Come into the bone bell: come inside, come inside

My hands on these keys, your eyes on these words, the elegant connections between eyecells and braincells; between fingercells and braincells and back to fingercells — none of this is mysterious, all of it is beyond miraculous. Welcome to the impossible. Welcome to your self.

Please consider this memory:  I was thirty, raising three kids alone and wrestling myself through a psychology degree split between get-to-know-and-love-yourself counseling and physiological psychology. One of my teachers gathered us into a circle, in which we told our deepest stories, confronted each other, acted out our dreams, cried, froze in silence, held each other and often wanted only to escape. We all sat tight. We were learning Rogerian therapy and Gestalt technique in our bodies — and by the seat of our pants. Our teacher warmly insisted we call him by his first name. Some of us slept together. That was never mentioned in our cozy circle.

Three hours later, I would walk across campus to a brightly lit classroom in which desks were aligned in rows with military precision. An austere fine-boned man would walk in at 4, not one minute sooner nor later. His lectures were contained, much like listening to a diagram. He drew nerve pathways on the board, his handwriting as precise as his speech. We had never seen him smile. And we were always to call him Doctor.

One gray December day, I left the therapy class circle in my own fog. I had finally cried over my mother’s repeated suicide attempts. One of the other students had gently taken my hand and said, “Now your body and spirit can heal.” I walked slowly on the icy sidewalks as though I were made of glass. I wondered where my spirit resided and I had no idea how my body felt. For years, I had considered myself a huge and difficult mind on a great pair of legs.

By the time I reached the neuroanatomy classroom, I could feel the cold air in my lungs. My thoughts had cleared. The professor walked in at 4. He did not turn to the blackboard as he always did. He stood silently in front of us for what seemed forever. We waited.

“Tell me,” he said, “who you are.” It was not a question. It was a command. The room was silent. Then, a wild-haired young man raised his hand. The professor nodded. “I’m a psychology student, a guitarist and a person on his way to his real life,” the student said. The professor nodded again. An older woman raised her hand, “I’m a mother, a grandmother and a nurse.” Five or six students spoke. I didn’t. I seemed to have no answer.

“Thank you,” the professor said. “Your answers are at one level, correct. And, they are thoroughly inadequate. You see, if someone were to introduce a powerful anticholinergic inhalant into the air ducts, an inhalant that had no scent, you would within seconds not only have no idea of who you are, you would have no idea of you or are or who.” He allowed himself a small, almost sad smile. Then he turned to the blackboard and wrote: acetylcholinesterase and brain function.

I watched his hand move. His hand moving, my eyes watching, my brain decoding what my eyes see, these very thoughts, only neurotransmitters releasing and arriving, moving through cell membranes, releasing again. That is who he is; that is who I am. I wondered that I didn’t feel diminished, though, of course, I  had ceased to have the same meaning it once had.

The next Spring, I stood at a tall table in the Neurophysiology teaching laboratory. The instructor placed a jar in my hands. “Don’t do anything,” she said, “until I give all of you the instructions.” She handed jars to everyone and then taught us how to carefully remove the human brain inside.

I took the cold mass into my hands. The voice of the instructor seemed to fade away. I felt the weight of an unknown person’s words and touches, of memory and loss, of longing and pain, of pleasure and knowledge. Your answers at one level are correct and they are inadequate. The voice of the lab instructor came back. “You will never know who belonged to these brains,” she said. “And, as you will learn in the months to come, our brains do not belong to us. We belong to our brains. And, in that, to our bodies.”

There’s Nothing In Here

“Beyond the white clouds a blue mountain. A traveler goes beyond that mountain.”

 — Zen poem

You know how it is. You stand at the edge of a black highway. It’s so hot your boots stick to the asphalt. The sun bears down on you — on your skull, on your breath. There is nowhere you’d rather be.

There are mountains beyond mountains beyond mirages. Cobalt beyond indigo beyond dusty blue. You know what’s out there — the way washes curve back into the rock, how a waterfall no wider than your palm might be spilling over basalt. There might be reeds and a cottonwood luminous against the dark rock.

A couple in a cliché vehicle drives up and park. They slowly emerge from the car. You try to hold to the cobalt, the waterfall, the verdant flames of the cotton leaves. The man announces to the woman, “There’s nothing out there.” She shudders. In as long as it has taken you to stop breathing, the people are there, not there, and gone.

You look out at the mountain. The sky above is cloudless. You know toward what you will go.

The building was built a few years ago. It is austere. It’s easy to imagine guards and prisoners, easy to believe that like university buildings constructed in the Seventies, it has been designed to discourage students gathering in protest; and should they gather, to allow them to be contained easily. I walk into a huge gray lobby. There are no other people. There is an elevator. I take it up to the second floor.

I exit into more gray, find my way to the room in which I will teach a writing circle. I wait at a long table. Everything is tidy. Everything is gray: table, chairs, walls, ceiling and floor. The door opens into another gray hallway lined with wall-to-wall windows. Outside, the sun drifts down toward a ragged skyline. I lean against the doorframe and watch rose-blue evening melt in.

The students walk down the hall, their laughter muted by the sharp angles of the building. We shove the tables to the back of the room, move the chairs into a circle. I suddenly notice the equipment on a big desk. Brooke laughs. “Watch,” she says.

She touches a button. Two screens slide down over the whiteboard. She touches another button. “What do you want to see?” she asks. “Anything. We can project anything from the internet to the screens.”

“Spirit Mountain. Nevada. Sunset,” I say.

Brooke clicks again. I step aside and turn to the screens. There are two Spirit Mountains side by side. Cobalt rock. Red-gold burning on their tops. Pale desert and dark Joshua trees at their base.

“The last time I looked at that mountain,” I say, “a tourist said, ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Let’s write from these pictures and the prompt: There’s nothing in here.”

We write for thirty minutes. We read. A nineteen-year-old man takes his turn. “There’s nothing in here. I believe these rooms are designed this way to drain the creativity from us students. That way we won’t ever think about what college has become. That way we won’t fight back.”

We finish reading. Brooke steps toward the computer. “No,” the young man says, “leave those on the screen. Let’s pretend we can walk into the pictures. Let’s write from there. We can start with ‘There’s nothing out there.’ Then we’ll go beyond.”




Writing the Forbidden

I am a spy from the ephemeral and ravaged border.
I stepped out of a mirage on the horizon between 29 Palms and Cadiz. The dust on my hair and shoulders caught first light. This corolla was not visible to me. Because I was alone, it was visible to no one.
You moved toward me from the base of a mountain, a mountain that extends a thousand feet or more down into the radiant playa. You were a shadow, the absence of your light not visible to you.
We met, a fusion of the invisible. The shock wave rippled out. Out and further out. There was damage and dislocation. Beyond our ken.
When the air stilled, there was nothing left but fused sand, brilliant as the shards of beer bottles the local kids smash in furious celebration.

No one is free of the forbidden. We are forbidden to speak of it. No one will ever grow old in America. No one will ever carve an arc that leaves the mind in a wheelchair. No one will stop pretending the Western Lands are a frontier for our experiments, for our ceaseless insistence on Fun. No one will double over in the pain and horror of seeing clearly.

The Western Lands welcome you. Look. Out Here you can see for miles. You can begin again. And again. We modern humans are eternal. We will not die. Nothing has been lost.

We do not speak of it. In the huge silence, death moves toward us. We are too busy to notice. We are too busy to know that in our busy-ness, we race to meet the end of everything. We carry what we do not notice with us — toward extinction.

The bulldozer crawls across the high desert sand. The horned toad is slower. Metal and flesh. Months later, we unlock the door of our new “Dream Home” and walk across the bones and carapaces of those we have refused to know.

Welcome to the forbidden.