Tag Archives: abstraction

Perpetuating Reality: Time is not real

Two students in my Rhet. & Comp. class claimed on Friday that time does not exist. I’m writing this now, describing a memory as an idea, and if you’re reading this now, you’re constructing these words and sentences into your own abstract ideas.

One of my students said she’d like to discuss time’s reality for her assignment to craft a philosophical argument. So we start by defining time as that which flows along, carrying all existing things in its current (the current moment). Clocks don’t measure this time, because clocks just measure events — electric clocks measure AC cycles or quartz crystal movements; atomic clocks measure the behavior of certain atoms — and clocks do not measure time itself.

We talked about how objects degrade over time — metal left outside rusts, wood breaks down. But this “wearing down” of physical objects isn’t caused by time but by the action of other physical things on this objects — chemical reactions cause rusting, mechanical erosion causes scratches, etc.

Physical objects can only be affected by materials and energy — time, being neither of these, does not exist physically.

So perhaps time exists only in our ideas, our minds, our conscious understanding. We can look at an old building and see the rust on the door hinge and the softening brick and think that this house is old. But then, we can think anything.

But objects exist in a perpetual now — there is no past, no future, for an object. (And even this description threatens to fall into thinking of objects as having their own form of consciousness — it’s hard not to think this way.) A homeowner might look at a rusting hinge and think that it should be replaced, because the hinge no longer lives up to the homeowner’s expectation of what should be. But someone, like an artist or scientist, who just wants to see what is might just see the object in the present moment without regard to what it was or could be.

As an artist myself, I can enjoy looking at dilapidated barns, for example, and appreciate their falling-down-ness, whereas if I owned those barns, I’d see trouble and expense and a physical world that wasn’t matching my expectations. (I can recognize that feeling, though, when I have a certain class session that isn’t happening the way I’d like it to be happening.)

It’s such a part of my consciousness, of my way of understanding reality, to think of time as being an ongoing thread (or flowing river) connecting all my experiences throughout my life. I suspect that this is one of the features of the cultural software that was constructed as a framework for thinking as I grew up.

I developed the late 1970s/early 1980s version of this software, in which certain things — TV, microwaves, nuclear arms race — already existed, and in which certain values — divorce is normal, women have careers, and it’s OK for boys to cry — were normal. I suspect that the 1930s-era software my grandparents grew up with (during which time the metaphor would not have been “software,” of course — but player piano rolls? timing gears?) had different technology and different values and so they no doubt have trouble understanding things like the satellite television remote and the value of racial and ethnic diversity. No doubt I myself will find it difficult to understand change as my system-software ages. But this is also why it’s pointless for old people to say “In MY day, we didn’t do that” — as long as one is still alive, one might as well adapt.

So, yeah — there may be no time at all. It’s so easy for me to think of the past as these experiences I remember, and the future as things I will do, that it’s easy to overlook that the only time I’m really alive is right now (see also here). I’ve got 20 years of journals — but “years of” anything is an empty idea. What I should say is that I have notebooks and print-outs (and computer files, even) that are marked with dates from 20 years ago, but these notebooks, etc., still exist now, and when I read them, I’m reading them now. I’ve long tried to figure out how to understand the writer of these past writings, which writer’s handwriting looked like mine, and some of what the writer said sounded like something I’d say, but which I don’t remember saying it. Was it Younger-Me? But Younger-Me is not Now-Me, so then, is it a different person? Well, maybe it might as well be. My old writings are just ink on paper that exists in that form today. My memory of having written a certain page (or my not-having such a memory) doesn’t really matter. Without memory, there is no past, anyway.

And probably there is no “reality,” either, other than whatever “reality”-image we construct in our minds, our mental models of the world. Even terms like “reality” and “the world” are abstractions, and what really seems to exist — matter and energy, physical things — exist without the names of “matter” and “energy” or “atoms” or any science label. We can think about the physical world — that’s what science is, thoughts about the physical world — but we don’t really know what’s there. We perpetuate reality only by perpetuating the idea of reality.

And if there’s no time-river, and no time-thread, then there’s no place for events or experiences to be saved, and so there’s no such thing as “truth” that any statement or story could correspond to. So in a criminal court, the verdict of any trial is the constructed story that the jury finds most realistic.

And if there’s no time-river, no time-thread, then there’s no time in which one could jump (it’s so easy to think of time-as-distance this way), and so there can be no time travel. Time might be how we explain change, or we extrapolate from perceiving change (which perception requires memory), but time itself doesn’t need to exist. (Though, of course, some abstract explanations for how matter-and-energy work invoke the idea of time, such as space-time).

It’s so hard for a conscious, abstracting mind to escape abstraction. Abstracting is its habit, its process; abstracting is what the mind does. It’s exhausting, sometimes. Yet, I live in a world of abstractions — following rules and curricula, teaching theories and ideas — those are what keep the physical roof over my head and the physical food coming to my body. But no ideas are real in the same way that anything I can touch is real.  That may be why I so desperately enjoy, at certain moments, letting go of thinking and lying down flat on my back and just not-abstracting (which can’t be directed by thinking but can seem to be allowed to happen) — some people might call this mediation, but I often just fall asleep. This not-thinking allows me to just be now and not think about anything else.

The past is not -7: Remembering to forget

I’m not sure it helps to think of time in a linear way, as if time were on a number line (with the present at zero, the past as negative numbers, and the future as positive numbers). This seems to suggest that we could time-travel by jumping to some other spot on the number line. Maybe the past is only memories, the future is only conjecture, and the present is — is the only thing that’s real but even the present can’t be defined.

Hell, time may not exist outside of one’s consciousness at all.

But what I have in the present moment is a lot of pages of writings that seem to be in my handwriting (and those things that are not in my handwriting — those things I typed — do feel a little less mine, somehow). I’m glad I have these writings. Sometimes I can look back and read about things I said I did but no longer remember doing. Sometimes I’m surprised by how wise I was years ago, or that an idea that seems recent was in my mind several years ago. (Sometimes this makes me wonder if I’m really ever doing anything new, or just refining — or spiraling back over — things I first said 20 or more years ago.)

And I’m tempted, at times, to look through these older writings and get passages to write here on the blog. There are some reasons why I don’t do this more often, namely that doing this seems boring. I don’t feel like I really wanna go back over all those old things. A dip into the past, a glimpse back, are fine, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time typing up stuff I wrote when I was not the person that I am now.

Besides, I’m tempted to not be limited creatively by what I did in the past. I want to be doing new things, not thoroughly wringing out whatever life was in an ideas I had once. Ideas come all the time when I’m open to them, and I’d rather keep having new ideas than feel some obligation to a past idea just because I’ve spent a lot of time on it. I want to do what I want to do, creatively speaking, and what I want to do is keeping having new ideas — by “ideas” here, I mean new perspectives, new understandings, new points of view. But even modest ideas are new ideas.

I’m not explaining this well (a familiar feeling: words suck, and yet, they’re what we have, unless we also have other things).

But, hells bells, that’s OK, too. Why does every explanation need to be good? Eff that. I’m alive and I do stuff and I think stuff and that’s all. I mean, my writings are, in a way, just a by-product of my consciousness, anyway. My texts are by-products of the creative process, of the mind engaged in writing, of my conscious mind seeming to take dictation from the mind-voice that is the source of the words. It’s easy to think of the writing as the product, rather than as the by-product — it’s the writing that sells, that can be shared, not the experience of writing, and yet, the libraries and used book shops give away books filled with ink all the time. Empty books would have more value than a lot of the books filled with words. It’s easy to focus on the thing, the material object, rather than on the immaterial, subjective experience, and yet, why would anyone do something just to make a dead product.

And one of my older ideas is that my completed journals feel dead to me. Once I’ve filled all the pages with my writing, the notebook goes on a shelf and I get a new one that feels more vital. Of course, the words I wrote even moments ago are already past, and dead to me. This is how we live, of course, with every moment being new; revision pretends that things can be done over, re-lived. I understand that writing is not speech, can’t always be compared to speech, and yet writing that is worried over is dead in a way that speech never is — and how weird it’d be if we went back and revised our conversations. Sure, sometimes we wish we hadn’t said a thing, but, eh, life goes on. Apologies can be good. But we don’t get to revise our lives, of course; those continue. Each moment is new.  (However one defines “moment,” which is awkward of course. I like the metaphor of a mind crystallizing, coming into focus, around a feeling, idea, or perceived pattern, say, like recognizing a face, either a real person’s face or a face in a cloud). Living is fluid, is an act, is a process — we often will talk about a life, or one’s life, as if it were a thing, an object, when of course it is nothing but an abstraction.

All is fluid, is act, is process — or I should use verbs here and say, flowing, acting, processing (and these verbs are, of course, as abstract as the nouns are). And these labels we use are, of course, our own mental shorthand — these labels are not anywhere in nature, in physical reality (unless some human has written them there).

And I’ve said this before. But that’s OK, too. It’s a funny thing to be alive. I’ve long thought that there can be no statement of a meaning of life — statements are inadequate. We experience. We can think about what we see, and then we can think about it again. We do things whether we understand what we do or not. Maybe we never know why we do a particular thing. Maybe that’s OK.

And I think it’s fine that we try to understand things through words and labels and concepts and models and such, just so long as we remember that all of this has very little purchase on or intersection with our experiences, our bodies, and the things our bodies interact with. So long as we remember to forget all we think we know.

Not nihilism, but creative possibility

After I write a post like the previous one, in which I argue that there are limits on our knowledge, or that there are many things that can’t be known, I feel like I may be taking a nihilistic position that denies the possibility of solid knowledge. This feels like a negating-other-ideas position that can’t really make positive, content-ful statements or ideas.

But I don’t really see it that way. By pointing out limitations on what we know and can know, how much more one experiences one’s own subjectivity, one’s consciousness, rather than the experiencing any objective reality, I feel like I’m opening mental space for new possibilities. I’m making the case that we don’t have to think in the ways we’ve thought before, the ways we’ve learned to think.

And further, by pointing out that we may want to be skeptical of all stories, all ideas (as I said before, we may want to look at every narrator (and every person) as an unreliable narrator), I’m also hopefully pointing out that there is a world of experience beyond that which can be symbolized and abstracted, beyond any medium (whether that medium is a video screen or just the abstractions of words). I remind myself to let go of all ideas, to just lie down and let go of all ideas (as much as possible).

There’s no name for what exists beyond thinking (we could call it “external reality,” or “the world,” or whatever, but using these labels bring us back to ideas). But we don’t have to think all the time.

(Maybe that’s not a problem for everybody, but it’s something I try to remind myself. Perhaps in this I’m like the philosophers discussed here who think as a way to cope with a world they don’t find easy to live in.)

So it’s kinda funny that I do as much thinking (abstracting) as I do, in these blog posts and elsewhere, especially since I’ve said that the ideas I come up with may not be all that real or valuable. And yet, this is what I do.

The Iliad, consciousness, reality: How I get tired this evening

I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:

I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.

It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.

I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.

So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.

These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.

I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.

Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.

No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.

But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”

So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).

And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …

And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.

Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.

But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).

That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.

One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.

After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)

But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)

And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on.  Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.

So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.

A Doctorate in Here and Now

2013_06_15_mh (51)_doctorate

I want to study the everpresent present, and I want to study particular things in the omnipresent, momentary present.

I want to understand these things without knowing any facts about them. Facts are abstract, telling about the things, without being the things themselves. Colleges grant degrees to people who know lots of facts and ideas about certain things. I want a degree in not-knowing facts.

Which is not to say that I want to be rewarded for laziness. No. It’s just that knowing facts seems too easy. As a culture, we’ve been forming ideas about particular things for thousands of years now. We’ve been comparing this thing to that thing, seeing how things are similar to each other and how they’re different, and proposing ideas as to how things came to be. This is OK, but it should hardly be the end of our mental processes, I’d think.

I’d like something beyond mere idea-making. Rather than labeling a thing, I’d rather resist from labeling it. Of course, I’m still stuck in my own mind here, but my mind seems capable of doing things other than just thinking about other things. I want to sharpen my mind on the whetstone of particulars — or, rather, I’d like to aim my abstraction-apparatus on what may be the most abstract of all: particulars.

It’s not too hard to think about things once we separate ourselves from them. I can think about yesterday because it’s not today, and I’m not still living it, and for that reason, it’s even easier to think of a longer time ago. I can look at ants, say, and look at how they move and how they’re not me.

But to look at the present moment is perhaps to look at my looking itself. To look even at those sensible (sensory) things around me is to try to bring my mind back from abstraction-land. To think is an attempt to get distance. So don’t seek distance, by not-thinking? To not-think is to be open, to be close, to be whole, to be here, and now, but that’s also unable to communicate.

Do I need to communicate? Well, maybe one reports back to people on shore after diving. Shoot — I don’t want image or metaphor here. Language be simple. Simple be my language of now-studies.

This is second draft of this text, and the first draft was chatty, and I now see that I was communicating my mind, my mind-voice, instead of giving a lecture in here-now-ness. (Perhaps edit out cleverness, neologisms, and allusions to Heidegger’s “Dasein” nomenclature?)

“Reality Studies” sounds fun, but it’s pretty abstract already. Maybe new language is needed for non-abstract studies?

Generalized knowledge (abstractions) lasts for long time — is never alive and so can never die. Perhaps present-moment-studies (to label already is to limit?) can’t be recorded? Can only be fleetingly seen and not held onto?

The earlier draft of this post had this idea that seemed exciting when it came to mind: Only the present exists, but we don’t know when that is. As I type, the present is becoming the past. The future is only an idea, and the past is only an idea — the present is what happens between two ideas?

And now I’ll close this draft because things that are not abstract — things that are particular — cannot end. And perhaps what I’m grasping toward here, a no-word place of observation, of fleeting thoughts and letting go, is actually (it just now comes to mind) related to (or is exactly the same thing as?) the experience I have of creating, of having my attention obliquely focused as I write?

Nonfic: Potpourri of ideas

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.