Lights in the Dark
There is something empty about walking past high rise pinnacles of human achievement in the most liberal city in America and seeing the dregs of society, nearly invisible in the shadows of buildings, beg for some pocket change or a smile. Change for a bite, a fix, a pull from the bottle, or anything that will give a fleeting respite from the knowledge that they've fallen through the cracks.
It's too much of a bother to look at them.
The residents want their filth, their dirty needles, and their cardboard beds swept from view into another city.
Who are you?
Where did you come from?
Does your family miss you?
What is in your outstretched hand?
It's your heart, and there's a child inside.
What is that behind the diverted eyes of the clean folks passing by?
There's a heart there too, under lock and key, afraid and shielded from the pain of empathy.
Some don't understand what draws you like a moth to the flame to the candy on the corner, candy that lines the walls of the liquor store. They cannot fathom why you'd set your future on fire. Why you would dance in the ashes with every pull from the incendiary spirits, all wrapped up like presents in brown paper packages.
The answer is not at the bottom of the bottle. I've double and triple checked.
But there is a momentary release.
There's a drop of ecstasy, a freedom from caring, in 2 fingers of oak aged poison that lasts for the blink of an eye. Too many pulls for too long, over months or years, and that ecstasy turns to numbness. It almost, but not quite, makes the cascading self-destruction worth it.
But the burning peat, the sweet tar, the glass, or whatever fuel you feed the raging inferno you call home — they are just blindfolds to keep you from seeing the wounds that those diverted eyes leave behind.
Hell, while you're at it, a few bucks a week gets you the most expensive slips of paper that money can buy to line the inside of your wallet. I know its more than that to you. A lottery ticket is a desperate prayer whispered in the dark. It's a thread of hope against all odds.
I feel it too. The loneliness.
Floating adrift in this vast ocean of space and time without a tether.
Reaching for but never completely touching others.
Grasping for a purpose.
Passing eyes wide open but unseeing.
Loneliness is a room full of people and eyes that pass right through you. It's that paralyzing moment where you wonder if you're even real. Maybe you're a shadow, or a specter, and this is a strange moment of lucidity.
It's a sinking feeling. Time slows. And the wagging tongue of the person looking directly at you becomes dreadfully clear.
What devastation when you realize you are not a complex and evolving person to them, but a conglomeration of expectations. Your interaction is but a transaction.
To them your open door is an opportunity to pillage, not a moment to join your melody.
You are resilient. You survive every burn left behind by thieving hands. Your body, mind, and heart can regrow and even thrive after scorched earth.
It's the cold that will kill you.
Unseeing eyes are frigid stabs to an open heart.
Loneliness is when you take that pain and build a prison to keep others from getting in.
It's the arm's length you keep others at so they can never disappoint you again.
It's doors of inspiration closing one by one, leaving you in the stale, padded room and straitjacket of your own design.
Friends wander through like ghosts but they cannot touch you.
You speak but cannot sing because there's a block of lead where your voice should be.
You're fine until you're not.
There's occasional moments when you know something is terribly wrong.
But the rest of the time you are fine. Totally fine.
Its okay to taste the cold metallic barrel in your mind and imagine scattering your atoms across the universe because you only think of it in a disconnected kind of way.
You're not one of those suicidal people.
That would be selfish, stupid, and worst, so frightfully banal.
I know there's probably a perfect little diagnosis for it and some prescription pills too.
Neatly printed labels and direct instructions are of no comfort to me. We are all shooting in the dark. It's, as George Carlin once put it, “guess work in a white coat”. We are all terrified, adrift without an anchor, a sexton, or a star, and not knowing what to make of this very brief experience we call life. It'd be nice if someone could please tell us what to do. The white knuckled grip we have on religion and authoritative ideologies are perhaps some of the closest things we choose to cling to, to try and keep our frightened hearts afloat. We want to check the right boxes to receive the right answers and swallow uniform pills.
We want a prescription for the condition of loneliness.
I believe loneliness is often the result of self-imposed isolation, and I don't think humans do well with isolation. It’s self-perpetuating. How can people reach you through the walls of your prison? How can you see them with a blindfold on and an arm out to keep them back?
Isolation makes you hard, cold, and brittle inside. It makes it harder for you to swim.
Loneliness is the sinking feeling you get in a room full of people.
Solitude is different. Solitude is the open sky, a good book, and the sound of your own breathing.
It's ironic that most of us consider “solitary confinement” cruel and inhumane, yet think nothing of the fact that the only breath of nature we experience is walking to and from our commuting vehicle to work. The rooms we spend the majority of our lives inside are self imposed confinement, so we do not see them as a prison. We can stream a nature documentary and observe the lives of friends and family play out on social media from the comfort of our familiar four walls. The News shows us everything we need to be informed and outraged about. Constant noise and notifications scream to be acknowledged. Doors of the imagination close. We're reinforced to feel freedom when surrounded by a hoard of shit that supposed give a sense of pride and identity or make life more convenient.
These are not anchors. They are dead weight.
When was the last time your feet felt the touch of grass, or sand, or stone, or ocean water?
When was the last time you stopped and just listened to the birds? What does the sound of wind seem like to you? Does it sound like the trees are breathing? Or is it an inhuman, primal hiss? Do you question whether the creatures and the plants perceive you in a way we don't yet understand?
When was the last time you looked at the stars? When you see the pin pricks of light scattered across our sky, do you contemplate the alien planets you will never set foot on? Do you wonder if someone will gaze back in time at you across hundreds of thousands of light years?
We treat a walk in nature like an occasional deviance from the routine of our sterile, dead, four-walled prisons. And then we wonder why we are sick.
We treat reading like it is a hobby. Like it's a thing that only bookish people do. To me, this is a tragedy.
“Death is so terribly final, while life is full of possibilities”.
That quote saved my life.
However far down the rabbit hole I went, this phrase spoken by a fictional character in an imaginary world, while he sardonically stood in the face of despair, was a lantern of hope that led me back to the world of the living. This fusion of wry humor and logic still rings clear into the recesses of my mind when I'm a disconnected, dispassionate thing. It reminds me that I'm not alone.
A man I have and probably never will meet reached out and touched me.
If there is such a thing as magic, it must be in the power of the written word to reach across vast expanses of time and distance to fill a person with a profound sense of understanding. Storytelling is wizardry that conjures tears, compassion, and realms of thought in the real world. A mind armed with the pen is a power that can manifest tangible change. With a few scratches on paper, you can create a world, which only exists as a notion, and grant others the gift of their own expanding imagination and empathy.
It's in this solitude, communing with people I will never meet or with people that were never once breathing, that my humanity expands.
Who needs to cling to the wreckage of ancient creeds when a few scratches on a piece of paper, the sound of the ocean, and a smile from a stranger make you remember you can fly?
Step outside your prison and you'll see the small reminders of others' struggles hidden in plain sight. An unquenchable thirst for laughter, a commitment to helping others, a tattoo of the word “hope” on the inner wrist. You are not alone and we are all doing the best we can.
Books open doors. Nature is an expanse that gives room enough to think. People are pin pricks of light in the dark to guide you back home.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Chelsea Ducote is a Baton Rouge native. She is an artist and activist currently living in San Francisco. She enjoys reading, playing dungeons and dragons, watching The Great British Baking Show, laughing at her own jokes, and giving misogynists the evil eye.