“I do not exist.”
These are the first words of Brother, Sister, the first words of mewithoutYou I ever heard. What at first sounds like a contradiction becomes, essentially, an album-long struggle, resolved only with the band’s final lyrics: “only You exist.” Vocalist Aaron Weiss is working in a biblical sense here, a monastic one, striving for the sort of self-denial found in the books of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, early Christian saints who went without food and water in the Sinai, stranded themselves atop pillars and inside deep caves, all for a taste, as Weiss later puts it, “of union with the one who never dies.”
I first encountered these lyrics as a teenager, and I found them totally confounding. I saw no particular value in self-nullification, could not fathom ever doing so. This was partly ideological, sure – having been raised on a diet of punk rock, a genre aimed pretty squarely at the self-obsessed – i.e. teenagers – meant that I was going to be inherently hostile to things that didn’t fit – but it was also personal. I had been through some rough patches of depression, or at least depressed behavior, and the blackest was still around the corner. The thought of not existing terrified me.
I was, as it turns out, missing the forest for the trees on this one. Weiss’s argument was built out of the same stuff as my complaint: failure, depression, frustration both sexual and internal. That these lines, paired, formed not a command but an aspiration toward a heightened, no, higher state of being unlocked the album for me. It’s still one of my favorites.
About 10 months ago I moved from Upstate New York to Ireland, frustrated by my lack of job prospects and a sense of personal stagnation, and left unstable after a series of tragedies among family and friends. I needed something new; I needed to get out. I needed, at bottom, some time away from my self.
So in the days since I’ve spent ten hours on a mountain ridge, wind blasting through me, staggering my balance at the worst possible times. I’ve done this in the depths of winter; I’ve climbed a thousand feet with no water in summer. In my travels I seem to trace the edges, aim for the outsides. I’ve come to favor islands and coastlines, rocky Inishturk and upper Malin Head, the Orkneys and Hebrides of Scotland, and peninsulas you have to take a boat into and hike your way out of. I’m writing this on a train crawling through peasant villages in Romania, late-day sunlight slanting over haystacks, farmers wandering dirt roads with pitchforks and scythes ashoulder. The center, it seems, does not suit me.
The thought of not existing terrified me.
I don’t know why I spend so much effort to be alone, to get as far away from other people as possible. Generally, I like them, even if I spend my days in the backcountry quiet, and frankly sublimating your self can be a thousand times easier in a city as compared to the wilderness. There is often nothing but self present at these times, and the struggle to silence my mind grows ever tougher because of it. Rather than seeing your face reflected in every other you must identify with birds, rocks, streams. I’ve once or twice achieved this; back in January I sat in a clearing in upper Donegal, wave on wave of birdsong buffeting me, each with its own distinct voice and yet the whole thing interconnected like threads tightly woven into fabric. John Muir wrote that being out in nature reminds you how every thing is dependent on every other. It becomes essentially impossible to delineate an I-Thou relationship when nothing can claim independence. This, then, is the first step, and the others are quick to follow.
There can be downsides to all of this self-dissolution, terrifying ones that vary depending on your state of mind. To feel that you don’t even exist is only halfway there. While participating in a meditation retreat on the unloading ramp at Birkenau, Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise surrogate-narrator feels the footfalls of thousands of souls condemned to death within the hour, hears them whispering at the frontiers of his vision. As the days stretch, so too do the holes in time and self. To feel so intensely connected to a world so bleak is more than most people can bear. We spend so much time building barriers around our selves to ward off this horror that to chip them away feels like some terrible encroachment upon our security. Our self becomes our stand; to exist is to say, for even a second, “I matter.”
But what do we gain when we cede this insistence? Everything, and a being broader than we could ever imagine before. In the midst of tragedy I have seen the bonds of love that tie people together, allow them to form a net and catch one another, hold their fellows up. More than a defense against cynicism this is an affirmation of life, of the numerous intangibilities permeating the world. But we are not any of us desert ascetics and cannot so easily deny ourselves. For all my wilderness and extremity I am weak in the face of this call to physical poverty. Therefore we must seek Weiss’s union in the mundane, the every day, and make the push an ordinary function, denying the barrier between it and the extraordinary.
Take a rock concert. We often describe them as communal experiences, but the best don’t so much unite as demolish, melting down individuals and recasting them into some greater whole. At the end you don’t feel united so much as transcended, the distinctions between audience members and the performers onstage having dissolved like so much smoke. Since last year I have been to less than a handful of shows, and during my whole time in Ireland I caught only one, The Twilight Sad playing the Roisin Dubh in Galway. The place was small and the stage cramped, the room a little less so. When the band came onstage the small crowd packed in, drinks in hand, and by “Last January” a few of us were swaying and bobbing along. By the time “I Became a Prostitute” roared I was roaring back, no sense of space or distance between the song and me. I sang freely, joyously, but to my ears it wasn’t my voice but the crowd’s, the band’s. When I closed my eyes I might as well have been any other person in the room, and they me. For a few clear fractured moments, I couldn’t tell.
Since leaving Ireland I have taken in the stillness of churches, been soaked by rain, pushed my body to its limit the last few wild places of Europe. In all of this there have been maybe a few moments of quiet. Yet none were so great or obliterative as when I opened my mouth to sing and felt another’s voice pouring out.
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