Infinite Infinite Jest

TW: Suicide, mental health struggles

I’ve been square dancing around David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest since I was in college. It seems to infinitely pop up for me at various times in my life (see what I did there? That’s like, how I got the title of the post and stuff?)

I read one of his short stories in my Fiction workshop class my Junior year—a class that, for me, provided a WELCOME reprieve from the world of pirouettes, belting, and show tunes—and I remember my professor talking about him being a genius…and not just because he’d written an acclaimed 1,079 page novel called Infinite Jest that…people ACTUALLY took the time to read.

I mean, even Harry Potter never cleared 1,000 pages, and I had never even been able to focus myself long enough to read one of those books. I was in disbelief that someone could write a 1,000+ page novel…

…and because I really LIKED the short story we read in class, it occurred to me that maybe—for the right author—I could read 1,000+ pages.

I knew it would take me a very long time, but I thought I could potentially do it.

And then…the mystique grew.

Our professor shared that the author had, sadly, died from suicide a few years ago (in 2008 to be exact).

Well…wow. I thought, here’s this amazing author of whom I’ve read one short story, I’m told he’s written 1000+page novel, but now I’m also aware that his work…is limited. He’s gone. This 1000+ page novel is his LEGACY.

Not that his other work was not good…it’s just…this Infinite Jest is what put him on the literary map.

I didn’t run out right away and buy the book. Over the course of the next few years, I read other works by David Foster Wallace. Some short stories, parts of Broom of the System, and all of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men…the title of which I just was too curious about not to read cover to cover.

I had found a thick book called “The David Foster Wallace Reader” in a bookstore in Brooklyn (I used to cross burroughs weekly for EMDR sessions). I bought the book and consumed more short stories…and actually, a few chapters of Infinite Jest that were included in the “reader.”

One day, probably about 4 years after I’d first heard of David Foster Wallace, I officially purchased a copy of Infinite Jest.

And promptly did not read it.

It sat on a shelf. It moved into giant tubs of books that I hauled from apartment to apartment to parents basement to apartment back to basement.

In the early summer of 2020, when businesses were JUST started to crack their doors open again, my mom and I ventured into a little used bookstore in Syracuse…and atop one of the shelves featured on prominent display was a book called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace.

I flipped through a few sections of the book, reading bits and pieces here and there (stopping, of course, for the obligatory drop of hand sanitizer every so often, as one with OCD in a pandemic does). It was an extensive interview (transcribed from many cassette tapes) with DFW that Rolling Stone author David Lipsky had done as he accompanied the author on his last leg of the book tour to promote Infinite Jest.

I bought the book, thinking maybe this is what you need to reintroduce you to the possibility of reading that colossal book that is gathering dust on your Mom’s book shelf.

I read half of the interview book…and I can’t remember why I stopped. I enjoyed it very much…I’m not sure if I was just overwhelmed with reading at the time…I had many books I was aiming to complete while I had all this pandemic time. But somehow, after reading only 150 pages, this book joined Infinite Jest back up on a shelf.

And then in December of 2020, the very first friend I’d ever had in this world died from suicide. I had not spoken to him in years, but it felt like a true connection to my childhood was gone with the snap of two fingers.

I recall, one night, staring intently at an old photograph of us as children and thinking…the two children in this photo have just no idea what the world has in store for them. One now gone, and one (if it’s not painfully obvious) still mad at the world over a cancer battle now 12 years old.

As I mentioned, I had not spoken to him for a quite a while…a guilt I still feel pretty palpably some days. I suffered from that “too-cool-to- reach-out-to-an-old-friend-they’ll-think-I’m-so-weird” syndrome, and I can’t take that back.

I recalled he was an avid reader. And so, one day, several months after his death, I asked his mother via text message if she could share with me the title of one of his favorite books.

“Have you heard of Infinite Jest?”

I knew then that I HAD to complete Infinite Jest in my lifetime.

So why am I writing about this today?

Well…I just got around to finishing Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself…the extensive interview with the author that I mentioned before.

I knew I wanted to complete that book before cracking Infinite Jest open again…but I’d been avoiding it.

And I’d been avoiding it because I knew it was going to be…complex for me…to read the thoughts of a man who also died from suicide (whose words were so loved by my friend who died of suicide) and then to reconcile all this with what I’ve been learning about end-of-life support and the death-positive movement.

In other words, I’ve spent months learning to be okay with death as a “THING” that happens to all of us as mortal humans. And I’ve learned ways of being available to those who are ALSO trying to find peace with death and dying.

But most of the content I’ve been exposed to has been about making people feel okay with the concept of death so that they may LIVE more fully with whatever time they’ve got…

I’m not entirely sure how to explain what I’m feeling right now. Something last week compelled me to pull the interview back off the shelf and I finished it. I even cracked Infinite Jest open the other day and read the first fifty pages.

Even just the first fifty pages…I’m overwhelmed by the author’s intelligence, and just can’t get away from the idea of the “tortured genius.”

In other words, it’s hard to escape from the idea that this man was so intelligent and unique in his thinking and really had like…a PULSE on what was ailing the world…it’s hard not to go “well he’s SO intelligent and in touch with his feelings, he must’ve known what was best for himself.”

And like…that is NOT the thing to think about suicide. That is NOT death positivity. That is a human suffering.

And so how do you, as a person who supports the death-positive movement…how do you say “death is okay, it’s okay to be at peace with death” but then also say “Oh, but suicide is still not right.”

Apologies…this is definitely more of a stream of consciousness kinda thing for me. See, I don’t have answers.

I just…I just want everyone to know that death positivity is about bringing a sense of peace about your death so that you can live WITHOUT the weight of dying fears. I hope that is clear.

Maybe there is a way, in cases of people who have suicidal thoughts, to change those thoughts into a force for good…to somehow MORPH them into a peace with an inevitable death in the futureso that living in the current moment feels better and not so painful.

Because living really IS painful. I do not deny that, not one bit

I don’t know, guys.. I just wanted to get a mess of thoughts onto a page.

I have enjoyed reading the first fifty pages of Infinite Jest knowing that my friend read these words, and they brought him happiness in the moments he read them.

There is a movie called “The End of the Tour” which stars Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace, and it is essentially the extended interview in movie/storytelling form. Jesse Eisenberg plays the Rolling Stone magazine reporter.

It’s actually a brilliant movie and I only stumbled across it after completing the interview book and looking up some more info about it. The movie came out in 2015, and I don’t recall seeing ANY publicity for it…but it’s very beautifully done.

I cried at the end…couldn’t help it. Jason Segal really captures the spirit of DFW…especially after reading the book, you feel like you’re watching the REAL guy bring his own words to life.

And it’s…you just really feel kind of lucky that this guy shared parts of his brain with us…and he gave us thousands of pages to comb through over the course of his life.

Just wish he’d stuck around.

Anyway. Thanks for reading the babble.

Well…Now You Know.

Hi. I’m still alive.

And I haven’t wanted to write.

There is no one concrete reason.

By spring 2021, unemployment got me so cray in my own head that I took a full time job, a part time job, and several theater gigs to fill my time and had no time to just stop and fart for myself.

And another reason is…

The pandemic kinda got me in this head space where all I really wanted to say to people when I pulled up an empty blog post was “Well…now ya know.”

And of course…OF COURSE…that ties back to cancer. (If it didn’t, would it be a true Jesse post?)

The perpetual state of total fear that everyone was feeling toward the beginning of the pandemic…like…yeah, I was feeling that, too.

But EVEN more than that was this really snarky feeling of like, “Well…now ya know.”

Well…now ya know” what it’s like to not feel invincible.

Well…now ya know” what it’s like to constantly worry about your immune system and sanitize everything that comes into your house.

Well…now ya know” what it’s like to not want people to hug you or come close to you without your expressed permission, and have to stay home all the time.

Well…now ya know what it’s like to be FORCED to face the possibility of your own death before age 40, 30, 20…18…

And then I thought…wow, Jess, that’s pretty bitchy. You should sort that out.

And so I wasn’t writing. I just let myself work for a little while. Get used to living somewhere new: A SUBURB.

Get used to the idea that you’re not a city girl anymore, that you live in a house, and that you have a mortgage, and you are…*gulp*…getting kind of…domestic…(Christ).

And then one day, I heard the term “death doula.”

Now, I’m not going to sit here and go into detail about the different kinds of things death doulas do. I’m going to reference some lit:

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/24/well/doulas-death-end-of-life.html

But I knew immediately, when I did some research on what a death doula is, that it was something I really wanted to do…and I hadn’t felt certain about “things I’d like to do” in quite a long time.

So push comes to shove, and long story short…I completed a Death Doula certification thru Going With Grace (with the AMAZING, enlightening ALUA ARTHUR), and earned NEDA proficiency…

And it was through the course of accomplishing the above that I discovered the HEALTHY, less catty version of “Well…now you know…and also had a major AHA moment about what truly bothered me about having cancer—besides, of course, the fact that I had cancer):

We are incapable of talking healthily about death.

It’s true. And throughout my whole cancer treatment I really felt that no one could or would look me square in the face and talk with me about death unless we mentioned God or religion.

We can’t do it. Our western society doesn’t want to talk about it. Our med-tech-driven healthcare system doesn’t want you to recognize its existence. It offers you treatment after treatment after treatment in place of saying, when the time comes, “hi, it’s time for your body to stop.”

We can’t talk about how humans die…how unsettling it is…can’t talk about why we die… or what might this all BE for?

Even for a healthy person, the questions exist because…a healthy person is also going to die. They are supposed to.

But if we talk about it, we are labeled “morbid.”

We are not “thinking positively.” If we don’t THINK POSITIVE, we are attracting the opposite.

And the message we give our actively dying folks in America is that DYING is LOSING, and so they’d better not “give up.”

Few actively dying people hear “it is okay to go. It is natural. Your body is done fighting and that is okay.” And so they fight tooth and nail to hang on for their loved ones even when it’s their time…and as a result, they reinforce for the next generation that death is not okay and you must cling on for…dear life.

Is it a wonder we have a complex?

But we cannot, cannot, cannot talk about death. Too icky. Too uncomfortable. Too morbid. Too sad.

-*-

Van Gogh, Skull with Cigarette

I’ve been wondering for years now whether I really want to continue writing a blog that is

A) totally cancer-focused

OR

B) Just…kind of spur of the moment, chaotic blather

Neither feels authentic anymore.

And that is another reason why you haven’t heard from me.

But now I feel a little bit more direction. I want to be part of the conversation about dying and death-positivity, BECAUSE:

Regardless of who you are and what you’ve been through…2020 and the world thereafter has shown us all that we’d best at least entertain the idea that we won’t be here one day.

And you know what?

I know…I know it sounds morbid. But I swear, since I’ve started my death-positive journey…I have been more present and aware of the moments of my life. Of how I am feeling. Of what’s working and what’s not. And of what I’m grateful for.

The death positive movement IS a thing, and one of its leaders is Caitlyn Doughty of “The Order of the Good Death.” Literally, if you google “death positive,” her website is the first to come up. She kind of kickstarted the “movement” and she’s hilarious. Not morbid. She is hilarious (highly recommend her book “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”)

But the ideas behind the movement have been around. I mean…if we’re being real, indigenous peoples have been attuned to them from the beginning.

Recently, I’ve been reading “Die Wise” by “death guru” Stephen Jenkinson…and while Jenkinson can be perceived as a somewhat controversial figure…it’s one of HIS ideas that has been sticking with me most lately (and kind of haunting me every morning).

He talks about how the problem with the western world today is that we expect to live. We wake up every day anticipating that we will live, and nothing else is okay—we are OWED the day.

I mean…you don’t need me to tell you that we are NOT owed the day. We anticipate that we’ve got all this time…and we get depressed by the monotony of our days because we just….figure it’s gonna go on and on and on.

And it quite literally is not. That’s what makes each moment significant. (Yeah, a little self-help-y…but hey…whatever helps the self.)

I could go on and and on about Stephen Jenkinson, really.

But maybe another day.

My overall point here is…THIS cancer survivor wanted to talk about death from the beginning of her cancer diagnosis…and all the well-meaning people in her life wanted to “think positively,” (which has a time and place) or give her a Bible.

And those well-meaning people…have probably not had many open conversations about death before either…so how can they be expected to know what to say about it in an instance like this?

I don’t blame anyone. But the pandemic brought a lot of those suppressed questions and curiosities about death right back to me in a very visceral way. And I think that’s why I was feeling a little…I dunno… SALTY towards people and their pandemic frenzy? (especially toward those my own age, who just couldn’t understand what I was going through way back when). Kinda like….NOW YOU GET IT. I TRIED TO EXPLAIN THIS PANICKY FEELING I WAS HAVING IN 2009.

These are “uncertain times” for everyone. Not just for me, now.

Well, now you know…” I thought.

And, I learned, through the course of the past year, that the full thought is this:

“Well, now you know…we should be talking more openly about dying and not sweeping it under the rug.”

If we talk about it, if we acknowledge it…we can not only maneuver these “uncertain times” just a little more effectively, but we can find our living moments feel just that much more ALIVE.

I intend to blog more as I explore the death-positive movement and where I fit into it.

My blog may no longer be for you, and I understand. I can promise it won’t all be posts like these. I’m sure a lady at Sephora will offend me again and I’ll launch a full-scale campaign.

But I understand if this is where I leave you.

Dear Old Friend,

You’ll never read this, which begs the question: what is the point? 

And I suppose there is no point.  

My head has just been swirling since I heard the news this afternoon, and I thought that maybe I’d feel better getting my thoughts on a page.

Maybe I’ll light a candle and read it aloud, later.

Just this past week a friend sent me a silly meme.  He wrote, along with it, “Jess, why do I feel like this will resonate with you?

It was two of the Powerpuff Girls, their hair sopping wet, pouting at each other.  The caption: me at age 9 saying goodbye to the girl I met on the beach that I would never see again.

I laughed because it was true.  I’ve always been a sentimental person, and I remember all of my friends, however long or short our friendships—even though, many of them, I’d have no idea where to find, even with social media at my fingertips. 

The 1-day beach friends.  The McDonald’s PLAYPLACE friends.  The theater camp friend who made me snort Dr. Pepper out of my nose…my best friend from children’s choir, who loathed choir practice as much as I did.

And you, of course.  My first “boyfriend.”

Well…I suppose you never were my boyfriend—at least not knowingly. 

After learning, at age five, that it would be illegal for me to marry my cousin, Sammy, I decided to marry you, instead.

That was why I followed you around at our parents’ boring parties.  You were fun, and intelligent, and, of course, my future husband.  

You were a year older than I was, a full six years old, and so very mature in my eyes.  I considered myself lucky to have you!  I’d pick out my best and most twirliest dress to wear when I knew I was going to see you.  I had to make the perfect impression.

You knew how to pop the Pepsi can tabs at the parties without cutting your fingers, which was most impressive.  You opened mine for me, and listened to me dawdle on and on about how I was going to be the head majorette in the 4th of July parade even though I didn’t know how to twirl a baton and was a goddamned liar. 

And when I’d stop talking for a few minutes, you would teach me things about math and science and we’d run around until the adults inevitably said “slow down, you two!”

I was so sad when you moved away.  Over the next few years, whenever I got dragged to a party, I’d ask if you were going to come, and the answer became “no” more often than not.  

On rare occasion, usually in the summer time, the answer would be “yes.”  One summer, at the lake, we rode in a boat, and you showed me how to fish.  You liked a band called “Slipknot,” and at the end of the day, you gave me your screen name. I remember it by heart, to this very day.  

Then lots of years went by.  You got into a school in the city.  I got very sick.  

During my recovery, I looked you up on Facebook and sent you a message.  I wasn’t sure if you’d remember me, but you said “of course I do!  How are you, little Jesse!”

I thought to myself, maybe I’ll become a Broadway actress next year and we will reunite in the city, and fall in love, and my five year old self would’ve been right all along.

But we didn’t.  Fate had other plans.

Last I knew, you were living overseas.  Multi-lingual and as intelligent as I always knew you to be.

I live in our hometown again, since the pandemic, and I have thought of you from time to time—I’ve had so much time to peel back the pages of my childhood memories.  

You don’t have social media anymore, but I found you on LinkedIn about two months ago.  Your face is more mature, but it is still quite the same face from my memory.

I’ve only just started monkeying around with LinkedIn, and I thought, “shall I add him? Send him a message and say, ‘I know this is strange, but it’s me: Jesse.  You used to open my Pepsi cans, and I was in love with you!’”

But I didn’t.  The fragile ego in me thought “better not.  He looks awfully professional and awfully important.  He’d be far too busy.” 

I’m very sorry that I didn’t.  I had no idea you, too, were drowning in the sea of unemployment that this violent pandemic has sunk us in.

I don’t pretend that my reaching out would have changed what happened.  I just know that I’ve felt so hopeless and purposeless and just plain sad through all this, and now I know you were, too.

Maybe our commiseration would’ve brought you some comfort.

Maybe just the realization that your long lost “girlfriend” across the sea still remembers our talks and our memories.  Still remembers your screen name, and your favorite band.  

Maybe knowing, even in your darkest, most loneliest moments, that someone so long gone from your life now, still held you in such high regard…maybe for a moment, you would’ve felt better.  The smallest moment can sometimes cause the biggest shifts in perspective.

Your childhood friend loves you very much.  Even though it’s been so long, she wishes she could still reach out.  Even if it was just to say “thank you for teaching me to fish.”  

When I look back on the people in my life, you are one of my favorites.  

You’ll always be one of my favorite people.  

My heart breaks. I hope this pandemic is over soon.

Love,

Jesse

My Mom Thinks I’m a Difficult Person

The other day my mom told me that I remind her of “the red head on Difficult People.

And I was like…”sooo…the MAIN difficult person?”

And she was like, “not because I think you’re difficult, though!”

And I was all, “ew, eye roll emojiiiiiii”

And so you know what I told her today? I said, “Mom, you never showed me Hocus Pocus as a kid and that’s why I am the way I am.”

She laughed, but I did not.

Because can you imagine the utter humiliation I felt in college when my roommates skipped class to watch Hocus Pocus and drink pumpkin ale and I said “oh, is this Casper Meets Wendy?”

IS IT ANY WONDER I’M UNSUCCESSFUL AND UNEMPLOYED?

Well, I’ve had nothing but time during the pandemic to think about what has made me the way I am, and quarantining in the town where I grew up, I’ve been able to do some real investigating. If you live in the Syracuse area and have noticed a girl with a tiny topknot and sunglasses-even-though-it’s-overcast, driving a gray CRV slowly by your house, trying desperately to see over the steering wheel, it’s 100% me.

I’m driving by your house because

  • a) an old friend of mine used to live there and I used to go to her house and play, and I’m trying to get in touch with my inner child
  • b) I remember passing your house on the school bus and imagining whoever lived there was a sad old woman who’s husband drowned in the Erie Canal…(don’t ask, I was fascinated by the Erie Canal)
  • c) I stuck my head under the tiny waterfall of the creek that runs through your backyard (on a dare!)
  • or d) I lost my virginity in your house

I know, I know. This seems creepy and unsettling, but I promise it’s an important part of my healing process.

On some real sh–, though, I’ve found it quite therapeutic. Because ever since having cancer (yes, the cancer card! I know, you’re SHOCKED!) I’ve tried many times to remember what it felt like to not have that big black mark on my life. What it was like to be a real kid. And I think once I was well and it was time for me to go to college, I left Syracuse with the singular impression that I wouldn’t–couldn’t–ever spend more time than a summer’s vacation there ever again.

I guess I just figured it was because I had that typical, angsty, “I-HATE-MY-HOMETOWN-IT’S-SO-LAME-MAN” thing going on.

But in truth? I think it was because I was just afraid of being surrounded by history. Afraid of the memories of the “before” Jesse creeping up. The places she went, the things she did. Knowing how difficult it is sometimes to try and remember what it was like to be that girl…

Or, rather, maybe I DO remember what it was like to be that girl quite well…and what makes me sad is knowing how innocent she was, and how blindsided she would be by the darkness of the world…

Or honestly, it could’ve been the Hocus Pocus thing. IF YOU WEREN’T GONNA SHOW ME THAT MOVIE, MOM AND DAD, WHY DID YOU EVEN HAVE ME!?

Thus the road to self-discovery drones on…

Wow. I am difficult.