The Man Who Brought the Magic

A Stubborn Silence

After my brother died last Christmas, all my instincts for resistance went into overdrive: I stubbornly wouldn’t accept it, not completely. No ripping off the bandaid for me. I was going to fight it to the bitter end, with every bit of mettle my life driven-to-overcome-being-different afforded me. I put my head down and worked. I revised and edited and beta-read before and after work.

I crawled into a hole.

Of course I was called upon to come up with Michael’s obituary–I was the writer after all. I cried and tried to put into a few words the best of my brother:

Mike worked as a CAD draftsman, and his passion for nature and animals inspired his family and delighted several lucky cats and dogs. Mike walked the earth in peace and his loving humor will be sadly missed. Survived by his beloved wife of 30 years. . .

But I couldn’t write what he meant to me. I couldn’t talk about the memories and put him in the past tense. I wouldn’t. I wrote his obituary but I refused to even think about his eulogy.

A Monument to Memory

I cried in private, as my whole family did. Stoic at the funeral. Had to be strong for my mom and dad. Had to be available to do all the tasks for my sister-in-law, who was understandably shattered. Numb, I supportively did the income taxes for the deceased. I obligingly designed my brother’s headstone (an oak tree on his side, two chickadees on hers).

And a few weeks later, there it was: my brother’s death was literally carved in stone.

I visited the grave at least once a week, same as my sisters, though we never went together. In the wooded town cemetery, just inside the main gate and near the monument to my 3rd great-grandfather who settled here when the town was new, I stood in snow and rain beneath a ragged hickory, a lost little sister weeping alone.

When I tried to write myself out of grief, I always wrote about my experiences now; I didn’t write about Michael, about who he “was”.

But suddenly this month all that has changed, as evidenced by that abhorrent “was” I typed with heavy deliberation in the last sentence.

The Wind Beneath My Wings

When Michael became sick and was dying of cancer, a lot of people said something that was like a bitterly cold slap in the face: “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

Just because he wasn’t on Facebook?! I felt hurt and I felt hollow with guilt: how could people not know about Michael? All my life he’s been with me every moment–everything I was ever interested in or enjoyed, it’s because I was following in his footsteps.

He was my hero, my inspiration, he raised me when my mom was busy with my younger sisters. He taught me to tie my shoes and to read and write and swim and climb trees and find salamanders and what the constellations were and why the moon landing was so huge. From him I learned that Star Trek wasn’t real, but it was still true.

He showed me how to plant veggies and watch wild birds and how to hammer a nail, and he took me to get my first library card. I loved exploring nature because he did. When he wrote poetry, I wanted to write poetry. Because of him I learned you could talk to animals, if your heart was in the right place.

I saw magic in everything because he showed it to me.

What’s So Bad About a Good Word

I’m ready to talk about Michael now, but I haven’t the skill to write his eulogy. I can’t write something about my brother and then put a period at the end. I’ll just have to keep telling stories of who he was before I ever was.

Michael was. He was gentle and compassionate and funny and curious. He was someone who could feed wild animals from the palm of his hand. He was the brother who could take a little Aspy girl who never got a joke and make her laugh milk out her nose. He was the teenager who graduated high school and walked across America in his knee-high moccasins.

Michael is: he’s still the biggest influence on my life, and he’s missed every day with a thousand silent agonies: sisters, mother, wife, nieces.

But from now on, that’s about all I’m going to let be silent.

Ever wonder which train you’re on?

This has been coming up like a portent in my life in one way or another for a few days now: the message behind the oh-so-true aphorism, Man proposes, God disposes. Or, the best-laid plans of mice and men. . .Or the quote I just saw on Twitter: Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters won’t have a title until much later (Bob Goff).

How many times in my fifty-three years of life have I proven this?!

So I wonder why someone’s so bent on sending me the message now.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’d know that I had fifteen years of relatively uninterrupted bliss in a condo at the top of the building with the best friend I’ve ever had, a loud, bold, curious, in-your-face high-maintenance SCARY-smart Siamese cat named Tonka.

Then two years ago all hell broke loose–and a lot of good stuff, too. I defied the odds (and the draconian lender requirements) and bought the house of my dreams–the perfect little bungalow with the big back yard, a half acre backing up to the wooded town swamp right in town. A conservatory/dining room with windows all around jutting out into a back yard right out of a Disney cartoon: deer and bunnies and constant birdsong. LOTS of mature trees, a shaded patio, a lovely bedroom loft, a hammock and a tree swing would come, and I’m still working hard on the creative financing needed to score a white gazebo. Even as I convert the back lawn into an English cottage garden.

My Writing Retreat, right at home.

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So why have I scarcely moved in? I’ve only just now given up painting the ugly mustard dining room so-I-could-even-use-it myself and hired someone? Every single room (except my loft) the same dull color: I love coffee with two creams but not on the walls.

Tonka was already old; she enjoyed several months having her own back yard, then passed away. A profound depression ensued. And the Goff quote above applies to the sad chapters of life, too: depression has a way of fooling you into not realizing you’re not in it WHILE you’re still in it. Just. . .nothing happens.

I occupied my new house; I didn’t LIVE in it. With nothing painted, nothing decorated my way, and half my possessions still in my parents’ basement, I felt like I was staying in someone else’s house. My sister and a roommate live here, too; the rent was sorely needed to finance central AC and gutter guards and the evicting of seven red squirrels from where they lived in my basement ceiling.

For months I juggled finances and the cat situation: my second cat Peaches was terrified of my sister’s cat, who had to stay cooped up her bedroom all day till she could come out, supervised; both suffered till my sister’s cat, also old, passed away a few months after Tonka. But not till after a bizarre episode when my sister broke up a cat fight and her cat inflicted infected wounds on her hand that turned so bad she was three nights in the hospital and six weeks on a pik line antibiotic!

Then there was a heartbreaking episode with the new Siamese George: we loved him but he was an energy that could scarcely be contained, our possessions in constant danger, and the stress was too much for Peaches, and we had to let him go.

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I tried to warm up my numb, cold emptiness and assuage the constant ache of a genuinely broken heart with the activity of keeping up a new house. I almost lost my writing altogether. A lot happened but I was on automatic.

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Last summer brought a flurry of joyous family weddings and a new baby in the family, my great-nephew, who is SO clever and engaging and cheerful and funny. Then, one year after Tonka died, the life that was finally being saved and buoyed up with joy sank to the lowest point yet: my brother had stage 4 cancer. Having metastatized from the colon to liver, there was talk of chemo, but he never regained strength, and I knew in the back of my mind what not everyone accepted. He passed away on Christmas.

This time I thought I was going to embrace depression for what it was, but in truth I was in denial mode from day one: I began hiding out at the coffee shop, before and after work, my head down as my writing flowed. Still doing it. But gradually I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself every day, feeling the most gut-wrenchingly angry I’ve ever felt and nothing to be angry at, and spring finally happened.

I’m not done with winter yet

Spring in my yard is, in spite of my half-hearted efforts, pretty spectacular. Tulips and daffodils everywhere, and now, the most fragrant peonies will soon open.
And spring brought the most joyous wedding yet, my (very) young niece. My great-nephew grows and is the miracle that pulled my family through the suckiest winter ever–especially my parents, burying a child.

The dining room is new and waiting to be filled again with the table where I can write comfortably at last–and save a fortune on coffee shop bills. My painter’s taking on the kitchen next. Maybe the ball will keep rolling–I don’t know, life is STILL in flux. But I hope I continue to embrace my new home and allow myself to actually enjoy it, to make plans again, to find peace.

Chapter: not yet named.

 

Where in your head are your dreams kept?

I sleep weird, so I glommed right onto this article about what parts of the brain are involved in dreaming. It’s really quite cool, go have a look, I’ll wait!

I think it’s interesting that the language region also takes a nap during dreaming, since dreams are filled with moods, sensations and imagery that defy description even after I’m awake–to my eternal consternation. It would be brilliant if we could communicate with some kind of short-hand vocabulary for all the colors and textures of those most-palpable moods and atmospheres in dreams. This is something I’ve always felt was sorely missing from human experience.

Ok, so this is what’s wrong with me in particular

I always wondered what misfiring mechanism enabled me to dream while awake–literally. In the morning, more often than not, my conscious brain wakes up but the dream I was in continues unabated, undisturbed, playing out of its own volition.

Though the moment is ripe for lucid dreaming–stepping in and gently steering–that still isn’t really what it is.

And there are similarities with hypnopompic hallucinations, in that all three sleep conditions fail to continue at the same time. Sleep is generally defined and characterized by 1) being unconscious, 2) succumbing to muscular paralysis, and 3) the intermittent presence of dreams. Sleepwalkers, obviously, lose the second, while those suffering from terrifying hypnopompic hallucinations begin to wake up while still feeling residual paralysis and dreaming other sensation such as a presence–here’s where alien abduction stories get started.

Not an alien abduction story

But my experiences aren’t frightening. I’m fully conscious and able to move, though lying still helps the dream reach its natural resolution.

Given the information from this article I can only deduce that, while my prefrontal cortex is able to assert itself as normal upon awakening, there is still some unusually strong brain system perpetuating the dream state–not the amygdala? There’s little fear happening. The limbic system? If it is, then my cortex is allowing itself to be commandeered by the lesser system, for the experience is genuinely like sleeping dreams: sophisticated, though without language at the moment they’re occurring; atmospheric, a largely passive self, “dreamlike”.

I was already accustomed to something quite similar

I now wonder if my temporal lobe seizures aren’t responsible for conditioning me to experience and maintain the dream even with a conscious mind at play. I’ve called my TLE hallucinations or fugues “being in two places at the same time”–it’s utterly miserable only when my conscious mind, the one engaged with reality, tries to or has to fight the waking dream. Perhaps getting used to my particular seizure disorder is why I don’t panic and destroy the dream mechanism as soon as I awake.

Or maybe I really am experiencing a TLE seizure that begins just before I wake up? If I am, I just have to point out: my seizures are just like dreaming!

But I just don’t know. Disclaimer time: I’m not a medical expert and nothing I write is to be in any way construed as technical enough for self-diagnosis. But this is my experience.

The ancients would have labeled me a mystical saint or a shaman–if I were clever or lucky enough not to be labeled a lunatic or a witch–and would have believed I had a hotline to the divine. Scientists today would point out that the temporal lobe is the seat of religious sensation, and hallucinations there are just that: not divine trances, just a neurological mistake.

I believe somewhere in-between. We all have temporal lobes and the capacity to imagine and even feel a higher abstraction, a divinity. To what evolutionary end? That’s for each of us to decide.

 

Seriously, what have you decided? Have you ever given much thought to how your brain chemistry creates your philosophy of existence? Or do you just have some really cool and bizarre dream experiences to share? I’d love to hear either!

Waiting for the Eagles

Dear God, this has to stop. I didn’t know people could react this way; I’ve never known such a great loss before. I didn’t know I could so awkwardly push aside the thought of someone I claim to love, and a month later I’m still in high escape mode.

Before and after work at the coffee shop; now my novel is in the hands of beta readers and I’m committed to furiously reading and critiquing at least four other stories. Guilt-ridden that my cat is so lonely. I’m too old to run from my feelings by blasting music in the car. I’m too aware to keep being such a coward.

“Best Big Brother Ever”

Because Michael deserves me thinking about him, not forgetting how much I need him, how much I need to know I’ll see his wry smile again. He deserves better than being brushed out of the way by words on a screen until all I have left of him are the mere glimpses that bubble to the surface inevitably in the course of any given day.

It seems I’d rather turn myself into whatever-this-is, I’d rather feel guilt than the pain of grief and losing my brother. Because it still doesn’t feel real. How do you go from the point where he’s alive and part of your life to the point where he isn’t and you’re used to that? No, I’ll never get used to that! I refuse to.

It seems I have a long way to go.

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor

Because no one ever simply walks into Mordor. You trip and fall, painfully you slide over broken rock and turn aside into the beckoning arms of forgetfulness, frozen in time.

And you never come back from Mordor whole–isn’t that what I’m running from? You have the scar from a Morgul blade, you can see the Thestrals, you can see Both Sides Now.

If I remember him, he’s a memory

Why on earth do people always die at the END of stories? How does that help me? How am I supposed to know what the scene looks like after he’s gone? How do I write the rest of this stupid story that just won’t stop playing out?

Michael doesn’t deserve to be a memory avoided; I don’t even yet know how to make him a memory at all. Not JUST a memory; he’s so much more. But if I remember him, he’s a memory. Certainly if I memorialize him, then I can’t deny that now he exists only as a memory.

The Seven Stages of Falling Off a Cliff

And if I sublimate what he means to me in a work of fiction, have I buried him once and for all? If I imagine myself one day explaining, Oh, yes, that’s how my brother inspired me. This is what he taught me. This is why I wrote this story. There I go–trying to paint a future without him when I can’t even see-feel-touch the present without him.

It’s so much easier to talk about myself, how hard I work and what I think about and what I avoid like a coward. Look how busy I am, look how well I’m carrying on.

Don’t look at the lost little girl, heartsick, waiting for her wandering brother to come home and make it all better. Because he always came back home. Just when I needed him. I just need to wait a little longer. I’m told that the eagles are coming.

No, one doesn’t simply walk out of Mordor, either, do they?

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Self-Pity and Resolve: Fighting for a Happy New Year

Real Life gets really real, the final part–I sure hope

I don’t know what I expected to find, the morning after the grayest day. It was still bitter cold but–typical Michigan, harsh just when it’s breathtakingly lovely–the sun was shining, on the snowy lake, the hills, the snow-covered trees, the newly-mounded dirt at the base of the hickory tree just inside the cemetery gate. Even though the roses were now frozen, ferns and lilies waving slightly in an arctic breeze, I thought I could still smell them in the air the way it smelled through the funeral.

I’m not at all superstitious about graves or earthly remains–and I’m still not, because apparently this morning wasn’t spiritual at all. God, give me this last minute of self-pity, here on the last day of the year, then I promise I’ll try to move on with life. I cried and cried finally–a good old-fashioned, wipe your red nose on your icy gloves kind of cry. I wasn’t crying for my parents or my sister-in-law or my little great-nephew Archie who won’t know the best uncle ever as he grows up. This was all about me. All the many ways I feel small right now.

Unattached. Lost.

The sun was shining and there were even birds singing and I did hear my snow-boots crunching on the ground, so the earth was definitely still turning, logic said it was, but I hardly felt like I was attached to it anymore. I don’t mean just light-headed or light and airy; I honestly stopped feeling like I belonged on the earth. What was I doing here? It feels like the whole world can see that I’m all alone: it feels like there’s a big sign around my neck telling the whole world I’m a lost little girl who doesn’t have a big brother. Any more. So what’s the point of me now?

Michael was there when I was born. He left home–to stay the summer with his grandparents, but when my sister was born he came back and decided to stay with me, because I cried so happily when he returned. He left home when he graduated to walk the length and breadth of the country, but he always came back. I was very sick on the couch one time he was away and woke up in the middle of the night and saw his silhouette in light from the dining room, and I was just as giddy as the toddler seeing him again. He watched over us all and waited patiently through three sisters and two nieces until finally after sixty years little Archie came along–but Michael was already sick, we just didn’t know it yet.

Avoiding pain as motivation

When we did find out his time was limited, about two months ago, I went into severe escapism mode. I bragged about learning to get up an hour early to write every single day at the coffee shop before work and most weekends. I’ve been more productive revising the novel in two months than I’ve been in two years. Only in retrospect do I see that that kind of intense focus is particularly effective for avoiding pain. When all is said and done, I know I should have spent more time with Michael. Time spent struggling not knowing what to say but spent with him all the same.

So after a frenzy of funeral preparation, now the friends and distant family have visited and gone and I woke up to the empty disbelief that it really was final. No, that’s another euphemism: I woke up no longer able to avoid the fact that it’s Too Late. So somehow I ended up back at the cemetery in the obscenely brutal cold.

Guilt motivates even more–till it paralyzes

I don’t know what I expected to find, but I told myself somewhat self-righteously I was only going there to “check things out” after the brief, frigid graveside service the day before. The big blue tent was gone now. Everyone was gone now, and it was just me and the palpable absence of my brother.

Still, it’s a pretty place, the kind of place nature-loving Michael liked to walk in; in the summer there will be squirrels and some rabbits and in the spring even the rare soft-shelled turtle up from the lake to lay eggs. They have long necks and run really fast: zip across the cemetery path, zip back to the safety of the water. I mean, I’ve been taking walks here all my life because it’s that much nicer and more peaceful than the city park next door.

Forever attached to the earth

I have five generations of family buried here–no, now it’s six. My dad went to try to buy a plot for Michael and found he inherited, like, a dozen, in the oldest family spot here by the gates, places now for me and my sisters and still some more.

Huh, I realized. I’m standing here bawling my eyes out on my own grave.

God, please let me get through this last minute of self-pity. It feels like I’m drowning in it but I know I have to crawl out. I don’t have any kids but surely the next generations need me. My cat, at least, needs me. I need to accomplish something in 2018. Even if it’s just putting my brother in the dedication of my first book.

featTR

“The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” –Walt Whitman

…from the obituary for my brother Michael. My first best friend and hero.

Pathologically Disconnected, or, Why I Write Novels

“Here.” I handed my college buddy a small magazine clipping with a photograph of some place with trees and water. I’d just had a very nice visit there, in fact. Then I ripped out the page I was looking at and cut the place out.

“What is it?”

I was excited to explain the birthday gift. “It’s a. . .it’s a ‘place-to-be’. You look at it and you can picture yourself in the picture, anywhere in the picture you want. . .Like I did. When I looked at it; it was a really cool picture that way.”

This was all falling apart really fast; I could see he didn’t get it. And I couldn’t say it any more clearly than that. Here I was, a writing major, and I couldn’t find the words to express something this important–and stupid me, I just assumed he would understand what I meant and finish the thought, complete the gesture. I just assumed it happened to everyone: a certain photograph in a magazine ad or travel book just hits you the right way, and you’re transported. In a virtual, euphoric trance your mind takes you right into that picture, to the exclusion of the present; you are–if “you” can be taken as your consciousness rather than your body–quite literally suddenly someplace else.

Well, I tried, and it sure didn’t come across as the tremendous gift I had intended it to be; my buddy just saw a little slip of paper. And since I failed scissors in the third grade it wasn’t even a perfectly square picture.

Why don’t you get it?!

I tried again with other friends but in the end only this first buddy was ever nice enough to see it meant something to me, and for a few years when we wrote back and forth after college I still sent occasional clippings. But I had no illusions anymore; these trances were mine and mine alone. Wow. What did photographs even exist for, if not to blow your mind and give you a waking dream, a whole new mood, a new atmosphere to exist in for some time?

I’ve written already about my TLE seizures, but knowing what’s happening to me, while a relief on one level, doesn’t really solve the underlying problem: Geschwind Syndrome sees to it that your very personality and being are affected by a scar on the temporal lobe, and you are who you are who you are. As proof, I had most of the tell-tale personality traits since earliest memory, long before the seizures appeared. My lifelong struggle to connect was now understandable but it wasn’t over.

My childhood made a lot more sense; my friends never seemed to get lost in books as completely as I did, they never understood when I said they were magical that way, I didn’t just mean it figuratively. Then came the mind-blowing discovery that I could write my own stories, my own worlds, my own friends. I was teetering at the mouth of the rabbit-hole.

And it wasn’t too long after high school that I no longer needed books or photographs; these trances started to occur of their own volition, more intense, a déjà-vu moment that wasn’t just a moment.

Still freakily abstract

“I just had one of those really good déjà-vus,” I told my grad school apartment roommate.

“What do you mean, the ‘good’ ones?”

“You know, the kind that last a long time. The good ones–the ones that feel good.”

“Déjà-vus don’t last a long time; they just hit you.”

“I know, usually they do, like a ping pong ball hits you and bounces off. But the other kind hits you like a velcro ball and sticks. You have a déjà-vu of another time you had a déjà -vu, and that was maybe about another even earlier déjà-vu. . .”

“Yeh, but a déjà-vu is just a hiccup in your brain; it can’t last more than a second, because it was an accident.”

“Okay, maybe you don’t call it a déjà-vu, then, maybe you call it something else.” I wasn’t ready to give up; she and I already got along well in so many uncanny ways, maybe this was the one friend who would get what I was trying to say. “Like looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you, a feeling of something that keeps echoing back into infinity.”

Yup, I realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, there it was: the look. She didn’t get it and she didn’t mean to but the look said I was a little off, somehow. I waffled, “Anyway, it’s a really cool feeling. That’s why I wasn’t paying attention.” . . .And then she had the look like she thought I was making it all up. And my cheeks burned and my hands tingled and my head buzzed with nervous embarrassment. And it wasn’t because of any déjà-vu that that felt so familiar.

It’s what you aren’t experiencing, obviously

“Why don’t you just shut up?” I’ve asked myself over and over. I’ve gotten so used to people not believing me when imagination takes over and my mouth starts running that I’ve become apologetic about practically everything. And I should be: long ago I learned that my words–so effective in every other area of my life–just weren’t the right language for explaining to people what it was they weren’t experiencing and I was.

Sometimes I think I’ve finally found a common point of reference–dreaming. Everyone has dreams. Remember last time you told someone you had a really cool dream, the first thing you’re asked? “What was it about?” And then you struggle to find the threads of the plot–but that’s useless. Plot’s generally not the impact of the dream; it’s the entire atmosphere taken as a whole. Something might happen in my dream: a young girl is holding a bunny with a ribbon around its neck. But that “thing” in the dream doesn’t convey the concrete “mood”; in this instance my overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding. But how was it any different than the last time I dreamt an overwhelming sense of foreboding? Well. . .just trust me.

Doomed to fail

So maybe I’m doomed never to know if others can bring to the experience I want to share the same sensory and perceptual dysfunction that keeps me living on another plane of existence. It’s lonely without the words I need to make a connection with other people. Gradually I realized that it wasn’t my inability to express or lack of will that kept me apart; it was the failure of the English language, whose words I loved so much I would surely have found the correct ones when I tried.

There aren’t enough words for all the subtly different kinds of overwhelming, palpable moods in a dream, and it’s the exact same way with my little transports. When I describe them they sound intangible, ephemeral. . .but if there just existed enough words you would see they’re anything but. “Mood” isn’t even the right word; I’m fumbling again.

Obviously the rest of the world sees no need to have verbal markers for all the kinds of mental transports that define my life. Alone again. I spend ten paragraphs explaining a meaningful and quantifiable mood that should have required only a couple words–I don’t know, a color combined with a place and a season, a shorthand to convey it all in an instant.

A Vulcan mind-meld might just do it, though

So I suppose this is where art comes in. It’s so patently true it’s a cliché: art can indirectly convey a thought more accurately and more concisely than direct prose. But unless you’re Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra*, I can’t go around spouting to you my everyday feelings in poetic allegory.

I go through life, then, feeling disconnected, but hope I never reach the despair of someone like Van Gogh, furiously painting flowers and fields and potato farmers, internally crying out, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it?”

In Cyber-Space, Everyone Can Hear You Scream

But is there an alternative to the intense social and spiritual need to connect to other people? I can revel in my solitary condition but gradually the avoidance of despair takes on the appearance of cynicism–one could stave off the existential angst with wry irony. Isn’t there something more in-between for the self-aware idiosyncratic?

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I asked that question in print a little voice deep inside answered gleefully, “There is! There’s the internet!”

“What? The internet is the answer for disconnected artistic-types everywhere?”

“We all come to cyber-space already an artificial construct.”

“It levels the playing field, you mean.”

“You can rule at last.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

I won’t go that far

Like most of us who were the freaks and geeks and wall-flowers in high school I’ve reaped a bit of cathartic revenge ripping apart the willfully ignorant and narrow-minded on various forums on a variety of topics. Fun for awhile. Wearying of that, I turned my powers to good instead of evil and sought companionship among those with similar interests, those to learn from and those to support. But that’s just life writ, well, in writing.

So I’ve come full-circle and returned to the escapism I once thought was dangerous and abnormal: writing novels. Big novels, full-blown worlds filled with fictitious characters and fake-fake-fake-fake-fake.

No, art! Artifice’s more socially-acceptable twin sibling. And if online writing communities had existed back when I was a teenager, well, I might very well “rule” by now.

I’m very curious just how different a path younger writers have had for this reason. Why do you write, and do you still have people in your life who think it’s an unhealthy escape?

 

*Star Trek: the Next Generation’s episode “Darmok”, oft-mocked for its abstruse subject matter, is a beloved favorite of poets and literary types, celebrating as it does the centrality of myth to our world-view.

Controlled Chaos – Art Imitates Life

It all started when I brought home Peaches. Tonka the best-companion-dog-or-cat-a-girl-ever-had Lynx Point Siamese and I had been living on my third-floor condo alone together for over a dozen years blissfully happy in our own self-contained, magical world. (The personal trauma that led to my withdrawal from humanity has been touched on in another blog.) Though I was the condo Pres I could escape to my top-floor retreat above the fray. Not much dirt or salt ever got tracked all the way up the stairs; it was clean and bright. Everything stayed where Tonka or I put it and we were settled in our ways. And she was truly my partner in life from the moment I saw her in the shelter, and the rainbows arced and birds sang and butterflies soared all around us and it was meant to be. We walked everywhere with her leash, she rode around in the car with me to Tim Hortons then the park on weekends, she always greeted me at the door, talking. Life was well-ordered.

Then I had to go and start volunteering for the cat-cuddling program at the local shelter. You go in a few times a week and play with your adopted cat(s) to help socialize them. Tonka was very much a single-cat-in-the-house cat so I didn’t see any danger in my becoming attached; what creature could ever be as smart and communicative and bossy and bold and fearless as my amazing Tonka, anyway?

TonkaCradleTree

A Sheltered Cat

Peaches the timid calico dilute wasn’t even “my” adopted cuddle cat. She always seemed to be one of the cats let out when I was there; not fighting with the other cats, but not paying any attention to them either. Neither did she seek out human companionship; she just went away and did her own thing. I held her sometimes and she let me, but she rarely played with the toys as the other cats did. She would never make a move that called attention to herself. In retrospect I realize she was probably a bit shell-shocked; at two years old, she’d been found outside during the bitter cold Polar Vortex, then had a stint with a foster while she recovered from a very serious upper respiratory illness. Who knew what demons ran around in her little head to make her so cautious?

She was cute, for sure: there were definite over-tones of Grumpy Cat in her big, limpid blue eyes. But I was a cat snob; raised with Siameses because of my dad’s allergies, I knew from long experience that they were clever, and all other cats were pretty airheads by comparison. One day, though, Peaches did gain a bit more respect from me when a boisterous tom tried to hone in on her spot on the cat tower and intimidate her out of it. So quiet that only the other cat and I heard her, Peaches gave a low, solid “Grrrrr….” –and held her ground. So shy, timid Peaches had a tiny, little core of steel in her backbone after all!

For two months I visited the shelter several times a week and Peaches was still there. We have a pretty animal-friendly community and I was growing more and more amazed: she’s so incredibly cute, why hasn’t anyone taken Peaches home yet? I began to worry that her reticence was being mistaken for coldness and that she’d never find a home. Then one day lightning struck–just not as soon as with Tonka: I awoke and sat straight up in bed and realized: the reason no one’s taken Peaches home yet is because I’M supposed to take her home!

Pulling a thread…

Tonka didn’t agree, of course, and it took my installing a screen door on the spare bedroom during unsupervised times for several months before they adapted to each other. For the first six months Peaches was happy to live under the bed. I could only get her to play at first with a shoe-string: it was a victory when she moved her paw. To her, that was already bringing too much attention to herself. But after patient coaxing and several months she became the cat she was meant to be, playing with more joy and less self-consciousness till the day she took a flying belly-whopper leap through the air then hunkered down, shocked, when she hit the ground: was that really me? did anyone see me? Always a little chunky, she was that much cuter as she became more active: the amazing Peaches even once did a somersault off the bed, catching the ribbon in her teeth mid-air, and stuck the landing perfectly.

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Tonka was getting older and after awhile seemed happy to watch someone else play most of the time. At night we all piled into bed together, though they each kept to their own sides. I had done the unthinkable: I had brought another cat into our lives and we had survived the change. And something else happened after the shake-up of my self-induced escape-from-the-real-world: I began to write again. NaNo kick-started me, and soon I was in a community of real, like-minded folks for the first time since grad school. And they were nicer.

Breaking all the eggs

Just as the three of us finally reached our stride all living together, the economy and chance brought me to find and buy my dream house. Tonka had a back yard to play in; she’d been getting too old and tired for actual walks anymore. She just liked to sit. (Peaches’ demons keep her inside.) This past year in the house has been one of real upheaval: I had to take on my sister and another renter to afford it, and my sister had another elderly alpha-female cat–and this time the screen-door was permanent. My cats and hers had a time-share arrangement out on the main floor; Tonka and Peaches lived with me up in my bedroom loft the rest of the time.

I had to get used to sharing a bathroom–with people not as fastidiously clean as I tended to be. Don’t even get me started on the kitchen: my sister and I are absolute polar opposites. I have trouble breaking a few eggs to start a project; breaking eggs is all she can do. I’ve had to work my tail off on home-repairs and keeping up the half-acre as I prepare to convert that huge, back shaded lawn into a cottage garden, and do most of the physical work and cleaning inside. Suddenly money-management has become a myth as home projects constantly blow cannon holes in my credit (but what was I building all that great credit for anyway?) Rent doesn’t always come in on time and creative financing has become fantastical.

I went through the trauma and winter depression following the death of Tonka, who as I said had been sick for some time (her elegy is the unwritten blog…) I drudged through a second NaNo to try to keep the horrible pain and emptiness at bay. Several family members were hospitalized for this and that, and my older niece has become pregnant. Then my sister’s cat also passed away, and then, some weeks later. . .George arrived.

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece

I thought I’d become used to chaos already. We were told the big, male Siamese was a two-year old, something more settled we needed for Peaches’ avoidance personality, but the vet revealed he was much closer to one: actually kind of a relief, when you consider his behavior. He’s wild and energetic and playful, of course, but he also has no impulse control, no seeming ability to learn (the word “no”, for example), and–even more than the usual Siamese but perhaps not unlike your average adolescent male–always needs to be the center of attention. Lots of attention. He’s chewing on my ankle right now.

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So he may grow out of it. But until then, it’s a miracle how different my life is from one year ago in the condo with my two girls. I wouldn’t recognize myself. Not only is life chaotic now–I don’t even wince when I hear a CRASH somewhere in the house, or Peaches screams, or George tears past me up the stairs at breakneck speed while I balance a laptop and a hot cup of tea–but I don’t see it changing much in the future at all. There is always going to be gardening to do. The sheer limits of money mean that the home-repair and -improvement projects will stretch out for years. Face it, this is a whole new world, and I may never be “settled” inside my perfect little Ivory Tower ever again.

Breaking eggs is something I’ve very much needed to learn how to do, and now it’s getting applied to my writing revision: most of my writing-block paralysis comes from needing, out of fear, to leave well-enough alone. Pull a thread, ruin the sweater. Break an egg, have to clean it up. Add people to a household, learn to compromise. Tighten up the plot, lose the great feeling I had after finishing the first draft.

All of us wild, all free

It’s amazing and more than a little jarring when I look back now and realize that when I met Peaches, well, I WAS Peaches. I was in my own little world, and it was nice and even necessary while it lasted, but it couldn’t last. Trauma doesn’t ever completely go away, but neither are you ever as disconnected from the world as you think. I have a voice, and writing was always that voice, but there was no way I could use it again without leaving the shelter behind. Time to come out from under the bed and play.

. . .What happened to kick start you out of a too-lengthy complacence? Was it dramatic like a blockbuster film, or as quiet as pulling a thread and bringing home a shy, wounded calico?