See that guy staggering around his room, like Marlon Brando at the end of The Godfather, grasping for his breath and not finding it anywhere? That’s me. My heart’s being squeezed like a pimple as the Snake wraps around it and won’t let go. I keep crying uncle, but the Snake keeps on squeezing.
Death in the abstract is very different to when you feel its cold breath on your face and smell its sour stench in your nostrils. Can you hear me crying like a baby? At that moment I was that close to shitting myself. Was that how I wanted to be found, with shit in my pants and a hard drive full of porno? Nuh-uh.
Whoever said life’s just preparation for death was talking out the wrong side of his face. There’s no preparation for death besides dying. Now it looked like I was dying, and all my mental dress rehearsing was like kiddies playing doctor. Like “deserve,” it didn’t have anything to do with it. Does anyone really ever plan to die?
I’d come down South to Guatemala to build a house.
Building a house sounds simple enough, but nothing is simple or straightforward in a land where everything is backwards. When the Maya say one thing, they mean the opposite—that’s how they communicate. And however much they may profit from outsiders, it’s a closed community down here. For me to try and build a life on the inside of that community was a lose-lose proposition. I knew this. But it was a fast and loose way to immerse myself and find out where I really stood with them. The answer was that I was on swampy ground, and sinking fast.
The money I’d had sent over to pay the architect got lost in the transfer. That turned out to be a good thing because I found out that the builders we’d hired—to save a little cash—worked for a known killer in the community. It was an awkward fact and it was causing me all kinds of problems with my Mayan connections, who weren’t too happy about having a killer and his cohorts hanging around their neighborhood. The whole thing ground to a halt while the money got tracked down and while I scrambled about, trying to put the Mayans at ease and find a way for everybody to save face and come out smiling.
That first week, there was supposed to be a collective ceremony, to which I’d been invited. Seventy-five medicine men were supposed to be showing up for it, but when word got around that the killer I’d unwittingly hired to work on my house was hosting it, none of them showed up. So there was that. The world of Mayan medicine is just another, especially dark kind of soap opera—full of all the back-stabbings, deceit, and petty grudges you would expect to encounter in any other community. But since Mayans never say what’s really on their mind, it makes it that much harder to navigate and negotiate your way through the whole melodrama without losing face—or losing your head. (Local justice is common around here, and usually involves a machete.)
The week following the ceremony, I heard about a Mayan who killed a Mayan woman in her sixties, for reasons no one seemed to know. After that he killed a dog and ate its brain. The killer would probably be left alone, and become another local Bogeyman, useful for warning the kids to behave. “See him? That’s the man who ate a dog’s brain. Watch out or you’ll end up like him.” Every kind of behavior is accepted among the Mayans, provided there’s a way to put it to use.
Besides building my house, I had come down to work on my blog and do some painting. That was it. No more the healer, shaman, or medicine man. Everyone and his dog was talking “synchromysticism” these days, patching together shamanic id-entities from a hotchpotch of psychedelic experiences and pilfered occultism, peddling their wares on the Internet—to the point that you stood out more if you didn’t claim some sort of mystical pedigree.
I was trying to motivate the writer in me —who was as stubborn as an old mule—by dangling carrots in front of him. I had various subjects that I wanted to write about, if only I could organize my thoughts. There was the whole 2012 thing. Then there was Jose Arguelles and his Dreamspell calendar, which I knew was completely out of sync with the original Mayan calendar but which New Agers were happily following, mixing up their nahuales and doing fertility ceremonies on atonement days, and so on. Then there was the subject of polarity, how every virtue became a vice if you overdid it, and vice versa, how every vice might be seen as a virtue in moderation (a bit like homeopathic medicine). I was also having a recurring dialogue with myself about spiritual beings versus spiritual persons: a spiritual being being anyone the spirit moved through, while a spiritual person was someone who worked on their persona in order to feel like a spiritual being, and so others would recognize them as one. But none of these carrots was enough for the writer in me to get off his ass, so in the end I was content just to paint.
When Van Gogh wound up in an asylum, he painted the view from his window but he left out the bars. If this was a Bardo realm we were lost in, as I often thought of it, then our imagination was what trapped us there. But it was also the key that could get us out. How to know the difference, that was the question.
Before the Fall we could see it all. Man’s eyes were open wide and he saw the forces of the divine in everything. That meant he had no say at all, no choice about going along with those forces, any more than you or I would deliberately walk into traffic without expecting to get flattened. You just don’t do that.
I heard it was the Serpent who set man free by blinding him. Then once we were blind to the divine, we had the illusion of choice, and the luxury of free will. To make sure we weren't completely lost, however, the Serpent gave us the gift of imagination, the power to imagine the divine forces that we could no longer see and to develop a relationship with them that way—through our imagination.
The point of all that stuff (which came from the writer in me, who I sometimes pretend not to be) is that there’s a difference between using the imagination to get a picture of what’s actually there, and using it to create a fantasy realm to escape into. It’s a fairly big difference—as big as life and death, you might say.
The biggest illusion of all is a popular one these days. It’s the idea that we create our own reality. It seems like we can do that, but my bet is that it’s not reality, not really. And it could be that there is no worse a fate than ending up in a reality we create for ourselves. The bed you make is the bed you lie in, and the bed you die in.
What we can do, maybe, is discover reality in our own special way. The imagination can help us to do that. It’s a bit like Van Gogh imagining the bars away so he could see the view better.
Whether or not the end of the world comes this year, or next, seems to matter less and less to me. Life continues to hijack all my stories, all my plans, and all my ideas, and bet all you own that it will hijack yours too. My advice is: don’t be telling your wife how in, twenty years when the kids are grown, you will really be able to live it up together. By that time, assuming you are even still here, either you won’t want to or you won’t be able to do, whatever it is you are putting off doing right now.
And when it comes to medicine—we better make it sweet, because whatever medicine we give to others, be sure that it’s going to come back to us. And when we get a taste of our own medicine, if we make a sour face—or even worse, if we spit it back up—we’re going to lose our license to practice. Otherwise, our medicine will just keep getting worse, exponentially, until all we have to offer is poison, of the non-homeopathic kind. The healer in us becomes a killer then, and we don’t even know it until a taste of our own medicine kills us.
It’s 2012 and we are all becoming medicine people now. So expect a taste of your own medicine, sometime soon.
While things were going from bad to worse in “the real world” (or my own Bardo realm), the writer in me was thinking about putting his money where his mouth was and going for that strawberry. That was the strawberry growing on the cliff side, before my eyes, while I was hanging by the vine, with hungry tigers below, and as the rats chewed away at the vine, one thread at a time. If I let go of the vine to pluck that strawberry, I’d fall to my death, but I’d have one last pleasure as I went. I’d at least taste something besides fear in those final moments.
As the days went by, I was getting angrier without knowing why. I was pretty sure the anger came from fear, being one half of the instinctual fight-or-flight response. Fear of God was the beginning of wisdom, they said. God was another name for Death, and what scares us about death is that we get to face the truth of ourselves on the other side; and facing our truth means facing our lies. So when we were given a chance to face God/death/the truth—did we choose fight or flight? Or was there a third option? To move towards the thing we feared, letting go of the anger and then letting go of the fear, and seeing what was left.
The wild strawberry I ended up grabbing on my way down was that I decided to reenact one of the Mayan creation myths. What difference did it make, in the end, besides whether or not I could savor the experience of being alive, whatever it was? It made no difference at all, so I decided to enact the creation myth of the Jaguar and the Deer. That meant I needed someone to play the Jaguar.
I went to see a guy in town I’d heard about, but he wasn’t much of a Jaguar. He was a spiritual person, all dressed up in silver with a fancy Jaguar pelt and a little white goatee; but he didn’t have much of a stink-eye and I didn’t see any claws or fangs on him. With a jaguar like that, I figured the show would never get on the road. The deer in me would give him a run for his bling.
I needed someone who could kill me. I needed a killer, not to build a house but to clear the ground and lay the foundations for creation.
The Creation story was about contradictions, opposing forces. It was about how the friction between those forces created the spark which life came from. When the Jaguar came up from the Underworld and saw the harmless, grazing Deer, he felt something stirring within him. Hunger and desire. And when the Deer saw the Jaguar and sensed its desire, it felt fear pumping through its blood for the first time, and because of that, it knew the preciousness of life. That was how the Sun came to rise and set, the heart came to beat, and day and night and the cycles of time came into play. Maybe the gods were bored? Or maybe they wanted to see life from both sides and not only from the side of death, where everything was already decided. Our heartbeat keeps us alive, but it’s like a clock, counting backwards to our death.
I found my Jaguar in a guy named Vinnie and we did our ceremony, a daytime one and then a nighttime one, filming it all. He killed me and then resurrected me and then we went to the Underworld together, to fight the Lords of Death. All in a day’s work. It was something to do. (Keep an eye on this blog for serial installments of the movie over the coming weeks.)
When wild animals learn how to live, they learn by playing. I had put work before play and business before pleasure—so no wonder it was all going to shit. Someone once asked—do you think anyone ever said on their death bed, “I should have spent more time at the office”?
What do you think?
Which reminds me. Marlon Brando as Don Vito—he begins the film with a cat in his lap and ends it staggering about the tomato plants, chasing his breath and only catching his death. He’s playing a game for his grandkid at the time, he puts a piece of orange peel over his teeth and pretends to be a monster. But the kid gets scared and Brando takes the peel out his mouth and says, “It’s OK, it’s only me.” For the whole movie, don Vito is a killer pretending to be a family man, a businessman, pretending to be anything except what he is: a monster who has men murdered for profit. So at the end of the movie, he’s pretending to be what he really is, and the child sees him for what he is. The child—because children haven’t yet been blinded to what’s real—knows that it isn’t a pretense at all: that his granddad is really a monster. So Brando takes the peel away and puts his mask back on—only kidding! It’s at that point that he dies. The truth was too much for him.
Since Don Vito wasn't able to face the truth of himself and he was too weak to fight it, he ran away from it instead. Fight or flight. But of course the truth caught him anyway, and squeezed his heart like a boil until it exploded. No one escapes the Bogeyman.
So Don Vito was dead. Had I exposed the monster I was pretending not to be, with a little help from the writer in me? Look, that’s me staggering back to my feet after a five-hour near-death experience, thanking the stars that I'm still able to see, grateful for the blindness that comes with being alive. There’s no shit in my pants and now there’s no porn on my hard drive either.
When you go to meet your maker, travel light. But it was just another rehearsal after all.
Now I’m Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now after his heart attack.
Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.
Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.
I’m waiting for my orders, getting ready to go up that river, getting ready to kill Kurtz, to kill the monster in me, all over again.
Maybe after that I can build my damn house?