|Man Ray, Indestructible Object|
(Image: Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Yeah, yeah, the Maori ancestor voices and gay-guy goddess books... what about that Bible high in the closet? What about religion?
The house I grew up in wasn't religious-- we didn't go to church or claim a denomination, my parents rarely even spoke of God; I don't know where my interest in the subject came from, but it's always been there. When I was four I hauled some 2X4s from the garage out onto the lawn, laid them down, and arranged them into a cross upon which I then arranged myself. My dad said the neighbors probably wouldn't appreciate this game and made me put the 2X4s up. A while later, six months or a year, or maybe the same time, or maybe before (time stood still before school), I took up a plastic sword and became the Conquering Jesus, galloping through the house and over the battlefields of Armageddon towards certain victory. I imagined ignorant, Matchbox-size armies shooting at me, and vocalized their sound effects as I smote them-- I was fifty feet tall!! and dodged their bullets like Neo. "If you're Jesus, why do you need to dodge the bullets?" asked my mom. I couldn't answer that question, and found it embarrassing enough to quit the game, but I still admired Jesus like he was a ballplayer. The certainty of My victory somehow bothered me, too, but I knew Jesus was a nice guy who deserved to win.
After my stint as Jesus, my childhood spiritual path meandered. I loved the Bible stories my mom read me from the Golden Press Children's Bible, and kept reading the book as I grew older, though its stories more and more seemed creepy and the illustrations seemed a civilized hand's attempt to stay the savagery of some crazed dead world. We had many more Frank Edwards and Charles Fort and Erich von Daniken and UFO books than we had Jesus books, and those had their impact on me, too, eventually. In first grade my teacher (illegally) read us Bible stories; I found them dull and interminable, even Samson and those pillars (though I admit I thought the teacher was saying "pillows"). A couple of years later I checked out a book on witchcraft from the library and tried to turn my friend Quentin into a rabbit--with his consent, though he stubbornly remained in human form, there on the front porch in view of the launch pad whence humans still, in those days, traveled to the moon.
In 7th grade I spotted my mom's childhood Bible on a high closet shelf, and schemed to liberate it, that its eternal secrets I might imbibe. I asked her about it, I think, and I think she said something to fend me off like "We'll get you your own Bible some day." What was in that book? I still believed without question that some Book, somewhere, had the Answers or at least a good portion of them, so in some way or other the Bible found its way out of the closet and into my room where it became my companion in many an evening's frustrated reading and in a few evenings' rapt revelations. I knew I was supposed to respect this book (even my seemingly godless parents had drummed that into me), though its pages sagged not under the weight of insight or inspiration but mostly under begats and lepers and dietary rules and one egomaniacal sinner after another. Eventually I wised up and read Good News for Modern Man, which I found much more to my liking... yet as much I as I rooted for Jesus and the Apostles, the New Testament, too, seemed perpetually disappointing, distant, and logic-free. As much as I wanted to believe in something, it wasn't going to be the Bible.
My first taste of bhakti, besides middle-school crushes, happened in ninth grade, after my early career as a pothead was cut short by a bad trip on some really strong-ass sinse that may have had something else in it. [Weirdly, during this trip I saw visions that included a mysterious shadow-woman and a mesmerizing purple anemone-thing I found again 30 years later while exploring the Mandelbrot Set.] Abandoning dope for God, I started attending the Pentecostal church a good friend of mine went to, and buddy, whatever they had there was stronger than a boatload of good weed. Plenty of times I saw the Dharmakaya light in waves, in sheets like pouring rain, all over everyone in that church as they spoke in tongues and communed with Jesus and cried.
I wanted so much to speak in tongues myself, but never did. The doctrines of that church were wacky--they can be found verbatim in any Chick comic-- but there was Something There, and forever after I've figured that there's little worth to anything if there ain't Something There, if the Light isn't bursting through. This belief, back then in ninth grade, had me chasing through the Bible to find the stilled letters of that Something, and later had me reading enough biblical criticism and history to reject the Bible as any kind of historical record, and later had me doing crazy things like driving to Georgia in search of Marian apparitions and hanging out with gurus and metaprogramming my brain with the 12 Steps and the 8 Basic Winner and Loser Scripts. The Something, even when I was in ninth grade, seemed bigger than the Christian god, or any god.
It wasn't there in any of the Baptist churches I went to, which presented themselves as purely verbal-- correct doctrine and quality of "preaching" were paramount-- but It was there winking between the notes of my mom's Thelonious Monk records.... It stared at me from the single eye of Man Ray's Indestructible Object, It rose like perfume from the pages of Augustine and Eliot, It danced in palm trees, steamed from sargassum on the beach, clung to the curves of girls' bodies and animated their steps and rang in their voices. I longed for It, yet couldn't abide Pentecostalism and didn't know enough to even look for It in other religions, not that there were any around to choose from. When I got to college I met hawkers from various cults that promised It and more, but they were all Baptists when you got down to it; even the Hare Krishnas, despite their trippy gods and exotic, delicious food, talked like the smug Sunday-best crowd at the big church downtown: correct doctrine, Holy Don'ts, fantasies of righteous separation from the very social petri dish that bounded and nourished their tax-exempt meme culture.
So religion seemed more and more a wash, which didn't dull my interest but rather set me searching farther afield, though cushioned now by academic aspirations. If I couldn't reliably define It or locate It with any frequency, then what did other people in other places and times think about It? Something my Anthropology of Religion professor said really made me sit up: apparently in the Aboriginal Dreamtime It is everywhere, in every feature of the land, and we all live in It all the time. I received this news, sitting there in a featureless classroom in Central Florida, the way one receives news of a catastrophe or piece of incredibly good fortune-- Pearl Harbor, the polio vaccine: my world changed shape. I had assumed that "religion" involved covenants and sin, scriptures and strictures, that it was a moral poultice applied to an already extant, albeit sick, creation. Here Dr. Jones was presenting me with religions (we also looked at vodoun, almost as striking as the Dreaming) that were not commentaries on life or evasions of it, but universes entire. Of course I'd read about Christian cosmologies from centuries past, but the Christianity I knew first-hand vacillated so aimlessly between geocentrism and the transistor age that its cosmos ended up having no shape at all.
I don't recall any great urge at this time to read up on the Dreamtime, which is good because I was home for the summer taking classes at a local college, and there were no major-league libraries anywhere in driving radius. (Kids, this was about a century and a half before the Web.) That's OK, because the precursor to the Web, Weirdnet, the global information collective of freaks everywhere, was about to come knocking. In fact, it already had: professors I'd had earlier that year had me reading Woman and Nature and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, and my friend Grigorss was about to demand, as only fellow members of Weirdnet can do: drop everything right now and Read These Books. This demand was going to be serendipitously aligned with a jaw-dropping introduction to psychedelia, which was going to coincide with an immersion in the work of William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Throbbing Gristle, which would then be followed by an introduction to fractal geometry and my own life-changing vision of the Goddess. If none of this sounds particularly Kaliesque, I'm not surprised, but what was happening was, kind of like those primates jumping around at the beginning of 2001, I was being given the "skillful means" with which to assemble my own rocketship.
It wasn't ultimately about the books or the music or the zines or the bootlegged Kenneth Anger films or even the drugs; they were so many ratchets and tech manuals. It was that a parallel cultural universe welcomed me into it and said: you, your mind, and the cosmos are not separate and not static... your mind and the cosmos are both engines that you can tinker with, soup up, and rebuild... come back to me. "In the beginning," I was learning, was right now.