Friday, January 28, 2011



    An active mind, like a bat in the bedroom, is a frightening thing.
    This came home to me again recently when I found myself, for no reason at all, mulling over what it would be like if all the bugs that had ever crawled on me were to be gathered into a pile on my living room floor. My common sense knew better than to pursue that notion, but my mind took wing on its own. I thought of all the mosquitoes that had ever lit on me, and of all the spiders that had ever traversed me in the night, and of all the fleas, mites, ticks, weevils, chiggers, and assorted other insects that had ever sojourned with me, however briefly, in this Veil of Confusion, without my knowing it. The ants alone would probably make a nice little  mound, I found myself thinking, and the whole lot would probably come to a writhing heap of black life as high as my chest, like something from an Indiana Jones movie.
     Before long—I couldn't help it—I was extrapolating to everything else that had ever touched my life: a hill of all the dirt I'd ever washed off, for example; a giant wad of all the hair I'd ever sent down the drain; a mob of all the people I had ever known, complete with a vat of all the body oil they had ever left behind when we shook hands. Pretty soon my imagination had filled the Superdome with stacks, batches, concentrations, conglutinations, hoards, and hodgepodges of all the detritus, living and dead, of my past. It was a heady vision, not altogether attractive. After a while, I wished I had decided to go ahead and watch Survival Island or read a political blog, instead. But a flapping imagination is not so easily netted and tethered.

    My mind is not always abuzz in this way. In fact, normally it can be found hanging upside down from the dim wall of my skull, quietly pondering nothing of any consequence, half asleep. But now and then, usually at night (usually at 3 a.m., the Hour of Dread), it awakes with a start and begins its frenetic flying. There is no telling then what it will bump into.
    All too often it bumps into questions to which there are no answers. When that happens, the night is lost, and sleep dies. I was fifteen and it was a hot summer's eve when I first experienced this. At 10 p.m., I somehow started wondering, as only a 15-year-old can, whether the universe could be put into a box, assuming you could make a box big enough. By midnight I had got to thinking that if you could put it into a box, even a theoretical box, then that left nothing outside the box. By the Hour of Dread I had terrified myself into realizing that if there would be nothing outside the box, then what could be the purpose of what was in the box, since there would be nothing outside the box for it to be purposeful for? Dawn found me twisted tight in my sweat-soaked sheets and staring wide-eyed at the walls of my room, with visions of boxes, God, and The Great Round Void ricocheting about my brain.
    I have grown up considerably since that time. My mind flutters among other profound issues now, such as 1) Why do people sing along to their favorite songs in such a way that they can't hear them? 2) Why do they never offer coupons for the things you always buy? And 3) Where, exactly, is my groin? This is not a qualitative change, though, from when I was fifteen: dawn still finds me staring.


   Sometimes I will awake in the night from dreams, and my mind begins to whir on that very subject: my dreams. I fret for hours over whether they are as obviously Freudian as they seem, and whether I am indeed the socio-sexual monster that that would imply. When I dream of my teeth crumbling out of my head, for instance, am I, as my psychologist friends say, manifesting a fear of losing my masculinity—or am I simply recalling the horrors of the dentist's chair and the terrible command to "Rinse!"? When I dream sweet dreams of finding bright, uncut golf balls on lovely wooded golf courses, is my sick psyche seeking testicular consolation in the forest of modern relationships—or am I simply recalling what it's like to find an immaculate Titleist under a leaf in the left rough? And what about gliding? Other people dream of flying, and I am told that that means they have a desire to break free of everyday life and do great things. But I dream about gliding: in my dreams, if I hold my head just right, I can rise an inch or two off the sidewalk and kind of glide down the street. Other people soar; I glide an inch off the ground. Even in my dreams I am essentially earthbound—a fact my hyper imagination will worry on for days at a time, and I can't stop it.

    My mind has a mind of its own, else why would it insist on making me miserable? Why, in the middle of a perfectly pleasant, thoughtless afternoon, will it snap alert and fly me off to the territory of my terrors? There I will be, in the sunshine, munching a picnic cookie or hitting a tennis ball, and suddenly my sadistic psyche will rush me off to the region of fearsome images: of humiliating, bent-over moments in a doctor's office, and of the doctor himself reporting his findings to me later with tears on his cheeks; of the woman I love ecstatic in the arms of a faceless man in the back of a Winnebago; of my aged self rocking and drooling in the middle of an empty room with no one to wipe my chin. A kind of mad mental momentum builds up at times like these, and before the fit has ended, my mind has me gaping horrified at my own autopsy, performed by giggling medical students eagerly wielding rusty scalpels and wearing dollar signs for eyes.
    Clearly, my mind pays me no mind at all. It goes its own way, and I hang on to its tail for dear life. There are days when I would just as soon let it fly off alone, without me or a map, until it has gone so far that it is lost. Then maybe I could get the bugs out and sleep through the Hour of Dread.

(The original version of this essay appeared in Memphis magazine and several other publications in December 1984.)

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