Sunday, August 2, 2009

My Weird House, Post 2

Sweet reader, I would be so mortified if by my recording of my so-called paranormal experiences you form the idea that I am one of those silly women (and it usually is women) who believe that nine-tenths of the things that happen to them are haunted and who see in photos of dust motes and lens flares a world of proof and wonder! So if what I say in this post strikes you as ridiculous, think of it not as excited and breathless look-at-me (which I truly hope it is not) but as the commentary of a woman who, through a genetic disposition toward mental imbalance and the ravages of alcohol, is possibly losing her mind, and who is perhaps vaguely aware of it and subconsciously attempting to document it on the way down.

Sometime between 2:15 and 6:45 on the morning of September 23 (the time between my going to bed and getting up), there may have emerged in our house one of those spectacularly undramatic little splinters of weirdness that seem to poke us here every now and then. These events are so nearly pedestrian that they're almost indistinguishable from ordinary occurrences; my husband views them that way, I think, or at least he doesn't seem to spend too much time dwelling on them; and even the booze-riddled magic box in my own head is leaning about three-fourths of the way over on that side, and would already have slipped off the table if it weren't for the tiny catch that each of these episodes, somewhere, has: a little hook of weirdness that snags in my mind and restrains it from splattering onto the clean-scrubbed sterile linoleum of rationality.

It is so easy for our attention to be lured by distraction and diversion! There is a reason why, in the grubbiest and most soiled of human pursuits like thieving, politics, business, and war, misdirection is elevated to a pinnacle of art. And I think that for many of us who stumble blindly through the foggy meadows of the paranormal -- certainly for third-rate intellects like mine -- we all too naturally let ourselves be drawn toward the bonfire flames of the highest strangeness, the ultra weird, the most unsettling tales, partly because they are more fun to listen to (or, if you prefer, more stimulating to the intellect), but also because we may assume that, since these slashes through the cloth of the workaday world are so dramatic and so rare, they must let in a sudden light upon the truth, just as lightning on a dark night instantaneously illuminates the world (before flashing out and leaving one with light-dazed eyes, more blind than before).

But so much has been speculated about the deceptions of paranormal visitors, about the "look at me!" aspect of strange lights, or the ridiculous behavior of entities, that many students of the paranormal wonder if all the drama isn't intended to cover up or conceal something else that is happening while we're mesmerized by the theatrical waving of the magician's visible hand.

John Keel, in The Mothman Prophecies, speculates on the link between UFO lights (the possible diversion) and cattle mutilations (the possible "payoff" for whatever is running the show). I am not a conscientious enough scholar to be sure, but it does seem from the scatterings of information I've picked up (again reminding me that I am attempting to reason from ignorance and should just shut the hell up, but then again when has ignorance ever stopped anybody from exploding half-baked nonsense upon the world) that the two are occasionally paired -- some of the alleged incidents at the Skinwalker Ranch, for instance, suggest this -- but not enough that it seems to be a consistent feature. But of course livestock don't exist just everywhere any more; and who knows what is going on in places where the diversion of lights is seen but no apparent payoff is detected?

I think most of us make a very large mistake, most of the time, in assuming that we have a pretty good idea of what's going on around us; but in reality countless acts, decisions and events -- some of which may turn out to have significant impact on our lives -- are happening all the time that we never do find out about simply because we never notice them ourselves and nobody tells us about them, at least not until after the damage is done and the horse is out of the barn.

One of the biggest fallacies of modern times is believing that everything of import makes it onto the news; one of the biggest fallacies of the rationalist, when he attempts to explain away the weirdness of the world, is to assert that if there were anything to any of this science would have investigated it and everybody would know about it.

My outlook on all of these things -- on everything in fact -- not that I have any great reasons for believing it, it's just the workings of the inner shapelessness and inconsistency of my mind; but I feel that all that we know, or think we know, or perceive, is a blend of real and false, truth and lie; I think some dazzling spectacles of high weirdness likely are Baltic Concessions and German-Soviet Nonaggression Pacts, attempts to pacify and inveigle us so we lower our guard, lessen our suspicions, and close our eyes to what might be going on behind the scenes, whereas other episodes may be the paranormal equivalent of panzers clanking over the frontier.

I am interested in the history of the Soviet Union and a while ago read something that stuck in my mind. In a new biography of Joseph Stalin, the Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky, when discussing Stalin's apparent shock at Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union -- about the preparations for which Stalin had for weeks been receiving rather ominous intelligence -- mentions that Stalin had been tracking the price of mutton in Germany and noticed that the prices were not going up. In the labyrinths of that wily byzantine mind this proved that Hitler was not planning to attack, since if he meant to attack the USSR he would need to lay in a stock of sheepskin winter clothing for his soldiers, which would have diverted sheep from the table to the textile factories, which would have meant that mutton would be in more limited supply and hence more expensive. In reality, it was just that Hitler thought that he'd tear through Russia in a couple of months and be done before it got cold, so Stalin was being a little too sly for his own good; but it opened a splinter of light for me on the kinds of ways that people in intelligence agencies may go about their jobs, ignoring the brightly-lit spectaculars staged by foreign governments in favor of obscure details which on the surface seem meaningless but when collected and analyzed may point to the existence of deeper machinations.

High weirdness is beyond my ken; it doesn't happen to me. But every now and then I am given the equivalent of an odd little newspaper article, or a mysterious spike in the price of a commodity, which possibly suggests that something might be occurring in the shadows that lie beyond. I think it is likely a lot of people experience such things. But, because the events are so minor and unshowy, we tend to ignore them and forget about them, and so a person like me, who has had them happen on and off throughout my life, when asked will usually say that I've had little or no paranormal experience. But if I had compiled them all I might well be able to see a pattern.

I am glad now that I made an effort earlier to set down the details of the last splinter, because now I can go back and see that it jabbed us four months ago almost to the day, and, curiously enough, again occurred one day after one of us (in this case me) had gone away for the weekend.

Like the last episode, this one occurred in our kitchen, which seems to be the room in our house in which most of the weird things occur (the runner-up is our former bedroom, which is above the kitchen).

My husband does not like having our kitchen cabinets left hanging open because he says it will mess up the hinges. Alas for his peace of mind and those poor hinges, I frequently forget to close them, which sometimes earns me a lecture. So on Monday morning I shamble into the kitchen to get the coffee started and he comes in and at some point notices the cupboard over the refrigerator and asks me why I left the door open. I look up and sure enough the cupboard is hanging wide open, but I didn't do it. I never open that cupboard because a) I can't reach it without standing on a chair, and b) there's never been anything in it but some old spraycans left there by the previous owners and some glassware wedding presents which in more than 10 years of marriage I have never had occasion to use.

Now I know doors can swing open on their own. Once we had the hall carpet taken up for a few months and the basement door is so poised that without the carpet to obstruct it, the movement of air caused by your body as you walk into the hall would cause it to drift shut as if under the action of an invisible hand. This never did stop creeping me out, since it always seemed to happen when I was home in the house alone at night, but I understood that it was a perfectly natural occurrence.

The problem with that refrigerator cupboard is that, since it is never used, the hinges are springy and tight. You have to pull it open -- it won't just swing -- and if you don't open it more than halfway it will snap closed again. I got up on a chair and messed with it for ten minutes or so trying to get it to come open on its own but I couldn't manage it.

I finally dismissed it as a fluke, but on the morning of the following Sunday my husband called me into the kitchen because the door was open AGAIN. I confess I felt rather more nervous about it than is strictly mature, particularly when I realized that with the door open you can see the brand name on the glassware box -- Mikasa -- and I wondered if something was trying to tell us "mi casa" or "my house". Not that I'd have any reason to suspect anything in this neck of the woods would be likely to know Spanish, but I suppose it is possible that on some plane of consciousness the meaning of words may eclipse the various phonetic sounds assigned by different languages to those meanings.

In any event, whatever caused that door to open up twice hasn't repeated itself as of yet, more than ten months later. And that is fine with me.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Gestapo God

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them. And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. -- Job 1:6-7

How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standest; aye, and standing there in thy spite? In thy most solitary hours, then, dost thou not fear eavesdroppers? -- Moby Dick, Chapter 108

...behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out. -- Numbers 32:23

I am sorry for the brevity and disjointedness of this post, but I have such a hard time bringing anything to completion that if I don't move hurriedly I will never write down the random thoughts that strike me as meaningful when they clang against the inside of my skull, and in the corrosive waters of my mind random thoughts do not survive very long no matter how loud they clang.

I read or heard somewhere, once, that the frightful omniscience of the Gestapo -- its uncanny swiftness in detecting (so-called) malcontents, deviants, and enemies of the Nazi state -- was due not, as one might assume, to being so large and pervasive as to become an omnipresent entity in German society, for in reality it was almost hopelessly small for its tasks and its operatives spent most of their time at their desks. Rather it was the willingness of the average citizen to tattle on everybody else that lit up so many homes, schools, businesses, and public places with a sleepless eye and a stopless ear.

The thought comes to me (not that I give it much weight, it is just one of those ephemeral what-ifs that sometimes flash, like a poisoned fish in its death twist, through the surface scum of the swamp of my brain) whether the oft-advertised omniscience of so many deities is due not to any inherent power in the gods themselves, monitoring whatever metaphysical phone-taps and surveillance cameras are available to them in their inaccessible bureaucracies in the sky, but to a legion of spies and informers who, unbeknownst to us, travel among us and observe our behavior so they can pour their intelligences into the greedy ears of an isolated god?

Not that this is an original thought, of course -- the idea of gods, even jealous monotheistic ones, making use of numinous messengers and servants is an ancient one, at least in Europe and the Mediterranean. The only reason I have for bringing it up is that, as someone who believes (some of the time) that the numinous does exist, and that there is some kernel of truth in ancient folklore (even if it does come with the coloring of religion, which, in the minds of people smarter than me, automatically establishes anything to be 100% nonsense): if these things were true then, they must also be true now, unless we are to assume that the gods die, or that whatever presences were here to sow those seeds of folklore have long since departed for other worlds or planes.

Somehow that is the most poignant and unsettling of the possibilities to me: not that these entities are, or never were, but that they were once and are gone. Perhaps I have a fear of abandonment, or perhaps it's something else, but there must be something in my psychology that causes certain images to resonate with me when others do not. But I am not going to dive into that bottomless mucky pit today.

Why do I keep returning to all these swamp and bog metaphors?

But enough, um, caressing of the orchid, if you take my meaning. But then again, what do I write here that is not that?

Blah blah blah. It is all well and good for me to speculate facilely on folklore and the paranormal and such, but what I never seem to be able to get through my head is that if I really do believe in, or am willing to grant the plausibility of, these possibilities as I claim I do, then I should not treat them so casually as mere intellectual curiosities and matters of entertainment. If there really are entities going to and fro in the earth and monkeying around in it, that is some extremely serious business. If there is any truth to any of this, it would be wise for me to start cleansing and restoring this sadly deteriorating temple lest all brightness depart from it forever and dark things come to shriek in the rafters. It would be wise for me to do that anyway; clean living is simply a positive good, even if I am nothing more than a bag of animated meat with a bit too much marbling and some rudimentary self-awareness. But it is hard, ye gods, it is hard!

That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. -- Ecclesiastes 1:15

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I have read on more than one occasion that studies show that, among the western nations, the United States is by far the most religious.

Of course the number of times one reads an assertion should not necessarily be considered a measure of that assertion's truthfulness. I won't presume to speak for anybody else, but in my case most of my reading is on subjects that are interesting to me, written from an angle that is congenial to (or at least not hurtfully abusive of) my own point of view.

Because of this, the writers I read tend to hold common thoughts and perspectives and, since they are writing on the same subjects, often draw some of their information from shared sources or even from each other; which means that an unverified, erroneous, or false assertion made once, if it is deemed useful or interesting, is likely to be picked up and disseminated throughout the blogosphere, just as in olden times the plague crept its inexorable way from the hovels of the seething East to the barren moors of Scotland. Corrections come too late; once the error begins to spread it can no longer be contained by a lonely voice of truth posting three or four dozen comments down in the original thread, any more than the Black Death in an English port could be stuffed into a cargo box marked refused and shipped back unopened to Byzantium.

Some folks use this as a reason to criticize the modern generation who does most of its research on the Internet; and while I agree that using the Internet as one's exclusive resource is probably in most cases insufficient, at the same time I feel the criticism is perhaps tainted with a smidge of hypocrisy, since books are susceptible to exactly the same contagion of errors. On the Internet at least there is a chance to detect an error early and edit it out before much damage is done; but with a book the error is bound in perishable materials for all time. At this very moment I sit surrounded by musty old tomes many of which, we now know, are full of falsehoods: the antiquated assumptions of the tweed jacket pipe-smoking set and the obsolete science of crew-cuts and horn rims. In the bibliographies of the historical works I have sometimes amused myself, once I learn of an error (so starved do I sometimes find myself for entertainment when I am unable to indulge my grosser cravings), by going through the footnotes and identifying which of the authors sailed the plague-ship into my harbor and which merely had the ill luck of picking up his infection.

And these are only the errors we know about. Who can tell what other as-yet-unrecognized bogus junk my head is now freighted with after all the reading I have done?

Perhaps that is why (or one of the reasons why) I am so gullible and can believe almost anything, and yet can feel sure about nothing; and why science (and indeed all rational thought) has come to seem like such a scam and a shell game to me. Stable, well-balanced minds can see the tip of the iceberg of error and look beyond it to smooth sailing in the wide-open shining sea of truth; my shivering mind, gnawing its nails and cringing on the deck, can't stop fretting about the enormous mass of invisible error that may lurk unseen and deadly beneath the glassy waters. That wide-open shining sea, to me, is not lit by the blessed sun of knowledge but obscured by fogs of doubt; it is clogged with floes and the gnashing of pack ice, until I sometimes feel that, like those old whalers and seekers after the Northwest Passage, my little ship is in danger of being trapped by the winter freeze and slowly crushed to splinters. Let us hope the hold is stocked with plenty of rum to help me through my vigils in the Arctic night!

But this is an awful lot of staggering over the doubtfulness of assertions for me to finally stumble back onto the subject of this post and to say that I see no reason to question this particular assertion about the religiosity of the United States. Not because I have done any sociological or statistical research or examined the evidence in any way, but because it fits in with my existing prejudices and opinions (which is a horrid reason for believing anything) and because it conforms to my own experience and observations (which is a right and valid reason for believing things, although I do not presume to expect anyone to believe that the experience and observations of drunken slatterns carry any meaningful weight).

I suppose I should take a moment now, since it is becoming obvious to me that I'm not going to be able to get to the point (there really is one, I promise) until I get all the tangential junk out of my head, to try to explain what I mean when I say the United States is religious, since religion is one of those sprawling Russias of a noun which contains within its borders a polyglot diversity of concepts. Traditional native American cultures, Pharaonic Egypt, Republican Rome, Medieval France, Reformation England, and modern-day Saudi Arabia are all, one way or another, religious societies, yet what a gulf lies between the religion of the Ottawa shaman and the Saudi Sheik! Nor is the religious component of American culture quite like any of these others -- in fact compared to them the US doesn't really strike me as being very religious at all, but of course we are not saying that the US is one of the most religious societies in human history but only that it is relatively the most religious when compared to the other, more anemic (religiously speaking), modern western nations.

Yet I do believe my country has a distinctive, characteristically American, religious coloring all its own.

This coloring lies not in the authoritarian dominionism that has been a part of our religious makeup since the first patriarchs landed on Plimoth Rocke, nor in the sober conservative churchgoing of the Teutons of the middle colonies, nor in the backwoods revivalist and millenarian fanaticism of the South, nor even in the panglossian mildness of Transcendentalism and Unitarianism (here let us remember that huge swaths of people in each of these regions and faiths are exempt from the unfair broad-brush characterizations of a booze-ravaged trull), although all of these strains remain in our national blood to this day and play a role in making us the most religious of the western lands.

Rather I think it lies in the same attitude of shallow laziness that defines so much of everything else we do as distinctly American. As a people we cover our obligations by flinging out a thoughtless token gesture that costs us nothing. We establish who we are and what we stand for by sticking on one of the pretty labels mass-produced for us by the panopticon of media and marketing saturation from which, like fish slowly eaten alive by the poisoned sludge of a rust belt river, we are never able to escape.

You can see this coloring in the cracked and faded yellow ribbon car magnets that prove how much the owners support our troopsTM; in the pasty face beaming with smug piety when it shows up in church twice a year on Christmas and Easter; in the arteriosclerotic red bald spot of a disgruntled blob who fancies himself linking hands with Washington and Franklin because he just sent off an angry email to his congressman!

(It is also to be seen in the vacuous mumblings of unproductive alcoholic shrews who have turned the whole track of their lives into one interminable train wreck and now pretend that they have any business saying anything to anyone about anything, but here I discretely draw a veil)

Without knowing a single thing about this survey I am going to tie on my magic blindfold and hazard a completely uninformed and ignorant guess as to why the responses were so high in America as compared to Europe:

Because in Europe if you pose the question are you religious? to a person who doesn't pray, doesn't read the Bible, doesn't belong to a church, and doesn't spend any time worrying about the existence of the numinous or what his relationship to it should be, that person is likely to answer NO.

If you pose that same question to an American who doesn't pray, doesn't read the Bible, doesn't belong to a church, and doesn't spend any time worrying about the existence of the numinous or what his relationship to it should be, that person is likely to answer YES.

(I refer to churches and the Bible because of their cultural predominance in the West, not because I mean to slight the many people whose faiths do not include one or the other of them.)

In America we say yes because here religious is the thing to be, even for people who don't take it seriously, whereas in Europe the bloom has gone off that rose. Most of us here want to be seen as spiritual and reverent even when we're not. I'm not going to waste any more of anybody's time speculating as to why this is so or, for the benefit of those who may disagree with me, making the case that it is so. This is long enough and I am hopelessly stranded as it is.

I think it goes without saying that some people, for good or ill, take their religion very seriously indeed and I am not talking about them, nor about dispassionate atheists, agnostics, or others who will have no truck whatever with religion. I am talking about treating our connection with whatever numinous presence or presences may exist (if any do) as a disposable trifle, something we bring out when we need to entertain ourselves or masturbate our egos and then carelessly toss away; about getting our religion from the metaphysical equivalent of the discount bin at Wal*Mart where we grab all the rest of the cheap Chinese slave-labor junk that infests every angle of our lives; about our apparent belief in a star-spangled super-sized Ronald McDonald god who is supposed to shower material prosperity and eternal life on a herd of spoiled self-indulgent brats who spend all day whining in the playroom while the rest of the world sinks in a deepening sea of misery and despair.

Lest anyone think I am casting judgment -- well, I guess I am, but I pour the filth first on my own head. I am as guilty as anyone. In fact I'm more guilty than most because I know better than to be this way; but alas, it has become apparent to me that knowing better and going ahead anyway is the rail on which the little locomotive of my soul is grooved to run.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, none of this matters very much. Answering yes on that survey isn't like waterboarding somebody; answering no isn't going to put food in a hungry baby's stomach. But maybe it does matter just a little, even beyond the possibility that if we paid more attention to some things we might be a better people and create a better world. If the numinous does exist, I wonder sometimes whether at some point our careless unthinking lack of involvement might turn out to have consequences. I don't mean extravagantastic Cecil B. DeMille consequences like burning in a lake of fire for all time or provoking a demigod to come down out of the sky and start smacking people with a rod of iron, but, as befits elusive and inscrutable inhuman presences, something more subtle and strange.