Illustration by Brett Affrunti
In my mind there remains a deer lease in central Texas, and me, a small 9-year-old boy, sleeping in a single bed in a three-room shack built to house ranch hands. My father wakes me at 4:30 a.m. with coffee, then cooks breakfast. The shack is freezing, a skin of ice has formed at the top of my water glass. We bundle up in layers. Soon we’re sitting in an open-top Jeep, wobbling down dirt trails in the dark, then climbing up boards nailed to a tree (my father behind me, ready to catch me). We sit in the deer blind, settling in a good half hour before the sun rises so we can become still along with everything around us. The blind is only a small wooden platform seven or eight feet off the ground. My feet, hanging off its edge, search below and find a board for support.
Soon the sun comes up. Light breaks across the trees. Animals appear. My nose begins to run. I lift my hand to wipe it in the slowest possible motion. I can’t sniff because of the noise I’d make. I turn my head from side to side almost imperceptibly, scanning the ground for movement. My feet go to sleep. I wiggle my toes trying to get blood to circulate, but I’m careful to not move my boots. If I spot a deer,
I carefully touch my father’s leg and point.
I may have learned more sitting beside my father in a tree-stand than anywhere else in my life. Most significantly, I learned how to be still. When I think back to these lessons, the discipline I learned at such an early age and the stillness I was able to master, or more accurately, enter into, I thank him, because it made possible what I experienced at age 20 beside a river.
Stillness, as I wish to define it, is not the same as simply being motionless. It is a way of slowing down until your mind and body are in rhythm with the natural world around you. And that is when a lizard will decide to sit on the rock beside you, or a raven will travel the expanse of the desert floor to hover in front of you, then suddenly angle away.
I consider myself religious. Yet to travel in intellectual circles and be religious can feel isolating. Your friends may accept this “difference” but freeze when you begin to speak of it in any detail. A friend once corrected me over dinner when I mentioned I was religious. “No,” she said. “You’re spiritual.” I was put so off balance by her comment I didn’t think to show her the Celtic cross I’ve worn on a chain for decades, its circle wedded to the linear body and its four directions: east, west, north, south, up and down, left and right. The circle spinning at its center.
It would be a lonelier way of life, the religious life, if it didn’t connect you to everyone and everything in this world. These days, along with my cross on its chain, a cross I further love because of the woman who once kissed it and the specific moment when she did, I wear a heavy silver ring that another woman, a tall silversmith in Berlin whom I barely knew and who spoke little English, gave me after she taught me how to make it. For a while, along with the cross, I wore a necklace of tiny brown beads I bought at Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. Over the years it disintegrated bead by bead, but before it did, while I was riding on a bus in New York City, I felt that my Celtic cross had suddenly disappeared. Grasping for it, I found the voodoo necklace had captured it in a tangle.
I have the most trouble remembering the first three years, when I became something other than myself. Each day during the worst of those years I actively and often frantically talked myself out of ending my life.
I was raised middle-of-the-road Methodist, though my uncle was a Baptist minister in Arkansas. Another uncle knew how to use a peach limb to divine, dowse or “water-witch” the best place to drop a well and had “healing hands” that noticeably warmed when he concentrated and placed them on you. As a teenager, I was exposed to Alan Watts and Eastern religion, and of course the spiritual content of the music of my youth permeated everything.
I was interested in theology, even if I didn’t know it. The summer after I graduated from high school, I visited an evening service at the most fundamentalist church in my small town, and afterward I walked up to the preacher, ostensibly to discuss religion, but really, I know now, to test myself and attack every hard-line position he held. He was a large man, and he towered over me. The discussion continued for over an hour, building in intensity, until finally he turned and stormed away, his face flushed with anger, raging, “He thinks he knows more than God! He thinks he knows more than God!” I didn’t think I knew more than God, but I walked away thinking I knew more than this preacher did.
I wonder sometimes where all this came from, but on some level you can’t know. On some level it comes upon you whether you deserve it or not. Your experiences can prepare you. But that’s luck, too. Or what they call grace.
One evening in early October during my first semester of college in Austin, Texas, I left my dorm room to drive a few miles to the Colorado River. I’d accepted that there’s a spiritual element to the natural world. I had kept my eyes open for it, had read a few popular books about it, had no doubt experienced it in subtle degrees while hunting and fishing with my father. I took the Riverside Drive exit off of the interstate, parked and walked along the riverbank maybe half a mile upstream. Green tufts of grass and small trees grew along the bank, and the sun was setting.
I sat on the ground near a willow tree, just being still, slowing down to match my rhythm to the natural world’s, as I’d learned to do. I’d gone there thinking something might happen. And it did. With no fanfare, no ado, I had a full-bore religious experience, though nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Strips of clouds turned orange in the sky, then shifted to blue-gray. Tiny, sharp-shaped birds zipped past me, no more than a foot above the water. Stars appeared one by one. Everything above the water reflected on its surface. Nothing happened that didn’t happen every night. Cars passed by on I-35, buzzing and whirring like insects.
As the minutes and hours slid past and the colors shifted into grays, then blacks, I experienced an understanding which filled me like liquid, that everything in the world was right and exactly as it was supposed to be. And it had always been so, and would always be so. Whatever else might happen. However the surface world might change, or whatever violence humans wreaked upon the earth and each other, or whether humans, or even this planet, ceased to exist, this wouldn’t. The feeling was subtle but pervasive. It was everything I ever needed to know. It was, for lack of a better term, a glimpse of the eternal.
The best word I have for that glimpse is “love,” though that’s hardly accurate. But I believe all true faiths and all true prophets and all art and nature itself spin from its center, and our best word for that is God.
As much as anything else the experience was intimately familiar. Its source was outside me, yet it called me from within, as if I were wedded to it. Meanwhile, crickets chirped. The limbs of the willow shifted, and a warm breeze passed across my skin. After a time I looked toward I-35 and its cars, then turned back toward the river. I wondered how long I should stay. It felt inappropriate to be greedy.
Finally, after night had set in, and the stars and lights from the interstate claimed the water, the intensity of my experience began to dial down as if not trying to hurry me away, but it was getting late. I looked around, considered that I had homework. I got to my feet and wiped the dirt off my jeans. I had an urge to touch something, so I placed my hands on the willow and felt the life under its surface. Like it was an animal. Like it was a person. Though in truth the bark felt no different than it would have felt before. Only my perception of it had changed.
When I ask myself what might be the most important moment of my life, this event is the first that comes to mind. Two or three others make the list, but when I peel everything back, what is there really but that night when nothing out of the ordinary happened alongside that river?
I lost my mind less than a year later. I don’t know how else to describe it. As simply as I can manage, for what seemed the most practical of reasons, I left Austin and a young woman I didn’t know I was in love with — the feeling of it all was so new to me. Changing colleges for practical reasons, heading four hours up the road, I turned away from the direction that my life with her was heading. Without knowing it, I also turned away from the path that had given me my religious experience along the river.
Maybe something inside me hadn’t formed properly, completely, for me to take such a false step. Regardless, with this turn away from love, I fell. It was a deep, personal failing. I suffered immense shame from it, from how badly I broke down because of it. I dropped out of college and lost many years. I demarcate them into discrete groups: ages 20 to 23, 23 to 25 and 25 to 27, when I got more or less back on my feet.
I have the most trouble remembering the first three years, when I became something other than myself. Each day during the worst of those years I actively and often frantically talked myself out of ending my life. Me, the popular boy in high school, whom girls liked. Who was captain of the tennis team. Who’d had the same best friend — a brother really — since grade school; who lived in a stable home with dogs and cats and a sister and never doubted the love of his parents. Who made good grades and could go to most any college. Who was on a spiritual quest and so early had a glimpse of the sacred. I had everything going for me, it seemed, before the ground gave way.
On one hand I knew this collapse was separate from my religious experience; on the other, I was terrified I would lose that experience with it, since everything attached to me was now suspect. I refused to see a psychiatrist, fearing that a rationalistic voice from the outside would discredit the event along the river, the perceived significance of it, as the product of a fragile and broken mind. No more than a hallucination. During those most dangerous years I would have rather gone mad, slashed my wrists, played out whatever suicidal fantasy was running through me than receive such a message. I simply could not bear it. Or possibly, I refused to.
What I needed was to get through those three years and push forward, just by staying upright, enduring. Day after day, week after week. Getting to the next sunrise. Some part of me refusing to step from this earth. Then it was about slipping back into the world, getting a part-time job in Austin running a cash register in the university burger joint where I could talk to people, pass for normal — even laugh. A semester later it was about stumbling into the theater department and becoming an acting major.
That choice was about survival, even if I was not conscious of it, because my mind had suffered the equivalent of a hard-drive crash. Much of my knowledge of how to move through the world — how to date a girl, how to have a friend — had been wiped out. Theater became my means to reassemble the scattered pieces of myself. Through this highly personal art form, one experiences and performs what it means to be human. You are a friend, a murderer, a lover, a parent. You play out the range of it all, and in my case, integrate and upload it, fill in the gaps.
At the end of my second year in theater, when, regardless of everything the art had given me, I knew I would never be a successful actor, I gathered the courage to talk to a therapist assigned by the university. I was finally humble enough. I mean, no one knew better than me that I had broken. And I was still far from whole.
My therapist’s name was Helene. We talked week after week, covered the usual stuff. There was a softness to her that engendered trust. She had long red hair and wore glasses and her skin was very light. Though she was probably only in her mid-20s, she seemed significantly older than me. And I think all our sessions led up to a single moment, months into our time together, when I knew I must tell her of my religious experience and face her response. Had this most important moment of my life, what the best parts of myself had led to once upon a time when I was happy, when the world was beautiful, been nothing more than synaptic misfirings? A symptom of mental frailty? I had to know.
I sat in the chair across from her as she waited. My throat tightened when I tried to speak, my fear of being crushed, rent by her response, fighting me. Still, I squeaked out the words the best I could. After I finished, she took a moment, looked down, then up and past me toward the wall. She began telling me of Abraham Maslow and his theory of peak experiences. She thought this must be what I’d had. A “peak experience.”
It was the strangest, most stunning thing to hear. I did not believe a rational, modern, psychological perspective would affirm my experience as true. And because I could now believe in that moment, I could begin to believe in myself. I could walk and dance and sing again.
I don’t recall much about our other sessions. In comparison, how could whatever followed matter? Still, how lucky I was this particular young woman had the maturity to see me, to hear me. To not write me off as depressed and hallucinatory but have the understanding to connect to my experience and point me forward.
I remember walking down the cool stone hallway as I did after each session. I doubt she saw me respond much to what she said. I was cautious, hesitant, like an inmate who’s been shown an escape he hadn’t seen before but now could simply walk through, who for so long had known only walls.
Stepping out of the old building, I saw blue sky through the olive leaves of the live oak trees. Students lay everywhere on the fresh grass, talking, laughing, their voices like running water.
I turned to make my way to my next class.
Steve Adams’ creative nonfiction has won a Pushcart Prize, been listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and published in The Pinch, The Millions and elsewhere. His debut novel, Remember This, will be published by the University of Wisconsin Press later this year. Learn more at www.steveadamswriting.com.