This morning I lie in bed, stuck with my thoughts under a warm blanket in a cold room. It’s a sunny day. My curtains are open from when I got up to sniff smoke. I stare at the ceiling. I imagine a story called “Burning Man,” where a boy trapped in a fire contemplates his masculinity. I try to come up with as many un’s as I can: words un-written, stories un-told, water un-rained, lightning un-cracked, embraces un-held … You get the idea. In this space between tossing, turning and thoughts becoming dreams, I can’t stop thinking about what a friend told me.
“My angst fuels my workouts,” she said nonchalantly, taking a sip of coffee. “Hold up,” I told her. “The other day you said that you’re grateful nothing bad has happened to you.” She looked puzzled. “It hasn’t,” she said. “I’m talking about angst. People treat me badly and sometimes I get angry.” This destroyed me, and it wasn’t my fundamental misunderstanding of how Americans use the word “angst.”
No. It’s that I’ve spent the two years since being fired from the Navy trying to trace the source of my own anger. When I was young, I tried exercise sprinkled with a little self-harm. Then martial arts. When you beat someone, you get to feel better than them for a moment, and maybe hate yourself less. That didn’t help. With the military, I figured, I could prove myself once and for all. Then, I’d always have a good excuse to be brooding and unreachable. Well, I do now and it sucks. I kept trying: Jesus, sex, drinking, skydiving, Buddha. Drugs, too, but I didn’t try very hard with those.
Here at Stanford, I tried writing. Stories, essays, poems. To put all the ickiness into a pen-and-paper vessel. To justify the shame, explain the unbelonging, tap into the reason I feel like shit. To face it so I can finally be free. But my writing has been stuck for some time and after my friend’s comment, I think I understand why:
I’ve been trying to trace the source of my anger. But there’s nothing there.
My childhood, though unconventional, unstable, and often isolated, was charmed. I grew up between a couple dozen homes in multiple countries, but had both my parents and four brothers who loved me. We ate powdered milk and stale, donated bread, but we never went hungry. I had a roof over my head; so what if it was a camper van? Sure, some weird shit happened before I was eight, but if there was anything worse than spankings from strangers, I don’t remember it. Yes, I saw combat, but not until I was twenty-one years old and, some would argue, by choice.
Everything else — the broken bones, the bleeding calluses, the rejections, the failed romances and friendships, the tearful goodbyes, the setbacks and struggles at work, getting reprimanded, reassigned, fired, starting all over again — that’s just part of life.
A fire truck screams by. I get out of my warm blanket to write this.
And here’s what surprises me the most: after all the stupid shit I’ve done, all the mistakes my writing has forced me to recollect and take ownership of, I’m not even angry with myself.
I’ll never forget where I came from. Seeing the lady with the cigarette dismiss my begging hand. Sharing the last crumbs of corn flakes between my loud and hungry brothers. Watching my Marine’s bloodless face the moment I knew for sure he had turned into a corpse. But I don’t need to feel mistreated or wronged by the world, or be angry at it, to someday turn these memories into something beautiful.
What’s left when I let go of the anger, hate and self-loathing that has fueled me so far? Luke Skywalker, I think. The real one. The one who’s ready to face the Empire. What’s left is hope.
I think I’m going to try hope for a while.
Happy New Year, y’all.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.