Am I Real?

Some physicists say that reality doesn’t exist in the sense that we all think it does. That what we perceive as real is real only while we are perceiving it. Otherwise, what we consider to be our lives–existence itself–is just an illusion.


All of this has to do with the mathematics of quantum mechanics and the methods by which scientists explore the laws of nature to explain the basic building blocks of life, matter, and energy–how we and the universe operate.


I don’t understand much about mathematics beyond some basic everyday stuff, but it is so successful in explaining and predicting how things work that it must be accurate. I wouldn’t be able to encode my ideas on my computer otherwise, or make them available to others to read.


Yet when I am confronted with a situation that demands a judgement from me, the very first thing I seem to ask myself is, “Is this real?” Is my perception of what is happening and how it affects me accurate? Especially when I anticipate expressing anger, I often doubt the veracity of my interpretation: Do I see this correctly? Do I have the right to say this? What will be the consequence?


I have believed–more often than I like to admit–other people who told me that I have completely misunderstood their words or intention. That the reality was very different from my explanation. I just didn’t know how things work.


OK. Do I live in an alternate universe, at the wrong spot of one of those strings other physicists believe are the basic elements of matter? Am I perennially stupid? Or, am I just so afraid of eliciting another person’s anger that my foremost response is to doubt myself?


My mother, unfortunately, was mentally unstable for most of my childhood and adolescence. As a person with narcisstic personality disorder, she was so self-absorbed that she rarely saw beyond her own needs or her own interpretation of what was real (i.e., normal); we lived with her persistent temper tantrums and threats to leave home. She often changed facts to fit her version of events. Yeah, she lied. And as a good Catholic-school student, the idea of a parent who lied was just not possible. It could not happen. Anymore than a nun or a priest could be wrong or tell a lie. So I grew up doubting myself. Actually, I was trained to doubt myself. To deny that what I believed I saw or heard was real.


Doubts about how I interpreted life around me translated into doubts about how I perceived myself, about what I have, or could, achieve. My chronic struggle with depression is probably based, at least partly, on those doubts.


So, physicists, please continue with your mathematics and your quest to know what makes the universe, and us, tick. It’s important. But while I am here, looking and hearing and thinking, I’m important too. I am real. I am capable. And no one can convince me otherwise.






Long Day’s Journey

I am 73 years old. That astonishes me, because in vast areas of my mental chronicles and cartographies, I am so much younger. I can still smell the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey when I was 9— ocean, sweat, and the sharp tang of Coppertone suntan oil.

I am the youngest of three kids, not old enough to leave at home alone. The upholstery on the back seat of Dad’s Nash feels like a winter coat and smells like my mother’s Pall Mall cigarettes. “Come with us to visit your grandmother, Dottie.”  A broken snow chain on a back tire clips the rear bumper, so I pretend we are in a horse-drawn sleigh clopping across the countryside to my Pennsylvania Dutch relatives.

Someone jostles past me in the cafeteria at Temple University in 1963 to reach a back table of athletes; loud cheers break out. It’s Bill Cosby, a few days after his initial appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

Pain slices my guts in the labor room at Jefferson Hospital. This is my first child; I know absolutely nothing about babies! I’m 31, terrified, tired beyond belief, and my husband Anthony wakes, head resting at the bottom of the gurney. “Can I help you?” Exhausted from just finishing laying new tile on the floor of our house, he is out of the action here, not necessary, and asks only because he feels obliged to.

Now, looking at that child as she approaches middle-age, I glimpse a country where I have no rights, no citizenship, only a visa that affords diplomatic courtesies. That was a country I once laid claim to, waged wars to preserve, and dedicated whole treasuries to maintaining.

This new landscape—the country of Seventy—is frightening in its own unique ways. Forgetting why I entered a room, or the name of an actress (the one in that movie that so affected us when we saw it how many years ago?). Worse, for a writer, having to use a damned computer dictionary to find a synonym that would have leapt unbidden from the keys a few years ago, or spelling that wretched word bureaucrat without Microsoft Word throwing a hissy fit.

This Seventy is also a land with leaking borders. Not an “illegal immigrants”  or a “barbarians-at-the-gate” kind of leak. These marauders know me intimately: knees whose piercing pain tell me all the cushion has worn away and needs to be replaced; vertebrae that grind when bending; and eyes that close while reading my favorite author because fatigue swoops down. And sudden realizations that I have been misled, or stupid.

It has taken over 70 years to reach a point where I can finally see the lay of my land, beyond the confines of other people’s interpretations, other persons’ maps. As if I were standing on a ledge, I can see where my borders have been broken, infiltrated, or obliterated long ago. Where I allowed incursions because others demanded my attention, lied to me about duty, or refused to take responsibility for themselves.

I finally understand that what I see, what I feel, is as valid and deserving of consideration as the next person’s explanation. Perhaps I am not as singularly odd as I have always thought.

Perhaps I can finally say Here, but no farther.

What is the difference between being merely naïve and overtly gullible? Between the childhood mandate to obey without question or hesitation, and the need to believe in both compassion and truth? How long did it take before I could stop denying the reality I knew for the manipulations others practiced, and to have the courage to weigh actions against words?

Most of my life.

© 2016 Dorothy DiRienzi