Memory and Imagination

memory and imagination

John Green writes that “Language shapes our memories, and it is also shaped by our memories.”

He says in one of the footnotes of  The Anthropocene Reviewed that “Nothing lies like memory”.

Memory is inaccurate and unreliable. Memory decays and degrades. But, perhaps, if it is a ‘lie’, it is a lie in the same way that fiction is a lie; “good lies that say true things”, as Neil Gaiman explains. True things that can “keep you sane,” says Matt Haig, and that can keep “you you“.

Memory can be molded. Fashioned and refashioned. Constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. It is something we are always actively and creatively engaging with and participating in. Memory is a story. It is like a text. Its meaning is malleable, and at any given time we attempt to reread through fading pages of memory in an effort reinterpret what it means now in the light of this day, at this time, in this place. Perhaps memory is always an activity of exegesis and eisegesis. Reading-out and reading-in. Remembering and re-membering. Interpreting and reinterpreting. Imagining and reimagining. The hermeneutics of our own history.

Carlo Rovelli  says that “our consciousness is based on” the meeting of “memory and…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”. This space, “Suspended…in these patterns,” between image and event, where “we might reimagine our lives…through story”, writes Barry Lopez; where “we embrace the great breadth of memory, [where] we can distinguish what is true, and [where] we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” Where we can right and re-write ourselves.

love will tear us apart…

love will tear us apart

I don’t know a lot about Space, or astrophysics, or science in general really, but that’s never stopped me from trying to think about it or trying to write about it, at least in small fragments anyway.

Black holes are really interesting. Figuratively we often use Black Holes as way in which to represent a vacuous void of emptiness and absence, but really nothing could be further from the truth. Black Holes are anything but vacant or unoccupied. One of the defining features of a Black Hole is that it contains a disproportionately large amount of mass in comparison to its size. Even a Black hole with the scale of an atom can hold an amount of mass equivalent to that of a mountain.

The other defining feature of a Black Hole occurs as a result of the first. Because they contain such an extremely large amount of mass condensed into a small space, Black Holes are places of immense and overwhelming gravity.

Unsurprisingly, I now realize that pretty much everything I know and understand about Black Holes can be consolidated into those few brief paragraphs above, and more than likely I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know.

But, maybe that in itself is an example of what a Black hole is and what it does. It is a place where rich complexity becomes densely packed, where the tremendous mass of something ineffable is expressed within and amidst something comparably infinitesimal, places with such great force and gigantic gravity that we are inescapably pulled toward them and into them, places that are capable of capturing, containing, holding, and harboring light.

They are bigger on the inside.

Perhaps, I’m romanticizing Black Holes; that’s fair, I’m a writer, not a physicist, and that’s just what we do.

To be sure, Black Holes are dangerous and scary; perhaps, the scariest thing in the universe. It pulls apart everything that falls into it and never lets it go.

But, then again, perhaps, we could say the same thing about love

the ‘velocity of being’ together…

Sometime around the fall of last year my two-person book club partner and I were finishing up reading John Green‘s essayed appraisals of the human-centered world called The Anthropocene Reviewed. And as we were gearing up to start reading Matt Haig‘s melancholically hopeful novel, The Midnight Library, I came across a blog post about a book called A Velocity of Being; a book containing a wide and sprawling collection of letters  and original art created by what might be the most interesting amalgamation of people one could ever hope to come across. Writers, artists, musicians, poets, physicists, astronauts, entrepreneurs, and more, all coming together to share the redemption and salvation that books have the capacity to give to the human soul. I was wowed by the premise of the project, and moved by the beautiful symbiosis of image and word. I sent the article to my co-reader in arms, and a little over one week later she had bought a copy for herself and sent a second copy to me.

velocity of being

After we began reading, we were initiates newly committed to an apostles creed, meandering meticulously through each of the epistles with reverence and fervor. We were trailing at the heels of discovery and devotion. We were disciples covered in the dust of a rabbi’s motion. But most of all, we were together. We were together with one another, but we were also together with the choired mass of other voices who also found themselves within the sacred solidarity of books.

That’s exactly what books are. That’s precisely what they do. Books are the surest cure for loneliness; a communion of blessed fellowship that can cross the span of continents and collapse the constraints of time. Books are a kind of religion; a space of ultimate concern, the gift of what grows from the nutrient-dense ground of our being. And, reading is a form of faith; a faith in the fact that we are never alone, that we when we read we are always and at all times reading together.

goals not met…

This blog co-written with Carolyn Jones

Sometimes you hit the target. Sometimes you smash it. Sometimes you take a shot, and it rebounds on the crossbar. Sometimes it’s so wide you wonder whether it was even a shot worth taking. But that’s the thing about goals. Whether the ball hits the back of the net, or whether it ends up in the crowd, every attempt teaches us something. We learn from every try.

In 2010 I set out to read 50 books by the end of the year. I fell short by seventeen. I tried the following year, and I missed the mark again. And again. And again. And again. And again. In 2017, I finally reached the goal and read 51 books. But the celebration was short-lived. It took another four years before I was able to do it again. And when I did, I exceeded it by 10 books. But that’s the other thing about goals; they aren’t meant to be easy.

Sofia Segovia says that “life [does] not make promises,” but “sometimes it [offers] opportunities”. While the years of unmet goals sometimes stack up taller than the instances of achievement, there are countless opportunities to be offered and accepted. I am still just as filled with all the pages from all the books that I did manage to read in the years I failed to meet my minimum. Those pages taught me so much. Gave me so much. Guided me through so much. I learned about myself. I learned about the world. I learned about the parts and places within the world that pull up on the strings of my passions, like something lost being dredged from the depths of forgetfulness; a wreckage salvaged from the abyss. Rescued from oblivion. Those pages helped me through innumerable moments of misery, loss, trauma, sadness, and depression. I stood tall. I fell short. I fell hard. I managed to stand back up. I fell even harder still. And I found that all the pages that I held had been upholding me all along.  

We try. We learn. We think. We grow. We make good art. We write a great story. We realize the bigness of small things. And whether we make the goal, we move forward and we move on. Like the clanging persistence of a pinball constantly pivoting the trajectory of the way we think, what we garner in the process remains present and undeterred

It’s easy to think about all the things we didn’t, and perhaps won’t ever, do. All the books that go unread. All the goals that go unmet. The happiness we didn’t have. The wealth and success we didn’t achieve. But those “are matters mostly out of our control,” Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Canor explain. Instead, it is “the work, that we choose.” It is the work we set before ourselves. The tasks we are willing to take on, and the effort we are willing to exert in the attempt that decide who we are and what we will become. 

Rollo May says that we become “fully human only by [our] choices and [our] commitment to them. He says that our “worth and dignity” are attained only “by the multitude of decisions [we] make,” and “These decisions require courage”. It takes bravery and courage to challenge ourselves, to decide to push toward some desired end. To see through the clattering and stagnation. To realise that we need to change. To decide to try, and to commit to seeing it through. 

We may not meet the end we tried for, but regret is the metric of something unreal. Calculations of the things we can’t change. A fixation upon the mathematics of all the events that cannot be other than the way they have been. If these are the means by which we measure our worth, we will always be found wanting. The true testament to our quality is in accepting the humaneness of our scale; the fortitude of our fragility. As Marin Popova says it is in “the presence, persistence, and grace with which we face reality on its own terms” that we achieve something that can never be lost.  

Thanks again to Carolyn Jones for cowriting this essay with me, and for literally everything else.

a letter to things (not) lost…

a letter to things (not) lost

“There’s a voice in your mind, you must have heard it by now… It’s calm when you’re panicked, fearless when you’re afraid… That’s what’s left of the original [you]…It’s not much more than a fragment anymore, a little piece of [your] personality clinging on… but if you begin to lose yourself, heed that voice. It’s your lighthouse. Everything that remains of [who] you once were.

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

It’s amazing how much of ourselves we lose along the way, even more astounding is how long it takes us to notice. It happens slowly, glacially, rarely abrupt, and almost never all at once. Sometimes the pieces we lose are the parts we have outgrown; like shedding skin. Or, when new plumage replaces old feathers. But, sometimes we lose parts of ourselves that should have never been forgotten.

“The clothes make the man,” the old adage goes. Perhaps, they also re-make us as well. We wear so many hats, put on so many roles, bear so many names, until we are re-formed and re-fashioned into someone or something almost unrecognizable. There are lies sown into the fabric of forgetting, and we slowly sink into the seams. A snip here. A snag there. We are taken in. We are let out. All in an effort to find a better fit, but sometimes its forced. Too big. Too small Hardly ever just right. Eventually, we can’t even remember what “just right” feels like. It’s the moment when the clothes become a cage; when tailor turns jailor, and for a long time, we are none the wiser.

We chalk up the change to growing older. The wear and tear of maturation and advancing years. The encroachments of adulthood and obligations. Duty and responsibility. Regardless of the reasons, it gets harder and harder to hold on to who we are. And sometimes we stop trying altogether. The disturbing truth of the matter, as Chloe Benjamin says, “is that most people enjoy a certain level of impotence.”

We succumb to the warm and easy seductions of a liquor-like apathy and amnesia. We sip the slow and syrupy booze of believing that we are the equivalent to all the titles that have been thrust upon us. We shrug our shoulders, we wallow in the mire of self-pity and self-loathing. And, he plod along passively pretending that it’s just the way things are. “Almost without knowing it,” John O’Donhue warns, “we slip inside ready-made roles and routines which then set the frames of our possibilities and permissions”; becoming intoxicated by “the security of the confinement and limitation”.
We are afraid  of our own freedom and choice because it forces us to recognize that we are completely responsible for the realization of all the potential and possibility that each of us hold.

We crave the enclosure of structure and facticity, especially in a world accelerating towards entropy, where nothing is overtly clear or explicitly resolvable. Facts are solid, and stable, and sensible. Facts are hard and unflinching and often immovable. Facts are like fences. We think they stand to keep the terror out, but instead they only serve to keep us closed in. We sacrifice the sanctity of our autonomy and ingenuity in exchange for a sense of safety. But, it is a grifter’s bait and switch, as we find ourselves wary and ever-watchful, with only our own anxiousness to occupy our minds.

And yet, a fence is just another word for a hurdle, a half-flacid barrier over which we can learn to leap. If we look closely we can see that we only appear to be held back. Implicitly they provide us with a clear demarcation of where we are and where we can go. They give us a calculable distance to run and a measurable height to climb. It’s the still small voice within that pushes us to the borders. It’s fragmented inner voice that entreats us to reach out just a little beyond our grasp. It’s the feral voice of who we used to before we were corralled and broken that begs and beckons us to pull ourselves up hard toward the top of the fence. It’s the clinging remains of our own wild and undomesticated voice that gives us faith enough to fly off the ledge towards the other side of the fence where possibility stretches out to catch us like a net.  Maybe losing bits of ourselves is unavoidable. “Every life has such weight”, Stuart Turton says, and it’s impossible to carry it all. There is an art to letting go, but it’s one we can only learn through lifetimes of loosening our grip on the parts of ourselves we should have never let fall.

And yet, perhaps, the solace comes from recognizing that we never really lose them. They’re never truly lost. We’ve just lost sight of them. They’ve only been mis-placed and we simply need to re-member them. We simply need to listen. Careful to heed the voice that calls from where all the light within us first began to rise; and where it still resides.

the difference between stones and kisses…

stones and kisses

Carlo Rovelli says that we often” think of the world as made up of things. Of substances. Of entities. Of something that is.” But, in all actuality, it is “made up of events. Of happenings. Of processes. Of something that occurs.” The world, Rovelli explains, is something “that undergoes continual transformation”.

To some that’s disconcerting; the thought that everything appearing solid is really comprised of slippage and instability. But, that’s not what bothers me. Maybe it’s because I’ve read enough about Hegel’s philosophy of Becoming; Geist, Absolute spirit, Mind (with a capital M), perpetually unfolding into iridescent spirals of self-awareness, self-understanding, and self actualization. Or perhaps its because I’ve steeped myself in enough Buddhist thought, with all its notions of Anicca or Anitya;  the impermanence of all things, that Rovelli’s words fail to rattle me. I am often all too cognizant of the fact that time, though it is a slippery concept to define both philosophically and scientifically, pushes everything into persistently new permutations.

There are things and there are events.” The world is not a collection of things,” Rovelli points out, but instead “is a collection of events.” “The difference between” the two, he goes on to say “is that things persist in time” and “events have a limited duration.” A mass of rock is a thing. Perhaps the closest something can come to stasis. For the most part it is unmoving, and thus it makes sense to ask questions about where the stone “will be tomorrow”. Or five years from now. On the other hand “a kiss”, Rovelli says ” is an event” and “It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow”. Or at any other arbitrary point in the future.

And yet, there is something worrisome for me in the Juxtaposition between things and events. It is not that the universe is made of up expanding, ephemeral events. What worries me is that most days I feel more like the stone than like a kiss.

I am surrounded by happenings, and processes, and occurrences, and I don’t feel like I’m a part of any of them. I watch as everything and everyone around me change and progress, grow and evolve, develop and adapt. And I am an the anomalous exception. The sole surviving substance in the continual uncoiling of the cosmos that stays static, fixed, and stuck. If the world is an amalgamation of unwinding events, then I am a thing that is wholly un-worlded, a singularity constricting into fixedness. As the rest of the Universe is motioning ahead, I feel like I am standing in place, falling inward in a collapse of density. Cursed under a spell of slumbering fastness, asleep like a stone, unstuck in time and waiting to be awoken, perhaps by a kiss.

I am at the mercy of a world that moves at a pace that doesn’t match my own. Everything accelerates and all my movements are imperceptibly slow. I’m looking for an out, an exit, an escape. A way forward. Something beyond this. Anything outside of here. But it evades my vision.

Matt Haig says that “it is always hard for us to see the future inside the present, even when it is right in front of us.” It seems to prove that our greatest limitation is “not that of imagination,” Maria Popova points out, “but that of perspective”.  We are so dismissive of small steps in our on going obsession with giant leaps, big bangs of creation, progress, and productivity. Anything less feels like stagnation. Popova says that “our lens is too easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present, too easily blurred by the hopes and fears of our human lives.” We forget that the world unfolds in mountains, plains, and plateaus. Events have peaks and troughs. Evolution takes a very, very very long time. It is slow, and agonizing, and arduous, and excruciating, and incremental. And there will be time when it seems as though nothing has happened and nothing has changed, “but,” as Rocknell Kent explains, “in the quietness the soul expands”.

Perhaps to be silent, to be still, to be so glacially moving, is to be at our most transformative. In a world of entities and eventualities, things and events, stones and kisses, we are only ever one stone’s throw away from sending ripples across great distances. Only one kiss away from waking up…

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…

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.

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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never just one thing…

In his novel, The Midnight Library, Matt Haig writes that “We only need to be one person” and yet, Duke University Professor of Philosophy and Neurobiology, Owen Flanagan, writes that “we are not one thing”. 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 “. We are legion, for we are many. “[We are] large,” as Walt Whitman says, we “contain multitudes”. We are not individual. We are not indivisible. We are a collected amalgamation. The magic of reading then isn’t so much that a single self can seep inside an autonomous other, but that our multiplicity of personalities can meet, mix, and mingle inside the heart and mind of another person whose many selves so closely mirror and match our own. We are can never be everything because at our most fundamental we are nothing, that is, we are no-thing. Flanagan writes that “what there is, and all there is, is an unfolding” and “what we call and conceive as ‘things’ are relatively stable processes or events inside the Mother of all unfoldings” This summation includes ourselves. We are not things or objects. We are not concrete fixtures of static solidity. We are fibrous and fluctuating. We are fluid and fluxing. We are the process of a personage made present. We are subjects, but even then we are subjects only in so far as we are subject to the event of our own unfolding subjectivity. And perhaps, we are simply so unaccustomed to knowing how to inhabit all of our no-thing-ness.

We are the unfolding singularity that leads us to love. Whatever we were, whatever we have been prior is simply an iterative fluxing in the process of bending towards this moment. Whatever we become now will only be a result of that expanding epoch unfurling us further into the fabric of our us-ness… and the universe itself is better for it.