Waking Up to the Big Time
A chapter from Must Not Sleep, a new novel which takes place in shamanic space, a realm of shapeshifting and trance. A free download of Michael Brownstein reading from the novel is available on Podiobooks.com.
Before I knew what was happening, my life buckled and warped and blew itself open. Isaac the son of Abraham. The implications of that. My impressive pedigree, going back to before Jesus even. A hill of fucking beans.
Sure, I had a job. What I did for a living I don't care to go into, though. And I'm even less keen on discussing the parents, the childhood, the adolescence, the young adulthood, etc. The past, I'm allergic to it now. Lingering on what's life-denying only sabotages my new vision. It calls up the wrong forces, forces of negativity and despond rather than sunny invincibility. Dwelling on the past turns life into demonology, into keeping things alive past their time. And I've had more than enough of that already, thank you very much. It's like psychotherapy. Why would anyone want to keep re-visiting the paralyzing fables of the past instead of finding a way to torch them?
And I did find a way. Or rather, the way found me.
But I'll say this much: for fifteen years I worked in a mid-level position for a mid-sized company in midtown Manhattan. Monday through Friday I showed up for work, and the same folks showed up right alongside me with the same attitudes and problems and who-I-ams they had the week before. It never occured to any of us to address such issues at work, of course. That's not what work was for. Until the day came when all of a sudden, for me, the opposite was true. My who-I-am became my work.
I continued with my daily routine for a while, riding the 6 train to midtown, coming home to my apartment, paying the rent. But in reality I was standing absolutely nowhere, without guidance or support--and loving it.
For the first time in my life I looked down and saw that my hands were clutching white paper labels edged in red on which were printed the names of whatever entered my consciousness at the moment:
Sunset pajama party capitalism car alarm DNA DVD young old male female Sunday Monday career taxi lamb curry freedom fries UPC UFO lemon kisses September 11th drink responsibly Christian Moslem Jew
The words on the labels owed their meaning to social convention. They were perfectly arbitrary.
I felt no sense of indignation or betrayal about this, but what a kick in the head.
My new life began with a dream. What the shamans call a big dream. It jumped all over me and wouldn't let go.
Where do such annunciations come from? A consciousness out there in the universe operating on a scale which I can barely comprehend, except that it's also paying scrupulous attention to me, it's taking me into account. My heart melted with gratitude. No matter how impersonal, the universe cared about my well-being. No matter how pitiless, it was also compassionate.
But the topsy-turvy thing was that my dream also woke me up. For the first time. Like bolt-upright. Like a gunshot going off in the next room. Instantly I woke up from the American dream.
Something was calling me to a new life. I'd been chosen. But for what?
Seven nights in a row the same dream:
Anxious and preoccupied, I'm driving recklessly on a rainslicked road at midnight. The words "Gotta get there, can't be late," are echoing in my head, my little automobile barely hugging the high cliffs beside a stormy ocean, when I lose control and find myself plummeting into black.
But instead of feeling terror or fear, at the moment of my impending death I'm bursting with joy. The black through which I'm falling flips into luminous blue space, infinite brilliant blue without boundary or definition.
I hear steady drumming, brisk and vital. And the crisp smell of ozone fills the air.
Looking around, I notice that I'm no longer inside an automobile and I'm no longer falling. Instead I'm floating in space. My arms and legs glow a milky, translucent white. My body's transparent. At its core a narrow tube runs up my spine. Inside the tube, limitless light.
Mind free of thought, I stare straight ahead but focus on nothing.
All my story lines erased.
All my programs gone.
I need nothing, want nothing, fear nothing.
For seven nights my dream incinerated memories and associations. In their place, luminous emptiness.
From the moment I came face to face with death, my cautious style of dealing with life went up in smoke. My distinctive thumbprint of compromise and hesitation melted. My self-image evaporated. Strategies with which I'd navigated until then no longer made any sense.
Lots of things which had seemed rock-solid and unassailable meant nothing now.
Nationalism meant nothing.
"American," that's a label attached to me for all sorts of reasons. But in any case it don't mean a thing. National borders are the edges of a board game sitting on a card table in the living room, and me I'm moving my piece all over the motherfucking house. I'm moving my piece along the sofa, up and down the walls, inside the toilet, out the window. (Hi, sky.)
And that goes for all other borders too. School's out, Ma. It's out for good. The stars and stripes mean nothing, they're just another label. My flag has a glorious sunburst on it, a sunburst surrounded by smiling faces.
Red means nothing, white means nothing, blue means nothing, organized religion means nothing, private property means nothing, wealth means nothing, monogamy means nothing, status means nothing, "me" means nothing, "you" means nothing. The fear which separates us means nothing. Or rather they all do mean something: more labels. Whereas as soon as I drop the labels, wow, the sky's the limit. I'm free.
A new smile, mischievous and vacant, played on my lips. Early one afternoon during my lunch break I removed the black satin yarmulke from my head, bent down to the pavement and deposited it at the curb. "I won't be needing you any longer, my little black label," I whispered tenderly.
I straightened up and added, "In fact the whole Jewish thing, I won't be needing that anymore either."
Another thing I wouldn't be needing was my fortieth birthday, a quickly approaching milestone which I'd been dreading for months. Now it meant nothing.
All the tension drained out of me. My gait was looser, my posture erect and expansive. I could feel this as I made my way down the sidewalk. Chest open, heart exposed, head bobbing comfortably on the end of its string.
Pick a number, any number. Who can tell how old I am anyway? I'm ageless. All my labels done blew off.
It sure felt spooky and outdated to still be chugging off to work, though. I mean, shucks--I'm supposed to keep playing a part in this medieval allegory simply because of a paycheck? I'd been laboring under a delusion. Where I worked and what I did owed their existence to group consensus. They only took on solidity as a result of my unconscious collusion. What a kick in the head.
And how very odd, meeting friends for dinner, to realize it was probably the last time for that too.
This particular evening in late December, 2002 was guys' night out, no ladies invited, and something occured which I couldn't possibly have anticipated: Tommy's soulful description of his strained and mouldering relationship with his wife. Thickening Tommy, forty-something and starting to grey around the temples, perspiring under the unforgiving glare of the Indian restaurant's track lighting.
When he was younger Tommy had been a hard-on, but underneath that tedious and oppressive male weight he'd been looking for love, he had wanted a life companion. When he met Vera, he thought he'd found her. And they got married. And now what?
Now, seven years later, they had morphed into strangers who got on each other's nerves and stored up their grievances and not only that but the thrill was gone.
Floundering like a beached whale, he struggled to make sense of it all. He still loved her, he insisted. But he also felt trapped. What did love mean anyway? He couldn't find the handle anymore for the good times they once had.
"Love is a job like everything else," he concluded in an aggrieved tone and I jumped in my seat.
Check it out, I thought. Nothing escapes the work ethic. The whole set-up has to be called into question. Why aren't relationships a form of play? If a Golden Age once existed, why not now?
How bizarre in the days following my big dream to walk the streets of Manhattan and see the software whirring inside countless craniums. Was it because people couldn't hear themselves think that they wouldn't allow themselves to change? I saw the arbitrary made real out of some sleight of hand or bad habit or unchallenged momentum. I saw labels everywhere, labels mistaken for reality. As if "Daddy" or "Wall Street" or "my unhappy childhood" carried any intrinsic weight. As if "Jesus" belonged to anyone in particular. I realized the real question was who printed up the labels? Who controlled the definitions of things?
Then came high noon. Tuesday, December 31, 2002.
Forget about it, I'm not doing this anymore. It's now or never. Either I listen to my heart or I'm a goner.
I jumped up from my cubicle and headed for the elevator.
The day was unseasonably warm and sunny. I wandered around for hours, losing track of time. Eventually I found myself at the corner of 18th Street and Fifth Avenue. Peering up at the buildings, suddenly I got it: Life is a dream, this life right here and right now, the figures moving past me suffocating in their winter coats, the buildings with the sun coating them a dirty gold, the fine high clouds passing slowly overhead, the mild weather. All of it. And me too. A waking dream.
The late afternoon magic hour began toying with people's heads, conspiring to lighten the load of self-definition. I watched them peeking out from behind their personas as total strangers wished one another happy new year.
I'm standing awestruck at the corner of 18th Street and Fifth Avenue as humans scent their freedom just like any other animal on this sunny afternoon. And how majestic the clouds above us are, the same clouds as always...The weather's gonna change, I can feel it... And people hear me saying to myself loud and clear, "This life's a dream. A waking dream."
Shy smiles from a few, startled or wistful. Secretly daring themselves to join me?
Like that petite fifty-something white woman in a dark wool coat buttoned tightly at the neck, a dark wool coat reaching down to her ankles. Hunched into herself, melancholy and resigned. As she approaches I feel the separation weighing on her heart. And there's more: a name comes to me, Beverly or Beryl. I see something too: she feels guilty. Why? Because years ago she ran away from someone--her mother?--someone who was sick. Still feels guilty even as she's bumping up against the mystery of a life which has deposited this weird guy in front of her who's talking to himself. What's she gonna do? She eyes me nervously and moves on. "You sweet little bird," I want to call out, "no need to take yourself to task. Your mother's always been sick, that's her thing." But she's gone.
Compassion washes over me for Beverly or Beryl, for all of us stuck in the stories we keep telling ourselves. And now I'm singing, enunciating the syllables sharply, "This life is a dream, a glittering fabrication. Automobiles and people and headlines in the news. Bills to pay and accidents and love affairs--everything."
Manhattan in all its detail, a full-on dream. While outside it, unnoticed, unacknowledged, lies eternity, the unknown, the clouds high up and very fine moving across the sky, just like they did centuries ago, aeons ago... Slowly making their way.
I look at people passing by wrapped tightly in their styles, their who-I-ams. Their who-I-ams, that's their gift to the world.
Except uh-oh--each of us could be someone completely different. Because the dream of identity is arbitrary, it's only one path out of many.
So what about me? Will the path I take be empowering or will I continue to choose caution?
Out loud I'm shouting, people shying away from me, "Fuck no! Caution's not an option because nothing can touch me now. School's out, ma. I get to play. I'm free!"
Two days later I gave notice at my job, telling them I'd found work on the West Coast.
"God's work," I confided to Fred, my in-house nemesis, who had found one way after another to torment me over the years. "Not to harm but to heal," I said. "Not to menace but to mend."
He laughed sarcastically. But when he asked me what I was really going to do, I locked eyes with him until he flinched.
"Send me a postcard, OK? If you have the time, that is," he said as he walked away, meaning to reinforce the sarcasm but instead sounding nonplussed, even envious.
And I couldn't help it. Watching him wander off with that passive-aggressive slouch of his, I stole up behind him and whispered at the back of his head as his ears turned red and his shoulders tensed, "Hey Fred, how about this for your next ad campaign: Try our new cradle-to-grave trance. And when you're fixin' to die, after a lifetime of postponement, we'll leave you holding a nice big bag full of Doritos."
Then I went down to lunch.
My feet skimmed the sidewalk as I moved along Fifth Avenue, my jaw muscles aching from the big crystalline smile on my face. The winter weather had returned and a hard January sun shot its cold rays through my weightless body.
Sweet liberty, I'm yours.
I laughed at the prospect of cleaning out my cubicle, removing all the snapshots and post-ems and calendars and Chanukah cards and Christmas cards and notices and files and directives and manuals pinned to the wall or stuffed into drawers or stacked on the floor and feeding them to the shredder.
From now on I embrace the power of intention. I do as I please.
For once in my life I could hardly wait to get back to the office. But just before I turned into the lobby of my building, a woman approaching from the opposite direction noticed me. In her early thirties, easy to look at, with honey-blond hair and an unarmored, inquisitive glance, she saw my smile and stopped in her tracks, raising a hand to her mouth in surprise.
"Tell me," she blurted out in spite of herself and then blushed.
"What's your name?"
She made a sour face.
"Oh, I hate my name," she said vehemently, looking at me for corroboration. "It's Susan Oilman."
White collars coming and going through the revolving door beside us, traffic groaning and squealing in the street, icy grey patches of week-old snow underfoot--none of this registered for us.
"I don't care," I told her. "Whatever name you want. It doesn't matter." By now we were holding hands and grinning at each other like long-lost friends.
"We can be whoever we want," I said. "It's the greatest thing."
She repeated the words somewhat gravely.
"The greatest thing."