Like a Southbound Train; or, Writing out of the Animated World

Lately I’ve been exploring my emotional response to rocks.

Does that say something unfortunate about me? Shouldn’t I be exploring my relationship to my long-dead father, or my inner fears, or why I hate my neighbors, or my notions of gods and the spirit?

Or is it all the same thing? Am I on some spiritual trip, a connection with the ineffable, that thing we humans can’t seem to resist, finding something bigger than ourselves? And in my case at the moment, LITERALLY bigger than myself — this glacial erratic my forest trail has led me to.

This giant boulder takes up space, it has a relationship to time, albeit far different than mine. It is a natural history of which I am a moment, one hand on the cool side of the rock, a sinew in the grand continuity of matter and energy, as far as we know. We are briefly together, erratic and I.

Why does some landscape seem to speak to me? I write into this question over and over in my work but cannot come to a satisfying reply. Why did I feel uneasy in New Mexico’s desert lands until we drove up to where the pine forests grew? Why was I drawn to the austere beauty of Newfoundland, why am I halted always in my tracks at the magic of a certain turn in the trail on Hadley Mountain?

Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “My life … runs back through time and space to the very beginnings of the world and to its utmost limits. In my being I sum up the earthly inheritance and the state of the world at this moment.”

I’ve been reading about consciousness — i.e., what the hell is it? There is a notion that is creeping onward (with the kind of eyebrow-raised reluctance that was engendered by Shrodinger’s cat poser), panpsychism, that consciousness is one big thing, of which material objects like bodies are merely a portion. This is tragically woo-woo and yet so sensible, I think, as I pat pat pat the side of my rock, its chilly nubbled and damp cheek.

Rachel Carson wrote:“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” She wrote that we have a “grave and sobering responsibility…a shining opportunity…to go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”

I just finished Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss, so am hyperaware of the patches of tiny furled mosses, some dry and black caked as tar; and the lichens, which I read somewhere described as an algal/fungal sandwich. We are each a universe, I think, with a nod to my inner bacteria.

As a member of a talky species I rely on words. But I also know I am missing something vital when I chatter into the quiet, especially the quiet of my own mind, and when I ask incessantly “what is this” when I’m stilled by a moment in a landscape. Is the moss winking at me from its fisty matt? No, it’s just a brief glint of sun through storm clouds. Right? Is that my bacteria talking, or am I really hungry? Was it that New Mexico’s pines nodded to me as I rose among them, saying, Oh, yes, we’ve heard about you? This great stone is speaking to me without words. Or am I crazy?

The idea of the subtle quivering of all things, becoming attuned to it, and letting it inform my writing — this is worth thinking about. It’s not just the beech leaves in wind that shiver but the very bark of the branch, the roots, the soil. Even on the rare instances I write about an urban experience, to be aware of all the vibration around me — from the literal metro rumble under my feet to the shimmering electrons of the pitcher of water on my table, the wayward stone under the slim sole of my shoe. From such magic may I reach out, and may my works be as alive.


Rocka My Soul; or On Consciousness, the Self, and the Body

I’m not much for woo woo. I generally believe life is a series of largely random events strung together by coincidence and not-so-random “what did you THINK was going to happen when you stood on a rocking chair to change a lightbulb” kind of chain of events. I don’t really WANT to be this hard-eyed sometimes. I’d like to believe that there is some power at work with us, within us, without us. That there is Something else. But mostly I’m pretty sure there ain’t.

But in the way that happens sometimes, my various reading material has been coalescing recently. Coincidence? Recently, I’ve been conscious of consciousness, and what people are saying about the mind and the self.

A New York Times article stated this on 7/5/16: “Michael Graziano, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, suggested … that consciousness is a kind of con game the brain plays with itself. The brain is a computer that evolved to simulate the outside world. Among its internal models is a simulation of itself — a crude approximation of its own neurological processes. The result is an illusion. Instead of neurons and synapses, we sense a ghostly presence — a self — inside the head. But it’s all just data processing.”

And I thought, yup, that makes sense. We’re flesh, bone, electricity. That’s all.

But then, Marilynne Robinson had this objection to the state of neurosicence research around consciousness in her essay “Humanism” in The Givenness of Things:

“The amazing complexity of the individual cell is being pored over in other regions of science, while neuroscience persists in declaring the brain, this same complexity [as a cell] vastly compounded, an essentially simple thing.”

And I thought, well, maybe she’s right. Maybe we’re not being open to the possibilities of what could make up the self, could explain the -ism of being human.

Robinson suggests that neuroscience essentially lacks the imagination that physicists have used to posit the surprising things they encounter. Can’t there be more to matter than matter, they ask? Perhaps there is anti-matter, they suggest, and seek to explain what they see by way of this new idea. Robinson wants Graziano and his ilk to get past the data processing simplification and see the magic of human consciousness as possibly containing, well, some magic. Some spirit — something Else.

There seems to be power for the body in positive thinking, exercising the body can lighten the mind, imagining your tennis stroke can improve it. The mind/body wall is melting. But does that mean the body is all in the mind; or the mind is all in the body? Am I my body? Is my body’s encounter with the world the ingredients of “me”? Am I more than that?

But this mind/body question was brought viscerally home to me with this statement by Ta-nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me:

“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are ourselves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

And I thought, yes. That’s some powerful thinking, especially in the context of the cold reality of being a black man in the U.S. The tender flesh — there is nothing else.

But then I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater the other night.

Oh, my, the magic in those moving bodies. The spirit. Shit, you all. That was Something Else.