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Saturday, May 29, 2021

Presumed Innocence

When I look at an “innocent” human life at four to six weeks gestational age, I think of Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy (so *cute* as babies), because so often the word “innocent” is applied to zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. Human development, like cancer, is “staged.” Because important things happen in every stage. Also, like cancer, smaller is better in terms of how likely it is to kill you. But I digress…

I’ve wondered about this a lot, the “innocent until…when?” Are they innocent until they can have a conscious thought? Until they have an ugly thought? Until they experience physical desire? Until they intentionally hurt someone? Until they become sexually active? Was the Virgin Mary perpetually “innocent” but for the rest of us, does simply being born annihilate all our “innate innocence”? Is there any such thing?

Isn’t innocence a lot like happiness? Fleeting, spotty, and randomly occurring (among the “living”)? Are we only innocent while standing still and incapable of having thoughts? 

And what is “good”? 

Psychopathy can be physically demonstrated on an MRI of the brain. Which means that if an embryo had a fully formed brain, we could scan it and predict who’s at risk of becoming a serial killer. But we wouldn’t be able to scan for sociopathy or narcissistic personality disorder, because these are “nurture” events, not “nature” conditions. We also can’t divine which embryos will later develop tumors in their left temporal lobes that may cause them to do heinous things like murder other humans. 

Some of the worst serial killers had as many as thirty victims, maybe more. In the context of a conscious human being murdered, a being capable of laughter and tears, hopes and dreams, memories and musings, “innocence” makes more sense to me. Because on the whole, these humans were realized potential, animated beings who dreamed out loud and suffered when they died. 

A woman is born with ovaries housing every egg she’ll ever have — one to two MILLION potential people. Only a handful will become actual people, and some of these will become miscarriages or bundles of anomalies inconsistent with “life.” Which is another interesting word:  Life. 

Is a single-celled amoeba alive? Is a single cardiac cell, capable of beating on its own, “alive”? Coral reefs? Plankton? Atoms? (I hear the audience screaming, “Souls! They gotta have souls!”). And to that I say this:  The Greek word for soul is “psyche”. So can we call the SOUL a MIND? And a mind lives in the brain. And when does a brain house a mind? When can it “think/feel”? Third trimester of pregnancy. But I digress again…

I don’t think we can know when life “begins” because we haven’t meaningfully defined “life.” If conscious life outranks unconscious life, whole minds outranking mindless/soulless life forms, and if no one can discern which embryos are “good” versus bad, then “innocence” is no longer a useful defense. Especially since no one can really define it. 

By the way, Jeffrey Dahmer converted to Christianity before he was murdered in prison. So if you’re “good,” you’ll meet him in “heaven.” 😁 I’m so excited! (IF I make the cut…😬).

Saturday, April 22, 2017


I was once asked to state a belief that will not change. 

Only one came to mind, that the only permanence is change, that our beliefs must grow as we do, evolve as we do. But this isn't the sort of belief I was asked to write about. The belief had to be solid, cohesive, perhaps grandiose, mainstream, connected to a movement and rooted deep in popular culture. It had to have a documented history. But all I had was a concept, a way of seeing. It wouldn't answer prayers or grant immortality, so what good was it?

Countercultural ideas are threatening. Just ask Jesus.

So many of my beliefs have been challenged in the past two decades -- that love conquers all, that my children are protected by the crazy intensity of my immense love, that God will protect me because I'm as special to Him-with-a-capital-H as my children are to me, that there's a super cool heaven after death, that we each have one ultimate soul mate. But I grew up and away from all that is safe and soft. After that, there wasn't much left to cuddle up to, hold tight. The old beliefs, like the comforting plush toys I slept with as a child, fell apart, from their button eyes to the thin stitched mouths. These comforts were replaced with reason in a process both painful and freeing.

I do believe in love, but don't believe it conquers all. It can't conquer addiction or infidelity, mental or physical illness. But it helps. For me, love is like the idea of God (or whatever you prefer to call your higher power). Love, like a higher power, can only ease the pain. We can love the addicted, love the unfaithful, love those suffering with illnesses of the body or mind, but we can't love the wrong away. God doesn't "cure" people. God is an energy field of possibility, similar to those plastic toy mazes that little bb's roll around in, the sort you get in a Cracker Jacks box. The choices made tilt the maze in various directions, rolling our unstable bb's toward various outcomes, toward fate. 

Sometimes circumstances beyond our control roll us toward hell. And no, it's not fair. But we can't blame God anymore than we can blame gravity. If we didn't have to wrestle with gravity and imperfection, if our wills had wings, we could float fate wherever we wanted it to go.

But we're not in control. Prayer doesn't work like a letter to your congressman. It isn't a red order button at Sonic. It's not a wants/needs vending machine. Prayer is a meditation, a listening inward. We often have an answer we're looking for, but not the courage to face it, the quiet to hear it, nor faith in our own wisdom. When we pray to get centered, to pause our movement within the maze, we usually feel better. We think better. We empty our vessels of thought junk, the lies we tell ourselves, unnecessary barbs of fear. Prayer is good, but it's not a way to win a lover back, cure someone's cancer, or win a game for your favorite basketball team.

Belief. I don't believe in much. In a way, that's freeing. But for a long time it made me feel like less, like when all the candy is gone and the Waterford dish is empty.

I once loved the occult, all that convoluted mystery scented with nag-champa incense and patchouli candles, full of bright crystals and gypsy palm readings, bejeweled psychics and handmade dreamcatchers. I believed that supernatural influences were behind everything, working on our behalf. I believed that our fate was known in some far away heaven, our destinies written by a divine author in flowing white robes, that our soul mates followed us across lifetimes. Life was beautiful in an incandescent way, an emotional stimulant and kaleidoscope of everything I most needed to be true, and like the high of any addictive drug, it became more and more difficult to sustain.

Nowadays life has more realistic hues, still beautiful without the shades of Unicorn White or Psychedelic Silver. Life isn't what I wanted for Christmas, and Santa is just a fat man, maybe even a pedophile. But there’s power in learning to accept reality. It builds serenity, courage, and wisdom. And reason makes you sound like less of an idiot.

We don't have to give up beauty or meaning. The universe is exquisite just the way it is, adorned only by nature's laws and the evolved ethics of love. The real world provides real furry creatures to love and hold (and feed and walk and clean up after). There's plenty to believe in without embellishment. The universe doesn't need a grandfatherly persona to win popularity or respect, nor does it need to love us per se, though in a way it does. The universe wants us around, not because of any sentient wizard behind it all, but because life's instinct is to create, to preserve itself.  Life seeks life, not obedient minions.

That is enough for me, even without the promise of an afterlife; especially without the promise of a forever ME. I came from star matter. Stars die. But life's finitude is essential to its worth. 

And now that I think about it, reason does not make us less in the metaphor of the crystal dish sans all the addictive sugar; there’s clarity when the vessel is clean, an unobstructed view of the light. And the cool thing about light? It's constant.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

And This I Promise...

The first alarm went off at midnight, a shrill continuous thrusting of sharp metal through our eardrums.  Then we heard what I knew was coming, my autistic son's screams.

He wasn't hurt, just filled with terror, the kind that erases all rational thought.  His mind was on fire, not our house.  He screamed my name when he saw his father's image in his bedroom, "No!!  I need Mom!!"

He calls my name when he's afraid, as though I am omnipotent, the panacea for any ailment, any assault.  He has not yet learned that my skill set is limited.


A few months ago my nine year old son began having nightmares and developed a fear of fire alarms and thunder, of the electricity being cut off during a bad storm.  He hates shrill sounds and the absence of light.  These feelings are mostly universal, but the intensity of his emotional reaction is not.  His autism exacerbates these reactions, blows them far out of proportion.  He becomes paranoid, so much so that no matter where we go, he's watching the skies and assessing the risks, scoping out the ceilings and tops of walls, looking for the nearest fire alarms, looking for fire pulls.  If he can't find them he asks me to help.  I assure him that no storms are coming, that any rain will be gentle, that the fire alarms won't go off.  Unless, of course, there's a fire.  But there will be no fire, until there is one, but...  Don't worry, my love, Mommy's here.

For now.

When these fears began I decided to purchase a small crucifix for him, a crude rendering made of natural stone.  I placed it in a wooden treasure chest along with a small keychain flashlight.  I told him the stone cross would keep the nightmares away, and that if the electricity were to go out, there was a source of physical light in the treasure box.

I gave these crucifixes and treasure boxes to several boys who have autism.  They all attend a sacrament preparation class I co-teach at our Catholic church (a position taken to protect and keep an eye on my son).  All of the boys had tearfully described bloodcurdling nightmares and it broke my heart.  They think literally, so I knew a physical talisman would help, despite my lack of belief in the supernatural, no matter what form it takes.  

It was no surprise when the boys' mothers reported later that the nightmares had stopped.

I'd known the crucifixes would be effective, not because of their shape or intended meaning, but because of the power ascribed to them.  My daughter had a similar item to sleep with when she was younger, a purple "dragon tooth."  We'd purchased the three-pronged "tooth" from the Texas Renaissance Festival in 2008, an item we had to take with us on every trip away from home lest she refuse to close her eyes at bedtime.

I glued the Dragon Tooth back together many times once her little brother was old enough to discover and break it.  At some point a tip of one of the prongs on the tooth was forever lost, which didn't render it any less potent.  The magic remained intact, and even now that my daughter is nearing her eleventh birthday and no longer needs the magic (or has assigned it elsewhere), she still keeps the Dragon Tooth for sentimental reasons.  It sits on her dresser beside a stack of dragon fantasy books, near her favorite jewelry, a few inches from a mirror she pays much more attention to these days.

Last night the alarm went off multiple times as my husband struggled to identify which battery was defunct.  There were several, it turns out, so I let my nine year old sleep in our bed, his cheeks still wet with tears.  He remained close to me all night, a part of him always touching a part of me -- a foot on a foot, his hand resting on my arm or gently holding my hand.  He needed to feel safe and secure, to attach to a more powerful source that would drive down the volume of his terror.

This morning we're all tired from last night's drama, from being awakened at midnight and again at 3 am.  My neck is stiff from remaining in the same position all night, stuck at the edge of the bed, stationary so as not to disturb the fragile tranquility of the sleeping child beside me.

The 9V batteries in every fire alarm will be replaced today.  They won't last forever, of course.  One day this or next year, per much experience, one or more batteries will fail.  At that time my son's terror will likely return.  There will be storms in the interim, our home rattled with intense thunder, the inevitable wrath inherent in nature, squashing our minuscule ration of power.

There will be darkness, which I cannot control.

All I can promise is my best effort, that I will be here to protect him as much as I can for as long as possible.  But my son knows deep in his bones that one day my energy will fail.  I will lose power and my physical light will burn out.  Until then I must teach him that his treasure is an abiding trust, an unyielding faith in something greater, an ideal held in our figurative hearts, or perhaps genuinely ascribe to something physical we can touch and hold, no matter its shape.

The goal is to feel safe, to be seen and loved by a warmth we can we can touch in our most vulnerable moments.  It is a universal prayer that crosses all divides, this reach for tranquility, for enduring light, no matter how ephemeral the source.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Abandoned Places


I’ve always had a thing for brokenness.  I’m drawn to broken people, broken lives.  I love the Japanese aesthetic, Wabi Sabi, which is a way of seeing beauty in brokenness.  Nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, nothing is finished.

This is probably why I’m so drawn to abandoned places.  I have a board on Pinterest for abandoned places — mansions, mental institutions, amusement parks, nuclear plants, farmhouses.  Every place has an essence, even unoccupied.  There’s something about an empty place, a place stopped in time, humans taken out of the equation. The stillness of inanimate objects and invasion of dirt, leaves and even trees, creates an echo of the past, creates the same melancholy in me as a long baleful train whistle.

Time has stopped in these places.  Memories have stopped.  But life is not stopped.

I can’t help but try to imagine the lives that once moved there.  I’ll imagine mentally picking up the trash, cleaning and straightening the curtains, fluffing pillows, vacuuming.  I add people, television sounds, music, stories, drama, and love.  But I can never get it right.  What came before is a mystery.  Where souls go when they abandon the body is even more of a mystery.

In most dream interpretation books, houses represent spirituality, like the home of the psyche.  Multi-storied houses are vast and perhaps more accommodating for old souls, etc.  There is meaning in hidden  rooms, behind locked doors, down below in the dark of the basement.

When I look at abandoned places, it’s like looking at a postcard from death.  The souls have all gone elsewhere and now there’s just stuff, soulless matter.  If the house were a repository for the soul, now the soul is gone, and the house is empty.  Like the body when we die.  The body is just stuff.  I want to donate my stuff when I die.  Why leave it to waste?

Anyway, here comes a segue…  Since I live in Autism World, I see a lot of disabled people, every kind of disability.  I see broken minds all the time, broken bodies, broken lives.  Some can not contemplate their own lives.  Which makes me wonder about the mind, the soul, the part of us that is believed by some to live on after we die.  Some believe that this part that lives on will inhabit a new and improved body, will have a  new brain.  

Will my son be whole in heaven, if there is such a place?  Will he no longer struggle?  Will there be a forever home for his beautiful spirit?
Such a scenario would bring me great comfort, but I have my doubts.

If things are above as they are below, then who’s to say we don’t have abandoned houses in heaven?  Even stars die, and the rate of star birth is slowing.  The universe is full of black holes, black throats swallowing anything nearby, an emptiness so deep as to have tremendous mass and gravitational pull.  Not even light can escape.

Julian is starting to worry about dying, about me dying.  He says he wants to be with me forever.  The first time I tried to comfort him with talk of heaven, of us being there together one day, he thought for a moment then asked, “Will we play Angry Birds?”

In other words, will we have corporeal lives?  Things around us to knock on, taste, wrap our arms around?  I think not.  But I won’t be telling my son this.  He needs reassurance, to be certain there’s a place for us, a forever home.

A place is never just a place to me.  The older, the better.  I feel the rich texture of history in the oldest places.  I’ve been known to put my nose to the walls, to reach as far as my mind is able to sense the lives that came before, to honor them.  

I did this once in an abandoned hospital.  The x-ray department was the only part of the building left operating and I was the sole employee.  Because I was rarely busy, I often took walks around the empty building.  The eeriest place was the surgical ward.  There were overturned tables and gurneys, a few tourniquets and empty glass canisters.  The walls were turquoise ceramic tile, still shiny.  The large domes of overhead lights were darkened, covered in dust.  Straggly wires protruded from broken intercom systems.

I stood for a long while in one particular suite, imagined all the life-saving surgeries that had taken place there.  I also imagined how many lives were lost, then wondered if it was truly possible for souls to literally float away from their bodies to occupy a corner near the ceiling, to watch human hands working frantically to save them.

In that moment I longed to gather all the lost souls, to give them a proper send off, say a few words in the room where they separated from their bodies or went out like a light.  I wanted to tell them someone was thinking about them, whomever and wherever they were now.  The room was so empty, so empty that emptiness felt like a heavy thing, like an entity.  The emptiness felt ancient, an unanswered ache from a bottomless forever.

Maybe this was just me feeling sorry for the dead, feeling sorry for my dead, feeling sorry for myself and everyone else slated to die one day.  I have the same haunted feeling when I look at pictures of abandoned places, when I watch a funeral procession or walk through a cemetery.  When I listen carefully to a ticking clock.

No life escapes death.

We’re told over and over again that the stuff of life doesn’t matter.  We’re told that our bodies will die, that we can’t take the stuff with us, that only the soul matters — the soul and love.  Which may be why that’s all I can think of when I look at an empty place, where neither exists.  

I pine for the knowledge of what came before.  Were there children?  A father?  What was the last meal prepared in the empty pot on the stove?  Where did the sounds go?  The laughter in the amusement park.  The screams in the asylum.  The conversations about nothing, whispers in the dark, secrets and ‘I love you’s’.  The steady hum of unanswered prayers.

The blemished walls will never tell me. But there is life there, in the cells of the inanimate, in the secrets the walls keep.