Short Stories and Creative Nonfiction Essays

Saturday, June 5, 2021

 The Reluctant Atheist


            My sister is a reluctant atheist. I know because she lets slip, on occasion, words like spiritual and soulful, when the staunch empiricist in her knows better. Oh, I know she means them to signify ‘Oprah’s spirituality,’ the kind nonthreatening to middle America, the kind that conjures no images of communes or Kool-Aid drinking. Still, I wonder at the power of language to betray us, to reveal a true understanding of our metaphysical disposition in the universe.

            My sister and I grew up in the same crazy household—our childhoods flavored with the chaos and creativity that crafts rich character and deep connection. We also grew up with the same alcoholism and dysfunction that forges ‘bonding in crisis.’ We both read Adult Children of Alcoholics in our youth and compared notes. Decades later, the residual result is manifest in two defining traits: we identify as perfectionists and artists. The first label we can attribute to reading Adult Children at an impressionable age, the latter to the mode of expression we both found that saved our lives.

            The perfectionist in my sister took the form of asserting control over circumstances and conditions through religion. In the way of a true perfectionist, she dove into the deep end, taking the structure Christianity offered to the Nth degree. Cut to: nearing the second half-century of life, she wants nothing to do with JC and the Boys, or any preachy book one might find in a hotel room nightstand. I was a bit shocked when she first used the word atheist to describe the worldview she shared with her partner of nearly thirty years, at the time. Their respective worldviews and value systems had evolved over the years, sometimes neck-in-neck, other times on diverging trajectories but always reconvening. Among many factors, disillusionment surely played into their joint decision to turn their back on religion: planting a church and then realizing few were ready for their liberal-leaning message (who would have seen that coming, given their fundamentalist roots?) They learned the painful lesson that few of their sheeples wanted to think for themselves. Both became highly educated during their union and valued convergent thinking and brain plasticity above all else. Nearing half-a-century myself, I found myself characterizing the couple as having grown more, ideologically, than any two people I know and having the broadest arc on the worldview gamut. For this alone, I placed them on a pedestal.

            Which meant my sister had further to fall. I was sorely disappointed whenever our worldviews did not coincide. It’s the nature of interpersonal relationships that two subjective lenses will rarely, if ever align. But it was different for my sister and I, wasn’t it? We read one another’s minds, shared cultural references and memories and influences and muses, had identical interests and pursuits and career trajectories. Not to mention like sensibilities in our art and an overlapping sense of aesthetics. In our writing, we often drew on similar themes and motifs, the desert wind and stark, towering Joshuas that had so ingrained themselves on our souls from childhood. This common territory, along with a shared distaste for the lame trappings of most writing groups, meant we found ourselves in the ideal writing group of two. We regularly exchanged our latest works, providing mutual feedback more thorough and comprehensive than one would get in any academic setting. It’s been nothing short of a blessing.

            When a demagogue became the arguable leader of the free world, planet Earth went off the rails. My own subjective world quickly followed suit in the form of a brush with death and a diagnosis that changed everything. I survived it for one reason alone: I relied on what had always defined me: my intimate relationship with the true nature of existence beyond mind and ego. I tapped into my core consciousness, or essence, despite circumstances and conditions. All the meditation, the holistic measures and lifestyle regimens I’d taken on equipped me well for the isolation demanded by quarantine when Covid came along. I didn’t bat an eye.

            In my life and my work, I’d always touted the value of introspection and reflection. If I had a car, it would proudly display a bumper sticker with Socrates’s words, the unexamined life is not worth living. Though many of my views have evolved, in my youth I recognized that everything I’d ever painted or written had an unexamined intent. Without being didactic, the body of work was meant to enlighten those I saw as sleepwalkers to the many levels of any given moment: the subtext of life. To shake them up and get them to think about the spiritual journey and why we’re all here. 

            Mid-lockdown, I shared an essay with my sister that posited this strange moment was a cultural time-out. Humanity was being put in a corner to think about what we’d done. The adversity was a crisis disguised as an opportunity to shift old, tired paradigms that no longer served us. Better put, that had stunted our march toward human potential for centuries: capitalist greed, imperialism, patriarchy, exploitation, oppression and marginalization, Manifest Destiny, Laisser Faire, to name a few. I suggested that if we all took this quiet moment of reflection as an opportunity to shift our paradigms, by extension, the collective would evolve. Or at least take one more small step in the march toward human potential.

            “That sounds very Pollyanna,” was my sister’s response. “But you come by it honestly.” We’d often spoken about our mother’s rose-colored glasses, the ones that came along with the codependency membership card. 

            I’d never known my sister to be a pessimist, so to jog her memory of her old self, I whipped out the big guns. “It’s an inside job,” I came back. “All change in the world begins with the way we view it. As Michael Jackson saidwe must start with the Man In the Mirror.”


            Not good enough. I’d have to put myself in better company.

            “Ghandi said, Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Who could argue with Ghandi? Wasn’t he beyond reproach?

            I knew that all paradigm shifts, especially those that resulted in lasting, institutionalized social reform, started with a subversive individual who saw through the status quo, envisioned better. Wasn’t that what made her and I artists? Our vision? 

            I dropped the real bomb: “Martin Luther King said, though the arc of the moral universe is long, it always bends toward justice.

            My sister didn’t say it; she didn’t need to: and look where that got him.

            The stolen phone chat haunted me for days. What disturbed me were not her political views, nor her take on social reform or policy. I was concerned for her ability to renew hope and inspiration. But perhaps more disturbing, her dismissal of the moral realm—that invisible reservoir of thought forms, paradigms, norms and mores, ethics, morals, codes and …beliefs that must evolve along with our biology, said something. It signaled a dismissal of all that was invisible.

            A few years earlier, when my sister had declared she was an atheist, I didn’t buy it for a minute. I knew her too well. I knew that she and her partner had themselves drank the Kool-Aid. Both were college professors submerged in the milieu of academia. Their disappointments and disillusionments had led them toward the staunchly meterialist stance so many take these days that throws out the spiritual baby with the institutionalized religion bathwater. Oh, I fully understand that the bloom has fallen off the cultural rose, given the centuries of institutionalized abuse of religion—things involving bloodshed, like the Crusades and the Inquisition, as well as that unfortunate string of molestations and coverups. I get it. But these misguided human abuses of universal spiritual tenets has little to do with the message itself. With a slight shift in perspective, this recognition can be made. And with a slight shift in vocabulary, we could retire the word atheist once and for all.  

            My sister and I see eye to eye in so many ways as artists, but it’s been difficult for me to reconcile her poetic, nonlinear, intuitive sense with the pure disillusionment I hear from time to time in her empirical, materialist stance. My sister had been the one to drive me to the emergency room when I was on the brink of death. She was the one person that had tracked my journey back from that ledge and heard the details of my medical ordeal. More to the point, I had shared with her my current metaphysical views, the holistic approach to health that had saved my life, even the mechanics of manifestation and the law of attraction that accounted for my nearly miraculous improvement. It was rarely met with silence, but this disturbing phone call was a new impasse. As was a later comment she threw out when discussing an impending rite of passage: facing mortality, loss, and mourning. Our parents were aging rapidly and facing health issues of their own. In another stolen phone conversation, I made a clear-cut case for the eternal nature and transcendence of consciousness beyond the physical body. I even roped in quantum physics to back the metaphysical jibber-jabber easily dismissed as quackery or magical thinking. The response: “Well, that must be comforting.”

            What followed was a gentle tirade on how my understanding was not a night light. She knew I was smarter than that. My sister and her life partner shared a distaste for Hallmark sentiments. When someone said, it was meant to be, my brother-in-law most often thought (or replied out loud:) of course it is; it’s what happened. Similarly they have both, on separate occasions, expressed the resentment that arises on hearing the vapid platitude, she’s in a better place now. For that matter, they were a bit too excited learning that one can quickly and easily turn one’s ashes into a tree. They’re chomping at the bit for the day one can voluntarily end one’s life without ethical or legal repercussions. Nope, not a romantic notion to be found.

            What happened to the kindred artist spirit I once knew? Had something rubbed off on her? She was surrounded by academics who identified as staunch materialists with no tolerance for magical thinking—a trendy term that really rubbed me the wrong way. Wasn’t the very thing that made my sister and I artists our keen X-Ray vision—our ability to see through the matrix of social conditioning to the true nature of life? Honoring that very vision that both sends rockets into space and results in social change as prescribed by Ghandi, MLK and the King of Pop? Something wasn’t adding up.

            Manifestation is a cultural buzzword of late, as is the Law of Attraction. Like other buzzwords (Storytelling and Creativity come to mind) they get thrown around without context and frankly, misused. Advertisers and political strategists justify their propaganda by backing it with the very tenets of creative expression Aristotle used to fight Plato’s fascist ideas by giving permission to creative expression and storytelling and making them cultural values. When teachers of manifestation speak of metaphysics, empiricists quickly dismiss such talk as woo-woo, ‘out there,’ or magical thinking. It’s this same shortsightedness, this lack of understanding of the role of perspective, semantics and convergent thinking they use to marginalize voices of wisdom like Deepak Choprah. The thing is, they’re doing it to justify their own biases. They’re digging their heels in because they cannot parse the disillusionment over damage done by institutions from the message itself. Using life as a sampler platter, materialists, atheists and empiricists insist on the scientific method as the litmus test for what constitutes ‘reality,’ while still carelessly using words like love or speaking of ethics and morals. In other words, they cherry pick which invisibles to acknowledge—the unquantifiable things that serve them. And yet the very words language uses reveals a much deeper understanding of the universe.

            Quantum physics itself acknowledges the reciprocal relationship between the subjective and objective. The observer, in a million ways, reifies data and is the sole determinant of anything bordering on a universal, subjective reality.

            My sister’s recent comments gave her away. She could not reconcile the lingo she has often pooh-poohed in podcasts—that to do with Manifestation and Law of Attraction—with her own worldview and milieu. And yet, her degree is in Creativity Studies. It’s her passion, and she’s currently promoting her life’s work—a book on the role of creative innovation in the world. Like many, she lumps together anything uncomfortable—from ancient hermetic concepts, the mystical practice of Kabbalah, ancient Vedanta philosophy and the turn-of-the-century resurgence of Mentalism—the same way bookstores rob each of credibility by creating the awkward section known as New Age. What a disservice that turned out to be; most content therein has existed for thousands of years. Nothing new about it.

            The clincher is this: Manifestation and the Law of Attraction’s role in it are synonymous with the Creative Process. Taken further, the creation of the Universe—the very means by which scientists postulate it came into being, followed that very model. Each time my sister unknowingly disparaged one of my reflections on metaphysics (call it a sibling micro-aggression)  it was a blow to the very real understanding of the universe’s mechanics that had allowed me to cheat death. I’m well-aware we humans are association makers by nature; all day, every day, we attribute, project and connect dots. We project meaning. We interpret circumstances, conditions and events as best suits us according to our internal mapping of emotional experience. We respond to the placebo effect: what we believe about what we put in our bodies is far more important than what we put in them. Our bodies can produce burns with the mere suggestion, in hypnosis, that we’ve been burned with an iron. Still, what I’d relied on was the furthest thing from quackery or magical thinking. No matter how persuasively I made my case, reconciling my understanding of how things work with hardcore quantum mechanics, it seemed to be falling on deaf ears. Held no water.

            My sister certainly wouldn’t be the first to miss an opportunity to synthesize opposing thought forms. We all carry around contradictions. But whether they prevent us from sleeping at night is another matter. Culture is full of opposing ideas; sometimes they create balance, as in a two-party system. When it works, that is. When opportunities are missed to come together on policy, there is strife and divisiveness, the same way there is cognitive dissonance in individuals. The good news is, cultural strife on the macrocosmic scale signals change; this tension is the very opportunity for transformation. 

            My sister’s religion and mine overlap but are not the same. The tragedy is, it’s strictly due to semantics. To a lack of perspective. If no amount of persuasion was enough, if quantum mechanics and Ghandi couldn’t seal the deal, how could I convince my own sister my take on the universe was not a nightlight, but a truth based on synthesis of scientific concepts with very real life experience via my own trials. That those who’ve not yet experienced such adversity—otherwise known as opportunity for growth and transformation—may not recognize the metaphysical truth beyond the matrix or what’s called the dream spell illusion. The veil put in place by social conditioning and enforced by the status quo. In my youth, I often wrote about the sudden shift that occurs when one experiences loss and suddenly ‘needs religion’ to provide comfort. My sister knows I’m smarter than falling into that trap. And yet here I was, as suspect of religion as ever, but freely speaking of my experiential knowledge of the metaphysical, however ineffable and mystical its source.

             What is it to be an artist, if not to tap into this invisible realm? Rather than encapsulating the human condition as so many say, perhaps we artists are approximating our metaphysical disposition in the universe and sharing it with the masses. Perhaps our whole lives are one big through the rabbit hole tale. When we strip away mind and ego, what’s left is core consciousness. Our baseline essence. Another word for core consciousness is love. Isn’t choosing to see life and the world through the eyes of love, rather than fear, precisely what makes it rich? My latest Mythic Fiction novel, The Seeker, is a parable for reconnecting with this consciousness, the very force that made life of biological soup eons ago. Using the code word, divinity, I write of the demigod protagonist’s quest to reconnect with his divine heritage. It’s symbolic for keeping an open line to our source, which, in the end, provides the redemption in life for ourselves and others through catharsis. It’s what artists and poets have done throughout human history along with those luminaries, martyrs and sacrificial lambs we call prophets—from Socrates to Martin Luther king.

            My sister seemed willing to live with what I saw as contradiction. My bafflement was nearly equal to that I felt when my own mother turned out to be a Trumper. The same earth mama who’d woven macrame and fired up pinch pots in her earthen kiln, with whom I’d sprawled on the Creative Art Center’s lawn throughout the seventies to the sounds of Puff the Magic Dragon and Aquarius warbling from a transistor radio. Her very own mentors at that arts center—Mr. Reubens and Claude, who sculpted nothing but dragons and fortune cookies, had given her a book that rocked my seven-year-old world: The Zen of Seeing. By aligning with Trumpian ideals, the very creative expression Aristotle touted in defiance of fascism were directly at stake. My own mother was a Trumper. Up was down, down was up, and the sky was green.

            My entire adult life, in addition to the many artists and visionaries I was privileged enough to be surrounded by, I coexisted with my share of atheists, materialists and empiricists. One roommate, a playwright, had a lifetime subscription to popular science and hosted an internal love-hate relationship with any notion of a creator. Oh, I myself refuse to personify the absolute by putting him in a robe and a white beard, but Mark took it to the extreme. God was not only dead in his world, but never existed. Why then, did every play Mark wrote center on themes of the question of God’s existence? I came to understand that in the same way pessimists are disappointed optimists, Mark wanted to believe in more. 

            Another roommate was a sociology professor who often left magazines lying around our apartment, their pages conveniently parted to articles espousing atheist perspectives. The God gene made the case that those who have any spiritual or religious leanings at all do so due to a particular brain chemistry that is genetically inherited. That numinous experiences and a sense of interconnectedness with the universe is a product of that chemistry. In short, our theologians, priests, an dprophets are all crazies. Another article made sure to convince readers that dreams held no significance whatsoever beyond the necessary mechanistic function of the brain to trigger the random firing of neurons to ‘clean the pipes’ while we sleep. Why can’t it be both? I thought. Why can’t there be a dual function—to clear our noodles of plaque and deliver wisdom that results from subconscious germination on life’s survival-based threats and opportunities. Our dreams are symbolic—full of archetypes and symbols—because we are wired for it. Pre-language, we dreamt in images. Archetypes are the language of the soul, outside the ineffectual tool of language.

            Well into my animation career, a fellow former Disney artist turned me onto a podcast titled Magical Thinking. This was at the height of political divisiveness that seemed to be tearing our democracy apart. The podcast traced American history from its roots, identifying religion as the basis for cultivating modern conspiracy theories and cultural paranoia. I did not disagree, but sensed he was trying to tell me something. I sensed an overcompensation on the part of my fellow artist. As if the Easter Bunny, in the way of so many estranged fathers, had failed to show one year, and so was excised. 

            I had to learn that artists are just as diverse as the general population, from different molds—at least those who identify primarily as craftsmen or artisans with little to say. When it came to my own hippie-turned-Trumper mother, I resigned myself to the mystery with a nod to the fact the entire world had gone batshit crazy.

            My sister was another story; I was not about to give up on her. We’d bonded in crisis and been spiritual partners for half-a-century. Still, we’d found ourselves on different pages. My abandonment issues would not allow me to give up on her.

            What irked me most was that she’d witnessed my journey. Throughout, I’d shared with her the disciplined regimen, the voracious learning and transformation and growth, including the very quantifiable viral load and CD4 numbers that evidenced my measures were working. But she hadn’t heard a word. 

            As children, my brother and I were the last on our block to believe in Santa Claus. We dug our heels in, even as jaded kids from broken homes let the cat out of the bag, pointing out they didn’t have chimneys or their divorced parents had told them straight out it was all an elaborate lie. My brother and I chose to go on believing. It may have been for the simple reason that when we confronted our mother about it, she simply replied: ‘If you keep believing, he’ll keep coming.’ 

            I guess we wanted the gifts.

            Atheists posit that dualistic notions of consciousness or—God forbid—collective consciousness transcendent of our biology, are wishful human thinking. They point to the placebo effect and the human impulse to weave stories as evidence those with the ‘God gene’ are fooling themselves, reducing God to a celestial Easter Bunny. The irony is, they prove the precise opposite: that consciousness, mere energy after all, communicates nonlocally all day, every day, moving particles around. The uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, mind over matter, and spontaneous healing are all alive and well.

            Miracles are alive and well.

            What our senses take in, our brain interprets, reifies. A dolphin’s experience of the world, via sonar, is likely quite different than our perception of it; likely the same for a fly with hundreds of eyes. A butterfly hears with its wings and tastes with its feet. Even human perception is quickly transformed when neural transmitter balances are altered in the slightest degree, through hallucinogens and chemical imbalances. These facts, combined with quantum mechanics concepts like probability, the observer effect, uncertainty, nonlocal communication, together confirm that what we call ‘reality’ is nothing more than consensus. It’s handy for building bridges and sending rockets into space but in the end is still just consensus. Indians and Deepak Choprah call the illusion of objective reality the ‘dream-spell illusion.’ It’s a comforting place to all meet, considering that in the field of pure potential, a squid could appear in your driveway. So what is the real night light—acknowledging pure potential and metahuman capacity, or blinding ourselves to it and limiting existence to the empirical? Where is the Easter Bunny truly hiding out?

            Socrates understood the value of subversive voices, voices of dissent. He knew that thesis, antithesis and synthesis were the way of human dialectic—pendulum swings. He knew our evolution depended on the new, novel thought forms that came with each generation and we now know are passed on through epigenetics. In the same way Socrates touted catharsis to place cultural value on self-expression, we must continue to combat fascist censorship, even when it’s used to silence spirituality and its evil twin, religion.

            The compartmentalization of empiricism and faith is an illusion. The two are not mutually exclusive. If we all took the time to practice convergent thinking rather than divergent, to explore perspective, and to understand the limitations of semantics to approximate any form of absolute truth, we could dissolve much of the divisiveness in society. I called the misconception that science and Faith are polar opposites the grand illusion. If individuals, in moments of contemplation like this cultural time out, took the time to reconcile such contradictions, to synthesize thought forms that appear at first glance to be opposed but may not be, cognitive dissonance would be resolved. Harmony would result.

            Then, by extension, society might one day begin to find harmony. 

            Polyanna or not, I will never stop beating the drum of our human potential. If Ghandi, Reverend King, Socrates and the King of Pop can do it, so can I.

            Talk about good company. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021




A Compendium of Dreams


         From the moment I’m brought home from the hospital, they say I’m despondent. 

         They name me Dustin, but I rarely turn when called. Whether cooed like a lullaby or barked in admonishment, the name doesn’t catch.  My parents marvel at my ability to gaze for hours, half-lucid, at the mobile of stars wheeling sluggishly over my crib. The truth is, I’m anything but despondent; it’s just that for the moment, my attention is turned inward.


         My earliest memories are dreams. In them, I can fly—only it’s more like swimming, pushing down on molecules of air dense and thick like molasses. I watch them from above—the visitors shuffling about the fishbowl of our living room, igniting avocado shag with sparks of electricity. Later, I learn to escape our cottage cheese asbestos ceiling and soar higher by catching drafts of air. I graze the tips of towering cypress trees in the dark of night, gazing down on my tiny schoolyard or petty neighborhood children clustered in the moth yellow orbs of streetlamps. However the dreams end, I’m always glad gravity has kept me grounded, that I’ve not been spirited away by night’s invisible current. The limitless expanse of the unknown is daunting.


         At the age of five, I dream of my own death. I’m hovering like in the flying dreams, watching my tiny body, my kindergarten teacher speaking to my parents in hushed tones. 

         “Dustin was a good boy,” Ms. Stone assures my parents. “Quiet and kept to himself, but a good boy…” I’m right here, I think.

         A blue rubber bladder expands and contracts as if to breathe life or take it, a cross between something I’ve seen on some TV medical drama and the hot water bag that hangs in our shower. My understanding of the human body is crude, cobbled together from misheard things; in an early crayon rendering, the lungs (one of few organs I’ve heard about) levitate like prickly pear cacti inside a rough outline of the body much like the chalk tracings seen in crime dramas. Other than the spindly cactus-lungs, the body is a solid field of blood. My drawing represents the logical conclusion of having seen blood ooze from the tiniest scrape.


         Sometime during the toils of adolescence, I dream I’m a constellation. I can communicate with other clusters of stars, wordlessly. The jumble of thoughts and memories and stories that was Dustin Aster is no longer or never was; in the dream I’m something greater than my name, the sense of self that comes with it. Only much later, in college, will I recognize the strange dream as entanglement, connect it to an understanding of the quantum field and the consciousness that weaves it together, a tapestry too immense for human eyes. Too grand for a telescope and too miniscule for a microscope.


         At twenty-two, while driving through my college town, I turn and for a fleeting millisecond spot a side alley as familiar as my own soul. Nothing special—just a mundane collage of crumbling brick, shoddy pavement and trash barrels bathed in the purple flicker of twilight. But I know it from my dreams.


         I choose Biology and pre-med, likely to make up for my early misapprehensions about the human body. During my general ed, I learn about the entanglement of every particle in the universe, how we’re all made of stardust. I learn about nonlocal communication of cells and the invisible force that drives tiny particles to create proteins in every cell of our body from the moment DNA, a mere blueprint, distinguishes it. After that, our cells self-create all day, everyday. I learn about the hundredth monkey effect, however controversial, that’s the macrocosmic version of nonlocal communication. I learn there’s no structural storage space for memories; they’re the cobbling together of former sensory impressions retrieved from—no one knows where. Nor does anyone know where thoughts originate or are stored. I learn how our own bodies, under hypnosis, can create a burn with the mere suggestion of a hot iron. My mind reels, not because the implications of dualism are mind-blowing, but because I’ve known all along without being told. From the time I first dreamt I could move an ashtray with my mind, then woke frustrated I couldn’t repeat it, I’ve known. In my dreams, the power was natural, effortless. The childhood version of me saw no reason waking life should be any different.

         I’m completing my Neuroscience dissertation when my college girlfriend dumps me. Better to focus on the task at hand, anyway—to make a go of real life rather than—whatever it is we had or might have had. We fell into it blindly. My reserved nature in youth apparently gave way to a desire for connection. But part of me knows the drive came from my loins and we’ve been playing at love. Better to let her leave without too much collateral damage. 


         Grad school is all-consuming; waking life becomes fuzzier than the dreams that commandeer the few hours of sleep stolen between bouts of research. Uppers only lend to the shapeless haze and I pop them like candy to keep my nose to the grindstone. I begin to marvel at the tangible sense the settings of my dreams are real, that they exist on some other plane. I begin to ponder the blurred line between dream and memory, what to make of deja vu and recurring dreams of familiar places, of waking convinced I’ve dreamt of them a dozen times, or a thousand. I’ve an undeniable knowing, in every cell of me, that despite the hide and seek, the mysterious places in my dreams continue to persist beyond my awareness, awaiting my return. I begin to suspect native American cultures have it right in naming our dreams the ultimate reality and waking life the illusion. Just some matrix enforced by serotonin and the DMN, the dream-spell illusion spoken of in some circles. My research tells me the default mode network acts as a reducing valve on consciousness, on the field of pure potential unbound by the constructs of time and space. Some cutting edge researchers say brain-as-spigot is an obsolete survival strategy perpetuated by social conditioning—one that limits perception to what’s right under our noses.  They say man is evolving toward leaving the DMN in the dust and transforming toward metahuman potential. But just as many call them quacks. Staunch empiricists say they’re dabbling in pseudo-science, those epigenetics pioneers who think we’re ready to recognize our interconnectivity to all that is.


         I defend my thesis, get some much-needed sleep, and once again find myself inculcated by the matrix. Lulled by its numbing effects. I relish the idea of entering the work force, adopting the empirical view science demands while tuning out infinite possibilities like the rest of flock. The only thing the dream-spell illusion can’t anesthetize is the sting of abandonment that only now begins to throb; the nagging thought I may have let something go without fighting for it.


         After grad school and residency, I settle into research as Dr. Dustin Aster. Not nearly as lucrative as practicing, but it satisfies my dendrites, a peptide addiction to novelty as brain plasticity. I’ve grown addicted to learning; there are worse vices.            

         My government-funded research has to do with hallucinogens—LSD, psilocybin and mescaline. Despite their bad press in the sixties and seventies—the dismissal of mind-altering drugs as hippy antics—they’ve made a comeback. My colleagues and I have been micro-dosing subjects over time—never quite to the point of tripping, to see if the cumulative effect reflects the logical outcome: that the ‘self’ reinforced by the DMN dissolves and pure consciousness prevails, enmeshing one with the whole of the noosphere. We predict serotonin levels will diminish over time—those that filter incoming stimuli to what most benefits survival. Perhaps more prescient than if the results are what we suspect, is whether that outcome is sustainable.


         At thirty, I marry a woman named Beth. We meet at a neighborhood bookstore where she’s performing an author reading for her latest collection of literary fiction. I’ve sunk to the carpeted floor with my nose deep in a scientific journal when I hear her voice from the back of the store. Its lilt defies gravity, weaving between books, over aisles and patrons to resound in the very core of me. As lyrical as the tone of it are the words it shapes:


         Speak not of star-reflections that dance breathless

         Across the deep, solemn still

         Speak not of the of the tumbleweed but the

         Invisible force that spirits it across barren earth,

         Shifting sands

         We are more, you and I

         More than the dust of ages 

         We are the stars


         Our first date is right there in the bookstore’s coffee shop, once the last book’s been signed and the final patron wanders off. The conversation is easy, full of laughter and wit, her slender torso leaning in, elegant hand touching my knee without a thought, a toss of amber hair with each spirited laugh. At midnight, the bookstore shutters its windows and we say good night. All the way home, I thumb the folded paper in my pocket with her number scrawled on it.

         Over the years, Beth chides me for my inability to tune things out, diagnoses me weekly with a different neurological disorder. Never mind that I’m the one with the neurophysiology degree. Despite the insights she seems to access intuitively in her writing, life is simple for Beth. And my heightened awareness irks her. The problem is, I’ve made the mistake of recounting my college LSD and shroom experiences to her—indelible memories of hearing the ambulance four blocks away, the dog barking two blocks away, my own heartbeat pumping blood through my veins…

         When she chides me, I remind her I’ve not touched hallucinogens for a decade, and that although my serotonin levels may be naturally a bit lower than the average person’s, compromising the filter on incoming stimuli, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. My heightened awareness is what makes me a cutting-edge researcher invested in our metahuman potential, the same way her emotional sensitivity is what makes her a great writer. Really, I assure her, if the dragging of a chair in a restaurant with horrible acoustics makes my hair stand, it’s really more of a class thing under my skin.


         I’m forty when we divorce.

         On one of many sleepless nights following the proceedings, a thought pops into my head from nowhere—a thought that takes the form of a nagging question that shows no signs of going away. I’ve never forgotten my early dreams of flying; they’re vivid as ever. But I struggle to recall whether the limitless expanse of night in my childhood reverie was spangled with stars or completely devoid of them. It seems vitally important, though I don’t know why. The only recurring dream I’ve had in years—since long before Beth left—is the one in which I search for a neighborhood in Paris.  It’s always some alternate-universe version of the city that’s captured my heart, where the two of us lived for a time and to which I long to return. The stilted dream-version is always transplanted in suburbia—on the dilapidated outer reaches of Pacoima or Arleta fringing a vast desert. I yearn to return to a particularly charming neighborhood beyond the Marais, an elusive district of shops and restaurants with one brasserie in particular that beckons me. But I can never quite get there in my dream. 



         I’m fifty when the pandemic hits. I don’t bat an eye; my life has already changed immeasurably with the HIV diagnosis and litany of health challenges I was lucky to survive. I’ve not loved again since the divorce. For nearly a decade, I retreated further into the metaphysical in avoidance of the humans I scarcely understood. The inclination was nothing new; looking inward was my nature long before failing at love. Truth be told, my lifelong affair with the cosmos—outer and inner space—is surely what led to the dissolution of the one true connection I made in earthly life. When it ended, something unexamined in me compelled me to dive into the flesh drives that make most puppets on a string.

         What resulted was a damning diagnosis, the slamming of a door on the luxuries of youth. The world I once knew preemptively morphed a year before Covid struck, preparing me as it always has by rendering life and the world scarcely recognizable. It’s always been that way—the outer world reflecting the inner, a projection on some grand movie screen. The first time I noticed it was when the twin towers fell on 9/11—the first real incidence of terror on U.S. soil. It coincided with the crumbling of ideals in my twenties, the retiring of a false sense of security and ushering in of the existential terror of being human. It’s nothing less than a rite of passage. The color-coded terror alerts that ensued mirrored the anxiety and caution guarding my world in the years to follow. Oh, I’ve never been quite delusional enough to imagine I’m the cause of world events; I’ve studied solipsism and made every effort not to dismiss the world as a projection, a mere object. But the parallels have never escaped me. For the life of me, I’ve never grasped why shortsighted psychoIogists get hung up on locus of control as if it’s cut and dried, interior or exterior. When subjective mind and universal mind are inseparable. If anything, the paralels have made me feel more connected than isolated. More aware of entanglement and the quantum field in which we’re all enmeshed, starfish breathing invisible water. Though I keep it to myself, I do entertain one notion empiricists would say borders on delusion: I feel a kinship with Nostradamus in his transcendent vision, time being a construct of man and all. With all those said to have the God gene—every prophet from Christ to Mohammed to Joan of Arc, every writer and artist whose insights long predated confirmation by science. Despite the good company I keep as muses, I’m startled when three months into lockdown, a prophetic dream returns to me from childhood:


            Owing no doubt to some sci-fi flick I glimpsed on TV in the wee hours, the dream is set in a world seized by global pandemic. The plague has decimated so many that survivors have no one to touch or love. An absurd surrogate is being marketed; in fact, it’s become quite fashionable in all the isolation: a rotating brushed copper globe perched on a pedestal, perfect for hugging. Beyond the sci-fi production design of my childhood dream—the floor-to-ceiling space age window looking out over a spangling of incandescent stars, the tone of it is identical to the unprecedented state of affairs ushered in by Covid-19.


            When the economy tanks and government funding is cut, my research is terminated without warning. I begin taking daily walks around the neighborhood, both for exercise and to keep my head in a good place. The streets are deserted, other than the lost souls obscured by Ninja-like cloth masks, waiting for a rescue dog to poop or powerwalking to battle the bulge that’s come with enforced lockdown. More often than not, when I see a hipster couple advancing down the sidewalk, terrier in tow, or a yuppie couple with a snot-nosed kid, I cross the street.   


            Two months into the pandemic, my walks grow more ambitious. They’re still local, thanks to the endless covert niches awaiting discovery in Silver Lake’s sweeping hills. The lab’s closed and our subjects have long since moved on. There’s no guarantee our research will resume even if a vaccine is fast-tracked and herd immunity achieved. I find it beyond shameful: all that perfectly good LSD, psilocybin and mescaline just going to waste.

            Four months into the pandemic, I call my senior research supervisor, Dr. Lucian Jacobs,  and plead with him to resume our studies despite CDC protocols. 

            “We don’t need government funding, with all our endowments,” I argue. “And anyway, the government was bound to hijack our findings the same way the CIA and FBI misappropriated mind control studies and genetic engineering…” 

            Dr. Jacobs sighs, voice crackling and remote due to a bad connection. “Need I remind you you’ve been warned by mentors that deactivating the DMN is the equivalent of playing God? That weening subjects off serotonin and opening up the spigot could have dire consequences?” I’ve heard it before: the reducing valve keeps the flood of possibilities at bay that could upend the matrix, yielding the field of pure potential in which a squid could end up in your driveway. 

            “It could only lead to anxiety and depression,” he reminds me. “Or worse.”

            “Or…humankind might just discover his metahuman capacity,” I come back, passion brimming involuntarily. “Man might begin to recognize his interconnectedness with all that is…” I remind him of our discussions on quantum mechanics and the inextricable link between its findings and our own field, of the shaky line between the subjective and objective—how a universe known to be nothing more than vibrating particles is not just perceived but reified by consciousness—how the eye does not see but rather the brain and it’s not the nose that smells but the mind. He’s said it himself: creation originates in consciousness alone. Only an observer, a mind, can collapse the wave function so that a particle can be perceived. If the quantifiable reality our senses can perceive is mere consensus and the tip of an iceberg, isn’t the rest of that iceberg worth investigating? I remind him of our late-night conversations about transformation and evolution, how every little advancement in our capacity is passed on epigenetically. 

            “How can we not contribute? The implications are endless—the possibilities! I mean, I’m not saying we’re going to sprout wings tomorrow or regenerate limbs like a starfish, but it’s not outside the possibility vector…” 

            “Sea star.”

            I reel my enthusiasm in. “What?”

            “Sea star. Not starfish. They’re sea stars now. And jelly fish are sea jellies.

            It’s clear my argument has fallen on deaf ears.



            A week later, Dr. Lucian Jacobs calls me back. Someone’s gotten to him, and I hardly recognize the voice. Through the crackling, he informs me that not only is the decades-long study being terminated, so is my position—my employment. It’s more than salt in a wound; it feels like the final nail in some coffin.  

            I decide to transition to the Disability I’ve paid into for years and take stock of things. It’s a horrible moment to procure employment anyway. But first, I use my security card to enter the lab late at night. Along with desktop nick-knacks, the wedding picture I’ve been unable to toss and the tiny French press coffee maker that so reminds me of Paris, I stuff something else into my carboard box: a healthy supply of hallucinogens. I’ll continue the work on my own. 

            And so it is I start micro-dosing and journaling to document the experience. 

            In the same way my HIV status is the perfect pretext for disability, the uninvited stalling of the universe is the center of a storm, an opportunity to slow down. Since the day I was brought home from hospital to gaze at the churning mobile of stars over my crib, I’ve been a deer in the headlights. This momentary lull is a chance to sift through a lifetime and make sense of it. I begin meditating with more discipline than ever, going inward and recording whatever visions occur to me in the void of inner space. And, of course, I keep up my daily walks. 


            At first, I find myself obsessed with the winding, hilly streets that characterize my pocket of LA—the way they meander through unknown ravines and deposit you in a whole new neighborhood, as if through a portal. Always a new refuge to discover on the east side of town— the base of an ivy-strewn bridge only ever seen from above, a lime-slathered mural or snaking concrete staircase connecting one neighborhood to the next. Each covert haven is different from the last, separated by not only elevation but by privilege or lack.  

            It’s the dead ends that captivate me most—abrupt terminals strewn with ivy or crumbling into decay, promising nothing beyond a stark warning to turn back. Each gritty asphalt cul-de-sac sports a neon yellow sign barring passage into the unknown, leaf and limb inextricable from the barrage of rusty chain link meant to turn one on his heels. You can’t get there from here, they scream.

            But every now and then, a road penetrates the unknown, like an artery, or a…neural circuit.  One day, a residential street I’ve never bothered taking turns out to connect one well-trod thoroughfare with another familiar stretch less than a mile away. Before being taken by exploration, I had no idea the street drove all the way through a gulch cleaving the great mound that separates Griffith Park Boulevard from West Silver Lake Drive. I’d presumed it impassable, but here the buckled road sweeps confidently in broad S-curves, cutting a wide swath. The terraced hillsides flanking it are spangled with charming, upscale homes straight out of a fairytale, their red-tiled roofs nestled in lush blue-green foliage. As the fiery sunset deepens to twilight, warm lights pop on inside the stacked cottages whose yards look down one into the next. I feel I’ve stumbled into a lesser-known neck of the Appalachians—in my own backyard, no less. I stay until every last tangerine light has populated the cobalt chill of night.


            I journal about it. Each entry is dated, the archive as a whole comprising a picture to be analyzed in retrospect, should I turn out to be a frog in boiling water, unaware of any shifts in my awareness. Things seem relatively normal for the most part, other than a lightness of being, the sort of high that has always come with novelty and discovery in my research. The kind that makes inspired work of drudgery and redeems life. 

            But then, there’s a shift. Six months into the pandemic and two months into micro-dosing, something starts to unravel. I’ve often thought of the world as one big tapestry with loose threads that go unnoticed, until they’re not anymore. From then on, it’s impossible not to pick at the frayed edge. 

            I’ve set out for an afternoon walk. Evenings, coyotes have the run of Silver Lake’s hilly neighborhoods. But during the day, the sun beats down on a deserted soundstage, more Kubrick that Fellini in its insular silence. A quarter mile from home, I pass a plastic table on the gritty sidewalk, dressed with a play tea set whose garish colors are bleached pastel by the pounding sun. And not a soul to play with them. I’m reminded of the shadows imprinted on walls at Nagasaki, frozen in time by a single flash. Of moments silently abandoned, left perfectly intact when disaster struck Chernobyl.

            I whip out my smartphone camera and grab a shot. I’ve begun a strange little series—dead ends, mostly—the amateur photographer in me fantasizing I might exhibit them one day or publish a coffee table book. Hell, maybe I’ll never go back to neuroscience if this pans out. My Dead Ends series led to a body of work depicting Covid dog walkers, backlit or dwarfed by Silver Lake’s undulating hills. Whether trudging up a steep swell or kicking a soccer ball on the deserted crimson field of Marshall High, the subjects are all isolated in fleeting, lonely backdrops. Together, the photos say something. 

            I review the shots I’ve snapped of the tiny plastic setup. In the minute display they read as the Mad Hatter’s tea party, only it’s not just the Cheshire cat who’s invisible; it’s all the guests. Pleased with the unexpected twist, I pocket my phone and move on.

            At a dead end only yards further, a small wooden newsstand sprouts from buckled pavement. It’s slathered in poster paint, hues incongruous and jarring. Free Library, the offset, hand-painted letters announce. The socialist in me has always warmed to the concept—taking or leaving a literary work in the spirit of sharing inspiration, not a penny exchanged. But more than that, something deep-seated is stirred in me on seeing the quaint, rickety installation. Beth used to love free libraries. I’m flooded with memories, shapeless and bittersweet. Her own work was primarily poetry, but on occasion she dabbled in prose. Even the latter was swathed in abstraction when it came from her pen, infused with a fragile beauty rivaled only by her own. Her sense of poetry about life and the world is what attracted me in the first place. Oh, there was a day when I toyed with the idea of being a poet. But there were too few rules in poetry. Even in prose, language is fraught with the figurative, ill-adept at approximating the ineffable. And so I chose the regimented world of science. It’s enough, I decided, to maintain a love affair with the intuitive from afar, with the intangible, ineffable stuff that redeems life.

            If you can hold on to it.

            I push down the trepidation that arises in me, will the pounding of my heart to settle. Ever so slowly, I approach the free library—can’t resist taking a peek even if it means opening some Pandora’s box of unresolved feelings. Synchronicity has hold of me today; I’m buzzing with the sheer confluence of events, the perfection of all that’s landed in my path. I’m certain the first title I lay eyes on will bear some kind of numinous significance. I’ve not spoken to Beth since the divorce; maybe she’s reaching out through some portal to fill the void of her absence. Truth be told, she’s dropped off the face of the planet. It’s a strange feeling, finding no trace of a soul who was once a part of you—an appendage­. I’ve scoured social media, for sheer curiosity, along with every last author platform and professional arena. Nothing. As if I imagined her altogether.

            Smartphone stuffed into the pocket of my hoodie, I approach the Free Library. Before lifting its warbly lid, I snap a shot of the splintery wooden bookstand. Maybe my next series will be portals, I think. 

            Through dust-shrouded glass, I can see there is but one hardcover tome inside. Like everything else in this apocalypse, it looks stark and lonely.

            I lift the hinged lid of the wooden box and see that it’s a vintage copy of Alice in Wonderland. I flip through it. Hand-tipped pen and ink illustrations, embossed cover, perfect binding. They don’t make them like this anymore.

            I look around, sheepish about taking the book without leaving one in its place. Square windows that reflect the glaring light of afternoon are all that peer down at me, anonymous and devoid of humanity. I place the book under one arm, vowing silently to find my way back tomorrow and place a book of my own in the box. It’ll take some effort; short of jotting down the names of smaller tributaries, I’ve been hard pressed to repeat the same circuit twice. I move on in the direction from which I came.

            A half block from the cul-de-sac, a folded paper dislodges itself from thick, buckled pages. It flutters to the corrugated asphalt. 

            I stoop to pick it up, then unfold it there in the middle of the narrow residential street. Take the road less traveled, it reads. The handwriting is as crude as the words are cliché. Clearly not those of Robert Frost himself, nor even Beth. Her handwriting was elegant like her words, as lyrical as her sweeping curves and the swing of honey-colored locks that reach the middle of her slender back. I decide the words, however stilted, were authored by an imagination as active as my own—some poor sap who shares my fascination with portals and free libraries. With dead-end streets forbidding passage to the unknown and the defiant instinct to trespass, with meandering staircases that link one plane to another.

            If for no reason other than amusement, I obey the directive and take the most obscure route forward. I’m not ready to head home anyway; I’ve resolved to catch the sunset from the western face of Silver lake’s quaint range of hills. I find myself tracing the circumference of the highest of them as the sun sinks toward the horizon. But I’ve taken a new street this time, abiding my strange fortune. The narrow road is shaded, lined with mangy sycamores, roots twisted and writhing in shadow. Warming shafts of amber light blink between them, intermittently. I know if I peer west between the towering trunks, a faint glimmer on the horizon—a flattened ribbon of mercury reflecting the light—will define the ocean. And to the left of it, a procession of silhouetted highrises will culminate in the pyramid that is downtown.

            Instead, the road careens suddenly, plunging into a hidden cleft that bores through granite, decorated with tufts of yellow grass and hanging lichen. Dwellings grow scant and difficult to access, fringing abrupt promontories above or shrouded in foliage altogether. The deepening crimson of the sky is nullified in the cool passage; all that remains of it are patches of sky that meld into tentative violet overhead. Though the stretch is new to me, there’s something eerily familiar about it, in the same way all of creation can ring familiar for having lived in the reservoir of human experience—the collective unconscious. The shared cool of tunnels and their twisting roots is a refuge beyond the realm of words and numbers, whispering the language of dreams.

            Suddenly, I’m expelled from the passage.

            I’m in a neighborhood that seems out of place, as if transplanted from somewhere far away. Even so, it rings as familiar as the shaded tangle of roots that got me here. Extravagant manors rise majestically heavenward, bathed in the rich hues of twilight. Their upper reaches are capped with sloping rooftops fringed in terra cotta tile. Other roofs of are covered in French provincial lead tiles, oxidized turquoise. Bone white trim defines alizarin walls, behind which are stacked ochre edifices and sublimely verdant facades. The impression is opulent and idyllic at once, each row of houses strung like garland across the flank of green hill. The buildings cling to the sheer slope in solidarity, looking out over a flatlands where the sun sinks anxious and lonely on the horizon. The fleeting light of day is claimed by a deep purple twilight. In its pall, windows ignite with warm lamplight as crickets begin their symphony.

            None of this is startling to me, nor is the sense that I’ve been here before. It’s the unsettling feeling I’ve been here dozens or hundreds of times, in my dreams. For the life of me I cannot parse why the neighborhood rings beyond familiar—whether I’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up here navigating from Elysian Heights on other side of the hill, or simply dreamt of it. Whether it’s one of the neighborhoods I’ve pined for in countless recurring dreams, ever elusive and unattainable, clinging to the edge of something, always the edge, and looking out over the unknown. The feeling of déjà vu is more than haunting; I’m stopped in my tracks. It’s said the phenomenon of déjà vu is simply a glitch in the matrix—the time it takes for perception to catch up to a reality that’s already transpired or exists independent of time. But who’s the observer aware of the tiny hiccup? What eyes peek through the veil, only occasionally making themselves known?

            I want to parse the feeling, get to the bottom of it. I strain to recall all the times I’ve gotten off the beaten track back when I had a car—each errand, appointment or seminar that ended in a detour—some dead end in the vast city, so full of discoveries, that I call home. I must separate them somehow—memories of waking life from those of dreams. But nothing comes. Only the sickly feeling of familiarity. The shapeless, undefinable dread of knowing we can’t possibly recall but a small fragment of our dreams—and what we do recall is the tip of an iceberg. Every last one of them that lingers on waking, fragmented and surreal, has lived in us a thousand times, recurring and recurring ad infinitum.

            I try to shake the dread, to slough it off like ill-fitting skin. After all, the unknown has always called to me. Weren’t my dreams of flying the very place I felt safe? Should it matter that I can’t separate dream from memory and shouldn’t the place where they collide be tranquil?

            In an effort to redeem the novelty of the moment, I draw my camera phone from my back pocket. I can get to the bottom of things later; surely the mystery will resolve. Some detail of the photo will jog my memory and I’ll recall the exact outing—some client meeting or seminar—that went amiss and landed me in the strange pocket. 

            The camera buzzes, snapping into focus on a wide framing of facades bathed in just enough violet ambience for a decent exposure. At the precise moment my finger depresses the shutter, the battery dies. The screen flashes a brief warning and goes black.

            I laugh, despite myself, at the irony of it. I’ve often said that the most numinous moments in life—what Maslov called peak experiences—simply cannot be recorded. I was not wrong.

            My hearty laugh rings on the stillness. But the voice resounding off the towering facades is foreign to me, a hollow, mirthless approximation. The moment it yields to crickets, is consumed—masticated—by the buzz of power lines in the flickering purple twilight, the anxiety returns. Full force. The nocturnal orchestra of crickets grows discordant, deafening as I barrel downhill, struggling to retrace my steps in the vague twilight. By the time I reach the main thoroughfare I know like the back of my hand, pitch blackness has consumed all. 



            Back home, I catch my breath.

            I’m lying face up on my leather couch, staring at a familiar ceiling. But the familiarity is comforting, not fraught with anxiety. Ceilings are concrete. Ceilings do not confound themselves with dreams. When you do dream of them, they keep you from being spirited away by the wind. 

            I begin to journal about the strange moment, unsure of today’s date so leaving it blank. My mind is still reeling: I cite studies and principles and schools of thought in a vain attempt to lend context, make sense of the fleeting hiccup in an orderly world.

            Maybe Jacobs was right, I think, despite myself. Curiosity killed the cat. 

            His last words on the phone were a warning: micro-dosing, messing with the reducing valve on consciousness, could only lead to anxiety and depression. Or worse. What did worse imply? I wonder. Schizophrenia? Suicide? 

             I should have put my foot down. I’ve studied the effects of hallucinogens for years, and the characterization of their effects as ‘mini-psychotic episodes’ is a misnomer. There’s a distinct difference between systematically training the DMN and lowering serotonin levels in a controlled, methodical context, and diving in headfirst with blinders on. Our work was no different than studies in sensory deprivation or intensive regimes of vagal breathing and meditation. There are a million ways to ‘get there;’ to that place beyond the conditioned mind.

            I find myself dialing Lucien’s home number despite my own protests.

            “You pulled the plug yourself, didn’t you?” I hear myself say when he picks up.

            “Really, Dustin?” is his reply. “It’s ten-thirty at night.”

            “You were with me one hundred percent at the outset,” I remind him. “Wasn’t it you who couldn’t shut up about the cat studies—the one in which kittens raised from infancy in a horizontally-striped environment, once released from it, could not perceive vertical objects? They’d run into chair legs and table legs because they simply did not have the wiring to perceive them. Wasn’t it you who cited time and again the dimensions beyond X, Y and Z that we know to exist but cannot perceive, the way pygmies deep in the forest cannot see beyond it for the trees and mistake buffalo for ants when taken out to the plains? Didn’t your eyes light up when I spoke about reality being limited, dictated by our very sense organs and their limitations? About reality looking quite different to a fly with a million eyes, or a dolphin whose sonar can see through us, right down to a beating heart, or a moth who can taste a flower petal with its legs and hear with its wings?”

            “Have you gone stark-raving mad?”

            “Not to mention our various modes of awareness and therefore perception, all with a different outcome. Or our brain chemistry, the balance of which is unique to each individual. It’s a very narrow margin that accounts for consensus. Mess with it just a bit, throw it an iota off kilter and reality becomes very malleable—”

            “That’s precisely my point!” Lucien shouts across the static. 

            After a long silence, the man states flat and measured: “You became too close to the work. There’s no objectivity.”

            I wait. 

            The voice that resumes sounds most like the colleague I once knew, as eager about human potential as I was, the man I called a friend. “It began after your divorce. I began to question whether the data was truly objective, or there was an agenda.

            “So it was you who pulled the plug.”

            “As a friend,” Lucien says. And then, reluctantly, “To save you from yourself.”

            I end the call with a simple touch, lay the phone on the counter. 

            He’s wrong, I think. There is more than just anxiety and depression beyond the matrix. The true reality is all that delivers us from suffering, from the dream-spell illusion, from the existential terror of knowing we’re cut off from the so much more that is. Despite my mild panic this afternoon, I know it to be true. I know it from my earliest dreams.

            Before hitting the sheets, I place a few dried-up mushroom caps in the blender along with my nightly turmeric tea. 


            In the morning, the first thing I see is the framed wedding photo of Beth and I, perched in a table easel in the windowsill. I’ve dreamt of her but can’t remember any details. Still, the residue remains—not like soot, but like a warm cotton blanket enfolding me in familiar comfort. I have the undeniable sense we’ve just spent time together, that our souls have just conversed on some other plane. Yup, I think as I make the bed, Native Americans have it right.


            It’s five-thirty in the evening when I set out for my daily walk. I’ve promised myself I’ll put a book in the free library to replace the one I took. I still have several copies of Beth’s first collection, the one she launched at the bookstore the night I met her. The one whose poem about stars seduced me from across the room. I won’t part with my personal copy; it’s one of several unsigned copies I’ve kept over the years that I tuck under an arm before heading out.

            On the porch, I glance at my phone, scrolling through its camera roll. I know the basic route to the cul-de-sac I discovered yesterday, but it gets a bit fuzzy once the smaller, windy streets branch off. I’ve not bothered to jot down street names, so the shots I’ve taken of the queer little tea set and the free library should help jog something. When I land on the shot of the abandoned tea party, my heart jumps. I make the connection for the first time: In my mind, I likened it to the Mad Hatter’s tea party seconds before pulling a copy of Alice In Wonderland from the rickety wooden box. I glance once more at the bleached pastel tea set sitting lonely and isolated on glaring pavement. In the shadowy foliage behind it, I imagine I see the grin of the Cheshire Cat.


            No small miracle, I’ve found it. A few missteps, but relatively painless. The plastic tea set remains untouched, other than the fact there’s only one fuchsia chair now, hunched lonely in the dappled light. The bookstand is empty.

            I untuck the collection from the crook of my arm. The Distance Between Stars, its cover reads. The design is literary, minimal, a lack of illustration leaving the mind to fill in the blanks.

            I turn to a well-worn spread and read, just above a whisper:


            Speak not of star-reflections that dance breathless

            Across the deep, solemn still

            Speak not of the of the tumbleweed but the

            Invisible force that spirits it across barren earth,

            Shifting sands

            We are more, you and I

            More than the dust of ages 

            We are the stars


            I’ve slipped a folded note of my own between the spread’s pages, wedged it tightly in the gutter. 

            Its simple message: Who are you?

            I’m already feeling sheepish indulging a poetry reading in public—however desolate—so I prepare to deposit the book and dash. Quick glance around—nothing but the empty, soulless squares of unoccupied windows. My hand trembles, a surprise to me, as I place the book in the shaded portal.

            I move on.

            I trace yesterday’s steps eastward, determined to find the gulch, that strange portal that seems to come and go at will. Beyond it lies the string of magnificent, stately manors that have visited me in dreams. It’s not like the universe to taunt me, and it’s not like me to let a mystery go without unraveling it. Without tugging at the loose thread of life’s tapestry. My mind reels with abstraction as I’m compelled forward, higher and higher in elevation, a puppet on a string.

            At a certain height, even the odd dog-walker or power-walking hipster is nowhere to be found. Only those unoccupied windows, the furthest thing from sentient. As I near the familiar cleft that tunnels through solid granite, I gaze up at the opulent dwellings, pondering who their occupants might be. Whether they’re rich with abundance or vapid and depraved by privilege. The thought can scarcely materialize among myriad others, before I am sucked into torrents of shadow, shuttled along as if being swallowed or regurgitated.

            All at once, I’m expelled from the shroud of twisting Eucalyptus roots writhing in shadow, to the open air of twilight.  

            The hill is empty. 

            No facades cling to its green flank, gazing out at nothingness.            

            Just a hill, slathered in matted grass.

            Impossible, I mutter. The portal’s slammed shut like the iris of an all-seeing eye or the winking of a universe. How can it be?

            If I hustled my corpse downhill at lightning speed last night, my pace is millionfold now as I race against the sinking sun, heart pounding and breath heaving, mind reeling at what the universe has yielded. The sinister turn of events is an uninvited offering—a mauled rat left on the welcome mat by a feral cat. My thoughts race mile a minute; the floodgates are open, reducing valve busted out of whack. Crickets are deafening now, overtaking the beating of my heart and the gasping of my lungs and it’s all accelerating, the orchestra reaching some grand crescendo at fevered pitch. Lucien’s words come back to me amid the tempest of disjointed, torrential images and disembodied thoughts: the genie is out of the bottle.

            A smattering of city lights below is my only guidepost in the complete and utter darkness that’s fallen. They blink on and off between trees, orbs of light escaping some invisible shutter in a pinhole camera. They’re unreliable, interference patterns disobeying the observer, defying probability vector under the command of uncertainty.  My own sense of the world will have to orient me—the gravity that ever tugs at my gut. I obey it. Just keep going downward, I tell myself. Down, down down, toward what’s familiar and solid. What’s reliable.

           A clearing lingers ahead, flooded in the moth-yellow light of a streetlamp: I can see it peeking between the swarthy boughs of night trees. I head for it.

            When I get there, my bearings begin to return, and with them, a degree of calm. My heartbeat slows with my breath.

            But then, I notice: the queer little tea set is there, but not the Free Library.

            I stumble forward, rejecting what my eyes tell me. It can’t be. I won’t accept it!

            Panic commandeers the short-lived tranquility, and it worsens with every moment of stillness. To combat it, I spring into flight, plow forward like a bull in a freaking China shop, intent to smash the vision—or lack of it—into smitherines. The air is formless, not thick like molasses as it is in my dreams. There’s no friction, no sign the bookstand is there, shrouded in a trick of the light. I come to a stop at the cul-de-sac’s end, where towering pinions protect secrets of the unknown, barring entry like a nerve ending with phantom sensation throbbing beyond it. Dead End, a pathetic sign reads, doused in sickly yellow light.

            My anxiety quickly turns to rage. I recoil, then barrel through the sign, over it, feet tangled up in roots and twisted vines. I’m brought to the earth, imagine I feel its swell breathe warm against my skin, but it’s choked with lichen and moss and I look up. The bed of interwoven roots extends from where I lay, climbing a subtle grade in near blackness and sprouting from the knoll an exposed motte. But the stump is sawed off, terminates in a broad plateau that reflects a narrow rim of moonlight.

            I extricate myself from the choking ground cover and advance, beyond my will.

            The great stump has been hollowed. There, embedded in the great, corrugated face of it, is a glass window—a portal.

            The melee of churning thoughts has yielded to silence; even the crickets have stopped their chirping. In the void, a clear thought penetrates:

            You are a glutton for existential punishment, the voice says as my hand reaches out.

            The glass door slides open silently, yielding a hollow interior.

            I reach into darkness, my fingers probe. There—something tangible and familiar, a book. I withdraw a thick hardcover from the cavern and into the yellow light. It’s heavy.

            Before even reading its title, I shake the tome. No folded note flutters from its thick pages, no message from the universe. Not even a Post-it from Beth or some kid with bad handwriting.

            I take in the cover of the vintage book, bound in antique, embossed leather. Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, its title reads. By Edgar Allan Poe.

            All at once, I’m transported. Poe’s writing haunted me so as a child, no different than the shifting wind high above towering cypress trees, threatening to abduct me. 

            I begin flipping. There must be something. I flip some more. Something meaningful. I flip, flip, flip, as if through vague, soot-framed memories and fog-shrouded dreams, inextricably tangled and hopelessly mired, until I spot it there in the dull, jaundiced light. A tiny scrawling, in crude handwriting, on the title page of The Fall of the House of Usher. The line of letterforms marches across the page, sloping as if seized by gravity.

            I’m waiting for you.

            That’s all it says. 

            I glance at the familiar Rackham illustration flanking the first block of text beneath the title—its mottled depiction of clotted earth, austere stone walls sprouting from it to pierce weary tufts of colorless sedge, the dank, lurid moat reflecting all like tar. It’s only in the deadly still reflection that I notice—the manor house is the edifice from my incubus—the series of facades I stumbled into which suddenly refuses to yield itself. My timing must be off, I think. The mystery’s become a puzzle that buzzes inside my skull. I feel a sense of anticipation; something is just around the corner or on the tip of my tongue—only I don’t know what. Nothing comes. 

            All at once, the puppet string grows taut. I feel my body lurch of its own accord, compelling me back from whence I came, despite my will, feet dragging over coarse asphalt and clumps of dead grass. If there’s anything rational in the reverie, any linear thought at all, it’s that I’ll retrace my steps—get it right this time. My body careens, images flashing by as if projected through choppy celluloid—things known and unknown, familiar and strange; I’m seeing all through expanded eyes; whatever looks through them breathes me like a billows. The mental chatter, that voice that’s spoken to me from the first moment the umbilical cord was untethered from darkness, is suddenly foreign and disembodied: The ever elusive neighborhood of sublime manors catching the light so high in the stratosphere, the ones that once charmed but now tower oppressively, casting dread, are my own House of Usher. My own universe calling me back. 

            The prospect is sweetly seductive.

            I’m there, suddenly. I meet the lacerating pavement with a thud and skid to a stop. The world is sideways now, saliva pouring from my open mouth, but there is no mistaking the familiar facades that sprout from parched asphalt. I’ve dreamt of them a thousand times. As always, they’re out of reach; a towering iron gate I’ve never noticed before bars entry to whatever lies beyond. The last fleeting swaths of golden light have left the upper reaches of the edifice; a field of unforgiving black imposes itself just beyond. Not spangled with stars or even gossamer nebula, but stark and void. An icy wind whips up, scattering tumbleweeds and threatening to abduct all that’s unbound by gravity. I cower, clinging to the earth, the taste of blood pooling in my mouth.

            Moments pass, or an eternity.

            And then, the deep, quaking moan of iron hinges. The austere gates part, ever so slightly. From the sliver between them, a tiny figure appears. 

            “Beth?” I cry from my delirium.

            But it’s not her. 

            The tiny figure advances. Unaffected by the storm, its white robes neither rustle nor flap; they hang in inexplicable repose. As the figure approaches, I see that it’s a boy no more than five. I rise to my knees.

            It occurs me in an instant: the crude handwriting was my own, from childhood. T crossed at an angle, each word an assemblage of letters sinking with entropy. There’s no mistaking it. I’m waiting for you, it said. 

            We’re eye to eye when the boy comes to a stop in the reeling tempest. His eyes are wide and inquisitive, emanating curiosity and wisdom. They’re anything but despondent, these eyes that mirror my own. The boy is me, or some version of me—the one that skirted the tips of trees in the nocturnal void of dreams, but breathed gratitude when gravity saved him from being spirited away.

            “Come home,” the boy says simply. The voice is one I vaguely recall, but it’s amplified harmonically, infused with seraphim.

            “But, Beth…is she here?”

            The boy does not answer. In the ensuing lull, a detail comes to my attention—something I’ve not noticed before but which answers a question that’s nagged me endlessly in the thick of night. There are stars spangling the blackness inside the gates. The daunting void is more than just fathomless space. Somehow, my heart lightens. What comes over me is nothing less than elation.

            All at once, one of the stars advances, flooding the space with an immaculate white light that eradicates all. It’s blinding, but the serenity it brings is complete, unlike any I’ve ever known.

            “It’s time to return,” the boy says.

            But with the serenity comes clarity. My thoughts are crystal clear, untarnished by the world.Returning to my essence is seductive, enticing. I’m indeed torn, wondering if I should return and find Beth or obey the beckoning command of my childhood self, an ambassador hellbent on ushering me into whatever lies beyond the dead ends of neural circuits, that place in which dreams and memories mingle, where fundamental reality and the matrix collide. I gaze into the parting of gates, the blinding emanation of light. And all at once it comes to me, materializing from nothingness like a sepia-vignetted photograph: the limbo of my flying dreams, that realm of lost souls tethered by invisible cords, where unborn manifestations are held in escrow, is indeed a safe place. I was not wrong to imagine solace there. It’s Lucien who was wrong; suffering is born only when we buy into the Matrix. Even just a bit. It’s there in the separation that it lies: the agony and ecstasy of being human. 

            With my last remaining strength, something in me tears my body from the blinding white.



            I awake to the first warm dapples of light to penetrate my white sheers. I watch them dance in the lazy folds of cotton sheets, unhurried. I’m exhausted, but content. I stretch beneath the covers, returning circulation to my waking limbs. And liquid courage will return hope for another day; I rise and rinse out the tiny French press maker I picked up in Paris.

            As I grind the beans, a strong whiff of Sumatra invading my nostrils, a dapple of morning light draws my eye to the windowsill. There sits the wedding picture of Beth and I, the one that became the official version of the event while all others faded.

            I know I’ve dreamt about her, just can’t remember details. In fact, the whole evening is a blur. Ah well. It’ll come back to me.

            The phone rings as I breathe in steam from the chute of hot water I pour into the small glass cylinder. 

            “Hello, love, “ I answer. It’s Beth. “How’s your book launch going?”

            “Meh,” she replies, the lilt in her voice replaced with wry flatness. “D.C.’s not all it’s cracked up to be. But I’ll be home in two days!”

            I can’t wait. Being away from her is always lonely, but I’ll curb my enthusiasm. 

            Instead, I’ll share what’s been returning to me in bits and pieces, what we most love to share: “I had the strangest dream last night…”

            As I recount fragments of my nocturnal adventure, I can’t help but think, after I finish my coffee, I’m definitely flushing what’s left of those shrooms…