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.”
“Put a lemon on it” is the first of several words received as I sit eyes closed beside a pool. Words overheard, duly noted, to be reimagined in the evening hours as dream material and as a step in a recipe for pasta with broccoli. There has been a desire of late, some chakra lighting up all that is. I play it records, feed it the exalted public speech of Odetta at Carnegie Hall.
A kind of love is organizing all things, Amens everywhere “all over this land.” That’s what Leary thought, isn’t it? “The history of our research on the psychedelic experience,” he writes, “is the story of how we learned how to pray” (High Priest, p. 171). Let us include among the characters in this story IFIF medical director Madison Presnell. A photograph of Presnell appears in the April 16, 1963 issue of Life magazine. A photographer with the magazine accompanies Cambridge, MA housewife Barbara Dunlap on her first acid trip. Presnell administers the drug. The caption for the final photograph in the series reads, “Dunlap smokes a cigarette while seeing visions in the seeds of a lemon.”
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.