THE NAME - Laura Hope-Gill
I don’t know after how many nights of starfishing I started to kneel on the beach on Sequim (pronounced Squim) Bay. Like everything else that happened outside the classroom after noons on Mondays-through-Thursday after teaching at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula. A lot just blurred between day and night, sea and sky, earth and tide, me and whatever other me was there as well. In low-residency graduate school at the time I had to write poems and essays and email them to my teacher every three weeks. This left me with a lot of time to sit on a fallen tree in the tide and stare at water. I had not ever been told that gazing, loosening focus, letting the mind wander could also open doors to consciousness. There really just wasn’t anything else to do there. I did it often. I did it for sometimes three or four hours. When the sun had left the cedars, the volcano, the sea, I moved inside my cabin. There the solitude deepened even more.
I sat at my little 1950s dining table beside the 12-feet window pane. Between lines of poetry, I looked through the glass at the water, darkening, receding. I learned the name of the lowest tide possible, minus tide, and watched it recede all the way out of the bay to the strait. I walked the murk and delivered stranded starfish to the sea. They wrapped themselves around my forearms and wrists, sometimes eight or ten of them. I took this on like a job for something to do. Time could float, I learned. I needed a buoy to keep me from drifting too far out. Saving starfish was the best I could do.
The question was, for whom was I doing this job. A sense of servitude embraced me, and this evolved into worship. Praying made sense more than anything had made sense before. It was a circular kind of speech for me—I didn’t think about the words but rather felt that they were circling through me, coming from within me, moving outside of me, but echoing within at the same time. As though I were empty of everything, except the words. They taught me what to say.
So, on a drive back from Seattle one perfectly blue late afternoon before the rains and darkness, having finished some McDonalds fries from “the last McDonalds for 50 miles,” it wasn’t entirely out of character for who I was at that time to see an interesting series of cloud formations in the otherwise perfectly clear sky.
“Read it with your heart,” said a voice that was the voice when I was praying.
My starfish detail had grown so familiar to me as a task to complete and then to be rewarded with this deep sense of connection with some inner-outer voice through prayer, that at this point I was open to anything strange. In fact, the strange had grown marvelously familiar.
I ought to insert here that almost all my students were of the Salish nations—Suquamish, S’Klallam, Quileute. This isn’t to say I was identifying as Native-American. I had been reading books about these nations, books I picked up at Elliott Bay Books on the Sound in Seattle when I went in. It is to say that having a small sense of how vast the traditional cosmology could be allowed me a lot of space to consider as being a part of the world, as opposed to grounds for opening DSM-IV. I liked what I felt happening to me as I loosened deeper into natural time, sat longer and longer on my fallen tree, had come to recognize the patterns of partridge, heron, seagull, otter, eagle, and seal.
I pulled my car over and peered through the tinted windshield at the formations. They looked like whatever the letters in the Hebrew alphabet or the Arabic alphabet might be called. I didn’t know if they were pictographs like in Mandarin or a cuneiform or what. But clearly I wasn’t going to get that answer “with my heart.”
“With my heart,” I said out loud. “Okay.”
Instantly, the word formed in my mind. I wrote it on the McDonald’s napkin. They were white and square then. There in the corner, the giant golden M I’m only realizing now.
Of course, I thought I was going bats.
I didn’t really have a way to tell whether any of what world I was half-creating, as Wordsworth says, was grounded in reality at all. I had also, I should tell you, taken to standing next to blackberry bushes in the woods behind my cabin (where the partridges nested, where a giant buck once emerged upon me and I think I may have flirted) and waiting for the ripest blackberry to “tell” me which one it was. I am okay with telling you this now. I wasn’t hurting anybody. I may or may not have been having an encounter with the spirit world, I thought as all these things happened. I may or may not have been crazy.
I prayed that night on the shoreline. I prayed to the voice that did my praying to let me know if I was letting things get too far. In short, I was praying to God to be rational, which makes no sense. I was hedging my bets with the dealer Himself.
I woke in the night with a vision from a dream. It was of a poem I’d written a few days before, and there was a light shining down the middle of it. I lit a cigarette and searched my papers. I didn’t have a computer yet. Everything was typed. I found the poem and stood in the middle of the one room that was living room, dining room, and kitchen and looked down the middle of the poem. There was the word I’d written on the napkin.
“Okay, so it’s an anagram. A trick of the unconscious.” I wrote the poem the day before and somehow it had snagged in my unconscious which had projected into a naked sky. Truthfully, though, not believing the word, the name meant something felt much less reasonable than believing in it. What could the harm be, adopting a name from the clouds? Wasn’t that something that was supposed to happen? A wheel-a-rollin? A sign? Here was a sign. I could follow it or dismiss it. Dismiss it and the world drains of its music and magic. Follow it and see what’s next to open.
I stayed out in Sequim until the following autumn when my position was deleted at the college, and there weren’t other jobs for a poet floating around the Northwest. Up until I left, I prayed each night to that name and asked whoever was on the other side of it to guide me, show me. The name was a comfort. It was a line across not to God—I didn’t let myself presume such a connection—yet to a deeper aspect of being; whether within or without me did not matter. The first time I went to a co-instructor’s house, just after I arrived in Sequim, I saw on her wall a framed definition of the word “genius.” It was three things: the wisest aspect of the self, the genie that can be accessed as a guide, and it is the connection between the two. I resolved, as I left, that this is what it must have been.
In November and living West Lafayette Indiana, and considering doctoral programs, I was seated at a dinner across from a Hebrew Scholar. During a break in a mutli-directional conversation, I withdrew the paper napkin from my purse and slid it across the table toward him. “Does this word have a meaning in Hebrew?”
The scholar looked at it and asked, “How do you know this word?”
My mouth grew dry, and it was difficult to speak. “I think I’d rather not say,” I said. “I’m just curious to know if it’s a word.”
The scholar cupped his hands together, “This word means ‘message,’ or ‘gift.’ It could be ‘gift-bringer—” Refills of water arrived. “Do you read Hebrew?” asked the scholar, and the rest of the conversation was quickly swept away into the sea of the other conversations going on around us.
As I sipped from my glass, I remembered that beautiful afternoon driving from Seattle and the peculiar experiences I encountered both in my classroom and in that larger classroom of the wilderness around my cabin, and I was grateful I had chosen to accept the sign of the name in the clouds however insane that choice felt at the time.
Three years later, shortly after September 11, I was in London for a poetry festival where I befriended a Dabke dancer from Gaza, who was iving in England on an artist’s visa. After a week of roaming the city like we had been friends for life, I wrote the name on a napkin in our host’s apartment and passed it to him.
“How do you know this word,” he asked me. Again, I did not say.
“Does it have a meaning in Arabic?” I asked him.
“Yes, this is very unusual you know this word. It is almost a slang word, we use it with friends. It means, “I am with you.”
Since that time in Sequim, the place named for the tears you cry when peeling onions, I have read and heard more about spirituality and mysticism. I see posters and flyers for workshops and retreats. I don’t know, and can’t know, what other people’s version of starfishing would be that would move them into that wandering state of worship I found myself in. I haven’t returned to Sequim, but I see that the John Wayne Marina now owns the now-called John Wayne resort that includes my cabin on Sequim Bay. I look at pictures of my cabin, and I remember gazing out those long windows over the water. I still use that name I saw in the clouds when I pray. I use it to denote either myself or the one to whom I’m praying. I’ve seen words in texts that sound close to it. I don’t attach more meaning to it than this. The name itself is a gaze, unfixed, unfocused, untamed. I carry it with me everywhere.