Transformative Places

Wherever we go, when we settle in we take on attributes caused by the place. We change, at least a little, to reflect the way a place we live changes us. And often, maybe usually, we don’t recognize the change in us until later, perhaps years later.

As I reflect on the statements above, I wonder whether they are true. Do the places we live really change who we are? I think they do. Maybe we don’t change at our core, but we adapt to our new environment by changing enough to better fit in or to more clearly differentiate us from the people around us. It may be our vocabulary or the way we pronounce words. It might be the way we acknowledge people we encounter (or, conversely, stop those acknowledgements). But the changes may be more fundamental. We may become more conservative in our thinking; or more progressive.

Moving from the hustle-bustle of a high-energy city to a more relaxed rural environment can have the effect of smoothing our engagements with other people. We might become more accustomed to light traffic; return trips to freeway traffic might become more stressful to the changed person we have become.

At the same time these changes take place in us, similar changes take place in people we leave behind in other places that have changed us. And changes take place in people in our spheres, people who settle in other places. The places change them in big and little ways. Even modest changes in them and in us can create gulfs between us. We don’t grow apart; we morph apart. We become different people. Different from one another, yes, but different from our former selves, as well.

What about the ways in which places change those around us? We don’t all respond to new places in the same way, so I may change in ways very different from the ways the same place changes someone else in my life.

Graphs and charts and instructive images would be far better at articulating what I’ve been trying to say than what I’ve said. Unfortunately, I do not possess the wherewithal to express myself graphically; well, I do, but not in ways that would be informative in this discussion. When I get uncomfortable with where I am, physically or emotionally, I attempt to lighten the environment with humor; it rarely works.

Perhaps I would have been more successful at expressing my thoughts if I had stuck to specifics about me. Instead, I’ve attempted to describe in the abstract a set of concepts that I’m not quite sure I understand sufficiently to explain.

I should return to writing fiction. I know more about the world inside my head than I do about the physical world, the world in which I dabble in reality. Fiction is easier on the brain and the heart. It’s easier to control than reality; reality seems to have its own agenda, quite apart from anything over which I might have control.

I could live quite comfortably in an imaginary world, a place in which I can transform challenges into solutions. Problems into opportunities. Fear into anticipation.

The imaginary world is a place, too. It can have the same transformative effects that the real world can have; I suppose one simply has to believe.

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What Once was Vibrant

For the only time I can remember, this morning I pondered about how my emotions may have changed during the course of my sixty-six years. A piece of semi-autobiographical fiction (is that even a realistic category?) I began writing last night triggered this contemplation, I think, but it could have been something else or a combination of other thoughts. Not that it matters.

What matters is that, this morning, I consciously considered the possibility that my emotions today differ significantly from my emotions as a teenager or a young man in my twenties and thirties or, for that matter, as an adult well into his fifties and early sixties. My emotions today feel different. They feel like they belong to someone else, someone more resilient and stronger in some ways, but more fragile and more easily broken in others. I think the type of emotions to which I refer will be obvious from my words so far but, in case there’s any question, I refer to negative emotions; fear, anger, anguish, grief, heartache, sadness, and so on.

Having experienced grief on several occasions, both as a child and as an adult, I think the emotion has been distinctively different at various points in my life. Unfortunately, I am not quite sure my words can adequately describe the differences, but I’ll try. In my early youth, grief at the death of a pet dog or cat was intense but relatively short-lived. I think the loss of pets caused as much a selfish sense of  loss as real grief. Perhaps it wasn’t true grief; perhaps it was just intense melancholy.

Later, the death of relatives to whom I was not close caused feelings that may not have been grief at the loss for myself, but sorrow at the loss for family members who were far closer than I to the deceased. Later, my grief at the death of my parents about a year apart, when I was in my early thirties, was intense and raw and long-lasting. Their deaths, especially my mother’s death, left me feeling that a piece of myself was gone and I would never be able to retrieve it; it was as if that piece of me existed only in the the relationship we had. The emotions that spilled from me during those times seemed to question whether what I was experiencing was real, too.

My sister’s death several years ago caused pain and grief and a sense of acute loss. And I felt the same vague disbelief that she was really gone. But I remember finally feeling the reality that death was a natural part of one’s life; that loss and the pain that goes with it were inevitable. Yet I remember, too, thinking that nothing can prepare one for the death of a loved one. I remember thinking the unthinkable; how, if my wife were to die, I would simply be unable to go on.

More recently, friends and acquaintances have died. Their deaths hurt, but the understanding of death’s inevitability seems to have grown in me. Deaths seem more shocks to the system than emotional cataclysms. But that may be because more recent deaths have not been close family members.

I’ve written so far only about grief. The same kinds of transitions that have taken place in my experience of grief have occurred in my experience of other emotions. It’s not that my emotions have dulled. It’s more that they have adapted to the reality that I have no other option than to experience them; like death and the grief that accompanies it, they are inevitable. But that inevitability seems to have built a shell around me in a way, protecting me from the devastation that some emotions can leave behind. In that sense, I think I am more resilient, more able to deal with negative experiences. Yet I feel strongly, if that shell were to crack, the protection it provides will vaporize in an instant. That’s where my sense of greater fragility comes in. It’s as if I know I can take just so much but, if the shell breaks, as it were, I might not be able to survive the anguish it unleashes.

So far, most of my thoughts have surrounded negative experiences and the traumatic emotions that accompany them. But I think the same maturation (if that’s what it is) has taken place with more positive experiences. Joy, once a sense of unbridled elation, seems to have been tempered by the years. And gratitude, awe, happiness, optimism, hope—virtually all positive emotions—seem to be less intense, less overpowering, less exciting. I guess that’s true for the same reasons that the negative emotions have changed; my experience has taught me they don’t last, they aren’t necessarily the life-changing experiences they may have felt like in times gone by.

As I contemplate these observations about my emotions, I feel more than a little regret that, from the vantage point of this bright morning, they all seem to have dulled. Their sharp-edges no longer hurt as much nor feel as good as they once did. The vibrancy of youth seems to have drained from them, leaving emotions whose vitality is restricted by the wisdom of experience. I wish my observations were temporary and wrong. I miss feeling the energy of powerful emotions (though I know I still experience powerful emotions, just not in the way I once did). Perhaps this woeful treatise on the maturation of emotions is simply the product of an unusual mood. I hope so.

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The New Realm

“Lance, would you please get the ax for me? It’s getting close to dinnertime and I need to get Little Johnny ready for the roaster.”

Lance looked up from his crossword. “All right, Suzanne, just let me finish this last little section.”

Suzanne scowled. “Okay, but hurry it up. He’s gonna take a good hour to cook and I still have to get him ready to go in the oven. We won’t be eating until after 7:30 at this rate.”

“Okay, dammit! Just a minute.” Lance stood abruptly and stormed out the back door, slamming the kitchen door behind him.

Almost as quickly as he left, he was back in the kitchen. “Here,” he said, thrusting the ax in Suzanne’s direction. “Anything else before I get back to my crossword?”

“Well, yes. You could go find Little Johnny for me. He’s probably on the swings.”

Lance sighed a long, woe-is-me sigh. “Sometimes, I wish we’d just buy our meat at the store. Some folks do, you know.”

Suzanne’s face flushed and the volume of her voice increased two-fold. “Yeah, and we do, too! Most of the time. But you know as well as I do that we don’t always have a choice!”

Suzanne drew a file along the blade of the ax, putting as sharp an edge on the tool as she could. As she tested the edge to ensure it was razor-sharp, she watched her husband go back out the door in search of her youngest son.

Familial cannibalism had been one of the hardest things Suzanne had to get used to when she entered the New Realm. Where she had come from, the only cannibalism was in stories or textbooks about a time long since passed. In her old environment, no one ate human flesh any more, especially one’s own progeny. But things were different in the New Realm. In the New Realm, cannibalism was as common as ice cream on a slice of pie. In fact, in the New Realm, people who refused to practice cannibalism were treated like pariahs. They could be imprisoned if their failure to conform put the social order at risk.

The New Realm arose, in a convoluted, roundabout way, from New Malthusian Theory. New Malthusian Theory espoused the position that human population must be self-limiting. That translated into a limit of two children per heterosexual couple reaching puberty. There were plenty of exceptions, with prior approval, but most people just got used to the idea that, if they had more than two children, those beyond two would become nutritional supplements before their thirteenth birthdays.

Suzanne, unlike the vast majority of other New Realm denizens, did not grow up in the New Realm. She was born and reared an Originalist, a child of the Old Realm. Her entry into the New Realm was the result of an accident in which the two parallel dimensions of the Milky Way galaxy collided for a split second. The chances of such a collision, in which the dimensions could take place at just the right time and location to result in dimensional travel, were about one hundred trillion to one. But, like the lottery, somebody has to win that experience. So it was with Suzanne.

“Johnny, get out of those clothes and come get in the sink. I’ve got to wash you up.” Suzanne eyed her youngest son, ready to repeat herself as she so often had to do to get him to do as he was told. But Johnny immediately began to disrobe, dropping his clothes on the kitchen floor.

“Johnny, what have I told you about putting your clothes away?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the boy replied, stooping to pick up his shirt off the floor. “Can I just hang them off the back of the chair?”

“Yes, that will be fine. Just hurry up, son.”

Johnny dutifully took off all his clothes and hung them on the back of a kitchen chair. He put his shoes on the chair seat and stuffed his socks in them.

Suzanne picked up the nude six-year-old and sat him in the warm water in the big farmhouse sink. The boy giggled and said, “It’s warm!”

“Yes, it is. That’s to wash off all that little-boy dirt from your little-boy body!” Suzanne laughed as she scrubbed the boy with a sponge.

When she was satisfied he was sufficiently clean, she rinsed him off with the sprayer head, picked him up, and set him down in a plastic clothes basket, filled with towels, on the floor. “Dry yourself off real good!”

When the boy was dry, she picked him up again and took him to the preparation sink on the other side of the kitchen. On the counter, next to the sink, sat a contraption that looked a little like a combination of a guillotine without a blade and a set of stocks. She placed Johnny face down, his neck in what would have been the guillotine’s neck hole and his arms in the stocks. “Okay, Johnny, get comfortable.”

Though her face didn’t betray it, Suzanne’s guts were in knots. She hated beheading her children. It didn’t matter how many she had done before, it was always hard to do it to another one. But that was just part of living in the New Realm.

***

At 7:30, Suzanne pulled the roasting pans out of the oven. [All right. This will have to wait. I’m not quite yet able to write about carving the meat for dinner. Maybe this doesn’t have to be quite so graphic.]

 

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A Nonfictional Account of a Wednesday

Yesterday’s productivity exceeded most days’ output, but only because we forced ourselves to visit Lowe’s with the aim of buying a replacement stovetop-oven combo. We managed to select one to put on order, but first we will have an installer come out to determine whether it will “work” in our space. Assuming it does, we will complete the order at the advertised sales price (said sale ends today). And Lowe’s will order the stove for delivery and installation. Would that the process remains so simple and straightforward. Having dealt with Lowe’s before, I don’t dare hope for it. I’ll just wait to see what happens.

Because we were in Hot Springs yesterday around lunchtime, we decided to dine at Taco Mama’s, where we can get one of our favorite dishes: a “taco salad” that includes shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, black beans, grilled chunks of lengua (tongue), and a scoop of guacamole, all drenched in a jalapeño ranch dressing.

Upon returning home to the Village, we prepared ourselves to drive over to pick up friends and take them into Hot Springs for Wednesday Night Poetry at Kollective Coffee. The female of the pair, Brenda, had written a poem that I had encouraged her to read at last night’s event. And she did. And it was a hit. There was more. Another writer friend I did not expect to see was already there when we arrived; she read a story that also was a hit.  I opted to sit in the background and watch; though I had a poem I could read in a pinch, I didn’t want to. I wasn’t pressured to (thanks to an unusually large number of readers), so life was good.

This post will be one of two (I hope) today. In the second one, I will force myself to write fiction. Perhaps.

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Mental Health and Healing

When my creativity wanes, as it has of late, I notice gaping holes in my imagination. I suppose those are synonymous. What I notice more acutely is that there’s a very strong correlation between my creativity and my sense of emotional well-being. When I feel creative, I feel something akin to giddiness. Even when that creativity expresses itself in writing about subjects that most people would consider dark, if the writing is good and creative, I feel good. When I feel unimaginative and incapable of creativity, I feel bad. Not physically bad; emotionally bad, as in sad or depressed or despondent.

I don’t know whether to ascribe causation to the correlation; does creativity cause giddiness or does giddiness trigger creativity? Does sadness muffle creativity or does a lack of creativity spark depression? I know this: when I’m feeling down, for whatever reason, my writing suffers. It’s not only dull and unimaginative, it’s wooden and shallow, as if it were written by a robot. If I were smart, I’d simply not write when my mood doesn’t correspond with being creative. But I’m not smart; I write anyway, despite being dissatisfied with my output. And that dissatisfaction probably prolongs my sadness or depression or whatever this drab mood might be called.

Fortunately, in real life. I can fake it with considerable success. Usually, I can mask my feelings pretty well, presenting myself as reasonably upbeat and happy. Not so much in my writing, though. My writing divulges my attitude, though not necessarily directly. When it is dull and lifeless and seems uninspired, it was written during a period of depression (that’s probably not the right term, but neither is sadness; dull disinterest may be more like it). Because I am obviously so close to it, both the mood and the writing associated with it, I may be able to read it better than others. Other people may not find the correlation so obvious; they may not see it at all. But I can’t imagine they wouldn’t; when they read dull, limp, tedious, sluggish, uninteresting words that morph into min-numbing paragraphs, I think they must see something is amiss with my normally effervescent personality. I can still joke around, even in the midst of darkness.

One day, I may randomly select samples of my writing, separated into two collections. One will be the “up” writing and the other will be the “down” writing. I would take those collections to a competent psychologist or psychotherapist and ask that an assessment be undertaken, based on the writing. I wouldn’t be surprised to be told the writing suggests a person suffering from a mild case of depression; nothing to be worried about, but an affliction for which treatment might be warranted.  Of course, I might find that the mental health professional’s qualifications don’t qualify him or her to judge whether one’s writing is creative or unimaginative, in which case everyone’s time will have been wasted.

If I were ever to sit on the proverbial psychiatrist’s couch, I’m afraid the slightest encouragement to “let it out” might unleash a torrent of tears so intense and voluminous that we’d both drown. But maybe not. I don’t want to find out.

***

My tendency to respond in the affirmative to a request to undertake a project has once again put me in a position of  having a great deal of my time absorbed in pursuit of objectives in which I have only passing interest. That propensity can result in a person feeling overwhelmed and unable to plan his own life to the extent he’d like. My desire to be able to decide, on the spur of the moment, to take a road trip has again been squelched, thanks to my failure to say “no.” I could kick myself in the groin for being such a “yes” man. Maybe relinquishing that freedom, though, will be good for my mental health. Maybe it will force me to build creativity even in places where creativity doesn’t normally flourish.

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