“Lying in bed right now, it's getting around 7, 7:15. I can tell by the sound of my voice I'm a little dazed...just hard to believe that I have 150 more nights. 150 more days of walking 20 miles or so...”
It was February 20th, 1992 and it was the first day of my walk across the country. Twenty snowy miles from Cambridge to Sudbury Massachusetts. I'd set my tent up in the woods beside Longfellow's famous Wayside Inn and sat in my sleeping bag with a handheld tape recorder and read what I'd just written in my journal.
"There is no such interconnectedness in the universe. All things are alone and isolated. All atoms are spaced appropriately. The only connection is accident. "
I was a fan of Democritus' idea on the nature of the universe, that the totality consisted only of atoms, motion and the void. No sentimental meaning to be found, no story to be unraveled.
The next morning I rose and packed my atoms and began my motion, having no idea I was headed directly into the void.
"I'm trying to drink as little as possible..."
I didn't mean water. I was 24 years old and I already knew what I was. I'd been drinking almost daily for 4 years. I was an alcoholic and couldn't find a way to not be. The simple hardship of walking across the country, I figured and hoped, might be my only cure.
On my second day, I stepped into a bar.
"Rained a little bit last night and I got a little too drunk at Mondo's. Hope not to do that again."
I wanted to be a writer, but my constant drinking had dropped me into a constant depression.
"I want to put myself back under the spell of living. And I have lost it."
I'm a lot like my grandfather, and a lot like his son too I guess, so they say, my Uncle Dick. Both were effortlessly charming, which I have never been and both full of life. Maybe I shared their looks. It's what my mother said, my grandmother, all my aunts. “You're so like your grandfather,” they'd say. “So like your Uncle Dick.”
"I'd like to take some kind of oath or allegiance to one big spiritual personal world truth that I would like to try to be faithful too."
Democritus' atoms, motion and the void were not a belief system. They were facts, not a faith. And though I wanted to find something to believe in--it would have to be a truth beyond question. Something I just knew was true.
"I'm beginning to think it's all that I came on this walk for...finding the center is what I'm doing..."
My grandfather stayed with us every summer, all summer. He'd sit on our porch, we'd play cards. He'd smoke and sing and talk. He had dozens of old card player expressions. He'd accuse me of laying back in the weeds, of dancing on my heels. From Nachez to Mobile, he'd sing in a smoky voice.
He'd talk about the great tragedy of his life, the loss of his only son. A magically attractive genius boy who came home wrecked from Viet Nam and died in what was a called a canoe accident. Really his canoe had tipped over in a calm and shallow river and my Uncle Dick was too drunk to swim.
“I can't believe it's only been 2 days. It seems like a month already. But I suppose I'll have to get used to that. Or not getting used to that, I'll have to break into a thousand little pieces.”
My grandfather wasn't shy about his past. I knew he was in and out of the gutter, here and there homeless, on and mostly off the wagon. He lived in a monastery for a while, in shelters and charity homes and on the street. His wife left him. His daughters - even my mother who let him come stay with us - didn't want to see him.
“Well I drank too much. And hopefully I won't drink very much into the future. It's getting a little silly.”
I didn't drink until college. I abstained; a teetotaler like my mother. I went to plenty of parties in High School where drinking was the main attraction. But I'd sit by the stereo with a coke and listen to the music and marvel at my restraint.
“I went into the barroom, it was very small, very dark. About six tables, all with candles on them.”
I got a scholarship to a little Ivy league school not because I was smart, but because I could run fast. I ran a 4:12 mile my freshman year. Fast enough to get my coach talking about the Olympics, fast enough to start talking about sub 4 minute miles. Drinking ended that my sophomore year. I quit the track team, lost my scholarship. Stopped running.
“Last night I stayed in a broken down shack filled with mason jars and chairs and old farming tools...”
By the end of the first week of my walk, I was drinking during the day. And like some kind of landlubber pirate, for me, that meant singing.
Singing: “I'm gonna mush your skull with my crawdad armpit. I'm gonna bust some bones on my way to hell..."
"I'm thirsty from drinking too much...just kind of dying...and no good...”
I've never listened to these 22 year old microcassettes until now.
Singing: “When I'm feeling blue, all I have to do, is cast a look at you and I'm saved.”
I went away for a semester abroad in Ireland my junior year. I didn't attend a single class. I woke up in fields, beside the ocean, with cuts and bruises on my body from falling down. I wasn't effortlessly charming, I wasn't smart, I wasn't full of life...but in one way at least I was just like my grandfather.
Chris: “I think you were somebody that was in a way maybe having a kind of breakdown.”
At the time I left for the walk I was living with my best friend Chris in a house in Watertown.
Chris: “I remember when you left and you were a broken up person.”
Chris worked at a liquor store, delivered newspapers at 4 in the morning. But every night he and I would go down to the basement and play music.
We had a small amp, a mic, a couple guitars, a drum machine, a tape recorder and whatever liquor we could get. Chris would play and I would sing.
Chris: “You were just making up lyrics on the spot that rhymed and sounded great and had little stories. And like I listen to things we did, I'm like, ‘Oh he sounds exactly like the Cure. Oh he sounds exactly like Morrissey. Oh, he's doing his Michael Stipe, and it's perfect.’”
But I had no voice of my own. Only borrowed voices.
Chris: “We knew that you were not right. You drank an extreme amount of booze all the time. And I was quite the drinker also but I couldn't keep up with you. And you would just keep going. You needed to straighten yourself out and that was your way of doing it.”
As a poet, musician and all around artist, Chris decided to film some parts of my walk with a Super 8 camera.
Chris: “In a way you know maybe in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Woah, I'll do this Wim Wenders black and white thing of this guy walking on these barren roads.’”
Chris and a friend came and went and shot the guy walking on the barren roads and then, as he was nearly out of film he suggested a sit down interview in Pennsylvania.
Chris: “You took a long time to answer our questions and you were really not articulate. Like, you couldn't communicate to us. You seemed like you weren't doing too well.”
Chris' first question - had anything surprised me so far about the walk?
Sean: “Surprised, not really surprised...um...not surprised...um...just slightly...ah...I'm sort of easing into that a bit...”
Chris: “We would ask you a question and you would pause and think for what seemed to me an excruciatingly long period of time before you started saying anything. And when you did speak I could not understand what you were talking about. I really couldn't.”
I pushed on through Pennsylvania. My inability to communicate deepened.
“I think I'll be somewhat speechless...”
I stopped writing in my journal. I stopped recording on the handheld. I kept drinking. I kept walking. I crossed through Ohio.
Deciding that I was done is the last clear memory I have. Things began to dissolve. There's a blank space that stretches out and never clearly ends. I know I kept walking, but I was no longer there.
Chris: “It seemed to me like you were gone for years...”
Eventually I returned home. I don't know how or when.
Chris: “But somehow when you got back - it fixed you whether you like it or not. Or maybe it was like electroshock, you weren't fully cured but you were put back together by the time you got back.”
I drank less, took long breaks from drinking, I started running again, and writing. My walk across the country was not a triumph. My rock bottom lay below the rocks below the bottom.
I haven't had a drink in a long time now. I run every day or walk. I write stories and songs and plays. I still don't sing in my own voice. This isn't my real voice. I don't know if I have one.
In 2006, I began a podcast called Atoms, Motion & the Void. I improvised stories using a made up voice because a false voice has always felt more comfortable, authentic. What began with my descent into the void ended up the finale of my first play - also called Atoms, Motion & the Void.
Sherwin: In a rushing rainbow crystal, every image, every story, every observation from my life in a torrent of light. And I said farewell to each in the only way one can...with the kiss of forgiveness.
The story of a man who has lost his way, his sense of self, and who is forced to bear witness to his own death...and through that, learns a big spiritual world truth that he doesn't need to believe in. He simply knows it's true.
Sherwin: To know that one must travel deeply and steadfastly into the dream of one’s own self - to explore the full weight of, and the tyranny of, and the suffering of and the forgiveness of that which is called the original sin - which is itself alone and simply the illusion that one is a person, privately held, separate from all others, complete unto oneself and capable of unique action. To learn that what one calls real is in fact a dream. To learn that what one believes is itself the material to be transcended...
The blessing of this grace is to be possessed by an indifference to anything not essential and to surrender oneself endlessly into every moment without demand.
To know that one dies into the vortex of one’s own birth and that all beings, animals and matter, whether stone or tree, bear forth from this self-same emptiness and return there when complete. To die in one’s own arms, as ever one has been. Invisible. Strong. Transparent. Clear. Cradled thereby in the crucible of the hands of god, which is nothing but love, which is nothing but the self, which is nothing but the universe....which then in its fulfillment may be said to be comprised of this self-same trinity alone...of atoms, motion and the void...
You...my mother came to me after the play...are so like, she whispered as she embraced me, your grandfather....
Discover more of Sean and Sherwin Sleeve's work at this website: Atoms, Motion, and the Void. You can also watch a video that Sean made to accompany this story, below.