Object Impermanence

The world is the totality of facts, not things.  

Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)

 

When we are first born the world is an unfathomable mystery. We emerge from a dark, warm home, barely larger than ourselves, into a reality that is incomprehensible—it is too vast, and we have not yet developed the capacity to sense it. For all the light, color, and shadow of this new world, our newborn eyes can not yet find meaning. Life was knowable and now it is chaos.

Within a matter of weeks we learn to identify objects from the riot of sight. A teddy bear, for example. This soft and furry lump is separate from the things underneath it, next to it, and behind it, and is something singular that we may reach for or hold. We may even clutch it tightly, and this seems to be possession. 

But there is still deep mystery in the object. Where did it come from? What causes it to appear? Where did it go? These are unanswerable to our brand new brain. And at this stage, if that teddy bear is taken and hidden—say, under a table and out of our sight—it’s existence seems to have ceased. It is, simply, gone.

Eventually we learn that objects continue to exist even when we are no longer able to perceive them. The teddy bear may be out of sight, but we understand that it’s there, under the table, extant. In just a matter of months this understanding is established, and the world begins to become comprehensible. It is the foundation upon which a lifetime of understanding is built.

The world unfolded to me, one mystery at a time, in the rooms and halls of my childhood home. While I was no longer held in the warm, quiet cradle of her belly, I learned that if I cried she would cradle me in her arms and comfort me. If I couldn’t see the soft and furry lump that I loved to hold, I learned it was waiting somewhere to be found, often where I slept. That there were words for these things and people around me: mom, teddy bear, mirror, book, brother, bed. I learned that not everything I loved in the house was mine to have. That things which are beautiful to look at can hurt to touch, but that my mother and my home would keep me safe. I learned that books should always be read at bedtime, cooking was a tangible form of love, love was abundant, and mom was always there. That no matter how old I became or how long I was away, walking in that front door would always smell the same. 

I remember laying in bed the night before I left for college, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “This is the last night that this house is my home. I’ll come back for vacations, but from now on it will be a place that I am visiting.” College, graduate school, and a gig-based career that took me around the country and across the seas meant that since that night I’ve lived in 18 different places. With so much change, the only constants in my life were the earliest ones: mom is always there, the teddy bear still exists, sitting on my childhood bed, and walking in the front door of my childhood home always smells the same.

Things began to come apart when my mother became ill—she’d managed to thrive with her alcoholism and keep it hidden for decades, but it caught up to her eventually. She changed from a constant source of comfort and love to a woman made cruel, possessed. When I cried, she would not comfort. Love was withheld. And then she died. The first world I knew, and earliest of my truths, gone. It was unfathomable. 

We have maxims to help make sense of the loss of a life: “although the person is gone, their spirit lives on in our hearts.” Since she died I’ve been working to find where it is inside me that my mother lives. At first she was an absentee tenant, but after two years she’d begun to settle into some quiet corners in a way I found comforting and constant. Things were beginning to make some kind of sense again. Mom was, once again, always there. And so were the teddy bear on the bed and the smell of coming home. 

Until they weren’t. I got a phone call that there had been an accident. My home—it’s walls that once held my whole world—went up in flames in a matter of minutes after a candle tipped over, igniting a sheet on a bed. The the people got out, the dog did not, and the house, and everything in it, was gone. 

My childhood home had burned to the ground.

I cannot explain the strangeness of seeing it the next day, still smoldering. There was some roof, not many walls, sections of floor, remnants of plates, books, chairs, beds, but mostly mounds of shapeless black rubble. All of it burned—most things past recognition, all beyond salvation. The structure itself damaged so irreparably that even the foundation needed to be demolished. Where for 42 years stood a home, now nothing but a charred black hole.

When my mother died people had so many words of comfort to offer. But when the house burned, all people could offer was shock and sorrow. Losing a house to fire is not a universal experience. We do not have maxims for the loss of things, let alone the dizzying loss of everything.

Every thing. The teddy bear is gone, as is the bed it sat on, and the floor beneath it. There is no front door to walk in, and that place which is no longer the house smells like woodsmoke, melted plastic, chemicals, and ash. 

My childhood home does not have a spirit or the intangible essence of a singular person. It was a collection of objects that were, and now are…not. The not-ness of the objects so impossible to comprehend. 

“It’s just stuff,” I’ve told people countless times, “it can be replaced.” Thank goodness nobody told me that home is where the heart it; I would have punched them.

When I was old enough to move from crib to bed, my father built a wooden frame for a twin sized mattress. My bed sat in the corner atop four milk crates. In my adolescence the bed was moved to a different wall, still in its wooden frame built by my father’s hands, but resting now atop white drawers. Old mattress, new sheets. After I’d moved out for good, a new mattress in the same wooden frame atop its drawers. New mattress, old sheets. After my mother died, a brand new double mattress in a brand new wrought-iron frame. New sheets too. Dad cut up the wood from the old frame and made sandwich boards that he painted charcoal black and which I turned into signs for my wedding. After we were married I painted black over the gold letters and made new signs with different gold names for another person’s wedding. I loaded those pieces of my once-bed into the trunk of another’s car and watched them drive away.

I wonder when exactly it was that my childhood bed ceased to exist. When it was moved from one wall to another? When I got new sheets? When the mattress was replaced? When the new bed arrived? When the wooden frame was cut up and painted black? When the new bed was blackened by the fire? 

I wonder if that bed has, in fact, ceased to exist. Are those pieces of the original wooden frame still sitting somewhere, unburned, painted the same flat black as the now burned house? Are they tucked into an attic, the corner of a garage, or perhaps at a dump, being bulldozed under a shapeless mound of rubble?

I wonder where my home went. If the reality of an object exists even outside of our ability to perceive it, what does that mean when an object is destroyed? Has it truly been destroyed? Or is our ability to perceive it that which has been destroyed? Was my home a unique collection of objects, or is the idea of Home the thing that gave it it’s meaning? 

For years now I have found deep meaning from visiting historically significant sites. The Colosseum. Stonhenge. An iron-age fort on a hilltop in Scotland. The Anasazi ruins of Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation. The Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans. A restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, where George Washington had a meal in 1791 and where a recreation of Nat Fuller’s reconciliation feast was held in 2015. All places that have filled me with a sense of mystery and wonder at their meaningfulness. 

The first time I felt profoundly connected to human history was at the Acropolis in Athens when I was 25. My sandal slipped on the stones underfoot. At first annoyed, I realized that they were so smooth and shiny from over 2,000 years of footsteps. I thought of the sandaled feet of Roman senators walking over these same stones. The beginning of Western civilization was here, beneath my feet, and I could draw a direct line through history from those senators atop that hill to my birth, half a world away. I looked around for someone to share the moment with. Nobody on the hilltop was speaking a language that I even recognized, and so I pulled out my cellphone, calculating what time it was in California. I called home.

“You’ll never guess where I am,” I gushed. “At the Acropolis, looking up at the Parthenon.” 

“Oh, how incredible,” she gasped.

A place so full of history and meaning that I had to share it with my mother, standing in the kitchen, half a world away.

And now I survey the burial site of my childhood home. A place with no historical significance except my own. And I don’t have a mom to call when I’m standing there.  And I don’t really understand what the world means now that it’s gone.

 

 

 

 

Hope hurts.

I’ve been hearing some version of “Just hang in there, things will get better and stop being hard soon!” so many times in the last 2 years that I’ve stopped believing it. “What if this is just what life is like now?” I often wonder.

Which leaves me in a bit of predicament. I’ve experienced enough loss and disappointment and Bad Things That Are Not My Fault And Are Out of My Control lately that I am having a hard time being as present for happiness and joy as I’d like. To wit:

The first time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was elated. The kind of excitement and happiness that gives you butterflies, has you dancing alone in the kitchen, and flushes you with enough adrenaline that you have trouble sleeping. I was so excited that even the few weeks of morning all day sickness felt like an adventure that I was 100% willing to endure because of the vast hope flowering within me. And then I miscarried that pregnancy.

The second time I had a positive pregnancy test, I felt numb. “Oh,” I thought “Well, I guess it’s too early to be excited.” So I wasn’t excited. And then I was depressed about the fact that I wasn’t excited. Women all over the world get to be excited about their pregnancies, but I was no longer one of them. That experience had been taken from me. And that felt like shit. And then three days later I miscarried that pregnancy.

The third time I had a positive pregnancy test, I was surprised by a small twinge of excitement. A little seed of hope. “I’ve got a present for you,” I told my husband, and I showed him the test. “Oh,” he said casually, “well, I guess we’ll wait and see if it’s worth getting excited about.” My heart dropped a bit, but I knew he was right. Over the next few weeks, each time I told a close friend that I was pregnant they gushed, “OMG congrats! Are you so excited?!?” and I had to admit that neither my husband nor I were particularly excited, and were in fact feeling rather guarded. At that admission, one of my dearest friends said “I know you’re so worried that this pregnancy won’t work out…but what if it does? I don’t want you to have missed all the fun things things about the beginning of your pregnancy.“ And I realized she was right.

I’ve been hurt by people in my past, and yet I’ve never stopped cultivating new relationships because of the fear that someone new might hurt me. I am devastated every time a beloved pet grows old and dies, and yet that doesn’t mean I’m going to put my current dog up for adoption and never have a pet dog again. I’ve had milk that’s gone bad (shudder), and yet I still have a carton of goat milk in my fridge as I type this! So why was I refusing to let myself be excited about this pregnancy because of the fear it might not work out?

And so I decided to give in to the joy and the hope.

And then the following week, I miscarried that pregnancy.

Well, shit.

Just today, I got some good news related to work. And instead of bringing me excitement and joy, it made me feel overwhelmed, frightened, and anxious, because I just don’t trust good news at the moment. “No news is good news” has never felt like a truer maxim. And yet…I am full of hopes and wishes. I hope I get this job. I hope I get pregnant. I hope I am able to find a home that feels like I could live there forever. I hope, I hope, I hope for all manner of things that are outside of my control. It’s awful. Those hopes feel like naked, vulnerable, tendril-like extensions of my heart sent out into a room full of mouse traps, jackhammers, and stampeding rabid elephants with explosive diarrhea.

How do I do this? How do I remain open to joy and hope, and yet protect myself from the looming specter of pain?

I think the answer is that protecting myself from pain is the wrong goal (and not just because it’s impossible). Increasingly, the way I’ve been getting through the pain has been by focusing on the present moment. My initial reaction to bad news tends to be a mind that races, thinking of all of the ramifications of the bad news, the ways that it will impact the future, and what I will have to endure next, and then after that, and then after that, and then…before I know it I am overcome with anxiety and existential depression about what has happened.

Instead of spiraling into the despair of what this event means in the long term, simply focusing on “I feel so sad right now,” or “this is terribly painful and disappointing,” and just sitting with those emotions is incredibly helpful. I cannot predict how an an event will affect my future. I can sit with and honor how an event made me feel—which is a moment I am able to move on from. It deescalates an event from existential horror that I am caught in, to the feelings I am feeling right now, which ebb and flow.

I think really practicing this will also help me believe that I am allowed to feel hope and joy, and not worry about the many “what-ifs” and things that could go wrong. The next time I receive good news and react with fear, my intention is to ask myself “Am I just afraid that something bad might happen?” And if the answer is yes, then to try to release the fear, and to take joy in the present moment.

I will try to trust that things will work out, or that they won’t, regardless of whether I worry. I will try to trust that I will get through it, however difficult or painful it may feel. I will try to feel unmitigated hope, even if it only lasts for a moment.

I will try.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe

Kinds of Cry

What are some reasons a person might cry?*

*…okay by “a person” I mean me, and by “might” I mean “an exhaustive list of reasons I already have…today.”

Let’s be honest. Not all cries are equal. Crying because you got fired feels very different than crying because you’ve been dumped, feels very different still from crying (sobbing) because you’re on your period and you’re wearing a maxi dress and your husband wants to go for a walk but the shoes you’re wearing look stupid with your dress and you think you look like a Peanuts character. (That 3rd one is universal, right? Just me? Okay.) So in my quest to examine and normalize crying, I thought that a good place to start would be to list the different reasons there are for crying. In generating the list I noticed some things. Meet me at the bottom to hear more about that.

  • Shame
  • Grief
  • Heartbreak
  • Physical Pain
  • Surprise
  • Vulnerability
  • Sadness (see also: Grief and Loss)
  • Happiness
  • Laughter
  • Loss (see also: Grief)
  • Beauty
  • Humility
  • Hormonal cry
  • Sex: Pain (see also: Physical Pain)
  • Sex: Orgasm (see also: Vulnerability, Surprise, Release, and Awe/Overwhelm)
  • Confusion (see also: Shame)
  • Embarrassment (see also: Shame)
  • Art (see also: Awe/Overwhelm, Beauty, Surprise, Vulnerability, Nostalgia)
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Exhaustion
  • Empathy (see also: everything else on this list)
  • Hunger
  • Anger
  • Betrayal
  • Jealousy (see also: Shame)
  • Anxiety
  • Hang Over (see also: Physical Pain and Hunger)
  • Release
  • Relief
  • You Hear a Song (see also: Art)
  • Awe/Overwhelm
  • Nostalgia (see also: Grief, Loss, and Heartbreak)
  • Injustice (see also: Anger, Frustration, Disappointment, and Empathy)
  • Loss of Control (see also: Fear and Shame)
  • Cutting an onion
  • Dust in your eyes
  • Hayfever
  • Because something is SO FLUFFEH
  • I don’t know, I just am!
  • Because you’re still asking me this question (*quiet sobs*) (see also: Frustration)

Okay. That was a long list, and I’m sure there are things that I left out. Now on to some of the things I noticed.

Looking at this list I am struck by 1. How long it is, and 2. That emotions that are seemingly opposite are nevertheless both on the same list. For example, Sadness and Happiness. Anxiety and Relief. Disappointment and Benedict Cumberbatch (okay, so that last one isn’t on the list, but is definitely the opposite of Disappointment.). That tells me that I can cry for lots of different reasons, and that those reasons can be seemingly contradictory.

As I was listing these reasons, I also noticed that to me, many of them seemed to be related, or even to be sub-sets of one another (hence the “see also”s after some of the reasons.) This tells me that a reason I am crying often isn’t one single reason, but rather a combination of many, inter-connected reasons.

And something that surprised me about writing this list was that it brought up a big question: All of these reasons make me cry. So what is it like to feel these things for someone who doesn’t cry? That’s something I’m excited to explore in future posts.

Until next time,

The Cry Babe