Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945) by Paul Nash
This loss feels like a victory. You’ll fixate on what’s missing, but all I can see is what’s left, a rare chance to exist without plans or expectations. What will take shape inside all of this time and space?
Solving puzzles around the clock is a way of sidestepping the hard work of mourning. Put down your riddles and consider the losses you haven’t mourned adequately. When you skim over the hard parts, the good parts get harder. Mourning even the smallest losses can make you lighter on your feet. But who would dare to feel sadness from unverified sources? Mourning your own death might make you permanently buoyant. But who can take the time to grapple with the inevitable?
Buoyancy sets you out of sync with all of these ships that keep taking on more and more water. Theirs is a story of permanent decline: nothing works, everything gets worse, nothing can be observed and addressed, engines fail and ships disappear from the horizon without a sound.
Don’t repeat the dark tales of doomed sailors. Mourn your losses, that trail of smoke rising on the horizon: fathers and friends, cousins and strangers. Mourn the time you spent disguising yourself from people you believed to be incapable of loving you. Hiding was your way of helping, making it easier for them to ignore your needs, making yourself even more responsive and convenient, more compact, utterly disposable, until eventually the past started to feel like a warehouse filled with outdated appliances: “Remember when everybody wanted one of these?” When it feels safer to serve others than to show yourself, your personality is reduced to a series of empty trends.
I am an appliance that rattles and spits out sparks and blows every fuse. I used to serve some function but now I prefer not to. Place me on your kitchen counter and watch life become less and less convenient. I will trip your shit up. I will make you question what you meant by that. You will open a box of cereal and wonder why you do the job you do. You will stand in the middle of the floor and suddenly need to know what happened to that kid on the bus who taught you about Run DMC. You will mourn all the people you could’ve known better, including yourself.
Welcome this unraveling. The less efficient you become, the better. Break all rote habits and build your life out of satisfying pauses between action. Now eliminate all action. Pull on this strand until the days on your Google calendar skitter across the floor like dominoes. What do your cells crave? Who loves you? When you speak, who feels your words on the soles of their feet, behind their eyes, under their fingernails?
Don’t bother grieving the ones who can’t see you clearly. Grieve the years you spent refusing to see yourself, or refusing to feel your cells whispering for more. Grieve but don’t say that time was wasted. All mistakes and dead ends led you to this moment. Now you can finally feel the truth: mourning is slow but it’s the straightest path forward. The question is not “How do I get out of this?” or “How do I stop landing here?” The question is “How do I break this appliance permanently? How do I become an inconvenience to myself and others? How do I swear off efficiency forever? How do I keep losing the thread over and over? How do I remain out of the groove, off the map, in the zone, flexible and reflective, shimmering and cool, examining the high stakes of tiny moments, encouraging communion, forgiveness, expansion, invention?”
Joy begins in the form of mundane solitude, then blossoms into the fantastical and the sublime. You already have the seeds, shed from countless disappointments and laborious efforts to win more love. You already have the rich soil of decomposing dreams. Feel this soil with your hands. This line on your palm says stop talking. This line says your body is a maze of live wires that will free you from the purgatory of your favorite cognitive hamster wheels. This line says your sadness and your hopes are sensual realities, bright and colorful, craving more water and air and space and time. Lose the thread in this spot of sunshine, watching droplets of water heed their divine calling, sinking into the invisible underground.
It’s never too late to start serving yourself, thereby inconveniencing everyone you love, now and forever. Unscrew here and there. Yank this spring with tweezers until it unwinds. Something in the kitchen is buzzing and smoking. Something is on fire. Stand still as everyone else panics. Mourn the days you spent running in circles, trying to fix everything and everyone and yourself. Mourn the times you tried to erase your mistakes. Press every mistake into your memory lovingly, like stamps in a book.
I love this lonely feeling I get in the middle of the night, darkness enclosing me, meandering into the wild, the least efficient and productive path available. I like to trip myself up. This is how I show my love for everything I’ve lost and everything I have yet to lose. This is how I own the right to gum up all of your gears, to get in your way, to erode your rigid assumptions, to loiter in your path. Look how unnerved you become in the face of a stubborn obstacle. Crash your ship onto the rocks before it starts to sink under the waves. Crawl out onto the beach and feel the press of the sun. Lie still on your back and mourn the days you spent believing that if you couldn’t float or fly, serve or impress, praise or please, then you deserved to sink like a stone.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of the essay collection What If This Were Enough?, which was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2018. You can read Heather’s latest Ask Polly column on New York’s The Cut, where it’s published every other Wednesday. The other Wednesdays, Ask Polly lives over here, so sign up, it’s free. Write to Molly: askmolly at protonmail.com.