The spongey aspect of my mind didn’t strike me until recently. I’ve found myself obsessing today over all the sly ways in which my thinking absorbs the people I loved or admired. The ways in which I held onto things that formed far away from my own feeling. The love of goldfinches—the type of bird—drawn from the ceramic plate that hung above my grandmother’s kitchen window for the past two decades. My varied attempts to collect every unique quarter in circulation after my mother showed me that the eagle crest did not populate every coin. The excitement of bringing something forgotten to the one who misplaced it. The friendship of homeless cats. The obese breathing. The sound of quiet. The touch of no one. The mindless fun.
All of it isn’t mine. But, in the same consideration, nothing truly is for a while. In the paint of the picture, it took a very long time for anything I produced to arise out of me un-augmented. And even when it did, it was more aligned with something inspired. It held hands. It still does now. But it seems a new territory because I feel myself actively asking it to.
As a young man—a useless line to many, but as it’s my only mind it’s all I have to share—this absorption is terrifying. To know how much of me is alien is a desperate prescription. Even worse: understood despair. It’s asking me how much of myself is contingent on those around me? On my parents? On my girlfriend? On my grandparents? On the souls that reach me alone? It is arguing with me about how much of my mind is mine. It is asking me if the love for my neighbors came more from my mother or father or does it stem from my role as an older sibling. Did it come from any of them at all?
It's impossible—as a young man—to not believe in God in these moments. I talk about God a lot. I talk about dying a lot, (my girlfriend hates it) but all of the talk of the outer does not come from a pity for me, but from an examination of myself. I talk a lot about God. I read a lot about God. I believe Ada Limôn. I believe Carlo Carretto’s feverish dedication to the Bible, writing, “Nothing could be truer, nothing more opaque, than the existence of God. Nothing could be clearer, more rational, more tangible than the creation of the universe by God, nothing more mysterious. Nothing could be more evident than the eternity of the soul.”
I’m asking, in these moments and conversations (and in my poems), about eternity. But here I am, entirely incapable of understanding what I’ve been.
I’ve written in my angst before that God spoke to me. That they said that they wanted me to live more, so that I could heal others. So that no one ever had to be like me. I may have changed, but there was no dialogue. My grandfather, a life-long devotee to Christ and God and the traditional movement, says God talked to him only once. On a day where he thought,
“My my. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if God talked to me today?”
He says then, at the very second after the thought, God chuckled at him.
That’s the dialogue I’ve written. That’s how it was. That was the ideal. That was my necessity when my brain was sick, when I was killing myself by leaving my hands still. FOR leaving them still. I held onto the cases of the maybe. On the miracles. On God’s grace. Of what a higher being could give me and teach me. But. But! God hasn’t been the key to my grace, or my movement in it. My people have.
My father tried to teach himself how to play the mandolin. I was young, maybe five, and I was of the age where I went with my father everywhere. He wasn’t a very good self-teacher. He found an ad in the newspaper—I remember the ad—for cheap mandolin lessons. I remember the first lesson, where we walked into a retirement home and learned from an 85-year-old man how to strum correctly. My father gave him 10 dollars. I went to all the lessons. I sat quietly on a chair. I drank the man’s cranberry juice out of his fridge. My father went to him for lessons for months—I went for months—and after a while, my father got very good at the mandolin.
There came a day when my father told me to grab his mandolin from his bedroom and put it in our car. I went to the car sometime later. I forgot the instrument. Sitting in the seat behind my father, I stared at the back of his head and agonized over forgetting it as we drove to the lesson. I thought about how frustrated my dad would be when we got to the old man’s house. I felt disappointed that I probably wouldn’t drink cranberry juice from his fridge.
We pulled into the parking lot of a hospital.
I remember rising up the hospital floors in the elevator with my father. I felt confused. He hadn’t asked me to bring in the mandolin with us as he exited the car, and I hadn’t told him that I forgot it. We walked into a room on one of the higher floors and we saw the old man stretched out on an inclined bed. The man was unconscious. A dark bruise circled his neck or forehead, I can’t remember. I sat on a chair and my father pulled up a stool next to him. The man didn’t wake up, he didn’t wake up the whole time. My father just sat with him for a while. I think he prayed over him. I think he talked to him. I never learned the man’s name.
I still vividly remember seeing a lunch tray, untouched, on a table on the other side of the room. A cup of cranberry juice with an aluminum seal laid out on top of it. I walked over to the table while my father sat with the old man, and pocketed the cup of juice in the sweatshirt I was wearing. I then followed my dad back to the elevator when he had determined he’d said enough. On the way down, I pulled the juice out of my pocket and realized I had no straw. I remember thinking that I could probably just peel a little bit of the aluminum back, just enough to make a small slit for me to drink out of. My father saw it. He took it from me. He left me in the lobby as he went back up the elevator and gave the juice back. He stayed up there for some time, much longer than it would have taken to replace a cup of juice. He came back down. We drove home. We never went to another lesson.
My entire life since that moment, I’ve regretted taking that juice from him, but I never understood what it must have meant to my dad. He didn’t go for a lesson; he went to support a man and to pray for his health. His son stole a dying man’s cranberry juice.
There are other stories I could talk about to discuss what I’ve learned from my father, thousands of stories, but the cranberry juice day sticks in my mind as the day I disappointed my father the most. In some capacity, I’m sure he was dissatisfied with my performance as a five-year-old Christian. But my father didn’t keep that faith.
But even today he would go sit with that dying man. There’s no doubt in my mind.
If anything—if any one, single terrible thing—I feel I failed as a person that day. I’ve let it teach me under the guise that I was a child, that I saw juice and expected to have it, but how many other times have I used that as an excuse? I was young. I was tired. I was busy. I was lost. I was joking. I was fighting. I was done.
How much of that was taught to me? “Nothing could be truer, nothing more opaque, than the existence of God.” What did I absorb that day besides realizing that I shouldn’t have taken the juice? What do I know now? I know many things. I know my father was hurt. I know the man never knew. I knew that was the last time we saw him, and I know that he probably passed away not long after that day. I know, by taking that juice with me, I had invited the world to deem that man done, finished, and perishable. I know that when my dad took that juice back, he had done all that he could have done to save him.
This is the terrible power to wield. It’s a dance, a game, of inviting and fighting the world and its rhythm. To give meaning and remove it. To regard it as anything serious at all.
I have laid on a bed with my girlfriend and talked—a few times now—about my taking of the man’s juice and the reparation of my father.
“You were a child,” she tells me. She invites me to live linearly. “You had no clue what it meant. It’s not a metaphor. You wanted juice, you expected juice, and then you saw it.”
I was young. For months and months of my pondering this claim, I have never sensed any truth within it. I have felt that grace that it could grant me, like a smell, like a soft hand, but never once have either of these similes existed without the crossed fingers — Picasso’s line of triumphant declaration: “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” I learn nothing from you I sneered in the back of my classes. Art is not language. Art tells me nothing. I say, I think, but I also remember crying fitfully as I locked hour-long eyes to Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.
I was not young. I was, but it doesn’t feel like it could be my excuse. Childhood is a confusing truth, as we never know the youth we experienced. It is a perfect paradox – the other great equalizer. We know inexperience. We know feeling little. We know feelings that are too wide, too cut and dry, and too common. The anger comes out in red visions and the love comes out in our first nights spent without sleep and the loss comes out in tantrums. My grandmother has seen me stir and wait on her hand and foot when I see her and she tells me,
“Sam, you are young. You have more yourself to worry about then the aging problems of an old woman.”
I laugh it off and never respond, but the truth is: I don’t. The feelings have changed. My anger comes in silence and the words I wield that I know exactly what they’ll do. My love comes in lyric – what my girlfriend calls ‘storybook’ and ‘the brother to manufactured perfection.’ My loss comes as this, the waiting, the writing, the tantrum against death and aging and the loss of my grandmother and fearing the loss of my mind.
The taking of juice.
In a few weeks, I will go to have dinner with my family, my nuclear family, and spend time with my parents and sister for the only time in the last few months. I am ecstatic. I am finding myself incredibly eager. It has taken me a long time, a very long time, to understand that this is what God is, and what it can be. It’s the great pulls and pushes. It’s the removal and the replacement. It’s a story that can’t be told. Only felt. It is something to disappoint and something to find purpose in. It is—more often than not—unimaginable, permeating in something we hardly care to perceive.
If it is truly God, it is so impossibly quiet to forget, and yet, so difficult to remember. Maybe this is what the Buddhists mean when they discuss the purpose of mindfulness. Maybe this is why I absorb. Maybe this is why I’m so terrified to lose the ones who made me. When they go, I do not know what the dance will then be. I don’t know who will put back what I remove. I don’t know who will care to cure me.
Or tell me that I was, simply, young.
Careen toward labyrinthitis
One will never know the benefit
To waking hours
Until a full night goes
To beg questions
Of my limitude
Of how consequential
I could be
If I couldn’t write wraiths
Or build onto homes
Or enjoy someone pretty
I could ask
For another try
But I’d choose sleep
The primal memories
Locked within rest
Like these frigid days
That still see sun
Like the terrible taunt of reminding
Sam E. Taylor is a 22-year-old student writer studying at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Raised in Cincinnati, his writing—primarily poetry—focuses on living with and overcoming eating disorders in a midwestern climate. A breakout writer, his poems are published in multiple issues of New Reader Magazine, Orpheus Literary Magazine, Dreamer by Night, Suburban Witchcraft, and elsewhere. His debut poetry collection, OAF, will be published in late 2023.