Is This Water?

June 2013

The first time I read David Foster Wallace was purely accidental; some anonymous person on a message board linked an essay for discussion, and I followed the link without much enthusiasm. I’d heard of him before; I knew he wrote Infinite Jest, but that was not something I was ready to read- honestly at the time I didn’t consider that ‘ready’ was a thing one had to be in order to read something. I was twenty-three years old in 2009, I had just haphazardly flopped myself into the unfamiliar role of mother, partner, and responsible, cubicle-assigned adult. They were roles I was easing myself into, not ever having been used to permanence in my life up until that point. Accountability. I’m young and old enough, right now, to easily recognize the points in my life that have inspired an awakening of sorts- this was one of them. The first was a slow and dramatic adventure that took place in my early teens, in which I was suddenly aware of myself and all of the people around me. I know things about life, I’d thought. It happened again at nineteen when I found myself in love for the first time. I was a bong ripping philosopher. I served lattes with a knowing smile. I know things about life, I’d thought. 

I have it on good authority that this thing doesn’t stop happening to you throughout your life. I think that might be the most terrifying part of all- that this knowing that comes with age keeps broadening and layering and revealing more as you pass through each phase.

It was in the midst of my life erupting around me, with the human being I had made with my body suddenly in my home torturing me by pulling love from me-love I didn’t even know I was capable of – that I happened across Incarnations of Burned Children.

I don’t think I took a single breath until I had finished reading. I was suddenly aware that there was more knowing to be had, and that It was happening again, and that if It were happening again then It was bound to keep happening, and even then I knew that no matter the transformations I’d go through, the clarity reached,  the wisdom of years that I was bound to have- I would not get to his level of knowing.

I was afraid of David Foster Wallace, and not ready to read what he had to tell me. I was ready enough to know that there was something there, but that was all.

Every time I came across a piece by him, or a book was suggested, or a comparison made, I’d do the mental version of running away with my ears plugged. No no no no no DFW. I can’t take the realness right now. I don’t know anything about life! I take it back!

A few weeks ago I was out with a friend, and she told me I had to watch this video, This is Water. I wrote it down on the back of a receipt and forgot about it. I found it again one night, digging around in my purse for a pen to write a check or sign a birthday card or write bananas! extra for smoothies! on a grocery list. Urgent things.

I pulled up the video on my Nexus while I was getting ready for bed that night, laying half awake listening to him begin his speech. I didn’t yet know it was him. I glanced over at the screen about three minutes in and smiled to myself. David Foster Wallace Full Commencement Speech at Kenyon College’ it said. We meet again, old friend, I thought, closing my eyes again. I fell asleep nearly the moment after it ended with tears all over my cheeks. I am finally ready to hear what he has to say.

It turns out David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. Before I even read Incarnations of Burned Children. Before I knew even half the things I know now, this man had lived a whole life and then some, and said these things to kids graduating college who did not yet have any clue what “day in and day out” really means.

But I know.

Learning of his suicide stirred some strange feelings in me. For instance, my first thought was, “Of course.” I don’t know what that means but I know it’s not typical.

I am at a level of consciousness where I would refer to myself as a Seeker. I know there is something out there, and I want to find it and understand it, and just that simple act feels like the most important thing I’ll ever do. I am a Seeker. It remains to be seen if I’ll stay in that place, or if I’ll move up a rank. The life I’m living now is causing a panic to rise up in me though- I can sense I’m losing It, that the magic is wearing off, that I can’t hear the bell anymore. I’m trying my hardest to dig in my heels and find a different solution, but I’m afraid my job is going to kill me, because I’m too open to be in an environment like that without taking all of the subtext and predictable banality and petty rivalries and buzzwords, buzzwords, buzzwords and turning something like Predictable Shitty Office Event Where Nobody Says Good Morning into I don’t want to live on this planet anymore, everything I thought I knew about humanity was wrong.

And this small bit of openness and seeing that I have leads me to be able to name David Foster Wallace, and people of his kind, as Seers. My role as a Seeker is to find what Seers lay out for me to find, hidden jewels in books and art and music; and all the pain and toxic misconceptions they remove from me (with the goal being, of course, growth) are my burden to bear. I can’t imagine the harshness of the light that a person must see when they can so plainly tell you something that you’ve known all along but never realized was truth, or significant. Or even within you.

A person with that kind of sight can’t fare too well in a world like ours; being able to experience a life in which you see the beauty and perfection in a way that is almost divinely inspired means also seeing the horror in a way that other people’s psyches can’t possibly comprehend. I know it’s out there, but it’s the not the kind of knowing that I am looking to expose myself to. This, I think, is where his advice about choosing comes in handy. I can choose to seek out obvious but meaningless pleasures and beautiful things, or I can step over my fear and uncertainty and seek the knowledge about the human condition that a person like Wallace has torturedly pulled out of himself as a gift for the rest of us.

I think this may very well be the difference between joining the ranks of Seers or falling back into the faceless crowd where you were before you realized you weren’t the only person in the world. You can’t just seek forever, right? If you keep gathering knowledge, but not knowing, don’t you get kicked out of the program? Maybe declining to see, to protect yourself from some potential pain, is the greatest disservice you can do to yourself.

And ironically this realization about life (hey! I know things!coincides with a moment in time where I realized much too late that I have literally been ignoring a voice of wisdom for years, on purpose, in a failed attempt to protect myself. What a lucky thing for us seekers that art and words and music live on for those of us who take a little longer to get there, just waiting to be found.


3 thoughts on “Is This Water?

  1. You are an AMAZING writer!

    “The life I’m living now is causing a panic to rise up in me though- I can sense I’m losing It, that the magic is wearing off, that I can’t hear the bell anymore.”

    I’ve felt this way myself lately. When I was a kid, up until I was in my early 20’s, I would always get this overwhelming hopeful feeling. Like…a feeling that I was destined to do Something Great. Now, I can’t even remember the last time I had that feeling. Like you said, it’s Ike the magic is wearing off. Now that I’m a real grown up with real responsibilities, it’s hard to recall that sense of limitless possibility, when it seems like my choices have led me to someplace permanent and unchanging. But! I’ve started to get some inklings of the magic back lately, since I’ve begun an overhaul of life by quitting my sucky job.

    Anyway…long comment…just wanted today that I’m definitely a fan of your blog and will keep reading!

    • Thank you so much! I’m really glad this resonated with someone… I don’t post very often but I’m trying to change that. I think quitting a sucky job is as brave thing, and ultimately a very kind thing to do for yourself. Getting the magic back starts with small acts of caring for yourself… I’m right there with you!

  2. Pingback: Working the System: Tales of a Welfare Queen | That's Not What I Mean

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