Observations From The Middle Of The Ocean


She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. 
from Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf


I’m what you’d call a melancholic spirit.

Blame it on my bookishness; the way I turn pages as if that’s the only way oxygen can enter my lungs. As if my life depended on the inky sustenance of words.

Blame it on my childhood; long hours spent in the cool drafty loft of the church, half-listening to strangers sharing eulogies for loved ones, their choked speeches background music as I sprawled out across uncomfortable chairs, trying not to interrupt with the crinkle of the mylar-covered library books I would devour. My grandmother played organ for hundreds of funerals and weddings, but I remember the funerals more clearly.

Blame it on being a nerd; a girl who was more comfortable in sweat pants or overalls than something fashionable, a girl who wanted glasses and braces, a girl whose heroes were Matilda and Harriet the Spy.

Blame it on the music I listened to as a teenager; Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette, Tool and Nirvana, Jewel and (mortifyingly enough) Celine Dion. I wore some of the CDs out, listening to the most depressing ones over and over again. I didn’t bother replacing them. Whenever a CD skipped, it was as if a tiny groove of my heart was embedded in the song.

Blame it, most of all, on being misunderstood; adolescent girls swapping friends for enemies as if a friendship was a tube of lipstick you could be crazy about, proud of even, and then get sick of and throw in the trash. Girls who would draw hearts in your autograph book, swearing their eternal understanding and love for you, and then see you the first week of freshman year and say “Eww” upon seeing you in the hallway. I’d never talk to that girl again, and I’d stop thinking about her, until a few years later when I picked up a local newspaper and saw she had been killed in a car crash. I felt gutted.

On days when I’m feeling especially melancholic, I turn to Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet; scraps of philosophical snippets that were compiled into a book after the Portugese author died. He writes about sadness in a crystalline and cutting manner. “I am overwhelmed by a sarcastic terror of life, a dejection that overflows the bounds of my conscious being.”

My sophomore year, I moved to a new high school. My parents divorced years earlier, and I had already been forced to attend a new school system for 8th and 9th grade, in a rich town in Fairfield County where “Mean Girls” could have been filmed. My “friends” teased me about everything; at one point, they made up a cruel song about me, and called me Sparky the Dog. One day I came to school to find them gathered in a circle, giggling at a piece of paper. Someone had thought it was funny to draw a lost dog poster. Another “friend” put Vaseline in my clogs during gym class, so that my socks were coated in gelatinous goo for the rest of the day.

But sophomore year! Here at last was a chance to no longer be the total nerd, the one who people whispered about in the hallways. I wore a cute schoolgirl outfit with no stockings and brand new white sneakers. Suddenly I was a sexual being. The guy I had a crush on, Scott, asked me out. He kissed me near the playground of the local elementary school. I was a girl who was trying to be a woman. I was casting myself in my own play, but that play only lasted a couple of weeks.

It wasn’t long before Scott (who I wasn’t at all compatible with) dumped me. I was devastated, at first. I made the same mistake most teenage girls (and sometimes women) make. I put all of my happiness into whether someone liked me or not. This wasn’t just as far as crushes went. I was the same way about ANY relationship: friendships, teachers, mentors. I wanted people to like me. It was the most important thing.

But the thing about being a teenager is that most people don’t like you. Most people don’t like themselves. I had friends, sure, but I spent most of my high school years rolling around in my own misery, like a dog rolls around in shit.  It wasn’t any surprise when my classmates chose as my class prophecy for our high school yearbook: “Michele will finally not make a scene in her classes.” I wanted to be an actress in those days. I was prone to fits of drama, but it came from a genuine place. I didn’t have the easiest personal life.

Fast forward to 2012, the age of social media.

I’m still hung up on who likes me, on pleasing others. I’m like Sheila Heti in How Should A Person Be: “For so long I had been looking hard into every person I met, hoping I might discover in them all the thoughts and feelings I hoped life would give me, but hadn’t.”

I obsessively check my iPhone—on the subway, while waiting in line for the bathroom at a crowded bar, every five minutes while I’m reading—seeing who has “liked” my latest Facebook post, and who has responded to my latest tweet. I don’t like that about myself. But it’s the ugly truth. Some things never change.

I want to be accepted. I yearn for acceptance. And I’ve finally found it, through a network of strangers who have now become some of my closest friends. I haven’t met all of my internet friends in real life, but when I do, I give them a hug. I don’t worry about them putting Vaseline in my shoes.

Writers in particular are very lonely creatures. It’s as if we’re born outside the perimeter of the world, destined to observe what’s around us but not always understand what our own role is.

I’ve been reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time this year. In The Guermantes Way, Proust says: “We strive all the time to give our life its form, but we do so by copying willy-nilly, like a drawing, the features of the person that we are and not of the person we should like to be.”

I want to step outside of the chalk outline I’ve been living in. I want to sketch a different outline for myself. I’m not sure what would be inside this new outline yet, except that it would involve a person who can walk away from all the personal insecurities that grew with them, and not feel like the Stevie Smith poem in which the person is not waving, but drowning.

We’re all a bit melancholic. Blame it on being a human. Blame it on an artistic temperament. Blame it on life itself.

Just stop blaming yourself. Stop blaming myself. Stop blaming.


Listen to Michele read this essay:

Update Required
To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin.

Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, published by Simon & Schuster. Currently, she is an MFA student at NYU, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Tin House, Gulf Coast, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. She teaches creative writing at NYU, The Sackett Street Writers' Workshop, Catapult, and Stanford Continuing Studies and is the founder of the Red Ink reading series. More from this author →