Tuesday, November 19, 2002

The funny part is, we never even watched the movie. Usually it's so easy I take it for granted, but here there are a few extra steps. To begin with, finding a movie in English is impossible, as all foreign films are dubbed in German. Except, as it turns out, Russian ones which are subtitled. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Juliette had checked out some movies from the library while I was immobilized with tonsilitis, because I'd read nearly all the English books on her bookshelf, and three weeks in bed was enough sensory deprivation even for a media detractor like myself.

On this particular evening, I had recovered my health and was thankful for it. Juliette had a break in her rigorous study regimen, so we thought we'd try her skills at translation by watching a movie together -- something we'd done perhaps five times in the time we'd known each other.

So we borrowed the video recorder from Matthes, the most technologically "connected" of the eight people sharing the apartment. Then we commandeered the television, somewhat inadvertantly -- the woman who had been curled up on the sofa in front of it insisted it wasn't important and she could just as well read a book, as she stormed off to her room. Oops.

The film was "Imprisoned in the Kaukasus," set in a beautiful mountain range in the south of Russia. We had just gotten to the part where the protagonist had been captured by peasant soldiers -- this is only five minutes into the story, dutifully supporting the film's title -- when the telephone rang for Juliette.

I don't know enough German to follow a conversation, or even half of one, but I've picked up enough to know what "Die Oma ist tot" means. Which grandmother had died, I could guess because it was her father who had called. I had met her once, five months before in Munich.

"Perhaps you could read to her from the Tibetan Book of the Dead," I suggested later. Juliette was taking the news well, but it seemed like she was looking for a way to connect personally with her grandmother's death. "That's what my mom did," I continued, "when my grandfather died." I hadn't really understood it at the time, but as I got older more and more things my mom had done began to make sense to me.

Juliette liked the idea. Neither of us consider ourselves Buddhists, much less Tibetans (nor would her grandmother), but we take wisdom where we find it. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was one of the stack of books I'd read while convalescing, so it was fresh in my mind. It's basically an orientation, a kind of travel guide, to the subjective reality of the deceased. It's helpful, when reading it, to have an understanding of Buddhist metaphysical concepts such as karma, reincarnation, non-dualism, and enlightenment, but even taken merely as a description of a psychological state it's fascinating.

Imagine finding yourself -- self, in the sense of your perception -- suddenly floating near your body. Unfortunately you're not able to feel the freedom from its limitations, because you're driven by habit -- you're used to being in your body; you really don't know any other way to be. Your things -- your personal, favorite things -- are all around, but you can't touch them. Perhaps your family and friends are nearby, but you can't talk to them. They're crying, or talking about you -- they know you're dead, but you yourself are still figuring it out. You're afraid. Your mental state is no longer regulated by your body, by chemicals and physical needs, and you are far more sensitive to your own thoughts. You are not grounded; you react intensely to each fear, each desire, each attachment, each habit. Perhaps you feel like there was something you forgot to do. This feeling instantly takes over your entire awareness, there is nothing but this feeling, intense and unpleasant. And no matter how hard you try, you can't do the thing you forgot -- perhaps you don't even know what it is.

This, according to the book, is more or less the first stage of the subjective death experience. One's consciousness in death is strongly influenced by one's patterns of consciousness during life.

Dead people, no longer limited by their bodies, are also not limited by space. A mere thought can whisk them instantly to paradise or hell. This sounds appealing at first, but if you sit a minute and watch your thoughts, you'll see that most of them are not places you'd want to be very long. But at the same time, that's why the "between state," as it's called, is so important -- it is an opportunity for great understanding.

So the book is meant to be read to a soul as it wanders the between state with heightened sensitivity and mental flexibility. Normally the soul sticks around near the body for a while, so it's most effective to read it aloud on location, so to speak. But we weren't there, so we invited Juliette's Oma to visit us instead.

And she did.

In her room, Juliette finished reading aloud the portion of the book relevant to Day One, the first day following the death.

"I'm so tired," she said, yawning. "And I have such a headache." I began to commiserate, but she hadn't finished yet. "I can't find my head," she said.

Juliette has helped me become more flexible in my too-literal interpretation of the English language, but this one stumped me. "What do you mean?" I asked.

"I can't find my head!" she insisted, visibly upset. "My head hurts so much, that I can't even recognize it anymore as my head. I don't know what to do!" She was nearly crying.

"Well, first you should say goodbye to your grandmother," I told her, pointing at the candle she had lit symbolically. I was feeling a kind of internal dissonance about speaking frankly to each other while the candle was still lit -- like having an argument in front of a guest.

With some effort, she closed her eyes for a moment and blew out the candle. It didn't seem to have the grounding effect I was hoping for.

"I haven't done anything today," she complained. "My head hurts. I just want to finish this day."

"Why don't we get ready for bed?" I tried to suggest calmly. It was unusual for her to go to sleep before midnight no matter how tired she was, but she was in no state to do anything at the moment.

"You don't understand!" she exclaimed, burying her face in her hands. "I can't recognize my head!" She was really crying now.

Never having won any prizes for being the most sensitive boy in the world, I started to realized at this point that this was not her standard "I haven't gotten enough done today" blues -- reading to her grandmother had had a strong effect on her. I didn't know what to make of her missing head -- I couldn't relate it to any experience I'd had, either sober or psychotropically altered.

"I don't know what to do," she said between tears. I didn't know either. Tears make me uncomfortable sometimes, like I should be able to fix something but I can't. Sometimes this discomfort leads to anger, where I just want to shake her and yell "why are you making me feel so bad?" Like I said, I'm not always the most sensitive boy. Fortunately she thought of something on her own, opening the window and poking her head out for some air. Fresh, cold air and nature usually bring her back to earth. Sometimes resting her head on my chest works too, if I can stop myself from trying to fix her long enough to let her calm down. The other thing that helps is being alone, which I allowed her to do when I felt Mr. Hyde sneaking up behind me.

Only with some distance did I piece together the puzzle in my mind. It'll sound a little fruity from a materialistic perspective, but materialism is a little fruity to begin with. What dawned on me, and was confirmed talking with Juliette later, is that she'd glimpsed into the subjective experience of death -- she, or a part of her, had experienced the between, and applied its emotions and frustrations to her life in that moment. Perhaps that was what her grandmother was feeling at the time.

"I can't find my head," she had said -- it hardly needs interpretation, clearly expressing a feeling of disconnection from the body. "I haven't done anything today" -- this is a typical Juliette thing to say, inspired by feelings of frustration and helplessness. "I just want to finish this day" -- this is not at all typical from Juliette; later she explained that feeling in more detail.

In fact, here's her memory of the experience, directly after finishing reading to her grandmother:

Totally lost
In my room, in my own life,
but with no control over it.
No ability to influence it.
No ability to do anything.
Seeing no exit.
And the pressure in the head is getting higher and higher.
"My headache is so strong that I can't recognize my head as my head anymore."
To feel lost.

In my room.
I'm sitting on my bed,
but reality is not very clear.
It looks veiled.
Like through a foamy filter.

The things are there as they are and
as they've always been,
but I can't touch them.

The feeling of lost and frustration.

Frustration because it is evening,
the day is finished.
My only free evening -- and what did I do?
So many things I intended to do.
They seem to be so important.
Good reasons to be frustrated.

Sudden strong impulse:
"I want to finish with this day.
I want to sleep immediately."
- Why don't you do that?
"I don't know how."

My head, I don't recognize my head
as my head anymore
It hurts.

"I want this day to be finished."

The feeling of being stuck.
Stuck without an exit.
Stuck somewhere, where I have no control.
Knowing all the things that need to be done,
but to be totally disconnected.
Headache -- pain from pressure
No hope for release.
Being stuck.
Being alone.
To panic.
Everything is lost.
The day is over, but it is still there.
And I was failing.
I haven't done all the important and nice things I wanted to do.
Not to recognize my head as my head.
Blind, black,
the eyes closed
my room is veiled.

"Maybe you should finish with your grandmother and blow out the candle."
So I blew it out.

Okay, finishing the day.
That's what I want.
The only thing I still want.
Because everything else is lost anyhow.
That's the only thing that is possible to wish for anymore.

I want to get out of here.
No exit.
I open the window.
The moon out there.
But back in room -- no release.
Totally lost.

Get rid of the day sheet,
half blind, half aggressive, panic.
Out of the room.
Half blind, panic
Brushing teeth
and it is over.
A mirror.
And finally,
I recognize my head as my head.

What can we learn from this unique subjective experience? Juliette will discover in time how it affects her perspective on her life. For me, it's a reminder of how dependent we are on familiar feelings and habits -- and how deeply lost we feel when we find ourselves out of our element. What can we rely on in these moments of panic? What can bring us back to equilibrium when everything we take for granted is falling apart?

In the meantime, each night she continues reading to her grandmother, reminding her that all the fear and horror she's experiencing is a product of her own mind. All she must do to be free from it is to recognize that fact.

If I'm a square peg -- and please don't begin nodding your head just yet, I'm speaking rhetorically -- there seem to be a lot of round holes in my life.

Whether I'm a Buddhist or not, for example -- I certainly don't define myself by my allegiance to a doctrine, and yet it's difficult to imagine rejecting the parts of it that I've come to understand.

And what do I do for a living, anyway? I don't feel like a computer programmer, but that's usually the easiest answer.

Am I a traveler? If so, why am I so interested in finding a place to be still? And if not, why am I so afraid of being tied down by responsibility?

Am I a vegetarian? Or perhaps, one of those pesco-ovo-lacto-vegetarians? Why do I buy leather shoes? How can I buy a drum with an animal skin stretched over its body?

These questions I asked myself, running my fingers down the soft black stripe of fur which marked where the spine of a gazelle used to be. The gazelle had once run free in the forests around a village called Kafountine in the Casamance region of Senegal, West Africa. It had been healthy, judging by the silkiness of its brown pelt. Never having seen a gazelle, I imagined it to be beautiful and magestic, with two long straight horns pointing upwards and slightly back. This one had been in some sort of scuffle, I guessed based on the deep scar where its ribs used to be. But that's not what killed it. There were three bullet holes close together, reminiscent of the finger holes of a bowling ball, just about the position of the heart. I don't know anything about hunting, but I guess that's more or less the idea.

The skin had been stretched and dried but not cured -- it doesn't need to be soft once it's on the drum. I had to unroll it and put rocks on the corners (that is, where the legs used to begin) to keep it from rolling back up again, in order to choose which part to take back to Germany. There's not enough usable hide on a gazelle for more than one drum head, but I hoped our Senegal friends could use the rest. One gazelle, one drum. Strange ratio.

Once back in Germany, my djembe's original head tore when I was tuning it. I don't know for sure whether I did something wrong or the skin was weak, but the result is the same: two gazelles, one drum.

So I began the process of replacing the head. I had trimmed the new skin to fit the drum, so it wasn't such a blatant reminder of its animal origins, but it retained its fur, thinning towards the abdomen, and its scar.

I soaked it overnight to make it pliable. Having still never seen a live gazelle, I now know what a wet one feels like. From inside as well as out.

During all this time confronting the reality that an animal had died so that I could play djembe, I had several recurring feelings. First, a little sorry for the animal and for my part in its premature demise. Second, thankful -- since it had already died, it seemed respectful to at least use it well. Third, a little repulsed. And finally, glad to have an opportunity to reconcile two seemingly contradictory aspects of my life -- living with the intention not to harm other living things, and the reality that merely by living I do in fact harm other living things. If not the gazelle and shoes, there would still be relationships which harm others, driving which kills all sorts of creatures, buying products which supports a huge complex system which harms and kills nearly every step of the way, and even taking antibiotics which kills tiny organisms, both helpful and hurtful to me.

The answer for me, of course, was neither to give up the intention not to harm, nor to give up living; it was merely to try to be more aware of the effects of my actions.

Next, in my plight with the gazelle, came a strange step prompted by a surplus thickness in the hide: I began to peel away strips of skin, one layer at a time. Remaining technically a vegetarian, I had no desire to eat anything; just a strange repulsed fascination with what I found myself doing. The final step, as far as my confrontation with the dead gazelle was concerned, was shaving the top of the drum after it had dried. Scrape, scrape, scrape, the fur came away one tiny tuft at a time. I found that a knife was the most effective shaving implement, since the fur was too long for a normal razor. Juliette's scalpel, which she brought home for me from her cadaver class, also worked quite well, but I didn't want to dull the blade. She does the same kind of stuff on humans, but at least nobody's out with a rifle to find bodies to sell to medical students.

The only problem was that all that scraping kicked up a lot of dust. Perhaps some of it, I tell myself romantically, was African dirt, carried here in the gazelle's fur. But let's not kid ourselves -- what I was breathing was tiny bits of gazelle skin. Not surprisingly, I began sneezing uncontrollably and my nose was congested until the next day. I guess I won't be having any gazelles as house pets, who knew I was allergic?

Now, everything is finished except the final tuning. If something goes wrong like last time, woe is me: three gazelles, one drum.

Book Trivia

There are several translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead referred to above. The one I read, and recommend for its helpful commentary, was translated by Robert A.F. Thurman, a Tibetan Buddhism scholar and practitioner (he's also Uma Thurman's dad -- maybe she'll star in the movie). The original Tibetan name for the book is Bardo Thodol, which is something like Book of the Between, or more elaborately, The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between.