A DREAM OF ESCAPE
I'm in a dreamscape of Istanbul. Its an early Spring morning, brisk but starting to dry the Sea winds a bit. I cherish this part of the world where Asia and Europe touch, where radically different cultures and minds passionately meet and blend. Or ruthlessly don't. The places I know well here are dear to me, and the new ones are always an adventure.
This morning I went to revisit a favorite museum, a place originally built as a fortress-palace, now filled with collections of national treasures. I spent hours there admiring ancient statuary acquired during the Ottoman occupation of Egypt.
The statues were carved in blood-red sandstone, dark grained woods, and clay baked black in ancient ovens. About half human sized, the figures were of horrific demon-looking and of wonderfully angelic seeming creatures. I imagined the exotic, ecstatic ceremonies that took place before those idols.
My mind is still filled with this bewitching array of impressions as I take a tiny ancient coach, the staccato clatter of the horses hoofs on the narrow cobblestone street adds an eccentric rhythm to my curious mood of being totally elsewhere.
In a breath, I'm beside a funicular cable car. It sits at an angle and I see it is to be pulled up the steep mountain side above the city by the metal thick cables lashed to its front. (As if in a whisper, my mind recognizes that there is no such mountain near Istanbul. But the dreamscape continues.)
At the back end of the upward slanting car, I sit fascinated by the expanding view as we ascend. My soul, feeling unburdened and relieved, also expands as the view grows more boundless. Ahead of me, the car is crowded with olive-skinned, black haired men and women. They wear dark, shabby Western style clothing, the men with visored caps, the women's' faces hidden behind drab kerchiefs. They stare fixedly ahead up the mountainside or lean to share in whispered conversation. I am the only Caucasian and, apparently, the only one interested in he splendid scenery around us.
In the city below, the shrinking skein of intercrossing streets are lined with twisting rows of huddled, weathered wood houses, with the mushroom domes of mosques blossoming among them. Landmarks show places I know well, but, from up here, they seem vague memories, dreams, delusions. Before long, we're high enough to see across the Galata Serai, the broad River that separates the European and Asian parts of the city. And, from here, I can see further out yet to the River's source, the Bosphorus Sea that opens north to Russia.
The buzzing clatter of life in the streets and markets, the jingling of overburdened donkeys' bells as they stumble the cobbled streets, the far-off putting motors of fishing boat's, the warning toots of the ferry boats plying the Sea, the devotional call of the muezzin over the rumble... all grow fainter and blend into a more mysterious, evocative murmur.
The smells that were so much part of going about the city, the savor of swordfish steaks grilled over charcoal braziers, donkey and horse droppings, the fumes of the kerosene and petrol stoves everywhere, and the aged aroma of the city itself wrapped in the musty aura of the inland Sea also fade and blend.
The opening sky is a cloudless pale blue, and the sunlight grows brighter as we rise above the Sea's muting shroud of mist. All this pleases my love of the strange. It is the intoxicating feel that I'm truly somewhere else.
With a lurch and a braking screech, we reach the top, the end of the line. The cable car stops at a wide stone platform that butts against a high stone wall that surrounds the top of the hill. All the passengers descend with a stolid familiarity. They walk off in both directions along the wall, as if they have paths to follow, connections to make. To me, though, except for the huge stone monastery-looking building at the very top of the hill, the area looks completely barren of any other place to go.
I decide to wait here till the cable car makes its return journey and continue to feast on the splendid views that so open my inner perceptions. From this height, the city is a fanciful miniature beautifully set in wide stretches of grasslands and random copses of trees. I gaze out into the expanse of sky and watch large flocks of ravens fly below me with deep, soulful satisfaction. I'm liberated, raised above the encircling horizon's confinement here.
This is the perspective, the inner sense of fertile stillness I sought. I rest back against the wall, my spine fits with its stone. In a wisp of hopeful fantasy, I imagine this as a place of some spiritual awakening.
My attention is drawn to notice another passenger who also remains behind. He is an older, trim, respectable looking gentleman with a definite European air about him. He wears a modest but clean dark suit and felt hat and carries a walking stick. His mahogany dark face is heavily creased, his animated facial expressions accentuated by his trim gray goatee. He too looks down and admires the view of the city, then turns to look up at the buildings beyond the high stone wall.
He slowly approaches me in a gentle, precise gait, and touches the brim of his hat in a formal, old-world greeting. He speaks to me in a friendly, sonorous voice.
"It is a picturesque outlook, no doubt. But, since you are a seeker here, I think you may find a visit to our place of sanctity illuminating," he suggests and raising his walking stick to indicate the huge structure that lies above, beyond the wall. Yes, his accent and gestures confirm his British education.
"My name is Stavros," he says offering me his firm hand with a slight bow. "It will be some while before the car descends again and I would be pleased to be guide you through." He indicates the building again with a nod of his head. "There is ample time," he assures me.
I consider for some moments. In my expansive mood, there is room for endless possibilities in even this simplest of decisions. "Yes, a tour of a monastery might be just the thing, right now," I answer with satisfaction and nod and smile to show I'm pleased with his suggestion.
He beckons me to follow him along one side of the cement platform where there is a deep, rain-eroded crevice in the earth. With a strange crouching posture, he shows me how to walk around it, our backs scarping against the rough stone wall. On the other side of the crevice, we slide through a crack in the corner of the wall and suddenly we are out of the bright openness and are within the dark confines of the monastery.
Rather than shock, I feel an amused awe over these happenings. Something is coming through to me that seems to go far beyond the circumstances. I sense the echoed vibration of a litany bouncing through the low ceilinged stone walkway we're in. It leads past small Spartan rooms to both sides. Windows set high in the outer stone walls cast some twilight down on the narrow passage for us to see our way.
There are men in every room. Some of them sit on cots or crude chairs or simply pace, their heads bowed in prayer or meditation. Some are reading old, leather bound books. Some are telling their beads with sharp, clacking sounds. Some just tranquilly stare off into space. And, although it is very austere, somber and enclosed, it leaves me with the pleasurable expansive aura I felt emanating from those angelic images in the museum this morning, an unstained otherworldliness. Exactly what I'd have hoped a monastery to nurture.
Stavros offers me his creased, weathered smile, strokes his goatee and nods approvingly at a monk sitting with eyes closed, folded hands limp in his lap, his head nodding in prayer,
I am deeply reassured. He has brought me to a celestial haven.
Now my companion leads me deeper and deeper into the building along the intersecting walkways that appear laid out in a grid work. They gradually get narrower. The windows in the walls grow smaller and their light dimmer. I grow less comfortable, closed in... claustrophobic.
All at once, somewhere along the way, I note that now there are bars across the windows and that the tiny rooms are cells and have barred doors across them too. The devotional litany has imperceptibly given way to bitter moaning and curses. I'm startled to realize that we are no longer in a monastery but in a fortified prison. Somehow, in spite of the huge difference between them, we have passed from one to the other without my really noticing.
Through the small windows opening to the hallway, I see, behind the barred doors, are men. They sit on cots or simple, crude chairs. Some are reading, some are playing cards or checkers with sharp, clacking sounds. Some just morosely stare off into space. It is very austere, somber, and chokingly closed in. What I would have expected a prison to be like?
Yet, here I am. And I'm terrified with the sudden fear that I couldn't prove that, in reality, I don't belong here, that I really am a free man. I suspect that I'm as much a prisoner here as any of these other men. And Starvros?... I'm desperately confused. I've been betrayed and am alone, at risk beyond imagining. Yes, and now I recognize the dusky fervor of those demonic figures that intrigued me in the museum earlier. Here is the hell realm they create and flourish in.
I've been taken in, duped by the old man's kind, reassuring manner. Confidently, even now, he continues walking on ahead, apparently unconcerned with the turn of things. I can only assume he knew about this bewildering metamorphoses beforehand; monastery into prison, angelic into demonic.
Although I'm resentful and suspicious, I see no choice but to look to Stavros for some clue as to what to do. "How do we get out of here?" My voice rises desperately. "How do we escape?" Now I feel like a straight- jacket binds me, my arms locked to my sides and my lungs in a vice.
He calmly, almost humorously, explains to me that the only way out, though very few others recognize them for this possibility, are the little plots of barren earth left in the narrow passageways beside the doorway of each cell. I'd assumed they were originally meant to grow vegetables or flowers in, to brighten up the otherwise lifeless space.
"Lie down," he coaxes me with an encouraging grin, indicating the plot by the cell where we stand. "Cover yourself up with the dirt. Wiggle down into the heart of the earth and you will find a way out of this prison."
I am very distrustful, of course. It sounds completely bizarre, And taking his advice got me into this fix in the first place. But that's overshadowed by my desperation to escape these confines. I can't even imagine there might be an alternative.
I look him in the eyes some long while, searching. His expression of kind concern doesn't change. In hopeless resignation, I sit down on the plot and submissively scoop handfuls of the dirt over my legs and body. It is light and silty, parched and overused. Incapable of nurturing life. Memories of a small child sitting in a sandbox surface as I dig.
"No, no," he instructs me firmly, making a gesture of pushing with his open palms for me to lie down. I relent and lay back and find the plot fits me like a grave. He helps by shoveling the dirt over me with his hands as I wiggle my body back and forth and scrunch down into the dusty earth.
Soon, I sink down and am totally engulfed by the dirt. It is much easier than I would have thought. But, whereas I felt closed-in before, now, in attempt to escape that prison, I am totally buried alive. But I continue squirming down, my eyes closed and trying to keep my breath to a whisper. My body, as I sink through distinct layers of the earth, transforms, melts through the dirt and the sand, the stone and rock as I drift down towards the heart of the Earth itself. I am permeable to all. Yet, as I pass down through them like a shadow, like a flame, I am no less myself than ever.
Thus freed from my sense of form, I descend through ever deeper and denser realms as I I grow ever more rarefied, essential. The onion-layers of appearances that had disguised my being are dissolved from me, discarded.
The settling motion slows, then stops. My trajectory is balanced where I reach a point poised between the densest core of matter and my most rarefied soul of being. I am suspended between them, though there is nothing left of me but a column of radiant light.
Suspended thus, am I to remain here forever?
Then there comes an innermost turning around in the center of my mind. At once, I know that I Know; that I am the Looker looking for the Looker. Awakening resonates throughout all the domains of my cosmos like a huge chime ringing. The stone around me transmutes into open air. I am falling --down, up, through all the regions of Earth.
With one last shake, I spring up through the dirt. I'm at the base of the stone wall at the mountain's top. The freedom I feel displays how my soul has been cleansed, renewed, resprouted from the very core of the Earth itself.
The cable car's conductor is clanging the bell to signal the trip back down. As I shake off the last of the dirt and dust, ecstatic to be so free, I see Stavros coming towards me from the wall's far end. The old man is waving and smiling gleefully. Yes, I got the illuminating tour he'd promised. I happily wave back as I walk to meet him.
Copyright Nathaniel Schwartz 2003 www.WisdomVisions.com