Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Find limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day...
... Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat's unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light
And stay alive
Just stay alive
- The Mountain Goats "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1"
I'm kneeling on my wheelchair right up next to the club stage. It's all concrete, and dark, and the steadily increasing press of bodies behind me. My feet, tucked up underneath me, are already going to sleep and John hasn't even come on yet. A group of college students who are, it occurs to me, probably at least as old as I am, have their arms around one another and are rocking back and forth more and more rapidly as their excitement mounts. They are profoundly loving and unlovely: the boys are heavy and sweating and in glasses; the girls are gangly and stringy-haired; their sweaters are too small. They tell me they are a semester from graduation. They ask how much it hurt to get my eyebrow pierced, and when I tell them that it bled a lot but hardly hurt at all, they don't believe me. During the concert they will know the words to every single song from the new album, and call out requests for tracks released only on grainy cassette tape in the early 90's. They drove all the way from San Antonio. They will scream all night. During one brief pause after another song about a slow and terrible divorce the tallest girl leans toward me and says: the funny thing is, aren't we really too young to love a song like that?
My life has had a lot of constants: poetry and music and mountains, my family and the bright open door of my childhood home, the scores of lovely people walking through it. Profound pleasure and grace. Also: the small, dark fist of sadness at the center of everything, flexing when I wake. Sometimes it is a small pulse that matches my heartbeat, and I hardly notice it. Sometimes it is all I notice. I know by heart the litany that needs to go here: that I am lucky, that my life is good, that my struggles have been surmountable and that I've had enormous help, that at all costs I need to avoid being precious about sadness and art. I know all this utterly. I know that to some extent I can and must labor through it and beyond it: get up in the morning, go to the desk, make an incantation of small pleasures and regular gestures to keep me moving, do it all when I am the worst version of myself, when the world is greyest, and flattest, and least like a place I want to live in.
The night after the concert I go to a party. It's at a big house in East Austin that a friend just bought. The night is weirdly warm and we all collect outside on couches and folding chairs in the car-park. For a couple of hours people drink whiskey and beer, and flit conversation to conversation. Late, someone turns on music in an empty room: and people drift to the dance floor and become animals. Dancing will always have for me the particular allure of the foreign and impossible: the body completely let go, completely controlled. Tonight it seems particularly wild and weird, limbs hurled around the room, heads thrown back, mouths open, all about excising something. People dance for hours, and I let myself be pulled to the floor to bob my own head to "Dancing in the Dark." It's cold and dirty. We go to bed in our teeshirts around dawn. The bodies of the women next to me are warm and they are asleep instantly. Usually, I hate being young and feel ill suited for it. Tonight, it feels like the greatest gift anyone has ever given me, and I am all of a sudden desperately afraid of losing it. I am twenty one. The darkness knocks and knocks and knocks against the brightness.
I'm working on a longer essay about music. There's a line in it which says that listening to the music that means the most to me is an exercise in loving what breaks my heart, in delighting in having it broken. Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive...
Sometimes I think I can smell the darkness on strangers, that the scent of it is part of what identifies them as people I could love. This is comforting and dangerous. Jump in front of trains all day.
The day after that party we all sat at the lake and agreed that often we'd happily give up writing, and the extreme joy that sometimes takes us up completely, if, with it, we could also excavate the dark and find our way to some sort of solid middle ground. Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright.
A friend told me her mother called her selfish to be so pulled under by such rootless despair. On the phone, my mother repeats to me my own litany of cautions. Often, I scare and baffle her. Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light.
At night, this friend and I assure one another we will come up out of the dark, and that the things that sustain us will hold steady. And stay alive.
I know I'm risking sounding overly dramatic here. I can hear it. And I'm sure you can hear my youth and my propensity for navel-gazing and all those awful things. Is it better if I tell you that mostly I go to the grocery store, and do my laundry, and try to learn to make risotto, and burn it? Is it better if I tell you that as often as we all talk about darkness and poetry and how inexpertly we're trying to sustain and shape our lives, we talk about movies and food and how best to stay abreast of what's going on in the wider world?
Because we do. Just stay alive...
It's the encore of that night and John is playing "This Year." Everyone in the audience knows every single goddamned word. It is completely ridiculous that I have actually wept tonight, and I know it. Tonight I would not give it up: any of it, being young or sad or wounded or dumb. I am one of many devoted. I am some twenty-something girl. I am only here because of the darkness and the way it collides with the light. Knock. Knock. Knock. Like a bird against the window, like a fist against the door, like a heartbeat going on through to the next morning. It is lucky to love something like this. Like this one small thing could in fact, absurd as it seems, kill you or keep you alive.