Posts Tagged ‘atheist’

The Brick Wall

Monday, August 12th, 2019

the brick wall

An avowed atheist, James is sixty-seven and has lived in Seattle for fifty years. A fastidious dresser and vain of his appearance, James bristles whenever he hears the words spiritual, astrology, mystical, God, karma or anything suggesting life might be more than a purely mechanistic crapshoot.

James’s first marriage produced Andrew, forty two, a massage therapist. Andrew’s mother Claire divorced James when Andrew was five, and James didn’t see much of Andrew after the divorce until Andrew moved to nearby Vashon Island fifteen years ago. Thereafter James visited Andrew and his wife Cecily and their children Zeke and Maru several times a year until three years ago when James called Andrew the worst sort of idiot.

James was visiting Andrew and Cecily and Zeke and Maru at their house on Vashon Island, and Andrew was showing James the large labyrinth they created at the heart of their two-acre orchard and garden—the labyrinth’s path, based on the famous labyrinth at Chartres, delineated by large rocks and perennial herbs.

Andrew told James that since he began walking the winding path to the center of the labyrinth every day, he no longer suffered from the excruciating headaches that had plagued him since childhood. That was when James called Andrew the worst sort of idiot, after which Andrew decided to stop making an effort to connect with his father.

Three months into his second marriage, when James’s wife Rose was pregnant with Electra, who is now thirty-six, Rose told James she’d dreamt their child was a girl and believed the dream prophetic.

To which James responded, “You can’t be serious.”

“Of course I’m serious,” said Rose, frowning at him. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because,” said James, snarling at her, “anyone who believes a dream is prophetic is dangerously delusional. Prophecies are wishful-thinking nonsense.”

From that moment on, Rose no longer trusted James and they divorced when Electra was two. James has only seen Electra twice since then, both times for lunch when Electra came to Seattle for conferences having to do with dance therapy, a field in which she is well-known. Electra sends James a Christmas card every year, which prompts James to send her a check for five hundred dollars, which inevitably brings an effusive letter from Electra; and that is where James always ends the back-and-forth because he knows Electra is a Buddhist, which he considers a form of organized idiocy, and he doesn’t want to put himself in a position where he will feel compelled to tell Electra what he thinks of her religious affiliation.

After divorcing Rose, James did not marry again for thirty years, though he did have several short-lived entanglements, none of which produced children. He has been married to his current wife, Leslie, for eleven months. Leslie is fifty-eight and an ardent atheist. She delights in finding articles and videos that she and James categorize as spiritual balderdash; and until recently she would seek James out several times a day to share the latest proof she’d found of how incredibly ignorant and misguided most other people are.

Leslie and James married shortly after they both retired—Leslie an accountant, James a lawyer—and they are quite wealthy. They live in a large old house they bought in an upscale neighborhood in Seattle and have spent much of their brief marriage travelling around Europe celebrating the ends of the careers they never enjoyed. And everywhere they went in Europe, they visited cathedrals and temples and holy places they contemptuously referred to as relics of mass ignorance.

Sadly, since returning from Europe a month ago, James and Leslie have entered a new phase of their relationship, one in which they do not enjoy each other’s company and spend most of their time in separate rooms—Leslie smoking pot and drinking bourbon and playing online Scrabble, James drinking wine and watching brainy British games shows on YouTube.

At the height of their marital discord, James has a lucid dream in which an old man with long white hair and wearing a sackcloth robe tells James that there is an ancient doorway in the basement leading to a mystical labyrinth.

The morning after, James finds Leslie in the kitchen and says to her, “I had a vivid blast of brain gibberish last night. This old man, a kind of Socrates, said there’s a doorway in the basement leading to a labyrinth and…”

“Oh that’s just mental garbage,” says Leslie, making strong coffee to combat her hangover. “About your stupid son dumping you because you exposed the idiocy of his fantasy that his hippie dippy labyrinth was curing his headaches.”

James winces. “I wish you wouldn’t call Andrew stupid. You’ve never even met him.”

“You call him stupid all the time,” says Leslie, glaring at James. “And I haven’t met him because he doesn’t want to have anything to do with you because you called him an idiot for thinking his stupid labyrinth cured his headaches. I’m only quoting you, so if you don’t want me calling him stupid, you stop calling him stupid, though why you suddenly feel the need to defend a magical-thinking moron, I can’t imagine?”

“No, no, you’re right,” says James, nodding emphatically. “Delusional dreamer raised by his delusional mother.”

Which might have been the end of James thinking about his dream except he can’t resist doing what the old man in the dream told him to do, which is go down into the basement and examine the brick wall adjacent to the furnace, where, according to the old man, he will discern a continuous crack in the mortar of the bricks, a crack delineating the shape of a large door.

How the old man in James’s dream knew about this crack is an irritating mystery to James because he, James, knew nothing about a crack delineating a door. So how, James wonders, did that knowledge get into his brain to be translated into brain gibberish?

James had only been in the basement two times prior to having the dream, once when he and Leslie were considering buying the place, and once when he peeked in while a plumber was installing a new hot water heater. Neither time did he notice there was a brick wall adjacent to the furnace, but when he went down to see if the dream information might be true, he found there is a brick wall and there is a continuous crack in the mortar outlining what may or may not be a hidden door.

So now what? The old man in the dream said, “Remove the bricks and reveal the ancient door needing no key to open. Upon passing through this portal you will enter a mystical labyrinth guiding you to what you’ve been seeking your whole life.”

James wishes he could talk to someone about his dream, someone who could explain the meaning of the dream and why the dream was so incredibly vivid and real seeming. He doesn’t believe the dream could possibly be prophetic, though the door-delineating crack in the mortar is definitely there.

The truth is, James has no friends; and Leslie, he is certain, will think he’s a complete idiot for giving the dream a second thought, so…

James barely sleeps for the next two days, after which he and Leslie have a horrific screaming fight and she decides to go visit her mother in Palm Springs for a couple weeks. She packs four suitcases, which seems excessive to James, says she’ll be in touch, and takes a cab to the airport.

That night James falls into a sodden sleep that lasts until late morning when he has another dream in which the old white-haired man appears and says, “The labyrinth awaits you, James. The time is now. Remove the bricks and reveal the door.”

James wakes from the dream shaking with fright.

“What is this shit?” he growls, flinging back the covers and getting out of bed. “I don’t believe in this shit.”

He’s in the kitchen making a pot of coffee when the phone rings.

Thinking this must be Leslie calling to apologize for accusing him of being a heartless misanthrope, James picks up the phone and says gruffly, “Hello.”

“Hey Dad, it’s Andrew. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says, derisively. “Why do you ask? After three years of not talking to me.”

“I had a dream about you this morning,” says Andrew, speaking softly. “You were stuck somewhere. In a basement or a cave and I thought… maybe you needed help with something or…”

“You think your dream was real?” says James, gritting his teeth to keep from shouting.

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, pausing. “Maybe it was just my subconscious prodding me to call you. I’ve been thinking about you lately and…”

“About what a rotten asshole I am?”

“No, I was thinking about how I wish you could spend some time with the kids. Zeke is fourteen and Maru is twelve going on seventeen and… they ask about you all the time.”

“You still have that stupid labyrinth?” says James, unable to quell his vitriol.

“Yes, we still have the labyrinth,” says Andrew, sighing. “I won’t keep you any longer, Dad.”

“Wait, wait.” James clears his throat. “Um… there actually is something you could help me with.”

“What’s that?” asks Andrew, his voice full of kindness.

“Well… it’s funny you should mention a basement because I’ve got kind of a mystery going on in mine, and… maybe you could help me solve it.”

“Is it plumbing or…”

“No, it’s, uh… I think there might be a door behind the brick wall down there, and I’m… I… I’d like to find out.”

“Sounds fun,” says Andrew, laughing. “Can I bring the kids?”

“If you want,” says James, shrugging painfully. “Um… when would you like to come?”

“How about this afternoon? We’ll catch the next ferry and… maybe we could spend the night if you have room or…”

“Yeah, fine. We’ll get pizza or something.”

They stand before the brick wall in the basement—James, Andrew, Zeke, and Maru.

“What makes you think there’s a door behind there?” asks Zeke, his deep voice revealing traces of his mother’s British accent.

Zeke’s reddish brown hair falls to his broad shoulders and he is dressed similarly to his father and sister—a denim shirt and jeans and sneakers.

“The crack in the mortar,” says James, squinting at the bricks. “See it? Delineates the shape of a door.”

“Wow,” says Maru, nearly as tall as her brother, her blonde hair in a long braid. “How did you even see it?” She practically puts her nose on the bricks to study the crack. “You have great eyes, Grandpa.”

“I had a dream,” says James, his throat constricting, “in which an old man told me it was there. So I came and looked and there it was.”

“Really?” says Zeke, beaming at his grandfather. “That’s like Maru dreaming about going to visit the Andersons, which we never used to do, and they…” He looks at his sister. “You tell.”

“So in my dream,” says Maru, smiling rapturously at James, “I rode my bike over to Mrs. Anderson’s farm, though in real life Mrs. Anderson used to yell at us not to pick the blackberries on the road in front of her farm. But in my dream she invited me in for pie and said she wanted to give me a present, and when I told Mom the dream she said I should go over there in case the dream was prophetic even though I’ve always been afraid of Mrs. Anderson and they have this huge Black Lab who barks ferociously, but Zeke said he’d come with me, so we rode our bikes over there and their dog was totally friendly and Mrs. Anderson invited us in only she didn’t give us pie but tea and cookies and then she asked if we were looking for a puppy, which we were, and her dog had just had a litter and we got two of them. Tillie and Molly. Half-Labs, half-Golden Retrievers, and they’re the best dogs ever.”

“What a fortunate coincidence,” says James, forcing a smile.

“Just like the crack in the mortar,” says Zeke, tapping the brick wall. “A fortunate coincidence.”

“Why is the crack fortunate?” asks James, glowering at Zeke.

“Because it got you to invite us to come visit,” says Zeke, smiling at his grandfather. “Right?”

“I suggest,” says Andrew, winking at Zeke, “that we remove a few of these bricks, see if we find anything resembling a door, and if not, we put the bricks back. But if there is a door, we’ll remove the rest of the bricks. To that end, I’ve brought a ceramic-cutting blade for my saw, so if you will all now don your earplugs I’ll have a go at this.”

Earplugs inserted, James and Zeke and Maru stand back and watch Andrew expertly cut around a block of eight bricks that may or may not be concealing an ancient door.

The cut completed, Zeke and Maru wield chisels and hammers and pry bars, and a section of an old wooden door is revealed.

“That’s definitely a door,” says Andrew, nodding. “Shall we continue?”

“Wait,” says James, his heart aching. “How could it lead anywhere? The outer basement wall is only four feet away. Even if the door opens, there would just be a little gap and then we’d come to the wall. Right?”

“Unless there’s a stairway,” says Maru, nodding eagerly. “Leading down to a room full of treasure.”

“Did the old man in your dream say anything else?” asks Andrew, smiling quizzically at his father.

“Yes,” says James, feeling more vulnerable than he can ever remember feeling. “He said this was a doorway to a labyrinth.”

“Really?” says Andrew, arching his eyebrow. “Did he say if it was a stupid labyrinth or a smart labyrinth?”

“I’m sorry I said that to you,” says James, gazing earnestly at his son. “Will you forgive me?”

“I have,” says Andrew, nodding. “That’s why we’re here.”

“So shall we take away the rest of the bricks?” asks Maru, looking from her father to her grandfather. “See if we find a labyrinth?”

“He said it was a mystical labyrinth,” says James, smiling through his tears at his grandchildren. “Whatever that is.”

They remove the rest of the bricks and open the ancient door that needs no key, and sure enough there is a stairway descending into darkness.

So down they go, flashlights blazing.

fin

Into the Mystic

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

into mystic

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” Chief Seattle

On several occasions during the summer when I was twelve-years-old, I felt certain I was on the verge of understanding how everything fit together, and I do mean everything. I would find myself sitting or standing very still and feeling all the countless separate parts of reality coalescing and clicking together; and with every passing moment I would become more and more excited as the myriad fragments fell into place in relation to each other and in relation to the entirety of everything else. And I felt sure that if I could only hold still a few moments longer without being interrupted, the mystery of life, of the universe, would be solved for me, and ever after I would live in a state of blissful knowing. Yet every time I felt I was only a few seconds away from such a complete understanding, something would interrupt my reverie, and the exquisite construct of the totality of everything would collapse.

I could not, as far as I knew, intentionally precipitate such reveries, though I tried to do so many times that summer. I would go off into the woods far from other people and sit absolutely still for hours on end, hoping my stillness would incite the myriad separate parts to begin their coalescing, but that never happened. I did have marvelous experiences sitting so still in the woods, but those glorious occasions when I nearly grasped my own grand unified field theory only came unbidden and when there was a high probability of being interrupted.

One evening that summer, standing under an olive tree not far from our house, I was so certain the last piece of the vast puzzle was about to fall into place, I held my breath so as not to disturb the grand finale. But then my mother shouted, “Dinner’s ready!” and the miraculous vision shattered.

I was in a foul mood when I came inside to eat, which prompted my father to ask, “What’s wrong with you?”

Before I could think better of speaking about such things to my father, I tried to explain how close I had been to a moment of comprehensive understanding, to which my father replied, “That’s just infantile magical thinking. You might as well say you believe in God, and you know how ridiculous that is.”

I knew it was folly to say anything in response to my father when he got on his atheist soapbox, so I held my peace as he lectured me on the idiocy of my thinking and feeling. Little did I know that my father was a preview of the many people I would encounter in my life, and whom I continue to encounter, who consider my experiences of the mystical nature of life either hackneyed spiritual crap or delusional nonsense.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.” E.M. Forster

When I was fifteen, I made the B basketball team at Woodside High School, though I was not a starter. Indeed, on our twelve-man team, I was the twelfth ranked player and rarely got into a game. Every day, following an hour of exercises and drills and practicing plays, our starters would scrimmage against the second five, with I and the other third-string fellow subbing onto the second-string team.

One day our coach sent me into the scrimmage, and for reasons I have no plausible explanation for I was overtaken by a power transcendent of the usual power that animated me. Suddenly the other players, many of them taller and bigger than I, seemed small and weak and slow moving, and I moved among them like a speeding giant. Prior to that scrimmage I had never been able to leap high enough to touch the ten-foot-high rim, but on that day I could reach above the rim. I snatched rebounds away from our tallest players and scored with an ease that was, in today’s vernacular, sick. I shot from near and far, made dozens of shots without a miss, and so thoroughly dominated the game that even those starters who had previously looked down on me were full of praise for my playing.

After practice, our coach called me into his office, and when he was convinced I had not ingested some illegal substance, said he was going to put me into tomorrow’s game against Sequoia as a reward for my extraordinary play that day. I thanked him and spent a restless night anticipating my first chance to shine in a real basketball game.

True to his word, our coach put me into the game midway through the first half, and I immediately grabbed a rebound and took a shot. But when my shot missed the mark, our coach took me out and never played me again. I was disappointed, of course, by the brevity of my playing time, but I was also aware that whatever extraordinary power had possessed me the day before was entirely absent on the day of my debut. Nor did that power return to me again until the very last day of basketball practice that year.

To end the season on a dramatic and competitive note, the coach created six two-man teams and we had a tournament to determine which duo would be crowned champions. I was paired with the other lowest ranked player, and we were expected to lose to all the other teams. But that transcendent power came into me again and we demolished our opponents, including the team composed of our two star players. We won so easily, much to the chagrin of our coach, that the biggest star of our team gave me the ultimate compliment by saying, “What are you on, man? I want some.”

What was I on? Fools Crow, the revered Lakota holy man said (in the inspiring book Wisdom & Power) that there is an inexhaustible source of spiritual power ever present in universe, and that those who consciously or unconsciously empty themselves of ego may invite this spiritual power to work through them. Fools Crow said he used prayer and ritual to make of himself a hollow bone to be filled by this spiritual power with which he accomplished his healing work. And that’s what I think was going on those times when I played basketball so much better than I had ever played before; I was filled with spiritual power and became an instrument of the unfathomable universe.

 “There is nothing in the world that is not mysterious, but the mystery is more evident in certain things than in others: in the sea, in the eyes of the elders, in the color yellow and in music.” Jorge Luis Borges

One of my favorite stories about the Mbuti people of the Ituri rainforest in the Congo is that Christian missionaries found it almost impossible to convince the Mbuti to believe in, let alone worship, a punitive God because the Ituri forest, which the Mbuti believed to be the most important of all gods, provided them with such abundance and so obviously loved them. I think of this story whenever I encounter people who consider my belief in the mystical nature of existence to be hackneyed spiritual crap or self-delusion.

Yesterday, for instance, I began to write an email to a friend I hadn’t heard from in several months, and two sentences into my missive I received an email from that very friend. What made this seeming coincidence even more remarkable to me was that my two sentences were specific questions, and my friend’s email began with detailed answers to those specific questions. Is this proof of the mystical nature of existence or is it merely, as Buckminster Fuller suggested, that most of what goes on in Universe is inexplicable because we lack the technology to see or hear or measure most of what is going on in this and contiguous dimensions? Imagine what a surprise it must have been to discover radio waves? Who knew?

“Love is metaphysical gravity.” Buckminster Fuller

When I first moved to Mendocino, I would go to Big River Beach almost every day to marvel at my good fortune and celebrate having had the courage to make the move. One day I was sitting with my back against a big log and gazing out at the breakers, when into my mind came the face of a woman I hadn’t seen in twelve years, a woman I had been smitten with during my last year of living in Sacramento. Her name was Ida and she worked in a bakery and I had spoken to her a grand total of five times, three of those conversations consisting of Ida asking me, “What can I get you?” and my replying, “Two blackberry muffins, please.” The other conversations were a bit longer because I ordered coffee, too.

Which is to say, I didn’t really know Ida at all. But every time I saw her, I felt a powerful jolt of recognition and love, and I liked to think, whether it was true or not, that she felt a similar jolt.

In any case, I hadn’t had a conscious thought about her in over a decade, yet here I was on Big River Beach seeing her vividly in my mind’s eye and wondering what might have happened if only I’d had the courage to speak to her at greater length and perhaps ask her…

After a delightful little snooze, I packed up my knapsack and headed back to the parking lot, and just as I was about to walk under the Big River bridge, a little girl came running toward me, shrieking with delight as her mother pursued her, her mother being Ida.