Untethered, Still

This is #31 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.


Cartoon by Michael Leunig

Oh, people! I know we’re supposed to be a social species, but humans, especially those who are dealing with trauma, which is, it seems, most humans — they’re sometimes just too much for me to bear.

I know we’re all doing our best, and that we’re just conditioned to be how we are and it’s no one’s fault and no one is to blame, but geez… humans are so damned needy and damaged and dysfunctional. I can only muster so much compassion, and then I just run out. It’s not my job, I remind myself, to heal the seeming billions of walking wounded, bearing faces of quiet desperation, and, sometimes, hearts of broken stone.

Yeah, I know, easy for me to say. Somehow I’ve managed to excise my early trauma (my lousy memory may have helped), and no new trauma has, it would seem, arisen to take its place. But at my age, cancers and Alzheimers loom, so there’s still time for that old paralyzing anxiety and depression to reclaim this incredibly-blessed self. I’m insensitive, in many ways. I’ve been told that it’s not that I don’t care, it’s that I can’t, I don’t dare, because the Noonday Demon is just waiting for me to take that risk, and will suck me back into its clutches when I do. Sorry not sorry, and all that.

TS Eliot wrote, in East Coker:

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The whole-earth hospital, and our self-constructed prisons, may well be imagined and illusory, but that does not make them any less real to us, their bewildered residents.

Damn. This is a dismal and dispiriting start to my month-end “wandering” essay, isn’t it? Maybe I should erase the above, and start over.

If only I had the free will to do so…

.  .  .  .  .

So now I’m sitting up on the roof, where I can see the birds, but not the people. I’m listening mostly to dance music on the headphones, drowning out the traffic and the construction noise below. But somehow the “shuffle” on my playlist has gotten turned on, and instead of K-Pop or Kompa, a Neil Young song comes on:

I need a crowd of people,
but I can’t face them day to day.
Though my problems are meaningless,
that don’t make them go away.

Yeah, Neil, but then nothing is real, either. Everything we imagine to be real is just made up in our heads, a hopeless ‘making-sense’ of everything. Just playing out the role we’ve been given. Except we’re not even on the stage; we’re just in the stands, watching the action. Trying to follow the plot. And the plot makes no sense.

We could actually make up our own story, like little kids do with their ‘imaginary friends’, and it would be as real as the stale one we’ve been given, the one we’ve faithfully followed, doing what we were told, believing what we were conditioned to believe was true. And our made-up story could be endlessly delightful, endlessly pleasurable. Close your eyes and imagine — Is that a person walking toward us? They are smiling at you. They are the phantom you’ve been searching for all your life. The one who really understands, who really knows you.

Oops, nope, not a person, sorry. Just a cloud, or something blowing in the wind. A mirage. But no matter. They were beautiful, no? Why are they any less real than what appears to appear as we sleepwalk through our lives? Close your eyes again. See, they’re still there! Everything you imagined. How can you be sad? Everything is there, just waiting for you to imagine it, as real as real can be. If everything we think to be true is just a dream, then why not live our own perfect dream of our own imagining? Look, they’re smiling at you. And look, there’s a kitten, a paper airplane, a forest by the warm ocean, a child laughing in the sun.

You don’t have to open your eyes. You don’t have to control and manage that person you imagined your self to be in that other dream. Your body knows what to do to keep you safe, to keep your conditioning keeping it doing the only thing it can do.

It doesn’t need you.

.  .  .  .  .

A crow duet unfolds above me, a mirror to my dancing. Two crows dive down towards the air currents between the towers and then, catching the updrafts, soar up. Daredevil fliers, they drop vertically down from the towers’ edges, almost too fast to see, and then level off and climb back up. At breakneck speed, an orchestration of pure joy, they zoom past side-by-side and then in hot pursuit, separating and then recombining, swooping around the building. Because they can. There is no other why.

Off in the distance, a paraglider wafts over the crest of Mount Burke, carefully navigating over the treetops towards a landing near the city centre lake. Far above him or her, two seagulls circle, seemingly tracking the paraglider’s path. Not bad, for a human.

.  .  .  .  .

I head for the gym for my daily workout. I’m feeling light-headed, kind of in a daze. This idea grows: that there are, for us human ‘selves’, only stories, so why not create and ‘listen’ to one that is fun, instead of the monotonous and time-bound ‘story of me’? Why not live in a story that is about endless pleasure and joy, instead of the ‘real’ one that is anchored, these days, to genocide and suffering?

It is not an aspirational story of which I speak, one to replace the ‘dominant narrative’ by willing into existence a ‘new story’ that is just as hidebound, just as locked into civilization’s script, just with a different pretty wrapper, a different anchoring worldview, a different ideological, religious zeal.

The imagined story I instead pursue is told with a voice of childlike wonder. It has no need for plot. It’s fuzzy and giddy and giggly and always warm and safe and gentle. It doesn’t aspire or pretend to be real. It goes wherever there is pleasure and discovery and astonishment, just for the fun of being made up, of being able to be anything that can be imagined, or which cannot even be imagined. It will not be tethered by appeals to ‘be serious’ or ‘get real’, because stories need not be serious, and, besides, no story is real.

The 45 minutes on the treadmill fly by, as if in a hallucination. There is no one ‘else’ in the gym, not ‘really’, so anything is welcomed into this brief story. Three young women on exercise mats rehearse K-Pop dance moves, laughing at their missteps and singing along with the music. A parade of carnival floats drifts by, with Soca music weaving around the weight training equipment and the barbells. On the elliptical beside me, an androgynous faerie comically mimics my moves, smiling and laughing at me as it works the pedals alternately with its feet and then, weightlessly, with its hands. Light-creatures slide in and out through tiny cracks in space, from other worlds. The treadmill rises into the air, effortlessly, and accelerates through the walls and into space, dodging meteors, the handlebars serving as steering, accelerator and brakes. Impossibly, I am dancing on the elliptical, the faerie holding me affectionately from behind, teaching me the moves that my body understands, that ‘I’ never will.

And then, the story ends. But maybe, if I close my eyes…

.  .  .  .  .

On the way back from the gym I watch two crows diving down from a balcony onto a patio and then swooping back up. I move closer to see what’s got their attention. Abandoned on one of the patios are a plastic pail, shovel and watering can, in very bright red/yellow/blue colours, kids’ beach toys.

One of the crows dives down and lands on the handle of the tiny shovel, which immediately collapses from its weight, sending the pail in which it was resting rolling off toward the patio door. The crow, spooked, flaps back up, while the second crow perches on the patio fence to observe the commotion. The first crow, not to be intimidated by a plastic toy, lands back on the pail and pecks it into submission, but when the second crow flies over and lands on the plastic watering can, it too topples over. Both crows fly up and perch on the fence to determine their next strategy.

Finally, the first crow stealthily approaches the little plastic shovel, sits on its handle, and grabs its shaft in its beak. It looks perplexed, before realizing that its own weight on the shovel’s handle is preventing it from moving this fascinating toy. So it jumps off, re-grasps the shaft of the shovel, and flies with it up to a nearby tree. That’ll show that shovel who’s boss!

As I watch, it occurs to me that we would never see seagulls or pigeons, both as common here as crows, performing these theatrics. Each species has its own games, its own forms of play. Its own ways of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. Its own way of being a part of everything. Its own make-believe stories.

At this point I leave the drama to unfold as it will, wondering whether some little girl or boy is going to come out to collect their beach toy and wonder where the shovel went. And maybe they’ll look up and see it. What will their story be? Could it be magic?

.  .  .  .  .

I go for a walk by the creek, and find a clearing that’s quiet and secluded and has no people in it, and I dance. I dance to the movement of the sun and the moon and the earth and the stars. I dance to the particle-waves and the folding of spacetime that, in the minds of scientists who need to break everything down to make sense of it, seems to give rise to what is apparently happening. I dance to the joy of pleasure and laughter and play in all its forms. I dance to the sheer unknowingness of everything.

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3 Responses to Untethered, Still

  1. Vera says:

    If you are reading this, Joe, I would be very interested in your reaction to what happened in the debate. Given what you said to Dave recently.

    The whole thing brings to mind that perennial meme from Forrest Gump. “And just like that…”

  2. Just because you don’t recall or are not in touch with your trauma at the moment doesn’t mean you’ve excised it. Not at all.

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