“Pull Up A Pencil”

It was late. Very late. But there was homework to do before tomorrow. It was the big contradiction of my freshman year of college. I always finished my homework, but I never started it before midnight. Either doing it earlier or not doing it all would have been better for my health, but I had too much fun socializing to seriously consider the former, and the latter was ruled out by my sense of responsibility for school, such as it was. So I was often up until four in the morning, trying to get things done before my 8 AM class.

Tonight was no different. My roommate was already asleep in our room, and there were people still watching TV in the lounge. As a result, I retreated to the only relatively quiet place I could find, the lobby.

It was getting hard to focus on the words, so I decided to take a break. I stood and walked around the lobby trying to wake myself up a bit. Near the door to the building sat the nightguard. They were on duty all night to make sure only residents or their guests entered the dorm. Her head was down, pencil in hand, working on something.

Without thinking about how creepy it might seem, I walked over to see what she was doing. She had a book of logic puzzles open, and she was working on one. When she noticed me, she slid the book over some so that the right hand page wasn’t in front of her. “Pull up a pencil,” she said as she held one up.

I had loved logic puzzles for years, so I took the number 2 and kneeled down in front of the book. She continued working on her puzzle as I made my way through the one she had offered me. When I finished, I thanked her and walked back to my actual homework.

And that is how I met one of my very best friends.

Judgment Day

“So on Judgment Day,” he could hear the preacher pronounce those capital letters, “God will confront you with all of your sins. Only those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior will be admitted into Heaven. Everyone else will be condemned to Hell for all of eternity.”

On the way home, he kept thinking about what the preacher had said. Finally he asked his mom about it.

“Mom, am I going to Hell?”

She looked at him in the rearview mirror. “No, honey. You’ve been saved. You’ll go to Heaven. You don’t have to worry.”

“What about you?”

“I’m saved, too. We’ll be together in Heaven.”

“Is Dad saved?”

There was a pause before she answered. “No, honey. He isn’t. But that’s why it’s important to witness to him, so that you might get saved some day.”

“Oh.” He didn’t ask anymore questions after that. But he also didn’t stop thinking about it.

Later that night, he made up his mind. When Judgment Day came, if his dad wasn’t saved, he would insist on going to Hell in his place. It was the best solution his eight-year-old mind could come up with. The only worry he had was that God would allow it, but insist that the person whose place he would take had to be randomly chosen. He would still make the trade, he decided. If his dad wasn’t going to be there, then he didn’t want to be there, either.

Memory

For as long as I can remember, I have had a strong aversion to being waved across the street by a motorist when I’m walking. I do not know when this started or why. If I come to a corner and a car stops there, I try to avoid making eye contact with the driver and wait until she or he goes through the intersection before crossing myself. I may even wait for several cars to go through, pretending as though I’m waiting for someone or going in a different direction. I’m not afraid to cross; I merely am uncomfortable with cars waiting for me to do so.

That was the not the only quirk I picked up as a child. Again as far back as my memory goes, I’ve noticed and memorized license plates. It was in part a desire to be responsible, so that I could give the information to the police in case of an accident. It was also, in part, paranoia. In case the owner of the car followed us home or something. Honestly, when you’re six, you don’t really have great reasons for the things you do. An idea gets into your head, and you try your best to follow it to its logical (and completely bizarre) conclusion.

I was around nine or ten years old and was walking home from school. Well, not exactly. We lived about 4 blocks from my school, but I wasn’t headed there. My dad worked with his father out of his parents’ house. At the time, I was too young to stay home alone, so after school I would walk to their place, about 10 blocks or so in a different direction, and wait for my dad to finish work.

My route took me east for a ways, and then north. I came to the corner where I was going to turn, and I saw a car headed towards the four-way stop. So I turned around and looked at the house behind me. The sidewalk was set back from the street a bit, so I thought it would be easy to look as though crossing the street was the last thing on my mind. I waited to hear the sound of the car pulling away.

Instead, I heard a man’s voice calling, trying to get my attention. He was white and scruffy and driving a boat of a car, probably an Oldsmobile. The large passenger-side window was rolled down, and he had an envelope in his hand. Across the street to the east was a mailbox. He wanted me to take the envelope and mail it for him. One thing I remember very clearly, I could see no address or stamp on the envelope. 

This was many years ago. Kids played outside long into the summer evening without adult supervision. They walked home from school alone. But we weren’t completely naïve. Just about every school year, a fireman came to the school to talk to us about fire safety. We were told how one in every three homes experiences a house fire and we needed to have a plan just in case. I don’t remember how many times I heard variations on this, but the house burning down was one of my big childhood fears. The other one was being kidnapped. (Well, there was also something about vampires behind my headboard, but that’s not relevant here.) Just like the fireman, a police officer would come regularly to talk to us about the dangers of kidnapping. (The drug talks were after my time. That’s how old I am.) He told us how to be safe. Mostly it was admonitions not to go the bathroom by yourself when you were out in public.

So I was constantly expecting my house to burn down. And to be kidnapped. That latter fear came rushing forward, and I started making excuses as to why I couldn’t help him. My mother was waiting for me, and I was already late. Obviously, that was a lie since I didn’t live with my mother, and I wasn’t headed home. But he couldn’t know that.

He repeatedly pointed out how close the box was, and it would be easy for me to mail it. But I continued to refuse. It wasn’t even that I was stubborn. I was terrified and all I could do was continue refusing; the thought of running away or calling for help never occurred to me. I just kept repeating that I couldn’t do it, that I had to get home. Exasperated, he drove off, squealing his tires as he raced right past the mailbox.

I finished walking to my grandparents’ house where I told my father. (I thought about not telling him. I didn’t want him to be mad at me, but I thought I should say something in case he tried to kidnap someone else.) He told me that unless I had his license plate number, there was nothing we could do.

And that’s how terrified I had been. I had completely forgotten to note his license plate. This thing I always did, I had forgotten entirely. This quirky habit that I have to this day, vanished when I could have used it the most. So we didn’t do anything. And I never saw the man again.

In the intervening years, I’ve had many occasions to think back to that day. (I still don’t like being waved across the street.) Maybe the envelope was addressed on the other side? But the envelope seemed rather flimsy, as though it was empty. And why didn’t he stop to mail it himself? Sure, it was less convenient, but if it was important enough to ask someone else to mail it, it needed to be mailed, didn’t it? Did he kidnap someone else?

I have no answers to any of these questions. But I doubt I’ll ever forget that day, and I’ll always wonder how close I came to being just another statistic.

Comfort

The wind had been too warm for too long. The summer spirits had held on, refusing to let the wheel turn. Finally, autumn chased them off in order to prepare for the winter winds.

The voices of autumn were not his; those voices were still a couple of months away. But autumn was friendly, a welcome change from the hostility of summer. The spirits of autumn were cousins to his winter companions, a kind of extended family. He might not speak their language, but he knew their intent.

Wandering freely, he watched the progress of the season and listened for the first whispers of winter. But the clatter of leaves falling said ‘not yet, do not rush ahead, enjoy the transition.’ And so he did.

The colors of the earth hung overhead, serving as a reminder that even far from home, we carry our mother inside us. And that no matter how high we reach, we will return to her one day. The crisp air carried the sound of the faintest rustle far and wide. And the smells! They spoke of a warmth within as a counter to the chill without.

Autumn knew her business. Magic was everywhere just below the surface; one needed only to know how to look. Winter’s magic was deeper, but more brutal. Autumn spoke of a mother’s comfort in the final days.

So he waited, secure that winter would at last come, and enjoyed this part of the cycle in which he was but an observer. The comfort made the waiting bearable. And everyone needs comfort sometimes.

Living for Other People

Think about how your death would affect others.

So live for other people, to spare them.

Well, yeah, I guess so.

What happens when that’s not enough, anymore? Do I always put the wants and needs of others before my own?

When your want is your own death? Yes.

What if no one cares?

Someone always cares.

How do you drive?

What? What do you mean?

I mean, your rose colored glasses must make every light look red. Must be hard to go if there’s never a green light.

You’re too much of a cynic. Someone always cares.

And their wants always outweigh my own?

Not always, but in this case, yes. You’d be hurting them; that’s wrong.

So I should hurt myself instead?

No! That’s what I’ve been saying. By hurting yourselves, you hurt others.

You misunderstand. Merely by staying alive, I hurt myself. Every day, a bit more pain. Every day, a bit more suffering.

It’s temporary.

So is theirs. Their pain, their grief, will fade over time. Why is their temporary pain worse than mine?

You’re proposing a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

First off, let’s quit pretending that people live forever unless they kill themselves. Everybody dies. I’m just talking about moving the end up a bit. More importantly, how do you know the problem is temporary? When will I feel better? Do you know how long it has already been going on? Do you know all the other solutions I have tried? The notion that things always get better isn’t supported by reality. Sometimes things get better. Sometimes they get worse. And sometimes they get better and then get worse again. A never ending merry-go-round.

Why can’t you just be happy?

Why can’t you just be tall?

What? That’s different. Try looking at the positive side of things.

Because I’m not here to validate your happy little bubble. Because keeping my feelings to myself, hiding the pain and suffering so that other people aren’t uncomfortable, has contributed to the problem. Pretending to be happy makes me more miserable. That’s why I can’t just be happy.

So you’re going o kill yourself.

No. Not today.

But everything you just said.

Today, I’m still living for other people. I just don’t know for how much longer that will be enough.

Shadows

Knocking comes from the basement. It always comes from the basement. Of course horrible things can happen in broad daylight with lots of people around. But that isn’t expected. Horror is supposed to be confined to the dark places, to when we are alone. Hence, basements. See also, under beds at night.

Perhaps if we could see the monsters, they would not be terrifying. It is, after all, the unknown which frightens most of all. If the monsters were in the light, they would lose their power altogether. Vampires burst into flame in the sun. Werewolves change only at night.

The knocking continues. It is after midnight and dark outside. Inside, all the lights on the first floor are on. Surely that will keep away whatever wants up. The basement, the attic, all places where we put things forgotten. Or things we would like forgotten. Things we think we don’t need, or things we don’t like. So naturally that’s where the monsters live, among the things we want gone but cannot bring ourselves to throw away.

It’s more insistent, just on the other side of the door. What has been forgotten that now demands to be remembered? What is it that was ignored, cast out, with the hope that it would stay forever buried? Perhaps some behavior society says was not nice, or maybe a desire the world scoffed at.

The doorknob jostles. To barricade or open? Barricading is obviously the safer path. But taking the safer path is what brought us to this point. Getting rid of all that scared us, putting it into the basement, it has festered. Now it is knocking. What further violence must we commit to force it back down where it belongs?

Or we could open it. What would we see? Our monstrous self, revealed in the light. Coming face to face with all we have denied, would we ask for forgiveness? Would we get it? Or would the monster destroy us? There is only one way to find out, but opening that door… No one really knows what’s on the other side. And that is the source of our fear. We have created the monster, and now we fear what it will do to us because we don’t know.

If we had been rejected and locked away, we would be angry. Thus we imagine the monster will destroy us out of anger. But we don’t know. We never gave the monster a chance. And now it demands one. Open the door. Let in the light. Face what we have made. Nothing worse can be done to us than what we have already been done. We are the monster. We made ourselves that way. Open the door.

Ink Flows

Ink flows as I try to make sense of it all. Every minute of every day contains an unsolvable mystery. It is the clash between wanting to understand and the realization that there is no larger tale to be told. They mystery is why do I think there is a question, much less an answer.

There are the stories I tell myself to put my life into some sort of narrative structure. They are unrecognizable by others, even those who appear in them. They tell their own stories about those events. In some of the stories, I am the hero. In some, I am the villain. And in many, I am merely a minor character, playing a walk-on part. All of these stories are true. And all of them are misleading.

Then there are the stories I tell myself to escape from this world and live in another. These stories are false but never misleading. They contain whatever the reader wishes to find. Fiction tells us about the world as we hope to find it, or as we fear it might be. It is our world, but only if we have the courage to make it so.

The ink flows and invents meaning and truth. It transforms the blank page into the sacred text. It tells the story of lives we do not lead, but think we do. It does not matter if the words are any good. They represent our attempts – futile though they be – to understand. Or maybe it does matter, and that is just another lie we tell ourselves.

The universe cares about none of it. It sees only moments, no grand design. The ink flows, but only from us. Only for us.