Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

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“There was a Boy”

Once again, other projects have consumed my weekend. Perhaps, I’ll try to find time in the midst of the week to write, so this doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, here is a link to a beautiful poem by Wordsworth and a picture I took in my own travels around his home in the Lake District, one of my favorite places in the world. Enjoy.

There was a Boy.”

The trail to the town of Troutbeck
The trail to the town of Troutbeck

Time, art, and negative capability

I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.railway-autumn

Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.

My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.

There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.

For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.

Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.

Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.

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Solitude and Loneliness

A friend recently mentioned in a message to me that she doesn’t mind spending time alone anymore. As she put it, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m a loser when I’m alone.” She even described a moment walking home in the rain alone without a raincoat or umbrella. Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog

“People driving by probably thought I was miserable, but I just smiled the entire time like I had a big secret that I couldn’t tell anyone,” she wrote. “The rain was so refreshing.”

I suppose the millennial generation feels particularly pressured to avoid “being alone.” We’re increasingly connected with cell phones and social networks. A “lonely person” conjures images of a Friday-night recluse in a concrete room with cold fluorescent lights pouring down on a clammy floor strewn with old magazines. Meanwhile, everyone he knows–even the smelly kid with the sketchy sweatshirt who sat near him on the bus in third grade–is at some party with Aziz Ansari and David Tennent, having a great time. FOMO, it’s called: “fear of missing out”

We fear being alone because we fear loneliness: the sense of exclusion, the shame, the boredom. But you don’t have to be alone to feel alone. It can hit anywhere, even at a party.

And sometimes being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely. As my friend realized, being alone can be empowering. Even fun. As theologian Paul Tillich notes in The Eternal Now, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.

But what’s the difference?

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Starlight and renewal

Sometimes, when I’m tired or lost I look at old writing. It reminds me where I camestars1.jpg from, what has always mattered, and where I ought to go. Today, as I struggled to write a blog post, I sorted through old files and notebooks.

I found this, a reflection from fall of my junior year. It was a hard semester, as I’ve referenced before, but it many ways, it set my foundation. In the midst of that darkness, I found my passions and insecurities. I found my self.

I think this particular reflection captures a lot of that. It also hits at the seed that inspired this entire blog: the fusion of life and philosophy that makes “backyard philosophy.”

I repost it in full below, only edited for grammar. We all need reminders now and then.

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A Short: “Fishing”

I take my notebook, slide up on a weathered log, and look. The sunlight rising and

After sunset on the Allegheny River
After sunset on the Allegheny River

falling on the river resonates, and a fisherman inches into the water. Running his fingertips along the bill of a stained, weather-beaten baseball cap, he adjusts it. I watch him hold his line above the water with the natural, unconscious care of a mother, peering into the river.

He juggles the line, grips the pole, and catapults the lure out like a lasso, letting it sail skyward and plop in the stream. As it flashes in the sun, being tugged and buoyed by the current, the fisherman reels it in, gathering it up and casting again.

As the quaking aspens shiver in the cold wind and golden air, the sun continues to set. Hills guard the horizon, motionless blinds to the sun’s retreat. The clouds slow their silent shuffling. Nature stills. I cross my legs and wait, resting on the log.

Hearing the husky rhapsody of geese, I look up. A flock rolls over against the clouds and flies toward the silhouetted hills, over the fisherman’s head.

The sun sinks lower and lower, and I shiver like the aspens. The heat evaporates in a warm poem of lush reds and oranges. The tongues on the river cease to sway with the current; the glints against the water cease to blind. The geese calls become eclipsed by distance, and the squirrels nestle into their nooks for the night. Reeling in the bobber, the hook, and the spider-thread line, the fisherman holds the rod a bit and sighs.

Winking over the mountains, the sun vanishes, leaving the residue of its brilliance lingering like a faded photograph. Its fiery hues subside into shades of purple and of blue.

The fisherman comes to life and takes a final cast. In time, he reels it in, wades out onto the rocky riverbank, and leaves without his catch. Closing my notebook in the sinking twilight, I leave with mine.

Making the Switch

Dave glances at my plate of spinach, beans, and brown rice as I eye the meatballs Not me... yetnestled in his spaghetti.

“You eat like a rabbit,” he says.

“Rabbits don’t generally eat garbanzo beans or cooked rice,” I reply.

“But still…”

As the conversation changes, he forgets my rabbit food, and I forget his meat. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we have.

According to a 2008 study by Harris Interactive Service, about 7.3 million people are vegetarian in the United States—that’s about 3.2 percent of the population. Most are young, from middleclass backgrounds, and live in the Western or Southern regions of the United States. I’m one of them, a skinny, grain-eating, tofu-crunching middle-class American.

Nothing radical there.

We vegetarians eat about three meals per day—just like our omnivorous counterparts. We don’t all use organic paper and beet-juice ink or attend regular services at hippy churches on weekends.  Most aren’t PETA extremists who throw red paint at fur coats and survive on seaweed and unpronounceable grains. Perhaps our farts smell a little bad sometimes, or we’re be a pain to take out to dinner, but most of us are pretty normal. At least I think so.

Still, some people berate me with things like, “why the hell would you do that?” or “we deserve to eat animals,” or my personal favorite, “you’re going to die because you’re not getting enough protein.”

Others aren’t so malicious. They just don’t understand, or grow up thinking that all vegetarians fit the same model. But we are all very different and have very different reasons for becoming vegetarian.

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There’s a difference between quiet and silence. Before I graduated high school, I climbed

Photo I took from the summit as the sun rose.
Photo I took from the summit as the sun rose.

Mt. Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York State, with one of my high school friends, his dad, and another scout. We started our ascent at midnight, reached the peak by 4 a.m., and waited for the sun to rise near five.

On our walk up, our breath mingled with the humidity, revealing webs of water vapor in the light of our headlamps. We sometimes talked, but mostly, things were quiet: the shuffling scratches and thuds of our footfalls as we scrambled over rocks, the heavy pants of our breath,  The occasional slosh and swallow of our water, and the continued cracking and hissing of wind laced through forest.

Now and then, I’d hear an animal, it’s sudden rustle breaking the background.

Quiet is a sense of monotony, a pattern, like a radiator rattling and blowing in a classroom. You forget the noise is there. It’s like the air, bearing down on us, stirred up in with fingers, vibrating in pulsing with invisible waves. Yet we feel like nothing is there. Continue reading