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My Cheap and Gaudy Heart: A Reflection On Writing

(This essay originally appeared in Stone Voices.) “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” — Maya Angelou It’s too easy to blame one’s childhood. We’re hardwired early on, certain brain faculties and genetic traits locked before we’re born. We arrive tremendously fragile, too feeble to put up a fight. It’s unfortunate when we end up in the wrong hands. I was dropped, cracked, bruised and broken, permanently damaged before I could walk, years before my mind could make adequate maps or record true memories. Then physically and emotionally tortured from that point forward. Poverty. Improper nutrition. Regular beatings. Psychological abuse. This is not a list of grievances, merely an inventory of causes and effects. I won’t blame my mother. I won’t pose as the poor, innocent victim, yet another casualty of childhood abuse and egregious parental neglect. She was no less a victim, cornered by social mores, damaged by destitution, confounded by ignorance, manipulated by men who found her beautiful. Brutal men and cruel women took full advantage of her limited intelligence, her naiveté, until she, still a teenager, was left with few options, and within those narrow constraints she made numerous bad choices. One severe miscalculation after another. I do not forgive her actions, but I won’t demonize her for them. In fact, I feel sympathy for her suffering, sorrow for the painful, ugly life she was forced to live while growing up. And I can’t imagine what it was like to be poor and uneducated and unmarried, fully responsible for two illegitimate children by the age of sixteen in the 1950s. A tremendous and shameful burden, no doubt. A hardship not many could have coped with. So I judge her neither innocent nor guilty. If I were to point the finger at anyone or anything, I might blame the world, then and now. Oddly, rather mysteriously, some of us are more malleable then others. Implanted with some essential and ancient aptitude that we can take no credit for. I was fortunate, almost clever, not quite bright, but able to adjust. Like Siddhartha, I was able to fast, and think, and wait. I survived by my wits, gritting my teeth, taking my beatings, clutching my belly against hunger, determined to outlast one suffering event after another, constantly observing, studying every sting, every soreness. I learned as I burned. And I grew, and I adjusted (or maladjusted) but I endured. In retrospect, the cost was enormous, quite outrageous. I am speaking now not merely in social or human terms, but in high-minded mystical, sacred terms. I’m blathering and stuttering in the forgotten language hidden in myths and fairy tales. Make no mistake: I am undeniably the Tin Man, hollow within, never given an actual heart, just a cheap and gaudy watch to wind so I can pretend to hear a pulse. Beyond that, I am merely an adult version of a fatherless, godless, spindly limbed bastard, the kind of creature the Greeks used to discard, wrapped in rags, bundled with its own afterbirth. Food for the wolves. That’s the stink you smell, the odor that attacks your nostrils, what triggers your instinct to turn away. You should obey it. Go. Stop reading. It doesn’t matter either way. I have always felt privileged to be alive, but always disconnected. Cut off. Even when I’ve made a genuine, serious, sustained effort to engage I end up feeling thoroughly disengaged, foolish, and rather embarrassed for having gone against my nature. I spend an enormous amount of time alone. I record my thoughts, my fears, my inadequacies, my defectiveness, my deepest pain. I reexamine trauma, suffering, misunderstanding, idiocy, cruelty, both mine and others. I go to dark places, daring the shadows to reach out and devour me. When they try, I flee. I escape time and again with pocketfuls of hurt, not solely mine, but the shattered remnants of collective pain. On my best days I bring back no more than a fragment of timeless suffering. Then I try to turn that fragment into something solid, something valid, confident that the result may one day have some intrinsic value for others, or at least one person somewhere. That is the true source and the total extent of my optimism and my self-delusion, that I actually suffer for a cause. Long ago I made it my job. I assigned myself this task. No one appointed me. I alone made it my duty to write, to keep writing. But I know I’m merely wasting time. Every day readers are more and more an endangered species. Few care about what I do. Writing is a futile pursuit. Though I’ve understood that from the beginning, I have nevertheless, like a fool, made it my life’s work, positioning it at the very top, making it the number one priority, everyone and everything else be damned. The endeavor has required ruthless determination, not to publish or impress, or win prizes, but simply to write. And to write honestly, with this paramount, peculiar purpose: to warn, to spark a brief flame in the darkness. See my hand-print on the wall. See that I was already here. There are still moments when I believe it is a righteous act, and a noble purpose. This self-appointed martyrdom. This madness. Yet, I know the work, my work, is a failure, and the hours I put into making it rank no higher than the pointless things prisoners do to pass the time while they wait in their cells, serving out their sentences, awaiting their executions. Any day I expect another prisoner, one more fucked up than me, to shove an ice pick into my chest. The assault won’t kill me, not all of me (the making of art has made parts of me unkillable) but I’ll need to assess the damage, dig inside and examine the cheap, gaudy watch that an old charlatan pretending to be a wizard hung from my neck. Once again I’ll have to bring out all my tools, lay them out, then inspect my counterfeit heart for damage, then try to tinker with the mechanism to restore its mock pulse. And frankly, what worries me, what disturbs is that these days the steadiness of my hands like the reliability of my eyes are not what they used to be, not at all what they should be. #

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