Let me back up a moment.
It was winter in Michigan. I’d flown back for the holiday and hadn’t seen my family since I’d moved to Los Angeles several months earlier. It was normal for my two sisters, mom, and I to stay up late, watching Law & Order reruns, while my then-step-dad made us all milkshakes. For a family borne from a teenage mother on welfare and an alcoholic orphan grandfather, it was our attempt at a conventional lifestyle.
My sisters had developed some interesting behaviors while I was gone. They’d begun “automatic writing.” I didn’t know what that meant. S had to explain it to me. She said, “I have a kind of spirit guide who can talk to me, and her name is Z.” She held a pen loosely in her hand, closed her eyes, and let the tip graze a blank piece of paper, before it began to move. “Mom is asleep,” she said. “She’s talking to me now.” S held up the paper, showed me the handwriting on the page that said something banal about dinner and parties. “It’s her handwriting, not mine,” she said. It was. I’d spent years perfecting my mother’s signature early in life, but the rest of her handwriting had too many loops and a hard right slant I’d never mastered. Even the cadence and her tendency to make elegant pictoral notations within the text was singularly hers. But so was this. My little sister, M, seemed less enthused about the process. “I can do it, too,” she said. “Robin gives me answers to test questions.” “Robin?” I said. Robin was her spirit guide.
I was the only one to move away from home. For most of my childhood, I lived in my grandparents’ basement with my mom and sister, and a rotating host of family members. At one point, there were 9 of us there–grandma, grandpa, both aunts, an uncle, great-grandmother with a busted hip, mom, and sister–cohabitating in the Midwestern split-level ranch house with brown brick and bright orange shag carpet to match the bright orange fake pot-bellied furnace in our basement. We shared beds, slept on couches, made giant batches of chili that would feed us and the Happy Hour patrons of our dive bar, and it occurred to me not long ago that every meal I’d eaten in that house, I’d eaten on the floor. We lived like immigrants, as though at any moment we may have to move, but our descendants had been here for at least a generation before. You can be settled without ever finding your home.
“You can do it, too,” S said, pointing the pen at me. “We all can, even mom, but she’ll never try it.” We were raised a poor-man’s Catholic, meaning we donned the uniforms for school, went to church when people were noticing, and supported the Friday Fish Fry by battering cod, then eating beef stroganoff later at home. I didn’t like fish then. My grandparents actually opted out of all of this with the valid excuse that they were working people, and also that they thought most of the people who went to church were full of shit, and this would be the attitude I adopted throughout my upbringing, despite my mother’s vain attempts to kind of get me into going to church, which completely ended when I was in high school, working a part-time job at Steak ‘n’ Shake on Sunday mornings. Every week, she’d drop me off before church, then make a run through the drive-thru for a strawberry shake, and I’d serve her as a regular customer, saying, “Will there be anything else, Miss?” She’d pick up her milkshake and give me a wry smile through the double window, glancing at my white paper hat. It says a great deal about a family when they wished they were at work in a drive-thru on Sunday morning. Church is sedentary. We can’t sit still.
I went to a Korean spa a couple of months ago. A friend took me, got me a scrub-down package, consisting of a large Korean woman in sexy black lingerie, giving me directions I couldn’t understand, while she flipped and lifted my naked body, sloughing off years of dead skin cells with a scouring pad. This was a group thing, twenty other tables and ladies in the room. She said, “Relax,” with a smile, and my muscles tensed, and she lifted up my leg, scrubbing my inner thigh and ass, then said, “Relax,” again with more fervor. She stopped moving, dropped my leg, and sighed. I didn’t know what was happening. A second later, a wad of wet Kleenex dropped over my eyes. “Relax.” I would not do well in a sensory deprivation tank.
I locked myself in the closet again the other day. I was supposed to be meditating for twenty minutes while sitting in a “comfortable chair,” but I ended up dancing to my Junior Boys album instead. The meditation chapter in the book I’m reading told me to listen to music, but perhaps they should have been more specific about the kind of music, as my first choice had mistakenly been a collection of Dirty South remixes. My friend N sent me the book, called Seven Steps to Developing Your Intuitive Powers, which was surprisingly not available at my local library. She said, “When I feel lost, I do the steps,” which seemed vaguely similar to how the alcoholics in my life will speak. I trust N, though. She told me there was a time several years ago when she was working in a cafe in Portland, wondering if this was all there was ever going to be, and when she finished the seven steps, she had applied and been accepted to a great design program, and now she’ll probably get to travel the world and save money doing a job that makes her happy. Maybe the seven steps don’t work this well for everybody, but even prescription drugs will have varied results.
I had a few heart attacks in my early 20s. I’d gone to get birth control from a Planned Parenthood, answered honestly on the health questionnaire about chest pains, nausea, severe abdominal cramping, and dizziness, and when I told them I hadn’t seen a doctor, they were dumbfounded. They were like, “You realize you have insurance, right?” In fact, I’d been told by my new employer that I did have insurance, but a warped Midwest perspective on what is deemed “taking handouts” kept me away. Also, I’d spent the previous months waking up in the middle of the night to lie on the bathroom floor for an hour in pain, occasionally attempting to fish out any pieces of compacted pellet poo that may have become dislodged with a pinky. This is not the kind of thing you should ever share with strangers. When I finally went to the doctors, one after another said I’d been doing too much research on WebMD and cursed the internet, until a single doctor followed protocol and found that my heart had gone wild, then dull. “We’ll put you on cholesterol pills,” she smiled. “But there’s one thing.” I was naked, she was sticking a speculum inside me; that’s what doctors do when there’s a vagina in the room. She said, “You can’t stop taking them. You’ll have to be on them for the rest of your life.”
I’d never much thought about the rest of my life. I’d never thought past finishing college, and during the days when I’d dropped out of college, I’d never thought about much except for coming up with closing duties for the other servers at TGI Friday’s. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and nobody told me that the world had certain standards for behavior, that one should attempt to eat at a table as often as possible. When I got to LA, when I miraculously found a job working for nice people with a salary that could cover rent and student loan payments, I had already achieved what no one else in my family had and done it in only 22 years. Maybe just quit. Just quit before you risk getting ahead of yourself. Or your family. The jobs I’ve had that my family has been most proud of are ones which speak a language they can understand. We are bartenders, our consonants are in the form of hard cash in dollar bills, our vowels smoke rings. When I want them to be happy, I say, “I might pick up a job at a bar,” but in reality that is not at all what I want.
My sister S shoved a pen in my hand and sat me at the table. She said, “Automatic writing just requires that you relax your hand, close your eyes, and allow someone else to do the talking,” and of course, I cut her off short in her explanation and didn’t get the irony of that until later on. It was almost 1 am. Imagine that you had left your home for a few months, and on Christmas Eve, your older and younger sisters sat you down at the kitchen table and asked you to channel spirits through your pen, because everyone else was doing it. Just imagine that. I was not able to relax and finally gave up the task. M giggled. She was only ten. She had been asking a spirit guide to give her answers to her history tests. She patted me on the back, said, “Sometimes it just comes more naturally to others.”
The others had gone to bed. I was on Pacific Standard Time. My boyfriend was asleep somewhere in another town in Michigan in his parents’ house. It was just me. A blank note tablet was stuffed in the bedside table, where a Bible might be kept in other homes or hotels. I reached for a pen from my bag, clutched my stomach. I’d been steadily gaining weight for years, passing out at grocery stores, blistering in the sun, and generally feeling as though I’d been walking on toxic air. The insomnia didn’t help, but even when I got sleep, I never felt rested. When I told S about it, she had simply said, “Oh, that’s just because you’ve been doing some serious partying while you’re sleeping,” and I didn’t stop to ask what dream-me had transmitted to her on her little blank pad. Did she get my handwriting right? I can’t write in cursive, only print, and the numbers 3 and 5 are painful for my brain to send to my fingers.
I sat in my bed, looking at a page full of scribbles. At one point, I felt like I was drawing a series of cursive s’s. Then I’d pick up the pen, jab it at the bottom of the page, and let it dig deep in a zig zag all the way up the page. When that ended, I went back to the beginning, my pen drawing bubbled arches in succession, then breaking quickly to return to the beginning, essentially drawing frantic rays from a sunburst. I had relaxed and let someone else do the talking, and they had given me a schizophrenic mess of things that did not resemble words. I had done it wrong. And I didn’t even think it was possible to be done, but I did it anyway, because everyone else was doing it. I’d moved away from home. I’d gone to college. I was a master in separation and anxiety and had yet to put the two together.
I met a Danish woman while she was on vacation in the states. She’d come to visit my roommate in LA. I would tell you the Danish woman’s name, but I don’t know how to type the extra letters from their alphabet. It’s the one that looks like a zero with a line through it. The Danish have 3 extra letters. W was not an officially recognized letter until 1980. Susie (this is what I’ll call her) has a psychic whom she sees often through the Skype window on her laptop. The psychic is Danish, speaks only Danish, yet when she is in her trance, she speaks in perfect English. Because the psychic cannot understand what she is saying, the weight is fully placed on Susie to translate. This is like completing a game of Telephone when the originator of the message cannot confirm or deny that she was even in the room at game start. But Susie has found her psychic remarkably reliable, even over Skype. The psychic only ever reads her clients through telecommunication. The degrees of removal prove, if anything, proximity may have no bearing on how deeply you are known.
In LA, I did not want to admit that my relationship was crumbling. I had at one distant time thought I might want to go to graduate school for writing, but this seemed like the worst mistake I could ever make for my family. And I couldn’t go to school in LA. I wasn’t wealthy, nor did I have the work ethic to pretend I was wealthy. I returned from the Christmas vacation feeling as though something terrible had happened, like someone dying. I would check my email at work, make tea and oatmeal, read magazines, all with some physical knowledge that someone had died. I was waiting for a call to come, but one never did. Instead, the brakes went out in my car. I drove a white Dodge Shadow, which I’d purchased from my dead great aunt’s estate. The gauge read 32,000, and right before the entrance to the freeway, the brakes went out, and the gas pedal wedged itself down tight against the floorboards. People honked. I ripped at the emergency brake, and it didn’t budge. Time is relative. I said the words, “Please make it stop, and I’ll do whatever you want.” The gas pedal disengaged, I eased my foot onto the brake, and proceeded onto the highway.
There is coincidence, and there is synchronicity. There are some elements within these two on which believers and skeptics can agree. A psychic does not believe all things that coincide in theme or virtue are synchronized by a larger spiritual world. Sometimes a song just plays on the radio when you are crying, and that’s that. A scientist doesn’t completely believe there is no “larger world,” only that the larger world already exists within us, in our minds. Psychics believe our mind is only the radio, a seemingly complex tool for transmitting and receiving that would actually be nothing without the signal, which comes from without, not from within. I constantly feel a struggle between what is selfish and what is selfless in this fight for validity of the clairvoyant. The Seven Steps book from my friend languishes in its love for god and the god-power and the essential truth that we take human form continually to learn lessons until we reach our final life and are able to transcend into a universal power. I am a believer, but I do not believe this.
I told my boyfriend about the Dodge Shadow. I said I was scared. We both looked at me like I was crazy. I ignored the problem, it persisted, I was terrified. I drove down Gower, passing the Hollywood Forever cemetery on my way to work. Something touched the back of my head, then held it, then pushed it down, until my forehead blared the car horn and lay there on the steering wheel immobilized. A moment later, I picked my head up and parallel parked. In the office, there was another hand. this time one that gripped my scalp, shaking my head “no,” while my officemate was busy looking up leek diets and fasting procedures. She lectured me often about health and nutrition and sometimes I spied her on JDate.com, staring into her own eyes on the headshot photos she’d uploaded to her profile. She always said, “You are so lucky you’re in a relationship.” Me. The chubby girl with sun rashes and a slowly balding head. I put a red pen to paper, intending to cross something off, and instead drew a series of s’s across the page. No worries, I would print off another sheet. The sheets kept coming, and so did the jagged lines. I could not write. So I started writing with my left hand…which was probably just as ineffective as the jagged lines of the right. I was gaining more weight.
I got home around 4pm. It was winter, the middle of January. We had sliding glass doors leading out to our mold-filled balcony. Our vaulted ceilings were eternally cobwebbed and classified our apartment as a “penthouse” in the eyes of our landlord. A swarm of large ants piled in from our bathroom drain. My cat had tried to jump off the balcony a few weeks earlier, and I’d caught her in mid-air. I hated this place and its carpet and the crappy Japanese-inspired Ikea bed frame that cracked under my weight. I did not walk to the balcony; someone walked me there. I opened the sliding glass door, stood on the balcony, watching the sun slip below a single cloud, then I lifted one leg up, stepped onto the railing, and did not look down. This wasn’t me. A second later, someone walked me back through the doors, past the crappy futon couch I put together myself, through the small hallway, into the bathroom, and into the bathtub. I could not move. I stood in the shower with my clothes on for several minutes, then someone walked me on the same path back to the balcony, where the sun was slightly lower than I’d last seen it. My boyfriend got home at 7pm. I was tired. He found me stepping down from the railing, tears in my eyes, walking back through the living room. Later, I called my sister, said, “Tell me. Tell me what’s going on.” She said, “Darren. He’s your angel. He’s saying you decided you weren’t going to apply to school. He says that no matter how you’ve been reborn, there’s nothing that makes you happier than watching the weather change.” I scrambled for the now almost-filled notebook of those same random scribbles. The waves of the sea, a bolt of lightning, a cloud, and always followed by the sun. She said, “You need to stop freaking out, because it’s not that big a deal.”
I took my GRE test in Glendale. A Chinese woman handed me a kind of non-disclosure statement that said I would not reveal any of the questions I would see on the test. Below the statement were ten blank lines. It read, “You must copy this statement exactly, in cursive, and sign and return the sheet to the administrator before your test.” Forty-five minutes and three fresh clean non-disclosure statement sheets later, I had finally been able to copy the statement in handwriting as close to cursive as my hands could possibly make. I’m told they don’t make you do this anymore. I think that is sad. I do not joke when I say that was the most difficult portion of the test. Neuroscientists say that learning cursive, more than anything else, increases the neural pathways that enable deft motor skills. When a person writes in cursive with proper posture, her hand is forced to cross the midline of her body, stimulating both sides of her brain. Typing, on the other hand–and that is not a pun–is a unilateral act. The right hand acts independently of the left. Researchers argue that if teaching only typing in schools persists, the corpus collosum will cease development, the radio will be broken.
I dream of maps. I’ve dreamt of maps and cars. I once saw a red Honda Civic HX automatic–rare for that model–for $5,000 and posted a want ad on Craigslist. The next day a woman called, said she had what I was looking for, said she’d appreciate it if I would keep his nickname: El Chapulin. I did. The night after I talked to my sister, I dreamt of a map with a star just a little northeast of San Francisco. I have to say that I was ignorant of the states then. I’d only ever traveled on the east coast, and everything else was a blind spot I’d never see unless I slowed down. I had to look it up. The star was over the city of Boise, Idaho, which I’d only ever heard of because I’d fallen in love with a band called Built to Spill. I drove El Chapulin to the city of Boise one year later, and it is to this day the only city that has ever felt like home. I studied writing there. I blacked out drunk there. I’d fallen asleep in my shower there and had a friend who would lift me from the drain and tuck me into an American flag we’d stolen from the capitol building. If there were a mecca, a place to which I should pray, it would be Boise, where I sat on the ailing wooden fence on Camel’s Back hill and watched the high desert rain turn to lightning in the distance, and completely forgot that I had ever drawn the crude visages of weather or had been blind to directions. Honestly, it is amazing what one can forget when one is living in the world.
I don’t often think of or speak of ethereal things. I don’t think about Darren. I haven’t much thought about the three months of torture I felt at Darren’s hands, and shortly after this time, both my sisters completely forgot they had ever done automatic writing, and we haven’t spoken of it since. Only recently have I brought up this subject in my own mind. Was I schizophrenic? Did I have a temporary break from reality? I’m fully open to the possibility that I did. Despite what I’d forgotten, I was not the same after the incident. Any psychic will tell you this is because I let my angel in. Darren, my angel. Is Darren me? Psychics tend to talk about angels more than Catholics, which is interesting, because Catholics invented them. I don’t believe in angels. The Danish have three extra letters in the alphabet. Both our languages come from the Latin, but at some point in time, the Danish said to themselves that they cannot accurately express what they are trying to say–the tone, the love, the disdain, the passion, or indifference–with just these 26. We don’t know what we are describing until we invent how we can tell it to others in a language they understand. And here we are with three extra vowels, arguing if W is a letter.