Sunday, October 02, 2011

Dante Was Here

The other day someone bumped into me on the subway and slipped a list of questions into my coat pocket. I found them later that morning when I reached into the pocket to pull out the obituary section. I was looking for a story about a man who disappeared and was never seen again. The thirteenth question read: "What are you doing here?" I thought, that was hours and miles ago; I am not doing anything where I am not anymore.
There are questions that leave me awake at night, staring at the ceiling in a cold sweat, and there are other questions that lull me to sleep to dream about lying awake at night staring at the ceiling in a cold sweat thinking about questions. I try not to think of either at any time, but it is like asking someone to raise his hand if he can't hear you.
This night, there I was, looking up at the ceiling again, trying to picture what it is that I am doing somewhere at sometime, but all I could see was darkness. I couldn't see my own hand in front of my own face if I had tried and for a certainty, if it were not my hand I wouldn't have known the difference. And it wouldn't matter, I would still try to swat it away, swat it away like one's arm when it has fallen asleep and drapes across one's abdomen heavy and wet. That's the arm that keeps returning back to its place no matter how many times you swat it away, like a mad dog on a short leash, like that check you wrote last week, like the memory of the war you fought. This is a handicap. Once again, as I dispute the origins and validity of my own hand, I miss the opportunity to come to experience just what it is that I do, and cannot answer questions that only I can ask. I may have simply disappeared. I fold the paper and the names it contains are forgotten.
Or so I think. I squint at the ceiling a little more and there I see tiny space ships moving across the blackness trailing banners with the answers to these questions, but now they are in an ancient script and I can't make out a thing. It is then I realize that all the while I have been outside on a high meadow lying in my sleeping bag next to a dwindling campfire and those lights up there are real space ships. XXM, Vorsted, VRM, ROSAT, Amos. I shake my head: but I am certain that I am imagining the banners. That illusion is true. It is very late and I need to put out the campfire and go to sleep. The northern lights sweep across the sky like the tail of a mountain lion. A meteor makes a paper cut in the sky, bleeding white for a split second, then the black skin of night heals over. After eons of this, you might think that the the night sky would be so scarred it would look like African body art, but night absorbs all wounds. So I sleep. As I nod off, one of the ships reenters the atmosphere at a sharp angle and ignites, sparkly yellow and green and then it disappears. Two days later, as I sat in a cafe eating vulcanized bacon wedgettes with bleached, androgynous eggs and oriented-strand toast, the newspaper headline reads, "Space Junk Reenters Atmosphere and Burns up over Denver. Millions Misinterpret Sign." I guess slept right through it.
The morning in the meadow brings the sun into the open like a loud brass band. I shield my eyes. What am I doing here anyhow? Somebody once told me that we just aren't meant to know, and I told him not to share his personal problems with me anymore. I mean, answering questions about ecology, niche, habitat, associated species, soil type or slope, these are academic and ordinary. Anyone can create a postulate or theory and then assemble supporting data. Go ahead and try. Repeat after me: I postulate that... Now fill in the blank and then apply for a grant. Go ahead. I postulate that army worms caused the First World War. I postulate that decreased rainfall increases religious behavior. Speech intolerance is a reliable predictor of the ability to navigate hedge mazes. Banking security is a function of shareholder disorientation. All parental superstitions are traced to one town crier in France. It's easy. The library shelves have a random and highly disordered assemblage of yellowing journals filled with lofty, mathematical prose, which journals reproduce asexually and can do so in an oxygen-depleted environment. Doctoral dissertations and coauthors and peer review and coefficients of correlation. Yes. Orthogonal two-component experiential hyperbole. Somewhere in there lies ecology and niche and soil type. So I have a theory: What I am is not in there.
So maybe my business is just plain-old Agoraphobia, a fear of going out into crowds of people. An uncontrolled social situation from which there is no escape.
And this assumes that one can actually escape from uncontrolled social situations. It may not be possible. I think that they are universal and all pervasive, sort of like some sort of Zen state, all-one with all. Or one. Or something. Well then, I must be in The Urbanite's Hell: The past four months I have been drifting, just migrating across the open fields like a herd of antelope, on a sea like a rudderless ship, floating through air like a paper airplane, a leaf on a breezy lake, a blind man looking for something to see. Through savannas and black forests of pine, up claystone slopes and down sagebrush swales, meanders along drowsy clear rivers, slogs through soggy black ash bottomlands where every step sinks into the floodplain silt and releases mosquitoes into the air like telegraph messages, pointing into my thighs. Ten thousand at at time, dive bombers, sacrificing their lives for the nation. Could I send one back, half-alive, to warn the others? If reincarnation were true, I would be a mass murderer.
How many levels are there to this hell, nine? The cold air collects on the hillsides in the evening and merges in the draws. By the time it reaches the river bottom, it is nearly a breeze, and it forms a fog that drifts away from shore like a daydream. It is scented with wet grass and turpenes from the ponderosa pine, sweet like tangerines and clove. I have entered another savanna. This is Level One.
The Second Level is finding a pine that looks just like a ponderosa pine on another continent. Level Three is finding that the two pines are genetically similar and that, although they are isolated by time and space, they can actually interbreed, albeit with assistance. Level Four is sharing this with your friends. Level Five is having your friends reply that the sedges and grasses beneath the pines on one continent are not the same as those on the other continent and that they have a completely different function in relation to the pine and that the niche that the grasses and sedges occupy on the other continent are unique and require further study because nobody thought of that niche before and hey, they forgot to tell you that studies have shown that humans have a widespread and ubiquitous preference for natural environments, particularly savannas but also they gravitate toward lakeshores and seashores and sometimes dark forests and more often than not will build civilizations around these natural spots and, by the way, they also forgot to tell you that studies show that the urban environment is shown to have a causal relationship with mental illness. Level Six is the realization that everything you knew up until now was wrong, but something tells you that you had better stay put in this grassy, open woodland, so help you God, Level Seven is the realization that the design in nature is infinitely more complex than anything you could ever imagine from here to eternity, and Level Eight is the realization that the land management program that you worked on with a panel of fifty experts for the past ten years and implemented last week set in motion a series of irreversible and catastrophic natural events that will ultimately lead to the extinction of all life on earth. You probably won't share this with your friends.
Very few people make it to the Ninth Level. After all, one man's hell is another man's paradise.