Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pain, death, misery and failure. I tend to think about these things in January, and I doubt I’m alone. This year, as with last year, I find myself underemployed, with a Jack Torrance-grade case of cabin fever. It’s a cyclical phenomenon, as I am sure other freelancers – and anyone in retail – can confirm. Also (fun fact!) corporations tend to fire people at the tail end of the old or start of the new year, so I imagine that right now there are many other lonely, bored, depressed shut-ins among us. Obviously we’ll never meet since we never leave our increasingly smelly apartments, but I have a pretty good feeling you’re probably trawling the internet right now looking for an antidote to your misery or Googling the phrase “painless ways to die.” I dedicate this post to you.
Now that we’ve gotten the awkwardness of the first suicide joke out of the way (one of many more, I hope!) I’d like to offer you some comfort. I will partly do this simply by being me, which tends to make other people feel better about themselves. For example, right now I’m suffering from a unique confluence of agonies, as I’m both looking for a day job and submitting my freshly completed novel to literary agencies, thus putting myself on the receiving end of a two-front assault of disappointment and rejection. I should have probably staggered the attempts. Oh well.
Another thing I can do to help you: offer you amusement. Here’s a fun game you can play to help pass the time. Close your eyes, relax, and take a moment to scroll through your memories. Good. Now: try to pinpoint the exact moment in your life when you went so irreparably wrong and screwed everything up forever. It could be a job or a lover you turned down out of arrogance and to your everlasting regret. It could be an offhand remark you made that alienated the last of your friends. Maybe you regret mooning the German finance minister that summer in Dusseldorf. It doesn’t matter. Without ever having met you, I can’t tell you exactly where you went terribly wrong.
I have my own contenders. I’ve narrowed it down to about five non-consecutive occasions that I’m not about to go into here. (I’m a job-seeker for god’s sake. I admit no weakness. Future employers who may be reading this: I am a paragon of robotic perfection. I’ve never done anything wrong, and I did not just accidentally burst a hot-water bottle on top of several important licensing agreements.) Anyway, let’s just say that self-recrimination can be a fun and free way to pass an afternoon.
Another fun thing you can do is ponder the shocking, visceral spectacle of the First World War. You can do this through the prism of Downton Abbey if you’d like, since it’s always good to remain current and feel like you’re a part of cultural phenomena. (It’s also fun to marvel at the different ways the show’s writers arrange for Cousin Matthew to be on leave in every single episode.) There are few things more comforting to me than the tragic, troubling sweep of human history. I mean, the Great War was so calamitous, so poorly managed and so disastrously run that my own small mistakes become much easier to stomach by comparison. Take, for example, the ill-conceived attack by Britain’s 1st Rifle Brigade and 1st Somerset Light Infantry on December 19th, 1915. This daring daylight charge was to have two prongs: first, an artillery barrage was supposed to destroy the German barbed-wire entanglements; second, an overland rush by the foot soldiers, who theoretically would be able to walk right over the downed wire and into enemy camps. Just in case the artillery barrage failed, though, the soldiers were supplied with straw mattresses, which they were to lay over any remaining wire. Inevitably, the barrage failed completely and the soldiers, staggering under their 60-pound gear kits and ridiculous straw mattresses, caused open-mouth Germans to stare in disbelief when they saw them approach. Well, stopped them for about five seconds. Then the Germans shook it off and commenced total slaughter.
Whatever stupid things I’ve done, I have not yet caused the death of a million men. See? Perspective.
Sometimes, though, on particularly bad days, I have to reach even farther back. In my very darkest moments, nothing from the 20th century will do. I have to go all the way back to the 14th, a hundred-year period of unremitting famine, misery, disease, plague, war, and death. That century opened with two or three frigid winters in a row, and unseasonable cold marked its first decade or so. (The cold didn’t let up until 1700; historians call it “The Little Ice Age.”) Naturally, this led to a shorter growing season, which in turn meant certain starvation for a populace already too big to support itself. In 1315, it rained incessantly, crops failed again, and full-on famine resulted, leading to malnourishment and thus disease. People were reported to have murdered their own children for food, and a famine-ravaged village in Poland even resorted to taking down and eating corpses in gibbets. Famine would occur again in 1316 and 1317. What else you got? Papal schisms? Check. Violence? Yes. Social unrest? Ooh! Peasant revolts? Keep talking. A hundred-year war?! The Black Death!? Yes, please!
But in my world, the true urtext for this longest, darkest season of the soul is (naturally) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. Sometimes I don’t even have to read the book all the way through to achieve catharsis; sometimes all I need are the dark, foreboding scenes before winter even strikes, when Pa sees the unusually thick walls of the muskrat nests and muses, “I’ve never seen them that thick.” I can just imagine the cold, dark horror that awaits them in the long months to come, and it’s enough.
In The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure writes evocatively of Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s less-then-beloved daughter. Apparently, she was kind of a little shit and nobody really liked her. She grew up angry, bitter and discontented – she hated her parents’ poverty – and lived a frustrated life as an artist who never really achieved fame. She won some awards for her short stories but it was her mother’s legacy, not hers, that lived on. Modern fans visiting the Laura houses-turned-museums bypass the glass display case of Rose memorabilia with barely a murmur of interest: “Most of us had no use for someone like Rose, whose Bitter and Complicated life was at least as imperfect as our own,” McClure writes. People would rather hear about a family beset by blizzards and locusts than a girl whose mild and trivial problems mirror their own. The trouble is, it’s always the trivial problems that get you down. Grand-scope misery is a relief compared to that. Why anyone would prefer tales of survival, resilience, and redemption over narratives of folly, misery, and failure, I don’t know. Secretly, I don’t think they do. If you read about the real-life Ingalls family in any depth, you’ll quickly learn they were massive fuck-ups just like the rest of us. At one point they were all reduced to working as servants in a hotel, and when they couldn’t pay their rent, the whole family had to flee in the night. Also: the reason they left their homestead in Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie (I refer here to book two in the series)? They fucked up. Pa took a gamble squatting on Indian land and was busted by the government in the end. I think that’s the real reason people love the Ingalls family, they just won’t admit it.
I’ve decided the only sensible thing to do is go to Belgium.
Not just for war tourism, but out of a general curiosity. Much has been written about the legendary ugliness of the Belgian people, and I’m curious to see how this bears out in real life. “To this day,” writes W.G. Sebald, “one sees in Belgium a distinctive ugliness dating from the time when the Congo colony was exploited without restraint and manifested in the macabre atmosphere of certain salons and the strikingly stunted growth of the population, such as one rarely comes across elsewhere… I well recall that on my first visit to Brussels in December 1964 I encountered more hunchbacks and lunatics than normally in a whole year.”
This may be the place for me.
Just to clarify, I’m not moving there. I’m staying in New York for the time being (at least until poverty forces me to move in with my in-laws in Buffalo, or move back home to Canada where people live like kings). No, I’m just going for a weeklong sojourn. Who knows, maybe I’ll like it so much I’ll make regular visits; maybe I’ll find so much comfort in its war memorials that I’ll just keep going back, shuttling from NYC to Brussels until the money runs out, between my real life and my imagined life, forever rowing from one dark shore to another.