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Dreams

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When I was young, say up into my early 30s, I used to have dreams that I could remember when I awoke, though later in life I never had dreams, or at least never had dreams that I was capable of remembering on waking. I noticed a strange and interesting pattern in most of those dreams of mine. Usually in the dream I would find myself in some vast structure made up of many separate rooms. The structure would be enormous, seeming to go on forever. It would usually be some kind of huge building of an exotic architecture, with many floors, or a network of caves of apparently unlimited extent, or something similar. In the dream not much would happen. There was not a story or plot to it, but I would spend my time in the dream just wandering from one room to another or from one cave to another. Sometimes I would be in rooms filled with books. Rarely would I see any other people. Such a dream on its face might seem like a kind of metaphor for existential dread, but the feeling that I had within the dream was a kind of peaceful awe. I was content to be an explorer, just going on and on from one room to another.

As I say, later in life I stopped having these dreams, though I’ve read that supposedly all people dream while sleeping anyway, even if they can’t remember their dreams on waking. So maybe I’m still having those same dreams even now but I just don’t know it. I’d like to think that maybe late at night I’m still exploring, still wandering through those dream worlds, on and on indefinitely. There’s no reason why it should ever have to come to an end.

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The psychic

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[1984]: I met JoEllen at Help Line. She was another of the volunteers there. I didn’t know her very well but she seemed likable enough. She was in her 50s, a genial and gentle person with a direct, penetrating gaze. She was unpretentious and had a whimsical sense of humor. She also had a reputation as a psychic. She herself didn’t make a big deal out of her supposed psychic ability, and in fact very rarely mentioned it, but other people at Help Line believed that she had such ability. Actually no one else made a very big deal out of it either, everyone acted like it was just one of the things that was characteristic of her, one of many characteristics a person might have, like being a good golfer or having great taste in clothes.

Every once in a while, sometimes at a Help Line party, JoEllen would agree to do psychic readings for whoever wanted one. At such times she would dress up in a gypsy sort of costume, but the costume was intended in a whimsical spirit and she didn’t really take herself all that seriously as a real fortune-teller. At one of these events, a Help Line party at the home of one of the volunteers, I had JoEllen do a psychic reading for me. I think it must have been at the suggestion of one of my Help Line friends, as I’m sure I was too shy to initiate it myself.

While everyone else was partying elsewhere in the house JoEllen was in a back room sitting on a cushion. She was dressed in some kind of robe and had her hair tied up in a red scarf, and had many copper and silver bracelets all over both forearms that made tinkling sounds when she moved. She invited me to sit on a cushion in front of her. She was relaxed and confident, as if sitting on that cushion in that room was the most natural place in all the world for her to be and she had all the time in the world to just sit there. She sat quietly in front of me with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed for what seemed a long time, though it was probably only a couple of minutes. Her face assumed an expression of thoughtful concentration. Then she spoke.

“You are very unusual,” she said. She paused, seeming to search for the best way to formulate her thoughts. “What I am sensing is an unusual spirit, the spirit of a person whose heart is committed to a higher world, a person who has the soul of a monk or a priest.” She paused again, apparently in great concentration and searching for the right words. “But a monk or a priest who is not afraid of getting messy and who has decided, for whatever reason, to live an un-monklike and un-priestlike life among ordinary people.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this. JoEllen didn’t really know me very well, and yet there was something about what she said that struck a very deep chord in me and gave me an uncanny feeling of recognition. Was it because I wanted to be the kind of person she described? Or was it because I was afraid of being such a person? I wasn’t sure.

Help Line

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[1982-1984]: Looking back on this experience so many years later it seems an odd and uncharacteristically bold thing that I did, to join this telephone crisis counseling service, Help Line, as a volunteer. At the time I just felt the need to take on a challenge of some sort, because I was tired of my usual routine and felt “stuck,” needing to change my life somehow, and I also hoped that by taking on something challenging I might learn more about myself.

So I plunged rather recklessly, as it seems to me now, into this new adventure. It did in fact turn out to be a significant learning experience. I learned something about principles of good communication, and I learned how terribly vulnerable people can be, and that people’s true inner lives are generally very different from their public personalities. Help Line changed my way of looking at people. Up until then I’d never really thought about what people are like underneath their outward appearances, but after getting so many calls from people pouring out all of their secret sorrows and fears, people suffering and often deeply in conflict with themselves, I came to have a greater intuitive feeling for what human nature was, for the great complexity and difficulty of the inner conflicts that almost all of us carry around with us.

When I was on my shift in the phone room I felt I was part of a huge web, composed of the invisible inner lives of all the people in the city, people confused and not knowing what to do about themselves. What must drive a person to call up a total stranger on the phone and talk about his or her personal problems? Even though just a very small percentage of the population of the city actually called us I had the feeling that they must be representative of the general population. I wondered if maybe there was really no one who was well and happy after all, but that all were secretly suffering in some way or other. We were all in it together, whether friend or stranger, talking, listening, needing help, trying to help.

Many of the calls were low-urgency, being mainly requests for information,and many more calls were from people who were troubled by relationship and communication issues such as problems with a spouse, partner, child, parent, or sibling, and who were looking for someone to talk it out with. On such calls I tried to take a (hopefully) common-sense approach and try to help the caller see his or her situation more clearly, to bring them back down to reality and try to get them to focus on what was really going on. As a volunteer one had to resist the temptation to be overly directive and try to “fix” the caller’s problem. Only a very few of the calls were of a crisis nature and those could be challenging, such as the fellow who called, drunk and upset, and said he had just found out that his wife had been having an affair with a friend of his. He said he had a gun and was planning to kill them both. Fortunately I was able to talk him down from this and let him see for himself that this was not a good idea.

I only did Help Line for three years, as it eventually did start to become too routine and a little wearisome to me. But they were good years, years of personal expansion and learning for me. I helped some people and I made many friends among the other volunteers. I learned that I was not as neurotic and screwed-up as I thought I had been, that I was, though somewhat troubled and awkward, basically okay, as was everyone. And that everyone was essentially incomplete and searching, sometimes desperately, for the missing parts of themselves. I felt more connected to other people. I came to have a lot of respect, even a reverence, for people’s vulnerable souls.

To enter the dark marriage

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[1982-1983]: I was living in Pensacola, working as a programmer and still feeling aimless and disconnected from other people, as I had in fact all my life. I had been seeing a counselor at the University of West Florida, a gracious and kind young woman named Susan who had a wisdom far beyond her years. One of the things she told me in the course of my many sessions with her was about the importance of being open to trying different things in my life, so that I could find out for myself which things worked out well for me and which things didn’t. She said it was important to keep the spirit of experimentation alive in one’s life so as to avoid getting stuck in a stagnant life. This meant being unafraid to meet new people and to have new experiences, even if you have to push yourself a little bit outside of your comfort zone (actually I never really had a comfort zone, so for me to push myself to do something that made me feel a little uncomfortable was not much of a stretch). In other words it’s unwise to try to stick to playing a safe game all the time. This advice rang true for me, and I took it to heart. One of the things I decided to try, which seemed quite bold to me at the time, was to volunteer at a local community mental health center as a volunteer telephone crisis counselor. I thought it might be an interesting learning experience. I took the training class and then I started doing it, taking the calls, and it turned out to be a fascinating, though sometimes challenging, experience. I learned a great deal about human communication in the course of doing this volunteer work and I developed some great friendships with my fellow phone counselors. The volunteer group even became like a family to me.

Eventually I had enough experience in phone counseling that I was asked if I’d like to lead a training group of new volunteers. I did, and one of the people in my first training group was Diana, a divorced mother of three kids who worked as a data-entry clerk at the Navy base. She was clearly very smart and talented, with an engaging wit and a charming smile, and I thought she liked me. After the end of the group training I called her and we went out on a date.

Over the course of a few dates I became increasingly impressed with Diana’s brilliance and creativity. We always had interesting things to talk about. It seemed sad to me that she had been relegated to such a stupid job as a data-entry clerk, just entering numbers into a computer screen all day every day, when she obviously had a great deal of intellectual and creative potential.

Whenever we were together our conversation seemed to take on a life of its own, drawing both of us into it, with an energy and momentum that carried us along. It was a close and engaging rapport such as I’d never experienced with anyone before. Diana did mention at one point that she used to be under the care of a psychiatrist, when she was going through a period of great stress after her previous husband had left her for another woman. I wasn’t at all put off by this revelation, in fact I felt an increased admiration for her because she had been through some difficult life challenges and had overcome them. After all, I too had suffered a great deal of emotional difficulty in my younger life so I felt that I could relate to her troubles. We were two kindred spirits, two people who had been through a lot of emotional crap and had (mostly, I thought) overcome it.

So we became a couple. In the course of our dating though I started to notice a few things about Diana. She was mostly very positive in her outlook and in her emotional demeanor, but every once in a while she had attacks of acute anxiety and depression. Sometimes she became very upset about her job, sometimes she was upset about her kids, but sometimes she was upset for no reason that I could see. It was also clear that she still had a lot of emotional distress about trauma from her past, especially her two ex-husbands who had both dumped her, and about the death of her father.

I loved Diana but I felt frustrated and helpless at these times when she was in such emotional difficulty, and of course I wanted to help. Unfortunately I was at a loss as to what I could do to help her. In my naïve and idealistic romantic way I hoped that my presence in her life would be an emotionally stabilizing and positive influence, and that in time she would learn to relax and enjoy her life. After all she was obviously very intelligent and so it must become clear to her eventually that there was really nothing to be upset about, right? So I thought. I thought the natural way of things was for us to inevitably become closer and to be joined by a bond of understanding, and that certainly took a certain amount of time to develop so I had to be patient. Sometimes Diana’s responses really puzzled me though, such as the times when she became fearful because I had expressed a liking for a book or a movie or a work of art that she didn’t like or didn’t understand. Her anxiety response seemed out of proportion to the thing she was anxious about.

As things went on, there were a few times when I would find Diana sunk into such profound despair that it actually scared me. At these times she would sometimes blame her depression and anxiety on her job, which was tedious and stupid for sure but then most people probably work at tedious and stupid jobs, don’t they? So it seemed to me. Sometimes, and with increasing frequency, she blamed, with a great deal of accompanying rage, these deep dark moods on her kids. I found this to be especially disturbing because I thought this blaming of the kids was completely undeserved, and furthermore no mother should have such hostility toward her own kids.

But Diana could also be charming, warm, witty, and full of enthusiasm. Everyone who met her liked her. I was probably the only one other than the children who knew of the other aspect of her personality, the strange dark depths of her. All along I kept expecting that she must eventually come to a point where should would be able to relax and just enjoy her life. But her “episodes” continued. We had agreed to marry but I was developing some misgivings about it. I felt a great sense of responsibility and commitment to my fiance. I couldn’t abandon her. Yet I had the growing feeling that I might very well be heading into a very difficult, and maybe even disastrous, situation. I was committed and felt that it wasn’t possible for me to change the path I was on. I was like a train on a track heading toward something that might or might not turn out to be a wreck, but there was no turning back.

A few days before we were to be married, feeling great anxiety about the coming marriage and in need of some kind of reassurance, I called a woman a knew named Leah, a friend (in whom I had no romantic interest) and fellow volunteer from the crisis counseling service. I asked her if she would take a walk with me. It was early spring and the weather was clear, cool and very windy. We met in downtown Pensacola and walked down South Palafox Street down to the pier that goes out over Pensacola Bay. I can’t remember now what Leah and I talked about but I think it was probably nothing of any great importance. I was very anxious about my relationship with my fiance and the upcoming marriage but I don’t think I talked about that. I think I just made small talk. What I remember most was a beautiful day of brilliant sunshine, and the winds whipping up whitecaps in the bay as we walked, and pelicans hovering in the wind over the pier, and that for a little while I was in the presence of someone who simply cared about me and respected me. That was all. Nothing big and deep, it was just a matter of being with a good person who allowed me to be myself. But just to be in the presence of such a friend was an enormous comfort to me. I never forgot it, after the marriage to Diana and the terrible divorce that followed, and even after all the subsequent bad relationships and painful breakups, so very many sad experiences, all down through the years. It’s strange how some very small and apparently insignificant act of caring can stand out large in one’s memory after so long a time. After all the years of sorrow I would still remember that brief walk in the sun and the wind.

Women and men and me

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From early in my life I thought there was something very strange and perplexing about male attitudes toward women. I found this troubling. Even as a young kid in my teens I noticed, in hanging out with my male peers, that much of their talk was about ridiculing girls and putting them down. Why was that? Among all these young guys there was certainly a great deal of talk about sex, accompanied by all the absurd bravado typical of teenage males. At that age all of my male friends were certainly naïve about sex but they tried very hard to act like they weren’t, and almost all of their sex talk was combined with disturbingly contemptuous dismissals of all of the girls they knew. I wanted to understand what was going on. I felt like a social outcast and I was trying hard to learn to fit in with my peers and to be a normal person, but I felt confused and out of touch, as if I were a stranger in a foreign culture I had little understanding of. The social world I was trying to fit into was bizarrely paradoxical. I could see that my male friends desired women, but at the same time they despised them. That made no sense.

In the interests of trying to fit in I made a few half-hearted attempts to join in the male sexual banter, so generally contemptuous of women, that I heard going on around me, but it didn’t feel right to me. I felt very much an oddball, clunky and out of sync with the male culture but also, in time, with the whole American culture that seemed so often to foster inhumane attitudes. It seemed that a great deal of what passed for normal social behavior just consisted of various ways of putting other people down and of aggrandizing oneself.

Later in life I encountered a lot of casual sexism in many of the places I worked, such as when I was a sailor in the Navy, certainly, and later as a civilian in workplaces that were predominantly male. Eventually I realized these behaviors were the natural result of male sexual insecurity and its accompanying labyrinthine psychological complex of interrelated fears and resentments. There is a great sadness at the heart of it, the sadness of alienation. I definitely had such insecurities myself but I just couldn’t bring myself to join in with contemptuous treatment of other people, whatever their gender. So I resigned myself to always being something of an odd person. Looking back on my experience I regret now that I never had the courage to confront the sexist rhetoric (and other expressions of bigotry) when I encountered it among my peers.

And I still feel, as I have all my life, that a large part of what’s commonly accepted as “normal” human behavior makes no sense and is not only inhumane but also ultimately self-defeating. For some reason it’s always been my nature to be a kind of social outlier, standing a little bit outside of the normal world of people, looking in and trying to figure out what the hell is going on in there, and why it is that people do the things they do.

In transit

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[1974]: I was a new crew member on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, heading across the Atlantic Ocean. Young, naive and ridden with chronic anxiety. So anxiety-ridden in fact that I was unsure if I would even be up to the challenge of living my own life. Cut loose from all that was familiar and dumped into a new and strange life for which I was utterly unprepared and unsuited. Living and working with strange and often callous people, people I did not understand, in difficult, stressful and frustrating conditions.

But some nights when we were at sea I would wait until it was late and there were very few people about, and go up to the flight deck and stand on a catwalk overlooking the ocean, and watch the moon over the water. It seemed to be flying across the darkness, with its glittering reflection that looked like fire racing across the water’s surface underneath it. I heard the hissing, rushing sound of the ship’s wake and knew that I and the ship were racing along with the moon. We were flying. We were all flying through the night into a dark future.

The pleasure of being lost

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During the time I was in the Navy I went on two six-month Mediterranean cruises on the USS Saratoga. Whenever we pulled into a port, no matter where it was, Naples or Malaga or Izmir or wherever, most of my shipmates would immediately head for the nearest bar to get drunk, or seek out the local prostitutes, or both. I wanted to fit in and be just “one of the guys” but I couldn’t bring myself to join them in these banal escapades, which seemed dreary and pointless to me. But I didn’t know what else to do so whenever we were in port, so I went out walking by myself, exploring, mostly at random. I found, strangely enough, that the times when I felt most alive and most at peace were the times when I was keenly aware of being all alone in a strange place, in a foreign culture among people who spoke a language incomprehensible to me. At such times the world was beautiful and strange. As for example walking along a seawall late at night in Majorca, looking out into the dark sea and sky and seeing tiny stitches of distant lightning and feeling an extraordinary sense of peacefulness. Or climbing up a high hill on the outskirts of Barcelona and watching the sun go down. Or wandering the back alleys of Split until late into the night, all alone, unafraid, and feeling content to be simply walking with no destination. I relished the strange feeling of being lost in a world that I didn’t understand, of not belonging anywhere in particular. When you are lost the whole world becomes your home.

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