O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
I’m hiding in a cluttered hallway that runs behind our sanctuary in the building where we live. I’m in my boxers, in the dark, and I’m listening.
Because my friend Ramon is singing in there. It’s the most beautiful melody I’ve heard yet from him. Alone with an old classical guitar, one microphone, plenty of sad reverb in the speakers, and a tortured heart. The sound is of a lone monk singing in a cathedral, a troubadour in an outdoor amphitheater in the black of night. He is singing in Spanish, new lines he’s in the middle of composing about another young man from the Chicano street gangs who visited us a month ago, tormented by demons.
Yes, I said demons. I don’t assume you the reader believe in that sort of thing, but it’s that exact “Come on…really?” kind of stuff that has me up tonight in my underwear, following my roommate’s nocturnal activities, writing to you, the unknown skeptical reader I need, so I can make sense of what’s been happening the last few weeks.
In the hallway, eavesdropping, I’m hearing how Ramon hears that recent memory of an unexpected and incomplete exorcism. The tears, cries of panic, and vomiting from that tattooed pandillero now reinterpreted in his song have a truer sound, filling the same dark hall where the original incident played out. It’s tragic. It’s gorgeous and haunting. It’s the soundtrack to a grown-up migrant boy’s spirit breaking in slow motion.
But why is Ramon not sleeping, out here singing late into the night? He’s been a wreck for two weeks. His girlfriend, Audrey, the mother of their two-year-old daughter Rosie, and their newborn boy Christopher, named after me, cheated on him. Had sex with another dude. And she still is. Or at least Ramon thinks so. I don’t believe she did. The rest of our friends who know both of them just don’t see it. She’s not acting guilty, only confused and tired of being accused. He’s the one who seems a little crazed.
It all started when Ramon tapped Audrey’s bedroom in her apartment across town with a flimsy .mp3 player that can record two megabytes of sound with a mic the size of a pinhead. This was just a few weeks ago. But he’d tried the same stint many months ago, heard nothing in its hours of recorded bore, and told me one day with the deepest sincerity that he wanted to confess this nonsense. It was driving him mad. Said he wanted to ask God’s forgiveness for his sneaky behavior, for giving in to accusation against his girl and hurting their relationship that’s on the mend. After praying together he said he felt he needed to break the damn thing, with me as his witness. I said, “Umm…OK.” We smashed it in the parking lot and dropped its tiny innards in the large trash bin on wheels out back.
So this time he’d apparently gone out, bought another Phillips device just like it, planted it by her bed, snatched it up the next morning when dropping off more diapers for my little namesake, and spent the rest of the morning at work, painting the sides of new track houses with cheap paint, with puny headphones in his ears.
“I’m not making this up, Chris,” he told me while we ate our burgers and watched our pastor and his son fire arrows at hay bales with targets at the bow hunting store outside of town. He lowered his voice for discretion while the fiberglass arrows went ffft, thwack!: “You can hear,” his eyes squinted with disgust and disdain, “the fucking slapping. Bam, bam, bam.” To make sure I got how grotesque and X-Rated this was, he quietly and firmly smacked the heels of his hands together as he said it.
I felt for the guy. I comforted him most the afternoon, and felt we needed to have Audrey over to the ministry building where we live and confront this situation responsibly.
I expected her to stonewall us or fly into defenses and counter-accusations from their past, rife with mutual infidelity. But when he told her what evidence he had, she looked weary and told him to go ahead, go get the recorder. “I was up with Christopher coughing all night, Ramon. I’d love to hear what’s on that thing.”
What happened then? The little green .mp3 player wouldn’t work. We tried charging it in three different wall sockets while Audrey grew impatient with this trial drama and took the baby home. Its screen was partially cracked and dark. The thing was dead.
This is where my psychological-paranormal-spiritual-lie-detector inquiry began. As far as the original sound bite goes, we’ll never hear it. So then: sure, she could be lying or he could be making this up out of frustration with the relationship. She could have nailed some dude and denied it when caught. She has a pretty, well, colorful past. Entirely possible. Or he could be fed up with her tantrums and general volatility and so needed to fabricate some sympathetic excuse to break the thing off for good. Or he could be the one cheating and projecting this guilt onto her. I’ve seen it before. Who was lying? That’s the problem: I couldn’t see that either were telling anything but the truth as I took Audrey on walks with the baby C. and sat up late with Ramon in anguish.
I came to believe this: Ramon heard everything he says he heard. It was clearly devastating him. But I became less convinced that it came from the mp3 player.
Still with me?
Let me tell you another story. All last year, after Ramon first moved in to our community—which was after he’d visited me every few months since meeting me in a one of the Bible studies I do in the county jail here….No, there’s another story before this. Back to the beginning.
Ramon was just another jail inmate wearing red canvas, part of a circle of men in red, each with their sad and complicated stories, when I led them into putting into practice Jesus’ teaching to forgive and bless our enemies. Ramon went for it: he forgave and blessed both the man in Juarez who killed his brother, as well as the young woman who was falsely accusing him and his co-defendants of rape, which is why he was now in custody, facing thirty years minimum. The next day, he got a call in his cell from his lawyer that this young woman had left a handwritten letter at his office earlier in the day apologizing for giving false statements against the men. He was released soon after that. In the months that followed, Ramon would show up on my back stoop every so often, only to disappear again. Finally, he sat down with me one day and told me, “I’m tired of being an asshole. I’m tired of spending my money on stupid shit.” So he moved in with us.
It was in that first year that he began to report to us roommates an odd phenomenon that would take place when everyone was asleep. He called them “dreads.” A weight would come over him in the middle of the night, something oppressive. He couldn’t move. Tried to cry out, say his roommate Ryan’s name. But nothing came out. Stuck in complete terror, right there in his bed.
Here’s the interesting part: “I could hear it…sniff me,” he still says, fingers clenched like an evil claw held up right next to his face.
Ryan and I would pray with Ramon sometimes before going to bed. But the dreads continued. Until one day this last spring when he went walking with me on the expansive sand flats that are exposed at low tide where our Skagit River flows into the salty Puget Sound. One of our pastors, Mike, was walking with us, too. Right as I was about to jump off the rock face of a small island out there into a deep tide channel below, I heard Ramon claiming to Mike down on the sand, “I heard it, Mike. I just heard it,” and he tapped his fist to his heart. I jumped, swam up to them, toweled off, and learned that something had just told Ramon he was supposed to be baptized, right there and then. He said we should hurry before he changed his mind. So we dunked the guy, impromptu liturgy and all, there in our swim trunks.
The dreads didn’t come back after that. Weird, huh?
Where were these sounds coming from? What was Ramon hearing? He wasn’t lying, you see. And he’s not on drugs. Some men I work with are infamous for hearing and seeing things when high on crystal meth or baked and paranoid on weed. Ramon’s just a cigarette smoker on our back stoop who buys them as singles to avoid chain smoking. He’s a pretty sane guy, this Ramon. If I didn’t tell you about these few apocryphal stories, you’d love and trust this short, handsome, and unusually sincere twenty-five-year-old laborer at a dairy farm, born in Juarez, Mexico, and not think a thing wrong with him.
Meanwhile Audrey kept coming around, spending time with a young woman in our organization named Elizabeth, being more open to conversation and counseling. If she were cheating on Ramon, she would only be as nasty and evasive as ever. Or never show her face around the place.
So it was a delicate conversation. “I don’t doubt you heard that—whatever it was—sniffing you at night, Ramon,” I said to him in my bedroom one afternoon. “I don’t doubt it was real, something very real. But it wasn’t a normal person or animal there in your bed with you, right?” He sensed where I was going with this. “In the same way, I believe you really heard what you say you did of Audrey having sex for hours—but that it wasn’t what you think it was. I don’t think it’s lost somewhere in that tiny piece of electronics we could pay to maybe get fixed. I think it’s much more complicated, somewhere in the inner workings of your heart, your memory, your relationship with Audrey, and the same kind of dark stuff that used to torment you at night. Only now it has a different…sound.”
That pissed him off. I watched my friend squeeze his fingers in frustration through his short, curled hair that glistens with the Tres Flores pomade he uses to keep it from ‘fro-ing. He knew it was fear, deception, and unfounded suspicion that drove him to buy another recorder. And when he put those earphones in, he was willfully giving his ears over to those mounting forces of accusation and torment. He didn’t argue, the poor guy. Either his girl was screwing another guy or his dreads were now taking on extended, high-definition and graphic audio character during waking hours. Pretty lousy options.
Now Ramon, like many people south of our armed borders—or through most of the living world outside (and now infiltrating, in many colors and languages) the little white castle of Europe and part of North America—believes in demons. The spirit world. Capricious spiritual entities that can be evaded, used, bribed, scared away, that can possess, guide, heal, or even eventually kill someone. Most cultures throughout history have relied on traditions, rituals, and elders experienced in interacting with the various invisible powers that inhabit the ether around us. Ramon, like millions before him, has an easier time believing in such phenomena that he actually experiences than the much odder idea of a single God who loves humans, forgives them and asks for no payment. Or even odder, the sterile modern story framed by research funded by a trillion-dollar pharmacological industry, that none of it exists, and that those who attest to these historic experiences now qualify for the latest pill that will fix this illness in his or her brain.
Let’s back up on this one, too. The European elite, just prior to its brute imperial takeover of most other continents and cultures, had its Enlightenment. This breakthrough gave us a lot of cool machines, medicines, and big rational ideas. But it also made us a lonely and narrower clique on the earth by deciding that all that came before its discoveries and existed outside of them in power and mystery now could be quaintly described as superstitious. But that age of our Enlightenment and its hegemonic claims might be crumbling now—just like the economy, capitalism, America, and some of our other big rational ideas.
Ramon’s from Juarez, that wild west of a showdown between North and South on the border. It’s where NAFTA (another big rational idea) landed its big spaceships of sweatshops and paychecks (including Phillips, by the way; the same manufacturer of that secular little wonder of a sound talisman at the center of our story here). Such companies drew masses of rural poor to its promise of labor, only to leave a few years later for China’s cheaper sweat. The old powers of drugs and bullets—and the even older powers of witchcraft, brujeria, and curanderos—took over. They made the newly stretched open and overpopulated economic ghost town across the river from El Paso the postmodern apocalyptic boom town it is today. And these more easily-wielded destructive powers have stayed and lasted where our big box powers quickly expired. The people know such spiritual arts are real, and either pay for or fear their effectiveness in coaxing spiritual forces into manipulating others’ minds and fates.
So Ramon and his extended family from Juarez, living up in Washington now—they have no problem swallowing this old school demonic woowoo we’re talking about here. That’s not why Ramon was pissed when I suggested it.
He gripped his skull that afternoon, and now stays up late into the night singing in our sanctuary, because if this is true—and if the mp3 player was just another elaborate box made by Phillips, but in miniature, full of the same deception that screwed his land and family years ago, and crapping out early just like its company’s promise for Mexican employment that caused them to leave their corn fields en masse as Ramon now was leaving his children’s mother—then he might have to open his heart and love this wounded girl again. Like a generation of Mexican farmers’ kids in that sweatshop city who wouldn’t know how to return to the land of corn and grains they have no idea how to husband, Ramon would similarly have to come to terms with the lie and face the hard woman he’s left, whom he hasn’t a clue how to love.
So here I am in the back hallway, still listening to Ramon’s song slowly developing line by line. Like I said, I’m hearing how Ramon hears that memory. That troubling occurrence with the exorcised gangster, full of cries and human fluids, has become something other, something new in this song. Ramon is hearing that event through a spirit of love. He prayed for that young man, and still does. So it takes on a haunting sweetness.
In the same way, is it possible that the grisly sounds and cries of infidelity Ramon heard in the earphones are similarly from Audrey’s past, only now composed into something as new and altered as the song? But if it isn’t a holy spirit of love through which he’s hearing the sordid past, as with the song, what spirit would it be composing this accusatory charade?
You know the word Satan, of course. The most popular name for that arch-bugaboo in Christian spirituality. The Enemy of the forgiving God. The intelligent spirit who’s always tempting, deceiving, devouring, even said by some apostles to be the very ruler of this world. In Greek, The Satan simply translates as The One Who Accuses, or The Accuser. Most inmates in our jail Bible study immediately resonate with this clarified identity of the devil (or adversary): they know how their present, human accusers—county prosecutors—are persistent in digging up their past sins, adding some extra, false allegations, and framing it in such a way to make any listening judge or jury see the accused as vile and deserving condemnation, not worthy of pardon or leniency. The accusing spirit alters memory by omitting all evidence of growth, contrition, innocence, redemption, or simple human frailty and need. It is the opposite of compassion.
It is an anti-forgiveness force, a voice that would seek to undermine reconciliation. This spirit, this phenomena exposed by Jesus and the early church, is what I believe to be currently at work between Ramon and Audrey, isolating and destroying them. It’s the same ruling spirit in the world that manifests in the speeches of national and gang leaders alike: seeking to demonize other humans, pushing for bolstering your defenses, shaming vulnerability, and controlling its listeners with a tangible fear of being hurt or attacked again.
We all “hear” this spirit, warping our thoughts with self-accusation and relationships with more accusation and fear. The difference with Ramon is that his hearing, like many artists and sensitive souls, is not a subtle frequency at thought-level, but somehow turned all the way up to audio-experience hearing. Such people, I believe, have a bigger antenna, you could say. They tap directly into the spiritual wavelengths of the world. And so the songwriters, painters, mystics and shamans of the world have an incredible track record for getting caught up in as much gnarly illusion and self-destruction as they do beauty and truth.
Listening to Ramon sketch in song tonight in the darkness, I’m hearing what he hears. I’m wondering if we too quickly tear down such reports, such phenomena, as we do a spider’s web when walking through a forest. I, and I think we all, need these artists, these Ramons, whose fragile inner webs catch and hold still for us incredulous ones to see—as with various insects or the dew and sunlight captured on delicate gossamer threads—the small and ephemeral realities.
In the collapse of the Englightened, industrial age, we may need these sensitive ones to once again reveal to us both the vile and heavenly elements moving through the air all around us, constantly fighting to create the tender and troubled world we actually see.