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.

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.

 

Lovers and Loners, a Short Story Collection

Thanks to my publisher and dear friend Mark McNease at MadeMark Publishing, my second collection of short stories, Lovers and Loners, is now available on Kindle. Those with other types of electronic tablets can simply download the Kindle app to their device. The paperback edition will be out in just a few days.

The stories in this new collection feature female protagonists who struggle for footholds in a shifting world. “Parasites” involves a widow who agrees to have dinner with a man she believes is a killer. “Manatee Gardens” explores the relationship between a mother and daughter who discover common ground at a marine sanctuary. In “Chasing Zero” a woman with a mysterious illness loses her hold on the callous man she adores. “Odds and Ends” follows a woman running errands on the last day of her life.

Lovers and Loners is a study of the human predicament: our eagerness and despair, our hidden fears and stubborn hopes, the blunders we make and the ways in which we are salvaged.

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For Audrey

One of our customers died last week. I didn’t know her well. I just knew that I liked her, that I wanted to see more of her, that I wish I could have told her what she gave us.

Audrey was her name. Tall, generously proportioned, she always came into the store smiling. Because of this, everyone wanted to assist her, to be part of this easy joy. We would ask her what she needed, and she would invite us to help her choose, would listen closely to our recommendations and defer to our knowledge of the plants and products we sell. Audrey never objected to our prices, higher of course than the box stores, evidently understanding that independent nurseries are struggling to survive. Each time she came in she told us how nice the stock looked, and she thanked us for the time we spent with her. How she loved flowers!

She was not elderly; her death was sudden and wrong. I am still recovering from it, trying to understand my feelings so that I may move on. Not that I expect to make any sense of her death. We live in a wild world of chance, and asking: why, why her, is a pointless pursuit. People die too soon all the time. What does bring me comfort is the certainty that she was happy: people mired in suffering don’t offer themselves so freely. Audrey’s was a spill-over joy, something she couldn’t help, something that rose from a private, boundless well.

Can I dig such a well for myself? Now there’s a question worth asking. Certainly we are born predisposed to certain behaviors. Joan Didion wrote that some people (especially writers) are “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I do believe that many of us are glass-half-empty people, and we must work harder at finding the things that bring us cheer.

Working in retail has given me ample opportunity to study the various ways people engage with the world. Some are meek, some are nervous; some are resentful, others punitive. I recall a woman who stunned me with her rancor. I had rung up her purchase and carried her plants to her car. As she was starting to drive off I wished her a good day, and she stopped short and glared at me. “What do you care? You don’t know me. You shouldn’t say things like that to people you don’t know. It’s phony. It’s meaningless.”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. My heart was beating in my ears. I did the oddest thing then: I waved good-bye, helplessly—a gesture that probably irked her even more.

As I walked back into the store, my shock gave way to indignation. I probably should have let it go—I couldn’t. All the rest of that afternoon, I fumed over this meanness, this assault. I wondered how much wreckage, in just one day, this woman left in her wake. I found her charge slip, noted her name and copied her address from the phone book. By the time I got home, I knew what I was going to do.

In the drawer of my desk I located a blank card with bluebirds and flowers on the front. Using a pretty font on the computer, I wrote a note, printed it out, then cut and pasted it into the card: “Some people, with their charm and warm smiles, make the world a better place. You are not one of them.” I typed her address and supplied no return identification.

Though this deed brought me ample satisfaction, it was not the end of the story. A year later she came back into the store, utterly changed. She was kind and complimentary, and when she signed her charge slip that day, she told me we had a nice staff. “If you can’t be nice,” she said, “then what good are you?” She looked up at me when she said this, but there was no malice in her eyes, and if she suspected that I was the card-sender, I saw she held no grudge. I carried her plants to her car and once again wished her a good day. “You too,” she said. She started to drive off, then stuck her head out the window. “Hey. I like your hair.”

I am a fretful sort, a woman too quick to retreat, a woman who doesn’t smile often enough. There is plenty in me to work with. Change is what life wants.

Though Audrey might have been born good-natured, she was a mortal like the rest of us and must have known pain and loss and fear. But what she put forward was her best self, the side of her that made us feel better.

This is for you, Audrey, with love and thanks.

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