Pt. 2 Writing Assignment

This excerpt starts with the second chapter introducing the protagonist. This novel explores the realities of mental health struggles through the lens of a fictional journey. While the protagonist is ultimately a character, this is an honest portrayal of my own experiences and my ongoing journey through what I sometimes wish was a fictional world. Whether or not you are also plagued by crippling self doubt... the Worthwhile is calling you.

This first excerpt below intentionally mirrors memoir tropes - things take a turn soon after... read the chapters that follow for a taste of the Worthwhile.

II. Writing Assignment

I did not jive with my first therapist. She had a beautiful office that looked across Lake Union, and I sunk into her couch just enough to be comfortable but not too far so as to feel like I was lacking support. The office walls were a mellow cream that didn’t feel like they were trying to make me happy. I just never left satisfied. She was - nice. Which isn’t the nicest thing to say about a person, but I would never out rightly say something bad about someone who was trying to help me.

My second therapist’s office wasn’t nearly as nice. I still didn’t feel like talking to her, and I was still leaving dissatisfied with how my $150 fifty-minute sessions were going. That comes out to $180 an hour if your brain works like mine. Things started looking up after we were around a half-thousand dollars in: she came up with an idea that finally gave me a corner of the sticker to pick at. That is the hideous, gremlin-shaped depression sticker I keep hidden under my shirt.

I was told that I should write about my experience. I’m not very good at talking, but writing is something that I have always been able to do. When things started getting worse, I started talking even less, or maybe things started getting worse when I started talking less. Either way, they want me to write and I always wanted to get published, so two birds one stone. Maybe it’s silly to think that anyone would want to read this, after all everyone wants to read the depressed recollections of a millennial. It isn’t the best source material for great literature, nope, it’s better for a Thursday on Instagram. The dream of publication will get me to write, not the orders of my therapist. I’m depressed, but I’m still a dreamer. So, I am writing and I’m taking meds and I’m trying to pray more, that one is harder when you’re depressed though. You know you are losing it when you start twisting out your own mockery of Bible verses: “For God so loved the world that he’s letting me wander it without direction” (Charlie 2:10). I’ll do my best to eliminate the obvious “cry for help depressed bullshit” later, but I think this gives you an accurate picture of where I am at. Exposition. My freshmen learn about that. Talk about a transition. I’m supposed to be writing about my experience teaching the past two and a half years. It’s supposed to help me figure out my direction moving forward and determine what triggered the anxiety that I was dealing with while teaching and how the depression popped in. I’m on medical leave for the time being. It is sort of like a vacation, but you don’t get paid and you feel a little bit more like a failure.

I now know I can’t peel the depression away like an ugly sticker - just ripping it off leaves behind stickier residue that might be worse than what was there before; but I have found some satisfaction in my progress. Just admitting that the depression exists was a massive step for me since it began rearing its ugly head close to three years ago.

I began teaching in Donaldsonville, Louisiana but I’m in Seattle now, and before that I went to school in South Bend Indiana, and before that I was in Chicago. There isn’t anything before that. The rest of my family is in Chicago so maybe that has something to do with the depression too. My fianceé Ellie thinks it does. My therapist thinks it is one of a variety of contributing factors. Ellie agrees.

I don’t have too many opinions on the matter at the moment. I’ve done a pretty good job not thinking about it - I’m too busy, being on leave as I am. I was able to put in a full 40-hour work week playing Dark Souls 3, a game renowned for its difficulty. I picked it up at the suggestion of my buddy Charles who said, “It helped me find purpose and feel successful when research was sucking.” He actually said that. So, I decided to give it a shot. If nothing else, it was going to be great escapism.

My new therapist wasn’t super enthused about the “Charles helps Charlie recuperate through Dark Souls” plan. After we talked about it and she realized I was seriously hoping that beating a difficult video game would lend meaning to my life, she implemented the writing plan. I’m going to keep putting those hours in though, it’s my contingency plan in case my therapeutic writing isn’t as a good of therapy as we are hoping that it will be. My little writing assignment. It is comical to think that my couple years of teaching resulted in me being given a writing assignment. Ironic actually. So, week 3 into medical leave and I finally have structure to my day: 7 am wakeup, run, breakfast, walk to a coffee shop, write, return home when I need lunch, play dark souls, make sure I am pseudo-productive when Ellie walks in, make dinner, sleep. Write a best seller, set a PR in the mile, and boom no more depression. Dope.

That isn’t quite how things ended up going in reality. My little assignment turned into a journey that took me further than I could have anticipated. I’m still trying to determine exactly what happened, or what didn’t. That sounds like a good place to start, then maybe I can figure out what it all meant. That type of confusion about my own life might not sound good, but it’s okay because that is why I’m writing: to figure things out. Isn’t that why people read, too?

XXVII. My Blue Tree

I thought I understood interminable as a concept, but the reality of an unending desert, a world devoid of landscape in any direction, cannot be understood conceptually. It is an unimaginable physical reality. The disorientation cannot be understated. My stomach swam as I scanned barren horizon. I turned rapidly from one point to another, unknowingly checking more than 720 degrees of landscape, as I was completely unanchored. The Sun likewise defied my attempts at gaining my bearings as it sat punishingly, directly overhead.

The loss of orientation in an actual desert would be problematic, in the Worthwhile it was a meaningless comfort, I reflected. “You wouldn’t let me go anywhere I wanted anyways, would you!” I accused the sands. I began walking towards wherever it was that the sand was taking me, and I hoped that there would be water there. It seemed like too much to request my medication.

Passage of time in that sandy landscape was immeasurable without landmarks to compare my progress to and the sun itself ceasing to make any noticeable progress. I stopped checking it’s impossible stationary position every few moments when I realized I could ascertain its unchanging angle by the focused heat I felt on the same spot on my calves. I kept walking though. The story of a man who died in the desert only a few miles from civilization came to mind. He never crested the necessary hill to see civilization, nor made much progress at all because of a muscular asymmetry in his legs, one the news story claimed we all have, that caused him to walk in circles of a predictable radius. Hopefully the Worthwhile took this principle into account as it directed me towards where the hell I was going.

I laughed joylessly at my conception of the desert as a rational being – some god figure directing me somewhere. I didn’t even really believe I was here, not entirely, much less could allow myself to believe that any of this held some veiled semblance of purpose. I wanted to say, “fuck this,” but it came out more like, “fucciss..” my lips too dry to properly form the words and the rest of me too tired to reign in my mouth to properly cuss out the Worthwhile – a place, entity, or concept that was slowly killing me. That felt real.

I looked up at a cloudless, sun-centered sky and was struck with the idea that I could make time move by measuring it. There was some important philosophical consideration behind the idea, but that was too much work for my sun addled brain to articulate, so I began counting steps. As I walked, I picked up any pebbles I could find and put them in my right pocket. With every one-hundred steps I transferred one rock to my left pocket.

995, 996, 997, 998, 999, 1000.

I transferred the rocks back to my right pocket and placed one in my back-left pocket. I continued walking. I told myself that I would not look up at the sky until I reached five thousand steps, close to three miles of walking. When I reached that number though, I pushed the required steps still higher to seven thousand, then ten, until I eventually realized I had stopped counting entirely. I could not say for how long. I had stuck my hands into my pockets, likely checking for my keys or phone or another mundane object, when I found the rocks that I had previously been using for marking my steps. I reached into my back-left pocket to determine where I had left off with my counting, only to find that a pebble sized hole had been opened in my back pocket, likely from sliding across the sand as I was ejected from an imaginary desert train. I fell to the ground in disbelief, unwilling to take another immeasurable step.

I grabbed at the sand beneath me and let it run between my fingers. Sand is hypnotically water-like. It flowed from between my fingers and rejoined the sand-sea, a sand-sea that I realized had cooled noticeably.

I did not look up out of fear that the sun had not actually moved. If this was a mirage, I would accept it as fact, just as I had been forced to accept the Worthwhile itself. The sand welcomed me with the same sensation as the flipped underside of a pillow. I lay down on the quickly cooling sand and slept.

15,998, 16,000, 16,002...

I woke to the sand of myself counting steps. I was still on my feet. Still walking. My sleeping brain had made the brilliant decision to count every second step as the numbers took longer to say than my steps took. I did not know if I had laid down on the sand or simply kept walking and dreamed the strange dream that I had gone to sleep on the ground. I felt the sun on my neck but did not see its light. The world was a mass of brown confusion to me. There was only the counting of steps.

20,000, 20,002...

That can’t be right I thought. 60 miles? No 12 miles? Proper conversions from steps to feet to miles where becoming impossible. All there was... all there would ever be... was steps.

Then I was falling.


HJ was there beside me. He was digging. He paused and searched my pockets, removed one of my counting stones, dug a little further, then placed my stone in the hole and buried it. I felt irrational anger that he had buried my rock. I had put thousands of steps into that rock.

This thought was caught short when HJ removed a waterskin, for a moment I thought he was going to press it to my lips and pull me back to a waking land that operated on a currency other than steps... but I watched in horror, too weak and dehydrated to protest, as he upended the waterskin and poured its entire contents onto the spot where he had buried my stone. I gave up on consciousness.


A tree had grown. HJ pressed a gourd-like fruit to my lips, a hole was punctured in it and glorious moisture poured from it into my mouth. I sucked it down before I could recognize the familiar bite of alcohol.

“Why are you poisoning me?” I shouted as the traitorous liquid momentarily wet my throat. I was rewarded with a deep burn as the drink stung my aggravated, sand coated throat. I did not resist when he poured more of the fermented fruit juice into my mouth – I did not know if I could have anyway, but I welcomed the stupor that drink might bring to me. I gave up myself to HJ’s will.

Stars had appeared in the sky above, broken up by the broad umbrella of a tree that had grown above me. Or had HJ moved me? HJ took one hand and covered my eyes and with the other guided my hand to the trunk of the tree. The cool bark pulsed with life. It subsumed me.


I was standing beneath the great tree I had seen on the horizon. A root rose up next to me, many feet higher than my own head. I placed my hand on the tree’s own aqueduct, a limb that reached out into this barren world and brought back enough water to sustain a mountain of a tree. An exhale of air behind me caught my attention. I turned to see a woman holding a stack of college ruled notebook paper. The blue lines of the paper were almost entirely obscured by tightly formed writing in black ink. She smiled.

“Are you here to help me?” she asked.

“I don’t know why I’m here,” I admitted.

A momentary sadness crossed her face, before she smiled again and said, “Well then you must be here to help me.” With that she reached out and hand me a handful of ink covered papers. She turned away and leaned in close to another nearby root and began to read.

“I’m sorry...” I stammered, “but what exactly am I supposed to do?”

“Read, Dear. You do know how to do that?”

I nodded. Following her example I pressed my cheek to root and began to read from the page:

Cars blow by, ignoring traffic signs and the pedestrians that gesture emphatically at them. But the voice of the man on the corner rises above all of it, as it so often did. The single panes of glass that served as windows on the twelve-story apartment building did not stand a chance. In his 3rd story apartment, the man taking a bath had front row seats. He placed his book down on the toilet before sliding down into the uncomfortably hot water, reminding himself that he would soon get over the initial shock of the heat, that his scrotum would retract and his toes would uncurl and that he would be able to relax and read.

The voice forced its way through his window, “The mother shouted. Demanding that he break off from his childish ways. And again, she demanded the same thing when he insisted on continuing. She did so until he stopped. She could not know if her words had caused him to change or the time that had passed.

“It is the oldest rhetorical tool, and seemingly the only one that works. Anything said once is either easily forgotten or so genuine or true as to be discarded as pithy or trite. Repeated truths only further prove their truth over time or became true through force of will and natural change.”

Horns honked as the bather ran his hands through his hair. His scrotum had retracted and his toes uncurled and his hair was moistened and he was beginning to unwind internally, but he wasn’t quite prepared to read. He put his feet up against the wall, making room for his shoulders to slide down the backside of the tub and submerged his head. The ravings of the man on the corner still broke through, perhaps more articulately and more clearly than before, the voice pressed through the window and bubbled through the water to enter the man in the tubs skull:

“The world cries out. ‘One day at a time.’ And we do what we can to make them meaningful. And if not. The repetition still rings ‘one day at a time.’

“There is no solution in dieing. But it has entered into our brains. We press it down rather than looking it in the eye. Doing anything but in order to quell the fear the that we can’t ask the right question - that any question we ask might be answered by dieing - or simply not “not” answered by it. But it is failure to ask “why,” or those other questions that are most fundamental, that suppresses the other answers that are not to die, until we finally ask that question and the only solution left is the one that we trained ourselves to repress in a dark wet corner of our stomachs, all other answers wasted and discarded, not given the importance to even be squelched. The only answer that remains is to die. The only question is how. A dearth of questioning leading to death in answering.”

He rises from the tub and towels himself off. His phone, still in hand, is toweled off as well. The book he had brought to the bathtub still sits on the toilet. His hands are too wet to move it now, so it remains untouched. Baths always seem like a good place to read until the reader puts down their book to feel the water with their hand and quickly discoverers the only thing his water-soaked fingers are good for is sealing eggrolls and dumplings before cooking. Despite the unread book, it was a pleasant bath.

The keeper of the tree explained, “It isn’t a normal, as you might have guessed. Nothing natural grows like this without a great driving force. It is more like a mountain, tectonic plates smashed together and driven up from the ground. The force that drives the tree higher is stronger than the movement of earth – it is grown from the stories of the ignored and unknown building an ever-thicker tree through the ages.

People come and tell their stories to the tree; they are welcome to stay as long as they like. Few stay for very long once their story has been transcribed though. An itch comes over them to return to the world they knew, despite its dissatisfactions, its theirs and it’s where their story will grow longer. Those who stay grow in new rolls with the tree or find their place elsewhere in the Worthwhile. The tree is the heart of this place though. The tree draws life from the stories breathed into and in turn breathes life into this place.”

“The leaves, though, are dreams. They are ethereal, less substantial than finest spun threads of silk. The leaves don’t even cast a shadow. Neither do they fall. No, the Wanderer comes and eats them when the time has come for the ones that have been given up, making room for the new ones that will grow. It’s his burden to bear. The sadness weighs on him profoundly, but he does get to see the joy of new dreams budding and the growth of the tree. He grows with it.”

I turned my attention back to the paper in my hand. A short paragraph was scrawled on the back. I shared it with the tree:

He is content sitting here. The leaves quietly rustle in the canopy above, a canopy that stops in a perfect ring, leaving a five-foot gap around a single wide tree with blue tinged leaves and blue tinged bark. It isn’t as blue as he had hoped, but it is the tree he was searching for and he had found it months ago. Now, he sat and wondered why. Why was it here? Why was he here? The rankled him slightly and tempted to crack through his meditative blanket of contentment, but he caught himself and aligned his breathing to the creaking of the tree. He knew, beneath the calm he imposed upon himself, that he would be forced to address the question that couldn’t be held at bay forever, the one that plagues anybody who has ever completed something they wanted to do. Now what?

“Now what?” I asked the woman. There wasn’t a response. I turned around to find her, but she was gone. “Now what?” I instead asked myself.

I knew why I hadn’t been brought to this place sooner. I wasn’t here to tell the great tree my story. My story would be heard in other places and already had been, I have always been storyteller. Still there was something more for me here, more than sharing another’s story with the tree. Above me I could hear the leaves rustling. I began to climb...

The chapter continues from this point, but I would rather not reveal everything. Journeying through the Worthwhile is best done with an open mind.

XXVIII. The Reflecting Pool

A body of water was visible in the distance. It was somewhere to go. Hopefully it was a real somewhere to go. My small reserve of water had dwindled to few sips and the constant presence of sand in my eyes, my pants, my teeth, my everywhere – led me to recall how much of the sandy faux-slush that I had ingested. I was not looking forward to my next bowel movement – dehydration appeared to have placed a stopper on my ability to... you know... Thankfully the water grew larger as I walked towards it. And it continued to grow. A pond become a lake and began to wonder if what I was really seeing was an ocean. The sound of lapping waves was within earshot and I quickened my pace across the hot sand.

I ran the last hundred yards to the water, praying the whole way that it was fresh. My nose told me that it was, but my nose was also coated with sand. I ran in up to my knees before diving and submerging my body in the life-giving fresh water. It was glorious. I rinsed crevices I did not know I had.

For some reason – probably relating to the lack of fat or muscle on my 6’4 frame – I can’t float in fresh water. It worked in the Dead Sea, but this body of water was salt free. There was nothing I wanted more than to float on top of that heavenly body of water. Instead I walked out to where the water was just over my belly button and squatted a little bit. If you drained the lake it would look like I was taking care of the aforementioned bowel movement, which I wasn’t. It wasn’t as relaxing as floating, but I made do.

I ventured out of the water at the urging of my stomach. It was filled with a sand and water slush that wasn’t comfortable or nutritious. I need food. First, I found a sign. A placard stood near the body of water, denoting the location as the Reflecting Pool. It also offered two pieces of wisdom: Do not be afraid of the deep – let go of the edge and Don’t feed the cats.

If there were cats maybe there would be food? Or if people fed the cats, maybe they would feed me? I wasn’t planning on eating the cats… but as a last resort? There was some hope in that at least. Still, I couldn’t help but feel downcast. My fantastical train reading had come crashing to an end and reality was gritty and painful. I was alone. I had been gone for days and my family and Ellie were probably worried sick. Worse yet, my only plans for returning involved wandering more and… jumping off a cliff. I hadn’t allowed myself to consider it since Gary jumped. It was terrifying. There was an appeal, though, to a concrete action that would have to produce some effect, even if it wasn’t the desired one. I missed home.

I found more sand in my ear. I picked at it as I searched for cats or people feeding cats or any form of food. I focused on the getting every one of the fine grains. It helped distract me from my morbid thoughts to an extent. It was only momentary.

The water lapping at the shore and the warmth of the sun pushed away my immediate concerns. A beach is a wonderful place to sit and think, and the thought of following Gary crept back in. I sat there with it – just turning it over in my mind. I invite my students to grapple with complex ideas, this wasn’t grappling, it was feeling a smooth stone for imperfections. I hadn’t expected it to be, but this stone was smooth. Sitting here on the beach the idea of stepping off a mountain was distant enough to dull its barbs. I could see the appeal of Gary’s chosen method of suicide – it seemed like an adventure to climb the mountain; it wouldn’t even need to be suicide until the last step. The last step wasn’t suicide either, it was a chance to return home.

I caught sight of familiar reflection in the water, barely visible next to my own thin figure and obscured by the tall trees behind it. I turned quickly, hopeful to finally catch sight of the mysterious creator, who I may or may not have been imagining all along. The beach was empty aside from my paranoid ass and swaying trees that didn’t look all that different from a tall, imaginary God-figure – I guess.

The sound of oars dipping into the water pulled my attention back to the reflecting pool. A man was approaching in a rowboat, and the pain in my stomach had returned. I was forced to pocket my reflections for later. His back was facing me, so I only could make out the shiny bald spot that crowned his head and the corded muscles that pulled on the oars. He was near and fast approaching – I really must have been deep in thought for him to have gotten this close without me noticing. He didn’t look back at me until his boat nosed up on shore and he stepped out into ankle-deep water. His wrinkles told me what his muscles or even the bald spot on his head had indicated. Underneath the layers of folded skin and odd hairs that grew out of the spots that start showing up when you think forty is young, there was a light in his eyes, eyes the same blue as the reflecting pool, and kindness in his smile. He spoke first, “You’re hungry, aren’t you? Most people who show up on this shore are.”

I nodded. I think I was in a mild state of shock – it’s hard to go from casually contemplating walking off a mountain to engaging in a conversation with someone who might feed you.

He continued, “Jump in. I’ll take you to the island. We have plenty of food. I’d say that you could catch some fish here, but they stay away from this end of the pool. I figure the cats keep them away.”

I found my voice: “Thank you. I do really need some food. Where is this island…” I looked over the old man’s shoulder to see an island no more than a half mile offshore. Maybe I should have been more used to this kind of thing at this point, but I was rattled.

He chuckled and helped me into the boat. He chatted the whole way back to the island. Gerry was a former accountant who far preferred the island life to his cubicle in Detroit. He been here for twenty-five years, or for what counted as years around here. Here mean the Colony. That was what they called the island we were rowing towards. It was an entirely self-sustaining community. He was only rowing to shore because he saw me in the distance. He joked that he worked in “recruitment.” I didn’t understand why it was funny, but I laughed along with the man with the friendly smile and eyes the same blue as the water. He put me at ease with his easy way of speaking on the promise of food.

I wasn’t necessarily any closer to home, but things were looking up.