Sometimes I still feel it as the airplane lifts off the runway, and for a brief moment my body becomes heavier and my stomach lighter as the ground begins to shrink below me. I definitely feel it as the airplane enters a billowing cloud, and I become temporarily white-blinded and meld with that which from the ground I have often looked up at and tried to find meaningful patterns in.
There are moments of alchemy in which the ethereal crystallizes into the tangible, and the tangible appears to dissipate into ether. These moments are at once pleasurable and gratifying, and occasionally transformative. People seek them, but I don’t think they can easily be found by seeking. They hide whimsically behind trees like children, but only come out when little is expected of them.
In each of these moments, all that exists is that single moment. We are unburdened by the past or future, by pretense or self-consciousness. Shame, guilt, depression and anxiety vanish. We become, fleetingly, exactly what we are and nothing else.
After all, most of us spend our waking hours engaged in acting out some sort of a role—a husband or wife, father or mother, sous chef, poker bluffer, dinner guest. For those of us who may find life outside the confines of our solitude a struggle to put some square part of ourselves into the round holes of social interaction, moments in which all masks are off and our intrinsic selves are all we need to get by are precious. For each of us, I think, whether socially fearful or not, freeing ourselves from the burdens of our roles allows a receptive engagement with the world around us, and when we do so we gain altitude, as it were, elevating those moments above the rest, and in the process elevating ourselves.
These numinous moments have the potential of becoming pivotal when they change the direction of our lives, but that doesn’t happen too often, and for stability’s sake probably shouldn’t. Most of these moments are merely brief glimpses into what we hope heaven might feel like.
While seeking those moments can be a frustrating endeavor, most of us do try to create the conditions under which they are more likely to occur. Whether they are more likely to come in nature among evergreens and moss, or in a dank basement among rusty bicycles and greasy furnaces is a matter, I suppose, of knowing ourselves and our histories. And whether they are more likely to come in a novel environment or one with which we are familiar and have traversed a thousand times, is also an open question.
When and how the numen appears I suppose is different for each of us. It happened to me the other day when a red-haired, fair-skinned waitress with porcelain features and light blue eyes walked tentatively across the floor of the café where I was sitting to deliver some plates. Every movement seemed fragile and uncertain, and something about her vulnerability tugged at me.
It used to happen to me (before my taste was diminished by cancer) when I ate certain sushi and closed my eyes because my visual sense detracted from the climactic experience of the perfect combination of tastes.
I still feel it sometimes when I listen to music and all else in life seems free from worry, often in the voices of Frankie Valli, Sinatra, Paul Williams, or Janis Ian. Occasionally, Tim Moore singing “Second Avenue’ or Tom Waits singing his “Heart of Saturday Night” will set something stirring.
I can feel it when I touch a beautifully bound and printed book, or see a glimpse of a painter’s soul in her art. I used to feel it on boats moving across a body of water, perhaps in the primitive recollection of being tucked safely in the uterus, the taste of the saline mist and the gentle rocking as if held in loving arms. I feel it occasionally in the innocent, winsome, carefree play of a child. A killer poem, such as James Reiss’s “The Green Tree,” will do it to me almost every time. And of course, it happens sometimes when I am around the people I love; perhaps it is the very thing that defines that love.
I don’t have that feeling much anymore, and I wonder if that’s what happens when we pile up too many resolved or unresolved crises, or losses. I don’t agree with Nietzsche’s statement that that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger; I think instead that it deadens us in another way, by numbing us to whatever numen might be hiding just behind the tree. Occasionally too I think the lack of numen in my life is a sign of dysthymia, a jargon term for a mild depression. But then I think that no, it is, instead, simply dukkha, the Buddhist notion of the rather normal suffering that pervades our daily lives and is part and parcel of that terminal condition that comes along with consciousness itself. And I also remind myself that efforts to combat that feeling of emptiness are only likely to worsen it, the efforts themselves setting up an ultimately unwinnable battle.
When I let myself think about it, which can be a curse unto itself, I wonder why I do anything in a life that is guaranteed to end. I don’t know why I write these blog posts, I don’t know why I fly, I don’t know why I go to the movies or travel. I don’t know why I sing, write songs, or listen to music. But I do know that I resent going to sleep because I feel as though I am going to miss one of those things, or something, or anything. I do know that the more I concern myself with figuring out the reasons for things the less I seem to enjoy them. This narrator who accompanies me wherever I go trying to figure things out can become annoying, and sometimes I want to shoot him, but I am afraid that if I shoot the narrator he’s likely to take me with him.
I am looking now across my living room at my dog who, despite her large lipomas has found a rather comfortable position in which to snooze. She’s an old dog, and likely to die soon, but I don’t imagine she thinks much about it. I do think she has a narrator, but I think the narrator tells her different stories, stories about the walk she took yesterday or the dog that once tried to bite her ear off. I don’t think she worries much about dying, or whether or not she is losing her faculties, or if the strange sensation on her tongue means her cancer is returning. She simply manages to limp her way through the walk down the road, where the numen, perhaps in the scent of a rabbit, can be found hiding just beyond the tree.