After years of regular words and sentences on a page, I cannot get anything done.
There is comfort in the elegance of the familiar straight lines and sharp edges of my academic writing, in letting my fingers guide themselves through their inertia-fueled strokes. When I break, I stare guiltily at the spiral Cansom notebook with its sturdy black covers, the charcoal-grey Lamy Safari fountain pen, both of which seem to stare back with rebuke, the “we don’t need you” kind of a rout. My memoir remains immobile, my short stories languish unattended, and 20,000 words of my novel lie cavitating and putrefying on the desktop. Instead of picking them up, I grab my iPhone, and, like Narcissus, look for myself in the Twitter messages, in the Times newsfeed, in the CNN clips, for any sign that my presence in this world is reflected on some scale larger than simply the vapor of my breath in the darkness.
I am struck by the granite hardness of the news, coming at me like a fusillade of rocks from David’s sling, their unyielding shapes, as though the last forty years of my life in this country have been a dream, a fantasy I bought into. I now spend all my free time trying to puzzle out the hidden meanings in what at the surface appears to be pure evil. I cannot let go of the premise of man’s better nature, the ideal of the benevolent public servant, of all that happily-ever-after schlock.
I am no spring chicken – fifty-five last month. What makes my naivety doubly galling is my childhood and early youth spent behind the Iron Curtain, fully shackled in authoritarianism, steeped in propaganda. As their legacy, my body is a clump of muscle that contracts spontaneously in some kind of reptilian protection against non-specific threats, as though covering my head or running has ever been effective. It’s hard to write in this state, hard to let the words flow and drench, hard to let the deep circuits of my brain autopilot me to beauty. And so my memoir remains immobile, my novel lingers, my short stories lie begging for cuts and revisions.
The cloudy skies today don’t drill fear into me the way our current political climate does. It’s the one climate change I have missed, the one I have engaged in denying with blind vigor. The logic of worrying about Clinton’s defeat eluded me as recently as fourteen moths ago. While some of my friends were canvassing just across the border in New Hampshire, I stayed home, occasionally clicking “Donate” to her campaign, feeling my blood rise as her opponent offended everyone from Mexicans to Muslims to the disabled, or as he bragged on tape about his sexual assaults. I ended these sessions needing on the one hand a shower and, on the other, a glass of wine to toast his insistent awfulness, his stubbornly disqualifying eruptions, convinced that nowhere in the world, let alone in this freest and most advanced of all nations, could such a lumbering troglodyte get elected president. Then November 8th came. It’s hard to create beauty when roaming through the five stages of grief while at the same time venturing into the new territory of political action.
So I lie in bed negotiating with my insomnia, my iPhone fanning its light around me, Twitter keeping me company, outrage crushing my ribs like a boulder. The covers fly off, I am ready to fling the device against the wall, but that would wake up my partner the way my nightly tossing no longer does. But what this righteous indignation is hiding is abject fear, that clammy lizard that comes for you in the night, when reason is napping, when there is no one available to bring you back into the focused fold of reality. This fear is a self-feeding organism, fruitful and multiplying in my gut. These people are crazy, it whispers to me, they hate you, they want your head, they want your children’s heads, they are on record speaking out against liberty, democracy, progress, reason itself. And they have wrenched power from the majority, wrested debate away from the public square, indeed incinerated the square itself because anything public is evil in their Randian delirium.
Yet I try to understand, as though there is something to understand. I try to find a crack through which a sliver of comprehension can enter, a way in to start turning this Titanic headed for an iceberg of its own making. Because reason is a crumb of beauty, a comfort even when ill devised.
Sometimes my chest burns and my tongue craves water, and I feel my particles whirr in their rigid cage-like trajectories, and the only thing I can do is hold my breath and hope. When the moment passes, I open my computer and type. I type because the words are like water, washing me, seeping into my parched tissues, sprouting more words and sentences and paragraphs. And suddenly I am breathing again, my heart a soothed beast, warm and fuzzy and purring. And then, when I am very still, very quiet, I can almost smell the ocean, hear the background noise from the distant Big Bang, and I begin to think more generously, embracing ever-increasing swaths of space-time, ever-more inclusive slices of humanity. Some theoretical physicists insist that, in order to reflect truth, an equation requires beauty. Here is reality, here is truth.
These nights are particularly vexing – I never know whether I will recognize the world when I wake up. Alarming headlines hail upon us with alarming frequency: North Korea testing its missiles; unrest in the Middle East; neo-Nazis crowding American streets with their Tiki torches, linguistic pollution and intellectual sewage; uncontrollable fires in California. And among these growing threats, global dictators are serving as a template for the current administration; the party in power supports with its money and its endorsements an alleged pedophile; and the president leads his followers in flouting all standards of decency and decorum. The worm in my head slithers toward forgone conclusions. But the little bee keeps buzzing its hope, its annoying unwillingness to let go of the idea of human goodness, of the ultimate triumph of reason.
So I toss, and as the ongoing ugliness fills my synapses, I type, loudly, furiously, to cleanse them, to inject some order and hope into my muscle and bone and blood. And when I’ve typed enough, I begin to feel those feathers fluttering deep in my chest, shy and elusive these days, but oh so very present and encouraged by this practice that has inarguably suffered, but is refusing to die. My ears tune in to the whispers of stories, my stories, our stories, their filigreed curlicues and hardened dead-ends. They are all here as they have always been. All I need to do is listen.
MARYA ZILBERBERG, MD, MPH, is a doctor, researcher and writer–sometimes creative, always curious. Her writing has been published in Cleaver, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Queen of Cups, Six Hens, Vox Poetica, The Blue Hour and Boston Poetry Magazine, among others.