On the shortest day of the year in the Seattle, the sun shines for 8 hours and 25 minutes — or, more accurately, the sun could shine for 8 hours and 25 minutes. It’s up even if it’s not out. Additionally, a curious thing happens on either side of the shortest day of the year: the day before and the day after, the sun still shines for 8 hours and 25 minutes, the mere seconds of difference imperceptible to the human observer. This is the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year, the time when the sun barely scrapes the horizon. And I use it, and Seattle, to talk about the days around the longest night.
The first of the 8-hour, 25-minute days was July 16, 2017. I’d written, to no one in particular, blackout-drunk in a Phoenix hotel room:
I’ve spent the past 90 days tearing myself apart, trying to find the innermost essence of my being, wondering who I really am, and where I have left to go. I’ve been pushing myself, simultaneously, to the farthest reaches of what I am capable of, living with an acute reckless abandon for good taste and good sense. This sub-chapter, and frankly the much longer one it bookends, is closed.
I’ve returned from this journey physically paralyzed, mentally and emotionally exhausted. I can go no further, and fall no deeper. Not in this form. When you take away the travel, the running, the partying, the singing, the sarcasm, the writing, the friends, the lovers, the jobs, the jokes and the madness, what is left is nothing. Yes, I’ve had “it all.” And enjoyed it less than I ever have. Here’s what I’ve learned:
What I realized, I think, more than anything, is I am incapable of being alone, and thus, incapable of getting as close to other people as I want to. I keep trying to get closer to people than I’ve earned, I keep meeting people to distract me from working on myself, and if I am not with someone physically, I have my head buried in my phone. I do those things to distract me from loneliness. When I’m just sitting, when I’m just existing, I feel completely empty. Like I’m missing something big. And so I alter the state I’m in, or bring people into that state.Always more people. Always new people. The texts. The travel. The social media. The stories. It’s all the same drug, designed to ease the existential ache of never feeling fully present, never having the full capacity to truly appreciate and understand others.
The innermost me is not much different than you, and it is certainly not exceptional. I breathe. I eat. I occasionally make things. I think we share that in common. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. I think about myself too much. I always say I will change, or am changing, but people do not change — they merely drift.
My depression and anxiety had plummeted into a darkness that could no longer be masked, contained or controlled. The call was coming from inside the house. The train had jumped the tracks.
I returned home from Phoenix briefly entertained by an amusing row-mate on a Southwest flight, but gloom had engulfed me by this point. I had spent most of the time before the flight sitting in a 100-degree bar without power, talking to strangers and drinking free warm beer until I couldn’t remember my face. That was the day the sun set early.
The second of the 8-hour, 25-minute days was August 21, 2017. This was the solstice. This was absolute zero. I wrote, for the world to read, blackout-drunk in my Austin apartment:
I sleep on an unmade bed, with no sheets on it, sheets that are balled up in a laundry basket, covered in cat vomit. That’s if I make it to bed. Most days I black out on the couch, watching Cold War documentaries for the sake of self-edification and yet almost nothing stays with me overnight. I mostly wake up wondering what year it is.
I started smoking a pack a day, for whatever reason, as if it’s not stupid enough to smoke anything at all while I — again — have 53% of a human lung. Imagine being born with COPD and then being like “nah, fuck it, I don’t care how I die, so I might as well die in the most obvious way possible, as soon as possible.”
I have, to the best of my knowledge, slept with over 200 women — 30 in the past six months. I do not know why. Maybe to beat back the inescapable loneliness. Actually, only for that reason. Had I been capable of loving myself, I probably wouldn’t need so many people to love me.
I’ve gotten too drunk on two dates in the past month — both of which were with people I actually, truly, adored, and still do. There were no second dates. Imagine, being able to find love and punting on it because fernet shots are so much more desirable than potential life-long companionship.
My house is a certified sty. Dishes piled on the counter-top. Nacho debris littered all over the rug. I should probably be vacuuming instead of writing this. I’m not. Imagine, coming home, wading through a pile of bottles and bullshit, and thinking “nah, that’s fine. The minefield is just the price I pay for living with myself.”
I have eaten five meals this week. Three of which were (full, large) pizzas. One of which was a pasta salad that had been sitting out at room temperature for 24 hours, but, I didn’t have the self-discipline to throw it out and eat something else. Imagine being so in the realm of not giving a shit that you willingly say to yourself “there’s definitely bacteria in this and this smells like dead squirrel, but, fuck it, I’m hungry and this tastes fine.” I’ve lost 10 pounds in the past six months, subsisting only on carbonated liquids that range from IPA to bourbon. Only eating when my body was literally craving a vegetable.(BTW, if you ever think, “Fuck, that salad looks delicious,” you’re probably farther down the path of an unhealthy lifestyle than you think you are.)
I had cratered. I decided that I would perhaps become a little healthier, perhaps take a tiny bit better care of myself from that point forward. And so I made a plan, and began to put it to action at that moment. This was that plan.
The next few weeks were rough. I hunkered down the way they do in the Finnish Lapland, warm and quiet in winter while the darkness roars, far away from the bright city lights of my blistering history. On August 20, 2017, having exhausted all the possibilities of a breakneck spectacle of a life, where every hand was played all-in and every day lasted all night, it was time to retire to the cabin and take inventory while the tremors faded.
I burned scented candles at night to keep cozy and calm. The dim light and vague wafts of clean cotton put me at ease. I would eat heaping helpings of homemade mac-n-cheese, a comfort food I’d grown accustomed to making in the absence of better culinary ideas. Call it a rut if you wish — something ought to be familiar in a time of personal upheaval, and man, was this ever one of those times. My brain kept glitching. My limbs kept twitching. My stomach kept acting up.
I did no writing. I did no running. I halted social activities and used each day for work, and each evening for rest when possible. I watched my mood gradually level off. I watched my energy approach something like baseline. I crammed a small shipping container’s worth of carbs into my mouth. I talked only when called upon to do so.
The third 8-hour, 25-minute day was September 16, 2017. I was bleak at this point, and I wrote … nothing. I wrote nothing. No notes. No essays. No short stories. No tweets. Here’s what I did instead.
Partially to overwrite old memories, but mostly because it was $100 round-trip on Alaska Airlines, I boarded a plane bound for Seattle. I committed to one cause, and one cause only:
“What would I do if I had 36 hours to do whatever the hell I wanted to, with no one around to notice?”
I deplaned at 8 a.m. Pacific, and took the train to downtown. There, I dropped my bags off at the hotel, grabbed the obligatory Top Pot maple bar, and walked up the hill to a coffee-shop that wasn’t Starbucks. I sipped a cappuccino, and purchased a ticket to the next day’s Seahawks-Niners tilt. I walked to a thrift shop, then to an oyster bar. I wrecked a plate of oysters and allowed myself a glass of champagne. It was my first drink in three weeks, and I was traveling alone, and so I thought, I don’t mind the indulgence. I walked to another coffee-shop, and made small chat with a barista who loved LCD Soundsystem. I then took an Uber to the park on Puget Sound, and ran a quick 5K while talking on the phone with a friend I’ve talked on the phone to more often than all other people combined. I sipped a west coast IPA immediately upon finishing, and then grabbed an Uber back to my hotel to shower.
I re-emerged dressed to the nines, and tried to hit up a pizza joint I visited last time. They were full. I meandered to an experimental restaurant, where I had a beer and something like ostrich, before I meandered across town to a Vietnamese restaurant named one of the best in the United States, where I sat at the bar and joyously consumed one of the finest plates of food I could ever recall. From there, I walked to Cannon — a whiskey lounge so ornate, luxurious and delicious that it should not be allowable by law. I chatted up the bartender, and she passed me her THC vape pen. I chatted up the people next to me, and they gave me an edible. The bartender dropped me her name and Instagram, and told me I was unusually easy to talk to, compared to the patrons who frequent such a pretentious haunt. We talked until 2. Then I went home.
That was it. I decided, given a full day starting at 8 a.m., with no limits and no one the wiser, in my favorite city I’d been to by that point, I found out what I valued:
- Good food
- Good coffee
- Good booze (in moderation, on vacation — sorry that rhymed)
- Being active and outdoors
- Water (both to drink and as in “bodies of”)
- Conversations with strangers
- Friends and family
I did all those things. I liked them. Of course, this is a “no shit” kind of moment. I feel like a plurality of people enjoy all of the above. I feel like 99% of people like at least two of them. I slept like a rock that night — I always sleep well in hotels, but that night I slept particularly well. I went to bed, staring at the number I’d gotten from that bartender I’d chatted up all night, and the tickets on my phone for the following day’s Seahawks-Niners game, and snickered. “You know … it isn’t all that bad,” I imagined I’d say to myself if I was a main character nearing the season finale of some 90’s sitcom. It was hedonic, sure, but it was cleansing. It was purposeful hedonism.
The night the sun rose was not some bold declaration of a new beginning, or of a radical life transformation. I ran no marathons and set no records. I just saw myself, someplace else, and thought I was a little better, a little stronger, and a little less weird. It was still dark, but not the kind of dark you’re afraid of. You can reinvent yourself, if you want to. You don’t even need to do it wholesale: You can merely just see yourself differently, or treat yourself like a stranger in a strange land.
My words are not my life. This blog is not my life. It’s just a document. It’s a map. It’s not the land itself. And when we truly want to feel alive, we don’t bury our nose in a map. No, we look around outside. That’s where you’ll find beauty. That’s where you’ll find peace.
The life I knew, I threw it away by design. It was all too much, amounting to not much. All the trappings and spoils, black holes and dark alleys, bright lights and fiery exits, they were mostly gone in Seattle. All that remained was the moonlit sky, the whirring winds, the all-consuming skyline and the streets I’d left to stroll down. I just put on my backpack and go. I had no destination in mind. I didn’t document it … didn’t need to.
When I came home, I sat next to a woman on a plane who was flying to Austin from Alaska to get help for her meth addiction. And I thought about it. I thought about the solstice. I thought about the 8-hour, 25-minute days — 3 of them, each about 30 days after the other. I thought about the solstice. I thought about her solstice. I thought about it.
“Holy shit. Seattle’s her Phoenix.”
And then I thought a little bit harder. I thought about the way I could speak to her clearly, calmly, and contently.
“Holy shit. Seattle’s my Phoenix.” As in, for the first time since the inferno, I was rising from the ashes. (Overwrought? Of course.) And I realized a curious thing happens on either side of the shortest day of the year: the mere seconds of difference are not imperceptible to the human observer. The day before is filled with dread. The day after is filled with hope. Both days are the same. The sun barely scrapes the horizon. But even when you’re in the middle of the longest night, even that little break of light means spring is on the way. The sun is still out, even if it’s not all the way up.