for Stephen Carter in partial fulfillment of a promise
but especially for greenfrog, who showed me a bit of backbone
When a subject and object look at one another, there is no subject and no object, there’s only relation, the scope of which extends beyond either creature’s ability to fully grasp it. You can’t grasp it, but you can step out to meet it. If you do, prepare to catch on fire “¦
When I was in my early twenties, two events ignited my life. The first involved a disagreement with a close friend whose feelings of friendship toward me had cooled. I was changing, growing up a little, I guess. I think my friend no longer felt needed, and feeling needed was important to her. My feelings of deep friendship hadn’t changed, yet somehow that didn’t matter, not to her. Why not? I wondered. Why shouldn’t my feelings matter to her?
In a fit of confusion, I went a-walking. I ended up in the playground of an elementary school where I straddled a seesaw. There I sat, turning questions over and over. It was an act of prayer, that deep mood of introspection. Like Telemachus pinning Proteus to the strand, I watched a strange procession of ideas contort the face of the problem, each one trying to spook me into letting go. I didn’t let go; finding out was too important. Suddenly, the face quieted and the revelation came: Your love for others, a voice said, needn’t depend upon others’ feelings for you.
It was a moment of liberation that illuminated the world.
A voice of another kind touched off the second event. I was sitting at a desk in an undergrad English class at BYU staring down at John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” where read I for the first time:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine “¦
I didn’t care much for that “Veil’d Melancholy” bit, but the other image–that strenuous tongue bursting Joy’s grape against the palate–flashed in my mind like lightning striking summer grasses. “I could do that,” I thought, as I squinted against the glare of Keats’s image. “I want to do that.” I meant, write like that.
Ten years of superheated life followed these moments, hyper-nomadic years during which I abandoned narrative constructs almost at the moment I finished assembling them. At first, I felt afraid. The world refused to hold still long enough for me to put down intellectual, emotional, or spiritual roots, though something about the movement itself felt natural and compelling, like the contractions I experienced later with childbirth.
Fortunately, I had good mentors during this time, a lot of them, because that’s what it took. Observing my growing love for life and humankind, Arthur King released me from dilemma when he said, “My dear, it’s all right to love, and to love deeply.” Yes! Leslie Norris: “You strike me as someone who wants to wander the face of the earth.” That was pretty close, closer than I realized at the time, because I took him literally. But he provided the metaphor for what I eventually understood my nature to have become. I had learned to like living at the frontier of who I am, a frontier that, rather than shrinking as I crossed over into its gorgeous wilderness of the unknown, became all the more unbounded.
At this point, my essay wants to fly off in several directions: to talk about love, the role it plays in writing, in a writer’s language, in the tendering of human agency; to talk about the priesthood as it shined through my interaction with those long-suffering mentors, all of whom were men; to talk about narrative constructs, houses for our beliefs where we attempt to settle but that suffer inevitable tensions of being built on sand or a floodplain; about my sense for how, in the spreading garden of the Creation, human beings shiver in the budtime of an indefinite spring; about the leading role language plays in the drama of the developing mind–indeed, in human progression overall. But at the risk of reputation, I’ve decided to talk about one of the especially unsettling aspects of living at the frontier of who you are: those crazy voices.
Reading her poetry at the Bluff Arts Festival, Lorraine Nakai, a Navajo poet and crop entomologist, remarked that new science suggests that schizophrenia is an artifact of the evolution of the human brain. Now that this “the human brain is still evolving” idea has finally caught on, scientists, wrestling with the usual ironies of self-portraiture, are hurriedly applying, in broad strokes, yet another coat of paint to their never-finished (yet often exhibited) masterpiece of human nature.
Because of my twenty-plus years’ experience with voices, dreams, and other cerebral pops, flashes, and fires over the personal pan-sized evolutionary course of my own brain, I had already wondered if schizophrenia was more than an unlucky misfiring of clay, a cracked pot. My exploits in cognition suggested that not knowing what something is or not knowing what to do about it doesn’t mean it’s an impenetrable mystery or that nothing can be done. In fact, in the case of the human encephalon, some mysteries are divine calls to action and epic adventure.
I began hearing voices at what is probably the usual threshold for it: mid-to-late teens. The sound of someone calling my name often startled me awake, middle of the night. The fact that the house was dark and quiet and that my sister, who shared the bedroom, was fast asleep, confounded my compelling urge to answer. Usually, I lay awake for a while wondering then fell back to sleep, sometimes to be awakened again later.
Other than these middle-of-the-night wake-up calls, nothing happened until the two events mentioned above lit me up. Then voices and other artifacts of heightened brain activity aroused and integrated themselves into my daily life, making in poetic/religious language statements about my prospects, summing up my condition, helping me find people, etc. These in turn gave rise to more striking events. Feelings of heightened clarity or transcendence accompanied most of these incidents. Sometimes flashes of illumination occurred without a voice-over making a fortune-cookie-like remark: I simply saw through myself, clearly and hotly. And the dreams “¦ straight out of Joseph Campbell, redolent with archetype.
I spent a couple years worrying I might be going mad, because while LDS beliefs rightly herald the refining fires of salvation, accurate topo maps for said fiery terrains are rare to nonexistent. The village spirit of the church displays itself in objectives and goals, the signposts of accomplishment. Indeed, objectives and goals do seem to be obvious destinations. Problem was, I didn’t know where I was headed. Every time I imagined I had arrived, the scene dissolved and another frontier opened. But a few experiences (including a you-won’t-believe-this dream sequence culminating in a real-life encounter with Joseph Campbell) helped me understand that within a certain range of activity level in the brain, the voices and other artifacts not only were normal but also healthy, maybe even very healthy. They are the brain’s strivings–at least, they’re my brain’s strivings–to integrate regions, update wiring, and get to the next level, or, as Joseph Campbell puts it, to answer the call.
Accordingly, I made peace with my psychic fires. Making peace with them didn’t exorcise them, nor have I outgrown them. They’re not as concentrated as they were when I was in my 20s but they still come. The voices accompany events I call “quickenings,” movements into new levels of awareness and social, artistic, and spiritual responsibility. Other phenomena exert themselves more commonly than do the voices. For instance, it was a brain flash, which feels like a charge of energy going off head to toe, that called my attention to the man I married. I think because my mind is accustomed to these fireworks as a side effect of interaction with other humans, for which I have a great passion; the natural world, which folds me into its bosom; and God, who exudes irresistible mystery, these fires have jumped firebreaks into my middle years.
Two elements proved essential for navigating by these fires: language and relation, which together form the double helix of human experience. I needed words of two kinds. First, words to work off of, forged in others’ fires, written or uttered expression from men and women who speak the language of transformation. Second, I needed words to generate new prospects as my old take on life went up in flame, wrapped in the most recently woven shroud of broken-heartedness, bound up in shreds of contrite spirit. But of course, I’m not the only one who needs to feel the fine touch of well-turned words; everybody needs good language, though it seems to me that many, despairing of finding the better part, settle for bad language and try hard to make something of it.
As for human relations, they formed–still do–my true north. That might sound impossible and unwise, trust not in the arm of flesh, etc. But I wasn’t trusting in the arm of flesh. As I contended with the loss of bearings that often comes with traveling uncharted territory, over-the-pulpit sermons to “love thy neighbor” begged the question. I finally developed a simple touchstone for testing the quality of a situation: If the new thought, event, question, association led me deeper into happy community with my fellow beings, then it was good–pursue it. If the new circumstances led me away from people I loved or who loved me, or even from human society in general toward isolation or abandonment, then all engines reverse full. So simple, a matter of learning to take responsibility for my actions, including my thinking, with is also action, and my language, which can be an especially long-lived form of action, as dynamic and effectual as physical exertion is thought to be. Works for me.
A year and a half ago, I sat talking with my supervisor about a student I’d had in one of my classes and subsequently tutored. This student posed challenges I’d never encountered. As I wrestled with him and his needs, I found myself at the far reaches of my teaching experience. My supervisor knew the student and understood the problems he posed. He wasn’t the actual trouble, of course; the real bind was an intricately woven tapestry of human condition through which ran the frayed threads of our not knowing what to do. All I understood was that in spite of the fact this young man challenged my skills and questioned my experience on many levels, pushing my patience to its furthermost borders, I had deep feelings for him and desired more than anything to find a way through.
In the middle of a sentence I spoke to my supervisor describing my frustrations, the bookcase I sat facing, and indeed, the whole office winked out. I found myself in a dark cave, or maybe an open but rocky area under ceiling of night. Right of center stood a column of fire, slender and straight like an aspen tree, bright yellow flames wrapping tightly against its segmented core, driving upward in a spiral of combustion. The fire cast a glow that lit up a rock wall behind the column. The dirt floor surrounding the pillar was vacant and smooth, except that slightly out from the pillar’s base something moved, some kind of backfire maybe, a small flame, so hot it burned clear, yet I could detect it. Animated with intention, it circled the pillar, forward and backward, encouraging the fire to burn more intensely while at the same time guiding its energy upward.
If I were William Blake, I could make a painting of the thing, or if I knew Blake and described it to him he’d draw it exactly right. I don’t know how long I sat gazing at the column, but when I came out of that cave and the bookcase rematerialized, I turned to find my supervisor throwing me a sharp look of concern. I think I might have smiled; how could I not have. As far as I know, I picked up the conversation where I left off and we continued exploring prospects for the young man in question. She said, “We’re talking about love here.” “Yes,” I said. “I know.” The burning pillar had rendered that much clear.
Out there at the edges of my known territory, that pillar of fire, my most extravagant brain-flash ever, oriented me to the work at hand–entering the wilds of my unknowingness to find the better place. It provided light and, just as important, warmth to go by.
Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as infinite.” Thinking about the Exodus and those two, stiff-backed, preternatural ushers, the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud, I wonder now if they were manifestations of God’s standing with his people, creation’s support poles running between the apparent fixed position and the movable and growing mystery. But also, I wonder if those columns reflected the backbone of the Israelites’ burning desire to cross the frontiers of what they had become in captivity and get to Promised Land, that better place. I wonder because that’s what my flaming pillar looked like–a backbone of fire.