My welfare in mind, Grace declares that coffee today at The Compass Café is out. She hands me Steven Hawking’s The Universe In A Nutshell, then quietly leaves the bedroom. Ten to the power of 36 is big. Just how big I cannot fathom under normal circumstances, let alone when in the grip of the flu. The same goes for a thousand light years across the spindrift of the cosmos. I sink into reverie.
When the effects of medication wear off, I wander into my study, in my hand a hot-honeyed whiskey from the kitchen, willing to act on a Grace proposal — to log the musings, free associations, and rants. Yes, I believe she said rants. Sift through the psyche, she exhorted me like a muse bent on peace of mind. Hers. Attempt order. Find understanding. Philosophize. However, my brain, like my desk— a confusion of papers, books, and circulars from garden centers — is a mess. Peace of mind proves elusive indeed. As does truth.
I’m not an unhappy man. I have a wonderful relationship with Grace and excellent rapport with Liz, her daughter, although Gabriel leaves me wondering. Liz’s marriage to him was never an assured thing. The obstacle: religion. Implied in his family’s acceptance of Liz was the understanding that she’d embrace the same faith with the same degree of fervour. Normally independent and wilful, Liz succumbed.
Gabriel asked me the other day about my beliefs. I’m motivated by uncertainty, I said. Doubt binds, he countered, while faith unfetters the soul. He further suggested I visit his church, partake of the services, and get reacquainted with God. He’d already invited Grace.
What had God to do with it? I’d prefer to sit in an empty church, I explained, or a cathedral as in my youth, and let the high arches allow me a greater reverence for gravity, which just might be, in the larger view, what holds the cosmos together. Or the stained glass windows, appreciation of the chromatic scale. Or the patina on the pews and benches, deeper understanding of the many asses who shimmied there while unfettering their souls. Gabriel said he’d pray for me, totally pray for me.
Poor boy, he takes me far too seriously. As a rule, we cease tilting whenever Grace approaches. Hers is a basic, reverential respect for life and people. She maintains that Gabriel is fond of me after his fashion. So, after my fashion, today I formulate a response to his fond provocation.
I get out pad and pens, aware that method is essential. But were to start? In medias res, of course, the here and now. I certainly know where Gabriel stands. Right from the cradle he was induced to wear his faith like a badge. It identifies him. I put faith in a box, and label it a closed system. I place myself outside the box and move on. Thus I labor, determined to advance a tenable position.
Before long there’s evidence of progress, although fatigue sets in due to my aggressive all-inclusiveness. Theism leads to deism leads to rationalism, and on to existentialism, solipsism, determinism, agnosticism, aestheticism, transcendentalism, atheism and post-modern deconstruction, which lays waste myriad other isms figuring at least peripherally in my schema. My pad has rendered ten pages of doodles, large and small print in a variety of colored inks, underscores, bullets, circles, boxes, parenthetical inclusions, excisions, and the exorcism of little demons of doubt using arrows of exotic design. Kitchen-bound, I curse Gabriel profusely.
In medias res leads me in the here and now of my affliction to The Compass Café and its coterie of accommodating characters. I seek new direction, reflected, as it were, in the mirror of the familiar. My Compass cronies and their espoused worldviews challenge me on a regular basis; they demand I evaluate what common sense prompts me to uphold as true. Pen in one hand, whiskey in the other, I’m off again, heedless of Grace’s wry observation: “Avoid The Compass if you’re looking for truth. The most you’ll get from that deck you all perch on like a murder of over-caffeinated crows is multiple-choice.”
Gilbert Rhyle is a self-styled agnostic, and everybody’s antagonist. I admire his ability, despite the peevishness, to proclaim that he knows only what he knows. Moe Mendelssohn embraces what he calls an existentialist perspective: no matter what is believed, only authentic action makes life worth living even on the edge of the absurd, and Darrin Brecht, socialist, unionist, and proponent of work as essential value who always votes on the left, exemplifies perfectly what Mendelsohn means by authentic. I share both points of view. Papa Gus holds that the god-gene must be acknowledged, hardwired as it is into the circuitry of the human psyche in order to eschew nihilism, especially in light of the ontological line having been, since early in the nineteenth century, if not long before, extended into a world devoid of deities, male and female both. Who can argue with that?
Christopher Tenets has his Bible. I’m sympathetic to him because he’s usually outnumbered, and outwitted, although Gaye Tralaine in her woven rainbow colored hats and paying at least lip service to Gaia can at times be an ally. Occasionally, I provide Tenets with a biblical reference because it is something I can do to help a guy out, and because it seems, in the way that Grace tries to have me view the world, a poetically pleasing way to round things off. Just because I have over time grown leery of religious belief, it doesn’t mean I had none to begin with. Besides, raking through the stones in the Bible and finding gems is rewarding in itself. Thomas Shelley is of the same mind: he calls it digging in the muck of swine trotters and extracting pearls. Shelley argues that a god-gene, if it exists at all, says more about human evolution than the existence of God.
Here I take a break, purposefully delaying discourse on Shelley. I drain my glass. Thomas Shelley is an avowed atheist, but he is not a scathing naysayer. His truth centers on artistic expression, music, poetry, and beauty in all its manifestations. His favorite rejoinder to Christopher Tenets is that one need not believe in Christ’s divinity, or any divinity, in order to do good deeds. Thomas Shelley will require pages of analysis.
Other questions pose themselves. Who speaks for evolution? The fossil record? Neuroscience? Who is the genetics guy? Who looks to the supernovae for answers? Who am I kidding? Slowly what Grace said about the limitations of finding one’s way at The Compass begins to make sense. No matter my motivation, I’ve got myself way beyond daily banter, philosophical quibbling, and peer reviewed put-downs, and I still haven’t located myself in the mirror of other minds, not even darkly. Proceeding to Shelley requires another whiskey. I’m on my way into the kitchen when Grace returns, and I head quickly back to bed.
And so, I close my eyes on another piece of self-deception and open them on the chalk-blue ceiling overhead. Free association comes as a sick kind of compensation on a heady day of being housebound, if not absolutely bedridden. Such delirious conjecturing results, I am sure, from too much Grace administered flu medication and too many self-administered hot-honeyed whiskies.
I drift into speculation about the immune system and how it must have evolved, and into the micro worlds of biology and quantum physics. I reflect on the functions of the brain and nervous system, on the effects of alcohol and other influences — medications, drugs, palliatives, and placebos — billions of cells in consort with other systems, like a mini-universe, like the universe-at-large, the earth like a single cell circling the sun, tumbling through the galaxy, through the infinite space-time continuum, the body of the universe, these the constructs of the human mind and its restless spirit of inquiry. And divinity upstaged — divinity, a Bronze Age spear with ontological barbs, like a chunk of defunct exploratory space junk thrown up at the heavens to mollify that spirit when dark clouds obscured the stars, or blizzards of snow and the paralysis of ice made it impossible to find understanding, to see a clear path, to find direction home. And the flu? Nothing but a species of biological revenge unfolding like divine retribution. From metaphysics and astrophysics, the free association circles back to the brain, and how it develops from embryo, evolves, acquires language, fashions memories, makes self-conscious leaps beyond its capacity to acquire and hold — the infinite space of gray matter, facilitator to inquiry, progenitor of empirical fact, codeine, antihistamines, hot and cold home remedies for what ails you, and the cosmic illustrations of Dr. Steven Hawking.
Though it is what I fervently seek, the ineluctable truth continues to elude me. I’m yet to determine its DNA. On the other hand, Grace is all about reverence, and that’s prescription enough for today.