Looking Back At The End Of The World

 

IT’S BEEN ALMOST a year since the end of the Mayan long-count calendar, the beginning of a new 394-year cycle (or baktun). And, the imagined apocalypse never came. I hesitate even to admit it now, but I’d psyched myself up for something big: a super volcano, a massive polar shift, alien invasion, the rapture, governmental disclosure on the alien presence, a mystical universal enlightenment, anything…. I was half-joking to myself about it but half-serious too. I didn’t stockpile weapons or duct tape, still I stopped making dentist and doctor appointments with the excuse that I didn’t expect to remain in my earthly form. I expected to endure in a higher vibration of soul density, lighter, like pure spirit energy. Part of this may come from having been a New Age music and book critic for the past fifteen years, a job that’s given me access to a vast array of “healing” music and lectures, guided meditations, subliminal relaxation, didgeridoos, chakra aligning tones, Tibetan singing bowls, yogic chants, healing harps, and lots and lots of wooden flute music as well as books on topics ranging from shamanism to veganism. I’d done some yoga, but before I got that gig I was never much of a New Age guy. Still I’ve always been a writer, so delivering the spiritually awakening vibe in my writing became a full-time challenge, and I began to talk myself into the bliss. And, I talked myself into the baktun-ending-2012 thing.

When the dreaded date of December 21, 2012 came, and nothing happened, my family teased me. I tried to bluff my way out of the sting of shame, “Ah,” I said, “I knew it all the time.”

But it did sting. I couldn’t deny it. I felt like I’d just lost a lot of money at a poker game. My girlfriend insisted I acknowledge the shame of it since I’d been going on and on about the apocalypse to her apparently for some time. I began finding ways to justify all the hoopla, a yes-Virginia-there-was-an-apocalypse motif I could use to gracefully escape the embarrassment.

I should have felt grateful that nothing did happen and kept finding comfort in little everyday miracles. I was with my mom and brother Fred for Christmas in Arizona last year. I’d flown out early to go to Sedona (a two-hour drive from Fred’s house in Phoenix) on the fateful day to visit Sedona’s vortices. Some of us felt they’d open up and allow us chosen souls to move into alternate realities. The rocky hills and canyons there had long had a reputation as being mystical, with a long Native American tradition (I’d reviewed countless wooden flute albums recorded there amidst the clattering crickets and hoot owls). The vortices were the result of ley lines, areas with strong magnetic properties. One went there to take peyote and have mystical visions, and the vortices were going to allow those of us who’d received the mystical call to pass through and avoid the massive destruction that would occur on or shortly after 12/21/12.

I don’t mean to sound cavalier about this stuff, anymore than I mean to sound like I take it seriously. But there’s what I call my “soft voice,” the one that can only be heard when the louder I-need-to-get-bread-did-I-really-say-that-at-that-party ego voice gets quieted through meditation. And, it’s that soft voice which convinced me that Sedona, ley lines, vortices all were going to open for me on the 21st. This voice, though, was my spirit guide – and a bit of a trickster. If it told me to stand a certain place, I would, and it would maybe randomly tell me to, for example, kick over my bookshelf. Either a huge treasure would be behind the bookcase or some missing book – or else a giant rat could lunge out and attack. This inner, soft voice can start to bring you on a fabulous journey, and then stop halfway through to chide you for believing in it. “Don’t listen to me!” it’ll say, mere hours after seeming so certain. So, I tried to heed that soft voice’s call to Sedona, and at the same time to view the vortex possibility with a certain amount of wariness. I certainly didn’t want to follow it blindly with my brother tagging along, and maybe even my mom in the backseat, both of them making fun of me as I ran around the empty desert expecting to be led by my core chakras into a blazing new tomorrow. That kind of stuff might sell New Age CDs and help allay my dread about coming out West for the holidays, but actually getting in a car and driving off into the desert with my unconscious spirit guide as point man seemed absurd.

The morning of the 21st my brother tried to wake me up early. “Let’s go if we’re gonna go,” he said, peering over me still hungover from the Dramamine I’d taken from my flight the day before.

“Ugh, let’s wait and see,” I said, “I’m conferring with my dream guide.” I went back to sleep, knowing the same spirit guide who’d urged me there in the first place was now acting like the baktun was cancelled and no big deal. Never mind the vortices. The apocalypse has been pushed back. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.

My family saw how downhearted I was when I finally woke. The local news was full of humorous anecdotes about the New Age contingent shivering in the Sedona canyons waiting for those vortices all morning. Absolutely nothing happened except a few of them caught colds. I sulked all day but passed it off as my spirit guide had, with a surface shrug.

While preparing dinner that night my mom found a red potato with two eyes placed so that it looked vaguely like the face of an alien. “Oh look, Erich,” she said, “Now you have proof. It’s a sign.”

I took a few pictures and played along, but it didn’t cheer me up. Still I was grateful for their sympathy, and reviewing books on Native American mythology had taught me to appreciate the trickster spirit’s little jokes, even if they came at my expense.

Not quite the alien-potato but the Mayan Oreo, image by Flickr user ArtJonak, published under Creative Commons.

Not quite the alien-potato but the Mayan Oreo, image by Flickr user ArtJonak, published under Creative Commons.

Maybe the surest sign of alien intervention is the relentless sameness of our world, where a minor disaster here and there effects only one side of one country, one power grid here or tornado path there, never enough to bring our status quo to a halt, never enough to wipe away our credit card debt in a huge burst of magnetic energy, or enough to wipe out all life through a super volcano eruption or massive meteor strike. Someone is surely looking out for his investment.

One thing I couldn’t deny: I had changed. I had evolved in anticipation of a heavenly judgment and here’s how it happened with Mitt Romney’s help and all.

~

The para-scientific literature had spoken of a galactic alignment coming at the end of this Mayan baktun, one that would open up and expand the chakras of those willing to receive the message. I’d been meditating for years, and one afternoon in late October 2012, I heard a voice in my head that was only vaguely my own: “Congratulations on making it this far. We’re awarding you your first shamanic merit badge.”

“The only condition for keeping this badge is that you can’t judge anyone, anymore, ever. That part of your life is done. Shamans can’t judge  – that’s the first rule.”

I emerged from the bedroom exhilarated and refreshed as if I’d been to a spa. My girlfriend Meghan was on the couch, right where I’d left her when I went to meditate. She was watching The Voice and playing some jewel-sorting game on her phone. I told her about the merit badge.

“Cool, babe,” she said without looking up, her thumbs busy twitching. She was used to my strange pronouncements after my half hour meditation/naps in the evening. But this was different. I was delivered. Not only was I told not to judge, I’d been given the ability to avoid judgements. Looking at CeeLo in his big red chair, I realized a mere hour earlier I might have railed on his little hands and big bald head, half to myself, half to Meghan while she played her game half-listening. But now CeeLo shone, his loving pure heart beaming outwards. I sat there agog, warmed by the show’s relentlessly positive mood. Here was something I’d never normally watch without a jaded sneer, and now it was almost making me cry. If Meghan was disturbed by the lack of my usual snarky comments, she made no sign.

CeeLo the master of cool. And spirituality...

CeeLo the master of cool. And spirituality…

Every judgment I didn’t make made me feel stronger and more serene. I generally avoided populist prime-time reality shows, but now that I wasn’t judging, something magical happened: I fell in love with The Voice’s positive message. I was moved by the inner radiance of CeeLo, the soulful voice and crazy bearded look of contestant Nicolas David. His story of getting sober and finding peace through his family mirrored my own. I didn’t text in a vote or anything, but in watching I felt connected to the entirety of America.

I should preface a few things that led up to the huge spiritual awakening I had with The Voice. I’d been sober for fourteen years (so I wasn’t high except on the radiating love of CeeLo), and while I’d not been to AA for the last few years, I was still applying the spiritual wisdom I’d acquired there (though I’d gotten out before it got too cult-ish for me). Examining my life in close detail through the 12 Steps had helped me chart my past peaks of spiritual enlightenment / manic highs, etc. over the years.

These peaks occurred every third autumn. The previous time, fall 2009, I was falling in love with Meghan; in 2006 I fell in love at first sight with a woman at the college where I work. She didn’t reciprocate, but it didn’t matter because falling in love at first sight is such a bizarre experience it’s its own reward and gave me a profound sense of peace that lasted for months. In 2003 I split with my Argentine wife and moved out of our Brooklyn co-op and back into Manhattan, into a gorgeous walk-up studio with exposed brick, rent controlled, and a working fireplace – and also went on meds for the first time; 2000 I’d married my then girlfriend (the Argentine), very much in love; 1997 – my glorious intervention, wherein three beautiful blonde friends sat with me all night, helping me detox from a month-long whiskey bender and begin my first attempt at sobriety. In my delirium I thought they were angels and was so flushed with gratitude I felt cleansed… and so on, backwards into college and peak LSD experiences in 1987 that rocketed me from shallow introversion into a universal love for the first time, or more relevantly the joy of sacrifice, of letting go, walking away, leaving your own party without your keys, your shoes, or your wallet to go hook up with some strange girl, for example, quitting the band I was in after graduation, walking out on top, breaking up with my college girlfriend out in Seattle and driving back across country to Syracuse in time for Earth Day, and outdoor block parties my band played at, welcomed like a hero, surrendering and releasing everything that had accrued. The power of sacrifice really hit home, leaving a relationship while still in love, leaving a band while it’s the biggest acid rock-jam cover band in Syracuse, et al….

It all seemed to be peaking for 2012, a final chapter to look forward to, an entire life of which to let go. All I had to do was get my affairs in order and prepare for the big final trip into the mystic unknown. It’s not like I could pack for it or anything. Even my mortal shell would have to be left where it was.

As a big fan of Joseph Campbell not to mention the TV show Ancient Aliens, I had a concept of “The Rapture” that differed from the common Christian idea. Mine comes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead that says that when someone dies they go before Osiris to be judged and their heart is weighed on a scale. If it’s heavier than a feather, it’s tossed to the demon dog Ammit to be devoured. Only those with hearts lighter than a feather are deemed heaven-ready to float up through the golden gates. When I later reviewed Thaddeus Golas’ Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, wherein he talks about soul density (the more loving and open you are, the lighter and bigger your soul’s circumference and vice versa) I made the connection back to Osiris. There’s literally no limit to how wide a circumference your soul can have, Golas wrote, but if you become too self-centered, full of rage and bitterness, there’s also no limit to how small it can shrink, right down to a white dwarf demon dog biscuit. You either expand your soul to include all the world and love without judgment the whole of humanity and the creatures of the earth, or you contract into a self-centered fear ball dropped into Ammit’s doggie dish with a splat. Life on earth is all about pushing you one way or the other. The demon dogs’ agenda is to fill the news with things to fear and make you lock your doors and shun your neighbors. The apocalypse would be the big soul harvest, the reaping of the hard dense souls… and there would be so many the demons wouldn’t mind the few of us who floated rather than sank.

Another book I reviewed was A Year to Live by Stephen Levine. I followed his guideline of meditating deeply on the idea of having a terminal disease and only months left, to ponder what it means to die and so face your fears and not waste your time here obsessing about things that are ultimately impermanent (such as earthly possessions). I remember lying in bed one night, following Levine’s instructions, and I began to cry, first sobbing in mourning for my DVD collection. My mom and brother would come to my apartment to clean out my stuff, or they might not even bother, realizing they’d throw most of it away or give it to the nearest Salvation Army. Funny that my primary concern was my meticulously collected DVD collection’s getting tossed or given to some undeserving sod. Stopping caring about my movies was the beginning of a new awakening. I’d sold off my comic books back in 2003 to raise money to move out of my co-op, and I’d felt the buzz of freedom to be rid of them. I knew suddenly I could leave this plane without so much as a goodbye (I was single at the time). It was sad but liberating. I was Ebenezer Scrooge willingly enduring the cold marble of my gravestone so I could feel connected and charitable once more. I was George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life imagining jumping off the bridge so I could appreciate Zuzu’s petals.

Today, of course, those who knew Scrooge would just say he was having a manic episode, that he should adjust his meds, or that he was possessed by the devil, or had gone New Age. I’ve often wondered what it would be like if Scrooge had become a ghost-of-Christmas junky, needing to give away bigger and bigger turkeys to ever-tinier Tims, just to feel a fraction of that initial giddy rapture.  That’s basically where I ended up, only thanks to my new New Age writings I had some distance from myself so could be aware that I was basically using the apocalypse to trick myself into feeling those waves of light.

Another analogy I use for the kind of surrender I experienced is the tiger-in-the-bed test, wherein you wake up in the middle of the night to find a tiger looming. Scream and it will devour you, but if your first instinct is to rub behind its ears, it’s just a friendly visitor. Having no fear doesn’t guarantee safety, but fearlessness that requires guarantees isn’t real fearlessness. Fearless is refusing to feel the pain in advance. The tiger only attacks if your first instinct is fear, and here there’s no time to assess – you wake up and there it is, breathing on your face like Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy. This kind of instant reaction of love is what will get you past the heart scale described in The Egyptian Book of the Dead. And it’s what I was facing come Election Day 2012.

That November I was staring down a different sort of tiger: a Mitt Romney America. Meghan and I braced ourselves for a grim future. On November 6th, I tried to vote, twice, at the nearby school, but it was such a chaotic mess I ran away in a panic both times. She’d nagged me about voting, claiming if I was really so concerned I would go, only there in PS 321’s cafeteria lines went in all directions based on zip code suffixes. I did buy some bake sale cookies to prove I’d been there, but I ate them before I got home. With the sugar high and Mitt Romney’s looming, I couldn’t even think straight during my post-work meditation/nap. And, I couldn’t even watch the returns until they were well underway. With early reports like Mississippi going to Romney and the TV network’s electoral map lighting up red over huge expanses, things looked grim. The apocalypse might easily go against us and just become a new era of grim Biblical lockstep.

 

Mitt, enough to make you believe in the end of the world.

Mitt, enough to make you believe in the end of the world.

Meghan and I watched with our hands clenched together. Obama’s victory a few hours later was such a relief my panic turned into a manic high. On CNBC, Rachel Maddow seemed to levitate as she rattled off all the horrible backwards steps that would not be happening, and I was right there with her, no longer ashamed of being an American. I felt like I was on fire with holy light. Toxins flushed through my body as if I’d been on a rigorous juice cleanse. My chest expanded; my heart unclenched. Everyone on TV and off looked like shiny perfect Buddhas. My soul had expanded to a record circumference. I had been hoping to get to this level in time for December 21st, and now here I was launched into a heightened state of awareness from the exaltation of Obama’s victory. Whether or not he would turn out to be the liberals’ own antichrist was immaterial. I felt in my heart of hearts it was a chance to evolve, to use the buzz of victory after six months of watching Republican primary footage and wincing in slowly mounting stress. Why else had this all been coming together so perfectly if not to boost those willing to be boosted into a higher state of awareness, corresponding with the galactic alignment, which was itself a harbinger of the end of days?

My spirit guide made it clear that to keep myself holy I’d need to give up meat, orgasms, meanness, and separation. There could be no more boundaries within me. The slightest ill feeling could begin the contraction process, and the only ill feeling that might come my way as far as I could fathom was the holidays. Thanksgiving and then Christmas loomed, which meant my family, my mom and brother Fred and his girlfriend, all very nice out there in Arizona, but an anathema to my newfound vegan progress. They’d sneer at it. (I had been a holier-than-thou vegan for most of my freshman year of college).

Now I could hear my brother’s exasperated sigh. “Erich, are you really going to just eat carrots and potatoes for Christmas dinner?” and “Erich, you hate vegetables. You can’t not eat meat and then also not eat vegetables. What are you going to eat?” But he knew the answer: cookies. Cookies was my answer. He already was continually disappointed in me for no longer drinking. He felt abandoned. Now that my hard-drinking father was dead, he had no partner in crime. But my expanded soul seemed to hinge on these promises.

I arrived on the evening of the 20th, groggy from a Dramamine for flying with Fred promising we’d leave at dawn for Sedona. “We’re going,” he said, “to need to get up early to get a parking spot.”

I was beat and told him that the apocalypse was just going to have to wait for me to get up.

“I knew it!” He looked at my mom for validation. “I know you are going to get up at noon, Erich. By noon the world may be over!” He was teasing. He didn’t believe anything would happen but always went along with me on my bizarre quests, as little brothers do. If it happened, he’d get a front row seat; if not, it was a chance to rag on me.

“My spirit guide will wake me up in time,” I said. “Besides, if the vortex does open most people will flee. There will be plenty of parking.”

What had started as a message from my spirit guide – to be in a certain place on a certain day in order to be delivered unto the ancient aliens edition of the rapture – had materialized into the prospect of going on a long, pointless drive in my brother’s rattling orange jeep. I’d used the hope of the vortices just to cajole myself onto the plane, and now here I was dopey from Dramamine with my mother and brother saying, “We’ll go because we love you.” Fred added, “Don’t back out like on the Loch Ness Monster.”

He was referring to a roller coaster in Busch Gardens, Virginia, where we’d gone on vacation as children. I’d been obsessed with the ride largely because of the name and read the pamphlet on it obsessively. When we got there, I saw the line and the vast serpentine tracks and panicked. I refused to go on. They teased me for weeks.

 

Sedona Crystal Vortex by flickr user Mr T in DC, published under Creative Commons

Sedona Crystal Vortex by flickr user Mr T in DC, published under Creative Commons

On the 21st, I woke at noon to my brother’s laughter. “If you still want to go to Sedona, you better hurry up,” he said. “And maybe it’s a good thing we waited.”

Groggy and annoyed, I was fumbling for the dream he’d knocked me out of, and the full realization that nothing was going to happen was still a few hours off.  All I could think was I needed coffee and an excuse not to go. I pushed past him into the kitchen, and the coffee maker was off. My mom as always got up at dawn and Fred shortly after. She was nosing through Fred’s fridge for lunch.

“So you’re finally awake?” she said. “Want a sandwich? You slept through breakfast.”

There was still some room-temperature coffee left. I gulped it down cold. My feeling of being lost extended to the mounting shame of realizing the fated day had arrived, one I’d been secretly pining for, and nothing was going to happen that hadn’t happened on a thousand other days. All the duct tape and doomsday prepping and predictions about pole reversals, alien disclosure, solar storms, meteors, biblically proportioned floods, super volcanoes and tidal waves was gone from the world. After years of slowly mounting excitement, it was all over.

“So,” Fred said, “there’s been people like you there, in the canyon where the vortex is supposed to be, freezing since six AM. It’s been like thirty degrees there. They weren’t prepared. All in sandals and T-shirts. Hippies. See, I wouldn’t let you go without mittens.” He had a jaunty fraternal told-you-so air in his voice, but I felt an undercurrent of sympathy. He was very practical, and Phoenix was a cheap place to live. He had saved money and shopped sensibly and knew I had been living hand-to-mouth in the most expensive city in the world, and an apocalypse was the only way out for me, a chance to go out on top, rather than fade into irrelevance.

“At least,” my brother said, “you didn’t actually get up early and go to Sedona like those other poor idiots.”

At least.

When the alien face on the potato showed up later that evening at dinner, we had a good laugh, or they did anyway. I played along, grateful they cared enough to try and cheer me up even if I refused to admit I was upset. I got on my brother’s PC and wrote a post called “Yes, Virginia, the world really did end yesterday,” wherein I riffed on Santa’s famous letter in an attempt to show that pre-apocalyptic rapture was reward enough for believing in it. It had to be, otherwise why would people even bother prophesizing?

I know I’m not alone in wishing for the end of the world. It’s so much easier to evolve when your comfort zone is blown. Thinking you might lose it any moment makes life precious in a way it’s not when you feel like it’s just going to drag on and on and get progressively worse as prices go up and your youth drains away drop by drop. Maybe in three years, 2015, my next scheduled spiritual awakening / manic episode, there’ll be some pay-off. For now, I thought, as I lay outside in the sun at my brother’s for Christmas, I had the warm Arizona sun and sweet caffeine finally bringing the blurry world into some kind of legitimate focus… What? Things were okay? The preciousness of life for even a moment under our big round sun? My inner spirit guide was saying so, and I was only too happy to drown him out.

Mayan Calendar Ark by flickr user Kecko, published under Creative Commons

Mayan Calendar Ark by flickr user Kecko, published under Creative Commons

Erich Kuersten

About Erich Kuersten

Erich Kuersten is a gonzo-theoretical film and music critic for Acidemic (acidemic.blogspot.com), and Bright Lights Film Journal. His work has also appeared in Modern Drunkard, McSweeney's, Slant, Pomatters, Slashfood and The Decadent Handbook, Scarlet Street, and Midnight Marquee. He works at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
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