Cartography 9: Nine of Hearts
On entry to the world
Cartography is a 52 week essay series mapping the interior life.
“I wasn’t born so much as I fell out.”
The Clash, Lost In The Supermarket
Miraculous births abound. Athena sprouted from her father’s head, and Dionysus was born the second time from his father’s thigh. Aphrodite was born from the sea after her father’s castrated testicles were tossed on the waters. Mithras was born from a rock, entering the world with a dagger and a torch to bring protection and light to the world.
I wasn’t born. I was breech in-vitro; my feet towards the exit and my soft malleable head pointed the other way. The odds were high that a birth where nature took its course would leave myself or my mother in the hospital, or take us both on to the second bookend of life. So at 8:00 AM on October 24th, weeks before the first Bush presidential success, I was cut from the womb and awoke in the world. Nature had probably meant for me to die; instead, modern medicine, a dedicated team of nurses and doctors brought me into life from the warm sleep of the womb. And according to the stories my family tells, I immediately pissed all over the attending nurse.
Over the next few days, my extended family came to see me and I was trotted out on display. They kept telling them what lovely eyes I had; bright and blue, with devils dancing behind them already. And like any good demi-god would, I kept my eyes clamped tight, withholding my gifts to the world.
I was awake in a world that wasn’t meant for me, and I would be damned if I was going to be forced to give up a few more moments of rest before having to live in it.
“When I wake up, the real nightmare begins.”
Hatebreed, Smash Your Enemies
Waking is a monstrous state; the rest and recovery of the night fades away while the hallucinations of our dreams endure. The body sends electrical impulses through the thalamus and the cortex, alerting our central nervous system to the end of the sleep cycle. Many wakers tend to fall back to sleep quickly, which means waking repeats itself several times across any given experience. The world between dreams and the material is a black gate of oblivion, and jumping back and forth across it too many times can leave a person with dramatic confusion. Often it’s the final image of a dream that wakes us; dragging us out of sleep with an adrenaline jolt.
In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, our first introduction to Morpheus, the titular Lord of Dreams, is his capture at the hands of an incompetent occultist who was working to ensnare his sister Death. The story is a gothic; told in the style of 1940s and 1950s EC Horror comics, full of dramatic ink work and narrative tropes pulled from the golden age of Universal Monster movies. The occultist eventually dies, and possession of the the Dream King in his prison passes to the son, a philandering occultist like his father with much less charm. As in all stories of unworthy possession, something breaks in the holding spell and a guard falls asleep, allowing Morpheus to gather a few tools to enact his escape and his revenge. He gives his captor the gift of Eternal Waking; never coming into the real world, but forever jumping from nightmare to nightmare, each time thinking he has escaped his punishment. Instead, fear is the only eternity he’ll know; a lifetime of coming to and being born in the world again and again.
Nothing was worse than waking as a child in fear; there was no illusion of safety while the specters of nightmares and terrors cast themselves on my bedroom walls. The worlds bled together; even calling for my parents was no respite, as their illuminated shadows in my doorway were shapes I didn't recognize. I couldn’t stomach the new world around me any more than I could stomach the world I had just left. My mind was a fragile thing; thin fingers of comprehension reaching out to the world while the umbilical of my subconscious wrapped itself around my throat. I had been pulled into the waking a trembling creature, impotent and crying, and desperate for salvation, knowing the hell of the world was there to follow.
Each waking is a waking to dread, and the more one wakes to death the more sleep looms large like a vicious cousin.
“Now here I go again, I see the crystal vision. I keep my visions to myself.”
Fleetwood Mac, Dreams
We had a superstition in my house growing up: any talk about dreams before breakfast and your dreams would come true. This was a guard and a warning. Your dreams are yours, and discussion too close to waking would pull them through into the real world for a bad dream, or condemn a good dream to never being fulfilled. Discussion poisons wakefulness; setting the intention and sitting with the visions demanded appropriate contemplation.
The space of waking, reflection on the other world of sleep, demands quiet. Solitude. Meditation. These are resources in short supply for myself after sleep. My body demands several pieces quickly; water for my parched throat, evacuation of my bladder, Fluids in and fluids out in the fluid state while reality solidifies. I’ve taken to writing in this area in the mornings. Before coffee, before calories, only a glass of water and a pen and my notebook. It's an adjustment and an evaluation of the fears of the night before, which I don’t feel as intensely as I did as a child. Now I find my words tend more towards dread of the day: work projects, interpersonal frictions, the full range day to day dramatics that everyone endures. Waking is an awareness. In many ways, we’re not so far out of the caves and trees. Each day is a struggle to secure the resources to sustain shelter, food, tribal discipline. We kick into overdrive as soon as we open our eyes, driven by those electrical shocks. Best to keep the dreams and the waking as far apart as possible until those needs are met and the resources secured, until the cave is stocked with food and the fire stays stoked.
“So many kids content to sleep their lives away
But I'm gonna try to make the most out of every day”
Youth Of Today, Wake Up & Live
Like any teen, I slept. Hard and long, 12 hours a night if I could swing it. Usually these sleeps, deep and restorative, gave me dreams I couldn’t remember, but they would lay like a cast on the day. I looked forward to their haze, their emotional pall. It was a Saturday in September and I had broken up with my long-term girlfriend maybe a week before, after 3 straight years of bickering and manipulation on both sides. I was exhausted mentally, physically, emotionally. My room was the furthest from my parents, but in a direct line to their bedroom, my bathroom and theirs in the interim. There was plenty of space, but sound traveled well at times between their bedroom and mine.
My room was the furthest from my parents, but in a direct line to their bedroom, my bathroom and theirs in the interim. There was plenty of space, but sound traveled well at times between their bedroom and mine. Saturdays usually meant my mother would cook breakfast, and I could hear her and my father talking in their bedroom. Nothing particular, just the vague impressions of voices rising and falling. Maybe emotions floating through the wall. Then I heard my mother in the kitchen, opening cabinets and doors, pulling things out. The sounds of tin and metal meeting the stove, laminate wood on laminate wood. My father had started his shower. My mother might have been crying, but it was hard to tell. Shower curtain opening. Cupboards slamming. Stomping through the house. The bathroom door opening. Voices closer and clearer now. Clear sobbing. “What the fuck are you doing with that-- give me the--” More unclear sounds. Sobs running through the house. A door opening. A car starting. A car driving away. My father calling the police.
I rolled over and went back to sleep.
When I woke for the second time that day, I left the house and drove away like my mother had. My father stayed at the kitchen table, his hand wrapped in gauze.
I spent the day trying to fall asleep in the autumn chill on a park bench, but I couldn’t. I was born anew. No doctors to ease the passage.
I was awake.
To extend the list of words—
catamaran, peacock, miracle—
that you’d want to hear if awakening,
bewildered, in a room
ominously full of flowers.
Stephen Dunn, “Work”