June 5 2017
The world of childhood is loud and stupid, filled with terrifying monsters and unexpected discoveries, the effects of which we are not aware until years later. It is also where we meet the dragon of boredom.
For some forgotten reason, for a year or so around the age of ten, I tried to become a classical guitarist, only to find I could not stomach the hours of practicing, sitting with one leg perched on a metal stand, filing my nails to a graceful curve, and watching meditatively as a lone finger glides over a nylon string.
Yes, now it sounds lovely and worthwhile. But at the time I secretly wanted no part of it; I yearned to plug in my heavy, black Gibson solid body electric guitar, crank up the distortion, and recite the same tired blues licks until my ears were sore and my family enraged.
I moved on from the classical guitar. The world may have been a magical place, but apparently not where I was. Only in the next moment, at the next location. The spotlight of exploration never rests, always seeking its next victim, draining any situation of interest in the lonely pursuit of a later excitement.
There were exceptions, however. Author Nicholson Baker observes, in Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids (2016), that children are restless until they hear a story. Reading Roald Dahl aloud to a group of fifth graders, Nicholson glances up to see:
The whole class was motionless. Carlton’s head was up; Ian’s head was up; Nash’s head was up; the tattletale girls were all intent on hearing every word I was saying. Everyone was listening. I kept going.
The same thing happened to me. Leaning forward to hear every word, I fell off the bed and into another world as my mom read C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) to my sister and me. If you haven’t read it, which you should, the story features a family forced to move from London to the countryside during World War II. In an empty room of the unfamiliar house, the youngest child Lucy is drawn to a dusty old wardrobe, comforted by the embrace of hanging fur as she steps inside.
Lucy finds, to her dismay, that the wardrobe has no back. How could that be? Where was the wall of the thing? Her hands stretched out in darkness, she feels fabric give way to the bristles of tree branches, and squints at a snow-fogged lantern in the distance. Wait a minute — in the distance? She’s in a wardrobe, for God’s sake! Not anymore. Lucy found the only wardrobe in all of C. S. Lewis’ imagination that leads to the wonderful world of Narnia.
How incredible! I could have heard that passage again and again for days and still ached for more. Something resonated: deep within the mundane present, there is a secret world waiting to be discovered. How insane!
And yet, was there a kernel of wisdom to be extracted? Was Lewis telling us a secret that only a child could comprehend? Between the lines the narrator seemed to whisper, Do not go so fast! The magic is not where you will be, but where you are now.
I never recovered from this atom bomb of potential that Lewis set loose in my mind. But neither did I really understand his message. The world, no matter how hard you look at it, is not magical. It’s just space, full of things. Or so it seemed.
Far be it from me to diagnose a ‘mystical experience’ (which psychiatrist R. M. Bucke described as awareness “of the life and order of the universe”), so we will simply say that something weird happened to me once.
I was sitting up in bed in my Brooklyn apartment, some 15 years after learning of Narnia. It was an ordinary morning; I’d woken up early as usual, alone because my girlfriend was out of town on business, with nothing to do for at least an hour before work. The urge to get up didn’t come. What a lazy bastard I was!
I noticed a light fog in the bedroom. Before my tired eyes it became a stream of light from an unknown source. It was still dark out, but the light grew stronger, invading my vision until the wall facing the bed was barely visible in the brilliant haze. Opaque reality gave way to soft translucence, as if all of life were projected on a movie screen, including myself, and someone had accidentally turned on the theater lights.
In my dreamy stupor, I found nothing strange about any of this. It was delightful, intoxicating, hypnotic. I sat there motionless, stupid grin on my face, feeling like light itself, everywhere and nowhere, until I glanced at my cell phone on the bedside table and saw it was time to leave. Somehow an hour had passed.
I realize that all of this sounds like nonsense. It was a purely subjective experience, inaccessible to anyone but me, and likely an illusion or waking dream. The light receded and I went about my daily life, feeling a bit absent-minded, but overall the same.
These are the kinds of experiences we Narnia-seekers love. I was not transported to a magical land, but simply saw through this land. The primary difference was: I could not go back to my Narnia. Lucy simply had to re-enter the wardrobe; my weird experience was singular, and even with concentration there was no returning to that heaven of light.
So what value did this weird experience have? Well, practically none.
Except… if we look at it as part of the story of my life, it is an interesting footnote. It was a little glimpse of magic. I’d caught the door of the universe as it closed, leaving me alone again to ponder the implications. Why include such an unbelievable digression? Surely in the movie of my life the scene would have been edited out.
And yet it happened. One morning, we wake up and the world is shown to be a fantasy. Then we snap out of it. We row our little boats; sometimes merry, sometimes angry; sometimes with vigor, sometimes with indifference; sometimes chased by the ugly head of boredom — our inner life as inconstant as the ocean.
The story, unpredictable as it is, captivates.