Spiritual Struggle (You Won't Understand)
KODAK BLACK & JACKBOY rang through your earbuds.
You don’t know about the struggle, so you won’t understand.
I keep talking bout the struggle cuz it made me a man.
You’re sitting on the couch, football Sunday. It’s 30 degrees outside, which is a blessing. It was in the low tens just the other day.
Your balcony window is open. The snow melting sounds like rainfall. You know this to be false rain. You think about pain. Thinking bout the struggle days.
You don’t want to explore this memory, but you also feel called to write it.
You were triggered by a Facebook post today, as you are on most days.
Someone asked if spiritual abuse is taking place in your community.
Are kids being beaten in Dugsi?
You, a survivor of such abuse in your community, who was beaten in Dugsi,
wanted to scream OBVIOUSLY DUH YEAH BRUH WHAT?
You, a survivor of such abuse in your community, want to cry.
Someone who looks like people who’ve abused you in your community
replied to this comment:
“Yes, this is a form of discipline. It is culturally acceptable. The parents know it’s happening and are okay with it. The kids who grew up here just happen to think of it as abuse.”
IS SPIRITUAL ABUSE HAPPENING IN OUR COMMUNITY?
You sit on your couch, on this Football Sunday, false rain snow melt prattling a symphony orchestra on your balcony, and you raise your hand to your head in the classic Somali fashion: palms outward.
You can’t believe what you’re reading.
You don’t know about the struggle, so you won’t understand.
You remember your therapist telling you that trauma can affect all of your relationships, especially your relationship with God.
You ask her if getting beaten, verbally, emotionally abused in the name of religion would cause you trauma?
She says yes, of course.
She is Muslim and raises her children in a way that you wish you were raised.
You cry as you type this. You’re always crying as you’re typing.
Then you wonder why it’s so hard to read those same words in public.
I keep talking bout the struggle cuz it made me a man.
You wonder what it means to be a man. You block people on Facebook in ways not associated with being a man. You never learned what it means to be a man. You still don’t know what it means, to be a man.
But Kodak keeps you company. You take pictures now. You run past your emotions. You eat the pain away. You stop writing. You walk away.
You come back. You always come back. You are a prisoner to your emotions, to your past. To the circumstances of your circumcision. Age 10. Damn. That shit hurt. Damn.
Around the same time, you had your appendix taken out. Emergency. You were at Dugsi. You complained of stomach pain. They said you were making up excuses.
You said no, I threw up on the way here, on the side of the freeway.
They said you shouldn’t have eaten all that junk food.
You search the room for cameras. Surely this is a joke, you ask, as you clutch, your stomach in pain.
You are rushed to the emergency room shortly after. They take pictures, make scans. Appendix about to rupture. Emergency surgery. You take another ambulance ride to another hospital. You are immediately put under. You wake up in a Children’s hospital. They have N64 here. You play wave runner. The Sea Pirates come to visit. You are happy you get to miss Dugsi. You feel ashamed for this.
I keep talking about the struggle, so you don’t understand. But you won’t understand…
You cry with your therapist. You realize the reason why you once left your faith: because you were routinely beaten in the name of your faith. And thus, you associated Islam with Pain, associated God with Hate. You felt cursed.
You sometimes still do, though logically, you know Allah loves you.
Allah loves you, but people have done terrible things to you in His name.
This makes you cry. You are always crying. Always blocking people on Facebook. You don’t see the connection, but it’s there.
Childhood trauma makes relationships difficult. Especially your relationship with Allah. You haven’t prayed in weeks. You feel nearly hopeless. You say Istaghfarullah when you can. You cling onto whatever you can. You know that trauma is the villain in your life.
You have an appointment with your therapist tomorrow. You have a job interview before that. You will cry in between those two appointments. You will cry until no tears remain. You will cry until it resembles snow melted false rain prattling on your balcony, a symphony orchestra.
You feel ashamed to even write that. You ask Allah’s forgiveness. You do not ask His forgiveness on behalf of the people who hurt you in His name. You want to curse those people, but you are too soft hearted for that.
You settle for not asking for their forgiveness. And you know that on Judgement Day, everyone who wronged you will regret it. Just as you will regret everyone you wronged.
But you don’t care about that right now. You only care about your pain.
You’ve overcome addiction and disbelief, by His Mercy. Your family helped you, of course. And though it pains you to say, your family also hurt you, of course. And this is the nature of your pain. To come to terms with those who love you, who also caused you pain. And on top of all this… you’re Autistic. Meaning you feel everything.
You feel everything.
I keep talking bout the struggle, so you won't understand how I feel everything.
I’ve always loved going to bed early. I love how the underside of my eyelids burn orange against the dwindling sunshine. I love that it feels warmer to fall asleep while it’s still daytime. I love that it feels like I have a head start on a tomorrow. I love racing to unconsciousness.
Going to bed while there is still light is a ritual dating back to when I was old enough to notice the changing of the day into evening. When I was little, starting around 8, I would bundle myself claustrophobically with a bounty of stuffed animals, Barbies, and two different sweatshirts (one grey and one navy blue). Like all nervous and lonely children, the comfort of these creatures provided the escape from life I so desperately craved. My sweet silent friends spoke directly into my brain along with the sweatshirts who had names. We were molded into a mountain, and we’d gather warmth from the sunlight. Lonesome feels different when it's light out.
In bed, with all my friends, I would pretend that the bed was a boat, and the floor was a large river, and we were all stranded together in the middle, getting taken by the current to somewhere unknown. I never felt alone while together in the boat even though my crew and I were too far away from any shore to get rescued. Protected by the pretend, I would fall asleep imagining that the stuffed animals were taking care of me while I slipped into sleep. And dove grey evenings were a lullaby with a bedtime starting as early as 6:30 PM or 7:00 PM if I could, except during winters when I would struggle with the night sky and keep a lamp on the nightstand on all night.
In the mornings, my baby fine fig hair would be stuck to my cheeks always covered in sticky candy gloss from the day before, and arms wrapped around the bunched sweatshirts. Huddled under the tower of pals, my eyes would bat open to find their friendly faces in the glow of the morning sun, a brightness not so different from the one I fell asleep to.
Delight in imagination, I was always happiest existing within dreams while either asleep or awake. And I, like so many young people, decided I wanted to have an interesting life. But I never stopped to consider that an interesting life does not always equal a happy life.
The pivot away from childhood followed a string that led to a curious existence. A life that lacked stability, and structure, and security. The greatest safety I found as the Fates cut and tied my future was in going to bed early. Long slumber has always been there for me.
I have been bummed out lately. And it is not just because I put my phone in the microwave instead of the coffee I wanted to reheat ten minutes ago. And it’s not just because of the bitter tasting heartache of another start-over, where I wished for a composite collage of photo booth moments but instead collected scenes made in public spaces with my face blood red from embarrassment. It’s not just because my whiskey-voiced blonde bouffant Aunt Bonnie died before I could say goodbye. It’s not just because I got food poisoning on the day I got the news of her passing. It’s not just because my beloved cat, Easy Mac, has been sick. It’s not because I gave up on dry January after getting back into contact with a person responsible for previous embarrassents. It’s not just because the dark days feel endless.
It's not these things in the way that the waves of similar sorrows seem never ending sometimes. I’ve been bummed recently. But I’ve been bummed before and clawed my way out of it. I have also been happy and know that joy is always on the horizon, ever so faintly out of reach. But it will arrive. Maybe this is the cost of an interesting life.
Easy Mac has been sick during the days of my bummedness. She is an elegant Spyhnx cat with a marking around her eye that reminds me of my favorite comic book character, Domino. I have loved her for ten years. Under blankets while she purrs, I like to hold one of her paws. She has been one of the greatest delights of my life, unexpected grace in a world of disorder. Easy Mac has always made me feel special even though when she and I were both younger, she would occasionally sneeze in my hair and I wouldn’t notice until the next morning. Hand on my hand, grossed out while she continued to sleep in the warm gulf of where my body imprinted the sheets. I hate to see her not feeling well. I feed her in bed while she sleeps among the relics of my past: a dalmatian stuffed animal named Spotsy, a bean bag teddy bear named Theo, an oversized sweatshirt—black instead of the long gone grey and navy ones, and a flower print blanket that I bunch and hold in sleep. I jokingly call myself her nursemaid. And among the sorrow, there is joy in helping her.
I’ve been going to bed earlier and earlier within the last two months, in the wake of all the bummed. I repeat the behavior of the ghost of myself, a child of 8, and struggle to beat the sunset, shuttering my eyes until a new day can greet me.
Last night, among the final flame of a pink sky, I sat in bed with Easy Mac under her many blankets, sweatshirts, and our comfort items. We traveled through time together, different eras of ourselves. I read a book out loud about a Hollywood starlet and Easy Mac slept next to me, warm and purring.
Before I fell asleep, before the sky could change over to ink blotches, in the warmth of the bed and the ease of our time together, her little paw in my hand, some of the sadness faded away. And I pretended that she and I were in a boat in the middle of a large river. We were protected by pretend, buoyant in the strong current. And we were on our destination to nowhere.
In the morning, we both woke up to a warm sun, never so different from the days before.
By Michael Seymour Blake
I've seen a lot of so-bad-they’re-good movies. Creating Rem Lezar ain’t one of them. It lives in a distant fairyland we can only glimpse in our wackiest dreams. A fairyland so wholesome, so innocent, and so strange that if given access to it during our waking life we would be spaghettified. Luckily, director Scott Zakarin is a more than capable guide.
I first saw this mind-altering journey on YouTube many years ago. The upload, from a deteriorated VHS no doubt, was riddled with dropout, warping, fading, and missing scenes. Despite these defects, I fell in love. I’m usually not into musicals, but this one knocks it outta the park. Straight up into space. No, some place even higher. There’s not one flop among the bunch. Whether the kids are alone in the bedroom with a strange man in spandex, or wandering around Manhattan with a strange man in spandex, or entering the woods alone with a strange man in spandex, there’s a catchy song to fill our hearts. Each number is paradoxically wince-worthy and the best thing I’ve ever heard. I can’t explain it more than that. Bravo to composer Mark Mulé.
I made it my mission to get a copy.
Finding the film wasn’t too difficult. The real problem came down to money. The cheapest I’d seen it for was $90 bucks, and that just ain’t within my reach. So I waited. And waited. And waited. And the price went up. And up. And up higher. At one point they were going for $250. I had this baby on my eBay watchlist forever.
Then one day I was just sittin’ around dreaming of a dream when BOOM! Found Footage Festival releases a Blu-ray. My heroes. I scooped it up and watched it for what felt like the first time. A fantasy come true.
The movie follows Ashlee and Zack (Courtney Kernaghan, Jonathan Goch), two daydreaming kids who discover they share the same blue-haired imaginary/non-imaginary friend named Rem Lezar (Jack Mulcahy). Their parents and teachers are fed up, demanding they live in the real world. But the kids are fed up with the “real world,” each lashing out in their own way. After a bumpy start (Zack’s a bit of a misogynist), they form a lightning-fast friendship and run away together to build their strange dream-man in an abandoned cabin. How do they build him? By using mysteriously-obtained mannequin parts of course! (Seeing Zack and Ashlee with the disassembled pieces triggered flashbacks to 1991’s Body Parts.) The power of their imagination brings Rem Lezar to life and the trio celebrate his newfound existence. There’s just one problem. The children forgot to add his symbol, a golden infinity sign called the Quixotic Medallion, to the mannequin. Without it, Rem Lezar will disappear forever come nightfall. A disembodied pixelated face named Vorock (played by Zakarin himself) has it. He says it’s hidden at the highest point that the mind could go, yet claims it remains within reach. Full of passion, song, and love, the threesome wander around New York trying to find the precious insignia before the sun goes down.
It’s hard to point out what makes Creating Rem Lezar so much more than a novelty watch. It’s not just the songs (which you’ll be singing for the rest of your life) or the bold blue leotard or the even bolder blue curly locks of rockin’ hair (and eyebrows). I think it may have something to do with the consistently odd choices made every step of the way. Odd choices made only odder because they’re presented through a lens of pure, childlike innocence. This obliviousness, for lack of a better word, allows for some truly astounding stuff. I don’t want to give too much away because this movie should be experienced as fresh as possible.
At one point, Rem Lezar sings a passionate song to a child in the woods. They’re alone, isolated. He gently brushes her cheek. They stare into each other’s eyes. Then, as he takes her into his arms, there’s a shocking second where it seems like they’re about to kiss (they don’t of course). It’s gross and weird and hilarious, but there’s no wink to the audience, no indication anyone in the production picked up on the overt creepiness of it all. You’ll scream in horror but also be… almost charmed by it?
The opening credits are phenomenal. Zack gets sent to the principal’s office for daydreaming. He exits the classroom and ambles down endless, desolate hallways as he sings the bittersweet “Dreaming of a Dream,” while his head tilts at various awkward angles. Suddenly, his prepubescent voice is joined by a deep baritone for a dual “whooaa.” Now there’s a dark figure lurking behind Zack as Silent-Hill-style mist fills the halls. Seconds later, the figure’s gone and the halls are clear again. It leaves you reeling. But wait, the figure’s back in the next cut, along with the mist. “Come on and take my hand,” the figure croons. (We all know this figure is Rem Lezar, yet it doesn’t assuage our sense of dread.)
My favorite part of the sequence is when Rem, still veiled within the mist, simply stops walking behind Zack and just looms there as the camera pulls away. My mental child-endangerment alarms were sounding, big time. Eventually we enter what I believe to be a fantasy where Zack imagines Rem giving his teacher a talking/singing to: “Part of the joy that I get from this boy is his innocent laugh and his style, come take another look.” It’s all in slow motion and a blurred trail of Rem’s movements lingers behind him—a real Bruce Lee Fists of Fury moment.
The hallway odyssey is followed by a scene where Zack sets up the principal (Zakarin’s actual childhood principal, in fact) by asking an innocuous question only to follow it up with a surprise verbal assault that leaves the highest-ranking administrator speechless. It’s inexplicable. Zack would make a good movie mobster.
So much happens in the short runtime. The gang dances with street toughs, leisurely wanders around despite their grave time constraints (they even go for a nice boat ride), and at one point, splits into two different realities. It’s packed with bonkers logic and semi-incoherence. And joining us through it all is Mulcahy’s hypnotizingly thick neck.
I was surprised to see the sheer number of PhDs who worked on this movie in some way or another (watch for them in the ending credits). There are a few scenes that wax philosophical I suppose. Did the PhDs create the mythology of Rem and Vorock or something? It’s possible…
Vorock represents our nightmares. But on a grander scale, he is the fear and anxiety we all carry inside. Give into your inner Vorock, and you will wither away. Fight against him, and you risk giving into hate (it’s a disease... don’t catch it). On the other side stands Rem Lezar. Beyond representing our dreams, Rem is our hopes, passions, and concepts of love. With our inner Rem’s help, we can attain a deeper understanding of human nature, an expansion of perception. We can learn the power of acceptance. When we befriend our Vorocks, they lose much of their hold over us. They’ll never disappear, but they’ll become manageable. Our inner Rem can teach us that the darker parts of our psyches offer opportunities for growth, and may even help us discover the things that are most meaningful to us in life.
Rem and Vorock start at the beginning and end there too. We can’t fully be rid of either. They are as infinite as the Quixotic Medallion. As infinite as my love for this movie.
Michael Seymour Blake writes easy breezy beautiful unpretentious movie reviews. A working class cinema lover. Follow him on instagram: @michaelseymourblake or visit his often-neglected website: michaelsblake.com
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