Tag Archives: #sad

The Sad Story of Christopher Toughill

I walked into my apartment and immediately locked the door. I did it before turning on the light, before slipping off my shoes, before looking around.

Locking the door is not something I’ve ever much bothered with. I’ve been scolded for years by friends and family but I didn’t want to be the person who locks my shit up and then decides I’m safe because my possessions are tucked tightly behind a lock. I didn’t want to let that paranoia creep in–not even a little.

But then today I heard in depth the story of Christopher Toughill exactly as he told me. He stopped often to cry. Sometimes he would dip his head and begin going through the photos on his phone of rainbows. “I just took a lot of rainbow pictures. I suppose it was a crime of opportunity,” he quipped.

Before October 18, 2016- Christopher describes himself as a person who believed in “…rainbows and Unicorns, I believed in the very best in people and I thought that’s what they gave me. If I was ever disappointed it was worth the price of believing in the good in people.”

He grew up in DC to a journalist mom and a speech writing dad. His father, also a union organizer, taught him every labor song and chant and he still recounts them without a prompt breaking into song across the lunch table. In those moments, he’s someone else.

After October 18, 2016- Christopher has nowhere to live, owns nothing but one change of clothes and his dog, Harmony, a 14 year old geriatric pup who fits her name. His hands are still recovering, his teeth never will and his heart, however expansive, is shattered.

I found Christopher after he posted something on Facebook that sounded suicidal. “I give up” it began. When my intrepid friend tracked him down she asked me to go to him–a total stranger–and help. I said yes. That lead me to an abandoned mobile home space and a tall man with a brown dog sitting in a gravel spot surrounded by trash in a broken chair. He was on his cell phone and by his posture and expression he could have been a business person closing a deal, yet his dirty clothes, his untrimmed toe nails poking from old sandals, a single backpack with a broken zipper and his entire lack of options told part of the story.

But only part.

Christopher had been a very successful business owner. He had an optical shop in the affluent art village of Ashland, Oregon where he sold high end, hand crafted glasses to the rich and famous including more than one movie star.

Now-after his attacker brutalized him- he is homeless and by outside appearances looks broken.

On October 18, 2016- he was held hostage–chained in fact–by his landlord who rented him a one bedroom shop behind his house. Christopher was beaten, his hands broken, his teeth knocked out, his feet battered and he was burned with hot oil and dowsed in gasoline. “I was humiliated, degraded and tortured,” he says of the experience. Unknown to him at the time he rented his place–his landlord belonged to a criminal gang and had a long, violent history.

Christopher managed to escape to safety and the man who held him hostage is now in prison.

But in some ways so is Christopher. He cannot understand how so much evil exists on one hand, on another he chose mercy for his attacker. He agreed to his plea bargain. “I couldn’t be responsible for depriving someone of their freedom for life–even though I couldn’t understand what he did to me. Still, sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken the deal. He is not fit to live free among people. He is a monster.”

Christopher considered taking his own life. “I was in my shell. I was non functional.” He came away from the experience with nothing. His health too fragile to work, his home gone because he could never go back there, he found himself deteriorating. He went into a diabetic coma due to stress and lack of food and crashed his last thing–his car.

Christopher was waiting for his old dog to die so he could take his own life. “I couldn’t let Harmony down.” But Harmony did not die. She kept living and so did Christopher. “Now I don’t want to do it anymore. There are still sunrises and sunsets…the world itself. I got touched by the dregs of society, but for all its sham and drudgery the world is still a beautiful place.”

His pain is noticeable and I could feel it when we talked. He cried often, reached out for my hand, sometimes needed to get up and walk it off.  He would speak of the crime and discuss the “incomprehensible.”  He says he is disappointed that there was not a safety net deep enough to hold him. He’s tried all the services, he shows me all the calls he’s made on his cell phone to no good effect. “They can’t really help me.”

I left him at a clean hotel for the night where he could get a shower and his dog could take rest. It’s not enough. Nothing I do for Christopher is enough.

One time a cop told me there are few real, innocent victims. He implied most people put themselves in bad spots. I tried to believe that because it makes life less scary. But Christopher did not invite his trouble. What happened to him could have happened to me–or you.

There are innocent victims. There are people who do evil to them.

But there are also people who forgive evil, people who get back up and try again. There is me and you. And those pictures of rainbows on Christopher’s phone did happen.

So tonight I’m behind the locked door. I’m thinking of Christopher and I may shed more tears. I don’t know the way forward for him and I don’t know how he overcomes but I know he does. I can see that he is still the hero of his story.

If you want to help Christopher he has a GoFundme:

https://www.gofundme.com/HelpChrisRecoverFromTortureMaiming

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Traveling Like Crazy; a short story

Slab City, California, USA.

This is the place where people go who have nowhere else, who’s future and past collide into a present tense of impossibility. It looks like it sounds. The sun cooks up the ground into untidy cracks but it doesn’t cook it enough to erase the smell or evaporate the trash from hundreds, sometimes thousands of people living entirely off grid.

The Slabs is roughly a 90 minute drive from Palm Springs in the Imperial Desert, 65 miles north of Calexico and a few minutes from East Jesus-literally.

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E.J. is an impromptu art installation on the road to Slab City. Artists use the trash from the Slab to make eccentric, politically challenging and quirky art amidst the nothingness of dirt and garbage and loneliness. East Jesus looks at you daring you to be anxious. If you don’t do it–if you stay calm and let yourself smile at the giant tray of spoons–you will be changed. It’s hard to say exactly how, but you feel it in the way that a certain song makes you cry. A nerve is touched and now it has sensation and memory of sensation and it’s own life outside you.

That is the East Jesus affect.

The entire drive through sand past the glimmering yet deeply foul Salton Sea, past abandoned shacks and mis-placed businesses slammed between date groves is sensation on salted wound. A road from nothing to nowhere.

The Slabs are left over from a military installation which pulled up stakes more than 40 years ago and today is occupied by people who show up in RV’s and cars, who sleep in tents, hammocks and home-made homes. It’s a self governing, free to squat  place with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for the art of living oddly.

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It’s the end of the world as we know it post apocalyptic wild west side show of people who run out of money, will, ability or patience with “normal” society.

There are 200 in August when the temperatures hit 124 and 2,000 in January when Canadians in mansions on wheels show up to soak up the weirdness and freeness of the desert. While the demographics and bank accounts shift with the seasons, old timers like George who runs a mis-matched trailer encampment which he rents out year round says it’s all the same kind of folks. Those who want to save money and don’t want to be bothered by the politeness of others. Essentially the draw at The Slabs is being left the hell alone. At least some of the time.

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There’s no electricity, running water-hot or cold-and no flush toilets. There’s dirt and some concrete slabs. That covers all the amenities.

There’s open mic night at The Range which looks like a scene from a twenty-somethings coming of age film with crooked and leaning stage, old couches with foam flying in all directions and a bar made of scrap wood hammered together by a blind or drunken man. They come there to sing to each other and recite poetry once per week, normally on Fridays. When asked if the performances are good most say, “Not really.”

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Somewhere in the miles of nothing is also a library and down the “road” an internet cafe which feels like a university student union. People hunker down and rifle their phones  within range of wi-fi. Politics is spoken but rarely argued. Drop outs and loan dodgers, disabled people, senior citizens and anarchist travelers tour each other’s states of mind about nearly any subject where most all conversations begin and end with a funny line and a snicker. Leaving is done one way, a wave of a peace sign over the shoulder and sometimes, “one love, one love.”

Just outside the internet cafe resides a man who calls himself Spyder and he’s the apparent rock star, mayor, Zen Master and builder of Slab City. He has half a manufactured home, a trailer, a truck and an RV. His RV has a rare thing, a hot running shower and radio. He has scrounged parts and created a solar panel and pump system to make it work.

His half of a home is in repair mode. The walls and floor are filled in, the kitchen is nearly functional with another solar rig and pump, his two kids have their own bedrooms. The bathroom in the half house doesn’t work but the RV is next door so the “Kids can shower before school. That’s important.”

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Soon Spyder’s place will have another comfort. He’s hand digging and lining a septic system so the family can use a flush toilet. He trucks in huge drums of water weekly.

“I couldn’t really make it out there. I was abandoned as a baby by my mother and put in the foster system where I was given to a family who didn’t just beat me-they tortured me. My back is wrecked, I never really learned to read or write and I’ve got a bunch of other scars.  I tried working out there doing handy jobs and anything I could get but I still kept winding up homeless–then I heard about this place. You can be what you want to be out here and if you work hard you get to keep the result of your labor. I can’t see ever going back.”

He stands in the sun looking around, sweat is dripping down his shirtless chest and he wipes his face and says it’s time he get back to work.

There’s an agricultural canal which runs behind The Slabs about half a mile or so from Spyder’s place. People speak of swimming and bathing in it especially in the fall when it’s hot and the water is still high due to water releases for late crops. They say it’s a beach, an inland paradise when it gets really hot.  But it’s actually a long, shallow edged and deep centered waterway which smells of farm waste and chemicals. It’s an odd shade of green but it’s moving water in the desert. That’s as good as it gets.

This is not a place for the germaphobe or picky person.

Slab City has its joiners and loners, cool folk and angry outliers, all of them cheap skates and free loaders who have an aversion to loans and taxes and working all week to pay for a house that owns them and demands more upgrades. For the most part the dwellers of The Slab aren’t keen on government or cities or much to do with the world outside. However, it would not be accurate to say they’re lazy and don’t want to work.

Showing up with a tent in the white hot center of a huge desert with zero water or power does not allow anyone here to be lazy. Surviving is an entry level position and living with handmade upgrades like a roof and floor is the corner office. Nothing along the chain here is achieved without sun up to sun down work and innovation.

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Learning how to innovate is a daily occupation. Inventions will be born at Slab City.

Within two days of chumming around The Slabs, I find I’m eyeballing spots near roads but away from others. I’m evaluating sun angles and looking for smooth slabs and proximity to a decent path in and out. I’m creating a gear list: rope, tarps, big jugs for water, car batteries, propane tanks, camp stoves and lights. Shovels-one for digging large holes and one for a bathroom. I get hung up on the bathroom part but keep mumbling, ‘I really think I could do this and enjoy it.’

It’s not realistic. Yet……

When traveling like crazy, be prepared to be crazy. Meeting people in their odd smells, off grid pre-occupations, eccentricities and realities does not allow ambivalence. The mammalian response is to respond–to blend and join. The Slab City joiner/non joiner is a flag flying proudly for a country not yet invented. It’s the pirate ship or tropical island where mis-fits fit.

Nothing could be more pleasing.

Driving back in the pink sunset of the desert toward alleged civilization an isolation draped itself around my car.  I powered on through worlds, picked up a hitch hiker who refused to give her name and stopped for dinner where I was the only woman in a crowded restaurant and eventually found myself at the bizarre and magical Miracle Baths Hotel where a suite near the massage closet was available.

Floating under a dark sky in a pool filled with bath water listening to the conversation in Russian nearby and recalling an earlier one about why they don’t want us to know about aliens, the thought came in clearly that traveling like crazy is among the best ways to stay sane.

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The Rise of Hysteria and Obedient Women

He reminded me I have no voice–the young Mexican guy.

The singer songwriter from Austin, Texas, his state flag mounted behind him next to the candles, you know the ones in the jars with the Virgin Mary, yes, those, singing in a tiny club up the stairs and over to the left- incited revolution.  David Ramirez fired a shot through song for what is to come: rage, despair, and more deeply troubling— resignation.

Don’t get me wrong there are people raising voices-but so few are women. The ones who do speak, urge calm. That’s not the right message.

Ramirez sang of throwing out the baby, a depiction of white America forgetting how we all really got here, he shattered himself on the stage crooning and yelling, sweat pouring from his face, soaking his beard and stringy brown hair, his eyes filled with exhaustion. He was like Dylan, if Dylan could sing.

Why can’t we, us, women-those who stand to lose everything get the steam up to lay it on the line the way this guy does?

 

Girls obey. That’s the rule handed down by God and enforced by culture. You don’t obey and the penalties are steep. “Lock her up!” they yell. Burn her, she is a witch. Hysterectomy. Look up the origin of that word. Restless? How about a lobotomy? Don’t believe it? Ask Francis Farmer how it worked. This is all recent history, recurring history, persistent His-story.

You damned right my normal response is tepid. And terrified. Aren’t you?

 

I don’t need the faithless fundamentalist Christian pew anymore, nor the patriarchy, or belt or threat because I have become expert in keeping myself down.

The shame of shouting and possibly being told to “calm down” is apparently greater than the threat of losing our country, our work and our world.

How sad is that?

I am told to keep an open mind, told it is not yet time to be so concerned.

If it is not now-then it will it never be, the God damned time.

 

I am not trying to hurt your feelings because you disagree but frankly what we face is bigger than your feelings and mine. We’re reasonably discussing the rise of a fascist- old school style. The rest of the world sees it.

I may lose my mind, my friendships, my love–but we stand to lose quite realistically –everything. Our sacred Pacific Ocean has been under threat to drilling off the Northern California coast for decades-this president has no qualms with drilling, we may lose our Oregon trees to old school, largely unregulated milling. Can we talk about what we’re doing to face down this threat rather than “being calm and open minded?

 

Are you afraid, like me?

That’s what’s at the root of all this, you know. It’s not politics or losers and winners–it’s fear. It’s the fear for children and grandchildren, for friends and people we’ve never met.

It’s not about me or you–but us.

For people who, like my friend often says, will die and never know why. For those under threat of deportation or arrest or merely having their life’s work trampled to shit.

I’m a journalist. I’m aware of seeing my profession turn to a sideshow. But the part I don’t know scares me even more. The part where protected lands are drilled, fucked, broken and used up. Where girls die again in back alley abortions, where gay people are shoved into airless closets, where black lives do not matter and children are ripped from loving parents because someone says they are criminals for wanting a better life. Where Jews who have endured and endured have to somehow do it again. Where sick people will die because, yet again, they cannot afford treatment.

Silence is a kind of insanity.

 

 

 

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It’s December. Time for tips on surviving #Christmas.

sad holiday

“I wonder why I’m so calm. Everything feels fine. Nothing seems very serious to me these days. I wonder how long that will last?”

I told this to my friend on a sunny day just a few weeks ago. I sat cross legged on the floor feeling Buddhahood. I knew it was a phase but still hoped I could hang on and ride that gentle wave as peaceful as a day at the beach for as long as possible–forever, if there is such a thing.

But, yup, you predicted it; a storm blew in and drenched me down to the soggy socks in the cold water of life’s usual struggles and I find myself back to swimming against its tide.

The nasty truth they don’t tell you in the books and movies of happy endings but drill into you at any Zen Center worth its incense is that everything has an expiration date. All things must change and they do right when you start feeling like they won’t. Your delusions will prove to be inexhaustible and your perception of life as boundless can only be held in the space of a few breaths.

This is the part where you say, ‘Well thanks Julie. Is this supposed to be your version of a pep talk?’

My answer, Yes, it is.

Here’s why: no matter how hard you cling to an idea or a story or feeling it will slide away–especially if you hold on tightly to it. That’s only a big deal if you don’t accept it. It’s fine if you let it all just ebb and flow with an objective and comfortable keen eye. Things necessarily are in development and change. Your body is changing, your thoughts move, those around you change too. Nothing is really totally unchanging. It’s how we feel about that which matters. When we’re feeling good we don’t want change. When we’re suffering we cannot wait for change to come. But no matter how you feel about it, change is going to come.

So? Now what?

Re-group. When you’re feeling that shift come, that cold water crashes down on you, just watch and wait. Go still. Breathe it in completely without fear or judgment and see what comes. The more you practice, the better you get at this. Soon, within a few deep breaths things will feel less dire. You may find a smile come to the corners of your mouth and somehow, something may even strike you as funny. No matter how real your struggle or problem may feel there is another part of you which knows it will pass and without knowing how things will resolve themselves, they will resolve. You will be okay. You will always somehow be okay.

While this may sound like a First World solution for people who don’t have real problems, it is not. This is the technique of some of the happiest people in the world who have the biggest “real” problems because they understand reality is what you think it is. If you think it’s okay, it really is. If you understand it’s all just the stuff of shifting reality-you can cope. You are refreshed and able to access resources within yourself to get through it.

A few years back I experienced a very painful clinical death. I used this technique and quite honestly I laughed my way through it. I have witnesses to back me up on this story. They were shocked at how funny I found the whole experience.

I remember that when I need it most, when despair shows up and camps out in my heart I go back there and remember that nothing is a big deal if death isn’t.

This holiday season is going to fill some of you with bad, lonely- even terrible feelings. You will see the pictures of families, observe it all playing out on social media, see the shoppers dashing about and wonder what the hell is wrong with you that you’re not delighted with all the holiday fanfare. Nothing is wrong with you. Some of you may feel weighed down by societal expectation that actually has nothing to do with you. I have a secret–not everybody in the world celebrates Christmas. In places where they do celebrate it, not everyone loves it. It’s actually totally fine if you’re one of those. It’s also fine if you like it okay or it stresses you out. It’s all normal.

This is the time for this practice:

  • Accept and observe how you feel
  • Don’t judge it as bad or good
  • Don’t try to stop it
  • Know it will change on its own
  • Breathe through your nose, close your eyes and wait
  • Understand that you pick your life
  • Remember-what’s around you is all just someone’s story
  • What’s in you is your own story. It’s not truth, just a feeling

Do this practice of knowing and breathing early and often and wait for it–you’ll start to see the humor in the whole thing. Oh one other tip–keep moving. When we feel low we tend to want to hide out, lay about and drain our own energy. This time try the opposite- force yourself to exercise and stay active. Eat well, sleep long and keep breathing. Before you know it, it will all change and you’ll find yourself on a sunny day sitting cross legged and thinking about how easy it all is.

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