This starts out about one thing, and then becomes about some other things, but ultimately is all the same business. 

Today Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic sudden death from an apparent heroin overdose has been all over my social media feeds, vastly overwhelming the Superbowl (or Puppy Bowl)-related posts, or the usual buzz of “come see my show!” and “my friends are/this food is really phenomenal.” Instead, my friends–many, many of them actors and directors–are posting clips from his films, photos of him, even fond memories of meeting or knowing him. He was one of the most universally admired actors of our time. I have by no means seen his entire body of work (I kept saying I would wait until I finally read In Cold Blood before watching Capote), but have always greatly respected him. Synecdoche, New York is one of the best movies I have ever seen. I thought about what to post, what to say. I kept scrolling through my feed.

And there, nestled amid the PSH posts, and the sports talk, and the usual business, were a couple of posts from members of my family. Three years ago in early February, my cousin Denise died suddenly. We saw each other rarely and were not close; she lived in Alabama, and was about fourteen years my senior. But I remember vividly the last time I saw her, a family gathering down South a few years ago. She was a kind woman. A nurse. Two young children. 

I don’t recall the medical details, just the mental image that flooded me as I cried into the telephone: a woman alone in a hospital bathroom, falling to the ground. 

I didn’t really know her, barely at all, not enough for the phrase “missing her” to make any sense. But I see the words written by her younger child, now, I think, in the seventh grade, and weep. I think my own strange thoughts:

Sometimes when I’m lying in bed with you and you’re asleep, I stare at your body, waiting for the next slow breath of deep sleeping, and when it comes I realize I’ve been holding mine, heart racing, because any one of us could die at any second, but if it was you, if it was you I think every bone in my body would break at once, giant carrion birds tearing through my mouth for weeping. Every screen would go dark, a last twitch of static spelling out your name. The sun, burning out and dropping, like a peach pit in the snow. 

I reach my fingers into my eyes and pull out long, thick ropes of time. 

I tuck my nails under my collarbone and yank. The room fills up with steam.

I want to forget my laziness and fear. I want to crush my crumbling thoughts into a diamond. I want to be a perfect star. I want to burn the sky. 

My lungs balloon with laughter, harsh, the scent of stale air. 

The cruel truths of cruel men ring out in the stillness. 

What, then, girl, do you do? Give us the word of your inaction, bleed that ambition to the floor, your big talk and your little body crumpling in broken metal and wasted time. 

The fear of death, of the running out of time, could not engulf the fear of failure that fallowed all the crops.

But then, here, this little pricking change of day and day. 

I could grow a woman for this body, build her out of the wreckage of all my former selves. I could make you proud. I could make me. 

I will let these trivialities propel me, if only to keep swimming through the dark. I want to be the kind of girl you think I am. (I kind of think I am to be the girl you want.)

I will sharpen my machete. I will put on my mascara. I will cut down the field of terrors that spreads itself before me. You will see my face on billboards, fear oozing out my mouth, bent and desiccated. You will hear my voice in the boiling seas. A thousand little girls will weep, for we are holding hands. Rose petals will burst from the car stereos of small-town tyrants, and I swear to god even if just for one night we will sleep well. 

Oh, help, this heart has stretched to let the world in, and your hand is at the hilt. 

On haste, on failure, on the missing word. On when, oh on when, does the mind become still and thoughtful and when do the stories get up and finish themselves? When did it happen that I ceased being a person who writes? How did the text somehow become the thing I knew how to do, and thus left to the last minute, the afterthought of some construction? Here I am, staking claims of sincerity, of direct expression, and somehow I have lost track of the act of simply standing before the room and delivering a text. The forms have overtaken their content, and my voice has been lost. A horse without a cart is without discipline, without a certain kind of use, but a cart when the horse is lost is simply a place to hide, to take refuge from the beasts of night. Somewhere along the way I went safe. You learn to hide behind two dozen small labors to avoid the heaviest load. I talk a lot of game, I talk game so well I never get pushed onto the court, I spin all my clever ideas around like cotton candy, bad for your teeth. A ceaseless monster of attention and tenuous connections, ever-forgetting, ever-cleansing out the past. My institutional memory is a tribute to collapse, and my list of finished tasks is like a barren field on its best days, broken shit glimmering and we can call these fragments things of use. I do not know what it is to take pride, because I do not know what it is to look back on something– the things disappear and I cannot remember them. Palimpsest, palimpsest, my laziness will be the death of me in memories all over town. Let’s take the chance to avoid the fear of failure for five seconds. The words go unwritten because if they are the wrong ones– if they are not only wrong, but carefully, thoughtfully chosen and still wrong, then I will be the last to forgive myself. Let all choices be made in haste, for I’d rather be lazy, scatterbrained, forgetful, than seen to be the long laborer of foolish works.

I must learn to forgive myself my failures before they are made, and let the foul taste of fear wrap itself around my tongue. Remember to revisit the lingering word.