The Tower and The Star


A few weeks  ago, I asked everybody on the internet that I know to send me the music that they listen to when they’re sad.


A few days before that, I was sitting on the couch in my therapist’s office with my head in my hands, fighting for the words I needed to explain why the depression I’m currently experiencing has laid me so low.


“I don’t even…I don’t know how to explain this. Do you know tarot cards? Do you know the Tower?” I squeak through the cracks in my fingers, unwilling to look her in the eye.


She nods. “A little. Tell me about it.”


I drop my hands into my lap, toying with the hem of my sweater. “The Tower is like…the most disastrous card of the Major Arcana. When it falls down, it literally destroys your foundations, just shakes everything you know to dust. The fundamental shit in your life you spent so much time building and planning- it’s just fucking gone.”


She leans forward, elbows on her knees. “So you think you’re in The Tower now.”


Of COURSE I think I’m in the Tower now. It’s not just because I’m depressed. For most of my life, depression has been a more-or-less loyal companion. I first tried therapy to understand why that was, but I’ve come to realize that the origin story of my sadness is moot. It doesn’t matter if I am reacting rationally to a collection of truly bullshit circumstances or I lost the neurological chemistry lottery or I was bitten by a depressed radioactive spider. It’s now just a fact of my life, no more interesting that any other. I have brown hair, I’m right-handed, I have major depressive disorder, I have wide feet. Whatever. I still gotta deal with it, and by proxy, so does my therapist.


This bout feels different, though. More uncontrollable. Hungrier. Life circumstances are certainly a factor: this past year was a complete dumpster fire for me, same as everyone else I know. I spent the better part of 2017 immobilized by migraines, a problem resolved by surgery that I’ve only now fully recovered from. Relationships and work I have poured my blood and sweat into for years have turned sour, gone twisted, or simply vanished without warning. My career has stagnated to the extent that I have no idea how I’ll be paying my bills come springtime. People I liked and people I loved have straight-up died. Accepting all of this and trying to determine a new path forward has driven me to learn things about myself that have fundamentally changed my understanding of who I am and what I want from life. Even with most of the carnage in the past, there are only more rumbles on my horizon.


Most days I feel betrayed, by the world at large and by my own body and mind. I worked hard to make a comfortable life for myself. I did everything ethically and I did everything right. It didn’t mean anything in the end. Being a good person isn’t enough to keep the Tower upright. Nothing is.


“FUCK the Tower!” I growl. “What’s the point of all this? When are things going to get easy again?”


My therapist shakes her head at me. “You know that I don’t know the answer to that. It’s possible that it never will.”


“Yeah, I know. I keep telling myself to resist despair, whatever that even means.”


She pauses. “Resist despair. You said that in our last session. Where did that come from?”


“I dunno. It’s been kind of stuck in my head lately.” I don’t provide her with the origin of the phrase- an Op Ivy song and a pair of tights that my favorite wrestler wears sometimes -because that’s too embarrassing, even for therapy. It doesn’t matter where it came from. What I need to figure out is why it has been running through my head on loop as an imperative command despite the fact I’m not fully sure what I’m asking myself to do.


I know what I want to do. I want to bail on therapy. I want to bail on everything. I want to pack up my car and drive somewhere warm and never look back. I want to-


“I wonder if there’s a reason for that.”


I narrow my eyes at her. My therapist ‘wonders’ a lot of things. I asked her once why she didn’t just tell me what I needed to know, and she responded that me figuring it out is more meaningful than her explaining it to me. Which, OK, but then what am I paying you for?


I draw a deep breath in through my nostrils, thinking out loud. “Right. The Tower is a part of a cycle that people travel over and over again throughout the course of their life. Collapse and despair are inevitable. I have to accept that there will be no magical end date to things being terrible. Is that what you’re getting at?”


“That’s a piece of it.”


An awkward silence falls. I feel my fingernails rip through stitches, my sweater creaking at their violent attention. I grit my teeth.


“So, everything inevitably sucks forever. Cool. Good therapy.”


She doesn’t dignify my comment with a reply. I have to take this seriously, so-


I shuffle my feet into the carpet, struggling to focus. “Ugh. So, I accept that the tower is going to fall. I accept despair, and accept that it’s a condition of being alive, and, I…keep living anyway?”


My voice is weak, but she nods eagerly. I’m on the right track.


I keep talking, my words colliding with each other like weary bodies, sliding on a hill of question marks towards the finish line. “I mean, resisting something isn’t destroying it, or getting rid of it forever, right? It’s carrying on in spite of it. So, um, I should be finding the joy in resistance, even if it’s futile? There’s value in resisting despair, even if it feels hopeless at the time? Right?”


She smiles at me, satisfied. “You got it.”


I lean back on the couch with a huff. “But I WANT to give up! I’m so goddamn tired!”


“Mmm. What would giving up look like, to you?”


“I don’t know!” My shuffling feet become so frantic that I kick the coffee table. “I guess…I don’t know. I guess I could kill myself, but I don’t really want to do that. I guess I could run away from everything, but that wouldn’t actually fix it. I…fuck. I have no idea what giving up looks like. I just know that I won’t let myself do it.”


She looks me in the eye and speaks slowly. Her voice is firm. “You don’t know how to give up because you don’t want to. Despite all of the things that have gone wrong, you’re still finding value in surviving. I need you to trust that part of yourself that wants to resist despair, and let it take the lead until you’re done with the Tower. OK?”


My feet go still.


“I- how do I do that?”


“Think about the things that have brought you happiness over the last year. What were they?”


I close my eyes. I think of the hours I’ve spent writing. I see the time I have spent preparing for storytelling events, practicing my tall tales in front of a mirror until they are perfectly unrehearsed. I think of the pieces of myself I have been brutally, unflinchingly honest about in front of literal hundreds of strangers, and the way the rejection I feared never materialized. Instead, it’s brought old friends and new hugging me and thanking me for making them laugh, making them cry, being willing to be a voice in common for their sadness or their grief or their general awkward humanity. I think of the people who stuck around instead of the people who left. I think of the gifts that came into my life while the tower was falling, the good things that stayed solid despite everything else falling to dust. I feel humbled and small.


I also feel…better.


I clear my throat. My voice is thick with an unshed something. “I did a lot of writing and storytelling this year. I made some friends. I was…fuck, it feels stupid to say out loud, but that was brave, for me. And then people were so cool and encouraging about it, and I felt like maybe it was worth being vulnerable like that if it meant something to somebody. Every time I’ve reached out to people and they’ve reached back. That…that was important to me. That made things feel worthwhile.”


She smiles at me, making my throat clench tighter. “So do more of that. Make things. Reach out to people. Be present. Be open. Resist despair. The Tower can’t last forever. What comes next?”


I swallow hard. “The Star. Um, our hour is up.”


“I’m supposed to say that, not you. We’ve talked about that.”


“I know. See you next week?”


So, next comes the Star. The Star is not a magical fix-it card. It does not promise happiness, or deliverance from the wreckage the Tower created in your life. When the Star enters your life, you are obligated to walk in faith, your path lit by the eerie glow of your hopes crystallized and hung just out of your reach. The Star asks you to look upwards, away from the rubble that used to be your life, and focus your energy on the future. It’s a candle in a window on a snowy night- there’s an end to your journey in sight, but still miles to go before you sleep.


The Star asks you to keep your heart open and have faith in your power to fight, especially in that last lonesome mile. So that’s why I put an ask out to the internet for people’s favorite cheer-up songs. I wanted to make something out of my sadness, and see how other people do that too. I expected maybe 3 or 4 suggestions. I got 89! I’ve listened to the playlist my friends created for me more or less continuously ever since. Movie themes, epic fight songs, karaoke jams, holiday music, songs about friendship and love and anger and happy-sad songs and sad-happy songs and everything in between. I’ve heard new music I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve sung along with a lot of pop music I’d forgotten about. I have accepted the power of ABBA in my life, and I have realized that It’s Raining Men is honestly kind of a banger. It’s an astonishing collage of joyful noises derived from a thousand sources for a thousand reasons. Over five hours of pure sonic joy, just because I reached out and asked for it. A hundred acts of kindness shared.


So that’s how we escape the Tower: shaking, but still standing. The collapse is a tragedy, but if it’s falling for all of us, at least we’re in it together. If we accept that, and we decide to carry on anyway, we have to help each other remember the Star is coming. We have to carry its potential light in our own hearts to show us the way home and help us shine brighter for our friends who are still lost in the dark. If our hearts are open and filled with light, we can peer through the plaster raining around our heads and see glimmers refracted back to us through splinters and dust. We can be the Stars for each other, or at least remind each other to look up. A thousand open hearts create a thousand moments of kindness, shining in a dark hour. A constellation, if you squint. How lucky we all are to be able to resist despair together.

Memento Carrie: Satire (2 of 3)


I wrote this essay shortly after Carrie Fisher passed away in 2016 and have been trying to find a home for it ever since. In honor of what will be her final appearance as General Leia in The Last Jedi, I’ve decided to just post it here. This is part 2 of 3. Part 1 is is linked here and below. Come on back Friday for the thrilling conclusion.

(Trigger warning: depression, prolonged illness, suicide)

But that is not the only time Carrie Fisher saved my life. The second time requires some context to be understood, and it wouldn’t make sense to a child. So we move into part 2 of the story, in which you are now an adolescent. How’s being fifteen going for you, Harmony?

Spoiler alert: it isn’t going great. The good news is that you’ve started using your real name. The bad news is that you’re still aggressively nerdy, pudgy and bespectacled, and wounded by the world around you at every turn. Your mother no longer has the time and patience to seek out role models for you, as she is occupied by a mysterious and chronic health condition. This condition is resulting in her dying or killing herself or making a big deal out of nothing (depending on whom you ask). But she knows that her daughter still needs guidance. She knows that you love to write, and that you are naturally funny, and she feels that you deserve an audience. Your favorite thing to read, other than Lois Duncan novels, is The Onion. So your mother writes to the editorial board of The Onion, explaining her ongoing illness and her gratitude for the laughter their work gave to your family in a difficult time. She also mentions that her talented daughter wants nothing more than to write for them someday- a wish you had never shared with your mother before, though it seems obvious in hindsight. In response The Onion editors send an absolutely lovely letter of encouragement, a box full of print-editions and Onion books, and your most prized t-shirt for the next two years.

You come home from school one day and your mother presents their gifts to you. She is so proud of herself, and moreso she is hopeful that this might be The Thing That Finally Cheers You Up. You are cautiously pleased- you’d been waiting for Our Dumb Century to turn up at Half-Price Books for months now! -but you are also mortified. How could your mother tell these unknown people about her illness and your sadness? Where the hell did she get off allowing them to send her books and merchandise? You weren’t charity cases! Didn’t she know there were children in sub-Saharan Africa who had never even heard of satirical newspapers?

In response, your mother sighs and rolls her eyes. You will always remember exactly how she looked at that moment. She sneered at you in a somehow loving way, cocooned in one of her omnipresent shapeless t-shirt nightgowns, the outline of a morphine pump snuggled up to her breast like a sugar glider. Her ever-beautiful french tipped nails (a home job, thank you Sally Hansen) tapped on the side of her drug store cane. She fixed you with a shut-up look, then she said:

“Listen. This all sucks. It’s not going to stop sucking. You’re going to have to keep dealing with it. Why not get what you can out of it?”

You remain embarrassed, but you also read and reread the gifts from the Onion until they fall apart in your hands. You begin to write your own satirical articles on your home computer, hidden in a folder marked “Homework”, your ambitions guarded from others in the same way that most people your age hide their porn. You dream of the mythical Midwestern metropolises- Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh -and of a life that could be sustained there by your gifts. You dream of laptops and coffee shops, of a byline in italics. You let yourself hope.

Then she dies, and everything changes.

What does any of this have to do with Carrie Fisher? Good question. Let’s jump ahead one more time.

We are in the third and final part of this story. You are now Harmony at the age of thirty. You will not be surprised to learn that you are still fat and bespectacled, but you have at least begun to dress for it, and you are now comfortable telling your bullies where to shove it. Your twenties were long and weird and difficult, but they spat you out on the other side in the skin of an adult. You are now a woman with a dog and a master’s degree and a husband and a real job and maybe the beginnings of a drinking problem- but that’s a worry for another time. You have done all of the things that were supposed to make your life complete, and yet.

You are still depressed. You are used to being depressed. You have stopped fighting it. Depression is the annoying sit-com neighbor in your life, a schmuck in a Hawaiian shirt who crowds your every move and turns everything you touch to shit. He pops up at the worst times, ruining everything with predictable hijinks like some kind of bizarro Steve Urkel. Sometimes he stays out of the plot for minutes at a time, and you almost think he’s gone. Then he’s back, swinging through an open window and dropping his popular catchphrase: “Hey, why don’t you just kill yourself?!” Cue laughter. Cue applause.

Thirty-year old Harmony is exhausted by her depression. You are so tired of driving people away, of doing everything wrong, of not being strong enough. You sleep all of the time, but you never feel awake. You begin to notice things: the heights of bridges, the airproof plumbers tape that could seal the windows of a garage, the skulls and crossbones on the chemicals beneath your sink. These small details are now lit in neon everywhere you look, and on your weariest days you are powerless to close your eyes against them. In desperation you return to the therapist that kept you alive after your mother died. You ask this therapist how people ever learn to be happy, because you never did and you’re not sure you can continue to live if happiness isn’t at least a possibility somewhere down the road. You can’t handle a lifetime of endless visits from your brain’s warped, darkest-timeline companion.



You know you don’t actually want to be dead, not really, but you need something to live for or that’s where things are going to end up. So what’s it going to be?