446. For My Eyes Only

March 2, 2015

Early on in childhood, I developed a strong sense of what was family fare and what was not. If my parents had never mentioned or even alluded to such things, that made me hesitant to make the first move. If my brothers hadn’t spoken up, I was sure to keep mum. There was a strong code of forbidden topics based on conjectures that my parents didn’t want to hear about matters that they couldn’t or didn’t want to talk about. Mimicry was safe; taking the initiative was scary.

In my early years I had a recurring nightmare, which I never shared with anyone, not inside my family, not outside. It was my secret.

In the dream, I was slowly slipping toward a glow in the lower right of my visual field, the rest of the field being a featureless black. The thrust of the dream was a deep, rhythmical beat in the background, relentless force moving my body, and a strong sense of helplessness in resisting movement that was not of my doing. When I woke up, I would be crying.

I could feel that dream coming on with a kind of pressure and sense of dread. I suffered that same dream periodically (weekly, monthly?) for several years, then after some time I realized I wasn’t having it anymore, but could still recall the details and the intimate horror at will. What sticks with me today is the feeling of that dream coming on, my being helpless to stop it. Relentless dread, that’s what I felt. Of being in the power of something I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t like anything else in my experience.

Later, when I was several years older, I had another recurring nightmare that conveyed much the same feeling. I could tell from the opening scene how it would play out, and, again, I couldn’t stop it.

In that second dream, I would crawl under a brick wall at the back of a building into a dark room with a pitted, earthen floor. From that room I would go into the streets at night when everyone was asleep, enter the house of a stranger, go upstairs into a bedroom and kill (I’m not sure by what means) a sleeper picked at random. I escaped by retracing my route back into the earthen-floored room and then crawling under the wall into daylight.

Two feelings always accompanied that second dream: the horror of what I was about to do—and then actually did—and the fact that no one would ever know that I had done it. It was my guilty secret.

Once begun, both dreams unfurled true to form, and I could not avoid the fear of what was sure to happen. I mention the two dreams together because they both incited the same feeling of helplessness and horror in facing into their respective inevitabilities. I was trapped and couldn’t help myself.

Looking back, I see both dreams as variations on the same theme. It was their unwinding to a sure end that they had in common, though the details were very different. I see the first dream as meant for a younger audience, the second for an audience familiar with village life and language. In the first the action was done unto me; in the second I was the actor responsible for what I did.

I never told anyone in my family about such dreams. They were for my eyes only, a note passed from me to myself.

Writing this post brings to mind another secret from early adolescence that I kept from my family. When I was a sophomore in Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, we’d often drive into the Sierras on a Sunday afternoon to visit Snoqualmie Falls, Lake 22, or some other scenic destination. On one return trip on a sunny spring day, my father let me practice my driving skills on the winding, hilly road through the mountains, steep cliffs rising on the right, an abrupt chasm dropping beyond the roadside barrier on the far left side of the road.

I remember realizing in one instant as I drove that if I made an abrupt turn to the left and crashed through the steel barrier, my entire family, including two dogs in the back, would be wiped-out. It was a moment of realizing the responsibility I had in my hands in learning to drive. I was horrified to find myself thinking such a thought.

Needless to say I didn’t turn the wheel on impulse, but the thought did occur to me. I’ve been a reasonably competent driver ever since. But that sudden connection in the depths of my brain when I was fifteen was both a realization and a warning. Had I been more of a risk taker, I might have veered briefly into the other lane just to give my family a scare they would never forget, reminding them of the truely intimate power I held over their lives.

I see child soldiers and young terrorists armed with automatic weapons as succumbing to such impulses because the brutal climate in which they live paints pulling the trigger in a favorable light that differentiates heroes from losers. Getting past that point in my growing up has made all the difference. We see every day in the news stories about those who swing the other way when opportunity arises.

Perhaps unwittingly, families convey nonverbal attitudes that are the forge in which children are worked into the shapes they will assume as mature adults. As I said in my previous post, families matter. Children learn to talk in a family setting; they also learn when to stay silent.

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This post is the last installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

10. Space Junk. Early in 1962, I started work at Harvard College Observatory by setting up a photo lab that eventually expanded to become worthy of the Space Age. I started my fiefdom in a one-room darkroom with walls eight feet apart, which ultimately led to a fourteen-room photo lab suite near Fresh Pond on the outskirts of Cambridge. Apparently there was money for expansion available in those days.

Early on I was handed a remnant from a fallen Russian satellite that had landed piecemeal in northern Canada. No one knew what its function was, but as a novel piece of space junk, it deserved to have its picture taken.

That was a first for me, and the beginning of Harvard’s playing an active role, along with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in lofting research satellites into orbit. With one click of my shutter, my mind went from a dark-wood kind of nineteenth-century awareness into a full-fledged, gold-plated, twentieth century engagement with the new world of space exploration and surveillance.

11. J.F.K. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was in the photo lab darkroom at Harvard College Observatory making prints with the enlarger under the glow of a red safelight. I had the radio tuned to WGBH. When the bulletin came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, I called my assistant on the intercom and asked if he was listening to the radio. He was. The horror of that moment was implied in neither of us commenting on what was happening. Suddenly cut adrift from my everyday assumptions, I did what was familiar, so went on with what I knew how to do without thinking, my insides churning all the while. I never felt more cut off from the culture I lived in than I did contemplating that violent act in Dallas. Doubly sealed in my darkroom and in my own thoughts, bathed in red light, I got myself set to enter the new reality under the fluorescent lights beyond my lightproof darkroom door.

12. MIT Chapel. On a Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1973, I drove my Humanities 3 class at Abbott Academy from Andover to Cambridge to see what we could discover in two hours exploring MIT. Starting on the steps of Building 10, we headed off in different directions to see what engagements we could have and sense we could make of a cultural institution devoted to science and engineering.

A chapel had been added to the campus since my days at the school, so I was curious about what sort of building could acknowledge the ineffabilities of faith in those stark surroundings. On the outside it resembled a red brick pillbox much smaller than I thought it would be. Without windows, which surprised me. Entrance was through a curved archway.

Passing into the interior, I left Cambridge, Mass., behind and entered another world. It was dark, almost black. I left my pupils to adjust at their own rate. Arcs of chairs spread across a circular floor. A larger space than I expected in a pillbox, almost infinite—like the darkness outdoors on a moonless night. Beautifully lit from above by a gentle shower of light descending from an off-center light tube onto a table below. Golden rectangles like leaves hung suspended in the glow as if falling through eternity. I was stunned by the aura of the place.

I sat and savored the ambience. Everything faded except for those golden leaves. I had not a thought in my head. Unlike the granite institution on the far side of Mass. Ave., here was no place for thought. Awe, comfort, and wonder were the currency in this space. Whatever I needed at that moment, there it was. Released inside, not outside of my body.

As my eyes adapted to the shadows, I sensed movement in front of me to the right of the table. I was not alone. A silent figure removing something from a case. Raising it up. Suddenly a burst of music. A violin. Bach. A solo sonata. The voice of that place on that day. Exactly what I needed to hear. What I had come for and didn’t know it. At MIT of all places.

I just sat, wholly open to the dark, the music, the falling golden leaves. I knew exactly where I was, who I was. I was meant for this experience. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.

After a time, the music stopped, the figure of a woman carrying a violin case passed up the aisle. Who could she be? Why had she begun playing in the dark after I sat down? But I already knew. She was kin. A fellow wayfarer. Making sense of her brief stay on Earth by doing what she had to do. As I had had to take my class on yet one last voyage of discovery before Abbott (oldest girls’ school in the U.S.) shut for good in a few weeks, to be swallowed by the boys’ school up the street, leaving me out of a job.

What these twelve cultural engagements share in common is that I remember them from the years between 1951 and 1973, each having made its mark on my mind and memory so that it is still available to me today in 2015. Available, I now believe, because of an element of surprise in that things turned out other than I had expected them to.

Each incident of engagement is based on a discrepancy between my expectancy on that occasion and what actually happened. The combination of discrepancy and surprise heightened the engagement itself, making it memorable, for either its positive or negative polarity in comparison to what I was ready for at the time.

These incidents are the stuff of my personal consciousness. The emotionally-charged high points between long hours of my flying on automatic pilot, between routine engagements leading up to the peak occasions marked by disparities such as these.

Why do I call myself a wayfarer? Because I love going beyond where I’ve been before. Exceeding my own expectations. For good or ill, trial-and-error is the name of my game. Taking the next step, and the step after that. Some would call it empiricism. Or experimentation. I call it being a wayfarer driven by heartfelt curiosity, and the conviction that wonders surely lie around the next bend in the trail.

Now, onward to the community level of engagement.