On Discussing Beginnings

Discussing beginnings always degenerates into some kind of talk about the universe, spirituality, theology or at the very least physical philosophy – because when speaking in the present, it is usually assumed there is a past. A place where, at a minimum, the facility for speaking in the present was acquired along with the concepts and ideas that make any discussion worth the participation. But where does the beginning actually begin? And which or whose beginning is the important point of origin? For example, is physical birth the beginning of your life’s tale? Or is it more likely that you become you at some later point, when you begin to accumulate an idea of self and start storing it up with that old friend, memory? The psychologists may interject at this point that it’s a question of nature versus nurture. Your DNA being one part of that nature, and the conditions into which that DNA is placed, nurture. The one seems fixed, while the other seems dreadfully dynamic. Things change. Because everything changes. You might go so far as to say that everything IS change. In that ever-shifting milieu, how important is it to pinpoint an exact point of origin? To fix it, like a bug in amber, is to preserve it. But to be preserved in this way, a thing must die – and it is not particularly auspicious to speaking of life using the language of death. Or maybe auspicious is the wrong word. In any case, describing one’s life in comparison to one’s death seems more like building a sandcastle at high tide than anything else.

So where to begin? And where is begin, anyway? With the benefit of crystal clear hindsight, one can perhaps point out the key milestones on the journey. But often, the milestones we acknowledge now are not the milestones that were at the time, or that we even noticed along the path.

Returning to the Stoic idea that this life is a minutely crafted reproduction that simply repeats infinitely, with no variation or pause, you could imagine the details would be easily recalled, if only because it’s not likely this is your first rodeo. But if in fact a life were simply repeated, it would be necessary for each repetition to be a clean slate. There would not be, as in Eastern reincarnation, the remotest possibility of “remembering” things from previous lives – because those memories would make this reoccurrence different, even if only infinitesimally, from any previous version. These smudges on the carbon copy, in essence, would make subsequent versions less and less legible. So Stoically speaking, there is no benefit from living on infinite repeat other than in the here and now, recognizing yourself to be in a cycle, to make each moment as meaningful as possible. Does that dovetail with the Eastern idea of mindfulness? I’m not sure. I’m also not certain that from the Stoic point of view, the mere act of watching or recognizing one’s breath is sufficient to ensure the meaningfulness of the moment.

So what’s more important – the birth of a person, or the birth of the idea of that person? The physical manifestation of their body, or the self-recognition of themselves as a conscious entity? The dull laundry list of what happened to them as a child, or the perhaps just as dull, but potentially instructive list of how they conducted themselves as a result?

And where, you might ask, does the world fit in? It’s busyness, artifice, interactions, distractions, beauty and ugliness, ongoing growth and decay?

Beginnings indicate a story. A story implies a journey. A journey implies a beginning and an end. So how can the story of one’s life be written while still underway, except as a journal or series of notes that ultimately will need to be reviewed and updated based on current conditions or perceptions before every time it is shared? It is often said of Mozart that he did not compose music – that the piece was formed, complete in his head, and he simply transcribed it. Talk about amor fati! To think that everything, each act, is birthed, like Venus from the half shell, in its final, most perfect state, without error or need for modification. Sometimes, it feels like creativity works that way. But more often than not, at least in my experience, there is a version of a thing that springs forth whole from the source. Sometimes, but not often, it is perfect upon arrival. More likely, it needs a little tweaking – often, a whole lot of tweaking.

Although I have never had dreams or memories that “felt” enough like déjà vu to convince me they were flashes from past lives or previous reincarnations, my own belief in the order of the universe is more akin to Eastern reincarnation and karma than to the Stoic idea of perpetual and yet unmalleable motion. Is there enough of “me” to pass through eons of space and time? I’m not sure. Certainly, compared to the unimaginable (and pointlessly imagined) vastness of infinity my own little spark is insignificant. As Ramakrishna put it, imagine the universe and all time to be a bucket full of water. Your life, while you live it, is the tip of your pinky finger carefully dipped in that bucket, so gently that it causes no ripple. At your death, an equally calm motion and your fingertip is removed. Where is the evidence of your being present at all? A few drops of condensation on your finger? An imperceptible change in the bucket’s water level or temperature?

How can anyone feel important enough to attempt capturing the essence of their life’s uniqueness?

Where does that story – the notion of importance – begin?

I’ve often quipped that if I were to have a grave marker – which is not my wish, by the way – it should read, “Here lies a man who accomplished a great deal of Nothing. Some of which was cherished by those whose lives it touched.” In an essay I wrote in the late 1980s (when I really began to see myself as a manic, peripatetic writer), there is a big different between saying there is nothing to be afraid of and there is Nothing to be afraid of. One implies an absence of an enemy, while the other implies the presence of a great all-consuming void. It is easy to be brave when you face nothing. Confronting Nothingness, on the other hand, with its cheerless implication that win or lose, the encounter may leave you with less than you started in a way that perhaps is not immediately measurable or meaningful, is certainly more daunting. Leaving no record of one’s life, no sure transcription of why you thought you did what you thought you did because you thought it was the right thing to do, is accepting that Nothingness is the not only the ultimate goal, but a great deal of the journey. Not a “cloud of unknowing” but a “mist of un-being”, in which there is no yoga or union with the Divine, but a simple flash out of existence that leaves no trace.

So what is there to trace in the first place? Benvenuto Cellini asserted that “all men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand”. But excellence is so subjective – and so much of what is believed to be excellent, when compared with stuff that really is excellent, is mediocre at best. And again, it seems the notions of honesty and truth are also highly subjective, particularly when viewed at convenient distance across decades of comfortable remove. Like the title elder or sage when self-applied, there is something smug and distastefully self-serving about naming your own output as excellence. But then again, if it really is excellent, who else could possible know it, except someone capable of producing an equal or greater excellence? It’s that damned Dunning-Kruger effect again, making it impossible for someone to really understand how little they know, or how little excellence their output contains, without a certain amount of knowledge or the minimum level of excellence required to even know what excellence is.

Ultimately, it becomes like Western civilization’s ultimate Zen koan – John Cage’s poem 13 Words (“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it. That is poetry.”). In the ultimate reversal of the quip, “those who can’t do, teach” the serious self-biographer straddles a Taoist tightrope: the way that can be described is not the way; the history that can be written down is not really the history.

Better then to start with the present; or at least, to use the present as an anchor thrown down to the ocean’s floor, linking the boat to both the depths, and a dynamic, fluid circumference around which to float back and forth, viewing alternatively the skyline through the mists hanging in each direction, and the varying illusions that bubble to the surface or can be caught in nets thrown overboard. A lot of metaphor for a single, deceptively simple set of tasks.

Ever since reading Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television I have surmised that we absorb information (for both education and entertainment – and I’m not altogether sure the two are ever actually separated) in three very different ways. The first source is direct sensory connection – we touch, taste, hear, see, smell a specific dataset. Closely aligned, but slightly different, is the secondary sensory connection – we hear but must interpret, like a spoken conversation; we read in a book and imagine various direct sensory connections and manufacture in our minds a response. The third source is involuntary absorption, occurring without consciousness handling or otherwise rational interpretation during loading. This is how a medium like television, which presents us with an image not formed externally from our bodies and scanned, but actually presented as a million points of light (or pixels, if you will) shot into our eyes like a ray gun and assembled by our brains in an area just past (or inside) the rational cognitive regions of our collective gray matter. Of course, we remember each of these experiences very much the same – with an upload date, upload type, summary and detail of the contents. Very effective computers, our brains; but the same maxim of “garbage in, garbage out” applies to all computing systems, including our cranium cased Hyper-Cray.

But do we remember everything the same way? And how, if there is a difference, does that affect how we recall our lives when in the process of chronicling our past? From personal experience, I can verify that there are events that I recall as actually occurring moments in my life, in the meat space of actual place and time, that seem more like a memory of a television show or movie than something real. Of course, there’s that pesky subjective real again. Is imagination somehow less real than tangible, physical action? Aren’t both, if you believe some Eastern philosophers, equal parts illusion, a veil of maya covering our true selves and their underlying Self-Realization?

My earliest memories are flashes that may be either internally or externally captured snapshots. I wonder, in a world obsessed with digital self-documentation, the extent to which anyone will be able to discern in ten or twenty years what actually happened to them in the flesh, versus what happened online.

It’s been suggested that the human mind never forgets anything – that everything to which it has been exposed is stored in the memory. The trick in remembering is then just recalling exactly where, in which file drawer, so to speak, the memory is found. The difficulty in such a system is that there is no master index, no card catalog. While it may seem that you could say, “give the events of May 13, 1977” and eventually have them brought to the table, like the contents of a safe deposit box, the reality is that these memories are more akin to a spinning roulette wheel – or spinning dart board. You can place a bet on a specific number – or take aim at a particular spot on the board, but it really is a matter of luck whether you are successfully in making it there. Elvis Costello, on a couple of his world tours, provided a huge wheel at the back of the stage, where each slice represented a song from his at that time, medium-large catalog. The wheel was spun, and the song upon which the needled landed, was played – potentially multiple times in an evening, or conceivably, in a row. Extending that device to the days or moments of one’s life makes for either an immense wheel, or incredibly small instances upon which to land. And of course there’s always the question – is this the actual memory of an event, or is it a memory of that memory. For example, I remember receiving my first Hardy Boys book on my 6th birthday. But how and through what filter is that memory delivered? Are the details as I perceive them now, or are they colored by how I remembered that event when I was 16 or 26? In other words, memory is always a subjective interpretation based on the conscious now of the person remembering, but are they remembering an original or a reprint? Does it make a difference, ultimately, since even if separate people who were present were to offer their interpretation of an event, and by comparison of these separate experiences one could eliminate any deviations and arrive at a somehow cumulative “true” narrative of it, how much of it could be truly believed to be a factual recount? Every history ever written down, from the ancient Greeks to the Romans to the present day relies upon the filter of its current lens to put the importance, weight, and/or significance of past events in perspective. Ah, yes, perspective. The dictionary tells us perspective is the art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point; alternatively, a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view; or even an apparent spatial distribution in perceived sound. Since one’s life is, more than anything else, either work of art or at the very least, a point of view, both definitions are instructive. A life, one can imagine, is like a stone tossed in a pond – it has repercussions, reverberations. Ramakrishna suggests that these ripples are so short-lived, in the overall scheme of things, to be infinitely meaningless. I suppose that depends on both the size of the bucket into which the stone is dropped, and the height of the water in the bucket at the time. Once can imagine in a small enough bucket (and ultimately, the size of the bucket reflects the cultural boundaries of one’s time) with enough water in it (representing, I suppose, the relative “fullness” of that culture in terms of atmospheric absorption of moisture – or illumination, enlightenment, readiness, etc. – to the size of one’s bucket), even the smallest pebble might cause a significant enough upset to cause waves sufficient to spill water over the edge. You could draw the analogy that as a bucket’s capacity is reached, the individual drops of water represent individual people in a given time. Enough of a disturbance would, like a war, cause a significant drop in the bucket’s water level as thousands or more drops were splashed over the side – even accidentally.

On a personal level, the same could be said for individual change. When I was young and philosophically foolish, I used to describe the use of drugs or other self-medication in this way: a person’s life is a door which opens to two rooms, one reality and one fantasy. We live by constantly swinging that door back and forth, between the two chambers. Self-medicating is the equivalent of adding oil to the door’s hinges. The door swings freer, and faster. Some people, however, are born with better hinges than others. When their door swings, it stays affixed to the door frame no matter how violent or passionately the action. Others’ hinges begin to loosen, their screws stripped from the wood. At some point, their doors come completely away from their frame, and the door falls completely into one room or the other, or is jammed in between – in a state of hardcore reality or hardcore fantasy, or simply stuck in the middle motionless. There are some voyages from which you only return half-way home.

But what if that half-way point is actually supposed to be your destination? If you accept the proposition that “everything happens for a reason” – ultimately a kind of fatalism that rejects both free will and the notion of grace (i.e., salvation granted without reason, at Divine whim).

It seems that writing one’s personal history implies a sense of urgency. Why start now? Why not wait until after something really important happens? This of course infers that nothing to date passes that test; and I suppose it is the curse of every creative person to look at their oeuvre to date and think little of it, to see it as mere preamble to one’s Great Work. All the while others are cooing and gathering around telling you how great you are, or at least how important you are to their sense of importance. After all, knowing a great or smart or talented or famous person is almost as essential as being one, right? It may in fact be a preferable state, since it means a life lived near enough to the limelight to bask in the glow, and yet not be continually tortured by the personal demons that by necessity must accompany the genius. What was it Soren Kierkegaard said, What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music … And men crowd about the poet and say to him: ‘Sing for us soon again’; that is as much as to say: ‘May new sufferings torment your soul.’

So what is so urgent in my own life? Am I more worried about forgetting than of convincing myself that the Nothing I’ve undertaken and completed is actually important enough to merit documentation? Where is the line in the sand drawn by that pendulum that swings between optimistic underachiever and philosophical busy-body? Is that in fact the polar axis of living, or is it something else entirely?

I feel woefully unqualified to either satisfactorily document my own life, or to examine the reasons I feel unqualified to do so.

Henry Miller writes of finding an anchor around which to float and collect thoughts worthy of transcribing. Every time I think I’ve found an anchor, it feels more like a millstone – that I’m not carefully held in place on the surface, but being taken down, down into the depths.

I read the histories of others; autobiographies are the most useful, and at the same time, most daunting, because they suggest that committing an interesting history of self is at least possible, if not at times entertaining to others. Those works that are at best semi-autobiographical, like Henry Miller, seem to make the most sense; but to what extent are they true? And the “purely historical records” like Benjamin Franklin’s seem like recollections at safe and comfortable enough distance to make them mere recitations. The memories of popular living or recently living figures (e.g., Keith Richard, Bob Dylan, Billy Graham, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Tony Iommi) seem inflated with assistance of ghost writers or editors to make sure what is supposed to be most important is seen as most important.

In a lifetime that consists of a myriad of choices, I suppose writing an autobiography requires the writer to identify what they feel are the key, critical decisions. But as I’ve noted before, are these the decisions that seemed most important at the time, or through the lens of hindsight seem the most critical and informative? Further, a memoir implies an audience. Does the audience really care about the decisions or choices someone else makes, unless they support their worldview and perspective on the validity and nature of the outcome? In other words, so what that I made decision X, if it doesn’t validate the reader’s belief that people who make X choice end up like Y – a positive or negative outcome depending on the philosophy, morality, religious inclination or other agenda. To prove, for example, that a lifetime of sin and debauchery results in the epiphany necessary to get through the Pearly Gates seems an outcome at odds with the moral code of a person who believes in the strict straight and narrow as the only acceptable path, who holds in contempt any individual attesting, believing, or acting otherwise. Of course, the Devil’s advocate, or any other rational person for that matter, might suggest that very contempt is the reason why people who believe they will be raptured still seem to be around after every proclaimed Days’ End. What if the Devil’s mark, the Bible’s “666” was in fact, “stick, stick, stick” or a crucifix, and all who wore it were marked as lost?

Choices. Forks in the road. The road less traveled. The path of least resistance. The high road. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

But what if there is no “destination”? What if it’s all about the road, and not so much the distance you travel, or your difficulty in “keeping up the pace” so as to not block traffic? So often we look at life as having a beginning, middle, and end – and an implied velocity. Excelsior! Ever onward! Never backward (and don’t look back, because someone might be gaining on you, quote Satchel Paige), never sideways, never idle. Keep your eye on the prize – true north.

Today is November 8, 2016. The annual elections occurred yesterday, and the Republican Party now has control of all three branches of government. This does not change true north, for me. But I suspect it is a tipping point. I wonder whether or not true north can be a shared destination. I have never believed it to be. Talk of universal ideals and brotherhood and noble truths and shared goals always seems to be little more than talk. Our theories of universal brotherhood look good on paper. But there are few examples of those theories ever working out in practice. Plato’s Republic was a pipe dream too – just another old man’s imagining the world in a way it was never meant to be.

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