I have been thinking a lot lately about Uemura Naomi.
Uemura is considered the first person to reach the North Pole by himself, to raft down the Amazon by himself, and to climb Denali by himself.
He was part of a community of adventurers, of climbers, but he did many of his excursions alone. He wrote, in what’s become his most famous quote: “In all the splendor of solitude… it is a test of myself, and one thing I loathe is to have to test myself in front of other people.”
Uemura disappeared in 1984 while climbing Denali in the winter. We know he reached the summit, but his radio signal was lost on the descent. Normally a search party would have been sent sooner, but the community of climbers who knew him felt it would be disrespectful to do so. His body has never been found.
I write a post each year on January 1. Sometimes these are personal, but this year, I want to talk about time.
I don’t believe in time itself. What I mean by this is that time is a reference frame and a useful tool, but it isn’t a real thing beyond that. Beginnings and ends are all relative.
As far as ends go, there are countless ways for human beings to go extinct. We could blow ourselves up with nuclear bombs. Climate change could lead to the planet being uninhabitable for humans. A near-Earth supernova could cause a mass extinction event and end human life.
And then what will we be? What will all of our toil, our sorrow, our joy amount to? Nothing. But we always will have been. And maybe that’s something.
WARM. Credit: dBpm Records
This isn’t an album review. This a story about a person who was curled up on a couch, severely sleep-deprived, full of anxiety about life and death, listening to Jeff Tweedy’s Warm for the first time.
I’ve written about Wilco before. About how their music and Jeff Tweedy’s lyrics are one of the few things in the world that makes me feel tethered to it, not alien. About how one of their songs, lyrics I have tattooed on my body, saved my life in a not-quite-metaphorical way.
It sounds odd to say, but I forgot that I’m probably always going to be a little bit in need of saving until I started listening to Warm.
Warm is mostly a quiet record, more folk heavy than rock, with songs built around the acoustic guitar. And it’s easy to listen to, until it punches you in the gut.
Disclaimer: Every year since 2011, I’ve posted a self-reflection on New Year’s Day, looking back and forward. I hope you’ll grant me this self-indulgence once more. It was a rough year.
I’m adaptable. I have to be.
It seems that every one or two years, I pick up, move, and live a totally different life. Since finishing grad school, I have been an editorial assistant, a communications writer, a professor, and an environmental compliance specialist. A Memphian, a Virginian, a Chicagoan.
The Brutalism of Chicago. Credit: Heidi Samuelson
I’m pretty good at rolling with these external changes. I have to be.
Trigger warning: I talk about suicide in this. And to anyone reading this who knows me and thinks they should worry about me — I’m fine. Really.
From the Euphoria Morning album artwork. 1999.
I was sad when I heard that David Bowie died. I felt blind-sided when Prince died. It just is sad when people who make music and art that reaches a lot of people die, because collectively we lose something that made existence better.
Thursday, when I heard that Chris Cornell died I felt my stomach drop, but when I found out that it was a suicide, something inside of me broke.
Obviously I didn’t know Cornell. I have no idea what he was like as a person. But I’ve loved his music since I was young. Superunknown and Down on the Upside are two of the most formidable albums for my emotional development, and I continued to follow Cornell’s career, even through Audioslave. I was listening to Euphoria Morning just last week (I still had it on cassette).
But this isn’t about his musical impact. It’s about what I got out of his words.
Heidi and Amy. c. 1987.
I don’t think I’ve ever told Amy this, but years ago, probably when I was in college, I internally accepted the idea that my adult life would end up with me living in her basement.
Set aside the fact that I intuitively — and, as it turns out, correctly — knew that I would not be good at being an adult. I also knew that Amy would have a better grasp on figuring things out than I would and that she would willingly house me for an open-ended period of time and not judge me for not having my shit together.
Years have passed since this personal revelation. But during those years, even though her life at times was very distant from mine literally (as she lived on two different continents) and figuratively (because I’m an emotionally distant android-like creature on a good day), I continued to live with this plan in the back of my mind. Even when she did not have a reliable address, let alone a basement.
I had a friend in college who told me that statistically I didn’t exist. And maybe I don’t.
He said it because as an American I’m a bit of an anomaly. But the truth of his off-hand comment has lingered with me for years. Beyond the demographic categories I can’t escape, I’ve tried identities on for size—with varying degrees of accuracy.
But let me go back.
My childhood doesn’t fit me. The child I was is incongruent with how I see myself now. I know I lived through grade school, through college, through job after job after job. Through labels—grounds crew, barista, teaching assistant, cashier, first grader, freshman, senior, summa cum laude, employee of the month, girlfriend, single.
But was I any of those things? Was I an archivist? A graduate student? A partner? A mentor? Continue reading