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On a Business Trip with the Desert Spirits

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“I will not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.” – William Blake

Reason is a tool. There are things you can do with it and things you can’t. You can’t hammer a nail in with a drawknife or saw a board with a screwdriver, and you can’t experience magic and mysticism while maintaining the reasonable, distanced coolness of a skeptical observer. When I’m trying to evaluate a logical argument, I use my reason. When I’m trying to communicate with spirits and gods I need other tools.

Skeptical materialists aren’t willing to do that, because they’ve talked themselves into thinking that only one kind of tool is valid. They’ll never be able to experience the magic that way, so naturally they deny that it exists in the first place. That makes sense to a degree – I’d never ask anyone to believe anything based on faith alone – but it’s inherently limited. It only allows you to see in one way, so you only see certain things.

In the Scottish Highlands, the ability to see visions and spirits was known as an da shealladh. This is often translated as “the second sight,” but it literally means “the two sights.” If you can see the world in two different ways at the same time, with the eyes of reason and the eyes of magic, would it not be accurate to say that you have two sights at once?

Several years ago I had to fly out to Oklahoma and go on a business trip with my employer at the time. He needed my help selling CDs of Celtic music at the Highland Games in California and Colorado. To get from Oklahoma to California to Colorado and back requires a lot of driving, much of it through the deserts of the American Southwest. As I said, a business trip – except that it was also something more than that. A few weeks before my boss called me I had a dream, in which I was told by spirits that I would soon be asked to go on a quest.

To the devotees of reason alone, I had a dream and then went on a business trip. It isn’t reasonable to take dreams seriously or to think of business trips as quests. If we want to see the world “the way it really is,” we always have to be strictly reasonable.

Well, I refuse. I refuse to live in a world where I’m obliged to be strictly reasonable. I secede from that world. The inhabitants of the reasonable world have been busy sucking the spirit out of everything for centuries, and in doing so they have managed to bring the whole planet to the brink of ecological catastrophe. By constantly telling us that things are simply things and not infused with spirit, they have made it easy to use and dispose of those things – to cut down and burn and blow up and cover everything in asphalt.

If this planet becomes unlivable for human beings, it will be largely because we stopped listening to what the spirits told us. But I’m no enemy of reason, any more than I’m an enemy of screwdrivers just because I also use hammers. I went on the business trip and played the role I was asked to play in exchange for my paycheck. I helped my boss load and unload, I watched the table and took people’s cash in exchange for CDs of beautiful Gaelic music, I helped change a tire when we got a flat. You could say that driving for thousands of miles to sell CDs is not exactly ecological – but isn’t that the problem with capitalism right there? If we want to survive, we’re pushed into compromise from every direction. I think that’s why so many of us are eager to embrace the rational at the expense of the mystical. It would all be easier to take if the world was actually as dead as we tell ourselves it is.

As my boss drove in silence through those vast deserts, I was sometimes awake and sometimes asleep. Lulled by the truck motor, I kept drifting off, and every time my eyes closed for a moment I was in the other world. Eyes open, on a business trip. Eyes closed, on a quest. Sometimes both at once, the other world bleeding over into this one in fragments of voices and strange sights, like the boulder that suddenly changed into a rock woman as we drove by.

I’m pretty sure that at no point in our long drive did my boss suspect I was on a quest, or hear what the spirits were telling me, or see what I saw out the window. He had one sight. I have two.

If magic itself is the revolution, then this is how we become revolutionaries. We refuse to be bound by reason alone, to see the world in just one way. We stop falling back on the cheap comfort of skepticism, which allows us to ignore what the spirits are telling us by constantly doubting our own experiences. We refuse to kill the world by imagining it as dead.

When I returned home from those weeks on the road, I sat down and wrote a poem called “The Desert Spirits,” by stringing together all the things I had seen and heard with a few connecting lines. Is this the account of some dream fragments on a long drive through the desert, or is it the record of a quest?

That depends on which tool you use – and how many sights you have.

The Desert Spirits

Storm banks in the distance on the Texas panhandle

Like diagonal mushroom clouds

Whose silent lightning carves fresh slices

Out of a flat, gray future.

Across the border, and we’re inside them.

The raindrops snap at us

Like falling monsters,

Biting at the windshield

In a suicidal dive.

And the wind whistles like a machine run amok,

And the clock stops,

And we are lost to time.

Pain can always be endured

If there is a voice to give protest.

Out here there are two voices:

And a void on either side.

She pouts, and cocks her head at him,

And says-

Why, perhaps next summer,

When my dear gollem-mad father

Turns the Earth into a prison for the goblins.”

No, my dear,” he says. She hasn’t understood.

Pain can always be endured

If there is a voice to give protest,

But what I saw there in front of me

Had no mouth, just smooth skin.

The desert mountains are like great bodies

Pockmarked by scrubs,

Pale and obese in their roadside resting places,

As if we were passing

Through a plague pit

Choked with giants.

There’s a void on either side of me,

And an unexpected ache.

I am attached to my head like a balloon on a string.

Hours pass in a ghost phase,

Between sleep and waking.

My eyes squint at the mountains

And they become glass

In atomic heat.

Would you know how to find me here?

Would you trade my hope for new memories?

Because the Mojave is mighty

And I don’t want to come home.

Great rocks in the distance like the gods of Stonehenge,

Standing in a circle with an untold secret,

Weaving out our past years

Among scrub brush and sand.

Canyon Diablo is skull dry,

And I hear things I can’t remember.

The spirits of the desert

Will trade bone marrow for wisdom:

Parasites of the empty places,

Sleep and learn, sleep and learn.

I found these voices in the wasteland,

Inside a fluttering darkness,

In all the endless, bright ages

Since I last saw your face.

If I could I would call to you,

I would cut your name through this emptiness,

But I’m trading blood for new memories

And I must meet them alone.

Out here the nighthunters

Have long faces and teeth like canines.

The windmills on the hilltops

Look like arrows in a dragon’s spine.

If you would throw dice

With the desert spirits

You must have skin

That drinks everything,

Ready to cough up a basilisk

Close your eyes,

Cut your mouth,

And sing.

Would you know how to find me here?

Would you trade your bones for new memories?

Because there is nothing around me now

But this bright, empty

Faith:

Stretching out, filling everything

Burning atoms

To angel’s wings

Killing hearts

Till they break

And sing

And I don’t want to come home.

2 Comments »

  1. I very much agree with your point on two sights. Humans are trained from birth to agree with one another regarding what they perceive. It is because of this need for mutual assurance that we fear the unknown. there are monsters hidden in the darkness and if we all have our eyes closed than the onslaughts could be anything. Our society breeds cowards. There is no victory to be had if you are not aware of the game. Unfortunately an overall enlightenment is wildly infeasible, so it is the duty of the few who do not allow fear of the unknown to stifle their quest for knowledge, to also be pillars of patients and understanding. We are no better for our insights than those that are incapable of personal growth. While the king rules the empire, the popper rules the alleyways. Both have there function and neither can claim superiority.

    Liked by 1 person

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