By Daniel Coleman
Martin Buber did not look happy.
He glared at Sammy from the cover of I and Thou, his gaze piercing yet melancholy, a frown barely discernible beneath his thick grey beard. Einstein was more cheerful. His biographer had chosen a photo of sad-eyed wonderment, hair unkempt, brows raised inquisitively. As might be expected, Shunryu Suzuki, looking out from the cover of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was right in the middle, a sedate expression with a slight smile across his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, and a hint of beard as if to say for him, as for Sammy, it was Sunday morning with no need to shave.
Sammy sat cross-legged on his bed, his hair tied back in a ponytail, the books spread out before him.
The room’s only décor was a poster displaying a floral wreath in the shape of a peace sign and the ubiquitous slogan, “Make love, not war.” Sadly, no lover had visited Sammy’s spartan bedroom and neither Tricky Dick Nixon nor General Westmoreland had dropped by to take note of his idealistic message. This morning, Sammy’s thoughts were far from the bell-bottomed co-eds he pined for in his Philosophy 101 section and even further from the battle-scarred jungles of Vietnam.
Sammy picked up the books in turn, his focus shifting from one photo to another, unsure whose message he needed—that of the scientist looking outward, the mystic beckoning within, or the philosopher who found meaning in relation and love. He searched their faces for insight. They seemed to call to him, challenging him to look beyond his meager understanding and unlock some hidden mystery.
As he stared, ever more intently, the pictures came to life on the page.
The wise ones would smile or nod or wink in turn, their faces shifting, their identities unravelling. Was that Buber or Gandalf? Einstein or one of the Three Stooges? Despite this dizzying kaleidoscope of motion, the movement was not in the photos themselves. Sammy dimly recalled the Zen proverb, “not wind, not flag, but mind moves.”
Sammy’s mind was unfettered, set free that morning by something called clear dot, a small translucent tablet containing LSD. Brian had come home the night before grinning madly.
“Guess what I’ve got?” he asked Sammy in a sing-song voice.
“I have no idea. What?”
“C’mon, guess!” Brian sat down on the kitchen step stool and untied his heavy boots.
“I don’t know… syphilis?”
Brian laughed, reached into the chest pocket of his fading blue work shirt, and pulled out a wad of foil. Setting the packet on the Formica tabletop, he carefully unfolded it to reveal half a dozen small pills.
“I got them from Santos,” he said.
“I told you about Santos. He’s that freak I met a few weeks ago near Harvard Square. Jamaican, I think. Calls everyone mon, like ‘how ya goin, mon’, ‘this is some good shit, mon.’ Today, he was sitting on a wall by the Holyoke Center singing Grateful Dead tunes. Not busking, just belting them out for free. Knew all the lyrics too. Our kind of people.”
“Oh, right. That Santos. You’d said he might score some acid for us.”
“And he came through, mon. But I can’t vouch for the quality. We’ll have to try them out tomorrow.” Brian kicked off his boots. Standing up, he folded his little package and placed it in a porcelain bowl on the windowsill for safe keeping.
Turning back to Sammy, Brian grinned again. “I also met an oaf.”
“You’re kidding me,” Sammy said. “A bona fide oaf? Clumsy? Kind of dumb? Where did it happen? Harvard Yard?”
“Judge for yourself,” Brian replied. “I was hanging around Brattle Street and this hippie walks by wearing the grooviest tie-dye I’d ever seen. Gorgeous, trippy colors. So I called out to him, ‘Hey, nice threads.’ He turns, looks me over, and said, completely randomly, ‘I’ll bet you can’t prove either of us exists.’ Now, as you know, I’m not one to shy away from that kind of challenge, so I said, ‘I’ll bet you can’t prove either of us exists.’ Then he said, ‘No, I’m talking about you.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m talking about you.’ He glared at me. I glared at him. And so on. I followed him down Mount Auburn Street, imitating everything he said and every gesture for the next ten minutes. He didn’t know why. To be honest, neither did I.”
“But you demonstrated that at least one of you existed,” Sammy said. “And, more importantly, there was clearly an oaf present.”
The next morning, Sammy woke at dawn.
Walking downstairs and into the kitchen, he eyed the LSD by the window. It would be hours before Brian was up, plenty of time to evaluate the potency of Santos’ acid before joining his friend for breakfast. He extracted one of the tiny pills and downed it with a sip of water. He looked disapprovingly at the remains of yesterday’s coffee. Then, finding nothing of interest in the refrigerator, he grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl and returned to his room.
Sammy sat down on his bed and tried to peel the underripe banana. The stem would not yield, and the uncooperative fruit slipped out of his hand, a trail of iridescent yellow following its slow descent to a resting place beside Einstein.
The flowers on the poster began to writhe, the world imbued with impermanence, as if the quantum nature of reality might be revealed. Sammy’s breath became deeper, more rhythmic, as if drawing him toward satori. He peered intently at the mercurial faces of the three wise men, longing for some great truth to be revealed. But, stubbornly, the seers remained silent.
Leaving the paperbacks strewn across the bed, Sammy stumbled into his shorts and walked outside. He peered across the street through tall oak branches at the recently risen sun. The long, pointy oak leaves spun slowly in a thousand glistening cartwheels.
A warm breeze tickled Sammy’s skin, hinting at the summer heat to come. He looked curiously down at his curly dark chest hairs, alien beings sprouting suspiciously from his flesh. He pulled at one, hoping to rid himself of the infestation, but let go at a twinge of pain. His attention was drawn to the scratchy texture of the rain-starved lawn beneath his bare feet. He wriggled his toes in the grass, giddy, for a moment, from the burst of sensation. A bumblebee paused on a clover by his right foot, seemingly for ages. The bee flew lazily away, and Sammy followed as it disappeared over the little garden patch.
His sadly stunted marijuana plants cried out for water. Sammy glanced at the faucet by the side of the house. It was so far away, a vast effort just to get there, let alone connect the hose. Later, he told himself. There would surely be a later.
Sammy crossed the yard to where a young maple spread its scant shade. “I contemplate a tree,” Buber had written.
Somehow still in Times Roman, the old philosopher’s conclusion drifted past his eyes, “If will and grace are joined as I contemplate the tree, I am drawn into relation.” This maple was no mere object, but a living being of thirsty roots and flowing capillaries, of bright green leaves scarfing down sunlight.
Sammy contemplated the tree. Its trunk pulsated with life. Its leaves shimmered in the morning light. The tree stood apart. Did it contemplate him as well? If will and grace are joined… to see only the tree… to hear only the tree… to feel only the tree. Only the tree, framed in emptiness. The maple tree, but also Sammy, standing in the yard, awe-struck, his senses open, his mouth agape. Then deep within the psychedelic haze, mind finally stopped. There was neither tree nor Sammy. Only consciousness, blissfully set free.
Sammy blinked. He brushed a fly off his nose as thoughts began drifting in.
He looked up at the sun, blazing now above the treetops. Sammy patted the maple’s thin but sturdy trunk. “See you soon,” he whispered, knowing this moment would not be repeated. Then he turned back toward the house, the morning’s sensory explosion beginning to dissipate.
The tree, the wise men, all forgotten, Sammy thought now of himself. Truly, this was the experience he sought in life, sought fully, without the fleeting mediation of psychedelics. Sammy understood that LSD merely opened the mind to the transcendental experience. It did not create anything. But to stay in that awareness—that was the province of sages and mystics.
Months earlier, he had complained to Brian about how quickly the psychedelic experience fades from consciousness. “That,” Brian replied, “is why so many hippies have moved on from drugs to get into meditation and spiritual practice.”
Later, when Brian woke, he found Sammy on the porch, rocking quietly in an Adirondack chair, contemplative and content.
Daniel Coleman is an American-Australian writer living in Melbourne. A former political columnist, his diverse interests range from fiction to essays to poetry. He is the author of Ecopolitics: Building a Green Society and of The Anarchist: A Novel. Currently, he is a contributing political columnist at Plus61J.net.au.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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