Sunday, June 17, 2007

Night Music

Folks, being that I have the remnant of a satanic GI virus from the baby that's left me in no shape to blog, I give you one of Will's memoirs of plunging feet-first into the bottomless night.


We all have the occasional experience that seems charged with the fantastical yet strangely vivid atmosphere of a dream. As in dreams, we come away from such experiences with a wordless, awed certainty that we have been graced with some kind of transcendental message or lesson -- when the exterior world conveys a deep message about the interior world. The following is one such experience of mine.

Once, when in a traveling mood, I journeyed to the Caribbean island of Haiti to see what I could see (this was in the day of the malevolent reign of Haitian strongman "Baby Doc" Duvalier). Haiti, to state it mildly, is a strange place. To be honest, my whole Haitian trip was strange from the beginning. I had taken a night flight from Miami on an oily, rickety old 707, being only one of about ten passengers. Judging from their tropical-seedy appearances and their sullen individual silences, I was half-convinced that most of the passengers were either drug-runners, revolutionary provocateurs, or renegade ex-pat CIA agents. There wasn't a lot of onboard chatter.

We flew over a spectacular tropical storm that generated blazing threads of whitish-purple lightning beneath us. I remember having the disconcerting impression that the plane could actually have landed on a sea of lightning. Meanwhile, it wasn't escaping me that we were flying through the fabled Bermuda Triangle. The storm didn't touch Haiti, however, and our midnight descent and landing were uneventful.

Fumbling with my carry-ons as I usually do, I was the last one off the airplane. Here's where the dreamlike strangeness truly began. As I stepped down the metal stairway that had been rolled up to the plane, I saw that all the other passengers who had deplaned before me had seemingly vanished into the night. Well, I surmised, they all had mysterious business to attend to. I, on the other hand, was the naive tourist who really didn't know what he was doing. The plane, as if scared of catching some tropical disease, had parked a good distance from the airport's solitary and utterly silent terminal, so I walked across the concourse alone, clutching my bags and camera.

Up to this point in my life, I don't think I had ever seen an actual owl. I always thought that owls were pretty cool. I was envious of people who had actually seen owls. However, walking to the terminal through the oppressively hot Haitian night air, I saw, not one, not two, but what appeared to be hundreds of owls clustering in the unruly grass on the side of the runway, a veritable parliament of owls -- more owls than one person could ever hope to see in a lifetime. Absolutely silent owls, too, save for the restive flapping of wings here and there. My Haitian welcoming committee, the owls.

After passing through a customs process conducted by two men whose boredom somehow seemed menacing, I found one lone taxi in front of the airport. I expected the driver to be fast asleep, but no, he was wide-awake and smiling. Off we went rumbling to the capital city of Port au Prince and the Hotel Oloffson where I had reservations. I should note that the Hotel Oloffson is legendary in that part of the world. The Hilton, it's not. It's what tour guides like to describe as "highly atmospheric."

The Oloffson is in fact a crumbling old Gothic gingerbread mansion, redolent of the old French Colonial days. There's no air-conditioning in the Oloffson. The suites are open-air, so bats and lizards can enter freely if they are of a mind. Don't even think about drinking the washroom tap water, of course. The tropically exotic Oloffson was the setting for much of Graham Greene's novel, The Comedians, which was later made into a not-bad movie starring Liz and Dick and Alec Guinness. Anyway, after checking into the hotel, I was pleased to find a complementary fruit basket in my room, the centerpiece of which was a whole pineapple that had been split down the middle for my convenience. I cracked it open and a spider the size of my hand came loping out.

This was my first encounter with Haiti, and make no mistake, I was fairly spooked. Looking back on it, looking at all the unnerving things that happened, the things that I would see or hear or simply feel -- and I would have to include here the very fact of Haiti itself with its terrible poverty and ancient corruption -- I now understand these things to have been a necessary prelude to what eventually would happen, to the experience, it seems, that I was there to have.

* * * * *

During the next couple of days I settled into my tourist role. I attached myself to a group of American and Canadian guests at the hotel and we were escorted around town daily by a Haitian guide who took us to the regular tourist haunts. It was fun, but after five days or so, I decided that I wanted to do a little exploring on my own. I then rented a car and prepared to drive out to the countryside for a glimpse or two at the “real” Haiti. I didn't plan on straying too far from Port au Prince, of course. I certainly planned on sticking to the roads on the maps.

Naturally I failed to take several things into account the afternoon I got into my rental car and headed out toward the dense, dark, greenery that covered most of the island. First, every late afternoon there was a twenty-to-thirty minute tropical downpour which drenched much of the island. Second, there were no paved streets outside of Port au Prince, only dirt roads that were little more than runnels. Third, in the rural areas outside of Port au Prince there was no electricity, no street lights, no gas stations.

Blissfully ignoring all of the above, I drove out of Port au Prince and onto the dirt roads that spiderlegged out of the city. I drove for several hours, stopping now and then when I spied a patch of beach or some particularly fetching vision of the vine-entangled hills. One memorable sight: Seeing Haitian children coming down a hillside after being let out of school. In their brightly colored shirts and blouses, they looked like a multicolored bead necklace slithering down the green hill.

As the sun began to sink low, I finally turned the car around and began to head back to Port au Prince. It was then the downpour came with its usual pounding force. Within a few minutes the road I was traveling turned into a mud pit. My car ground to a halt, wheels spinning uselessly. For a time I tried to inch the car forward by gunning the engine but the mud held fast. I wasn't going anywhere, I realized, until the mud dried. I turned off the engine and sat back, waiting.

The last of the sunlight was quickly draining away. Again and again, I tried to get the car rolling but to no avail. The mud seemed more viscous and clingy than ever. Well, I thought, if worst came to worst, I could sleep in the car and wait until the morning sun dried the mud. The problem was that I was not at all inclined to sleep. The night that was beginning to press in on me was like no night I had ever experienced. It was, in a word, relentless. This, I thought, was night as our ancient ancestors knew it. Night, I now understood, was considerably more than the mere absence of day.

As the minutes rolled by and the night deepened, I began to sense an utterly primitive, all-encompassing presence to the night. Within this presence was a swirling stew of dark potions that seemed to well up from the earth. I had experienced gray, dark nights before but never one that had such a menacingly primitive heart.There were things in this night, things material and immaterial. I felt like prey.

For a time I listened to the car radio, trying to remind myself that civilization was still out there. I feared draining the car battery, however, so I turned the radio off. I longed for light, any form of light, but the sky was overcast and there were sloping hills on either side of my car which seemed to imprison me in black shadow. Of course, there were no electrical lights anywhere to be seen.

Then something remarkable happened. As I sat hunched down in the car seat, I suddenly began to hear singing, not far away but all around me, sterophonically. Clear voices, a choir singing polyphonically, a melody that sounded yearningly gospel-like. I cautiously rolled down the car window and peered into the night. Faintly, I could now make out the singers, native Haitians sitting on the slopes to either side of me, lost in their spontaneous music. How long had they been there? Where did they come from? Did they do this every night? The music seemed to fill the night with a warm light. I felt myself relaxing, breathing more deeply. The night was still fearsome and raw, but I let the music be my witness, my witness in the night.

In time, a group of Haitians came down the slopes to graciously push my car out of the mud. Before the sun came up, I was back in my hotel in Port au Prince, tired but still tingling over my experience with the night music. I would have other experiences in Haiti, all of them memorable in their own way. After I had returned to Chicago and to the routine life of child of the technoligized Western World, it was only my night music experience that truly stayed with me, flickering away in my memory like a night beacon.

All memories that linger, that haunt, are there to teach us something. What does this memory teach me? I was certainly inspired by the marvelous resourcefulness of the Haitians. Having few of the technological entertainments to which we are accustomed, they formed singing communities to entertain themselves, which I have no doubt are a good deal more spiritually nourishing than are most of our entertainments. Music, too -- its transcendent power to shape the spirit, to literally quicken the air around us. And as I view such memorable experiences as being spiritual Initiations, I thrill at the symbolism: In the darkest of nights, when all seems hopeless, does the saving Light appear.

A year later, I wrote the following to honor my Haitian experience. It's simply entitled NIGHT PRAYER:

Witness, we ask You to keep us awake in the night when we need to be so.

Witness, we are unable to withstand the storms of the night by ourselves. May we have Your Light to guide us.

Witness, may we forget ourselves in You. May our restlessness be stilled, may our duty to You and all Your creatures become clear to us.

Witness, may our desire to know You not flag, may we be graced with the stamina and will power to accomplish that which You would have us accomplish.

Witness, may we joyfully accept all that You bring to us simply because it is what You will for us.

May we trust in the Unknowable Night.



yohimbe said...

A remarkable story. Also remarkable is the similarity of Haiti to Vietnam. There must be a special juju to poor tropical countries that makes them generators of both fear and wonderment.

Nagarjuna said...

"A remarkable story," indeed! Thank you, Will (and Bob). Has it been published elsewhere? It should be.

walt said...

Will, you're a man of many talents!

Bob, hope you feel better soon. (Remember the acidophilus!)

Ricky Raccoon said...

That is a wonderful story. Thanks for writing it and sharing it.
I can’t tell you how often I think this very thought, seems constantly:
“All memories that linger, that haunt, are there to teach us something.”

geckofeeder said...

What an interesting story, Will. I too remember those Papa and Baby Doc days and the Catholicism laced with vodoo that was the collective mind parasite of that country then.
That beautiful and poignant prayer had the effect of washing the residue of an unexpected narcissistic spray of vitrioic projection by a Sam Harris moonbat which landed on me at at a dinner party last night, and I thank you for it.
So sorry you are ill again, Bob. No one tells you about the virulent virus the wee ones bring home to test you with. When the whole family is sick at once it can be an American kind of way.

juliec said...

Thanks for sharing that story, Will, and since I didn't pipe up yesterday thanks for the interview as well. There's something magical and mysterious about the truly Dark nights; coming through them, one often feels reborn and reblessed (and rather more humble, as well).

Bob, I hope you're feeling better soon.

And Happy Father' Day to all you Dads out there!

MizzE said...

Thanks Bob for posting this finely written tale and poem by Will.

Will, Travel into unknown territory and then being "stranded" in a place without modern day connectivity would tend to shift the focus of one's attention to the immediate present. Given the realities of your arrival into Haiti and the political and meteorological climate, I'd say you were in a ripe frame of mind for feeling apprehension.

As I've mentioned previously, for me the human voice while capable of being the most terrifying instrument on earth, can also be the most beautiful, especially when upon hearing one is transported out of the realm of fear and into the realm of assurance of favorable conditions.....If the natives had forgone the serenade and just approached your car, I suspect you would not have been prepared to receive their offer of help with as much trust.

For all the Dad's who might be able to swing by OC today,
I post this poem I put up today.

I am not what I ought to be.
I am not what I want to be.
I am not what I hope to be.
But still, I am not what I used to be.
And by the grace of God, I am what I am.

John Newton (1725-1807)

[My Dad's favorite hymn was "Just As I Am"]

Anonymous said...

Great story Will!!

Bob, what a way to celebrate Father's Day! Too bad you received a rather nasty "gift" from your son. Hope you get better soon.

Joan of Argghh! said...

Damn fine writing, Will.

My night music was in La Havana about 15 years ago...


Nagarjuna said...

Beautiful poem by John Newton, mizze!

"Just As I Am" is one one my favorite hymns too. Maybe it comes from watching all those Billy Graham sermons on TV with my grandparents in my impressionable childhood days. I always felt terribly moved when throngs of people would wend their way, just as they were, to the altar for redemption.

USS Ben said...

Happy Father's Day to all you Dad's, Pop's, Daddy's, Papa's, Pa's, Abba's and Father's!!!

Outstanding storytellin' Will!
You took a vacation to...Haiti?
During Duvalier's reign?
I'm glad you made it out alive and wiser!
Your Guardian Angel was workin' a lot of overtime during that trip! :^)
I loved your poem! You are a top-notch poet, and I hope we see more of your poetry and stories in the future.

Bob, I hope and pray that you and your family feel better soon.
Those GI (government issue) viruses are annoying as hell.

Van said...

"the night deepened, I began to sense an utterly primitive, all-encompassing presence to the night. Within this presence was a swirling stew of dark potions that seemed to well up from the earth. I had experienced gray, dark nights before but never one that had such a menacingly primitive heart.There were things in this night, things material and immaterial. I felt like prey."

One of the very few things I miss from my pre-family man days, was the ability to drive off alone to the ends of whatever roads were around where we were playing, and wait for nightfall.

Sometimes spending the night atop my Van, sometimes hiking further in for the night. Sometimes deep, sometimes clear, sometimes very thick.

Words don't quite work there, do they?

Interesting. Travelling, wherever you go, there you are.

MizzE said...

Off topic: Many OC readers know my healthy sister-in-law died quite unexpectedly 10 days ago. I just published the cause of death and urge you to read the link in my post so you'll be aware of the symptoms and who is most susceptible.

will said...

Thanks, all, for the compliments and the interesting commentary.

And Happy Dad's Day to dads.

Joan, Havana?? Can you maybe expand on that a bit?

Joan of Argghh! said...

Van, speaking of surprises, I just did my evening walk at Porpoise Point and found a man's ring. A wide band with a very large diamond in the middle.

Once again, finding presents when not looking. I don't think it was coincidence, in light of my morning thoughts today. Wow!

Will, I could expand on the Havana thing, but then I'd have to kill everyone on this website. (It involved singing, too. But I was the one singing. Old Havana was listening.)


Gagdad Bob said...

MIzz E --

Yes, my sister-in-law died of the same thing four years ago. It's frightening how quickly a seemingly trivial infection can get the upper hand. She was only 39 and in perfect health -- the source of the infection was never pinpointed, but it may have been something as innocent as a hangnail (which rapidly became a staph infection). For whatever reason, these serious infections are much more common than in the past, and they often just hit randomly, since our bodies are covered with bacteria that can occasionally make their way into the bloodstream.

MizzE said...

Bob, I was aware of the untimely death of Mrs. G's sister, but I didn't know the cause was also sudden, so lethal.

My antennae picked up this new bacteria discovery last week.

Susannah said...

Will, I felt as if I were stuck in that car myself. Very descriptive writing.

Happy Father's Day, and may Bob's end happier than it began. Somehow, we've avoided those nasty ones for the last few years.

Our daddy got to go to a motocross race with his brother. :)

Van said...

"may Bob's end happier than it began."

Well, you know... they say it all works out in the end....


cosanostradamus said...

Thanks for taking us on your fantastic voyage through Haiti, Will. A real gift.

Happy Fathers Day to all of us who are one...

Get well soon, Bob!

jwm said...

Of grace and the traveler.
A wonderful story, Will. Sometimes being far from home seems to charge up the synchronicity fields around you. I've had a few odd ones myself- times when I looked back and just couldn't escape the feeling that a greater hand was gently guiding me through dark places.

Sorry you're not feeling well, Bob.
wv: hyktwmsi There's your virus for you.


cosanostradamus said...

Missed yesterday altogether, so I loved catching up with Will's innervue of JWM this evening. Good stuff on both sides of the virtual mic.