The Wizard of Av: a meditation on destruction and renovation

The Lone Vehicle of the Apocalypse

We were sitting in a post-Katrina courtyard, probably Treme. One of those beautifully decayed shotgun houses, all bougainvilleas and Spanish moss, so hot you could fry an egg in the shade. There were three of us—me, Shades and the Chinaman. I was on a low wooden bench directly across from Shades. He sat there in his muttonchops and kinky blonde curls and stared right through me like I wasn’t there. Leastwise it seemed so, as I had no idea what his eyeballs were actually doing behind those impenetrable eponymous shades. I was fasting on account of it being the Ninth of Av, the spiritual nadir of the Hebrew calendar. The day both ancient Temples bit the dust. The Chinaman was slightly out of view to my right. He sat on an old spindle back chair just outside the French doors leading to the inner sanctum. No one knew whether the Chinaman was actually of Chinese extraction or simply talked a good game. The fast rendered my perceptions a tad surreal, kind of sparkly around the edges. A portentous ladder leaned against the wall behind and to the left, orthogonal to Mr. Shades. 

Apropos of nothing, a thoughtform emerged from the Chinaman, possibly actual words from his mouth. “Renin hippocampus,” was all. Classic inscrutability, if you go for old stereotypes. The words banged around the walls of my cranium. Before I had a chance to cogitate further on the matter, the Chinaman swiveled his head, a devilishly subtle move, in the direction of Mr. Shades to whom he addressed his thoughts. Way cryptic. Dudes wasted no words in the hot damp air. My eyeballs rolled along a path from the Chinaman’s mouth to Mr. Shades’ ear. Shades was a dead ringer for John Sebastian, his evil twin. Palms plastered firmly on his thighs, Shades parted his lips and emitted a word bubble in the direction of yours truly. “Where does memory reside?” Whoah! No doubt it was a trick question, intended to force me into a response of mindless specificity. I was not about to fall into the snare of the Blind Sphinx of Treme. “It’s embedded everywhere,” I said leaning forward and then collapsing back on my haunches.

Skipping nary a beat, Mr. Shades parried my strike with stunning bluntness, “No. You’re wrong about that.” He feinted in the direction of the Chinaman, “He already said it.” As I glanced to my right I realized, yes, he said it. Renin hippocampus. The words came back to me. A kidney hormone and a mailing address in the neocortex. Or the name of a neuroendocrine Burlesque dancer. The Chinaman chose that very moment—yea, and no other—to grip the undersides of his chair and twist his torso from side to side. He was signifying! I was certain. He sure as hell didn’t have back pain. Supple as a snake, that one. The twisty movements. I had learned them at the feet of the Chinaman himself. Great galls of bile, I knew it! The gallbladder channel. That pinstripe highway zipping up the sides of the legs, zigzagging along the flanks of the abdomen, pole-vaulting over the shoulders and up the neck, to crisscross the sides of the cranium like thunderbolts before diving deep into its source in gray matter. Dude!

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My heart was going lickety-split, but we weren’t done yet. The Chinaman looked at Shades and I followed suit. The inscrutable says to the indecipherable, “You’ve got the tools.” Before I could digest that little pearl I  spotted a thin line of drool dribbling out of the left-hand corner of Mr Shades’ mouth. Was he losing it? Was all the herb finally catching up with him? He was an herbaliste extraordinaire, but this? Then I got it. More signifying! A truly subtle couple of sphinxes, these dudes. Saliva! That’s the ticket. Drool is the tool. I knew the whole Red Dragon Stirs the Sea routine, the Chinaman’s random pedagogy. That’s why I liked hanging with the dude. Feed the three elixir fields their aliquots of spittle. Shades, however, was prodding me in a neuroscientific direction. He wanted me to fly without a net. Internet that is. Smart phones were banished in the Court of Extreme Wisdom. Volumes of drool poured into my parched mouth, soothing my fast-embittered tongue. Then I thought of it, the other gift of those pink little submandibular saliva reservoirs. Nerve Growth Factor, dumped hot and steaming directly into the circulatory stream. Repair, replace, repair, replace. Which would it be? 

I was counting on my fingers. How multitudinous are thy ways, O Lord. I needed my dumb little digits to tap into my smart little phone. I sidled away from my confreres, ducked through the French doors and into the cool of the house to retrieve my forlorn little electronic device from the funerary urn into which I had been instructed to dump it. Fingers don’t fail me now. Fast as you could say Alexander Graham Bell I found it. The renin hippocampus connection. Seems the only place in the brain that’s filthy with receptors for kidney hormones is—you guessed it—the hippocampus! I let out a low whistle. But there was more. There was another circulatory skeleton key that populates those hippocampal hangouts. Hepatocyte Growth Factor. The stuff that makes the liver regenerate like the rear end of a salamander. Right on up the gallbladder trail to the goddam hippocampus! The frickin’ Fountain of Youth. Bartender! Another round of neuroplasticity for everybody.

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And so it is that Hepatocyte Growth Factor waters the thirsty neurons of the hippocampus, sprouting little trees of knowledge wherever her droplets land. Deep below the racetrack of consciousness lurk the Subplate Cells, little undifferentiated troglodytes, survivors of the Pruning Wars. Undiscovered until a decade ago, those little shamans can shapeshift, with the aid of HGF, into anything your little brain desires. Suddenly a voice from beyond the French doors. Why do you call out her name? Name? Who? All of my friends were name-dropping. Names—people, places, things, intangibles—dropping off the shelves of memory and going splat. Loss, the inherent vice of the storage biz. The warranty was up on all our brains and no service center was offering cortical repair jobs. The accretion of names. Adam’s job. Original Adam. Adam Cadmon. Dude! I could feel my whole body light up like a Hanukkah Bush! Whatever. The sufferin’ Sephirotic Tree of Life AKA Adam Cadmon. The Source! The Signal! The Path! I was just shy of jumping up and down with lunatic delight. That is until I thought about the destruction.

It was the frickin’ Ninth of Av. The day when Jews the world over sit on the floor, unbathed, in rumpled clothing, and give ear to descriptions of unspeakable horror chanted to the tune of what sounds like a lilting Irish folk song. The melancholy would pierce the most hardened of hearts. And no leather, man. On that day we don’t do leather. No finery. Affliction is the constriction. So here I was, sitting in a courtyard in Treme, the stigmata of destruction all around. Empty lots, flood-devoured houses, walls decked out with a patina of mold courtesy of the receding waters. People gone. It wasn’t weather killed The Big Easy.  It was ignorance, corruption, neglect and baseless hatred. The hatred of outsiders for a city they couldn’t understand. No reason to save the drowning lady. The hatred of insiders for themselves and one another. Looting, rape, murder and indifference on top of what was already an overwhelming tragedy. Jews chant of the destruction by fire of the two holy Temples, and of centuries of murder and mayhem visited upon the Israelite nation. The Nawlinean Temple saw a watery death. The destruction spreads beyond the bounds of the Temple, infects the courtyards of the mighty and the denizens of the Commons. The dissolution of the bonds that hold us together as a nation, yea the veritable end of Homo Sapiens as a species.

Whoah, this is getting pretty dark. But that’s kind of the point. Unfettered global warming, a worldwide wave of fascism and a skyrocketing suicide rate. Humanity headed into the shithole. I met a young woman deep into mourning the loss of her health and her peace of mind. But the thing she most mourned, that she couldn’t even speak of, not until three years of conversation had elapsed, was the erasure of her memory palace. She was a mnemonist. She could hang any set of words or ideas or images upon each cornice and column, tuck them into apses, hide them in transoms, drape them over friezes. So well did she know her holy temple of memory she could visit it in lucid dreams and rearrange the furniture. Breathtaking. Then came the stroke. A cerebrovascular accident trashed the whole damned structure. I tried to console her with three thousand years of mourning. She nodded in recognition of our shared sense of enormity. Why do you call out her name?  Why lament or keen, sing dirges or catalogues of travail? Who’s listening? What do you imagine? Who is the ‘she’ for whom so many of us pine? The erotic other, the balm for all loss. The ghosts of all the mothers of times long past. What hope for divine presence in a blasted landscape. Forgotten words, lines of poetry unwritten.

What comes back is not the merely human. What’s resurrected ain’t no zombie apocalypse, though that may appear to be the case right now. No, I tell you, you’ve got to raise your spirits. It’s the law. Your sadness is a wet blanket over the smoldering embers of your once and former self. You’ve got to lighten up, dude. Or the spirit won’t come. You got to laugh and sing and dance in the face of the total annihilation of everything. Because it’s happening every instant. The Holy Temple of Memory is destroyed again and again and again. As is all of reality as we know it. The blink of an eye. The whole frickin’ universe bleeds into the bullseye, the black hole where all the light goes in. The pupil, kore, maiden. What is that about? Why do you call out her name? You know you know her name, the one you guard with all your heart and soul. The Black Madonna, the Shekhina Glory, Shakhti. Whatever handle you slap on her, she’s all that, she’s the One. The spirit that rises from the ashes of the Temple, that bounces from body to body, breathes her hot breath right in your face. The whoosh in your ear, the prickle at your neck. She has been in exile with you, but she’s coming back full force.

Touch down! Call in the scientists and the mathematicians, the poets, the engineers, the ergomancers, the practitioners of obscure arts. It’s all happening inside us and among us, good people. In that great Sabbath, that prolonged rest brought about by the disassembly of all our sacred quotidien structures, in the ensuing howling emptiness, is our salvation. Yea verily and forsooth! First we resurrect the tzaddikim, the cedars of our Temple, the holy chariots, rocketships in the divine space force. The bodhisattvas and arhats, the dervish masters, wandering saints and holy men. Big medicine. The crown of creation floats above us, streamers of light fluttering our way. We twist from side to side, we tweak the gallbladder meridian as we cry each to each, launched as fiery angels in awe of the heavenly matrioshka doll, nests within nests within nests, we marvel at its sheer density! With another tweak of the gallbladder, side to side, we are at The Place, that interstellar bistro where wishes really do come true. We howl as holy celebrant beasts surrounding the epicenter of density. We gnash our teeth in sacred salivation. Nerve Growth Factor for everyone, with a side order of Hepatocyte Growth Factor! The fires of the heart burn bright as we declare the absolute fusion of mutability and essence, the roiling cauldron of creation at our fingertips, the entire hippocampus lit up in flaming hoofprints. And in that very moment, we remember, that is you and I and everyone else, whatever it means to name us all as if we were separate, we are all that. We are she and she is we and we are all together. Goo goo frickin’ gajoob! And with that we slam back down to the surface of planet earth ready to rock and roll.

But as Reb Jerry Lee once said, “Too much love drives a man insane.” A curtain falls with a velvet whoosh. Whew, close call. Nearly annihilated in the intergalactic love fest. But, but, but…now we’re really lost, cries the still small voice. No, man, time for the slow build up. We have the know-how, the refined essence of all those dead folks who once were our teachers, the divine background radiation. We have the come-back power. The power to forgive our errors. The divine body shop lifts us up and the work of repair begins. Every timestamp, every possible self, lights up as if to say, “Here I am!” All drawn in to the center, the holy hook up. Suddenly you see it, the map of the universe, Indra’s net. The order! The order! The mismatched parts go to ground as the whole Rube Goldberg machine crunches into place. They are here! All the tzaddikim and the bodhisattvas and the arhats and the whole earthly choir, the experts at construction. Then come the workaday building blocks galumphing into place, each piece of the puzzle jostling its way next to its fellows. Then the divine attractor itself descends into its basin, snapping the whole kit and caboodle into shape. The poem at the center of the universe. And that, my friends, is what so irresistibly calls out her name.

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We are blown away with gratitude, man. Still shaking from the holy hullabaloo, we can hardly believe our good fortune. To even be alive after all that shaking and wailing! But the descent to planet earth is not yet complete. From the pool of salivation we have generated, we reserve three aliquots, one for each fire of the triple burner. A cool blue rain bathes my body, kickstarting every cell and molecule to its putt-putting perfection. A hot red wind blows out the sails of my spirit, jazzing the air with feeling and subtlety. And last but not least a gargantuan white dirigible extends to the event horizon and back, all-seeing as Argos, a nerve-shattering vision. That’s why she grants me peace, the cooling of my fevered brow. To Metatron and Sandalphon I bow and beg my leave to return to the world of my fellow wizards, my boon tucked safely in the crook of my arm for the touchdown. See what Mr. Shades and the Chinaman want for lunch. All that salivation stirs up the appetite. And what, you may ask, do they call me? I am the Maytag repairman of the soul, the Keeper of the Lost and Found. But my friends know me by my nom de guerre, all of us survivors of The Intergalactic Reality Massacres. I am, my dear one, the Wizard of Av.

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About the Author
Michael Diamond is a writer based in the Washington, DC area. He practices psychiatry there and is a doctor of medical qigong. He has published occasional verse, fiction and translation in Andrei Codrescu’s journal, The Exquisite Corpse; in the journal Shirim courtesy of Dryad Press; in the online journal for Akashic Press; and in The Journal of the American Medical Association. He lives in the suburbs with his wife, an artist and illuminator of Hebrew manuscripts, their dog, two cats, a cockatiel named Peaches and a tank of hyperactive fish. He has had a strong interest in Torah since first exposed to traditional stories as a child. Over the course of his life he has run the gamut of spiritual exploration of many world traditions of meditation and mythology. For the last several decades he has landed squarely in the traditional Jewish world. His writing is informed by all of this experience, by his curiosity about today's world and by his desire to mine the Jewish experience for its hidden and revealed wisdom. Torah Obscura, as in camera obscura, from Latin, meaning "dark room", also referred to as a pinhole camera, exploiting the optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene outside of a chamber projects itself through a small hole and can be seen on the inner surface of the chamber. A glimpse of an otherwise invisible world afforded by a small aperture for light. All materials herein copyright © 2018 Michael S. Diamond. All rights reserved.
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