Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Fiction: Aerial Angel

When Miriam left him, she said, “You know what your problem is, Roger? You’ll never change.” And she was right. After she left, Roger pretended the holes where she and her things had been weren’t even there. He didn’t rearrange the furniture, or take down any of the pictures on the walls, or consider eventually meeting someone new. In time, those holes filled in with the routines and dust of day-to-day life. Every day was pretty much like the one before it and that was just fine with him. Last he heard, Miriam was going by “Mimi,” had dyed her hair red and was working for some new cable station as a call in psychic advisor. Change was too hard to be bothered with, especially if it led to things like psychics.

Roger lived in the house they had bought just before their marriage, some thirty odd years ago. They had bought a new house, in a new development, because that way there was nothing unexpected. No secrets in closets could surprise him here, since all of the closets had only held his own belongings. In the intervening years their furniture became a little outdated, but it still served its purpose well enough. The neighborhood changed some, became more crowded and the local kids all moved away, starting families of their own, but inside his house, Roger knew he was ruler of the same realm he had first created so long ago.

When Miriam insisted they buy a dishwasher he held his tongue, thinking it would make her happy, although he was sure the dishwasher wasn’t as good as washing by hand as his mother had. When the old refrigerator finally groaned its last he replaced it, but only because he had too. The new color television had taken some getting used to, but Roger did have to admit, the picture was sharper, cleaner, even if it was new-fangled. He put his foot down when she tried to sell his old car, and couldn’t look at her for a week when she permed her hair. When Miriam took cooking lessons and tried to feed him something unfamiliar he was sick for days. She should have known better! So it really was for the best when she left, piling her new clothes and music and self into a car only a few years behind the current model. He watched her drive away with regret almost like relief.

He signed the papers from the lawyers without reading them, watching the ink flow from his pen the same way it had since he was 18 and received it as a graduation gift. Change hurt too much to think about so he let the world rush by as best he could.

In a surprisingly short time, Roger had settled into his new, alone life. Everyday he rose, had the same cereal for breakfast and left for his job in the city. He worked in one of the big office buildings downtown where he had held the same job since he joined the firm. For the first few years, his boss told him he could go far if he only applied himself. After a few more years the boss stopped urging him to move along and Roger grew accustomed to seeing younger men promoted ahead of him. It didn’t matter; his salary was fine and he was comfortable right where he was.

After a full day at the office, Roger would drive home, stopping off at the grocery store to pick up a frozen meal. As he drove through the winding suburban streets he’d look over the rooftops to see the aerial on top of his house waving at him. Most of his neighbors had long ago gotten cable, but he liked being able to fix any reception problems himself. He didn’t need all those channels anyway; they were only full of psychics and other frauds. He’d park in the driveway, right over the familiar oil stain from the leak in his car, go inside and relax in front of his television, watching whatever the networks offered him that evening. Television filled his mind up, so he needn’t hear how quiet things were now. In his secret heart, Roger was surprised by how much he missed Miriam, but he carefully didn’t pay attention to himself when he felt lonely or sad. Externally, he congratulated himself on how well he had adapted and swore he would never have to make these kinds of changes again.

So life went on. He rebuilt carefully and created as much monotony and safety as any one man could desire.

One evening, after dinner (Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes) the television picture (a game show) dissolved into static. Roger banged the TV a few times then swore. The damned aerial must have been knocked loose by the wind, although the night had seemed calm when he came home. He pulled on his jacket, dragged the ladder from the garage and climbed to the roof. At first glance there seemed to be old rags blown into the delicate wire antenna. At second glance, Roger realized the rags were an angel. The wings, the radiance, the otherworldly beauty- it could be nothing else. He stood on the roof for what seemed to be a very long time. He looked at the rooftops of his neighbor’s homes and saw the lights of the city surrounding him. He saw the cloudy night above him and felt, for the first time in a long while, how very vulnerable one man alone can be. With a sigh, Roger began to untangle the angel’s wings, feather by feather, and then carefully carried it into the house. It scarcely weighed as much as a child.

The angel settled into the couch without once opening its eyes. Even battered and bruised, its loveliness was painful to look at. Its body seemed very strong but without the clearly defined muscles common to men. It had no nipples or genitals. It smelled faintly of summer mornings and woodland breezes. Roger turned away, his eyes full of tears. He filled a glass with water and left it within easy reach. He did not turn around as he walked up the stairs to his bedroom.

In the morning, his first thought was that it must have been a dream. If it had been a dream, however, then the house would not smell of his childhood, like green grass and his mother’s pancakes. It if had been a dream, he would not be in his clothing instead of his pajamas. If it had been a dream... Roger rose and went downstairs as quickly as a cautious man can.

The angel was still there, now awake and looking at him. It smiled a little and the room seemed full of light. It was clearly too weak to rise. Roger said, “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.” It relaxed and leaned back, its wings rustling.

Roger hurried around the house, getting himself ready for work. He carefully ignored his guest, unsure of what the etiquette would be. As he walked out, he turned back to it. Its eyes met his and he couldn’t tell what color they were. “I have to go to work now. I’ll be back later.”

That day seemed to pass as if in a mist. Roger found himself thinking over and over
Angels can’t be real! Yet there’s one in my living room. Who could I tell about such a thing? He thought to call Miriam, but was afraid she would laugh, or worse, come over and steal it away from him to use on her show. He told no one.

When he stopped off at the store, Roger bought his usual frozen dinner, and then stopped still in the middle of the market. What do angels eat? What aisle might nectar and starlight be in? He walked through the aisles, throwing candy and angel food cake and honey into his cart. By the deli counter he saw a jello salad, similar to the one Miriam used to make with marshmallows, called ‘ambrosia.’ He bought three pounds of it then rushed to the check out and home.

He set all of his purchases on a TV tray in front of the couch where he usually sat while he ate. The angel looked at the offerings and then spoke. Its voice was like a thousand bells, like the rush of wind in trees, like the sigh of a lover’s breath. “Thank you, but I need none of that. Please, may I have more water?” It struggled to sit up, and drank deeply, glass gleaming between its fingers. When it was done, it calmly looked at him saying nothing else.

Roger looked everywhere but at the angel. He looked around the room he had known for the last thirty years. He expected to be dismayed by the dust and neglect with a visitor such as this, but instead found himself noticing a new gleam to things. The rug seemed not quite as worn. The stain where he had spilled the red wine years ago when he and Miriam were young was gone. The tangle of wires behind the television was sorted- red wires, black, green, all lying neatly side by side.

“Did you do this?”

The angel looked down and a slight pink touched its cheeks.

“No, I did not. But things often arrange themselves to please us. My kind. I thought you might find some order comforting.”

Roger felt puzzled, at once pleased that the angel had noticed him at all, while also distressed that someone had disarrayed his familiar chaos.

“Well, thank you. But you really don’t have to do anything like that. I mean, you’re hurt and should just rest. Get better.”

The room fell silent again.

“You have done me a great service, you know. Many are not so generous to my kind. Most disbelieve and refuse to see, others hurt what they cannot understand. Many would have simply left me there to turn into sand and wind and rags caught by wire. When I am well, I hope you will let me perform a service in thanks to you.”

Roger was startled, then replied, “Thank you, but, I don’t need anything to change. I have my house, my car, my job.” Silence, thick between them. Roger found his eyes wandering away from the angel and toward the television. “Would you mind if I watch the news? I like to see what happened out there while I was at work.”

The angel shifted slightly and room opened on the sofa. Roger’s spot, soft and shaped like him, welcoming. His dinner heated in the microwave-did it take less time than usual? They turned the television on and watched the news. The picture was crystal clear.

As the television told its usual stories of crime and fear and death, Roger became aware of the angel beside him. It seemed very pale and cringed with each mention of a new atrocity. Roger was so accustomed to the painful stories that he had forgotten how terrible the news could be. “I’m sorry. I’ll turn it off.” The angel was visibly relieved.

Within a few minutes Roger went upstairs, calling “Goodnight” behind him. In his bedroom, he realized he hadn’t gone to bed this early in years. He sat in the darkened room, heard his shoes clunk to the floor and wept for the first time since Miriam left. He could hear nothing from downstairs and fell asleep clothed, again.

When he woke Roger felt the first twinge of resentment. What right had this celestial visitor to invade? It had fallen into his life without invitation. Angels were supposed to stay up there, or bring fleeting visions, not sit in the living room and fill the house with the scent of memory. Even as he stewed, Roger knew this train of thought was getting him nowhere – he wouldn’t ask the angel to leave. He got up and began his day. The razor in the bathroom seemed keener than usual. The hot water didn’t run out. He finished washing and left for work without glancing into the living room to see if the angel was still there.

After work and the market he sat in his car in the driveway before going into the house. All around him he heard the sounds of the neighborhood, muted through the windows of the car. Children laughing, their parents calling them in for supper. The rumble of cars passing by. The silence of early evening in the suburbs.

The angel was standing in the living room, flexing its wings. Roger watched it, thinking he was unnoticed. The living room was pristine. Through the archway he could see the kitchen gleaming. Miriam had only cleaned like that when Roger’s mother was coming to visit. The angel turned to him, and smiled welcoming him home.

Roger set down his briefcase, and took off his coat. “How are you feeling?”

“Oh, much better, thank you. I have almost returned to myself.” Again, silence.

“Man, may I ask you a question?”

Silence. “Yes.”

“How do humans continue from day to day without radiance? When angels are in our rightful place we are bathed with the light of the-One-who-creates-and-commands-us. We live to do the One’s bidding, and find all of our work to be joyful for our devotion. While I am young for my kind, many of the humans I have seen do not seem to possess any light in their souls. The-One-who-dreams-and-finds-us-in-Its-memory made humans with the intent of light, but so many of you seemed to misplace it. What happened?”

The angel looked at Roger. Its colorless eyes didn’t blink. Roger looked back and in an instant knew what it was to fly above the sky and to be full of laughter not needing to utter a sound. He understood what it was to have the world arrange itself for him, and not be full of clutter, dust, memories. He knew what it was to be born fresh each day with no regrets. He looked away.

“I, I don’t know. Humans are full of dreams and desires. We are not content creatures, as you are. Some of us keep striving for light, enlightenment, whatever. Some of us try to be content with what we have.”
And some of us find it far safer  to not have to think about these things. To not be disturbed, changed. I hate having this creature here.

The angel looked away. “I will be well enough to leave in the morning. Please, consider what service or gift I might give you in gratitude. You have saved my life, Man.”

Roger heated his dinner in the microwave and tried to watch television with the angel. It seemed puzzled by sitcoms and distressed by advertisements. The only programs it had any patience with were nature programs on public television. It cried out with joy at the marvels of creation, explaining, “Angels mostly concern ourselves with the One-who-laughs-light-into-stars and with humans. The-One-who-has-breathed-into-all does not trouble Itself with small creatures, finding more interest and amusement in watching you, and us, and dreaming of other things beyond our comprehension.”

Roger thought,
Its boss sounds worse than mine. Always there, but never useful. He went to bed not too much later. The sheets were crisp and clean, his bed neatly made, not the comfortable mess he’d left it. Roger dreamt of great expanses of sky and the falling feeling of flight. He dreamt of his youth and his dreams of Africa. He dreamt of the things he had forgotten he loved. He woke with a headache and sour stomach.

The angel was waiting for him when he came downstairs. Its wings were wide and bright, the feathers whiter than snow or the glare of morning. “I am well and will return to my realm today. Thank you for your kindness and home. Is there anything I might do to repay you? My kind has powers over time and material. Ask, and if it is permitted, it shall be yours.” The angel’s colorless eyes were wide and without guile. Roger thought. He could have Miriam back. But it would take work and changes to keep her, to not have her leave all over again. He could have his youthful dreams back, but he was too old and tired now to know what to do with them. He could have money, or power, but those things would only bring confusion and turbulence with them. He looked around his home, saw the furniture, no longer shabby, and heard the furnace quietly heat itself up. He felt a great grief well up inside of him, as he saw how little he had used his life, and then he felt a great rage at this creature who had forced him to see all of these things. He had been happier before he had known. If this angel had not fallen into his life Roger wouldn’t now feel so inadequate, so old. And then he knew what it was he wanted, a way to insure this chaos couldn’t catch his life again.

He opened his eyes, and looked at the angel, glorious in front of him. The angel became more luminous, and leaned forward slightly. Its wings created the slightest of breezes that barely disturbed the drapes. The scent of fresh papaya and new rain grew larger. “Yes?”

“There is one thing you can give me, to repay me for what I have done for you.

“Take down the aerial. I want cable TV.”

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why I don't wear a watch

Time is a tricky thing. For instance, all month I've been thinking I need to blog something. I'll do it later when I have the time. And look! it's the end of the month. The time slipped away. It's a marvel to me that we're mid-way through 2010. Heck, I'm still surprised it's not 1997.

Many people, far wiser than I, have thought and written about time. Do a search for "anthropology of time" and you're find some amazing stuff (as of today Google gives you almost 45 million results). I love thinking about it, but am by no means an expert. Most of us aren't. Humans have been considering the nature of time, well, ever since we started codifying it so it's no wonder we haven't come to any real conclusions.

Consider the Greek concepts of chronos and kairos.

Chronos (beyond being the father of the gods and the personification of time) represents sequential time. This happens, then that happens, then the other happens. My alarm goes off. I struggle out of bed. I prepare for work. It can be quite magical, how chronos time stretches and contracts and can contain the wondrous and mundane, but it's always quantifiable - you know the sequence of events and have some general understanding of causality. You can measure it. We live in chronos most of the time.

Kairos is different. Kairos is suspended time, the moments in between when only the wonder is allowed. It is the opportune moment, when you say the right thing or complete the right action. To the ancient Greeks, Kairos was the god of the fleeting moment. You had the opportunity to seize him, but only that - the opportunity. It was not a given you would notice or succeed. Other theologies see kairos as the moments when God is present and acts. The burning bush was a moment in kairos (I'm betting Moses wasn't checking his watch). I think kairos is closely related to being in a state of flow, that suspended time when things come easily. Kairos is where we wish we could live all the time, but can't. This makes it all the more precious.

I know we can't escape chronos. No one can, so I try to work with it, understand it, pace myself. But I don't have to be beholden to it. When I was somewhere around 15 I decided I didn't want to wear a watch anymore, that I didn't want to be bound to such a rigid construction of time. I was interested in how time expanded and contracted, I wondered if it would seem to flow more smoothly if I wasn't arbitrarily measuring it all the time. So I stopped wearing a watch. This had some unexpected consequences that are still true today, many (many!) years later.
  • I don't often get bored. I tend to be in the moment and don't worry how long something may take. Usually.
  • I think this is where I started to talk with strangers, since I have to ask them for the time when I need to know.
  • I have a pretty accurate sense of time. If I fix the time in the morning (I know I leave the house at 8am, for example) then I can usually guess the time to within 10 minutes throughout the day.
  • I am generally patient about time-matters.
Interesting, isn't it? Now, some of these could be facets of my personality, but I think some of it is because I have chosen to be less bound by chronos and more open to kairos. Again, this isn't to say chronos is bad - I love the unfolding of life, the revealing pace of its narrative - but those moments when the world holds its breath are something we can look for and promote. By living with the expectation that we will have those moments of extraordinary suspended time, those fleeting moments of possibility, we are more likely to see and seize them. The yellow bird streaking across the yard. Your child chasing a leaf. The dust motes suspended in the air. Your lover's breath.

Next time you have a chance - some weekend day - try taking your watch off. Go outside and watch the light change. Enjoy the pace of a film without worrying when it will end. Live in the moment. Take the time - nothing is freer or more precious.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On migraines, medication and the upside of dark

I get migraines. Those of you who get them can skip this paragraph, the rest of you can read on for just a few more sentences. Migraines are a specific kind of headache that can be pretty debilitating. This isn't to say a tension headache isn't painful, but migraines can come with other sensory disturbances (this image reminds me of how the world looks during a bad headache), nausea, vomiting, etc. It can be pretty bad. There are certainly worse things, but on the whole, migraines suck. You can read what the Mayo Clinic has to say about them here.

I used to go through phases where I would get several migraines a week of varying intensity. I was generally able to work, but when I was in the midst of a bad headache I would be pretty much incapacitated - all I could do was lie in a dark room with a cold cloth on my face. If it happened when I was away from home I was pretty much screwed; I couldn't drive, I could sometimes barely walk. I was eventually referred to a neurologist who specialized in headaches and he changed my life. He put me on a medication called Topamax that decreased the frequency and intensity of my headaches; he also gave me an effective anti-migraine drug, Zomig, for use when I had a headache. I began to feel human again.

So why am I writing this, if I've been a migraineur for years and they are now largely under control? I've been thinking about the balancing act between medication and side-effects. It's tricky.

Let's start with Topamax. Before I started taking it I had multiple migraines of varying intensity every week. I could manage most with Excedrin, sunglasses and a baseball cap, but I looked like an idiot at work and warn't functioning well. Topamax meant that I stopped having so many headaches and most were minimal. But (there's always a but) Topamax has several potential side effects, one of which hit me hard. It can cause word loss. You know how every once in awhile you'll stumble while speaking and not come up with the right word? That happened to me all the time. And think about it. I'm a storyteller. Language is one of the loves of my life. This was a problem. Was it worth the trade off?

For awhile it was, the word gaps weren't so bad. Eventually though, I found I wasn't as sharp as I used to be, not as quick. So I began weaning myself down to a lower dose under guidelines from my neurologist. I'm now down to a low enough dose that I feel like myself again - I can make puns, I have a fuller vocabulary - but I'm getting more headaches. Is it worth it?

The easy answer is yes, all I have to do is a take a dose of Zomig. But it's not so easy. Zomig, if taken early enough, will stop the headache. But it often leaves me feeling cloudy for hours afterwards. Kind of like being hung-over but without the sticky mouth and headache. Is that worth it for no-headache?

I love being present in the world, aware of the colors, smells, sounds around me. But living with migraines and medication means I need to live in shadow sometimes. Bright lights, noises, fatigue, stuffiness, all of these can give me headaches. So a tendency towards migraines combined with a dislike of the medication side-effects has forced me to slow down, consider the shadows, look for beauty in the dim and, when I do take the meds and feel cloudy, accept that sometimes I need to move through the world as a different person. I'm trying to think of it as the judicious alternative to feeling slow and other-than-myself all the time. Another one of those unexpected gifts of the universe.

It's better than a kick in the head, anyway.

(c)2010 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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