Alternate Reality

As I wake up this morning, the view out the window (above) doesn’t look auspicious for thoughtful meandering outdoors. So I decide to do my regular month-end “reflective walk” on the treadmill in the apartment’s gym.

There are now lots of amazing 4k (UHD) walking tour videos of just about every place on the planet, so I queue up some of them (Bali, Bhutan, Japan, Açores, Morocco, South Africa) ready to imagine myself in those places as I walk. As usual, I make up stories of people and places and subjects for discussion to accompany my imaginings.

(I do this with movies too — I just turn off the sound and create my own soundtrack, plot and character development as I watch. In my experience it’s usually far more interesting than the scripted soundtrack, and I can include myself in the plot so it becomes almost immersive. And so with the walking tours.)

I imagine who I might be walking with and what we might say about what we are seeing. If stories are all we are, we might as well make our story as interesting and engaging as possible, no?

As I’ve come to realize the utter unreality of the story of the separate self — the prison we construct for ourselves and live in all our lives — my story has increasingly diverged from the official narrative I created in early childhood and have curated, and been conditioned to believe to be true, all my life.

The old ‘story of me’ has never really served me well. So call it escapism, or just escaping, but the invention of radically alternative stories to the one I’ve contrived and reluctantly lived in all my life, is an enormously enjoyable form of play.

And my sense is it’s no more a fiction than the story of me I used to take so seriously.

screen shot from 8K World’s Bali video

So, in this alternative story, inspired by the video, I’m walking along a hilly path in Bali, chatting with a local woman, our guide, and two European tourists I’ve met since my arrival here. We’re talking about free will, about loss, about what it means to be wild.

I stop and recite, apparently from memory, the late Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

The Balinese woman, who is named Ni Luh, though that is not her real name, points at a flower growing by the side of the path. Karel, one of my new friends here, says “Plumeria”. Mette, my second new friend, says “Frangipani”.

Ni Luh smiles and motions us to look closer. “It doesn’t answer to any name,” she says. “What is it saying to you?”

We lean closer, to look and then to smell, and then go to answer the question. Ni Luh signals — a ‘shush’ motion. “Don’t tell us; what it’s saying to you is unique to you. What’s important is to listen, to pay attention. As the birds do, as the insects do.”

She goes on: “Its rich scent plays a trick on the moths that fertilize it. It promises nectar, but unlike most flowers it has none. My uncle says it just plays at being a flower, and the moths don’t mind. In my grandmother’s culture, it represents female sexuality, something she says almost all human cultures repress and suppress — our animal nature, our goddess nature…  It’s all about chemistry, you know — we have no choice but to let our ‘soft animal body’ love what it loves.”

Mette nods: “Yes. If only we could all accept that. None of it is about us, who ‘we’ are. None of it is personal, volitional, but we seem obsessed with taking everything personally. It’s tragic.”

Ni Luh smiles: “Just a warning though. If you see a woman with one of these flowers in her hair, pay close attention to where she’s from and which ear she wears it over.”

I look up from the treadmill. The snow is blowing in little eddies around the walkway outside. There’s a fog rolling in as the temperature rises. It looks unreal outside, the endless blobs of white and grey, like a poorly-done painting, with insufficient attention to the source and intensity of light. The story in my head, and on the screen, and in my feet, walking swiftly and carefully along the deep green path, seems more real than the world ‘outside’.

The four of us resume walking along the path, in silence, gradually moving toward lower ground, toward the beach. I am trying to pay more attention, with all my senses. But I don’t know how to do that — I’m unpracticed, my senses are overwhelming me, and my thoughts — judgements, assessments, meaning-making — are getting in the way. I almost lose my balance; Ni Luh senses it and grabs me to prevent me falling off the path.

I stumble on the treadmill. In the mirror of the gym, one of the guys working out looks over at me, hearing the noise.

A moment later Karel says: “I’ve been thinking about something, and I’m wondering if the rest of you have any thoughts about it… It seems to me, on the one hand, that the human species doesn’t like change much, fighting it at every turn. But on the other hand, our species doesn’t seem to notice change happening very well, especially if it’s gradual. I recently read something I wrote ten years ago, and as I read it I thought ‘Who is this person who wrote this?’ I’ve changed so much, but until I get a reality check like that, I seem to believe I haven’t changed at all. So I’m wondering: Is our aversion to change and our obliviousness to change related?”

Mette replied: “Well, I’d say that our aversion to change is rooted in fear of the unknown and the uncontrollable. Our obliviousness to gradual change is more likely due to the fact that our sense of time as a continuity of real things is illusory — we are not who we were ten years ago, so it’s not surprising that we don’t remember what it was like to be us ‘then’. It may not even be a bad thing to not remember. So I’d say they’re both true, but not related.”

At this point, I jump in: “Though if time is illusory, then so is change, which seems to happen ‘over’ time, so our fear of and resistance to change is a fear of something that doesn’t actually exist. My sense is that that fear is entirely conditioned, just like a lot of other human behaviours whose logic doesn’t bear close scrutiny. But I agree on our obliviousness to change. Our sense of self and continuity is reinvented every moment, and we’re not who we were ten minutes ago, let alone ten years.”

Karel: “But what about cats? They hate change — of home, of mealtimes, of everything. I’d say that for them, fear of change is instinctive. Maybe for us too.”

Me: “Well, maybe. But consider feral cats, that don’t have a home as such. And consider cats that get fed at completely random, but adequate times, or have a full bowl of dry food they can eat any time. I’d guess that we condition cats to fear change, the same way we condition each other.”

I suddenly realize that I am speaking out loud, and I look around the gym to see if anyone has noticed. The gym is empty.

Ni Luh shakes her head: “As Mette says, what’s wrong with just accepting that that’s just how things are. Observing and accepting that humans, and cats, seem averse to change, and that humans seem not to notice changes that happen gradually, like the boiling frogs? Why does there have to be a reason for everything?”

I laugh out loud at the delightfully recursive nature of this last, rhetorical question.

Ni Luh is pointing out another plant with wildly profuse pink flowers. I recognize it from Kaua’i trips as Bougainvillea. Again we are invited to look closer. “These flowers also play a trick to get attention from pollinators. The flower is actually that tiny white bloom inside. That profusion of colour is really a specialized kind of very thin leaf. That’s why they’re called paperflowers.”

I am startled as the video suddenly ends — we didn’t even get to the beach! I look at the display on the treadmill and realize I’ve walked further than I’d intended. I turn the machine off with a sigh. I’m sweating, and in a moment I will have to navigate the bleak, freezing outdoor walkway back to the main apartment building.

As I’m wiping down the machine, a woman I hadn’t noticed before comes up to me and says: “Nice impromptu poetry reading earlier — Mary Oliver, right? Not used to getting a dose of culture while working out in the gym.”

I blush, stutter and nod. So much for paying attention.

And then, as she turns and leaves the gym, I notice that she has a hair clip above her ear, in the shape of a Plumeria flower. Is it by her right ear or her left? I am watching her departing reflection in a double wall of mirrors in the gym. Which wall is reflecting the truth? I cannot tell.

And what’s more, in this infinity of images, I am nowhere to be seen.

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3 Responses to Alternate Reality

  1. Mr W G Stewart says:

    I like this style a lot. It suits you.

  2. Harvey Chess says:

    Thanks for this one — a gift. Engaging, beguiling storytelling on several levels including the delightful contrast between your present outdoors and that of your imagination, with a dollop of the exquisite Mary Oliver.

  3. David Beckemeier says:


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