It’s a dark night in a city that’s forgotten about its dictionaries. But on the first floor of a two-story house in Laurellia, one man is trying to find meaning in a world awash in words: Guy Verbose, Existential Lexicographic Investigator.
Episode 1 - The Big Memory
It was 11:43 pm when I suddenly—and quite inexplicably—recalled my trip to see The Guru. This occurred back in 1999, or maybe it was 2000. Okay, I confess I’m not exactly sure when it happened. In fact, I don’t remember how I even found out about The Guru. As far as I recall, someone from work invited me. It was the only logical explanation.
Back then, I worked at a food cooperative in Takoma Park, Maryland. The place was staffed and frequented by all manner of weirdos—and I was one of them. There were aging hippies, punks, wiccans, astrologers, Christians, New Agers, Anarchists, Rastafarians, Buddhists, and proponents of every alternative religion, philosophy, or belief system you could think of (except, maybe, for republicans).
Anyway, it might have been Dia who tipped me off. Of all the people I worked with, she was the most into to alternative ideas and beliefs. I recall hanging out with her in the back room on a particularly slow evening when she revealed she no longer ate tofu because she considered it “too processed.” Suzanna was also a good candidate. She worked in the store’s health and beauty section and deemed herself an expert in herbal remedies. Her favorite herb was marijuana. Then again, it could have been Kairyn, who had a side gig giving astrological readings, but not to anyone she knew. She was very adamant about that. She didn’t want any preconceived notions or faded memories clouding her forecasts.
“Go see him,” Dia, or maybe Suzanna, or maybe Kairyn said. “You’ll never forget it.” They were right. It’s been 20 years and I’m still talking about it.
For the record, I didn’t want or need a guru, but after hearing about him all day at the store, my curiosity was piqued. So, I went to see if he lived up to the hype.
There was just one problem. I didn’t know who “he” was or why, out of all the places in the Greater Washington D.C.-area The Guru could go, he chose a house in Silver Spring, Maryland. That’s right, a house. Not a temple or an ashram or a hermitage, or even a church basement. A house. I guess this guy kept things easy and low key. I respected that. After all, no one who counselled people against the spiritual emptiness of material things should wrap himself in luxury. Then again, I didn’t know what this guy counselled people about.
It was Saturday afternoon when I rode my bike to the address I got from my coworker, whoever it might have been. I went alone, assuming I would see at least one of my co-workers there. I didn’t. Maybe they had already come and gone by the time I got there. Maybe they got hung up and couldn’t make it. Maybe they were fucking with me and had no intention of going at all. I couldn’t really say. What I could say was that The Guru was a quite a draw. Cars lined the entire length of the street.
I pedaled my way up the driveway and leaned my bike against the garage door near a tall shrub. The front door of the house was propped open and I walked toward it like I went to see gurus all the time. A handful of people were talking quietly on the front porch, but no one acknowledged me as I climbed the steps.
Once inside, I found myself in a large living room. Seemingly every inch of floorspace was taken by a body, so I weaved my way through the crowd toward the back of the room and I found a spot along the wall. From there I tried to make myself anonymous and take in the scene without gawking. Save for the sounds from outside drifting into the room, it was quiet. In the corner of the room sat The Guru.
If I asked you to think of a guru and then describe the image in your mind, what would you say? Would you paint a verbal picture of a thin Indian man with long hair and maybe a beard? Would he be dressed in flowing white robes? Would he be sitting on a special chair or maybe a large cushion? Would he have soft eyes and a knowing smile and seem to radiate peace and calm? Would his mere appearance make you feel better and ease whatever pain was in your heart?
The Guru in the room looked exactly like the image of a guru that formed in my mind when my coworkers began taking about him. He was an Indian man, slight, with long black but graying hair and a beard to match. He was dressed in flowing white clothes. Not a robe exactly, but a long shirt and what looked to be loose-fitting pants. His feet were bare (and clean), and he was sitting cross-legged on a large red-orange pillow. A contented half-smile shaped his mouth and his eyes offered mercy and compassion. I watched him look around the room, surveying the mass of humanity that had come to sit in his presence. Most of the people assembled were white, and if I had to guess, in their 30s or older. Of those seated on the floor, most were smiling. Some had their eyes closed. A few swayed back and forth to a song only they could hear.
As I stood along the wall, I wondered what in the fuck was going on. It all seemed so … ridiculous. What was I missing? Had all these people taken something before I arrived? I looked around the room for evidence of illicit substances—lighters, matches, small bags, plastic cups—but found nothing.
Was something going to happen? Was The Guru going to say something? Were the people sitting on the floor around him going to ask questions about attaining enlightenment? Had all of that already taken place? I couldn’t be sure, but I had an inkling that whatever was slated to happen was happening now, that this was it. I also thought that it was all bullshit, that everyone assembled there knew it was bullshit, and that they just decided to play along in the interest of the vague sense of “spirituality” that had taken over the room. Groupthink at its most transcendent.
I’d been in a situation like this before. Some years earlier, while dining on free vegetarian food at a Hare Krishna festival in Toronto, Canada, I watched a pair of devotees in robes and trademark Krishna haircuts bring out a beaten-up and very plastic-looking statue of Swami Prabhupada. As awareness of the statues’ presence spread through the crowd, festival goers dropped to the ground where they stood and began chanting. I was shocked, and perhaps clinging too tightly to some vague prohibition about graven images, embarrassed for myself and everyone else in the crowd. However, not wanting to seem contrarian or make a spectacle of myself, I joined everyone in sitting down.
To be fair, I understood why the people assembled around The Guru were smiling, for I wanted to smile too. Despite my cynicism, I have always wanted the same thing the folks the room were after. Faith. Something to believe in. The feeling that I was part of a community and that I’d found my people. A chance to let my guard down and just enjoy a moment of peace and calm. Who wouldn’t want this? I mean, have you ever really looked at the world we’ve created for ourselves? What an absurd, cut-throat, stress-filled, empty, and meaningless mess! Like the people basking in The Guru’s warm glow, I want there to be something more to this world than fast food, cheap entertainment, and a 9 to 5 job. I’ve looked for it too. I’ve dabbled in alternative religions myself—hence my attendance at that Hare Khrishna festival. I’ve also tried far-out political ideologies, submerged myself in the punk and metal music scenes, and even tried to reconnect with the Catholicism that I grew up with. Each one has come up short for one reason or another. Still, I keep searching.
I’ve been thinking lately that maybe the key to experiencing the divine is not to wait for a sign—the burning bush, the parting of the sea, the water turned into wine—but to contemplate the small wonders that surround us, the everyday yet still astounding occurrences that point to forces bigger than ourselves, but don’t require some hard-to-swallow explanation. I’m talking about nature and the complex, but elegant processes that keep it alive, the endless coming and going of human life over the eons and the advances we’ve made throughout, the sun that warms our planet and makes everything possible, and the existence of love, be it for a particular person or the entire human family. The evidence, it seems, is there, but for some reason only a small percentage of us take the time to notice. (I do not count myself among this enlightened group.)
When it comes to the Almighty, most of us look for shortcuts. The fastest route, the insider information, or the secret code that’ll let us jump ahead without doing the work. Enlightenment doesn’t work that way. It can’t be hacked or expedited by saying the right things, wearing the right clothes, or knowing the right people. The process is unique to each individual and the rate of progress depends on one’s willingness to make the effort. There is, however, a difference between bending the rules and getting a few helpful hints, between having a cheat code and benefiting from the wisdom of someone who’s been there. Like the blazes on a hiking trail, honest insight and good advice can help you get where you’re going, but you still have to take each step and bear the weight of your pack. A true spiritual leader knows this and won’t promise to get you to the promised land faster than your pace will allow. A false one will have transportation pre-arranged to get you there as soon as possible, and then take the credit for your progress. As every silver-tongued charlatan knows, the desire to believe, the hunger for an answer and the want of a prepackaged way to live that removes all the guesswork and uncertainty, never goes out of season—and it makes those all-too-eager to believe ripe for the picking.
This is what makes belief so risky. The border between wanting to believe and convincing yourself that something is true is faint and easy to cross. Faith is often portrayed as something solid and concrete, but in reality it’s not so sturdy. I recently read that faith without doubt isn’t faith. It’s certainty, and you don’t need faith in things that are certain. I like that. It leaves room for questions, for the lack of answers, and in doing so helps take some of the pressure off. It gives us something to hang on to when the parables and the teachings don’t.
The same, it seems, applies to memory. My coworkers told me I’d never forget The Guru. They didn’t say anything about whether what I remembered about him would be true.
* * *
As it turns out, my memory of going to see The Guru is a perfect example of paramnesia.
Paramnesia n. 1. A belief that one is recalling events or experiences that never really occurred. 2. Any disorder of memory involving misremembering rather than failing to remember, including déjà vu and jamais vu.
This definition comes from the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology and I suppose it does the job. However, a much more interesting explanation of paramnesia—and one that is more pertinent to my story here—lies in Robert J. Campbell’s Psychiatric Dictionary (6th edition). It reads:
Paramnesia Disturbance of memory in which real facts and phantasies are confused. Thus, the patient is unable to tell whether he or she had dreamed or actually experienced that of which he or she has given an account. Paramnesia is a common phenomenon in dreams, and in the schizophrenias where it often appears as false recognition such as déjà fait or déjà vu. Such paramnesia may also occur in the normal person. [Emphasis mine]
* * *
Still, I had to be sure. To find out if anyone else remembered The Guru, I reached out to my friend Quin, the only person I still talk to from those days, and asked if he remembered hearing about or going to see The Guru. Quin was a food co-op weirdo too, and was just as tight with Dia, Suzanna, and Kairyn. Unfortunately, Quin had no memory of a guru who visited Silver Spring. This was significant. Quin and I were inseparable back then. If I went to see The Guru, he would have been right there with me.
After more mulling, I realized Quin’s inability to recall The Guru was spot-on. Quin and I worked at the food co-op in 1994–1995, but I worked at the store a second time, from 1998 to early 2000, when Quin was living in California. So, if I’m right about the timing of The Guru’s visit, then Quin couldn’t possibly have been there.
But wait, there’s more.
I got married in 1998 and was living in College Park, Maryland, with my wife when I worked at the food co-op the second time. This is relevant because I had access to a car at this period in my life, so my days of biking to get places were over. I don’t think I even got on my bike in 1999 or 2000, but even if I did, there’s simply no way I would have pedaled from College Park to Silver Spring. I would have driven. This means I wouldn’t have been there either!
In the Matrix, Morpheus asks Neo, “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?” I’ve been pondering this question more and more as my “memory” of seeing The Guru crumbles under the weight of my investigation. My memory of that day is so vivid—The cars on the street, the people in the living room, The Guru’s clothes and face—it couldn’t have been just a dream. And yet, with no evidence to the contrary how can I prove otherwise?I can’t. Yet, I’m reluctant to let it go. Despite the richness of my memories, I know my trip to see The Guru couldn’t have happened. And yet I find myself clinging to it. The vividness of my recollection has given me a ledge, however small, to hold on to and dangle from while I wait for the answers, or maybe the acceptance, to come. Like the faithful who believe there’s a god watching over them who cares about their lives, I want my story of going to see The Guru to be true. However, unlike the faithful, I’m not concerned about my recollection being false or looking like an idiot for repeatedly discussing the memory of an experience that didn’t happen. I want this story to be true because it’s so bizarre. Along with fast food, cheap entertainment, and 9 to 5 jobs, the world needs more out-of-the-ordinary occurrences, more oddness, more mystery, more co-ops staffed by weirdos, and more people congregating in random suburban homes to watch a guy sit on a pillow. Thinking about these things, knowing they happen and that there’s more to this absurd, cut-throat, stress-filled, empty, and meaningless mess brings a smile to my face. And like the people who may or may not have been in that living room, I too want to smile.
In the final issue of Alternative Incite (#6), I mentioned my plan to start a new magazine called Endnote, which was to be comprised of writing like this along with the usual letters, reviews, and so on. Well, I've since decided not to do that. Instead, I'll be publishing a (mostly) weekly installment of Guy Verbose on this website and maybe include one or two installments in The Butter Lamb News, which is now my sole publication.
Post a Comment