Goddess of the Sierras
WAXWINGS IN SYCAMORES
Near the bay window, Justin watched as the waxwings flitted in small flocks from sycamores on the easement to elderberry bushes overhanging the fence. Tails dipped in gold and wings splashed with red, the waxwings, voracious yet skittish, gorged on the berries and darted away at the slightest hint of trouble. The flocks had arrived over a week ago, yet Justin had not felt inspired to watch them for even a moment, before now. He had only made sure to park his new Prius in the driveway to avoid the usual rain of brownish purple droppings.
Having just turned the big Five-O, he no longer felt compelled to pay attention. People and jobs and birds came and went, without the least concern for his heart, so he had decided to master the fine art of detachment, a necessity for any occultist or renegade, and he was practicing even now as he observed the waxwings, the flocks acting with a single mind, the individual birds like loosely joined cells of a larger organism. He gazed beyond his modest neighborhood to Clinton Ave., where cars flowed in herds.
When he turned to the front door, the memory of Rebecca’s suicide attempt jarred him again. She had sprawled, convulsing in the doorway and slightly drooling, while neighbors, several of whom he had never seen before, hovered over her. Rebecca’s boyfriend had beaten and kicked the door and screamed her name over and over just after 10:00 p.m., waking Justin from a light sleep, and then the boyfriend started bleating that she had taken some pills. Jack, their twenty year old neighbor from across the street, awkwardly shook Justin’s hand and assured him that Rebecca was going to be okay. “I love you guys. You know that. I’ve been trained as an EMT and I know she’s going to get through this. Your daughter’s going to be okay. I wouldn‘t lie to you.” (He had been losing at "Beer Pong" all afternoon and evening.)
Justin suddenly wondered if anyone had called 911, then dashed through the living room, searching frantically for the phone, racing back to his daughter’s room, where both house phones often ended up. Her bedroom door locked, Justin flung himself at the middle, the weakest part, which only cracked a little. “Where the hell is the phone?” he yelled hoarsely as he flew through the house, out the back door to enter her room from the outside. He found the phone on its stand and dashed down the hallway to discover that one of his neighbor’s had already called 911 on her cell phone, and his wife had also called on one of the house phones that she had found hidden in the couch cushions.
Jack continued to reassure Justin, a little too effusively, until the ambulance arrived a few minutes later. The EMT took one look at Justin’s daughter and stated flatly, “Oh, yeah, this is what happens.” As the EMT's were loading Rebecca on a stretcher, someone asked Justin if she was depressed. “No,” was all he could reply, realizing how utterly insensitive and stupid that sounded the second after the word left his mouth. He made an effort to convince the small crowd that she had seemed fine, really, but nobody appeared to listen. The boyfriend sat on the sidewalk in a neighbor’s lawn chair with his head between his legs.
Then Justin dashed back to his bedroom to dress. It was the beginning of fall, and suspecting that they were going to be in the hospital all night, he struggled to find, deep in the closet, a long-sleeved shirt, but none of them fit comfortably. Flustered, he grabbed one and ran out to the ambulance as the EMT's were about to drive away. He asked if he could ride with her; one of the EMT's replied coldly that he could but that they would prefer that he didn’t.
As if it were his fault. His daughter had not appeared to be the least bit suicidal, ever in the twenty years that he had raised her. When the receptionist finally allowed them to see her in the ICU, they found her on a stretcher bed in the hallway. One nurse, shifting on a blue, plastic chair, monitored three patients; one, a sixteen year old girl, was sleeping off booze and drugs, the other, an older man, was suffering pains in his chest and arm. Rebecca’s bed was tilted in the upright position. She leaned back, unable to articulate a word, her mouth and eyes wide open. She appeared cognizant of her surroundings, occasionally muttering and pointing down the hallway, but the nurse said she was probably dreaming with her eyes open, which Justin interpreted as a euphemism for “hallucinating.”
“Damn it,” he thought to himself as a waxwing managed to poop on his new car as it flew over. Why had she tried to kill herself? No explanation would ever suffice. In the hospital, Justin had stood over her when it was his turn to be in the hallway with her, holding her hand, saying that she was going to be all right over and over, imagining all the negative energy draining out of her body, and her aura filling with light. Around three in the morning, Rebecca pulled Justin over and kissed him on the cheek with her wide-open mouth, and then she made a sweeping gesture with her hand and mumbled, “I love everything.”
Justin, several times a day for the past three weeks, had experienced flashbacks of Rebecca convulsing in the doorway. Rebecca was “having problems” (nothing serious, that Justin could tell) with her boyfriend, and she worked the drive-through at KFC, but she had never seemed depressed, just uncommunicative, which he and his wife both had considered typical for a twenty-year-old trying to break away from her parents. Impulsive and unpredictable, Rebecca had never hesitated to resort to extreme measures when her emotions got the best of her, but, a suicide attempt, Justin suspected, was more than mere drama. A cry for help? The ultimate form of manipulation? He feared that they would never know for sure--or to be able to trust her again, in the most basic sense. Shivering, Justin suspected for a moment that he would never trust appearances of any kind ever again.
She had run away from home her junior year in high school after ditching class every day for two weeks with her best friend. A promising student in the Gifted and Talented Program, Rebecca had just given up on school without any warning, except for the decrease in hard liquor in the pantry, which Justin had noticed the day before he figured out that she was ditching. The weekend she ran away, Justin and his wife followed her cell phone records on the internet, tracking her to her friend’s grandmother’s house, where Rebecca had apparently spent the afternoon. The grandmother explained that Rebecca had told them that she had run away because Justin had “opened her legs.” Without saying a word, Justin and his wife got in their car and drove to another friend’s house. Nobody answered the door, but Justin intuited that she was in the garage, so he banged on the garage door for ten minutes telling her to come out. When he got back in the car, he slumped over the steering wheel, exasperated and exhausted, sleepless for thirty-six hours. His wife wanted to go home to get some rest since there was no sign of her, but Justin was determined to stay. A few minutes later, Rebecca stumbled out through the back gate and sheepishly got in the car. She was in her pajamas, carrying a pillowcase full of stuff.
The boyfriend, ah, yes, the boyfriend: Thirty years old, out of a job, and apparently with no ambition ever to find one, he and Rebecca lived in the back room of the house. Despite all of Rebecca’s ambitions to improve their living situation, the boyfriend made only the most minimal efforts. He composed “beats” on a "Fantom" keyboard for his rapper friends, who gave him alcohol but rarely paid him. According to Rebecca, he didn’t even care about the music; he just did it to make a few bucks now and then. Justin and his wife had given him four months to get a job or move out of the house. After he failed to find a job (half-heartedly looking now and then), he cut himself in the shower and ended up in the emergency room. Maybe Rebecca and her boyfriend were both people who, when pushed a little too much, would just give up, but Justin knew that, if her attempt was serious, there had to be more under the surface, and he knew it because of his own brush with suicide when he was seventeen. Justin had the feeling that he was partially responsible, even though he had never done anything inappropriate and had never harmed her even when she was being incorrigible. He believed he had always had her best interests at heart even when he was being tough on her.
Justin cringed, suddenly remembering a moment that had occurred over thirty years before, when he had opened the door for the policeman who would tell him that his father had died. He had never confessed that he had not acted grief-stricken when the policeman broke the news. It was "their" fault for sending an authoritarian figure to inform people about a tragedy, he had told himself. Fear was the normal reaction to a police encounter, not warm, fuzzy feelings.
Who could know some people are paid to step into a police uniform, ring the doorbell of a complete stranger, and announce that a person has died? Another failure of management: no one had told Justin that his dad was surf fishing at Morro Bay, which the policeman had announced as the place of death. His dad was only fifty-six years old and had never suffered a serious illness. Justin had just turned seventeen. Your father isn't supposed to die when you're seventeen.
A tiny irony: Justin up until that moment was convinced, despite everything, that he would get to know his father. So he said nothing to the policeman, who left no proof that his dad had died and no contact information, and Justin was almost sure the policeman had laughed a little under his breath while leaving, perhaps because Justin had not behaved like a normal person, perhaps from relief that no one had made a scene.
The body at the funeral home pasty, doll-like. Justin felt guilty that he had experienced no desire to sit with it, or to express anything. The time the body was in the funeral home, however, first laid out in a suit and tie on a single bed, then in a casket, had been his time to grieve. The funeral was over in a flash. A few comfortless words, some out-of-tune music. His family had been whisked away in a limo before witnessing the lowering of the casket into the ground. Justin had never ridden in a limo before, facing backwards.
No one mentioned the funeral afterwards, as though it were a disgrace (maybe he was the disgrace), but he was all right, he remembered thinking, not dying like so many in the starvation holocaust raging on other continents (even though enough food could be produced for everyone). No one in his family had been taken out and shot or hacked to death or tortured or thrown in jail. No one that day had hit him or called him a faggot or singled him out for ridicule. He had attended each class and turned in his work on time.
He had not talked to a single person that day, like so many other days since the funeral. When he had strolled across the quad to one of his classes, he had noticed a boy who might have once said hello. Justin for a moment had felt a surge of hope, believing that perhaps he could talk to another person for the first time in weeks, which might lead to an attempt at conversation and then possibly friendship (suddenly impossibly remote). They passed each other without a word, and Justin thought to himself as he was walking by the flag pole that he was exuding poison from a horrific purple and black aura that some people, maybe everyone, could sense, possibly even see, but no one would mention.
He had thought most people were indifferent to suffering, but now he could see people must have a sixth sense that enabled them to immediately detect suffering in order to avoid it. Maybe his abandonment was not a cruel conspiracy but the result of a highly evolved survival instinct. He would now be for as long as he could foresee without the inner resources or the willingness to become connected to anyone, even if that was possible for any length of time.
When he got home, the house felt empty again, but not, he remembered thinking, not empty of furniture, as if good furniture was all a family needed. The indifference to absence not his fault. His trophy meaningless, but still in its place. He should feel guilty that he didn't miss anyone--his mother at work until 5:00 p.m. or later, his brother who just moved away.
He stepped into the empty, hot garage and sat down on a ladder and looked around, noticing a rope coiled on the shelf above him. He took the rope down and threw it over a high beam. Since he didn't know any knots except the square knot even though he had once been in the boy scouts, he stood on the ladder and carefully wrapped it around the beam six or seven times, unable to concentrate long enough to make a knot.
He sat back down, his shoulders slumping. His mother wouldn't be home for another hour, at least. He couldn't feel anything besides an inability to focus, an inability that he knew he would not be able to overcome in the near future even in the most ideal conditions.
The rope was almost touching the floor, just hanging there, impossible to explain. The existence of reincarnation would make the choice easier, he thought; it would amount to the snuffing of an insignificant incarnation that had become too painful to bear. He recalled the time he had passed out on the lawn after suffering for many hours from an impossibly severe headache, so severe finally he thought he was dying. He had not risen above his body, experiencing bliss. He had experienced nothingness for however long he had remained unconscious. It could have easily been forever, which didn't mean anything. Nothingness was complete, so complete that there was nothing to recall, not time, not even nothingness.
His father's ghost, if one existed, had never visited him. No one had come to him with comfort and advice. Everything, which was not much after all, apparently, could easily, quickly dissolve into oblivion. He felt nothing, which seemed all wrong since the universe was about to disappear. How strange that the entire universe could disappear, stranger still to think that he had that much control over the universe, and even stranger that he felt nothing. If each conscious entity contains the universe, then the universe dies with each creature. How could the universe really exist if it vanishes after the last conscious entity dies?
He was not making the kind of sense that his mother or brother or any former friend would understand. Enough. He felt so angry that he stood on the ladder and wrapped the rope around his neck three times, which might just be enough, not that he really wanted to be sure. He hoped he wasn't going to get this right either, another indication that he was probably just a loser.
You should make one last try to think of something good, something that might make you want to stay alive, he thought, but could only remember playing water polo at school a few days before. A huge jock, who coincidentally was in his poetry class, had unexpectedly punched him in the face, claiming that Justin had grabbed his balls in a struggle over the water polo ball.
"Did you grab his balls?" the coach bellowed.
"No, I didn't," Justin replied, surprised at the slight, almost effeminate whine in his own voice.
The coach looked away, whispered to another coach, and then stood silently gazing at him. The bell rang.
The next day, as Justin was walking into the gym to dress out, he suddenly realized he was seven feet behind the jock who had punched him out, so Justin slowed way down. Another kid, who might not have been aware that Justin was nearby, called to the jock, "Hey, man, I heard you punched out one of those little faggots yesterday!" and gave the jock a high five.
Justin stopped dead in his tracks and then sat down on the bench outside, unable to believe that anyone at school could know. Could his friend have told anyone? Could his parents or his brother have told anyone? His father as a joke had once brought out to show the neighbors Justin's paintings of nudes. The neighbors had laughed at them and when they finally started talking about something else, his father gave Justin a disgusted look.
His brother had been present at the discussion, re: Justin caught naked with Charles. His father had asked if Justin was just experimenting. After all, his father remembered being on the farm when he was young and doing things with animals. Justin, who had beforehand broken into some vodka his father kept in the garage, couldn't keep from laughing, which Justin bitterly regretted. His brother could have told his friends, and they could have told their friends, etc.
His father died a week later. Another irony of fate. Charles contacted him by phone the day after Justin's father died, unaware of the circumstances. Charles asked if Justin could talk and said the worst was when the campus cops put them into different rooms and one of the phone lines lit up. Justin was silent. He couldn't help remembering at that moment how he had been unable to find his clothes when knuckles rapped on the fogged-over window of the pickup and then a circle of light moved across the glass. A voice said, "Get out of the truck, now. This is the campus police." Justin had the most difficult time in the dark finding his clothes and putting them on. The second worst thing: the cop proselytized him. Justin couldn't move from the office chair by the desk and only stared blankly at the cop, who said that he had seen many people like Justin who had ended up having really terrible things happen to them.
Justin broke the news about his father when Charles had stopped talking on the phone for a moment. After a long pause, Charles said, "I better go." Justin had not heard from Charles again.
Justin stepped off the ladder and dangled a few seconds before he felt that he was losing consciousness. He touched a rung of the ladder with his toe, found it briefly, and allowed himself to continue dangling, closing his eyes, surprised that he felt so little pain. Suddenly, he felt a force as if someone were pushing him up, back toward the ladder, and he placed his foot on the bottom rung. As he was unwrapping the rope, he doubted his choice because of an absurd and totally overwhelming urge to jack-off. He gazed out the window to make sure no one was watching.
Follow another scary trail.
Justin could relax the rest of the evening, sipping his wine in front of the television, after his ritual. Subbing for a "Fast Track" teacher at a middle school, though, had caused more than a little fatigue. In remedial classes, the vast majority of students were invariably hostile to authority, due, in part, to repeated failures. Even though Justin ruled with a heavy authoritarian hand in such cases, the students still found ways to undermine and abuse him. Justin knew all the right threats to keep them quiet, on the whole, but he had to pick his battles with the hard-core incorrigibles. In one class period, a student repeatedly pretended to cough to mask muttered obscenities while another quietly tapped beats on a desk top. In another, a student who sat in the back of the class made crazy hand gestures, some of which were undoubtedly obscene--all period. Justin turned his back for only a second after the bell rang and felt a sharp pain between his shoulder blades, a pink eraser suddenly hopping around on the floor. He had, nevertheless, managed to survive the day without sending one student to the office.
On days like this, he had to force himself to perform the ritual, but he cleaned the ashes from the black tablecloth with a damp paper towel, lit the white candle and the stick of sandalwood incense with a long, wooden match, and pressed the play button on the boom box. The first notes of a Celtic version of "Awesome God" drifted through the room, and Justin‘s consciousness immediately altered as he performed the kabalistic cross and imagined two pillars in the east, one black, one white, with the sun rising between them.
After performing the supreme invoking ritual of the pentagram and the middle pillar exercise, Justin invoked Isis, Thoth, and Osiris, their combined energies making his body tingle as he stretched out on the bed and slipped into a profound silence. In that timeless trance, he envisioned a golden, equal-armed cross floating in a deep-blue sky, a golden, truncated pyramid appearing beneath it, the cross suddenly surrounded by a bright circle of light. Justin usually felt nothing at first when he envisioned archetypal symbols (the feelings grew over time). He cleansed himself mentally with light, got up from the bed, and performed the lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram.
Justin sighed, realizing that the only way to be truly free of something was to stop resisting it, to detach from any desire for specific outcomes. Through his spiritual practices, Justin was beginning to achieve a state of radical innocence, free of attachment and desire. He responded to the phenomenal world, not from his lower personality, but from his soul; status, power, and money meant almost nothing to him anymore. He had exalted his consciousness beyond his ego to higher mental and spiritual states. The perfect soul, Osiris, had been murdered by Set and resurrected by Isis and Thoth so that now Justin lived as Horus, the falcon-headed, viewing the world from his higher self. Justin had become even more isolated, however, since the majority of people, it seemed, had little concern for the soul.
Taking a sip of wine, he remembered driving by a vineyard on his last day of work and feeling something that he could not put his finger on. Vines were glowing in the sun, swaying slightly in the breeze, and he suddenly knew the feeling: love. He loved the vineyards and the orchards even though the rich owned them all. He loved them because over the years he had connected with the Goddess, his heart chakra open to the vast, intelligent energy of the living cosmos. Social programming, responsible for the creation of the conditioned self, separated individuals from the Source and warped the life force. Without clearing the aura of negative energies on all levels to experience without distortion the most dynamic, powerful, creative force in the universe, people would continue to twist and pervert that force until the entire planet was destroyed, or they destroyed themselves or each other.
Justin closed his eyes. He slipped again into a timeless state and his whole being flooded with light. He silently scanned his aura and noticed blackness in his heart chakra, so he mentally drained the negative energy out through a hole in his back. Then he was filled with the most intense white light, and he became only a filament of light himself, the events of his past far away, like stories that he told himself over and over long ago. He was clean. Suddenly he envisioned the artificial elemental that he had created to take him on astral journeys: a fairy woman in a chariot pulled by two griffons, one black, the other light brown. Curious, he thought for a moment. Then he remembered that the elemental he had created was based on the archetype found in the tarot card “The Chariot,” a path on the Tree of Life.
In the chariot pulled by griffons Justin and the elemental ascended to a dark, raging sea, empty of time. Justin suddenly envisioned a tarot card entitled “The Vision of Sorrow,” the Three of Swords. Three swords impaled a strong, red heart, which floated among torn storm-clouds. The heart, strangely, wasn’t bleeding even though all three swords went through and through, one sword straight down, the other two crossing. They were in a spiritual sphere called Binah by the Qabalists, the "sphere" on the Tree of Life which is the root of form, known as the Heavenly Mother, the realm of the Celestial Goddess, the feminine side of the Universal Mind. All form emanated from Her, and that is why Justin encountered the vision of sorrow: all form was transient; all form must die within a universe constantly renewing itself. The image of the heart in its simplicity was beautiful, and Justin realized that sometimes the greatest growth and understanding and beauty came from suffering, the suffering which is at the heart of the mystery of life. Then he envisioned the Three of Cups, which showed three women dancing together with raised, golden cups, three muses of the inspired life. Without suffering, there could not be inspiration and beauty, his vision seemed to be saying; without the destruction of form, regeneration could not occur. Suddenly Justin imagined himself with head of a falcon, one eye the sun, the other the moon. He could not change the past or anyone else, no matter how much they were suffering, only himself in the present, but the mature response was compassion, no matter how irrational and destructive the behavior, since everything was connected at the most fundamental levels, compassion even for the people who try to destroy you, purposely or through rejection and indifference. Move from sorrow to compassion one degree at a time, if necessary, he thought.
Justin stood up and looked out the bay window at the sycamores on the easement, where the waxwings again were flitting to and fro. Sitting on the curb, a woman was smoking a cigarette. Ten years ago, after they had moved into the house, Justin had encountered the woman crossing the street as he was driving to the store. Thinking that she might be a neighbor, Justin smiled and waved at her, and she, almost overjoyed, smiled and waved back. As weeks passed, Justin realized that she must be homeless, haunting the neighborhood meth houses, one of which, Justin learned, was across the street, several houses down. The meth dealers had moved away after an explosion and fire several years ago, but the homeless woman returned now and then, sitting on the curb, rocking back and forth. Justin sighed. Even though he knew how to drain the negative energy from himself, he couldn’t help her. She would probably resent him or think he was crazy if he even tried to show her how to cleanse herself spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. He would never know or understand the troubles she had experienced, just as she would never truly understand his. He would probably never truly understand anyone else’s troubles for that matter. As Justin began pulling the curtain by hand across the bay window, the flock of waxwings exploded from the tree above the woman, rushing toward the sycamores across the street.
Enter a suite of enchantment.
Open a closet door.
Take an ancient path.