the space between…

the space between

“Instead of assembling yourself in the dark…so that you wake up one day with no idea of how you became this person – you can look at the world, at the people around you, and choose the parts of your character you want.”

Stuart Turton, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

You still have time “, she says with a serenity that is as fierce and urgent as it is consoling. “So much has passed already,” she states resolutely, “but we still have more; we are blessed with it, and we should make the most of all that remains.”

“It’s about tolerance and patience” she extols. “It’s about recognizing the parts of yourself that feel anchored and constant. It’s about acceptance and awareness. It’s about commitment. It’s about trust.”
Her words come to me like barbed-wire wrapped in lace; language that lacerates with the gentility of a prayer. It is the sting of hopeful longing, and I am quiet in response. Not because I’m skeptical of her summons, nor because I doubt the veracity of her claims. But, because I believe her beyond anything I can say.

I’ve never known anyone like her. She is a thousand beautiful things personified at once. She is softness and warmth. She is a shelter and shield. A refuge of comfort and defiance. She can effortlessly sail the treacherous ocean of my turbulent heart. She soars with wisdom and majesty. She defies convention, defies the odds, defies gravity without ever breaking a sweat. But, most of all she’s almost always right.

And yet, time seems like a strange thing to try to make the most of. Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes that “wisdom comes when it can no longer do any good”. And, we never really know if we’ve made wise use of our time until it’s too late.

Carlo Rovelli  explains that “our consciousness is based on memory and on anticipation”. He says that “This space” where memory meets and combines “with our continuous process of anticipation is the source of our sensing time as time, and ourselves as ourselves”. Perhaps, then, the only way we can make the most of time is to understand the space between. The space between hope and fear. The space between the already and the not-yet. The space between what has transpired and what is to-come. The space between who we have been and who we could still be. That most precarious space of time that we only half-consciously notice as ‘now’.

Here is all there is. Now is all we have. Life meets us on the meridian of becoming, on the cusp of everything, at the threshold of every possible variation. After all, the present is the only place where anything is possible. It is the only place where possibility is.

We are never just one thing. Never just one personality. Never even just one self. You are not only “Your current self”, as John Green explains, but also “all the selves you used to be” and all the unfathomable future selves that have yet to come to fruition. We are neither individual, nor indivisible. We are a collected amalgamation. We are legion, for we are many. And it is “in that space” between, Green goes on to say, that there is “room enough to make…something other…to remake [our] story better and different – room enough to be reborn again and again…room enough to be anyone”.

You still have time. So much has passed, but there is still so much more; we are blessed with it. This is the space in which to cherish the chance to change and choose. And, ‘now’ is the time to make the most of it…

the life that stories tell…

the life that stories tell

“My entire life is traced by the books I have read.”

Alexandra Horowitz, The Velocity of Being

Ev Williams says that “the ideas and stories we consume affect us on multiple levels and have a profound impact on how we live.” Our story becomes the total sum of all the stories we have read; an index that outlines a literary lineage to which we owe our interior ancestry. The story of my life, then, would not be told as memoir or biography or autobiography, but instead as a bibliography, or more specifically, an auto-bibliography; a chronological list of the books that shaped the structure of who I am.

Perhaps that’s true for all of us. Alain de Botton points out that books “explain us to ourselves and to others”. They makes us make sense. They make sense of us. Perhaps, then each of us should come with our own Required Reading list; a syllabus of literature to aid ourselves and others in the efforts to understand who we have been and who we can still become.

Our lives are the appendices attached at the end of all the books we have read. A construction built by a conglomerate of collected works. Long, detailed derivations. Raw data too technical to include in the body of the text, somehow all become perfectly summarized within the pages of the books that are now integral to us.

We are like footnotes floating unattached and out of context, but the right books know exactly how to place us where we can become ancillary elaborations of the world and ourselves. Where we can be the embodied explication of something bigger. It is a double revelation. A mutual finding. A reflexive creating. The books we find, help us find ourselves. The moments we make with books, make us who we are.

wonder and amazement…

wonder and amazement
Tile Design – Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth (1861) drawing in high resolution by Sir Edward Burne–Jones. Original from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

“you hear all the people on the outside of the maze who made it through, and they are laughing and smiling…and you don’t resent them, but you do resent yourself for not having their ability to work it all out.”

Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

The word “maze” is defined as “a complex network of paths or passages”. It comes from the same origins as the word “amaze”, which means to be greatly filled with wonder, surprise, and astonishment. There is only one small difference between “a maze” and “amaze”; it is the span of a single space; the distance to wonder. To shift in towards wonder is to close the gap of puzzlement and consternation and to come closer in proximity to the paths and passageways of astonishment and surprise.

The maze is inescapable. To be alive is to live and move and breath amongst a complex network of paths and passages. There is no out. There is only in.

The shape of smiling people seen through the leaves, the laughing folks we catch glimpses of on the other side of the hedge; they haven’t worked it. They haven’t made it through. No one does. No one can. As James Victore says “The secret of the universe is that no one knows shit. No one has the right answer”. The mystery in the midst of ‘a maze’ is that we are meant to live in amaze-ment.

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that “To be spiritual is to be amazed.” Saints, mystics, buddhas, and bodhisattvas move through the maze with laughter and calm because each step moves them further into the amazing mystery and wonder of grace. And if we are at all resentful or reluctant perhaps it is only because he have recoiled from wonder, and if we could just move a little closer we would be amazed at what we’d find.

a theory of moving slowly…

moving slowly

“Sometimes moving fast and breaking things is how progress gets made. But it’s also how things get broken, and sometimes those things are people.”

Hank Green, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

Ferris Bueller said, “Life happens pretty fast.” It’s especially true when things are breaking. The Universe never seems to be short of ways to irreparably fuck our shit up, and when it does, it does it quickly.

Catastrophe comes from out of no where and crushes everything we ever called sacred. All of our tireless building goes up in flames in an instant. Reeling amidst the rubble, we hardly know who or where we are. “It all happened so fast,” we say, stunned and in shock from the whiplash of the loss.

It feels like the whole world presses the gas pedal to the floor when it’s fleeing the scene of our crash, but it’s strange how time screeches to a halt when we’re hurt and trying to heal. In the loneliness of stitches and repair, every minute aches on into an eternity waiting for the pain to disappear. We tell ourselves we’ll be alright. Some days we even believe its true, but that’s not really the question that keeps us up at night; our real concern is “when?”

John O’ Donohue says that “In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself again.” But, he says that “This sore gathering takes time” and that we “need great patience with [our] slow heart[s].” We are so eager to return to normalcy, so anxious to move past this place of vacant confrontation, this unavoidable presence of absence that, we try to run before we’re ready and we scatter all the half-mended bits of our already broken selves. Sometimes “restraint,” Hank Green says, “is more remarkable than action”.

“Life is so infinitely hard”, Matt Haig explains; “It involves a thousand tasks all at once”, and it comes with the startling realization that we are “a thousand different people, all fleeing away from the centre”. Like a giant jar of marbles shattering in a cascade of rolling chaos across the floor. A living law of motion spilling out into countless spinning tributaries of inertia, force, and action; mass met and increased by a velocity of endless reacting; we are an object that never stays at rest. And, sometimes, what we really need are methods of traveling through stillness.

The human animal is a creature of uncanny resilience, craft, and cunning. We can be broken down to nothing, and we can still manage to regenerate ourselves over and again. But, it happens over long periods that are hard to measure, if they can even be measured at all.

Sometimes we need habits of being unhurried in order to carry our timid hearts. Sometimes gentleness and breathing is the obstinance that most forcefully opposes the dark. Difference and renewal only seem imperceptible. The lengthy and laggard strides of incremental motion creates a keen sensitivity to change. With each iteraterative advance we are altered and aware; adapted and improved. 

We don’t have the privilege of staying down. Helplessness is a luxury we cannot afford. We have to pull ourselves up towards deliverance, whether by our boot straps or by the steadiness of another’s hand. We have to get up. We have to. But, sometimes we have to do it slowly.

the salt of the earth…

salt of the earth

The question of whether or not I have made, am making, or could still make a difference, is something I think about a lot. I suppose that’s always been part of what I want out of life; to know that I made an impact somewhere, somehow, in someway. To know that some part of the world was altered because of my having been here.

It’s taken me a long time to understand that about myself, that at the center of all I do is that implicit desire. And yet, I still can’t articulate what exactly that means or what it looks like in a more discernable way.

That kind of vague ambiguity can be torturous when you’re an overachiever. How do you work towards a goal that you can’t clearly define? How would you know if you’re making progress, or if you’re even headed in the right direction?

Discovering whether or not one has made a difference is all the more difficult by the fact that the difference one makes is not always overt, explicit, or even perceptible. Rarely are we ever privy to the opportunity of finding out. More than likely many of us will never know what change in the world was created by our being born. Many of us will never meet the people we’ve impacted, and perhaps many of the people we’ve influenced may not be able to pinpoint precisely where, when, why, or how it was that we managed to make some kind of change in their lives.

There’s a verse in the gospel of Matthew that says “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt isn’t the sexiest or most extravagant of seasonings. It isn’t rich or complex. It isn’t bold or particularly distinguishable as far as flavor profiles go. In fact, we hardly even notice it at all unless there’s either too much or not enough of it; the absence is obvious, the excess is unmistakable.

But, salt is at it’s best when it is poised and steady. When it is subtly, and almost silently, upholding and enhancing the best qualities of all that it comes into contact with. Salt is something essential. Something basic, sacred, and fundamental. It elevates and exalts. It strengthens and preserves. It is an aid in achieving equity and stability. It is the symmetry of the sweet, and the balancing of the bitter.

Austin Kleon says that “You do not need to have an extraordinary life to make extraordinary work”, and you don’t need to do something extraordinary to be of extraordinary value. You don’t need to make a mark. You don’t need to put a dent in the world. You just need to help make things a little better than they were before. You just need to be salt…

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the impossibility of regret…

the impossibility of regret

“It’s easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living. Easy to wish we’d developed other talents, said yes to different offers…It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out.”

Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

“What if depression is, in fact, a form of grief—for our own lives not being as they should? What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?”

Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

There is a fluidity that exists between grief, regret, and depression. Each seems to seamlessly yield itself to the other freely; a waxing and waning of melancholy meeting mourning. A remorse rises and recedes only to return again; a rhythm, a repetition. We lament the loss of our connection to a self we thought we once were or hoped one day to become. We experience the anguish of disconnection as all our anticipatory expectations have go unmet. But, perhaps the true source of our sorrow, grief, and regret is in the loss of our connection to possibility. We watch the possibility of our most heart-felt desires disappear and in the process we are deluded into thinking that we have lost the possibility of anything ever being different. We have lost the connection to our own capacity for change.

And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s impossible for our connection to the potentiality to ever be severed. Haig says that ‘While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility“.  One needn’t look very far to find the texture and shape of every imaginable prospective. Each one is available in an instant if we can attune our awareness and distillate our attention to all that surrounds us.

If we experience a diminution of potentiality, what we are really experiencing is the manifestation of our own gross misunderstanding of the possible. We become so narrowly fixated on either a single choice or an astoundingly small number of choices, that we fail to fully consider or appreciate the vastness of likelihoods that are presented to us at any given time. There is a sprawling and ever-present spiderweb of potentiality that becomes available to us because of the series of choices that we make. Given the immense degree of possibility that we are always and at all times engulfed by, perhaps the only true impossibility is the possibility of real genuine regret. After all, how could it ever be possible to regret all that we don’t and could not ever know?

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a clear connection…

clear connection

Emily Levine says that “Reading [doesn’t] just offer escape; it [offers] connection”; connection to others, connection to the world, and a deep and a clear connection to ourselves.

This profound sense of connection is what continues to draw me to and into books again and again. It is what makes me fall in love with a particular text and a particular author. It is the clear connection that occurs when we recognize the seemingly miraculous tit for tat mutuality of an identical yearning between ourselves and the person poured out upon page. When we see “not just the intensity of the longing” reflected back at us “but the specificity” as well. 

When, in a mystifying moment, we are given a gift by a stranger; a stranger that has found a way to transcend the arbitrary bounds and perfunctory distances of separation that we have come to call space and time, and reveals themselves as a kindred spirit; a soul friend. When a writer offers an extreme close-up of their closeted self and we discover that it is an act of intimacy; an ekphrastic description of the closed-off, secret corners of our hearts. It is a clear connection.

It is “as if [the writer] looked deep inside [us] and knew [us] in the way [we] wanted the world to know [us].” They teach us to show our belly to the world, to invoke a quiet but powerful trust; a trust in the wideness of a community that can stretch across even the greatest of chasms like a net to catch us.

When it happens we come to the shocking realization that we are not alone, and that what we thought made us peculiar or obscure actually demonstrates that we belong to a tribe. Nestled somewhere in between the pages of a book is a nation of people we never knew existed, waiting to welcome us home.

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the ‘Heart medicine’ of being together…

heart medicine

I’ve never felt at home in the world, and most days I still don’t. “The sense of being an outsider,” as Radhule Weininger explains in her book, Heart Medicine, “has become part of my ongoing experience” of being stranded amongst the strangeness of this terrestrial sphere. Some days I swear I can feel the hurtling of the earth as it turns round the sun, and I am motion sick from it’s spin.

Lost, lonely, and pulled down by the uncertain gravity of a planet whose atmosphere is plagued by the death of a thousand tiny paper-cuts; everything aches and bristles. Perhaps the inbuilt anxiousness of ambiguity and unknowing is simply part of what it means to be here, to be alive, to be human. Weininger writes that “None of us knows for sure how the universe unfolds, nor how we as humans are situated in time and space.” James Victore seconds Weininger’s sentiments when he says that “The secret of the universe is that no one knows shit.”

We may not know who we are, why we’re here, for how long, or much of anything else for that matter, but the one thing we do know amongst all the things we don’t, is that, no matter how separate or isolated we may feel, we are here together; bonded to one another by the mutual crisis of our human short-sightedness.

Heidegger said that Being means Being-in-the-World, and Being-in-the-World is always Being-in-the-World-with-Others. We are beings in relation; an interwoven ecology of aliveness; a conspicuous community of interbeing. We are the whole world made miniature. We are each comprised of the entire cosmos intricately and meticulously condensed to person sized scale.

This means that belonging is not tied to a geographic location. Nor is it an explicit quality of a place or situation. Instead it is an intrinsic condition and characteristic of our abiding actuality. And it comes with the realization and the understanding that there is always, and at all times, a reciprocal exchange taking place between ourselves and the world in which we comprise together.

There is no real you/me, inside/outside, distinction to be made between ourselves and the world.  In her Forward to Heart Medicine, Joanna Macy says that “My freedom is your freedom. My freedom is our freedom. The freer I am, the freer you are, the freer we all are”. When one of us wakes up, we all wake up. When one of us comes alive everything comes to life. Macy goes on to say that it is “not my freedom first then yours. Not inner work first, then outer work later. Not self-care first, then care for the world afterwards. Rather, our freedom. Only together, only and always together.”

To open ourselves is to open ourselves to one another in total. It is to open and expand the breathing fecundity of all that we are coterminous with. It is to break the illusory bounds and borders between us. To know that as we each become bigger, the whole world becomes bigger too.

We rise and fall, crest and collapse, we run aground and we get back up, never alone, but together, ever and always as one.

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meeting people in books…

meeting people in books

All books entail meeting people, and I think in nearly all cases when we are meeting people in books we are meeting the personified parts of ourselves reflected back at us. Sometimes they are the hidden and secret parts. The parts that we didn’t know were there. The parts that we didn’t know had a name. The parts that show us how mysterious we are, even to ourselves.

Sometimes it’s the parts that we know so deeply, so well, and so personally that we are most baffled to see exhibited and portrayed outside of ourselves. We are taken aback, awestruck and joyously dumbfounded because in that moment of meeting we come to know that we are not alone.

Every book is a journey, as Rebecca Solnit suggests, “and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning”, but somehow the transformation of the journey has made us more ourselves than we have ever been before.

I was late to arrive at such a realization. I wish I had learned to build big brick buildings from books as a child. Perhaps, I would have found surety and confidence sooner. Perhaps, I would have felt safer earlier. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have been so behind in understanding what it means to belong. Perhaps, I wouldn’t feel so great a need to make up for lost time as I do now. I was an adult before I truly understood the sheltered soundness available within “the sanctuary of reading”.

It took a long time for me to know how to be rescued by books, and longer still before I learned that I could build a refuge with them and from them. I wish I had known then what I know now, but I’m grateful that I found out when I did, otherwise there might not even be a “now”.

It’s strange to think that so great a gift could come from someone we have never met. But, that’s what a book is; “a gift a writer made for strangers”, as Solnit suggests. It is a peculiar yet obvious truth, but as Susan Orlean says “ You don’t need to take a book off the shelf to know that there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you…someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.” Perhaps even more miraculous and mystifying is the fact that these same voices not only invite us to listen, but they also invite to participate. They each call us to contribute to the grand and sweeping conversation that stretches beyond the particularities of time and place, and yet rests at the very heart of our millennia of being human.

In being given books, I have been and continue to be the recipient of the great gifts of being seen, being understood, and being less alone. Everything I’ve ever done since has been an attempt to return the favor.

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the things we worship…

the things we worship

We all worship something, and often it’s the things that we worship that become the albatross around our necks. David Foster Wallace says that if you “Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out”. This has certainly been the case for me. Perhaps, it’s also an indication of what Green calls an “omnidirectional anxiety”.

I’ve learned to allow this anxious  dread over my own fraudulence to become a feature rather than a bug. The pervasive sense of my idiocy has transformed into what Eric Wilson describes as a “sign of intellectual grace” and cognitive humility. Instead of wishing to be seen as the smartest person in the room, I enter into every interaction with the assumption that I’m not. In the midst of any discussion I speak with the understanding that, regardless of how well formalized my ideas are, I am very likely wrong. And, I have learned to love being wrong.

Francis Crick says that “the dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it.” Over the years my zealotry has collapsed into curiosity, as I’ve garnered the ability to hold even my most sacred of beliefs with an open hand. I poke and prod all my views in the light of other vantages; knowing that my own perspective is but one color in a kaleidoscope of possible thoughts, and who knows what new fractals of insight might appear if I can bend my line of sight into varying angles. When we can manipulate our militancy into something far more malleable none of our efforts are exhausted on trying to be right, and instead we can focus all of our attention on learning something that we didn’t know before; whether it be about a topic, a person, or, perhaps, more importantly, ourselves.

Most days I still feel stupid and I still feel like a fraud. Old gods die hard, and the ones we worship die even harder I suppose. Somedays, as John Green writes “My thoughts are a river overflowing it’s banks, churning and muddy and ceaseless”, but some days I manage to share a thought with someone and conversation sparks an idea I could have never anticipated. In that moment, we get to see a listless part of who we are to come to life, and that’s a pretty good day, not because I feel smart but because I’m in good company, and that’s better.

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