“For the unified mind in accord with the Way all self-centered striving ceases. Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible. With a single stroke we are freed from bondage; nothing clings to us and we hold nothing. All is empty, clear, self-illuminating, with no exertion of the mind’s power.” –Sengcan
Diverge from paths that wreck you needlessly.
Heel sharply leeward. Plow a new lane, lit
succinctly by synaptic sparks that flit
like fireflies in a miner’s headlamp. See–
like phytoplankton woken by the wake
of midnight ships–your bioluminescence.
However faint and mythical, its blessings
enlighten every typhoon trail you take.
How desperate, how brave you must become,
then–heart lashed to the groaning helm—how free:
Re-draw your chart by plankton-light, mid-sea.
And mark in bold those routes that lead you home.
With winter nearing
With winter nearing, I remember spring:
A fickle March, before my mother died.
Her bed lay flush with window. Side by side,
We watched another snowfall—wondering
At all the forms a snowflake takes: like bone
Turned ash, like milkweed floss, like feather.
Tonight they fell in tufts that clung together,
But for a few who braved the fall alone.
Heavy, wet, yet floating. It was night,
The storm lit from beneath. (My mother’s room
Was lucky, disconcerting midnight gloom
By posing, drapes pulled wide, above the light
That advertised the doors below, where hearse
And ambulance were meant to go.) We watched
The snow in halogenic awe untouched,
Unbroken now, by dietician, nurse,
Aide, hospice worker, laundress, orderly,
Their squeaking soles no longer restless hounds
That whined and sniffed at daylit doors; their rounds
Unspooled at last. And so we lay there free.
We lay there, clumped and clinging, and we felt
That we might never die, but only melt.
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.”
July 7, 2004
When I say goodbye–when I try to say goodbye—they put their arms around me, one from one side, one from the other. And they cling there. Henry says, Okay Beck, here’s the plan—we don’t let go and she never gets away.
Becky had a dream–she and Henry were chasing me.
It takes such courage to let me go—I must have done something wrong. It should be easier than this. Their lives shouldn’t suspend themselves in midair when I’m out of sight. It all makes me very nervous—I hate the goodbyeing. The long drawn-out process, the hug I have to wrench myself away from, the sad faces, hurt faces as if I’m betraying them by wanting something separate. I can’t walk into a room without their watching my every move. Today Becky tells me her tale of woe. Then Henry walks in and says, “When she’s done complaining to you, I get to be next.”
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.