by Michael Juliani
You must desert yourself. The key to your life must be the desertion of your comfortable identity. I am awake only in what I love & desire to the point of terror… Life, as we know, will disintegrate us again and again. A family member will leave, another will die, you’ll fall painfully in love, you’ll wake up one morning and realize what used to matter has begun spinning on its own axis away from you. The ship you used to ride now burning in the ocean, and you still have time to jump off. Most of us are mad with some kind of trauma, some lingering disintegration. A phantom limb, a bowl of demons. The war around you, the war at home—a world that expands and compresses. Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist, suggests that human beings are born ten or twelve years too soon, their ineptitude for self-preservation requiring a second womb, the home, where in the last thirty years or so we’ve infused electronic technology: the universe of television,the Internet, video games, social media, porn. What other animals obtain biologically, humans must learn in childhood and adolescence.
Their parents, whoever raises them, must teach them. Whatever they see and hear most prominently will sink into their nerves, will become forms of their instincts. From this we’ve developed archetypes meant to address our shame: the 40-year-old virgin still living with mom, the neurotic, the people blaming their parents for what they could’ve been (a joke I heard from a Jewish friend recently: Jesus was what a Jew could do without a Jewish mother). For some people, life disintegrated their second wombs, pushed their own duties into the spotlight, asked them to make every day a necessary risk. Lost family. Exile of some kind.
Ronald L. Grimes, the Director of Ritual Studies International, says in his book Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage, “The primary work of a rite of passage is to ensure that we attend to such events fully, which is to say, spiritually, psychologically, and socially. Unattended, a major life passage can become a yawning abyss, draining off psychic energy, engendering social confusion, and twisting the course of the life that follows it. Unattended passages become spiritual sinkholes around which hungry ghosts, those greedy personifications of unfinished business, hover.”
Or, as he told me over Skype from his home in Waterloo in Ontario, Canada: ritualize your everyday life in small ways so that once big changes—big disintegrations—happen, you can not only handle them but also make them opportunities instead of crises. See the light shining through the dark. These rituals should begin at the pinpoint of your personal sense of risk, the intoxicating fear of abandoning yourself. “Head for the center,” Grimes told me. “Where the trouble is.”
In 2011, Grimes’ daughter planned to move to Japan right after the country’s nuclear disaster. She became psychically convinced her father would die during her time abroad. Grimes and his daughter devised a way to ritualize the process of this fear, which, on the surface, had no basis in any kind of foreboding reality. There was no physical reason to believe Grimes was dying. They each wrote down sentences on little scraps of paper that spoke directly to their fears, hopes, and feelings for each other. Unable to say them directly to her father over the phone, Grimes’ daughter sewed them into an old sweater she would then give to him. They videotaped themselves reading their sentences aloud. You don’t tell someone why they’ve changed your life unless you’re drunk or they’re sick and dying, she says at one point. Fear of death will bring you down, Grimes told her. May you bow low then rise up high. In his introduction to his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim offers this: “Freud’s prescription is that only by struggling courageously against what seem like overwhelming odds can man succeed in wringing meaning out of his existence.”
Like many my age (21), I’m having a hard time locating myself. Last summer, I started having these dreams: men I admired— writers, fathers, people who have tried walking through their own shortcomings—would start dismantling themselves after drinking with me. In one case, I’m trying to help a man, a writer I love, get cognizant and cleaned up for when his wife and newborn daughter come home. I’m horrified, and trying to stuff enough food in my mouth to mask the smell of booze. The harder I try to get him to panic, the smugger he gets. He wants this scene of catastrophe to take place. You all deserve it, he says.
This year, on the cusp of finishing college, I don’t know what will happen next. I have ideas, people I’d like to be with, places I’d like to go—but somehow this too amounts to space (Dear Space, hello). I call a friend some nights—she says, “I’m sure everything will be fine,” says it like I’m being silly. Another friend, a poet, gives me some lines from Rilke’s Duino Elegies:
Isn’t it time / that in love / we freed ourselves / from the loved one / and,
trembling, / endured / as the arrow endures the string / collecting itself / to
be more than itself / as it shoots? / For there is no remaining, / no place to stay
“Be the arrow, Michael!” she adds.
We have more than enough to cling to: jobs, ideologies, family. We learn to stop challenging our relationships with these people and things, and in part this makes for our lukewarm expectations of our own growth, as well as our creeping resentment of the forms we cling to. Of course, risk is personally relative. For many adolescents, getting drunk and having sex for the first time represent some essential break from their frame of comfortable reference.
The absence of family and school structure is in these acts. But these supposed American rites, along with getting a driver’s license, have been largely removed from the sense that one must untether oneself completely, must improvise, must have a vision for one’s own real humanity. You’ll never be true to yourself anywhere / unless your very life is the only truth, says Semezdin Mehmedinovic, unless the empty air calls itself freedom—
/ unless you’re a deserter / with an uneasy conscience / unless you’re Billy the Kid.
Real rites of passage are therefore relative to one’s life situation— one’s forms of fear and desire. Perhaps it’s nearly impossible to name our own antidote. It lives underneath us, and is released in “chaos as CHAOS understands it,” says poet and theorist Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson) in his book T.A.Z. The Temporary Autonomous Zone. Bey advocates for a “poetic terrorism” of the self, an ecstatic release into a state of “unbridled play” where one “understands that cherishing & unleashing are the same act.”
The emphasis on this kind of release is essentially nonexistent within the bounds of materialism and, needless to say, the literal and figurative law. We are not raised with ecstasy in mind, nor are we made to consider the benefits we might reap during our serene moments if we’ve had a taste of it. Bey says poetic terrorism serves as a transgression of one’s own sense of stability, that nervous peace we’ve all bought and tried to treat with different salves (pills, porn, et al). There’s no need for the derangement of the senses here, he says, because poetic terrorism seeks to react the apotheosis of the senses. More literally, there may be things you know you are too afraid to do. Drop out of school, try to make it in acting, tell someone you love them—whatever it is, it’s a risk you are terrified of taking.
Money might have a lot to do with it, or at least the idea of poverty, of being less-than and rejected. The possible stress and sadness of it. But where does this all lead? When is the time to place yourself in the scope of great possibility and abandon your will? With these risks—the mere undertaking—comes the beatific quality of growth and the cliches that are being drained of meaning in our culture: you only live once, live in the moment. The “vision of a good life which is both noble and possible,” Bey says, “rooted in a sense of the magnificent over-abundance of reality.”
Sometimes you think no one could understand the galaxy of inner weather that’s creating your current person. It’s like when my friend asked me if I believe in God. I knew that, newly sober, she must be owing herself to something larger, and why not call it God. Nobody had told me before now that what happens inside you matters, she said.
Lately, God has appeared in all my poetry. He’s such a versatile image, I suspect I’m using him to contain what I can’t pull together any other way at this point. I once thought that the word love must also be like this, a container. But I think I’m learning that love is a much simpler experience—indelible, huge, pure, and possible.