When my grandma remarried she moved into a big house on the side of a mountain. There was always rain and mist and too many people trying to get through the mountain road beside it. Someone else lived there before and they didn’t like what was new, and one morning the calligraphy initials on all my grandma’s good china changed letters, just like that. I took pictures, hardly believing even as I created proof. I kept thinking the new letters would vanish but my grandma just stared at me terrified as I used my camera. She let it remain in the display case the way it was as if it was still hers, as if she wasn’t allowed to care.
Years later I walked down the mountainside and got spooked by two big tents. They were black, appeared abandoned, and I didn’t know who put them there or why. I turned towards home and the rain became so hard it hurt like needles and then punches. I got to the front door and screamed for my parents, over and over, and finally the back of the car opened and they pulled me inside. When I regained sense I asked why they were out there, but by then we were rolling into the road. My mom turned the car around, back to the yard, and my dog was barking like he was insane. My parents jumped out to get him, and I jumped out too, thinking they were all insane but I could calm him down, it would be like it always was because I loved the dog and he loved me. Then he lunged at me with his eyes popping pink out of the sockets and I realized he was going to take my face off and like it.
I woke up with my mouth entirely dry, wondering who the little boy was who’d shared his story with me and wondering when he’d appear there in my bedroom, standing by my bed, maybe at the end from the darkest shadows. Maybe crawling up beside me, near my face from where I just couldn’t see. I realized even with so much of my life gone I’m still afraid of the dark and it doesn’t matter what my actual parents told me, I’m never going to grow out of that. People say “No, you’re afraid of what’s inside the dark” but I’m not convinced.
No point trying to sleep again, I got up and wrote this, a 4am nightmare, while looking over my shoulder now and then, waiting for the shape I can just see back through my dark bedroom door to resolve itself into something. Or to move closer without any resolution at all. And as my eyes get more and more adjusted to the light I can see less and less, but I know it’s all still there.
I kept a dream diary for a while because I learned the more you write about your dreams the better you remember them. I’m not tempted to keep one anymore. The line between imagination and memory is blurred enough as it is.
April Fools makes me nervous, but I wanted to celebrate so I looked for foolish facts to find something worth sharing. I found Tetraphobia, the fear of the number 4.
In Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and several other languages the pronunciation of the word for 4 is similar to the pronunciation of the word for death. This has developed an aversion to 4 so profound in East and Southeast Asia it should not be mentioned at festivals or near ill relatives. Numbers that contain 4 like 14, 40, etc are also avoided. Telephone numbers, license plates, addresses, they all omit this threatening number.
What fascinates me isn’t the extent of the aversion but how it developed in the first place. We know the words are similar, but that isn’t a full answer because these languages didn’t arrive from nowhere. They developed over time, and the same people who used this sound to express 4 were using something nearly identical to express death. Why did this happen? How quickly?
I mean no cultural disrespect by examining this superstition. Of course I can find no truly satisfying origin for Triskaidekaphobia, the Western aversion to 13, either. In that case there isn’t even a pronunciation clue. It’s how many people were at the alleged Last Supper, one number off our current number of months, and might have once been considered auspicious, just like the Swastika.
So which bizarre 21st century tics will future humans wonder about? What foolishness is currently developing into a universally accepted superstition?
In late 2003 I walked into The Royal Museum in Edinburgh, what is now The National Museum of Scotland. The first thing I saw was a Nisga’a totem pole. I recognized it easily, as I’d just moved from British Columbia and everything that didn’t fit in my backpack was waiting for me back there in Nisga’a territory.
No doubt B.C.’s totem poles are internationally interesting and probably everyone who travels finds connections to their home. But my first few months in Edinburgh were magical to me, and there were several things that pinged the “It’s a sign!” part of my brain. Carl Jung called it synchronicity, when events seem meaningfully related but are not causally related. He wrote, “it cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity.” For me, at that time, everything from the job I got to the guy I dated seemed right and inevitable and interconnected with everything that had come before.
It’s a comforting feeling. Rather than constricting, it’s reassuring to see “evidence” that there’s a plan or a design and it’s working as intended. Yet the idea that my life has been planned or designed by anyone other than me is the opposite of comforting. Suddenly I feel trapped and rebellious. I can only conclude that if synchronicity is indicative of a real underlying force in the universe, I’d rather it stay underlying. The less I know, the closer I stay to that mysterious balancing point between freedom and inevitability, the happier I am.
Hypatia lived from 355 to 425 and was the leading astronomer and mathematician of her time. As she was Neoplatonist, Hypatia was considered pagan. She was murdered by Christians who may have been associated with Saint Cyril, or maybe not. It was a long time ago.
But Hypatia’s story fascinates me. She was around as the ashes of the Library of Alexandria were cooling (metaphorically–it was being destroyed for ages in one way or another) and her life’s work, as far as we can tell, was to ensure the survival of Greek mathematics and astronomy. But nothing she wrote has survived to our time. The Encyclopedia Britannica says “her philosophy also led her to embrace a life of dedicated virginity” and here we are accepting knowledge about the sex life of a woman who lived 1600 years ago. Sure we are.
I don’t know how she spent her days. Maybe she woke at 5am and wrote in a journal until heading out to debate and breakfast. Maybe she had two good years and spent the rest of her life in a crushing depression. She might have been a virgin until her death, or she might have been gay, or she might have been asexual and relieved to be removed of the burden of sex by academic structure. All I needed was these few details: math, astronomy, a woman, a pagan, remembered. It makes me wonder who alive today will be remembered 1600 years from now, and for what.