One year ago tonight, I would go to sleep in a very dark place.
I’d reached a dead end, and no amount of wiles or fast-talking or any other intangible that I thought I possessed could get me out of it. As my old man used to tell me when I as a kid: I was in need of a serious attitude adjustment.
Now, I’ve never been one for mystical, divine intervention type explanations. To be fair, I’m still not. But I think we can sometimes read or see or hear just the right thing, at just the right moment, which can give us the tools we need to see the world in a different perspective, give us a practical way of coping with reality that we’d somehow overlooked. And to fold a little irony into the mix, we often find these little tools were right under our nose, waiting for us, our entire lives.
This “thing” for me, was the speech David Foster Wallace delivered to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005. A good friend of mine, Jordan Marti (whose work you’ll find below), had sent me the transcript, now known as “This is Water.” If I had to pick one summary sentence, and god I hate to do that because it’s truly a beautiful speech, Wallace told his listeners: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
Nothing fancy. Simple awareness and choice.
At the time I read the speech, I didn’t know who this cat named Wallace even was. I didn’t know that he’d written a 981 page (1079 if you count footnotes) work of fiction or that he was considered by some to be the most important literary voice of an entire generation. I didn’t know that he’d been given the MacArthur Fellowship: pretty much the only award in the nation given for being a genius. And I didn’t know that at the age of 46, Wallace would be so utterly wracked and defeated by depression that one night he’d organize the manuscripts of the book he’d leave unfinished, write a goodbye note to his longtime girlfriend, and hang himself on the patio.
Journalist David Lipsky wrote of Wallace’s death, “Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction.” A very true statement, Lipsky. So it’s with a sense of mourning, of reverence and loss, that the world receives the recent, posthumous release of “The Pale King.”
The Pale King is said to be an expansion of Wallace’s call to mindfulness. The book takes place in an IRS office, a murderously dull setting (I assume). But leave it to Wallace to find holiness in the mundane: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”(The Unfinished,”The New Yorker).