In the 2014 documentary “We Lived Alone,” Phillip reads a letter his sister left behind. The language in the letter is much like the language in her songs, poetic and direct. Speaking of things as they are, not as she dreamed they could be: “I’ve watched the elegant, energetic people of Ann Arbor, those I know and those I don’t, going about their daily business on the streets and in the buildings, and I felt a detached admiration for their energy and elegance. If I ever was a member of this species perhaps it was a social accident that has now been canceled.” In another letter, she wrote: “Let me go, let me be if I can, let me not be if I can’t.”
Beautiful and jarring and haunting as it may be, what has most remained for me, in the back of my mind at a low hum, is its opening: Let me go, let me be if I can, let me not be if I can’t.
About a decade after her disappearance, Converse’s family hired a private investigator to find her, or to at least confirm whether she’d taken her own life. In the documentary, Phillip says that the investigator declined, telling the family that even if he did find Connie, it was her right to disappear. He couldn’t bring someone back who didn’t want to return to the place from which they fled.
To drill down on the definition of “being alive,” I have always come to a core definition that I can understand and make peace with: being someone who participates in the ever-shifting world. But I have no control over the world, and I don’t mean only the world in the sense of a blue rock twirling along endless dark. I also mean the smaller worlds. The worlds of the country I live in, the worlds of my city, the worlds of my neighborhood. There are edges of these worlds simultaneously sharpening and softening, even now, and I do not know which edges they are, or when they’ll come for me or comfort me, depending on their intent. And so I decide that living, then, is also a contract. I’ll stay for as long as I can, and I hope it is a good, long time. I’ll stay as long as staying gives more than it takes.
In the times I’ve not wanted to stay, I have been showered with familiar platitudes. I’ve been told I have “a lot of life left,” or I’ve been told to think about all the people who will miss me when I’ve gone. Once, a doctor who was tasked with keeping me alive for longer than I wanted to be at the time told me to envision my funeral. It didn’t work, because I’d buried enough people I’d loved by that point. I had begun to believe in the funeral — at least as it serves the still-living — as a portal. Something you enter with one understanding of grief, and exit with a newer, sharper understanding of grief. I began to believe the funeral as a simple moment of transience, not of any grand enough consequence to keep me grounded in an unsatisfying life.
I have still not gotten good at explaining this to anyone who has always wanted to be alive, or at least people who have rarely questioned their commitment to living, but there is a border between wanting to be alive and wanting to stay here, wherever here is to you, or whatever it means. It’s a border that I have found to be flimsy, a thin sheet overrun with holes. But it is a border, nonetheless. Similar to the border between, say, sadness and suffering. All these feelings can intersect, of course. But I have found it slightly more confusing when they don’t. When I maybe want to be alive, but don’t want to be in the world as it is. When I haven’t wanted to be alive, but want to cling to the varied bits of brightness that tumble into my sadness, or my suffering, which isn’t the same as a temporary haze of sadness, or a rush of anxiety. I mean suffering that requires a constant measuring of the scales between staying and leaving. Suffering that requires a consideration of how long the scale can tilt toward leaving before it becomes the only viable option. There are a lot of things in any life that aren’t left up to the people doing the living. If there is anything for a suffering person (or any person) to self-determine, it should be how they live, or if they choose to live at all.
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