What Happened?

A photo of my office wall – 2010. A postcard from the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is circled on my bulletin board.

For the past week and a half or so, I’ve been trying to find the perfect words to describe a bit of unexpected magic I recently experienced. This moment was not the first time I’ve felt something which has been hard to translate from the actual event into a concrete narrative. So far, I’ve been dissatisfied with every single word that I’ve considered. This process has felt like pouring a dictionary into a colander, then shaking it with vigor, hoping to sift out the ones that don’t work, and then finally, finding just the right word, lying at the bottom, the perfect little self that it is. Alas, I’m still dissatisfied with every choice. I guess this ambivalence is the result of being in one of those circumstances that is out of the ordinary, unusual, inexplicable. So I’m going to approach this fascinating event in a way that I hope will make sense, even though “sense” is somewhat elusive.

Image of the “alien” from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

Generally speaking, I’d have to say that I perceive myself as practical, a realist, a person whose feet are planted firmly on the ground, not given to romanticizing life or to experiencing routine flights of fancy. That said, there’s a little part of me, that despite my somewhat skeptical approach to the world, has allowed for moments of fantasy. I remember when I saw “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” back in 1977, I was touched by the portrayal of the primary alien as a benign, friendly presence with an affect that inspired hope in this complicated universe. I found a postcard of that creature which I kept on the bulletin board in my office for decades, a sliver of optimism throughout my life. In addition, I’ve had a fair number of experiences that I could never quite fit into the realms of “normal,” or “average.”

Image from Webb Telescope – NASA

The universe in all its newly-detailed glory, courtesy of the Webb telescope, is only of life’s big questions that remains elusive to me in almost every way. The conversations between those whose brains are more abstract than mine, slosh over through my decidedly non-physics mind like water running from a faucet. String theory, black holes and the like are too much for me to fully comprehend. I do believe that the vastness out there is likely to support life, maybe not as we know it, but in some form beyond human understanding. I think it’s awfully arrogant to assume that what we see around us is all that there is. Given that there are billions of people around the world believing in disparate mystical unseen entities, I’m certain that there’s “something out there,” whether I can wrap my head around it or not. I don’t expect to be around long enough to know anything about that stuff. I feel like the other still largely mysterious frontier is in our brains. Although neuroscience has picked up a blistering pace in studying that powerful organ, there’s a lot that’s unknown about how brains work. And I’d like to know more about its processes, both inside our bodies and beyond, with its potential connections to the bigger universe. Sometimes things just happen that make no sense. But in my life, there have been enough peculiar incidents that perhaps some day, will be better understood. Some people believe in heaven or hell or iterations of those places, after death. I believe that there are possibilities, undiscovered connections that extend beyond the current accepted parameters of what is certain. In those moments when I can’t logically explain what’s happened to me, I remind myself to leave a door open in my mind, for what feels magical or otherworldly. Because no one can exactly explain everything.

I can viscerally recall many of these events, ones that transcended what in daily life had felt normal or average to me. The night that I met Michael for example, at a wedding where within a few minutes of relaxing next to each other, wordlessly staring up at a full moon, we both simultaneously felt a palpable pull toward each other, almost an instantaneous recognition of some magical connection that felt like forever, whatever that meant. That almost eerie moment, dizzying in its intensity, somehow turned into a “till death do us part” lifetime. Neither of us had experienced a moment like that, ever, which continued to be a marvel throughout our marriage.

Devil’s Den – Gettysburg Battlefield.

I can still feel myself stunned, on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. For years I’d been a serious student of that war, never quite able to understand how these soldiers endured the horror of assaulting their own countrymen during so many bloody confrontations. When I stood At Devil’s Den, the rocky formation that was the theater for unspeakable violence, my body was infused with a powerful physical sensation of the chaos and horror poured into the ground below me. I’d read before of the ghostly presence of all those lost young men, but was hardly prepared to feel this collision between me in the now and them, long since gone. I still marvel at the power of my experience in that place.

Gettysburg Cemetery

I’m hardly the first person to either have a transcendent experience or to think about them.

“Transcendent experiences” are events that bring us out of our ordinary minds, making us feel connected to the world around us. People report accessing them through use of certain drugs or through spirituality, magic, and the occult. They can also be triggered by nature, meditation, and even near-death experiences. Additionally, new scientific studies are discovering that transcendent experienceshowever they’re reachedcould be helpful for our mental health. Magellan Journal.

Abraham Maslow, a professor and psychologist, became the leader of the humanistic school of psychology that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, which he referred to as the “third force” — beyond Freudian theory and behaviorism. “Maslow himself spent lots of time defining transcendence, referring to it as “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Transcendent experiences have been referred to as “peak experiences,” “flow,” “clear light,” “objective consciousness,” and many other names. They are very different depending on who experiences them. Monotheistic religions sometimes connect transcendent experiences to a single God, while Spiritual but irreligious people tend to feel unity with the world around them. Other cultures and traditions access transcendence through various forms of meditation, and non-spiritual people tend simply to feel connected to something they can’t explain. – Magellan Journal.

Yellowstone National Park
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

From my vantage point, these instances in which something extraordinary has occurred, have most often happened spontaneously, when I’m unaware that a special feeling will descend on me. The beauty of a significant relationship, glorious moments in nature, or being touched by music or art, have each instigated a sense of the exceptional at different times in my life. So back to a short while ago, when I found myself once again in an unanticipated, magical moment with of all people, my little granddaughter, not yet five months old.

I was babysitting for her in the afternoon, which has been customary for most weekdays. As she is developing and becoming more alert, I decided to expose her to some music that is especially beautiful and meaningful to me. I’ve been noticing that she listens to singing with a fully absorbed look on her little serious face and that she seems to find music calming. I reached into my Pandora collection and selected three tracks to play. The first was called Dead End by Leo Kottke, the second Anne’s Song by William Ackerman and the third, part 1 of the Koln Concert by Keith Jarrett. All three are instrumental. I’ve treasured them for years.

I was holding my granddaughter in my lap, facing me, her face maybe 8 inches from mine. I was using my phone for the music, the first notes of which startled her to the point that she jumped a bit in my hands, never having heard these sounds and certainly, not knowing where they were coming from. After a few seconds, she settled down and was looking directly into my eyes as I smiled and softly encouraged her to listen. I can’t quite describe the play of emotions quickly moving across her face as she heard the different tones. I saw everything, joy, sadness, glee, uncertainty and what I can only describe as familiarity and thoughtfulness. She maintained eye contact with me, periodically smiling, periodically serious. Within minutes I was more powerfully moved by her than I thought possible as it was clear that we were sharing an intense moment together. But what happened? How could this small baby who’s experienced so little of the world have such clear, varied and deep responses to this music? What was wired into her? How did it resonate so powerfully with me? Because it was so remarkable and overwhelming that I cried from the exquisite joining of our two selves at this moment, one so very young and one so far along in life. I’ve thought about this experience every day since it happened.

The two of us

I have no explanations for what happened between us but something did that was beyond the usual time we spend together. I also have no idea how a baby can be equipped to recognize something so powerful. But I know she did, even when this brief event is folded into the memory portion of her brain, perhaps never to cognitively emerge again. This episode will be a permanent part of me though, that I can access and ponder until I’m no longer able, joining with all the other mysteries I’ve been incapable of solving. Maybe one day this little girl will find answers to her life mysteries, aided by the progress that’s made by people who understand that there’s more to the universe than what we know, and that finding explanations for them can only be a good and not a fearful thing. Meanwhile I sit here, thinking and grateful that I haven’t used up all the wonder in my life. I wonder what will happen next?

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