II. The Crumbling Church of Reflection
“People suffering from nervous breakdowns often do a lot of research, to find explanations for what they are undergoing. The research, of course, fails… It fails as far as we are concerned, but the unhappy fact is that it sometimes provides a spurious rationalization to the disintegrating mind…” – Philip K. Dick, Valis
I believe there is a connection between the repression of feelings I experienced growing up, the inability to accurately language my internal landscape, and the bursting forth of that very same landscape in my early twenties in ways totally monstrous and blown out of scope.
Everything inside urged to see the light of day.
It’s staggering, though, how powerful the Christian complex influences our society. I’m not someone who attended church all that much. I wasn’t raised Catholic by a long shot. My dad grew up going to Catholic schools and vowed to never let his kids have the same experience. So I was raised skeptical and Presbyterian. We played basketball in the basement of the church. I don’t remember a thing about Sunday school other than getting those donut munchkins from Dunkin Donuts. One kid loved freaking the teacher out by swallowing them whole, and when they got stuck in his throat, he punched the bulge until the donut smashed up and he swallowed it.
My recollection of the myths and parables of the bible barely exists.
After a few years of that, the pastor left, so we went searching for other churches, jumping around from congregation to congregation. My dad didn’t go all that much. My mom wanted the community and spirit that came along with church, so I joined her from time to time as she explored the Unitarian Universalists. I was first exposed to Buddhism in those truncated days. By that time, I was playing soccer more and more frequently, so soccer on Sundays became my church.
I recall a friend of mine during those times; he and his family practiced in the Cavalry tradition. They skirted that edge of Born-again fundamentalism. The parents didn’t allow their kids to be in school for Halloween. They listened to Christian music only. Etc etc. The family was nice enough though. I slept over their house a good bit. Played street hockey out front of their house. Kid stuff. One time, which pretty much spelled the slow divergence of our friendship, I received a phone call from my friend’s father asking me to join them at the Harvest Music Festival. A day full of Christian rock bands. It sounded miserable. I declined saying I had soccer on the weekends and wouldn’t be able to attend. He said to me, “You know, you could be the world’s best soccer player, you could be Pele even, but if you don’t accept Christ as your Lord and Savior, you will be going to Hell when you die.” I said, “Okay.” And hung up the phone. Even at the age of 12, it seemed absurdly ridiculous. Laughable. Such weighty words filled with the arrogance of belief. How did he KNOW?
I began dismantling the Christian complex from that age, but it still had such a stranglehold on me, on our society; when I reached young adulthood, Christ ripped and cut so deeply into my psyche to the point I thought I was the prodigal He. It brought with it an arrogance I had not really known before.
Mostly through my high school years I maintained a shy nature. I didn’t talk with many people. I recall at soccer practice one time, two guys approached me with pondering questions about my sexuality, “Do you like girls? It doesn’t really matter one way or the other. We’re just curious…” “Mhm…” “I don’t really see you talking with them…” “I don’t really talk with many people…” “That’s true.” And they stopped with their questions. I guess they realized I was rather reclusive.
I smoked weed for the first time when I was 13 years old. It was a half-day at school and the weed put me on cloud nine. I danced goofily and swore off the education system. I remember walking around and having no idea how to interact with people. The words didn’t match the images in my mind so I just stumbled around talking strangely. By sunset, I had had enough and went home in a fog, crashing in bed for the rest of the evening and night.
The weed awoke something in me, and I decided to stop doing homework. I remember in 8th grade, a teacher approached me with her grade book. She pointed to my name. “Look at your grades,” she said. “Look. You have mostly A’s here, a couple B’s, and look at your homework grade, that’s a C- soon to be a FAIL.” It seemed absurd to me, “If I’m getting A’s and B’s on everything else,” I asked her, “what does it matter about my homework?” I don’t think she knew what to say.
She let me slide as many other teachers did as well.
There was a bit of sports privilege wrapped up in there, I believe; I started varsity soccer from the time I was a freshman. In 8th grade, I was practicing with them from time to time. The teachers knew me like they know all the students, but it doesn’t hurt to stand out in that respect.
One teacher waited half a year for an essay I was writing. She bugged me periodically threatening me with an F but also continued to bump the due date. I was writing the paper on the play Waiting For Godot, so she waited and waited and waited and I turned it in at the end of the year. I don’t recall if there was any substance to what I had written, but she got a kick out of it and gave me an A instead of an F. She heaped on praises, “I’m so glad I WAITED to read this.” Hahaha. Ugh.
Even then, school was tough at times. I have many hard feelings for those days, mostly having to do with the institution itself and how utterly depressed & alienated that makes someone like me.
After college, I returned home to substitute teach. I recall some of the teachers reminiscing about my days in school. They described me as somewhat radical, like an outsider but still able to fit in. They said I wasn’t so much a rebel just for the hell of it, but more thoughtful, not easily swayed by the crowd. I wish I had understood that in those days, because it often felt like a nightmare where I was isolated, a prisoner in my own body, held captive and gagged, unable to say what I needed to say.
That being said, it was not always like that and not a total waste. I liked drawing and writing. There was usually a book to catch my interest. The Stranger came into my life then, and in that context, it made a lot of sense. The poetry. The romantic life. The overwhelming indifference. Its association with existentialism. The lack of meaning. The lack of substance. It felt like a world I wanted to explore. Like it held a nameable secret: This is life. It is simple at times and complicated at others. Enjoy what you can. There will be struggles.
This was right around the time of 9/11 and the second large-scale invasion of Iraq.
I remember arguments in classes and for the first time marching in protests.
I recall scouring the Internet for all the news I could feast my eyes on. Almost immediately I was drawn to anarchism. From that standpoint, society made the most sense. I had a peripheral interest in The Left as well, but honestly, never read much Marx or what-have-you. I find people of that persuasion to be good comrades, but never quite identified myself as such. I understand there’s a lot of interplay and intertwining of thoughts and praxis, so I’m not sure it matters how I choose to identify myself in this case; so many people conflate anarchism with socialism with communism and probably just toss me right into that godforsaken realm of Cultural Marxism. Or toss me out of it. Either or. I don’t know.
We’re all so full of judgment.
Before heading off to college, I was drawn to philosophy and psychology for many reasons. Our school didn’t offer those courses, so I sought the studies out on my own. I read The Interpretation of Dreams, and honestly, a lot of it went over my head, but still, it left a greater impression than most of the books for school did. It validated a certain mode of being in the world. I agonized over the nature of my experience. How to communicate it with others. How to feel not so terribly different. How to stave off that sense of alienation. How to greater know my role in society. I remember, specifically, realizing how potent dream life is, and that book spoke to exactly that, the reality of dream-life amidst all the chaos of war and propaganda.
Between that, the sports, the weed, the desire for a more esoteric knowledge, playing music on occasion with one group of friends, and occasionally displaying art from art classes, I garnered something of a reputation for being, well, I don’t know. Mysterious? A curiosity? I’m sure there was a host of other descriptions and labels too, some less flattering than others.
I experienced my first delusions from fever right around this time too. This happened toward the start of high school. It was probably the flu, or something of the nature, right in the middle of summer. I wore a blanket. I sweated and shivered at the same time. I drank water and ate fruit. I had no idea what was going on. Absolutely mad with delusions. A few nights I spent lost in nightmares. Even upon waking, I was still caught in hallucinations. I remember believing my dad killed my best friends. It made me angry. I surged with fire and an irate desire for revenge. I woke up throwing punches at him until he restrained me. I broke down in tears. Another night I believed people broke into our house and stole all the beds and sofas. “The bastards!” I yelled. “The bastards got out the back! What are you doing! We have to get them!” I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I shouted at my parents to defend the house and chase the thieves down. As I slowly started coming back to waking reality, I broke down into crying apologies. Shaking out the tears. Heaving and sobbing. Sweating and shivering.
I didn’t know what to make of that. But when I discovered the realm of shamans, I dug in deeply because it felt directly related. The ability to trek multiple realities felt all too real. Initially, it helped me make sense of my experience. I thirsted for more and more books along those lines. But eventually, I tired of reading book after book about people’s personal evolution into shamanhood. It felt like too much charlatanism. I didn’t want to be a shaman. It fascinated me, but our culture wasn’t set up for it. You couldn’t just choose to be one. It was more or less bestowed upon you by recognition, vision quests, ritual, and ceremony.
“The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than the razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.” – Philip K. Dick, Valis
For the few years after I graduated from high school, into college, and post college years, I had reoccurring dreams about my high school. This isn’t uncommon. I speak with a lot of people, who, to this day, continue to dream about their high school days. The dreams usually involve stress and tests and homework. It’s no small secret that high school prepared us for the workforce. We are more or less trained to wake up early in the morning, cart off for the day, meet deadlines, attend meetings, etc etc. The reality hasn’t changed all that much, so the dreams don’t change all that much either.
But my dreams did start to change.
It was always the same setting. I remember the bland hallways, the different entrances and exits, walking outside. I remember crossing into the park when school let out. All this showed up in my dreams with the shifting of people and emotions. I felt more or less pushed around by the bells ringing, weaving between teachers and students, under very little control of my own.
Certain dreams had me going through the motions of high school again. I remember being vaguely awake, thinking, “What the heck? Why am I doing this again? I already graduated! I even got a bachelors degree from a university! Why am I going through high school again?” The dream repeated many times in a variety of ways. It always brought with it anxiety and fear of failing and having to repeat the school year time and time again. It was a Nietzschean nightmare of eternal recurrence.
As time went on, I started gaining more and more lucidity in the dreams. I started questioning the reality of what was happening, until finally, it occurred to me, “Oh, okay. So this is a dream.” It was one of the last high school dreams I remember having.
I walked through a hallway holding a manila folder and a few papers. It was in between periods, so I went to my locker too. In the back of my mind I heard my mom reprimanding me, telling me I needed to do my homework and keep up with schoolwork.
I realized I was awake and dreaming, so I tossed the papers into the air and decided against going to class. Instead, I explored the hallways. I walked to the main office, and as I did, the walls started disappearing. In the open office, I saw people hanging out and talking, both students and staff. Why hadn’t I always socialized instead of going to class? I stood next to the proverbial water cooler where people gathered to drink water and chat. I tried chatting with them, but everyone appeared like an automaton. They only talked about a constrained program of thoughts and ideas. When I spoke outside of their realms of stored thinking, they ignored me. So I started making a scene, throwing my water cup in the air, splashing water, yelling and hollering, but no one responded. What is this charade? Is this even real? Who are these people? Am I even here? I walked down another hallway to a set of stairs. The hallways went dark and it felt post-apocalyptic. I walked up to the third floor, which had changed from a number of classrooms to being solely the art room. It was abandoned, covered in dust and cobwebs. I gingerly stepped through the cobwebs avoiding them the best I could, until I arrived in the center of the floor. Sunlight filtered in gently and picturesque. The ceilings looked like the rafters of barns. And suddenly, without warning, a giant spider appeared before my eyes, right in front of me, close enough I could see all the little individual eyes and hairs and fangs. It scared me to death. I screamed and woke up. But upon waking, the spider came with me. Apparently I scared her too, and she bolted along a thread of web from right in front of me to the corner of the bedroom. I sat up shaking. I woke up my partner at the time. Do you see that! I yelled. Do you see that! The spider darted from one corner of the room to another corner. I shifted my body and pointed. Over there! Do you see that? But she didn’t. And just like that, the spider dissolved back into the dream world.
I shook off the fear as best I could, locked the dream in my memory, and fell back to sleep. It reminded me of those fever dreams I had had when I was in middle school. Waking up and the dream world coming with me.
In retrospect, the spider as a symbol makes sense. The weaving of webs, illusions, myths, and stories. I’m often curious how memories compile to form reality. What is more real? The dream or the waking? Does it matter? They are tied so closely together in memory, why do we make the hard distinctions? I assume a lot of us, for many reasons, don’t give much weight to our dream life let alone our internal landscapes.
Especially when they’re screaming at us.