Unwavering Ambivalence

Posted on July 6, 2014


FortuneTellerThere was a time, when I was a teenager and therefore remarkably witless, that I fell for every crackpot idea that crossed my path. I was certain I had extrasensory perception, could move objects with my mind and see the future, and would eventually figure out how to walk through walls. I believed in ghosts, alien abductions, witches, sea monsters, psychic healing, astrology, numerology, auras, demonic possession, magic spells, good luck charms, communication with the dead, parallel universes, and spontaneous combustion. If it defied and contradicted modern science, I was convinced of its truth.

I’m older now, and much wiser, and have all but let go of those childish notions. And there’s at least the glimmer of possibility that the rest of the world is doing the same.

For example, Friday the thirteenth has always been a date when many of us felt free to blame our problems and mistakes on the calendar. If we broke our glasses or spilled our coffee or forgot to feed the fish, we’d shrug our shoulders and say something like, “Well, you know what day it is.”

But last month, the second Friday in June landed on the thirteenth, and I didn’t hear anyone say a thing about it – not even the hosts of morning radio shows. When I mentioned this to a friend, he guessed that maybe people are finally becoming more rational and less superstitious. I said I hoped that was the case, but we both knocked on wood, just to make sure.

Earlier this week, I washed a long-sleeve shirt and hung it up to dry. I do this because putting my shirts into the clothes dryer causes them to shrink, and then the sleeves are too short. When my sleeves are too short, I have to keep tugging on them to cover my wrists, and that drives me crazy. Why I need my wrists to be covered, I couldn’t tell you, but I suspect that in a past life I may have been the Victorian wife of a Lord in the British Parliament. I have no evidence for this, of course, other than the fact that I sometimes dream of taking a seaside holiday, and that I get a little squirmy whenever I hear the word corset.

Anyway, later that afternoon I noticed that the shirt was almost totally dry, except for the last two inches of each sleeve. For a second, I imagined that the shirt must have been drying from top to bottom, but soon realized there’s no reason for that to happen. Rather, while the air is extracting the moisture from the clothing, gravity is also pulling some of the water down, sending hundreds of tiny rivers flowing inside the fabric and toward the ends of the sleeves. I thought this was fascinating. Then again, it seemed just as likely that some playful laundry fairies had snatched the shirt, dipped it into a nearby lake, and returned it when I wasn’t paying attention.Horoscope

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Okay, I’ll be honest. I don’t really believe in fairies or past lives. I never knock on wood, unless it’s someone’s front door. I can’t remember the last time I read my horoscope. And I don’t even know what a corset is.

I’ve worked my way through entire books on each of those once-compelling subjects. I’ve watched documentaries on haunted houses, and attended lectures on angels and UFOs. I’ve studied the secrets behind countless hoaxes, all perpetrated by charlatans who depend on our attraction to the mysterious.

I have become an open-minded skeptic. It isn’t that I won’t accept anything beyond the ordinary and the concrete. But if I’m going to make room in my head for an expanded reality, I need to justify the effort. I don’t want to waste any more energy following false claims.

And yet, I can’t say that I’ve succeeded in adhering to my own rules. I frequently indulge in mental magic, bound by the same kind of gullibility I pretend to dismiss. I refuse to discuss my own health, because I’ve noticed that every time I brag about never getting a cold or the flu, I’m sick within three days. When I go to the post office to pick up the mail, I avoid thinking about that long-awaited item, because if I expect it to be there, it probably won’t be. After planting seeds in the garden, I don’t allow even a shred of optimism that anything will ever grow.

Centuries ago, humans struggled to cope with dangers from earth and sky. They contrived intricate stories to explain the peril, and devised complex rituals to protect themselves from it. We’ve learned a great deal since then. In fact, our knowledge of the physical world is astonishing.

Still, I can sense a direct connection to those ancient people, to their fears and feelings of vulnerability. I can even envision slipping back into that state of confusion and misunderstanding. Alone in a dark house, I might wonder about the strange reflection sliding across the floor — could it be a ghost? Those indecipherable conversations murmuring in my head just before I fall asleep – is that me, or am I tuning in to someone else’s thoughts? That weight I feel in my chest when I look at photographs of the Civil War – proof of reincarnation, or just a natural response to carnage?

I’m not sure. What I do know is that I can’t walk through walls, I’ve never met a witch or spotted a sea monster, and it’s doubtful I’ll ever see the inside of a flying saucer. But none of that matters anymore. What’s important is that my sleeves are the right length.