I was deep lost in a machine designed to slow time, to make it crawl – strapped in the passenger seat, nowhere near the controls.
Or maybe it was a device for creating things, making new objects out of all this nothing – whatever you could dream made real in front of you, the particles sizzling and connecting.
Or I was drifting lonely in a contraption that induced sleep. Or one that seemed always on the verge of falling apart. Or it was a vehicle for navigating the gutter space between me and everything else.
I was flying.
I was in English class, seventh period, near the end of my day. Like everyone around me, I was bored. My mind wandered through comic books. My heart was in exile, my afflictions grand and unique. I was fifteen. Boredom was, for me and my teenage cohort half asleep in the classroom, a way of life. It penetrated and defined the circuitry of our cells. And in our slumber we wanted more, confronted as we were by a world that seemed so much less.
The kids around me stared at their hands. Or at each other’s hands. They were staring.
The teacher was talking about what we were supposed to have read three chapters of for class. I flipped open my laptop to begin working on an essay due the next day , a comparison / contrast between this new book and the one we had read a few weeks before. I sat in the back, hidden behind bright colors and patterns, shirts and vacant expressions, a dizzying array of camouflage that kept the teacher from noticing me – ostensibly a good girl, invisible for all intents and purposes.
I worked on my paper and listened to talk in the background. I typed “Liz” into the heading but didn’t know what came next. I started anyway.
This is my origin story, the moment in my life when the experiences I’d experienced and all the things that I felt were translated into a new language. It’s when I realized that one of the directions open to me was FORWARD, something besides the impenetrable static that buffered and surrounded my life.
I thought about people – everyone I knew and also the people I’d read about or just seen walking around.
I was casting for an angle to take in this essay. Even characters in books are people and I realized that there are kinds of people. For example, people who do things – build things or make things happen. They put up fences or move the garbage from in front of your house to somewhere else. You can watch it happen. Whatever it is. It’s like a gift.
Then there are people who do different kinds of things, invisible things. You can’t see what they’re doing. You can see that they did it – that someone did something – but you can’t even imagine someone actually doing it.
What kind of things? What? I didn’t know.
And it was then that I realized even one skeptic could dismantle the world. Sure, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was theorizing. I was saying that if there’s this one kind of person, who does things, then isn’t there also this other kind of person? Or if there isn’t that kind of person, the invisible kind, then shouldn’t there be? I preferred to believe.
In comic books, most of the heroes already have it in them, their heroism, their sense of duty. They already possess the certainty of who they’re going to become. But it takes some kind of crisis – as if suddenly there is no choice but to become that other thing inside.
Or else what? Or else life is over, you’re dead. So just to survive, you become that best version of yourself.
And everything from before comes to an end anyway. Life is over just the same.
Most of my dreams are ordinary. I’m walking down the street to visit a friend, get hungry and duck into a pizza place. I wake up. Or I’m driving, early morning with all the other commuters. The colors of the day are pale, tinged with grey. I drive under a bridge and just as I come out from under it, a few sprinkles of rain hit my windshield. I wake up.
This is how your life begins, sitting in English class realizing what type of person you are. And to have reality collide so heavily, so dully, with one’s hopes is a crisis the same as any other. I clicked from my Word document over to the internet. It all seemed clear to me. Even a kid with no inner resources could change at least some version of reality for millions of people. Tinder everywhere, no need to steal, just there for the taking.
Everything in the world needing just a spark to bring it to life.
I imagined myself as a kind of badass liberator, a teenage savior. I started small, adding simple descriptive words or adjectives to Wikipedia entries. My goal was to make what I read somehow more evocative, closer to reality – though it was a reality that I largely imagined, fueled as it was by comic books or crackpot documentary television specials.
“Rye,” I heard the teacher say over and over again.
“Rye,” I thought.
“Rye,” I typed into the search bar. “Rye,” I read on the screen.
I clicked my way to editing mode and changed the phrase “general snow cover” to “blankets of snow.” Underneath the silence, a field that was trying to burst through. It got flagged by an algorithm for further review because maybe I had changed something too fundamental. I typed “Vigorous growth suppresses even the most noxious weed competitors” in place of “A hardy growth pattern helps overcome weeds.” I knew that not everything was simple and benign.
And it was acceptable. I refreshed and saw it on the screen.
In that moment, I was an agent of change. The work of my hands helped usher in something new, something true.
There followed several other attempts, as well as a developing sense of what it was I was trying to do. At first, it was simple – make existing things more precise, more open to the hopes of possibility.
While still in a kind of notational phase, I created a new page on Wikipedia, a page for a regular early fall day. The middle of September and the light was just right, the cool wind. I felt young and old all at the same time, felt my life happening in a way that was attuned, bursting in conjunction with all that was around me. The leaves, the way the ground felt under my feet. The look of the light on the grass and the way my skin felt as it kept me rooted to my single human location.
That night, late, after walking the whole day, I turned to my trusted methods. I created the page, the loose structure I would use to capture and thus recapture the essence of it all. The next morning I started writing what I experienced, what I had been dreaming while alive in my own day. Where I needed references, I created them, built and populated whole web pages only so that I could have a reference for the system to recognize. The world spread out before me and it was a world I created. I lived that day again and then again and again. It brought me abundant joy but at last I was done and I looked at what I had done.
The static words on the page. The core of my soul.
While I watched (I watched for a long time, transfixed and sore afraid of lifting my eyes from the screen) the words started to change. Other people, editors, somehow stumbled onto my confession. At times they changed my words, slightly – expanding in some places, or correcting the rushed and flawed grammar. Other sentences, whole sections, appeared. “The Light From Here” was one. “This Morning” was another.
There’s a story I tell myself, practically every day. I guess it seems like a dream but it doesn’t come when I sleep. I’m in a crowd of people in a city somewhere, all metal and glass, and it’s like I can feel everyone there with me. Without seeing them, I know they’re there. A big wave of human feeling. We’re looking up at the sun and the light starts shifting. Different shades of burnt yellow and orange crack across the surface. Then the segmented chunks pull apart, the light leaving gooey trails in the dark. One big heave, like a breath.
Everyone focuses on this black spot in the center of the sky, darker because it had been recently brilliant, and I think This will ruin the world loud in my own head.
All the light is still there, hanging separate, millions of pulsing fluid lights hovering around. When they start spinning around, when their speed makes them into continuous bands of fire stretching across the sky, I hear music, hollow like an echo, somehow bigger than itself. It’s the sound the lights make as they cycle in the sky.
After a while, a few of the lights break off and head toward me. It takes a long time for them to reach me and I can see them more clearly as they get closer, first a kind of reckless light bleeding into everything and then the fiery shapes resolve into bodies. Arms, a torso, legs, all sketchy and without hard borders – held loosely like a scarecrow on fire. They hang in space in front of me for a second and I feel like I’m burning along with them. One of them moves closer to me, spreads those flame arms wide and plunges them back, deep into what I know is its chest, grabbing handfuls of that terrible heat, separating it from side to side, opening itself.
Inside there’s just this small circle – like an opening. At first, I don’t even know if it’s a thing or if it’s just a space. “Feel this,” I hear like a roar, like a strike of heat against my face. I do. I reach out and find it’s an orb suspended in the fire. I feel the heart of the thing. It’s cold and white.
After the Wikipedia page and all the other websites, I knew I needed something that was more grounded. Something real. So I went offline, mostly. I don’t know how to save the world, how to create some new superstructure that will hold it together. I didn’t know how to do what I wanted but I knew how to do what I did. How to wake up. How to start to connect. How to energize the cells. How to take anything, everything, and light it up.
Last fall I got a phone book, spent days looking up the addresses for everyone listed in the same neighborhood and sent them each a postcard. It was the same message for everyone, but I figured the method of delivery and the people themselves would give it all a specific meaning, that maybe it was a spell that would bind them together – make them one.
What I’m doing isn’t meant to be comprehensive. A series of acts. A sequence that adds up. It’s designed to catch fire.
Sometimes I’ll notice a flower, or a leaf, a glimpse that happens just once. Then I’ll spend the whole day making sure it happens again. I keep the leaf on the path, I want everyone to think their own thoughts about the same thing – whatever they feel about the color on the cement or the way it all ends without reason. I encircle the stem of the flower with my fingers delicately so as to push it into view when it wanders.
I write detailed plans then fold the paper between the pages of library books. Sometimes I keep the books for myself so no one will ever know what I’ve done and there’ll just be a new gap where the book used to go. People will want. When I go online, it’s to hack websites, insert narratives deep in the source code where it won’t do any harm.
I watch as you fall slowly through your life, literally falling, and I try to give you something to grab onto. You drive the same roads and so I put something on that road – an empty wooden box, a bird’s wing splayed out just the right way – as a sign to get you to change course. Sometimes I have to do more. To make something happen. To make nothing happen.
I want to exist for a thousand years, longer. I don’t want any of this to end. But the truth is that I don’t know what can happen.
So I follow other people around. Maybe they know. Maybe that’s the point. I shut my eyes and take a few steps, open them and look around, shut them and take a few more, exercising my muscle for faith, trying to train myself to believe in my perceptions and memories instead of needing constant feedback. How anyone finds anyone in all this noise is a mystery.
Photo by Michael Loke