The Moment of Truth — June 22, 2002

Devotion: A Circular Parable

Everything I own smells. Like what? Moldy wood, I guess. Or the inside of a glove. Old leather in a moldy desk drawer, I guess. It’s a comfortable and comforting smell.

I like pu-erh tea. Aged pu-erh tea. I’m told pu-erh is not a well-known tea. Its taste, it is said, is reminiscent of moldy soil.

So I’m a moldy sort. My clothes are always a little bit damp. Of course it’s always foggy here, and to add to the dank my house is built into a mossy hillside. I have a lot of toys, the tin ones all rusty and the wooden ones going rotten. They’re displayed on shelves that are swelling through the paint that covers them. When it’s hot enough, drops form under the rims of the shelves and rivulets of shelf-sweat drip down the wall among the general beads of mist.

My entire house is tiled with gorgeous tiles, seashells, pieces of glass, beads, odd things here and there such as old ivory dominoes and violin tuning pegs and semi-precious stones and old coins and medallions. The grout is spotted black with mildew, and in the corners where the walls meet the floor grow orange and black jelly fungi and green lichen and moss.

My house is a big bathroom. I always said the spa aspect of my home, when I finally owned one, would be the aspect I would focus on. I always vowed I would live in a house with a terrific bathroom. I’ve seen homes of wealthy people who have skimped on the bathroom, and I can’t understand that. I have very little money, but my house is all bathroom. One big, open, tiled spa. My bathtub is a pool about thirty feet in circumference and six feet deep. It’s fed by a hot spring below the hill. The water emerges from a spout high in the wall in the shape of a roaring lion, whence it pours into an inclined marble channel that carries it halfway around the house and spills it into a tank eight feet tall and made of pale pink granite. The tank holds gallons and gallons. The tank feeds the pool constantly via a copper spout pipe covered with a green-blue patina. The pipe slants downward, coming out about halfway down the side of the tank that faces the pool. Other pipes branch off to spigots for the sink, the shower, and the steam booth. I’m always surrounded by the sounds of splashing and gurgling, washing and dripping. There’s a cold spout, too, a roaring lioness vomiting into a fat cistern. I keep a galvanized bucket next to it for dumping over my head after a steam, and a ladle for getting a drink.

I spend most of my time, hours and hours, in the pool, letting my body flow according to its inspiration, and praying. Everyone who knows this about me seems amazed that I can spend so much time praying, but I can’t imagine a superior activity. Certainly there are pious people for whom there is no greater bliss than prayer. So, I am one such person, and since I have the time, having made it a point to prioritize my life to fulfill the mutual pleasure of me and God, I don’t see why I should do anything else. My skin is exceptionally oily, so it doesn’t prune up like most people’s.

Should I bustle around town saving lives? Or making babies? Making people feel better? Recycling? Trying to get kisses or money or glory? Trying to influence government policy? I don’t have a particular gift for any of that crap. I’m not bad at dealing with people, but I’m not particularly good at it either. People people people. I’ve never had a single transcendent moment involving other people. I once stood waist deep in the Arabian Sea staring into the red sun, and three birds came out of the distance, out of the sunset, I could almost believe, and flew toward me, growing larger and larger as they approached. One was oriented above the red disk, and the other two flanked on either side and below it, forming a triangle circumscribing the sun, its base parallel to the horizon. I held out my arms, imitating the crucifixion, my hands and head corresponding to the positions of the three birds as their silhouettes grew. I was breathless as they approached nearer and nearer and then flew past me, three huge birds, the two each only a few feet from my fingertips on either side of me and the third just as close as it breezed above my head.

Can you imagine?

I’ve been told my preference for aged pu-erh tea is idiosyncratic. I’m told not many people in this part of the world have even heard of pu-erh. I was first attracted to the name, the pronunciation so counter to the way my mouth wanted to move and to where my lungs wanted to push breath, how daunting it is to ask for. Then the smell, which is strong enough to assert itself through the moldy, steamy environment I live in, but which nevertheless accompanies it perfectly. It doesn’t fight the dampness, the way a smoky lapsang souchong does.

I guess I shouldn’t have furnished my bathroom house with a wooden table and chairs with leather backs and cushions, all these materials that rot and smell. But I don’t mind; it’s all part of the gestalt of the place.

To make this a real story, there should probably have been a time my worldview was challenged. Or a traumatic event that led to my aquatic bent. Maybe I fell in love long ago with a woman of yellow fire who spurned me. Or maybe, having already decided on my mode of existence, a woman of yellow fire came into my life, and we did fall in love, but in order to be with her I would have had to give up my perfect home and only immerse myself once in a while, as normal people do. And in the end I was too afraid to leave my cloistered little backwater pond. So I live now in regret, albeit in devotion to a God who has scene fit to leave a small hole in the life of his humble servant.

But nothing like that ever happened. I’m sure there are psychological roots to my devotion, but I promise you they’re far less interesting even than my devotion itself. The only milestones I recall from my life are those that vindicated my way.

For example, about three years after building this place according to what had always been my ambition, an ambition I achieved without having to overcome any particularly troublesome obstacles, I was meandering around in the water. And as I will do at least once each day, I closed my eyes, submerged, and recited the Sh’ema, without letting my limbs touch any other part of my body. And I remained there, suspended in black space.

And then I heard my name, twice. It was spoken in the tone of voice of my father, though not in his voice, just his tone, or a tone reminiscent of his voice, or a voice reminiscent of his tone. But it very clearly, by my reckoning, originated from the space around me, not inside my head.

Right away I considered that it might be a symptom of the onset of schizophrenia. But I immediately discounted that explanation. It was the voice of God. I surfaced and looked around. Even by that time different kinds of vegetation had claimed each crack and corner. The waters splashed from the lion’s mouths and ran in the channels and splashed from the tank. There were snails everywhere as usual, three black salamanders with yellow spots sleeping together in the corner where the base of tank met the wall, and there were bluebottle flies above the cistern, but nothing else.

I’ve never heard it again, but I don’t pine for it. I certainly haven’t altered my rituals in order to coax it back. I was very pleased to have heard it, and I remain very pleased to have heard it. Other events of a religious nature have occurred to texture what to you must seem a monotonous life. I don’t suppose they would interest you or anyone else. If someone or something somehow succeeds in rending my paradise, so be it. I’ll survive. Or I won’t. I can’t explain to someone caught up in the world. I neither expect nor desire to be understood by anyone beyond this, beyond my walls, my hillside, and my devotion.