Thursday, August 13, 2009

re: "COTTONFIRE" ...

It's important to realize that the phrase "existential crisis" doesn't really cover it. It's the closest term I have found to describe the experience; there was certainly a crisis and imminent, lethal peril was very real, as I was suicidal, and the resolution to the crisis can be described as an existential one. But ultimately I don't know that the term can accurately describe just what happened. But I'm here to state, for the first time, a coherent narrative of "Cottonfire," which (in my soundtracks and written entries) is the "title" attributed to my 2007 summer, from the first week of May to the last week of July.

The name isn't meant to be necessarily cryptic. To begin with, often when I was in the car or walking around during those months, I would see little tuffs of cotton seeds floating aimlessly around all over the city. Later, the cotton would somehow become associated with the Tree of Life in Aronofsky's The Fountain - and I think it was more of a connection to Clint Mansell's score; I'd listen to that haunting piano and the strings and somehow it'd match up with the dance of the cotton seeds. Additionally, the name alludes to the 2007 Milford Flat fire (called the biggest recorded fire in Utah history) and the PG fire (curious to me because of its simple ignition - a lawnmower blade striking a rock). On the day the firespreads overlapped the most - the former near Saratoga Springs and the latter on the foothills below Squaw Peak - there were two giant pillars of fire and smoke as the sun set, one pillar in the east near my house (at the mouth of Provo Canyon) and the other in the far west across the lake.

So the imagery has something of fragility to it, my awkward metaphor of life and death that describes, in one symbol, what happened to me two years ago when my life almost inexplicably changed - inexplicably precisely because I still can't figure out what started my own fires.

It was definitely a countdown built from a few different factors. Most specifically, I was taking an Ethics and Values class from an adjunct professor named Ethan Sproat. At the time, I was (almost) completely devoted to serving a mission for the LDS church. The class wasn't necessarily forcing me to drastically change my religious views, but reading Nietzsche was a big mindtrip for my Peter Priesthood attitudes. My British Literature class may have added something as well because we were beginning to dip into heavy modernism and postmodernism, so I was spending some time with Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot and Salman Rushdie. In time, later that summer I read Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground and The Trial by Franz Kafka. So that was all forcing me to face some nihlistic (lack of a better word) concepts and concerns I'd spent most of my life being told I needn't worry about.

On another level, my music taste was radically changing (which may not sound relevant, but it was a huge deal). Up until that summer, I listening almost exclusively to Yellowcard, Hoobastank, Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional, etc. But Spider-Man 3 was coming out, and so was the film's soundtrack - this will sound weird, but every time a Spider-Man movie has come out, my music tastes have changed to each soundtrack (after the first, I stuck mainly to mainstream alternative, like Nickelback, Creed, Evanescence and Sum 41). But after the soundtrack came out, I started listening to Wolfmother, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Killers, The Walkmen and Simon Dawes...and these "indie" rockers lead me to rock 'n roll roots; soon I was listening nearly every waking moment to Led Zeppelin, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, The Doors, Bob Dylan (it would take me until after I moved out to truly love him, though) and - eventually replacing Linkin Park as my favorite band - those Irish boys, U2. This 60's, 70's and 80's rock music somehow captured both the physical heat and the spiritual conflicted heat I was experiencing that summer. I watched the PG fire erupt on Squaw Peak as the sun set while listening to "Exit" from U2's seminal The Joshua Tree; the song sounds like a scene from Capote and describes the quietly violent story of...well, you can find out yourself here.

It's worth mentioning that I also spent most of the summer reading Homer's Iliad. In addition to the recent acceptance of R-rated movies into my house, my summer felt rather violent due in part to reading about the Trojan War for three months - however, the important thing is how by the end of the epic, my beliefs about human nature and concepts of love, divinity and destiny were drastically changed due to reading about Prince Hecktor and Achilles.

The escalation of problems in my family were a factor. Our family was struggling pretty badly financially and along with my sister I had to work the summer at Convergys, accompanied by my Kafka and Zeppelin, contributing most or all of my paycheck money to basic necessities like gas, food and even toilet paper. While I was privately nursing unsettling doubts and paranoia about the Church, my parents (my mother in particular) began taking a fairly negative position about early church history, particularly regarding Joseph Smith's little-known polygamous marriages and the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Soon almost each night our kitchen TV would be playing a fat red-haired man ranting anti-Mormon sentiments. I really through the whole thing that the Church was an uncrossable line for me, until one night my mom was watching the PBS documentary The Mormons and I saw the following clip:

That statement (I promise not taken out of context), taken for granted at the time, would echo very deeply in my mind for weeks as I struggled with my ultimate personal battle: my same-gender attractions. Because desirous as I was to serve a mission and "overcome" the attractions, I would still lie awake in bed at night pulling my hair out over the complete horror of the implications: did God really want me to be alone? Even if I eventually found a girl to marry, could I love her? And could I give her what she needed? Tales abounded of men I knew who were unhappy, even with children. A story of a man who could not arouse himself around his wife, and in her frustration she gave him permission to have a homosexual hookup, just because she hoped it'd make him happy. A story of a man who couldn't let down a decades-old porn addiction. Men who prey around on Craigslist asking for BYU RM's to come over when the wife's not home and fuck in their garments. Men who never told their wives prior to the honeymoon that female sexuality wasn't a turn on. Men whose (ultimately mislead) notions of masculinity and femininity seemed troubling to my 19-year-old mind. I couldn't continue clingling to my boyhood perspectives like security blankets.

The stories were everywhere, and none of them seemed to be what I wanted from the Church. The ultimate concern was not whether or not I could "overcome" the attractions, but whether or not I could live happily with myself and my choice long afterwards. And, as ever in the Church, we are talking about forever here.

In the face of that unadulterated uncertainty, that paranoia and doubt of having joy in this life, I was hearing on my left hand that the LDS gospel, the leaders and members were untrustworthy and on the other hand I was being told that I could never question. The years had taught me complicity; now, however, there was a strange shift and I was beginning to realize that I'd spent my life "settling" for what the Church was telling me. I became angry at the illogical fa├žade of it all; reality seemed a joke. If I was "supposed" to end up with a woman, how did it make any sense that I couldn't be attracted to a woman? If there is a God, and He is loving - more to the point, a "perfect" God, and His command is a "natural" one, then how did it make any sense that a "homosexual" even exists? I felt like an anomaly, some hiccup in the Great Eternal Plan, and marriage was a holy recreation of Beckett's frightening endgame. And it felt sickening to literally be a freak of "nature" every minute of every day.

Given everything I was hearing on all sides, nothing made sense and I didn't feel like anyone understood me. I couldn't go to my parents (for reasons obvious and listed above) and my closest friends were either ignoring me because of my increasing depression or on missions across the globe. The lonlieness broke me, the countdown terminated and the culmination of these several factors, discernible and indiscernible, finally mounted to a rebellious - and perhaps even more illogical - conclusion: obviously, if I couldn't fix myself, then I simply had to kill myself. And soon.

It started slowly; I found a way to expose the blades on the cheap Bic razors we had in storage and I would sneak into the bathroom at night, turn on songs in reverse, and slowly draw. I only scratched at my wrists themselves, but soon there were very visible scars on my shoulders and legs. I rationalized that somehow I was bracing for the real pain, death itself.

So there was some elaborate planning. It would be at the end of the summer and it would be the most unexpected thing in the world. I had the entire morning of the day planned out. Friends and family would wake up to find notes and emails. I researched several methods before settling on one. There would be rope I could buy. And there was a bridge. The Provo River is sewn with a batch of footbridges all over and one of them would be my own end. I knew the knots. I would jump off the bridge and after my neck would snap, the rope's support would break away from the bridge and my body would fall into the river. I would wait until before sunrise to leave my house, head down to the river, and jump.

There wasn't much "talking myself into it" but there was more over the actual act of the choice itself. My problem was that while I was constantly thinking about suicide and planning for it, I couldn't be said to have been suicidal. My problem was that as desperate as I was to end my life, every time I came to the actual deed, it was like suddenly entering a vacuum in a wide and neverending desert, or climbing up walls. There was nothing to stop me, and yet something very clearly was stopping me. I don't know how to explain it. Every bone in my body wanted me to end it and I had every capability and opportunity to end it. But something, somehow, was in my way every single time. And this only infuriated me more - I felt even more incompetent that I couldn't control anything about my life, even how I would die. One more thing I somehow could only half-ass and never get right.

There are three music albums that came out in early 2007 which would narrate the weird "death" journey/ritual I acted out throughout the three months. First there was Welcome The Night by The Ataris, which detailed lead singer/songwriter Kristopher Roe's own existential crisis after his divorce (which I learned from his own mouth, after interviewing him with Lindsey at their St. Patrick's Day concert in SLC). This album conceptually narrated my own crisis and the album ended with an affirmation of the inevitability of death. Hence, the next album was Linkin Park's Minutes To Midnight and opened with the result of this affirmation: defeat and the choice to commit suicide. The album follows the slow process of saying goodbye to friends, examining the reasons for the choice while building up for the act along the way, and the last song is the dying breath of a victim of violence.

The third album was the most important: The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance. The very first sound on the album is the decline of beeps on a heart moniter. As a concept album, a story is told about an unnamed character called The Patient who dies of some sort of heart complication (openly interpreted as medical or related to the girl sitting at his side). Part of the mythic setting of the story is that death comes to you in the form of your most precious memory. The Patient's most precious memory is seeing the city parade with his father; hence, death comes for him in the form of a large goth parade that takes him on a Dickensian journey through time and space visiting various dying people in the form of memories - from a church revival, to a cancer boy, to the first World War, to a mental hospital, to a high school massacre, to a final confrontation with his father - all the while learning about life and death. The album ends ambiguously: by the final number, either The Patient has learned to accept his "life" in the hereafter, or at the moment he becomes at peace with death he suddenly wakes up in the hospital bed to find that the entire thing was a dream.

What this "narrative" did for me (particularly The Black Parade) in addition to all the philosophy was show me that while I didn't fear death, I actually wasn't necessarily afraid of dying, either. Ultimately, I was afraid of how I, as a person both spiritually and physically, would become irrevocably altered by the pain that would accompany the calamitous act. But one thing I took from U2 and The Fountain was that pain is intricately connected with life: pain is a physical signal of growth, conducive to being alive - a physical reaction to life itself. I wasn't afraid of dying - I was afraid of really living. And in the face of life itself, the choices were always mine.

When the appointed day came, the sunrise found me on the edge of the bridge. But that was, by itself, the only thing that had gone according to plan. It had begun to come apart when I sat down to write my "last letter" to my best friend serving a mission on the other side of the country. It wasn't until then that I remembered he had asked me one day in high school to never kill myself because it would be "tramautizing" and affect him for the rest of his life. I didn't want to believe that people would actually care about me being gone, but it wasn't until I'd sat down to write his letter that I realized that even if others did miss me, that wasn't the point. The point was that in this life, we make connections with others, and part of that connection is having faith. Pain is a part of every relationship, be it friendship, a romance, parental or otherwise, and I would have to accept that in order to accept myself and come into my own in this world.

As the sun came up, it became increasingly clear that whatever was inside of me willing me to live, it was stronger than any mere evolutionary impluse lulling me to reproductive priorities with a girl, or any carnal lust for masculinity and male bodies. It was stronger and much more clear than any of the darkness I'd endured since high school and the recent bouts of doubt and paranoia. It was some sort of light inside that just wouldn't die, inadequate and trite as that description is. What it finally came down to would affect me for years afterwards.

As I stared at the water, I began to work out images of myself in the future being with a wife and having a family. I could make myself in a nametag on a mission in the water. I strained my eyes for images and felt complete faith in a road that lay ahead of me. With that, I turned and walked off the bridge back on the sidewalk and headed home. I snuck back in my house, went to my room, and fell asleep.

I would later talk about visions and dreams, and a little after that I would even believe myself. But did I actually see the future in Provo River? Of course not. But what I'd done was much more incredible. I had actually created that road I'd put faith in. I'd created my own potential future and then tried to act it out - created it literally out of thin air. The implications wouldn't hit me for a long time - not until I'd already fallen in love with a girl for the first (and perhaps only) time in my life. But I'd realized that it was possible to create my own destiny. That for the first time, my choices were not preset by old men sitting in a SLC building or by teachers, historians or even friends and family. For the first time, I felt like my life was truly mine. It was an incredible feeling that had me walking on air the entire way back to my house.

Like Kris Roe and Allen Ginsberg wrote, this life is a passage between two doors, and perhaps we can't understand life while living it at the same time. But there are things to discover and other things must be earned. There are unspeakable horrors and there are breathtaking miracles. Nietzsche and Bono, vita femina - life is a woman, and she moves in mysterious ways. But if heaven is so great, then why this postmodern obsession with living as long as possible, retaining youth? I'm in no rush to get there; if there's one thing I've cherished from the five times I've read the Book of Mormon, it's Nephi's statment that "Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy." No matter what path lies ahead in life, it will always be one I carve and pave for myself. My perspectives on life, death, the nature of reality and everything else have become drastically different because of these realizations. While it's taken me this long to finally sit down and write down a basic summary, I have to constantly remember what I learned about myself during my Cottonfire summer two years ago.

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