My feeds are sprinkled with Robin Williams tributes. He would have turned 65 this week, and judging by the chosen quotations in his many tributes, this is his most enduring message: “You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”
It’s fitting that we remember his little spark of madness, since he’s the reason we all owned rainbow suspenders and thought “Nano-Nano” was a stupidly hilarious punchline for nearly anything. But maybe this quotation endures for other reasons too. After all, it might have been his own little spark of madness that metastasized into the thoughts that murdered him by his own hand. But perhaps it endures for the simple fact that we all sometimes feel singed by our own sparks of madness, and framing them as precious incendiary gifts is immensely comforting.
So, how are your cherished sparkles of crazy today?
I’ll tell you how mine are. They’re dancing like fireflies in the summer sky, nimble and uncontainable. I had them captured in Mason jars for a bit. They were glowy and almost cute, as if I could post selfies on Facebook with my crazies’ cherubic brightness buzzing behind me, the way I post pictures of my dogs sleeping in comical poses. “Life is good, all. My dogs are snoring on a pile of my bed pillows and my batshit is all closed up in a jar with a ribbon on top. So, so pretty.”
Not to make light of crazy, because its spectrum ranges from quirky to criminal, but let’s talk about the relatively benign portion of that bell curve. We all know, or at least suspect, that our efforts to chase happiness and cling to normalcy make us feel crazy. If your gray matter contains even the average number of colorful sparks, they will forever conspire to steer you off the bucolic road into the wild woods, and then back to center, and then off again. But somehow we convince ourselves that all of those turns in the road represent some pathology, or some failure of character. That’s where we get into trouble.
I recently read a dour interpretation of Buddhist thought asserting that you’re meant to suffer. That’s true enough, of course. After all, no being navigates life without suffering. But the author’s enthusiastic embrace of suffering is somewhere I’m not yet ready to go. According to my novice interpretation of Buddhist teaching, a clinging affinity for any state – pleasant or unpleasant – is the source of all suffering. Our challenge is to simply accept and observe all of our states, like the passing scenery out a train window, without judgment. If we try to exert control, if we think we’re called to create a constant state of happiness – or even believe we should be capable of it – we’re fools.
I’ve been that fool lately, not just because I’m as prone as anyone to pathologize my own sparks, but because other people’s sparks insist on ramming into the side of my cozy little Mason jar. And how dare they? Don’t I have enough to do just keeping my own little fireflies in check? I found my equilibrium here, and zap, zap, zap.
My mom texted that she just had a heart attack, although she reports that a series of medical tests confirm there’s zero damage to her heart. Which – and I’m no doctor – I think by definition rules out an actual heart attack.* A normal person would feel concern about her mother’s potential heart attack, but this particular heart attack sounds like her others, plus her several strokes, two rounds of nondescript cancer, MS, fibromyalgia, childhood polio, and a recurring case of “blood clots in the rectum,” all of which didn’t actually happen in any medical sense. They only happened inside her little firefly farm. Zap, zap, zap. So where’s my sympathy, whether her illnesses is in the heart muscle or etched indelibly into the scrambled eggs of her brain? My husband says we’ll send a get-well card. Okay, fine. We can do that. What kind of terrible person am I? Zap, zap, zap.
Getting ready for construction to begin on our master bedroom addition, I rushed through a last-minute door installation, mis-aimed the nail gun, and embedded a nail, curved through the bone like a fishing hook, into my index finger. My husband’s cognitive process turns to TV static in an emergency. He can’t remember the way to the hospital, traffic is bad, my finger hurts like a mutha. I used every muscle in my body to muzzle the snark. It was hard enough work that I walked the last block and a half to the ER to spare me watching him find parking while his brain frizzed. I silently chided myself, finger held high, trying to speed-walk but not run: So now I’m someone who responds to pain by poking everyone else with angry, impatient barbs? Shove those fireflies back into the jar and be lighthearted during the three-hour ER visit, you jerk. Zap, zap, zap.
Just a few days into construction everything stopped because the guy who will install our heat ducting is out at sea for a second week of catching and selling tuna. I’m stressed over the unscheduled stoppage so he can kill members of a drastically declining species instead of doing his job. Move the electrician and plumber around, force the carpenters to take a two-day break, but swallow down the fireflies and say nothing, you militant vegan freak. Zap, zap, zap.
During my flurry of rescheduling with all the subs, a friend sends an ominous email with no subject line. “Please call me asap.” I take the bait, only to hear she has extra garden produce to share. Oh, yeah, she knows the email sounded alarming, hee-hee. On a troubled and hungry planet, I’m the monster who’s inconvenienced by free arugula and green beans. Swallow those fireflies, you ungrateful First World brat. Zap, zap, zap.
I’m still rearranging the construction schedule when my sister sends two text messages, one Facebook message and a voicemail within five minutes. She has an emergency. I need to call her NOW. Her deeply troubled Chihuahua snapped at the dog walker, who popped the lid off a food-service-size jar of fireflies and said my sister shouldn’t even have a dog. The walker then calmed down and is willing to walk Rocky, but my sister thinks maybe she should just let the cleaning lady walk him because he likes her and because that dog walker treated my sister so unprofessionally. Your dog walker doesn’t have a Harvard MBA, for crying out loud. The dog can’t stay in your apartment for 12 hours, so work it out with the unprofessional one or hire someone else. I don’t care. Zap, zap, zap. It’s one of the few times I let the fireflies out of the jar instead of swallowing them down. I hang up the phone knowing I was too hard on her. I’m a terrible sister. Zap, zap, zap.
That evening I’m planning the next day’s logistics with my husband: I’ll work a full schedule and oversee the builders and meet a City worker for a plumbing inspection. I’ll leave home around 9:15 and be home by 3:00, I say. Glazed and inattentive, my husband asks me what time I’ll leave the house in the morning. Zap, zap, zap. By now the fireflies are harder and harder to contain, and I don’t want to spill them all just because my husband too often asks a question I just answered. It’s not worth the upset, but those little sparks are just zapping and zapping and zapping away.
I was already wound like a tight spring, along with everyone of conscience in the world right now. Bombs are falling, snipers are shooting, cops are killing civilians, civilians are killing cops, refugees are fleeing, and thousands of Americans wearing red and blue sequins and yearning for the good pre-civil-rights era spent the week cheering an orange-hued misogynist racist in his bid to be the leader of the free world. Zap the fucking Zap and Zap Zap.
So I doused the zaps. In whiskey. Sobriety, schnobriety. The warm calm oozed through me. The fireflies floated happily into their jar and lulled off to sleep. Nighty-night.
The fireflies awake in the morning, of course. They can’t spend forever in a calming whiskey wash. Or maybe they could, but the whiskey would make a far bigger mess of me than my sparks would ever dream. So the trick is to not pathologize the sparks to the point that I want to silence them. And to remember that without our madness twinkling through the darkness, we’d be damned boring. I’d have nothing to write. I’d have less arugula.
*Merriam Webster. “Full Definition of heart attack: an acute episode of heart disease marked by the death or damage of heart muscle due to insufficient blood supply to the heart usually as a result of a coronary thrombosis or a coronary occlusion and that is characterized especially by chest pain —called also myocardial infarction.”