Lord Alfred Tennyson reincarnates as a bear and lumbers into your campsite while your parents are roasting marshmallows for s’mores. How you know this, exactly, you cannot say. You are only four. You are only four, but it is your first major otherworldly intuition. You don’t even know, of course, who Lord Alfred Tennyson is. Only much later, during your junior year of college when reading Idylls of the King, will you remember again the bear and later that same evening while not even drunk—or not even as drunk as much as your friends (and certainly not stoned)—“fall into” your first channeling session.
Your friends are spellbound as you tell them things about their lives that they haven’t told anybody or have never really understood so completely until now. You soon become infamous all over campus for your Saturday evening sessions and eventually, on the advice of your new boyfriend John, a business major, begin charging for these readings.
You prefer not to think of it as channeling. You rather would like to call it interpretation. You are “reading” the other world is all. But by whichever name it is called, you will understand—or will be told—that a group of non-physical entities has been waiting for the right medium to get their messages across. And you have been chosen. You will eventually learn to call this collective of non-physical entities Alfred or, more privately, Alfred the Bear, after the first experience with the s’mores.
All of this does not go down well with your father, a Baptist minister, nor with your mother, weeping for her many minutes long phone “conversations.” She peppers her weepy madness with the occasional Tourette’s-like outburst, “Satan, get out! Get out of my daughter!” This will begin the next twenty-five years of silence between yourself and your parents.
You will drop out of college during your senior year, marry John, eventually co-author a book, The Law of Repulsion, the first of many bestsellers, and hit the road. In those early years, when you show up in the smaller, unincorporated communities on the outskirts of the larger suburbia areas for your speaking engagements, people will be standing outside the venues with their signs.
to HELL you
Your husband John will say that this bad publicity is just the kind of good publicity that you need to launch Alfred’s career. And how right he is. He is right about most everything. He will be right until the very end when, after these many years of traveling and working together, and loving one another, John had an affair with a woman half your age and left.
It is not a new story, only new to you.
Since this betrayal, it has been most difficult for you to get out of bed until thirty-minutes before your evening speaking engagements. Another problem, most certainly, is how lately you’ve been feeling Alfred pulling away. More and more recently, in fact, it seems like you are speaking not for Alfred the Bear so much as you are for yourself. If John were only here, he would know exactly what to say to soothe you.
Perhaps it is time to retire Alfred to the Empyrean, or wherever it is that this collective of non-physical entities “lives,” outside of space and time, and get on with your own retirement, in the here and now. Although no longer young, you are young enough. But retirement is a big decision and part of you wishes to continue on, if for no other reason to show John that you don’t need him.
And so swings the pendulum of your heart.
On one side: Soothe me. Look over me. Love me.
And the other: Satan, get out! Get out of my life!
To help yourself get back “into the right space,” you’ve been brushing up on your aborted English degree. Most specifically, you’ve returned to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Idylls is a cycle of twelve narrative poems based on the Arthurian legends, particularly the great betrayal by Queen Guinevere, who falls in love with Lancelot, and seeds the beginning of King Arthur’s fall from power.
And then in Milwaukee one February evening, during a particularly hard-driven snow, you feel terribly homesick for the first time in years. You decide to visit your mother, a now mostly harmless, muttering old woman. Your father had died several years earlier.
When drinking tea with your mother in the living room of your childhood home, she tells you for the first time most candidly that she doesn’t know anymore what she believes. She says that the old story no longer holds her as much as it once did.
You cannot believe what you are hearing, of course, and keep as quiet as possible, with your cup of tea in your lap, hoping that she will go on. She tells you that after her husband, your father, died, she found a secret shoebox of letters by a long-time friend of his. She looks over at you. “A sexual friend.”
“Dad had a secret lover?” You feel the blood returning to your hands and feet. The frozenness over the last few months since your own husband’s betrayal, even if only slightly, begins to thaw. “But who was she? Did you know her? What was the woman’s name?”
It takes your mother a long while to respond. You wait. You will wait as long as it takes, listening to the grandfather clock ticking from the corner of the living room. Finally, she says, “It wasn’t a she.”
You literally drop your cup of tea right there onto the floor, so that in a mad dash for the towels and a bucket of hot, soapy water, to clean it up, the moment is lost. It will take you a long while—many months, actually—to digest what your mother, a stout Baptist believer for most of the eighty years of her life, one-time missionary to Africa, volunteer at the food bank, choir leader, and etc., etc., has revealed to you.
What does it mean to no longer believe in the old ways? What does it mean to no longer understand the world as it has long been understandable?
Tomorrow, for the first time, most clearly when looking out onto all those open and expectant faces in the hotel meeting room packed to capacity, will you see how wrong you’ve been. You’ve been wrong all along. But only when these same people come up to you afterwards to thank you and Alfred, will you see how you’ve written about it even more wrongly, printed there in the books that they’re now holding out to you, asking for you to sign, holding your own books out to you, with tears in their eyes.
The interpretations that we most need, Alfred once said to you, have to do with where we stand, and with what we never really fully understand, and with how we are too often misunderstood, at any given moment, in the here, as the saying goes, and now. A line then will come back to you from Idylls, “All at once they found the world,” and you will regret that you had not at least tried to comfort her, Guinevere, left behind staring into her tea. You could have told her that everything will be fine, in time, even okay. But then again, maybe it won’t be. Who, really, can say?