‘In the diary, you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that the right hand moved then as it does today’. Franz Kafka
I am forty-five minutes outside Boone, North Carolina, on a lone line of mountainous longitude. The sky looks smudged, or smeared, like God licked His finger and rubbed the heavens. I am alone and isolated, submersed in solitude.
It is my first walk in this Muir-like expanse of woodland, a landscape leaden with hope and expectation. I can only hear the sound of my boots, other than the background trickling of a small stream that meanders left, then right, then left again, as if drunk on the precipitous altitude. It is too early for other sounds, save the occasional chirp of an awakening bird or the rustling of an animal scurrying beneath the undergrowth.
I escaped, abruptly, from the city to the mountains after the end of a long-term relationship. Her decision not mine. My heart, long tucked away, was broken. My grief, immeasurable. Our memories—photos, letters, notes and cards—were packed in a brown cardboard box and sealed with the tightest of tape. It serves as a physical remembrance of all that is gone. But nothing is ever really gone—everything that happens leaves a wound, and I am wounded.
At sixty-six years of age, I am alone. Totally. Alone. I wonder: Who will know if I awaken in the morning? Who will know if I am alive? Who will know if I am dead? Who will care?
In a tiny cabin, with a bird’s nest high in the southern corner of the porch, and a wheezing overhead fan reminiscent of an untreated asthmatic. Bored, my mind scratches at an undertow of troubled thoughts unheard in the commotion of a city. It is like a cancerous growth, slowly mutating into despair and gloom, and worsens the longer I am alone.
There’s minimal television reception. On Channel 11 old veterans sit on couches, some with their wives, talking of war, of loss, of times past. Their voices are cracked, frail, whispered; their bodies brittle, fragile, kyphotic, too small for their clothes. They seem like relics, artifacts. They depress me.
The calendar passes slowly, like the ticking miles on the odometer when you are anxious for home. But why do I want time to pass so quickly? To allow my heartache to heal and form the necessary scar? Time is a commodity we all want; it seems there is never enough. Fleeting and final, it punishes by taking everything we love, leaving us tender and grieving.
I feel displaced, unwanted, itinerant, rootless. I need people, tainted air, and noise. I need sidewalks and asphalt.
I write in a journal—this journal, a journal of fragmented thoughts—and I cry. I yell, I lament—yet there is no one to hear. Distant friends are just that: distant, remote, secluded from my loneliness. I send emails to try and reduce the loneliness, but responses are slow, and at times, absent.
I cannot think logically, my thoughts muddled and senescent. It is like everything is covered in a thick dust that sticks to the eye of my heart. I find myself filled with dis-ease, unable to find my way home. North has become south, and east has become west, and latitudes and longitudes have blended.
Depression, a lifelong affliction, has been worsened by the solitude, smuggled deeper into my soul. It has weakened me, like rust weakens an iron pipe, like a Sisyphean torment of sadness and despair. I am lost, fumbling and fearful, infirmed by my mind.
Thoreau was misguided about the value of solitude. I need the hum of voices, the harshness of noise, the cacophony of civilization.
The darkness at night is unlike any darkness I have known. I hear the sounds of animals, wind, rain and time, but am unable to see anything. Such darkness cannot be described, it is darker than blindness. Yet on a clear night, in a breach between two pine trees, the Milky Way floats like a creamy blanket, shimmering in the unlit heavens.
But, as dark as the night is, the days are even more troubling. I am awake and sit with my thoughts, the thoughts of some wretched imp that has leached into the crevasses of my mind like spilt mercury, taunting, teasing, tormenting.
My mind is less an organ of thought, and more an organ of demise. When I do have rare thoughts, good thoughts, they seem to tumble into a sinkhole in my brain, never to be heard again.
Being human is hard, there is so much darkness. Leonard Cohen said, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I need that lonely plait of light.
There are eggs in the nest on the southern corner of the porch hatch. I watch the birdlings the next several days. One falls, dead, its black, dinner plate eyes as big as its head. Soon, there is a trail of ants, recycling. The others survive. Within days, they cautiously perch their fuzzy bodies on the edge of the nest, spread their downy wings, and leap. For two days, they practice flying; then, on the third day, they leave. I feel abandoned, again.
It is early evening. While others do the laundry, wash the dishes, mop the floor, take out the trash, walk the dog—the mundane doings of life—I linger beneath a timbered canopy, a mere blemish on a cartographer’s map. That everydayness, bounded by houses, coffee shops, grocery stores, traffic lights, power lines, honking horns and screeching tires, and most of all, the presence of people, is what I need. Mundanity, in all its tedium and flatness, is protective and comfortable. Instead, I am in the shadows of a bewildered land, gone but not gone, invisible but not invisible, scribbling senseless literary graffiti.
My life seems to be in a slow-motion collapse.
I can no longer present a veneer of normalcy.
I stare into the bathroom mirror. My eyes are red and surrendered, my hair dirty and disheveled, my fate buried in the lines of a deeply furrowed brow. The silence has broken me; the darkness has taken my mind. I feel as if a butcher has sliced the last part of me that wanted to live, leaving me hanging ever closer to the margins of insanity and death. It is like a sudden sundering of the fabric of reality.
I feel alone, with nothing. Suicide appears the only solace.
Commit: perform, perpetrate, execute.
Suicide: perversity, rashness, madness, recklessness.
I glance at my sickly old dog; his milk-flecked pupils meet mine. A lucid moment. I cannot abandon him; he tended to me after the death of my wife, and now, I must tend to him.
Rilke said, “Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.” I loathed the solitude, but sang out the pain. The near suicide has given me a place of necessity, and a sense of life, from which to begin anew. And now I must, with whatever time I have left.
Paul Rousseau (he/him) is a semi-retired physician and writer published in sundry medical and literary journals.
This is a sample article from Asylum 28 (Summer2021). Subscribe to Asylum magazine.