|I would like to walk
out of my heart
under the wide sky.
I would like to pray.
One of these stars
must still exist.
I believe I know
and stands like a city, white
in the sky at the end of the beam of light….— Rilke, “Lament”
|…and then your arms miraculously found me.
Suddenly the sky turned pale.
I could see the midnight sun.—Johnny Mercer
Some years ago I went with my brother to see an IMAX film about life in the sea. It was a spectacle in 3D, the screen 100 feet high. My brother and I sat in the huge theater, with 3D visored helmets over our heads. We must have looked like space travelers, vintage Buck Rogers, ready to scale the night sky.
In the depths above us, clouds of metallic mackerel, drawers and drawers of silverware, sliced through the cobalt water. Thousands of squid spawned, then died, their tissue-like corpses tossing on the ocean floor. Throngs of creatures careered and dove, feasted and rose. The action was larger-than-life, a vision of enormities, galactic entities soaring across the deep.
Here is the part I can never forget: A legion of spiny sea stars, seemingly fashioned out of pastel pipe-cleaners, scrambled to escape a giant sea star. Like animated tumbleweeds, each personalized by its own ache to survive, they scurried to outrun the colossus bearing down. In the frantic scramble I began to feel a serious dread as if I too were one of the spidery creatures. They were hands dragging themselves along the ocean floor, their appendages gripped and crawled — so many fingerlike limbs trying to amble faster, so much unsuccessful effort. Ironically the whole escapade was impossibly beautiful, the spindly froth of kicks and curls was like a puppeteer’s chorus line. The red star was an indiscriminate killer. It mowed and devoured, and kept on mowing.
Why did this vision undo me? Where in my soul had I known such ultimate resignation… or such tyranny? Were these entities lodged in my limbic system, the atavistic Titans of eat-or-be-eaten? I constellated some terrible meaning out of that footage. I saw something in those stars.
A constellation is an event in the mind, a configuration, a grouping of random occurrences, lassoed by the viewer into an image. Light travels from a few bright suns to our eyes, photons settle like dust motes onto our retinas, and we construct an assemblage, bigger and more congruent than the sum of its parts. And if there is no one in the woods to perceive it, it never happened. ” To constellate” is what we do. It is the reason I write, to aggregate disparate elements, to configure a similarity, to essay meaning. It is also the reason you are now reading. It is the course and purpose of our flinting synapses.
The seven brightest stars in the constellation Ursa Major compose the Big Dipper, otherwise known as the Plough, the Chariot, the Drinking Gourd. This first constellation I ever identified as a child is still always the first that I see. Last August, Sinnead, the young girl who lives across the road from me in Ireland, peered up into the night sky and, pointing to that configuration, exclaimed, “Look! The Sauce Pan!”
Because the ancient Arab astronomers were the most thorough in the task of naming the heavens, the stars in my connect-the-dots pot have Arab names. Alkaid is the first star in the panhandle. Where a cook’s thumb might go, at the curve in the grip, is actually a binary star, celestial Siamese twins, Mizar and Alcor. Alioth continues the line of the handle to the rim. Megrez, at the rim of the pot down to Phecda at the base…. Phecda to Merak at the bottom of the pan… then Merak up to Dubhe at the lip. Voila! A line from Merak to Dubhe extends to the North Star. Which is how, by following the Drinking Gourd, American slaves were able to plot their way to freedom in the North.
What human could amble out from her home, be it cave or condo, and gape up at the star-strewn night, and not configure the constellations? Who could peer into that fathomless glitter and not hallucinate a form, a face? The sky demands our projections.
Love, too, incites our imaginations. Its promise and mystery hover out of reach like a prize hidden behind a curtain. Beyond that veil we envision a world of enchantment and terror. Celestial seraphs and submarine phantoms enact our primal psychic dramas. The beloved, the object of our desiring, is continually transmutated by our imaginations, one minute a goddess, the next a gorgon. Who is that woman? Indeed who am I? How can one take the trance — transference, transmogrification — out of loving? Can we see the beloved free and clear of all our gobbledeegook? Free from the habit of finding her both ruthlessly, and rapturously, divine? How, if sight is ever restored to us, do we know the other?
Imagine for a moment a tale of such a paradox. You are an adventurer, a sailor, drawn to a shore by a woman’s beautiful soprano. You are desperate to find the angel whose melody pulses like a beacon from the harbor. You moor your ship as night falls, and follow her song. At last you come to a tower surrounded by brambles, her candlelit chamber like the moon against the starry night. You search the undergrowth in vain for a doorway at the base of the tower. And then you hear the other voice: “Let me up, you insufferable cunt!” The beautiful singing stops, and in its place is a rasp like rough stones ground into gravel. “It is time for your dinner, bitch. Let your hair down!” What monster could make such a fearsome racket? “Now! or I swear I’ll let you starve!”
From your hiding place in the shadows you can see the ladder of tresses cascade, the follicles shimmering like sea foam. You see the crone scramble up like a crab.
What an envious witch, to keep such beauty hidden from view! Poor maiden, you whisper, to be held as a hostage, to be so alone.
For a fortnight you spy on this captive and her keeper. By day the maiden sings, then at night the crone comes to silence her. Oh to touch that delicate skin, her full soft lips, her long fingers. You know you can not live without holding this angel in your arms, without seeing her dear face in the moonlight. How could you doubt her beauty?
Projections anticipate the external world. Snouts, hairs, tendrils, and thorns all extend through space in order to make contact. They jut and jab, grope and wriggle, for the simple goals of Being: to feed or to fight, to know or be known. Projections also exist in the invisible, though no less real world, predicting droughts, bear markets, an early frost. They cast themselves into the future or the past, scheming for ends, both good and bad, and rehearse or review the means. Projections are the limbs of the imagination, the antennas, the horns, the strong legs and opposable thumbs.
One night you stand at the foot of the tower and call up to her. The witch has not yet come and there is still time. You know how to cause your beloved’s hair to spill from the sky: You recite the crone’s words. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”
It falls like bolts of fabric around you and you begin to hoist yourself up. Your fists make ropes of it. It is like a great net and you, you are its catch. You pull yourself higher, closer to the stars. Oh, it will be heaven when you reach the top, when, at last, you behold each other!
Look up at the sky, doesn’t that cloud look just like a snail? A galloping steed? A smoking gun? Jesus’ face was recently captured inside the froth of behemoth cosmic clouds — “star nurseries” they were called by the astronomers who were His unwitting paparazzi. To my mind those clouds looked like coral reefs in some intertidal zone, and the face, well, to me it looked more like Lincoln’s. De gustabes. Hallucination is part of our natures; the universe is our Rorcharch.
Who can blame us for casting the stars in our personal dramas? It can not be entirely misguided to believe the elements of the cosmos are interconnected, wound in an enormous contraption: each cog — ourselves included — made up of the same stuff. It stands to reason, given this common denominator, that the arrangements of heavenly bodies reflect something of our own minuscule fates. “I wish I may, I wish I might…”
We try, as Shakespeare said, to find fault — and lost possibility — in a skyfull of twinkling stars, a.k.a., those behemoth nuclear furnaces. Yet, as Shakespeare went on, the accusation is best turned toward ourselves for the cause of our limitations. The stars are stars; constellations are mere figments of perspective, constructs of a vivid imagination.
From Anthony and Cleopatra:
Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,….
Projections are our forte, but also our downfall. Our imaginations play tricks on us. How many entities, separate and distinct from ourselves, have been mistaken in nearsighted folly? If we, like Narcissus, can not see the pond for our reflection, how can we know the depths beyond our skin? How can we hope to distinguish marshland from mirage? Mermaid from manatee? Ling cod from Lochness Monster? Friend from foe? Projections are meant to inform us about the Eden outside the sheath of our flesh, but more often they describe the interior into which we’ve been exiled.
History has a way of showing us how misled we have been; how confident we are that this year’s fashions will endure, only to find ourselves by next year, an emperor in imaginary finery. Zeitgeist is merely the breath of the time yet, my god, how it feels like Truth!
We see, often, too often, what we want to see. Even the bellowing specter of self-made hell must be fussed over like a fetish, as precious and potent as any great work of art. We choose to commit ourselves to it, if only because, like the Big Dipper, it is what we revisit each night, the habit by which we familiarize the dark. The Promethean gift of our imagination is found at the heart of most tragedy, the real weapon discovered at the crime scene. Why would we fashion such horrors?
How did this happen that the very organ of our humanness — as nostril is to dog, as sonar is to bat, as pupil is to owl — would dead-end us with confusion, false information, self obsession? Would an elephant hang itself with its trunk?
We project — at the very least — to anticipate and taste what we can not touch, molecule to molecule, and — at the very best — to live out the Golden Rule, heart to heart. We each spend a lifetime struggling to bridge our detachment, to belong, at last — to know the Other.
So what gives? Why do we do such a dismal job of it?
How do we become so dazzled, so blinded?
It was, by Helen Keller’s own description, a life on ice, a bleak wintry world. There was no experience of past, present or future. She was imprisoned by silence and a never-ebbing dark. Even those who most loved her had lost hope. Then, as she put it, her “brain felt the impact of another mind.”
Most of us know the story, how the teacher, the miracle worker, spilled water into one hand, while into the other spelled “water.” The moment rang with its synergy between the two parallel realms of experience, one corporeal, the other cerebral. The marriage of left and right hemispheres resounded. It shone, it glowed, it thawed Helen’s landscape and set her free. It brought her into the life of being, in her words, “human”.
This was a miracle to be sure. But that’s only half the story.
A woman is impregnated without insemination. A man walks on water. A loving touch restores mobility to the lame, vigor to the plague-ridden, eyesight to the blind. Bushes, trees, stones, even people spontaneously rupture into flame. The sky lets fall fire, toads, bread soaked with honey. Worldwide, on the same day, statues of a Hindu god drink milk their supplicants leave in bowls. In Spain seventy thousand witness the sun dancing before them. A comet announces the birth of the messiah.
Statues turn to flesh. They weep, they rock, they whisper. Flesh turns to salt, to stone, to ash. Armies are summoned by the Virgin in the clouds. Seas part.
People are abducted by alien creatures and taken onboard spacecraft for medical experimentation. Elvis is spotted in a Mid-Western mall. Patients in psychotherapy recover memories of Satanic ritual abuse in childhood, and uncover a demonic conspiracy to take over the world. Children accuse their teachers of sexual abuse and the school staff is put on trial. Sympathizers are blacklisted. Witches are broiled at the stake.
Hysteria is Faith’s stepsister.
Wheat from chaff. Forest for the trees. Baby from the bath water. How do we know the difference, extract blessing from curse? How can we correct our perspective?
You climb over the window ledge, and peer into her chamber. You can see her silhouetted there, against the far wall. Her hair is like a carpet rolled out before you, a channel of silks stretching to the dark portal of her face. Your arms open to bring her near, to hold her close, to taste her perfection. “It is I…your love,” you say by way of introduction. The room has an echo. It is colder than you’d expected and there is an unpleasant smell. The scratchy drone of rock begins, “I don’t know you,” it says. It is deafening, this grinding sound, why is it here among all this softness? “I know my room, my tower, my song, and my keeper…. but you…you are an intruder!” She moves toward you and into the shaft of starlight falling from the window. “I should kill you,” the hag grumbles. Her face is grotesque, her flesh scaled like a fish, her hair an enormous tangle of kelp. What choice do you have but to throw yourself out of this tower, away from this horrid sight, and into the brambles?
Once, all creation was oracular. The skies told stories and issued commandments. Stones, plants and animals divulged their secrets. In that awesome kosmos miracles were everyday and we were wholly engaged, not yet detached from nature. We belonged to that wise and animate world, and those conversant, if somewhat psychotic voices had not yet exiled us into the secular quiet.
Now we know too much. Fascination recedes. The sky is mute. We are able to know our “selves” as perceivers. Nothing speaks to us because we have come to an understanding that the external world is soulless, that “myth” now means unfounded, fictional, untrue. As Annie Dillard says, “It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum.”
We can no longer enter into enchantment with life, we enter into a meta-relationship with it — we “interpret” our dreams, reconstruct the narratives of our pasts, hold ourselves at arms length. In the doldrums between the psyche and world it inhabits, imagination exists like a creature in a zoo exhibit, subject to the scrutiny of the intellect, deemed to be both quaint and a curiosity. With no access to its natural habitat, the psyche paces without purpose or dignity. Like Rilke’s panther in the Paris Zoo, its circumnabulations are, “a dance of strength about a center / in which a mighty will stands stupefied”. Imagination is trapped, obsessive, unable to fulfill its nature.
Metaphor, of course, survives as a shard from our former preternatural genius, but few experiences still invite that specialism in us. Only love demands the full lexicon of enchantment. We may pathologize this mania from one end of Bedlam to the next, recoil at the way it seduces us, sucks us into its illusory muck. It is madness to be sure…. in love we step into the vital heroism of our dreams. Love is feral and frothy and full of grace, and, by god it is our muse. We see things in it.
Look: we are suddenly no longer living in, say, Los Angeles, circa 2000; we are instead living inside a fairy tale! We are given to another sight. Yes, we have become blind to our solid and steadfast habits, blind to the familiar precincts of our limitations, blind to the outward appearances of our selves! We no longer recognize our faces, nor are we recognized by those who knew us. We step into living and become transparent; we… disappear!
It is very dark, but she finds you. The brambles have cut your arms, legs, and chest, but especially your face, and your eyes. My god, after seeing such fright, all else might as well be gouged away. Your faith in everything — by which you mean your faith in love — has been torn. You are as blind as Oedipus at Colonus, Milton in Paradise, Monet at Giverny.
You cry for lost beauty, and that’s when you feel her hand on your brow — and something other than your own tears. It is her tears, and they plop, one by one, into each of your eyes, washing it clean, restoring your sight.
At first there are just the simple shapes, the movement of light against dark. Her face radiates above you. You strain to see her. It seems her expression is both candid and alien, as familiar and fathomless as the moon.
Helen’s second awakening occurs years later. She is sitting in a library, absorbed in her own imagination. “I have been far away all this time, and I haven’t left the room!” she exclaims to her teacher. She has just been, for all practical purposes — as physicists say of quantum phenomena — in Athens! How is it she is able to travel beyond the confines of her body, to penetrate — like the mercurial neutrino — the walls of the library and soar across the seas? The spirit, she answers herself, must have its own life.
Only months before she had asked her teacher “Why can we not see God?”
The physical world, her teacher explained, the world of appearances, the world known through the limits of the senses, is a kind of a veil. To demonstrate this, the teacher made Helen stand on one side of a screen, while she stood on the other. “She could not see me and I could not touch her, ” Helen said, “Yet by little signs I knew she was there, only separated from me by the ‘veil’ of Japanese paper.”
People will always see things: the ghoul in the pine wood paneling, the genitalia in the river rock. Jesus’ face appears one week on a refrigerator door, the next in a photograph of newly hatched galaxies. Mary demurs from a tortilla.
We not only see the things we believe in, we also believe in things we do not see. Black holes are, as far as most of us can comprehend, as fantastic as any sci-fi schtick; so too: sub-atomic particles, the Unconscious, the super ego. Nevertheless these “entities” shape our world as surely as any vengeful Deity-who-ever-sent-forth-a-scourge-of-plague-upon-the-flat-earth ever did. The more closely we examine the physical world, the more we surrender to our observations that things are actually “tendencies,” “probabilities.” We find ourselves at the mercy of our atavistic metaphors, all the while sensing the existence of things beyond our limitations to perceive them.
Technology boasts the authority and ability to cause the unseen to appear before us. Yet tomorrow, say, we might watch the film 2001 or the explosion of The Challenger, and wonder which is the most virtual. Which happened really: men walked on the moon? Buddha dispelled an army of demons by touching the earth?
We are in the dark, grasping at holographic straws. Can we explain how the parts of the atom are pulled together? What exactly is that cosmic muscularity that forces mass into attraction with mass? What exactly causes the Northern Lights? Indeed, what is light? How do we know another human being? Indeed, why are we curious, fascinated, determined to know Her despite our formidable handicaps?
One November night last year I was in a jet from Ireland to New York. I peered out the teeny window to find the Northern lights undulating in Day-Glo green below me. The drapery was hung from the bowl of the Big Dipper, and both seemed to be suspended below the horizon, an apparition in what I assumed was the sea. I had lost the horizon, was entirely disoriented in the night sky, like those pilots who aim their planes into a fatal nose-dive. It was a spectacular vision, but one that filled me with dread. The curtains of the Aurora unfurled and furled like sheets of cream poured from the lip of a saucepan, but did this portend disaster? Where did the sky begin and the sea end?
I thought about my beloved and the under sea things of our relationship. Such dread I’ve anticipated at the bottom of our love: a shark’s fury, an eel’s grin, the defeat of a legion of sea stars. I could sink and drown at such depths.
It is one thing, one quite horrible thing, to be lost amid the hall of mirrors of one’s own feeble sight, to suspect that your feeling of disorientation is not merely a trick of the mind. You know you have the Mortal Dread within you, and you know how it can cause you to envision the worst: ghastly chimera over the sea and in the skies. It can contaminate the very thing you hold dear, make love itself seem monstrous, unworthy of your best efforts to see beyond and through it’s most despairing mirage. It can, in effect, make you believe in witches, and in lovers forever held hostage by their own limitations.
It is quite another thing to accept your sight for what it is, to know the ways in which you will hallucinate, either out of love or out of fear. Was it necessary to always “understand,” was it necessary to always find a “meaning”?
I beheld The Drinking Gourd, the beacon that guided refugees from human bondage. And there, at its rim, was the enigmatic veil, the Aurora Borealis, rippling in its own mysterious breezes. What did I make of that iridescence? Love or fear; fear or love? What I saw from the porthole of that plane was an invitation to enter into a world I can not control or “understand,” to follow love’s perplexing song and let it undo me, if need be.
“No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars,” Helen Keller reminded me. “…Or opened the doorway for the human spirit.” Either sunk in our privacies, or soaring in our efforts to touch, the blind lead the blind.
Bia Lowe is the author of two collections of essays, Wild Ride: Earthquakes, Sneezes, and Other Thrills, and Splendored Thing: Love, Roses, and Other Thorny Treasures, in which this essay appeared. Visit Bia's web page.