I realize I’ve been slow in getting to the point. About what I believe. You’ll want a point to all this, I know. Three, four, five parts. At least. You’d be crazy to read it all. It’s clearly a little self-indulgent, but on the other hand I don’t think the what matters so much as the how or why, maybe. The process. The route.
I probably can’t actually tell you what I believe, which is pretty much the same thing as saying, this… this is who I am. I can only try and bring you up to speed with the passing train, so we can have a moment gliding along together that isn’t too herky-jerky. Then you can at least say you have an idea what it’s like on that train. Inside that one car. At least you can say you’ve seen what’s hidden in the corners—the empty wrappers, the broken bottles, the notebooks and scraps of paper piled in heaps, bathed in slatted light. The stranger standing in the doorway, his pitch black profile against the passing world.
Then you’ll get off, the train’ll chug along. I might die believing something a little different than I do today. I might be someone different entirely by then. Belief is dynamic, like gusts of wind swirling around a canyon. But what I’m interested in is the canyon, I think.
I’m listening to my first RL Burnside album while I write this; it’s good train music. The chords are clapping their hands and stomping their feet; the faces inside them are turned up to the sun; the odd cloud is moving perpendicular to the train. Crosswise. The train moves crosswise to the ties, parallel to the rails. Crosswise music drives it along.
I just realized the Black Keys song “Gone So Long” that I love, from their first album, was a recreation of the RL Burnside song “Skinny Woman.” I never knew that, but it’s indisputable. I thought I heard something similar here. Does that mean the Black Keys believe in RL Burnside? I don’t know.
I believe in them both. Check them out. Give them each about 70 seconds and it pretty much comes into focus…
When you hear a thing from several different sources, it tends to lend a little validity to the idea put forth. It’s hard to know sometimes, though, if people are just copying one another and getting nowhere fast. Another thing that happens is a whole system of perception gets built around a core idea or two, and that system becomes as big as the world, and then when something comes along that doesn’t fit you have to try and make sense of the whole thing all over again. Sometimes the system comes down. Rarely. Sometimes you develop a way of explaining a thing that’s different than you originally thought. It’s because you need consistency. You need a view that isn’t fractured and discontinuous.
The idea that Jesus was a good person who meant something good for everyone never left me. But there’s a whole lotta’ crap that got piled on later that doesn’t compute. And then there was this Buddhist idea of illusions. I got myself wrapped around the axle pretty good some days.
I went to the Auburn University swimming pool one afternoon because I thought swimming would be an interesting way to remind my vascular system I was depending on it. My parents had just gotten divorced, within the last year or so, and my father had hit a brick wall when it came to the Church’s compassion. You give your life to an institution and then you wind up an outsider. I remember this moment because I was riding back from the pool thinking swimming wasn’t really going to be my thing, and I was going through some inner philosophical turmoil of sorts, and I was driving past the building where I attend physics class every morning, next to the wooden building that burned down once while we were across the street in the football stadium, and I thought of the line “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” The next thing I thought was that maybe this meant we were truly inseparable, regardless of the shenanigans we pull on Earth. Maybe we were joined from the beginning and any notion of joining or separating here on Earth was a little hokey on our part. I thought maybe we viewed things at the wrong level, somehow.
It was kind of an aha moment for me. A taste of seeing deeply. But it was foggy, too. The thing was, it felt right. Profoundly right. And I decided then and there that my heart was a compass somehow. There were areas its direction broke down, like trying to figure out which interpretation of quantum mechanics made the most sense, but in other areas it gave repeatable results. You can dress a thing up with words any number of ways, but if deep down it rests on an idea that’s in conflict with your heart, you know it. So I decided the truth was true, that it could be dressed up any number of ways on the outside without changing what it really was, that the level at which we viewed things was most often too shallow to be the real thing, and that the heart had some kind of magnetic attraction for the center.
When I was at the water heater plant riding the electric-powered cart through the factory to pick up parts from one of the assembly lines and take them back to the lab, I tried to figure out what else Jesus may have said or done that had been misinterpreted. Somewhere around this time I picked up a book called Return of the Bird Tribes, and it made a big impression on me. I typed up the opening passage once before here , and it’s worth a quick read I think. It might help in terms of synchronizing speeds.
I’m leaving out major tracts here, of course. But I know your good graces are not infinite.
Around this time, either before or after, my mother invited me to a talk that was going to be given back in Birmingham by a Native American teacher. My mother had met a few women at her place of work who traveled each summer to South Dakota to participate in something called a Sun Dance. I had no idea what that was. I decided to attend the talk, and met someone there who quickly became one of those people I deeply admired. And in keeping with my spirit of discovery through immersion, I decided I wanted to know more about what lay inside this person’s stories.
The thing about riding box cars is things fly in through the opening. Sometimes it’s nothing. A dead insect, a blown leaf, or a brochure for a classical music recital where students you didn’t know existed are playing Steve Reich on the marimbas, and you’re there, alone, a little mesmerized. Looking for a date. Steve Reich’s music is like whipping through an alien village. And other times it’s an arrow that flies in. It whistles past and buries itself in the wood behind you. The arrow is followed by a hawk. The bird swoops in so fast you don’t have time to react, perches on the arrow and looks over to the corner of the car at that pile of tattered thoughts. Then looks right at you. It can be hard to meet its eye. Hard to give the accounting of yourself it wants. It has this raw, visceral style of intelligence that’s impossible to ignore, that is disinterested in all your reasons.
That’s kind of what I want to talk about next.