Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Lightning. Enter Witches.

I awake slowly, nestled against Martha spoon-fashion, my hand on her breast. Our usual sleeping posture. Flickers of blue lightning through the skylight, but no thunder that I can hear. A spatter of rain. I turn a few times, ending up on my back.

My thoughts climb their way through their spiderweb lattice of schemes and anxieties and desires, Restless little movements of pride and humiliation. I watch them, idly. Eventually I sleep a little more.

Morning. I pad silently downstairs. Past Alan, asleep on the couch, his hair tousled and his mouth open. I wonder when he got to sleep. Last night I came down at 3:30 and he was still up, playing gameboy. He's taken suddenly to sleeping out of his room. I did the same thing at his age. A restlessness that comes on with puberty, maybe. I wonder, not very hopefully, if there's anything I can do to ease this time of his life. It was a nightmare time for me. I hope it's somewhat better for him.

Into my room downstairs, the exercise-cum-shrine-room, to do my stretches and back exercises. I like to do them, which is fortunate, because I have to do them. If I skip one morning, I may pull my back that day. If I skip two mornings, I almost certainly will, and then I'm looking at weeks of pain and disability. So I don't skip any at all, not any more.

Clean the shrine. Empty the dishwasher. Brush my teeth. Upstairs to say goodbye to Martha, who is still mostly asleep, and then out to the car, my backpack over my shoulder and my laptop under my arm. I drive through the bright morning. The streets are still wet from last night's brief rain. My windshield is clotted with moistened pollen, so I spritz it and run the windshield wipers, wondering, for the umpteenth time, what they make that windshield-cleaner with and whether I should use it. I make a mental note to check on that. I recognize, as I do it, that I have made that note well over a hundred times, and that I am almost certain never to follow up on it. That's okay.

At Tosi's I run through my routine, lovingly practicing my Chinese characters, and then doing the exercises in my book. Reading simple, made-up Chinese sentences. Real Chinese is beyond me, even a first-grade primer with a running pinyin crib defeats me -- even when I know all the characters, just about every sentence I try to read comes apart into a meaningless jumble of semantic atoms. But this carefully predigested pap I can work my way through, if I'm patient. I am patient.

I could bring my laptop in from the car and blog. But maybe not today. I start drawing a napkin, a portrait of a weak-chinned man with bulging eyes and a pointy nose, his jaw dropped, his expression one of consternation. I never know what I'm going to draw before I draw it. Is that me? Is he waking up to lightning and silent thunder?

Too much space below, so I fill in the bottom right corner with a cryptic flourish. A meaningless symbol. Is it meant to assert my wizardry? Maybe. It has the specious appeal of such frauds as the "Theban language," which I learned over the weekend.

"It's not a spoken language," she said. "It's very old. Witches use it. I write in it a lot, that way I can write in my notebook at work, and nobody knows what I'm writing."

"Not a spoken language? I've never heard of such I thing," I said, in considerable delight. She shows me her notebook, written out in an unfamiliar, awkward script, interspersed with schoolgirl pictures of women brandishing swords, and being pierced by them. "See? This is an m," she says. My delight dwindles. Not a language. This is English, written in a simple substitution cipher. But she thinks it so very cool that I'm still charmed by her enthusiasm.

I find it easily on the web. Earliest known use by Cornelius Agrippa -- so it really is old -- and ascribed by him (falsely, I'm quite sure) to some Theban magician. An ugly and unwieldy script -- a tyro's alphabet. I've invented far more graceful and useful scripts. But I learn it. Write a few pages in it, experimenting. I like the challenge of trying to make an obstinately ugly script beautiful. The back-leaning 'u's and 'w's definitely have to go. The letters have to be collapsed a little, so the awkward middle space is less apparent. The crosses across some of the letter-stems can be made into flourishes that use some of that space too. But it's still ugly. So much of witchcraft strikes me this way: made-up, parading a mystery and power that's quite beyond it, solemnly asserting that commonplace modern platitudes are really ancient traditions. My ecumenical tolerance is strained by Wicca, I admit.

Oh, I'm sure that "drawing down the moon" brings real visions and authentic spiritual experiences. I don't doubt that part at all. But those are the easy parts. Anyone can lead a person to a vivid experience of the numinous. Any Victorian table-turner, any TV evangelist, any psychotherapist or crystal-gazer can do that. The hard part is transformation, and stabilizing transformation. That's what you go to a religious tradition for. That repository of hard-won experience, the breadth of an understanding that has survived a dozen different cultures. What's the use of being possessed by Artemis if, when she leaves, I'm the same person I was before? That's not a spiritual practice. It's just spiritual intoxication.

Why am I so afraid of fraud, I wonder? Why am I so convinced I am fraudulent? My mind turns that direction stubbornly, persistently. I wonder how much of every day I devote to hunting down the inauthentic in myself, and (publicly, of course) nailing its antlers up on the wall? What's the use of this hunt? What does it serve? It might be of some profit to think that over.

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