Saturday, December 13, 2014


I had major depressive disorder as a teenager, as did most of my siblings. My mother had to raise us alone, and from many of my discussions with her I'm sure it was a real festival of fun trying to keep her children physically and mentally healthy, away from sharp objects or third-story windows. Somehow, a combination of medication, counseling, faith, growing out of teen hormones and finding love helped me get into a better state of mental health in adulthood.

Now I'm raising a kind, lovely, creative person with attention deficit disorder, major depressive disorder and severe anxiety. Not a day goes by when I don't find myself consumed with worry. And I can't help thinking karma is a real bitch.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Fiction fragment: Cornelius

The thing that still trips me up is the lack of sleep.

You'd think that after a while you'd get acclimated, but you don't. There's something about the process of going to bed that brings each day to a strong, satisfying coda.  You lie there, awake but resting, anywhere from a few minutes to several hours -- I never had an easy time falling asleep -- thinking about the events of the day, planning out what you'll do tomorrow, ruminating over something you read or something a friend said to you, maybe closing your eyes and indulging in some well-worn fantasy that takes you to your happy place.  Gradually, you let sleep take you.  When you wake, the new day stretches anew before you; even if you didn't sleep well, you're mentally ready for it.  But when you never sleep, there's no delineation in your mind between one day and another; although the night falls and the sun rises, there's no clear sense of a new day dawning.  So although I know I've been dead for some time, the lack of sleep has made it all feel like one very long, drawn-out day.

It makes me irritable.  When I was alive and I wanted to take the edge off, I'd go to a café or tavern for a drink.  I was never a heavy drinker, really; the whole point of the exercise was to get me out of myself.  I'd nurse a beer for hours, or sip a coffee until long after it went cold, talking to the other patrons or listening to their stories.  Most of their troubles were petty and meaningless, to be honest, but others -- especially if the patron in question had been drinking heavily -- were horrifying.  One man was struggling to raise his daughter, an idiot child who screamed and shook with spasms, after his wife had died giving birth to her.  It helped me put things into perspective.

Of course, now there are two troubles associated with going down to get a drink.  First, I can't drink anything.  Once-solid objects have become as fluid as water to me, and I can't even do something as simple as pick up a coffee cup.  Second, since the living don't see or hear me, I can't ask them about their problems or talk about my own.  The last time I visited a café, I left the place swearing lustily.

I'm starting to understand the appeal of haunting a place.  If you're sick of being invisible and ignored, haunting has got to be a sure way to garner some attention -- even if it's all negative.

So what is there to keep a dead guy occupied?

Quite a lot, it turns out.  The modern world has become weirdly obsessed with bringing people together in ways that actually keep them at arm's length.  Thus you have teens who try to get to know each other better by eating together (it's hard to talk to someone with your mouth full), dancing (in a cavern where the music's so loud you can't hear yourself think) and watching a film (sitting silently side by side in a dark room, staring straight ahead at a screen for two hours).  It's no wonder so many couples break up, when they never really got the chance to know each other.  But some of the changes are advantageous to a spook like me, especially if you have a fondness for film, as I do.  The multiplexes in particular might as well have been designed for ghosts; all day you can flit from one theater to another, watching fascinating stories of love or horror or speculation or comedy.  For an hour or two I can just live with the story, laugh or cry or shriek with the audience, and forget I'm dead.  (Though sometimes I've sat at the back of an empty theater, wondering what popcorn and Junior Mints taste like.)

Reading is more of an issue.  I'm just as incapable of handling books as I am other objects, much to my frustration.  But recent developments in electronics have been to my advantage.  After a lot of trial and error, I've discovered I can use some of the low-level energy a disembodied spirit gives off to tweak electronic devices.  So I can read books on temporarily abandoned computers, readers and smartphones.  It's not the same as holding and turning the pages of a real book, and I'm limited to the borrowed time I can snatch when the owners of these devices absently walk away and leave them switched on.  But it's like water to a thirsty mind.

Then there's music.  Music is virtually everywhere in the world now, and the sheer diversity of it is miraculous to me.  I can wander into a recital, an opera, a musical or a rock concert and be filled with a surfeit of sound.  Oddly enough, although physical objects are almost intangible, sound has become more solid since I died.  I can float and swim in it, swirling effortlessly through the air grown thick with music.  Over the years I've learned not to judge too quickly and to be open to new sounds, and although I still have a penchant for classical composition, now I welcome Def Leppard almost as readily as Donizetti.

Still, an existence not shared with others is ultimately empty.  I walk the streets surrounded by people, passing by and around and sometimes through me, incapable of seeing, hearing or feeling me.  After a while of this, you begin to question your own being.  Am I actually real, or was Descartes wrong?  Does the existence of independent thought truly prove one's being, when there is no one to whom you can express that thought?

Definitely irritable today.

I keep asking myself obvious questions which have no clear answers: is there a heaven or a hell, and if there are such places, why didn't I go there when I died?  Or is this meant to be hell?  It certainly can't be heaven, but if it's hell it's not nearly as horrible as they advertised in church.  Or is it somewhere else entirely?  Am I stuck in a place I'm not meant to be, like a card wedged between a drawer and the back of a cabinet?  I can't imagine an afterlife that isn't peopled with other dead, and yet in all the time I've been dead I've never, not once, met up with a fellow wandering disembodied spirit.  Plenty of poltergeists, which are more annoying forces of nature than discrete personalities.  A handful of haunted places, which I don't dare stay to investigate -- even I get the creeps.  And occasionally an animal will seem to sense my presence and back away.  But I've met no fellow travelers in the afterlife.

Sometimes I think it would be easier if I could simply shut off my brain.  But thinking is one of the few things I can actively do.  If I were to stop thinking, perhaps I really would stop existing -- and as frustrating as my post-human existence is, I don't really want to be snuffed out like a candle.  Not again.  So I continue to walk, and think, and go to concerts and movies and plays, read whenever I can, and occasionally try to puzzle out the odd riddle of my continued being.

Seattle isn't a bad place to be if you're dead.  I've tried many other places -- big towns like London or New York, so-called haunted towns like New Orleans, little towns in the heartland, small villages in the Yucatán and on the opposite side of the planet -- but I've discovered I'm an urban dweller and an American to my core. I'm more comfortable in a city that's big enough to be interesting and small enough to be completely explorable.  Seattle has plenty of theaters and music venues, a handful of traveling Broadway tours every year, and an annual film festival.  There's no local obsession with the supernatural, other than an amusing fascination with science fiction -- and, for some reason, zombies.  And of course there are plenty of electronics to mess with.  It's an acceptable fit for now.

It's become important to me that my place in the world lacks an obsession with the supernatural. New Orleans cured me of any lingering hopes that a spiritualist might help me contact the living.  For something like twelve years I searched for a bona fide medium.  Not a single one was genuine.  Oh, some of them thought they had access to the Other Side, no doubt, but they couldn't see or hear me.  I guess whatever it was they felt when they "felt the spirits" could be chalked up to a minor seizure or twinges of rheumatism, or just a bad case of believing their own hype. One of them got me so frustrated I actually started screaming at her.  She didn't bat an eye -- just kept handing out hokum to her customer about how his grandfather was at peace, and they'd find the will soon.  After that incident I decided I was fed up with all things paranormal, from séances to Ouija boards, and gave up mysticism as a lost cause.

Occasionally I'll try to reach out by other means, mostly electronic.  As mentioned, I can tweak computers a little bit, but it's difficult to fine-tune my meddling to the point that I can make words appear on the screen.  Most of my attempts to date look like pure gibberish:

#hl0 m2 pls 8 sm gh$$$$)t 2

I suppose I'll get better at it with time and practice, but I have no idea whether it will do any good.  If you went into the library to use the catalog and saw that someone had typed "please help i am a ghost" in the search box, you'd probably just think some kid was goofing off.  You'd delete it in an instant, not realizing that it took the better part of five hours to compose or that the spirit in question was sitting next to you, trying futilely to get your attention by any means available.

On edge now.  What I wouldn't do for a drink.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Walking the labyrinth

With Miss V away in Utah for Thanksgiving, we had a quiet weekend. A cup of Coconut Cocoa herb tea steeping in front of me, Roxy-cat dozing on the chair beside me, and the hail that came down hard on our roof tapered to rain, then to mist, and finally to silence.

And I started thinking again about walking the labyrinth.

No, not the one with David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly. No, not the one with Theseus and the Minotaur, either. I'm thinking about the Chartres-style labyrinth at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

It looks like this. Only much bigger.
There's a difference between a labyrinth and a maze, although we moderns tend to confuse the two. Both labyrinths and mazes have lots of twists and turns, but mazes also have multiple false paths and numerous dead ends. True labyrinths, on the other hand, have only a single path leading to the center. (Try tracing the one above with your finger if you don't believe me.)

Labyrinths like this have been around for a long time, and many predate Christianity, but this particular labyrinth is patterned after the one created in the year 1200 at Chartres Cathedral in France. There's a great deal of numerical symbolism involved in its dimensions, for those who enjoy digging into such things, but that's not what I found most engrossing about it.

The Grace Cathedral labyrinth is big enough that you can easily walk along the twisting path of the labyrinth to get to the center. As you take the time to walk this path, you enter a deeply introspective state where you begin to notice things you might otherwise have missed.

Here's what I noticed:
  • The different ways one person can experience the labyrinth are a fairly potent metaphor for being led to and then choosing to follow the path of a particular faith. One labyrinth at Grace Cathedral is outside, on the pavement. As a passerby walks up the steep San Francisco sidewalk toward the cathedral, the first thing she usually sees is what appears to be a person or persons randomly walking in odd twists and turns. Not yet seeing the labyrinth pattern on the ground, her first response is likely to be, "What an odd/eccentric/insane thing to do." If she continues walking up the sidewalk and notices the labyrinth layout on the ground, her second response is likely, "Oh, they're following a path. Why?" Depending on her interest, she may go over and watch people walking the labyrinth, asking questions of bystanders to get a better understanding of what she observes. If something about the experience touches her emotionally and compels her toward personal experience, she may enter the path and begin walking the labyrinth herself. And there is something about watching the experience that entices many to try it, if only to understand it better.
  • The extreme hairpin twists of the labyrinth mean that others walking close beside you may be much further along the path than you are, but it's not self-evident. I've seen examples of this in my life, as I've come into the orbit of many people who are outwardly humble and modest, but who conceal huge reserves of experience, intelligence and wisdom.
  • Those same twists and turns can confuse you or alter your perceptions of your progress, making it seem you are laboring in futility, making no progress or actually going backward, but this is an illusion. As long as you persist in walking the path, you will reach the center.
  • The labyrinth is an example of the need for a specific journey in order to reach a destination. Since there's only one way into the center, you must stay on the path to reach it; you'll never get there if you turn around in frustration and walk the other way, or leave the path altogether. Likewise, if you ignore the path entirely and just walk directly from the outside to the center, you will feel no sense of arrival or accomplishment. Having gotten to a particular locus without taking the necessary journey to arrive there, you will not have reached the destination you sought.
  • Because of the difficulty medieval Christians encountered in making a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land, walking the labyrinth became a substitute for such a pilgrimage -- which is why the center of the labyrinth is called Jerusalem or the Holy City. The significance of this place is different to different people, but often those who walk the labyrinth experience a strong emotional response when they arrive at the center. Many report experiencing a sense of love, peace and/or emotional calm while in Jerusalem. Some surreptitiously wipe away tears as they stand in silence. There is often a sense of one's particular worries being stilled while one is in the center of the labyrinth. It can be thought of as a liminal space, where the individual is freed from quotidian life roles and experiences a transformation. Labyrinth walkers may stay in Jerusalem for as long as they like, experiencing whatever it has to offer them, before retracing their steps out of the labyrinth. This particular Mormon sees a strong connection between the labyrinth's Jerusalem and the temple, a highly spiritually significant location where worldly cares are stilled, where inner transformations occur, and where man may commune with God. Leaving this holy place to walk the path back out into the world, one has experienced a transformative viewpoint and is thus uniquely fortified to deal with life's daily frustrations and challenges.
  • Shortly after I walked the labyrinth, I was informed that many other religions believe only the twisting, indirect path leads back to deity, and that the "straight and narrow" path of my own "narrowminded" faith tradition leads directly to hell. A little nonplussed by this statement, I looked up the term later and realized that the quote wasn't quite right -- the scriptural phrase is actually "strait and narrow," where "strait" means strict or rigorous, not straight or easy. In other words, the path back to our Creator is rarely if ever straightforward, but -- much as in the narrow path of the labyrinth -- it will certainly be strait or exacting for each of us.
There are certainly many more things to be learned from walking the labyrinth; these were just a handful of things that happened to occur to me. If you're interested in giving it a try, the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator has a list of various types of labyrinths available to walk all around the world. There may be one near you.

If you experience any unusual insights or epiphanies while walking the labyrinth, won't you please share them here? I'm always curious to know what others have discovered as a result of this exercise. Thank you.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Roxy, Nerd Brigade. Nerd Brigade, Roxy.

Fifth Saturday of the month, so the Nerd Brigade is here again. I decided it was time to socialize Roxy a little and gently picked her up to take her out to meet them. As expected, she was nervous, but she didn't actually lose it until I took her back into the bedroom; then she struggled away from me and promptly shot into her hidey-hole under the bed. I'm sure if I look under there right now I will get a baleful eyeshine-filled glare. Such is life with a skittish kitty.

Also, we got snow this morning! Yay! (It's disappearing as we speak, but still... SNOW!)

It's about time to write another Holiday Holler. I need a quiet place to a) think about what actually happened this year, b) find a way to make it humorous or fictional and c) keep it all to one page. Ngh. Wish me luck.

ETA: here's how Roxy is handling the stress today.

Yes, that's our bed. No, I didn't make it today because I'm a bum. Yes, her tail is the only thing showing. She is a silly beast.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

That's the deal

Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal.

--C.S. "Jack" Lewis, from the film Shadowlands
As you're probably well aware if you've been reading this blog for a while, my father died in a car accident about a month after I turned 12. That may seem like a young age to lose a parent, and it was -- but I was the oldest of six siblings, the youngest of whom had just turned three at the time. Of all my siblings, I spent the longest time with my father and have the most and clearest memories of him, some happier than others.

I have memories of listening to Dad make up silly stories and parody songs on the fly; memories of being picked up, run down the hall and tossed onto the queen-sized bed with a huge bounce; memories of Dad hanging onto the back of my bike, running along behind me as I tried to get the hang of balancing on two wheels; memories of flying kites and foraging for crops gone wild in the field that had once been a farm across from our house; memories of Dad making a puppet show theater or drawing a Christmas scene with soap on our front window, then painting it with tempera paints; memories of Dad, after days and days of sleepless worry, having a loud and scary nervous breakdown in the middle of the night; memories of Dad quietly swimming up to Aunt Linda, basking on her raft in the middle of Lake Alpine, and evilly upending her into the icy water; memories of Dad having no faith in himself, blaming himself for his perceived imperfections almost every day; memories of Dad sleepwalking into Julie's and my bedroom at 1 a.m. and telling us to brush our teeth (an episode he didn't remember in the morning); memories of Dad asking me with tender concern if xxxxxxx had done something to hurt me, and when I said yes, the way his haunted, defeated expression hurt even more than the abuse had, so I just stopped admitting when those incidents happened; memories of Dad and my uncle taking their sons on early morning paper routes and forming a little club called the "Paper Daddies of America"; memories of Dad pushing me high on the swings until I almost kicked the moon; memories of Dad helping me water the cucumber plants growing outside his workroom; memories of Dad losing his cool over the boys listening to the Beatles' Rubber Soul album over and over, finally taking it off the record player and flinging it out the front door into the field; memories of Dad at the drawing board, working on a layout for a client; memories of Dad driving the orange VW bus across the country while Mom handed out sandwiches and soda from the Coleman cooler; memories of Dad sticking drawing pencils into his ears and nose and having Mom take a Polaroid of him; memories of Dad jumping into my grandparents' pool fully clothed, then dragging Mom in after him -- the list goes on and on.

These memories -- strong, vivid, sometimes goofy, always emotionally charged -- are why I miss my dad. He was a creative, sensitive, funny, impatient, imperfect, vibrant, real person. There were things I loved about him as well as things I really didn't like. In short, I have enough memories about him to hunger for more.

It's different for my other siblings. My brothers remember Dad quite a bit; my sisters remember very little. And my youngest sister, Michele, has no memories of Dad at all. It's bothered her for a long time. She was a "Daddy's girl" growing up, always gravitating more to Dad than to Mom, and after he died, she -- barely three, you remember -- couldn't understand what had happened to him. "Where's Daddy?" she asked, over and over again, and when we told her yet again that he had died, her plaintive response was always the same: "But I want him."

When I was younger I thought, naïvely, that my siblings were lucky not to remember Dad. Memories of the dead are keen sharp things, and the closer you hold them to your heart, the more you cut yourself. Wouldn't it be better not to have them, not to carry a source of pain around with you? I don't remember my great-grandfather or my Aunt Bonnie, both of whom died before I was born; my interest in them as people is mere curiosity, with no accompanying ache of loss. I didn't really understand why my little sister could feel such a hole in her center from a man she couldn't even remember.

You know what it took to help me finally figure it out? The death of a man I never met.

I've wanted to meet Robin Williams from the time I was eight years old. Yes, really. I watched him on Mork & Mindy and found him not just funny as an actor, but fascinating as a person. I tried (and failed) to get permission to participate in the Bay Area March of Dimes walk that year, because I knew he would be participating and just maybe I'd get a chance to walk next to him and talk to him for a minute or two. (Oh, shut up -- you expect realistic dreams from an eight-year-old kid?) For some reason as I got older, I still harbored the quiet but unshakable belief that at some point I'd get a chance to meet him in person. I didn't want to be overbearing or annoying or gushy about it -- he struck me as the kind of person who'd be deeply uncomfortable with that kind of attention. I just wanted a chance to walk up to him, shake his hand and say something goofy like, "Thank you, sir, ya done good."

Let's just say that didn't happen.

And now, I think I understand a little more what it must be like for my sister. Yes, there's a particular kind of knifelike pain that comes from having clear memories of the dead. But there's another kind of pain -- a dull crunch, like a heavy weight that comes out of the dark in slow motion to crack hard against your ribcage -- that comes from having no memories when you desperately want them. It's a different kind of pain. But that doesn't make it any less painful.

I'm so sorry, Shelly. I wish I could share what I have with you. I wish you could know your dad the way you want to. Because of what I remember, I know he'd bug you and worry about you and frequently annoy you, but he'd also be proud of you in so many ways. You're his daughter, and you carry inside you many things that are made from him. That's one way of being close to him, of getting to know him better -- to find the things in you that were also part of your dad. I think he'd appreciate that.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Song of the Sea

Ever since I saw The Secret of Kells, I've loved Tomm Moore's animation style. There's something about his team's character designs and sense of movement that I find absolutely spellbinding. And I've long been fascinated by the traditional stories of selkies -- there's something both joyous and mournful about being caught between two worlds.

And now, after several years of semi-patient waiting, I hear Moore's next film is ready for release.

I can't wait.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Things I've seen recently

Last night, while driving home, I saw an owl hunting (not pictured, because freeway driving speeds and casual camera use don't mix)... Mama Deer and her fawn wandering along our street (sorry, this blurry pic was the best of three photos).

And today, there are certain subtle clues to indicate the advent of Nerd Brigadery.

(Roxy heads for her hidey-hole under the bed whenever we have guests.)