by Gray Hendryx
I quit my job and alcohol on the same day: September 30th, 2015. I stopped looking at clocks and drove west. I was free to eat, sleep, and go whenever and wherever I pleased. Thus it was that I found myself awake, fed, and dressed at 4AM one morning. The day before, I had pulled into the parking lot of my AirBnB, a tiny condo that promised “the best views and trail access in all of Sedona.” True enough: Bell Rock trailhead was a quick walk across the street. But once I got there, I saw a bright pink van disgorge a dozen helmeted tourists, each sporting the cloven calves of serious bikers. Cars crammed every single spot in the parking lot. It was one of the most crowded natural areas I’d ever seen, second only to Yellowstone National Park.
But at 4AM, the only witness to my presence was a green-painted log chainsawed into the shape of an alien. Its wide black eyes gazed out from the porch of the juice bar next door to the condo. Hulking before me, stark against a slowly graying sky, was Bell Rock. Its wind-smoothed turrets revealed hues of brick and umber as the sun stirred to the east.
I was there because, on August 17th, 1987, hundreds of people gathered near Bell Rock (as well as other pretty “power centers”) to usher in an epoch of universal peace. Many of them expected Bell Rock to flip open like a Zippo, revealing a spacecraft that would ascend them to a higher dimension. But, even though no aliens or Aztec prophecies came to be at the Harmonic Convergence, Bell Rock was still believed to be a “vortex.” This mysterious locus of energy attracts drifters, dreamers, and grown-up indigo children from across the world even now.
There were many reasons why I stood before Bell Rock that morning. I was there to see if the vortex was real. I was there because I felt drawn to strange, hopeful, incredible things. But really, I was there because of Steven Spielberg.
Dad loved showing off his sweet stereo system when we had company. An early adopter of every gizmo available in the early 1980’s, his home theater setup included wall-mounted speakers, woofers whose bass rattled my bedroom floor, and—most high tech of all—a laserdisc player. As dinner guests sipped beers and Mom lowered the dimmer switch, Dad carefully drew an LP-sized, rainbow disc from its filmy cover, slid it into the player, and skipped straight to a movie scene whose sound design would best illustrate his rig’s dynamic power.
The distant chirps of crickets silenced by an unseen force. A radio blaring out of control from one station to the next. A man’s panicked gasps as his truck is picked up and shaken like a piggy bank, loose change pinging from steel and naugahyde. A light from above so brilliant that the hard boundaries of sight dissolve into sound. The light that sears Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss’) face is felt as a deep hum in one’s organs and bones. Roy’s first close encounter in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterclass in sound design as well as a perfect example of the Spielberg slow reveal. With little more than sound, bright lights, and Dreyfuss’ nerviness, the director hinted at an alien presence that was at once awesome and playful. I loved watching our guests’ reaction to the end of the scene. Roy’s yelp when his flashlight turns back on never failed to make them laugh, no matter how many times Dad shared it.
Like I did with all of my Dad’s movies, I eventually watched the rest of Close Encounters on my own. I was nine years old. I was instantly obsessed. I lay for hours on the pavement of our driveway, the concrete hot against my back as I scanned the skies for UFOs. I learned how to play John Williams’ five-noted theme on the piano. I forced all of my friends to watch the extended director’s cut during slumber parties that turned literal, my friends passing out while I alone remained awake, watching for the umpteenth time the first synthesizer jam between Man and Alien. I read every single book about alien abduction and the Bermuda Triangle in the paranormal section of my grade school library. (Exactly why my grade school library even had a paranormal section is a question that baffles me yet. Thanks, weird librarians!)
I wanted to be like Roy. I wanted something huge and inscrutable to choose me out of the billions of people on Earth. I wanted to feel deep meaning emanating from the mashed potatoes on my dinner plate. I wanted aliens to take me away from my bratty little sister, my nagging parents, and all the stupid kids at school. I never identified with Roy’s three children, even though I was more like them than a middle-aged electric lineman. The children were noisy and demanding. They didn’t even know how to do fractions! I couldn’t blame him for ditching them and his shrill wife, Ronnie (Teri Garr), for an adventurous life chasing the unknown.
I was innocent of the power I had to hurt those closest to me. Spielberg, aged thirty-one during the release of Close Encounters, was innocent as well; he had no children of his own yet. He has long since disavowed Roy’s leaving his family so blithely. I, currently four years older than Spielberg was in 1977, have no children nor any desire for them. But I do have a women’s studies degree and more than a decade spent dating man-children like Roy. I don’t—I can’t—identify with Roy as much as I once did. (Though I still admire the film’s chutzpah for validating Roy’s decision, particularly in light of how slavishly Spielberg valorized fatherhood in later, lesser films. Compared to the Nearys, the Ferriers in Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds were so badly cast, and Spielberg’s direction so heavy-handed, that I turn the film off halfway through. Rather than sit through their schmaltzy reconciliation, I like to pretend that the Ferriers were vaporized.)
There are many spectacular scenes in Close Encounters, but it’s the sensitively observed moments in Roy’s family life that stay with me now. The passive-aggressive chaos of the Nearys’ relationship is apparent from their very first scene together. Roy and Ronnie argue over the weekend’s family entertainment (a screening of Pinocchio versus Goofy Golf) while the TV blasts and their daughter whines. Roy, utterly self-centered, refuses to help his older son with his homework or turn off the TV at bedtime. He’s completely tuned out of their lives: a sarcastic, selfish jerk of a father. While he and Ronnie fight, their younger son noisily de-limbs a plastic baby doll. It’s a more than apt metaphor for a family on the brink of being torn apart.
Ronnie’s no saint, either. Later in the film, her complete denial of Roy’s visionary experiences is painful to watch. His descent into obsession is scarily like the onset of mental illness. Her absolute refusal to listen to Roy as he tries to explain his mental state is callous, even cruel. But I feel for her. She’s trying her best to take care of her family. Even before his breakdown, Roy is already so checked out that she has to answer his work calls for him. As a feminist, I can’t help but wonder what kind of movie Close Encounters would be if it were Ronnie, and not Roy, who experienced the close encounter. Would the film stand so firmly behind a mother’s decision to abandon her family?
But the true cost of Roy’s quest is summed up in the famous mashed potato scene. Spielberg knows how to coax amazingly naturalistic performances out of child actors, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Shawn Bishop’s role as Roy’s eldest son, Brad. This child puts up such a tough front. At the age of eight, he’s already too cool for Pinocchio, which he archly dismisses as “rated G for kids.” But my heart cracks open every time I see the boy’s face redden as Roy mines his dinner for meaning. Fat tears slide down his cheeks in damning silence. This is a child trying, and failing, to keep it together as his father loses his shit.
As I grew older, my family accepted my interest in non-Western spirituality with polite bafflement. Dad was only a little miffed when I told him my kundalini yoga teacher training certificate meant more to me than my expensive Bachelor’s degree. Mom answered my stories about leading chants at my local Shambhala Center with a flat “That’s nice, dear.” But nothing scared them until I told them I was going to Peru to drink ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogen made out of Amazonian jungle plants. Dad quickly emailed me every article he could find about the few who died after drinking the brew. But more worrisome to them was my plan to take three months off from living with my new husband, Big Man.
“You’ve only been married for two months!” My sister protested. “That’s a long time to be away from him. Of course Mom and Dad think something is wrong. They’ve never been apart from each other for longer than a week!”
But no matter how many times I assured them that Big Man and I were happy, they never quite believed me. I loved them, but I didn’t need their approval. Only Big Man’s opinion mattered to me, and my plan to climb to the top of Woo-Woo Mountain had his complete support. I wanted answers—was that so crazy? For three months, I looked for them in the arroyos of New Mexico, within the vortices of Sedona, among the sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park, and on the cliffs of Big Sur. I flew to Peru to sit in a dark room with other worried white folks like me while a mestizo shaman sang and shook a rattle. I drank. And then I cowered upon the threshold of the ineffable, gaping in awe as gentle beings of unfathomable power beckoned me to join them. I don’t need to imagine what it was like for Roy to step into the mothership. I did it myself, after a fashion. I know.
But, unlike Roy, I came back. After feeling the undeniable presence of God, aliens, Atman, the Tao, Buddhanature, the oneness of the universe, or whatever feeble name one cares to attach to the ultimate That, I returned home. I got a job. I paid bills and made breakfast and renewed my driver’s license. I did exactly what a normal person is supposed to do. I had some answers: enough to know that I didn’t need to drink alcohol anymore. But ayahuasca filled me with even more questions, and nothing, not even my sweet, understanding husband, could answer them.
Why was my new job—so interesting, so lucrative—so unfulfilling and stressful? Why was it so hard for me to relax? Why was I so unhappy despite having so many blessings in my life? Why wasn’t a decent career and a fantastic partner good enough for me? Why, after becoming one with the infinite ocean of love that lies behind all of existence, did I still hate myself so much? What did I really want out of this life?
After the ecstasy, the laundry, or so the saying goes. But this was about more than laundry. I was beginning to fear that my little life, satisfying up to this point, was empty of meaning. Why be happy with a nice house and good pay when the planet was being destroyed? How could I be content with small pleasures—Chinese takeout, binge-watching Star Trek, new clothes—when I could feel the same ego-killing ecstasy that Rumi wrote about? Fantasies of returning to Peru consumed me. I researched other healing retreats, each more transformative than the last. I mapped out imaginary retreat centers of my own, where I could make and serve the brew myself. I calculated future paychecks to see just how long I would have to work before I could quit and start another vision quest.
Big Man was sympathetic. He even wanted to try ayahuasca himself someday, if only so he could see for himself what had affected me so deeply. But he wasn’t about to give up the career he had worked so hard to achieve. While I was ready to use all of our savings to become a globe-trotting ayahuasca vagabond, he wanted to continue his calling. We could buy a house, maybe one with a garden. Why not settle down? That’s what newly-marrieds do.
One morning, I had a panic attack. I woke up and started weeping uncontrollably at the thought of going back to a job I hated. I was ashamed at the disconnect between the life I wanted and the life I had. I could barely breathe through the guilt I felt about how hard it was to be happy. Shakily, I admitted to Big Man the truth: that I couldn’t stop thinking about leaving. Not because of him—I loved him, deeply. But this life of selling my time in order to consume meaningless shit was killing me. I wasn’t sure our love was enough to make me stay. I was very frightened.
I watched in horror as Big Man’s face melted into that of a child’s. Fat tears streamed down his face as he tried, and failed, to keep it together as his wife lost her shit.
“You’re leaving me?” he whispered.
I hope I never, ever cause pain like that again.
I will work until I am dead in the ground to avoid inflicting pain like that on anyone, if I can help it. My God, I pray that I can help it. Please.
The clearest thing ayahuasca taught me was this: to accept myself, I must accept the present moment. I already knew that, of course. The Buddhist tradition I studied taught that. Hell, even my own mother said as much as she told me, again and again, “Count your blessings when you’re feeling sad. Before you run off looking for more, see what you already have.” But there’s a reason why the simplest advice is so often repeated: it’s the hardest to follow. Some days, I get it. But then the next day comes, and I’m back at the beginning, trying (often in vain) to appreciate what I have in my hands instead of wondering what lies beyond the horizon.
Things don’t feel as hopeless as they once did. I talked things over with my boss. I started seeing a therapist again. My misery has ebbed into quotidian human unhappiness; sadly, few escape from the late capitalist merry-go-round we all must ride. But there’s still so much I don’t know, particularly about myself. I’m not sure what I want out of life. Will I pursue my crazy dream someday? Or will I learn to be happy, right here, in a more-or-less normal life? I don’t have a clue. But life, unlike advice, is as hard and multifaceted as a diamond, sanding away the hard dichotomies I erect in an attempt to make things simpler.
For Roy and me, there’s a third possibility beyond suburban servitude and leaving it all. Spielberg hints at it throughout Close Encounters in the faces of many memorable extras: a pair of chubby kids sitting in the back of a truck at night. An old man whistling “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and, later, telling stories of how he heard Bigfoot screaming in the woods. An elderly couple holding up hand-lettered signs to the sky that say, “Stop and Be Friendly!” And then there’s Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), the single mom whose broken home is never explained. Their faces are similarly seared by the light of UFOs. She too feels compelled to make art in an attempt to understand the obsession that haunts her. Unlike Ronnie, she wholly accepts his need to venture further into mystery. What if he had stayed with her? What if Roy, Jillian, and the others they encounter as they hurtle towards Devil’s Tower, instead of answers, found only each other?
That’s not the stuff of good cinema, of course. But it is the stuff of life. It’s what I’ve found as I’ve ventured beyond the doors of my new city home. There are many like me out there with the same need to heal the unnameable ache within. I don’t know if that ache will ever go away. But there is one thing I know for sure. I have seen a light so bright that it broke the boundaries of sight and fell into sound: a hum that rattles yet in my organs and bones. It happened at the end of my sabbatical, after I had seen so many strange, hopeful, incredible things. I saw light beaming out of my husband’s face when he met me at the airport after three months apart. Random passersby smiled at us as we ran across three gates and collided in an embrace long overdue. Whatever it is that’s out there (or in here), I’m positive that anything truly good or spiritual would never require leaving such love. Indeed, I think the message might be this: you don’t have to go it alone. It’s so much better to share.
Gray Hendryx lives in Pittsburgh with her husband. Last July, they walked down the aisle together to the theme from Jurassic Park. You can find more of her writing at materialspiritualist.com.