In July of 2012 I went to Portugal to give a talk on Occupy Wall Street and public spaces in the United States at an international conference about cities and social justice, at the University of Coimbra. (I have my friend Ella to thank for this entire endeavor—not everyone can manage to generate so much inspiration in me from such a minimum of in-person friendship, but Ella has truly wondrous talents in this regard.) My talk there did not go especially well. The skills I have developed over the years for public speaking come and go, and, in the clutches of a tremendous undertow of heartbreak, loneliness, existential crises, and politics, my confidence rolled merrily out to sea with the tide. All in all, it was probably okay.
The conference was replete with people backed by large institutions, and I was the only one I knew who wrote a paper independently. Perhaps my shy speech went over with the rest of the group in the way of Van Gogh's lousy table manners or Wagner's appalling romantic life.
"Well, she's an artist, after all!"
I can only hope.
Before visiting the tiny little medieval town of Coimbra (Portugal's old capital, and at present a hotbed of abstract science and impassioned student anarchists, to my great delight), I spent four days in Lisbon. I had a lot to think about, and Lisbon, with its beautiful buildings spanning more than a thousand years (Lisbon is also one of the most cheerily colorful cities in Europe: baroque buildings in soft easter egg colors, red roofing, elaborate painted tiles, and Lisbon's special mosaic Portuguese pavement all contribute to the riot of complex visual noise, subsiding abruptly into peaceful monotony when your eye reaches the mouth of the Tagus river), was ideal for the sea wave-gazing, bonfire-gazing, train window-gazing, aquarium fish-gazing impulses I have when I have a lot on my mind.
Watching the world go by, and watching its constituent parts describing the internal architecture of the great natural entities: oxygen, water, the vernacular growth of cities and townships, the melt and swell of geological landscape sculpture, the role of the ego in a larger world (the fish moving ever so slightly with the surge, building on the current like a dancer uses the movement of her partner to execute a high kick or rotation), is an ideal blank canvas for thinking. Order is forever in love with chaos.
I'd wander the streets of Lisbon all day long with my sketchbook, listening to the sounds of the city, daydreaming, drawing and writing down whatever came to mind, but mostly letting my mind wander while I trudged up and down the steep cobbled streets and alleyways of the city.
I seemed to grow smaller during the day, as though my mental hurricane dried up in the powerful heat of the summer sun. I let all the terrible thoughts fly out of me, like a tower filled with blackbirds against a hot, white sky. At night, I filled my mind back up with books. One of the books I read was "Just Kids", Patti Smith's story of her life-long relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. It was the best love-story I've ever read. Patti and Robert made an enormous amount of art together, and supported each other through incredibly hard times. They went through phases of sharing absolutely everything together, and growing apart and into solitude or the lives of others. They remained inseparable in so many ways, but also seemed, almost effortlessly, to avoid the mistake so many make in love: mistaking the beloved for yourself.
“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
Total intimacy, total freedom. The most beautiful thing in the whole world.
"The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It's the artist's responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”
This book articulated what I had always believed about my life's work and about human connection. The fact that I have never loved Patti Smith's music (though I have always respected it) merely added to this feeling of oceanic solidarity; if I can find such a treasure in a gift that is not meant for me, than I am more intimately connected with the world than I had dared to hope.
Alone in my guesthouse room, jumbled among the rooftops and jutting chimneys, with the moon hanging low in the sky and the fantastic heat of the summer nights, I felt something like relief, like salvation, like happiness, although I was not yet happy. Nobody could tell me any longer that what I wanted did not exist. Slowly, the strictures surrounding my identity were crumbling away. It was a process that began in the years after middle school, and accelerated when I met my present community. It is an ongoing process today.
Last week my friend Conor shot and killed himself. He was not a very close friend, but he was a friend, and he was a part of my community, my chosen family. There was this one night that Conor got pretty drunk and needed a place to stay overnight, and I was happy to be able to lend him my bedroom. I could tell that things were hard for him, and it felt like such a huge gift for me, to be able to do something for him. I was so happy to be a part of his safety net. It reminded me that I was, for the first time in my life, part of a community. It reminded me that I wasn't alone. Every time I saw him at a party, I tried to edge my way into a conversation with him to see how he was doing. Although Conor so tragically did not survive this depression, the fact that he did reach out felt like a gift, and one that included me. Conor's depression took so much away from him: his sense of intimacy (though it was there for him all along), and his freedom (which was, heartbreakingly invisibly, within his reach too).
I don't really feel that we, Conor's friends and community, failed Conor. I wish more than anything that there had been something to prevent him from that last and final fall—a serendipitous situation, a friend in the right place at the right time, a windfall of rationality and common sense, blind luck, anything—but ultimately I think that we belong only to ourselves. I wish he could have seen that it was going to get better, or felt (as I feel) that life was an irresistible adventure, even in the midst of terrible suffering, and that he couldn't help but stick around to find out what happened next.
To all those (my smart, sarcastic, jolly friend Luke, my sweet friend Conor, my artist-dancer role model Lisa, my Russian bear of a childhood friend Dima) in my life who have taken their own lives, and to the many more who have been tempted or who have tried, please reach out. You are alone and you are not alone. You belong to yourself but you are surrounded, inundated, by a fine, filamented web of love and generosity, which will reach out to you if you can only find out how to reach out to it. Keep trying, please, and hold on.
I miss you so much.