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The Hermit, an audio anthology

by Benny Shlesinger 11 months ago in humanity
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Chapter Zero

The Hermit, an audio anthology
Photo by Joshua Bartell on Unsplash

Let me give you the layout. Downstairs there is a throng of people singing in candlelight to my youngest brother. He’s eighteen now and glowing in the love of the family around him. At least, that’s how I imagine it went. Just three minutes before the singing and candle lighting commenced, I was sitting close to my dad, watching as aunts, uncles, and cousins surrounded him. Just then I felt something drop in my chest all the way down to my stomach. It was like someone flipped off the lights and the internal offices of my mind went dark. I felt a subtle swirling in my stomach and my breath quickened. I stood out of my chair and slipped as quietly as I could up the stairs, behind the crowd, as erratic gasps heaved in my chest and I felt a buzzing sensation creep from the back of my head forward until my face tingled with overwhelming energy. Afraid of the sudden, visceral loss of control I threw myself into the corner of a room far enough from the stairs to hide my breakdown.

Clutching my shins, I tried desperately to regulate my breathing but instead felt my last bit of bodily control go. I am taken by it. I am in the hurricane, shaking uncontrollably.

My hyperventilating gasps are howling winds in my ear and I am blinded by the blackness behind my clenched eyelids. I can’t feel the floor I’m sitting on and I begin to hear myself weep. Shallow shudders, cut off by the panicked gasps that are my body’s desperate attempts to grasp at some oxygen while an anxiety like I have never felt before takes control like a hijacker pulling on every lever of a train, causing it to hurtle toward rails that have been ripped away by a storm.

Within a few minutes the storm abates and my body slumps, exhausted by the ordeal. Ensuing sobbing shakes my shoulders and chest. I have never felt anything like this.

In the months to come, I would have somewhere between three and seventeen panic attacks each week. They would vary both in intensity and circumstance. I have found myself huddled in corners at home, in public while out for a walk, or in the basement of the restaurant at which I work - always to calm my body enough to resume whatever it was I had been doing when the deeply unsettling sensations struck.

Anxiety and depression are not particularly new experiences for humans to have, but I don’t know if it’s ever happened to people like this. It seems everyone’s mental health is a few banana peels away from a serious meltdown.

Even still, I will gladly set myself to be skewered and torn open to the public because for the longest time I was too afraid to talk.

Now, I have something to say.

During the year of many terrible things, I asked questions that I couldn’t have before. That I wouldn’t have.

But those questions changed my life.

Photo by Pop and Zebra on Unsplash

After the year of terrible things, I felt compelled to write out thoughts that might be of help to others. I struggled initially because I felt concerned I might stray into narcissism by using myself as a case study. I am not excited about the idea of attaching my name to such personal stories and internal musings. Originally, I debated releasing the podcast anonymously. Quickly, I realized this was useless for two reasons. Firstly, anonymity may well be extinct in today’s age of ever-present electronic eyeballs. The second reason comes from Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning - the book that grounds Chapter One in the cold, hard reality of the concentration camps. In the preface to the 1992 edition, Frankl reveals he originally planned to release his book anonymously. Just as the book was to be initially published a friend persuaded him to stamp his name on the title page. I’m glad he did. There is something precious in being able to envision a person behind the pen that scratches out their stories. In that spirit, I also will publish this work with my name, however reluctantly.

When a book meets with a soul at just the right time and under just the right circumstances, an alchemical synergy can burst into being and the result is life-changing. I have never had a book so consistently cause me to step back into my humble being and out of whatever melodrama I have organized for myself as Frankl’s deep dive into what it means to be human even under the most nightmarish of circumstances. This book changed my life and spurred me to write The Hermit. It encouraged me to step out and stamp my name on my stories, to show a small slice of humanity that might, if not mishandled, touch the humanity of another. I don’t think I could ever ask for more than that. And if the price of reaching that end is my name, so be it.

The title of this collection of audio essays takes its title, The Hermit, from the Tarot Deck. Commonly, the figure of the Hermit (assigned card number IX in the Fool’s Journey of the Major Arcana) is cloaked in robes and shrouded in a dark world, save for his lantern which he lifts above to beat back the darkness and cast light into his innermost caves. This is the spirit of the Hermit. Its chapters are born from this inquisitive soul.

Currently, I am partway through twelve long chapters, each covering an area of worldly exploration that changed me - and saved my life. I do not accept that it is dramatic of me to suggest these words may save other lives. There is nothing less pressing than easing the suffering of another, especially when life experience and circumstance have put you in a position to do so. My greatest hope is that someone somewhere might hear these words and be lifted by them, inspired to get up again. These are pages I would give to my younger self - riddled with an eating disorder, stunted self-confidence, and extreme sensitivity - so that in my youth I might keep my chin up and my eyes forward. I would tell myself to keep going, that life was so much more than the small accomplishment-centric lens I had grown to use.

The twelve chapters bound within the book of The Hermit are as follows:

Chapter I - A Fool in the Dark

Chapter II - Undeclared

Chapter III - Human

Chapter IV - The Act

Chapter V - How to Choose a God

Chapter VI - Worlds, Bound and Shelved

Chapter VII - Lift

Chapter VIII - Vice

Chapter IX - The Hermit

Chapter X - A Definite Maybe

Chapter XI - D’NOTZ

Chapter XII - Stardust in the Mirror

The first chapter is given life from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Between this book, my years of childhood Hebrew School, and a trip to the most powerful museum in the world. The meditation on death that begins Chapter One is a direct counterpart to the meditation on life that begins Chapter Twelve. I try to be prudent in remembering that I shall one day die, lest I forget to live. The experience of walking the museum Yad Vashem’s halls still sits in my mind. I hope my story does it justice.

By MARCIN CZERNIAWSKI on Unsplash

The second chapter takes its name from my time earning a bachelor’s degree. I changed my major more than a handful of times after beginning my college career undeclared. Truthfully, I was undeclared even as I received my diploma in the mail, but I didn’t quite understand that yet. I see now that I missed an opportunity in college and wish I could travel back and give myself a different perspective on studying. How little I knew, and even less I understood, as I was transitioning from high school to the University of Oregon. Alas, all I can do now is offer help to those currently in this predicament. The mental, and thereby physical, health of young people everywhere is subject to a series of words on a college acceptance or rejection letter. This is a terrible misunderstanding of their inner light and creativity.

Chapter three discusses relationships among humans. Dating apps seem to have thrown us into the Swipe Age and after Zoom Zombie life I think we all feel a little wiggly about getting out there and meeting people. I, for one, never felt more alone than in the depths of the year of terrible things. I wondered whether I would ever feel truly in touch with the world of people again. Thankfully, in my investigation, my faith in authentic connection was redeemed.

By Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

The fourth chapter outlines my foray into acting. Speaking before groups terrified me in school. My teenage self would be shocked to find that ten years later I’d have taken acting classes and even found myself with a resumé of eight local projects - a blend of student films and low to no-budget productions. It is shocking what one learns when acting. Whether in drama or comedy, the raw humanity that you must express is a true journey of the inner self. I found myself asking who I was, behind these characters that I was to play on camera or in rehearsal. And who’re these characters I was attempting to bring alive from their ink on paper prisons. More frightfully, behind the layers of masks, who lives at the center of me? Who am I? Who is that character?

Chapter five is a contemplation on my identity and faith. I grew up Jewish, which is a very strange thing to be. Several years ago, my dad took an at-home ancestry analysis - like the one your friends keep telling you about. Turns out, he’s primarily Ashkenazi. This wasn’t a surprise, but it did put a wrinkle in my identity. Being Jewish is in my blood, and it’s a part of me whether I practice or not. What a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in. I could, if I desired, convert away from my faith, but I would always have kosher blood flowing through my veins. Even still, I am unsure if I am Jewish in faith. I went to Hebrew School after public school for most of the formative years that led up to my thirteenth birthday. That one came with a rite of passage - the bar mitzvah. I learned many useful things. But later on in life, I learned many other useful things from other religious traditions. After all my perusing I have concluded that all of these writings have something useful to teach us. I don’t know why we have to claim that “our” book is “the” book. They’re biblical best-sellers, all of them. It’s uncomfortable to admit it but, I feel apart from the Jewish community. I had a hard time believing in God as a young boy. So much so, that while visiting the Rabbi to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah I confessed in tears that I didn’t believe in God. It was something I wished for desperately. More than anything, I wanted to believe - to feel - God. Call it Source, call it God, call it Universe. Whatever it was, I wanted it. And I felt like a bad Jew for not having it.

By Alfons Morales on Unsplash

Growing up I devoured fantasy novels, hence the title of Chapter Six. I was enamored with the worlds of magic and miracles, glowing heroes and dark creatures of the night. The books that now fill many shelves in my childhood home nurtured my imagination. And I believed in them, even though they never asked me to. What I find astonishing when I reflect on these books is how much truth I found in fiction. In the most gripping of stories, I wonder if fiction may be able to communicate more truth and humanity than any biography or memoir. I have even taken a stab at authoring some of these stories and have managed to putter out a screenplay and short novel. Neither of which are available for public consumption, for health and safety reasons. You see I am, as it stands, still a novice. Yet I strive to create that something that happens when you engage with a masterful writer’s work. Character’s dance in worlds on stage or in mind and leave the audience with a sense that they have experienced something more than a silly play, movie, or book. They’ve touched something with their minds and hearts that speaks to their innermost soul. The power of story has transformed my life and earns well-deserved attention in the sixth chapter of The Hermit.

Chapter Seven begins in the South Eugene High School weight room. I’m fifteen and staring at myself in the mirror. I feel a sensation of freedom I’ve never experienced. I had always been what my pediatrician called “chunky”, but after a semester in Strength and Conditioning 1, I could see my biceps. I wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I didn’t have to be. I felt strong. This led me through an exploration of physical pursuits over the next several years. I’ve run a marathon, been a CrossFit Coach, played with kettlebells, and I even wrote a fitness e-book. It wasn’t amazing, but it had heart. And after the pandemic, though it’s certainly a limp excuse, I am in the worst shape since my initial foray into fitness. My knee hurts a lot and I’m learning what it means to listen to your body. I didn’t for the longest time, and now it’s becoming quite insistent I shut the hell up and hear it out. As such, Chapter Seven embodies our physical world and the forms we take to journey through it.

By Pascal Meier on Unsplash

“Vice, vice, oh so nice. What’ll tickle your fancy? What is your delight?” That’s the jingle for Chapter 8. Catchy, no? Variations of Vice can be blatantly observed in advertisements for beer, liquor, cigarettes and vapes, and fast food. Of course, there are the other forms of vice that are not quite tame enough to be advertised but are alive and well nonetheless. These are marijuana, other drugs, porn, or sex. I’m sure I’ve missed several hundred examples - video games, streaming services, and sports come to mind- but I don’t have space here to list them all. To be expedient, I’ll simply call them Vice. Vice has crept its tendrils into every corner of our society, and I almost went down because of it. Well, it was my fault, but the Vice made me do it! Vice is a funny fickle thing. I don’t think I was prepared for the world of Vice when I set my naive young self out into the world. It’s nobody’s fault, really. We all have our struggles with Vice. I hope, truly, that my own stories of Vice might help another dealing with more of the same.

By Viva Luna Studios on Unsplash

Chapter Nine is rather special, and it holds within it the essence of the project. The Hermit is the ninth card in the Tarot deck. My mom had Tarot cards I had seen growing up, but I never understood how they worked. I didn’t get it. I am quite happy to report that I have purchased some decks in the last year and decided to go and see what all the fuss about these cards was about. I was gleefully surprised at how deeply I found myself touched by the story the cards play out. How bizarre, I often think after a reading, once again I’ve found deeply helpful counsel in a deck of cards. The power of the archetypes, imagery, and reading of the Tarot cards helped me, I believe, to sharpen my intuition. I let go of my incessantly logical mind and allow myself to contemplate life outside the neat walls of its analysis. It is striking how many of my best decisions have been made without consulting the left side of my brain. This chapter is a passion project, and I am eager to share it with the world.

Chapter Ten - A Definite Maybe derives its soul from the familiar position we all find ourselves in at one unfortunate time or another. We have plodded merrily along our path when suddenly, at the behest of our low self-assuredness, we find ourselves paralyzed by a treacherous piece of proverbial cutlery. We’ve been royally forked by life and we have to make a decision. There’s really no clear leaning one way or the other. Some forks in the road are pleasant, such as which flavor ice cream you’d like with your high school prom date. Others are tougher. They don’t seem to offer any mercy either way. These forks look like kidney problems in your beloved animal companion. Do you put your sick dog down now and save him the suffering of his last days? But no, he still has good days, and just the other day he jumped onto the couch again, and isn’t it better to wait a little longer? Let him wag his tail in the morning sunlight a few more days? Our choice to go one way or the other is the most freeing gift that Mother Nature could have been kind enough to bestow upon us. Learning to bear its burden has scraped me, but it’s also sharpened me up. Chapter Ten explores how we make decisions and who we are when we make them. It is an essay I desperately wish I could hand my younger self. I will be sure to share it with my children one day.

The second to last chapter is a shade of black like the darkest of night before the sun climbs from the horizon to glow orange and red. It is the storm of the sea and the enemy’s arrow digging its point into your heart. It is the pit. Rock bottom. The hole. Thoughts that tickle the back of your neck and whisper stories that chill you. D’NOTZ: The Dark Night of The Soul.

By Breno Machado on Unsplash

For several months in the year of terrible things, I had panic attacks everywhere. In the car, at work, at home. It felt like someone had turned the dial on my nervous system up way past ten to a bloody thirteen and stuck it there. I was my anxiety. If I had known in those darker moments that others out there were having identical experiences to my own, I might have felt comforted just in knowing that I wasn’t alone. But that rattling sense of loneliness seems to be something that drags along behind the anxiety and depression. It makes you want to hide away in a dark cave somewhere. Alone. Where you belong. But I learned too that if it all burned down if your home erupted in flame and fried everything in your world to a crisp, and if everyone in your life ran from the dumpster fire that you had become, I would still be sitting here typing the same words: “Pick yourself up. You’re gonna be fine, kiddo. You have no idea how tough you are.” If there’s anything Chapter 11 is supposed to say to the listener, it’s that.

Chapter Twelve begins a meditation on life and reality. It begins with the stardust in your mirror. Both in the materials that make up its physical form and in the creature you see staring back at you when you peer into its depths. Contemplating stardust has permeated my life. This is a surprise. Only now as I write these words I think of how stardust has been a theme in my writing in the past and also composes part of the tattoo on my back. There’s something magical and wonderful about stardust that I discuss in Chapter Twelve, it is the fabric that woven together in careful strands to weave together the quilt of our universe It is through my writing of this Chapter that I came to decide that Wonder, as it can be engaged with, by us silly humans, helps to ease the pains of wandering or existential crisis. I hope by the end of this Chapter the listener will give Wonder a try.

By Aldebaran S on Unsplash

By the end of the collection of audio chapters, I sincerely wish the listener is comforted by the notion that we are a part of something bigger than we could ever comprehend, and if we dare to do so we can shape our world. The production of Life will inevitably call it curtains and I’d hate for anyone to miss the splendor of it all for something as undeserving as anxiety or fear. And I hope I can help them hear that voice. The one they hear calling their name from deep within the depths of their soul, gone quiet from neglect. Let the journey begin.

humanity

About the author

Benny Shlesinger

Amateur philosopher, avid keyboard pitter-patterer

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