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David Keith 

The Gods Leave Things Lying Around...

When I was five years old, living on Whidbey Island in the
Puget Sound, on the Naval Air Station there, I wrote a letter
to God. I wrote it in pencil in large, blocky letters on
lined notebook paper. It was about two pages. No one told me
to write the letter. It was my idea. In the letter I thanked
God for the sun and the strawberries and the whales and the
salmon, although I probably referred to them as fishies. I
placed the letter in an envelope and licked it and sealed it.
I addressed it "God, Heaven" or something like that. I
debated whether to place a stamp on the envelope and in the
end my hunch was that it would not be necessary. I think I
may have drawn a picture of a stamp. I walked to the blue
mail box down the street and dropped the letter in. 

I find it hard to believe that I did that, and that I was
only five when I did it. But it's true: this was 1968 or 69.
We were still living in Oak Harbor then. It feels sort of
perverse to recall this event in this much detail. I'm not
embarrassed about it or proud of it, but it just seems so
strange that you don't need to think about it when you're a
grown-up. We weren't a particularly religious family at all.
I had yet to begin CCD classes. I suppose I was enchanted by
the idea of God at this early age, and clearly there is some
interference with the Santa Claus myth taking place. God, for
me, was magic, and I was interested in magic. God was like a
ghost, which was not that different from vampires or
werewolves or Superman, all of which were pretty interesting
to me. I liked the idea of living in the sky, angels with
wings, alien beings which watched down on us, ghosts of the
dead which lived among us. And, most astonishing of all,
more than just fancying these things as notions, I was
thankful for them as realities. It may sound like I was
troubled, haunted, spooked by things. But running around in
the fields there behind our house was a dream. There were
steep cliffs that led down to the beach and the waters of the
Puget Sound. I remember finding snakes in the high grass, and
catching them and bringing them home. I remember watching the
killer whales swimming in after the salmon run. When we were
hungry, we could eat apples off the trees. Running along the
edge of the cliff like that was almost like flying. Laying on
your back was like flying. Weird stuff, like God and vampires
and Santa Claus never spooked me. They were as real as the
sea gulls, and belonged there just as much. 

I think, if I'm not mistaken, I was happy.

A few years later, in fifth grade, so I guess that's 1973, I
remember recalling Whidbey Island days as a memory and
writing about it just as I am now. It was really the first
time I noticed memory as something you could activate. I
remember missing those days. We had moved to Mississippi in
1970, so the memory was separated both in time and geography.
Mississippi days were perfectly interesting in their own
right, but it was new and puzzling to me to have this
personal memory that existed, was real, meant something to
me, but yet was basically alien and unknown to everyone
around me. I wrote little stories about it. I wrote about the
caves, there really were these caves in the cliffs, but
somehow it came off as fantasy. I remember noticing how my
dreams and my memories and the things I made up were
composed of just about the same stuff, and I could shape
that, play with it. I was in an English class. They were
teaching us to diagram sentences, which I was good at and
took pleasure in. We read little abridged excerpts of Dickens
and Mark Twain and other stuff, which I enjoyed. We were
allowed to write freely if we wanted to. I liked writing
stories and showing them to my teacher. I mainly wanted to
show her that I could do it. I didn't think too much of her
opinion. I had no real reason to bear my soul to this crazy
old lady who would twist your earlobe if you misbehaved. My
stories were usually plotless. I wrote about the cliffs and
the fields and magical caves and pretty blonde girls. They
were about one page long, skipping lines. I was careful to
title them. I don't remember any of the titles. I don't have
any of these old stories. 

But the letter to God memory sticks out for me now. It's
embedded in a memory of a time when I was just beginning to
form myself. Writing was the medium of this self-creating
process. And the form of the writing was a letter, an
address, a one-sided dialogue. I had yet to conceive of
language as anything other than a dialogue. I spoke and was
spoken to. Language was first and last an arena for defining
relationships. It's a rather sophisticated notion, really,
that one can write in a journal, or write for pleasure, or
write for any reason other than publication. So this letter
to God was my first meaningful act as a writer. A hundred
years later, the title of my poetry thesis at USM:
Confessions I hoped for to come in passing. A hundred more
years later, my fiction thesis at SU: Let There Be No More
Light.

Ernest Hemingway gave good writer's advice: Write the truest
thing you know. 

Later, studying with Tobias Wolff, this idea of truthfulness
returned. True language, true choices, care, precision, what
everyone keeps calling "authority". Well I'm afraid I have
trouble with "authority". When I feel too oppressed by
truthfullness, I just want to make stuff up, say crazy shit,
lie. 

Sometimes truthfullness seems more like Kerouac. Sometimes,
Henry Miller. Truth is in this passionate spontaneous blurt
of desire. Sometimes Toby Wolff: truth is the thoughtful
reflection. Sometimes truthfullness resides in an elegant
and well-argued essay, a la Susan Sontag, Chomsky, Orwell.
Another early memory/head trip I used to experience and
enjoy: the feeling you have when you awaken in a room, just
before you realize where you are. I remember more than once
waking up and having no idea where I was, who I was, or how I
came to be in this place, which usually turned out to be my
own bedroom. I would linger in the sensation, and was
disappointed if it was too brief a phenomenon. It was
pleasurable in the way that dreaming is, or being dizzy,
which I also very much enjoyed, or deja vu. This particular
experience, I am sure, is hard evidence for the idea of
reincarnation. I was the man who fell to Earth. One thing
about it: I didn't feel like a child. I didn't feel like a
person who sucked one's thumb or who liked to be cuddled or
who might burst into tears at any moment. Oddly enough, in
spite of the disorientation, I felt lucid and mindful,
centered and fully conscious, which is, of course, the
pleasure in it. I felt like an old soul, not a a baby. If I
think real hard on it, I can start believing that I remember
having this sensation as a baby. 

I can become aware of a sense of myself that I never had to
create, because it was always there, and is constant, the
same now as then, which does not grow and does not die and
does not learn or forget. It is the awareness of self. It may
be constant, but it is somehow more obvious to me as a memory
than as a presence in my life now. Forgetfulness is my
disease. Where am I? What happened? What's happening now? I
used to believe I was magic, that I was divine, that I was
special, that I could touch people and give them
something--love, hope, a sense of security. I thought I was
a prophet, a saint, a rock star, an artist, a righteous
citizen. But I am not those things. I am ashamed of not being
those things. I am ashamed of ever having hurt anyone, of
having let anyone down. I am ashamed of not living up to my
own dreams. I'm ashamed of being human, of forgetting myself.
I'm ashamed of my desire, of my selfishness, of my capacity
for delusion and bullshit. It's all or nothing. It's Icarus:
he soars to the Heavens, then falls to the Earth. In the
Christ story, Christ is martyred. No one blames Christ for
his death. With Prometheus, though he brought a gift of
divine energy to mankind in the form of fire, (a stolen
blessing, like that of Jacob's!) and sacrificed himself in
the process, his story is a lesson in ambition, is it not? He
was ambitious, youthful and not prudent, hence his failure.
Now I feel the need to clarify that story. Is it the story
of failure or triumph? I am 33, and I certainly identify with
Christ. Partly the desire to be like Christ-good, moral,
virtuous, righteous, full of the Grace of God, yet martyred,
misunderstood, in agony. But Christ died with a clear
conscience. Icarus, his is a story of failure, and I identify
with that, too. Am I suffering from too much ambition?
Perhaps. Am I trying to steal a blessing? That's worth
exploring. An invocation of divinity which bypasses ritual
may well be tantamount to gate-crashing. Letters to God and
messianic yearning, psychedelic drugs--without prayer,
cathechism, sadna, seva, good works. Story of my life...But
my life is not over. Maybe my theft will be successful and
will be a great thing--like Prometheus, like Jacob. Maybe the
Gods leave things lying around, their doors unlocked, their
windows open, just to tempt us to take what we need--a
miserable hazing ritual, a daring adventure. Maybe when it
comes to divine blessing, terrestrial laws of property and
ownership do not apply, and so theft is OK, such is the logic
of Hermes. Hermes steals and protects the thief, but is
himself a God and not a criminal. A little wildness, a little
daring-do is in order. But this is dangerous thinking. The
Gods are not to be fooled around with. They deserve respect
and fear. On the other hand, the Gods don't care for wimps,
either. They like a little action, a little Hercules, a
little Ullysses. 

How, explain to me, how is it that a religion which once
instituted in the highest praise the presumptuousness of
Jacob, his boldness at stealing his father's blessing, then
wrestling with God himself, going on to found the nation of
Israel, has degenerated into the wimpy conformist
authoritarian nightmare of Christianity? (authoritarian is
the operative word--the powers that be did not want to
encourage presumptuous behavior, so institutional authority,
often inaccurately thought of as patriarchal authority, could
conserve its power.)

I feel like going off some place, into the desert, to the top
of a mountain, and screaming obscenities at the Heavens. Make
no mistake about it, Lord, I'M TALKIN' TO YOU! Ain't no
telephones out here, no TVs. Ain't no urban stress to chalk
it up to, it's just YOU and ME! I'm ready, let's get it on!
(and so Jacob wrestles with the Lord...) 

So much is at stake that we cannot afford not to provoke
their rage. 

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