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How does it feel to battle depression, someone asked me last year. Is it a battle, I mused, glancing at the shadow nobody sees clawing at my back, wrapping its arms around my neck, a weight I carry every day.

I was gone for a while because I wanted to be gone. And then that morphed into a desire to stay gone. And then after awhile, it was easy to just remain a ghost rather than commit to filling your self up to the edges, like water gathering inside a balloon.

How does it feel to live on your own finally, wrote a friend after I shared my new address. I am getting to know myself again in the process, I said. One afternoon I just spent an hour at the balcony staring at the sunset, and then was motivated to cook an elaborate dinner for one that I couldn’t finish at all. And then the other evening—midnight solitude—which involved polishing and restringing my guitar and ukulele while listening to Ella Fitzgerald. That was nice.

I also tend to notice the spaces I occupy, how I—physically and emotionally—adjust to them, stretching or contorting, from curling up into a ball on the couch to legs sprawling where I can, just because.

How does it feel to celebrate your birthday alone? That one I asked myself on the morning of March 15th, in the middle of a city-wide quarantine and lockdown, a cigarette between my fingers watching the scene below me, which is nothing, nothing at all, the quiet both a gift and fuel for anxiety, thinking how my parents are old and sick, how my sister is at the frontline treating dying patients, how I’m going to make spaghetti as an insistence of living, and not merely surviving.

How does it feel to be manic how does it feel to be alive at this time of the human race how does it feel to have a dog die on Christmas day how does it feel to break away from the cycle of abuse how does it feel to fall in love after a decade and then have your heart broken after four months how does it feel to see people fail to check their privilege how does it feel to feel it all how do you feel how do you feel how do you feel

It’s like self-defence in slow motion, swimming against the tide. Can we survive it, my heart whispers, for fear of being heard, and being denied.

for Robert Lowell

We smile at each other
and I lean back against the wicker couch.
How does it feel to be dead? I say.
You touch my knees with your blue fingers.
And when you open your mouth,
a ball of yellow light falls to the floor
and burns a hole through it.
Don’t tell me, I say. I don’t want to hear.
Did you ever, you start,
wear a certain kind of silk dress
and just by accident,
so inconsequential you barely notice it,
your fingers graze that dress
and you hear the sound of a knife cutting paper,
you see it too
and you realize how that image
is simply the extension of another image,
that your own life
is a chain of words
that one day will snap.
Words, you say, young girls in a circle, holding hands,
and beginning to rise heavenward
in their confirmation dresses,
like white helium balloons,
the wreaths of flowers on their heads spinning,
and above all that,
that’s where I’m floating,
and that’s what it’s like
only ten times clearer,
ten times more horrible.
Could anyone alive survive it?

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This poem appeared in Vice: New and Selected Poems by Ai, published by W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. Shared here with profound gratitude.

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[expand title=”Dear Reader” tag=”h6″]

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