Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Story of Madness and Great (Spiritual) Wealth


Five men, a translator and a couple of limping horses were all that remained when Friar Francisco's expedition to the Seven Cities of Gold finally glimpsed something glowing in the distance in the setting sun. A city. A city of gold. Gold to claim for the glory of God.

It was only as he ran to kiss the city wall that Fra Francisco realized it was not built of gold at all, but tawny dried mud.

Undaunted, he pressed the people there for information. Surely, they knew of the place he sought. It would be hard to miss. They had better fess up if they knew what was good for them. A canny old woman took him aside. I've seen this place up north, she said. Riches beyond imagining. Gold? Heaps of it. They build their houses out of the stuff. Pearls? Why yes, I think so. Rubies? Of course! But the directions are very complicated.

So the Spaniards zigzagged north across the empty land.

The summer grasses faded to brown and wild rose gave way to asters. Mountain peaks rose around them, and every day the snow crept farther down the slopes.

Fra Francisco had started to wonder whether the old woman had conned him when he saw a puff of smoke in the distance. Beside a rushing stream he surprised Bent Nose, young Mouse and Grandfather coming out of their sweat lodge. The first Indians he'd seen in weeks.

"City of Gold?" They shook their heads. It doesn't sound familiar. Maybe if you gave us a little more information? The translator described it well: an earthly paradise and source of both madness and great spiritual wealth. And it's very shiny.

Bent Nose's mouth dropped open. Grandfather tried to quell him with a look.

"Friar Francisco is the representative of a great spirit," the translator added. "You must take him there right away. Do not make him angry."

Bent Nose replied that he had fasted and purified himself and was headed to just that place. "We will take these lost spirits to the Womb of the World," he said.

"No, we won't," said Grandfather.

"Yes, we will," Bent Nose shot back.

Fra Francisco settled the disagreement with his prized Toledo sword. As the old man lay dying, the rest of them followed Bent Nose up the mountain. Above tree line, Bent Nose stopped. At his feet was a jumble of small boulders, and in their midst a jagged hole, like a piece of the night sky had fallen there. Sweet-smelling wind breathed up through the hole.

This wind, Bent Nose cupped in his palms and brought to his lips as though it were fresh spring water.

He gestured to the spirits. Welcome home.

The spirits demanded a tour. Bent Nose was surprised. He thought they'd know the place once they got there. But they kept yelling and pushing him, and he didn't want to make them any more angry.

"Er, watch your step here," said Bent Nose, with exaggerated gestures. "As you can see, the walls have glittery yellow rock, just like you wanted." He picked up a chunk of rock and handed it to one of the spirits, who flung it back at him, hard. Bent Nose took the stinging blow stoically. "You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you? Um. Well. There's a hidden passage around here somewhere. Give me a sec and I'll see if I can find it. Woah! Don't go too close to the shaft! There's a drop…shit!"

Screams echoed up, angry, then pleading, then angry.

The spirits shouted at each other and at Uncle Bent. The situation quickly deteriorated. A shoving contest started. Mouse was knocked aside and lost his footing. He tumbled into the shaft. The body of the fallen spirit cushioned Mouse's fall. Mouse stumbled away from the corpse, terrified, but also confused. He hadn't known that spirits could die.

Above, Uncle Bent pleaded with the spirits. No, he hadn't lied. He had been trying to help them. The scuffle continued. Uncle Bent tried to flee.

A wet crunch echoed through the cavern.

"Ha!" said a voice up above.

Uncle Bent's spirit left him there at the bottom of the shaft. Then Mouse was all alone in the pitch black.

Rainbows filled his eyes. He lived a thousand lifetimes. Saw things so different from his own world, he couldn't even describe them: things from the past and perhaps from the future. He was fragmented, like the world reflected in a water drop. Every possibility distilled into one moment.

Voices urged him deeper into the cave. Voices in the darkness. Voices in his head.

And then he awoke in a small clearing. Snow dusted the ground. Behind him was a shelf of rock which overhung an inky gash. He couldn't see how he could have squeezed through such a tiny slot. Perhaps he had simply willed himself outside. Perhaps he wasn't really outside at all, or maybe he had never been inside.

After that, he moved like a sleepwalker, guided by voices in his head.

His mother found him passed out in a withered raspberry thicket. He had been gone for almost a moon.

Were the voices Mouse heard real, or had he imagined them? It was hard to tell the difference any more. They called it a gift, his inability to choose one reality. But it didn't feel like a gift. It felt like a heavy weight. He worried all the time. He dreaded everything. No joy was pure. It was always: what if.

Spring arrived. Streams burbled. The earth smelled clean. Birdsong filled the valley. Fawns curled up in dappled forest. Blah, blah, blah. Mouse could see it all, but the beauty only hurt him more.

Guided by the voices, he led his family back to the clearing where he'd been reborn from the cave. As they drew near, a hum rumbled in their chests. A hum of the deepest silence.

Legend would always say that Mouse crawled under that rock overhang, stuck his head in a gash in the rock, and his spirit left his body.

It was a little more complicated than that. It was more like he stopped making decisions there. He breathed in that sweet air, and the reasons for and against any choice after that were so numerous that he just gave up. Breathe or not breathe? Eat, drink, speak move? It was all too complicated. It wasn't so much that his spirit left his body, but that his body abandoned his spirit, and his spirit, homeless, had to leave.

Generations were born and died. Year-by-year, the gash opened like a mouth. The story of Mouse passed from father to son, mother to daughter many times. A story of the burden of great wisdom, and of the bearded men who wanted something else.
And then one autumn, the bearded men came again.

Monday, June 24, 2013

How to See Your Soul

"One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun--which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting though and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in some one's eyes."
From The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Time I Started a Riot

November 15, 1992

I'm on an overcrowded boat down the Yangtze River in China from Wuhan to Chongqing, past fields and cliffs and caves and orange groves (this is before they built the big dam). Daily, I have fought my way to the stern of the boat at mealtimes, to get my ration of  rice and cabbage with bits of bone and gristle and hair, served from a fifty gallon drum. I've eaten my personal food stash, and I'm getting a little grumpy and a little faint.

One night, the boat docks in a small town to unload sacks of rice. A man has set up a fruit crate on the dock, and is selling oranges and instant ramen and buns. I rush down with the other passengers to try to buy something, anything, to eat. I pick up a packet of  instant ramen and the shopkeeper grabs it out of my hand and throws it down.
Suddenly, one man tackles another onto the ramen and buns and  jumps onto his chest, hammering him with both fists. A tooth sails into the air and bounces to the pavement. The man on the bottom doesn't have a chance. To me, this just seems unfair. I snatch up the aggressor by the jacket collar. His fists windmill through the air. The crowd is suddenly still. I scan their faces. Is anyone going to help me? A little old lady catches my eye and nods, as if to say, "put him down." I hesitate, then drop him back on his victim and step aside.

Next thing I know, a bench flies past and someone tries to smash someone else with a beer bottle. Half the population of town rushes down to the water, crushing the victim into the gap between the boat and dock. They heave him out and he tries to run away, but is dragged down and beaten again.

As soon as the fight moves away from the stand, the shopkeeper checks his money box, then goes back into business. I buy some oranges and smashed rolls. I get back on the boat.

For the next hour, as we sit in port watching the police sort out the mess, I vow never to get involved in another fight when I don't understand what it's about.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

I Dream of Mosca

Lately, I have had dreams of Mosca. It's a small town in Colorado. It has a post office and two stop signs. There's a reservoir nearby without a drop of water, and there are sand dunes.
If you Google Mosca, you won't learn much about the town. But you might learn, for example, that "mosca" is Spanish for "fly", and the origin of our word "mosquito".
You might ponder a picture of a mosquito standing on water, and then you might think of other creatures: animals like flying fish, or their opposite, penguins, who straddle the worlds of air and water. Or manta rays, who fly, but only under water. Or hippos, who spend their days snorkeling in the shallows.
You might wonder at the craziness, the mixed-up-ness of the world, and how the impossible is always possible if you look at it with eyes of wonder.
And you might think that, despite appearances, there must be something magical about Mosca.