The Saddest and Most Inspiring Thing

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I have the honor of introducing our first #femail post from a male writer! It’s a beautifully written email from a fellow Fulbrighter while he was abroad in Timor-Letse that explores the emotional tribulations that such experiences present. It is raw and real and I am delighted that he chose to share it via femails.

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From: Aaron Sayama <aaron.sayama@gmail.com>
Date: Wed, May 11, 2016 at 11:05 PM
Subject: Sundries #7
To:

Dear XXXXX,

The weather is theater here. The rain rolls in and the people retreat. The humidity reminds me that “the atmosphere” is not something that starts above my head. Rather, it is everywhere around me, reaching under my shirt, filling up my nostrils, and suffocating. The rain has brought the mosquitoes. Everyone smells strongly of deet and faintly of body odor. At night, the air is still and stagnant, a veritable swamp. Frogs croak, geckos chirp, waves crash. I keep having to remind myself how beautiful this place is.

I find myself retreating in my room as of late. I find myself being set off by the smallest things—traffic, the heat, people sitting idly in the lobby of my office not working, the cast of characters here and their innocuous but grating behaviors. I try and take deep breaths and put it out of my mind. I try and reach for something higher than myself, something that will bring me calm and serenity and help me find my center.

I’m moody. It’s taking me a long time to come to that uncomfortable realization, but as much as I try to be rational and cerebral and think things through and maintain calm in the face of emotional tumult, I cannot. I recognize this as a failure on my part. Though, “failure” isn’t quite right. Perhaps “flaw” is a more appropriate word. “Moody.” It’s a word that evokes images of a pubescent teenager whose attitude swings wildly and arcs from calm to irrational to loving to needy all within the span of 10 minutes. It’s juvenile and tempestuous, but not all that incorrect. Sometimes, I try and just own it. Sometimes, I just try and accept my emotional state and let it course through me and for me to feel every inch of it—to savor it; to succor it. I worry, though, that it’s alienating, that it’s off-putting. Ever since allowing myself to feel deeply and passionately for XXXX, and then having those emotions thrown back into my face, I try and self-preserve. I try and make sure that emotional slips I have are not too revealing, not too raw, not too naked. I struggle with not apologizing for my emotions—why should I? I am human and this is how I feel—and with the knowledge that emotions make people uncomfortable. That sometimes emotions can be manipulative and nonstarters. That sometimes emotions are a crutch, an easy way out when the objective truth is too difficult to strive for.

I’m often drawn to emotional art. I like art and visuals that fill me up; that leave me with an emotional response; that leave me trying to sift through the different feelings to cohere them together to form an opinion. There’s a satisfying intellectualism married to an open engagement with my emotions that occurs in these moments. I find myself reading books where “nothing happens” but are explorations of human emotions. Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” is one such favorite in this vein. It’s a slim novel that charts the course of a courtship, to marriage, and then it’s heartbreaking dissolution. It looks unsparingly at the inside of a relationship, and I find that so powerful, so intoxicating. There’s something about getting lost in the love story of someone else that seems so remarkably human to me. In the novel there are just incredible sentences of prose that read like poetry: “I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.” What a moment of intimacy, of warmth, of tenderness. I appreciate artists that captivate me with interior explorations of their characters that refract back onto the viewer as light through a prism. There’s a subtle argument about the potency of narrative to be universal, to be relevant in works of art like this.

I write about these works of art as a way to explore my own emotional state here. Which is to say, I find myself devoid of emotion here. I find myself just going through motions here with no kind of emotional closeness to anyone. There are my roommates, of course, but we’re a group of people brought together by a set of seemingly random and cosmic circumstances. Emotional connections were not what brought us together. The couple I live with exists in an emotional closeness vacuum; we are not welcome there. I find myself grasping for feelings of familiarity, for something or someone that comes close to filling me up.

I think this is one thing that I wasn’t quite prepared for in moving here. There seems to be no art, literature, or cultural scene. Perhaps I’m blind to it, but most of the “art” produced here are various tchotchkes that are made and packaged for tourists. There seems to be no political art, no emotional art, no kind of outward emotional responses to internal or external circumstances. One could say that I’m being unfair and colonizing coming from western conceptions of what art is. Sure. I’m not uncompelled by that argument, I just have no other vocabulary to use to think through this, then. Further, Homi Bhaba in his book “The Location of Culture” would surely tell me that my thinking about what culture “is” is surely off and needs some retooling. All of these are valid criticisms of what I write here. Yet, with a literacy rate of about 50%, I can’t imagine the great Timorese novel being written or consumed here any time soon.

I say this not to be critical of Timor, but to highlight one of many factors that feed into my current emotional emptiness. The lack of an identifiable arts scene is not Timor’s fault, of course. Being subjected to colonizing rule for 500 years and having your own culture suppressed and twisted is no small factor to consider from today’s vantage point. Following that, a brutal occupation by a neighboring country, it’s no wonder that people aren’t out painting, writing, dancing, or finding emotive ways of expression when you’re starving. And yet, art, in my view, is political—a reaction to and emotional response about the outside world. Why would there not be a vibrant arts scene that challenges dominant discourses about the direction and future of Timor?

I think what stands out for me most here is that there is so little for me with which to intellectually engage. Living and studying in Beijing was motivating and such a rich experience. The intellectual discipline needed to truly study Chinese was all-consuming. The knowledge that China has had an uninterrupted 5,000 year long history was inspiring. There’s so much that there’s no way I could ever know all of it. Visiting Japan left me feeling similarly. There’s a vibrancy to Japan that doesn’t exist in other places I’ve been, with a distinct worldview and home to cultural touchstones that are not present anywhere else. Thailand will offer something similar, I’m sure.

I shouldn’t say, though, that Timor is bringing this out. I’m not new to this feeling. In truth, I’ve been in and out of this emotional state for a while now. I surely don’t want this to be read as some kind of depressive confession, because it is not that. I’m perfectly functional and, at times, happy and possessed of a joie de vivre. Yet, sometimes I think my exterior visage and emotional patina belie my actual emotional state. Which is to say, I find myself searching for something more. I’m inarticulate about what that “something” is—surely if I knew what it was, I would just find it. I think that’s why art that moves me and people that make me feel are utter shocks to my system. It’s rare for me to connect with someone. It’s rare for me to encounter a piece of art that makes me (re)examine my own emotions in the same way.

I felt this way when living in Atlanta. I was just so desperately lonely. Days involved maybe going to the gym in the morning, making coffee, going to a sometimes intellectually stimulating work environment, coming home and watching tv and making dinner and then going to sleep. My life then felt so devoid of passion, of meaning. Of course you can say that my work was important—I was helping court programs rehabilitate prisoners! I was monitoring prisons to ensure instances of sexual violence didn’t occur! I was helping the state process the backlog of sexual assault kits!—but, at times, it just didn’t feel that meaningful. At times the life I had created for myself in Atlanta felt stifling and stultifying. Despite my best efforts, I never found a friend group that stimulated me intellectually. I found friends that are lovely people and fun to go out with, of course. I care deeply about many of them, but they never quite reached the level of intellectual discourse or dialogue I wanted. That may make me sound haughty and pretentious, and I don’t mean it to come off like that, I just wanted active engagement with intellectual ideas and politics. Then, of course, there was the dating scene and the various bad dates and awkward hook-ups I was party to. The late nights out dancing until 3am hoping the guy I was with was drunk enough to finally consider making out with me; the morning uber rides back to my place feeling at once a sense of shame and pride in what happened the night before; the regular men that I would see for a blow job here or there. It all felt tawdry and empty and absent of substance. Is it a sign of age that I find no joy in that life? Is it a sign of maturity? Or, is it some kind of latent and lingering self-hatred about myself wrapped up in body issues—why be self-conscious about how you look naked when clearly someone wants to fuck you? Isn’t that proof enough that you are, in fact, desirable and worthy?—and internalized homophobia?

I think I felt then misunderstood or unheard. I wasn’t able to wear my anguish at my life more openly. (Is it really anguish when you have a steady job, a nice place to live, and friends that want to see you?) In that situation it felt torturous. I craved a pain so visible—so irrefutable and physically inescapable—that everyone would have to notice. I wouldn’t have to explain what was making me feel the way I did. I would have something externally verifiable that grants it substance, choreography. Of course reading these words makes me feel trite, makes me feel wholly solipsistic and highlights more of my flaws. That what I was feeling was some kind of need for constant affirmation. That I wanted at once to have everyone in my life know how unhappy I was, but I also wanted it only for myself. I wanted everyone as close to my life as possible—an impossible asymptote.

I think this is one thing that terrifies me the most about life after Timor: that it will be a return to this. That life will just be as humdrum and quotidian and uninspiring as it was before I left. Irrespective of the challenges I’ve found living and working here, this experience has been profound. I’m not sure I’m ready to start teasing out just how profound it has been, but I know unequivocally that it has affected me, and that the things I take away from this experience will continue to creep up and influence me in currently hard to imagine ways. Maybe I’m just uncomfortable in the fact that there’s nothing quite waiting for me back in the US. That my life and everyone else’s will continue forward whether I’m here or there.

In thinking about that, I think most recently about my niece being born, my brother, and my sister-in-law. My sister-in-law is from a small town in north Georgia. It’s known for having 2 stoplights, and a very white and very old and very male city council that has successfully prevented a Wal-Mart from being built there. My mom, in a thinly veiled and judgmental way, refers to this town as “Walton Mountain,” highlighting just how close-knit and insular it is—a town where the wagons stay circled. She and my brother met in college—she finished; he didn’t. The details of their courtship are really unknown to me because, well, I was just so very young that it barely registered to me that my brother had any kind of substantive relationship outside of our small family. She always seemed nice enough, I guess. Though, I honestly struggle to have any kind of memory of her, positive or negative. I suppose some of that is on me and my own kind of withdrawal from my brother’s life, but, truthfully, his life and experiences just seemed so orthogonal to my own. I say all this because, to me, they are the perfect picture of settling. My sister-in-law wants nothing more than to be a mom and that’s it. For her, being an adult woman means having kids, raising a family, and taking care of her husband. Second wave, third wave, and intersectional feminism are irrelevant to her. My brother is willing to accept that. My brother is also willing to accept his job, with no aspirations for management and no plans to finish a degree.

It’s not that I find their life and their relationship objectionable. I don’t. It’s that it’s so hard for me to imagine myself in this kind of place. It’s so hard for me to understand their perspective because it is so dissimilar to my own. My brother and sister-in-law make it look so easy; they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits. There’s a resignation lurking beneath their life, I think. An acceptance, an understanding that this is just what people do: get jobs, get married, buy a house, have kids, raise them, send them off, retire, live out the rest of your days content. Is this another one of my flaws seeping out? Am I too judgmental? Am I too harsh on my own brother and his wife? Truthfully, I think I am, but I also think I’m a little jealous. So much of their life path is “traditional” and “safe.” It’s common; it’s ordinary. Yet, some of it is just so inaccessible for me. A partner and I can’t simply “have kids.” It’s not that easy. Getting married, while easier, is still not completely respected, nor free of prejudice from society or even my own family.

Within these swirling thoughts is the choice to stay abroad and continue this development and international life. It appeals to me precisely because it punts life decisions. It communicates a clear decision to everyone that this life rooted to a place, to a person, to a career ladder is not for me, and that I have something more in mind. I talk a lot about finding someone and settling down. Yet, that idea secretly terrifies me. Relationships, particularly ones that are on the path to marriage are difficult, complex, and unknowable endeavors. But the obverse of that—turning 40 and finding that I have few substantial attachments in my life—is equally terrifying. I’m not scared about my capacity to love someone totally. Of this, I know I am capable. I worry, though, what it will cost me. What kind of allowances will I have to make on behalf of the relationship? What kind of compromises will he make for me? How will I live with the guilt of that? How would I not grow to resent him for making me make that choice? At the time, will it even be a choice I make, but really a false choice where I’m forced between him or going it alone? Does all of this prove that for all the talk I’m not really ready for a relationship? But, the life I was leading in Atlanta is even less appealing now, and why I would willingly choose a dating life of alternating nights of desperation and rejection again?

These questions cycle through my head daily and weigh on me with each job I think about applying for: what will the texture of my life be in this new place, this new position? Will I find friends? Will I find a lover? Will I feel safe, comfortable, and happy? In the same of these questions, marriage makes sense. My roommate’s choice to stay together physically makes sense. But what if that is not available to me? These are questions that are exciting, of course. Imagining the multitude of courses your life can take is inspiring and humbling, but it’s also nerve-wracking and unsettling. Why does it feel like every decision I now make is suddenly so important?

My ten-year high school reunion is coming up this summer. It will be at the end of July, and depending on how the job search goes, I could potentially be back in time for it. A part of me wants to go and see people who I haven’t thought about in literally 10 years. People who, at one time, were relevant to me and my life, but have since faded away. Some of them were nice and lovely, some of them were not. Some of them called me “faggot” and some of them just ignored my presence. Some of them never left my hometown, some of them have traveled further than I have. I think going to it will provide both a contrast and a reinforcement of my thoughts about my brother and the nature of settling. Though, I don’t really believe it’s an either/or kind of decision. I think it’s more about choices in the moment, I suppose. A series of life decisions that come sequentially. I sometimes wonder how my parents do it–how the focal point of your union becomes no longer about you two but about the kids you have and then when they are gone and out of the house, do you look across the table at your partner and wonder, “who are you?” “who am I?” “what are we?” Does life look similar for me if I make those same decisions? Or will it be different? What if I continue down this path of living abroad? What if my life is lived in contradistinction to that normative path?

I once went on a site visit to Lowndes county. It’s small and rural, and nothing is really down there but Valdosta. On the way back, we stopped at a Longhorn Steakhouse that was strategically placed on I-75 on the 3.5 hour stretch of empty interstate in between Valdosta and Macon. While we were waiting for our food to be delivered, I saw an old married couple. They had to be in their early seventies. They were sitting there, slowly eating, and not talking. They sat like this the entire time. I thought it at once the saddest and most inspiring thing.

Love,
Aaron

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