The Pain of Aspiration

Let me begin my letter to you today by giving an impression concerning the story of my life. In my youth, I dropped out of college because of my mental illness, and I decided to return twenty years later to the same university to try again. I was ashamed of being disabled, and I wanted so much to find success in the eyes of normal people, to regain a sense of pride and accomplishment, while overcoming my personal shame and disappointment. After my previous failure at school, my rejection for military service afterward, my proven inability in the world of work, I thought that — for some reason — the passage of time could heal these wounds, that I would get a second chance, that I could just start over, and to establish my place in the sun. I began by wandering about the campus, going into the library, and visiting the campus bookstore to look at course numbers and to examine textbooks. What I didn’t realize was that I was already too old to fit in with the other students. As I strolled about in the university commons, a girl who was sitting on the grass under a tree turned to her friend, after looking up at me,  asking, “Does he work here?”

If I had been thinking clearly, I would have taken this incident as a sign that my plans would never work out. I mentioned in my previous letter that my ideas tend to be grandiose — my aspirations were magnificent back then, too. What I wanted from East Carolina University was an old-fashioned liberal arts education. I wanted to be a scholar of English, gaining intellectual achievement and recognition, and to become fluent in Latin and Greek, even though the university only offered a two-year course in both. So I signed up for classes on borrowed money, and I did well in my first two years, even though my fellow students were sometimes hostile toward me. During my second semester of Latin, the feelings of persecution and anxiety which had been slowly building up reached a climax and I had a nervous breakdown. My medication got changed around in the hospital and, not admitting defeat, I returned to school the following fall. That was the semester I signed up to learn ancient Greek, and the professor was a good one. I did well at first, but a couple of months later, the same problems returned. It was a fast paced classroom where the professor would call on you at random. Whenever the teacher would call on me, expecting a brisk and correct response, I would freeze up and get confused. As this generated an increasing sense of apprehension and embarrassment, I sensed that my inability to keep up was holding back the whole class, and I began to sense that the other students were all staring at me. I didn’t know what to do. I began to seek out help in the department which supplies tutors for handicapped people, but I was discourteously rebuffed. I went to the department which assists students with mental health problems — I had a file there because I had dropped out of school for this reason the previous year — and the counselor told me that my diagnosis was impossible to overcome, that I should consider leaving the university, and to find other pathways and other endeavors. I signed a document with an unusually illegible signature, since I felt so lost and alone, I was terribly upset and didn’t care about being neat and intelligent anymore. The counselor hugged me and said goodbye, but I refused to listen to him, and made one last desperate move to salvage my dream. I approached the Greek professor, telling him I had a brain disorder, that I was having problems getting assistance by the university, and this was interfering with my ability to think rapidly. He accepted my explanation with a sense of misapprehension, but I hoped that he wouldn’t call on me in class in front of the other students because of this, and this meeting had disastrous consequences, because after that he took a paternalistic attitude toward me in the classroom — he still kept calling on me and I kept making absurd mistakes, confusing English letters with Greek letters based upon their shapes — and my feelings of anxiety and panic at being singled out in the classroom in front of the others with a question was being replaced by a sense of humiliation, dehumanization, and collapse. I had finally reached my breaking point, and as a broken person, I would not dare to set foot in my Greek class again.

My failure in this one class had a domino effect upon all my other classes, and not long after this, in failing at all my exams, I was ashamed to go to school at all. A month later there was an incident at Virginia Tech, where a student with mental health problems burst into a classroom with an assault rifle and turned it into a bloodbath, murdering over a dozen people before killing himself. The news shocked the campus community, and some ECU students began hanging out at Barnes and Noble wearing Virginia Tech jerseys, in solidarity with the traumatized students over there. Soon I received a form letter from the same counselor who had advised to leave the college, fearing that I might have the same proclivities as the gunman in Virginia, stating that the university knew about my plight, and still wished to help me somehow. The letter was impersonal and stale. One afternoon, after the semester was over and the students had gone back home, I made the mistake of going to Barnes and Noble myself, and as I was sitting in a comfortable chair examining a book I was thinking of purchasing, I felt a slight bump. I looked up and it was the Greek professor in casual clothes, who accidentally struck my chair with a stroller carrying a two-year old. We both turned toward each other, and with an element of surprise, we faced one another, I, embarrassed because I felt I had let him down, he, confused about a student who was the same age as himself who claimed to have a mysterious dullness in his mentality. We repelled one another like the opposite poles of a loadstone, not acknowledging one another, the professor rolled the stroller toward a different side of the store and I quickly left.

This encounter is a recurrent theme in my nightmares. I dreamed about him last night, the first time in over a year, and I don’t even remember his name, but it is common for people to remember faces rather than names. The professor had plump features, with a double chin, and long, brown, curly hair which covered his ears, with a prominent nose and a high forehead. I dreamed that we stood toe to toe — head to head — in one of the hallways of academia, being so close to each other as to mutually violate our personal spaces, he was speaking to me as I gazed upon the lips, tongue, and teeth, which were so eloquent and filled with Greek poetry, articulate in the language I loved but no longer had access to. Then suddenly he opened his mouth as wide as he could — conversation turned to confrontation! — with his incisors folding upon themselves, turning into hollow cylinders, and as they began to sprout upwards, downwards, and outwards, growing rapidly, twisting around and around into obscene spirals, the sparkling white enamel with razor-sharp points at the ends were curving towards my cheeks, and beginning to bore holes in my face! I awoke — startled — lying there in the dark. I turned on the lamp sitting on the nightstand, realizing the interpretation of my terrifying dream. My teeth were very sensitive even though they did not give me any pain, and these sensations were carried by my afferent nerves from these hard, bony appendages into certain centers of my brain, where they were synthesized with a trauma swimming in the magma chamber of my subconscious.

My molars had been of concern to me lately. A week ago I noticed a flexion in the muscles of my jaws and, for some unknown reason, I was grinding my teeth. As I continued to feel the solid texture of my molars, rubbing the crowns against one another in a rolling motion, the pressure of my jaws became increasingly intense. These were voluntary movements, coming after a strange realization that I had been deriving some bizarre pleasure in my mouth without me even knowing about it. Now that I had full awareness, I began to grit my teeth even harder, with a grotesque urge toward self-destruction — pressing down as hard as I could — and with my damaging gyrations, I began feeling the roots buried in the mandible. This was the warning bell that began to sound. If I didn’t stop doing this, I would be in big trouble. I can’t explain why I was doing it, and after I stopped, my teeth were a little sore. They felt different, but I it looked like I had quit in time.

At least, I didn’t have to go back to the dentist whom I recently fired. I used to go to his office every six months for a cleaning, X-rays, and an examination. My teeth always checked out fine with no cavities, even though there was a tiny crack in the underside of my molar that was furthest in the back. After seeing this same dentist for a couple of years, my teeth did not change, but suddenly Dr. Caldwell tried to talk me into letting him perform a root canal on that back tooth, even though it didn’t hurt. I knew that my insurance wouldn’t pay for it, for one thing the procedure was unnecessary, and for another, the molar could be pulled if need be, for it was all the way in the back of my mouth. I really began to suspect his motives when I came in for a check-up the last time, and he began to discuss my case with the dental hygenist behind my back. The receptionist made an inquiry on my insurance without my knowledge, and I was shocked when I received the paperwork in the mail. Dr. Caldwell wanted to dig out all the old fillings in all my molars, refill them, and place new crowns on top of them all. Of course the insurance company wouldn’t pay for any of this either, and I was convinced that the procedure was unnecessary; my teeth were not bothering me, and if I allowed Dr. Caldwell to proceed, he would want to do root canals on all my molars if there were complications. The price of these adventures would be over two thousand dollars. After I learned about all this, I recieved a call from the dentist office to see if I would go through with it. I didn’t even answer the phone, angered as I was with this businessman, who wanted me to raid my savings to support his lifestyle. I still had an appointment set up with him in March, but I called to cancel it and refused to reschedule. The receptionist knew I was firing them and tried her best to talk me out of it, but I was resolved to receive dental care from somewhere else.

I brushed aside these concerns about my oral health, along with the pointed night terrors emanating from the past, as I crawled out of bed and got dressed. I went into the kitchen to make coffee (I’m up to over a pot a day now) and turned on my reading lamp upon my eating table, where I picked up my novel with a bookmarker in it, to hold my place, setting my eyes upon the Wagnerian prose of Marcel Proust, my eyes traveling from left to right while sipping from my cup filled with espresso. In Search of Lost Time is a six volume work, and I’m on the cusp of finishing the final installment, Time Regained, where the protagonist and all his characters are aging like me, with Proust beginning to reach out in an effort to claw back the time that had slipped away from him.

The past flows back with our memories. We hear, see, smell, taste, and touch things which suddenly brings back the embedded and interconnected remembrances, weaving a tapestry of people and objects which form the character of our lives. Unlike Proust, I never search the past for the life I used to live. The past for me is a death, and I don’t care to resuscitate it nor look for its rotting corpse. My life at present is my best life. Even though I never search for lost time, it sometimes appears that lost time is searching for me. I will read an innocuous phrase, or hear an unimportant statement, or view a harmless and benign object, and it will trigger an avalanche of harsh memories and violent fantasies. When this happens, my emotions swing about like the branches of a tall tree in the gusts of a mighty storm. I experience a deluge of agitation, drowning in the fits of the rage commensurate with a free man restrained in the chains of injustice.

And as I was reading, the morning sun hidden by dark clouds began to bring light to the shuttered windows of my apartment, the patter of rain becoming noticeable as it was striking the roof, I found a good stopping place in my epic story, realizing that it will soon be time to meet Laura at her house and to wake her up. It was a cold and wet winter morning. I bundled up with my jacket and hood, along with my umbrella and gloves, and walked in the raw and nasty weather. When the wind blew, I could feel the freezing sensation down to my bones. As I walked down the deserted streets, the bad thoughts and moods embedded in my psyche started to calm down, and soon I was under Laura’s car port, collapsing the wet umbrella upon itself and calling her on the phone. Laura came to the door in her gown and let me in the house. Since today was the third Saturday of the month, we talked about having to stand in line at the food bank this morning, outside in the blustering weather, Laura to receive her free food and me to carry her bags for her. As Laura got dressed, and I helped her with her knee brace, pants, and shoes, we procured Laura’s empty food bags and got into her car.

We had problems finding a parking place out by the public housing projects, but after getting settled, we took the bags and opened our umbrellas, walking toward the community building where the people were already queueing up. The apartment buildings all around us had no atmosphere of domesticity, but were the austere, dingy, and jagged environments consisting of conforming brick structures along with the white plastered walls, concrete floors, tiny windows encased in steel, doors made of sheet metal, and drooping electrical wires that displayed the hallmarks of an institution instead of a home. It would be over an hour before food distribution, but everyone comes early so they could receive the best victuals before they run out.

When the local Food Lion opened its doors in Robersonville, it deliberately undercut the prices of all the other grocery stores in town to drive them out of business. Andrew’s and the Be-Lo were slowly transformed into empty shells before they left behind their vacant buildings. Then the Food Lion immediately jacked up their prices, and now Laura and I were standing in line with the people who could no longer afford to shop there. The groceries we now received from the Food Lion were delivered to us through the back door, after sitting upon the shelves for weeks, and loaded into a van instead of being thrown into a dumpster. This is the nature of capitalism and socialism. Using hunger as a means of social control, the government encourages church organizations to make concessions to the poor and to coordinate with places like the Food Lion so the state can cut food stamp benefits. I once saw some Republicans in Congress launch a campaign to reduce them even further, in an appeal to the working class people who can keep good jobs but have no education — the ones who hate people like us — who like the idea of getting tough with the shiftless and lazy. “The best way to get off food stamps is to get a job,” the congressmen declared. A lot of people on food stamps already have full-time jobs, but they don’t pay enough for the employees to feed themselves properly at home. The rest is disabled and elderly. The lawmakers knew all this, but said and did these things to stay in power. With great fanfare they took a dollar a month away from us, but started silently giving it back three months later.

As I stood in my place with Laura, quietly reflecting upon society and politics, I could see Karen walking beside the line of people still waiting, the queue getting much longer now. She was a volunteer like Laura, and the people inside the building opened the door for Karen so she could help with food distribution. Soon the line started moving. When Laura and I entered the building, and she scribbled her signature upon her sign-in sheet, Laura approached Karen as she stood behind a table. Laura opened her bag, with Karen giving her a cheerful hello, placing two cans of food in it.   I have mentioned Karen once before in a previous letter, after seeing her at the late Mrs. Roebuck’s birthday party, and, seeing her often, I once was quite fond of her. This past fall I would walk to the local convenance store to get coffee and often saw Karen walking her dog. I have also seen her in the library. The most salient feature of Karen’s personality is her sense of humor, but after a while I began to notice that her wit was always at someone else’s expense. Last month she saw me sitting in a chair because I could not stand and she cracked a joke about my back injury, throwing her head back and laughing at me, so now I don’t like her anymore. The manager of the food bank, Tina, always has a box of free food prepared for all her volunteers, but Karen is too proud to take it. I know she doesn’t have much money. Karen gets a disability check, (but she has money from a divorce settlement and an inheritance to go along with it) driving a clunker and living with her sister. Karen’s sister used to be a cashier at the Food Lion, but she isn’t anymore because her drawer kept coming up short every day, and the manager realized that she was stealing cash out of the register. Karen is one of those people whom the author Chris Hedges describes as “always willing to help the poor, but doesen’t like the smell of the poor.” The fact of the matter is, Karen is damaged goods just like everyone else in this bread line, and despite what she might think, she is no better than the people she likes to condescend to.

After Laura received her largesse from Karen, she moved along to the person next to her, who put more food in her bag. Going from person to person, keeping the line moving, I took hold of Laura’s bags as they filled up and we finally left the building. Time was moving so slowly as we stood in line; now the floodgates were opened and we rushed to the car, avoiding the puddles of water, the rain now turning into a misty drizzle. When we arrived at Laura’s house, I placed the bags upon her kitchen counter and she sorted out the cans, bags, and packages. She often asks me if I want something to eat whenever I visit her. I was thankful that now her freezer and her cabinets were full.

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My Transcendental Ego

I’ve been wanting to write you again, keeping my correspondence coming to you regularly, because it’s a big world out there and people tend to lose touch with one another. There isn’t but one person that I know of who has stopped by this blog for a visit and, after making her presence known here, has returned for a second time. I am quite flattered, Natalia, by your interest in my letters, which I send out into the vast universe of cyberspace in the hopes of leaving behind a legacy — maybe even achieving posthumous fame! My ideas tend to be grandiose, but we all can fantasize, can’t we? I also have future plans for this place in the blogosphere. Before much longer, I intend to start investing some money in it, and to try to gain some more expertise and some more readers. I would like to at least learn how to place my photo in my blog, for I have nothing to hide.

The impression I give people must be much different from the image I contemplate in the mirror. Whenever I go to see my primary care physician, one of the nurses in there always flirts with me in front of Laura. One of the librarians here in town does the exact same thing whenever I go in to check out a book. Laura doesn’t read much anymore, but I’m overwhelmed by numerous tomes and sets of volumes. I’m running out of room in my massive bookcases. I also read books online from the internet archive, in which numerous libraries are networking with each other to provide me with vast mountains of learning. For awhile, I was reading books about people and institutions that had power in society, and on how these entities slowly gain our consent so they can control us and mould our thinking, but I gave this up along with my excessive consumption of the news media. Instead, I ordered from Amazon a set of books by Marcel Proust, his epic work In Search of Lost Time. This was my first exposure to Proustian writing, and I can see why he had so many admirers and imitators. He was a so-called “stream of consciousness” writer, weaving stories based upon images and impressions upon the individual mind. Philosopher and early psychologist William James described consciousness — which no one really understood — as a cascade of flowing water, and this idea touched off a movement in literature in the early twentieth century, where the narrator would go within to the thoughts of his characters, moving inside and outside their heads. I appear to be writing to you in a similar fashion –as an egotist — my limitations being in using the ever-present “I” perspective; it is the only way I know how to depict anything. Unlike Proust, I cannot walk down a gravel path and pick up a rock, describing its stoney nature, and make a novel out of just that. I’m not even capable of writing a novel.

But I can exhibit things, however,  like the way I got upset when Laura and I got into a heated argument this past week. I left her house in anger, returning to my apartment alone. I picked up my tablet and opened the YouTube app, and a video on the psychology of solitude was recommended to me. The speaker in it admitted that human beings are primarily social animals, who do not do well in isolation and have a primeval fear of solitude, but he also asserted that to spend an extended time alone is to be in confrontation with the true self. I might continue to cling to Laura because I fear the darkness within, creating a dependence driven relationship out of fear of abandonment, building up a false self which can be quickly broken down by embracing aloneness, and by giving order and form to my life through creative work, by becoming totally independent and oblivious to the constraints of external relationships. These ideas combined within me a sense both of optimism and discomfort. I tend to be reclusive already, and it is with an overarching sense of anxiety that Laura is actively keeping her friend Diane and I apart. Laura shared with me what Diane said to her behind my back about our relationship, putting a dating site on her tablet which Laura told me about and removed in front of me. And I also wonder about Laura’s psychotherapist, Monica. I know this same issue has probably come up in front of her, too. What has Monica said about our relationship? Is Monica making the same suggestions that Diane has? As I continued to wonder about all this, the phone rang and it was Laura; we reconciled our differences soon after this. Laura also told me about a dinner being held at the Robersonville Country Club this coming Sunday for Valentines Day, at around noon, and I offered to take her, since this was something we could do as a couple.

Getting ready for this dinner was a real hassle. I’ve mentioned before that Laura has a home health worker to assist her. A woman named Pee Wee works Monday through Friday, but another one, named Valerie, works weekends and has a lot of personal problems. Her husband got Supplemental Security Income (SSI), so he didn’t make much money to begin with, but he was also a drug addict and got caught selling oxycodone, and was sent to prison a month ago. The first time Valerie went out-of-town to visit him, she took her youngest daughter because the child wanted to see her father. The girl began sobbing because she wanted to hug him, but could only view him behind a thick sheet of plexiglass. When Valerie made it to Laura’s house to work that afternoon, she worked until the end of her shift, and as she was prepared to leave, her car broke down and a neighbor had to help her get it started.

Valerie didn’t show up the next day when the dinner was being held; I had to go help Laura get her clothes on. I knew the country club was going to be full of church people, so we both decided to dress up in the interest of conformity. There was a buffet already set up when we arrived. We had hamburger steak. liver, chicken and dumplings, green beans, and salad. I was relieved that no one from Grace Family Fellowship walked in. I passed by there on the way home. The billboard in front of their church said, “Come to Jesus. He never let you down.”

The Dilemma of Faith

I know its been several days since I’ve written to you, and I hope this letter finds you doing well. I’m still having concerns about my health, being uneasy as to why I feel a sense of physical weakness and fatigue. There is also a suspicious mole on the side of my face that Laura says is getting bigger. She is taking me back to the doctor in a few days to get this looked at. I’m also experiencing night sweats for some reason, and I don’t know why. I have so many concerns, so many questions.

The polar vortex, which kept us in a deep freeze during the last week of January, has turned into a temperature whiplash as the vortex dissipated and a strong cold front began moving in this direction, giving us a regime of increasingly warmer temperatures, with elevated purple clouds and plenty of sunshine. As today was the day to set out our trash cans in front of our apartments for the garbage men to pick up, I went out my back door, down my back steps to my green trash container, and rolled it on its wheels around my building to the sidewalk in front of my apartment. When I did this, I saw a ten-dollar bill lying beside it upon the asphalt of the parking lot.

It was with a sense of desire and self-reproach that I picked up the money, clutching it in my fist so my neighbors wouldn’t see it. The apartment buildings contain two front doors, with two dwellings in each building, situated in a semicircle around a parking lot. With trepidation, I looked up and saw that my next door neighbors on both sides of me had their front doors opened. They didn’t see me. As I re-entered my back door and placed the bill upon my kitchen table, I couldn’t help but feel the injustice of it all. Everybody in this subsidized apartment complex live here because they don’t have much money, and I have more cash in my savings account than everybody else put together. Donnie could have lost this currency, since he is mentally challenged, sometimes gets agitated, and doesn’t always pay attention to what he is doing. Or it could have been the married couple two doors down; the husband sometimes manuevers his wheelchair along the sidewalk to get to our mailboxes on the far end. Could he have lost it? Novelist and self-proclaimed philosopher, Ayn Rand, wrote that there is virtue in selfishness, that it would be a better world if we all acted in our own self-interest, but I have never believed her. I decided to keep the bill on my kitchen table, and if someone knocked on my door, claiming to have lost some money — if he had a good attitude about it — I would give it back to him.

As the day wore on, no one approached me about it. When I left home and went downtown, entering the town hall to pay my utility bill, the amount being huge, since heating my apartment in the coldest month of the year is always a burden. I immediately left and walked to the hair salon nearby, and when I entered, I noticed that Tammy had grown her hair longer, making her look slightly different. It was quiet in the salon today. Tammy usually makes conversation with other people while she is cutting my hair, but this time she made conversation with me instead. Soon, she was posing an innocuous question which impressed me as a sharp thunder-clap, “Are you still going to Grace Family Fellowship?” Tammy was referring to the church next door to my apartment complex. I didn’t want to lie to her, but at the same time I didn’t want to explain why I do not attend church anymore, so I told her what I told the preacher out there, who blocked my path with his car as I was going past this house of worship one afternoon on my bike after I had quit for good. “I’m going to the First Baptist Church, the one my friend Laura goes to.” But I haven’t set foot in that sanctuary in years, even though someone had invited me to go there.

The reason why I left Grace Family Fellowship was because I was going in there alone, and the other church members seemed to be more interested in telling me where to go and what to do than they were in what I was searching for spiritually. It wasn’t long before some of them realized that I didn’t have as much money as they did, so they started buying me coffee and giving me old clothes. I was being bombarded with propaganda, and I had to pretend to be an evangelical. All of this was making me crazy, and I got to the point where I just couldn’t stand it anymore. A few weeks after I spoke to the preacher about switching churches, I saw one of the parishioners in the check-out aisle at the Food Lion who gave a confused and downcast look. When he left the building with his groceries, he sat in his truck for fifteen minutes until he saw me come outside. He approached me as soon as I walked out the door: “How come I haven’t been seeing you in church?” he inquired, and I repeated the same lie I told the preacher. A week later I had to go to the post office, and another parishioner entered in front of me; I walked away and came back later just to avoid her. A member who used to greet me at the entrance on Sunday morning had a relative pass away, and while she was preparing the house for sale, she saw me leaving Laura’s house on my bike. “We’re missing you in chu-u-urch!” she squalled, as a parent would to an unruly child, even though we were the same age. She looked perturbed when I repeated the same lie. Even now, I feel uncomfortable riding past the church on the way to Laura’s house or downtown — its impossible for me to avoid it, it’s a huge piece of real estate — and there are cars going in and out of its parking lot almost every day.

The only reason I joined and stayed there as long as I did is because I liked the young and energetic minister, but his belief system conformed to that of the community, while mine did not. He once stated in a sermon that the story of evolution was “the big lie.” My Sunday School teacher stated that the land of Israel is for the Jews exclusively — and for no one else — for they were God’s chosen people.  The pastor once prayed for homosexuals so they would straighten themselves out, and thank God I never heard any of them talk about abortion. I can assure you, whoever you might be, that I’m not an atheist. I believe that God exists, but He is not the divine personality the Bible makes Him out to be. The stories in the sacred book are Jewish antiquities, legends, and myths. God didn’t create the world in six days and rested on the seventh. It took much longer than that.

Approximately 13.8 billion years ago, space and time didn’t exist at all as we know it. It was a just small point, dense and hot, which for some reason exploded and became rapidly expanding space. It was also cooling rapidly, losing its high density, allowing the formation of sub-atomic particles and simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primeval elements coalesced by the force of gravity, eventually forming early stars and galaxies. Resulting from the collapse of a giant interstellar molecular cloud located mid-way in one of the arms of the Milky Way galaxy, our sun born of hot dust began a process of thermonuclear fusion while the planets cooled. With our sun reaching its middle stage of life, and with water and oxygen forming in the atmosphere, unicellular life on earth began. As life forms started to replicate themselves, taking energy from the light of the sun, they became increasingly complex, fishes and other monstrosities populated the sea, reptiles encroached upon dry land, and dinosaurs began to roam this world. Then a huge asteroid struck our planet, destroying their food sources and they became extinct. Mammals rose up and several forms of mankind evolved from apes. All other forms of man became extinct, only our species survived. This is the story that the scientists and Wikipedia have taught me. And God is not a jealous God, if anything, he is an indifferent force of nature.

This is my faith, and I haven’t lied to you as I had just lied to Tammy. After making more small talk and using the blow dryer to clear away my loose hair, I paid Tammy, made another appointment with her for next month, then went next door to the pharmacy to pick up my monthly supply of medication. The mayor of Robersonville, “Mr. Frank” as they call him, was working there and the people whom he employed had my bag of pills already prepared. Laura called after I brought them home, and we spent part of the afternoon painting ceramics. After awhile, she said she was tired and we went into the bedroom. I sat in the recliner while she lied upon her bed. Her eyes became increasingly heavy as we chatted, and then she got up and put on her pajamas. “I wouldn’t do this in front of just anybody,” she declared, “but, as far as I’m concerned, you’re family.”

The Facts of Life

Sometimes when I’m writing to you, I proceed to discuss hard things. For every beginning, there is an ending — we all know that. And going to church isn’t for everybody; I learned that the hard way. Last Wednesday, Laura went to her weekly prayer group meeting, which gets together at eleven in the morning. The members who go are mostly the elderly ladies in the church, who go around visiting the sick, helping the needy, and seeing people who are confined in nursing homes. The First Baptist Church of Robersonville is a large, brick structure located on Railroad Street. While Laura was in there, I thought I would go to the park, with my iPhone and my wireless ear-buds, to listen to some music and to walk a few miles around the sidewalk that surrounds the baseball field. I travelled across town on my bike to get there, but to my chagrin, the gate was closed and chained with a padlock. With my plans now destroyed, I returned home, and, at length, decided that I would take my music with me and walk down some avenues and side streets.

I listened to some pleasant euphonium being piped directly into my ears as I walked across the parking lot of Robersonville Manor onto Main Street, but was annoyed by the passing vehicles that drowned out the notes of my songs, so I turned onto Laurel Avenue and onto Broad Street. After walking several blocks, I passed by a house that was partially destroyed by a fire years ago, but has since been salvaged and repaired, with a woman currently living in it. I’ve passed by it often, and never gave it a second thought.

I walked a few blocks further, up to the intersection of Broad and Railroad Streets, right beside the post office, where the street and the railroad tracks run beside one another, when a young, black man approached from the opposite side. I didn’t think anything of it, but he immediately stopped walking. He had something on his mind, but I had no idea what it could be. He wanted desperately to avoid me; I expected him to just cross to the opposite side of the street so we could walk past each other with plenty of room between us, but when he began walking, he traveled as fast as he could without running, toward Laura’s church, in precisely the same direction that I had planned to go. I turned on Railroad Street, and fell in behind him. He glanced back at me, quickly over his shoulder, then turned onto another side street, but, as I was passing the church, he appeared on Railroad Street again a block away. He had tried to circle around, to get where he wanted to go without me seeing him. I just continued walking, and tried not to pay attention to this strange person.

I continued walking past some very old houses, then approached the vacant high school. There was a lot of history there, with the collection of aged yearbooks and school newspapers archived in the local library. After you walk past the old Robersonville High School, the pavement on the street ends and it becomes a dirt track leading straight to the cemetery. My mood grew sombre as the monuments came into view. As I walked among the graves, I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to my bouncy music anymore, as my mood quickly took a dark and sombre tone. I began to show the utmost respect as I avoided stepping on anyones resting place. I noticed several prominent last names, such as Roberson, Stalls, Roebuck, and Smith. Several of the graves were a hundred years old. Some of the people here lived to ripen to a very mature age, but some died as children, not getting a chance at life at all. In the middle of the graveyard, I saw a canopy surrounding the tombstone of a married couple, with fresh overturned earth covered in fresh flowers. I soon realized that this was a member of Laura’s church, buried beside her husband, Mrs. Doris Everette Roebuck, who had lived to be a hundred-and-two.

Laura and I went to her last birthday party. She was sitting in her recliner in a dignified manner. When we spoke to her, we had to lean close to her and speak loudly and plainly for her to hear, but she was fully alert and aware. As I was eating a piece of her birthday cake, one of her neighbors, Karen, who works with Laura at the food bank, stopped by for a visit. (Since Karen is a person I see frequently, I’ll tell you more about her in a future letter.) Soon after the matriarch’s birthday, she told a family member that she was tired, and she didn’t feel like living anymore. When her health took a downward turn, she had to go to a nursing home, and she didn’t survive long after that.

I spent some more time at this final resting place, viewing the names and dates on the other headstones, some monuments being larger than others, listening to a song entitled “Come Dancing,” when a ringtone interrupted and I pressed the button on my microphone. It was Laura. She had just got out of prayer group. I told her where I was and she picked me up there. We went to her house, and the remainder of the day was uneventful, but the next morning I decided to go walking down Broad Street with my music again. While I was listening to Deep Purple, and walking past the same house that got partially burned up and subsequently repaired, I saw the same strange black man walking out the back door, wearing the exact same clothes, along with the white woman who lived there that was twenty years his senior. She was wrapped up in a house-coat with no sash tied around her, holding it together with both her arms without a stitch of clothing underneath. The man walked past me and tried to get away from me as fast as he could. Yesterday, he must have thought I had just come back from visiting this woman myself, and it became obvious why he viewed me with suspicion, doing everything in his power to avoid me.

My Perennial Visits

I never like going to the doctor, especially to my psychiatrist, since I consider him my sovereign — he is the person who has the most power over me — but it is a benevolent authority. His name is Dr. Sabanayagam, but we patients call him Dr. Saba for short. He is a cheerful, brown-skinned man originally from Sri Lanka; his wife acts as his secretary and assistant. I have often wondered if they emigrated here because of the thirty year ethnic conflict in that country between the government and the so-called “Tamil terrorists,” but I never dared to ask about it and it was none of my business. I sometimes talk to him about the books I’m reading, and one time I told him about the conclusion I made once in that to read history was to read about war. Dr. Saba shared with me that in the country he came from, the history books were all edited and changed over and over to suit those with prerogative.

The patients whom Dr. Saba treats are precisely the ones who have no sway at all — the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick — persons in group homes, children who have no parents, and people like myself who are disabled mentally ill. Dr. and Mrs. Saba travel from Goldsboro to Greenville every month. Their Greenville division is in an old, decaying office complex that the owner has been trying to sell for years. Most of these offices are vacant, and the ones that are not cater to those persons who are struggling to live on their own, in their own homes. The waiting room has old, dilapidated furniture which the landlord will not replace, and he was slow about repairing the heating and air conditioning.

When I entered the waiting room, Mrs. Saba saw me come in and retrieved my file from her portable filing cabinet. A man in a wheelchair — with one leg and with his upper chest strapped in — was wheeled out of Dr. Saba’s office by one of his caretakers while the other one carried a file folder full of paperwork, who immediately called someone on her cell phone so they could get picked up by the nursing home staff. His next patient was a young man who walked very slow with a dazed expression on his face, accompanied by another human services worker who was also carrying a file folder. As soon as the two of them exited the office and approached Mrs. Saba to make their next appointment, Dr. Saba came out, picked up my folder, and called me by my first name.

When I entered his office and received his cheerful greeting, the first thing Dr. Saba did was to put me on the scales. I weighed in at 167.6 and he wrote it down in my chart. I told Dr. Saba about the health problems I had experienced since I saw him last. I showed him the empty bottles of tizanidine and predisone I had finished taking, describing to him how I injured my spine in the shower. He told me that the tizanidine was a muscle relaxant, it could make me feel fatigued and sleepy, and that the predisone was a steroid to clear up the inflammation in my back. I replied to Dr. Saba that I hoped that I never have to take predisone again. I told him about the insomnia I experienced. I told him how I wet my bed. It had an impact on how I felt — it made me nervous and angry, making me hate everything and everybody, but now the pill bottles were empty, and the steroids were out of my system. I mentioned to him that there was still a slight sensation in the lower center of my back. Dr. Saba said it would probably take around three months for it to clear up completely.

Dr. Saba looked at me with a rather pensive gaze. “Since I saw you last, you have lost nine pounds. How did you do it?” I had gotten to the point where I would rather drink coffee than eat, but I didn’t tell him that; instead, I mentioned the current situation he may have heard about concerning a polar vortex that has placed North America in the clutches of a January freeze. Since it is now too cold to ride my bicycle, my only alternative was to fast. Sometimes I would wait until the middle of the day, eat a small piece of bread, and that would be all I had all day. I didn’t want him to pick on me about my weight anymore. I knew that both my primary care physician and Dr. Saba wanted me to weigh 170, but it is very difficult to stay there, and Dr. Saba said not to lose any more weight.

He concluded by saying the I do well most of the time, but I let little things get to me. To this I wholeheartedly agreed. Dr. Saba rose from his chair behind his desk and said it was good to see me. As I exited his office, I received a prescription and an appointment to come back in sixty days. As I walked out the front door, I called Laura, who was at a retail store looking over the clearance aisle, and I asked if she was hungry. She picked me up and I took her to a Mexican restaurant across town. I broke my fast by eating four large tacos, and Laura got three burritos. She said that I didn’t have to take her out to eat just because she took me to the doctor, but I replied that I wanted to because she was so kind to me.

Not Anonymous

My letters to you are meant to be part of a conversation, but the majority of the time they are a one-sided discussion. It is as if my epistles are private, but I know they are not. If you are reading this, I have absolutely no idea who you are, and this circumstance has emboldened me, giving me the courage to write about everything and everybody in telling my whole story — without inhibition, without shame, and without fear. I read novels about the idle rich, or about people in better circumstances, and I’m hereby setting out to describe in unabashed detail the silent lives of low-income people. Wealth or poverty is relative, I suppose. There is an off-ramp from the interstate highway on the way to Greenville where a homeless man, with long dirty hair, unshaven, with rumpled and filthy clothes, stands with a cardboard sign smiling sweetly, trying to make eye contact with the motorists who stop at the nearby stop sign. He stands there each and every day. One afternoon, near a shopping mall, I saw another one with a sign laying on his back, sobbing in the pouring rain. The Heritage Foundation, a government think tank, writes that the poor are not really so bad off as we might believe. After all, it’s not as if we live in the days of Charles Dickens.

I do not live at the poverty level which the federal government has delineated, but Social Security was never meant to be a person’s only source of income. It is mandated that only a certain percentage of my monthly resources should be spent on food, and this is why I was issued a food stamp card. It is easily recognizable in the check-out aisle, with its bright red, white, and blue colors representing the American flag. Whenever you use it, the people who are watching you in the grocery store will know something about you. The Greenville newspaper, The Daily Reflector, has within it a column entitled “Bless Your Heart,” which communicates approval toward issues and people it approves of while heaping sarcasm toward things it does not. In one issue, it gave out a bless your heart to a person with a smart phone using a food stamp card to pay for her groceries. These attitudes are institutionalized. You may have read my previous letters and asked yourself, “Why does this writer speak of receiving food stamp benefits and he owns an iPhone? I’m a taxpayer!” The main reason I bought one was so I could call someone for help in case I had a flat tire while riding my bicycle. Food stamp benefits are based upon monthly income, not on a person’s savings. I won a settlement in a class action lawsuit against the government years ago, so now I have a nest egg in a savings account, which I am not ashamed to say that I add to it each and every month. Is all this social welfare or social justice? Ask yourself why such a large population of people have to depend on food stamps and food banks to make it every month — it isn’t necessarily because they don’t work. Those who do not work cannot, either because they are elderly or because they are disabled. My handicap has been proven time and time again by the preponderance of the evidence. I will never own property or have a family of my own, and I have put my shattered dreams behind me.

Laura owns a house and a car because she also entered into a class action lawsuit, but her’s was because she was injured by a pharmaceutical company. She received a lot more money than I did, but she spent it all. Laura still takes a lot of medicine. When I came over to see her yesterday, Pee Wee had given her a bath and washed her hair, but it was in disarray when I arrived. She was pale and her speech was rather slow. Diane and I have been trying to get Laura to use her crafts room and to start painting her ceramics. Laura and I were in there painting with the television on when Diane and her husband, Gayle, arrived unexpectedly. Gayle came to help Laura with her fax machine, and since he was a computer technician when he was in the Army, he knew more about it than I did. “Laura, it looks like you’re stoned,” Gayle said when he saw her. Diane said the same thing.

Diane came into the crafts room, sitting beside Laura on the couch as we were painting and Gayle was in the bedroom working on the fax. Diane either did not fully realize what she had done the other night, or else she wasn’t aware that I knew about it. She didn’t act in any way differently towards me, so I must be taking things a little too seriously. I tried to forget about the whole incident as we sat around the crafts table, littered with paints and ceramics. We looked up at the television which was situated upon a large chest. On it was a show entitled Horders, a program about people who pack rotten food and trash in their homes and refuse to part with it, living with flies, rats, and other vermin. There was a commercial that came on in the middle of it about trained psychotherapists who were just a phone call away. Give them your credit card number, and they would charge you only a dollar a minute. The next commercial was for a group of California psychics who could put you on the right path, all you needed to do was to dial their number on your cell phone. Meanwhile, Diane and I were talking to Laura about her medicine, and she showed us the double dose handfuls she takes every morning and night.

Gayle finished with Laura’s fax machine and left for the grocery store. He goes grocery shopping for himself and Diane everyday, always calling her on the phone while he’s in there. While Diane was sitting in the crafts room, Gayle called her three times. “It never fails,” she said. When he was leaving the Food Lion, Diane gave Laura a hug and said goodbye. It wasn’t long after that when Laura got tired of painting and wanted to lay back down in the bed. She wrapped up and I sat in the recliner facing her, turning on some music on my iPhone. Laura was falling asleep. I told her I would call her and wake her up in time to take her medicine a six o’clock, so I left and went home; when I called her at six, she didn’t answer.

A Special Road Trip

Laura has an adopted brother who lives in a group home in Goldsboro, and we share the same psychiatrist, who travels to Greenville once a month. I see Dr. Saba once every sixty days, and my appointment with him is coming up soon, (but that is another story). And whenever I visit Andrew, I cannot help but think of the ugly theories of a hundred years ago, when Havelock Ellis wrote about the task of social hygiene, when the rich preached the doctrine of Social Darwinism and the natural selection inherent in breeding human beings like cattle, when society refused to look at its own blemishes in the mirror, and instead went to war against handicapped people. The sense of solidarity I feel in being part of a once vilified minority is very acute. I love Andrew as if he were my own, and I’m sure he is getting the care he needs and he is happy.

Laura and I left Robersonville at about midmorning to meet her parents at the Food Lion parking lot in Tarboro. Billy and Mary Ann were both sitting in their van waiting for us when we arrived. With hugs and greetings all around, Laura locked up her car and we entered the van, got strapped in, and off we went. I was sitting in the back.  I looked out the window as the streets and the avenues of the city gave way to rural roads, empty fields waiting for the spring planting season, and farm houses which dotted the landscape, passing through open spaces, villages, and other small towns. When we arrived in Goldsboro through the back way, we travelled down Norwood Avenue until we went through a wooden privacy fence with its gate open. We parked behind a large house, observing that the van which transported the residents to their daily activities was not there. When Billy called the Nova employees on the phone, he found out that the staff on night shift failed to tell the people on day shift that we were coming.

We chatted as we waited there for a while, then their van finally passed through the gateway and we saw the people in it. Andrew waved when he saw us. When the van parked, he got out and approached us as I opened the door. He couldn’t walk in a straight line, and as he stood slightly hunched over, he looked at us with his blue crossed eyes. “Hey, Tom,” he began with his slow, childlike drawl, “Hey, Laura. Hey, mom. Hey, dad.” Billy led Andrew inside the house through the back door to sign him out, asking him if he had lunch yet. Andrew said he was hungry and ready to go to the restaurant.

When Andrew entered the van, and Mary Ann put on his seat belt, Laura and his mother presented him with some gifts they had brought. Laura gave Andrew a small bag of candy, while Mary Ann gave him a ball cap and three car magazines with a lot of pictures in them. Andrew expressed his endless gratitude. He showed us the first place ribbon he received at Special Olympics for shooting a basketball through a hoop. I looked at the writing on the blue ribbon. Embroidered on it were the words “Achievement, Courage, Joy.” I congratulated Andrew on the fine job he did.

Laura picked out the restaurant and when we arrived, Laura, Andrew, and I left our jackets in the van. When we all stepped out, Andrew held his arms out. “I love you, Tom.” I gave him a great big hug, replying, “I love you, Andrew.” Then he turned his crooked eyes toward Laura and with outstretched arms, declared, “I love you, Laura.” She hugged him, too, declaring her everlasting affection. As we walked across the parking lot, Mary Ann straightened out his shirt, which was a little askew, then, as Billy held open the front door of the eating establishment, we all marched in. Billy always pays for our meals, and I hope he knows how much I appreciate him. This place was buffet only; Billy settled the tab at the register in advance. When we found our place to sit, Billy took Andrew up to the buffet aisle to help fix his plate for him. We all got our plates to the table, held hands, and blessed the food (Billy is a retired minister). I didn’t eat anything that day prior to lunch, my stomach was empty, and the two plates of food I ate felt good going in, but when it sat there awhile, it started to hurt. All of us had full stomachs when we left. As we passed by the cashier on the way out the door, Billy, with a wink and a nod, said to her, “We left some food behind for you.”

When we returned to the group home, Andrew put on the ball cap that covered his grey hair, and we all hugged him again and said goodbye. Soon we were back on the rural highways and I was looking out the window again at churches, country stores, and farm houses that whispered by. As we were traveling faster than it was probably lawful, Billy had to put on brakes. “What’s this?” was his interrogative exclamation when we drove up on what looked like an old washing machine which had fell off the back of a truck. Billy swung around it and we continued, but Laura got out her iPhone and called the highway patrol. After she did this, a news article popped up on her screen. The longest government shutdown in US history had now come to an end.

I pulled out my own iPhone to get the details. NBC News wrote that President Trump agreed to open up the government for three weeks, to give federal workers their back pay, while the Republicans and the Democrats continue negotiations over border security. It seemed that Donald Trump did not get the border wall that he demanded. I read some other news articles describing the airline traffic jams at major airports, the damage done to the economy, and the blame Trump was receiving for it, who declared on camera, “I’ll be proud to shut down the government.” Now Laura and I will not get our food stamps held up, and Laura will be able to distribute meat again to the clients at the food bank.