Tell me, what good is it to have God visit you if you can’t tell anybody about it? Or, if not God, then somebody looking very much like him, or how I had pictured him. Perhaps, to be safe I should call him god, you know, lower case “g.”
No, that won’t do. There’s no escaping it: it was the Almighty all right, our capital “G” Father-of-the-Son God. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. Let me rephrase that: There is no doubt about it.
Yes, yes, I know it sounds crazy, but now and then things happen to you, incredible things, thing you cannot explain but that you cannot deny—not to yourself anyway. For they did happen, and you know they did, whether the whole thing sounds crazy or looks crazy or feels crazy or is crazy or not. Took place. Occurred. Yes, sir. So when in truth I did lay eyes on him, did talk to him, did meet him, how can I deny it? I can’t.
My mistake was sharing it, and perhaps that’s the lesson to draw from all of this: Keep your mouth shut. Especially around close relatives and people in white coats.
It was a Tuesday, a rainy one. My room had that dampness about it, that musty smell that only ventures out after three days of rain. Seeps out of the walls and floor and ceiling, dryness fully pervaded now. Our house is big and grand and all that but not well sealed, not round my room anyway, so if the rain doesn’t turn back after a day or two, it tends to pick up courage and come on in—into my room. In musty spirit, anyway.
I had finished the chapter I was reading and I had placed my bookmark where I had left off. I closed the book in my lap, leaned back and closed my eyes. Picturing. Picturing. A moment later He knocked on my door and I went to open it.
I fumbled with the locks and the bolts and the safety chain and didn’t even stop to wonder (I never do) that I was so carefully sealed. He knocked again, louder this time, or was it that I was closer to the door (of course, I didn’t know that he was He yet), and told Him to hold His horses. Finally, after a few more hold Your horses and wait ups, I got all the locks undone and I opened up and then looked very long and still at Him and He looked very long and still at me and nothing was said.
Strange thing when strange things happen: not for a moment did I think it strange. It was simply taking place.
My first notion was exactly this: Here’s God. My second notion was exactly this: No way. Then I wavered back toward the first. He looked so very familiar. Like a Doré Moses, and for just a fraction I thought perhaps this is Moses, no? Standing there, but no stone tablets about him, no frown or fury at dancings around golden calves, no exasperation or suffering (which rules out the Son, too, doesn’t it?—though He, the Son, was never a real prospect; my visitor had nothing of “the meek” about Him at all). No, this was more, He was more, you know, of the and the Earth was without form and void variety. Let there be lightish. But not very talkative. Just stood there looking back at me. So finally, “Want to come in?” I said. “Sure,” He said.
I held the door open for him, and he, gathering his robe with long, white, exquisitely manicured fingers—almost effeminate but with strength (if that makes sense)—and, carefully stepping over the threshold, looked where He was placing His feet as if He was expecting to step on something alive, carefully didn’t (step on anything alive) and then He was inside my head.
Before closing the head-door (which I honestly had not known I had until just now, until that knock on it) I took a quick peek outside to see if He had brought anybody else (didn’t want to shut the door in some holy face, you know). But no. No one else. Just the usual outside: my TV-less room, a plate of rice and vegetables, sixty percent consumed, forty percent un-, a glass of un-drunk water, shelves for my books, and upon them: my books, my books, my many, many, many books, each one a little life (or not so little, take Gravity’s Rainbow for example), each a little universe in fact (or not so little, take the Mahabharata—now there’s a universe, or a thousand thousand universes for you), and each one mine, so very mine. Yes, you can believe me or not as you please (it’s a free country), but I had read most of them, front cover to back, and some of them, many of them, more than once.
There was my stereo. And my compact discs, my many, many, many compact discs, and each one of them a universe too, and each one mine. Yes, indeed, although there were literally thousands of them, I had listened to each one, all the way through, many, many of them more than once.
And there was my desk, my lamps, my chairs, my pictures on the wall. All in all: my room, my whole room, and nothing but my very God-companion-less room. Hence: He had indeed come alone. But no harm in making sure.
I closed the door. Heard the latch bolt slide into place with a soft click, and let it go at that (I was toying with the idea of replacing the security chain as well, but if you can’t feel secure in the presence of my Guest, where can you feel secure, is what I asked myself, chain or no?) I turned to face Him.
I looked again. Could it really be? But, oh yes, it was Him all right, still very much at the top of Jacob’s ladderish. But I didn’t dare ask, you know, just to make doubly, trebly sure. Bad form. He carried the air of someone who was expecting to be known, by me. So, all things considered, lingering remnants of could-it-reallys notwithstanding, we’ll put him down to God, then, once and for all: Gee-oh-dee, God.
“Sit down?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, looking around for somewhere to sit. Something alive-less. Found a stool I didn’t know I had in here and scrutinized it for a second or two, judged it safe and sat down.
“And,” I began. Meaning to say something pleasant like: And I hope you’ve had a nice trip here, good weather on the way, sorry about the rain here, and so on. But he was ignoring me so stellarly that there was no way I was going to go anywhere beyond those three letters. Definitely the at-the-top-of-Jacob’s-ladder guy, in my house. Should be strange, but wasn’t.
He looked around. Put his hands in his lap. Left over right. Then right over left. Beautiful fingers, no getting away from that either. Long, slender, strong (surely), well, perfect.
“You are a lucky man,” He said, apropos of I had no idea what.
“Yes?” I said, tentatively, prepared for anything.
“You like it in here?” he said. Well, asked, really, but it was more of a statement than a question. Still, I ventured an answer. “Uh, yes.” Not one of my more eloquent rejoinders.
Then he stood up and walked to the edge of the field before he turned around and beckoned me to follow with a perfect “come hither” with his perfect right hand. I came thither but by the time I had thitherized, He had moved on, obviously wanting me to follow. So into my field we went.
Let me explain that.
When I say inside (my head) it’s not really an inside at all (which was why I was surprised to find that it had a door for God to knock on and subsequently enter through). The inside of my head is really an outside. The inside-outside. And it’s a very large outside. It has sky and fields and streams and mountains and color, oh yes, and sounds, and smells, but the senses are a little jumbled. No, not really jumbled, more like merged. No, not really merged, more like seeping into each other. Bleeding. Blending. What I mean is: I can sometimes see the music. I can sometimes hear the color blue, the color red, the color green, all colors. Touch odors. Taste smells. It is a wonderful feeling, actually, if unsettling at times. I’ve have gotten used to it though: fields so green I taste them, grass so alive I hear it breathe. And, of course, my grass knows me very well. In places it grows really high, waist high, and very densely. But knowing I’m coming, it parts softly to let me through. Makes a path. Just like now. It must know God too, for He was still walking ahead of me and the grass parted for Him so eagerly it made a small road, almost.
We were heading for the Bach Falls.
Let me explain that.
Music, at least inside my outside head, comes in many forms. Classical, like Bach or Handel, or Beethoven, comes as water, as rivers, as waves. Can also come as sky, as winter. Or as brush-stroked portraits, alive with counterpoint. Mussorgsky comes to mind—self-taught and daring, until drink claimed and drowned him.
Jazz comes to me as jungle, grown as wild and fast as Coltrane or Davis or Jarrett can dream it, although Jarrett is more like rain, fragrant and fresh. It also comes like corals, millions of arms all red and white and blue and beige and pink and mauve and moving with the underlying rhythm of the sea, tinkling with cymbals as arms touch, pulsing with the bass, sprouting millions more with Coltrane’s breath to rise up out of the water to cling to the air and insist on a hearing.
I hear you, I do, and I smile and let them fill me and after that what other joy is there, or can there be? That’s Coltrane the magician for you, splintering time into so many thousand fragments and daring you to track them all. Of course, then he changes pace and mood and you have become a Paris café around midnight and there’s no other option open, you just give in to the slow river of smoke and closeness and so you deliquesce note by note.
Swing, like Goodman or Ellington or Miller, arrive to me as beautiful disturbances in the air. A whole lot of rhythm with a touch of jungle. And always with a touch of green. Then there’s bebop and then I only think of Charlie Parker who laughed himself to death at one of the Dorsey brothers (I forget which) and he comes at me like a raging cat (yes I mean to say exactly that), his saxophone a weapon.
While Monk stands alone, cloudlike, dreaming it all with his mysterious smile.
Folk music still (I think this is Dylan’s fault) pricks my conscience and sweeps at me like dusty plains (which I think is Guthrie’s fault). Baez tends to pour on the conscience thing (for there is always more you can do, you know, about hunger, about injustice, about our planet, about just about anything) and sometimes, I must admit, I alter it all into a summer meadow to simply enjoy the music: no message allowed.
Joni Mitchell has her own country in my head. She’s indefinable. Un-down-pinnable. Simply wonderful. Everything from river to jungle to rain. Like the hissing of summer lawns. Why she has not drastically altered the world for the better is a question I ponder often. And why hasn’t Dylan? He had its ear. He had the ear of a whole generation. He had his hand on the tiller of the world, but could not steer it. Why is that? I still ponder that question.
And in this part of my inside-outside world live the brilliant race of poets. All of them live here: Shelley the dreamer, Baudelaire the sulky lover, the drowner in black hair, Akhmatova the beautiful sentinel. Yeats too, and his unearthly touch, Plath and Borges. Explorers all of the outside-outside world, celestial visitors documenting their startling discoveries about the rest of us. Theirs is a country of ethereal associations, their many images blending into little explosions as you read and rejoice and suffer and see and hear and:
Next door, pop rushes out of vivid speakers and comes at me with dancing feet. As brightly colored as bubble gum just out of the wrapper. Neon. Juke boxes and eyeglasses that curve up at the edges like wings ready for flight at a moment’s notice. Prudes in budding breasts. No, no, this is all wrong. No dancing feet, no budding breasts, just the smell of all these things. A longing really. We lived up North then, Canada way, away. A lake. A boat. A transistor radio. A faraway station, not very strong, only comes in intermittently. Hollies, Searchers, Beatles, Tremulous, Mindbenders, Nashville Teens, Amen Corner, you name them. But that’s not quite right either. It’s more like a night falling and falling and falling and now I’m back to the dancing feet. It is a growing up. Finding this inside that is outside and hoping oh so much that she’ll look my way and it is suddenly cold outside with snow on the ground and everyone’s so bundled up that you can no longer make out budding breasts. Pop. A complex avalanche of smell and touch and longing, all to a wonderful backbeat.
Rap music—they call it hip hop now I think—is atmospheric pressure is racing clouds is electricity in the air. Chuck D said that Rap music is information that has never been delivered to people so young or so poor. He said that a rap song has three times as many words as a singing song, that Rap music is the invisible TV station that black people never had. And this is all true for me. It is short black novels, often quite ingenious, and always quick on the draw, like chain lightning, often angry, often banal, but rarely boring. It’s bad weather, but enjoyable bad weather. I like to drive in it, hear the rain on the roof of the car, watch the violent illuminations of distant and swaying fields and count thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, thousand four to see how close you were to getting killed (though I believe a car is one of the safest places you can be if struck by lightning, something to do with the rubber tires which will not conduct the electricity into the ground, something, something). That’s Rap.
There are some white folks who try to steal it from the black folks. Like they stole (effectively and often beautifully) the blues: witness Paul Butterfield. They should stop trying to steal Rap though, I think. Then there is French Rap, which is pretty much a joke. I think. No disturbance, only chuckle. But, perhaps to the French, who knows?
Then there is Rock. In my music universe Rock warrants (and is) its own planet.
Huge. Loud. Formations. Geology. The Cliffs of Normandy all in mostly major chords with a minor 7th here and there. But alive. Psychedelic in places, a liquid version of Giant’s Causeway. Instant organ, facing the sea. A ladder to leap from. For me a gate and another country. And also a little like Lake Baikal. Lots of very deep, strange fish, like Country Joe and the; and Jefferson Airplane. Moby Grape (the brightest light in the 1967 skies, mismanaged to death within a decade, though still the energy that warms this continent). I wish, I wish, I wish they would have received their due. Still, they remain royalty in the country of show me the way. Then there’s the Phish type fish, blending Rock back into Jazzy Jungle, brilliantly.
Perhaps I am wrong to categorize. For notes, any notes, frequencies, co-sounding and harmonizing, have always stirred me, and have always formed a perfect cradle for my thoughts, and in that cradle I have placed many dreams of my own, where my words have found their home and comfort.
Others with their own countries: Bach, Monk, Beethoven, Handel, Shostakovich. No, not Mozart, I’m sorry. Yet others: Keith Jarrett, Phish, Beatles, and Cocteau Twins. And prominent in the country of Bach are the Falls. Especially the Victoria sized falls of Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, for which God was heading, quite a ways ahead of me now, not stopping or turning his head or waiting up or anything, just moving ahead, not doubting my stamina. Flattering, I guess. I increased my pace a little to catch up. The grass was still opening up a path for us, smiling at me as I went by, ooh and aahing at God, I noticed. We were getting closer, for I could hear the beginning of the Toccata. In a way, it was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor that unlocked my heart.
Let me explain that.
When I say heart, what I mean is my deepest wish, what has always been my deepest wish for as long as I have known wishes (deep or otherwise) to exist: and that wish is, and has always been, to be able to catch and hold and view and frame my feelings with words.
No, I’m not a writer, not really. I’m a dabbler. A word-painter, perhaps.
I am not schooled or trained or studied or anything, but I have always tried to taste my feelings. You know, fully to savor that rising or eruption of joy or anger or sadness or surprise or amazement that is the feeling. And not only to savor, but to hold it, and hold it so still that I can get a really good look at it, so still and so good to now let me frame it with words.
Let me explain that.
When I say frame it with words I mean catch it and describe it, but you can’t really describe a feeling accurately, you can only create a word-frame around it, a frame that lets the joy or anger or sadness or surprise or amazement to be seen or heard or felt within that frame.
It’s as if my feeling was the many and true colors of a painting and the words its frame so delicately and honestly crafted that whomever then read it would naturally and in turn create his or her own colors, painting, feeling within it, to sense, to hold, to own.
That’s what I mean.
Yes, I’ve tried to do this, and often. I’ve started and failed or never really started but only wished. Until that winter’s night (we’re still living up North) when the snow lay glistering on the ground and protested audibly at every step, creaking, creaking at every step. I was glad to finally be inside, closed the door behind me—pulled it extra hard to make sure I sealed the cold out.
(God, up ahead, has stopped to check on my progress, and now gestures for me to hurry.)
I don’t know why this night was the night, or, really, why the Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor was the right music, they just were. Once thawed and settled I chose (for now particular reason that I can remember) the record and placed it on the turntable. They were LPs then, Long Playing records on vinyl, and this Toccata and Fugue was recorded by Karl Richter on Deutsche Grammophon—I have since grown quite partial to Peter Hurford’s rendition on the London label, but that’s beside the point.
With the first three notes, ta-da-da, and (after the faintest of pauses) the following seven: ta-da-da-da-da-da-da, I froze.
Let me explain that.
Up there, where I grew up, we had the northern lights. The aurora borealis. The northern dawn. It is a sight once seen never forgotten. It is more than sight; it is, in itself, a universe. I saw it many times as a child and always in the still of dark winter. Always in cloudless skies—stars clear and near enough to touch. And there, in this sky, due north, the one-thousand-mile high pipe organ of size and shimmer. And you can hear it. And it shifts, constantly, in patterns, colors, red, green, yellow, white. At times it grew so large it covered half the sky, at other times it was a waving band in a small portion of it, but always to the north, and always a stealer of a child’s breath. And always cold. Always cold. Snow glistering, creaking, creaking every step. The child looking for his breath and his heart both, stolen by that towering thief in the sky.
Ta-da-da, Ta-da-da-da-da-da-da, Ta-da-da, Da-da-da-da.
Frozen like the child in the snow-clad field gazing into the magical sky, I grew equally still in my little teenage room, for in the northern corner of it, from the high ceiling, the aurora borealis (impossibly) descended, shifting and shimmering and dancing with every note of Richter’s organ, with every movement of his fingers. Majestically trumpeting, icily touching, flooding me. Not aware that I did, I reached for pen and paper and I began to write, letting the sounds enter me to not only stir feeling, but to also move hand and fingers into ink on paper. I was hardly aware of writing, but I knew that I did what I had so long yearned to do: I was framing this wonderful feeling with words, this river of sound that Bach poured into our shared universe so many years ago (and it’s been so much the better for it since, the universe, don’t you think?). Captivated, I filled the page, then another, then a third. The music stopped (or proceeded onto something not the D-Minor Toccata and Fugue) and I put the pen down and I read with amazement what I had just written. Written by an alien, surely, for I recognized nothing of myself (of my familiar self, that is) in it. These were words of someone who dared, and could, and did. Someone not me, but then again, maybe a little bit me, maybe, actually, mostly me. Maybe, indeed, me. Which is how my heart unlocked.
Up ahead, He looks impatient, God does, robe billowing in the wind, hair flowering around his head like a sea anemone in rough weather, arms almost akimbo, and although I could not see his feet, hidden by the tall grass, I would not be surprised if one of them was tap-tap-tapping the wondering ground.
I’m coming, I’m coming.
“I do not have all day,” He said. Or didn’t.
Now, that’s one thing I would have thought He had; He, the maker of days. This to myself, mind you.
“I heard that,” He said, and I blushed, caught out by our Divine Mind Reader.
“Sorry.” Then, “Where are we going?” I asked.
“Rushdie,” He said.
“Rushdie? I thought you were heading for Bach.”
“By way of.”
“Yes,” He said, then turned away from me abruptly, and plowed on through the tall grass that still kissed up profusely and slipped out of the way at His coming, attention all on Him and almost forgetting me, letting me through, sure, but not with the same reverence, at all. The nerve. After all, this was my head.
Rushdie? Again, I really had to put a move on to keep up. Maybe He actually didn’t have all day and indeed was in a hurry. Maybe there was only one of Him after all.
Let me explain that.
My maternal grandmother, Mommi as we called her, was quite the religious fanatic.
As I grew up, Mom and Dad—then freshly and richly married—always spent their long and leisurely summers traveling child-free Earth (I’d get cards from all kinds of unpronounceable places with very curious postage stamps) so I got to spend most of the summer with her.
I never thought of her that way (as a religious fanatic), of course. Rather, Mommi was the norm, the rest of the world—to a man, woman, and child— just happened to be non-praying sinners is all. There were only a few, a very select few, that were not abject sinners, thieves, murderers, rapists, beaters of little children, killers of women, degenerates, evildoers, reprobates, transgressors, wrongdoers, bandits, crooks, Catholics, criminals, Hindus, devil worshippers, Buddhists, ogres, Mormons, fornicators, Christian Scientists, blackmailers, monsters, swindlers, gluttons, lechers—well, you name it. Mommi, however, belonged to the select few, and if I played my cards right, and prayed every night, without fail now, I might eventually join her. But, she admonished me, raised index finger stabbing the air in my direction, it has to be every night, for God sees everything, knows everything, especially about little boys, and He keeps a tally and a single missed night would send me straight to hell, and that’s hell with capital H, actually, Hell so gruesome, so painful, so hot, so burning, so intensely everburning, everchilling, everarmbreaking, everfleshtearing, evertongueoutpulling (with red-hot pincers), everstabbing, everpitchforksinthesiding, everexcruciating that I could never quite get all of my wits around the utter pain of it. Even so, I knew this was not the place for a child. And He, God, lived only in the hearts of the select few (I believe at the time there were only six or seven of them, Mommi included, in the whole world).
How can God keep track of all the children’s prayers? I asked. He is everywhere, she explained. How everywhere? I wanted to know. Everywhere, everywhere, was the expansion on that.
“But,” I said.
“No buts. You ask too many questions. God does not like children who ask too many questions.”
“Because that proves to Him that they don’t believe.”
That shut me up for a while, ungraspable Hell fresh in mind. But not for long. “How can he be everywhere at the same time? And how can he be in every heart of every holy person?” I asked. Then quickly added, “like you,” for she was not immune to flattery, this I had noticed.
She had waist-long white hair that she normally braided and kept slung over her shoulder and down her chest. She had no teeth of her own left and her dentures clucked a little when she spoke. She had small, kind sometimes, fierce sometimes, eyes, and now this face set upon me through old and partially taped-together glasses (white tape), with what I thought was going to be the final declaration: I had lost, off to Hell I go, so long, see me later. Tell my parents. But instead she said, “He is many.”
“One for each heart.”
“For every human being?”
“But you said,” I said.
“He is in the hearts only of those who deserve Him,” she went on. The deserving, on this planet, only numbering six or seven as I mentioned. “But He is in the conscience of everyone else, keeping track.”
“So that’s how He knows,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s how He knows.”
“More than one.”
“But still only one,” she said. “Our Father.”
But I don’t think I heard that very clearly. At least it didn’t register at the time, for I was busy having a revelation: there were more than one of Him, and He was right now occupying my very conscience, where he sat with ledger in lap and pen in hand keeping track of my evening prayers. I didn’t miss one for months.
And now here He was, rushing toward Bach Falls with me in pursuit, and He was in a hurry because He didn’t have all day, meaning: He had other places to be, other things to Attend to, other persons to See. So, only one of Him then.
We were so close to the Toccata now that I could feel the spray in the air. God, just rounding the little promontory of forest that jutted into the field of grass and shielded the falls from my view, could probably see it now. Yes, He did. For he stopped. To take in the sight. It was always that way. Even God could not help but be pervious to the wonder. I have always thought that if God ever took human form, Bach could have been one of them. Perhaps, I thought, looking at God looking at the Toccata rush towards and fall over the wide edge, perhaps that was the case. Perhaps it was memory that had frozen God to the spot, allowing me to catch up to share the view with Him.
And what a view! I had not been there in a while (there are so many places inside my outside head that many of them—even wonders such as this—go unvisited for months, sometimes years). But here I was again, and again I had my breath stolen by the might of the Zambezi river lunging itself out over the edge and into the bottomless gorge in a cascade of spray and thunder. Often, if my sun is out—like today—you can see the rainbow clearly, sometimes—often—more than one. Had He written this music? I wondered again, as I stole a glance at His rapturous face. No sign of Him having read that thought. No reply. Just rapture. Divine rapture. And that takes some doing, impressing God. But it did.
“You are a very lucky person,” He said at long last as He turned to me.
“Do you realize,” He said, facing the falls again, “that this is as much yours as Bach’s?”
News to me. “No,” I said.
“Well it is,” He said, turning to me again. When I showed no signs of comprehension, He explained.
“To some, the Toccata is nothing but a string of noises, barely tolerable. To others it is a pleasant though unmoving experience. To others it is an historical oddity. To some a mathematical formula even. To some it is an uplifting journey. To some—a few—it is the revelation of, well, Me. To some it is a beautiful display of might and harmony. And to others—perhaps the majority—it is nothing but boredom. But to you,” he said, holding my eyes with his, while smiling, “it is a major event. And a quite famous one with those who know, I might add.”
Those who know?
“Well, we’re not getting into that right now,” he said, heading me off at the pass. “The point is that this is your creation. Yours and Bach’s. You could not have done this without him.”
“And he could not have done this,” He indicated the roaring sweep of the falls with his hand, “without you. And yes, he is very pleased. I think flattered would be the word.”
“As I said, we’re not getting into that right now.”
“He?” I said, unable to let that one go.
“Yes, he does know.”
“About the falls?”
“He’s seen this?” Not quite getting it.
“But this is my head.”
“He gets around.”
Now there’s a morsel for thought, if ever there was one. “In my head?” I said again.
“Not uninvited,” He said.
“I’ve never invited him,” I said.
“Oh, yes. You have.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Not knowingly, perhaps.”
“Not unknowingly either,” I replied.
“How would you know?” He said.
“And he has seen this?”
“And he likes it?”
I must say I was pleased. Very. “Well, darn it,” I said.
God smiled at me again, looked a little proud, actually. Then He turned to look at the falls again, and said nothing for some time. We listened through to the end of the final note of the fugue, allowing ourselves—well, I can only speak for me, but it would not surprise me to learn that this held true for Him as well—to be carried along the breadth and might of the Toccata and then out over the rim and into the cascading flight of the Fugue. And then there was silence, the promise of thunder where the falls now silently went about their business of waiting for me to listen again.
“You are lucky,” said God again, then turned down the jungle path that was no jungle path but more like a narrow forest highway, strewn with pine needles and soft and somewhat mossy silence. “Rushdie,” He said.
It was easier to keep up with him on the path, or he walked slower, one or the other.
Why Rushdie, I wondered to myself.
“Any honest writer would do,” answered God. “But seeing as you are reading him right now, he will be all the more alive here.”
Yes, that’s true.
Each writer I have ever read is a corridor. Each book I have ever read is a door.
Let me explain that.
For me, I guess William Blake is partially to blame, for when he said “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,” he struck a chord with me. And the chord he struck was the sentence itself, for it cleansed my perceptions and turned infinite on me.
Let me explain that.
I read the sentence. And reading it I understood it. And understanding it I perceived it, saw-heard-smelled-tasted-touched-whateverelsed it, completely. And perceiving it, as it was, as true, as infinite, I suddenly saw that what I was looking at was language itself. Words. Words sneaking in under the perception radar, finding their mark and there exploding into clear perceptions created by you. Now seen by your cleansed inside outside perceptions, bypassing smudged glass and noisy ducts altogether. Real. Completely. Infinite.
Let me explain that.
Well, think about it. It’s true, isn’t it? For when you look at something with your eyes, you may not see it clearly, or even all things about what you’re looking at—tired, speck in your eye, what have you; when you hear something with your ears, you may not hear, clearly, every nuance or harmonic of sound, every whisper of meaning—distracted, preoccupied, calcium deposits, what have you; and when you touch, and when you taste, and when you smell, ditto, ditto, ditto.
But, I realized, as Blake’s sentence grew inside me, that when you read someone, when you take in the words with your eyes (and there is never any doubt about the word itself, it’s there in plain view, you can’t miss it) and with its help now proceed to construct this universe that you now share with the writer (when you follow his blueprint, the book—he is using your imagination as his brush), you transcend the physical means of perception—grimy glass, dull membranes, stuffy nose, what have you: you simply see, hear, taste, smell, and touch the full thing, the infinite, as hard and solid or as soft and delicate as you want to make it. You know, you make it. You become, you are what the language says. You are what you now perceive, and perception doesn’t come any clearer, or closer, or more certain, or more infinite.
Huxley got in on the doors act too, but what he said that I like the most is that “Knowledge is proportionate to being. You know in virtue of what you are.” And what I see is that you are what you read because you create it, your creation is an extension of you, and you know your creation because you are it. A door then. Each book a door.
Here’s one. And if this isn’t a door. Listen: “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.” That is how Ambrose Bierce invites you in. You look at the door in amazement, find the handle, press it down, push the door open, and in you go. You’re now in the midst of An Imperfect Conflagration, his amazing short story.
Another door, as wonderful, if more subtle, and leading to a much larger and varicolored universe, goes like this: “On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.”
As you can see, I still remember the opening paragraph to one of my favorite doors verbatim, John Crowley’s Little, Big. I can still taste the lips of Daily Alice Drinkwater, the delicate giantess that Smokey walks to marry. I can smell the wood and texture of Edgewood, the immense and many-angled house that is part dream, part edifice, and part whatever you want to make it. I still love what I made of it and it’s all behind that door, third on the left in the Crowley corridor, itself not far from the Rushdie corridor, towards which God was now leading me down the pine needle path (straight as an arrow—I don’t want to have to be looking about me too much when I head for my writers), safe and soft. You can’t hear our footsteps. Muffled by brown carpet. Trees muttering to themselves at our sides, could it be, could it really be, debating I am sure whether this really was Whom it appeared to be leading me down the needled path, robe billowing not from wind but from forward motion. God is nothing if not energetic.
Once you enter Little, Big there is no turning back. You are changed, you have incorporated. Crowley’s body has become yours. His universe has become yours. His dream has become yours. You cannot unincorporate. Well, I take that back, but that’ll have to wait.
We hurry past other paths branching off in various directions. The largest one—not even glanced at by my Guide (I almost said Captor, but that would be unfair, too strong a word)—leads to the Arts (as I like to call them, same as I like to refer to all my books as the Letters). The Arts is the dominion of form and color, a kind of subcontinent, much like India.
I didn’t much care for Art—you know, paintings and such—until I encountered Dalí, and I first heard of him not as an artist but as a madman. Something about lowering himself down in a cage over a Paris congregation, gathered specifically to see him, and then having himself hauled up again only to then vanish. My kind of guy. Had to find out more. Found and read The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, his autobiography, and by force of personality alone he made me love his art. I must confess that I had disdained “modern” art up till then as something people do who cannot paint but who pretend to depth and mystique and imply that only superficiality and hollowness will prevent your understanding and appreciation of their genius. Well, I had seen too many of that pretentious ilk in action and damn if they could draw a straight line (actually, quite a hard thing to do I have since been apprised by some article or other).
Not so Dalí. He first learned how to paint, really paint. He could paint almost photographically before he took off into his strange and very Dalíesque universe of burning giraffes and melting watches. The man could paint, and that earned both my admiration and interest. And in a way he was another door for me, leading to the larger universe of the Arts, and especially to the beautiful thought-scapes of the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pisarro, Manet, Angrand, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin. I have warmly fallen for them all, and each have a permanent exhibition (they are small countries, really, or large counties may be a better description) at the end of a path God wouldn’t even glance at.
Especially Monet. His views of early morning Paris, they, well, remind me. Remind me. His love of blue. His understanding of light. He gave birth to the name of the style, did he not? There are days I spend days in and around him. With a twist of Shostakovich.
Let me explain that.
Although Shostakovich is his own country and Monet is his own country, and although they are quite far apart (you head out west from here for Shostakovich and head due south, then veer east for Monet) you can blend them, bleed them into each other. That’s what I do when I listen to his String Quartets while I feast on Monet’s Paris pictures. It’s like browsing the exhibition with the live quartet in the corner adding just the right touch of surreal color to the air about me, and then I can touch them both, both Monet and Shostakovich, and I can know them as brothers.
Ahead, the Cathedral looms, and with it, inside it, the corridors. Approaching.
The Writers’ Cathedral. First we get out of the now thinly treed forest and into grass again. Fields, nothing but, to the left. Lakes, many and small to the right as far as the eye can see, beaches both sandy and grassy there. Reedy shores in places, lots of little fish in those lakes. The Cathedral—or what would look like one were you to stand far enough away from it—lies straight ahead. It is huge, rising in the early-morning blues of Monet, reaching for—and, yes, touching—the sky. It is the entrance to, and also is, the corridors, and God, stopping now and bending his head back to look up for the spires, but most likely (like all others who try) failing to see them, then looks back at the large doors and now heads straight for them.
When I say touching the sky, I mean: actually touching the sky.
Let me explain that.
The structure, were you to see it from a great distance, is nearly a replica of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral in the Morning, before the sun. Now, when I say great distance, I mean great, I mean many, many, many miles. Say, hundreds. So far away from it that were you to approach it even in a car you would for the longest time have the sense of not approaching it at all, the sense of getting no closer no matter how fast or long you drive. It is the same sensation you get when approaching a distant, majestically rising mountain range. You drive towards it, and there it is, seemingly a foot tall on the horizon. You drive for another hour, it has barely grown, and you know why: the peaks you see are eighteen thousand feet tall, and you are still hundreds and hundreds of miles away, they will take a little more approaching before they grow to full height. I think you follow. So too with the Cathedral. The exterior towers, there is one in each corner, rise well over twenty thousand feet into the sky (what I mean by actually touching). They each measure five thousand feet by five thousand feet at the base and only taper off a little as they soar, and they stand some ten thousand feet apart. It is an imposing structure—daunting, I see, even God—and I feel not a little pleased about that, to be honest.
It is a structure I saw once in a dream, or a memory, it is impossible for me to tell which. Once inside, the vaulted ceilings hang eight thousand feet above you, and you would be well served by a local transit authority, for it takes you hours to cross from one end to the other without one. There are no pews in here, no altars or pulpits, only space, and, of course, corridors, and inside the corridors, doors. Which is what we have come for. The doors.
God walked across the marble square (with its Olympic size fountain) and reached the steps leading up to the portals, where He stopped and turned. “How do you open them?” he asked and indicated the four-thousand-foot oak doors. “You approach them,” I said. “They know what to do.”
“Ah,” he said, and proceeded up the steps.
Now, I could tell that the grass was doing their best to flatter. It was quite apparent from the hurried and fawning ways they bent aside for Him, whispering (and practically pointing) all the while among themselves. But I’m not sure how I could tell that these four-thousand-foot oak doors were kissing up too. Was it that they swung open without even the tiniest little squeak (they always squeaked a little for me—well, imagine the stress on those hinges, they simply have to squeak, or at least I thought so)? Was it that I imagined a stiff but eloquent bow from each of them as they parted inwards to let Him enter? I don’t know, but I was quite convinced that an undue amount of respect was being shown, or at least they opened a little too obsequiously. Be that, however, as it may: God entered, and I followed. The doors eased shut behind us, setting off a small weather system against our backs.
The inside of the Cathedral reminds me a little of my head in general in that you step inside and for all intents and purposes find yourself outside. There’s no sky in here, to be sure, but the vaulted ceiling is so high it may just be overcast that day. In every direction, there are space and pillars, columns and arches, and other feats of architecture. Is everything in here out of stone? Yes, it sure looks like it. But I think too that gravity is playing along and has relaxed its pull a little, at least where the masonry is concerned, or most of this would—it should, really—come crashing down on you. But it doesn’t. It is the largest interior ever erected and I’m not a little proud of it. And then there are the corridors, of course.
Now, in a place this size you’d assume that the inside doors would match the colossity (that’s not really a word, but let’s pretend that it is) of the outside doors and the whole of the structure, but they do not, I think that would have been too impractical. I forget, they may have started out in the larger league, but somewhere along the way I changed them. I think they struck me as too ceremonial or something. Besides, normal doors just work better. And these normal doors were what God was looking for.
“To your left,” I said.
He looked around, didn’t see them, turned to me and held my eyes with His, a question.
“That way,” I said, and pointed to an eight-hundred-foot high maw by the west wall, the entrance to the corridor that led to the corridors that led to the doors. He nodded, and set off in that direction, wrapping the robe around him against the wind that had yet to settle from the outside doors’ closing. I set out after him.
The Writers’ Main Corridor, though not on the scale of the Cathedral itself, nonetheless is impressive (if I may say so). It is about three hundred feet wide with a five-hundred-foot ceiling (painted in Turneresque eruptions of color), and along both sides, for as long as the eye can see: entrances, large arching gateways leading to the smaller corridors—one for each writer, read or not yet read. Those with story openings carved above them have been read, by me (who else? this is my universe, after all). Those without names are waiting their turn. Each of these entrances open up on a smaller (relatively speaking) corridor, about half the size of the main one, each with a row of doors on both sides, some with names carved on them (of books I have read), some without (books waiting their turn to be read, or even written).
So, we’re still heading from the Writers’ Main Corridor, but there’s a little of the distant mountain range phenomenon here: we walked and walked but appeared not to come much closer, so I think God—pressed for time—pulled a little magic something out of his hat, for suddenly there we were there, just inside the main entrance of the Writers’ Corridor.
“Where’s Rushdie?” He asked.
These doorways are not alphabetized (although I sometimes wish they were), you come upon them in the same order I came upon the writer. “Down the left, I think,” I said.
He set off.
It was down the right, actually, which He discovered after a while. That earned me an inquisitive glance: don’t I know my own corridors? I shrugged. He entered.
The Rushdie corridor smells of incense. I know, it’s a bit cheap, but you know, India and all that. I came by Rushdie by way of Midnight’s Children, and so you will find its opening neatly carved on the first door to your left: “I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact.”
God opened the door and we stepped into Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home in Bombay, Saleem Sinai busy being born amidst fireworks and celebrations outside, for this was the midnight of the very birth of India herself.
I know this world, I’ve tumbled through it a few times, and tumble is what you do through it: Rushdie has the knack of grabbing you by the hand with a “C’mon, I’ve got something to show you,” and then he rushes off and just never lets go of your hand, nor does he ever slow down.
We didn’t go any farther; this is where God wanted to get to, this is from where He wanted to speak to me. And now that we had arrived, I felt that He was getting ready to make His Point. Which indeed He did.
“You have all this,” He said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“A universe of universes. Your music, your paintings, your very polite grass and doors. Your amazing buildings. Your many planets and countries and counties and cities and forests and lakes.”
“Yes, I do,” I agreed.
“It is quite spectacular,” He said.
“Yes, it is,” I agreed.
“So why would you want to jeopardize it?” He asked.
“I wouldn’t want to jeopardize it,” I said.
“But you are,” He said.
“You either talk too much, or too little.”
I shook my head, slowly. I didn’t get it and said so.
“You either say too much, or nothing at all.”
I still didn’t get it and said so.
“How can I put it?” He said. “There is either no shutting you up when you come upon some passage you like, when you discover something—a new word for example, that’s just the right one, or when you suddenly realize that the shadows you feel cast upon you are actually painted by the poet you just read.”
“It bubbles out,” I sort of protested. For what He said is true. Mea culpa. I have a tendency to sometimes storm down the stairs, book in hand, to tell my mother and sometimes her guests too, if she happens to have company, all about it: Why effete is such a perfect word for Roman decadence, how Dickens’ candle was too weak to shine and only slightly disturbed the darkness, where maggots come from (honestly, I was startled to find out that they were fly eggs, is all, I hadn’t known), how the water in Gene Wolfe’s brook was fresh with the memory of snow, how Rushdie’s language tumbles and bubbles (reading him is like hanging on to a raft on a livid sea, is what I think I said), and things like that.
“Yes it does,” God confirmed.
I agreed, but didn’t say anything.
“And then there’s no getting you to say a single word when Ruth invites company.”
Ruth is my mom.
And by company God means one of Mom’s friends and her (they are always females, these friends of Mom’s, and always mothers) marriageable, but as yet unattached daughter brought along to inspect the goods (me), and now both seated with Mom in our downstairs sitting room, looking at me, also seated, waiting for me to say something. Anything.