This I Believe: Carol Caouette (1997)

I lose myself when I’m really looking. Once, on a city bus entering downtown St. Paul, I became engrossed in noticing the small architectural details at the tops of buildings. On one building’s alley-side wall, I saw the graffiti image of a swirling sun slowly spinning, frame by frame, into a running man. At that moment, without any intention, I turned to look at the top of a building on the other side of the streets – and there was the swirling sun motif in 100 year old masonry, all along the rooftop edge. Immersed in that moment, I was connected to the graffiti artist’s conceptual inspiration by chance – a silent communication in the margin, with a secret knowledge that only the artist and I know the evolution of that creation, though later I noted that the graffiti had been whitewashed away.

One summer day I drove south on Snelling towards Grand and passed people gathered around and old woman with a shock of beautiful white hair, who’d just been hit and killed by a car. The scene was chaotic but her stillness suspended it outside of real time. Upon my return a short time later, it was as though nothing had happened at that corner. That is a feeling to be reckoned with.

I lose myself in sound. I can become completely caught up in the symphony of sound humans make when they’re together: the soft plop of book pages, cloth rustling, the gentle clacking of typing on a computer keyboard, the rummaging through purses or pockets or desks, different shoes on tile floors, the hum of distant traffic or a couch, a sneeze, a sigh. I’m nearly paralyzed physically, at times, by these sound sensations. They comfort me. All sound is music when I’m really listening, I’m not aware of myself, which is renewal.

At least I’ve been able to figure out that I’m most restless when I’m not participating in my own “artisthood”, as the author Tom Robbins calls it. In Skinny Legs and All he describes the dilemma of being an artist but not doing art. He says that if one is going to forsake personal artisthood, one must forsake art overall all; otherwise, it’s like divorcing and then hanging around to see how your spouse gets along with his or her new spouse. For various reasons, there have been times when I’ve had to move away from performing music or writing or teaching, and Robbins is right. It’s too painful to watch others doing what you want to be doing when you can’t be doing it. It’s best to pursue what you love. That’s one thing I believe.

I’m trying to learn how to ask the right questions. When I was about four or five years old, my mother and I had a conversation about where babies come from. Most likely, she made some reference to God’s hand in reproduction, thinking I wasn’t ready for the mechanical details. She gave me those later in very colorful detail. But I distinctly remember asking her when God was born. I also remember that her answer was swift and without a doubt that God had always been and then my recollection is that we went in circles for some time longer. Despite my struggle to grasp this amazing new idea, in that moment, I remember the feeling of my mind expanding as I struggled to fathom the distance or time or space this god would have had to travel to have always been. It is a gift that I remember my first conscious encounter with the eternal.

Doing some time travel now, I’m sitting in a college Psych 101 class and the professor says something profound about the human memory. My memory failed to catch it, but its effect was strange and powerful and I left the classroom overwhelmed. My mind experienced a kind of implosion. No language attached to the “memory” his comment triggered, which is quite an inadequate word to describe a remembrance without words. The memory is a feeling, from a time I believe was in my first two to three months of life, when I would have been in foster care or in my newly-adoptive home. It’s a feeling of utter and complete nothingness. To describe it is to diminish the feelings it evokes.

I’m lying on my back and there’s nothing but darkness. I am the darkness. There is not differentiation between me and the void. The feeling is of absolute aloneness – not loneliness, I don’t think. Perhaps that feeling is due to the complete separation from my birth mother. But the absoluteness of it informs me about how I know things never expressly taught – another memory that is a gift, from ground zero. Anointed by that nothingness, I’m baptized forever with the sense that I’m not the center, that there actually isn’t one – at least, for me.

I found a kind of teacher who affirmed that idea for me, although if he were here, he’d protest the notion of a teacher/student relationship. He struggled with the burden of being teacher. I am talking about Jiddu Krishnamurti or just, Krishnaji. He was born in India in 1895 and died in California in 1986. When he was just fourteen, he was discovered on an Indian beach, along with his brother, by a British leader in the Theosophical Society, a movement that combined philosophy with Hinduism and Buddhism. Krishnaji was spirited away from his parents and proclaimed to be the next “World Teacher.” He was educated and groomed for his role as a divine chosen one. Twenty years after his discovery, he renounced his title and denounced all organized religion as “an impediment to inner liberation.” He said “truth is a pathless land.” Then he embarked on his own search and truly did become a world teacher.

However, for Krishnaji, the proper questioning is then, incorrect thinking, Krishnaji would probably scold. I’m intending to do it, which is my ego desiring it. That desire is within the confines of time, which means I will dredge up solutions to my problems based on my limited experience. The problems of life are what they are, he says. They have no opposite into which they can evolve. To change thought, one must stop the thought and become non-centered. Imagine standing in a field. In that moment, you are the center because you see the fences, the boundaries all around. What awareness you have is only of your limits. To see oneself within something is to fear belonging to or becoming nothing.

To become aware, Krishnaji taught that we must remove our motives, that acting unconditionally in the present moment, to be no thing, is to participate as part of everything. Krishnaji believed that brain cells are physically transformed and cleansed of memory when we become non-centered. This is a paradigm shift … or Jesus’ message of non-judgmental love  and compassion. And Krishnaji, too, says that without living based on compassion, what is the point? I come full-circle back to my Lutheran roots.

I’m most comfortable with things that exist in the margins – particularly, what’s not being said under what is, unintentional puns, the utility and beauty of sarcasm, people who are out of hope or grace, fractals, the sound of a human rather than words spoken. I who’ve been thrown away by their parents or by society and who question the inconsequential and don’t know to question the injustices they suffer daily. They don’t recognize unconditional caring and generosity and accept unconditionally that they have no option but to wait and see what happens to them next. They live in the temporal moment but without peace. I answer their questions with my own.

I am a lucky person for knowing these children, and because I have the love of my husband, my children, and my good friends. I have this community that re-energizes me. And every time I’m in this room, I look up to see the skeleton of a massive Viking ship and think how lucky we are to be on this voyage together.