“This world is but a canvas to our imagination”. Henry David Thoreau
I can imagine how taking credit for the eclipse worked for the Egyptian priests, back in the day, when they used such occasions to instill the fear of God. It would have worked on me. It would seem natural that someone who could turn the day into night should tell me what to do.
From the granite of the Tetons and the frozen lava of Idaho, I drifted down to the red rock of Utah and Arches National Park. My experience was still rooted in the power of the landscape. I remember touring some of the ancient stone circles in England. I have a book that points out that features of the landscape surrounding these circles of stones often resemble super-size human features, esp. a pregnant woman lying on her back or the dominant presence of a mountain. In Utah, the Hopi Indians considered these arches to be sacred, portals to spiritual dimensions.
I loved having these grand ideas, but I was brought down to earth on a regular basis. I left a window open while driving and lost a piece of the blinds; I left the step out again; I forgot to put the clock away. I had to get more gas. When I was backing out of the RV space in Moab, I clipped a faucet that was standing up in a corner, crushing the plastic cover for the dump hole. Fortunately, I didn’t damage the faucet. Literally another half an inch and I would have torn it out. As simple as my life was by that time, it still didn’t work to take anything for granted.
I was near the end of my circle of the northwest. After the rugby tournament in Aspen, I was going further south to see my brother in El Paso. Hiking around the arches for hours in the soft morning light, my thoughts became cloudy and my true intentions worked against each other when I thought about Jim. I had stifled how guilty I felt, deep down … I only knew how undeserving of success I felt at times. I had never been clear about that.
Jim is younger than me by four years. He was an emotional kid. I remember, when he was about six years old, he cried while watching an episode of ‘Wagon Train’ during which a young girl sang ‘Silent Night’. He was a brilliant actor in high school, winning all sorts of awards. While studying acting in junior college, he attended a summer ‘drama’ camp in Northern California. At the camp, he took acid. This was the Seventies. Everybody took acid. I had been taking it for a while, even playing in rugby tournaments. For me, the experience seemed to turn me right side up. For Jim, it went the other way. He appeared to slip over a mental edge.
He didn’t get around to furnishing his apartment that summer. Clothes strewn everywhere. He stopped showing up for classes. He lost his job. This was the time of the draft. Almost all my friends ended up in Vietnam. I thought that if Jim enlisted, he could avoid the war and get himself sorted out. I drove him to the recruiting office. After barely making it through boot camp at Fort Ord, Jim was assigned as a cook to a base in Germany. One night, as he was being pressured by a sergeant on an overnight shift, Jim lost his temper and unloaded on everyone. He was shipped back to Letterman hospital in San Francisco and diagnosed schizophrenic.
When I picked him at Letterman in 1976, his hands shook constantly from the effects of the Thorazine … which he stopped taking immediately. He found a job in Long Beach as a janitor and obtained a degree in Theater Arts from Long Beach State. He participated in Community Theater. After about three years, he lost his job and began to fall downhill. Eventually, my parents took him into their home in Costa Mesa. Unbelievably, my father would take him out and drink with him. One night, Jim apparently pulled a kitchen knife on my father, who was dangerously obnoxious when drunk. When he wandered into the neighbor’s house by accident, Jim was arrested for trespassing. My mother was afraid to take him back in the house, so he sat in county jail for a year. She was clearly in pain from the guilt, but felt she had no choice.
When Jim got out of jail, he made his way to El Paso. I think it was because he didn’t want to be a burden. He lived in downtown El Paso for 25 years, in an old apartment building with a roommate on the other side of the bathroom. He wrote letters every week and I visited every couple of years. He survived on Army disability pay. During every visit, I would point out that he needed to take of care of himself. Walk. Climb stairs. Exercise. He seemed not to have the heart for it. I watched diabetes gradually take hold of him, while he refused to go to the V.A. During his lost years, he had crashed his motorcycle and the handle bar had ripped into his stomach. They reversed his large intestine. He had, at another time, driven the bike off a cliff and broken his hip. He believed he couldn’t walk. In his mind, he was done. He had given up.
I would sit by his bed while he told me stories of imaginary encounters with old girlfriends and celebrities. In his mind, he is married. His wife was away. He didn’t care whether anyone believed him. He was bed-ridden and nearly blind when I saw him last. I had tried to get him to get to use a cd player, so I could send him books on tape. That didn’t work. When I asked him what he did with all the time, he said that he took trips in his imagination.
I had always wanted to do more, but sometimes an hour with Jim would drive me around the bend. I had brought him out to California to visit his sisters, back when he could walk. I didn’t have any money to help. I felt like a failure as a big brother. I was supposed to protect him. I had spent my whole life just looking out for myself, while my little brother’s life came apart. I could imagine how alone Jim must feel. I felt like such a jerk feeling so impatient with him.
As I illegally crunched my way over the surface ecosystem of the national park, looking for the right light, guilt streamed out of my heart and blossomed into the canyon around me. I was never a good person. I had stolen lunch money from the counter of the pie shop as a kid in Darwin. I cheated on homework at Dulwich College, where I felt I was in way over my head academically. I avoided the ‘O’ and ‘A’ level exams in England by going to California. I always took the easy way out. In my first marriage, I never really put Bonnie first. I was too busy being a rugby star. I didn’t finish the Master’s degree in Applied Behavioral Science because I was getting divorced. I never finished anything. I talked my second wife into marrying me, before she was ready, before she caught on to what a bastard I really am. I pressured her to have children and it turned out to be twins, really locking her in.
For years, as a manager at a Mercedes-Benz dealership, I took advantage of people, taking some of their money for my own. Looking back, it was like three-card monte. Consumers didn’t stand a chance. For most of my life, I have been able to see weakness in others quickly. A plus on the rugby field, but not so much in personal relations. It felt natural to take advantage. And, of course, back then I dealt with the guilt I could see by drinking every day.
I grew up taking short cuts, ignorant of any character lesson involved in doing a thing the right way. I had heard about it, I suppose, after all I was an English Lit. major in college, but I was busy surviving. It poured over me that I had not been a nice guy. I had been selfish beyond belief. Karma was going to crush me. I was a useless mess.
I saw how I had maneuvered and manipulated the world into a shape that I imagined would work for me. I didn’t trust it on its own. That shape was only in my mind. For years, I had been unwilling to let go of these secret beliefs. I did not deserve an easy world. If anyone saw who I really was, they would punish me and take everything away. If I let the world be, it would hurt me … or, at the very least, I myself would disappear. Every time I looked for my place in the world, I had to slog through this mess I had made of my identity. I had stopped looking after a while.
Wandering in those magnificent desert canyons, I disappeared into the grander scheme. Stripped of the history, there is an ‘I’, an identity, that we have in common with everything. I could not feel the Bigger I, but the vista took my breath away. There were no boundaries. I felt as if I were riding the edge of a wave that stretched out forever. All the power behind me. All the unknown in front. My regular senses were useless, since all they did was measure things, including me.
I was a spirit dressed in habits. I had to have routines to make sense of the world. I saw how the world took the shape it did because of me. Layers of identity that I had wrapped around me over the years fell away. There was no need for any more of that. I wasn’t competing for survival anymore. I wasn’t going to anywhere. I was coming from somewhere. A heaviness eased out of my body. Letting go of a layer left me in more doubt … just as I was afraid it would. This was how I was holding the world together. But mixed in with the uncertainty was the undeniable experience of relief.
In my advanced age, I had a sense that this was as good as it was going to get. Being a part of it all for a little while. The being that lay behind all the noise. Wanting to know that I am a part of it all the time will never happen, because I separate when I go to look.
It was as if my whole summer piled into those three days, hiking through the arches. There was a thrill to seeing who I really was, even though I had to struggle through such a mess to even catch a glimpse. I knew I wouldn’t remember the experience itself, but I would never forget how I thought about it afterwards. I grew up believing that I am the subject and the world is the object. I would always remember that moment when I absolutely knew that wasn’t true. For a time, I felt a part of it all … as if there were no further to look. I could see nothing that wasn’t me. I recall thinking that there were no words that would work … joy, treasure, destiny, bliss … words break experience into bits and pieces, not even coming close.
I had been in the landscape long enough to pull back the curtain of my individual history and see with unburdened eyes. I knew there was more, but it’s like trying to look at the back of your head. You need a mirror. The landscape had been that mirror for me.
As I watched the sun rise over the Salt Valley on the last day, I was filled with the unmistakable feeling that there was so much more that I did not know. My mind was open and there were no words. I had journeyed for a year, just to catch a glimpse. For a moment, just a moment … so fast there is no way to count … I saw why there was nowhere to go and nothing to have. My breath was the light and darkness and my soul was vibrating to the presence of the universe. I knew it wouldn’t last. That was life. But I was good to go for now.