Letters at 3AM
Gateways -- Part 1
It must have been from my mother that I received the conviction, unshakable even when I wanted to shake and escape it, that the Seen and the Unseen are adjacent to each other and necessary to each other. That messages are passed, constantly, between the two -- between this world and a felt Other World. That voices spoken in one of these worlds can be heard in the other. And that you sometimes walk through gateways so that, while still wholly in this world, you are also in the Other: A video would show nothing changed, yet you feel the laws of Time and Space behaving differently.
Animals are guides in this sphere ... my mother taught me that. When I was very little, in the late 1940s, she would take me to the Bronx Zoo one day and the Museum of Natural History the next. This was before television was common, before one's living room became a receptor for all sorts of improbable imagery, when zoos and museums (to the eyes of a child) were especially astounding. The zoo's giraffes and elephants and tigers and wolves were pure magic to me -- we got close to them, stared into their eyes, and it was like dreaming. There was something so deep and other-than-human and all-inclusive in how they watched us. They were captives of the city, but it had only captured their bodies; in their eyes was something utterly unconfined. They looked beyond us and yet included us in their gaze, and so we were included in what was beyond us. Of course I couldn't have articulated that, and my mother communicated it to me only through the intensity of her attention; nevertheless, I remember the feeling of being transported in their presence, as though what was unconfined in them was infectious, was entering me. Because they seemed not merely animals, I seemed not merely human -- a state that became the content of my dreams. (I still sometimes become those creatures in my dreams.)
Then at the Natural History ... animals exactly like the zoo's, but stuffed and arranged in "action" exhibits behind glass, utterly still, a stillness made all the more still by how our footsteps echoed in the museum's halls. I had no concept of "dead" -- though pneumonia had brought me to the brink of death over and over. (The doctors told my parents I wouldn't live to be five.) For me, these animals were merely still. I remember an eerie sense -- wordless, free of concepts -- that for them time hadn't stopped, time simply no longer applied. There was something extraordinary about their eyes too: they weren't so very different from the eyes of the creatures in the zoo. That same all-inclusive stare. Harder, glassier, but still fixed on something beyond, something that included me.
Ah ... funny how the psyche works. I just realized I'm writing this on what would have been my mother's 82nd birthday. She died at 70, so I can only look to my wall and ask her framed image, "What did you intend, spending all those hours with me in those strangely altered states at the zoo and the museum? Why did you take your sickly son over and over from the life of the zoo to the not-quite-death of the museum? What was going on when we went so often, and stayed so long, in those places that seemed not quite of This World and not quite of The Other World either? These days they call it 'trance-state,' Mama."
For Clelia, my mother, reality was a shifting and permeable thing, never fixed, never what it seemed. She paid dearly for her perceptions. Years and years in and out of mental hospitals. She never accepted labels of "mental illness." As she put it, "Once in a while I trip trip trip ... and then I come back back back -- and the world is a much larger place than we thought." I know now that when I was little she was taking me by the hand on her 'trips.' She was in her late 20s then and still stable enough to trip without going flat-out insane. Our greatest teachers teach more by their presence than by what they say; they teach by the realities they embody. If they are strong, just being in their presence gradually acclimates you to what they know.
So it's not so strange that, when I was seven and ill in bed with one of my many fevers, I fixed my eyes on the rocking chair, the chair where my mother would sit and read to me and (I know now) try to conceal her fear that this would be the fever that took me. The chair was empty, I had the sense that no one else was in our apartment, and I saw a small red ball on the arm of the chair ... the chair was rocking by itself, and the ball rolled with the rocking ... and I heard an enormous soundless scream that filled the world ... at first I thought it was coming from the ball, but then I realized the ball was balancing on the edge of the scream and that the scream was actually coming from the closet, and that the closet was really a shaft that went down into the depths of the earth. Most would say this was only the fever, but my mother taught me better. That illness was a gateway through which I passed to a vision. There are times when even a child can hear the suffering of the entire earth, for our combined suffering makes a soundless enormous scream and if you hear it once you never forget it.
The elements of which we are made were created in the boilings of stars, so it's not very extraordinary that we can hear the Universe if we learn how to listen. Sometimes fevers help us learn. Sometimes madwomen, madmen. Sometimes, the eyes of the wild beings who cannot forget what they are and what they're here for, as we do, we who seek forgetfulness relentlessly and have made a world of its vacancy ... the creatures remind us. Which may be why we kill them for sport: to enforce forgetting. And sometimes, if we are fortunate, someone takes us by the hand ... and years later ...
Years later, after many roads and dreams, sometime in the late 1970s, I was driving with Sara into Joshua Tree National Monument, on the western edge of the Mojave. Doing about 40 on a winding two-lane. A snake, impossibly swift, darted straight out across the road, and I thought surely I'd run over it. I don't know how I didn't. The space between my wheels must have been just right. Sara looked where we'd been. "Did I hit it?" "No, and now it's gone." And just then a cloud of small black insects enveloped the car. I don't know what they were. It was frightening. Couldn't see the road. And then, inexplicably, they were gone too. This was no fever, and we weren't high. I don't remember if it was I or Sara who said, "We've passed through a gateway. That was a gateway."
It was the first time I'd used, or heard, that word in that way. The word made many experiences clear to me. We both had the sense that we were no longer in what I refer to now as "the world that calls itself The World." It wasn't that everything was in slow motion ... rather that Time was elongated and there was plenty of room to see and be aware of ... let's not put a name to what. The desert was alive, and conscious, and watching. I know now that there are times when you can see the joy, the becoming, of all the earth. The Western concept of the body is, basically, a biochemical machine; but what if your entire being, body included, is more like a song than a machine? And what if your being is constantly in a harmonic relationship with all the songs around it? What if you don't call it "my life" but "my song"? Then one of those desert spring storms came out of nowhere suddenly, and it was as though even the lightning was taking its sweet, sweet time. Tender lightning. As Butch Hancock sings it, "Pure energy can't tell lies."
Two years ago, in that very place of the snake and the insects, driving alone slowly ... not one coyote but a pack, six or seven of them. I'd never seen more than one before ... they loped across the road slowly, at twilight, that gateway again ... I took my foot off the gas and the car slowed as it drifted forward and they avoided it easily and one looked back at me ... There are those who don't spend their days forgetting. As George might put it, there is a kind of memory that increases and elongates the space of the present. A Jewish seer found this image useful: "In my Father's house there are many mansions."
"Live it. Suffer it. Delight in it." So my mother once instructed. The bear in the zoo had immense eyes. I know now that the bear in the museum was ... dead, they call it. Yet the song of its "bearness" was still alive ... the songs we call our "bodies" heard it. I am three or four, and my hand is being held as we step through a gateway. I am soon to be 55, and I reach out my hand as, here on the page, I enter a gateway with a stranger who may be you. Something, someone, takes my hand. I don't know what or who, but I know I am held. And there is singing.