Abroad – Notes from the Petrie Dish

Melancholy Musings

“Meaning, if there is such a thing, involves more than what there is.  Minimally, it involves a truthful assessment of what living a finite human life adds up to.”

-Owen Flanagan, The Really Hard Problem

“I’d tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear”

-David Foster Wallace-

“You are – your life, and nothing else.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre-

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“That Spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn’t see where there was to get to…” So begins Deborah Levy’s succinct “response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write,’ entitled Things I Don’t Want To Know.  It speaks to me.  Sentences like “Smoking cheap filthy sock-tobacco under a pine tree was so much better than trying to hold it together on escalators.  There was something comforting about being literally lost when I was lost in every other way.”  And here I am in London, far from home, wandering scattered Lego streets, half of the time having an idea of where I am, where I might go.  Like life with children – the half provided that’s never lost – versus the “self:”


I am the sign, I am the letter,

I am the language that cannot be come to terms with.

I will go to my resting place

                                                and will not be born again.

I am what is scattered and cannot be gathered up.

I am small, I am silence,

                                                I am what is not found.

Charles Wright


“It occurred to him that he would disappear into a hole in a girder inside him that supported something else inside him.”

-David Foster Wallace-

– that sort of thing, left to one’s own musings.  Levy speaks of her notebooks as “always gathering evidence for something I could not fathom.”  Dan Beachy-Quick speaks of the blank page as “one version of chaos…the movement outward and the movement inward are simultaneous…that we enter writing to threaten the security of the knowledge we possess before we read it…” knowledge that isn’t reason – “but the plank that, in reason, breaks.” (from Wonderful Investigations).

As a kind of practice, as it turns out, (Beachy-Quick also says “language offers a method of experiencing death without dying” and “Life, world: we die into it.  Words kill us.  We lose the tops of our heads.  Then we open our eyes.  Then we walk out of the poem into the world.”) I recently labored over messages to those significant to me (including myself) –

what would I want to say or have said if I were to leave the living?

Beachy-Quick suggests that “poetry is birthed from such awful realizations – a fact which denies the fact of one’s own being, that says the self, even the godlike self, is not sufficient unto itself.”

Here some parts from The Letter to Myself:

“I believe the world has had enough of me, and I of it.  Life is generous: overabundant with pain, surprise, people, noise, joy, danger, grandeur, poverty, tastes and sights, sounds and smells, anguish, glory and grief and their very complex mixtures.  As are we – individual organisms – capable, unique, agentive…

      We cannot capture life.  It is ‘more than.’  As mine ends, I find myself desperately wanting to summarize and somehow represent it, but I find no words to do so.

      Aside from the brevity of the fullest portion of my lived experience … with ease what I most grieve is not seeing my children shape and become themselves.  That is the question I most toil over – have my children had enough of me? 

      In the main I have experienced myself as a person whom others accommodate, adjust to, endure.  In classes, families, and communities of practice, even in friend groups, I’ve never FITTED – conjoined smoothly – BELONGED.

      My children have never known another father, so they might find me definitive, ‘right’ only, unique and special.  But my parents have known other children, spouses other partners and lovers, friends other friendships, teachers other students, bosses other employees and so on…and none would consider me ‘best’ or ‘only,’ definitive or unique.  No one has chosen or selected me as theirs.

      I know I’m not alone in this, nor do I need to be the BEST anything, but I would have loved to have been chosen, claimed, selected and pursued – not for being the best, or special, not for characteristics or qualities, talents or things I do well – but for being me, for the am I am.

      How “uniquely me” turned out was never quite enough for others, or not the ‘right’ enoughs.  I surely don’t blame others I‘ve encountered – no one was obligated to choose me, or owed me selection, I simply was not suited to my contexts.


      I hope that my children and loved ones are able to discover and co-generate contexts in which they thrive.


      I had my moments, my ‘times’ – the births of my children, my weddings, days of writing and travel, dialogues with friends and multitudes of sensations and aesthetic and enriching experiences – I do not lack,

            but it’s a struggle my organism is tired of. 

      I want to say that in my life with my love I realized it – I knew myself as a unique person with particular qualities, capacities, failures, weaknesses and strengths.  I accomplished and risked, expressed and developed more of myself during those years than perhaps the entirety of my life until then…

      …in the end it’s only rambling, ever trying to grasp something of experience…ever unable…

      Perhaps something, but not what I mean to.  Always less, never enough… I’m sorry.  Thank you for enduring me this wonderful long.”


To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish.  We always hesitate when we wish for something…A hesitation is not the same as a pause.  It is an attempt to defeat the wish.  But when you are ready to catch this wish and put it into language, then you can whisper but the audience will always hear you.”

-Zofia Kalinska, quoted in Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know 

So speak up, practice, be gentle with yourself – “the story of this hesitation is the point of writing” – into and out of yourself…the activities where things con-fuse…

I wish to write.

I wish to parent.

I wish to love and be loved.

I wish to learn.

I am thankful the “I” is “what is not found,” for then we can keep searching (together), and in the searching, the interaction, perhaps begin a “truthful assessment of what a living finite human life adds up to” –

to matter and to mean.