The Stranger Upstairs

Spooky, isn’t it,
when you pull into your driveway
and realize you don’t remember the trip,
not one light or turn or stop sign.
While you argued with yourself, heedless to hazards,
your mind, loyal as a dog, brought you home.

For something we carry around every day,
we don’t know much about the brain.
How can a wad of lumpy grey tissue
run the show?
Do our fears and memories live in its folds?
When we sleep,
how can that cold blackness inside our skulls
create the smell of bacon,
a sun-spangled lake,
an orgasm?
How are we fooled night after night,
dropped inside a carnival world,
made to do unspeakable things?
For whose amusement do we perform?

“Where are my glasses?” we say to ourselves,
as if we are speaking to someone else,
a steadfast companion forged at birth.

Just a little bigger
than two clenched fists,
the brain is a riot of neurons:
100 billion twitchy cells,
each one connected
to thousands of others
in a tireless bombardment
of electricity and chemicals.

I picture it as a city.
A crisscross of streets
with lights and signs
controlling the traffic,
some roads well worn,
others unknown;
one ways that limit us,
dead ends that stop us.
There are places we frequent,
shadowy neighborhoods we avoid,
here and there
a rousing new enterprise.

Aim for the horizon
or stay on the tracks—
it’s your life,
at least for a while,
until all the streets
begin to look strange,
one after another
going dark and quiet,
leaving you stranded
in perfect stillness.
Home at last.

After the Fires

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Who am I to voice your grief?
I who lost nothing in the fires but sleep,
eight days of work.
You were left without a home.

Four bedrooms, two baths, the kitchen
you remodeled with cherry cabinets
and black granite counters.
It was like being in a jewelry box, you said.

There was your grandfather’s writing desk,
with its curved legs and tiny hidden drawers.
The long dining room table,
born from trees in Finland.
I could never resist running my hand
over its smooth hollows.

Paintings, small sculptures, photos from your travels.
That leopard in the tree, a red sun behind him.
You won an award for that.

The mantle!
That gorgeous mantle your daughter carved.
A year of her life went into it.

Gone. Everything.
Not just burned up—swallowed, mangled,
the fire an immense maw,
roaring down the mountain
faster than a man could run.

They had to paint street names on what was left
so that people could find where their homes had been.

You begin.
First a roof, then the rest: food, plates, cups, clothes, soap.
Your needs are savage, you see that now.
You cannot live on art, books, a priceless mantle,
though a part of you still knows they matter.

What shall I buy you?
A coat? A set of dishes? A Safeway giftcard?
Or something else,
some beautiful useless thing
you will turn to again and again.

To Boldly Go

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Recently I watched a video featuring astronauts. They were trying to express what it feels like to see the earth from space. One astronaut was fascinated by the way he could raise a thumb to the window and block out his home—the oceans, the rain forests, the Sahara, the Alps. Seven continents and eight billion people: there, gone, there again.

I could never do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space. I can trust my body to freeways, airplanes, certain medications and surgeries, but no way am I leaving the atmosphere. I thought it was odd that none of the astronauts used the word “panic” in describing the sight of earth through a porthole. A single glitch and their space ship could become space junk. They must not reflect on that; their minds, like their bodies, must be in excellent shape.

What they did mention was how organic the world appears, a blue ball of ever-flowing energy, with swirling storms and flashes of lightning. They spoke of the planet’s stunning fragility, the “paper thin” layer of atmosphere barely hugging the surface—our only protection from cosmic destruction. There was footage of the damage we’ve done, the scars and erosions and clear-cutting so evident from the clarity of space.

Out there, the sun is not the sun as we know it, not the dependable orb that gloriously rises and sets, but just a star, one of billions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, is an imponderable bit of luck.

The cosmos stretches in all directions, swallowing space and time. To be out there, in that black forever, is to see infinity. And to see the earth from this other-worldly place is to see its plight. There it somehow is, the blue planet, our only home in the universe. One of the astronauts used the term “Spaceship Earth,” because that is how he sees us, a vast crew with one destiny. Scientists call this perception of oneness the “overview effect.” It does not dawn on you gradually, the astronauts attest. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One. And unless we start acting like it, unless we pull together and work as one, we will wreck the only ship we have.

When these travelers return from space, the transition cannot be easy. Finding themselves back on earth, their first reaction is probably relief—the shuttle held together. They must stumble around a bit, trying to get their land legs back after floating in a vacuum. Gravity must feel like a weight. Some astronauts spend half a year above the earth; what happens to their bodies when they land—do six months of wrinkles appear all at once? Do they feel the pull of the planet when they walk?

But what I really want to know is how they manage later, when they are fully restored and back in their Nikes and Nissans. What do they think of war, the stock market, hair loss, teeth whitening, reality TV? When they look up into the night sky, are they homesick? And when they walk among us, having seen the big picture, are they lonely?

 

Ghost Stories

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Occasionally, always in the evening, my cat will turn her head and stare at something I can’t see. She will follow this invisible entity with her eyes as it moves, apparently, along the wall just below the ceiling. She does not seem alarmed by what she perceives, just keenly interested. After a moment or two, she will blink and look away, settle back into my lap. Whether the object of her attention disappears or she simply grows bored with it, I will never know.

Two of my previous cats displayed this same behavior, and several people have told me that every now and then their cats are likewise enthralled. “It’s their eyes,” a friend says, “those elliptical pupils. Their eyes absorb light and then reflect it—like headlights on a road sign. Cats see a whole world we don’t.” I have no idea what my cat sees in the dark; I only know that sometimes, in my living room at night, we are not alone.

A couple years ago I met a woman at a party, a grief counselor named Anne. I liked her calm, her attentiveness; I thought she was probably very good at what she did. We fell into an easy friendship, and one day, over lunch at a Korean restaurant, I mentioned my cat and her odd way of peering at the ceiling. Anne forked up some beef. “They’re out there, alright.”

“Who?”

“Ghosts,” she said, “spirits. Whatever you want to call them.”

I sipped my rice wine, studied her a moment. “You seem pretty definite about that.”

“It was the kids,” she said, looking up at me. “When I started counseling kids, I learned a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many children see ghosts.”

I stopped chewing. “You mean like the movie? Like ‘I see dead people’?”

“Something like that,” said Anne, nodding. “They see their relatives—grandmothers, brothers, fathers. People who have died recently.”

“Wow,” I murmured. “They must be terrified.”

“That’s just it. Most of them aren’t afraid. They’re not really haunted, these kids. It’s more like they’re…visited.” She paused, considered. “It sounds like their parents, grandparents, whatever, just sort of appear and hang out for awhile.” Her eyes widened. “It’s like the kids don’t know that this isn’t supposed to happen, so it does. They allow it.”

“How old are these kids?”

“Six, seven, eight. I’ve talked with four-year-olds who’ve seen ghosts.”

I paused, reflecting on this possibility, and then my mind snapped shut. “Lots of kids have imaginary friends. Don’t you think they might be imagining their relatives, willing them to be?”

Anne nodded. “Some of them, maybe. But Jean, the consistency is amazing. I’ve asked these kids the same questions on different days and they’ve answered exactly the same way. Their recall blows me away.”

“What about your adult clients? Do they ever see spirits?”

“Rarely. In eight years I’ve spoken with just three.”

“I wonder why it’s so common with children.”

“I’ve wondered about that, too,” Anne said. “Maybe it’s because they’re closer to their time of birth. Closer to creation. And of course they’re more open than we are.”

I have heard—I suppose we all have—a few stories about unexplained encounters: sounds or feelings or visions beyond the margins of daily life. I remember an especially convincing account told to me by a math professor. We were sitting at her kitchen table while our spouses chatted outside. The house we were in had once been inhabited by my partner’s grandparents, and the property held many happy memories for her. This teacher—her name was Elizabeth—told me that she and her husband loved the house and were delighted we had come for a visit. I asked if she had any children, and she said no, conceding that it was a big house for just the two of them, especially since her father had died. “He lived with us for several years—he died four months ago.” I expressed my sympathy and she smiled. “Well, we had a nice goodbye.”

I looked at her quizzically and she folded her arms on the table and told me something that made me stop breathing. For three nights after his death, she said, her father had visited her. They had sat at this table—he in the chair I was in—and talked about life, about things they had not shared or explained or apologized for before his death. She said it was the sweetest time, the easiest time, they had ever spent together. After three nights, she went on, everything they needed to say had been said; they both knew it. “He didn’t come back after that,” she finished, looking up from the table.

I couldn’t understand. “You talked? Like we’re talking?”

“No. Not like that. We talked without speaking. My husband couldn’t see him, but he knew something was there in the room with me. He left us alone those nights.”

I must have looked dubious because she gave a shrug and said, “You’re not the first person who thinks I’m crazy.” She paused, regarded me straight on. “What can I tell you? It happened. You can believe it or not.”

That the thing about ghost stories, isn’t it? The listener knows they are not true, the speaker knows they are.

The last story I will tell you concerns an artist friend of mine, a first-rate photographer. Before she began taking pictures, she worked as a forensic psychic for a police department in Chicago. I didn’t know what a forensic psychic was until she explained it to me. At first I thought she saw the future and could predict crimes, but she said no, she could not do that and she doubted anyone could. She told me that she had gone to crime scenes—always homicide—where, in her mind’s eye, she sometimes saw the violence that had taken place. “It had to be a recent crime,” she added.

I was impressed. “Did you actually solve cases?”

“Oh yes. Several. Not so much the crimes that had taken place outdoors—I was better at seeing things that had happened in a house or apartment. I saw the people that had been involved and the police used my descriptions to find them.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “What a talent.”

She frowned. “Well, I don’t know how much talent is involved. See, after something violent happens there is residual energy in the space. Like images left on the retina when you close your eyes. After a time, that energy goes away and the room is just a room—at least that’s how it was for me. That’s why I couldn’t do anything with cold cases.”

“Have you seen this kind of stuff all your life?”

“No, thank god. It started in my twenties. I’d see a broken window, or a smashed-up car, and I’d get this glimpse of the people who had been there, the victims and the bad guys. I started working with the police when I was thirty-four. I quit after three years.”

“Why?”

She gave me an incredulous look. “Are you kidding? It was awful, seeing those things. It was wrecking my life. That’s why I left Chicago and moved to the wine country. It’s a whole lot nicer here.”

There is a photo circulating on the internet, beach sand viewed through a 250x microscope. It’s a stunning surprise, all those bits of beauty beneath our feet—honeycombs of coral, tiny crosses of glass, sea shells almost too small to be. Who knew?

As I writer, I am always trying to get to the bottom of things, the hidden, ever-retreating truth. There’s so much going on that we can’t see. In their possibility, the stories I’ve been told haunt me. I’m not saying I believe them, I’m not saying I don’t. I’m just saying.

The Solace of Atheism

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Religion denies the finality of death, claiming that something else awaits us.

Christianity offers a duality: a glorious heaven filled with lost loved ones or a fiery everlasting hell. Purgatory is a transitional stop where many sinners are made pure through suffering before ascending to heaven. God, the omnipotent ruler, decides who goes where.

Hindus eschew the idea of heaven or hell and believe that souls linger after death for a few days before finding new bodies to inhabit or, if they were exemplary, eternal salvation freed from mundane cares.

The Islam faith holds that the souls of righteous believers are effortlessly delivered from the body and sent to eternal paradise, while the souls of sinners and non-believers experience excruciating pain while being ripped through the body and finally sent to a hell. The Islamic hell is comprised of seven layers, the lowest being the most torturous, filled with fire, boiling water and scorching wind. Allah decides who heads to heaven or hell, and who might eventually be pulled from hell based on their degree of atonement. Those who try to escape hell without Allah’s permission are dragged by iron hooks back into the agonizing abyss.

Buddhists believe that the body dies and disappears, but the mind continues. Rebirth occurs based on behavior in the past life. The finest souls enjoy enlightenment and suffer no more. Human rebirth is the next best option; those inhabiting a new body can make up for their past mistakes. Miscreants born into a hell realm are destined to suffer greatly. But over time, eons if need be, all souls are granted enlightenment.

According to Jewish tradition, everyone has an everlasting soul; the body is given back to God. Souls live on the memories of their loved ones. After a person passes, people close to them will rip their clothing, a biblical tradition symbolizing that person being torn away. There is no definitive answer regarding the existence of heaven or hell, though there is hope that something lies beyond.

Ancient Egyptians were more focused on the afterlife than this one. If the dead were worthy, they were said to enter a splendid place similar to their earthly lives but without the pain and hardship. The soul’s journey was considered perilous, and for this reason the body was carefully prepared before burial and fully equipped afterward. Tombs were filled with everything the soul might need; if some of these items were too large, pictures of them were drawn on the walls.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also believed in the soul’s journey, but their views were more elaborate, involving several deities who meted out reward or punishment. Heroes were sent to sunny Elysium, the bad were sentenced to Tartarus and punished by The Furies. Decent citizens who had not achieved greatness were sent to the Fields of Asphodel to forget all that they knew on earth and live for eternity as “shades.” Those who died unjustly were sometimes forgiven and allowed to return to earth.

Gods were believed to control everything, not just man’s ultimate fate but the luck, or lack of it, he encountered on earth. What the ancients could not explain, they assigned to a god. Bounty or catastrophe, the gods took credit for it and man, awaiting his fate, cowered below.

We can now explain thunder and rainbows and the moon’s effect on our tides, but most people still adhere to the notion of an apocryphal godhead to whom they pray, even if these prayers go unanswered. Perhaps this behavior is ancestral: the desire to belong, to be in a club, to sit shoulder to shoulder with like-minded brethren. Maybe this sense of belonging is amplified, validated, in the new mega churches swollen with righteous believers. How could so many be wrong?

If the world’s religions were self-contained, there would be no problem. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Throughout human history, religious differences and dissension have led to untold atrocities, and the hostility does not seem to be ebbing. Warring faiths, with their stringent dogma and divisive rhetoric, will not teach us how to be good.

Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not nihilism, nor denial, nor is it contentious. It is simply a way of living without belief in deities. One may wish to have faith in a god and still be an atheist.

I find atheism peaceful. Unable to accept the presence of a supreme deity, I have no trouble seeing the holiness in everything from a tiny pebble to a giant panda.

When disasters occur, I don’t have to struggle with my faith; I don’t need to reconcile a beneficent god with a catastrophic hurricane.

And as for the fear of death, so what if there is no heaven or hell, no god pointing a finger? When the body fails and the brain goes offline, we lose consciousness. If we slip into nothingness, which seems the most likely scenario, what is there to fear?

Some cite “life after death” experiences as evidence of a divine dimension waiting for us. These accounts are not incompatible with secular views. Given the mind’s love of stories, flashbacks and images of loved ones strike me as perfectly natural. As the curtain closes, why wouldn’t the whole cast of characters be summoned?

And that mesmerizing white light—maybe it’s consciousness, flaring one last wondrous time before darkness falls, in soft velvet folds, taking us back to the realm of pure possibility, where all that ever was begins and ends.

 

Face Value

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Sometimes while shopping, I experience a flush of satisfaction as I cruise past the items that don’t pertain to me: baby food, condoms, curling irons, hair coloring kits. Ignoring all that energy and advertising confers what feels like power. I also snub the cosmetics, aisle after aisle of them (though I do brush a little color on my cheeks each day to appear more alive). I did use makeup when I was a young woman—mascara, eye liner, eye shadow, lipstick—the whole mob; even streaked my hair. Ironic that now, with my shrinking eyebrows and gray hair, I have turned my back on the props.

In a culture that values youth and beauty, aging is not easy, particularly for women. As toddlers we begin to perceive the sovereignty of Barbie and Cinderella, and woe to little girls who are not conventionally pretty, who will be molded by this knowledge in ways they will not understand. I like to think that compensation awaits these girls, that having less to lose, getting older will be a bit easier.

Stopped in traffic one time, I looked to my left, at an elderly woman behind the wheel of a Mercedes coupe. For a moment our eyes met and she tried to smile—perhaps she thought she managed it; what I saw was a  grimace, the skin so taut it appeared to be covered with cellophane. Her eyelids were drooping under the weight of false lashes, her mouth was a fire red gash and her hair—the color of cantaloupes—was elaborately rigged on top of her head. She was fierce, this woman. She had time in a stranglehold and she was not giving up an inch. She was losing, she knew it, but she was not giving up.

I don’t have that kind of fight in me, don’t want to battle the years I have left. As far as I’m concerned, the only practical response to aging is forgiveness, excusing each new erosion as it appears. What can we do with our body but love it, love it all the more for its diminishing street value.

In arming themselves for public view, women in the United States spend more money than any country in the world, yet rank 23rd in the “Satisfaction With Life Index.” Japan comes in second in cosmetics spending, with a satisfaction ranking of  90.  Two countries that spend the least on cosmetics and hair care — Netherlands and Sweden — have the best rankings in the SWLI.

From an early age, we receive the message that we are not good enough, and the volume only increases as we get older. Accepting this notion, we harness our lives. We spend our days hiding from ourselves and each other, never imagining there might be a better way to live. The cost of accepting our natural selves? Nothing. Nor does it take any time. Wake up, slip on some love, and walk out the door.

 

Photo credit: Foter.com

Of Burgers And Barrooms

As one of the contributors (“The Side Bar”), I am pleased to announce the upcoming publication of Main Street Rag’s Of Burgers and Barrooms. This exuberant collection of prose and poetry, featuring 140 authors,  encompasses the hilarious and the heartbreaking in a delightful exploration of bars and fast food restaurants. Please follow the link to MSR’s online bookstore page where Of Burgers and Barrooms can be purchased at a generous discount prior to publication.

Main Street Rag Publishing Company has been publishing our print magazine, The Main Street Rag, uninterrupted since 1996. Among its features are poetry, short fiction, photography, essays, interviews, reviews, and commentary.”

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