From the Preface
“An epiphany is supported by almost nothing on the street, and so we hide these stories away, even from ourselves.”
My first public reading of Epiphanies fell on a spring evening at Black Oak Books, my comfortable neighborhood bookstore in Berkeley. But I was nervous. I felt protective of the stories my therapy clients had generously agreed to share with readers. And I had written something that would be hard to shelve in bookstores or in people’s minds, because it situates itself where seemingly disparate worlds meet.
As I began reading the room softened up, and when it came time for questions, a lively conversation broke out. Then something happened.
A woman standing alone at the side of the room raised her hand. Shyly she said, “I feel moved to share an experience I’d almost forgotten. As a child, I was lying in the grass at a park near our house, daydreaming. Through the green, my eyes went to the yellow blur of a dandelion, and I felt the universe open up to me.” She paused. “It was immensely peaceful, ecstatic – like the truth of the way things really are. It had the quality of a new revelation and yet something I had always known, even before I was born.”
The room had gone quiet to hear her soft voice, and now there was a hush. Then a young man at the back raised his hand and said to her, “May I ask you, did you ever tell anybody about your experience? I’m wondering, because something like it happened to me once. A portal opened into a completely wordless, timeless place – beautiful – and I never told a soul.”
“No, I don’t think I ever told anybody until tonight,” she said. “It was so simple, so inconsequential in what we call the real world. Invisible, really.”
Since that night at Black Oak I’m guessing that every person on the street has such a story. That it comes with being a person. Thee stories tend to have three fundamentals – an unexpected moment of revelation or deep recognition, an experience of time and place suspended, and, very often, a not-telling or “forgetting.”
A couple of weeks after the reading, my letter carrier paused at the front door. “What’s up?” he said. He’d noticed something going on with my mail.
I told him about the publication of Epiphanies, and he volunteered, “Oh! I had one a few years ago. It came to me in a dream, except I’m not sure I was really asleep. I told my mother about it, and she said, ‘You’ve had an epiphany.’ I knew it was important. I just didn’t know there was a word for it.”
A couple of days later this typewritten account was slipped through the slot with the day’s mail: “It was at the time in my life when stress was the highest. In the middle of a nasty divorce, fighting over custody and money. I had three kids half time, a full time job, enormous child support and no coping skills. Every day I felt like I was stretching farther and farther beyond hope. I blamed my ex-wife, I blamed my employer, I blamed anyone who came into my sights. Then one night I had a dream. As soon as I woke up, I knew what it meant, I knew what I had to do and I knew it was going to be OK.
“The dream was short, colorful, and so real that it may have been a visit from an angel. In the dream a man, who was me, was beating a child, who was also me. The anger I felt as the man was so all consuming I didn’t know who I was. The pain the child felt was so strong it was as if it would never end. All of a sudden an angel, who was also me, floated down and put his wings around the man and the child, calming and soothing us. The emotions remained, but the violence was gone. I had found my angel and figured out that I could forgive myself.”
Such an encounter would seem to be the best of news for our troubling times. But we live a world that expects scientific proof of angels. Like the famous fish who asks, “What’s water?” we mostly go about our days unaware of this shadow, even when the most joyous revelation disappears into its folds. But science itself is encountering astonishing surprises of its own – ephemeral matter, curved space, liquid time – and our stories may find more space to be told.
On another occasion I was about to be interviewed about Epiphanies for a one-hour call-in show on NPR. Before the show went on, the host and I were getting acquainted over the phone, and he asked me an intriguing question.
“I’ve never experienced an epiphany myself,” he said, “but I would guess that it’s important to tend one if you’re lucky enough to have one. How would you counsel a person about that?”
“Tend?” I asked him. “Like a garden.”
I suggested that we keep a lookout for a listener call-in that might lead to a discussion about tending. He agreed. And we both forgot all about it.
At the end of a lively hour he asked me off the air if I could hold while he signed off. “I’ve remembered something I’d like to tell you about privately,” he said. A minute later he was back. “I have had an epiphany, and I’d forgotten it.”
His father had been ill for some time after suffering a series of strokes, and my host had gone to visit him. “One evening, as I was sitting in his room while he slept, a very strong awareness of my late grandfather’s presence came over me. My grandfather died before I was born, and he wasn’t present in any visual or auditory way. He was just an awareness. He ‘spoke’ to me and said, ‘Tell your father I’ll be there to help him across.’
My father remained sleeping, and I walked out into the back yard as the sun was setting. I was very moved. “When my father woke up, I was hesitant. I didn’t know how he would react. But he wasn’t at all surprised by the message. He’d been talking with my grandfather a lot lately, he said, and thanked me. Some months later my dad died. I’d like to think that my grandfather was there with a helping hand. I don’t know if there is life after death, but that evening my grandfather’s presence felt very real.”
I thought of our conversation before the show. “What do we make of your question about tending now?” I asked him.
He considered. “It looks like I was putting that question to myself, doesn’t it? If I were to tend that moment, my life would be different.”