I remember our house in Melbourne in the 1970s. It was bigger than we needed. Funky, with old and new clashing together. Our pet cockatoo roamed freely, chewing chairs apart and adding to the chaos. A few years ago I had a dream a dark part of myself was still hidden in this house. I dreamt I went back there and looked behind the walls, trying to find this darkness. I never found it.
One of the extra rooms we didn't need in Melbourne was turned into our dreaming room. It was just off the bedroom shared by my brother and me. Toy shelves lined one wall and a work table spanned the width of the room. My father made everything in there; he loved constructing things with saws and plywood. My mother painted the long, flat work table red. She insisted this table be clear. Never cluttered.
"Open work spaces!" she trumpeted. "Open spaces to dream."
We had drawing tablets, colored paper, pencils and crayons. I practiced my letters in there, but I had trouble with "P" and "R." Every time I drew a capital "P" my crayon didn't stop and I drew an extra diagonal line to make the "P" into "R." It frustrated me; even when I drew a new one to correct my mistake I would still do it wrong again. I drew a second deliberate "P" and then I finished the motion and made it into a capital "R" again. A compulsion within me would not let my hand stop with "P." I needed that final line to bisect the open space. Then I crossed out the line. Then I would do it again. Failure. I hated myself. I was six.
Now forty-three, I suffer from central serous chorioretinopathy—my retina detaches and reattaches based on my anxiety level—and I have been wearing an eyepatch on and off for a few weeks. I look like a pirate with a capital "P." "Arrr," is my common response when people study me quizzically. I look like a pirate, so why not? With spotlights whizzing past my eyes on stage, I have little choice. The throbbing starts, the brain shocks hint, and I have to block out the flashing lights or I'm in for a world of hurt. It looks weird but I don't know what else to do when it starts. In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, I "don't wanna be a pirate."
My favorite letter is "Q." You draw a perfect circle then add a flourish at the end, that little diagonal line. "O" is half a letter to me. Like "P," it doesn't have the finishing stroke. I think about things like this now, these tiny compulsions within me, tracing their lineage back as early as I can, because I need to if I want my normal vision back someday. I dodged blindness when they found my craniopharyngioma tumor in time, but now I am threatened by another rarity. So I examine every moment of every day, looking for clues. Sure enough, to this day when I handwrite "P" or "O" I still feel that momentary drive of inklust. My brain has to take over and instruct myself: "Pull. The. Pen. Back. Do not draw the diagonal line." I have learned to live with these moments, to let the "P" and the "O" just be themselves even though they look incomplete.
I wonder if this is why I start every day with the New York Times crossword. It's the first thing I do after giving Noah his pills and his Kong toy. I see the blank grid and after a short while it is filled with my handwritten letters, all capitals, neat as can be. When I study the completed puzzle every morning, scanning for mistakes, I feel something release in me; it is the satisfaction I can communicate for one more day, that I have my letters in order. For one more day I can face the world and speak everyone's language, the one with those silly half-letters.