When people asked me how my life was here in Laos, or what I liked about it, I never really knew what to say to them because I didn’t really know what or why myself. For most of my time here, up to and including my unexpected decision to return for a second year, there has been a part of me that has been standing off to the side, observing nervously, vacillating between politely tolerant confusion and gape mouthed “What the hell are you doing here?” disbelief. It took me awhile to fully understand why I ended up in Vientiane, and why, despite vehement initial distaste, I returned.
The overarching experience I’ve had is that here I have been given time and space to fail myself, and admit what has failed me. Look, failing seems like something that doesn’t require time but I’ve found it does, especially when you’ve lived most of your life in mortal terror of failing. When succeeding became the antidote for every ill, when goals and programs and plans and achievements were balm for the things I couldn’t control, failure meant finding myself right back where I started, a place I wanted to leave. And so I beat myself relentlessly. I rode my own spirit like some poor starved beast desperate for rest- and when it said stop I said no, and no, and no and kept going, disgusted by its weakness. There were times in my life when I mercilessly whittled myself down to nothing but a crackle of nerves and a fine screaming line of anxiety, and then I threw that small chiseled bit of myself right back out into the world and told it to continue on regardless. Failure was a spiritual homelessness I couldn’t abide by. Weakness in myself, in others- I was cruel when I saw it. I hate admitting that, but it’s true. I gave it no quarter, even when it was me. This was exhausting.
I’ve found it’s even harder admitting the truth of what failed you in the first place, forcing you into the relentless need to drive until you were exhausted but still didn’t feel like you had accomplished what you needed to do. Especially when you could still see, out of the corner of an eye, all that was bad you were trying to deny. In working on admitting what has failed me, I have undergone a bare fisted, violent recollecting to peel away the justifications that obscured my memories. When I admitted they existed, for the first time I could really see these things that happened and how they shouldn’t have happened. I remembered exactly what I had pretended I didn’t know, what I had practiced forgetting. This remembering feels exactly like grief and is as debilitating, because there is no delaying grief once it starts. You can delay the triggering pain, you can call it something else, you can live in denial of it, or ignore it when you pass it on the street and pretend like you don’t recognize one another. But when you say yes to that pain, the grief rolls in and doesn’t stop until it’s finished with you. I find more and more that you have little say in the matter. It runs its course, for however long that is. I’ll tell you how long it is when mine gets to the end of me. I can tell you that I never knew I had so much space inside me for misery.
Oh, because I have certainly been miserable here, especially in those first few months, that first year. More than miserable.
Here, at times, I have been depressed to the point where I felt like I was existing at no higher a sentient level than an escaped helium balloon. Have you seen those tragic bastards, bumping blindly in circles against the ceiling, tail dragging pathetically? When I was in those useless circles I have certainly made bad choices that were purposefully self-destructive. When I wasn’t a person I didn’t care about other people. It all had to happen. It was a process. It is a process.
I don’t yet know what these two years in Vientiane will mean to me in retrospect, but right now it feels like all of this peeling away is making me larger instead of smaller. I hold out my hands to unabashedly show nothing but weakness and I find I’m holding more freedom than I ever had when I was suffering through a show of strength. There is knowing that and there is feeling it and not knowing, and I’d rather know it, and name it, and own it, and stop glancing sidelong at the dark rot of the edge of my brain where I go for reasons and sometimes for no reasons. I am enough of a reason and that is as much of me as anything else- it isn’t separate, and when I try to think of it as such I just separate myself even more. It’s not what anyone would call good but it’s the way my brain works and so I embrace this part of me which helped and hurt me the most.
It’s slow going and I might sometimes be just a ratty heap of tangles and crumpled mess , but I know I’m getting to the resolution, even if the outside leaves doubt or causes confusion. I’m not concerned about the outside, though, because I was able to go 30 years passing as good on the outside while inside, inside things were scattered and dangerous and I was walking on my knees hoping no one noticed. I’m okay with failing outside because on the inside it’s all coming unbound and I’m thousands of tightwound spools rolling down the weight. The emptiness that remains is clean, untouched by what I didn’t want, and the parts that stay are mine. I do not have to be good, and I do not have to deny what has happened to me, because it doesn’t have to be good either. I can admit what failed me and what was taken and not have to sanctify it with my own goodness. Nothing can make up for it anyway, and I’ve lost enough to those moments to sacrifice anymore to them.
From where I sit at the end of my time here in Laos, I know two things for certain, finally:
I owe nothing to that which took things from me I did not want to give.
I want nothing from that which took things from me I can never get back.