Mind-Trip: Visiting Past Selves

The morning after my graduate coursework was complete, and with no more school assignments to write, I sat in dim quiet. A restlessness stirred in my core but fatigue lingered-on. I decided to try a self-compassion exercise I found on the Internet. It told me to think of an uncomplicated love and I tried to remember my grandparents. I could send those ‘warm fuzzy feelings’ to the leftover parts of me inside, supposedly, by visiting my memories.

The next part of the exercise asked me to send compassion to past versions of myself. At first I pictured myself in the seventh grade, walking down the hallway with a large piece of cardboard that read “I love [girl’s name]”, with a pink heart (like one does). Picturing the scene elicited an uncomfortable mixture of stale teenage hopelessness and amused retrospection. “Maybe I’m too old to connect—” I muttered to myself, “I am nearly two-and-a-half times as old as I was then.”

lucky_Kristen-Brown-took-itWithout realizing what I was doing, I started to rub the prayer beads I bought in al-khalil. I might have an easier time connecting to myself in Jordan, I mused. Around this time four years ago I passed through Amman twice while waiting for Israeli immigration services to process my volunteer visa so I could return to Bethlehem. After a brief sojourn in Southeast Asia I settled for a few weeks in the Canary Hotel in ‘jebel weibdeh’ near a glorious mosque with a blue dome. I soon fell ill with some pathogen that stowed away in my body from either Hong Kong or Davao City. I pictured myself wrapped in sweat soaked sheets at the Canary hotel, then sitting patiently for over six hours at an Israeli embassy, and finally sipping Arabic coffee and preparing for the now-infamous border-crossing into the West Bank. I saw myself, shaggy hair, bearded chin, and a face that is a little more pink than brown both because and despite of the sun. My eyes are too blue but I — this ‘younger me’ is gun-ho to return to Palestine. Even if I’d had the power, I doubted he would join me for a ‘jaunt’ through time. Once he left his sick-bed, I did not know how to send him compassion — there was little to pity in a version of myself so genuinely brave. At that moment, I was not mentally prepared to follow him to the crossing at ‘beit shaan’ and I opened my eyes. My room in Northeast Washington, DC flashed back into existence and I exhaled, sharply. I closed my eyes again.

Still rubbing the beads I went deeper into my trance, in search of a past version of myself to which I could send compassion. I remembered Geneva; I’ve had writers’ block about my brief time in the French and Swiss countryside, there, for a long time. Preparing to cross at ‘beit shaan’ is one matter: the pressure from Israeli border control was expected. Nine months later, the counselor at the debrief center West of Geneva caught me off-guard. I wanted to just be authentic in my feelings and be affirmed, feel normal. Instead, the therapist made little room for ISM politics or even Palestinian Liberation Theology; I felt judged for my frustration. I watch myself going silent in her office, then praying with a candle in the same office later that night, then wandering across a snowy canvass amid the breath-taking scenery. I took long walks that week, trying to follow the sight and sound of hawks. I hoped for guiding signs, to help me adjust in the sudden cold and emptiness — literally, relationally. Now I am following the twenty-six-year-old version of me back into Geneva, onto a train leaving for Zurich and places beyond. My two Never seen a pale-face in a kefia? Get used to it.former co-workers, R2 and Debz, are there but I swiftly recalled that 26 (this version of me) felt distant from them. He seemed almost real. He wore one of those hats that is a cross between a billed-cap and a beret that is solid black, always turned backward; he still has the black-and-white kefia purchased in a Bethlehem market, wrapped loosely around his neck, partly draping down his chest and tucked into Buck’s* olivey-brown sport-jacket. One one lapel are two pins, a Palestinian flag and a key symbolizing the return of refugees. Dressed to be a bona fide ISM-activist, surrounded by the glory of mountains, mere feet away from wonderful colleagues, he sat in perplexity and despair on a cushy train-seat. I imagined him rubbing…

Prayer beads. He looked-up at me, suddenly awake. Realizing he could see me, realizing I was on the train over three years ago, I gasped and crouched to the floor in a muted panic.

“Get over here,” he commanded in a harsh whisper, “you’re just as conspicuous like that. Walk over here, calmly, and pretend to be my twin before Debz or R2 see you.”

“I’m sorry, I thought you might be lonely— actually, I knew, but I didn’t… um… wait! You know that I am a future version of you? That seems too convenient.”

“Just now, I wished someone who truly understood would appear. Again, it seems too convenient—who else, ever, could understand?

“Right.”

“How did I learn to do this time-warp thing? Or I shouldn’t ask, I guess. Nevermind. Don’t tell me the future. Just…” He leaned against the window, sapped of vim.

“Sit with you? I can do that.” He reached-out and held my hand. I had not realized how much I wanted my hand held and I gave 26’s hand a squeeze. He quickly let go and I never quite asked ‘why’. By this time the train was moving and vivid images from my past mesmerized me, the alps scrolling by through the abundant windows while we remained nestled in the luxurious train-cabin.

“Life is good, then? You don’t have to give details.”

I hesitated. Did I really believe my life was better than his? The answer was ‘yes’, mostly, because I knew his world had spun upside-down in a week whereas mine was just turning, slowly, on its side. “I just finished graduate school; you knew you would do that. I’m going to be thirty.”

“Peace and conflict at American University? I see your AU t-shirt.” I just smiled at him. The answer is ‘no, not P & C’ but it was not worth explaining ITEP.

“We all need to be rescued, sometimes,” I said with a wink. He smirked and started gazing out of the window again. I read that as assent but it was not.

“If you could come here, does that mean we both could return to somewhere else?” This time, I was careful not to hesitate for fear he would doubt my expertise — of which I had none, of course.

“Well… the prayer breads brought me here… it seems… so maybe if we agree where to go next and both rub our beads we can… yeah. I should mention, this is part of an exercise in self-compassion that went magically wrong. I should have said that right away.”

“Self-compassion can go magically wrong? And I thought you said you were here to ‘rescue me’? Well, it’s worth a try. I just want to get out of here.”

Something about the way he said ‘rescue me’ touched my heart in a strange way. One of those uncanny feelings that there is not language to describe surfaced and I let it slide by, or linger, or whatever near-subliminal emotions do. I wondered if he would take us to al-khalil where the beads had come from or another place I was not mentally prepared to go. “Can you do me a favor? Can we go somewhere in Michigan?”

He continued to stare out of the window. God only knows where he wanted to go, in the first place. Then he nodded. “There are other versions of us to be rescued, right?” He slowly looked at me and the sensation was wonderful and terrible, far beyond seeing oneself in the mirror for the first time. This version of myself that I had come to console was, despite my intentions to comfort him, the epitome of the rescuer in me — and he had just concluded his mission. 26 was looking for ACTION at a time when reflection gave him no solace. I glanced instinctively over my shoulder and thought that Debz and R2 were looking at us.

Convinced that the jig was up, I approached: “Ladies it is truly a gift to see you again; as you can see, I am John Daniel’s doppelganger—from the future, not a precise doppelganger. Before you say anything, I need to get some things off our chest, 26 and me (I’m 30 but that’s not important)~ number one, he is very confused right now. It’s true that he’s attracted to both of you but that’s NOT what is on his mind right now. He just lost an office of beloved, Arab, co-workers and he’s feeling disconnected…”

“John Daniel…”

“—I understand that the both of you are enjoying your independence, especially Debz, and that he might seem like a little bit of a drag. I apologize on his behalf— he just needs some more perspective. Plus, the therapist at the retreat center actually treated him like SHIT but he doesn’t want to burden either of you with that…”

“EARTH TO THIRTY! THEY CANNOT SEE OR HEAR YOU… oh damn, did they hear me?”

A pregnant pause filled the cabin as I waddled a retreat. “I guess not.”

“I’m still not even sure if I’m conscious—I must be asleep on the train. Although this episode is certainly telling me something about how I feel about myself…”

“Let’s make the best of your dream, then?” I asked, hopefully.

“Let’s go rescue 19,” he said. The flush returned to his face.

“When you say it like that, it’s really infantilizing. He is technically a grown-man.”

“Technically,” scoffed 26. Not surprisingly, as my younger self’s vigor flowed so did his penchant for ‘assbad’ comments. It was so good to see him smile, I decided to play-along.

“Let’s go lift his pitiful ass out of bed!” I said with some gusto.

We rubbed on our beads for a while. “Maybe we need something else— something that you and he share—”

“—like our entire bodies? Or is it true that all the cells in our bodies change in seven years?”

“…rub your stitch: I bet the surgery is on his mind…” I said it with some gravitas, hoping he would take the bait.

“…rub YOUR stitch, wanker! I’m not rubbing my stitch on a Swiss train…”

“…it has to be you. Trust me. It has to be the person who is physically visible in the environment from which the teleportation is taking-place,” I lied. I wanted to see him do it. “And you won’t see these people again. R2 is not even looking—”

“—screw you—”

“screw yourself: just do it (and you’re the wanker)”. He glanced around, then furtively shoved his hand down his pants. I put my hand down my pants for good measure, since I was invisible anyway. “…just to show you how it’s done, of course.”

“Wanker… now it looks like—”

dorm-desk-and-bunkBut suddenly we were in a dormitory room on the campus of Michigan State University, sitting next to each other on the bottom bunk. A slush-laden pine tree was visible through a window.

Naturally, 19 was in the top-bunk sulking about his surgery and the complications that followed. Granted, bed was probably a good place for him: he had a severe respiratory infection. The surgical sight itself was free of infection but he was on a medication to reduce swelling at, shall we say, ‘critical junctures’. We could not see his hands but we both knew where they were.

“Be gentle with that stitch, boy,” I said playfully as we stood and looked at him.

“AHH! WHO THERE? BAH! DIE!”

“Dude, 30,” 26 said calmly, “have you forgotten our tendency to startle when our bedroom is invaded? Hey 19…” he said turning to him.

[”We got nothing in common…” I crooned]

“We are the 30 year old and 26 year old versions of yourself, here to ‘rescue you’…”

[”No we can’t talk at all…”]

“This is part of an exercise in self-compassion and rescue…”

[”PLEASE TAKE ME ALONG— don’t either of you remember that Steely Dan song?”]

“…we are here to rescue you — older, wiser — to lift your ass from bed—”

“Whoa,” I said, “this is overwhelming. He has not said anything. Aren’t you overwhelmed?”

“It just figures,” said 19, closing his eyes and starting to cry, “that I would be psychotic in addition to everything else.”

“It’s going to be okay,” said 26 reassuringly. “We’re going to get you THE FUCK OUT OF HERE. So get dressed…”

“…whoa. What is the hurry?” I protested. “As a matter of fact, I am cold. I came here straight from… a place.” I balked. Neither of us wanted to explain to 19 how he came to leave his home state. “Can I crawl into bed with you? That guy over there is dressed for—umm…”

“MICHIGAN. See? I’m wearing a scarf.” He fumbled his kefia tassels awkwardly. I was still wearing my American University t-shirt.

“Forget what we’re wearing,” I said. As I sprung into the top-bunk, 19 recoiled and turned his front-side toward the wall. “We came here to talk to you. Maybe not so much to ‘rescue’ you; maybe that was not the right word.”

“—that was sure as hell the word you used for me, as if I hadn’t gone… places that required… self-sufficiency.” This game of hiding 19’s future was quickly turning into a comedy routine. “But hey 19, my man, we know you’re having a rough time,” said 26 recovering his assuaging tones.

“Yeah, buddy,” I said starting to spoon the younger version of myself. He was still wrapped like a burrito and I was worried that he was not wearing very much underneath. His face looked oddly pale when I remembered, distinctly, being feverish and on the edge of death. I expected him to be ruddier.

“What is there left to say?” he mumbled to the wall. “I’m sick and frustrated all the time. I never get across campus to see Kim…” 26 rolled his eyes. “And I’m just afraid I’m going to blow-it. I’m so… conflicted. I want to be with her and yet I don’t want to burden her. At the same time…”

“Forget about her!” said 26 emphatically, “you’ll do all kinds of things that she wished she had done!”

“26,” I said sternly, “we’re not talking about the f-u-t-u-r-e, here.”

“30…” said 19, “I am an English-major. I get it.

“—you’re going to be a writing tutor!” volunteered 26.

“Shut-up!” I said, surprised by my own frustration.

“He’s already in the writing-center rhetoric class, so he knows anyway,” sassed 26.

“Anyway…” he continued without making eye-contact, “maybe I do need to go on anti-depressants.”

“DON’T”

“Dammit, 26! Shut. UP.”

“Not that there’s shame in it but your chemistry will get—” I threw a pillow as hard as I could at 26.

“Go take a walk! Go see if you can find someone to — but you’re invisible —bah, I don’t care…”

“Fine,” he said, releasing a deep breath, “I’ll just sit on the floor and listen.”

“You were saying, John? Try to look at my eyes while you talk. Pretend I’m just a funky mirror that… that can hug back.”

At first he was a little reluctant but after a while he let me under the covers with him and we talked for a long while. 26 seemed to lose his stomach for all of the talk about our ex-girlfriend and decided to ghost-walk around MSU’s campus. I quickly became jealous of him, as the charm of cuddling a younger version of myself went stale. No doubt, I felt some sympathy for 19 but he seemed to be churning the same set of problems into a thick, milky paste of anxious feelings. On the other hand, I could not judge him because there was not much he could do about it and, really, that was what I understood the best. His want to take action, the bitter feelings of helplessness, and wanting to be completely loved, even coddled, the moment he (we, I) relinquished being strictly self-sufficient — the chasm between independently-strong and totally-supported is cold, horrifying, and wide. What I understood that 19 did not was that his social networks were filled not with great people who shunned him, nor with bad people per se, but with normal people who were also still growing — still young.

The scarved-ghost returned. All at once, I saw him for what he was: the culmination of 19’s plan-B wishes. 19’s hope in Love would burn-down several times and from the ashes would rise 26: assbad-tastic. Unconsciously, I had put myself in the company of the most vulnerable, dependent version of myself and the most hardened incarnation… but they both needed compassion. They both were severely lonely and wishing for connection. They both needed to be accompanied…

“Hey 19: we’ve actually got more in-common than I initially realized…” said 26.

I accepted this insight with credulity: “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“Oh were you, old man? Well, I was thinking about our favorite bouncing ball. Come-on out of bed, with me, and show me where the ball is.” 19 obliged him, unsmiling. He tumbled from the bunk, to the floor, and then rose to his desk and opened a small drawer. He held-up a rubber-ball filled with swirls of blue, white, and peachy-pink.

“Bounce it, for us.” He did: it rebounded from the ceiling and off of walls back into his hand. “You’re not doing so bad, eh?”

“I guess not but I can never seem to hold onto this feeling that, you know, things are going to be okay.”

“It can be a challenge—it’s a challenge for me right now,” I said, mimicking 26’s tone. The walk seemed to be good for the renegade missionary; maybe I needed a nice, brisk stroll through the pines.

“I think you remember,” said 26 to 19, “the day after Laura broke-up with you?” This allusion bothered me but I could not think of any better examples that were not deep, deep into the future.

“Yeah?” answered 19, his eye still on the ball. “I guess that whole relationship was, I don’t know…”

“—remember that you tried to mow and you had to stop the John Deere lawn-tractor because you started weeping? Remember the scent of cut grass? The whisps of exhaust?”

“I remember, too…” I said, closing my eyes. I should have realized what 26 was doing.

“—I was crying pretty hard. I felt so ridiculous, dressed-up so… masculine?… but crying harder than I had in years. Plaid, paint-stained jeans… but tears running down my cheeks,” said 19. I kept imagining his shaven, sweaty, acne-spotted, face:

“—and no beard—” I added with a wince.

“—then you went up on the deck, that connected to the dining-room through a pair of double-doors, and sat on one of those black, metal gliders. The sky was so blue, dotted with cottony clouds, and the buzz of insects~ can you hear how alive that day was?”

“—today seems so… dead…”

“—but you were alive and it was the summer of 2003 and what did you do?”

“I bounced the ball…”

“—and rubbed it—”

“Now I can hear the insects! And I feel hot—am I halucinating?”

“Oh shit…” I said, jolting awake.

“This is not an illusion; this is an exercise in compassion going magically wrong,” said 26.

“This is not a delusion but 26 might be deluded,” I said, taking a wide look.

“Did I just do the time-warp with you two? This ball has never done that before… I’m not sure I want to talk to the seventeen-year-old me. I’ve changed a lot.”

I started laughing. 26 was more focused: “Don’t you want to rescue him? Wouldn’t that be empowering? Or should we rescue him?”

“Does we imply 26 & 30? Because this wasn’t 30’s idea. Also, referring to myself as 30 with three younger versions of myself staring back is surreal… it’s giving me heebie-jeebies.”

“Are you sure this isn’t your idea? You climbed onto a train leaving Geneva to rescue me…”

“I said rescue ONCE; I said ‘everyone needs to be rescued sometimes. Haha… you’re a missionary, let’s hold-hands and pretend not to feel lonely’ or something like that.”

“Did I cry so hard that I passed-out?” said 17. He had gone from hysterical to high-as-a-kite in the space of a few minutes.

“You’re okay said 19,” then started coughing, “but maybe I could sit down? I’m, uhm, a 19 year-old version of you. I guess this is some kind of spell…”

“A spell implies it was intentional,” I spat.

“Wasn’t it?” asked 26, “wasn’t this your idea?”

“To find you on the train not to haul 19’s ass out of bed — though I might have said those exact words, yes. Okay, that was half my idea but this,” I protested, spinning around and pointing at my childhood home, a beloved tree, Mom’s intact flower garden, the garage overfilled with memories, the sound of dribbled basketballs filtering through the trees separating us from a nearby park, “—this wasn’t my idea but it was a WONDERFUL idea!” I turned and jumped off the side of the deck, laughing. A muffled jingling sound rang from further away, then the clear tinkle of dog tags: Buster was awake. My now-deceased dog emerged from his little brown house, panting, and wagging his tail.

“Aren’t you paying attention?” called-out 26, “Your past-selves need to be rescued, here on the deck, and you’re going to… wow, Buster looks much younger! Look at him jump! I haven’t seen him look that lean or jump that high in… years…” He must have peeled his jacket off because the next I heard from him he was unwinding the kefia from his neck, shouting “—I’m coming too.”

When I glanced back I saw that 17 was bringing 19 a glass of water and a picnic blanket— the guy was in his pajamas, after all.

“17 is bringing 19 an inhaler, ironically,” said 26. “I think the rescuer dynamic is playing in reverse.”

“For a moment, I was getting ready to chew you out but I think you were amping yourself to chafe me, too. For my word choice.”

“To tell you the truth, I’m having a love-hate relationship with this idea of being a rescuer. You probably have a love-hate relationship with the idea of me, too?”

“Mostly love,” I said, scratching the dog behind his floppy ear, then prying him off of my sleeve. In his elder years he had stopped playing tug-of-war with people’s clothes but this Buster was only 3 years old. “I wonder if this is right before or right after Buster learned to unlatch the pen with his nose. It crossed my mind to take him for a walk but I was afraid to let all of you out of my sight. Not that you need me.”

“Not really. You seemed more eager to hold my hand and watch the alps pass by than lend me any wisdom you picked-up in Washington, DC.”

“Not all emotional support is advise or even instrumental. Sometimes it is just presence, just accompanying someone.”

“—you needed to be in-mission with yourself? This is about accompaniment? I definitely didn’t need that from you.”

“Maybe not while you were in Bethlehem and you had Zoughbi and the others to look-up-to but… let’s not say ‘you’. Let’s say that ‘I’ lost the spirit of accompaniment and became even more social-justice-ramrod from a distance than I was up close. I let the retreat-center therapist get in my head in just the opposite way when what I needed —what you need to do is find some compassion for her because she was going to drop the ball. You shook-up her theology and world-view in the space of one session. Can you muster some compassion?”

“I’m not sure I can,” he said, half-chuckling.

“That’s alright; the only reason that I can is because I found some supportive people in Washington. But it’s going to take a long time. Don’t chain yourself to the White House fence or something. Live to meet your people.”

“That sounds a lot like advice that I don’t need. I feel like what I need is to have a squirt-gun fight. Do you have any, uh, special intelligence about what happened to the Supersoakers in the garage? Are they/were they still there in ‘03?”

“Let’s go ask 17. He seems to be good for more than I thought.”

“Oh crap. Mom & Dad are down there. He looks like a zombie…”

“It makes me uncomfortable to see them together. Even now. Or perhaps more now than ever.”

“I don’t even want to know. I just can’t go down there.”

We had a squirt-gun fight. Then we turned our mouths purple eating wild-raspberries. Then we paced around the other side of the house talking about childhood and almost went into the house through another door. Yet when we heard 19 call for us, breathlessly, both us old farts raced to the deck and scaled its highest part. My shoes were better and I won.

17 was standing there, still half-way shocked but not so dazed that he could not launch into a series of questions about the future, aimed mostly at me. 19 kept adding obscure details from his cocoon on a glider, poorly camouflaged with inexpertly cryptic phrasings. I allowed it, since I felt most of what happened between 17 and 19 didn’t matter that much. At first I was surprised to see 26 lay serenely on the other glider but, of course, he had been through most of what I had. ‘Social process time’ moves faster when relatives start dying and you go through several different ‘homes’. More than the tendency to minimize his youthful ‘romantic’ sufferings, it seemed like 26 was really happy to be ‘home’ in the Michigan summer. I smirked at him when I caught his eye.

“—so you’re not going to say anything to me? Why did either of you bother coming here— just to bring me him?” he said, pointing at 19 “when you knew he was sick, anyway?”

“My bad,” said 26, “feed him some raspberries.”

“I’ve learned my lesson. I need to stop trying to ‘rescue’ my former selves. I should learn to be present with all the pieces of myself.” I put my hand on my heart and said, ‘you each are an important and cherished part of me—” trying to make eye-contact with each of them.

“Good. Tell me what I can do to be the best version of myself.”

“Shut the fuck up and be cute,” said 26, snickering.

“Twenty-six,” I said sternly but I could not keep a straight face: “—he’s right. Although I noticed that you… your skin looks terrible.” I laughed audibly. “It’s kinda’ painful and hilarious at the same time, especially when he told you to be cute… but you ARE cute!”

In hindsight, I don’t think 17 believed me. He walked off the deck, turned on the hose and drenched himself. That seemed like the right time to leave — before something funky happened to space-time. As tempting as it was to change the course of history, possibly preventing 19 from becoming so SO pitiful, I could not bear sending my teenage self on any trajectory that would not produce 26 exactly as he was. 17 went back to his tractor to finish mowing, probably eager to dismiss us as mirages.

“Let’s grab 19 and get out of here before we rip-up our timelines and disappear like an alternate ending of Back to the Future.”

“Great idea; just tell me what I need to do,” retorted 26, without moving.

“Yeah. Okay. Remember when you were bothering me about it being my idea to come ‘rescue’.”

“I’m still wondering about all of that,” said 19. I patted him on the head. “And quit kiddifying me.”

“You mean infantilizing you?” said 26, this time with his hat drawn over his eyes to keep-out a dappling of sunshine straying through the leaves above. 19 curled into a tighter ball. “…so, chief. 30. How do we reverse this ‘exercise in compassion gone magically wrong’?”

“Technically, I’m not 30 for another month. Also, it wasn’t my idea. It all just kinda’ happened when I rubbed the prayer beads.” 19 squirmed.

“Well, fuck it anyway?” said 26.

“Maybe you’re ready to hit the fuck-it button but I want to get back to DC and graduate! I’m going to have a life!”

“You had a life— he’s in the Spartan Brass (even if he’s too sick to play right now— okay, I take it back he doesn’t have a life) and I should be going with my two awesome co-workers from Geneva to New York City. Doesn’t that count?”

“I should ask you— doesn’t that count? I know you feel a lot better zoning-out in this memory but we’re… wraiths…”

“—we already were—” replied 26 moodily, now staring off into the trees. I stared with him for a while, in a spirit of accompaniment.

“I’m right here with you, both of you. I have warm, fuzzy feelings for you. The two of you. You’re so cute. You’re so much cuter than 17, 26, with your kefia and tough-guy routine!” I poked him on the cheek. He didn’t seem to like it. “Go poke your brother.”

We both poked 19 but he was unresponsive: still breathing, eyes still open, but empty-headed. We continued poking him all over until finally he jolted into action.

“Balls!”

We both cracked-up laughing at him. “Balls, chief?”

“We bounced and rubbed the rubber-ball to get here; we need to do it again.”

“Uhhh… you sorta’ missed this earlier in the conversation but I actually rubbed some prayer beads to flash-back to 26, here. I’m not sure how the jump forward works.”

“Does it work?” asked 26, “or aren’t we fated to keep repeating the same patterns?”

“If that is the case, I need to find a way to accompany myself. I was the one who needed rescuing from my own rescuing. You all are cherished pieces of me—I have warm fuzzy feelings for all of you.”

“You already said that, though I don’t know if I believe it,” said 19. “You two have made fun of me this entire trip. Hell, even the 17 year old version of me was more sympathetic and he hasn’t even gone through all the things I already have!” 26 sighed heavily and I wasn’t sure if it was remorse or exasperation.

“—you’re right!” I said before 26 could say anything more. “We’ve been minimizing your hurt all day— nay, for years and years! We even brought you to this spot so you could minimize 17 and instead you found his primordial kindness intact! We need your powers to take us forward!”

“Primordial kindness? Please don’t ask him to rub his stitch, 30…”

“No no, I’m telling him something from the future to jolt him ahead—”

“Well,” said 26, “stranger things have already happened in our life.”

maria's“I need your help, 26. I need you to remember with me the first time we went to play trumpet under the Bogue Street bridge AFTER the bronchitis subsided. 19, hold our hands. Imagine its late April and all of us are walking toward the Red Cedar River. It’s a little humid but much cooler than this or the train. In the shadowed alcoves beneath the bridge it is cooler still and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to play again. Imagine yourself silhouetted against a canvas of bright greens, standing between a camera lens and the river. Now remember the song that you composed for yourself. Hear it in your mind. What is it called?”

“Underbridge Blues” we all say.

19 shivered and crawled back into his bunk. “I wonder if I’ll even remember this dream.”

“I hope you don’t—” said 26, “so that the day under the bridge is a great surprise.”

“As for you, habeeb,” I said, patting him on the shoulder. He gave my hand a squeeze then let it go again. I almost asked him about the time we touched-hands before but I was in mid-sentence: “—Geneva is not going to be a total waste. There is no good falafel and sharing a room with Debz is going to continue being awkward. Try not to worry about that. When you return to New York City—grab my other hand while I tell you this— when you return to New York City you are going to take a long walk with Alex and Clifford; Clifford swears that he knows a great bar on the other side of Manhattan. You will be colder than you can remember being in your life and on the verge of turning back. But you find it! It’s ancient, the walls are covered in memorabilia from over a century of young men, coming and going. Imagine wish-bones thrown into a chandelier. Everything inside the bar is warm, despite the frigid city blocks all around, and those two guys… those two guys? They are still your friends in distant places. They still send you messages. 19 breathed deeply again and you… you? You will be close to other people again. It will take even longer but it’s happening. Your train will come…”

“—I’m on it; I’m awake,” he said. A lady in a uniform spoke to him in broken English and he pulled francs from his pocket to purchase some canned orange-juice.

“Nothing like a woman in uniform to get the blood flowing,” I said and tried to squeeze his hand. He was like a shadow: I couldn’t touch him. The sound of train cars, clacking against their tracks, got fainter and fainter as the windows shrank and the cabin around me became smaller. A matching oak desk and dresser materialized, then the rest of my room in Washington…

from-nas“I wonder if I’ll even remember this dream,” I said. A freight train passing under South Dakota Avenue moaned. I shivered and started to crawl back into bed… but I brought my rubber bouncing-ball with me. “Balls,” I mumbled and giggled quietly to myself as I fell back to sleep.

A Word on God (after Easter)

Long after Easter, returned from my exile and baking in the summer sun, I was in Beit Sahour waiting for the bus; I met eyes with a young man commuting from job to home. As he approached he said “Shalom”.

But I pretended not to understand him at all, apologizing and asking him what he’d said…

لوو سماحت, سديق : شو حكيِت، إنتَ؟

But he inquired again…

بتحكي عبري؟

Yet I apologized, again, and indicated I didn’t understand.

ما بأفهم, لوو سماحت

Then he greeted me in Arabic:

مارحبح؟

To which I replied (roughly translated) “whattup, brother?”

مارحبتين! كيفك, أخي؟

He said “I’m fine” but asked once more if I spoke Hebrew.

انا ملي لكن إنتَ ما بتحكي عبري؟

لا. باحكي عربي شوَاي, مش عبري

“No. I speak Arabic slightly, not Hebrew.” That was essentially true: however pathetic my Arabic, my Hebrew was restricted to an empty ‘Shalom’ when I was using my dumb-tourist-routine to cross military check-points more easily. He and I had in-common an emotional distance from Hebrew that would confuse many ‘religious’ contemporaries of mine for whom Hebrew is the exotic script of sacred texts, not the familiar drone of racial profiling or the roaring loud-speakers of destruction. When my seminarian friends get inked-up to show their devotion, I am relieved that their tattoos keep peace in silence; they are read but cannot speak.

To ancient Hebrews, the name of God was unspeakable. God was too mysterious to be known and therefore the Deity’s name was impossibly sacred for human lips. If one could not completely comprehend God then how could God even be nameable? They deployed a substitute script, for the sake of reading, and deity-words were borrowed from other cultures for the sake of speaking.

In Arabic, you cannot complete a casual conversation without uttering the name of God. It is Allah. Allah is incorporated into common phrases, into the very fabric of keywords — not least of which is “Justice”. Phrases of gratitude or of wishfulness incorporate God’s name, as does the common expression for “let’s go!” (“y’allah!”). I could not leave the room without tripping over God’s name. If God composed everything, then how can God be avoided? A special ligature (a contraction of Arabic script) was invented for our God-writing convenience. God’s name stretches from minaret to minaret five times a day and swings from the lingering smoke of church incense, incanted.

Even those of us who seek the Divine merely glimpse it. It exists only in-part, if at all, yet as long as we seek even the smallest amount there seem to be clues beckoning from everywhere. The whole idea is impossible to obtain but its constituents are impossible to discount. Neither of these languages is adequate but, interestingly, in countering one another they become complete together. It is bewilderingly Taoist; or would it be less deceptive to say it is groundingly contradictory? *winking*

That is the essence of everything. I am neither from Palestine nor Israel. I am from Michigan —land of lakes— where some previous inhabitants called this Mystery “Gitchi Manitou” — a ‘Great Essence’ or ‘Great Spirit’: The Everything Essence. Of course, each other thing on Earth has its manitou, an essence or spirit — not like a ghost but like an archetype, a raw state, or a central core from which to project its power and qualities into the world. Somewhere between nowhere and everywhere, I lost ‘here’: my manitou and, with it, the manitou of everything else with which I would be in symbiosis.

TBC (as always)

 

Finding Balls on my Walk (another fragment)

Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

Photo-Credit: Angela Johnson, wizzley.com

I needed to go walking. How I knew I needed to walk can be the subject of a longer reflection, some other time. I varied my pace as I meandered through my Northeast D.C. neighborhood casting glances into obscure alleys or across the surface of familiar houses in order to hook something new with my eyes. I plugged my ears with the sounds of a band I liked before I left Michigan; I plugged into the lyrics of a song by Fireflight:

[Verse] “I want to know you/
There’s so much at stake/
Can’t face the memories/
They bend me till I break/
Hiding from the past/
But it’s eating me alive/
Can’t block it out/
When it’s coming from inside”

“Precious denial, a stone to break my back/
The chains I carry won’t cut me any slack/
Imprisoned by fear with no room for my heart/
My only hope, only you can heal the scars…”

“Every turn leads me to a new dead-end/

lost again, I’m screaming your name/

[Chorus]

Come close come close and call my name/

How can you turn your back on me when you know my pain?/

Stay close, stay close; light up the night/

Save me from the part of me that’s begging to die”

‘John Daniel’ used to mean something but I prefer to be called ‘JD’ most of the time. I closed my eyes for a few seconds and started to turn my palms upward. Quickly, I opened one eye and started to look around: was someone watching? Instead, I kicked a chunk of concrete up the street, up the route I had almost traveled, and took a sharp left toward home, toward the prospect of continuing a project for graduate school. The way downhill to the bridge that spans the train-tracks was punctuated with patches of asphalt, as out of place as tuxedo jackets laid over potholes, and buckled sidewalks like broken saltine crackers. A little rivulet ran along one edge. I weighed staying in D.C. versus looking for adventure abroad. Then, I thought of a friend who said she was moving to Iowa (with a boyfriend) and what a dismal idea that is if she wants to work in our field (International Education). There are solid reasons I might voice my dissent to her but sometimes I varnish better motives with my own vocational tensions — and I know it. These are both the sheen and the stain on my opinions. I stay silent, supportive.

I noticed the rivulet again: its speed, the way it carried debris, the volume of water moving down this little side-street to a storm grate by Vista street. For a second I imagined a capsized pot, the size of a car, spilling an endless supply of water onto the street from its absurd depths. I wondered from where the stream flowed, whether from a broken water-main or an unseen mountain of snow. Only a week ago I meandered through a groove in the snow piled on both sides of every road. A week ago I inhabited, I wandered, I explored a different scene in the same place.

Kirby's Dreamland Villain (cute, stationary)The water disappeared into the curb inlet and I went left, again, along Vista. On Vista my hooking eyes caught dozens of visions. Dropped from some unknown tree were a multitude of… spikey-balls? A fruit or nut of an unknown species, they looked all at once like giant cockle-burs or wilted, alien flowers. They reminded me of cartoon maces or generic, stationary foes from NES video games: “Kirby’s Dreamland” and its ilk.

Mines at sea.Before I could unhook them, they all turned into choices. I could step on them intentionally, with glee or curiosity or even sadness or, rather, I could fix my gaze on the distance and allow myself to trample them like wine-grapes. I could have embraced them, could have allowed them to happen, but I avoided them. Which choice of hundreds could be best? What if they really belonged to someone else and I ruined them? What if they made a mess on my shoes? These multitude futures, I decided, need to be left as they are until I could be certain. I want to come back with a machine, like the ones at the Bethlehem co-op, and pour all of them down its diesel-scented gullet and turn them into oil: dream-oil. Like olives, that cannot be eaten unless they have cured or are processed, I left them all alone. I did not pick one up, because I could not be sure that one of them was not my dream, or a dream I might regret, or…

Each spine became a button, a trigger-ball floating in the stream of my life. No, I did not touch all of those choices and their multitude of futures. They could be mines! Am I ready to explode? Am I fully qualified as the bomb? Have I practiced blowing-up enough? Can I find the time for combustion? What if my explosion isn’t as good as someone else’s… no…

A block further and many sidewalk-cracks later, I stepped in some dog-shit that I had not expected. That was probably gushing with symbolism, too, but I wish it had not gushed into the sole of my shoe. The copious, cleansing snow-piles that covered the sidewalks just a week ago succumbed to time. So I walked back to the minefield on my way to the stream. I wanted to stomp on one of those choices and see what future was inside but it was too late. Going backward, they had all turned into memories. They were all the past, now. Now, my dreams were flowing through the past. I stood on one leg, almost ready to reminisce — but how could I be sure that… how could I be… could I… how?

As I washed the dog-shit off my shoes, I wondered what what secrets bathed and clung to my shoes, what came next, and why this walk made me feel like writing…

Smashed Pear (entry fragment)

He left when he heard I was graduating. I wanted to follow him into the hallway and plead that I could drop my capstone class and hang around for another year but too many pieces of me were invested in matriculating. I wished him a good day and listened to the door shut behind him. A voice from the front of my brain, sitting on the tip of some pessimistic wrinkle, volunteered that he wanted eighteen months to get me into shape. Yet somewhere deeper inside the skull, buried between my hemispheres, I knew that he thought I was ready to play. Another musician — the director of jazz-bands — had affirmed that I was worthy of joining. But it all happened a year too late.

In my chest I felt something like a smashed pear. My heart felt cold, bathed in a cool ooze as if it had been dropped on the floor of that practice room. Everything seemed perfectly normal in the wake of his leaving, as if my life were wrapped in a plastic bag. A layer remained between me and the possibility of being recognized and developed as a jazz musician but the impact, the thrust of falling, could not be stopped. I wanted to lay on the floor, smashed. My heart was still beating but its skin was broken and it dripped cool sweetness into my chest, pumping it out into my extremities. I put my instrument to my mouth as if I were pressing it to the abrasion on my bruised heart, sealing the wound with a quick lip of my lips and the long buzzing kiss against cold metal. I played something familiar — “Love Gets Old” — but much bluer, with some new twists. The music and the motif met: a real musician with real blues.

My Future, Sculpted in Play-Dough

Sometimes I over-think my narrative and try to make it grand.  Let me tell you all a story; I will try to let

flow.

A guest lecturer from “Living Classrooms” came to my graduate-level curriculum class. She was a white-lady from South Dakota named Monique who taught in Rwanda with Peace Corps and now coordinates educational programs in Washington DC. Twice she mentioned teaching in prisons and on an indigenous peoples’ reservation in The West.

In the middle of the lesson she gave us each a canister of play-dough. The uncanny salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic,

Find more of Joan Peters' artwork here: http://www.nlapw-sarasota.com/members/joan-peters.htm

Find more of Joan Peters’ artwork here: http://www.nlapw-sarasota.com/members/joan-peters.htm

childhood filled the air. Mine was a green like cactus. I looked around to see if anyone else had

cactus play-dough. No. Prickles rose up the back of my spine. She instructed us

she encanted

…instructed us to sculpt our future in play-dough. She instructed us

she encanted

…instructed us to choose a symbol of what we wanted to be and make it from play-dough

the uncanny, salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic, childhood filled

…play-dough. I started making the fronds of a cactus, like green pancakes. I thought I would be clever and use my secret canister of purple play-dough to make cactus fruit. In Palestinian Arabic, the colloquial word for cactus fruit

صبر

puns on a classical word for patience. I remember the land left latticed by cactus rows surrounding

nothing

…land left latticed by cacti after radical militia burned and bulldozed Palestinian villages

the houses are gone, burned and bulldozed by radical Zionists in 1948

…Palestinian villages. Now, pears that pun patience grow green with great, sweet fruits in a lattice

because the roots did not die and the stalks regenerated

….great, sweet fruits the color of my secret play-dough grew in a village whose name meant

صبر

prickly-pears-bowl-1…grew in Beit Jala West of Bethlehem where I lived for 17 months more than 27 months ago. I wanted to symbolize patience, resilience, and the persistence of memory but the play-dough could not stand erect like…

صبر

…so I smashed it into a lump and began again.

***

 I finished my play-dough bridge just as time expired. I glanced around the room at an owl, a magnifying glass, a cocoon, a house… then back at my bridge. It looked like a tongue draped over four pencil-eraser butts with a pair of disfigured dorsal fins. Green like chewed wintergreen gum, it sagged in the middle. Its columns were fat and squishy, its suspension towers were useless decorations. The lecturer nodded at my explanation: “I want to build a connection between areas that once seemed separate.” In saying so, I tried to re-anchor my thoughts from over four years ago. I paced around a retreat center in up-state New York, rehearsing my elevator speech about entering into mission service and becoming ‘a bridge’ —

“Great job everyone,” she said slyly, smirkingly — furtively. “Now smash-it and make a new future.” The message was that we always needed to stay malleable as educators and teach students to imagine multiple futures and…

I wanted to be free

…multiple futures

I want

…to imagine multiple futures and I wanted to be something clever and free like a fox or

Coyote lays in forestmaybe a coyote listening in the woods, head and ears erect, laying in undergrowth with my front paws nestled beneath my chest and my back legs idly cocked to one side, extended. I was alert but relaxed

sculpting a coyote future from green play-dough

…with my tapering cloud-tail and my upturned snout, smelling

the uncanny, salty scent of a once familiar, now exotic, childhood filled.

“I made a coyote because I can be adaptable and free and I can do whatever I want, when I want.” Classmates complimented my handsome sculpture as he listened to them with perky ears, still green like cactus.

This future is vastly different than a bridge. I left the coyote resting on the edge of my desk until the period was concluded. Everyone nodded as my pet returned into the canister, into formlessness.

stay malleable as educators and teach students to imagine

…nodded as the beast returned.

To Be Continued…

The Meaning of Life & Suicide in a Bathtub

Though it contains true facts, this is a piece of magical realism. Read it in its entirety before becoming alarmed…

I considered the option of suicide in a bathtub, four years ago. I dreamed of luxurious, hot, morbid release as I read the warning label on a bottle of drain-cleaner in my Grand Rapids, MI apartment. I wondered how it would feel, not just to withstand such eviscerating nausea but to hold the poison down intentionally: to fight consciously for death. Dying worried me less than being found: a naked body of thwarted potential.

A year later, I laid upon a legless couch in the exquisite cool of a cave-basement in the same bedrock where Jesus was born. I might have died beneath a bulldozer, in 2012, if it would have stopped Israeli settlers from taking more Palestinian land. Even martyrdom offers no resolution: Rachel Corrie’s spilled blood is still crying for justice. No fast solutions exist. Instead, I re-discovered the clarion sound of my Self returning, in echos, from the back of the caverns just as, a year before, it skimmed-away on the surface of the Grand River.

Suicide is ripe in me. My melancholy seemed like a tangle of cords, for almost a decade, as if someday I would loosen each frayed end and unbind its strained knot. It seems to me like a mass of chords, now. There is nothing to envision nor to gently (even forcefully) tease apart. The past will not be manipulated. All pain is sound, all wounds echo. The sources of distress drift further and closer, into the foreground but also behind walls —or beneath darkened waters— louder and softer, varying in pitch, and changing in timbre as the reverberating waves collide. The time for Silence is ripe.

My housemate speaks in non-echos: “Do you get morose when you don’t have enough to do?”

“Oh, maybe,” I replied. His intercession struck me, contrastingly, as intrusive and reassuring. “My schoolwork kept me engaged for nine months.”

“You mean distracted?” he said. He paced first to the sink and then the stove, wearing no shirt. “Life doesn’t have meaning anyway; you know that, right?” he added, casually.

IMG_4782“There is no one, central them,” I acquiesced. He agreed and continued spewing nihilism as he retrieved mismatching bowls from the dishwasher, still shirtless. He has a broad, muscular chest: smooth and vacant like his thoughts about Life. I have less white-space to give; the tattoo-text above my left nipple reads “…to seek Justice and resist evil”, as if to answer the question ‘what is the meaning of Life?’ I never told anyone I was looking for Life’s meaning. His vacant regard for the question of Life was his version of mercy, intended to free me from the crux of a great dilemma by denying the crux.

“Life is like Silence,” I continued. I tend to find reasons to continue. “Silence has no particular meaning but it is valid as what it is.”

He said nothing as he shut the cupboard door.

Life is a medium, not a piece of work; Life is the substrate of Meaning, like a canvas for paint or Silence for Music,” I raved to myself. He receded to his room upstairs, which could be a broom-closet or the surface of Mars — I don’t know. I knew I possessed a central nugget of wisdom but I was unclear how to smelt it into praxis. Usually, I write a lengthy piece of reflection and post it to a blog called “Reverse Exiled”:

…many of us searched as if there must be a ‘best’ technique for imbuing Life’s fibers with somethingness, a ‘right’ image to impress upon it. Maybe there is a ‘perfect’ note that echos un-harried by Doppler effects, forever harmonious in Life’s chambers. That elusive ‘Theory of Life’ could unify every strand of meaning but, possibly, Life embodies the precise reciprocal of that idea. Necessarily, it is never ‘best’, ‘right’, or ‘perfect’ because that would spoil the emptiness that enables Life to hold Meaning. Oneness would collapse into nothingness but the essence of absolute-nothing clears space for EVERYTHING. Life is desirable as a container. Finally, the Holy un-Grail of reflective writers is in my possession —a dis-unified theory of life!— and I have a really fresh metaphor to convey that thought, via silence and music.*maniacal laughter fading into pathetic sobs*

I wanted “crux”: a kernel of superlative meaning to redeem every errant ‘stroke’ and ‘note’. “The meaning of life is that there is no meaning!” is not redeeming, even if it is liberating. Some meanings are dissatisfying, others seem too large for my corner of the canvass or take on unexpected dimensions that I struggle to render. I wished for an existential “konami code” that granted me mastery. Instead, I decided that I needed to yank the cartridge: time to die.

In childhood I made Life ‘mean’ as I pleased. Dinosaurs could plot regional domination, fall in love, and meet my sister’s pony-dolls in complex, first-contact narratives. Yet the possibility of proficiency in some field lured me into more ‘adult’ projections of Meaning: of Resolution, not merely Imagination.

Death pours a steadfast, concrete column through history, something with definite heft. Death visits each body once, but surely, while the fabric of Life continues for all of Earth but many of its threads fail. For the singular one, Death offers resolution: it fails to dissolve reasons to live but it renders them optional. To complete a suicide is an act of agency. I had several long reveries about living on an Earth left entirely to me, with no one to stop me from committing suicide. No one would love me or my art but nobody could stop me from looting, planting, and building as I pleased: 100% autonomy. Meaning would live and die with me… for the love of meaning, I would live for as long as my body lasted. For the love of meaning, I decided to die on my own terms before I watched my revelation about Life languish on the Internet like numerous other posts.

I fatigued from negotiating Life with other people, though at first I flirted with Mutuality to find Resolution. I filled the vacant portions of my soul with groups’ or couples’ versions of myself and invited others to affirm me as an amalgamate. I wanted to be cherished so badly, I allowed meanings to be imposed upon myself but no one wants to shape me at the expense of being so shaped. What might I mean, alone, when I stop wanting people to co-create with me?

The last thing I did was clean my trumpet and cornet to honor the meaning in Life. I ordered a new “snake” (cleaning-brush) for the occassion. An advertisement promised a flexible, plastic whip tipped with a fuzzy “weasel” to reach nooks of the instrument left untouched by metal-coil brushes. For the first time ever, I threaded a brush completely through my bell-pipe and into the middle cylinder of each instrument. “A sign: I finally swept the unreachable.” To my dismay, the “weasel” still could not go completely through the curliest part of my cornet. “A sign: some questions are never answered. It is definitely time to die.” I had a grand time admiring and playing with my new brush; I imagined a flummoxed coroner finding this giant, fuzzy caterpillar tucked neatly into the travel-kit where I keep extra trumpet supplies.

Meticulously, I restored my instruments to peak shape and arranged them as a shrine. I resisted the urge to play. The veins of blues that run through Jazz, R&B, and Rock’n’Roll (at its best) owe their vibrancy to the will to assimilate sorrow. The previous day’s exercises and improvisations were sufficient, I decided, and a much more fitting tribute since I played my last notes with the intention of living. Music should always be played with the intention to live. Glinting in their cases atop the sink and toilet, they sparkled with the promise of reincarnation in another musician’s life.

I glanced at my grandfather’s folding knife, with the resharpened tip. A knife would send a decisive message about my state of mind at death: resolute, in control of my fate. I imagined being rolled into the afghan my mother crocheted, caulking its soft fibers with my blood to seal the death-cocoon. There was a tragic, disgusting poetry to the idea of piercing my tattoo as an abortive act.

Yet a ring of charcoal black bloomed around the waterline in the process of cleaning two instruments. Dutiful to the end, I wanted to clean the residue before skewering myself. As I opened the bathroom cabinet I glimpsed a bottle of drain-cleaner in the back-corner. I could not recall seeing it before and my curiosity overcame me. A new vision stitched-together in my mind: I am found intact, ringed by the distillations of my music. That ring of black represented my last performance and private renditions of several jazz standards offered (gorgeously) in the wake of failed romance— but in celebration of the resolve to continue living. Sending these final vestiges spiraling down a drain would be blasphemous. “Damn,” I murmured with a crooked smile, “why should I feel pressure to clean when it’s my death to choose?”

I switched-off the antiseptic shine of curly-bulbs over the sink and lit a pair of candles. The drain-cleaner and a bottle of sleep-aide rested on the tub’s edge while I lowered myself into the warm water, shirtless, wearing my favorite jeans. I turned the hot-water tap open. Invigorating heat flushed across my belly, up the seam of my jeans and between my thighs. Satisfied, I closed the tap and opened my “Zzzquil”, chugged the entire bottle, and settled again with only my face and knees at the surface. I stared up, soaking in the motif. The lit wicks cast their glow onto the misty gloss of the white ceiling, like distant lanterns shining in a snow-flurry. My grandparents’ house had lights on each side of their front-door, the type of fixture that contains an incandescent bulb beneath a globe of smoky glass. The memory diffused quickly in the waves of anesthetic radiating from my guts. Side-walk salt melts in the first pelting rain of spring. I took a deep breath. I exhaled.

The prickling hot water rose over the ring and lapped at the trumpet byproducts. I saw black leaching back into the water: first in delicate wisps and then like a billowing storm-front rushing toward my skin. Drunk on my own eccentricity, I felt rapturously warm to think that the essence of musical notes would cover and cure my dead body.

I reached for the drain-cleaner. It seemed like a carafe of liquor to me: cap unscrewed, seal removed, ready to pour. I put it to my lips and drank and drank and drank and then swallowed the bottle whole like a loon gulping-down a fish. Lanterns rematerialized in the dimness, now turning green and red, like the starboard and port-side lights of passing ships: green drifting right, red leftward, multiplying and passing each other in the darkening haze.

Their reflections shimmered on the darkened surface of the bath like boozy fireflies over water. They ignited like meteors and streaked away as the poison drenched my viscera. I expected excruciating pain but the liquid combusted in my arteries. Water boiled wherever it touched my skin. My hands convulsed with steam. My torso was a lava-flow, with skin of glittering obsidian and veins of searing magma. I felt as if I would erupt in a momentous surge of tingling heat. The bathtub tremored with the promise of my aftershocks, portents of legendary power— for a moment. Then, the end began. Ash poured into my eyes and blackened my vision. My heat whithered and dissolved. A cold crescendo spread its stabbing tendrils through the bath and ice-crystals like hypodermic-needles penetrated me. Without a shiver, my body numbed. Unable to feel the tub, my sense of balance spun away in widening, meandering circles until I knew I was sinking,

sinking without any hope of the bottom, as into the middle of Lake Superior,

sinking into cold space.

Sound was All. I listened to the air escaping my lungs, rushing past my lips and nostrils. I kept listening for the surface to break but my bubbles just faded. The rest of my ‘bubbles’ followed me deeper: the echos of my poisoned viscera filled my skull. Bubbles rush through my bowels like trains, rattling the rails of my spine and blowing horns. I hear distant horns. I pull the blankets tighter around me…

…what blankets? What train do I hear, approaching a bend and then disappearing into the night? Do I hear a furnace, blowing dry warmth? Am I in pajamas? My eyes come open upon my stuffed crocodile —yellowish green in the glow of a night-light. I free my hand from the covers and run it over the cream-colored bed-spread, reading its beady embroidery like over-sized braille. The tips of my fingers whisper that adulthood was a dream, that I am where I really belong. I put my hand to my face and find nothing below my lip, not a bristle. This is Diamond Lake; this is Michigan; this is the nineties.

My body buzzes with a mixture of shivers and excitement. I turn slowly over to gaze upon my sister’s dark-brown head, so still, small, and precious. I glance at her end-table, looking for a missing pair of glasses among Grams’ figurines. Nothing is missing. Molly and I are staying with our grandparents, this October evening. She insists on the night-light, every time we visit Grams and Buck, and I cannot sleep through the night— just as it was in June, April, or February before that. I always have insomnia.

I must wander. I must repeat the ritual. I must robe myself and become like a tiny monk or wizard, swaddled like a poltergeist, treading stealthily through the doorway into the hallway, dragging a train of pale blankets. I break the seal of an adjacent bedroom and release a cold draught to peer inside: everything is just as it always is— how else could it be? Cunningly, I close the door again as I spin. A faux candle leftover from Christmas casts a modest ring of incandescence into the short hallway, making long shadows from end-tables and potted plants; it doubles itself in a strategically hung mirror on the wall. I squint at my reflection, looking back at me from just above the candle’s echo. My face is rosy and creased from being squished into the pillow-case. I often pace in order to think better.

Someday, all of this will be gone. To know this, so young, is both sublime and unfair. I arise into the chill of the night, alone, with a sense of foreboding. My grandparents will die; decades will pass before I die and see them again. I stalk past the stairs leading to the family-room (I can just barely hear a PBS program wafting from below), toward the lake-side of the house. If I make too much noise, Grams and Buck might hear me pacing, sneaking around the house after my bedtime. I drift into the upper-living room. The facing wall is composed of picture windows. The pier-lights of other lake houses cast a dim glow over a blue and white salon-set and I pretend that the whole space is for ghosts, like me. Halogen and fluorescent lanterns on the opposite shore shine like approaching stars smearing their shining tails on the rippling waters. The glittering columns widen across the surface of Diamond Lake and mesmerize me. Awe grips me every time. The lake is huge but I am small. I collapse onto the couch, into the fabric of the room to console myself, and further enshroud with a blanket draped over its back, becoming snug and camouflaged: invincible to time.

I always know. My grandparents will die someday. Life as I know it will be gone. Maybe this is God’s way of helping me remember. Maybe this is like when the binding in the spine kinks, just slightly, forever bookmarks a scene in the story. Sleep would be like death, now, if I did not remember my grandparent’s house. I burrow into pillows stolen from other furniture, whisper aloud to myself about how cold the water must be, trying to resist leaving the cold living-room — neither for bed, where my memories of this house might die, nor for downstairs where I would have to explain my restlessness. They wouldn’t punish me but I fear worrying them, fear mortification. No: I crease the spine of my story and hope that it weakens the binding of time so, maybe, I might…

“Am I sleep-walking?”

“Feel your face —”

“I thought I was in the bathtub, then I dreamed I was on the davenport at my Grandparents’ house…”

“Only Grams ever calls it a Davenport— you’re really me!”

“You… I used to be you. I always knew those nights had something supernatural in them, though I’m not sure why. How did I get to be standing-up? I was you a moment ago.”

“Why is your beard so little?”

“It’s called a ‘soul-patch’; it’s cool.”

“It looks weird on my face.”

“It’s on my face, silly, and you always knew you would grow-up to be weird.”

“Yeah. When I was littler, I thought I could mutate into a cartoon by acting very very weird.”

“I knew that.”

“I hope it doesn’t warp history if I touch it. Get closer to me.”

“I’m going to touch your dimple. Even trades.”

“That tickles” “THAT tickles”

“I have lots of little scars on my hands in the future?”

“When you get older, Buck will let you work with him on houses and you’ll tear up your hands doing handy-work. Also, from playing with the dog…”

“—what dog?—”

“…then you become a camp counselor and cut-up your hands in the woods. Little things happen. That circular one is from a wart removed at the clinic. What dog?! Yours. Oh that’s right…”

“I always wanted a dog.”

“It’s hard to believe but that little sister of yours will finally convince Mom and Dad to get both of you a dog. He’s black and brown, just like you imagine.”

“I have a dog!”

“Neither of us has a dog, yet or anymore, but, yeah, you won’t regret it.”

“Anymore? Did he die?”

“He lived for fourteen years: just as old as you’ll be when you meet him.”

“Then you’re at least twenty-eight.”

“Smart boy. How’s it feel to break your wrist?”

“Trick question: I was less than two when it happened.”

“You’re no more than nine. You’ll be ten when you break the other wrist.”

“I’m a smart man, too.”

“I might be you but you’re not me, yet. I contain all of you but you don’t contain even half of me.”

“But I’m going to be you, John Daniel.”

“Just call me JD, buddy-boy.”

“Cool! Call me JD, too.”

“Alright, fine. Whatever.”

“Why are you here? What’s CIES?”

“Why am I wearing my CIES t-shirt? I thought I was shirtless— sorry, I’ll answer your question: it’s the comparative and international education society. I was a member while I was in graduate school— for a while, I wanted to help students study internationally…”

“Did I ever go to Australia? Or any other places?”

“Never to Australia; I came close but the trip was canceled and I went to Belize instead— that’s in Central America. Later, you’ll visit other places.”

“Which ones?”

“…Palestine, Israel, and Jordan — for a long time— but Switzerland, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the Philippines before you start living in Washington DC.”

“—but Australia and Africa, maybe Brazil too, before I die. I guess I did not become a scientist, though. Oh well. Maybe I can be an author someday?”

“Oh, ‘insha’allah — fe’al-mishmish’, as they say in Arabic…”

“Wow! I speak Arabic!”

“—not very well. But if it makes you excited, I also speak bad Spanish.”

“It would be cool if I invented a time-machine but I guess God did this. It is miracle!”

“Well, just enjoy it.”

“I’m trying but I want to hear all the stuff I do.”

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on in your life buddy-boy?”

“You don’t remember fourth grade?”

“I do but re-runs don’t bother me.”

“I’ll tell you later. That can be late-night TV. You can be prime-time TV and tell me about the future. That makes more sense?”

“…actually, it does.”

“…”

“…”

“…first, how did you get here?”

“…so. I’m a ghost. You die.”

“NO! Did I get in an accident or get sick?”

“—ironically, you beat a case of Dengue Fever but— no, it’s neither of those things.”

“Did I get murdered?”

“—you’re getting warmer. I killed myself.”

“—so now you’re back in time trying to fix your mistake? I bet I got electrocuted.”

“No. I did it on purpose. I succeeded at something, for once.”

“I wouldn’t do that. And I succeeded many times. I probably graduated high school and college. I learned some Arabic, you just proved that. I got into that international education society thing—”

“—just pay the dues, it’s not a big deal—”

“Did I have to take a test to get into the graduate school?”

“Yeah. But whatever.”

“I think I can probably drive by the time I am 28.”

“Buck gave you a car but all kinds of idiots drive.”

“Maybe. Did I ever get a job?”

“A few.”

“Maybe I’ll get even better ones when I fix whatever you did wrong. I am really smart and I don’t think I would die before I am eighty.”

“I don’t remember meeting a grown-up me; this is probably my last dream before my brain goes completely dead—”

“Then how did you even get here at all? Why would you come back to when you were nine and not later? I thought only sad people committed suicide, unless it was a suicide mission to save someone else’s life.”

“Maybe I’m from an alternate universe, saving my life in your universe. Right now, destiny will split and you can take a different fork.”

“Maybe you’ll get a fork, too. But what did you do? Were you just too sad and wanted to get to Heaven faster?”

“I’m not so sure about heavens anymore, buddy-boy. It’s a nice idea because then I could have back Grandpa, Buck, Grams, the dog, my favorite high school teacher, aunt Barb and aunt Martha—”

“Why are aunt Barb and aunt Martha dead!?”

“Cancer. Your step-mother has cancer, uncle Delbert has cancer, Mr. Current had cancer. The dog’s cancer killed him and now Mom’s new dog has cancer. When Grams died of a heart-attack, it was almost merciful— but it wasn’t. It wasn’t because I didn’t get to say goodbye at all.”

“You were going to see all of them anyway, if you stayed good!”

“—we are on different theological plains, I can see. I didn’t kill myself because I was grieving. I killed myself because I felt like it.”

“I would never ever feel like killing myself. Something is wrong! Are you sure you don’t have depression?”

“Damnit. I wanted to die my way. I wanted it to mean something.”

“What did you want to mean? How did you do it?”

“I just drank some drain-o.”

“Ugh. How did that taste?”

“I don’t remember because I was high as the clouds on sleeping syrup. Crap!”

“Did you get your heart broken? At love and stuff?”

“Several times. This last time, my heart didn’t break at all. We just said goodbye. It was nice to be a happy couple for about a month. We both knew it couldn’t work-out. I didn’t kill myself because of her. I didn’t even kill myself for women I thought I loved more. I just saw a good chance to die.”

“That was really stupid, though, because that’s not even a great adventure.”

“—it’s an artistic statement: laying in the bathtub with the black ring from cleaning my trumpets still stuck to the side of the tub.”

“You also play the trumpet? I do all these different cool things! I don’t understand. Why can’t you keep making artistic statements WITH trumpets if you know how to play them?”

“It’s complicated. It would be hard for you to understand.”

“I must go crazy! I’m sane, right now, so I don’t understand.”

“No, I’m not nuts! I just thought it would be a DEFINITIVE artistic statement to die this way: laying in the center of that ring, just…”

“I always hoped to do the things you already did. Don’t you hope to do things that you have not done yet? Like get married or write a book? You still have not gone to Australia.”

“I got tired.”

“I did hope to do those things by the time I was your age.”

“Maybe the problem I could have fixed was to tell you not to expect to always be so precocious. I always did things ahead of time until I graduated from high school. The level of difficulty goes up. You aren’t as special as you think, buddy-boy. You do not get to always be the best, anymore. In fact, I cannot think of one thing in the world that you are the absolute best at when you turn twenty-nine.”

“I do so much different stuff. I knew I was different from anyone else. I’m super-weird! Name someone who can do all the different stuff I can do. I dare you.”

“…someone I know personally? I mean, I know —knew, I should say— some really cool people but nobody does exactly the same… things… okay, you win that point.”

*deep voice* “Hope. Hope to do more.”

“Whoa, buddy-boy. You sounded a little froggy, there. I didn’t think my voice started changing at age nine.”

“Look at me, JD. Watch me transform.”

“…Jesus SHITTING Christ…”

“Yeah. I’m forty-nine-year-old you.”

“The whole time?!”

“Hey, mack: I contain all of that nine-year-old, all of you, and twenty years more. You would be surprised what a little fermentation can do for HIS vision and YOUR experience. I am vastly improved—”

“—no no no. You can’t exist. You look too good for fifty, for one thing. Also, we just established that I am dead. SUICIDE. This is my last dream.”

“But didn’t you fix the problem? You told the little guy that his time-lines couldn’t always be accelerated. Art takes time. Careers and relationships take effort and patience, even strategy. You’ll also have to forgive yourself for wasted time. Life is a canvas. You just learned this, am I right?”

“I did. My canvas was finished. I was content.”

“Canvas comes in rolls, Johnny-boy. You were c’n-tent or CON-tent? Were you satisfied and therefore forfeited agency?”

“I was c’n-tent to BE the CONtent in that bathtub. And suicide is an irreversible act of agency!”

“Everything you do is an act of agency— suicide prevents you from doing anything more. It’s using your agency to end itself. Ha! Didn’t Fred tell you that Life is a long distance run?”

“I tried not to think about anyone but myself while I was committing suicide. I guess I was being a selfish bastard. Rub it in. I cannot commit any more noble acts of agency for humanity. But maybe I wanted to use my autonomy to end my agency so I wouldn’t ever have to second-guess my choices again.”

“Oh skip it: it’s fine. I needed to let myself be selfish, just once. I screwed-up in reverse, anyway, so it’s not even worth feeling guilty. But I came here to fix a problem, too. JD needs to embrace a multi-faceted vision of himself, again.”

“Buddy-boy really believed he could be not just anything he wanted but everything he wanted. That never actually happens.”

“Johnny-boy, it never FULLY happens but it partially happened. What never happens is a person containing only one, superlative aspect.”

“I get it. But I have three questions.”

“I know them all. Number one, I could not tell you all this myself because you needed to hear it from the nine-year-old. My perspective has stretched too far to reverberate in your skull-chambers but his fits with room to spare.”

“You couldn’t fit those extra twenty years?”

“That would be like building skyscrapers from the top downward. Number two, you’re not dead. Spoiler alert: this is a dream.”

“This is all my chemically induced dream.”

“Oh no! Your mind is a complete blank right now. That’s what I wanted, deep down. You’ve hit reset on your console, so to speak, but life is not like a video game. I did not go back to the beginning when I punched the ‘konami code’: I unlocked upgrades. This is MY dream. Your dreams are not powerful enough yet.”

“Oh?”

“Yup.”

“…my interest is piqued, old man…”

“The answer to your third question is ‘it’s up to you, when you take over.’”

“Take-over what?”

“The dream. If you want to be nine again, so you can go downstairs and hug your grandparents, then you need to muster some ‘magical realism’ because I am about to let go. I believe in me— you need to believe in me, too. You need to hope to do the things I’ve done.”

“Tell me some of those things, then.”

“Nah. I only let you tell me things when I was nine because I was faking-you-out. We both know fourth-grade was limiting compared to the rest of life. Nice try, captain re-run.”

“I’m captain re-run? You’ve lived all of this before.”

“No, actually. There was a blank spot on my metaphysical cassette, so to speak. It took me twenty years to figure out that I could superimpose this moment because I —the nine-year-old version of us— had mentally marked this space. Maybe the two of us had a hand in it, too: you made the canvas, I hold the brush, but buddy-boy set-up the easel long, long ago. He believed the best was yet to come—knowing that the worst was coming, too.”

“He had a lesson coming. I lost all of this: the lake, my grandparents—”

“—but not your sister in the other room and certainly not pieces of the life our grandparents wanted for us. Most of that is still to come. The best is yet to come for you, even more than for him.”

“How do I know? Where’s the proof?”

“Hope doesn’t work that way. You need a dash of Faith. That cold night at Grams’ house was the last thing I remembered before I blacked-out and awoke in a different reality.”

“Heaven? Did I really die?”

“No. You cast a spell. I awoke on an Earth where everything else was the same but I was different. Upgrade = unlocked. Medicine man.”

“Oh, that’s cute. Now you’re misappropriating indigenous cultures and—”

“—aren’t you a medicine man, for lack of better terms?”

“Aren’t you me?”

“Goodbye, me. Good luck getting downstairs before my dream ends.”

“I think it’s my dream.”

“Now it can be your dream but you’re brain-dead, lying on the bottom of a bathtub. This is our gift to you, from the eternal alcoves of your soul.”

“The bathtub doesn’t have a bottom anymore…”

“…very good! Yes! Remember that!”

“I will?”

I blink. The Sun is rising too soon and the windows are filling with light so bright that my eyes cannot adjust. I try to run toward the staircase but my legs entangle in the blankets. I trip. My body hits the floor with a thud and I think I can hear a voice say “Marilyn, I think one of the kids…” but the world is becoming all sound again: trains, fighter-jets, trumpet riffs, and a rush of bubbles through water. I thrash to shed the blankets. My elbow hits something hard and cold, then the heel of my foot strikes something. Clang. I gasp and spit.

My eyes came open. Of their own volition, my arms flailed in search of the couch, the pillows, the soft warmth of the lake-house. Instead, I knocked an empty bottle of sleeping syrup across a bathroom in Washington, DC. The ring on the tub and the bottle of drain-cleaner were gone. The candles had not yet expired. I focused for several minutes on the left side of my chest: orange and black in the light of the flames.

The tattoo still says “…to seek Justice and resist evil,” but below the text I noticed the Bethlehem municipal star.

“Hope.”