I again made the trip from Virginia to New Mexico, to the Duke City, Albuquerque, the near-unspellable place of my birth. If it were true that you don’t look at the chameleon to determine whom he or she is, you look at his or her environment, I was excited to figure out who I’d become next. I couldn’t be Timmy Two-Mile any longer because of my injury, but neither would I be Corporal, Specialist, Private, Trainee, Taco Tim, Two-by-Four, Aunt Jemima, a freak, a leader of minions, T-Bub, Ratty Snake, or Happy Jack.
After setting tile all day with my old high-school cross-country buddy Antelope Legs, I went to Kaplan Education Center to study for the GRE—Graduate Records Exam. I figured a master of arts in creative writing would help me to earn more as a teacher, a future incarnation I’d decided to move toward, something with “Mister” as a prefix. I was ready to try Mom’s way, to try sitting nicely on her bus. Smeared with Quick Set concrete and reeking of sweat, my high-and-tight haircut growing out, I requested GRE cassette lessons from a cute woman who worked there. I’d just met Renni, “like Penny but with an R.” She was studying to get into medical school, which I respected, the whole medical paradigm no longer a deal breaker for me. Turned out we were the same age, twenty-six, had grown up within a mile of each other, and had many track friends in common. The dividing line between our schools had kept us from meeting until then, thank goodness, because she was a good girl, and I was, well, you know. A chameleon, I guess.
Without distance running and the army to dominate my life, I had time for both Renni and serious studies. I experienced a sort of emotional and intellectual renaissance. They say we have to experience sorrow to experience joy; we need the relative difference. My heart and mind were greedy after being constricted in the military. Dating Renni and the university experience were the exact opposite of my rigid army experience. My life had opened up and was my own to live.
One evening, we sat in a hot tub having our usual existential conversation. Renni was a fine listener and didn’t mind the torrent of concepts and questions that spewed out of me in my search for “Ultimate Truth.” That was my new thing then, to finally pin it down. Someone should’ve already figured it out, right? Not I, but someone brilliant, and then I could just ask that person for the answer, like in high-school algebra class. Why would I, among the billions of people throughout history who’d already asked the same questions, finally figure it out? No, the information must already be out there; I just needed to research it. So I talked to anyone I could about it. I must’ve irritated those who wished to impose their world views on me when they mistook my eagerness to mean that I would be an easy convert. I always admired people who searched for truth, but I was suspicious of those who claimed to have it. Although I was open-minded, I never committed. I just couldn’t make the leap of faith. Prayer seemed silly when compared with science, which never required me to make that leap and was replicable. Spirituality versus science was a conflict for me, even though the world view I inherited, Christian Science, tried to merge the two.
But science certainly didn’t have all the answers, so I did a cursory overview of some of the great thinkers throughout history and read books on religion and philosophy, ranging from materialism to spiritualism. I eventually circled back to Christian Science, which, not coincidentally, always felt like the best fit, despite the neglect it engendered. I was kind of like a battered spouse who refused to leave his abuser, if for no other reasons than she claimed to love me and was at least familiar to me. Of course, after the honeymoon and build-up period, the spouse gets beaten again, which was exactly what happened to me. See, I was asked to be the graduate student representative on campus for the Christian Science Student Organization. I agreed because I felt pressured, having been raised in the Sunday school, with a mother who was still prominent in the church (in living memory), and being the only grad student available. As I’d gotten serious about scrupulous honesty, I pulled the faculty adviser aside and told him that I still enjoyed a chilled Guinness, in a can, of course. His face set hard, and he never spoke to me again. Needless to say, I was out of the student organization, and I never again entered a Christian Science church. Although in many ways it fit me, it still wasn’t a good-enough fit. I was finally done with the church once it became clear that the church was finally done with me. I was trying to be a good person, to be honest and authentic; but when I revealed myself, I was judged, and that made me want to conceal myself again. I knew by then that authenticity was the way, even if it made me a poorer fit for organized religions.
So, my angst-driven search for Ultimate Truth continued.
Then something wonderful happened.
In that hot tub with Renni, I guessed what time it was. I got out, looked at my watch, and was exactly right about the time. In that moment, an ecstatic state of euphoria and harmonization flooded over me. It had nothing to do with organized religion but everything to do with being a spiritual being. There were revelations about the interconnectedness of the universe that felt mystical and spiritual. I had intense feelings of happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and knowledge of higher truth. The overwhelming beauty of nature astounded me and affirmed the meaning, miraculousness, and value of existence. I had free will, self-determination, creativity, and empathy. My sense of self dissolved into an awareness of greater unity.
It was the opposite of atheism, materialism, or every dog for himself. I realized that the so-called Ultimate Truth somehow hinged on love. Although I still liked the word “free,” both as meaning of no cost to me and not being under the power or control of another, my new favorite word was “love.”
That probably sounds corny to some, obvious to others, and overly simplistic to true intellectuals, but that’s what was revealed to me at that hot-tub moment, and I’m sticking with it.
My paradigm shifted.
Maslow called it a “peak experience.” It sometimes happened to people on LSD and to volunteers using psychedelic mushrooms. It also happened to people steeped in religious and existential pursuits, like cloistered monks or, you know, me. Yes, that’s what it was, a peak experience. They say that if you don’t know what it is, then you haven’t had one. It wasn’t just an “Ah-ha! moment.” It was more than merely a sudden insight; it was a tectonic shift of perspective. My toilet-paper tube widened. In that moment, I literally became a more loving and empathetic person. What might have happened, I theorize today, was that my brain finally made the necessary neural connections it’d been lacking, which enabled it to open up wider and have deeper understanding of the universe and my place in it. That, or something truly spiritual occurred.
Although there was no chorus, harp music, or shaft of light from the heavens, it was as if venetian blinds had been opened to the outside sunlight, except that the light never faded; I just grew accustomed to living in brightness. I felt bliss for weeks, and then it became my new normal.
So the words prominently displayed on the Christian Science church wall that I took for granted as a boy were the most profound concept of all: God Is Love. No religion captured everything I looked for, which meant that love became my spirituality, my religion—and I got to keep my vices and sleep in on Sundays.
I also became much more loving to my core self. This included all my thoughts, emotions, and past; it was who I was authentically. I was innately lovable, as I’d been on the day I was born—before people and events had time to poison my mind against me and I compensated with chameleon behavior.