Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Divination Project, Part 1: Mind Fuck

What drives you on
Can drive you mad
A million lies to sell yourself
Is all you ever had
                                  -Garbage, Stupid Girl, 1996


The most thought provoking criticism she ever received in her life came from her graduate advisor, in a recommendation letter for her application for Teach for America. It said that she was exceptional in every regard, except that she had problems with commitment.

"Fair enough," she thought. After all, she had massaged her PhD-level education in Molecular Biology and Neurobiology into a Master's Degree in Neurobiology by age 24. She had literally 6 months left in her research on the effect of estrogen on memory when she decided to blow that popsicle stand. Why did she do it? It's a really silly reason, actually.

Her heart told her to do it.

Whenever she could, she tried to factor her heart into her decision-making. Sometimes it exerted itself without her knowing. Well, actually, when she was least happy, she was not factoring it into her decision-making - rather she was telling it to STFU. For the longest time, she made her choices based on a very simple idea of love - that she should never do anything to hurt another person.

Or was that all a lie?

***

Why then, as a married woman, would she let a random guy in a bar touch her last weekend?

I'll tell you why.

1) She did it because she wanted to know how it would be to be felt by a man other than Carl, her husband. They found each other pretty early in life - she was not even 18 when she met him, and he was 19. They were married at age 21 and 22, just before they high-tailed it to graduate school.  They needed each other. They were both raised in a critical households, but he accepted and encouraged her, body mind and spirit, and she did the same for him. They could talk about anything. She knew this was not a rose-colored outlook on their past because she found their old love notes in the crawlspace earlier this year. They were unabashedly their emotional and kinky selves together. They made each other feel safe in a way neither of them had ever felt before.

They have always communicated very well, but of course they can only communicate through words those things of which they are consciously aware. And the mind is a funny thing - some of the hardest lessons humans avoid learning through shoving them deep down into subconscious memory. It takes a lot of time alone, a lot of quiet, a lot of bravery, and a lot of humility to go into those memories.

Together, they have been braving this journey. It was actually a quick realization on her part that it was even a possibility - they were partaking in some post-dinner cannabis (a nice psychedelic hybrid), and she decided she would brave a topic with him that would ordinarily be "out of bounds."

What does "out of bounds" even mean?

Well, up until now, to her it meant that which caused him to have an angry, offended reaction, that would in turn spark a fearful reaction from her.

Let me tell you, the reason they found cannabis to be so awesome is the same reason it is associated with the term "One Love." When one is high, that layer of fear of judgment just kind of melts away. Through the introspection they have done together over the last year or two, they've figured out that most of the violence in this world has but one origin - fear and shame.

It did help that through her communications training in La Leche League, she learned the power of "feeling statements." So if she brings her own feelings into the discussion, he understands where she is coming from. She makes sure to say things like, "I am feeling frustrated by..." or "I feel sad because it seems like..." when she begins their conversations. She doesn't start out the evening with the intention of making it a therapy session, and it doesn't always go that way. She does the introspection necessary (which she now refers to as "the work") through journaling or meditation to figure out how she is feeling, first. When she is busy or overwhelmed, it's not readily apparent how she feels until she does some free writing or meditation. Then she can let that observation sit for a while until The Universe gives her a little tap on the shoulder and says it is okay to "go there" with him. He might show some sign of openness, and then she can step off the cliff...

So what happened was that they shared a bunch of karmic journeys together, healing a lot of the wounds in their relationship.

She knows there are still some, however.

How does she know? Because she still has trouble feeling for him like she did for that guy who was touching her at the bar.

Subconsciously, she knows there are still things that are "out of bounds" with her Carl, and what's most frustrating about that is that they are just personality traits that she has! They are things maybe that she has felt shame about over the years, but has made peace with, or that she even loves about herself. For instance, her Foolish nature - the part of her that gets her into a dicey situation with a random male artist who she thinks is just coming through town, and then she finds out later that he lives and works in the next town. Oops.

She came home and immediately told her Carl about Mr. Touchy Feely. That's what she does. She doesn't keep secrets from him about her dealings with other people. She's even transparent if her feelings are complicated. And this is how she knows that he is THE SHIT. He hears her out, obviously concerned in the beginning, until she reassures him that she's old and wise enough to think herself out of sketchy situations. Damn, that man loves her to pieces. Sometimes it feels like a lot, because for so long he loved her in a way that clearly said, "I'm worried you are going to leave me, because subconsciously I don't believe I was loved as a child, and so I am going to hang on as tight as possible. I will treat your every action with suspicion."

So of course, she married him, because that's the only kind of love she knew, too. It was familar. Comfortable. Safe.

And now, naturally, after their love has evolved as it has, and she both values and resents the safety, she's kinda love-curious.

He knows now, too, that the harder he loves, the more she want to flee.

She stopped wearing her wedding ring earlier this year, not to signify that she was "on the market," but more as a reminder to herself that she is not anyone else's property. She is her own person. It was a reminder to show up and stand up for herself. Later in the year, she replaced it with the opal ring her grandmother bought for her great-grandmother.

She has more than a few suspicions that this ring carries the spirit of her ancestors.

***

They say that curiosity killed the cat, and as far as cats go, she can get herself into some situations!

On Instagram, she posted that she is a "Lover of rabbit holes and people, in that order."

She really is wired in such a way as to be happiest when pursuing her curiosities, be they subjects or people. Subjects, so far, have always provided a balm to her soul. Nothing is out of bounds. Book-wise, she will try to read about anything and everything, because she feels like the best life is a constant learning experience, and stagnation can rot the soul. People-wise, she has friendships with some very unlikely people for her "station" in life. These are people her parents definitely would not have approved of when she was in their household, and people Carl sometimes worries about, because he grew up in a poorer area and knows better.

But she, well, she is a Fool. Not a Fool in the uneducated sense, just a Fool in the sense that she can see past people's trauma. She sees the Divine in all. It has taken her 43 years to figure out that not everyone sees the Divine in themselves, and so they don't always act in their own best interests, and often not in the best interests of others.

Her upbringing was solidly middle-class. Her dad is an extremely humble human being and has no bother for pretense. For most of her life, their values were function-focused, rather than image-focused. This was an interesting place to evolve - at school, she was wealthier than almost all of her classmates, who were mostly people of color, so she knew to be thankful for what she had, and also the significant advantages she had. At church, however, they were some of the poorest members. So there, either ironically or fittingly, she got to experience envy, and learn compassion for that feeling.

That experience, combined with not one, but two near death experiences means that she had a strange values system for her children. She had and has a very certain idea about what causes children to be "spoiled" and "entitled." In her experience, it is not lack of stuff which causes kids to be spoiled, it is a specific lack of encouragement, freedom, true connection and unconditional regard being supplanted by objects of material wealth, which spoils, or shall we say rots the soul.

You know, basically what the parenting fashion has been for the last, say, sixty or more years in the United States. And hence, why we have the "Narcissism Epidemic."

She learned very early a saying that was attributed to Native Americans not to judge a person until one has walked a mile in his moccasins. This is funny because she is pretty sure her Mom (who is, according to DNA tests, 25% Native American) told that to her, and she figured out recently that the judgment she still feels from her mother is a major factor in her life, specifically with regard to her struggles with self-esteem. Which is funny because her mother was trying desperately to get her to read Pastrix last year, about a Denver-based heathen-turned-pastor. Alice called bullshit to herself on her mother's recommendation because her mom has lived a very safe life as an adult, and she suspected her mother couldn't handle the kind of radical unconditional love this pastor or any decent pastor has to muster. And she was right. Her mother is still totally judgy. Her mother was raised in a one bedroom house by a very critical man, and has yet to acknowledge or eradicate this man's voice from her subconscious in all its forms. Certainly, some forms of the grandfather's criticism were eradicted, but just enough to give her mother a thicker skin - not necessarily to allow her to feel satisfied with her whole being. Her mother is still ashamed of many parts of herself. Nonetheless, Alice, our heroine, loves her mother with all her heart. She sees, very clearly, how Carl's protective and controlling love has, on some level, been a sexualized version of her smother's love for her. Smother? Yes. She put the "mother" in smother. Her mother was on the bleeding edge of helicopter parenting. A pioneer of sorts.

In opening her eyes to patterns with people, Alice also noticed that many people who had lifted themselves out of poverty were still very judgmental of those who had yet to do so, probably because of some subconscious fear of being poor again, which ended up reading as sanctimony.

She loves her father dearly, too. He is highly intelligent and self-aware, extremely humble, and also grew up poor. Her father had said he "Didn't think that parenting her was that hard." Well, no, for the era she was a very well-behaved child. She was well behaved because she was fucking scared to death. When he was younger, her father had a very short fuse. She wasn't punished often, but when she was punished, it was physical and memorable, and it was typically over some joyful childish behavior that had gotten in the way of her father's focus. You know, the usual reasons fathers lose their tempers. Fathers have a lot on their plates, and are often undervalued by their employers. This is the reality of trickle-down economics.

Everything is connected. These things her parents did were integral to the subconscious programming she had that contributed to her depression and suicidal ideation. Freud, it turns out, was really onto something, she kept telling herself, as she descended into the rabbit hole that was herself.

She never learned how to stand up for herself. She's having to learn that now, at 43 years old. She doesn't know how to stand up for her heart and what her heart wants. She had to learn it through revisiting the spaces between the lines of her life. Through reading old journals, through meditation, and through continued journaling. Otherwise the important bits get washed away in the wave of trivialities that life can become so easily.

As a woman, what this means is that she don't even know what consent is. She is probably over halfway through her life, and does not understand consent. What the absolute hell?!

It's pretty clear, though - she is not alone in this regard. What she and so many other women should have learned was either not learned by their mothers, or not shared, through puritanical programming or outright neglect.

***

2) She is a "nice person." When she initially sat in the booth with Mr. Touchy Feely, she sat on the far side from him, but she could not hear what he was trying to say. He slid over on his side and patted the seat. "Hmm," she thought, "Certainly I can just sit next to this guy without trouble. I'll never be able to hear him otherwise, and he's trying to be friendly. I will just be careful."

She didn't know it at the time she sat next to Mr. Touchy Feely, but he ended up making her want to explore a little more what consent really is. Because she has been married so long, and Carl works from home, they are more than a little entangled, and it means that she lets her boundaries slide a lot so that she can avoid fallout from "too many headaches." What is fallout? It's when he is acting put out and grouchy the next day because he didn't get what he needed. Alice sees now how men have a real need for connection and release that often goes unmet. She now knows some people call the resulting sulking "emotional blackmail" and what is interesting about that is that when she reads about all these labels, it sounds like the other person is doing it on purpose, when really they are just having and processing feelings. It is, she realized, her choice how she decides to see his reaction, and how she chooses to respond to it.

"That is fucked up," Carl noted.

Yeah. This is what conditional love feels like, and how the conditional love of our parents is at the root of EVERYTHING THAT IS FUCKING WRONG WITH THIS WORLD, she thought.

She was AFRAID of her parents, and she took that projection with her to every damn authority she would meet for the rest of her life. Even and especially into the relationship with Carl. Until she realized it.

But, in his 40's, it is his choice to not vocalize what the fuck his damage is, she finally realized. A little, "I'm thinking about something - feeling uncomfortable, maybe - and I need some time alone to figure out why" really wouldn't hurt matters, she realized. Then maybe he could figure out why he was so asshurt over one night without sex. Even if that means, say, for a few days, he was actually rightly pissed at his mother and father who discouraged him from feeling his feelings when he was a boy. Like most men in America, throughout history. And then a few days later, look at how the amount of shame we had to experience in our lives was just a tiny tiny amount compared to what our parents faced, and how far they have come in their lifetimes, and how fucking lucky he is. How fucking lucky we are. Why is his default mind state that of scarcity, she kept asking herself. We are so fucking lucky.

We all start our journeys in different places, and we all have a responsibility to do "the work," Alice realized one day, in a way that was clearer than when she had felt it as a teen. Back then, she felt like it was just her job. Now, she realized, IT'S HER DUTY to help people on this journey. IT IS HER PURPOSE. It is exhausting work, but it is the most important kind of work.

It's like catching cabbage moths in the garden. Each one you catch prevents the spread of many others. Every trauma that gets healed prevents the propagation of so many others.

Alice's really productive introspection and self-development started when she asked herself this question:

"Why am I such a goddamn people-pleaser?!"

Because it was conditioned. Her parents groomed her to please others, and not to love herself, just as they had been groomed. They parented in a way that was acceptable at the time, and gave her lots of opportunity that they didn't have themselves, at the same time, which is good because it gave her lots of productive ways to channel her energy, but also ways to distract herself from meaningful introspection and experiences.

So THAT is how she ended up in that booth in that bar with that guy last weekend.

***

"So, wait..." her therapist questioned her on Thursday, "He touched you FIRST and then asked permission later?"

"Yes," she said."I know now, that wasn't acceptable." But hey! She did a great job at telling him that's as far as she would go, and that she was married, and that while her husband said that she was free to do whatever she wanted, she didn't FEEL that was what he really meant, and so she wasn't willing to hurt him.

The guy had simply touched her arm, and her shoulder, and her back. It felt nice. He wasn't hurting her, he was listening, and he was communicating, at least on some level.

Another male artist friend, Campbell, had touched her on the shoulder earlier in the week, and then she brought up that one of her sculpture ideas is a female torso with a whole bunch of hands coming off it, because as a woman, sometimes that's how she feels. She saw him bristle when she said that. Later, she let him know that he absolutely can touch her shoulders, and that hugging is okay. It seemed weird to be negotiating these things, but apparently it is necessary nowadays!

Then, she said to Campbell, "Actually, you can probably touch my hair, too, because this owner at a restaurant in Denver totally ran her hands through my hair for 20 minutes with my kids and cousin watching in disbelief." She absolutely loves having her hair touched, actually. LOVES IT. But in what public context, outside of having one's hair done, is this seen as appropriate? It's just hair.

When she got back from a very emotional six-day trip to New York last month, her husband was starving for interaction. He has become thoroughly addicted to these cannabis-infused "deep talks" with her, and he had been alone for a whole week, processing media he had consumed all by himself. Carl calls her "The Deep Talker."

"You HAVE TO listen to the last Radiolab," he insisted.

In the No, Part 1, broadcast October 11, 2018, is what he meant. It was so... triggering. The entire episode is about consent. In it, there is an interview with a podcaster who lives the life of a liberated sexual woman, and it documents an interaction with a long-term male friend of hers, where they ended up having intercourse. There was a re-enactment of the exchange on the show, and it was very familiar. It made Alice's stomach turn. She still hasn't listened to the second or third parts, because she knows she is going to need to give herself extra TLC to process them.

In the podcase, the podcaster's friend clearly wanted to sleep with her, and wore her down. And she let him! She said no, but it wasn't forceful. It wasn't even firm and gentle. It was... weak.

Try to tell you no, but my body keeps on telling you yes... Alice learned all about this over the last two years, trying to hide, very unsuccessfully, her attraction to her other male friend, Jeff.

Alice knew she was totally guilty of that. Totally. She was programmed to mindlessly people-please. She was constantly doing things to help others who really didn't need the help, wasting her energy. Looking for validation in being "needed" by selfish people. Telling Mr. Touchy Feely, and Campbell where her boundaries were in an intelligent and adult way was the most grown-up she has ever felt, even if she initially failed. And Campbell helped her understand how to do that.

Now she sees how she should have told Mr. Touchy-Feely that he really should ask BEFORE touching women, not that he would have remembered to do so, since he was clearly not sober.

"Men do a lot of things to groom women for sex," her therapist said. Alice wondered why the hell people do not know this...

Because we don't talk about it, Alice. We just pretend this shit doesn't exist, and then the problem continues.

What the hell kind of mess did I make with Jeff? she wondered. She knew she would probably never know.

***

3) It's awesome to feel attractive.

Alice had some major body image issues for most of her life. This is nothing new! Nothing new at all. But she didn't realize how being told she was fat, or that she better fix her hair or brush her teeth, or that it's time to go get a bra because men are going to stare at her nipples, screwed her up on such a fundamental level, impairing her relationships. Only pregnant dogs have nipples. Not Alice. So don't try to see them through her shirt. She's like a Barbie Doll under there.

Alice is the same size as her daughter - a size 10/12 - and has never seen her daughter as fat. But she still sees herself as fat. It is like all her trauma gave her a "fat filter" for her mirror.

What that means is that grooming her was soooooooooo easy for men, and by touching her body insecurity, she was putty in their hands. Just like most women in the U.S. Thank you, mothers, for sharing your insecurities and projecting them on your daughters. You've created the perfect storm for sexual predation.

"So, is that what you male artists say to all women?" she asked Mr. Touchy Feely, after he said, "I don't think there is one ideal body type."

Oh. She heard this before - TWICE in the last year, so now THREE TIMES, all from male artists. Her friend Jeff, her friend Campbell, and now Mr. Touchy Feely.

"What?! What are you talking about?" he questioned her, incredulously.

"I'm an artist, too, and that's what you guys always tell me. Do you say this to every woman, or is it just something that gets said to me?" she questioned.

She was feeling like this was becoming an important discussion. Since she didn't have any sort of road map of how to deal with this stuff, and it was a problem, she was feeling like she needed to figure out how this kind of thing usually goes, so that she could arm her daughter with useful information. So she could arm all women.

Campbell would admit that it was a line he used before. She feels so thankful that he came into her life when he did. He is a great communicator and also a terrific mentor. They have an understanding, she thinks, that they can talk to each other about anything, because they have both been hurt so much that they do not want to be the one to hurt the other. He's been very transparent with her about his feelings and has set a new bar for her friendships. She is giving serious thought to modeling for him, and maybe modeling in general.

Campbell helps her process her feelings about Carl and Jeff, even though his own feelings about Alice are messy, and she's not sure what hers are, either.

"I'm sorry, Campbell. I can't go there. I'm still not over Jeff, and I don't want to hurt you," she told him. Plus, he can't be the one to hurt Carl, since he has been in Carl's shoes. He's awesome like that. Selfless in a way Alice really respects. He reassures her that she is not crazy, that Jeff probably was hoping for some sort of casual fling, and that she made it heavy. That Carl could be putting in more effort, and that she was nothing short of a saint for feeling any responsibility to heal Carl's childhood trauma, which Carl's family worked actively to ignore. He recognized how difficult it was for her to do the work on herself and Carl, too, when it was hard just to want to get out of bed in the morning. Campbell stepped into the place where Jeff had been - an artist friend helping her to see the male perspective. Helping her to see that she had found The Well of creativity inside herself, and knowing what all that entails, as a successful artist himself. And he's straight up with her about her attractiveness, so she can be more mindful of how it affects her interactions with people.

It's such a strange thing for Alice to think of herself as attractive after all of the messages she has received to the contrary. But when she looks back on her life, she also sees where maybe the positive messages were there, and the poison was in comparing herself to others, or being compared to others, and she knows now, that is all a toxic endeavor.

"Comparison is the thief of joy," Campbell told her over text. She knew that. She learned that being an artist. She never really wanted her work to look like that of other artists. She wanted her work to look like whatever her work looked like. Why it was so difficult extend this mantra to her appearance, she didn't know.

Maybe it's not a line, though. Maybe women need to hear that there are lots of different and beautiful bodies. I think men need to hear it, too.


***

4) She wanted to feel THAT FEELING again, because it was the most powerful juju she had ever felt in her life.

Mr. Touchy Feely had been trying to get the attention of the women in the booth where Alice was sitting, and they had engaged him somewhat in conversation, so Alice thought maybe he was with the group, or someone they knew. He tapped her from the other side of the booth bench, trying to get her attention. The back of the bench was tall and wooden, and it was awkward at best for Alice to try to prop herself up high enough to get his ear near his mouth.

She half wondered if he was talking gibberish on purpose, and still wonders if this was part of a game.

No matter what he said, it sounded like gibberish.

Alice did have problems with mishearing people on occasion, usually in a funny way, a la Oliver Sacks in his New York Times Opinion piece in 2015. She wondered sometimes if she had an auditory processing disorder, because the mishearings often made sense, but were almost always humorous, often in a Freudian sort of way. Usually sexual, actually.

"WHAT DO YOU DO?" She finally understood what Mr. Touchy Feely was trying to ask.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, "What do I do? That's why I couldn't understand you. I don't ask people that, and people don't ask me that. But the answer is, why, I don't do anything at all." The consummate Alice.

He crinkled up his beautiful round face, neatly trimmed beard and moustache, in a puzzled look.

"What do you mean, you do nothing?" he inquired further.

***

She looked his face over, realizing he didn't have an accent. She thought he had the accent of a Spanish-speaking person at first, but there was definitely no accent. She realized she was projecting other men she knew onto him already, to try to make sense of the stranger. She was going to need to ask questions, too. She had tried to ask where he was from, and this was the question that led her to sitting right next to him, alone in the booth.

The year before, she had taken a party bus up to the Mishawaka Ampitheater for a comedy festival with her unschooling mom friend, Lydia. While Lydia was enjoying a cigarette outside with Alice's company, a man approached them and asked them what they did. Fully bonded over the fear that they and their daughters would become just like the Beales in Grey Gardens, they were out to have fun specifically to avoid the scenario of rotting in piles of raccoon poop at home.

"I'm an out of work lounge singer," Lydia offered.

Alice giggled. She had enjoyed a few double-tall rum and Cokes, her go-to alcoholic beverage, partially due to juniper and hops allergies and bad reactions to red wine. She had discovered that hangovers were minimalized by drinking mixed beverages which had enough sugar in them to prevent the hypoglycemic reaction alcohol caused. Other people over the years had said to her that the best cure for a hangover was more alcohol, which, thankfully, she always thought was a silly joke. Why postpone the hangover for another day? Rip that shit off like a bandaid. Take some B6, eat enough food, drink water, get on with the day, she thought. That is how she navigated a degree in psychobiology at Tulane in New Orleans in three years, changing her major twice, when the drinking age was 17, the school had the lowest freshman retention rate in the country, and was rated top party school on Princeton's party school list many years. She didn't do it by avoiding parties - she learned how to party mindfully, and there was still plenty of party left in her, only now it involved cannabis, too, which she preferred because she could wake up clear-headed and well-rested the next day. Alice knew how to work hard and play hard when necessary. It was always a surprise to her and Carl's friends when they could pull all-nighters.

"Where are you guys from?" the man inquired.

"Loveland," Lydia said. "She's an artist."

"Oh, I suppose you're a sculptor?" the man turned to Alice.

Alice thought for a second, wondering how the man knew that she had been experimenting with sculpture. Was he clairvoyant?

"Well, yeah, I do some sculpture," Alice compromised, realizing immediately that it's impossible to swing a dead cat in Loveland without hitting a sculptor, and that each year it hosts the largest sculpture festival in the United States, within walking distance of her house.

It turned out the man and his wife were friends with the members of the band, and they were all from LaPorte. Alice and Lydia had been gushing over the clear intelligence, humor, and looks of the comedy bluegrass band that had played earlier, and the members were riding back down the canyon to LaPorte, along with their friends.

"Would you like to come hang out in our hot tub and drink some wine?" the man asked Alice and Lydia.

Alice and Lydia exchanged a glance. There had been a man during the break on the back deck which overlooks the LED-lit Poudre River who had spoken with Lydia during an intermission, who shared his iPhone video of the lights. He had offered Alice a cigarette, which she declined because nicotine made her dizzy. Her refusal clearly hurt him - he turned away and walked to the other side of the deck for a minute.

"Your video is really cool," she said, feeling sorry for the man who was clearly alone.

She realized he was trying to pick them up. She looked over at Lydia, not for the first time, and thought how beautiful she was, how she had been told over the years that she was Winona Ryder's doppleganger, and how fucking frustrating that must have been to be treated, at least subconsciously by many people, like she was Winona Ryder, when she was very clearly Lydia, with a totally different life experience, set of skills, feelings and knowledge. Maybe to break with that image, Lydia had tattoos on her knuckles which looked foreboding, and probably kept away the judgmental, which said, "Cool Beans" if you looked closely enough.

So, in the bus on the way back, well after midnight, Alice and Lydia exchanged a glance that said, Well, now, this is an interesting development, but you and I, well, we have husbands and children to think of, and they'll be worried if we don't get back soon.

And Alice and Lydia confided in the man, his wife, and the band that they were homeschooling mothers having a Mom's Night Out, which totally killed the mood.

***

"I have been at home for the last 17 years raising my kids," Alice told Mr. Touchy Feely.

"What?!" exclaimed Mr. Touchy Feely. "Holy hell that is hot. You gave up your life to raise your kids? God damn! I like barely had a mother!!"

Alice wasn't sure what to think. She was really flattered, because deep down inside, she knew the choice she made so long ago was the best one for her family, but it was a choice for which she received a lot of judgment from others. Once, she had an older man volunteering at the Fort Collins library verbally assault her for what he considered abuse by keeping her children from the educational system, and so on some level she was always worried about having to defend her choices to random strangers. She typically resisted mentioning that she had a graduate degree in neurobiology and had studied learning and memory in particular, because she was alone in that qualification and knew many, many other people who were homeschooling, some without high school degrees, and doing an amazing job at it. In fact, when comparing the homeschooled and school-going families she knew, the homeschooling families had more cohesion and the kids made their choices in life based on desire for good for themselves, rather than maintaining some sort of image to avoid judgment.

"How old are you?" she asked Mr. Touchy Feely.

"Thirty-eight," he said. "How about you?"

"Forty-three," Alice said, honestly.

"No way are you 43," he said. "Damn."

"Oh yeah, I am," Alice assured him. She was beginning to realize she was getting this reaction a lot. She had been focusing on a neotenic diet for herself and her children for the last eight years. For those who are reading this, it means she was eating and living specifically in a way to delay aging. Her children had experienced puberty way later than their friends, and she was hoping this was a sign of success, since delayed puberty is associated with longevity, but being told she looked a decade younger than she really was felt like useful feedback for her dedicated experiment.

"Where are you from?" Alice asked Mr. Touchy Feely.

"Kansas City," he responded.

"Kansas side, or Missouri side?" she asked, smiling.

"KANSAS!!" he replied excitedly. Weird, she thought, my aunt and cousins lived in that area, on the Kansas side, and they had been on her mind a lot recently. She didn't know them. They were quiet. "What else do you do?" he inquired.

"I homeschool my kids," Alice offered.

"What?! You are kidding me. That is a LOT of work. You don't do 'nothing'!" he started rubbing Alice's arm.

"Oh no, it's not that much work, really. I just find them lots of interesting things and experiences to explore, listen to them, and get them whatever they need to develop their interests further."

"Holy fuck," he said, "You are so hot! I have never met anyone like you."

Alice was starting to realize this interaction was not anything like anything she had ever experienced before. I mean, it was, because people were always telling her she was different somehow, but this time, she was starting to feel a little warm. She wanted to touch him back, but she resisted the impulse.

"Well, uh, thanks?!" she said.

"What else do you do?" he asked.

"Well, I am an artist," Alice offered, fully knowing that if she said she had a degree in neurobiology, that could present problems for any Big Bang Theory fan of Amy Farrah Fowler, whose actress, Mayim Bialik, was not only her sister's doppleganger, but also a rabid believer in attachment parenting and breastfeeding.

"No way!!! So am I!" he said. "Is it okay that I am touching you?" He was now rubbing her back, and neck. Her hair. It felt really good. She was remembering what it felt like to be around Jeff, who had once noted that she looked like Blossom. Damn, failed to dodge the bullet. Art and neuroscience are like naughty cousins, she had decided.

Oh crap, she realized. Was this a projection? Oh yeah, this guy, on reinspection, Alice thought, looks just like Jeff. He is stacked like a pile of wood. Solid. Yet touching me gently. She could still feel the last hug Jeff had given her, and Mr. Touchy Feely felt just like she hoped Jeff would feel, were they ever to touch. She felt electricity in the air, just like when she was with Jeff, when he would position himself so that he would not look at her breasts in front of his colleagues, standing along side her, electricity arcing between their shoulders.

"You have to fuck him, you know," her older artist friend and erotica writer Pearl had said about Jeff, "You are the one who has to make the decision. He is not going to initiate." Alice had spilled the beans about the weirdness with Jeff to Pearl because Pearl had lots of experience with marriage and men in the art world. Ugh. Seduction is not my forte, Alice thought.

Give him a business card, thought Alice, looking at Mr. Touchy Feely. Talk about art. That will cool things down.

She handed him her card from her new card holder, which was emblazoned with The Fool card from the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, first published in 1909. Her business card was decorated with an award-winning encaustic painting she had made of a common prairie weed, a painting that had been used for some art museum promotional material in her town. That piece had been pure alchemy - it came together in less than 5 minutes of concerted effort, but that was not something she shared with many people. She knew, when she made it, that her life had forever changed. She learned from that intoxicating painting experience that creation of art had the ability to forever change one's life.

"Oh my god," he said. "I want to fuck you."

"What?" Alice blurted. "What are you on?"

"Molly," he smiled, seductively.

Oh, damn. More Jeff, she thought. He had explained that in his life he had experimented with a lot of drugs, which was really interesting to Alice. Alice studied everything in books about drugs, but had only ever used cannabis, since it was legal in Colorado. Jeff had told her that ecstasy made him feel really touchy-feely, and she wondered if he said that to put that image in her mind, and boy did it. So, the projection IS Jeff, she thought.

"I am an artist, too," he offered. "See?" he took his phone and opened up his Facebook account, showing Alice his figurative work.

Excited, she opened up her Instagram account and showed him her figurative work.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

"Do you wanna fool around?" said Mr. Touchy Feely, who was now rubbing her back and touching her hair a little bit.

God yes, she thought, but what she said instead was, "What does that even mean?"

"No penetration," he said, looking her directly in the eyes.

She closed her eyes and shook her head, wondering if this was all really happening. If they had met in a different venue, would this have happened with Jeff? Maybe? God this guy reminded her so much of Jeff, it was killing her. She wanted to rip his clothes off right there in the booth in the middle of the bar and get down to business.

But I had let go of Jeff, she thought. She had, she thought, cleared the air. She tried to tell him how messed up her head was, but he wasn't hearing any of it. She sent him a long email, clarifying, she thought, what her feelings were, that there was never any bad intent on her part, that the flirting was fun. But in reality, she totally downplayed her feelings. She was royally fucked in the head and needed a clean break. Everywhere on the internet, in getting over heartbreak, recommendations are to go cold turkey. He had moved an hour away to Denver, so that should have helped matters. But Alice had gotten so entangled in his existence through her care for him and trying to be helpful that whenever she mindfully let go, the Universe would hammer her with a memory of him that would stab her right through the heart. Mr. Touchy-Feely was just the biggest and scariest manifestation of her feelings to date. The Universe, despite her intense efforts, was not letting her forget. She really wanted to know how he felt, and he had very carefully avoided disclosing that information, so she was left to wonder. It was making her crazy. The relationship was just another delusion. It must have been, even though everyone around her reassured her she was totally sane, maybe the most sane person they knew, they said. No, she was crazy. She was certain.

Earlier in the week, she had mindfully made the decision not to reach out to Jeff for an installation art proposal she was making, knowing that he would probably know people involved, knowing that the bulk of her proposal was inspired by their talks, by the connection she thought they had.

...Until he stopped reading her emails when she tried to be vulnerable with him. He was not mature enough to have these difficult discussions, and so she was left to heal herself, in the context of her troubled marriage to Carl, worried about her kids. This is exactly why Jeff is 40 years old and single, she thought. He can't talk about the hard stuff. He's still a child. He has not gotten over his shit.

"I'm not going to lie - I am extremely attracted to you. I really want to fuck you. But I can't," she finally mustered to Mr. Touchy Feely. Why had she and Jeff not been able to have this conversation? That is an adult conversation, right?

And now she was sure she was losing her mind, on top of it.

Luckily, her friends Ruth and Jeremy came and rescued her from imaginary Jeff, but not from the extreme lust the experience had summoned.

***

In the next bar, the group sat in a booth at the front, and Alice got into a deep, deep, hole of a discussion with her friend Jeremy.

"Do I put out a vibe?" she asked her friends. She had to find out if Campbell was just projecting a vibe onto her. He had been very forthcoming about his attraction to her. Pieces were starting to fall into place.

"OH HELL YEAH," Jeremy and Ruth said, in unison.

"Oh." She said. "Shit."

Ken, sitting next to her, was a gym rat and looked misplaced without Barbie. His Halloween costume revealed his perfectly sculpted torso. Not that Alice believed in "leagues" per se, but she definitely felt they were in different leagues. He tapped Alice on the leg. "You wanna get out of here and fuck? I'm down." She wasn't sure how Ken would accomplish that without any genitals, because he was so perfect, she was sure he was just smooth down there.

She gave him a sideways glance and shook her head.

"No, I'm serious," he urged. "I'm down."

Crap. Crap. Crap! she thought.

"No, dude. I'm married. You are totally hot, but I don't do that." Alice said, firmly.

She turned back to Jeremy and they continued their discussion about the awakenings of their conscious minds that had happened over the previous few weeks through meditation and cannabis use. They were both realizing, simultaneously, that it was shame that was holding everyone in the world back from their purpose. Alice loved these conversations, as they picked up where she and Jeff had left off. He had offered to discuss meditation with her once she got far enough into the practice. She had tried astral projection a few times, wanting to feel what she felt the two times she almost died, but she wasn't getting it. Jeremy confided that he had been trying and experienced a few tiny successes. Ruth seemed a little uncomfortable with their discussion, and Jeremy backed off. Alice knew that whatever she was tapping into through the awakening of her consciousness was powerful and important, and she was tired of having to be the leader with Carl, or worrying about hurting Ruth with her connection to Jeremy. They both knew she and Carl had struggles, and they knew she was messed up over Jeff. She knew they were important on her journey - as the Universe had brought them and Campbell into her life after a major attempt to let go of Jeff. The Universe rewarded her efforts with some amazing people, capable of having difficult discussions. And although she knew there was more to the energy with both Campbell and Jeremy and Ruth, she still longed for that potent energy she shared with Jeff. She knew how powerful it was. It made her feel like healing the world was an actual possibility, because she intuited that he wanted to do the same. But maybe she was just imagining things. Stupid girl.



She had lost a bunch of weight over the previous 22 months, and it came off easily. Her good friends had all remarked over the last year how she had a glow. She attributed it to how great Jeff made her feel, because she noticed how just seeing him from far away would make her heart flutter. She was becoming good at channeling the energy she got from being around him into creative pursuits, acts of kindness, and passionate inquiry into the esoteric. But she noticed the energy would wear off and she would re-enter her slump, if too long went between their interactions. Over the summer when she had her biggest struggle with letting go, it was hard to get out of bed in the morning.

Anything at all could bring the energy back - even a short text. She had never ever felt this way before. So satisfied with crumbs. So fucking pathetic. Still, she couldn't bring herself to block his email, texts, or social media. Not that it was necessary. He wasn't going to reach out to her unless he needed something - that much was clear. And she wasn't going to reach out to him, lest it give him the same mind-fucky feeling. Maybe he was trying to let go, too.

She had asked herself how she could have made things work with Jeff. She and Carl had done a lot of talking, and he had given her permission to sleep with him just once, earlier in the Spring.

It felt like a crumb, and it felt like the world, all at once. But she wasn't even sure she could sleep with someone outside the context of a relationship, or sleep with Jeff without things getting even more messy, because the only information she had about his feelings were his body language, which said, unequivocally, I want you.

Maybe he just had a vibe. Maybe he was this way with everyone. She felt totally at ease with him, at least until he told her he wasn't reading her emails.

"Oh, damn," Carl said. "He just signed his death warrant."

 Smart guy, Alice thought. I could be more mindful about what I let in my mind, too.

***

Ken and Alice followed Ruth and Jeremy back to Ruth's place, while Alice asked Ken about himself. Ken was new to the area, and Ruth had told Alice that he was invited, how he would be dressed, and that he was trying to meet new people. What she didn't say was that Ken hadn't been with a sexual partner for over five months, and he was ready to hump anything within swinging distance of his boxing gloves. Alice thought if she could learn something about him, she could keep an eye out for someone who might be a good partner, more than just a fuck buddy.

He said he saw death, and when she asked him how, she said when he was in the Air Force.

"Oh, wow. In the Air Force? How in the hell?" she had advised her son to enlist in the Air Force if the draft were ever reinstated, just as her father had done.

"I flew troop and cargo drops," Ken offered.

"Wow," she said, feeling sad for what he must have seen, remembering her neighbor dying on the stretcher, gasping for breath, just three years earlier. She remembered all the animals that died by her bare hands for half-baked experiments, watching them take their last tiny breaths after she pulled out the entirety of their blood volume with a syringe, or scratching away at the inside of the Lexan box filling with carbon dioxide, or the twitching of their bodies after she broke their necks between her thumb and forefinger, and then cut their heads off with surgical shears. In the name of science.

"Yeah, that sucks. I almost died twice," she offered. "It kind of fucks you up."

"God damn," he said. "How?"

"Once I fell off my bicycle when I was 14 and was in a coma for 4 hours. Then I almost died when I was in labor with my daughter. I saw my whole life pass before my eyes, felt peace, felt satisfaction. Changes your view of what's important in life, for sure," she explained.

"Fucking A," he said.

Every question she asked Ken made him more and more frustrated!

"How do you eat? Are you keto? You know dieting isn't healthy..." Alice had been around the block with healthy eating paradigms, and explained that she had moderated large health communities.

"God damn, I think I am going to ejaculate right here," he said.

What the absolute fuck? Alice thought. Everything she said made it worse. Talking about that stuff with Carl over the years made him clearly agitated. But finally he was coming around to all her white powders, liver and carrots, her proud renunciation of vegetables. Walking and sex were adequate exercise to keep them both appealing to the opposite gender, along with Alice's strange regimen. Everything was rooted in joy, and it was channeling incredible sexual energy and youthfulness. Carl saw it, too.

"No, sorry, Ken. I only have permission to Mind Fuck. You can have all the mind fucking you want."

"I'm down," he replied.

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