no filter on this photo. everything is a shade of violet, pink, purple, magenta at sundown. never practiced much graffiti but i appreciate it. always saw growing plants in abandoned lots as a variation, a kinship in practice, a certain kind of art. especially encouraging the growth of the wild ones.
many people question the practice of allowing plants to grow on their own accord. but when we get to talking, engaging, and addressing issues like clean air, deterring illegal dumping, creating a tiny ecology of livelihood, people come to understand. the plants are often here to help us.
with regards to the photo, you can see the money sign sprayed next to the wheat paste. our intention has never been to make money at the garden. but it has been to disrupt the normal flow of capital. developers have had their way with abandoned space in philly. it is long past due that people challenge that. there is a network of gardens throughout the city who are fighting for the land. there is a webwork of people fighting for the rights of housing. we are not the first. we are not the last. at moments it seems disparate, but connections are made strangely in the way that seeds flutter through the air and land down in the most unassumed places. they care not for borders and grow wherever they are determined to grow.
the echinacea in the foreground has historically been worked with as an antidote to snake bites. at a certain point in time, most likely recently when snakes became less populous in populated spaces, echinacea shifted into an immune booster. it stimulates the immune system, so it is recommended only for limited periods. otherwise overuse can potentially push the immune system into allergic reaction. more or less the body starts rejecting the medicine.
sometimes it is necessary to surge and pull back and administer different medicines to complement and continue what has already been put into effect. i’m currently witnessing this with the move from 8th and cherry to city hall. the movement and free flow of people is not only necessary but natural.
it is clear to many of us that we live in dire times. there are moments concurrently happening across the country. from teachers’ strikes to OCCUPY to electoral splashes of DSA candidates. everyone deserves access to education, healthcare, time for family, shelter over our heads, nutrient dense food, paid vacation and extended holiday, paid maternity leave, and the list goes on.
to see the world flourish like the old texts say, what is everyone actually working for
Consider that you are loved.
Even when people don’t know how to show it.
Even when you don’t know how to receive it.
Consider that you are loved.
There is a lot going on in this world. A lot of struggle. People are hurting in all kinds of ways. We all know this. We feel it deeply. In our bones. In our flesh. In our shortness of breath. The panic. We lash out. Bare our teeth. Snap and growl. Especially with those we love. We snarl. Spit. Act nasty. Get ugly. We bottle up our emotions and explode.
We have this tool. The internet. To reveal our happiness. Our scorn. Our absolute disgust. Our love and relationships. We tell little lies and noble truths to garner scraps of attention. We fumble and flop and flounder
biding our time until what?
What is more intimate and revealing than feeling safe to express our darkness, our hatred, our anger? To be listened to in silence. Ears big as elephants. Hearts large as houses. What is more intimate and revealing than the gesture of loving space held?
I spent a small bit of time with an Argentinian writer and anarchist outside of Buenos Aries. We talked about love. Amor y rabia. He disagreed vehemently with the idea that “all you need is love” in no roundabout words he called it shit. People need housing and healthcare. People need time to spend with their families. People need food. You can’t eat love.
I didn’t disagree with him. But our conversation was loud and passionful because we still need love.
We still need love.
We live in greedy times.
The days are eaten up by work.
Work is eaten up by bosses.
The vicious cycle plays out from the time we hit the alarm clock to the time we clock out. Labor is stolen. Time is stolen. Where does that leave love? Love is not a currency. Love is not quantifiable.
Love gets shoved into a box and wrapped as a present to give a few times a year. Love gets a hallmark card scribbled on at the last minute the barcode succinctly ignored. Love gets pushed around yelled at stomped on used like a doormat ripped out of the chest tossed in the gutter and rained on.
I love the rain.
Love gets the brunt of the anger and rage. The hatred swirling in the short breaths taken without acknowledging we are actually living blood pumping hearts stomping out of the chest into the streets to scream at whoever will listen.
Love. We are mourning. We are grieving. We do not always mean what we say. We may believe in the moment the harshness. The fuck you. The curses swelling like waves. But we are a loud cry from those who deserve it.
The rule makers have no peace in their hearts. Only greed.
The greed trickles down
turns us all green
we puke our disgust
onto one another.
We are covered in the anger
meant for another
meant for the collective
to wield as a weapon
to recall times of the guillotine
pulling down figure heads
and holding them up for show.
Consider that you are loved.
Consider you are powerful
Consider that you are hurt by a loved one. It is true. We hurt one another. There is no excuse. There is no retribution for unthinkable transgressions. We are forced into situations by circumstances systemic. We cannot become alienated and isolated over minutia. We cannot spurn one another without cold reason. We must take up our chains. We must take up our anger and rage.
As I finish this poem
I overhear lyrics spoken
“I never had healthcare
just a pistol on the waist
for the people”
It gives me a moment of pause and contemplation.
There’s no denying these times are dire.
The fire burns.
The fire burns.
Consider that you are love.
That you are
another piece of the puzzle.
the big picture crumbles at the feet of tyrants. Full of greed. Full of unknowing.
We all deserve better. So much better.
The sky cast an ugly shade of red on the ground. Normally she enjoyed the sunrise, but this particular blood-red reminded her of the streets piling high with bodies. The blood rose up to her ankles. At least. The blood fed the harshness of tar like rain fed the miracle of plants. The blood covered the buildings. The cars. Her hands. How could she ignore it. It was supposed to be beautiful, but it made her resent the light. Normally she prayed to the sacred ball of fire. Closing her eyes holding her hands at her sides palms facing the heat absorbing the vitamins the light burning her lids awakening the third eye. But today it stung her skin.
Not the usual start to the day. She took it as an odd omen.
She returned home and brewed a pot of coffee. She opened her notebook to a blank page.
The night prior she dreamt of a field swaying with a single type of flower. Chicory. The plant grew four feet high with delicate blooms and green, hardy stalks. She harvested a basketful of the periwinkle flowers. The breeze combed her hair whispering pollen and yeast.
A city sprung up around the field.
It felt romantic. She walked the tiny alleyways. Passing little yards. The fire escapes hung with clotheslines. Graffiti covered the brick. The sidewalks cracked with plants. A slight creek cut its way like a snake transforming the post-industrial roughness with a trickle of peace.
She paid a visit to the house of a witch. It was a reoccurring theme in her dreams. The first time she found the house she awoke with such inspiration she became determined to find the house again. The walls were lined with everything you would expect to find at a witch’s house. Books of ancient musings, glass jars tightly sealed with herbs, potions, oddities. Flowers hanging from the ceilings. A cat purring on the window sill. The sunlight filtering in slowly, gently touching every plant in the house.
She gathered the chicory flowers in exchange for a ritual. The witch did not charge her but she gave them to her anyway as a token of appreciation. The witch placed the flowers in a bowl next to the cat on the window sill. It had taken awhile to convince the crone to perform the spell. Many nights dreaming. Many visits paid. She had never expected to find the old woman again. What were the chances. The subconscious is infinite. But that initial dream made such an impression she had to return.
She laid her hand on the table, palm up, as instructed.
The witch retrieved an old tomb with tattered paper full of signs and symbols and flipped to a particular page. She tapped it with a long fingernail and cleaned a knife while whispering succinctly a strange tongue sanctifying the metal. A spider scurried across the pages of ink.
The witch made the cut quickly. Blood dripped into a cup of dried petals and crushed mushroom caps. The witch instructed her to place a pinch of the mixture on her tongue and the rest was lit on fire. It crackled loudly, surprisingly so, reminiscent of fireworks at a distance. The flame disappeared in a flash with no trace left. The witch dressed the small incision on her palm with dried yarrow and St. John’s wort. It healed instantly. The cut swallowing the flowers transforming into flesh.
She closed her eyes and fell into another dream. But she couldn’t remember anything from that second dream save a cellar door leading to a dark basement. She woke up.
What was the meaning of the dream? Why the basement? Why the blood? How did it connect to the anger she felt upon seeing the blood-red of the sunrise? What was the witch trying to teach her? She had so many questions, but what frustrated her most, it was her own subconscious. She wanted the witch to be real, but she knew better.
She refilled her cup with coffee and began reading the other entries in the journal. Perhaps a clue would arise. A missing piece of the puzzle. After a few unsatisfactory entries, she flipped to the beginning pages of the notebook where she found the entry from that very same day one year ago:
I visited the witch again. This will be the third time. But she keeps repeating the same lines over and over. “Seek the place where the rage is cultivated. There you will learn. There you will hear the strength of your mother, your mother’s mother, and her mother before that. Seek on and on until you awake.” That’s all she says over and over. I don’t understand the message. Mom was never angry. Not that I ever saw. But she grew up in a generation like that. A quiet generation of domesticated women. She had her “wild days” as she described them but then she had children. She grew up. And I never got to know my grandmother let alone her mother before that. I don’t know what to think. I question my own anger, to understand where it comes from. But nothing appears beyond the normal narrative landscape. Misogyny. Men’s entitlement. Rape culture. I could go on and on. Pressures to have children. To be beautiful. Yes. Everyday I am filled with a quiet rage. I guess I hide it out of fear of repercussion. But am I missing something? Is there something deeper? There’s war on brown and black bodies. Both at home and abroad. I am ripped apart daily. The destruction of the land is ever-present. I just don’t know what to do. I do what I can do. How am I supposed to cultivate rage?
She closed the notebook. She had forgotten about those first days of visiting the witch. But now it seemed connected. She remembered another dream. A dream she had only once. A dream she didn’t have time to write down. But it returned to her like a breath of fresh air amidst a midsummer’s heat.
When she fell into the dream, the surrounding city never arose right away. The buildings sprang up after she spent time in a forest, or a meadow, or a river. There was no telling how long it would take. To pass the time she went on hikes, took naps, dipped for a swim, meditated under trees until finally the city appeared. Except once. One time the city didn’t appear.
She fell asleep and entered the dream as usual. She wandered the woods and found a stunning plant. Ghost pipe. A wonderful specimen of life. A plant without chlorophyll so it remained totally white. Because it didn’t produce its own food, it latched onto the mycelium of a mushroom to gain nutrients. The mycelium received nutrients from the roots of a tree. An epi-phenomenon. A dream within a dream. The ghost pipe spoke softly, “Save my spirit, dear one. Save my spirit.” She smiled. The whisper echoed the trees like the wind rustling feathers and leaves. She sat with the plant.
She noticed smoke in the distance so walked in that direction. As she neared, the entire forest looked to be engulfed in flames. She walked closer and soon realized the flames arose from a single cabin surrounded by trees. The cabin remained unaffected despite the violent flicker of flames. She thought it might be an illusion, but the heat pouring from it proved her wrong. The witch appeared in the doorway. Also burning. But like the cabin, not the least affected.
In a very unexplainable moment, her awareness split in two. She saw herself standing outside the cabin & she saw herself within. On the countertop a giant cockroach crawled into a mortar. It disgusted her. Her body shook in revulsion. She found it amusing too. Animated. Cartoonish. She wondered if she could act quickly enough to crush the cockroach, but realized that would be foolish. The splatter of cockroach wasn’t a welcome ingredient. The cockroach perked up its antenna and scurried away.
The witch stared at her, nodding as if reading her thoughts.
“To hold rage close to your heart. To be in the flames but not burned up. To throw heat in the direction you choose. Protect yourself, dear child. The anger you feel is not simply from your present life. It arises from generations and generations. It is a weapon you need to learn how to use.”
You know those days when you wake up and go outside and you can’t tell if it’s a spring haze or an internal heaviness or a combination of both? And something in the brain feels like a dream and the words are wonky coming out your mouth. And simultaneously everything seems crystal clear, like conversations like the state of violence like the scream of oppression like people worn down like sirens piercing morning dreams like newborns gobsmacked with the reality of breath,
I can’t remember if that first breath tasted like pollution or not. I can’t remember opening my eyes for the first time. I can’t remember if the fluorescent hospital lights hurt or not. I can’t remember if the first rays of sun made me squint. I can’t remember the first human touch.
I used to think I was all alone in this world, but somewhere in my late teens a part of my self dissolved, like the walls of individualism caved, and I realized there are people all around. There are people inside. Voices constantly talking. I realized I am never alone. I try to hide away and find solitude, but there is always someone there, around the corner, walking, running, fighting, singing, what-have-you, in the next room. I love you. I hear you often. Although I can’t remember that first human embrace, I know I came into this world loving people, craving human touch, a strong desire for relationships that extend beyond the conceivable barrier of language.
It can be carnal at times, and base, but I like going to sleep with people. Horizontal, sixty-nine, on the floor, in the bed, ruffled sheets, no clothes, standing up, sweat meshed together like droplets of saltwater in the ocean. And that’s not it. What about handshakes and hugs. Kisses on cheeks. Arms around shoulders. Looks from across the room when eyes palpably touch and smiles perk upon faces. High fives. Shoulder rubs.
We know how precious life is. That’s why we don’t want to get out of bed on rainy mornings. To stay curled up with cats or dogs or humans. Unless it’s to retrieve a cup of coffee and a novel only to get right back under the covers after cracking the window to let in the moisture of rain that accompanies the breeze. We know how precious life is. That’s why we crack the car window and roll it all the way down to let in the salt air of the ocean because it smells like home. We know how precious life is. We do. We fight for it. Because how much time are we able to settle in deeply to appreciate it?
I see sadness in eyes. Especially in eyes that cry. But when I see eyes that don’t cry, I see sadness in shoulders, hunched up, holding the weight of tears like an aqueduct buckling with age. It makes me sad to see such sadness. It sweeps over,
We know how precious life is. It’s crystal clear. But there’s this spring haze. Or maybe it’s an internal heaviness. Could it be the dark moon calling in all the shadows? There are many reasons. Bills. Rent. Mortgage. Mouths to feed. The morning news. 60 dead. Another war. Another friend OD’d.
There’s this dream I woke up to, but I forget it now because I didn’t write it down. The day started so quickly.
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.
I. Hornet’s Nest Dysphoria
“The first thing to depart in mental illness is the familiar. And what takes its place is bad news because not only can you not understand it, you also cannot communicate it to other people. The madman experiences something, but what it is or where it comes from he does not know.” – Philip K. Dick, Valis
It feels dangerous to talk about it out loud. So I take to writing it down.
The illusions of grandeur started when I was 19 or 20 years old. It was a three or four year period living in this particular hellscape. The internal world I traversed at that time was one of psychic torture swinging into bouts of ecstatic overload. It was volatile. Apocalyptic. Paranoia wove its way through my mind ceaselessly. I forever thought friends were inviting me out as a joke. Even a funeral I went to, beforehand, I had thoughts of not going because I kept thinking it was a ploy to out me as a scourge unfit for family and friendship. I had enough presence of mind to talk myself down from these thoughts, but it was difficult.
I remember hearing voices telling me I was a prophet, the reincarnation of Buddha, the second coming of Christ. I had thoughts telling me I was sent here by God to unveil secrets to those around me. Prophecies. Everything was a sign pointing me closer and closer. To what though? I don’t know. Enlightenment? Transcendence? Fulfillment of divine purpose? It must have been a click in my brain. A jolt in my being. A freak show of ego and narcissism. Chemistry out of whack and firing haywire. There were any number of rationalizations for it, but the fact of the matter was clear. This is happening. I don’t have any small doubt it is a major reason for me being a writer. I wanted to hammer those thoughts into submission. I wanted to mold them into stories more sane and relatable. Transform the language and find new words. I wanted to channel those thoughts into something less cultish. Less religious.
I also did not in the least want to walk that path into schizophrenia. Mental hospitals. Dissociative disorders. Strapped in institutions. Drugged into zombification.
I was haunted by fear. Outlandish visions. I had nightmares of being gang raped and beaten pretty regularly. I wondered if I was tortured in another life for a practice of witchcraft. I recall smoking weed with friends, and feeling the need to stop, because it felt as though I was inside everyone’s heads, hearing all their thoughts. I had no idea what to make of my experience, this unreality, this alternative world, that worked its way into my thinking, but I dealt with it on my own.
There were nights I sat in my room unsure how I made it through another day. I felt like I had zero control, like I was being pushed through life by an external force co-opting my inner will. I gave thanks and praises to whatever it was keeping me safe and harboring me through the chaos. Many times I considered taking off into the quiet life of monkhood. A monastery. A mountain. Somewhere cloistered and sacred. Practice daily ritual and meditation. I don’t recall talking about this with anyone until years later. Even then, I’ve kept very quiet about it. It certainly showed up in some of my writing, albeit thinly masked and self-ridiculed. I’m 31 now. It’s been about a decade. I feel like it’s been long enough to revisit these thoughts in earnest, because they don’t leave. They’re still in my memories. Much quieter now. Almost an absurdist abstraction. A surrealist spat at a distance. I’ve dealt with it in ways that I knew how. It’s different of course in the present. Back then, I felt forever on the brink of losing complete and total touch with reality. Like my head was exploding with archetypal upheaval.
It’s ironic in a way too. Don’t the teachings of Christ make such suggestions? At least the Nag Hammadi Texts? The kingdom of heaven is within. Christ is in each one of us. We don’t need the middleman of the priest to know our connection to the universe or god. In all probability, we don’t want the priest to corrupt our natural encounter with feminine.
At the time, I was also reading about shamans, so this archetypal energy was presenting itself simultaneously. But the modern American culture makes as much space for shamans in society as it does for prophets. So that didn’t seem like a much better path to tread. Michel Foucault wrote about the village idiot. The person where madness found a dwelling. Mircea Eliade relegated the shaman to a madman suffering schizophrenic delusions.
Given what was arising in me and what roles are acceptable to fulfill in modern society, I suffered a lot of confusion. At the same time this was happening, I felt more and more a part of me that is a woman. I remember a dream I had in which my mom and aunts and the women ancestors sat around me in a ceremonial circle as I heaved and cried and screamed, “I don’t want this! Why me!” “It is part of your gift,” they said calmly. “You must accept it or it will eat you alive.” The idea of being transgender or non-binary was barely on the periphery of my understanding, but even then, I have often felt like and continue to feel like both a man and a woman. Not one or the other, but an interweaving of both. This is part of the reason why Willow has become a chosen pen name.
I ate mushrooms for the first time when all this was happening. To be honest, I believe it helped me ground, get real, filter and integrate these thoughts.
During one journey in particular, I traveled back thousands of years. I lived in the trees and wore a loincloth. I overlooked the forest village in which we lived. It was paradisiacal. As I returned to the present day, I experienced the fall from grace and entered a period of profound sadness. How could civilization develop in such a way? So much violence toward one another and toward the earth. Violence that is both explicit and unconscious. But that trip, deep into the terrain of psyche, helped me understand the nature of those reoccurring grandiose illusions. We are complex beings. We are more than just our present life. We have memories encoded in our DNA. Our genes carry the weight of millennia. I don’t need to give my whole identity over to one particular upheaval of thought patterning.
There was another voice that said over and over again, “You are gay. You are gay. You are gay.” It was frustrating. It was clear that women turned me on. My sexual fantasies indicated as such. Men, not so much, but I was and continue to be open. Experimental. So sure, I’m gay. I feel an emotional, romantic connection with men. Not all men. A heartfelt brotherhood. But as teenagers, our touching one another was always aggressive and competitive, expressed through sports and wrestling around. There was less hugging. Little to no softer intimacy. This is something I craved much more than sexual attraction. There was this phrase “butt buddies.” It indicated that two friends were attached at the hip and vaguely implied that they were fucking one another. It was used as a derogative. A point of joking and making fun of people. Closeness with men was clearly discouraged.
I grew up in a place that was progressive and open, but still people were steeped in tradition. Homophobia existed in subtle ways. It wasn’t so much a hatred for the LGBTQ community, but more so a fear of it. “You’re gay” was a way to say, “you’re dumb.” When it came to sexuality, it seemed as though you could be either straight or gay but no in between. There were no degrees along the spectrum. Only a strong binary. Gay or straight. Man or woman. In the closet or out. Strict, defined boundaries. As someone who identifies as queer, this didn’t appear on my radar when I was younger. It was almost too complex. My whole experience was too complex for me to get a grip on.
Most of my younger days were spent in a hazy darkness. The space needed to find clearness of thinking and expression of an inner world didn’t really exist. I remember being relatively miserable. I had a few friends I could relate to on these matters, but I don’t think we had the language or concepts to describe what was happening to us. We most definitely searched though.
I understand consciousness forever ebbs and flows, changing like a chameleon depending on the context of society and individual state of mind, but still, it’s important to name the delusion.