Sunday, December 13, 2015


Lately I’ve been doing this thing of just sitting and letting my mind go blank. I wouldn’t call it meditation, don’t consider it such, I don’t plan it or sit a certain way for a set amount of time, I haven’t worked at being able to achieve it, and I haven’t always been able to do it, but just lately I can sit and let my mind go blank, and it is a pleasant sensation.

It is particularly nice in the gully, while leaning on the trunk of a dead tree that is angled just about 45 degrees. At the base of the tree is a thick branch that I step on, use as a prop, in order to get situated. The trunk is the right width to accommodate by back, my spine, and the tree and my spine align, though the tree is straight and my spine is curved. My arms flop down on either side of the trunk like useless limbs, and there is the slightest sensation of letting go before settling in. Above me are criss-crossing branches against a backdrop of sky, whatever the sky is doing, whether blue or grey or white or snowing, spitting rain, and kind of tucked behind all that is my cabin, its plain east side with its one window and the upper deck sticking off the north end. Since I am down in the gully I am looking up at the cabin and it reminds me of looking up at Norman Bates’ house from just outside the Bates Motel.

My spooky cabin.

Lying there, leaning there, my mind goes blank. It is so easy, as as if the things in my mind are just dandelion seeds waiting for a soft puff to blow them away, send them drifting, and the body sags with gravity, gets slightly ironed out, feels pressed and smooth. I stay this way for a while, usually not too long, and usually what stirs me then is a string of words like these here that come through on what appears to be old-fashioned ticker tape. They are not my words, nor anyone’s, really, just words on a ticker tape slipping through mind.

It is something about fear.

So I think about fear.

And I realize some find scary these vast open spaces, these dark woods, the two-lane highways and roads that cut through it all with just one house here, one farm there, a falling down barn over yonder and a sudden little town—thank God!—but really just a cluster of homes popping up out of nowhere. And I think how some fear cities with their masses of people, all those different people, and building upon building, street upon street, railways above and railways below, people always moving or always stuck in traffic.

Looking up.

I have never feared an empty landscape, but going into the woods without a clear path, without knowing where that might lead or how long it might take to get there, now that might make me uneasy, could lead to fear, especially if I went further in, lost my bearings. But mostly to me it is peaceful, this empty middle of nowhereness, not at all scary.

Neither am I afraid of a city with its buildings and sixteen-lane highways and masses of people—all that can confuse me, no doubt, frustrate me, too, but I’ve been lost and turned around in all sorts of places and managed to find my way out, usually with nothing more than vague irritation followed by relief.

So these fears of what’s out there don’t get to me. As a kid, it was a different story. Even though I lived in a peaceful home in a safe, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago, I was afraid all the time, well, not all the time, but certainly if my parents went out at night because I knew there was somebody right outside the house, in the dark, watching, waiting, planning a move, planning a break-in, planning to … what? Murder me? I had nothing to base this on except ideas, perhaps from TV. My mother thought I watched too much TV. She called it the “idiot box.” All I know is that I had great fear that somebody was out there in the dark planning to break in, cause me harm.

I was nine years old when Richard Speck raped and murdered eight women in Chicago, all in one night, and I remember one soft summer evening, perhaps in the few days after the murders but before Speck was caught, thinking I saw Speck behind one of the trees in our next door neighbor’s yard. It couldn’t be true, of course, it was a ridiculous notion, but it didn’t take much for the idea that he was there to become, if not a reality, a real possibility. A possibility my mind could not let go of. So there was this tug-of-war: He’s there, right there, but no, he could not possibly be there, not right there. I remember walking around every tree in the yard, cautiously, to assure myself that Speck was not there. Then someone suggested he might be in the bushes. I ran inside. I stayed there.

I was so easily scared! All my sisters had to do was put their hands up by their faces, palms out, fingers curled like claws, and in a low monotone say “bop … bop … bop … ” They would walk toward me slow, stiff-legged, and I would scream and cry and run to my mother, scared out of my mind. They would continue coming toward me, bop … bop … bop … , trying not to laugh, me still crying, whining, telling them to stop. At some age the Fear of Bop turned to Irritation with Bop, but I can remember how for many years those two emotions mingled, and the fact that fear remained part of my reaction long past the age it should have, well, I’ve never considered that before. How embarrassing it is to be scared of “bop,” to be feeling fear in response to such a silly thing, a thing designed to elicit just such a response and succeeding every time. I am afraid, right now, of how I would react if my sisters were here and started up that bop thing, and I am still afraid of Richard Speck. I knew that as soon as I googled him, saw his picture on my computer screen.

I remember being afraid once in the middle of the night many years ago when I was alone in a motel room in St. Louis. My car had broken down on the highway, I was still two hours from home, and the tow truck driver had delivered me to some cheap motel in what seemed an industrial neighborhood, and now some guys were pounding on my motel room door, wondering if I needed help—at 1 a.m.? For some reason I think they were white guys, and young, but all I know for sure is that I wedged the back of a chair underneath the doorknob, tried to watch the only thing on TV—a horror movie—and felt damn scared.

Should I fear young white men? They so often do turn out to be the culprits in mass murders and whatnot. Richard Speck was a young white man; I believe the guys pounding on my door in St. Louis were young white men. But, of course, the young white men I have personally known are anything but crazy murderers—well, as far as I know. But still. One day early this year I was driving through the desolate California desert when I was stopped by the California Highway Patrol. I pulled over. I knew why I had been stopped. The van’s registration was expired. I had recently bought the van from a used car dealer and the dealer was having trouble processing the registration. Meanwhile, I drove around getting stopped once in a while by the CHP. In the desert, I stopped the van and watched as the patrolman got out of his car, walked slowly toward me. I had two flash thoughts. One: Thank God I am a white woman and not a black man. Two: My God, I am a woman in the middle of nowhere (always that middle of nowhere jazz) and here comes a young white man with a gun.

I have never feared or much minded being alone, spending time alone, but ending up alone—that is a different beast. It is a fear that has lurked in the back of my mind, sometimes the front, for years. But who says ending up alone is something to fear? Well, everybody. It is a given, a clear message: To be alone is to be abnormal, to be alone is to be sad, and to be alone is to take the quick path to crazy. Better one should join a group, any group, or find a friend, any friend, just so as not to be alone, just so as not to go crazy. But, I do not like joining a group just to join a group, and I find it near impossible to make friends just to make friends. So I was doomed. Of course, this scared me. But then something clicked. I love being alone, it actually feels kind of normal, and I am not extraordinarily sad. Actually, I feel rather happy. Am I crazy? You tell me. But I will tell you—right now, I am thankful that I am alone. Anyway, I have Josie and Elliott and you and a few others, so what’s to worry?

It seems to me that unless in real danger, acting out of fear is what brings misery, is what brings about crazy.

Looking down. (Family portrait.)

Eventually, the ticker tape slows down, plays itself out, and I realize I’ve mangled and jangled it enough. I close my eyes, my mind goes blank. It is a pleasant sensation. Soon I will be thinking again, perhaps about how nice it is to open the door, go out on the porch, look into the dark.

Who’s out there?


  1. I could've written this myself. The fear thing, being alone (which I love, and never feel lonely) and that creep Speck. Do yourself a favor and don't read any books on him. Reading the details of that incident was as bad if not worse than anyone could imagine. Ugh. Hope you can sleep tonight! bop . . . bop . . . bop . . . Sorry, couldn't resist. Oh, and I meant to comment on your last post - "Wipe that smirk off your face!" Again, sorry, couldn't help myself. ~ P

    1. I have no plans to read anything about Speck. I don't have much capacity for violence, either reading about it or looking at images. There are a lot of movies and TV shows I will never see! And if I could get rid of that smirk I would. Maybe now that I am more conscious of it ...

  2. The year before I met you at Uptown Center I worked at Uptown Ministry, a Lutheran program that operated from a house which offered quite a few programs to the neighborhood including a food pantry. To get the food, the recipient had to sit through a short interview. We kept folders on all of the clients and the hope was that if they were repeat users of the pantry, we might identify what other services they might need, if there were patterns of behavior, etc. Most just ran out of food at the end of the month.

    We looked over the folders before meeting with the client and one day, I was given a fat folder and as I looked at it, I was filled with horror. The man I was about to see had lost his son to John Gacy who had killed 33 boys in Chicago. There were newspaper clippings in the folder and apparently this man had had a nervous breakdown after his son was killed and never recovered. This had happened several years before our interview and I remember sitting there, wondering how to handle it. This was old news to him, but fresh to me. All he needed now was food. I don't remember what I said or how it went, just the feeling. It struck me, as it did many times while I worked there, how we all walk a fine line between sanity and insanity, how we never know what the person next to us has suffered or experienced.

    As for fear, I haven't felt it very often and I live alone, too, and like being by myself. I think I would really like living in a cabin like you do, but I am too afraid of not being physically strong enough to deal with the logistics. Being in a town is working for me.

    The time that sticks in my mind as when I was most afraid also had to do with white boys. I was traveling in Europe after college and had a Eurorail pass, meaning that I could go anywhere I wanted to for three months. I went to visit a friend in Sweden and had to take several trains to get to where she lived. One stop involved sitting for several hours on a bench in the middle of the night. There was a small building there that was closed and it was all very dark and eerie. Nobody else was around except for three guys who were also waiting. They were dressed like the band Kiss without the face makeup. Lots of leather, big spikes, and they looked mean. They kept looking at me but were speaking in Swedish, which I don't speak. I speak Spanish and Portuguese and had traveled a great deal in countries that used those languages so it was strange to not understand what was happening. Nothing did happen, but I was terrified the whole time I sat there.

    There is so much violence in the world and yet this is supposedly the most peaceful time in recorded history. Hard to believe... I read something somewhere that this new generation that is coming up in the US is the most compassionate there has been in the last one hundred years. I don't remember how they came to that conclusion, but it made me feel hopeful that these kids can maybe fix some of the things that we left broken. We'll see....

    1. Oh my. Gacy brings another chill. I remember reading all that in the papers as it unfolded. Today's the 4th anniversary of Sandy Hook. Such violent acts, some overt, others going unnoticed for years ... And life goes on. All those mother and fathers, family and friends, surviving. How do we measure compassion? That's interesting -- it is the most peaceful time. Is peace the anomaly?