It’s a truism that listening to someone describe their dreams is excruciatingly boring for everyone except maybe Freud. I know that even as I embark on the following description: There was a thin, haggard man desperately climbing a ladder-like stair with something very ferocious and foul close at his heels; I could feel what the man was feeling—terror and the thinnest hope of escape. He popped out a trap door into the open air, only to find himself holding a leash on the other end of which was a grey housecat about one and a half times his size. Without a moment to even register the strangeness of this, the cat playfully pounced on him, sinking his teeth into the man’s trunk where I was cringingly aware all the vital organs are. The cat seemed to be settling in for a long episode of carefree batting and biting, and the man despaired of his life. Then he was climbing the stair again, bursting through the trapdoor, holding the leash—again and again this sequence replayed in my dream, and each time I noticed more details: the man climbed the rungs with just one hand, the other so mangled it hung only by thin threads of skin; he was wearing a vest, long jacket, and striped trousers; the thing chasing him up the stair was also a man, but simultaneously a beast much worse than the deadly kitty-cat waiting above; and every time the man climbed the stair, he felt less and less hope until nothing but the impossibility of his survival remained to him. That was when I realized that I was dreaming of hell.
And then I was no longer just watching, but there myself, surrounded by people and demons in strange situations, but I felt the necessity to pretend I did not know I was in hell. I chatted with people, glancing at but not registering concern for the agonized heads floating by on an otherwise serene river. At one point I made as though to leave—not sure how I was going to do this, but there did seem to be some kind of door—and someone whispered, “Don’t leave! It’ll only draw their attention to you!” I returned to where I was sitting, and a moment later a gigantic demon hovered over me. Still pretending I wasn’t inhell and there was no demon studying me with alarming appetite, I casually turned the pages of a book that had appeared on my lap. It was a grimoire, each page full of demonological drawings and descriptions, like many of the books on my library shelves. I still had not looked up at the demon, but I thought I might continue turning the pages until I found him in the book. My last oneiric thought was, “Ah, there he is. There’s the demon that’s about to devour me.”
Then I woke up. It’s the early morning of the winter solstice at the end of 2011. I lay in the longest darkness, my mind racing over pre-holiday failures and ineptitudes—hadn’t gotten cards in the mail yet, hadn’t shopped thoughtfully enough, hadn’t put away my laundry or finished my post-semester library straightening. These kinds of thoughts have a way of unfolding into gaping largeness in the dark hours of a sleepless morning. I had awoken from one hell into another, both of them emerging from my own mysterious mind. Note to self, I thought, hell is real. I’m making it all up, but it’s nonetheless real.
I’m not stictly a materialist, but I’ve considered the question and come to the conclusion that I don’t believe in the Christian hell. I am sensitive to human weakness and failure, and when you see it all around you, so clearly in people you love, you are all the more sensitive to your own brokenness, but I don’t believe in evil or sin. I’m not a Christian, and evil and sin are not part of my world-view. I’m not a Christian, and yet I agree with Bing Crosby that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I put up a tree every year and decorate it with my hundreds of ornaments. It’s a Wonderful Life is my favorite movie. I can’t stop singing Christmas carols. There isn’t one Christmas tradition I don’t like, from kissing under the mistletoe, to giving presents, to leaving milk and cookies out for Santa. These things nourish my spirit, Christian or not. I tell myself that I’m not really celebrating the birth of Christ; I’m celebrating the birth of a child, any child, the Everychild whose entrance into the world knits the love between two people together into a family and draws all our hopes for the future into a tangible, possible present. It’s a celebration of the family of man, when all our best instincts—generosity and kindness and joy—are activated and at large. The great Christian Mass of the birth of the Son also corresponds with the solstice and the ancient festivities around the rebirth of the sun. It makes so much sense to me that in the darkest days of the year, we light hundreds of little lights and sing songs and wrap things in bright paper and ribbons and walk around joyfully wishing each other Happy This and Merry That. Finding reasons to love and be happy when the world is darkest is proof to me of humanity’s sustaining genius.
All this long, strange autumn, during which time I was not writing my blog, I was proccupied by two things—teaching my courses and the Occupy Wall Street movement. I taught Creative Writing and two sections of Fantasy Fiction this semester, but regardless of what course I’m teaching, the primary lesson I aim to impart is always the same—we make the world with our thoughts and our actions. Of course, we are born into a world and we recieve all of its circumstances and assumptions at birth, like it or not, but we each have the capacity to step into that glimmering world of our fantasy that hovers like breath right in front of us, in our close, possible future. Still, so many people deny the existence of that world, that possibility, with crazy-making statements such as, “That’s just reality.” People accept top-down hierarchies, identifying themselves with Greek letters such as alpha and beta because “that’s just the way it is,” disregarding the possibility of a lateral organization of society. Germaine Greer says, “The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy, but fraternity.” We are brothers and sisters, not masters and servants, not haves and have-nots, not alphas and betas, in the shimmering world that we are about to step into. I’m not talking about the afterlife; it’s the afterlife of injustice that I’m talking about.
Some might say, “Well, that’s just not reality,” but most people wouldn’t know reality if it bit them in the guts. Reality without possibility is hell. The brilliant men and women I admire don’t pronounce upon but postulate about reality, admit the polyvalence and complexity of it, and assume humility in the process of inquiring into such a grandiose subject. That’s one difference between a philosopher and an average person. Philosophia means “love of wisdom,” not “love of one’s own opinion,” or “one’s own voice.”
There must be times in life when everyone falls in love with the sound of her own voice, usually when she has a fantastic story to tell about herself. I can think of two times in my life when I had such stories. The first time was when I returned from my first trip to Europe, where I’d hitch-hiked around, sleeping in fields and abandoned buildings, getting drunk with truckers, gondoliers, and street musicians. This was the best story I could think of at the time (I was twenty-one), and it was about me, and I told it as often as I could to anyone who would listen. Living that story and then telling it shaped me, filled me with passions and sureties and virtues that would drive me for many years after.
The second story to have that effect on me developed during the anni mirabiles when I first started teaching. Years of miracles, but the miracles weren’t mine; they were possessed by my students—all those precious people who put their faith in me and opened themselves so graciously to whatever I had to show them. I couldn’t stop tears from choking my eyes and throat when I told that story, and I loved my voice, my story, my students, and whoever seemed interested in us. Both of these stories are about connection, I find. I flung myself into the world and found hands that caught mine, and held me, and in that embrace I recognized myself as invincible, unassailable, indomitable.
I don’t believe that people must dominate others in order to be indomitable themselves, and I wonder if the urge to be good and the urge to be great are ultimately incompatible. Ignoring the very concept of a beta, Jesus Christ said, “I am the alpha and omega,” the full gamut, the everything. He wasn’t just speaking as the son of a god, I feel, not as a supreme being, but as a philosopher or a poet who is in a moment of revelation aware of himself as connected to every single existing thing. The first and the last hold dark mysteries, and the trick of transcendence is seeing beyond alpha and omega to the eternal return of cycles of being in which we are all always implicated. Revered poets from Taliesin to Tagore lose subject-object differentiation in inspired moments, and actually become the bird on the wing, the wave on the shore, the star in the firmament. James Joyce says, “We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-law. But always meeting ourselves.”
The subject encounters the object which in turn reflects the face of the subject again, and whether this cycle is selfish or selfless, spiritually boundless or hopelessly circumscribed, is itself a mystery. Either way, it seems to me a healthier attitude toward one’s fellow humanity and surrounding reality than simplistic binary dominance. It irks me to be in situations with people who truncate Christ’s cry of wonder to “I am the alpha,” supporting their claim of superior and inferior people with the statement, “Well, that’s just reality.”
Not mine. Not in my friendships or classrooms or casual or professional relationships, in all of which I strive to achieve partnership, communion, alliance, collaboration, mutuality, equality, compassion, communication, and appreciation. I’m a double Leo and quite a loudmouth, so maybe it would be easier to just dominate the people I encounter, but that’s not the reality of my desire and not the reality of my best moments in life, when I have dangled minutely in a radiance that illuminated every passerby, every note of music, every slow second, every bite of bread, every pedestrian object, every piece of stone or dirt or wood or bone or even plastic and poison with the brightest, most piercing relevance and significance, and I was just amazed at my good fortune to be part of it all.
In my worldview, if Christmas is the celebration of a human child, then it is also, maybe paradoxically, a reminder that for each of us, our true parents are gods. We are not merely the flawed progeny of fallible earthly parents, but the sons and daughters of earth-shaping, reality-making divine beings. To a Christian that is impossible and impious, and to a materialist, it is impossible and foolish, but below layers of fear and doubt, you sense it’s true. We share so evidently in our true parents’ divine natures—we create lives and worlds, we act, we love, we destroy. We work in mysterious ways. There isn’t anything a god has done that humanity has not; we create our world, we are responsible for it, and we are the active, shaping links between fantasy and reality.
Let nothing you dismay! Merry Christmas!