September 25, 2007

"Chaos Ekstasis!"

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by Tom Blunt


In those days, at that time, initiation didn't come cheap. You had to do for yourself or risk never being done at all. The desert is supposed to be a spiritually powerful place, which I suppose is why the metro Phoenix area covered it all up as fast as it could; to the uninitiated, such an expanse isn't even threatening-- it's just a blank screen to project one's ego onto. And that is how you end up with people struggling to maintain moist green lawns in 117 degree heat.

In those days, at that time. People refer to everything before September 11th, 2001 in terms like those. Those were the last great days when it was safe to be spiritually ambivalent. Before the renaissance of the pale, sweaty moral majority, before the backlash of antagonistic atheism peaked in pretension. Islam was a weeklong chapter in your Comparative Religions syllabus. My growing obsession with concerns beyond my life in this world was merely silly, having not quite yet become revived as the national past-time. And as much as it seemed fitting to me that I struggle alone in my entanglements, I was not alone. In fact, in some ways I was never to be truly alone again, for the unsolicited arrival of a new friend broke open my world bare months before four plane crashes rudely initiated the rest of America into a national religion of prophecy, purgatory, and pride.

Vince was just the friend of a friend, but would be your best friend if you let him. The way you did this was to feed him if he was hungry, and answer every question he asked you; in this way, he would associate you with nourishment of the flesh and of the mind, and seek you out at any hour when he required either. Anything he took from you was returned tenfold in the forms of inspiration, unexpected gifts, or new friends (in the form of others who found themselves dragged along within his gravitational field, whom you might end up feeding as well). Vince was shocking in conventional ways-- he tamed his wild curls with Elmer's glue, he wore his vinyl trench coat in all seasons, he gave his poor catholic mother hysterics with his occult-themed artwork-- but he was conventional in shocking ways. He was a clean and sober college student, was earnest and considerate, made good grades, and seemed to attract no end of consistently beautiful women, no matter how unbearable he seemed determined to become. On the day I turned 22, when we still barely knew each other, he was so excited to discover it was my birthday that he insisted on driving across town to take me out to lunch. He had been out shopping, preparing for a performance in his acting class which required him to dress in drag, so this was also an opportunity for him to test his new look on an unsuspecting public. As we sat in a sunlit booth during Souper! Salad!'s lunchtime rush, I looked across at him and suspected we'd be friends for life. He could have actually passed for a woman-- a big, scary woman-- if only his store-bought hair had been any color other than fuchsia.

As one of the many who loved him but one of the few who could tolerate him in marathon sessions, I came to occupy a unique role in Vince's life. I quickly became not just a sounding board for his ideas or a late-night source of entertainment, but a human laboratory where experiments could be performed. We took turns as each other's witness or rhesus monkey for this or that theory of gnosis or ekstasis. What are the Mormons trying to keep hidden under Joseph Smith's hat? How much Hebrew does one have to learn before the kabbalistic spheres would divulge their secrets? How many Hare Krishnas can dance on the head of a pin? Can one simulate the effects of a sensory deprivation chamber by sealing the bathroom door with duct tape? If you hold magic to scientific scrutiny, is justice served to either? Can one adopt a truly ascetic lifestyle that somehow doesn't exclude video games?

From the outside, our friendship probably seemed pretty ordinary, punctuated by the late nights at IHOP and long drives to nowhere that are the main source of entertainment in para-suburban zones. In fact, our only truly suspicious quality was attitude. Vince was unfailingly cheerful and tended to tell the truth no matter what was asked or who was asking, qualities that endeared him to his professors but bugged the shit out of store employees, police officers and concerned bystanders who preferred their young no-good weirdos to play a little closer to type. Countless times I grew panicky and finally all but dragged him away from someone in the middle of his explanation of why the Universalist congregation was perhaps more Christian in spirit than any of the Protestant churches he'd been to, or why the inverted five-pointed star wasn't really the sign of the devil. Years later he would finally have me write a list of safe deeper-than-small-talk topics that he could keep in his wallet for emergencies, as in most social situations he went from greetings to Jesus in about six sentences. If we had been dutifully angsty and antisocial, we could have operated invisibly; instead, I found myself playing sheepdog near constantly, making good use of leftover social paranoia from high school (which Vince may never have had to begin with). If Harvard had no patience for Leary and Alpert, we certainly couldn't expect any love from ASU campus security.

At about that point, it all became real to me, no longer just a steamer trunk full of esoteric spiritual traditions that we liked to play dress-up in. I'd participated in all these games, rituals of self-transformation and reality-manipulation, as a temporary refuge from the plain facts of life that had always kicked me from behind to keep me marching-- but ultimately they were proving to be a door I could step through into a new way of living altogether. And they were hard work, and I had to begin to take care of myself in previously unfathomable ways in order to keep up physically and mentally. Who was this confident stranger sleeping in my skin? Could he be trusted with my future, devoted as he was to things that were not thought to exist? I spent the summer of 2001 watching the world go by as if from a high ledge, daring myself to jump, silently begging to be pushed.

One hot summer night Vince asked if I wanted to go to the wheatfield. Since when did we have a wheatfield? I asked incredulously. It only took a fifteen minute drive to prove he wasn't making it up. Somehow, there was an endless wheatfield just past city limits that seemed to be ours for the taking. Our asses dented the hood of his car as we stretched out under the moon and continued the same long talk that we'd been having, in bits and chunks, for several months. Tonight it was Jesus again, a subject Vince relished picking apart and putting back together the way a soldier would his gun. By now I was numb to Christianity. It was like looking at yearbooks: bad enough when I was there the first time around, so why would I want to look at the pictures? I laid back and made the most of the scenery as I patiently waited for him to run out of steam. If I let him go for another few minutes he'd inevitably change the subject all by himself, most likely to women; that was just the track his mind followed.

It was a mistake to think he wouldn't notice my disinterest, or would tolerate it. A restful silence descended over us. I felt him slide down off the hood and heard him pace toward the wheat, followed by the snare drum of urination against the cracked earth. He returned smiling. Beatific. Tom, he said. Don't move, okay? I want to show you something. You have to trust me, okay? Well sure, at this point anything goes, right? He went to get something out of the driver's side of the car, so I stayed put. Then the engine roared to life beneath me, but despite the instinct to leap off, I caught myself. Despite everything, I really did trust him. I'm going to drive, he said. Hold onto something. Are you sure about this? I asked. He had an expression of resolute concentration on his face; we were back in the laboratory, the experiment was about to begin. I gripped the hood on either side of the windshield wipers and held on.

The car began to roll through the wheatfield and turn back toward the dirt road that landed us there. Holding on through the turn was hard, but once he got us moving in a straight line I was comfy enough. Then he went faster. And faster and faster. Perhaps not so fast really; the earth orbits the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, no wonder we earthlings are such speed-junkies. The acceleration threw my mind into turmoil, I laughed at the top of my lungs, I couldn't see where I was going, the wind tore at me from all sides, tears uncurled like pennants from the corners of my eyes. What is happening to me? I thought between screams, And does it really have to end? Chaos ekstasis! The car peaked in speed, and then began to slow down. I relaxed my grip on the hood. For those last few seconds, I flew.

I found myself on my knees in the headlights, dust swirling like the cosmos through the beams and into my hair and eyes. I heard footsteps as Vince bounded from the car. He stood over me and began to read from the Gospel of Thomas:

And Jesus said: If they ask where you have come from, say to them, "We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established itself, and appeared in their image." If they ask, "Is it you?" say, "We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living father." If they ask you, "What evidence have you of this?" say to them, "It is found in motion and repose..."

He may have continued, but when I heard the words "motion and repose", something wrenched inside me, and I was filled with unbearable emotion. In experiencing motion and repose simultaneously, so suddenly and so literally, I had for just a few moments appreciated the state of effortless activity combined infinite potential that was the seat of creation. An outsider driving past would have thought we had pulled over so I could be sick, or that perhaps I was under attack-- for once, Vince's demeanor was deadly serious. For once, though, I was moved beyond the point of keeping up appearances. I wept in the dust and clamored to absorb the essence of my ride through this new lens, through this Christ who so many fools brandished as a weapon, and captive in the bright lights, I clung to Vince's leg, grateful to finally see through his eyes, even if I had to be driven halfway to hell on the hood of a car to do so. The dove descended. Please, Vince. And more. Gimme that Jesus. The place where the light. Motion and repose.

He helped me up. Sniffing, I collapsed into the passenger seat, surprised to find reality enfolding me again so quickly as we rolled off down the road, leaving the laboratory behind us. We rode in silence sharing a menthol cigarette. The heaviness in my lungs was a ballast as I watched streetlamps flit past and longed to fly with them, though of course I knew that they were really standing perfectly still.

This was our last innocent experiment, just as the first three quarters of 2001 were an innocent experiment for everyone as we played at putting on a new millennium the way kindergartners put on pageants. As if the millennium could be something we had, instead of something that happened to us. And after it happened, Vince and I still experimented, together and separately, but with such high stakes hovering over our world that our frivolity became sharpened to a point. We each had to work on becoming the person we'd have to be in this new world, and though our day-to-day lives seemed to change very little, it was suddenly easy to feel genuine nostalgia for the summer that had passed under our noses just months ago. Vince became more serious, more manic. I discovered a rare calm that had always seemed to elude me. Talk of Christ was everywhere, suddenly everyone in Arizona felt themselves to be a New Yorker and a Nazarene. I moved to New York. Vince's college program sent him to Israel. Neither of us had ever had a brother before.

1 comment:

Ian said...

That was fantastic. It's left my thoughts racing and an electric buzz humming under my skin. Thanks for sharing this.