In which if there isn’t any strength, there isn’t any story.

 

The hour should be the morning, and the season any season, all seasons, for suffering knows no long-planned-for vacations, desperate last-minute call-in sick time, or spontaneous anarchic “mental health” days.  Suffering runs through all the days, like an under-layer of schist that ties disparate landforms into one unified geological event, unseeable to the topside eye- but if the ground were to ever separate and all the many layers be revealed in a steep cliff of compressed seams of time, that particular layer would be there in every case, even when kettles joyfully roll or moraines graciously dip.  Suffering is the 2nd deepest layer, peace being possibly the deepest, but that remains unknown for most of us, most of the time.  The morning is the available hour, early enough to be that time when we live alone, though we may not, in fact, actually live alone.  In the morning we can step out of the sleeping house, pulling recalcitrant doors firmly closed, and make our way to the place where our suffering is awake and irritably demanding our attention. 

 

The rooms in which we meet our suffering are modestly dressed.  They don’t clean up before the cleaning lady comes; they let their dowdy natures, their cobwebby celebration banners, their uniform but ass- bent folding chairs, and coffee-cup-ring stain patterns speak for themselves.  The rooms are liberated from vanity, if they ever felt it in the first place, because all those who come into them to meet their suffering would be intimidated were it otherwise, contemptuous of “design” and “decoration”, those heightened aesthetic experiences being a distraction from the physical sensations of a meeting place for individuals going inward together.  If any, the most apt decoration would be lengths of rope and crampons draped all around the room, harnesses instead of folding chairs, and pickaxes and chipping knives strewn on the floor, as the spelunkers descend into themselves to find their layers, and to bring back to the surface samples of themselves, the thoughts and spongy feelings found on the way down and the way back up.  But because decoration is not necessary, the only things hanging on the walls are utilitarian reminders about tradition and suggestions as to how to descend and ascend.  Truth be told, often there are two portraits included with the didactic framed wall texts, men who made their first forays virtually blind, and still managed to find each other in the dark, arresting their freefalls by gripping each other’s forearm- in a manly way, of course- and clinging together to rest before feeling their way back up.  We admire them, because we are not alone to do this work, but they were, and they designated the rooms to meet their suffering headfirst, at first, and then, later, slowly, carefully climbing down. 

 

As the preliminaries pass and the hour arrives, a tinkling bell rings, and almost instantly the room quiets. With pavlovian, unconscious settling of ass into chair, we silence our phones and our selves.  We note the time and turn our faces toward the facilitator in front of us, who is tasked to give a focal point to all the sufferers: someone to talk at, someone to look toward with a yard-long stare, because the focus is turned inward. Without this facilitator at the front of the room, we would not know where to look. We would be ashamed, and hold forth staring at the wall or the ceiling, lose track of the time and never stop talking. So it is to this person that we direct our reports, our descriptions of the suffering, our observations of the ways it seduces us or slaps us down, with a hand that looks like love or a hand that looks like hate. We detail our encounters with despair, a fussy companion who calls and calls and would never stop calling if we did not have the secret weapon of changing our number from time to time. It always finds us, though, eventually, because despair is desperately intelligent and logical, and can reason through any excuse you give as to why you do not prefer its company. 

 

We include all minutiae in our report, far more than we do when it is necessary to write it all down; in that case, we skimp and minimize, because it becomes exhausting to keep track of everything we have experienced. In speaking, we allow ourselves the cushioned delivery of infinite detail. Brevity only sharpens the knife when used against the self. But details — specific, unique details of the suffering — have the paradoxical effect of making the telling more and more encompassing; everyone nods with recognition, snorts with laughter, and cries with empathy as one person’s singular stab is reminiscent to us all of our own. We tell and tell and tell, and listen closely to the tellings, each one a potential epiphany. We tell for years, for decades, in that hour when we live alone, because to not tell is to ensure that that hour is every hour, for all of our lives, alone. And we listen for all that time, learning the hard way how to set aside our own loudness, our ambition, our disinterest, to offer to all the sufferers who have made their way there at that hour some kind of solace. Or, at least, the promise of solace later. It may take a long time, we say to one another, and may not be recognizable as solace: it may look like loneliness or resignation, may be disguised as harsh cracks in the façade of the rooms, as a shabby simulacrum of some dream of peace. But at least we can sit together, in this room, for these hours, and speak to each other about that. Because we all arrive at the same recognition, somewhere during the hours when we live alone: the simple truth that the alternatives are not better, and banding together to live alone is what we can achieve.

 

As we reach the end of the hour, disband, and each go off toward home, we walk as if in a fog, an active, mobile fog that creates mirages and puppetry of elevated philosophies, daring self-actualizations, and noble sacrifices, playing around our heads. It dissipates, of course, as the day progresses, burned off by the sun and the non-liminal realm of everyday life. As we step up to our doors, turning the key to go inside and meet breakfast, schoolbooks, briefcases, and assignments of every kind, we remind ourselves that we had that hour when we lived alone, that we will have it again tomorrow, and on throughout our whole lives, so long as we are willing to have it.