The Lake District, England. Autumn, 2008. I stand on a slender, sloping peak of Mt Helvellyn, cold winds swirling about me this way and that, tugging my long, brown hair into the fray. The rocks beneath my feet are old, formed in the caldera of a volcano in the Ordovician period, and then carved by glaciers in the last ice age.
As I hike onward with other students from the Oxford study-abroad program, I can see a still, blue lake gathered in the valley, untouched by the air that beats about us at Helvellyn’s highest point.
Many such pools lie cradled in the low places between these mountains, hidden on some days by down-tumbling clouds, and other days shining like darkened mirrors of the sky above, black and lovely against the shocking green of the hills. These are the hills walked by poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, their pores soaking in the deep magic that swells up from the waters and weaves through the air.
I take in the gleaming lakes and basalt crags and breathe in the chilly mist, and I become as the scribes, priests, and pilgrims of old. Gods live on this mountain, I’m sure of it. The air is aghast with them, their forms hidden in the ever-churning clouds that sweep across the peaks and roil the seas of mountain grass.
Search out stones and gather them into one place. Build an altar on this high, holy hill. Bring your offerings and burn them on the stones. Let the smoke fill your senses. Remember, O human, that you are dust, radiant clay! To dust you will return, O gods of ash and smoke.
My body beats with the old longing, stabbed with sorrow and wild elation. I know this vision is passing away, that I am seeing terrestrial brilliance in all its contingent beauty. I know I am happier now than I’ve ever been.
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing.
I know I will never be this happy again, not in this way. The meeting is brief and transitory. Here I am–wakened, bereft, undone. Where to go from here? Here I go from where? Upward, downward, forward, backward, round and round. Climbing, flying, falling–again and again and again.
I know I can’t keep this moment intact. Permanent capture breaks all the rules, and rules all the breakings. I carry the vision with me like stolen water, cold and sweet to my tongue, life to my constricted throat. It rushes through my body, assimilates, and continues its course.
Here I am, calm filling up the awestruck caverns inside me. I will never be so achingly happy again, and yet I will.
I am at peace with the descent, with the movement to the valleys. I know that gods are everywhere, crying out from the lowland rocks.
In my mind’s eye, I am always here on this mountain and always at the beginnings of writing. The mountain changes as my animal senses perceive the passage of time, but I am fixed here in this perpetual movement.
The mountain and written language are the tug o’ war between presence and absence, fixity and movement, tradition and transformation. The mountain is the place of the temple, a great stone house elevated to scrape the skies and touch the gods. Writing is movement, travel, the body walking away from itself, the gods and their stories sailing the world over.
The landscape of my life changes day by day. It becomes harder to write my story because it is constantly changing, and writing gives the illusion of permanence. I am perpetually rewriting and rewritten, moving further away from myself even as I go deeper in.
Write quickly, dear scribes. Copy my story and send it across the sea before it changes once more and I am fixed forever in a spectacle of constant transformation, my contingency caught up in the clouds for all to see, body raw and radiant.
Ten years after Mt Helvellyn, I live in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The mountains surrounding the valley here are not the lush, well-watered peaks of Helvellyn, but they have their own arid beauty.
I want to stay forever near the mountain. On the mountain, I am not the names given to me by my fathers. I dissolve into the elements and come together anew. I am nothing and everything. I eat the fruit of knowledge and the leaves of healing.
The mountain reminds me of England and the year I spent at Oxford over a decade ago. I don’t know how to write about Oxford or about the radiant faces I found there, the living images that lay hidden in the labyrinthine halls of this temple. The year at Oxford hangs in my imagination as brilliant stillpoint, the place where I was transfigured by the expectant gaze of people who believed. Believed in humans. Believed in me.
I remember feeling seen and safe. I remember it as the year my mind opened. It was the year I learned about the development of writing in ancient Sumer, about the myths of Mesopotamian gods, and how these gods became inscribed into the earth.
That year is an icon, gold and glittering. It isn’t a place or a time I can return to. Memories don’t bring us back. There is no back, only now, which is is another way of saying here. Memories bring us here, rooting us into the present dream, dreaming us into our present roots. Ever on the mountain, ever at the foot of the tree, eating its fruit and drinking the waters of the stream that rushes by the bank.
I hold this icon before my eyes because it reminds me of the reality before me now, remembering that my life unfolds from this center like a fractal: recursive, infinitely self-similar, ever new. The icon is a gathering point of awareness, the place of my intensified vision.
I’m told that this mental ritual is used as a therapy technique to deal with trauma. You imagine a place where you feel safe, alive. You’re frightened stiff, an animal paralyzed by trauma inflicted on its animal senses. You need the feeling of safety to heal and wake your senses once more.
And so you remember, conjuring the world where you felt the freedom to rest as the sighted self you are.
The sighted self, like sighted gods, is a rare and beautiful spectacle to behold. But I suspect that its scarcity, like reality, is illusory, and in this there is hope. The preoccupation with the self as unsighted and abandoned is made, which means it can also be unmade.
I learned the myth of the disappearing self long before I reached Oxford, but it was in Oxford that I read ancient Mesopotamian myths about vanishing gods.
I learned of the days when gods appeared to humankind as bodies of carved wood overlaid with gold and silver. I gazed into a world where gods stared at us with eyes of lapis lazuli and spoke to us with lips opened by the smearing of honey and the swearing of divine oaths.