Destined for Limbo

It seems as if some of us are luckier than others. In my own case, I was born into a Catholic family, and as I was later informed, only baptized Catholics are able to get into heaven. Was it a mere accident of birth, or was I destined for heaven? I didn’t know the answer to that, but I was told that I had been baptized, and even though I could not remember the exact event, I did have a baptismal name to prove it.

Now all I had to do for the rest of my life was avoid falling out of the state of sanctifying grace (the prerequisite to enter heaven) by committing a mortal sin, such as murder, or masturbation, and that was it — I would be guaranteed a place in heaven forever after. That seemed easy enough — there was nobody I wanted to kill at the time, and the other thing, well, I had years to go before puberty, so no sweat!

At first I didn’t give the matter much further thought. Knowing I was safe was initially enough. Nor did the idea of spending eternity surrounded by other Catholics trouble me much at the time, because Catholics were all I knew. I went to a Catholic school, played in a Catholic playground, attended Catholic Church, and wasn’t even aware of how many non-Catholics there were in the world until I heard that there was a public school about a mile away, where all sorts of non-Catholic children went.

To my surprise, I learned that there were actually hundreds of them. Nobody talked about it at the time, but it seems that we were all part of the “Baby Boom” generation, and non-Catholics were avidly reproducing too, bringing lots of children into the world who would, alas, never be able to enter the gates of heaven. What a sorry state of affairs!

The more I thought about it, the more I began to pity these hopeless people. It just didn’t seem right that they were excluded from heaven, just because their parents didn’t belong to the one true religion. Finally, I asked my second-grade nun where the non-Catholics went after they died. She informed me that they either went to hell or else to limbo, if they were really good, like doctors or presidents for example.

Limbo, it was explained to me, was essentially a big waiting room that you could never leave. I imagined people sitting around, reading the same magazines over and over. Maybe they had a Coke machine, and soft piped-in music, like at the dentist office. Well, better than burning in the fires of hell, I figured, but look what they’re missing, what a shame!

When I finally met some non-Catholic kids at a baseball game, I was careful not to bring up the subject of their unfortunate destiny. Some of my Catholic friends tended to brag about it, but I figured, why rub it in? It was bad enough that they had to live a whole life, only to end up in a perpetual waiting room at best.

I thought about writing to their school, sending a lot of anonymous letters explaining the situation, in hopes that some would read and convert to the true religion. When I mentioned the idea to my parents, however, they advised against it. They suggested I wait until I was a bit older, and had a better handle on the intricacies of theological discourse.

Little did I realize at the time, but this one issue was to become a wedge in my childhood belief structure that would eventually culminate in my renunciation of the whole package. If one pillar of faith began to weaken, a total collapse was inevitable, because for me, it was a matter of all or nothing. The more I began to question the tenets of the system, the more I recognized the partial truths, ambiguities, or outright lies.

As time went on, I was to exchange one belief system for another, until I began to question the value of beliefs altogether, including the secular belief that my country was a bastion of liberty, and a force for truth and justice in the world. That’s all for another story, however. For now, let’s just say that I won’t be hanging around in a Catholic heaven once this life has run its course.

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My First Encounter with a Fascist

As I recall, I was generally a quiet and well-behaved child. I kept to myself, since I did not find the world of humans particularly appealing, and would often spend hours at a time in my backyard, looking at clouds and enjoying the subtle changes of light. Moreover, I had taught myself to read, thanks to a wonderful book series with which a family friend had graced us. It was called “My Book House”, edited by Olive Beaupre Miller, and that, combined with a set of Encyclopedias my parents had purchased, provided me with all the information I needed to get a sense of the world around me, as well as embark on frequent flights of fantasy via the legends of yore contained in the Book House series.

My maternal grandmother had gradually become something of an invalid, due to a frail heart, and lived with us for much of my early years. Besides my mother, she had another daughter in Seattle, and a son who served in Germany during World War 2, and who had remained in Austria after the occupation. He had married a woman who reputedly had been a secretary to Hitler in the Reichstag. Her first husband had been a German fighter pilot who had been killed shortly after they were married, and she apparently found in my uncle a sense of security after the Nazi dream collapsed.

When I was about 5 years of age, my uncle and his wife visited us in San Francisco. Her english was still rather tentative, and I had a difficult time understanding her. Nevertheless, both my parents were working, and so when Aunt Elfreda indicated that she wanted to go downtown shopping, it was suggested that she take me along for the trip (perhaps to give my grandmother a break from baby-sitting). In any case, it was to be one of the strangest adventures of my young life. As soon as we were on the bus, for example, I was rudely grasped by the neck and forced down into a seat, as if I couldn’t figure out the bus protocols by myself.

As we traveled downtown, she didn’t speak a word to me, which gave me time to look out the window and take in the various city scenes, which was enjoyable enough, but when we finally arrived at our destination, I was to learn more than I needed to know about my aunt’s child-management style. At the front of the store was a long heavy metal chain that was used to lock up the shopping carts in the evening. My aunt immediately took the chain and tied me up, wrapping it around my neck, chest, and mid-section. She then gave me a hard look, told me not to move, and then wandered off to do her shopping.

I stood there for quite some time, until a store employee found me and removed the shackles. They asked me who had done this, and I replied that Aunt Elfie was responsible. They then made a call over the public address system, and Elfie eventually made her way to the booth at the front of the store where I was waiting. She exchanged loud but unintelligible words with the employee, then grabbed me by the neck again and stormed out of the store.

On the bus home, I could feel the rage simmering in my Aunt, and wisely said nothing. Once home however, I reported the whole incident to my parents. I am not sure what transpired later between Aunt Elfie and my folks, but within a few days my Aunt and Uncle had departed, and no mention of them was made for quite some time to come.

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The Judge and the Gypsy

(A true story)

The road into this town is worse now than the last time I passed through here. My wagon hitched behind me bounces over the rocks and pits, and I’ll be lucky if I don’t break an axle. It’s 1534 in the year of our Lord, and I’m a traveling judge, making my rounds within this district, holding court in village after village, dispensing justice according to the laws of the land.

As I near the town, I notice a young gypsy women staring at me from the doorway of her hut. Something about her catches my eye, a kind of familiar quality that stirs something within me. Perhaps I recognize her from the last time I came through here. No matter, I have work to do, and I proceed on.

Once in town, I meet with the local authorities to discuss the cases I will be hearing. There are the usual collection of domestic disputes, thievery, drunkenness, and one murder over property. One by one I hear the cases and pass judgment as best as I am able, and after a week of work I am paid my fee — in this case bread, cheese, dried meats, wine, flour, salt, sugar, and a few gold coins. There is little wealth in this town, and I accept the meager compensation, visit the blacksmith to have my wagon checked, and then depart for the next town.

A few miles out of town, I hear a girlish giggle coming from my wagon. I turn around, only to find that young gypsy woman hiding under some blankets in the back. She is poking her head out now and laughing lightly, amused at my surprised expression. I stop the wagon, but as I am about to order her out, she speaks up in that strangely familiar way that stops me in the act. “Don’t you recognize me?” she asks. “Perhaps” I reply, “but from when?” “This is not our first life together, my Love!”

I was struck by the intimacy of her response, “my Love”. My mind was in a tumble, I suddenly couldn’t think straight. Who was this woman? I came around to face her directly. She climbed out of the wagon to face me. “Don’t you remember now?” As I gazed into her mesmerizing eyes, my mind sped backward to another time, not this life at all, but I was gypsy wanderer who came upon a camp. There I fell in love with a beautiful women, and soon we could not be pulled apart.

Then I saw other lives in which we had been together, going back in time further than I could say. Once I was a hermit in the land of reindeer, and I found her in the snows one fateful day. I was a skilled magician then, and I taught her everything that I knew. Now she was touching a place between my eyes with her finger, and the present swam back into view.

I staggered on my feet, and she handed me a cup of wine. I drank it down in one swift gulp, then took her in my arms as she laughed joyously. We traveled together back to my small castle, where we later had two mischievous children, and we all lived long lives together in great happiness, and eventually grew rather fat.

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Piano Bear

We walked into a lounge in dreamland. At the piano was a bear, dressed in a tuxedo and top hat. He was grinning as he sang one of the old songs. He looked right at us but kept his paws on the piano. “Play us a song, you’re the piano bear!” I heard those lyrics in my head, but wisely I refrained.

I looked over to you. You were enchanted by the scene. You said, “Look, it’s a bear. Look at the bear!” I turned back, and now people had gathered around the piano, and the bear was the center of attention. He looked quite dapper, as if wearing a tuxedo and top hat came naturally to him.

We joined in the song, everyone singing along enthusiastically, as if nothing else really mattered, not the politics, not the disasters, not our past or what may come — just fully present with the bear, the piano, and the song. I didn’t care that it was a dream, I didn’t care that bears don’t play in piano lounges, it was enough to just sing along

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First Day of Kindergarten

Today was 5 year old Ryder’s first day of Kindergarten, and she was definitely looking forward to it with happy anticipation. I was reminded of my own first day, which turned out to be something of a catastrophe. For starters, both of my parents had gone to work early that day, and so left the task of delivering me to school to my Grandmother, who was living with us then. Apparently, she was not clear about the starting time, and so when she finally got me to the Catholic School at the top of the hill, the schoolyard was empty, and all the students were already inside at their respective classes.

There was a chain link fence (about 5 feet tall) which separated the kindergarten play area from the rest of the schoolyard, and now its gate was locked. After pondering the situation for a moment, my grandmother hoisted me up over the fence, and dropped me down on the other side. There was a big stairway leading up to a door, so she told me to climb the stairs and open the door. I complied, unsure of what to expect on the other side.

When I opened it, I saw a classroom with about 40 children sitting silently at desks, and a large nun dressed in black robes, with a black and white helmet-like contraption on her head, at the front of the room. I had never seen such a being, and I froze on the spot. Then I looked back at my grandmother, but she was already walking away. “So, this is how it’s going to be . . .” I thought to myself.

Suddenly I had to pee, but I knew this was not a good time, so I held it. Immediately the frightening nun swooped down on me, grabbed me roughly by the hand, pulled me to an empty desk near the back of the room, and scolded me for my late arrival. Then she demanded I say my name. I did so, and she repeated it loudly for the whole classroom to hear. Next she placed a piece of paper in front of me. It was a picture of Jesus, I was informed, and I was supposed to color it in with the crayons provided me at the desk. I stared at the picture for a moment, trying to decide what colors would look the best. I chose green, because it looked fresh, like the foliage over in near-by Golden Gate Park, where I liked to play.

As the nun made her way up and down the rows of desks, examining the various portraits the other children had composed, she eventually stopped in front of my desk and, snatching up my painting in disgust, held it before the class and exclaimed, “Who would be stupid enough to paint Jesus green?” The other children stared at me, some with smirks, some in horror, and some with looks of pity.

I did not know any of these people, I did not know what the woman in the costume was supposed to represent, but I sensed immediately that this was not for me — the whole scenario. Consequently, for the next several years, I dutifully attended classes, but my attention was elsewhere. I taught myself to read and learn about the world with the Encyclopedia set my parents had acquired, I played the games with the others out in the schoolyard, but I had turned off the various teachers, and instead spent my class time gazing out the windows, waiting for the bell to sound which announced the end of class for that day. Little did I realize it at the time, but this experience was to set the tone for the rest of my life in regard to my relationship with “authority”, whom I have barely tolerated for the most part.

 

First day of Kindergarten

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Eclipse at the Doctor’s Office

We’ve heard it said by mystics and acid heads alike: “There is only God!” Those who have been granted the vision, whether natural or chemically induced, claim that only one being is playing all the roles on this stage we call “The World”. Although we might scratch our heads in wonder at the infinite variety of acts which play themselves out over the course of time, many of the theatrical themes which seem to most prominently ensue might be characterized by the so disposed as “Black Comedy”.

Just so, as the current script unfolded, I had been scheduled to appear for a medical review on the same day, and at the same time, as a once-in-a-century solar eclipse would be taking place in the sky. Millions of versions of God were up on the stage, gazing in wonder through telescopes, cameras, and a variety of protective glasses as the moon blotted out the sun, and I sat in the doctor’s waiting room, dutifully playing my part in the production.

On the other side of a partition dividing the waiting room from the staff, I overheard one office person say to another: “I read that if you look at the sun during the eclipse, it can burn your eyes!” Soon enough, the other person got up and went outside. A minute later, she staggered back in. “I think I burnt my eyes, I can’t see anything!”

On the one hand, it was fortunate that we were in a doctor’s office. On the other hand, he is a Urologist, so perhaps not the kind of doctor best suited to treat temporary blindness due to stupidity. Just then, a nurse appeared and led me to another room where I was to see the doctor. A brief medical discussion followed, for which my insurance company would be billed an exorbitant fee.

Later, on my way home, I was careful not to look up, although I read later that the current President of the United States had been gazing at the eclipse without glasses too, which offers more proof, if any further examples are needed, that the old cliche is true enough: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

 

eclipse

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Noise

Over the course of the week, a persistent hacking cough had gotten steadily worse. Early Monday morning, I awoke at about 3 AM and realized I needed to get professional medical help, so reluctantly I drove myself down the local hospital Emergency Room. I was certainly having an emergency, and so things coincided perfectly in that respect.

Once the requisite tubes were attached and my medical insurance information reviewed to determine how the services were going to be paid for, an attending physician came in to discuss my condition. Apparently, my lungs were producing sounds comparable to milk over Rice Krispies, but amplified to the theater sound version. Furthermore, a check on my oxygen levels prompted the doctor to assume a rather stern expression. He leaned closer and told me that he had an important question to ask me. “My favorite kind,” I smiled back.

He solemnly inquired as to whether I had an “Advanced Health Care Directive”. The hospital wanted to know what to do with the body if it fell into a vegetative brain-dead coma. I indicated that I did not want to be rendered a vegetable, as much as I appreciated their place in the food chain. If not, he suggested that I had better submit the necessary paperwork. I had been informed about this on previous visits, but now, as I approach ever closer to that great awaiting compost bin, I decide to comply with the paperwork request and ask for the forms.

Without much further delay, I find myself being wheeled down several hallways towards the main hospital area, where I am finally situated in a room to participate in another adventure with my old lung friend, Bronchial Pneumonia. It had transitioned from viral to bacterial, and was now preparing to reveal further lessons about the nature of this fragile and transient embodiment for my ongoing edification.

Everyone here is very nice. We all have our jobs to do. Today, mine is to be a sick patient, while others get to be doctors and nurses. We mostly take our assumed roles seriously, as one would expect from seasoned actors. The nurses are especially wonderful, demonstrating that hospitals may be one of the last institutions in America where angels gather to ply their trade. Nevertheless, a lot of goodwill can be blown during the night by their thoughtless exchanges of noisy chit chat and personal gossip which echo down the ward corridors while patients are attempting to sleep. More on that later.

In the meantime, it seems to me that excessive amounts of my blood are being drawn, and before long my arms look like those of a heroin addict. The thought briefly crosses my mind that a portion of that blood is intended to feed the pale, long-toothed lab techs who labor, protected from the sun’s threatening rays, in windowless basement rooms. Clearly, I have watched too many horror movies in my time, but still . . .

Some visionaries report that souls from across the multiverse come here to enjoy the exotic experience of being humans on Earth during this momentous time. As midnight on my first night approached, I discovered that the person sharing the room with me may very well have originally hailed from Planet Tweak. The characterization of a Tweaker generally refers to someone who uses powerful stimulants like methamphetamines, and who can often be found absorbed in strange schizophrenic-like activities which they determinedly pursue 24/7 without pause for sleep or even nourishment.

On the other side of the separating curtain, my room-mate was busy making all sorts of noise. It seems that he was intent on deconstructing the hospital tray table. Eventually, I inquired as to his rationale for embarking on this venture in the middle of the night. He replied that he was trying to reduce the table’s size in order to fit it under his bed. He continued on with the racket until his attention was attracted by a small bedside fan. He first turned the fan on the lowest setting, then switched it to medium speed, and finally to high, whereupon he reveled in the whine of the loftier decibels for several minutes, before going back to the lowest speed and starting the progression again.

Just as my weakened detachment was about to completely evaporate, an elderly patient in an adjoining room begins screaming for help at the top of his voice. His outbursts go on for quite some time before an attendant arrives to sooth him. She assures him he is safe here in the hospital. “No!” he shouts back. “Help! Help!” Then he adds, as if to clarify, “It’s the noise, the noise!”

Now I am curious. It’s 2 AM, and it seems that sleep and I will continue to remain strangers. In order to further investigate, I fantasize a faux-telepathic link with the old fellow, allowing my own attention to merge with his in order to discover the actual nature of this fearsome noise. Earlier, I had overheard a nurse describing the typical effects of full moons on hospital patients, but I could tell that lunar variations were not the source of this current distress. Nor was the cause related to the incessant series of electronic beeps and whistles produced by the many medical devices scattered throughout the ward. As annoying as the staff’s loud chit chat in the corridor could be, it was not that either.

As I plunged down deeper through the layers, I came to the eventual recognition that the noise which was horrifying the old gent was none other than consciousness itself! Essentially, consciousness is not other than noise, noise is not other than consciousness. How about that. Within some of the mystical traditions which humans have devised to account for the inexplicable cosmos, there is the belief that God is consciousness, as if that is a good thing. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God.”

Apparently, the great silent void couldn’t help itself, so along came God, the original source of noise, and everything soon got very noisy after that. Galactic noise, solar noise, planetary noise, elemental noise, insect and animal noise, ambient environmental noise, all conspire and compound to produce a shattering cry from a hospital bed in the middle of the night, in the midst of an incomprehensible eternity.

Indeed, everything we imagine ourselves to be is composed of atomic fractals of vibrating noise. We are a noisy assemblage of transient frequencies which create the realistic illusion of a solid and enduring person, a self. If we were able to somehow empty ourselves of all of our preconceptions, judgments, and preferences to the point where we let this realization have its way with us, the whole reverberating mechanism would be convulsed in a nameless ecstasy at the mere contemplation of this miracle of the appearance of anything at all!

Alternately, the Buddha taught that consciousness — noise — is ultimately stressful. One of my more reliable teachers, Nisargadatta Maharaj, claimed that consciousness was like an itching rash, and even designated it as “a fraud”. Such reports clearly require closer examination. Tonight, it occurred to me that noise is not merely an auditory phenomena, any more than consciousness is a mere mental projection. There is gustatory noise, aromatic noise, tactile noise, visual noise, and certainly the noise of thought which chronically occupies our attention. We are immersed in noise, dwell within and as noise itself, and this noise can both enchant and horrify us.

There are certain accomplished yogis who can follow the subtle sound current emanating within the body-mind complex. It will lift and carry them to exquisite non-material realms of ravishing bliss and indescribable rapture. In the dream, the possibilities are limitless. Some say that God is the Dreamer, and we are but dream characters dancing in the heart-mind of God, unique holographic vehicles fashioned to explore the endless possibilities of experience from every angle.

That may be so, but here is another story which might be equally true: we are that which makes God possible, which grants reality to all of this crazy divine noise. In that sense, everything Is because we Are. Just as awareness is not separate from experience, noise is not separate from silence. There is only one thing. That one thing will leave us speechless.

Just so, how then should noise — consciousness — be regarded? To paraphrase the Buddha, any noise whatsoever — past, future, or present; internal or external; blatant or subtle; common or sublime; far or near: every noise is to be seen as it actually is with right discernment as: “This is not mine. This is not my self. This is not what I am.” In other words, we are prior to noise, prior to any identification with it.

In such recognition, we may cease to be troubled by any temporarily appearing noise. No longer bothered, we become dispassionate. Through dispassion, we are released. By sharing in this consideration at the telepathic level, the noise which had heretofore disturbed the old man seemed to subside. In its subsidence, he grew quiet. As he grew quiet, the whole hospital ward was released from its burdensome noisiness. I heard the Tweaker in my room on the phone. He was telling somebody, “In my soul, I know that all is well.” Then he fell asleep. At last, I did too.

In my dream, there was a large gathering. Hundreds of thousands of people were massing along a central city boulevard. Some of the participants in the crowd held candles to illuminate the darkness, since the city was now without any electricity to power the lights. Something had happened, but it was not clear exactly what that was, except now a massive vigil was underway in the middle of the night. All of the faces of the people were somber. Nobody spoke a word.

 

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