Oz and the real world

OZ

My sister’s home was built in the 1880s, she thinks. It’s a nice two story apartment with a basement. She won’t go down there because she’s afraid of bugs. The home is drafty and pretty with strange placements for light switches: the light for this room is on the opposite wall, the light for that room at the bottom of the stairs.

I didn’t get a good look a the street outside, it was too dark. But in the morning, I’ll go for a long hike around the area. I’ll see giant stone buildings, long concrete stairways up to sun decks, beautiful open yards. Everything feels old. And cold. The trees have already lost their color as fall shifts to winter, and the sun is down at 5 pm.

Everything in Massachusetts feels older, colder. It has a density to it. A history. It’s different than Utah, different than the Rocky Mountain regions I’m so familiar with.

It’s quiet outside and I’m laying on an inflated air mattress. I have three blankets on me, as well as a sheet, and I’m still cold. The air is drafty and I can’t quite get warm. I feel selfish for being cold. I feel cold and old like the place around me.

I give so little thought to the comforts in my life, and to their origins. Synthetic fibers and animal parts were harvested and crafted to make these blankets, in machines built from metal, housed in buildings made from wood and stone. We men, we have cracked the Earth open, bashed it apart. We’ve felled trees, split stones, slaughtered creatures. We’ve poisoned down and around and above. And here I lay, cold and old.

I have a right to be cold and old, I remind myself. But lately I’ve been feeling a sense of dread. I’ve read theories that the world is doomed to fail. We’ve warmed the Earth, melted the ice bergs, fracked the ground apart. We’ve ripped up rainforests, depleted the oceans, killed the bugs, and genetically engineered animals to dangerous levels while driving others to extinction. We’ve doubled our population in a generation. We are killing the planet.

I’m just one, just me. But I walk on pavement, burn gasoline, run up my electricity bill, shower in hot water, breathe out carbon dioxide. On moments like this, laying cold under blankets in a drafty stone and wood building from the 1880s, it’s moments like this that I feel responsible. I didn’t build the roads, but I walk on them. I didn’t shape the metal of my car, but I drive it. I didn’t lock the chicken in the cage, but I eat its eggs even if I don’t eat its meat.

As I child, I read the Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. He created a fairy tale world that little girls and boys might want to be a part of, and he explored the land in over a dozen books. It was a simple place, and he made it decades before Judy Garland would immortalize it in the seminal movie. There were witches, legions of nome creatures, talking animals, patchwork girls, mechanical men, and men made of tin and straw. Humans from Earth could only reach it by hot air balloon, tornado, or earthquake. There were magic belts and mirrors and books, silver shoes, secret princesses, roads of yellow brick, and a powder that granted sentience to whatever it was sprinkled on. And there were entire lands within dedicated to puns, full of talking rabbits, glass dolls, and silverware. There were adventures and intrigue, yes, but the good guys always won, and no one could die. They could be transformed, imprisoned, even chopped up into pieces, but no one could die. There were four lands, each a different color, with the Emerald City in the center, a city where everyone wore green-tinted goggles to make everything look emerald.

It filled my mind with wonder. Kids from Earth could escape there, but not many did. Dorothy did, and she took her dog and her chicken and her aunt and her uncle. Button Bright did, and the Wizard, and Zeb with his horse Jim, and the Shaggy Man. I never wanted to escape there, but I liked the idea of it being there, just knowing it was there in pages, ready for me to escape to whenever I wanted. Nine decades after Baum wrote the books, they would let my mind escape.

As I got older, I escaped to Oz less frequently, but other lands captured my mind. Fictional universes almost always seemed preferable to the one I lived in. As a teenager, comic books dominated my thoughts, and I kept my brain constantly occupied with the far away and imaginary.

With thoughts of Oz on my mind, I realized it was only a template of this Earth. There were still villains. And someone had to mine the emerald for the city and the silver for the shoes. The yellow bricks had to be crafted out of something. Baum, perhaps, was distressed at the way the world was then, and created something easier to escape to. A world where no one died.

As an adult, other fictional worlds occupy my mind, ones that feel far too frighteningly close to home. White male Christian dominated misogynistic rape cultures in Handmaid’s Tale, and zombie apocalypses where people do horrible things to each other to survive in Walking Dead, and everyone obliviously fights to the death while the world ends around them in Game of Thrones. This world feels like a horrible composite of those. I sometimes just want the innocence of Oz back.

As I drift off to sleep, I think about how different things are now from when I was a child. The world has transformed in a generation. Medical science, gay culture, technology. In 30 years, everything is different. And I feel my fingers grasp at atmosphere, hoping to clutch on to a bit of hope and strength, that maybe it might not be too late for the world, that maybe we can change things just enough to avoid the disaster we seem to be facing, that perhaps my sons might grow up in a place a bit more like Oz.

 

 

Homeless

Nun

“This is my brother, Chad!” Sheri said excitedly to her co-workers. She marched me into the call center where she worked, introducing me haphazardly to the employees who weren’t on the phone. “He just flew in from Utah!”

“Chad, it’s nice to meet you!” one of them extended her hand. “I know all about you. Sheri tells me everything. I love your blog!”

I smiled as Sheri rambled on a bit. She talks quickly, full of nervous creative energy constantly. Moments later, she showed me her “fidget” drawer, full of objects she could play with so that she could stay focused on work calls and reading assignments for college. “We have an hour before I work, so I’m gonna show him around a little bit. I think I’ll walk him over to where the homeless guy lives, and then maybe over to the monastery. Then I gave him a list of things he can do tonight while I’m working.”

Sheri gave that weird laugh she sometimes gives although nothing funny had been said. Members of my family do that sometimes, give off a laugh to perhaps fill the silence or to avoid something awkward, though the laugh makes it inevitably more awkward every time. I smiled, remembering how I’d had that habit all through my school years.

Soon we were walking down he hill outside her work at 4 pm, knowing it would get dark in another hour. Sheri asked about my flight in, I asked about her classes, and we discussed plans for the coming days of vacationing together in New England. I enjoy how comfortable I am around Sheri, instinctively. She’s familiar, the sibling closest in age, and the one I had the most in common with.

“So there is this guy who lives underneath the freeway that goes over the dike,” she explained, “and he sets up tables and sells things sometimes. He has this whole section of land to himself. He has like a sleeping area and a cooking area. He is known. People walk through there as a shortcut to the shopping center.”

I found myself smiling. Sheri and I both love random encounters, and we can enjoy most any experience. We got closer down to the encampment and Sheri gave an ‘aww, oh no’ sound. Apparently, the city was changing the local area, taking out trees and building trails. Sheri had heard about it, but hadn’t realized that it might impact her homeless friend. “That’s sad. He’s been there forever. It’s kind of like his home. I wonder where he’ll go?”

We walked by the edge of the area, looking at the concrete pillars covered in graffiti. There were flattened cardboard boxes, a pair of shoes, and a random book, but no either sign of life. “That’s sad,” she repeated, assuming he had already moved on.

We started walking away, back up the hill and across a field toward a local monastery. “Did I ever tell you about the homeless guy from right before I came out of the closet?”

“I don’t think so.”

I breathed in the cold fall New England air, and began telling my story.

“Back when I was Elders Quorum President, I used to have to attend this Bishop’s Council meeting every Sunday morning before church. It would last like 90 minutes, and we’d talk bout ward business, events, members we were worried about, stuff like that. We’d give reports on budget and numbers. Anyway, the Bishop was this older serious farmer businessman guy who was very no-nonsense. One day he noticed that a homeless man had moved into the vacant lot across the fence from the church. There was this giant pine tree, and the man had set up some chairs and boxes underneath there to stay out of the cold. The Bishop was super worried about it.”

We walked up to the monastery as I spoke, and I noticed the stark white statues of the Mother Mary and Christ outside it. Sheri interrupted me, explaining that the church was open to the public, but we had to be silent because nuns lived in the building behind it, and they had taken the vow of silence. I lowered my voice as we walked the perimeter of the grounds.

“The bishop felt we should warn the ward to watch their children around this man. He felt like he could be a danger. He had acted the same way a few months before that when a registered sex offender had moved into the ward, and he had wanted to warn the families not to interact much with him. Anyway, he counseled us to keep an eye on things and said he would get it taken care of.

“During the following week, he contacted the owner of the vacant lot by looking through the records at City Hall. He got permission to go in and chop down the tree. He had the homeless man escorted away and chopped down the tree so no one could come back. All because the man claimed a tree too close to the church.”

On the edge of the grounds, we could see through the tall hedges briefly to behind the monastery. There was a stark white graveyard back there, and one solo nun stood among the graves, arms folded as she surveyed the small plot of land.

“The irony of a church denying a homeless man refuge instead of offering him aid wasn’t lost on me. And then, a few months later, I came out. And I never heard what the bishop said, because I stopped going to church, but I wondered if he worried about me the way he had about the sex offender and the homeless man. I wondered if he had warned people to keep their children from me, to watch me close when I entered the building.”

We walked into the monastery then. It was wide and beautiful, with stained glass Biblical depictions of the life of Christ lining both sides. Two people were there, praying silently on the hard back benches. The old man looked up and waved at me when he heard me enter, then returned to his prayers. A golden shrine of some kind lay at the front of the building, and I watched two nuns leave an offering of some kind and then move off to the side, entering a beeping code into a security device to enter the door that accessed their chambers, presumably. I walked to the front and saw lit candles and a book where civilians could write down the names of those who needed prayers for healing. A note suggested a two dollar donation for the prayer and candle.

Donations for prayers. Vows of silence. Shelter trees being cut down, and the homeless removed from their non-homes. It was all suddenly a bit claustrophobic and I stepped outside, returning to that view of the stark white graveyard, contemplating my old life, and comparing it to the new.