I haven't been able to watch Parts Unknown since Anthony Bourdain died. Absolutely cannot. Despite the fact that I can consume other art made by other people, also strangers, who took their own lives, Bourdain's work I can't handle. I know why. I've been fine to circle around it, process my feelings, and put them in a mental box of sad things I avoid revisiting.
This month, however, I've unintentionally gone to the emotional batting cages about loss. Last week I finally started reading The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion about the year following the death of her husband. I arrived home from tour to find that a hardcover book had arrived, full of lyrics and illustrations by someone who took their own life a few years ago. And you know what I chose to watch on my flight home? On a complete whim? Roadrunner, the new documentary about Anthony Bourdain.
The thing that all three have in common is a struggle to understand a reality that doesn't make sense anymore, a reality that they didn't ask for. Grief and just straight up sadness are so often wrapped up in not being able to recognize yourself or the world you woke up in. In the case of Anthony Bourdain, he found that he had become a world-famous chef while he had been trying to accomplish something that was, as one of his colleagues put it, "almost never about food." The kind of human connection he was looking for, in part because of his fame and career, was continually just out of reach. His success still led to lonliness and alienation, a scenario that seemed insurmountable.
There have been times where, like anyone, I've struggled to find myself if I don't have someone or something to tether me to a larger definition. Who am I when a project ends, when someone leaves, when a friend dies, if I don't draw or I stop writing music? Who am I if I don't live in Brooklyn anymore? What will happen if I quit my job? I think the fear associated with those questions is really just the feeling of whether or not I like myself without those things. Whether or not I like my life without those things. It feels unfortunately precarious when any of those things carry too much weight. When things become accidentally codependent.
Over the past few years, I've tried to focus on making sure that no one thing could make me completely unravel. I don't always succeed. It doesn't work every day. But it's a question I ask myself pretty constantly. If X went away today, would I be ok? If not, how can I fix that? Not to avoid or overcome grieving, but to be able to survive it.
In the face of ::gestures at the world:: there's certainly enough to give most people a mountain of dread. I credit my ability to moderately handle any of it to be in large part because those questions motivate me to make small shifts on a regular basis. I have to stay one step ahead of the vortex, as my therapist used to call it.
I've absorbed the aforementioned art surrounding loss and grief in a way that I find helps me move through my own experiences. They help me better understand myself and avoid repeating my own mistakes. I can learn from those works by identifying with certain paths and veering away from others. I don't recommend diving into the sad if you're not prepared, but I consider this a progress check for myself. I used to draw the line at watching Parts Unknown, but I'm getting closer to being able to revisit it again.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
– Mary Oliver (The Journey)