I Am not an Author

In my introductory email to Lauren before I began coaching sessions with her, I explicitly stated that I was hoping she would be able to convince me not to take up writing with any kind of seriousness. Because I’m not an author. I might be a writer, for some meaning of the word “writer”, but that’s a different thing.

Lately I’ve received some encouragement to keep working on Verity, and I’m not entirely certain if some of that is because the people offering the encouragement just really care about me and want to, you know, encourage me (which I deeply appreciate), or if they actually see something that I can’t see about the whole situation. But the thing is, and it took me a while to discover the very simple words to explain this, Verity is not a novel, even if I have spent over a year calling it that. Not only is Verity not a novel, I’m never going to finish it, and even if I did, it’s the only story I have. So I’m not an author.

There are a number of reasons for this. Primarily, writing is not my passion. I’m not willing to suffer for it. I’m exceptionally lazy about writing — I only write when inspiration strikes, and every single bit of advice I’ve ever read about following a creative path in any domain is that waiting for inspiration to strike means you will never, ever accomplish anything real. Not only that, but I basically never write anything that I can’t complete in one sitting, usually thirty minutes to a couple of hours, all in one go. And if it doesn’t turn out relatively decent on the first attempt, if it doesn’t lead to some kind of insight or catharsis, then I basically abandon it. That’s no way to be a writer, let alone an author, and that’s actually really okay with me.

This approach to writing basically limits me to extremely episodic or limited kinds of storytelling. The idea of trying to string together all the bits of Verity into something coherent holds absolutely no appeal to me, because, again, writing is not my passion. Yes, I love Millie and Ada, and having them in my life has been utterly transformational in a way that I wish I could even begin to describe. But I don’t need them to be in a novel or any kind of grand narrative in order for them to have meaning for me. After all, they are nothing more than projections of my own psyche onto imaginary human forms whose words, facial expressions, and body language I can far more easily interpret than I can interpret my own feelings directly.

And feelings and emotion are the absolute basis of anything I’ve ever felt good about having written. Verity is pure, refined emotion, and I absolutely love that about it. I love the relationship between Millie and Ada, and it tears me apart inside to tear the two of them apart. I feel Millie’s exhilaration as she tries to figure out the mystery of Ada, and my heart is ripped into tiny, ecstatic pieces when Elizabeth discovers that Ada died in the arms of someone who loved her. It’s pure catharsis and an indescribable rush, but that kind of intensity is exceptionally difficult for me to muster, and even more difficult to maintain for an extended period of time. Because although I can be pure emotion, I am more than emotion alone, and for the rest of me I have my other project.

There’s another thing about writing, and about Millie and Ada in particular, though it took me a couple loops through the cycle to see the pattern. Early this year I decided to start paying attention to the kinds of things I felt like doing when it seemed that a depressive episode was either oncoming or had already snuck in, and it turns out that writing is one of those things. When my life is going well, when I’m on a roll with my other project, I can go for months without writing a single word and I don’t miss it at all. I just keep on trucking. And then I hit a wall, even if it’s in slow motion, and the urge to write comes back with a vengeance.

Sometimes it’s just an increased fervor for writing in my journal, but a couple of times now it has been about sharing some of my writing. On the first occasion it was mostly just with Lauren, but then more recently with all of you. Both of those times, though, it has been Millie and Ada that showed up and pushed me to do it. I have come to the conclusion that they’re my traveling companions on my Hero’s Quest, or rather my Heroine’s or Virgin’s Quest in Kim Hudson’s terms, where the former is about internalizing communal values, and the latter about internalizing a sense of personal agency. Despite the gendered naming, anyone can theoretically and metaphorically go on multiple such quests throughout their life, always alternating between a Hero’s Quest and a Heroine’s Quest.

Although I only have two examples from which to draw the following conclusion, I feel confident in asserting that Millie and Ada show up when I’m at my lowest, when some psychological imbalance throws me into a state of desperation and crushing uncertainty as to how to move forward. They show up in order to catalyze a restoration of that lost balance, to remind me that I do have a capacity for love, even self love, and even if I have to project myself onto two imaginary women who are so easy for me to love when a more direct self love is impossible. They are signs that redemption is always there within me, and that I just need to be reminded of that fact every now and then, because holy shit can I forget it.

For the last several paragraphs I’ve been trying to lay the groundwork to argue that if Millie and Ada are primarily mental constructs that I’ve invented to help me out of depression, then to continue working directly with them after that need has passed is simply not necessary and kind of misses the point of their profound importance. But as with everything, there’s more to it than that, and it has to do with my other project that I keep mentioning. Or my other projects, because I guess there are at least two.

The thing that I’ve been calling “my other project” is in fact my passion, the thing that I’m apparently more than willing to suffer for, because it always eventually leads me down a path to nihilism, doubt, and unbearable uncertainty. I’ve been rather reluctant to discuss it more than in passing, because it’s really not very good. It is intended to be software-based generative art, but after several years of work it’s still basically just a screen saver. At best. And yet I’m obsessed. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, or if it will ever be more than a mediocre screen saver, but I’ve decided to trust my intuition telling me that it’s something of extreme personal significance, whether or not I can ever translate that significance to something you might be able to feel. And I want you to feel it, my god I want that, because I sometimes think that that feeling might be the gift that I was put on this earth to give you, if I can ever get there.

Of course one way to look at what I’m doing, from a Myers-Briggs perspective, is that I’m being foolish and chasing after my unattainable inferior Extraverted Sensing. Elaine Schallock says that INFJs like me should never, ever try to make visual art, that it will bring nothing but misery and mediocrity. I can certainly agree that I will never be a painter or anything that requires such precise physical dexterity, but that’s why I’m writing software to create my visual work. Going at it indirectly, because I’m pretty good at writing software. To be sure, it’s still playing with fire, and that’s why I seem to keep pushing myself to a point of nihilism and uncertainty. I’m coming to believe, more and more though, that so must it be in order for me to make progress on what might be my overall project that connects everything else.

That overall project would be myself. Apparently that’s what we INFJs are typically driven to do, to “self actualize”. My intuition tells me that writing software to create animations is somehow in the general direction of how I can in fact self actualize. Mostly because it’s so damned difficult for me, and doing things that I’m unable to do must lie on the path of growth.

Certainly there’s nothing particularly difficult about the software I’m creating, in and of itself. The difficulty is that my end goal is nothing but an amorphous feeling, and translating that feeling into reality is immensely difficult. I don’t even have a mental picture of what I’m trying to accomplish, but I trust that I will know it if I ever encounter it, like whatshisface in the eighties who couldn’t define pornography, but said that he knew it when he saw it. And there’s a very good chance that I will never get far enough as to create something that I recognize as having that feeling that I yearn to evoke, but ultimately it’s possible that it might not even matter.

If nothing else, I’m obsessed with and have been obsessed with computer-generated imagery since I was 9 years old. It won’t let me go, so I keep going, doing something that I can’t do in a way that I find acceptable, and I try and fail and try and fail over and over again. But so must it be. I could try and fail with any number of goals in any number of different domains, but no other goal so ignites my burning need to try, and so no other goal can push me to do the indirect work of growing by failing and trying again.

***

I have a very dangerous idea about depression, and I’m reluctant to discuss it because I don’t want to imply in any way that depression is not deadly serious. If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please, please seek help. But the thing is, I’ve never personally been suicidal, which is part of why I never recognized until fairly recently that this thing I’ve experienced on and off since at least adolescence is in fact depression. But I can’t really discuss the work I’m trying to do without explaining how I’m trying to use myself as a laboratory to study depression, or rather, to see if there’s something behind depression that, if better understood, need not in fact lead to the actual symptoms of depression.

This might seem like a stupid and dangerous thing to do, but the thing is, due to my wiring, I’m quite simply always going to seek out ways to push myself beyond my limits to the point where I become untethered and have to reboot and reorient myself. I don’t even think that I could choose to avoid going that far. I’m quite sure that it would happen no matter what evasive action I could conceivably try to take. So I might as well keep my eyes wide open, to study it while it’s happening to me, because then I have at least some hope of managing it instead of being tossed helplessly and blindly about by it as I was for some twenty five years before I started to look at it differently, thanks in large part to Ada and Millie, along with Michael Lamport Commons and his associates.

As an INFJ, I apparently also have little choice but to be fascinated by systems and theories about people and their behavior, which have in fact been lifelong obsessions of mine. My discovery a few years ago of the field of adult developmental psychology, initially via Robert Kegan, was extremely useful in illuminating a number of questions I had previously been unable even to think about in any meaningful way. Then sometime later I found Richards’ and Commons’ Model of Hierarchical Complexity, while their corresponding extension of Jean Piaget’s so-called dialectic of stage change has provided a perhaps very powerful explanation for many of the things I had been experiencing internally, and which it seems everyone else experiences in some way or another as well.

According to the theory, people come to certain relatively stable conclusions about how the world works, and from that world view it is possible to generate decisions about how to confidently take action or simply how to be. On many occasions throughout life, however, that world view needs to be torn down and reconstructed into something new, specifically when too much evidence mounts that the previous world view is insufficient to handle changing realities in life. As a first step in reconstruction, the previous world view is outright rejected, but without having anything like a suitable replacement. This is where nihilism comes from, be it the “NO!” of the terrible twos, the “No! I am not just a cog in the machine” of an early post-Authoritarian, pre-Modern dogmatic individualism, or the “No! There is no certain ground on which to stand” of deconstructive Post-Modernism, to give but a few examples.

Following this period of nihilism, one or more alternative perspectives are examined, but always at the same level of complexity as the recently rejected world view. An alternation between such perspectives begins, slowly, until many unsuccessful attempts are made to “smash” those perspectives together into something new. Eventually, the competing perspectives are combined into a new world view of higher complexity that combines, subsumes, and yet expands upon, contains, and coordinates the previously incompatible perspectives.

I believe this is also a description of exactly the process that we mean when we speak about “creativity”. Everyone since forever has recognized the connection between creativity and some form of madness, be it unipolar or bipolar depression, or something else entirely. All of the self help books for those of us who live our lives of quiet desperation instead of actually creating art discuss either directly or indirectly the rampant presence of depression among those who feel drawn to creative work. It’s a cliché, really. But it always seems as though depression is seen as some random and yet unavoidable side effect, as though, well, if you want the “creativity” option, that only comes as a package deal with a propensity for depression. Sorry, no à la carte upgrades for you. But I don’t think it’s mere random correlation, and Piaget, Richards, Commons, et al have presented a possibility for why that might be.

In order to create a broader, more inclusive mental construct, one must first, inevitably, undergo a period of rejecting a less complex, less suitable perspective. Nihilism. All creativity is preceded by nihilism, and I believe this is an entirely inescapable phenomenon. And since that nihilism can and typically does lead to depression, all creativity, by necessity, is largely an emotional process. What is depression but a terrifying, crushing, unbearable sense that there is no way forward? Of not having a stable perspective from which to draw conclusions about how to act, or even to think about our place in the world?

Of course I could be completely wrong, which would be illuminating in its own right, but I can’t really know that without doing research on it, and the only research subject that I could ethically recruit is myself. I will repeat, if you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please, please seek help. But I will also repeat that I don’t believe I have any personal choice in whether or not I will experience these repeated periods of nihilism, and since I have never gone so far as to be suicidal, I think that I can only improve my own situation, along, I pray, with that of the people around me, by studying my depressive episodes as they occur, or at the very least by observing them consciously instead of being tossed about helplessly by them. Thank god my brain invented Millie and Ada to help me during the worst of it.

***

The only time I really enjoy writing is when it brings about some kind of realization or even just a new possibility to explore, some alternate viewpoint I hadn’t previously recognized as being available. And I have one small realization that started creeping in a few paragraphs ago. My suspicion has long been that the period of nihilism itself is the basis from which the symptoms of depression grow, but I wonder, and it seems as though I’ve already read something that would support this, I wonder if depression is instead a build up of mental energy fighting desperately to avoid entering the period of nihilism, to cling furiously to the old, failing perspective in order to avoid having to undergo the intensely emotional and laborious work of rebuilding a new perspective. If so, I wonder if there’s a way to choose to let go with less of a fight, with less terror and desperation.

And I might have some evidence to support the idea that the nihilism itself is not the problem, at least for me personally, which might or might not apply to others. As I said I find myself constantly struggling with my software art. It can be awful sometimes, like a thousand pound weight crushing my sternum. I understand and believe the oft repeated advice that creative work requires a love of the process instead of a focus on outcomes, and I often ignore that advice, which of course might be the actual source of my problems. The follow-on advice is that one should focus their energy on whatever that task is whose process they love. Excellent runners love running. Excellent painters love painting. Logical enough. But whenever I try to think of what process I love, I consistently come up empty handed. I like writing software when I can get into flow, but I don’t love it. I love Millie and Ada, but I only like writing about them. Although it tends to be more outcome oriented, the one thing that I consistently love in my work is when I can say “No! That thing I was doing! That’s not it!” It appears that saying no, for me, is joy.

I love finding out that I have been wrong. I love letting go of the chains that I had previously allowed to hold me down because I could never even see them binding me. But is that a new perspective of greater complexity, or is it simply the nihilism that is the first step in the construction of a new perspective? I’m quite certain it’s the latter.

When Millie and Ada first showed up almost two years ago, I did not want to do the work they were asking of me. But through them and through other things I was writing at the time, I came to the decision to renounce my software art completely. I thought it was definitive, that I would never write another line of code. And yet I did not simultaneously decide that I would become a writer instead, even if I did consider it a possibility. I merely decided that I was done with software, forever, and I was elated. I gushed about it and told anyone around me who would listen, whereas previously I had never, ever dared speak of my creative ambitions except in the most passing and non-committal of terms.

And then several months later I changed my mind again and went back to work on my software, albeit with new eyes and a newfound ability to make progress without having to torture myself into doing it. I got almost an entire year of steady work out of that, almost an entire year of not falling into an abyss of uncertainty and loss of direction. It turns out that all of the work that came out of that year is crap, and I’m going to discard something like 90% of it, but that’s not really the issue. It’s fine because for a while I got to feel like I was making progress, got to experience long periods of flow, and then I got to say no to it. I really like the first of those things, but I think I love the latter.

So to the best of my current ability to see, my overall project seems to be about observing myself as I go through these loops of productivity on my software art, to hitting a brick wall, to lifting myself back up by writing words instead of code, and then repeating. I don’t think I can do such work without having both writing and my software art as integral but not exclusive components of the process. I have long yearned to be able to combine my logical side and my feeling side into some single art practice, but as yet they remain entirely distinct albeit loosely bound as temporally offset components of some larger process. So for now I can at least consider the loops and the observation of my psychological state throughout the loops to be the actual work that I’m doing, even if that often seems very unfulfilling. But who knows, maybe someday I’ll be able to take my visual work to the point where it can make you feel that thing that I want you to feel.

Thousands and Thousands of Forms of Joy

Preface

As I was beginning my first tentative steps on Verity 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 struggled for quite a while with whether I would ever show this to anyone besides Lauren, because I bring my family into it. In my family we don’t discuss difficult things because we are proper Midwestern Protestants. I do fear that I might ruffle some feathers, but I have let that same fear guide me my entire life and as a result I’ve kept my mouth shut tight for far too long. Although I might be swinging too far in the opposite direction now, 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.

You Can’t Save Me

Preface

This scene from January 9, 2017 was written from my own perspective, directly recounting imagery that I visualized in my mind. It falls in line with several character sketches I had already written for Verity, which at the time I considered to be background research or something to be rewritten later into proper narrative form. However, since Verity is not a novel and this is not its serialization, since I play fast and loose with perspective anyhow, shifting between characters sometimes within a single paragraph, and since I am already being intentionally explicit with my own commentary before most episodes, I don’t see any reason why I should exclude myself from being part of this story. I am most certainly part of this story, or rather, it is part of me.

On Stage

Ada’s hospital bed lies in the middle of a theater stage, its back tilted forward as hospital beds do, such that Ada is half sitting, half reclining. It feels like the upstairs stage at Steppenwolf which is in-the-round, and it occurs to me to feel bad for the audience seated behind the bed since they can’t see what’s going on. But maybe there are no audience members behind. Everything is pitch black except for Ada, her bed, and Mildred puttering about next to her, all illuminated by spot lights. All is completely silent, except maybe the soft sounds of Mildred’s shoes against the stage floor.

Mildred wears a traditional light blue nurse’s dress with white smock and white bonnet. She has her back to Ada and faces a small stage-prop table meant to represent something medical. A small assortment of medical tools and supplies have been carefully arrayed across the top, intentionally appearing haphazard, so that the actress playing Mildred can rearrange them during the scene, giving her something to do with her hands instead of dangling them lifelessly at her side. In a stage voice that at first always sounds so disconcerting as the actor projects what should be quiet words, Ada says, “You can’t save me.”

Mildred’s shoulders tense, but she remains silent. She stops rearranging the tools and supplies on the table.

“You can’t save me,” Ada repeats, observing Mildred’s reaction.

Mildred turns, looks Ada in the eye, and in her own stage voice, with a considered lightness and bravado that she doesn’t feel, replies, “I know.” She says it as though responding to a reminder about something of utter insignificance that had just slipped her mind, but which she feels slightly silly to have forgotten.

Holding Mildred’s gaze with her own, Ada repeats yet again, “You can’t save me.” Mildred nods her acquiescence as the two of them continue to look into each other’s eyes and the stage lights fall and all becomes blackness.

Postscript

It is important, perhaps, to point out that Ada was not saying “You can’t save me” in the standard cinematic or literary sense. Usually the character who says it has given up hope and is saying so to their interlocutor. It usually means “I am beyond saving.” There is an implied “from” that follows the verb “save”. For Ada, however, there is no “from”. She cannot be saved because there is nothing from which to save her. She does not consider herself to be in peril, or to be suffering from anything that would permit the word “save” to be used in a logically and grammatically correct way.

Of course she does also mean “You can’t save me” in the standard cinematic and literary second sense of “You must not try to save me,” but here again, for a different reason. For in order to save someone, the would-be savior must believe that the other needs to be saved, and that salvation is possible. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that Ada’s second meaning is “You must not believe that there is anything from which I need to be saved. You have no responsibility to try, because there is nothing to try.”

The Death of Ada Noble

Preface

I originally wrote this episode on December 21, 2016. Many scenes in Verity are simply direct and relatively immediate transcriptions of what I see during mental visualization exercises. By the time I wrote this one, though, I had replayed it in my mind a million times with a million variations. Below is only one possible way that it could play out. It is of course the climax of the first half of the story, and as such my natural perfectionistic inclination would be to obsess over every single word of it in order to do justice to its pivotal role. And yet for some reason I went the other direction.

I just picked a version, any version, and wrote it down. I think it turned out okay, but its imperfections don’t bother me as much as I would expect. I suspect that’s because even if I were able to write well beyond my current ability, even at a level of pure excellence, even then I think that words would be too limited to fully express how I feel about Millie and Ada, their love, and this moment in their story. As such, any written recounting can be no better than a mere approximation, so I might as well simply pick one and move along.

An Ending

“It’s time,” said Ada with a calmness and certainty that would allow no argument.

Millie had known this moment would come soon. She knew she could easily find a reason to delay it for one more day, and maybe another day after that. Eventually, though, she would run out of reasons, and Ada would leave her. Even if she could convince Ada not to end her life unnaturally, she would most likely be gone in a year anyhow. She could never ask Ada to do that, and yet she could not let go. Against her will, Millie’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“Please, not yet,” she whispered with no hope of acquiescence.

Ada did not respond, but continued to fix Millie with her implacable, unperturbed, knowing eyes. Millie wanted to scream at those eyes. How can you be so calm? How can you just decide to go? God damn you and your calmness! All of this Millie fought back, because she knew it would do no good, and because she knew it was selfish, that she had no right to ask Ada to prolong her suffering.

Of course Millie knew it would end, and yet of course she held out the hope that somehow this case would be different, that somehow Ada would be the one who survived. Never before had she been so desperate and fervent in her wish for such an impossible fantasy to come true. Now that she had met this woman, now that she had grown to love her and need her more than anyone in her entire life, even her own mother, now she felt she could not bear to let her go. Her heart thudded in her chest, her throat felt as if it would be ripped open from the inside as she fought back every urge to burst into childish, pleading sobs.

“Okay,” she said after getting control of herself and her emotions. “Okay.” She averted her eyes, afraid to look at Ada lest she once more be overcome. Her shoulders slumped in resignation, and she slowly turned to begin the process of termination.

Mildred left Ada’s room and walked quietly to the administrative office. “She’s ready,” she informed the Chief Administrator, who did not fail to notice something peculiar in Mildred’s demeanor. Together they filled out the requisite paperwork, and together they walked to the dispensary to get a vial of La Verdad. Together, and now accompanied by a clinic guard, they carried the vial to the room of the patient Ada Noble.

“You’re ready?” the Chief Administrator asked Ada.

“Yes.”

“You understand fully that this decision is irreversible once the process begins?” he continued.

“Yes.”

“Please sign here,” he said handing Ada the official release form, which she signed.

“First witness,” he said handing the same form to the clinic guard, who signed on the first witness line.

“Second witness,” he said handing the form to Mildred, who signed on the second line.

“Third witness and administrator,” he said, pro forma, to himself as he signed the bottom line. He then inserted the vial into the machine attached to Ada’s IV.

“God be with you,” he said to Ada. He said this to every patient, and every time he felt and showed the same compassion while saying it. He turned to leave the room, giving Mildred one last look, checking to see if there was legitimate cause for concern or if her earlier demeanor had been a misapprehension on his part. Now she seemed perfectly in control of herself, and so he exited, followed by the clinic guard who softly closed the door behind him.

Now Millie was alone with Ada to finish the process. It would be monitored and recorded, but there was no need for Ada or any patient to be surrounded in her final moments by relative strangers such as the Chief Administrator and the clinic guard. Clearly Ada trusted and felt comfortable with Mildred, and since she had no family by her side, Mildred alone would be with her as she made her way beyond.

“It’s going to be okay, my sweet Millie,” said Ada very quietly, but with a calm assuredness that surprised Millie, who despite the calm exterior she was managing to convey was fighting a tremendous battle within herself. Ada’s words nearly tilted the course of the battle towards an onslaught of pleading for more time. Just a little more time. Instead she made eye contact with Ada, smiled a half smile to show how brave she was trying to be, to show that she would allow Ada to leave her, no matter how much she could not tolerate her leaving. She would not let her selfish desires keep Ada from the relief which was her right. Had she known that relief was not Ada’s true aim, certainly then she would have pleaded, but she did not know that.

“Press here,” instructed Mildred after she handed Ada the small mechanism that triggered the pump that would inject La Verdad into her IV, moments later to enter her bloodstream and take its effect. Ada gave her a knowing and reassuring look, and then she pressed the button. A single “bing” of the machine as it started to administer the drug was the beginning of the end of two lives, one literally, the other less so. Millie lost her composure as tears began to stream down her face.

Knowing that such a display of emotion would be cause for her removal from the remainder of the procedure, she jammed a chair underneath the handle of the otherwise non-locking door. She knew that no one would try to break down the door in these, Ada’s final moments, but she also knew that she would lose her job over this, and she wished for nothing more at this point. Her continued employment had not the slightest importance to her now, nor did anything beyond her remaining moments with Ada.

She crawled into the bed with Ada. The drug would still not take her for at least a minute. Clutching Ada’s hand in hers, she lay with her face just inches from Ada’s, who had turned to face her.

“Read in my eyes…” Millie began. She did not finish the sentence, as her throat tightened, grinding with thick phlegm, and her eyes ran over with tears.

“I know,” said Ada, whose eyes also spoke thousands of words, not all of which were understandable to Millie.

Moments later every muscle in Ada’s body loosened as the bliss of La Verdad started to take ahold of her. “Mmmmmmm,” she murmured as her eyes took on a faraway look. “Ohhhhhhh.” This was the common response. The faraway look would never return and it was just a matter of a short time until Ada was truly gone.

Most patients in their final moments would exclaim wonder at their experience as they were opened to a profound unity with everything. “It’s beautiful! My God!” patients would gasp. Always it was about their personal experience of these few moments of ecstasy, but of course Ada was different than all those who had gone before her.

“Oh, my darling! If only you could see!” were her last words, spoken with surprising clarity, as her eyes pulled their focus from infinity to far closer. And then she smiled one last time and then she died and so did Mildred.

As the monitors showed their proof of Ada’s passing, so began the pounding on the blocked door to her room, a room that would no longer be hers, and a room that Millie, for her part, would also never see again. For she could never go back. After the loss of this woman who had been her mother and her daughter and her sister, she could never continue on in her previous life, the life of Mildred, nurse at the Verity Clinic. She removed her hand from Ada’s still warm hand and kissed her gently on the forehead, whispering, “Thank you for giving me the chance to feel this way about you.”

Millie walked resolutely to the door, removed the wedged-in chair. The clinic guard and the Chief Administrator spilled into the room. Millie thought that they were yelling at her and demanding an explanation, but she barely heard them. She walked out the door from Ada’s room, down the hallway, and right out the front entrance. Perhaps she had been followed by the yelling administrator and perhaps every staff member nearby stopped and gawked at the commotion, but Millie simply had no ability to care about any of that.

The Strength of Ada

Originally written on December 5, 2016 as part of the story Verity

Mildred looked up from her reading as the monitors started to make the soft pinging noises that indicated a wave of pain was about to overcome the patient. Ada had been sleeping quietly, but just as the monitors knew what was coming, so did her body. Her eyes opened gently, and she took a brief moment to gather her senses and realize where she was and why she had woken. And then it hit her.

The first wave was always the weakest, and yet so did it wrench a patient from their relative tranquility that most immediately cried out in pain. Ada merely gritted her teeth and closed her eyes again, though of course she would not be drifting back to sleep.

Already Mildred had rushed to her side and upped the pain killer dosage, for all the good it would do. She mopped her patient’s brow, held her hand until the contorted grip became too tight. Of course she knew how to handle this situation, but it was nonetheless terrible and heartbreaking to witness. This was her primary reason to be there: to be present with the patient during their worst suffering, so that they need not go through it alone, at the very least. If it truly helped or not it was hard to say, but it was something, and Mildred knew and believed deep in her heart that no one should have to bear such agony in solitude.

After a very long moment the pain subsided to a manageable level, and Ada’s muscles decontracted. It was however a very brief reprieve. The second wave passed through, more terrible by far than the first, and she tried again to grit her teeth and bear it. Most patients would now begin to sob and gnash their teeth and plead between labored breaths for relief in whatever form it might take. Ada did gasp, and did begin to whimper, as tears began to form in the corners of her eyes, but she did not cry out, she did not plead, she did not curse the world and everyone in it for her suffering.

An episode would often last nearly five minutes, wave after wave, which, according to reports in the aftermath, felt as though they lasted several hours longer than eternity itself. Midway through, the shrieks and wailing would typically be nearly deafening, though by the end the patient would have so exhausted themself that the force of their cries would be rather lessened, their throats ragged, their lungs clutching for air.

Ada reached the six minute mark, and still she made little more than a whimper and a thick, wet gurgle in her throat. Tears streamed freely down her face now, and her muscles contracted forcefully with each wave. Her face contorted, her back arched, she thrashed almost delicately in her bed. And then it was over.

She panted from exhaustion, sweat and tears drenching her body. Her grip relaxed and she sank lower into the bed. After many seconds had passed, she said in a near whisper: “I think I’ll sleep now.” And sleep she did, and for many, many hours.

Mildred observed her carefully for many minutes, wary of any aftershocks or other complications. She had been so focused on the physical manifestations of Ada’s episode that it was only now after it had ended that Mildred became aware of how unique the situation was. Never had she witnessed or even heard tell of a patient maintaining such a level of what, even under the circumstances, could only be called composure. Beyond that, the six-and-a-half minute long episode was far beyond the norm. Not unheard of, but definitely rare. She really didn’t know what to make of it, but it was consistent with her initial intuition that this was no ordinary patient.