Humanity is in crisis, and I don’t know what to do with myself—but I do want to help.(more…)
His grandfather had now received solemn dispensation from his interim stage and had finally returned to the form appropriate to him—an event of which [Hans] could only approve.
– Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
“How are you?” is often used as a filler in conversation, and it’s an extremely versatile question, but lately it’s been giving me trouble. It can mean: “How are you feeling?” “What have you been doing lately?” “Where are you headed?” and sometimes it’s just something we say after “hello” as a pleasantry. The sense that I’ve gotten stuck on is when the emphasis is placed on the verb, “How are you?” and I interpret it literally.
How do I exist in the world? This is a different question from, “How did I come to exist,” it asks instead about my present state of being. And since the question of sustaining my existence is derived from that one about its origin, the sense of the question I’m really driving at is, “How am I coming off as existing in the world? What could I point to that demonstrates my existence? What does it mean, to me, to be, and am I being that right now?” How am I?
In the past, when I’ve considered the definition of my existence, I’ve found comfort in Descartes’ Meditations, which assert that I am a thinking thing—a rational entity—and my existence exists primarily as my contemplation of it. If I closed my eyes and pretended like all of my senses were giving me false data—my body was nothing like the one I inhabit, the world around me was completely different than the one I knew, nothing I could smell or taste or touch was real,—I would still be left with an irrefutable sense of self, of a person who was considering the reality of these perceptions.
This “self” is a persistent identity we assign to our unique collection of thoughts and experiences. Descartes takes a ball of wax and smooshes it into different shapes. It can be a horse, it can be a chair, it can be a flower, or it could be melted into a translucent puddle, but in every case we can still recognize it as the same ball of wax because we have witnessed its changes.
Therefore, he says we exist primarily as rational minds who may or may not also be having a physical experience. Because I did not create myself, there must be others who exist as well, but I could just write off all others under the umbrella category, “God,” and leave it at that. Someone has to be the one who shapes this ball of wax and if my parents exist then so do their parents and eventually I’ll go far enough back into history that there will have to be some kind of intentional primary creator.
But none of this answers the question. Descartes proves that I am, but only to myself. And I kind of already knew that I existed because I was the person asking the question in the first place. The question is how I am. I am by interpreting the present circumstances of my mind and body through the lens of my remembered experiences to make decisions about what to do and/or think. Whether or not the experiences I remembered actually happened (or happened the way I remember them) is immaterial because it is the memories that form the basis for my action, not the experiences themselves. I am an impression I have of what a person like me would do, given the things I’ve done in the past and the decisions that are before me now—at least, to myself.
Despite Cartesian isolationism, I think there’s pretty compelling evidence for the existence of another contemporaneous rational mind, otherwise who’s asking me how I am? It’s certainly not a question I ever pose to myself, I’m too caught up in being me to wonder how it’s happening. And if there’s another rational mind out there then let’s face it, there are probably billions. Billions of people just like me who exist as an impressions of themselves.
So the problem I’ve gotten myself wrapped up in (I should have just said, “I’m fine” and walked away, but we’ve gone too far for that) is that other people have impressions of me, too, just as I have impressions of them. Do I exist solely as my impression of myself, or do I exist primarily as my impression of myself while also existing as others’ impressions of me? How am I, am I independently of others or am I interdependently with them? Am I depending on them?
It was so easy back when other people didn’t exist and it was just me and God playing with a ball of wax. But when other people exist and encounter me, they are also interpreting the present circumstances of my mind and body through the lens of their remembered experience of me to make predictions about what I’ll do and/or think. What if their impression of me differs from my own?
I suppose I could claim seniority and say that their impression must be inaccurate if it differs from mine because I’ve spent every second of my life with myself and am, therefore, the authority on what I’ve done and am likely to do next. For anyone to have comparable experience, they would have to have spent my entire life with me, from the moment I was born.
And even then, I could claim that external presence isn’t the same as internal presence. You can be in the same room as I am, but you can’t know my thoughts unless I’m actively sharing them with you, and even then, I’m thinking at the same time about what I’m saying and what I’m likely to say next. It’s impossible for another person to have as well-informed an opinion about myself as I do—unless there’s more than one. And as I mentioned earlier, if there’s just one other rational being out there, besides God, it implies the existence of billions more.
If there’s a group of people who are around my for the duration of my life, their combined knowledge about the previous circumstances of my mind and body could exceed my own. Even if I claim total mindful self-awareness (which would be a bold-faced lie,) I’ve only known myself for thirty-five years. If I shared a room with four other people during that time, they’d have known me for a hundred years longer than I’ve known myself.
Now this thought experiment is becoming impractical. I already know that no one has shared a room with me my entire life. My sister is the only one who would even come close, and we had separate bedrooms by the time I was six. But consider a murder trial with a “guilty” verdict.
When a defendant who pleads “not guilty” (and believes that to be true) is nonetheless convicted of murder, a group of people deliberated on a collection of remembered experiences, some supported by tangible objects they could encounter directly with their senses, and came to an agreement about what the defendant was likely to do and/or think. Either the defendant misremembered their experiences or an external group of people was able to form more accurate conclusions about their identity. How is a murderer—as an isolated collection of self-impressions, or as a combination of their existence to themselves and their existence toward others? Whether the individual in question thinks of themselves as a murderer or not, they would still be considered one if they murdered someone, right?
In that case, a group of people were able to form a more accurate impression about what an individual might do and/or think than the individual themselves, and they didn’t need a lifetime’s worth of remembered experience with them to do it. They collectively formed an impression by rigorously considering the details of a specific incident.
In a lot of cases, there has to be a special reason for a group of people to pay so much attention to something outside their own total mindful self-awareness, but our social relationships exist entirely as the same phenomenon. We are to our friends their collective impression of us given their remembered experience of us, just as know them by what they’ve done and what they’ve been through. Our families might know us even better since the time we spend with them in early childhood is dense with new experience. None of them need to be with us every second of our lives to know what we’re likely to do and/or think, they just need some remembered experiences with us and a reason to deliberate about them.
Am I more to me, i.e. is my impression of myself more important to my existence than the collective impression others have of me, or am I more to them, and my existence is contingent on their collective impression of me? How am I?
If I were to try to quantify the amounts, the numbers quickly paint a chaotic picture. An average murder trial takes about 3–4 days. Assuming they’re standard eight-hour work days, that’s 24–36 hours that a jury might spend considering the case before them. Twelve jurors yields 288 (or 312) hours of remembered experience to weigh against the defendant’s—again, assuming the defendant believes themselves to be not guilty while the facts of the case incontrovertibly reveal guilt. Collectively, that’s 12-13 full calendar days the jury has been able to consider the facts of the case and arrive at a different conclusion than the defendant.
Maybe the defendant’s self-identity takes priority—after all, they’ve lived however many years of their life prior to this trial, so they handily outnumber the jury’s 13 measly days—but even if that’s the case, we live in a world where numbers just aren’t that small anymore.
Take Natalie Wynn’s Contrapoints video on cancel culture. It’s about a hundred minutes long and had 4,000,000 views by the time of this writing. Whatever interpretation of her identity is accessible via YouTube video amounts to some 6,666,666 collective hours—or, you know, 760 years. If she lived to be one hundred, her viewers’ collective impression of her would still be seven times as long as her entire lifespan. And that’s just one video. She has a dozen more, also with millions of views.
If four million people disagreed with me about who I am, I would have some concerns about how I wasn’t whatever they believed me to be. If one percent of them wrote to refute my account of myself, and they each only offered one page of data, their account would be 10,000 pages long compared to whatever I could write in my defense.
How can I be different from others’ cumulative impressions of me, how can my internal self-perception take precedence in the face of such overwhelming numbers? As much as I fear death, I’m starting to think I might prefer dying in obscurity to being so scrutinized by the minds of history as to no longer determine my own persistent identity. I’ve tried to distance myself from social media because of the addictive behavior it perpetuates, but now I’m thinking I really dodged a bullet by keeping low the number of people who can deliberate on their remembered experiences with me.
A few years back, I began to realize I didn’t have many strong, close, long friendships anymore, and it made me wonder why I prioritize the effort to “know myself” over everything else. Even if I attained complete knowledge of myself, it could mean nothing against the swell of collective impressions and who I am—how I am—could be primarily determined by external impressions of me anyway. There were a lot of ways that who I was didn’t matter when we disagreed because it was their impression of me that determined what would or wouldn’t happened next.
As much as I want to say “I think, therefore I am,” I have to concede that it’s at least mathematically plausible that I am only because I am thought of, and I’m not the only person doing the thinking. I sustain my life and derive my agency from the good graces (or graceful apathy) of other people because if they collectively decided to deprive me of either, I would be completely powerless to stop them. Similarly, if they decided I was someone completely different than who I think I am, I would be completely at their mercy to persist as my version of myself or theirs.
How am I?
When I was in high school, I would try to punish people who crossed me by “excommunicating” them. Not from the Church—I lacked the papal authority for that—but from myself. I would refuse to talk to the individual either in person or online, ignore them whenever they tried to get my attention, and generally treat them as if they didn’t exist.
Now, we call this practice “ghosting”. While all my attempts at excommunication were ultimately unsuccessful (and, in retrospect, rather desperate and transparent pleas for attention,) I have been ghosted enough times as an adult that I have felt the sting of what I was trying to inflict as a teenager. Sometimes it doesn’t bother me so much because I expect it or at least accept it as a possible risk—such as in online dating—but other times it cuts so deep that I end up nursing the wound for years. What’s the difference?
Ghosts who are former (or prospective) romantic partners are the easiest for me to wrap my head around. When I was using an online dating service called OKCupid, I had made a connection with a woman named Kari. We exchanged messages, a few photos, and eventually set a date to meet in person—only she called it off at the last minute and I never heard from her again.
Ghosting makes sense to me in the semi-anonymous world of online dating as a means of establishing boundaries. She didn’t know me, I didn’t know her, our social circles didn’t intersect in the slightest, and so it was somewhat expected that she might suddenly decide to stop talking to me and that was okay. It didn’t hurt at all, I just thought it was a little rude because of how well we were hitting it off until she suddenly dropped the thread of conversation.
There are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of strangers on the internet. It is an investment of trust and vulnerability to allow someone you barely know to stay in touch with you. I can imagine any number of scenarios where a potential suitor is too obsessive or aggressive to keep in touch, and in those cases the simplest conversation is likely no conversation at all.
Kari was not my first ghost. My first romantic ghost was a woman named Dayna, whom I met on a business trip in California. She was from Long Island, New York, and I was from Alabama. Our company flew us there for a week of training at their corporate headquarters, and we hit it off suddenly and surprisingly—so much so that we started a long-distance relationship as soon as we were back in our home states.
Long-distance relationships are hard to manage, but we were able to sustain a level of interest, intimacy, and commitment nonetheless. We were getting along so well that we talked about closing the distance between us. There was a job opening in nearby Yonkers, New York, so I applied for it. While we waited to find out if the transfer was approved, Dayna and I planned a weekend trip to New York City for her birthday, to see if the spark we found in California would kindle a sustaining warmth.
Instead, we found more sparks. Dayna was strangely controlling over our time, resentful of the fact that I wanted to see the only person I knew in New York (my friend Drew) while I was there. This was despite her birthday party taking the entirety of one evening and being filled with tons of her friends, none of whom I knew and few of whom she was interested in introducing to me. It got so bad that at one point she and another dude were talking past me on a booth seat, making plans to go to a concert together.
Dayna broke up with me in Washington Square on her way to take the train back to Long Island. I got the call that my transfer application was accepted the same afternoon. I texted her the news that we had another chance to work on our relationship, but she wasn’t having it and I never heard from her again.
I don’t think I deserved that kind of ghosting, but I eventually understood where she was coming from. To her, I was just some guy she had a fling with and while it was fun as long as we were long distance, she was uncomfortable with how physically close I was getting and didn’t want to deal with the fallout of telling me distance wasn’t the reason she didn’t want to be together. I felt blindsided and tried to reach out to her a few times, but my best friend River always said that if you send three messages and get no reply, it’s time to move on.
On the other hand, I totally deserved to be ghosted by Bethany. Our relationship was tenuous from the start. She developed an interest in me while she was still living with her boyfriend at the time (who was just the nicest guy ever) and I was new enough to the poly-curious dating scene in Portland that I didn’t question it—I trusted her to manage her own interpersonal boundaries. Our brief romance was hot and fast, ending after an ideological disagreement resulted in a lengthy email exchange before she went to stay with her friend in Canada and I never heard from her again.
The fact that she took a romantic interest in me while she was living with her boyfriend meant she was volatile and unpredictable—which, incidentally, made the ghosting after our breakup seem more predictable, less hurtful. It hurt to be dumped, but the ghosting didn’t really bother me because we had just demonstrated via email that we couldn’t communicate effectively with each other.
In all three cases, the people ghosting me didn’t know me very well, and I think that was a big part of why I didn’t take it as personally as I did my other ghosts. When someone is unfamiliar and unpredictable, it can be scary to maintain contact with them because you don’t know how they might try to hurt you, emotionally or otherwise. It’s a precaution, a protective measure, a firm boundary that I have to respect.
It’s harder for me to wrap my head around the friends who have ghosted me, especially when we’ve known each other for years. Ghosting is saying, “From here on out, I’m dead to you,” and the first time that happened to me, it was fairly literal. I had a friend who was expecting to die for one reason or another, and he told me that he would have to cut off contact with me after a certain date as a protective measure for me—he wanted to avoid the appearance that I might have had any foreknowledge of his death.
As that date came and went on the calendar, I entered into a state of mourning for my friend, working through the stages of grief until I had eventually come to terms with it. He was a literal ghost, in the sense that I would never again be able to get in touch with him.
Except he came back. It is hard to adjust to the notion of someone being alive again after you thought they were dead for some time, especially when your primary correspondence is long-distance. He just showed up in my town, unexpectedly and all of a sudden. I had been acting under the assumption that he was dead for months, and it was shocking to have to rewrite my reality in such a way. He was dead—and then he wasn’t. In a way, he was haunting me, and that’s the only time ghosting feels more malicious than defensive.
The ghost that hurt me the most was when River, my best friend of fifteen years, ghosted me after an argument that wasn’t much worse or more personal than a lot of arguments we’ve had in the time that we’ve known each other. It was completely unexpected and it hurt so much.
Most of the time, I understand ghosting because it helps people feel safe, or it’s necessary for them to process the relationship and move on from it, but I also expect it more from people who know me less, people who don’t feel like they can ask me not to talk to them, or feel like I wouldn’t respect their request if they did. When my best friend ghosted me, it felt like a repudiation of the core of my being. He knew me better than anyone alive, yet he, too, felt he had no other recourse. This, in spite of the fact that he knew better than anyone the trauma I had associated with ghosting. The dying friend who ghosted me was a friend of his, too—and he did eventually die, becoming as literal a ghost as can be said to exist.
Whether my best friend was intentionally or accidentally trying to hurt me, the message I took away from his ghosting was that something was so rotten inside of me that it was worth the retraumatizing just to never have to hear from me again. I sent three unanswered messages and took the hint, but I never really understood it. Because his existence in my life was at his leisure, he sent a wedding present after declining my invitation to the wedding. A ghost when he wanted to be, but haunting me when he pleased.
I would never want to date someone who didn’t want to date me, despite how much unrequited love might sting. I have done my best to respect the wishes of everyone who has ghosted me, trusting that they would know better than I would if they’d prefer silence over another apology. (That being said, I am sorry.) And I guess I don’t want to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be friends with me either.
The hardest part about that particular ghost was that we were still tangentially connected to each other via social media. We had mutual friends on Facebook and mutual followers on Instagram, and every time I logged into one of those platforms I could see all his interactions with everyone else—everybody but me. It hurt so much to see him so active with people he had such a comparatively tenuous relationship with while completely ignoring me after everything we had been through and everything we meant to each other. Eventually, it made me feel so bad I simply deleted my accounts, effectively shunning myself from our social circles.
After a few years, River did eventually tell me why he suddenly and unceremoniously severed all contact with me, and he said he didn’t know what a path forward would even look like for our friendship. Personally, I don’t know that I could be friends with him again, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting long-term intimate friends, knowing he’s comfortable ghosting me.
And if I couldn’t be friends with River again, how can I be friends with anyone after driving someone who was so close to me so far away? Now everybody is a potential ghost, whether literally or figuratively, and these experiences have left me incredibly reluctant to be open and vulnerable with other people. While I’ve been ghosted several times by people who hardly knew me, River knew me as well as anyone ever has and still found ghosting was the only option.
My experience with being ghosted has left me thinking that there must be something about me so dark, so deep, and so terrible that anyone who gets to know me will eventually come to the conclusion that I must be shunned, excommunicated, completely severed from all contact, and that I will deserve it. I take small comfort in the fact that, for the majority of my ghosts, the ghosting has been more about circumstances and an intersection between issues they were dealing with and my own personal shortcomings.
And yet—I still wish I could speak to them all again, just one more time.
I’ve been failing to meditate for over a decade. When I sit for zazen, I try for a half lotus each time, and the first several minutes are always about adapting to the discomfort. I guess I have bad posture, generally speaking, because I also strain to keep my spine straight. It always feels like I’m going to tip over.
Instead of focusing on a mantra or koan, I try to just practice simple breathing meditation, letting my mind empty with each exhalation of breath and slowly refill with ideas as I inhale again. Anything less than five minutes feels like a wasted session, but I start to really lose sense of time after ten or fifteen. I still haven’t found a pleasant way to rouse myself out of it. Any alarm is, well, alarming.
When I started meditating, I didn’t have to worry about that stuff. I was introduced to zen by my karate instructor in college, Jorge H.-Aigla. He wrote a book titled, Karate-Do and Zen about the connection between the martial art and the mental discipline. I hesitate to refer to zen as a spiritual discipline if only because that wasn’t the emphasis he placed on it.
Every session, whether it was a technical workout, a kumite sparring match, or a belt test, began and ended with a silent meditation. Actually, I don’t remember if stretching, pushups, and sit-ups preceded the opening meditation or not. I mostly remember the closing meditation, after I was sweaty and sore, struggling to get my breath under control.
He would have us sit in Vajrasana, a modified kneel where buttocks rest on the heels while the feet lie flat against the ground. It hurt to get into, it hurt to sustain, and some research suggests it may cause long-term damage to the knees. Jorge gave us very little instruction aside from to close our eyes and try to relax.
The first time I entered the dojo, on the first day of classes, Jorge gave everyone a printed copy of a poem from Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton. I don’t know what Merton’s credentials were, how he was qualified to write about zen, but maybe there are no qualifications for poetry. Every subsequent year started the same way, with Jorge reading a modified version of the poem. He would substitute “karate-do” for “zen” and read,
Karate-do enriches no one.
There is no body to be found.
The birds may come and circle for a while…
but they soon go elsewhere.
When they are gone, the ‘nothing,’
the ‘no-body’ that was there,
That is karate-do.
It was there all the time
but the scavengers missed it,
because it was not their kind of prey.
Part of the way he taught karate-do was to encourage his students to liberate themselves from their attachment to their body, to approach the practice as someone who was already dead. In a lot of ways, I practice meditation in preparation for death.
Jorge would tell us to sit, close our eyes, and then we would all sit in silence, dressed in our karategi, ankle tendons and quadriceps burning, until he made a noise again and we arose for the session—or to leave the dojo for the day. I never knew how long we sat there, or how Jorge decided when to end the meditation, but that’s sort of the point. If you’re still aware of what time it is, you need to meditate longer.
I don’t meditate in the hopes of attaining enlightenment or nirvana. I’m pretty sure that even if those states were attainable, it wouldn’t be by trying to get there. My extremely limited understanding of zen is that it’s partly about detaching from goals and objectives like that, partly about liberating the mind from attachment to constant thought, and mostly about practicing zen.
“Zen enriches no one.” Practicing meditation isn’t about becoming a better, more compassionate person—although that may be a welcome side effect. Shunryu Suzuki, whose lectures still comprise the majority of what I have read about zen, says that “zazen does zazen.” The whole point of the practice is to get the human mind—and, to some extent, the body—out of the way fully enough for our intrinsic Buddha mind to manifest itself.
But there’s no way to force it, and in that sense, all meditation is failing to meditate. I know that I feel better when I maintain a meditative practice and there are a lot of studies about why that might be the case, but even that is not the goal of zazen. To have a goal is to miss the point.
I would like to say it gets easier with time, that the more times I sit and meditate, the better I’m able to sit down and clear my head the next time, but it’s hard to sit still. It’s hard to be quiet. It’s hard to sit still, be quiet, and intentionally do nothing, to practice being nothing, or practice just being.
The truth is, when I am sitting still, paying attention to my breathing, and trying not to chase any thought rabbits through the thickets of my mind, I am no more or less alive than I am doing any other thing. I don’t know why it’s so hard to sit still and do nothing, especially to think nothing—it sounds like the bare minimum of control I would have to exert over myself—but it is hard.
Maybe that’s why I keep trying. Within the confines of each session, I struggle to maintain a comfortable posture, struggle to keep my mind clear, and struggle against the increasingly urgent need to make sure I did, in fact, set the timer. Then, between sessions, I struggle to convince myself enough of the merits of the practice to actually sit down and do it again.
But sometimes, I get it. I sit, and after some time has passed I experience brief moments of no-mind, of emptiness, of simple awareness of the world around me and my existence within it, with none of the baggage of conceptualization. And despite that emptiness, I continue to exist.
It’s been over a year, and I still don’t feel quite at home in this house. I still think of it as “The Murder House”. Not because of any actual murders—none that I know of, anyway,—that’s just what I called it when we first toured the property.
My son had been born a week earlier and everyone was flipping out about it. My parents, my wife’s parents, and my grandmother were all in town for the birth. We each handled it in our own different ways. My wife and I were hardly sleeping at all, we had to wake up every couple of hours to feed him or change him. I had two weeks of paternity leave from my job, but it wasn’t restful in the slightest. Sleep is a necessity, something I never realized I needed until I didn’t have it anymore, and without it, I was constantly delirious, a stainless-steel travel mug of coffee accompanied me wherever I went. All I could think about was satisfying his myriad incommunicable needs, guessing my way down the list until he could nap peacefully again and we could try to get some sleep ourselves.
It was the second house we looked at, and I joined my parents there during one of his sleeping spells, when I finally felt comfortable leaving my wife to nap next to him. The house was this towering grey monstrosity, a fixer-upper that would cost us less to buy so long as we were ready for the extensive remodeling that would make it livable. I recorded video tours of each floor to show my wife and narrated my realtime thoughts on the place. The basement was the spookiest part, labyrinthine in its many additions and reconstructions over the hundred years or so of the house’s previous owners. Rooms were added without regard to the existing floorplan, yielding unpredictable twists and turns through carpet, tile, and vinyl linoleum flooring.
The main floor wasn’t much better. The fireplace had a tile footer that was missing a whole chunk of corner, exposing bare concrete beneath. The white walls were crumbling away in places, revealing chunks of browned plaster behind it, and all the trim was glossy with layer upon layer of paint. In the dining room, there was a little corkboard for mail above a small square chalkboard that had a single word written on it in white permanent marker like indelible chalk. The word simply read, “Run!”
There were no doors on the first floor, and the second floor doors all had deadbolts at eye level. It was hard to see it for what it could become—bedrooms, playrooms, a study—instead, everything just raised questions. Why were there so many locks? Why didn’t we have keys to them? Why were the deadbolts only accessible from the outside? Was someone locking people inside these rooms? My sleep-deprived mind, always prone to worst-case-scenarios, imagined a sordid tale of imprisonment, torture, and yes, murder. There was an out-of-place deck in the backyard where I guessed the bodies might be buried, if not in the strange walled-off corner awkwardly set in the middle of one of the basement walls.
And yet, it was the best option that was available. My parents decided that the duplex where my wife and I were living was simply not enough space for a growing family, and they had enough capital that they could afford to buy a house for us outright with enough left over to pay a deconstruction crew to tear down the basement walls and a restoration team to strip the paint from the hundred-year-old trim and skim the hundred-year-old plaster walls. Since my wife was completely, physically preoccupied with the baby, I was left to make all the executive decisions about how we would refinish the floor, paint the rooms, and restore the wooden double-hung windows to their former glory. Sweat equity would bridge the gap between the mess we purchased and the home we would build, and I would have a strong hand in the remodel.
My family has built a few houses from the ground up, the first of which was finished shortly after I was born. Together, we built a log house in rural Alabama that would house my parents, my sister, and me, and that house felt like home in a way this one has yet to accomplish. Maybe it was that sense of communal effort, of creative control, and of sheer labor. I still remember cutting all forty-six rafters with a circular saw, placing the responsibility for the stability of the roof in my teenage hands. We built a bedroom for each of us, my parents sharing theirs with each other, as well as an office for my freelance interpreter mother and a music/art room back when I was still trying to be a musician and my sister was still trying to be an artist. The exterior walls were fourteen inches thick, huge logs that were painted brown on the outside but finished with a clear shellac interior. In spite of all our effort, the four of us only lived there together for a couple of years.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so there’s not really an archetypal “childhood home” in my memory. When pressed, I consider “home” the house we rented in Decatur, Georgia. It was small enough that my sister and I shared a bedroom until I was old enough to demand my own space and moved into the attic. There was no air conditioning, just a box fan that lived in the window, constantly circulating the stifling southern heat in the summer to give the illusion of cool. When we gathered in our tiny dining room around the little collapsible table for dinner, I felt connected to the space and my family in a way that has been hard to capture since.
We moved from that little rental—barely more than a single floor with an unfinished basement—into a church-sponsored manse provided as part of my father’s job at a rural Presbyterian church in Virginia. That was certainly the oldest and largest house I’ve ever lived in, built sometime in the 1800’s alongside the chapel itself. The space was so massive that everything we moved into it felt small and out of place. There were ten feet between my bed and my computer desk before I even made it to my bedroom door. We had a living room with two couches and a television but nothing else, and the empty space echoed with every footfall. The only part of that house that I liked was the library, a smaller room toward the back of the house with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves.
My wife and I moved into the duplex when we found out we were pregnant because the one-bedroom unit of a ground-floor apartment complex was certainly going to be too small for our needs. The duplex at least had two bedrooms, one of which could be used as a study for my writing until the baby came, at which point it would be dubbed the “baby study” until such a time as he was old enough for me to move my desk out. We planned on looking for a house to buy for ourselves, but with our meager salaries (I was working as a temp, having recently left my job in tech retail before we discovered we were pregnant) we knew we wouldn’t be able to afford much of an upgrade, and then not for a few years. Until then, we made the space feel like home by picking up a couple of towering seven-foot-tall matching bookcases at a secondhand construction store. When I could see all of my books in one place, I felt like I could comfortably inhabit the space for an indefinite period of time.
Now those bookcases live in the library of the Murder House, a ground floor westward-facing room with no door in the doorframe. The main floor only has doors leading into the bathroom and the basement, otherwise it is completely open. For the longest time, all I could see was project after project after project until the house would be “done” and I could finally look forward to living in it instead of working on it. It’s been more than a year and I’m still finding things to do. The bathroom window needs to be trimmed out. The trim in my study still needs to be treated with Rubio monocoat oil. The fence in the backyard, a horrid red monstrosity, needs to be removed and replaced with something that feels more welcoming.
Our house is a work in progress, and maybe it will take a few more years of settling before I recognize it as a home. But we own it outright, we can make any modifications to it that we want to, that we can afford, and so it’s only a matter of time before the balance tips from looking at the house as a renovation project and being able to enjoy it simply as a living space. My son will grow up with a clear and distinct recollection of what home looks and feels like, even if I never get there myself. I just need a few more years to warm up to it, to see it not as a remodeling project that still needs to be completed, but as the comforting home he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
You can check out our progress here
Physical activity is the cure for intellectual stagnation.
I’ve been trying to get in the habit of running regularly. It started as a way to break the monotony of my days off; oftentimes I would find myself just sitting around deteriorating on days when I didn’t have to work. I tried reading, but I would always fall asleep. I tried writing music, but I was living in a house where such a thing was an imposition on my housemates. Running became something to do out of the house that would at least occupy my time for an hour or so.
You notice things more when you run, especially if you run a route that you’re accustomed to driving. When you’re behind the wheel of an automobile, there are too many fast-paced and long-distance things to keep in mind. You don’t think about what’s immediately around you, you think about what’s down the road, and only pay a fleeting glance to what’s behind you. The pace is much slower on a run, and you can get a real appreciation for what things look like up close, what they smell like, and their contiguous relationship to other things.
It’s a very pensive experience.
The run I’m about to describe was particularly meditative and moving. I had been running regularly for a couple of weeks, using Nike+ in conjunction with my iPhone to track my pace and distance. When I was playing soccer, I easily had a six-minute mile, but lately (since taking up smoking and a more lethargic lifestyle) I’ve had to set my goals closer to the nine-minute mile mark. So at around 8:30 in the evening I put my headphones in, set the clock to twenty minutes (that should give me about two miles) and set off on my run.