Now, I may have been more than half asleep at that point, but a thought arose that abides in me. I wished I could sit at the feet of that eternal soul and learn. He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man. And of course that is exactly what he is. "For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him?" In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable–which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
- Marilynne Robnson, Gilead
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I consider it a particular blessing to have lived long enough to have read this book.
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The fact that no one can ever possibly know what it's been like to be you, to have been you, what the exact fall and order of your going has been, the memories you have lost and the odd ones that cling to you like burdock seeds, the scars latticed below your skin as well as skating across it, the frustrations, losses, griefs, ecstasies and dreams you've held, the private history of touch your body has known in tenderness, in passion, in violence, the things you do not say, do not admit even to yourself, the absences and omissions as well as the details of every move are lost, lost, lost to all but yourself and too often you do not consider these things at all. You are busy with work and routine and managing the tasks set before you and the days whip past and the days whip past and the days whip past so quietly that you do not notice that you have not noticed them. The aesthetics you live by (even if you reject the idea of aesthetics) are on display in the clothes you wear (or don't), the furniture you keep, the dishes you use, the food you eat and all those things you keep close at hand: pets or pictures, keepsakes of no value save your own, the color of your walls, the condition of your shoes and each and every small thing is a decision made or unmade, an accrual of layers and layers of decisions that form the aesthetic you live by, even when you don't notice you have one.
And so too, the things you judge to be worthy or not - in your own sphere, and in the larger spheres in which your own orbit is consumed.
And all of this is to say simply that there is more inside your head than you realize and the bit you are able to share with us, with others is but a fraction of that vastness poorly realized. We round up, we cut corners in our memory because the specifics are too hard to keep straight or too hard to look at. And we are oceanic with tides that pull us apart as we try to sort out how to forgive our parents, how to forgive ourselves, how to make a place to lay our bodies down, how to face a world that is indifferent to our presence and still be at home in it. What we share out is just the easiest thing we can do. We can bear it and we can make it rhyme with the stories of others and place ourselves inside a continuum where things make some sense.
Except when they don't. Except when all that we are, all that is known only to ourselves, the spirit that is in us rebels, rejects the sense that has been made for it. It wants its own voice, but where to begin? How can we ever trust what is just ours when it so often doesn't match the route and map placed in our hands?
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I am drawn to this idea that we each are our own little civilizations. We stand on rubble and ruin and re-imagine life out of the materials at hand. And what is at hand, always, is the past, those who've gone their way and left whatever mark, however transient or misunderstood, behind. Here language solidifies the little civilization in our head: I am certain when I use the word "work" I am not referring to employment. This is not mere semantics and the splitting of hairs. It matters. To me. Perhaps, only to me. Perhaps only to this degree. But it is the language I have. This is what Robinson is getting at when she writes: We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity.
Yet, these same notions of decency and sanity are approximations, willfully ignorant agreements that don't get too close or shine too brightly. For the fucked, this is maddening. Language is the one tool that we think is universal, that can excavate, make clear, make beautiful the civilization inside our head. But if it is all a social agreement that we generally mean x instead of y, where can you turn to unfuck what has gotten fucked?
The language you use and the way you use it is idiosyncratic, imprecise in some ways, surgical in others. It is a mixed bag, a mixed diction of high and low and sacred and profane. And what is sacred to you is just as idiosyncratic. This is not a cause for hopelessness. It is the very source of your freedom.
The goal isn't to be understood, but rather to understand–yourself and the life you are living: its sources, currents, the wells of its meaning. By needs be this is idiosyncratic, specific to you in this time and this place, by the experiences you've had, endured and half-remembered. There is no need to dumb it down or round off the edges or make it so others find it appealing or approve of it. There is only the need for you to be alive to it, to be immersed in it, to know it and understand why you prefer to be near water instead of mountains, why poetry does nothing for you, but house music does, why the sight of old dogs kindles peace in your breast, but the idea of zoos repels you. It is not for us to know you, but for you to know yourself.
From there the work you do (according to my definition of work) is how we, the rest of us, the stretch of eternity before us, will have some inkling of what moves you. There may even be an echo or a rhyme, but it can never be copied. And that is to be heartily desired.
* * *
Maps are for tourists. And that is one way to undergo the experience of being alive. It may even be how the vast majority do it. As such it can also be the thing that stops you, makes you feel out of joint, disconnected: not really yourself. Nothing feels real, just proven, tired, proofed.
The utterly vast spaces between the life you are living and the life in your head, the utterly vast spaces between the two of us, between you and the rest of creation feel inviolable: an impossibility. Yet, your concern is not the distance between us, at least it should not be. Rather, your concern is to know yourself, the vastness of yourself, the multitudes that you are. And from there turn that knowledge outward. Not so that others know you, but so that you can add beauty to the world's store. A life alive to itself, unafraid of the cosmos, willing to be here, now, is a beauty beyond words. It emboldens and encourages the lives it meets. It sends out messages of hope: not for a universal communion, but an individual renaissance.
Lives so lived live long after their deaths.
Lives so lived are rewards unto themselves for the sheer pleasure of having had a body and a chance.
Lives so lived are unfucked where it matters: inside.
Lives so lived are the metaphor and the thing itself.
Ditch the map. Know what is vast and beautiful inside yourself. It will tell you what to do next.
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NOTE: I'll be posting only once a week for a while. I want to stretch out and work on longer pieces. Let me know how it goes. Thanks.