Growing up under the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis and annihilation through nuclear war completely shaped my life. It impelled me to set out on a decades-long journey to discover why a nearly godly race known as human beings seems doomed to destroy the world. Is there a solution to this great dilemma? I think there is – and I tried to find it in new way of living that I call splendor. Like many of my time, I pursued this elusive quality through knowledge, adventure, spirituality, success and love. (And, of course, through sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll). My search took me from the terror of death in the Grand Tetons to the wonder of life in the birth of my daughters, and then on to writing visionary fiction in celebration of both.
I’ve tried to show how a writer seeks experience and translates it into literature – and how writing itself can be an expression of splendor. I also wanted to tell how my work has been a dialogue with all the hopes, conceits, glories, frustrations and failures of the true Greatest Generation that some call the Baby Boomers.
Whatever one thinks of the millions born beneath the shadow of the atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fate of the earth now lies in our hands – and in those who will come after us. Ours is the uncompleted task of overcoming the destructive forces of power, pride, wealth and war. Only through returning to the great dream of our youth and reclaiming our essential splendor, I believe, will we fulfill our destiny to lead the way into an almost unimaginably brilliant future.
I have always wanted to tell the story of our generation. We know who we are. We are stardust; we are golden; and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
The truth is, of course, that we are not just half a million strong, but seventy million – and we have at least that many stories. There are those who have capitalized on their companies’ IPO’s, and have made millions, and have retired to Tuscany. Some became generals or designed hydrogen bombs. A few have spent nearly their whole lives living penniless in ashrams in their pursuit of spiritual goals. Many more married late and became fathers and mothers even later. They struggle to raise small children, and try to teach them as well as they can. The story that has consumed me, both as a writer and a man, is the quest for what I call splendor. I think it is the story of the whole human race.
I will begin by describing what the garden was like for me and the day that it burnt to ashes before my eyes. When I was nine years old, if I had been able to articulate such things, I would have said that my life was pretty much a paradise. My memories are of hula hoops and honeysuckle growing around the pool where I swam and games of Monopoly that seemed to last an eternity. As a little boy, I was so attached to my Davy Crockett coonskin cap that I wore it to bed, its furry tail scrunched up against my neck. I watched cartoons on Saturday morning and, of course, the Mouseketeers and Howdy Doody, with Clarabell the Clown. As often as I could, I wanted to be outside: looking for tadpoles in a pond and snakes by the creek, or throwing snowballs, or reading Tarzan in a plywood fort out in the yard. On clear summer evenings, with the first constellations brilliant in the sky, I arced higher and higher on a swing hung from a hickory tree, and I launched myself into space as if I could fly toward the stars.
My family had a house in a nice new development carved out of the woods in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I spent long hours in those woods playing Daniel Boone with my friends and holding war games in which each of our “armies” of neighborhood boys tried to outmaneuver and attack the other in a flurry of acorns from out of the trees. We wanted to look as if we lived rough: whenever we bought new sneakers, we rubbed dirt into the canvas so that they wouldn’t look so prissily white. In the fall, in the crispness of crunching leaves, we played Capture-The-Flag, up and down the streets and through the yards of the houses until it grew dark and my mother called me in to dinner. We roamed – all across the suburb and its surrounding fields and forests, and even downtown to buy comic books and bubble gum at the Blue Front.
As a father who has raised two girls in a later age, it seems astonishing to me that my parents allowed me to vanish on a bright Saturday morning and not reappear at home until much later in the day. It probably never occurred to them to worry that we might be kidnapped or hit by a car. And they never learned of some of the wild things we did, such as the time I climbed a tree on a dare and my friends chopped it out from beneath me. I was lucky that day, for I fell into a stream bed with the tree on top of me but not quite crushing me. My whole life seemed lucky, fascinating, endless and good.
I knew little of the world. James Joyce wrote that: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” I had no sense of that, even though my father had fought in World War II, as had the fathers of most of my friends. The suffering and deaths of millions, if I thought about it, meant little to me, for they were only statistics in books. I had yet to learn of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, of Jews and Gypsies gassed and then burnt to char in ovens, let alone the fiendish murders of tens of thousands of Chinese in what was called the Rape of Nanking. I felt sure of one thing: the good guys had won the war, and that proved that life was indeed just and ultimately good.
Of course, my parents made me aware that “people were starving in India,” and that I should therefore eat my mother’s dreaded packaged peas. I believed America to be an exceptional place. I remember, once, being moved to tears because people in the rest of the world couldn’t be Americans. I had a vague sense that the best things about my country – freedom, fairness, limitless bounty and an unstoppable march into a golden future – would spread to the rest of the world if only other countries would embrace the principles that had made America so great.
I didn’t see that there were many Americas. Or rather, I didn’t want to see. At a stock car race, I ran into a group of greasers, their hair slicked and gathered at the back of their heads like ducks’ asses. My friends tried to steer me away from them, and I was glad to be steered, for these “hoods” seemed strange, dark and violent. I never tried to imagine what the lives of hardscrabble farmers were like in Appalachia, or copper miners in Montana, or the working poor in Watts, a few years before the riots sent a good part of Los Angeles up in flames. My father and grandfather owned Oldsmobile agencies; the black men employed there addressed them as “Mr. Zindell” and “Mr. Banham,” while they in turn were called Bobby or Jimmy or Sam. Even as I watched them going about their menial jobs, with brooms and buckets in hand, they remained invisible to me. I didn’t question why blacks should have to be janitors, garbage men or maids, any more than I did that butter went with bread or that squirrels lived in trees. That was just the way the world was. It seemed as natural as the sun rising each morning or summer following spring.
In that time of innocence in my life, I never questioned why the world was as it was. My teachers failed to inform me of the horrific “Middle Passage” that Africans had endured on their journey to America, jammed together like cattle in the dark, filthy holds of slave ships and locked in chains so that they couldn’t throw themselves in the Atlantic Ocean. The massacre of the Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee; the Spanish conquest of the Incas and the Aztecs; Julius Caesar’s slaughter of a million Gauls; the ancient Israelites extermination of the peoples of Jericho, Hazor and other cites of Canaan, down to the women and children and all that breathed – the human enslavement and murder of human beings extended like a hidden web far back through the long, bloody story of our kind.
In my most recent novel, The Eros Project, I have called this age-old habit of people to make war and prey upon each other simply the War. This use is close to what Hobbes identified as the war of all against all, which he thought to be the natural state of man. Through lovely autumns and snowy winters, content in my home and at school, I went about my boyish business protected from this War by money, property laws, police and the most powerful military force the world had ever known. I never dreamed that all of history and war itself was moving toward a climax in what people called the Cold War.
Others my age remember playing a game at school called “Duck and Cover.” This drill was supposed to protect children in the event of a sudden nuclear attack. Upon detecting the flash of a nuclear blast, they were supposed to duck down and take cover beneath the nearest table or desk. They were to curl up in the fetal position, hands clasped over their heads. I have no memory of this. I don’t think the boys and girls at Pattengill Elementary School were ever taught such things – I’m not sure why. We played happier games.
On the day that I had my first remembered experience of splendor, I was playing baseball on a warm, clear summer day. I waited out in left field, slightly crouched and watching a boy about my age crowding home plate. The pitcher pitched the ball; the batter swung his bat. There came a crack of wood against hard leather. I knew almost instantly that the ball would arc toward me. I watched it rise, in its long parabola from earth to the sky.
Something strange happened then. The world around me seemed to move closer and grow more intense. I became aware of the soft buzzing of a bee as it hovered over a nearby dandelion; the scent of freshly-mowed grass pierced my nose and brain with an overpowering pungency. The grass itself began blazing a pure and vivid green. And the sky. Looking up at its glowing dome, I became lost in its color, for I had never seen such deep and perfect blue. I can perhaps best describe it as a blue-inside-blue. It fell over me – or I fell into it – in an opening into a hidden realm that seemed so near, so tangible and so real that I wanted feel it touching every part of me.
And all the while, with sun like a fireball warming my face, I watched another ball moving my way. It moved . . . so slowly. Time slowed down. A sphere of bright white hung in a sky like an immense star. I kept my eyes fixed on the forever floating baseball.
Just as the world we see has a deeper and indestructible part, so do we: every man, woman and child. (And, really, every animal, every flower, leaf, stone and bit of the universe.) One of the great equations of the Upanishads tells of the identity of the Atman and Brahman: the individual soul and the World-Soul pervading all things. Some speak of the World-Soul as the Witness, for it is that part of us which is aware of all that we are and all that we do, and which remains awake and watchful at every moment of our lives, even when we sleep. And even, as Juan Ramon Jimenez wrote in his great poem:
Who walks where I am not,
Who will remain standing when I die.
As we, in our finite part, in our smaller selves, live our lives as created beings in time, our deeper Self dwells uncreated, infinite and eternal, beyond or beneath time. It is pure being, in itself. The closer we come to realizing our essential nature as that of the Witness, the more time slows down.
When I grew older, I would re-experience this strange sense of time and timelessness in terrible moments when I found myself close to death: when I crashed skiing at about sixty miles per hour on a mountain in Aspen; when my car spun out on the New Jersey Turnpike; when my friend, Gordon, on an easy climb in the Tetons, peeled off the rock in a freak accident and died. But I have also had other moments, vast and beautiful, when I found myself closer to life.
Such occurrences might be triggered by shocking events – or by nothing at all. They go by many names: peak, mystical or religious experiences. Some speak of satori or samadhi, of liberation or illumination or God’s grace. U. G. Krishnamurti called it, simply, the natural state. This sense of identity with our eternal, luminous Self is not all that I mean by splendor, nor even by enlightenment. But it is splendor’s basis and source. The Upanishads give another great equation:Sarvam idam brahma – all is God. If we think of God as perfect, all knowing, all encompassing and all good, we might wonder why God bothered to bring us into creation: we who are anything but those things. We might wonder at our source and ourselves, who we are and who we were meant to be.
In those wondrous moments when I waited on a grassy field and watched a bit of white flash slowly toward me, I knew very well that my purpose was to catch the ball. My friends’ cheers seemed to ring out very near to me, and yet strangely, to come from far away. Sweat slicked my mitt; in the air hung the smell of moistened leather. I knew, too, however, that I had a deeper purpose. I wanted to stand there and marvel at everything around me much more than I wanted to move. I wanted my quiet, still joy of the world to last forever.
Finally, though, I moved. I started running across the grass. It felt more like gliding, almost like flying. In the slowness of time, I watched the ball floating down in a perfect arc toward a single point in space and time.
I was never very good at baseball. I struck out so often it hurt, and I missed more fly balls than I caught. That day, though, I might as well have been Willie Mays. My two purposes flowed together in a rare grace. There came an almost perfect union of being and doing, immanence and transcendence, a sense of myself as a small boy and something much, much greater. The ball sailed into my mitt as if magically finding its way home.
I believe that the nature of the relationship between our smaller selves and our infinite Self will always remain a mystery. We will never know, with a complete understanding, the answer to the question I asked earlier as to why we exist. But after I caught that hard, white ball, somewhere deep inside myself I knew this: that as my body moves, so I move within the dance of the world; as my body moves, so I move the world. This has everything to do with splendor.
All through that summer into early autumn I had other such experiences. They became for me the most important part of my life, as if I had a secret life that gave force and meaning to all that I thought, saw and did. I remained unaware of what was going on outside my little part of Ann Arbor: John F. Kennedy presided over an increase in the number of military advisors in Vietnam to ten thousand men, and he saw that poor, divided country as a testing ground for the Cold War; Martin Luther King dreamed of justice and equality for all, but hadn’t yet led his march on Washington; Timothy Leary had recently supervised the Good Friday Experiment at Marsh Chapel in Boston, in which a group of graduate divinity students reported undergoing intensely spiritual experiences after being given doses of psilocybin; The Beatles, playing in bars in Hamburg’s Red Light District, had yet to release “Love Me Do” and break upon the world like a storm.
I knew nothing, as well, of the mystical, spiritual and religious traditions that went back, in the East and the West, far into humanity’s past. I rarely attended church. Most of what I read – Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys, dog stories and books on science – gave no hints as to the nature of what I was experiencing.
Only in one comic book. Dr. Strange, did I find anything that approached a depiction of the esoteric or spiritual. I remember Dr. Strange lying back in meditation and then leaving his body to do battle with villains on the astral plane. That, however, didn’t strike me as very much like my magical moments beneath the sun and the sky when the whole world seemed to stand still.
I had no idea that as many as one third of all people undergo some sort of mystical experiences at some time in their lives. It would be years before I would come across the classic accounts of these remarkable moments; when I was nine, I could scarcely have understood the terms that women and men had traditionally used to describe a state of being that I apprehended in a more immediate way. Mystics speak of an intense sense of affirmation, exaltation and loss of their fear of death. Every part of creation seems imbued with an urgent, seeking consciousness and life, and gleams as if illuminated from within. The world seems more real. A oneness is seen and felt to interconnect all things.
In many, many places I have written of this, trying to recreate a splendor in my fiction that I have found too seldom in my everyday life. My fantasy novels tell of vilds: pockets of magical woods which exist within greater swaths of forest in the more mundane world. The vilds are always larger on the inside than they appear from the outside. There, among trees that rise almost impossibly high and flowers that bloom continually through an everlasting spring, beings of light shimmer and give a deeper life to every twig, blade of grass and growing thing. There, in this ecstasy of nature, human beings feel themselves to be more deeply alive and to sense infinite possibilities within themselves. The vilds also serve as portals to other worlds where the Elijin and Galadin – immortals and angels – dwell. A man or a woman cannot enter into one of these woods without experiencing an intense longing for the splendor that these higher orders of humanity have attained.
I have written, too, words that I have borrowed from a source I can no longer remember: “The universe is like a single, superluminal tapestry of shimmering jewels, the light of each jewel reflected in that of every other.” That expresses the essence of my raptures perhaps as well as any words can.
It is, of course, hard to talk about such things. The Tao Te Chingbegins with this disclaimer: “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao.” Nevertheless, mystics and others graced with such supposedly ineffable experiences usually do their best to try to describe the indescribable.
When I was nine, I did not for I could not. I had neither the words, nor the concepts nor the context in which to frame them. I had no need of such, however, to understand that my life had forever changed. I knew, deep in my bones, running in my blood like a sweet, hot fire, that I wanted nothing more than to live life joyously, magically, perfectly. I wanted, somehow, to bring my little paradise of Ann Arbor and the great goodness of America to the rest of the world, or at least to see it spread. I wanted everyone to be happy.
It was not meant to be. I can only imagine, now, how I must have appeared to those who loved me: freckle-faced and sunburned, blond hair cropped in a crewcut, and rolled-up jeans always filled with dirt because I always wanted to play outside, even more than I had before. I remember wandering the woods for entire days, lost in the beauty of the world. I know I smiled a lot: someone called me The Sunshine Kid. Parents these days, seeing their child laughing for no good reason and going about in wide-eyed wonder with an idiot grin plastered to his face, might worry that he had found his way into their marijuana or mushroom stash. My mother worried because I suddenly seemed different. She finally made me tell her what was happening with me.
That is, I tried to tell her. But what could I say about my sense of the earth beneath me and the sky above spinning slowly into future moments that seemed impossibly beautiful and impossibly bright?
“It’s like spinning around and around until you get dizzy and you want to fall down in the grass and look up at the sky forever” – I told my mother something like that. I called the most real and vivid part of my life “dizzy spells.” And that made my mother worry even more.
I come from conservative stock. My father, at one point in his life a union man, became a Rush Limbaugh Republican, and my grandfather spoke proudly of loaning a car to Richard M. Nixon for a parade in his honor during his first presidential campaign. My first cousin, twice-removed, was Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, who campaigned against the rights of gays while appointing an exorcist for people looking for relief from demonic attack. I can’t imagine that any of them knew very much of humanity’s ancient mystical tradition or could have identified my “problem” from what little I had to say of my dizzy spells. My mother certainly couldn’t. Alarmed at the unknown, perhaps fearing for my well-being, she did what any good, responsible, loving mother of that time might have done: she took me to see a psychiatrist.
I remember sitting in a big, padded chair facing a small, bearded, well-dressed man; to my surprise, he was black: probably the first well-educated black person I had ever met. His eyes seemed large, intelligent and kind. He asked me questions:
“What is your favorite sport?”
“And which is your favorite team?”
“The San Francisco Giants. Willie Mays is the greatest baseball player who ever lived.”
“Do you want to play baseball when you grow up?”
“No – I want to be a mountaineer and climb Mt. Everest and find the Abominable Snowman, all on the same day. And when one of my friends in our expedition falls and injures his head, I’ll do brain surgery in a tent and save his life.”
“Do you like to help people?”
“Your mother said you like to help her vacuum the house. And that you like to train your new puppy – what’s its name?”
“Bonnie Belle the Beagle. I can get her to stay and roll over. She’s really smart.”
“Your mother told me that you were pretty smart. But she said that you were having dizzy spells that bother you. Can you describe what they’re like?”
I wish I could say that my doctor had been a Yoda-like wise man who might have helped me make sense of my strange, new experiences. Perhaps he was hip, in the way of the Beat Generation, a cool cat who listened to hot jazz or Miles Davis in the quiet of his home. He must also have been, I’m sure, a well-trained professional. At that time, psychology and psychiatry were locked in the grip of Behaviorism and Sigmund Freud. The Behaviorists denied the importance of human consciousness, and did not believe that internal states of mind could be studied in any meaningful way. Freud, of course, took the opposite approach. But even that great thinker, at best, viewed mystical transports as regressions into the oceanic sense of oneness that a child feels inside the womb, and after, in the close infant bond with his mother. At worst, Freud saw anything mystical as a sort of sickness. Mental health theory in the West has historically tended to ignore or pathologize intense religious and spiritual experiences. I believe that Allen Ginsburg must have been aware of this when he wrote his howl of protest at what he perceived as a money-obsessed, nature-ravaging and soulless civilization:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
I remember, too, being ashamed that my first conscious experience of splendor – the most vital thing about my life – was being treated as a disease. I wonder what might have happened if I had been able to tell that psychiatrist exactly how I burned for a connection to the owls and the oak trees in the woods, and to the sky and the sun and the glittering stars. Maybe he would have prescribed years of psycho-analysis; maybe he would have put me the forerunner drugs of Prozac or Ritalin. As it was, though, I don’t think he had any idea what I was really going through. He told my mother that I was a nice, normal, nine year old boy. But, he said, I was sensing the discord between my mother and my father; their hidden hostility was disturbing me and causing my dizzy spells.
That my parents might have been having problems was news to me. They never argued in front of me, and rarely raised their voices. One night, however, very late, I realized that a private Cold War had raged for years through my house. I awoke to the sound of angry voices behind closed doors. My father was shouting something about a diaphragm. How strange! I thought – for I had eagerly studied science and anatomy. How strange that my father and mother should be upset about a muscle that moves up and down inside the abdominal cavity to make the lungs breathe out and in.
Only years later would I discover the source of my parents’ bitterness that night: it seems that my father had developed an unwarranted jealously concerning my mother. He had taken to checking my mother’s diaphragm, to see if she might have used it in cheating on him. But my mother, outraged at having her fidelity questioned – this is how she told the story – went to her gynecologist and obtained a dozen diaphragms, which she hid in various locations around the house. As if to say to my father: “There – have fun checking all of these!”
My mother could be ingenious in other ways: she patented a net to go over cribs and keep rambunctious babies from falling out. She was a smart and sensitive woman, and in certain ways, quite strong. A beauty queen in her youth, she had a deeper loveliness that ran right through her. She believed in finding something good to say about everyone she met and offering a compliment to make people feel good. Wherever she went, she thought of herself as a round peg trying to fit into the square hole the world had carved out for her.
She always tried to be open-minded. Once, after reading Rootsshe managed to see herself as through the eyes of the African slaves studying their new American masters. I remember her holding up her hand and telling me: “You know, they’re right: my skin is mottled and pink, and is ugly.”
“No, Mom,” I reassured her, “you’re beautiful – you really are.”
I think she wanted to believe me. Who does not want to experience herself as a beautiful work of nature? In my science fiction novels, a race of aliens known as the Fravashi have come to Neverness in order to teach people essential truths. They instruct narrow-brained human beings how to free themselves from the prisons of their conceptions of themselves. They warn men and women against the danger of glavering: being deceitfully kind to themselves, needlessly flattering the prettiness of their worldviews. They seek to show our kind a deeper self and truer perception of the world. They do this through their alien philosophy and a special language called Moksha; they teach through word keys, music and meditation. Most of all, though, each Fravashi seeks to be a perfect mirror for all that is brightest and most beautiful in another.
My mother, from the very beginning of my life, wanted to be such a mirror for me. It began with those moments in which she nursed me, in the connection of our eyes, in the reflection of the eyelight as she gazed down at me in adoration. I must have sensed the great goodness of one soul respecting another. And more, in the radiance of my mother’s face, I must have felt her subtly asking me that I shine, too. In this way, she taught me my first and deepest lesson about splendor.
I tried, for her sake, to shine – to be the Sunshine Kid that brightened her life. If I had been a few years older and a little wittier, in speaking of her complexion I might have said something like: “Pink is beautiful.” Instead, being an aspirant scientist, I explained how her extreme fairness had evolved as an adaptation to the wan sun and misty forests of Northern Europe. Although I didn’t yet have the words to express my sense of her being a glory of creation, I told her as much every time I looked at her.
Even so, I think that she would rather have been born into the skin of a black woman or an Indian or perhaps a well-tanned Sicilian, if her world had been a different and less prejudiced place. She had the courage, years before the Civil Rights Movement, to speak out against prejudice of all sorts, particularly the casual and open put-downs of Jews. She had courage, period. I have rarely met anyone who had so little fear of death.
Only once do I recall her being really scared. I have a clear image of her pretty pink face flushing with alarm in her desire to protect me – and the rest of my family. That was on a cloudy day in the fall of 1962 when the sweetness of my childhood ended forever.
My mother came home with a carload of canned goods: tuna fish and pears; creamed corn and spinach and peas, which tasted much, much more revolting than even packaged peas. She must have bought a hundred cans of Spam, which had been used as rations in World War II. It took me a while, as I helped her unpack and stock our shelves, rushing about the kitchen, to discover that we were laying in rations in preparation for World War III.
The Cuban Missile Crisis began on October 14, when American U-2 spy planes took high-atmosphere photographs revealing missile bases that the Soviet Union was building in Cuba. President Kennedy and his advisors determined that the Soviets could not be allowed to deploy nuclear-armed missiles to these bases, scarcely a hundred miles from American soil. The Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for a full-scale attack and invasion of Cuba, but President Kennedy feared that the destruction of our enemy’s missiles and the killing of a lot of Russians would set off a war, which would quickly turn nuclear. Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, supported a plan to blockade Cuba with the US Navy and allied ships so that no arms could reach Cuba, and President Kennedy ordered five destroyers, three frigates and a submarine into position around the island. On October 28, Nikita Khrushchev backed down and announced that the Soviets would dismantle their weapons, and the crisis came to an end.
It never ended for me. War, until that day, was something that happened to other people – and at other times in other places. As I took in the flashes of fear in my mother’s usually calm blue eyes, I knew with utter certainty that a nuclear bomb could destroy me and all that I loved:here, in my safe little haven of Ann Arbor Woods, and right now. I waited for the missiles to come streaking from Russia over the North Pole and straight toward the factories of Detroit, less than thirty miles from my home.
Even after our leaders declared the crisis officially over, I dreaded its renewal or the outbreak of another potentially hot point in the Cold War. I began reading books, newspapers, even the wickedly subversiveMad Magazine: anything that might help me learn more about this terrifying subject. I asked my parents and teachers questions. They tried to reassure me. Kennedy and Khrushchev, they said, had proven themselves reasonable men, who weren’t about to drop nuclear bombs that would incinerate hundreds of millions of people in both America and Russia and poison the world in a radioactive cloud of death.
My reading revealed more about the insane and paradoxical doctrine called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. Supposedly, in a rational world, a responsible nation such as America or the Soviet Union would never launch a nuclear attack on the other because even the most successful first strike would leave untouched enough nuclear weapons in the attacked side to deliver a counterstrike capable of destroying the attacker. In other words, we are protected from destruction the more certainly we can assure each other that we can never be protected from destruction.
This crazy logic, though, never reassured me. I learned that it could break down for a dozen reasons. What if a rogue commander – such as General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove – launched an unauthorized attack that set off World War III? What if one of our leaders, while rational in many ways, possessed a strong belief that a nuclear war would fulfill a religious prophecy and so must be fought no matter how many millions were slaughtered? What if, simply, with our nuclear arsenals on hair-trigger alerts, ready to launch within minutes of receiving a warning of attack, an accident occurred or someone made a stupid mistake?
Many years after those “Missiles of October,” Robert McNamara finally came forward and admitted just how close we had come to nuclear war. If matters had gone just a little differently, I would not be writing these words, and the world would be a very different place. Although I could not have known this, when I was nine, somehow I sensed it. The threat of nuclear attack felt as near to me as a ticking bomb inside my chest, and pervaded every aspect of my life.
My mystical experiences, to my mother’s relief and my great sadness, suddenly stopped. The chirping of crickets, once like a rhythmic music, now grated and kept me awake at night. The blueness of the sky no longer blazed as especially blue or brilliant. Time hurried me along into a future I dreaded with cold, nightmarish sweats. Everything about the world seemed wrong.
Each of my novels begins with a great wrongness coming into my heroes’ lives. Nick Scarlett, in The Eros Project, loses his family when his building is destroyed in a terrorist attack. In The Broken God, a virus once used as a weapon in war and now stitched into the human genome causes Danlo wi Soli Ringess’s adoptive tribe, the innocent Devaki, to be exterminated. In The Lightstone, Valashu Elahad earns the secret enmity of a fallen angel known as Morjin. One day while Val is out hunting in the woods, one of Morjin’s men fires off an arrow poisoned with kirax. Although the arrow only scratches Val’s side, the kirax will burn in his blood with an evil fire that will torment him forever.
The Book of Genesis also contains an account of evil coming into the world and a fall from grace. Another tragically diminished angel tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which God has forbidden to man. Of course, Eve gives the fruit to Adam, and they eat it – who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want the great gift that Satan has promised: “Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods…”
A gift, however, can also be the greatest of griefs. For their sin of disobedience, God drove Eve and Adam from the Garden of Eden, out into the hard, hurtful world. Some would say that this original sin has carried down to this day, and has caused the chain of events leading to near nuclear annihilation and all life’s horror. And so, in the end, caused me to be driven from my infinitely shimmering skies and magical woods.
I have a somewhat different understanding of what it means to sin. For me, simply, sin is that which separates us from the source of our splendor. As the Cold War continued and images of glowing mushroom clouds sprouted in my mind, two things ripped me away from the timeless innocence of my childhood: hate and fear. I feared with a nauseating sickness being obliterated by a nuclear bomb almost as much as I hated a world that could bring forth such an evil device to end the life of a nine year old boy – and everything else on earth.
Every time we say, “No, this is wrong,” we pull loose a thread from the seamless tapestry that is the universe. And so we deny ourselves a sense of unity with it. From the point of view of someone who is bitten, snakes and mosquitoes are vermin which can make a person’s life miserable or even destroy it. From another perspective, however, these creatures are just part of nature, no more evil than snails or puppy dogs wagging their furry tails. If the equations I mentioned earlier hold true, then every time we hate and fear a part of the universe, when we tie ourselves to wishing it wouldn’t exist or that nature had been made differently, we also pull ourselves loose from the oneness that is our deepest Self. In this sense, when I gave in to terror and despair, I sinned. How could I not, I who had eaten the fruit of the tree? As the Lord God said: “Behold, the man has become one of us, to know good and evil.”
In the days and years to come, I would find much else to hate. I would never know if Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering President Kennedy, but I remember wanting to see him and any other assassins punished for what they did to our charming president – and for ruining America’s collective fantasy of a new Camelot. The race riots that tore apart America’s cities during the sixties threatened my family; with bricks flying and glass breaking everywhere, it seemed, I feared for my grandfather’s life when he barricaded himself inside his Oldsmobile showroom to protect his business. I hated the racism and the chain of savagery that had led to this violence, almost as much as I despised the politicians who lied to my countrymen and sent ever more troops to Vietnam. The horror of what they did there – and what was done to them – made me fear that the horror of history would inevitably claim me and carry me off to the hell of stuttering machine guns and napalm clinging to naked skin like a robe of fire.
With my new powers of discernment, I became ever more aware of things that seemed hurtful or bad: bullies, stupid work and the marsh ticks that infested my beagle and swelled up like little blood-filled grapes. And poison ivy and prejudice, mean teachers and hypocritical adults telling me to do what they failed to do themselves. And sore throats and my dentist’s drill, pollution and hunger and the slow rot of growing old. I didn’t even like it when the Ohio State Buckeyes threatened to beat my beloved Wolverines. My disdain of peas, once little more than a shudder of unpleasantness in my mouth, turned into open rebellion as I refused to eat certain loathsome foods that my mother wanted to serve me.
Caught up in my mind with so much to bother me, about the world and even myself, I could no longer relax deeply enough to experience the world’s splendor. This loss tormented me. It made me want to understand the source of suffering and find a solution to the problem of life.
One way to go about this, as I would discover, is simply to ignore or escape from those parts of the world we find distressful. I know people – grown men and women – who believe that we are all radiant beings whose nature is wholly good. My daughters, here in Boulder, (which some say is six square miles surrounded by reality), call them the Love and Lighters. I think they would like to build a mansion on top of Mapleton Hill and ascend to the highest room. There, with open windows letting in the sweet smell of pine trees and silver maples, with the sun’s rays streaming in from above the mountains to the west, they can feel free to meditate upon the world’s glory. But meanwhile, as this little allegory goes, untended pipes are bursting in the basement and filling the house’s lower levels with raw sewage. A terrible stench is slowly working its way upward to poison the house’s air. In certain ways, I believe, we all live inside this house. If we let ourselves remain gazing up at the sky, it is all too easy to deny that our house is filling up with foul gases, and even easier to keep ourselves locked inside our little room instead of wading down through all the shit to fix the damn pipes.
A second solution to life, almost the opposite, played through the albums and the radios of our generation. Many would still like to see it play out all across America and the rest of the earth. I can still hear Graham Nash’s words alive and singing somewhere inside me:
We can change the world,
Rearrange the world,
To get better…
I will have much more to say about this in my chapter on utopia. I have written of it before. In A Requiem For Homo Sapiens, my half-mad Hanuman li Tosh tries to remake not only the world, but the entire universe. He wants, with all his heart, to bring into creation an improved life that knows neither strife, disease or death.
I do not believe that we can ever free ourselves from suffering, for it is built into every part of existence. Despite what Freud thought about the bliss of the womb, for instance, we now know that even a fetus experiences pain. Nor do I believe in a simpler and better world destroyed long ago: a lost Golden Age, Matriarchy or Garden of Eden to which we will someday return in innocence. Eden is not a memory of the mythic past but a longing for an unimaginably brilliant future we sense must someday be. At a deeper level, it is a desire for the essential timelessness of the here and now that flows from our source.
This suggests a third solution, which is the quest for splendor. I do not see how the human race can turn away from it. When I was nine, though, I had no way of envisioning such a course, for myself or for anyone else.
I cannot recall exactly when, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, my nightmares began. I should call it my nightmare, for it always unfolded the same way: I would be in the back seat of the car, driving home from Toledo where my grandparents lived. A terrible light would flash in the south. It would move like a glistering white sphere slowly toward me. I always knew that a nuclear bomb had exploded, just as I always screamed out for my mother to drive faster and try to outrun the fireball. Of course, we never could. Its hellish heat would find us just as my mother pulled into the driveway. I watched, in my mind’s eye, in the terror of dreaming sleep again and again, as the fireball broiled the pale skin from my mother’s face. I could do nothing to save her. Nor could I keep my baby beagle, cradled in my arms, from yelping pitifully when her fur caught fire. I must have called out helpless, in nightmare after nightmare, to see the hail-dented aluminum siding melt from our house and the holy oak trees of my home burst into flames.
It is said that when someone dies in his dream, he dies in real life. I cannot say how many times the fireball burnt me to ashes, nor how often I woke up screaming because I knew I was dead. Even after I got out of bed and ate the milk and cookies my very worried mother gave me, I couldn’t free myself from fear. I couldn’t see any way for humanity to go on as we had for thousands of years – not another year, and certainly not another ten. I had only a spark of hope that our drive toward splendor might keep my nightmare from coming true.
And so I never took seriously my parents’ exhortations about growing up responsibly and getting a good job. I never thought I would grow up. I knew that inevitably, and soon, whole arsenals of very real nuclear bombs would fall out of the sky to destroy the world in a final holocaust.
I have been trying to run from that blast all my life.