Somewhere toward the end of what I’m calling my youth—that late ‘70s “finding myself ” period—in that semi-conscious frisson of gravity-defying body and blood I’d always felt would go on forever, I began drifting toward doubt. My step-mother was taking a series of “spiritual development” classes with a medium in Santa Barbara—a weekly “hocus-pocus” conclave as I thought of these things in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was attending Catholic school where we were spiritually proselytized and rounded up year-round for funerals, high holy, and First Friday masses—litanies, processions, Stations of the Cross, bleeding saints, and Ascensions. She encouraged me to come along; I had my doubts, but dealing with job stress and an emotional Limbo at the time, I went.
A little psychic phenomena then at the weekly meetings produced occurrences hardly more far-fetched than everything I’d been brain-washed to believe all those parochial years ago. So, as tables levitated and people’s faces transfigured in the dark before my reasonably astonished eyes, the paranormal seemed, by comparison, well, normal.
Rev. George Daisley appeared to be an honest, nothing-to-sell spiritualist of the dark and transcendent room which, if nothing else, blocked off the daily noise, traffic, and strain of life. In 1967 he’d gained notoriety working with Bishop James Pike to contact his son “on the other side.” George lived modestly and there were no gimmicks or gizmos under the table; sessions came at about $5 an hour with a cup of tea and some singing of old hymns. Two hours which, if they accomplished nothing else, calmed the mind’s spinning core.
It turned out I was adept at psychometry—the “reading” of objects belonging to others, like the psychics in old black & white films who helped the police find a kidnapped child by holding her shoe and receiving information out of the air. One evening each of a dozen or so of us put an object on a tray being passed around—a ring, watch, pen, etc. Then as the tray came around again we were encouraged to select an object not ours from the tray and sit holding it quietly for a few minutes. I held a ring, another time a watch, and a video of a person’s house, interior or exterior—part of their life—ran in my mind. George asked if anyone had seen anything, and I reported what I saw.
The person to whom the object belonged confirmed the details, so often that it seemed unlikely there could be that many shills in the group. I didn’t doubt what I saw, its apparent accuracy, but was not sure what that finally told me re a spiritual continuum? I decided to just “go with the flow” as the phrase had it then. One evening, George interrupted the proceedings to say there were two small dogs, or perhaps cats, circling in the ether of the room, looking for me. Had I lost some pets recently? No, I said. Then, they were awaiting me, he replied, a bit impatiently, at some point in the future, that room of probabilities always just down the hall.
Years would go by before two cats would enter my life, and I’d find myself as unsettled about the afterlife as the new science, the thought experiments in quantum mechanics I’d read and half understood. “Schrodinger’s Cat” was a very well-known one that threw a wrench into the metaphysical gears. For some reason Shrodinger’s experiment in theoretical physics had become a well-known part of popular culture, perhaps simply because of our species’ general attachment to cats? As many students in the workshops I taught knew about Shrodinger as knew who Jimi Hendrix was—go figure? I even picked up a T-shirt on line with a wanted-poster of a cat on it, reading “Shrodinger’s Cat” on top, and beneath the nonplussed portrait of the cat the phrase, “Wanted: Dead and Alive.”
Shrodinger’s paradox was intended to illustrate that something can be in two places/states at once. I flashed back to apocryphal stories of Jesus in his 20s recruiting and preaching among the Native people in North America, and then to swamis known to Paramahansa Yogananda who had bi-located in Banaras and Calcutta . . . and that, for me, linked up what I’d read of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which demonstrated that you can’t tell both where something is and how fast it is moving, and, that observation changes whatever you are observing.
In his thought experiment, Schrodinger placed a cat in a steel box with a vial of poison that would break open and kill the cat once an isotope of a radioactive substance connected to the box decayed enough to trigger it. Schrodinger posited that the cat was in two different states—since the observer cannot see inside the box, the cat was both dead and alive according to quantum thinking.
But the question remained whether the indeterminacy of the sub-atomic domain transformed into everyday events—cats vs. electrons—dead or alive, and for 70 years and more they’ve argued both ways. Einstein wrote to Schrodinger that nobody really doubted that the presence or absence of the cat was independent of the act of observation—something I’d pretty much worked out at age 11 when I stopped believing we were going to forfeit our place in heaven if we willfully ate a hot dog on a Friday . . . though God and/or our guardian angels were, we were assured, looking over our shoulders, watching, keeping score.
Neils Bohr believed that conscious observation caused events, but also that if we do not look, there are no events, just probabilities. That was just too close to the old Zen koan asking that if a tree falls the forest and there is no one to hear it does it make a sound? The odds that those cats would find me years down the road were, I’d estimate, about two million to one, times a few billion particles pin-balling in the night. I wasn’t looking for Russian Blues at the time, or cats of any kind, they just presented themselves out of nowhere, a neighbor we barely knew offering them to my wife one day . . . something out of the chaotic salad of cosmic bits that adds up to experience though not necessarily a pre-determined or “karmic” one so far as I could see.
There’s the scientific level of induction, and then a matter of what you care to believe re being in two places at once, or, for that matter, anywhere at all for very long vis-à-vis the observable hard freight of the world, your basic burger-and-fries realism. The cliché, “you’re lucky to be alive” seemed to obtain. Schrodinger said later in life that he wished he’d never met that cat for all the controversy, theoretical consternation, and confusion it caused!
Is there someone observing, causing events, or is what animates our bones and sinew the result of a spin cycle and mitochondrial DNA in the intergalactic wash landing on a class M planet and here we are—Bob’s your uncle? Our atoms are decaying from the get-go; neutrinos pass right through us as if we weren’t there, like the eyesight of God (if God needs eyes?), like the particle transmissions from object to grey matter when I closed my eyes in the classes with Rev. George, and I saw what I saw.
The Aztecs asked if there was time somewhere else? My cats had no idea they were going to die, what would come next, and I wasn’t about to tell them, confuse them with the arguments. Either way, here we are, running around in the dark for the time being, wondering if someone is watching, if our lives can be saved?
Christopher Buckley has published three books of nonfiction; recent essays appear in CATAMARAN, I-70 REVIEW, and PLUME. His most recent books of poetry are AGNOSTIC, Lynx House Press, 2019, and The Pre-Eternity of the World, Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press 2021.