Pathologically Disconnected, or, Why I Write Novels

“Here.” I handed my college buddy a small magazine clipping with a photograph of some place with trees and water. I’d just had a very nice visit there, in fact. Then I ripped out the page I was looking at and cut the place out.

“What is it?”

I was excited to explain the birthday gift. “It’s a. . .it’s a ‘place-to-be’. You look at it and you can picture yourself in the picture, anywhere in the picture you want. . .Like I did. When I looked at it; it was a really cool picture that way.”

This was all falling apart really fast; I could see he didn’t get it. And I couldn’t say it any more clearly than that. Here I was, a writing major, and I couldn’t find the words to express something this important–and stupid me, I just assumed he would understand what I meant and finish the thought, complete the gesture. I just assumed it happened to everyone: a certain photograph in a magazine ad or travel book just hits you the right way, and you’re transported. In a virtual, euphoric trance your mind takes you right into that picture, to the exclusion of the present; you are–if “you” can be taken as your consciousness rather than your body–quite literally suddenly someplace else.

Well, I tried, and it sure didn’t come across as the tremendous gift I had intended it to be; my buddy just saw a little slip of paper. And since I failed scissors in the third grade it wasn’t even a perfectly square picture.

Why don’t you get it?!

I tried again with other friends but in the end only this first buddy was ever nice enough to see it meant something to me, and for a few years when we wrote back and forth after college I still sent occasional clippings. But I had no illusions anymore; these trances were mine and mine alone. Wow. What did photographs even exist for, if not to blow your mind and give you a waking dream, a whole new mood, a new atmosphere to exist in for some time?

I’ve written already about my TLE seizures, but knowing what’s happening to me, while a relief on one level, doesn’t really solve the underlying problem: Geschwind Syndrome sees to it that your very personality and being are affected by a scar on the temporal lobe, and you are who you are who you are. As proof, I had most of the tell-tale personality traits since earliest memory, long before the seizures appeared. My lifelong struggle to connect was now understandable but it wasn’t over.

My childhood made a lot more sense; my friends never seemed to get lost in books as completely as I did, they never understood when I said they were magical that way, I didn’t just mean it figuratively. Then came the mind-blowing discovery that I could write my own stories, my own worlds, my own friends. I was teetering at the mouth of the rabbit-hole.

And it wasn’t too long after high school that I no longer needed books or photographs; these trances started to occur of their own volition, more intense, a déjà-vu moment that wasn’t just a moment.

Still freakily abstract

“I just had one of those really good déjà-vus,” I told my grad school apartment roommate.

“What do you mean, the ‘good’ ones?”

“You know, the kind that last a long time. The good ones–the ones that feel good.”

“Déjà-vus don’t last a long time; they just hit you.”

“I know, usually they do, like a ping pong ball hits you and bounces off. But the other kind hits you like a velcro ball and sticks. You have a déjà-vu of another time you had a déjà -vu, and that was maybe about another even earlier déjà-vu. . .”

“Yeh, but a déjà-vu is just a hiccup in your brain; it can’t last more than a second, because it was an accident.”

“Okay, maybe you don’t call it a déjà-vu, then, maybe you call it something else.” I wasn’t ready to give up; she and I already got along well in so many uncanny ways, maybe this was the one friend who would get what I was trying to say. “Like looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you, a feeling of something that keeps echoing back into infinity.”

Yup, I realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, there it was: the look. She didn’t get it and she didn’t mean to but the look said I was a little off, somehow. I waffled, “Anyway, it’s a really cool feeling. That’s why I wasn’t paying attention.” . . .And then she had the look like she thought I was making it all up. And my cheeks burned and my hands tingled and my head buzzed with nervous embarrassment. And it wasn’t because of any déjà-vu that that felt so familiar.

It’s what you aren’t experiencing, obviously

“Why don’t you just shut up?” I’ve asked myself over and over. I’ve gotten so used to people not believing me when imagination takes over and my mouth starts running that I’ve become apologetic about practically everything. And I should be: long ago I learned that my words–so effective in every other area of my life–just weren’t the right language for explaining to people what it was they weren’t experiencing and I was.

Sometimes I think I’ve finally found a common point of reference–dreaming. Everyone has dreams. Remember last time you told someone you had a really cool dream, the first thing you’re asked? “What was it about?” And then you struggle to find the threads of the plot–but that’s useless. Plot’s generally not the impact of the dream; it’s the entire atmosphere taken as a whole. Something might happen in my dream: a young girl is holding a bunny with a ribbon around its neck. But that “thing” in the dream doesn’t convey the concrete “mood”; in this instance my overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding. But how was it any different than the last time I dreamt an overwhelming sense of foreboding? Well. . .just trust me.

Doomed to fail

So maybe I’m doomed never to know if others can bring to the experience I want to share the same sensory and perceptual dysfunction that keeps me living on another plane of existence. It’s lonely without the words I need to make a connection with other people. Gradually I realized that it wasn’t my inability to express or lack of will that kept me apart; it was the failure of the English language, whose words I loved so much I would surely have found the correct ones when I tried.

There aren’t enough words for all the subtly different kinds of overwhelming, palpable moods in a dream, and it’s the exact same way with my little transports. When I describe them they sound intangible, ephemeral. . .but if there just existed enough words you would see they’re anything but. “Mood” isn’t even the right word; I’m fumbling again.

Obviously the rest of the world sees no need to have verbal markers for all the kinds of mental transports that define my life. Alone again. I spend ten paragraphs explaining a meaningful and quantifiable mood that should have required only a couple words–I don’t know, a color combined with a place and a season, a shorthand to convey it all in an instant.

A Vulcan mind-meld might just do it, though

So I suppose this is where art comes in. It’s so patently true it’s a cliché: art can indirectly convey a thought more accurately and more concisely than direct prose. But unless you’re Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra*, I can’t go around spouting to you my everyday feelings in poetic allegory.

I go through life, then, feeling disconnected, but hope I never reach the despair of someone like Van Gogh, furiously painting flowers and fields and potato farmers, internally crying out, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it?”

In Cyber-Space, Everyone Can Hear You Scream

But is there an alternative to the intense social and spiritual need to connect to other people? I can revel in my solitary condition but gradually the avoidance of despair takes on the appearance of cynicism–one could stave off the existential angst with wry irony. Isn’t there something more in-between for the self-aware idiosyncratic?

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I asked that question in print a little voice deep inside answered gleefully, “There is! There’s the internet!”

“What? The internet is the answer for disconnected artistic-types everywhere?”

“We all come to cyber-space already an artificial construct.”

“It levels the playing field, you mean.”

“You can rule at last.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

I won’t go that far

Like most of us who were the freaks and geeks and wall-flowers in high school I’ve reaped a bit of cathartic revenge ripping apart the willfully ignorant and narrow-minded on various forums on a variety of topics. Fun for awhile. Wearying of that, I turned my powers to good instead of evil and sought companionship among those with similar interests, those to learn from and those to support. But that’s just life writ, well, in writing.

So I’ve come full-circle and returned to the escapism I once thought was dangerous and abnormal: writing novels. Big novels, full-blown worlds filled with fictitious characters and fake-fake-fake-fake-fake.

No, art! Artifice’s more socially-acceptable twin sibling. And if online writing communities had existed back when I was a teenager, well, I might very well “rule” by now.

I’m very curious just how different a path younger writers have had for this reason. Why do you write, and do you still have people in your life who think it’s an unhealthy escape?

 

*Star Trek: the Next Generation’s episode “Darmok”, oft-mocked for its abstruse subject matter, is a beloved favorite of poets and literary types, celebrating as it does the centrality of myth to our world-view.

The way of the book and the way of the wild: a review of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

I loved The Wake–neither modern English nor Anglo-Saxon, but a recognizably adapted “Shadow language” with a vocabulary purely Old English and Old Norse. A fascinating look at language and how we find ourselves comprehending beneath the conscious level-with the heart, you might say.

For the Wynn

there is ways to see this world i saes.  there is the way of the boc and the way of the wilde there is the god of the boc and the gods of the mere there is the way of the crist and the eald ways of this land

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, p. 334

Be you whole, earth, mother of people, may you be opened in God’s embrace, filled with food for humans’ use.

Eleventh-century field remedy,  London, British Library Cotton MS Vitellius C. viii

The Old English word for ‘library’ is ‘boc hord’ – book hoard.  And I’m something of a book-hoarder myself: I have a tendency to buy them second-hand and hold onto them for a long time before they rise to the top of my to-read list.  And then, very often I enjoy a book so much that I wonder why I didn’t read it…

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Bits of Bede. Or: Why Bede deserves his own museum

If you have any interest at all in intellectual history and the English language, Bede is someone to know! Also called Venerable…not unlike Yoda.

Dutch Anglo-Saxonist

The news of the closure of Jarrow’s visitor attraction Bede’s World was disheartening. It was one of England’s very few museums solely devoted to the Anglo-Saxon past and I fondly remember visiting the place several years back (one of the highlights of my visit was adopting Hilda the pig via the animal adoption then still in place). I have always promoted Bede’s World in my lectures and I am happy to say some of my Dutch students visited the place (at their own initiative!) in early 2016. (update: In August 2016, it was announced that Bede’s World will be relaunched as Jarrow Hall (more info here) and rightly so!). With this blog I just want to share one of the many reasons why the Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar Bede (672/673-735) deserves his own museum: the man’s theological, exegetical and mathematical works are filled with interesting tidbits!

Bede had…

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Controlled Chaos – Art Imitates Life

It all started when I brought home Peaches. Tonka the best-companion-dog-or-cat-a-girl-ever-had Lynx Point Siamese and I had been living on my third-floor condo alone together for over a dozen years blissfully happy in our own self-contained, magical world. (The personal trauma that led to my withdrawal from humanity has been touched on in another blog.) Though I was the condo Pres I could escape to my top-floor retreat above the fray. Not much dirt or salt ever got tracked all the way up the stairs; it was clean and bright. Everything stayed where Tonka or I put it and we were settled in our ways. And she was truly my partner in life from the moment I saw her in the shelter, and the rainbows arced and birds sang and butterflies soared all around us and it was meant to be. We walked everywhere with her leash, she rode around in the car with me to Tim Hortons then the park on weekends, she always greeted me at the door, talking. Life was well-ordered.

Then I had to go and start volunteering for the cat-cuddling program at the local shelter. You go in a few times a week and play with your adopted cat(s) to help socialize them. Tonka was very much a single-cat-in-the-house cat so I didn’t see any danger in my becoming attached; what creature could ever be as smart and communicative and bossy and bold and fearless as my amazing Tonka, anyway?

TonkaCradleTree

A Sheltered Cat

Peaches the timid calico dilute wasn’t even “my” adopted cuddle cat. She always seemed to be one of the cats let out when I was there; not fighting with the other cats, but not paying any attention to them either. Neither did she seek out human companionship; she just went away and did her own thing. I held her sometimes and she let me, but she rarely played with the toys as the other cats did. She would never make a move that called attention to herself. In retrospect I realize she was probably a bit shell-shocked; at two years old, she’d been found outside during the bitter cold Polar Vortex, then had a stint with a foster while she recovered from a very serious upper respiratory illness. Who knew what demons ran around in her little head to make her so cautious?

She was cute, for sure: there were definite over-tones of Grumpy Cat in her big, limpid blue eyes. But I was a cat snob; raised with Siameses because of my dad’s allergies, I knew from long experience that they were clever, and all other cats were pretty airheads by comparison. One day, though, Peaches did gain a bit more respect from me when a boisterous tom tried to hone in on her spot on the cat tower and intimidate her out of it. So quiet that only the other cat and I heard her, Peaches gave a low, solid “Grrrrr….” –and held her ground. So shy, timid Peaches had a tiny, little core of steel in her backbone after all!

For two months I visited the shelter several times a week and Peaches was still there. We have a pretty animal-friendly community and I was growing more and more amazed: she’s so incredibly cute, why hasn’t anyone taken Peaches home yet? I began to worry that her reticence was being mistaken for coldness and that she’d never find a home. Then one day lightning struck–just not as soon as with Tonka: I awoke and sat straight up in bed and realized: the reason no one’s taken Peaches home yet is because I’M supposed to take her home!

Pulling a thread…

Tonka didn’t agree, of course, and it took my installing a screen door on the spare bedroom during unsupervised times for several months before they adapted to each other. For the first six months Peaches was happy to live under the bed. I could only get her to play at first with a shoe-string: it was a victory when she moved her paw. To her, that was already bringing too much attention to herself. But after patient coaxing and several months she became the cat she was meant to be, playing with more joy and less self-consciousness till the day she took a flying belly-whopper leap through the air then hunkered down, shocked, when she hit the ground: was that really me? did anyone see me? Always a little chunky, she was that much cuter as she became more active: the amazing Peaches even once did a somersault off the bed, catching the ribbon in her teeth mid-air, and stuck the landing perfectly.

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Tonka was getting older and after awhile seemed happy to watch someone else play most of the time. At night we all piled into bed together, though they each kept to their own sides. I had done the unthinkable: I had brought another cat into our lives and we had survived the change. And something else happened after the shake-up of my self-induced escape-from-the-real-world: I began to write again. NaNo kick-started me, and soon I was in a community of real, like-minded folks for the first time since grad school. And they were nicer.

Breaking all the eggs

Just as the three of us finally reached our stride all living together, the economy and chance brought me to find and buy my dream house. Tonka had a back yard to play in; she’d been getting too old and tired for actual walks anymore. She just liked to sit. (Peaches’ demons keep her inside.) This past year in the house has been one of real upheaval: I had to take on my sister and another renter to afford it, and my sister had another elderly alpha-female cat–and this time the screen-door was permanent. My cats and hers had a time-share arrangement out on the main floor; Tonka and Peaches lived with me up in my bedroom loft the rest of the time.

I had to get used to sharing a bathroom–with people not as fastidiously clean as I tended to be. Don’t even get me started on the kitchen: my sister and I are absolute polar opposites. I have trouble breaking a few eggs to start a project; breaking eggs is all she can do. I’ve had to work my tail off on home-repairs and keeping up the half-acre as I prepare to convert that huge, back shaded lawn into a cottage garden, and do most of the physical work and cleaning inside. Suddenly money-management has become a myth as home projects constantly blow cannon holes in my credit (but what was I building all that great credit for anyway?) Rent doesn’t always come in on time and creative financing has become fantastical.

I went through the trauma and winter depression following the death of Tonka, who as I said had been sick for some time (her elegy is the unwritten blog…) I drudged through a second NaNo to try to keep the horrible pain and emptiness at bay. Several family members were hospitalized for this and that, and my older niece has become pregnant. Then my sister’s cat also passed away, and then, some weeks later. . .George arrived.

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece

I thought I’d become used to chaos already. We were told the big, male Siamese was a two-year old, something more settled we needed for Peaches’ avoidance personality, but the vet revealed he was much closer to one: actually kind of a relief, when you consider his behavior. He’s wild and energetic and playful, of course, but he also has no impulse control, no seeming ability to learn (the word “no”, for example), and–even more than the usual Siamese but perhaps not unlike your average adolescent male–always needs to be the center of attention. Lots of attention. He’s chewing on my ankle right now.

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So he may grow out of it. But until then, it’s a miracle how different my life is from one year ago in the condo with my two girls. I wouldn’t recognize myself. Not only is life chaotic now–I don’t even wince when I hear a CRASH somewhere in the house, or Peaches screams, or George tears past me up the stairs at breakneck speed while I balance a laptop and a hot cup of tea–but I don’t see it changing much in the future at all. There is always going to be gardening to do. The sheer limits of money mean that the home-repair and -improvement projects will stretch out for years. Face it, this is a whole new world, and I may never be “settled” inside my perfect little Ivory Tower ever again.

Breaking eggs is something I’ve very much needed to learn how to do, and now it’s getting applied to my writing revision: most of my writing-block paralysis comes from needing, out of fear, to leave well-enough alone. Pull a thread, ruin the sweater. Break an egg, have to clean it up. Add people to a household, learn to compromise. Tighten up the plot, lose the great feeling I had after finishing the first draft.

All of us wild, all free

It’s amazing and more than a little jarring when I look back now and realize that when I met Peaches, well, I WAS Peaches. I was in my own little world, and it was nice and even necessary while it lasted, but it couldn’t last. Trauma doesn’t ever completely go away, but neither are you ever as disconnected from the world as you think. I have a voice, and writing was always that voice, but there was no way I could use it again without leaving the shelter behind. Time to come out from under the bed and play.

. . .What happened to kick start you out of a too-lengthy complacence? Was it dramatic like a blockbuster film, or as quiet as pulling a thread and bringing home a shy, wounded calico?