Hide and Seek.
I was drowning in grief and some days unable to move as I stayed at a friend’s apartment in Baltimore, surviving by sneaking fingers of peanut butter and an occasional vitamin when I grew desperately hungry. If I absolutely had to survive, if life was going to be forced on me, I’d have to start it all over from the beginning, because this old one was tearing me apart.
I’d always crammed every opportunity into a box, sealing it in up on all sides with tapes saying, “I can’t.” The only thing I knew for sure was that if I ever actually tried anything, I could fail.
Then I had taken a half-hearted shot at college, but only because it had been forced on me. I ended up quitting. That’s when everything slammed shut that I’d never really opened in the first place. Within weeks, I dropped out, turned twenty-one, my dad died unexpectedly, my favorite cousin was sent home in pieces from Viet Nam, and an induction notice came to tell me I was next.
Such a chain of dire “coincidences” could only have been divine synchronicity. Or retribution as only heaven can sow it. Payback for something I must have done in some past life, since I sure hadn’t gotten out to do much damage in this one. I felt His breath whispered across every wracking, crawling moment. Could a God Who really cared be so cruel?
My last night home before college, Dad had made the whole family watch “The Ten Commandments” again so we could feel “The Lord’s mighty power” as I headed off to take the world on.
It had scared the heck out of me.
I saw myself jumping blindly into the hands of that same Divine Overseer who’d forced Moses to take a life or death stand against the pharaoh, wander the desert for forty years, everybody attacking him, but then, after all that, told him, “Mood swing! Everyone can go in but you. You just have to stand outside and watch.” And that’s not even mentioning all those poor innocent horses He drowned. God was killing children right and left, but then told Moses he shalt not kill. Told Moses to lie to the Pharaoh, but then made it a commandment not to.
Some great, inspiring flick that turned out to be. I was going to need a much kinder God to pray to.
And yet, someone I had thought was God had called to me so gently when I’d been a child, soothed me when I’d felt lost; which had been pretty much most of the time. He’d hugged me behind the couch when life and sadness had seemed the same thing. Or when I was holding pictures of Jesus. Or holding butterflies, or ladybugs. We petted bunnies and birds together when they came up to me in the yard. He fed chipmunks out of my hand. He smiled at me through sunshine and moon glow.
That God I’d loved since toddlerhood still hummed to me sometimes through the stars.
But then He started playing hide-and-seek and He always had to be the one who hid. I filled in the blank spots and lost years with doubts.
I tried experimenting with services at different places of worship. I’d never felt quite settled into a place until I’d found a church with more spirit than words. It didn’t even have to be a happy, hopeful spirit. I just needed to know there was more to it than stone walls, wood benches, and empty sermons. I needed to feel clearly that God knew it was there. That I could catch a whiff of Him inside, a taste of His simmering compassion. Feel Him sharing their sorrows, and feeding their joys. That He could have found me there if He ever really wanted to. But most of them seemed stuffed with stiff and itchy families who looked to be just reining it in and playing along for an hour or so a week.
But how would I know? I never gave anything a real try.
I’d thought that by sitting my life out on the sidelines I’d been handing it over to Him, but then everything kept falling apart. It felt like I’d been huddled in my tight nest of fears like a featherless bird baby, squeaking with my mouth open, waiting for someone to stuff in a half-eaten worm. Truth is, though, I was really getting really tired of trying to survive on just vomited worms.
So after that one awful month, when even those few things I had counted on had been jerked out from under me, I decided to head out, and start fresh.
I called the new me Devin Morgan; which meant sensitive poet in my twenty-five cent pocket book of names. My druggy art school friend, Michael. called me Darvon. Another guy called me Dildo.
That was okay. I wasn’t all that committed to the name. Or to anything, really.
Something had to change. Whoever I was; Devin, Darvon, or Dildo; I’d never hitchhiked before, but one day just stepped out onto the road and stuck my thumb out with no plans on coming back. A young man, a clean cut Republican type, said he was off for Colorado and would go all the way with me. I didn’t realize that was street talk. When he found out I wasn’t gay, he left me on the side of the road before I’d even made it out of Pennsylvania.
A hippie picked me up, his hair even longer than mine. That, and his beard, were all bushy scraggly, while I kept mine neatly trimmed and carefully under control, like my emotions. He, too, was heading for Colorado; probably more than mere coincidence. His van was classic painted-all-over hippie. His name was “Jeremy G. Tripe, the G stands for Gabriel, as my family is of a religious persuasion and right proud of the fact.”
As I climbed in, he asked, “Y’all got a ink pen I could borra? Been drivin’ maybe forty miles with a thought scratchin’ around in my head just ain’t gonna leave me be ’til I git it wrote down. But I don’t got no pen.”
I’d just been writing on a piece of roadside scrap that had blown against my feet. He’d clunked and rattled to a stop just ahead of me. I didn’t even have my thumb out; my pen had pulled him over. I asked him, “What are the chances of that?”
“Oh, normally I’d say, pick some number on the slender side of zero,” he said, eyeing the ballpoint with finger-itchy hunger. I handed it over. “But if things is meant to happen, they’ll just find themselves a way.” He pointed to the glove box. “Got some paper in there somewheres under the wrenches. Might could be a bit greasy, but I can still dig a few words into it.”
I reached, pushed the button, but it wouldn’t budge. I rammed harder, with my thumb, and then the heel of my hand. The door was jammed tight. I slammed at it, harder each time, but that latch had other ideas. Weeks, years, of bottled up angst came growling through like a coalmine threatening to give. “Dammit!” I gritted the word, temples throbbing. Shoring timbers began to creak. Under my breath, but then gradually louder: “DammitDammitDammitDammitDammit!”
“That your magic incantation for stuck buttons?” he asked with an ornery smile. “Does it work? I might could try it if it works.”
“Nothing ever works…”
“Then maybe cussin’ at it ain’t your best first choice.”
I slammed the latch button again.
“Now, ya might wanna try easing up on that a mite, friend; it falls all to shambles on a whisper.” He studied me. I fought off the urge to look back, sitting rigid in that brittle old seat, watching a train of cars crawl along behind a rusted-out sedan. He saw all that, in no particular hurry to jot his thought down. “Much like your life, lately, I suspect.”
“Oh, I’m okay,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t look okay to me; settin’ there lookin’ like a smacked nerve. Them words dripped out of you like a squeezed out carwash sponge. Been under some pressure?”
“Talkative fella, ain’t ya?”
“Sokay. Silence holds its own truth; you play yours close to the vest if you wanna. Just seems things been tryin’ to beat into my dim skull that you don’t get nowheres just sulking along not sayin’ much. Gotta learn to trust more than your horse. – And you ain’t even got a horse.”
I just sat there.
He started up again. “Got so I just had to talk to someone with a couple less legs.
“Him and a family filled with Jesus and nothin’ but. So I just wandered on out into the world.”
“Yeah, well, some of us can’t even get that right.”
“All locked up inside, right? Feels like you just can’t cut your way out nohow?”
“Yeah, I guess. - Uh-huh. - Exactly.”
“Ah-hyup. Know that’n, alright.” He turned away and studied his steering wheel for a while, petting long tracks through the prairie grit built up thick on the column. Then he said, “Y’know, sometimes the why of things just don’t much matter. Don’t none of us know the real why behind most things, anyways. But here we are, two strangers parked beside a long stretch of nowhere, trying to coax ourselves outa the same problems.”
“Karma again,” I said, mainly to myself.
“Karma. Fate. Possibilities. Burnin’ off the old to take on the new. They say it ain’t where you think you wanna go that counts s’much as where life trips you up tryin’ to get there.”
“Never heard it put that way before.”
He watched for a while; like he was meditating on me, waiting for me to stir. It was unnerving; me aching to let him, to let anyone in; him just quietly watching. “My roommate in college used to call me just an outsider looking in; said I wasn’t letting myself come alive.”
“Did ya try it any different after that? Did that work for ya?”
I started talking to this guy like I’d just been released from solitary confinement; told him about never being able to talk to people, especially those I most ached to be close to, about screwing up college, and my whole list of grievances. But just couldn’t get close to that hard-edged grief over my dad. “I’m just trying to get through life quietly. Do the right thing. Be a nice guy. But it’s like God doesn’t really care.”
“Ah-hyup!” he said, “Sometimes, sure feels like if God ain’t quite dead yet, He is most assuredly lying on his back in the doorway. But you know, deep inside us, there’s this little tiny light glowing just enough we don’t quite give up. Not quite; not entirely. It’s how things is all planned out. Otherwise the good folks woulda offed themselves long ago from caring too much.”
He handed my pen back without writing. He reached down, shifted gears, stomped the pedals. The van lurched and belched, ground metal against metal, but didn’t quite move, and didn’t quite die. I thought hard about how much that was like my life, but didn’t say anything.
He caught it anyway. “Sometimes this old car does seem to be listening in on ya, don’t it?” he asked.
A red Trans Am roared past, horn blaring. “Okay, there, cowboy,” he said, watching it, but also me, “Got you some real twisty roads comin’ up; might wanna show ’em some respect, you ever wanna make it back home.” I didn’t know which of us he was talking to.
We broke down somewhere in Indiana near a buffalo farm.
Off in a field, crawling over the engine, he told himself, “Boy, Jeremy, you just do not have a thimbleful of brain cells to rub together in there, do ya? Couldn’t think your way outa bed in the mornin’ if Ma didn’t embroider instructions on your sheets.” He looked up at me. “Won’t be an expensive fix,” he said, “But I will have to ease her along to that service station we just passed. Good thing you come along or we’d never make it. May have to push her a bit. Poor old lady don’t seem to have much scoot in her gitalong no more, but we can still get there if we coax her real nice.”
We sat a while in a prairie that stretched out across forever, grass bowing to soothing breezes like waves across a gentle green sea, as the engine and I cooled. I sighed, stretched, letting go of things. I asked, “When you sit out here in the middle of nowhere and nothingness like this, do you feel like you’re running away from something; or towards it?”
“Feels like just being with it.” He tossed a clod of dirt. “Just losing m’self in the soul of things.”
“Well, now that seems ’bout right,” I drawled. He smiled. I sounded kinda like him.
At a seedy motel we found a clerk watching a tiny TV under a dull, matted buffalo head. When he heard the door open, he called without turning around, “Hey, how y’all doin’?” The dead, glass-eyed animal bothered me. Jeremy busted out in a grin as the little man stood up. He was wearing lime plaid Bermuda shorts, a t-shirt with a flag on it, and cowboy boots with high white socks. Through a gap-toothed smile he answered a question we hadn’t even asked. “Oh, cain’t complain,” he said. “Wouldn’t do no good, know what I mean?” And he laughed at his tired old joke like he hadn’t heard it a thousand times in a world looking out at life through shallow clichés. “Cain’t kick about it. Considering the alternative …Ha ha ha … Know what I mean? …”
Jeremy said, “Death? Oh, I don’t know; dead ain’t s’bad. Been dead myself many times.”
I liked this guy. This was going to be an interesting evening.
“You said your family’s religious?” I asked. Ours was one of maybe ten rooms in this long, flat motel; each, no doubt, with the same faded interiors. Each a tossed salad of Salvation Army furniture, a bland and mismatched scrapbook of stains, but they did share a porch looking out on the sunset. The two of us sat there, on gouged and splintered rockers, their cane backs unraveling. As I was. There were three or four old wrecks parked along the strip, a couple of them thrashing and moaning; occasional screams of, “Yes! Yes! Yes, Honey, Yes!” But we had the porch to ourselves.
“Born again fundamentalist,” he told me. “Daddy was a minister. Seems in my family, at least, the earth’s only a few thousand years old. They all keep losing track of the exact number; can’t find the reference in the Bible nowheres, but they’d fight to the death it’s in there, and it’s true. Sun and stars orbit the earth. Just cause man’s here, no other reason. Rest of the world should bow down and kiss American butt cause Jesus is coming to save us, and us alone. Somethin’ to do with the flag, it seems.”
I held my tongue. “Now me,” he said, “Guess I lean more toward being a kind of a pantheist.” He looked over at me, stopping to scratch at the knee of his jeans, watching as I felt the dull thud of the word ‘pantheist’ falling so casually from the mouth of a cowpoke who had earlier been talking about karma.
“Does that mean you worship a whole bunch of Gods?” I asked.
“Just means everything’s holy; everyone’s got their own layers of how it all fits together, and you gotta listen to everybody. All religions play their parts.”
“That must’ve gone over big.”
“Didn’t set so well with Daddy, I’m afraid, no.” He shook his head slowly. “He was out there preachin’ some things that just didn’t quite fit in with how the world looked to me. When he wasn’t herding cattle, he was herding minds and souls. But you know, it’s kinda hard to keep ’em penned in once the cattle’s learned to think. So one day I just wandered off.”
“To think things through your own way.”
“More like listening. Seems you can figure out a lot by just listening in on the soul of things. Starts to look like there really is some kinda meaning out there and it’s not cutting us all apart; it’s taking us all somewheres together.”
Who was this hippie cowboy? Why was I opening up to him; how was he drawing me out? “Like I read once in a book called ‘The Way of the Lonely Ones,’ …”
“The Path to God, Yup. That’s what they call it. Can go way beyond just being lonesome.”
“Right - so – yeah – but - if all I’m doing is just standing around listening, not doing anything with my own life, just listening in on everybody else’s, then what good am I really doing anybody?”
“That there’s probably the first step.”
“Uhhh … mmm … What … where?”
“Wantin’ to do good for folks. Not just settin’ around waitin’ for God to drop your share in your lap. ‘I put my faith in Him, so He owes me.’ Been figger’n on that’n a long time. All things don’t necessarily come to folks who don’t do nothin’ but wait. Even if they’re prayin’ while they’re settin’ there. You can put all the faith in God you want to, but you try crammin’ Him behind the wheel while you nap in the back seat; you’re still gonna drive into a tree.”
I’ve never been able to laugh full out, but he got a couple of snorts out of me with that one. I really liked this guy. I told him, “I’ve been writing this lady from this group called The Theosophical Society. She says we can draw special teachers into our lives. If we’re ready. I’m starting to think you might be one?”
“Don’t wanna give me too much credit, now. We’re all ready for somethin’; and meant to be each other’s teachers. It’s all about takin’ the heart and soul of ever’body ’n’ ever’thang in til it grows into just one great big hum. That there’s the singin’ voice of God. Then it just becomes a matter of how we’re gonna sing back. Still tryin’ to figure that’n out for m’self. Danged straight ain’t no theosophical adept, if that’s what you’re sayin’.”
“Adept? You know about the mahatmas, the great teachers?”
“No more’n I’m meant to, I guess. Just seems if you’re ‘ready,’ as you call it, they might be listening in right now. You’d never know it. Seem to like answerin’ your best questions by dropping a letter on your head from the other side o’ the planet.” He suddenly crossed himself hurriedly, but with reverence. “Not that I’m makin’ sport of you folks,” he told the open air. “I’d never do that.” He waited a moment, as though listening. Then he laughed, relieved.
“You know about the mahatma letters. This is great,” I told him. “I’ve been reading them. About Colonel Olcott and how their notes fell on his head on the train. Asks a question and the answer falls out of his napkin. There really is still magic in the world, isn’t there? They just hide it until people can handle it.”
“Kinda peeks out at ya when you’re a kid, just so’s you see it’s there; but then you gotta go huntin’ for it again. If you don’t go chasing magic, it’s never gonna catch ya.”
“It wants you to chase it.”
“Seems that way.”
“That thing you were saying about how it’s all about the journey, not the goal?”
“Marie says that, too.”
“You know the name?”
“Sure. Used to live with her. Sweet little grey-haired angel.”
“You used to live with Marie Chord.”
“Well, no, not like that. We both lived, along with about forty or so other folks, at Olcott, at Theosophical Headquarters. Didn’t know her personally, no.” He made a quiet clucking sound. “So sweet, and gentle. All meek and unobtrusive. Cain’t much help but love her if you’re drawn to the quiet, bashful side o’ nature. Cain’t say we ever really talked none.”
Then something he’d said earlier struck home. The voice of God, he’d said. I’ve always wondered what people meant when they said God spoke to them. Especially now when I was beginning to have my doubts about a big bearded white guy in the clouds with a guard at the gate and streets of gold massed with billions of people. Did He actually have a voice?
I thought back to that time in the woods with Thomas’s German friend Angie, and how I’d felt my heart reaching out to tap into her unspoken pains and history. There hadn’t been any words, no one had said anything, but it had felt like listening. I thought of those old homes and battlefields of my childhood where long-stilled miseries had just seemed to invade me. I thought of brief visits with the eternal among the stars when I seemed to be hearing everyone and everything in the silence. I wondered how this all fed together.
And why was it just coming to me now? After all those years of suffering and searching why was it all plowing into me at once? The world had just torn everything away that I cared about, it had completely broken me, and now it was handing me a gift?
I felt my face and heart sucking in, like a hardening fist getting ready to strike.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Karma, theosophy, all this weird stuff just keeps coming at me from everywhere these days. Which should be cool, which should be wonderful, but since all that’s been popping up, things have been getting awfully ugly, and harsh.”
“Really? Good for you.”
“Good for me? What do you mean, good for me?”
“Maybe it’s getting you ready for tryin’ on somethin’ a size bigger’n you was.”
“Why can’t I just keep quiet, mind my own business, and let God just drop all the good stuff on my plate where I don’t have to go out looking for it? You know; just cut it up in little bites, maybe even do the chewin’ for me?” I was starting to talk more like him.
“Nope. Don’t work that way. Gotta earn it. Work yourself hard to get ready, then claw your way through to the deep stuff. If it’s all handed to ya, it just ain’t yours yet.”
“That’s what Marie’s been telling me.”
“Sweet little Marie. Say ‘Hi’ for me, will ya?”
“We only write. She lives in Illinois. Don’t even know what she looks like. I seriously doubt I’m ever going to meet her.”
“Yeah you will.” He turned back toward the sunset and lost himself inside it for a while before he spoke again.
Without taking his eyes and heart out of the rich hues of approaching evening and the first tentative chirps of the locusts, he said, very quietly, but with conviction, “And you really gotta start workin’ on all this ‘seriously doubting’ business.”