Pantheon: New York, 1994.
200 pp., $21.00 (cloth).
In August 1991, the writer Gretel Ehrlich was struck by lightning, flung across a remote mountain road on her ranch in Wyoming, and left for dead. She had been struck before—had even written about being struck before—but this time it was a fatal blow, and even when she was nominally brought back to life, she felt as if she were a posthumous soul of sorts, passing in and out of consciousness like a refugee from the afterworld. Writing from that penumbral state—the bardo state of Tibetan Buddhism—she has produced a wry and haunting, dreamlike book about what it means to have one’s heart stop, and what exactly is this self that’s here today and gone tomorrow.
It would be easy, and probably tasteless, to say that if anyone should undergo this death-in-life experience, it ought to be Ehrlich, for she is one of those writers—Annie Dillard and Wallace Stevens are others that come to mind—whose very being depends on frequent commutes between a world described with almost scientific precision and the more lyrical, abstract speculations of the mind. Blending a highly distinctive sense of physical movement with an almost theological interest in metaphysical movements—seeing her body, typically, as an illuminated manuscript, and a hill as a “woman lying on her side”—she is always writing, metaphorically, of how bodies take in fire, how tides are a “form of breathing.” There is, then, at the very least, a kind of poetic justice in the fact that of all writers, it was she whom Nature chose to inhabit and possess.
On the surface, her new book proceeds like a matter-of-fact journal about the chemistry of people, and the process of loss and recovery: Ehrlich takes us meticulously through all the scientific causes and effects of her injury, giving us plenty of empirical lightning lore (including the fact that lightning, contrary to superstition, loves to strike twice in the same place). She tells of lightning entering the hole in the throat of a man who’d had a tracheotomy; of lightning striking an entire baseball team; of a boy hit by lightning who lets out an orange ball of fire that comes out through his mouth, flies through the air, and kills a cow. But the real question of her book is what relation, if any, lightning has to enlightenment, and to what extent it can be a kind of shadow satori: a blow to the self so shattering that it forces a radical re-evaluation. To answer that koan, Ehrlich turns herself inside out—or, more precisely, makes herself a kind of empty vessel for forces and elements to pass through (“I felt like a river moving inside a river,” reads one typical sentence).
Ultimately, it is this inwardness that is the singular strength of Ehrlich’s book—its acknowledgment of the more mysterious, moon-driven currents within: if she is wise enough to see how far knowledge can take one, she is wise enough, too, to see where knowledge must give way to uncertainty and wisdom. Reading her book, one has relatively little sense of Ehrlich the rancher, the writer, or the woman, but an uncannily powerful sense of Ehrlich as an archetypal mind of sorts, exploring underground passageways and labyrinths in her consciousness. Her souvenirs from the distant shore are not answers but more questions, and years of Buddhist training make her toss and turn and toss on all of them until she seems like a modern-day version of Chuang Tzu—is she a dead person dreaming she’s alive, or a live one dreaming she’s dead? Or, as she more eloquently puts it, “I wondered if light had invented the ocean and my hand dragging through it, or if memory had invented light as a form of time thinking about itself.”
The other thing that intensifies Ehrlich’s work is her poet’s awakened eye. Every page is strewn with images, a sky like “tattered book pages” and lightning “fingering” the heavens on a single early page—literal meanings merging with metaphorical, as when she finds herself alone by the sea, a foghorn sounding through the dark. She has a poet’s ear for language and the inner meanings that dwell in seemingly casual turns of phrase. She has suffered, she learns, an “electrical insult” that damages her “sympathetic system”; a fisherman’s co-worker is a “tender”; and her inbreathing is known as “inspiration.” “Tender” and “inspiration” become, of course, words crucial to her healing. And when she describes the moon on the water “like a tapering path,” and then likens it to a candle, you know that “taper” is not accidental.
But what gives the book its poetic texture is the way her uncommonly close-knit mind is strung along a web of images, and, though nothing is included that is not relevant, relevance can be found in even the smallest thing. For in her heightened consciousness, everything acquires meaning. She returns to her hometown of Santa Barbara and learns that Saint Barbara is the patron saint of those threatened by thunder, lightning, and fire; a friend sends her a scepter from Nepal, and it turns out to be a vajra, or thunderbolt; and when she settles by the coast she finds that the Chumash regarded the area as a gateway to the afterworld.
As a longtime Buddhist, Ehrlich is particularly well placed to meditate on formlessness and form, and to think about how every life is, in a sense, a death sentence, existence itself a joke with a death’s-head mask. Yet what pulls her through, finally, is company, fortitude, and flinty humor: once gravity no longer has any pull on her, she learns the necessity of laughing. In an age of Twelve-Step recovery programs and Enlightenment While-U-Wait, it is refreshing, even redeeming, to read about someone who is prepared to live with doubt, to forgive others before herself, and to see things in a long perspective. Ehrlich does not shy away from giving us a rigorous and detailed account of how lightning leads to cardiac arrest, but—more impressively, perhaps—she also does not shy away from accepting that a doctor can cure as much with his optimism as with his instruments, and that a dog can help her as much as any doctor. Within and without are as inextricably linked as above and below, and, in the end, the only thing that can cure a heart is—of course—another heart.
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