The edge of the knife doesn’t have to be drug or alcohol use, dramatic love affairs, criminal activity, or anything so extreme and crazy/insane as that. In fact the mundane can be so much more harrowing and insidious. It’s what you allow to go on in your mind that’s going to kill you, or not.
A few weeks ago I wanted to finish a post for this blog. I basically had it all written but wanted to read it over for errors and add subtitles or section headings, something my sister taught me to do on longer posts. It wouldn’t have taken more than an hour, and I wanted to get up a little early. But my mind was suddenly blaring awake and it was 2 a.m. and I got up. I quietly made some coffee—I live in a studio with my son—and sat at the computer to write.
And I’m no stranger to this. I’ve done it before 10,000 times if I’ve done it once. I finished the post and guess what? It was about 3 a.m. On any other day I would have stayed up reading back-posts of Cary Tennis’ advice column on Salon, or otherwise soothing my frequently overcrowded mind. But all of a sudden I looked at the clock and thought, crap, how am I possibly get through the day? I teach high school in the Bronx, I have a 10 year old, and I had Spanish that night until nine o’clock.
I lay back down and had some hallucinogenic-quality dreams then got up again at five—I still had work to do for my job—and proceeded to have one of the worst days of my life. I got home from Spanish with my son at 9:30 and thought, no, I’m not doing that again, and went to sleep. The day had been treacherous. I had thought I was going to lose it. Break down. Weep. Curse out the kids. Something. The students had been horrible. They feel when you’re not on top of it and they go in for the kill. And anybody’s whose never taught has no idea the restraint it takes not to say the wrong thing.
I woke up the next day almost ecstatic because I had slept, and made it through something. And I guess that’s the essence of living on the edge, the relief you experience at having made it through. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my little brushes with insanity that had to do with alcohol and drug use, horrible relationships—my son was born in Manhattan on the day before 9/11 by the way, and I was by myself, for various complex reasons, while the dad was across the country, inebriated. I had an emergency C-section and proceeded to raise my boy by myself. That’s edgy.
But I still find that it’s my daily, normal life that’s bound to kill me the most. And on that morning after the one with the 2 a.m. wake-up call, I decided, that’s enough. Nothing is worth it. And the big difference is I used to bring on the edge, all the time. I did it in the places I went and the people I associated with and the way I saw things, all the time. I don’t know if I went to it or it came to me, it just always seemed to be there.
When I worked in an office after first coming to New York, I hated the job. It was a nowhere kind of administrative position but what was worse was that they treated me as if I were an integral part of the company. I understand that’s something many people would value but the problem was that kept the job from being the mindless day-position I wanted it to be. They expected allegiance and involvement when I wanted the equivalent job of a ticket-seller at a movie theater—something that required no thought. I wanted to write. And write I did, but I started trying to create whole, separate days for myself. I did it by getting up at 4 a.m., which is fine. But then I started pushing the night back even further. I got up at 2 a.m., 1 a.m., 12 midnight, until finally I was sleeping for just a few hours when I got home from work and staying up most of the rest of the night.
I was madly hyped up, I remember, and I’d put entire days in, at night. I didn’t have my kid then, so I’d write, do laundry, cook, and go swim laps at the Y all before showing up at the office at 8. It was a double life and the only way I could be happy at that time—I earned my pay and I lived the life of a writer. The only trouble is that I drove myself to near-psychosis, paranoia set in. I even started seeing things in my peripheral vision. Things got knotty at my job because my behavior was even more erratic than before. I was younger at the time. The job wasn’t complex. I got away with it.
I could never do that now and I don’t want to. I remember when I was in Bangkok once in the earlier years, before I came out to NYC. I had taught in Japan and thus had the opportunity to travel quite a bit in Asia, which I did by myself. There was some sort of torrential downpour at one point, the kind that makes small rivers run in the streets, and then it had stopped. I remember I saw a mouse that had somehow escaped the torrent in a street gutter. It was up on the side of the curb, soaking wet and breathing desperately hard. It had that escaped-death kind of look, wild-eyed and still.
I saw myself in that damn mouse and stood looking at it for the longest time. I even wrote to the guy I was closest with then and told him about it, in writerly detail—he ended up being the dad of my son.
I didn’t want to be that goddamn mouse, as much as I identified with and felt sympathy for it. Really, no way. And even though I was trying so hard to get somewhere at that point, and I think that’s why I felt so strongly desperate, and even if I did kind of get to many of the places I wanted to go, it wasn’t enough and that’s why I got impatient, and still do.
I was telling my son long stories last Sunday as we walked through Central Park. We always seem to land on a theme, and I told him about the day he was born, and how I didn’t even have a job, and how I started babysitting with him, and then got accepted by Teaching Fellows and got to be a teacher. He said it seemed as if it were one whole, long evolution, how I didn’t have anything at first and then I got to baby-sit, and teach. He said the next step is that I would be a writer, publish my novel and be a writer.