A week before my trip to Delhi, I dream of learning to ride an elephant. There’s no saddle to sit on, just a rough wool blanket right on the crown of the elephant’s head. I tumble off and am sitting in the dirt, defeated. Standing behind me is an Indian man, very thin and taut, shirtless but wearing a turban, who insists that I climb back on board that enormous creature and learn to ride properly. I’m afraid, but he insists. He’s a trainer of some kind – of people more than elephants. He’s all business; therefore, I do as he tells me, and when I’m seated again on the elephant’s head, I realize that the elephant doesn’t mind my being there, and that there is nothing to fear. I proceed to practice steering right and left by pressing the back of his ears with the soles of my feet. It feels good, like pressing my feet on the mat in tadasana. Not being very proficient, however, I steer him directly through the tall marsh grass and into a deep, calm, silty brown river. How can I describe the way the water feels? It’s like a grandmother’s embrace, soft and loving. The elephant is completely submerged, but I’m perched on his head, mostly high and dry, if somewhat perplexed. Again, the elephant doesn’t seem to mind at all. He knows I’m there to practice, and he has the virtue of patience.
In my dream, I take my 4/5 and 7/8 graders to an IMAX movie at the Mac Planetarium (which doesn’t really exist). The premise of the movie is to visually depict our latest theories about the creation of galaxies, and how the universe keeps expanding and contracting, expanding and contracting, indefinitely and infinitely, as far as we humans can imagine. But woven into the physics and astronomy lesson is a story about a middle-aged couple who have lost their son in a war, and who decide to take a star-watching cruise in Alaska as a way to find some solace. The special thing about this IMAX spectacle is that while it’s being projected on a huge, 360-degree overhead canopy screen in surround-sound, the young docents of the planetarium are also performing it live – narrating and puppeteering from the back of the theater. One of the docents is Ruthy!
The kids are encouraged to move around the empty floor of the theater during the movie. In fact, another docent leads them around and around in huge circles – now running, now crawling – on the vast carpeted terrain, the topography of which isn’t flat, but rolling and hilly. They’re really getting tired out! Now and then, the docent brings them to a breathless halt and directs their attention to the action overhead – stars streaking across the ceiling; clouds of gas and light eddying and pooling; newly-minted constellations glittering regally – and they stand there gazing upward, sweating and amazed by how real it all seems, and how close to them.
At one point in the story, the couple’s boat runs aground. There is disaster in the frigid Arctic waters. Shocked, the kids fall silent, stare in open-mouthed horror. Sorrow upon sorrow! Those people don’t deserve another tragedy!
And then it’s Ruthy’s turn to perform, from the back of the theater.
Her god-sized index finger appears on the screen overhead, dipping into the frame and into a pulsing, throbbing, star-flecked swirl of red and black gas. She begins to stir the red and black cloud with her finger, casually at first, exactly as my grandmother used to mix a squeeze of lemon into her scotch-and-soda, if there was no cocktail straw or swizzle stick on hand. Then, gaining speed, the centrifuge of her swirling starts to gather the gases and the stars into a flickering ball of energy, growing denser and denser with each rotation around the axis of her index finger. Density solidifies into matter. Matter condenses into heat. But the heat can’t contain its own entropy, and just at the point where the whole thing is about to explode into catastrophe shrapnel, Ruthy lifts her finger out of the picture. The spinning continues, but in slow motion, so we can see it clearly. To our amazement, we can see that the explosion will, at worst, merely end in a cascade of party glitter. Confetti to welcome us home.
“This is how creation happens,” Ruthy tells us, speaking slowly into her head-set mic. “First, there is potential everywhere you turn. Then, swirling currents of emotion come in to set potential spinning. Depending on the feeling, different forms of matter spin into being. Disaster, grief and longing, being too much for the Light of the Universe to bear, make whirlpools and black holes that will – if you trust in Time – eventually collapse back into laughter.”
I dreamed I was on a roller coaster track, but not in an actual roller coaster car. I was sitting behind a guy whose face I couldn’t see. We were hovering on the aluminum track, which extended out over space with nothing underneath it but maybe, very distantly downward, an unknown city. We were whizzing along and suddenly came to a stop at what looked like a giant printer. You were supposed to press a button and receive a huge stack of paper which contained your whole life’s CV. Then you were supposed to read it, and depending on what you thought of it, you could decide to go through the printer’s mouth, or turn back and try it again. I read the guy’s CV (not my own), and thought: I’ve got to go through.
So on we went and on the other side of the printer, the guy turned out to be YOU, and we had come to the end of the track. Not only that, but the track stopped short in a sort of little cage which was suspended high, high, high above a vast ocean. We were up there, sort of dangling in the wind and it was cold and the ocean was not very inviting so very far down below. I was pretty scared, but evidently, you had been here before.
The next thing I know, you’re helping me get strapped into a bungee cord set-up which involved a heavy black roller coaster seat belt over my chest and a smaller, bright yellow nylon safety belt that buckled over my heart. You asked if I was ready and then let go of me. I was free falling for what seemed like miles, scared out of my wits, but trying to get a grip and enjoy the fall. It was so fucking scary, but I knew that I wasn’t going to die; it was just the free-fall that I was so afraid of, and the feeling of being at the mercy of gravity. Just before I reached the ocean – a stratosphere away from the cage in the sky – the bungee cord snapped me back up and when I came close to the cage again, you grabbed me and pulled me back in. I was supposed to do this several more times until I got over the fear of falling.
The second time, as part of a very strict safety protocol, you checked the heavy black equipment by unhooking it and then hooking it back up again. You were just about to send me off again when a beautiful bodhisattva appeared in the sky and said, “Yappi, yappi! Remember the seat belt, Victorious One”, because you hadn’t double-checked the yellow belt. Once you took care of that, you sent me down again. I woke up as I was falling.