The continuation of my autobiographical narration of my inner quest. (Use index at left for specific chapters; here is the previous episode.)
Fragment 5 — Blotting Out The Spirit
Externally, life in high school and first year university was all consumed with things like Jefferson Airplane, exploring Greenwich Village, discovering folk and world (later ‘roots’) music, beginning to enjoy and then practically need writing, and socializing with an incredible variety of peers. I still pursued anything remotely academic with gusto, usually plotting my own course vaguely related to and just-enough including what was on offer within the curriculum. Perhaps I came off slightly nerdish, but I never saw it that way; I was simply ravenously curious about everything. Still, with all of this noise transpiring, there was always a glimmering core of my being which responded to an inner quiet call. That call had the same roots as what gave rise to religious impulses in some, but it was decidedly not religious in my case. More importantly, it was was not imposed by any exterior authority, influence, or orthodoxy; it was entirely and completely “me”.
The truth about teenage years, as I saw them, is that the project of discovering and refining who and why one is, really is predominantly tangled up in sexuality. Real, imagined, or idealized. It is the rare individual that clears up much free space and energy for genuine philosophical explorations, and I was mostly typical in this. A couple of essential strands hinted at what percolated beneath my surface in those days though. The first was an insistent alignment towards what was purely aesthetic in character. This tendency was against ‘type’, it could be argued, since externally I looked like a technical, math, science sort of personality. But I wasn’t. In all of those realms what appealed to me was beauty, even if it was intellectualized. When math or chemistry, for example, became too practical, my interest level plummeted. And whenever a teacher or source did not seem plugged into this inherently artistic approach to the subject, I instinctively tuned it out. This fomented a kind of conflict during my later high school years because more engineering and STEM-oriented adults in my orbit could not fathom why I seemed to assign equal weight to things like poetry, starting up underground literary magazines, forests and music. Similarly, distinctly right-brained types were suspicious about my evident chops in physics or genetics or algebraics. The world silently screamed at me: Choose! Meanwhile I saw no demarcation lines there, and felt increasingly distrustful about the efforts to construct them.
I will try to illustrate this with a little story from senior year. I had gotten into the habit of skipping first period Physics class three or four days a week and instead walking out the door with a book of Shakespeare sonnets to try and understand them. There was a church a few blocks away and I would sit on the steps of it, reading until I sensed 2nd period was coming up, whereupon I would scoot back to the school for some class I could tolerate — I forget what it was. The Physics teacher was just too dry. He was also sexist by the way: he would include an extra credit question about Raquel Welch’s measurements in centimeters instead of inches. I did not really grasp what sexist meant then, but I was sensitive enough to notice that the three or four girls who were in the class subtly cringed over moments like this. And I quite disliked him for it. This sonnet hookie game went on for several weeks until my parents got a call from the school asking about why I never seemed to be around for Physics class. I more or less told my mother the truth, and got off easy by promising to return to class regularly each morning. Teacher never confronted me about it, but he did not or could not conceal his antipathy for me. Plus, it pissed him off that I was getting A’s. An annual state-wide math exam soon came. It was a big deal. Only the most promising students were selected to take it, about 20 kids from our high school. As it turned out, my creative writing teacher was assigned to monitor us for the exam, which lasted about two hours. I took a small spice jar of curry with me as ‘mascot’ for the exam because I (1) really dug the color, and (2) had fallen in love with Indian cuisine recently. The monitor strolled around and asked me about the curry jar halfway through. I just mentioned that I liked it. He was cool with that. The math problems were interesting. Some of them involved really unusual patterns. Nobody ever got anywhere near 100% on these exams. But I ended up with the top score in the school that day, 43 or something. Next morning the school was abuzz with the news about who had ‘won’. The writing teacher was genuinely congratulatory and surprised since he knew only my outré poetic side. The Physics teacher was condemning though, I learned from a friend. The friend had been present when he complained to another teacher about me saying: “that kid is strange… he just seems to do whatever he wants to do”. This remark conferred hero status upon me for the rest of the week. (Recall this was the era of burgeoning hippiedom.) But for me, I was just responding with enthusiasm to what I genuinely found interesting and appealing. And turning aside from what I did not. I saw it as exercising aesthetic judgement. And when you are 16 or 17, you are invincible anyway, right?
I had some really valuable friendships during high school, and also many intriguing acquaintances. I wish I had half my present awareness of the important ways individual biographies intersect during those fruitful years. Often it is someone we meet who is not so close to the apex of our inner circles who creates a deep impact within us, whose relevancy reveals itself much later on in life. I had a friend then who was interested in things like Zen, the poetry of Basho, and countercultural thought and philosophical essays. His influence flipped a switch within me, a kind of recognition of deeper things I was always legitimately drawn towards, but which needed an external triggering impulse every so often. I began, strictly as a side project at first, lingering in the aisle at bookshops with titles about Tibetan Buddhism, “Doors Of Perception”, spiritual psychology, adventures of Gurdjieff and Carlos Castaneda and other ‘mystics’. I would even cite Tolkien in this direction, for within his fiction I sensed the clear light of deeper truths concealed just beneath the surface. I also was reading widely within the avant-garde literature of the day, which was cheap, thought-provoking, and easily available. Christianity proper remained quite removed from my thoughts and activities, as I luxuriated in my liberation from the myopic view of things inside Catholicism. But it was not too long before I saw the connection between all of these interests and strivings at a more fundamental level, propelled by an authentic inquisitiveness and a nebulous but sparkling inner seeking.
This describes my inner condition, leaving aside the enormous issue of sexuality, by about the first year of university and living away from home. One day, during an astrophysics mini-course lecture, a fabulously eccentric yet grounded professor made a remark. He said that in an important way, the whole universe itself is like a black hole. A black hole! Because nothing, energy, matter, light, anything, could ever get outside of it. This remark lived with me. Not so much its profundity or lack thereof. But it subtle alluring proposal to search at all costs for an underlying unity bewteen the apparently, though misleadingly so, disparate fabrics of religion, philosophy, and science.
This tale is to be Continued… The next installment will be linked right here.
[ Note : “The Doors Of Perception” was a popular work by Aldous Huxley widely read in those days. It described the author’s reflections upon hallucinatory experiences induced by mescaline (peyote), mostly, and his convictions that the world so accessed was real and had much to teach concerning radical reality. The inference was that spiritual and religious seeking had a very similar goal or ultimate destination and sought to unify psychedelia with mysticism. Although I doubted this unity, I did grasp the clues provided by the evident linkages. Myself, I was not a big psychedelics enthusiast ever, but that is a different tale. ]
[ Image : trilliums! They flood certain lucky forest floors around the end of May and last a few weeks. Usually hundreds of them. These tall flowers of the northeast strike me as perfect hymns to the number 3. Strong almost leafless stalk, exploding at the top into three enormous ovoid leaves beneath a blossom of three perfect petals offset by three perfect green sepals, their shapes classic and simple, forming a beautiful hexagon. They mostly are white, but I couldn’t resist including a photo of one of the more occasional reddish-brown variants. ]
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