My latest axiom: When in doubt, do the moral thing.
June 8, 2017
I played guitar today. It thrills me to see myself getting better–not great, not even “good” yet, really– but that’s not the point. The point is just to play better. As with my whole little life these days, I’m not trying to “win” anything anymore, and in fact I don’t know what in the world would be worth trying to win. Besides love, I guess–but the way you win love is to give it, which is simple enough once the ego shuts up, and hardly worth worrying about. Everything else—everything, yes? Everything else is a game. And maybe love’s a game too, I don’t know. Love’s just the horse I rode in on, and she’s served me so well that I’m bound to ride her home again.
So with love’s possible exception, everything’s a game. But you’re not there to “win” or even to “lose.” You’re only there to play, and if it’s a fun game, like playing guitar, “losing” is a precursor to, and forever concomitant with “winning”: you might as well think of them as inseparable halves of the same activity. With a game like guitar, I’m working hard to beat my best score, but if–every other minute or so–I didn’t fail at that, I probably wouldn’t find it worth the effort. It’d be like, say, driving—a game I’ve mastered well enough, have no reason to “practice” for its own sake anymore, seeing as I’m not likely to get any “better” at it by staying late after school. Driving, therefore, is for me a simple, useful, but rather ordinary game. Breathing too: I imagine I’m about as good now at breathing as I’ll ever be. Hell, for all I know I’m at the utter peak of my aptitude for breathing, and it’s gonna be all downhill from here. But guitar—oh, there are so many levels I haven’t gotten to yet, and then too, there are a few levels I have finally reached, plus many more I can glimpse just a few yards up the hill. Yes, but even the view from right here is breathtaking.
Amazing how fulfilling it is just to play the games of life without needing them to “mean” anything. In my roles as a game-player, singer, writer, a friend/wife/mother/human, etc., I’m always just trying to beat my best score. Lots of times I fail—that’s how a fun game works—so then I push “reset” and start again. The trick—my wisdom of the day–is to stop making the same old mistakes. You can’t get anywhere new that way, as I see it. No, if you really want to beat your best score, then you have to start making brand-new mistakes, and lots of them.
The other trick is not minding the obvious fact–once you think about it for even a second—that all your wins and losses are small and temporary and have barely even the meaning you give them yourself. It’s not—I used to think it was, but don’t anymore–that in the end we all “lose” (picture Trump’s gold-plated coffin). No, I have a feeling, these days, that there’s no end at all. Or that whether there is or isn’t, I myself will never know, so I might as well relax already.
How lucky that I lack the temperament, and perhaps the imagination, ever to ask in hope of reply for the “why” of unknowable things. My faith in randomness, it seems, burns just as bright as other people’s faith in divine order.
What I love about dogs is that they let me be myself.
“Right after I landed, I could feel the weight of my lips and tongue, and I had to change how I was talking. I hadn’t realized that I’d learned to talk with a weightless tongue.” –Astronaut Chris Hadfield
I haven’t written since January. I’ve spent my time, instead, on family missions. I’ve been sleeping in hotels and guest bedrooms, living for weeks in exactly two pairs of jeans, six t-shirts, one bra (I wasn’t thinking), bedroom slippers passing for shoes, and a big blue cardigan/invisibility cloak. I built makeshift nests in airports, nursing homes, hospital rooms; and feathered them with cell phone, laptop, kindle, extension cord, chargers, journal, kleenex, water, coffee, nonfat yogurt, pretzels with hummus, wint-o-green lifesavers, bubblegum. I came to know the most comfortable chairs, the quietest alcoves, the most convenient electrical outlets, the closest bathrooms. (I also learned to hold out between bathroom visits, because they entailed the complete disassembly of my nests, every time. Even as it was, five or six times every day I found myself rewinding my extension cord, re-stowing my cell phone, laptop, kindle, etc., into my Mary Poppins carpetbag and hauling it with me thither and yon. For otherwise, who knew? My whole life might get hauled away by mistake.)
I’m back now, pulled home again by love and gravity. Like Chris Hadfield (who was the first Canadian in outer space, I’ll have you know), I feel a sudden new weight in my lips and tongue. I hope you’ll forgive me, for a while, as I re-learn to talk.
(a rough draft from Vladimir Nabokov)
“What is written without effort is generally read without pleasure.” Samuel Johnson
If only this quote worked the other way too: “If you work really hard on a book, it’s just bound to be terrific!”
My memoir, The Myth of Solid Ground (tip: if you want to be seen as “in the know,” casually refer to it as MSG, for short), is “finished” only in the usual sense–i.e., that if I died tomorrow, I guess I wouldn’t spend all of eternity wincing in the knowledge that the last thing I ever wrote was a monstrosity. But I know there’s still an awful lot of editing to do. My most reasonable hope is that this will happen soon. (My least reasonable hope is that somehow it will happen when I’m not in the room.) In the meantime, though, I have a lot of neglected family business to attend to. (Suddenly, I have to live life instead of writing about it, and the transition’s been shaky–some days I even have to wear shoes.) I’ll keep you posted. Thanks. NJC
More and more I think of the all-importance of pattern in this world. Finding the pattern, recognizing the pattern, comparing one pattern with another, finding their common sub-patterns, ur-patterns. (Wow, I’ve never used the prefix “ur” before!) Temple Grandin talks of pattern thinkers—got a quote about it somewhere.*
Metaphor and pattern—the same thing, really, just like fable and myth and archetype. It’s all about the comparison/contrast—the only way we can “understand” anything is, first, by contrasting it with what it isn’t like, then comparing it with what it is like. The contrast must automatically come first? I think so. We have an instinct to see everything as “other” until proven otherwise (and even after that). To the extent that we feel “at home” in the world, the world has ceased to be “other” and, whether we recognize it or not, has become an integral expansion of who we already believe ourselves to be—not just where we belong, but who we are, inside our skins but also outside.
Maybe this is why we fret so much about change? All these new “othernesses” to convert into “me-nesses,” “us-nesses,” over and over again. You have to become so nimble, as if you’re crossing a river by leaping from stone to stone. You have to trust life with your life, if only because you have no other choice. (You have to trust that life knows more than you do, because–geez–how could it not?)
I keep coming back to this: the purpose of dualism. It’s a construction–yes?—only that, a pattern we ourselves—with our yes-or-no minds–impose on the universe, to give us a vocabulary, a yardstick to describe things with. This is how we can imagine opposites even to things that don’t exist, or whose existence is beyond our ability to know—things like life vs death, all vs nothing, containment vs limitlessness. (We can imagine heaven, perhaps, to the exact degree we’ve known hell?) And on and on.
*Here’s the Temple Grandin quote:
“I’ve given a great deal of thought to the topic of different ways of thinking. In fact, my pursuit of this topic has led me to propose a new category of thinker in addition to the traditional visual and verbal: pattern thinkers.”
And then there’s this that I just found:
And while I’m at it, why not:
Journal excerpt from November 11, 2013:
….We seem to think we need “miracles” to support our faith in the eternal. But what we really seem to be asking for are NEW miracles: weird stuff we’ve never seen before, like, I don’t know, the Second Coming, or a talking cow. But how must it have felt, and how it must still feel to every child—oh, what a miracle FIRE must always seem to anyone first discovering it.
The art of accident, the accident of art. Serendipity. Synchronicity. Coincidence. Luck. A world in which “success” and “failure” coexist. Where what feels like choice, also feels like surrender. Finding patterns in wallpaper, a piece of toast, the relative positions of stars–how different is this from configuring a unified plot from my life’s for-all-I-know random moments? Writing a memoir (writing anything) is an exercise in what I want to call “the management of apophenia.” Apophenia: the innate human tendency to find patterns in randomness. Michael Shermer, who wrote The Believing Brain, calls it “patternicity.” (Note to self: maybe I should too?)
So, “managing apophenia.” As far as I can gather, it’s the same practice as what I’ve heard other people call “harnessing serendipity.” At any rate, as I write this book I watch myself collate, from what may well have been a haphazard life, only those moments that my apophenic mind has singled out as vital to my “story”–and meanwhile viewing a million other moments as extraneous, as ignorable white noise. And how many events have I forgotten entirely, or never truly experienced as they happened, because they didn’t fit my evolving, concocted self-narrative? What details have I left out of focus, in the blurry background of the photo? (And don’t get me started on all the things that might have happened to me but happened not to happen.)
Without knowing it, I’ve spent my life culling memories, leaving only those that befit my apophenic self-vision. It’s what we all do, I imagine. It’s how we remember and distinguish ourselves as selves instead of hapless, nameless waves in an indifferent ocean. This is how we make “sense” of it all. When we view the night sky we have two basic choices: to be dumbstruck by chaotic infinity, or to superimpose a mythology.
The trick of it all, it seems to me, is to recognize and manage our innate search for patterns. The first step must be to comprehend that the patterns are indeed self-created, and not (necessarily) objectively “real.” But reality, of course, is a bit overrated. Sometimes a useful fiction gets you farther than a useless truth. We were born to invent a world out of random flecks of residue. The trick, now, is to waken to the whole of it, to understand that background and foreground, importance and trivia, failure and success, are objectively meaningless, so you might as well train your eyes to locate patterns that might help you best explain your myth, metaphorize your story.
accident, apophenia, art, both, coincidence, freedom, illusion, James Lawley, Leonardo da Vinci, metaphor, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, pareidolia, quotation, randomness, serendipity, transience, wabi sabi, writing, zen
[Pareidolia is ‘a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant, a form of apophenia.’]
From wikipedia: In his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci wrote of pareidolia as a device for painters:
“If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.”
Glancing up from armchair reverie, I watch two BASE-jumpers on a PBS documentary called “The Birdmen”. They leap from the fabulous cliff, wearing suits with stunted wings—not so much wings as webbing, as if their outflung arms and legs are tissued to their bodies–brightly flavored sails that billow as the young men fall. They look like neon kites, these men, and they fly seemingly free for a long while–relatively speaking–and then when the time is ripe they open parachutes and float the final yardage to the ground.
As the first one lands, the camera rushes in and asks how-do-you-feel. The jumper shouts terrific great whooohooooo. Then the other man returns to earth and the camera can only, mutely, watch as the flyers recombine—wide-eyed, whooping, babbling but articulate, reviewing every millimoment—each angle of the sun, each sudden rocky outcrop, each barely traversable river of wind, and it’s clear not just that they’re brothers now, at least for this moment, but that the two of them speak a language different from the rest of us–an idiom very complex, full of shortcuts and inside jokes, exotically precise in its vocabulary, references, metaphors, silences. We are, all of us—or nearly all of us–outsiders to their vision. They have no way, not really, to explain who they’ve become, who they’re becoming, who they’ve been all along—no way and maybe no need to explain such impossibles to the earthbound likes of us. Even when, later (as I half-hear them, from the kitchen now), they conjure similes (“free as an eagle”…) to express to the camera the feeling, the meaning of their adventure, comparisons don’t help; the abyss between us is unbridgeable. We can’t know what they know unless or until we do what they’ve done.
And this is an essence of zen, too, I think—if you meander far enough along the nowhere path, you start to learn and speak, however haltingly, a language no one else can know unless they’ve been here too. And it can leave you feeling alone, if you don’t feel a partner beside you on your adventure: someone in the same clownish, precarious costume, poised atop the same magnificent cliff, wishing you smooth sailing as you both leap—whooohooooo!–into the void of no-mind. It can feel lonely, plunging into that placeless place alone. But of course you have to not-mind feeling precisely thus, even as you also see–with your usual wry laugh at how (again!) you’ve had to re-recall it–that you’re not alone at all. We’re all flames in the fireplace, dancing like puppets up from behind a guileful log. We each seem singular, independent of each other, so that it’s only when we really look–beneath, behind, around, past, through–that we see how fused we are. We’re fingers of the same hand, leaves drifting downward from the same tall tree, offshoots from the same root, flames rising high and low from the same all-nurturing, all-consuming fire.
We are both log and fire, both noun and verb. Time devours us, yes, but it’s as true to say that we devour time. And the odd thing is, I can’t think of any way this simultaneity can’t go on forever. Our cyclical natures–the perpetual balancing act of matter and energy, growth and dissolution, birth death birth death birth death birth–will keep us caught in their back-and-forth until the universe ends, or the laws of physics change. How could it possibly be otherwise? Frankly, there’s just nowhere else to be but here, and no other time–no time we can taste–but now.
My favorite thing these days:
It’s vital to the human creation of art, yes?
The fact of randomness (and I may as well posit it as a fact, because I don’t know how to know differently) is the miracle from which we all spring, and the foundation upholding everything we feel, think, do, create. We needn’t even learn–we are born to know how–to take advantage of random events (“coincidences,” with all that word’s various connotations), insofar as we’re able (and willing?) to. Just seconds after our birth, among the otherwise “meaningless” distortions of a suddenly visual, almost certainly terrifying world, our eyes are somehow and irresistibly drawn to the life-saving pattern of our mother’s face. We feel better; with muscles we’ve never used before, we strain to reach her. I think it’s like this: She’s our first “Jesus-in-a-piece-of-toast.” She’s our first “Face on Mars.” (In my own private parlance, she’s the “pirate in the bathroom tile”) Two eyes, one nose, one mouth (and, in the pirate’s case [but probably not the mother’s], an eye-patch and a droopy mustache). That simple visual pattern becomes our first lullabye, our first fable, our primal surrender to the comfort of the arbitrary.