking in with each other, making sure things were okay. Asking questions. Listening to the answers. Not judging. Not teaching or learning. Just two people talking. I think she maybe saw a struggle and sadness in my eyes that looked like hers. I know that's what I saw in her eyes.
Her hospital stays started after I'd stopped teaching. But my wife, who still sees her at the school where she works, tells me she often asks about me. She wants to talk to me. And I always leap to alertness when I hear this. And any fucking time is my answer. Any fucking time. I've passed on the message that I will go to the school or she can come to our house. Whatever she wants. It just hasn't happened yet.
But then yesterday, while wrapped in the mental cloak of my own depression, wearing the carcasses of decades of demons on my skin, pretending to be normal for the sake of those around me, my wife and I ran into this teacher and her daughter at the mall. We finally got a chance to talk. And talk we did. She was quick to tell me about the hospitals and I was quick to ask for more. When she asked about me, I told her the truth, including what I'd told my wife just before walking into the mall. Feeling bad just needs time. Eventually it passes, and eventually it returns. But if you just remember to wait, and to avoid doing anything permanent while waiting, even the most awful feelings will start to feel better again. That's been my experience, anyway. And my experience is extensive.
Sometimes you say things to people and their faces remind you that you're an alien. Other times you say them and see a deep understanding and think, this is why I'm here. This is why I suffer. This is why I keep the corpses of my demons. This is their use and application. This is my use and application. It's how to fix what's broken.