I hope to sit at a wheel and spin, “throw,” practice the art of pottery. One can take classes in town. It’s as simple as enrolling in a beginner’s workshop, as has a friend. Otherwise I read M.C. Richards’s thoughts on pottery as a craft, her descriptions of her work as a potter in her book Centering, and I think Ghost (1990), a romance starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. Swayze’s ghost and his former lover achieve erotic paranormal union round a wheel, hands wet with clay. ‘Tis the most memorable scene in “one of the most memorable romantic films ever,” “winner of two Academy Awards,” etc. I was maybe 12 years old when I first encountered the scene — and already at 12, I was a sucker for ghostly romances. (Hence another of the films I liked in those years: The Heavenly Kid.) Those are what came first to my adolescent consciousness. Audio-visual tone poems visited upon me in my youth. From them I came to know desire as a longing across distance. “A passion of the lonely soul,” as a character says in Arthur Machen’s story “The White People.” A thing one suffers as a ghost. Years later I would hear the cost of this in “Catholic Block,” and in the mmms and bells of Russell Atkins’s “Night and a Distant Church.” Can I trust myself to let go and have fun? “When a body is filled with stresses, the nervous system is so busy handling them that its potential for attaining higher states of consciousness is very limited,” writes Itzhak Bentov in Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the Mechanics of Consciousness. Through meditation, however, we can self-stimulate pleasure centers and calm our way toward joy.
Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.
Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By means of it — in God’s ear—
If then He hear
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer—
“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.
“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”
I used to think that others I met were wise witches and wizards welcoming me and guiding me, everyone and everything a potential teacher. I was a gnostic initiate on the threshold of a newly re-enchanted cosmos. At some point prior, an event had occurred that changed me, my sense of time and space altered. Pot restored some prior magical conception of reality that I’d been made to hide or repress — even as it also opened me to new modes of experience. I had become fearful in certain ways during my schooling. I’d developed emotional and psychological armor, shutting myself off from awe, desire, love, pain, hope — so as to just endure amid fear of bullying. It happened early in my childhood. A neighbor down the street used to push me. I was bullied and betrayed. This kid was my “best friend” at the time. Yet he pushed me around. He hurt me. That pattern of bullying and abuse continued, repeating itself in middle school and high school and beyond. These events turned me inward. I became like a turtle withdrawn into its shell. Pot got me out of that pattern. It helped me peek my head out of the Cave, like the dude who escapes in Plato’s allegory. I started to think of myself in terms of that character: the freed prisoner, the one whose head pierces the veil. At the end of the high (which can also be an ascent, a flight north), the hero returns again to the cave to free the others. The myth is restaged countless times; it can be transhistorical, like Christ’s harrowing of Hell, or historically specific, like Harriet Tubman’s many journeys to the South. The myth can be told as part of one’s past or one’s future. Millions of people relate to this tale in one or another of its many retellings. What about today? Is this still the narrative with which I fashion myself? I’ve become more discerning than that, have I not? In my encounters with witches and wizards, I study statements and practices. I listen for clues. If it seems like a person or group is trying to trick me or manipulate me, I bounce.
The verb I’m searching for to name the act I wish to practice is close to, but not quite synonymous with, “to occupy” or “to establish,” but it entails as well something like “settling in,” allowing oneself time to sit, lean back, hold space, find comfort. Of course, even this is sometimes more than our powers permit — in which case, look around, take note. Writing can occur anywhere, as long as we relax and let it. Close eyes, listen. Where do we go: figures stretching? Lying on one’s back watching TV as a child? Or maybe sitting at a computer playing a videogame, one’s avatar moving through an imaginary neighborhood on one’s Commodore 64. Computers entered my life offering generationally-novel, semi-private play space: bulletin boards, text adventures, programs stored on floppy disks. My parents weren’t able to keep up with my forays into virtual environments; they were busy working, cooking, cleaning. I could wander off unsupervised, sometimes for several hours at a time, playing peculiarities like Ghetto Blaster, where I’d speed along a maze of streets collecting cassette tapes while dodging psycho killers and junkies.
(It’s a remarkable game, well worth a walkthrough, even if just to hear chiptune originals like “Macrobiotic Brown Rice Lentil Blues,” or the moment when, like a forlorn Werner Herzog, the player narrating the walkthrough mutters, “Don’t know where to go. Ah, that’s the trouble with time. Give 25 years and you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be doing.”) Why do moments of uncensored thought lead me here? Why do images of this sort arise into consciousness when I seek to enter an enlightened state? Perhaps these images are ones I need to consult when learning to face my shadows. Simons and Chabris awaken me with their Selective Attention Test. Back to the task at hand.
For the past few days, I’ve felt an urge to “do things around the house” after smoking. This is somewhat out of character for me. I’m not a “messy” person, per se — at least not in a way that ever bothered me. But I’ve over-corrected, maybe, steered closer to messy than was necessary. It’s long been known among my family and siblings that my father is a bit of a “clean” freak, cleaning his house daily as if by ritual. As a teenager, this ritual seemed to be an absurd or at least wildly exasperating “event” always going on around me — and never with any tasks that I could perform sufficiently, in light of his exacting, idiosyncratic standards. We used to get in each other’s way a bit as a result. I’d be watching TV with friends after school and he’d force us all out of the room so he could vacuum. Once I moved out and we were no longer living under the same roof, we were able to laugh and joke about it. But when I was a teenager, it drove me nuts. A friend’s parents had a sign hanging in the living room of their home stating, “A clean house is a sign of a life misspent.” Something of that sentiment was agreed to by Sarah and I, and as a modus operandi, it’s worked well for us. As I prepare to become a father myself, however, I find myself asking the old questions anew.
I lived in a world of imaginary friends when I was a kid. Yet when I try to visualize these friends, especially the ones I called Mr. Spaso and Goo Goo, nothing comes to mind. What I recall instead is a frightening encounter I once had with a life-sized stuffed scarecrow that I mistook for my grandfather. The scarecrow sat in a wooden chair in my grandmother’s doll room. The room was dimly lit, tucked away in a part of the house rarely frequented by others. Happening upon it one afternoon, I peppered the scarecrow with questions, addressing it as if it were my grandfather. There was something about the creature’s nose that reminded me of his. When the figure didn’t respond, understanding dawned and I freaked. Why did this realization, the discovery that I’d been speaking with an inanimate object, fill me with shock and horror? Why do I remember that and not Spaso and Goo Goo? (What’s the best way of trance-scribing that name, by the way? Spaso? Spotso?) What was the story there? Why do kids sometimes go through an “imaginary friends” phase? Western societies demand that a distinction be drawn. They teach us to shape attention, fixing it for the most part upon socially shared, spatiotemporal objects, entities, and beings. Boundaries are established, perceptions and preferences trained to what others teach us to recognize as “actuality,” responsive presence, a multiple, additive-and-subtractive, evolving, de-concealing, totality-containing, self-consistent Big Other, from which can be recognized and distinguished other possible and impossible worlds. With my imaginary friends, I remember only conversing about them with others, requesting that my parents allow seats for them at the kitchen table. Was there ever a phantasmatic side to these friends? Did I ever imagine them possessing form beyond language, form that I’ve since forgotten? Or did I think of them exclusively as inventions, made only for the sake of a game? Case shelved for the time being, pending further inquiry.
Consciousness and material existence meet one another, with the former forced by the latter to squander itself in a labyrinthine game of defense. I find myself unable in these dark political times to muster much by way of public utterances. My days are spent skittishly contemplating a mute, dumb, unexplorable social universe. I have no time in my life for sustained projects of unstructured exploration and play — not to mention study. All is just dull daily labor for survival. I long to become flush with excitement and joy, life feeding me meaningful communication. Signals to amass and weigh. I long to find joy again in exertion. I wish to perform comfortably, admirably and with talent, filled with confidence regarding my power to triumph and profit enormously from my tremendous good fortune. Sing this aristocrat’s lullaby and thou shalt become one with the good son, the true man. Allegories whispered to us by ISAs during our childhood. The deep “truths,” expressed in mythic or religious language. The thou shalts. The commandments. What forms of parenting, what forms of education, exist without these? What can we do as communists to invent joy in this world? Heaven, now — beginning in the mirror stage, the astral plane. The self speaks to itself and is spoken to, after all, only ever through the mediation of its mirror.
A gradual softening or loosening occurs as subjects slip free of programming. But it is as if in doing so, we become possessed. Drink tea with loved one while meditating in yoga pose, we tell ourselves. Receive galaxies of information incomprehensible to linear minds. The self imagines at this point absent causes known only through their effects. Fears set in, assault us from all sides. Magic utilizes symbols to reprogram consciousness. We become game-makers, risk-takers, driven toward an unknown end. “Unknown” bothers me, however, so I imagine several potential endings. Apex-of-pyramid gnosis. Transcendence of what the show will mean and how it will be structured. Capitalist modernity’s decay. The self-discipline needed to abide by self-chosen ethical norms. In other respects, though, existing identities will no longer anchor Being. But worry not, friends. As Roland Kirk says, “It won’t get any lighter.” Hoo-whee, let’s hear it. Volunteered Slavery, folks. I gas it, I accelerate, I lay betwixt floor speakers and roll with it.
Kirk smoked so much beforehand, he says, he came out onstage blind at the Newport Jazz Festival during the live performance on the B-side. Unearthly Looney Tunes-style cartoon violence. Nose flutes, whistles, the works. Next we join the Explorer Series for Golden Rain’s hardcore Balinese Gamelan proto-techno.
White walls, guillotines. An elephant mask melts into a DayGlo torso. Around this time, a friend texts and he and I reflect on our religious upbringings — his more “Cold War action movie,” mine more “death by boredom.” The true Utopia, I tell him, was too close at hand to believe in cloudy realms full of angelic nuns. I always wanted to squirm from my pew and head outside to play, hang around, seek light with other kids. My policy, from an early age, was to tune out the adults and ignore all their death-obsessed bullshit. I came to distrust, and later, to scorn the other congregants. But I loved the architecture, organs on occasion transported me to other worlds, and I loved silent prayer. And I more or less remain that person today.
My levels of awareness and self-awareness fluctuate, just as consciousness reforms depending on pronouns and word order. As a dog barks, my mother calls my name, shouts “Come home, dinner’s ready!” I’m down at the end of the block, venturing into the unknown, trying to suppress fear. What am I afraid of? Those are the kinds of archetypal scenarios that I encounter on occasion when stoned. Some endlessly replayable memoryless emotion. I imagined my neighbor, the rarely-seen Mr. Belcher, as one who would point a shotgun at me if I trespassed on his property. The world thus ended, forming a false totality, for beyond it lay lands unknown, lands weird enough to warrant as their soundtrack David Bowie’s “Subterraneans.”
A psychic separation occurred there, a forced compartmentalization of consciousness. When we shift to a lower level, we forget who we were before. What remains is hidden, stunted, disconnected. To confuse the issue, remarks Curle, “the visions of mystics frequently resemble the visions of psychotics” (21). I stare ponderously, try to reestablish the sense of things. I find pleasure in this mental exercise. Pig stands alongside the road staring me down with his speed-gun directed at my face. We are made to accept such behavior with nary a complaint in this backward country, as we must the billboards strewn along the highways advertising firearms as Christmas gifts. I took comfort, dislocating myself from the above, by listening to Neil Young’s “On the Beach” while driving to visit friends yesterday. But the universe fired back with “Frightened” by The Fall. Such is our present reality.
“Stop! You’re embarrassing me!” says the exasperated mall-inhabiting eighties teenager to his mother. “Ma, get away from me!” There were just these ludicrous situations. She was like a little kid, dancing to the radio in her punch buggy blue Volkswagen Beetle. Always with the perm and the giant sunglasses. I miss those early years of childhood; I remember much of it with great fondness. I loved strolling invisibly back then through bits of the visible world. Others probably think of me as one who dwells too much in the past — stiflingly so. Keep tossing, a voice advises, until you get to one you know. There used to be a thing called leisure-time — though it was never entirely free of fears of bombs and missiles. How foolish it now seems to have believed in theological niceties like “progress.” Whereas now, things that matter are being gunned down by police, pulled out from under me. I fixate on grievances, I harbor grudges. Like, permanent 24/7 hex against those who delete my comments — that’s right, my evil eye is trained on YOU, motherfucker. Good for a minute, next bit. You’re done. And like, my dog, who pees on the hardwood floor just to spite me. There was once a time when words had meaning. I lived in their midst. The best medicine, though, is to “relax and let go.” Dance a bit, loosen limbs and neck muscles, allow oneself to be drawn upward toward reconciliation with the dog. When I see her lying in bed, I feel panic: what if she’s given up, what if I’ve lost her? I also learn about “chemical poetics” and studies of trip report literature.