fear [fir] n.

If you look up the word “pheer” (because if you’re me you think misspelling things is the height of hilarity this soon in the day)… it leads you to the word “fere” which is defined as:

fere [fɪə (Scot) fiːr]
n Scot
1. a companion
2. Also fier a husband or wife
[Old English gefēra, from fēran to travel; see fare]

Considering the day I had Saturday, this makes me laugh. But I’ll get to that later.

fear (fîr) n.
1. a. A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger.

In the novel Dune, the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear says “Fear is the mind killer.” Yeah, tell me about it.

I’ve been on my own for a few years now. Not dating. Not looking to date. Placidly and safely finishing raising my teenage daughter. Okay, so not so placidly, but still. Not adding to the insanity with romantic drama on top of it. But some months back, completely unlooked for, I met someone. You know that thing that happens when you see someone across a room and it’s like a lightning bolt hits you in the skull? Yeah, it was kind of like that. But, of course, being me… I held perfectly still so no one would notice. Least of all him.

Fast forward several months. My daughter is off to college. This man and I have been spending time together. You know, “just hanging out” as I tell people. I don’t tell anyone about the paralyzing terror that grips me periodically out of nowhere. I say I’m dealing with the grief of losing my father one year ago. I say I’m dealing with the change of my daughter leaving the nest. I say my dog has cancer. These things are all true. But they are not the whole truth.

Mostly, I’m terrified of how much I like this man. And how, out of nowhere, every once in a while, I become certain that he’s preparing to disappear from my life completely. Any. Second. Now.

I never wanted to be one of those people who was afraid to love. And yet, recently, it has really begun to dawn on me that I have been. All my adult life. How is it that I missed this fact?

I have always ascribed my lack of success in relationships to my character defects. To my ability to find the biggest alcoholic in any room and be drawn to him like a magnet to a metal gangster. To having been raised by wolves. What I never really got was what moved beneath these half-truths. Jesus God. I’m terrified. Likely if you polled the people who have known me best over the years they would say, “Well duh.” I’m always the last to know. Wiley Coyote, Super Genius.

There is an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer titled “Fear Itself”. In it, the characters are trapped in a haunted house on Halloween. All their worst fears begin to manifest in 3D in the house around them as they feel each one. They don’t know what is happening at first. They just think it’s demons. Turns out, they are right. It’s the Fear demon. A tiny little angry creature that had been summoned in a magick circle up in the attic accidentally by stupid college frat boys. Classic.

That pretty much describes my day Saturday. It didn’t take much. A last minute change in plans. Long periods of silence over the course of the day. My brain. Next thing I know, I’m locked in the silent spiral of badness where I am absolutely certain that he is planning his escape, and this is just the first shot over the bow. Warning, warning, red alert! Impending iceberg! All hands on deck!! I won’t bother with the details of the story my mind spun. Suffice to say, it wasn’t good. It’s never good.

Thing is, I couldn’t blame it on anything else at the end of the day. I had to face facts. I am a giant freak.

What is the use of fear? What practical purpose does it serve? I’m sure my mind believes it’s doing me some kind of favor. “It’s for your own good,” I can hear it say to me. I remember this incident with my mom when I was a young woman. We’d had some people over to the house, one of which was this woman who had just returned from Africa, where she had bought beads and seen wild animals. She told us the story of her flight home, and how they bumped her up to first class out of nowhere. The little hot hand towels they gave her. The actual food. The champagne. I said to my mother when she had left, “Someday that’s what I want my life to be like.” “Don’t count on it,” my mother said. It felt like a slap in the face. Years later, when I asked her why she had said that to me she said, “I just didn’t want you to be disappointed, dear.”

There it is. The hall monitor of my sub conscious. Trying to keep me from running with scissors. Thing is, the hall monitor is broken. The hall monitor seems to think all running is bad. Or walking. Or using scissors of any kind. Even the ones with the rounded ends. I think it’s time to fire the hall monitor. I’ll just have to take my chances that I might get my lunch money stolen one of these days.

Canadian author Merle Shain said “Loving can cost a lot but not loving always costs more, and those who fear to love often find that want of love is an emptiness that robs the joy from life.” Word up, Merle. I hear you knocking. My new motto is: Fuck you, fear. You’re a tiny little small minded demon in a polyester suit. I have a pocket full of bandaids and I’m running down the hallways of my life. Neener neener. You can’t stop me.

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Hay Truck

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Make a wish,” my father would say when we passed a hay truck.  And I would.  My wishes rode the highways of this country, each one borne into the bellies of cows and horses.  Back to earth again.  When I was older he confided in me that he always wished to see another hay truck, that way he’d be sure to live forever.  Now I wonder at that.  He has never seemed particularly happy with his life or himself, yet he craves immortality.

Sometimes I get up in the night, too full of everything to sleep it away.  Making up, perhaps, for the long years of my life I stumbled through, half asleep at all times.  The fact that now, in my wakefulness, I cannot uncouple what is painful from what is pleasurable I take as inevitable, and am grateful to feel anything at all.  Even when I can’t sleep because of it.

Last night I got up in your room and stood in the corner near the window where the streetlight filtered through the thin cotton of the curtain, watching you sleep, making wishes in the dark.  Like a child I want only what is good and happy and fair.  As if rewards are the logical progression of hard work and suffering borne out.  Each wish whispered into your room – small bubbles floating out the open window among the singing crickets and neighbors arriving home late.  Each wish pretty and real and whole;  many more where those came from.  Sometime later I slept, my dreams filled with knowledge of the futile, with the necessary, with your eyes up close, saying it all.

Sometimes I see a hay truck and there are so many wishes that rise up out of me at once I am loathe to weigh its flat beds down with them.  How can one hay truck carry so much hope: peace, happiness, no pollution, equality of prosperity, true love, that there be enough.  I’d be afraid to live forever.  The hay truck passes out of sight.  I’m moving fast on the freeway.  Why only hay trucks?  I make a wish on a redwood, on a swathe of wildflowers, on a muddy white horse in a field.  I wish on the storm riding in over the hills.  I make wishes all the way home.

C. Drengsen, 1999

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Starlings

I

Between the whispered motion of a starling’s flank, and a haunted twist of cloud, there moves a quick thought, or half thought, leading further in and away, or towards, all the reasons we rise in the morning, despite how, in Haiti, an orphaned toddler waits, in a muddy field, without water, for a slightly better life, that may or may not come to pass, and may lead instead to further injustices: the unwanted touch of a priest’s hand; guns too early, or at all; a needle the easiest and most reliable ally.

But lightning tells us anyway, if we listen, injustice is just another point on an infinite map, where there be dragons, or not dragons, or not not.  Lay your finger down anywhere.  Pick it up again.  It won’t matter.  Time marches on, or saunters, or does a pirouette, and we can’t catch the beat quite, except for fleeting moments, which are beautiful, so excruciatingly so that we look away, and only hear the rise of an entire murmurration of  starlings, lift from elegant branches in the dead of winter, breaking the brittle air, and even then, though we don’t think it will be, it’s enough.

II

Storms are coming in.  Storms skipping ahead of El Nino, the little bastard, doing his periodic dance over the equatorial ocean.  The jet stream giveth, and the jet stream taketh away.  There’s no rhyme or reason.  Just the Southern Oscillation, and it’s consequences.  Once again, we’re Mother Nature’s  personal nag.  She rides us like a steed until we’re broken and spent.  The least she could do is throw a blanket over our withers as we shiver and groan inside our fragile stable walls.

Storms of the heart are washing in as well.  I try to stay ahead of them in my little skiff, but the best I will likely do is ride them up one peak and down the other, praying I don’t capsize.

Up in the air, much higher than flocks of starlings rook and rise and land again, I ride inside my ex husband’s private jet, traveling each weekend to family sessions in our teenage daughter’s rehab program.  He spends long hours chattering up the still air between us with versions of reality that bend light into a spectrum of his own victim-hood.  Accusations and blame are tossed around like confetti, falling on everyone else but himself.  I brush it off my sweater and try to remember to breathe.  He sucks down another Guinness and makes sure to swallow three Oxycotin before dinner with me and his new wife, who is quiet and sincere, but suffers from delusions and aggresive paranoia in the wake of her frequent petit mal seizures.  The food is excellent, the atmosphere exquisite.  I stare out the porthole at my seat and try not to think too much about plummeting down through the clouds, the icy wind shredding my dermis as I fall.  That kind of pain seems like a welcome relief from this one at the moment.

I’ve worked hard in my own recovery.  Fourteen years this week, and still chugging along.  The little addict who could.  It’s hard to keep my thoughts from augering into that place where all they do is harp on the unfairness of this all.  I paid my dues already.  I bribed the gatekeeper.  I thought we had a pact, gods.  Do what you want to me, but leave my daughter alone.  Clearly there was some misunderstanding.  Looks like it was mine.

I have a friend with whom I argue about climate change.  He’s a jar head, I’m a tree hugger.  He likes to insist that the climate does what it wants, and we, as puny humans have little or no influence or effect on the swell and ebb of temperatures and their constellations.  Ice Ages come and go, and we are but specks of dust.  I like to remind him that specks of dust don’t build textile factories and metallurgical plants that spew toxins into their own nests.  He and I have a wager.  In twenty years, I bet him, we’re going to see ever more catastrophic effects from our impact on global climate.  If I’m wrong, I owe him a blow job.  If I’m right, he has give me one.  Right now, though, I see his point.  I’m feeling extra puny and the winds are blowing pretty hard.  Hard to keep track of who exactly is getting blown.

It would be easy to be disheartened, given it all.  But above all, I’m stubborn.  Like Dylan Thomas, I refuse to go gently into that good night.  It may be the one time when being a cantankerous middle aged coot has it’s advantages.  I’m like Sergeant Dan, legless and strapped to the crows nest in a hurricane, shaking his fist at the skies and daring the sea to swallow him at last.  Fuck you, gods, I’m still here.  Along with Port-au-Prince, Kabul, Brazzaville, Banda Ache and Darfur.  And really, next to them, what the hell do I have to complain about?

III

Blackbirds rise in a blurry dissimulation from the vineyards of my home.  Here the soil is fertile and the crops verdant, for now.  The locals tip wine into their mouths and let fall treasures or poison, depending.  Things are much the same as they’ve ever been.  Some predicting catastrophe and apocalypse; others bounty and infinite wonder.

Starlings push Bluebirds from their nests to make a home.  In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t seem to matter much.  Plenty of fat Bluebirds still populate my neighborhood, tearing worms from the soil and plucking pomegranate seeds from drying fruit on bare branched trees.  Each bring me the same amount of joy when sighted, or not, depending on my mood.  Don’t hate the Starling.  It’s cold out there as the storms are whipping in off the indifferent jet stream.  They have but a dozen years to settle and brood, learning the sound of twenty different calls, sometimes sixty whole songs, including the sound of your car alarm.  Not bad for a brain the size of a pellet.

My roommate’s daughter Sophia is five, and blonde, and wide eyed, and impish.  We draw birds together and she worries that hers won’t look right, but tries anyway, and is delighted with the bird on one side of her paper, disappointed with the bird on the other.  So it goes.  I like them both, and tell her so.  Sophia decides that one of the birds is a bluejay, the other a chickadee.  Gods of our paper universes, we give them nests, and sky, and eggs.  The rest they will have to scratch together for themselves.

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I have heard the mermaids singing each to each

I am not married.  When there is a form on which I must choose a category for myself, I usually check “divorced.”  But it has been so long – fifteen years now – that I cannot even really remember what being married was.  It was another life.  Another me.  I certainly remember what it feels like to get a divorce.  (Bloody awful).  But being married is like a vague shimmer inside an occluded antique glass bottle.  Me, now… I am not married.

For years I was the odd person out in rooms full of married couples, paired pairs, those with live-ins, breeders and non-breeders alike.  Some of my friends even had multiple partnerships going on at once.  Complications.  For years I stood outside the window looking in, wanting to hammer on the glass.  Hello!  How do I get in?!  They all looked so merry and content.  Drinking their wines and eating pates and water crackers.  And I don’t even like pate.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have had my dalliances.  Lots of romance.  Lots of complications.  Entanglements.  Drama.  Fun.  But not that partnership thing.  Not the ‘two souls made one’ thing.  Not for years.  Every dalliance, in my mind, was a potential partnership, never just the thing it was.  Every day, “Is this the one?”  “Is this the one?”  Exhausting.

Then, at some point, maybe gradually, the happy smiles of the couples on the other side of the glass started to look a little strained to me.  Like perhaps they weren’t really laughing, maybe instead they were grinding their teeth.  Clenching their jaws.  Sticking a pin into their own hand underneath the table.  Biting their own cheek to keep from screaming.  Every couple that I knew, one by one, disintegrated into a stubborn dissatisfaction with one another.  Resentments.  Grudges.  Outright pitched battles.  Secrecies.  Subterfuge.  Elaborate conspiracies.  The “happy” dress-up game slipped out of place.  Some of them even stopped pretending to be grownups.

Soon it began to dawn on me that there were benefits to being on this side of the glass.  One female friend of mine said to me one day, “You’re lucky you have so much freedom.  You can be anything you want every day you wake up.  I’m stuck having to be what I promised to be the day we got married.”  Suddenly it was she who looked like she was desperate.  I felt for her.  But mostly, I felt for myself a sense of relief that that wasn’t me.  I might not have really remembered what it was like to feel married, but I definitely remember what it was like to feel trapped.

I spend a lot of time alone.  I think I used to feel lonely a lot.  Not so much now.  I relish my time alone.  I wallow in it.  People I know talk about their partner in terms of being constrained by them.  “So and so wouldn’t like it if I did such and such.”  My mind just boggles.  So and so can bite me.

But Valentines Day is coming.  I keep thinking I should care.  Bright red plastic hearts are everywhere.  Diamond commercials.  Fancy dinner reservations being made over the phone while I sit and read the free paper and drink my coffee in town.  I make plans to buy myself some chocolate truffles and listen to Stan Getz.

In aloneness there is a lot of silence, or at least quiet.  In it, sometimes, as T. S. Eliot said, you can hear the mermaids singing each to each.  It is the rare relationship where there is enough quiet to hear such distant and uncommon things.  Rare that two people should both care to listen, in the same moment.  Some things only really come to the lone wanderer.

I didn’t plan to spend my life alone.  Perhaps I won’t forever.  But for now, deeply relished and unscripted, I will walk upon the beach, ride seaward on the waves, and linger in the chambers of the sea.  Gratefully, passionately, not married.

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Zombies

When I was six years old I saw my first zombie.  It was on Creature Features late one night while my parents were out.  Night of the Living Dead.  The menacing, unstoppable hoards terrified me and held me riveted to my seat.  The people were trapped in a house, surrounded, unable to sleep and the zombie plague was spreading among them already.  The situation looked hopeless.

My parents came home and pulled me out of the room, horrified that I had been subjected to such terrors.  The older kids of the families we lived with in the commune were scolded.  I was put to bed.  I wasn’t able to see the end of the movie where the survivors were rescued.  Where the zombie hoards were killed and burned in piles.  In my mind, for the rest of my childhood, zombies walked the world as soon as night fell.  My only protection was to be under the covers.  Never look out the window in the dark.

Lately I’ve been noticing how foreign other people can seem to me.  Especially in groups.  Faced with a hoard of humans all I see are a wall of eyes.  Suspect.  Perhaps menacing.  Certainly unknowable.  There are good reasons for this in my mind.  I had a childhood filled with a long history of bad experiences at the hands of other people: teased at school, ditched and taunted by older kids, tricked, manipulated, damaged, humiliated.  My adult life has echoed with similar themes.

In Jewish folklore there is a character known as a golem, an animated anthropomorphic being created entirely from inanimate matter.  As Adam was created by Yaweh from earth, so golem are created from mud by holy men.  They are set in motion by writing “truth” on their foreheads.  They can move, but not speak.  Not think.  Some Jewish friends of mine call non-Jews by a derivative word, goyim.  I have heard from some of them talk about how they learned to see the world of non-Jews.  As something somewhat less than human.  Fit for manual labor.  Filled with crazy ideas.  Goyishe nachas.

I’m not a Jew, but I can relate.

Mary Shelley created Frankenstein.  In her story, he was the golem, created from dead parts and reanimated by the holy scientist of the modern age.  But in the end, he was turned to monster by the ignorant hoards of villagers, who persecuted him out of their own fear and misunderstanding.  The mob was the real monster.

Australian philosopher, David Chalmers writes of the “philosophical zombie“. A “hypothetical person who lacks full consciousness but has the biology or behavior of a normal human being.”  I’m pretty sure this is how I see the world of humans outside my own head.

Even lovers of mine.  Or perhaps especially lovers of mine.  Each person is quantified by a list of positive and negative characteristics.  Assets.  Liabilities.  1) handsome  2) too tall 3) smart 4) smart ass 5) does dishes 6) stares at other women while talking to me 7) sexy hands 8 laughs like a dolphin.  Almost nothing on the list ever has anything to do with who they really are.  I’m fairly certain I have no idea who they are.  It’s hard to get to know someone when all you see is a wall of eyes while you worry if your lipstick is smeared.  Hard to value someone else when your first instinct is to tally up the social currency of being seen with them on your arm.

It doesn’t seem to matter that I am no model of perfection myself.  These are my delusions, and apparently they are certain I walk the earth a gorgeous living goddess.

Lately I’ve been practicing being part of the human race, if I can.  I speak to strangers and try to ask them real questions about themselves.  To listen to their answers as if my life depended on it.  I am beginning to suspect that it does.  If I see someone I immediately assess as frighteningly flawed in some key way, I make myself look at them until I see the beauty behind their eyes.  Each time I do this I am surprised to discover that afterward I cannot see them any other way.

I still believe other people are dangerous, unpredictable, suspect.  There is no magic tonic to swallow to change my past.  But perhaps I can learn to see the difference between a hand open in friendship and one clenched around a torch or pitchfork.  Perhaps a wall of eyes doesn’t have to look as if it’s thinking with one mind “brains!”.

Today I am wandering out among the zombie hoards.  The flesh I save may be my own.

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The Drinking Gourd

The Drinking Gourd

Arcturus Major tips across the sky on a still summer night.  It’s too hot inland.  I’m standing on the beach in the dark praying for a breeze to follow me home when I go.  This close to the sea I can almost touch my father, who died one year ago next week.  I hear his voice singing in the still air:  “Follow the drinking gourd, follow the drinking gourd.  For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom.  Follow the drinking gourd.”  It’s an old folk song he used to sing when he got tipsy.  By the time he was full on drunk he would move on to endless rounds of Irene Goodnight.  I remember standing in the doorways of parties wanting to listen to him sing, with my mother shooing us out and away home with her, a look of shame and irritation on her face.

According to popular legend, The Drinking Gourd is a song from the days of slavery and the Underground Railroad.  It was a way that escaping slaves from the south could communicate to one another to follow the Big Dipper north to freedom.  My dad was part of the Civil Right movement of the 1960s.  White, liberal, democratic agitator.  He worked to find blacks housing in Placer County.  Joined the Peace and Freedom Party.  Got his name on an FBI list somewhere for appearing at a rally where the Black Panthers showed up.  My dad, the commie pinko.

But really, when I think about it, I think the song for him was about drinking. My dad the wino.  Getting drunk was his path to freedom.  Freedom from the prison of his mind, where he was anxious and tortured and angry and ashamed his entire life.  He talked about it his final years.  How when he tried to quit he just couldn’t stand it.  Six weeks is the longest he ever made it without a drink.

Oh how I know what he means.  Some days I’m trapped inside my skull with some of the meanest thoughts about myself you could ever think to hear.  Or just that feeling that I want to tear my own skin off to feel better.  On those days I want to reach for something so badly I have to sit perfectly still so as not to shatter.  I have chosen sobriety for a long time now, but the animal in my gullet still tries to claw it’s way out sometimes.  It pushes me to reach for fame, work, food, distractions, driving fast, approval, sex, love, possessions, careless choices, anything, anything, anything.  Anything but silence.  Anything but feeling like this.

Thank God it eventually passes.

At the bottom of the well of this misery lies the simple fear of being alone.  Not alone in a room.  Not alone in life.  But alone in all of space and time.  Existentially alone.  Aloneness that never ends.

The Big Dipper tips in the sky above me.  My feet touch the sand beneath them.  There is the tiniest of cool breezes off the crashing water in front of me.  In the dark the sand feels like ashes and I wish I had brought the small container of my fathers ashes with me so I could mix them in the sand, paint them on my body, pour them down my gullet with the world so I can feel connected again.  Instead I drop down into the sand and beg for this feeling to be lifted from me.  Offer this feeling up to the waves and the sand and the sky.  To my dead father who is everywhere now.  To this distant God I have never known.  To the small gods who cluster around me with their tiny offerings.  I am of this earth.  This much is clear.  Something deeper in me has to decide to reside here.

Drinking gourds carried water to slaves working in the fields.  Water that rescued them each day, getting them through the hot struggle of their lives a little further, a little closer to the possibility of freedom.  Here tonight, I lie in the sand under the cool lip of the stars and pray for water, not wine.

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Lost Coast

When I feel lost, like I kind of do today, this is where I want to be this time of year. It’s been way too long, truth be known. My body wants to be out in the wilds. Out in the woods. Out at the coast. This coast. The Lost Coast. Usal Creek.

Growing up we spent weeks there each summer. It seems like I almost could call that home. A couple of years ago I went back for the first time in forever. It was exactly the same. My heart healed a little. All the destruction we thought was marching relentlessly toward that paradise was averted. Thanks to tireless souls who labored to have it protected.

Now I’m piling my camping gear into the car. Now I’m loading up the dog. Now I’m driving north, out of the smog and the traffic and the constant rush rush rush of life. Now I’m passing Indian Maiden Rock. Now I’m passing Hopland. Now I’m passing Richardson Grove and the Eel River. Now I’m approaching Leggett and the turn off. Soon I’ll be where it’s quiet and the creek water is cold. Where you can fry up some little night runners over the fire and then walk to the beach for the day through a grove of cottonwood trees and birches. Where you can walk under old growth redwood trees for miles and never see a soul. I’m going to get lost there. And then I’ll be found. Maybe. If I’m lucky.

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