Department of Unmagical Thinking

Image: '1688 miracle,' by nebojsamladjenovic on Flickr.com

[Image: “1688 miracle,” by nebojsa mladjenovic on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

A certain man… once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish—but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

Making a Fist

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

(Naomi Shihab Nye [source])

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Doing What You Can’t Not Do

Image: '12$,' by Catherine Roy on Flickr

[Image: “12$,” by Catherine Roy. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer seems to like taking photos which show objects (and people) of little or no consequence; although she hasn’t organized them into an official “album” as such, she has tagged (as of now) fifty-four photos with the phrase, “feeding my compulsion.” Many of these photos (although not this one, obviously) simply show toilets.]

From whiskey river:

2. Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.

Cold or warm.

Tired or well-rested.

Despised or honored.

Dying… or busy with other assignments. Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “To do what needs doing.”

3. Look inward. Don’t let the true nature or value of anything elude you.

7. …Only there, delight and stillness

11. When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it.

(Marcus Aurelius [source (various pages)]

and:

What Gorgeous Thing

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Give the Kaleidoscope Its Due

'Quiet Nature | Game of light,' by Vasile Hurghis on Flickr

[Image: “Quiet Nature | Game of light,” by Vasile Hurghis. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The scene is a Romanian landscape. I don’t know about you, but my own eyes resist seeing the tower on the right as what it is… especially when looking at anything else in the photo. I keep seeing it as a doorway to a world of colors which don’t exist in the foreground world. And honestly, I guess there’s no reason it can’t be that, is there — no reason it can’t be both that, and a simple rustic silo?]

From whiskey river (including the first paragraph, found elsewhere):

At 19, I read a sentence that re-terraformed my head: “The level of matter in the universe has been constant since the Big Bang.”

In all the aeons we have lost nothing, we have gained nothing — not a speck, not a grain, not a breath. The universe is simply a sealed, twisting kaleidoscope that has reordered itself a trillion trillion trillion times over.

Each baby, then, is a unique collision — a cocktail, a remix — of all that has come before: made from molecules of Napoleon and stardust and comets and whale tooth; colloidal mercury and Cleopatra’s breath: and with the same darkness that is between the stars between, and inside, our own atoms.

When you know this, you suddenly see the crowded top deck of the bus, in the rain, as a miracle: this collection of people is by way of a starburst constellation. Families are bright, irregular-shaped nebulae. Finding a person you love is like galaxies colliding. We are all peculiar, unrepeatable, perambulating micro-universes — we have never been before and we will never be again. Oh God, the sheer exuberant, unlikely face of our existences. The honour of being alive. They will never be able to make you again. Don’t you dare waste a second of it thinking something better will happen when it ends. Don’t you dare.

(Caitlin Moran [source: well, the quote is everywhere, dating back to at least 2014, but I don’t know the original])

and:

A Child is Something Else Again

A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he’s full of words,
in an instant he’s humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.

A child is Job. They’ve already placed their bets on him
but he doesn’t know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They’re training him to be a polite Job,
to say “Thank you” when the Lord has given,
to say “You’re welcome” when the Lord has taken away.

A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I’m still trembling.

A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.

(Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch [source])

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The Unbearable Lightness of Metaphor

'Light - Day Two,' by Lucy Maude Ellis on Flickr

[Image: “light – day two,” by Lucy Maude Ellis. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) I came across this image while searching for images having to do with weightlessness and such; the photographer’s Flickr photostream seems to exhibit a particular fondness for “levitation pictures.” In such pictures, the human subject is posed in such a way that s/he appears to be floating in air — the photographer then edits the photo to remove all traces of whatever device(s) are used to support the model. This image, though, “felt” better to me as accompaniment to today’s theme.]

From whiskey river:

The Mountain

My students look at me expectantly.
I explain to them that the life of art is a life
of endless labor. Their expressions
hardly change; they need to know
a little more about endless labor.
So I tell them the story of Sisyphus,
how he was doomed to push
a rock up a mountain, knowing nothing
would come of this effort
but that he would repeat it
indefinitely. I tell them
there is joy in this, in the artist’s life,
that one eludes
judgment, and as I speak
I am secretly pushing a rock myself,
slyly pushing it up the steep
face of a mountain. Why do I lie
to these children? They aren’t listening,
they aren’t deceived, their fingers
tapping at the wooden desks—
So I retract
the myth; I tell them it occurs
in hell, and that the artist lies
because he is obsessed with attainment,
that he perceives the summit
as that place where he will live forever,
a place about to be
transformed by his burden: with every breath,
I am standing at the top of the mountain.
Both my hands are free. And the rock has added
height to the mountain.

(Louise Glück [source])

and:

What Light Does

Today, I did nothing.
Light went on as usual,

throwing leaves against the white wall,
as if no one were watching, as if

there’s no meaning in the trembling
of the leaves. Later, light moves

the leaves onto the tile floor,
and once I might have thought them

dancing, or that the shadow
of a thing is more beautiful

than the thing itself, but it’s not,
it’s just ordinary light, going about

its ordinary business. Now, evening is here,
and I’ve made it through another day

of shadows. This is not metaphor, or poetry,
it’s how the unbearable is

a blade that gleams and remains
visible, long after light has gone.

(Patty Paine, Blackbird [source])

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Just Passing Through

Image: 'Closing Time, Office, Coat Rack, Timeless B&W,' by Lynn Friedman on Flickr

[Image: “Closing Time, Office, Coat Rack, Timeless B&W,” by Lynn Friedman on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) The only “information” provided by the photographer is the lyrics to the song “Closing Time,” by Semisonic. You can see the video for the song here on YouTube.]

From whiskey river:

We are all bound together in a tapestry that like the sea gives the impression of movement towards something but is actually just a maternal body of material…

The flowers buzz when the vibration of the bees stimulates their pistons and their molecules swell and their petals hum like cellos. Rocks are alive, the firstborn of the natural world, somber without will.

There is no freedom from this universe we were born into, because it is our vague source of sensation, our soul, the container of our guilt.

Skins liquefy in heat. And when a bald baby swallow dies on your palm, you feel warmth pouring over your skin, a kind of burning fountain that scalds you like pepper spray.

Do you think this is a sign of the spirit ripping its energy into you to carry to the other side? I do. There are no actual objects over there, no materials but unformed steaming clouds, colors that harmonize musically, no gravity exists but elasticity composed of invisible mesh images.

Who will meet me on the other side, I ask you, to prove the error of what I say? Will it be someone who never loved me?

(Fanny Howe [source])

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Choosing the Self You Want to Know

'You Choose (autoretrato),' by Alberto Varela on Flickr.com

[Image: “You Choose (autoretrato),” by Alberto Varela. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The photographer says only that this self-portrait (Spanish: auto retrato) was inspired by another photographer’s work. That photographer, one Lex Wilson, has a whole Flickr album of “creative self-portraits” which presumably supplied the specific inspiration.]

From whiskey river:

No matter how careful you are, there’s going to be the sense you missed something, the collapsed feeling under your skin that you didn’t experience it all. There’s that fallen heart feeling that you rushed right through the moments where you should’ve been paying attention.

Well, get used to that feeling. That’s how your whole life will feel some day.

This is all practice.

(Chuck Palahniuk [source])

and (italicized portion):

There’s one problem with all psychological knowledge—nobody can apply it to themselves. People can be incredibly astute about the shortcomings of their friends, spouses, children. But they have no insight into themselves at all. The same people who are coldly clear-eyed about the world around them have nothing but fantasies about themselves. Psychological knowledge doesn’t work if you look in a mirror. This bizarre fact is, as far as I know, unexplained.

Personally, I always thought there was a clue from computer programming, in a procedure called recursion. Recursion means making the program loop back on itself, to use its own information to do things over and over until it gets a result. You use recursion for certain data-sorting algorithms and things like that. But it’s got to be done carefully, or you risk having the machine fall into what is called an infinite regress. It’s the programming equivalent of those funhouse mirrors that reflect mirrors, and mirrors, ever smaller and smaller, stretching away to infinity. The program keeps going, repeating and repeating, but nothing happens. The machine hangs.

I always figured something similar must happen when people turn their psychological insight-apparatus on themselves. The brain hangs. The thought process goes and goes, but it doesn’t get anywhere.

(Michael Crichton [source])

and:

A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be. It allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, a poem permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.

(Mark Strand [source])

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“The Sparks of Their Soul Come Out and Cling to You”

Image: 'So Many Grains of Sand,' by Rick Schwartz on Flickr

[Image: “Like So Many Grains of Sand,” by Rick Schwartz; it apparently captures a moment on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, this past January. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) In a blog post featuring this photo, the photographer muses, “Just trying to fathom the grains of sand on this one beach is futile to say nothing for the number of stars in the universe… So, for me, the only thing left to do is turn away from the beach and eat a bowl of soup. That’s the one thing I can handle.”]

From whiskey river (in slightly different words):

In the forty minutes I watched [the muskrat], he never saw me, smelled me, or heard me at all. When he was in full view of course I never moved except to breathe. My eyes would move, too, following his, but he never noticed… Only once, when he was feeding from the opposite bank about eight feet away from me, did he suddenly rise upright, all alert—and then he immediately resumed foraging. But he never knew I was there.

I never knew I was there, either. For that forty minutes last night I was as purely sensitive and mute as a photographic plate; I received impressions, but I did not print out captions. My own self-awareness had disappeared; it seems now almost as though, had I been wired to electrodes, my EEG would have been flat. I have done this sort of thing so often that I have lost self-consciousness about moving slowly and halting suddenly; it is second nature to me now. And I have often noticed that even a few minutes of this self-forgetfulness is tremendously invigorating. I wonder if we do not waste most of our energy just by spending every waking minute saying hello to ourselves. Martin Buber quotes an old Hasid master who said, “When you walk across the fields with your mind pure and holy, then from all the stones, and all growing things, and all animals, the sparks of their soul come out and cling to you, and then they are purified and become a holy fire in you.”

(Annie Dillard [source])

and:

The greatest gift of life on the mountain is time. Time to think or not think, read or not read, scribble or not scribble — to sleep and cook and walk in the woods, to sit and stare at the shapes of the hills. I produce nothing but words; I consume nothing but food, a little propane, a little firewood. By being utterly useless in the calculations of the culture at large I become useful, at last, to myself.

(Philip Connors [source])

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At the Edge of Whole and Part

'Subsume,' by user Squid ProQuo on Flickr

[Image: “Subsume,” by user Squid ProQuo on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) The photographer includes almost no information about the photo or its subject, other than that it was taken in Japan in 2009. I haven’t seen any more information about this sculpture elsewhere, but I’ll keep looking.]

From whiskey river:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses. We can extend our senses with the help of microscope, stethoscope, robot, satellite, hearing aid, and such, but what is beyond our senses we cannot know. Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality. Sometimes, of course, a diner comes too close, and each year a certain number of fugu-lovers die in midmeal…

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth… Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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Container for the Thing Contained

Flickr.com: 'Side of Building Shanghai,' by user 'DaiLuo'

[Image: “Side of Building Shanghai,” by user DaiLuo on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) From the photographer: “This is straight from the camera, nothing at all done — this is the side of a building in Shanghai. When you stand and look at it, it is difficult to see how they did this. It looked like a holograph.” I myself haven’t been able to discover any more information about the building, let alone how this display is/was created. Anyone know?]

From whiskey river:

A day is like a whole life. You start out doing one thing, but end up doing something else, plan to run an errand, but never get there… And at the end of your life, your whole existence has the same haphazard quality, too. Your whole life has the same shape as a single day.

(Michael Crichton [source])

and:

Just this, just this, this room where we are. Pay attention to that. Pay attention to who’s there, pay attention to what isn’t known there, pay attention to what is known there, pay attention to what everyone is thinking and feeling, what you’re doing there, and pay attention. Pay attention.

(W. S. Merwin [source])

and:

Drunk on Someone Else’s Love
(excerpt)

…I am not a Sunday morning inside four walls
with clean blood
and organised drawers.
I am the hurricane setting fire to the forests
at night when no one else is alive,
or awake,
however you choose to see it,
and I live in my own flames.
Sometimes burning too bright and too wild
to make things last
or handle
myself or anyone else
and so I run.
Run run run,
far and wide
until my bones ache and lungs split
and it feels good.
Hear that people? It feels good,
because I am the slave and ruler of my own body
and I wish to do with it exactly as I please…

(Charlotte Eriksson [source])

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The Observer in the Observed

'Message From the Unseen World,' by Roger Marks on Flickr

[Image: “Message From the Unseen World,” by Roger Marks; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you!). Click photo to enlarge. The photographer explains: “…this permanent installation is a collaboration between United Visual Artists and poet Nick Drake.  Alan Turing is one of Paddington’s most famous sons. This artwork, Message From the Unseen World, celebrates his groundbreaking work on artificial intelligence. Its outer shell comprises aluminium panels, punctuated with holes. LED lights shine through the holes, forming the words to Drake’s poem. A Turing-inspired algorithm shuffles through the poem, creating new interpretations of the verse.” An excerpt from the poem appears below, as the last entry in today’s post; the entirety can be viewed at the Flickr page.]

From whiskey river:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are—as far as we know —the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

(Mark Strand [source])

and:

There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was on the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of god. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree at the end of your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree… In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree.

(Annie Dillard [source])

…and (from whiskey river’s commonplace book):

Why do I write?

To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

(Mary Gaitskill [source])

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