Pain is ceremonious as a funeral procession. I’m not entirely sure who or what to follow into the underworld. I’m not sure I want to visit the underworld. It is said that if one looks long enough in the mirror one will see death. What I see is a face with deepening creases and wrinkles. Bags under the eyes. A wattle under the chin. All you need is love, sang the Beatles, and they were right, of course. But it’s harder than one might think to go around in one’s mind without getting tangled up in worries and imagine that a feeling of love (I know this is vague, but bear with me) will remedy the situation. The situation being the human condition. In a word: angst. What a great word, angst. It sounds like what it means. A profound aching that penetrates to the bone. A bundle of anxieties, fears, dread, premonitions, conflicts, remorse and dilemmas, all of which begin as soon as cognition begins. As soon as we are brought into this world still covered with blood and slime and open our eyes. The stark light of reality vibrates in the nerves like electricity humming through the high-voltage cables of a transformer station.
It’s never-ending, a Möbius loop of perplexities and anguish.
I’m sorry if this is a bummer. But I’ve chosen pain as my topic and feel a certain responsibility to stick with it.
Thinking is synonymous with apprehension. I think that goes for all people, but since I’m me, and speaking from my point of view, I’d have to say the situation merits special attention.
My mental life is ensnarled with pointless obsessions. This is my brain (picture a sponge). This is my brain on words (picture a sponge dripping words). It’s a jungle in there. Tangles of jackal-berry, spider lilies, and mangosteen share precious skull space with prickly lettuce, poor-man’s spinach, and the Agenbite of Inwit.
Is the Cretaceous over? Not in my head it’s not.
Sometimes you can find redemption in a hot dog. It’s the food of youth. People eat hot dogs when they’re having fun. Put mustard on it. See if it smells of impertinence. If it smells of impertinence, it’s a good hot dog. If it doesn’t, you might prefer a baked potato.
Pain is rarely this ambiguous. But sometimes yeah, sometimes pain can emit a pagan stubble. The sky murmurs winches and pulleys. Consciousness creates chemicals never before seen on TV. And so goes a skeleton of numbers, another face in the asphalt.
It’s confusing as hell. Where did this pain come from? What’s it doing bothering me? Why me?
Pain isn’t choosey. Pain is as democratic as things get. Apart from thinking. Which is cerebral and sparkly.
Each thought is a fetus in your head. Calendars are shifts in temperature. Pain is pure sorcery. I watched some once roam around a ripple of transparency. It made me feel dribbled, as if existing had to do with everything, including fucking one another. The best way out of this nonsense is to sit down and open a book.
The paper hovers above an emotion constructed out of words. This is what happens in a marriage between emotion and darkness. It’s written in my face. Nouns stick to my body like refrigerator magnets. Verbs are more difficult. You have to do them. Perform them. Argue with a forehead. Eat. Sleep. Blow glass.
If you act like a clarinet expect gold and copper. Imagine it’s raining on a tank. The men inside are playing cards. That’s my definition of lungs. Another is streams of air getting sculpted into words. That’s my idea of thinking. The bump bump bump of the beating heart.
Most pains are exquisite. Easy to understand. Easy to resolve. Take your finger out of the fire. Crawl to the lodge and cry for help.
Emotional pain is a little different. It’s a dribble of sensation. The drawers jingle with habit. We evade the pain we glaze with our fancy glass.
Outdoors is different. Here I sit as always with clouds floating out of my head. There is so much to describe. When it comes to emotional pain, I rarely feel one singular emotion. It’s usually a blend. Grief mixed with fear, fear mixed with gloom, gloom mixed with foreboding. It’s often difficult to identify all the nuances in a particular feeling. Conflicts churn in a confusion of color and shape. It hurts my head to have all that shit going on in there. Like Bob Dylan once sang in a song, “there must be some kind of way out of here.”
It sometimes happens that a word will assume a quality similar to Saturday. There’s a nakedness that happens on Saturday. That’s all I know.
Wanting immediate relief is a reason people seek remedy in drugs. It works, but only for a time. When the drugs leave, you feel worse. You have to take more drugs. You need more drugs to feel the effect of the drugs. It’s a vicious circle.
Who designed this universe, anyway?
Words smell of orchids and moss. Light glued together with eyes. Life is sticky with its assumptions, this obsession with gold, this water to twist.
Pain hangs from the lip of a jackhammer like a vegetable.
Fighting a feeling results in making the feeling worse. The more you struggle to resolve an issue, wriggle your way out of it, the tighter it squeezes. The squid gets carried away in a piece of language. The closet pauses long enough to show you Norway. It feels unnatural for a day, then Mick Jagger is dancing in your bathroom.
It’s better to make friends with a pain. Take it for walks. Buy it clothes. Enroll it in school.
If the pain is a vague disquiet, I‘ll try to listen to what it has to say. Often, the message is garbled, like static from outer space.
If the feeling is broken, I’ll try to repair it. If I’m going to have a pain, I want it to work properly. A malfunctioning pain is a waste of time and money. If there’s a landfill for broken feelings, take it there. You’ll see mountains of broken feelings. Seagulls wheeling above, scree! scree! scree!
If I feel powerless to give the feeling what it wants - ten million dollars, a jet, a signed copy of A Movable Feast - I’ll look for parables. Parables are little stories that provide insight. Insight is to pain what foresight is to hindsight. A sufficient amount of foresight takes the bite out of hindsight. Insight mellows the fury of pain. Insight transmutes pain into wisdom.
None of my insights come easily. I have to strain to find the meaning of a particular pain, and even then I’m more liable to get entangled in it, cut by its thorns. Waves of rumination break against the rocks of a giant opacity.
I’m not a magician. I can’t create a storm by which to wreak my vengeance on all the people that have wronged me. I don’t live on an island with an obedient daughter and a grumbling monster who brings in the wood. I’m not that guy. But I do have a lot of books. And a lot of the books have something to say about the lessons of pain.
“Pain has an element of blank,” says Emily Dickinson.
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.
And then, of course, there’s Hamlet. This is a guy who seemed to wallow in his pain. He created great speeches out of it. You have to marvel at the idea that one of the most eloquent pieces of literary work in the English language is a contemplation of suicide. “Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” says Hamlet. Then checks himself: “…in that sleep of death what dreams may come?” Why else put up with the pangs of oppression, the tedium of a shit job, the ordeals of homelessness, the humiliations and hurt of rejection, were it not for “the dread of something after death?” “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”
Which is one way to look at it.
Another is to live as vigorously as you can and find what pleasures you can to balance it out, mingle the consonants of pain with the vowels of consolation. Talk to your pain. Learn from it. Don’t fight it. Don’t debate it. Treat it like a prayer. Because maybe that’s what pain ultimately is: a prayer.