Evermorpheus: the Big Bang Within Our Minds

I wager that what we now consider to be the universe, with all our recent talk of its expansion, will eventually prove to be itself expanding relative to other ‘universes’. Physicists already talk of “the Multiverse”. But we’ll realize some way in which distinct Multiverses exist and these will prove to be in motion relative to our initial concept–so again we’ll define a greater term which will include all of that–“The Multi-multiverse,” say.

And then there will turn out to be other Multi-multiverses. And the pattern will continue for as long as humans exist to think and explore the space we live inside until we come to realize that the real world around us is always expanding in all possible ways

An outwardly observable expansion, that is, as clusters of galaxies flying apart from each other, but even within us, unnoticed as the space itself within which our body matter exists continues to inflate. An expansion that goes into the smallest frontiers too: and explorations in the subatomic realm will find more and smaller things–the ‘sub-subatomic stuff’, be it vibrating strings or whatever turns out to underlie whatever quarks are, say, and then find ‘subs’ to whatever underlies those.

An expansion that takes place even within our minds. So long as we keep wondering, the central concept we hold of our surrounding reality will forever morph and grow until perhaps we come to accept that all of it, all of its unimagineable, mindblowing infinite shape-shiftingness–galaxies, stars, planets, body, mind, current sensations and all–even these vague hand-waving mind-raving thoughts on a white screen–are all part of some sort of infinitely humbling oneness you can only call God.

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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up (Science for Poets)

It’s just effin’ crazy how it turned out that flower petals in their thousands of shapes and colours, just as the stalks beneath curve and wave in a thousand different arcs, all come to be made out of three main things: invisible air, liquid water, and sunshine.

Swear to God it’s true. Google “photosynthesis”.

Actually there’s a small and vitally important peppering inside those flowers and stalks of a few key minerals that are leeched up from the brown earth below–much as we humans keep tiny little shaker bottles filled with certain rocks, salt, that is, to supplement our own diets–but it’s a small amount; ask yourself when was the last time you had to walk around with a container full of dirt to re-fill the pots beneath your house plants, for example.

The fact is that virtually none of a plant’s material comes from the ground in which it sits. And more than 95% of that mighty redwood that towers hundreds of metres high, a living creature weighing more than our largest supertankers, strong enough to resist centuries of raging storms and cataclysms, used to be just liquid and vapor: water and carbon-dioxide. But when you allow enough time for the sun to rain down and the tiny photosynthetic organelles inside plant cells to run amok, the next thing you know an entire forest has appeared, quite literally out of thin air.

Sunlight, air and water: Mother Nature stares at a lifeless lake with a cold breeze and a setting sun, gently scoops it all up, breeze, sunset and all, and out of it molds a living tree.

You just can’t make this shit up.

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photo: Pablo Figueroa, 2016

 

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Feeling the World

Here’s one of the trillion weird things about being alive:

There’s moments when you can feel the world.

Woke up this morning. My wife was off at the hospital; she fills in on an ICU ward on some weekends. My son was off at hockey practice with his Mom, and all my school marking was done. Which left me with nothing in particular to do. I walked downstairs, drank water, pee’d, set myself up on the couch with a bowl of cereal and whiled away an hour or two on the laptop: reading things, clicking on facebook stuff, watching videos etc.

I showered, dressed and headed outside, and halfway down the block this happened: starting with a small glance at the small yellow leaves of a passing tree, noticing them shiver slightly as a small gust of wind overtook me.  A split second later I noticed cool air at my neck, exposed between sweater and hat, and on my next stried there was the aching sensation of a repairing achilles. I felt my heart quicken–this has happened so many times in the last decade or two. Next I checked for an old familiar and favorite sight of mine: the way the branches of any nearby tree as you approach and walk past seem to spin toward you, as if the stationary tree is in fact revolving–though typically we’d simply see it as ‘I see different sides of a tree as I move past it”.

And finally, a  moment before this sequence of micro-events finished, I felt a sort of familiar tickling of a well-worn thought deep inside that I am once again alive within a universe of matter and sensations; a universe that has no requirement to exist at all, one that i have not shelled out a single penny for, nor has any one else alive in it, and by all rights of reason the only thing that truly ought to exist is nothing at all. 

I guess you could say.. for a brief moment I was feeling the world.

It’s soft. It’s wonderful. It’s peaceful, and beautiful beyond compare. It’s a sequence of thoughts, sensations, observations, one after another, to be experienced in some sort of momentary complete absence of desire to alter any bit of it.

And while it’s happening to me it feels as if there’s no separation, like how best embraces leave the two of you momentarily losing track of whose limbs are whose (hello wife if you’re reading this–world’s best spooner that you are.. hello son o’mine, whose tiny arms around my neck I’m starting to say ‘bye’ to as you continue to grow older and I figure you’ll be less likely to throw them around your dad in years to come… ).

And as I walk up some street like it’s all simply beautiful. Amazing, infinite and exactly as it should be, down to the heel pain at the end of each stride, and the last spiraling leaf in the distance where that overtaking gust of wind has now reached.

And then it’s gone. Perhaps that’s because I’ve started thinking again. My internal narrator has gone to work again. The mind obscures my view behind some new line of chatter within in it. I’ve started once again to desire things–to try to bend some of these objects or sensations toward me so as to have more of something–and fear others, correspondingly trying to push things away as they arrive into my experience.

I used to curse the loss, and struggle to get back into that perfect zone, that eye of the mind’s storm, to feel again that world around me. But I now wonder if the chattering and relentless sequence of thoughts isn’t the mind’s way of actually protecting me from some kind of beauty or infiniteness that’s simply too mind-blowing for a mind like mine to deal with in more than the tiniest amounts.

Surely there are others who experience far more of that kind of thing. Maybe some blessed people walk about permanently in that zone, without suffering any worse for it.  All I know is that the shutters draw themselves closed even as I’ve begun to wonder about the beauty I just experienced; and perhaps it’s the wondering itself, the desiring of more of it right then and there, that did the shuttering; the state of mind arises from complete acceptance, and disappears the moment we desire more or less than what is arising, even if what we’re desiring turns out to be that particular state of mind itself.

All while walking up the block.

—–

I got to the end of the block, turns the corner, and got myself a coffee and the local place.

That right there,” my mind said, “those few moments a half block past now, that was everything I’ve always wanted.” And I realize yet again–well worn path of thinking–that what I’ve been chasing my entire life–in books, in movies, in the wise words of others, in older days of drugs and whatnot, in sports, in the ongoing facings of fears as best I can, in career choices, in ecstatic moments of any sort, or indeed any other path some whispery intuition has compelled me to travel–has been and always will be surrounding me all the time.

The lady with the dreads shoved the coffee at me and we caught eyes for a split second as I fished in my pockets for cash. The smell of the grounds, the sounds of spoons and porcelain, and it was suddenly wonderful to simply notice all these humans around me, doing whatever they’re doing, worrying about whatever they’re worrying, smiling at whatever piece of the cosmic spoon they were currently experiencing.

And, more irony, it’s gone now as I sit outside the coffee shop writing about it, lost behind the whirling eddies of thoughts about grammar and editing and a desire to make these few words readable to a reader.

So maybe the true weirdness is not that of any sudden and unexpected awareness of our world–we all do that in our own ways, stumble upon our moments wherever they come and find us–but the inverse of that thought: that we are all alive, yet so many of us spend so much of our lives with so little awareness of this world.

Perpetually seeking that which surrounds us. A bit like whales, perhaps, driving hard for that strange surface above, to flop and twist then reemerge, a tantalizing second or two breach, short but just long enough for some slight gain in clarity about their world of water.

 

natgeo10

 

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Bedtime Story #5430 – Wrinkled Hands

“Tell a bedtime story about.. um.. hands. Wrinkly hands.”

“There once was an old woman. She’d done much in her life. She had hands that had worked hard, and while she herself was old, her hands were even older.”

“Huh? That not actually even possible!”

Actually, you could tell the hands were older because looking carefully, there were deep deep wrinkles on every surface. Even the fingers. And scars and callouses covered her palms like old old hills and ravinesAnd you could even make out a small cold stream flowing downward from off the shoulder of her knuckles–”

“What? A stream? Where??”

“Shh. A stream down off the shoulder of her knuckles. Flowing down from there and disappearing into some of the bigger wrinkles. And there was always small wooden shack, like a poorly built house, visible down below inside the palm where the stream re-emerged,and where the folds and wrinkles gave way for a small green meadow.”

“This is a weird one, Daddy.”

“It gets weirder. I looked really carefully once–I had to bring the candle over so it was almost right on top of her old old hands–and when I took a deep breath and squinted I suddenly saw that small dilapidated house actually silhouetted against a night sky so big and vast I could even make out stars and planets.”

“Stars are just suns, and–”

“And next I saw a little girl with golden hair who I suppose had been growing up in that house. Growing up while the sun rose on one side of the valley and always set over on the other. And as the sun did that the girl grew a bit older, and her parents grew older too. Until the parents were gone. But the girl was now old enough to have children of her own, and sure enough down in that meadowy area you could see happy little kids running about everywhere, splashing in the stream, rolling down the sides of the valley–”

“Getting itchy.”

“Getting itchy. Running through the fields bare–”

“You should never roll in grass”.

“–barefoot, and they particularly loved to roll in the grass even when it made them itchy. And in the summertimes the crops in the fields grew, then vanished. And they did that once or twice each summer and fall, as if the hills were alive and breathing. And in the winter snowmen and sleds appeared, yes, but also the hard, icy tracks of soldiers, criss-crossing that cold snow, marching this way one week, then returning much later, not really marching anymore, and less of them. Maybe returning from some far off battle.”

“Is this still her hands?”

“There were even sensations inside those hands. If you stared long enough into the old woman’s hands you began to feel hungry, and desperate, and even angry.”

“Angry?”

“Angry because you wondered of course how it was that those beautiful little children had all disappeared from that little valley, one by one over the years, until no more were left at all. And it was just the lady again. But she was very old now.”

“Don’t make this a sad one, ok?”

“And when you stared long and hard enough, and angrily enough into those hands, you would eventually come to see that all of what you’d seen had been just an illusion after all. A trick of the darkness. A trick because you were staring into a pair of wrinkly old hands by the light of a candle that cast more shadow than light.

And in fact there’d never been any of those summers or winters. No soldiers with faroff wars, no stream, no meadow, no crops or fields and no children playing in any of those things at any point. There was nothing really, inside this old woman’s hands, except a single small shack, lit by candlelight, with the strange silhouette of someone inside bent over and staring into the hands of another.”

“Which is you and the old lady.”

“Which was you and the old lady.”

“Is that the end?”

“The end is that when you finally thanked the old lady and said goodbye, and she saw you to the door and watched until you’d disappeared safely down the darkened trail that led to her home–then she arranged herself and blew out the single candle and lay down in her cot with only those hands of hers for a pillow, and then fell asleep breathing softly so as to catch into her dreams any stray sounds like fiddles, or dancing, or the laugh of a child, or any of the other things people do when they never wonder about their lives to come.”

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The Spider

Two fangs
Six eyes
Eight legs
The math of death.
Killers all,
And this one
High up in the corner
Of my shower.

He descended.
I  backed away
And was relieved when he
Spun and and suddenly scrambled
Back up
Arriving at his web
Wearing stray bits of
Shower spray.

Each day
He stared
And I stared back
And I knew if I’d been smaller
Or he bigger
Much bigger
He’d hunt me down
Spin me alive and suck the inside
of my eyeballs
Even as I used them.

Empty web.
He must have been hungry.

I was showering
At the exact moment he decided
I guess
To give up,
creeped his way
Across the shower stall
And begin anew
On the other side.

Next day
He seemed quite dead
In the new corner,
Until I blew on him, and he jerked awake
Cocked his legs,
Prepared to leap.
The web was vibrating
But empty and I was
Keeping well back.

One morning
I spied a tiny fruit fly,
Squashed it against the wall,
And tried to flick it
Up there
But the fly was too small,
She stuck to my wet thumb.

Gone the next morning.

Found the next
Between the lightbulb
and the ceiling,
Web number 3.

A friend once said
Sure we despise mosquitoes,
but what if you
Were the last creature
Left alive on earth
And finally
A tiny mosquito
Flew into your room?

I found him curled up
Tighter than usual
And when I blew on him
He didn’t move.
I watched
And waited
Two full days
Before I finally dared
Reach out and
Touch his little body
Feel the sadness
And realize with a shock
That the human heart
Can love even
A spider.

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The City Slicker

Rarely now
Do we see
our own food,
The material from which
we are made,
Appearing like magic
Out of simple
Dirt.

But
Every time I wave
These simple bits of paper
A meal appears
Over which we might
Discuss
Why
We care so little
For this earth
Yet love our
Money so.

So is it any wonder
You came across me
In your field today
A cityslicker
On all fours
Gnashing at
Your tomatoes?

Thomashartbenson

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Father’s Day Conversation in an Airport

I was changing planes down in Atlanta’s airport, cursing the airport terminal train because I had a plane to catch and had been waiting for 10 minutes now. To my right stood some guy, and when I finally glanced over I was surprised to find he was looking right at me.
Asked me where I was from and I told him. “Oh yeah?” he said without much warmth, “I been up there before. I drove a truck up to Canada once, picked up a load in Brampton…” and then went on to tell me with as much fervor as the story deserved, about a load of shingles getting delivered to an IKEA someplace in Ontario. (“An I-Kay-Oh”– some kind of southern accent I didn’t recognize.)

And he didn’t fit my vision of a trucker: reasonably neat and clean-cut, glasses, no baseball hat, and
 eyes that alternated between sudden, transfixing stares into mine, and worried glances into some infinity over my shoulder.
“My truck’s in Tennessee now,” he continued, shifting the lone lumpy duffel bag he was carrying.  “Loaded up. Gotta deliver it to Florida.”
I asked what he was doing in Atlanta then, and he told me he was coming back from Oklahoma City where he’d “just spent four hours.”
It wasn’t small talk. No warmth, no enjoyment, and not just idle stuff because we were both staring at some empty tracks together; this guy wanted something but I had no idea what. I mumbled something meaningless about how Toronto and Brampton aren’t actually that close.
“Wait a sec,” I said while searching up my best internal map of the central U.S. “You flew from Tennessee to Oklahoma… where you spent four hours, and now you’re changing planes here in Georgia cuz you’re heading right back again to Tennessee, right back to where you started all in one day…?”
“Yeah well my son’s in Oklahama City. Father’s day.”
“Ohhh.  So you flew to Oklahoma, to see your son. For four hours…?”
“I only saw him for three, actually.”
The terminal train arrived, automated doors slid open and we climbed aboard, the only ones on what felt like a ghost train.
“You from Oklahoma City? Is that where you normally live then?” I asked. “And you drive your truck all over based out of there? 
The guy nodded. He looked tired–wide-eyed tired, like he was staring into some memories all the time.
“I mean I guess it must be hard to spend time with your kid when you drive a truck, hey?”
“Yeah I only see him every other Sunday and Thursday evenings. And his mom cancelled last Thursday, so…”
“So you flew round trip today from Tennessee to Oklahoma to be with your kid.  That’s a pretty seriously good dad you know.”
That he heard, and he shifted a bit and he looked at me again. “Well I just gotta hold out a few more years till he’s twelve,” he told me. “She can’t keep me away from him forever you know…”
“Ah Jayzus.
That sounds real tough, man,” I said. “How old’s your boy?”
“He’s nine. Nine years old. Just gotta hang in there till he’s twelve.”
“Why’s that? Custody laws change at twelve?”
“No but when he’s twelve he can choose to see me for himself…”
And that was it.
The doors slid open at atTerminal C and he got off. We said bye to each other and as the train withdrew toward my own terminal I watched him shrink fast and disappear. But I couldn’t help imagining the kinds of thoughts you might have as you’re driving a highway, thoughts that finally having you pounding the steering wheel, saying fuckit, pulling your rig off the highway toward the nearest airport then buying a ticket to go see your own kid for three hours.
Brutal.
Those Paul Simon lines always get me:
“I knew a father who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he’d done…
He drove a long ways, just to explain
Kissed his boy as he lay sleeping 
Then he turned around and headed home again.”
When my son’s mom and I broke up, she took him back to Toronto to be near her family; there were broken hearts to heal, angers to nurse, there were a lot of emotions going round at that time on both sides of our respective coins. And I remember how, for the 7 months that followed–until I could move myself east as well–I couldn’t drive past a playground without thinking about a tiny little uncomprehending baby boy, think about him just maybe wondering where a former omnipresence in his life had disappeared to–and my heart would stutter and crack, and I ‘d clutch the tiny blue mitten I kept in my pants pocket like a talisman against the the life events pouring in through my chest cavity.
So Happy father’s day to you buddy, wherever you are.
Happy father’s day to all the fathers out there just doing the best they can.
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Froggy Went A-Morphin’

They say a snow leopard may roam its entire life, never visiting the same valley twice.

We spend virtually our entire lives thinking–yet nobody has a clue as to how a thought is formed, or what physical process underlies it, or why our experience of them is what it is.

Imagery. Pictures of the past, imaginings of the future. Snippets of songs, of poems once read, of stories once heard. A conjuring of colours and shapes, a creation of pictures to go with whatever words are entering my ears, or my eyes as I read. A voice sometimes narrating my actions, blithely discussing current options as if I’m having a boardroom conversation with myself. And deep down statements about myself and the world around me–principles, rules, beliefs, all garnered from a lifetime of experiences–that are often so deeply embedded in my psyche that I have no awareness they’re there at all, until perhaps I find myself becoming angry or upset in some way; and then I can look carefully and realize I’ve just lived a moment that ran frustratingly contrary to some inner statement of mine (‘people shouldn’t act like that, but that guy just actually did!’)

And they’re powerful in our lives to a degree that we likely fail to notice.

In a sense our entire world morphs in conjunction with our thoughts. Believe the world to be enormous, and so it will seem. Think that it’s small, and just like that it closes in around you. Believe in its evilness, its goodness, its banal neither-ness, its fundamental goofiness, in its God-made oneness or its godless infinity–believe in whatever next you believe–and magically we’ll look around and discover the irrefutable evidence that proves our thinking, once again, completely correct.

Perhaps the universe is infinite not just in time and space, but even in shape and nature. Perhaps it can manifest a trillion different worlds, ones for every man, woman, snow leopard, blinking frog, or bug-eyed alien..?

For the last two decades or so, my thinking tells me the universe is terrifying perfect as is. Every cardinal sings just so, and the leaves on either side of him flutter in breezes dictated exactly by a nearby exploding sun. So when I stare in disbelief or utter rejection at an act of ugliness around me–a simple irritant, a painful tragedy–my conception goes on to say that the world has not lost its perfection, but rather my ability to see its true nature has been obscured by a dense swarm of ideas and judgements–just as a sudden accumulation of condensation on the inside my glasses doesn’t indicate the room itself has filled with fog.

And I don’t wish to accumulate newer or better beliefs–that would be increasing the fog. Rather I seem to resonate with those ideas that somehow leave me needing fewer ideas. For example I long ago threw away ideas of hell or heaven, pain or pleasure and replaced them with the simpler model of ‘lost in thought’ or ‘experiencing reality’. As a child I would have had to hold within my mind very separate concepts for “mountain”, “boulder”, “rock”, “pebble” and “sand”,  before learning to see them as different stages of the same thing. Just as by studying physics the attractive force between all matter deftly unified every falling object I’ve ever seen around me with the formations of planets and moons and the rings of Saturn.

You can always tell how good an answer is by the degree to which it explains more than you’d asked to begin with.

Obviously I’m not the only one. That same perpetual search for grace or “elegance” in concept has physicists the world over dreaming of unifying the four (formerly five) basic forces in our universe to three, or eventually, just to some imagined Holy Grail of one.

I still remember the those moments in University when certain new concepts would finally click, and my cloud of necessary thoughts right then and there at some library desk would have been reduced by some small but significant amount; situation for which the word “epiphany” was coined.

This is not to say that having these ideas in our heads is remotely bad–as I once believed. Obscuring and distorting as they do, ideas are not enemies, even within in my own worldview that says that a pure and perfect world lies glimpsable for me, just beyond their reach).

Our entire existence seems to unfolds in a never morphing state of ‘now’–a moment-to-moment world of light, sounds, forms and sensations, all of them changing, all the time–and we tumble down this stream every waking hour quite helplessly, with a visceral awareness there are no beaver dams or time-brakes of any sort to ever stop or even slow the perpetual onslaught of change. Which is scary.

To stare at the universe in all its unadulturated glory for even a moment can be a terrifying experience. Talk to anyone in a psych ward.

So the closest thing we can come to climbing out of the river is to clamber up onto some river rocks of our own construction; to create, that is, something ‘solid’ and relatively changeless over time: thoughts, ideas, imagery, conceptual beliefs and deepest principles.

So we memorize and internalize our ‘truths’, we create pictures of how things were, or how they will be, pictures especially of who we are–and then we revisit these things as often as necessary. We place these statements and images somewhere inside our neural circuitry–perhaps as a comfortably familiar pattern of firing neurons (again, we simply don’t even know what a thought is!), and when untethered life gets too scary, we climb sopping wet out of the infinite tumble and gasp for breath, safely ‘thinking’, safely doing something that is, besides experiencing the crazy river of reality. 

And some of us cling so hard and fast to the same ideas it’s unclear when was the last time they truly experienced a moment of even semi-reality, and you feel sure that on their deathbed they are going to have to release some fists that have been clenched their entire lives. And others of us seek more ideas, not to replace previous ones, but to add to them like collectors, thickening the cloud, creating yet more safety, yet perhaps ironically distancing themselves from what they truly want all along–those glimpses of the true world, those moments of true aliveness.

I am drawn to those moments, and I used to seek them out addictively; a state of affairs they certainly contributed to my own eventual stay in a psych ward many years ago now.

And yet I still spend almost no time not deeply unshielded by my own internal ideas and beliefs. Just a split-second experience or two here or there, maybe once or twice a day–an un-narrated feeling of sun on my shoulders, an unexamined melody singing in my ears, a moment of ecstasy here or there–even an unexpected punchline that short-circuits all the certainty I’d been feeling (I was so sure it was the man that was talking–not the duck on his head!)–and if the experience was pure enough, if something had left me no-mind-ful enough–I might suddenly find myself shaking, in tears, or howling with laughter.

But then my mind starts babbling again–What a beautiful sunsetAnd what time is it anyway? Daycare nearly over, better get started walking now or I’ll be late…–erecting again the safety of invisible walls.

I used to fight my own mind. I used to wave off my thoughts and insist squeezing some final ecstatic juice out of that setting sun. As if my thoughts–parts of the universe too–were somehow separate from the perfection. A hard lesson learned there, topic for another day.

It’s all very weird: inexplicable behaviour of the mind, behaviour that simply is. Thinking thoughts that shape the world around us, thoughts which can be jettison-able like ballast, thoughts that will no doubt faithfully accompany us until some downriver moment when all will go silent, and we’ll dissolve back into the River we always were.


Thomashartbenson

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Paula (the music teacher)

Mexicans like their fiestas.

The biggest is September’s Dia de la Independencia–a celebration of the morning centuries back when an angry Mexican priest rang his pueblo’s church bells, waking everyone up to deliver the fateful speech that sparked the revolutionary war against the colony’s governing Spanish oligarchs.

In my 30’s I lived for a few years in Zacatecas, a Mexican city high up in the Sierra Madres, not far from Padre Hidalgo and his bells, and every September 16 on its anniversary the place would pretty much go nuts.

My first year I had no sense of the scope of it. I strolled down to the main square curious about what was going on, and maybe a half hour later wound up jammed against a stone wall there, as burning shards of fireworks rained on a crowd of screaming, scattering locals. I was wearing a giant sombrero (someone must’ve handed it to me, as part of the general festivities), and its ridiculously oversize floppy brim shielded me, as well as two middle-aged senoras I’d never met before–from the burning shrapnel. Terror and joy–the three of us caught eyes as the ashes and embers hit the cobblestones all around us and laughed.

MEX100. CIUDAD DE MÉXICO (MÉXICO), 15/09/2011.- La bandera mexicana y juegos pirotécnicos son vistos hoy, jueves 15 de septiembre de 2011, durante la ceremonia del

Five days before the big event the following year, Alex–a Canadian buddy who was down visiting–and I hopped on the bus for Guadelajara. We had a mutual Mexican friend Claudio who lived there. Claudio was about to head out to the west pacific coast along with a dozen or so of his own friends, guys and girls, all from Guadelajara. We would join them there and drive out to spend five days out on a beach that one of them owned. In Mexico you can own beaches apparently.

The northwest coast of Michoacan State is beautiful. Driving west a large paved highway takes you up and over some high desert volcanic mountains before descending back into lush green tropical slopes on the other side.

Ahi ahi ahi!” yelled Identical Twin #1 at Identical Twin #2 behind the wheel. He was pointing at a dirt road, but struggling to be heard over the car stereo blasting Mike Laure (pronounced Mee-kay Louw-ray), 1940’s era cumbia tunes about how the avocado might run out, or the watermelon might run out, but la cosecha de mujeres–the reaping of women–well that never ever stops.

Twin #2 braked hard then edged us one tire at a time off the highway down into a orange dirt road heading off into the coastal rainforest. A caravan of cars with the others followed behind. And then we bounced through potholes and swerved through giant trees for miles and miles. Huge trees these were, with a canopy of leaves high above, the occasional prehistoric-sized plant with leaves longer than myself, and an abundance of wild fruit trees, and I believed that if I timed it just right–if the twins weren’t quite so intent on arriving wherever we were headed, regardless of ditches and potholes–I could have reached through the open window mid-bounce and returned with a fat mango in my fist.

The road dead-ended. The landing party leaped out and ran ahead with woops. A sliver of bright yellow lay visible up there. Alex and I were the only newcomers here–these were childhood friends of Claudio, and everyone had been coming here for years now. We emerged behind them, leaving mottled jungle shadows to find ourselves beneath a blazing sun on a crystalline beach, staring into a blue sky that might surely stretched to faraway lands (Macao, Ceylon, Siam!). A few hundred metres to either side of us this glorious horizon ran aground, smashing against some indomitable cliffs and their over-spilling jungle trees. And thus the whole place was sealed off; liked we’d stumbled upon a gateway to dreams, a land to ourselves.

The twins’ family had owned it for generations. Just back of the hot sand in the shade stood the one-floor cabins, the windowless shacks and some palapas–those wall-less palm-frond structures that line every tropical coastline the world over–that the family maintained.

But it was the beach that called me. After a year of black smoke and buses, cobblestones and church bells, crammed town squares and markets spilling over with noise, it was glorious to find yourself in some part of the universe that more or less just emptiness. A million crystals of sand, each with a facet silently mirroring that terrible sun my way, and some small almost non-existent waves, breaking never more than one at a time.  Only a single wooden chair broke the spell: a speck against the blue. And when Alex and I reached it we found a pack of cigaretts, a pair of sunglasses and a single gentleman’s sunhat placed lovingly upon it–waiting for a favorite uncle who would never return.

Tables and chairs had appeared. Beers, limes and tequilas. Coolers full of food and solid slabs of ice. All of it offered to us with huge smiles. As long-distance tagalongs, Alex and I had brought nothing but our backpacks and nothing to contribute except a single battered guitar.

It didn’t matter who knew who though. There was swimming, and bonfires. And the lone guitar was a hit. Someone always knew the three chords necessary as the rest bawled out some terrible mexican song or other:

Y volver volver.. a tus brazos otra vez…!!

More typically yet, our new friends liked to sing the songs of Mana–a band that had come out of Guadelajara a decade or two prior, which to my perhaps hypercritical ear sounded preposterously close to The Police–if they’d had an alternate Planet of the Apes-style existence, that is, living and writing all their songs in Mexico.

But everything was a joy. And there was that same bond between Claudio and his childhood friends that I’d often seen with other Mexican teens and twenty-something: always quick to be arm in arm, terrible songs or no, quick to help each other. A kind of bond that easily transcended gender barriers too, as well as any add-on worries about displays of male tenderness; and it was a common sight to see collections of guys and girls with a leg or an arm draped across one another , and someone perhaps absent-mindedly playing with another’s mop of black hair.

People and place: I couldn’t have thought it more beautiful.

And I soon realized that the most beautiful part was a girl named Paula.

It wasn’t about her features and whatnot–though she was tall and moved in ways that invited the corners of your eyes. No, what was most striking was how Paula, without demanding attention for it, was very alive. She noticed things. Before you realized that a bird had just called, she’d already turned and was looking for it. If the fire was warm on her skin, she felt it and went silent as she wriggled her toes. If rain was falling–every afternoon it poured for an hour or so–Paula was usually the first to leave the palapa and and remind herself of warm rain on her face and bare shoulders. And if we were all out in the water swimming about and dunking each other–well I guess Paula didn’t like swimming because you’d eventually catch sight of a small figure way up the beach, bending over to look at some beautiful rock or other. And then suddenly you’d want to be over there too, to see whatever it was she was seeing.

And most importantly when someone’s alive and noticing the world, you pretty much want them to notice you too.

Well there was that guitar. And I’d pretty much grown up playing guitars. So whenever Paula was within earshot, I grabbed it: the best songs–not the idle strumming and those mexican tunes, but intricate fingerpicky stuff, fast and complicated, where a thumb might send a bassline plunging while a pair of fingers danced a melody the other way. Or slow and bluesy, with bent notes in just the right places. The kind of playing that people heard and would sometimes say “wow, he can play.”

Not Paula. She was more interested in on a chess board, or a something funny someone had just said, or a riddle someone had just invented. Or she would simply leave and go off in search for the waterfall that was alleged to exist somewhere nearby.

Day 3, I gave up. I went back to swimming in the ocean. Lolling about in hammocks. Drinking my beers. Nursing my ego.

monterrey pic from way back

Our last day was September 15 and we woke to the dull thumps of distant fireworks from a fishing village, a few miles south, celebrating Independence Day, 8am and all.

Someone found the waterfall. Or one of the twins who’d known all along finally led us there. It was maybe 4 feet high, enough that if you swam directly beneath you could lose yourself in the roar and the crush of gallons of water smashing your shoulders. And we flopped about in the pools at its base, cooling ourselves, playing yet more riddles. Mexicans love riddles.

On the beach a good one got carved into the sand, and even as the afternoon rain broke and began to soak us no one left until it was solved. (A great one in fact. I’ll post it here soon). In the downpour we scaled the bottom edge of the cliff at the sound end, reached a layer of clay, and those above threw handfuls to those below–until everyone had enough to be coated top to bottom, like a dozen cackling mudpeople. And when we dove en masse into the ocean and the waves washed us clean, there were peals of delight at the now eel-slippery smoothness of our legs and faces and arms; your arm felt like the smooth skin of snakesnake, your cheek felt as if it wasn’t even you.

We ate our meals till we were stuffed. We drank until some of us were staggering. And anything that had been squirrelled away–a bottle of wine, a fire-stick, a mask, a sombrero or two–all of it emerged. And by now we’d all been on this beach long enough together that laughing aplenty was had in recounting stories of these days alone.

Recuerdas a Jaime, cuando dijo…

When full darkness set in, fireworks appeared: rockets and firebombs whistling up into the sky, never reaching the top but always exploding into hails of burning shrapnel, arcing down into the ocean before our feet, flickering light and sudden shadows on our cackling faces.

But my favorite moment was this. It was late. Nearly morning now. Most were either asleep in one of the cabins, passed out in a hammock, or possibly off in one of the few guy-girl pairs that might have gone quietly astray into some secluded spot in the blackness of the beach. Just four were left, staring into a bonfire, brought together less by cameraderie–although I felt like we were all one group now–and more by a desire to not have this day end just yet, like random moths gathered to the only light within miles. There was little left to say and no one was trying to say it. And for me it was enough to follow the orange embers that emerged each time the wood cracked.

Paula was there. “I don’t know why,” she said, breaking the silence but still staring into the fire as were the rest of us.  “No se por que.. but right now I want to cry.”

She was huddled under a blanket, and I became aware that for the first time since we’d arrived on this beach five days back, it had become cold.

She looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. “You play,” she said, and gestured toward the guitar off in the shadows. “Please,” she said. “Play something to make us cry.

Toque algo para hacernos llorar…

Quite often what strikes me most is someone’s tone of voice. There was a matter-of-factness, as if Paula was asking me to pass the salt for the tequila–but also something as if whatever she’d just asked for was her suddenly-realized, deepest desire.

Llorar?” I said meekly.

I knew even then that there’s times when beautiful things make you feel sad. Like days on deserted Mexican beaches. Or when a girl you have a crush on locks eyes with you even for a moment, pins you to a moment like a butterfly on a wall, and suddenly you’re alive and right here. And there was something sad about it. And I’d long ago got to figuring eventually that the sadness has to do with some subconscious prescience that when I die moments like these will be exactly what I’ll miss from this vast and crazy world.

And I knew too that there can be something good about sadness. Like a good heartbreak–you feel that pain inside you and realize suddenly that you’re not in fact numb to the outside world after all–that in fact it can breach all skin and barriers and emerge from the cracks inside your chest, like it or not. I’ve had a good few laughs that way…

I came back with the guitar, and everyone was still staring at that fire.

But I’d somehow never realized that music could have anything to do with all that. Sounds, eardrums, noises. Or that someone could think of this endeavour that I had spent so much time obsessed with–the harmonies and scales and arpeggios and chords, the keys, rhythms, decades of practicing–was simply a convenient tool to be used to provoke some necessary feeling within.

No. Music was sound. And sound was all ‘out here’, in the small crashing waves, or the breeze through the palm fronds, the cracking of that splitting wood. And music was usually way up there, on some stage with its amplifiers. Or I suppose, if it was a certain kind of music, with a certain kind of groove, then it truly took place on a dancefloor. Or in your head–lyrical ideas, clevernesses, maybe even thoughts about a tricky way someone had just changed a key. Jazz, for example, never a big favorite of mine back then, had always played itself out up there someplace inside my brain.

Never in the heart…

Well I’d like to wind up this story and say that I began to play and out came something so gut-wrenchingly beautiful it left everyone a blubbering mess.

Nope. But I can say this…

I changed later on. I kept hearing those words of hers and the way she’d said them. And slowly I changed what ‘good music’ meant. And it was no longer about proficiency, or cleverness, or innovation–though I still respect those things. And bands that I thought were awesome, somehow paled when I realized they had never struck me any deeper than my thoughts.

And I noticed things: the more I cared about what others were thinking of me—”Am I a good guitar player?”–the more people were staring at their own thoughts about whether or not I was a ‘good guitar player’ or not. And the less moved either of was.

And I noticed that when any person–a student at school say–simply sang a song quite innocently and free from those add-on worries, who might barely be able to strum her guitar even, but who sang each note in easy deference to… something… some sort of inner playful sense of ‘well this is how the song goes so this is how I’ll sing it’, perhaps, the more something in me responded.

And I even started to enjoy the lack of music, especially when it happened within music itself. And by that I mean the silences between notes, or that split second after a song has ended just before the applause begins, or best of all when a band in a bar starts playing so sparsely that a hushed of the crowd and the barely audible whirrs and ambient clinks of the room itself, it all somehow enters that song–and place and people become one. And I saw how people felt moved by these things too.

And I began to trust that when something inside whispers that I should play a certain note, or stop playing entirely, to pluck hard or softly, neverminding how I believed it should be done, it is always mine not to ask why.

Hell I even started liking Mexican music.

And country. Epiphanies are dangerous things.

But what else can you do when someone’s doing their thing on a stage inside your very heart?

And I feel increasingly sure that if I play music from someplace deep inside like that–just as someone else might listen to birdsongs with all they have–someday on perhaps another deserted beach I’ll be given a second chance to make somebody cry.

Red Dress 371

 

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The Drop Off

A hug
Then another
Your little body
Swept right off the ground,
Then five turnaround waves
Between skips
And the bouncing
Of a backpack off
Your calves.
A last glimpse
At the doorway–
Laughing eyes
Sharing the fun of
Our joyous little scene–
And then I crossed the playground
Fighting blubbery tears like
A little boy.

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