Archive for March, 2010


I almost died as a child, more than once. When you are seriously ill and endure two major operations before the age of six, your perspective on everything changes forever. You don’t believe that health or life itself should ever be assumed or taken for granted. More than that, you tend to live with a certain alteration in how you view the categories of life and death. I don’t see things in black and white anymore; the binary oppositions that define Western culture and especially Western science don’t define reality for people like me. Existence appears to be more of a continuum: what is and what isn’t becomes more like “what neither is nor isn’t”. Allow me to explain.

Before one of my operations, I was asked by a kind nurse (actually, I don’t know if she was a nurse, a doctor, a tech or what. At five, if you wore a white coat and wielded needles, you were powerful and scary no matter what your title) if I preferred to be knocked out by the mask or by the needle. It was a pathetic attempt to give me some control over an uncontrollable situation; but it my case, it worked. I was very definitive: NO MASK. Needle, please. I hated the mask over my face, anesthetizing me by degrees. I had been in the hospital long enough to know that the needle knocked you out fast, and when you woke up, they were done with you. My next memory of that operation was watching it from above, over the heads of the doctors working on me. There was a sheet in front of the actual surgery, but it was definitely my body down there.

They had put the mask on me. I didn’t know what it was for at the time, but I had asked for no mask, and there was it was, clamped down on my face!! I felt no surprise that I was floating above my surgery and watching them work on me, but I was definitely upset that they had lied to me. Oddly, I always knew that it was “me” floating up near the ceiling, and that it was “me” on the table, but the self I identified with the most was the Kirsten floating, not the Kirsten on the table. In any case, as soon as I was able to see the doctor and the nurse who had asked me the question before the operation, I told them that they had promised not to use the mask, but they lied and did use the mask on me during the surgery. I remember them exchanging looks and appearing quite confused. They didn’t deny it nor affirm it, but simply mumbled something unintelligible.

Looking back, they must have thought that I wasn’t completely out. I was, though. Seeing myself on the table was very clear and very real. The conventional explanations for OBEs and NDEs runs the gamut from hallucination, oxygen deprivation, effects of narcotics, activation of a particular region of the brain, etc. etc. All of these explanations have been refuted by Dr. Melvin Morse, Dr. Raymond Moody, and several other medical professionals who have taken the time to examine the issue. Some OBE’s and NDEs can be refuted, no doubt; but the majority cannot, especially in those cases where verifiable information is recalled where no ordinary explanation can exist. There is no way that I should have been able to recall details from the surgery, especially since the mask was placed long after I was knocked out cold and removed long before I regained consciousness.

At five, that experience was equivalent to all my other, conscious experiences. I had no reason to question it. Later, of course, I would learn that such things were “impossible,” and later still–currently–I’m back to the position that such experiences represent consciousness just as I am consciously typing this entry. Simply because our current understanding of consciousness and the brain cannot explain these experiences does not mean that they are not real. I, for one, am thrilled that consciousness does not depend on my brain to function. My brain can fall prey to disease and age, becoming a very poor device for interpreting and relaying consciousness. If there are other venues for me to be me, then so much the better–because I have never felt that my body represents “me”.

If you’re sick a great deal, or suffer from a chronic condition, or have come close to death at any point in your life, then you understand this. My body must be endured, pampered, loved and treated with appropriate medical care when necessary, but it does not DEFINE me. “I” am something else, something that transcends the body and will outlive it. Thank God for that, because bodies fall apart and hurt, but your spirit is not sick.

I knew that then but was forced to forget it. Now I am learning it all over again, to honor the five year old I once was, who knew what was real and true and wouldn’t let the adults tell her otherwise.

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For those of you who think that I have gone too far with the morbid posts, I offer something more hopeful.

I’ve been reading Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life and inflicting it upon my students for the past several weeks. I won’t go into all the solid, pedagogical reasons for assigning it–it’s enough to say that if you don’t read Unamuno, you won’t understand modern or contemporary Spain. One of Unamuno’s basic tenets is that suffering is a requirement for anyone who wants to achieve grace, dignity and resignation; all qualities that Catholics should aspire to. His tome is, essentially, an apologia for the Spanish Catholic Church. Even though he feels that reason and faith can never coexist, we must take solace in a personal savior, even though we can never, ever, prove the existence of life after death. Immortality, personal survival, is what we all desire the most–yet it is impossible to prove to the thinking person’s (read: educated) satisfaction. So, let’s live with our suffering–created by our need to believe something reason refuses to allow–and make it into a personal art, an expression of our own divinity.

So. That’s Unamuno in a nutshell. He died in a prison in Madrid in 1936, after his speech at the university where he taught was overtaken by the Falange (Hitler-loving, “New Spain” Fascists, let by General Francisco Franco). The Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936-1939, followed by 40 years of a fascist dictatorship, from which Spain is still recovering.

This brings us to Buddhism. Suffering for Buddhists is entirely a creation of the mind and has no independent reality. We suffer only because we choose to, or think (falsely) that there is no other choice. “Suffering, the Buddha taught, is caused when the freedom that is inherent to our non-local pristine awareness is obscured by the limitations of our ego and our physical body.” (Targ, Hurtak. 6) In other words, our ego and physical body are not what truly defines reality, but the vehicles through which we interpret reality. If we allow our bodies and our egos to define our identities and experiences, we will suffer endlessly. There is, however, no need to follow the dictates of what is not real. Bodies and egos refer us endlessly to the past or the future. We suffer when we ruminate over the past (which is unreal; it has no objective reality) or when we project our worries uselessly into the future (which is equally fictitious).

When we do not live fully in the present moment, we are living through a mind-generated illusion. All suffering is illusory.

Unamuno suffers because he finds intense, religious pleasure in doing so. Targ and Hurtak are seeking to abandon suffering as useless and entirely unrelated to real, lived experience. In both cases, the message seems to be: if you are in anguish, then you have made that choice. Unless your suffering is physical and unremitting, then everything that hurts you is your own personal demon, created by you and for you. If you have had enough of emotional pain, then all it takes is a decision and a practice.

Nothing is real that is not now.

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The head of a serial killer . . .

The Museum of Death in Hollywood seems fairly innocuous on the outside. It isn’t until you walk in the front door and are confronted with the “test picture” that you have some idea what’s in store for you. The test picture reveals a hideous accident scene where a motorcyclist and a semi-truck collided, scattering the remains of the biker over the pavement. He was in seven “chunks”, entrails artfully arranged, various body parts decorating the road. I found myself trying to figure out which chunks of his body belonged where, analyzing the bits and pieces as if I could somehow reconstruct him in my mind. My stomach turned over and I felt dizzy; yet I couldn’t tear myself away from that picture. This man had been reduced to meat. I don’t know how else to put it. This was dead beyond the mere ending of life; this was butchery and desecration. It felt as if something perpetuated an unholy act. But what? It was an accident, that’s all, something that could happen to any of us at any time.

I moved through the various rooms. Ironically, the one thing I couldn’t watch was the embalming video. The man was dead, but watching the technician struggle to insert embalming fluid into his femoral artery was just too much for me. Again, meat:  pale, cold, rubbery meat. The Victorian pictures of dead children didn’t pose a problem for me until I saw the baby with her eyes wide open. She seemed shocked, surprised by her demise, somehow frozen in the loss of her entire life. The head of the serial killer didn’t move me–it seemed as if it had been pickled and dried for all eternity. I didn’t spend much time in the Manson rooms; too familiar, too sad. The Heaven’s Gate presentation left me cold–stupid people making even stupider decisions. I felt no connection to those tragedies. Later, I walked down the hallway and was confronted by a series of pictures taken by the psycho boyfriend of a woman who decided to 1) convince her boyfriend to murder her husband, 2) dismember the corpse with a saw, starting with his genitalia, and 3) take pictures of the whole process, since it was so much fun to document how she stuck the severed foot into the mouth of his bloody, decapitated head, placed the middle finger of his severed hand up his nose, and various other delightful fancies. She, of course, was naked during this whole process, enjoying herself tremendously. The joy would have never ended if the moronic couple hadn’t decided to send the roll of film to Thrifty’s for developing (this was the 80’s–no digital photos). The shocked clerk notified the authorities, they were duly arrested, and the wife–well, she’s out of jail now. Boys, be careful who you date on the Internet or your pictures will end up in the Museum of Death.

There were some realities I could not face. The pictures of torture and the mangled corpses from the war in Iraq, the death camp photos from Hitler’s reign of terror, victims of the Salvadoran death squads . . . the brute facts of the pain we inflict upon each other was more than I could stand. The grand scale of that horror is numbing, beyond emotion. It was, instead, the smaller and more intimate portraits of death that remained burned into my psyche: the autopsy photos of JFK, the last picture of Marilyn Monroe, dead and livid, her eyes open. She looked like a confused child, overcome with the reality of her last moments. I cried looking at her; the most powerful man and the most beautiful woman, humiliated and defeated. The serial killer rooms, with Gacy’s artwork on display, reflected a total loss of humanity or any of the qualities that identify us as human. This was a study in pathology and psychosis, a portrait of minds so altered by trauma or genetic deficit–or perhaps head injuries to just the wrong area–that there was no way to understand them as fully sentient beings. They were creatures from the underworld, or perhaps fragments of nightmares come to life. Their lack of empathy or compassion–or even identification with other human beings–placed them into a different category of existence. They would kill me and eat me like a wild animal would–it’s just their nature.

The continuous loop of “Traces of Death” played in the “lounge” for our amusement. By that time, I was unable to feel much of anything but nausea. I watched it, and felt a slight revulsion, but I had reached the point of saturation. Amazing how one can become resistant to these images, how they lose their meaning after a while–is that what happens to people after years of violence? I suppose so; but to feel it in myself was horrifying. The end of my journey brought some insights: first, I was thrilled to be alive. I felt as if I had escaped something, even if briefly. Second, corpses have lost what makes them human–a soul, an animating spirit. They may contain traces of a last emotion, or perhaps the soul lingers awhile after their bodily death, attempting to make sense of the incomprehensible. Essentially, however, dead bodies are meat. They are only shells or remains, something left behind. We are supposed to feel some veneration for the dead body, but I felt none. Ironically, all those bloody, dismembered and destroyed corpses only reinforced my belief in the soul. The road kill in the “test picture” has nothing to do with who he was, or is now. None of those bodies, however gruesomely displayed, tell us anything about the spirit that moves on. When I’m a dead body, I am not me; I’m  just a chunk of organic material.

That’s OK. It sucks to die, especially if you’re the husband of an insane and morbidly creative woman. But once your death is over, your life starts again. Death is just a brief, unpleasant moment that will pass into history. Trust me, you won’t care what they do to your poor mortal coil. Unless, of course, your better half is busy stuffing your privates into your ears.

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This little boy–not so little, actually–died at ten years old. Who knows how this happened; this cemetery in Lompoc is overrun with tragic stories like this one. I don’t know what it must feel like as a parent to lose a child. I wandered about this place, and all I could see were stories, not ghosts; only partial stories at that, hinting at what might have transpired 30, 40, 100 years ago. If one believes in the soul, most assuredly nothing is haunting this patch of land. It feels bereft, lost in time, a place where lives ended without testimony, history gradually erasing all traces of personal identity.

No wonder the Virgin Mary, Jesus and various saints are carefully placed in and around the headstones. God will give these lost souls meaning and permanence, even if not apparent to the casual tourist or photographer. The cemetery is largely Hispanic, and if you know Spanish or Latin American culture, then you take the Virgin very seriously. Not only does she protect and guide you, she keeps your memory alive within her downcast eyes. No matter how much the modern citizen, Latino or not, pretends that all of this is superstition or ancient dogma from the abuelos, somehow I think we all share the same hope.

When we’re gone, someone needs to watch over what remains of us. Someone needs to remember who we were, what we did, the small drama of our lives . . . and Mary, with her perpetual tears of loss, feels like she belongs to us all. Believe or not, when you need solace, when there is the lurking danger of oblivion playing across your subconscious mind, you will pray.

And she will listen.

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