Like a Priest into the Desert
-Memoir by Michael Farrell Smith–
I was living in a rented house in the suburbs with my wife and kids, alone. I was sitting in a classroom full of students, alone. Whatever I was doing—and whatever crowd I was in—I was there alone. Years before, living by myself in the desert in a trailer beneath a windmill, I would often go a week without talking with anyone. And before that, on a lengthy canoe trip, I experienced a month without seeing another human being. I can do solitude. I enjoy solitude. But this was different—a loneliness, an isolation brought about by fear and anxiety, that I want never to experience again.
I can’t remember exactly when this isolation started, but I think it began sometime in the last half of 2007, when I was twenty-eight. I had been feeling sad about the death of my mom; feeling a void from losing the religious beliefs I had grown up with; and just generally feeling horrible about my marriage, which was loveless and sexless and dire. By the last half of 2008, I felt even worse, and ready to break beneath deadlines and responsibilities. I had a cover story due for an alternative weekly newspaper in my mid-sized desert city, which I had spent months researching and co-writing with an author I revered. I had a lengthy profile due for a historical society about a ruined settlement in the mountains to the southeast. I had a column of strange regional history and folklore due every week for another alt.weekly. I had a public television station calling me for various projects, articles due to the official state magazine, and another history book overdue to the publisher of my first. I should have been happy I was almost making a living writing, but instead I began to dread ever checking my email or voicemail, as I knew it would only be more people wanting things from me.
Also: at my wife’s insistence: I had begun delivering pizzas for the country’s second-largest pizza company: a deeply demoralizing job. Aspects of the work were fine: listening to audio books and music as I drove; introducing my co-workers to critical thinking and existentialism; and, desperate to somehow recapture a spirit of fun, building a series of car-sized UFOs with two other drivers using LED lights, wire, and helium balloons, which they and I launched late at night from the parking lot. I remember watching the largest of these get brought down immediately by a sudden rain. And once: a sickening triumph: when I delivered to a house and caught a man watching porn with two preteen girls, and got him arrested. Mostly, though, that job just made me feel owned. I hated it. I especially hated the uniform: tan pants, a logo with a hat under it, and a tucked-in collared shirt.
Almost all the time, I felt wretched. Frightened, guilty, bleak, empty, at the mercy of genetics and an inexplicable fear. All I wanted was to turn inward, was to be alone, was to stop existing, but again and again, I would get dragged back into the world. I was asked by the local public broadcasting station, who I had made a documentary with, to come appear on the air for a pledge drive. There I met a beautiful, young, dark-eyed woman who worked there as a sound engineer and who flirted with me and was friendly and serious and who glowed at my sincere encouragement of her artistic ambitions. She and I began emailing and then meeting for coffee and then openly talking about having an affair. I sometimes wish she and I had actually had one, as that possibility felt like one of the only sources of light in a world that just felt darker and darker—but ultimately, after a week of ambivalently banging my head on my car’s steering wheel and swearing to no one, I chose to be faithful. I even told my wife about it, thinking it would strengthen the marriage and add trust by letting her see my renewed commitment.
That was the idea anyway, and it was a terrible idea, and it did not work, at all.
During the day, I’d sit in school without talking with anyone. Food tasted like ash, eating felt like a chore, and although I was already skinny, I kept losing weight. My hands got thinner, and my wedding ring frequently fell off. At night, I’d deliver pizza, trying hard not to invest in the lives of my coworkers. When not at school or work or asleep, I would be with my kids, perhaps playing on the front lawn of the shabby, white-trimmed house; still trying to be a good dad; still trying to be fun; and I’d be with my wife, whose contempt for me was obvious and growing and—I must admit, knowing what I’ve written near the end of this paragraph—intuitive and somewhat justified. After delivering, if it wasn’t too late, I’d go see a dollar movie by myself, almost never anything good. Or I’d get tacos at a twenty-four-hour drive-thru. And once, after months of increasing loneliness and isolation, I stopped in at an exotic dancing club, a strip club, something I had never done before. After delivering, I just had so much cash in my pockets and my wife didn’t know how much and was home asleep, and this place was open and dimly lit, and there were lithe women dancing inside almost naked, and that appealed to me. I began going almost regularly, and one dancer and I became friends. She was a smart, sad, graceful woman in her early thirties, with wonderful taste in music—mostly atmospheric downtempo electronica—and she and I would talk about her life and my life, text each other, occasionally go out to eat, and talk on the phone. She said survival demands people compromise themselves for money and you might as well try not to be bothered by it. She and I once exchanged a single meaningful kiss, and yet she never did tell me her real name.
My depression metastasized, and by early 2009, I stopped checking my email and voicemail completely. My wife and I decided to divorce. My wife discovered she was pregnant. My wife and I decided not to divorce. I stopped going to the club. I stopped answering my phone. I stopped answering the door. I saw friends and editors work to stay in touch, but then, give up, and then, remain gone. I stopped going out. I stopped doing things. I shrank my world down even further to a small, invisible-walled room that traveled with me, that hovered around me, that I was always in the center of, that had space enough only for me and my two young kids and, if it had to, my wife.
This time was a time of total drift. Of internal rot. Of ruination. I didn’t know what might help, but I knew I didn’t want to be who I was—and so I created an alter ego, the opposite of me, and I began to be him. At the time, a particularly ignorant political movement was gaining influence in state and federal politics, dominating the media, rallying together to vote the worst politicians imaginable into offices across the country—trashing necessary social programs, rescinding vital environmental regulations, and pushing their narrow idea of religion into public schools and public laws. I hated them, and I wanted to infiltrate and expose them. And so I shaved my beard into a police-style mustache, bought some oversized sunglasses, cut my hair short and parted it in the middle, and began speaking with an extreme redneck accent, writing a deranged blog, and attending all of the movement’s local gatherings.
All of us deal with depression in our own ways.
I remember, at one convention, a clip from a popular movie playing on a large screen—peasant warriors shouting “Freedom!” on a green hillside. The rest of the audience and I stood up and, rallied by the meeting’s conductor, shouted “Free-dom! …Free-dom!” first with the movie and then without the movie, for several minutes, freeing dumb, until all their voices and my voice were hoarse and raspy. When you picture this, picture my face covered in red, white, and blue face-paint, and my “9/11: Never Forget” t-shirt tucked neatly into tan pants.
At one of the group’s many sign-making parties, I made a sign that read, “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ‘WHITE’ HOUSE’?,” alluding in a racist way to the country’s first black president, who this group openly hated. I made another, which made me laugh even more, that read, “WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR CONGRESS?” But no matter how stupid I acted and no matter how overtly hateful I made my character, no one ever questioned it, and usually there was someone there acting more hateful more sincerely, and usually there were people there saying things so absurd I would almost break character just to question them.
At every event of this group’s, they would start things off by pledging allegiance to the flag, shouting every line, especially the “under God” part that was added to the Pledge during the anti-communist derangement of 1954. Sometimes they would say it twice, with the second time especially loud, and I noticed that they always over-enunciated certain words, and added inflections, as if there were hidden words there only they could hear. As if they were pledging allegiance to something only they really knew. Because they didn’t seem to think too much of the country they professed to love—a country at least half-full of the godless, of the not-white, of the gay, of the pregnancy-ending, of the liberal—of people in desperate need of help that none of them had any interest in ever allowing the government to assist—poor people, sick people, old people, all reliant on social safety nets this group just wanted to sell away. Lines of a poem went through my mind—“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In that poem, the experience of everyone alive is the experience of the poet. It’s such an inclusive, expansive view of the self. It’s a self that makes room for everyone—and I couldn’t help but think that what this group was doing was the opposite—they were talking about the entire country but actually pledging allegiance only to my house, my family, my guns, my money—speaking of the country but really only talking about themselves.
This just seemed so lonely to me, like such an unhealthy, isolated mindset, and I recognized that it wasn’t far from how I felt—alone, cut off from everyone, caring about no one. The only place I really felt alright anymore was the desert. I would drive northeast of the city, north of the city’s granite mountains, along a dirt road I had obsessed over since I was sixteen—a road fringed with canyons and ruins and rock-studded washes, the ground around it shining with unnamed constellations of rusting metal and purple glass. I would go there just to be outside, just to get lost in light and silence and hear the sand beneath my feet. Sometimes I would go by myself; more often, I would go with my kids, who would run here and there and find rocks and make things out of mud.
I’d find initials carved next to a mineshaft, back among hills, and then go home and try to match them up with old census records. I’d find a thing, study it, and then return looking for something else. Or I’d walk around with a copy of an 1877 map I’d found in an archive, trying to find and get to know every place on it, discovering other natural and historic sites in the process.
I found the ruins of an old village built beside a now-dried-up spring, a town not on any modern maps. I found mines hundreds of years old, one full of crystalline flakes, one with the ground nearby it green with vein-streaked stones. I found ancient trash piles, and wagon roads almost completely lost to time and the desert. My own time receded away from these places, and I walked through them in 1877 and before. I found a hippie commune made of geodesic domes, postdating the map but, still, fascinating, a place I had heard of and wanted to see. And through all of this, my depression stayed with me. My brain was steeped in it.
One day, exploring the ruins of a pueblo, a six-hundred-year-old native village, I found a panel of fairly modern cowboyglyphs—ranch brands and names and dates carved into the rock with buck knives in the 1920s and ‘30s. About two weeks later, in the early summer of 2010, I returned to that area, a sandstone rock wall beside a mostly dry sand wash. With me were two others, a guy I had delivered pizza with, and a woman I had taken a poetry class with. People find out I spend time out in the desert and they ask me to take them along. Usually I don’t mind. But somehow the desert hadn’t gotten to either of these two yet, and they kept talking about pop culture I didn’t care about, as if they and I were wandering the food court of a mall instead of the floor of an ancient ocean, and I felt deeply annoyed by both of them, and wandered off.
While the woman from the poetry class tried to claim a certain ‘70s rock band was not derivative of a certain ‘60s rock band, and my friend from work tried to somehow tie in professional wresting, I walked rapidly in another direction, back to where I had seen the ‘glyphs. It had occurred to me that I hadn’t really studied the surface of all the rock in that area, and that there might be more carvings farther along the arroyo. Just to the side of a shallow cave, I found the carvings again, and began slowly walking up the broad stone-strewn arroyo, the lumpy ruins of the ancient pueblo at my back, scanning every area of the sandstone wall. Nothing, nothing, nothing, and then, right in the middle of the long wall, something. Something. Something! Crosses. Really old-looking crosses. A whole wall of ornately decorated crosses, covered in carved ivy and topped with carved halos, and just to the left of them, an inscription. Words. A name. The first name in years beside my own to break into my consciousness, to dispel my isolation: “Santa María.”
II. and Community
Father Juan de Santa María was a Franciscan priest on the Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition of 1581, the second expedition into what’s now the state of New Mexico, in the United States of America. That expedition was a missionary one, and its three priests were accompanied by nine soldiers, nineteen native servants, and literally hundreds of livestock animals which were herded along with them for food. The soldiers, led by Francisco Sánchez—called “El Chamuscado,” “The Singed,” for his red beard—came along to look for gold and silver and to do a terrible job of protecting the priests, all of whom would be dead by the end of the journey. Agustin Rodriguez, the priest in charge, had heard a story of natives who slept in houses and wore clothes woven from cotton, and he seemed to think that, perhaps, this meant such people might be civilized enough to bother talking to.
The expedition left Santa Barbara, in Chihuahua, Mexico, on June 5, 1581, about sixty years after the expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and by early September had arrived near the north end of the Sandia Mountains, northeast of what’s now the city of Albuquerque and was then the indigenous province of Tiguex. There, Juan de Santa María grew restless and overconfident, and decided to return to Mexico. The others were upset over his plan to leave, sure he would be killed and that his leaving would somehow get them killed too. But the locals liked him—he thought; he had learned so much he was eager to share; and he would probably be fine on his own. Or, to quote an old Catholic newsletter, he may have had “a zeal for martyrdom.”
Regardless, Santa María left—and he was, of course, immediately murdered.
Three days after his departure, locals from a nearby pueblo, either Pa’ako or Chílílí, found him sleeping beneath a tree somewhere to the southeast—in the foothills of what are now the Manzano Mountains—and set rocks on top of him until he died. They might have been afraid the priest had evil powers, or they may have been worried he was going back to Mexico to invite more people, which he probably was.
Then, about 429 years passed, and I stood gaping at what appeared to be Santa María’s name, in long-faded letters, beside several elegantly decorated crosses, carved into a natural rock wall. The crosses looked nothing like the more-modern carvings I had found before. And nothing like the area’s Native American petroglyphs. They look, I thought, like something from El Morro. El Morro is a landlocked island of rock in northwestern New Mexico, a stark stone wall rising up from the desert that nearly everyone in the region’s early history stopped at and carved their names into.
Looking at the crosses in June of 2010, I barely knew anything about Santa María, or the expedition of 1581, but I did know that in 1540, members of Coronado’s expedition had at least known about the pueblos north of the Sandias. I remembered also a 1969 area report by archeologist Franklin Barnett that mentioned finding a copper pestle, the skull of a goat, and the jawbone of a horse, things that could only have come from Spanish contact.
Soon, the others heard me yelling happy obscenities at the rock, and walked the quarter-mile or so over to where I was.
Jason asked, “Are you mad at that rock?”
And I said, “…No! …Look at this! This is… old! I think this is from, like, the early Spanish! Maybe as old as Coronado. Look—there are… dots over the vowels! The way that “n” swoops like that! …The little crosses over that letter! That ivy! The halos! …Look at how this is carved!”
Jason said, “Holy shit!” and took out a camera-phone.
And Elizabeth said, “Really?” And, “Look, I found something too—a snakeskin! You can even see where its eyes were. And its rattle!”
We took a lot of pictures, thinking we were on Bureau of Land Management land, public land. I went home and got out all my books and files on the ruins of Sandoval County, and began to piece together a story. Coronado might never have seen the area in which I found the carvings, but in 1581, the second expedition into New Mexico definitely did, and one of their priests, Juan de Santa María, abandoned that expedition right where I would later find what appeared to be his name.
The next day I took a flash drive full of pictures into the Center for Southwest Research, where I often researched, in Zimmerman Library, on the University of New Mexico campus, and there, all the longtime archive employees—Nancy Brown-Martinez, white-haired with thick, round glasses, the Reference Specialist; Mike Kelly, the gray-haired, energetic archive Director; and Ann Massmann, a brunette Reference Librarian with a deep knowledge of Southwest studies—gathered around a computer with me in the Anderson Reading Room, for what would quickly become one of the happiest memories of my life. I put the flash drive into a computer, clicked around, called up the images, and before long, literally every person there, maybe ten people, was at the screen. Everyone was cheering and excited.
“This is real!” said Nancy.
“This might be the most exciting archeological discovery of my life!” said Mike.
“Wow. Just… wow,” said Ann.
I was grinning so hard, hearing this, I could barely click.
Mike said, “You have to get this in a paper of record. Some archeological journal, or even a local newspaper, something! A lot of people are going to try to claim this, but you want to make sure your name is attached to this discovery. This could make your career as a historian.”
I went home buoyant, radiant, completely carried by this idea. I emailed The Albuquerque Journal—reporter Oliver Uyttebrouck called me for an interview—and somehow, two days later, June 22, 2010, the discovery was the top story of the front page of the city’s biggest newspaper. “Inscriptions May Date to 1580s,” read the headline. “If Verified, Find Would Be Oldest Known Spanish Carvings in N.M.” And there, above the fold, was a picture of the crosses and Jason’s hands pointing to two of them. The Associated Press picked up a version of the story and papers all across the country reprinted it. Mentions of it appeared in USA Today and National Geographic, and old friends of mine called from Idaho and Massachusetts and Arizona saying they had read about it in their local papers.
The discovery was the biggest thing I had ever been a part of. The state historian, Rick Hendricks, wanted me to take him out to it. So did a top petroglyph expert in the National Park Service, Joseph P. Sanchez. My wife and kids—Kaella, Anodyne, Hagan, and baby Sonora—and I drove up to El Morro to compare my carving with the ones there, and it compared favorably. A ranger there added that El Morro’s oldest inscription, by colonist Don Juan de Oñate, in 1605, was not just the oldest-known Spanish inscription in New Mexico, but the oldest in the U.S.
…And what I’d found, I knew, was very likely twenty-four years older than that.
Later, I talked with Dick Chapman, of UNM’s Office of Contract Archeology, who took the GPS coordinates of the inscription and found they were not on BLM land, but just barely on San Felipe Pueblo land, Native American land, a realization that would make verifying the inscriptions much more difficult. Over the next few days, I talked with nearly every top archeologist of the relevant eras, and with a company that offered to donate an expensive, three-dimensional laser-scan of the surface of the rock. I wanted to learn if whoever made the inscription had adapted it from Native American carvings. I wanted to know if Santa María himself had had it carved; if members of the expedition had carved it on their return trip, in his honor; or if it had all been carved two years later, in 1583, by the expedition of Antonio de Espejo, who was searching for further details of Santa María’s fate.
I had known my dirt road, La Madera Road, was special—I had been exploring it for years, and I knew it—but now it was special to others too. Now it was apparently home to original evidence of first contact, and my isolation had to come to an end, because I could not keep this discovery to myself.
I let my indigo-haired writer friend Lisa Barrow pester me into attending a show, on July 9, at The Kosmos, a red-brick-warehouse-turned-music-venue. That night, local duo Rocket Parlour played liquid ambient on various devices and a grand piano, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw played Balkan-style pop on drums and accordion and violin.
And something happened at that show. I remember looking around that night—at the few people I knew: Lisa, my good friend who I’d met in 2005 through the website for National Novel Writing Month; Heather Trost, a friend of Kaella’s and mine since we were fourteen, playing violin for A Hawk and a Hacksaw; and Jeremy Barnes, Heather’s boyfriend, playing drums and accordion, who had, incredibly, drummed for legendary indie band Neutral Milk Hotel—but mostly I remember looking at everyone else, at everyone I didn’t know in this enormous red-brick warehouse, and thinking, I don’t know any of these people. But I should. Everyone there just looked fascinating. The women wore stylish summer dresses and some had tattoos of flowers on their arms and some wore retro eyeglasses. The men had beards and wore ripped jeans and band t-shirts, and every other person had a drink in hand and everyone was smiling or not smiling in an intriguing way, and almost everyone was dancing happily, and I just wanted to know them all.
“You looked like you were having fun, Mike,” Lisa said, after the show. “I saw you kind of, not quite dancing, but, like, rocking in place.”
“I was,” I said, blushing a little, suddenly self-conscious. “They’re just so good.”
“Hey, Mike,” said Jeremy, from behind the merchandise table. “I saw you in the paper—your discovery. It’s really wonderful!”
“Yeah,” said Heather, smiling. “Jeremy’s dad showed it to us, without even knowing we knew you.”
That night, pushing through the invisible wet curtains of my depression, I decided to start going to shows. I had known for a long time that live music and community were good for me, just as I had known that standing by a bonfire and sleeping outside were good for me, that these were things that healed me, things I should never go too long without.
Three years before, in 2007, I had attended a packed show by Yo La Tengo and Antietam at The Launchpad, a classic Albuquerque dive bar and music venue with a large balcony overlooking the dance floor—and had had so much fun—thrashing to the dense punk frenzy of Antietam and dancing spastically to the noise-drenched melodies of Yo La Tengo. At that show, Ira Kaplan, guitarist and vocalist for Yo La Tengo, kept complaining to our crowd about the ultra-square NO STAGE-DIVING / NO CROWD-SURFING sign posted on a wall beside the stage—and so I jumped up on-stage myself, tore down the sign, ripped it into pieces, and then stage-dived onto the cheering crowd and crowd-surfed away. Afterward, I said to Kaella, “I need to go to a show every week. I know I would be a happier person if I did. That was like standing by a fire.”
But she dismissed the idea immediately, pragmatically, with “Well, I don’t know where we would find time for that,” and her tone was one that said it would be easier for all of us if I just never brought it up again.
This time, though—I committed. I insisted. I knew if I continued the way I had, it really might kill me. That is, I knew I might kill myself. I knew my isolation had brought only misery. I knew I needed community. And so I started going to shows. At first, because I barely knew anyone, I went only to venues I knew—to The Launchpad, where I would sheepishly wait without knowing anyone until the shows started, sometimes leaving just to walk around the city until the music began; and to The Kosmos, because The Kosmos was such a warm, inviting space (despite being a high-ceilinged warehouse), and because the redheaded mystic who booked the shows there, Maggie Ross, was like a museum curator in the skillful, conscientious way she assembled every event.
I met people and made friends. I patched up some old friendships as well, sadly wrote off some others, and stopped doing many of the things I had done during the worst of my depression. For example, I stopped attending Tea Party events. It all just felt like such a sideshow—greedy fools shout-quoting Braveheart, waving absurd signs, and conveniently cluttering up a news cycle while off the air a few powerful people raised enough money to just buy whatever legislation they wanted. Despite being a sideshow, however, those people voted, and their votes, unfortunately, added up. But I also stopped going because it made me sick. I hated the Tea Party’s racism, ignorance, fear of knowledge, xenophobia, and unWhitmanesque idea of America, and when I stood out in crowds with them in protests, I knew that no one saw me as a gonzo-journalist or a satirist or a secret agent, they saw me only as another number swelling the mass of the crowd and giving it power.
I had quit delivering for Domino’s right before I found the inscription, and I had stopped visiting Usha, at T.D.’s North, back when I learned Kaella was pregnant. It was a shitty thing to do, completely disloyal, and I really wanted to be a better person. At the news of that pregnancy, I had resigned myself, recommitted myself, to fixing my marriage, if that was even possible. I graduated from college, majoring in English and minoring in History, and began graduate school on the same campus soon afterward, in August of 2010, studying Creative Nonfiction.
I resolved not to hide away like I had. I went out as often as the life of a graduate student and stay-at-home dad allowed, and I started a Facebook account, to better know my community. I know often people talk about friends “saving their lives,” but the people I met during this time in the scene, and during the years that followed, literally did save mine. They walked me back from the most intense depression I had ever experienced. They kept me from sinking into suicide like my older sister did in 2001. They saved me—they did—they saved me. If any of you from the scene, from that time, and from all the times after, ever read this, know that I love you and am so grateful to you—for that one or those fifty conversations we had, for the time we danced in the same group, the time you bought me a drink or let me buy you one. More was going on in my life than I ever said, and you did me a service. Knowing you really is like standing by a fire.
Around this time, I read a terrific nonfiction book by Barbara Ehrenreich called Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy that said intellectually just about everything I had been feeling, and that hit me as undeniable truth. It’s been four years now since I read it, but I remember the book was partly about how, before humans began migrating away from northeastern Africa, almost everyone lived and celebrated communally—isolation was abnormal—and even millennia later, in medieval and Renaissance-era Europe, the calendar was lousy with frequent saints days and other holidays and everyone would always get together and dance and play music and hear music and drink and be a part of something. As Christianity rose, however, and as more of an emphasis was placed on the fate of the individual soul instead of on the community—as individuals wandered mentally away from their communities, like a priest into the desert—an alienation inevitably arose, and with that alienation, a melancholy. Even worse, as people’s isolation increased, saints days and various other holidays often got banned for religious reasons—because they promoted sex and drunkenness—and by banning their communal gatherings, religious authorities took away the best tools people had for dealing with the dismal ways they felt.
I never did get the inscription verified. I sent letters; made phone calls; gave lectures and slide-shows; saw the find written about in two different books—The Gentle Art of Wandering, by David Ryan; and Forgotten Tales of New Mexico, by Ellen Dornan—and came across two additional carvings in the area that may also be from the same time. The Albuquerque Journal ran an editorial urging the pueblo to let archeologists look at the inscription, but San Felipe Pueblo had and has no interest in allowing a survey of the site to be done. There are cultural differences there that, as a modern white guy, I can’t fully understand, so I’m not resentful, though I am disappointed. And finding the inscription, of course, didn’t fix everything in my life, and neither did finding a community after that. Depression is complex. My marriage remained failing; my tendencies toward isolation never went away entirely; I still felt unable to see Kaella as a real human presence; and even now I hate checking my email. And yet, that time was a turning point.
That time and that book made me want to recommit to life, made me want to write a manifesto, this manifesto, and I did. Or—I am. Like the Unabomber rejecting society to hole up in a cabin to write against humanity, so too am I holed up in my apartment, with all the windows open and the sounds of people laughing outside, to write about how isolation can be death and how nothing can address that death better than participation in a vibrant community. About how happiness can flourish in the society of friends, with music and dancing and communal celebration.
So: not that much like the Unabomber, really.
It’s September, years later, as I write this, and I’m sitting on my little couch in the book-lined living room of Apartment 309, of the La Vida Buena apartment complex, in the busy, mid-sized city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I have plans for the evening, and I’m not alone. My youngest daughter is asleep in the kids’ room, and through the wall, from the bedroom, I can hear my girlfriend Mauro, who makes music as Lady Uranium, practicing for a solo show, playing songs on an acoustic guitar, her own songs and others’, and they sound gentle and inviting, muffled through the walls, her voice a soft, wild lilt. I can hear her playing one of my favorite songs, East River Pipe’s “I Don’t Care about your Blue Wings,” singing, “What is it that keeps us in, / two floors dark, two light? / We know most things just don’t work / and it’s not worth the fight.” To me, this sounds anthemic.
III. : a Manifesto
What is it that keeps us in? What makes us withdraw from the world? What causes so many of us to turn away, to turn inward? Brain chemistry is probably the simple answer. A lack of dopamine and serotonin, to be more precise. Free will being more-or-less an illusion, to get philosophical. But also, fear. Fear of disappointing others, of being inadequate, of failing. And also: feeling hopeless. Feeling trapped, overwhelmed, and undeserving. So many goddamn feelings.
Many of us live as much in darkness as we do in light. Depression is born of isolation, and isolation begets depression. When we push away our families, our friends, and our communities, when we separate ourselves mentally and emotionally from people who could help us, feelings of worthlessness, apathy, and bleakness are the result. Like parasites, our respective cases of depression thirst for and grow stronger on our isolation, secrete feelings of fear and shame and inadequacy, increase our isolation from the world, feed on that isolation, and then grow, crippling us, their hosts, in the process.
Depression craves isolation, as if it wants your entire world for itself. When you seek out community, when you cultivate friendships, when you celebrate life with music and dancing and art—when you do what makes you happy with other people who share in your happiness—your depression may become too cramped and crowded to grow, and that’s a good thing.
This manifesto isn’t really much of a manifesto. Isolation: bad. Community: good. That’s basically it. That’s it. But confront your fears as best you can, go out, go dance, go do something, go be with friends. Celebrate yourself, and sing yourself.
There’s a place out there for you. There is. And there’s room inside you for the entire world.
Michael Farrell Smith is also Mike Smith of Albuquerque. He has been a historian, screenwriter, zinester, critic, and stand-up comedian, but he is now, more than anything, a memoirist. Essays from his forthcoming book Shadows of Clouds on the Mountains can be found in Wildness, Tin House, Booth, Eunoia Review, The New Delta Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. He is against fascism, neofascim, white supremacy, corporate greed, crimes against the Earth, inequality, injustice, and all war.