When Dawn leaves town, Charlotte sleeps with me in our bed. Friday night, and she complained about the Brian Eno music, calling it spooky. So I carried the remains of that record with me up Cougar Mountain the next morning, playing it on my phone, followed by a crow…down the quarry trail where it was cool and dark…the sound of birdsong, a hummingbird drumming a dead tree. Then I flickered out; I saw myself for just a second so brief I wondered if it was even real: the angle of my body moving through time, seen from above. And for the next two hours all I thought about was this: the idea of spirit and self, how to reconcile the two.
When I flicker out it’s like I’m seeing through a dream but I’m awake. Maybe it’s the idea of a ‘mind’s eye,’ some perception that comes without our seeing eyes, a sixth sense. Whatever it is, it’s rare and brief and I’m not sure I like it.
If you believe in souls, or the idea of a spirit, they inhabit a body for a time and perceive the world through our senses.
But the problem for spirit is the self it has to room with: the part of us that thinks it knows, that tries to establish itself with the world. Spirit doesn’t care about any of that, it knows we can’t be apart (or separate) from our world: only self would make it so. Spirit doesn’t want, or need to know anything—if it did, it would only drag spirit down.
Self is the younger sibling we have to discipline, and self consumes most of our lives as it tries to grow up, modeling itself after spirit. Self is the unruly adolescent following spirit up the trail, most times getting lost.
I thought about the crow following me, the crow that used to follow Dawn’s college friend Scott around campus, that would terrorize poor Scott by dive bombing and cawing at him from above. I’ve heard that crows can recognize people which is funny, I’d think to crows we’d all look the same—as crows do to me. Yet there’s something in their ability to perceive that gives them their power.
I’ve been reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for seven months now. It’s a book that shouldn’t take more than a week to finish. It’s gotten so that I’ll only read a page or two and then set it down. It’s taken me so long, I’ve lost track of who the characters are; their names and personalities don’t match, they’re co-mingled. And that’s fine, Kundera said from the outset it was all made up. He was trying to make a point that goes beyond the characters. He swoops in as the author at times, saying that.
There’s a recurring image of a crow in that book: some kids played a bad trick and buried one alive so it couldn’t get out, and you just see its head in the dirt. One of the characters rescues it and holds it like an infant, and I think she must identify with that crow, or Kundera’s made us believe that, using the crow as a symbol to say something more about her.
Spirit inhabits body, and when I watch athletes on TV, when I see a gymnast swinging herself through the air it’s all spirit, no body. Or it’s spirit and body aligned, with no self getting in the way. That’s how I feel when I’m mountain climbing and balancing on a steep ridge, realizing if I think too much, I’ll fall and die. It’s not my body or self that’s gotten me to the top of high mountains, it’s spirit.
And if it follows that spirit animates athletes through a body, through an alignment with self, than the same must be true for artists, who perceive so purely they can channel that feeling. Because our spirits respond to something we perceive as real that triggers something real in us, that tugs our spirits to the surface and reminds us of a connection we once had with the world but forgot.
That’s what I want to do when I write, and it may take me my whole life to reconcile the self through which I tell it. It’s what some call self-consciousness, that’s often seen as a bad thing, a click down from ‘self-aware,’ often seen as good.
If there’s a spirit in me, it’s the physical world that brings it to the surface. It’s why I go back to the lake every morning looking for something to bring it out: watching for the small changes on the shore each time, how the water’s sometimes as still as glass until the anglers break it with their lines. And how they’re often the same, the look of them huddled on the dock, flickering in and out.
The hard thing about choosing to write memoir is gambling with the likelihood that there’s no meaning to it, and hitching your life/identity to that proposition. It’s not a job for body or self, but for spirit.
Photos by Loren Chasse and his friend Mike, taken in Mexico, July 2018