In 1982, while putting together an issue of “Communities” about spiritual change, my travels took me to Eugene, Oregon. I was invited to appear on a radio show on the subject. Afterwards, the host, sharing her own dilemma, told me this story:
“For years, I had an interior voice. We would have long dialogs about my life. The voice seemed very wise, and I took its counsel seriously.
“One day, it told me to call George. I was resistant, because we had more or less completed a sad breakup of a long-term relationship. But the voice insisted, even specifying that we should meet under the old apple tree in George’s back yard. It would only say that something wonderful was going to happen. George knew about my voice, of course. When I called him, he hesitated, then said, “Okay.”
“We met and parked ourselves under the tree. For an hour, we sat quietly, holding hands, meditating about what we had lost, hoping for some inspiration… a reprieve.
“Finally, George said he had to go. We embraced and separated.
On the walk home, the voice returned. “I’m so embarrassed,” it said. “I was sure that something wonderful would happen that would make everything all right between you and George. I feel terrible and you will never hear from me again.” And that’s the last I ever heard from the voice.”
Was this a split personality? A wandering ghost?
In my introduction to the issue of the magazine on spiritual change, I introduced the story of another voice, this one from God announcing Judgement day, with six months to get our affairs in order. And for six months, milk and honey flows, peace and good will reign in every nation, town and household.
On the appointed day, the Voice returns, announcing that due to urgent circumstances in another part of the galaxy, it won’t be possible to process the planet Earth at this time. “You have an additional year before Judgement Day.”
Oops! It’s debauchery, drugs and mayhem as communities crumble and all Hell breaks loose.
Well, that’s just a story. The point of including it in the issue’s editorial introduction was to prepare our readers for some bizarre contradictions along the way to Nirvana.
WATCH THE HAND
On a Friday evening, in the early ‘80s, commuting between Washington and New Haven for the startup of Co-op America, I was bumped off the 5:30 pm flight out of National Airport – not an unusual occurrence. There would be a four hour wait in the terminal. I was fuming. I could feel the bile rising, an invitation to indigestion, ulcers, colitis – a stupid waste of energy, not changing the circumstances one whit. I went off in a deserted part of the terminal and began doing Tai Chi, seeking to gain peace and center.
Well into the flow, I notice an old cleaning man approaching, pushing a bucket. My turn takes me in another direction, and I lose sight of him. Suddenly there is a voice speaking into my ear in a powerful, rich tone. It instructs simply, “More graceful.”
I’m so deep into the movement that I continue. Another shift and turn, and the cleaning man is again peripherally in view, this time walking away slowly. I never see him again.
So here are the possibilities: First, the old cleaning man is a Tai Chi master. The complete confidence of the voice may seem contrary to his station, but he cleans the Commuter Terminal as part of some arcane Zen discipline. Second, God has singled me out for some special instruction. Gosh, even if I thought I was worth the effort, I doubt I’m that bad. Third, I have flipped out, inventing the voice, and possibly even the old man.
Now I don’t call that a great set of choices, but it’s the best I had at the moment. Not that I really minded – it remains an interesting and instructive lesson about the peculiarities of the universe, or my mind, or God’s mind.
A RIFF ON THE GREAT RIF
Driving from Asmara to Addis Ababa is one of the more hair-raising rides in the world. You skirt along the Great Rif, with mile drops to the equatorial desert on one side, and sheer mountain up another mile on the other.
Coming around a mountain, it’s a whole new world, with the road snaking and disappearing from view. Often an entire valley is revealed, with the ribbon of road tying it together.
At one such moment, I spot two oil tankers following each other, perhaps ten miles away, heading in my direction. Then I lose sight of them. My driver has switched off and is relaxing in the passenger seat.
I’m shooting a film for the Peace Corps, visiting Volunteers along the way, and our time is constrained by the flight I have to make in Addis. He knows I’m in a hurry, and is surprised when after about five miles, I begin to slow down. We are facing a long, straight stretch of road, heading toward a ninety degree curve. The road is narrow, barely two lanes right up to the turn, except for one place where it widens out.
As we approach the curve, I hesitate, then pull off at the wide spot.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
As mystified as he, I shrug and turn off the key. As the roar of the Land Rover dies, it’s suddenly possible to hear a lower drone. As we sit in disbelief, the two tankers come around the curve, in tandem, two abreast.
Wipe out city. We wouldn’t even have had a chance to choose between crashing the wall or diving a mile. As the tankers pass, we look at each other, two souls redeemed. Perhaps some internal clock had been calculating the miles of passage, raising concern, and my senses were tuned to that subliminal thrumm of the approaching trucks – enough to cause the hesitation that saved our lives. But it feels flat out psychic.
As a young child, I had a recurring dream of watching an endless line of slaves delivering blocks of stone to a rising pyramid. In the dream, I observed dispassionately, and my own role was unclear. Years later, in high school, my class made a pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As we entered the rooms devoted to pharaonic Egypt, I was struck by the memory of my dream. All that I saw in that exhibition was colored by a sure sense of expectation and familiarity.
Consider that dream. What a simple explanation if the sequence had been reversed and the dream occurred after I visited the Met exhibit. Otherwise, who was that calm observer? Architect? Engineer? Prince? What if the connection was more than a dream and leapt the chasm of millennia between myself and a patrilineal progenitor, joined by our DNA? Go back far enough and perhaps we are all connected to Adam and Eve, navigating the flood, standing with Moses in the welcome shadow of the pyramids, as the sun rises and sets on our dreams.
LIFE IS A FOUNTAIN
The shaggiest of all shaggy canine stories has a man at the end of his life searching for its meaning. His travels take him over all the world at the cost of his fortune.
Finally, he attains the high Himalayas, kneeling in the snow before an ancient, blind guru who reposes in lotus position, naked, and apparently several feet off the ground.
In ecstasy, the supplicant gasps, “Tell me, oh teacher, what I have sought. Tell me the meaning of life.”
As if from far away, a voice pronounces with great calm, “Life is a fountain.”
The searcher mulls this over for a few moments, then blurts out, “You mean I’ve traveled all over the world and spent my fortune to hear that life is a fountain? That’s the most simplistic, ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
Again, as if from a great distance, comes the voice, “You mean life isn’t a fountain?”
Preview of my next Blog:
“CERES is founded on a belief that considering financial profits alone blinds us to social and environmental costs that may rob of us of our ability to have a future.” — Joan Bavaria, Chair of the CERES Coalition at a Press Conference on Wall Street, September, 1989.
As President of the Social Investment Forum, CERES’ initial sponsoring organization, I was one of the speakers at that press conference…