Memory and Searching for Meaning

Ever since I wrote a draft memoir several months ago, I relaunched my public writing efforts and focused them on…well, it’s been hard to define exactly. While one hand, I’ve identified with the memoir genre and have written about it here, another theme occurs again and again: memory and the human experience of making it, reliving it, and understanding it.

I’ve found myself in that space a lot lately. I am wondering how much of my own life’s experience was real, how much was a dream and most of all, how was that shaped by factors beyond my understanding and beyond my control?

That last portion is the most relevant. It’s because I live in an era with its own, particular sense of paranoia and terror. There have been numerous accounts of mass fear, anxiety, and panic through human history. This one is ours. Coronavirus has obviously informed a lot of my recent work, because it’s an obvious signpost anybody from any culture can relate to as a threat to one’s existence. Pestilence, after all, is one of the Four Horsemen.

Additionally there’s the ongoing civil rights movement, a new wave rising up just as mid-20th century giants like John Lewis have left us here on Earth. It’s a massive, crossover movement. It’s intersectional. It has readdressed and recontextualized themes considered more distinct and basic in the 1950s and 1960s. It has also struck fear into the “squares” – that being White Christian America, which is in its own way, ending.

Then as if that weren’t enough, let’s throw in massive wealth inequality which makes the Ancien Regime look egalitarian; a global order which is splintering and growing more nebulous; and, as if one could forget? Climate change.

These phenomena are what put me in such a deeply introspective state, ultimately wondering if my own memories are real. To add some more background: I am a trauma survivor. As I’m sure you are. Nobody’s lived a wholly idyllic life. In my case it involves family dysfunction and psychological abuse trauma. Nevertheless when you start processing your traumatic memories, in order to learn healthy coping skills you go through the grief process. You feel sad at knowing many happy memories which gave you comfort also cause you pain, existed alongside pain, and often contains those responsible for the pain. We usually call this nostalgia but it’s something deeper than that. It’s part of our grief process. Since so many memories involve your abuser(s), those memories turn bittersweet.

Hence for me this means I’m not only processing, grieving, and coping with my own personal history. I’m a part of the world, just like you, and I see what’s happening or it’s affected me directly or indirectly. I know people who’ve protested police brutality and been arrested. I have family members who are immunocompromised or are elderly. I have a service-related medical condition. I’m an aerial combat veteran from the American-Afghan War. My old office was destroyed in spring 2019 floods here in Nebraska. What’s happening today isn’t just the news for me. It’s personal.

Furthermore I’m a white cisgender male. I’m heterosexual. My whole life has been gilded with cultural lies about meritocracy, masculinity, and stoicism. Coping with my personal history means reckoning with the history around me. It’s a history steeped in oppression and mythmaking.

Go find some men who resemble me today, who are marching with Nazi paraphernalia, whining about political correctness, and equating wearing a mask with oppression. They’re probably in Matt Taibbi’s Twitter mentions, claiming to be former Bernie Sanders voters who are now considering a vote for Trump. They listen to Joe Rogan Experience and watch Krystal & Saagar on Hill TV. They repost memes which originated on 8kun and 4chan.

Regardless of their habits, gripes, and proclamations they know deep down, just as I do, they were reared in myths and lies. They can’t cope with these things, so they have doubled down, voted for Trump (or threaten to), believe in a flat earth, and remain trapped in unfocused, unprocessed, and destructive grief. Like me, they wonder how much of their existence was ever even real. Unlike me, they refuse to reckon.

As I work through my own grief, I’ve come to accept certain things, while other memories and facts cause me to work through the other stages again: denial, anger, despair, and bargaining. There is recent work on grief by researchers, who posit a sixth stage of grief: finding meaning. I figure it’s partially inspired by Dr. Viktor Frankl’s work in coping, which he published as Man’s Search for Meaning. I have to admit I haven’t found meaning. Maybe I’m conflating meaning with authenticity, or I’m thinking authenticity imparts it. Wherever I am, I resolve to arrive where I need to be.

How about you? Are you reexamining your life? Are you questioning your history? Are you searching for meaning? Are you in one or more of the five/six stages of grief? I would appreciate your sharing, if you feel comfortable. Thanks for reading.


A July Dream

Original pic: Maria mk via wikipedia commons

Note: This is a fictional piece. It’s a composite of real memories, places, and people.

It was late July, just a little after two pm. A field spread out by the elementary school, running back along a fence. On the other side lay the interstate. A blacktop sea bordered the grassy field. A basketball hoop’s rusted chain netting dangled loose in the air. The field bore tawny grass singed by summer sun, while the weeds thrived. The humidity draped the world like a damp, invisible blanket.

The kids’ voices whooped, cackled, and hollered. Dingy chains creaked while they swang. A small foot bridge rattled beneath their steps while they ran to and fro, from the monkey bars and then to the twisted slide. One kid went down, while another peed off the ledge onto the gravel. Another kid approached with his orange Nerf ball.

Everyone saw it. They knew what that Nerf meant. A gauntlet had just hit the ground. The kids stopped. They self-sorted into a tiny squad. The game was on. What game? The game. The game only children know, the rules and customs which only they understand. They play in strategies and tactics lost in puberty. They speak a language extinguished by seventh grade. The game’s objective is to win. How to win? However it takes. The only true limiter is timeless feeling time. An hour of eternity.

A pudgy, redheaded boy became a tiger, only this one stood on two feet. This made him, in his boasting, the most powerful of the group. Another boy took on the form of a transforming robot. This let the brown haired boy, according to his own proclamation, turn into a speedy truck. The lone girl, a blue eyed brunette, said she possessed the power of a forest deer faerie queen. This gave her mystical speed and agility, along with freezing powers. She froze the other boys. She took the ball. They engaged in hot pursuit.

The boy called Pieper, who had been the ball bearer, took his baby brother in tow. They both chased the girl too. Pieper the elder cornered her. She tossed the ball. The deer queen declared that was within the rules now. The two-footed tiger caught it and dashed away. Her freezing powers had no effect, he said. She was too far away. The Piepers and the deer chased the tiger.

The transforming robot struck an ad hoc alliance with the fairy queen deer. Whoever kept the ball, they agreed, would share bragging rights with their partner. They took on the Pieper Brothers and the tiger. The tiger though proved his power. He lead them to the back stretch, along the chain link fence and through looming weeds. He neared a backyard. Whose yard? It didn’t matter whose. It was the frontier though. No going that way, not if you valued your hide.

The rest decided the prize wasn’t worth it. Instead, the fairy queen deer suggested they try the jungle gym, which sat down a steep hill on the back side of the school. The tiger stopped and realized he’d been left out. Being left out was the worst feeling ever. One could lose the game, but forget being left out. He departed the frontier’s edge, rejoined the group, and surrendered the ball.

The group steamed in the July afternoon. Three eclipsed two. They found the drinking fountains. They had enough energy to ascend the hill, find their bikes, and ride off elsewhere. Where else? Wherever. Rubber rustled gravel and cigarette butts as they rode on, and the sunlight dappled through tired trees. Three struck another hour of eternity.


You Were Here

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/63920826@N02/7135020661

I have a complicated relationship with writing, as I do most things and suspect most people have with anything they love.

When I started my more focused writing journey 10 years ago, I decided right away I wanted to write genre fiction. I belong to the generation inspired by Stephen King, John Carpenter, and other notable figures from the 1970s and 1980s, so it was pure zeitgeist-ship for me to undertake horror literature.

I like to think I was an apt pupil for horror fiction. I consumed the big names’ work from multiple centuries with gusto. I trawled through the internet’s greater horror fan network, following multiple magazines, blogs, Twitter and Instagram personalities, Reddit’s horror sub, and more outlets.

Furthermore I labored through my learning hours on horror. This lasted for a great while, too. I have folders stuffed with outlines, rough drafts, character sheets, and prewrites for novels. I have stashes on external HD’s and Google Drive accounts crammed with short stories and what might have become novelettes or longer. Like a good deal of writers though, I struggled to finish. Each new idea was a new affair, full of passion and quick pleasure. Then, like fast affairs, they lost their luster and faded into memory.

At some point though, I realized I just didn’t want to be only a horror writer. It wasn’t a drastic moment or realization. It crept up, like a dreaded monster from any of my own unpublished stories. I could rationalize it but the turning point, I think, came when I wrote the first draft of my memoir.

From March through April 2020, I took time during the first lockdowns to put part of my life story down. I focused on my six year enlistment in the Air Force. I figured the time had come to process my early adult life. I had devoted processing my childhood to paid sessions with a therapist and hours diving through self-help books. Adulthood, especially the early years, needed a different tactic. The process proved painful, sad, beautiful, frequently funny, and sometimes thrilling. I took full scope of my post-college years up through my marriage, with the military providing the canopy over the time span.

What jumped out at me was how motivated I was to finish the work. It wasn’t merely talking about myself that pushed me forward. If anything, that part was the least interesting. Instead I relished revisiting places, people, and situations I had stuffed deep in my mental junk drawers and photo album boxes. I spent a year of my military technical training in California. That year alone is a novel. I witnessed and or endured scandal, heartbreak, triumph, tragedy, personal growth, and death in that year.

While my stretches in places like Washington or Texas weren’t as thrilling or intriguing to a potential reader, I still recall my times in those places. I remember how fall felt in Eastern Washington. I remember driving around Spokane in a rented Nissan Sentra. I can hear the Coheed & Cambria and HIM CD’s, my only musical possessions in Washintgon, over and over while I drove place to place.

Likewise I spent two summers in Texas while in the Air Force and can, to this day, imagine the humidity coating my body during morning work outs, doing calesthenics on a giant asphalt pad or running through a gravel trail. I can remember it being 80 degrees F at 5:00 am. The oddest part is how much I miss that stuff sometimes. I could jog around my neighborhood at an ungodly hour, but it wouldn’t be the same without 20-30 other people.

The vital point here is I found my genre. It didn’t involve fantastical scenarios or monsters. It involved my life, my memories but more imporantly, how I processed them then compared to now. It’s about the sensations, such as the smells, how the foods tasted, how the people’s voices sounded in my ears, the colors and textures of my friend’s skin, hair, and clothing. It’s about my fascination with how each of us were there, in some place, for a moment in time. How our lives intersected for a brief period, then the wires loosened and we slipped away in the timestream someplace else, often to never be in each other’s company again.

I feel the pain from their absence. I cherish each memory of them I retain because no matter where they’ve gone, how they’ve changed, or if they’re alive or dead, I linger on and can write down my testimony. I am their witness. I can say to the universe, “Yes. They existed. Every single one of them. I loved them and they mattered to somebody.”

I suppose this makes me a memoir-writing navel gazer. Which is apparently what I needed to keep myself writing. Funny enough, I don’t go for that style of writing at all. I still read horror fiction. I read a lot of history and current events. This is what puts my hands on the keyboard though. This style is what moves me. I have never cried at my own writing until I tried memoir – or journaling, blogging, what have you. If the best type of writing is what makes you feel your feelings the most, then this is who I am.

I tell my story but it’s not only mine. I am only one, conscious but subjective narrator. I am also telling other’s stories. I am telling, testifying, and professing, “You were here. You mattered. You affected others. You were loved.”


Wood and Wires

In 2000, I painted a still life for a college art class. It was an up close depiction of the 1973 Fender Mustang electric guitar my uncle had given me in late 1993. He handed it over after I prodded him over a holiday for it. I knew he still had the guitar, but like his brothers – which included my other uncle and my father – he had given up on playing musical instruments. He retrieved it from a friend he’d loaned it to, and I had it around that fall. Later, in spring 1994 I finally started guitar lessons with a teacher in St. Charles, Missouri.

Six years later I took a college painting class for my major, at Lindenwood University in St. Charles. I decided to paint this guitar. It doesn’t exactly resemble the Fender. The painting simplifies the details and since I used acrylic, I couldn’t get the blending right for the guitar’s sunburst finish. The scratch plate had a mother of pearl texture which I didn’t even bother trying in acrylic paint. What resulted though was, I believe, one of the first paintings I could call my own style. It wasn’t exactly realistic but not impressionistic, either. It was me, though. That at least was a breakthrough.

Back in 2000, I didn’t see that. It was just another painting I did for school. I thought it was one of my better, less half-assed ones, but nonetheless I had little regard for my abilities. Art school had a way of tearing you down, then leaving you that way. For a person with barrel’s bottom self-esteem like me, it taught me all my work was worthless. None of it represented progress. Since it wasn’t a masterpiece, or didn’t push some sort of envelope, it sucked

The painting though is the only one I still have from college. It’s also one of a few, spare artifacts from my misbegotten musical career. When I obtained that Fender back in late 1993, I felt a door open. I had wanted to play guitar since age four or five. As a child, I saw Eddie Van Halen on TV and that was it. I had to know how to do what he could do. By fourteen though, I wanted to be a guitarist. It would be my identity. My security. My vocation. In college I still believed in this dream. The painting, no matter how I felt about it then, captured everything I was in that time. It was how I wanted to be seen. It’s how I yearned to be heard. It’s all I could think about, everyday and every hour. When I was around friends, I wished I was somewhere playing.

The universe always seemed to have other plans for my musical dreams. I spent all of both high school and college trying out for one band or another, going to people’s garages and basements, hauling my gear in and out of my car and into those places, sneezing at someone’s cat or listening to their cruddy demo recording, explaining my influences and putting myself out there ad nauseum. Besides a few exceptions, I was either rejected or I turned the offer down myself. I could go on for a while about the few acts I managed to join, and how little we accomplished. I could tie that into the St. Louis music scene, a hopeless place full of dreamers and scammers in the 00’s.

Instead, I will focus on the painting. I’d like to say it represented a time when I had hope and ideals but honestly, even then I had my doubts. St. Louis, as I indicated, had fallen far from its glory days of Chuck Berry and Johnny Johnson. I split the difference and tried making it there while attending college. I was the first born who had to live up to expectations and make everyone happy, while hedging against my own aspirations. Simply put, had I even just gone to school up in Chicago or maybe even Minneapolis, I probably would’ve done better based on odds alone. I stayed home though. I commuted to school. I answered ads, flyers, and referrals. I had some of the strangest conversations with the most eccentric people I have ever encountered, while they explained their grand visions for a quartet. I just wanted to play guitar in front of people and make a little money. That enough would’ve sufficed.

The short version of the ending is I never made it in music, but I did make it out of St. Louis. The Air Force offered a different version of the same life I wanted. It took me around the world. It paid me well, for a single person. I wore funny outfits and had to do strange things in weird places. I met people whose eccentricity matched and sometimes, topped that of the musicians back in St. Louis’ hopeless scene. Last, I kept the painting.

New Medium article: Denial is a Strategy

I invite you to head over to my Medium page. I just published “Denial is a Strategy.” Here is a link if you want to jump there now. Below is a short excerpt.

Denial is powerful. It’s a fundamental coping skill involved with trauma and grief. and so is belief in false and disprovable ideas. The concern I’ve seen from friends and public figures focuses on how to reason someone away from their bad position. Usually that thought is countered with, “One can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason their way into.” I am saying that deniers have reasoned into their position. The position itself is wrong but it’s a strategic choice and it relies on hedging.

It’s common to label deniers as fools. I propose a person isn’t fooled into taking outrageous stands like the world being flat, the Sandy Hook shootings being fake, the September 11th attacks being planned by the US government, or one of the numerous, other conspiratorial and fake beliefs espoused today. One is coached into believing them, for sure, but grooming is not the same as tricking.

When you trick someone, you are aware of the truth the whole time and you are setting them up to be embarrassed. The trick will end and its intent is to fool someone. Grooming though is a process where you convince someone slowly, so in a while you don’t have to trick them at all. They’re ready to accept the lie willingly. There are numerous examples of grooming out there, but when it comes to neurotypical adults? Ones having full, legal agency, who spread baldfaced falsehoods, and make conspiratorial charges toward their perceived enemies, though? There has to be a significant position which is aided by their disbelief.

The Re-Re-Reintroduction

I have done the writing game for 10 years. I have started, stopped, thrown everything out, and started all over again. Here we go around once more.

When I turned 30, I decided I would take writing more seriously. I pledged to my new wife that I would commit to it and, “see where it’s supposed to go.”

In that decade, I started and stopped, then started again, then stopped again. I deleted whole blogs. I canceled and recreated social media accounts numerous times. I have been on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, WordPress, Wattpad – I’ve done just about all of them. I have submitted my work to journals. I have critiqued other writers. I have been part of numerous online and in-person writers’ groups and chats.

What can I say I’ve learned through all this?

  1. I have been my own worst critic.
  2. I have been my biggest obstacle.

Although the publishing industry is essentially an oligopoly – that is to say, a small cabal of large corporations control media, with some medium-to-small size players beneath them, and a byzantine labyrinth of gatekeepers stand between the writer and the audience – a writer goes no where at all if they don’t do at least two things:

  1. Finish their works.
  2. Commit to the unending, mundane processes.

Now I’m 40, as of this writing. I haven’t been professionally published yet. I don’t have any ebooks, self-published or otherwise. I have no real social media platform. I am at square one again.

I don’t know what I want to accomplish with writing. I thought it was success. I thought it involved money. I knew the work towards these was hard and chance wasn’t on my side. I vastly underestimated my biggest barrier though: me.

So I have returned home. I have done WordPress blogs several times, like I mentioned earlier. I tried to write for genres, write for writing’s sake, and write about politics. I still do that sometimes. I can’t say what this WordPress blog will be about. I don’t know what I hope to accomplish with it. I don’t know much of anything, to be honest.

Here I go again, though.

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started