Foggy

London Fog

Some photographs of an impressive fog in London last December, and also some quotes from a book I am in the process of reading ‘The Noonday Demon: an Anatomy of Depression’ by Andrew Solomon. This book is both an exhaustive study of the illness, and also a philosophical musing on its meaning – personal meaning and also the meaning it has for our species. I find its descriptions wonderful.

It is not pleasant to experience decay, to find yourself exposed to the ravages of an almost daily rain, and to know that you are turning into something feeble, that more and more of you will blow off with the first strong wind, making you less and less. Some people accumulate more emotional rust than others. Depression starts out insipid, fogs the days into a dull colour, weakens ordinary actions until their clear shapes are obscured by the effort they require, leaves you tired and bored and self-obsessed.

…You are constantly told in depression that your judgment is compromised, but a part of depression is that it touches cognition. That you are having a breakdown does not mean that your life isn’t a mess. If there are issues you have successfully skirted or avoided for years, they come cropping back up and stare you full in the face, and one aspect of depression is a deep knowledge that the comforting doctors who assure you that your judgment is bad are wrong. You are in touch with the real terribleness of your life. You can accept rationally that later, after the medication sets in, you will be better able to deal with the terribleness, but you will not be free of it. When you are depressed, the past and future are absorbed entirely by the present moment, as in the world of a three-year-old. You cannot remember a time when you felt better, at least not clearly; and you certainly cannot imagine a future time when you will feel better.”

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You Who Never Arrived

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You Who Never Arrived 

by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

You who never arrived

in my arms, Beloved, who were lost

from the start,

I don’t even know what songs

would please you. I have given up trying

to recognize you in the surging wave of

the next moment. All the immense

images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt

landscape, cities, towers, and bridges, and

unsuspected turns in the path,

and those powerful lands that were once

pulsing with the life of the gods–

all rise within me to mean

you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all

the gardens I have ever gazed at,

longing. An open window

in a country house– , and you almost

stepped out, pensive, to meet me.

Streets that I chanced upon,–

you had just walked down them and vanished.

And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors

were still dizzy with your presence and,

startled, gave back my too-sudden image.

Who knows? Perhaps the same

bird echoed through both of us

yesterday, separate, in the evening…

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Dissociation, anesthesia and connectivity

I have been thinking a lot about dissociation lately.

Not only dissociation in the context of the psychological process of detachment, which is probably most widely understood in extreme cases of someone experiencing a traumatic event and detaching themselves from that experience at the time of the event as an adaptive coping mechanism, but also the more elective dissociation which comes from turning a blind eye to things – either external events (local or worldly) that we find disturbing, or, more personally, our own feelings we find difficult to be present with.

These two kinds of choosing to turning a blind eye to things – 1) to external events and 2) to our own feelings – are two different things, although to some extent one could argue that the latter is always  present in cases of the former: that at heart the process of turning away from what is going on across the street, across the country, or across the globe, has something to do with our own inability or unwillingness to be present with the difficult feelings that facing such events rouses.

But are there also times when it is necessary and healthy to turn away from things? To at least take a breather, or to choose to narrow our focus onto a select few events, in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the (distressingly plentiful) number of distressing events going on across our nation and worldwide?

The supposed inter-connectivity offered by our current era means that we (those of us with the privilege of having access) are able to receive a great deal of information about places where we are not actually present, may never have been present, and may never have the opportunity to be present. Does this information make us more connected? Does digital-connectivity make it easier for us to understand that we are inevitably connected to other people, other creatures, other organisms, that we are part of systems (social, political and ecological) and our experiences do not happen in a vacuum? Or does it ultimately make us feel more splintered, more detached from the here and now?

Is all of this so-called connectivity expanding our capacity for empathy? Is it even encouraging us to be connected to ourselves?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Certainly there are countless benefits to being aware of what’s going on globally, nationally, and in one’s local community, and the new-found possibilities of rallying support across digital media can be wildly inspiring and can break down isolation.

Just as the process of reading stories help can develop an individual’s imagination and stretch their capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, so too does connecting with the stories of others via blogs, online forums and even (at their finer moments) social media platforms, have the capacity to build understanding and empathy, the very pillars of connecting in a human sense.

But even reading a book is an activity somewhere on the continuum of dissociation. As incredibly valuable as reading is, it is a kind of turning away from the here and now; a potential mode of anesthetics.

Anesthesia or numbness can be found in many forms. Drugs. Alcohol. Self-harm. Gambling. Zoning out on anything that has the capacity to remove you from any present uncomfortable feelings. And distractions of all shapes and sizes, including cynicism and holding yourself together in order to take care of someone else.

Lately I have been reading a book by Anne Lamott (the author of the wonderful Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life) called Travelling Mercies: some thoughts on faith, and I was struck by this description of grief and loss.

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit.

…Whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear the disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.

What resonates with me about this description is how relevant this revelation is, not only to the experience of grief, but to all intense and difficult feelings which we are tempted to turn away from, to anaesthetize our selves from.

One of the problems of doing this, of distracting or detaching, as Lamott points out, is that this avoidance can train ourselves to be disconnected from all intense feelings in life, and mean that we end up losing out on experience itself, the here and now, by never allowing ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable to being impacted on by life.

Perhaps in order to empathize with, be connected to, and genuinely experience compassion towards others, we need to start as locally as it is possible to get; with our selves; and work outwards from there.

Wherever the starting point may be, maybe what is needed is to remember to check-in with the here and now on a regular basis, without flinching, and to be wary of the possibility of using digital media and the illusion of being connected as a distraction: a means to dissociate from the concrete world.

To take root……. the principles of a rhizome

In thinking about nets and sieves and multiplicity, and imagining the kind of menagerie of different ideas that can be built within a blog and interweaving with the web at large by connecting different spheres of knowing, I am reminded of Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of the rhizome, outlined at the opening of their 1980 book A Thousand Plateaus.

Thinking about fields of information and knowledge in this rhizomatic way is not only satisfyingly anti-linear and anti-hierarchical, but can also be represented beautifully by a range of systems in nature, such as the underground plant stem structure from which it gleans its name (from the Greek rhizōma, from rhizousthai meaning “take root”). The rhizome of a plant with such a root system can produce the shoot and root systems of yet another new plant, and so on. This capability allows the parent plant to propagate vegetatively (asexually) and also enables a plant to perennate (survive an annual unfavourable season) underground (Encyclopedia Britannica).

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‘A fresh rhizome of Cimicifuga racemosa’ from Lloyd and Lloyd (1884-1887) The Drugs and Medicines of North America.

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“Dried rhizome of caulophyllum thalicroides” Lloyd and Lloyd (1884-1887) The Drugs and Medicines of North America.

Although A Thousand Plateaus is categorized as a philosophical text, this declaration of the rhizome is perhaps best enjoyed as a kind of poetry in my opinion, and has somewhat of the manic energy of a manifesto of an arts movement.

The principles of a rhizome are defined as:

  1. connection
  2. heterogeneity
  3. multiplicity
  4. rupture
  5. cartography
  6. decalcomania

 

…any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order…. There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.

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A representation of a mammalian neocortical column, showing the connectivity of the 10,000 neurons and 30 million connections that make up a single neocortical column. (The different colors correspond to different levels of electrical activity.) Credit: BBP/EPFL, MIT Technology Review

 

 

A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines… There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome. These lines always tie back to one another.

 

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Alfonso Rodríguez-Baeza and Marisa Ortega-Sánchez (2009). Photomicrograph of the microscopic blood vessels that carry nutrients to neurons in the brain, SEM. This sample, from Human cerebral cortex, shows a large blood vessel at the surface of the brain (top), which sends down thin, densely branched capillaries to deliver blood throughout the entire cortex. From the book ‘Portraits of the Mind’ by Carl Schoonover

 

 Always follow the rhizome by rupture; lengthen, prolong, and relay the line of flight; make it vary, until you have produced the most abstract and tortuous of lines of n dimensions and broken directions.

 

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Tomas Saraceno installation “14 Billion (working title)”

 

Many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree. “The axon and the dendrite twist around each other like bindweed around brambles, with synapses at each of the thorns.”

 

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“Neurons II” by Joanna Antosik

And so it begins…

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After considering creating my own blog on and off for quite some time now, I am finally putting this idea into some kind of action. My reasons for doing this are varied.

I want to create a living, growing, evolving menagerie which connects with different forms of knowledge / knowing, from poetry to neuroscience, photography to anatomy, psychology to painting, philosophy to fiction… and so on.

As well as sharing my own writing and images, I want to be weaving an ongoing kind of net or sieve, with which to catch up inspirations and wonders; those things we see that ignite a spark, plant a seed, puncture our indifference, or stop us dead in our tracks. In this sense the blog can serve as a kind of process diary of sorts, although one to be shared and hopefully connect with others’ processes.

When we are children at play, we use whatever materials and methods are called for to follow intrinsic drives to explore, understand, express, create and invent, without the need for categorization or specialization.  As we grow older we organize systems of knowing into different fields and disciplines, in order to hone our skills, refine our methodology, and master our practice. While incredibly useful in many ways, this process of segregation can also cause us to lose sight of the underlying interconnectedness of different fields.

I hope to create an all-inclusive space where different categories of discipline (arts, sciences, philosophies) can not only coexist, but strike up a dialogue with each other, learn from, and inform each other.

Having declared these initial hopes, I also acknowledge that rarely does anything follow obediently along a straight line dictated by a plan or a proposal, and this blog is bound to shift and change its direction and focus along the way.

And perhaps it is not necessary to define its reason or purpose, especially so early on. Perhaps to be in a state of play, a state of wondering, a state of fumbling along and feeling one’s way in the dark, much like any creative process, is as much as can be hoped for at this point. And on that note, I’ll end with a quote from Dean Young’s (2010) The Art of Recklessness: Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction, about ‘tobiko’ (the flying fish roe), and the function of it being florescent orange.

Evolution has no intention; rather through random lurches in mutation, through aleatory variety, it finds fits, makes do. Mutation is a mistake in copying! I do not believe in perfection or perfectibility (although the shark comes close). I believe in the simultaneity of a changing environment and changing response to and in that environment, and those responses becoming part of the environment. Our world is constantly flickering, dapple-dawn-drawn, patterns emerge and vanish like clouds beneath waves. We are momentary. The singular orange of that sushi is just as likely solely expressive; it proclaims its existence, doesn’t justify it through what sort of job it does. Purposelessness is not meaninglessness.

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