A Sistine Chapel of My Own

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A Sistine Chapel of My OwnI was almost God, that day. I was away from the world, looking down upon it, or out at it, from a different place, a place not of it. The world looked peaceful, what I could see of it, lying there in the summer sun, but I saw it as one might see a distant galaxy through a telescope. A world was there, a complex world, perhaps a busy world, possibly even a world that could turn violent—but I was not of it. I was detached, beyond it, above it—an interested observer.

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The year was 1935, and I was eleven, a boy growing up on a South Dakota farm. This epiphany had an unpretentious setting—our outhouse, which was set back into some trees about a hundred feet northwest of the house. I was sitting there in the darkened interior when I noticed a nail hole through the door in front of my face. By putting my eye up close, I could squint through the hole and see outside. The scene itself was unremarkable—the nearby trees, our house, a large white structure with a hip roof, the garden, the hog yard and the road in the distance. But I was, strangely, not a part of it. It gave me a feeling of exhilaration—of awe. I was away, in some distant place. A higher place.

I have tried to explain this experience to myself, but never with complete success. What I was looking at was something I saw every day, and something I could have seen better if I had just opened the door and stepped outside. The scene was as ordinary as anything could be, it would seem bleak to any modern viewer, just a typical summer day on an austere South Dakota farm in the Dust Bowl era. The feeling didn’t even particularly relate to the scene itself; the view in another direction would have served as well, I think.

But the nail hole was essential to the experience, as was the room, and being alone there. Being alone in that small, dark space allowed me to separate myself from the world.

Perhaps no one knew I was there; perhaps no one even knew there was such a person as me; perhaps I really wasn’t even a person of the ordinary world—my usual awareness of self seemed to diminish or disappear in there.


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