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Living on the cusp of fully being.

 

Artist: Alexandra Bellissimo.

Artist: Alexandra Bellissimo.

It began in poetry, it began in darkness…

In poverty, in immigration…

In a cave, in 3D,

It began with every story,

It began with a myth unraveling,

It began with losing…

It all began when the USPS lost my books… or at least that is how I often start this story.

My mother and I left the Soviet Union when I was a kid. We left everything — culture, family, books. As immigrants in the U.S., we were poor and could not afford the luxury of a household library.

At 16, I began working and made a contract with myself to never refuse the purchase of a book. I bought a lot of books. I loved their texture and the inward shift they symbolized. I loved the idea of a personal library, something I could withdraw to from the storms of my late teens.

This is not to say I read them all. Back then, I barely read any. I was still struggling with assimilation and lacked confidence with my new language. English felt like the language of the Other, as if the arbitrators of fate had condemned me to always be lagging behind it.

I dropped out of High School having not found a seat in the traditional education establishment.

It would be years ’til I found a way back into education, and into those books. But for a time, while I floundered from one job to another, one subculture to the next, my personal library represented a reprieve, even as I lacked the discipline and courage to explore its contents.

Just the idea of those books helped save me as I played out the role of a youth culturally lost, submerged in every risk and shadow. Ultimately, I escaped this Bukowski immersion relatively unharmed — three car accidents, a few friends having overdosed or gone missing, some close calls of the legal variety. I was intact and in possession of having lived some intriguing tales.

I went back to school and began mimicking the arc of a hero’s journey. I wanted to come back to the world as a gentleman, to be the Count, returned from my own Marseille prison.

And then — next frame — I was rising. I made it to what seemed like the top of my world. I graduated with Honors and entered a Masters program for writing. I won awards when I did not expect them. I was Finn, finally getting everything I deserved but had never asked for — not the Dickens Finn but the Ethan Hawke version, splashing champagne about me as I stood atop the Manhattan skyline.

I became a confidant and adviser to my friends and classmates. I finally read the books. My future seemed like a Gatsby arc — up, up, up…

Along with the books, I had begun to collect stories of myself, and I stood on those stories — we are all, for a time, the illusion of our own tales — Carl Jung had suggested to me. But some platforms are essential, Joseph Campbell interjected.

And then I fell. I fell with the speed of a myth unraveling.

Shortly before graduation, I was given the chance at something I had long thought I wanted. Faced with the object of my fixation, I realized I did not want it. And the vortex opened.

In truth, the cause was only a catalyst. I had been standing on kindling. For years, I had been affirming my hero’s journey story, and as I had once been incapable of opening up those books, I had become unwilling to examine the stories I had created. Now I was in the act of questioning all these stories. I kept trying to retell them, to find footing in who I had thought myself to be, but all the grooves had eroded.

There is a man in a cave. He executes the King Pigeon Pose effortlessly three minutes to sunrise on the bank of a neighboring stream and is whispered about from afar. Children from the village visit him on every third full moon. He tells them the stories of the moon prince and the young and lonely god and other sacred fables which confirm their tribe, their identity, their place in the order of things.

The children go back out to the community and re-imagine these stories as they grow up. New children visit every third cycle. The old children never come back. To have true binding power, a story can only be newly heard once. Yes, it can be retold, deduced, improvised from, reinterpreted, made into 3D and IMAX, but a story only contains one full awe charge. After that, upon each successive retelling, it makes its slide out from the imagination of the audience — it is a fire that loses its blue.

We are both the audience and the storyteller; in addition, we are the ascent, the arc, the fall back to earth from the sage’s rock, and we too are that unknown which causes gravity to do its dark magic.

I had returned to myself over and over and over again, each time allowing for the escape of that precious awe. So discharged was I that I could not build on the former idea of myself, nor could I simply pick a new foundation.

I finished grad school and I ran — my car was packed with everything I owned and the rest was sent down by mail.

I picked New Orleans because it seemed like a port for lost souls. There I spent time in coffee shops writing short stories and starting half-hearted conversations. It seemed like an artist’s dream (the new Bohemia), but I was restless and was feeling tossed about by this sensation.

And so I packed again to try yet another state, and that is when the USPS lost my books.

I had learned from them, taught from them, had some autographed, alphabetized, earmarked, and liberally filled the margins with my analyses. In them were all my stories. And now all my former confidants were gone. I experienced a peculiar polarity in my reaction. I missed the books, the sense of familiarity and reference, the affirmation of walking up to a bookshelf knowing exactly where to search for the germ of an earlier thought.

And yet, I began to feel lighter, as if I had started some necessary descent. I still felt thrown about, but I was feeling less torn in the gravity. You see, it all started with losing my books, and then, and then, and then, I gave into losing.

Over the next six months, I lost 10 years of sobriety, my car, more belongings, journals, a suit, six pairs of shoes, and an old computer that had long ago become more symbolic than functional. The detail of what was lost, sold or given away, no longer matters as it was all gone in the spirit of losing.

I had given into the spirit, as if in preparation for a greater jump I was lightning up the load.

I found myself in New York City again, teaching and bartending. I was no longer finding new places, instead I was recycling former habitats.

I could not write. I could not discover anything new. I was living an impossible monster. And so I surrendered. I stepped away from my life and retreated to a holistic institute in the Hudson Valley. I was telling myself that I was going there to get away from the nightlife of NYC, that I could teach writing workshops there and would complete the murder mystery that should bring me acclaim. In truth I was leaving the few remaining structures that supported my myths — abandoning an ineffectual shell.

And then there was silence. There was nothing to keep up with, to pack or unpack, or tend to.

The story of what happened after my retreat would require far more space than what I have here, but in summation — which I would have deemed hyperbole had I not actually lived it — the most dramatic revolution of my life had begun.

No longer feeling any ownership over my old stories, I began to interact with the world around me. My daily existence became a practice of enlivening elements — confirming what is real for me, and what is not, what I need and not, which voice is mine and which is a foreign echo masquerading as I. I had become divorced from dead premises. I became present tense.

I pursued an opportunity as a travel writer to cover the annual Burning Man event in the Nevada desert.

I let go of my life in academia and New York (jobs and apartment and a few other loose things). I woke up in tents or dusty RVs. I whittled my life down to two duffel bags and a computer, and moved forward into the unknown.

I fell in love, a love I could not imagine until I was confronted with it and all its lovely masks of play and invitations of surrender. I moved to the West Coast. I bought a new pair of pants. I took a road trip… I moved on… I arrived… I asked no one else for approval, confirmation, or permission.

Losing, or giving up everything, had emptied me out to discover what in this world is really mine. It had made me into a vessel, now accounting for the contents of everything I took in. And, I discovered that the novelty of living is to risk new stories.

Whatever my myth is now, I am living it instead of living upon it. It is the greatest risk I have ever taken, to live in the undefined space, in daily practice on the cusp of fully being.

{Live and thrive in the present}

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