“No matter how much we hope for happiness, happiness will not come. And no matter how much we don’t want to suffer, the suffering of samsara will continue…Samsara is suffering and suffering is created by sentient beings. When we understand the immensely diverse ways we create and experience suffering, we will realize the importance of creating the ground of positive karma upon which liberation can come to fruition.”
– This Precious Life by Khandro Rinpoche
It is June, July, and August of 1990. I am thirteen years old. My father died in March, and I spend most of my summer afternoons in the basement at home. There, I hunch over a metal desk, in a rusty, squeaky metal office chair. The basement desk is where the only computer in the house lives, in my eldest brother’s room, otherwise filled with his male mustiness. The sole window, high up on a far wall, peeks out through the roots of Mom’s overgrown garden.
The computer is an early Apple, in a tall but compact box, with a monitor, tiny screen, and disk drive all in the same case. I wish I were this self-contained: my developing body struggles to hide, as does my mind.
I tell Mom I am going to the computer to write poetry. But I stumble through the dimly lit basement room of my brother’s mess with a different purpose: to play a game called Tetris. I turn on the computer. I insert Depeche Mode Violator into the CD player. I adjust the chair height. I punch off the computer volume (no insipid game music for me). I drop my body down. I kick my feet to the beat. My habitual ritual is complete. Once the game begins, only my right-hand fingers move, lurching between up, down, left, right keys, and spacebar. My eyes narrow into the one-foot square grey screen, not moving outside that box for hours, except to change the CD to Sting’s Soul Cages.
Tetris starts slowly, the player fitting together pieces in a puzzle-like fashion: long slender sticks, T shapes, squares, L shapes. As key lyrics or rhythms change in the song, I relish punching them into place. When a row completes, it goes poof in a satisfying second. It’s a destruction that feels productive, like cleaning. So long as it stays slow, I can control it.
What makes me stay at that computer, for endless hours in our basement? Sure, it is cooler down there, the humid Wisconsin summer unappealing at midday. Yes, Tetris pulls me to it. But the promising puzzle of Tetris also takes me away from unsolvable loss.
Dad died just before I turned thirteen. His death was long and slow over four years, but then sped up and surprised us. Since he’s died, our home has become a hovel; I am the only one cleaning. Mom barely gets food on the table. She spends all her time sleeping, gardening, or reading mystery novels. My two elder brothers live occasionally at home; one is on his way to college in the fall, the other is home from school as moral support. But they are often absent: at work, with friends. We are in the same house, suffering from the same loss, separately.
In the basement, I can’t hear anything, not Mom’s mourning wails, nor the incessant NPR or PBS she plays to avoid her aloneness. The whole situation is chaos – our house, our family, our hearts and minds – with no respite in sight. As my eyes fixate on the game, the mix of concentration and mindlessness helps me bypass pain.
I love building a poem, placing and re-placing each word, but it is scrappier than Tetris. All the things I write about in my poetry, like breasts and hips expanding rapidly, the unprocessed loss, and relationships with boys who can never replace Dad, are messy and impossible. Tetris is something I seem to have control over.
Yet, as the game speeds up, which it inevitably does, I lose control. Suddenly I can’t turn the pieces fast enough. Panic piles up in my body, as undeleted rows clutter the screen. My fingers catch on one another, trying desperately to stab the pieces into place. It’s fruitless. I never fail to fail. I start all over again, hoping to win this time. I lose endless hours trying to win.
It is 1994 and 1995, my junior and senior years of high school. I cram my free hours with work – summers, weekends, and evenings – first as a theater technician, and then as a stage manager. Life becomes my puzzle. I carefully fit together high school, multiple jobs, relationships, and more. I am rarely at ease. I try to slide my life quickly together in perfect rows: removing the people I am done with, grabbing or saving just the right girlfriend, boyfriend, or job position. It never works, and I am often caught out, having overcommitted or hurt someone’s feelings.
There must be no loose ends, no pieces out of order. If someone notices me not call a cast member I said I would call, I feel huge, out-of-proportion washes of shame. Now they can see me for who I really am! No good at all! I must be perfect at all times! All the illusion I built up collapses in a single instance, annihilating me.
My perfectionism keenly cuts me back to size whenever it can. The delight I had in destroying comes back at me multifold. In those moments, I am sure I cannot keep things under control and the world will fall apart.
In 1997, when I am nineteen, just starting college, Mom dies suddenly of an aneurysm.
I stop writing, focusing only on my schoolwork. I drop out the same semester she dies and come back for a relatively isolated three remaining years. After graduation, a few years later, I find myself in a one-bedroom apartment, living alone. Having inherited that same now-antique Macintosh SE, and with too much post-college-graduation time on my hands, I get sucked into Tetris again. Against an odd seventies mirrored back wall, I squeeze into a plastic and fabric spinning office chair I rescued from the curb, and watch as the Apple icon pops up and welcomes me. I moved my cursor towards the Microsoft Word icon, to revise poems, but I hesitate for too long. I can’t make my art perfect, so why should I try? I choose Tetris instead, Just for a minute, I promise myself.. One game turns into twenty, thirty; endless hours slide by without a feeling.
Avoiding poetry is avoiding the uncontrollable anger and sadness left in the wake of Mom’s death. Tetris is like an old friend, slightly stress-inducing, but reliable. A buddy who talks too fast, drinks too much, seems like a lot of fun, but leaves me hungover and wrung out the day after. Faithfully, familiar Tetris calls me every day. The better I get, the harder it gets, and the never-ending goal for perfect control slips from my grasp as the game overwhelms me with its speed.
I can’t seem to stop playing it. This is what Tetris is designed to do, keep me saying One more time, just this once more. If I beat my current high score, then I want one more round to ride the high. If I can’t score well, I have to return until I break the record. What starts as a diversion becomes an obsession.
One day, I turn on the Macintosh SE, and find it a spinning beach ball staring back at me. I take my old companion to the university repair shop, to no avail. Luckily, I had printed and backed up my poetry, which I transfer to a clam-shelled candy teal-colored iBook G3.
My new computer doesn’t have Tetris.
That, or so it seems, is that.
In 2007, I am 29, and my fiancé and I fly to England for a two-week trip. We are both nervous. It is their first time going abroad, and all my previous attempts to have a romantic trip to Europe have gone awry. I try to convince myself this time it will be okay, harnessing my anxieties into a small corral, settling them with Pinot Grigio.
On the transatlantic flight, both of us sleep a total of one hour, kept awake by nerves, discomfort, and anxiety.
To be truthful, though, something else keeps me awake.
As soon as I open the games menu on my monitor and see Tetris, I know I am done for. It has colors now, but it is the same game. Instead of organizing all the elements of our forthcoming trip – trains, busses, relationships between people who only have me in common – I push Tetris pieces for the entire six hours. I take small pauses to rest my eyes, go pee, or try to distract myself with a book. But Tetris always calls me back. If I stop playing, my mind fills with all the things that could go wrong while we are in England.
By the time we arrive at Gatwick, my head pounds, my eyes bug out of my sockets, and my neck feels like someone twisted it tightly the entire flight. Like an addict, I am grateful for the end of the flight so I can get away from the game. I can’t control its hold over me. Tetris keeps my anxieties at bay during the entire trip, but it also obliterates any sense of ease or rest, which is really what I need.
This is the first time I consciously notice how awful it feels in my body to concentrate so hard on distraction. Throughout the trip, I become more aware of how hard it is for me to relax, and how harmful my tendency to rigidly control things is to my neck and shoulders. There’s still a lot more to learn, and Tetris is going to help me.
In 2017, when I turn 40, I notice my hips are often very tight. No matter how much yoga I do, there’s a level at which they are always clenched. The more I pay gentle attention, the more I notice they respond immediately whenever I fear things are going even slightly out of control. I hear an argument between strangers, a siren passes by my house, or something loud falls nearby me. My hips grip and lock into place, pulling my core muscles down into a fist. I know I developed this exact response just after Dad died, during that summer obsession with Tetris, but it wasn’t just the chair, or because of Tetris.
When I was a teen, I had no way of controlling anything. I couldn’t stop Dad from dying. I had to take care of myself somehow. I was no longer sure that someone I loved might not die the next day, and if anyone would take care of me if they did. My body locked itself into a tight knot. Hours at the computer, day after day, didn’t help, but my body’s response was as much psychological as a result of the physical position. It was a sacrifice to be so disconnected, but it gave me some sense of focus, and it was preferable to being present in all that emotional pain. If I couldn’t find security in life, I would find it in a puzzle.
Well into my forties now, I am slowly learning not being present for pain causes further suffering. Dissociating, which used to seem comforting, now stresses me out. The act of drilling my eyes tightly on the same thing for an hour or more at a time – even revising an essay like this one – barely breathing, as satisfying as it feels in the moment, feels awful later. If I overdo even pleasurable things that involve a lot of intense concentration but I can use for escape – like reading – I get similar symptoms.
Now, when I find myself focusing too hard on a book, on work, on a game, and I don’t feel relaxed, I notice sooner and stop. I focus on purposefully doing activities that help me soften. I get triggered less often and dislike detachment more. As familiar as it feels to escape my feelings, I am developing a preference for being present, as uncomfortable and unsure as that can seem. Not that I always remember to be present.
It takes a long time, to slow down, to be mindful, to catch habits I’d rather ignore; it takes professional help undoing trauma in my body, millions of micro-moments of choice, and lots of mistakes.
When I download Tetris onto my iPhone for the first time, it causes serious cricks in my neck within a day of playing it too much. Still, I keep at it. The morning I wake with a tight neck, I can feel my instant desire – a prickling in my fingers and mind – to just play one game. Just one. That’ll do it, just one, I tell myself. But it’s never, ever just one game. I try to rationalize: I can do it before I drink my tea, eat breakfast, meditate and write (my current morning ritual). I wash my face, my iPhone leering at me from across the room. I unconsciously sink into a game while listening to some voicemails, flipping the pieces faster and faster until it all falls apart, and I start again, and again, and again. Once the cats start scratching open my skin to get my attention, I realize my neck is a Tetris-tightened mess. A visit to the chiropractor is clearly in my immediate future, so I remove Tetris from my iPhone. I press hard on the icon until it shudders, then click the x at the corner. When it asks me, Are you sure you really want to delete this? an inner teenager voice wheedles, Please keep it. I won’t play it that often. But my adult body screams back: Delete it. And I do.
Initially, I blame the bodily pain on the phone. But neither the phone nor the game is at fault. The pain comes from escaping the world in concentrated gasps of disembodied activity.
Deleting the game carries its own subtle layers of control. A certain satisfaction. Aha! There we go! Cold turkey! I put my phone down and go for a walk, get away from the screen. I feel triumphant: a win better than any high score. It’s temporary, but I allow myself a back pat, then re-commit to noticing all the little ways I still fight for control, again, and again, and again.
Miriam Hall is co-author of two books on contemplative photography, Looking and Seeing and Heart of Photography. She also has two chapbooks of poetry out through Finishing Line Press. Her most recent published essay is “Speaking Grief” in Isele Magazine, April 2022. She can be found online at www.herspiral.com, or on most social media with the handle, @herspiral.