Although I have a good life and good friends and a good job and good hobbies, I still spend a lot of time alone. That, combined with the fact that my car radio doesn’t work, results in me providing my own life soundtrack much of the time. When I’m solo, I talk to myself, whether I’m driving or cooking or hiking through the woods on a photographic trek. Sometimes I sing. Sometimes I pray. Sometimes I try to be still (Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God”).
But stillness doesn’t come naturally to me, and so even when I’m quiet on the outside, my mind is often racing. Not like running a marathon, with a clear goal or finish line in mind, or even a logical progression from Point A to Point B, but much more like running away from something, running from some pursuing agent, running aimlessly with no direction other than away, away, away. During those times, when my thoughts are crashing blindly into the fruit carts that line the streets in my head and careening off passersby, memories intrude. Unbidden, they reach up and grab me like zombies coming out of manholes, and I can never shake them off. I have no choice but to stop, stop and remember.
And just like that, a sudden memory:
I was eleven or twelve, sleeping in one day. I never had a real bed. Throughout my childhood, I slept in what I later learned was an institutional cot. It was small, smaller than a twin-size bed, with a foam mattress a couple of inches thick, and a wire spring. I could lift it up on one end to make more space in my bedroom, like Linda Hamilton in Terminator II doing chin-ups in the insane asylum, though this was long before that movie came out. I vaguely knew that other kids had real beds, but still hadn’t quite grasped the fact that we were poor and that’s why we didn’t have things like other people had.
From my room that day, I heard my mother’s and sister’s voices downstairs, thought I heard them say the word “boiler.” Groggy with sleep, I remained in bed, but soon got up and realized that I was alone in the house. My mother seldom went outside. The addled abacus of my mind started adding things up, and I imagined that there was something wrong with the boiler in the cellar, that it was about to explode and my mother and sister had left the house, leaving me there. I was in a panic and called my brother across town, wanting to know if anyone had heard from my mother, if they knew whether something was wrong.
It didn’t occur to me that day that my mother would never, ever leave me alone in the house if she knew there was any danger. I loved my mother and I knew that she loved me (my sister, not so much), but for some reason in that moment, I was afraid that I had been left alone to die. Those were the sort of thoughts that I had, all the more bizarre because of how specific they were. Those were the places my mind had learned to go, before puberty and the craze of hormones could be blamed for anything I thought or did.
Not long after, my mother and sister came home. I don’t remember where they had gone. I only remember the terror. Perhaps tellingly, my paranoid ideation went unremarked. In more than twenty-five years, this memory has never left me.
This is the new Sunday feature: Glimpses into my head. Be afraid. Be very afraid. But enjoy the bigger pictures.