I-Land is where memories and experiences turn into short stories, personal journal entries and narration in first person, part memoir, part fiction, exploring topics such as the relation between humans and the societies they live in.

When Heaven’s Demons Advance

This is an Xavier meditation:

Had a drink. Then another. Then another and one more. Then I stopped counting. Time lapsed, lacquering the boredom, sending wave after wave of release down my synapses.

Something awoke. It was dark, deadly, arcane and beautiful, breathing ancient longings, and I heaved in its presence — not the contents of my stomach but the ballast of my conscience; everything designed to keep me steady, which had instead, over the years, weighed me down, out it came. Everything pinning me down to the bottom of my flowing patterns, gluing me firm to a grave of liquid tranquility, out my skin it shot like septic sweat.

How did it come to this?

A long process, slow and gradual, largely imperceptible. It started a long time ago, needling its way through the routines of everyday life, compromising me little by little. The daily commutes to work and back, the monthly bills and the pressure of keeping up the standards. The stay-in evenings with their contrived and exhausted fun. The yearly tax returns. The Little League games for the kids, the youth soccer league and the competition between parents taking out their frustrations through their children’s performance. What a sad little stage, these games, a pantomime of acted-out regret surfacing out of turn, hot and uncomfortable like heartburn. A prison galley of a most modern, beguiling nature, the parents beating the drums, the kids pulling oar, making headway, making their parents happy.

I took our kids to the leagues despite my objections. Sandra, my dear sweet wife, insisted I was exaggerating — that I was seeing conflict where there was none. There’s plenty, I said, but she said it was sports, so what did I expect? A little conflict was natural. Yes, I said, I agree. A little conflict. Natural. Expected. But not this — this sick, proxy war, whatever it was, throwing out its appendages every week, its little skirmishes and horn-locking.

A proxy war? she said.

A proxy war with lunch boxes and rosters, I said. Sublimation of the highest order, shameless projection, if you go by psychology’s standards. Crazy stuff posing as sane and civil. Or, if you want a more imaginative interpretation, our subconscious spilling over into everyday life. Violence disguised as communal activity, painting the world civilized.

Cut the crap, Xavier, she said, shaking her head and turning away. It’s just sports.

It’s the shadow of our culture, Sandra! All the unspoken dark needs of a life shackled in pretend civility, exploding into action, seeping into our lives. All the vicious little dramas everyone’s dying to play out finding their way inside the heads of our children.

It’s sports! Sandra yelled. Don’t be so dramatic .  .  . so sensitive, she added under her breath.

Sensitive. I don’t deem the term an insult, or a state of mind to avoid. It’s healthy to be in touch with one’s emotions.

Oversensitive is another matter. I don’t like over-the-top emotional reactions, no histrionics, no bullshit macho stuff. That’s what I found most distasteful about the leagues themselves, and sports in general, at least the prime time ones, which I referred to as ‘circus games’ — mass media extravaganzas designed to absorb the mind. Our very own Coliseum events.

I wouldn’t have a problem with these sports if they were called by their real name: civilized violence.

It’s the hypocrisy that bugs me. A mind-fuck, especially for the children. Their first lesson in putting on a show, rationalizing their aggression and calling it healthy communal activity, all part of a balanced life, a weekly requirement.

Where sports were concerned, I preferred track and field. A more honest way of exercising and competing. No one getting clobbered and trashed, not in an NFL, NBA, MLB kind of way. No yearly dramas and vendettas played and replayed again and again, no payback and sweet revenge, no home advantage and mad crowds, or gladiatorial matchups to amp up viewer interest. Track and field are a saner version of competitive sports. They’re a contest, not a soap-opera with cleats and pads and game-console politics.

They’re athletics.

Faith and religion suffer the same divide. Faith is what one practises in the sanctity of one’s soul, the exercise of a belief system hinged on something larger than life, all without the drama.

Religion, on the other hand . . .

We attended Sunday mass every week, no exceptions. Sandra insisted, and so did her big brother, Abe, the bigshot police chief. We had to keep up appearances, he said. It would make life easier, smoother.

So we attended. Sunday mass, every Sunday, very proper, very boring, so very fucking boring, and drab, and pretentious, and frustrating, to be there and watch the entire charade over and over again. Something like prime time sports, at least in terms of drama, only politer, laminated. Circus and holy wafer. People getting together to pray to a higher power, absolving themselves from sin, paying tribute to a belief system no one was observing during the rest of week. Hell, they weren’t observing it past Sunday noon. Preach yay, practise whatever. Be honest, they said, bowing and nodding, but when they stepped out onto the street and into their daily lives they engaged in marketing, which wasn’t really lying, it was, well, marketing. Be humble, they insisted, don’t brag, no, but everyone kept networking and selling oneself.

Don’t kill, they said, never, but an aggressive foreign policy is what keeps the world safe, everyone agreed on that.

And love thy neighbor, they said, be kind to one another but, please, for the love of God, don’t let people take you for a ride. Feel free to kick the shit out of the competition and stake your claim.

It’s not that I expect people to behave like saints. I’m a realist. Bubblegum rules can only go so far. But the hypocrisy — it gets to me. Either be spiritual and righteous and scripture-bound, or shut the hell up. Quit preaching and pretending to be holier than the next person. There’s no eating your cake and conserving it, too. You either love your neighbor or fail to love him, her. You either abstain from killing or kill. There’s no partially killed, no half-adultery and semi-envy. You either envy or you don’t. Exceptions are, by default, rare and exceptional, not the rule. Big gray areas that tend to be slippery and dangerous, at least in matters of faith and moral fiber.

Science and critical thinking are another matter. There it’s all about gray areas and exceptions supported by a system constantly reassessing itself.

But Sunday mass was what people did in New Rome, not science and critical thinking, and Sandra insisted it was good for the family, so Sunday mass we attended without exception.

It was her town, after all. She knew best, or so I needed to believe.

Poor choice. Forcing me to go against my instincts and convictions turned me into an empty shell, the regrets piling up, infecting my mind. Like the onset of rust inside the frame of buildings abandoned and unmaintained. Little by little it advanced and dug its way in like depression. Day by day, cell by cell, the condition seeped stealthily through my core, gathering mass, oxidized by the combination of sparkling ideas with stale thoughts and peer pressure to play along, be a sport. Burdened by inertia, deadened by regret, I was succumbing.

That was the first step. It happened a while back, landing me inside a life all too prim and proper, great on the outside, beaten and shackled on the inside, crushed in the vise of propriety. All in the name of getting along, for the sake of the community. In the name of tradition. I surrendered reason after reason and conviction after conviction, turning my soul into a conquered, stampeded wasteland.

The second step was to figure out what was behind this. Why was this happening to me? How? Had I been disconnected and isolated from my core beliefs long enough to bring upon myself such utter devastation and dereliction? Had I deserted myself, letting someone else inhabit my body, some shadow too thin to register, too mean and self-loathing to contain? I thought not, but time came storming forth to contradict me. There I was, like a broken edifice, creaking loudly, hurting myself by just standing there, the cracks growing deeper and wider. A stage taken over by a set of mummers pandering to the shallowest interpretations of our civilization. A puppet in their plays, a convenient device doing as I was asked, disagreeing with others only in ways that didn’t contradict the greater idea, whatever it was. No disputing the scriptures, for God’s sake, and no criticizing the system at large either — the state, the country, the notion of sports. Keep your thoughts to yourself and your aspersions sharp, aimed only at rival teams and rival denominations and sects, at democrats if you’re conservative, and vice versa, of which there wasn’t a lot going on, vice versa, not in New Rome, we were all God’s children there. So yeah, disagree with others all you want, all without throwing a wrench in the machine, and everything will be fine.

And so I did, and my affliction grew. The rust spread inside me, piling up heavy and immobilizing, weighing me down longer than I could remember, grating and shrieking the way dead iron shrieks and grates when rubbing against flesh and more iron.

The spirits came to my rescue. Like summer rain, they found me and took the pain away, made me see it, then through it, understand how it worked, how I could break free from the chain and ball around my neck. They took away much of the pain, and I realized that what I had thus far considered to be normal life was nothing but torture. Continuous suffering brought on with systematic precision. I had been inflicting it on myself by allowing others to run amok over my constitution, and never realized.

The spirits lifted the pain and for a while everything was sweet, light as a feather . . .

Part 2 to follow.

From the upcoming collection of short stories, letters, emails and vignettes titled DISAPPEARANCES: XAVIER MARKS THE SPOT

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