If I want to watch a horror movie, I have to wait until everyone’s either in bed or away from home. When one of these two conditions is met, then I have to search carefully for a movie that’s worth watching: so many are compromised by poor acting, or they rely too heavily on special effects, or they peaked in their previews so there’s no good material left unseen in the actual film. So many commit the fatal error of showing too much; the terror’s in what you can’t see. For any number of reasons, really, it’s difficult to find a solid, truly scary movie, one that fulfills its implied promise, thereby making you afraid to enter dark rooms or look into mirrors. And I can’t leave out the real terror: feeling like I’ve wasted a precious hour-and-a-half. Generally, for me these days, watching a horror movie at all is a precarious endeavor.
Last night, however, the fates aligned, it would seem. Everyone was in bed. I had roughly an hour-and-a-half before I’d start falling asleep upright in my chair, and I already knew of a couple of titles I wanted to try. Scrolling my list on Netflix, I settled on I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House, a film with mediocre reviews but that I’m curious about anyway. The dark, opening screen appeared, accompanied by a spooky-sounding female narrative voice-over; the ghostly image of a standing girl in-profile, translucent, slowly glided backward across the screen, her face leaving a spectral smear of ectoplasmic mist; a baby cried out. What? Yeah, a baby. My daughter was awake and nearly distorting the monitor in the kitchen with the intensity of her crying. This was no couple of cries and then back to sleep; she was awake-awake, and from the sound of it, hungry. Being the one of her parents still conscious, it was only right that I get her (though I was tempted to linger in the hope her mother would get there first).
Her face was puffy and red from the crying, and from having just awakened. Her eyes squinted tight as I moved from the bedroom to the lamp-lit living room. The cries quickly tapered to nothing. I wiped and kissed her cheeks, snuggling her against my chest. For the briefest moment, she rested her head on my shoulder. Then she raised her face to mine and smiled, wielding a power I’m sure she’ll always have–the power to absorb my attention fully. In an instant, none of my movie-watching plans even mattered.
It’s thirteen minutes past eleven p.m., and I could sleep, but I’m too stubborn. Because there’s still a capacity for wakefulness in this winter-weary body.* Winter-weary–yeah, right, says the New Englander or the Michigander. How is a Tennessean winter-weary? Because for three nights out of the past five, I have slept in a hotel in my own town, away from my wife, away from my kids, all because there’s a possibility that sideroads may be treacherous and impassable. This is life when it snows or, more accurately, ice-storms in Nashville. Trucks brine the interstate; people with buckets scatter blue salt over concrete stairs and isolated parking lots; and the administration at the laboratory where I process cancerous tissue five days a week takes the initiative to ensure its workforce’s safety and its capacity to perform its important job by generously providing hotel rooms for those of us able to stay. Every specimen is a patient. I never forget the human at the other end of the tissue that I’m processing, because I know that we are all grasping for our lives and for the lives of those we love. We cling to this vapor of earthly existence, no matter what we believe about the hereafter. If we humans unite behind anything, it is this: we’re all trying to stay alive. This is our impulse. Perhaps it’s the purest instinct. And we don’t let go of it until there are no other options; until it’s wrested from our slack hands.
How does one not think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in a post like this? So I cling to consciousness, because it’s my impulse, even though I should be sleeping. I didn’t inherit that napping gene that brings so much joy to others (neither did my oldest son). I stay awake until I no longer can. It will take its toll later in the week, when I can’t keep my eyes open past 8:30 on Friday night. But for now I soldier on, writing this blog post, thinking about how rarely we have a good snow in middle Tennessee, about how people lose their minds when the temperature drops below freezing, and about how we’re all together (even though we don’t always like each other) in this endeavor of life.
*Winter-weariness is not altogether bad. I’ve written elsewhere that I often feel more alive in winter. Weariness can coexist with contentment, it seems.
In one corner of the large, rectangular room, cousins in their twenties reconnect, while in another, the parents of those same young adults slip into the easy familiarity–brothers, sisters, and in-laws, all privy to the old jokes and family stories; thoughts of those who’ve gone on but whose presence remains, bittersweetly.
Even if I was a blood relation, however, I’m not sure the easy familiarity would come, or rather, when it does come, it never stays for long. I’m rarely at ease anywhere outside my house or the few coffee places I haunt. Over the course of my thirties, solitude became the preferred milieu, despite a fairly sociable teenage and young adult life. I suppose it was the growth of the writer inside. You can roll your eyes at that if you want–it’s fine. I’d rather you not let me see you do it, though, for civility’s sake. Yet this is something that any artist understands: the necessary loneliness. You reach a point where you either give up the call or accept that if you’re going to accomplish anything of value, artistically speaking, then you’re going to be trudging that path alone.
It’s Thanksgiving night, and I’ve found a comfortable chair with a full view of the room. A few settle nearby–wife, brother-in-laws, father-in-law–those who are naturally close. But across the way is an energetic demographic with whom I won’t share a word the whole night. Some of them, I won’t even make eye contact with. I wonder if they see me as the misanthrope in the corner, which is kind of amusing, but also not exactly how I want to come across. Nevertheless, we can’t control what others think, right? Everyone is friendly; everyone is thoughtful and warm–paragons of virtue, in fact. And I am content to be a spectator, thinking about my various projects, thankful for those I love and for those who love me. I am often alone, but I am never lonely.