Wednesday, October 6, 2010
The big questions usually begin from the small ones, such as what’s for dinner? My wife was at church and I did the grocery shopping. I picked her up at church and drove home and told her we’d be having the Kroger bakery chicken for dinner, so we wouldn’t have to cook. And the transformation began. The very act of lycanthropy. At first small, a few words, and her petulant refusal to eat dinner at all. Finally seeing the forsaken box of chicken on the kitchen table and her bursting into a rage. And so I packed up the chicken and the receipt, she demanded to come along and we were back in the van together and driving back to the supermarket, about twenty minutes out and twenty minutes back. The van moving through rush hour traffic, and next to me, the windows rolled up, the outpouring of female rage escalated to near hysteria and platformed there and I felt myself withdraw as I have done all my life. I’m not a person who likes to fight or confront people except as a last resort. I knew what I was hearing would be how I would spend the rest of my evening. I withdrew deeper and deeper in a stillness, driving in a kind of tunnel vision as the angry outpouring seemed to go on and on outside me like a hard storm rain battering at closed windows. I watched the little shops and street light turn from green to red and back again, my own rage over my life building up inside me as the storm hammered at me from the passenger seat. And then something very strange happened. Something I had never experienced.
Dimly at first, and then more strongly I heard in my ears the beating of my heart. My temples began to throb. Just the way they describe it in horror stories before the protagonist breaks loose and does some unholy life-changing deed. Fuck me, I thought. This stuff really does happen.
My heartbeat became loud in my ears, and I thought I could actually feel the skin of my temples move under my hair. My skin prickled with that itchy flush you get when you take niacin pills. My skin burned. I sat up in my seat and looked at my face in the mirror as the yammering torrent next to me continued. My face was as red as a crying baby.
I had forgotten to take my blood pressure medicine. That often happens on loosey-goosey Sunday mornings when there’s no routine. My heart was racing and my blood pressure was unguessable. Several realizations occurred to me at once, like crewman rushing on to the bridge of a stricken ship crying out their damage reports. My father – he had had his first heart attack and double by pass surgery when he was about this age now, maybe a little younger in fact. And he’d done everything right. He practiced yoga, ate mostly vegetables and jogged. True he indulged in cigars, but still. He’d been trimming some hedge bushes on a cheerful September afternoon in Minneapolis as the leaves were changing, and the air turning sharp and suddenly he felt the elephant come and sit on his chest. Just like that.
I listened to the pounding of my heart like some poor schmuck in an Edgar Allen Poe story, heard the sound of my tell tale heart in my ears and felt a strange nasty hope – will the elephant come for me? Will this be my lucky day?
You may ask – what is this cowardly shit? Suicide by heart attack? Suicide by sheer exhausted indifference towards mortality? Feel the walls cave in and tear the temple down like Samson and let it all go. Let me go. I’m tired. I still have life insurance. Alive, I’m not worth much; dead I’m worth quite a bit and my kid wants to go to college. Now is a good time. Bring me my elephant. I was alert and watching in case the elephant came for me, I could take a moment to pull over and shut off the engine so the driverless van wouldn’t hit anything. After all, I do love my van.
I felt my ribs quake as the verbal beating continued next to me; pounded at my chest a little to see if I might get it going somehow, but no. That’s not right either, that’s cheating death in reverse isn’t it?
Kroger came into view, and I pulled in and shut off the engine, and still the cacophony of words and the aerobic beating of my heart continued on and on. I picked up the chicken and silently went inside where I waited dutifully at the customer service with my receipt.
My father believed in reincarnation. I aspire to believe in it. Whatever apparatus inside us that believes in things is so badly raped and damaged in me that I cowardly hedge my bets anytime I want to say I believe in something. But I hope there is a life after death, I would like to be able to believe that if I could, because I want so badly to wipe the slate clean and start all over again, but without betraying or hurting anyone. My wife and kid, they love me in their own way, I do believe that much.
My dad believed in a better life after death, and we talked about these things the last day we were together, knowing we would not see each other again, and that in a couple of weeks he’d be gone and have the real answers to this stuff. I took great care not to express my doubts to him. You can debate these things in a fishing boat over beers and cigars on a nice day with many nice days ahead. But its very different when you’re sitting across the breakfast table from a man who knows he’s doomed. It’s a wonderful thing to have the solid faith in place to prepare for your death calmly like preparing for a nice vacation, to say goodbye, tell the family stories to your son, go over the ancestral photographs in an old album and explain the old stories that should be told. He thought he would go to a transitional place, a kind of corporate New Age heaven where he would reflect on his experience, draw up plans and begin again. Maybe he’s there right now in a nice spa like the Sandals commercials with some wise guidance counselor sketching it all out. He died right on schedule.
I tend to believe, as much as that’s possible, in the Tibetan view of death and reincarnation, which is much bleaker and more pragmatic. Less 20th century American. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the five stages of the death experience are explained in detail and match almost perfectly what lab subjects in sensory deprivation experiments describe as their own sensory trajectories. But then the ego, fearing to let go of its own existence, clings on to itself and continues. Then all the intense emotions and karma – for what is karma but that emotional baggage we refuse to let go of – asserts itself and the soul is drawn back into the world of experience and suffering. No heaven or hell. Just a repeat of the same fuckless, useless stupidity.
Standing in the customer service line, my wife having gone off to look for something, I basked like a monk in the silence and solitude. I asked myself – if all this is so, if there is more after death than the wind blowing through the grass on my grave- what then? Who will I be next time, if the elephant were to arrive right now while my life is still good for a fat insurance check? This is actually a very worthy spiritual question, something I think everyone should ask themselves even if things are going well. I think I would come back as a person with a fierce hostility towards authority, especially religious authority. A harshness of spirit, but willing to be tempered by the love of woman, but fearful, terrified of commitment to anyone or anything under the sun. In short, a loner with a thick shell. Maybe that’s where that kind of person comes from. Maybe today’s atheists started out in some bygone age as priests and nuns until God let them down. And so it goes.
Standing at the customer counter, I looked down at my shoes and there was this moment of fluffy light headedness and that Hamlet feeling, to be or not to be, sprang up again – where’s my elephant? That man in the cookie aisle, is that Dad looking at me and calling? No. Just somebody. Here comes his kid.
And then the feeling just went away.