Harlan still isn't sure if he's dealing with a latter-day Jesus-freak flower child or just your ordinary American whole-grain fruit loop.
Akbar, whose real name is Chris Canton, is the only person he's ever met who would compare Jim Morrison's LSD trips and Castaneda's peyote visions with starvation dementia and Christ fasting in the desert. He decides that, like Galileo, Chris is either a heretic or a genius.
Linear thinking, again. He never stops to consider Galileo was both....
POPE CLEARS GALILEO OF HERESY 17-DEC-92It took 350 years, but the Pope has now formally acknowledged that the Church was in error in condemning Galileo. Galileo claimed that the Earth went around the sun, backing up what Copernicus first claimed. The Church found him guilty of "vehement suspicion of heresy." The Pope, in formally pardoning Galileo, said that the ecclesiastical judges who tried Galileo were "incapable of dissociating faith from an age-old cosmology." The Pope went on to say that Galileo was ahead of his time in saying that scriptural interpretation must go beyond the literal meaning. According to the Pope, there is no incompatability between science and religion. Together they bring out "different aspects of reality."
"Not typical to see a Christian running with this crowd," Akbar says. The two of them are seated next to his tiny pop-top VW bus, talking in the lantern-light; Tracy has wandered down the hill to Ariel's camp. Despite himself, Harlan enjoys Akbar's well thought-out, if totally offbeat, observations on religion and Christ.
"A lot of these people - hip, smart people - have broken their ties with established religion the same way they've broken off from established society. And like it or not, 'established' religion in America means Christianity. What's your spiritual background, Harlan?"
"Oh, you know, the usual middle-class suburban-white-kid story: church and Sunday School every week, until I was a teenager and Mom couldn't make me go anymore. Pretty soon after that I started trying all the things everybody told me not to, just to see if they were as bad as they said. By and large, they weren't...but how were those people supposed to know? They'd never tried anything."
"Do you still consider yourself a Christian?"
"Uh...put me down as 'Undecided' for that one."
"Mmmm. And if you're like most people, your spiritual growth stopped quite a while before you quit church, and never started up again. Because you felt like something wasn't quite right with what they were telling you - and your experience since then seems to prove it. But even though you think your spiritual upbringing was flawed, you won't reject the Christian church outright, and you certainly won't consider another religion, because that would mean eternal damnation, according to what you've always been taught."
"Uhhh...well, I never really gave it that much thought...."
"Most people don't think about it at all. They're not trained to think about it; in fact, just the opposite, they're conditioned not to question what they're told - or they risk their immortal souls!
"Think about other public gatherings, like a city council meeting or a school classroom - there's a venue, some way for people to speak their minds and voice questions. But not in a church service - one man speaks, and everyone else listens. And he never passes the feather around.
"On the road it's different. We've already broken off from so much of the established social order, it's easier to question...well, anything. And when those questions come up with answers that don't agree with what we've been told, people get pissed off. Anybody gets pissed off when they learn they've been lied to. A lot of women in particular, but men too, are pretty pissed-off about Christianity. They say the organized Christian church is a close-minded patriarchal power system of white men. And largely, they're right.
"That's why you don't find many professed Christians on the road. A lot of people can't deal with a religion that, for all the good it's done, is never able to admit it's wrong, never able to police itself, even when its highest priests and ministers are caught in heinous crimes. Galileo is a perfect example."
Harlan nods sadly. "I guess 350 years is soon enough for an apology, if you know you're right."
"Everybody knew he was right. The Pope knew he was right. He just couldn't bear to admit that he had been wrong. But when you allow human pride to catch you in a lie that big, it doesn't just hurt you, it taints the very faith you're supposed to be representing.
"This is why a lot of people can't listen to what the Christian hierarchy says. There's been too many lies over the years, and not enough apologies. It would actually damage their faith - and maybe put their souls at risk - to be part of the Christian church as it stands now. For this and many other reasons, a lot of people on the road have sought other paths to the truth - have turned to paganism, or tantra or Buddha or whatever. And that's what they should be doing, if it makes them feel closer to God.
"But not me."
"Why not you?"
Chris pauses here as the shadows begin to close in around them. He shuts off the lantern, changes out the propane cannister and tosses the old one in the trash. He stops off at his van to get a pipe before returning to his lawn chair.
"Do you believe in democracy, Harlan?"
"Well, yeah, in theory, anyway."
"Do you believe we live in a democracy?"
"Probably the closest thing to it. Closest we've come in four thousand years of history."
"Six thousand. But is it a real democracy? Government of the people, for the people, with total equality? No ruling class?"
Harlan can only snort. "Not even."
"But it's the closest we've come so far."
"Maybe, yeah...if we can get the country away from the corporations and their political puppets, and establish some sort of populist power base, then yeah, we might come close to a 'real' democracy."
"Seems like a pretty optimistic view, doesn't it?"
"Yeah...but the alternative is unthinkable."
Chris bolts upright in his chair. "Exactly! The idea of leaving the country in the hands of the bastards who exploit it is unthinkable! That's why, no matter how fucked-up the system is, we stick with it!"
"And this is why you're still a Christian?"
"You're getting the idea, my friend. It's only one reason. But it's a very important one. I shouldn't give up on the Constitution just because a bunch of money-hungry thugs have taken over the henhouse. In fact, that's just when it needs defending most. And I should treat my faith the same way."
"You said that was only one reason."
Chris nods. "The most important reason is, simply, Jesus Christ. Think what you will about the people who run His church, He still said some of the most beautiful, most powerful things ever. Do unto others. Love your neighbor. Get your own house in order before you start hassling someone else. I was raised believing those things, and as I got older, I never found a reason to stop believing them. I just felt....
"I don't disagree with Christian doctrine, just with some of the attitudes of His followers. I still believe the teachings of Christ, even in the watered-down form we've got them now. The essential message is still about what's noblest and purest in the human spirit - the best we can aspire to. And that makes it holy.
"Don't confuse Christianity at large with the pictures you see on the teevee. Like most of what comes on the news, it's total bullshit. For every Operation Rescue maniac and school-board censor on the front page, there are two dozen people quietly living the spirit of Christ's teachings who never even get noticed. The reason they don't get noticed is because of something else Christ said, about not proclaiming your good deeds from the rooftops. Those rewards come later.
"It's important to remember the Moral Majority is a minority. I'm not denyin' there are a lot of dangerous windbags who think they're fine upstanding Christians. The ruling class finds that faith convenient, and that always complicates things. If Donald Trump lived in ancient Rome, he'd be building temples to Apollo instead of Atlantic City altars to the dollar.
"But it's the pompous, hypocritical, sanctimonious loud-mouthed so-called Christians who are spoiling the image for the rest of us! It's not my place to question their covenant with God, but if they really want to save people's souls, bullshit theatrics and hatefulness are the wrong way to go about it.
"But they don't want to help people. All they want to do is reinforce their flawed belief system. A small minority are after even less: power and a quick buck. But most are just misguided.
"And meanwhile, there's thousands of missionaries and teachers and ministers out there who know, because they've done it, that the way to bring people to Christ is to help them and teach them and just be cool to them, without shoving a Bible down their throats. When you reach people that way, they will come, and it will be right."
Chris raises the silver peace-sign medallion hanging at his throat. He holds it upside-down, revealing a cross with ascendant arms. "For some people, it's all a matter of symbols...some of the people who cling most tightly to the cross have no understanding of its true meaning.
"I'm sure you've heard the claim of religious-right fanatics that the peace sign is an upside-down cross with its arms broken, a denial of Christianity. Of course it has nothing to do with that - it was actually a symbolic representation of the letters N.D., standing for 'nuclear disarmament.' But in recent years it's come to mean something far more - hope, and humanity, and the best in all of us. Sacrifice on behalf of the future. Sound familiar?"
Harlan says nothing, simply listens, smiling.
"The peace sign is the same thing as the cross, not the opposite...but a lot more people would be willing to believe that if they'd been taught that first ...."
A musical jingle moves along the shadowy trail: bells on an ankle bracelet. Tracy's thin form appears out of the darkness. "Are you still trying to save the world, Akbar?"
"One person at a time, Tracy."
"Well, I am going to steal him from you. I need a bed-warmer."
"Ariel would probably loan you Sasha."
"No, thank you. She is a beautiful dog, but she's cold and wet in all the wrong places."
"One second, Trace. One more question, Chris: do you go to church?"
"No. No, I don't. I've found that organized religion tends to weaken people's faith. It shouldn't, but it does. Too often, it tells them all the things they could do wrong, but not what they can do right. It gets all defensive at the most insignificant of threats - a racy TV show, a minor difference in theology. But instead of using those 'threats' as a means to educate people, and offer healing alternatives, it simply uses them as a means of control over its followers: 'See how evil the world is? That's why you can only trust us.'
"By being a Christian without a church - what our pagan friends would call a 'solitary' - I've had to keep my faith alive on my own, just me and God. And I've found that my faith is as strong as I allow it to be. It can't be shaken, no matter what TV shows I watch, or whose beliefs I listen to. My faith was never in danger - after all, it comes from God! If my faith can't withstand a simple question, it must not have been very strong to start with.
"But members of the organized church, because they're only told what they can't do, tend to have a very weak faith - faith that cannot bear a shred, a feather's weight of doubt, that cannot tolerate a question or an alternative viewpoint. Because that's all they allow themselves to have. That's never healthy, but in the 21st century, with all its new ideas and new ways of conveying them, it will be especially dangerous. Christians have to look within their hearts to decide how to live Christlike in each situation this complex modern world presents."
"What about the Bible?"
"The Bible is a guidebook, and a powerful tool, but too many people use it to justify their own preconceptions and reinforce non-Christlike behavior. 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' is a perfect example. How much pain and misery has been inflicted in Christ's name just because that one verse seems to justify murder?
"You must stand up for what you believe is right...and part of that is admitting you could be wrong. God is infallible...but we are not. You have to allow for your own human errors in judgment, recognize them when they occur, admit them and learn from them - something the Christian hierarchy has been notoriously slow to do. But it's the only way you can be sure your pursuit of what is 'right' is truly pure.
"Of course, if you have different opinions, I'd love to hear them."
"So do you think - hey Tracy, where ya goin'?"
"To sleep with the dog."
"Listen Akbar, it's been great talking to ya, gotta go!"
Chris nods sagely. "God bless," he says, smiling, though Harlan and Tracy are already gone into the darkness.
I know how Tracy feels. Most people, alive or dead, can only take so much theosophy at one sitting. Needing a change of pace, I seek a connection to another of our angelheaded hipsters, adventurer Alison. I find one much quicker than I expected - a sign that the web is nearly woven. Soon these people will be unable to avoid meeting each other.
Astonishing Alison is almost always good for some excitement - but on this day, she has stopped her car at a high mountain pass somewhere in the Utah badlands. On a high desert cliff, she stands watching a thunderstorm approach. Black and low and heavy with rain, the cloud crawls across the desert on legs of lightning. Its beauty is breathtaking, literally breathtaking: she gulps in great gasps of air. After a while, she realizes she is sobbing. Her face is wet although the rain has not yet come.
Nietzsche said that if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. But no abyss is deep enough to meet Alison's gaze.
A hot summer wind pushes the clouds across the limitless sky. Beneath them, a vast gray shape moves and shimmers and comes ever closer.
She's always loved the rain. But now it just reminds her of that asshole Brad, throwing her against the hood of her own car. She hasn't slept or eaten since the attack. He has stolen her rest, her peace of mind, any sense of safety she had in the world. He even stole Mouse.
But she refuses, she fucking REFUSES to let him take the rain from her!
Lightning shivers across the darkening sky.
Alison raises her arms and screams into the abyss, shouting her defiance, damning Brad, demanding that he show himself. Daring him to take the rain from her.
As she shouts, the storm descends. A curtain of cold rain envelops her. In seconds she is drenched to the skin. And she does not shrink from it; she welcomes it. She stands, arms outstretched, hands open, embracing the rain. He did not take it from her.
He will never be strong enough to take the rain from her.
Later, sponging off in her car and waiting for the worst of it to pass, she gazes at the Mace container hanging from her keychain. It might as well be a banana. The moment she needed it most, she forgot it was even there.
She's been wandering half-heartedly along I-70 - as if she could actually cross 600 miles in time to catch a show that started an hour ago. It's futile. She knows that.
But there's nowhere else to go.
She realizes now, no denyin' it, she'll never find Mouse. Never. It was a one-in-a-million chance anyway, a lovestruck-fool kind of chance, and she can't go on following the Dead forever; she just can't. She mourns again, at last, for missed opportunity; for Mouse. Outside, the rain weeps with her.
Whether it is the rain, the tears, or the release from her self-imposed mission of love, she is never sure. But - although she will not realize it for some time - the wound in her soul has been miraculously healed, as if by the touch of Christ....
The web is almost woven: unexpectedly I come across a strand of Ace. It's not connected to Alison, but...to me, somehow. Following it, I find the acid grunge-puppy digging in the back shelves of a dusty Denver bookstore. There's a book shoved behind the others, all but hidden. He doesn't know if it's important but he doesn't like to leave until he's looked at all the titles. He pulls the book out into the light...and astonishes me again. It's not easy to surprise someone who can see across time and space, but Ace has a real knack for it.
The thin green volume in his grubby hand is mine.
He has discovered one of my rare books of Beat poetry, all but lost in the turning pages of time.
TANSTAC! But what is the meaning of this? Before either of us can question the connection further, something else stirs in the dust.
It's a cockroach.
It's one of the big fuckers like Ace saw in the New York loft. It's got to be at least two inches long. It has only five legs, the sixth probably lost somewhere between the pages of Thomas Pynchon or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The roach seems as surprised to see Ace as I was. For a moment it perches in the shadow of Burroughs' acid fantasies and Ginsberg's saintly ravings. Then it turns tail -
- too late! Ace has anticipated. My orphan book falls to the floor, forgotten, as he cups his hand over the scuttling bug, trapping it on the bookshelf.
"Gotcha!" Ace's voice echoes through the dusty shelfrows, but he doesn't notice. He scoots the insect off into his other hand. Five legs claw frantic and futile against his drum-hardened palms.
Ace remembers hearing about a contest somewhere for the country's biggest cockroach. He thinks Smilin' Melvin here could be a contender, if he can just find a glass jar. The roach, playing possum, has stopped moving; now he can't feel it at all. He knows it's only waiting for a glint of light between the fingers, a chance to escape.
But he can't resist a peek....
He cracks his fingers, ready to close them tight at first feel of feelers. But the peek reveals something else, which is: nothing.
"No way...." he breathes. But he spreads his fingers. There is no reason not to: the cockroach is gone.
Vanished...from a closed hand.
Just like New York: one second out of sight, and they're gone like leprechaun. This goes beyond ordinary insect agility: something's up with the cockroaches - something weird. And just why do they still make him think of aliens?
Perturbed and puzzled, he starts toward the front of the store, pauses...and steps back to pick up the book.
I take my leave of Ace here, however, for I notice another new connection. I follow it across town to a Chinese restaurant...to the woman we know only as Dolly Lama. (Remember her?)
At the end of her meal she gets a fortune cookie, cracks it with one hand and pulls out the tiny slip of paper:
She smiles at that, pays her bill, and crosses the street to the bus station. She buys a lottery ticket and a bus ticket: the one matching the "Lucky Lotto" numbers on the back of her fortune, and the other for Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Then she pulls out a paperback book and reads until the bus arrives....
Sunday night is sacred to those who work only weekends. The Colorado campsite comes alive with the pulse of drums, beating beating beating in ancient Anasazi rhythms. The drum is the voice of the Earth, awakened after weekend dreams of a fairy-tale time.
Freed of their bodices and berets for another five days, the Rennies don beat blue overalls and thrift-store skirts and batik sarongs and head down the trail, following the primeval beat to a pit fire that warms the chill mountain air.
Harlan dawdles by Ariel's camp, watching Tracy try to take a knotted rag from Sasha.
"Come on, girl," she laughs, thin arms flexing as she wrestles against the chow's strong jaws. Dog and girl are enjoying the game equally, and the scene is so perfect that Harlan suddenly loves her more than he's ever loved anyone or anything. He has been musing on Chris's theories, and he realizes Tracy is the only proof of God he needs. She has allowed him to be the person he always secretly hoped he was. The shock of realization makes him laugh out loud.
"What's so funny?" someone asks, and he's not at all surprised to see it's Chris, coming down the trail. Deturbaned, his long hair hangs down around his shoulders like Jesus.
"I finally figured out my religion," Harlan says.
"Terrific! What is it?"
And he holds his arms wide, to include the entire mountainside, the stars cold and gleaming above, the tent city among the trees, the drum fire in the distance, and most especially Tracy wrestling with the dog. "This."
It doesn't make much sense, but Chris nods, says, "It's beautiful, isn't it?" and Harlan sees that he understands perfectly.
Tracy steps up, breathing a little hard from the game. Sasha has won, and worries her prize between her jaws. "Helloooo, Akbar. Are you ready, Harlan?"
"Tracy...I love you."
"I love you," she replies casually, as if it's no surprise. But their kiss is long, longer than usual; just long enough for her to say, for him to hear: I understand.
We'll talk later.
As they tread the night trail, Chris says, "I read that stuff you showed me from your journal, Harlan...."
"What did you think?"
"You said something very perceptive, about how the Rennies are heading toward something, rather than away from something else. But you weren't sure what we're heading toward."
"Any ideas?" He knows the answer before he even asks the question.
"Remember how I said we're leaving behind established ideas of society and religion and so forth? We're fed up with what we've been told, but why are we so fed up?"
"Because everything sucks!" As they draw nearer the fire circle, Harlan has to shout over the sound of the drums.
"But everybody knows that! Everyone else just says it sucks, and plops down in front of the tube! Why don't we do that? There's a lot of cynical people out here, Harlan, but there's cynical people everywhere. But how many people do you know on the road who aren't idealists?"
Harlan can't think of one. They pause at the last bend of the trail; just below, the fire is high, the drums thunder. Beat bare feet pound the dirt around the firepit. Arms and bodies sway in celebration...and worship. Someone blows a police whistle in time to the drums; someone else sits playing a Jew's harp, of all things. Its quirky voice twangs and twangs in counterbeat. It sounds great. Harlan laughs again. He's not even high.
And Chris shouts: "We're pilgrims, Harlan, pursuing a better way of life, a purer way of living. We believe the purer way exists, and we're on a journey to find it! That makes us at least as holy as any wandering saint who ever crossed ancient Europe! Remember, it was pilgrims who founded this country! They crossed the ocean and just kept on coming, seeking that better way of life! They kept on searching for the pure, kept traveling, until they turned into us!"
The beat of the drum, the erotic pulse of naked feet. Sparks fly upward, fiery schools of fish swimming in rainbow sea. This is why I left the city. More. Supple bodies spinning, arcing; muscles flexing under tan skin. The beat takes thought, leaves only action; the beat eats ego, leaving only the dance. Poet babbles on, but Tracy is beautiful, lost in the ecstacy of her dance. More. Let this hotbed of hippie love bring forth its own cooling droplets, the sweat of our brows. Eden is a place on Earth. "In Heaven all business is conducted this way." More. More. Glint of gold on Joy's hip. She dances with the light, the dance of life. Paging Henri Matisse: you saw, didn't you, rainbow- splattered painter? The dance, the drums, the circle is life. More. More. More! Deadheads and slackers at the asshole end of the 20th century. This is the end of America. This is the beginning of something else. In the dark night of the American soul, we embrace each other. Impoverished in all but spirit, we give what we have....
Tracy is a slender shadow backlit by the fire's glow. Sitting watching her dance, and understanding at last what his life is all about, Harlan says, "What about all the other religions, Chris? Who's right?"
Chris is silent so long, Harlan thinks he didn't hear him over the drums. He's about to restate the question when C. says, "Did you ever hear the one about...
"The guy dies, right, and of course he winds up at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter takes him inside to show him around the Place.
"'Over here are the Buddhists,' St. Peter says, and he shows him a place that looks a lot like India. And Buddha's there with all of his followers, and they all look happy.
"They walk on a while and then St. Pete says, 'Here's the Jews,' and he sees Moses and the rabbis and all the Jewish people, and they look happy too, so it must be Heaven.
"And they walk on, and they see the Mormons and the Muslims and the Krishnas and the pagans and so on. And then St. Peter says, 'You've got to be quiet now,' and they tiptoe past another place.
"'What was that?' the guy asks.
"'That was the Christians,' St. Peter says. 'They think they're here by themselves.'"
Tracy materializes from the crowd, glowing with sweat, and drops practically into Harlan's lap. Her body, all slick and muscular against him, makes him anticipate their "conversation" later. She smells good and tastes even better. As usual, Chris pretends to be somewhere else while they osculate.
Tracy takes a breath. "Did you put gas in the car?"
"Yes there's gas in the car...."
"How do you feel about leaving first thing in the morning?"
"Your wish is my et cetera, but what about Joy? We can't just leave her in the lurch."
"We have five days before we have to be back at work. That's just enough time.
"We're going to the Rainbow Gathering!"
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