Gratitude

– a Short Story
One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness.

– Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Merle was waiting. Having extricated herself from the university, she was living with a dozen other youth in a disintegrating Victorian on Hearst Street in Berkeley. She spent her time smoking dope with whoever happened to wander through the bead-curtained doorway, and hoping her life would turn out ok. She slept on the living room floor between the coffee table and the stereo, which played all night.

Last year, as a freshman at Stanford, she’d had her first LSD experience. A Jewish boy with a goatee, a business major who marketed marijuana cookies, took her to the Fillmore to hear Janis Joplin, and they had swallowed the pink pills in the car on the way to the city. The Fillmore, which had several floors and no seating, was jammed with people. Looking for the bathroom, she got lost in the black holes between the strobe-lit dancers. The bathroom seemed to be the purple room, where costumed females were doing inexplicable things into the mirror. Somehow she made her way back to the boy again. He was gentle and solicitous in his white shirt and tie. The light show flared, disappointingly two-dimensional, on a wall. The big room reeled with blinking bodies.

When they got home he showed her a picture of his fiancee, a slim girl with long dark hair, waiting for him back in Connecticut. Suddenly aware that she had made a colossal mistake, she wept, furious, inside herself. To him she said, “She’s pretty.”

They had sex, a last ditch hope. As she had expected, it was nothing. He, however, was grateful and amazed. “Really?? Your first time? That’s wonderful, I’m so flattered!” She asked him why. He said it was something every guy wanted. To take a virgin.

Free love and LSD. The crumpled bed of her deflowering. Messy. Nothing more.

Even so, it never occurred to her to try a different lifestyle. She was on a quest – a quest for certainty that she was a normal human being, like everyone else, that she belonged here, and that here was somewhere worth belonging to. Sex and LSD were the known formula for happiness. She must have been doing something wrong.

—–

In the house on Hearst Street, Rob and Luce were the responsible ones. Merle and eight or nine others were just there, taking space. The rent was paid by mysterious forces, the peanut butter and bread appeared by slight of hand. Into and out of the black-lit living room the youth of the world wandered, smoking dope, exchanging knowing nods, sometimes staying for days or weeks, sometimes moving on. Rock music played eternally on the radio.

Rob had a contact for Owsleys. “Blue barrels” they were called – cylindrical purplish pills. LSD was a sacrament, hopeful and wonderful. And dangerous, a rite of initiation. If it went wrong, if you were unworthy, it could destroy you. But Merle was willing to take the risk. Life was mysterious, and she wanted to know that the mystery was good. This was supposed to be the way out of doubt. If she fell, there was always her parents’ home, distasteful refuge.

She liked David, a boy of 16. Perhaps she loved him – which was embarrassing, because she was already 21, an adult. He was a peaceful youngster with long brown hair and wire rimmed spectacles, like John Lennon. It was his tranquility she liked. He believed you could do things with your thoughts. Like everyone, he smoked dope and took acid – but he knew something more. Once when everyone in the house was tripping, he brought her brown rice in a ceramic bowl – a precious gift. It tasted of the earth.

David talked about meditation. He said anybody could do it. She assumed that she alone would not be able to master it. Still, she had nothing to lose. She might try. Anything, as long as it didn’t hurt too much.

Another time, on another trip in the purple night, she saw without surprise that she and the others were all gods and goddesses, living in eternity. A mark of light at the third eye designated them immortal. Life was timeless and blessed…

—–

Then came the final trip.

San Francisco, across the bay, was prophesied to fall into the sea on April 13. They climbed to the hills, to watch. When nothing happened, they came down again. Merle was wearing her brown felt hat, the one she had bought from a San Francisco street vendor. It was a favorite possession – it looked good on her, and shaded her eyes with its wide floppy brim. The day was bright, yellow and white, the bay shining below as they came down the mountain into the city.

On the way down, they took some Owsleys.

When the acid came on, you could tell by the rush, the nervous crawling inside your gut. That was because it was cut with speed. Owsleys were supposed to be pure, of course, but with really pure acid, it would have been a smooth ride. They said. She had never had a smooth ride.

The others had already gone on, somewhere else. No, she was wrong – there they were, walking beside her – Rob, the father, muscular with a brown afro and leopard skin vest; Luce, the willowy sister-girlfriend-mother; Twin, the dark-curled rocker from Marin; and Billy, a blond boy with a limp, just arrived from Southern California last night, who had forgotten where he had left his old VW bug. The sun was hot and white, they walked on, stumbling down the mountain.

The road became a ribbon of protoplasm, bubbling in the sun. Houses and storefronts, cars, bushes, clouds, human bodies – everything was protoplasm, squeezed and mounded into odd shapes. The hat. She had taken it off, and it was in her hand. Why keep it? It was only more stuff, without purpose. She dropped it in the gutter. Her shoulder bag also, a useless object full of useless objects. She dropped that too.

“What are you doing!? You have to keep your things!” Rob appeared beside her and put the things back in her hands. OK, she assented silently. Other people understood the world, what and why it was, and how to be in it. She hung the purse on her shoulder, that odd extension of her flesh, and closed her hand on the hat. She walked on, down the hill, senseless noises burping and erupting all around her.

Now she was on another asphalt road, in the country. A road by the ocean. Alone, in a tiny blue sports car like a rickety space capsule, she was going down the road. The road looked like Highway 1, a stretch where she sometimes hitchhiked south, except that this road was a loop. She was going around and around on it, passing by the sea and then dipping into a valley of green fields. Then around and up again. She felt carsick. She had been doing this forever and ever, alone in the car. But she was not driving, there was no way to stop, no way to get out, no way to leave the road or the car. This she knew, with sickening certainty. This was life, which she had been trying to get out of forever. Helpless, exhausted, beaten, she knew she could never leave this eternal circuit.

But then, even more maddeningly, she would forget that it was hopeless. Every time she reached a certain point in the loop, she would begin to hope – to imagine, just barely, that she might escape. Weakly, painfully, she would struggle to focus, intent that this time she might find the way out… Then, too late, just as she reached the curve, she would remember, in that circular eternity, that she was stuck here. Stuck and alone in an absurd world that she alone did not understand, a world to which she alone did not possess the key.

It did not seem contradictory, in that world where she alone was real, that others watched from outside – others who knew the answer, and would not tell her. From outside her lonely, impenetrable world, faces looked mockingly at her, smiling and inaccessible, shaking their heads, when would she learn, what a pity, ha ha ha. Around and around, alone, absolutely alone, the pointless universe banging and bumping around her, without escape…

At last, days or centuries later, she was back in Berkeley, in the house on Hearst Street. She was lying on a couch, drained and nauseated. Remembering, she stood up, found a tape of a Brandenburg concerto, and put it on the stereo. Her treasured Bach, whose music had blessed her, long ago, with the knowing that life was sublimely OK. Since then, the music of Bach had never failed to rescue her from the deepest despair.

This time it was just so much kerplunk.

After that, she did not take any more LSD. She moved to Boulder Creek, to the deep redwoods, to Sarah’s house. Sarah, enormous like a mountain, white-haired, took in waifs. Every evening, to the young people gathered in her firelight, Sarah would read the teachings of Krishnamurti and the poems of Kabir. Merle’s father sent money for food.

———–
They kept the Anomaly in a castle in the countryside, far from the city. It was a small castle; around the central courtyard the gray stone walls rose up to the distant circle of sky, which rested like a blue roof on the ramparts. Every day the Anomaly made the rounds, carrying her broom, with which she swept the stairs, the empty hallways, the courtyard. Every day she passed the three window slits, spaced parsimoniously around the circumference of the outer walls, and peered out through each one at the green slopes creeping away toward the sky. She did not know what was out there, beyond those hills. She only knew that she had never found a door out.

Not that she was looking for one. This was her place; she had been there as long as she could remember. In heat and cold, wet and dry, she made her rounds, her footsteps echoing, the wind howling in the passageways. She had been carrying out this task, this circumscribed wandering, for unnumbered years.

One day, in an underground hallway that passed beneath the courtyard, she heard something – a scratching, choking sound. Curious, she stopped and listened. There it came again, from behind a door. She laid her ear against the wood. Again something rasped, dry and fitful. Her hand found the latch and pressed. The door opened into a red dimness.

There, in the center of a small round chamber, a Raven hunched on a tall wooden perch. It looked at her resentfully and croaked. Her heart lurched. It was the first living thing she had seen in the castle, in all her memory.

She looked at the Raven and slowly took in the dank, mossy walls, the floor littered with fruit rinds and splattered with excrement. The bird sat, his black feathers fluffed in irritation, hopping now and then from one foot to the other. When he hopped, an iron chain jangled on one leg, binding him to the perch. He cawed again as if clearing his throat, and blinked at her angrily.

She backed out of the room, pulling the door shut. Then she continued on her rounds, sweeping and walking.

This bird was something new, and she had a disturbing feeling that she should do something about it. It seemed to want out. But it was obviously part of the castle, something that came with the place. Who was she to change things? In all these years she had never changed anything.

She continued her work. Up the stairs, down the corridors, past the closed doors of empty rooms. She made an entire round of the castle, passing the window slits without stopping. Avoiding the underground passage, she crossed the cobbled courtyard instead. It was not absolutely necessary to go into the underground passage…
————–
Waiting for her sixteen-year-old son to come out of his therapy session, Merle watched a tall young man struggle up the stairs with the third piece of furniture all by himself. This one was a desk. She had already watched him maneuver a bookcase and a small table around the turns of the narrow stairway and through an office door. She smiled at him as he staggered into the office once more. After a moment he reappeared.

“Is that the last one?” she asked him.

“Actually, yes,” he replied.

“I was going to offer to give you a hand; guess I’m too late.”

“Thank you,” he smiled. “I would have offered you a free massage session.”

“Oh, too bad.” A free massage would have been a treat. But when she asked him what kind of massage he did, and he said it was abdominal massage, she was relieved she had said nothing. Abdominal massage – how weird.

Her son, Michael, was seeing a therapist for anxiety following a bad experience with marijuana. He had been smoking with friends at school for a couple of years, and although she remembered her own marijuana days with antipathy, she had thought marijuana relatively mild, and had not objected. She told herself she had been instinctively following the first part of one of the principles of Universal Humanism, as recently explained to her by the therapist: “Do not oppose a great force; wait until it weakens, then advance with resolution.” The great force being peer pressure and the youthful desire to experiment.

She felt her thoughts on the matter flying every which way, like ragged birds. Her own parents had been against drugs; she remembered clearly their admonition to “Never, never take heroin” – that being the only drug they had heard of. And to be sure, she had never taken heroin. They hadn’t said anything about LSD, since they hadn’t known about it. If they had forbidden LSD, would she have heeded them? She didn’t know.

But she had a conviction, which she could no more disobey than gravity, that you couldn’t forbid your children to do things unless those things were clearly harmful to themselves or others. Arbitrary parental control would simply prompt them to disconnect from you. If she had told her son he couldn’t smoke marijuana, he would have pleasantly agreed, and continued to do so; and later on, he would have been unable to talk to her about anything he experienced under its influence. This way he was still communicating with her. She was not sure she would even have opposed his taking LSD, since, although powerful, it was not addictive or physically harmful. After all, horrible as her last experience had been, it had impelled her on the search that had brought her this far. And that was something she had never regretted.

On the good side of Michael’s trauma, the therapist was acquainting her with some interesting ideas. Refusing to regard his patients as “sick,” he focused instead on helping them use their best attributes to overcome their problems. He suggested Michael participate in some kind of volunteer work that he could feel good about, helping others in some way – that this would do more than anything to strengthen his self-image. He assured Merle she was doing fine with her son, that she should just remain available, and regard this as an opportunity to “advance with resolution,” now that Michael was receptive to other options than blindly following the pack.

On her own behalf she had asked the therapist what he recommended for sleep, since she had been troubled by insomnia for several years now. He told her that as a fellow insomniac, he had recently been getting good results with abdominal massage from a young man named Paul, a new practitioner in the building. He felt Paul was gifted as a healer, although still young and lacking in life experience.

Too bad she hadn’t helped the young man after all. She called him and made an appointment.

———-

This form of abdominal massage, as Paul explained over the phone, was an ancient Taoist technique developed by the monks to increase their ability to tolerate high levels of energy. She was glad of that – at least it was something with a spiritual intent, tested over the ages, not just some visceral health fad.

It was a Saturday afternoon when she climbed the stairs to his office. Airy with bay windows, it was almost empty. He had arranged the desk, table and bookcase against the walls, which were hung with framed Taoist diagrams showing the human body and mysterious symbols of what might be the flow of energy. In the middle of the floor was a futon. Paul asked her to lie there, on her back.

Feeling awkward, she lay down. Paul was tall and athletic, with earnest blue eyes, and was very young, probably in his mid-20s; she could easily be his mother. He knelt beside her and explained that this was a deep but gentle massage. Breathing was key – breathing deep into the belly, as if into the sacrum, the flat, v-shaped bone at the base of the spine. The chest should not move – only the abdomen. He had her pull back her shirt and fold her pants down below the navel – and she felt even more exposed, her belly bare in the white light of the bay windows. But when he laid his hands softly on her skin, she relaxed. “Breathe in through your nose…” She closed her eyes and began to follow his voice…

Merle is young, in her wandering days.

She is in Santa Cruz, in a house where she lives with several friends. It is an old adobe house, a former chicken coop, near the beach – white walled, with a sloping red-tiled floor. Sitting at a rough plank table, she and several young people, full of innocent vitality, are sharing soup and bread. The evening light lies golden around them. Out the window, the sun is setting in rose and orange tones over the ocean. Nasturtiums climb around the open doorway, and you can see out across white sand, across the dunes toward the sea.

It is a time in her life that until now she has always remembered with an anguished aversion: a painful time, a time of hiding the dark secret of her intense and hopeless loneliness. A time of believing herself unlovable. The future had loomed hollow before her…

But now – and this is no mere memory – she is here, truly here, as if she had never left, living this multifaceted moment as she was never able to live it before.

And she knows, with a quiet recognition, that every living particle of this world, and every being who shares it, is immortal, that Life is forever triumphant, beyond fear. She knows that nothing real is lost – that after all our imaginary constructs of despair pass away, we are here, washed clean, warm and vital. Time – timeless time – is unending, full of infinite peace. Intense joy and gratitude suffuse her being. Reality is sweet like the essence of all summers.

And she was lying on an office floor in San Francisco, on an afternoon when the world believed itself to be careening in chaos and discord – receiving a massage.

She heard herself say earnestly, “If I don’t come back, will they arrest you for murder?” She heard Paul make a noise, part gasp, part laugh. He sounded a little unnerved, and she could not blame him.

She was facing an impossible conundrum. The two realities – the new, deathless reality and the old, dead one – did not fit together; she did not see how she could be in both at once. Yet there must be a way – a way to abide in the knowledge that we do not die, and to bring that knowledge back to others, back to her beloved and agonized world.

The duality was illusion, she knew. What seemed to be two worlds were really one. It was just that now, with a peace that surpassed understanding, she had drunk in the essence of life for the first time. And at the same time her body was anchored in the old dead and chaotic world, where faith was her only lifeline…

At the end of the session, lying there in the regular world, she knew it was inevitable that she return to that reality. And now, although she did not understand it, she was glad to be there – her mind felt clean. Paul was looking at her uncertainly. “You had a strong experience,” he said. “Every experience is different; if you do it again, it won’t be the same.”

“It was incredible,” she smiled at him. “I don’t understand it though. Do you? I was in another reality.”

“The Taoists say there is another reality you can experience if you meditate and study for many years,” he ventured. No – he did not understand. As the therapist had suggested, this boy had a gift with his hands, but did not yet know the realm to whose gates he had unwittingly escorted her.

———–

Merle turned, walked to the underground passage and descended the stairs into the dark corridor. Half way down the passage she found the door, opened it and entered. The bird crouched on its perch, its eyes gleaming. Seeing her, it lunged upward, and was jerked back by the iron chain. From inside her robe, she drew the golden key and fitted it into the lock around his leg. A soft click, and the iron fell away. The Raven spread his wings, beat them – and the dark chamber exploded into light.

Before her, the road opened toward the sky and the hills. With a free heart, she set out walking toward the land beyond.

 
 

 

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