The Self as a Work of Art

Depression and the Urge for the Road

To call Bitola (Битола), the second largest town in North Macedonia, a backwater is almost an understatement. An entire nation-state’s second largest town is hardly ever a backwater. Los Angeles is the United States’ second largest city. St. Petersburg is Russia’s. Montreal for Canada. Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s. But Bitola only has 60,000 people, hardly a metropolis. North Macedonia (Македонија), a former Yugoslav republic, is itself small. Population the size of Vermont. Its main exports are agricultural. Long haired shepherds that look like they came out of a children’s picture bible can still be seen along mountain roads surrounded by their flocks, and most people still heat their homes with wood in the winter giving the entire country the smell of hardwood smoke for 5 months out of the year.

Bitola is beautiful though, and I was fortunate to have had the chance to live there. Ottoman architecture mixes with the plaster crumbling remains of the town’s 19th Century heyday when it acquired the nickname “City of Counsels,” referring to the numerous consulates of foreign governments once located in this border town at the edge of Europe. The old covered market—still in operation seven days a week—is a mixture of vaulted low domes and makeshift tarp walls and coverings surrounded by stalls where you can buy fresh meat and milk, nuts and eggs, local delicacies and the fruits of the earth. Mosque domes and minarets and an iconic brick clock-tower compete for skyline prominence with snow capped Mount Pelister (Пелистер), which overlooks the city to the West casting long afternoon shadows in the summer and sending the entire town into early night in the already short days of winter.

Пелистер Pelister Битола overlooking Bitola Baba mountain snow capped peak
Snow capped Mount Pelister overlooking the town of Bitola

It was during those painfully short winter days in the shadow of Pelister’s peak where I sank into one of the deepest seasonal depressions I have ever known. My partner was studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the university there, a year long gig, and I was along for the ride. I was finishing up a grad program in philosophy, and since I was on a writing fellowship and only needed a laptop and a few books to work on my dissertation and no particular responsibilities beyond that, I had all the time in the world. Two people given to seasonal depression living together in a strange place where neither of us spoke the language or knew anyone.

Some of those short winter days, after her teaching duties at the university were done for the day, we would make our way to only supermarket in the city center, stock up on junk food, and watch from our 9th floor balcony as the sun made its way at only 3:00 in the afternoon behind the snow capped mountain, sinking us and our adopted temporary home into an early night. We would then binge on Milka and Ritter Sport chocolates. Eastern European Lays potato chip flavors like paprika or tzatziki. The healthiest thing I think we ate all winter was local homemade ajvar purchased from the farmers’ market, a smoky spread of roasted red peppers slow cooked in olive oil, on bagel chips. Wine was less than 2 euro a liter, so I was drunk as often and as easily as I’d like.

I am a wanderer and always have been, and here was my chance to explore a place with an unfamiliar and beautiful alphabet, a hospitable and vibrant food culture, a town full of architectural gems and post-industrial decay mixed with the crumbling remains of its belle epoch past ripe for exploration. A region with ancient Greek ruins, hills above to hike littered with abandoned churches and the telltale remains of the past to poke our noses into. And all we could do was gorge ourselves on trash food and wallow in melancholia. By March my time in North Macedonia and the Balkans was coming to an end, and I had virtually nothing to show for it except for disturbingly rapid weight gain and an increasingly sluggish metabolism.

Sitting just 15 km North of the Greek boarder in that landlocked space between Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece, Bitola’s Spring broke in mid April. The days grew longer, and as the temperatures warmed, the smell of wood smoke from people heating their homes gave way to the balmy fresh smells of spring’s rains and budding foliage. Pelister no longer hid the sun in the mid-afternoon. With those lengthening days my lethargy gave way to wanderlust and my gluttony for sweets and fatty carbs gave way to a desire for greens and fresh fruits. Only a month and a half left of my time in the Balkans, and all of the sudden I had the urge to be on the move.

My partner and I rented a car, a little Kia with manual transmission that I didn’t know how to drive. We had the car rented for a month; we were done sitting around. We were going to see as much of North Macedonia and the rest of the Balkans as we could in the little time we had left. I learned how to drive a stick shift on the fly with a “fuck it” attitude to the frustrated honks from other motorists when I stalled. By the end of that month I could drive a stick shift with the best of them. We saw medieval monasteries in the lake town of Ohrid. Saw the post-industrial decay of Albania. Sarajevo’s war torn streets being rebuilt into the cultural hub it once was. The stone and terra cotta magnificence of Dubrovnik. Peerless local wine and homemade cheese in Montenegro. Canyons. Lakes. Fortresses. And from a high peak, the beauty of the Dalmatian coast.

The contrast between the depression of a Winter spent indoors with no vision or desire and the Spring of exploration and openness to the world could not be starker. The transformation it wrought in me was permanent and drastic. As I watched myself go from a troll who could barely blink in the sunlight to a sun eating worshiper of the world’s good things, I realized that I must always explore places and their capacities to affect people. Time is short, and I was fortunate to have any of it. Experience new tastes and smells and sights and visions. Must be open to things. Never sit still. Oh, of course depression has caught up with me many times since and it will again, but I have never, since then, lost sight of the deep and abiding wanderlust in my soul and the need to express out of the experiences that are my attempt to satisfy those desires.

To experience. To create. To encounter and produce the new. To move about the world on my own terms. To find ways to live that are different and my own, as much outside systems of domination, exploitation, and community killing artificial scarcity as possible. To think through these things and communicate them through art and writing. This is who I am; I have no choice.

Depression, seasonal and chronic, both of which force me out of routines and revelries periodically, is not something I’ve conquered. Nor is it something I merely live with. Rather, my time in Bitola, the winter’s depression and the coming to life convalescence that was as much spring’s doing, as it was an act of will, taught me something, if not about depression in general, then at least about my own mental health. None of us can choose a different neurobiology. We can medicate it and hack it and take it to therapy, but in general, the background conditions of how our affectivity relates to the changes in our environment is not something that is up to our conscious, volitional will. What I learned is that I am given to depression, to times when nothing happens, when I can barely breathe or drink a glass of wine or cook a decent dinner… barely. But those times come to an end, and when they do come to an end, when the morning is bright and inviting instead of making me want to put blankets over my head and wish for the end, these times are all we have, all I have. I’ve begun to think of depression as a gathering up of strength. A shepherding of internal resources for the times when I will be on the move, creating and exploring.

We are each given three score and ten—give or take—and for those of us who struggle with depression that time is carved up with bits of death between the periods of life. To create the self is to shape the bits of life into something beautiful, something that you can say yes to, something you can will to return eternally. And the bits of death in between, the depression caused by lack of sunlight or the exploitation of capital and breakdown of functional community or bad genes (or as is usual a combination of the three)? For a depressive like me, those times make the creative exploration possible. I would not be who I am without having to continually convalesce from the deepest night. Not something to regret, but something that motivates me further to write and explore and create and hopefully live differently and do a little bit to create a world and a life we can say yes to.


The Three Books that Ruined Me

Three books ruined me for living a comfortably boring middle-class life among the petty bourgeois. Before I tell you what those books are, I have to confide that it tickles my sappy romantic soul that books can still ruin people. How many people are ripe for being completely molded by a book? I cannot say. But we exist, and as long as there are a few of us, writing books and reading them will still be worthwhile.

The first book that ruined me was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—which is itself three books, but no matter. The tale about Hobbits, Elves, Rings of Power, Dwarves, Dragons, and Wizards, told in an almost mythic voice, gives the reader a taste of what it would mean to live in a world where actions have moral weight, where identities matter, where who we are and what we do have ultimate meaning and significance, that they affect the fate of all good creatures in an enchantingly beautiful but fragile land. Good and evil exist, and there is satisfying and exciting adventure and peril in fighting for the good and resisting the evil, all for the cause of freedom and contented happiness of the small and the weak. Meaning. Weight. Death not in vain. But Tolkein’s books are a mere taste of weight because it’s not real; it is pure fantasy, and only the insane or those obsessed with cosplay would say otherwise. If a person is sufficiently taken with the life of meaningful adventure in a fantasy world, real life with its lack of apparent meaning seems dull and weightless, lackluster, and so as I child I would lose myself in play, pretending what I did was exciting and that it mattered. Playing with the idea of moral significance in Tolkien’s fantasy world was the perfect way to prime a child for what came next.

The next book that did me in was the Bible, the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. All of that make believe and play in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth that sustained my meaning-craving as a child failed to satisfying my developing reality principle as an adolescent. I needed something serious enough that it could withstand an adolescent coming to terms with the real world and the increasing pressure of the social world. With the Bible, that meaningful and exciting struggle between good and evil was both real and something I could be a part of. Though the meaning that the Bible finds in the world isn’t actually real—there are no gods, no afterlife, no redeeming drops of blood—I could pretend they were real, and I could surround myself with people who would tell me they were real. And oh, I believed in God and the afterlife and the redeeming drops of blood! I organized my life around them. I gave my life to them. Every action, every thought, every deed, every conversation mattered; the fate of the souls of the lost were always at stake.

There are still works of great sublimity to be created

If the Lord of the Rings showed me what it would be like if things mattered and the Bible showed me what it would be like if I believed it that they really did matter, then Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil taught me how to live meaningfully after learning that nothing could ever matter in the way Tolkien hinted at and the Bible promised. God is dead. God’s been long dead, at least from the perspective of a single human life, and most people have no idea what that even means. It’s not that god doesn’t exist; he never did, and besides that’s not the point. The point is that god no longer matters. We have ceased to understand cause and effect and the natural world in terms of a creator. We no longer believe sickness and health, good fortune and bad are the result of the providence of a beneficent yet inscrutable creator. We no longer believe that morality depends on the will and command of the Lord our God. At the same time nature has become disenchanted. No sense of destiny. No sense of mission. No sense of fate, character, good, or evil. But weight exists nonetheless. Weight depends on the will and health of the one for whom things are heavy. Mattering, significance, and moral weight are nothing more than the way each person relates to their world. And yet each of us are the kinds of beings who, seemingly inevitably, find ways to make things matter. Just because things don’t matter on their own, just because there is no god and no good and no evil out there in the universe, doesn’t mean that we can’t find things meaningful.

And here is where I return to that average, middle-class, contented life among the petty bourgeois. A house. A car. A husband or wife. 2.5 kids. A career. Health insurance. Security (or so we believe). A 401k. Since there is no meaning written into the nature of things, it’s perfectly possible to find value and meaning in these particular things; nothing’s stopping you. I just can’t do it. I was primed by these three books — Tolkien, the Bible, Nietzsche —for a more mythic, heroic, and morally sublime sort of meaning. What ever happened to the liberty and happiness of all free creatures, even the weakest? Whatever happened to the fate of souls (including the fate of one’s own soul!)? There may be no ring of power to destroy or Great Eye to defeat. Souls may not be fated for all eternity. There may not be any redeeming drops of blood. But there are still compelling enemies to fight and still satisfying battles to be won. Things to be overcome. Works of great beauty and sublimity to create. And if enough of us can see it, there are still free peoples whose liberty and comfort can be secured from their oppressors. One only has to have the vision for it. And the courage.


If it wasn’t for the Wabash River…

I grew up in a Midwestern river town. There are dozens of these towns scattered throughout the middle of the country. Until modernity allowed us to colonized deserts and mountains, virtually all dense human settlements were founded by rivers, lakes, or seas, water being our only way to live in an otherwise inhospitable world. With the 21st Century’s domination of nature, our cities no longer depend on the bodies of water they are built beside. Most of our transportation is now over land or by air, and we can dig deeply for potable water or send it in via pipeline from miles away, but our cities and their locations still bear witness to our ancient need to be near the water. And so in the Midwest where there are no seas and the prairies stretch on for miles, our towns are built in or near those valleys that break up the monotony of the continent and once provided the easiest means to move heavy goods and raw materials in and out. The mighty Ohio and Mississippi and Missouri. The Wabash and the Miami. The Tippecanoe. The Calumet. Most of their names reminding us that none of this land is ours.

Independence, Indiana. Wabash River.
The Wabash River at Independence, Indiana

The river town I grew up in is also a university town; the university is the culturally dominant force in the region, changing an otherwise farm based economy into a diverse one drawing on what amounts to a second city’s worth of professionals, scholars, and students in the university community. But it is a town that remains distinctively Midwestern and distinctively Indiana. Because I could get a world-class education without leaving, I stayed—mostly out of necessity—until I had my degree and a way out via a funded grad program in Chicago (a lake town, not a river town, I should note). By that time, I was so ready to get out. For all the university’s civilizing influence, my hometown still felt like a backwater, a place I couldn’t wait to escape.

Leaving the small university farm town for the cosmopolitan City of Big Shoulders was a life transformative experience, molding me into the person that resembles the one I am now. But the intervening years between my coming of age in Chicago and now the writer of this blog were difficult and transformative in their own way. Rejection of profession. Divorce. Alienation. Desperation. Depression. Panic attacks that sent me to the hospital and led me to think about suicide in a serious way for the first time in my life. All stories for another time. What is important here is that in my desperate crisis where sanity and spirit seemed to have left me, I returned home to the river town of my youth.

Returning home felt like defeat. Once I had begun to excel in academics as an undergraduate, I knew I had my way out of there, and nothing would stop me from taking it. I took the first way out that presented itself, grad school in Chicago, but here I was back where I started, divorced, in a mountain of student debt, directionless, with that deep pit of dread intimating that my life was over.

No job. The fumes of a savings account buoyed by early withdrawals from my meager 401k. I had all the time in the world and very little money to spend (and nowhere really to spend it, even if I did). Almost all the friends from my hometown had moved on to other places as I had, and so besides my immediate family I was virtually alone in a place that was both familiar and yet felt like a distant memory. When in good mental health, alone with free time to burn for me means writing, art, creative energy, but in my state of depressive anxiety and existential dread, alone with free time can lead to desperation, more anxiety. Spiraling.

When I returned to my hometown, I also returned to my parents’ home. They live on the Eastern edge of the prairie that eventually gives way to the Great Plains and eventually the Rockies to the West, about eight miles from the center of town and the river valley in which it sits. During this period I would wake up every morning, pack up my things—a laptop, some books and a notebook, some weed, a camera—hop on a bike, and set off across the flat farmland until I found the bike paths and streets that would channel my two wheels down to the river. There by the river, paved trails run along both banks through parks, creek valleys, wooded banks, and an old abandoned golf course. I would smoke weed, get coffee and read at the cafe, and bike up and down those riverside paths, where the only people I encountered were joggers and the homeless, the latter setting up small camps in the woods on the banks of the river, camps that lasted as long as the cops would leave them be. Some days I would put a bottle of wine in my water bottle, pack a lunch, and sit under a tree in the old golf course overgrown with weeds, and watch the clouds, listen to the birds. Think. Be.

This river I grew up by and returned to is the Wabash, a tributary of the Ohio, which is then a tributary of the mighty Mississippi, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. So the Wabash is three degrees removed from the sea, but nevertheless songs have been written about it. The Indiana state song is “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away.” And Johnny Cash has a little known song in his oeuvre “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River” about an encounter he had with a local in my hometown of Lafayette, Indiana while on tour. Give the song and the story that goes with it a listen.

Sometimes songs are written about you before you were born

The story is about Johnny Cash pulling over his tour van in Lafayette and meeting a man who is fishing down by the river. This man’s wife left him for California, and he has finally given up trying to get her back. In his desperate depression he turns to fishing for catfish on the banks of the Wabash as a distracting solace, more about solitude and stillness than actual fishing. In Cash’s words, fishing by the river day and night, day after day, got him to the point where he just about has his mind back together. The chorus of the song goes “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River, I’d be out of my mind.” Substitute a bike for a fishing pole, and the song could be, just about word for word, about me and my time by the river.

All that time biking up and down the Wabash. Sitting under shade trees. Smoking weed and listening to the flow of the current and the sounds of song birds and eagles that fly up and down the valley. Alternating between pushing my body hard and leisurely riding those solitary paths under the trees that shade the banks was like a balm and a poultice on the boil of my throbbing dread and anxiety. Slowly the poisons came to the surface. Slowly the pressure was relieved. Some days I’d cry as the wind dried sweat and tears off my streaked face leaving salt stains on my shirt and messenger bag. Other days I’d laugh like a madman at the absurdity of it all. A summer of doing that, and though nothing was resolved about how I’d make a living or how to get over lost loves, I was well. My body was forming itself into something new, so too my mind and spirit. And in my memory’s eye I can still see myself pushing the pedals as the current of the Wabash flows beside me. And I can sing, right along with Johnny Cash, “If it wasn’t for the Wabash River, I’d be out of my mind.”