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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why Dogs Don't Commit Suicide

George Carlin once described dogs as having a simple philosophy:  If they can do it, you can watch.

Their decisions are simple.  They're either eating, drinking, barking, peeing, playing, pooping, mating, licking, scratching, or sleeping (my Ratcha actually barks and poops at the same time, which I call sharking).  Dogs do have thoughts, but nothing like, Should I go with the gold or the indigo blue eye shadow?  Should I break up with Amanda, become a Buddhist, or take a fencing class? 

I was wandering around the lower level of Neiman Marcus the other day, searching for the restroom.  This lower level was for men's clothing and fine housewares.  Odd combination, don't you think?  Anyway, I was looking at a whimsical furniture line and thinking to myself, This might go well in a small English cottage, someplace Beatrix Potter might have written Peter Rabbit.

Then my phone rang.  It was my 9 year old daughter saying she had to stay after school because she'd failed to finish a social studies assignment on supply and demand.  Just after I hung up, a heavyset woman asked if I needed any help.  I was bent over, trying to see a price tag of $285 on the underside of a crystal decanter.  I told her that no, I was fine.  Just looking.  Then we discussed the types of items on display, including the whimsical furniture with it's black and white checkered patterns mixed with grandma floral upholstery, how much my husband would hate it, and I said, "It all boils down to what's soulful and what's not."

She agreed, although I don't think either one of us knew what the hell I was talking about, not yet at least.

My husband insists that dogs don't have souls.  I don't agree.  I think all living things have souls, that to be alive is to breathe, to inspire, to have an essence.  My husband thinks that only humans have an essence, a soul, that only they get to go to heaven.

Heaven would be boring with only humans.  We're too unnecessarily complicated, too petty, too stupid.  It takes us too long to learn the most important things, how to love well, how to live and die well.  Dogs don't have to learn these things.  They just know them.

I think it's significant that humans were created last.  Almost an afterthought.  God created all of nature, the flora and fauna, the planets and stars, and then he made the messed up people, the only part of creation to fail.  Why is that?  Why would anyone create creatures with a known failure glitch?  A surefire trigger to fall?  That's like using playing cards to build a skyscraper.

What was he thinking?  I'm gonna make these big, hairless, talking mammals that mess up all the time.  It'll be fun.

Considering all the choices we humans have, it's no wonder we make the wrong ones.  There's too much going on around us, social media, thousands of religions to choose from, deliciously unhealthy foods, and cable channels galore.  Dogs don't have this problem.  They don't have to decide what they're in the mood to eat or Tweet, which god to follow or movie to watch on HBO.  Dogs don't have to search for the down escalator to find a place to pee within a mega-commercial-worship-complex.  They just....Go.  Need to eliminate?  Nature says, Not a problem.

Dogs live in the uncomplicated moment.

Not humans.  They go nuts when making decisions, either too impulsive or indecisive.  Sometimes they have to research how to make these decisions, with the head or the heart, whether to follow their intuition or make pros and cons lists.  They even ask trusted friends for advice.

Why would we ask other people what we want?

Henry Miller once wrote, "The purpose of discipline is to promote freedom.  But freedom leads to infinity, and infinity is terrifying."

People aren't free.  We're too mentally untethered to be free.  We've either got thoughts scattered all over the place, like a train wreck, or our heads are so crowded we have to go to classes to learn to focus on what really matters, our own breath.  We meditate to get away from our own minds.  We have to clear out space, find a focal point of nothingness in order to pray, to listen, to hear.

Again, dogs don't have this problem.

I have a great coffee table book titled A Home For the Soul by Anthony Lawlor.  Lawlor introduces the reader to the soulful connections found in all homes, how a stove expresses the transforming power of nature, how clothes closets reveal our inner personalities, how to find the mythological and archetypal meanings within common objects of daily life -- beds, bathtubs, shoes, loaves of bread.  He explains how to use wood, tile, brick and stone to express qualities of the spirit, how to create meaning with furniture and personal objects.

This is just another example of humans trying desperately to find soulful connection, to locate the pulse of their own souls, or connect with others.

But check out Fido, taking a nap, snacking, licking himself or his poor anxious owner.  Dogs aren't feeling any existential angst, looking for their lost souls or struggling to keep them out of the mud of sin.  For dogs, there's no such thing as sin.  There's no such thing as evil or a haunting Devil.  For our canine friends, there's just nature, biology, instincts.  Dogs feel no shame, have nothing to apologize for, no reason to ask forgiveness (unless we yell at them for peeing on the synthetic carpet).

Dogs are just hairy, stinky, uninhibited creatures full of natural joy, which must be pretty awesome.

Maybe the problem with humans is that we have too much supply, of everything.  We have too much time, too many choices, too many unnecessary decisions to make.  All these choices, and we still demand too much.  The opposite should be true.  Demand should go down, but it doesn't.  Humans are never satisfied.  Our minds are fragile, inflamed, eternally stunted.

Maybe it's us humans who are soulless.  Maybe we're here to learn from the dogs.  Maybe we've got it all wrong.  After all, Dog is God, backwards.

We have this vast complex world all around us, exquisite beauty and mystery, but we always ask for more, bitch about no WiFi or why Seinfeld had to end, why there's not more leg room on airplanes or Doritos chips in a bag.

Maybe some day we'll figure it out, how we're supposed to go about this life thing with less misery and complaint.  We'll learn how to be consistent, how to cooperate with each other, how to be free without getting stuck or running over each other, killing each other.

Life is life.  It's a gift.  It's not meant to be squandered or broken into pieces.  We've been poisoned by ego and endless layers of soulless stuff, the Jimmy Choo shoes and $285 decanters, political hierarchies and "reality" TV, warring religious views, superstition.  We're stuck on which brand of deodorant to buy, how many cents per kilowatt we pay, who's kissing whom and what's for dinner.

We've become terminally distracted and suffocated beneath mountains of heavy, heavy stuff.  Now we can't breathe, and forget finding a pulse; we don't have one.

Pay attention to Fido.  He's here to teach you what you once knew.  Take it easy.  Romp and play.  Shark if you want.  Really live.

Monday, March 16, 2015


There are four plastic crates on the floor of my office.  Each is full of photographs, notes, personal journals and short pieces written about my family, a few of these published in local Houston newspapers and magazines.  There are five Jumbo Hefty bags filled with letters from various family members   Each letter is still tucked inside its original envelope, some dating back to 1972.  Many of these voices have been forever silenced.

Only a handful of the oldest journals remain, two years worth salvaged from a fire intentionally set by a deranged man in 2001.

If I had them all today, the journal made of notebook paper and bright yellow yarn would speak first, that first entry penned from a pink bedroom in Crowley, Texas, 1974.  Those pages would lead to 1984 and a red spiral notebook, unsteady words describing a violent immeasurable loss.

That particular shock was paralyzing.  It took three days to write such a difficult entry.  Shock is like a tourniquet, to keep a mind and heart from hemorrhaging.  I couldn’t speak, eat, or breathe.  

Writing this memoir will feel just as difficult at times, but the stories and characters won’t rest until I do.  Their chains rattle in my head daily.     

This story involves my parents, Joseph and Beverly Williams, my siblings, Charlotte and David.  Our family reached completion on East Crenshaw Avenue in Polytechnic Heights, where I was born and my family lived from 1964 to 1973.  We then splintered off in separate directions, toward others, toward drugs and alcohol, the streets and homelessness.  Mental institutions, hospitals, halfway houses and jail cells received a few family members who wrote letters from these and other temporary addresses.  Sometimes home meant a cluster of trees near busy highways, a roach infested motel or halfway house, a trailer without electricity, or a clapboard shack on a hog farm.  We each had adventures, lost and found each other over and over again along the way.  Some were luckier than others.  

It’s quite an undertaking to connect the heavy crates, faded photos, reams of notes and essays, to piece together the letters and journals as one continuum.  It’s even more difficult to blend the voices of both the living and the dead into one song.

And where does the song begin?  In the one-bedroom house on Crenshaw with my father’s red, white and blue guitar?  Or at the Houston morgue where one mystery became two?   Do we open with the bloated body discovered by a neighbor, or with the wailing sirens of emergency vehicles racing toward the Crenshaw house, my family gathered in the front yard to escape the fire my mother started in her sleep? 

My father has given me what he can to help solve various other puzzles.   We’ve exchanged letters for twenty-two years, sometimes in a question/answer format.  We haven’t seen each other since 1998, for reasons I still can’t put into words.

My sister Charlotte is also my memory, her almost nine years of back story preceding Crenshaw Avenue, kindle for that first fire.

My task is to paste until every piece has a home, to trust the story to know where to begin, which is like throwing a dart at a Jupiter.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Soul Glaucoma

Glaucoma runs in my family.  My dad has it.  He puts medicated drops in his eyes every day, to lower the pressure on his retina -- the light-senstivive tissue at the back of the eye.  Lowering this pressure prevents further damage to the optic nerves which connect the retina to the brain.

If he didn't use the drops, the vitreous humor (fluid) would build up and cause extreme eye pressure, damage the optic nerve.  Eventually, he would develop tunnel vision.  Then the tunnel would get smaller and smaller, until it disappeared altogether.

He would be completely blind.

I have high pressures in my eyes too, since my early 20's.  But the optic nerve still looks good, so no drops yet.  But I do worry about my vision, a different kind of seeing.

I used to think of depression as seeing only the negatives in an envelope of photographs.  The images on the negatives are real, but they're the dark version, the ghosts of familiar objects floating with eerie shadows.  It's the creepy side of reality.

But today I revised this metaphor.  I think depression is more like glaucoma.  We're still aware of our surroundings, what they're supposed to look like, but we can't see beyond the small tunnel.  Our spiritual vitreous humor is backed up, creating extreme pressure that chokes our vision, shuts our soul windows.

I've been struggling for months to keep a positive outlook.  Life has been challenging, and I've worried considerably about my most vulnerable loved ones.  Even when the pressure has been siphoned off, I've still had trouble seeing.

I couldn't find the crock pot or my auto insurance card.  I lost shoes and a jacket.  There were missing hand towels, medical reports, car tags, house keys.  I couldn't find joy, the light or my future.

Then today I woke up happy.  No particular reason.  Of course I embraced it.  But I noticed that it felt a lot like when we fall in love, how that high suppresses any negative reality.  The joy supercedes worry and pain.  We can get a speeding ticket or a late fee, stub our big toe or forget to pick up a prescription, but that's okay.  We're in love, and when we've got that, we can handle just about anything.

Even soul glaucoma, at least when it's in remission.

When it's not, I can't handle the slightest hangnail.  All obstacles, even the tiniest blips that very few radars would ever pick up, feel like a horrendous assault on my spiritual being.  And it's all because I can't see.  I'm blind.  And what I can't see, even though I know it's still there, feels lost forever.

Today when my joy returned, I found many other lost items.  I found the crock pot in a lower cabinet. I remembered that my lost shoes and jacket had been relocated to a storage unit to make space in my closet.  I found my auto insurance card, right where it'd always been, in my wallet.  My hand towels were near the crock pot, the medical reports were in an accordion folder, and the car tags were where I'd left them six weeks earlier.  So were the house keys.

These items were never lost.  I just couldn't see them, or remember where I'd put them before I lost my joy.  It was as if a life recorder had stopped where my vision ended, and the useful tapes were just out of reach.  The recorder stopped creating new memories, at least ones I wanted to remember.

Depression is very real, and can be as debilitating as complete blindness.  Even worse, once that tunnel completely closes off, so does the human.  Because it isn't only a sense of light we lose as our retina ceases to measure it; our life energy stops registering.  The life force never makes it to the brain.

I'll hold on to this joy for as long as I can, this light I can feel and see.   I'll believe it's permanent, just as I often believe the darkness is.