The Thing I Like About …

Awake:  when his mother lights her cigarette.

In Awake, Clay Beresford is a young man with a heart condition. He’s waiting for a heart transplant, and his rare blood type means that he’s been waiting for a long time. When a heart finally becomes available, Clay is prepped for surgery … and experiences everyone’s nightmare – the anesthesia only paralyzes him, while leaving him awake, aware, and able to feel pain.

He endures the situation by taking his mind as far away as it can go – to thoughts of his lovely wife, of his parents, of places he’s been that aren’t this operating room. But eventually it takes its toll, and as he learns unpleasant truths while overhearing the conversations of the people who believe he’s “under”, he sinks into despair and resignation – he decides that he’s not going to live through this, and that maybe he doesn’t really want to.

Visually, we follow Clay as he descends into hopelessness: in his mind, he sees himself walking down the city streets to his home, while the streetlights and building lights go off one by one behind him. Finally he enters his house, where only the foyer light is on, and then even that goes dark. He sits in front of the fireplace for a while, but the fire dies. He makes his way upstairs to his bedroom, the house lights clicking off as he passes them. He curls up on his bed, and the nightstand lamp turns off, leaving him in total darkness. In the real world, his body begins to die, and the doctors working on him are on the verge of giving up; in his mind, he’s given up already, and he sinks further into his bed and waits for death.

Then the single flame of a match cuts through the darkness.

Clay’s mother is there by the bed. She lights her cigarette, and talks to Clay until he’s ready to come back to his life again. She helps him confront the truths he’s been learning, and even gives him new ones to think about. She gives him the strength to face life, and to wake up.

It’s only a match; it’s only a cigarette. But for Clay it’s the only light in the world. For Clay it’s a path through the deepest darkness he’s ever known. For Clay, it’s everything.

We underestimate small lights. We underestimate them in others, and focus instead on all the things about them that annoy us, or all the things they’ve done wrong, or all the things they’ve failed at, or all the ways they’ve let us down by not being what we expected them to be.

And we underestimate our own light – the way that we contribute to this world, not with our money or our position or our staggering intellect, but with our love, our kindness, our unique qualities that offer something special to the world. We underestimate our strength, our success, our ability to give. We underestimate how much we can encourage someone just by being ourselves, just by bringing our good spirit, just by bringing even the smallest light to their darkness.

When we live in the light, we lose perspective; because the light is so bright, we interpret even the slightest shadow as a wretched blot on our otherwise “perfect” existence. We imagine that things are “supposed” to be irradiated with sunshine and solidity and clearly labeled roads to our destination. We start underestimating small lights, because we simply cannot see them. But then life gets darker – because life can get very, very dark – and if we’re not prepared for it, it can overwhelm us. Whether we’re the ones in darkness, or whether it’s our loved ones (or people we have compassion for) whose lives have gone pear-shaped, we want more than anything to bring back the full-on no-shadows sunshine … and we beat ourselves up as failures if we can’t do that.

But our feelings of failure only make the darkness darker and the situation more hopeless. Instead of holding out for all-or-nothing total sunshine, we could instead offer and accept the small lights that humans actually have, and make at least one little space better.

How could one match – one lit cigarette – make any difference? I suppose it depends on how dark it is. For Clay, curled up and waiting for death, that match gives him hope, and lights the way back to his life.

One match can make all the difference in the world. One light, your light, can make all the difference in the world.

One Page Stories – Second Web

Little Window

Tanya didn’t know exactly what had happened. She remembered being late, and being irritable, and pulling over. Why had she pulled over when she was running late? She frowned, struggling to retrieve the memory.

She had heard a thump.

She had pulled over because she thought she had hit something – or someone – with her car. She had gotten out, and looked around … and … then what?

Her head was throbbing. She couldn’t remember what had happened after that, no matter how hard she tried.

Well, then, she thought. Where was she now?

She seemed to be in a featureless grey room with no windows; it was lit, but not by any source she could determine – there was just a soft white glow all around her, illuminating the grey floor. There were no walls that she could see. Everything outside of the soft glow just dissipated into total darkness. There was no furniture, no item or other person. She called out, first tentatively, and then more urgently, more loudly. No one answered.

Her voice didn’t even echo in this vast, grey place. It was swallowed up into the darkness of the periphery. She began to be extremely frightened.

“Where am I?” she shouted, starting to cry. “What’s happening?”

For what seemed like hours – but might only have been a few minutes – she screamed for anyone, for help, for explanations. Still no one answered. She cast herself onto the grey floor and sobbed, overcome with fear and confusion. What the hell was happening? How did she get here?

Eventually she managed to pull herself together, and climbed unsteadily to her feet. Looking around her for a moment, she selected a direction and began to walk.

The soft white light followed her, dispelling the darkness ahead of her as though she were driving through fog. She still couldn’t tell where the light was coming from. She wondered briefly if she was dead, but decided ultimately that her heart was beating too loudly for her to be dead.

She walked for at least a mile, running occasionally in growing alarm. The grey floor continued smooth and flat in all directions, and nowhere was there a wall or a mark or anything.

This is insane! she thought, trying not to panic. It occurred to her then that perhaps she had been in some kind of accident. Perhaps she was unconscious, in a coma in a hospital bed, and this was just a really vivid dream. Maybe it was just some kind of elaborate metaphor her brain was devising to find her way back to consciousness.

She stopped walking then, and sat down. Once again, she looked all around her.

There was a window.

It was small – miniscule – but it was definitely a window. It must be very far away, but she could see blue sky through it.

“Oh, my God!” she cried. She jumped up and ran toward the window.

It turned out to be only a few feet away, and she had actually run past it before skidding to a halt and turning back toward it. What the hell? She stared, baffled, at the window.

It was only about six inches by four inches, and it floated in mid-air at about waist-height. She walked around it slowly, not able at first to absorb what she was seeing. When she stood behind the window, it vanished, but reappeared again when she came full circle.

She bent down and peered through this strange, floating window. On the other side was blue sky that was deepening to twilight, and a row of houses. She could hear voices, girls’ voices, all telling each other they would see each other in the morning. Then a figure walked past the window – one of the girls.

“Help!” she shouted. The girl stopped and turned around, clearly uncertain who had spoken. She called out, and Tanya shouted again: “Help!”

The girl approached the little window, and bent down to stare Tanya directly in the eyes. She seemed irritated, and clearly thought someone was playing a trick on her. She called out for the pranksters to reveal themselves.

Tanya realized the girl must be as perplexed by the little window as she was. “Please!” she begged. “Please! Let me out of here! Let me out!”

The girl became angrier. She looked back and forth, and demanded to know, “How did you do this?” She bent down then, her nose only inches from Tanya’s. Tanya took a chance and reached out through the little window, her fingers grasping at the girl’s hair.

The girl jerked back and screamed, running away toward the row of houses. “Please!” Tanya yelled after her. “Please come back! I need to get out!” Her fingers gripped the edges of the little window, and she pushed her nose and mouth through the tiny opening. Tears fell unheeded as she screamed and screamed, but, if the girl could hear her, she didn’t respond. Soon she had run completely out of sight, and Tanya collapsed on the grey floor in despair.

She stayed next to the little window as the sky on the other side of it grew darker and darker. “Please,” she whispered over and over. “Please help me.” She stared unblinking at the sliver of sky, and at the narrow band of stars.

 

One-Page Stories

Running

“I’m right here,” she told him, tucking him back into his new big-boy bed. “I promise, I’m not going anywhere. I’m just in my own bed, okay? Just like every other night.”

He sniffled, and pulled his stuffed bear closer to him. “Okay,” he said, unconvincingly. He had been very excited about the big-boy bed … until he realized that unfamiliar things make the night particularly dark and scary. He had come running to her room at the other end of the trailer, not once but three times.

Each time, she had slumped a little further into frustration and dejection; each time she had heard his little feet padding on the carpet and then on the kitchen linoleum, she had sighed a little deeper, and gotten up a little more reluctantly.

Someday he’ll be grown and gone, she reminded herself. And you’ll miss this.

She went back to her own bed for the fourth time, and snuggled down under the covers. Just as she was about to drift off to sleep, she heard the padding of little feet at the far end of the trailer.

“No,” she murmured, despairing that she would ever get any rest tonight. “Not again.”

The feet began running, and started thumping loudly against the floorboards – it sounded as though something were chasing the little boy. Thump-thump-thump-thump. Then, as the feet reached the kitchen, the sounds came even louder and faster – thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump! Across the kitchen, down the hall, into her room, running right past her and stopping abruptly at the far side of the room.

Unnerved, she sat up and fumbled for the light switch. After what seemed an interminable moment, her fingers finally found the switch and turned on the light.

The room was empty.

She cried out, and jumped out of bed. What the hell?!

She heard her son calling out for her, and she hurried down the length of the trailer to his room. He hadn’t even gotten out of bed.

“Are – are you okay, sweetie?” she asked, trying to slow her madly pounding heart. “I thought I heard you get up.”

“No,” he said, his bear clutched almost desperately to his chest. “I heard somebody running around.”

“It must have been something outside,” she suggested, trying to sound sure of herself. “Well, curl up now, and get to sleep. I love you.”

“Love you too,” he said, putting his thumb in his mouth.

She watched him for a moment, then turned and closed his door; wondering what it was she – they – had heard, she decided they were both just really tired. She made her way in the dim light back toward her room.

When she reached the hall that led to her bedroom door, the light shifted, and a shadow appeared in the doorway. It was a child, standing silhouetted by the bedroom light so that she could make out no features at all. The shape stood still for a moment, and she imagined that it watched her; then it giggled with apparent delight and spun away, running out through the wall of the trailer.

She backed away from the hall and ran as quickly as she could to her son’s room. She lay on his floor that night, with his dresser shoved up against the door. She didn’t sleep.

Not a wink.

A Countdown for the Holidays

The Wisdom of Pinhead: Part Two
“He’s makin’ a list.  He’s checkin’ it twice …”*

Last year for Christmas, I blogged about my favourite part of Hellraiser V: Inferno.  I talked about how Pinhead’s dark, scary message was really a cautionary Christmas tale – avoid superficiality and selfishness and embrace what really matters, or, you know, pay horribly forever.  I realized afterward that Pinhead has always had some very Christmas-y things to say … when seen in the right light.  So this year, I will be presenting a Pinhead-Christmas-personal empowerment-happy-joy-countdown.  At the end of it, I hope readers – Christian and non-Christian alike – are more disposed to find the love and joy the Christmas holiday represents.

And maybe they’ll want to watch the movies too.

Pinhead: “Ah, Kirsty. We thought we lost you.”
Kirsty Cotton: “I didn’t open the box!”
Pinhead: “Oh, Kirsty. So eager to play, so reluctant to admit it.”

People have curiosity about things; curiosity has little to do with any other emotion, such as love, empathy, fear, or ethical consideration.  It’s simply … curiosity.

People have inner darkness, mostly because we are creatures much like all the others on the planet – we have basic instincts for survival, which include the ability to kill if necessary.  Of course, we’ve complicated those instincts with layers of civilization, cognitive development, social development, and a complex world full of thousands upon thousands of rules, scenarios, guidelines, circumstances, etc.  We have come to a place where we try to be “good” – to kill only when it’s incredibly necessary, to avoid hurting others, to do things to help others with or without recompense.  We value social connection; we value love and all the selfless things that go along with it.  We work to have a world where we all feel safe, and where no one has to kill anyone.  But underneath it all is the instinct, which gets translated as darkness by our “sophisticated” brains, and suddenly we’re submerged in the guilt-ridden world of things-we-think-about-that-make-us-feel-weird-about-ourselves.

And what’s the harm in that?  Well, when we put a lot of judgment words like “bad”, “dark”, “evil”, “weird” on entirely random thoughts, we don’t just judge the things society has excluded, like murder; we also judge ourselves, and begin to mistrust our thoughts, and to shove them away in a dark place, and to ignore them even though they keep talking.  And suddenly a random thought becomes an insistent, subconscious buzzing that stimulates our imagination – because that’s the only part still listening – and transforms itself into whatever the imagination decides.  Basically, this unacknowledged darkness ferments into something the thinker never thought, and ordinary people can suddenly find themselves behaving in ways that would have shocked them cold earlier in the day.

If Kirsty had been more willing to acknowledge her curiosity, she might have been able to control herself better.  She might have been more able to make sure her actions matched up with what her goodness and ethics and wisdom guided her to do.  She had pushed her darkness away for so long that she was now completely unaware of it, and this allowed her darkness to do, well, pretty much whatever it wanted. And so, even while her brain told her, “Good people don’t want this,” her hands just kept picking up the shiny puzzle-box.

Look inside yourself.  Look at your weaknesses as well as your strengths – not with judgment or revulsion, but simply to know.  Know your darkness.  Know your limitations.  Know yourself.  Once you know yourself, then all your actions will truly be yours, and your goodness will be deliberate and true.

 

* “Santa Claus is comin’ to town” by Coots and Gillespie

 

The Thing I Like About …

Awake (2007, Hayden Christiansen): the part where his mother lights her cigarette.

Awake follows a young man’s attempt to get a heart transplant before his own heart stops working.  His mother (played by Lena Olin) wants him to consult her own physician – the best heart surgeon in the country – but Clay (Christiansen) wants his friend Dr. Harper to be his surgeon, and he places his trust in Dr. Harper.

Of course, things go horribly wrong.

Clay is prepped for the transplant, and is given anesthesia; he then experiences anesthesia-awareness, a lovely little complication wherein he is fully aware of what’s happening to him during surgery but is helpless to move or communicate to the surgeons – the surgeons who cut into his chest and pull out his heart.

Ouch.

Clay begins to wander through his memories in an attempt to retreat from the pain of the ongoing operation.  Things have all sincerely gone horribly wrong, and he is in fact dying.  This is represented, as he walks “home” in his imagination, by each street light going out consecutively, leaving a growing trail of darkness behind him.  He goes into his “house”, where the lamps also go out one by one, as well as the fire in the fireplace.  He makes his way upstairs and lies down wearily on his bed, and the bedside lamp goes out too. He’s in pitch black now, and we know that it’s because his body (and his spirit) are very nearly dead.  He’s very nearly dead.

And then his mother lights her cigarette.

She’s sitting by him in his imagination-bedroom, and smoking a cigarette, and she’s telling him how much she loves him, and how proud she is of him, and how wonderful he is, and how strong.  She’s telling him how gladly she would die for him, how she would give him her own heart, because that’s what mothers do.  She lights her cigarette, and it’s the only light in the room, and Clay follows it out of his imagination-house, out to where he can wake up and be alive again.  He uses her little light to light all the other lights.

Her little light saves his life.

We’ve all been in darkness, both real and metaphorical.  We’ve all waited and hoped to see that little light.  We’ve all clung to it with every ounce of strength.  Yet we’re sure that our own contributions are small, that we’re not important or strong or good enough, that what we have to offer isn’t worth anything.  We don’t think we can really heal or fix or help.

But in the pitch-black, one little light makes all the difference in the world.

The Thing I Like About …

Mr. Frost: how it makes you think about things.

In Mr. Frost, Jeff Goldblum plays a man who claims to be Satan, and who is incarcerated in a psychiatric prison for killing a bunch of kids.  When we first meet him, before his arrest, he is personable and pleasant.  He’s funny, in fact, and we can’t help but like him.  When he admits to the killings, we aren’t put off – we’re intrigued.

When the psychiatrist (played by Kathy Baker) assigned to his case starts spending time with him, she is also intrigued.  She is flattered by his insistence on speaking only with her.  She is drawn to his sensuality, his exotically handsome appearance, his intellect, his wit.  Much like the audience, she is drawn to these qualities not only in spite of his crimes, but to some extent because of them – Mr. Frost is simply a lot more interesting than other handsome, intelligent men, because we are fascinated by his darkness.

Then she finds the tapes he made – the ones of him killing his young victims.  We don’t see them; only the psychiatrist sees them, but we hear them – the little-kid screams of fear and pain – and we react the way she does: with alarm, revulsion, and horror.  It’s heartbreaking to think of these children suffering in such a way, and, even though we don’t see the tapes, our image of Mr. Frost changes instantly, and we are sure he is in fact Satan.

But … well, then, what was so appealing in the first place?  Why were we drawn to his darkness when we knew from the beginning what kind of evil he was capable of?  Do we want to believe that our own darkness can be as appealing? – that somehow we can still be funny and personable and interesting even if we have … issues?  Or are we just so eager to justify our own darkness that we’re willing to gloss over others’ evil deeds as long as we didn’t witness them for ourselves?  Do we only do that with films? … or in real life, too, with real people who do actual harm?  And what does that mean?

See … it really makes you think about things.

The Thing I Like About …

Thesis:  the part where she looks through her fingers at the snuff film.

In Thesis, Angela is a grad student writing a paper on violence in film and television.  She explains to her advisor, her family, and her new friend Chema that she deplores violence, and wants to study its role in film so she can show its negative effects on society.  She and Chema stumble across a video that seems to be an actual snuff film, with the “star” getting beaten and ultimately shot by her kidnapper.

Chema, used to images of violence in the movies he watches, witnesses this snuff film with a calm detachment, looking past any visceral response to the parade of clues the film offers to the identity of its makers.  Angela, on the other hand, is disgusted by the images, and becomes physically ill.  She only stays in the room with the film because Chema is telling her a list of clues.  And then …

… she opens the fingers of the hands she has clapped over her eyes, and she looks between her fingers at the film.

She needs to see it.

In the film, Angela never seems to figure out – or at least she doesn’t admit so openly – what Chema and the audience figure out pretty quickly: she is intrigued by images of violence, curious about actual violence, and drawn to study it more out of fascination than scholarship.  She is a good person, and therefore this fascination has caused her personal discomfort that she masks with open condemnation of the very thing she seeks out.  And in the end, the only way she can escape the violence of the snuff-film makers is to become violent toward them herself.

We – hopefully – try hard to turn away from the darkness inside us; we don’t, for instance, strangle other drivers who cut us off in traffic, or kick a cheating partner to within an inch of his/her life.  Okay, okay, I read the papers – some of us actually do those things, and more besides … but that’s why it’s in the papers, because we’re not supposed to do that stuff, and the vast majority of us don’t.

But pretending that the darkness isn’t there is another thing entirely.  If we put blinders on to ourselves, then it becomes easier to put blinders on in regard to our actions/mistakes.  If we live a lie we tell ourselves, it becomes easier to lie to others, until we are exactly and precisely the thing we said we didn’t like in the first place.  When we acknowledge our darkness, we can confront it and deal with it and maybe even eliminate it altogether; when we accept who we are, we can change the parts of us we want to change, and become more of who we would rather be.

And we won’t have to hide our faces behind our hands.