Warning label for a cathedral

In the comments thread for Monday’s post, Nathan says, “I’m still trying to imagine what a warning label on a cathedral might say.”

WARNING: Contents under pressure of suspended disbelief. Do not puncture or agitate.
Do not stand under gargoyles during heavy rain.
Do not attempt to scale cathedral without proper climbing equipment.
If ascending bell tower with beautiful, unconscious gypsy maiden, keep one hand on the railing at all times.
Discontinue use of cathedral if any of the following symptoms occur: drowsiness, mild irritation, guilt, vertigo, hallucinations, ecstasy, bleeding of the palms, spontaneous human combustion.
Do not drink from, or launder intimate apparel in, baptismal font.
In case of prayer, make sure kneelers are in the down position. Please refer to special safety instructions on kneelers before use.
Do not stage-dive off altar during mass.
Do not circle structure counter-clockwise during electrical storm while chanting the Lord’s Prayer backwards.
In the event of an overflight by pigeons, cover head.
Do not remove buttresses, as walls may buckle.
Do not stand near windows in the event of an earthquake or theophany.
Failure to follow these rules may result in serious inconvenience or death.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

58 Comments


  1. Hilarious! Maybe there should also be a warning along with the pigeons for decending Doves?

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  2. Well, pigeons are doves, of course. But you’re right, I’ve should’ve worked that in.

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  3. Well, as you can plainly see, I’m zoology challenged. (grin) So then we’d have the Pigeon of Peace, and the Pigeon, iconic symbol of the Holy Spook descending? Do not enter cathedral without first picking up your hard hats. Or perhaps “pith” helmets?

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  4. I’ll borrow one from Rilke:

    BEWARE: “there’s not one spot that doesn’t see you. You must change your life.”

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  5. Joan told me about this post in an e-mail. Very funny, Dave! Someone should do some Photoshopping on a photo of a European cathedral entrance with these warnings seemingly chiseled right into the stone of the facade!

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  6. Joan – Interesting the difference in nuance between the two English words, dove and pigeon, isn’t it? I gather from JewishEncyclopedia.com that the O.T. has two words for doves, tor for turtle dove, and yonah for all other doves/pigeons. Both were admissible as sacrifices in Leviticus — the only birds so distinguished. The bird sent out from the ark during the Flood was a yonah, which I guess means that the dove of peace can be any old pigeon.

    marly – Rilke’s New Poems are a favorite of mine, too. I agree, that would be a fine addition to the list. (If only I had given it a bit more thought, rather than rushing to post some chuckle-fodder! Ah, well.)

    Larry – Thanks. If anyone wants to go to all the trouble to make such an illustration, I’d be more than happy to post it. (More than happy = ecstatic = one step away from spontaneous human combustion.)

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  7. “Do not remove buttresses, as walls may buckle.”

    Meep!

    How about:

    “Only for use by Chalcedon-compliant individuals. Should not be operated by Pelagians except under strict supervision.”

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  8. I was just telling someone about how serious and deep your blog is.

    ;-)

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  9. Do not stand near windows in the event of an earthquake or theophany.

    HEE!

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  10. Warning: This product may be illegally occupying pagan land, and is subject to being ejected at any time.

    Warning: Dude, this product is totally heavy! Do not attempt to eject alone. On second thought maybe it’s better to leave it where it is.

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  11. Intercessional

    There are a lot of things coming together here. Danger is death viewed from the orthogonal. A warning sign is a speck, a particle nibbled from danger’s plane. Warning labels are thus nugatory, they should almost be written in invisible ink in order to match materiality of their connection to mortal affairs. Spatially they stand off from mortal affairs, waving and shouting from a remove, no more able to intercede in a fatefull collision than highway litter. Yet they shout in orange and black, blocking out the light of what might be the graceful design of what they are slathered over, could we but see through them.

    They construe a fabulous record of mishap, cautionary tales that bequest a feeling: here but for the grace of God go I–which bears a fragrant blossom of schadenfreud and its contentment. They also afford an opportunity to count blessings–why how lucky I am to stand in this non-collapsing cathedral! Of what great service these messages are even at the cost of their obfuscation of what they hide, which is the completeness of the cathedral, its ability to stand without our wishing it to. How necessary these label make us, as we turn their gears and apply their leverage to hold all that imaginary masonry on high for a just moment longer.

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  12. Teju – O.K., but I must confess I agree more with the substance of Nathan’s addition. Plus, I don’t think it would be possibly to build a cathedral out of chalcedony.

    Laura – For the benefit of newcomers like your friend, I suppose I should design a warning label for my sidebar:

    CAUTION. It gets deep around here. Wear your wellingtons.

    Then again, there is a “Falling Rocks Ahead” sign right in the address bar, for those whose browsers support such things.
    (Thanks for talking up the blog, though.)

    Rachel – Glad you liked.

    Nathan – See my response to Teju. But I’m not sure that “Dude” is admissable in proper warning label discourse.

    Bill – Great commentary; thanks! “Nugatory” is a cool word. You’re right about the schadenfreude and feeling of blessedness, I think. You almost have me convinced that this kind of warning label would improve the experience of cathedral visitors.

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  13. How about a final warning. Many of the above warnings and other warnings not mentioned can apply to other places of worship including but not limited to Synagogues, Mosques, Temples, Ashrams, Sweat Lodges, Pyramids, Earth Mounds, Tents, Churches, Retreat Centers, Sacred Groves and Caves. This list is by no means exhaustive and may change from time to time.

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  14. You betcha. Though my preferred warning sign for a sacred grove would probably read something like, “Trespassers will be shot and fed to the ravens.”

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  15. I may have to try photoshopping that for you, dave. I’m looking for a way to spend a rainy afternoon.

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  16. Dave, never apologise for ‘chuckle-fodder’ or underestimate humor as a catalyst for greater knowledge, ( if only to understand the humor and comments. ) So far I’ve Wick’d ‘theophany’, ‘orthogonal’ and the nuances of doves. ‘Nugatory’ is the next nugget on my list. Am currently writing the great schadenfreud statement of Bill’s in my quotes book.

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  17. Gee thanks, Joan, I’m not sure my spelling was good! I like Dave’s better.

    To Fred’s non-exhaustive list of spaces of veneration I would add: blogsites. Do you allow that Dave?

    Also love the cathedral of chaledony. In Missouri we do have grottoes of such. I wonder if the Shrine of the Black Madonna has a link? It is of drusy quartz, a wonderous material, thought to be pelagic (ouch! sorry Teju), but not Pelagian in origin.

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  18. “Wick’d”? First time I’ve heard that one!

    “Pelagic” means “of or in the open ocean or open water,” which I’m not sure is quite right — though no one disputes that these kind of crystals are formed in solution.

    Drusy is a layer of minute quartz crystals that have crystallized on the surface of another gemstone or mineral. Drusy quartz is basically minute quartz crystals on the surface of crystalline quartz, chalcedony quartz or agate quartz,

    it says here.

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  19. It’s all word games to you, but if you persist in denying the full humanity and full divinity of the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him), we’ll see who’s sorry on the last day.

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  20. To Bill and Dave. Now you know why I take a long time to comment. I even misspell words I have semi coined. I was trying to shorten “Wikepeia” and I ending by wicking up a new word. (grin)

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  21. I fight to keep arms at my sides, down
    from where they have been waving
    black signs in orange skies.

    Dave: Oh, so you want to get technical on me! Well… silica doesn’t precipitate out of solution in shallow marine enviroments–remembered from Harvey Blatt’s “Petrology”!
    I actually have spent more time with a much older text that hadn’t landed on pat answers and allowed that the formation of drusy quartz remain mysterious. You’re probably right about pelagic being wrong!

    Teju: Thanks for caring!

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  22. Dave, right you are. Pelagic could not possibly refer to something happening beneath the seafloor. Neither do I know from Pelagians.

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  23. You must wick it, wick it good: Chalcedon was an early Christian council and Pelagians ended up being considered heretics.

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  24. bev – Thanks!

    Teju – “Word games” is redundant. Language without play isn’t language; it’s mathematics.

    Joan – The problem is that there are many wikis out there. If you want to make a new verb on the model of “Google,” I think it should be “Wikipede.”

    Bill – “Pelagic” just makes me think of seabirds. You almost never encounter it modifying anything else. Still, I think we can agree it’s a cool word.

    Nathan – Thanks for helping out. I used to have a bunch of handy reference links in the sidebar when this blog was still at its old location, but that was before I had the smorgasblog and such.

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  25. Hey Dave, I think of fishes and dinosaurs. As I feared and kind of knew, the whole question of drusy quartz requires a bit of study. Yes silica from radiolarians is deposted pure chert in beds known as pelagic chert on the ocean floor at depth, but drusy quartz is silica coming out of solution into limestone beds at a shallower depth and so could not be called pelagic. I shall read on! Thanks!

    http://www.cliffshade.com/colorado/rocks.htm#pelagic

    — I fight to keep arms at my sides, down
    from where they’ve been writing
    black letters in orange skies.

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  26. Dave, my geology is mixed up to a “fare-thee-well”. But thanks to you I know now about my local stone friends:
    “…Potosi Agate, Missouri Lace Agate, Missouri Agate… It was formed in place in the Potosi Formation of Late Cambrian Age from acid groundwater perculating through the rock, which also produced the red, sticky clay residue called “terra rosa” that this drusy quartz is found in.” So not pelagic at’all. The terra rosa is all that’s left of the acid-melted dolostone matrix the agates have formed in. The agate comes first, when and how I don’t know, then the druse. I happen to be polishing one up right now. It’s a beaut.
    I apologize for my OCD. Thanks! Anybody coming to read these late comments is surely going to be dissappointed.

    http://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index.php?qid=20070219132245AAaFG6L

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  27. So Bill. I’m getting the impression (well not exactly set in stone..but getting there ) that you are actually from Missouri.
    We reside in St. Louis now , but rock rich Hannibal was my kidhood home.

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  28. Hi Joan! Fredericktown. Grew up in U. City. Very pleased to meetcha! Thanks for introducing yourself! I try not to disturb Dave’s venerable commentors so please don’t think me rude for not saying “Hi” earlier at your mention of my name. I hope I’m accurate in thinking of you as having commented in flowing verse and quite likely to do so again at any time.

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  29. Bill – All very interesting. I ran across the name, “Potosi Formation” earlier when i was trying to see where your drusy quartz might’ve been formed, and wondered if that might not occur in your area – though one would think, with such a name, it would be restricted to the Andes!

    Yes, Joan is queen of the comment-box light verse, especially at Riverside Rambles (whose author, Larry Ayers, lives in Hannibal). Like you, she refuses to start her own blog, but I can’t complain: these comment threads would be much duller, I’m sure, if you were both busy feeding blog-monsters of your own.

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  30. Dave, I can’t believe you find this interesting! Potosi is hard by the town of Desoto, so that might tell you something. Potosi is also where Schoolcraft began a winter ramble that is now dim to me and incomplete (because it was a hard read at a certain point) that I think lasted for months and took him to Arkansas if I am not mistaken, in the 1820’s perhaps. It’s really the only report I know of from that time. I don’t think Audubon went into the Ozarks, but again I am under-read. Potosi is where the pine glades began and was the northern edge of a now vanished shortleaf pine forest, cut for ties, and I should know better what other purposes. Missouri has ghost mill towns that had the biggest mill, whorehouse etc of their time; Grandin; Leeper; Mill Valley; many others I’m sure. Desoto wasn’t looking for it, but Potosi isn’t far from what would later be found to be the world’s largest lead deposit. I’m woefully unversed on the Ozark’ cultural history. There were a sprinkling of writers active in what I think was a regionalist literary movement in the 40’s who considered the landscape and it’s habitue’s from the point of view of the urban sophisticate. A far southern native, Tom Woodrell is gaining success with his tales of the hills, in both historic and contemporary settings. I should really desist, but Potosi is once again in the news due to the artwork of one of i’s errant sons depictions of Ozark society. You might like it!

    http://www.evilprints.com/view.php?todo=viewone&which=1125024288&evil=totally

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  31. Dave, I cop to the doggerel with bite postings on Rambles but when I want to see real poetry I come here to be illuminated and humbled. Bill, what a fascinating Potosi post! Wow! I had not heard of the Evilprints Litho fellow. Greatly and frighteningly talented. Hope he has a strong lightening rod on his studio, though. (grin) As for the subject matter… could he be possessed by Satan or poisoned by lead?

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  32. Bill, I find nearly everything interesting, especially if it has to do with landscape and culture. Fascinating that a town with the world’s largest lead deposit nearby would be named for a city famous for its silver mine! And yes, the evilprints dude is very good — Artemio Rodriguez meets R. Crumb.

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  33. Dave, I’ve stolen your blog! Here. Please take it back.

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  34. There’s also a city and a state called San Luis Potosi in Mexico, also named after the one in Bolivia. Trivia for you, and an important place for me in the spring of ’93 when I traveled through on the way from Real de Catorce to Guadalajara and kept getting in all these long profound conversations with strangers all day and into the night.

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  35. I’m a bit shy about this story, because it comes from a time in my life when I wanted nothing more than to trip my brains out in the wilds of Latin America.

    There’s a town in Mexico called Real de Catorce. It’s known for two main things. One is that it was a big silver mining town in the 1880s, with 20,000 inhabitants, and then the silver ran out and the population went down to about 800, so for the most part it’s a ghost town, full of ruined walls with cactuses growing atop them. The second is that it’s right next to the place in the desert called Wirikuta where the Huichol Indians go on pilgrimage to collect their peyote.

    In early 1993 I had begun to study shamanism earnestly, though I had not yet met the teacher I would later meet in Ecuador. I was still in Mexico, in the dry hills of the Sierra Madre, trying to get fluent in Spanish and hanging out with Indians who practiced their old traditions. Well, at one point I was invited to go on a peyote pilgrimage. Not, unfortunately, by the Indians, but by a man from a government agency who was organizing transportation for them. He had had one or two too many, and in a grandiose gesture he invited me along.

    The Huichols themselves had not been consulted, apparently didn’t want a 25 year old gringo whom they didn’t know to accompany them on their sacred pilgrimage, and simply waited me out, delaying the departure date again and again (too polite to tell me to my fact that they didn’t want me along) until my cash had run so low that I had to head in the general direction of a bank to replentish it.

    So I ended up in Real de Catorce about ten days later on my own. Got off the bus in the sunny street with my backpack. Immediately met a woman from the States about my age. We got into a long conversation, as one does when one has been in a foreign country for a long time and meets someone else from one’s own country. She brought me back to the “hotel” where she was staying with her Mexican husband.

    The hotel was a collection of run-down buildings around a courtyard. The husband was a little jealous. One enclosure off the courtyard contained a gigantic pig that was being fattened up for Easter. In my room was a glow-in-the dark crucifix. After a little arm-twisting on my part, the husband gave me a peyote button and we all smoked a joint. It was only then that I realized that the Huichols had waited me out, and with perfectly good reason. It occured to me suddenly as I sat there on the warm stones under the bright sun in the company of these two friendly strangers.

    I had an odd image of the sun then, too. In my mind’s eye, it appeared to be full of ecstatic people engaged in a collective work party to create heat and light, and delighted that I had become aware of them.

    The next morning I met another guy from the USA at breakfast at another tiny (but more upscale) hotel nearby. He was also there looking for peyote. He was Jack, an old hippie from the USA. We planned our strategy. Real de Catorce is at the edge of the hills, next to a desert that’s as flat as a kitchen table, and that desert is where the peyote grows, under creosote bushes. On the following day, from Real de Catorce, we would take one of the rattling deathtrap taxis down to Estacion Catorce, the village around the railway station, and from there, strike out into the desert in search of our quarry.

    That night, I was eating alone in a chilly, drafty restaurant, when two other male travelers came in. I invited them to my table, which was the most sheltered from the wind. “We won’t bother you?” asked the younger one, who looked exactly like an Italian version of Bob Marley. “We’ll see if you bother me or not,” I said.

    The older one started going off on Jews. “They deserved what happened to them in World War Two,” he said. “They’re dishonest. Plus, look around Latin America. They never travel alone, always in big crowds.”

    “Look at me, I’m a Jew traveling alone,” I told him. “And there is good and bad in every group. It’s nothing to commit genocide about.” Or something. I can’t remember the exact words I used. Mauricio and I didn’t have much to say to each other after that.

    But the two Italians did decide to join the move to Estacion Catorce the following day, and we all descended the steep road together in the rattling black automobile, ready to jump out if the brakes failed. They didn’t, and we ended up in a tiny hotel that had been recommended to me by the guy who had given me the peyote button. In my notebook from that trip, I still have the map he made me to get to the hotel.

    The hotel was run by a Sra. Sabas, an elderly lady with blue eyes whose grandfather had come from Germany. She was all ready to put the four of us up in two double beds because she thought we would want to save money that way. It surprised her that it was not our custom to sleep two to a bed, but she was okay with it.

    A Mexican guy in his late 20s named Alberto was also there. He said he had a general idea where the peyote grew, as he had been there the previous year. At about noon, the four of us all headed out into the desert on foot–all of us but Mauricio the antisemite, who was staying behind to photograph the cemetery.

    A car was coming and we flagged it down. There was no room inside but they let us stand on the back bumper and grip the smooth roof as best as we could. When the car started up again, Jack immediately fell off, and the driver stopped. He got back up and gripped my arm to help stay on, whimpering. Was he really whimpering in fear? Yes, he was. And he nearly yanked me off as the car gathered speed. But I was feeling cool and my palms had a good grip on the roof.

    They let us off and we headed into the mini-forest of creosote bushes, looking and looking. Jack found a single peyote cactus and cut it in the approved fashion, just the top so the root would regenerate. Walking and looking, walking and looking.

    I had been fasting that day, as I understood that was the indigenous custom.

    After two and a half hours we stopped to rest under a solitary tree. We had found nothing but that one button of Jack’s, and we would have to think about heading back into town before long so as not to be out in the desert when night fell.

    This day and night would be my only opportunity to take a good journey with peyote, because I had to take the train out of town the following morning and head back to Guadalajara and then to Mexico City, because I was meeting my mom for ten days in Costa Rica before heading to Ecuador on my own.

    So we sat under a tree and shared an orange, then shared a joint. The great moment in international communication occurred when we realized that potheads in every country have names for the butt end of a marijuana cigarette. In the USA, it’s a “roach.” In Italy, something else, in Mexico, something else, fourteen years later I can’t remember the exact terms, but it was a nice moment.

    I said, “Look, I’ve been studying the Indians’ traditions, and they all say that the peyote lets you find it if it wants you to find it. And they try to pray and get in tune with the environment, and they talk to the peyote with their hearts and tell it why they want to find it. So what would you think if we prayed and meditated a little?”

    They all said fine. The Italian Bob Marley, I can’t remember his name now, took out a flute that he’d got in Bolivia, and he played it some, and I spoke to god and nature and explained who we were and that we wanted to find some peyote to help us get a vision of how we could proceed with our lives. Then we were all silent for a few minutes.

    We stood up. Ten seconds later, Alberto said, “Ah, here it is.” He had found three peyote cacti growing together in a clump, and he bent to cut them. After that, we began to find it all around, as much as we wished. I began to eat a button, slowly, savoring the bitter emerald jelly of its tough flesh.

    The largest button that Alberto found looked exactly like the face of a smiling clown, so much so that I carefully took a photo of it, convinced that the photo would prove once and for all the existence of the spirit world and the validity of shamanism. When I ran across the photo again two years ago, I could just barely make out the features of the clown.

    Maybe I’ll finish the story later. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into: I promise to tell a story, and then go into the infinite tiny details of everything that happened leading up to the story. It’s kind of a “bait and switch” manoever.

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  36. By the way, back on the subject of cathedrals, Vienna’s main one, St. Stephen’s, has a history going back to the 12th century when they started to build it. Construction took 400 years. In 1529, the Ottoman Turks besieged Vienna in a bid to expand their empire further into Europe, and the cathedral served as the defenders’ command center. In 1945, nearby fires from burning buildings set the roof on fire, and it had to be rebuilt.

    On 9/11, when I got out of work I went straight over to the cathedral and sat in a pew for a long time. It seemed like the most natural place to go with my confusion and sorrow.

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  37. Meanwhile, back in Mexico, we’re walking on the road in the direction of Estacion Catorce, and Jack is like, “You know, it sounds crazy but it almost seems like praying helped us find the peyote.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “I wish we had a ride back into town.” And I’m like, “Why don’t you pray for one?” And five minutes later a pickup stops and picks us up and we head back down the road. Peyote can amplify one’s sense of balance, so I was standing up in the back of the pickup with no fear at all, keeping an eye on the road ahead. The people in the front waved at me to sit down, and I did.

    Back in town we found Mauricio having a very civilized chicken dinner at a tiny metal table at a little restaurant. Jack and I headed back to the hotel while Alberto and Bob Marley stayed in town to find some weed.

    Jack went to sleep early. Alberto and Bob got in and we hung out in Alberto’s room. They unwrapped a piece of newspaper with plenty of ganga in it and rolled joints as I melted cheese on tortillas over the fire in the fireplace in the corner of the room and fed us all. Still eating peyote slowly and steadily, one button per hour, I passed up the pot most of the time. Alberto had a guitar and photocopies of Beatles lyrics, so we sang for a long time in between mirthful conversations.

    I went outside to look at the stars. Sra. Sabas was there. “What are you doing?” she quizzed. It was about midnight.

    “When one eats peyote, one often has the urge to go look at the stars,” I said.

    “I never took peyote,” she said.

    “Cada quien a su gusto,” I said. To each, his own. I don’t remember what we talked about then, just that it was interesting–I think she told me about her life in that town, and her German grandfather, among other things; the conversation ended, by mutual consent, before it became boring, and she went inside and I went out walking, looking at the stars, wondering about my future.

    Went back inside and sang some more, and talked some more, and ate some more peyote. A carload of friends of Alberto’s showed up, suddenly, in the middle of the night, and Sra. Sabas found rooms for them, and they joined us in Alberto’s room, sharing some organic baked goods. The room suddenly seemed too loud and too full.

    I went out walking again, heading out the road into the desert. The nightly fog was in, nourishing the plants. In the dimness, the pebbles on the road seemed to change shape as I looked at them. When I closed my eyes as I walked, —

    To be continued.

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  38. Yeah. And there’s nothing like a slow gray Saturday in a cluttered apartment to bring a man in touch with his past. So when I closed my eyes as I walked, I could see horrible visions: a soldier’s bleeding face wrapped in barbed wire, children being crushed by tanks, skulls enveloped in flame. The solution came to me: don’t walk with your eyes closed.

    Sitting down by the roadside, I closed my eyes and saw something like a sketch of a rectangular box: I could just see the outlines, glowing yellow. Within it, distinct energies moved. One, a jagged electic blue line, was a voice that spoke when it touched and rebounded off the invisible walls of the box. It spoke words that were mysterious but very clear; each word was a mixture of languages, Spanish, Italian and Huichol. I thought about my brain as a recording studio which had recorded the sounds and then remixed them.

    I stood up and walked on. Soon, ahead of me in the fog, coyotes began to howl, perhaps five or six of them. I paused to listen. How can I communicate the breathtaking beauty of their music? It was simply the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. The artistry, the perfection; the precision of their collaboration, like one coyote with six voices. I didn’t know what a coyote was anymore; perhaps something otherworldly that had come here to teach or tantalize us with the fragrance of its dreamlike and hyperreal philosophy.

    When they fell silent I turned and headed back, aware of tall thin gray shapes, letters, that glided past each other in the darkness around me.

    Dawn came and I packed my backpack quietly, so as not to wake Jack. The others were all asleep in their rooms. I settled my bill with Sra. Sabas and got into another long conversation with her. She also made cheese, and I bought a wheel of white cheese from her, and accidentally left it on top of her refrigerator when I left.

    I caught the 7 AM train, an old slow one called the “burro.” It was packed with sleepy, good-natured Mexicans. There were no seats left so I sat on a sack of corn in the aisle next to my pack. A guy smiled knowingly at me before openly splitting a large peyote button in half and sharing it with his friend. Two kids on the seat next to me, a brother and a sister about nine or ten, put their jackets over their heads and gently swatted each other with the sleeves, pretending to be elephants. Whenever I closed my eyes, I could see designs.

    When we reached the train station in San Luis Potosi at 11 AM, I was well-rested, though I hadn’t slept a wink. Getting off the train I saw I guy from the USA standing on the platform in some perturbation. He said “Do you speak English?” “Sure, I’m from Michigan, where are you from?” “Ohio.”

    His name was Ray and he was traveling with another guy, who, unfortunately, was an alcoholic and submerged in all kinds of problems. Ray had never been outside the States and spoke no Spanish and wanted help to cash his travelers checks so he could start heading home.

    We went to the exchange place and changed $150 in checks into pesos. I couldn’t resist chatting up the girls who worked behind the desk. It was just the mood I was in. Ray said he was going to meet another American guy at an ice cream shop, a missionary. Would I like to come? Sure, why not.

    Over sundaes, Greg told me his story. He made me think of a slightly warped mirror of myself; as close as one could get to being me without actually being me. Born six months after me in upstate New York, he had been into drugs and alcohol for a while, but found himself in a spirituality that included Martin Buber and the Evangelical movement. He had been living in Mexico for a year and a half, loving the adventurous lifestyle, the new language, the feeling of the closeness of God.

    “One time we were driving the van into Mexico City,” he said. “We always had trouble with that van, and we never had money to fix it. So I’m driving, and we’re going down this long long hill, and this girl sitting next to me goes ‘Gregorio! Mire! Mire! La llanta!’ I look at the road in front of the van and I see our rear wheel go rolling by us!”

    During this conversation I had managed to put aside my habitual prejudice against Evangelicals, so when Greg invited Ray and me to lunch at the church, I was able to smoothly accept.

    Sitting in the church kitchen with Greg and Ray and a bunch of Mexican women, I couldn’t have been more content. The pork in mole sauce with tortillas was a culinary coup de grace, the taste equivalent of the coyotes’ singing the night before. “Who made this miracle?” I asked. No one wanted to accept the praise, but I could see that one woman looked especially pleased. For the next half hour I joked with them. I have no idea what I said, just that I had everyone but Ray in stitches.

    Did we want to come to the culto, the church service? Ray and I were asked delicately. Sure, why not, that seems to be the way that the current is flowing. Sitting there in the pew, listening to testimonial after testimonial from people about how they had been dissolute alcoholics and then found Christ, I started to feel tired. Fortunately it only lasted a little over an hour. Greg gave me a copy of the New Testament in Spanish, a little one with green plastic cover. I wished Ray good luck in getting home safely and headed off to find the bus station.

    A few minutes later I had to stop to ask directions and got into a forty minute philosophical discussion with a couple of guys who were standing on a streetcorner. That’s the kind of day it was. At the bus station I was talking to a dignified fiftysomething rancher. “Where are you coming from?” he asked. “From Real de Catorce,” I said. “Ah, el peyotito,” he said. “Do you know it too?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “We have great respect for that.”

    The bus for Guadalajara pulled out with me on it, and the cells in my brain began to pull down their shades and draw their drapes in earnest. It was a long ride to Guadalajara, and after I got there and went to the house of the family I was staying with, I was in a tired stupor for the whole day, annoying them because they wanted to know all the details of the strange adventures of this eccentic gringo who wanted to be a shaman.

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  39. Anyway, that’s an unpacking of some of the associations that the word “Potosi” conjures up in me–a word that will always taste of peyote, bitter and flat, invigorating.

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  40. Great story, man – thanks for sharing. I hope you post it at your Zaadz site, too. As you can probably guess, my favorite part was the bit about the coyote chorus. That would’ve been worth the trip, for me. I’ve read Myerhoff’s Peyote Hunt, which I imagine was your main inspiration back then – a great book, one of the best on the whole subject of pilgrimage, until she gets into all the theory at the end. The anecdotes in your story about non-Indian Mexicans’ use of and respect for peyote were very encouraging. Altogether, you spin a very entertaining travel essay, and your penchant for detail, far from being a weakness, is a real asset.

    Funny, just yesterday I was working on a short piece for this blog, the thrust of which was that visions in and of themselves aren’t worth much if they don’t make us into better people. I guess that’s obvious, but all too many people seem to overlook it. Expecting LSD or peyote to change one’s life is nothing more than idolatry, or attachment as the Buddhists say. But used mindfully – that’s another story.

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  41. Thanks, Nathan, you really know how to pack a back-pack, er, story, that is. You personify what it is to be open and free and unworried. You did quite a lot in many locations with many people, covering ground as if time were somehow flexible and would stretch to hold whatever encounter or exchange you entered into. Travel is interesting that way, once again, that is, if you are young, open and unworried. Yes you have a series of points fixed in time, your bus departure to San Luis Potosi, the next day the bus trip to Guadalajara, then to Mexico City, then San Jose. But only those lonely points of fixity, all space and time between them fluid and it seems, in your case, expandable. Heady, is all the ground that moves beneath your feet, and bus sitting arse. Yet you are one to sit still, on a deserted road in an exotic space, after midnight eyes shut. Seeking a solitary vision you can mix in any company, as if all society and place were permeable to you, a particle unaffected by the electrical charges of those you mix with, be they rancher, American, evangelical or racist, attracting others into conversations free so free of agenda or want as to undo any constraint on the flow of words.

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  42. Dave and Bill, it’s good to be understood. I appreciate your generous reactions; you both “got” what I was trying to do with this piece–both as a “performance piece” at the time, and in recollecting it last night and today.

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  43. Lordy, Nathan, that was entertaining. And I’m really bad about reading anything the least bit long-winded online.

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  44. Cheers, leslee. I try to break the text into bite-sized chunks. I see from your blog that you’re a Walden Pond person. Cool. My wife and I lived in Boston for two years, ending last May, and got out there to swim a few times with some friends who practically live there.

    Abrazos a todos. N.

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  45. Nathan: fantastic. All of it.

    When you got to the pork in mole sauce, I just about lost it. I was squealing with delight.

    You have a way with a story, and with life, my brother. I’m delighted to have reconnected with you.

    (Nathan and I first met nine years ago, but I haven’t seen him since that summer of ’98.)

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  46. Lucy, there’s nothing to forgive, thank you.

    Teju, my brother, I’m glad you like the story, and I’m very glad to reconnect with you.

    From the interview I did of you in Ann Arbor, published with two other interviews in the Ann Arbor Observer–a brief sample of some of the really cool and mind-opening stuff you said that day:

    Me: What got you into studying art?

    You: Strange–northern Baroque works. I was powerfully affected by Rembrandt as a child growing up in Nigeria. Seeing Rembrandt paintings in the flesh when I came to the United States was a really mind-blowing experience…. There are certain pieces of art that if they are hanging on the wall of a room, and you walk into the room, the presence of the work of art seems to make the room quieter than it really is. Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, all the others I sort of knew, but I didn’t encounter Vermeer and Breughel until I was thirteen. When I did, I just knew there was something absolutely amazing. Other things came later, like music and literature. I always enjoyed both, but not on this sort of “Wow, I feel my life changing before my eyes” level.

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  47. Wow, that’s great! I’ve known the blogger who currently goes by Teju Cole for three years now, including two meetings in the flesh, but this is the first I’ve heard about how he got into what has become the focus of his professional work. Thanks, Nathan.

    I’m wondering whether it might not generally be the case, for guys at least, that the stuff we get into right around puberty will leave the deepest imprints on our subsequent intellectual/spiritual development? (In my case, it was 20th-century Spanish poetry and Bartók.)

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  48. In my case, sure, I started reading Castaneda at 13, and Native American mysticism gently nudged aside whales and dolphins as the central focus of my intellectual ferment. What about other folks here?

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  49. And then silence fell, softly, delicately, like a perfect snowflake.

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  50. I was doing one of my period sweeps for tanka on the web, found your tanka, and just had to read something labeled ‘warning sign found on a cathedral!’ Funny! I’ve passed it along to my forum, Kyoka Mad Poems, where the wittily demented is appreciated. Thanks for an intelligent laugh. ~K~

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  51. Hey, thanks for passing it on! I forgot about this post, and the message string that took on an almost baroque life of its own.

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