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.

where living flowers…

where living flowers

Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that “existence precedes essence”, that is to say that the brute facticity of our Being is prior to any of the names or descriptions given to it. The most fundamental truth of who we are at our most basic is that ‘we are‘.

And yet, it was Rousseau who said that “Man is born free but everywhere is in chains.” We enter the world with infinite and expansive possibility and potentiality, and soon we become fettered by the chains of the biases, beliefs, and expectations that have all been forced upon us, often by people with the best of intentions. But, I think deep down we have a sense of the shackles. Perhaps it is this implicit knowledge that relentlessly drives us to be more, to do more, to have more; we are attempting to adorn the chains of our imprisonment with the imaginary flowers of achievements and accomplishments, as Marx might suggest.

We are bound, but we are free to unbind ourselves if we could only acknowledge the restraints. Matt Haig says “You can’t climb a mountain you pretend isn’t there”. Similarly, you can’t be freed from the tethers you refuse to see hiding under the embellishments of our own self-deceit. Perhaps radical awareness and critical self-reflection is a place to start: a place that allows us to pluck “the imaginary flowers on the chain,” as Marx says, not so that we would then have to bear “that chain without fantasy or conclusion, but so that [we can] throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.”

When we can see through all the disguised ambitions tied to someone else’s desires external to our own, we can begin to experience the unimpeded freedom built into the simple truth of our being alive.

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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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books find us…

books find us

The older I get the more reclusive I become. I don’t get out much, and I’m OK with that for the most part. One of the few places I will willingly leave the comfort of my cloister to visit is a local used book store. It’s like my Hermitage away from home. It’s nothing special in terms of aesthetics or ambiance. It’s a glorified warehouse space with bare concrete floors, densely packed with rows upon rows of book shelves, all filled to capacity. In most cases, the shelves are gluttonously filled well over capacity. It’s glorious. Disney World is wrong, for me, this is the happiest place on earth.

The books there seem to be almost tangentially organized, like they were arranged according to conversation rather than by category. There’s a loose structure, a rough outline, the topics and genres move seamlessly from one to another, and sometimes off shoot to unintended places, places where one has lost their train of thought, when one must pause to reflect and wonder how they even got there. This isn’t the kind of book store you go to looking for something specific. If you do, you’ll, more than likely, leave disappointed and unimpressed. If you’re searching for specificity, you probably won’t find it here. This is not the kind of book store you go to seek out “a book”. This is the kind of book store in which the books start to seek you.

Neil Gaiman says that “Somewhere, there is a book written just for you’ and that “It will fit your mind like a glove fits your hand.” And, this, is my favorite part of good bookstores. They are places that effortlessly swing between luck and serendipity, fate and destiny. Somewhere in the course of perusing the shelves and fumbling across titles we discover books that seem to be crafted and created for us. A wild goose chase that ends with us being given a sacred gift by a stranger; a love letter written to us from a friend we have never known; a book that knows us better than we know ourselves. Here, the real discovery isn’t that we find books that can nestle themselves so perfectly into the folds and furrows of our hearts, but these books have a way of finding us.

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I want to believe in magic…

I want to believe in magic

“I wanted to find a magical portal. I wanted to fall into a magical world. When I opened a closet, I wanted to feel a chill and find snow falling behind the coats. When I opened my front door, I wanted to see a yellow brick road winding off towards the Emerald City…You can guess what happened: nothing. “

Bruce Handy, A Velocity of Being

I’ve always been practical, and pragmatic. I’ve always been realistic, even as a kid. But, there was one magical portal I believed in. One magical portal that I spent most of my life searching for, but never found: It was ‘someday’. It was “one-day’. It was the future.

Someday I was going to be somebody. One day I was going to make something of myself. My future was bright. My future was full of purpose. My future was inevitable. Someday it was all going to come together. One day it would all work out. You can guess what happened: nothing. One day never arrived. Someday never showed up. Time kept moving forward, but my future never followed suit.

We all believe in secret entrances, miracles, and magic portals. We just argue over semantics. “You could call it a trap door, a hidden compartment, or you could call it God,” says Chloe Benjamin. We’re all believers in one way or another. We all worship something, David Foster Wallace suggests. So, “Is it that reality is too much, “asks Benjamin, “too painful, too limited, too restrictive of joy, or opportunity?” Or, as Benjamin goes on to say, is it that “reality is not enough”? She suggests that it isn’t, and I’m inclined to agree. It isn’t enough. It isn’t “enough to explain what we don’t understand”, or “to account for the inconsistencies we see, hear, and feel.” It isn’t enough “on which to pin our hopes, our dreams, our faith.” Maybe that’s why we need faith, why we need hope, why we need love. Maybe that’s not only why we believe, but why we need to. Maybe that’s precisely why we need to believe in magic.

“Some magicians say that magic shatters your world view”, Benjamin points out.” But, “magic”, as she supposes, is what “holds the world together”. “It’s the glue of reality,” she surmises. “And, it takes magic”, she concludes, “to reveal how inadequate reality is.”

I believe in the profound inadequacies of reality as we know it. I have seen, and felt, and experienced how anemic reality can be. How insufficient it is at providing us with sustenance enough to do anything other than merely survive. We live on rations; caged with the lack, tied to the want, present to the absence, never sated, never full, always and at all times hungry. But, as much as I still want to stand behind it, magic, has proven to be just as unreliable, and its becoming harder and harder to maintain a faith in anything even remotely magical.

Maybe magic failed me one too many times. Maybe reality starved and suffocated my sense of wonder. Maybe its a muscle that’s atrophied and I’m just too stiff and too tired to bend or stretch. But I want to. I still want to believe in the magic of hidden passageways that lead to mystifying futures and unimaginable somedays. I want to believe in magic shoes that can take me anywhere. I want to believe that the long black veil of bereavement could be transformed into a dove, even if only by slight of hand or a trick of the light.

There’s a story in the Gospel of Mark. A desperate father begs Jesus to heal his son. Jesus tells him that “All things are possible for one who believes”. The father responds with urgency saying “I believe; help my unbelief.” This is the truest prayer I know, and the most honest one I can say. And so I pray it every day…I believe that one day, everything will be ok, maybe even better, but help my unbelief

Short thoughts on ‘A Long way Down’…

a long way down

I’ve been aware of Nick Hornby for awhile. I just never got around to reading him. About a year ago, in my favorite local used book store, I picked up two of his books: High Fidelity and A Long way Down. I tend to favor Umberto Eco’s thoughts on the ‘Antilibrary’, that is, the idea that the most important feature of one’s personal library are the unread books. For they, they are the source of unending possibility and potentiality. Lurking with their pages is the presence of ‘perhaps‘.

Needless to say both books sat on a shelf untouched until a few weeks ago. I was still coming down off the high of finishing Matt Haig‘s book, How to Stop Time (which I highly recommend), and I wanted something similar in tone and style. I thought Hornby might fit the bill. I wasn’t disappointed.

What you have here is a quirky tale written in shifting perspectives, points of view, and the individual voices of the four very different main characters. An unlikely quartet of people each depressed, despairing, and on the verge of suicide, band together to try find reasons to go or to at least delay their demises.

They have each, through their own varying traumas and circumstances, found out the hard way that “there are other ways of dying, without killing yourself” It happens when “You…let [the most important] parts of yourself die.” And yet, as Hornby writes “Sometimes it’s moments like that, real complicated moments, absorbing moments that make you realize that even hard times have things in them that make you feel alive.”

In the end what you find in A Long Way Down is not a shiny series of self-help tinged platitudes or unrealistically happy endings. But broken and battered people who discover the hope that comes from realizing a strange and unexpected truth; in some small and subtle way the warmth and solidity of belonging makes the ache of being alive hurt just a little less. And that in itself is reason enough to stay…

…everything after August…

everything after august

A few months back I overheard a woman say to her teenage daughter that the only explanation for why people still buy records is nostalgia, especially given that the “sound quality” of vinyl isn’t as good as more modern media. It’s a surreal experience to be so suddenly overcome by the inexplicable urge to punch a stranger in the throat. Perhaps, its what Nick Hornby describes as “music rage, which”, as Hornby explains, “is like road rage, only more righteous.” He says that “When you get road rage, a tiny part of you knows you’re being a jerk but when you get music rage, you’re carrying out the will of God, and God wants these people dead.”

But, I suppose the trick to living more mindfully is quietly observing the eccentricities of the human mind as they arise in the daily experience of consciousness rather than acting on them. I tried to watch as the fury came forward and I did my best to simply watch as it passed.

Maybe she has a point. Maybe there is an element of nostalgia involved. But, vinyl’s heyday was before my time, and its kind of hard to be nostalgic for an era I wasn’t even around for. For me, I think it is a matter of ‘sound quality’, that is, it’s about the qualities that are intrinsic to the sound of a record.

Perhaps the sound is neither more pure nor more pristine, but it has more personality, it is more personable. Perhaps, even more person-like. When I listen to a record I get a deeper sense of people holding space together to make music come to life.  Records are alive. Vinyl breathes. It whispers and hums. It sounds like the energy of the room the music was made in. And, in the midst of a record’s spin the music itself becomes a living entity with a presence and a pulse.

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received is a limited edition printing of “August and Everything After” by the Counting Crows, inarguably one of the best albums of all time by one of the best bands of all time. I mean…you can try to argue, but unless you’re prepared to witness and endure a nearly forty-year-old man stick his fingers in his ears and shout “I’m not listening!!”, I would advise against it.

I sat reveling in the record recently, listening to the warm crackle of comfort that can only come from a turntable’s needle riding along the groove of where music meets the merger of memory mingling with the present moment. I thought about how apt the title of the album is, especially as it pertains to the person and circumstances that made this moment possible.

21 days into the month of August, in one seemingly serendipitous moment, in the warm auburn glow of the otherly and the unexpected, two crooked paths crossed in a flash and everything after became something new.

It’s funny how such a fleeting aside can serve as the foundation for something so unfathomably and ineffably more, but that’s what happened. A conversation started that shows no signs of stopping. A connection formed that spilled out and spilled over everything.

Sometimes the miracle of miracles is the way one comment can set off a chain of events that alter our understanding of everything we thought we so clearly knew to be true. Somedays people suck and you’re trying your best to watch your breath instead of going into a blackout rage of self-righteous throat punching. But, other days, people surprise you in ways that can’t even be put into words. You meet someone who makes you feel more safe, more sound. Someone that puts you more in touch with the whispering hum of your own presence and pulse. Someone who changes your life in inalterable ways.

Of the many-splendored things that come with being human, one of the the most splendid moments of really fucking magical, top-shelf, good shit, is when you meet someone that makes you wonder how you were ever able to live so long without them.  I may not know what comes next but, I know that the rest of my days will be a record of that August and everything that came after…

It’s hard to trust the truth…

trust the truth
“Lachrymae” – Frederic, Lord Leighton (British, Scarborough 1830–1896 London) –

“One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future. Far from the tunnel having light at the end of it, it seems like it is blocked at both ends, and you are inside it.”

– Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

This is how I know depression never leaves, that it is always there, always present. This feeling of utter hopelessness, of being completely trapped, of being inalterably stuck with no escape. It is a sound that never stops. A clamor that is never quiet. It’s like the steady, but constantly fluctuating sound of the ocean. Somedays the tide is low and the lack of hope is little more than the subtle murmuring of a slow moving sea humming in the background of an otherwise beautiful day.

But, then somedays the moon shifts, its darker side becomes visible, the pull of its gravity garners greater strength, the grows turbulent and gains momentum. The fury of each wave as they crest and crash is a riptide of noise so loud l that it drowns every sound that stands in its wake. The hopelessness waxes and wanes, but it always persists and pervades. At it’s worst it becomes apathy and indifference, when any sense of aliveness slips into a lethargy of simply getting along.

I’m being shown more hope than I’ve seen in a long time. An end of the tunnel is beginning to open that I thought might be forever closed. There is some light where once there had only been black. But, tunnel vision is a condition that takes a long time to recover from. I can see a chance at hope. I can see the possibility of a future, but it still hard to see passed the tunnel. Its hard to see beyond it. It’s hard to see to the end of it much less what’s on the other side of it.

Sometimes it hurts. The light can be painful to look at when your eyes have atrophied from only looking inside the lack. But the hurt that is so much worse is the fear of the light leaving all together, the terror of the tunnel closing in again. The thought of losing a future that started to feel so close. The loss of a hope that holds the promise of leading me out could be my ultimate undoing.

Matt Haig says “Depression makes you think things that are wrong”. It can be so hard to trust the truth, to trust that it is true, especially when you’ve begun to believe the lies. But you have to try… otherwise you just stay blind…

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discovering possibility

discovering possibility

Seth Godin says that “Discovering what’s possible is your job.” Perhaps, the most important one we’ll ever have. We live in a world of near endless possibility, but not everything always is. Somethings just aren’t, no matter how much we might want them to be. We have to constantly do the work of daily discovering what is possible. But, the bitter truth of the matter is that, in order to do that we have to submit ourselves to the long and heart breaking task of finding out what isn’t. That’s simply the only way to find out. We have to experiment, and iterate, and try, a lot. We have to get so much wrong. We have to be willing to keep getting things wrong, and we have to keep going. We have to keep trying. That’s the most pivotal piece actually; the moving forward, the continuing to try, the persistence, the resilience. After countless attempts to find just the right filament for the light bulb, Thomas Edison said that “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” He also said that “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” Perhaps this is the most vital discovery that one can possibly make in the examination of the possible: what makes it possible for one to continue to believe in the possible when one they have been so relentlessly inundated by all the things that aren’t? To sustain faith in the possibility of one more chance after a 9,999 attempts that didn’t work. What will it take to make that kind of tenacity and perseverance possible? This is what it is your job to discover, this is what it is all our jobs to discover, because if that isn’t possible than nothing is.

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human progress?…

human progress
Currier & Ives (American, active New York, 1857–1907) The Progress of the Century – The Lightning Steam Press. The Electric Telegraph. The Locomotive. The Steamboat., 1876 American, Lithograph; Image: 8 13/16 × 12 1/4 in. (22.4 × 31.1 cm) Sheet: 11 1/16 × 13 3/4 in. (28.1 × 35 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Adele S. Colgate, 1962 (63.550.377)

“The longer you live, the more you realize that nothing is fixed. Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough. Everyone would realize their nationality means little in the long run. Everyone would see their worldviews challenged and disproved. Everyone would realize that the thing that defines a human being is being a human. Turtles don’t have nations. Or flags. Or strategic nuclear weapons. They don’t have terrorism or referendums or trade wars with China. They don’t have Spotify playlists for their workouts. They don’t have books on the decline and fall of turtle empires. They don’t have internet shopping or self-service checkouts. Other animals don’t have progress, they say. But the human mind itself doesn’t progress. We stay the same glorified chimpanzees, just with bigger weapons. We have the knowledge to realize we are just a mass of quanta and particles, like everything else is, and yet we keep trying to separate ourselves from the universe we live in, to give ourselves a meaning above that of a tree or a rock or a cat or a turtle.
So here I am, with my head full of human fears and pains, my chest tight with anxiety, thinking about how much future I have in front of me.”

Matt Haig, How to Stop Time

I think about how much time I spend on worry about mattering; about doing something that matters, about being someone who matters, about making things that matter. Perhaps it’s all just an unconscious, egocentric, delusional desire for separateness. A desire to not only be separate from the universe but to be separate from my own kind; to be different, better, and more meaningful than not only every species but to even my own species.

We think it’s possible because we believe in ‘human progress’. Because we still talk about Socrates, and the Buddha, and Jesus, and Marcus Aurelius, and Shakespeare, and Thomas Edison, and on and on. But even the level of “mattering” we give to these figures is illusory. They only matter to us. To our species. To our closed off, claustrophobic, infinitesimal corner of the cosmos. But, we’ve only been around for 300,000 years and I’m not convinced that our species is likely to go for much longer.

Sharks have existed for 450 million years. Trees appeared over 370 million years go. Turtles have been around for 230 million years. And somehow we have the arrogance and audacity to think we are more meaningful than they are. That our lightbulbs, and buildings, and steam engines, and microchips, and nuclear bombs actually matter.

John Green says that “there’s no level of fame or genius that allows you to transcend oblivion. The infinite future makes that kind of mattering impossible.”

Sharks have perfected being their best selves. Trees don’t even have to try hard to be trees. Turtles are amazing at being turtles. And yet, we, most haughty and conceited of chimpanzees, don’t even know how to be human, much less how to be in the world.

Human progress?…We have so much to learn and so little time…