The Curse of 32: On Keeping Artistic Ambitions Alive

The Death's Head Constellation
The Death’s Head Constellation

I swear every word of the following story is true, not in that fake “based on actual events” way, but in that it happened as it’s written.

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I’d been up making music until birds were chirping over my headphones. My parents left for work while I was sleeping. I woke up in the mid afternoon.

A ray of light reached into my bedroom, further than the windows in the house had ever permitted it. It stretched in real time, bending around the threshold, a sunshine snake, slithering through the shadows. It stretched across the carpet, settling on the tip of my mattress. My socks hung over the edge, blooming with harsh blinding light.

I knew I was awake, but my body hadn’t caught on, it refused to acknowledge my commands. Underneath the covers, the only thing I could move was my eyes. The light traveled up the bed, refracting as it went. There were terrible faces in that angry rainbow, furrowed brows, beady eyes, flaring nostrils, and hungry mouths. The prism projected teeth all over me.

I tried to scream but my lips refused to part. I felt like an ant stuck in honey beneath a powerful magnifying glass, a vampire who’d mistaken overcast for nightfall only to realize it was midday. Never in all of my life had I been so afraid of the daylight.

Straining my brain, I tried to fire my nerves up manually. I could feel my inner ears, if I worked the muscle I could make a clicking sound. Recoiling from the technicolor teeth moving up my stomach, I took control of my neck back. Turning my head from side to side, I tugged on my spinal cord, praying my motor functions would start back up again.

The next thing I remember, I was on all fours, crawling up from the carpet. I’d broken sleep’s hold on me. The light had receded, but everything about my bedroom still felt wrong. The dimensions were correct, but I knew it was counterfeit, a dream set trying to pass itself as the waking world.

Tugging the blinds up, I expected to see a matte painting where my neighbor’s house had been. Stepping into the hall, I expected to cross over from my habitat into an alien spacecraft. Entering the kitchen, I expected a legion of demons to pop out and yell, “Surprise!”

None of that happened.

I was on my feet, I’d regained my balance but dream logic still made a sick kind of sense. This was before I knew anything about night terrors, sleep paralysis, or hypnopompic hallucinations. As far as I knew, reality had warped to deliver a message. The Sandman came bearing a premonition.

Teenage Prophecy

My dream left the residue of an idea that had never occurred to me before: I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

Looking around the kitchen, I felt like I was visiting a memory. I didn’t understand why I was living at my parents’ house, why I was still in Minnesota, why I wasn’t touring with my band. It felt like I’d Quantum Leaped into my younger self and I was going to have to go back to high school again.

That notion that there would always be time to pursue my passions was gone. I had precious few years to leave my mark on music before I’d be out of sync with my generation. I was self taught, late to the scene, and not exactly magazine cover material, with my bulb nose and pox marked skin. Music was my life but it felt like my tune was already fading, like the universe had a reason for claiming so many rockstars at 27.

I wondered why I was single, why I couldn’t see wedding bells from where I was standing, why I hadn’t changed my life to accommodate a baby. What kind of father would I make with my duct tape bracelets, torn sleeved shirts, and safety pins running down my jeans?

Thinking into my cereal, I waited for the sensation to pass. It didn’t. I was having a midlife crisis. I didn’t have an urge to buy a motorcycle, have an office affair, or study World War 2, but I was doing an inventory of everything I’d done and everything I had left to do. There was a lingering feeling that I was already expiring. This thought became impossible to banish. The more I tried to dismiss it, the more certain I became of it. I was staring down the other side of the hill, realizing the cost of being an old soul.

I was 16. I did the math. I had to leave my mark soon, because at 32 I was marked for death. After that morning, I saw the number everywhere. All those people jumping at the number 23, they had it backwards.

I laughed off Nostradamus’s date with the Apocalypse, wrote a satirical song about Y2K,  and slept in on the last day of the Mayan Calendar. I was comfortable in the knowledge that the world couldn’t end before I did.

That music career never happened, I’d spent most of the time pursuing writing. My lyrics took on too many verses and I just kept going with them, following the words away from the notes. I started calling my songs poems, until they took on chapter headings. Still, the change in medium never made me feel like I’d bought myself any more time. Plenty of authors emerge later in life, but I knew that when the clock struck 32 I’d have to put my pencil down and turn whatever I had in.

Shaking the Curse

I never knew how my life was going to end. I imagined a scenario from one of the Final Destination movies. I’d trip on a marble, accidentally setting off a Rube Goldberg machine of death. Somehow, a weathervane would roll down a roof, knock a rusty gutter loose, and hit me into a fence at the precise moment lightning struck it.

My depression tried to convince me the prophecy was going to be self-fulfilling. It said, “You can’t run from me forever. At 32, I’m going to catch up with you.”

I’m not going to lie, my depression gave it the good college try, but that option was never on the table, not with two Game of Thrones books pending, not with an Aphex Twin album just over the horizon, and not before I could leave my own meaningful impression.

As far as reasons for living go, I could do worse than having a slew of works in progress.

I’ve never understood the phrase, “Live everyday like it might be your last,” because if we all did who’d waste precious seconds doing laundry, mowing the lawn, or writing checks for the utilities? Some of us would be so polarized with fear that we wouldn’t decide on anything, we’d shiver beneath the covers waiting. We’d write bucket lists so long we wouldn’t have time to scratch off a single thing. We’d go through our contacts, saying our goodbyes all day long.

If a writer lived every day like it was their last, they’d post a blog entry and shun every long term project with any intellectual investment. I know that platitude was never meant to be taken literally, but I started to when my superstition caught up with me. I became hyper critical, a perfectionist with limited output, wondering if I died tomorrow, would the piece I was writing be the note I wanted to go out on.

What did that kind of pressure teach me? There are better ways to say “Carpe Diem,” without imagining my own imminent doom.

At 32, I’ve tried to be as prolific as possible, hyper-blogging, working on the novel, writing more short stories than ever before. Still, death has been a constant theme, lurking between the lines, waiting for it’s time to shine.

I consider myself a skeptic. This is my one last lingering thread of superstition. I can’t wait to cut it. My birthday is on Monday. I’ll be 33 and my deadly premonition will have reached its expiration. This weekend, I’ve been looking both ways three or four times before crossing the street, checking the sky for falling pianos, anvils, and loose jet engines.

If you’re reading this, it means I made it. That the self-fulfilling prophecy didn’t get me. I’ve outlived the curse and I have no idea what happens next.

I know this all sounds silly, like the ravings of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, but this means there’s still time. Time to perfect my craft, to get my name out there, and to make something of it. Time for love, terrible remakes of great movies, and a chance to tinker with virtual reality.

That 16 year old prophecy didn’t come true. If there are such things as psychics, I don’t have their gifts. That, or I was actually having a mid-midlife crisis and 64 is the number I should be watching out for. Better yet, maybe I was having an eighth of life crisis, and I’ll live to be 128, at which time I’ll be cryogenically frozen to be thawed out when death isn’t even a thing. Yup, that’s the option I’m going with.

12 thoughts on “The Curse of 32: On Keeping Artistic Ambitions Alive”

  1. Hey, Happy Birthday, Drew! Glad to see you’re still around! It must have been hard to anticipate the coming 32nd, and waiting for calamity to strike at any moment. Now that the fateful year has passed, take a deep breath, and get on writing more fabulous blogs such as this one! All the best to you! …Love the picture up top! 🙂

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  2. Nothing you said sounded silly to me. I have often thought I might die, even while just sitting here doing nothing. I get that feeling entering my chest and start panicking, and I think, holy shit! Then I scramble to get my most precious WIPs in an email to someone I trust and instructions on what to do with it and bestowing all my books and journals to those who will (maybe) appreciate them…so, no, I never thought silly as I read this, because what I just said sounds crazy. I think we all think about our mortality to some degree. Though with you, I do find it interesting it started at such a young age…and stayed with you over all these years and that sounds like such a burden. I’m sorry you’ve been carrying this with you.

    As soon as you started describing the experience, I knew it was sleep paralysis having experienced it myself, so I empathize, but I was in college when it started, and I can’t imagine being so young and going through that and not know what was happening.

    I found it interesting when you described this sliver of light creeping into the room. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a rainbow described as angry before and this light…you turned it into something negative, filled with “terrible faces.” I like the contrast and to me, at least, it helped to invoke more of that dreamlike aura, that foreboding feeling that invaded you at that point.

    I live everyday as if it’s the last in the sense I don’t worry about the dishes so much, ha! (Though not so much in the sense I’m going on daily adventures and increasing my creative output.) Oh, I have that bucket list two pages long and I’ve only crossed off a handful of things. Next up is to go to Walden Pond and read Thoreau while drifting in a canoe…though…probably won’t happen soon, so I’ll have to skip that as well as trekking through a rainforest on a two story tall elephant and go right to learning ballroom dancing or riding in a hot air balloon.

    Again, sorry that you have had this feeling haunting you the past sixteen years…and I am glad you are still with us 🙂 Great photos by the way, thanks for sharing them, and I hope you had a great birthday.

    As I read this, for some reason a quote popped in my brain, so I thought I’d share it. It is from the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (though I’m sure Fitzgerald did not write this as it’s not in the story…so I’m not sure who wrote it…and I know George Eliot has said something similar).

    “For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

    Go be who you want to be, Drew!

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    1. I’m happy to find a handful of people who know what sleep paralysis and night terrors actually feel like. I used to get the all the time in my mid-twenties. I ended up going to a neurologist to investigate it. Turns out stress and insomnia are not good bed fellows, so to speak.

      Thanks for all your kind words. I’m really happy to shake this superstitious nagging, I’ve had weighing me down.

      The Benjamin Button quote is really reassuring. Thank you.

      Sorry for the lateness of my reply. I’ve been cleaning my apartment from top to bottom (a friend is visiting from out of state).

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      1. Oh, don’t you apologize now. I get busy and do the same, I understand 🙂

        Stress and insomnia, yep, those were always the culprits for me too. I’m glad you now feel free 🙂

        Good luck with the rest of your cleaning and have a great visit with your friend.

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