Sunday, May 27, 2007

Weird and Weirder...Part 2

A couple of months ago, in “Weird and Weirder…Part 1,” I wrote about some strange events that happened during the time I lived in a house with four other guys a few blocks from the college I was attending. I concluded by hinting that the strange phenomena have continued, so I want to share how life continues to be weird and weirder.

"What's going on in here?" That’s the question that was on my lips late one evening as I opened the door and entered my oldest son’s bedroom. There was no answer, because he was lying under his covers sound asleep. Let me back up a little and tell you what happened.

The house in which we live now was the first place Cris and I lived after we were married. For a time, she and her family lived here when she was a little girl. This place was actually two separate houses at one time, but the other house, in which my wife’s grandmother lived until she passed away a few years ago, had been moved and joined to this one to form one house. The house originally belonged to her great-uncle, and it's very old judging from the timbers – and some of the electrical wiring.

We moved out of the house for several years after I went into the United Methodist ministry. After several years enduring the strain of trying to balance full-time graduate school, a growing family, and parishioners who felt that all my time should be spent focusing on them – plus ongoing pain and recuperation (including neck surgery) from an automobile accident – I left the ministry, broken and exhausted, and we returned to this house. There was a lot of stuff already in the house, so we had to make do, stashing stuff here and there for a while.

We had to place two dressers in a corner on adjoining walls in my oldest son’s room in such a way that the front corners almost met. This left an unused square space that I decided to utilize. I had several boxes of books and magazines that would fit perfectly, but the only way I could get them in the corner was to hold them above it and drop them in. I stacked boxes to the tops of the dressers and a couple beyond. The boxes were heavy, and I realized the only way to get them out would be to move one of the dressers, but I didn’t anticipate needing any of these books before making more convenient space somewhere else.

Late one evening I was sitting doing a little reading and writing in the former dining room that we had converted into my study. One wall of this room adjoined my son’s room. All of a sudden there came a sound of banging and crashing from his room. It sounded like somebody was tearing the room apart, so I quickly went to his door and pushed it open. I was shocked to see every one of those boxes of books scattered across the floor, with some having burst open scattering their contents. I said, “What's going on in here? How in the world did this happen?” But I realized my son, lying in bed under his covers, was sound asleep.

I picked up some of the strewn books and placed them back into boxes and shifted the boxes out of the way as best I could. The next day I asked my son what was going on in his room and why were my boxes of books scattered. He was obviously as perplexed as I was, and when I asked him about it recently, he shook his head and assured me he had no idea what happened that night.

Looking back, there were several other events that happened here through the years that were creepy and generally unexplainable. When my oldest son was a toddler, he came out of our room where he’d been playing screaming. We held him and tried to get him to show us what was wrong, and we examined him to make sure he wasn’t hurt. He couldn’t tell us what had happened, and we examined the room and found nothing. He wouldn’t go back in the room without us for some time.

After we moved back into the house, because of limited room, we originally set up the youngest two boys’ bunk beds against a wall in our room. One night Gabriel went in the room and came out screaming a couple of minutes later. He was terrified and told us his dinosaur (a stuffed Toy Story character we’d gotten at Burger King), had moved across his bed and flew off. Sure enough, when I went in the dinosaur was lying on the floor, and earlier it had been on his bed propped against his pillow.

Another evening Gabriel woke us up screaming. I jumped up and ran to him and held him. He told me he had seen two dark figures with red glowing eyes standing between his bed and ours. He said the figures were watching him. I tried to convince him he was probably dreaming. Gabriel still insists emphatically that he was wide awake and that he did see the shadow figures. It sounds like a phenomenon I believe parapsychologists call “shadow men”.

The boys have complained many times about hearing doors opening and footsteps. I shrugged it off reminding them that you hear noises in old houses. Then one day I was sitting at the computer typing when I heard the back door of the other part of the house open and footsteps sounded through the house, into the kitchen to the hallway and through the living room. Then I heard the front screen door. I jumped up and ran to see who had walked through the house, and – you guessed it – there wasn’t a soul there…at least not a living soul.

Neither of the youngest boys will go into the other side of the house (the part that used to be Granny’s house) alone, because they insist it’s haunted. Gabriel claims one of his sisters dolls eyes opened and the doll looked at him. I’ve always written it off to an overactive imagination, until the other afternoon my niece, who comes down to play sometimes, found out I was writing about the weird things in the house. She told me that one evening one of the dolls was looking at her. I have to admit, when I go over there at night, the porcelain dolls give me the creeps. Another afternoon, she and the boys had gone into the other side of the house when, according to the three of them, the temperature all of a sudden dropped, and one of my wife’s music boxes (that hadn’t been wound in years) began to play.

Here lately there have been several times when I’ve seen someone out the corner of my eye, or so it seemed, but when I look, no one is there. Our cats have exhibited bizarre behavior on several occasions recently (bizarre even for cats). For instance, one of our black cats started staring at one of my bookcases in my study, then he bowed up and his hair stood on end. A few days later another one of our black cats reacted the same way and then started trying to get behind the book case. Of course, I suppose that could be explained. A mouse, perhaps? Do mice make the hair stand up on a cat’s back? Do mice make a cat bow its back? We carefully searched behind and around the book cases, but we found nothing strange.

The room on the other side of the wall from my study (the same room that was my oldest son’s when the boxes were strewn) now belongs to my next to youngest son, Gabriel, and he says he frequently hears my chair sliding and the keys of my computer being typed upon when I’m in bed. Patrick, my youngest, says he’s heard it too, and one evening he heard the familiar sound and thought I was in here and came in to ask me something – but I wasn’t here. Who knows – maybe my ghost has followed me here, and maybe it has something to say. If my ghost happens to start a blog, I'm very interested in reading it.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Space...What a Wonder!

Space has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. Looking up into the sky and imagining what worlds are spinning around each of those stars sometimes literally makes me dizzy. For me, watching the earth ease its shadow across the moon during a lunar eclipse seems to be a moment of intimacy with the cosmos. Several years ago I got my first chance to see Jupiter and three of its largest moons through a telescope, and I literally had tears in my eyes. One scene indelibly burned into my memory is the brilliant full moon on Christmas Eve 1968 as, for the first time, human beings -- Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders -- orbited the moon in Apollo 8. It staggered my imagination to stare up from my backyard and realize that men were actually up there. I had heard them a few moments before on the TV as one of the crew read the opening words of Genesis, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..."

In recent years, the celestial event that most touched my emotions and imagination was seeing Comet Halle-Bopp as it made its way through our neighborhood in the late 90s. I found an undated account of this in a copy of a letter I wrote (it would have to be from 1997, but exactly when, I don't know), and I'd like to share it with you:

I have been easing deeper and deeper into a serious love affair with the night sky. The other morning Cris, my wife, got in from work about 5:00 a.m. I had just dozed off (I can never sleep when she's closing the store and has late nights) when she came in and told me I had to come see something outside. I got up, groggy and cold, because I dozed without any cover, stumbled out the door with my feet shod only with socks, and they quickly began absorbing cold water from the ground, adding to my chill. She said, "Is that the comet?" There it was! There it was, a fuzzy star looking thing with a clearly visible tail. It was eerie standing there half-asleep, shivering with cold, looking out across millions of miles of space at a ghostly visitor I had never seen before. It was an awesome experience. The next night I began watching for it to see exactly when it would show up over the horizon. During the evening I watched the Big Dipper travel across the sky. I finally dropped off to sleep, but Cris woke me up when she came in. I went out and just stared -- and wondered. We got the older two children up to come see it. After everyone else had gone inside, I just stood there watching my new friend sailing across the cosmos when all of a sudden a spectacular meteor, sparks flying, streaked its way across the sky just above me. What can I say? Wow! What a night!

[Image Credits: (1) Earthrise from Apollo 8 by NASA, (2) Halle-Bopp Comet by Ian Griffin Astronaut Memorial Planetarium & Observatory, Cocoa, Florida, October 5, 1997]

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Wayback Machine...A Sleep Interrupted on a Cold Winter Night

An interrupted sleep in the wee hours of a cold winter evening left me awake with my thoughts. One of the wonderful gifts of journaling is finding refuge at any moment to reflect on life - to analyze and record life in general, and my life in particular. The crisp early morning hours in an insomniac daze seem to nourish serious reflection unlike any other time of the day. Let's take The Wayback Machine to December 2004:

Thursday, December 2, 2004 (4:39 a.m.)

I woke up over an hour ago to the sound of a dog barking repeatedly. I wrestled myself through layers of sleep until I was aware of it. It sounded as if it were off in the distance, but not to far. At first I figured it was Carol’s black Lab, but then it sounded like Toby. I realized he must have gotten loose and was trapped somewhere.

I stumbled around and got blue jeans and a sweat shirt on, slipped on my tennis shoes without socks, and finally found two flashlights in the den where Patrick had them (it’s generally impossible to find one in an emergency). I headed out the door, but Toby had stopped barking by the time I got outside. I whistled and called, and he finally yipped a little. I traced where the sound had come from, and after a few false starts into the woods made my way into the thicket until I found him.

He had pulled the chain and post out of the ground, and it was wrapped around a sapling and undergrowth. It is miserably cold out – at least for stumbling through the night after being startled out of sleep – and my hands were stinging as I fumbled to unwrap the chain and retrieve the post. Toby and I made it out of the woods, and I got him established by his doghouse.

I came inside to look for something to put in his house to help him stay a little warmer. Cris roused long enough to go through the stack on the cedar chest and pulled out an old threadbare pink and white sheet with a hole ripped into it – I believe we’ve had that sheet since we got married. I took it to the doghouse and got Toby to go in. He’ll probably have it pulled out and ripped up by morning. Why is it that animals and children seem to rebel against anything you do to try and take care of them?

After I came back inside and got my hands washed in lots of hot water, I climbed into bed, but I couldn’t relax to go back to sleep. I lay there a while in the dark with Cris snuggled near – which is the only reason I didn’t go ahead and get back up. It’s hard for me just to lay in bed when I’m awake in the wee mind gets troubled with all sorts of thoughts.

One of the things that was going through my mind was what will it be like when I get too old to go stumbling through the woods for my animal in distress? Who will I turn to? Who will I depend on? Being old is a frightfully helpless state of existence, even worse, in my imagination, than the helplessness of an infant. At least the infant grows and matures and develops into a self-sufficient person. Aging leads into deeper stages of helplessness. Is that really all there is to look forward to, if you don’t die early enough? It’s a bleak thought, but one, I suppose, that I must keep studying. My hair is gray (albeit prematurely) and some wrinkles are already starting to settle here and there on my face. It will only get worse as time goes on. I’m on the other side. I’m in decline. How does one overcome the looming tragedy of that?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Memories – just how far back can they go?

Some people apparently don’t have many memories of their early childhood years. At least that’s what I gather whenever I reveal just how far back my memories go. For some reason, I have very clear memories of my earliest years. One memory that is particularly clear may be the earliest. When I shared the details with my mama several years before she died, I found out just how early. As I relayed to her details of that memory, her eyes grew wide and she said, “Jim…do you remember being born!” Believe it or not, I was only five months old. Here’s how I know.

When I was born in March of 1957, my brother was a senior in high school. He turned 18 that April, graduated that June, and went into the Air Force immediately after he graduated. That meant he completed boot camp in August 1957. The place I described to my mama’s astonishment belonged my brother’s girlfriend’s family. We had gone there during the week he was home from boot camp. March to August – five months.

We were at a cabin, and there were woods nearby. There was also a stream. The cabin was made of dark, flat wood interspersed with wide white lines. Inside was a golden wood floor. There was a squarish hallway, and someone was holding me around my waist and under my arms facing away from her (the person was female, most likely my brother’s girlfriend). There was a guitar hanging on the wall in the hallway, and whoever was holding me took my left hand and strummed my fingers lightly across the strings. Next I remember being held under my arms by someone who was letting my bare feet dangle in the cool running water of the stream. Images of the water on my feet and the pebbles in the streambed, even of the diaper I was wearing, are still as vivid as ever.

There are many other things I remember from before I was two years old. How do I know? Because many of the memories are from the year we spent in Savannah. I remember standing in our empty house in Hillsboro, all the familiar furnishings already packed and probably en route. I was very sad, even the emotions are still clear. I also remember how happy I was when we moved back into the same house. After that, I always had a fear of moving again.

I remember my second Christmas, being taken out of my baby bed in the corner of Mama’s and Daddy’s room, and carried to the room where the Christmas tree stood. There were presents and toys, but I can’t remember any in particular. It would be another three months before I’d be two years old. A couple of months before that, I remember Halloween night and being terrified of the trick-or-treaters. As I stood with Mama in the doorway, a group of kids in costumes terrified me, and one of them, a little girl (a few years older than me) that often came over to play with me, pulled up her mask and said, “It’s just me, Jim.” That didn’t help – I remember clearly thinking that whatever these monsters were, one of them must have eaten her.

As the years progressed and I grew from a toddler to a boy, a boy to a teenager, a teenager to a young man, and a young man to the present, thousands of images, crisp and vivid, have accumulated in my mind. Sometimes late at night, when the world around me is quiet and I am still, I can play these memories like old movies. I have often wished there was some way to project them on a screen so others could see. It’s awfully lonely sometimes, especially since most of the memories are of people no longer alive and places that have drastically changed. The quantum singularity of time and space seem to have been suspended somehow in my subconscious, and on some quiet evenings it seems I might be snatched back to some other time, and it’s frightening. As much as I cherish the memories, it’s the pleasure, or trial, of the present moment that suits me best. And on a still evening in the future, it’s likely that this moment too will play like a video in my mind.

[Note: The photograph is my mama and me on my first Christmas.]

Monday, May 21, 2007

A One-Legged Prisoner and Robert Frost

As a teacher of inmates at a state prison, I strive to create an environment in my work area that is different from the rest of the institution. I have a genuine concern for these men, and in my vocation I not only teach academics, but I try to be a positive role model, and I try to treat each inmate with dignity and respect. That, in my opinion, is part of their education as well. How can you learn how to treat others with dignity and respect if you rarely see it modeled in the way others treat you? I bring to the job compassion and a sense of humor, and I try to share that with everyone - staff and inmates. Sometimes, though, it's simply sad to work at a place where human beings are like cattle in cages. Here is an excerpt from my journal about a prison moment which I hope will give you a bit of illumination about the strange world called Prison:

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Oftentimes I watch from the glass door of my building at the prison as inmates walk by, and I am sad for them. Some look invalid or mentally challenged (we would have said retarded, when I was a boy). This afternoon I was in the library, and I noticed a paperback of Robert Frost’s poems and The Best American Poetry of 2003 stacked on a desk. An inmate had just checked them out and was waiting to take them. He was a young-looking guy with a sad looking face, made sadder by scars tracing here and there a story of some past trauma.

I pointed to the Frost book and said, “Good choice.” He told me he likes to write the poems out and send them to his girlfriend. His voice was a bit shaky and rang of mental slowness. He reached down, for some reason, and popped off a prosthesis that was most of his left leg, and he began unscrewing something on it -- some sort of adjustment, I suppose.

As he put his artificial leg back on, I asked, “You like poetry?” Again, he explained, like I should have understood the first time, "I like to write it out and send it to my girlfriend." I wondered about what kind of girl would wait for transcribed Robert Frost poems from a crippled prisoner with a badly scarred face. I wondered what he had done to be in prison. I felt deep sadness at the pain that this young man has obviously been through, and I wondered about the pain through which he had put others.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


A number of years ago, some friends of mine (along with a few folks that I didn’t know) started up a small-circulation magazine called Wonder. I was hooked from the first copy I got, but as things in publishing usually go, the magazine was not a smashing success, and the labor of love proved too much labor for the available love, and Wonder went the way of most start-up periodicals. It was sad to me, because the premise of the magazine’s origin is one that should be spread far and wide – the sense of wonder that is all around us. That magazine focused on literature and movies, but I personally extend wonder to every field of inquiry – nature, science, mathematics, work, etc.

At one time or another in my life I’ve had formal training in psychology, theology, and electricity and electronics. But on my own, I’ve studied a far wider range of topics. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an insatiable hunger for learning something new all the time, and an intense fascination with the magic that is constantly present in the world. In my years of junior high and high school, I was a mediocre student, just doing enough to get by, because the standard curriculum and the means of transferring it just did not appeal to me. It wasn’t that I was a lazy student – I was constantly studying. Dictionaries and encyclopedias formed a world that was a second home to me. There were new worlds to which I could always travel, and travel I did...oftentimes without even having to leave the living room couch.

But the wonder was not only to be found in books, I also wandered the woods near my house, taking in with my eyes and my soul every tree, every shadow, every breeze, like a starving man taking in food. Then when I was in the eighth grade, I chose for a 4-H project to grow tomato plants from seed, and this led to a deep love of growing things. For years afterward, I studied everything I could get my hands on about plants and flowers. I collected cuttings from several of my elderly aunts and great-aunts who has splendid begonias, sultanas, and a lovely red and purple variegated plant they called goose gizzard. I ordered seed of all sorts and got on the W. Altee Burpee and Parks mailing lists. I subscribed to Flower and Garden and Horticulture magazines. The whole world of living things seemed to call out to me.

I didn't take on hobbies; I took on passions. Through the years I've become fascinated by airplanes, paper maché sculpting, crocheting, old time radio shows, stamp collecting, the theater, classical music... and the list goes on. Some of the passions have fallen by the wayside, and others have remained to this day. But the sense of wonder has been continuous.

Being bored was rarely a problem for me when I was a child, and it still isn’t. Everything offers fascination of one sort or another, whether intellectual or spiritual – and after all, aren’t those two pillars of the same building. I have lain upon the ground and watched ants traveling along dragging bits of leaves or cookie crumbs, I’ve marveled over a couple of square feet of soil as tiny flower seeds germinated and began searching for sunlight, I’ve ravished the night sky with my eyes absorbing from a billion stars the light that began its journey billions of years ago.

Books, music, magazines, movies, the theater, the science lab, the inventor’s workshop, the artist’s studio… and on and on it goes, this marvelous path of wonder that waits at the tips of our toes for us to step onto it. Like the Yellow Brick Road led to the magical Emerald City of Oz, so lies the road of wonder before each of us. All we have to do is take a step, then another, then another, then…