Personal Reclamation by James Brown
Mr Universe: Master of Destruction
I destroyed the fuck out of my life last year. I’d had a breakthrough realization and published a widely - read public proclamation that I hated nearly every aspect of my day to day life because it had been consumed by a career that no longer functioned. So, I set out to break apart the things about my life that weren’t working and see what I was left with.
It turns out I am very very good at self - destruction. I originally set out to re - tool the work I did and how it fit into my life. But I ended up throwing out a lot more than a career. I learned the hard way that an income is needed to maintain a home and possessions and, not long after I ditched my old way of making money, I indeed lost those things also. And, step by hideously painful step through that process, I kept taking action that assured that I would lose more before it finally ended.
As painful as those things were, those losses were only prelude to what I was really bent on destroying. What I really wanted to lose was any recognizable sense of my own old unhappy self.
So I set to blot out everything I could about my personal life. To leave anything standing left too much a chance that I’d get sucked back into it.
I had to get rid of everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary, and that included my own notion of who I am and why I am here. It was a misunderstanding of that crucial information that had led me to such dislike for my career.
You can’t turn around lately without bumping into somebody who is talking about how “the universe” did this or that thing, or that they asked the universe for something and such and such a thing happened as a result. Although I have heard a lot of it, I do not engage in such talk myself.
That’s because it’s not the universe I have to thank or blame for any moment’s current state of affairs. It is I who am responsible for what I do and what happens to me. Once a certain age is reached, almost nothing that happens to any of us is the result of anything but our own actions and decisions. If I lay credit or blame for the machinations of life at the feet of a magic and mysterious “universe,” I am shirking responsibility while gumming up the works of that most likely vehicle away from unnecessary pain and suffering: action based on insight.
When it comes to the action I take, I recognize two aspects of my self. There is the aspect of self that performs the action. This self does the day to day stuff. This one runs errands, eats things, and has relationships. Then there is the aspect of self that, from the background, guides the action. This is the part of self that tells you what to do.
If there is a “universe” that fills life’s moments, it is this pair. We each have a choice whether or not to take the actions advised by the guide inside. Whether its instructions are barely audible or heard loud and clear, they are there. You can ignore this self now but, I assure you, it will eventually get its way.
Instead of asking the universe for things, I listen to this voice. It is my boss. I am infinitely inquisitive about what it says. By listening and doing, I actively take responsibility for creating my experience.
Up until I started to dismantle my life, the instructions I’d heard from inside usually made sense. Then they started to make no sense as I made decision after decision that took the destruction of my existing life way past the point that any kind and rational human would ever wish upon another.
Fortunately, one of the last things I did before losing my last remaining bits of adult independence was to make my way from LA back home to Maryland, a place I hadn’t spent much time for about 30 years. I wasn’t sure what I needed from home when I set out to return but it’s clear now. It was only there, in the cradle of my own experience, supported by my family, that the last few unnecessary bits of my James -construct could be completely burned away.
In February, I found out that I qualified, for a HUD VASH (Veteran's Assistance Subsistence Housing) Voucher through the VA. Although I was told that the process of actually getting into housing could be lengthy, I hoped for the best. It turns out that it took over three months. It was in those last three months that the end of my self - destruction happened.
Homelessness isn’t just about having a place to sleep. I always found a way to get inside somewhere for the night and, towards the end, one of my sisters opened her home to me and my dogs. But, by then I was gone.
Because in the months before that, each day I had to spend a lot of my time and energy figuring our where my dogs and I would sleep and what we would eat - if those needs were satisfied at any point, a moment where they were not met was looming- never more than a couple days away. My mind was constantly in survival mode - never settled. And that conditioned away anything that remained of who I was before.
All my professional relationships sort of faded away as I stopped answering emails, texts and voicemails. And I had no active relationships outside of the yoga world so, when those were gone, everybody was gone.
On my birthday, in the last month that I spent without a home, my sisters took me out for lunch, paid my cell phone bill, gave me some money, and gave me a lot of things for my as yet non-existent home. When they asked me how I was feeling I explained that if they would recall that instantaneous acceleration of everything about how one feels when there’s a need to suddenly brake the car… that sudden and palpable burst of adrenaline that readies the body for quick, lifesaving action. Now imagine that lasting for several months. That, I told them, was how I felt.
Nothing ever felt totally right during that time. Even during that lunch with people I trust more than anything, I had to remind myself that I was safe. That is what happens when you lose everything about yourself. You can’t rely on anything.
Living through that prolonged time of having nothing - I had real, concrete obstacles keeping me from doing the things that defined my life and gave it purpose.
But then in June, my VA Voucher finally paid off and I moved into my new home. Then I had food, internet, a whole lot of things for the house from family and from people who’d heard my story and donated things. I had people enrolled in my online school who wanted me to get back to work teaching them. Now I had no obvious reason that I couldn’t do my job. The barriers to getting my life back had been overcome. And I wanted desperately to be back to my productive old self. But it didn’t happen. Because I wasn’t there.
I just sat there on my donated sofa. I was sleepwalking, although I now had everything I needed to wake up. Somnambulance had become the dominant pattern through which I was navigating life and it seems I wasn’t quite ready to open my eyes and get back to living with purpose.
My sisters, who live nearby, were there for me every time I needed them, including these times that I had no visible excuse for being frozen. In those last lost weeks, I didn’t want to tell them that I had not yet become productive. They had all done so much to help. I didn’t want to tell them that I was paralyzed, but I was, so I did. And they were like, “That’s okay, dear.” And they meant it. And we waited.
That guiding voice of mine, my Mr. Universe - the one that made me wreck things, meted out a plan like no other that had come before it. While it was happening, I didn’t understand why I was putting myself through such hell. But, now I know. I had to get rid of everything. I couldn't leave anything that I could so much asdip my toe into - because that might pull me back into the life I didn’t want any more. By losing it all, my pre-existing sense of self was sufficiently pummeled to the point of nonexistence. Indeed, this self-destroying “Mr. Universe” aspect of self itself was broken down. And then, having no doer left to take action, and being in a home - having my survival needs met - I just sat there for a while and waited.
Then finally, after a few weeks of doing nothing, it was time. I was ready. I started to work again. And the work is different. I am different. Everything is better.
After being comfortably cocooned in the fertile ground of home for a few weeks, the process finally and suddenly started to reverse itself. I was sitting on my donated sofa looking at the empty shelves of my donated entertainment center thinking, “Fuuck” for the millionth time in a week when, I guess I had sat still for long enough. I opened up my laptop and started to answer some emails.
There are things you can’t do without a home, but I have one now.
I have a really good sourdough starter going. I make some kind of bread every day. My dogs haven’t had their leashes on for months because they have their own yard.
I have neighbors. The one next door cut my grass for me once. The folks across the street came outside to offer me a loaner chainsaw when a tree fell across my driveway in a storm last week. And somebody from down the street stopped his giant pickup to tell me, when I was coming in from getting my mail, that he saw a “big ole copperhead snake” sneaking across the road into my yard the night before. He wanted me to look out for it.
I babysit my nephew, who lives two doors away in the house where I spent my last few weeks before getting this one.
I have been in my house long enough to know the difference in the way the night sounds in summer versus fall.
Now I have stopped moving around. I am myself again, different from myself before. I am back at work and living my life. I know who I am now. I know what I need now. And it is not a lot. I just needed to stop for a while.
Photography by Mohau Modisakeng