Rapture of the Deep

Chapter Two

 

Of Rivers and Religion

If reader, I had ampler space in which
to write I’d sing
- though incompletely that sweet draught for which my thirst was limitless. . .(Dante)

 

1

Cold water in the mountains. Kneeling on the wet rocks in the early evening dusk beside Rainbow Creek as it rolls down fromMacalesterPass, lichen and moss covering the stones, the footing delicate. Through crevices thousands of feet above, through fog and snow, it all drops into my hands. I wash the tin plates slowly.

My twelve year old daughter is here, drying the dishes, waiting for me to continue the tale we tell as we travel through the mountains.

The story tonight is the sound of falling water. Inside that sound is a stone, a well, an old and unforgiving man.

Unforgiven? Katie asks.
            Close enough.

He lives alone. He draws his water and carries it in a wooden bucket and pours it into an old steam kettle which he places on the darkened metal of the stove. As he sits he waits, reading by the light of the fire lines of terza rima so familiar he could sing them in his sleep. He lays the book in his lap every few minutes and listens to the wind, to the rain against the roof and windows. He knows the Princess is lost on the mountain and will soon be lead to his door. It is for this that he is prepared. He has waited for years; he has sung her down to him like the moon. He knows he is to be her teacher, and she his final, his best loved student. His daughter.

I lay my hands in the water. Wind soughs through the pines. Poetry, I’m thinking; this earth is a single vowel.

Go on, Katie says.

I start again as I finish the last of the pans, placing the tiny bottle of Dr. Bonner’s biodegradable soap in its small plastic bag. I say He sings down the moon for her.

What?

He sings down the moon. I mean he has waited for her his whole life, and his waiting is about to end.   He sits in his tiny cabin and listens to the rain pour down, and he wants only to save her from this loneliness he feels.

He feels?

She feels I mean. This terrible fear of the storm. But he knows he cannot. No more could you aid a butterfly as it frees itself of the cocoon.

Couldn’t you just cut a little with a pair of scissors? Gently pull out the wings?

            No. It can’t be done. The creature will never have the strength to fly. And so he must sit and wait.

How does he know she’s coming?

Ah, he knows all right. He‘s studied the way things are. He can sense things shift in the air, he smells them in the wind like a bird, feels the currents like a fish.

And what has happened to the old man’s wife?

Well I begin, and pause, for I realize that I do not know. He lost her, I say, a long time before.

She died?

No. She left, or he left he’s no longer sure which, or whether perhaps it was both. Something happened between them and ever since a door in his soul has been closed, like an unburied seed.

What do you mean?

I mean — what did I mean? I mean that a way down to healing has shut.

Ah, says Katie. You mean he can’t love anyone.

Yes. I suppose that’s what I mean.

And? She asks.

But we’re finished at the creek. I stand, putting a hand out, and we walk together back up the path, carrying the dishes to the campsite where Judy has finished setting up the tent. It’s approaching dark under the trees and we stumble about, laughing and crashing into one another, wet and dirty and tired. Down below I can hear it, that rushing water, and I know just where it’s going, pulled headlong by its own desire. It’s released from before and after. It’s free inside of gravity.

 

2

you are a fountain in the garden

a well of living waters

that stream from Lebanon

It’s a story of rivers, living water. Vowels and consonants riffing over stones and sediment, over the tongue and teeth of the breathing land. It’s beautifully liquid all the way down.

 

That night, after Katie dropped off to sleep in the tent, I picked up Siddhartha for the first time in decades. How he loved this river, I read, how it enchanted him, how grateful he was to it! In his heart he heard the newly awakened voice speak, and it said to him. “Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.”

It is, I suspected, the idea of a river thatHessehas in mind here, and not any river in particular. But this would not have occurred to me when I first read this, at the age of sixteen, when I myself did not really know any rivers except the Desplaines as it ran through Thatcher Woods, just west ofChicago. I did not think of the Desplaines when I read these words. At sixteen love itself was little more than a sound to me, a mere hum in the heart. I had no idea what it took out of you.

            But I adored Siddhartha, and understood his restlessness, his longing for the pure drone of moving waters. Even more I understood his old friend Govinda, who finds, late in his life, the enlightened Siddhartha working as a simple ferryman. Tell me one word, Govinda pleads, tell me something I can conceive, something I can understand!. My path, he says, is often hard and dark.

Siddhartha invites his friend to kiss him on the forehead. As he does, Govinda experiences samadhi, a moment of pure bliss. He sees not Siddhartha’s face but others, many, a long series, a continuous stream of faces. He sees the face of a fish, a carp, a new born child. He sees the face of a murderer, “saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man.” It’s all there in the face of Siddhartha, all choices in this or some other lifetime. It’s this Govinda kissed: this reality of life flowing through one single point, bindu, the soundless point out of which all sound flows, the hidden peak from which all waters run.

I remember finishing this book for the first time lying in my bedroom one warm August evening — posters of Jim Morrison and Dylan on the walls, the cover of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks propped up beside the small record player on the desk– and then walking outside into the night. I lay on the hill across the playground from my old school and stared up through the limbs of the elms into the dark sky. There was, I knew, nothing to be done. And I would, I knew, lose this moment, even as I knew that it had changed me, entered me in some way that I couldn’t explain. I was sixteen and felt lucky, utterly graced. I’d kissed the third eye. I’d plunged into healing waters.

 

When I returned to Siddhartha we were hiking in the North Cascades from Holden, reachingLymanLake late in the evening. We spent two nights there before heading north over Cloudy Pass and down Agnes Gorge to Stehekin, adding a day hike up to Lyman Glacier. Between those two days I began and finished the novel again, sitting outside the tent while the light held, and then moving in and reading by flashlight while Judy read and Katie slept beside her. The lake was close, just below us, close enough to catch the sound of the headwaters as they started their long slide down toLake Chelan.

I thought again about my own story as I lay there in the dark, my flashlight off, listening to the night whirling around me. I’d first thought of this old man as some kind of holy hermit, steeped like tea in mystical knowledge. That’s what I wanted for him, but that’s not how he was — at least not yet, or not entirely. That old man needed salvation, I realized suddenly. He still needed those healing waters, after all those years in the mountains. They‘d carried him as far as they could, cleaned him down to a kind of truth. But deeper waters awaited him.

There are many ways of knowing a river.

Imagine making love as a river loves the earth it wears away. That incessant and beautiful grinding, the touch of liquid against flesh, on lime and sandstone, water pulsing against the banks — this flowing of bodies together. Step off the shore into the life of another form. Discover buoyancy. Hold each other, bone and psyche worn soft by long years of bumping up against the edges. Love is the wearing away, like glaciers melting in the sun, a solid river of ice afloat in the sea, adrift and drawn down, evaporating by the sheer force of desire.

We have been, I thought, a channel slipping down the mountains, carving its long way home.

            Under the snows and along the banks where wildflowers bloom – larkspur and lupine, gentian and bluebells, scarlet gilea and paintbrush.

Bears shuffle and deer wade, drinking of our body. Elk and antelope, deer and marmot, Ponderosa and Douglas fir. All of us on the move.

 

 

3

In The Gates of Light, a thirteenth century masterpiece of Kabbalah, Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla argues that aspects of God emanate from an intertwined hierarchy of ten Spheres, the Sephirah, connected by channels which may be disrupted or repaired through human activity. The task of the Jew is to repair this world so that it becomes a receptacle for the heavenly Spheres’ Shefa — its “everflow.” This repair, achieved through contemplation, prayer and the fulfillment of the Torah’s commandments, is a form of blessing, Brachah, a word that is considered synonymous with the word that shares its root, Braychah, pool, a receptacle for water.

My daughter’s seventh grade class has been exploring our neighborhood, mapping all the channels that feed Piper’s Creek, which itself flows down into the salt waters of Puget Sound. Through front and backyards, often just a few feet from the houses, the kids find the pools and springs, the veins that merge downhill within the creek. They photograph, keep records and maps, and wherever possible clean out anything that’s blocking the descent.

Brachah, I’m thinking, vessel for the everfiow.

            The truth. It will set you free.

 

So the old man leaves the mountains.
But where does he go?
I don’t  know. What do you think?

I think – I think he goes looking for what he’s lost. And I think he goes into the city.

Why the city?

I don’t know. What do you think?

Ice melts, I think, the rivers rise and flood, carrying away so much of our lives. But I do not say it.

I’m suddenly frightened, and it’s not that I no longer know where the old man is heading. We’re entering uncharted territory, which in this case isn’t a mountain but the desert of the heart. Rage and forgiveness. A death that enters singing.

 

4

Story itself is a kind of water, beginning as a simple stream of sound waves condensed by the canal of the ear and carried to the tight eardrum, which then vibrates. Sound knocks at the door of the middle ear. There the ossicles form a moveable bridge:  the hammer picks up sound vibrations and conducts them to the inner ear through the anvil and stirrup. The sound waves are amplified and transformed into mechanical energy and then into hydraulic pressure waves within the fluid-filled inner ear, the “bony labyrinth,” where hearing takes place.

            Consider a story of water told to the Anthropologist Keith Basso, working among the Apaches in the American Southwest. In learning the names of places, Basso is learning their stories, the connections between place and people coded like DNA into these sounds. Charles, one of his teachers, is speaking:

      Now these rocks are lying alone. No one comes to them anymore. Once this wasn’t so. Long ago, people came here often. They squatted on these rocks when they filled their containers with water. They knelt on these rocks when they drank water from their hands. Our people were very grateful for this spring. It made them happy to know they could rely on it anytime. They were glad this place was here.

      Now they are coming to get water! They have been working — maybe they were digging up agave — and now they are thirsty. A man is walking in the lead with women and children behind him. The women are carrying their containers. Some have water jugs on their backs. No one is talking. Maybe there are snakes here, lying on these rocks. Yes! Now the man in front can see them! There are snakes lying stretched out on these rocks. They are the ones who own this spring, the ones who protect it. . .

      Now that man has come here. He is talking to those who protect Snakes’ Water, using words they understand and doing things correctly. Soon they move off the rocks. They keep going, unalarmed, until they are out of sight. Now that man is sprinkling something on the water. It is a gift to the ones who own it. He is giving thanks to them and Water, informing them that he and the people are grateful. ‘This is good,’ he is saying to them. ‘This is good.’

Something happens inside the word as it moves inside the listener, and something happens inside the listener, who is touched. “The three of us turn from the barren spring,” Keith Basso concludes, “and together walk slowly away, lost in thought and the deepness of time, sojourners still in a distant world . . .

The story speaks of water. But it is not just a story about water, or about the people’s dependency upon water, or even about the idea of water as a living, sacred entity — water personified as we might say. The story is not simply about. It conjures. The telling — even the simple naming of the place — re-members a community.

It’s like a marriage, where a single re-calling of a shared place can be enough to awaken the covenant.

The word weaves its spell within us as we consume and digest it. It’s the seed, and we’re (however briefly) the flower. It speaks a truth, bringing it before us again, not simply as a past event but still, now.

This is why Charles is so infuriated with Basso when he fails to get the word right. It’s not a matter of linguistics but of respect to a living entity:

What he’s doing isn’t right. It isn’t good. He seems to be in a hurry. Why is he in a hurry? It’s disrespectful. Our ancestors made this name. They made it just as it is. They made it for a reason. They spoke it first, a long lime ago! He’s repeating the speech of our ancestors. He doesn’t know that.

They try again, this time Basso’s friend shouting out “GOSHTL’ISH TU BIL SIKANE!” And at last “the tide has turned. Instantly the form of the name and its meaning assume coherent shape, and I know that at last I’ve got it: “GOSHTL’ISH TU BIL SIKANE, or Water Lies With Mud In An Open Container.” This turn is conversion in the truest sense. He feels the rightness of the word in the mouth, knows its meaning in and as his own body. It is a moment of belonging, knowing that in speaking the name we come into ownership.

But it is we that are owned, not the other way around.

5
In this water we are buried with Christ.
By it we share his resurrection.
Through it we are reborn by the Spirit.
(Book of Common Prayer)

The old man had thought she had come to him to be taught to drink of his knowledge, but he had been wrong.

So did she go off with him when he left?

I think she did. But first they went through something there.

What do you mean?

I mean she learns from the old man that she isn’t his daughter.

She isn’t?

No. She’s the true daughter of his wife, but born of an enchantment and long kept secret.

An enchantment? You mean some kind of romance?

            Something like that. She was very young, and beautiful, and fell under the spell of a wealthy man from a distant country who promised marriage. She never saw him again.

Is this what ended the marriage? The old hermit learned the truth and couldn’t forgive his wife?

Perhaps. I suppose.

So was it something else? What couldn’t he forgive?

I don’t know how to explain. It may not have been any one thing. It may have been simply life.

I don’t get it.

Well—

Her hair falls around her, he thinks, like falling water.

What?

She’s so beautiful, his wife, and so young, and he feels so old, although he isn’t. He knows somehow that they are at each other‘s mercy. And this terrifies him. And yet he can’t speak of it.

He’s afraid of her?

Yes. In a way, he is. Or he’s afraid of himself.  He’s very gifted with his hands and is highly praised as a master craftsman, but still there ‘s something in him that feels like stone. And she knows it, and he knows she knows it.

And he can’t talk about it?

No. It’s impossible. The stone gets in the way. And the worst torment, far worse than being around all those who don’t know, is being around the one who knows but feels powerless to change it. And so he blamed her. He cursed her kindness, and her silence which she took for kindness.

And so he left?

Yes. And he left the small girl behind, who in spite of himself he‘d grown to love. And inside his silence he waited for her.

 

The old man leaves the mountains.

Back from the mountains I sit at Diva, a North Seattlecoffeehouse, staring at this sentence, hearing it play in the labyrinth of my brain. It is, I realize, not simply the idea of the sentence but the very sounds that entice me. It’s the long o in old, and above all the rhythmic alliteration of the m and n: man, mountain. It’s sound that unites them in their difference.

Our task, I’m thinking, is to name this world, to speak it in sound-symbols, thereby bringing it into a new relation with the human. It’s a startling possibility, suggesting both division, a kind of fall from immediacy, and yet a new possibility of conscious relationship.

Consider the alphabet:  Alef,  the shape of this letter we call A, says David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous, “was that of an ox’s head with horns.” Only later, with the Greeks, did this Alef-Beit become divorced from representation, so that the Greek Alpha is a sign for nothing more than the letter A itself The ox, and the world with it, vanished.

            You can see for yourself Charles says to Keith Basso. It looks like its name.

In Hebrew only the consonants are written out, suggesting that for the language to be living it needed the actual animating breath of the human voice to create the vowel. It needed ruach, the spirit that quickens. The act of reading, then, is a constant process of new creation. So too, traditionally, in Christian monasteries, which took over from Judaism the practice of oral reading. For the monastic reader, Ivan Illich suggests, reading is much more “a carnal activity: the reader understands the lines by moving to their beat, remembers them by recapturing their rhythm, and thinks of them in terms of putting them into his mouth and chewing. “No wonder,” he concludes, “that preuniversity monasteries are described to us in various sources as the dwelling places of mumblers and munchers.”

Back home I return to my shallow explorations in Hebrew, turning this time directly to Mem, the letter (according to the Kabbalah) for water. I speak it aloud as I read, chanting and then meditating with its sounds: Amah. Om. Amen.

Mem, the fountain of the Divine Wisdom of Torah.

Just as the waters of a physical fountain (spring) ascend from their unknown subterranean source (the secret of the abyss in the account of Creation) to reveal themselves on earth, so does the fountain of wisdom express the power of flow from the superconscious source. In the terminology of Kabbalah, this flow is from keter (crown) to chochmah (wisdom) The stream is symbolized in Proverbs as “the flowing stream, the source of wisdom.”

Think of rivers, of the body itself as a current, a series of streams circulating to the heart’s sea and out again, the endless spin of water and blood. Listening to the chant of Sheila Chandra, to rain becoming a steady current flowing down the storm drains and out to the Sound, I hear again the drone of mem within the womb of the world.

 

I continue to read late into the night, the dog at my feet, Judy and Kate asleep upstairs, all of these pieces of poems and stories left for years as invisible bits in various computers, inside folders in the filing cabinet beside my desk. Unfinished business. So too with my old man, who’s forever on his journey home, all he owns on his back, re-tracing his past, seeking out some truth he’d buried years before. He must, I see, remember it all. He must walk through it before it will leave him be.

His wife, I wondered; what had become of her? And this girl who’d come to him
— who was her father? And what, I suddenly wondered, of the old man’s own family?

Perhaps, Katie had said, he’d been orphaned.

Perhaps so. Perhaps his early life had been one long wandering, working mostly along the coasts, on boats, until one day he ‘d sailed far north —to Norway perhaps and there stumbled upon the story of his origins in some obscure mountain village.

And that’s where he met his wife.
Yes. His beauty, his dark haired joy.
Dark? In Norway?
Well, that was part of her mystery of course where she really came from.
Of course. But where did she come from?
It‘s bedtime.

 

It was, I was thinking, later that night, the mountain and the river that they had shared, and that they had lost. Perhaps she was herself the child of the mountain, of living waters. She had all the graces of the earth and sea and in his anger he’d fled. He’d gone one way, ascending, trying to leave everything of earth behind. But of course he carried it all with him.
            In Dante the spiraling descent of the Inferno is itself an inverted mountain, a perfect mirror of Mount Purgatory: one necessitates the other, one creates the other. With the fall of Satan a new kind of consciousness enters into the world. It is both the end of something and a new beginning: being stuck inside of this egotistic perspective is hell, but if moved through, this knowledge becomes the place from which we finally and appropriately leap off the earth entirely, carrying her within us.

The snake, perhaps, wasn’t lying when he said to Eve that she will come to know as God knows. Neither, however, did he inform her what the journey would cost.

Purgatory, where my old man finds himself, is not simply a place; it’s the act of seeing one’s truth clearly. It ends in fire, and only then yields back to water. Flowing down the mountain, the healingriver ofLethe reaches the base and descends below the earth, following the track carved out by the plummeting Satan, reaching at last the great refusal of reality in the frozen pool of Cocytus. This is ground zero, where nothing true is recalled, where forgetting is not blessing but evasion.

Carried on Virgil’s back, Dante is literally turned around on the great body of Satan, who becomes in this way —in his own despite — the vessel of ascent. Brachah.

            Virgil and Dante climb out of Hell together, a father and a son, finding their way by moving against the flow of this stream inside the darkened body of the earth. The climb, then, is not one of forgetting (such is Lethe’ s meaning) but its reversal, remembering. This stream Dante calls Eunoe,  a word coined from two Greek roots, eu  plus nous:  good mind or memory.  But the source of these two streams is the same, issuing “from a pure and changeless fountain.”

On this side it descends with power to end
one’s memory of sin; and on the other,
it can restore recall of each good deed.
To one side, it is Lethe, on the other,
Eunoe; neither stream is efficacious
unless the other’s waters have been tasted:
their savor is above all other sweetness. (Purgatorio 28)

In Dante what we forget are the wounds of a lifetime, represented on the climb up Purgatory by the seven p’s carved onto the forehead of every pilgrim: p as in peccatum, sin, our attachments and addictions. As we climb, moving more deeply into the truth, the load grows curiously lighter even as the way grows steeper. There is pain, but the pain now has meaning; it has direction. We are pulled and lifted by reality, the deepest gravity of all.

This arrival at the summit, and at the headwaters of Lethe, then, is not simply a return to the womb, to unconsciousness; Eunoe suggests instead the arrival of the Messiah, here in the form of Beatrice, representing the awakening of that good mind in each of us: we remember suddenly who we most deeply are.
            We’re pure and prepared, Dante concludes, to climb to the stars.

 

6

It has grown late. I sit here looking out at the darkened world with a paperback Dante in my lap, a book that cost me the price of a double tall mocha, mass produced, machine-inked with words in Italian first set down from the hand of a Florentine living in exile almost 700 years ago, struggling to write his way free of bitterness and rage. InSeattlethe flooding from the rains knocks houses from their foundations, closes bridges and highways. Traffic, like debris, gets stuck or finds another way around. TheLincolnbedroom. A billion dollar sale of Boeing 757’s to China, nurtured, perhaps, by campaign contributions, all trickling down to — well, to me, sitting here at home, comfortably employed in a booming Northwest economy.

The eternal and the temporary fires, Virgil tells Dante; you’ve seen them both.

Worlds turn around me as I sit, breathing in these beautiful sounds, holding this book in my lap. Through fire and water, the desert of the heart, the end of all known roads. Io ritornai da la santissima onda / rifattto si come piante novella /  rinovellate di novella fronda.   I returned, says Dante, from those holy waters remade, as new plants are renewed with new leaves. 

“You are all beautiful, my beloved one, there is no blemish in you.” So sings Host
to Guest in the Song of Songs. Thus, writes Rabbi Ginsburgh, “the innate love of G-d

present in every Jewish soul is compared to water. In the prayer for rain . . . we ask G-d to ‘remember the father (Abraham) who was drawn after you like water.’ Loving G-d, as natural to every Jewish soul as downstream flow is to water, is our inheritance from our first father Abraham.”

            So does Beatrice tell Dante as they soar intoParadise, lifted off the surface of the earth through sheer desire for God:

You should — if I am right —
not feel more marvel at your climbing than
you would were you considering a stream
that from a mountain’s height falls to its base. (Paradiso 1)

We flow as we are called. Gravity is particular to a situation: a small body on the surface of the earth is pulled by the weight of the earth, which seems then to be its home, until with increasing consciousness we widen our perspective and discover that the entire earth feels the pull of a greater force yet — and so on beyond the solar system and out to the edges of the universe.

Gravity in Dante is another name for desire (de-sidus, from the star): what pulls everything is “the love that turns the sun and other stars.” Water flows, as the poet Li Po says; the peach trees blossom.

 

            Memories too. Stories of places shared with family and friends flow into story, into poetry, into names. That old man and the child from my story, for instance, who make their way together down the valley, seeking the mother, the wife — seeking the future in an unfinished past.

But what happens then? Katie asks; it’s bedtime, at home, as we finish the story.

Well, I say, they were free. They knew where they were going, even if they didn’t  know where they were going.

I get it.
Good.
Is this where you quote from Milton?
What makes you ask that?
Because you always quote from Milton.
Do I?
You do.
Well, I guess this is the time. So-

I know. “Hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, they took their solitary way.”

What’s that from?
I don’t know.

            Paradise Lost.
           
Right.  Adam and Eve. Booted from the Garden by God’s angel. Flaming swords – I remember that bit.

In Milton it’s quite moving, actually, especially at the end. It’s both devastating and yet it ‘s like the beginning of a whole new adventure. Which it is. Which we are.

I turn out the light, say the magic words, assuring us both that everything’s safe and secure, and then I linger a moment more, wanting and yet never quite wanting to go. Finally I wander into my own shared bedroom, where I slip beneath the sheet and back into another story.

Re-membering: heading into the mountains along the winding Skagit River, Judy behind the wheel in the pre-dawn dark, Katie asleep beside her, and myself in the back, meditating, moving in and out of worlds, the land flowing by like a great brown river. Realizing, as I slipped lightly out, how bound I am by my own consciousness, and by this earth. And yet how easy it is to float like a dancer, to move so delicately inside these sounds, borne inside the world’s great body.

 

Notes

The title is in homage to guitarist John Fahey and his 1972 Warner Bros. LP Of
Rivers and Religion.
The epigraph is from Dante’s Purgatorio, canto 33, translated by
Allan Mandelbaum (Bantam 1986). All subsequent quotations from Purgatorio and
Paradiso are from Mandelbaum except where noted below.

You are a fountain…. Song of Solomon 4: 15.

Gates of Light (Sha ‘are Orah) is translated by Avi Weinstein (HarperCollins 1994. See especially pp. xviii-xi, 16, 19- 21, 24, 37.

Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places (University of New Mexico Press, 1996), p.
15.

The alef, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, is formed by drawing two yuds, one to the upper right and the other to the lower left, joined by a diagonal vav. See Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, TheA/cf Beit (Aronson, 1995), p. 24. See also David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous (Pantheon 1996), p. 101.

Ivan Illich, In The Vineyard of the Text (University of Chicago, 1995), p. 54.

Mem, the fountain of the Divine Wisdom of Torah. .. . see Alef-Beit p. 194.

Io ritornai . . . .  Dante, Purgatorio  33, my translation.

“The innate love of G-d present in every Jewish soul is compared to water.” . . Alef-Beit 200.

 

 

Interlude

Crossing the Threshold

Some hours later they were liberated by the American Army near the town of Dachau. The American commander forced the local townspeople to come and see what the glorious Third Reich had done to humanity. An elderly women .. . stared at Livia with great compassion. Finally she said to her, “It must have been very difficult for people your age to endure all this suffering.”
“How old do you think I am?” Livia asked her.
‘Maybe sixty, maybe sixty-two, “replied the German women.
“Fourteen, “replied Livia.
The German women crossed herself in horror and fled.

(Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust)

 

The Stranger may not be so far away: behind a prison wall, or simply across the street. This elderly woman, for instance, merely has to step outside and see what she had for so long refused to admit. Even then her expression changes to horror as she looks more deeply into this young woman’s face; the truth she sees she cannot endure.
            It can happen this suddenly; a chance meeting, the death of a loved one, a child, and suddenly the familiar turns to strange. My grandfather seemed so at home in his tinyChicago apartment with his books and his Sibelius, but after my grandmother died he attempted suicide, suddenly feeling bereft. The familiar had suddenly become foreign to him, and death seemed less strange than simply going on.

We learn to flee the stranger, the unfamiliar face on the dark street, even though so much learning comes from precisely those times when we have crossed some border and entered into the unknown-a lesson we begin to learn as soon as we emerge from the womb.

 

A friend of mine spends his days on the streets ofSeattleworking with such strangers: in his case the mentally ill homeless. He does not preach to them, nor does he provide money. When asked for a handout he suggests places to find shelter or a meal. Above all he listens. He stays on the street and offers his mind and heart. He invites them in, one by one.

Success is slow, if indeed the word is meaningful at all. The folks Craig works with tend to vanish, unaccountably disappearing from one day or one hour to the next. A vision or a voice seizes them and they’re gone, off toCaliforniaorCanada. But Craig’s back again the next day, not expecting to cure the world, and indeed not expecting anything at all. He lopes along, at ease on the streets because he has nothing to lose or protect. He’s at home there in the unbounded, where nothing at all is foreign.

“It’s a question of story” Craig tells me as we stroll along one day. “That’s how anyone becomes familiar to us. This old woman for instance, Marie, who camped out down near Pike Place Market. A wild woman, totally shocking. Electric. And yet she also seemed defenseless, as if lost-so lost that she wasn’t even aware how strange she appeared to others.”

He paused, thinking. “Remember that character in ‘Kubla Khan’? ‘And all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!’ That was Marie.

“The first day I see her I walk up to her, introduce myself, we talk and I move off. I see her again, the next and the next. Little by little I hear pieces of a story-usually fantastic (and sometimes fantasized) and often truly horrible.

“But I keep listening-I’ve got no other agenda.” Craig laughs.

“It helps,” he continues, “that I’ve been doing this for a while, and have some psychological training. It allows me a bit of comfort. But that can hinder as much as help. A lot of my job involves my willingness to visit her on her own territory– and to learn from her. I have to cross over the threshold and share something of what she sees.”

“Cross her threshold?”

“Yes. I can’t pigeonhole her from a safe distance. I can’t make assumptions without knowing her. It’s too easy to put a psychological frame around her: she’s manic- depressive, she’s schizophrenic, whatever. These words stop the exchange between us. It’s odd, because they seem to make these strangers more familiar, the way any label does. But they’re deceptive: a partial truth at best, like labeling someone WASP, Jew, Indian, lawyer, insurance salesman. Marie may be manic-depressive-and she may be an insurance salesman for all I know-but these facts tell me little. The real point is simply for me to be on her side, no questions asked. That’s what I mean by crossing the threshold.”

“That’s hard work–and frightening.”

“Sure. Sometimes it is. People have hard lives. But illnesses are usually there for a reason–the mental disturbance is itself a kind of boundary. It seems to protect the defenseless, like a kind of mask. It also conveys a certain power, and so many people tend to fear it. It can be difficult being around someone like Marie. She doesn’t seem to make sense, she may grab you to make a point–she doesn’t observe the normal, invisible lines that separate us, whether those lines are linguistic or physical. And so yes: frightening. These are definitely strange people, but beautiful.”

I looked at Craig. “Beautiful?”

He laughed at my expression. “Absolutely. Often very tender, and incredibly courageous. Heroic. They do us all a great service.”

“How so?”

“They keep us honest. Sometimes they truly do see something that most of us miss. If nothing else they make us face what we’d rather not face. Above all, our fear.”

We walked on in silence, and I watched as Craig moved about the park, greeting some haggard-looking men as old friends, introducing himself to others. And then we moved on.

“It helps, of course,” he continued, still thinking about Marie, “that I’m not a doc, not a nurse, not a cop, and not a social worker. I’m not trying to get anything from her. Instead I’m simply a reminder, a visitor from an old place that she has left and lost.

“Eventually I accompanied Marie to the hospital, and watched from day to day as she slowly came back to herself I listened as she told me how she’d suffered for from recurrent periods of depression and disorientation. Her memory goes; she ceases to recognize friends and family. There are moments of ecstasy, but others of real hell. And

then she said something striking–absolutely lucent: ‘when I’m out there there’s never any guide.”

Craig and I stopped for a cup of coffee. “I told her about possible medications” he said to me, “but I also mentioned the Sibyl, the one who informs Aeneas of the way through Hades. It was clear that—like most of us—she couldn’t possibly be expected to negotiate that underworld on her own: We are strangers there. But—I said to her—if you had a guide, a sibyl—what then?”

“And?” I asked.

“Well,” Craig leaned back, “of course the idea pleased her immensely. She was enchanted—as who wouldn’t be? ‘A sibyl’ she said, over and over; ‘how lovely!”

 

The Sibyl. The prophetess, one who speaks truth, but in a kind of fury, under the fierce inspiration of a god. “Weave a circle ‘round her thrice,” Coleridge might well warn. So too in Virgil:

Her face and color alter suddenly; her hair
is disarrayed; her breast heaves, and her wild
heart swells with frenzy. . .

And this is supposed to be Aeneas’ guide.

Just who is the strange one here? The answer is not so simple. It may best be defined as whoever it is that crosses the threshold. The Sibyl herself is taken over by the god and so becomes a visionary, unknown even to herself. But the stranger here is also the sane Aeneas, who lost himself in losing a home and family inTroy. Despite appearances, he is the one in need of a guide.

“Easy,” the Sibyl warns,
the way that leads in. day and night the door
of darkest Dis is open.
But to recall your steps, to rise again
Into the upper air: that is labor.

This, I suddenly realized, was Craig’s point: he works with people who have lost the way back, who have needed a guide in order to get out—and who are themselves potential healers, sibyls themselves.

The simplest thing to say about Craig’s work is that he is there in service to these lost souls, but I suspect that this is not the entire story. They may need a few of us as guides, but so too, it seems, do we need them. We see something in their presence, something uncanny, unheimlich (as Freud might say): something unhomelike. They carry us into the unknown.

So too, surely, did people feel about St. Francis—not to mention Jesus.

Welcome the stranger, we are told in so many tales; I think of the wandering Odysseus, of Philemon and Baucis, and ofLot. Who knows whether that stranger may be an angel or a god? But what does this mean except that this stranger is always a kind of door into a new life, a life, finally, without thresholds, without boundaries, without fear?

Like the old woman ofDachau, we may choose or not to open the door to this stranger. To take the risk, we know, may be to open ourselves to the influence of the god. An old identity may be lost, or an old way of seeing that felt safe because it closed out the Other.

 

Notes
From The Aeneid, Allen Mandelbaum, tr. (University of California Press, 1971), Book 6.