One day I sit in a rental car outside Tuck-it-away Storage in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, and sketch a function on a paper napkin. I work as a math tutor, so I possess that level of nerdiness where occasionally I’ll do math for fun. I’m doodling the volume of my family’s stuff as a function of time to figure out what kind of graph best models our collapse. It’s a piecewise function, with horizontal segments descending toward the x-axis like uneven steps in an old house. Intermixed, the occasional vertiginous drop of a decreasing exponential curve. There’s the long plateau of childhood, replete with bourgeois convenience: a Tudor home with a separate library and rose garden, a backyard fringed with woods, for privacy. Suburban property traded for a small house in the country. House traded for a spacious assisted living apartment, then a tiny assisted living apartment. Finally, a coffin, urns, and storage space. A little uptick to show how the storage space swells, becomes two, a listless rise to show my family’s remnants stuffed into the gloom of overpriced New York City storage. Looking at the napkin, I see my graph gives a clean, clinical air to a diminishing corridor— proves, QED, the claustrophobia of loss. I crumple the napkin and enter the storage space, a windowless monolith bordering the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Tuck-it-away looms ten stories over a Con Ed substation, which surrounds it with electric humming, a halo of industrialization. Situated within the overlooked hieroglyphics that power the city, on an isolated stretch of the Brooklyn waterfront, it looks like a ruin, its untended walls of concrete framed by sky. In this microneighborhood, only two snippets of text are visible: an enormous “Self-storage” sign, rendered in chipping paint on the top stories of the storage space, and a billboard lofted above the substation entrance gate which reads, with metaphysical flourish, “0 months without a lost time accident.” Through the years, the same attendant has been sitting in the hallway of Tuck-it-away on a busted office chair, its lining erupting in foam trails which sway as he twists from side to side. I pace past him to my rental, #5A19. The lights are on timers, and more than once, I’ve been plunged into stupefying darkness while arranging the boxes I’ve brought to store. The boxes pile high, and after a while, I’m no longer sure what I’m storing, but I bring the things that are left and stack them into high
columns. These are my family’s remnants. I squirrel them away, these last bits and pieces of a life I can no longer bear to look at, but which I also cannot bring myself to give away.
II. In the last year of your life, you write in shaky handwriting in your journal: Death is not our business –Epictetus. When I find this fragment, I see the poise of your unstable hand. I sense your system reeling under the pressure of improbable survival. I see you firing doctors when they tell you how long you can expect to live. I can die perfectly well on my own, you tell them, I’m hiring you to help me focus on living. I sense you with Epictetus’s epigram defiantly unrolling a brilliant standard. But now you’re dead, and my body spasms with panic attacks. I want to argue with you, tell you to put down the goddamn flag, tell you that death is certainly our business. I look up all of your fragments. I stalk your Epictetus stump, which leads me to Epicurean philosophy and then finally to Lucretius, who riffs on “death is not our business” in book three of On the Nature of Things. I read Lucretius and realize you have led me to a book that will live in my body. You are coaching me to examine swerve. Lucretius is interested in clouds, storms, sex, frost, craters, snow, and thirst. He’s obsessed with restlessness and change. He sweeps away superstition and religion with a calm aptitude reminiscent of The Wolf removing blood from the car in Pulp Fiction. Lucretius’s precepts, circa first century BC: the universe will die, just as we will. There’s no such thing as an afterlife. The gods exist, but they don’t give a shit about us. Atoms knock into one another by chance. This shouldn’t make us uneasy. If we lose certain stories, the encrustings of myth and religion, we’ll approach reality in a rational way. We’ll lose our anxiety; death will not be our business. Instead, we’ll appreciate the thing-ness of things. Lucretius is unsympathetic about grief; he says my grief for you is irrational. Watching things and people pass along into their next, unrecognizable state is no cause for concern. All matter needs to be recycled. Particles ceaselessly accumulate and dissolve in a “constant confusion of interspaces, courses, interlacements, weights, impacts, concurrences, and motions.” Wishing for you or myself or anyone not to die is gorging oneself with life, instead of “retiring from the feast of life like a satisfied guest.” He points out that you are not hurt by your non-being, and to become upset about what doesn’t cause harm is illogical. Attachment is incommensurate with flux. He counsels to get over grief; focus on living.
I read compulsively, hoping that Lucretius’s insights will make me feel better about your atomic reassortment. But he’s asking me to seek comfort at the impenetrable, microscopic level of change. Lucretius is brilliant, yet he’s also astringent. I don’t want to think of you as matter. I can’t turn you into an alluring list. He’s a well-intentioned teacher, and I’m nothing if not a well-intentioned student. Nevertheless, my spirits struggle against constriction. My mind might just be precisely the “leaky vessel” of which he warns, unwilling to accept things as they are.
III. Many mornings I forget my dreams, but the images lodge in my body, useless, in kinks and moods that cast the day like a grayscale anatomical drawing. The skin stretches across my temples like a drum skin; zones of pressure drift illogically through my back, chest, and stomach. I try to understand my unpleasant sense of excitation—the jittery, systemic unhinge. I try to understand why clouds of malaise shift through my limbs, nervous, and digestive systems like an unrelenting stint of foul weather. Some days I don’t feel up to things. I work as a freelancer and will myself through tasks like tutoring—vaulting through antiseptic math problems like a champion gymnast, then forgetting what day it is and spilling my coffee. I eat lunch in the car by myself because I sense I’m not fit to be seen among the functioning masses. I swallow with difficulty. One day, I visit the storage space to find some old paperwork. I realize when I get there that I have no idea which of the boxes I need, so I start opening them haphazardly. Inside one, an ambiguous tangle of pastel floral cotton emerges. A specific musty smell rises. I bury my face in the fabric. I realize the smell is my old house in Indiana; these were my parents’ sheets. How odd, I think to myself, sealing everything up quickly to leave. It’s only when I arrive home, without having had a second thought about what I saw in the storage space, that I rush to the bathroom and begin throwing up. This will be one of many reminders after my parents die that my body is now in charge and that my mind will only catch up much, much later.
IV. Lucretius’s gloss on “death is not our business” centers on attaining what the Epicureans called ataraxia— a state of not being disturbed. When I first encounter it, ataraxia arrests me. “Not being disturbed” is a fair description of how I spent the first twenty years of my life. I was flooded in a continual and irrational sense that things would turn
out well, a vague spiritual certainty that everything would be all right. But this was not ataraxia; this was complacency, a complacency rooted in privilege, shelter, and love. Ataraxia, as Lucretius frames it, invites a difficult celebration of transience, something you possess not simply when death is a distant idea, but when it’s a disturbing certainty, lodged in your body. Ataraxia, the way Lucretius casts it, is nearly the opposite of complacency—possessing all of its calm, but more hard-won.
V. Your father struggles to breathe on a mechanical ventilator. It fills then empties his body in a perpetual rhythm of violence for a week, until he dies. You could have spared him this machine, but you’re alone, and it’s hard to know when to stop. Instead, you sit by his noisy bedside and bring him sunflowers, which, with a sudden burst of energy, he tells you he likes. You calmly hold a towel to the back of your mother’s head to seep up a strange, colorless liquid like sugar water leaking from an incision. At the ER, whose rituals become as familiar as Mass, you learn that cerebrospinal fluid is escaping from her head. She will need a brain drain. She must not move. You stay up all night for days to make sure she doesn’t knock it out in her sleep, a complication, you’re warned, which could be fatal. You dress a festering wound on the spot where your mother’s breast used to be. The wound will never go away, and each day, it leaks and soaks through layers of bandages and your mother’s bra. You keep an eye out for a slow-growing stain to darken her shirt, and when it does, you slowly remove the gauze stuck to the broken-down skin on her chest and replace the layers of bandages one by one, helping her change shirts so you can both go out for dinner.
VI. One day, I visit my father’s grave in New Jersey. On the way, I listen to a podcast about divers who focus on underwater caves. The dives are exceptionally dangerous, disorienting. By the time I reach the cemetery, one of the divers has perished, and I’m left imagining his body floating in the absolute darkness. I sit on the patch where my father has recently been buried. When I was younger, I imagined cemeteries as places of great comfort, imagined I would be the kind of person who would love having a place to “visit” my loved ones. Now I’m merely struck by the strangeness of purchasing small parcels of earth in order to store and label boxes of bones and ashes. As with most property ownership, this small bit of land belonged to a native population that had been expatriated centuries ago. Whatever the land’s uses since, it had for the last one hundred thirty
years become a suburb of gravestones—a sea of middle-class similitude rendered in granite, Times New Roman, and angels. I place my hand on the dirt, imagining the layers underneath, realizing this cemetery is a privileged form of self-storage. Lucretius points out that matter needs to be recycled to give way for other life. “Life’s cold stoppage” loosens up material precisely so that it can be reformed. In his view, matter is shared; our atoms are needed, our particles leased. In this light, storing remains is a form of resistance against death’s true purpose—one final, insistent attempt to prevent the graph of our beloved atomic structures from zeroing out. A cemetery, then, is at once a monument to impermanence and a somewhat touching denial of it.
VII. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt imagines the human mind as a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider represents our conscious thoughts, whatever we can trace on the screen of our consciousness. The elephant is everything else—our intuitions, our emotions, our visceral reactions. The rider nominally controls the elephant, but the elephant is far more powerful. When I encounter this metaphor for the divided mind, I feel my elephant kick out in triumph and recognition. From now on, I’ll get it: I have an out-of-control elephant. She is the one that sends the shaky legs, the flickering pains, the chest palpitations, the weights under my eyes, the unease after sunset, which my husband affectionately refers to as my night glooms. My elephant wakes me up in the middle of the night, convinced the dim light creeping in from the hallway has been cast by an alien corridor, causing me to stumble out of bed, frantically trying to get out of the hospital. She explains the wash of unease, the being that tilts toward vertiginous. My elephant is enraged by grief. She is in need of retraining and sends me smoke signals, or as Lucretius might have put it, signs that my sense of ataraxia has been lost.
VIII. I go to consult a Chinese medicine practitioner who has been lavishly recommended by my in-laws. I describe to him my grief-related ailments, including, most pressingly, a year-long episode of acid reflux which leaves my mouth perpetually with a fuzzy, unfamiliar taste. After listening impassively to my litany of woes, the specialist shows me a breathing exercise. He asks me to take thirty quick, exaggerated breaths in and out. Then he instructs me to hold the last breath out for as long as possible, and finally in for as long as possible. When I try this in his
office, I get a stroked-out feeling and start panicking; lights flash in front of my closed eyes, and jittery feelings snake through my body. In alarm, I tell him, It feels like I’m dying. That’s good, he tells me. I pay him his fee and leave with a sense of disgust. But the next day, on a whim, I do the exercise. And then, having nothing to lose, I do it every day. Within a week, the reflux vanishes. I keep going. Through the months, the bodily sensations from the exercise morph. Initially, there’s a violence to lowering down into one’s own body, as though into a grave. The mind gets left behind. It’s uncomfortable existing in a purely material state, disorienting, like being lost in a cave. I inhabit my body as a system, locked in its quiet hums. An obscure sense of motion, of infinitesimal, whirring gestures. Sometimes crisp, staccato sounds from the outside world punctuate the darkness. But eventually, images begin surfacing during the increasingly long period of breath holding at the end of the exercise, memories lost since the moment of perception. They now come snaking up effortlessly from some dark corridor of the body and flash with startling immediacy before my closed eyes, like strange fish or an explosion of coral found unexpectedly in pressurized ocean depths: my father’s rough hand, the poise of my mother’s body as she stoops over the plants she is watering, a nameless weed threaded through diamonds of aluminum fencing at a former home. Months later, I’ll be in Amsterdam with a friend, a Columbia- and Nyu-trained surgeon, who overhears me doing my breathing exercise in our hotel room. I told her about it a while ago, but now when I emerge from holding my breath, I find her frowning at me. “What?” I ask her, and then, seeing her expression of disbelief, “It works.” “You sound like you’re dying,” she replies, shrugging.
IX. I come to Lucretius because I want to understand something about collapse. Ultimately, he can’t tell me what tiny swerves inside my body give everyday reality a disorienting, sour tint, as if living after the absence of my family is a nightmare from which I might never wake up. But what he does do is arm me with some patience toward my wayward body, in what I increasingly think of as my obsolescence training.
X. One day I arrive at the storage space with a few last pieces to store after the sale of my parents’ house in Indiana. Among other things, the day’s agenda includes finding space for two large lawn ornaments, a hippo and a dragon. The hippo is about two feet long and nearly a foot
wide. Its cement belly spreads out dense and smooth; glass eyes lend it a rather surprising expression of acuity. The dragon waves and curves through four feet of sharp edges—whiskers, horns, flashing tongue, and back scales, all of which could function as knives with varying degrees of lethality. As with all garden follies, the hippo and dragon represent particularly willful arrangements of matter. My mother purchases them at some point in her post-brain-surgery years. They look odd in our small backyard, but because of her cancer, I defend her right to fantastical gesture. I don’t, however, consider how problematic the follies are until after both of my parents die, and I inherit them. Then it suddenly dawns on me that they are too big and dangerous to put in the trash. In an uncharacteristic bid against diversity, my local community garden in Brooklyn politely declines to house them. And they don’t fit in my new apartment, already crammed with the other things I inherited. With resignation, I decide to store them. I hoist them with difficulty onto a large cart and wait at the freight elevator for the attendant to come pick me up. As the doors open, his eyes lock on the follies. There’s a long, intense pause, during which time I begin to prepare a few remarks in defense of the hippo and the dragon. They’re indestructible, I imagine myself saying eagerly. They’re not just flamboyant, but tough—antidotes to the simpering complacency of garden gnomes. While so much of what I love has proved easily dissolvable, easily lost, these two promise to accompany me through life except in the case of a natural disaster. But when he eventually returns his gaze to mine, it is merely to ask if he can help with the cart. When we reach my space, the dragon needs to be stored vertically, and with difficulty, the attendant helps me rotate the dragon onto its head, gingerly avoiding its scales. He stabilizes the dragon, pants slightly, and finally caves. What in the hell are these? he asks. They’re lawn ornaments, I tell him, and my mom kinda liked them. He raises his eyebrows and nods, and we swing the door to my storage space shut, locking everything inside.