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Dreams are true while they last,
and do we not live in dreams?
Lord Alfred Tennyson
My father, Stanley Perlman, was a huge bear of a man, six feet five inches, with hands as big as hams and a smile as bright and caressing as sunlight. I loved to climb up in his lap, put my arms around his tree trunk of a neck, and settle into the warm pillow of his cheek. His bulk and personality could fill any room, leaving that room more than empty when he was gone.
He was gone a lot.
Before my father decided to attach our financial fate to the quixotic Florida real estate market, he was a traveling salesman, constantly on the road peddling his family's line of housecoat dresses. As dads often do, he would promise to someday take me on the road with him, but then he would leave before I woke without so much as saying good-bye.
I would stand in the living room for hours on end, staring out the window hoping to see his car coming around the corner. My mother, Germaine, or as she called herself, Gerry, too young and ill-equipped to handle two babies and long periods of self-sufficiency, would finally become exasperated with my forlorn face and send me to my room. Why was I punished for exhibiting honest emotion, I couldn't fathom. Looking back, I'm quite certain that she watched me in such a rattled state of longing for my father that she suffered the very human daggers of jealousy.
My mother was nothing if not extremely human.
With the pressures piling on her shoulders over the years, my mother housed herself inside a brick exterior. In the eyes of a child, she was powerful and unrelenting, much like an armored tank. I took her deportment at face value, which, as we all come to learn as we grow older, has little to do with true value.
If anything, a tough outer shell is usually a sure sign that the soul inside is drowning in a whirlpool of pain and self-doubt. At a very tender age I figured out that what you see is half of what you get. In sharp contrast to my own emotional personality, I do remember that my mother allowed herself the luxury of tears one time, when her own mother died.
Most children who find themselves alone in that same situation would quickly conjure up an imaginary friend. Someone who, though invisible, would love them, understand them, and, best of all, never leave them suddenly for business trips out of town. Why I never bothered to whip up an imaginary friend I don't know. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have someone under the same roof that was always on my side. However, my root personality made that impossible. It always seemed that the apple dangling from the highest limb of the tallest tree is what I found the most tantalizing.
As I look back on it now, I feel that the core reason why I didn't fantasize about an invisible friend is because I felt so terribly invisible myself. Rather than play jacks in my room with a best friend who didn't exist, I spent those lonely hours believing that I was put on this earth with a mission: I was a messenger of God.
I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that I don't remember exactly what that message was; I do know that I refused to write it down for fear someone else may find it and then that person would become the messenger of God.
Nevertheless, I do remember how believing that I was handpicked for this all-important task down here on Earth made me feel blessedly important. If only in the backstreets of my own imagination, I was a somebody.
When I was very young, my mother made me say my prayers before going to bed. 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.' It's questionable whether any prayer with the word 'die' in it should be the last thing on a child's lips before nodding off, but I don't remember feeling any shiver of panic as I snuggled my small frame beneath the thick covers. In fact, the opposite proved to be true. Long after my mother kissed me on the forehead and turned out the light, I would remain awake, and in my childlike way, I would ponder the meaning of death and the soul.
My parents tried to give their children formal religious training. My brother and I attended Jewish Sunday school. Even though they insisted that my brother have a bar mitzvah, neither their hearts nor their temperaments were suited to rigid theology. I had been raised Reform, which, in the Jewish faith, is considered barely being Jewish at all. The more Orthodox branches of my religion grudgingly admit that we believe in God, although they wonder if we have trouble remembering His name.
My religious training can best be summed up as hit-and-miss, and though we celebrated the holidays of my faith, God was treated just like an easygoing patriarch, without the customary obedience and reverence He was accorded in more Orthodox homes. My mother held firm to the belief that the soul was eternal and that you could reach God no matter where you were or what you'd done. My dad also believed that each individual had a direct line of prayer to God. Having been a prisoner of war (POW), my father had learned the importance of individuality and inner strength, and, added to his natural streak of rebellion, he had no interest in any religion that was organized and tidy. He was convinced that once the more base and basic of man's foibles got involved, religion and its dogma lost the fundamental foundation of love.
My parents' beliefs pushed open the doors to my own youthful exploration, which reached its pseudointellectual zenith when I was fourteen and pompously wrote a school paper that stated with certainty that religion is nothing more than an opiate for the masses (as Karl Marx called it), a crutch to avoid confronting the finality of death. With all the conviction of youth, I stated that 'true strength' was to face and acknowledge that this life is all there is, and that the universe is benignly indifferent to our little piping dreams, and that we all eventually become dust. At this age, I considered myself quite the expert on death, having devoured the works of heavyweights such as Elie Wiesel, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The result of all this was that, while my contemporaries busied themselves sniffing out a date for the prom, I poured my energies into waving a flag for existentialism.
I realize now that I was one of those annoying teenagers who figured that if a word had enough syllables in it, it had to be deep, and I grabbed a seat on that bandwagon. Soon I came around again, this time with Hermann Hesse. Growing up in a household where the Almighty was so malleable, fluid, and unboxed by doctrine, it didn't take any great leap of imagination on my part to assign myself the role of His assistant.
It was a safe and loving hole for me to climb into. I never believed that my parents ever really heard me. I felt I had to prove them wrong by justifying my existence. I couldn't conceive of a showier, more exalted position to land than being the messenger of God. I told no one of my new calling, realizing that my mission was best kept under wraps until the proper moment when God and I were ready to spring it on the world.
But like an envelope stamped and ready to mail—and then overlooked and forgotten—the moment my father would walk through the front door, all was right with the world. I wisely chose not to discuss my bedroom revelation with my parents, as they were too busy struggling their way through this life to pay much attention to whatever may come after.
My mother's concern was paying the grocer's bill, while my father spent sleepless nights wondering why women across America were suddenly no longer wanting to wear housecoat dresses. My father's business predicament wasn't that he always found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was more heartbreaking than that. He always seemed to land in the right place just as the right time was ending.
I would put down my bombastic revelation to a child's flight of fancy soaring out of a lagoon of loneliness if not for the emotions it stirred within me. Those emotions still exist, but no longer as shields to protect me from a reality too cold and harsh to deal with. Over the years, they've solidified into a belief system that encompasses all the realities that life has to offer.
What I had unknowingly unearthed was an innate belief system that there was a very real and definite connective tissue that binds us to the unseen world,where hearts and minds travel after their stay on this planet has been completed. This was my first connection with that gossamer thing we call the soul. Let's see an imaginary friend do that!
Perhaps all of the emotional contortions I put myself through could have been avoided had my mother scooped me up in her arms and given me warm kisses of understanding. Maybe if my father had not left so many times on business without saying good-bye. Perhaps he thought this silent departure would be easier on me, or, with his own ego in such a fragile state, maybe he thought I wouldn't notice. I don't know. Maybe it was all just to keep me in communion with heaven. When you are that lonely, you rely on what love there is—even if you cannot see it.
I do know, as the cliché so aptly puts it, you can't un-ring a bell. But there does come a time when we have to stop listening to the clanging in our ears. I don't blame any aftermath my emotions may have suffered on their actions or lack thereof. As I have learned since giving birth, parenthood is not an exact science, and no matter how pure and positive your intentions, the odds of actually hitting your mark are somewhere below that of bowling or darts.
Alas, I didn't have the necessary overview at that time. I would spend angry hours in my room, teaching myself to hate and separate. No living organism on earth can feel as sorry for itself as a child, and I used my private world as a tether of seething anger to connect me to my family. This lifeline of alienation was exactly that, and I no longer minded the vague and distant connection I felt, because now it was on my terms. In my longing, my needing, my seething, and my dreaming, I began to understand the negative form of connection.
Unconsciously, the worst parts of me slowly became the genesis of my strength. As I look back at that little girl, holed up in her room like a caterpillar in a cocoon, I see now that transforming my emotions was a necessary survival technique. I developed a rich fantasy life as I became independent, self-sufficient, and strong. Then I reached the inevitable crossroads. Somewhere inside I knew that, for true survival, hate can only get you so far until it eats away like acid. I needed to overcome why I was so afraid of love.
Do we really know other people, or do we only know ourselves from the reaction we feel when we're around them? How are we really to know the parts of ourselves that we suppress? If we emotionally keep ourselves separate, then how is it possible to know who we truly are? Alone in my tiny bedroom, I asked myself all of these questions, although I didn't realize it at the time. I was lonely, not profound.
Children work best with basic emotions, not intricate, grand designs. Although their feelings may often be dramatic and outstretched, the core of those emotions is often pitch-perfect. If my own juvenile sensibilities were universal, as I believe they were, perhaps it's this early time of life as we listen intently to hear and understand ourselves not in connection to others but in opposition and rebellion. After all, to be in resistance is to inherently understand who we are against structure.
And if that tack didn't work and I went along and didn't rock the boat, then I swallowed my rebellion along with everything else—I overate. As the years clicked on and my parents' intake of alcohol and pills rose to a frightening level, I became an embryonic philosopher inside the womblike safety of my bedroom. Locked up alone with my thoughts wouldn't have been my first choice of how I would have liked to travel through puberty, but it was still preferable to knowing with certainty that no one was paying attention to me.
When I was sixteen years old, an age when most girls are deciding which turtleneck sweater to wear to cover up their latest hickey, I discovered that I was psychic. Perhaps I had better clarify—whenever the word 'psychic' is uttered, one's thoughts immediately conjure up crystal balls and hoop earrings. For me, psychic ability is nothing more than freeing us enough to allow our senses to walk the high wire of an often-unused wavelength.
There can be no question that a variety of ways of communicating with our surroundings exists. Dogs do it with their keen sense of smell, while bats wing their way around navigated by echolocation. I have often wondered if the reason mankind created language was because, as evolution kept upping the ante of our brainpower, our other senses were forced to take a backseat and eventually atrophied from lack of use. This is just my opinion, certainly, but I do believe we got the worst of that trade.
So, to me, there is nothing mystical or otherworldly inherent in the word 'psychic.' It is simply walking down the path of what Robert Frost would have described as 'the road not taken.' That doesn't mean that road doesn't exist. It simply means that it's been covered over with brambles and vines from lack of foot traffic.
So there I was, alone in my room, when the name Tim Sharpe popped into my head. He was Miami Beach High's star of the football team as well as student body president. He was one of those rare teenagers who a girl of sixteen and her parents could both love. I was in tenth grade. Tim Sharpe was a senior, and he wasn't part of my world. That was why it came as such a shock, though a pleasant one, that he should suddenly burst his way into my thoughts one night as I plowed slowly through algebra. I noted the out-of-nowhere feeling.
The next night he called me and asked me out on a date.
I can only surmise that Tim must have been thinking of asking me out at the exact same moment he crashed into my consciousness. I realized there are senders and there are receivers. We are connected. (This isn't the place to go into detail about how the date went, other than to say that I wore a turtleneck to school the following Monday.)
Puberty for both sexes is a bumpy road of self-doubt, where the flesh of our identity is suddenly altered. For me it came between the ages of ten and eleven, when my breasts suddenly made their abundant appearance (from a training bra to a DD size). The last thing a young girl wants to do is stick out, and nothing sticks out more than big breasts on an eleven-year-old.
Crossing the physical bridge from childhood to womanhood is never easy, but it can be devastating when you cross too early. You become a freak, an oddity, and the object of the kind of cold, heartless ridicule only children are cruel enough to dish out. I taught myself little tricks. I slumped. I carried my schoolbooks pressed against my chest. My tricks didn't hide my breasts but only revealed my embarrassment and humiliation. I wished I had a mother I could confide in, but even she seemed to be against me, silently viewing my blossoming physicality as a threat to her own sexuality. So when Tim asked me out, it was as if he was offering me a helping hand back into a world of acceptance I had long ago believed was lost to me.
Around the same time, I began to toy with the idea of a sixth sense beyond the tangible top five when I stumbled onto one of my father's old Playboy magazines. (This was back in the day when even skin magazines had a sense of decorum, and the female pubic area remained as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle.) I quickly thumbed through the pictorials, wondering if the amply endowed women gracing the pages had gone through the same hell I had, then suddenly stopped when I reached their monthly in-depth interview, this time with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She had become famous for her book On Death and Dying, in which she listed the 'five psychological stages of dying': denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
I remember the interviewer noted that she smoked one cigarette after another. He challenged her by asking how, as someone who works with cancer patients, she could justify her continuous chain-smoking. Kübler-Ross replied that if she had to die, she would much rather have cancer than get hit by a car, because a cancer patient is often afforded the time to make resolutions with the ones they love.
She told of how, when she sat bedside with dying patients, she would hear them talking to those around them who didn't exist. The patient often used specific names, and when Kübler-Ross would inquire about those mentioned with family members, they confirmed that the various monikers belonged to those of deceased family members. Following in the footsteps of one of her heroes, Dr. Raymond Moody, she began to research life after life.
When I opened that issue of Playboy, I was merely curious, a very young woman comparing breasts and beauty with my own self-image. When I closed the magazine, my perceptions of the world of souls was substantiated, confirmed, and ratified forever. Doctors actually researching what I secretly held dearest would take my life down paths I had never imagined possible.
I no longer saw my future within the four walls of the bedroom. Now it was what I couldn't see that interested me most.
©2009. Laurie Ann Levin. All rights reserved. Reprinted from God, the Universe, and Where I Fit In. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442