THEY CAN’T HANDLE THE SHIT I’M LAYIN’ DOWN
Last night I went to a poetry/arts exhibition at the vermillion gallery and bar on capitol hill. Truly a bourgie and spectacular place, that vermillion. Anyway, up onto the stage came Stanford educated comic and illustrator and GIRL HERO, Megan Kelso. She looked like a dowdy 25 year old with her mousey brown bob and glasses, but nay, she was a 40 year old on the cusp of crisis. Her reading of the following essay (inspired by Moby Dick and the crisis of transition) had me in tears midway through and kept me in tears throughout. Read the transcript and be awed. I don’t care who you are, it’ll make your darn heart pang.
Seeing as this year I’ve been absolutely obsessed with the careful and revel-ationary reading of Moby Dick AND have featured Moby Dick references and metaphors in my past 3 posts, her speech fell upon my ears none too soon. I was bought and sold and blubbering at the hands of Ms. Kelso.
Vermillion Gallery (bar and reading space at back)
Illustration by Matt Kish (Moby Dick in pictures, pg 19)
Melville & I
~ Megan Kelso
My friend Tim and I have this joke we share. When either of us puts out a book or a comic or a piece of writing that doesn’t receive the amount of praise or earn us the money we feel is our due, we say with self mockery, “They can’t handle the shit I’m layin’ down.” By now, in our mid forties, we are too experienced to be surprised that they can’t handle the shit we’re layin’ down, but it still hurts and we still say it. It has become a ritualistic response.
Tonight I’m going to talk about how Herman Melville is helping me through my midlife crisis. Now it may seem a bit grandiose to identify myself with this guy, but that seems to be one of the hallmarks of how people deal with the midlife crisis—a certain pomposity. You scale up in order not to look into the void—you buy a fast car, you get a trophy wife—I have chosen to throw in my lot with the writer of the great American novel. I am going to read all of his work in chronological order—the novels, the short stories, even the poetry. And together, Melville and I will get through this. He will be my spirit guide as I embark upon the second half of my life; he will help me re-forge my understanding of the dualities that haunt me; success and failure, winning and losing—having and having not.
Last summer, when some out of town friends were visiting, we gathered in our back room to drink after the kids had gone to bed and talk turned to schools. I explained how it was that we were “choosing” to send our daughter to a very poor, failing south end school near where we live, and at one point described our situation as “downwardly mobile.” My friend told me later that after I had left the room, my husband looked at them ironically and said, “I didn’t know we were downwardly mobile.” I guess its not something I talk about much, but I think in a way, I’ve felt downwardly mobile my whole life.
How many of you, have been feeling downwardly mobile lately?
This downward mobility started with my grandparents. My paternal grandmother, Gerry, was an heiress—the adopted daughter of a Chicago auto glass tycoon. Gerry met my grandfather Charlie at a dude ranch in Montana and they married in the late thirties. My grandfather quit his job as a chemist and, it seems, spent the rest of his life finding ways to lose my grandmother’s wealth; bad investments, failed businesses and a venture into politics as the mayor of Ellensburg, Washington which ended with him leaving town. During my childhood, they still had some money (they helped my parents buy their first house, they paid for my sister to go to private school for awhile) but they did not have Money with a capital M anymore—the kind that is bound up in trust funds and is passed on as a legacy to grandchildren. What my grandmother did pass on were the accoutrements of her social class: Edwardian silver candlesticks, a fur coat that my mother wore somewhat sheepishly and a book of manners meant for preppy children. These things seemed mismatched to our somewhat scruffier existence and convinced me that I came from a family of impoverished aristocrats.
In the nineties, I started hearing the term “voluntary simplicity,” which is distinguished from downward mobility because it is chosen. I liked this term—it seemed to go hand in hand with the punk rock DIY ethic that had so influenced me in college and had helped me decide to be an artist. I felt like it accurately described my husband’s and my choice to live on his income and let me be an artist who earned barely any money at all. But I guess secretly, I expected that the years of voluntary simplicity would eventually lead to a late career full of merit-based plentitude. Though I knew the odds were slim, I hoped without admitting it to myself for total success—critical acclaim AND money. This did not happen. And so I find myself in my forties, in a state of simplicity that does not feel entirely voluntary.
My new boyfriend Herman Melville was also an artist whose voluntary simplicity slid into downward mobility. He had a distinguished background with property and Revolutionary War heroes on both sides of his family. And in his family too, the downward mobility began before he was born. His father was a feckless dandy turned failed businessman who died young, leaving his family with almost nothing. Young Melville abandoned the class expecations of his family; that he go into business or law. Instead, he went to sea as a common sailor; this was in part a response to the bald fact that his family couldn’t afford to send him to college. His first book about his seafaring adventures was a modest success, but after that, even though he wrote prodigiously—novels, short stories, epic poems—his writing never earned him much money, nor many readers. The main way he supported his family was by borrowing from relatives and slowly selling off bits of land. Finally, in his mid forties, in debt and with nothing left to sell, he went to work as a customs inspector for the Port of New York, where he stayed for twenty years. I feel a kinship with Melville’s downward mobility because like mine, it may have started out by choice, but ended up with dashed expectations. And here is where I find the facts of his life sadly inspiring; amidst mounting disappointment and debt, he continued to write.
I think secret hopes of artistic success are analogous to the secret hopes of a lot of Americans—that their current circumstances of crushing debt will somehow transform—they will start a business, invent something, win the lottery, marry an heiress. This hope of either climbing the ladder, or possibly of catapulting up the ladder is the cornerstone of the American Dream. Prosperity is just around the corner, just about possible. This hoping and dreaming is what often stops people from voting for their current interests in favor of the longed for higher tax bracket they might someday enter. Melville once wrote that the poor in America “suffer more in mind than the poor of any other people in the world” because of “the smarting distinction between their ideal of universal equality and their grindstone of experience.” These secret hopes, whether it is of material success or artistic distinction make our current lives seem provisional. We’re putting off living—holding out for a shadowy but still possible future.
Eight years ago, My husband and I were living in New York City. I was 35. My husband was unemployed. The Iraq war, despite our protestations had begun with bad news and dead bodies accumulating every day. My right hand continually ached from a broken wrist that would not heal. I couldn’t draw. My graphic novel in progress, which I’d already been working on for 4 years languished. It was winter and our apartment was cold. I was snuggled close to my husband in bed, when I woke up suddenly in the grey dawn. A soft ball of golden light hovered outside of my bedroom window then leaped into the room, into my brain:
This is it.
This life I had right now, with my unemployed husband and half finished comics, in a small dusty apartment, and mounting credit card debt…but there were good things too; I had love, and a modicum of professional recognition. I had a cat and the Daily Show to help me laugh at the war. This was my life. And it wasn’t the “this is my life” of resignation, but of pure joy. I would no longer wait for Real Life to begin. This is it. This was the fully formed thought that the ball of light planted in my brain.
I had never had an epiphany before.
The quiet calm it brought lasted a few weeks, maybe a month. I no longer felt like my present life was provisional. I felt reborn – not in a religious way, but like I had shed a terrible burden. I would like to report that the epiphany was a watershed in my life and that I completely let go of the unrealistic expectations of my youth. But truth be told, the memory and the crystal clear realization faded. I forgot about my epiphany and kept waiting for my prize.
I coasted through my fortieth birthday feeling relatively unscathed by my entry into middle age. For some reason, it wasn’t until age 42 that my doubts about whether that prize would ever arrive consolidated. My thoughts formed a new pattern:“Geez Megan, you’re FORTY, you should know how to do online banking by now,” or “For crying out loud, you’re 40! you should have joined AAA by now.” It turned out that some hidden part of my brain had decided that by age 40 I should have my act together: have finished my graphic novel, know how to change a tire, and geez, isn’t it time you finally read Moby Dick?! I had accomplished none of these. But really, the unspoken shoulda, underlying all of those trivial little shouldas was that by age 40, I should be making a living with my work. The upward trajectory was no longer upward—it didn’t even feel like a trajectory. I began to question the arc of this “story” that is my life. It was looking less and less like a story and more like a long, meaningless slog.
I still don’t know how to change a tire, but I did finally read Moby Dick. And as sometimes happens in your reading life, timing and words just click and you come to be reading the exact perfect book at the exact right time. Here was the author to accompany me through my mid-life crisis. /// Here is a writer who agonizes even more than I do, and who can speak of the meaningless slog in gorgeous, heroic terms. In Moby Dick, Melville writes: “That mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her seas; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore…so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!”/// And what an intrepid soul he was. He was not one for writers block. He often drank too much and there are suggestions that he fell into black rages and depressions, but he always kept writing. The historian Dominic LaCapra has said, “many writers are good for thinking about, but only a few, after their time has passed, continue to be good for thinking with. And Melville is one of those writers.” ///He was a restless seeker of answers to the big questions—in many ways a tortured seeker, drawn to extremes, searching for ultimates. He wrestled so sincerely and thoroughly for answers. But his failure to ever find answers is part of what makes his writing seem so in keeping with our time. He circled around the big questions until the day he died.///
His friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of their last meeting, a day walking on the beach in England, ///“He had pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief: and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.”///
Melville never settled any of these big questions for himself, but as he aged, his perspective on them changed, which is of course what happens to all of us—and we don’t turn to Melville for answers, but rather for his good company and his fine mind as we do our own wrestling with the howling infinites. Melville turns again and again to dualities, rocketing back and forth between poles of meaning. Land and sea, thought and action, the abyss and the stars, good and evil, haves and have nots. It is his way of recognizing that life is complicated, an ever shifting process. Sometimes we are in the stars and sometimes we are in the abyss. Sometimes the stars make sense and the abyss is incomprehensible—and other times, vice versa. Dualities do not cancel each other out, nor does one have primacy over another. They are both ever-present, they are both significant, demanding our constant re-examination. But as we slog back and forth between two poles of meaning, is there any resolution? Any resting place? Perhaps not. But for we Americans, mobility has always been our blessing and our curse.
We live in a society that treasures the promise of class mobility and yet we live now with more polarization of wealth than at any time since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, with rich and poor seemingly frozen in place. Melville was in his fifties during the Gilded Age; he had grown up with the promise of the Founders—both his grandfathers had fought in the Revolutionary war, and he had internalized the dream of building a new nation, free of the inequality and stagnation of Europe. But this dream seemed to shrivel with the aftermath of the Civil War when Northern corporate business interests moved into high gear and consolidated their wealth, creating a business oligarchy the likes of which the world had never seen. His late work is shot through with disillusionment about what America had become.
The situation we find ourselves in today has been decades in the making—and I confess that on the cusp of my own middle age, I have moments of resignation—that maybe the finest hopes of this country are forever out of reach, that we will never become the more perfect union that Obama kept reminding us about during the 2008 election. The American dream is about our own individual capacity to rise and attain success. That is different from the American Idea, which is collective—that we strive together for a social order where all people are free to pursue those personal dreams. “That smarting distinction” as Melville put it, between what is promised, and what is our actual experience, can be painful and make us feel like terrible failures, but it can also motivate people to fight for that promise. To see the Occupy Wall Street movement take hold has been a surprise. I think back on all the activists who have struggled for economic and social justice, who have tried for decades to build movements for change and have largely been ignored. I imagine them frustrated, straggling home with their signs after only 20 people showed up for a fair housing march; “They can’t handle the shit we’re layin’ down.” And I confess that most of the time, I too can’t handle that shit – I have silently looked away from the poor—a problem seemingly too vast to solve, and I have closed my ears when people try to call attention to it. Who knows all the forces that cause a movement to ignite—why now? Occupy Wall Street has stirred people’s deep feelings about the American Idea—this promise of fairness and opportunity that has been betrayed. Finally, we are ready to hear and respond to what the activists have been layin’ down for a long time.
You never know when people will be able to hear your message.
Herman Melville is the patron saint of “They can’t handle the shit I’m layin’ down.” Basically, the whole 19th century, with the exception of Nathaniel Hawthorne couldn’t handle what he was laying down. He wrote movingly and graphically about the slaughter of whales at a time when almost everybody used whale oil to light their homes. He wrote about working people and black people and confusing homosexual experiences, at a time when none of these topics were part of polite discourse. He wrote about doubt and obsession and failure. After the civil war, he wrote for Northern audiences with an almost unbearable sympathy for Southerners. He wrote in a fractured style that prefigured modernism, that grappled with how the human mind really works—non linear, irrational, everything all at once. He comes charging out of the 19th century with a voice that breaks the barriers of history, that speaks to us and challenges us with force and curiosity. His great writing is why we still read him. His ability to grapple with big questions without being moralistic or ideological is why we still identify with him, and his example of how to continue to do your work in the face of rejection, failure and minuteness is why I love him.
He seemed, almost against his will, to understand what that ball of light said to me: Like it or not, this is it. Make the most of it. I will leave you with one of my favorite quotations from Moby Dick:
“Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!”