Two Birds in the Peepal Tree

Guelph, Ontario
June 2017

The story of Julian could begin with his birth in the suburbs of Toronto in 1959, or his years spent in Germany making harpsichords. It could indulge in a homeless man’s survival tactics, living on sprouting lentils and day-old Tim Hortons bagels, with the hole in his pants growing to expose more each day. It could state that a 1970s typewriter and some wooden chairs are his only purchased possessions, or how an iPad was given to him by a woman who appreciated his thirst for knowledge. It is true that Julian has not showered in two years, and has not flushed a toilet in 15. 

These are the facts – the surface musings – of Julian’s life, but they say nothing about his character. Like anyone’s story, his is based on the pursuit of understanding, questioning our existence among each other, and his sheer disappointment with the conclusion. 

Instead I bring you inside Julian’s mind, for that is where he resides.

The first sighting of Julian took place on a busy street outside of a movie theatre in downtown Guelph, Ont. in spring 2014. He sat leaning against the wall, invested in something he was reading on an iPad. The juxtaposition of this new technology and the tatters of his clothing made him intriguing. Within a few months, he was deemed “the pigeon guy” by Guelph citizens. He would walk barefoot throughout the streets of downtown, with a pigeon perched constantly on his shoulder.

Julian would find free wifi accessible from the sidewalk, which he could use without risking an argument with local business owners over his attire. He was not welcome in stores or cafes. He squinted at passersby in the sunlight, speaking openly to anyone who was interested. He spoke as if from another time, rambles combined with slow and thoughtful eloquence. Many stopped to introduce themselves to him, and within minutes he would recall, with incredible detail, conversations they had shared before. In a single conversation, Julian would quote directly from The VedasThe BibleThe QuranThe Criminal Code, Rachmaninoff, and a Shel Silverstein children’s story. With a photographic mind and unmatched curiosity, he forgot nothing.

Julian revels in the fact that he is known as ‘the wandering philosopher in rags’. “I see myself as belonging to the community of understanding,” he deduces. He takes a drag of his cigarette, a constant presence in his fingertips. Like a pacifier to a baby, it is the only thing that calms him.

“You can’t deal with things unless you understand them. Once you understand them you are detached. They are no longer things that involve you, they are things to observe,” he says.

He looks into the distance, slowly getting lost in a string of theories, pulling from all of the things he has once read or witnessed. However unexpected, within the ramblings are some of the most eloquent and reasonable observations about the human condition.

“There’s no way I can know your internal states. Though the mountains become the sea, words will never open another’s mind. To that extent you are absolutely alone and unique," he says. "The Bachti movement in Hinduism in the 12th century said that the right way to worship divinity is to love someone. It’s quite remarkable! We’re the only animal that crosses that threshold. Suddenly, we gain the awareness of other minds. It’s a threshold that only the human mind ever crosses, through watching and asking. Love," he says, "is the transcendence of this."

Tears begin to swell in Julian’s determined eyes. “I think when you have a love’s as if you do feel you have immediate access to the other person,” he admits. 

The name 'Julian' describes someone who renounces a religious or political belief or principle. Depending on the audience, he is defined as one who is seen as a deserter or as an admirable leader.

The house that Julian has been trespassing for the past few months lies just outside of downtown Guelph. The police have kicked him out twice, though he continues to return. His pigeon named Ffögeli (which Julian says means ‘bird’ in an archaic Latin language no longer practiced) rests on his knee, protective of the man it has claimed as its mate. Julian claims the bird as his only reason for living.

He proudly presents the space that they have declared their own, spilling tea with each barefoot step through the house, expressive and full of gumption. The once clean apartment for rent is now covered in bird seed, dried feces, and pages from his books.

He leans against the windowsill, the smoke from his cigarette rising along with his passion for the topic he chooses to discuss next. He finds a dull pencil and begins to scribble words on the wall, a visual to better contemplate our need for connection, community, relationships, and our inability to find closure in any of these topics.

“I did this myself in my 20s – to trip on emotions, to drive my emotions, to dramatize or romanticize my situation, and just get off on the tragedy and beauty of it. It is a type of narcotic, driving yourself into intense states. We love our dramatic arts; think of the powerful train of emotions that music can lift.” He begins to sing his favourite song, The Whole of the Moon by The Waterboys. 

Julian believes that humans are the unfortunate result of our feelings. That our enchantment with things turns quickly to disenchantment. That we romanticize unattainable desires, and come again and again to loneliness.

He reverts from singing his song, insisting that true love and understanding between two people can never fully exist. His tears attest to the fact that Julian had at one time. For the first time, he shares a personal story; his beloved Lisa, for whom he moved to Canada, had broken his heart. His letters remain unanswered.

Words take on a new meaning, echoing through his sanctuary: “Once you understand things, you are detached. They are no longer things that involve you,” he had said

Perhaps Julian’s archive of human reasoning acts as a pacifier as well. As years pass, his knowledge becomes his ammunition against his pain. He chooses to live as an outsider, unable to see himself as part of a society that he fears will never reach its full potential.

Julian has what professionals would deem to be dissociative disorder combined with manipulative sociopathy. To me, he is simply an extremely sensitive man who cannot quiet his thoughts.

“It’s written in The Vedas about the miraculous capabilities of human consciousness. It says that human consciousness is two birds in the peepal tree: one who eats the berry, and the other who watches and doesn’t eat. The wisdom of the ascensions is this double nature: that you are both the consumer of your experiences, and the observer of the consumption of experience.

“I am both Julian and I am watching Julian, and that’s the beauty of detachment. I don’t have to suffer the way Julian does, because I am also observing Julian’s sufferings and wondering what their nature is.

“Yet most people can’t identify with their consciousness. Instead, they identify entirely with themselves, never able to form an awareness of their own timidity. They are unable to reflect that way.

“Most people are but one bird in the peepal tree,” he says.

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