Status Seeking • 19 June 2010

You found the one time of night when the birds are quiet. The Editor said this last night in his sleep, when the 2:30 train stirred me enough to drift downstairs to my meditation spot.

There’s an old man spirit who tends the kitchen at that time of night.

Many nights like this I feel him hovering above the recycle bin, when I’m half-dreaming, the birds are silent and the train’s jostling. (I wonder how he feels about the things I do in private: talking to myself, hanging upside down in from the basement rafters, twirling the rectus abdominus back and forth across the belly.) Later in the night I always lose track of the kitchen-ghost, as I fall in to a second round of sleepiness and the night birds fill up the outer edges of the sensed world.

Their calls thicken the air along with the humidity, and bring back the only other summer I’ve spent east of the Mississippi, interning on Capitol Hill in 1998. Another ghost—the self who walked down the Mall to the Hirshhorn for Cuban films on Thursday nights, and otherwise spent evenings under the reading room dome at the National Library, sifting 1970s Nicaraguan newspapers and working out the logic problems from Copi and Cohen’s perfect instructional text.  

Weekend mornings that self would take a three hour run through the Falls Church forests where they’d soon find the remains of another intern, Chandra Levy. I was interested in the quality of the air and in the flora, back then—but oblivious to the menacing fauna waiting in the bushes for taller quarry. I still sense the ghost of the old perceiver, but the 21 year old psyche was blood sharp, innocent of death and heartbreak, achievement-driven, and fascinated by flinty personal connections she only found with an idiosyncratic select. (How boring.)

This is what a ghost is: it’s a neuron taking a hairpin turn. That’s why they make the skin on my neck turn to scales and the spine flip back on itself like a pill bug mid-freakout. Ghosts are uncanny not because they affect the manifest world but because they point to my own ephemeral layer. It’s kind of like they have ray-guns that fire evanescence. Acccck! Take cover!

Silent selves, watcher-selves, dead selves, past selves… what’s real is their power to haunt. What’s freaky is the way their present-absence subverts the solidity of this self. When the train shakes the house, the birds stop, and the air above the recycle bins gets all pre-teleport sparkly, who am I to claim metaphysical priority? The ghosts around here really get in the way of status-seeking of the ontological kind. Damn them.

There’s a staircase down from the Arb to the flooded edge of the Huron. Mike Kelly more or less lives there, his mind in the river and a stream of mystic warnings coming out of his mouth. I guess any good town needs a prophet, and most good artists are prophets too: in his upside-down planter of a hat, moss-beard and water-logged Velcro shoes, Mike plays both roles well.

He moves in and out of the river fully clothed, re-arranging boulders at a wide spot to create rapids in the shape of a heart. He’s sculpting the sacred heart of Jesus, it turns out, given that Jesus told him to create this thing and it’s through this heart that the river flows, down toward the railroad trestle where 30 years ago Mike hung one-armed to paint a giant graffito: PRAY.

Mike talks to the junior professors and high school kids who wade in to the river these days. Tells them about the rock bass mama who lives under the ledge, or advises them which parts of the current to avoid.

Watching them ignore him and the thrift store clothes swirl around his body, I thought of John the Baptist and the words in my head were riverjordanriverjordanriverjordan. That’s when he turned right toward me, eyes blazing like nothing I have ever seen anywhere and told me about 1992, when he finally left India and went to get baptized… in the headwaters of the Jordan.

I told him nothing—just played the polite young scholar too shy to cut him off. But I was actually cheering inside, realizing that he’s not even a little bit insane. He probably was mad when he took up residence on the riverbank and started moving around boulders and calling their currents “art.” But now all he speaks are “flow” and “love.” Impermanence and the “heart of Jesus” are not different. Fixing the boulders is perfect. The freezing of the river is perfect. Haphazard kayakers slashing up the heart and sending him back in to the depths to re-start the work: also perfect. PRAY is what keeps him in the river, which is the same as being in the heart of Jesus, which is the same as perfection, which is not different from love.

I’m not kidding that this guy sees clearly. His sentences and paragraphs are much more cogent than keynote conference speakers. He reads people more accurately than anyone else in town. And, to be honest, his metaphysics hang together better than they do for us creatures of the solid state.

Mike Kelley's Vision