A God by Any Other Name

Now I know I really am getting old –I’m starting to think about religion. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to single it out like that. Religion, or at least wonder about existence is such a part of the human Umwelt that, like the air we breathe, it is an appreciation that is tempered by its ubiquity. But I am reminded of a section of a poem written by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.’ It is a beautiful image, and although the entire poem is a bit too religious for my taste, the metaphor has a universal appeal that I suspect transcends even sectarian boundaries.

Given what I take to be our omnipresent awe about life, I have to suspect that other sentient beings –alien beings- would have a similar acknowledgment of the Mystery of Being, and wonder about the unknown… Or does wonder suggest insecurity, and mystery, merely challenge? Would omniscience, if such a thing could ever exist, necessarily preclude curiosity? Belief? Reverence? Late night questions, to be sure…

I suppose the BBC article that I stumbled across a while back fell upon fertile soil: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161215-if-we-made-contact-with-aliens-how-would-religions-react?ocid=ww.social.link.email Just how important is it for us to believe in something? To have questions?

Maybe there are no answers, but it reminded me of a heated discussion I heard one evening in a coffee shop that I visited after a movie. It was quite busy, as I recall, and I found myself sitting beside a group, deep in conversation. All four were leaning over their table, heads together, bagels long consumed, and coffees no longer steaming. They were young –in their early twenties, I would guess- and the only woman, a short-haired blond with horn-rimmed glasses and a black Rasta sweatshirt, was gesticulating with her finger to make a point. She seemed so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help listening.

“Archetypes? That’s so Jungian, Aaron…”

“And what’s wrong with that? How else could we explain it if we don’t assume some sort of a Collective Unconscious, Natalie?” Aaron was another bespectacled youth, with messy short brown hair.

She threw her arms up in mock protest. “You haven’t explained anything, though. I don’t accept that God is a black hole, let alone that She happens to be the one at the center of our Galaxy…”

“Can we please ungender the concept, Nat? How about it, or they, or something?”

She turned to the speaker, a large heavy man in a black leather full-length coat. “Fair enough John. Whatever we use is weird, however –especially gynaecomorphizing a neutral abstraction.”

“Love the word, though, Nat…”

She smiled at the third man, the only one with long hair. “Thank you Jag –makes me sound academic, eh?”

“But, come on folks,” Aaron was on a roll. “Just think about it, okay? The myth says God is outside of time, right? A black hole is outside of time…”

Outside of time…?

“Well, if time is infinite inside a black hole, then it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?”

There were a few seconds of silence while the others considered the idea, so he developed it further. “And where is the timeless Heaven the various religions talk about?”

Jag rolled his eyes. “You’re doing the same kind of thing that Zukav did in that old book The Dancing Wu Li Masters…”

My coffee was getting cold; I felt I should be taking notes.

“Come on, Jag –that book was about quantum stuff… And I’m not invoking Buddhism, or anything eastern like that.” He leaned further across the table. “No, you go to a black hole, you exit time. It fits with the biblical heaven, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think the Buddhists even believe in God, do they?” John said this as he stretched and then leaned back on a wooden chair already creaking under his weight. “Or heaven, for that matter…”

“They believe in Samsara –that cycle of rebirth thing I think…” But Natalie didn’t seem sure, so John dropped his objections.

Jag attempted a sip at what was left in his cup, and put it down as soon as he tasted it. “But Aaron raises an interesting point, though…”

“I finally broke through, eh?” Aaron smiled and tried to high-five Natalie, but she just stared at him.

“What do you mean, Jag?” she said, caressing his face with her eyes, and blushing. She seemed obviously attracted to him. Maybe they were a pair.

“Well, let’s suppose Aaron is on to something here, and there is somehow an awareness of a power to which we are all subject. I mean the stars in our galaxy are all rotating around the central black hole, aren’t they? So, if there are other inhabited worlds out there in the galaxy, maybe they’d experience the same awareness, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe the black hole exerts some kind of force or field on the galaxy that our earth calls spirit, or god. It gets interpreted differently, of course –we all have different cultures, and different surroundings –different exigencies… So perhaps aliens would have their own explanations for this force…”

John sat forward again and leaned into the table. “Do any of you realize how teenage this all sounds?” He glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

I guess they knew I was listening. Of course I’d been staring at them one by one as they talked. Natalie tore her eyes from Jag and stared at me like a teacher would at a student that was interrupting. But she wasn’t angry –just surprised that I was listening. “Sorry, sir. We really get into these post-pub discussions…”

I smiled and sat straighter in my chair. “Please don’t apologize. I’m intrigued by your arguments…” I leaned forward on my table again. “Especially your God of the black hole,” I said, looking first at Aaron and then at Jag. “And I’ve often wondered how our terrestrial religions could accommodate such different creation myths.

“I’m from the Carl Sagan era, don’t forget –remember the Pale Blue Dot photograph by Voyager 1 from 6 billion kilometers away? It kind of emphasized just how un-special we and our precious sun are in the galaxy, let alone the universe…” They all nodded politely, but I had to be careful -I was the alien in their midst… “But like Aaron and Jag suggested, maybe what we call religion is just an evolutionary balm for a consciousness that demands identity in the midst of cosmic anonymity.”

I sat back in my seat, rather pleased with my obfuscation. Memories of my university evenings flooded back.

“Whoa,” Aaron said, staring at me -puzzled that I even had an opinion, perhaps. “You make it sound so… I don’t know… depressing!”

Natalie glanced at Aaron and then stared at me for a moment. Her eyes were soft and reassuring, but I could tell she was once again the patient teacher, hoping not to embarrass me, the older, slower student in the back row who would probably never understand. “Not depressing, Aaron,” she said turning away from me with an encouraging smile- “Hopeful…” And she reached out and squeezed Jag’s hand.

Whether it was a secret message to him, I couldn’t tell, but I felt acknowledged at any rate. Comforted, if not accepted -I was from a different time than them, after all.

‘Age considers, youth ventures,” as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote. It probably never occurred to them than I was like them… once.

 

 

 

 

The Escape

Retirement has many benefits I suppose, but one of them is the ability to escape from, well, Retirement. I don’t mean an idle wander from the banalities of métier and purpose, but rather the flight from the routine that seems to surface after the handshake and the gold watch. But escape to what, exactly…? Sometimes freedom itself is a cage –a candy store in the Hotel California, as it were.

I felt the need for a change, both of scenery and of pleasures, so I decided to flee from the protective bosom of mountains to the wide flat abdomen of the prairies. Alberta seemed a reasonable start: it’s the next province over in a whole string of them, and it shares our mountains -the unpainted side of the fence.

And yet to reach the other side and complete the escape is to negotiate a labyrinth -a rat in a maze. A random set of deep, green passageways lined by tall, glowering, protective walls guards each gate to freedom. Egress is not bought cheaply, nor with a guaranteed right of return. Absence is an exile whose only reward is a renewed appreciation of what has been left behind. And the thin tissue of the new reality beyond the windshield is too soon ripped by memories. The gift is evanescent and easily doubted; it verges on the unreal, as unreachable as a dream -not disappointing, really, just unassimilable. An untouchable hologram.

The mountains were a reassuringly three-dimensional world only hinted at from the coast –four dimensional if you count the time taken to creep through the unnamed, heavily treed rock canyons, trusting in the ever curving yellow line like Dorothy. But escape is hope; arrival is elusive –when does an approach end? When does the gerund become the noun? To linger is merely to toy with another journey. Postpone another escape…

I had decided to visit the Badlands of Alberta –a riverine trench carved into an otherwise flatland country where almost everywhere not there, is similar –dare I say identical? It is a two dimensional contrast to the mountain labyrinth and as I travelled like a line on an unending sheet of paper, I felt as if I were an ant on an infinite table seeking an entrance to the horizon, yet feeling it recede as fast as I approached. There were no believable ups or downs -just over-theres. Progress was unmarked except for telephone poles, or power lines marching off into the distance as if there was actually someone there to notice them, to greet them -someone who expected them to arrive.

I learned to read things that stuck up from the horizon –reminders of the dimensions I’d left behind. Telephone poles that approached the road ahead like serrated, stationary dinosaurs, heralded a crossroad with some numerically meaningless name that I could roar past and acknowledge as I might a passing a face in a crowd who happened to glance my way. They were welcome distractions from the eternal, browning crops that painted everything between the odd roofs that peeked up timidly, or the solitary, lonely grain silos that stood like prairie dogs on guard, lest I stray too close…

I felt continually watched, harassed by hidden things that chose not to reveal themselves –farmers hiding within stationary rusting tractors; eyes behind curtains too far away to distinguish; hands inside distant gloves uncertain whether to wave or clench. An odd feeling.

It was a drive under bi-dimensional clouds, speckled by occasional bursts of a pancake sun and omnivorous heat that threatened suffocation -a turning of the page by some unthinking reader. There was no dimension that included Time, because it did not pass –it could not. Time lives in expectation –in the hopes of achievement- and when this is lost or forgotten on the journey –when there are no markings to chart progress- its passage is an abstraction. It exists only in relation to something. But here, on the prairie, there was no something. No family of familiars –just a vague memory of an unnecessary addendum, an unexpected roof, or a maverick tree -real only in retrospect. As real as the horizon -or at least as real as the end of a rainbow; Time lived there; waved from there; but was as illusory as the pot of gold.

So, I do not know how long I drove; the fuel gauge was my only clock. There were no towns, just trucks that passed like tornadoes tearing at my wheels, sucking the metal from my protective cage. What cars there were, slipped past quietly, afraid perhaps of attracting unwanted attention from the behemoths that terrorized the asphalt line. You learn obedience here; to survive is to disappear safely over the horizon -the place I longed to reach: the el Dorado. There, other beings like myself lived their troglodyte existence, protected from the infinite prairie prowling just above their riparian trough: the badlands that already sounded like an oxymoron…

I sought the World Heritage site -Dinosaur Provincial Park- but already hope was fading. I feared it was another Brigadoon that only reappeared once an aeon -if it ever had. An Atlantis created to lure people onto the endless surface –stories of a hidden Eden; stories told by old, toothless people with shaky hands, under the sun-bleached prairie crops. Believed only by children, too young to know the words.

But even when I saw the sign and turned to follow another line, my faith was shaky. It is all too easy to succumb to prairie apostasy, I fear. There were no trees along the line, no dimensions to sell the lie. I was seeking yet another receding horizon with no edge. Another fable.

And yet, there is an edge sometimes, and what it hides cannot escape. Like Narnia, it lies just beneath the wardrobe’s door. And suddenly, as the road descended like an elevator, another world arose, mushroom-like, beneath my eyes. A sparsely coloured hobbit kingdom of jagged hills and hoodoos, mounds and trails, and people dwarfed by the grandeur of this unexpected kingdom. Up and down returned, and even the phoenix Time peered at me through the buried treasure of dimensions.

But I was reminded of England’s Lake District, or New Zealand’s Fiordland –Disneylands both: Edens writ small -purpose built almost; glimpses of our heart’s desire, but as evanescent as a Gypsy camp. This was no home away from home; it was a film set –not meant to be the journey’s end.

And yet, at least it was a world of things, of places. Of volume. But even there you could not stay too long; even there the prairie called. I could feel it sighing as I left.

But, deprived of things again, I got lost on the way back. I suppose I should never have tried to leave my home; there is no pleasure dome of Kubla Khan outside. We must all learn to live within the cage assigned -its open door leads only to another cage.

 

 

 

The View from… There

By now, everything should have settled into place –like compost in the garden after a good rain. And by now, all this extra time I have been awarded in Retirement should have been subsumed in the frenzy of getting on my horse and riding off in all directions. But I’m sorry; this surfeit of Time I have been told to wear, was designed for a larger man. And yet I am growing into it, I suppose: like J. Alfred Prufrock I shall wear my trousers rolled.

One of my older and recently retired friends whose teeth still fit, invited me to his apartment to talk the other day. Between naps and mysterious trips out of the room, he mentioned that he was exploring the idea of volunteering and wondered whether I would be interested in joining him.

I thought about it for a moment under the heavy scrutiny of his eyes. “That’s an interesting idea, Tony,” I replied cautiously. I’ve learned to be careful with Tony. He was, after all, the one who decided we should try the Polar Bear swim on New Year’s Day a while ago, and then changed his mind once I was in the water. And then there was the parachuting event when we invested a day learning how to do a jump, only to have him change his mind –again-  when he saw the instructor trying to pry my fingers off the wing strut and jump so I wouldn’t destabilize the plane or something. Tony is like that: full of good intentions that fall prey to last minute compromises.

I blinked to disengage his eyes and riffled around inside for my usual ‘What is it this time?’ smile. “What did you have in mind, Tony?”

A suspiciously benign expression that bordered on beatific gradually captured his face. I knew he’d assumed it slowly to tweak my interest. That always worked –we were both restless souls.

“ESL,” he eventually said, his eyes twinkling at the very sound of it.

I couldn’t help furrowing my brow. “English as a Second Language?” I blinked again, but this time in disbelief. Tony is Brazilian, or something, and English has never been his strong suit. He still gets the meaning of some common expressions wrong –he used to think a couch potato was something you snacked on while you were watching TV. Stuff like that.

“Yeah,” he said as enthusiastically as a child, his face beaming, and his eyes flitting about like barn swallows after insects. “We volunteer to go overseas to teach ESL and…”

I held up my hands like a politician quieting a crowd. “Why overseas? Couldn’t we just do it here in Vancouver?”

His eyes quickly returned to their proper roosts and he neutralized his face to rest for a moment. “Actually, I was hoping for a trip.”

“But… I mean, don’t you have to take classes to learn how to teach ESL?”

He shrugged with that Brazilian indifference to insurmountable odds that I’ve always found so motivating. “What’s to learn? You point at stuff; they listen and repeat the words.”

I couldn’t believe he was still so naïve at his age.

“Anyway,” he continued after a brief reflection, “I haven’t thought it totally through yet.” He loosed his eyes again. “But what do you think?”

“Well, we do have a lot of new immigrants arriving…” I was stalling for time, to tell the truth. I wasn’t sure that either of us would be of much value in the language industry. “Maybe we could help them in some other way…I don’t know, maybe like…” But I had to shrug at that point, and anyway I could see the words were just bouncing off him as soon as they arrived.

He rolled his eyes impatiently; it was a look I knew all too well. “You know what your problem is?” I disguised a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You’ve got no imagination. You get stuck in the old ruts and I always have to come along and push you out!” He paused to take a breath. “You’re an old car!”

He was shouting now –extemporizing, I think, because I could see he was running out of his limited cache of expressions. Actually, I was impressed with his use of metaphor. Retirement was obviously forcing him to branch out.

“The future is in Language,” he continued, waving his arms excitedly.

I nodded my head slowly, as if I was considering the wisdom he was expounding. In reality, I couldn’t think of any other response, but he studied me expectantly as if I was going to finish the sentence for him. And when I didn’t –when I merely stared back at him- I think he was disappointed. I realized he needed a suffix, or something, to show that I had, indeed, been listening and digesting his idea. I cast about in my head for a helpful aphorism, but all I could come up with was, “Well, how do you think we should start…?” I know it was lame, but I had to say something.

His once so active face relaxed into a smile, and his arms dropped to his side as if they had finally accomplished their mission. He pretended to consider it for a moment. “I…” –the artful hesitation again- “I think you should compose a letter to…” His expression suggested he had to reflect on this for a second, and he managed to screw his face up in serious contemplation. “…a letter to the mayor, outlining our idea…” He reconsidered the word. “No, our proposal.” A satisfied grin replaced the smile and he crossed his arms and sat back in his chair.

“But it’s your idea,” I replied, somewhat taken aback by the suggestion, but not really surprised –this was Tony, after all. “Why don’t you compose the letter and we’ll both sign it?” This seemed like a reasonable compromise.

He shook his head and blinked at me. “I’ve never been very good with words…”

The Great River of Time

I suppose we’ve all wondered about the great river of Time on which we float. Where does it go and what will it be like when we get there? Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you or anything, but as far as I can tell, it just floods into a big reservoir and sits there. Then all of the accumulated flotsam and jetsam sort of bumps together and surrounds you. I haven’t gotten any further than that, but I assume that some of it sinks to the bottom.

And this lake is big; before your eyes adjust, the horizon is empty and it’s hard to know where to head. What to aim for. Time is not at all what we were led to believe. It’s supposed to be ever-flowing, but once it hits this basin, it almost stops. In our youth we were always guided by the current, but at the end, in Time’s delta, it slows and divides itself in every which way offering fragments, not options. Eddies, not progress. And any motion is just the faint rise and fall of the looming tide. I’m not sure why there’s a delta; maybe it’s just a way of slowing us down before the sea -a chance to look around. But I have to say, after all the rush to get here, it’s rather disappointing when you first arrive…

And yet I don’t want to suggest that Retirement is just a vast pool of stagnant Time. I’m sure it has its shores and I’m beginning to suspect that if there really are instructions, they are likely are written on its banks. You just have to get there, wouldn’t you know.

*

Six o’clock arrives late this morning –I’ve been waiting for it since about 4 AM according to the big red numbers on the clock that watches me all night. I think it’s because I go to bed too early, but hey, I spent a career getting up at 4 so it’s hard to kick.

Anyway, when the radio news turns on, I immediately silence it with a well-trained poke and drop my feet on the cold wooden floor in the preternatural darkness. Normally, I hate darkness –it usually means I should go to bed. I also hate mixed signals. The shower wakes me up, though, and after turning on the bedroom light, the hall light and then the kitchen light I feel more prepared for the day’s mission.

My early, tread-water thoughts, remember, were to engineer purpose, force it to surface, and then grab whatever comes up while it’s trying to take a breath. No need to search the internet for ideas today, however –I come prepared: I wrote my plan down last night before the bed seduced me into its warm and comfortable bosom. Today, I am going to volunteer to serve.

I had to check the writing again; I had obviously written it in some haste lest I fall asleep mid-word. I am usually less inclined to rash behaviour when I awaken, and that which seemed like a good idea after a glass of wine and a full stomach is less persuasive in the morning’s cold, predawn hours.

But on rereading the note, I am willing to risk it. I will volunteer to help in the little restaurant. Or at least I will investigate what it might entail from the safety of that table by the window. But, until it becomes available, I will watch from the crowd and practice my conversation skills. I will learn from them, but I will not commit. Yes, that makes me feel better. I decide to leave a bit early.

I’m surprised; there is parking everywhere and I find that the restaurant is not as crowded as usual this morning. In fact, my seat by the window is empty. So are all the others. There’s only one other person sitting in the room and he is buried in a computer and muttering silently to himself as he shakes his head. Good, I think, I’ve beaten the inevitable rush today -arriving early is a great idea.

I walk over to the counter to order a bagel with peanut butter, keeping an eye on my table in case of trespass. It’s not the owner who takes my order, however, it’s a pretty young woman wearing a bandana over her hair and flaunting an obviously stained cotton blouse. I look more closely, but the stain turns out to be a pattern cleverly disguised as a stain. My god, there’s a lot of stuff available out there nowadays.

“I’d like a whole wheat bagel, toasted, with some peanut butter on the side, please.” It seems like a reasonable request when I say it, but she blinks and all expression drops from her face.

“It comes with cream cheese and salmon, Gary…” Damn, even she knows my name. I have no idea who she is, so she has me at a disadvantage. I mean, I could pretend I know her name and carry on blithely, or I could use it to my advantage and say “Well then, you should know I just want it with peanut butter, eh?” I opt for the former.

I can see the disappointment written on her lips, although it is not clear whether it is the me she knows who has failed, or just my choice. But she swallows her disillusionment like a good waitress and the smile returns. “You go sit down and I’ll bring it to the table.”

It is the owner who brings it to the table, however. I can sense his embarrassment at carrying an unadorned and lonely bagel on a plain white plate in front of his only other customer because he has embellished it with a sprig of parsley for show.

I purposely hone in on the parsley and, after offering some of it to him, down it with one bite. He smiles and crosses his arms as he sits across from me.

“Certainly not as busy as usual, eh?” I say to break the silence. “Maybe it’s the weather…” But this feeble attempt at humour merely nudges one of his eyebrows. I try again. “And I see you have enough staff around today.” I figure this is a way to ease into a discussion of personnel.

He smiles, nods benevolently, and looks around. “I didn’t expect you to be around this early again today, Gary,” he finally says, for some reason emphasizing the word ‘today’, and then staring at me for a moment. “Don’t you ever sleep in?”

I shrug -he’s just trying to make conversation. “Habit, I guess.” He nods thoughtfully and sits back in his chair and a larger, more understanding expression slowly captures his eyes. It catches me by surprise, I guess, so I venture a question. “Why do you ask?”

It’s his turn to shrug. “Thought you might have made a mistake, that’s all.” All the while, I can see his eyes trying to probe mine for answers. Truthful ones.

“Why’s that?”

“It’s Sunday, Gary…”