Night Birds: Reflections on Creative Death and Rebirth

I think one of the big parts of growing up is learning how to be alone.  I don’t mean simply learning to enjoy your own company for an evening, knowing that the morning will bring with it renewed contact with the outside world.  No, I mean a deeper quality of being alone–the sensation that there’s no one you call friend, no one nearby to share a moment if you needed to. No one.  Just you. Experiencing this and coming out still kicking on the other side is, in a way, a right of passage.  As with many of the life-changing experiences–death of loved ones, success and failure, becoming a parent–understanding who you are in your state of Aloneness is important.


How I Learned About the Aloneness

I spent a great deal of time alone while I lived in Albuquerque.  At first, it was because I had been wounded.  I felt betrayed and poisoned.  I trusted no one with whom I had shared my days up to that point.  When you feel like that, it’s best that you seclude yourself.  Because by continuing to be around a group of people you don’t trust–some of whom you come close to hating–you’re not doing anyone any favors, least of all yourself.  That’s because you know they’re tolerating your toxic presence.  They feel sorry for you, just like you know you’ve felt sorry for others in the past.

You see it in their faces. You know, and they know you know, too.  There’s a lot of knowing that goes on during those encounters, but not a great deal of addressing the problem–which is that you need to stop being toxic and trying to cover up the fact that you’re toxic with bad acting.  You need to stop feeling the way you feel and stop pretending like you’re awesomely happy and accomplished, because what you also know is that these things have to be lived through.  There’s no off switch for most of us.  Maybe that’s a good thing, in the long run–that in order to recover we must give in to experience, to doldrums, to feeling like crap, even if we acknowledge that eventually, life does get better.

So, I ran away.  I hid and licked my wounds.  The thing is, utter isolation became a habit that I didn’t know how to break.  I would go entire weeks without leaving my apartment, other than to walk out in search of groceries, perhaps.  I didn’t call anyone.  I stopped answering my phone.  I stopped getting dressed, taking showers, remembering to eat. I shut down.  You see, I died at some point in those first few weeks of isolation.  What’s important for me to realize is that it was those first weeks that changed me, embedded a flight response in me that I had previously lacked.  The first months of 2013 were not kind to me.  I was not kind to me.  Perhaps that’s a big lesson we each need to learn, also, in adulthood–the difference between self-indulgence, which can include self-abusive behaviors, and kindness to ourselves, which sometimes means being painful and strict with ourselves.

I should have been kicking my own butt, demanding my best out of me.  I should have been strict, and looked myself in the eye, saying, “No bullshit, now.  It’s just me, here.”  Since I lacked the resolve for this, I could have used a friend who wasn’t afraid to say such things.  But there was no one there to tell me my color wasn’t good or that perhaps I should look into burial practices of the local population.  There was no one to remark that no corpse ever drank so much coffee.  The people at the Smith’s down the street let my periodic forays into the land of the living slide because they didn’t know how best to broach it delicately that zombies were not preferred shoppers. They don’t clip coupons. They don’t eat baby carrots. They do, it so happens, drink a great deal of coffee, but only the sale coffee, whatever that is this week.


My Creative Spark Hits the Snooze Button. A Lot.

During this time, I stopped really creating or being excited about the idea of creation.  I didn’t write anything I was pleased with. I never felt that practically post-coital sense of satisfaction when I finished a piece.  There were times when the blank page was a fearful thing for me.  It would sit there, doing what blank pages do best–staring at me, unblinking, accusing me that I hadn’t written a single word in–yeah, a long time.  A substantial portion of this lack of creation or pride in production was tied to the fact that I didn’t go anywhere.  I didn’t talk to anyone. I hid in my apartment, pounding out soulless writing jobs for pittance pay.

Sometimes, I would remember to eat as I kept the hours of a lunatic.  It became the only time I really felt safe–the long stretching hours of darkness.  This, over time, was superimposed upon a rage-regimen.  I walked a lot, pushed myself to go farther and farther.  I made myself explore Albuquerque on foot.  During the daylight.  I made myself look at the world of the living again.  Though I was still keeping the double life of an emotional zombie, a shut-in, and an insomniac as well, this was the beginning of emotional healing for me.  It would take months, and I would always bear the behavioral scars of a recluse–but as spring crept into the valley, I began to try living normally again.

What was missing? I created nothing.  There was no constructive action going on behind my eyes–no poetry, no stories, no treatises on the migratory patterns of area rugs or the mating habits of socks (the reason only one comes out of the dryer is that it eats the other one upon completion of the mating act.)  It wasn’t so important that I wasn’t writing thoughts in my journal or anywhere else.  The most troubling aspect of the lack was that these thoughts were not happening in my head at all.  Anyone who knows a writer can attest to the fact that a healthy, happy writer often wears a look of distraction.  I was rebuilding the outward appearance of a healthy human being.  I was leaving my house to look at things, talk to people, and get fresh air, but my inner world was still.  What had always been a place of fantastical creation and improbable motion, a source of interest, amusement, fertility, stirred little in those days.

Writers are happiest when they’re busy making thought babies with their Muse.  Stories are blossoming; poetry and scene settings are walking through the door fully formed; galaxies of research questions are coalescing in the darkness behind their eyes.  Characters are saying interesting things. Data are doing dances with each other and falling into exhausted puppy piles.  Papers are organizing themselves.  Ask a writer about this if you don’t believe me.  They may tell you they don’t know how to stop it from happening, but then, why would they want it to stop?  It’s true, though.  I know.


Eros Saved My (Creative) Life

Like many a writer, my spark, my ability, is often heavily associated with my libido.  It makes sense that, with all that happened, I lost touch with my genius.  She went and took a dirt nap, giving my pajama-clad, unkempt self the finger as she went.  But sometime around May of 2013, something interesting happened.  No, a fat, winged baby did not shoot me in the ass with an arrow.  I’m also not sure I would call what occurred passionate attraction.  It was, however, a beginning–a tiny fleck of green shoot kicked through a seed coat and began the journey to the surface, to sunlight.  I started coming back to me, though it would be many months before I recognized this.

I met a man who insisted that I look at him and give him a fair shake.  To be accurate, we’d met before that, but I’d set him to the side.  It was probably not a thing he was used to, but I had bigger fish to fry when he caught me studying him red-handed one morning in Linguistics class.  So, I put him out of my mind.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t cordial.  We had mutual friends.  I just didn’t give him much thought.  To be perfectly honest, I tried very hard not to give him much thought as time progressed.  He had a reputation, which was not wholly undeserved.  As I was to learn, that reputation didn’t speak to the person he was, but rather to the person others perceived him to be.  That understanding did not unfold until much later–after many months and much secret reflection about him.

Our relationship to date, has not been smooth or cool, or anything I ever want to read in a book.  It’s been downright stupid and frustrating and awkward on most days–that’s mostly a description of my end of the deal.  For a long time, I didn’t even know I wanted to call us “friends,” because he seemed so shallow, so fickle, so disingenuous in that slick politician sort of way.  I hated that, because it always seemed there was another man just beneath the surface, the one I wanted to get to know.  Hence, the secret turning over of gathered observations, comparing public perception with my data, and making up my own mind about this oddly vulnerable creature.

One thing that started this ball rolling and that actually weighed in on both sides of the argument I’ve always had with myself about him, is that he had that ability to make a woman feel like she was the only woman in a room.  It’s no secret that he used it to his advantage, and that plenty of women felt that way at one time or another.  I’ll reserve my thoughts on that for another segment, because there’s just too much to unpack on that topic.  Let’s leave this story on the note that I felt this gift of his one night at a mutual acquaintance’s birthday party.  We stood across a crowded patio from one another, and I just couldn’t not smile at him.  I accepted it for what it was.  Over the next few months, our paths somehow kept crossing without my noticing it.  Then, I did notice, and I wanted to know him.  So, I started paying attention and found myself a muse that fanned my spark.


That alone is worth my undying affection and respect for this man.  No, he’s certainly not squeaky clean.  But he is good, and that matters to me.  What also means a great deal is that, because I couldn’t resist the urge to find a chink in his politically charming carapace, the music of creation once again thrums in me.  He has rendered me a veritable Aeolian Harp.  Perhaps a mixed blessing, at times, it does mean that I call him Friend.  No small thing, that.  He rescued me when I was floundering, and I’m not even sure he knows it.  Even if I told him, I can’t say he would fully understand all that this implies, or the debt of gratitude I owe, by my own account.

Hey, I think I See John Muir, By Erin Sandlin





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