Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Thus Were The Soothsayings Of the Sibyl Lost

I've always had a high capacity for solitude. Used to play by myself for hours out in the woods when I was a little kid. My grandmother even rewarded me for it. Walked all over Europe for a few months by myself. Wherever I've gone, I've always sought out the most desolate, isolated places. Walked the Camino de Santiago alone. Rode a bike across New Mexico alone. I never got lonely or bored.

Longest period of solitude: Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, two weeks out in the canyon forests without seeing or talking to another human being. First week was hard. But then you start to lose the need for the presence of others. Even stopped talking to myself in my head. There was nothing to say. Strange and beautiful changes occur when you stop seeing yourself through another's eyes, when there is no more audience of family and friends whispering inside of your head, when your own inner voice becomes quiet and you realize that you are about as alone as you can get.

For the last four days, I have been alone here. My sister took a trip with her boyfriend to the coast. Before she left, she had a cold and passed it on to me. Nothing bad, just slightly uncomfortable. But I had no reason to go workout or run or bike. I didn't leave the house. Didn't even open the door. Slept during the days and worked all evening, night and early morning. Wasn't alone long enough that I stopped talking to myself in my head, but I was able to experience a level of inner quietness that I haven't had for a long time. And within this inner quietness, with the dust able to settle, I was able to get some critical inner work accomplished.

Imagine that you are able to think about a particular thing for not just a few minutes, not just a few hours, but for days. You don't mess with it a little and then move on. You stay with it, taking it completely apart, laying everything out around you, thousands of essential pieces, all arranged. Used to collect stickers, stamps and coins when I was a kid. On lazy Saturday afternoons, I loved nothing more than to lay the entire collection out on my bed, the floor, the dresser, grouping and classifying, studying each item, then reverentially replacing everything back into its box or book in just the right way. I absolutely forbid my mother or sister from coming in. They would mess up everything. So for the last four days it's been like that, except instead of stamps or stickers, I took apart my self.

What immediately comes to mind now is a transparency of intention, an absence of static, of resistance. Even better: an absence of doubt. Since I have been up here, it felt as if I would have an idea about something, a striking sort of idea, where I thought to myself: I should write that down, that's good. Then, the world would happen, distractions, interference, interruptions. If I could even remember the idea, doubt would darken it until it no longer seemed worth considering.

Listen, allow me this analogy: within us, there is an ur-language, a private language, that we use to think - and here language trembles on the verge of liquidity. Ideas leap out of the waters of the unconscious depths like fish. Some we have to catch. Some just fall right in our laps. At a certain point, we have to make sense of them, we start "preparing" them for language, for use, for expression. A good idea is an idea that can be used, that means something. As the idea is lifted ever further into higher modes of consciousness, it is cleaned up, gutted, filleted, wrapped in paper, packed into ice and put in a chest for us to carry home. Thus, the glimmer of an idea from ur-language to a sensible word.

For the last few years, I have, for a few instants almost every day, felt like a man in a boat full of fish. A boat full of fish and I never caught a single one. All I was left with was an abiding sorrow about the hollowness of my life.

It is obvious that for many the temporary pleasure, perhaps ecstasy, of the high you get from drugs is enough to justify hours and hours of trying to find some money, trying to find a ride, waiting for the man, running all over town, letting people fuck with you, only so you can score some drugs. You go through all of this trouble, this effort, this Indiana Jones and the $20 Rock routine, for what? A great hit will make the Great Golden Cathedral Bell ring for about 5 minutes. And that is a great hit. The usual hit is more like a cheap alarm clock clanging for a few seconds until it gets slapped down and muffled. One $20 rock might, if it is decent - and usually, it's not - get you four hits. But any crackhead will tell you: first one's always the best and you usually fuck that one up. Still. Still. You think that it is worth it. You tell yourself: even that horrible clang of an alarm clock high is worth it. Because, you see, inside of the experience of the high, as you are rising up, time stretches out all around you. Your skull becomes like a diamond that you are inside of looking out. Everything is illuminated, including your unconscious. Your boat, so to speak, is full of fish. Big fish. Beautiful fish that you believe could change the world. All of this in the time it takes to breathe in, then as you let go, breathe out, time shatters everything. Everything. Gone. And your boat has never seemed  so empty. You have never felt so hollow.

Time goes on like this. Doubt takes root in your head. You sit there in the boat getting high, fish jumping all around you, thinking: fuck it. It's all going to go away again. And sure enough, when you aren't high and a genuinely good idea leaps up into your awareness, you just ignore it or slap it back into the water. The drug has got you now, trained, conditioned to always doubt, to throw all the fish back, to let every moment of inspiration, of hope, slip right back into the black water of your hollowed soul.

After addiction, it is difficult to get rid of the doubt. I mean, you fucked up. Lied, stole, broke trust, all for this drug. Your judgment about even the simplest of matters is questionable, most especially to yourself. All you know is one thing: I am at the bottom of an enormous mountain and I have to start heading up. At first, it is almost like the tedium and trials of trying to get the hook up. Contrary to what many might believe, addicts can be extraordinarily patient. They will wait for hours in the cold and the rain, in the hot sun in the back seat of a black car with the windows rolled up listening to some stupid fuck talking to them about nothing because they know they are going to get the payoff. Of course, you take the reward out of that equation and they've got no patience at all. Point is, I learned a new level of patience, of just enduring, putting up with existence. So it's not a big deal to keep trudging up this mountain of recovery for a while without really even being able to think about what I was doing. Of course, some deeper part of myself understood: with every step, with every day, that I moved higher up, I was moving further away from any drug-related payoff or reward. For what then?

I've got this image in my head of Dante and Virgil climbing up the Mountain of Purgatory. After a while, Dante starts to speak about the sins of the Inferno. Virgil takes him over to a ledge and shows him the opening to Hell far below, says to Dante: it is time to speak of new things, to find new words, a new language. You have climbed too far up to return. The only way now is continually upwards. Always.

From that time forward what I saw was greater
Than our discourse, that to such vision yields,
And yields the memory unto such excess.
Even as he is who seeth in a dream,
And after dreaming the imprinted passion
Remains, and to his mind the rest returns not,
Even such am I, for almost utterly
Ceases my vision, and distilleth yet
Within my heart the sweetness born of it;
Even thus the snow is in the sun unsealed,
Even thus upon the wind in the light leaves
Were the soothsayings of the Sibyl lost.
Dante, The Divine Comedy, Paradiso XXXIII, Longfellow, trans.

This new way of speaking. This new language. Writing for hours. Thinking for hours. Ideas move through me, swim right into my grasp, easily slip into the wrappings of words and grammar. It is as if everything I have ever known is within my reach. I have thankfully been granted the time and space to arrange it all before me, regrouping and reclassifying, studying it, and then reverentially replacing it back within me, recovering it all. Everything is back in its place. Recovered in solitude. Recovered in grace.

It is a long way up. I still have a long way to go. I have a heavy cross to bear. And I can do no better than to end with a quote from The Eros of Repentance by Archimadrite George Capsanis, Abbot of the Monastery of Osiou Gregoriou on Mount Athos:

To walk this way means to lift up the cross of repentance. The Old Man does not give way without violence. And the devil is not conquered without hard warfare.