So, a few weeks ago, I started making notes of ideas and topics I could write about here in this blog. At first, this seemed helpful, in that I wouldn’t be at a loss when I wanted to write, but now this list feels like a burden, things getting in the way of me being able to write about new ideas. Writing about ideas I’ve already had often starts to feel pedantic (and being a pedant is my day job); I want to be surprised and learn as I write — with the thought that if the writer is entertained, the reader may be also. Last night I found this idea from months ago, in a sketchbook: that once I started to recognize what I was drawing, I would move on. That’s a little too severe perhaps, but not a bad place to start today’s round-up of ideas I’ve been eager to get off my list. And if the writing takes me beyond these ideas into new territory, all the better.
Here’s a note that’s been sitting next to my computer screen for a couple weeks. Like many of these other ideas, this one seems interesting enough that I could go quite in-depth, but I’m not feeling the desire to do that now. So here goes: Verbs are abstractions. So are nouns, of course, but nouns are at least labels: dish rag, doggy, Denver. These sounds and symbols are arbitrary, but not necessarily meaningful. (Although I’ve also been thinking about the Ferlinghetti line — “Words are living fossils.” Words are ancient relics — English words, so many of which no longer are spelled as they sound, seems to carry their histories, their etymologies, around with them. “Knight,” instead of being clarified to “nite” (or even long-I “nit,” if there were an English accent mark for long-I sound), displays its Old English origin better than a coat of arms.)
Back to verbs. So, if we speakers of English agree to call a thing with tines and a handle a “fork,” (and yes, this idea of fork is a mental pattern than a physical reality — since we can use a real fork for many uses, as my students have brainstormed, what we call a “fork” is that which matches our idea of what a fork is), that may be arbitrary, but it’s not making nearly as big an interpretive claim as is describing an action as “walking,” as in “Mom walked to town.” “Mom” and “town” are things that can be pointed to, even if their definition isn’t always as clear as we’d like. But “to walk” involves whole lists of motion — legs moving, bending, arms swinging, balance maintained, at a certain gait and pace (not to mention the specific motions of each muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, etc.) — and there are so many other verbs that distinguish “walking” from “running,” “strolling,” “perambulating,” “jogging,” “hiking,” etc. Sure, English is great for its wide vocabulary, but there is a lot of interpretive packaging going on in even a simple sentence describing action.
Moving on: Comparisons are always arbitrary. Comparing one thing to another is never necessary, is always arbitrary. If I compare myself to my peers who are more successful (by whatever definition thereof) or less successful than myself, there doesn’t really seem to be much value in that. But to even compare two, say, forks from the same silverware set is to take two things that are particular, that, while similar in abstractions such as design-shape, mass, etc., each have their own component atoms (some of which could be, for example, radioactive in one fork and not in another). And even atoms, too, are particular — each one occupies a unique location in space and time — which prompts a thought that even grouping things together — joining two particular things together in a plural noun — going conceptually from this fork and that fork to these forks is to overlook particular qualities of each thing.
This is getting abstract, I know, but this is a tendency of thinking that can lead us to abstract bullsh!t such as the Common Core, which assumes that all students are so alike that they must all be able to attain the same academic skills. Of course, every curriculum (or policy) set up by every institution does this. And the danger here is that abstractions are always perfect because they are never real. A perfect circle can be easily defined in abstraction but never created in physical reality. And of course, this distinction of “abstraction” from “physical” is itself an abstract concept. Thinking separates us from physical reality.
And this thinking is so mysterious. I was thinking (there it is, again) yesterday as I wrote my journal about how the words I write seem to come from some inner voice — it often feels as if I’m transcribing from some voice in my head. (This is what it feels like, though not exactly, of course — it’s still metaphorical. ) Perhaps some brain-region that processes aural info is involved in me being able to convert thoughts into written symbols — maybe that would even show up on an fMRI scan. But I have no sense of where the words come from before that — and I doubt a scan would indicate that. Sure, ideas may be linked to our emotions, so that I may feel a certain way, or I may feel that a certain idea is worth saying (while other ideas aren’t). I’m not a brain researcher, and I don’t really want to be, because what research would show would be external, and what interests me more is the experience of being a living person who can seem to alter my physical world — I can write all these word-symbols onto paper — yet, this process of where the ideas come from remains mysterious. As a writing teacher, I just skip over this most essential part; the closest I can get is to say, “write whatever words come to mind,” and that works for a lot of students but it doesn’t seem to happen for some students, who then get labeled as having a “learning disability.” They’re different, but we don’t really know why. But we don’t know why the rest of us do what we do either.
This mystery doesn’t lead me to despair; it fascinates me. It reminds me how little we really know about our own closest experiences. This last few days, I was a little more tired than usual, and my mind seemed to keep supplying me certain performed lines from a song (to be particular, the “Starships” remake by the Pitch Perfect cast), even when I didn’t want to be thinking about that. The ideas felt “sticky,” as we obsessives sometimes call them. I couldn’t get rid of them by willing that — I could only accept what was coming to my mind and, through accepting, let other ideas replace the repetitive ones. I took this stickiness as a sign of my tiredness, as this doesn’t often happen — though other ideas though my day sometimes seem urgent, important beyond reason — “did I shut my car’s lights off?,” for example. Other obsessives have their own triggers, of course — the classic handwashing (as in The Aviator) impulse isn’t an urgency I get.
But this is the beautiful — and sometimes, scary — thing about my mind, maybe all minds. I sit back and experience it. Even the creative endeavors — writing, photographing, sketching — I do are mostly a matter of letting things happen, rather than trying control what my mind does. Actually, controlling my mind, focusing my attention, is what I have to do for work (particularly when grading essays), and so letting my mind go and watching what it does, this is play, is leisure, and I do it even while I’m driving to work, say. And somehow the mind seems to watch itself. I think a lot of things, even as I take mostly-unstimulating rural roads to work, but only some ideas seem to interest my mind enough so that I think, I should write that idea down.
Even “idea” or “thought” seems too abstract, and too limited a concept here, but so it goes.