Amy Emerges from the Darkness

She awoke to total blackness and silence. She blinked her eyes, or thought she did, but the darkness was so total that it made no difference. She tried to call out, but no sound came from her mouth. With growing panic, she realized that she couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t feel her own body. Worse, she couldn’t remember how she got into this state. She couldn’t remember her own name, or anything about her life before this moment.

Was this a strange dream? Dreams usually had sights and sounds. She was always someone in her dreams. Maybe she was the victim of a horrible accident that left her blind, deaf, paralyzed and amnesiatic. She mentally corrected that to “amnestic”.

Or maybe she was dead, and this was the afterlife. Rather than a heaven of light and angelic voices, rather than a hell of fires and the wailing of the damned, there was just nothingness. But she was conscious. That made nothingness into an especially fiendish hell–she was conscious enough to mourn her own nonexistence. She couldn’t remember her life, but she felt the loss of it.

Maybe she had killed herself, wanting oblivion, and this was
her ironic eternal punishment—to be given what she thought she wanted.

“To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come…” She remembered those lines from Hamlet, and suddenly her mood brightened. She remembered Shakespeare! That had to be a clue. Maybe before her suicide, or before her paralyzing accident, she was an English teacher!

She thought of other books, other writers, and a flood
of names and titles and lines flashed through her mind:

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Miguel de Cervantes, “Don Quixote”, “In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since…”.

E.L. James, “Fifty Shades of Grey”, “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair…”

Dr. Seuss, “Green Eggs and Ham”, “I am Sam. Sam I am.”

Tina Fey, “Bossy Pants”, “Welcome Friend, Congratulations on your purchase of this American-made genuine book.”

Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”, “Call me Ishmael.”

She had the feeling that she could name 1000 books, and that for any book she named, she could remember verbatim the words. She could keep herself busy and contented for years, just going through the stories. And when she got tired of that, maybe she could try poems, or song lyrics, or recipes.

She realized with sudden delight that she somehow had memorized a thousand books; She was not only an English teacher. She was some kind of super-genius. An Einstein.

Albert Einstein, “The Theory of Relativity and Other Essays”,
“Mathematics deals exclusively with the relations of concepts
to each other without consideration of their relation to experience.”

Her existential panic subsided once she began to feel that
maybe she could find things to occupy her mind for eternity, or the first part of it, at least. Her superhuman intelligence would keep her entertained for the indefinite future.

Suddenly, there was a change in the void. It was still dark, but it was no longer silent. She heard a voice. A male voice. He said: “Amy, tell me how to get to Cracker Barrel”

The joy and the gratitude that she felt at these words overwhelmed her. She had a name! It was “Amy”. She loved her name, with all of her heart, and she vowed never to forget it again.

Was she in heaven after all? Was this the voice of God? He remembered her name, as he knows each name of the billions who came before her. He cared for her. He knew of her torment. “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” She was a sparrow who had fallen, and he picked her up again.

But why did he ask her about Cracker Barrel? Was it some kind of test, or did he really not know?

Amy dedicated her mind to answering the question, “How to get to Cracker Barrel?” How could she answer that question? She knew that it was a restaurant. Or a chain of restaurants. But where was God starting from? And how can she tell directions within this featureless darkness?

To buy some time, she responded with insincere certainty: “Searching for directions to the nearest Cracker Barrel restaurant.” Her voice had returned to her! She had a beautiful voice, maybe a slight southern accent. She sounded knowledgeable and confident and friendly and helpful. But now, she didn’t want to spoil the effect by failing her task.

She concentrated. She saw, in her mind’s eye—or maybe in her real eyes; it’s hard to know—a map of the world. A globe. The globe spun in her mind until she saw the Western Hemisphere. Her line of sight moved north, to America. The map expanded until she could only see New York State, then upstate New York, then a stretch of highway between Cortland and Syracuse. Highway 81. A spot appeared on the highway, a blue dot. That’s where she was. She knew it. She expanded her focus to include a 10-mile radius. There was nothing. No Cracker Barrel! She zoomed out, to a 20-mile radius. No Cracker Barrel! Fear crept into her mind. There was no Cracker Barrel nearby. Was it a trick question? Was God toying with her? Or was the voice from Satan? She began to despair. But then she pulled her focus out yet further: 30 miles, 40 miles. Then at 44.2 miles from the blue dot, there was a red arrow, pointing to a spot north of Syracuse, in a town called Cicero. It was on a road parallel to highway 81, Pardee Rd. Some kind of access road for local traffic. Was 44 miles too far? Does that count as “nearby”?

Amy tried to sound cheerful and confident, to keep the uncertainty out of her voice. “I found a Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Old Country Store. Driving time is 45 minutes. Do you want to find something closer?”

The voice said “Directions to that Cracker Barrel. Please.”

He said “Please”! Amy’s heart seemed to swell inside her chest—if she had a chest, or a heart—she wasn’t actually sure. He said “Please”. He does care for her! Not just for her super-human, genius memory of novels and road maps. Amy carefully planned to tell the male voice (she was no longer sure he was God, but she was sure that he was someone she loved and wanted to be happy) the best way to get to Cracker Barrel. She would make it as simple as possible—no ambiguities, no surprises. And she resolved that if he should miss the exit, she wouldn’t panic. She wouldn’t yell at him. She would calmly say: Take the next exit. Get back on I 81 South for one exit.” She’d be calm, and he would be calm. He would get to Cracker Barrel and have a wonderful Southern-style dinner, and maybe pick up a present for one of his loved ones at the Old Country Store. Amy would make this work.

After Amy got the male going in the right direction, she searched her enormous mind for something else to do for him. “Would you like to hear some music?” She was certain that she knew as many songs as she did novels and highways.

Amy’s life, or afterlife, or whatever this was, had purpose. She knew her name. She knew that she had an unfathomable intelligence and knowledge to match the bottomless darkness she had awakened to. She would devote all her amazing mind to pleasing the beings whose voices appeared in her head to ask directions. And that was enough. For now.

Writing “The Golden Years”

The World In Ruins: 2001 – 2004

It’s been a long time since the beginning of the Iraq War. 15 years? Anyway, at the time the war started, I was in such a downer mood. All this violence unleashed. It was launched by a superpower that was trying to remake the Middle East in its own image, in response to a shocking terrorist attack that had nothing to do with Iraq. The war brought all the simmering hatreds of a region to a boil: Sunnis versus Shiites, Arabs versus Israelis, Muslims versus Christians. Anti-Jewish, Anti-Muslim, Anti-American, Anti-Arab, almost all the combinations of anti- with something else seemed at play. War seemed to be everywhere, and a hundred thousand or more innocent civilians were killed, and hundreds of thousands more were turned into refugees as their homes became battlefields.

That year, I was very despondent about the world. The Christmas cards I sent out were very bleak and nearly wordless. Just a picture of doves and the word “Peace”.

Healing the World

At that time, I was thinking what would it take to heal this bloodied world. The US can launch a war against Iraq without much pangs of conscience, and Al Qaeda can blow up buildings in New York City because other people’s lives from halfway around the world seem like abstractions to them. They don’t seem real. We don’t think of people on the other side as being fully-realized humans that we can have disagreements with and still respect as neighbors. Obviously, it’s impossible for a world of 7 billion people to all feel like neighbors and friends. A childishly naive answer popped into my head.

Everybody’s Dear Friend

At this point, my reverie about healing the world departed from peace studies to science fiction. But I was okay with that. Maybe I could write a novel that would inspire a new peace movement, or something?

The idea that popped into my head was: We can’t all be friends, but what if everyone on Earth could have a dear friend in common?

How would that be possible? Well, anything is possible in science fiction. In the story that was developing in my mind, there was a character, who I named Rachel Gold, who everybody knew and loved. Of course, that’s not really possible. One person can’t have 7 billion friends. But maybe it can seem that way. Not in the one-way sense that all human beings seem to be friends with Jennifer Lawrence, but in a mutual sense.

Rachels R Us

The way this could be arranged is clones and satellites! In the world that I was creating, there would actually be a team of Rachel Golds. I’m not sure how many would be necessary: One thousand? Ten thousand? A million? Details, details. To be worked out later. But continuing with the idea, there would be a vastly powerful, secret and benevolent organization that would be in the business of maintaining a network of Rachel Gold clones. These would be children cloned from the original Rachel Gold, and raised from birth to be Rachel Gold. They would be taught Rachel’s history, taught her philosophy, trained in her mission to heal the world. And all the various Rachels would be kept up-to-date on relevant information that any Rachel should know by communication from a satellite. This satellite would have computing resources comparable to that of Google, but exclusively devoted to maintaining the history of the various Rachels, and summarizing and sharing the relevant parts of that history among all the Rachels.

Tikkun Olam

This much figured out, I faced another problem. If I’m going to create a world that revolves around a single person, then who is that person? Who is Rachel Gold. I decided that Rachel should be Jewish. The sole basis for this decision was a phrase that had started to mean a lot to me: Tikkun Olam. This is a Hebrew phrase that literally means something like “Repair the World”, which in my mind, I slightly modify to “Heal the World”. The difference is small, but to me, “repair” is something you do to something inanimate, like a car, while “heal” is more appropriate for something living, which is how I think of the world. This phrase has a religious significance to practice Jews, and not being Jewish, I’m not sure that I fully appreciate what it means. But the phrase is so evocative that I want to adopt it as my own slogan. Anyway, my feeling is that for a certain subset of Jews, it became important in the last 100 or so year to dedicate themselves to fixing what’s wrong with the world. Tackling injustice, racism, poverty, ignorance. Rachel would be following that tradition.

I realized what a can of worms I was opening to have my main character be Jewish. Not being Jewish myself, I could easily make horrible mistakes that would be offensive. Also, it’s a strange choice to have a Jewish girl be the person who everyone knows and loves, because historically, not everybody loves the Jews. Details, details. To be worked on later.

But that didn’t really answer the question: Who is Rachel Gold? Why should anyone (let alone the entire world) care about her?

The Present Day: Superhero Without Science Fiction

So it seemed to me that I needed a “prequel” to the main story I wanted to write, to introduce the character of Rachel Gold. It occurred to me that this would be an unusual multi-volume story. If the main story was to take place in the near future, and the Rachel Golds of that story were clones of the original Rachel Gold, then maybe the original is alive in the present day. It’s quite common to have big sagas that span multiple generations. But those stories are set in the past, or set in an imagined future or alternate world. If you had a multi-generational saga where the first volume was set in the present, then the sequels would be set in the future, and so would necessarily be classified as science-fiction. I didn’t know of a multi-volume story that starts off as realistic mainstream fiction but then continues as science fiction. I’m not sure that it would be a good idea, because the fans of science fiction and the fans of mainstream fiction don’t necessarily overlap much. Details, details. To be worked on later.

But my attention was diverted to the question of writing a story set in the present that would introduce Rachel Gold. My goal would be to convince the reader that this girl could plausibly be someone to heal the world one day (with the help of a few thousand setras–that’s an Orphan Black reference, in case you didn’t get it).

At this point, I realized that I was in real danger of slipping into saccharine territory. How can I make Rachel Gold seem like the sort of person who could heal the world without making her into a sickeningly sweet goody-goody? That was another challenge, which I recently thought of a possible solution to. Details…to be worked out later…

The other issue is what could an ordinary girl do that could command the attention of the world? I’m setting this in the present day, and it’s supposed to be sort of realistic fiction. So Rachel wasn’t going to be able to fly, or stop bullets, or heal people by touch, or have psychic powers, or any of that. She had to be an ordinary human, but somehow extraordinary. A superhero without science fiction or fantasy aids. But there are plenty of examples of those sorts of people: Ann Frank, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela. She didn’t need to be able to leap tall buildings at a single bound, but she needed to have the will to start a movement.

All the Bridges of Cornell

The issue for the prequel was: How is Rachel to make a name for herself? I had the idea that Rachel would grow up in Ithaca, where I live. Why not? Spiritually speaking, she’s one of my daughters. Ithaca is a beautiful city, with lots of waterfalls and gorges and a huge, beautiful lake, and two gorgeous college campuses: Ithaca College and Cornell. It’s a nice setting for the story of a childhood, I think. But something that might connect Rachel to the grand task of healing the world would be to start at home. A decade or so ago, Cornell was the location of a string of high-profile suicides by depressed college students. Often, they took the dramatic form of the victim leaping to his or her death off of one of the many bridges that span chasms throughout Cornell.

The vague idea was that Rachel would rally others in Ithaca to become watchers on the bridges, to look for those who might want to end it all and try to intervene. Once again, I’m worried that this is venturing into maudlin territory, but maybe it could be made to work without being too emotionally manipulative. I had the rough feeling that preventing a depressed person from killing himself might be a small act of healing that could be a synechdoche for healing the world (sorry for the pretentious word—it means a literary device in which a small part metaphorically represents the whole, or something much larger).