Jessica A. Beck: My Personal Legend – Looking Up


My first memory on earth is drowning. I was four and I slipped under in the deep end in an indoor pool.  I didn’t fight or scream or try to swim. I just sank and stood, two little feet flat on the bottom, my head going dizzy, looking up at the world above me as it faded slowly into nothing. Someone whose face I can’t remember sitting with their legs in the water noticed at the very last moment and reached in to pull me out. I was yanked by my arms from the black depths of emptiness and up onto the cold tile. With a small gasp, my vision flew back and crashed into the front of my skull like some manic bird slapping brightness and color back into my eyes. It hurt. I still didn’t move. I was lying on my back blinking into the lights and frantic crowd above me with a face as blank as death. But, for all intents and purposes I was fine. After a few minutes Mom stood me up, held my hand, and walked me to our red car. It was sitting there in the parking lot as if nothing had happened. What was it about that indifference I found so comforting? I climbed in, and with a click of the seatbelt I still felt nothing. My mother must have been trying to disguise her alarm at my complete lack of distress. We went home for lunch that day, but that feeling like I’m breathing never left. There are still many nights I dream of the experience. Every few weeks there I am again, down in the dark somewhere, in a pit or trapped between closing walls, or mountains, or suffocating beneath some nameless weight with no voice to call for rescue and limbs too weak to climb my way out. I never try anyway. I can’t help but wonder if at that young age I had surrendered myself to the idea of fate before I even understood what it was. I think it might seem that way. I have spent many years trying to understand what that makes me. Could it be my greatest fear in this lifetime is that I am a coward, that I simply resigned myself to some watery and dark childhood grave?  I can’t help but wonder, where was my survival instinct, my fight, my rage, my anything?

I can not dwell on these less than desirable thoughts for too long, or I dig myself into a hole of confusion and self loathing. So what can I do? Well, I can try to explain some of the better parts of me. I’m an observer at heart. It is perhaps one of the ways I’ve learned to best manage myself. I watch the world around me as if I am under a pane of glass. The people pass above, busy and unconcerned. I stay still and I take notes in endless fascination. It’s a peculiar thing to feel as if you are somehow beneath the reality everyone else is living. I see everything and it can be a bit overwhelming. However, it is this natural inclination to always be looking that lends itself to my career as a writer. I went to a university for four (and a half) years where I studied creative writing. Poetry to be precise. It is a medium of expression that allows me to feel as though I am participating in a conversation with the universe around me.  Although I have heard there is a curse among my type, that those who possess the gift are doomed to forever be within and without experience at the same time. Forever split in two.

What am I to make of this constant separation of me from myself? I guess it is not necessarily the worst thing. So far it has drawn me to travel extensively. A constant barrage of new surroundings makes it easier for me to feel present in experience instead of beneath it. I feed myself to hungry cities, the kind of places that swallow everything I think I know and spit it back at me. I like to get my hands dirty and I find endless inspiration sorting through the slimy mess. I’ve been lost in the screaming neon of Tokyo, and gone speeding on a moped through the dizzy mess of downtown Bangkok. I’ve stared across the Indian Ocean from the top of a mountain in South Africa. I’ve counted the fishing boats, one by one, docking for dinner, dripping with the Mediterranean-purple dusk of Tel Aviv. I spent a wet season in Vietnam, in the haze of cigarette filled trains snaking their way through rice fields ripe for harvest. I’ve taken romantic refuge from the rain in Spanish cafes, and champagne-giggled my way through the dreamy streets of Paris. Yet, there are still mornings where I wake back home, in a panic wondering if any of this has ever been a choice. In those moments I feel as though I’m little more than a nameless, tangled pile of limbs in a heap on the floor of a canyon I’ve dug myself into. I am trapped in giant black pit dividing fate and free will. I am drowning in fear and unsure of which side I should try to claw my way up. I feel myself grow heavy wondering if scaling either cliff is worth it. I think, it’s easier to stay here instead, to give in to the fact that I can not live either truth. I look up and it feels as though my story has been written for me. It goes something like “you belong here, in the dark, out of reach, alone at the bottom of everything.”  Maybe the bravest thing I can do, the only way I can avoid being a sinking, drowning coward, is to stand up, dust off my knees and make a choice. Not about which side to climb, but instead to scream, “I will not let this fear and indecision paralyze me! I will rage against my fate, our fate, the inevitability of everything! I refuse to build a house on either side of this ravine. Instead will make a home of myself in this uncertainty!” Everyone up there will call me crazy and maybe they are right. But I’m not sure it matters if my legend, if our legends have already been written. We are all swimming, climbing, shouting, fighting, loving, going absolutely mad with living. And I can’t help but to feel as if that is the whole point, to laugh along with fate, to build my home giggling up into the sky, in spite and because of futility, from down here at the bottom of everything.

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