Like the Butter Hidden in Milk

In the mornings, from my earliest memories at about age sixteen months, all the way until we left that house when I was eight, I would stare at the wallpaper in my room and will it to change. The paper was divided into squares about fifteen centimeters high and wide, and in each was one of four different scenes.  One of them had a white house, with a fence, and a row of round flowers in yellow, orange and red.  It bothered me that the flowers did not have a repeating pattern.  I felt that there were two that needed to switch places. In the mornings I would stare at these flowers until they slid into the right place.  I remember doing this through the bars of my crib.

I recall my darkened bedroom at age four.  I would sit up late and think, think over the day’s events in Kindergarten with Soeur Georgina, I would think about my friends and enemies, the attacks and victories of my day, and, I would pray.  I don’t know how it started, but I used a mug of pens and pencils that sat on my bedside table.  I would pull each one out and make up a line of a song to God, petition, praise, or query, and then once they were all lined up on my blanket, one by one they went back in, each with its original line.  Like a childish rosary. Or like my grandmother’s mala, that I would see her pull through her fingers with their soft papery brown skin, her lips moving along the old Arabic tracks set down hundreds of years before us.

I love to talk about the world of the spirit.  The invisible worlds. My favorite people are the ones with whom it’s easy to go from one world to the other, seamlessly and shamelessly. It’s hard to write about though.  I worry that if I write publicly about what I experience, no one will take me seriously as a writer or an educator.  When rationality is set up on a Cartesian plane, its opposite is irrationality, which is easily paired with illogical, illegitimate and imaginary.  And imaginary is placed into a position much lesser than scientific, where what is imaginary is for children and what is provable is real.  This doesn’t stand up to much pressure, of course, since all of the most rational acts we can take in this world like building a skyscraper, or saving money in a bank, or driving according to the lights on the road, and anything else I can think of require dump trucks full of imagination.  But there is still this stigma that somehow neither phenomenology nor psychology can penetrate.

But for me, my dreaming life is the most important part of me. Developing a practice of writing down and logging my dreams has over the years given me such a sense of freedom. Unleashed from the world we all agree on. The analysis of the dreams, the recurring places and people, it’s wonderfully intimate. I get advice from a part of my self so far removed from the pushes and pulls of my daily activities.  Yet, they influence those activities profoundly, as if the dream maker is witnessing me. They show me where to go, what to do, who to trust, and most importantly how to relate to myself.  I dream awake, too, in rituals, and meditation, writing, music, dance and drawing.  Over the years of prayer, that personal relationship to God mediated by my can of pens and pencils became my relationship to myself.

In my early twenties I began to relate to herons.  I was heartbroken one summer and sitting by the ocean for days and days. There were two herons that would be there most days at the same time, about five hundred meters apart from each other.  One day a low humming, groaning kind of song came to me.  I began to sing it over and over, as I was picking my way along the rocky beach, whose little stones all had these sharp white barnacles on them.  One of the herons was also in the water, not too far from me.  I began to move towards it, moving almost imperceptibly, drifting more than walking, and droning this song. I got within about four feet of the heron, its sharp beak shining with water, its feathers whispering in the warm air, its one eye looking at me.  It spread its wings with an enormous brushing sound, and flew over my head, sprinkling me with water. It landed where I’d just come from, maybe twenty feet behind me.  I turned slowly and moved towards it.  When I was three or four feet away it flew back to its original spot.  We did this six or seven times, until it flew a little deeper onto a rock outcropping, tucked its head into its wing and appeared to sleep.  I sat on the beach until near dark, watching the heron and churning the experience in my mind.  The next month, I tried walking in that same way on the street.  I started to feel like something strange was happening to time, a kind of waviness or blur. I began an experiment, where I would walk in that way to the bus I took to my very part-time job washing dishes at a Lebanese restaurant, and then walk like that from the bus to work.  So there were three segments, heron walk, ride bus, heron walk.  I marked the time I left home and the time I arrived.  Over the course of three months the time it took to get to work shortened by almost twenty five minutes even though I was walking as slowly as I possibly could. The slower I walked, the faster I arrived. I stopped when my boss became so freaked out by this he shouted at me in the restaurant.  After that, it didn’t seem to work anymore, and I haven’t been able to make it work since.

This isn’t what I want to write. I want to write something brilliant and scintillating.  Something that will linger with you all day after reading it, and make you mull it over with your friends, use it to impress your boss.  But with my ninety minute limitation, I get what I get. Raw, true, and kinda awkward. What I really want to say is that I wish the creative imagination of the world was the most important thing there was to talk about.  Instead of going to the corner grocer and asking, how’s it going? I want to ask, how did you dream? How do you feel?  What are the colours and tints of your thoughts?  If you could scream anything right now, right here, what would it be? Where does time go when it passes? I don’t want to feel like I’m just random eyes and tongue and toes in a mass of human flesh overtaking this planet and chewing it like white ants chewed my Grandma Vicky’s saris and her photo albums and her letters and her books.  Chewing the whole planet down to dust.  I want to be full of spirit and dark matter, full of quantum wow possibility to shape shift and awaken in the cosmos.  I want this to be what we want, together.  Not just my own craving, but as a species. For us to be constantly amazed by each others minds, souls, lifeways. Not of stars and geniuses, but each of us. Each of us.

I want to say that the pulsing light of the chakras is there, inside each one of us. That blood carries fire and breath holds the thoughts of our ancestors and thought is the weather whose storms can destroy everything, but that they always pass, and the frustration of daily life and its attendant cravings is the perfect rod to churn the milk of existence into soft, sweet butter.  These knowings are with us, in our scriptures, our medicine, our stories, songs and poetry. All cultures, all people. But instead we drown in oil and paper money printed with symbols that make us so small.  When I was a child God was as big as my mother and lived in the stars. But as a grown woman, god is my ability to connect to a part of myself that is infinite, vast, hilarious, luminous.

This essay is a little rantish, I know.  I spent so many years mired in self-hatred.  The deep dark kind of self-hating that oozes like a putrid jelly into relationships, onto your face and over every day.  Still, even in the depths of that, not so far behind me at all, even in the depression, the rage, the overwhelm of having to make it through another day, there was always this imagination.  This thing that wanted to write and draw.  To release the tension of being human, of its limitations, into the limitless void.

I don’t mean this to sound the way it does, as if there is a better way to live that you should learn from me. That would be awful. I don’t even know why exactly I’m writing it.  I have a feeling I’m trying to avoid writing something else.

The thing I don’t want to write is about how dark the imagination can be.  How it can create toxic narratives you can drown in.  How dangerous it can be to go looking for yourself. I want to tell you all the ways I’ve fucked this up, this imagining.  I’ve seen other people fuck it up, too.  Get so lost in their drugs or their dreams or their projective obsessions that they really never come back.  And come back to what?  Is it important?  To have a link, a thread to the consensual world.  Yes, I think it is.  And I think that’s important in this essay, that you don’t feel like I’m saying the world of story and metaphor and faith and song and dream and birds is a better place to be, just that we somehow agree at least that those worlds exist.  I wonder what yours are? I wonder that everyday. What are your secrets? How do you pray?  Where are your ancestors and what do they do?  How do you decide what to do with your life, or what to eat or wear?  I walk past you on the street, and buy spinach pie from you, and show you my bus pass, and pass you on the icy stairs up to the university and I wonder, what’s in those deep depths of your underwater self?

When I was eighteen I remember sitting in my apartment in Vancouver’s West End, right at the foot of the Burrard Bridge. The apartment had only two pieces of furniture, a green armchair and a PlayStation.  There was one pan, three forks, three knives and two spoons. Four mugs and one glass. The entire time the three of us lived there, myself and two thirty year old men named Mark and Marc, none of us ever cleaned the bathroom.  They had told me that they made their money selling soap, but in fact they were making something we were all using in those days. I remember sitting in there one day, some months after the truth had been revealed to me, and stuffing these little plastic capsules.  It was so fresh it was wet and needed to be cut with baby powder just to be able to work with it. It smelled a little like star anise.  It was entering me through the skin, through the air in our dusty, sunny, empty, cigarette-burns on the carpet, eggs and peanut butter everyday, apartment.  As evening began to fall I felt myself levitate.  My body emptied of matter and I dissolved into the universe. I fell backwards against the earth, bending all the way back until I was wrapped all around our little planet.  I looked up and out into the living darkness and it looked back at me.  A fierce kind of love, a murderous, compelling, unforgettable, penetrating, love reached in and wrung out every one of my cells.

I had many such experiences in my life, some awful, some beautiful, never the same. For three years I practiced trance meditation in a group of women.  There were six of us, a ballerina, a nurse, a stockbroker, an architect, the teacher and me, whatever I am. We journeyed onto other planets, into the past, into the past lives of objects, to other parts of the world.  Looking for corroboration, looking for a kind of proof.  We journeyed into our own past lifetimes.  I remember lying on a table, with these women’s hands on me, and suddenly I was a silver bird in a cage in ancient Egypt. I was carried down deep into some tunnels and came out in a small village where there was a ritual wherein I was killed.

I’m so highly functional in my life that this feels like a confession of a sin.  I’m reliable, community-oriented, connected to my family, I do good work in education, I make sense when I speak and have a valid driver’s license. Yet much of my life is passed in these secret worlds, made of imagination.

So I can’t help but wonder, how many other people have these secret worlds of image and form?  What if I did go to the corner store and ask, How did you dream last night? Is the value of these worlds in their privacy?  Is it not a taboo but a necessity that they stay secret?  How does this function of imagination, the ability to be in different worlds, to shift matter and time, to play with perception and intention, how does it affect our economies, our resources, our relationship to the planet and to each other?




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