I dropped to my knees in the sand and began hurking to the side of the backyard beach volleyball court.
My buddy, across the court from me, just killing time while I vomited and our sitter trotted off to get her car and bring it around so that her cracked companions could be shunted elsewhere, started scooping handfuls of sand and flinging them in sparkling arcs.
Between heaves I propped myself up and told him, “Dude, quit throwing shit.” The sand was intermittently lit up red from the fire engines parked out front. It would be so easy to mistake the falling silicate for fairy dust. The whole night seemed to pulse when perceived by a dextromethorphanated mind.
My buddy scooped another handful of sand. Flung it. Then admonished me: “Don Juan says, ‘If you feel sick, throw sand. Then you will not puke.’ “
I started to shake my head, realized too late that even this small motion was a mistake, and hurked into the grass again. Tried to, at least. My stomach, as far as I could tell, was empty. But when I finished sputtering I propped myself back up to retort, “Don Juan never said that.” I would know. Well-thumbed-through copies of his teachings and A Separate Reality lived on my shelves at home.
“So? There is no Don Juan.”
Which isn’t just the philosophical chicanery of “There is no spoon,” because it’s true: there really is no Don Juan. And yet the advice from Carlos Castaneda’s first two slightly-less-New-Age-y books has been helping spiritually-minded over-intellectual drug people for years.
Indeed, my nausea was almost assuredly psychosomatic, in part if not in its entirety. We’d been loafing at a friend’s mansion-cum-dormitory for half the evening, and I wasn’t queasy until the commotion began upstairs, frantic reports that “______, who, like, never drinks,” had apparently passed out drunk in an upstairs bathroom after locking the door. Fire fighters were going at it with axes. And here I was, a dude pulling hefty grant money from the university, wasted on cough syrup at the dorm of one of his former students.
If the nausea was psychosomatic, it ought to be curable by placebo. I’d thought myself into being sick, so why not cure myself by throwing sand? After all, Don Juan claimed that flung sand would heal me. And if Don Juan never said that, well, that’s okay too, because Don Juan didn’t exist. He never said any of that shit. Advice that my buddy put into the mouth of a fictional shaman shouldn’t carry any less weight that advice crammed into his mouth by Castaneda in order to hoodwink first his thesis committee, then the book-buying general public.
And this essay isn’t just about drugs or sand, by the way. I have long since sobered up. Although I should mention that it worked. I flung sand that night. Some caught the wind and drifted back into my eyes. It stung, but I didn’t feel sick. I rose to my feet; I was standing. I was cured! My buddy and I walked away from the dorm, the world around us still strobing red. We found our sitter – my former student – in a nearby parking lot. She drove my buddy and I back to my apartment.
Nothing but sand, and it saved me.
It’s important to remember how much control we have over the world. So much of life can be intensely modulated by our perceptions. I have monopolar depression, which means my brain processes everything around me as though through a dark filter. Although there must be physical causes of my depression – perhaps more or less of certain signaling molecules, perhaps synaptic connections arranged in an unfortunate sort of pattern – my reactions to the outside world are also under my own control. It is all within my mind.
Twice a week I go to jail, but I am lucky; after ninety minutes, two hours at most, the guards always let me out. Twelve inmates at a time are allowed to meet with me; a co-teacher and I discuss poetry. And I am so grateful to our students – our collaborators, more accurately, since we structure our time together as workshops. They have helped me more than any therapist.
Just before reading a gorgeous poem about his recently-deceased father titled “Your Name Is My Name,” a man told my co-teacher and I that he’s been thinking how special it is to be able to open a refrigerator and pick what you want to eat, whenever you want to eat it.
He’s right. There is a lot that is wrong with the world. K & I have had some very difficult weeks recently, and I assume most left-leaning U.S. citizens feel pretty down about the impending Supreme Court nominations, EPA appointments, etc. But, still, my own life is very fortunate. I have enough to eat. I have a safe place to sleep. And I am graced with many hours of freedom each day.
Inmates can occasionally eat between meals. At our local jail, they can purchase rectangular packs of ramen from commissary. Because inmates don’t have access to microwaves or boiling water, they dump their noodles into a plastic bag with the flavor packet, a pouch of ketchup if they’ve saved it, and some water, then squeeze and roll the bag until the whole mess absorbs the water and becomes a turd-shaped, discolored rod. It’s ready to eat!
My own meals are rather more appealing. People I meet, when speaking to me, often look me in the eyes. After work, I can touch my wife. Before I hug my daughter, I don’t ask permission from a judge.
Sometimes permission is denied.
The dudes in my class help me remember. This is life. The next time I feel down, perhaps I should scoop up big fistfuls of sand and start throwing it around – that’s what Don Juan recommends – until I’m back to feeling grateful.