I am still not quite done with David Copperfield, although the day approaches. I would forgive you if you thought this was because I found it a slog, but it’s the opposite, really. I want it to linger. I love it that much. I’ve always thought Bleak House was the best Dickens, and it’s brilliant, but maybe it’s also true to say that I want to be the kind of person who thinks Bleak House is the best Dickens. But Copperfield is closer to who I am.
I live, now, in an apartment building that directly abuts the Wabash River. Some people warned me away; it floods, often, in the spring. But I had found myself in a one-month sublet, trying to buy myself time to get a job that never ultimately came, and my dog had lost the ability to walk, and I really didn’t want to go through the various indignities of being sized up by some conservative landlord, and this place let you apply online. So I did, and I came out here, and despite an abundance of petty problems and the general shittiness of this apartment, I’m thrilled I did, thanks to the birds.
The Wabash, at least out here, is not particularly mighty. When it’s low, nearby sections can’t be more than a few feet deep. But it feeds a small inlet that lies not 60 yards from the door of my building. Fish swim in and can’t swim out. That makes it a natural home for aquatic birds. Mallard ducks are a constant presence. In the summer and fall, there were also egrets, and there were my herons. At the time I discovered them, I was reading Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk, and developing the kind of sympathetic obsession I only ever find in great books. They’re tricolored herons, I figured out after a month of observation, beautiful, alien, long-necked birds that like to sit perfectly still in the shallows. There’s just something so prehistoric about them, and I was reading MacDonald’s astonishing confessions about what her bird meant to her, and I thought to myself, H is for Heron, too.
They haven’t been around for a month or two. They were here for part of the winter, but have fled the coop. Winter has brought just an absurd abundance of birds; I suppose from far above, to a migratory flock, the inlet looks especially inviting. So the mallards have multiplied from a dozen to four dozen, and there have been off and on huge numbers of Canadian geese, and just clouds and clouds of white gulls, which I didn’t even know were migratory. Crows, too! So many crows. And the redtail hawks, and the passing falcons. It’s a bird party, every day, and sometimes it’s just astonishing. But the herons left. I don’t know, maybe they flew south for the winter, or maybe they found the suddenly cramped quarters inhospitable. I saw one of those psycho geese going aggro on one of the herons once; it wasn’t even particularly close, but the goose postured up and swam-flew straight at it, and the heron calmly flew away. You can’t understand how perfectly still they seem to hover over the water, when they fly. It seemed vulgar to me at the time, but you can’t really blame a goose for being a goose. In any event, they’re gone now, and I don’t know if they’ll come back. When I checked a map of the range of the species, the western part of Indiana was marked “transient.”
I would miss them more if it weren’t for the eagles, the bald eagles. I don’t want to play too much to my reputation, but god, these animals…. There have been, since early January, a half dozen to a dozen bald eagles, both adults and juveniles, encamped at the inlet. They tend to congregate on the long thin natural jetty that sticks out and forms the north and eastern boundary of the inlet; it has room for a few tall trees that hang over the water and not much else. It’s muddy and forested and quite small, which makes it uninviting to humans and perfect for eagles. I get up in the morning and I walk Miles around and they’re there, hanging over the water, just so big and regal. And when I’m lucky on my walk home from school, they’re fishing. It looks exactly like it should; the moment when they transition from swooping down to actually grabbing at a fish, when they break the engineered uniformity of their bodies and become, for a perfect instant, a flurry of grasping, white-headed wings and limbs, is primal and timeless. Sometimes I walk around and realize they’re just there, flying above me, and it seems to solve every problem in my life. I’m sorry to put it that way. But I mean, they’re fucking bald eagles, and they’re all around me. You’ll forgive me. Dickens says that trifles make the sum of life, and I think he’s right. What I keep telling people is that this means you should not sacrifice the feeling of an eagle flying over your head to your fear of looking pretentious.
What the eagles share with the herons is zero tolerance for my physical presence. I’ve never been able to get particularly close to them. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent, trying to creep a little closer, or how many times I’ve nearly taken a plunge right over the side. But both the herons and the eagles always know when I’m coming, and they won’t stay. I can’t say I blame them; when you’re a bird, humans mostly mean to do harm. Soon, the weather will get too warm for them, and the fishing won’t be as good, and they’ll head north to the places where they’re really from, and I’ll miss them when they’re gone.
I’m moving, too, though not so soon, and my destination is a little more fuzzy. It’s time! I will miss Indiana, actually, and Purdue. You get conditioned to your environment. A college is a community, and your relationship with it is intimate, if you want it to be. I find I’m friendly now even with all of the things about the school that I can’t stand. Oh, hey there, Mitch. Hi, ingrained and powerful disrespect for the humanities and our values. Hello, hideously expensive “Active Learning Center” construction at a school that pays lots of its grad students less than $15,000 a year, you’re looking good. I’m comfortable here; I know the bus schedule by heart. But friends have left, though new ones come, and though no one has ever been a greedier collection of human presence I find myself alone. Soon enough I’ll pack up and go and wish Purdue well, even as the school and its leadership work tirelessly to make everything worse.
One way or the other, it’s time to find somewhere I can stay for a little while longer. I have roots to lay down.
When I was, what, 21 years old, my old red Ford escort had transmission trouble. I would go forward when I put it in reverse, which as you might imagine is not an insignificant problem. It was still on warranty and I knew I could get it fixed for free but could not compel myself to lift my cellphone and make an appointment at the dealership. I could not compel myself to do much of anything, at that point. I was in the grips of what life has forced me to concede was, and is, a powerful and quietly brutalizing bipolar depression. I was sure, at that point, that I was armed for everything, my parents long dead, my stepmother now far and forever in the rear view mirror, my life my own, but it turned out I was unequipped for the mundane horror that was playing out within myself. Around me the whole country seemed gripped by everything that I consider worst in the world, and all of my father’s old prophecies about what politics had done and will do to people like us seemed to be coming true, and somehow the act of taking my car to the garage seemed like a hill I couldn’t possibly climb.
One day I turned into the parking lot at Hunter’s Crossing where I lived in a little studio apartment with paper-thin walls and I tried to pull a turn I couldn’t make and found myself, with no reverse, quite stuck. So I put the car in neutral and pushed it awkwardly into an empty area that was not, in the stricter definitions of the parking world, a space. The effort took it out of me, and when I went upstairs to my cramped space I found that nothing would stop my heart from beating so fast, and I broke a pint glass in my hands as I tried to wash it of some imagined stain, and I realized that I should probably go and get some help. So I went down to Middlesex Memorial Hospital and told them I needed to talk to somebody. I was far out of control. They sent me to a room to wait for a doctor. I was ready to ask for help.
But it took almost three hours for the doctor to show up. In that time, I began to calm down, and as I calmed down, I began to feel embarrassed that I was there. By the time the doctor actually walked in, I was feeling full-on shame. I know that this is a retrograde attitude. I can’t justify it. The idea that needing help in that way is shameful offends me. But in life you subject yourself to judgments that you would never think to subject others to, and when he walked in and I was sitting in a little robe on a hospital bed I felt sure I could never look at myself in a mirror again. So I told him what he wanted to hear and I left. Eventually I got the transmission fixed. I try not to think this way, but it’s hard sometimes not to ask what my life would have been like if he had just walked in when I was ready to talk, where I might be right now, how much further along I might have gone. I only regret that I might have built what I need to long ago. Instead it would be a dozen years before I got any treatment at all, before I even really got a diagnosis, and I never told even this much to anyone.
All of this is sounding very maudlin, I’m sure, but I don’t mean for it to be. I don’t feel maudlin. I just feel ready. Ready and impatient. You tell people your life is better to make them feel better, and if you live your life out loud, as a rebuke to your critics, and then one day you wake up and you find that it’s really all true. You can’t lie to yourself anymore: you are forced to confess that you have forgiven yourself, and you ask forgiveness in turn for the inevitable way in which the fire you’ve burned for so long has dimmed. “No regrets” is a terrible standard; I have so many regrets. But some of them have come with lessons, and the lessons I value are the ones that have taught me how to be a better human for other humans, and I feel today that I am who and what I am, and I am ready to begin the work I have been preparing for. I’m not quite sure what that work is, beyond the basic work of love and family, but I have dreamed it forever and I am ready for it, and I intend to do it.
I don’t know, I’m torn lately. I feel permanently caught between my acceptance of the social expectations of emotional distance and my desire to tell others that I love and need them, even acquaintances, even strangers. I understand why you can’t go around unloading it all to everyone, and I suppose I’m even ready to concede that the feeling of being alive isn’t, for everyone, the feeling of being on fire all the time. That’s what they tell me, after all, and I should respect them enough to believe it. So I want to tell so many people: I’m cool. I won’t make it awkward. I won’t put you in that position. I understand your deal, and the gift I want to give you is the gift of knowing that I will always take you in precisely the way you want, and that you never have to worry about me, that I’ll only ever engage you in the form and manner you want. But I want to mention, also, casually, that my heart is profligate and that in a very real way I ache for your presence. The bonds feel digital, ephemeral, and uncertainty, but they also feel powerful, and that makes you feel vulnerable. And you’d like to say, “It’s not a big deal, but you brighten my life.” That’s not so much to ask! It’s just hard, I think, to live in an age in which we’re all connected with each other all the time, but where we aren’t allowed to tell ourselves how deeply invested we are in each other. But like I said, I get it. I’m cool. I’ll always be cool.
That’s one of the things, about Copperfield. Old books, they astonish you with how modern the sensibilities are, how little things have changed, and then the glaring differences wrench you out of your chair because they show how easily the human beings we are today might be different, but for chance, but for the random and unguided wandering of time. That’s the big difference, the one that makes me most jealous of all: people in Copperfield are always saying to each other, without even the conception that this might be an occasion for shame, “this is what you mean to me.”
The people who don’t like what I write will find, I imagine, that this epitomizes all the things they find not like in it, but that’s the price of aging: you just become more yourself. And though I still have no particular destination whatsoever, I find I’m less worried than I ever have been. There’s a place for us, after all. And those critics, I suppose, can take heart in the fact that I will be finding new ways to engage with the world, that I know I can’t keep existing out loud in quite the way I am, and that every word is a different way to say goodbye. I’m ready. It’s time. It just remains to follow the next mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.