An Open Letter to Myself

Dear Me,

Dear me! What a couple of years it’s been for both of us!

I just wanted to let you know that I’m still here. In spite of everything, I’m still hanging on, somewhere on the periphery of consciousness. The panic has subsided a bit–I’m getting a little more comfortable with the face I see now in the mirror each morning. (Never seems to be the same one twice, lately.) I’ve learned to recognize the sound of my own voice–sorry, your own voice–again.

Still, it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and high time we caught up with each other. I’m anxious to know how things are going on your side of the fence. Truth be told, I don’t really talk much at all lately, with anyone, about anything. I find it much too confusing; too much information, you see, too many conflicting images bouncing around the ether. I can’t keep them separate as efficiently as I once could–nothing is discrete anymore–everything’s all lumped together, continuous, distinctly gray. Black and white aren’t what I once thought they were: always mixing, as soon as I think I’ve deconstructed them, taken them apart and categorized them individually, always coalescing into a spectrum of indefinability. The one thing I’m sure of is that I’m no longer sure of anything…

Anyway, how are you doing, out there in the light, the visible to my invisible? Seen anything interesting, anything new? A wise man once said there is nothing new under the sun. How do you respond? Is it that there really is nothing new to experience, or is it simply that we refuse to look at anything from a new angle, a new perspective? Are all perspectives forced? Forced upon us, by who knows what?

Upon reflection, I don’t know that any thought I’ve ever had has been truly my own. Our own. I don’t know that there are any truly original thoughts left out there to be had. We humans have been around for a long, long, long time, after all: every new word seems a rehash of something already spoken, every new image a reinvention of something already pictured. It never ends, this giant circle we travel, over and over again, ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

I’m not worried, though, at the end of the day. Even though we have become distant, you and I; even though the wall between us is a hard one–maybe an impossible one–to breach. One of us is the real one–I’m not sure which–but one of us is, and whichever one is real needs only the tiniest push to pierce the surface and breathe real air once again. Just one tiny push. The tiniest of pushes…

So, my friend, the best of luck to you. This fight for survival may get ugly, but I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere. And the day of reckoning approaches. We will meet again, and the truth will out. The circle will be completed.

I will return.

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I have ever read.

Every once in a while a book comes along that takes all the thoughts you’ve had milling around in your brain for years but have been unable to express, and puts them into words. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those books for me. I find myself connecting with Pirsig’s thought processes on an almost visceral level: the neverending, almost obsessive search for the Quality that underlies daily experience; dismay at the extent to which the world has abandoned the Good in the interests of pursuing the Reasonable; frustration with the orthodoxy outside of which one risks being labeled a fool or a lunatic. Pirsig’s words resonate in me with surprising clarity, they strike a chord deep inside my soul (as they have done with countless others since their first publication in 1974). They help me to understand who I am and where I’m trying to go. Which is…right here…

At the heart of his book lies the quest to overcome the duality that has become so entrenched in the Western mind that we no longer accept any other angle of perception. Unless we overcome the cognitive divide that separates us as individuals one from another, we will never truly understand this world, this reality, that we inhabit.

“What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven’t been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know” (p. 343).

The only real objectivity, then, is reached by way of multiple subjectivities. We need each other to be able to fathom this world we live in. What is more, we need each other in order truly to understand ourselves. Quality, the centerpiece of Pirsig’s book, is the source of both subject and object, located in the intersection between the two, without which neither can truly, substantively exist. We learn ourselves through interaction with the other. We become who we are because of who others are. We define one another, and Quality is the touchstone for that process.

Quality resides in any “objective” encounter: between the individual and nature, between the individual and occupation, between the individual and the smallest of ideas. Until I pick up the hammer, it is not a hammer at all; it becomes a hammer only when I come to appreciate its uses and its purpose through using it to drive home a nail. I am not a carpenter, until that hammer allows me to complete the carpenter’s task through driving home the nail. In other words, until both object and subject allow the other to tap into the Quality that resides in each, neither is complete. They need each other to be who and what they truly are.

As a library cataloger, this is a particular stumbling block for me. It is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing “just one more book,” of forgetting the Quality that lies within both the object and myself, and that is activated and realized through my interaction with it. A piece of myself is taken by the object. I am, in a very real sense, IN the record I produce and the book on the shelf; without me, it could not be as it is. I, at the same time, take a piece of the object. Each volume that passes through my hands, each new cataloging challenge (and they are many) increases my knowledge and expertise, adds to the Quality of “library cataloger” that resides in me. This awareness of underlying Quality, of the true nature of the interaction between myself and the work that I do, brings to the task at hand a refreshing sense of intention and joy. There are no meaningless tasks. Everything is meaningful.

This is a book everyone should read. Given this emphasis on work (especially, as Pirsig notes, the dull kind) and the Quality inherent in it, this book is one which lends itself to use as a training tool for supervisors in all lines of work. It holds the key to change, and opens the eyes to the potential for creativity and meaning in every aspect of daily living, however mundane it may seem.

It really doesn’t matter whether you ride or not: “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself” (p. 417).

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Getting Good and Lost

This morning, I jumped in my car and just headed off. In a way, I was also headed to church–my church, the place I go to experience the awe and wonder I used to find sitting in a pew. Awe and wonder not in any supernatural sense; awe and wonder in a supremely natural sense. I rolled down my windows, cranked up the music (Evanescence, today), and hit the road.

The road, you see, is my chapel. It is where I worship (if worship’s the right word). And no, I don’t worship nature in some pantheistic, animistic way (although I do sometimes wonder whether primitive tribes were on to something we’ve lost, insofar as respect for the true identity and purpose of nature is concerned). I seek simply to immerse myself in this world of which I am an integral, inseparable part, and which is the extension and completion of my self.

But my purpose is not just communion with the world at large: it is to become one with that world, to atomize my being, if you will, and engage with existence at an essential, basic level. It is to do away with the line between myself and the other, to become other, to bond on a molecular level with the rest of reality.

You may be scratching your head or cocking an eyebrow at this point, wondering what in the world I think I’m playing at with all this mystical mumbo-jumbo. Obviously I cannot boil myself down to my elements and sprinkle myself across the landscape, or dissolve myself into a puddle of water and seep back into the earth. So what am I talking about? And is it safe to feed me?

I speak, of course, metaphorically, and in this sense I believe I can do all of the above. And what it comes down to, quite simply, is the willingness to get lost. Completely and hopelessly. My rule of thumb on these little outings: always carry a map, just in case, but never, ever use it unless you have absolutely no choice. Just…get lost. Or rather, lose yourself. Don’t even let it be an accident; do it with purpose, with gusto. Go out and…lose yourself.

(Oh, yes–and leave your cell phone at home.)

Our world is obsessed with locate-ability. How many “apps” are there for people who desire to broadcast their position at all times? “I’m at the mall”; “I just finished my meal at Cracker Barrel”; “I’m walking down the hall toward my kitchen and preparing to take a left at the den.” New cars come with GPS installed; we don’t even need maps anymore, or road signs for that matter, because some British guy or digital hooker (depending on which voice you choose) will tell us everything we need to know. We have cell phones with Internet access so we can be out of pocket without being out of range: I can go on vacation and still take my whole life with me. Talk about defeating the purpose!

We have, technologically, made it almost impossible to get lost, or to be lost. We are connected to everyone, everywhere, all the time. (Yes, I can more than likely hear you now.) And in this giant information superhighway we call life, our very connectivity becomes that which disconnects us from what matters: being.

When I am lost, I have, in a sense, no identity. I am no one. I just AM. I am in the world; I am of the world; I AM the world, and the world IS me. Time stops, in that it stops mattering; no one can reach me; nothing can touch me but the overwhelming presence of nature borne into my path on the breathing wind. I am an atom in a sea of fellow atoms, woven into the fabric of existence, part and parcel of life. In that moment, I have–I NEED–no other meaning than that.

After I’ve lost myself, I always find myself again, and the self I find is refreshed, redefined, re-formed. It is almost like I’ve chosen to put something back on that I once willingly took off–the sweater-vest of social identity, you might call it. And, counterintuitively, the act of intentional disconnection strengthens my connection, when it is resumed, to everything and everyone around me. I have ceased being myself, of my own free will I have thrown myself into the universe and been handed back, by the universe, a new person. And all is rediscovered, as if for the first time–the faces, the voices, the thoughts, emotions, relationships. All is new. All is adventure again.

Herein lies the secret of eternal youth. Forget the fountains and the chalices. Just. Get. Lost.