Making Something of Memory (part 2)

To give some context to my previous ramblings on memory, I can’t help but marvel at my own forgetfulness in respect to one relatively recent period of my life. Despite being the source of one of the most distinct paradigm shifts I’ve had, the memories contained in this period – memories that once held so much depth and nuance – have somehow seemed to flatten out with time, creating the false impression that the perceptions I held by the end of it were ones I had held all along. But I know this is far from the reality. I am reminded of the deceptions produced by my own forgetfulness each time I find myself at another major life event or shifting context, searching again for the exact same gems of wisdom I had once held firmly within my grasp.

Even in knowing the inevitable distortions that result from my repeated recollection of events after the fact, it seems revisiting them, tracing their progression and attempting to remember them in fuller detail through conscious effort, is the best means I have of keeping the underlying value of the memories alive. As incomplete and inaccurate as my attempt may be to give shape to them through words, maybe I can at least imbue them with more indelibility than they would otherwise have. And most importantly, maybe I can then maintain the lessons embodied by them not as fading memories of the past but as insights integrated into the actions that shape my present and future.

As I think is characteristic of all memory, what I remember most vividly is the ‘beginning’ and the ‘ending’, with the middle condensed into a series of unorganized and probably disordered fragments…

The ending: Seated on one of the white plastic foldout chairs that had been arranged a few hours earlier into several neat rows on the grassy open space besides our office building. My gaze directed at the mini podium placed at the front of the row of chairs, just behind the thatched roof gazebo – normally the sole centerpiece to the office lawn – its wooden tables now host to several large platters of assorted meats. The same set up of assorted meats and foldout chairs I’d been witness to on multiple occasions, the standard package for office birthdays or farewells, now felt like superfluous emblems of recognition as I reexamined them through the eyes of my own farewell gathering.

My body overheated and face flushed from the weight of all the attention centred on me, heightened by the mere presence of the podium and meat platters, I sat there with a strained half smile on my face and quivering lips as I fixed my attention on those addressing me from behind the podium. While my eyes remained fixed on the speakers, my mind struggled to fully comprehend their words, catching only bits and pieces of amusingly disjointed compliments and parables (…one involving something about a tortoise, a lion, and a watering hole…perhaps what was an extended metaphor for my work ethic?). In between confounding bits of tortoise-related commentary, a billion other disheveled thoughts flooded my mind…the rest of my handover notes I still had to finish despite having to catch a plane in a few hours, the colleagues I had yet to say a proper goodbye to, the strangeness of the fact that I would soon be an unemployed person, and even stranger, that I had chosen this fate…

As some of the distraction subsided and my attention found its way back to my immediate surroundings, I felt both my gratitude and discomfort levels rising as I listened to the rest of my colleagues and superiors tell me what they thought of me: that thing we can’t help but want to know (with the exception of maybe the most enlightened and self-assured among us), compelled by our egos and general curiosity, but which we nonetheless never really want to hear, much less relayed to us from a podium in front of other people. As more relayed their kind words of acknowledgement (coupled with half-joking commentary about how I managed to have any friends when I spent all my time at the office), expressing the ways they thought I had contributed to the work of the organization, I felt something inside me click – a subtle paradigm shift of sorts. Struck by my own interior reactions to each of their words, from “I didn’t actually do that,” “he’s giving me credit for something that was a team effort,” “they don’t know what they’re saying,” or “they’re just being nice,” I had this simultaneous realization that what I thought about what they thought about me didn’t actually matter. In this case, what actually mattered was their perceptions, not the ‘objective’ reality of what I thought I had achieved during my time there.

That is, if my own judgment of my accomplishments did not align with what was perceived by the people who in fact were meant to be the ultimate judges of my work (like my supervisors), then whose standards was I actually referring to? Who exactly was I comparing myself to in thinking that no matter what I did, it didn’t measure up to what someone more qualified would have achieved in my position? Unable to definitively answer these questions, I was forced to take a step back from all the assumptions I had held up to that point, including about all the imaginary ‘others’ around me who were so much more stable, accomplished, and effective at what they did: all the people who had that mysterious quality that I somehow did not and never could possess. For once, stripped of my idealization of them, I saw them as actual people. Maybe, just maybe, everyone – my colleagues, my bosses, my peers – actually did not have all the answers, all the skills, and all the confidence. Maybe I was so caught up in my own failures that I failed to actually notice the struggles and failures of those around me, instead noticing only their impressive feats and public facades and piecing together narratives of perfection from these limited insights into their realities.

While written out in this way, these realizations probably seem rather evident (i.e. of course nobody is perfect), recognition of a truth is different from internalization of it. For some things, words only go so far – sometimes it takes being pushed to your limits and emerging on the other side to actually realize what you are capable of (or at the very least, to accept that you can never truly discern your own abilities or potential abilities). And perhaps it takes embracing all the mistakes and shortcomings that characterized your own road to the other side to actually recognize all the mistakes and uncertainties that equally shape and define the successfulness of everyone around you.

While seemingly simple, the mere mental exercise of truly considering that my abilities were no less than anyone else in my position – that my confusion or discomfort in various situations was not something singular to me – was one of the most profound and even life-altering realizations I have had to date. It was the first time I actually felt that adulthood and maturity were not things to be earned through self-defined benchmarks, confidence levels, or achievement, but rather, states of being already granted to me whether I liked it or not. Equipped with this new knowledge, the ‘future’ – the thing which until then had seemed like this constant shadow looming over me, bringing with it unwanted motion whilst I remained a constant, inevitably leaving me ever more behind in relation to everything around me such that I could never catch up to whatever or wherever I was supposed to be – suddenly felt like something full of possibility, a thing at least partially within my power to mold.

The beginning: My body pressed against the hard wood floor, crumpled beneath an overwhelming heaviness, as though the invisible weight of life itself was literally pushing me to the ground, pinning me down with all its force until my body ceased to be more than a mass of misshapen flesh, another weight to carry. The feeling of nothing and everything. All at once. The sensation of inhabiting this physical form convulsing from the force of heaving cries between gasps for breath, fingertips clutching at a cool hard surface…yet somehow being outside of it…or below it…not really there at all. Inhabiting a space that didn’t feel real, a body that didn’t feel real. Nothing felt real. The only thing that felt of me was an overwhelming desire to literally sink into the ground…

Some days earlier I had learned that I got the job someone had recommended me for – a new position in a new country with massively more responsibility than my current one. It was the exact kind of opportunity I had hoped for for months, the kind of field experience I desired, the chance to see and be part of the work closer to the ‘ground’ and to develop myself further in work I found intriguing and meaningful. Yet, at the time of receiving this news, I had been immersed in a period of depression that rendered me unable to fully access my own desires except as distant memories of things I knew some part of me wanted. This recognition, this knowledge that the news I received did in fact constitute good news, was not enough to convince my mind that happiness or excitement was the appropriate response.

Fear, guilt, confusion, doubt, horror: these were my mind’s chosen responses. Knowing what I was capable of, and knowing what the position expected of me, what the person who recommended me thought of me, what my future boss would expect me to be…these were the thoughts that kept circling through my mind. Circling and circling until they all made less and less sense….until none of it made any sense at all…until the whole situation simply felt like some illusion. I knew who I was, what I was able to do. None of this aligned with the world I was about to enter. The fact that I had somehow slipped my way into this new role, one that had a real impact on other people, one for which I knew myself to be incapable of fulfilling, was baffling and horrifying. It was unreal, and yet it was my reality: this contradiction was simply more than my mind could handle, an impossible thing to reconcile. The more I tried to grasp it, the less real it felt, until eventually nothing at all felt real…in the most literal sense. And here I struggle to find words that can actually convey what it is I felt in that moment…this disconnect from reality (particularly in the challenge of truly re-accessing, much less describing, a mental state that was so specific to my depression at the time)…but it was as if I was floating outside of my own life, glimpsing into this strange and unlikely thing, and despite my desperate attempts to reconnect with it, to actually inhabit my own existence and the world which surrounded it, I simply could not.

The middle: Kind faces and potent words – some profound, but most quite simple – delivered at the right time by the right people. Moments of mutual respect and admiration shared with people whose mere presence radiated warmth and kindness. Glimpses of myself as seen through their eyes. The magnitude of meaning through a simple “I see myself in you” offered by an individual whose qualities and world views I deeply admired, from someone I saw as possessing all the qualities I thought were beyond my reach.

Friendship. The kind devoid of judgement or expectation – just pure, unfiltered love and understanding. The kind where new roommates, ones I’d only known for a short time, find me in the dark, turn on the lights and come sit by me, providing me with extra illumination through their simple yet invaluable words of reason when everything felt beyond reason. The kind where an older friend exhibits persistent patience and determination in forcing me away from the serious things, re-igniting in me curiosity and creativity when I needed it most.

Unexpected friendship – people willing to be vulnerable, or embracing my vulnerability – in contexts normally reserved for professionalism and self-regulation, contexts where vulnerability is not meant to be displayed: where the personal is meant to be left at home, neatly tucked away until you’ve closed your laptop and left the office compound. An invitation to a coffee break and an open and nonjudgmental ear to my sleep-deprived musings. A “how are you doing?” delivered with the kind of sincerity meant for a real response rather than a passing pleasantry. Subtle reminders that I was seen, that I was more than just a worker, more than my successes or my failures.

~~~***~~~

Inasmuch as the ‘middle’ remains the most elusive in my memory, accessible now only as these fragments and feelings more than concrete moments with well-defined boundaries, they contain probably the most power. While the ultimate remembered paradigm shifting moment came from the totality of the period, from simply surviving all the difficult moments and finding myself at the finish line in tact, all the little victories along the way, the ability to transcend the perceived chaos that surrounded me at the time, was rarely of my own doing. Even in the newfound ‘self’ confidence produced by these experiences, I am humbled by a greater awareness of my dependence on others – not as something antithetical to self confidence but as necessarily intertwined with it.

Still, even as this exercise in memory enables me to remember the source of my current perceptions and even recognize them as feats in themselves, I know this particular set of memories is particularly vulnerable to forgetting. Unlike other types of memories that merely become lost to time, these ones – the ones linked to confidence – also face active opposing forces of the mind: put to the test over and over again when new contexts and challenges bring with them new doubts. And there’s nothing like being a student again (i.e. by definition, someone whose entire world is future-oriented, whose acquisition of knowledge and experience is intended to set them up for what will come after graduation), or like job searching (i.e. being questioned and judged for your abilities, your plans and interests, and your ability to eloquently articulate said plans), to make you turn inward and start regressing towards the same doubts and uncertainties that past experiences had already proved to be unnecessary.

And so I hold on to what I can, each time the doubts return, because I know that fear only serves to blind us from what is really possible. As Maria Popova so accurately articulates, “the choices we make in life in discerning what we ought to do are invariably limited by our perception of what we can do, which are in turn a function of our individual talents and the cultural canvas of permission and possibility onto which these talents can unfold.” Permission and possibility – those incredibly powerful forces that guide what we do – are just as much self-produced as culturally constructed. If nothing else, I hope that my memories will help to always remind me of the true power I hold to either limit or expand the boundaries of my own possibilities.

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Without all the chatter

The other day, following two weeks of solo travel around central Europe coupled with a temporary hiatus from all forms of social media, the one thing I was probably most pathetically excited for in returning to my home base in Paris was reinstalling my WhatsApp: to be able to satiate that socially conditioned desire to see that little orange notification button on my phone screen and open all the messages sent over the past weeks from closest friends; to finally reconnect with the world I had cut out during my self-imposed period of solitude. And then. That evening as I reinstall the app, anticipation rising (solitude gets to you after a while), I finally open it to find I can no longer log into my old account: everything from the past few weeks, and the past few years – all message history, photos, correspondence with interesting acquaintances met along the way or loved ones or lover, as well as a few of my contacts – gone. Permanently inaccessible.

Of course, it was not the end of the world. I still have most of my contacts, can still reach out again to the friends I’m still actually in communication with. But at that initial moment of rejected entry to my WhatsApp history, as much as I’d like to deny it (and as what may easily constitute the definition of an ‘overreaction’), I felt this strange sensation of the ground sucked out from under me… as though I had suddenly lost the gravity and weight of self-ness: the cognition of actually being me, in my own body, in the place I was sitting, in my corner of the world, with all the relations and social ties to which I am inextricably bound.

To give some context to this mother of overreactions, I had just previously been reflecting on the concept of memory and its role in giving continuity to our past and present selves, essentially providing a basis for the formulation of our conception of selfhood at all. I had recently come across an article, referencing an idea from modern psychology, suggesting that memory in fact constitutes the ‘crucible of the self’. The poet John O’Donohue, in his writing on transience as the one constant in our lives, elsewhere described memory as ‘that which holds out against transience’…as ‘the place where our vanished lives secretly gather.’ I had found a certain comfort in this description, and especially liked the reference to vanished ‘lives’ in the plural. Particularly in the place I found myself at the time of reading these words — alone in Vienna, a solo traveler surrounded by couples and families during the holiday period, on the road for the past few weeks in a state of self-enforced solitude (I’ll get to this later), living in Paris, a U.S. citizen, an Ethiopian-American, unable to recall the last time I was physically with my entire family, having spent the past few years living in South Africa and Zimbabwe, finding myself periodically in countries and contexts I never expected to be, a constantly revolving set of friends and communities, and recent shift in title from ‘boss’ and ‘diplomat’ to ‘poor student’ — I felt all the more drawn to the idea of memory as this shield against complete transience, this keeper of continuity.

Each time I delve into the bank of my own memories, whether by conscious intentional digging, something triggered by a scent, a song, an image, or just the regular intermittent infiltration of unexpected and completely random memories that surface from time to time with no evident reason as memories do, I often feel as though I’m peering into several separate lives, unconnected and unrelated from my own: characterized not only by different places and people but, perhaps most notably, by distinctly different conceptions of self and paradigms for interpreting the world. Despite being able to remember what I thought at a given time or how I felt, as filtered through the non-static and often unreliable medium of memory, I am always keenly aware of my inability to inhabit that same space again. And in this inability, I feel I can only catch glimpses of something that is not my own, inasmuch as I am aware of the fact that it is.

But even amidst this overwhelming sense of discontinuity that seems to taint most recollections of the past, the ability to still regain bits and pieces of it, in whatever form, provides some basis for imagining a kind of coherent whole out of all the separate parts. And for someone like me with the worst memory ever, to reach back every now and then through the potent medium of an old message or photo long forgotten – to be transported momentarily by that mysterious mnemonic power latent in certain physical and technological traces of our past lives – feels like something invaluable in this clumsy attempt at reconstructing wholeness. I am also not sure why this impulse to grasp at something complete and continuous even feels necessary in the first place, but I assume it is linked to what is probably a universal human instinct to make sense of oneself and to a broader extent, everything outside of oneself, through the roots on which we’ve been formed – both in the immediate context of one’s own life as well as roots that are familial, historical, etc.

Such was the mental state in which I found myself at the time of the WhatsApp incident. And so, given these impulses just described, my decision a few weeks ago to completely cut myself off in the first place from all the social networks that provided me with unfettered access to my ‘other lives’ so to speak – to all those relationships and memories that are a part of me but not a part of my immediate physical life context – may seem counterintuitive. In a way, though, I think it was actually one stemming from the same impulse behind my evident attachment to social media in the first place: connection.

For while these networks provide us with the channels for maintaining, strengthening, establishing, and mapping out our human connections, I think their oversaturation in our modern social realities can simultaneously hamper our capacity to actually be fully present in any of it. In this effort to always be connected, there is inevitably this stretching of the mind and heart to encompass the various spaces where connection is sought. It manifests in this feeling of being in touch with everyone all the time but concurrently somehow not really with anyone – including one’s self. This is not to say that love, or friendship, or authentic connection in whatever form, is a limited good, something we can only possess or share in finite quantities. But I do think the human mind’s capacity for attention is limited. In fact, it would seem that by definition the most profound forms of attentiveness require a certain level of restriction. For how can we truly give someone else, or ourselves, or our surroundings, this gift of attentiveness – one of the deepest manifestations of love – when we find ourselves stretched out in all directions, leaving access to only thinned out, fragile slivers of attention that we can allot to any one thing or person at a given moment?

I could be making assumptions here in implying this is a universal phenomenon, but at least in my own case, I couldn’t help but notice from time to time the effect that even the mere access to this technological world of social networks was having on me. It became even more noticeable while traveling: surrounded by inspiring street art in Berlin or magical architecture in Prague and finding that my mind was always only partially there – the other parts thinking about what I was planning to tell a friend about it or how I needed to capture the most beautiful places in photos to share on Instagram later or making a note to self to catch up with so and so while I had time. Even whilst my mind was there in Prague, it was simultaneously in Bangkok with my best friend, in Johannesburg with my nostalgia, in Harare with the work I missed or people I longed for – brought back to each of these places with each seemingly harmless text or glance at an old photo. Equally disconcerting was the realization that in my desire to share so much of my lived experience with other people or to just post it somewhere, the motivation behind my every action felt somehow less authentic. I began to wonder whether I would even live out my life the same way in the absence of these external social forces: to do things merely for the sake of doing them. I can’t remember where I read or saw it, but someone once spoke about societal fears of solitude as stemming in part from this need to constantly validate one’s own existence. It’s probably not a conscious thing someone would admit to or necessarily find true of their own impulses, but nonetheless, it seems fitting in a way to understand platforms like Instagram and Facebook (and, of course, blogs) as spheres that enable us to validate and shape our lived realities – to place them in a context in which they become subject to reaction and take on meaning beyond something that would otherwise be fleeting and lost to time and our own feeble memories.

None of this is inherently negative necessarily, but I do think it can become less benign in those moments where it detracts from the experiences we might otherwise have. For me, each time I allowed myself the distractions linked to these networks, I couldn’t help but notice a general sense of flatness to what I was feeling, as though a thin wall stood between me and the deeper emotions I wanted to access at times, the emotions that felt present yet never exposed in their fullness. And while I’m sure a range of factors can contribute to this, it felt quite evident at the time that much of that wall was constructed out of the consistent safety net of social distraction at my fingertips, and consequently, at the center of my thoughts.

Through my search for better words to articulate the numbing quality of these networks, I found an incisive description of the phenomenon by the writer Rebecca Solnit. In lamenting the “lost world” of the time before network technologies, she describes the loss of a world made up of two poles: solitude and communion, saying that this “new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.” I also resonated with words I stumbled upon in Krista Tippet’s book that “there is that window of choice, moment by moment, to go for distraction instead, to settle into numb…” I can’t remember the actual context in which she made this comment but it felt perfectly germane to the kind of escape allowed by social media, (in addition to television and the array of other media that so often take us away from our present moment).

And in fact, in cutting myself off from the choice to connect to these networks, I did feel a marked shift in the locus of my thoughts. I found myself increasingly awed by the banal things around me, forced to put forth more effort in keeping myself entertained from moment to moment with what was at hand – my beautiful surroundings, interesting strangers, my own thoughts. Perhaps less expected, I found myself actually feeling things with greater weight. It was as though, without the choice to retreat into the immediate yet somewhat false comfort of connection allowed by exchanging words or even simply an emoji with a close friend on the other side of the world, there was no longer a veil between me and my own thoughts. In the absence of a buffer, any inkling of a thought or emotion that may have otherwise been unintentionally (or sometimes intentionally) suppressed by an easy distraction was instead given free reign to unfold in its fullness, unencumbered and uninhibited. Meanwhile, bare and exposed by my own solitude, I was left with no alternatives but to actually confront whatever was there.

The thoughts or feelings that surfaced were nothing too shocking or unexpected, but nonetheless challenging to face at times. There are always those things you know are true but you may be ashamed to admit even to yourself, and so you avoid or ignore them and pretend like they aren’t there. A common one for many I think would be the fear of loneliness – or admitting to ever feeling alone at all (particularly when you are aware of all the love and support that surrounds you). Such admissions appear all the more unacceptable within the context of our social media saturated lives and the kind of taboo attached to the idea of solitude in general. I think Martha Nussbaum quite nicely touched upon the roots of some of these fears – fears that likely fuel our attachment to those outlets providing us with safeguards against the risk of fully seeing and accepting our own emotions. I found her framing of emotions particularly insightful in stating that“our emotional life maps our incompleteness”, explaining how “a creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.”

In a way, it is actually extremely liberating to admit to one’s own dependency. Perhaps also counterintuitively, finding solace in solitude – learning to be content in one’s aloneness (as distinct from loneliness) – seems like one of the best ways to embrace this dependent nature and discover the most fulfilling application for the impulses born out of it. Ironically, the less I was surrounded by endless streams of digital communication with friends and family, the more I was able to actually feel the depths of my connection with individuals and find myself immersed in the beauty of that recognition. And the longer I went about each day without the usual mental distractions, the more I found myself forced to reckon with truths I so often suppress in fear of failing to meet my own expectations: the loudest and most recurring of which related to the mere acknowledgement of my connection and interdependency with humanity as a whole. For in this acknowledgement is felt the weight of responsibility – the beautiful yet overwhelming and in many ways painful weightiness of a reality that is there regardless of whether one chooses to engage with it. Herein, I found in solitude a necessary reckoning with the complacency and numbness I had allowed to replace moments that might otherwise have been spent in benefiting the world of humanity, another individual, or in simply elevating my own state of awareness about those things that are hardest to face but most necessary to grapple with as a member of society and the human race.

All this to say that, in my own temporary immersion into one form of solitude, I have come to better appreciate the power of allowing silence to replace chatter that might otherwise blind us to fragments of wisdom already latent in our own emotions and consciousness. For, as so perfectly put by the writer Wendell Berry, and as the most apt elucidation of my own experience, in solitude, “one’s inner voice becomes audible [and], in consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.”

Nonexistent Lines

“We operate under the illusion that we are separate – individuals proudly defined by flesh and values and our differences from one another. And I think that’s how we got to this point.” Her words – her reaction to the collection of words I had shared with her the day before – suddenly injected new meaning into my own. What I had initially written as a direct expression of my physical surroundings at the time became, through her reframing, a larger commentary on the underlying essence of something at play in the turbulent social context in which we now find ourselves. It also reminded me of the beauty of art as something inherently relational, something that acquires endless variations of meaning in its capacity to be shared. Through this act of sharing, the creator in a way relinquishes ownership over the art and the meaning attached to it, whether or not intended, and therein creates the space for new dialogues to emerge not only between artist and audience but between artist and his or her own art.

I don’t write poetry. I am not a poet by any measure. But there are some experiences that feel only appropriate to express in an abstracted form. And as poets like Rilke have counseled to aspiring young writers, poetry should in fact be reserved for those things that you need to say, that you feel you would die if you were forbidden to say. If something “spread its roots into the very depth of your heart” and “commands you to write,” then you should write it. That is probably the best way to describe the sensation I felt when I had the privilege a few weeks ago to be standing in the most hauntingly beautiful landscape in Ireland. There was a point where I literally felt as though my own being was indistinguishable from my surroundings – a sense that I was seeing the reflection of my own soul in the things around me. The earth felt like a living being in every respect, one with a message that drew you in and made you listen with all of your faculties. It was a message I felt compelled to try to capture however feeble my attempt…

When I exhaled I felt the strong breeze let out its own breath
Melding with mine and carrying it across the soft copper horizon
Slanting the blades of green yellow purple red gold into a gentle curve
A suggestion of a question mark in their ever present slant.
The mist covers the horizon
Pleading with you to stop searching for edges and endings
Rendering everything into one endless expanse
Grass and boulders, heather and wildflowers, fern and moss, mountain and sky.
The sharpness of the individual parts fade into one soft blur of copper and grey strokes
Extending beyond the exterior
Denying you even those fleshy boundaries you take to be concrete
Blurring the lines between skin and air, the inhales of the earth from the exhale of your lungs.
The lines of the hills, the curve of the grass, the roughness of the stones
They define the contours of your soul.
The gurgling undercurrent of the streams that run beneath the ground
Invisible beneath the thick yellow cover but constantly carrying forth secrets
Working in unison with the wind
Leaving its trace in the tilt of the trees and the slant of the hills, the endless bow of the grass.
Concealing a desperate yearning to be heard
But reserving its utterance only for those who seek it
Letting out only whispers
Except
For those dark tangled roots that emerge between the soft brush
Unable to contain their desire to be seen
Jutting out sharpness, demanding your attention
Adding depth and contrast to the expanse of soft copper
But at their tips, nothing more
than pale pink buds.
The land is content in its solitude
But reverberates with a silent outcry all the same
The restless winds that call out for more,
The rough silence soothed by the echoing of birds’ songs
of origins untraceable
And by a conviction
In its own expansiveness
Not allowing high peaks or horizon lines to feign separation
That does not exist.

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While my poem (if it can be considered that) was more reactionary than intentional in its message, it is interesting to place it in the context of the confusion of emotion resonating throughout the world at the moment, as my friend had done in her interpretation after the elections. As I look at my own words now again with new eyes, I want to draw from them the essence of what I felt not only in the raw material of the physical earth but in the social material that surrounds me now: evidence of our interconnectedness with each other and the earth at the deepest of levels.

And, just as I felt in the Irish landscape, the interconnectedness I see evidenced by the cries of the global community now is not one of an abstract idealism but one of a concrete reality. It is a thing at once so brazenly visible and yet at the same time, persistently suppressed into a false obscurity. Paradoxically, many even use the evidence of its existence as proof of the contrary. For this interconnectedness is perhaps most visible in the pain itself — even in the seemingly conflicting forms of pain that manifest in clashes between those who perceive themselves as existing on opposite sides of socially constructed divides. Underneath it all, the responses by all sides speak to the reality of our oneness as human creatures with the same fears and concerns, irrationalities and inner contradictions. It is a truth that, when ignored, allows for ‘othering’ based upon these self-created distinctions. It allows us to forget the humanity in those we feel most different from.

The visceral quality of the collective emotional response – the fear, the pain, the hopelessness, the desperation, the anger, and for some, the elation or new hope – emotions not just felt within the U.S. but in every corner of the globe, particularly underscores the recognition of the deep and complex ties that define our current world order. They reveal a comprehension of the stakes at hand for everyone, whether positive or harmful; of the way the outcome of one country’s election implicates each individual in one way or another, whose ripple effect goes far beyond the sphere of politics and national borders.

The reality of this fact is both beautiful and terrifying: terrifying in the implications of just how much our own actions affect the lives of everyone else on this planet, but beautiful in the implication of how much our actions have the power to affect the lives of everyone else on this planet.

In drawing light to this positive aspect, even opportunity, granted by the current moment, I do not want to minimize the validity of the pain and fear felt by anyone. At the same time, I do want to shift the focus of the conversation. I want people to engage with their pain and fear in recognizing the roots of the same emotions felt by the ‘other side’. I do not want people to condone behavior or views that are objectively racist, bigoted, or full of hate, but I do want them to recognize the beauty and hideousness we are all capable of and the very different contexts and realities that shape the lens through which each person comes to see the world. I do not want people to resign themselves to tolerance for the sake of some kind of utilitarian existence amidst insurmountable differences, but to strive for empathy and its inevitable aftermath – love.

Ultimately, I hope that amidst the hatefulness and destructive divisiveness, people come to recognize the reality of the interconnectedness behind it, and to translate this comprehension into something fruitful. While the conversations all come back to the politics or words and actions of one political candidate, it is equally evident that so much of the fear and pain surrounding it is not merely linked to this one public figure but of what the support for him implies of the values of the society more broadly; of the potential normalizing effect his position might have on racist or violent attitudes. This is also in a way empowering because it points to the fact that our fears are directed at things in our power to change, regardless of who is in power. And, whilst obvious in one sense, I also think it is critical to remind ourselves that such feelings don’t emerge overnight. Sometimes, certain events help symptoms of much larger issues rise to the surface and force everyone to confront them head on. Much of the shock surrounding the prevalence of these attitudes as embodied by the election result may also be said to speak to the suppression of critical voices among us – the voices of those who were not at all surprised by the results, of those who have long been the targets of these aggressions, of the voices listened to but never really fully heard.

Hopefully now we will actually start to hear each other. And hopefully our politically-charged dialogues can give way to greater recognition of the reason we care about politics at all: to collectively create a community that we all want to live in. No doubt, the actions of one person in power can have very real and direct effects on the society at large; policies can change and the institutions they shape can render the achievement of equality that much more challenging. But in the end, the underlying cries for change and reform are at their core cries for reforms of the heart, for empathy and understanding. And I wish there was a way to express this that didn’t come across so idealistic and light-hearted, because I think it is something that we all too often cast aside as less weighty than real ‘political’ issues and that so many still struggle to envisage in the same concrete, practical terms, and so I am saying it anyways, as deceptively simplistic and reductive as it may sound. Because really, how can we possibly hope for a better future, for any different outcome than what we are seeing now, if we aren’t engaging with the emotions and spirits of the individual humans that shape the institutions that represent them? And how can we claim to embrace diversity as a progressive society if we don’t humble ourselves to the fact that maybe the so-called diversity we claim to embrace is still primarily confined to those who hold the same values and world-views as ourselves?

I myself am still grappling with the dimensions of my own initial reaction of shock, of what it implies of my own ignorance and of the voices I am yet to fully hear out. All I know is that the strong ties that hold us all together, while painful at times, are more visible now than ever.

“Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious.  Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.” – prayer excerpt from the Bahá’í writings

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Misplaced Longing

 

What name does one give to the phenomenon of wistful longing for a past event that wasn’t event pleasant, or one that’s not actually in the past yet? Could it still be labeled as nostalgia?

Whether or not the name actually applies, these nostalgia-like feelings seems like ever-present sentiments in every stage of my life. In fact, even though I have terrible memory/usually can’t remember anything from my childhood, I have this one random vivid memory of grappling with nostalgia at an early age. I remember sitting on the school bus in 1st or 2nd grade and being excited about something that day (I can’t remember what) and subsequently having the thought that the state of excitement and happiness felt at that moment was something that the next day or even weeks from that day I would be looking back on with fond remembrance and longing, with nostalgia (obviously not articulated in such a way at the time). I remember then trying really hard for a few moments to just fully soak in the feeling of that moment and the events of that day that I knew would be so fleeting, to somehow hold onto them more deeply before they became things of the past to look back on.

Obviously, it was an impossible endeavor…it has even been said that there is really no such thing as the present moment, insofar as the present is comprised of such tiny fractions of time that our human mind can’t really grasp it. But nonetheless, I wanted to hold onto the present, and in doing so, felt this subtle nagging anxiety for what I knew would quickly be a moment of the past, no matter how much I tried to hold on.

The nagging anxiety to hold onto the present, and ultimately, the past, has followed me around ever since….spreading and taking on new forms and disguises, almost like a disease. It was in one of my college courses that I remember making the ironic discovery that the idea of ‘nostalgia’ actually first emerged in the 19th century being perceived as exactly that: a disease. That is, it was seen and treated (sometimes harshly) as an actual medical illness, a psychopathological disorder. While the idea of nostalgia over time lost this connotation of illness and strayed instead into the realm of romanticism and literature, I think it still regains the same underlying potency to infect a person’s mental and physical well being if not regulated.

This may be a bit of a dramatic take on nostalgia, but just given the all-encompassing nature it seems to play in my own life, particularly as it relates to aging, I think I’ve begun to subconsciously regard it as some kind of disease to be cured. The more I come to realize just how much my aversion to aging has not subsided with each passing year but in fact deepened (made worse by the fact that each year continues to represent an even older age), the more I find the necessity to get at the heart of my nostalgia for youth in particular, whatever ‘youth’ might mean.

It’s not a fear of grey hair and wrinkles, coming more closely to death, or even a fear of failing to reach some preset idea or expectation of what is meant to happen at any specific age. Nor is it that I think that youth is inherently superior to being older, despite the subliminal narrative affirming such a notion in most media these days (particularly for women). Perhaps I can best describe it as an anticipation of the loss of youth itself. And since I realize this description is still barely a description, I’ll borrow the words of another who has reflected on this topic and so uncannily captured exactly how I feel about it in her essay:

“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

Just as the essayist Meghan Daum alludes in her reflection on the subject, I also recognize that such a sentiment is of course a complete romanticization of youth and the excitement attached to such a state, one often overshadowing the real lived experiences that may not have been so pleasant, despite the fact that we had the ‘gleaming architecture’ of the future to placate us at the time. What’s more, I also realize that my misplaced longing for this idealized period of youth that probably never even existed to begin with is made that much more ridiculous by the fact that part of my longing for it is directed at the present moment. The above referenced essay to which I found myself relating so closely describes this nostalgia from the point of view of a middle-aged woman longing for her twenties. And, just as first-grade me felt that day I tried so desperately to hold onto the present, my current nostalgia for youth is almost just as much an anticipatory longing for a past time that has not yet become the past as it is a longing for my actual younger days, particularly in recognizing that I still could consider myself in the midst of youth from the reference point of my older future self.

At the moment, this abstract longing for a nonexistent idealized past and a period of youth in which the future towered over me continues to take on a multitude of unexpected forms. This is perfectly illustrated by the most recent longings for a distinctly-tumultuous-but-rewarding-in-retrospect time of my life: the 7 months I spent living and working in Zimbabwe. They rise and fall, without warning or reason, as a series of flashbacks tinged with pangs of yearning:

An image of running through the row of jacaranda trees that formed a long green canopy down the street next to my house, recalling the way the light pierced through the leaves onto the pavement in beautiful outlines and caught my eyes in flashes as I ran by them; glimpses of beauty which at the time actually felt like rare breaths of fresh air amidst weeks spent mostly behind a computer screen…

A sudden strong craving for the bland meals served at my office canteen…the same $1.50 plate of rice, chicken, greens and butternut I ate nearly every single day at the office, always marveling at my own taste buds for somehow never seeming to tire of the plain, monotonous experience each time….

Some song, image, or smell that jolts me back not into a past time but a past emotion, not so much as a re-experience of the emotion but as if viewed through the eyes of a spectator; a remembering of the emotional states that at specific times became the entire lens through which I experienced my life, though often skewed and limiting in nature…

A feeling of safety and comfort in remembering a Saturday in which the highlight of my day was a run or trip to the grocery store (the few forms of ‘breaks’ I allowed myself for the majority of my time there, always with the heavy weight of unfinished work preventing me from desiring much else by way of breaks); the kind of comfort not grounded in contentment necessarily but in simplicity, and perhaps even lack of choice (or at least a feeling of lack of choice)…

As is probably evident from these descriptions, the majority of these things I feel nostalgic for are nothing remarkable or particularly enjoyable; in fact, many were the opposite of pleasant. And yet, even in having this awareness and surface-y recollection of the unpleasant emotions felt at the time, I continue to reminisce nostalgically over them, to almost unwillingly yearn for them. The thing is, regardless of what my actual daily experience was at the time, I think much of its allure to my present mind is that it was distinctly a period which had a clear transitional and temporary quality to it, a period intended to bestow upon me life lessons and allow me to delve into confusion with the knowledge that the future still lay ahead. I knew that even if it turned out I failed completely at the job and left from it broken and confused, it would ultimately still serve as a time of growth and a jumping point from which to move towards my next life context, whether grad school or a career shift, equipped with the lessons of the last.

And the paradoxical thing about this seemingly comforting knowledge of a future full of possibility, flexibility, and time, is that its comforting qualities rarely seem evident at the time. Only in recalling the period later, once it feels as though less ‘future’ lay ahead, does it feel like something has been lost, and is thus something to long for. Really, it is a yearning not so much for any specific event or experience but for the underlying current of ‘youth’ that characterized all of them. I like the way the essayist Daumer articulates this phenomenon through a fictitious interaction in which her Older Self gives wisdom to her Younger Self, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her about the nostalgia that will be most unbearable later on, to tell her Younger Self that:

“…the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable because…they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them.”

And, at the center of this nostalgic longing is really a romanticization and unfounded worshipping of our younger selves based on the notion that whatever we did in youth represented, as another author puts it, “our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities.”

And with this recognition, one might ask oneself, would you really want to go back to that time representative of endless potential, if you had the choice? Or would you opt for the current, inevitably wiser, even if not necessarily more ‘grown up’, version of you? I have a feeling most would go with the latter…and I think I would too if really given such a choice…just in taking stock of what you know you know now that you didn’t know then, even if that knowledge is in many cases characterized by more confusion and uncertainty. That’s probably part of the beauty of aging: not some grand epiphany or stepping over some static line from youth to fully fledged adulthood, but simply a state of deeper knowing – the kind that lends itself to expanded awareness of how much you don’t know and how much there is yet to be known. The kind of knowing that we often taken for granted as we reminisce over our romanticized younger selves.

But with all that said, even my own words on the beauty and gift that is aging do little to quell the continuous nagging nostalgia for the period of ‘youth’ the more I move away from it. The closest conciliation I’ve found of late is in the recognition that I’m not alone in my paradoxical romanticization of and nostalgia for the experiences of my younger self. There is always comfort in knowing that your own irrational responses are not unique to you but something deeply human and, in that, a unifying experience. So, in the absence of any satisfying conclusions, I’ll instead share some further reflections from others who have felt the same and articulated my own sentiments much better than I could have: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/09/meghan-daum-unspeakable/

“…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Anything. Or anyone. That does not bring you alive.

Is too.

Small.

For you.

I’d once heard poetry described as language against which we have no defenses. It is a language whose words at times bring with them truths we didn’t want to hear, didn’t feel ready to hear. They render us unable to deny or hide from some reality we felt hesitant to confront, because confronting new truths usually means confronting our own vulnerabilities and the uncertainties we all possess as humans.

These brief, poignant words from one of David Whyte’s poems had seared themselves into my consciousness since I’d first heard them. Some words are too significant, too evident, too loud to be ignored.

Equally so, some experiences are too loud to be ignored.

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A few weekends ago, I had a chance to briefly visit Johannesburg, the city I had called home for two years before moving to Zimbabwe some months ago. The moment I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, it was as if I had breathed in new life. As I rode the train into the city, the outlines of familiar shapes blurring past my sight amidst the evening lights reflecting off the large glass windows, I continued to inhale the strangely satisfying air. It was as if my lungs were just now able to fully take in the air necessary to expand to their full capacity, whereas for the past months they had only taken in what they could to sustain life, unsatiated yet laboring on in their capacity.

This fullness literally felt in my lungs continued to define the rest of the two days spent in that city. One day felt like a week – from driving through the city centre and taking in all the beautiful grittiness I had always loved about it, even amidst the very real danger and need to remain alert in turning each corner; to revisiting the familiar artsy spaces carved out throughout the town, in the hipster cafes and markets and in the fashionable and unavoidably cool youthful city residents who occupied them; to catching up with familiar faces and friends whose vibrancy, intelligence, and beauty I had the privilege of appreciating anew, the way periods of absence always seem to re-introduce us to the things we come to take for granted in others by way of familiarity.

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Our experience of time is so deeply intertwined with our experience of people and place; of the emotions and diversity of experiences we allow ourselves in each moment of each day. This could not have been more evident than in that one Saturday in Joburg. One day can easily assume months or even years of meaning and depth, depending on how we fill it and what we let in. It is both frightening and liberating to realize the extent to which we control or relationship with time – the way in which one day can seem to pass by in a second, accumulating to months or even years of fleeting empty moments, but equally so, how one day can be filled with so much life that the concept of time in itself seems to become irrelevant and meaningless.

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Relatedly, it is both a deeply beautiful and yet in some ways painful phenomenon to be reminded of the manifold ways our existences depend on our connections with other people. Such reminders may come in the inevitable moments where we find ourselves kept afloat and able to keep at this business of living simply by the grace of those in our lives, but they may also come in those moments where we think we are fine, living, moving, but then jolted suddenly more alive by the influence of another.

I am all for learning to love oneself, or at least learning to be at peace within one’s own self – to recognize the wholeness that is already there, and find a sense of grounding in that alone. It is no doubt dangerous and unhealthy to expect that anyone else can complete us or to rely on someone else to build up those things we must ultimately build up in ourselves. But I’ve also found the beauty and mystery in the power of another person to sometimes expand our sense of completeness. It is not that this other comes in and fills some hole we thought needed to be filled in our lives, but rather, that he or she literally stretches the space that once represented the totality of our identity and human experience. Inevitably, this may end up leaving a sense of loss or incompleteness once that individual is no longer in our lives, but not because we had relied on him or her to fill a certain absence. Still, in stretching the canvas of self we started with, that person ends up leaving some sense of emptiness in the stretched out space they had made for us, but a space whose emptiness is only an illusion – one that, with time, we find a way to fill with our own color, adding ever more shades of beauty to our existence.

It is this sense of expansion I had the privilege of experiencing on multiple occasions throughout the course of that Saturday in Joburg – in the unexpectedly diverse and profound conversations had with both old friends and new. While naturally not all conversations in life must serve to elevate or inspire, I find that for me personally, I rely on such conversations for sustenance. Lately, I’ve come to realize that maybe bringing up my confusion over the nature of reality with random colleagues on a coffee break or delving into the meaning of life with drunken strangers at a party or discussing colonialism and racism on a first date may not be typical contexts associated with certain types of conversations, but I’ve also realized, why not. More often than not, regardless of the context or ‘norms’ for discussion topics in certain settings, simply allowing people the space for expression on those things that matter most creates an instant connection and opportunity for something meaningful to emerge.

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In many ways, these moments transform mere conversation into a form of art: a molding of two or more experiences into some new idea or expression, something never before revealed into the world in that precise way. Simply by nature of the uniqueness of the elements – of the perceptions and experiences and personality of each person – brought together to produce the interplay of thoughts and meaning making in that specific instance, the conversation unleashes something that ripples out in tiny invisible ways into the ocean of meaning that shapes the world.

While the following quote from Rilke was written in the context of marriage, I think it also applies to the beauty of connection, facilitated through the types of conversations had between people in any context: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

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When reminded of the immensity of depth and wholeness embodied by each and every individual in our midst, it is that much more incredible to imagine what is possible by the interactions between them. As Rilke articulates, the point is not a merging together, for such a task is impossible in light of the infinite distances between any two people, but rather, an appreciation of the distance in itself. Conversation is one means of delving into the depths of another person’s immense sky and in the process, finding the horizon of your own sky shifted into ever-farther expanses.

I’m not sure why exactly the conversations in Joburg stood out so much as compared to the ones I’ve been having in Harare. It’s not that I haven’t come across moving people or interesting things worth reflecting on here, but maybe it is also that my excessive focus on work has left me more closed off to the influence of these conversations. And then, there is also the fact that some people just have a deeper effect on us than others, who make us feel more alive for whatever reason. As with most things, this reality becomes more evident in the absence of it. In this case, my experience of leaving those individuals who had been a part of my life in Joburg made their uniqueness and inspiring qualities that much more worthy of appreciation in having the opportunity to once again feel a unique kind of alive in their presence.

These moments of heightened aliveness in the past few months however have by no means been confined to my weekend in Joburg. They’ve appeared in countless and usually unexpected ways throughout my time in Harare, yet often in short fleeting bursts rather than in a sustained and embedded way.

One day, in returning from a work trip to the field, I had been driving back to Harare from Mwenezi, a dry, dusty rural district in the southern region of Zimbabwe, at dawn: the sky was painted with a deep red along the horizon, as the rays of the luminous waking sun pierced through the dust, casting shadows of hazy pink brightness in every direction. The vibrant red horizon softened into lighter shades of pink, mingling with strokes of blues and wispy forms of white, eventually settling on a bluish grey expanse as the eyes journeyed upwards. The reddish pink horizon rested along the outlines of ridged mountains in the distance, appearing in layers of various depths and darkness, broken only by the rounded outlines of trees in their midst. Something about the way the dust from the rocky dirt road we traveled along filled the air around us, lit up by the warm hues of the morning sun, seemed to encompass our vehicle with an inexplicable warmth. This combined with the thick morning soundscape of nature’s silence – rooster calls, cattle bells, and singing birds – felt almost like a warm embrace by the earth itself. Breaking my attention from my concerns of the work awaiting me in Harare, of the millions of things I thought mattered here or there, the embrace brought me into my surroundings, reminding me that all that mattered was what was there, then in that moment.

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Why do I bring any of this up in the first place – this concept of feeling alive, and of allowing oneself to be drawn to those things and people which bring us to feel this way?

Preparing for grad school and working through all the confusing and necessary life lessons and growth that comes with the early career experience, I’ve spent much time reflecting on decisions over the past few months, thinking such reflection necessary in setting a fruitful path for whatever is to come next. But really, I don’t know what the future holds, whether it be 10 years from now or even 10 seconds from now. It is a futile and vain human imagining to think we have any control over our futures – that the decisions we make now will determine exactly where or what we will be doing later in life. I do not know what decisions now will put me in the best position to achieve what I want to achieve in the future. I don’t even know what it is I want to achieve in concrete terms. Or whether I should care about ‘achievement’ in the first place.

What I do know is when I feel alive, and when I don’t. I know what beauty feels like and what the absence of it feels like. I know that beauty – in the world, in other people, and in contributing something meaningful to both – makes me feel alive. I know that I do not want to live a life devoid of actually feeling alive.

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This may all sound extremely basic and simple, and in fact, it is. But how often do we abstract ourselves from those evident truths that are so deeply obvious and glaring in our lives that we forget how important they are to begin with? Amidst so much uncertainty in life and the paradoxical necessity to continue making big decisions anyway, it seems that a useful guiding force (which could be what some already define as ‘intuition’) should simply be whatever makes us feel alive. In making a decision affecting our life context or path, the question to self should always be “does this bring me alive?” and take it from there. This is the accumulation of what the past few months have taught me, and, for the moment, is probably the only basis upon which I feel I can stand firmly with any choice I make affecting how I live my life.

Finding Symbols for the Wordlessness

It’s funny how the times I actually feel most compelled to write seem to be the times when I feel least able to make sense of something in words. In fact, even in starting this post and writing these words now, I don’t know where this is going, or what I want to say, or how to find the language for it, and yet, can’t get over this gnawing sense that I need to say something and find a way to formulate it into words.

For the thing I want to describe not only lacks words but I’m not even sure has managed to surface to the level of a thought. Feeling maybe, but not thought. But then, even the idea of a feeling somehow seems to connote a sense of concreteness and understanding that I have yet to arrive at, since feelings we generally communicate to the outside world and to ourselves through the medium of language, indicating a certain definitiveness about them.

Conveniently enough though, I recently stumbled upon this quote by John Steinbeck that couldn’t be anymore germane to my current sentiments, and has motivated me to continue to write something in any case:

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.”

Maybe the act of writing this in itself is the thing I feel the need to somehow articulate: that deep embedded recognition within all of us of what it means to be human and what it means to make manifest and express it. Like many of the abstract things I’ve clumsily attempted to find symbols for through words (‘reality’, ‘identity’, etc.) this clichéd concept of ‘what it means to be human’ in fact has no meaning in and of itself given its broadness and different associations it holds to different people. However, I recently read a piece with a definition I quite like for the essential component of our humanity: the parts of ourselves that extend beyond the mere mechanical.

While still a rather broad and abstract definition, I think it holds a lot of relevance as an important reminder to self, particularly when we find ourselves drudging through the day to day details of life – those details that more often than not feel overwhelming and vital when in the thick of them – not even realizing just how much our mindless daily actions come to consume our beings until something shakes us from our monotonous routine and reminds us of our core humanness. That is, a reminder that our being in the world is not just a facet of our daily motions and mere existence, but really, of our ability to connect and interact and reflect on our relationship to it; to have an ongoing and active conversation with the world around us and with ourselves.

It is a definition of human identity that is complexly positioned somewhere in between our relationship to the physical reality we inhabit and our interior reality. I really liked the way the poet philosopher David Whyte describes this space as it relates to our individual identities, saying that the “only place where things are real is between the frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you.” In talking about the tendency of humans to abstract themselves out of their direct experiences (and in fact, highlighting this ability of humans to deny their own humanness or fundamental identities as a key feature of what distinguishes us as human, as opposed to all other creatures on the planet which are undeniably and unavoidably nothing more than themselves), he notes that the formation of one’s identity depends not only on looking within oneself, but more on the depth of one’s attention to all things other than himself. It is through deepening our attention to the things around us that we begin to deepen our own sense of presence – in a literal and physical sense, but also probably in terms of the presence we have in relationship to ourselves and the sense of grounding we have in the bodies we inhabit. “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity,” he poignantly states in one of his poems.

Something I think I’ve struggled with of late though is finding the balance between being grounded in the physical and real versus the abstract and interior. In the past couple months, I feel like I’ve found myself wavering between two extremes: from being so fully and completely immersed in my work and allowing it to become the totality of my life and thoughts, leaving no space for introspection or reflection beyond the immediate and present reality, to having something suddenly knock me out of this state – whether by a sudden shift of perspective or even physical relocation – such that I find my sense of reality dislocated altogether, leaving my mind to settle only on the reality within itself.

The latter is where I find myself now, and also constitutes the crux of the ‘wordlessness’ and ‘inexplicable’ that has prompted me to put words on paper at this time. Not necessarily a bad thing, it is a state of being that can be described as nothing else but perplexing, and perhaps also disorienting, all the more so in the frustrating lack of words that seem available to describe it. Still, while I can’t necessarily put words to my current mental state that would clarify what I mean, I can at least describe the underlying characteristic defining it, which is essentially a struggle to ground my thoughts in the present.

Described in such a way, I’m sure this struggle is one relatable to many, but probably with very different undertones and driving forces behind it. While I’m still trying to get a grasp on the unyielding force behind mine, in the hopes that identifying its roots will allow me to regain control over it, I think it is in part linked to the very different realities I’ve experienced lately that have become juxtaposed against each other in such dramatic ways: from spending a month recently in the U.S. (the first time I’d been back in a year) and rediscovering facets of myself and way of being in the world that I hadn’t experienced in a long time, to returning to my life in Zimbabwe and so suddenly and completely becoming immersed into it as though I’d never left, to finally submitting an acceptance to a graduate school offer and having my mind quickly propelled forward into the idea of the new places and physical and mental spaces I will soon be occupying for the next two years (and all the while, still having the recent memory of my two-years lived in Johannesburg, the place that continues to hold the closest association to the feeling of ‘home’ in my mind).

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it is the experience of extreme normality in each of these realities (even the ones yet to be experienced) that feels like the underlying source of bewilderment at any one of their realities. Something about traversing between each of these spaces, which on the one hand feel so normal and natural in and of themselves during the periods in which I am experiencing them, has led my mind to struggle with believing in any of them as ‘real’. It’s not even that the places in themselves are so drastically different from one another, but more that who I am in each of them has felt so drastically different, all whilst underscored by the obvious fact that each has inevitably constituted just another piece of the totality of who I am. For instance, whenever I look back at the memory of one from the viewpoint of another, it almost feels like I’m glimpsing into someone else’s life altogether, but then when I return to one from the other, it deceptively feels as though my present life context has in fact been my reality all along.

I probably sound high in my attempt to describe this inexplicable mental state, or just simply incoherent, but in any case, maybe there is at least some reassurance to be found in the description I’ve recently come across of one of the essential aspects of humanity as being our “fluidity of character and multiple selves.” It’s always nice when someone else’s words seem to succinctly summarize an experience into a context that at least has some connection to something valuable. Perhaps all this disorientation and disconnect from any single reality is just a means of arriving at a greater wholeness in accepting the fluidity between my multiple selves, and relatedly, acceptance of the continuous process of renewal, loss, and new formation of different selves.

Still, throughout all of this, as I fail to find grounding in my present reality, I continue to grapple with the question surrounding the value or danger of having a deeper grounding in the mind than in the exterior. In communicating the value of deep thought and reflection, someone recently expressed to me he was of the opinion that there is no such thing as overthinking. While the sentiment behind his thought was clear and straightforward in the context, it still prompted me to think a lot more about thinking, particularly the kind of thinking that feels uncontrolled and without intention. As much as I agree with the necessity of such thinking, especially in the context of what I described earlier about the core of what even makes us human and truly alive in our own existence, I still think allowing the mind to rest too much within itself ends up actually preventing us from achieving deep connection with the things around us, which ultimately serve to form who we are. Again, it comes down to finding the frontier or space in between, ensuring that we are fully attuned to and grounded in the immediate things outside of us all whilst allowing the landscape of the mind the space and means to reflect.

In thinking about how this interplay between thoughts and action has presented itself in my current work context, I was stuck by this quote from the writer Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Describing how this affects our sense of time, she goes on to say that “the life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”

While not necessarily the most earth-shattering idea, the statement that what we do with each hour is what we do with each day, and ultimately, our lives, was profoundly moving when I first read it. It particularly spoke to my work experience over the past few months, in which it felt as though three months of living had passed in an instant and that time had somehow cheated me as I looked back at all the 12, 14, and 16 hour days spent consumed with nothing but work. All the while through that period, while I’m sure on a deeper level I had recognized that the way I was spending each day would add up to how I spent my weeks and months, by the end of it all, I was left with a memory of the time as something that felt extremely bare and thin.

What it lacked, rendering it devoid of weight and substance, was the spirit. Just as the quote so beautifully reflects, it’s incredible to realize just how much control we have over our experience of time itself, and just how vastly different time can feel depending on the state of mind we inhabit as we experience it. While it’s still very much a work in progress, I think I’ve at least come to realize just how crucial it is to be always cognizant of making sure I’m consciously and consistently infusing the life of the spirit into every day, hour, and even minute. So in this context at least, I can agree with the sentiment that regular thinking and reflection must be woven throughout all that we do, to ensure that we not lose those fundamental aspects of ourselves that truly make us human. Otherwise, we become nothing more than a fixture of our surroundings, alive but not fully living. Even if we manage to be productive in the work or task at hand, the work itself ends up losing its sense of purpose, and we start to lose our core humanness in the process.

I could probably go on for another 50 pages about this but, as with most of my non-structured posts about non-structured things, the lack of conclusion or central point to all that I’ve just written about makes it seem only appropriate to just end it here with an equally non-structured and inconclusive conclusion. I’m not sure if I’ve arrived at any greater clarity in my clumsy attempt to put to words the range of indefinable things that continue to take up much of my thoughts, but if nothing else, thanks to Steinbeck, at least I can say that in the attempt itself I’ve undertaken some form of ‘art’ in just simply putting together letters and sentences for now.

The Breakdown

“…there’s beauty in the breakdown…”

A fragment of lyrics from an old Frou Frou song that randomly surfaces in my mind. The words repeat themselves a few times, seeming to originate from somewhere else…like a whispered suggestion from someone in the distance. I grasp on to them momentarily with my conscious mind, wondering at their strangeness yet at the same time grappling with the way they seem to resonate with some part of me. This part of me desperately urges my mind try to hold onto the words whilst it fails to hold onto much else – letting reason, comprehension, control slip quickly slip away and fade into something unrecognizable.

They represent reassurance, or some semblance of hope at least, as my body gradually becomes lost in the confusion of my thoughts…no longer an entity that is my own but something that feels indescribably out of my control…control that feels increasingly lost in my heaving chest and pounding heart, my gasps for breaths that no longer come so naturally, my trembling hands and arms that feel stiffened by the overwhelming tingling that slowly starts to spread, a tingling that paradoxically feels heavy and suffocating while making me feel light and non-existent, as if my body were not even touching the surfaces on which it were seated, and of course, the tears. The tears that form an ever consistent shield over my eyes, separating me further from my surroundings as they blur my vision with an unwelcome yet unstoppable stream of translucent distortion. I let my mind fixate on the breathing, the quick and sharp in and out gasps that fill my chest, a motion that feels at least partially of my doing, revelatory of some intentionality and control.

Is this the breakdown, I wonder. Is there beauty in this?

Or does the beauty only come from a certain kind of breakdown? The kind that leaves you so broken and shattered that you are left with no alternatives but to pick up some of the pieces and slowly mend them back together. I can see beauty in that – in the poetry of coming to find understanding in the pain, to let oneself be completely and fully vulnerable to it. In vulnerability, one inevitably finds meaning; something constructive and valuable – perhaps all the more valuable because of the struggle it took to find it, the pain that was necessary to become a stronger person and arrive at the new depths of enlightenment that naturally emerge from the experience.

But what if the remnants of the breakdown are not shattered fragments of self waiting to be pieced back together, but simply dust – a dust that dissipates into something unrecognizable, the particles of which quickly blow away and scatter in every direction as you frantically try to scoop them back together, leaving you with nothing but empty space where once there was at least something tangible?

In other words, what if the breakdown renders you unable to piece parts back together because the parts no longer feel like you. What if that fading semblance of an identity, now barely existent, was the one thing keeping you sane, giving some direction to your functioning in the world and your relationship to it – but which seems to become ever more distant with each breakdown. And rather than creating the space for the formation of new identities, leaving you only more lost each time.

I think we often don’t even realize the role that our identities have in our lives until we find them changed or become more consciously attuned to their malleable nature. More process than noun, they represent an ongoing construction, deconstruction, reconstruction, and sense-making of the spaces we occupy in the world. They consist of our self-perceptions and the stories we weave of our own lives and experiences in order to arrive at something coherent and whole. But in the single word ‘identity’ lies manifold definitions and stories, rendered all the more complex by the continuous influences of the identities imposed on us from the outside – the identities we have to other people, or, on a more general level, to the societies whose structures and norms we function within.

Yet despite such illusiveness, malleability, and subjectivity, this concept we’ve come to know as ‘identity’ holds so much power or latent potential for influence (both positive and negative) within our lives that it’s no wonder we come to view it as something so concrete and definable. In my own experience, at least, feeling the loss of this thing that once felt so concrete was enough to make me question reality itself…leading me to the realization that my so-called ‘identity’, or subconscious understanding of self, had become in a way my reality. And honestly, I don’t know that I can even put into words what I mean by ‘reality’ or losing this sense of what is real, because what the heck does ‘reality’ even mean? And yet, clearly I thought I had some grasp of it at one point, otherwise losing it (whatever ‘it’ is) wouldn’t have felt so deeply disorienting.

And when I speak of reality, and identities as they relate to our connection to the world, I’m not even talking about identity in the straightforward or obvious sense (things like race, class, gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, relationships, ethics, etc…not that any of these are by any means even straightforward or definable in themselves) but identity at an even more basic and deeply embedded level…the kind of identity that runs so deep that we rarely even come to question or realize we define ourselves by it until the assumptions upon which it is based become shaken – for instance, assumptions of what we would do or how we would react in certain situations, or assumptions of how we think or feel and how much we control those thoughts and feelings.

And when even the deepest assumptions you have of yourself suddenly become malleable, what do you have left?

I’m not really sure at this point. And I’m also not sure whether it is necessarily a bad thing. From my own experiences and conversations with others, it’s clear that we all seek and crave a sense of identity – and yet, when having these conversations, it’s not always clear, even in hearing how people seek out these identities, why they feel they need them so much to begin with. I can understand striving for identities that contribute to a sense of purpose or lead someone to forge or feel part of a community, or holding to those that acknowledge the struggle or common experience of a certain community, but when it comes to identities that have to do with simply knowing who or what we are and what makes us ‘us’, what true value do they have?

While I have yet to piece together the remnants of unrecognizable scattered dust from my own previously assumed identities, I can at least say that there is something freeing in admitting to the chaos and uncertainty that is being human. I also don’t know that I’ve found beauty in the breakdown, nor have I found peace or enlightenment in the uncertainty, but maybe grasping for such things would ultimately render the uncertainty somehow shallow and in a way, less powerful, by assigning a sense of meaning and definability to something that has no real definition. Most of us are so quick to take the messy, confusing, disorienting, and puzzling of our lives and mold them into something we can understand or relate to or take meaning from – and not to say that these efforts and search for understanding are not critical, but more that the problem lies in our vision of what the end result will be – the implicit assumption that our search must ultimately lead to clarity. But would we still continue to strive and search even if we knew there might never be an answer?

And maybe, instead of constant searching and categorizing and identifying, there is more value in striving to take each new introspection and self-insight as it comes and not attempt to place it in a box or piece it into our overall self-concept…

…essentially, maybe it is better to strive simply to be.