Letters at 3AM

Gateways -- Part 2

There's a metaphor that's been obsessing me lately. "Just a raindrop in a storm," I keep telling myself. "I'm just a raindrop in a storm." If I say it out loud on street corners I'll get put away, but I can write it here and you can pick it up on a street corner, or wherever, and I get paid -- what a life. Now that I think of it, maybe I got the metaphor from Butch Hancock's song, a song I heard him sing in a living room in Lubbock my first days in Texas, half my life ago, years before he recorded it: "If you were a raindrop, you'd be fallin' ..." "Just a raindrop in a storm." We come from somewhere we do not know, and we are bound for somewhere we do not know, and in between we're lit by lightning, and like the rain, every drop of rain, we are more alike than different, we are important yet forgotten, we are temporary yet needed, we are thirsted for. And life is a long leap through the wind.

And one morning this last August, in southern Utah ...

It had rained the night before: great flashes of lightning ricocheted over Monument Valley ... watching from the little town of Mexican Hat a few miles north, the smell of the rain so sweet in that vast and spectacular country which still has the feel of the ocean bottom that it was millions of years ago ... it wasn't a restful rain. I don't sleep much or well, never have, and so I woke in the dark, maybe an hour before dawn, dressed quietly without waking Hannah, and went and sat by the river.

The San Juan River makes a narrow gash through that part of the world, runs fast and muddy toward wherever it joins the Colorado ... you sit on the ledge of the rock and look at it about 30 feet below ... the storm had passed, there was a big moon, full or just a little less than full, and it made a clear bright rippling reflection on the swift black water below. Strange, and an unexpected privilege, to look down on the moon, a dreamlike moon for it was in motion, rippling yet still, and I could look down and see all its details, then look up and see that same moon frozen high in the night sky. A night of two moons.

And reality parted, a gateway opened up in the darkness, a gateway that would stay open longer than I thought a gateway could ...

I decided to sit and watch the river for however long it took for the dawn to come and the sky to brighten: I wanted to see the moment when the moon left the river, when the sky would be so bright that the black waters would take on color and blanch out the moon.

Most knowledge is temporary, and history seems to change everything faster and faster, but you can connect to all the Time that's past and all the Time that will come by entering a state of silence. Nothing mystic about it. If you can find a silence, or make your own silence in the midst of noise, it's the same silence that was there at the dawn of humankind and will be here when we're all gone. It is the only, or at least the most accessible, connective thread to everywhen and everywhere. And when you find it, it changes Time, or your sense of Time -- not so much slows it down as makes it malleable. Time becomes not something that's happening to you, but something you're made of and part of. That's why the sages say that meditation is not passive or still; it's a stillness full of movement, a stillness that moves with true Time and not clock-time, still as the reflection of the moon on the river, and moving like the moon on the river.

So I sat in that connective state, and waited.

The day before, in a little Utah town called Boulder, which is so remote that it was the very last town in America where the mail was still delivered by mule train ... in Boulder I'd seen hundreds of hummingbirds. Yes, hundreds. Hovering and darting over a swampy pond. When there are hundreds, they're a little frightening. There was a restaurant, tables on a porch, and hummingbird feeders hung on the porch, and the quick small birds darted around near our heads, and it took some getting used to. All that incredible movement ... that was like the silence by the river.

All the more like it was when there was not more light but just slightly less darkness, and the bats left their nests and darted, flashes of shadow, between me and the reflection of the moon below. And my little thoughts didn't seem like mine, they seemed they were darting here and there, hummingbirds and bats, leaving their nests and feeding ... my thoughts seemed to have little to do with me, until I thought of something my brother Aldo said:

"You and your life, intimate lovers but never friends."

He meant it as a general "you," but he said it to me, and it was more true than I wanted it to be, but maybe that was changing.

You come when a friend calls. I felt called and I was there, on this little perch of life. A little progress was being made. As though the reflection of the moon had dared me to catch the moment when it disappears. To teach me that you can't. Or I can't.

I never took my eyes off it. Once dawn truly started I really never took my eyes off it. Delicate shade by delicate shade, the sky took light. The cliffs of the river became their raw sienna. The river became its slightly bloody brown -- too brown to reflect sky or clouds, though now and then, in a temporary swirl or eddy, a cloud would appear and disappear like a white shadow. The moon's reflection had moved, of course, as the moon moved above, so the swath of river I concentrated on shifted slightly downstream, but I concentrated. And I thought I was still seeing it when I realized it was no longer there, and I hadn't seen it disappear, hadn't been aware of the moment.

It was still in my eyes when it was no longer on the river.

I laughed. I never felt better. The gateway hadn't closed!

But I gave no thought to what might happen because of that.

"You make the path by walking." So wrote the poet Antonio Machado.

Not two hours later, an hour's drive north, through the Valley of the Gods, a long indent in the land out of which jut rock formations like nothing anywhere else ... we were the first people that morning to drive into Natural Bridges National Monument. As we drove the narrow road to the viewing points we saw only one park ranger in a pickup. You go to a cliff edge and look into the gorge, and there a stream had somehow, millions of years ago, cut through the rocks to form them into arches, astounding structures. One is called by the Hopi word "Sipapu," which means "the place of emergence" -- the handout they give you at the gate tells you this means "an entryway [gateway!] by which the Hopi believe their ancestors came into this world."

North Americans have walked here for 9,000 years. Not in droves. Singly and in small bands. Now and again. Some painted their images of the divine on the rock. Europeans, living in what was then an immense forest, had to build their cathedrals; the tribes of the West had no need for that. Cathedral-like formations were everywhere they walked, everywhere they looked. How could anything built by human hands compete?

The rest of America was sweltering under a heatwave, but here in the morning it was cool, we wore jackets, we looked at the Natural Bridges in as perfect a silence as there is.

My wife, Hannah ... she's so many people ... I'm so many people ... often when we speak, only two or five of those people show up ... but all the others are beside them, present and demanding representation ... it's only when we're silent ... it's only when we become part of that connective tissue, silence, which connects everyone to all things ... it's only then that all those people make one circle and those two creatures we each call "I" stand together in the center of that circle ... and so, silent, with all our faces facing each other ... I heard music.

Not a symphony, not jazz, certainly not rock, or blues, or anything like that. The sweet tinkly music of a 19th-century music box. It's made of wood. It has a simple mechanism inside it. Mechanical, not digital. You open the box and it plays a simple, elegant song. A little corny. An "I'm just a raindrop in a storm" kind of song.

I heard a song as played on an old music box. I heard it as clear as anything.

"Hear that?" I asked Hannah.

She didn't. She asked what I was hearing and I told her.

I know I would not have heard it if I had not sat watching the reflection of the moon in the early hours. Gateways are like that.

We drove to another place to stare, in that silence, at another stone bridge.

I heard the music again. Clear as speech spoken close to your ear.

Again Hannah didn't hear it. She looked at me with some slight concern, but then she got what was going on, smiled and said: "God's such a tease." end story

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time, God, Monument Valley

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