On a More Serious Note

14th-street-pier-ash-wednesday

If nothing else, I can count on nature. I have always thought that way, that if everything else were to fall apart, I can walk and watch the water ebb and flow, the changing leaves, the wildlife. It brings me peace both being there and knowing it is there, a foundation of sorts, the original “space” before the deluge of humanity. I’m okay when I am there. It is honest.

I was telling this to someone who asked what I do when I get depressed or feel hopeless.

I head outside, I said. And I really never feel hopeless because I chose a long time ago not to put my “hopes” in other people’s hands. Sure other people will determine how successful some of my life is, whether job opportunities or writing or even relationships, but “hope” I insisted, is best sought internally and not motivated by external approvals.

I’m not qualified to talk about this, I said. We were walking to the counselor’s office. It was windy but sunny and warm.

Back up:  

Langston Hughes wrote a short poem which reads:

                                                   The calm,

                                                   Cool face of the river

                                                   Asked me for a kiss.

I write that on the board for my creative writing students and inquire what they think the title is. I let them read it a few times and think about it. Titles are amazing; they can not only reveal content for the reader before the piece even begins, they can also completely change the tone and direction. In this case, the normal responses include “Swimming,” “Intimacy,” and even “Ego.”  Only a few ever come close to the poet’s intended tone.

Hughes’ title is “Suicide’s Note.” Go ahead, read it again.

It makes sense really. People contemplating suicide most likely don’t see it as violent or offensive or even hurtful, but simply a sense of peace which awaits. If death provides their only conceived escape, then no matter how violent that death is, it pales in comparison to the hurt hurled at them on a daily basis, even if that hurt is misconceived; it is real to them. It is not a matter of a “bad moment” in their minds. It will not pass, in their minds. It will only get worse, in their minds.

Gwendolyn Brooks, in her poem “To the Young Who Want to Die,” wrote:

                                                Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.

                                                The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
                                                The tall gall in the small seductive vial
                                                will wait will wait:
                                                will wait a week: will wait through April.
                                                You do not have to die this certain day.

Someone contemplating suicide might argue this.

I became interested in Vincent van Gogh when my friend Cole Young gave me his complete letters. In them, two particular contradictions caught my attention. One, van Gogh was despised by so many who knew him; critics and artists alike thought his work to be trash; he was a complete failure—but he went on to become one of the most influential and celebrated artists in history. And two, he wrote extensively to his brother about the beauty and grace and gift of being alive, yet goes on to kill himself. On the one hand he had many afflictions, including chemical imbalance, which might have led to such an ending, and further it has been suggested he didn’t kill himself at all but local teens shot him. In either case, he told his brother who was at his side in those last hours that he wanted to die; that “death is not the worst event in a painter’s life.” I was curious so I read much about depression and suicide, including William Styron’s beautiful, personal work, Darkness Visible.

I don’t know about depression as a disease, nor am I prone to it. But friends of mine certainly are, and many members of the military whom I’ve taught on the local bases certainly are.

And in some scary way some of my literary heroes have been: Hemingway most famously; Bohumil Hrabal of Prague “fell” out of a fifth story window; Tim O’Brien has written often of his depression; David Foster Wallace most recently.

This girl on campus is suicidal.

Twenty five years ago (Dear God twenty five years ago) a friend of mine killed himself. There have been others since then I’ve known who took their own lives. An adjunct friend of mine who took the wrong medicine, a former student upon returning from Iraq, some guy I knew in Pennsylvania who killed himself at a press conference. But my friend twenty-five years ago was the first.

Simply put, he wrote a note for his boss telling him he quit. Left another on his front door saying he was in the garage. He took the dog, closed the door, started the car, and died.  Since then his daughter grew up, moved on, married, and is a mother. His friends have jobs, houses, families, down time. We laugh, sit around sometimes and drink beer, listen to music, talk about old times, talk about what’s next. To us, our current “old times” came after he checked out—that much time has gone by. Now he’s the guy we used to know who buried his future in a cloud of carbon. It will always be 1992 for him. We don’t talk about him that much. In just a few years he’ll be gone longer than he was ever alive anyway. But so will us all. That’s the part he couldn’t wrap his mind around; that this life isn’t very long at all anyway.

This morning the sun seemed to come out of the ocean with such persistence and boldness I think it would have chased away the most severe of storms. I get energy from the morning; it is like a caffeine boost that rips through me until the next one. Things go wrong, things fall apart, tragedy can loom sometimes, but we keep waking up, even if sometimes we have to change the game plan. But not everyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps; not everyone can talk themselves out of that long, dark tunnel. Whether it be situational or chemical, not everyone sees things with hope.

The girl on campus is a straight A student.

So many people are depressed these days. The country might not be going the way we want it to; jobs may not be available, bills are hard to pay, friends are hard to find, and sometimes sleeping in seems like the best solution. I don’t know if the girl on campus has a medical condition or was taught somewhere that failure was not an option (in most college suicide cases, grades are high). I do know that the suicide rate for college students is much higher than the same age group of those not in college. I think that’s because in the real world we seek out challenges we know we can meet, but in college, students are faced with so many unknown requirements and unanticipated difficulties. No one taught her one of the most essential lessons in life—that failure and success are not opposites. If her problem is situational and not chemical, I wish someone would have taught her not to define herself by external events like school and peer pressure and others’ expectations.

I’m not qualified to write about this either.

That’s why the poets. I stood once in the hospital room of one of my college mentors, Dr. Russell Jandoli. He had heart problems and at that time would recover, but while visiting we talked much about writing, of course, but also life itself. He was a man of few words. He said, “Mr. Kunzinger, leave death for the poets.”

And so I shall:

                                   You need not die today.
                                   Stay here—through pout or pain or peskyness.
                                   Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.

                                   Graves grow no green that you can use.
                                   Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.

                                                                                       –Gwendolyn Brooks

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