Four Introspective Saints

by Tom Wolpert on May 18, 2023

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour:


The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him. Didn’t Habakkuk say that? Inwardly a Jew, circumcised in spirit. Silence is worship – to quietly carry Isaac’s wood. In reverence for the Son of God unveiling his will beyond human tracing. Heaven all around, silent. In the council of the holy ones, God is greatly feared. To quietly, reverently, rejoice in life, unsealed now.

When I was a child I thought as a child, looked on silently at life, shy passenger on an ocean liner, not grasping the voyage.  Unable to read letters on life preservers attached to walkways above my short eyes.  Later, tripping silent too, for different reasons. Tongue-tied, numb. Aging we ask for unsealing.  Oracles – a revelation from God, his purposes, his plans. The caustic corrosive revelation – the naked lunch. Stop eating the news from a long newspaper spoon. Think you see it all. That’s a perspective too, half-steps from bedlam, chaos. In a naked world, in the pandemonium – one moment flashing stars, galaxies splashing along eons, kaleidoscope flowers. Next stop, dark thoughts, throats graves, tongues lie, poison the language. Then the dream train, crystal visions, boarding at track O. Escape out, run anywhere. On half-open streets curses the greeting, misery the marker, peace the stranger.  Zero the number.

Dreams, unburied. Bursting startled, articulated.  Night-bound words, drowned words, returned in sable images. Stone dreams, could not speak. Dreams of my mother, in a maze. Floating, flying, running, trapped in solvent, glue, paralysis. Criss-crossed coasts, in two places, in no places, wandered deep-shaded city streets, furtive thrills. Returning to high school, talk with my brother, midnight diesel engines, spiraling stars and freight cars. Conversing with birds, my mouth a mirror.  Garden dream tree.  Vivid summons unheard awake. Invitation moved from phantasms of dharma, duty, task, from wu and k’ung and climbing secret somber mountain to empty cave opening onto a vacuum-abyss. Now to a meeting altogether unseen –  storm-scarred pine speaking.  Gathered mist, pregnant word.  A ripening fruit.

Bondage of the will. Relentless introspection finally quieted in trust. Cemetery silo-walls giving way, dissolved, unsealed. Efforts, resolutions, some well-meaning, well-intentioned. Some mirror-defeated – just getting high. Hopeless on the best days, helpless on the worst – futile efforts to reform, to change my life. A young king, leering – shaking his fist at a storm not understood or to be escaped.  Forlorn, disinherited, disarmed.  Cursing events, cursing the emptiness.  Angry swords swung at ghosts, closets of shattered lances.  Futile tools applied to broken rusted engines at dead ends – their disassembled parts scattered, strewn like broken hearts.  Mocking-inscrutable highway signs, declaring north and south, crossroads of two easts then two wests, thrusting always toward blank horizons – dragon-stretched to grey nowhere. 

To escape ditches, find trestles over low-road snares – the just man to live by faith.  No fruit in the fields, no cattle in the stalls.  Yet I will climb to the high places.  Hemmed by shadows from tenements long disappeared, vague Fourier-Owen ideals, shaped by kibbutzim hopes and pogrom fears colliding years before I was born, vines of water hemlock circling while a child – until Venus fly-trapped no more. The Lamb opens the 7th seal – Maestro of future history. Ecce!  Behold the Anointed – look to live!  Himself history-to-be.  He opens the 7th seal, mysteries unwrap, days come and go. The Seal-Opener remains fixed in being united in being with God.  I will be silent in the presence of my God – holy and righteous. I will praise his holiness forever.  Holiness the flawless shield, the fixed rock, the staff, the beguiling flute in the distance. 

Parents. Cohen – David & Esther. Jewish, secular educated idealists. Named their first son Jayden Benjamin, named their second Isadore Hampton. Socialists, utopian, not radicals, egalitarians. Sojourn in Israel for that reason – egalitarian life. Return to Israel program.  Time spent in school, met there, teaching hospital;  coffee dates joined to earnest cafeteria debates. Energies poured in, sincere, courageous, tireless – yet somewhere the utopia went south. The return was to America. Father a physician, M.D., six foot six, black curly hair. Mother a nurse, a foot shorter, red-streaked hair trimmed, direct, all business. Aunts, uncles, cousins, family gatherings, Bar Mitzvahs for some, but not for me. Parents still determined humanist-idealists. No synagogue or seder, no Hebrew school, religious learning or education.  Long dinner-table ethical discussions about medicine, philosophy, treatments – moral obligation to announce or to conceal bad news to patients.  Jayden would join in, I would listen.

In kindergarten I was on the bus from school and got sick and threw up on myself. I didn’t say anything. Jayden was sitting close by and he told the bus driver. It took me time to speak well – at three and four spoke with a lisp – a blond cherub – but if a relative wanted to ask the two young Cohen boys a question, they asked Jayden. I didn’t shed my lisp, didn’t start speaking clearly until I was seven or eight – Jayden knew what I meant anyway. My mother, careful in details, student of nutrition and vaccinations and warm clothes and homework assignments and parent-teacher conferences. My father busy, worked long and late hours, talked to patients and other doctors at night on telephone calls behind a closed, paneled office door. Jayden didn’t talk down to me  – he knew I knew things from reading. But the rest of the world saw me, if at all, as Jayden’s little brother, a shadow at his heels.  I grew slowly in secret cocoons, happiest at home.

School was not all bad. Oak wooden chairs for right-handers, classroom construction paper pastel-decorated, cubbyholes for lockers, the smell of historied stone Quaker buildings.  First graders, your own pencils, crayons, large-letter workbooks stacked under a desk top, led like ducklings through the school day in a tall world.  Teacher Mrs. Osbourne put us in primer-reading circles, called Robins and Jays. After a few weeks, she told me I was moving from the Robins to the Blue Jays. She seemed to think that was important but I didn’t know why. When I got into the new group – the Blue Jays read out loud quickly, fluently. A child’s day is a universe.  Hours, minutes, days, melted and merged like recess and lunchtime and school and bus rides.  There was just childlike being, each day unrolling, unraveling without any particular or important beginning or ending – until marching years and grades brought deadlines and assignments and marking periods and class rank and achievement tests – timeless being not to be recovered until the Lamb unsealed it once again.

The gentle silence of a weekly Quaker meeting for schoolchildren. The odd belief that a child might have something worthwhile to say – to be heard attentively by a room of older children, adults. Rounded stone walls to divide playing fields and bursting recess-frenzy.  Not always frenzied myself – quietly I nestled, quietly I read, an underground stream, content unto myself, sometimes meeting contentment in others.  I didn’t mind if it rained. Occasionally people understood, other children saw. Jaydon met the world headlong, a charging comet. I was a patch of green grass, soaking up rain-words, each book a cloud. And there is an invisible world the hard-chargers, the extroverted, the award-achievers, never see.  Things are still on the outside but they shimmer on the inside.

Jayden the tall.  The athlete, the star, the captain of everything. Image of father, graceful, handsome. Me,  except in my books and secret fantasy-kingdoms, average, average, average. Never separated from my silver-framed wire glasses. I followed him around, played kickball, baseball when he did, didn’t mind when my clumsy game ended. In first grade too shy to speak. Had a crush on a neighbor girl, never said a word. If Jayden liked someone he went over, clasped a hand – if a girl, he went over, started a conversation. The distance between us more than age or height – my parents talked to him like an adult, a third parent.  I was a tunnel-lair child. Big blocks, toy figures, cars, to build spectral child-cities, stretched across my room where I burrowed holed up.  Pint-sized, four-eyed bandido in retreat. Jayden got into a fight with a neighbor boy, won, bloodied his nose. When I was picked on I froze, waited in fear until I could run, until Jayden would find me. A little older, my world internal, imagined dunes on distant planets, ringworlds, Foundation and the Mule, swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Adventures in lost mines, mars-fantasy, middle-earth.  Where I was captain.

I heard my father talk to my mother, saying I might be a success, but Jayden would be a success. Jayden raced off on his bike leading his friends. I walked nearby railroad tracks, balanced on one rail, dreaming. It was a small town, our parents let us go our own way – they trusted America, America’s politics, its ideals.  They trusted us in America.  Little talk about Israel, their time there, where they collided with something – not to be brought up.  Palestinians? Ultra-Orthodox?  An ethnic-religious state? Whatever drew them in, whatever sent them out, not discussed. American politics was, but only in an abstract sort of way, like a discussion about characters and plot after a theater performance. My father upset about medical malpractice lawyers, not about taxes. My mother decorated in monochromatic colors, clean lines, glass tables, natural light through large windows, uncluttered living spaces, elegant, sparse vases.  Our living room could have been a magazine cover for Swedish furniture. Prices got her voice up a decibel, perhaps even if we could easily afford it.  Clutter was not acceptable. Once they discussed staffing at the hospital – then got upset, angry, although I couldn’t understand why.

My parents visited my grandmother every month, living down in Pleasantville. Jayden and I spent days at the beach around Atlantic City.  He could swim out far and deep – I brought books to read in the sand. My grandmother Sarah’s house had rented rooms. An elderly Jewish man, an even older Jewish woman, rented upstairs rooms from her, lumbering up and down the stairs no more than twice in a day. The house had a smell, an aroma of matzoh-ball and Campbell’s mushroom soup and old people and their clothes – their photographs, their sequins and neckties and sorrows deposited into closets of the past.  Grandmother’s decorating style was a jumble, full of chintz fabric, knick-knacks, ceramic figurines of fairy princesses, ballerinas and swans in glass display cases, furniture cushioned and uncoordinated.  Her home was like an antique shop – to move around we negotiated carefully to not knock anything over. Outside was safer -the thin soil was sandy with little round pebbles in Pleasantville but nothing was breakable. Our parents brought bikes for Jayden and I – we rode around on bright, sunny New Jersey afternoons, past liquor stores and nail salons and hairdressers and pizza shops and offices for insurance agents and tattoo parlors and martial arts studios and bait & tackle shops and retail branch banks and the grocery store with its sprawling parking lot, kept company by a few squawking sea-gulls, past salted homes 60 years old wearing faded pastel clapboard, mottled roofs, drooping gutters, in need of caulk for shaded windows and patchwork mortar for cracked concrete front steps.  It was a nice town for two boys on bikes sent out to play.

Our Philadelphia suburban home neighborhood had walnut trees lining back yards by the alley cutting through to garages.  Green walnuts fallen from the walnut trees had a smell too – I liked it, would chuck them into a nearby pond, sometimes for hours. Plunk – plunk – plunk, a splash and the ripples moved out in concentric circles, every time. If Jayden came by on his bike and asked what I was doing, I shrugged, could never answer. But he was checking on me  – saw I was content, whatever I was doing – and would ride off to his next adventure. When I was in fourth grade I had a crush on a girl named Bettina with a very German last name, like Mensch. Bettina was slender, with light freckles, an aquiline nose, clear eyes and light eyelashes. She could run faster than me. I never said anything to her, but sometimes I thought about her when I was chucking walnuts. Before I threw the next walnut, the water was still – the pond like black glass after the last concentric ripple quieted.  The tree was still, the walnuts laying on the ground were still, the sun was still in the sky – I held the green-black rotting walnut in my hand with its nearly overpowering smell – the smell was still too.  I liked those moments, when the world was poised at full stop for me.  All its motion was at my introspective, soon-to-be-adolescent command.

All those books I first read because Jayden read them and left them sitting around on coffee tables and nightstands, where I would inspect them unobserved – O’Neill, his Long Day’s Journey into Night, On the Road, madman stuff of Holden Caulfield, Naked Lunch, sally out to Zen, eastern religion, Ashrams.  If he saw me reading one, he might say something evocative, something to make me think. The days changed although I only slowly noticed. Jayden changed and I had to notice that – but there was little for me to say. He was in conflict now, even if I didn’t know why. His world was a battle-field. I was a sapling in a peach orchard, watching the soldiers scramble and race about me, not understanding the terms or point of their warfare or how my brother got involved. If he saw me reading on a window seat he would still say something, but now it was provocative, a boy who was becoming a man by getting ready for a fight.

I had a friend with two first names, Amy Beverly – she and I would find a corner to read and wonder why anyone wondered at us. They teased we were hiding out together, but we only wanted a quiet place to read. Libraries have a certain smell, the isolate repeated tick of a single clock on the first floor a distinct echo, the black spindle-back chairs with their certain feel on the buttocks, the fluorescent light a certain flicker – that was our world. In it we found no fault, no shortcoming. To us, the stacks were rich with words, like walls erected against missiles whose purpose or anger we couldn’t grasp. Amy Beverly would twirl a black knappy hair in her fingers as she read – and other than turning pages, be stiller than stone for hours.

Idealism meeting reality, like an 18-wheeled truck meeting a herd of deer. Not all the deer die at once, but the herd is never the same.  Jayden wasn’t much talking to me anymore. Jayden was gone from the house for days at a time. My parents were lost as to what to do or say. They were passive-frozen, paralyzed in fearful indecision about their man-sized adolescent. They were alternatively resigned, philosophic, dismayed, wishfully-confident, then helplessly agonizing over what to do.  Inept, flaccid in the face of Jayden’s determined, misguided will and their own unwillingness to be disciplinarians.  They wanted it to be all okay again – didn’t know how to act if things weren’t okay – had little way to tell the difference and few tools to employ. Nothing in Jayden’s head, whatever it was, was anything like what had been in their heads, in their adult lives or even when they met in Israel.  It didn’t occur to them that Jayden was taking his ideas from elsewhere – they were under the impression that their own ideas were of their own making.

Older brother Jayden – one day, nodded, made a comment as I was reading Autobiography of a Yogi – next day, gone. Dead of an overdose. Accidental or deliberate. The news was crushing, an avalanche of grief. My business-like mother collapsed shrieking, sobbing.  My father’s face fell into a place I had never seen, spiritually collapsed. Jayden, gone like Allie in Catcher in the Rye –– Hammy, younger brother, carries on – reads Franny’s Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Parents have the heart-stabbing, grief-strangled duty of making arrangements. Identify the lifeless body of their son. There are no worlds to hide in, no words to hide behind. A person beloved at the very center of their lives – so anointed with hopes – their engine of hope – had become a corpse, bluntly a slab of meat.  All too familiar to them, to be tagged here. Moved there.  Autopsied.  Placed in an outrageous box to be buried in some insulting dirt piled in advance under a mocking outdoor canopy.  Warlocks, if I couldn’t see them I felt them, warlocks and witches everywhere at his burial, standing at the crowd’s edge, handing out weedy flowers, holding sharp-pointed shovels, with their gargoyle-green faces making sympathetic noises, shedding a conspicuous tear to wipe away with a claw, to pretend, mock and mime at the grief upon which they demonically feasted.

Parents never got past Jayden’s death. Not in the first year, not in the second, not in the third. Perhaps some religious belief would have helped them to get past the corpse of their son, but they didn’t have that. Whatever dignity or comfort such beliefs might have held was lost to them. Jayden’s room preserved like a museum, a mausoleum. Books still sitting on shelves, school pictures, his smiling face. Excruciatingly sad to go in. After a while, no one entered his room. Parents shell-shocked.  Left to go my own way. We walked around his memory in the house – Jayden disappeared, converted into a grief-spirit in some absurd play where the characters talk to a ghost they never see but are always conscious of and never forget. If not for a bare veneer of rationality, they would have put out corned beef and kugel for him on a neatly-set placemat. But off-Broadway ghost plays are funny and this was just unbearably sad.

Change came to me too. Jayden’s death walked through my reading room, knocked over the shelves, scattered my books. Implacable grief entered, announced – ‘You knew I was always here. From when you were four. Everyone knows.’  I had no answer – that was the story, we all knew it. I drifted into my own scene, wandered away from a life of books at home places. No one came chasing me. The users and the losers were my high school teachers – until they drifted away too. Once in a while Amy Beverly and I would have a sandwich, but something had taken down her soul too. The only black and white she was interested in were black letters on a white page but the world wasn’t giving her that choice. I had choices too, but my choosing didn’t count for much. I would get high and make a different choice the next week but all the choosing wound up the same choice.

I drove west across Pennsylvania for college – the path of least resistance. If I had been another person living another life, I might have found something starkly beautiful in the rural pines, red maples, chestnuts, walnut, oaks, even the brown bears rooting around midnight garbage.  The campus and local town were carved out of the surrounding woods like two handfuls of sand taken from a beach. I found a local park with wild grape arbors and benches underneath, and that was my spot for reading, the sun spackling through the vines onto the pages of my book. Two years as an art history major in a place where deer season was the major holiday and convenience stores the major shopping outlets. Then I transferred further west, waved goodbye to the campus dorms, town sports bar, convenience stores, outdoorsman’s hunting and bait shops along the highway. I had applied to an obscure place for arcane studies, thinking a few hundred miles of the Pennsylvania turnpike was far enough from the entombed séance of continuing sorrow, chiseled into every telephone conversation with home.  After two years, I wanted three thousand miles of Interstate 80 between us.  I wanted the raw edge of a distant ocean that said apply here. 

West-coast living quarters were a series of haphazard communal student arrangements until I arrived at a real urban commune. By then I was finished with a degree that enabled me to talk at length about Botticelli, if anyone asked. My commune mates were older, two filmmakers, psychologist, entomologist, writer turned coffee house barista. Robbie, intellectual, giraffe-like, was the guide. This group wasn’t casual about their psychedelic adventures – they were organized, purposeful. Role play was highly organized – we got costumes – Frosty knew where to get them. We got high quality drugs – Vermy knew where. The interpersonal relationships could be intense or casual – or in the case of G-Lucky, wishful. Meals were prepared – we took turns – I learned to cook for six. The house was not far from Glen Park, canyon in miniature, and I would walk our dogs there, sometime with Weezy and her service dog. California fir, pines, cypresses, ironwoods, some palms with that fresh green aphrodisiac aroma. There were poetry readings, script readings in the commune, a chessboard, round telephone-cable drum coffee table, music scattered around four-foot Bowers & Wilkins floor-standing speakers. An oversized roll of brown butcher’s paper unwound to hang broadly for posting front hallway notes to each other. Tripping on outings – to movies, plays, planetarium shows, picnics on nude beaches, hikes up Mt. Tam – part of the ritual.

Our house was stenciled with green curling vines around doors, decorated with posters from old movies, framed impressionistic art of Monet’s flowers, Picasso’s Guernica, elegantly-framed charcoal sketches of nude models, pastel super-sized flowers cut from construction paper hung high about.  There was an open kitchen cornered with nooks and crannies, stocked with spices, herbs, nutritional supplements and condiments neatly stored in rows on hand-crafted built-in shelves.  There were still photos from Robby’s films, x-rated movie scripts from Frosty’s on coffee tables, an oversized glass display of three dozen butterflies with wings spread for display, a colossal water filled hookah with elaborate gilt & coloring.  Built-in bookshelves stocked with philosophy, psychology, pharmacology, biology textbooks, field guides for entomologists, handbooks of California birds, still photography reference books, technical manuals on cinematography, biographies, treatises on eastern religion, the I Ching,19th century novels, volumes of poetry from every century, confessions and true crime novels of various sorts, a whole shelf of erotica, oversized photographic books of comics, of silent movies, of geographical wonders, of the works of Ansel Adams.

In the house sometimes chatter, even extended conversation.  But often a kind of silence -the silence of users – intellectual users, but users – like waiting at a Dunkin Donuts, descending into the Velvet Underground, waiting for your man. Even when users are well-supplied, studded with open drawers of well-labeled concoctions like a home pharmucopia – even when there’s superficial talk at the dinner table, the user’s silence persisted like fog at the curtains. It was supposed to be intellectual, hip, but intellects were melting away.  If there had ever been purpose, a vision for this commune, it was swallowed into the silence of neon at an all-night diner, a cup of coffee never finished, waiting for a connection.  For very smart people, they never quite got that drugs eat up arts, thought, culture like a fire eats up wood. So talk was usually empty diversion – the reality was silence when the needle hit the arm, the vein, the sting, the blood blossomed and appeared like a rose at the top of the bulb. No one talked then. You watched in silence. The rush is going to come soon, upon the instant. Silent seconds, open round waiting eyes really seeing nothing, images turned inward pregnant with unfocused death. The crystal ship being filled noiselessly, dropping human petals overboard as it glides. I am glad we have here come to a different kind of silence.

My soul ached, for more than one reason. I walked the streets of the city late into the night. I ached, walked more. Wore out on the psychedelic trips, wore my eyeballs out looking through windows turned to transparent jelly, wore out floating in a crystal sea, waves breaking, reforming, breaking. Wore out on steady decay where psychedelics and smoke came out every evening like cards from a blackjack dealer.  Wore out on the subterranean tides we swam, tropical fish darting around reefs of wasted introspection. Wore out on ever-reshuffling tarot cards, affairs like fireworks, one-night stands pursued blindly through caves. Wore out on the sexpassion-drama with its pseudo-suspense, gossipy emotional vandalism recurring but never resolved.  Another episode of a cycling opera bouffe.

My futility was like surrounding flocks of sea gulls – I chased them off but they came back single, returned in groups.  Charged arm-flapping to shoo them, read fervently about gull removal, engaged falcons for intimidation.  Introspected in so penetrating a way it would have done the chief Gull, Sigmund Freud, proud – still found myself surrounded in the same spot with the same flock one year to the next, bird-droppings of pointlessness, laced with vacuous uric acid, etched in my hair.  A day came when I said to myself – too many gulls.  Relentless frustration accumulated in feathered layers.  When I said goodbye to my communal mates, no one was surprised – no one said ‘wait’ or ‘stay.’  Perhaps Weezy was sad, but she was sad about so many things. She put the leash on her service dog without a word and went for a walk. I packed in a few days and left as silently as a shadow.  

I had been away from home.  Ghosts waited in Pennsylvania – at least I stopped the ghastly process in California.  Hoping I was ready to talk with my parents about Jayden.  Anticipating, maybe it would be something of comfort, of purpose, maybe just a long silence. In the teeth of grief, I found out something- if anything hurt that much, it was important.  I wanted to say it to them to say it to myself. Even a dead brother laid into a box is more important, more serious, more worthy of thought, than yet another acid trip. If life with intellectual hippies was a useless band-aid, because the wound was so deep – I had to have something on the inside.  We all did, something more than a clever, insouciant, insolent trip, another day at the amusement park, another ride on the merry-go-round. 

Driving back was silent as mountain lake, reflecting light like snow on surrounding cliffs, accepting the pain like lightning strikes, like watching imaginary redwoods crash. If the emotional redwoods absorb the jolt, if the sound of their stately irresistible fall reverberates through swaddling cradles of vast mountain lakes, shimmering on snow, startling the birds, putting ripples onto the cold-blue lake – then there had to be something inside, deep, to start. We were not squirrels, not even clever, educated squirrels, could never be squirrels – even perpetually-introspective psychology-reading squirrels couldn’t have that much pain.  Loss is a stern teacher – the symbols on her butterfly wings signal dread. Silent grief did that much for me. Melancholy in the night, sadness of long highways.  Driving across country time to think.

I arrived home in Pennsylvania, fighting stark-evil dreams and thoughts – alternating with ephemeral lightness. Blind prodigal Isaac, carrying wood, repenting of I knew not what.  Didn’t understand why or where to point the wheels, only to a place well known once, so unknown now. Isolate gull rolling over storm-billows. Nightingale in a plain brown wrapper singing under a shroud.  I brought along bone changelings, shadows. Unpacked my empty corridors, deserted bunks, dream wards.  Anonymous rented room, laboratory for majestic flaws of my mind – hex symbols drew themselves across walls – I scrubbed out invisible pentacles.  Pushed away clutching dreams, naked on broken bottles.  Sordid self – madness not hidden, stretched naked out across blandly drawn blinds.  The cup, the plate, the single setting. Vacuum of the soul. But then – if the soul were empty, filling is possible. If pain is great, could it be ended.  Wasn’t there grief because something was lost. If visions are only horror, half a landscape is missing.  

In the midst of death-story, line of morning – not prayers, not yet – but something. Reading Job and the Psalms. The silence of God spoke. Job put his hand to his mouth in silence before God.  Almighty God, Holy and Righteous – in wrath, remember mercy.  I wasn’t the only one returning to a confrontation, a meeting I could not understand. I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Remember mercy, when you visit me in judgment.  Plague goes before you, O Lord. Your silence measures my travels. You scatter fire-line scarred mountains – the cedars crash, perpetual hills bow. The ways of God are everlasting. I saw many tents of America in affliction, and my own. Why was it, O psychedelic sea, that you fled? O pseudo-Jordan, impersonating, disguised, why did you turn back when your mask was removed? You isolate mountains, why did you skip like lambs if there is only empty? There was trembling at the presence of the God of Jacob. He could turn rocks into pools, hard rocks into springs of cleansing water. 

There’s something Jewish about carrying grief around with you – luggage you can never unpack and never find a locker to check it into.  I couldn’t process it emotionally, I couldn’t process it intellectually either. Isn’t God in charge of things? Couldn’t Jayden have been influenced by better friends, waylaid by benign thieves, arrested pre-emptively by diligent cops, counseled by mysterious strangers, smitten with the flu, tempted into other diversions by some prostitute, on his way to the drug mart to buy the dose that killed him? Arguments about free-will seemed absurd to me. If Jayden had free will to kill himself with a drug overdose, what happened to my parents’ free will? Where did that go after Jayden died?

What happened to my free will? Where did that go? Jayden crashed that too. Suppose someone had asked me, on the day I was born – would you like to live in a house with a ghost – or not at all? Is that a free-will choice? One death ripples so. To run around and chatter away about free will – it seemed like astrology, like attributing to the stars our characters, mates, lives, fates – an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition at the charge of a star. And what if our dispositions are not only goatish – but tragic, self-destructive, laced with despair? What if our dispositions are just what’s left over, after the idealism dies, after the deer of fond and foolish hopes are left as carcasses by the side of the road?  O mighty free will.

I read Isaiah.  Lord, you were angry with me – isn’t the affliction of grief the most severe form of God’s anger?  Has your anger turned away?  You have comforted me. What was this comfort, that I could feel, but not explain? Surely God is my salvation. I could not make head or tail of that, but it reverberated too deep within me, not to mean something. I will trust and not be afraid.  The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song. There were no songs for a long time – what was the new song? He has become my salvation. What is this? Why does my salvation help with Jayden’s death?  With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And in the midst of my stark visions, I had a dream about a tree, the very tree that stood in my front yard. The tree and I dialogued, as if I were Chuang Tzu exploring the inner chambers – but purified, sealed. The pine tree had its own mission – included me and more than me.   There was a reality I turned to mush, now trying to recapture. If drugs turned thoughts into wild flocks of birds beyond capture, then something else recaptured, re-centered those visions, might extract out of a strange dream a word true or useful. There was coming a wind to take the tree away, but held back for me. The tree was posing questions to me. And who was I, to have a tree in a dream pose riddles to me? 

Sing to the LORD, he has done glorious things. Now I was in a world with no road map, no explanations, but something was here that made me dream.  My only job was to ripen – like some fruit.  And if all of this seemed bizarre, it was so vivid, so powerful. It was a message, a directive, a direction – that didn’t depend on me at all.  No one told me to stop mourning for Jayden. I had many pictures of God – some drug-fueled, some sober. But I never had that picture of God. I wasn’t supposed to do anything at all. Just listen and ripen. While dream angels sealed many, including me – and dream trees spoke to be carried off by great winds – where being and un-being went to fight some battle of ontology.

I went into Valley Forge one day to walk. It was Palm Sunday – although that did not figure in my calculations of the day. The Holy Spirit came over me, gently, comprehensively, experientially. My mind was changed for the time period of a two-mile walk – its forward orientation was reconfigured – as if one took a north-south bar magnet and turned it, faced it east-west. God was omnipresent at all times, ever-where, everywhere – as if I were having a direct perception of God. God’s being was being – the being of God was the being of Jesus. I walked and there was a family picnicking near the macadam path. Playing mildly, they kicked a peaceful, errant ball in my direction. I retrieved it and threw it back in shimmering, palpable peace. As I crossed Gulph Road, walking along a stone lane that ran parallel to Joseph Plumb Martin trail, I was passing as if through a door. I realized I was going to be a religious man. This was not what I had expected of my life. I’ve had many experiences but the kindness of this experience was different – drug experiences have an element of being harsh, make your head big (Grace Slick sang go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall).  This experience made me feel vulnerable, small, condescended to, not out of meanness but only because of the enormous difference between me and the Spirit who loved, protected, descended over me. It was as if I were a young boy playing baseball and Babe Ruth came to visit me. I was a small child being tenderly touched with fingers of the Spirit, spiritual, spread open, gently descending. Peacefully, like a summer ocean tide, the experience – God at all times, ever-where, everywhere – receded.

It wasn’t long after that – I just showed up at a church, chosen more or less at random. I said, ‘Will you baptize me?’ And they said, sure. They asked why and I said I felt as if I had an experience with God. The pastor asked could you tell us more and I said, no. And the pastor, a nice young man, said, well, okay, next week. They baptized me on a quiet Sunday morning in a church with a small congregation and not a lot of discussion. The rite and ritual was out of a green book and the pastor followed the book. Not without some trepidation, I repeated the words he prompted. (All that renouncing stuff – I was hopeful but not overwhelmingly confident). I got water poured on my head three times and the Trinity was pronounced – baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The pastor made the sign of the cross on my forehead. Like my experience in Valley Forge, it was both comprehensive and gentle. The congregation came around to shake my hand afterwards and invite me to lunch at the church picnic. I didn’t really know them or even the type of people they were -as a social, cultural group, we were far apart – but they were warm and inviting and they seemed to think I was one of them. Things started changing in my life after that.  The human experience is an interaction with God.  Later on, I had a conversation with my parents about Jayden. I’m not sure it did much for them, but I think the effort was worthwhile.

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