April 29, 2007

Impossible Trees

Springtime

Spring is the only time of year when it is safe to treasure everything, even the profane. Our devotion spends like money, and by the end of the year we have just enough to keep ourselves and our families warm; in the early months it spends in streamers and runs out of pockets like sand. The exuberance is a survival mechanism-- this mad old world has to grow higher and higher each year to unbury itself from the last's revelry and waste, and so the trees are a little bit taller than they ever thought possible, and we stay up later than is wise, just to hold our ground.

Impossible Trees

Every year around this time I feel like an impossible tree, growing downward instead of upward. Tunneling down with roots, stretching back through the layers of dead years so that I can soak up all I can from them, sinking experimental taproots below what I have any business remembering, touching the faces of my ancestors with blind fingers with the vain hope that when these sensations reach the surface, they will inform my growth in a way that mere sun and wind can't.

Buds

Over time, this misdirection of energy has left me struggling to breach the crust anymore: a few fretful limbs straining, spurting out disturbingly bright blossoms from the ends like distress signals. My bones are here in the sun, while my heart and my canopy of nerves swell and infiltrate below, buckling sidewalks and laying claim to the city beneath the city. It's frightening to me how fast the world around you can grow up over your head and retire you once and for all among only those of a certain kind, from a certain time or place. Or how a reflection can become so alluring that one never strays beyond the eye of a mirror. If ever there was a time to push myself up and out of what is knowable and concrete, it is now.

Eights

These walks, where no one is watching, through places where neglect has been hard at work replacing civilization with nightmares, and those nightmares with soft consoling green fingers. These dreams, in which I travel every night from state to state, from home to home, passing out pieces of myself to people that are just sketches of loved ones real and imagined; from which I sometimes awake in helpless tears. These landscapes which seem imaginary until one day when I find myself spontaneously taking a new route home and accidentally arrive at the last human outpost before the mouth of space swallows up the world. These places of smirking solitude, where helplessness is discovered to be power, are my new territory. I have paid my dues to the underworld, and there is nowhere left to go but up, and out.

Kingsland

April 25, 2007

On Vision and Visibility

5 years old

When I was a child I didn’t know I had lost my sight until someone told me. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Hernandez, sent a note to my mother to say I was squinting in class. We three met during lunch the next day; Mrs. Henderson wrote a sentence on the blackboard and asked me to read it out loud. I complied, knowing that some sort of test was taking place and determined to pass it. Then she asked me to stand at the back of the classroom and read it again. Without a trace of a squint I recited the sentence, which I’d quickly memorized. I was convinced I’d passed with flying colors; Mrs. Hernandez made a sour face and wrote a new sentence, challenging me to read it from where I stood. It was the first test I ever failed.

The following week, when I returned to school with my thick glasses in grey plastic frames, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the whole world had shifted to accommodate this failure. On the playground I showed off my new glasses; I had been taught that they were expensive and important. “I get to wear glasses now,” I told two boys from my class. A quick glance between them was all the social permission needed to proceed with the inevitable: “FOUR EYES!” I fled to Mrs. Hernandez and complained that the boys were making fun of my glasses. “You’re the one who brought attention to them,” she said with sublime indifference, “If you don’t want people to make fun of them, then you have to stop bringing them up.” Another test failed, in as many weeks: first vision, then visibility.

My vision degraded slowly throughout grade school, and with it, my interest in the world that school presented. How could I be expected to take the torment of mathematics seriously when all I needed to do was take off my glasses to make them disappear? Without the glasses there were no straight lines or horizons at all. Edges mingled in a foam of colors, erasing the angles and textures from anything further than an arm’s length away. The tiniest points of light refracted into spectral globes that were indistinguishable from larger, closer lights. And how could I be expected to value friends and companions? With a single motion I could render them all identically featureless. The only body parts close enough to seem real to me without glasses were my own, which my myopia magnified like a low-power microscope. Reading without them was a morbid luxury: the bare inches between my face and the pages allowed me to bond with books on a molecular level, and barred any rivals for my attention.

Nature saws away at us before we even know the value of what we’re losing, and sometimes all one can do is merrily join in the brigade, leveling and deforesting in hopes of exposing whatever truth may lay underneath the canopy of rich growth. That’s an understandable human instinct, but it crosses the line into pathology when, upon surveying the barren rubble one is left with after this process, one takes up a pre-emptive belief in the evil of trees. And so, they could make me go to school, but they couldn’t make me see. I kept my face down, secretly reading the book in my lap, I filled one notebook after another with stream-of-consciousness drawings, and when all else failed, I would take off the glasses and sit up brightly in my chair and pretend to be no different than anyone else. It was my favorite form of rebellion: without the clunky glasses drawing attention to my face, I became invisible.

By eighth grade, under heavy scrutiny due to falling grades, I began to panic. I was too far behind to catch up, but unprepared to fathom the very real consequences of true failure. The strain was crushing. At least once a week I would wake in the night with severe abdominal pains that kept me up until dawn. In the early hours of most school days I would feel acid gnawing at my stomach lining, and would ask to be excused to the nurse with sulfurous fumes rising in my throat. Doctors told my mother that they couldn’t find a medical cause, and so eventually this complaint alone couldn’t be counted on to get her to take me out of school. I tried to protest that my condition was genuine, but I couldn’t take any argument too far without revealing that while I wasn’t faking my sickness, I was in fact faking my life, and so both continued unchecked.

I changed my strategy, and once more, blindness became my escape. One day, with acid lapping at my insides and a math test three hours off, I bent my glasses in half at the nosepiece and twisted them into wire wreckage. It was terrifying to watch my hands perform this act upon the expensive, important property my parents had entrusted me with. Even so, I didn’t care whether they would ever be fixed or replaced, I was too relieved in the knowledge that I had just bought myself at least one more day of peace. In fact, glasses were delicate objects; I didn’t see why this sort of thing didn’t happen more often. Perhaps now it would.

The nurse communicated the report to my mother that someone had stepped on my glasses while I was showering after P.E., and I was picked up in a flash. However, the thrill of discovering the panacea to my problems was short-lived. Mom had been able to secure an immediate appointment at the optometrist, and I got to sit and watch the ease with which the kinks were ironed out of my handiwork. As she drove me back to school, I scrambled to think of delays to inject into our trip, but was afraid to seem too desperate. As I entered my math class with a note—only ten minutes late—I felt the lid of a jar sealing itself tight overhead, sucking the air out of the room. There was no other way out that wasn’t more frightening and violent that what I had already tried. Against my will, and years after I was meant to, I began to consider life as an option.

Over time I made it more and more difficult to escape into that sightless world, as an act of self-preservation. Not long after I injured my glasses, my mom agreed that a graduation to contact lenses was in order; I started high school with clear naïve eyes of a beginner, the way I did in first grade. To this day my eyes are capped off with contacts that I’m able to sleep in if I want to, and technology has improved at a rate that will soon make me a candidate for surgery to permanently correct this flesh-failure of mine. Often days go by without my remembering that this difference exists at all, or ever existed, though it’s still all there, under the plastic sheathes, in physical memory.

In my dreams I often find myself unable to see, as if I have lost my glasses. It’s a detail that makes my dreams especially vivid, and it is strange to think that one day these dreams (and my unforgiving school records) will be the only traces left of the first draft of my life. It’s clear I’m better off this way; my fetish for reality-negation has been channeled into a functional lifestyle, with full participation in this world on a creative level, complemented by meditation and writing as a way of actively terraforming the world beyond, that realm where I used to drift passively, smothered under the weight of my dreams. However, I still feel panic and grief at the thought of losing my blindness—somewhere along the way, my identity became inseparable from this burden and the secrets it taught me. Please don’t make fun of me for calling attention to it.

April 24, 2007

"Being enemies was better for my self-esteem than our friendship was."

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This is my contribution to SFUMATO, a webzine project I've been working on with friends. I'm fascinated by autobiography and storytelling, and I've spent too much time retelling all the stories my friends have told me about their own lives, so I finally decided to step back and let them to do it themselves. Enjoy!

Be sure to subscribe so that you don't miss the next installment, "FORBIDDEN LOVE".

Book Review

Published in Jason Louv's Ultraculture Journal One (2007):

2012: THE RETURN OF QUETZALCOATL (Tarcher, 2006)

Daniel Pinchbeck's 2012 is a continuation of the adventures he described in 2003's BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD. As a fan of that previous account of his "psychedelic journey into the heart of contemporary shamanism", I have been very curious to find out what Pinchbeck has been up to since his initation into the worlds of ayahusca, DMT, iboga, and psilocybin.

The first half sets a terrific pace. Though built on ideas and experiences that are more or less canonical and well-documented, it is thrilling to see them all lined up in order. Pinchbeck has done his homework and explores areas that many self-conscious psychonauts tend to avoid; for example, while lingering on the subject of crop-circles, he avoids trying to prove or disprove the phenomena and instead interprets our mass-rejection or mystification of them as a tender spot in our culture that exposes how tenaciously humans are clinging to an understanding of the universe that is unraveling out from under us. His vision of these last few years leading up to the end of the Mayan calendar—and life as we currently know it—is potent and infectious, and I began to make a list in my head of friends that I ought to lend this book to when I finished it.

However as the book marches on it becomes really evident that there are undeniable problems with not only his theories, but his motivations as well. The dissolution of his family life (due in no small part to the adventures he endures) coincides neatly with an impairment in his focus. While anyone with a magical bent to their thinking is able to appreciate the synchronicities and cosmic giggles that propel one forward through life, few people magnify those coincidences to global significance and apply them to the fates of everyone around them. Pinchbeck is honest about calling himself out when he senses his insecurity or baser instincts polluting his quest, and then his keen self-analysis eventually leads him back on track again. For every one of those moments, however, the reader will pick out two more in which Pinchbeck leaps from conclusion to conclusion with frighteningly subjective abandon, feats which no adept would ever perform without a firm grasp on oneself and one's limitations. That the ordeals resulting from this sloppiness ultimately lead to Pinchbeck's receiving a profound annunciation (from the great Quetzalcoatl itself) is cold comfort indeed: by the time this transmission occurs, the reader's head is likely to be so sore from repeated smackings that it can't possibly accept Pinchbeck's revelation as more authoritative than anything one might cook up on one's own, given enough bark-scrapings and jungle voyages. And by the time Pinchbeck begins handing over the bullhorn to prophets whom even he considers to be of dubious value, such as Dreamspell Calendar inventor José Arguilles, mental-health breaks between chapters become necessary.

With so many people in the world clamoring for Apocalypse, it can be hard to avoid playing that game. This book pulls you into it, at first calmly inviting you to play, then later begging and demanding that you finish what you started. There were many points where I had to put the book down for a couple of days so I could fairly weigh his ideas; his background matches my own in so many ways that it was easy to get swept up in agreement with his lyrical voice and his incredible citations from countless scientists, thinkers, and miscellaneous holy folks. But his book does not hold up to the level of scrutiny that he holds his role models to. In laying the book aside and trying to follow his arguments to their their logical conclusions, I found that they seemed dissolve without his voice there to energetically perpetuate them. I began to see this book, however bold and inspiring, as the product of a very neurotic and conflicted person. By the end, when Pinchbeck finds himself struggling to shake himself free from the influence of Santo Daime practitioners and New Age healers, his theorizing seems almost frantic. However I will say that my own worldview feels very sharpened by reading it—having to constantly dis- and reassemble my own philosophy before Pinchbeck's dark mirror was strenuous exercise that left me refreshed and exhausted.

I actually feel pretty concerned for the guy, because I believe the transmission he's been given by Quetzalcoatl is legitimate, and that his work is significant and enlightening, even ennobling-- to him. Unfortunately, being a writer, he is completely oriented toward broadcasting everything he thinks and experiences and projecting it onto the world at large, which leads to not only some grievous errors in literary judgment, but also inters him in a self-made prison of "prophecy". Without his ability and drive to write and deliver his prophecy to the masses teetering on the brink of Apocalypse, he'd probably be enjoying an incredible period of enlightenment. However, without the impulse to include and save us all somehow, I doubt he would have ever set out on this journey to begin with. Because of it, he experiences the most intimately documented magical breakdown I've ever come across. By the end of the book, at the point where he's hoping the reader will finally be prepared to absorb the significance of Quetzalcoatl's message, his words practically spasm on the page.

To offer contrast, not long afterward I re-read the end of Alan Moore's comic PROMETHEA. The last fifth of the series depicts the Apocalypse as a massive, inevitable unifying shift in consciousness, using artwork and fictional characters to illustrate almost exactly the same ideas that Pinchbeck delivers. I was struck by the differences. Despite drawing from many of the same paradigms and sources, the work of Moore's team is just plainly superior—more succinct, gentler, less subjective, and more challenging than frightening. It is also more persuasive and more believable, despite being embedded within a comic book. Moore makes the Apocalypse game seem like an unavoidable fact of existence in our modern world, but one that the individual is free to conceive of however they will; in addition, Moore lays out sketches of the Eastern and Western magical traditions, giving would-be voyagers a leg up in discovering original prophecies of their own. Pinchbeck starts out with the same idea, and for the first two hundred pages 2012 is authentic as only an autobiography can be, but as he presses on and his inexperience and insecurity begin to catch up with him, ultimately the only way he can reconcile them is to imagine that we are all in the same boat as he is—and it happens to be one where his help is needed to steer. With all due respect, I'd rather go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

I'd still recommend Pinchbeck's first book to almost anyone, especially to those taking tentative steps toward exploring worlds just outside our own, but the second book seems only recommendable as a warning of what an individual will go through if one takes the path of initiation without having done the necessary work on oneself over a natural amount of time. I'm grateful to have read this, but I'll have reservations about picking up his next one—that is, if it turns out that they are still printing books in the years leading up to the great Arrival.

A mystic may swim through the same water that a madman drowns in, but if his connection to this world or to his will is not strong, then he will also be crushed by the same gravity that everyday human slobs effortlessly walk their tiny dogs through. In racing through a lifetime's worth of initiations in just eight years, this seems to me what Pinchbeck is running up against; in the closing of the book he leaves an uncertain image of what his life is now or what he plans to do with his hard-earned prophecy. He is as human an Apocalyptic prophet as one could dream up, a neurotic New Yorker struggling to stamp out willful ignorance and self-obsession on both a personal and global level.

April 22, 2007

A Corner of an Island

If you walk straight up Greenpoint Avenue, you trespass without meaning to.

First the neighborhood itself falls away and you find yourself touring a vast industrial complex, with half-built or half-demolished projects spilling out of their scaffoldings and yellow construction tape, physically barring your way. Then the road pushes up and out until you are at rooftop-level as you approach the bridge over Newtown Creek, the horizon widening until you are uncomfortably exposed, making even the dead immensity of the warehouse district behind you seem cozy. Crossing the creek marks your passage into Queens, but that's like saying that crossing the Rubicon merely takes you into Gaul; everything about this passage is forbidden, and as the speeding trucks shake the bridge under your feet, the water stares up at you like a dead green eye as you hurry across. Newtown Creek is one of the most polluted and neglected waterways in North America, and the neighborhood just beyond is redolent with its benzene-grimed influence. All of the buildings appear to be inhabited, and yet they all seem to be for sale. Finally, just when you think you must have walked into the very land of the dead itself, you turn a corner and find yourself looking up at Calvary Cemetery.

One Corner


The city is a great engine fueled by human energy, and when we're used up, we are expelled like exhaust into other boroughs, states, and islands. Queens alone has 29 cemeteries, housing over 5 million power cells, now drained. It's inevitable that this would cause cemeteries to abut other zones in interesting ways, but the sight of it is still always a strange surprise. Stroll along this sidewalk and you will know that the dead are suspended before you at eye-level, like fish in an aquarium.

No Dumping


Whether this seems respectful or even acceptable depends on whether you're standing on the sidewalk or the grass above. I've never walked through a lovelier cemetery than Calvary; its forest of obelisks and crosses blend in perfectly with the Manhattan skyline, and though centuries-old in some cases, the graves seem fiercely well-tended, as if the survivors are determined to make the most of the little scrap of land they've been given. And while the headstones are claustrophobically regemented in tight rows, it's practically luxurious compared to the cemeteries I've seen in Brooklyn, where you can only imagine that everyone's last wishes were for compliance with the gypsy tradition: "Bury me standing."

Skyline


In this city, there is no sacred place for anyone's rest, living or dead. We carry our own around inside us constantly, periodically finding a quiet place to set it down for a little while, a new neighborhood or new person becoming an annex that temporarily doubles our room to breathe, only to be torn down the moment we look away from it. We are palimpsestic. Far from discouraging, this pursuit beats redly with life's blood. We are closer to the dead and their world, and both sides glow from the attention. Our neighborhoods are side by side with theirs, we have no choice but to look and learn, to discover belief in things that make no sense, and if possible, plan an escape while we still breathe. Re-entering Greenpoint from Queens, scuttling back across the bridge and through zones that punctuate this space like the locks of a canal, I began to plan a picnic.

April 21, 2007

"The War Never Ends."

This motto was presented to me recently by a good friend. The letters were cut from tarot cards and rearranged, like a ransom note from a fortuneteller, onto the lid of a box of cigarettes. Cut-outs of images cover the rest of the box in a collage that reads like a complete tarot reading writ small. Inside the box are pages torn from the Book of Revelation, rolled and packed as individual cigarettes. Its weight is so light in my hand, but it is so dense with personal meaning that I can barely hold it. The little box is an entire potential conversation between he and I-- his tale describing his own last few months, his warning to me of what he fears my future holds, and a mutual appreciation of where our problems and dreams overlap. Except it's a conversation that we don't need to have, because it is sitting on my desk, asking me what I am going to do next.

Last night as I fell asleep I suddenly remembered that one day I would die. I return to this thought very frequently because it's one of those things that is indisputable though there is no trace of it at all in my everyday life. Yet. It is completely invisible, yet perfectly true, and whenever I remember it I am flooded with a feeling of incredible relief and gratitude. Because it means that one day, all of my questions will be answered one way or another. It doesn't even matter to me whether I am pleased by the answers, or whether I can guess them in advance. It is satisfying enough to simply know there is an end. I can fight playfully in this war of life, knowing that I can never truly be captured by my enemies.

That feeling is my contribution to the conversation hanging in the air around this little pack of cigarettes, and my response to it. The war never ends... but thankfully, I will.

The War Never Ends