The Passed Pawn

I wrote the following during a Holes In the Wall 180 remote residency. I’m grateful to the Holes In The Wall Collective for holding space for my writing. Check out the residency website here and their general website here.

Chess is a game of constrained fractal movement. My earliest memories of it are of confusion and frustration, as my quickly growing childish hands, the largest in my class, knocked pieces over by accident and could not recall where they had been. I was prepared to love chess, with its 16 pieces, so convenient to fiddle with. Then I learned I should never touch a piece unless I was prepared to move it. The game turned to ashes in my young mouth. I was already too big, had too much energy, did not know when to sit, did not know my own strength when playing with others. Like the line of pawns I could not escape, I was always in the way of something important. One more past-time where I’d be too much? No thank you.

I picked up the game as a patient in a mental hospital in North Carolina. They didn’t call themselves a mental hospital, nor did they call me a patient. I was a “guest” at “a residential healing farm.” Such luxuries can be bought, for a rich man’s broken son, here at the start of a disastrous century. Place still failed the burrito test. I didn’t know about the burrito test at the time, a fellow crazy told me about it years later. Can you wake up in the middle of the night and microwave yourself a burrito? A simple task, a basic choice. If access to microwaves, burritos, and decisions are denied to you, than you are in a facility that has failed the burrito test, and you may not want to be there.

But we were allowed a chess board and pieces. Something clicked this time. My most frequent opponent was a Colombian of uncertain diagnosis with a languorous manner. He’d lean back in the comfortable chairs in our common spaces, and when I looked unsure about a move, would say, “Make the move. At least there will be fireworks.” Now when I reach middle games, I think of explosions, and I start to hum the 1812 overture.

I lost a lot of games to the Colombian, and to my friend Liam. Liam has the distinction of me being able to use his real name in a piece about that mental hospital because he’s dead, and can’t sue me for calling him crazy. Liam was bright, and younger than me, and depressed. He leaned into every activity they gave us to do, with what passed for passion among us depressives. He was even using the woodshop and leather working tools-it was a very ritzy mental hospital-to make a chess set. Sometimes we’d play on his set. I’d lose those games too.

Time moved on. I left the “residential healing farm” and tried to continue farming, since it was the only thing I’d done so far without panicking. Liam died his death, which was strange and painful and sad. Farming, when done without a staff of supportive mental health professionals, turned out to be too stressful. In three years, I was living in Montreal with a girlfriend, swearing never to go back to farmwork. Then Montreal got too cold, and the girlfriend and I moved to New York, where we got engaged. I returned to college, and then broke up with my fiancee, because things got too hard. I moved in with friends in Washington Heights and she went back to Canada.

This is when chess really picked up the pace. I began to study the game, to the neglect of my school work, which I eventually dropped out of. I’d play endless rounds of games with friends on the app from Chess.com. I’d read about Lasker, and Tarrasch, and Nimzowitsch. Nimzowitsch says about passed pawns, pawns that have made it a certain distance up the board and have been passed without being taken by their opposite pawns “for me the passed pawn has a soul just as a human being does. It has wishes that slumber unrecognized within it and has fears of whose existence ‘it hardly suspects’.” I bought set after set after set of chess men. I have about 15 now. Don’t ask me how much I spent, I wish I had that money back.

Here’s the important thing about chess: I never got better. I win a game here or there, when someone’s not careful. I mostly lose. Badly.

Chess is fractal. It goes all the way up, and all the way down. But fractal patterns look different at different scales. I fail at chess. Did I also fail at life, with my mental health breakdowns, my depression, quitting farm work and various schools, ending my relationship with my fiancee, frittering away my father’s money on chess sets, of all things? I have lost time, and material, and have no strategy. In some ways, my life with depression is very much like a chess game.

Fractal patterns look different at different scales. I beat depression by learning that life is like a chess game: you can lose and still have fun. You can lose and it’s still a game that you’re playing. There is always another game. Keep playing. I am a passed pawn. Depression and Madness had their shot to end my life. I survived, I kept moving forward. I have wishes that slumbered unrecognized within me. I am learning to recognize them. I make the moves. At least there will be fireworks. And I might end up a king.

Published by Mordecai Martin

A luftmensch, a Jew, a way with words, all in one.

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