The Archive of Self-Absorption

full-back tattoo of a crane
“To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.” ― Dogen


That didn’t happen.


I have no idea why I’m not sleeping. I doubt there is any use in an interrogation. There are too many factors at play, and I think I have already spent too much of my life inspecting the framework that surrounds it. Looking for weaknesses. Explanations. If I fix this, then…

It seems as though if things settle, they do so on their own and in their own time. Other times I think I just forget to care. I am spinning busywork while I grow accustomed.

We ran again yesterday. We’re trying hard to pick ourselves up. E. first headed toward our usual morning route, but I asked him to drive us to the other end of the trail, where we can cross the bridge and run in the forest.

Two minutes into the run, I was tired. Not sure I could do the short run. I thought about the blood clot that formed in my body five years ago, and I did a mental check to gauge if this tiredness was that tiredness, that sense of being unplugged from an energy source. I felt my heart miss a beat, then felt a sense of disappointment that the fear is still here in my body, fear as tight as a scar running hip to heart.

Breathe. I remember the nurse who would not say, “Everything is going to be fine.” She told me a truth: no one has died on this table during this procedure before.

Breathe. I could – can still – handle this specific truth.

We hit the top of the first hill and then ran down and across the bridge. But three hundred meters into the forest, the forest stopped. Clean cuts across tree trunks. Crossed branches lay entwined everywhere, like an enormous nest for an unknown or ancient bird. We stumbled as far as we dared, then angled off, out of what used to be the forest to find the gravel trail.

I think I just imagined that the birds were louder than usual.

The last time we ran through the forest I’d taken pictures of the newly storm-toppled trees, their root systems upended and taller than three of me. I knew and I know now that this forest is private property and that they cull a section every few years. I know that they are responsible agriculturalists, and they know far more than I do about what is healthy for the landscape, what is possible, what is… fine.

Still, the gaping, empty space is like a brutal statement of fact: there is no going back to what was. There will be scars in the landscape, and there is no longer shelter from the North Wind.

But – or and? – everything you never imagined is possible now.

To Cry, “Hold, hold!”

The lateral flow tests have been negative all along, but I’ve had something – something that is finally letting go. It’s getting just a little bit easier to move around in my body. To think of running again and morning yoga.

Nothing can ever go back to normal – back to anything. It never could, though only now do I feel the truth of that acutely. The universe is in a slow deconstruction but every moment brings new (sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying) constellations. However fleeting each will be. Maybe the art of living is to notice, then to let go of all of them as they pass.

There has to be a reason humans have always wanted to fix their experience of the world in stone. It seems to me that classical Greek artwork is an attempt to capture the past. Because a smooth thigh is always nostalgia. The visible maps that living etches into a forearm, over a chest, are the present and the inevitable future. The present, breathing body is more threat than comfort. Every inhalation of oxygen is destructive.

In the absence of oxygen human life is measured in minutes. In the presence of oxygen, normal metabolism generates reactive species (ROS) that have the potential to cause cell injury contributing to human aging and disease.

What gives us life, inevitably kills us. So often used as a metaphor, our need to breathe is a cliche that is impossible to break down to its basic, startling truth. It is so ingrained in the art of language that it has become necessary to reverse engineer the metaphor. Breathing is like being in love with the wrong person.

Breathing is like belonging to a family, a community, a nation.

The Romans celebrated the struggle. The statues’ sinewy arms in battle with creatures real and imagined. The faces are expressive and contorted. Though still nostalgic. En medias res, we want to cry out, “Stop, stop” before it’s too late. We want to stop one another/ourselves.

But caught in stone, it is never too late. The sculpture can still generate the feeling of hope: that things will go back to normal.

I could subtitle this essay Art as Momentary Comfort.

A Good, Soft Thing

Lately, I have been having a difficult time getting started in the mornings. I get up, feed the dog, make the coffee, but then sit and browse. Time I can’t get back and can’t really account for. Certainly, it’s nothing that’s bringing me pleasure. I am on my second cup of coffee before I open the new post screen.

This feels like a Monday morning. I try to get a little handle on what the day and the week will entail, but it’s like staring out the window into fog. There’s something there. Moving around. And I worry it will jump out at me suddenly.

But that isn’t where my head should be right now. The day will come. The week, too, more than likely.

I am crying in the car again. I don’t often use the car, but do drive to yoga on Sundays. And driving home, I cry. It’s a good, soft thing. A kind of surrender really. And there is no one to touch me, or to try to comfort me. And that is also a good thing. It comes like a wave, and passes like a wave. The grief.

I talked to B. yesterday and our trip to Iceland is back on. Suddenly her calendar is filling up with places she wants to be. People she wants to be with. We don’t say it, but: while she is well enough. She’s looking at dates to work around her chemotherapy weeks. One a month for six months. Timing. Logistics.

I wonder if she cries when there is no one to touch her. If it sometimes can be a good, soft thing for her when everything in the world is sharp edges and punctures. Now that every assumption, every conception has been sliced open.

I wonder if crying can numb the raw borders of what was and what is.

I have no way of knowing. No hope of empathizing. And no meaningful comfort to offer. So I listen. That’s good, right?

E.’s footsteps on the stairs. Time to walk Leonard around the block and then head to the lake for a run. It’s Monday.

Into the fog.

Against all Reason

Managed to negotiate the trail yesterday, with all the fallen trees and scattered branches in the half-dark, only to come home and slip in the living room. Limping a little still this morning, so no run. Last night’s big flakes are now big drops of rain, so there is a large part of me satisfied to get a bit more sleep this morning.

Still having fantasies about all that can go wrong. I’m replaying imaginary arguments with colleagues, students and parents that I really don’t need to have. It’s odd how such an unpleasant thing is the default comfort for my quiet mind. I keep wondering if it is a distraction that still makes room for the background emotions I’m trying to avoid: a more malleable scenario to try to reach some kind of catharsis for the the anger and hurt.

Hurt. I’m not even sure that counts as an emotion. Pain. I’ve read that emotional pain and physical pain light up the brain in nearly identical ways. Which would make it as much a sensation as an emotion. And that shouldn’t surprise us. As much as we deny the body, it doesn’t surprise me that we deny emotions equally then. Intellect is without sensation. It seems to me that we want our nurses to be warm, our neurosurgeons impressively cold. It follows – or presupposes actually – that the closer we are to the body, the lower our status. I think this is true of emotions as well.

Even the Romantic poets who – arguably – had a high-ish status, drew on emotions and controlled them objectively, like tinker toys. They sorted and displayed them like objects in a museum. No wonder the modernists went straight to the scatological: the twelfth night of Christmas, the boy bishop years before the wars.

The Boy Bishop Years would be a nice title for a messy poetry collection.

I wonder if it is possible to untangle anger and hurt from one another. I guess I have always thought, stubbing my toe that one leads nearly instantaneously to the other. The curse word flying reflexively. But what if they are the same.

I’m trying to remember if when the boys cried as infants I really could distinguish between a cry of pain and one of anger.

When something surprises E. it is like a blunt force to his nerves and his fist flies faster than he can reason from pain to anger. He used to clear mines in war zones. We talk about defense mechanisms. But isn’t that really a definition of perspective? I’m not convinced that context and interpretation create ontological differences – the in and of itself of our bodies’ responses.

I think it’s time for me to go back to reading philosophy. I “got it” once upon a time, and could rearrange the ideas like tinker toys. But now… well, maybe there is a way to let it under my skin.