My time in the desert is continuing to work its exciting, uncomfortable, and transformative wonder. I am beginning to recover from several bouts of illness and depression that are, I think, essential components of a “desert experience.” The existential questions I have been considering have boiled down to: I know I am a writer and will continue to write, but what shall I write? I have written poetry and short essays most of my writing life. My popular Tao books are primarily poetry. My blog work is short essay form. On which should I concentrate? Both?
Or … the answer comes to me, “neither.” I think I may be finished with both of these forms, at least as a primary focus. Several years ago I wrote and self-published a short novel, Tales of the Happy Frog. It has sold in the tens of copies. It was an experiment that grew out of a weekly journal column and there was no real way to market it. Despite the dismal sales it was the most enjoyable writing I’ve ever done. It was difficult, a real stretch for a poet, but it was fun! Since “fun” is written large on the to-do list of my life, I have decided to put all my efforts into a new series of novels that have been languishing for three years, all growing out of the characters of that first one.
I want to keep in touch with everyone so I will be using this blog to let you peek into the fiction writing process; how it flows and doesn’t flow, how ideas come from the stuff of our culture and life and from our common hopes and dreams. I will share descriptions and dialogues from my work – with no particular connection to an emerging story, simply thoughts and words that strike me as interesting. The overarching theme of “Freedom, Simplicity, and Joy” will inform my novels and I will be seeking to give a form and structure to these sometimes overly philosophical ideals.
Below is a short dialogue from my current work. It will appear somewhere in a novel soon, I hope:
“So, you’re having a nervous breakdown,” Ken Woods intoned, “Figures. You’re about due for one.”
Carole Evans slapped Ken’s shoulder with exasperation, “Be serious, idiot!” she warned, “Robert is worried.”
“I am serious,” Ken rejoined, “anyone who’s not coming apart right now simply doesn’t understand the situation. I think intelligent people are going to suffer more and more disorientation and decompensation. It’s the only healthy response to an insane world.”
Ken was a well-liked professor of psychology, affectionately known as the Campus Curmudgeon. He was a vocal social critic and activist whose energy had lately been spread thin in an attempt to understand and respond to the multitudinous outbreaks of outrage among students, faculty, and community. His remarks did not disconcert Robert. He felt Ken was taking his fears thoughtfully and replying from that thoughtfulness.
He continued, “Robert, don’t be afraid of such experiences. The human mind is capable of a much deeper and broader perception of reality than the one we’ve been conditioned to accept as the only perception.”
“Watch out,” Carole interjected, “he’s about to suggest his Magic Mushroom therapy.”
Ken turned to Carole with a flash of anger, “Carole, do you really think I am a druggie, a tuned-in burned-out hippie? Do you think I would suggest anything harmful to anyone?”
Carole was the Head of the English Department and had the reputation of being no-nonsense. She flashed back at Kenny, “I don’t think that, Ken. I just think Robert is vulnerable right now and doesn’t need any radical suggestions.”
“Have I made any radical suggestions?” Ken raised his voice, “Well, have I?”
“Ken, Carole,” Robert cut in, “Let’s not argue over my pathology or treatment plan. I don’t need fixing. I just need my friends to be my friends.”
Carole leaned back and smiled, “I’m sorry, Robert. Of course that’s all you need.” She turned to Ken reaching over to pat his arm affectionately, “I know you are not suggesting anything. I just sometimes get caught up in your Old Hippie persona and forget that you really are a dear, intelligent, and compassionate man.”
“Humph!” Ken snorted, but with a smile at the corner of his mouth. Then he turned to the young waiter who was passing by and waved his glass, “Dave, another round for my friends and me. Robert is paying.”
Did I really need another pint of the sumptuous Amber Ale? ” Robert thought. “Sure I do!”
“I’m not an aging hippie like Ken,” Robert said, “so I can’t rely on the flashback theory to explain what’s been happening. I’m honestly worried that something physical is misfiring in my brain.”
“You thinking of seeing a neurologist?” Carole asked.
Robert sighed, “I’ve considered it, but I also have the feeling that all these episodes are portending something important. Maybe a brain tumor, but … I have the strangest sensation of calm during the actual episode itself, as if the altered perceptions and hallucinations are benign, even important.”
Ken looked at him with an intent expression, examining his face as if he were making a diagnosis. He leaned back and continued to study him. Robert began to feel a bit awkward. Then Ken leaned forward and said, “These experiences are real, Robert. Take them seriously and find out what they are telling you.”
Carole started to protest, then sat back in silence. The corner of her mouth turned up in a wry half-smile and she shrugged her shoulders in a, “Why not?” gesture.
“I do take them seriously,” Robert said, then reflected for a moment and asked, “What do you mean by ‘take them seriously?’”
“I know you take them seriously in that you are worried about them,” Ken said, holding Robert’s eyes with his hawk-like gaze, “But there is a deeper level of seriousness you need to explore. What if there is nothing at all ‘wrong’ with your mind? What if you are experiencing a long-neglected function of your brain that is wired into the most fundamental essence of who you are as a human being?”
Something in Robert’s chest constricted at hearing Ken’s words. An undefined emotion tried to emerge but couldn’t work its way past his mind, which quickly responded with, “What if I’m just losing my mind? What if I’m actually teetering on the brink of insanity?”
Carole started to say something, but Ken kept pressing his point, “What you are describing is not insanity. Your ‘visions’ – to use the correct word …”
Carole again tried to interrupt.
“… Yes, Carole, I use the word ‘vision’ deliberately,” Ken continued. “In a society that is sorely lacking in ‘visionaries,’ older definitions of the word will become increasingly important. Robert is having ‘visions,’ not hallucinations.”
Carole finally interjected in a skeptical argumentative tone, “How do you know they’re visions, Ken?”
“I do know!” Ken answered in a gruff tone, “I do know the difference, Carole. Believe me on this. This is my field. I’ve spent my life exploring the boundaries between so-called ’sanity’ and so-called ‘insanity.’ I’ve studied and experienced both visions and hallucinations and I know the fundamental differences. Human beings have come to dismiss any experience that dares to venture outside of a culturally defined normality and are thus in danger of destroying the very essence of their humanity.”
He took a deep breath and turned back to Robert, “Robert here is a fundamentally healthy and sane man. His experiences are visions, the product of a creative mind reaching for something deeper and more human than it has been allowed heretofore.”
The constriction in Robert’s chest once again appeared. This time he could not interrupt it before it made its way up through his throat to his eyes. Tears began to form and a small sob formed in his chest. He swallowed and turned his eyes toward the flat screen on the wall that was flashing continuous images of athletes in action or some sort. He swallowed again, then felt Carole’s hand on his arm. He turned back to his friends and let the sobs begin to escape, quietly and somewhat under control, but escaping nonetheless.
“Are you frightened?” Carole asked.
“I suppose… a bit,” he said, “but Ken’s words about a deeper…” He choked up again and had to turn his eyes away. This welling up of emotion in the midst of conversation was unfamiliar to him. “… About a deeper experience of life somehow made me feel as if a long buried longing started to emerge. It is…” He waited until the small sobs subsided, “… as if his words touched the heart of my recent experiences.”
Ken and Carole were silent, creating a space in which Robert found some comfortable breathing room, an open place in his mind where there had before been only mixed and fearful thoughts.
I hope you will follow along as I live out the answers to my desert questions. I hope you like the novels when they appear. But mostly, I hope for us all, freedom, simplicity, and joy.