I slammed the front door behind me, swept through to the living room, and flung myself on the sofa. Jonah was composing on his synth at his computer in the corner, headphones clamped to his ears. He slipped them off and spun his chair to face me.
‘What happened?’ he said, looking worried.
‘He’s a nut job.’
Jonah leapt to his feet. ‘What did he do?’
‘Nothing. He didn’t do anything.’
I rubbed my hands over my face in frustration. I didn’t want to think about what Adam had said, it couldn’t be true. I was a rational human being, not some brain dead, wishy-washy hippy mystic imbecile, floating about being all mysterious and talking gibberish.
‘He said I was a mystic. A fucking mystic.’
‘Didn’t you talk to Linda?’
‘She just babbled about monks and tarot cards, and you were the one who told her I was a visionary, Joe.’
‘What if it’s true?’ he said. ‘He might be able to help. You do keep having those experiences.’ He flicked his index fingers up to emphasise the last word. ‘Being a mystic could be cool, like being a shaman. That shrink with the tache, maybe that’s why he wants to work with you. In the old days, or in a different culture, like the ones he’s been studying, you’d be revered.’
‘Yes, and sent to live in a hut on the edge of the village away from everyone so I don’t upset them with my craziness.’
‘You are a bit psychic, you know.’ He sat on the sofa and scooched me towards him. I snuggled against his chest and listened to his heart beating.
‘I am not,’ I said, pretending to sulk.
‘You’re always saying things I’m thinking. Sometimes I think you’re in my head.’
I sat up and looked at him. ‘Isn’t that a bit weird? Doesn’t it freak you out?’
Jonah shook his head and smiled. ‘It’s cool, babe. You’re part of me.’
I cleaned my way through the week trying not to think about Adam and his ridiculous assertion, but in reality, thinking of little else. It felt like an accusation, a slanderous taunt designed to undermine every truth I knew about myself. Thousands of years of evolution, of struggle, of fear and superstition, and only recently had humans succeeded in wrestling rationality from the maw of the dragon of irrational authority: religion. I wasn’t going to be another convert to the backward march to insanity and fundamentalism. Just because life was chaotic and confusing, people thought they were justified in switching off their brains.
Well, not me. No matter how confused I got, I refused to stop thinking. Trouble was, it was starting to feel like I was being followed around by a gibbering idiot, running the same arguments back and forth.
It was true, I kept having weird trances I didn’t understand, and it wasn’t like I could ignore them, people were starting to notice. Sooner or later it would happen in front of the wrong person and they would lock me up in a secure ward doped up on hardcore anti-psychotic pharmaceuticals. All my worst case scenarios involved losing my autonomy, being at the mercy of some other person. Worse still, a psychiatrist. Most of them were not like Felix Baldwin.
I’d read of an experiment where a bunch of people got themselves diagnosed schizophrenic by reporting the usual symptoms to their doctors. Once hospitalised, they started to behave in a totally normal way. But because they’d been diagnosed, everything they did was seen as symptomatic of their illness. You get a new label, a new identity, and you’re written off.
Even when things got intensely screwed up at university, I avoided doctors, convinced they would shunt me onto pills. How could I think straight if my mind was warped by chemicals? How would I know I was even me anymore? I’d become a list of characteristics, behavioural quirks and compulsions, my humanity reduced to a diagnosis. I remembered how Dad was when they put him on the serious stuff. He didn’t paint, he didn’t do anything, just sat and stared out the window. That’s why he kept throwing out the pills. That’s why he killed himself.
But what if I really was mad? What if my mind was already warped? Calling it mysticism didn’t make it any less insane. Then again, what if the culture I’d grown up in had it wrong? What if the secular worldview was incomplete or false? What if, and I could barely bring myself to think it, what if I really was a mystic? My mind baulked at the thought, but it persisted. The rational thing would be to find out more. All I knew about mysticism came from psychiatric books and papers, and I guessed they weren’t exactly experts on the subject.
At worst, it was regressive and infantile: the patient escapes reality by sliding back to the oceanic oneness felt in the womb, into a kind of nihilism. Thank you, Freud. At best, it was a search for God. Thank you, Jung.
If I knew one thing, I knew I definitely wasn’t looking for God. There was no such thing, so it would be futile, and by definition, mad. It would be the same as going off hunting unicorns or fairies. Besides, I felt close enough to madness as it was; why would I walk straight into it, willingly open myself to disintegration?
I ran my cloth back and forth across the mirror, rubbing viciously at every tiny speck. The mirror was enormous and dominated the hallway of my favourite customer. I thought, vaguely, that I shouldn’t have favourites, that everyone’s home should be equally cleaned and cared for, but Dorothy was different. Outwardly, she appeared shrunken and shrivelled, but in reality she was formidable. Unlike most older people, she never mentioned her age. I had tried to find out once, but Dot had batted it away as irrelevant. Most people never grew up, some people were never young. And that was that.
‘You keep polishing like that there’ll be no mirror left.’
Dorothy was watching me from the doorway to the living room, leaning awkwardly on her stick. Her arthritis must be playing up again. I stopped polishing and stood back to admire my work.
‘Come and sit,’ said Dorothy. ‘You have something to get off your chest.’
‘I need to get your shopping in. Is the list in the kitchen?’ I escaped down the hall then disappeared out the back door to the shop.
Dorothy was waiting for me when I got back. She hobbled about helping to put the shopping away. There was no sense in telling her to go and sit down. The woman was unstoppable, and I knew I wasn’t going to get away with not telling her what was on my mind.
‘Right then. Make us a cuppa and come and sit down,’ she said, as she limped back down the hall.
I obeyed, and joined her in the living room. After practically wrestling the teapot from her hands, I poured the tea and we settled back on the chintzy sofa, dunking our way through a plate of chocolate chip cookies. I tried to describe my experiences to Dot. It was farcical and embarrassing, the limits of my vocabulary and understanding making me sound like I didn’t know English. I told of my meeting with Adam, and my doubts over what he had said.
‘I don’t know which would be worse, finding out I really am crazy, or finding out I’m a religious nut in denial, a God Botherer in disguise,’ I said, dunking another cookie.
Dorothy roared with laughter, almost spilling her tea, and had to put her cup back on the coffee table.
‘How much thought have you given this, young lady?’
She shook her head. ‘You’ve studied the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, you’ve debated with theologians and philosophers, and grappled with the ultimate metaphysical questions of existence?’
‘So how can you be sure?’
‘It’s obvious, isn’t it? I mean…’ I searched in vain for an answer. I had been an atheist all my life, it had never occurred to me to actually think about it or question it. Back in Brighton, I went to church with my maternal grandmother; she liked me to keep her company. I dangled my legs in the uncomfortable pews and gawped at the patterns in the stained glass windows, while the huddled and ageing congregation groaned through hymns and mumbled through prayers. Then they would troop up to the altar to take communion. I never joined them; couldn’t think why I would. It was just another bizarre ritual, another thing grown-ups did that made no sense, like putting out a mince pie and a carrot for Father Christmas. Sitting there in church, I felt like an alien from another culture. What did they think they were doing? It baffled me.
I had never doubted my lack of faith. Religion didn’t seem necessary. As far I as was concerned, God was as real as Santa. I couldn’t believe I was even having this conversation.
‘It’s just not rational,’ I spluttered.
Dorothy exploded in laughter again, then grew serious and gripped my hand. The strength in those gnarled fingers surprised me, and I turned to face the old woman.
‘It’s not rational to exclude the irrational,’ she said. ‘Who are you to decide the truth of something without investigating first? Is that rational?’
‘No. No it isn’t.’
‘That said, most of us don’t have the wherewithal to answer these questions. We’re not inclined or we don’t have the time, so we rely on folks who can. Folks like you, Zoe.’ She released her grip and took the last cookie.
‘You have a gift,’ she said. ‘Use it.’
Dorothy almost had me convinced, but I wanted more information, so when Jonah’s band practice came around again, I tagged along. I was determined to pin Linda down and get some sense out of her. While the maestros rehearsed, I told her about Adam.
‘See,’ she said, her smile so wide it threatened to tear her head in two. ‘What did I tell you? This is brilliant.’
Linda threw her arms around me and hung on like a drowning woman. I twitched free and sat down at the kitchen table, while she opened a bottle of wine.
‘He said I was a mystic.’
‘I knew it,’ she said, and poured two generous glasses of red, then slid one under my nose.
‘Can you tell me what a mystic actually is?’
Linda sat down with a bump and stared into space for a moment, twirling her glass in her hand.
‘A mystic is someone who wants to discover the truth about reality. The same as scientists, really, but working with the inner world instead of the outer.’
‘Is that all?’
She nodded and took a sip of wine. ‘It’s probably not at all straightforward.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘If it were obvious, everybody would be at it.’
Linda jumped up and opened a lurid pink cupboard. It was stuffed with a jumble of recipe books, assorted odd ends and a battered Scrabble box. She pulled out an equally battered dictionary and searched the pages, scanning down the words with an index finger.
‘Here we are.’ She sat down. ‘Mystic: a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.’
She snapped the book shut and bounced to the cupboard to put it back. ‘Of course, mystics say it is obvious. I don’t really get it, but they say the truth is hidden in plain sight, an open secret. I thought you might know, Zoe.’
‘Sorry.’ I shrugged.
‘But you’ve got a teacher now,’ she said, joining me back at the table. ‘All will be revealed.’
I sipped my wine. So far, this conversation hadn’t been very reassuring. All this talk of deities and self-surrender was making my head spin. Or perhaps that was the wine.
‘If all they’re doing is looking for the truth,’ I said, ‘why are they so vilified? You’d think we’d be queuing up to find out what’s really going on in the world.’
‘That’s just it,’ she said. ‘Zen is the ultimate subversion. Mystics are ignored because most of us don’t have the guts to follow through on what they show us. Which is the death of our ego. People don’t like that. Not one little bit. It undermines all our assumptions, everything we’ve built society on. Because once you know the truth, there’s no going back. Everything has to change.’
That was exactly what I feared.
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