How do we heal the paranoid, distrusting people in our lives (ourselves included)? Take my mother-in-law, an ardent anti-abortionist. Why do such storylines appeal to her? She watches crime shows. Her and my father-in-law love Jeopardy. She suffered a traumatic childhood. After her mother’s institutionalization, she was separated from her siblings and placed in an orphanage. These experiences live on, I suppose, informing her relationship to narrative. Let us spiral in “sound-star tetrahedrons,” as does Mei-Mei-Berssenbrugge in her poem “Singing” (A Treatise on Stars, p. 82). Let us visit the Santa Fe Institute. Berssenbrugge credits the latter with talk of “ETs, … coincidence, spirit molecules, time tunnels and quantum uncertainty” (88).
Peering at books I received as gifts on Christmas morning, I happen upon A Treatise on Stars, a new collection by poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Sarah brings word of a friend’s new novel dedicated to our daughter Frances. This same friend authored a book I’ve taught — one I plan to teach again this spring. Time to think about stars and cosmologies. Stars appear in the Berssenbrugge book, as they do in the new Star Wars series The Mandalorian, a show we watch with family. My nephews received a talking Baby Yoda doll for Christmas. Together let us explore together systems of stars. Establish communication among spinning galaxies across the distances of space and time. Listen to each star as it sings.
What happens to those initiated into a world of magic, made to embark upon a path or journey by way of psychedelics? More specifically, what happens when this process begins in absence of teachers and institutional containers — when shamans and rituals, in other words, are not part of the initiate’s lifeworld, the initiate stripped of these on account of having rejected the religion of his ancestors in his youth? The search for a new framework becomes part of the initiate’s quest, does it not? One doesn’t even know at first that the process has begun. Advice arrives, though, as one asks around. One learns from fellow heads. Elders pass along teachings by book, by song, by word of mouth. Writings appear on walls, counseling one to pray and meditate. Days fill with makeshift, self-invented rituals — practices adapted to local conditions in the course of one’s travels. We become weird ones — lonely experimentalists sitting Indian-style in the dark. Are our adaptations legitimate ones, or are they products, as René Guénon warns, “of a merely individual caprice” (Perspectives on Initiation, p. 4)? Guénon would call those about whom I speak “mystics” rather than “initiates.” “In the case of mysticism,” he writes, “one never knows just where one is headed” (8). For Guénon, “the mystical path differs from the initiatic path in all its essential characteristics, which difference is such as to render the two truly incompatible” (9). Given subsequent right-wing uses of Guénon’s philosophy by monsters like Steve Bannon, however, we must take care not to place too much stock in this distinction.
As I wander again through the woods, the ground now covered in an inch or more of snow, I reflect upon the brief history of gardens recounted by Federico Campagna in his book Technic and Magic. The root of “paradise” arrives into Greek and Roman thought by way of ancient Persian gardens. “A Persian garden,” writes Campagna, “was a Paradeisos, to follow Xenophon’s first Greek transliteration of the original Persian term Pairidaeza” (175). For ancients, gardens functioned as living pictures of the cosmos. “This same structure surfaced again in Italy at the time of the Renaissance,” he adds, “when gardens were designed as miniature cosmoi (plural of cosmos, the universe)” (176). Let this history be a guide for our garden-making in the year ahead.
Wandering through woods, I come upon graffiti’d bits of plywood, old tires stacked into a makeshift tower, 4x4s nailed to trees. The air is cold today. A nor’easter is coming. Geese honk loudly in the air overhead. A trail in the woods leads to a field of grass and the rear of a Wegmans. I stand at the edge of the green and stare coldly at the horizon. Along it run the signs of the settlement. Cars, trucks, school buses, buildings, church spires, streetlights, power lines. American flags wave atop flagpoles — but atop power lines sit rows of birds. And with them comes the snow.
I’ve been angry for some time. I was angry even as a kid. Can a person work on that? Can I? And if so, how? Sarah thinks I should seek help. But of what sort? I have trust issues. I’m wary of institutions: parties, societies, covens, priesthoods. How do I develop trust both in myself and in others?
Sarah retrieves my grandmother’s bracelets from a storage bin. Large colored plastics — the “costume jewelry” equivalent of the donuts from our daughter Frankie’s Fisher-Price donut toys. Frankie plays with these bracelets that belonged to my Nani. She holds them, admires them one by one. The persistence of Nani’s spirit in our lives gives me joy. A friend calls these final weeks of each semester “grading jail,” days busied reading students’ essays and assigning final grades. If it’s a sentence, let us bear it lightly. Such has been my motto. “Grade fairly and kindly, as would a ‘sharer’ — so that we may enjoy our well-earned break.” The break, of course, is not truly a break. One continues to work, plotting the semester ahead. And perhaps, too, beyond that, a new course for next school-year, on “portal fantasies” and magic. A former student who majored in game design complains that Cyberpunk 2077 was released too soon. “Despite seven years in production, and ‘patches’ to improve textures,” say the players, “the game is a disappointment.” “Well okay then,” replies my alias, the “Uncle Matt” character from Fraggle Rock. “By alternate paths,” he says, “we’ve arrived to an agreement. Shitty cyberpunk is what capitalist realism gets us. Let us try our hand, then, at something else.” I imagine that means authoring a program or script other than the capitalist-realist one we’ve been given. At the very least it means “shaping change,” as Lauren Oya Olamina counsels in her Earthseed religion’s “Books of the Living.” Weave fate toward a near-future other than the ones imagined by the cyberpunks.
When I step outside after dark to sit on my front porch, I feel aware, suddenly, of my glasses. Sarah hung a pretty wreath with Christmas lights. Neighbors’ lights can be seen beyond the trees. Indoors afterwards, Sarah and I improvise, jam for a few moments with toy instruments. Piano and tambourine. Sarah and Frankie watch bits of Frosty the Snowman on Sarah’s iphone. Flash cards send me off thinking about the Tarot. The Alethiometer in His Dark Materials delivers symbols in response to questions posed by the show’s heroine, Lyra Belacqua. Tarot spreads can be read similarly. Let us trust these spreads for clues.
We’re seeking new practices, and a proper space in which to meditate, as churches and temples were for our ancestors. My grandmother prayed before statues. She built a stone grotto with a statue of Mary, and across from it a stone bench on which to sit, in a corner of her backyard. Hers was a magical world full of prayer beads, statues, jewelry, and shrines. She attended Catholic masses. I wish to honor her memory by creating a sanctum of some sort — a space akin to the meditation room at my previous home. I should try sitting in the loft above the garage, or outdoors, or in the sun room. Either that or I’ll just continue to recite mantras and prayers silently in bed each morning (as I have each morning since the move). Perhaps I should read some Thomas Merton. Or just observe His Dark Materials, with its magical, pluriversal cosmology mapped out Game of Thrones-style in its opening credits.
Esoteric speech, says Federico Campagna, is speech among friends. Campagna is a brilliant Sicilian anarchist philosopher. He’s the author of Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality. Campagna’s thought explores world-making. We make worlds voluntarily with others, he says. These are anarchist cells. Campagna’s thought draws upon Platonism and Neoplatonism, Heidegger, anarchists like Max Stirner and Colin Ward, mystics like Simone Weil and Henry Corbin, Iranian Islamic philosophers of the 12th century. And somehow Campagna is now himself a Catholic, as he declared on a recent podcast. His next book, slated for publication early next year, is called Prophetic Culture: Recreation for Adolescents. By speaking esoterically, we admit other dimensions of reality — parts that can’t be spoken given the language we speak. Descriptive language alone is not enough. Make of speech instead an event, a happening, like multidimensional correspondence chess. Build a device — equal parts database, memex, and volvelle, inspired by Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass and Ted Nelson’s Xanadu.