My soul is acoustic, I thought to myself as Frank Fairfield howled and screeched out “Old Paint” through my...
... shitty laptop speakers. I gave into the sinking of my eyelids, the THC creeping through my veins. The light in the room was golden and dim, the blankets warm, the smell and room itself unfamiliar. There was a euphoric rush in my brain, and an intoxicating pull in my gut. My mind soared as my core grounded me to the bed, the wailing fiddle and melodic country hollering pulling me through visions of immensity: infinite swaths of green, fog tumbling in over forested hills, feet aching and blistered by wandering.
Fairfield’s creaky, raw crooning coupled with his fiddling and banjo-ing renders images of Civil War battlefields, lonesome cowboys loping across western deserts, of laying out in the wilderness, of hard earnest living. “Old Paint” is a western ballad about a cowboy who, with agony and tenderness, must leave behind his old dying horse, and his metaphorically dying love. I can only imagine the simultaneous anguish and necessary detachment a wandering cowboy must experience at the death of a faithful horse. There is an excruciating, often confounding sorrow that comes with the loss of a non-human companion, yet the cowboy, farmer, traveler, whomever knows that life in the wild and untamable is inextricable from suffering, whether it be hands calloused by years of tilling, loneliness after months on the trail, aching hunger at the end of the day, or inevitable death.
In fact, to choose a life among the elements and of the earth is to embrace and accept a life of suffering, discomfort, and uneasiness. Media bombards us with new apps, tablets, home security systems, appliances all created and designed to streamline our existences, making our lives as efficient and convenient as possible. I no longer have to think for myself; I have machines to do that for me. My Facebook feed uses algorithms to filter out the articles and advertisements I would statistically have little interest in reading. I have apps for getting booze, food, books, and just…stuff delivered to my front door. My phone makes it so simple, so easy to stay caked in my own depressed gunk, wearing the same queso-stained hoodie and crunchy sweat pants for days on end.
I have lived with intense depression since I was a child. My life consists of cycles of being well, of little to no feeling or thinking, and of suicidal hopelessness. Last December, though, I found a post-Chipotle sized shit hitting the fan as I simultaneously began to slip into a season of nihilistic, unfeeling depression. After going off my meds in an effort to help save my relationship (for future reference, not a good idea) and then ending said relationship only a couple of weeks later, I was informed that I was about to lose my job due to a corporate decision to close the store, and, because of the breakup, I would have to temporarily move back in with my mother and little sister (the former I have had a generally fraught but loving relationship with, the latter attempted to stab me a week and a half ago as I write this).
Late in December, for whatever reason, my boss at the time scheduled me with five days off in a row. My depression and I signed up for a Hulu with HBO subscription, bought some liquor on the way home from work, and together we hunkered down for the week. In the five days I had off I didn’t shower, I only left my basement room to heat up leftovers or microwave meals, and I went through nearly half an ounce of weed and three standard sized bottles of whiskey all on my own. I cancelled plans without shame under the guise of introversion and self-care. I didn’t step foot outside, but then, I didn’t have to. My already minimal need for human connection was exacerbated by the depression and sustained by a handful of brief conversations with friends via social media and texting. My need for food met by delivery apps; my other basic needs fulfilled by my mother’s house. I melted into the bed, into the blue light reaching from my computer screen, filling the empty receptors in my brain with noise, with someone else’s thoughts and feelings. With relief.
On the fifth day after I could smell my own stench, after my body began to ache from lack of movement, after days of living like a bizarro, self-imprisoned version of Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, I oozed out of bed and sludged into the shower. I exfoliated layers of grime, of worthlessness, of apathy from my skin, and rinsed off the listlessness and suds. My lungs, face, skin, self all longed for something natural, for something authentic. With tightness in my fingers and back I pulled on clean clothes, and laced up my black Doc Martens, wrapping the laces once around my ankle before tying them off.
Behind my mother’s house is a protected green space with trails that lead all around the far south suburbs of Denver. It had been a favorite regular walk for my dog and I in the past, and I hadn’t been back to walk the trails since I put him down 6 months before. It was windy and grey out. The grasses were brown, the mountains capped white, and I clenched my jaw and squinted my eyes to dam the flood and fury hammering against my rib cage, knotting in my throat, welling in my eyes. I had lived the past few months either in indifference or pain, and with intention I had been feeding the indifference. Initially needed to survive, I then came to rely on it, to coddle it.
As I crested the first hill I passed what had been one of Basil’s favorite spots to sniff, and I lifted my eyes to scan, to consume the chain of mountains and the sprawling Denver Front Range – downtown and the suburbs an industrial cephalopod wriggling into and suffocating the West, the wilderness. The tears came with quiet and abandon. High prairie wind swelled around my face, whispering of coming storms, of coming change. Small, cold rain began to spit from the sky, and a smell – fertile, vegetal, dusty – rose from the land. From some depth within me a fiddle began to cry out over the expanse, a banjo began its melancholy rambling, a guitar and voice sounding out, unimpeded and unhindered by plugs and wires. I walked for hours.
I sat on the edge of my bed, pulled off my boots and layers of socks, and observed the quarter-sized blisters that grew in between my toes and on my heels. I poked the bubbles, squishing the liquid from one end of the blister to the other. The taste of blood lingered in the back of my throat; my lungs struggled to inflate after hours of exercise after weeks of reckless smoking after days of exhaustive inactivity. My clothes were damp, my legs shaky, my face raw from wind and tears, and I was revived.
After a year of largely ignoring my love of the acoustic, of nature, and depth I now crawled back into bed opting this time to pull back the curtains, throw on some Woody Guthrie, and get to work, get back to feeling, with a pen in my hand and my notebook spread across my lap. Baby steps.
I say all this not to rag on technology or to proclaim that nature, unplugging, or a combination is the or even a cure for depression. Humans were depressed long before the invention of the internet. I adore that I never have to call anyone anymore. It is a privilege to live in a time when the greatest works of literature, and some of the most brilliant academic and creative writing and information is accessible within the confines of my room. I, rather, offer a critique: there can be no change or growth without suffering, without pain, without being uncomfortable, and here we find ourselves living in societies and groups that tell us to strive after what is simple, familiar, and convenient and that provide easy access to apathy and stagnation through technology. We live in a world in which we don’t really have to be challenged if we don’t want to.
In Walden, Thoreau states his ultimate intention and thesis for living a solitary life in the woods, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Could I claim I have truly lived if I have only lived and thought through the equations and algorithms of a plastic machine, never leaving my habitat enclosure, never connecting my biological and natural self to the biological and natural planet that has borne me thus far? If we surround ourselves with only the human-made can we ever transcend, exceed, or overcome our current iterations to reach a place of self-governance, -love, and -acceptance? We are natural beings, and to remove nature from our human equation leaves us impoverished and destitute in spirit, sense of self, and existence.
“But it is the same with man as with the tree. The more he seeks to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep - into evil,” Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. We must struggle into the dark, into the terrifying abyss of nature, of a force we can have no control over. We must embrace struggle, queerness, and uncertainty as agents and tools of change; agents and tools that help us cross that bridge of ourselves, to move us from who we want to be to beings accepting of who we are, but always striving to be greater. Nature is volatile, androgynous, and indifferent, but also a catalyst that propels us into the void where we are forced to take ownership of our lives. We either rise to the occasion, or sink into futility and accept the inevitable unexamined life that comes from a life lived only in the comfortability of the herd.
Nature is filled with endless possibility.
And so are we.
To live, to be, is to suffer and experience pain. Either we dwell – dull and atrophic – in that pain, or we learn to fuel ourselves with pain and the existential anxiety inherent in human consciousness. We are always looking to the stars for answers, for something to help us make some sort of tiny bit of sense of the universe, to give us meaning and, at the very least, the impression of connection. But, we are the cosmos. We are part of outer space, and we need only look at the landscapes and inhabitants of Planet Earth to be reminded of our own alien-ness and divinity. And that is pretty fucking marvelous.
Unplug your shit, leave your phone at home, and, I dunno, take a walk or something.
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© Alessandra Ragusin 2016-2020