Last Monday, a non-work day, I woke up early and ran to the park, where tributaries of snow leftover from the big storm coursed between islands of miraculous heather. As much as I admired the landscape, I was distracted by thoughts of something rather strange and possibly remarkable that had happened to me a few days earlier. A bit of background is in order: since publishing a novel five years ago, I have several times been contacted by strangers who have hired me to do some freelance writing. I almost always accept these jobs, which in addition to giving me some 1099 income (advantageous from a tax perspective if your primary income is W-2) have taken me in some pretty unexpected directions, including: 1) freelance obituary writing for a newspaper based in a mid-sized city in Ohio (key swing state in the upcoming presidential election); 2) writing copy for a nursery/gardening catalog in Oregon; and 3) ghost-writing the self-published "autobiography" of a retired opera singer who literally hit the lottery (as in Lotto) and wanted someone to write the story of his life. There have been a few other jobs like this -- nothing related to "creative writing" per se, because I've never been sanctioned by the MFA-industrial complex -- but I'm sure you get the idea. In short, I wasn't completely surprised when I received an e-mail asking if I was interested in a potential writing job.More surprising was that this new e-mail -- which came from a guy I'll call "Mark" -- asked if I would be interested in working on a project related to his organization's research on "belief" and "immortality." [I should note here that my novel, in case you haven't read it, has a character in it who drinks a potion that allows him to live for several hundred years; the book, I should also mention, is based on a Czech opera (itself based on a play) that features a similar device, which is long way of saying that seeing "immortality" in this context wasn't completely unexpected: there was a connection.] Anyway, I was intrigued enough to write back saying "tell me more," after which we set up a phone call so that he could give me a better picture of what he had in mind. (As another preliminary note, the reason I'm being a little vague here about Mark and his organization is that a condition of talking to him was that I not disclose his identity, which I said was "fine with me"; as I told him, I've signed many NDAs over the years -- particularly in the context of these writing jobs -- and I added that I would be happy to provide references if we got to that point in the process.)Before we talked, I tried to imagine what he was going to tell me. What was interesting to me -- from the perspective of "fate" or "coincidence" if you believe in that sort of thing, which I'm not sure I do (but I might?) -- is that lately I've been thinking a lot about "faith" and "belief," in part because I recently finished reading "The Sea of Fertility" by Yukio Mishima, four novels about a series of characters who are reincarnated from one book to the next, each one discovered by a man who lives to meet each one of them. (Side note: whether or not you believe in Buddhist notions of reincarnation, these books are incredibly beautiful and capture what I consider to be the implicit, miraculous "mystery" of life that has nothing to do with the often-cheesy terms we are often forced to use when discussing our beliefs or "spirituality," by which I mean the idea that there is perhaps "something" beyond the flickering shadows in the dark caves where we spend most of our daily lives.) I'm also continually dismayed by the way the right wing in this country (and media coverage thereof) has effectively hijacked the conversation around belief; I hear interviews all the time with people who label themselves as "religious" and use this label to imply that -- because they belong to a larger community of like-minded individuals who I guess get together under a single room once or twice a week -- they somehow have a closer relationship with "God" than someone who might never go to church or belong to any larger organization, and -- obviously -- that this association gives them the right (on religious or "moral" grounds) to make all sorts of pronouncements about what does or doesn't please God, which has big political ramifications for pretty much anyone who belongs to a politically disenfranchised group in this country. Which I'm sure is not news to anyone who supports women's or gay rights or the fair treatment of ethnic minorities or whatever else regularly seems to offend "evangelicals" and -- more important -- the politicians who claim to represent them. What is more interesting to me, however, is the notion that those of us who disagree on political grounds with right-wing conservatives are typically perceived as disagreeing not only with their version of God, but also to any version of God, which creates a "narrative" that those of us on the political left are necessarily "anti- or nonreligious" or "lack spirituality," which may or may not be the case. Personally, I don't even know if I believe in God -- or in any kind of "higher power" -- but my doubt doesn't mean my belief (or half-belief) is worth less than that of anyone else who is 100-percent on board. I might never go to church, never talk about God, and never vote for a Republican -- in fact, I might support higher taxes to pay for better subways and healthcare -- but my left-wing political views don't mean that I am any less "spiritual" or "connected to God" than someone on the "religious/evangelical right" for the very reason that there is (by implicit definition in the word "belief") absolutely no evidence of a higher power (in contrast to say, evolution or global warming, which are observable and thus not subject to belief). As I type this now, what I'm trying to say seems pretty basic -- like what's to argue about? -- but I still think "belief" (even if it means no belief) is a fundamental right of every person, and not just those who profess it the loudest; but this right is rarely acknowledged in political coverage of the election, with the result that the rift in this country is a religious war between believers and non-believers, when in fact it's a political battle that implies -- or should imply -- nothing about a person's beliefs. It's also true that for those of us who grew up under Reagan & Company have learned to disassociate ourselves from "belief" for the simple reason that the term has often been used as a (political) weapon against us, which means that we tend to be wary of wielding it except in a kind of half-ironic/Gen-X tone that insulates us from committing to a position. I have a lot more I could say about all of this, but I'm pretty sure you get the idea if you've made it this far and I'm sure you can understand why I was interested to talk to this guy "Mark" about his freelance job offer. Sometimes things happen for a reason, is what I'm saying. Or that was my hope. (Before I get to the conversation, here's a picture of the Hudson from the west-facing window of my office building. Those little spots in the sky are actually helicopters, which have become a plague on the city.) [And this next batch of pictures is from another run I took on Wednesday morning (before going to work!) through the park, where the snow had melted in the rains and it was no longer nearly as cold as it had been over the weekend.]I finally spoke to Mark, and I won't relay everything we talked about, because much of it is beside the point (for example, how he found me and how I happened to write my novel, my possible belief in God, my political leanings, and so forth.) What he told me -- which is something about which I had no awareness and for that reason surprised me very much -- was that, according to research that his organization has been conducting, increasing numbers of people around the world have been reporting "sightings" (or in some cases, "encounters") with a kind of being he referred to as an "immortal" or lower-case "god," meaning a physical entity that looks very much like a person but possesses a kind of "glow." (Keep in mind that I didn't record this conversation so everything I'm saying here is reliant on my memory and ability to paraphrase.) I immediately suggested that these sightings were probably some kind of "paranormal activity," which he didn't exactly dispute, but he was careful to say that what he was talking about had very little to do with ghosts or demons or similar phenomena but instead -- according to those who studied and believed -- were more akin to a very rare species of human that for all intents and purposes could be considered "immortal," almost akin to the gods and similar mythological beings who can be found in cultures going back to the beginning of human civilization. (And he had some "science" to back this up, as I'll explain in a moment.) He was also careful to say that he personally didn't believe in the existence of such beings (but that he didn't not believe, either), but that he -- and his organization -- was interested in figuring out why these sightings and encounters were (are) happening with so much greater frequency than they were fifty or even five hundred years ago. One theory, he said, is that the increasingly precarious political times in which we live (he noted that there are more documented wars around the world than at any time in recorded history) has created a collective yearning that manifests in a desire for the return of a kind of "superhuman" being who will save us from ourselves, which in turn creates a kind of hallucinatory embodiment of this hope, similar to the way ghosts and demons embody our most fundamental (and, often, illogical) fears. "And what's the second theory?" I asked him, at which point he paused and I could almost envision a shrug. "The second theory," he said, "is that they're real." As you can imagine, I questioned him pretty intensely about this second theory, which he said -- for those who believed (and, again, he didn't commit one way or the other) -- was explained by the idea that there might, in fact, be a very close relation to human beings whose DNA had been edited or modified in ways that allowed them to live for thousands of years, which I knew was not completely beyond the realm of possibility if you've ever read about CRISPR genome editing and similar cutting-edge technologies. "The theory is not that these beings are technically immortal," he said, "but that they, like certain species of trees, can live for impossibly long amounts of time, at least from our human perspective." He again emphasized that he didn't subscribe to any one theory -- the evidence was far from conclusive -- and he wasn't trying to convince me either way. "And what about the glow?" I asked. "That's another question," he said, "but again, there are uncountable stories in ancient mythologies -- in almost every culture -- about glowing, immortal beings. The most plausible theory is that there might be some kind of reflective 'dark matter' that makes these beings visible to certain people who have the ability to see them." He went on to explain that most people he spoke to tended to think that an ability to see the glow was a kind of regressive trait that was now very rare in our population for reasons he didn't want to speculate about, because -- at this point -- there were no good theories. I realize that, because I'm rendering all of this from a position of skepticism, there are limits to the level of astonishment I can be realistically expected to convey; even now, I'm not sure if I was more amazed by what he was telling me or the fact that I was even having this conversation. It was probably a combination of both. For once, I felt good about a lifelong training regimen in hiding my emotions, which allowed me to continue the conversation from a place of detachment, as though we were discussing the local weather. There are obviously a lot of insane people in the world and odds would dictate that you would talk to one of them at some point, even when you're not on the subway. But even as the thought occurred to me that Mark might be insane, I next considered the possibility that he wasn't. After all, it wasn't like he claimed to believe in these so-called gods; his interest, as he reiterated, was in exploring -- almost from a sociological perspective -- why these sightings were occurring so much more frequently than in the past, and what this said about society (a question that would have different answers depending on whether the underlying creatures were "real.") Several times I felt compelled to express some disbelief, by asking him if someone was playing a prank on or otherwise "fucking" with me; clearly expecting this reaction, he repeatedly reassured me that he had "no hidden agenda." He had merely read some things I had written and thought I might be a good candidate for the job he had in mind. He spoke with a lack of investment that made me believe him, or at least want to believe him. Life was usually pretty mundane, I reminded myself, and this conversation, at least so far, was anything but, which alone offers a certain advantage. "Okay," I finally said. "Let's say I believe you. What exactly do you want me to do?"
He seemed relieved by the question, which I suppose would be natural for someone in his position. "There are some eyewitnesses in New York City," he said, "and we would like you to interview them on our behalf. Or question them, but not in an openly adversarial manner. It's not an interrogation but more of an exploration." He went on to describe the job in a bit more detail; I would be offered a set of guidelines before conducting an interview, after which I would get transcripts and write up a report summarizing my impressions and key findings. Except for the subject matter, it was something I had done many times during and after law school when I was working on cases and interviewing potential witnesses. Mark confirmed that he was aware of my legal background, which I didn't find too surprising or alarming, given that it's part of my LinkedIn account. (We naturally spent a few minutes discussing our mutual hatred of LinkedIn; he confessed that he didn't have a profile, which I joked made him a "god" in my eyes; he laughed a little.)So what now? I told him that I wanted "to think about it" before giving him a final answer, but that I "would probably" do it. After all, the money he offered was reasonable (the job would pay by the hour), and I was (and am) curious (to say the least) to talk to people who claim to have seen (possibly immortal, glowing) things that (most of) the rest of us have not. I finished by asking Mark if it would be a problem for me to blog about the work I was doing; lately, I said, it seemed that I was incapable of writing about anything except for cats and politics and flowers, and my hope was that this project would be a way to make things a little more interesting for myself and my readers. To my pleasant surprise, he encouraged me to do so (as long as I didn't reveal his identity or that of his employer, at least for now); he added that I was welcome to pursue any leads that might materialize by way of the blog (via crowdsourcing).
I hung up and felt like I had just woken up from a dream. I considered the possibility that I would never hear from him again; like anyone over the age of twelve, I've had all sorts of prospects that on first glance seemed promising but ultimately drifted away like clouds over the ocean. Whatever happens, and even though I'm not sure what I believe, the outside world already looks different to me. I've never seen a glowing immortal, but I like knowing that the possibility exists. Maybe that's the essence of my capital-g "God" or "faith," a belief in the idea that something might happen that falls outside of the norm and surprises us. Something that connects a future we never envisioned with a past we likewise never imagined. Who are these people who claim to see? And -- if by some miracle they're real -- who are these #gods? I'll obviously be updating you if/when I learn more. (And seriously, feel free to get in touch if you've seen anything or know someone who has. Or just tweet using #gods and I'll pick it up.) In the infinite city of our collective soul, anything is possible.