Life, Texturized

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My head feels as though it wants different nerve endings, ones that cannot transmit this particular pain. It starts at the top of my spine, crosses to the base of my skull and thereupon spreads out like tenacious ivy overlaying my brain’s domain. I have had communication issues all day due to the fog that has made itself a barrier between internal and external stimuli. My eyes have felt like tiny balloons waiting to explode. My mind whirls and floats a bit like when I have had migraines only with less intensity. I need a new neck to hold up my head.

Last night’s sleep was heavy and tinged with dreams about visiting a hotel in a village that felt familiar, where people were vaporous yet colorful, half-ghosts or characters let loose from stage left in a play. I knew this place yet not every corner or staircase. There was also an unnamed man whose hand on mine felt familiar and vibrant. Our words meant things without spoken language as often happens in my dreams. Some of these people and rooms glowed. The furnishings were beautiful, brocade and velvet curtains, furniture to last centuries. In the end I slowly made my way out, then didn’t know where I was and asked myself, “How could I be lost?”, irritated, as though I was responsible for knowing my way around a seemingly infinite and complicated structure. But it was the architecture of dreams, an oddly cantilevered netherworld, supported by one thing only: REM sleep.

Why would I write of this today? Why not lie down nice and easy? The answer is three-fold: 1) I know many others can empathize, 2) I write daily and 3) pain is not generally a good enough reason to not do whatever I want or need to do. I have had familiarity with all sorts throughout my life due to a few chronic health issues. I know its nuances and what each kind augers, how I can best handle it as well as when to ignore it. I don’t mean deny its actual existence. I give it a nod but then deny it its fearsome and full power as long as possible. Often it dissipates when I am busy looking elsewhere.

So I wonder: why the odd dream? Why do we tend to dream of unusual spaces mingled with the common? Why do both loved and unloved, alive and passed on all appear like sudden visitors, as though they have been waiting for us to swing open the door? And they inhabit the same conversations as strangers do, making me feel there are no strangers, really. And that landscape that is so familiar to me, as though a second home… Who knows what exactly happens as we close our eyes? It is an adventure which allows us to experience things differently. Sometimes it is a revelation.

In the morning, icy air sneaked in through a cracked window. And that old companion, pain, told me I had slept askew. I took stock of the past week as discomfort drummed against sinew and bone, squinting past the quilt that wanted to be pulled closer.

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It has been a Christmas season that I would note as a “10” on the rating scale for holiday satisfaction: three of five children with their families here for various events, a perfect tree from an Elysian tree farm, food that fed us well, made us happy. A candle light service at our Presbyterian church: music sung from the core, flames casting flickering halos, communion as conduit for mysteries of faith. Not even once was perfection my goal; I wanted to share love and it happened. I embrace my family’s quirkiness: five children who include an artist/professor; a grad student who will manage a performing arts venue; a professional skateboarder/painter; a budding sociologist/activist; and a chaplain. They each are called to do service for others in some way, are strong-willed and live a bit (or more) on the edge. Five grandchildren, as well. Two daughters were visited via Skype, something I never expected when they were born. How good it was.

Actual gifts were the extras. Among other things I received three fat books to savor. One is about American residential architecture, one about exceptional children (dwarfism, autism, genius, and other traits that fascinate me), another a biography of great composers. They reflect some of my interests; my spouse knows me well. I can’t imagine a lifetime long enough to learn all I want to learn. Sometimes I gaze out a window at the scenes unfolding before me and think of it: in this sixth decade of my life there is so very little I have mastered yet I remain passionate about learning. It both distresses and thrills. The engine of curiosity thrusts me forward.

The days will proceed of their own accord and rhythm as before, now that Christmas is over. If all goes reasonably well. It is just as likely not to, I know. Last January started out with challenges including an inner ear disorder accompanied by a nagging malaise I loathed to call depression. The last half of the year I have been recovering from severe muscle toxicity due to taking a statin for thirteen years. I have to save my heart from its disease now only through beta blocker, blood pressure medicines and vigorous exercise. I can and will do the best I can. My siblings are older, too, I notice. But the world is ancient and confounding. Marvelous and horrid. Who knows what is next? It keeps me present and attentive to what matters. How swift, how tenuous life on earth can be, like dandelion fluff carried far, then no longer visible.

So I move through time on faith, flying on light wings of grace so I may engage in life’s creation of a rich warp and weft. I want my being and doings to make some difference. I sweep up this fullness of life in my arms and wrap myself in it, unfurl it like a flag, throw it around another’s shoulders, offer it as a bridge over deep chasms and use it with gusto, pain or no pain. We all suffer somehow; we all make our way as we see fit.

Ah, you see? That pain in my neck and head is lessening. Writing makes me strong. Love makes me brave. Music (today: Bach and Gilberto) grants me pleasure and peace. Spiritual practices keep me lithe of soul, unifies the pieces. And I think I’ll head to the gym or take a brisk walk to give my heart a chance to work with me better. What is it that you will nourish and honor as one day slips into another, then soon–so soon!– melds with a whole new year? I trust you are making good weavings of your own distinctive threads.

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Playing Today: Addiction v. Recovery

The night was deeper than the far side of the woods, which Damien peered into every now and then. He could feel it cover his hands and sneakered feet, his rather forgettable face and ragged thoughts.  He stuck his hands into his jeans pockets and leaned against the van. It was ten o’clock when he’d pulled off the road and parked at the end of the fire lane. He’d waited twenty-five minutes. Either Tanner was up to his neck in deals or something was wrong. They had been friends since middle school and they had an understanding. When one of them needed something, the other came. Or at least called.

He needed oxycodone and had called. He hadn’t needed it for sixteen months but that was before. Before Jeanine grew impatient with him and left. Before his hours were cut from forty to twenty at the store. Before he hurt his back again lifting a box of car parts, cars that gleamed in the sunlight like the deluxe machines they were. Unlike the vehicle he owned.

Gravel spit and jumped and Damien jerked to attention. It was the driveway by the corner, Old Burl’s place.  All he needed was someone to stop and ask what he was up to on a Friday night, parked on this road. He hurried behind the van and waited for the old Cadillac to slowly pass. Only when the tail lights became pinpricks did he step out again, forehead damp, mouth dry.

It had come to this again. The waiting. The wanting that drove every other thought out of mind. Now, every shadow slunk around him, every small noise caused alarm. He should have gone to the city where he would have been lost among a hundred others on the street. That’s where he belonged. That’s what he understood. Wasn’t it?

There had been a time when he had raced down the road to glory. A college scholarship for track which he cared less about than leaving this town.  Three years being on the Dean’s List and the expectation of law school. He had always lived a life made incrementally more attractive by the number of challenges surmounted. It had been hard when he was a kid, mom ill with cancer, then taken down when he was ten; father consumed by that woman he’d married when Damien was fourteen. But he’d made it out alive and found the magic door: education.

Then there was the ridiculous accident the summer before his senior year at State. He’d come home for a month to visit and had been helping his father scrape paint from the house. He’d backed down a few rungs on the ladder to get an icy bottle of water in the cooler below. They’d been catching up. His father was happy with him, his only kid making good, had a girlfriend, Jeanine. The talk had been expansive and warm so that Damien had opened up for the first time in years.  Working together was just the thing.

Damien swiped his brow with his forearm to catch the sweat. “What’d you just say?”

“Oh, get me one of those while you’re at it–I’m dying up here. How can August heat up more?”

And Damien had gotten the bottles, stuffed one between his shorts’ waist and his sweaty back, then held the other one in his left hand. His skin shivered from the cold, damp plastic. He took each step carefully but when he was six rungs from the top, he felt the bottle squeezing against his back, then leaking chilled water, a shock to buttocks and legs. The surprise of it threw him off. Or maybe he had been too relaxed, too confident that day. But his left foot lost contact with the next rung for a split second and he fell back, a flight that felt endless until he hit the ground like a one hundred sixty pound sack of cement. The fortuitous future morphed into a nightmare. Then he blacked out.

That’s when it had started. A back surgery. The pain requiring potent  pills. Rehabilitation, more pills as the months turned into a year. Ten, then twenty a day. Living with his father and stepmother as though he was a boy rather than the man he needed to be. The lurking phantom of pain even when he walked well enough and then looked for work. In one year, his law school chance had slipped away. In two, the addiction had settled right, an unwanted roommate that Damien couldn’t dispense with. He ate them or snorted them, and sometimes shot them, whatever was handy or worked best that  minute. It was either that or withdrawal, the sweats, the vomiting and intestinal hell. Agony in every fiber. Feeling crazy, skin aching, head askew. Being high was a thing of the past; now he just wanted to get through the days and nights. He left, took to the streets of a neighboring city and found more than he bargained for. He changed and although it felt worn, he acquiesced for the sake of Oxy. OC. Killer.

But eventually he’d had enough. He got tired of the no-win hustle that kept him running day and night, a game never over. Damien longed to snatch his life back, make it right. One morning he drove to a detoxification center  and they made him better than he thought possible.

It was an uneasy and uneven return to health once more, but it was like his blood ran pure again and his mind started to follow, to even make sense. Still, it took a long while to get twenty-two months clean. There had been countless bad days.

And there had been more of those again the past couple months. Damien had held out as long as he could. He just wanted out of his head awhile, to feel nothing for one night, to not think. To not feel worthless: Damien Harper, part-time auto parts worker, ex-junkie (“Once a junkie, always a junkie”), still at his parents’ or couch surfing. What a damned tragedy that guy is and so on and on. Lost it all. Well, he couldn’t stand it. He didn’t even have to be anything fabulous, anymore. He just wanted respect. Some peace.

A  sports car downshifted; the lights went out. It had been six  years since that fateful summer. Tanner had been there for him after the doctors stopped writing prescriptions. He got out and unfolded himself, then stretched and yawned. It was as though he had been on a leisure ride and had just stopped for a break.

“So,” he said when he leaned against the van next to Damien. “Ready to come back to the fold?”

Damien tried to laugh but it came out like a grunt. “What do you have for me?”

Tanner shrugged. “That depends. I might want something this time.”

A frisson of anxiety, almost like a thrill, ran through him. “Such as?”

Tanner took out a cigarette from a crumpled pack and ran a thumbnail over the head of a kitchen match, a flare resulting. His face looked a dirty reddish-yellow in the match light and he smiled at his old schoolmate. The smile more a grimace. He blew it out; the darkness felt cooler than before.

“I have a job. Delivery. It’s your old stomping grounds, the college. I  don’t really have the time tonight, bud, and you know the area well. How about it?”

Damien stared at him, the cigarette that dangled between his lips. Bartering, one thing for another. He remembered his old dorm at Hill and Ash, the union with the stone benches and fountain where they hung out and watched the girls. The cherry trees in the spring and the snow blanketing the massive steps of the administration building. He remembered his younger self: excited, maybe too fearless, but carving out a life he hoped to feel better about. Feeling stronger each time he got over the next hurdle. What mattered now? 

“Tanner. Really? You want me to be your delivery boy?”

He stepped way from the van and Tanner did the same.

“A very small  price. You get fifty pills. I get a job done. Not bad. Or do you want money? Of course not. You don’t want to be a drug dealer. That’s my job. You only want the drug, cheap. It’s a good trade, my friend. Time’s wasting’.” He slouched toward his car, looked at his watch, cigarette tip glowing.

Damien listened to the night. The frogs were singing in the distance.  A bird called out, then there was a flutter of wings from one tree to another. A car was trundling down the road and Damien knew Tanner was itchy, ready to roll. He felt his throat constrict, heart thump.

“Hey! You’re in the wrong place, man!”

Tanner shouted an obscenity, got in his car and roared off.

The voice boomed across the road. “Is that Damien Harper’s sorry van? What’re you up to, son?”

It was Old Burl. The town drunk for forty years, sober for about ten, he’d heard. Had finally gotten married, too. Good woman, Marie; met her in AA. He hadn’t seen the man since spring, at the parts store. Damien heard him gun the engine a little so he walked up to the vintage powder blue Cadillac. They shook hands.

Old Burl spoke first. “That was Tanner.” 

“Yeah.”

The old man cleared his throat and leaned his head out the window to better see him. “Well, why don’t you come by for a cup of coffee?”

“I don’t know–at this time of night?”

“This is as good a time as any, from what I can tell.”

Old Burl nodded at him and started down the road. Damien stood and looked around, then up. A capricious wind spread clouds across the inscrutable face of the night. Before too long, it would be autumn with a gorgeous harvest moon. Then winter again. So much time was going by. Damien had been so certain once that he would never get to twenty, then thirty. He could live as though he meant it or let life drift through his fingers. All that he had to do tonight was stay clean. Hang on and get through it.

Damien walked over to his rattling van and got in. Then he pulled up behind Old Burl nice and easy so stray rocks wouldn’t mar the Caddy.