Blues Song at the Edge of Chaos
No creature ever falls short of its own completion. Wherever it stands it never fails to cover the ground.
— Dogen Zenji
I woke up early this morning and walked to the nearby creek. Down a dirt road and through a strand of willows, a small brown spider, spunky, hairy, landed on the tawny hair of my left arm. "Good morning, Grandmother," I smiled and tried to wend my way through the thick willows without disturbing her. I thought momentarily of the Hopi stories about Spider Woman, who nests behind the ears of the young men so they don't lose the thread of the old wisdom as they venture far from what they know. And damned if the spider didn't climb right up my arm over my shoulder to the hollow behind my ear.
It began sprinkling shortly after I laid a few wildflowers on a stone in the creek, and then the rain ran wild. So I took shelter under this small cement bridge, dry and ecstatic in the sound of thunder. My body, more naked than the day I was born, wants only to sing and dance for the spirits, for this morning I emerge into the light of day after seven long years in that underworld that lies beneath the Afro-European village. Yes, I know that few are aware that such a village exists, slavery and colonialism having driven all of us a little mad. And because Christianity in Europe and then Africa has declared this place of initiation the domain of devils and demons, few remember the Greek Hades, the Celtic Land of Fairie, the Bantu mpemba, kalunga, kumfiпda for what it is, and fewer yet go willingly to sit in the circle of the ancestors.
I want to sing out a few crazy ideas for I am a man of strange tastes and find ideas to be actually beautiful, sometimes stunning like fireflies lighting a dark path, flashing, disappearing and flashing again. Ideas melt quickly from concept to story, from story to music. I want to leave the reader with a little music, a little utterly unreasonable hope.
Buddy Bolden was mad. Everybody knew it. A barber in Slaughter, Louisiana, fond of the bottle and fast women, cornets extraordinaire, he and his band brought jazz to the world in the 1890s. Not a single wax disc of his music survives, and in 1907 he snapped altogether and spent the last twenty-four years of his life in East Louisiana State Hospital.
While Bolden was playing Funky Butt Blues in dives around New Orleans, Henri Poi care was having troubles of his own on the other side of the ocean in France. Poi care, the grandfather of Chaos theory, was a mathematician working hard on equations that would explain the strange behavior of Heavenly Bodies. Much to his distress, Poi care discovered that planets do not orbit within the elegant ellipses that classical math had claimed since the ancient Greeks. Poincare and later mathematicians found that planets tug at each other, wobble here and there as they spin around the sun. Io, one of Jupiter's moons, pulls at the planet, causing what Poincare called resonance; and throughout the solar system, such resonance between planets, moons and asteroids make for a rather lively and unpredictable situation, perhaps like a dance hall in New Orleans when the band is really happening. It is said the Poincare sank into despair over his findings. Apparently the music of the spheres could better be composed by Buddy Bolden than by Mozart or Johann Sebastian Bach.
I think of Buddy and Henri as brothers under the skin, and I'd like to believe that in the other world, Buddy can wake Henri from his deep sadness with a hot solo of There's a Hole in the Bucket or Make Me a Pallet on the Floor.
I call upon these two scoundrels as ancestors because it's time to sing my own song about boundaries, not so much a taboo subject when it comes to blacks, whites and others, but a subject that is simply off the map. It is much more compelling to idealize or fear the other than it is to talk about boundary, that true other for which we literally have no words. If I learned anything at all during my time beneath the Afro-European village, it is that we have had it all wrong, dangerously wrong. The true success in witchcraft is that we get obsessed with all the wrong questions: questions about self versus other, completely eclipsing the mysterious questions about the borders we share and the complex ways that we dance out these borders on the edges of each others' worlds.
Follow the thread, dear reader. Follow the ideas of border and twinship through this essay, and the music will follow along for I need to dance between several different ways of knowing that bear some resonance to one another, a little polyrhythm, a little wobbling between Heavenly Bodies.
Before Augustine Kandemwa recognized me as his twin brother and initiated me into the Bantu tradition of the water spirits, I was something of a lay monk taken by the beauty of Madyamika Buddhism. In Madyamika, monks are encouraged to crack through the dualisms that confine the contentious mind by arguing one point of view, then arguing its opposite. Although my formal training as a Buddhist was in Zen and Tantra, it was Madyamika that made it possible for me to make any sense of my life. Any point of view might offer an angle from which to perceive the truth of things, but íf ít is clutched as dogma, the mind becomes dim, and the world becomes opaque. Cultivated in openness, forms, ideas, perceptions and feelings emerge from and return to emptiness. When one grasps at any of it, one loses the beauty of letting things freely display their transience: fresh spring water running though the forgers. I take Madyamika to be that field of potentiality within which otherness is always emerging and disappearing–human, animal, plant, dream figures, ancestors, other selves—entering the empty stage singly or in clusters to offer their two cents worth. Madyamika requires a complete and tender commitment to the generosity of the heart because nothing less will allow ample space for the multiplicity of the self and the world.
There is no single way to understand exactly what the universe is made of. Different ways of knowing carry with them different ways of rationality, even different definitions of what "knowledge" is. They can be so self-contained that making the transition from one to another, especially the first time, can feel like madness and appear to others as psychosis. This was certainly true for me as I approached the African mysteries.
In the early nineties, I had spent a year and a half breaking my mind against the Navajo language. English is so rich in its noun and adjective system. Splitting subject from object, its "universe" is a vast array of "things" that can be described in the most refined detail. It is, however, an impoverished language for understanding movement, process, change, interconnection and pattern. Not so Navajo, for it has no noun system to speak of. The Navajo "universe" is by necessity interwoven or, more accurately, interweaving. Nothing is static. Beauty is in the making of beauty.
I was broken down by Navajo grammar. I won't pretend to speak the language, but I am sometimes able to slip through the cracks of English into a verb-based thinking. Some of the primary insights which this essay is based required that I rethink "race and otherness" in Navajo.
For example, the Navajo word that is usually translated as "boundary" or "edge" is bah. Bias means "its edge," literally "alongside it." To be even more precise, bibaah speaks of the activity of moving or positioning "alongside it." One can sense this moving quality of baah by looking at how it is the nucleus of other "nouns."
The word for orphans, baah chahasdiigii, means literally "alongside them deaths happened." The word for cup, baah ha iizhahi, means "alongside it something curves out." The curving out of the edge of a cup is an activity. It is what the border does. Likewise, the word for rash, baah hada' ajeeh, means "alongside it something breaks out." A rash is not a "thing," it is the boundary of the skin blistering outward.
English and other European languages often do exactly the opposite as Navajo: verbs are constantly being made into describable nouns. The most obvious example that comes to mind is "wave," somehow abstracted from a movement into a thing. We do not say in English, "the ocean is waving." Once could list virtually hundreds of examples, including those words that we use to describe ourselves and our relationships with others. Indeed, "relationship" itself is a case in point. What exactly do I mean when I say "my sexuality"? This sexuality that I have? Or these feelings I have anger, sadness, delight. Are they not also waves? English creates a very kinetic universe of things ricocheting off one another, some of which happen to be human beings.
While bibaah is how "its boundary" is said in Navajo, nihibaah is how one says "their boundary," which is to say the boundary between. For the Navajo the boundary is by its nature interactive. Strictly speaking, it's impossible to see it otherwise if one thinks in the language. In English the line of the boundary juts out as certainly as an actual wall setting one side "against" another. In Navajo the boundary is the actual zone of interaction.
Just for fun I sometimes pretend I'm a Navajo anthropologist doing fieldwork among black and white people, trying to make sense of their strange ways.
Among human beings there are three kinds of Mexicans: the Nakai (Mexicans proper), the Nakai libahi (the Spanish) and the Nakia lizhini, (the Mexicans who come forth blackly, the ones non-Navajo call African-Americans).
White people, the biligaana, are not Mexicans, but they do have something in common with Mexicans: they are ana'i," which literally means the "enemies." The ana'i are those strangers that come from outside the circle of the four sacred mountains. Many Navajo treat them with a polite distance because they act so strangely and are potentially dangerous.
As a Navajo anthropologist, I spent long hours in burger j oints and like places observing black and white ana'i. I'd scribble notes on their behavior as they stood in line one behind the other or sat at adjacent tables. What was most difficult to understand about these ones was nakai lizhini do ba'ah biligaana nihibaah, which might be translated as the border that black and white ana'i dance out between themselves when they occupy the same space, or perhaps the edge between blacks and whites that they both work so hard to maintain.
In looking closely I noticed that the tone and texture of this shared activity of making boundaries seemed to shift from moment to moment. I sensed patterns to this but couldn't really make sense of them until I tried thinking about it in the language of the ana'i–English. It was then that I remembered that the ana'i don't regard boundaries as interactive at all but as some sort of static barrier with either party fixed on one side or the other.
Western science has required quantum mechanics, cybernetics, chaos theory and volumes of complex mathematical equations to "prove" that it takes two to tango. In the Navajo language, to think otherwise is beyond the ken of both common sense and the most rigorous logic. The world is interactive. How could it be otherwise? Yet clearly among the ana'i, the world is anything but a web of relationships.
I believe the most vivid way to understand the Navajo perception of boundary is to go to the edge between meadow and forest, the seashore, the place where desert shifts from olive to emerald at the edge of a small stream. In ecological theory these boundaries are called ecotones, landscape boundaries or, simply, edges. Two ecological domains border each other, and those borders are nothing less than miraculous.
Right now, the pines dripping from the recent rain, I sit alongside such a stream: Haigler Creek, so sweet with its music. As I approach from the forest, a shifting from the detritus of fallen wood to light grass to a sudden spread of wildflowers—white aster, blue lupine and the purple margueritas that attract bright yellow butterflies. Edges are the richest places of biodiversity in the natural world. We non-Navajo may continue forever to think of boundary as an either/or phenomenon, but in nature no such boundary exists. Because of the overlap of two ecosystems, the edge gathers its own species, being a rich place to find food. Creatures come to eat plants or other creatures. One may have noticed, approaching forest from measure, the gauze of spider webs at the edge.
The edge is a place of feasting. It is a buzz of activity quite literally vibrating, vibrant especially at the boundary between day and night, between night and day. It is not just a zone of interaction; the edge is interaction, movement, a place where predator and prey dance the oldest of dances.
When I spent four months alone in the forest on the coast of California, my meditation there was very much lost in the incomprehensibility of this moving world. The coast itself is an edge par excellence, four or five ecotones, each with their own seaweed, their own shellfish, species of crabs and fish and waterbirds folded and layered upon and next to the other. It is said that away from the coastline, the ocean is like a vast desert with few species. All creatures seek the edge.
The dynamic quality of the edge was driven home to me by the coming and going of the tide, the endless dialogue of shoreline and sea. I'd watch with awe the waves pushing upstream, receding again and then swelling up and pushing forward. This changeable coming and going of the water itself was a dynamic boundary between worlds. The salmon like to stick close to that edge in the fresh-water shallow for days before leaving salt behind forever to deposit their spawn in the upstream algae.
In my opinion, one cannot understand human beings-our strangeness, our brilliance, the danger we present to each other and to the world-unless one knows that we are an edges species, that the edge is the natural habitat that shaped those poor monkeys that were fated to become human. In East and South Africa, two or three million years ago-Olduvai, Makapan, Taung, along the Umo River and Lake Baringo -the ancestors of human beings followed the way of so many creatures and left the heart of the forest for the edge between forest and savannah, baboons first on four legs and then Austrolopithecus rising up on two. Everything that has happened since can justly be called a footnote to this extraordinary moment.
The edge is a good place to eat and a great place to be eaten. It is a simple thing for monkeys in the forest to swing from branch to branch to elude predators, not so for the gangly primates hunting and gathering upon their two slow legs. To choose the edge is to choose danger for the sake of a decent meal. To live on the edge for two million years means to hone a particular animal wit that infuses the very heart of human intelligence. These fairly defenseless creatures with their utterly dependent young clustered at the edge within small circles that were the nuclei of human culture.
The edge is in our very flesh. To stand upright means our vulnerable underbelly, unlike those of four-legged kin, is exposed to danger, and if you are a man, your genitals as well. This would be sufficient to account for human edginess, but standing upright had another effect that folded into this basic vulnerability a profound and radiant soul. The upright posture narrowed the pelvis of our mothers so that among mammals none are born less prepared to survive than the human child.
All mammals encircle the vulnerability of the little ones. Downstream from where I now sit at the edge between meadow and forest, I have watched the loose circle of Elk browse, the matriarch or sentinel cow keeping an eye out for cougar or coyote so that her sisters can shunt off with the calves at the slightest signal. In this small configuration the communication is exquisite and subtle. The cows watch me, a potential predator, watch them. They browse casually while utterly alert to the changing terrain of safety or danger.
These dynamics are virtually the same among humans but raised to the nth degree. And I'm willing to believe that the thread between the helpless young and the adults that must protect them is the thread from which human culture is woven.
From the child's point of view, this helplessness is far from pathetic. For years the refinement of intelligence exists almost completely in imagination and play, and the root of intelligence always draws on the playful mind of the child. When Nietzsche claimed he sought in himself the seriousness and focus of a child at play, he was telling a deep human trιιth.
To become an adult is to submit to the reshaping of one's own nature so that one can enter into the labor of feeding and protecting the children. This is true of most mammals, the human way being both different and a variation on a theme. For an edge species these concerns carry an aura of terror and beauty which remains one of the fundamental domains of the sacred.
Gregory Bateson used to enjoy telling the story about a scientist who created a computer that could mimic human intelligence. After years of work, he finally plugged it in. "That reminds me of a story," the machine began.
Humans live within stories, and stories live within humans, but it's clear to me that story long preceded language. Scientists like to build theories around the so-called lower animals who are ruled by instinct versus us so-called higher animals given to self-reflection, but of course theory itself is a form of storytelling, and scientific storytelling is the product of a culture that has consistently shown a complete incapacity to come to terms with non-human intelligence. As for myself, I cast my lot with the oldest human tradition that always took animals to be our elders and quite involved in stories of their own. When I observe the deep camaraderie between our wolves, Owl and Isis, when I see their alliance and antagonism with the local dogs and coyotes, when I watch Isis, the white wolf, hunt rabbit and mice in the morning, I have little doubt that a story is being lived vividly within the parameters of real space and that they know it. As a human that feeds them and talks with them in the late evening, I am obviously a part of a story that is not mine.
So it was on the edge. Encircling the children, watching them play, digging roots with a girlfriend, sharing meat or honey–these are stories lived to the utmost. So much the better when 200,000 years ago, we acquired language to speak them–to elaborate, to make things up, to give words to the mysteries of dream, birth, death, fire and friendship. As an exceptionally imaginative edge species I think story was always our shelter in a dangerous world.
One of the great cosmic jokes produced by recent scholarship on human prehistory is Cavalli-Szorfa's conclusion that few races are more closely related than Europeans and Africans. Drawing blood samples from around the world and doing close genetic analyses, Cavalli-Szorfa found that blacks of African descent are far more closely related to whites of European descent than they are to the `Blackfellas" of Australia, the aborigines (who, as it turns out, are close kin to the Chinese). While this seems to defy common sense, it must be remembered that half a million years ago, Homo erectus found the path up the Nile Valley from Africa firstly to Europe before the long trek to China and Java. Genetically and culturally, African and European culture are joined at the root more deeply than any two racialized cultural domains of the planet. Africa and Europe are, in fact, twinned.
Someday I hope to write a book on the deep grammar shared by Afro-European people, the lively language that we seem to hold in common at the level of soul. The deepest stratum of this language would have to begin with what Swadesh, Yakhontov and Dogolopowsky take to be the common vocabulary of all human beings and then move across the prehistoric Sahara painting caves in North Africa to Spain, Southern France and elsewhere. Dynastic Egypt, of course, was a watershed overwhelmingly influencing story and myth over both continents for thousands of years. The sudden fall into civilization over the last eight thousand years with Iron Age hierarchies, male supremacy and the love of war is a story shared by both Africans and Europeans. The lingua franca of Christianity, both the benevolence of the Christian path and its blind demonization of traditional spirituality, is a story that Africans are living out in this century in a fashion remarkably similar to how Europeans did it in the Middle Ages. When one finally comes to this era of cash economies, pop culture, technology, the diffusion of Europeans ideas about nationhood and leadership, multinational corporations, the whole nine yards, one is capping off hundred of thousands of years of interinvolvement of African and European people. One would think this would breed a measure of familiarity, even warmth, but the most recent chapters in the story, slavery and the institutional racism that it gave birth to, have made it all but impossible for kin to recognize kin.
In my essay of white people's dreams about black people, "Capable of Such Beauty," I had to account for the recurring presence of the mysterious black who leads the white soul into the mysteries and found that the only way to do justice to this dream figure was by looking at an Afro-European pair of twins, the Greek god Hermes and the Yoruba god Eshu Elegba.
Hermes and Eshu Elegba have so much in common that the Black Hermes in the dreams of white people inevitably opens up the ambiguous ground where African and European cultures overlap. Both Hermes and Eshu are gods at the crossroads and patrons of travelers. Both are gods of the marketplace, of all negotiations of what the value of things are: both play in the same field of relative values. Both are ithyphallic: Ancient Greek society placed the trickster's stone phallus in the marketplace to be anointed with oil, as do contemporary Yoruba. For both Eshu and Hermes the palm tree is sacred. Both are messengers, translators and mediators between the gods and between the gods and their human children.
Eshu and Hermes are both elusive, agile, shapeshifting, changeable, fleet-footed, mischievous and rife with ambiguity. Both instigate the disruption and discontinuities, even chaos, that are so essential to the work of transformation.
In addition to all this, Hermes and Eshu are gods of boundaries and thresholds, not the tidy Euclidian boundaries of black versus white which guarantee that "never the twain shall meet:" but the boundaries of give and take that are constantly being enacted by all beings who come from different worlds. A traditional Yoruba story about Eshu illustrates this.
It seems that there were two inseparable friends—or so they thought –who had been initiated together. They decided to farm plots of land adjacent to each other.
One day while each was tilling his own field, Eshu sauntered down the trail that separated them, half of his face painted white and the other half painted black. After Eshu passed, one friend called out to the other, "Who was that strange white man that just passed by?" to which his friend responded, "What white man? That guy was black."
"What do you mean black? How can you say he was black? I never saw such a white white man before."
"I tell you the man was black, blue black. You're out of your mind if you can't tell a white man from a black man."
And so it was that these two old friends were soon wrestling each other in the dirt.
A trail such as this exists between Europe and Africa and therefore within all people of European and African descent, but if one expects this trail to provide nicely separable worlds, then one is inviting the trickster to come and show you otherwise.
When traditional societies fall apart, witches come out of the woodwork, both actual witches, those confused souls who do such harm, and the witches of the mind, the pervasive, hallucinatory fear of the witch that narrows people's lives and leads them to persecute the innocent. This was true in medieval Europe, a mania which Catholicism used to exact genocide against traditional European culture. I have seen much the same archetypal terror seize the Navajo in Arizona, and the Mayan and Garifuna people in Guatemala and Belize. In Africa the portrait of the witch–her secret meetings in the forest; her attacks on the defenseless; her animal familiars, blood sucking, greedy and devious–is virtually the same as in Europe. Ritual hexing and protection from the hex is Afro-European mojo: amulets, herbs, the Holy Bible, garlic over the doorway, a cross around one's neck or over the bed, the Jewish hamsa to defend against the evil eye, the name of Jesus (or other magical words, "hocus pocus" being a peasant adaptation of the Latin Mass hoc est corpus meum) and on and on. When the world falls apart, one will reach for anything for protection, and so close are the African and European ways of going about it that students of Southern folklore used to engage in lively debates about where exactly any given ritual gesture originated.
As far as we may seem to be from the edge between forest and savannah, very little has changed: the fear of being eaten, predation and protection against the predator, except now the predator walks on two legs and it is our soul that is at stake and the souls of those we love. And beyond that, we ourselves are predators that stalk the soul of the world, participating in the largest mass extinction of species in seventy million years. If I had to name the gist of the human disease, it is a pathology of a predatory mammal gone mad with fear and aggression. Few of us are guiltless, and few of us are not victims. Overweening hunger, eating and being eaten, boundaries and the violation of boundaries–these ancient concerns shape the vortex of human confusion and the voracity with which humans are devouring the natural world. This vortex, rooted so deep in an edge species' desire to survive and thrive in a dangerous world, has made witches of us all.
The sun is setting, first pink reflected on water, then striations of magenta dulling to a thick purple, purplish brown and now a black platinum patina. Still there is enough light to see the water skidders slice hieroglyphs on the surface of the stream until that inscrutable language becomes as invisible as the stunted pine not twenty yards to my right. For an hour now, pausing between sentences, I've tried to trace with my imagination the spectacle of small creatures awakening at the edge between day and night: the crayfish half in water, half on stone; the gnats moving in small pulsating clouds and the violet-green swallows that cut the air to catch the insects that gather at dusk. The spiders are especially alert: an orb weaver casting its web between rusty burdock and stone wall of the bridge, dozens of black and brown spiders scouring river rocks for God knows what.
I light a kerosene lamp, and soon moths and stout hissing beetles bash themselves against the glass hungering for fire. Why do they do that? When they slam against the windows of our cabin at night, my wife Deena Metzger says, "Poor things. They think that it's daylight inside." A little spark of sunlight under a lonely bridge in a dark forest –of course they rush for the flame. Wouldn't you?
When night falls, the body, this body, seeks shelter, wants to be enclosed. I noticed this the years when I was homeless. I often slept under such bridges even when it was not raining, but I also slept under a lovely feral pear tree, in dumpsters, under cars, in abandoned shacks, under overhangs or in caves beyond the edge of the city. Failing anything else, a narrow alley would do if it were not well used. When night falls, the body seeks safety.
The Gnostics said that Apollo had a dark twin, Sol Niger, the Black Sun, and that he was king of the realm of the ancestors. The Celts would speak of Dylan and Lleu, the twins of darkness and light, sons of the Goddess of the Star Wheel. I was once in Guatemala in Chichicastenango for the full eclipse of the sun. The Mayans holed up indoors, some glued to the tube watching soccer, some even watching the eclipse on television. Pregnant dogs had red ribbons tied around their waists or were placed during the eclipse in fifty-gallon barrels. I walked to a hill outside the village and beheld Sol Niger in all his glory, dark, light, subterranean, liquid and incomprehensible. The Mayans believed Jaguar was swallowing the sun, nothing to wax ecstatic about.
Darkness is in fact frightening. It can swallow us up and for all our ambition to conquer the natural world, nobody will ever own the forest at night.
As I write this, I hear a stirring in the nearby bushes–a possum I figure. It's been seventy million years since night lemurs crawled through the forests of Madagascar–the last nocturnal ancestor of the human species, placing me, I guess, in remote relationship to the creatures who are now emerging: possum, child of the earth; raccoon, nighthawk and lion. A glint of red eyes now reflected from my lamp–who are you?
Bantu people live by the cycle of darkness and light. The sun that sets in the world of the living simultaneously rises in the world of the dead. The ancestors begin awakening when living things begin to cast their long shadows in the evening, and it is said that midnight is noon in the village of the spirits. Ngoma ceremonies happen at night because out of the dark the spirits come to possess their children, to dance with them, to convey their wisdom.
Last week Deena and I found the fresh spoor of a lion a couple of miles upstream from my little sanctuary. Am I afraid? Yes. And yet the mystery of the lion moving through the forest at night supersedes fear. As Jay Salter, who lives in lion country in the north coast of California likes to tell me, one learns the meaning of humility when one realizes that one's not at the top of the food chain.
Augustine Kandemwa and I stepped in the edge between worlds very early on in our friendship. He was initiating me into the ngoma of the water spirits, and as it turned out, I was initiating him though it was fully a week before I knew it. He asked me to work on certain things that were troubling him; so not a small part of my first initiation was deeply involved in serving his spirits.
A few days into this, I had the following dream that still perplexes and astonishes me. In retrospect, I realize that this dream was the moment we stepped into the mystery of sacred twinship.
In my dream Augustine was telling me a dream about hunting. An ordinary morning in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe–we'd always tell each other our dreams to see what was up with the spirits, and so I dreamt Augustine was doing so!
As he told me his dream, I entered into it with him as I sometimes do when 'work with people. It is a profound thing to be accompanied by another in the landscape of your dream, and as a healer, I've found it far more effective than dream interpretation. Where does the dream lead? That is the question.
As Augustine told his dream, I followed him in ít past mud houses at the edge of a village. He was carrying a gun, and it was clear that together we were entering the bush to hunt. I told him to close his eyes, to let the forest for him be dark. He did so without hesitation and continued walking firmly as if he could see in the dark. It was me who felt uncertain. How was Ito proceed with working on his dream? And yet Augustine walked forward with confidence as I have often seen him, confidence undiminished by the lack of sight.
I relaxed and followed him, trusting him. It was an honor to teach him this non-Bantu way of working with dreams, which he swiftly became skilled in even in this first lesson. Even before I woke up from this dream within a dream, there was no way to define who was leading whom.
Ngangas pay close attention to their dreams because often there are messages that indicate what ritual work to do with someone you're healing or initiating. That afternoon I worked with the dream Augustine told me in my dream, which is to say we entered again the circumstance of the dream. I followed Augustine up a dirt road. "My feet have eyes," he said, and "Oh, I know this well. I have been here before in my dreams. I know a sacred place near here. Follow me."
I had him close his eyes as we left the village behind, and as in his dream/my dream, he walked with great solidity and presence. It was hard to keep up with him.
We came to a river, and he said, "We must wash off the scent of the village, or we will frighten the animals." We prayed in the water, and before we moved on, he laid his gun down. "I won't be needing this," he said.
By this point we were quite out of time. We hunkered in the bushes along a game trail, for how long I cannot say–minutes, an hour, a day, a year. Augustine had gone completely silent, and then I heard him snoring thinly. When I returned to the house of the spirits an hour later, he was still deeply asleep. When he woke up, he looked for me, happy as a clam. "Everything turned into water," he tells me, "a whole world of blue water, but I didn't meet any animals except only fish."
Strange to go to sleep under a bridge but stranger still to wake up under it at 4:00 A.M. Before I light the kerosene lamp, I could well have been encamped along an underground stream.
An odd dream. I hear African drumming, not "dream drumming" but as if it were actually coming from the meadow down river. I recognize the beat from the ngoma of the water spirits and people singing to Maria in the Ndebele language. The drumming makes me restless so it's hard to sleep. I am unaware that I'm in fact asleep.
Then I see a simple image: a wooden bowl with the Hebrew name of God in it inscribed on a piece of paper. As I wipe the sleep from my eyes, I recall that I have this bowl with me, a gift from my friend Susan Shumba and her husband Ezekiel. I remember also that "shumba" is Shona for lion.
Borders, boundaries and edges. The boundaries between human and animal, Europe and Africa, night and day, dream and waking, sound and silence and always the edge of the river; the otherness of other people, other cultures, other species-various ways of knowing. And the radical otherness of oneself. Let's be honest. Who really ever recognized his or her face in the mirror? And failing that, who remembers that face that one bore before birth?
We live in a dreadful time. The earth is being destroyed, nothing less; and we are all playing a role in destroying it. Those cultures that are on most intimate terms with this planet are being decimated. Traditional ways of knowing are being unraveled by those of us who live in the overdeveloped world, among them the medicine ways of the Shona and Ndebele people who have made me into a healer of sorts. Under this cold bridge at 4:00 A.M., I am willing to do damn near anything to call forth those who might accompany Augustine and me in this vital work of protecting, celebrating and encouraging otherness wherever it is threatened. I will plead, harangue, talk tenderly or with fury, with humor or with grief, politely or impolitely because everything is at stake. Everything.
In Dreaming the End of the World, I became aware that apocalyptic dreams could be divided into two categories that were best understood as two legitimate ways of understanding the present moment in history. In some dreams the end of the world was near, and the dreamer would often act like a crafty animal that would do whatever might be necessary to prevent this. In other dreams apocalypse had already happened. The bomb had dropped, the flood had come, the meteor had ravaged the earth. These dreams are entirely different. In the ruins compassion is born, and the dreamer is involved intending to the wounded, building community, making new meanings in the ashes of a destroyed world. My political and spiritual praxis recognizes both these realities as simultaneously true: The world must be saved; the world is already destroyed. In either case, one's own soul is at stake if one refuses to act-tenderly, reflectively, skillfully, receptively-on behalf of the world.
Let me offer one final metaphor for the edge between worlds, something to ponder for those of us who live in the belly of God. This is a gift from Henri Poincare', several generations removed.
Poincare' is sometimes called the grandfather of Chaos Theory, but his mathematical lineage also spawned Complexity, the study of how systems–natural systems and cultures, for example–spontaneously organize themselves, find shape. The Afro-European world that Augustine and I practice as ngangas within is such a complex system, emerging quite on its own by way of initiation, dialogue and generosity.
"Complex systems," writes M. Mitchell Woldrop, "have somehow acquired the ability to bring order and chaos into a special kind of balance. This balance point, often called the edge of chaos, is where the components of a system never quite lock into place and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence either. The edge of chaos is where life has enough stability to sustain itself and enough creativity to deserve the name of life.... The edge of chaos is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive and alive."
For us non-mathematicians it might be easiest to imagine order as ice, molecules frozen into unchanging relation to each other, and chaos as the roiling turbulence of boiling water. The edge of chaos is the fractal zone between: no simple boundary but in every respect a lively, interactive world like the edge between two ecosystems or between day and night.
Mathematically speaking, there is a very good reason why this edge has the same structure as landscape boundaries: the edge between order and chaos is where life is. The biosphere itself lives on the edge, being unable to tolerate either too much order or too much randomness. It is here that otherness proliferates; it is here, planet earth, that otherness comes into relationship with otherness. This is true of all living beings, of cultures, of the strange configurations of the soul and, as far as I'm concerned, the spirit worlds that make use of Augustine and me as ngangas. All beings yearn for the edge for it is where we meet each other and where we feel most alive. Furthermore, each being that we meet invites us to the edge simply because of the fact of their otherness. Invites us to the long migration, to the edge of chaos that will without question take centuries to complete from this impoverished place of greed and hunger. The journey is arduous and necessary, but the point will come when even the metaphor of "journey" is shed. For the edge of chaos is exactly where one is at this very moment, was never elsewhere and only awaits the opening of the eyes.
The sun is rising. It is time to scribble the name of God on a piece of paper and put it in this wooden bowl to place in the river and say thank you.