A Stillness like the Heart of a Rose

Saturday, 18 March, 2017 – Ann Arbor, Michigan

On Saturday morning, Kate rises later than normal and groans when she sees that the time is already past 7:00. The consequence, no doubt, of her wild gin-fueled debauchery of the evening, and the bizarre experience at the end of it. If she wants to get anything from Kerrytown, she’d better hurry. There is not much available at this time of the year in the first place—half-spoiled potatoes and big softening turnips—yet it seems like everyone in town is starting to show up to get whatever they can. Kate seldom shops at grocery stores, but she has been hearing that it’s getting harder and harder to find things even there! As though the whole world that people have known is just gradually being emptied out.

But the very moment that Kate contemplates the idea of hurrying and worrying like she has so many times before in her life, a memory from the beginning of the week comes back to her: I don’t have to worry. I never had to worry.

In that one moment on Monday, right after the moment when she first felt faint, this vision of a worry-free life seemed so natural and obvious that it makes her want to cry now. What a terrible, terrible pity that life can’t really be that way. Can life really be that way?

No, it certainly cannot! Don’t you remember just yesterday morning, not thirty hours ago, you were thinking you had cancer? But now you know what the problem really is: you’re having hallucinations! Disgusting hallucinations! And you think nothing is wrong?

Frowning, Kate rises from her bed and, putting on her ancient blue nightgown, walks slowly from the bedroom out into her living room. The morning is still quite dark—it looks like it will be another overcast day—and the main source of light in the room is still the faint glow on the ceiling from the lights above the other building’s doors. Kate is barely aware of her surroundings, however, as she slowly walks toward her couch because she is now doing something she has never done before in her whole life. She is directing most of her attention to the interior landscape of her own mind, rather than to the daily world around her. And she has some questions about what she is seeing there.

Where, exactly are these thoughts coming from, that are so desperate to prevent her from considering such a simple and seemingly harmless proposition as ‘I don’t need to worry’? But what an odd question to ask! ‘Where are these thoughts coming from?’ Where do all thoughts come from? They’re coming from your own head, genius.

But that’s the thing. She would never have noticed except for the horrible experience of last night, in which she saw the antidepressant drugs as writhing maggots eager to get into her body. An image from nightmare, yes. But another feeling came along with it.

Something was trying to prevent that image from reaching her.

That’s why it was so horrible. The sickening imagery was deliberate, the shock-value of it was being used to break through some kind of mental defenses. But the thing is that the image of those maggots—horrible though it may have been—it was her style. Kate knows that she always thinks like that, although usually a little more humorous and silly. Like the tentacles of Cthulhu and so on. Kate recognizes the style of that imagery, because it is her own. The image of the pills as writing maggots came from a deeper level of her own mind, desperately trying to get through to her in the only way it was able, trying to warn her: Don’t do this! But if that was a deeper level of her own mind— Then, what was resisting it?

Now almost completely unaware of the pre-dawn apartment around her, Kate slowly lowers herself onto the couch—her Treasure Mart special—while her eyes stare into the vastness of her own mind. What do we really know about the contents of our own minds?

People blithely talk about ‘having arguments with themselves’ or ‘being of two minds’ or ‘trying to get themselves to do something’ as though this kind of casual daily schizophrenia were perfectly normal and nothing to be surprised at. But is that really true?

The computational power of a human-scale intelligence, Chris said to her last night, is much greater than we understand. Possibly greater than we can understand.

And what do we do with all that power? Kate is quite sure that if you were to make one of those maps of the brain that shows what different regions are devoted to, hers would say Makeup, Daytime TV, Diets, Stupid Jokes, Guys, Texting Shorthand, and Anxiety About Money. Certainly not the kind of stuff that would use an amount of compute power ‘possibly greater than we can understand’. Which brings up a question that Kate suddenly finds to be profoundly interesting. Is it possible that something else could be using some of that power?

Because the thing is, whereas that horrible hallucination of the squirming maggot-pills seemed like her, albeit perhaps a particularly desperate and frightened version of her, the other thoughts—the thoughts that have been telling her that she does need to worry, and there is something wrong with her and the sleepy intern dipshit doctors really do know what’s best for her, oh so much better than she knows herself—those thoughts do not seem like her.

They do not seem like her at all.

People talk about certain memes or videos or stories or jokes or whatever going viral. What if they’re not kidding? What if the most basic version of all of those is actual thoughts that can ‘go viral’? What if, exactly like physical viruses, they can inhabit a host mind, and turn that minds own energy against it?

Kate sits for a long time, staring into a space of possibilities. And at last, in a well-isolated region of her thoughts, conceives an idea. Let us try an experiment.

Kate smiles. I never need to worry, she thinks deliberately. I’m perfectly healthy, I’m making good money, I met a great guy! I even seem to be getting—well, actually, kind of smarter since whatever it was that happened on Monday! I seem to think more clearly than I ever could before! This is great! I can spend some time putting my own mental house in order!

She thinks it all at once in a gestalt, a burst not of words but of images that contain all the meaning at once, so that the whole idea can fill her mind in a sudden flash. And in the brilliance of that flash she sees movement.

Like her own thought, they manifest instantaneously as pre-verbal images. There is one that shows her financial troubles/paying the rent/buying food/no money for clothes. There is one that suggests illness/cancer/mental illness. There is an older one that she has seldom been conscious of in recent weeks but that she now realizes has still been active in the background of some of her thoughts: the fear of being alone/dying alone/friendless/spinsterhood. Near that one, in this psychic space, is the older fears of orphanhood: solitude/abandonment/cold hard world/nobody cares. And even vague terrors glimpsed from childhood: the fears of an unusual and mostly solitary girl in a world of merciless children and self-involved adults. All of these fears would soon be translated into words. Maybe they would become the thoughts that circulate in the back of her mind when she is worried, maybe they would become the little admonishing voices that she often hears in ‘the back of her mind’, maybe they would never quite rise to full consciousness but would just lurk as a kind of subtext at the bottom of her thoughts and emotions.

They are horrible. It is worse than emerging from a pond to find leeches on your skin. They have been with her since she was a child, poisoning thought, subverting decisions, diverting actions that would have improved her life. Weakening her.

But in the instantaneous glimpse of these thoughts that her flash of mental illumination affords Kate also sees another crucial detail. These are not mindless little nearly-automatic things like viruses. They have emerged almost instantaneously, taking the bait of her flash of optimism and energy, and now, realizing that they have been directly observed, are scurrying back out of sight again into hidden depths and byways of the mind that Kate has never before even come close to suspecting.

These creatures are intelligent. The computational power of a human-scale intelligence is much greater than we understand. This is where part of that tremendous processing power is going. It is the life-blood of these foul creatures, which they feed upon so that they can hide, breed, and finally reproduce. If Kate ever has a child, these things will communicate themselves to that innocent being with her every word, action, and embrace.

Kate has been seeing some awful things lately, but the sight of these dark scuttling things inside her own mind is by far the most loathsome experience of her life.

So she gets away from them in the only way possible. She leaves her body. Without any apparent transition, Kate finds herself in a new world.

Everything—the dark sky, the bright windows, her own room, her own self—everything is made of tiny points of blue light, and every light is alive, and they all exchange meaning without constraint by time or space. All meaning is open to her: the meanings of rock and tree, bud and brick, the meanings of her own life and how they touch the meanings of all lives around her, the vast meanings of human life upon the Earth. There are vastly great meanings and human-sized meanings and tiny glowing threads of meaning stretching between every one of the blue sparks, so many and so small and so great and so vast that she cannot admit them all and still remain herself, nor would be able to even if she were to grow and grow and grow and grow.

Am I dying? she asks. And, astonishingly, an answer comes. It comes in a voice that is also kind of similar to hers, but this new mind is vastly greater than hers, vastly more powerful, and so kind that Kate thinks her heart must burst at the touch of it.

You would, if you stayed here too long. But you have a little time. Look.

Kate finds her attention directed to a specific point of scintillant blue light. It grows to become a world. Kate sees herself sitting in a chair and staring out a window at a listless gray sky. She recognizes the moment! It is an actual vision of her past, and only a couple months ago. It’s her old office at MPS! The crushing boredom—evident in her expression, in her posture, in the tone of her muscles, in the aura that shines from her soul—is painfully obvious. Even while, all around her, the universe teems with ecstatic power, beauty, and meaning. Kate feels the most terrible shame of her like a dagger in her heart.

The vision is extinguished like a light flicked off, and in a timeless instant Kate finds herself back in her room of brilliant blue stars, gasping.

You are on a path, the Voice says. You have come as far as you have come in the time you have had. Should you be ashamed? Or should you just keep moving? Now look around you, it begins to recede, and do what you came here to do.

But Kate sighs. She cannot forget the sight of herself sitting bored and starving for experience in the midst of a magnificent feast of a universe. Your job here in this life is to enjoy that universe to participate in its glory, and so to become by tiny degrees more like unto it. Not to sit like a sulking student stealing glimpses at the clock. If you have managed to work yourself into a life that bores the fuck out of you, Kate thinks, then you have only to stand up and walk out of it. It would be infinitely better to end up pitching a tent in Gandy Town for the rest of your years on Earth than it would be to waste a single hour feeling bored in the midst of the teeming, rushing, vaulting magnificence that she has now seen. She has done some boneheaded things in this life and others (?) but it’s hard to believe that anyone could be stupid enough to waste an opportunity as glorious as a life on Earth.

Unless, of course, she had ‘help’. Which reminds Kate of why she came to this strange mode of being in the first place. It seems like a long time ago, but she supposes that only a second or two have passed back in the dark world.

As she turns to her right, the idea hits her all at once in another image-like gestalt. Help being stupid/the viruses prevent you from using your own energy/they’re not really viruses/they don’t need all that energy for reproduction/there is something else.

And, finishing her turn, she sees her own body, sitting on the couch—body and couch both made from the billions or trillions of scintillant blue sparks.

And there is an inch-thick worm protruding from the back of her neck, right at the base of her skull, slowly writhing.

“Oh no,” Kate’s astral self whispers aloud, looking at herself sitting on the Treasure Mart couch. “No no no!

The worms are the real enemy. The ‘viruses’ are only their little helpers, probably injected by them, to prevent the host from using its own energy. And where does that energy go? Kate is staring at the destination right now, as it feeds upon the force of her life.

“No no no no! Kate shouts, and she knows that she is not going back into that body if that thing is sticking out the back of her head. The Voice said that she would not survive if she stayed long in this realm. So be it. Advancing upon the sickening, glistening appendage, she grasps it with both hands.

She has never before in her life felt anything that could really be described as ‘horrible’. The worm-like entity freezes and burns her astral hands. It twists and bends in her grasp. It is not at all intelligent, but it is aware of a source of interference and it desires to end the interference. It emits a kind of astral slime, a burning caustic energy that make Kate feel like her hands are being digested. “Guhhh!” she cries, but tightens her grip and tries to pull, then cries out more loudly. She can feel the pain in the back of her spirit-head, even while she is looking at the back of her physical head. There is nothing in the universe that she would hate to touch more than this writhing worm-thing, but if she is all the more determined that she will meet her end in this minute rather than return to a body infested with such a horror.

“Oh please, please!” Kate says, weeping, feeling her hands burning as the foul worm rotates in her grasp. It feels hard in her numbing hands. A thing like this could burrow though her soul and leave her mind-dead. “Oh please help me!”

There is a soft sound, like a chime, from all of creation. As it fades, Kate realizes that the glow from the myriads of little blue points of light has momentarily brightened all around her and now is fading again. The trillions upon trillions of infinitesimal brilliant blue points of meaning that the universe is made of.

I’m made of those!” she whispers fiercely, weeping. “I’m made of those too, you filthy thing!” Blue-white light floods in to fill her hands as though it is welling up from the marrow of her spirit-bones, as though it is pouring into her from the earth below or the sky above, a torrent vast, incandescent, and irresistible. Power like this can crush the worm-thing that Kate is grasping a thousand times, a million times over. It can also incinerate the one who wields it like a fusion torch can incinerate a moth. Kate knows that she cannot survive more than a few seconds of this, but she also knows that will be enough.

“Die now, you fuck!” she shouts, and pulls on the worm as hard as she can. It feels like she is filling an inch-wide cylinder of her own head with rushing flame. But the worm comes out. It finally lets go, writhing frantically, and its body withers, darkens, and is at last incinerated by the gathered power of the blue sparks. The power withdraws then, like a great wave rolling back into the ocean. Kate’s astral self takes a shuddering breath—and her mind snaps back into her body.

It’s disorienting at first, to see her sofa—which shall henceforth be known as the Bodhi Couch—as not being made of trillions of tiny blue lights. And to not be looking at the back of her own head. Her heart pounding, Kate puts her hands to the back of her head and frantically feels her skull, pushing aside her hair that is damp with sweat. There is no inch-wide hole. She looks at her hands, and there is no blood.

Standing up, she walks quickly to her nice clean bathroom, kneels down upon the nice, normal, white-tiled floor, and barfs her guts out like she has never barfed before in her whole life. She pukes so hard, over and over again, that she thinks she might turn inside out, or at least faint. But, eventually, the spasms fade, and she is left just weakly gasping.

The Ralph of Enlightenment.

After a few minutes, when she feels marginally strong enough to stand again, she goes to the sink and rinses out her mouth, then washes her hands and pats her face dry with her one lone hand-towel.

“I think,” Kate says to herself in the shabby old mirror, tears welling in her eyes, “that there is something really wrong with me.”

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