Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Aliens Among Us

The comments section of my previous post, "Tiptree in Berkeley," contains a lively conversation about the need to at least make eye contact with homeless people, even if we aren't comfortable giving them money.

Today in my "Art, Spirituality and Transformation" class, we did an exercise where we all walked around the room for a while. Then the teacher asked us to look and smile at each person we passed. Then she asked us to hold the gaze of each person we passed (which meant that many of us wound up circling around each other, grinning, and it became a kind of dance).

We discussed the exercise afterwards, and I realized that -- at least in the urban spaces I've inhabited -- it isn't just the homeless with whom we don't make eye contact. We don't make eye contact with anybody . . . which also means that, on some level, we don't really see them.

The course is very much about encounter and presence, about making ourselves vulnerable to the Other as a way of encountering the divine. I had two interesting experiences with that today. The first was before the class started; I'd gone into the city to have lunch with Jacob and Jill at Tachyon, and we stopped by Borderlands Books, where I met my first Sphynx cat. You know, one of those hairless hypoallergenic ones?

In the pictures, those cats look extremely weird. Trust me: in person, they're 10,000 times weirder. The skin felt like really wrinkled suede, and the legs and tail were unbelievably skinny, and the eyes unbelievably huge, and even though the cat acted like the furry cats I'm used to -- rubbing against my hand, jumping into my lap, purring like a motorboat -- I fully expected her to open her mouth and say in a slightly metallic voice, "I accept your homage, but now I must return to the Mother Ship."

I've patted plenty of cats in my life, but I've never had such an acute feeling of being around an alien creature. (Sphynx owners out there, please don't attack me! I know you adore your cats, and I know I'd adore any cat I owned, even a hairless one.) The shock of the strange, while it was slightly uncomfortable, also meant that I was much more aware of the cat's presence, of the encounter I was having, than I would have been had she had the usual complement of fur.

The second encounter was the result of a class exercise. We were supposed to go outside and find some interesting or intriguing object we'd then write a poem about. I've been hanging around this campus for quite a few years now, so most of the landscaping's pretty familiar, but today I ambled down a staircase and turned a different direction than I usually go, and wandered a few feet along a path . . . and found myself facing the most unbelievable cactus plant I've ever seen. It was one of those ones with the flat, oval leaves with spines coming out, and flowers arranged in a row along the top edge of the oval. A classmate told me the name later, but I've forgotten it, and a Google search isn't helping at the moment. Anyway, this thing was a veritable warren, a maze, of these oval leaves. The plant was much taller than I am, and probably occupied an area at least the size of my kitchen at home, with "arms" stretching hither and yon in seeming chaos. Many of the top leaves -- which may not even be the right word for that part of the cactus (can you tell I'm not a botanist?) -- were flowering, but many of the lower leaves had died, cracked and fallen. Others had visible scars or holes in them that had healed over. Spiderwebs stretched between the lower leaves; a butterfly flitted among the upper ones.

This plant seemed both ancient and sentient, some cross between one of China Mieville's cactus-people and Old Man Willow from LoTR. Or maybe an Ent; I'm not sure the sentience was malevolent, just Other. As with the cat, I expected the cactus to speak. It was an astonishing presence, and I really wish I'd had a digital camera with me so I could post a picture of it (if I could figure out how, that is!).

Both encounters reminded me of all those passages in the Bible where the first thing angels say to mortals is, "Fear not." Angels are evidently SCARY. Being in the presence of the divine makes your knees knock and your hair stand on end. And I wonder if many of us walk around with blinders on partly to avoid that experience. We prefer the familiar because it's safe, and we avoid the new and strange because we might encounter something unsettling and hair-raising, whether that something is a homeless person or a truly Gothic cactus.

But if my teacher's right, that means we're also avoiding God, who comes to us in the unexpected.


  1. The cactus you describe sounds like a prickly pear cactus. Don't know the proper name for it but eventually those blossoms turn into fruit that can be eaten or made into jelly. The leaves can also be eaten.

  2. Have you ever read Myla Goldberg's Bee Season? Contains a very frightening description of an encounter with God.

    It's a wonderful story about a family that's always assumed the daughter's completely mediocre. Her success in spelling causes the whole rickety family structure to disintegrate. (The title refers to spelling bees, not insects.) When her father starts teaching her kabbalistic meditation, she goes farther than she's supposed to, hoping for the chance to ask God in person to fix the family. It appears that instead God teaches her to protect herself. Highly recommended.

  3. THE BEE SEASON sounds fascinating; I'll add it to my toppling pile of things to read. (I know I can trust your taste, Claire, since you're the person who told me about THE RED TENT!) Yesterday, someone recommended Diane Shoemperlen's OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND, which is about a non-Catholic who receives a Marian visitation.

  4. Well, thanks! I like your taste too. Will look for OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.