April 1, 2019

"Hang On" or "Antonia's Dream" (a brief foray into fiction)

Based on a true story...

I knew this old woman by the name of Antonia who was my neighbor when I lived in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago. She was a lovably eccentric but strangely wise soul. She used to come to my apartment on Saturday mornings, to say hello, in her awkward but disarming way, bringing some store bought pastries, a tradition she began soon after I moved into the apartment on Ashland. I invited her in; we would usually sit and she would simply ask after me and my life. After exchanging greetings that day, she made tea and sat at my table, regarding me with a quizzical but slightly humorous gaze, or so I thought.
She told me she had been raised Baptist and I related to her my experience of various sects and denominations of both Christian, Buddhist and Muslim belief. We often spoke of the days news, and the books we were reading. She had unusual reading habits and an extremely large library with books pouring out into her whole house, in a state of organized chaos. Sometimes in our conversations, she would ask me if I had ever dreamed of flying and would often stare at me with the most dispassionate yet serene gaze as I stuttered that I hadn't. I also frequently poured out my heart to her, about my failed relationships, my struggles with faith, and my relationships with my family.
This has been nearly ten years ago now, but I still remember the remarkable story she told me that day. In one of the comfortable silences that often pervaded our conversations, she told me matter-of-factly: “Donnie Hathaway came to me in a dream when I was 12 years old.”
We both shared a love of this amazing musician, who had tragically taken his own life in the midst of a brilliant career.
Still it was an unexpected thing to hear. I didn't know what to say, so I simply said, "what happened in the dream?"
She continued, “Well, I only knew him from my parents record collection. But one night in late April 1980, I was listening to "A Song For You", with my father on his record player, before bed. Later I fell asleep easily."
Antonia continued, "I found myself on the edge of a canyon in a dry landscape dotted with green. Looking around, I began to climb to the top of a large pine tree on a ledge midways above an enormous canyon. Sheltered in the pine's branches, I emerged eventually into a sky of intense blue. The wind whistled by my face and I looked down over an enormous green valley filled with trees. As I looked around, I saw to my surprise, Donnie Hathaway appearing out of the trees of the valley below, flying upwards without visible effort or support, while playing a chord on an instrument seemingly made of a living plant. I sat transfixed.
He held my throat in hand, cradling it. I opened my mouth and he spoke directly into my gullet. It was as if I was digesting his utterances into my stomach. He spoke the following words:
""There is no such thing as ‘religion. There is only something called ‘knowledge of the world’ which encompasses that which is seen and unseen."

He then spoke the following in an instant, almost as a download into my brain:
"We know we are made up of chemical compounds, molecules, atoms, and neutrons interacting in highly complex ways that enable our brain to function. You must integrate the full sensory and motor apparati of the body, including the brain, to learn to 'taste' and subtly evaluate your own experiences of yourself and others. The most relevant context for achieving true wisdom is an understanding of the patterns of behavior of human communities, developed through this evaluation. In college settings, the pedagogical approach to this pattern evaluation is called ' the humanities'. But you can and must also learn such things from navigating the college experience itself. You can also learn it outside of college. You can learn these patterns in a variety of ways, first and foremost by listening closely to what people say, observing what they do and developing a basic empathy for their experience as you naturally have for your own.
Most people have a carefully calibrated mix of 'theist' and 'atheist' assumptions about reality, based on what they think is sinful or shameful. These ideas are frequently in flux. This flux can seem like the arbitrary and inconsistent wind of the fickle mind, but it is in reality an appropriate response to the complexity of existence, though often seen by extremists on both sides as being either insufficient faith or too much superstition. No one can appoint themselves an ultimate guarantor of an unseen reality, nor an arbiter of conscience of the ultimate validity of the sometimes abortive processes of faith and doubt in the individual.
Most important for children is to instill a deep sense of security and love in the child by setting boundaries for it, that must also evolve to meet the growing capacity of the child's sensory, motor and higher brain functions. Ideally parents provide a degree of stability that will allow the child to forms and inform their identity while incorporating flexibility, questioning and a rational autonomy that helps insulate the child from vulnerability to cults, which often prey on misplaced but sincere faith.
The messages we need to live together, to extend the life of the human species in a sustainable manner, and to live in balance with all the seen and unseen forces, is transmitted all around us by reality itself. There is no need to debate who is and isn’t correct about such abstractions like theological conceptions of God. It is strange and contradictory that the messengers of a supposedly all powerful God come every thousand years or so and to a limited swath of humanity, in a particular language. Some civilizations actually do not appear to have a theistic conception of the ULTIMATELY REAL at all. Study the messages of the tradition of your parents, as well as other traditions, whether theist or non-theist, but do not only rely on words spoken or written by someone else in the past to make your judgements. You must also independently evaluate the character of the adherents of these traditions through the power of your own sensory apparatus and intuition. You must purify this intuition to use it well; it can also be a deeply creative source. How do you think I made the song "Giving Up"?
But you must remain humble of your own inherent limitations. Please learn early on and deeply that your experience is a combination of many different inputs, including that which goes by the name of ‘tradition’. You are also a mammal, and a complex organism with many unconscious desires. If you choose the language of God to understand this truth, then: God speaks in words, but more importantly God generates new experiences and new reality every moment. Listen to the world in silent contemplation, listen to humans in compassion, and you will eventually find the wisdom you need to survive a variety of challenges.""

In her dream, the old woman told me she was surprised to find herself speaking the following words to Donny Hathaway, as if in a trance. Actually, she said, it was as if she was singing the words together with him, as if it was a duet:
""Human life and human history is largely just a string of pointless miseries, fruitless endeavors, and civilizations that failed because of human hubris, greed and unsustainable inequality. There is beauty there too, amid the detritus of our repeated and arrogant ruin, of history repeating itself. In their ultimate failures humans managed to form social units and communities to cooperate for common good, and have at times treated each other with remarkable sensitivity and real love, which in turn contributed to a humanly obtainable model of excellence and human flourishing. Some say, if you want wisdom, do not endeavor. But do not neglect to fulfill the obligations immediately in front of you. Often larger truths emerge from this prosaic mosaic.
Look around you at what the people believe; they are mired in ignorance. Do not be too harsh with anyone, except for those who come to you and engage in obviously bad faith. Among all peoples of the world, there are those who have a deep and beautifully profound faith in a good God or a good Force that governs, guides and sometimes rewards their life and accomplishments.
The concept of God is often treated psychologically as a fetish object by some monotheists, in spite of their denigration of its material manifestation as idolatry. This is not only a 'theist' family affair; non-theist 'religions' such as Buddhism also condemn practice, of the other from their limited psychic viewpoint.
God is neither good nor bad, in any conventional moral sense with meaning to human social life. God is sometimes referred to, misleadingly, as our ‘father’. But a father is supposed, even obligated, to protect his children from danger. God knows the future and so allows human evil to happen to these so-called children, including mass killing. He listens to the cries of today’s starving in Yemen and weeps, or laughs, but doesn’t intervene in any rationally comprehensible way we can understandor communicate about. And on goes the killing, fueled by human greed, not Godly punishment.
There are many Gods, there is only one God, there is no God. All of these statements are true and false at the same time. Don’t accept any of these contradictory statements as ontological. Debating whether non-theism or theism is true is like debating whether light is a wave or a particle. The fervency of the true believers ontological preference bears very little relation to the ULTIMATELY REAL or to the hearts of those who hold fervently to it.
‘Belief' is not measurable or ultimately definable in any consistent unitary doctrinal fashion. Although there have been many attempts. it is frequently so subtle that an orthodox believer will totally lack faith, in spite of his rhetorical affirmations of the same. Meanwhile the most ignorant “kaffir” or unbeliever may have iman enough to move mountains. The ways of this quality are indeed ultimately mysterious. Avoid judging in spite of a preponderance of evidence one way or the other. For non-theists, faith would be closer to an idea of an 'unveiling' of the senses', which drills a deep insight and deliberation into one's daily practice and existence.
Atheists will sometimes put on airs of superiority, rooted in the faith they have in limited human rationality. Yet take away their material comforts, take away their faith that the world is rationally ordered, and you will see their true character many times emerge. Religious leaders and atheists share one main quality and that is hubris.
To judge anyone, look at how they treat children, orphans and widows. Pay less attention to words and more to human action. which are easily ‘prettified’ by the intelligent.
Education can be a path to truth or a path to ignorance. Many words do not always bring clarity.
Don’t be in a hurry to express truth in words, for the more this something is talked about, the further the experiential intuition gets from it.
There are many spiritual teachers today, promising an easy path to prosperity or knowledge. They may have the right words, the right robes, the right instruments of mystical communion, and yet their heart may well be as hard as a mountain of granite.
There are many political leaders today, promising the kingdom of God on earth. Remember that material inequality always generates the conditions for social upheaval. But do not expect a political messiah. Power is something humans have inherent difficulties handling in large quantities.
Our species has demonstrated at times a remarkable ability to live together and spontaneously organize itself with ingenuity and originality. One doesn't need a Harvard degree or any other fancy piece of paper to know how to do this.
Beware of painting the self-organizing tendency in human communities as primitive or chaotic and beware of those who label it so. Many times the proposed western alternative is the exertion of violent coercion to carve out an arbitrary and damaging concept of sovereign ownership so as to be able to impose a usually highly abstract and violent notion of order. The wealthy will try to use the barrier created by this violence to insulate themselves from uncertainty. Eventually the quest for total security rots the hearts and brains of these people.
Don’t be in a hurry to make a name for yourself. Be in a hurry to listen to everything and everyone.
Reading is the habit of listening to the dead. Use it to relate empathetically with the living. Engage in it daily."
Antonia said at this point her whole body began pulsating with some heartbeat that appeared to be within the intricate structural body of the sky itself. She could hear the chittering sound of sparrows somewhere below her in the tree. Donnie Hathaway spoke again: 
""Remember if there isn’t a God, then anything is permitted to humans in an ultimate sense. This is the most monstrous idea imaginable. Therefore we need God. Human beings as a species cannot live totally without some concept of the ultimately real. It informs our actions and generates both useful prohibitions and a vital survival energy.
But if there is a God, this raises probably the thorniest and most irrational problem in theistic thought. God is good, but God permitted/allowed/intended for millions of humans to die at the hands of diseases, millions of others by the instability of the planet he created, and millions more by their fellow humans. He threw his 'children' to their own devices in the most cruel and calculated manner imaginable. If there is a God (and herein lies the controversy, he is truly a sadistic monster of the worst kind. Instead of imprinting a guide to conduct in his creation, he divided humanity into languages, taught them contradictory philosophies, and then set them against each other to debate and fight about the meanings of words he allegedly spoke 1000s of years ago and which are frequently not even in their first language. God cannot be 'good' and still be God, unless God intends and also creates and actually is the source of, evil itself.
To hold these two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time is the path to a profound and indescribable truth. This is why it is better to root the idea of good and evil in the consequences of human conduct, in individual terms, but also in terms that minimize the destructive tendencies of hubris and hierarchy, that in turn give birth to material inequality that generates violence and instability.""
The old woman said that by the time the musician had finished saying this portion, his head was glowing like polished brass, so that she could see her own reflection in pure outline in the shape of his brow. He was smiling gently at her.
Her head was spinning and her palms were sweating onto the fragrant needles of the pine tree. She was aware of her heart beating rapidly in her chest. High in the sky overlooking the verdant valley of her dream, she suddenly felt more deeply grounded and at peace with her own body and self than she ever had before.
Donnie stopped playing the plant-like instrument, and was gradually now surrounded by millions of shimmering spheres, seemingly made of clouds, and looping around him like double helixes. She began to hear the following words--"Allahu La ilaha Ila Huwa al-Hayyul Qayyum"--recited from the mouth of a glowing Donnie Hathaway as he seemed to float away from her on the updraft of some powerful current from the valley below, though she could feel no wind. The phrase of what she only later learned was the Quran resonated and echoed for some time off the walls of the canyon.
"And then I woke up," she told me. She fell silent as I sat totally absorbed by her remarkable story. Slowly the profound and mystical impression of the narrated dream faded from the atmosphere of the room. She pulled something from a small black backpack next to her chair. "I wrote everything down that we had said together." She produced a plain blue spiral notebook and laid it on the table next to me. "You can read it if you want."
She passed me the book, and I saw her neat handwriting, in elegant thin lines of dry ink curling across the page, a written account of the dream she had just related.
As I perused the notebook, Antonia received a call from another friend and had to excuse herself. As I read her words from the notebook, I still had so many questions. Her story of her dream seemed quite surreal, and yet it was a dream, so what else did I expect? As I turned further in the notebook I saw more entries, many of them quite ordinary for a twelve year old girl, like her excitement going on a field trip to Brookfield zoo and seeing giraffes for the first time. There were also lists: like goals she had for herself by age 50, or all of the different kingdoms and phylae of life. She had also written down other dreams, though in no other one was she ever visited by anyone else.
When she came back from her call, I asked her If could make a copy of the dream from her notebook and she told me that I could, but that if I wanted to publicize the dream-advice, she did not want to have her name associated with it. She told me, "write it in a fictional story, change my name, and wait ten years before sharing."
The next day, as I copied the dream notebook into a Word document, a feeling of unease flickered back into view after the pleasant shock of discovery of the remarkable dream. I was mired in debt and my job was stressing me out. I had been feeling on edge, and my grad school routine, with long hours of solitary study, had left me feeling ever more frequently isolated and lonely. Yet the old woman’s words had lodged deep within my body and I turned them over in my mind constantly over the next few days.
Ten years later, as I re-write this into the emerging space of social media networks, I have still never dreamed of flying. But I never forgot the wisdom of Antonia's dream. Whenever I get into a state of deep anxiety, whenever I feel overwhelmed, whenever I doubt, whenever my spirit is troubled I think of the lyrics of the timeless song, “Someday we’ll all be free”, by Donnie Hathaway:
“hang onto the world as it spins around, just don’t let the spin get you down."
the end.
(written by Nathaniel M, March 2019)


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