I used to do this weird thing as a kid. I would pretend to be asleep. My whole family would be up and about on a Saturday morning and I would just lay there in bed with my eyes closed trying to convince the world that I was still sleeping. I was awake and tracking the noises around me. I was also determined not to let anything perturb me or my self-imposed catatonia. This all came back to me today in a flash of memory; my brother screaming in my ear, “Wake up Dave. Wake up!!!” And me just laying there like Otzi the frozen man.
And now that I am thinking about this and laughing at my stubborn resolve in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, it occurs to me that my parents didn’t get involved. Or they probably were enlisted by my frustrated siblings, stuck their head in the door and figured out the game straight away.
I also now think back on the perverse pleasure I got just by causing my poor brother to engage in my madness. In the tight dark world of my adolescent sleeping fantasy, I just couldn’t believe that he actually continued to try and rouse me. Once the game was on there was no backing down for me. To suddenly “wake up” would be to admit my charade. So I just lay there with my brother shaking me and screaming “Wake UP!!!” in my ear.
This was all seems pretty silly now. At some point after my brother would finally give up I would get out of bed and claim obliviousness to the whole incident. I would actually insist that I was just very tightly sleeping. Very, very tightly.
Ridiculous, right? But it was about something. Maybe it was about control. And the joy of staying purely inside myself while the world went mad trying to break in. I read this wonderful essay by Chris Higgins where he says “…we all actively shrink from the world in countless ways, to what we can use and what we can bear.”
When I think of it like that I recognize the powerful impulse in us to be self contained and impervious. I also recognize how this comfort zone limits my ability to sense the world, to learn from it. The philosophical stance, the awareness of our ignorance as the beginning of knowledge, can only be seen as essential to break out of this limitation. It’s about fighting like the dickens to maintain an openness, especially towards well meaning individuals with whom we disagree. Believing what we believe is not the issue. We all need to do that. We must also remain open.
As Higgins says:
“Open-mindedness in turn appears first as a sort of aesthetic sensitivity, a capacity to perceive the uniqueness of a complex, irreducible situation. Then it takes the more familiar forms of humility and impartiality. Finally, it seems to represent a type of integrity, a capacity to avow the stranger within and reintegrate the self.”
I am building layers in my studio. My recent efforts in surface design involve pattern creation using stencils that I cut in acetate which are then used to print color onto fabric. I rotate the stencil (in this case a loose grid of rhomboids) and repeat the printing process with a second contrasting color. I use translucent dyes which when layered create a third color. In this case I started with a bright red-magenta and overlaid a muted blue. A lovely purple happened where the colors overlaid.
In thinking about mental patterns and the benefits that arrive by allowing for the possibility of changing them, I recognized this artistic exercise as illustrating this process. The third color that appeared, the purple, was not possible without first creating one pattern and then starting completely over with another. The color also wouldn’t appear as visually striking if the colors weren’t profoundly divergent (red and blue).
Our patterns of thought have a certain beauty. They can be regular and uniformly pleasing. But a much more powerful and interesting thing happens when two opposing patterns interact. These interference patterns bring us a new level of understanding. They tease out something new that wasn’t in each pattern individually. Something emerged from the interaction. The overlayed patterns form points where they conjoin to make new information.
I look out my window this morning and see the bare tree branches quivering in a slight breeze. A bird’s shadow breaks across and then the bird itself appears. Within that brief moment of awareness my brain informed me of something irregular to the pattern (the shadow) which allowed my perception to anticipate what followed; the sighting the bird itself, then quickly incorporating that feathered creature into my visual field. If I wasn’t open to it I wouldn’t realize that a surprise happened. Typically, because of the stretch of time I have spent on this planet, I would just automatically build it into my pre-organized familiarity. It would just “sort of happen” and I would move on the more important stuff. As if that event itself wasn’t really important. This morning that bird really happened.
We lose the ability to be surprised as we age. And that’s not too surprising either. The long march of accumulated experience falls into pattern and becomes apparently predictable as time passes. Even novel interjections are de-mystified and flattened by this expectation of the ordinary.
Maybe this ability to be surprised is worth reconsidering. Maybe over time our natural astonishment about life needs to be augmented by a self-generated one. It seems that’s why bird watching is so engrossing. We allow ourselves an opportunity to set aside the knowledge that this is all familiar and open up to a different sense: All is Unexpected! Part of birding is seeing that rare bird of course. But in every bird-walk our joy in fulfilled when the stillness of the woods becomes animated. But first we must be open. Just because we opened our eyes by separating our eyelids doesn’t mean our eyes are open.
Assessment and categorization are automatic habits in us that proceed from surprise. We both desire surprise and also dispense with it as quickly as possible. Something strange is going on. When we get in “naturing mode” by heading out to the woods, by quieting ourselves, by letting our eyes dilate slightly, we beg for surprise. But just as quickly as it happens, as the bird finally appears, we change into the organizer of experience, we say “That’s a House Finch.” Because not to do this would be not to close the circle. But to close a circle is not to end our path around it. I’ve started thinking of this circle as the circle of effort and awe.
There are two goals in experience; to gain understanding through effort and to increase our awareness through awe. The trick is to keep our brain ready to move. Proceeding all too quickly from surprise into analysis is just the way we are wired. Survival relies on bringing the unexpected into comprehension, mainly to evaluate threat or to recognize possible reward.
Moving the other way takes practice. Disengaging ourselves from the identifying labels that we paste on experience, realizing that we have only managed to brush up against a small part of the surface of what we can know about something, turns us back towards awe. With practice we can remember the limitations that our categorizations impose. The sense of novelty is dependent on us as much as on fresh sensation. The deeper investigation of life relies on reanimating this cycle of wonder.
It’s strange how one thing can lead to another. Sometimes the result is hodgepodge, sometimes pattern. Today it was intricate, well ordered, lustrous pattern.
I began this morning by picking up where I left off last night with my “drifting off” thoughts in bed. Ironically for someone who, like many others, has preparation for sleep in mind when he reads in bed the subject of my evening’s read was mental restlessness. I’m reading “Open Minded” by Jonathan Lear and he puts the idea of restlessness out there as a basic feature of the human psyche. OK, maybe not the best book for your bedside table at night. But I get up this morning (having successfully put aside that concept in favor of actual restfulness) thinking about the disruptive function of restlessness and how it works to break up the cozy comforts of “knowingness”.
My Sunday morning pledge is to not look at social media until I actually accomplish something. Sunday morning is also my “Bible study.” Well, that’s what I call it anyway and sometimes it involves studying the actual Bible. But it is always dedicated to pondering imponderables. After sitting quietly with the usual morning muddle of my own thoughts during which I drink my first cup of coffee (I told you this was a routine!), I go off in search of the term “disruption.”
This leads to a chain of exploration which winds up with Eukaryota, which is kind of an important word for reasons we will discover. For now let’s just leave it here on the page with its lovely pronunciation: “You-carry-oh-tah.”
I’m glad I woke up today. I say it out loud: “You-carry-oh-tah.” (just so beautiful.)
Let me recount the descent of thought I followed from just typing “disruption” into the search field. If you prefer “ascent” that’s fine. Just beware that you are now identified as hopelessly cheery.
Up pops “The Disruption of 1843.” Sounds curious. Many years are full of disruption. Why does 1843 rise above the others to earn distinction on the disruptiveness scale? It turns out that a great schism occurred in the Scottish church that year involving dissent over who controlled the placement of clergy in local churches and who was really in charge after all. According to those rebels who decided to part ways from their established church, it was most certainly not the state!
A side discovery to this was finding an amazing portrait of over 400 of the 1000 plus Scottish dissenters who met to begin their independence movement. A painter present for the festivities wanted to memorialize the confab and a photographer who was also present offered to take pictures of the rabble as reference material. It was a pioneering event in the history of photography and resulted in one amazing 5’ x 11’ painting. (See image here)
From there I picked up on “Presbyterianism” because I remembered something about it starting in Scotland as a religious movement with emphasis on local control of church teaching and organization, rather than relying on hierarchical dictates. In that Wikipedia article there was a curious editor’s warning that said emphatically; “This section possibly contains original research.” Well that certainly caught my attention since I was under the impression that Wikipedia was all about original research. Turns out to be anything but! A basic rule for them is that nothing should appear on any page without referencing established resource material. In other words, you can’t just put any old shit up there. Wait… this IS the internet isn’t it?
From there I went off onto a little bit of a worm-hole tangent. Just stay with me.
On the Wikipedia page that describes the above policy regarding “original research” there was a small flag at the bottom “Wikiversity allows original research”. Hey, thank goodness somebody does! Again, my interest in the theme of disruption was demanding some access to the open air here. And “Wikiversity” sounded interesting. I think I could afford to go there!
Wikiversity is part of the “Wiki” nebulae, an element of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is in turn part of the Wikimedia Movement. And that’s a lot of Wiki. Wikiversity is a free school, a collection of learning materials developed through the generosity of spirit that runs rife through this whole enterprise. After noodling around this cloud college for a while I saw a list of other projects that the Wikimedia Foundation has going. First I tried Wikinews but that was a little thin (the content seemed to be dominated by English football for some reason.)
The next morsel of click bait for me was Wikispecies. I have no idea why. There was also Wikivoyage which sounded too leisurely I guess. This was study time after all. On Wikispecies I looked at several pages but they all contained just taxonomy with no narrative content. I did learn that wrens and finches are related so now I’ve got that little factoid to wield on my next trip birding. (me) “Did you know wrens and finches are related?” (her, looking at a wood duck) “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”
Now comes the part where those members of my audience in the “cheery” faction get their due. I found myself looking at the taxonomy structure and wondering what was towards the top. I was ascending! Way up there, above order, above class, above phylum, above kingdom even… was that word: Eukaryota. “You-carry-oh-tah.”
This was the big kahuna! The Domain. All organisms with a cell structure that contain a nucleus with genetic material belong to it. Its the mother ship. The uber category. The Realm of the Seven Kingdoms. The background category that every form of life belongs to.
The theme of this blog is the life we live in between. We have our main life, usually one of work and home and family. And we have our other life. The one we use to offset the primary life. Vacation. Hobbies. Community service. If we lived only in the first life we might function responsibly but we might also arrive at that dreaded sense of stagnancy. Endless cycles in the mundane. Featureless existence on a long slog towards our demise.
Life proceeds without our prompting. But our sense of being alive depends crucially on our ability to inject our energy into it. And this ability must be expressed in two ways; our responsible existence, and our crazy life. In the time we are allowed we are provided the opportunity to create this crazy space that helps us to regain something. I know that life wants a discussion about what is possible. But practical Dave says this can’t happen. Or that is just plain crazy. We can’t afford it. It can’t be done. Dreamer Dave says “Why not?” So we move into little spots where our dreams can meet up with reality. We buy a boat. We start a project that benefits the community. We open our minds to a way of thinking that isn’t part of our habit.
I find that this creates a space in between. I call it “Life in the Hyphen” because it exists as real as both sides of life. It is where we find wholeness and peace. If we are courageous enough to create both we can then find a point of balance in that “between”.