NEVER HAVE YOU EVER?

Felt exuberant. Felt defeated. Felt physical or emotional pain. Felt confused. Forgot a name. Wondered if someone liked you, if someone hated you. Wondered if someone was thinking of you. Hoped. Felt repulsed. Felt betrayed. Felt disgust. Have you ever? Shivered in response to an unexplained sound. Felt someone’s eyes on you. Thought of someone lost to you through death or departure. Missed him/her/them. Grieved. Wondered about the universe, the meaning of life. The possibility of a hereafter—what it might be like. Felt empty; felt like a cliche. Had a ritual. Had a good luck charm. Felt mistrust; felt superstitious. Couldn’t get a song out of your head. Have you never? Cherished something. Cherished someone. Felt lonely. Felt loved. Experienced self-loathing, however brief. Saw a shape in a cloud, in the frost, in peeling paint. Anthropomorphized. Struggled to get out of bed. Felt different from other people. Felt transparent. Isolated, wept, couldn’t weep. Sought comfort, rejected it. Waxed nostalgic. Held one position so long that you couldn’t tell where one part of your body ended and another began. Felt that with a lover. Felt aroused. Climaxed. Obsessed. Pledged fidelity; changed. Felt rejected. Felt foolish. Felt your thoughts swirl, your heart race. Felt shamed by an internal critic. Struggled to draw breath. Saw or heard or felt something so beautiful, it hurt. So beautiful, it was almost intolerable. Been seized by fear. Said the wrong thing; spoke in anger. Struggled to find words. All these common experiences, these ordinary workings of the brain, differ from what we call “mental illness” not in substance, but in amplitude and harmonic impact. By that I mean: the brain is the organiest organ—synapses firing together form chords. Press the wrong keys, or too many at once, you get dissonance, cacophony—and deafening, at that. Even silence, in a compromised state, can roar. If you think you’re immune, think again. Be compassionate.

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FIRST DREAMS OF THE NEW YEAR

The sky was still black when I woke in awe from my first dreams of this new year. Other people’s dreams are, I know, commonly thought quite dull, but humor me — I’m still grateful to have been returned to a life in which I am able to sleep and wake normally, after 2019’s virulent nightmares and daymares that, yes, were hallucinations. This is the first time I’m typing that word for anyone to see.

2019 was the year I discovered the hard way that I have cavernous hemangiomas in my deep brain. They are little raspberry-shaped clusters of blood vessels that don’t belong and leaked into the tissue and cerebrospinal fluid and led to many extremely upsetting experiences. Among those were hallucinations and, following them, a kind of burial alive, six feet under the abject shame that my brain had failed me in that way, and that I hadn’t been able to recognize it or stop it from happening. Thankfully that shame has fallen away; it was a medical condition, inflammation in a region that’s acutely sensitive and, it is said, more complex than the whole universe. It could have happened to anyone, that vascular anomaly. Biology is not a meritocracy. Bodies we cultivate and care for can still be stricken by illness or accident.

Anyway — I have a friend, S, who just started teaching college courses. His field is religion. I asked him over the holidays what the word “mythopoetic” means to him, as it had drifted into my mind during our conversation. How strange that I should ask, he said, as he’d used that word for the very first time during a recent Zoom class.

In my dream, S volunteered to drive a young and impoverished pregnant woman, whom we’d happened to meet, ten hours to a prison to see the father of her child. Sitting in the passenger seat, the seat belt crossed over her belly, she looked at the wide country they traversed and spoke her thoughts aloud. Recounting this, S said to me, “I hope she’s able to find time as a single mother to write some of this down.” He told me what she’d said, gazing out the passenger window, that struck him the most: “When it comes to breath, there’s ‘my exhalation,’ which is lame — and ‘your exhalation,’ which is lame — and ‘the collective exhalation,’ which is lame — but when they gather over the sleeping land, they become spectral and beautiful.”

There’s some social realism in that dream; for example, the poor are far more likely to be imprisoned and sent far away from their families. It was her words, though, which I heard so distinctly in S’s voice, that made the greatest impression on me. The way I translate them for myself is, Regarding the essence of life, which ought to inspire and elevate, our discourse tends to fail and fall into cliches. Even so, there is a place beyond words where the echoes of words fall into a hush, and the true collective breath of all living things — the biosphere in its breathtaking mystery — maintains itself with or without us. Perhaps I found that as profound as I did because I was still half-asleep — but I looked at the clock and realized dawn was coming, so I made some coffee and drove out past the sleeping town to meet it. The sky was vast; the spectrum, diffuse, stretched along the length of the horizon. I was alive to the cold and the light. It was mythic. It was poetic.

Text and image copyrights on this site are held by me. The shame I experienced began to lift after I had my MRI and had a context for what had happened; but my ongoing hesitation to identify that I’d hallucinated points to, among other things, the deep internalization of stigma, as though a malfunctioning brain were a bruised fruit that might contaminate others. Feeling that way is dangerously isolating. Many thanks as always to those who’ve loved me through thick and thin, and those who gave me company in my pain. If you’d like to see more of this story, let me know, and I’ll try to write it — no promises! Happy New Year to one and all. EA