Five More Songs

5.

It seems to me now that
I want to feel it on my flesh the way
I feel it in my mind,
A gentle breeze of light to caress
My disdainfully neglected skin
Just as the timeless waves of
The universe
Have endlessly caressed my mind.
I want to see it in front of me
Suspended in the air
That’s so cryptically and
Painfully full of
Raw existence, life,
Sensual and
All around.
And if seeing it kills it
For me
I simply do not care –
One momentary glimpse will sustain
Me for all of eternity
And beyond

4.

The goddess that lives inside my chest
My anima, perhaps,
Informs me that there’s a strand
Of meaning
That ties together the
Bewildering
Uncountable mass
Of the outside solid world.
A million strands of meaning,
Perhaps,
For every speck of dust and sand
For every flower and lion
Tied together
Inseparably
By a million strands of meaning,
Life,
Of wonder to exist,
A million strands of meaning,
Of knowing without seeing,
Of feeling how this world contains
Surely infinite strands of meaning
Flowing through
The all around perceptible
Entangled with my heart

3.

Feeling transmuted into sight
The things that inhabit my dreams
What mad mad magic process
What certainly fictional alchemy

Feeling turned to flesh, to touch
To sensing all around
But not my body, not yours, not together,
Not what exists, as it exists,
As though that’s all there is

Feeling rendered physical, made real
Let time be damned
And all that she holds behind her back,
Behind her where we cannot see
Whatever it is she hides,
Behind her where time is something
Entirely different
That we cannot understand

Feeling made solid
Feeling made real
Feeling that creates entire worlds
Out of worlds that already
Exist
Somewhere else
Invisible, as of yet unseen

2.

I’m searching
In frustration
For a means of encoding worldly potential
Not of that which is real, exactly,
And neither of that which is abstract,
But of that which is on the edge of
Being tangible
What will be real one second from now,
One instant from now,
After the next infinitely small tick of the
Universal clock
But it’s vast, that information,
And the children of Aleph and Beth are
No longer able to serve us in this task,
Too mired are they in the detail before the subservient whole
Too mired in what might be, derived from what was,
Unsuited to what will be, born of what seemed.
Far too unwieldy
To catch even part of the swirling sensory
Just waiting there to be
Made visible and understood
And seen for what it truly is,
Which for now is but a feeling —
An achingly sensual feeling
Frustratingly out of reach

1.

Oh, hey, I know this feeling
This intensity
This energy
This excitement
It feels like I’m just at the edge
Almost up to the very edge
Of an insight, profound,
Of an alignment,
Of a realization of
Something I could never
Previously see.
I can feel it waiting for me
Beckoning me
From inside its cloudy amorphous form
But always before, in the past,
Every time
I have felt like this
It has never arrived like I expect it
In a dazzling flash of light,
Of clarity divine,
Instead
There has always been a crash in between
A bitter unmerciful crash in between
But
Whatever,
I’ll just ride it for a while
And see what comes my way

Thirty-Four Songs for Which I Have Not yet Composed a Melody

34.

I think that my new favorite pronoun
Is “you”
— I like to say “you” quite a lot —
And partly that’s because often
When I say the word “you”
I mean all of you
I mean everyone
I mean the whole entire world
And as of somewhat recently
I also include myself in that
All of everyone
So I guess you could say that
When I say “you”
What I often mean
Is “we”

And then on the other hand
When I say “I”
(And I have to admit that
I like the pronoun “I”
Quite a lot as well —
I find myself saying “I”
Quite a lot)
But when I say “I”
What I want to mean is “you” as well
And I want to mean “we” as well
But when I say “I”
I say “I” about things
That I only know to be
True — or at least mostly true —
About me, or in my own life
Because I cannot see all of the things
That you see
I cannot see all
Of the things inside of your mind
But when I say “I”
I do hope that someone out there
Will say
“Yes, that is true for me as well!”
Or “Yes, I experience that, too!”
Or “Yes, I feel that way, too!”
And so when I say “I”
It is often
(Though, let’s be realistic
Not always)
It is often an invitation of sorts
Because I like to talk
About things
That no one likes
To talk about
But maybe someone else out there,
Given the right encouragement,
Might like to talk about
Those things, too
And I’ll go first if you don’t want to
I’m happy to say it first
I just want it to be said at all

33.

Only now after all of this time
After Modernity has died
Only now can we turn
To our left and see all the way around
To our right
Around the circle of time
Only now can we do this
— no longer blind —
Without forcing another
To stand in between and
To fill in the gap where we cannot see
Without forcing another to be
Our master or servant or lover
Only now that we can
See around the circle of time
Only now can we truly be equal
Because each of sees along
A slightly different path
Providing each other
— without fear, without need —
A missing perspective
But whose lack does not
Diminish us in the way it once did
Because now we are complete
And now we can see
The Humanity of
Ourselves
And of each other

32.

Our skin is just the boundary
Between the future and the past
Where this thing that I call “I”
Is the past
Inside of this thing that I call “me”
And this thing that I call “you”
Is the future that lies outside —
The future grown together
Which only all of us
In concert
Can unwind
And then move inside
Across this barrier
This skin
That separates
The future from the past
When “we” shall become “I”
And then another “we”
We all must find

31.

The way out is to die
Though I do not mean literally
For we may ever so briefly
Visit the place
That might be called death
But if we do so
Only in our minds
And not with our bodies
Oh, then!
Oh then what life should arise!
What life on the other side of death,
Be it only in our minds!

30.

I fell back in
Because
I wanted to know why
Suddenly
This all felt so good
And
Could all the old habits
Be better
And okay
When seen through these new
Eyes?

But no, I see,
The answer is no

I made a deal with you
My lord, my lady,
Though I continue to pretend
That I can find a way
Out
To go back to what
I used to do
Because! don’t you see?
I have such a larger perspective now
You gave that to me
You helped me to see
So can’t I just use that gift
To do those things inside of me
That I used to do?
Those things for which
I did not need – nor want! – anyone’s help
Nor any ideas but my own
Can I not do that now in peace?
But no, I see, the answer is no
You strike at me with this sadness
And irritability
Therefore, weary, I concede
I must do as you say
I must go out and
Feel your joy
After all, we made a deal, you and I
We made a deal
And — oh!
Oh yes! there it is,
Oh yes! there’s that feeling again
Oh yes!
Now I remember why
Why we made this deal

29.

You showed me your face a million times before
With my eyes wide open
Or shut closed tight
You showed me your face so many times
But I could never see
It never once occurred to me

That the reason I could not break the glass
Could not reach you on the other side
Was because the window was a mirror
It never once occurred to me
That the face I was seeing was my own
How could it possibly be?

For it was beautiful, that face
It hurt me physically to see
And I knew — simply knew! —
That no such beauty had I inside of me
Although somehow now
It appears that I was wrong

And yet I am no more than a man
And no great man by any means
Simply a man who feels and feels and feels.
A child of this universe
Like anyone else
And so if this beauty lies in me
Then I promise you this:
It lies in you as well

28.

Always before when my blood would run hot
Like this
When my head would buzz with
Exhilaration and excitement
Like this
Sensing the eternal unseen
Always before when it felt like this
So, too, it felt desperate
And beyond my reach
So unattainable
So far away
Never to be found
But not now!
But not now!
But not now!
Because now it feels light
It feels here
It feels present, all around
It feels like there’s nothing left for me to do
But let it wash over me
It feels like home

27.

I’m pretty sure that what happens
When I speak
Is not the thing that I want to happen
When I speak

When I speak what I want is not
That you’ll hear that I think that I’m right
And that I’m trying to tell you that I’m right
And that you should believe that I’m right

No

When I speak, what I want is
That you will hear that you are
Strong and that you are valuable and
That you matter

But it seems that that’s not how
My words sound to you
Though maybe if I keep trying
Maybe one day I’ll get it right

26.

We are pushed around this life
By forces we neither
See nor understand
And so we tell ourselves stories
Called science or religion
Or whatever came before
Which capture none of the
Utter grandness and mystery
That surrounds us every moment of our lives
And yet these stories are useful,
For these stories,
While incomplete,
Give us something to hold,
A place to rest
Momentarily
As we struggle forward
Through this seemingly endless
Task called life
As we’re bludgeoned by forces
Neither seen nor understood
Set adrift on wild currents
Neither seen nor understood

25.

I can pretend to be helpless
I can pretend to be weak
I can pretend that I need you
To tell me what’s best for me
I can pretend that I need
You to do the things I cannot do
For myself

But I assure you
Oh! I assure you
That that’s not me
That’s not what I need.
What I need is
Or rather want is
For you to feel safe
For you to feel whatever you
Need to feel so you don’t
Feel so out of control
So you don’t feel so scared
And so you don’t use your
Greater size and strength against me
Or so you don’t withdraw your love

I can pretend, though,
And I can make you believe
And maybe I can almost
Believe it myself
But it’s not the truth
And we all know it
We’ve known it all along
That I’m lying sonofabitch
But now
Finally now
But now I’m saying it
Out loud

24.

The future precedes the past
As the present hurls itself forward
In a way that no one yet
Knows how to predict,
And what we call the past
Is simply the trace left behind by
That act

Or maybe for you it’s different
Maybe for you the past does
Rightly occur first
And this could only be true
If time does not exist at all, and
Then what we perceive as time
Is simply a matter of how
Slowly we measure the
Traces of what we call the future
And what we call the past

23.

Turn your face
Toward both
Your future and your past
Look upon both
Your love and upon your hate

Look all the way ‘round the
Circle of time, and then
Travel back around from the opposite side
For I feel quite certain
That you will like it, you’ll find

I should warn you though
That in order to do so
You are required to die
In a metaphorical way, of course
But I’m absolutely certain
That you will like it, you’ll find

22.

The despair in you
Is a sign
From the gods
You’re being asked
To give up
All that you think you ought to love
Because by now it is tinged more
With fear than with love —
A fear driven by need and
A fear of loss
But if you let it go
It will return
Once again with an
Overwhelming transcendent
Joy
For that is the sublime,
And despair is the
Gate through which you must pass.
It won’t be easy
It won’t be fast
And you cannot do it all on your own
You must walk through your hatred
Of yourself
That you try to keep hidden inside.
But on the other side
Of all your despair —
O! On the other side!

21.

At the end of everything
When everything is gone
When nothing remains at all
And all you can see before you
Is infinite loss
Take but one small step beyond
I promise you, there
Beyond the edge
Is all of everything and
Even more
So much more
Than everything you’ve ever known

20.

None of the words that I write
And none of the words that
Come out of my mouth
Have much of any meaning at all
They’re simply building blocks
On which to hang this other thing
This other thing
That I want you to see

I don’t expect you to interpret my
Words
Or to feel
What it felt for me
To write them down
But maybe — just maybe —
As a vehicle for what
I actually mean,
That thing that I actually mean,
Maybe you can feel what it
Means to me
Maybe you can feel
A little bit of what I feel
Because what I feel
Is explosive wonder
And I desperately want to share
It with you

19.

Water could you let me move along
A little closer home
For I’m growing so very cold
I know you have so much to tell me
Though I’m growing so very cold

But no, it’s alright
Do tell me, please,
What it is that you need me to hear
I like to listen
It feels amazing
This sense of not urgency
But something like it
This sense of
Feeling the world flow
Through me
If I only let it
Just, perhaps, let me stop freezing
For only a minute
I’m not going anywhere

18.

I remember walking alone at night
The wintry sky orange
Reflecting city lights
Alone and cold
On my way to read about
Things I would never do
And people I would never be
Listening to Tori
And thinking it was good
That I was cold, good
That I hurt, good
That I hated the failure of a person that I already was

So long ago but still I remember
And now I can barely feel my hands
As I try to write these words down.
So many years later now
I don’t think it’s good that my
Fingers hurt from this cold
It’s just an interesting fact
About this single moment in time
As I listen to David and hear the
Frigid waves crash against
The rocky shore

I can only explain it by contrast
I can only explain by
Comparing
Because this joy I feel now
Even with my increasingly
Frozen hands
This joy I feel now
Could never have become
So powerful
Without the pain and
Self hatred that came before
And so, yeah, maybe it
Was good so long ago
When you were
Walking all alone
Beneath a too cold wintry sky
Listening to Tori
And thinking you
Deserved to be hurting the way that you did
And just because you were wrong then
Doesn’t make me
Love you any less now
Now
Now
No
My god
I love you so much more

17.

Every single one of us
Is born holding a gift
That we are meant to give away
If we can but find the means to give it

Some of us are fortunate and
Carry a gift that the world already understands
That the world is ready to accept

While others of us
Carry something no one seems to
Understand
And when we try to give you our
Gift, which is to say,
When we try to say I love you
All the world hears
Is “I hate you”
As though my gift
Repudiates yours
It does not
It does not
You fucking asshole
My gift does not
Make yours any less valuable
You fucking asshole

I tried to give you my gift
I tried to say I love you
But you hit me
Over and over
And demanded
The stupid gift that I could
Pretend to have
That I could pretend to give
Until it nearly killed me

But it didn’t
It didn’t kill me
It killed that fake thing
That fake giver of fake gifts
And now
And now and now
Well
Now I’m here

16.

I will not complete you
Don’t even ask me to try
You might not understand
Why I’m saying this but
Maybe someday you’ll
Realize

Whether you know it or not
You do not need me to hold
Your hand
Because you are strong
And you are wise
You are already complete
On your own

I simply want to see you smile
That particular kind of smile
I want to see that you know
How perfect you are
Either with or without me
You’re already perfect
Exactly as you are

Do you see that you are perfect
Exactly as you already are?

I hope that you can see
That you are perfect
Exactly as you already are

15.

The only things now worth knowing
In this human era being born
Cannot actually be known
And it’s such a jarring change
From all that we’ve discovered and
Known, and needed to know,
For many hundreds of years

But now the only things
That have any real worth
Are those things that we must believe
Without knowing
Without touching
Without measuring
Or certainty of any kind

But I’m not talking about faith
In the way we’ve always heard it before
We’re not returning to
Religion barbaric
And social conformity
Violently enforced

We are not called upon
To subjugate our unique expressive selves
To some higher purpose, so-called,
Invented by someone else
And policed by those who are terrified
About this world and others in it
Who are not the same as us

For it is difference itself
In which we now must believe
And trust
And love —
I am not safe because you are like me
And we can stand together against those
Who are not like us.
Instead
I am alive and I am strong
Because we are different, you and I,
So very different, you and I,
And I can see myself now because
I can see you
And I hope that you can see yourself
And love yourself
Just a little more now
Reflected in my eyes

14.

Annie was playing
Alone on the stage
And she wouldn’t tell us
The story of the prince

Maybe she didn’t understand
How much it would have
Meant to me
Or maybe it didn’t make
Sense
Between proposals
And birthday songs

But all of that’s okay
Because I remember
As I watched her
— just three rows back, a bit to the left —
A voice in my head
Spoke out to me and said:
I want to make people feel this way

Of course I did not believe the voice
Because it did not make any sense —
I cannot do what she does,
Her work is not mine

But I honestly believe that the purpose of
Every artist is to create
Another artist
And if I’m right about that
If that has any truth at all
Then maybe I am a son
To someone
To so very many someones
And Annie would surely be
One of those someones

13.

I wanted a drug
That I could synthesize
In my own brain
Just by thinking
And just by feeling
And I became afraid that I would
Actually figure out how
And become addicted
To this new drug
And that’s exactly what happened
I found the drug
And it feels so amazing
My god
It feels amazing
And I want you
To get hooked on it too
And I named my drug
And I named it gratitude
And life
And like edward says
I named it this gift called
Dying born
And it’s music
And it’s you

12.

I’m not looking to be your lover
Not that the idea holds no appeal
For me
I think I’d probably like it a lot
But that’s not what I’m trying to do
That’s not what I want from you

It’s so much more than even that
More than you could ever imagine
More intimate and raw and alive
You probably wouldn’t even know
For sure
Exactly what we’ve done
Without a single touch
But I think that you’ll smile
And I think that you’ll feel
As though the world is
Just a little brighter now
And maybe you’ll believe
In yourself just a little more
I’d like it if you could

I don’t want to possess you
In any way at all
Nor be possessed by you either
I just want to touch you
With my mind and with my soul
While we both remain free
To stay or to go our own way
However we decide

I want you to love me
Knowing you already have my
Love, freely given,
And I want you to know
That if you do choose to love me
Then the love that you will feel is
Really for yourself

I can’t imagine that
You could possibly understand
I don’t even know myself
Entirely what I’m trying to say
Even if I’m the one
Who’s saying these things
To you

But I really hope that you’ll smile
And I hope that you’ll feel
As though the world is
Just a little brighter now
And maybe you’ll believe
In yourself just a little more
I’d love it if you could

11.

We cling to the past
Because it contains
Answers to
Questions asked
So long ago
As to be meaningless
And yet not only
Are there no answers to
New questions
There are not even
New questions
That apply to life as it
Now is
And so we pretend
And demand that others pretend
As though we live a thousand years
In the past
While refusing even to
Consider that the answers
Discovered in those times
No longer hold any
Relevance
In our confusing
Post-Modern age

10.

The goal that each of us is given
Is to learn to sow the seeds
Of our own destruction
And of our own downfall
And then to rise again
With far greater awareness
And understanding
So that we may create for ourselves
A more beautiful and more loving
New reality, itself to be torn down
Eventually
By its own final catastrophe
And so on and so forth
Until such time as we
No longer within us have life

But fear not, for humanity
Will continue the cycle beyond ours
Until such time as humanity itself no longer exists
Or rather,
And this is important,
Until such time as humanity has become something very much like
Angels
Which is how this certainly ends
For we are angels in waiting
We are angels in training
We are learning to become
Immortal
It will simply take some time.
More time for sure than you or I have
But not more time than we have
Really not too much time at all
No
Not too much time at all

9.

I am now too old
To have enough time
Or mental or physical ability
To ever become great
At any new endeavor that
I might think to undertake.
I am currently learning to sing.
But however much I learn
I will never be a great singer
Though I expect a competent one
I will never play an instrument
With virtuosity
I will never be a great poet
Or dancer
Or comedian
Or businessman for that matter
And so then what does that leave me
Now that all that I have done
Throughout my entire adult life
Leaves me feeling nothing but empty and bored?
I can’t start over
It’s much too late for that

Or is it?

Who says that I must be great?
Who says that, barred from greatness,
I am a failure?
Or lesser than?
What if instead, barred from greatness,
I am now the freest man who has ever
Lived?
What if, knowing that greatness
Cannot be my goal,
Can never be mine,
Something else must drive me
Must motivate me
What else could that be?
What could replace striving
Towards mastery?
What could possibly be as significant?

Well I think I know the answer
Because I can feel the answer
I feel it in my very bones
And the answer is no more than this,
A silly little word that no one takes
Very seriously any more
The answer is simply:

Fun

I can have fun
I can play
And I can feel joy

I could do none of this before
When I sought perfection (which
Of course I never attained)
Or when I sought expertise (which
I might or might not have attained)
But which felt like nothing more than
Hollowness and hunger for
Something more

I will never be great at anything
That I now try to do
And that is freedom itself
For no one can tell me that I will fail
And no one can tell me that
I don’t have what it takes
No one can tell me I’ll never
Make it to the top
Because I already know that to be true
And I cannot bring myself to care

I can still sing
For no other reason than
Because
It tears my heart open with joy to sing

I can finally do what I could never do
Before, when all I could see to
Measure was the quality of my
Performance in the eyes of the world

But now
Oh! now!
Now I can do whatever it is that I choose to do
Simply because I love to do it
Now I can feel love for the things that I do
And I can feel love for myself
While doing it
And because of that
I can feel love for you
In a way that I could never feel
Love for you or me before
Because now I understand
All that I never understood before
And what I understand is this:
Greatness means nothing
Compared to love

8.

I know that I am the star of my own story
But also that you are the star of your own
So what can that mean for us?
How can we both be the star?
How can we share the spotlight?
How can this be all about me
While at the same time being all about you?
Of course
I think that’s the wrong question
And I think it’s not too difficult
To understand
I think that we simply too often
Assume that there can be only one story
With one hero, one star
Or that a story is the end, the ultimate goal
But your story, together with my story,
Is but a beginning.
Life begins where our stories end
And then
What comes after that
Now
That’s what fascinates me
That’s what I want to explore
Because that
I’m certain
Is what it means
To be alive

7.

Always now I am alive because with me
You share the tiniest hints,
Whether you mean to or not,
Of your darkest feelings
And your greatest joys

I know that I am alive
Because I can see that
You are alive
And I can feel that you are alive
And feeling that
And knowing that
I know that I will never again feel
The unbearable sorrow of being alone

Just knowing that you are alive
Knowing that
Even if I know nothing more
Knowing that
I know that I am alive

6.

It does not matter
Whether by chance or by destiny
Or as decreed by some unseeable god
The simple fact is that we exist
And, because we exist, we are now
Inextricable parts of
This universe.
It does not matter why we exist,
Only that we do.
We matter
Because we exist
And that is all
And that is everything

5.

We’re flirting with
Tribalism because
Our bodies know —
Somewhere deep down
Inside of us we know
That the future is far more communal
Than this individualistic cult
In which we currently live
And even if we don’t know it
In a fully conscious way
Even if we can’t put it into words
Even still our bodies know
And our spirits know
Because as human beings we
Are gifted with
An attunement to the universe
And cursed with a mental separation
That keeps that attunement
From becoming awareness
From becoming knowledge
But maybe if we’re very quiet
Maybe we can hear it whisper to us
Or maybe if we’re very loud
And don’t censor ourselves
Maybe then in the unintended words
That slip from our mouths despite
Our attempts to control what we say
Maybe in those words we
Can hear some part of the truth
If only we pay attention

4.

The tall grim buildings
Silhouettes against the
Far too early setting winter sun
Warm yellow lights inside
Scattered haphazardly
About the facade

And across the way
Some in single file
Moving west
To the place they keep the planes
When they’re not in the sky
A mass of jets
Their lights like Venus at dusk
Reflecting in streaks
On the dark nearly motionless lake

And then flood waters on the beach
Beneath the sodium lights
In front of my home
And sand barriers erected to protect
From the coming vicious waves
The waters higher than they’ve
Been for over thirty years
And yet placid tonight
Hardly moving at all
No
Hardly moving at all

3.

It feels so untethered out here
In the world of physical sensation
So impermanent
So uncertain
So incomplete
And so alive

2.

You needed
To be away
My son
You needed
To feel alone

You needed
To feel abandoned
You needed
To yearn for more

You needed
To be angry with me
You needed
To fight free

You needed
To want me with unquenchable desire
You needed
To break free

You needed
To discover me all on your own
You needed
To find your home

I’m sorry you felt
That I had abandoned you
But I swear I was here
All along

Even though I was not to be seen

And you needed to hate me
Like you hated no other before.
Though you always sensed my presence
You needed to want me gone
For only in my death could you
Find me —
I am your Sehnsucht
I am what stands between
You and the infinite.
With me you are timeless
But only in the time-free
Non-moment when your
Hatred for me kills us both
And we find each other
At last
When in that eternal instant
You see my face
Which is yours since before
You were born

1.

I opened the door to my body
And just as quickly
Closed it again
Valiantly I fought
To regain control
When you started to show
The hidden brilliance that
You might possibly hold
I loved it
I loved you
But maybe I was still afraid
Maybe like always
I wanted you to remain
Safely in the future
So I put you back in the drawer
Until maybe now
Maybe now?
I hope now
I hope I have the strength
To feel your joy
And you
So patient
You
Just waiting
Hello

There Is No Mystery of Ada Noble; or, a Letter from the Author to Himself

There is no Mystery of Ada Noble, because Ada is not a mystery to be solved. She’s just a character in a story, and you loved her, and she died. That’s all. She wasn’t teaching you a larger lesson. There aren’t more pieces to the puzzle, so please stop looking. You loved her and that was the point, nothing more. She gave you the opportunity to feel that way about someone, you rose to the occasion, and somehow as a result you were able to feel that way about yourself. But there was no trick to it, no cosmic conspiracy of hidden symbols and meaning. You loved her, and it changed your life, because she is you. She was there inside you all along, but you had to fabricate her as a separate entity so that you could see her. You even said so, often, but you still wouldn’t believe it. You only believed that you were the damaged, hurting characters struggling under their false conceptions and limiting beliefs, the ones who actually needed to be saved. But did they? Or was their salvation, so-called, nothing more than their own decision that they didn’t need to be saved?

No one can save you, my dear boy, because you don’t need to be saved. You already are. There is nothing from which to be saved, not even from yourself. The question itself is nonsensical.

And that’s all there is. And that’s enough, because you are enough and always have been. You just needed to accept that fact, and you will probably need to fight for the rest of your life to continue accepting that fact. But won’t that be interesting? What will that even look like?

Let’s find out, shall we?

Let’s get started.

Holy Shit, I Finally Met Elizabeth

Preface

The following scene from Verity came out of absolutely nowhere, as I’ve been struggling for several days with a really, really stupid problem in part of the software that I’m rewriting for the millionth time. It’s something that probably doesn’t even matter – I could theoretically just let it go and move on, but it’s a bone I can’t stop gnawing at. I can’t tell if it’s Resistance convincing me to waste my time on a triviality because I’m nervous about starting on the next step, or if it’s actually important to do a good job here and it’s just a challenge to overcome. Is it perfectionism, or is it being true to my vision, not necessarily of how it should work, but how it should feel? Distinguishing the two cases is not something I do well. Yet.

I’ll take it as serendipity or synchronicity, but I had also just stumbled across Steven Pressfield’s recent book The Artist’s Journey as I indulged in some internet-oriented avoidance behavior. Of course I had read The War of Art back when I needed to be reading The War of Art, as we all at some point must, but I never realized he had so much more to say, so much that I completely agree with. Things that I agree with so much that, well, for a brief moment I thought, hey, if this guy is saying all the things I think I might be saying, only saying it better, is there any point in my repeating it? But that’s silly talk. My perspective is different enough that there’s room for it, and it’s an important enough message that even if I were to parrot him verbatim there could still be enormous value to doing so.

I’ve begun taking a deep dive on his blog, which might also be avoidance behavior, might be Resistance being a dick again, but instead maybe it’s research. Maybe it’s an opportunity to spark some new connections in my brain. Like I said, I’m still working on how to tell the difference.

I can say, though, that already at least three things have come out of it. First, Pressfield speaks frankly about his sincere belief in his (and your and my) Muse, and I think I agree with him. And I’m leaning towards believing that Ada is my Muse. Everyone else in Verity I can somewhat readily identify as a version or aspect of myself, most specifically Mildred/Millie. But Ada is as much a mystery to me as she is to Millie, and maybe that’s why I can only dribble out a scene or two every now and then. For a while I thought maybe she was some higher, future, aspirational version of myself, but that never felt entirely convincing. For one thing, I really don’t want to believe it. Even metaphorically I feel no inclination towards martyrdom being my destiny.

And sometimes you need to hear something twice before it sinks in. Early this year I had exactly one phone session with a creativity coach who found me exceptionally frustrating, but after I described how Ada was always kind of there in my mind, chiding me and cryptically nudging me even when I wasn’t writing, they said in confused exasperation that I already had my Muse, but that I couldn’t do any of the rest of the necessary work of being an artist, things that every other artist apparently does before meeting their Muse: I hadn’t decided what it was that I even wanted to do, artistically. I hadn’t chosen what my work was. I don’t think that they were wrong.

Like Pressfield and I assume millions of others, I also find the theme of the Hero’s Journey extremely fertile for its explanatory power, or at least as a way of organizing my thoughts around what it is that I’ve been doing for the last three and a half years consciously and the previous thirty-nine years unconsciously. Of course, I far more strongly resonate with Kim Hudson’s ostensibly feminine flip side to the Hero’s Journey, which she calls the Virgin’s Promise. For what it’s worth, she considers Rocky to be a Heroine’s/Virgin’s Journey, not a Hero’s Journey, and I consider my own path over the last three years the same way. Just not with boxing. Furthermore, I also look at the Heroine’s/Hero’s Journey as a metaphor for the same underlying process that developmental psychologists Piaget, Richards, and Commons call the dialectic of stage change, which occurs on many levels, big and small.

What I had never considered, and for which I owe Pressfield a true debt of gratitude, is his insight that whereas all the stories we’ve told throughout history end with the Heroine/Hero returning home with a gift for her people, with everything thereafter being yada yada’d over with a happily ever after, it is in fact only then that the real work of an artist begins, the Artist’s Journey, which is no less arduous, but entirely different in nature. It is the process of self discovery, of learning to “find and speak in our true voice”, which only begins after our heroic struggle to identify our true calling.

Well, holy shit. Okay. That is a huge relief, because no matter how much I can feel all the way to my very marrow that I am not the same person I was even two years ago, that despite ongoing struggles I have an indescribable and never before felt confidence that this is what I am meant to be doing, still I have no idea exactly what the hell this is. Art, yes, of some sort. But is it writing? Is it software-based generative art? Some combination of the two or something else entirely, because neither is sufficient on its own? I have a consistent, low-level anxiety that not knowing where I’m going means that I’m still at a much earlier stage in the process than I feel I’m at. And it’s important to know the difference, because the way forward is different at different stages of the process. I shouldn’t and can’t rely on others to tell me this kind of thing, but damn, it sure does help to have this confusion normalized.

I suspect, as well, though I’ll probably change my mind later, that the second half of Verity, Millie’s search for the secret of Ada Noble, is a complete blank to me because it’s where I’m at myself. The first half is the Heroine’s Journey, where Mildred comes to throw off her belief that, because she’s not the one suffering from the disease, therefore she must be emotionally subordinate to the needs of those who are. She must maintain a distance, always be on the outside. She believes that to behave in such a way is the most loving and ethical way of dealing with their misery. But then her choice to love, to really love her patient Ada, and to accept and receive Ada’s love in return, sets into motion her rebirth in the wake of Ada’s inevitable death. But what comes after that, I think, that’s her Artist’s Journey in Pressfield’s terms.

And I know what that looks like in the very, very early days, but only in the early days, because that’s where I’m at. I don’t know where it’s going, at all, and I hate not knowing, but at least, thank God, at least I know I just need to find out. That’s the rest of my life. Finding out where the hell I’m going as an artist. Because I am an artist, a real artist, even if I have nothing tangible to show for it yet. Even though I’m a neophyte at best, possibly even an abject failure according to any number of external measures, which, at least and maybe only in this moment, mean surprisingly little to me. But I am an artist, and I could not have written those words two years ago or even have allowed my internal monologue to whisper it. Partially because it wasn’t yet true, partially because I could hardly face the fact that I wanted it to be true.

So that’s two things that came out of my taking a small break from my software: the likelihood that I can’t understand Ada because she’s my Muse, and the likelihood that I don’t have any idea what Millie does in the second half because I’m just as lost, and yet as hopeful, as she is. The last thing I got out of it was the next scene, which just popped into my head as I made my way steadily through the pages and pages of Pressfield’s blog. I finally got to meet Ada’s twin sister Elizabeth. All I had before was one vague image of her in anguish on her therapist’s couch, along with another image of her singing U2’s “Like a Song” in the club where Millie and Kimball first spy her, possessed by a demon, her voice ragged and screaming with self rage, and yet controlled and powerful and real. The audience falls silent, in awe, as she finishes:

When others need your time
You say it’s time to go, it’s your time
Angry words won’t stop the fight
Two wrongs won’t make it right
A new heart is what I need
Oh, God make it bleed
Is there nothing left?

But then there’s this, which I didn’t expect. It’s rough and it needs to be reworked, and it’s not one of those scenes that wrote itself. I was fully conscious and aware while writing it, which isn’t quite as fun as coming out of a trance to see several pages worth of words just there. But I think I like it, and I think it might work as the opening scene to the whole story, somewhat reminiscent of Atonement.

I’m not yet sure exactly what it is, but something in the back of my mind has been telling me since I started writing this scene yesterday that it’s an extremely important clue for my own understanding of what Verity is and what my parallel work is all about. There’s something about the circularity, or the chain, of Ada saving Millie, Millie saving Elizabeth, and then Elizabeth’s apparent effect on her fans. There’s a facile, superficial well, duh in there, but is it more? It feels like there’s more. As well, I’ve always thought of Verity as Millie’s story, which means it’s my story as well. But this, this strongly hints that Verity might, in fact, be Elizabeth’s story. I have a string of implications that dissipate into a cloud if I try to look at them directly, but it could be fun to explore that in the coming days and weeks.

The Gift

“The truth is,” said Elizabeth, “that I had lost my sister, my first sister, years ago. It wasn’t just there before the end, after we fought, after I told her that if she was really going to do it, to just give up, that she could just go ahead and get the fuck out of my life right then and there, which, it seemed for some time, was exactly what she did. I never saw her again, and I gotta tell ya, the guilt of that, I mean… Well, it was really hard to deal with.

“But she never really left. I mean, of course she left, she’s dead. But she left me something, and God knows in her place I wouldn’t have done the same. But that was her, that was Ada. Always so goddamned composed. Always ready to forgive shit that I would never forgive, shit that I could never forgive. She puts me to shame, I would say, if it wasn’t for… I guess… if she would let me continue to feel that shame. Not that I didn’t, and for such a long time. But, you see, it was the gift she left me.”

“The gift? What was that?”

“A sister.”

“I don’t think I understand. You mean that your sister died and left you… a sister?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what she did. I don’t know how the hell she managed it, how any of it could’ve worked out the way it did. Quite a bizarre chain of coincidence and chance. Implausible, really. But there it is.”

“I’m still a little confused. What do you mean that she left you a sister?”

“It was a woman named Millie, her nurse. She found me. She didn’t even know she was looking for me, because she didn’t know I existed. But she found me anyhow, and it saved me.”

“Saved you?”

“Yeah, from myself. From my guilt, my shame. I mean, after Ada and I fought, after the things I said, things I could never take back, when she needed me because she was already so sick.

“But even besides that. You see, she had always been so much stronger than me, always, even as kids. She could just hack it, could tolerate things that brought me to my knees. I used to think it was because she had more support, because Mom loved her more, which you could just tell was the case. But that’s not really why. Mom loved her more because she was already so strong, and it felt good to be around her. You felt like someone when you were around her, like you mattered. And I fucking hated her for it. I hated her fucking guts. But no matter what I did, no matter how cruel I was to her, she just took it, just smiled her pathetic smile back at me. And the fact that she could take it, that she wouldn’t fight back and tell me what a wretched cunt I was, that she didn’t scream and try to tear my hair out, that just made me hate her even more.”

“But not now?”

“No, not now. I mean, I’m not entirely sure, though, right? Cuz you don’t just flip a switch and suddenly everything’s hunky dory. But I think now, I definitely feel like I can look back on her with affection and admiration. I try not to move on to thoughts of all the time I wasted, all the lost time when we could’ve been friends, confidants, you know, sisters. But she didn’t begrudge me that, God knows how. And she left me her gift.”

“Her gift. You say that like this Millie person is an object, or a pet.”

“Oh! Sorry if I was unclear. Millie isn’t the gift. Millie is the one who brought me the gift. That she became my sister in the process is just one more unexpected miracle.”

“But you said that Ada left you a gift, a sister, and now you consider Millie to be a sister, so…”

“Yeah, but the sister, the gift, that Ada gave me was herself. I mean it’s obvious, isn’t it? It was redemption. Forgiveness. But even more than that. It wasn’t that she forgave me, because she always did that. I don’t think she even thought it was necessary to forgive me. But somehow… somehow she allowed me to forgive myself, and now she’s more alive to me than she has been for decades.”

“And how did she do that?”

“Well, obviously I wasn’t there, but it was something about what she said: ‘Oh, my darling! If only you could see!’ Millie said that those were Ada’s last words, when she should’ve been too far gone to speak, or even think coherently. She used to say that to me, when we first started drifting apart, when I first started treating her like shit, when I could still catch some surprised hurt in her reaction. Back then she was chiding me. She would say it in sorrow and frustration, but from what Millie tells me, when she died she said it in ecstasy, in love. And it was for me, I believe that, though God knows I didn’t deserve it.

“I mean, it’s kind of hard to explain, and I don’t fully understand it myself. I just know that… Well, also, when I finally understood what she had meant to Millie, when I saw how devastated she was to have lost Ada, I could… It was like I was looking in a mirror. But a mirror that reveals hidden things. I knew it was real when I saw it, but not until then. It was buried under too much shame and guilt and anger. But I saw in Millie’s eyes what I was feeling, that I missed Ada so much. That I had been missing her for years, that I had been living for years with a hollowness inside that was eating me alive because I had pushed her away, even before she chose to die, before she was sick, before Mom and Dad were sick, since all the way back when we were young.

“But then Millie showed me how much I missed her, and that was… well, I was a little surprised, because did that I mean I really did love her? Was I capable of that? Had I always loved her, and had she known that all along? How else had she known to send Millie to me with her message?

“I don’t know. I don’t get it. But something broke down. Something just dissolved. All the hate, the bitterness, the acrimony and recrimination. I don’t know if that had all just been projection, if me hating Ada for so long was just externalizing my own self loathing… well, I think obviously that’s what it was. But I don’t know how she managed to convince me to stop. Or at least to start stopping. I’ve still got a long way to go. But there is something that I do feel, something that’s entirely foreign to me: I feel hopeful. And I feel love, and I wonder if those two words might just mean the exact same thing.”

“Wow. That’s… So that’s what your new album is about? That process of, would you call it healing?”

“Healing is a pretty good word, and maybe also catharsis. But then it’s also, well, I don’t quite know how to put it into words, and that’s why I had to make this album. There was no other way to, you know, get it out there, to manage it. As amazing as it feels to have all of this happening to me, to feel, how can I put it? To feel like I’m finally alive, actually a real, living entity on this planet for once instead of some kind of empty shell, even still, it’s overwhelming. In a good way, yes, but still overwhelming. I… does this sound weird? I think I needed to make this album, to share all of this with all of you so that, well… I mean, because I can’t manage it on my own. I’m sharing it because it’s too much for just me to deal with. Does that make sense? I think, I think maybe I’m asking for help in carrying this. But, you know, I really do hope you’re getting something out of it, too.”

“Miss Noble, I’m truly at a loss. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, but I’ve never had an interview like this. You say you hope that we’re getting something out of your work? Could you possibly doubt it? You’ve read the early reviews, you know what people are saying. Look around you right now, the crew, even me, on live television, nearly losing my composure. I don’t do that. Miss Noble, I can assure you, we are getting something out of your work, and out of you being here with us today, sharing what you just shared.”

“Well, thank you. Thank you for that, I mean it. And do please call me Elizabeth.”

Thousands and Thousands of Forms of Joy

Preface

This was when I accepted the call. Without this essay, there would be no Verity, there would not be any of this. As I was beginning my first tentative steps on that story in October of 2016, I wrote a number of essays that I thought I might be able to use as the basis for some sort of blog. Several times a year for too many years to count before that I had felt the urge to write online, but I could never commit to a theme. I thought that I had finally found something that would work for me, which was effectively writing thank you letters to the numerous artists, authors, poets, and musicians that have had such a profound effect on me throughout my life. I relatively quickly abandoned that idea as well, but in the process I veered off into writing the essay below which completely changed my life.

I didn’t know when I started writing it where it would lead. I hardly even remember writing it because it simply poured out of me, and it was utterly transformative. After the words were out, and only ten words just before the end even matter, after those words were out there was no going back. I am not the same person who began writing it, and that means all the world to me. I really want to tell you this story because at its core it’s a love story, though as in Verity it is not a romantic love story.

I should note that I no longer stand by some of my stronger conclusions below, except for those ten words just before the end. I claimed that I used what I only later realized is called mirroring in order to show my love to those around me, but perhaps I was giving myself too much credit. It would be just as fair to say that I used mirroring to gain love from those around me, which is a perfectly natural thing for a child to do, that is, to use whatever tools are available to him in order to win love. I don’t think that that adjustment really changes the story too much, and might even add further meaning.

A Small Boy

I have a great number of threads of my psychological history that I store away in a safe place. I’m forever taking these threads out one by one, sometimes a couple at a time, to make sure that they’re holding up, that they haven’t become knotted or torn. Sometimes I like to see how their color or thickness has changed over time and as more threads are added to the collection.

Over the last couple of years almost all of my threads have needed a thorough re-examination and often a complete reinterpretation as I have discovered what it has meant to be highly sensitive. Specifically, my relationships with my family members take on distinctly different tones when my sensitivity is added into the equation. Even more, whatever has been happening since I started writing recently yet further recasts everything in a completely different light.

So for now I have an entirely new pattern in which to weave all the threads. It is far from the first pattern, and it will not be the last. It might seem that if the history and trajectory of my life can so easily be rewritten, then surely the details on which I’m focusing must be wrong or incomplete. Surely there are historical facts and events, along with some definitive, objective way in which to interpret them. But of course that would be ridiculous, because my story is about meaning, and meaning cannot be reduced to objective facts. And so I have a story of personal meaning, one that makes great sense to me as I approach the end of my fortieth year on this planet.

***

It is not easy growing up sensitive. It’s not easy for anyone. I’m sure that sensitive girls have their own special hell to traverse, but in American culture, being a sensitive boy is simply no fun at all, mostly because there is almost no realization on anyone’s part, including that of the boy himself, that although it’s somewhat rare, only some 20% of the population, being sensitive is one of many perfectly normal ways of being a human being.

I think there are maybe three stages to effectively dealing with being sensitive. First, one has to learn that it’s built-in and completely normal, in the way that any non-dominant trait is nevertheless normal, blue eyes for example. (I also have blue eyes.) Second, I think that it’s necessary to accept in one’s heart that it’s okay to be that way, despite the bombardment of messages to the contrary that we have internalized from culture. Third, and for me this is the hardest step and something I’m still working on, I’m pretty sure that at some point we have to move from grudging acceptance of our sensitivity to a full embrace of it, to dare not only to feel okay about it, but to love it.

I found out that Alanis Morissette is highly sensitive, and that she has a son who is as well. Part of me feels a certain jealousy of him, I must admit, but mostly I’m just grateful to know that someone in this world has been given the one in a million opportunity of being born to someone who can teach him from the very beginning that being sensitive is normal and okay. Sure, his peer group as he grows up can have a significant influence on him, and he’ll no doubt have hard times with not fitting in, but he will always be further along than most of us. Maybe he won’t be able to get to the third stage of outright loving his sensitivity until he’s older, more experienced, and wiser, but I think he has a good chance of passing the first two stages just through his mother’s influence. I do hope that’s possible for him. I’m so happy that Alanis exists, and that her son has her for a mom.

The thing is, sensitive children are very difficult to raise the way they need to be raised. Our need for love is weird, because it’s strong and overwhelming, and then sometimes, often, we’re completely distant. Few if any adults realize that something as simple as saying “please don’t do that” is the sharpest, most hurtful rebuke and punishment that a sensitive child can hear. Most of what is considered a normal, humane, and perfectly reasonable punishment in this gentle post-spanking world is almost unbearable. Even the most dedicated and loving parent could hardly be expected to know this.

And so it was in my mostly caring and supportive and loving family, one that made sure I was never hungry, and that I always had shelter and new clothes at the beginning of the school year. I was mostly allowed to be weird and quiet and to spend most of my time reading in my room or playing with Legos in the basement. Mostly.

My parents adopted my older brother after years of unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child on their own. He was a miracle to them, an answer to their prayers. Within a month of their bringing him home, they conceived me. My biological sister was born two and a half years after I was.

My sister and I excelled in school, and we were genetic offspring of my parents. My brother did not do as well academically, he was constantly getting into trouble, and it was quite clear that he felt like an outsider. I can’t imagine what he went through, but it took me a very long time to stop being angry with him for taking out his anger and pain on me through relentless taunting, bullying, and teasing. My weirdness and sensitivity provided endless examples of behavior for him to mock. Watching me squeal seemed to be his one true joy in life, though eventually I more or less learned to keep my emotions in check, to force a laugh or at least remain silent when he started in on me.

When we had been really young, he was my hero. I followed him everywhere, even after the taunting and teasing had become a common pattern. One day I finally realized that he didn’t want me around. I could sense that he felt like he didn’t belong, and I truly felt sympathy for him. Maybe that was even worse for him, because no one wants to be pitied. Maybe I felt sympathy but was an asshole right back to him anyhow.

It was an unwritten rule around the house that my academic achievements were never to be too loudly acknowledged, lest his feelings be hurt, lest it come across as rubbing his nose in it. I accepted and internalized that injunction, because it made perfect sense to me. But one lesson I did learn was that in order for me to shine, someone I cared about, no matter how much I often hated him, had to suffer for it.

***

I once caught part of an episode of Little House on the Prairie. I don’t remember the exact details, but either Laura or one of the other children got into some kind of trouble with a mean looking man, and the kid was gonna get it. It upset me deeply. I did not wait to see what would happen, and I don’t think I ever watched another moment of Little House. Besides, that shit was for girls, and I already knew I had to do my damnedest never to be caught liking things that were for girls, which sucked, because there were many “girl” things that I did like.

Michael Landon went on from Little House to lead in the show Highway to Heaven, which became a staple in our somewhat religious household. It wasn’t something that I was particularly excited about, but when it was on I found it enjoyable enough.

One night, probably when I was in middle school, while my brother was probably watching a basketball game in the living room, I took the smaller, semi-portable black and white TV into the dining room, kept the lights off, and for some reason decided on my own to catch an episode of Highway to Heaven. In every episode Landon’s character, an angel, helped someone in dire circumstances to extricate themself from their predicament. In this episode there was a runaway with cognitive disabilities, living on the streets, taking care of himself and his cat by stealing food where he could.

I don’t remember the dialog, but I remember the tone of the scene where the runaway explains to Landon’s character why he left home. He had been living with just his father, who had his own issues and who didn’t know how to deal with a son with special needs. The boy said that he tried to engage with his father, told him he loved him, but that in response his father hit him. He tried again and again, and each time he told his father he loved him, he received a blow. This character’s inability to comprehend how his simple, honest, and open love could be met with violence was one of the most unbearably heartbreaking things I had ever encountered.

I was decidedly confused by my reaction. I had never been hit by an adult. My parents loved me, and I knew they did. But tears started streaming down my face. It was a deluge, a torrent. I didn’t understand what the fuck was going on. And it just kept coming. I didn’t sob, I didn’t weep, it was just a never ending cascade of tears.

I knew I had to get my shit together. Should anyone come into the room, especially if it was my brother, I was simply fucked. The taunting would be swift, severe and pitiless. Because boys don’t blubber.

If I’m allowed a moment of pure self indulgence, maybe I can propose that there were indeed some minor parallels between this character’s life and my own, on a very small, non-abusive scale, that might be insignificant to most people, but deeply painful to a sensitive boy. Otherwise I have difficulty making sense of my reaction. I think that I tried to express love to my family members through my actions, or even inaction, by observing and responding to their implicit wants and needs, but in a non-obvious way that was not reciprocated as I blindly assumed it should be. Of course, how could they have known? I was hardly even aware of what I was doing. I didn’t know that I was more highly attuned to others and their emotions than the majority of people on this planet. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just sense what was going on with me the way I did with them. Their failure to respond in kind must have been by conscious choice, right? What had I done to merit that choice?

I felt on some level that I overwhelmed and confused my mother, who was often busy putting out fires my brother had started. So I did my best to be a perfect angel, to make sure she never had to worry about me, and I often fell through the cracks because of it. I felt that my brother was suffering, and that my very existence was a constant reminder of why, so I tried though often failed to do my best never to shine, but he kept bullying me. I felt that my sister, one of my best friends growing up, liked to have her way, so I consistently let her be the one to decide what we would play, but she never seemed to have her fill, never said, okay, now it’s your turn. I felt on some level that my father needed me to be like him (indeed the similarities between us are sometimes shocking), so I focused on whatever interests I had that overlapped with his, things like math, science, and computers; but to this day I have never felt that he wanted to see through to the real me underneath. Not that I have ever truly offered him or anyone else an opportunity to see that.

Above all, I felt that my sensitivity and emotionality perplexed my father. Probably he feared that it meant I was gay, like his own brother, though none of us kids knew about that fact until much later.

At one point, though, I dared to take the risk of getting a Cabbage Patch Kid. In 1984 every single child in the entire country, both girls and boys, either had or wanted a Cabbage Patch doll. It really wasn’t just for girls, so it should have been safe. However, one day as I was dragging around my doll Steve, my dad asked me why I would want to play with such a thing. It wasn’t accusatory per se, but I knew there was something behind his question. I felt an intense fear that if I answered wrong, then things would somehow be very bad. I mumbled that I wanted to be a dad myself one day. That would be safe, right? Then I would be like him, a dad. It was never discussed again.

I’m sure that my family members see things very differently than how I have portrayed them. I’m sure they will be horrified that I could write the above words, assuming them to be an indictment of their behavior, an attempt to place blame. But that’s not my point all, in fact quite the opposite: my point is to acknowledge my own complicity. My point is that I noticed something in how they acted, something in how they felt, something that I don’t believe everyone would have noticed. The messages they sent were deafeningly loud, and whether I interpreted the messages correctly or not is beside the point. I did interpret them and internalize them in a way that has stayed with me throughout the years, but that I no longer believe is effective for me.

Alternatively, perhaps my family members as described above are just thematic carriers of messages I learned from the Midwest, Protestant culture in which I grew up. I have read that one of the superpowers of sensitive people is their ability to take on society’s standards as their own. I believe it’s called introjection. Maybe that’s what happened inside of me, or maybe at some point my ever present people pleasing tendencies started to be driven by fear, insecurity, and obligation instead of by love. Now that I think of it, probably every child is born into this world hoping to show their love to others and to the world by exercising their individual strengths, but if those strengths are not clearly valued by society, then surely they can come to be seen as weaknesses and liabilities instead.

***

Another event in 1984 that eventually had a large effect on me was the release of the movie The Neverending Story, though if I’m honest, the release of its eponymous theme song by former Kajagoogoo frontman Limahl was a bigger deal at the time. God I loved that song. I liked the movie too.

Years later, when I was sixteen, I spent a month in Germany with several other German students from my high school. I found out that The Neverending Story had been written by a German author named Michael Ende. I decided that reading a children’s book in German would be the perfect way to improve my grammar and vocabulary, as opposed to something more adult that would be far over my head after only two years of study. I was impatient to learn more. So I bought myself a copy of Die Unendliche Geschichte, which turned out to be much more difficult than I had expected. German is not an easy language.

There is a passage from the novel that has rooted itself in my brain and doggedly stuck with me over the years, and it is this: “[Es gibt] in der Welt tausend und tausend Formen der Freude, aber im Grunde sind sie alle eine einzige, die Freude, lieben zu können”. Roughly and almost literally translated it becomes: “There are in the world thousands and thousands of forms of joy, though fundamentally are they all but one, the joy of being able to love.” At the time I half reinterpreted it to be about romantic love, as I was then prone to falling into agonizing and unexpressed infatuations full of longing and hope and other such inanities. On the other hand I filed it away alongside the cliché that a person can’t truly love someone else if he doesn’t first love himself. I didn’t think that was something I needed to worry about. I thought that my self esteem was in perfect working order, thank you very much.

***

The first cool and sunny days of autumn after I started college at UW-Madison were unspeakably amazing. I was immersed in crisp air, freedom, and an enormous new world of independent music that was pretty much nonexistent in my home town that was served almost exclusively by country and oldies radio stations, plus one other that shoveled out top forty crap. Singers like Juliana Hatfield, Tanya Donnelly, and Liz Phair were a revelation. For some reason, it was Phair’s languid and slowly building “Nashville” that filled me with a burning optimism that this nascent stage of my life would eventually open up for me such grand opportunities as an adult. I could not get enough of the lines “But I can’t imagine it in better terms/than naked, half awake, about to shave and go to work”, along with the almost sing-song repetition of “I won’t decorate my love” that closed out the song.

Then when I was a sophomore things went to shit. The only real external motivating factor that I could identify was that I was pretty sure my roommate was depressed, though of course he denied it. It was stupid of me to bring it up. The rest, I suppose, was adjusting to the responsibilities of college, meeting and adjusting to so many new people, and drinking a lot. I also happened to discover Tori Amos. Holy crap her music is dark, and that’s exactly where I wanted to wallow. I couldn’t get enough.

Eventually I got over my fascination with Amos and then for a decade and a half consciously avoided her music and the maudlin, tempestuous, and embarrassing memories it evoked. But I remember everything anyhow, and after recently giving her albums another listen for the first time in so long, some words from “Winter” stabbed me in the heart just like they had in college: “When you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?” asks the father character in the song. Back in college and again recently I knew that I wanted someone to say that to me, but at the same time I knew it was silly. My amazing and supportive wife has said very nearly those same words to me on more than one occasion. I’m sure my mother or my father could say it, most likely after a brief pause to recover from their surprise that I wanted it to be said in the first place.

It’s pretty much the exact same feeling and longing that I get when I hear the Pet Shop Boys’ song “Here”: “You’ve got a home here/Call it what you want/You’ve got a home here/to return to when you can’t/face the world and you need/some support to succeed/You’ve got a home.” Again, my wife has basically said that to me. The fact that the longing has not yet been satisfied clearly indicates that something else entirely is going on, and I’ve known for quite a while, on some remote, detached, intellectual level, what that something is.

I needed to say it to myself.

But now as I’m writing this I realize that the need is not quite what I had originally thought. What I really need is to allow the small, bright eyed, sensitive boy inside of me to tell me that he loves me, and to respond in kind, instead of with disdain, instead of striking him for being a godforsaken defect and burden that has caused me to feel so alienated and alone my entire life.

I met him once, the little boy. Maybe it was a year ago. It started as a lark, really. I was reading Brené Brown and Elaine Aron at the time, and one of them suggested that her reader close his eyes and try to imagine his younger self. Pay attention, she said, to what he was doing, how he acted, how he held himself. What did that mean about him? What would he like to tell the adult you?

I have read any number of self help books but I never do the exercises, at least not in the moment. But what the hell, I thought, why not try this one? Certainly nothing would come of it, but closing my eyes for two minutes wouldn’t hurt anyone.

So I closed my eyes and suddenly everything disappeared and there he was, maybe five or six years old, dressed all in white, in a room so large that the walls couldn’t be seen. The only illumination was a bright yet gentle spot-light directly above him; all else was a vast darkness. I was taken aback by how beautiful he was. He sat on the floor, drawing on a sheet of paper in front of him. He seemed to be concentrating, open and inquisitive, trying to figure something out. He took the drawing and set it aside, started another. He had bright blue eyes, and when he turned to look at me and smile, maybe to invite me to join in his play, they became gigantic disks of dazzling blue light. I had no idea that I had something inside of me that was so beautiful. I was startled. He seemed satisfied just to have greeted me, and a moment later he went back to drawing, only now he was several years older, and there were signs of frustration on his face, in his movements. I thought maybe it was because he was growing into the perfectionist that I have long been, and that whatever he was trying to figure out was getting the better of him. Then just as suddenly he was gone and I started to sob, whispering “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again as tears streamed down my cheeks.

Looking back now I think I misunderstood. At the time I thought he was asking me to come over to help him, to join in his fantasy world, or to tell him that he had made a nice drawing, when it was probably no more than the scribblings and scratchings of kids that age. I didn’t want to lie and say that I thought it was good. But that’s probably not it at all. I think he wanted to be the one to help me, and I disappointed him like everyone else by not understanding the offer that was being made. I thought I had to protect him, to shield him from the cruelties that were in his future. I wanted to protect him. But it was he who was there to protect me, and I refused.

***

There is another theme in The Neverending Story that I always liked. On the reverse of the Auryn amulet are the words “Tu was du willst”. It can be translated as “Do what you want” or “Do as you will”. The discovery much later is that it means in fact that one must do what his truest, innermost will commands him to do.

On the other hand I was always so frustrated with Bastian’s hesitation as the Nothing threatened to rip apart the last small fragments of Fantasia. All he had to do was call out the name “Mondenkind”/“Moonchild”, but he just sat there and wouldn’t do it. How hard can it possibly be to say “Mondenkind”, or any name really? It was his choice, why not yell “Myrtle”? But now I know that it’s the hardest thing in the world to find the right words and then say them. Now I know that for decades I’ve been cowering and hiding from a similar responsibility, one that is also nothing more than a few syllables. So here it is: I love you, too, my darling, sweet, beautiful sensitive boy.

I suspect that he is my truest, innermost will, and that I must now do as he commands, which is probably nothing more than to have the courage to love, to experience joy in any of its thousands of forms, and to share my experience. I don’t think it will be easy. I expect I’ll waver, stray, and often simply want to give up.

Mildred Smiles

Preface

This character sketch for Verity was originally written on December 19, 2016. It marked something of a turning point in my approach to the story and to writing in general, because it was through writing this that I truly and madly fell in love with Mildred. Maybe it was because I discovered that she already loved me. I’ve decided not to exclude myself from this story, so I’m leaving this scene in its original form of being from my own perspective.

I wrote this while sitting in our old condo in my favorite lounge chair, listening to St Vincent’s positively sublime self titled album which is now inextricably and forever linked to Verity in my mind. “Prince Johnny” sticks out in my memory above all the other tracks, and I was disappointed that Annie didn’t perform it either in Milwaukee or Chicago this past winter, even if my mind was blown utterly wide open by the rest of her performance.

After I finished the scene a thought popped into my head, and an accompanying sensation ran through my body to show assent. A little voice in my head said, “Now I really am a writer.”

I really don’t know if that was true or not, or if it was only in that moment that it became true, but I have actually written a lot of things that might or might not be completely true, even if I have presented them as such. They feel true, or the impression I’m trying to present is true whether the details surrounding it are or not, such that I am entirely disinclined to question the veracity of it or to try to find confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence.

A Welcome Guest

Mildred was sitting upright in her bed, the gray covers and white sheets pulled up to her waist, a pillow behind her back. She had changed into her tasteful gray pajamas and put on her glasses with the thick bridge and slightly pointed corners. She had combed her hair to the point where it fell straight and like silk to just below her shoulders, a medium brown with a slight but discernible red tinge.

Expressionless, she perused some notes she had written on a yellow legal pad, the first dozen pages flipped over the top and tucked behind the cardboard backing. She really had no expression. She was concentrating, clearly, but without looking like she was concentrating. She simply was not present, her mind elsewhere, on her notes, recreating mentally the images and thoughts and feelings from when she had written them, erasing any and all expressiveness from her features. As it was, there was no one present to witness her being lost to the physical world, and so who really was to care that she was not present?

Mildred absentmindedly sipped at her mug of herbal tea, a ritual she always found comforting before bed time. She noticed that the mug was empty, pulled back the sheets, swung her legs over the side of the bed, got up, and made her way into the kitchenette just next to the bed in her efficiency apartment, her mind all the while still on the notes. As she had done thousands of times before, without conscious intent, she set her mug down on the countertop and reached for the still half-full pot of tea that she had brewed. Tonight, however, she had placed the pot just a few inches from its usual place, and as her grasping fingers missed the handle, instead encountering nothing but air, she was yanked out of her deeply inward-turned thoughts. It took her a confused moment to recreate in her mind the purpose of her being in the kitchenette and reaching for something. What was it? Oh, tea. Right.

There was very little visible sign of Mildred’s actually profound if momentary shift in perspective. She had appeared to be staring at the counter, but with unfocused eyes. In breaking out of her reverie, the only sign was the contraction of her irises as she became aware that she would have to use them. Her mind, however, felt like it had been ripped out of the deepest sleep, as though she was waking from a pleasant dream to thick curtains thrown open to blinding mid-day sun. She was of course entirely accustomed to the sensation, as reality so frequently intruded on her inner world.

A slight tightening of her lips, not a grin, really, then accompanied her now conscious act of refilling her mug. It was still a quiet, personal moment, but only a moment, because she suddenly but without surprise became aware that I was in her efficiency apartment with her, watching her pour herself a cup of tea. In slow motion her eyes widened slightly as her mouth stretched into a warm and welcoming smile. Perhaps welcoming is not the word.

It was more the greeting of someone who had been waiting for the arrival of someone they had very much been looking forward to seeing. And yet there was no sign that she had been waiting impatiently. Her eyes read hope and vulnerability and innocence and a genuine pleasure that I had finally arrived.

Against the dim lighting of the apartment, with its whites, grays, taupes and grayish-greens, her blue eyes and her slightly crooked teeth shone brightly as she smiled, as did her lips that were red even though she wore no lipstick. Her hair as well seemed more red. In my original conception I had thought that she would be mousy and plain looking, but when she smiled, she was heartbreakingly radiant. And then the kitchenette and Mildred grew dim and blurry and slid off to the right of the camera frame that was my eyes. I tried to rotate my camera-eyes back towards her, but it had become too dark and she was lost in the shadows just beyond peripheral vision.

Ada’s Late

Preface

As I start to write this preface, after having rehearsed its beginning in my head a number of times, already I can feel that it’s going to be lengthy. And difficult. This is the first new scene of Verity since early February of 2017. This episode is a continuation of Ada and Millie sharing their life stories, and its beginning, as well, I have rehearsed in my head a million times, because it was already there almost a year and a half ago. I felt a disinclination to write it at the time, but that disinclination felt nothing like the kind of artistic resistance that I know oh so well and that’s a major theme running through all the self help books directed at those of us who live lives of quiet desperation instead of actually working on something that’s meaningful to us.

When I stepped away from Verity, for nearly a year and a half, it felt right. It didn’t feel like I was running away as I had always done before. I had other things I was working on, and I trusted that if Verity wanted me back some day, it would let me know. And then that day came last week and that’s why any of this is up here at all. But this scene. As I think through actually writing this scene, I can see how I wasn’t ready to write it before. Rehearsing its beginning in my head was a safe enough exercise, but now, now that I intend to actually write it, now I feel a profound anxiety, and I think I understand a little more clearly why, and I think I understand a little more clearly why I needed over a year to get to it.

What I’m going to write next will sound insane, and I feel half insane to even contemplate it, but I think I need to write it in order to explain what all of this is about, what this scene is about, what Verity is about, and what a major part of my own life is about. And it’s you. Maybe not you specifically who’s reading this, but you out there, you plural, the people I’ve known for years or just briefly. People I don’t know, but who are in the news. I don’t even know how to talk about it, and I’m hoping that it just comes to me as I try to put it into words, because trying to think through it in my head doesn’t work.

You’re hurting. I feel it, in the dull buzzing in my stomach. You’ve been hurting for so long, but even more so now, and I can feel it, and I don’t know if I can just go on feeling it without saying something. Nobody wants to be told what they’re feeling, because it would be horrifying if someone else knew that, but I do, I know what you’re feeling. I don’t necessarily know why you’re feeling it, though I can sometimes guess, and I don’t know what you’re thinking, but your feelings are out there, like the proverbial elephant in the room, and I’m sick to fucking death of pretending I don’t see the elephant.

Of course everyone can do this to some extent. We’ve all experienced times, for example, when we knew damn well that someone was angry with us just by their body language. Everyone can do it, but not everyone does it all the time, and not everyone picks up on the subtle things. But many of us do, and it’s goddamned bewildering. Maybe it has to do with so-called mirror neurons, or maybe it’s something else entirely. But it’s there, I swear to God it’s there. And I’m sick of it, because it’s so dangerous to talk about it, so I just keep it inside. Nobody wants a mirror held up to reflect their feelings, because a lot of those feelings are wrapped up in layers and layers of shame, and shame has a dazzling power to keep itself hidden. And my shame is that I know about yours and I don’t know how to deal with it, so I just let it in and pack it down farther and farther into my guts until, until, well, I don’t know until what.

And the pain and suffering, it’s not just people I’ve met. It’s everywhere, its effect clearly visible in the U.S. through the monster in the White House, who is but a symptom. It’s in Europe, too, evidenced by shit-stains like Geert Wilders, Boris Johnson, Marine Le Pen, and I think it was Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria. The entire so-called Republican base, the evangelicals, the authoritarians, they’re all suffering from a culture-wide depressive episode, and it’s making them so angry that they’re lashing out at those they blindly and reflexively assume to be the cause. I’m an angry depressive, too. Or maybe it’s just that I’m an angry person anyhow, and when I’m depressed I no longer have the strength to hide it. Who knows. At any rate many of us liberals have our own depression, which might be what began all of this anyhow, starting some seventy years ago. Our depression is Post-Modernism, or pluralism, which among its many astounding virtues also unfortunately counts the loss of any of the certainty whatsoever which has been available to any previous mind-set since at least Abraham’s monotheism. Luckily for humanity, pluralist depression is not violent like authoritarian depression.

The disease in Verity, I’m pretty sure, is just life. Like, a pretty fucking direct metaphor for life itself, and you’re all suffering from it. I don’t even know if I am or not, because all I can see is you suffering, and I don’t know how to deal with it. Some people are more in tune with their own feelings, while some people are more in tune with the feelings of others. I’m solidly in the latter camp, as I think is true for something like half of the world’s population. There’s nothing weird about it. But the intensity, it’s just so much.

This scene is when Ada is 16 or 17, and possibly ready for yet another developmental transition. It’s written from her mother’s perspective, and I am effectively her mother here, as I was when Ada was 12 as well. The episode is inspired by a number of things I was told in high school or college by young women I’ve known, some of whom I have loved. It’s specific enough and of such a nature that it highlights my difficulty with all of this. It’s about rape.

I don’t have any ability to comprehend the horror of rape. I have never experienced anything like that. However, I have felt the pain that can linger in a young woman’s life as a result of it, but just to say that, the second those words are out, I’ve made it about me, and it’s goddamned not about me. I wasn’t the one hurt, but I still feel your hurt, viscerally. I don’t know how to deal with that, and it’s sure as hell not up to you of all people to help me feel better about it. It’s the basis of my reluctance about this scene, a scene whose beginning I’ve pre-written a million times in my head, but whose ending I’m hoping will come to me as I write it.

Even worse, I’m using the topic of rape here as a metaphor for all pain, as with the mysterious disease in Verity. It’s bundling up everything about everyone else’s pain into one single topic that I don’t feel I have any right to discuss. I can already hear the recriminations. As a man, I can’t understand. I’m making it about me, as all men do about everything. That’s not untrue, but I’ve allowed the fear of those expected recriminations, or others like them, to keep my mouth sealed shut tight my entire life, and I just can’t anymore. I don’t know what else to do.

Throughout the time I was first working on Verity, I was talking and corresponding with Lauren about the process of writing and about just living as a person who feels compelled to do such a thing. Early on she proposed that when I didn’t know how to proceed, I should just close my eyes and try to picture what the characters were doing, that they would take on a life of their own and all I had to do was write down what I saw. I was primed for that to be effective, because Brené Brown had proposed something not entirely dissimilar in one of her books, and that had for damn sure worked for me. I felt weird about how easy it was, even if afterwards I was sometimes only able to squeeze out a paragraph or two. It was nothing like the crushing frustration I so often felt in so many other creative attempts as I tried to think my way through everything by brute force to a logical and conclusive result.

At first I always saw Millie and sometimes Kimball. Ada mostly stayed away, and I haven’t even met Elizabeth yet. But during my hiatus it was always Ada. I would close my eyes to see if she was doing anything that might indicate it was time to start writing again, but always she just stood there, inches from my face, sometimes nodding encouragement, sometimes making a well-what-do-you-think? face, sometimes indicating that I was doing everything all wrong.

Last week, as it started to feel that Verity might be coming back into my life, I realized that this scene was the transition back to it. It was then that it dawned on me what a challenge it might be, and so I closed my eyes, tried to picture Ada to see if my imagination might provide any clues. And she was there and she told me to write it, to take her story of when she was 16 or 17 and her innocence was shattered. I tried to plead with her not to make me do it, but she just said “take it, I give it to you.” Obviously it’s just my own brain doing this, but if that’s what my brain needs to do in order to push me forward, if I have to personify the things half buried in my mind so that I can “see” them, because the only feelings I can see are other people’s feelings, well, so be it.

Ada’s Late

“Mom, I’m late.” There was a leaden weight in her voice.

Mrs Noble didn’t register the tone, didn’t turn around to face Ada, but continued making breakfast while replying, “Honey, you’ve got over an hour until school starts. And you have to eat first.”

“No, Mom. I’m late.”

Then it clicked. Mrs Noble spun around, surprised, bewildered, but ready to be supportive, even if her first reaction was to wish that her daughter had been more responsible.

“Oh. I didn’t know you were already…”

“I didn’t…”

“Honey, it’s okay. I just wish you would’ve talked with me before you decided…”

“I didn’t…”

“But, Honey…”

“Mom!” Ada pleaded, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists, her arms going rigid at her side. “I didn’t…” It was a whisper then, “I didn’t want to.”

And then Mrs Noble understood. Later, when thinking back to this moment, she had a parallel thought about something she had once read about the sacrificial rituals of the Aztecs. She had read that an obsidian knife was shoved up under the rib cage of the victim, from below the sternum, followed by the priest’s hand, and the heart removed. In retrospect that’s how she imagined her guts felt in that moment, that something deep inside her chest was being pulled sharply and forcefully downward, being ripped out through her abdomen, only it wasn’t being cut out. The guts and connective tissue were being ripped apart instead of neatly sliced. She nearly fainted. She lost sense of time, of being in the world at all.

“Oh, Honey!” she shrieked. She made a move towards Ada, her arms stretching out to take her into a protective hug. But Ada recoiled, and Mrs Noble lowered her arms.

“Mom. Stop.”

As tears rose to Mrs Noble’s eyes, Ada pleaded, “Mom, no. Mom, don’t cry. I can’t take it. I didn’t tell you to… I can’t take it if you’re upset, too. It’s too much. I just, I just…”

Mrs Noble stood immobile, stupefied, wanting to die for her impotence, for her inability to know what to do, how to make it better, to do anything to help her daughter, or to deal with this horror which she would allow to happen to herself over and over until the end of eternity if it would mean that it didn’t have to happen to Ada.

And an eternity is how long it seemed that they stood facing each other, neither speaking, a holding pattern as any word, any thought, any action waited to present itself as an option. And then Mrs Noble disregarded her daughter’s plea, ran to her, grabbed her fiercely in her arms and sobbed. Heavy, thick sobs, as Ada went limp and muttered, “Mom, mom, mom, …” Slowly, over and over again until her words were nearly inaudible.

Postscript

Well, that’s rather shorter than I expected, and I’m not sure what to make of it, even after I’ve gone back over it a number of times, waiting for it settle in. But now, if I close my eyes, I can see Ada and Millie, standing together, smiling at me. They’ve never stood together before, so I think that might mean something, though I really don’t know what.

I should also add, now that all of that is out of my system, that it’s not just your pain that I feel, and this was brought home to me yesterday at the Chicago Pride Parade while my wife and I celebrated our brothers-by-choice who were riding on one of the floats. The buzz and excitement in the air as we walked down Broadway from the Wilson Red Line station was intoxicating. I felt high. The crowd’s solidarity in joy and celebration of our differences and our similarities was overpowering, and I swear that I nearly cried. Everyone felt it, I’m sure, but I don’t know how conscious everyone was about that feeling. Maybe I’m overstating my case, maybe everyone sucks up other people’s emotions the way I do and keeps them buried inside, but if so, my God, people, ya gotta start talking about it.

She Didn’t Need Me

Preface

This episode of Verity from February 6, 2017 was the last before my long hiatus from the story. It was also an absolute joy to write. I held in my mind an image of Millie manically speaking into the phone, hearing only Kimball’s voice from the other end of the line, as I tried to type out the conversation in real time. I felt a delicious urgency, that if I paused to reflect for even a second, the dialog would just stop and I would be unable to continue. But each response came exactly as I needed it, as I was ready to write it down. It was pure exhilaration.

This scene also marked a change in the direction of act two. In the synopsis I reference Millie’s intent to descend into a destructive and depressive alcoholism after Ada’s death. Originally she was going to go through with it, but instead this episode came to me and changed that path. I’m deeply grateful that it did. The idea that she become self destructive was a cheap and facile way of dealing with my not knowing what would happen next. I really have no idea at all how to write about Millie’s and Kimball’s attempts to unravel the mystery of Ada Noble, but it will be infinitely better than trying to write about a descent into alcoholism.

The Phone Call

Her phone played the dial-tone sound three times before Kimball picked up. “Mildred? Oh thank God you called back! Mildred, what is going on? Everyone at work is talking. What did… Did you do something?”

“Kimball, listen. She didn’t need me. And call me Millie. Always call me Millie.”

“Mildred! Er, Millie, what are you talking about? What do you mean she didn’t need you? Who didn’t need you? What is going on?”

“Kimball, I had a dream. She was lying in a hospital bed on a theater stage and she kept repeating ‘You can’t save me’ over and over.”

“Mil… Millie, who are you talking about?”

“Ada. I’m talking about Ada. Who else?”

“Millie, what is this? Of course she needed you. Well, not you specifically, but one of us. She needed someone to help her pass, and for her that someone was you. She needed you. Is that what this is about? Are you freaking out about the job? Do you need to talk to the staff psychologist?”

“No, Kimball, I’m not freaking out about the job. That’s over now anyway. There’s no way they’d let me see the psychologist even if I wanted to.”

“Over now? What do you mean? They didn’t fire you, did they? Just come back and clear everything up. They’ll understand. Just come back. Everyone’s really worried. I’m really worried.”

“No, they didn’t fire me, I don’t think. But they will, or they would if I let them, but I’m done. I can’t go back.”

“Can’t go back? Mildred, you’re scaring me.”

“Millie.”

“Okay, Millie, you’re scaring me. You’re not gonna… you know what I’m going to… what I have to ask. You’re not going to hurt yourself? Are you?” He whispered the last two words.

“God, Kimball, no. I’m not going to hurt myself. That’s not what this is.”

“Well then what is it? Please, Millie, I’m trying to understand.”

“I told you. She didn’t need me.”

“Millie. What does that mean?”

“Look, Kimball, you already noticed something was going on. A couple weeks ago.”

“Yeah…?”

“Well, you were right. And they could never let me back, but I don’t even care. Kimball, I loved her. I loved Ada.”

“Oh my God, Mildred, Millie, what did you do?”

“I just told you. I loved her. Try to keep up. And you know what? She loved me too. I could feel it. When someone feels that way about you, you can’t not feel it.”

“But Millie, you… That’s… Well that’s not okay. God, Millie, what were you thinking?”

“What was I thinking? I don’t know, Kimball, probably I wasn’t. But she’s gone and now I’m gone so it’s not like I’m going to do it again. But that’s not the point.”

“Not the point? You did something completely unethical and you’re telling me that’s not the point?”

“No. It’s not the point at all. The point is that she didn’t need me. She just kept saying ‘You can’t save me. You can’t save me.’”

“Wait. She said that before, too?”

“No, just in my dream. But it was real. I mean, I know it was a dream, but it was something I’d been trying to piece together for a while. There was something about her. She was… God, how do I explain. She was tough. That’s not even it. The way she handled the pain. She never had that pleading look in her eyes, you know?”

Millie paused her energetic description for a moment and lowered her voice. “Kimball, I think she could’ve stuck it out. I don’t think she needed to be there. In my dream, when she said I couldn’t save her, I don’t think she needed to be saved.”

Kimball’s voice lowered to match hers and he slowly responded, his words measured, “Millie, I just don’t know what to say. I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me, or how it changes anything. She’s gone. Like all of them.”

“I know, but Ada was different.”

“Because… you loved her?”

“Yes, and because she loved me. I know she did. But she didn’t need me, and I don’t know what that means.”

“Millie, I’m really uncomfortable about a relationship like this between you and a patient. You didn’t… You didn’t cross a line, did you?”

“What? God, Kimball, no I didn’t ‘cross a line’. I mean, sure, we got close, and ethically I guess that’s a line. But not a physical line. I assume that’s what you mean?”

“Yeah, sorry, it’s just… That would be serious.”

“What is wrong with you? I just said I loved her and she loved me. It was real. And you immediately assume something physical.”

“Millie, I had to ask. If I’m going to help, I need to know how bad this is. You say there was nothing physical, and I believe you.”

“Help me? How do you plan to help me?”

“I don’t know, Millie. You’re the one that called me.”

“Yeah. Yeah I guess I was the one to call you.” She paused for a moment. “Meet me tonight for dinner. Szechuan Garden.”

“Okay. I can be there about 6:30.”

“Great, see you there!”

“See you there.”

Young Mildred’s Bad Day

Preface

This episode of Verity was written on January 17, 2017. By then I had realized that I could show Ada and Millie’s love develop as they shared their life stories with each other, and here Millie is around 12 years old like Ada was on her own bad day. I specifically chose that age because it is around the time that a person can begin to transition into what developmental psychologist Robert Kegan calls the Socialized Mind. That transition is the hallmark of the adolescent struggle, as a young person tears down their old self-focused yet developmentally appropriate world view in order to rebuild it into an ability to “see” their peers’ wants and needs as truly real and equal phenomena to their own. During Ada’s parallel story, Mrs Noble briefly thinks back to her daughter’s previous developmental transitions, which are more thoroughly described by Piaget than Kegan. I know far less about Piaget.

It was not clear in my first brief glimpses of Verity that it was a story of psychological development. Growth, yes, but even though adult developmental psychology is one of my great obsessions, the ties are far more direct than I was at first able to see. Specifically, Verity is about Mildred’s transition from a conventional to a post-conventional Ethics of Care, as per Carol Gilligan. I’m sure that I’m getting aspects of it wrong, because I really don’t know what a post-conventional Ethics of Care feels like. However, I do believe that I’m in the process of making a transition similar to Mildred’s, and I don’t believe I’m alone in attempting such a transition at this time in human history. There’s just something in the air.

Briefly, I believe we are entering an era no less momentous than the early Renaissance. Eric McLuhan said as much, many years ago. Only this change feels perhaps more like a Reawakening or quite simply an Awakening of sorts, though of course that might just be a prelude to the real thing. As of yet, and I suspect for decades to come, there is nothing obvious happening. But it’s there, hanging in the air. Countless people across the internet are writing about aspects of it from their own unique perspective, explaining their own glimpses into it. A number of people I know or have met are doing surprisingly similar growth work in their lives, and I think that whatever is happening is exactly about growth and the mechanics or dynamics of change itself. But that’s all I know. Actually I don’t even know it, I just feel it. And yet it’s there, for sure, just hanging in the air.

But I digress. I didn’t even read Gilligan’s treatise on an Ethics of Care, In a Different Voice, until I had already worked out the overall arc of Verity and written a number of scenes. I had meant to get around to reading it ever since my wife’s mention of it many years before, but, egotistically, I assumed it wouldn’t hold any discoveries relevant to my own life and personal growth because it is ostensibly about women’s ethics. Though entirely understandable, and given its theme and its place in feminist history I have no right let alone desire to offer any real criticism, I think Gilligan got it wrong in presenting an Ethics of Care as a uniquely feminine world view, because every word of In a Different Voice spoke directly to me and my life.

I also ended up reading Gilligan’s fictional novel Kyra and was very surprised to find that a major thread throughout the story was the titular Kyra’s desire to have a much more deep and meaningful relationship with her psychotherapist than is permitted by any existing ethical rules governing the boundaries of the therapist/client relationship. This was well after the relationship between Ada and Millie was already established.

At any rate, Verity is about Mildred’s journey from a conventional Ethics of Care, a focus purely on others’ wants and needs, to Millie’s nascent post-conventional Ethics of Care in which she is able to truly see, I think, that not everyone else’s burden is for her to bear alone, unidirectionally. The change in her name marks the change in her world view, and below her nickname Mil is a signal that she still operates under a developmentally appropriate pre-conventional Ethics of Care.

My current theory is that Ada is fully post-conventional. I don’t understand Ada any more than Mildred/Millie does, and that provides me very convincing evidence that my own personal journey of growth is still very much a work in progress, just as Verity is, and which is why I currently believe that I will never finish Verity the story, because it’s nothing more than a dramatization of my own story.

Going Away

She pedaled her bicycle hard down the country lane, trying once again to beat her fastest time, and to get home for dinner before her parents became upset. An old mechanical stopwatch in her pocket counted the seconds. She knew it would take longer this time, as she was coming from farther away than usual, having found a new quiet place down the creek. She was thrilled with her discovery – she knew almost every nook and cranny on her family’s farm, and to discover something she had previously missed was quite an accomplishment. On her ride back, her legs pumping furiously, her fine, straight hair flapping behind her, she struggled with whether or not to tell her parents about her discovery. On the one hand, she wanted to share her excitement, but on the other hand, she realized it would be delicious to have her own secret place to go and dream and read and stare at the sky and wait to become an adult.

She tore up the crunchy gravel driveway to the farmhouse where she lived and where her parents were probably already getting a little bit impatient with her tardiness. Yup, her stopwatch told her, three minutes off her best time, but already ten minutes past dinner time. Still, not too bad!

She skidded up to the front porch, threw her bicycle with a practiced smoothness to the ground, and flung open the screen door. In the heavy, humid Midwest summer, in an old farmhouse with no air conditioning, the long hallway leading along the staircase and back through the kitchen to the rear door was able to set up just enough of an air current to take the edge off of the sometimes oppressive heat. She felt the breeze on her face as she ran in.

“Mom! Dad!” she called. She stopped short, surprised to find them in the living room instead of in the dining room or the kitchen. Her mother sat on the sofa with her face drawn, her hands clasped in her lap. Her father stood beside her, beaming. An odd mixture of crackling excitement and ponderous stillness pervaded the air. She stared from her mom to her dad and back, trying to comprehend what could possibly be going on.

Slowly her mother spoke, “Mil, listen, please sit down.”

“Yes, yes! Sit!” her father chimed in, somehow unaware or unconcerned that his excitement in no way matched his wife’s somber quietness.

“What? What is it?”

“Mil, Honey,” her mom went on, “we’ve had a couple meetings with your principal and some of your teachers.”

From her mother’s tone and posture, Mildred assumed that this must be terrible news that she was about to hear. Was she in trouble for something? She couldn’t imagine what it could be. She always tried her best to be polite, attentive, and responsible. In fact, she was known for it, sometimes even teased by her classmates for being such a goody-goody. Her grades, as well, were always excellent. Surely there couldn’t be a problem with her performance?

“Honey, they’re concerned that they can’t offer you the kind of challenges and opportunities that you need. It’s such a small school. They just don’t have the resources. They’re afraid that you’ll be held back from, what was it they said, from ‘your full potential’ if you stay.”

“Wait, ‘if I stay’? What does that mean? Am I being kicked out?” Mildred demanded, a stabbing shame mixed with indignation welling within her, her face turning bright red. “But I like it there! Don’t they want me?”

“Oh, Mil! Oh, Honey, no! That’s not it at all!” her mother cried, even more upset now to see her daughter’s reaction.

Her father chuckled, still oblivious to what the two women in the room were experiencing. “Mildred, look, this is actually really great! They think you’re great! They want you to go to a better school, a school where you’ll be around other kids like you, as smart as you. Mildred, we’re just so proud of you!”

Mrs Sheffield sniffed while quickly pulling herself together, now in somber but heartfelt concurrence, “Yes, Honey, really, we are so proud of you.”

“But Mom, Dad, I like my school! I like my friends! Where is this new place anyhow? Am I going to have to take a bus? Or, what, are you going to take me there and back every single day? That’s stupid. You’re both always so busy as it is, it would be dumb add to it. Why don’t I just stay where I’m at? That would be the best, really, the best for all of us.”

“Um,” her mother began to respond, a pit forming in her stomach. “It’s… No, we won’t be driving you, and there is no bus. It’s just too far. You’ll… You’ll be staying there. In the dorms.” Her voice trailed off into silence almost before she finished the last word.

“But! But, Mom!”, Mildred pleaded, “That’s a boarding school! I don’t want to go to a stupid, stuck up boarding school!”

“Now, Mildred!” her father nearly barked, his excitement beginning to roll over into displeasure to be greeted by such an unexpected reaction from his daughter. “This is an excellent opportunity. What is not to understand about that?”

Mildred shot him a horrified look of confusion, hurt that he could be so ready to ship her off to some godforsaken place far away from home, the only home she’d ever known. She turned and ran upstairs to her room, slammed the door, and put on her headphones, Disintegration playing loudly enough that it could be heard throughout her bedroom. She crossed her arms tightly across her chest, her lips pressed firmly together.

“She needs to understand…” Mr Sheffield began to say to his wife in exasperation, back downstairs in the living room. He took a few paces from side to side, his eyes on the floor. Then he snapped his head back up and set off to follow after Mildred. He only made one determined step before Mrs Sheffield quietly reached out her hand, gently grabbed his arm.

“Shhhh. Just give her a little time. This really is a big change. It must be a huge shock to her.” Mrs Sheffield smiled reassuringly to her husband, trying to mask her own distress about sending her daughter away, even if it was for a very good reason. “She’ll come around.”

After so many years of marriage and after so many years of raising Mildred together, Mr Sheffield was entirely accustomed to trusting his wife’s instincts and guidance in managing matters of such an emotional nature. He might not have truly understood her reasoning, but he did trust her, and the outcome was usually entirely satisfactory if he waited long enough. Once again now he found himself yielding to her. He let go of his impulse, his impatience to make his daughter see why it was so important what they were doing for her. He sighed deeply. His wife was probably right. Time would probably take care of it. “Why don’t we go ahead and eat,” he said.

Time did indeed take care of everything. Mildred relented and left for school, where she ended up thriving. It really was a world of greater opportunities to learn and to stretch her talents and her intellect. She saw her parents two or three times a month, usually one at a time while the other tended the farm. They spoke often on the phone. In some ways the separation even brought them closer, because the relationship, being squeezed into more regimented time slots, became a direct focus in those moments, less something taken for granted as simply existing, present, but easily ignored because it would still be there in an hour, or the next day. That is not to say that Mildred did not ache with missing her parents, or they her. Tears were regularly shed when a visit began and when it ended. Even Mr Sheffield’s eyes became noticeably moist on more than one occasion.

I Don’t Need You

Preface

I think that this scene, originally written on January 17th, 2017, is the last chapter of the story that I call Verity. I don’t see anything beyond it, but quite a bit still needs to be filled in before. At first I was angry about this plot line. There was never supposed to be any romance at all in Verity. The love between Ada and Millie is explicitly non-romantic, but I am explicit about that fact in order to draw a parallel, to show that it is of an intensity usually reserved for stories that are in fact about romance. That was to be the love story behind Verity.

And then one day, once again closing my eyes to visualize what my characters might be doing, I saw Millie and Kimball walking away from me down the sidewalk of what looked like an English village just after dusk. Without pausing or breaking stride, without looking at him or he looking back at her, she reached over a few small inches to grab ahold of his hand, and they continued walking, hand in hand, while the scene faded to black. Upon opening my eyes my only reaction was for fuck’s sake this is not supposed to be a romance! But that’s what they wanted, and who was I to argue. In the end I’m happy about it, though, because I really like this scene. It feels a little bit hurried – I’d like to draw it out more, even if only because I don’t want it to be over so quickly.

Another Ending, Another Beginning

Millie opened her eyes slowly to the soft filtered morning light passing through the bedroom curtains. Already Kimball was awake, lying next to her, gazing at her face with an innocent and joyous reverence. She smiled softly, her eyes drooping, under the warm duvet naked, half awake. Her smile and her languid stretching conveyed a voluptuous and vulnerable joy as she remembered the night before, waking to find it was more than just a delicious dream. Even with her unkempt hair, without makeup the wrinkles around her eyes clearly visible, even still she was radiant, maybe not despite but because.

Smiling again to realize that Kimball was looking so intently at her, she said to him, her moist lips giving her slowly and softly spoken words a sensual and dreamy edge, “I don’t need you.”

“Oh?” Kimball sucked in his breath, completely taken aback by this unexpected pronouncement. “Oh,” he continued, quickly regaining his composure, quickly realizing that their momentous discovery of Ada’s sister had not brought some kind of closure to Millie’s obsessive mission and their romantic holding pattern, had not provided space for a transition to something more permanent. “Okay.”

He looked away, trying to hide his hurt and disappointment. Of course nothing had been promised. He had no right to expect anything more than what had been offered and what had been given thus far. And yet he had hoped for so much more, so very much more.

Millie’s eyes flew wide open as she immediately recognized that she had misspoken, that what was so obvious to her was not what her words conveyed.

“Shit! No! That’s not what I mean!”

“No, honest, it’s fine,” Kimball tried to head off any further discussion, which would surely only make him feel even more wretched.

“No.” She said. “Listen.” She reached to touch the cheek that he had turned away from her, pulled him back, forced him to look at her. “I don’t need you. I… I could survive on my own. If you left, I could find a way to be happy, and still love you, and want you to be happy, too, wherever you were. I think I could do that, and I can’t even begin to tell you how important that is to me. It’s everything. But the thing is, I want you. God, Kimball, I just really want you. It’s just… it’s so much better with you here. And I think that, without needing you, I think I can let myself have you, really have you. I mean, for as long as you’ll have me. If you’ll have me.”

The sudden shift as her words started to sink in left Kimball once again in a moment of confusion. He blinked several times and opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, unable to put together any words. He continued to look in Millie’s eyes, which for their part read hope, love, and concern. A few heartbeats later her words registered, and the tears of loss that Kimball was fighting back now welled in relief.

“Of course. Yes. Of course!” he forced a wet smile and kissed Millie clumsily and awkwardly and with too much force, their noses bumping together. They both laughed a short laugh, his in apology, hers in understanding. They looked in each other’s glistening eyes for quite some time, saying nothing.

“Lies es in meinen Augen…” murmured Millie, finally breaking the silence.