When I was a boy in grade school, my class went to visit an old California hacienda. I don’t remember any details from that field trip except one: standing in a golden beam of light dusted with motes, in a room of broad expanse, breathing in and feeling the creaking, old aromatic wood surrounding me. In my memory, there is a fragile sense of timelessness and of profound rightness. This is California my body told me. A land of trees and clean air and sunshine. A place where you can just breathe and the world comes to you through your senses.
Maybe it was a hard thing to lay on a boy who was growing up in suburbs smelling of stale chemicals, where the wind never brought any good news. My body has ached for that still sunshine ever since.
But my mind has ached for time travel.
As I grew older, I started discovering this capacity. My first powerful experience of it was when I was a teenage punk rocker out walking with my unlikely mentor, a young African-American preacher named Orlando Hall. With his studious glasses and beret, Orlando could look like Malcolm X, but he carried an umbrella as a gesture towards the English gentleman and as we walked through the projects of the Filmore district in San Francisco he suddenly halted.
Drawing an invisible line across the sidewalk with his umbrella, he said, “When you step over this, tell me what happens.”
I looked at him as if he were nuts – but did it anyways. Suddenly, I found myself moving and seeing differently. The world itself slowed down, taking on a more rhythmic pace. As we progressed, I heard the blues of Johnny Lee Hooker coming out of bars, saw coiffured women leaning out windows talking, passed old men congregated upon or shuffling down the sidewalks. All the doors seemed open, all the people in the street. It felt like a village.
“This is the old Filmore,” Orlando explained. “This is the “Black” part of town that had flourished during WWII but then was sliced up by City Hall developments afterwards. They didn’t want a powerful Black presence in the City, so they put Japantown right in the heart of our community.”
Years later, as a college student, I visited the Tower of London. The chambers of the Norman donjon were stuffed with medieval weaponry and machines of torture. Suits of armor and the panoply of war lined the hallways. Even the ravens that stalked its landscape contributed to its macabre, bloody atmosphere.
We were utterly disarmed, therefore, to find ourselves drenched in peace upon entering the Tower’s chapel. The Gothic stonework had turned into the wings of angels, so delicately it seemed to flow. Light spilled into the space like a benediction. We stood silent, our hearts pounding, not from fear but subtle exhilaration.
My Japanese girlfriend turned to me and said, “Are you feeling what I’m feeling?”
I nodded, and we held hands in the place where Anne Boleyn had said her final prayers before being led off to her beheading. The grace was so palpable it felt a part of the architecture – yet tourists were day tripping in and out without giving any sign of awareness of what they were moving through.
“How is it possible that only we feel this?” I asked Tomoko. “Are we crazy, or are they?”
Our group had long since moved on, but it took multiple attempts before we could bring ourselves to leave that chapel and fall back into the stream of time again.
Is it an enchantment that certain places hold? Or a kind of Einsteinian relativistic time travel carved out by human consciousness? I don’t know, but I’ve certainly spent my years pursuing that experience, ranging from ancient temples high in the Andes mountains to far into Death Valley where the lithic scatter of prehistoric hand tools can still be found on the desert floor.
As a young man, I joined the members of Ring of Bone Zendo for a Buddhist retreat in the wilderness of Death Valley in California. It was rigorous. We got up and began meditating well before dawn in the freezing cold and practiced silent mindfulness throughout the day’s blazing heat as we walked, ate, and worked together. At night we sat in meditation for a couple of hours beneath the stars, finally crawling into our sleeping bags in the shivery cold, sometimes with light snowfall dancing in the beams of our flashlights.
After many days of zazen, my mind began to become permeable, to shift from its habitual perception, and I became susceptible to teaching from the ancient land. The moment came one evening as a pre-Colombian stone carving tool found on the desert floor made its round from hand to hand.
When it came to me I held it, and feeling how it nestled familiarly in my palm, the hand that had once carefully fashioned it upon the shore of a lake vanished long ago in geological time reached over the millennia to touch me.
With a sudden physical vertigo, I saw and felt the constellations in the sky of my mind wheeling backward, beyond 1492 into the time depths of this continent.
Wrenched free of the artificial, vision-constricting European time-line that had been forced upon my native perception of the world, I grasped that my country, the United States of America, which my school textbooks had hammered into me was the most significant thing to ever happen to the Northern hemisphere, was a flash in the pan compared to the ancient cultures that inhabit it as their own.
Looking back, I suspect upon that day I became the first among my English and Danish ancestors to set foot in the sacred topography of the New World, to begin to comprehend the deep time of the Americas and its native peoples.
These experiences of time travel usually come as grace, as I’ve discovered by hard experience. You can’t manufacture enchantment, can’t plan it into your tourist’s itinerary.
I was reminded of this yesterday after handing off my daughter Maitreya for her trip to Disneyland with her best friend. We were in a remote part of the California landscape, in a town that was barely a speck on the map – the closed station of the defunct railroad seemed to mark its center.
The GPS directed me to avoid the traffic on the highway, so I found myself cruising along a backroad named “Old Adobe.” Soon I saw it. Like out of a grainy black and white photo from the 1800’s, an old Mexican hacienda spread on the hill above me. I pulled over, parked, and walked in to learn I had stumbled upon the remains of Mexican General Vallejo’s huge ranch, which had once – before the Gold Rush and Statehood – extended for 100 square miles of Native American wealth.
There, I found myself once again among those golden beams of light in the creaking, aromatic timbers of a lost age. A fragile eternity. It made me deeply happy to be home again.