Placebo

“How many of you have seen an angel?” This was the inquiry of my Sunday School teacher, circa 1999. As was my wont in those days, at the age of five or six, I unfurled my turtleneck until it reached my brow, hiding my face at first sign of embarrassment.

Every night, or so I like to recall, after being tucked in, I would, with full rambunctiousness, toss aside the covers and scamper to my window, waiting for an angel to appear, or for God’s voice to thunder across the sky, or at the very least for an albatross to perch on my roof and offer me a midnight tour of the eastern seaboard. But alas, this was Sunday school, and I couldn’t possibly make something up, and so there I remained, turtled in indefinite shame at my inability to conjure the divine. To make matters worse, several of my peers insisted that they had received visits from heavenly spirits, some on a semi-regular basis. Needless to say, suspicion raged, little eyebrows rising above the turtleneck mask, but jealousy, too, crept in, though always disguised as infantile skepticism.

My window waiting ritual continued for a few years, until one day I waited for the last time. I returned sheepishly to my bed, feeling like an idiot, undoubtedly with tears in my eyes from the confirmation that God, just like the girls at school, simply had no interest in conversing with me.

But still, I did this for years! It seems so ludicrous now, the false hope, the anticipation, the conviction that something was going to happen, that if I just waited long enough, a miracle was bound to take place. It’s almost laughable.

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On certain days after school I would walk past the offices of the town Fortune Teller, imagining what a visit there might be like. These visions were by no means infused with the very real seriousness that I carried with me to church every Sunday, where I absorbed the sermon, consumed Jesus’ body and blood, recited the Nicene Creed, and impressed the elderly ladies at Coffee Hour by informing them of my plans to join the clergy at the tender age of twenty-three.

Instead, my daydreamt interactions with the soothsayer featured me sitting across from a young Romanian gypsy woman, clad in headband and beads, her hands clasped tightly around my wrists as she performed a chanting rite by which she was so entranced that I was would have been able to chuckle openly without her even noticing, all the while being watched over by an audience of shrunken heads and shark teeth, quivering on strands of yarn beneath a ceiling fan. She would then tell me to fear death by water, or whatever, which would probably be followed by some sort of happy ending, without which no adolescent fantasy is complete.

The strangest part about this place was simply that it was there, in my affluent, waspy town, and that it had always been there, and that, to my knowledge, it is still there, meaning there must be some sort of loyal base of fortune recipients, perhaps among the aging housewife population, donning headscarves and sunglasses to hide their identity as they enter the realm of clairvoyance. Whoever it is that pays forty-five dollars an hour for this service, they have presumably been doing it, over and over again, for many years, or else the business would have surely failed by now.

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We are quick to chalk up our boredom to repetition: the non-difference of days as they cascade and climb towards either solstice. And yet, no one condemns us to this fate. We bring it, willingly and consciously, on ourselves. 

In my high school years I spent a good deal of time rowing and cross-country skiing and I liked to go to contra dances on Saturday nights. All three of these activities involve repeating more or less the same motion, again and again, until the music stops. Watching other people partake in these acts tends to be, save for a neck-and-neck sprint or a twinkle-toed spinster, supremely boring at best. But once you’re in the thick of it, there’s no denying the exhilaration. The thread connecting these activities is that to stop and think, even for a split second, will likely wreck havoc. It is into this void of cognizance that wonder inserts itself.

A mentor of mine told me once that the human brain is little more than a sieve, which through some evolutionary mishap has developed to prevent the perception of the infinite miracles taking place all around us at all times. So many of our rituals seem like the deranged spasms of a forlorn people, lost on the path. But it is through these spastic repetitions, which are the supposed definition of insanity, that, perhaps, we remove the veil, and see the angel who is the smiling partner whose toes you just stepped on, and that God speaks not in words, but in clouds and stars.