Writers are not supposed to talk about what we are writing while we are writing it. It is considered by some to be a jinx. As I wait for word from my publisher on whether they want the third in my San Francisco mystery series, and after a debate with myself about continuing the Indianapolis Shanahan series beyond its current ten books, I’ve decided to start the eleventh because there is a story that wants to be told. I have no clue whether I will finish it or if I do, whether it will be published. The upheaval in the publishing community has upheaved us all.
The subject for the new Shanahan seems right for a mystery involving the aging private eye, Deets Shanahan — Alzheimers. It is — as the disease has been described — “the longest goodbye.” What happens is that people with Alzheimers forget. If we humans are merely a collection of our memories, and not much else, as some believe, then Alzheimers may sadly be the most poetic of deaths. Our memories are disassembled, little by little. We forget what happened a minute ago, then what happened yesterday and eventually, if we don’t die of something else along the way, we forget how to breathe.
When I was in college so many years ago, I changed the focus of my studies, as I did later with careers, many times. I was interested in theatre, then journalism. At one point, I went off on another tangent, briefly, to religious studies. I remember failing Buddhism. I believed then as I do now that the more you say about it, the less you understand it. Taking this position in his course didn’t impress the professor. Hinduism is something else. It is a very accommodating philosophy, worthy, if not demanding, many words. All roads lead to Nirvana. One could be an ascetic or a hedonist and still find his or her way. The whole idea appealed to my independent nature. But now I am digressing, not necessarily inappropriately, though.
There are two other thoughts from those years and those studies. One was a phrase neti neti, which I believe translates to “not this, not this,” or slightly more loosely, “not this, not that,” meaning you keep searching for the TRUTH and discover that whatever you find isn’t it. The theory works no matter what path you’re on. Again, a digression, but not completely irrelevant.
The other thing I remember from studying the Hindu philosophy back then was a story about finding truth, liberation or the divine, whatever you choose to call it. It was about a man who thought he saw a snake, when, in fact as he realizes later, what he actually saw was a rope. If he could have seen what truly is, he would see that it wasn’t a rope either. Ultimate reality is like that, the story suggests. We think we see things as they are. We don’t. What is really there is neither a snake nor a rope, neither this nor that, but something we have mistaken in a similar way. It remains, for most of us, a mystery.
There is a scene in the early pages of the working Shanahan manuscript. An elderly Alzheimers patient sees and is terrified by a leopard she believes will attack her. It is an image on the wall formed by daylight drifting down from the skylights, through the trees. The leaves create the leopard’s spots and the slightest breeze gives the appearance of the predator moving.
I live alone. On Halloween day, oddly enough, I stepped out of my shower and, after drying off, went naked into the hall. What I caught in a flash of the eye was terrifying. — a stranger lurking there. It turned out to be a clothes rack. But what was it, really? Apparently I haven’t gotten very far in my search for truth. I’m still seeing snakes instead of ropes.
You’d think as I get nearer and nearer to 70 that I’d be done with such things as scaring myself to death but no…I never seem to be done with anything, including the Shanahans. He will have another death to investigate, this one much closer to his own. Perhaps the story will teach me something.
CAPTION: The Stranger in the Hall, originally posted on my Facebook Page a couple of months ago.