Growing up I remember having three recurring nightmares.
The first is being in the basement of a mall. I can’t find a way out. There is an escalator, but it’s going the wrong way. I step onto it and begin climbing the steps. But beneath my feet, the world is working against me. I climb, and I climb, and I climb — and I never reach the top.
The second is being on a school bus. I see my stop approaching. I gather my things, and stuff them all into my bag. I zip it up and try to lift it, but I can’t. I try with all my might, but it just won’t get off the ground. I use two hands. Squat my legs. Put my back into it. Still won’t budge. The bus stops. I hear the release of air as the doors open. The driver calls out. Students hurry off. I’m still trying, but I can’t figure it out. My bag is stuck to the ground, and I am stuck to my bag. Last call. The doors shut, the motor roars, and I am stranded.
The third is being in front of a computer. I have the monitor before me. I’m about to enter a most terrifying game. I have the keyboard at my fingertips. I double-check it. The escape key at the top left corner. I feel it for its own sake. I mouth the letters, e-s-c. And I reassure myself, if things ever get too overwhelming, if I find myself backed into a corner I can’t handle — just press this button and everything will be okay. My own mind won’t even let the dream proceed before I go through this little ritual. Before I tell myself it’ll all be okay. I press the enter key. I start the game. I’m hunting down a monster. A bigfoot. But when I find him, I find that instead of me doing the hunting, I am the hunted. I scramble for the keyboard, but it’s disappeared. I’m stuck in the game. I feel for the escape key. I can’t find it. The monster approaches. I hide behind a wooden crate. He corners me. I can’t escape.
My great uncle was born at the tail end of World War II. Growing up, I spent a lot of time reading about World War II. Poring over history books, newspaper clippings, love letters, diary entries — anything I could get my hands on. Fascinated by the lore of World War II themed board games. Fixated on the backdrop of a story hidden in the preface of a manual. The post-war years were an important era for literature, film theory, and propaganda studies. What was produced during those years laid the groundwork for future filmmaking, art directing, and mass communication.
My great uncle told me how he remembered quite clearly the way they taught students to prepare for the threat of a nuclear attack. The alarms would sound. The teachers would instruct the students to get beneath their desks. To cover their heads with their arms. To remain calm in the face of extreme danger. The kind of danger that could obliterate you, and any trace of you, from the face of the earth forever. If not completely erasing you, perhaps burning a shadow of you on the wall.
This was how they taught the kids to deal with the situation. To cope with fear. To grapple with the advent of a new kind of destruction. The atomic age. More fearsome than any age prior. He laughs now, many years later, knowing it wouldn’t have done a “damn thing,” as he says, to have hidden beneath their desks, low to the ground as the entire world around them is blown into the air in the midst of a mushroom cloud. And he laughs it off while drinking his whiskey on the rocks and reminiscing on his childhood days and his many years spent in the Air Force.
Sometimes, when I enter a room, I look for the exit signs. I plan for contingencies. If things get tough, I tell myself, at least I’ll know what to do. Play out the hypotheticals. Here’s the fire exit. There’s the stairs. A phone on the street corner to call for help. An alarm in the hallway to alert the authorities. The survival instincts that helped our ancestors brave the ice age by lodging in caves translated for the modern age. From ochre palm prints, buffalo portraits, and horse heads blown on the underbellies of boulders, to movie posters, newspaper clippings and world maps pinned on the paneling of bedroom walls. Some things never change. Others repeat. I tend to rhyme.
In his book Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller puts forth a way of understanding human social interaction that he calls the Lifeboat Theory. That is, we are all like passengers sitting on a lifeboat that can only hold n-1, and deciding among ourselves who to throw out for “the greater good.” We each have to make a case for why we are important and why we shouldn’t be thrown off and why another person should — I have a family waiting for me back home, or I’m smart and I’ll get us back to safety, or he’s weak and useless and going to die anyway. Then after thoroughly examining various situations through this lens, he goes on to start a new chapter: Who needs a boat? And an immediate image comes to mind. Walking on water. We need to learn to walk on water.
It is very difficult to be and to speak about being without having spoken about something else having been. We use language to describe language. We speak about ourselves in a way that reveals ourselves. It’s the observer effect. We can know where we are going, or where we are, but never both. For in measuring one you affect the other. I think, therefore I am — and am no longer who I was.
The ground we stand upon moves. Given our best effort to remain still, we still move. In search of a vantage point where we can survey it all, we still cannot see that which allows us to see. The best we can hope for, the most we can manage, is a mirror. A camera. An echo. We’re looking for another perspective. A third person. A second life.
One of my fondest childhood memories was watching my kindergarten class caterpillar grow. Our teacher had read through a story for us and showed us all the illustrations. We all knew what was going to happen, but we didn’t really believe it could be true. The caterpillar lived in a little box, and there were other bugs to keep her company, and there were branches and leaves and rocks. Whoever was the lucky kid that day would get to feed her during recess. Then, one surprising morning, the teacher announced that our caterpillar had made and gotten into her cocoon. We all surrounded the little box and marveled at the silky creation, wondering what was going on inside. The teacher said it would take some time, but she was in the middle of a transformation. We could not see it at the moment, but she would soon emerge a butterfly.
I remember that day vividly. The fat caterpillar cocooned so long from the world, wiggling her way out of her safe place — and she was no longer fat. And she was no longer a caterpillar. She had grown and blossomed and was made new. She was beautiful, and I remember feeling, at that moment, that anything was possible.