The present chapter in her life started on the steps of the Chicago Art Institute late one morning when she saw that the stone lion on the north side of the steps was God. She couldn’t have told you why, or how she knew that it was God, but she understood it in a way that implicated her whole being.
It did not stop there. As her eyes moved from the lion to the pedestal and on to the stone steps, she saw that all that was God, too, but in a varying form; the sidewalk was God, and the curb, and the wide street that traveled north and south, that too was God. God as the street became God as the stoplight which became God as the atmosphere itself. Across the street, the tall and stately office buildings, and the hotels and the small coffee shops, and the people who walked by them — they, too, were God and were the thrill of God.
She stood there in the fullness of realization which she guessed could not last, this small ecstasy of seeing, and she moved her head slightly to the south, and watched God’s many forms there — God now as cars and buses and taxis — and with a jolt it came to her that just as the buildings connected to the street connected to the curb connected to the sidewalk, stone steps, and lion, so did all these connect with her. She, too, was God in all His fullness. Above her was the sun, which was God, and clouds moving across the face of the sky, which was God, and the large jet airplane was God as well.
Joan was utterly complete in this moment, for the moment was no different than the space that it enshrouded, so that it, too, was but another aspect of the single being God, right along with the lion and her own eyelashes and whatever it was within her that witnessed the being of God as God. Watching the street, her fingers touched her thighs and the fabric which covered them. She knew that like was touching like. Her being and the being of all beings was only God gazing into a mirror, solemnly pleased with what He saw. Like a child for the first time becoming aware of her own delicious heartbeat, she stood there, the sun falling over her like rain or like love or like the gaze of the lion quiet on the pedestal or like the atmosphere which embraced them all. She saw clearly that from yesterday, when sorrowful she had climbed these steps, nothing had changed at all — all traffic, all scurrying of people and horns and shouts, all were the same, but the sameness now was mammoth. Her heart leapt up and touched her throat with a large sob, and she hurried onto the bus.
And at home, the delicious sensations did not leave her soon. She saw clearly that God was physical, that God excluded nothing from His being, that there was no sensation or perception but that God was the sensation, perception, and the very consideration of these things. Barefoot on the carpet, the fine warm fibers were pleased with her, and in the bath the slick film of soap on breasts was pleased and the bubbles that broke and the warmth of liquid and the firmness of the white porcelain, all these things were pleased. She hummed to herself. Drying herself before the mirror, her eyes dilated, she stared into the mystery of her own face, and then into the pupils themselves. There was no desire within her, no fear, no want; she could have died utterly complete in this moment. Her heart swelled in gratitude. She felt she touched all beings, right now and literally, for there was no separation between herself and the sink and her father who lay sick in the old folks’ home in Nebraska, nor John her lover, nor her landlord who before today she hated.
There remained that small part of her that found all this quite amazing. She could not account for this remaining part. In the obviousness of the revelation, how could some part remain outside it, amazed? It was this part which opened the door to John and discussed her screwed-up phone bill and took her job as graphic artist seriously. This part was truly “Joan” and her larger self assumed there was some purpose in the continuation of “Joan”; sometimes she fell into identifying with this part, and then injury came. A week after the day at the Art Institute, she cut her hand slicing fruit. She hurt, and as she held the bleeding finger under running water, she saw the blood as separate from her, and heard herself curse. It shocked her, and something in her drew back. She pulled her hand from the water, clasped it to her body, then raised it above her heart. She looked around for the hand towel. The pain shot through her. It made her gasp.
There were also times when love heaved so rambunctious she thought she might die. Even a telephone pole could wrench it from her, inanimate things, things overlooked — these made her tremble, these orphans, these neglected bits of cosmos, full of their own beauty. Trees were like children, children were like butterflies; cars and taxis and cups of tea and typewriters were blood flowing through the veins of God. As God moved and flexed His limbs, these things passed through Him both small and gigantic and all the same and always speaking.
There were no metaphors. Everything was exactly as it appeared to be, but how it appeared was quite beyond words, which also were precious and which she wrote now, every day, in her blue spiral notebooks with a pen her father had given her. Living creatures, these words, molecules part and parcel of living seas that surrounded her, and of which she drank. Saltless were these seas, and pure. Everything referred endlessly to all else and she longed only to dissolve.
She went to her father like a supplicant. The phone call had been on Sunday; she felt like she received it twice. Once in the dream the night before, which was the clearer time, and that afternoon, as she spread the Sunday paper on the floor between her knees. This second call had been garbled — a loud buzzing on the line and the lady at the rest home who kept calling her “Jo Anne” — but she had already called for plane reservations.
As she drove to the nursing home along the familiar road, she wept at the beauty around her. Formerly it had seemed ugly to her, but now these fields, silken with corn, were majesty, and the flat of earth on all sides was mild and lilting. Ahead, the home, spread out on the land surrounded by trees like a toy in the palm of her hand, welcomed her. She was ready to help with her father’s passage — in fact, she would gladly have taken his place. She was a little girl, she was an old lady, she was an omen in her father’s eyes, and when he first saw her, he startled like a hurt beast gasping for air. She placed her hand on his. The softness felt like tissue paper and the gentleness moving through him sang the life that had become her own. She kissed him on the forehead and he died, the kiss being death, the kiss being release, the kiss welding him to space forever.
John’s was hard, was the death more severe. She had not guessed that such capacity for pain remained within her, but there it was, a smoldering iron white-hot against her hand. She had driven the car, she had stopped at the light and they had kissed.
So often they had spoken of her experience. He had struggled to understand it, and in a way understood it quite well. His mind was touched, and he had read many books, and so what she said made a certain sense to him; yet he knew, too, in some paradoxical way, that his very understanding was the barrier. Sometimes he was resentful, and sometimes filled with sorrow. At other times, he luxuriated in her company, grateful for her presence as someone he hardly knew at all, but whose eyes and hands and thighs and breasts were sacred, utterly incarnate of a divine good which he had observed only in certain pictures in certain books. And then he would rage, jealous of her innocence, spiteful of her love, even when he was its object. At such times, she backed away, but she never left him. He was not a person to her — that, in fact, was what sometimes most infuriated him — for all persons had disappeared in her mind. But he was a treasure, a limb of the tree called life, and she felt that somehow she joined him at its trunk.
Since what they called her “experience,” they made more love than ever, and she cried more when they made it, and their lovemaking was slow and slower still, and the nights heaved beneath them like an ocean or a cradle. John was amazed at her body, which was so deeply pliant, and sometimes as they moved so gently, his eyes would close and he would see immensity upon immensity. This impersonal space entered him only momentarily and sometimes frightened him. She comforted him. And though he was sometimes jealous of her pleasure which he knew did not exclude him, but embraced him only as a signification of larger things, he also grew to love her more deeply. “I think I want to be like you,” he once whispered in her ear. And for a moment and with no fear of drowning he fell back into the dark ocean.
After the light had changed, when she had crossed the intersection, her hand resting lightly on his thigh, she had looked both ways. When the truck struck the passenger side — John’s — she went numb. This was impossible. She heard the metallic grind and snap of the door’s collapse, the roar of truck wheels spinning and spinning so that her car sped sideways. Even when the back end smashed against the light pole, the truck’s wheels continued to shriek. The truck fishtailed from left to right and back again, shoving hard against the car’s right side. Her eyes fixed on his startled face, on eyes suddenly wide and then snapped shut, clenched like fists, anguished, and the blood started from his nose. Someone turned off the key in the truck ignition and the shrieking stopped, along with the labored, agonizing fishtailing, and Joan pulled his head onto her lap. His head lolled from side to side. His hair felt odd and stiffer than she remembered, and it went through her that hair and fingernails continue to grow after death. She saw him with long hair, lying in a coffin. As they pried her loose from the driver’s side, and as she leaned against the mailbox, absent of speech for a while, eyes wild, hands clasping and unclasping like clams, she watched them. It was not easy, getting him out. She did not want to watch. She watched. On the stretcher, finally, he was broken like a flower.
A strange indifference came over her, lasting for weeks. She was in the service of a grief she could not feel. Where she looked for a human heart, there was none within her. But then she chose. She chose her own body. She chose to be the particular person Joan, and so choosing, honored him as he was, as John her lover, as John who believed himself to be John.
And slower and slower, and down and more deeply, she occupied herself to the very bottoms of her feet, the very tips of her toes. Entirely human, she grieved by becoming unique. She felt the human heart, and did not despise it; she cracked all over with the dryness of mourning which was a vast desert upon which she walked. There was no fathoming its depths, this grief, no knowing its end. No one person could feel its continents entirely, it was too vast. Her body wore her down. She became whiter and more sallow.
Her compassion was increased. Before, she had not known how she lacked it. Now, her feet cold on the tiled floor, flat and unthinking there, moving from side to side, an animal in grief, dumb, unexorcised, brushing her teeth at night, she felt a softness creep into her breast, a softness for her black hair and dirty fingernails and a job that daily took her out into a world which was a stranger with an umbrella and a bright red blindfold strapped across his eyes. What would it be like for her to die? She spit out the lukewarm water. She went into the bedroom and slipped into her terry-cloth robe. She sat on the bed’s edge and shut her eyes. She prayed.
Finally it left her, as “she” left. As a queen is satisfied by some gigantic feast laid before her and takes her leave for inner chambers, so she was satisfied by the feast of grief she had made. The dryness of its desert had slowly changed to rich springs at which she fed; and she finally raised her head to the blue skies of all consolation. She began slowly to dwell there, in its vast and solemn space. She had avoided nothing, had placed on the altar of John’s personhood her very soul as she could know it only in her body. And now she withdrew. Like a knife pulled from a scabbard, she withdrew, like the roots of a plant slipped from earth. She appeared at work again as Joan, and her landlord and her friends knew her by that name, but once again, and now with the seasoning of compassion which had come in her time, she was a pair of hands reaching widely to the stars.
When pain came to her now, in the shape of another person ill with riches, or ripped by ambition’s claws, or when there were cries in the night from the family of poverty in the rooms below, she did not call them fictions. The achings of God were real, though passing. When she saw, she saw. When she had ears, she listened. For the grief of the universe, she sang special songs. Nothing was lasting, though nothing was healed. The lions on the pedestals remained, the steps of stone were cold. Traffic moved, cars sped away. She felt the winter breeze on her cheek, and looked north along Michigan Avenue. What a strange world to live in, how like the twinkle in a turtle’s eye.
She breathes slowly. Until this body takes its final rest, I will be here among them, among these creatures whose flesh I share. She feels her scarf against her throat. The stone lions will grow old and die. I myself will wither. The clouds move, the sun is bright; and as she stands on the bottom step she whispers, May all beings be blessed and holy and free, and she steps to the sidewalk, into the world as light and as real as snow. The taxi comes, her name is Joan, and had she John’s hand in hers, she could scarcely be more happy.