A monk, wearing orange robes, approached me on the pier. The pier was packed with people, but the monk stood out, caught my eyes, and slowly stepped towards me. Pulling a bracelet out of his pocket, he whispered in a different language and reached out to offer the bracelet. I put it on and gave the monk a few dollars. A Tibetan mantra (ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པ་དྨེ་ཧཱུྃ) embedded itself onto the beads that circled my wrist, and each day I spin it around and stretch it, although one day it will, inevitably, snap.
Every day, like each bead, is strung together: the hours collapse into days, which stack into months, which spiral into years. Time blindly brings change, spinning. We fill time with signs and symbols, culture and language, which point beyond themselves to fix what fluctuates.
This year brought a pandemic, which broke down each day’s structure. Now life, stripped bare, repeats mundanely. I sit at my desk, with piles of books and camera gear surrounding me, reading and thinking about a world beyond.
I pause the day and drive to the beach for sunset. Each sunset reveals its particularity and uniqueness, so I bring my camera along to capture it. Sometimes I carry a giant telephoto lens with me, and as a joke, I think of Marshall Applewhite, who declared that a powerful telescope can see beyond temporal reality into the physical and imperishable Heaven. I zoom into the sun and hope for transcendence—some pure unmediated “thing” that spites time by its persistence—although I remain trapped in a mediating culture that fades into history. I cannot, while living, escape temporality; I do not think Applewhite could either.
I drove, once, to the pier at sunset. The sky began to take the shape of a storm, and a thick wind forced people off the beach and indoors. I walked out, alone on the pier, facing the sea, while the sun dropped low behind the clouds, casting the sky in a muted orange and the sea into a deep blue. The wind swelled like the tide, whipping sand, salt, and sea into my eyes. I breathed humid ocean air while shooting through the clouds to the hidden sun, trying to pierce, with a steady, still hand, through that world—the storm, the sand, the sea—materializing around me.
The light faded. The ocean shifted out of focus to become a shifting unity, a single gray blur. The sky joined in too, making the landscape into an expansive gradient. It wrinkled and folded like bundled fabric. The wind blew cold from behind the world and rippled the fabric; that force from behind warping structure struck me, shook me, and reached into my bones. Immediately, rain dropped, snapping the world back into focus. I took some photos and left.
The world did not literally ripple. But the ideals that structure it, the symbols that constitute it, well, they shook.
In 1988, Applewhite, the one searching with a telescope, published an update on his religious movement, nearly 9 years before he and his followers committed mass suicide. He reported that many psychologists diagnosed his group with “unfortunate brainwashed syndrome.” In response, he hunkered down: “from our standpoint, we felt like our brains weren’t yet washed clean enough. They didn’t really know us.”
I thought of Applewhite that night, after the sunset. I thought of how he wanted to get caught up in the world beyond, and how sincere and honest people followed him. I thought of his monastic obsession, how he founded a culture that reached for Heaven’s purity. He claimed to know what existed outside of the life given to him. He claimed to know what was truly there, and that truth set him free. The truth took his hand and led him to his death.
I went to the pier the next day for another sunset. No wind blew and only a few clouds streaked the sky in the distance. The horizon remained mostly empty, so I stood still at the end of the pier, watching a family next to me feed the birds, facing away from the sun.
A sense of emptiness drew close—an emptiness as vacant as the horizon. No world shook; the world stood stable and bare, stopping its game of signification. What remained was an isolated, yet perceiving ‘me,’ who stared out with no reference to that world beyond. Purity and persistence revealed themselves as frauds, marred and defrocked by perception. I do not know whether this world points up and out, but I see the waves crest and collapse, feel the force of the wind against my face, and listen to the silent roar of the sea. This is the immanent world, signifying only itself; it is the only given world, available in a way that the transcendent, by definition, is not.
“The price of God’s purity is the loss of his living reality,” says Gershom Scholem. Applewhite embodied the pure, transcendent God well. Yet, nobody escapes time. Even that which presents itself as a pure, fixed, and unchanging reality eventually warps and ripples, immersing us into the ineffable life. While the wind blows cold, breaking our structures into ambiguity, the bounded world snaps back into place, spinning, like beads stretching on a string.
And so I sit at my desk, with piles of books and camera gear around me, stretching my bracelet.