You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death”—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others: — TS Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”
When I was seven years old I was abducted by aliens. You don’t have to believe me. I’m being as honest as I can, but everything – everything – in the retelling becomes fictional. What is an alien anyways? I can only observe a small bandwidth of stimuli even at my best. And from what I Can see, I only remember a smaller fraction. And of those memories, I can only stitch together the few that make the most sense to me. And when I realized this, I no longer bothered to distinguish between fact and fiction, but only between honest and dishonest fiction. And I’m being honest about something I encountered, even if the event itself is little more than an unreliable dream now, distorted by years of confusion and fear.
Despite all that, I can recall the honest facts, which are given shape by a kind of fictional wrapping paper. Without the shape of the fiction you would see nothing. The experience remains untranslatable otherwise. But look through the paper to see what I mean.
I remember waking up in the dark room and feeling a pulsing heat or color or emotion. I could describe it as any of these, or by a thousand other words, but look, this is what I meant: the fictional telling gives an unavoidable skew to the memory. Words are always distortions, and when I don’t keep that in mind I become delusional with certainty. I become entranced by a hall of mirrors and can’t see through the complicated reflections to the actuality that is not translatable.
But it was about 2:00 am, and I could hear my father snoring, that ratcheting breath that would catch on something, as if his body didn’t want to breathe. Our lives would waver in the pause between each breath. The house itself always seemed to be listening with anxiety. I could hear its old wooden bones bending over us. But I became less concerned than usual, and could see through the walls of the house. Still, I can’t say that I felt drugged, because I was never so rational, and utterly without fear. And it was as if I was being carried along by an enormous current of warmth, humor and intelligence, so that my “private” thoughts had ceased, or I was somehow suspended above my own thoughts in a quieter realm. And it was something far beyond my limited capacities that carried me, like driftwood down the Mississippi. I was as wide and open, and as patient as the river itself. But I could see my “self” too, the body, the thoughts racing as usual. They were like patterns of a mouse in the sand – a scurrying that had no meaning.
To describe this meeting with aliens as a meeting between individuals would be too much of a distortion. Rather, I seem to recall a shift in tone, as if “we” had arrived somewhere. But I still saw the house, and every room, even my father and mother, as if from above. And I saw the stars, so close and bright, although I could feel their astonishing distance too. The size of the world seemed to pull from me a deep breath after years of imprisonment, as if I were not merely 7, but ancient, and I laughed in a way that cleansed me of every ancient worry, which I could also describe as tears of joy, as if some secret fear had been demolished by the mere encounter with a world so gigantic.
I felt “invited” into yet another “room” of sorts. That’s the only way I know to describe some shift in the feel of the moment or place.
What I saw in this other room nearly destroyed me at first sight. I could have turned away right then in the understandable certainty that I had seen hell in the flesh. But they laughed gently. And I felt their genuine love for me. So I looked closer, and it was hard, because I saw somehow the end of everything charging towards us like a meteor. Everything would be annihilated. Why were they sitting so patiently in the midst of this catastrophe?
I realized I was supposed to do something, and that if I did this small thing, the catastrophe would be delayed somehow. It wasn’t a question of my personal importance. It was that I was there, I was part of it, and my coherence was also necessary. The smallest link perhaps. But it had to hold too.
My understanding was that I had to face the catastrophe without falling prey to the illusions of fear. It’s a simple task, they seemed to say, so there is no reason to worry.
But I was facing an imminent execution. Everything depended on me putting aside every thought and worry and facing the reality of the catastrophe. I felt feverish. I was mad with panic, but they invited me to talk in a corner of the room somewhat apart. Let’s just talk for a moment, they seemed to say. As if they had all the time in the world. But I could see the onrushing extinction in the periphery of my vision and was frantic. My bones seemed to melt into liquid, and a ringing in my head was too loud, I couldn’t hear anything. Everything was dying, but still they sat there warmly and patiently, and told me things that I could barely comprehend.
There’s no need to think about what is happening, they laughed. We see it, and we can act. What is the point of thinking about something you already know, and which needs only your unblemished attention?
But even as they were speaking, the annihilation grew visibly closer, and the small thoughts that had seemed like harmless mouse tracks now rose up like demons to torture me. It was like trying not to think of a white bear in order to save the world. This is the turning point, they said. It’s now or never. And that’s a very simple problem, they said. Look, without thought, without image. Let yourself be still, and the stillness that emanates from you stops the disaster in its tracks.
But I tried to be still, and the effort was like a force of violence that quickened the pace of doom.
How can you sit there so calmly? I asked. You must know that it all works out, I said.
No, they said. This is real, this is the end of everything if you can’t do this. But what is the point in panicking? It adds to the misery. We can only watch and advise.
Don’t you love the world? I asked.
More than you can imagine, they said. There is so much beauty and love that it’s ridiculous; it surpasses these small words in such a ridiculous manner. It would be a catastrophe beyond any possibility of knowledge. But they said this lovingly, and without the least hint of pressure.
I can’t, I said. I can’t do this.
There’s nothing to be done, they said, except look without resistance, without effort, without recoil. It’s the simplest thing. Your thoughts do nothing in this situation, except delay the inevitable.
It’s a nightmare, I said.
But again, they led me to a quiet corner, although the approaching doom was always in the periphery. Just shut your eyes for a while, they said.
Are you Kidding?? I thought. But they shut their eyes and I felt waves of love and humor, but I also felt as if I was hanging over a cliff and needed to drop to my death in order to save the world. And I couldn’t do it. The selfishness I felt was overwhelming. The panic was indescribable.
Now is the time, they said. All you have to do is look without delay or resistance, and the chain of reactions breaks, a resistance that is pulling this catastrophe towards all of us. They weren’t imploring me, they were showing me, and backing off, despite how much they loved the world. They were letting it die, because there was nothing, nothing at all, they could do. It was up to me.
“Seconds” of a sort remained. I may have passed out for a moment, and they gently revived me, and laughed. The doom was so close. It has to be done now, they said gently, like a mother waking her child. Come here, and they held my hand and led me to the edge of the apocalypse.
It was happening, and I saw it begin, and in the horror of the situation I was lost. It was like looking into a black hole at the center of existence. There is nothing there, they said. You can’t imagine nothing. And then I saw the majesty of the destruction. The universe was in its death throes, and all the hidden color and magic of the world seemed to spill out like a gutted animal, all the potential that would never show, and I was swallowed whole in the infinite sorrow.
You did it, they said. You looked without recoil. You let it die. And I could see that the catastrophe, though still rushing towards us at breakneck speed, had been delayed by only a little.
It’s still coming, I said, horrified. They laughed and said, this is life. You can’t escape it. You have to Live with it always. We know we’re alive only if we know we’re dying. And every single atom of this world has to face this fact, or the dance ends in inanimacy, which is the death even of death itself; of any possibility of life and love.
But surely it can’t be dependent on a small boy like me, I said.
This is what we show everyone, they said.