1. IN THE HERE AND NOW
Last night at a friend's house I looked up and the room froze snapshot still, snapshot distant—
"I better go..." I muttered.
"But you just got here!" A faraway voice replied.
Running home in the warm September night I wondered what was happening to me. Standing in a pool of light about to cross the street, I recalled that this had happened also a few weeks ago. But then in a blink all returned to normal. Not this time. This time the chill stuck like a knife in the brain.
Getting home earlier than expected—Mom's questioning eyes, Dad looking up from his paper—I thought, not yet, and sat down under the maple tree in our front yard.
The rustle of leaves soothed me, the lacy shadows swaying hypnotic made me realize that for some time now I enjoyed being alone more than with people. I no longer felt a need to share my thoughts, had no patience to listen. When I was by myself a longing sweet like some ancient promise welled up inside me. About to burst, it was to propel me into a world brimming with excitement. Savoring the feeling I entered the house and went straight to bed.
That night I dreamt a map in which a faded mass of land was surrounded by turbulent waters, the details blurred by an eerie glow. In the dream I walked into the glow and was already choking on particles of light swarming around me when I heard a bird twitter overhead.
"Don't move. I know the way out of here."
" Where am I?"
"At the edge of your present state."
"I am the one you talk to when you talk to yourself."
"What is going on..."
"The world you live in has lost the power to move you. Follow me and you'll see familiar things as if for the first time. Those who dream the map are destined to take a journey to a place where shadows lift."
Curious about the shadows, I said, " Yes. I want to know what lies ahead."
"What you are about to see is not your future. Change-in-time is what the journey is about." Alighting on my shoulder, the small gray bird twittered, "Turn around!"
Behind me were desolate flatlands, sky and ground the color of ashes. No trees no mountains no landmarks to suggest a direction.
"What you see is a mirror reflection of your mind," whispered my companion. A chill ran up my spine.
"Go on, there is nothing else you can do."
Eyes fixed on the horizon I started walking, expecting any moment for something to appear. Instead, I found myself walking in circles and stopped.
"Look down," whispered the bird.
Besides a small dust devil whirling near by there was nothing else to look at.
"Look again, what looks like nothing may take you out of here."
The dust devil was now twisting around my ankle and as I was looking at it a forked tongue stuck out sampling the air. A lizard, I thought, and the thought had hardly left the mind when a scaled reptilian belly rubbed against my shin. When a snout appeared I said to myself, this must stop, for every time I try to guess what it is, an image of it shaped in thought appears. When a green-scaled tail fell to the side, claws groping for ground, the mass heaved like a four-legged animal rising to its feet—
"A dragon!" I shouted scaring the bird.
Sure enough, a fairy-tale slime-green dragon stood before me gasping for air. I jumped to the side but the dragon saw me and moved closer. Nowhere to run or hide, I pulled off Grandmother's golden locket and threw it at the beast. Catching the morsel in midair, it swallowed my most precious possession in a gulp and that same instant it doubled in size. Hungry for more the dragon took another step. Head shaking, in a triumphant roar it released a batch of flames and mouth gaping reached for my head. When its thrashing tail fell between us I grabbed it and shoved it into the gaping jaws. The dragon swallowed, and body twisted in a ring it froze. I jumped onto its belly, slipped through the ring, slid down the other side and ran without looking back.
Catching up with me the bird shrieked, "Stop! This will not do! You must start at the beginning!"
At the beginning? Where was that? I looked back—where the dragon stood a rainbow was arching across the ashen sky.
"There it is!" chirped the bird excitedly. "Go for it! It will vanish any moment!"
Colors splashing in my face I ran through the rainbow. On the other side my companion was singing, "Enter the unknown by chance and feel forlorn..."
Seeing me puzzled, the bird explained, "The ditty says you must enter the unknown not by accident but by choice, aware that you are taking a decisive step. Only then will you know why you are where you are. Don't fret, you won't be alone." Then added, "Try the color purple on your left... or is it on your right? Never mind, it makes no difference where you start. Stop questioning, go!"
On the other side of purple was home in deep under-water silence. The swing on the porch, the lilac bushes, the curtains in my bedroom window swaying together like plants in a current, the face in the bay window familiar. A closer look startled me—it was my own face staring back at me. I quickly averted my gaze and it fell on the potted geraniums on the front steps, color red sucking me into a bottomless well. I was inhaling red, drowning in red when in a blink my eyes fell on the reflection of sky in the birdbath. Riding blue thermals I soared delirious to heights unknown before, then, turning iron-heavy I fell through layers of ever deepening blues, landing on a leaf. In the underarm of the leaf a drop of dew quivered and as it swelled I swelled, as it rolled over I rolled over, and hanging upside down learned what every drop of water knows already.
In that dream whatever I looked at I became that thing. Seeing a cat stalk a pigeon I was the cat, and when the cat froze in mid-motion I was the pigeon—leaning into the air, straining to rise, flapping wings, learning how it feels to fly. A wave of sounds, "Kitty-kitty here!" made me gasp for air.
To steady myself I leaned against a tree and under the weight of leaves I slumped onto a stone and under my human disguise I turned stone-hard stone-cold. When the scent of lilacs fingered the deepest recesses of my being, I was a mirror to the world and the world a mirror to me.
"Didn't I say that familiar things may look the same but hold more than meets the eye?" chirped the bird alighting on my shoulder. Then continued, "Did anything strike you as peculiar when you were changing identities, becoming other than yourself?"
"Peculiar? Not really. It felt as if the curtains of time had parted to let me in then closed behind me. There was a 'before,' and an 'after,' like after awakening in the morning. What happened in between, happened as if in a dream." Looking straight at the bird I asked, "Am I dreaming still?"
"Yes, in a way you are. This however is a waking dream. What you have experienced is motion inside you. Whatever you looked at or touched or smelled has moved you, made you feel alive all over again."
As if in confirmation the entire home scene exploded in a spectacle of colors. Too much to bear, I picked up the whole scene by the corners like a sheet of cloth, tied the corners together and, pressing the bundle of sensations to my chest, shut my eyes firmly. The bundle hummed softly, and placing one foot in front of the other I started walking. When the bundle fell silent I opened my eyes.
I was in a birch forest.
"Which way shell we go?" I asked the gray sparrow perched on my shoulder.
"Remember the dragon? You envisioned it piece by piece in your mind and it came to be. You outsmarted the beast without a sword in hand. Actually the dragon fell victim to itself. What happens to you in the forest depends on what you make of what you see or touch or smell or hear. Watch your mind and you will know what to do."
Encouraged I said, "Let's go."
Shaking its head the bird declined, "This part of the journey you'll want to be alone."
In a clearing I split shadows into planks and built myself a hut a table a bench and a bed. In a sunny spot I dug up a patch of earth and planted wild onions, bitter-sweet greens and barley for the winter months.
Every morning the sun rolled over the treetops and tending the garden together we chatted.
"Any news back home?" I'd ask.
"Nothing in particular."
"Do they miss me?"
"Everybody lives in a dream of their own. They don't see you as absent." And after a pause, " Are you alright, not homesick not lost? "
"I'm fine. Solitude brings me great comfort."
The other day Sun asked, "Don't you feel lonely?"
"Why should I? You visit me often, birds stop to look in and things grow. This place is full of life. There is much to do and much to think about. I have no time to feel sad or lonely."
Sun smiled, "I know... See you tomorrow!" then climbed up shadow by shadow and rolled out of sight.
Left alone I sang to a passing cloud or a leaf swaying in the breeze. Every thing I sang to listened and in song I gave something away and received something in return.
All was cozy and well until I noticed that someone was eating the shoots in my garden. To keep the nibblers away I felled a great number of trees and built a birch-trunk stockade around my domain. But now night after night the invaders ran around the place making horrific noises, trying to break in.
To prevent a surprise stampede I spun grasses with cobwebs and stretched string from points in the stockade to the four corners of my pillow—the humming memory bundle comforting my head at night, the rattling seed pods I hung on lines to give me ample warning.
After weeks of stretching string it was almost impossible to move inside the enclave. I had entrapped myself in a tangle of warnings so dense, so spider-sensitive to touch, that every so often I set off an alarm scaring myself silly.
The other night I stayed up watching moonlight weave shadows. Ever since the sun asked me whether I was lonely, I kept thinking about it—thoughts folding and unfolding, thoughts ascending heights, plunging to phantom depths; thoughts grooving burrowing tunneling through an unending darkness, stumbling over, bumping into each other, hitting dead ends, loosing track, catching up, surprising themselves here and there. Thoughts meandering, repeating themselves, starting all over again. Thoughts leading nowhere.
Moon, reclining on treetops, head propped on an elbow, was watching me.
"Amazing, isn't it, how night thoughts differ from day thoughts?" His voice crossed distances leisurely. "Even thoughts have another side to them. Would you agree?"
I looked at the moon.
"Why is everything so complicated? Why can't thoughts go from here to there instead of looping and meandering inside the brain? Nothing is predictable anymore, I have no idea what to expect. It frightens me to think that nothing can be relied on or trusted." I paused, but hearing no answer proceeded cautiously, "When you make your rounds at night, do you see creatures running around the stockade? Do you hear the noise they make?"
"Noises? When I look in on you at night I hear no noises, see no creatures running around the stockade. Is that what keeps you awake?
"I am in danger. I know it's out there." Then somewhat hesitant, "Are thoughts unreliable?"
"Yes, thoughts are unreliable. In the here-and-now, the mind is busy making sense of impressions. You see water, you remember the taste of water and the cool wetness of it and that makes sense when you are thirsty; an odorous whiff drifts by and you wonder what smells like that, or hear a mosquito buzzing and recall the insect's nasty bite—to avoid mosquito bites makes sense. Words originate on the heels of what takes place around you, they merely translate impressions into specific sound arrangements. In the translation many things happen."
The moon was ready to leave when I asked him,
"Can thoughts be as overwhelming as sensations?"
"Of course!" And waving good-by Moon gathered up the moonbeams and sank out of sight.
Silence reigning supreme I called out to the beasts,
"Stay away! You won't get rid of me that fast!" Not a leaf stirred.
"Let's live in peace!" I shouted again. Silence locked in.
In bed that night the word peace roamed the mind, leaving behind a trail of footprints. When I woke up next morning every leaf, every blade of grass, even my precious bundle of memories, stared back at me disturbed. One thing was sure—runaway thoughts had taken over my life. Defenses did not make me stronger. Defenses shut out the world and I invented another to accommodate my fears.
Have I imagined the noises? Have I crammed my head with alarms intricate enough to spot a passing fly? Has fear gotten the better of me? Have I raised the ruckus myself?
Curious to see what was on the other side I climbed the stockade—there was no forest, only stumps of trees I felled to protect myself. Among the up-shoots a white steed was grazing, the sun-drenched scene so serene I jumped to its side.
Thunderous forebodings crackled the air when I approached it, cooing, "Come now, come..." But the magnificent steed just stood there shivering as if ordained to stand still. When I reached to stroke its silken belly, a voice rip-roared no! no! I murmured "Hush, now…" and leaning into its ear whispered,
"Teach me how not to think—"