Look at things, see them exposed
in their metaphysical innocence
unsure of their existence.
When do paintings shrug off
the painter, when will this same material
become a new idea? The evening mist crept over
the lawn, drowning the avenue, the fountain,
Music, the splash of oars.
Someone turns on the light, someone
doesn’t believe in dusk.
The unanswerable question drifts
past the window.
-Cees Nooteboom, Cauda
As I make my way back over the Atlantic from the nominally United Kingdom to the (equally nominally) United States, I am considering what things most prominently infected me. Partly “I think I wanted to get lost to see what happens next” (Deborah Levy, Things I Don’t Want to Know) and partly I wanted to know what to do – my coursework and library visitations – to anchor my lostness while providing anonymity and foreignness in which to search for peace and move through grief.
More and more the invisible was named,
the blind man grew mightier.
How he wandered and called out to his echo!
which called back with the screech of gulls.
He is still searching among flags and vistas
for that same statue.
Sounds blow to the far side of the river.
Nobody is standing there.
Nothing takes shape. Newspapers melt,
photos fade. The stone is made of wax,
the notebook of ash, time takes itself
and repeats the appearance
until his life becomes a mirror
in which he disappears and appears,
but nobody looks at himself,
because nobody can see himself.
my “self” photographed in front of Gerhard Richter’s “painting” Grey Mirror
-Tate Modern, London-
I noted how clear the signage. Clear and direct with no soft-pedaling of consequences stated. Mind the gap, way out (and way in), “moving through these doors may result in death or injury” (on the Underground), smoking kills. The ubiquity of concern for mental health – that Bibliotherapy is not just a bookseller’s or librarians metaphor of expertise – but is in fact a prescriptive cure – scripts are written by doctors for BOOKS! (hundreds a week, one library reported). Along the same culture-historic lines, perhaps influenced by the longevity and prevalence of hundreds to thousands year-old architecture and artefacts, traditions, and tangible evidence of time and identities – the apparent insistence on QUALITY – of life, of drink, of service – of literature and art and purposes. So while everything costs about twice as much as the USA, the options often doubled the quality. A local pub on every corner, small grocers, fresh markets – in the miles I walked I only spotted a handful of McDonald’s, Krispy Kremes or other international chains (and only in heavily touristed areas) – aside from Starbucks. I saw 3 gas stations.
And the bookstores!!! Sometimes 3 or 4 in a block, flush to the gills – but hardly a bestseller, a romance, or fluff! Amazing – perhaps the most profound difference between the USA and UK that I noticed: their stores FEATURED literary quality, and only sometimes provided mass appeal items that could be had anywhere online – in many stores 80% of the stock I encountered did not have an eBook format – the books were books meant to be books in the purpose of books – to be engaged with the body and mind and retained and gone back to – like the architecture, museums and galleries – not disposable pleasures – but necessary cultural artifacts made from the human condition and accessed repeatedly for its benefit.
Of course there are the “places”: Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, the British Library and British Museum, the Tate, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tower of London and on and on…walking over 15 miles a day, finding “oldest churches” in every nook and alley, colleges and universities every other block, London is a place swamped with culture and continuity, the high and the low, and great gaps to mind in between.
So with those great anchors securing me, I tried to see myself. In the reflections of great art and architecture, thousands of years of history and culture, thousands of languages in cosmopolitan streets, thousands of unknown faces and voices, habits and practices and sayings…my “life became a mirror in which he disappears and appears,” but, of course, “nobody looks at himself, because nobody can see himself.”
What did I see? Well by looking through others that I could see, I found “I wasn’t sure my skeletal system had found a way of walking freely in the Societal System” and the need “to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part to do with unknotting the ways in which I have been put together by the Societal System in the first place” including the “many delusions of my own”…”it’s exhausting to learn how to become a subject – it’s hard enough learning how to become a writer” (Deborah Levy).
And I thought of how, like the forest and the trees – it often seems we are unable to see reality for our experiences. So many of us semi-automatically equate our experience with reality – rather than note how small our perceptual bubble really is. Just try using the “Powers of 10” idea – start anywhere – with your pain, your fingernail, your happiness. Now imagine IN a power of 10 – you’re into the cells, into one strand of what’s causing you pain, into a moment eliciting joy. 10x more and you’ve gone beyond atoms and quarks – matter and energy ill-defined and inexplicable and ALWAYS dynamic. Imagine OUT a power of 10 – you’re viewing a street full of private perceptual experiences very different from your own – and trees and birds and squirrels and buildings. X 10 and you see miles and miles of earth – filled up with all kinds of creatures and systems, connectors and wonders and weathers and mountains and rivers – x 10! and you’re out in the galaxy of planets much larger than our own, stars much bigger than our sun, and still more galaxies to go…
Either way you go there is gargantuan forest – and our experience, our body – barely a branch…yet we evaluate so often from that individual outlook – incredibly distorting bubble of lens – with a minimal scope – not engaging the forest, absorbing the forest, wandering and listening and looking and opening – so that “the unanswerable question drifts by” and “unsure of its existence” can “become a new idea…” the beginnings of subject-ivity – a particle in relation from within and without – from mattering energy to butterflied effects…an individual instancing of human.
Be mindful. Be curious. Be patient. Don’t know, and enjoy your hands. Be generous, take refuge, find strength. Be grateful, keep going, be glad. Respond, don’t react. Slow down and forgive. Let go, accept limits, and do what you can. Take in the good, relax, have compassion. Feel safer, fill holes, and love.
-all chapter titles from Rick Hanson’s just one thing
It’s okay. Be human – the extremely hard, most natural thing.
an added and unexpected catharsis – on the night I tried British telly due to trouble falling asleep – Synechdoche, NY – a remarkable example of how complex and generative our perceptive bubble can be…and yet how barrier’d from the world outside of that bubble…forests and trees / reality and personal experiences – beautiful drops in the sea… (and perhaps my favorite movie to date)..
February 23, 2014
2 thoughts on “In the Sea above the Sea: transitory reflections from above the Atlantic”
This makes me want to walk the railroad tracks with a rucksack, hands in pockets, the wind for music and birds for company. x
Thank you Jean, so much