Out on the Road Like a Snake

I think it was four years ago, or more like five and I crawled out of bed at 4:30 a.m. in an interstate motel just outside of Laramie WY, USA and drove over to my favorite greasy spoon truck stop in all of the world and worked out on their breakfast buffet with a pot of uncommonly good and strong cafe coffee and watched truckers shoveling down gravy ladened hash browns and scrambled eggs and rashers of bacon so thick they could barely hold them in their greasy fists, like ocean going mooring ropes, and slabs of ham and there were two men in a booth and they were middle-aged obese identical twin truck drivers in faded identical bib overalls and that was when I realized I was not in the Iron Skillet Cafe any more, but in a Neo-Felini movie set and so I dropped money on the counter and hurried out into the early morning rain.

I pulled out wet onto Interstate 80 west bound and I could feel the energy I had sweated out along this route about 40 years before when we were putting it all together and I recalled as I drove over the scene the late morning when I almost crawled on my hands and knees to the foreman’s pickup because tick fever had just come down of a sudden upon me and I could barely stand let alone work and how I once got fired down this long stretch a ways because I had overslept with my lover one too many times.

As I once wrote somewhere sometime before, I will never tire of turning a machine in the direction of my goal for the day and settling down in the determination to get there a lot sooner than the law would like me to behave. This was a fine rental and I was headed for the center of the state and so I set cruise one mph short of 90 and wistfully recalled once when on I-80 in a borrowed Thunderbird I set cruise on 98 and kicked back to watch that fine high plains scenery whiz past, but those liberties too have passed with the cost of the fuel.

And once out of port and sliding through the rain like a snake, I toggled the satellite feed radio and the previous renter had the dial set on The 80s At 8 which was appropriate for the location I thought and this was what first fell out of heaven early that morning and like the long late dear friend Richard Collier once confided in me, “If it doesn’t fall from heaven, fuck it.”

 

 


Distractions: Small Memoirs of Chaos

Reorientation
I read from my favorite novel: “Distract— to disturb or trouble greatly in mind; beset:”
This taxi driver is in fear for his life, and probably our’s too for that matter. It is a standard reorientation, one hour off the plane and we’re back in the heart of  where we live. We have been gone for a month and this nation is making sure we have not forgotten its charms.
American Airlines drops us off in Aruba because the internationals aren’t flying in or out of Venezuela (a while back) due to insoluble currency exchange disagreements and assorted complexities. After three weeks in the Rockies and a few days on the beach, we check our baggage at Queen Beatrix International at Oranjestad and wait for the commuter.
This time the airline is only one hour late in departure but we applaud for the delay is far shorter than expected…we’ve waited 6 hours for these over-worked and poorly equipped companies when they might have only one functional airship on the line to cover three far-flung routes. We do not get any of the usual entry visa immigration forms on the plane but the attendants serve us a thorough ebola-esque health questionnaire to fill out en route. No, we are perfectly healthy. No, we haven’t been in Africa recently nor do we know anyone who has been.
Forty minutes out from Aruba we descend, get level, skim the coast line and touch down on the pitted concrete runway of Simon Bolivar International in Maiquetia just meters south of the Caribbean and about 30 km north of Caracas. The forms are gathered by public health workers as we deplane. Even without entry visas passport control is a cakewalk.
Our usual taxi driver, a neighbor, is unavailable so he sends his friend to get us…a newer taxi, but still the generic small white, cramped, econo-Toyota, or econo-Chevy. It is 5 p.m. when we leave the airport, rush hour across the globe, so our man suggests that we take a short cut via the Old Road, Camino Viejo, the original road, that has run since antiquity through passes in the precipitous Coastal Range from the sea to Los Teques where we live. The mid-50s completion of the multi-lane, multi-tunnel autopista, Caracas to Maiquetia on the coast, transformed the route into the “old road.” But this is the time of day when the narrow tunnels into and through the city clog into bottlenecks of fumes, delays and frustrations. The driver tells us that El Viejo is a safe route while the sun is still in the sky. Marianthi and I, knowing the 5 p.m. autopista, agree though we’re dubious. I know those who would not take El Viejo in the best of high noon conditions. It is narrow, winding and poorly maintained and occasionally features impromptu, boothless, stations where unemployed men exact tolls for passage through a barrio.
The wide streets through the industrial districts of Maiquetia above the airport are free of traffic and swift but when we reach the narrow El Viejo as it rises into the highlands things are slow and pinched and finally we come to a full standstill first in a haphazard commercial stretch through a shadowy barrio. Here women cut hair and do nails in what was once the entry way to their house or the house of a cousin. And where dish detergent, beer and orange juice, chicharones and fried pastalitos stuffed with dry white cheese, or ham and cheese, or shredded chicken, shredded beef, or pulled pork are sold through slits  in barred doors like food being served in the lock-down cell pods of a prison. We wait 15 minutes for things to move but they don’t. We are beginning to be uncomfortable, more and more.
It is dark by now, and though normal civilians, school kids and housewives and workers coming home are still on the street their ranks are thinning in the darkness and the motorizados are starting to fly like nocturnal hornets, screaming with voices or horns past all of our stalled cars, back and forth, flaunting their mobility.
Eventually an unseen vehicle ahead leaves the procession and we idle forward a car length. In this manner, three or four times, we edge out of the barrio and into what the driver says is a slaughter house district. Broad, dark concrete buildings nudge up to the curbing on both sides of the road. I can barely make out a great tree overhanging the pavement ahead when the motorizados flash underneath. The driver calls in about the stoppage on his cell phone and gets no reply. He keeps looking here and there as if he is cornered, craning to see ahead, he is as they used to write, “sore beset.” This is not where any of our three want to be because we all know the stories; highway robbery, homicide. It only takes two armed motorizados and one dormant car. And we are dormant and there is darkness with big suitcases under the hatch in the back, one in a rear seat, two fair haired passengers who are obviously not Criollo—the privileged ethnicity of the barrios. We tell him it would be for the best if we return to Maiquetia. He agrees but there is no place to turn around, trapped between two other vehicles, no side streets, no driveways, only a road barely wide enough for two cars to pass. Then on the far edge of our vista a car jiggles back and forth six or eight pinched repetitions into an acute U-turn down hill, passes us and quits the situation. And then another a few cars ahead follows the first leaving us room to maneuver our escape…silent relaxation.
Soon the driver hears via his cell phone that the stoppage is because the people in a barrio a few hundred meters up the road are blocking passage, probably with burning tires, because they had not had any electricity in their homes for days and we could have been there deep into the night. We do not know until later how frightened the driver has become, we believe far more so than the two of us.
The short-cut through Camino Viejo is a bust but the tunnels through Caracas are almost entirely clear by now. The usual jams that are always there to be navigated no matter the hour remain but feel negligible. We cut off from the Autopista del Oeste onto the old Carretera Panamericana and mount the switchbacks up into Los Altos Mirandinos (the Miranda Highlands) and we are home by 7 p.m.
Felino the Ocicat I rescued from abandonment as a barely weanable kitten three years ago, is ecstatic when he comes back from his hunt through the jungle below the house and can hardly contain himself. He curls between us on the bed and sleeps the sleep of a righteous cat. And then we sleep late and righteous ourselves. Later we clean up the incidentals and gifts that filter down into the bottom of the luggage and are found only at the end of a month-long expedition. The new stuff that we bring in finds a near-reasonable space to occupy in the casita.
And on first going out I spot a slick little black snake, 10 inches long, trying to wiggle under the door into an adjoining neighbor’s place. It has a small wound on its side and Marianthi suspects it is another cat’s homecoming gift to us that for no fault of its own has been misdirected. I slip a fireplace shovel underneath it and gently flick it back into the tall grass below the house.
And so I guess that we are home.

Batteries
This is what the novel says is the most common usage of the word: “Distract— to draw away or divert, as the mind or attention.”
There always hangs a story on a shortage in this land—auto battery shortage is in fashion now and thus things are running late today, I can’t even stop to read my email.  Yesterday the distraction; our battery died when we’re going out to the everyday errands. Because the tenants are early to work and they were all gone and we all live behind walls and a gate where few are allowed entry our ride laid there dead for a day, the errands diverted to today.
This morning is still dark when Juan gives us a jump start off a spare battery he keeps somewhere in this cornucopias black behemoth that reads Land Rover on its grill.  I keep our ride running, do coffee, refresh the pony tail, and then we spin down the switch backs almost a kilometer to the little commercial center on the narrow valley floor.  This is where a mysterious, basement, rarely open auto shop just started selling batteries at the regime’s ”regulated” price–around 6,000Bs in the national currency. And that means lining up and taking a chance that the shop has our battery. We get there a little after six and we’re #23. There are places for food and coffee close by so our immediate needs are taken care of along with the others in the line and where the guy who’s #6 on the list says he’s been there since 4:15. They start bringing in cars, three at a time, at about 8:20. Marianthi stops one of the workers shortly thereafter and asks if they have a battery for our ride. He says no. So we book out for the alternative that Juan said might have what we need. His directions to the place in the bowel of Los Teques are Venezuelan directions—impressionistic at best, which is the most you can expect for Los Teques. In the late ‘50s Marianthi, a student in the leading nun’s school, strolled around this place, a village then, to the cinema, the ice cream shops, to the first grand shopping center, now it’s a maniacal labyrinth that no longer resembles anything she recalls: crammed traffic and pedestrian chaos, arbitrarily foreshortened streets that are void of all signage, the bolonaros kiosks vending pirated DVDs, and jewelry and nylon thongs, and hardware that fell off the back of a truck, kiosks that turn two lane streets into one-and-a-half lane streets, crowding the sidewalks to become all too cramped, one-body-per-passage crevasses. And there’s the noise, deafening sambas, lumbering, un-muffled buses and their diesel fumes, and the suicidal motorezados careening toward every rent in this roiling fabric like bats on crank. And there is the heat unalleviated by the constant trade wind currents that cool the hills above the little city. This is the bowel of Los Teques and my fascination with its anarchy, bodies, faces, sweat, eyes, fueled by a steady drip of adrenaline, always teeters on the edge of delighted laughter.
Sure, the directions are a little vague, but after one false positive we wander around and backtrack some more and find the place. Its hidden away in a cavernous car park that dead-ends an alley. Dark, randomly perforated and torn tin roofing hangs two stories above the haphazard concrete floor.  A fraction of the parked inhabitants look trashed well beyond further service and seem on permanent display. The rest are straight in their slots and two or three men wander around among them. The cave is too dark and too long to see the men’s details. One is always on alert for the Law for the Law is always alert for fresh money and one’s head should always be below the parapets.
We creep along and finally off to the side is the battery place that isn’t a battery place at all but appears to offer nothing more than smoked cellophane window tinting and car sound systems. Still the woman who runs the place has two new batteries that she pulls out from way back in the corner behind the counter. If Juan had not called her and said to be on the look-out for us this would not have been a battery place. Of her two offerings, one doesn’t fit at all and the other works out reasonably well. She has to call in from the street two teenage players in baggy polyester work-outs to make the switch. She provides half of the tools needed, I provide the other half and a little of the work. It isn’t exactly the right battery, it fits a little too snugly in the space provided and one anchor has to stay loose, but it’s powerful and can’t scoot around on its platform, and it has a one year guarantee, and we pay almost four times more for it than we would have paid for a non-existent “regulated” battery, though that included a generous tip to the two in polyester who struggled to put it in. And then we wander around and backtrack some more for awhile until we find the street out of Los Teques that has us skirting three quarters of the way around the city, through the industrialized neighborhood called El Tambor to return us to where we drove into the whole insanity awhile back. And we squirm through an ad hoc bus terminal in a side street and dart out onto the Carretera Panamericana, the Panamerican Highway, that used to run through here to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but no more because the civil war in Guatemala cut it forever in two. Then we twist back up the switchbacks to the house and have a rest and manage the lives of a couple of cats, or they manage ours, and we drive off to the errands that had been diverted away yesterday—get fistfuls of perpetually devalued cash to see us through the weekend, a bottle of cough medicine, some DVDs (because the recently crippled internet hasn’t the consistency to stream Netflix), some gin and tonic, and energy drinks, some pet food, and some gasoline (a fraction of a U.S. penny for a quarter of a tank).
Piece of cake.

Bombonitas
And the fires die.
Bad guess, worse judgement—kitchen morning, bread dough’s rising, and I’m streaming potatoes for next week’s supply of breakfast home fries and heating water for the washing of our late night dishes…in these latitudes why hot water in the kitchen? There are three thick and wide smoked pork chops—chuletas ahumadas—thawing to be charcoal grilled for lunch and eaten with half an auyamita (aka winter squash in places where there is winter) that I will bake with the bread.
And then the fires die, we are out of propane. It was to be next week that we were to re-supply.
Marianthi is resting, recovering from walking pneumonia. I bring the news.     She says, “I’m getting dressed.”
I say, “Me too.”
Its not far, the yard where Venezuela’s state petroleum company, PDV, sells  propane in the kind of bombonitas that can be carried around by hand. The gates are open early mornings (meaning who knows when) until noon. During the week the line, la cola, the queue, is five minutes long on the outside. But this is Saturday, a notorious day at PDV Propano Comunal. The conventional wisdom says on a Saturday get there early, go at 7…but then the gates might not open until 9 so why the rush…it is like everything else in this benighted little nation…a crap shoot with bad odds. No matter the time of arrival there is still a cola, in a country of colas, colas for diapers and tampons and condoms, and colas for cooking oil and colas for the staple of all staples, fine ground white corn meal called Arina Pan. (It is a new occupation, standing in a cola for six hours for your ration of kilo-sized bags of Arina Pan that you can re-sell on a street corner in your barrio for twice what you paid. Unemployment is on the decrease.)
Marianthi says, “You aren’t going there by yourself,” and she’s saying in code, “That’s where gringos don’t go alone.”
I load our two empty bombonitas in the camioneta which is the generic name for a pickup or an SUV or a mini-SUV like ours. It is 9 a.m. and we are expecting a long morning. We haul across the turn-around overpass on the Panamericana and dodge into the side street, the narrow block-long calle that also serves as a crowded, impromptu bus terminal that tee’s into the street that leads to the PDV yard. The cola stretches full left to right from our perspective and from our perspective there is no place to park. The street looks like an ant farm magnified, people with bombonitas on their shoulders, carried in arms, hauled along side as one would haul the ball on the end of one’s chain. Motorcycles and scooters loaded are dodging cars, defying traffic, defying death as only motorezados can. Buses wallow through smoking diesel smoke. Two wispy pre-teen girls, stick figures, struggle along with one bombonita between them.
I turn right toward the end of the cola, toward the yard where I buy steel, a bad road coming steep up from an industrial district. At the end of the cola Marianthi jumps out and joins it. I head down the street and park indifferently where no one should park, grab the bombonitas and catch up to her. The cola has grown by maybe 10 in those few minutes. But at least the line is moving. A tiny aging woman in cute embroidered jeans, her face like drawn leather, is in front of us. Marianthi figures that she might be an inch over half my height. When Marianthi sees a plastic bombonita in the care of one of our predecessors in space the little woman tells us that they are muy pelegroso, very dangerous, plastic is not to be trusted around propane. Cars, buses and camionetas and motorezados and pedestrians, loaded dollies and pull-carts, clog the street as we push along, bombonitas everywhere. The cola is flowing, stopping, flowing again. People in front see friends in back and call them forward. “Chamo! Aqui, aqui!”
Half way between where we joined the cola and the gates a tall man in a brown sweater, 12 people ahead turns around and yells at me, “Pequenas, va a la puerta!” (Little ones go to the gate.) Our bombonitas are pequenas though I have no idea why…perhaps it is the emitting orifice or just the red lettering on the side, but the point is they are minority bombonitas and are treated differently than the regular. The tiny woman grabs her pequena, cuts out of the line and hurries down the hill to the yard. Marianthi and I follow. A woman from PDV comes up close on my left and urges me to hurry. She’s telling others in the cola to grab their pequenas and come but she is worried because there are too many people. At the gate I hand the keeper 30Bs and he lets us in. Off to the side of the yard a man on one end of a broad rack of bombonitas pulls out two full replacements for us and we are away.
I set the bombonitas down across the calle, Marianthi stands guard above them. I hurry back up to the camioneta, flip a U turn in a usually hellish intersection that is unusually quiet this morning, snake through the stacked up traffic at the yard’s entryway, flip another U and pull up again through the crush in the middle of the street beside Marianthi. A colorful bus hits its brakes inches behind. A woman in the car I am blocking in front yells “Senor…!” I get out, Marianthi gets in. I have two inches of clearance between me and the bus to open the rear door and load up the bombonitas that now full weigh at least 50 lb. apiece. I wonder how the aging little woman ahead of us handled hers that must have weighed two-thirds what she does. I scramble behind the wheel and ease out into the congestion and shrug my shoulders in apology for the woman I was blocking in front…”What else can you do..?” She acknowledges, “…what else can you do.”
We pull out of the side street onto the Panamericana toward home at 9:29 a.m….a miracle for timing and luck.
At home our friend, Mariela in New Orleans sends us a twitter photo of a cola in Los Teques, “700 people lined up for propane.” Marianthi writes back, “That was our cola.”

Gillermo  
Again from the text: Distract— to provide a pleasant diversion for; amuse.
Guillermo is a Venezuelan media personality who goes by the single name, Canache. He is Guillermo Canache and he rents a sweet little apartment at the bottom of our steps. He’s lived in the USA and speaks reasonably good English. Guillermo is the Morning Man on one of the most listened to FM venues in Caracas and he is a certifiable genius and the type of professional showmen who can turn one line of casual conversation into an ad-lib five minute comedy monologue. He does standup, and he produces revues that play the theater clubs and he’s a standard feature on Caracas talk TV and he’s the entertainment face for Venezuela’s largest food and drink producer. Guillermo is fashionably, subtly, bearded, a bit overweight and he spends most of the time in pain for he has outgrown some titanium replacement parts in a leg and replacements of replacements are prohibitively costly here these days.
Guillermo calls me “My Old Gringo” when we meet at our door or in our little parking patio and we exchange handshakes, back-slaps and hugs and I listen to how the state of this sorry little nation, this slow-mo mudslide into perdition, and the state of our sorry little species, drives him into continual despair. I know he has a pain in his heart more profound than that in his leg. But, he says when I ask the other day, things are going to get better.
“You are my mentor,” he tells me, “and I know, I really know, that one of these days I am going to wake up and realize that today I am just like My Old Gringo. I will know that the world is turning to shit and I could fucking care.”

Nochebuena  
Today is Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, and we have a few needs, the list is short, chicken breasts and peas for the traditional Ensalada de Gallina tomorrow, eggs, a bombonita full of propane, an upgrade to the liquor supply, dishwashing liquid. We weave through the traffic into the turn-around overpass and pull into the lot for Oh Que Carne, the finest meat market for kilometers. Inside is a tight compression of human bodies. We get a number way down the list. People rub past each other sideways in the over-populated passageways. There are aguinaldos de navidad musica (the lyrics say “…the old hen is so tough…) over two TVs and from somewhere a radio narrative about the crowd in this place. It is a full out samba scooting celebration to a coming holiday. Strangers smile at one another in a cautious land where this is rare, there are stranger’s hands on the shoulders of strangers. Colas inch along. No way are we getting two fresh chicken breasts and be out of here before noon when the propane concession shuts down. On the grocery side Marianthi finds the eggs and then frozen peas imported from Texas and I find a frozen bag of non-fresh, flesh-stuff marked Gallinas (great big tough old hens that have died in the service of the egg trade) and Pollos that are what we used to call “fryers” in the North American days of fried chicken dinners. Marianthi also grabs a bottle of espumante for the evening toasts and a bottle of seasoning. The check-out chica says today is ley seca, the dry law day…no liquor sold Nochebuena and sets the espumante aside. A tiny old woman with a wrinkled face and a Santa Claus cap comes around, squeezes through the throng with a tray of baguette slices and tartar sauce for sampling. On Summer Saturdays while people are lined up for the mixed grill combos this place puts together, Oh Que Carne serves beer in the same way to those who wait. But today is ley seca and soon the woman in the Santa cap comes around again with a tray of sweet hot coffee in plastic shot glasses. The check-out chica tells Marianthi how people are trying to bribe her into smuggling liquor out with their meat orders but she won’t relent because there is a federal cop always edging his way around through the mass of us looking for miscreants and bribes. I can see his tan shirt and its epaulets as he mingles. And then he goes out right in front of the two of us and starts up on his cell phone in the parking lot. We pull out toward the Panamericana.
“We’ll try Avelino, he always has soap and maybe he won’t be watched. ” And en route we get our propane amongst a tiny crowd made of what dead Brit in-laws once said…”All life is here.” And it is true for there is one great, infectious pulse of life as we gather at the gate for our fuel.
Avelino has a tiny bodega (in the U.S., corner neighborhood market). Avelino’s wife is a sometimes student of Marianthi’s yoga and once Marianthi saved him from what he thought was a fatal muscle spasm in his neck. He couldn’t move his head.
No, there is no dish washing detergent anywhere to be found in the land…dilute the laundry soap…it is all the same. Yes he can sell us some sangria. And rum? He says, name the brand. I say “Cacique.’ And he says, “For you, I can do this.” Avelino does some slight of hand below the counter and tells us to get this bag into the car. Fast.
So our needs this Christmas Eve are met. We have been where all life is here.

Distraction
It is not alluded to in my favorite biography, but I have cobbled together a vague definition of the subject at hand:
Distractions are the way the instincts indicates to the common pilgrim what is truly important in their lives as opposed to what that pilgrim wants to believe. It is a matter of those instincts engaging with the Flux to get down to the true attentions. When one is synchromeshed into the Flux, profoundly absorbed in the creation of a poem or a sculpture or rebuilding a Porsche engine or making love, one is integrated and there are no distractions, distraction receptors are squelched. But once one loosens the integration and settles for the less than totally fascinating then the instincts are open to fix on selected stray elements in the immediate environment to show the pilgrim that their life right now is neither that broad nor that deep though it could be if one paid enough attention to one fine thing or another.
It seems to work on a sliding scale.


Some Do, Some Don’t: a book review in four brian-doyle-esque sentences

The iron law of sociology says there are always two kinds of people…some who do and some who don’t. There are some who like to subordinate their minds to the words of someone else who is doing the writing that they read for they wish their minds to be pegged down to the field of a conceptual ground by silken threads clove-hitched to Lilliputian toothpick, tent peg, words and thus be secured and thereby safely nourished and the more tiny-word tent pegs and silken hawsers the snugglier the wrap of this ecstatic surrender to the generous and comfortable firmament of literature led to that abdication by being seeming necessitous for–I believe, though I have no proof–a vicarious experience even if it is second or third hand; they come to the text to acquire a little filament of contingency beyond themselves, while over there on the far other end of the spectrum there are those (probably visual thinkers, if they ever take the trouble to think at all) who will not be instructed as what to think or see or feel or taste or smell or suspect (intuit) and there might even be some who refuse to believe anything they read or hear because maybe they have been around the block six or seven decades and know that within the space between these polarities there hangs some words, in this case the words of two novels about the sea and some people who putter around on its surface.

I just finished reading this sea story, a novel called The Plover by Brian Doyle who from Portland University sends incalculable bundles of Lilliput tent word pegs out to his waiting, apparently appreciative fan base, while coincidentally from the opposite hemisphere I recently reread a sea story from the other end of the spectrum called Far Tortuga by one of Doyle’s brethren nature writers, the late Peter Mathhiesson, and I want to take a look at that work because there is this thing called economy that in sculpture  is called negative space or all the stuff that Henry Moore took out of the  rocks or in painting all of the stuff that Andrew Wyeth left out of his scenes into which the peg-shy mind could pour creativity and imagery and memories of sensation and relationship, thus the visualization is that The Plover is to Bosh’s Christ in Limbo to what Far Tortuga is to Wyeth’s On Her Knees 1973, illustrations that Doyle does and Mathiesson doesn’t because Mathhiesson opens for his readers a sea-wide door into a Barthian “Death of the Author” experience while it appears that Doyle resists and insists on taking control and hewing dense experiences for his readers like a Victorian modernist although he also continues to lard his texts with mind-withering lists like any formidable postmodernist.

It is no doubt unfair and unwise for one who appreciates a Don’t novel to do a critique of a Do novel because there is probably a genetic and fundamentally unbridgeable predisposition by readers toward one or the other, like predispositions toward closure or open ends, so in all fairness I write that while I have a void of empathic accordance with any element in The Plover, correlativeley I found nothing there that was offensive or questionable or irritating and one has to assume that every word was crafted for a gracious muse and was consciously laid down and read aloud to a kind but critical ear to make sure it did not sound to another out of place, discordant, irrelevant, repetitive, pretentious, or silly or stupid when it entered the world as a sound, a palpable flow of entropic force, rather than just a tent peg particle of a concept because all (I believe) works of words should be written to be read aloud, but therein lies the fault of Far Tortuga because it is shaped around too many long silent negative spaces, still I cannot fault Far Tortuga for the fact that it also does not have any winsome crippled kid tropes and winsome crippled kid guardian angels who are actually magically real talking bird tropes left over from the last effort, or any pages of irrelevant to the plot asides that are essentially fragments of essays made sadly superficial by their own fragmentation and it did not have a Hollywood ending but on the positive aspects Far Tortuga has a well focused artistic purpose which I believe was to miniaturize Moby Dick in size, style, theme, characterization, metaphor, global span and a few other non-reducible elements–it could well have started out with ‘Call me Speedy, mon’–for which I will give it five stars for effort and ingenuity and classic artistic discipline and for being one of the most evocative novels I ever read for all the words that Mathhiesson left out.

 


The Diary of the Aimless Drifter

Rivers and Roads

Falling Rocks Part II

TOGWOTEE

 Thunder off this pass. The Drifter’s going either way, it’s all the same

the same falling off  to the Yellowstone, falling to Saltry Bay.

west to Saletry Bay

Or east to the Big Wind River.

Two Lovers ride the Aimless Drifter

Thunder up the Sunshine Sea     always flee to Denver.

West

Out of dark in a cowboy diner, the flying ice,

Race that ice down two-name river,

Out to the sweet rich, fat and lazy plain,

Left after lunch in Lovel, left then again at Laural,

Spin out there into the Eye

Race that ice down a road that’s called Eye 90

Gallatin, Madison, Jefferson

Missouri’s river’s history

It’s all way back behind that hill

Its way back there and wrapped in ice

Ice race

it is lost          it is finally lost

There’s a town with a hole in its heart

that up-side-down town

That place that they call Butte

An interstate bed, rib joint, bitter fine India ale,

A snowball fight and a tangled loving interstate bed.

The Drifter’s dug out in the morning.

Lovers always have lunch in Missoula.

The Spokane, that sweet home there      Spokane

And snow on snow on snow rut streets,

Drifter clearance.

Lovers thunder west in The Drifter.

Moses Lake for heaven’s sake.

The Yakima at Ellensburg

there ducklings learn to swim.

Snoqualmie Pass in a blizzard.

Countless rivers, short wide low down Cascade rivers,

Imagine the list from that Pass to three-fork Fraser

The Capilino

A tangled, candy bar Capilino bed

transCanada bed there beside the Capilino.

Horseshoe Bay, a diesel bridge, the road to Roberts Creek.

And eight months loving on Davis Bay

just past Roberts Creek.

Twelve minutes out from Earl’s Cove the world is all reborn

Twelve Minutes up from Saltery Bay the world is the world again.

The Drifter goes north no more.

TOGWOTEE

 Thunder off this pass. The Drifter’s going either way, it’s all the same

the same falling off  to the Yellowstone, falling to Saletry Bay.

west to Saltery Bay

Or east to the Big Wind River.

Two Lovers ride the Aimless Drifter

Thunder up the Sunshine Sea     always flee to Denver.

East

 A flight through old homes down past the Popo Aggie,

Middle and Little and then the Big flow down from the Winds

the incomparable Winds

And the sweet Sweetwater in its ruinous winds, tear apart winds,

split rock winds,

the up-end rocks in the up-end winds

and the dead dry Separations.

The North Platt, the Medicine Bow

that blood line whiskey from the Medicine Bow,

The Laramie and the Poudre, the Cashe La Poudre,

and above the Big Thompson…

A cousin camp, tangled loving above Loveland

always fleeing to Denver

And an airport bed, a rib joint, bitter fine India ale.

An airport bed, tangled bed, terror and solace, lovers fleeing

toward home.

And there it is to your lover’s left,

The grand blue mustang

raging mustang

the over-run mustang

The horse who killed Jimenez.

The Illuminati white cap space port big top

Shades of Larsson jingle ghost change,

Tin cups sound over breakfast burritos.

Its red or green and all of it is under the Illuminati

great fine splendor

The Illuminati great fine big top white-capped over-run blue big

red-eye killer Mustang.

(Atlanta)

Then Home.


With What We Have in Our Hands

Ecstasy, Authenticity and Passion

An Infidel’s Adventures in Shamanism

I

Stalking Ecstasy, Losing Guides

I had been for the longest time an avowed agnostic on this shamanic power animal, spirit guide business. In fact I had never been all that enthusiastic about shamanism per se because the word carried this sweet aroma of tribalism with it wherever it went. I wasn’t tribal and I never wanted to be. Healing through Sorcery, however, was different matter, or at least the matter of a different noun. The fact that a healing worked on one particular night, however, forced me, although indirectly, to reevaluate my previous positions on shamanism’s details and undertake a drawn-out investigation into the source of one’s power in these healing and seeing and magical activities. The following is the meandering report on the findings from that pursuit.

It started out because the man who had the mushrooms, said to be wondrous mushrooms, was sick that day. Such was the dreary beginning to years of hacking back through superstitions, reverse racism, bad translations, desperate scientism, rumors of a something called spirit, the Mystique of the Other, and a variety of cheerfully compelling illusions about magic; all that in the darkness of uncommon experience. It was as if I was trying to find the ultimate headwater of some dim river that when not dry had too many tributaries to follow through the jungles, and I really don’t like jungles. It should be noted here, early on, that I rarely sought evidence in this probe from books, having written a couple I knew they are not to be trusted; events, though, rarely lie.

The scene: Roberto, a psychologist who was much better versed in shamanism than I was at the time, had these mushrooms said to be the best of the breed and he’d invited my partner and I to come out to his home in a canyon in the Sangre de Cristos, northern New Mexico, USA, for a ceremonial tasting, so to speak. Only when we got there, early afternoon, he was sick, depressed, distressed and he wanted to postpone the function until another night. But my partner and I were already prepared for a preeminent journey based on Roberto’s advance enthusiasm over this fungus. We countered with a proposal that rather than being disabused of our expectations, we’d just raise the intentions for the evening. In those days we never undertook an expedition without dedicating it in ritual to the loftiest intention. We would use the medicine to cure whatever had beset Roberto. He agreed and crawled back under his covers to sweat until the chills set in for another cycle through his dis-ease while we spent the afternoon in preparatory silence to focus the work. I cut a few runes and we meditated into a medical style of righteousness that we thought now fit the occasion. A journey to meet a crisis is always preferable to any other.

At sundown, in the light from a huge rock fireplace fueled with split ponderosa logs the size of watermelons, we made our declarations of intent, divided and chopped the mushrooms, blessed them and what was about to occur, ate the medicine and began to drum the life back into the waning energy of the evening. And straight away we realized our all too pessimistic underestimation of the quick and paralytic quality of this particular harvest. The three of us started losing track. We diverged and effortlessly wandered off on our own ways. All coherence of purpose and power was shouldered out of my mind and the intentions refined in the afternoon looked likely to be smothered by a thick, tiresome, throw-back DMT tapestry and the clatter of the synaptic loom that was weaving it. I wanted no part of this. Yet my focus seemed nailed to the illusion and I could not even remember to open my eyes. (1)

This story would be worthless had it not involved a rescue. From a substrate far more profound than any illusion emerged that element of my mind that remains casually aloof of all intoxicants. It rose like the voice of an oracle from a cave to advise me that there was nothing more essential in the known universe than the immediate healing of Roberto. It was a challenge to my self-image as a magician. The response was almost automatic; in something like an ego-driven act of passion my willful consciousness, without delay or consideration, folded this bright, patch-worked, calico, psychedelic, winding-sheet back into darkness, I rose, roused my partner and we began the healing. By early morning it had taken effect. She and I had levered into Roberto’s soul the fact that there was no reasonably objective purpose in him being sick…and so he wasn’t any more.

Reflecting on that evening, I devalued mushrooms or any other organic expedient as elements vital to healing talents. Their role was secondary to the work. It appeared the medicine did exactly what intoxicants have always done whether at healing rituals or cocktail parties: it broke up the inhibitions and superficial habits of the psyche. It gave the three of us uncommon masks to wear in the others’ presence. It helped close us out of the roles we had assumed for decades and distilled the connections down to healers/healee, all conveniently ripped into suspending our disbelief in this novel configuration. This would be invaluable in a small, close-knit tribal or clan community where histories are thoroughly known by all and roles and identities are set early and hard to shatter outside of divine intervention. But living as I did outside such a setting, I began to think of such medicine as that type of handy expedient that eventually helps atrophy the innate skills of the user. Mushrooms do not make up the nest from which the power is sourced.

Until that time I had read minimally about shamanism and was counted absent from every workshop. What I knew came from casual conversations, glimpses from my youth back on the rez, happenstance experience and extrapolations off related subjects like Nordic myth and entheogins and alchemy from Taoist and European sources. These were the foundation for my notions of healing; these and what I knew of Christian church going healers like the late Oral Roberts, or the Snake Handlers of East Tennessee. No one can deny the passion of these people and superficial appearances at least have them working in the same media as the shamans of other lands and cultures. I have found however that it is not p.c. to argue too vehemently a case to include crazy Christian fundamentalists into the shamanic fold, but one should not gainsay their successes either. I’ve lived in Tennessee, I’ve known ’em kinda good ol’ folks and concluded, with sufficient hubris, that if any “head of the holler” preacher can work an effective healing so could I. (Or, more accurately, the healee of that situation could with a little boost from whatever it was that I was trying to do.)

In this same light I have to admit that I had never been endowed with an anthropological curiosity and that was part of the reason that shamanism, an appurtenance of other cultures, did not provide much interest for me. My own culture is without a doubt weird enough to justify several lifetimes of exclusive study. Additionally, I doubted if I would ever aspire to be a shaman in the strict sense for there seems to be in that calling a supplicatory spiritual if not religious infrastructure that felt too much like a compelling illusion. Supplication grates on my nerves. I dislike asking for anything from anything that doesn’t have a form and a behavior that I can watch all the while that our dealings are moving toward conclusion.

I have no faith in the invisible, or, to tell the full truth, a significant share of the visible either. I suspect I am a thoroughgoing infidel. Nonetheless, the more exotic habits of humanity have always posed as curiosities for me and shamanism was, from time to brief occasional time, a subject that I infrequently thought I would study…in the future.

Roberto, however, helped to make the future tense present because he asked my lover and me, the next morning, to review a selection of shamanic literature to help him find texts for an undergraduate course he was preparing to teach. He gave us nearly a dozen to sample. One particular evening we stopped our review just after reading Michael Harner’s chapter on how to find the power animal spirit guide. “Someday,” I thought and maybe even spoke it out loud, “I might give that another try.” My two previous ventures into the field of ethereal zoology had been failures, due no doubt to my infidelity to Spirit.

To be honest I was edging to the left of agnostic on this power animal question. Instead of just being short on fidelity, mine was a distinctly cynical doubt. I kept mostly silent about it, however, because numbered among my friends were some fairly serious believers. So, I had concocted a little parable based on an actual event to explain the lack of spirit animals in my practices. This legend had it that on a day in 1975 the animals had all gone away. And that my complicity in their departure was clear; it was as clear as the freezing sky above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Osha Peak east of Taos, NM, that afternoon. It was the day, I would tell the believers, I came to know too much; the day the animals reached similar conclusions. The event was real and steeped in ecstasy, but my spin on it was an indulgence. The story goes:

I found the track about sunrise. An elk or a deer had made it. There was no way to determine which because the thigh-deep snow was pure powder, frozen airy fluff, slick like old-time soap flakes that filled in all details and covered all the signs as soon as the animal had grooved through. But it didn’t matter. I would, promiscuously, stay with this trail until its superior showed up. All these trails are fundamentally the same: the prey is creating the front end of it and somewhere back is the predator. The two choreograph an energetic dance with one another that is synchronized by something other than sight or sound. Until that particular type of relational energy is isolated and a measuring gauge invented to make it secular, we can call it medicine or magic, predator medicine, prey magic, words that emphatically ring with more fascination than “predator non-ordinary reality,” a currently popular shamanic weasel-phrase that hopes to avoid attributions of schizophrenia.

I stepped into the trough of that track and the dance was joined. It lasted for hours. The sun rose high and crossed the zenith but the world remained frozen and the snow stayed deep and secretive. Nothing sounded but the critiques of gray jays and ravens. As the predator I had to concentrate on keeping as much of myself as possible behind me. Predators can’t advance their presence in time or geography; they can’t grow energy or pretend to be big. Predators can’t be anything except open. And if open enough they don’t even have to be fast. Good prey magic, on the other hand, is much more complex, variable and permitting of deception. Being fast is good, though faster is better. If predator and prey are well paired and practiced than it becomes an ecstatic dance worth the price of admission. Being predatorily open is real ecstasy for it is well outside the everyday state. It is a condition induced from severely limited dimensions since, ironically, it takes a tight little trance to be so open. In this state I find my body seems compact and dense with an electrified serenity that is difficult to contain but impossible to spill. A rhythm of some easy origin and cadence takes a position on the margin of consciousness. After a while thoughts stop and the senses become vacuums. And from holding myself behind me for a time all my progress seems to halt, but the landscape passes by as if the world were my treadmill.

And then suddenly it comes apart. That’s the point of it all.

Suddenly on the edge of a clearing I stopped, stilled without conscious reason. Nothing objectively had changed except I was instantly washed throughout with an adrenaline rapture that signaled I had found the prey. And by and by, or so it seemed, the largest buck mule deer I had ever seen rose from his noon nap concealed behind a huge downed ponderosa only 25 feet away. He paused to account for me then left on a slow, swaggering kind of bound, made slow motioned by the snow. He held his head gracefully aslant to keep me in view. I howled my thanksgiving toward heaven. The magic had worked again.

I had discovered predator magic when I was 11. It was of a slightly dissimilar nature at the time; the perceptions were styled differently. But the effect was the same because my intention was identical. I found it while hunting a man, a friend of mine through the thick brush along the river that cut through my family’s ranch in Wyoming. Time was running, but I was running faster in an intense hurry to see this man do his work. It was almost sundown, a January evening in the middle of the mid-’50s drought. The ground was frozen; there was no snow. The man left no discernable track for a mile. Yet I could tell exactly where he had walked. I could see his footprint on the moss of a rock, although on close examination that moss looked no different than that on the adjacent rock. And I could see that the willow and juniper branches he had brushed against had a just barely noticeable glow, an aura that faded on scrutiny. And the air through which he had walked felt different than the air I felt when off his trail. I was not astonished by any of this. I seemed to take it all for granted.

But I was not taking time to think about it. I wanted urgently to find this man before night fully fell. And I was not surprised when I did. I heard him first, crept up past a couple of willows and saw him, a little dimly in that dying light. He was squatting on the river’s edge washing his scent from the mink trap he had just set. But he was surprised when I casually walked up and said “hi.” He asked me how I had found him. I replied that I had followed his trail. He said impossible, he had left no tracks on the frozen ground, a least none that were visible in the gathering dark. But I told him where he had been, where he had set two other traps. He said that I must have better eyes than his and made me a partner in his trap line then and there.

I never thought the experience strange, or talked up its details. In the years that followed I thought that I had been running on instinct and that was not so out of the ordinary that it was worth examination. I just thought it was what every one would do, could do. No one had ever told me it was a possibility. Then again no one had ever told me that it wasn’t. It was outside all considerations for those in my community. Accidentally, I had stumbled across this medicine by myself, on my own, without a mentoring elder or a tutelary animal spirit. I had no one to teach anything of it to me, a willful, gangly country kid, blond of hair and white of culture.

For better or worse, or for neutral more reasonably, I am selectively reconciled to my culture and its artifacts, one of which, I used to testify, was responsible for all the animals leaving the ethers of my magic that afternoon in the Sangre de Cristos near Osha Peak. It was what I held in my hands: a Remington 7-mm magnum rifle. By all standards, it was an awesome little machine of unspeakable speed and power. I had traded for that rifle out of the back of a van belonging to a radical Oneida Indian gunrunner in the days ago when that was a flourishing political occupation. And it has long since plunged back into the pool from which it rose. I had not used it that afternoon because the license in my pocket read “Elk” not “Deer.” But that is beside the point. So too was the fact that the medicine had brought me so close to the prey, and so disarmed the prey of fear, that a spear and atlatl would have worked better. The crux of it all was that rifle was a teacher to me and through it I came to know too much. I knew there wasn’t any better predator working on that mountain that day, or one who held as much physical power. What did any of the animals have that I might need? Why should I call on the power of an animal, or entrust some emissary of my soul to its guidance, when that animal requires for its survival rules and regulations promulgated by lawmakers to protect it from someone…well, like me? And hence they left. The animals vanished; I would tell that to my friends. It was true, the animals and their spirits had shown me no nests that could qualify to be the source of healing or divination or the source for any other power whatsoever.

Years progressed and accumulated events and the story became self-fulfilling. I found that I could not even depend on the animals with whom I lived, intimate companions, raised from infancy, to guide me in discarnate regions. The story builds:

As a result of long standing circumstances and connections, years ago, when that sort of craziness was my profession, I was hired to investigate the suspicious death of a Navajo man in Taos County, NM. He had been an activist and his family and friends did not trust the regulation non-Indian authorities to pursue the matter thoroughly or honestly. On the first foray about, I stopped where his body had been discovered, turned predator, but found no trace of anything residual, nothing energetic, or spiritual, nothing with a tinge of sadness or upset. And within days word reached me from the dead man’s home reservation in another state that several Indian priests working on the issue had all quickly lost his trail, post mortem, themselves. Apparently we had all thought it worth a try to see if the departed gentleman could pass us back a few leads from the other side, but no one was able to connect.

A couple of nights later, in a dream I glimpsed the man’s shrouded body laying a third submerged at the edge of a lake, but it disappeared the instant I called out to another man nearby. For 35 years dreams have been my drugs, journeys and workshops of choice when I am looking for an answer. They are effective. I trust them in the same way I trust the sun to rise because my conscious will, which tends to be impatient, rebellious and iconoclastic, is not on the field of their play. Only in a dream are the more footloose daemons of my soul free to slip the willful governance of my conscious senses that find this color bound and too, too solid earth so delicious that no other element, conscious or not, can quit the banquet in order to go Out.

A month of legwork and interviews had ambled past that dream when one night I had another:

I was in the yard of an ancient, stone walled monastery, digging a hole in the damp rocky ground. The dog I lived with in daylight reality was with me. His name was Stutz, a Chow crossed Malamute fellow, an inveterate explorer and a splendid point man on all our expeditions. But here he was going to bed. Night was falling, the monks were calling curfew and Stutz was going to bed. He was crumping out on my project. Dogs in dreams are supposed to be the paragons of psychopomps. But what did my friend do? Stutz circled three times in a hollow against a wall and went to sleep and I kept digging.

Suddenly I found myself walking alone up a trail through juniper, willow and aspen thickets like those that edge rivers in Wyoming. Then I saw a man my age with bright red hair coming toward me. He had just woken up; he was rubbing sleep from his eyes. I wondered if he wasn’t hung over. And then I realized I knew him. I had gone through secondary school with this man. He thought he recognized me too. He asked me to give him the name of a mutual friend to help him recall who I was. I did and he did. He told me where he was living and the name of the woman who was his lover and he even told me the name of their landlord. He gave the impression that his was a pleasant and surprisingly easy life. We then went our ways; glad we had met. The ultra-real details of the middle-aged creases on his freckled face glowed like a ghost image on the back of my eyelids as I awoke. Then I remembered his name: Norman Moore, one of the first young men from Wyoming killed in Viet Nam over 30 years before.

I recorded this in my journal and two weeks went by, maybe more. I studied police accounts and translated the autopsy report into penetrable English, more legwork, more interviews.

Then one night I was left by myself on the otherwise deserted set of an unremembered dream. Stutz wasn’t with me. It had been an insignificant dream and I questioned why I was still in it. Then a stranger stepped out of the wings, so to speak. He asked, “Are you Steven?”

I said I was.

“I’m supposed to give you a message from Norman,” he said. “He wants you to know that he’s been working up in Taos County, working around the clock since the last time he saw you. He says the man you’re looking for isn’t there. No one is ever going to find him anywhere. He’s gone away.”

“Oh.”

“And Norman was wondering if it’s alright for him to go now. He’s spent a lot of time up there and he has other things to take care of at home.”

“Yeah, its alright,” I said. “Tell him ‘Thanks a lot.”

All of that had happened and Stutz had not been anywhere around. He had not helped at all. I wondered if he had made common cause with the other animals and had vanished from my ethers, or was it because he was a white man dog. He had lived all his life in a culture where these particular types of expeditions are simply beyond the possible. How would he know where I went or what his role should be when I had never talked to him about going anywhere except into the daylight barrancas beyond our house? Would it have been different if Stutz had been a dog from the rez? Had the help from Norman come because I was crossing over into a different culture; or because the man, whose abbreviated life had become the pool of my immersion, practiced himself what Mercia Eliade called an “archaic religion?

II

Stalking Authenticity, Culling the Cultures

There is that possibility that a certain type of culture is the sole, natural preserve of the shaman, a possibility that culture is the nest where power is found. I cannot think of any credible non-fiction on the subject that could do anything more than posit that conclusion by default if not by overt attribution. But where else can a writer in the field of shamanism go except into the “primitive,” indigenous cultures of Central Asia, or Greenland, or Indonesia, the South American jungles, North American Reservations? What else can they do except write up their findings in a Meet the Shaman format that is either an anthropological/psychological overview or features a quasi-journalistic specificity? The first are authored by academics who all seem to be using the same database. The second type tends toward the Seeker-written and is characterized by long passages of Socratic dialogue that causes one to speculate that the author/disciple is blessed with either a build-in tape recorder, or a superhuman memory, or, more likely, theirs’ is a mediocre creativity as seen in the fact that both master and student speak with the same unremarkable voice, accent, rhythm or lack thereof, and vocabulary. And this is not to leave out that genre of self-help offerings that utilize “ancient techniques” to keep us well adjusted, environmentally conscious, and open minded regarding the theistic ingestion of hallucinogens as long as it is done in a country where it is legal. These latter works, more often than not, constitute the curricula for workshops.

Most of the literature is similar in that the authors like to:

A. Beat up on anthropologists in general or other kinds of anthropologists in particular for sins of omission, commission or ethnocentrism.

B. Broadly condemn the planet plundering, industrialized, desensitized, mechanized, science-ridden western culture because it forcibly relocated our entire population so far outside The Garden and spoiled it for all of those who really, really, really want to believe in magic.

C. Sidestep any implication that they might believe in or have been witness to actual magic. They write as if they fear nothing more than to be thought of as crackpots by their all too often academic peers.

If one wants to read about magic stay out of the shelves marked “Shamanism.” Anything vaguely in the realm of the paranormal is euphemized away or analyzed beyond recognition. I believe it was Holgar Kalweit who once wrote that when a western observer is brought face to face with the paranormal their immediate response is to fall back into elaborate scientistic ratiocinations over the issue, probably in order to maintain credibility and to keep all eventualities sanely within the Weltanschauung our culture has condemned them to serve. Thus positivism makes cowards of them all.)

David Abram is an ecologist and a slight of hand artist who several years ago authored an addition to the “Shamanism” shelves that meets all the above criteria: The Spell of the Sensuous. It is a second-generation Shaman-shelf book that explores the calling not as an object of study for its own sake, but as an entré into another field altogether. Abram uses a 27-page first chapter of observations on shamanic magic as the fulcrum over which to lever a Deep Ecology agenda into a 326-page polemic. It is a splendid treatise on phenomenology that deftly explicates the writing of Heidegger among others. The book taught me everything I know today about linguistics and I am grateful for that. And while it gives the requisite horse whipping to the anthropologists and the Wannabees, it also, strangely enough, short changes the shamans whose culture, Abram seems to believe, is the cradle of power. We read:

Psychotherapists and some physicians have begun to specialize in ‘shamanic healing techniques.’ ‘Shamanism’ has thus come to connote an alternative form of therapy; the emphasis, among these new practitioners of popular shamanism, in on personal insight and curing. These are noble aims, to be sure, yet they are secondary to, and derivative from, the primary role of the indigenous shaman, a role that cannot be fulfilled without long and sustained exposure to wild nature, to its patterns and vicissitudes. Mimicking the indigenous shaman’s curative methods without his intimate knowledge of the wider natural community cannot, if I am correct, do anything more than trade certain symptoms for others or shift the locus of dis-ease from place to place within the human community. For the source of stress lies in the relation between the human community and the natural landscape.”

If one wants to know what Eliade meant by the term “nostalgia for paradise” reread the foregoing paragraph. To learn more on the “primary role” of an indigenous shaman and the nature of magic please continue.

“Hence, the traditional magician or medicine person functions primarily as an intermediary between human and nonhuman worlds and only secondarily as a healer. Without a continually adjusted awareness of the relative balance or imbalance between human group and its nonhuman environ, along with the skills to modulate that primary relation, any ‘healer’ is worthless–indeed, not a healer at all. The medicine person’s primary allegiance, then, is not to the human community, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded…

“Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives…is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”

Despite the emphatic quality of his declarations I doubt if Abram will soon find that he has written the last word on what constitutes the “primary role” of the shaman. There are probably as many diversified “Primary Roles” as there are shamans to fill them. And I am sure there are more than just one or two who would with somber faces and gleeful hearts gladly set the man straight on the matter. But that is a digression. The point is that Abram wrote a book, like almost all others, that defined shamanic power out of any other culture but the traditional indigenous. White people need not apply.

On the less theoretical and rhetorical end of the spectrum is an example of the same sort. It is found in Stephen Larsen’s The Shamans’ Doorway. Larsen writes of the curious experience of a young man known as J.B who found his way from New York City to The Great Slave Lake in the Canadian north. There J.B. convinced Adamie, a Dogrib Indian medicine man, to take him on as an apprentice. Partway through the training the young man bolted and fled back to Manhattan. He gave up the calling. Larsen asked why and J.B. replied that to become a shaman he would have had to become an Indian and he could never be more than a second-rate Indian. The calling seemed so inextricably bound to the culture that Larsen did not even ask if J.B. had considered the possibility he could take his training with him wherever he went. This was, I should point out, before the dawning of the New Age, a time when old Adamie could have become a favorite on the workshop circuit. It was before the time when seekers beyond numbering would have given their left ventricles for J.B.’s experiences. And they would have even known that it was safe, perhaps even profitable, to bring it all back home.

J.B.’s first trial toward his apprenticeship was the “extraction” of his soul that enabled Adamie to see if he was worthy of the training. (The story sounds like a deja vu of the legendary first encounter between the Taoist master, Lu-Tung-pin, and the wizard Zhong-li Quwan.) According to J.B.’s account, Adamie had put him into a trance with drumming and singing and he remained therein for a couple of days while the old man vetted his ethereal innards. Larsen was impressed that Adamie could extract the soul of a “rationally indoctrinated” westerner of European seed. (2) “…(I)f we are to believe the anthropologists,”Larsen continued, Adamie should only have been able to work this medicine on his own, more primitive, people. It occurs to me here that ethnocentrism is at its most virulent when we are analyzing the behavior of our own cultural colleagues. Larsen assumed that J.B. was as indoctrinated as he, himself, appears to be. Maybe J.B. had passed up the program his rationalizing culture was pushing; and so he was open to that much more experience. And J. B. had, admittedly, shown up at Adamie’s cabin with a gift in his hand and his soul on his sleeve. Nevertheless, Larsen helps make the conventional point: Shamanism is for primitive cultures; it is the curative nest egg for which that culture holds a monopoly.

The true loss I find in this fascinating tale of J.B. and Adamie is that no one was able to discover what Adamie thought. He, after all, had seen J.B.’s soul. Did he suspect that J.B. could never be more than a second-rate shaman because he was white? There is a good chance Adamie might have held such a prejudice. I have a story on the point:

In the mid-70s I was on the administrative staff of a fairly radical national Indian organization, teaching techniques of investigation to young Indian journalists and setting up a political power structure and legal research division. One of the organization’s long-standing projects was assisting grass roots members of several Eastern Oklahoma tribes reestablish formal recognition of their traditional tribal governments. This eventually successful effort was in opposition to the system of the time whereby the U.S. President appointed a “Principle Chief” for each tribe from a pool of oil company executives who were genetically qualified by at least 1/16th blood quantum if nothing else. For about a week in 1976, three of us; the organization’s director who was a North Carolina Cherokee, a staff attorney who was a white woman, and I, were in and around Tulsa and Tahlequah meeting with organizers and members of the Traditional Creek faction. One night one of the organizers, our host for the week, drove us into the hills about 60 miles out of Tulsa to a neighborhood stomp dance that was a benefit for someone sick or with other troubles.

It was about 10 at night when we got to the stomp grounds, but the dance had not started because a couple of the men who were going to be making the medicine for the dance had yet to arrive. We waited. Then we heard they were all present. And we waited. Midnight, we waited. One o’clock, the host reported that the medicine was not working and the dance could not start until it did. The lawyer, who knew her way around traditions and taboos, asked if the problem might lie in the fact that she was in the middle of her period. If that were so she said she would be glad to leave. The host said it was quite likely and went to ask. But there was no problem. The medicine men told him that her menses had no effect on their medicine because she was a white woman. I thought it gave her a legitimate cause to be at least somewhat offended. An Indian woman would certainly have felt dishonored if white men had so easily dismissed her presence and power. But the lawyer took no exception. She must have thought that culture was the nest, as did, evidently, the medicine men.

I have cut by way of experience into that obscurant and I am not so sure.

Only recently did I do some long neglected research on this matter of soul fragments and the searches for the same. Eliade wrote that it came out of central Asia. Where is the surprise in that one? He takes care to delineate tribes and practices and frets a little over current (1951) trends towards “quasi-trances” and shortcuts. He didn’t call it “soul retrieval” but what he writes of has all the earmarks of that modality and pure shamanism (i.e. the Central Asian brand by Eliade’s standards) and the cultures that generate it. The first time I heard of soul retrieval was about 1991 when Sandra Ingerman published her volume by that name. There was talk of it all around in Santa Fe, but I never read the book. One fellow there in an advanced training program learned the technique and began to offer it among his other shamanic services. The first time I assisted on one of his ceremonies was in fall, 1996. It made sense though I had to wonder about how “quasi-“ might be the trance. Others had learned it by then from workshops and apprenticeships. It was but a few years ago, however, that a friend told me that when she was in the retrieval journey her spirit animal would show her the soul fragments as brightly colored geometric shapes. That was when I remembered. I remembered those, the puzzling little pieces, a triangular cartoon potsherd, bright orange, and one-half of a short piece of cherry red pipe that had been cut in two, lengthways. They looked like props from Disney animation, detritus of a dream. Then I knew what I had been doing.

It went back to the first week in December, ’89, when Michaela, a friend, was still in the wake of a sudden illness that had taken her right inside the gates of death and left her hanging there for at least a few hours. It gave her a rare view to an enduring peace and solace that were not ordinarily part of her existence. She came back with some ambivalence, but managed to keep captive the revelation of where she had been. A sort of bliss had governed her life for a week thereafter and then it had fallen apart. Michaela was in the deepest depression that she could recall. She found nothing positive in anything. All she could see was falsehood, debasement and mundanity. She felt sundered and knew she had not fully returned from that transit. Part of her was still hanging out near death. And it was getting worse. About four or five days into that furious depression I found her in a dissociated state. She was speaking with an accent that sounded as if English were her second language and then now and again she sounded as if she were four. She was hiding in bed, late at night, sliding away. I feared she might not come back, or come back even more badly fractured. I did not see any choices but to go into that darkness after her. Where? I had not a clue, new territory with no maps. I could only go on instinct–a lonely impulse of delight. I had always had a worshipful respect for instinct. Mine did not always go to all the right places by every consideration, but they never took me to a dull one. That night for the longest time I sat hunched in a half-lotus beside her, rocking up an urgent rhythm to guide me like the headlong footfall sounds of a dervish drum. I rocked there, forcing my awareness down and down and down, until exhausted, because this woman was in trouble and I was the willful founder and CEO and complete staff of Sterling Steven’s Rescue Rangers, and by god we could do it all.

Eventually I slept trusting that I would keep going in dream reality. There, I descended into blackness far more dense than that of the preceding trance. And finally I found Michaela in a sleek ceramic vessel like a contemporary seed pot, not too deep but round and wide with a short, belled neck and the narrowest passage to the inside. The interior was glazed cobalt. I knew that but I could not see it. I could not see Michaela or me; I just knew it was us. All I could see was dark to the power of 10 and a bright orange cartoon potsherd and half of a cherry red piece of pipe. Detritus.

The next morning, Michaela awoke as fully present as she had ever been, a little wiser and with no depression. I made note of it in my journal and drew pictures of the puzzling fragments. It had been a curious evening but nothing so out of the ordinary that it was worth a lot of examination. I just thought it was what every mystic would do, could do. No one had ever told me it was a possibility. Then again no one had ever told me that it wasn’t.

I think it had to do with passion. It didn’t have to do with culture. Mine was not a tribal culture at any time in the memorable past. And I have steered away from the influences of those that are. I spent nearly half my youth on a reservation and was for a year the only white boy in my junior high class. And later, for a decade, as a muck raking, trouble making journalist, and teacher, and author of laymen’s legal textbooks, and range detective and private investigator of trespasses and resource thefts from Indian Territory, I crusaded under the banners of liberation, Indian civil rights, territorial restoration, and full tribal sovereignty. But I kept my distance from that culture. It was for the following reasons: 1) I saw that the Wannabees, white for Indian, Indian for white, never wound up in the place they longed to be. They always fell well short. 2) I suspected from observation and had it confirmed by my radical and traditional Indian colleagues that tribal cultures, even the most functional ones, maybe especially the most functional ones, were too often more repressive to their individual members than the one I had lucked into. I found that women were greatly chaffed by this, far more so than most of the men. 3) I realized early on that I could spend a lifetime if not more digging out from under the impositions of my own culture and I had no desire to tunnel into another.

It was and is about authenticity. And later that authenticity also had everything to do with staying out of the jungle.

That was the time when the man came around from Peru with the tea, and they told me that was where it would take me: to the jungle. That was all I knew about ayahuasca: it was an ecstatic journey to the jungle. My idea of an ecstatic journey would be to some 12,000 ft. gale scoured pass in the Wind River Range, for example, since the jungle holds no charms for the current author. I knew nothing about the jungle, or the cultures that lived there and worked with the tea and I saw no real need to learn except that I wanted, seriously, to try the brew. Given all that, I was willing to surrender to its flight plan. The first two ceremonies I attended left me bored, wide-awake and stationary. A few months later I decided to try again.

The shaman that night was young. He spoke no English, gave no guidance. We were working in a teepee owned by a mixed blood Russian fellow on the east slope of the Sangre de Cristos. The teepee was cold, the tea very powerful. The shaman started out kneeling beside the altar and singing his song. Soon he toppled over beside the altar but managed briefly to keep up with the song, though more and more he seemed to have his attention directed elsewhere and the song dwindled away in fits and starts and increasingly longer bursts of silence. It was apparently problematic medicine. I waited. The three others stuck it out for a while, sitting, laying, going out, getting sick, coming back, going to sleep. I sat there hunched in a half-lotus like a stone and waited. I saw nothing junglesque. It seemed more like sitting on a barren ledge far above a desert river. And I waited, cold and stiff and increasingly irritated. Just when I decided to lay down to sleep the impression of the river dissolved into a very visible entrance to an abandoned mining tunnel like something one could find at the end of a bad road out of Telluride, Colorado. And suddenly I was flashing down through this crooked tunnel like a bottle rocket. I was fast but the tunnel was almost endless. I slowed briefly to watch a boy swinging by his hands from a shoring timber like it was a jungle gym. Jungle gym? Was I getting near? (3)

Abruptly the tunnel ended and I dropped to my feet on the ground. I was still high in a North American mountain mining district. Abandoned machinery had been broadcast all over, ore cars and ore car rails and miles of rusty cable. (There are always miles of rusty cable around such digs, threatening tetanus at every step.) It was a dump. Then just as abruptly as I had hit the place, the cable and junk and a coil spring three feet across and 15 feet long, pulled itself together. Its face was a mask made from a badly mangled piece of 1/2″ steel plate and welded atop was a freight wig of razor ribbon. It rose above me like a puppet out of a Jack-In-The-Box. Of course it was nothing organic because all the animals had fled my places years before; nevertheless it was sentient enough to want me dead. Murder was its clear intention. It pulled itself to full stretch, and was poised to strike me dead. This was not what I had come for. I stepped up closer to it and said with contempt, “Fuck off. I’m a god.”

The robot liquefied into a slime that looked like rotten lettuce, wilted to the ground and soaked away through the fissures in the rocks at my feet. Fade to the black of the frigid teepee.

Sometime later, somewhere I read that in the jungle, ayahuasca bestows a similar initiatory feature on a person’s first journey. Apparently one is supposed to work things out with a giant, threatening serpent, and make it one’s immortal ally. So I imagine I handled the situation rather badly. But I also think the experience did not go wanting for authenticity; the formula for the work certainly was Peruvian; banisteriopsis and psychotria, but the props and script were Aryan; high carbon steel, Nietzsche and The Rg Veda. (4)

III

Stalking Power, Finding Guides

I no longer believe that the evening was a waste. The nature of the mine mouth gorgon helped inform some other journeys and dreams. I began to read more, study the calling more seriously. Because too much has fallen to me that has apparently also fallen to those of the shamanic calling, I wanted to discover the common roots. And so, among other inquiries I again struggled to work out the spirit guide and power animal problems. A number of writers like to quote Knud Rasmussen’s interviews with Aua, the Eskimo shaman. All the overview author’s pay Aua homage and weigh in with his story of how he learned his song. He seemed to have been in some sort of extremis one day when he saw a little shore bird called an aua, whereupon the man fell into an ecstatic rapture and spontaneously composed his power song. I could, as they say, relate to that.

Years ago as a teenage hobo I was hitchhiking west after visiting a friend on the Rosebud rez in South Dakota. The scene was a backwater cross roads in the middle of Nebraska, in the middle of October, in the middle of an afternoon when the heat was unseasonable but had no sharp summer edges and it eased the time by as if were wide and deep. It was a recently harvested landscape with stubbled ochre horizon hills and yellow cottonwoods mid-distance. There I pulled myself up into the cab of an 18-wheeler and settled in. I had just scored a ride almost all the way home. The driver waited for some traffic to pass, dropped in the gears and bore down on the fuel. The trailer was overloaded so the tractor dropped back hard on the rear axles, roared and quaked, hammered against the inertia and surged out onto the blacktop. All that power trying to propel all that steel vibrated up from the ground through me to the heavens and I went into an ecstatic trance. It was not the first time, mystic that I was even then. But it had a memorable feature, for rising with that power came a song that was being composed down around my root chakra. It had no words but it was full of words I had never heard. They sounded through my heart and I let them go silent just short of my tongue. I had just enough presence of mind to keep them to myself lest I raise some alarm in the driver. That song rolled along with me for 30 or 40 miles and then faded at about 4 o’clock.

Years went past, and then some more, 30 maybe, all in all.

We were reading one night at the behest of Roberto his sampling of shamanic literature. We had just finished Michael Harner’s recipe for locating a power animal spirit guide and I said to myself or perhaps even out loud that someday I might give that option another try. “Or maybe I’ll dream about it.”

Probably a little before sun rise the next morning I found myself at the wheel of a great blue, road machine. It looked like a state of the art, 62′ Kenworth. The engine was revving only a little higher than idle but we were passing everything on the road. We stopped on the top of a hill to help out some folks who were broken down or lost. Then we roared on toward Ethete (e-thu-tee), Wyo., a settlement only 16 miles away that was by all reasonable means of calculation the Center of the Universe.

I never saw that truck again in a dream or journey or vision. I do not think I ever needed to. It dropped its one-time word, hopefully on a wise mind and went away. In brief that dream told me what a power animal was about. That Kenworth did not expect me to cultivate a relationship with it and I felt likewise. (I did however paint a stylized KW grill emblem on the head of a hand drum)

It has been an awfully long time since I found a Kenworth rig to be compelling. I drove one for a while. It was boring work; it made my haunches ache, pushed out too much noise and it smelled badly. But I know from a truly visceral apprehension all the power of that truck. I have felt it in my hands, perceived it through the soles of my feet. It is not a matter of theory or suggestion or a notion of which I had merely read. It was power that I was able to contain and direct, no mystery about it. It was a fact out of the everyday.

There are, no doubt, people who have seen more serpents in the daylight jungle than they have seen Kenworth trucks. They might have dealt directly with those serpents, held them in their hands and felt those vitalized wires of muscle working just below the patterned skin. To them the serpent has no mystique. They know that power because they have held it. This is a part of those people’s life, the same old same old of every day. For these people the serpent holds no mystery.

But I have known people who have only seen a serpent in the jungle when that jungle was a journey and their ticket there was a drug or a drum. And they found it such a powerful and compelling illusion they made it their tutor and a guide to which they were willing to subordinate themselves. They are drawn to this numen like Rumi was compelled to tumble for Shams of Tabriz, or like soul mated lovers bonded by MDMA. I think the seduction lies in The Mystique of the Other that compelling deceptive mind obscurant of pure power, love, enlightenment, instinct, godliness–pick your value–that one believes that one has not but the Other does. Being held in the magical thrall of the Other is rich with the irony of being trapped in the thick brilliant dazzle of a bank of backlit fog; everything is light, nothing can be seen. There is a quality about mystique that can defraud the faithful into believing they are well versed on something about which they know progressively less and less, thus the entire relationship derives more from suggestion, projection and self-fulfilling expectation than the natural experience that falls out from all that is in a day’s work.

The last story is about the Other. It is a cautionary tale concerning a crocodile I once knew despite my contrary instincts in the Out There.

IV

Stalked by Other, Proving a Rule

Another end of another inconsequential dream: The action has played out and I was walking away down a suburban street. That was when I encountered the crocodile. It raised its head and shoulders tall and said hello. I returned the greeting and we sidled around one another like any other pair of strangers who meet in narrow straits. It was a curious sequence and went largely forgotten.

A couple of years later I was invited by an artist-shaman Ross LewAllen, to help him and a handful of others undertake a set of vision journeys done to drums. A friend and client of his was prospecting to open some socially responsible enterprises and needed additional visions, inspirations and advice to round out the business plan. It was an all day situation. There was a canoe journey on the agenda early in the afternoon. Because of where I was sitting in the circle vis-a-vis the shape of the room I was made the prow of the canoe. The others lined themselves out in an ellipse, the client lay amidships and if memory serves, Sandra Ingerman drummed.

We left the embarcadero in darkness but soon we were gliding down this too wide and too deep slow moving river. It was muddy. We passed a wooded island 25 yards to lee. A man ambled from the trees, down the mud flat to the water where he turned into a crocodile and swam out. It was the crocodile I knew from before, the one I’d last seen in the suburbs. If this was a crocodile swimming out to see me, I suspected I was close to the jungle. Was I in the wrong place? Would there be crow to eat?

He slipped along side and drifted with us. We exchanged greetings and he said it was good to see me again. I had to agree. If I was going to be stuck in a jungle journey it was better to be with someone I knew, even if it was an animal. I wondered if he had turned traitor to the others, or was this a trick.

“What are you doing around here?” the crocodile asked.

“We’re just working on this shaman’s canoe thing for the guy back in the boat,” I told him.

“Oh.”

The crocodile lifted up out of the water and studied the client. He must have noticed the man had not missed a meal any time in the long-term memory.

“Hey, why put yourself out for him? Why don’t you let me have him for lunch and then you can go on home.” The crocodile was about half serious.

“That would not be courteous,” I said. “He is our host today after all.”

“Hmm.”

We glided in silence for a while. And then we heard the roar of a waterfall, a mammoth waterfall.

“I think we’re coming to the edge of the world,” I said, “its part of the routine.”

“Oh. You going to go on over?

“I don’t know. It’s all up to that woman with the drum.” I told him. “If she starts going fast we turn around. If not, we’ll get really wet.”

“Hmm.”

We glided again in silence. Then I said, “This isn’t your show, you know. You don’t have to come along.”

“Yeah. But it’s something to do.”

“It is at that.” I was beginning to like this crocodile a lot.

We didn’t say anything after that because we were both psyching up for the ride. But then the drum sounded fast, and we turned and booked it back up stream. When we passed the island the crocodile cut away from the canoe.

“See you.”

“Take care.”

He clambered up onto shore, changed into a man and ambled into the trees.

All together it was a decent enough standard kind of journey, though it wasn’t much help to the client and I had to wonder: how quasi could have been the trance? On what level could it have been contrived? I never saw the crocodile again, but read up on his power in the ethereal zoology texts. Crocodile: little more than instincts bundled in fashionable skin; the epitome of the reptilian brain; does all the heavy lifting as regards its food supply underwater. Myth crocodiles are to rivers what myth snakes are to dry land. Fine, but I never saw him again.

Two years later I was working up to send out some exorcising energies to someone over quite a lengthy distance. It was not a spontaneous exercise. I had planned this one though I felt a little instinctual resistance to making art in this manner from a cookbook. It was almost nightfall on the mountain where I’d gone to first begin gathering at a rock outcrop alter. It was a good crew I managed to recruit, some of the wild hunt and some mountain spirits and local gods. (5) But there was some gender imbalance; it was too weighty on testosterone. I needed indefatigable female madness. One of the more raging phases of Kali would fit in well. So when I headed back down the mountain I kept shouting for her. And then I came to one of those strange places in the forest where, one theorizes, the force of a thunder storm had whipped up a short lived funnel cloud that had torn out all the trees in an acre or two. Big ponderosas and spruce and aspen, three feet, four feet in diameter were uprooted and scattered and twisted together. If Kali, in the aspect I’d like to see, could be found it would be in this patch of utter destruction. I stopped where the branches of an aspen were so ensnared in the roots of a pine I could barely tell one from another. Into that tangle I yelled “Kali!” There was no sundown wind, no motion of anything anywhere except back in the darkness of those roots and limbs one of them broke and dropped to the ground. Like years before, I howled raving thanks. One must never forget passion in the presence of Kali.

Then I strode on down the mountain with the idea I had done as well as I ever could have that evening. Near the end of this trail I was following, just before it reaches the road, there is a sharp bend. And just before that bend I suddenly felt like I was someone’s prey. Into the bend I turned quickly around to see who was behind me. A man was walking down the trail, about 25 yards back. He grinned and disappeared, but I knew him. It was the second open-eyed hallucination I’ve experienced in my life, something I have never even had with the use of entheogins. The last time I had seen that guy he was ambling up the mud flats from the river toward the trees. That evening on the mountain I urged him to go on with the rest of that desperado band I’d conjured. He could class up their act and it was after all, something to do.

I have never seen him again, but then I have never seen anything in that strata of reality happen twice the same way. However, I have reason to believe that he stayed behind and in fact the whole wild bunch never traveled far if it managed to make any distance at all. The entire attempt of that evening was a failure. Nothing happened, nothing was exorcised. There is often in these practices a sense that can distinguish a hit or a miss at the instant of action, before the objective results are in, like a good basketball player will often know as the ball leaves the fingertips whether or not they have scored. I felt nothing either way; it was all a profound misfire. When that was apparent I realized I had subverted the essential authenticity because everything I sent out that night had the image of an Other. And with every such contrivance there was a resultant dilution of the passion and the will. Just as in the suspicious canoe journey, that crocodile and his two-legged manifestation had images of Other; something they were not.

Finally, perhaps 18 months later, it came circling around again in a dream of a river, again wide, deep and warm. I slipped down off the bank and dove with no snorkel, no tanks. There was the dream outline of a supermarket on the bottom, no walls, no windows, just a steel stud framework. I needed to stop by for some groceries so I slid in through the transom over the doors.

Notes for Infidels:

–Add “Integration” to the list.

1. Passion

2. Authenticity

3. Integration

–Idea for a tee shirt:

BE THE NEST

THERE IS NO OTHER

* * * * * *

Endnotes

(1) Later all three of us noted the heavy imposition of flash-backed DMT visuals. This was no surprise because each of us had, months before, been selected, based on histories and the apparent strength of our psyches, to be part of the 11-member vanguard test pilot cadre on which was standardized the dosages and protocols for Dr. Rick Strassman’s pioneering and now famous DMT studies.

(2) I find the writers who bemoan the mechanized cultural influences that keep us exiles from Eden tend to make everyone a victim of equal degree. When they write something like “We of the rationally indoctrinated West…” they mean WE! This is I believe in error and suggest that those who are less likely to be gulled by their culture do not advance nearly as far as the softer marks through the cultures indoctrination centers and are thus more likely to be flying casually disaffected under the cultural radar and less likely than the softer marks to end up writing cranky, scholarly works indicting the culture that defrauded them.

(3) Early the next morning I saw exactly the same sight; our host’s young son, a boy of the same size and hair color, swinging at the same cadence and at the same height from the branch of a tree. What I had learned from many precognitive dreams was that such a brief, incongruous glimpse of a small attraction to come in the daylight quite often was a signal to pay extra attention to the significance of the dream, or in this case, journey.

(4) Long before my introduction to ayahuasca we had an occasion to consume a substantial amount of what the mycologist R. Gordon Wasson theorized to be the Soma of Rg Veda note. As a result my partner and I, being totally naive as to the nature of the stuff which had come to us with few instructions as a gift, were in a deadly serious, semi-ambulatory coma and near death state for the next 12 hours, a state that came complete with the requisite NDE vision. (Mine was of a modern Vahlhalla, into which the Lord of Death said that I, having passed a couple of killer ordeals, could now come and go as I pleased.) After this experience we got around to finding out what we had done and read where Wasson wrote that Soma was highly prized by shamans in Central Asia. He quoted one as testifying a shaman only had to do it once. Another said that if a person survived the initial meal of Soma it meant that person was a born shaman. I took all of that to be legend at best. But what I found to be worth a great good laugh was when I read the line that was the first mention of (the god) Soma in the Rg Veda:

                “We have drunk the Soma and we are gods.”

               Ayahuasca just can’t stand up to that kind of rhetoric.

 

(5) Those who are unfamiliar with the latter two are referred to Journey to the West by Wu Cheng-en. After finishing all four volumes one will never have to read another book.

                                                                                              Bibliography

Abram, David; The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, NY, 1997.

Eliade, Mercia; Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, Translated by Philip Mairet, Harper Torchbooks, NY, 1975

Shamanism, Archair Tecnhiques of Ecstasy, Translated by Willard Trask, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, 1976.

Kalweit, Holgar; Dreamtime and Inner Space, Translated by Werner Winche, Shambala Publications, Boston, 1988.

Shamans, Healers and Medicine Men, Translated by Michael H. Kohn, Shambala Publications, Boston, 1992.

Larsen, Stephen; The Shaman’s Doorway, Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT.

Wasson, R. Gordon, Soma, Harcourt Brace Javonovich, Inc. NY, (1971)

Wu Cheng-en; Journey to the West, (Vols. I – IV), Translated and Edited by Anthony C. Yu, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977-1983

Author

Steven Nickeson lives with his wife in Los Teques, Miranda, Venezuela, where he works as an artist-blacksmith and writer and practices a reasonable amount of sorcery. Like all other common human beings in the world he can be found on Face Book.


It is About Writing

I think it was James Michener, a solid craftsman who once wrote a beautiful novel called The Fires of Spring, and also once said that few aspirants really want to be writers, but everyone wants to have been a writer. Well, as they say, I’ve got mine, Jack. I’ve been a writer. I made a fairly decent living off of this talent for 15 years but it was never enough. By that I don’t mean the money—no matter the income, it is never enough. What I mean is that being a writer was never enough.

There is a passage on this blog in which I once wrote:

“Note—Wholeness. Born from the stuff of world, the Whole Being freely wanders waist deep within it, fulfills all the world stuff, all the stuff required; no resource ignored, no faculty unindulged. There’s this memory…Max’s Cafe, Nashville, TN, I’m with two other writers and a photographer and the three of them are talking about the photographer’s curious times with Ali in Zaire, but I’m flirting with the only waitress around who still has all the teeth one is be able to see. She’s flirting back from behind the counter. She used to run with the Texas song writer who’s at a table between me and her and she and I are feeling deliciously brassy but he’s feeling badly left out and dangerously Texan; looking huesos at me as they say in the north. He’d written, maybe not too long before, a line that sang thus: “Too far and too high and too deep ain’t too much to be. Too much ain’t enough…”

The Iron Rule of Sociology says there are always two kinds of people: “Some who do, and some who don’t.” I quit writing because I found writing to be a passive occupation. Those who don’t, like Faulkner, kept on and lived out of their heads and all the bottles they bought along the way. There are two kinds of writers. There are those who are true writers like Faulkner. And then there are those who are ego writers and do it for secondary needs and cheap gain. They, like Freud said, don’t write out of deep psychological needs, but to attract money and beautiful lovers. It is probably the closest thing Freud ever came to hitting the truth.

Passive writers, honest writers, write out of the need to come from their imaginations and splash fantasies that are big or small or domestic or full-bodied grandiose or work-a-day humble and serviceable to their work-a-day little readers. Ego writers say, “I did this so I could write about it and make a little money and pick up a lover or two along the way to the bank.” Ernest Hemingway was an ego writer, the ultimate high/low was Hunter Thompson. But I should not be so cynical. Hemingway could never write about war (Thompson never came close) like George Orwell wrote about war in the book “Homage to Catalonia” said to be the finest book about war ever written. Orwell was a closet ego-writer whose book about the Spanish Civil War never was eclipsed by any of his other works except the essay “Politics and the English Language,” which is, I think, the most artful, most insightful piece of English writing from the 20th Century. Nonetheless, as much as I respect Orwell, there is a dishonesty about being an Ego Writer and not being up front about it.

In 1974 I was given a nation-sized prize for investigative journalism, a calling that is about damned hard writing, down to the ground creativity under the gun of The Man. And it was not long after that I knew it was not enough because honest writing is passive no matter how creative the approach, no matter how creatively one attunes to the truth. I could not do passive and so I switched out and got licensed to be a private investigator—an adrenaline rush is more toward having enough and I didn’t have to sit on my ass for the next six months writing about it. An old friend of mine said once, “Of course you became a PI because it gave you something to write about.” To which I thought, “No, it just gets things closer to the bone than writing ever will.” I have only written once, one little essay out of 18 years of material, about just a fraction of those 18 years.

Except for that essay and a sentence here and there, succumbing to the lure, I have yet to be an ego writer, and so I chose not to be a writer at all. I am a blacksmith. Writing is easy, an easy ego boost, I wrote this little piece off hand, half distracted by country music, half-drunk on absinthe. Smithing is hard and there is no equivocation about what comes out as the final works on a piece of steel. Words invite equivocation like whores on the street. If one’s writing is easy it will never be honest. (I hope y’all got the irony of that last little line slipping under the lesson,)


The Tolerable Pain At Easter

(Munins’s Song that Day)

God, god you’ll never like this rhythm…
But its not the kind to cost an eye.

Tight it lodges in there, up behind the soul,
Then left about a thumb, maybe the width of a thumb,
Wedged in there is the tolerable pain.
Joints complain in snow and cold,
But Easter’s the time of the tolerable pain.

Rise, Rise, Rise again,
Rise aching, twist and spin.
Dream the comeback.
Reawaken in the toss of this sweet chinook.

Attis will, his annual want, soon be getting wed…
a gift?
I think we’ll send him something sharp, and hey,
They say Ol’ Jesus has come to town,
From out in the tulies so far, so long,
Been riding that circuit     so long.

Disguised tonight, tricked out as memory
(and croaking–ah me–)
The tolerable pain grows ripe to rise
As did we all back when black as pitch and green as grass
Built ourselves so late at night
Around the hooking, honeyed tang of riddles never figured.
Lilac mysteries.
Nighthawk booming problems
and fumbled lace conundrums never solved.
Dreams cadabrahed into dreams,
a year or two, a lifetime, after lace.
This being the work of a witch,
(older, far older, and pulling away from sweet Lacy)
A rich, wise, downy witch…
I was merely  the familiar of her cotten washed to velvet,
And the shawl that hung just so;
Over down around her elbows, slung above calico hip.
Lilac shawl, I’d say silk.
Yellow cotton, calico washed to velvet.
She put tonic in tall glasses and sandals on new grass…

Green?
Not so much, but, well, then again…green.

Masked as memory the tolerable pain makes second, third,
The annual coming.
Not Attis’ pain, not yet that mad,
But a warm, hooking, honeyed tang that bites the throat,
Then seeps away never daring to state a name.

Next, Father, Mother, Daughter, Son march out as cure to the tolerable pain. I watch and they stride this meadow. Father in three pieces, wing tips, tie up high and tight, brought into the Methadyrian Holy Family Church today a brief case containing chinos and a powder blue polo confection on that note there’d be a picnic later (and a decent place to change). He also owned in there a pee-bee-and-jay that he couldn’t face on Friday, but was afraid to throw away. Father marched this meadow as if to be medalioned.

Mother and Daughter marched up there too in practical wool blends of hounds tooth pastel and pastel plain. The two were nothing if not determined, having so much more to prove. There in church, the two–Mother, Daughter– summed less than one.

And the Son?

Somewhere that Kid had ditched his rags, he didn’t have a stitch. But he didn’t have a full years age so no one was going to make a scene. And no one else was there but me and them and though I wasn’t going to spill it, I thought I’d spotted a faun, all eyes and ears and trembling tail, snuggled low in last year’s tallest grass. Faun lay there as if he knew the value of being rare and was not just saving self for self, but saving a public treasure. Of the four, the Kid was the only one who saw. What surprise is there in that? He shrieked and pointed and toddled off, combed his toes through too much grass, toppled and mooned the sky. The faun froze. The Kid closed in, thumped to his knees, giggled and reached out and touched an ear, shrieked, wiggled closer to stare back into an eye. The Kid giggled once again, struggled up and danced in place.

When he saw that for all intents it was just him and The Kid in the grass and me on the towering rock, the faun stood too and sang:

Rise, rise, rise again,
Rise Child, twist and spin.
Blow a breakdown. Make a hollar
On these green cut willow pipes…
I’ll dance to greet the tree.

Two days ago, it was just two days,
The cry went up, the shout rolled out
Across the blackened sea:
“The Great God Pan,
The Great God Pan,
The Great God Pan is dead.”

He’d only be in town a week,
And out in the boonies so far, so long,
Been riding that circuit    so long.

Leg righteous across the meadow,
Dauntless, face the sun…
The Son…? The Kid…?
Ah, it is much too late for such as The Kid.
He stayed on, became corrupted.
If The Three’ll think to miss him,
They’ll think it all the same
That he finally chose to stay here,
The new piper in this clearing,
To sing annual reports on the tolerable pain.

“The Tolerable Pain At Easter”
(The Kid’s Song that Day)

Spring roused smithy where sly-eyed rounders and overseeing fiends
Forge chains of words, steel, awakening veins
To string out across the air routes, down all those old fast roads,
Crowded lawns at sunset, steaming streets at dawn,
And every other common setting in every other common hour.
Chains bind the soul that sits out front
To all the mysteries and every stranger,
In all the haunted canyons where pilgrim bones are still linked up
And swinging on belay;
Shackles to lilac and lilac shawls, the witch’s lace bound daughter;
Myths, gods, fauns, and raven’s frauds,
The kid and his greenwood whistle.

Its only the smithy’s heat at Easter
That now is the source of the tolerable pain,
Where bright-eyed rounders, ironical fiends
Scream for fire, words and the kindling veins…

Scream, rise, rise, rise again
With rounders, fiends and the Tolerable Pain!