|Ithuriel's Spears after Rain|
The five senses register stimuli, translating the energy fields surrounding the body (itself an energy field composed of particles in space that form the cells of the body based on DNA, ultimately creating consciousness through the central nervous system--or is the body only a vehicle for consciousness?) into a consistent and believable "reality." The mind, I thought as several huge drops of rain splattered on the windshield, filters out information not essential for survival, such as a dead dog next to the curb or an angel hovering above the street, the brain focusing usually on what poses the greatest threat, such as red lights blinking on and off. The mind has the amazing ability to construct levels of meaning simultaneously, I noted; for instance, I was feeling a slight sense of loss as I was wasting time in my car waiting for the train to pass with vehicles packed together all around me, the signal clanging. My car would be unable to move until something happened to raise the arm and the traffic inched forward, so my brain, I realized, was also registering that I was trapped. Three minutes and still no train. The social contract requires that I remain in my car so that everyone else will be able to move forward if and when the arm finally lifts. Even with this miraculous vehicle of consciousness, I have never been able to establish continuity in my life, I thought, as rain plastered the windshield and suddenly I heard a sound like gravel hitting the car. Still no train. White insects hopping in the grass. Hail.
I could see an arm lifting in the car ahead of me. I glanced at the watch on his wrist. Could it already have been four minutes, I wondered, as the striped arm, orange and white, swayed a little, pounded by hail and rain, the beat of the song on the radio suddenly stronger. Great, I thought to myself, I am sitting in a car feeling trapped, deconstructing the meaning of the social contract during a mechanical malfunction which is paralyzing more and more cars by the minute, unable to construct lasting meaning in my life, and here I am one energy field out of uncountable energy fields composed of particles whirling in infinite space, all connected on one plane of being, perhaps part of one infinite creation composed of infinite planes of being, each with innumerable energy fields that, as this particular being in this particular form, I will never know. I'm pretty sure, though, I thought, that I'll never create lasting meaning.
|Ithuriel's Spears, Chinese Houses, Tarweed|
The students in my alternative education class had never heard of a social contract (and probably never would). In fact, they seemed to despise anyone who attempted to provide structure for them. They had been expelled for bringing weapons to school, for lighting plastic toilet seats on fire with lighter fluid, for threatening to kill themselves with sharp objects in the classroom, for threatening to kill others, for saying the "f-word" an unacceptable number of times, for calling the principal a faggot. All of that was just the tip of the iceberg. One of them came to school with bruises on her face; one of them, eleven years old, didn't want to sit alone with a male psychologist because he might rape her (the most obvious case of child abuse he had seen in twenty years); one of them threatened to shoot up another student's house until he killed her mother; one of them talked nonstop about being a gangster when he grew up, despite numerous warnings from teachers and administrators; another flipped other students off or mouthed the "f-word" constantly when he thought the teacher wasn't looking, creating an uproar whenever possible. This was their “Opportunity” (as in "last") to show they could behave in a classroom. The previous teacher had quit for health reasons; according to the aide the previous teacher claimed his heart would start fluttering whenever he entered the room.
I had been called to take over that class for one day and had ended up in that classroom for eight weeks. I will never be anything but a professional substitute who takes over desperate situations all the time, I thought. I listed the assignments in my head, one where a teacher had been suspended for screaming and cursing at the children, two where the teachers were on medical leave, unable to stand the stress anymore, one where the teacher (a nice, dedicated young lady) had quit because of death threats. In the past year alone, I had ended up in four classrooms where the teachers, some of whom had been teaching many years, had been blown out of the water. I was the babysitter until the administrators could find someone else who could tolerate the aberrant behavior of the students on a more permanent basis. Honestly, I thought to myself, I don't think I could do it either, not day after day for a whole year, for a lifetime, not without blowing my brains out or strangling one of the kids or having a heart attack, at least not in any of the public schools south of Bullard (an area encompassing two-thirds of the city).
|Chinese Houses, Tarweed|
I grimaced and then looked around. As far as I could tell none of the other energy fields in the cars surrounding me could tell what I was feeling, thank goodness. Each energy field, no matter what it is composed of, is trapped by the limitations of the moment. Some traps, of course, are a lot nicer than others. I was experiencing irregular heartbeats again as well as a slight shortness of breath. A doctor had never diagnosed me since I couldn't afford to go to the doctor, but I knew the palpitations meant I was dying, very slowly, of celiac disease. My digestive system had been ravaged by gluten so much that my heart was going haywire. Of course, if I managed to stop eating gluten completely, there was a chance that I could live another twenty or thirty years. I looked at my watch again, realizing that I'd also spent much of my life afraid that I was dying, another perk of celiac disease, but now I was about eighty percent sure that all those particles, trillions of them probably, that formed what I called me and everyone else called Jim, or Dad, or sweetie, or Mr. Robbins, were soon going to dissolve and form something else, the earth and the air and the water. I wasn't really afraid, just amazed that I was going to disappear and/or change into other forms of energy, mildly amazed that I was a collection of whirling particles forming an energy field aware of its own imminent destruction and transformation.
The signal was still clanging away like crazy. You're being pretty damned cerebral about your own extinction, I thought. Just wait until you're heart stops beating, and you can't deny any more that you're dying, the universe completely indifferent, and you truly have to face that you might disappear into oblivion, aware of nothing, unaware even of experiencing nothingness. How cerebral are you going to be then? I was testing myself to see if I could make myself feel afraid. Well, if I was dying, I would just cross that bridge when I got to it (the right cliche in a clutch...), just like I had dealt with everything else over which I had no control, which had the ultimate effect of leaving me exhausted, unafraid of nothingness, at least when I didn't really have to face It. Sometimes, deep down, even though I have had numerous experiences with spirits, I still fear that there is only nothingness after death.
The traffic was backed up all the way to the intersection. A few above-average people closest to the intersection backed out when the light was in their favor, but someone else soon took their place. Nine minutes and still no train. The music from my radio, hopelessly juvenile, banged away, stirring up more feelings of sadness tinged with longing. Ten, fifteen, maybe even twenty percent of my life since I had become a teenager, I'd spent listening to one ludicrous song after another, all manufacturing some emotion. Those songs at one point had been my religion. How many songs really meant anything to me now? I could think of only one or two. The vast majority of it was cheap sound contrived to stir up my chemistry so that I would rush out and crack open my wallet.
|Ithuriel's Spears, Fairy Lanterns, Tarweed|
Everything affects your chemistry, whether or not you're aware of it, I thought. For instance, the only reason you feel slightly lost could be due to the fact that you accidentally ate foods containing gluten, and you are simply having a reaction. I tried to imagine the process of chemicals interacting with each other to create an emotional response, the food digested in the stomach and entering the bloodstream as energy, ultimately reaching the brain and affecting the centers of emotion, but I couldn't picture in my mind how chemicals affected emotional states, a failure of imagination, no doubt. I would occasionally eat foods that gave me a reaction and I became severely depressed and could barely function, and everyone thought I was just depressed, which I took as a euphemism for "weak." People could understand the positive and negative effects of drugs and alcohol but couldn't believe that I could have an adverse reaction to basic foods such as wheat, barley, rye, milk and eggs. I suddenly noticed that I had been staring out the window a long time, for how long I couldn't say.
Twelve minutes. Absurd, I thought. If it weren't still pouring rain, I would get out of my car and organize a retreat from the railroad tracks and establish a detour and have someone call the city about the malfunction. Though usually reticent, I often felt an overwhelming urge to organize people to fix a problem, another reason for my downfall. I had pissed off powerful people for years, which was one reason I had remained a professional substitute even though I had obtained a master's degree, or at least that was my rationalization. What caused me to feel this need to organize the world around me, I wondered, even to the degree that the desire could end up ruining me financially, even destroying me personally if I were too effective as an activist? Not a very effective strategy on an evolutionary scale, at least not for me as an individual, though perhaps yes for the species as a whole since my sacrifice might end up benefiting the community. I decided to let someone else organize the party this time, however. I wasn't heading anywhere.
I shifted my attention to the sky. In the distance, the clouds were breaking up, revealing blue sky beyond while rain fell in sunlight. I turned and noticed a rainbow in the distance. At that moment, I failed to understand the purpose of beauty. I was failing to understand a lot within the past few minutes, I realized, yet my failure at that moment made little difference. I was digging the smell and the sound of the rain, the sunlight jeweling the raindrops, the signal clanging over and over for no reason.
I suddenly remembered sitting in a boat on Huntington Lake, the water black, still two-thirds night and freezing. My father was with me; I couldn't, however, picture my father, only the aluminum boat and the black water and the huge pine trees surrounding the lake. I didn't like the idea of killing fish, of reeling them in with a hook in their mouth or their throat, and leaving them in the bottom of the boat to die slowly with their gills fluttering. I didn't want to be there surrounded by the chilling darkness in a cold aluminum boat, but I didn’t complain because I wanted to be with a man I would never know, who pulled the chord to start the motor. That's all I remembered, just a few moments until I turned and gazed into the black water, even though my father died six months later.
|Madia, Fairy Lanterns|
How long were we all going to wait here? We all have too much faith. In technology, in the government, in our fellow man, in our own beliefs, in whatever keeps the world working, I thought. We all just keep doing it, whatever It is, going to our jobs and back to our houses day after day believing that our world will remain the same, that our nuclear arsenals are not going to vaporize us, that the population explosion is not going to suck up every last resource, that the web of life is not being irrevocably ripped apart, that our pollution is not going to heat up the planet or poison us out of existence, that we're not going to die today or tomorrow or ever, that we will survive even our own deaths with every bit of the spirit, or whatever you want to call the consciousness, intact. We just have too much goddamned faith, I thought.
The radio played "Stuck in Lodi Again" while I sang along: "Stuck on Clinton Again." Too many things had happened to me on Clinton to be a coincidence, as if some greater force had decided that the avenue would be a major conduit of memory and meaning, the road taking on another layer of significance every time I traveled it. My first job as a substitute, I remembered, had been at a school on Clinton, a classroom of incorrigible children--after my stint as the director of a non-profit environmental organization in an office that also had been located on Clinton. The Gulf War had begun while I was canvassing on Clinton. When I was in high school, I had kicked off a relationship with someone in a car on Clinton. People were being murdered in El Salvador and Nicaragua by death squads as I traveled, completely oblivious to the fact, up and down Clinton. While I was growing up, riding my bicycle down Clinton, people were dying in Southeast Asia because of a police action, millions ultimately. Twenty years after the Vietnam War, a Hmong child was shot down in a parking lot next to an Italian restaurant on Clinton--ten years after I had worked there at the restaurant as a pizza deliverer. Of course, I hadn't thought at all about millions of people dying in conflicts caused or supported by my own government while I was pedaling my bicycle or driving my car or eating or making out or working in restaurants on Clinton. Two of my own families had lived near Clinton, struggling together for several years before breaking up. It was a street like any other, except that I, Jim Robbins, had layered it with meaning. Layers of meaning creating continuity. I closed my eyes and relaxed deeply.
I found himself at the edge of the galaxy, gazing at the beautiful, cold disk floating in empty black space, totally removed from all human striving, understanding that my physical condition was no more stable than a bubble, that all physical matter was like foam thrown up on the shore. My consciousness was an atom whirling in infinite play, a divine spark in an ocean of fire.
Suddenly people were tapping on my car window. The signal had stopped clanging, and the orange and white striped arms had lifted. The lane next to me was empty, but there were a few cars still in back of me. I waved at the people who had alerted me, turned on the car, and gazed at a rainbow as I drove in rain falling through sunshine. I'm going to turn the car around, I thought, and head out to the river. My wife won’t be home until five or six, and my daughter will be watching TV anyway.
The swallows had returned, brown and white bank swallows looping above the creek, disappearing into deep holes in the steep embankment, the flock somehow never diminishing, violet-green swallows weaving between them, jewel-like when the sun struck their deep green and purple feathers. A blue heron stood motionless on a rock, waiting, waiting for a shadow to move in the water. A lazuli bunting, smaller than most sparrows, foraged in the brush, its shrill, melodious call dominating the river.
I identified birds by losing myself in my surroundings, waiting
|Ithuriel's Spears, Tarweed|
Ron had sued the county for inadequate review of the rezone application for this property. The landowner had obtained a permit from the planning commission to build an upscale development near the creek even though the rezone would establish precedence for other development in the river bottom. The planning commission had not even required an environmental impact report to study the growth inducing and cumulative impacts of the project--just rammed it right through. Ron had appealed the decision to the county board of supervisors, which then unanimously approved the rezone application.
I realized that I might never see Ron again. I had searched half-heartedly for him for several months, on weekends and holidays, concluding that he had gone underground or offed himself in some secluded wood or changed his name and moved to another country. I couldn't rule out murder, of course. Ron was skinny, almost skeletal, with thin, shoulder-length hair that made him appear slightly feminine. One day as we were heading to a public hearing, Ron insisted that a study had actually been conducted that proved that corporate managers who were forced to wear dresses during a high-level retreat actually showed more sympathy for their employees afterwards. That same day, when saying goodbye, Ron had squeezed my leg for an uncomfortably long time. Ron just smiled for a moment and then got out of the car.
Though he was articulate about complex issues at public hearings, Ron tended to be reticent. One time, however, at a public hearing, he froze for over a minute, just stood at the podium without saying a word, to everyone's embarrassment, as though he had completely lost his nerve. At that point I began to think that something was terribly wrong. That same day, however, Ron convinced me that we should commandeer an attack helicopter and blow up a hazardous waste incinerator if it should ever be built. Fortunately, thanks partly to our continued political pressure, the incinerator was never built even though the company had received the necessary permits.
Ron alluded several times to a nervous breakdown he had suffered in the army during the Vietnam War, but never provided any details. He preferred to dwell on the issues, occasionally mentioning spiritual matters in conjunction with his description of LSD trips in the sixties. One time, for instance, his friends were in a circle and they began passing around thoughts as if they were all reading each other's minds, finishing each other's sentences, until they were all sure that they were so connected on some level that they just stopped talking because they didn't need to.
After Ron disappeared, I noticed a homemade billboard on a stretch of Freeway 99 between Tulare and Bakersfield, which read, "Wake up and drop out--get your new identity here," followed by a phone number. I could imagine Ron making fake ID’s for a living, so I called the number and asked if anyone by the name of Ron Manroe worked there. "Everyone here has a new name, so I wouldn't know," was the reply, but I left my name and phone number just in case anyone with that name happened to pass through there.
Ron's commitment had transcended the desire for material success or prestige or even a little financial security, superseding every personal desire, even the need to survive, it seemed.
|Pretty Face, Chinese Houses, Tarweed, Ithuriel's Spears|
Somehow, though, the property by this creek had remained untouched even though the landowner had the permit to alter it beyond recognition. Maybe Ron had ultimately had some effect after all, but not on the governmental level. Yet, as far as I knew, the bulldozers were already lined up and every acre of land in the world had already been surveyed to determine how many board feet could be logged, how many acre feet of water could be diverted, how many houses and strip malls could be built. Perhaps even the air had been inventoried to determine how many more molecules of pollution it could contain before everyone choked to death.
Like Ron, I had fought too many battles and stood alone, powerless and ignored, but at least I could lose myself in the stream, could almost feel it slide over the stones, could sense the roots gently sucking the water up into the trunks and stems. The water was perfectly calm in places, where one world penetrated another, the connection between worlds suddenly disturbed by ripples and then restored, both worlds a flowing of past, present, and future in a never-ending cycle where nothing was lost, only changed. For a moment it seemed to me that even the trail might always exist in the grasses somewhere in that flowing, in some ether that permeated everything, a Universal Consciousness that remembered every atom.
The night flowing around me and into me, I felt the air cooling as the bunting sang, the swallows looping overhead, the heron winging away to some more secluded part of the creek.