Friday, October 31, 2014

stop sign flares




Only a sort of drunken flush pierced by voices, unimportant voices, that did not know how much he was loved.
--Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald

This spring, there was one night that the core of South Bend was thrust into a deep blackness. All the power had gone out in the downtown area. And although South Bend, IN does not have the same sort of wattage as Midtown on a Monday, there are perpetual sources of light that we take for granted: street lights, the glow from the neon signs, the glow of strings of twinkle lights from the bars.


As I drove through dark streets lit up only by the daring, bold, flickering flares--raw flame in the middle of the dark street, on either sides of stop signs. It was dazzling, and it was one of those moments where a pit of some unnamed fear or anxiety or worry that usually sits heavy in your stomach comes unraveled and is released into the atmosphere around you. The scene becomes dizzying, like a dream. Not a nightmare, per se, but something otherworldly. And you feel as though you're walking in alternate reality, or you're seeing everything through gauze, or you're enchanted.
Enchanted-- not as in captivated by the beauty of the moment, but enchanted by a charm or incantation or spell--in the way that removes you from the waking world and makes your stomach feel a little ill from too much magic or sugar.
 
I felt this sense of uncanny dis-ease as I wandered through the back chapels of St. John the Divine. Currently, the Cathedral has this hideous art installation of mummy-like statues that represent different countries, and they are standing in traditional forms of prayer, sprinkled throughout the alcoves like frozen guardians of the dead.
It's less like walking meditatively through a church and more like wandering through a labyrinth of garishly-painted ghosts.
 As I walked past them, the organist began to play some discordant rift that cut through the air like a dull serrated knife and squeezed the atmosphere together like an accordion's bellows.
I took a step into the old baptistery, and my whole body lurched as my foot miscalculated how deep the drop was onto the stone floor. The room seemed to tilt dangerously, as the harsh, mystic tones of the organ played something that sounded like a dirge at a carnival. That feeling of stop sign flares washed over me once more, and I felt that I had certainly stumbled through the shredded fabric of waking reality into something more primal and unholy.
Finally, the music stopped. And the sweet silver and blue light from the nave washed over me, as the silence of the phoenix's wings broke the spell the church had wrapped around me.

This feeling was recreated physiologically just a few weeks later, when I was reading a memoir of a plucky young British midwife in the 1950s. 
Obviously, there is nothing more delightful to me than a book filled with nuns, babies, the working class, and London in the 50's, but the chapter I had begun was very honest and thorough in its descriptions of a midwife's duties during delivery. Accordingly, as I read descriptions of things young virgins and gentlemen of all ages' ears ought never to be privy to, I began to feel woozy. I have never fainted before in my life, but I felt that I was about to, which was a VERY interesting physiological state to experience. 
It was like experiencing F. Scott Fitzgerald's prose inside your body. The liquid warmth, the wooziness, the supple nature of reality and love were all happening inside my knees and stomach. The world felt warm and hazy; and nothing mattered all that much. I felt as though I was about to collapse from hysteria, obsession with a eccentric millionaire in a sharp double-breasted suit, or drinking too much absinthe before brunch. 
Since I was currently the only adult proctoring a study hall of twenty-or-so high school sophomores, I felt that fainting was a poor choice, so I distracted myself by writing down the experience. 
 In a particularly heated moment, just douse the flames of reality with the cold waters of self-reflection.
No other antidote can quite so potently break an enchantment.

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