These are just some of the memories that trickled through my mind as we made our way through the rain. I wondered what the silence would be like, would my mind wander, would my mind be still. I felt that in the past year I had been more anxious than before, that my base anxiety level was slowly rising as I aged. I worried that I would get worse and worse, or at the very least stay this strange ball of nerves I wasn’t familiar with. I asked myself, is this me now? My worry only increased as I pondered this, and I often fell into a feedback loop of nervousness. I was reminded of a line in one of Townes Van Zandt’s songs, a shame that it’s not enough, a shame that it is a shame.
I tried to find the cause to this change. Was it from all of the years I’d spent working with anxious people? Had their worries been so constant and normal that they’d washed off onto my own skin? Was it simply aging? I pushed these thoughts away and watched the rain hit my window and split off into endless varieties of streams that ran down the glass.
Soon we arrived at the parking lot. We met Karena’s father and stepmother, the people who first took her to this small building many years ago. Karena made the usual comments about how it had seemed larger in her memory, how the grounds in the back had felt like the biggest garden imaginable. I stood beneath my hood where the raindrops made thin tapping sounds and looked at the shiny green leaves shivering. Where do these places we knew as children go? What wind carries them away?
We returned to the front of the building and entered a very small entryway. Beyond the next doors a room open up. Chairs lined the walls, very few of them holding people. I only heard our soft footfalls on the rug and the shuffling sounds of our jackets. After we sat down at the far end of the room I became aware of a slight humming sound. Soon I was distracted the gurglings and babblings of a baby. A slim, bearded man had his child in a front pack while he tried to sit quietly. One might think the baby was unaware of the rule of silence at the Quaker Meetings, but actually you are encouraged to speak when you feel moved to. Thus we sit in silence until someone stands up and shares something. The child clearly had things to say, and maybe for this reason, I never felt annoyed or upset that my meditation was being broken. The sounds were like that of the birds chirping, the wind in the cracks of the door and the rain outside our windows. At first I tried to meditate, imagining my mind as a calm lake, and whenever fish though jumped to the surface I acknowledged it and moved on. This is easier said than done but that act in itself of observing is amazingly calming. After awhile I decided that my mind didn’t need to be so clear to be here. Maybe the Quaker let their minds follow the fishes down into the depths. I opened my eyes and immediately found the source of the low hum I had noticed earlier. Two large fan spun vigorously from the ceiling, their blades cutting the light cast from the bulbs to such an extent that the place where the wall met the ceiling appeared to be lit with light reflected from water. The spinning is really a flashing, the flashing mimicking the way light plays on the undulating surface of the calm lip of a lake. I laid my eyes on this light and felt slightly nauseas, most likely from the ratio of coffee to food in my body. I held my gaze a little longer before closing my eyes. Soon I was aware of a dull pain in the middle of my back, of itches on my forehead, my arm and my knee, and strangely enough, the weight of my eyeballs. The strangest feeling I noticed was after leaning back slightly to adjust my body. I found it increasingly difficult to keep my eyes closed. They felt to be naturally pulling open, and I imagined I was on a ship, the sea wind whipping all about, and I was trying to hold a lowered sail down against the deck. I released my eyelids and watched the watery light on the wall and ceiling across from me.
At some point, after what seemed a timeless amount of moments had passed. A woman stood up and discussed her feelings from watching stories about religious persecution on the news. She ended with sending her prayers out to those people, especially Muslims around the world. My thoughts on these people somehow migrated back towards whales. More specifically the extended familial structures of killer whales, groups that rivaled that of not just human families, but entire clans. They travel in matrilines, an extended family based around the mothers, meaning they travel with their mothers, grandmothers, and cousins. Specific sounds and travel patterns are passed down through the generations, making each matriline distinct from one another. Each matriline swims together for the rest of their lives with very brief breaks to mate or hunt. Groups of 4 or 5 related matrilines form pods, which, though they may split off for weeks or months, always link up soon again. Groups of pods will come together to form a clan, made up of pods who can trace their lineage back a common grandmother. They speak in similar, but not identical dialects. Sometimes pods from different clans will commingle to form a community, though they don’t all speak the same dialect. We have only observed these complex family structures in elephants and higher primates. The similarities to humans continue with their breeding age of between 15 and 40, and, even more rare among within the animal kingdom, and even species of whale, the females live for decades after they begin menopause. Their lives seem to be filled with much more than the desire to reproduce before they die.
The Yupiks of central Siberia believed that killer whales and wolves, we deeply connected spiritually. According to their legends, they were the same beings, appearing as orcas in the summer and wolves in the winter. In both forms they helped people. As whales they assisted in the hunting of walrus and as wolves convinced reindeer to let themselves be killed by the humans who hunted them. The chief difference between their shamanism and that of North America Eskimos was the extreme importance placed on the good treatment of sea creatures. Even the killing of a whale could only be done by one selected by the spirits, and if successful the hunter gave the dead whale the respect of an honored guest. Its spirit must be entertained by music and given food, in the hope that it will return again the following year. These beliefs all seem to suggest a deep connection between all things in nature, where the spirits can become one animal, then another, and even remake themselves after death. In this way death was rendered not as an ending, but simply veil, a tunnel to a deeper existence. The Yupiks saw the sky as a curving arch, with stars burning holes through it. Beyond this blackness was a space of light. When reading this I was struck by something I had recently come across in a book on physics, which posited that, much like our watery globe, space my indeed curve back on itself, and that if one traveled far enough in one direction the would eventually arrive where they began.
The First Peoples of Canada and the Americas called their continent Turtle Island. In British Columbia’s Bella Coola, it was not Noah’s great arc that saved humans from a flood, but a Killer Whale who let the people live inside of himself until the water receded. The orca’s desire to help may not have been simply altruism, but instinct. Many of the first people’s believed whales were not only magical creatures, but some of the ancestors of human beings. They forded the seas in their natural form or as giant canoes, looking for a special place to settle down. Once a spot was chosen, the came ashore and, after taking on the form of humans, built a village. In this way, festivals dedicated to whales are not just to appease magical creatures but to honor our ancestors, great travelers who willingly shed their mystical powers to become the human race.
As I sat in that large, cold, peaceful room of silence, and watched the watery light that reflected off the spinning fan blades, I began to not just imagine the whales from afar, but sink down among them. I was no longer looking at the sun reflecting off the surface of the water from above, but from within below. I let my mind loosen and travel toward the body of a whale, the beast that so enamored ancient peoples, Melville, Hart, Beale, Ellis, and more recently Hoare, and imagined I was far beneath the surface and gazing toward the strange dancing light that I could see but not touch. As my deep breaths continued and my body became even more relaxed, my mind began to accept that maybe I was within the sea. There was then a moment, it couldn’t have been more than that when my acceptance was so deep that I was filled with a panic that caused me to gasp, sit up straight, and break the spell. I was simultaneously part of the sea, and thus home, and yet afraid of the crushing weight of water.
The brain does not distinguish between real emotions and those created by fiction, nor does the neuron fire differently when hearing music or replaying a song in your mind. There is a wealth of experience and of living that goes on completely hidden from the rest of the world. It is not so difficult to imagine that a beast such as the whale, whose environment is so different from ours, lives a life filled with hidden meaning, or at the very least, a secret richness.
When an hour had inexplicably passed, a man stood up and thanked everyone for coming. He said he was filling for someone. For a moment I thought this would protect me from being recognized as a new person, but he turned toward us and asked any new visitors to introduce themselves. I scarcely remember what Karena said, as I was preparing my words. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up and thanked them for having me. I said that it was my first time at a friend’s meeting, and that I was able to relax, to sometimes let my mind rest and sometimes let it wander.
Afterward I walked beneath the bare branches, my eye being caught by fragile drops water that survived the ending of the storm. I imagined I could see the world on the ground taken into its rounded shape, and behind this image that of the gray sky. The water, like a window, simultaneously portal and reflection. I smiled at the other who made their way next door to enjoy a potluck lunch and conversation. I wasn’t ready to join them, possibly because I wanted to extend the solitude a little longer, and I began to think about how these people differed from what I had imagined them to be. The word Quaker calls up images of men with large hats, much like on the oatmeal container. Many of the images correspond with those of the Amish; sitting in a horse drawn carriage, long mutton chops, living in moderation and preaching peace. I didn’t know that their most accepted name was The Religious Society of Friends, and that the term Quaker may have originally been used to mock them. George Fox, a founder of the Quakers was taking before a Judge on the charge of blasphemy. Fox kept a journal, where he related that they were called Quakers for asking other to tremble at the word of God.