Central Michigan University
In 2017 the temenos Journal published my first creative nonfiction essay. It’s in their Spring 2017 issue entitled Coyote Dreams. I’m reproducing my article here. It’s called “Describing The Elephant.” It’s a long read and often painful, but there is hope at the end. I penned this introduction:
Asked if the Jedi were real, Han Solo haltingly confesses that he once doubted it. “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is — it’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it. It’s all true.”
“Describing the Elephant” challenges the reader to accept that the supernatural is real and all that assertion implies. Denying the paranormal is easy for anyone who hasn’t experienced it. For those of us that have, we struggle to relate what we’ve seen, heard, or felt.
I was not looking for another world, nor did I think one could exist. Without asking, I was granted a fleeting glimpse of something I cannot fully describe. I am a blind man holding the tail of an elephant, powerless to know the animal’s true, full form. But I know the beast exists. It’s real. It’s true. All of it is true.
Describing The Elephant
by Thomas Farley
In 1985 I went to work for a company called John Gray. After five short years, I left the company with enough life lessons learned to last all my days. And despite a terrible tragedy, I learned the greatest truth anyone could know: that a world exists outside of what we see and feel, that a great power beyond our senses is alive and breathing.
I moved to Davis, California in 1985. I came to live with a girl I was very much taken with. Naturally, I needed work. My school and work background were in plants and I applied to two nurseries before winding up at a landscape contractor called J.E.G. A nice woman named Rebecca interviewed me, and I think she was overwhelmed by my intensity. I had just completed a semester long course at U.C. Davis called Arboriculture, and I would talk to anyone at any time about plants. Rebecca said they’d call if something opened up. The next day they phoned and brought me in. They put me behind a mower.
I thought my plant knowledge made me more valuable than a day laborer, but I happily took the job. I liked these people and this was a large company. Possibilities existed. Owned by John Gray and Jim Stromme, J.E.G. Enterprises was a landscape contractor with a small maintenance arm. On my own time, I started coming in weekends to help out. Two years later I was their commercial maintenance superintendent, a fancy term for a commercial gardener. I ran two crews and we did a lot of work.
John Gray was a dynamic and garrulous individual. He was over six feet and carried his weight well. His build reminded me of a major league ballplayer just past retirement. He had a temper that ignited and faded quickly. Some thought him a frat boy who never grew up. I always had a new joke for him and he appreciated that. He treated his wife poorly and I resented him for it. He allowed mistakes if you were trying to do the right thing. And he was very loyal.
John’s partner, Jim Stromme, was the epitome of a hard-working contractor. Tall, deeply tanned and muscular, Jim was an authority on everything about landscape construction. You learned when he talked. A very supportive boss, he was always telling us to make a decision and then move forward. I never socialized with Jim, but we went to many trade shows and drank heavily. He’d give you time off if you had a personal problem. And he wouldn’t ask why.
The last time I saw Jim was on a late October morning in 1988. I think it was Tuesday, the 25th. Jim was getting into his work truck, one as big and sensible as himself. (We loved our trucks at John Gray.) He was in a bad mood that morning and sounded a little depressed. Not unusual for Jim. He said something bitter, but I can’t recall what it was. I do remember what I told him though, something uncharacteristic for men in a construction company. “You know, Jim, you and John are the best bosses I’ve ever had.” He did a double take, his head turning around as he got into the truck. I can still see that last look on his face, one of puzzlement or being confounded. How hard it is to read people. He drove out of the yard and I thought nothing of the matter until the next day.
John Gray was a busy company. In the late 80’s, we did a million dollars of business each year, operating within a sixty-mile radius of Davis. We had four telephone lines into our undersized office and they were always ringing. On the afternoon of the 28th, I was relaxing in the office. It was a brilliant October day with colored leaves and a little warmth in the air. I was petting Penny, John Gray’s yellow Labrador. I was fond of Penny and took her on rides in my company truck whenever I could. John once said she was the only female he knew that always wanted to go somewhere.
I was seated across from Rebecca’s desk. She was still working as J.E.G.’s irreplaceable office administrator. She finished a call and put the phone down. A strange thought entered my brain. One good call, one bad call. Now why did I think that? Before I could answer myself, the phone rang again. Only this time it had a different ring. Very different. There was an odd tone to it, flat and mechanical. The bell tone was gone. Rebecca didn’t seem to hear any change. But it was obvious and frightening to me. It could not be sounding different, but it was. Here was an appliance as common as a coffee maker, now acting in a completely different manner. I’ve tried hard to explain how strange and menacing it sounded. It would be as if your father turned to you one day and then spoke in your mother’s voice.
At the same time, an enormous surge of power washed through me, like standing three feet from a passing freight train. An unstoppable force, completely awesome in its power. What was happening? As Rebecca reached for the handset, I found myself coming out of the chair, almost shouting at her. “Don’t pick up the phone! Don’t pick up the phone.”
She looked at me like I was crazy. Standing, I looked on in fright as she answered the call. Her expression was quizzical; she clearly could not understand what the caller was saying. And it wasn’t clear whether she recognized the caller. She put down the phone and said, “Now, what was that all about?” I said I didn’t know, but I knew it was bad, very bad. A little dazed, I went home. I didn’t know what had happened, but it was a mystery I could not solve.
The next day I got into work early, as I usually did. No one else was around but John. When he said he had the worst news possible, I thought I had lost my job. And then he said that Jim had killed himself. I broke down and blurted out how sorry I felt for John. It was a terrible morning. Everyone was shocked. No one had thought Jim suicidal. I met Rebecca later. She was at the top of the office stairs. I said, “It was that phone call, wasn’t it?” She nodded. It turned out that phone call was the first message from Jim’s house about his death. Jim had taken one of his shotguns and blown out his heart. Jim’s teenage son discovered his dad’s dead body in a bedroom and was calling for help, desperately trying to reach Jim’s best friend, John Gray.
No one talked immediately about Jim’s death. The coroner refused to rule Jim’s death a suicide. No note. A rumor floated later that Jim might have been having an affair. Did a jealous husband murder Jim? Impossible. What else might be responsible? Some people said he suffered from cluster headaches. Being Jim, he may have ended things when his condition got too bad. Jim always followed through on his decisions. Months later, I heard a note was found in a waterbed repair kit at his home. A pained rambling about his family life. His family never spoke to me about what happened to Jim.
The days after were, of course, mournful. Jim had left a wife and two teenage children. I can’t imagine what they felt. John and his wife found out from Rebecca about my experience and they invited me to dinner. I could tell them little. Although I knew something was wrong when the telephone rang, I wasn’t able to tell what it was about at the time. I got a look and a listen into another world, but only a for a few seconds. Perhaps that’s all anyone gets.
Some say the supernatural compares favorably to the elephant in an ancient Hindu parable. In that story, several blind men touch different parts of an elephant. One touches the tail, one a tusk, one an ear, and so on. None of them experiences the same thing and none can agree on what the elephant looks like. Just like the blind men and their elephant, I could only describe a tusk or a tail.
I had never really considered the supernatural before, except as a statistical matter. Was everyone who reported a supernatural experience wrong? Everyone who had a premonition, a marked foreboding, a communication from a dead relative, could all of them be wrong? I had never before paid this thought much mind. And now I, too, was a person with a claim, but at least I had a witness. Rebecca had seen my distress. I had panicked over that one call, that one call, out of dozens that had come into the office that day. Because she had witnessed what happened, I never look back on the occurrence and think I imagined it.
People asked if I felt anything religious. I didn’t feel the presence of God, or anything like that. But was it powerful enough to be God? Certainly—powerful enough to raise the dead or part the Red Sea. As for the negative: I don’t know if there is a hell, but I would not want to be on the wrong side of that power. In the world I felt, anything had been possible.
I can’t believe I alone have experienced something from beyond, and I refuse to believe that power will extinguish when I die. I can only see it continuing.
However, looking at the sun demands a price. Two weeks later, my first violent nightmare occurred. I had never had nightmares before, but this was a muddled mess, with Jim’s hunting dogs barking and the sound of shotguns going off. A man with a handlebar mustache appeared. I immediately felt he was responsible for Jim’s death. I woke up with adrenaline coursing through me, panicky and afraid. I didn’t want to discuss it, but I did ask John about the strange man I saw. John couldn’t help me. He knew no one who looked like that.
Over the next several months, more nightmares found me. They grew worse and more intense. They were never the same, but they had a central theme. I was always killing someone or someone was killing me. The nightmares wallowed in blood and slaughter. They delighted in murder. As time went by, I began to have two, three, and sometimes four nightmares in a single night. I became a wreck, unable to sleep, frightened to do so. If I tried to go back to sleep too quickly, the nightmares would often begin right where they had left off.
My brain was broken.
The nightmares waxed and waned in frequency but by April of 1990 they had become extremely severe. I sought psychiatric help and got no relief. I began different medicines, none of them helping. I wanted to flee. I wanted to run from work and run from Davis. I wanted to run to Mexico, deluded by the thought that perhaps I could outrun these terrible dreams. I remember the night before I quit John Gray.
My worst nightmare came that night. In that terror I was swinging a baseball bat at the heads of little babies. I was smashing their heads in, one by one, swinging constantly, constantly killing. This grotesque experience convinced me to do something different. I needed to concentrate solely on getting better. That morning I quit my job. I left my beloved work truck, the traveling Labrador, Penny, and the best boss I ever knew.
I moved back with my parents for a year. My Dad was a doctor and he put me in touch with the best psychologists and psychiatrists. None helped. They thought my experience closely resembled post-traumatic stress disorder. But PTSD usually occurred when a trauma was witnessed first-hand. A second-hand experience, where you simply hear about an event, was considered much rarer. And as far as PTSD induced by the paranormal, I’m sure my doctors never got training for that in med school. I eventually moved out of town, first to Grass Valley, California and then to Isleton, a backwater in the California Delta. No relief. The nightmares weren’t constant, and there were times I could go for days without them, but they always returned.
I was never able to explain how devastating the nightmares were. Then, in 2003, I came upon a motorcycle accident on Jefferson Boulevard in West Sacramento. I got out of my car and hurried to the downed rider. He was lying in the middle of the street, unresponsive. I took off my shirt to help staunch any blood flow. But he did not have any open wounds, so I wondered what to do. I held his hand. I would want someone to hold my hand, if I were dying. A woman who knew CPR stopped to help. At that point blood began to flow out of the man’s ears. I knew then he was suffering a deep, internal head wound. A traumatic brain injury. As he passed away, a sudden thought occurred to me: this isn’t as bad as my nightmares. And it wasn’t. The nightmares were far more terrifying. Perhaps, real life was easier to handle. When you are awake, you have some understanding and control over the experience. When you are asleep, you are just a victim. Like that man lying on the pavement.
In 2007, I got a new psychiatrist and a new start. He began by re-prescribing all the medicines I had taken since 1990, with the hope they would have better effect, now that I was older. There were also new medicines, ones that had not existed seventeen years before. One was Zyprexa. Within three days, my nightmares stopped. Or at least for long periods of time. I can now go weeks without having a nightmare, and when I do, I never have more than one in one night. Usually prescribed for schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, Zyprexa is a miracle drug. I continue to take it, and I dare not stop. I am not cured, but somehow Zyprexa chemically masks my terrors. The nightmares are not completely gone; they remain around the edges as if to let me know I’m not completely free. And my sleep in general is still terribly wretched, the worst kind of insomnia. But this kind of freedom is good enough.
They say believing in God means taking a leap of faith. Now I don’t have to leap so far. In 2012, my parents died within two weeks of each other. I did not feel uncertain for them. I don’t believe they, or anyone else, disappears into a black meaningless void. The experience I had proved to me there is something beyond life and, I am sure, beyond death as well. I can’t plot the dimensions or purpose of the supernatural, any more than the blind men could, with their elephant. But something’s there.
I would, however, have preferred ignorance over this costly lesson.
It’s often true that not seeing things can be a blessing. My discovery that something lies beyond was based in my experience of Jim’s death, seventeen years of nightmares, and a broken brain. I learned an enormously important and transcendent truth, but one I couldn’t handle. Perhaps, if the nightmares stay at bay, I will learn to live more easily with this truth. Perhaps one day, I will be shown more of the elephant. With luck, less trauma. I press on.