My Brother, Floating
Sometimes, when afternoons turn heavy as used furniture, when I close my eyes on the bus, or open a window at home to create a dot-to-dot flight pattern to the nearest mountain, I think of my brother floating. My brother in 1978, with Bob Dylan hair, in the lotus position. In a meditation room, in Israel, suspended between floor and ceiling, buoyant as a soap bubble. He went there, with his wife of five months, for advanced training in transcendental meditation. No, TRAN-scen-DEN-tal MED-i-TA-tion. That’s how I learned to say it, filling my mouth with perfect trochaic syllables—and feeling hip and very California. No small accomplishment, given that I lived in Idaho. TM for short: code for the initiated. The night before their international flight to Jerusalem, I stood with them in my parents’ drive making a bon voyage of the cold, our breath coming in little gasps. They’d driven straight through from Seattle. “So what is it you’re going to learn?” I asked. He flipped up the collar on his pea jacket: “Longer meditations, deepness, clarity. They say you go into these moments when you’re there and not there, and sometimes you float.” “Float,” I said, “as in off the ground?” “It just happens,” he said, “but never on purpose.” And then we were on to more pressing matters, such as the question of my babysitting his Volvo.
Before going in that night, I looked at the stars, at the cold black between them that pulled so loudly. My brother and his wife, they were deep inside of wisdom, ancient with it: in their twenties. I was seventeen. This was twenty-five years ago, before they committed parenthood, before his summer stint as a firefighter turned into a two-decade career as an EMT, before they traded their dreams of a timberframe house for acreage and a double-wide trailer, before he wrecked his back trying to lift a woman as big as a horse, before the marriage counseling fizzled, before their son dropped out of college and started cutting his wrists, before his wife said, I need some space, it’s not you, and left him.
Before all that, back in the 1970s, it was easier to float. And easier to believe in floating. Or half-believe, as I did. Meditation: levitation. I knew they weren’t the same thing, but if you could do one well, why not sometimes the other? Mystical, entrancing powers were everywhere. Certain Filipino surgeons could cut you open with bare hands and pull out slithery cancers. Uri Geller had bent spoons on Johnny Carson. And mental telepathy, Ouija boards, channeling the dead—hell, that was everywhere. Closer to home, didn’t floating already run in my family? Take my octogenarian grandfather. On land, he was a near invalid, with his canes and degenerative arthritis and stainless steel hip that set off airport alarms. But if you drove him to the hot springs and slid him into the water, he turned into a balsa replica of himself, held up by mermaid hands. Eyes closed, he let the currents carry him. And some poor woman in a bathing cap would look up at this great gaunt body parting the steam and wonder if he was asleep or dead and should she call an ambulance?
So—my brother floating. It made instant sense. After all, he’d been floating away from us for years, with Earth shoes and incense and homemade tofu. Why not make his floating literal? It was a way of being chosen. Not cow’s milk when he was an infant, but goat’s milk purchased by the ounce from a farm at the edge of town. Not football or other sports growing up, but tracking animals and dancing in feathered headdresses, like a Paiute. Not recipes in the kitchen, but intuition and another scoop of wheat germ. Not high school formals, but expeditions to gather planaria—a flatworm something like a leach which can be taught to swim an obstacle course and which will grow two heads if you cut it just right. Summers, my brother floated away even further, first working as a cook at Camp Little Lemhi, then later throwing himself out of airplanes to put out wildfires.
I never asked him whether he floated or didn’t. Not upon his return from Israel, and not since, though certainly I had my questions. Does everyone float? Do some float all the time and others hardly at all? Is it easier or harder to float in a foreign country? What happens if you open your eyes? Did anyone bother to take pictures? At first I avoided the topic out of politeness. It seemed cloddish and prying to ask, like querying someone’s virginity. Later, I avoided asking, I suppose, because I didn’t really want an answer. It seemed—and seems— better to let myself drift back, without revision, to those weeks when I drove his Volvo around my hometown haunts. The Volvo was forest green, with 200,000 miles on it and a pricey stereo. With the music cranked up—my brother’s music—everything seemed possible. There was Keith Jarrett, Carole King, a little bluegrass, Country Joe and the Fish, but also more ethereal stuff: whales underwater calling to each other in plaintive bellows and songs of lostness. What had my brother said in his letter home from Israel? Something about fresh yogurt every day and afternoon walks, something about a group meditation that caused the parched sky to open in rain.
Once after a Saturday night dance, after dropping off a friend, I drove the Volvo home and listened to a flautist inside a pyramid. So echoey and dark you could feel the centuries pressing down. No drums or guitar, no one singing, no remixes in the studio. Just the flute improvising and interrupting itself. Did they have a make-out song, my brother and his wife? Was one mantra better for floating than another? Did you smear yourself with it, like distance swimmers before braving the English Channel? No, the word would be lighter than that, veined with vowels—a dragonfly wing. I floated through empty streets, took the overpass above the train yard, and then the snow started. Everything outside turned quiet and slow. I wasn’t driving so much as snow was funneling toward me like girls and vertigo, breathing and hunger and the world’s body. My brother and his wife defied gravity by day, and swam each other by night. I pictured the meditation room, as he had described it: neutral walls, no chairs or table, the whole thing carpeted in two-inch foam, in case your butt got tired, in case you fell out of your mantra. There are so many ways to feel heavy in this world. Who was I to say that a darkened room in Israel was just a room, that a car carried by snow was just a car?