Leaving Okay


Three different people asked me if I was okay today. It's been happening a lot lately.

I don't know how to tell you if I'm okay.

Being "okay" requires a baseline. My life is always either marvelously inspired or stupefyingly mundane. It's often both at the same time. I'm a ground-hugging slob who suffers from bouts of brilliance. It's difficult to maintain this dichotomy and also find a copasetic middle ground.

To say you're okay also indicates peace. It implies a more than delicate balance. Maybe even stasis. Terms have been reached. Things are under control; the settlement is proceeding as planned.

That's not me. I've just come off a divorce. I've just thrown in the towel on formal education. I've just been informed I've lost my job unless I return to Atlanta to become an employee. Since there's no work for me here, I have to move. I have to figure out where: Atlanta or somewhere else. I have to leave old friends and make new ones. I have to find a place for my dog to crap. I have to start dating.

I'm transitional. I'm functionally vagrant. I'm not in a position to expect any sort of balance.

Finally, I don't know why people even ask. My turmoil should be obvious to anyone who knows me more than cursorily. There are lots of times I'm happy, sure. I believe I have a good heart. I laugh a lot. I make people laugh a lot. There are people amongst my family and friends that I really admire, and in whose respect I bask. I don't pick at my food. I don't ordinarily have any trouble smiling.

Nevertheless, I still find time to torture myself daily with the fear that I'll never find a place where my talent can thrive. Or worse, maybe I will and it will turn out my talent wasn't specialty organic free-range but grew up being force-fed sawdust and by-products in a stall slightly bigger than its ass. When I manage to forget that, I'm reminded that I don't know where I'm going next or what I'll be doing. While there is freedom in that there is also the tremor of impending responsibility, an asteroid hurtling earthward.

And of course there are the usual ongoing issues. I have a tremendous capacity to love that is going almost entirely unused. I wonder when I'll find another woman I can stand for more than 30 minutes who doesn't look at me like something she found in the back of the refrigerator. I don't feel I handle the day-to-day things with consistency. I procrastinate. I have difficulty rising above a minimum effort at tasks. I share with all fat people a deep contempt for what I have done to the flesh I wear. I sleep too much, and not well.

But that's not the worst of it. That's the stuff I share with billions, the angst that every human being thinks they are the only one in the world to experience, the drizzle under which we all trudge from time to time.

The worst is that something strange began a year after my divorce. I have regained the ability to be surprised by my own emotion. My heart has achieved the status of an independent state, and acquired nuclear capability to boot. It wrecks me. It shoots dizziness up my spine. It arrests me at the most unexpected times.

I can't hear certain songs without flat out weeping. If I'm in the car I have to sit a while and get it together when I get to where I'm going. Don't get me wrong; I'm way past that after-breakup stage where every song on the radio seems designed specifically to break your balls. But still, I get flattened. I also get in trouble thinking of people I'm close to. Tragedy they have been through, heartbreak they are going through, or just some inherent sadness in their lives can tear me up. I squint my eyes and grit my teeth and wish there was something I could do or could have done.

I don't trust myself to read stuff out loud. I'm scared to describe a new poem or story because I may embarrass myself with my reaction to it. I have to be careful when I watch TV with other people around. Even cheesy Hallmark moments in crappy movies can make me lose my breath.

I must have lost the buffer we build between emotion and our awareness of it. I don't know a better way to describe it. I hate to use the word "sensitive", and not just so people don't get the idea I've become the sort of person that sits in coffee bars and sighs. I don't feel I have a different or more finely tuned reaction to emotion - I just don't have the same capacity to make it bearable mentally or physiologically.

It's like I'm the Fisher King, carrying an old, deep wound that resurfaces when it's prodded or strained. Or I've tapped some inexhaustible, bittersweet well that waits for any new chance to vent. I've become engaged to a pervading sense of astonishment at how beautiful and tragic the world can be. I've reawakened an ability to be awed by its splendor and sorrow.

I read those last lines from "The Circus Animals' Desertion", where Yeats at the end of his life talks about having too often described love and enchantment rather than seeking it and sharing it, where he finds that he can ultimately live only within himself:

"[...] Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart"
These lines devastate me. They embody at the same time such regret and such triumph that I can't contain what they engender in me. I wonder how I can read them again, three times, six times, and have the same undiminished response.

But can I deal with all of this? Am I "okay" with it?

I don't know. I don't know whether I'm better off the other way. The tears often are welcome ones. There are also times when I'm blindsided by happiness. I grapple the giant head of the clumsy noble dog I live with and marvel at how much he brightens my life; at how much contentment he brings me. I sit up in bed and shake my head at how lucky I've been, at how many people in my life bring me joy, at how healthy I am despite my doing almost nothing to merit it. I roll down the windows of my car and enjoy the driving and movement and the brisk air in my lungs. I make up stupid songs in the shower about toothpaste.

So am I okay in the sense that I'm not depressed or suicidal? I can tell you that I like life -- I think the world is worth living in. It's a good world. It has poets, schoolteachers, and firefighters in it. It has battered women shelters and guide dogs. It has pizza and breasts. I like sleeping and reading and eating and farting and talking to people and watching good movies and taking my dog to the park. I don't feel in the least bit inclined to give any of that up.

I don't know if that makes me okay. Christ, why would you WANT "okay"? If you slaved over a wonderful meal -- seared the steaks to perfection, matched the wine well -- and you asked the dinner guests how it was, would you want them to say, "it was okay"? If your best friend read the novel you spent 18 months writing, would you want him to tell you, "your book was okay"? After sex, is "that was okay" the first thing you like to hear out of your partner's mouth?

So don't ask me if I'm okay. If by asking that, you meant to ask "Are you drowning?" then no, I'm not drowning. I've made a lot of mistakes the past few years, I've let a lot of shit slide and I don't know if I'll ever make it all up. But I'm not drowning. More than that, I can't tell you. I don't know how my heart came unwrapped. I don't know how long it will last or what it will bring forth.

I do have just an inkling of what's going on. When I first fell in love, when I first started using emotional muscles I'd never depended on, I lost the ability to write. I was good at relating how much it sucked to be alone, but had no practice describing loving someone and sharing my life with them. I couldn't encapsulate in language what was going on in my heart.

Then just when I was recovering from that aphasia I got divorced. That made the angst I used to write about seem petty. It was the difference between finding a hole in a favorite shirt and watching the house you planned to spend the rest of your life in go up in flames. Among other things, this certainly sent me back into etymological paralysis for a while.

It may be what's happening is I'm wiggling my toes again. It may be that the language of my heart is finally returning, and with it the conscious awareness of emotion. It may be that I'm finally finding the strength to try to hold everything that's been spilling out.

It may be that I'm leaving okay, and heading towards something better.

And you maybe shouldn't worry too much about in what direction that takes me.

Rick Wyatt
February 2002

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