Christ on the Mount of Olives, Caravaggio, 1604-1606
by K. Thomas Kahn
I imagine open sky
Surely it was this sky.
— George Oppen
I am always getting lost, but there are countless parables about this already that make me hesitate to add my own version of events, my own alternate history. There are the days in the desert, the deluge and the eventual rainbow, the hours spent smelling chrysanthemums in Gethsemane, the sanatorium walls overlooking the garden shuddering as yet another lost inmate surrenders to his or her fate—details unknown, for the rooms are always sanitized, the sheets changed, the floors scrubbed as if they had been scuffed by no feet at all.
And I suppose this is my Gethsemane, of sorts; it is an attempt to get back to that place where I am unfettered by strings, cords, devices, and my tentacled existence that has unmoored me from whatever semblance of stasis I had once cultivated. So I leave an evening yoga class, and as soon as I’m outside on the street I light up a cigarette and check my Grindr messages; I scroll through my Twitter timeline in between somnolent bouts of reading Lacan’s seminars in French; I rise from zazen and immediately plug back into a chaotic world of alerts, notifications, sounds, vibrations—whatever calm I’ve been trying to woo, whatever knowledge I’ve been trying to unearth is immediately obliterated by the blur and whizz of flashing screens.
Impossible to tell his whole delusion.
I’d like to think that I can navigate the garden without the aid of a global-positioning system app, without holding my phone out to serve as compass or idiotic talisman, my own delusional weathervane. I’d like to think that I can remain in the emotional state two hours of chanting in the company of strangers affords me without whitewashing the walls, so that a mere ten minutes later I’ve forgotten the drone and the strange camaraderie unknown voices can lend when blended together in a dissonant kind of unison. But I keep diving back into the screen as if there were some answer to be found by swiping my finger across its face, as if the now universal motion of swiping left for “no” and right for “yes” has somehow become embedded in my unconscious, despite my better attempts to keep such a despotic wolf at bay.
Three months ago I unplugged as best I could; I tried to set out for my Gethsemane, and I almost succeeded, could all but smell the brine in the air, the lingering decay of roses lulled to death by a sun that never grew tiresome, that languorous lull before a kiss that changes everything. I turned off all alerts and notifications; I quit the gym—decrying gay culture all the while and that queer man with a poodle on West Twenty-third Street who screamed “I’d rather be known for my triceps” into his Android—and went back to practicing Kundalini yoga daily, a discipline I began a decade ago and which has saved me in more ways than I can even begin to convey in any utterable sense; I began to move away from social media, Twitter especially, a space where I have always felt barraged, splayed open, unwittingly under scrutiny, screaming out to innumerable silent followers and then just as soon regretting my utterances like an inebriated sibyl the moment I clicked “send.”
And instead of looking for an answer in a dream
Set aside the question, let the songs continue
Going through the motions of the days
And waking every morning to this single world,
Whether in regret, or in celebration.
There is no undoing in our world of instantaneous communications: I learned this when dating Michael. Texting ruined the intimacy, or rather it somehow made things feel more immediate, deeper, as if texting were a substitution for the conversations we had in person rather than an extension of them. I learned more about his emotions and feelings in a day’s worth of texting back and forth than I did when we spent four hours sitting on a bench in Central Park making out like horny teenagers, confessing our failures and our dreams in spurts only when we begrudgingly came up for air. Rather than allow us a space for our own lives, texting became a combative sport that assailed us both, a sport at which neither of us excelled; I misunderstood his texts and he misunderstood mine; we both felt too intellectual to use the emojis necessary to convey the timbre and the intent behind the words.
And this failure—and how we died in the middle of Union Square right by where the Hare Krishnas set up their shrine—made me mistrust words entirely for a short time: an uneasy state that fells any writer, doubting words, feeling the connections between them are wired ineffectively, that in our plugged-in world there’s no way to be understood properly without a smiley face attached as an addendum to one’s words. “I love you” becomes a phrase that loses its meaning unless it is spoken face-to-face, accompanied by a caress or a twitch of one tongue against another; “I’m not ready” flashing on one’s screen in the middle of a long work day, a Golgotha from which there is no escape instead of an opportunity for a reassuring finger trace against clavicle had these words been spoken in person, the only venue where they can adequately express the vulnerability and fear from which they stem.
There are things better left untouched by words (blunt instruments).
And this is when I realized that I was lost; not only that, but that I had somehow gotten lost while consciously deciding to direct my steps toward the garden, to pull the wires out of their sockets as quickly as the apothecaries used to pluck mandrakes from the earth. If anything, it showed me that despite my desire to be free from such fetters, I was somehow drawn to them—but I couldn’t, and still can’t, vocalize just why I am ruled by them, what lies behind the impulse to immediately check my email after meditating for half an hour; why I need to know that you are still around, even if it’s a flash of ellipses which you subsequently retract (for such a burst at least proves your existence on the screen, does it not?); why the garden is somehow not compelling enough to make surrendering these perilous tools of modern technology at the gates an easy feat, so that they do not taint the history of reflection, contemplation, and self-inquiry that is very much the bedrock of human existence—and yet which are practices that have been forgotten, effaced, subsumed beneath our digital lives.
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true—
Instead, we seek knowledge on screens from which we can never peel our eyes; rather than looking inward, we are looking outside or simply straight through.
In the garden raying out
With a body like spray, dawn-tender, and looking about
With such insuperable, subtly-smiling assurance,
— D. H. Lawrence
But how does one go about getting unlost? Those moments of limitless freedom before Judas opens his mouth, turning Gethsemane into a violent explosion of vermilion and dust… At the close of a yoga class, the teacher has somehow discovered that it is my birthday and asks everyone to sing (“to celebrate my life,” as she phrases it) for ten whole minutes; in that space of time, I hold something and I tremble as if in the throes of panic, but I realize soon that it is a deep sense of connection and appreciation that I feel—that these strangers can somehow affect my state of mind, that they can join in so selflessly to laud another whom they barely know. Listening to the words circulate around me as a lone fly hisses through the high-ceilinged room, this resonates with me more deeply than the textual stratagems of a circle of friends trying to drag me out on a bar crawl through Chelsea; I sense some universal truth in the almost bodily contact these singing voices make together that cannot be translated to the screen: “Want 2 meet @ 10?” may demonstrate a sense of intimacy, a desire to connect, but the flashing, buzzing words mean almost nothing next to a group of strangers chanting a mantra for an unknown member among them, who, somehow, is known—in the realm of immediate, tangible connection, there is an overlap where divisions between self and other dissolve, where I am singing both for you (whoever you are) and for myself: a realm where the lines blur in an unmeasurable moment that somehow shakes the fucking universe.
E. M. Forster:
That evening, a man gropes my ass while I’m standing at a urinal in a dive bar, my date waiting for me at a table with our drinks; this stranger says nothing, turning instantly away to cipher something out on his iPhone screen. The next day I am crossing the street to browse the used bookstalls at The Strand, and stop myself suddenly because I see Michael has had the same idea: we think the city is large enough to disappear, to become no one at all, to ensure our paths never cross. But in this scene of voyeurism, I watch him fingering spines with the same stubs with which he fingered me; I think of sending a text just to see him pull out his mobile from my vantage-point across the street, knowing for sure this time that he has at least received and read my words. I resist this urge to drum out my emotions with my thumbtips; instead, I turn away and head back to Union Square where I stand watching the Hare Krishnas chanting and dancing for something like an hour, dissolving into the crowd on a humid summer day; the scene of the crime still raw like a wound, still prescient like the morning after Judas tongued out his treason deep in the Mount of Olives.
Becoming anxious? That’s good.
You should be a little anxious. You’re ready.
I’m still unsure how to get back to Gethsemane myself, or if I ever will; but what I intend to do is head out when the sun is at the proper position in the sky, the wind blowing favorably against my wetted forefinger; I hope that the journey itself brings about a concomitant discovery.
We wait in the garden.
We don’t know yet whom you meet or why.
When I turn my traitorous back on my phone, my tablet, my lover, I am actually turning my face toward myself, and the anxiety this evokes (for who can meet who they truly are without a sense of unease?) overrules the drive I feel to pull my phone from my hip pocket, hearing a phantom alert sound; it exposes how texting was the end of us, it sends a tremor through my fingers so that I draw my hand to the page of a notebook I’ve stuffed in my shoulder bag: I understand that disconnecting is the only way to make sense of more lastingly intimate connections. How easy it is to dull those moments one will still never forget with the distractive tactic of dragging one’s fingers across a screen, the way one buries one’s real emotions or masks them with emojis, complicating the message even more.
I love you. I love you,
but I’m turning to my verses
and my heart is closing
like a fist.
I may get lost on the way to the garden, or else I may get lost once I am within its gates. But this is a risk I am willing to take since to get unlost is to risk another kind of estrangement, whether permanent or transient. I hear a bunch of voices singing at my back, human voices, and I am awake enough to know that I have only narrowly escaped; I know that there is a danger when I open my palms to others that before the cock crows one may well betray me—extracting daggers from their back pockets or marking me forever with profusions of love so that I will lament until the end of days while at the same time reliving the plump feeling of it, the perverse allure of laying myself naked in front of someone, and being alright with the possibility of either being worshipped or ravaged forever: a bird’s brusk beak stamping my liver to the rhythm of a clock’s endless ticking.
David Baker, after Shelley:
He fills his pen. He must hurry.
The fires of new thought swell in his
hand like a torch.
Delete the apps; mute all sounds; welcome all silences, pauses… If there is anything I have learned in my Kundalini practice, it is that when I tap the tip of my tongue against the upper palate to chant words in a tongue long forgotten, these are the same words and sensations that others have sounded and felt for thousands of years. It connects me to them, a sonic thread joining me to these unknown others, much in the same way that I felt connected when a group of strangers sang to me, as if I had been singled out for both a death squad and a potential moment of enlightenment, the fear and the ecstasy: pen to paper, scribbling close to a bone of truth.
If I disconnect, it is only in order to seek connection on a more subterranean level, to honor the chorus above the individual, to momentarily forget that Judas will arrive, as he inevitably does, and simply enjoy the feeling of the sun on my forehead, paying no mind to any portents, forgetting entirely that I am so emphatically woundable as I commune with murmurs more vocal and resonant than any alert or ringtone. The garden may well reject me, in the end, but I will never stop striving to find it, even if I arrive bloody-kneed and slack-jawed—for turning away from instantaneous connections, and whatever gratification attends them, means understanding that there are deeper connections to be had if one gambles with one’s life, that the only way to arrive at Gethsemane is by having renounced all.
At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.
Whatever my hands are filled with when I enter the garden’s gates, whenever that may be, I know it will be enough to carry on.
About the Author:
K. Thomas Kahn’s work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, Open Letters Monthly, Numero Cinq, Bookslut, Full Stop, and other venues. He is Reviews Editor for Words without Borders and 3:AM Magazine.