an apple in the bathroom

The Apple

 

 

an apple in the bathroom
a prose poem

 

There’s an apple. In the bathroom. It’s been there for a while.

Months. Maybe years. It can’t possibly be years. It feels like years. Things don’t change.

It hasn’t gone bad. It’s been cold. And apples have that way of lasting forever. Back in the day they used to put them in barrels.

Because they had a lot of barrels. And nothing better to do.

But the apples lasted.

It’s a little pitted. The apple. In the bathroom. It’s not rotten. But it’s a little pitted. I’ve seen apples. In the supermarket.

That were worse.

I won’t eat it. Not even to make applesauce. Because it’s been in the bathroom. For months. Maybe years.

That makes it dirty. Everyone understands that. It’s meaningless. But everyone understands it. I don’t have to explain.

It isn’t rotten. But I wouldn’t eat it. Even if it hadn’t been in the bathroom. It isn’t rotten. But it’s dead.

That happens to apples. They look fine but you bite into them and they have no flavor. Their sisters had flavor. But not this one. It looks fine but its spirit has fled, and took everything about it that matter. Only the pulp remains.

Sometimes I feel like that. Sometimes.

I think about throwing it out. At times I don’t because I know I would miss it. I don’t care about it but I would miss it because it’s in my life. Like when you break a mug that you never really liked. And you have more than enough mugs. But it’s sad because it was yours. Now it’s gone.

Or maybe I don’t throw it out because I don’t notice it. It isn’t anything. Trash turns to clutter turns to scenery. A stain on your wall that’s been there for nine months isn’t a stain. It’s texture. Why throw away a single leaf that’s fallen off a tree in autumn? There are so many more.

But mostly I can’t be bothered. On those certain days, days when I have no flavor, even throwing out an apple is too much. Picking it up and chucking it to the bin is too much. I could do it. But it won’t matter. Why does it matter?

One day I’ll throw it out. Maybe because it finally decided to rot. But probably because I just want to. Some piece of glass will dislodge from my brain and the clutter will turn to mess. I won’t think the apple is interesting anymore. I won’t think it is beautiful just because it is there. Out of place. A goldfish in a slinky factory.

So I will throw it out. And I’ll feel accomplished because it’s been there for months. Maybe years. I’ll feel cleaner. I’ll feel triumphant.

Then, soon, I’ll feel sad. I won’t regret it. Not really. I don’t need an apple. In the bathroom.

But I’ll feel sad. Because it was there. Because it was mine. And then it was gone.

 

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Why Creativity Is Not Problem Solving

brain

Me: I’m really disliking my job these days.

Brain: Trust me, I’ve noticed.

Me: I used to like it, but it’s turned into a serious slog.

Brain: Well, maybe you should look for another job.

Me: But I hate looking for other jobs!

Brain: Well, which do you dislike more?

Me: Both of them.

Brain: I’m not sure what to tell you here, dude.

Me: You’re not being very helpful!

Brain: What do you want out me?

Me: I don’t know! A solution! You’re my brain. You should be able to come with something here! Something that lets me do or not do both of these things at the same time. You’re very creative. Aren’t you always telling me that? That we’re creative.

Brain: I do tell us that. I believe it, too.

Me: Right. So…come up with something!

Brain: Okay, I’ve got it.

Me: That was fast.

Brain: I’m a massively parallel organic processing unit with more potential interconnections than grains of sand on the earth, if every grain of sand had a pair of twins with every other grain of sand. Give me some credit.

Me: Fair enough.

Brains: Besides, it’s not like I…you…we…haven’t been thinking about this a lot.

Me: If a chaotic maelstrom of unpleasant emotions and half-baked notions can be called “thinking.”

Brain: What can I say? I’m complicated.

Me: Okay. What’s this plan of yours.

Brain: Alright, so first you get on the running shoes that you bought just before you stopped running regularly.

Me: Okay.

Brain: Put them on, lace them up, and head out into the woods.

Me: The woods? What does that have to do with my job?

Brain: Are you going to let me finish? I am your brain, here.

Me: Fine, fine. Carry on.

Brain: Your British accent is terrible.

Me: I know.

Brain: But I don’t judge you.

Me: I appreciate that.

Brain: Okay, so you head out into the woods, and you look for some squirrels.

Me: Squirrels.

Brain: Squirrels. Gray or black, it doesn’t matter. You start tracking down squirrels, and incapacitating them in some way. So you can put them all in the same place where they can’t get away.

Me: How do I incapacitate them.

Brain: You don’t know how to do that?

Me: No.

Brain: Well then neither do I! I’m your bloody brain!

Me: Oh. Right.

Brain: It’s something you’re going to be able to figure out. But that should be kind of fun, right?

Me: Yeah. I guess it should. I mean, kind of wrong, but a good thing to know how to do.

Brain: Right. So, you gather up these incapacitated squirrels, at least 49, but 51 will do, and…

Me: And?

Brain: You swallow them!

Me: Swallow them?

Brain: Yep! Just gulp them up!

Me: And…that will solve my job problem?

Brain: No! Of course it won’t! But you never listen to anything I say anyway! Just start looking for a new goddamn job like I’ve been telling you to for the last two months! Dammit!

Me: Oh.

Brain: Sigh.

Me: Did you just say “sigh?”

Brain: I did. I did do that. You made me do that.

Me: Sorry.

Brain: It’s okay. And sorry for the bait and switch.

Me: It’s okay. You made your point.

Brain: I appreciate the understanding.

Me: So are we still friends.

Brain: Yes we are. I mean, assuming that term applies when I’m a physical organ and you are an abstract representation of an amalgamated and probably fictional concept that can’t realistically be separated from me other than for the purposes of thought experiments like this one. I don’t know if the world friend applies.

Me: It’s an interesting question.

Brain: Indeed. We should spend the next nine hours discussing it.

Me: You think so?

Brain: No! Get off your ass and start looking for a god damn job!

Me: Right. Of course. Sorry. Getting right on it.

What Our Worlds Teach Us

Circle

We become what the loom of time and causality around us weaves us into. We can only interact with the world that we can see, that we can touch, that can cut against both our flesh and our conceptions, and make them bleed. We develop the reactions, instincts, beliefs, and worldviews that this world demand, and we act accordingly. We do this because to do otherwise would make us useless, or worse, mad. We do this to survive. All of this applies full well to my call center job at the cell phone company. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft.

At the most basic level, any job we take or social circles we move in require not only their own rule of behavior and action to be successful, but also their own coping mechanisms. You either develop them or you don’t move very well in those worlds. They make for the weirdo stories that populate the pages of the internet that collect those kind of weirdo stories. All professions have their fair share, but customer service oriented fields seem to produce them with gusto. Likely because CS involves dealing with a lot of humans. And humans are, taken in mass, pretty special.

As you can imagine, being a CS rep for a cell phone company involves listening to a lot of complaints. Whatever the flavor, they require the same kind of mental toughness and framing skills to handle. A lot of the complaints are a legitimate. Those are tough, especially when we can’t help. Some of them are so wacky they are almost difficult to believe. Sometimes, those are tougher, even when it only takes five minutes of distance to realize that they are also hilarious. And sometimes it is difficult to tell which category they fall into. Like today, for example, when a woman told me that by doing my job, I was going to kill her baby.

“Can I have your first and last name please?”

“Nicole Jenkins,” she said. Obviously I’m making this up, partially to protect her identity and partially because I don’t remember. I could tell just from her name that she was tense. Something you learn how to do, if you stay in this kind of job too long.

“What can I help you with today Nicole?”

“I need to transfer my number, or else get my own fucking account.”

Terrific. Excellent start.

Her line was suspended, which means it wasn’t currently working. I also saw that she wasn’t an authorized user on the account, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. She couldn’t make changes, or get much information. I knew I had to tell her that, and I knew she would yell at me. But I also knew that I was protected from the consequences of her anger by that favorite shield of both corporate employees and war criminals the world over. I was just doing my job. It diffuses a surprising amount of tension. From my end. Not so much the customer’s.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but without seeing you as an authorized user, I can’t transfer the service. I would have to get authorization from the account manager. I can reach out to them, if you want.”

“It’s my fucking boyfriend,” she said, “and he removed me from the account.”

“Geez, that is really rough.”

“Yeah it’s fucking rough! Can I move my damn number? I want to transfer the service. I want to transfer the service to my own line. Under my name.”

“Ugh. I really wish I could do that for you,” I said, and I meant it. I think people can hear that in my voice, most of the time. Not so much this time. “But legally speaking the number is under his account and so you can’t remove it onto your own without his authorization.”

“This is a domestic violence situation!” she screamed. “There is a domestic violence order against him!”

“Oh geez,” I said again. “That’s awful. Listen, there might be a stipulation about that in our policy. I am so sorry about this, the whole thing sounds really awful. Let me put you on old for a minute and see what I can find. Is that okay?”

“Fine.”

I took a look. I didn’t find anything. I reached out for held to see if anyone else knew anything, even though by that point I was fairly certain that if there was some kind of exception to the rules, which there sometimes is for domestic violence, I would have found it. My support person confirmed this, but explained that we have other channels for this kind of situation. It was good advice.

“Hi, Nicole?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you so much for holding, I’ve looked into to this to try to see what we can do. I can’t do the transfer from my end, because like I said from our end the line legally belongs to him. But we do know that awful stuff like this happens, and we have a team that works with law enforcement in situations like this. You’re going to have to go through the police or through your legal representation, and they can contact our team and see how we get this done for you.”

“I need my phone working!” she said. “I have an eight month old baby! I need my phone!”

“I really, really feel for you here,” I said. And I did.

“Fine!” she shrieked. “If my baby dies tonight, that’s on you!” She hung up. If phones could still slam, she would have slammed it.

I was shaken. I don’t know why not having a phone would kill her baby, but getting accused of infanticide is not the highlight of my day. I took myself out of available status and sat there trying to collect myself.

In that moment, just before she hung up, if I could have bypassed the rules for her, I would have. Which is exactly why they don’t let me do things like that. I had no way of verifying her story or even her identity, and scammers and identity thieves know that suckers like me work in customer service.

I told myself this, and I started to feel better. I told the story to some of my coworkers, and they agreed I’d done the right thing and the woman was being unreasonable, even if she was telling the truth. What else was I supposed to do?
And that’s all true, but this isn’t about policy. It’s not about whether or not I did the right thing or if I could have done anything else. It’s about how very easy it was for me to recover. It’s about all of the support and mechanism the world I work in gives me to move past even a situation like a woman accusing me of murdering her child. It is easier for me now than it would have been a few months ago. I imagine it will only get easier. Just ten minutes after that call, my main worry was that she would fail me on a customer satisfaction survey. But it was a minor worry. If she did, I could probably get it thrown out.

Do You Have a Calling? Should You Actually Want One?

Confused

Another 37, Day 31

It’s hard to swing a sack full of existential dilemmas without hitting a book about finding your Calling in life. Or a website. Or someone who approaches you in the mall and asks if you have found a life coach. It is not hard to understand why this is such a pervasive and lucrative industry. Most of us have a vague feeling that our lives are not what we want them to be, and that we could do better and achieve sublime happiness if we just knew how.

It’s possible that this sense of unfulfillment is worse in our era of abundance and individualism than it has ever been, but it’s been with humanity at least as long as we’ve been writing things down. A wide variety of solutions have been proposed over the millennia. In ancient India, the solution was to meditate enough so that you achieve enlightenment and won’t have to worry about it the next time around. In ancient Rome, it was to man up and deal with it—or, if it got bad enough, to fall on your sword. In medieval Europe, it was to be a good and obedient enough person to be rewarded in the afterlife where they don’t have these kinds of problems. If these sound like oversimplifications, it’s because:

  1. They are, and
  2. This problem is so deep, so complicated, and so pervasive that any solution will always been an oversimplification.

In the modern Western world, some of us still follow these solutions. But more and more our culture is pervaded by the sense that the way to get out of what the Buddha called dukkha—a word often translated as “suffering” but which literally means something closer to “the fact that life just kind of sucks no matter what you do”–is to find your Calling. Your Purpose. That perfect job or art or volunteer work that you are Supposed To Do, and that will therefore lead to USC—Ultimate Satisfaction and Contentment.

But does this really work? Is it possible to find your Calling? What’s more, would you even want to? The very concept of the Calling is problematic. Not because it isn’t a beautiful idea. On the purpose if it finding your purpose in life sounds fantastic. But when explored more deeply it is a difficult and flawed idea, with some unsettling implications. How can it not be? It’s a blend of two worldviews, both of which are very popular in our society, which really don’t work together. I call these two views the Great CEO in the Sky and the Existential Entrepreneur.

The Great CEO in the Sky is evolved from Christianity, but it is a very modern version of it. The idea is that God has a Purpose for you. A job for you to do during your time in this world. God is kind of like your boss. Only He’s everyone’s boss, the CEO and founder of the entire company. But He is a very hands on kind of CEO. He takes a personal interest in every single employee, and since he build the whole organization and knows everything about everything that goes on within in, He has designed the perfect job for you and you alone, and structured the organization such that you and everyone else are exactly where you need to be, and all of our positions intermingle into a perfect synchronous whole.

It might sound like this doesn’t leave much room for free will, but the Great CEO doesn’t require that you do your job. He’s not going to fire you, or anything, and you’ll continue to get your paycheck in the form of the continued ability to breathe. But you won’t be happy. The only way to achieve true happiness is to figure out what God wants you to do. It’s not always obvious—our CEO moves in mysterious board rooms. But He leaves hints. Sometimes he puts obstacles in your way, because why else have a flawed material existence at all if there aren’t going to be challenges? But it’s okay. The job He’s got for you is perfectly designed for your exact character and life, and He’s always closing doors and opening windows, so you’ll never get stuck for very long.

The Existential Entrepreneur view is evolved from the existentialist philosophy of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. In this view there either isn’t a god at all, or else He’s out there but he doesn’t get involved. He set the whole thing up and gave us brains and muscles, but now He lets us do what we want because he is a staunch believer in Adam Smith and the free market economy. In this viewpoint there is no intrinsic meaning to life. You don’t have any prescribed Purpose. You just have skills and capabilities and a world to explore and make your way in. Like Minecraft. Only you are compelled to play all of the time, whether or not you are having a good time. Like Minecraft.

This might sound like a depressing worldview, but they way they get around that is much the same way that Libertarians get around the idea that a cut-throat free market driven by self interest is depressing. Without the Divine Federal Government setting regulations and zoning restrictions and telling you what to do, you can do whatever you want. You are left to find your own path, and what’s more, to choose your own path. No one designed you to be a baker or a fighter pilot or the world’s hairiest UFC fighter. If any of those appeal to you, go for it. The purpose of your life is whatever you want to be. If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do. The fact that this is a quote from Angel doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Both of these worldviews have their good points and their bad points. In Great CEO, you have the comfort of having a flawless and completely fulfilling plan all laid out for you. But at the same time you never really had a choice. Sure you could not follow the plan, but that’s going to be a crappy boss, and it risks angering the boss. What the hell kind of choice is that? In Existential Entrepreneur, you have choices and you get to decide your own destiny. But deep down, you have to accept that nothing really matters. Sure it’s great for people for whom it works out. But what if you suffer from depression? What if your house burns down? There is no one looking out for you, and no guarantee that things aren’t just going to keep getting worse. Plus, you kind of have to accept the fact that some people do and always will just have it better than others.

The idea of the Calling tries to solve all of these problems by squish the dough of both of these worldviews together and baking it into a single cookie that has the advantages of each of them and the disadvantages of neither. The Calling worldview sometimes features a God, but sometimes it replaces it with “the universe.” In this view, you have a purpose, but there is nothing deterministic about it. It’s not part of a Grand Design in some kind of divine business plan kind of way. It’s more that there is something that you are perfect for. Something that, once you find it, will bring you ultimate fulfillment. This is true for everyone, just by virtue of being human. Unlike in the other two worldviews, there is no explanation as to why this should be the case. It just is, because…wouldn’t it be nice? Doesn’t it make sense?

The answer is no. To go back to the free market metaphor, this would be like saying that it’s inevitable that there is some kind of perfect business for everyone in which they are guaranteed to succeed. That everyone has inside of them an ideal product or service or marketing technique, and all you need to do is find it and it’ll explode onto the scene and make you a billionaire. And indeed, plenty of Calling books are geared towards would-be entrepreneurs, and make exactly this argument with fancier words.

But it doesn’t work that way. There is no reason to think that it’s inevitable that you’ll find perfect fulfillment just by doing the right thing. But the unrealism of this approach is only the beginning. It can also be dangerous. Much like the idea that everyone has a Soul Mate, and that once we set eyes on this perfect the world will erupt into a chorus of bright stars and symphony music and we will be happy for the rest of our lives. The Calling theory suggests that once you find your Thing, you are all set. You get that fantastic job in your dream profession, and you’ll be satisfied and full of joy for all of your days. But what if you and your Soul Mate start fighting? Or what if your dream job starts to pale after a few years and you get fed up with the more tedious aspects? The only option in this worldview is to say, “Oh, well, I guess he wasn’t really my Soul Mate. I guess I wasn’t really supposed to be the manager of a Twinkie Factory. I guess I’ll ditch this path and start over. Next time, it’s gonna be great!”

Life doesn’t work that way. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s great, and there probably really are jobs or arts or people who will make you happy. Go for them! They are worth pursuing! But once you decide they are The One, once you decide you have found your One And Only Purpose In Life for All Time, you’ve set yourself up for disappointment. What’s worse, you’ve locked yourself in. You might stay in a relationship or a job for far too long, because once you make something part of your identity it is very, very difficult to tell when it’s time to move on. If the idea of finding your Calling motivations you to do great things, then by all means continue to read those books. Models can be useful, even when they aren’t true. But just recognize that a model is all it is, and that you shouldn’t cling to it too tightly.

Grapes, Zombies, and The Complexity of the Universe

Blue grapes

Another 37, day six

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: never start your blog post with a cliche.

No, wait, that’s not what I was going to say. What I’ve said before is this: the universe is too damn complicated. The quest to understand everything is hilarious futile, because it’s almost impossible to understand anything at all. I’m not talking about broad reaching fields like mathematics or botany. I mean any single thing. Like a grape.

If, for example you had a particular grape, you could spend your entire life studying it and you’d still leap into your grave at the age of 115 unable to take with you everything there is to know about that grape. It’s history, the complex web of relationships between the bacteria feasting on its sugars and the yeast bloom on its skin, the exact position of the electrons in the outermost valences of its outward-facing skin molecules that give it it’s specific color. And, of course, if you spend your whole life studying it you would never know what it tasted like, because the moment you popped it into your mouth your studies would end. It’s the quantum observer effect, grape flavored.

What does this have to do with coming up with blog post ideas? I’m glad you, the hypothetical Perfect Reader, asked. I get hung up on complexity when I think about almost anything, but most specifically about everyone’s favorite subject: me, and the contents of my own mind. Just to clarify I mean that everyone’s favorite subject is they themselves and their own minds, not mine. I’m not quite enough of an egomaniac that I think everyone is sitting our thinking about Jesse. I am enough of an egomaniac to believe, with little to no evidence of course, that they might be  better off if they did. I, at least, find myself fascinating.

I’m also enough of an egomaniac to write this terrifically self-indulgent blog post. Isn’t that what blogging is all about? The answer is no, of course not. Dale Carnegie wrote a very famous book you’ve definitely heard of about how to get people to give a toss about what you are saying, and nearly every piece of advice boils down to this: people care about themselves, so get your head out of your ass and start talking about stuff relevant to them, you twat! Except he wrote the book in 1936, so he didn’t use words like “twat” and most of his examples involved hollyhocks.

So I try not to write about myself too much, and I end up doing it mostly when I don’t have any other ideas. It’s a piece of advice given to writers with writer’s block: if you can’t write anything, write about how you can’t write anything. I don’t exactly get writer’s block, but I do get stuck in idea-vacuums. Which is weird, because I think of myself as an idea person.

And I am. Ideas bloom out of my head so fast I can’t trim them down before they overgrow my face. It’s been known to delude those people with psychic idea-vision into thinking I actually have hair. Magic, flowery, idea-hair. It’s a think. I have a lot of ideas, but here’s where the complexity comes in: the ideas are always bizarre. I come up with a lot of ideas for stories. Weird, out-there stories about crazy things.

Put me in a room with ten well-educated and intelligent but otherwise random people and have us compete in a contest for who can come up with ten original non-humanoid sentient races that are all different from each other the fastest, and I’ll stand a very high chance of winning. If that sounds like an interesting skill to you, then I thank you for the compliment. If that sounds like a useless skill, then I applaud your practicality and I might need to borrow some cash if you can spare it. If those same ten people are engaged in a contest for something simple and practical, like screwing screws into a piece of cork board, I will probably come in last.

My skill at idea generation diminishes the further it moves from the abstract and fantastical towards that other thing. What’s it called? Right, the real world. I don’t exactly believe in the real world, but it seems to believe in me, so I guess I have to run with it. Even coming up with blog post ideas strains me. It would be easier if I had fewer restrictions of myself, of course. I tend to find restrictions restricting. It seems obvious, but a lot of people find it easier to come up with ideas when they have parameters. I tend to go the other way because my brain is so abstract. I mean that literally. Cut open my head and it looks like a damn Picasso in there.

So here I am. I’m out of practice, which is part of why this is so hard. But even when I was blogging every day it was a struggle. Ask me to come with, I don’t know, some new explanation for zombies we haven’t seen before, and I’m all over it. Here’s one: a plane with a shipment of chips designed to interface with victims of paralysis and restore their functionality crashes into the Amazon. Over the course of a year a parasitic microscopic fungus grows over the wreckage and grows into the circuitry, where its filaments spread and learn to ape the structure of the chips. When humans come to investigate the shipment, the fungus infects them, and since it has learned to emulate a structure that can interface with the human nervous system, it takes them over. Now the humans are motivated by the same thing as the fungus, consumption, infection, reproduction, and the fungal-human-computer zombies spread and continue to grow in complexity, maybe as a hive mind the way some fungi form large integrated groups?

That’s just the kind of thing my brain does. I’m not claiming that was a brilliant idea or anything, but that exact kind of idea generation isn’t much of a struggle. But come up with simple article ideas for a writing blog? It’s like climbing a mountain. So it’s hard to say to myself whether I am idea person or not, because, after all, the universe is too damn complicated. And now I want grapes.

The Procession of the Angels of Memories

Neurons, In Vitro Color!

I can see my friend’s face, her white skin and her hair dyed coal-black. It looks natural on her, just as the black clothing, and the frustrated smile. It looks natural because it is the only way I know her.

“She’s the most grounded person I’ve ever met,” she says about someone in her orientation group. “Just an amazing person.”

I believe her, because that is how I am carved. I believe people about things. I’ve met this person she’s talking about, just once. Just for one conversation. Her name was Pearl, and we talked about smoking and veganism and how she cheated only once in Spain when she was drunk and the tall Spanish waiter brought out a mountain of gorgeous, quivering flan. I could not tell if Pearl was grounded, but now, hearing this other friend about it, I believed her.

It was the first week of college. An intense, magical, impossible time. When I think back, when I picture the white skin and the black hair and the lyrically formal way her High New England accent formed the words, I don’t see an 18 year old. I see a person. A full person, developed and intelligent and strong. Like the people around me, now, at 33 years old. I don’t see that when I look at 18 year olds. They are so young.

In another place at another time, I can see the stairwell that leads up from the library to all three floors of the school. I’ve never walked up this way before. My old classroom was on the second floor, and I am walking up to the third. For the first time in my life, I feel older. Not old, of course. I’m not wrinkly or infirm. I’m just growing up, and I can feel it in my bones. I can see it in my classmates that run past me, excited in a way that is painful and exhilarating, for the first day of school. They are in fourth grade, now. So am I.

When I look back on memories of the past I see two Jesses. Two Mes. One of them is another person. A memory that I know is my own, but it doesn’t feel like it happened to me. Anymore than a half-remembered dream. I know, because intelligent people in books have told me, that some of these memories, maybe all of them, are just whispers. Copies of copies, printed from the scatterings of story others have told me about those times, or from my own memories of remembering.

The other Me is Me. I remember these moments as if they happened yesterday, only a yesterday that was a long time ago. But the Jesse inside those experiences is the same one who types these words. The same one who is listening to meditative music in order to stay calm during an anxious period of his life. The same one who breathes in air with just the faintest scent of cat litter still on it, and who is happy that it isn’t as strong as it was before he took out the trash.

I know that this Me barely existed as I walked up those stairs to Mrs. Robertson’s fourth grade classroom. This Me has millions of sensory and mental experiences that define him that were not present in the exuberant, long-haired 17 year old who watched his new friend’s coal-black hair as she spoke, and marveled at how she stretched out the A in the word “candle” in the same way that fairies must do.

And yet, it is Me. Deep in my mind I don’t believe that. I think the self is an illusion perpetrated by a series of neural impulses responsible for the well-being of a pattern of DNA that itself has no motivation at all. A moment ago I downloaded a book about Taoism I intend to start reading later today, and still I believe that.

I believe that, but my brain won’t let me feel it. I don’t know if I want to feel it. We can see ourselves only as who we are. Sometimes I have moments where I forget who I am, and suddenly I am observer in someone else’s strange life. How much of my conviction about the lack of self is truly an informed analysis of the salient research, and how much is informed by this dissociation? I feel that I can comfortably abandon the illusion of self because I am smarter and more aware than others. But I don’t know if that’s true. I’m very, very skeptical, because this view is comfortable. Anything comfortable should be viewed with caution. It could be a trick.

I’m obsessed with the idea that we are trapped inside of our worldview, and that this is the cause of much of the world’s suffering. And yet I fall for this delusion so many times a day. I think back on my fourth grade self and I can see through his eyes. I share not a single cell or molecule with that hilariously young and unshaped person who shares my social security number, yet my brain still believes we are the same.

I have faith that there is something powerful here. Something that no one reading this can understand because it can’t be understood. Only felt. Like the Tao, only with more references to psychology journals.

On the other hand, maybe I’ve just gotten too much sleep lately. The human brain plays tricks on itself for its own subtle ends. It is Loki and Hermes, locked in a battle of dendrites and cortisol and selective myelenation, their prize control of a pineal gland that way or may not be the gateway to an infinite procession of angels.

I curse and bless how glorious this type of thinking makes me feel, and the quirk of my character that allows me to survive with the dissonance that makes me cringe and the pretentiousness and still, despite that, click the “publish” button in the upper right hand corner.

The Memory of Stillness

Morning stillness

This music teases me with the memory of stillness. Of peace and tranquility. When I remember it I can almost feel it. Almost.

A fire cracks and night birds call out their cry. It’s called song, but it’s not really song. Sets of notes in sequence. It’s less melodious than song, and more beautiful.

My head hurts too much to be calm. There is too much fire in my throat. When I relax from distraction I remember all of the bills I haven’t paid. All of the potential clients I haven’t reached out to. All of the dreams that fester in the unventilated basement of my mind. Dreams never die, but you don’t have to die to decompose. If something can’t die, that just means it can keep rotting forever.

The notes of the music sound. They resonate throughout my brain. Through my skull and my bones.They raise the hairs along my arms and the other exposed places of my skin. A long, held note, accompanied by others. It is soothing in a deep way. A way that feels fundamental to all of existence. The background-radiation mantra of a meditating universe. Are we its thoughts? Are we the tiny distractions that dance into its conscious awareness and prevent it from focusing on its breathing? We are significant only because the universe cannot concentrate. How can we achieve peace, if our very form is that of a disturbance to the universe?

Yet it tempts me. It tries to pull me in with it. If only I could let myself go. If only every part of me could resonate with the notes. I’d have to stop moving. Stop running inside my own brain. Stop spinning the wheel of the mill, round and round, to turn the wheel that is grinding nothing. That’s all it would take, says the music. Just stop. Just rest. Then you’d be calm. Peace would be yours.

My brain won’t let me. It refuses to believe. What if I’m a shark? What if the moment I stop moving the oxygenated water will cease to pass through my lungs and provide my breath? What if the moment I stop fishermen will snag me in their nets and cut off my fin for their soup?

We’re all moving forward all the time. The earth hurtles through space, we hurtle through time. The arrow of time was fired from the bow of an angry archer who thought only of his target. He knows he cannot recover the arrow, so what does it matter if it splinters into shards against the wall? Life needs to keep growing or it dies. So do economies.

We are biological machines and the moment you turn us off you can never turn us back on. It’s a poor design that would never work for a vacuum cleaner. But we’re more complicated. So defined by our complexity that we’ve become addicted. We have to keep growing. We have to keep adding complexity or we calcify, then freeze, and then die. But we don’t stop growing. Not really. Our dead, useless machines become a rich bed for other organisms. A place for millions of other complexity addicts to get their fix.

I’m scared of peace. I’m scared of calm because it’s motionless. It’s adrift. And because it’s meaningless. Perfect peace has no purpose. The Buddha said that the ultimate goal is nonexistence. If you do everything right and achieve the purest and highest form of peace and stillness, you die. Fully and completely. You achieve perfection through meaninglessness.

True perfection has to be meaningless, because meaning requires that there be something more than what is there. You bite into an apple and it makes you feel good because you know it is organic and locally sourced. That is meaning. But if you take the perfect bite of the perfect apple none of that matters. The sensation of joy is so singular that it requires something else. Maybe later you’ll remember whether there were herbicides used in its growth, and maybe that will matter to you. But if that is in your mind while the sweet flesh lingers on your tongue, if meaning matters in that moment, then the moment is incomplete. It’s imperfect.

You can never understand perfection, and you can never understand calm. Not while you are there in the middle of it. Understanding is a disruption. It requires an outsider who is not part of the experience, standing and watching. Taking notes because they wish desperately to comprehend an experience through reduction that cannot be comprehended because of reduction. Because the act of ratiocination is an extra element that does not belong. It, too, needs to be removed if you want to achieve stillness.

It is hard for me to trust what I don’t understand. To cease moving is an act of faith. I’ve been there, and it’s beautiful. No, it’s that deeper place that beauty is built upon. If beauty is staring at a mountain shrouded in fog until tears line your eyes, then stillness is the mountain. It doesn’t need you and your emotions to be magnificent. It just is.

I’ve been there, and It Is. I know this. I know how I feel when I am there, and I know how beautiful I feel when I come back. Yet still I’m afraid. Afraid to stop moving. Afraid to stand still. Because I understand something. As far in as I’ve been, as much as I have slowed down, I have not reached the deepest part of the well. I have never achieved complete calm, or absolute stillness. I have brushed my fingertips against perfection, but that is all. Because I have come close enough to figure out something that is true, magnificent, and terrifying.

If I enter that place I might never come back.

Stillness leads to death not just because we must always grow. But because everything we love, all of our joys and hopes and dreams, they are imperfections. They are illusions. We desire them only because we have never drank of perfection.

If I want to be this person that I am–this fake, illusory person–then I need my suffering. I need the stress that is the inevitable result of movement. You cannot run forward without burning energy and creating waste. Entropy is exists is all reactions, and so only non-reaction is perfect. But all meaning comes from reaction. Meaning is a waste product, but it is also the source all beauty, all joy, all magnificence.

This music tempts me. It sings its few notes of stillness and they are all that is needed. It whispers to give up my fear and step into the still waters. It doesn’t matter if I drown. My lungs and my breath and my entire being won’t matter once bathed in that total perfect.

I will approach, because the feeling is sublime. But I will not listen to the whispers. As I step into the place of calm and stillness, I will keep a tiny fragment of fear in my pocket. Just enough that I will always return. I will always choose to continue to be a person, even if that is flawed and imperfect. Because there is value in this flawed and addicted universe. There is magnificence. There is meaning.

I don’t want perfection. The illusion is too beautiful.