In Arroyo Seco peach blossoms chatter in the late April trades. They move against the weathered latilla fence, lace against lace. Through their layered stitcheries the soft green mountains swell up toward snowy peaks, and to the west blocked horizons of mesa stretch out in pink and sage. You can see a hundred miles.
The April wind carries in the blue colors of the north, surprising the body. In New Mexico there is no white anywhere, except painted lines down roads and the top hats of certain cumulous clouds. The northern colors heighten, but do not change, the adobe blush of the land that has risen in the color of the native peoples and that every new day rises into the pale skin and eyes of more recent settlers.
Little by little, as the new ones live on this rosy land, the colors of their clothes change, their curtains. You begin to see that any biped dropped upon the land will soon enough be colored by the land, will dance the way the land dances, paint as the land paints, channel the vocalizations of the place. Any animal will become a buffalo or a coyote or a gleaming raven.
The underbellies of reachable clouds are the terra cotta color of pots turned just below. Distance is different here. Dirt floors are soaked in ox blood and worn to a low sheen. Money is different. Old windows are leaning around everywhere, waiting for their next whenever. Time is different, work is different. Mistakes are woven into otherwise perfect patterns, a sacrament, a deliberate humiliation before God.
What perfect means is different.
From the New Edition of Epiphanies
I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where the edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international boundaries. Often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.
– Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
My first public reading of Epiphanies fell on a spring evening of 2003, shortly after its publication in hard cover. The event was at Black Oak Books, my comfortable neighborhood bookstore in Berkeley, but I was nervous. I had written something that would be hard to shelve in bookstores or in people’s minds, because it tries to situate itself at that place where seemingly disparate worlds meet and spark: the worlds of postmodern science and age-old miracle stories. Plus I felt tenderly toward the stories my therapy clients had generously agreed to share with readers, even protective.
The room was crowded with people I knew and didn’t know. Taking a breath, I launched into the pages I had marked ahead of time. As I read along I began to feel a warm receptivity in the room, and when it came time for questions, a lively conversation broke out. Then something happened that took me completely by surprise.
A woman who had been standing alone at the side of the room raised her hand. Shyly she said, “I feel moved to share an experience I’d almost forgotten. As a child, I was lying in the grass at a park near our house, daydreaming. Through the green, my eyes suddenly went to the yellow blur of a dandelion, and I just felt the universe open up to me.” She waited for just the right words. “It was immensely peaceful, ecstatic – like the truth of the way things really are. It had the quality of a new revelation and yet something I had always known, even before I was born.”
The room had gone quiet to hear her soft voice, and now there was a hush.
Finally a young man at the back raised his hand and said to her, “May I ask you, did you ever tell anybody about your experience? I’m wondering, because something like it happened to me once. A portal opened into a completely wordless, timeless place – beautiful – and I never told a soul.”
“No, I don’t think I ever told anybody until tonight,” she said. “It was so simple, so inconsequential in what we call the real world. Invisible, really.”
Since that moment at the Black Oak reading I assume and believe that every person we see on the street has a story like the woman at the side of the room, that it comes with being a person. And since that moment a remarkable stream of stories has been coming my way, stories that have these three fundamentals – an unexpected moment of revelation or deep recognition, an experience of time and place suspended, and, very often, a not-telling or “forgetting.”
Not talking about a revelatory experience seems as important to me as the experience itself. But other stories have been coming too, experiences that had been held quietly but were distinctly not forgotten.
A couple of weeks after my book reading, my letter carrier paused at my front door. “What’s up?” he said. He’d noticed something going on from the mail I was getting.
I told him about the publication of Epiphanies, and he volunteered, “I had an epiphany a few years ago. It came to me in a dream, except I’m not sure I was really asleep. I told my mother about it, and she said, ‘You’ve had an epiphany.’ I knew it was important. I just didn’t know there was a word for it.”
A couple of days later this typewritten account was slipped through the slot with the day’s mail:
“It was at the time in my life when stress was highest. In the middle of a nasty divorce, fighting over custody and money. I had three kids half time, a full time job, enormous child support and no coping skills. Every day I felt like I was stretching farther and farther beyond hope. I blamed my ex-wife, I blamed my employer, I blamed anyone who came into my sights. Then one night I had a dream. As soon as I woke, I knew what it meant, I knew what I had to do and I knew it was going to be OK.
“The dream was short, colorful, and so real that it may have been a visit from an angel. In the dream a man, who was me, was beating a child, who was also me. The anger I felt as the man was so all consuming I didn’t know who I was. The pain the child felt was so strong it was as if it would never end. All of a sudden an angel, who was also me, floated down and put his wings around the man and the child, calming and soothing us. The emotions remained, but the violence was gone.
“I had found my angel and figured out that I could forgive myself.”
Such an encounter would seem to be the best of news for a troubled world. But we live in the shadow of a materialistic worldview that expects scientific proof of angels. Like the fish who asks, “What’s water?” we mostly go about our days unaware of this shadow, even when the most joyous revelation disappears into its folds. Yet science itself is encountering astonishing surprises of its own – ephemeral matter, curved space, liquid time – and our stories, given half a chance, come tumbling out.
One morning I was about to be interviewed about Epiphanies for a one-hour call-in show on National Public Radio. I was in California and the radio show host was in Ohio. Before the show went on, he and I were getting acquainted over the phone, and he asked me an intriguing question.
“I’ve never experienced an epiphany myself,” he said, “but I would guess that it’s important to tend one if you’re lucky enough to have one. How would you counsel a person about that?”
“Tend?” I asked him. “Like tending a garden?” “Exactly.”
What a beautiful image, I thought, and I suggested that we be on the lookout together for a listener call-in that might lead to a discussion about “tending.” He agreed. And we both forgot all about it.
At the end of a lively hour of radio he thanked me, and then he asked off the air if I could hold on while he signed off. “I’ve remembered something I’d like to tell you about privately,” he said.
A minute later he was back. “I have had an epiphany,” he said. “And I’d forgotten it.”
His father, he told me, had been ill for some time after suffering a series of strokes, and he’d gone to visit him at his brother’s house in Maine.
“One evening I was sitting in my father’s room as he slept. A very strong awareness of my late grandfather’s presence came over me. My grandfather died before I was born, and he wasn’t present in any visual or auditory way. It was simply a strong awareness in my mind. He ‘spoke’ to me, and he said, ‘Tell your father I’ll be there to help him across.’ My father remained sleeping, and I walked out into the back yard. The sun was setting. I was very moved, and the strong impression that my grandfather had been present and had given me a message stayed with me.
“Later, when my father woke up, I felt hesitant. I didn’t know how he would react. Would he in any way believe this? But he wasn’t at all surprised. He told me he’d been talking with his dad a lot lately, and he accepted the message with equanimity. Some months later he died. I’d like to think that my grandfather was there with a helping hand and a comforting presence. I don’t know if there is life after death, but that evening my grandfather’s loving presence felt very real.”
A “forgotten” story, told all in a blurt! Then I remembered something. “What do we make of your question about tending now?” He considered for a second. “It looks like I was putting that question to myself, doesn’t it? If I were to tend that moment, my life would be different.”
What comes unfolded in revelatory experience is that we have everything we need – already and always – because the everything we have is inherent in ourselves and in the universe we live in. If we were to tend these moments like gardens, how would our lives be different?