Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Divination Project, Part 2: Human Kindness

<Click here for Part 1: Mind Fuck>


"Why do I get the feeling you've been in my head with pruning shears?" Carl asked one evening as they sat down in their "smokatorium." They had a sitting room off their bedroom in their master suite, which they used to binge watch Netflix and "Deep Talk."

"Because I have," she smiled, coyly.

"What the hell did you do?" Carl asked, nervously.

"I cut out the shame!" she winked at him.

***

Mondays felt crazy. Tuesdays, too. She just blocked those days out of her mind, like they didn't exist, and threw herself into them headlong as if she was diving into a pool to swim laps. Hmm, Alice thinks as she is writing, I never was very aerodynamic - I'm not sure that's the best metaphor. Anyway, Just Keep Swimming is the mantra that gets her through those days. Luckily, sometimes she gets to visit with Lydia on Mondays. They sit outside Lydia's old church turned black house (black is actually a totally awesome house color, for those of you not living within the confines of an HOA, or maybe even if you are). The inside is painted in primary colors, and Lydia's family's love of all things Tim Burton totally comes out in their decorating. Their house is full of whimsy. They are, too, although a series of serious losses over the last few years has challenged them significantly.

Some Mondays, Lydia isn't available to chat, because she is working at the bookstore. It is the first "real job" Lydia has ever had in her life, and Alice is a little jealous. Lydia had struggled with the hoops the newbie employees had to jump through, thinking she might quit. But Alice saw her at work - saw her emitting a whole new light - when she was shuffling books and answering questions for customers. Her black pageboy haircut evoking thoughts of Catherine Zeta-Jones in the movie Chicago.

You're collecting stories for your writing, Alice had told her. That's what made Alice feel jealous - the stories were coming to Lydia, whereas Alice had to navigate the fine balance of meeting Carl's isolated neediness and satisfying her inner extrovert.

"Yeah, yeah. You're totally right," Lydia confessed. "I'll hang in there. It is way better than sitting around here all day doing the same thing over and over." And that comment was enlightening to Alice because she found Lydia to be one of the most creative people she had ever known, possibly because she was rarely personally beholden to hierarchical structures. She exuded freedom. Yet she still struggled to find The Well within herself.

***

Outside the house is a metal patio table, a kerosene heater, a grill, and a garden. Lydia's husband Giuseppe comes from old Sicilian stock in Chicago, mixed with Irish. The family loves all things Irish, and Lydia has taken her kids with her alone to the western part of Ireland.

She has also published a book of her poetry and studied under a locally-famous poet.

Alice has a copy of her favorite poem of Lydia's, invoking Virginia Woolf and a woman's need for a space of her own, on the wall in her art studio.

The women sit at the table, umbrella cranked down, at mid-day.

"What's this?" Alice asks, picking up a business card as Lydia lights her first clove cigarette. Alice breathes in the smoky air, taking her back to high school hangouts at Paris on the Platte in Denver in the 90's. Alice is not a smoker, but will sometimes indulge if the mood is right. Smoking makes her really dizzy - and it's probably related to an "overproduction" of cholinesterase enzyme, which doctors haven't figured out. In her own research, she found two possibilities - the first, she shared with the toxicology team at CU. Cholinesterase is the first gene downstream from the cystic fibrosis transmembrane receptor (CFTR) gene. She is a carrier for the delta F508 mutation, one of the most common deadly mutations in the Caucasian population. Presuming that the expression of both genes was controlled by a single promoter sequence, she intuited that her body would upregulate the expression of CFTR, and therefore also the expression of functional cholinesterase.

The toxicology team's response? "That sounds very plausible. And why aren't you working in the field?"

Because I have more important work to do, she thought.

The other reason she discovered was in the work of her favorite Gonzo scientist, Ray Peat. Buried deep in his work, she found a discussion of cholinesterase levels being higher in animals raised in enriched environments, over the usual laboratory animal domicile. While yes, she was a housewife, Alice was never afraid to put chores on hold to indulge her curiosity. In fact, she had made her home a virtual rabbit hole. So, she thought, it stands to reason that my cholinesterase might be really high. But also, if such a significant change was seen in the cholinergic system just from an enriched environment, what did that mean for like ALL of scientific research? She often thought of her laboratory animals, alone in their cages with nothing to do except bite at their own tails. This was a thing that happened. It was almost like all of science, therefore, was studying the effect of institutionalization on living beings. And it didn't seem like a good thing.

She saw this effect in the lives of people around her who needed their homes to be totally clean at all times. She wondered if the cleaning compulsion was a cause or effect of the boredom.

There was a purple ceramic steak knife stabbed down through the table next to business card, and a shiny skewer, hanging down through the holes in the metal.

"Oh, that is my friend Campbell. He came by last night and we were up really late talking. He used to live next door. He is a sculptor," she said. She explained that he had moved to Denver, but was in town to see the Sculpture Festival.

"Is he on Instagram?" Alice asked.

"I don't know," Lydia confessed. Lydia never used social media. She was very careful about what she let in her mind, and when.

Alice found his website and his Instagram profile, thought his work looked cool, and followed him.

***

The Big Experiment wasn't really fair to her family, Alice sees in retrospect. Or maybe, it was more than fair! Sure, the children, Nolan and Sally did not choose to exist. They were brought forth through Alice's blind faith in the flow her heart, like everything and everyone else Alice had in her life. None of us chose to be here, but almost all of us are born into slavery of some sort unless we choose to see and seize all opportunities for freedom mindfully. In childhood, this is done in secret, and hopefully with the encouragement of our parents, although in having children, they, if not totally awakened, can not only fall victim to the slavery imposed by the industrialized world, but also totally enable it through how they choose to use the resources they have accumulated. A life truly lived, Alice realized, figured out how to use the system, rather than have the system use her. This was, she realized well into the experiment, the most important thing she could teach her children.

She made the assumption she would do just as her parents did - have two children, try to breastfeed them, go back to work, put them in preschool, drive them to activities in the summers and after school, instill some sort of belief system, and then launch them off as whole individuals into the bright, sunny world. That's certainly no experiment - that is the standard life arch in the United States.

Every step along the way, however, brought her to a new level of awareness about the nature of things, and caused her and Carl to take an alternate, and they hoped better, route.

Firstly, Carl wanted three kids (like in his family growing up), and Alice wanted two, not just because there were only two children in her household. Alice had made lots of observations of the families she knew, and she definitely didn't want to have a "middle child." In her 20-something year old simple mind, middle children were inherently screwed up psychologically, and beyond repair. To willingly make someone a middle child was foolish. Plus, she argued, two hands can grab two kids. Furthermore, there's always an odd man out.

Luckily, biology and the ridiculous state of the healthcare system in this country would ensure that two was the number, and the number was two. Three was right out.

That was a good thing for Alice, because she was frankly exhausted by other people's children, and although she considered neither of her children a burden, she knew and felt her limits, largely imposed by her past unhealed trauma. Alice thought often about how hard it was for other parents. They had to have bedtimes, and rules, and such things because otherwise their kids were very poorly behaved, they argued. Their kids needed structure, they argued.

Alice's kids were probably viewed as wallflowers, she thought. They were quiet. Observant. They watched others and shared their observations with Alice later.

But any time Alice would run into any of these homeschooled kids later in life, she was always struck by how well adjusted, confident, and sincere they were. There is a definite difference between them and their schooled counterparts, primarily in how they relate to other people.

Most school kids are detached, aloof, almost entirely concerned with image.

Not all of them, but many, exude an energy of sorrow. Angst. Teen angst is normal, right? Just a normal part of adolescence.

***

If she had to do it all over again, she would do it mostly the same. There was really so little that the kids needed - it was her presence and the food that were most important. Her kids wore hand-me-down clothing, had hand-me-down toys, frequented thrift stores and the library with their moms and friends. They borrowed things from other members of the homeschooling community, because everyone was on one income. One of her friends had a household income for a family of 4 which was just $24,000 during the recession - well under the poverty line.

The kids were showered with gifts for Christmas and Birthdays, and didn't typically receive things at other times of the year. The Santa illusion was broken early, after a mindful discussion where Carl and Alice unanimously agreed that lying to one's children is evil, and maintaining false illusions that keep people slaves to capitalism under the veil of religious dogma should be the first lies to go. "We are giving you these things for Christmas because we love you. Many kids don't get this much stuff, and it's not because they're bad kids, it's because they are poor," was their message. Every year the family "adopted" two children in the Larimer County Foster Families program for Christmas. Alice took Nolan and Sally shopping individually for their gift recipients. It became the highlight of the season.

Alice put a lot of thought every year into what to buy for the members of their extended family. It was a very frustrating time of year for her, trying not to overspend, so she didn't have to float anything on the credit card for many years. The first year they had a surplus, Sally came down with appendicitis on the first of January and needed an appendectomy. They had a catastrophic health care plan with a $5800 deductible, which cleaned out the checking account again. It took a few years, with serious health crises every January, for Alice to put down her foot about the Holidays. Alice and Carl's on the surface easygoing attitude about the holidays meant that Alice was running, running, running for the holidays, trying to imagine what all these privileged people in her extended family needed for Christmas, and then feeling like a failure.

She would start shopping around Halloween, so as to not put too much pressure on herself in December. For the kids, she always bought fun books on the subjects they enjoyed - lots of "How to Draw" books for Sally, and lots of books on hacking for Nolan. Stuffed animals, toys, a couple board games. If there was a new game console out, that was usually "the big gift."

Because Alice studied psychology, she did her best to keep the kids from advertising. A lot of Alice's head was advertising jingles. She estimated that some 70% of her knowledge was advertising, on some level, and she didn't want that for her children. When they were young, she did not keep them from television, but they would wait until after 3:00 to turn it on, and they always watched PBS. The kids were each given their own computer quite young - at age four. Carl's success in life was directly related to his competency and relationship with technology, and Alice did not want to keep her children from tools they might be able to use expertly to manifest stability for themselves in their adult lives.

Most families saw technology as an evil - time spent at the computer a way to make a serial killer or a school shooter. But Alice and Carl felt differently. They saw technology as a way to bring humanity to connection and enlightenment, and for many years, that is exactly how Alice used it.

Nolan loved the PBSKids website for playing games. He found one about mindfulness and advertising with kids when he was six or seven, and became personally devoted to spotting advertising. Sally could spot manipulation in Alice's parenting techniques at just age four. "Mom, that is a bribe. Don't control me with bribes."

Were the kids enlightened because of Alice and Carl's parenting style, or were they just born like that and allowed to stay that way? Alice wondered about this a lot. She didn't believe children were born evil. She believed, after birthing two of her own, that children with colic were hurting and needed comfort. She believed that toddlers acting out needed sustenance, connection, or a break from activity. She believed that adolescents felt judged and under pressure to reject basic parts of themselves. She believed that teenagers were under tremendous pressure from their parents to figure out who they were underneath what they were told to be, and never knew who they could trust. She believed that twenty-somethings were hopefully finally getting the time to figure themselves out, without parents or teachers telling them who they were. She believed middle-age people were under a whole lot of pressure to find love, lest they be lonely forever. If they did find love, then they were under pressure from their parents to provide grandchildren, and if they did provide grandchildren, they often found out that all the pressures from their own parents, society and the workplace left them without their own identities, which they only found through the fleeting still moments of life. She believed older people had either worked through most of the demons acquired through the earlier parts of life, or they didn't, and those demons eventually killed them, through heart attacks, cancer, stroke, or alcoholism. The cure for all this sorrow, Alice realized, was compassion. Compassion for others, but most importantly, compassion for ourselves.

***

Because Alice and Carl were doing better financially than a lot of the other families, they tried to share their extra time, money, and things with the rest of the homeschooling community. They gave away unused curriculum (when they used curriculum), household appliances, furniture, clothing, and other useful items to people in the group before donating to the thrift store.

Alice researched many health topics and often consulted families on food allergies and behavioral issues, pro bono, and volunteered in many capacities. Because of her background in neurobiology, Alice's mind was tuned to finding dietary information specifically targeted toward increased intelligence. She became a follower of the artist, philosopher, and neuroendocrinologist, Raymond Peat, whose writings had attracted the attention of the natural health movement. On a hormonal level, his work is concerned with the balance between estrogen and progesterone, serotonin and dopamine, excitatory and inhibitory stimuli. Because of this, Alice often looks at things in life on these spectra, relating them to the yang and the yin.

Whenever Alice helped someone, she tried her best to show her love for the Divine in that person. She would show love for the struggles the person had endured. She hoped that when the person left the interchange, rather than feeling like they were not enough, they felt love. She knows it didn't always work that way, though. Some people, Alice herself included, had trouble seeing the beauty in themselves and others.

***

As children, Nolan and Sally were fairly precocious. Nolan was reading chapter books by the time he was 5 years old, and was fixing his grandmother's computer's operating system problems when he was 4. He taught himself Python programming language at age 8, and learned several more programming languages before he was 11. He wrote an operating system using MIT's Scratch programming language (like programming with legos) that year, and was invited to attend their conference. His community robotics team won the national autonomous programming competition for the high school division when he was also 11. Nolan was a sensitive and curious kid. When he was very young, Alice and Carl were under a lot of pressure because Carl worked in abusive work environments.

Alice was unable to watch The Office on Thursday nights, because it seemed too much like what Carl was bringing home. He felt unchallenged and even stifled in his work. They had paid over $7000 of their own money to move back to Colorado when Nolan was a baby, only to learn that Carl's parents were moving to Oklahoma. They knew of this plan and didn't tell Alice and Carl. It took a long time to pay back the money, since Alice and Carl had two car loans (the one time they had deviated from Alice's father's astute financial advice) and a mortgage, one income and a baby who had to go to the doctor a lot. Or at least Alice thought he did, but doctor visits were highly stressful, and she wonders now how things would have been different if she had just handled all health problems with her intuition, like she does now. That was a long road for her, though. Probably a book of its own, actually.

Nolan's normal pre-preschool emotional outbursts were frustrating for tired Carl. Carl's first employer in the Colorado Springs area was a woman in the area who was notorious for verbally abusing her employees. She hadn't done it to Carl, but he watched it happen to his colleagues and knew it was just a matter of time. In retrospect, Alice wonders if maybe Carl's boss was not getting the medical or mental health care she needed, and wonders, if she had taken the time to get to know the woman, if she could have helped make life better for dozens of families in the area. It certainly had to be a big job to keep all those people employed on a series of time-limited government grants for the Defense industry.

Carl's next employer was less verbally abusive, and more emotionally abusive. If he forgot something in his car after he had used his badge to enter the workplace, he was questioned about his comings and goings. The company, which designed industrial digital cameras, had been incubated by an entrepreneur in the Springs area, but sold to a Canadian entity. Alice and Carl shake their heads when they hear their friends talk about running away to Canada. Everything in Canada, it seemed, at least from Carl's employment experience, was about the justification of large systems of bureaucracy. Every part of Carl's job had a piece of paper involved in it. When designing a cutting edge, $30,000 digital camera in 3 months, Carl was admonished for not having enough meetings during the process.

Like Carl, Sally preferred to fly under the radar. Alice was actually surprised to learn that she knew how to read when she was not quite six years old, because Sally disliked anything that smelled of instruction. "Why didn't you tell me you could read?" Alice asked one night at bedtime.

"I didn't want anyone to tell me I was wrong," Sally said.

Sally was pure intuition. She spent hours and hours every day, drawing, drawing, drawing. Doing art trades with other artists. Maintaining mostly positive social media accounts with over 3000 followers. By 8 years old, she had invented several unique drawing styles and by 13 could draw anything from her mind's eye very quickly. She figured people out rather quickly, and once surprised her mother at four years old by declaring a friend's mother, "Bossy." Maybe she said "manipuwative." It's totally possible. By 14, she was learning algebra on her own.

***

Alice was a fool. She still had physical reactions to doing anything that might hurt someone else. Her butt would burn just a bit, like it used to after her mother used the hairbrush on her. So the last thing she ever wanted to do was punish her children. She always tried to understand where they were coming from when they "misbehaved." Usually, they were tired, or hungry, or couldn't physically do something they wanted to do, because of their age. She tried to help them be satisfied in all ways when they were little, and so they were calm, compassionate, and caring children, and still are.

Alice read a lot about stress and intelligence, and she knew that she wanted her children to experience the least amount of stress possible. That meant indulging certain interests like technology. It also meant forgiving their mistakes, and talking to them like they were other human beings, rather than slaves, or animals. Alice knew people who talked to their children this way, and she saw the way the words shook the relationship's foundation each time. She saw how the children became bitter and sullen. She felt sad for the children, and for the parents.

Typically the parents had strong convictions about how to parent until a kid had a major crisis. Typically this came about through a suicide threat, which worried Alice even more. Alice knew how it felt to live with criticism - how difficult it becomes to see any worth in oneself, when one is hearing the same sad messages over and over - "You're too loud, too sensitive, too stupid, you're lazy, you're a brat." When you're a child, you don't realize that your parent is just telling you all the same bullshit their parent told them. And it doesn't take much to start believing you are a burden.

Then, as an adult, you hold your feelings inside, because you don't want to be a burden to anyone.

And people mistake that isolation for lack of interest. Lack of love.

***

Misunderstandings usually come down to one of two parties needing to be the one to swallow their pride and extend an olive branch. The olive branch can take many forms. Some people might pray for the person they care about. But, we all know how people really feel about "thoughts and prayers." What good are thoughts and prayers when you have a sword, or three (for Tarot enthusiasts), firmly lodged in your heart?

An olive branch can take the form of poetry, or art. Or even a short story.

Or a novel.

Alice wasn't sure how she was going to extend an olive branch to Jeff. She really, really missed him a lot. She missed his chipper attitude, his generosity, his kindness, his genuineness. She missed the way his cowlick stuck up on the back of his head when he got out of his truck. She missed the way his voice reminded her slightly of an Italian kid from Chicago. She missed him in his black sweater. She especially missed his big brown eyes. But then, when she said she loved him, he pointed out that she couldn't, because she didn't even really know him. Yeah, she thought. I guess I didn't.

That hurt almost as much as his refusal to read her emails.

God, this must be what it's like when someone you love dies, she thought, crying as she typed.

He was the one who encouraged her to write. The Universe was screaming to do it, too, so she did.

***

Alice and Adam sat on top of Mariana Butte, looking out at all of the City of Loveland and the Colorado Front Range on Friday morning. Alice had asked Adam to meet because she had, suddenly, a bunch of questions about modeling.

Never before in her life would she have thought modeling would be in her career. "You could be a hand model," her mother used to say.

Hand model? Is that a thing? Alice thought.

As a young mother, another mother in Nolan's playgroup was a hand model.

"You could be a cheerleader," her mother also said.

Maybe her mom was onto something, and not just totally prideful.

Alice's mom and dad were members of a discussion group at their church, which they had joined in 1978, the year Alice's sister Kathryn was born, and the year Alice's grandfather Henry had died, and the year Alice's mother learned that she was adopted. It seemed to Alice like the couples in the discussion group, all parents of her friends from church, sat around and talked about her and her friends all the time. Like the parents were living vicariously through them. It made her feel a little queasy. Because of this, she was sensitive to this energy in parenting groups - it was so easy for parents to start one-upping each other or feeling that their way was better, and if couple X had just done what they had done, they wouldn't have the problems they did.

Never judge a man until you walk a mile in his moccasins, Alice thought, even though sometimes she wished people could see past their blind adherence to social norms, and how that adherence contributed to their problems. In her view, most compulsion was toxic, but she didn't know how to express that in a way that didn't sound totally hedonistic.

The sentiment was best captured by Ruth Hulburt Hamilton, in the last stanza of her poem, Babies Dont't Keep:

The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow
But children grow up as I've learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I'm rocking my baby and babies don't keep.

She saw families running from one activity to the next. Was it driven by curiosity, or compulsion? There were certainly families where the compulsion made itself fully evident. For these people, everything they did seemed perfect. They were involved in everything, and their kids were constantly bickering. Or there was one kid who just wasn't having it, but didn't have a choice in the matter.

The advantage to having more than one kid, Alice thought, is that the children learn compromise. Yes, that was certainly true, but also in families with more than one kid, there was less pressure on the children to fulfill hopes and dreams for the parent. The inherent critical voice of the parent was diluted over multiple children, hopefully evenly, but usually concentrated on the squeaky wheel. The one who didn't fit in.

Families are a microcosm of society. Messages imparted to parents are unconsciously handed down to children. So if, as parents, we are hanging out with parents who are insecure or critical, and not fully secure in ourselves as parents, we can end up spreading that insecurity and criticism to our own children.

"But Janice got all A's this semester," Alice remembered her mother saying.

"Yeah, so... I'm not Janice, and besides, if Janice doesn't get all A's, she gets punished," Alice thought. Alice had gotten a "D" - her only D in her entire school career on a report card, because she refused to do a 20-something page coloring packet in her 7th grade science class. She did it to rebel against the teacher, to rebel against busy work. She wanted to learn actual science. She had been captivated by mixing vinegar and baking soda in the sixth grade, and wondered why they had never done such an easy experiment before. But it was clear that in middle school, she would just be re-learning everything she had learned about science from textbooks, and the real science would remain shrouded behind a veil of concern about litigation about what happens when you do actual science with 32 inner-city students and no classroom paraprofessional, because there was no money. During the Iowa testing done that same year, her teacher would claim that he ran out of 7th grade tests, give Alice an 8th grade test, and she would still place in the 99th percentile.

It became clear to her that middle school was just a very expensive and not very effective babysitting service, which served as a machine in which to concentrate judgment during the most vulnerable time of a person's development, when they're all amorphous and not sure who they are, and some of the kids are developing, and everything is just plain awkward. During her 8th grade year, there was a national movement to bring 6th graders into middle school, and even at that age, Alice had a sinking feeling about what this meant for the future of society. In 6th grade, she had finally been at the top of the heap, and at 12 years old, she was not ready to be with the more "mature" 14 year olds.

Were they more "mature," though? Alice still thinks that the pressure on kids at this age to fit in with their peers and separate from their parents cements the self-hatred we have for ourselves, and forms one of the larger wounds, typically surrounding body image, that we all have to work to transcend for the rest of our lives.

Did her parents' group sit around and talk about their kids' bodies, like Alice's parenting groups sometimes (but rarely) did? Probably. There were and are two physicians in the group, psychologists, attorneys, university provosts, ministers, and teachers. Alice wondered how the group walked the line between elitism and vulnerability. It must have been a struggle.

***

Adam had been one of two male artists in her figure drawing group to choose her to be a featured artist in a Fort Collins Co-Op gallery. It was her very first show. She had been on photo shoots with nude models with him, and coordinated the timing, breaks, lighting and posing of the models. Most of them were highly educated. He had asked her if she would like to model years before, and she had scoffed.

She told him about Campbell's plans to make a cast library of their bodies, and that Campbell had said that if at any time, she was uncomfortable, she could stop, even if the mold was just about to set. He explained that it would be a fairly intimate process, and said that she could bring along anyone she wanted.

At school the day before, a friend from her Art History class told her he was going to be a model for figure drawing, before she even got to share her news. Such strange synchronicities had been appearing regularly in her life, and it was clear to her that there really was a collective consciousness. There were so many that she began to read them as wayposts set by the Universe, to let her know she was on track.

"So, Adam... tell me... how many full-figured models are there in our area?" Alice asked, as they walked to the Butte Trail.

"None," he said. "No, actually there is one, larger than you, but none like you."

"Do you think there are none because women like me won't model?" Alice inquired further.

"Yeah, that's exactly why," Adam responded.

"So, what about this muse thing? What is that?" Alice wanted to know.

"Oh, I don't know. What is it?" Adam asked.

"Oh, I thought you knew. I guess you can work as a model and helper for artists or writers? But I don't really see how that is different than my friend helping her 30-something year old man baby friend make travel arrangements. I can do stuff like that."

"Yeah," Adam said, "You can do ANYTHING."

He was right. Alice had lead several nonprofit groups, built websites, sent out newsletters, managed social media accounts, worked as a patient advocate for her senior citizen friends, attended two births as a doula (not counting the births of her children), did alternative health consulting, written copy for organizations, done lay translations of scientific papers, made complicated travel arrangments for large groups with multi-city stops, fixed washers and dryers by herself, changed tires and oil in cars, and apparently she did this all while being an unwitting seductress. (Insert snort here, Alice says). For five years, she did all of that with a baby on her hip.

Earlier in the year, she had driven her friend Pearl around the Los Angeles Metropolitan area on a Memory Lane kind of trip. She thought maybe she could take people on genealogical or memory excursions. Pearl had told her that she volunteered in hospice after her own cancer diagnosis, which got Alice thinking about doing the same. As a child, Alice accompanied her mother on many trips to nursing homes and private residences to keep senior citizens company.

At the Women in Paris art exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, she had an older woman approach her about being a travel guide in art museums in Europe. "No, I don't currently do that, but I might like to," she said. Carl loved going to art museums with her. They visited the very best in Munich and Vienna the year earlier, Alice cheerfully skipping from painting to painting, pointing out what she knew about German Expressionism. If she could find a way to tour the world and share a love of culture, she would do it.

A few years earlier, after frustrations in finding out that even on the local level, the art world can be a "meat grinder" - thanks to Alice's cousin who works at the David Zwirner gallery in New York City for that reference - Alice figured out that her primary purpose in life was to enrich the lives of others. As long as she was doing that - which she had to do for herself, first - she was happy and could do it for others.

***

"I would like to be the very first female Hunter S. Thompson," she announced, after her long-time friend asked her what her five year plan was.

Alice really did love people, almost as much as she loved rabbit holes. She loved people in that they were their very own rabbit holes. She always believed, from the time she was young, that every person she came into contact with had a lesson for her. She went through her life with this attitude, believing this about every single person.

Sometimes it got her into trouble. Well, not really. People seemed to really care for Alice, and in general tried to keep their trouble to themselves. Alice is trying to decide how to write about those times, still, because they aren't really her stories, even though she was made privy to them. She has learned that when people are desperate - when they feel like their basic security is threatened - that is when they will take the kind of risks that can bring serious trouble. It is because of this that Alice is most angry about income disparity in the United States, and how the rampant consumerism that arose when women started working ultimately channeled resources to a very few people at the top. She thinks often of how ridiculous it is that there are CEOs who make hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and believes that if people were mindful of how their dollars were channeled to various interests, they would stop doing a lot of things they do which adds to this disparity.

She meets lots of interesting people who are awake to these things. She meets amazing, selfless, generous, and struggling people. They struggle because they are judged by the dogma propagated by religion, the educational system, their parents, and have trouble loving themselves. What this means is that many of them have struggled with substance abuse, the results of which have further separated them from the people they love. Alice can understand this, as she has her own vices which keep her from her family - specifically rabbit holes, and people.

She questions the kind of faith that keeps people in secure cliques, safe from the real trouble of poverty, the reality of the world, where they can assuage their guilt by tossing a $20 in the collection plate. She questions even the kind of open-minded, supposedly dogma-free religions like Unitarianism, where simple weekly meetings contribute, even subconsciously, to an us vs. them mentality. "We welcome you in, but we don't go out" is the message.

She'd like to think that exploring other people and rabbit holes, however, broadens her mind in a way that frees her children and herself from self-judgment. She saw how when she put herself out there as an artist doing figurative work, there was a lot of encouragement from her friends and family. Certainly, they could have had problems with her sitting around drawing nude people. One second cousin asked her on Facebook what the point of drawing nudes was.

"It is the best way to get good at drawing, fast, because there is nothing harder to draw than the human form," she replied.

There is also something shame-reducing about it. When her artist friend Michelle invited her to the figure drawing group, initially, she did it in secrecy. Alice was delighted. In college, Figure Drawing was one of her favorite experiences. She still remembers the first time her professor brought in a nude couple. This was the first time she would draw a man (which still doesn't happen that much, because men are actually just as or more ashamed of their bodies as women). She felt strange looking at his penis. It reminded her of seeing her friend/attacker's penis when she finally woke from her alcohol-induced sleep. The professor walked around the class of 15 or so art students, observing, and then, suddenly said, "Draw the penis, folks. He has a penis. Look at it."

Alice now wonders how much of what is wrong in the world has to do with men feeling shame for their penises - those magic, pleasure-giving, life-giving, outward manifestations of masculinity.

***

When she got home from her evening out with Jeremy, Ruth, Ken, and Mr. Touchy Feely, it was nearly 2 am, and Carl was still partly awake. When she had left him, he was upset with her. She could feel it. Carl isolated himself a lot. Alice didn't know if it was because he didn't have role models aside from herself to help him feel comfortable making friends in the community, or if it was just because he was a man. Or if it was because he felt tied to his desk, lest there be a question his clients needed answered. But she had made a decision that there were some friendships she needed to keep for herself, because he had a way of changing the whole energy of an interaction.

At 2 am, what she really wanted to do was go to sleep, but she knew neither of them would sleep unless she filled him in on the evening's happenings.

Carl started out frustrated, but as she told her story, he saw what she saw.

She went out and talked to men like they were more than just a paycheck or a good screw. The men weren't sure how to deal with this, or how to deal with a woman who was actually just there to meet people and chat.

"I get plenty of sex," Alice had told Mr. Touchy Feely. "I don't really need that." Yes, that is what she said, even though, as previously mentioned, she was battling some gnarly projection and the energy from the ecstasy he had taken.

Jeremy and Ruth had said that maybe they could help her with her Gonzo journalism project, and they had made her first official "assignment" a success in her mind. She had learned something about herself, about men, and about consent. It was, sort of, an extension of the dialogue she had started with Jeff before things got weird, because neither of them were mature enough to guide the other through the weird. Alice is hoping that has changed.

"So, you see, I'm thinking I need to go out and do this, and write about it," she told Carl. "Sometimes I might not be strong enough, and something uncomfortable might happen. But shit happens in life, and it's all a learning experience."

Carl admitted that his frustration was just being left out, and Alice nodded, sort of understanding his loneliness and feelings of abandonment, but also feeling like this was something he needed to figure out for himself. She didn't feel ownership over him. She did not see him as just a paycheck, or just a good roll in the sack (even though those were both vital functions he performed in their relationship). She encouraged him to consider enrolling in school, or even taking a part-time job doing instruction to feel more actualization in his life, but he never went for it. That was his choice. She couldn't make choices for him. She felt badly for men in general in a culture where their socialization revolves primarily around national sports conglomerates. The happiest men she knew were artists or writers, who mindfully sought out social groups of people with similar interests.

Wherever Alice went, however, connection seemed to manifest. She just did this by being herself, by listening thoughtfully. She saw how people felt alone, and she saw how she could help.

***

"Oh yeah, we have to do that," said Lou. Alice had known Lou on the internet from her health forums for many years, but had not met her in person, even though she lived in the same town, until two years ago. Lou is a yoga instructor and personal trainer, with the same weirdo beliefs around food that Alice has. Lou and Alice believe that what's wrong with food is actually related to eschewing dogma and figuring out for oneself what foods work.

Lou does energy healing and hypnosis and helps a lot of people in the area heal from physical and psychological trauma, and she does this despite and because of having experienced much of it herself.

After Alice had a crazy moment and posted some salacious pictures of herself on Instagram, Lou messaged her and invited her for a drink. They connected over their Mirror Touch Synesthesia, and the need to take care of their own energy so they could be better agents of healing. And later, their common obsession with astrology.

Can you have too much Sag energy in a friendship? Well, they're going to try to find out! According to Goldschneider, a Yale Psychology Professor and inventor of Personology, Lou and Alice are just like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. Finding that out just stoked their fire even more. They are going to go out and talk to men, just to get to know them! Both Lou and Alice have experience having groups of male friends, since Lou was in the Army Reserves, and Alice's college friends were all in ROTC. They know the soft center of a man, and how to get there. They are both comfortable with language like, "Don't shoot your load already," and use it in their everyday vernacular.

Alice's therapist, Siggy, found the idea not worthwhile.

"Yeah, if you talk to men about feelings, it comes out as sexual energy," she explained. "A big part of my job is navigating transference with men."

Oh, Alice thought, Is that what happened with Jeff? She was very curious about what his life was like as a single guy and an artist. He probably wasn't used to anyone taking an interest in him as a person, because people just don't do that. Maybe she inadvertently confused him, right off the bat. And then maybe she picked up on his sexual energy, and it was kind of like a giant amplifier every time they saw each other. It kind of felt that way, anyway. For this reason, Alice had sought out a continuing education course for professionals in therapeutic settings on transference. But even that continuing education course pointed her to the answer that it was actual love and not just transference, even if it started out that way. Siggy concurred, and Siggy didn't always concur.

But that was definitely the case with Carl. One of the reasons Carl and Alice were together was that they had met on the internet. Alice used to meet lots of men on the internet - in fact she had a few drive across the country to meet her when she was just a teenager. She would talk to men about their trauma, and while that didn't always manifest feelings of desire in her, it nearly always did in them. She felt like she was doing something good by lending a supportive ear, but often what ended up happening was that she had to reject the men's advances.

But with Carl, there was a mental, physical, and spiritual attraction, at least at first. Like most married couples, the physical part was tempered by exhaustion from parenting. The spiritual part was all but killed by Carl's rigid renunciation of all things religious, because of his parents' association, even loosely, with fundamentalism. Alice had to find her spirituality again, and she didn't even know it, and might not have ever figured that out, if it weren't for Jeff talking to her about meditation. He probably saved her life.

Carl and Alice had lots of sex during this time. They were both losing a lot of weight without much effort, but were short on sleep, and Alice had a few injuries from not speaking up, or not knowing she was getting hurt because of the anesthetic effect of the cannabis they were using to be able to talk.

She finally put it together when Siggy explained it, "Men's feelings are shoved so far down in their subconscious that retrieval of those feelings manifests as sexual behavior."

Wow, thought Alice. I really need to make sure I talk to Nolan about his feelings regularly if I want to break that cycle. She could tell there was a lot he felt like he had to hide as to not upset Carl or herself. She was glad she had gotten a handle on her depression and anxiety, and now saw what a toll that was on everyone around her, but forgave herself for being human.

***
 
"This story is getting so crazy," Alice said. She was way behind on writing, and her close friends all knew, at this point, she intended on turning her life story into a book. Her truth was way stranger than fiction, after all.

Her friend Charlotte had encouraged her to enter NaNoWriMo. She knew it would be easy to come up with a topic, as she had several books brewing in her head, but couldn't get past what was happening in the current moment, nor what had happened over the last two years. Finally, she decided, just by free writing, as she had been doing in her journals, the subject would manifest. It would be divined. And so this is why Alice decided to call her project The Divination Project.

The week before, she had started a public blog post to tell her story, but was interrupted by her sister-in-law Lynne, asking her to please, please take a leap and submit one of her crazy conceptual sculpture ideas to the Meow Wolf exhibit in Denver.

"No way. I don't have time for that."

"Come on. You have two years. I will help you!" Lynne urged.

Alice came up with lots of lame excuses why she couldn't do it, chiefly among them that she wasn't ready to reach out to Jeff, and she really felt like she should reach out to Jeff, but what if Jeff had decided he needed to forget her? She didn't want to impede his progress. He had mentioned that he was making headway with his meditation before, but then hinted that something had presented a challenge for him that year, and since he was so concealed about it, she worried that it might be her. She felt badly that she might be impeding someone's spiritual progress, especially someone she cared about so much. She reached out to Campbell, instead, even though Campbell wasn't really the installation art kind of sculptor.

She decided to draw some Oracle cards to help her with the decision, and she drew The Sacred Fool, which explained that many people would not understand what she was doing, but that was because she was a trend setter, a unique thinker. It said she should be willing to take risks.

So, she took a risk and applied, feeling awful about not having reached out to Jeff, but also not knowing if it would be uncomfortable for him, feeling like he would want her to be independent, anyway. So, she went and spoke with as many people as possible, had an encounter with Mr. Touchy Feely in the bar, and wrote up her proposal, all by herself. She put Carl's, Campbell's, and her friend Hannah's names as co-collaborators, even though she's not expecting them to have the time or energy to help physically bring the project to fruition.

And, out of love, she tagged Jeff on social media, hoping he would take that as a sign she was still thinking of him. She liked an adorable picture of him as a teenager, too. Yes, I love your art, and I love you, too, she thought. She loved what he had shared with her, even if it was guarded, of his mind, body and spirit. She really did. She could tell that he had been hurt a lot. She imagined a stream of controlling women parading through his life, upset that he didn't make more money, upset that he needed time alone to make his art. She wondered if he saw her that way, when really, she saw him as absolutely perfect in his imperfection.

Campbell had validated what Alice believed Jeff needed - human touch, unconditional love, support so that he didn't feel like it was him against the world. A partner in crime, to help him manifest his vision. This was exactly the sort of thing Alice was an expert at. And she knew, from the amount of time Jeff seemed to need alone after teaching, that she would get the alone time she needed from the connection, too, even if it just meant somewhere for her to simply be. She imagined that maybe it could be more balanced, since Jeff had a basic understanding of an artist's needs for solitude. Yes, she had been thinking about being a muse, but she wanted to offer him first right of refusal before she started musing up the whole world. Alice's energy is not boundless, yet. Close, though.

These are all projections. Since they haven't been in touch, she doesn't know for sure what he is thinking. If he is following the flow of the collective conscious, though, she knows they're together, and that's what she hopes, because keeping Carl up to speed is getting exhausting. To this end, she's taking Carl to Yoga Nidra this afternoon, hoping to open a door so that Carl, too, can pierce through the Maya.

She hasn't stopped following Jeff on Instagram, so whenever he posts something, it comes up at the top of her feed. She wonders if he knows this, and she wonders if the same thing happens to him. She wonders if the Universe is purposefully working against her attempts to let go. She wonders if maybe they are supposed to be connected to bring something big to humanity through a shared vision, or maybe they are supposed to get over the shame of their connection, and learn to let love be.

Alice decides the shame is stupid, and likes the selfie he posted the day before, which popped up on her screen when she posted the first chapter of this novel. She hopes he understands that she has tried and tried to move on, but has decided to surrender to whatever the fuck the Universe has in store for her, because she understands that the best things happen when she doesn't fight her heart.

Maybe she hasn't felt real heartbreak yet. Maybe that is the lesson the Universe has in store for her.

Okay, then, Universe. Bring it, she thinks.

***

"You can't leer at the model," Alice said to Carl.

They had taken a few tokes on the vape pen and each had a glass of absinthe to relax before they headed into her studio, and Alice took off her clothes.

"We'll start with three minute poses," she said.

"Yeah, you can't look at the model like that," she reiterated.

At the end of three minutes, she looked at what Carl had drawn. His first attempts at art since before he met her.

"Don't hold the charcoal like a pencil. Hold it sideways."

Why did he have like five lines around the boobs, and just one on the rest of the parts? She wondered.

They did a whole bunch of 2 minute poses, and then some 30 second poses. She found him some harder and longer charcoal. No, that is not a euphemism. He was pushing too hard with the soft charcoal and choking up on it. Dammit.

"So, I suppose if I ever open an Atelier, I should not strip naked on a student's first day?" Alice asked Carl.

They laughed at the ridiculousness of it all.

"How do my drawings make you feel?" he asked.

"Like I am one of Picasso's lovers," Alice replied, chuckling, and then kissed Carl.

They laughed again. The shame was all gone.

She is going to have to find someone else to draw her, though.

Who is it going to be?

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