Jonathan Mack

A Manifesto for Surviving By Means of the Paragraph


Introductory Note:
Every day I write on a stack of blank 3 by 5 cards. I write my life, it is not exactly my life, it is more like a cartoon. An account of moments, as directly as I can, just as they arise in the mind and infused by endless reading. In this way, many years have passed. Recently I began to share pieces of my peculiar work with friends and allies, asking, "This is what appears to me. This is what shows up. Do you see any use for it? Do you have any idea what might be done with this kind of mind?" Those are my questions. This is a work-in-progress. Any response is deeply appreciated. A second excerpt will appear in the next issue of Wordgathering.

The trick is to follow the clue, to see the chance connection, attend to it, and against all reason, follow it to the next clue, or coincidence, yes, if the reading at Mass echoes what you were thinking about in the night, follow that message out into the streets, and the next, follow the coincidences.
– I.F. Annensky, as recorded by Fanny Howe in The Needle's Eye


Two doors down from where I live is a semi-abandoned house, with a gate but no front door, in front of which sits a semi-abandoned man, dozing on a folding chair beside a pile of empty brown caguamas. His skin is like an old shoe and his beard is long and white and filthy. Last month a little white dog turned up. Now the dog is filthy too. Then, a few days ago, a white cat appeared. The cat surprised me. That filthy cat is beautiful. Then I saw the filthy dog is beautiful and the old man is beautiful too. He looks catatonic, I know, but if you wave to him he waves right back. Name's Homero.

I think we should all set aside some time to be mad. To be insane, I mean. Don't you think so? Don't you agree? 1 day a month. More. 1 day a week? At least. One should be generous in one's allowance. Like the world which, as you cannot have failed to notice, has bequeathed a vast territory to madness.

On the day ceded to madness, the urgent list of things to do is set aside. (One notes that list never gets shorter anyhow, nor any less shrill.) In place of that tyranny, one should select instead items from the list of things one should not do, aiming for those items which are less than all-consuming, in hopes that one might have, in one's madness, a selection. Heroin therefore, however admirable, is in this case not recommended. And, speaking personally, if I start quick-searching Brazilian policemen in the jungle, invariably so heavily armed, there will be little to no leeway for selecting additional sins.

Things are both simpler and harder now, now that it appears that I know, every moment, what it is I am supposed to be doing.
     Not that I'm over there doing it. But I can see it from here, in the gutter.

This isn't a basement apartment, but it feels like one. The only window is long and narrow and very high up on the wall. The intention is to keep out rateros and heat. I reckon this is what it feels like, to have fallen down a well.
     I pay the usual rent, which everyone pays: a certain amount of money, plus silence in regard to evil people.

For now there is still the slow cooker. When rice, beans, oatmeal and bus fare runs out, well, that will be the next rung of economy. There are many, many rungs. We are nowhere near the bottom.
      As a Buddhist, I suppose I believe that poverty can survive even the body. You can be reborn as a hungry ghost. You can swear that you were one already.

Ideally you wouldn't be reading this. No, you'd be out on a warm night with someone you love, at a moment when that love is a gift, an easy gift worn lightly, and you'd be here in Mexico, in a small town, at a festival for a minor saint.

You'd see for yourself the radiant toughs clutching their proud girls and their cans of Tecate, as you and they walked among the colored lights and carnival games and tables arrayed with sweets and sunglasses and toys for children. You'd eat posole, pollo o sortido, or else enchiladas picadillo, con todo! A Michelada or agua de jamaica and definitely a popsicle because popsicles in Mexico has attained a level of bliss unimaginable elsewhere.

All that would be yours — and nothing more. That is the gift. Nothing happens. You just wander around, looking and looking, in the easy company of the one you love. Unfortunately, due to your due diligence, your keen sense of responsibility, your mindful stewardship of funds, your belief, firm and indefensible, that it's gonna make a goddamn bit of difference, you probably won't be able to go to a small Mexican town, to the festival of a very minor saint.

I am trying to make up for that. I cannot possibly but I am doing my best.

Simply, one of the, many days, something is, wrong with, the, electrical system. When it, makes no, sense, is in fact, lethal, to ask, How is my life going?

When finally I could afford it, I called the man and he came with a fresh tank of gas. Big beefy man, gray buzzcut, full tank tossed over his shoulder. I tipped him 30 pesos. He didn't seem that cheerful. Angel told me 25 pesos was enough. It wasn't enough. I hardly see anyone anymore. I want those few people I see to be happy to see me.
      I am willing to pay.

One effect of living in a Mexican resort town is that there is no crime so heinous, gristly, or bizarre that you can't effortlessly believe that those amiable, chipper, retired, Canadian beer drunks might not have committed it. I remember when I landed here 3 years ago — they seemed so nice!
      They drink all afternoon, every afternoon, with damned good reason. It's true they're set for life, as they themselves will tell you, hourly, as long as they keep a keen eye on sales at Costco, and frequent every Happy Hour, and never ever tip. Still, there is always the concern: Who knows? Perhaps the police might yet obtain a warrant to excavate the backyard of the home in a suburb of Toronto where they did once reside?

Some days will be entirely lost. Don't mind too much. Don't take yourself to task. Small hurts, like germs, so minute, so numerous, it's impossible to make any reckoning of them.
      At random (not enough sleep? overwork?) one gains great force and topples you. Don't make a grand failure of it, anguish comes, like the flu, just go to bed. Just go to bed!
     Personally, I give you permission for all the liquor you require, but that does not mean I am right.

My next door neighbor grins at me. Who d'you think's gonna be next?

     Dead, he means. There's been a slew of deaths among the good-time gringo types. Suicides mostly, direct or indirect, among the gringos who retired or retreated to drink. As well as among the misfits and queers, like me. As always.
     My neighbor wasn't being glib — or anyway not cruel. Yes, he is an American, yes, he's a fertilizer salesman for golf courses, but I still insist he is one of the good ones. He is one of the people who helps put things in order, between death and when the family arrives. His capacity for excruciating phone calls strains the imagination. We've been dying so quickly lately.
     Sure, I have my guess," I said. "I'm sure as hell not going to say it out loud."

Even if the queer or trans artist who suicides isn't someone I knew very well, I still grieve (i.e., drink) for the better part of a week. At least. So many of us have been lost. It seems we go so very often, and so fast.

And it has been a very long time since my suicide attempts. The more serious ones. The 1 with the train. And still, it always feels like — a door has somewhere been left open. Into the cold.
     One feels the draft.

To my dear depressed friend,

      We cannot kill ourselves!
     ust imagine: the very most stupid, small-minded, pious, avaricious and hateful of our relatives will pinch up their fakey-fake faces, sigh deeply and say,
     He was very troubled.

This is a manifesto for surviving by means of the paragraph.
     For loving and seeing by means of the paragraph. For doing without by means of the paragraph. For hiding away by means of the paragraph. For keeping oneself alive by means of the paragraph.
     This is the meaning of paragraphism.

The paragraph, I mean to say, that you can live this way, with just this much and no more. The overall may be unbearable, unbreathable, uninhabitable. The long-term may not exist.
     The paragraph then, for just this, for what is, no matter how misshapen or shameful or inauspicious.

The paragraph, because it is very often necessary to allot oneself a small space in which to be desperate. Or to swoon. Or to grieve the natural world. Or to be grandiose, or a clown. Or to babble.

Experiments in the paragraph are, by definition, experiments in Divine Providence. And survivalism.

The paragraph, because dreaming is oddly a lot of work. Because dreaming oddly is a lot of work.
     I find it helps to take it in short bursts.

The paragraph, because the doctor isn't ever likely to prescribe all the drugs we need, in sufficient dosages, for sleeping and waking, to feel normal.
     In fact, the doctors can't. Poor bastards. They'd lose their licenses, go to prison.

Paragraphism, because Let's Make Stuff With Pain! is an accurate but repellent title.

I go for refuge to the paragraph, to the truth of the paragraph, and to the community of those who seek and reply upon the paragraph.

The paragraph is made up entirely of non-paragraph elements.

I have accepted the paragraph as my Personal Lord and Saviour.

Paragraphism, because it's helpful to have something to do when you are desperate, something besides those same bleak things you always, always do.

The paragraph as secret room, as emergency shelter, because there is no guarantee the pain allotted to you will be reasonable or bearable or meaningful. You may have heard otherwise but I'm sorry — it's a myth. And so it is necessary to have access to a room, a room at all times, to which you may choose to retreat, a room upon your own word.

The paragraph, to which the pressure can be transferred, the knot, you don't have to bear it, you think that you should bear it but you are wrong, chances are you already bearing far more than you should.
     The paragraph is a secure place for hazardous materials. It is a lockable box with crystalline sides. It can be used both to hold and to see.

One ought to be connected, it is said, able to make connections, it is said, just as one is supposed to have had a family. But, if you are not one of those persons, as I am not, well, then there is Paragraphism, and by beans or bread crumbs we, too, can make our way through the forest.

Paragraphism is an ideal practice for prisoners, pensioners, virgins, reprobates, schoolteachers, mystics and the depraved. Paragraphism is perfect for those with little space, for those with almost no time, for desesperados. (Angel, my lover, asks me very often, amor tu estas desesperado? and it is true that I am desesperado a great deal of the time but, oddly enough, I am hardly ever desesperado at the moment my lover asks me.)

Paragraphism calls out to the burdened, the neglected, and the embittered, as well as to the dreamy, the useless and the only very intermittently sane, and also includes even those persons only entirely liked by their pets.

Weep not! Paragraphism embraces you!

Joe Brainard is my oracle. Opening at random the Collected Writings I find: People of the world: RELAX!
     Thought bubbles rise pacifically above a cat and mouse.
     Don't be afraid.
     Some of the best people I know are not afraid.

Late at night, near the punching bags and the outdoor boxing ring in the park, there is quite regularly a ghost. A very obvious visible ghost which even amateurs can see, the same way you don't need binoculars to recognize a pelican. The ghost's shirtless, buzzcut, muscled-up, 17 maybe, red shiny shorts, treasure trail, lopsided loopy-grin.      Yes, this is Mexico: even the ghosts are hot.

Then I feel bad, all twisted up, because I was checking out a teenage boy. Predictably, I immediately try to rationalize and make excuses. But does it really excuse me that he is phosphorescent, semi-transparent and dead — or is that even worse?

Somebody called me Gordo — Fatty, I have almost no money, I tried to solve both problems at once, not necessarily in the most skillful way. For 3 days I ate only 3 small bowls of oatmeal, plus one tuna sandwich. And then today I did budget myself one very welcome box of wine and, in an unguarded moment, I discover that I have just now eaten an entire loaf of bread, with olive oil and salt. I can't express how natural it felt, just cramming it all in. The word I'm looking for here is voluptuous.

This isn't an official life I am having.
      I do recognize that.

For all we know, plastic bags may appear deliriously attractive to whales, something new and sublime, their texture an enchanting novelty. Or else the trash just gets sucked up with everything else — like us, like us!
     Why do you go on insisting the pain you carry is all your fault, that it even has so terribly much to do with you?

Here, the queen makes a wish: why can't we establish a very low-key and benevolent mind, especially if all we'll be seeing, henceforth, is disasters? Yes, I understand that today I am to be executed. And I would like some crackers. Ritz. Sure, I'd like some cheese but — I don't need cheese.

If I could choose an emotional state in which to conduct my life, if I could have just 1, instead of 6 before breakfast and 2 full-scale operas (costumes, lights, sets, orchestra) each week, might not quiet and sad be the possible mode, the most helpful and reliable? Very often, when I have landed here at quiet and sad, I think, oh, I would be wise to remain here — but, no, the doors of the shuttle are already closing.

Things which are prohibited: figuring out.
     Figuring out is a hideous form of scraping, which in the extreme may even lastingly damage the backdrop — a fork to the screen.
     Therefore there must be no figuring out, or anyway the absolute minimum of that awful, unlawful, unending, figuring, figuring, figuring out.

Only what arises fully formed is to be admitted. It's got to be able to breathe on its own. Hell, it's got to be able to chop and stack wood, build a fire, pitch a tent, and throw my legs over my shoulders.

All is lost — that is the good news. You might as well relax. Several decades ago, the bartender at Club Stud, or was it The Twenty-Two, anyway one of the hustler bars on South Broadway, used to announce, You can have a lot of fun in the gutter! or, more to the point, Everyone thinks they're just slumming.

I write always with the assumption that I am writing at the very end, just a bit before the void, the uninhabitable planet. But it is possible there will be something, though it will not be anything like the world we live in now. So that I might perhaps be like Sei Shonagon, writing her private book from the imperial court in the 11th century.
      I, too, am haughty, vengeful, bitter, and precise. And the things which disqualify me now — being a waddling poor faggot descended from poisonous stock — may not disqualify me in the future. Someday I will be picturesque! All I need first is to have been dead for many hundreds of years.

This Grinder hotty is 51, 6'3", gym-fit and spunky-looking, and, whoa, here now are 6 portraits of his dong, which looks downright entrancing from any angle. Sends his location: center of el Centro, just off the pier, Glamoroso! I write, and he writes back, Yes and I earned every penny of it myself.
     Instantly all desire's gone, vanished traceless, and nothing, nothing I can do can bring it back. In my head I try: how about let's add an inch? a heavy foreskin? a thick line of coke? a fresh bottle of poppers? Nope. Still not interested. How do I explain this? (Not that I need to — he's already off to the next one.)
      I'm sorry, I don't sleep with The Deserving.

The only time sex apps are really any good is when someone's already decided they like you, and now they're hauling you in. Saw you at the bar, the gym, the store, the drunk tank, the clinic.
     Best example: the guy who wrote: I WANT YOUR DICK. I wrote back, Thanks bud only standard-issue here but enthusiastic! He wrote: I WANT YOUR BIG DICK. I wrote back: Dang bro sorry kinda average here. He wrote: SAW YOU IN THE SHOWER AT THE GYM.
     I hurried right on over to his place, me and my pre-approved penis.

I've recently been designated a spiritual person. And it's just like it sounds. Like receiving an engraved plaque: historic. Zero to do with my behavior. Obviously. Nonetheless I am resolved to get out more. Not just drink and jerk off. Or, anyway, not at home.

File it away: the cheapest FUD brand turkey dogs are significantly less horrible if you first do boil the shit out of them. Do NOT fry them. The sort of thing one only ever eats at 3am if one is drunk and broke and unaccompanied. Still, these moments, too, must be navigated.
     Be sure to use lots of water so if you doze off you won't wake up to anything on fire.

From the Majjhima Nikaya: the first of the righteous kings, i.e., the beginning of the end, ruled for 84,000 years and when his royal barber found 3 white hairs he plucked them out and showed them to the king. Divine messengers, the king called them. Bestowing a village to his barber, the king renounced his kingdom, shaved his head and eyebrows, donned robes and lived a holy life, instructing his son to do the same and not to be the end. The righteous kings got 84,000 years for childish games, 84,000 years to be vice-regent, 84,000 years to be king, and 84,000 years to live the holy life.
      Where I get in trouble is because I scramble it all together and try to be done by quarter to 4 because I'm on the cheap plan at the gym and can only go during the day.

Obvious by now I have become some stray species of pseudo-monk, consigned to holiness I spend my days studying the scriptures, sucking cock and drinking too much. Nothing innovative about that. The difference is that, rather than receive orders from the Pope, I work directly for the Divine Mother, Prajnaparamita. There here are my encyclicals, my apocrypha, the tiny bits of what I have understood, swaddled among immense swathes of nonsense.

I am using the very little that is left of me, doing what I can do. Until I forget, and do what I cannot do.      Anyway, that is the hope.

Simply, one of the, many days, something is, wrong with, the, electrical system. When it, makes no, sense, is in fact, lethal, to ask, How is my life going?


Jonathan Mack now lives in Mexico, after many years in India and Japan. His short story The Right Way to Be Crippled & Naked became the title story of an anthology of disability fiction published by Cinco Puntos Press. Stories have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Quarter After Eight, Foglifter, Crooked Fagazine, Pilgrimage, Eleven Eleven, Epiphany, Zymbol, Gargoyle, the Tokyo Advocate, Japanzine and elsewhere. Learn more about Jonathan Mack and help support his work at