Wednesday, December 30, 2020

I Want to Believe

I realize that milestones like new year’s, birthdays, really all celebrations of our experience of time are on some level arbitrary. But still I find value in them as a point, individually and collectively, to look back and ahead. To appreciate the completion of a unit, of a chapter, an arc. And this year has left us all with a good bit more to reflect upon in both directions of the timeline. But this penultimate day of each year, for me, has added significance, as my friend Steven would have been forty five years old today. He did not suffer through 2020 with us, though I often thought of what he would have said or thought of it; nor is he able to turn the page on it with us. Here and not here – like so many others who did not get to see the first hint of daybreak after what felt, at times, like an endless, lightless, new moon midnight of a year. So it’s up to us to bring them along with us, all those we’ve lost during and prior to the pandemic, and they are great in number indeed. On Steve’s birthday I cannot give him a gift, but I can honor his memory by making my memories of him into a gift to you and to all who read this.

If you’ve been reading along over the past few years, you know that I credit my friend Steven with being critical to having discovered the path I find myself on now. Bearing that in mind, I’m entering this year with a deeper and greater commitment than ever before to experiencing and exploring the world around me. To delving into the many rabbit holes I find along the way towards uncovering hidden history, strange stories, and that which shapes or shift my perspective. To borrow a notion from Josh Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein,” I want to experience time as densely as possible for however much of it I have. And turning it not only into a passion but a vocation at the same time. Seems like a perfectly reasonable goal to me.

Before I can start the new year though with a clean slate, I need to make good on a promise to you. I’ve been laying the groundwork for some time, hinting at one specific experience I shared with Steve in my childhood that stands out for having unlocked a door that I’ve been peaking through ever since. It’s time at last to complete what has been one of the major arcs thus far in this ever-evolving story we’ve been sharing. Time to reveal that mystery at the heart for me of all unexplained and unknowable. That time I maybe witnessed magic. Real magic.

I should note that it also seems appropriate that Jen and I are currently watching the X-Files series in full. For years, since the series first aired, in fact, I’ve had standing on my desk a pair of Mulder and Scully action figures to which I have added more recently, a small stand replica of the “I Want to Believe” poster from Mulder’s basement office. I do want to believe, even if that means preserving some mysteries and leaving unanswered at least one important personal question.

The story I’ve been working my way towards telling you took place one summer about thirty years ago. I was maybe thirteen or fourteen at the time, if I remember correctly. We were at Blue Bell day camp that summer and both of us being rather athletically challenged, rather than being out on the baseball field or basketball courts, we more often selected activities like woodshop, ceramics or, as was the case on this day, computers. On the second floor of an old barn, the camp had set up several commodore 64 computers. We eagerly scampered up a rickety ladder, under cobwebs that had grown thick with the same dust that spun endlessly through the shafts of light from windows that appeared to have not been cleaned in years. If ever. Our reward for making it to the top was to to take a seat in front of one of the now archaic monitors and learn the basics of programming. If/then and Goto line X type commands. Long before the internet brought to us all HTML programming. Before even more than 64-bit graphics, this is back when computer games like Zork and Amnesia were entirely text based and the top of the line graphics at the time consisted of static images and 3D mazes of Wizardry or clunky Atari 2600 games.

On this particular day it was Steve and I and one, possibly two, other campers, and the instructor whose name I’ve long forgotten. I remember him being lanky with glasses and longish brown hair – maybe twenty years old. After maybe twenty or thirty minutes, one of the other two campers sitting a few terminals down from Steve and I made a series of audible groans and put his head down on the keyboard. The counselor came and sat down next to him.

“Everything ok?” he asked.

“Migraine” the camper said. He appeared to be slightly younger than Steve and I.

“I don’t have anything for headaches,” the counselor said. “But I can try something else.”

The camper gave his consent with a nod. The counselor put the palm of one hand just barely touching the camper’s forehead and his other hand behind the camper’s head. “I want you to visualize streams of color flowing from one of my hands into the other, right through your head. Picture blues, and greens. Picture waves of cobalt blue, of deep sea blue green, the sky blue of mid evening,” and so forth, describing in detail a variety of different blues and greens. Tranquil, calming colors delivered in a voice to match. After just a few minutes the camper widened his eyes in amazement.

“It’s gone.” He was clearly surprised. “Wait, how did you do that?”

“It’s something I’ve been studying and working on,” he explained, looking into each of our faces as we were all now curious, “called Kabalistic magic.”

Seeing that we were all now fully hooked, he continued. “It has to do with several spheres of different colors, each representing different properties.”

Without discussing it among ourselves we had all slid our chairs over and were gathered around him, fascinated.

“Here,” he said. “I’ll show you something else.”

He began rubbing his hands together as if he was rolling something in between his palms After a few moments he asked one of us to give him our hand. The migraine sufferer volunteered first. The magician moved his fingers in patters just centimeters above and below the camper’s outstretched hand.

“Weird” the camper said. “Feels like you’re touching my hand.” But we all observed that no contact had been made. The magician asked the kid to turn his head away and without looking, tell everyone what pattern the magician was making. First circles, then a series of squiggly lines, triangles, circles again. He went six for six.

Each of us tried it and to our surprise were easily able to discern the shapes being drawn on our hands. The magician explained that it had to do with electrical fields.

Maybe it was true and maybe it wasn’t, but we were convinced at the time. Retrospectively, there are any number of scientific rather than magical explanations. The migraine trick was essentially just a guided meditation. And the patterns the magician drew on our hands without touching them could have simply been brushing against the fine hair follicles on the back of our hands. Of course, that wouldn’t explain why we felt it below on our palms as well, but perhaps that was just an imagined response.

The third and final demonstration was harder to fake.

“Every once in a while,” the magician confided, “I can create a thin beam of light between my fingers.”

We waited and watched. Again he rolled his hands together as if shaping putty. After a couple minutes of this, he balled his hands into fists and raised each of his index fingers. He moved his hands closer and further apart, trying to get the distance just right to produce illumination. And then…



And then what, you’re probably thinking?

There are, of course, only two possible outcomes. Either after straining to see some flicker we saw nothing at all, and the magician shrugged, saying that it doesn’t always work. Or as we all peered into the space between his fingers our faces began to glow from the bright filament-thin beam that connected his fingertips for a moment.

But I can’t tell you which one it was. Partly because I just can’t really trust the memory any further than I’ve taken it, and partly because, even if I could recall it with perfect clarity, I don’t think I’d reveal it. To do so would take away from you and from me something perhaps vastly more important than any objective truth could provide. As curious as I am about what I really saw or didn’t see, I’ve come to believe that not having an answer might just be the best possible answer. Like the dialog in an episode of the X-files, I can hear the dispute in my head between the rational Scully and the emotional Mulder. That rational voice says that nothing really happened - we were kids who saw what we wanted to see; the only magic we witnessed was that of the power of suggestion. But the voice of the believer asks, if it was such a clear-cut case of imagination run wild, why then is it still the subject of endless mental replay and blog posts some thirty years later?

Steve and I discussed it afterwards in hushed tones from time to time, neither one of us entirely sure what we actually saw. We talked about it less frequently over the years and gradually it just slipped away. It would have remained there in that void of lost childhood memories, had I not gone digging for it all these years later. And now, without the intersubjective confirmation of my friend who was there to witness it with me, it becomes even harder to discern. I suppose I could try to track down that computer counselor, or the kid with the migraine, but I know I won’t. 

Because I've come to believe that some mysteries deserve to be left unsolved.