The Absent Present

“It is not accidental that the word ‘haunting’ often refers to that which inhabits us but which we cannot ever grasp; we find ‘haunting’ precisely those Things which lurk at the back of our mind, on the tip of or tongue, just out of reach.” Mark Fisher, K-Punk (RIP)

I love the crinkly feeling of time when things don’t make sense.  Little things like when I know I put something somewhere and find it elsewhere.  Or big things, like the second collapse of Fukushima.  It’s not just confusion. Confusion usually comes when I encounter something beyond my ken, or when I encounter humanity in its vast and baffling collectivities and individuations.  Confusion comes when I do something I didn’t mean, or someone acts in a way I can’t grasp, or I read a book in bad translation, when categories get slippery and/or emotions blur my lenses.  Anger, for example, causes me a lot of confusion.  The spangles of perception can make it so hard to sort out the details later. I remember nothing, just a hot, pulsing blankness.   Sometimes my footing can slip and I slide down the steep slopes of personality into that homogenizing well of depression.

I remember the last long depression, almost two years ago now.  It had so many phases. Over the course of a few months it went from a springy density like a rotting floor to a dry, sandy, emptiness, to a shrieking pit that wouldn’t let me sleep for weeks, to a calm and terrifying resolution.  I remember driving down to Sea Point in Cape Town, looking at that water where the two oceans meet, knowing the next day I would get in and never get out.

I’m ashamed to tell you this, but if you’re bothering to read these essays you deserve it.  My deepest depressions have been triggered by loneliness and what I now know is usually a false sense of rejection.  There is a melting feeling in my chest, like my solar plexus is dripping with hot wax, and after that I lose control.  I am taken over by a living being, someone who is not me but lives inside my body.  The episode that led to my Cape Town plan was caused by falling in love with my best friend.  Ah.  These things are so mundane when you write them down in plain letters.  But it wasn’t like that.  It was magic. I went to meet him in Atlanta, Georgia.  And we were lifted up, the way that love lifts, synchronicities and tiny jokes for big laughter, and gift after gift, strangers blessings, perfect timing, easy-easy all too easy to get way too high.  The alchemists called it sublimatio, the realm of air, of the sublime.  A dangerous place. Tricky footing and a long fall.

One thing I’ve learned about ghosts is that they can come after all deaths.  Not just the death of a body.  Love has ghosts. Books have ghosts.  Meals have ghosts. Childhood has ghosts.  Wars and treaties and ideas and past presidents still living all have their ghosts.  Our worlds are crowded with them.  So many more of them than the living.  Ant colonies and forests and rivers and storms must have ghosts too.  I used to sit on the roof at the Artery smoking with Tammy at night and feel the old forest that used to be there, stretching back from the Fraser River, the old trees high above my head, still growing in their time-out-of-time.

And, the big emotions that we feel have their ghosts. There are the Cartesian action-reaction chains that come from acting on a big emotion, but there is also the being of the emotion itself. My depression, my anger, the deep helplessness, the always-astonishing hope that comes after.

The next day was my birthday.  I had written letters and scheduled them to go out.  I had written something to E to test him one more time.  “You’re scaring me,” he responded “I don’t know what to do for you.” I packed the few things I wanted to take with me, scrubbed clean the airbnb I was staying in, and was about to get in the car when my friend M called.  “Happy Birthday, sweetheart,” he shouted at the phone in his Joburg accent.  “Come on,” he said, “I’m downstairs.” He was knocking on the door before he hung up the phone. “Bring that,” he gestured at my sketch book. “You’re going to have some memories.” Something pushed me to follow him, though all I could feel on my skin was cold water. The rest of the day I was not alone for a moment.  I tried to strategize my way out.  But the whole gang of my dear South African friends were there, and they’d packed an air-tight plan.  We went to see the African penguins at Boulders Beach, we greeted our old friend the grandfather seal at Kolk Bay, we went to a comedy show in Woodstock, we climbed Table Mountain and sang out over the blinking city. I wept when I opened their thoughtful gifts. The entire day passed, one slow, delicious hour after the next. I finally opened up my phone and deleted the letters.  I wrote to E.  “I’m here. I think I’m good.”

I know it was my friends who saved me that time. But, they didn’t know; it wasn’t their intention.  Who did know? Whose intention was it? The depression that had kept me awake for weeks, maybe. The ghost. Did it go and find M, and the rest of them, tell them to plan a long day together? What is the future for a ghost? Did the ghost of my depression know what I was going to do and stop it?  Can ghosts move through time in a different way? Without a body, does time move in all directions?  Is it possible that particular ghost had this in mind the whole time?  Since that day I’ve not had another encounter with it.  I started to work harder with my invisible realms, to go back and unearth the bodies buried in my childhood, to honour them and give them the rituals they needed. For the first time I can appreciate sadness without my heart pounding with fear.  Grief, sorrow, disappointment, regret.  There is all this nuance now.  The depression had stages, but sadness has states. Sadness has inspiration, and movement, and hues.

I have serious doubts about the linearity of time.  Even in the cyclicality that is unidirectional.  I suspect there are continuities and interactions of events, beings and knowings that flow in every direction through this medium of time we live in.  Is there a world where I drowned that day? When M came just a few minutes later? In that world, who do I haunt?

The ghosts of things that never were.  Does the partner I never met haunt me? The children I never had?  It returns me to the compelling idea of a multiverse. The crinkliness of time when it doesn’t make sense.  When things are known or done that are perfect but impossible. When things are out of place, objects move of their own accord, the direction of causality seems to reverse or, more dramatically, invert itself.

Do ghosts live on wishes? Is that their version of time? All the people who die in genocides and holocausts, do they live in the world where it never happened? Perhaps they inspire us from there, the other past, the parallel future, the twinned present, poking holes with their hot emotions and reaching into our imaginations.  All these worlds, on top of each other, made of mind, and emotion, time and emptiness.

When I started writing this piece I was thinking about capitalism.  When I think of capitalism I think of pools of energy going stagnant.  Like a dead pond.  What was full of taoic force, that unnameable everything, that electric dragon and its cowlike night, is now a pen for wild horses, or a pen for pigs, or the sharp barbed wire around an orchard where fruit falls to the ground and sinks into the earth, its sweetness returned untasted.  Those dead murky pools of digital money, itself ephemeral, its effects dense and impenetrable.  What came before capitalism?  When money and energy and goods and services and the joy of being alive, and the roles that made societies all could flow, making their different paces, gold piling up here, clean water flowing there.  I imagine possibilities with nine billion people.  I imagine a world of technologies that marry the earth and grow from her like sequoia and blue whales.  Medicine that ripples through the ether and art that precipitates like summer rain and winter’s drifts.

However you might imagine that time, the time that happened when capitalism did not, it is somewhere. The possibility of it is a ghost and it haunts us all.  It screams at the Trump era, splitting the ultra-thin glass between dimensions.  Inspiring those who have the apparatus to hear. An apparatus so delicate, like the Morse machine but made of tiny ear bones, it is easily overpowered by the noise of malls, plastic machines, oil transportation, heavy metal phones, sewage treatment, and nuclear meltdowns.  But someone can hear. The future calling from the past. The interdimensional utopia of now.

What is beautiful is knowing that that future is here.  The linear future plows forward from the past, pushing up the earth and piling up bodies, the descendant of war, and the enemy of life.  But the ghost of the future that wasn’t, the one that died, it isn’t bound by time, it is stationed in the future and flows backward into our presents.  Stand with your arms open, and your ear bones ringing, and there it is.  Can we sidestep the clamping pre-fab design of the linear, and leap into the quicksilver rapids of our ancestors who know like my depression knew, that to wait in the present won’t help.  To fall back into the past would be to disappear.  But to be stationed in the future and stand backwards is to draw us into ourselves, towards the healing and the dawn of who we have always been.

Without that depression I wouldn’t have sought the help I needed to look closely at my life, to look for the dark beasts hidden in my family tree who were feasting unchecked on my ancestors and reaching with their rusty claws for our descendants.  The sad ghost saved me.  It turned me towards the light. I sense the ghosts in the room as I write this.  Pushing my fingers, tapping on the shoulder of my vocabulary, waiting for their opportunity to be heard.

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