Who Am I? Who Are We? Friendship, Relationships, and the Roles We Play

Michelle (skippingstones) recently posted an essay on honesty and openness.  Her post got me thinking about how my relationships with friends differ so much, why some friends know some things about me while others know entirely different things, and why I don’t feel like the same me all the time.  Then it occurred to me: it happens organically.  When I first meet a person, of course I’m consciously making some decisions about what to share with them and what to conceal, but mostly I’m going on autopilot.  My habits are making decisions for me.  Past experience is determining my present interactions with people who are at first strangers.  All of the subtle cues I get from them about who they are also influence how I behave around them.  I think carefully about some of these things, but most of my behavior arises from somewhere deeper, beneath my intellect.  Emotions drive much of what I do.

Then, one day, I pause, and I wonder why I feel like either a slightly or a wholly different person depending on whom I’m with and my relationship with them.  At first I’m inclined to think that over time I’ve chosen to hide certain things from certain people and reveal other things to other people and that these were rational choices, made so methodically that if I had perfect memory I might follow them one by one back to my first encounter with each person I know, as if it were a question of Newtonian physics: reconstruct the entire chain of causes and effects and I might arrive at the creation event itself, the beginning, moment one.

But then I see the truth: It just happened.  At first we were strangers, then, over time, we became friends.  We grew together and we changed together.  None of us knew what was happening until it had already happened.  We didn’t choose to be one way or another with each other.  We didn’t choose to hide this and reveal that.  It just happened.  Our identities and lives became entangled, and out of the complexity of this entanglement relationships formed, all of them different, all of them special, none of them perfect.  Only in hindsight does it seem that I chose to be open with this friend and a little more reserved around that friend.  The fact is that each of these relationships is different because the people involved are different.  I can’t be the same me around everyone I know because everyone I know is different, which means that my relationship, my entanglement, with each of them must also be different.

Dishonesty, openness, concealment certainly have a place in the formation of relationships.  I concede that.  But now I see that what I thought of as “roles” I was playing depending on whom I was with were actually manifestations of mutual relationships that were all unique.  I’m not the same around everyone, but I’m still me.  WE, however, are different when we’re around each other.  Together we’re something more, though we can’t be everything to each other.  And that’s OK.

Reign of the Gadgets: The Illusion of Personal Choice

The gadgets that keep me company—the iPhones, iPods, tablets, laptops, and TVs—poke at me from every direction.  “Listen,” they say, “look at me.  Stroke my keys, brush the dust from my screen.  Please, please use me, need me, and never put me down.”

Whenever I choose to leave my apartment to spend a few hours reading and sipping coffee at the bookstore, I cast a glance at my iPad and wonder if I ought to bring it with me.  “Of course you ought to,” the iPad says to me.  “You need to check e-mail and Facebook and you must know in real time whether anyone has commented on your blog.”

Owning the iPad has created in me a need to own an iPad and hover over my virtual self with a compulsion that borders on obsessive.  Of course, this argument is with myself, not my iPad.  I wanted to go to the bookstore to occupy what Shirley Heath, Stanford social scientist, calls an “enforced transition zone” into which the outside world not only does not, but cannot intrude.

In the “enforced transition zone” I regain my freedom.  I’m allowed to become lost in myself rather than in the collective of the connected world, where temptations dangle in front of me and images, ideas and suggestions lodge themselves in my mind from moment to moment.

I don’t feel like I chose to buy an iPad, or to join Facebook, or to own a cell phone.  They chose me, and they marshaled the “decisions” of a billion people all over the world to inveigle me into making a choice that no longer feels like a choice.  These devices and services are part of the fabric of reality, and to abstain from them would be to pretend that I don’t walk on solid earth, that I don’t breathe air like the rest of humanity, that I exist on an island and that I have no need of human contact and community.  I can’t choose to opt out of life itself.

The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Writing is a Hopeful Act

Writing is a hopeful act.  Words assume that someone will read them, even if that someone is an older version of the person who put pen to paper in the first place.  Often we write to our future selves.  What else is the purpose of a journal?  Sure, we’re conversing with ourselves in the present.  But most of us write with the intention eventually of reading what we’ve written.  We want to know who we were when we were younger, so we record our thoughts as artifacts of our younger years to be excavated when we’re ready.  Despite the clarity of our thinking in the moment of writing, the words of our younger selves sometimes make no sense, and as with any excavation, we often are forced to guess at how the pieces of our younger selves fit together.  Sometimes we don’t recognize the person we were.  He is an alien to us.  He was meaner, more arrogant, maybe a little smarter, less jaded, more wide-eyed.

I steal often from my younger self.  He had ideas that would never occur to me now that I’m older and more set in my ways.  He had an open mind.  Mine is somewhat closed.  If things don’t interest me right away, I’m more likely now to give up on them than when I was younger.  Because I assume too often now that whatever seems new is really a dressed up version of something old.  Which is to say that I’m suspicious of everything.  Suspicion, taken too far, stifles thought and creativity.  Suspicion shuts the brain down.

My younger self recorded his ideas expressly so that older versions of him would be able to draw on them for inspiration.  So he has no right to become angry at me now for lifting his ideas.  I’m doing what he and I agreed to do.  We’re fulfilling our bargain.  But it’s still theft of a sort.  He and I share a name, but we aren’t the same person.  I’m not sure it would occur to me to write now what he wrote then.  He didn’t care that his thoughts were random and would impact no one, maybe not even himself.  It didn’t matter.  He had yet to feel that every action and every statement required an explicit purpose, a practical application, preferably one to which money was tied.  He just wanted to think, and that was enough.  Someone who shares my name but who was ten years younger wrote the following words:

A: What do you think of as you fall asleep?

B: I think about all the tasks I have to do the next day and I worry over those that I had to do that day.  Sometimes I preoccupy myself over weighing too much.  Other times, I wonder how I’ve performed in the eyes of my peers and I stress over the impressions I’ve made.  More than anything, I get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.  What do you think about?

A: Some of the same.  But I also spend a lot of time thinking about the distant past: people I’ve known, places I’ve been, occasions that I enjoyed. . . I wonder where those people are and how those places have changed with time.  I think of the distant future as well and long for a time when I’m older and life’s experiences have made me wiser.  Often I review the day that’s coming to an end.  I ask myself if I treated people with love and respect.  I note instances when my anger got the better of me or when I said the wrong thing and I vow never to make those same mistakes again.  I contemplate a book that I’ve been reading, toss ideas around in my head, imagine what’s happening in other parts of the world to people I’ll never know.  I dwell on the incessant pain in my back and neck, but then I remind myself that hundreds of millions of people have it worse.  Finally, I try every night to remember that it’s a beautiful world that we live in. . . Oh, and I also get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.

Plight of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

Sometimes all I want to do is point to the sky, lean toward you and whisper, “It’s blue.  Isn’t it wonderful?  For God’s sake, it’s blue.”  I want to tell you about one day in October when I was idling in traffic, stuck in a line of cars at a red light, and I saw a Monarch butterfly flit across the road, all six lanes of it.  In all of its black and yellow and orange, its general ignorance of where it was or how ridiculous its task, how pathetic its odds of crossing the thoroughfare intact, it zigzagged through the air.  It collided with a fender and only just caught itself before falling to the asphalt.  A light breeze whisked it over the roof of a red Camry, then yanked it back five feet so that again it almost fell to the pavement.  It picked itself up in mid-flight, bounced off of my windshield, and stumbled gracefully through the air until it arrived at the median.  It achieved grace in clumsiness.  I don’t know if it actually made it to the other side of the road.  All I know is that it survived three lanes of stationary cars and that the traffic lights turned green the moment it reached the median.

When I was a boy I used to chase Monarchs through fields of flowers in Texas.  I used to think that a single butterfly made the Spring migration from Mexico, up through Texas, and into various parts of the Eastern United States and Canada; and that the same butterfly made the return migration back to Mexico beginning in October.  In fact, the whole South-North/North-South migration requires four generations of butterflies, the longest-lived of which is the generation that winters in Mexico and swarms in Oyamel forests to the delight of tourists.

The butterfly I saw in October was a member of this hardy generation, charged with reaching Mexico and surviving for the next six months so that come Spring, it could join its peers in journeying northward to ensure the survival of the entire species.  It represented one leg of a long-distance, multi-generational relay.  A six-lane road must have been among the least of its obstacles.  A gleeful little boy may have been its worst enemy.

Image Credit: Lone Star Junction

Pedicures for Men and Ice Cream for Toddlers: Thoughts on Stereotypes

The discussion about stereotypes comes after the dialogue.  I just wanted to show how a random conversation got me thinking about stereotypes:

 I was sitting alone in McDonald’s this morning, catching up on the news with my e-reader (for which I needed the internet), when from a neighboring table I heard a woman say, “Honey, you’re not supposed to be sad.  It’s a treat.”  I looked over and saw a woman with short, curly grey hair holding a small plastic spoon to the mouth of a two year-old boy.  He had blond hair that dangled down to his blue eyes.  A tear traced down his cheek. The boy turned to me and raised his eyebrows, as if wondering where I had come from.

“I’m trying to get him to eat ice cream,” the woman said, “but he’s having none of it.”

“Has he eaten ice cream before?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.  I’m his grandmother.  I’m trying to ruin his appetite before I give him back to his parents.”  She smiled.  “That’s what grandparents are for.”

“You’ve got that right,” said a woman at another table.  She laughed, and added, “And we love them for it.”  This woman sat across from a boy who looked to be around twelve years old and who had the broad shoulders of a middle-school linebacker who would likely fill out to become a giant in just a few years.

The grandmother coaxed two spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream into her grandson’s mouth.  He raised his hand to the plastic spoon and helped his grandmother guide it toward him.  Now he smiled.

“I’m taking my son to get a pedicure with me,” said the woman with the twelve year-old.  “We get them together.”

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or serious, so I said nothing.

“More men are doing that nowadays,” said the grandmother as she raised another spoonful of ice cream to her grandson’s mouth.

“It’s true,” said the mother.  “His friends on the football team tease him, but he tells them they don’t know what they’re missing.”

“I know a few guys who get pedicures, or at least manicures,” I said.

“You should try it,” said the mother.

“She’s right,” added the grandmother.  “It’s relaxing.”

I do know men who have gotten manicures and pedicures, but sitting in McDonald’s, contemplating whether or not I would seek out either of these services myself, I didn’t know how to respond.  We all confront moments when we’re asked to lift something from an old category and place it into a new one.  I think of getting a pedicure as something women do, but for most of human history no one got pedicures, so why not men, now?  Because it’s not “manly,” but manliness is another quality that we define differently over time.  A lot of men file their nails and style their hair.  Does that make them unmanly?

This whole conversation just got me thinking about the power gender stereotypes exert on our lives, how they influence who we become, what we do, and what we think we’re capable of doing.  A study was conducted several years ago in which two groups of college students took a math test.  To one group the proctor read the standard instructions for most standardized tests.  Think SAT or GRE.  To the other group the same proctor explained that men and women typically perform equally well on the test they were about to take.

In the first group, the men outperformed the women.  In the second group, the men and women performed equally well.  What’s the difference?  The hypothesis (pretty well borne out) is that women in the first group went into the test with deeply internalized stereotypes about the supposed superiority of men in all things mathematical.  Anxiety springing from the stereotype itself impaired performance.  Women in the second group were told that the stereotype was false, thereby alleviating their anxiety and removing it as an inhibiting factor in their performance on the test.

These kinds of studies have proliferated over the years.  Many of them tackle racial stereotypes and reveal them to be as harmful and distorting as gender stereotypes (which seems pretty obvious).  I’m sure I summed up some combination of various studies here, but the general point remains: stereotypes affect us in ways we’re not always aware of, and the worst stereotypes have a way of sneakily contributing to the result they predict.

Is Age the Enemy of Ideas? Age vs. Youth, Wisdom vs. Naiveté

I wrote the following about seven years ago, when I was twenty-three.  I was kind of obsessed then with growing older and what that would mean for how I saw and thought about the world.  I remember coming across an essay by Alan Lightman, a physicist turned novelist and essayist who most famously wrote a beautiful little book called Einstein’s Dreams.  In his essay Lightman explored the relationship between youth and the productivity of physicists.  He lamented that most physicists do their best work while they’re in their twenties and thirties, after which their ideas peter out and, as Lightman suggests, they become largely irrelevant to the advancement of science.  Below is an excerpt of Lightman’s essay, followed by my naive thoughts on it:

 The limber years of scientists, as for athletes, generally come at a young age.  Isaac Newton was in his early twenties when he discovered the law of gravity, Albert Einstein was twenty-six when he formulated special relativity, and James Clerk Maxwell had polished off electromagnetic theory and retired to the country by thirty-five.  When I hit thirty-five myself, I went through the unpleasant but irresistible exercise of summing up my career in physics.  By this age, or another few years, the most creative achievements are finished and visible.  You’ve either got the stuff and used it or you haven’t. . .

Why do scientists peak sooner than most other professionals?  No one knows for sure.  I suspect it has something to do with the single focus and detachment of the subject.  A handiness for visualizing in six dimensions or for abstracting the motion of a pendulum favors a nimble mind but apparently has little to do with anything else.  In contrast, the arts and humanities require experience with life, experience that accumulates and deepens with age.  In science, you’re ultimately trying to connect with the clean logic of mathematics and the physical world; in the humanities, with people.  Even within science itself, a telling trend is evident.  Progressing from the more pure and self-contained of sciences to the less tidy, the seminal contributions spring forth later and later in life.  The average age of election to England’s Royal Society is lowest in mathematics.  In physics, the average age at which Nobel Prize winners do their prize-winning [usually for work that began in their twenties] is thirty-six; in chemistry it is thirty-nine, and so on. . .

. . . I hold no illusions about my own achievements in science, but I’ve had my moments, and I know what it feels like to unravel a mystery no one has understood before, sitting alone at my desk with only pencil and paper and wondering how it happened.  That magic cannot be replaced. . .

- Alan Lightman, Dance for Two

The short span of a physicist’s productive career has always fascinated me. What is the reason for its brevity?  I think that Lightman touches upon an answer to this question.  At the heart of physics is a yearning to understand, to explore the unknown,  to discover.  In this circumstance, the value of youth is that it is less clouded by experience.  Youth lacks the prejudices and preconceptions that must of necessity accumulate as one ages.  In a discipline where groundbreaking solutions often defy everything we thought we knew about the world, the fresh perspective and exuberance that often go along with youth are invaluable.  Something that Lightman doesn’t mention is the vehement criticism the older physicists of Einstein’s time directed at his theories of relativity.  A large part of the physics community dismissed his theories as nonsense.

The older we get, the more we must try to fit things into a framework for life and for reality that we’ve developed over time, whereas in our youth we’re still in the process of creating that framework.  In general, that our framework becomes more rigid as we age is not a bad thing.  In many cases–perhaps even most cases–that framework survives because it works.  It is the product of a lifetime of taking in and processing an overwhelming load of experiences.  In short, it is the result of years of trial and error.  This may be an oversimplification, but there is a grain of truth to it.

Oftentimes the youth of a culture are the primary catalyst for change, while the older generations are a check against that change.  Each serves an important purpose.  On the one hand, the young infuse a society with adaptability, while the old serve as a break against excessively radical change.

My greatest fear in aging is not that I’ll lose my athleticism or my youthful appearance.  Rather, I fear that I might forget what it’s like to experience something for the first time.  For every experience that I have–both good and bad–the realization rests in my mind that I’ll never again repeat that experience.  I’ll never again know with total fidelity how it made me feel: how it made my heart race, or my adrenaline flow. . . or how it brought me to tears of joy or tears of sorrow.  I fear losing the ability to see things in the world that don’t fit my framework, my paradigm.  I fear losing novelty, of living without the sense of awe and childlike wonder at this world that make life worth living.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in aging is balancing the fruits and insights of experience with the chaos and novelty of youth–of becoming wiser, but not at the expense of our openness to new things.

*I don’t know about that story I wrote in my last post.  I was trying to capture that feeling of experiencing something (the ocean) for the first time, and in particular doing so with someone for whom the experience is not new.  Except that in the story, the experience of seeing the ocean is new for both the father and the son for different reasons.  For the son, the ocean is new because he has never seen it.  For the father, the novelty lies in seeing the ocean for the first time WITH his son, sharing it with him, and allowing him to interpret it as he likes, as a child might.  I kind of rushed it yesterday, even though it’s something I’ve thought about writing for a while.  Don’t know if it worked!  I’ll probably post more fiction here and there for fun… I think?

Glowing Fields and Shimmering Seas

The boy winced at the sound of the breaking waves and glanced up at his father.  “It sounds like someone’s clapping,” he said.

“Does the ocean scare you?” his father asked.

“Yes.”

“That’s because you’ve never seen it before.”

The father and son stood side by side, two hundred feet from the crashing waves, where the white sand of the beach gave way to rolling dunes and the tall, swaying grasses that anchored them in place against the ravages of the ocean.  Each wore dirt-stained blue jeans.  The father wore a white T-shirt smudged with grease.  The boy wore a white button-up shirt with yellow sweat stains around the collar.   Father and son wore tennis shoes whose soles were cleaving off.  The boy, who rose to just below his father’s shoulder, squinted at the sun hanging overhead in the clear blue sky, then at the ocean rumbling toward the shore.

“It reminds me of home,” the boy said to his father.

“Of North Dakota?”

“Yeah.  The way the waves rise and fall, the way the wind sends shivers through the water—it’s like the wheat fields at home, how they sway back and forth and they go on forever to the edge of the earth.  The wind screams there, too.”

The boy looked toward the sky.  A seagull hovered overhead.  He looked left and right and saw all around him seagulls gliding, landing, waddling across the sand and trailing webbed footprints behind them.  Some fought over fish carcasses.  Others pecked at their grey and white feathers.  Their calls cut through the roar of the ocean.  “It sounds like they’re telling us to leave.  They’re saying, ‘Go!  Go!’” the boy said.

“You think they don’t want us here?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe they don’t care.”

The father glanced at his son and nodded toward the ocean.  His son shrugged, and together they shuffled forward through the sand.  The ocean grew louder.  The gulls grew more insistent: “Go!  Go!” they called.

Now a gust of wind heaved the salty air at the boy and his father.  The boy lost his balance and nearly toppled over.  He stumbled backward and caught himself.  The father nodded toward the ocean again, and again the two of them edged closer.

“Another hundred feet,” the father said to his son and gazed at the sea.  The sun had sunk closer to the horizon and the ocean shimmered.  It roared louder and the fine spray of the breaking waves lingered in the air.

A moment passed and the boy said, “Actually, it’s like home, but it’s also different.”

“It’s angrier than home.”

“Yeah, and the sun is different.  At home it pours out light and the wheat fields drink it in.  When the sun sets, the fields glow golden and they give back some of the light they drank in.  And the fields smell like summer.”

“And what happens here?”

“Here the sea doesn’t drink in the light.  It spits it right back up at the sky.  But some of the light pools on the water and even forms little streams.  And here it smells like dying things, but it’s a good smell.”

“The pools of light are just reflections,” the father said.

“I know.”

“You’re right.  It does smell good.”

The father stood on his left leg and took off his right shoe and sock, then stood on his right leg and took off his left shoe and sock.  The boy leaned on his father and did the same.  He dug his feet into the sand and felt its heat flow into him.  He dug in another inch and now felt a chill pass through him from the cool, moist sand beneath the surface.

His father smiled at him, winked, and took his son’s hand.  Together they dragged their bare feet through the sand, closer to where the ocean pounded the beach.  Finally they stepped into the edge of a retreating wave.  The boy jumped, then laughed.  He pulled his father onward, until the the father was wading up to his knees and the boy up to his waste in the surging waves.

They bobbed up and down, and the boy said, “It’s like it’s playing with us.  It’s not angry.”

“You’re right.  But it could break us so easily.”

The man and the boy held hands and let the waves rock them while they watched the sun sink into the ocean.  “Now I get it,” the boy said.  “The ocean swallows the sun whole every evening and frees it every morning so that it can shine down on the fields of wheat at home.”

“That sounds right.”

The boy and his father waded back to shore, and, not pausing to dry off, put on their socks and shoes and turned their backs on the darkening ocean.

Why Words Matter, in the Words of Diane Ackerman: An Excerpt from “Language at Play”

The following is an excerpt from “Language at Play,” an essay by Diane Ackerman about the power and use of language, and the role poetry plays in all of our lives.  She says it better than I could.  This is the kind of writing that paralyzes me and that I can only react to after it has lived inside of me for a while.  Enjoy!

We ask the poet to reassure us by giving us a geometry of living, in which all things add up and cohere, to tell us how things buttress one another, circle round and intermelt.  Once the poet has broken life into shards, we ask him to spin around and piece it back together again, making life seem even more fluid than before.  Now it is a fluency of particulars instead of a nebulous surging.  We ask the poet to compress and abbreviate the chaos so we don’t overload from its waterfall of sensations, all of which we nonetheless wish somehow to take in.

Every poem is a game, a ritual dance with words.  In the separate world of the artwork, the poet moves in a waking trance.  By its nature, poetry and all art is ceremonial, which we sometimes forget, except perhaps when we think of the Neolithic cave painters in the mysterium tremens of their task.  Intent on one feature of life, exploring it mentally, developing it in words, a poet follows the rules of the game.  Sometimes artists change the game, impose their own rules and disavow everyone else’s.  Then they become an ist among the isms.  But there are always rules, always tremendous concentration, entrancement and exaltation, always the tension of spontaneity caged by restriction, always risk of failure and humiliation, always the drumbeat of rituals, always the willingness to be shaken to the core.

Once, after a lecture, a woman asked why accomplished scientists and prose writers (such as Loren Eisely), who turned to poetry late in life, were such poor poets.  Is it easier to switch from poetry to prose than from prose to poetry? she wondered.  I don’t think the genre is what matters, but the time of life.  If you read the first book by famous scientists–J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Francis Crick, Fred Hoyle–you find minds full of passion and wonder.  Those books are thrilling to read because mystery is alive in them, and they are blessed by a youthful, free-flowing enthusiasm.  But in later books these same people become obsessed with politics and sociology; their books are still of intellectual interest, but they’ve lost the sense of marvel.  Those who stay poets all of their lives continue to live in that youthful state, as open and vulnerable and potentially damaging as it can be.

I suppose what most people associate with poetry is soul-searching and fiercely felt emotions.  We expect the poet to be a monger of intensity, to pain for us, to reach into the campfire so that we can watch without burning ourselves.  Because poets feel what we’re afraid to feel, venture where we’re reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the dramatic risks.  We cherish the insights that poets discover.  We’d love to relish the moment and feel rampant amazement as the seasons unfold.  We yearn to explore the subtleties, paradoxes, and edges of emotions.  We long to see the human condition reveal itself with spellbinding clarity.  Think of all the lessons to be learned from deep rapture, danger, tumult, romance, intuition–but it’s far too exhausting to live like that on a daily basis, so we ask artists to feel and explore for us.  Daring to take intellectual and emotional chances, poets live on their senses.  In promoting a fight of his, a boxer once said: “I’m in the hurt business.”  In a different way, artists are too.

And yet, through their eyes–perhaps because they risk so much–we discover breathtaking views of the human pageant.  Borrowing the lens of an artist’s sensibility, we see the world in a richer way–more familiar than we thought, and stranger than we knew, a world laced with wonder.  Sometimes we need to be taught how and where to seek wonder, but it’s always there, waiting, full of mystery and magic.  I feel that much of my own duty as a writer is to open those doors of vision, shine light into those dark corners of existence, and search for the fountains of innocence.

The world is drenched with color and nature is full of spectacles.  you would think that would be enough.  yet we are driven to add even more sensations to the world, to make our thoughts and feelings available in words.  We use words for many reasons.  As a form of praise and celebration.  To impose an order on the formless clamor of the world.  As a magical intermediary between us and the hostile, unpredictable universe.  For religious reasons, in worship.  For spiritual reasons, to commune with others.  To temporarily stop a world that seems too fast, too random, too chaotic.  To help locate ourselves in nature and give us a sense of home.  Words bring patterns, meaning, and perspective to life.  We keep trying to sum life up, to frame small parts of it, to break it into eye-gulps, into word-morsels that are easier to digest.  Sometimes words allow us to put ourselves in harmony with the universe, to find a balance, however briefly, in life’s hurricane.  They make it possible not only to communicate with one another but to do it in a way that may change someone’s life.

Isn’t it odd that one big-brained animal can alter the course of another’s life, change what the other sees when it looks at its reflection in a mirror, or in the mind’s mirror?  And do that by using the confection of words.  What sort of beings are we who set off on symbolic pilgrimages, pause at mental towns, encounter others who–sometimes without knowing it–can divert or redirect us for years?  What unlikely and magical creatures.  Who could know them in a lifetime?  When I start thinking like this, in words, wonder shoots its rivets into my bones.  I feel lit by a sense of grace, and all my thoughts turn to praise.

*This excerpt is from pp. 184-187 of In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.   The rest of Ackerman’s essay is well worth reading, as are the other essays included in the book.

Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? :)

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.

——–

This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?

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