As an older adult with severe double vision, no depth perception, and “convergence insufficiency,” I saw a special Vision Therapy trained optometrist for about a year. The experience I write about below happened just before I ended treatment.
Early one morning, well before day lightened behind the fence of trees to the east, I went to move my snowed-in car to make way for the plows. As the automatic door opened, letting me out into the cold, I could see that falling snow against the street lamps made sparkles and sparks. I headed towards the car, thinking of nothing but the cold. Then, brain clicked, like the flip of a switch, and something in my vision changed. Instead of seeing the snow fall in a sheet, curtain-like, in front of me as I always had before, I now walked inside it, as if in a snow globe, separate flakes plummeting around me, each on a different plane, riding a separate moving point in space as it fell.
Startled, I blinked my eyes, thinking the curtain would close in again. Nothing. I looked down at a snow-covered bush next to me on the sidewalk. The ends of its bare twigs were lightly mounded, contrasts heightened, the whiteness of the snow and twigs gently vibrating with laser-etched clarity and precision of detail. I can only describe what came over me then as a feeling of connectedness, of affection for the universe. I smiled as I stood there, realizing that I was seeing depth, I was seeing space, and the spaces between things, for the first time. At least for the first time that I could remember, for the first time since who knows how long. That was all, and it was everything.
I had a dream once that I never forgot, a dream in which I actually ate chocolate. I tasted it and I swallowed it, and in which I stroked a cat and was able even in the dream to feel the soft silkiness of its warm fur. Both of these acts, though in reality mental, not physical, took enormous effort, even courage. I felt, while sleeping, that if I were to break the spell of whatever made these experiences “forbidden,” neurologically speaking, something would happen. It was not clear to me at the time of this dream whether it would be catastrophic or miraculous, and as a result, while I managed to push through those barriers, even in sleep, my apprehension, indeed my terror, was immense.
This experience in the snow felt very similar. Space, I saw with sudden breath-taking enlightenment, is not negative. The “negative space” artists speak so passionately of doesn’t exist. Space is a real, solid kind of stuff that gives definition and substance to matter. In fact, if space, the medium that surrounds everything, changed the ordinary boxwood in the snow before me into a burning bush of miracles, what couldn’t it do?
Now, I must admit that contemplation of snow-covered shrubbery and buried cars and yellow street lamps, among other things, in sub-freezing temperatures has never been my favorite way to spend an early morning, yet it was a long time before I went indoors. When finally, rubbing my hands to warm them, I made my way to my computer to jot down some notes, I put my fingers out and, was immediately taken by the fact that my hands went outwards into space! The very sight of the keyboard elevation made my heart ache. What could be lovelier than the fact that keys themselves protruded above the keyboard? The words were palpable and delicious, not just with possibility but with reality: outwards, protrude, elevate, above. My typing fingers — they hovered in a tangible space over the keys, and I could see that there was a space between my fingers and the keyboard. Indeed it was a small miracle the way space gave form to those small squares, indented just slightly to fit the pads of my fingertips! All this was too much for me and alone in my room I found myself laughing aloud. Suddenly, the entire world was friendly.
I went around my apartment. Look at this! Look at that! I couldn’t pry my eyes from things. Dish towels announced themselves, as their threads stood up, cupped and rounded by space, each one loved into being by the fact of the empty air that surrounded it. Folds struck me as the most beautiful objects I had ever seen. Folds in terrycloth fabric differed utterly from folds in other fabrics. Even paper bent around an angle, embracing a fold, allowed sculpted space on each side to nearly bring tears to my eyes. Who would have thought that material, bent, could become a form of such magnificence?
And on it went. Doorknobs yearned, reaching out from doors into space. Bookshelves provided welcoming recesses, intimate and implicit with corners, as if saying, Come in, we will protect you. There were delicious concavities in every spoon! My circuit of the room over and over would have been ridiculous, had not everything been so lovely, and so thoroughly devastating.
Snow-covered bushes computer keyboard, a hand extended into the air — I understood in an instant that it was space, this lovely positive space, that sculpts the entire world, just as a sculptor carves stone. I knew then that it is only because most people get so used to depth perception all their lives that they lose all ability to perceive the beauty of space, to see how much space quite literally embodies.
Later the vision faded and as my eyes relaxed, my ability to see “3-D” was lost. But I still remember, towards the end of the experience, how as I looked into an empty wastebasket I was bowled over to understand that it had a rounded interior. The sheer “interiority” of it, the fact that the space inside it implied roundedness so matter-of-factly that I did not have to feel it to know this– why hadn’t I understood any of this before? It struck me as a terrible failure and yet the most transcendent discovery of my life. I knew then that if the world was charged with the grandeur of anything, it must be a positive, optimistic Shaper of things and that this Shaper is the world’s, the universe’s, Creator, which we instead call, as if it were nothing, “empty space.”
Could it be possible that most people will never have an opportunity to experience such overwhelming love for spoons and doorknobs and computer keys or even for hands above the paper or every possible human nose that sticks out into space? If so, it might even be the reason we humans have let ourselves destroy our environment, the most precious matter in the Creative Space around us.
Because we did not understand how space is our Creator, we have destroyed it and ourselves in the process. How could we have done otherwise? We did not know because we could not see. And if we could not see, how could we know the truth: that Space is Love that creates the world and makes us and all matter beautiful.
Dear Readers, here I am again, some scant four months after getting out of the Vermont state hospital unit in Rutland, Vermont, after two years of nearly nonstop institutionalizations, and i am dedicated to the proposition that i will never again see the inside of another mental health facility in this state, or any other state for that matter. Nor will i allow myself to be lied to again by a practitioner of mental health care, a subject i consider almost completely bogus, both the diagnosis of so-called mental disorders and their almost universally dangerous “treatments.”
In this spirit of rejecting the mental health system, rejecting even the non-system, except insofar as I need assistance in getting out of it, and rejecting *any* and all mental illness diagnosis, i decided to take a course in creativity for five days in Newfane, Vermont, just to try my hand at something outside the usual realm of “recovery-” and or madness-oriented activities.
While this ended up being, frankly, a bust — for reasons i will explain, i can report that i really liked the people i met there, some of whom came from as far away as the UK. As for the course itself, I feel that a requirement of valor means that i leave this at “the less said, the better.” I admit, however, that the teacher, a certain Robert Fritz of self-proclaimed international renown, seems to have been taking out his private pique on me ever since the course ended, for leaving the class early, on a few days, and for not praising him lavishly, or even, god knows, “enough.”
So be it, so be it. If he is so small as to exact such petty revenges, i myself need not stoop to his level.
Alas, the course ended up depleting me deeply and the sole worthwhile lesson it left me with concerned “structural tension.” This, Fritz repeated literally ad infinitum, or at least ad nauseam, all day long for five days, 8 hours a day. Sadly, the one time we did worthwhile hands-on practice, when he *first* outlined this notion and gave us a narrative structure — take point A and reverse it to point B (with a character, crisis and certain developing plot points) around which to easily design a monologue — Fritz then gave us an hour to write a piece in the voice of a single person, and was rewarded when every single person in the class wrote what i thought was a professionally competent piece, this was never to be repeated.
How much more he could have taught us and built on that, had he used the example of what we had learned and done and our confidence to “grow on and go on…” but instead he opted only for more of the same old same old, which was just going over the same ground again and again, with analyzing music video after music video but doing it FOR us, not even having us participate in any meaningful way. Readers, it truly appeared that class participation in any real sense was simply too threatening for this teacher, who was not one of those who felt he could learn anything from his students, no matter their age and life experiences…
No more recriminations on my part. I could not have known this would happen, especially since we were provided no clues, no syllabus, no handout that gave any hint as to Robert’s plans…I went in every day, every single day, and to every session with (dimming but) renewed hope that things would change, right to the last session of the last day…To my dismay and disappointment and growing exhaustion, it never did.
At least i enjoyed the monologue- writing exercise. The following was mine, which is fiction, though it was based on someone i know pretty well (and he knows who he is! )
I, Winton Wooster the third, had sex for 30 years with one man and one man only, Arturo, whom I’d met in Culinary Arts school and absolutely despised. It took me another three years and five other men, one woman, and an Electrolux, before I came to realize that it was Arturo to whom I was attracted and loved with all my heart and soul and body. “Over The Rainbow” sung by Izzy Kamakawiwo’ole was our song.
Some people think gay men can’t be monogamous. That is so not true, so not true. I might have been promiscuous before Arturo, but A.A, that is After Arturo, I never looked away, that is until…well, how do I explain this?
It all started with cars. And collections. Collections of cars. And collections of everything else under the sun. I had the car collection, and I had the other collections. I had Kewpie dolls and Christ statuettes and I had spoons and books of spoonerisms, and I had jackknives and jack-in-the-boxes, I had bowls and bowling ball collections. If there was something to be collected, I collected it and more. I collected art and books, and books of art and china and vintage Chinese clothing and if you think there was no space left in my three-story house, that is saying nothing. I rented space in several other houses, my clients’ houses, which I cleaned each week, and those were soon filled with my collections as well. As for the cars? I had seventeen cars and that was only after culling them down from a high of thirty-seven.
As for Arturo? He had one. One car, and no collections. Only an affection for zinnias, which he called the gay flower and he grew tons of them, for me. His car was named Ada, and she was a 1987 Toyota Tercel. I always said I didn’t think they still made the Tercel that year, but he showed me the papers and proved that they had. Ada was pale yellow, a custom color, and still had the original fabric on her seats and the same original everything, just a tad creaky and fading. I joked with Arturo that we too were creaky and fading. Now, to tell a gay man of 55 that he is beginning to fade and creak is dicey at best, but we were not just old lovers, we were practically brothers, so the degree of his taking offense surprised me. But then he retorted that I shouldn’t talk, since I needed Viagra more often than not and that was only when I managed to get interested enough to take it.
Oooh, that got me where it hurt. But he wasn’t wrong. The thing is, I had once had enormous sex drive along with everything else but along the way, things seem to have just dissipated. I don’t know why exactly. But it was that remark that crystallized an amorphous dissatisfaction into the huge lump of cruel coal it was: Arturo was the source of my problems and my discontent. If I hadn’t been supporting him, if he didn’t live in my house, I would have more space for my things, and furthermore I would find someone I could, frankly, feel something for and well, get it up for. Period.
The end of our partnership came one night during a quarrel about my car collection, which was occupying several other garages as well as parking spaces in town. Several times a year during snow storms we had to play a desperate game of move the cars – in order to stay ahead of the tow trucks and the tickets to get them out of wherever they might be impounded. Arturo was sick of this, and frankly so was I and I wanted, I proposed, and I had actually had the plans secretly approved by the town zoning board, to build a giant garage in the back yard, a “garage-mahal” that would house my entire car collection on site. The problem was that in order to finance it, I wanted Arturo to pay rent, to help out, that is, with my second mortgage.
Arturo was hurt and he said so in no uncertain terms. He had lived with me and paid me in so many other ways, he told me, how could I do this to him? He cooked, he cleaned and he shopped and he did everything in the house to have made it a home for us and now I expected him to pay rent like a mere tenant? Firmly and obdurately I stood my ground and said, yes.
With tears in his eyes, for which I admit I felt a small pang, but not as big a pang as I ought to have, he turned around, climbed the stairs to our bedroom and packed a suitcase. Then I heard him tread the stairs downward, open the front door, and close it with a thud.
I was such a cad I did not even ask him where he was going or see him off. I felt a relief just to be rid of him. I can’t even say why. It was only the next morning that I discovered, in the small car shed I was planning within the week to tear down and replace with my garage-mahal, Arturo’s pale yellow Toyota Tercel, which he had left behind, for reasons I did not know and could not divine. After he didn’t pick it up for a month, I decided that he likely could not afford the payments or the gas, now that I was not paying for everything. Nevertheless, I could not bring myself to get rid of it, so I paid the insurance and made sure the registration was up to date and kept it on the first floor of the new enormous garage that was soon built on the back of my property.
I did not hear from Arturo at all after that. I learned from friends that he was renting a small first floor apartment on the outskirts of town, in exchange for taking care of the owners’ property. He was rumored to have neither phone nor email. I did not try to contact him but got absorbed instead in my own busy-ness.
In the garage-mahal there was room for all of my vehicles, all the ones in driving condition, including the Bentley for which I had paid only $22,000.00 but kept in mint condition. I had some cars on lifts and others were withdrawn down into specially constructed rooms underground. Only my special fire engine red Mustang and Arturo’s Tercel were in the front bay, readily available for driving.
I spent many of my leisure hours polishing and cleaning the cars, as the house had gone to seed, ever since Arturo was not there to pick up after me or sort the collected items. Also, it was – to be honest — lonely. I was able to have sex after Viagra, yes, but then only to have the Electrolux as my partner — what was the point? I gave up sex altogether. But that made me feel even worse. I tried the gay dances and party scene, and once even an “orgy” that a friend urged me to go to. But all of that just made the loneliness worse.
One night in the summer, sitting in a deck chair, under the bright LED lighting in the garage-mahal, I thought I heard someone’s radio playing a yard away. I got up to listen and heard our favorite song, “Over the Rainbow” performed by Izzy. I stole down the street, and listened to the radio on a porch nearby, and found myself standing in a clump of tall bright-petalled flowers as if by coincidence. No coincidence, I thought, there are no coincidences. I am a total cad, but I can’t let this be. I have left the love of my life and I need him back.
I ran back to the garage-mahal and jumped into the red Mustang, but the starter just made a coughing sound, as if it had just then given up the ghost. “Damn!” I yelled, then I realized that Arturo’s Tercel was still insured and ought to be drivable. Ought to be. Hell, yes, why not?
It was. As if it knew just where it was going the Tercel seemed to drive me all by itself to a small pink stucco house on the edge of town, a house surrounded by trees and with planters filled to the brim with zinnias. To this day I don’t know how it was that Arturo happened to be there, or why he did not seem surprised or even taken aback that I’d come. But without questioning anything, he just smiled warmly, opened the door and opened his arms.
ON NOT SPEAKING
When I went temporarily mute at age sixty,
it sparked no visual wonders.
After decades schooled by dictionaries,
vocabulary categorized the world:
“precipice,” “acrid,” “blanch;”
words even defined my senses.
But one can fall into
speechlessness for reasons
though these may not seem reasonable
to people who believe that only talking things out
or about them makes sense.
Speaking or not, I knew
when silence was less insane
than trying to be heard
by those who would rather hurt me
than pay attention.
But if, as they say, silence is so eloquent,
why couldn’t anyone hear
what I so desperately didn’t say?
I want to finish writing the novel now that I have started it, and perhaps using the same agency I used for DIVIDED MINDS, if they want it, find a publisher. But we will see. I may have 50T words, and more, but who knows if it will be marketable at 100T words, and whether or not anyone will publish it. I may post another chapter here or not…I dunno. Doesn’t seem like it gets many readers (from my reading of the blog stats.) Anyhow, I don’t use the stats much because so far as I can tell much of blog land is a popularity contest of Like me and I will Like you back. And who knows who actually reads anything? So if I have a few loyal readers, that is all I care about. YOU, I mean, who is there actually reading what I write. Thank you!
Continued from yesterday:
Ah, what was Hope always saying? Life is a beach? He hadn’t quite understood her before, but now he did and it surely was. Life is a beach. But it isn’t any pure coral white beach, with sunny skies and clear azure waves. It’s just an old beach of a beach and then you die.
Prem rarely used profanity, so when he thought this word, it appeared in his mind separated out, as if in a paragraph of its own, highlighted, in bold.
What was the point in living if you were only going to die, ignominiously, and end up with your toe tagged in the morgue like any television corpse. It hardly seemed worth it. What was he doing, why did he bother worrying about all these people in Building 22, who were just going to die and end up tagged at the toe themselves? How was it worth it, trying to hold the building together that was trying to fall apart after a hundred years of being mortared and bricked into existence? And how worth it was it anyway, just to upkeep a community of twelve individuals who many of them had rarely-to-never paid a cent into society, but only drew from it like the proverbial parasites that some, like Martin the skinhead, called them.
Martin had hardly a peg-leg to tap out that tune with, however, being something of “parasite” himself, Prem observed. But being copper had never stopped one saucepan from calling another tarnished, not in Prem’s experience. And just why hadn’t the disabled paid into society? Had any of them ever tried to get off disability? Was it their fault? Or was it the fault of a society that encouraged, even forced permanent disabled status on them, and with it concomitant poverty? Who could get out of the disability snare once caught in it? No one who had lived in Building 22 had ever, so far as Prem knew, outgrown or out-earned disability. In fact, the residents were forever finagling ways to earn just up to, but not beyond the strict earning limits placed on them, just so they could maintain disability and their subsidies and their small but stable incomes.
What a miserable trap. You could get a regular but miserably small income for life, if you agreed to be disabled by the system. But in order to get out of the trap, in order to try to earn a living and make your own way, you would in a stroke lose both the place you lived and your regular income, all for a life of insecurity and instability. And this at a time when nothing was secure or stable except the fact that there was no safety net, and no one cared about people in need except a handful of overused charities and churches. So who could blame a disabled person for deciding not to even try to work but to stay on disability and remain impoverished? Who could blame them when that meant at a minimum a roof over their heads and food on the table. It was a devil’s bargain, but Prem could see how sometimes the devil could appear a better partner than the faceless ghoul of potential homelessness and hunger.
“Earth to Prem, earth to Prem,” called Ernie while Beanie smacked her bony hands and made a resounding clap in the tiled lobby, startling Prem from continuing his thoughts. He stared at them, realizing that of course the two women in their own persons made hash of his argument: They had both had had long working lives and deserved more rather than less of what they got out of the system. Nevertheless, it did not completely detract from his argument that two elderly women on social security were trapped in poverty just as the non-working disabled were.
“What were you thinking that took you so far away?” demanded Ernie, never one to keep questions to herself.
“I, I,–“ Prem didn’t know how to respond.
“Aha! You really were thinking something. It must have been juicy!” Together the two ladies crowed.
Suddenly, Prem decided to take the question seriously. “Actually I was thinking about something. It wasn’t juicy, not the way you think, but it was – I don’t know how to put it. Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure.” The two spoke at one time.
“Okay, then. Tell me when you disagree with me. First of all, this is a society of “haves” and “have-nots,” right? I mean, we have huge inequality, you can see it right here — this building, Number 22, compared to others down the street is just one example.” Prem stopped as if one of the women had spoken. But he saw at once that they were simply waiting for him to go on so he continued, “Clearly it’s no good simply to give a “have-not” everything he or she needs. That’s just what we do now, and in my opinion it leads nowhere but to misery and protracted disability.”
“What if the “have-not” isn’t disabled, but just old? What if the “have-not” works full-time but isn’t paid enough to live on? There are a lot of other ways to be a “have-not” than to be disabled.” These objections came from Beatrice Bean, whose fingers held an imaginary cigarette. She pretended to suck on it, then flick the ashes.
“You’re right. I guess I am a little obsessed with the disability issue. But let me go with just that part of it. If the “haves” somehow could help the disabled “have-nots” gain a set of skills – any set of skills — to become “haves” like themselves, wouldn’t that be better? There are plenty of skills that can be marketed. You don’t need to go to a regular workplace these days to earn a living.”
“I really hate that word, ‘marketed’,” Ernie interjected. “Why does everything have to be for sale? Why must everything be reduced to a matter of money?”
“Because it’s a capitalistic world, that’s why. You and I may not agree with it but we’re stuck with it, and until we can live in a world without money, the have-nots need to learn how to earn.” For all the conviction in his voice, Prem was not that comfortable defending capitalism, especially knowing how avarice had despoiled the natural world he loved so much. But he knew that capitalism had ruled for centuries, and that it wasn’t going to change in his lifetime or the lives of these two women, so it was to all intents and purposes, a fact of life.
“So you are going to teach all the disabled people in Building 22 how to get a paying job? Good luck!” said Beanie with a wry smile. “I don’t personally think anyone here is going to thank you very kindly for it.”
“But don’t you see? That’s precisely what I mean.”
“What do you mean? Why should anyone thank you? If you have an apartment, a social worker, food stamps…you have it made in the shade. Why should you want to work?”
“Because people would feel better about themselves if they could work, that’s why…” Prem said, lamely. He then realized that he had made the mistake of so many do-gooder liberals, believing he knew what was good for those he wanted to help better than they did themselves. But how could he know how they felt without asking them? How could he know whether they felt bad about themselves now or would feel better about themselves working? He hadn’t spoken to most of the residents about the matter. In fact, it had only been Hope, the second floor resident and artist, with whom he had spoken in any depth. It was she who had been so passionately outspoken about feeling trapped in “the System.”
Even as he thought about it Prem realized that things were complicated. Yes, Hope was an artist, and he felt she should be able to sell her work and keep the income at the same time, but wasn’t she also often ill and unstable? It seemed to him that she was hospitalized for weeks at a time, and as frequently as twice a year. What would she do without disability payments when she was ill, he wondered, and how would she survive or cope even as an artist during the inevitable lean times if her disability payments were cut off? Yet she was the tenant who resisted staying on disability, even as it was clear to him that she could not afford to chance getting off it, not unless she could sell paintings regularly or for large sums of money, something that was not likely to happen. People like Hope weren’t discovered by museums or fêted by the rich and famous to be made rich and famous. No, they simply did art and made art alone, steadily, keeping the faith that it was worth it simply because art to them was like food for the rest of us.
Hope wasn’t going to quit painting or making her sculptures just because no one “discovered” her. Hope did art because she had to do art or die. Period. If it sold, well then, good. But so far as Prem knew, Hope had never tried to advertise or sell in the manifold ways that “working artists” sold their art: by marketing themselves and their art in such a way that people come looking to buy. It wasn’t that she would not sell. Prem thought she might be very happy if someone wanted to buy a piece of her artwork. It was simply that she had other things on her mind than making art in order to suit the purchasing public. And what about the others in Building 22 – were they so very different? What did he know? Did he know enough to draw any conclusions at all?
“It’s just such a vicious cycle,” he said, as if finishing a thought he had started aloud.
Beanie seemed to have followed him. “Yah, I agree. But some of these folks have two or three strikes against them before they started out in life. Can you blame them for seeing a tiny fixed income for life better than the insecurity of not knowing whether you can earn anything at all?”
Ernestine Baker seemed to disagree. She counted off on her fingers, as if reciting a litany, “Darryl, Kashina, Bryony, Giorgio, Feder…and that strange woman, Hope. What cases. I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes for a second. I can’t imagine being one of them for a day, not even if you paid me. Talk about unfulfilled lives and unrealized potential!”
“But what are you saying?” remonstrated Prem. “That their lives are wasted? And if they are wasted, whose fault is that? Why have the disabled been allowed not to do something with their lives? That’s my entire point. Look at Giorgio. He was a talented auto mechanic. He wasn’t in the system all his life. He has skills. He just can’t use those skills right now. Feder has savant expertise that surely could be used somewhere productively. Bryony already works three days a week, and Kashinda is so young that it would indeed be a terrible waste if she never learned to do something with her life, except smoke pot. We created a real monster with Federal disability benefits: the same limitations that promote permanent poverty promote never getting better.” Prem could feel himself getting passionate, and wondered just where that came from. Why did he care so much? Why he sounded almost hysterical…
“Okay, what’s going on, Prem?” asked Beanie, peering at him with more than a little concern. “Why don’t you draw up a chair, sit down with us, take a load off…”
Baker, abashed, chimed in, “You want a drink, Prem? The beer is on me.”
His face warm, Prem had felt a sudden but urgent need to be gone. To be anywhere but here. Ashamed of himself, he apologized to the two older women and literally backed away even he spoke, forgetting entirely why he had returned to Building 22 at such an hour in the first place. By the time he remembered the water pressure situation that had occurred just that morning, he was halfway down the block with an old cassette tape playing Dave Mallett’s “Pennsylvania Sunrise,” a song that always made him yearn to hop a train and go places, never to return.
Pennsylvania sunrise…ten degrees at best.
Peerin’ from the window of a club car heading west.
After mornin’ glory…money for the miles.
Someone said I’ll do this for a while.
I promise more action in the segments I will share in upcoming days. I won’t share the entire novel but I will share some parts of it, enough to entice. I now have c 120 pp. double spaced 37000wds.
A piece from the middle of WE ARE HOPE’S FAMILY
In 2011, late October, Prem at 45, walked the hallways of his building, still only the manager, still earning a monthly salary from his father with whom he rarely spoke, and then only to discuss matters concerning the building’s upkeep. He could not afford to go on vacation, or to buy a new car. He had never bought a new car in fact, but kept his used Honda on the road well past the time when others of his former socioeconomic bracket — that is, the friends he had grown up with — were trading in and up. He never thought in those terms, socioeconomic brackets meant nothing to him. He was just Prem Mukherjee, and he had more in common with the people he worked with, and for, than those who bought new cars every other year and cared about that sort of thing. But in point of fact, he had very little money to put in the bank or to support a family, had he had one. But Prem never married, never even found a woman he could fall in love with. Somehow none ever measured up to whatever standards his mind seemed to set, if he set any. He wasn’t sure he set standards, only that he was so busy and he just never socialized, never seemed to be looking for a partner and no one appeared before him to dazzle him. Perhaps he was meant to be alone. He never minded much, but the prospect of growing old alone, when he couldn’t work and might be ill didn’t feel right to him either. Nevertheless, whom could he meet and fall in love with and how was that ever going to happen?
If he thought about it, there had been a few women who had appealed to him over the years, but they had always been so unattainable for one reason or another that he had scarcely tried. Thinking them either too-career oriented or too wealthy to look at a (poor as a church mouse) Building Manager like Prem, he shied away from making his interest in them known. What would he do with a rich woman, anyway? He could not keep her happy, not if it meant dinners out at restaurants or the theatre or other expensive entertainments. His own idea of entertainment was a walk in the park or dinner by the fire in his apartment and reading a book aloud to one another, or just talking about each other for hours…
Yes, it was possible there was someone who would like things like that, but he hadn’t met her yet. On the other hand, he hadn’t met many women at all, so how could he know whether or not there was someone out there for him. Ever since the rupture with his father years before, he had thrown himself into the work of Building 22, and all the complexities inherent in dealing with Eleven disabled or elderly individuals. He had learned much along the way about Social Security and federally subsidized rent, not to mention the troubles and headaches of maintaining a 100-year-old structure in a world where most such buildings were torn down and replaced with new ones. How could he have found the time to meet someone, the right Miss Someone, when he had had so much to do that was so vitally important to twelve lives all that time?
Eleven lives? Well, it was more than eleven, in fact, in all those years, since people had come and gone in the 24 years since he had taken on the responsibility for the building and its upkeep. There had been deaths, and there had been moves too. And the weird thing was that for the most part the moves-out had been almost as sad as the deaths. Building 22 was a little community, and while people might keep to themselves, for some were loners by nature, nevertheless the tenants knew one another at least by name and no one to his knowledge was ever ostracized or openly disliked, except once, not so very long ago. That tenant, Martin, was an irascible young man, with discernable emotional instability, a self-described “skin-head.”
The police were summoned on several occasions. Once it was to break up what had threatened to become a fist-fight between on the one hand Martin, spindly, shaved-head twenty-something with a pigeon breast and arms that were too long for his body, and Darryl Strakesley, the Building 22 resident who was, of all the residents, the most fully employed – he worked 30 hours as an usher at the Cinema Deluxe – and the least independent at one and the same time. Darryl, who had Down syndrome, was squat as a fire hydrant and nearly as immoveable. He was also almost always unflappable and this was a good thing, given his congenital heart condition, so when Prem heard that summer that Darryl had been begging Martin, the skinhead, for a fight, he knew something was wrong. Something had to give or worse would happen.
Prem wasn‘t there the day of the Darryl-Martin Brawl, as it came to be called. That day, city hydrants had been shut off in certain locations, lest children using them for sprinklers waste too much water when the region was in the grip of a simultaneous drought and heat wave. Building 22’s water pressure suddenly failed and none of the upper floors had running water. This would have been a disaster in the making at any time of year, but during the summer, in a heat wave, nothing could have been worse. So Prem spent all afternoon fighting with the water company and the electric utilities in order to get their plumbing functioning again. It was only when he returned to Building 22 early that evening, to check on residents and make sure that the water pressure situation had been resolved, that he learned what had happened.
“Darryl took a swing at Martin,” old Beatrice Bean peremptorily informed Prem the moment he stepped into the lobby. Beanie, dressed in a lightweight housecoat, was seated in an inexpensive folding camp chair, the kind with a pocket for soft drinks, near the elevator. She did not get up when he came towards her as her gnarled feet were blue-veiny and swollen from the heat, but she did reach out to shake his hand. “It wasn’t Darryl’s fault. How could it be? Darryl wouldn’t hurt a cockroach. Martin does these things to people. He makes you want to clock him.”
Beanie wasn’t alone. Seated with her, in a similar camp chair holding a cold beer, was her friend Ernestine Baker, who had been Beanie’s best friend for as long as Prem had known them. Superficially, they looked like sisters, both being tall and having masses of extraordinary white hair that would have made them stand out anywhere. But of course there were differences too, and it only took a second glance to see that Ernestine was both thicker and a little younger. Ernie’s voice was also higher and sharper than Beanie’s, who had once been a smoker and even now occasionally enjoyed a butt or two when she was offered one.
At 75, Ernie was not, for all that, the healthier of the two. Prem knew that she had had diabetes most of her life, and now suffered from complications that would set most people back but which Ernie took in stride, largely he thought from having anticipated them as possible if not absolute likelihoods in her future. Ernie lived on the first floor, apartment C. (Beanie, on the other hand, lived next door to Hope on the second floor in A). When she stepped on a thumbtack, and her toe became infected, for a while it seemed that nothing could go right. She lost the toe and then her entire left foot and was in rehab for three months before they released her, wheelchair-bound. But being Ernie, she refused to stay seated, and was up on crutches and mobile before the end of the year.
“Halloo, Premjit Mukherjee,” hailed Ernestine, half-rising, to air-kiss the manager. “You missed a ringside seat a few hours ago.”
“I hope no one was hurt,” said Prem, his brow once so smooth now deeply furrowed as if with permanent worry. “With his heart condition, Darryl should not be fighting anyone. You all know that. And with Martin of all people.” He remonstrated gently, but the look on his face was nevertheless puzzled and full of sorrow.
“Oh, Prem, never you mind,” answered Beanie. “No one would let Darryl fight Martin. At least we wouldn’t let him if we could stop him. But the operative word here is could.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for one thing, Darryl is a grown man, and while we try to keep an eye on him for Morelline, we can’t watch him every minute of the day. Besides, he never needed that before. It’s just this Martin person. He’s a nasty, spiteful snake if ever I saw one.”
“Martin’s a problem, I grant you that,” Prem said to Beanie. “But he has a disability, and you have to learn to live with him, or at least get out of his way so he doesn’t bother you. He has a right to live here just like everyone else.”
At this, Baker and Beanie glanced pointedly at each other with raised eyebrows. Then they turned back to Prem and exaggerated their attention. Sensing their intent, he lowered his chin into his chest, looking at them from under a knitted brow. “Wait a minute. That’s not fair. I know he’s not been very nice. He’s—he’s –“
“Premjit, Martin boasts openly that he’s a skinhead,” said Beanie. “He hates anybody who isn’t white and whatever else neo-Nazis are supposed to be. I know a lot of haters want you to be ultra-Christian, but in this case I think Martin hates even Christians …” Beanie sounded weary, as if tired of trying to explain Building 22’s animosity towards Martin, as if tired of explaining why skinhead philosophy was actually not as decent and reasonable a way of thinking as any other.
Prem made a wry face and nodded. Shrugged. Then seemed to apologize for shrugging. “I’m sorry. I know. I know. I don’t like Martin’s talk anymore than you do, really, Beans. But it isn’t right for me to take sides against a legal tenant. You know how I feel; you know me. Do you think I would approve of the things he says, the things he does? But…”
“But what?” asked Beanie. “But let Martin badger Darryl into fighting, and then stop Darryl from fighting, both at the same time. Just keep the peace so you don’t have any headaches? Is that it?”
Prem looked at the old lady with her swollen feet thrust into rubber flipflops of the cheapest kind. He could all but see the lightning flash from her eyes. He smiled. “Yeah, that’s about it. I don’t like headaches, you know. I like a nice cushy job, no troubles, no probs. Don’t get involved in anyone’s life, just do your job, collect your pay check and go home, watch Geraldo on TV…” He struck a pose as if opening a beer and letting it slosh down his throat. “Ah, good!” He made a gargling noise.
Beanie visibly relaxed. “Okay, okay, ” she said. “You get it. I should have known better.”
“So tell me what happened here today, Beans, Baker. Martin got Darryl riled, that much I gather. And I can see how that would happen, what with his racist talk and manipulating.” Baker cracked open another cold one from her cooler, distracting him. After a long sweltering day, Prem was tired and thirsty. He wished she would offer him one, but of course no one would think of offering the building manager anything like alcohol, not even an icy cold beer on a hot day. Resigned, he finished his sentence. “But how did it go so far, and how on earth did it end peaceably?” Ernie Baker snorted. “Peaceably, my foot. Oh, excuse me — I don’t have a foot. Well, my ankle, then. The police had to practically pull them apart. It was only because Darryl weighs so much more than Martin, and is so much bigger that Martin didn’t get away with saying the things that he said. I think he expected he could blab whatever filth he wanted to just because Darryl has Down syndrome and it wouldn’t matter. Did he think Darryl was also deaf? Next time he’ll think again.”
“What happened after the police stopped Darryl from hitting Martin?”
“Well, they were going to take him downtown, especially when that little shit wanted to press charges. But Morelline, Darryl’s mother, you know. Well, you know how she is, she persuaded Martin that she just ‘might-could’ look into a few things he was involved in, and she would, you know, if he went ahead.” Beanie stopped to glance at her friend Baker, who took a swig of beer and shook her head.
“Morelline once worked in government. She knows how to get information and Martin knows it,” Ernestine added.
Beanie continued, “Anyhow, by the time she was through the police were able to leave without taking Darryl, and that skunk Marti slank off somewhere with his tail dragging. It was a sight to see. I tell you, the rest of us tenants had a party on the rooftop afterwards. All that was missing were the fourth of July fireworks, which was just as well since I didn’t think we needed any more explosions for rest of the day!”
As Beanie finished her sentence, the elevator down the hallway thumped into service. There was a hum and a light went on signaling that someone on Floor 3 had summoned the car. With a rapid whoosh it descended and when the door opened, a short squat man with a solemn face and the characteristic features of Down syndrome exited the elevator, Darryl Strakesley. His mother, a tiny dark-skinned woman wearing a yellow dress followed him, her black hair neatly cropped against her head, gold hoop earrings completing the ensemble. Morelline Strakesley at 55 always looked exquisitely well put-together, and few suspected that she bought everything she wore at Goodwill or thrift stores, her carefree days on a government salary having been many years before.
“Darryl. Mrs Strakesley. How are you?” Prem greeted them, the only two residents who shared a unit in the building. It must have been tight quarters for a single man and his mother to live together in one apartment, but they managed without discernable trouble. Each time he had seen their premises the place was neat and clean without being inordinately immaculate. The nice thing was that there was always a place for Darryl’s projects – he had learned in school to make potholders and to weave simple placemats, of which he made sets and sold them on the side. His small looms were set up in the living room, even though that was where his mother Morelline slept each night on a pull-out sofa bed. Morelline, who had once, so it was rumored, worked for government intelligence – whatever that meant to whomever it was told –was now too ill to do more than care for Darryl and spend her spare time reading and keeping up with the news, which fascinated her. She had few people with whom she could converse about such things, but she read voraciously and widely, and she was on a never ending quest to find a cure for Darryl’s heart disease before it was too late.
As for her own problem, although it was clear she could no longer work, she would not see a doctor, convinced that it had been doctors who had caused Darryl’s Down syndrome. So while she wheezed and had trouble catching her breath, could scarcely walk sometimes due to swollen ankles and legs, she would only use her relatives’ extra inhalers for her asthma or ones they didn’t need. Or that other people gave her from their own supplies. Somehow she managed to get them when she felt she needed them. And somehow she kept on going, though the wheezing was never much relieved, it felt just a little better, and she felt better because she wasn’t paying doctors just to make her worse. Unfortunately, moving at all was often the triumph of matter over mind for Morelline, when Morelline’s body was the matter at hand, refusing to knuckle under and give in to her demands. It was clear that she detested asking for help at any time, but she especially hated it when she herself was in need, unable to breathe and wheezing like a broken bellows.
This evening, however, she must have been better, because she smiled and said that they were going out. Darryl didn’t have to work and it was unpleasantly warm indoors and so nice outside that she and her son were taking a stroll in the park, where crowds and summer lights kept it safe late into the night. Surprisingly, she said nothing about the incident earlier in the day. Even Darryl seemed no worse for the wear, sporting a coat and tie and a pair of old fashioned seersucker trousers. Together they looked like an adorable mother- son pair, going out on the town together on an ordinary summer night. No one could have known that the son had nearly been arrested that afternoon for assault, or that the mother had once worked, so it was rumored, for the CIA, and thought nothing of using the fact of her past employment to threaten someone, albeit someone menacing her son, into silence.
Prem and the others watched as Mrs Strakesley led Darryl through the double doors of Building 22’s lobby into the darkness of the street outside. On the one hand, he didn’t know whether to be proud of the woman or afraid of her. On the other hand, he knew she was fiercely and defiantly protective of her son, and that she would die before letting anything bad happen to him. Darryl may have been unfortunate in certain circumstances of his birth, but he was also blessed with a mother who was determined to make a life for him as best she possibly could, given all that she had to handle. Whether or not this was good for him, Prem thought, it was impossible to say. But no one could deny the single- minded force with which she forged ahead toward her goal. Prem worried though. He worried about Darryl if anything should happen to Morelline, and he worried about Morelline because she seemed sicker than even she was aware. He didn’t know a great deal about asthma, about COPD, one of the seemingly popular and common diagnoses of the modern age, but he clearly remembered from his pre-med days the symptoms of chronic congestive heart failure: shortness of breath, easy fatigue, edema. Not to mention potential kidney failure that could add to the catastrophic nature of the illness. He was careful, however, even privately, to remind himself he was not a doctor and that Mrs Strakesley stringently avoided seeing doctors, so that even if he was right, and even if she knew what was wrong, she would likely refuse treatment.
Feder spoke into the darkness of Hope Ouestelle’s apartment. No one answered. “Hope?” Again there was no answer. He peered through the dimness of black and gray shapes that he hoped were just her papier mache people and creatures. “HOPE! Where are you? “ He stepped inside and moved forward, fumbling blindly for something to guide his way. Just then, his hand fell upon a lamp and he was about to pull the cord, when Hope yelled out from the bathroom.
“Don’t try to turn on the lights! I am doing something here and any light will ruin it! Just wait a goldarned minute, okay?”
Happy to hear her voice, Feder felt for a chair, slid into it and rested. At least Hope had lights, which meant that she had not lost her utilities the way some of the buildings tenants had, not yet at any rate. Not the way he had. Feder was ashamed of himself and was half afraid to admit it to Hope that he had spent too much money this month. On important things, yes, but also things that experience told him most people would not understand, like repeatedly paying to go through the turnstile at the Parkland, just to feel the rolling thump of the bars against his body. Why did he like this and why did he do this? He didn’t know what it was about that admission turnstile but there was a moment, right inside it, when the bars felt like they locked and might not release him, and he felt such anxiety it was almost pleasure, and then they did, they let go and that was so — what? It was so mysterious a pleasure that he had to do it again. Yes, he knew that there had been a rate increase in the electricity bill this month, that he had to pay $30 more, but somehow entering the turnstile had used up that $30 and he hadn’t been able to pay his bill and now his apartment had neither lights nor heat.
What was Hope going to say when he told her? He wasn’t going to ask her for money. She wouldn’t have any extra in any event. He just hoped that she would let him eat with her in the evenings, and cook his supper in her apartment with her the way she had the last time this happened. She might even, maybe, perhaps, let him sleep in a chair in her artroom/living room if it got really cold in his apartment. That’s what she had done the last time and he could only hope she would do it again.
But he remembered what she had said to him the last time he slept there the previous spring, before he left for his apartment, after the weather turned warm again and daylight savings time returned. ”Feder, I cannot keep rescuing you from yourself. What am I doing? Am I helping you or hurting you by letting you stay here? I honestly do not know.”
Feder hadn’t known what to answer. How could she hurt him by letting him cook his food in a lighted kitchen or sleep where it was warm? How could it hurt him to help him? But Hope had her own ways of thinking and he had to keep that in mind. She did not understand the draw of the turnstile, and he knew she would think it strange to the point of bizarre. Everyone did. Everything he did looked strange to people. He was bad. Bizarre was bad, bizarre could get you taken away. But Hope should understand that. She was regularly taken away herself for what others thought was bizarre behavior: sitting in her artroom, talking to herself or to her papier mache people, or listening to voices of people no one else could hear, and doing what they told her to do, harmful things to herself, things like putting out cigarettes on her skin or cutting off pieces of herself with the sharpest of scissors. Talk about bizarre.
Feder at least had never been taken away. Not since he was a kid. But he would not think about those days. To think about those terrible days in the screaming room was to invite trouble, the many hours tied down to a bed because he wouldn’t – couldn’t – stop spinning. The times the teacher pinched his arm to stop him from reciting names after names of things she did not have the same need to know and hear…His need to tell her the dates of everything that ever happened to him and her need not to hear him, to silence him. How she had so much power to do so. No! Mustn’t think about those bad times, black times, screaming times…Mustn’t think. Mustn’t think. He had to think about something else. Think about the turnstile, the turnstile. How the heavy rollers came across to stop a person from crossing, then how they caught him and held him ever so briefly—that strange mechanism he was never sure he saw properly – and then how they always gently released him safely to the other side. He would think about the turnstile if he had to, until Hope came out of the bathroom.
But then thinking about the turnstile reminded him of the fact that he had not paid, could not pay, his electricity bill and how there was neither heat nor lights in his apartment. He did not want to admit this to Hope…The need to recite took hold, as it always did when anxiety got the best of him and he seized the information that was closest at hand: His name was Feder Prisma and he was 31, born Jan 5, 1979, a Friday. Hope Outestelle, his best friend was age 57, born Sept 16, 1954, which was a Thursday, the 259th day of the year. Premjit Mukherjee, was their friend, and the building manager, aged 47, born on April 1, 1964, a Wednesday, the 92nd day of the year. Stashu Weissman, was from Poland, aged 79, b orn in 1931, Dec 25, a Friday 359th day of the year. Giorgio Ciabatta, the auto mechanic, at age 43 born, in Italy, Feb 19, 1968 on a Monday. Beatrice Bean age 84, was born on Sunday May 1, 1927, the 121st day of the year. Their Landlord Mr. Mukherjee, was age 71. He was born on Sunday, April 27, 1941, the 117th day of the year. On the fourth floor, Bryony Leurile aged 44 was born on the 82nd day of the year, Sunday, 1967, March 23rd. Then there was Kashinda Whitmore, age 27, who was born on the 305th day of the year, in 1984, on Halloween, a Wednesday. Darryl Strakesley aged 31 was born on a Saturday, the 255th day of the year 1981, Sept 12th. Lupita Villareal, aged 62 was born on Sunday, the156th day of 1949, June 5. There were others, but he did not know their birthdays yet, so he started repeating the dates to himself. Hope Oestelle, his best friend, was born on Sept 16, 1954, she was 57 now. It was on a Thursday–
“So, what do you think of this?” asked Hope, appearing suddenly in the equally sudden explosion of lights that came on all together when she flipped the apartment’s main circuit breaker.
He hated it when people wanted him to notice something. It was always a test he failed at. He guessed. “Your hair?”
Now that he said it, he looked to see if it was true that her hair was different. She had cut her hair as short as a man’s, yes. Not only that but it seemed that she had dyed it as well, a persimmon red.
“No, not my hair. That was just an experiment. Look.” She held out her hands, dangling papers for him to look at more closely.
It looked that she had been developing photographs, but these were very strange ones. So dark as to be nearly black, with purple streaks and outlines of leaves and circles.
“Yes! You know! Well, sort of. I am doing electro-photography, and developing the Polaroids myself. I wanted to see if I could make this camera out of things I bought at GoodWill, and it turns out I could, mostly. But Feder, I’m really disappointed. The photos are awful. I was expecting something different. These are ugly. I think auras should be beautiful…” She retracted the photos instead of handing them to Feder, and tossed them aside with a shrug. “You win some, you lose some. At least I didn’t spring for a real Kirlian camera. Those cost $500. I only wasted maybe fifty bucks, making mine. At least I can say that I built a working aura photography device, for all the good it did me.”
Just at that moment, Feder’s stomach took the opportunity to announce its hunger with a rumble. Hope heard. She looked at her watch with a frown.
“Haven’t you eaten, Feder? Do you want to have supper with me? I’m sure we can scrounge up something.”
Feder made a rueful face but nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty hungry. Maybe you have some cereal I could put milk on? Captain Crunch?”
“Nah, I never eat cereal, Fayd, you know that. I could make you some oatmeal, but you hate my oatmeal. How about a peanut butter and banana sandwich and diet ginger-ale? I have some really good bread and about three bananas.”
Feder’s eyes lit up at the mention of his favorite sandwiches and he smiled for the first time that evening.
“Good. I’ll make the sandwiches if you peel the bananas and pour ginger-ale into glasses for us. Okay?”
Feder followed Hope’s carroty buzz-cut into the tiny kitchen and between the two of them they made short work of preparing their meal, then carried their plates out to where Hope’s art work occupied most of the living room. Hope pushed aside the Kirlian photographs and made room for Feder on the sofa, then flipped on the 12” television propped on a stool on a milk crate in front of them. Eating intently, they hunched forward as the PBS show Nova’s logo blazed across the little screen.
“Oh, good, I was afraid we’d missed it, but we’re just in time,” Hope murmured between bites of sandwich. Feder never spoke while a television played; even when the programming failed to absorb his interest, the interchange of light and shadow on the screen never did. Television had calmed him from an early age, and his mother always placed his crib in front of a late night movie when he couldn’t sleep. Knowing she couldn’t talk with him now, Hope turned her attention to the program, hoping it would be about something interesting, something that would give her ideas for art.
People sometimes thought it strange that Hope, who was passionately an artist when she wasn’t ill, but who found it difficult to read or even concentrate listening to books on tape, nevertheless devoured television shows and documentaries on science. From natural history to physics, from geology to chaos theory and beyond, everything scientific intrigued and fascinated her, and she used what she learned in her art, in a multiplicity of ways. “What else is art for if not to express what science teaches?” She had said this to Prem one day when he asked her why she used cell motifs when painting her sculptures. “It makes no sense to separate them. If art does not serve science, what good does it do? Art can’t serve art. That would be silly, like a translator translating from one language into the same language. A waste of time. No, maybe art has other purposes too, but one of them I am certain is to interpret science, to express it for those who do not understand it any other way.”
When she had finished she looked up at Prem, as if surprised by her own words.. Not by the thought, but by the passion with which she had shared them, and the fact that she had spoken at length about such things to anyone, and even more so, to Prem, the landlord’s son. She remembered she had backed away, eyeing him warily. What did he care why she made art or what it meant to her? He wouldn’t give a damn. Why didn’t she just learn to keep her mouth shut and leave people alone? Now she would pay, that much she knew. He’d soon be spreading gossip about the know-it-all in Building 22, second floor apartment B, the one who makes the crappy art and couldn’t even read a book to save her life. It was true, her art was crap, pure crapola, and she knew it. If she was any good, well, she would be better at selling it, now wouldn’t she? And it was painfully true that she didn’t read, hadn’t read a book in years, simply could not. If she so much as opened a book she fell asleep. The rare times she didn’t, the words – indeed the letters themselves—soon swam and danced before her eyes impenetrably confusing, impossible to put them together in any sensible way and make them into single words, let alone string into sentences and paragraphs that made sense. She wanted to read books, but the books escaped her. The refused her eyes. They fled from her, as if defying her and mocking her. Nyah, nyah, they scolded. Eat your heart out, but you can’t have us! It was such a struggle, and Hope could do nothing, say nothing. She could not even complain or feel sorry for herself. Why? Why? Because…because…She didn’t know why. It was all her fault, all her fault. Everything was her fault and deserved punishment. No wonder the voices had for years told her to burn herself with cigarettes and intermittently wanted her to set herself on fire or cut off pieces of herself. No wonder. She was the scum of the scummiest. She was the scum of the earth. She was the devil incarnate. Hope pounded her fist on the arm of the sofa, forgetting that Feder was sprawled next to her. Luckily, he had fallen nearly asleep after the program ended. He raised his head at the sound.
“It’s nothing, Feder” Hope said, standing up and pulling a throw over him. “I dropped something. Stretch out now, and go back to sleep. I’m going to bed too,”
As he lay down, Feder called out to Hope, “Hey, Hope! What are you going to do with the electro-camera?”
“I dunno. I was going to take it apart. Why? Do you want it?”
Feder, half-asleep but serious, responded, “Yah, I have some ideas…Let me use it. I’ll pay you back if they work out.”
Hope, heading towards her bedroom, beating her head with her fists in a private frustration Feder failed to notice, replied as calmly as she could, “No problem, you can keep it for as long as you want it.” Then she closed the door between them.
“Thanks,” Feder mumbled to himself, tumbling into sleep.
“Jackass, you asshole…” Hope derided herself in angry mutters, still occasionally giving herself stiff thumps across the head. “You evil son of a bitch. Who do you think you are? You are the devil, the killer of the world.” She paused, stared blankly at something unapparent to anyone who might have been watching the scene, and mumbled a word or two. Nodded. Stared. Nodded again. Then she looked around, as if searching for something she had misplaced. She got up and padded across the bedroom to her dresser where she extracted a half-open pack of cigarettes. Approaching the bed, she stopped again as if listening to something. Again she nodded, twice. “Yes, I promise, I promise,” she muttered, then added, cryptically. “I will, if you will.”
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Hope pulled off her jeans. She extracted three cigarettes and lit them. Without hesitating she drew deeply on all three then immediately applied them firmly to the skin of her upper thigh, holding them in such a way that they burned but didn’t quite go out until she finally crushed the heads against her. Quickly, she repeated the maneuver, and again a third time. Finally, she pulled her jeans back on, drew her T-shirt down and hastily hid the remains of the extinguished cigarettes underneath the papers in the bottom of her wastebasket.
Calmer, but a bit dazed and still not ready to sleep, the cigarette lighter and pack in full view on her bed, Hope sat on the edge of the bed quietly, her head bowed, her hands in her lap. Her face, usually so mobile, was still and blank. But it was not a serene blankness. Rather, it was a blankness of confusion, as if she were not quite sure what had just happened. After about a half hour, she lifted her head, took a deep breath, frowned, and stood to clear away the debris of her recent actions. No point leaving any evidence around for Feder or anyone else to see. She could take care of her own wounds, and anyway, three times three wasn’t so terrible. She had done much worse before. No one ever died from nine cigarette burns, she just had to shut them up for a while…
It was well after midnight before Hope finally lay down under the covers and turned off her lights to sleep. And when she did sleep it was fitfully and to a book of troubled dreams. But sleep finally came and she didn’t wake until after Feder had left for the morning. She didn’t wake until the knocking at her door became outright banging.
[Building 22 had been built in 1900 and its first elevator was installed in 1925 then reinstalled in 1955 with a (zibbit*) . In 19_5 when the Landlord first acquired the building as a young man new in the country, he installed a (zibbit*) elevator upgrades at great personal expense. But when the inspectors saw this elevator in January,1989 they didn’t like it at all. In fact, they condemned his entire operation at once and ordered a complete upgrade. They insisted he install what amounted to a brand new elevator.]
The Landlord balked. He didn’t tell the Inspectors this. Instead he decided to petition the City and get a waiver to redesignate Building 22 as strictly for a non-disabled population.
The petition claimed that he was unable to afford the construction of new elevator without increasing the rent on his tenants and unless he tripled their present rents, he could not afford them. But non-disabled tenants not only could afford the higher rents he needed, they would not need an elevator! Voila, the problem would now be solved via the stroke of a city official’s pen.
It might have happened that way, even in America, in 1989. The City is not a terribly corrupt place, but money has its perks and certainly it has a voice in places of power, as it does everywhere on earth. So had the Landlord decided to use his considerable power and money to back his petition, either somewhat legally or in a less than legal fashion, it is possible that he might have had his way. We have no way of knowing what might have happened. We only know what did happen. Which was that Silent Stashu Weissmann, Building 22, apartment3A, got wind of this plot and in his outrage shed his silence like a cloud releasing a torrent. He informed Bryony, the fourth floor tenant with cerebral palsy who had been immured in her apartment for weeks, dependent as she was upon an electric wheel chair and thus on the elevator to get her downstairs. Bryony was one of the few tenants who despite her disability had a regular job outside the building and needed to get to work on a regular basis. If she lost more than a month’s worth of time due to the lack of an elevator, she was threatened with the loss of her job, a job she cherished, even if at 20 she had held it for only a couple of years.
Worse, there was the possibility that without the income from her job, she might not be able to pay her rent and could be evicted, This, she observed to Stashu, was the height of twisted. Especially since it was the Landlord’s fault entirely that she was unable to get to her job.
“Ve do something about that,” promised Stashu. “If you cannot go vork, ve get vork come to you.”
“Yeah sure, that’s really likely.” Bryony shook her head.
Stashu agreed that since the War – nothing could be compared to Poland in WWII—but he hadn’t faced a worse situation since then, that this one beggared belief. Twisted was putting it mildly. The Landlord’s behavior was an abomination. And that meant a lot, coming from him.
Bryony nodded in appreciation.
“Ve write a letter, but not just any letter. A Letter to the Editor of the newspaper. They print, and people read and come to assist us. A new elevator, it will be grant us and they build it just for you. Trust me.”
Bryony had no reason to believe any of this, but she liked the idea of being asked only to trust this not unattractive older man with a Polish accent who said he wanted to write a letter to the newspaper in order to get her an elevator.
“Okay, let’s do it. We’ll write a letter. But what do we say? You talk it out loud and I’ll type.”
Stashu formerly and formally known as Stanley Weissmann had been 15 when Bergen Belsen was liberated after WWII. Though he had lost much of his extended family during the war, he himself had never been a camp resident. A student at boarding school in the late 1930s, he had been lucky enough to be hidden by a family of intellectuals who took him in and, when it was safe enough, fled with him first to France and then to the United States in 1939. Nevertheless, Stashu had seen plenty of brutality and read obsessively during his years in relative safety. Then the news and newsreels about Bergen Belsen came out. He absorbed everything he could about the camps and the treatment of the prisoners there. He could not learn enough, he felt, and such learning was not just of facts but was in its very nature penitential. He, Stashu, was not among the dead. He should have been. Therefore it behooved him to learn all that he could, all that there was to learn, and to never fail to pass on what he knew so that the world would never forget what happened. He did this so that the millions of people, killed during those years would forgive him, Stashu Weissmann, for surviving.
The western New England City was not a big place, only about 15,000 people from the inner core to the outlying suburbs, and if the truth were told it was insular, even parochial. Many of the people who lived there were at least third generation Americans and a large percentage traced their roots back to the 1800s. By the 1980s it is at least likely that many could have gone their entire lives without meeting a single WWII survivor from Poland. Most would never have known such survivors resided in their City but for the reporter who wanted to tell Stanley Weissmann’s story. Stashu at first refused, remonstrating that he had no particular story to tell. He had lived in Poland during the war, had managed to escape, and now he studied the Camps so as to expiate his guilt. And so he could tell the world about them, and the world could learn and would never forget. His personal story was nothing; the only story worth telling was that of the camps… So, okay, said the youngish reporter with a little laugh, tell me about the camps then. I want to hear those stories.
And so he had talked, and talked at great length about the concentration camps. He told her about how when American soldiers liberated Bergen Belsen, and found living skeletons wandering the grounds, dazed and barely human, they showered them with Hershey bars to assuage their hunger, knowing nothing about refeeding syndrome. To the soldiers’ horror, within hours many of these survivors lay either dead or writhing in agony near death, killed by the very chocolate that was supposed to save them. He spoke about the Warsaw Ghetto, about the bruising poverty and brutality of everyday life inside, and about the Uprising, the heroism and the ultimate crushing defeat. He talked and talked and when he was through, he thought the reporter would ask him a little about his own life, but instead she only thanked him for his time and left.
When the story came out in the paper, Stashu was horrified to read that the title of the piece made him out to be himself a survivor of Bergen Belsen. Not only that but in every instance, the stories that he told about what others had endured in the camps and ghetto, the reporter simply attributed to his intimate personal experience. He felt like the scum on a pond. What had he said to her that she should have assumed he lived through all that he talked about? Surely he never said anything that would lead her to believe what she wrote!
That newspapers get the story wrong surely happens more often than people know. And paper do not print corrections as often as they ought to. If they did, it seems likely that papers would be often more corrections than news. Whatever is the case, as the story had it, Stashu miraculously survived both the Warsaw Uprising and Bergen Belsen, which made him much more of a heroic survivor than he was. But try as he might, nothing Stanley Weissmann did could get the paper to print a retraction. They insisted that it was the spirit of the piece that was important, not the actual facts. Besides, Stanley was a survivor, was he not? If he did not survive the real Bergen Belsen, well, he spoke eloquently for the few souls who did, and that was a terrific public service, so he should just be quiet about it and leave them alone.
Stashu didn’t see it that way. He saw only that the reporter had told a lie, had made it seem as if Stashu himself had lied about his life, aggrandizing himself in a most improper way. They kept on saying that it didn’t make him bigger, not at all, Before this, nobody even knew who Stashu Weissmann was. So how could they think anything about him at all? He was a nobody. A NOBODY! the man at the paper had actually screamed at him after Stashu explained the truth of the matter and he’d finally – finally—understood that Stanley was not even the “Stanley” their reporter had written about, the apparent saint of the Warsaw ghetto. If Stashu was not that humble amazing human being, a phoenix risen from the ashes living among them in their City, then why not scream at him like a common irritant, a bug, a miscreant that had the temerity to tell the City newspaper-of-note to change what it had written?
“We stand by our reporters!” insisted the nameless man on the other end of the phone at the newspaper, “Furthermore, I am not going to stand here and listen to someone who does not even speak English properly tell me how to run a newspaper. When you have had a proper high school education and go to college and get a graduate degree in English literature, then maybe you can criticize, but not before then. Good day!” Then the phone went dead.
Stashu felt like a fraud, even though he had never intended to deceive the reporter and knew she must have known the truth even as she deliberately distorted the story for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, the damage was done and the damage to Stanley was incalculable.
After the story came out, people tried to find out where Stanley lived. The newspaper refused to reveal his whereabouts, saying that the poor man wanted only his privacy, that he had been through too much and would grant no other interviews. But the City was relentless in its drive to cover their not so homegrown hero with accolades and awards. They proposed naming a city park the Stanley Weissmann Heroic Parkland and in an effort to teach youngsters about WWII and about concentration camps, they named a program in such studies in their high school curriculum after him as well. Some of this could have softened the terrible sting of the article, having as it did, some “good blow by” as Giorgio, the former auto mechanic disabled with rheumatoid arthritis and ADHD and OCD in 3A put it.
But to Stashu it was all too little too late. He could barely leave his apartment by this time. Most of the other tenants in Building 22 did not know of the article, had not read the paper and did not know anything about Stashu’s history, either the truth or the fiction. They knew only that the gentleman in Building 22, Third floor, Apartment A had stopped coming out to feed the birds under the spindly maple trees in front of their building. They knew that he was seen rarely and at night, in dark hat and coat, leaving surreptitiously as if in disguise. The nice-looking older man who had once been as free with his bread crumbs as with ascerbic remarks, had now become taciturn. Worse, when spoken to, he responded only in Polish. His neighbors withdrew from him, not understanding. And Stashu retreated into what was left to him: silence.
It was Stashu’s letter to the editor that Premjit saw the morning after in the paper. Sitting with a cup of coffee at the breakfast table alone he read it casually the first time, not quite getting what it was all about. Then he read it again having taken in the signatures. Finally, trembling, he read it a third time, very slowly, registering the weight of each word, his face growing warm. When he was done, he took a pair of scissors and snipped the letter free from the larger sheet of newsprint and slipped the clipping into his pocket. Then he rose, ready to leave. He hesitated. Suddenly he had no wish to do whatever he had planned for the day. The luncheon, the games, the reading or planned events, they all seemed vapid and of little interest. He sat back down.
Taking out the clipping, he read it a fourth time., This time he nodded vigorously like a man charged with a mission. Indeed, Premjit was charged and changed. From this moment on, Building 22 would become his – his what? Call it a mission if you will. Call it his purpose in life. Call Building 22 whatever it is that gives a life meaning and direction. Whatever you call it, Building 22 and all its twelve tenants from that moment on, with and without an elevator, became the central focus of Premjit’s life.
When he rose again from the breakfast table, Prem had scarcely touched his meal, but he was filled nevertheless, filled with nourishing things like purpose and determination and a burning drive to help others. He was also filled with rage and bitterness, both of which eat at the soul. This created a stew of emotions that does not serve anyone completely well but in the young is especially problematic. Sometimes rage motivates young people to greatness. Certainly, they feel it does. At least it is true that they are prone to great wraths and to great deeds and who is to say that the latter can be accomplished without the former. It can only be said in Prem’s case that his enormous resentment towards and anger with his father, with regard to his treatment of the Tenants in Building 22, felt to him both motivating and liberating. Before he read Stashu’s and Bryony’s letter, Prem had felt at odds with his life, at odds with any future his father presented him. He hadn’t felt equal to any professional career, not even one that he could have rebelled into, say that of an actor (how his father would have detested that!) or an architect, had he any talent in those directions. But he had felt no strong negative emotions either. Since childhood his inclination had been to follow, well, the inclines and declinations that his life simply rolled into by chance, as if into a groove in the pavement or a runnel down the slope of a hill. His philosophy was that life should find the path of least resistance, for such was its proper path.
Up to the age of 23, until 1989, this “do nothing to resist life” policy had served him well, since he had had a successful school life and was poised on the cusp of adulthood with everything he needed for success there as well. But beneath the smooth exterior, Prem was discontented and in emotional disarray ever since college graduation in the Big City. He had come home to live in his childhood home with his father until he figured out what to do with his life but he was beginning to think the move had been a terrible mistake. The Landlord was not a bad father. In fact, he had been patient and even forbearing on the subject of Prem’s future, assuring Premjit that he himself had gone through similar struggles upon reaching the shores of this great country, yes even he, who arrived with family money and the burden of a green card and went straight to work acquiring Building 22. Finding life’s direction was easier in the old country, his father said. One’s family often directed where one worked and what one did and whom one married and where one lived. In India your surname could determine your professional status and of course there was the huge question of caste, which was not supposed to affect people these days to the same degree, but you knew it still did. So life was in that sense easier back in India, easier to figure out who you were at any rate, if sometimes harder to adjust to if you found yourself in a bad fit.
Prem knew this was supposed to be of comfort, but none of it reassured him. He could not see himself fitting into a Landlord’s shoes at his age. He shuddered to think of ever fitting them. It was far too much responsibility and worse than that, the daily ins and outs of managing real estate simply bored him. He couldn’t imagine anything more uninteresting! He watched his father poring over the papers and tables that he used to manage his holdings, and felt actual pity for the emptiness of his life. How little there was to hold an intellect in all those papers! Prem wanted something more. But what? What could he do that would stay rich and juicy through a lifetime and yet still yield an income his father would be proud of? What would pay, have professional standing and status and yet remain intellectually satisfying? No matter what he thought about, no matter what career he considered, nothing fit completely, nothing that is that Prem was both capable of, inclined towards, and prepared to do.
Like many educated and intelligent young men rootless and without a clear career goal one year out of university, he convinced himself he wanted to become a doctor. He looked into how to go to medical school, become an anesthesiologist. He had the MCAT applications stashed in his bookbag and summer school curricula for premed courses, too, when Stashu and Bryony’s letter suckered itself to his consciousness like a relentless hagfish and wouldn’t let go.
*Zibbit is the NanoWriMo word for “place holder” when you cannot do the research or cannot find the words for a concept and just write without them…you can do the proper writing later…
In the beginning we called ourselves Hope’s Family just so we could get into the hospital to see her and to get her out of it too and so we could be seen as legitimate in taking care of her. But then the sound of the name began to ring in our ears like what Stashu calls the clarion bell of freedom, so we kept it and from December 2011 on that is what we have been known as, everyone in Building 22, including Premjit the Landlord’s son. We do not include, however, the Landlord. No. He is not part of Hope’s Family. He doesn’t like Hope one bit. He doesn’t even like Feder. In fact, the Landlord was the reason we pulled together and became Hope’s Family in the first place. So while we are aligned against him, in a sense we have the Landlord to thank for making us one.
Premjit opened the door to Building 22 and noted the smell before he noticed the cracked doorjamb. Burned paraffin. Too much of it. Which could only mean one thing, that the utilities had been turned off again in some of the tenants’ unit and they were burning candles for light. Lord only knew what they were doing to cook their food. Premjit hoped they were using Sterno and not portable gas stoves in the stuffy little apartments all of which lacked adequate ventilation at the best of times. He could only hope against hope. Just last winter they had lost a young man to carbon monoxide poisoning, and nearly lost the tenant in the apartment directly above him, when he tried to cook his boxed macaroni and cheese dinner on one of those treacherous stoves in his apartment. Not only that but after he passed out, he had nearly burned the building down but for the quick thinking of a neighbor who had smelled charring food, knocked on his door and when she had gotten no answer, quickly called the fire department.
This was an accident waiting to repeat itself. The writing was not just on the wall, it was on the staircase and on the walls and on the windows. You couldn’t cook with sterno. It took nearly an hour just to boil water for a cup of coffee, a single cup. But Sterno was too expensive to cook with even if they could use it. Something had to be done, and done pronto. All of Premjit’s tenants were on social security or disability, which meant a fixed income with little leeway to increase their payments to the Utility Company when there was a rate increase. This had been instituted a month before, for the second year in a row. Worse, the City had not been forthcoming this year with additional energy assistance. Oh, City officials claimed that private businesses and charities would step forward to help instead, that tenants needed only to look for help and they would easily find it elsewhere. But looking and finding help to pay for heat and lighting were too very different things.
Prem knew what the City did not. His tenants – well, they were not his, not really, yet he felt that they were truly in his charge, and were his concern in a way that his father did not – could not negotiate the tortuous ins and outs of getting private energy assistance. They were on disability for a reason after all, weren’t they? And for many of the tenants, disability entailed some measure of mental impairment in addition to a physical problem, if mental illness or intellectual impairment was not in fact the entirety of the problem.
Yes, Prem thought, Beatrice Bean – called Bay-a-tree-chay by those who had known her in New York City, but called Beanie by her real friends – Beanie, the spindly, towering former madam –turned-Cleaning-Coordinator, her thick poofed hair the color of old bones, even at 84 probably could help some of the others. But she was elderly and somewhat frail. She could not be expected to lead the entire Building 22 to private sector energy independence.
Then there was Stashu, Prem’s 70-something tenant. He was a resourceful survivor who would get heat and lights somehow if ever he lost them, which Prem doubted would happen. Stashu did not go without the basic necessities, having known deprivation in his youth that was almost literally unspeakable..
Building 22 had twelve Units and Prem estimated that as many as five could now be without utilities. Who knew how many would go “off grid” in the coming months? It was only October now, the first official month of “cold” weather according to City calculations, but temperatures still rose into the 70°s sometimes. What would the tenants do for heat in December when it sank below freezing in the darkest month of the year?
Premjit, though he was of Indian extraction, had never visited his father’s homeland, and had no close acquaintance with that extreme poverty. He had not been “hardened to the banalities of hardship” as his father liked to explain it. Far from it. Instead, as if in opposition to his father’s tough stance, Prem’s feelings had only grown more and more tender towards the tenants that the Landlord so oppressed. Which is why when his father refused to fix things like the doorjamb, which was more than merely cracked, he saw now, but broken clear through and held together only by the several coats of paint that disguised the imperfection, he felt not only impelled to repair things, but he also felt rage at The Way Things Are.
Prem loved his father, and he understood completely how the Landlord’s upbringing in India had affected him in such a way as to harden him against the very people he ought to have treated with compassion, seeing them as privileged compared to those begging on the streets in his native land. But Premjit was not his father’s son, not in the traditional sense of those words. And the United States for all her flaws, was his home, and the poverty of the tenants was what he was familiar with, and pained by. Whether relative or not, he cared if they went hungry or were cold or had to use candles to see in the dark.
The worst of the worst case scenarios, which hadn’t happened yet in Prem’s memory, but which his father perennially threatened them with, was Eviction for Non-Payment of Rent. Disability status all but guaranteed a government subsidy that made paying rent possible for these tenants. But if ever the subsidy were withdrawn, if the Government in it is infinite wisdom and kindness were ever to renege on its agreement t care minimally for its disabled population (whatever you thought if the policy of disabling so many people, so young) the tenants would be out on the streets.
Homeless. The word struck fear into any tenant’s heart. To a one this was their greatest source of terror and vicariously Premjit’s as well. So far, no one had been evicted since Prem had become aware even vaguely of Building 22 in his consciousness, as a young boy living in a large white-washed stucco house in the suburbs, five miles away. That, despite the Landlord’s threats, so few had ever been evicted was testimony to the stability of the disability payment and to a subsidy systems that all but guaranteed rents were paid and paid on time.
Even Hope and Feder, the most unstable of the disabled in Building 22, paid their rent more or less on time every month. In fact, Hope managed to pay even when she was in the mental hospital. If she had to, she made sure that Feder brought her checkbook to the nurses station and she wrote out her payment there, handing it to him to deliver to the Landlord well before the 10th of the month. Prem made a mental note to check on Hope and Feder, hoping that their apartments were not among those that had lost their heat and lighting. His two favorite tenants had enough to struggle with, without having to deal with these additional privations!
Having calculated the cost of fixing the door frame and preparing an under-the-door notice for all tenants in his head about not using portable gas stoves in Building 22, along with directions to neighborhood soup kitchens and inexpensive area restaurants where tenants who needed to could dine on the cheap until their heat and lighting situation was resolved. Prem made his way along the first floor hallway. Even as he walked, which was not that quickly or that quietly in his hard -soled shoes – he made noise because unlike his silent shoed father, gliding about the building late at night – he wanted Tenants to hear him and come out to join him, talk with him, share their problems, concerns, grievances. Or just to tell him anything they wanted to. He noted all the bulbs that had burned out or were dimming. He would replace them on his next walk-through.
Four floors with three units on each floor and a roof garden that Prem had put in a few years after taking over the Tenants care, Building 22 had always had an elevator, indeed it was supposed by law to have an elevator, being a building designated for the elderly and the disabled…Once upon a time, Premjit’s father had put his foot down on the elevator situation, when the inspectors’ insisted that not only could his perfectly respectable Schindler not be upgraded it had to be replaced by an Otis.
“Otis Schmotis” groused the Landlord. And he added some other choice words. But since he spoke in Hindi, Prem neither understood them nor could repeat them later on, though he understood the feeling tone behind them and “grokked” – understood instantly in that profound deep way—that the tenants not only would not be getting any state of the art “inferior Otis.” But neither would their beloved Schindler be getting repaired into serviceable employment again. Not if Pere Mukherjee had anything to say about it.
This hardness of his father’s heart shocked him into a new awareness. At the time, in 1989, Prem had been only 23 and not long out of college. He had had notions of applying to graduate school, maybe medical school, and becoming a professional, a doctor. But all those ideas had been as vague as dishes seen under the murky haze of dirty dishwater.
When the elevator situation in Building 22 swam into his consciouness, it was not lazily like a school of darting minnows on a sweet sunny summers day, but like a great white shark whose feeding grounds have been encroached upon: with ferocious gaping maw and sharp teeth, ready to swallow him whole.
He might have shied away, taken one look at Building 22 and the Tenants dire situations and said to himself: “I’m too young for this. It is not my fault. I didn’t ask to be put in the middle of this.” He could have turned his head and turned away, saying, “This isn’t a situation I am responsible for. I want nothing to do with it.” He was, after all, a very young man with a promising and full life ahead of him. He might have become a major player in a major profession. He might have gone far.
Luckily for Building 22 and its tenants Premjit did not see all this, or did not care. He saw only one thing: injustice and the fact that he could do something about it. It drove him to make a decision that day that changed, well, it changed only one small thing. Only a speck in the universe was really altered. But this speck was really the thing itself writ small, but he discovered it was the thing itself writ large too, like a fractal. Fractals! So much of nature as Premjit had read recently followed fractal geometries – sunflowers, nautilus shells, coastlines, mountain ranges, trees. Nature was all about the mathematics of roughness rather than algebra’s smooth perfections. With fractals, you needed only to change one input, one speck, and you changed everything. He was beginning to think this was true about people too.
That is only part of chapter one. I have many more pp written, but i am off to North Carolina now to visit my brother and write. so I will add more in later days, perhaps from later chapters. We will see.
Several years ago, someone told me something that paralyzed me for years…She said, You can’t write fiction. Period. Oh, she granted that I could write poetry and creative NON-fiction yadda yadda yadda, but she, I expect, wanted me to stop writing fiction for some reason, I dunno why…and so she told me I was NO GOOD at it. Needless to say, being as sensitive a writer as almost all writers are, I took her words to heart, and I believed her. Why? I have no idea. My first writing teacher at the University of Hartford, who had taught writing for years, told a colleague that my short story (at 60 pp)was the best he had had from any student ever. Along the way other teachers had said similar things. Even my agent for the book DIVIDED MINDS just loved the very same story that this critic decided I could never write fiction because of…
But I didn’t listen to my agent, even though she had gotten my sister and I a contract at St Martins Press and had worked at big-time publishing houses for years. She knew publishable authors, this other person was an independent editor of technical writing, …but you know what? I listened to her strictly because she had something negative to say to me, and I always believe those who want to hurt me…ALWAYS. If someone tells me something good about me, I think they are lying or trying to get something from me. But if they tell me something bad, or hurt my feelings? Well then, they must be being honest and want to help me, surely!
Where I got that crap from I dunno because this person clearly didn’t want to further my development as a writer, she only wanted to crush me. I would never have told anyone to stop writing, EVER. It kills them inside. Unless they happen to have been raised in such a way that they fight back…I was not. I simply folded and said to myself, “She told me I was no good, that I would never be able to write fiction, so I might as well give up right now.” And I did. For ten years.
Then I got an email about NaNoWriMo in my inbox and something inside told me I had to do it. National Novel Writing Month is in November of each year and you are supposed to write approximately 1700words a day (or a little less) to end up with a 50,000 word novel by the end. Of course, that is really only a novella, but the point is to say you did it in only a month. Truth to tell, I have written and never shown anyone, two novels, of 300,00o words each, one in only three weeks time. Then I rewrote it in nine months, But I felt it wasn’t good enough for public viewing so I never showed it around.
Anyhow, the point is, I can write a novel, whether good or bad who is to say, but I know I can do NaNoWriMo and I decided to take back my power from this chick who decided she had the right to tell me what I could and could not do. EFF her. No one can decide for me what I can or cannot write. If I am not “good at it” now, that is not to say I cannot get better. That was her thing. She thought no one could improve by practice! Fool!
I will deliver an installment of my novel in a few days. I already have 32 pages. I won’t dump it all on you, but I thought you might like a taste.
Even the first time, surrender was not hard,
though the grownups and mothers
with their drinks and swizzle sticks
undoubtedly thought it so when you volunteered
your only present that 10th Christmas
to a younger child who wouldn’t understand
being giftless at the tail end of a line to Santa,
nor your inherent sin in being born.
Such generosity should have stayed
between your concept-of-God and you,
but grownup admiration (you could not hope
to make your act unpublic) sullied the soap
of any generosity’s power to cleanse you.
Other atonements followed, only one
almost perfect, being perfectly anonymous
spoiled by an accomplice’s later telling.
Perfection? You never made that grade,
your terrible love for God demanding all life
from your life. No one told you, “Live a lot,”
not in words that made it matter, though
they doubtless counseled, “Live a little.”
You were always in school to be perfect,
never knowing that life is a classroom
where one learns to love flaws
by throwing bad pots, to shatter
them with careful hammer,
assembling beauty from broken things.
I do not believe I posted this poem here before. I may have but I doubt it as I was going to publish it in a print journal. Instead, I never sent it out. So instead I choose to “sacrifice” it here. (meaning: If i publish it online here I cannot do so in a print journal…so this is for you, folks!)
I am going to tell you about the child I was when I was very small, as small as I can remember. The first thing I remember about myself as a self, was…well, what do I remember? This is hard. For one thing, while I am down to only 5mg of Abilify, I still take 160mg of Geodon, but more important I still take 200mg of Topamax, an anticonvulsant that has known adverse effects on memory and cognition. Whether it actually interferes with what I can recall from childhood or not, I could not say…Perhaps ECT did that, 16 plus 5 sessions of ECT could have done a number on my brain, especially as I had active neurological Lyme disease at the time. The Lyme-literate neurologist advised strongly against ECT, but the hospital psychiatrist forced me, at least through the last 8, after I refused to go back, by getting a court order and drugging me on so much Thorazine I had no will.
Ah, but “They,” the faceless They of Authority, They say that ECT affects only short-term memory. Well, then, I guess just being 60 years old and having gone through trauma after trauma in the present decade alone surely could have wiped out memories from a half century ago and before. Whatever is the case, I must now scour my brain to recall what I thought I could recall easily.
Marjorie M, an old friend of my father’s, related a significant story recently — about me at age 6. Given our bedroom when she stayed with our family to recuperate from surgery, while my twin sister and I camped out somewhere else in the house, Marjorie was relaxing in my twin bed, alone, when she was surprised by my little face in the doorway. “Hi, Mrs M,” she tells me I said. “Why, hello, Pammy. How are you?” I looked at her with concern. “Are you all right, Mrs M? Are you lonely? Do you need anything?” (or something to that effect..) I am astonished that even at age 6 I knew I needed to “do this,” although I think that my mother, who disliked Marjorie intensely, was probably ignoring her and I suspect knew it even then. But Marjorie says she fell in love with me at that moment. She certainly never forgot the incident. Bless her heart…
I forgot it, likely I never knew or understood its impact. Given that I was six, I had already made the decision the year before, when Martha was born and I was five years old, that since I would never have the older sister of my own dreams, I would instead have to be the older sister I dreamed about for Martha. I made myself the promise to Martha, the day she was brought home from the hospital, that I would do everything in my power to be in Martha’s older sister the OS I would have wanted.
In all our childhood photos, until the year I turned 14 and stopped permitting photos to be taken, you see two things: I am almost always featured next to Martha, with my arms around her or somehow touching her, protective of her, and my twin sister is with the dog or otherwise occupied. Always. You might not be able to tell which twin is which from our facial features, but you can tell us apart from that. One of us is with Martha, and you know I am that twin for certain.
It is the greatest loss to me, the worst thing, the — I can only say this: I am not a quitter, but I was unable to complete that most important of assignments because of what happened to me in high school, whatever you want to call it. I either became ill, or troubled or had too many problems…whatever it was, I simply could not function well enough to do all that I promised myself (and Martha) I would do for her. I could not BE the person I needed to be, the functioning adequate teenager, in a good enough way to be a good enough older sister to her.
For instance, just take the older sister/younger sister Q and A that ought to have taken place but never did after I was 14. My own menstual periods took me by brutal surprise. In addition, I never did learn “the facts of life” (ie sex) as we called it in those days, not for real, not so I understood them, until after college. I vaguely knew the “birds and the bees” but not really, not so I understood the fundamental mechanics of sex at a time when most teens were experimenting with relationships for real. (Not me… I went to an all-girls high school and even though it was not necessarily true for the other students, for me, sex was never on my mind, I never understood the urge or the drive, not then and frankly not ever…) Given those facts, you can see that the OS/YS tête-a-têtes about sex and dating etc just were not going to happen. I didn’t know enough, one, and two, even if I had, I was unprepared to talk about anything so intimate with anyone.
As it turned out, though, Martha had plenty of friends and soon clearly found people to talk to when I could not. Thank heavens, because if the roles had been reversed, she could have taught me plenty! Only they could not be reversed, because I was the OS and she was the YS and things had to stay that way… I think to this day, though she doesn’t say it in so many words, she misses, if not resents, losing the OS, the me she once had…She misses surely the OS promise she knew I made to her from the outset.
Oh, Martha knows it wasn’t my fault. Life is life and shit happens. But she misses me, the Pam that never quite panned out because of everything that “happened” after I turned 14, 15, 16 and then it went on and on and on…She reminded me recently that even before I was taking any medication I told her that life was a minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day struggle just to survive…and I was only 24 or 26 or…This horrified her. To this day she can scarcely bare to recall my telling her. Or of seeing me catatonic in the State Hospital. She left crying and I think could not bear to visit again for years…
We create our reality, people tell me. Our thoughts are very powerful…If so, I created from a very young age, a very harsh reality, one where in cahoots with a punitive God, I had learned over the years I had to be selfless to the point of self-obliteration, as well as nearly mute. But not so mute as to be noticeable…because if you were noticed then you were not completely self-less. (I told you it was a harsh world…) I had to speak just enough so as to NOT be noticed, but never about me or my concerns. ONLY about others…and then listen to their problems ONLY. I had to be a pair of ears pinioned to the wall. Wear drab no-color colors, unnoticeable. Fade into the woodwork, but only in a way that was unremarkable…As soon as someone noticed that I was fading, it was evil! and I had to add just enough color to fade into the crowd anonymously yet again, self-lessly.
No wonder my handwriting almost disappeared into invisibility. (I would have willed my fingerprints away if I had been able to!) Can you imagine my mortification, and the self-mortification I had to practice when bank tellers noticed the minuscularity of my signature and made me sign checks a second time? They NOTICED my attempts to disappear, and in doing so, made me appear loud and big…which was bad. So the voices took it out on me, making demands that had to be answered and hidden in turn.
Why am I writing about these things? Because despite the pain it has caused me, I still believe in self-denial. I believe in self-lessly doing things for others, and in NOT being the center of our own universes ALL the time. I think a good bit of doing for and thinking about others in THEIR universes is good for the soul, so long as they do not abuse you. And I do not believe that others need to know everything good that we do. I do not think we need to broadcast every good deed on Facebook or to our friends so they know what good people we are! So what if it remains anonymous, or between God and you? Maybe even God doesn’t need to know it if you do something for someone else…and that someone else doesn’t need to know who did it either.
Live with the anonymity. You can do it. You can be self-less once in a while and not die. Your self is strong enough tolerate not telling the world everything you do for others…Trust me. You do not need kudos, confirmations or smiles for everything you do. You just need to know that someone else is better off because you did something or gave away something you could have used, but decided to give it to someone else instead. You sacrificed something. Not that you gave it away because you could not use it but because someone else needed it more than you did.
Try it, a little sacrificing especially in the United States is a good thing to learn. But make it real, don’t do it falsely. Giving up time or giving away something you don’t use or have any need for is no sacrifice. Sacrifice: from the Latin, sacer, “holy” plus facio, facere, “to make.” Something is only a sacrifice, something is only made holy, if it is a real loss and a real gift at the same time.
This is the most recent piece of house art that I have done. It is an imaginative rendering of a house on the Broad Street Green in Wethersfield. I wonder if the owners would recognize their antique white farm house now? Anyhow, I thought the house come out okay, but I am not skilled at drawing a veritable forest of towering trees , not yet at any rate!
Okay, so maybe I only found ten instead of 11, I am not certain any more. Frankly it takes me a good hour to discover and vet each site so I give up. I cannot take this any longer, so I am going to simply have to leave the requirements for the award as it is, and say, I did my best. I really did. And you will have to accept that. So here are my ten or eleven nomines for the on-going Liebster Award. They are in absolutely no order of preference except for my computer’s having a mind of its own and ordering them the way it chose by its lonesome.
http://claireahriana.com for her brand new site Cooking as Medicine (nothing much there yet, but it sounds so promising…And the phrase “food is medicine” just clicks because it has enormous significance to me, coming out of my own past)
http://chadpotts.wordpress.com My Rollercoaster Life with bipolar illness
http://milerunner.me run a mile day and you will feel on top of the world…Exercise has its perks and peak experiences!
http://todadwithlove.wordpress.com Vera Poh’s lovely literary blog
http://uneasyawakening.com Bipolar Musings
http://greenwake.wordpress.com a sustainable experiment with living as green and economically with the earth as possible. Go for it!
http://blueowltreats.wordpress.com outdoorsy 24 year old post-grad living in beautiful Vancouver, BC recently started this blog to share her love for baking and crafting
http://thevegangreen.com amazing no sugar raw brownie recipe, among others.
http://carlynnforst.wordpress.com “the fancies of a working artist”
http://mindwithoutahome.com a poet with alcoholism and history of schizophrenia, with a memoir coming out in August
And here are the questions these bloggers need to answer:
Alternate to 8, if the answer to above is No:
8a. Why blog? I mean this. Why does anyone blog when there are apparently more than 4 billion blogs out there competing for attention. I would like to know..
9. What is more important, Truth or Kindness. Yes, I know you can be truthful and also kind, but this is my Leibster Award and I get to ask the question. So you have to choose one or the other and tell me why you chose the one you did. Truth OR Kindness
10.What are your core values in life
11. If you could make everyone in the world do one thing, change one behavior or exchange one material good for another, what would it be, and why.
Finally here is a recap of the rules for the Liebster Award in general, so the Nominees can be sure they know what to do.
The Liebster Award is given to up and coming bloggers who have less than 200 followers. So, what is a Liebster? The meaning: Liebster is German and means sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome. Isn’t that sweet? Blogging is about building a community and it’s a great way to connect with other bloggers and help spread the word about newer bloggers/blogs.
Here are the rules for receiving this award:
1. Each person must post 11 things about themselves.
2. Answer the questions that the tagger set for you plus create 11 questions for the people you’ve tagged to answer.
3. Choose 11 people and link them in your post.
4. Go to their page and tell them.
5. No tag backs!
Wow, I finally did it, I finished the Liebster Award requirements. I thought I never would. Apologies to any of my own nominees upon whom this places too big a burden. You need not accept the crown! Now, to find that blasted Icon and see if I can get it to paste onto my front page. I do not think I can get the image widget to work, it has never worked properly alas, so I don’t think it will now. But I can try. It would be nice if the Leibster Award Badge would post after I went to all the trouble of finishing the award requirements! If not, well, so be it but what a shame.
A lot is going on now, ever since I’ve been back in town after my vacation in North Carolina visiting my brother. I will write more later.
Note that this is a two part posting. First half is my Q and A part of the Nomination, and tomorrow’s will concern the nominees that I select for the Liebster Award. (I see no other way to do it, as I have already spent four hours on this and it is midnight now).
The Liebster Award is given to up and coming bloggers who have less than 200 followers. So, what is a Liebster? The meaning: Liebster is German and means sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome. Isn’t that sweet? Blogging is about building a community and it’s a great way to connect with other bloggers and help spread the word about newer bloggers/blogs.
Here are the rules for receiving this award:
1. Each person must post 11 things about themselves.
2. Answer the questions that the tagger set for you
First half is done here. Second half of the award will be done tomorrow in the post then.
plus create 11 questions for the people you’ve tagged to answer.
3. Choose 11 people and link them in your post.
4. Go to their page and tell them.
5. No tag backs!
FIrst things first.
11 Things about me.
1) I am a twin, most likely identical, though there are some questions about it. I guess that has to be said first, though I am pretty certain it is not first and foremost on my twin sister’s mind much these days. In fact, I am pretty certain that she cannot stand having me in the world.
2) I have never been able to work a full-time job.
3) I recently taught myself to use my left hand for a lot of things, including using scissors. I write exclusively left handed, though I would be naturally right-handed.
4) There have been four miracles in my life, field botany, poetry, Zyprexa (an anti-schizophrenia drug) and art. Each miracle involved my mind more than my body and each completely changed my life for the better in ways I could never have anticipated.
5) My idea of a great meal would be to forage for berries and greens and wapato tubers during day and prepare and cook up what I gathered that evening…
6) I love eating vegetables and fruits. I love healthy foods, like quinoa and flax meal, and amaranth and yes, brussel sprouts and jerusalem artichokes.
7) I am teaching myself Italian. Come stai? Sto abbastanza bene.
8) Tuletko ouiman? (If I remember the spelling correctly, that should mean something close to “Do you want to go swimming?” in Finnish…but I am reaching into deep down memory banks because I learned that when I was 16 and spending the summer with a Finnish family in Helsinki. That and “kitoksia palmin” or thank you very much, are the sum total of all the Finnish I remember from that summer of 1968.
9) I quit smoking two weeks ago. Blimey!
10) I like new shoes, though I never buy them.
11) Generosity, kindness and honesty are my core values.
11 questions for the nominees:
1. What food do you eat that people around you find extremely weird and/or disgusting?
Sorry, I hate to be boring, but I don’t regularly eat much that is weird or disgusting, except maybe brussel sprouts. I love those….Yes, okay, I have eaten grasshoppers. I even made a youtube video of that.
2. Why do you choose to blog?
I was first asked to blog at schizophrenia.com. and I would still be there writing the original Wagblog except that they experienced a most unfortunate server crash which made the site go down for more than a year, devastating all their blogs. Wagblog was their first, and for many months the only one, so I had a great deal of traffic in the early 2000s – and to my knowledge, while the site is back up and running the blogs remain still only archives of their former selves.
I waited about 6 months, hoping that I could return to my schizophrenia.com “homebase” but no word ever came from the webmaster, so I decided to start Wagblog elsewhere, that is, here at WordPress.
I know that’s only a partial answer. I could have chosen not to blog at any point even after they asked me to do so, and especially after that devastating server crash, but I have always, always been a writer, paid or unpaid, and it never occurred to me to quit just because I had no sponsor. I have never needed outside motivation to write. I write because things just need to get written down. Period.
3. Where do you get your inspiration for your posts?
Hmmm. Inspiration is a tricky word. I believe that if you need something as insubstantial as inspiration to trigger your writing or any other art, you are going to be on shaky ground and had better rely on something else for your bread and butter, better choose a different career. Not that I am anything like a career writer, or a professional journalist, I have no career or profession at all. But I do know that I can and could write on demand, mostly because I have practiced it. If I want to write on a subject, if I am asked to write on a subject, I know how to approach it and all things being equal, I can and will do an okay, and even a bang-up job most of the time.
That being said, I do pick and choose what I want to write about in my own blog, and I don’t write all the time or even regularly, mostly because I am too busy with my art projects. OTOH, I have plenty I could say and plenty to talk about. So I would never be at a loss for things to write. I guess it just feels like a weird question, The entire world is out there so how could there ever be a dearth of subjects to be “inspired by”?
As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence:
To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.
That’s the key, that’s the mindset one must get into. Then everything is a source of inspiration, and you never again need to worry where the next blog post inspiration will come from because everything will inspire.
4. What was your favorite subject in school?
School? Yeowch, that was, what? 40+ years ago now…I can scarcely remember what I gave a damn about in school. In high school I was good in history, mostly because the teachers understood never to call on me, but to let me decide when I wanted to volunteer a comment or question. When thus permitted to choose, I would come out with something worthy of being said…I could not be badgered into speaking. In all other classes if called on, I would be mute, but the history teachers hit on the right solution, and so we got on okay. I did not know how much I would love ecology and botany at the time. Not until college. But I wish I had learned field botany in high school. I wish we had been introduced to natural history and ecology in my day. It wasn’t a subject of as much interest in the 60s.. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” had come out, yes, and other books, but there were so many social ills and protests going on then that “eco – anything” was just one movement of many that needed attention. Plus, I was already getting ill and unable to attend to anything beyond my own little world. Eventually my own little world did include field botany and ecology, mind you, it just didn’t include much of the rest of the world in addition.
In med school, by the way, my favorite subject was probably hematology, but that was because it was a little like field botany and natural history, using my visual skills to identify blood on slides.
5. If you had a million dollars, and could NOT use it for charity, what would you buy?
Ah, what a lovely question to have to ponder…I would buy, I would would buy…I know exactly what I would buy: land somewhere in New England, with a big old house, nothing too fancy but with potential, and turn it into a eco-friendly Wholeway House and Healing Community for me and other recovering (or getting older) so-called “mentally ill” persons who need a permanent home. Ideally, it could be built into the side of a hill so as to take advantage of natural geothermal heating and cooling properties, or a would love to do that…and be as green as humanly possible.
6. Biggest pet peeve? You really shouldn’t ask me because I will only irritate people by admitting that “my biggest pet peeve is when” 1) people who should know better say things like, “I should have went” instead of “I should have gone” 2) “I think I will lay down on the bed” instead of “I think I will LIE down on the bed.” Oh, you know I am SUCH a language snob!!!!! Beat me, beat me, beat me with that wet noodle! 8p
But you know I cannot help it, I really get peevey when people say, 3) “I would have been rich too, if I would have had your luck…” instead of “I would have been rich too, if I had had your luck!” You know, it is only a matter of knowing the proper use of conditionals. But we don’t teach conditionals any more in this country, the US at any rate. I don’t know about England, but proper grammar seems to be a problem here – at least to my ears. No one cares any longer, maybe no one understands that there are rules in the first place.
Lordy, Lordy, where are the English (Language) Teachers of yesteryear?
7. Are you one of those people who keeps focused and organized, or are you one of those that keeps open and a bit messy?
Here are a few photos of my apartment, which should be answer enough.
8. One word to describe your blog. (I almost wrote “yourself” instead of “blog” but remembered that is the most cliche question EVER and that I absolutely HATE it!)
Enduring (I cannot think of the word, the one word I want to say to mean, “Not temporary” but one that has lasted…I started the first Wagblog in 2003, at schizophrenia.com and here it is, still going strong ten years later at WordPress.
9. First book you ever read (or remember reading)?
Black Beauty…I had no idea what it was about, and was disappointed when I found out it concerned a horse. Read it through to the end purely out of duty and a sense of competition with Los Bender, who had told me only that she could not put it down. She was an “equinomaniac” so to speak, so I should have anticipated the subject but having never read an entire book before then, I didn’t know that one could write nearly 300 pages about a single horse . (It is possible that I misremember, that this was not my very first book per se. But at any rate. it is the first book I recall being disappointed by, and that stuck in mind more strongly apparently than whatever the very first book was.)
10. Do you blog only when you want to, or are there times when you feel you need to post something to keep a routine?
I confess I do literally nothing by routine. I do not even eat on a routine or at regularly scheduled hours. Sigh. Oh, yeah, I do see my psychiatrist at set times, because she keeps a regular schedule of appointments, and I cannot exactly subject her to my sort of whimsical lifestyle, but otherwise I cannot think of a single thing that I do on a regular, literally routine basis, the same time every day, on my own by choice.
11. What is your real job? (Yes, the answer can be blogging, Mom or Dad, nothing, etc. No judgement, just curious)
No real job, alas. Not for pay since I suppose that’s what you mean by “job” is what do you do for a living…? I have been considered and designated officially “disabled” by ther federal government since 1980, I believe. Since that time, I have been in and out of hospitals, halfway houses and lousy apartments…until and even after, I landed here in this “safe” elderly, disabled HUD-subsidized housing complex. Very nicely kept up, 250 people or more live here. Community living in a way, though I keep to myself. And while I am not hugely unhappy here (I just used a figure of speech called a litote, if anyone cares) I do not like it, and want to move out someday if I can, before I am really too old to be able to…And I want to be UN-disabled before it is too late.
Truth is, I was always too ill to work, all my life until I became an artist five years ago by a stroke of happy accident. But now that I am able to do art I think I could actually earn some income from it, and in that sense earn my way and a living by hook or by crook, and get off some of these programs, if only I had a chance. It is just that so many people are worried that I would lose my actual living, housing situation and be out on the streets if I left here and couldn’t earn enough…As am I, as am i. I am too old to fend for myself as a homeless person. I never did have any savvy even when I was homeless. Luckily, I was always rescued and hospitalized by those who knew the street was no place for me…I was not someone who would have survived there, or would ever have preferred the street to the hospital…That said, I have had it with hospitals in CT and the abuse heaped on me here. And I do not want to be disabled any longer. I want to make it on my own. And regarding my last twenty or so years or however much time that may perhaps be granted to me, I would love to know that I would have some freedom to use the time as I chose. That’s why, purely selfishly, if I had that Mythical Million I would buy a big house on land in New England, preferably Massachusetts or Vermont where there is universal health care already set up in a liberal state, and create a Wholeway House and Healing Community.
The first three pieces here were done with my finger using the app, Art Set, on an iPad 2. I had never used any digital means to do art before, and in fact had just started drawing a few months before. So when I did the window curtains drawing, it was really among my earliest drawings anyway. The “hand with pencil” was just for fun, because I had nothing else in front of me to draw, and I used my right hand to draw my left, I think, though I could have reversed it. Not sure, as I was doing either one in those days. Now I tend to strictly draw with my right hand and write with my left hand… Anyhow, I must have drawn my feet in flip flops last summer, since it is more sophisticated than the other two and I don’t think I would have been able to do that sort of thing until last year.
The pencil sketch, which I took from a movie of Athol Fugard’s play “Boesman and Lena” (staring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett), I drew off the television, stopping and starting it until I couldn’t bear to not know what was going to happen any longer, and gave up and simply watched the movie…It was a terrific if also very dark play. I watched it twice in a row, one night and then again the next night. Then I even went so far as to look for the text of it, which is apparently difficult to find…I did get a study guide though, which may have the text embedded in it. At any rate I hope so. Anyhow, I had planned to do other studies from that movie but I got so engrossed in the actual play, that I failed to stop the action long enough to do so. I guess that speaks volumes for how good a playwright Fugard is (was?). In fact, I watched yet another of his plays/movies and even sent for a third, “Tsotsi,” that was unavailable any other way the following night. “Master Harold and the Boys” was incredibly difficult, yes painful, to watch, and should not have been easy anyway, not for anyone with a light skin in this country and any conscience. We are ALL implicated, we are ALL guilty…
Finally, the picture, at the bottom, is of my father. Oddly, my first title of this post (edited out) called him “my dad”; I usually refer to him as my father, but always, always, always called him Daddy..When I did this portrait a couple of days ago, it scared me: the eyes began to move and the mouth made sounds, as if he were trying to tell me something, and I was afraid, so terribly afraid he wanted to say that he didn’t want to be “there,” wherever he is…I was so scared in fact that I left the painting room and said I wouldn’t listen to him. But then my cat, Eemie, who died not too long after he did, also came around. Literally, or as literal as a dead cat can be. Visual and audible! I dunno how that can be, because she was NOT a ghost, but a real cat, really Eemie..which only adds to my consternation. Finally I decided to take a teensy bit of Zyprexa to stave off any potential disaster. This is a bad time of year for me, 5-6 months along after “the last time” and after last summer I know I have nowhere I can trust to turn to, no place that is safe for me (Natchaug Hospital is too dangerous, and they wouldn’t even take me back if I needed it, if I even agreed to go should I need to). I frankly dunno that such a tiny dose of Zyprexa makes any difference, but I had to do something…
Oh, I have a lot to say about Natchaug still, but that would take another post, and a lot of thinking. I just might post it as another open letter to Natchaug’s CMO…Because she is the one to whom I wish to speak, and who really needs to hear what I have to say. But we will see. In the meantime, I want finally to post the poem that I wrote for my father after he died. A lot of people have asked me for it. I read it at the memorial service at the Unitarian Church in Hamden, CT. Alas, I see that it won’t paste in single spaced lines nor will it preserve the proper large blank spacing where it belongs, so you should know that it ought to look a bit different on the page than it does. The only other words of explanation you might want are these: when Martha, my younger sister, read her own eulogy, her major metaphor was water and the ocean and waves, because our father, was so very fond of swimming, especially the breast stroke, or a weird kind of what seemed to me a modified-dogpaddle-cum-crawl, his head more out of the water than in. We were shocked to discover that water and swimming were the governing metaphors in my poem as well.
(You might not need this information, but in case you do, Tir Na N’Og is a mythical Irish “Land of Youth.” Island of the Seven Moons is meant to stand for much the same thing…)
This is for you, Dad.
The dead cross the river, swimming.
Past drowning now,
some leisurely sidestroke,
some float on their backs,
toes pointing toward the sky.
Who knows what lies ahead:
Tír na nÓg, Valhalla,
Island of the Seven Moons?
No one can say for sure
if there’s any shore, far or near.
Some have cracked their teeth
on bitterness, believing
that to die is to lose all.
Others say there is only light
shining on the best of what used to be.
We dream, we dream and wake,
we wake and hope our dreams
that the dead know more
than just the river
and that they must swim.
Daddy, keep your head up,
kick your feet, push the water
Okay, so as a friend suggested, maybe there have been five not just four miracles, with the most recent miracle having occurred, and ongoing, about three weeks ago. But more on that later. First, a definition of miracle, so we are all clear on what I mean here.
CS Lewis, a popular Christian writer of the twentieth century and still known for his Narnia Chronicles, wrote that “a miracle is something that comes totally out of the blue…” Now, he meant something extremely unlikely, like a virgin female giving birth to a child. Now, apparently, this has been observed at least once in modern times. If you don’t believe it, and can understand the technical language, you can read the following abstract as proof. Then you can decide whether or not virgin birth still counts as a miracle:
Fertil Steril. 1992 Feb;57(2):346-9 .
Another thinker, British mathematician John Edensor Littlewood, suggested in what became known as Littlewood’s Law that statistically individuals should expect one-in-a-million events (“miracles”) to happen to them about once a month. By these calculations, seemingly miraculous events are actually commonplace.
And of course there is the dictionary definition of miracle, which is the one commonly accepted by both religious people who believe in miracles, and those who do not believe in their existence, but who do accept the definition of the word.
–A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is considered to be of divine origin
–A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment
I myself would add a third, and relevant definition, or qualifier, which is “if it occurs in an individual person’s life, the event produces changes, beyond any that could have been imagined prior to the miracle, in a positive direction wholly unexpected and therefore regarded as miraculous.” To be cured from a terminal or crippling illness is of course a miracle. But so too to my way of thinking would be remission from a future-destroying addiction or mental compulsion. Needless to say, complete reversal of a severe mental illness would count as a miracle. And I can think of others that might be counted as less effulgent but just as miraculous.
Given those broader categories of miracles, then, I will proceed to tell you of mine. I do not know what the Course on Miracles is all about, nor anything of the Miracle classes offered online. If there are similarities, I dunno what it means, except that we came up with our thoughts completely independently. I have spoken of the following things as miracles for many years now without any familiarly with the C.O.M or any other such program.
So, onward to my First miracle. (Alas, I fear I will have to deal with the Second Miracle and the Third, Fourth and Fifth in following posts as this one is already getting long enough and will be longer by the time I am finished.) The first miracle concerned, as some readers may remember, plants, wild plants, field botany, in short, the wonders of the wild green world. But not just that, no, it was the discovery in myself, utterly unanticipated, of a bizarre and wonderful ability to simply know, almost without any idea how I knew it, any plant I came across. In fact, I must have seen them, if briefly, in some plant book or field guide, but it was truly uncanny, my ability to instantly recognize and categorize whole families and genera and then the species within them just by casually looking at any plant, flower or tree I saw, having but glanced at a simple sketch or pencil drawing of a plant the night or even a week before seeing it in the wild.
I once wrote about this miracle in my first blog at http://www.schizophrenia.com. Although the essay has a less than happy ending that has nothing to do with miracles, I will reprint the essay in its entirety here. Suffice it to say that the pivotal moment, the chairotic moment and miracle that surrounds “Prunella,” which I describe early in the piece, changed my life forever.
Thirty years ago, I took the natural history course purely for exercise. I figured, what better way to stay in shape than to get credit for it? At the time, I couldn’t tell a maple from an oak, let alone one old weed from another, and it wouldn’t be easy. But just to keep off the flab would be a benefit in its own right. Since the prospectus promised daily field trips, no mention of love or awe or wonder, the last thing I expected was a miracle.
Showing up for the first day’s trip, I wore old tennis shoes of the thin-canvas Keds variety. I had no idea L.L. Bean’s half-rubber hiking boots were de rigueur for a course of this kind. What god-awful-ugly shoes just to walk in the woods! I thought in horror. Right then, I realized I’d made a huge mistake and it was too late to change my mind — I’d have to stick it out for the whole semester. I knew for sure I was going to be more miserable getting “exercise” than I ever would have with my thighs turning to mush, safe in the college library.
The teacher, Miss G, took off stomping down the path and we tramped on after her. I was last, straggling behind, half-hoping to get lost so at least I could head back to civilization. Before we’d gotten far, she halted, peering intently at something near her feet. She waited for us to catch up and gather round her, then pointed at a weed. “Heal-all. Prunella vulgaris,” she announced sternly and without passion. “Vulgaris means ‘common.’ Learn names of both genus and species. Be forewarned, ‘Heal-all’ by itself will not be an adequate answer on your quizzes.”
She stepped aside so we could take a better look. As instructed, one by one the class dutifully wrote down a description and the two names we’d been given. I was still at the back, waiting my turn without the least enthusiasm, let alone the anticipation of what, in those days, we called a “mind-blowing” experience.
“Come on, now, don’t be shy. Step up and look for yourself,” Miss G scolded me, pushing at my elbow to propel me closer.
Finally the clump of students cleared out and I had a better view. For some reason, I found myself actually kneeling in front of the weed to look at it close up. Then it happened. As if the proverbial light bulb flashed on over my head, I understood what Miss G meant when she’d said: “Weeds are only wildflowers growing where they aren’t wanted.”
Prunella, I know now, is no more than a common mint, found in poorly manicured lawns or waste ground. Yet, with its conical head of iridescent purple-lipped flowers and its square stem – on impulse, I’d reached out to touch it and discovered an amazing fact: the stem wasn’t round! – Heal-all was the single most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The world went still. There was only me and the flower and the realization I’d fallen in love.
Since one of my other courses concerned the history of early Christianity, I knew immediately what had happened. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, I’d been struck by unexpected lightning. I’d been converted. I put away my notebook, knowing I didn’t need to write down a word, knowing I’d never forget “common Prunella” as long as I lived.
There were other miracles in my life after that, but none came close to the thunderbolt that knocked me flat the afternoon I saw, truly saw, that homely little mint for the first time. “Sedges have edges and rushes are round and grasses have nodes where willows abound.” Yes, I learned such mnemonics, which helped me as much as the next person when a plant was hard to identify. But I discovered in myself an amazing feel for botany that was like sunken treasure thousands of feet beneath the ocean. Once I knew it was there, I had merely to plumb the depths, more or less unconsciously, and gold would magically appear.
I went walking in the woods every chance I got and carried Peterson’s guides with me even into town, checking out the most inconspicuous snippets of green that poked through the sidewalk cracks. The first time I came out with a certain plant’s genus and species before Miss G told the class what we were seeing, she looked at me oddly. I began repeating this performance until once she even allowed me to argue her into changing her classification of a tricky species. If I still hung back behind the group as we walked, it was no longer from reluctance. I was simply too entranced, looking at each tree, to keep up the pace.
By December, as the semester was coming to a close, Miss G had begun using me as her unofficial assistant, asking my opinion whenever there was a question as to what was before us. Oh, I confess, I never did get the knack of birds. It was the trees and wildflowers that stole my heart entire.
At the end of the semester, we received course evaluations in lieu of letter grades. I opened mine eagerly, expecting praise. Instead, Miss G was terse and unenthusiastic: “Pamela faithfully attended every field trip, but for most of the course she failed to share her insights and established expertise with the rest of the class.” End quote. “Failed to share her established expertise“? What was she talking about? Did she think I’d already known everything she taught us? How could she not understand what she’d done for me, introducing me to little Prunella, how I’d learned everything I knew after that moment, not before?
It was the worst evaluation I’d ever gotten, the injustice of which struck me to the marrow. I went to her office to explain and found a sign on her door saying she’d been called away on a family emergency and would not be returning until the next semester. But I wasn’t returning for the second semester. I was transferring back to my original school.
I caught my ride home, spending four hours crammed into the back of an old Volkswagen bug with two other students, wordless with indignation that replayed and reverberated through my mind. How could she think such a thing? I couldn’t stop writing a letter of protest in my head as the highway flowed endlessly beneath us.
I did write Miss G, finally, explaining all she’d awoken in me, emphasizing the magic I’d discovered in her class, my new-found joy and amazement. At the end of March I got a reply, but no apology, no hint that she understood she’d misunderstood. Not even appreciation for my gratitude towards her and what her course had done for me. Just a brisk, no-nonsense note, little better than a form letter. I had the impression that she didn’t quite remember who I was, that I was just another faceless student writing to her about a natural history course she’d taught perhaps forty times in her long career as a teacher.
Whether she knew who I was or even recognized what she’d done for me mattered little in the end. What did matter was that when I met homely little Prunella, I discovered the whole world in a common weed.
©Pamela Spiro Wagner, 2004
The next posts, or in the following weeks, I hope to cover the other four miracles. If you are interested in them, and I fail to follow through, feel free to “goose” me with a reminder. My mind is a sieve and I rarely remember anything without a string tied to my thumb! 8D
TO FORGIVE IS
To begin 要寬恕的實是太多
and there is so much to forgive: 頭一樁要算
for one, your parents, one and two, 你父母那麼偶然的一或二次
out of whose dim haphazard coupling 於幽暗中的契合
you sprang forth roaring, indignantly alive. 你呱呱來臨,憤然降世
For this, whatever else followed, 為此, 為這帶來的一切
innocent and guilty, forgive them. 無意也好作孽也罷,寬恕他們.
If it is day, forgive the sun 若是白天,寬恕太陽
its white radiance blinding the eye; 原宥它的奪目光芒
forgive also the moon for dragging the tides, 亦要寬恕月亮帶來的潮汐
for her secrets, her half heart of darkness;原宥它的弔詭.它的暗晦
whatever the season, forgive it its various 管他冬夏秋春.寬恕季節的多端侵擊
assaults—floods, gales, storms 水患,疾風,暴風雪
of ice—and forgive its changing; 原宥它的更替變易
for its vanishing act, stealing what you love 它的掠奪行徑
and what you hate, indifferent, 把你所愛所恨無情的奪去
forgive time; and likewise forgive its fickle 寬恕時間
consort, memory, which fades 同樣地原宥它的變易不忠,連記憶也不放過
the photographs of all you can’t remember; 以至你把擁有的拍照忘得一乾二淨
forgive forgetting, which is chaste 寬恕失憶
and kinder than you know; 它實是忠貞和比你所認知的仁厚得多
forgive your age and the age you were 寬怒年齡
when happiness was afire in your blood 原宥當年的你,那時幸福在血液沸騰
and joy sang hymns in the trees; 喜樂在樹 叢間高唱聖歌
forgive, too, those trees, which have died; 寬恕那些逝去的樹木
and forgive death for taking them, 原宥奪走它們的死亡
inexorable as God, then forgive God 若感上主不仁,則寬恕上主
His terrible grandeur, His unspeakable原宥祂畏人的堂皇和禁說的名字
Name; forgive, too, the poor devil 亦勿忘寬恕那倒霉的撒旦
for a celestial fall no worse than your own. 他那屬天的失足並不比你的過犯糟糕
When you have forgiven whatever is of earth, 當你把地上天上水裡
of sky, of water, whatever is named, 有名的無名的
whatever remains nameless, 通通寬恕了
forgive, finally, your own sorry self, 最後切記寬恕
clothed in temporary flesh 那包裝在短暫肉體內
the breath and blood of you 血氣正在消亡的
already dying. 悔疚的你
Dying, forgiven, now you begin. 垂死,被寬恕的你,現在要重新開始.
By Pamela Spiro Wagner, “Divided Minds” 胡思亂想
Chinese Recreation/Translation by Kenneth Leung Sep 3rd 2012, Labour Day Scarborough, Ontario
I received the email below very recently, explaining the poem above. The only thing missing is the translation of the title, which segues on purpose directly into the first line, and so it too is essential. I hope that Jackie’s father might one day provide that title line. Nevertheless, I am thrilled that anyone likes the poem enough to translate it. Thank you so very much, Kenneth Leung. And thank you Jackie, for sharing it with me and allowing me to share it here.
“I recently picked up your book “Divided Minds” and I couldn’t put it down. Thank you for sharing your story with the world. I’m an Occupational Therapist working in community mental health on an ACT team, so I interact regularly with people with schizophrenia. Your story allowed me to see how difficult it is to first accept a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and then the difficulties of adhering to treatment. I especially love your poem on forgiveness and shared it with my dad, who translated it into Chinese. I thought you might be interested in posting it on your blog so Chinese readers can enjoy it.
“Woe is money,” I once wrote to someone in a nearly somnolent state, before my handwriting drizzled down slant into a puddle of Bic blots. Now, you could say such a thought was brilliant, not the dreamtalk of a narcoleptic letter-writer. But narcoleptic I am, and I learned over the years not to trust my sleepy brain to spew brilliance when I am not fully alert.
However, once email came along, maintaining such discipline became more difficult. As an author, a blogger and formerly an inveterate letter-writer, I correspond easily and with many people. But night-owling and narcolepsy go down about as well as swallowing a piece of hair; many is the time I have carelessly pressed “Send” and out went, well, nonsense instead of carefully conceived coherency.
I’ve had too many computers and lost too many of those emails to quote them directly, but here is an example that should give you pause: “We had been in the next room when suddenly the woman I sat next to…Where is it? Too much snow having to get out of the No, no not me, not me! Godawful smell the bumper rubber, the, the, oh it’s Manny, from TV, the foxes. Ha ha, I’m joking with the mostest hostess… [Coming to] where was I?”
Anger is another reason I’ve learned not to press Send. I recently responded to emails from my family with some thoughtless expletives that were ill-chosen and unnecessary. Since my father estranged himself from me for 35 years before reconciling seven years before his recent death, I know how feuds can become a family tradition and might have ignited another. No need to oxygenate any flickerings. As the slogan goes: Anger is like holding a hot coal in your mouth…Think about it. Better to scribble that anger, and those expletives, by hand in a journal…It’s good exercise and burns the fire of that energy and will hurt no one.
Email is a quick axe, a guillotine, but like any honed blade, it can kill. Save any email for forgiveness and understanding. It will make the journey – yes, in packets, but in that miracle of email they will reunite for peacemaking. That is worth years of goodwill with people you love more than you hate, trust me.
But why should you trust me? Because I’m the one who wrote “Woe is money” and dreamtalk or not, it is sort of brilliant after all. Maybe I didn’t send it out, but then, there was no Send button in those days or perhaps I would have. Too bad. It might have gone viral and become an expression of common currency.
Although most of this post was written and posted back in 2011, I have both edited it and written an addendum, especially for the students in Holly C’s course, with whom I will be doing a Skype class on Monday. If others do not want to reread the post and wish to skip to the end where I have placed the addendum, feel free.
First though, please be aware that descriptions and names of places and so forth have been changed back to their originals except for the names of some people involved, such as my doctors. Those names are somewhat similar, but still disguised. In Divided Minds, we were forced by the publishers to completely disguise everyone, including their physical descriptions, and to make amalgams in some cases, taking two doctors and blending them into one. In Blacklight, by contrast, I am determined that my descriptions of people, previously altered in order to “protect them,” will be honest and forthright, rewritten so that while their names may be changed, their descriptions are as aboveboard as memory makes possible. After all, I write nothing but the truth as I remember it. I wrote a fair amount in my journals at the time and I referred back to my notes there in writing this. What is more, I intend no libel and in fact, I want only to be fair and to bend over backwards in giving as much credit as possible where it is due.
I am delivered like a piece of mail to the Hospital of St Raphael’s, on a stretcher, bound up in brown wool blankets like a padded envelope. It’s the only way the ambulance will transfer me between Norwalk Hospital and this one. The attendants disgorge me into a single room where de-cocooned, I climb down and sit on the bed. All my bags have been left at the nurses’ station for searching; this is standard procedure but I hope they don’t confiscate too much. An aide follows me in to take my BP and pulse, and bustles out, telling me someone will be back shortly. I sit quietly for a half an hour, listening to the constant complaint of the voices, which never leave me, sometimes entertaining me, most of the time ranting and carping and demanding. A thin, 30-something woman with curly blonde hair, rimless glasses and residual acne scars that give her a kind of “I’ve suffered too” look of understanding, knocks on the door-frame..
“May I come in?” she asks politely.
“I can’t stop you.” My usual. Don’t want to seem too obliging or cooperative at first.
“Well, I do need to take a history, but I can come back when you’re feeling more disposed…”
“Nah, might as well get it over with.” Then, nicer, I explain, “I was just being ornery on principle.”
“What principle is that?”
“If you’re ornery they won’t see you sweat.”
“And they won’t expect you to be medication-compliant right off the bat.” I shrug my shoulders but grin, I want to think, devilishly.
“I see you have a sense of humor.”
“You should see me…”
“I’m sure we all will. A sense of humor is very healthy. But it worries me that you already plan not to take your meds.”
“I’ll only refuse the antipsychotic. Look at the blimp it’s turned me into.” I haul my extra-large tee-shirt away from my chest to demonstrate. Fatso, Lardass! Someone snipes. She doesn’t know it but you really believe you’re thin. Ha ha, you’re a house! Look at yourself! LOOK at yourself! Ha ha ha ha! The voices are telling the truth: I know the number of pounds I weigh is high, outrageously high for me, having been thin all my life, but I haven’t lost my self-image as a skinny shrimp, so I can’t get used to being what others see. The voices love to remind me how fat I really am. Only the mirror, or better, a photograph, reminds me of the honest to god truth, and I avoid those. I avert my eyes, or search the concrete for fossils, when approaching a glass door. Anything not to be shocked by what I’ve become. Pig! Glutton! It seems they don’t want to stop tonight…
I realize suddenly that I’ve lost track of the conversation.
“I don’t think they’ll allow you to do that for long.”
“Don’t you remember what we were talking about? Were your voices distracting you?”
“Just thoughts, you know, plus some added insults.”
“You’ll have to take all your meds eventually.”
“Then they’ll have to switch me to a different pill, even if it’s less effective.”
She sucks the top of her pen and looked down at her clipboard. “So,” she starts the formal intake. “What brings you here to St Raphael’s?”
The voices break in there, again, confusing me. When I can get my bearings I tell her what made me transfer from Norwalk Hospital and why I opted for shock treatments. She takes a closer look at the mark of Cain I’ve burned into my forehead, writes something, then corrects me.
“We like to refer to them as ECT here. ‘Shock treatments’ brings to mind the terrible procedures of the past. These days you feel nothing, you just go to sleep and wake up gently. I know. I assist at the ECT clinic.
“Oh, I know, I know. I’ve had ECT before. I know what it’s like and it’s a snap. I asked for this transfer because I hope it will help again.”
We talk some more about why I’m here and what I’ve been through and the voices keep to a minimum so there’s not too much interference. She says she’s going to be my primary nurse and that she thinks we’ll work well together. I nod, thinking she’s pretty okay, for a nurse.
I’ve arrived after lunch, which is served at 11:30am so someone brings me a tray and I pick at it in my room. People come in and out of my room but only speak to me a second or two before they leave, a doctor does a cursory physical, someone takes me down the hall to weigh and measure me. I return to my room, too scared to do otherwise, constrained by the Rules of the voices. The first break in the afternoon is medications in the late afternoon, when someone tells me to line up in front of a little window near the nurse’s station. When it’s my turn, I look at the pills in my cup. Ugh, 20mg of Zyprexa, an increase, plus a host of other pills I can’t remember the names of. I hand the pill back to the med nurse. I’m not taking this, it makes me fat, I say. Give me Geodon. at least I don’t put on weight with Geodon.
“Sorry, Dr Kroeder has ordered this one. We can’t just go around changing doctor’s orders. You either take it or you refuse.”
I was in a quandary. I hadn’t even met the doctor and already I was fighting with her? Should I take it and argue with her later? But then I’ll eat my whole dinner tray and more. Better to start off with my principles intact, so she knows what I’ll take and what I won’t take. I hand the pill back. ”Sorry, I won’t take it.”
“If you decompensate further we will have to give you a shot, you know that, don’t you?”
“I’ll be fine.” I do a little dance step.
“Yeah, and look what you’ve done to your face. Come closer.”
Wondering what she wants, I lean in gingerly, fearing her touch, but she only takes a tongue depressor and smears some ointment on the big oozing sore.
“You’re done.Go eat some supper.”
At 4:30? That’s pretty early. I can’t cross the threshold of the dining room, the Rules the voices make forbid it. I cannot enter the milling crowd, suffering little electric shocks every time my body makes contact with another. Instead I retreat to my room. Sitting on the edge of my bed again, I wonder what to do. How can I get supper, or any meal, if the voices won’t let me go into the dining room?
Just then, the thin blonde nurse with the glasses, what’s her name, leans into my room. “Aren’t you hungry? There’s a tray for you waiting outside the dining room.”
“They made a rule I can’t eat with other people, and I can’t get in the dining room…So I can’t eat.” I read her name tag. “Prisca.”
She smiles and glances down at the tag on her chest. ”Oh, just call me Prissy, everyone else does. I hate it, but what can you do? What are you talking about? There’s no such rule. For now, I guess I’ll let you eat in your room, but that is against the rules and we’ll have to get you into the dining room eventually, whatever the voices tell you.
She brings in the tray: white bread with two slices of bologna and a slice of cheese tossed on top, a packet of mayonnaise, a small green salad in a separate bowl, with a plastic slip of French dressing, and a packaged Hostess brownie for dessert. I didn’t eat lunch, though they brought it in, so even this impoverished repast looks good to me and I eat everything, despite not having taking the hated Zyprexa. I curse myself for it, of course, and do some leg lifts and crunches for exercise afterwards. Ever since I’ve been refusing the drug, I have lost weight. Now I am down to 155 lbs from 170 the last time I weighed myself and I intend to get much thinner, since I started at 95 before medications over the years slowly put weight on me.
After supper the voices start in again, louder and louder, telling me how fat I am, how disgusting and terrible I am. I notice the clock hanging on the wall, which ticks audibly punctuating each sentence. The voices were carping, now they are threatening, and demanding…Finally, their all too familiar sequence segues into telling me I’m the most evil thing, and they don’t say person, on the planet. I’m the Ogre that ate Manhattan, I’m Satan, I’m a mass murderer, I killed Kennedy and deserve to die, die, die!
I’m wearing a heavy pair of clogs with wooden soles and almost before I can think about it, I know what to do. I heave one up at the clock, hitting it dead center. It crashes to the floor. Scrambling to grab a shard of the clear plastic cover before the staff comes running in, I lunge towards where I saw the largest piece fall, one with a long jagged point. I have my hand closed around it when someone tackles me from behind. He’s not very big and I can feel him struggling to keep me pinned. I almost succeed in stabbing myself, but he manages to engulf my hand with his two and press them closed against the flat sides of the shard.
Other people crowd into the room now and they pry the shard from me and grab my arms and legs so I’m completely immobilized. Then at a word murmured by one of the male aides who have materialized out of nowhere, they swing me up onto the bed, like pitching a sand bag onto a levee. I scream but they ignore me and strap my ankles and wrists into leather cuffs which have been rapidly attached to the bed frame: four point restraints.
I continue to scream and scream, but nobody pays attention. A nurse comes at me with a needle, saying it is Haldol and Ativan and proceeds to inject me. Although I am still crying that I want to die, that I’m Satan, the Ogre that ate Manhattan, that I killed Kennedy, I’m the evil one, the room then empties, except for a heavy-set café-au-lait sitter, who hollers louder than I do that her name is Caledonia. She pulls up a chair in the doorway, pulls out a cosmetics bag and proceeds to do her nails in spite of me.
I am told by Prissy that I scream most of the evening and keep the whole unit awake until given a sleeping pill and another shot. All I remember is restless twilight sleep coming at last, broken when a short sandy-haired woman, dressed in a sweater set and skirt, comes in and takes my pulse. I’m groggy with medication but she speaks to me nonetheless.
“I’m , Dr Kroeder, your doctor. You’ve had a bad night I see. Well, perhaps tomorrow we’ll get a chance to talk.”
“Get me out of these things!” I mumble angrily. I can’t sleep like this!”
“”Not yet. You’re not ready. But try your best to sleep now. We’ll re-evaluate things in the morning.”
Then she turns and is gone.
As I get to know her, I will like Dr Kroeder for her kindness, toughness and honesty, but I will hate her too for opposite reasons and it will be a long time before I know whether the liking or the hating or something else entirely wins out.
The first thing that makes me know ECT is going to be different at St Raphael’s than where I had it before is that we all have to get there on under own steam rather than travel in wheelchairs, the way I’ve known since childhood all hospital patients must travel. We walk there, all of us, down interminable corridors, around several corners, through doors to more of the same. In short by the time we get there I have no idea where we are. I said it was a snap when I had it before, but now I feel like a prisoner going to the hangman, a “dead man walking.” Something about our going there in a group voluntarily, by choice and yet somehow not totally by choice, makes it feel like punishment, like having to cut your own switch, not a medical procedure at all. This sets my nerves on edge. When we finally get to the rooms clearly marked “ECT Suite,” instead of the doctor being ready for us, no time to anticipate or fear what is ahead, we have to wait and wait and wait. We’re told the outpatients have to be “finished up” first. My apprehension grows. I’m used to getting to the ECT rooms and immediately climbing up on the table and getting it over with. Waiting and having time to think about it brings me close to tears.
Finally four in-patients are to be taken. I think the nurse calling us in senses I am too anxious to wait any longer, for she makes sure I’m with the first group. I clamber up on the table, and see Dr Kroeder looking down at me, smiling. I notice how white her teeth are and the little gap in her shirt across her chest as she bends over me, strapping something over my forehead as Prissy puts a needle into the heplock already in my arm. I feel my arms and legs quickly cuffed down by others in the team, a mask clamps down over my face and I’m told to breathe, breathe in deeply and I breathe and breathe and a chasm in hell opens and the demons reach out and scream as I plummet past into a terrible inky blackness…
I wake up a second later and immediately vomit into a kidney basin hastily held out by a nurse. “Why didn’t you do it?” I cry out, confused. “Why didn’t you do it, why did you made me wait? I can’t go through this again!”
Strangely, Dr Kroeder has disappeared, and so have Prissy and the nurses that had surrounded me just an instant before. Instead a plump, baby-faced older nurse smiles as she takes away the kidney basin and says, kindly, “You’ve been sleeping soundly for an hour. They did the treatment already and you’re waking up. How about trying to sit up now?” Slowly, I push myself to a sitting position and swing my legs over the edge of the table. No dizziness, no more nausea. I feel okay, except for a slight headache. So I slide off the table and ask where to go. Surely they won’t make me stay a long while this time. The nurse leads me to a wheelchair and asks an aide to take me back to the unit. Ah, a chair at last. At least I’m not expected to walk on my own after that ordeal.
ECT Takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and though I vomit many times upon waking up, that is the least of it. What I dread most is the anesthesia, how I plunge from perfect alertness into the dark pit and feel like I wake a second later, sick and confused. I grow more and more afraid until, at the end of a series of 8 sessions, I refuse to go on to a second series. I thwart this by grabbing something to eat every morning, which is forbidden as you cannot have ECT if you have eaten or drunk anything within 12 hours of hte procedure. Because my symptoms are still severe and Caledonia comes to sit with me one to one more often than not, Dr Kroeder tries to persuade me, but I am adamant. I am not depressed (quite despite what she tries to convince me of). ECT hasn’t helped my obsessive intrusive thoughts/hallucinations this time so no more of it. No more! Then she threatens to have the next series court-ordered and to add insult to injury, she says she will force me to take Zyprexa as well, the drug I so hate. I explode.
“What! You f—ing can’t do that! I’m a free citizen, I’m not a danger to myself or anyone else.”
“In fact, I can do it, and I am going to do it, whether you like it or not. You need more ECT and unfortunately you refuse the only drug that is effective for you. Pam, look, how can you say you’re not a danger to yourself? Look at your forehead! That’s not the mark of I it’s just self-mutilation. Look at where you carved that mark into your hand when we weren’t watching you carefully enough. Isn’t that danger enough?”
“But I’m NOT going to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I just want to be disfigured so no one will want to be around me and they’ll stay safe and uncontaminated.”
Dr Kroeder’s eyes suddenly glitter and she has to blink a couple of times. “Well, I’m not going to let you continue to do what you want. Period.”
She was standing at the foot of my bed, one foot on a lower rung, casually holding a clipboard. But she moves closer to me, standing to one side, the clipboard clasped business-like across her chest. Gazing intently at me, she shakes her head in what appears to be sadness. I’m not sad, I know what I have to do. I don’t understand why she feels this is so terrible, but I know enough to remain quiet. Finally, she turns and quietly slips out of the room.
This alarms me; it shocks me. I know she means what she says. Worst of all, Dr O’Maloney, my outpatient psychiatrist, has signed off on it well, agreeing it is the only thing left to do, that already I’ve been in the hospital two months and little has changed, that the situation is desperate. Their only problem is that to get a court order they have to get me a conservator who will agree to it. They want to appoint my twin sister and they discuss with her whether or not she’ll agree to forcing more ECT on me, in addition to Zyprexa. Despite fearing that I’ll hate her, she too is convinced there are no other options.
So Dr Kroeder wins and I endure eight more ECT sessions. Finally I’m discharged a month later, much improved, so everyone says. As a condition of my release, I promise that I’ll continue to take Zyprexa. Forced to, I do promise, even though my history clearly suggests that I will not. I’m also supposed to return once every two weeks for maintenance ECT treatments and Dr Kroeder threatens me with a police escort if I don’t comply. But this time I thumb my nose at her. So, she’s going to get both the Hartford and the New Haven police involved? She thinks they are going to bother to arrest me just to drive me down to the hospital for ECT, something they themselves probably consider barbaric? J’en doute fort. I doubt that big time! In fact, after a call to the Legal Rights Project, I learn that any conservatorship was dissolved the moment I was discharged from St Raphael’ s and that the doctor has no power over me at all now, zilch. So I write Dr Kroeder a nice apologetic letter — sorry, doc, but no more of your ECT for me. Ever.
Several months later, hearing command hallucinations, I pour lighter fluid over my left leg and set it on fire. So much for the restorative powers of shock torture, excuse me, electro- convulsive therapy.
The first time I had ECT was in 2003 at John Dempsey Hospital, which is connected to the University of Connecticut’s medical school. There, in desperation, because of an “obsession” — and I say that advisedly, because I was not so much obsessed as consumed — with the face that I saw in the biohazard sign (which we called the biohazmat man in DIVIDED MINDS) as well as a little red figure I saw running through it, I asked whether something like ECT might help me. The head psychiatrist of the unit wasn’t certain, it wasn’t commonly used for that. But he was willing to try it nonetheless. It took some doing. I was very scared, and the procedure scared me even more, as it turned out that a “heplock” had to be placed in your arm hours beforehand, so a needle could be easily inserted and anesthesia given later during the procedure. But this frightened me and I balked. I also balked at signing various papers. I almost backed out, and rescinded permission at least once. But finally I went through with it.
The actual ECT was near torture, both because of my terror of anestheisa and also because at Dempsey Hospital absolutely no attention was given to the comfort of in-patients, so that we were made to wait until afternoon before our treatments, meaning that we could eat neither breakfast nor lunch on those days. Or at least we could not eat until the treatments were given. Since meals in-hospital loom large in importance, especially when there is little else to do and one’s medications induce hunger, this was a huge problem, particularly when I was already very apprehensive. I never did understand the rationale behind this. It seemed to be particularly bad planning to have any ECT patient have to have treatment so late in the day, given that fasting was essential. But hey, who was I but a mere mental patient? I had no rights, I just had to do what I was told!
Anyhow, I suffered the agonies of hell, but I went through with it, hating each session, until, after I’d undergone five of them, I began to complain that my memory was being affected. I decided to stop, but I noted at the same time, strangely enough, that the biohazmat man had also disappeared from my radar. Weird! It seemed to have worked, ECT had broken the back of what had been consuming me. In point of fact, ECT at that time worked so well that the biohazard sign has never bothered me again in such a fashion. Which is close to a miracle in my book.
Memory is fiction. I wrote that in 2005, believing I read it in the New Yorker somewhere. Memory is fiction. It’s not that we make our memories out of whole cloth; we believe we remember things clearly, but the mind is a funny thing and what we recall happened, and what “really” did are two different things. Of course, in the end, there is little way of knowing what is correct, unless the event was a public one and well-documented. Unless? Hah. Just think of one of the most public and most highly documented events of the 20th century, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and try to come to some conclusion from the “evidence, the facts, about what “really” happened. The truth is, no one can tell you what really happened because everyone’s memory is different, and in that sense even though the objective evidence supposedly remains the same, each witness interprets it differently, through a different viewpoint and a different political and sociological lens. So where lie the facts of “true memory” and where is the bosh of “mere fiction” in that public event, those historically documented facts? Answer that and I am certain there must be a big prize out there somewhere for you.
But I suspect the truth is that this notion of “really happened” is just a big brainwash by those in power who have cornered the market on their own version of it. In truth (and these words all get so sticky here), if I believe something happened one way, and this belief has informed my life and behavior, isn’t that the most important thing about the event, more important than any theoretical “facts” of the matter? Given than no agreement has been reached about something so public that it ought to be obvious, Who killed President Kennedy? how can anyone tell me that an XYZ in my own little life that I remember clearly, happened rather in the fashion that they recall and not as I do? What gives their memories more weight than my own?
You can indeed turn it around and say Fiction is memory, and be just as correct, meaning that in all the stories we make up about the world reside parts of ourselves and our lives, that nothing is ever truly “made up” or completely foreign to our experience, however outlandish the characters or strange the events described . There is a truth behind the settings and deeds that derives from one’s center, making fiction a personal memory of the deepest sort.
People have asked how I could recall with such clarity events that happened 20, 30 or 40 years ago, even down to dialogue, the way I’ve written it in DIVIDED MINDS or prospectively in BLACKLIGHT, and all I can say is — aside from the fact that out of 40 years I remember very little all told, even though what I do recall, I recall with great vividness — that I feel I remember every event I recount as clearly as if it happened yesterday. There is no guarantee, mind you, if indeed memory is fiction, that I recall anything with factual accuracy, whatever that is! I can only claim to capture what memory remains of those years, to capture my memories, no matter how time has embellished or hardened them, or in fact hardened the embellishments.
As to DIVIDED MINDS, I remembered a great deal more than what I wrote, until the book project was finished, at which point I pretty much lost it all. Once it set the years down as “my story” I feel as if I mentally deleted all other remembered events as less important, therefore forgettable…I wish this hadn’t happened as there was much I used to and wished to recall. Perhaps I have earlier versions of my book without such deletions, on my hard drive to jog my memory, but it is as Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek wrote, (I paraphrase) If you prize your memories, don’t write them down (because that solidifies them forever in a form that freezes out all others).
Nevertheless, not a word I have written either in DIVIDED MINDS or in BLACKLIGHT has been deliberately fictionalized. I remember each and everything that I have written about, though whether my memory be factually accurate or not is anyone’s guess.
As an aside, I know all too well how false memories may be unconsciously confabulated. When I lived at the Transitional Living Facility in Hartford in the 90s, the staff there and at the nearby hospitals were so intent on ferreting out “multiples,” the newest fad diagnosis, short for persons with Multiple Personality Disorder, that I am absolutely convinced they induced many if not most of the residents there to “remember” early childhood sexual traumas, incidents which they might never have “remembered” and which likely never happened. For instance, my friend Joe latched onto the “fact” that his father “molested” him — but the only evidence he ever gave for that was that he put his hand on his knee once while driving…Now, I never bought it, since it seemed a fatherly thing to do, a father putting his hand on the knee of a young boy! And Joe never once said that anything else ever happened between them. In fact, he always said that his father was a womanizer, if anything. Be that as it may, the residents were made to confabulate these false memories and this was a necessary prerequisite for the psychologists there to proceed to “uncover” the desired dissociative disorders, i.e. closet multiple personalities. I am telling you, it was a huge fad, and MPDs were coming out of the woodworks. I am convinced that many so-called multiples today, most of them, are residual from that terrible decade of the 90s, and they have not been able to let go of that diagnosis. Furthermore, no one, no doctor or therapist has been brave enough to deal with the lie that they were induced, even forced to buy into, and so the “fiction” is being perpetuated and their lives and no doubt others connected to them destroyed.
Forgive that tangent, but it is one aspect of memory — induced false memory — that does upset me, because it has destroyed so many lives, continues to, and no one is held accountable.
Nevertheless, for most and in most lives, those not deliberately ruined by multiple-personality-mad psychiatrists and/or overzealous psychologists, the “facts” whatever they may be don’t matter as much as one’s memories, as I’ve pointed out. Certainly for me, I’ve lived my life through my memories, and the memories have been what has influenced me, affected me, changed me and made me into the person I am today, for good or ill.
I have some other thoughts on this, but it is getting very late so I must quit for now and go to bed…TTFN (ta ta for now).
But still worth reading.
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