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Conversations with Seth
By Susan M. Watkins, George Rhoads
Moment Point PressCopyright © 1999 Susan M. Watkins
All rights reserved.
Who Said Truth Was Stranger Than Fiction? (That's How The Bundu Knew)
My Friend Is a Medium on Monday Nights (to Jane)
Pinpointed yellow spaceship apartment, Look in your grinning windows and see the universe fold up, See tree-thoughts stand all charcoal and acorn, Watch behind the air ...
When intuitive knowledge and understanding overflow, then it overflows into all kinds of creativity and it is. It does not form groups. Groups appear. There is a difference. There is no need to form groups. Groups appear because there is no need to form them.
—Seth in Class, June 11, 1974
In the inscrutable logic of nature, the summer days have turned brilliant and magical in the special light of autumn. Far above my hometown streets, the geese are following their ancient migration urge in its regular and obvious patterns, forming an equation so appropriate that no one in his right mind questions the seasons: What goose would fly south in July? What tree would turn red and gold in February?
In the equally inscrutable—and largely unacknowledged—logic of humankind, the people outside my window follow their own migrations of pattern and form, reacting and interacting in beautiful spontaneous appropriateness that no one in his "right" mind carries beyond certain accepted precepts of logic. And yet, what serendipity of selfhood peeks through our "logical" experience?
It was December of 1963. I was a freshman at Syracuse University's journalism school, one of 2,200 in the Class of '67; all of us still digesting the shock of JFK's death. We had watched it all: the funeral procession on TV interspersed with commercials for floor mops; the riderless horse augmented by ads for dog food. The campus magazine devoted its entire pre-Christmas issue to on-the-street interviews with students who described where they'd been and what they had been doing when they heard the news that Kennedy had been shot. The students' recollections were without exception precise, clear-cut stills of one moment in time and space; perhaps the first awe of history felt by our generation. Vaughn Bodé, that weirdo campus artist some few years away from the underground comics, illustrated the text of the student interviews with dreamlike clouds and bubbles outlined in black. The Berlin Wall and Cuba had been terrifying, but was this not the death of poetry—of answers—in government?
Everyone taking Freshman Civics that semester was supposed to read Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. I'd tried a few chapters and quit, bored. Though Ellison's book was considered the bravest, most searing social comment of the new decade, I was far more compelled by a science-fiction story in a paperback anthology I'd picked up in the campus bookstore. The story, called "The Chestnut Beads," dealt with college sororities and the Bomb. It told of a sorority's initiation rites that were actually a ritual of subliminal suggestion, given to the women on how to survive the coming holocaust—and, surviving it, take over the world so that men could never again have the chance to destroy it. The initiates consciously forgot the inner message embodied in the ritual, but carried it with them nonetheless, like an invisible mental fetus, through the rites of marriage and childbirth and house cleaning—until the Day came, and the Bomb fell, and the message was born again to the female survivors.
The story was powerful, brooding, and in those innocent pre-feminist days, defiant and deliciously revengeful; and I read it over and over, savoring it, surviving with the survivors, taking over the world's remnants with them. Later, I read an expanded version of the same story in a novel called The Bundu. The theme would haunt my mind for years, although I forgot the author's name until I met her five years later. And it would be more than a year after that before I would meet Ned Watkins, to whom I would be married for a brief time.
Yet so it was that as my eighteen-year-old self sat in my dorm room, far from my home in Elmira, New York, reading the story of "The Chestnut Beads" by Jane Roberts, she and her husband Rob Butts—perhaps at that precise jelly-cubed moment—were sitting in front of a Ouija board in their Elmira apartment, spelling out the first messages from a character calling himself Seth; while I, back at good old Syracuse U, was diligently skipping my civics assignment for a story that somehow began to answer the call of my tumultuous, assassination-raped feelings, in the tale of the chestnut beads' olive and her somewhat disposable daughter—whose name was Sue Watkins!
And I wonder: What smooth, gleeful orchestra of logic, what migration of desire and intent—categorized "rationally" as coincidence—connected Jane and me five years before we met, through a fictional character whose name I would not have until six years after I read that story?
After graduation, I worked for a while on Elmira's daily newspaper, and then moved to Martha's Vineyard. For a few weeks I lived in a rooming house whose other tenants turned out to be undercover narcotics agents posing as shoe salesmen. Given the bleakness of the island in winter without tourists, it was hard to imagine who would be buying shoes, let alone narcotics. But the agents plugged on, and eventually bagged the sons of some rich and famous people.
For two weeks I worked in the medical records section of the island hospital, having landed the job on the merits of a college education—never mind that I'd never been in a business office in my life. I was soon so mired in the mysteries of bookkeeping that I sent out bills to every name in the files—including people who hadn't been to the hospital in years. That was my last desk job, but I managed to support myself as the island's Western Union teletype operator and "social correspondent" for the Vineyard Gazette, contributing local tidbits on who ate Sunday dinner with whom. But I felt eternally lost at sea, doomed to extinction beneath a pile of rejection slips—and rightly so. Even my own desperate appraisal of the short stories my typewriter ground out foresaw a long apprenticeship with the written word.
So it was with portents of new directions one August night that I found myself standing in the streetlights' glow of my apartment kitchen, wide awake, trying to make the sink faucet work so I could get a glass of water. I struggled with the cold-water spigot. But no matter which way I turned the handle—and for some reason it spun around freely either way—no water came out into my waiting glass. The glass wasn't right either: it was shaped like a squash. A squash?
I stared at the glass, the faucet. I did not remember getting out of bed, or walking to the sink. I turned around and looked back into the bedroom—and there I was, sleeping soundly on my back, my mouth slightly open, the covers pushed away.
I walked to the bedside and stared down at myself, watching the breath moving in and out of my sleeping body. My consciousness was definitely not in that body—it was here, outside, standing and watching. I reached out and Sue Watkins touched my body's arm, and leaped back, startled. The skin was warm and alive, but I had felt the touch on the arm of the body I was standing in—and I'd been aware of the touch on the arm of my sleeping, physical self. It was a strange duality, like endless mirror images. Affection for my physical being welled up inside of this aware, awake self that I was there, in the dark-light glow of my room. It was powerful and secure, my physical body, sleeping peacefully, refreshing itself in ways only dimly guessed at: was this projection of my consciousness part of that renewing process?
I turned away from the bed and walked out into the small living room, objects glowing with import, as alive and aware as I. The front windows opened up for me, and I looked out over the Vineyard. Sound, dark liquid velvet, the rhythmic clank of sailboat mastcleats chiming up through the damp sea fog surrounding the village. All the details of the night were clear to me; it was as though each physical thing called out separately, yearning to tell me its secret and its meaning. I leaped out the window, then, and flew into the night; down past the sailboats moored in the Sound; down through the dark water to the debris-strewn bottom; up out of the warm, thick sea into the air and past the gray-shingled houses lining the West Chop beaches; and my memory contains hours of this flight between the molecules of matter, soaring as a physical creature never could through the nighttime beauty of the physical land. Several times I passed others in the same state, flying in a kind of private rapture. At one point, I swept past a man in monk's garb who grinned and waved as we went our opposite ways. Throughout, I was as awake as I've ever been. And except for the ecstatic, perfect freedom of flight, I could have been walking the streets of Vineyard Haven on any fog-shrouded summer night.
Abruptly, I felt an urge to return to my body. I snapped awake, jolted almost violently with the feeling of slamming down on the bed. I stared at the room. The sun was streaming through the windows, but it was not my room. It appeared to be another room, in another place. I stared hard, forcing myself to find the "right" room—and with a sudden snap! behind my ears, my familiar bedroom fell into place. But that soaring, beautiful night flight of consciousness was still singing in my skull, and it stayed with me for days afterwards, calling up my childhood's secret dreams; a turning point in my awareness of how my own peculiar abilities bridged any gap that I might feel between my private self and the "real" world. ("There are no divisions to the self," Seth would tell us countless times, smiling gleefully.)
And so, a month later, pressed by an urgency I didn't understand and in fact resented (and still do, to some extent), I returned to Elmira, where my friend Dan Stimmerman took me that September of 1968 to one of Jane and Rob's Friday night parties; it was important that I tell my experiences to "that lady who speaks for the ghost of a dead man," Dan said. He'd dragged me, protesting, to a New Year's Eve bash at their place nine months before, though nothing had "clicked" then for a number of reasons. This time, things had ... changed.
The living room was large, bright, cozy. Evening traffic noises mingled with the crisp autumn air that rushed in through the open bay windows of the second-floor apartment. Robbie's paintings filled the walls; the furniture was a comfortable conglomeration of castoffs; plants and books and writer's paraphernalia decorated the place. No dead men whispered through Jane's lips that evening, but the conversation turned inevitably to ESP and other such phenomena. As I described my vivid dreams and other "weird" experiences, I kept stealing glances at this handsome, lithe, dark-haired woman with this so-called spirit hanging somewhere behind her eyes. Could she see my past and future, perceive all my secrets, discover all there was to know? Such possibilities made me a little nervous, but then, Jane didn't really appear to give a damn about these typical "psychic" questions. She smoked constantly, drank several beers, swore and laughed and read her astounding poetry to us with delicious vigor. Rob, a dapple-gray-haired man with lean, athletic good looks, spoke with a kind of old-fashioned wit and charm; and between the two of them, you knew that no nuance of character play around them went unnoticed.
Finally, after several hours of conversation—with Jane's challenging, intimidating grin answering mine and that vivid, soaring night-flight through the Vineyard echoing in my bones—I said, "You know, I really would like to join that ESP class of yours."
"Sure," Jane said lightly. "There are two of them—the regular one on Tuesdays, and you can start in the one Thursday night, for beginners."
"Beginners?" I gulped, a little insulted.
"Yeeeah," she said, exhaling the last smoke cloud from her twentieth Pall Mall of the evening, "that's just so you can catch up with the others."
Catch up? My mind boggled. Catch up with what? For Chrissakes, what else was there?
What else, indeed!
I was never a true "group" person. Either I went to the one extreme of complete solitude, or I joined so many groups at once that I couldn't possibly be a member of any of them. I was suspicious of groupthink; disdained organization and ceremony as mindless; sneered at religion as the cruelest of idiocies; and adopted a stubborn contrariness that sometimes wanted to burst my own seams. But in spite of it all, in a strange parade of events, I found myself attending my first ESP class in October of 1968, and already the small group—afiftyish woman named Rachael Clayton, seventeen-year-old Daniel MacIntyre, myself, and Jane—had leaped from the tacit assumption that death was not The End into a most contrary proposition: that an individual actually chooses the circumstances of that death. Strange. When I was four or five years old, my mother would often stop in our walks down Elmira's West Water Street to point out the huge red maple tree growing in front of this stately old three-story house. Now I was sitting in an apartment in that same yellow building, still shaded by that red maple, balancing in some footfall in time and space.
"What I don't understand about my husband's death is that it happened when we had grown so close," Rachael was saying. "I knew that he didn't want to grow old and feeble—but when he died, I was just devastated. I found myself hating him, almost, for dying ..."
Rachael was struggling not to cry. Obviously, she was horrified by her feelings and yet relieved to be expressing them. It was a precise and delicate moment for her, so I was completely taken by surprise when suddenly, and for no apparent reason, Jane started yelling at Rachael—in a loud, vibrant, strangely accented voice. Rachael didn't even flinch, but to me, loud voices meant terrible anger (or something unimaginably worse). I cringed back into my chair with embarrassment and turned to see, with double surprise, that Jane was not only shouting at Rachael, but waving her glasses at the poor woman besides.
What the hell? I stammered mentally; and then, with a small shock, I realized that this was not Jane Roberts as I thought of her who was speaking—but Seth, whose appearance five years before had torn such a hole in the fabric of Jane and Rob's daily lives.
But ... but there was no transition, no effort! From one minute to the next, this—person had just started being there. For sitting there as I was—feeling pinned to my chair like a moth in a display case, the terrors of noise and its connotations in my guts—there could be no doubt that Seth was very much a person in his own right.
"Your husband did indeed not want to grow old," Seth was telling Rachael. "He had a horror of old age, as you know, and had decided long before his physical death that he would not live to become decrepit. He believed that he would, you see. And so he took the steps to insure that he would not."
Rachael nodded, her eyes filling with tears. I felt tears of my own forming. In the first hour of this class, I had come to like Rachael a great deal. She was a warm, tender woman of grace and charm—"a great lady," Scarlett O'Hara would have said. "I understand that, Seth," Rachael said, after a pause. "It's just that ..." now the tears spilled. "It's just that I can't let go. And then I dream about him all the time." She controlled her voice with effort.
"Now, my dear friend," Seth said, a huge grin crossing Jane's face, "I have seldom had so charming a person weep in my presence, and I have lived and died many times." He (or she) leaned forward in the Kennedy rocker and placed Jane's glasses on the long coffee table that someone had fashioned from a door. Having taken proper care of the glasses, Seth sat back in the rocker and placed one foot on the chair's front rung, exposing in the process a little more of Jane's leotard-covered thigh than I was entirely comfortable with. "Your husband does indeed communicate with you in the dream state," Seth said. "I will give you more information at another time. But he does not want you to get into too much trouble on your own, you see!" This last comment bellowed out of Jane's small body with such force that I was sure it must have blasted out across the Chemung River, a block away.
Rachael smiled and made some rejoinder about her and Seth being "old bar mates," and the two of them were off on a happy-go-lucky (but, sadly, unrecorded) contest of wits as to which of them had lived the seediest series of past lives—with both bragging happily about the nefarious details. I hardly listened to what they were saying (something I regretted many times while putting this chapter together), because what I was seeing there in that rumpled, brightly lit living room couldn't have been more astounding had the refrigerator walked out of the kitchen to ask if we wanted more ice cubes. In one fell swoop, this full-bodied, exuberant, and obviously self-aware presence had filled my universe with possibilities as infinite as the landscape of dreams.
Excerpted from Conversations with Seth by Susan M. Watkins, George Rhoads. Copyright © 1999 Susan M. Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Moment Point Press.
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