Four Short Essays From "The Hard Problem"

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Some Positive Thoughts on The Power of Positive Thought

One time I was in therapy for being sad, and while I was there I learned about The Power of Positive Thought. I know this sounds like magic and/or fake and/or antithetical to the open-eyed truth telling to which we’ve all dedicated ourselves as writers, but if you would like to not kill yourself after years and years of sitting at a desk with little or nothing to show for it, it’s a really great option.

The Power of Positive Thought has a little bit to do with power and a lot to do with positive thought. You might think it’s easy to compose and believe pleasantries such as “I am a talented writer” or “My life is worthwhile,” but if you’ve ever tried to write on a consistent and soul-crushing basis, you know that such statements seem to be the punch lines to sadistic jokes.

Let us begin simply. Stand in front of the mirror and say aloud: “I am a writer.” Look into your own eyes. Do not smirk. Do not be ironic. Repeat. Repeat. Cry. Good.

After you have come to terms with the fact that you’re a writer, you may want to move on to affirmations more custom-tailored to your particular neuroses. Instead of saying something like “I will not kill myself,” turn it into a positive, life-affirming statement such as “I will live forever” or, if you’ve been practicing self-affirming for some time, proceed to the more advanced affirmation “I AM A GOD.”

It may help to picture your GOD SELF, to imagine your body first tingling and then beginning a weird outward surge as you sit at your writing desk, to imagine your shin bones lengthening and knees rising until they crack the desk, to imagine your lamp and pens and parakeet figurine and piles of paper dumping all over the floor. The swift elongation of your arms. A wondrous swelling of the boobs. The painful and wrenching ballooning of the head. You are a god and you are fucking your office up—all the postcards and pictures and inspirational saying must be ripped from the walls as your new shape breaks through—and your body: it’s growing, in a freakish GOD growing spurt, up through the roof and out into the blue summer air.

Dude, you’re huge. Look at your hands. You have these big fucking hands. You are muscles and teeth and hair and, if you were to fill out an online dating profile right at this very moment, you would list as your best feature your PROMINENT FOREHEAD because it is breathtaking. Your now-mammoth brain lumbers behind in, weighing down your new massive head. 

I AM A GOD! you say in GOD language and then you throw your arms up in the air and tilt your head back and let out a deafening Chewbacca noise. Perhaps you are now wearing a giant t-shirt that says AWESOME across the chest in very sparkly font. Perhaps you are wearing GOD-sized roller skates.

And now you are ready to write. 

You roar and toss your head like a Velociraptor and bang your giant fingers on the tiny tiny keys of your computer in a clumsy pantomime of a regular, non-God writer. You writhe and gargle and slap your palms against the keyboard because this is the kind of GOD you are, a WRITING GOD, a HAM-FISTED GOD who enters into post-verbal trance states while unconsciously banging on random letters whilst hoping for profound results. You pound so hard you shatter the keyboard and the screen goes dead. You have destroyed everything you ever created but you are NEANDERTHAL GOD and, thus, non-verbal destructions feels good. It feels great.

You roam the streets, swinging your GOD arms and knocking the porches off of unsuspecting houses. You throw GOD tantrums, ripping all the vegetables out of all the gardens, clearing all the backyard lines of their clothes.

Neighbors catch glimpses of GOD lumbering down an alley, irate, kicking cats. Remember when GOD used to be just a regular person who liked reading and sometimes wrote funny off-handed poems? Remember back when GOD could spend a whole afternoon playing catch and then go inside smelling of spring?

It is at this point you will need to return to the mirror and again look yourself in the eyes. 

It is at this point you will need to ask yourself some hard questions. 

Did the long-ago GOD ever say, as She stared at the blank pre-universe in which there was not even nothing, “OMG, I hate myself”? Was She like, “I might as well eat some cheese because there is no way I can do this”? Or after She created, say, Ax Body Spray, did She berate himself with, “I am a fucking idiot for making such a stupid thing. It is so embarrassing to be Me”? Even once, did GOD behold Her first draft of the cosmos, back before there was anything beautiful like flaming quasars and think, “This is stupid. I hate being GOD. I am never being GOD again. I will never make anything as good as [some other really famous GOD], so what’s the point?” No. REAL GOD made some seriously beautiful shit, because GOD could make anything GOD wanted—absolutely anything—and so GOD did, all the unicorns and kitties, all the aliens, all the Velociraptors and Neanderthals. She made physics and the astronomy club that meets every second Tuesday at the public library. She made roller skating rinks and slushies and Internet sites devoted solely to showcasing baby animals peeking out of rain boots. She made okay-but-probably-will-never-be-anything-special writers and their boyfriends who play video games. She made aging and failure and slipper socks. GOD made your self-doubt and self-hatred, but She also made you GOD so just sit the fuck down and write.

 

 

Unity 

And then there is a sense the writing is beginning to come together, to really cohere. There is a sense that something is being done. That there is, indeed, a larger purpose. And it’s all so disgusting. And I start to get really pissed off, because I just wanted to write these little things and keep them here in this little folder—I wanted to put all the bunnies and cheese and glitter and adorable fat baby legs and blueberry muffins and whatever else I wanted right here—and then not care about it ever again. I wanted to be able to write a really bad sentence and have it feel okay about itself, even though it was farty or had a gigantic nose and not in an interesting European way. I wanted to have everything be fucked up, if that’s the way it felt, and to never think about anyone except itself. I wanted to have a secret, or maybe lots of them. I wanted to write clandestinely for years and hoard all my writing in little yellow folders that only existed in the mind of my computer and then, maybe when I had couple kids and everyone thought I had stopped writing and was like oh, remember that one girl who used to write and now she has KIDS and she’s fat, I would instead unleash, like, six amazing books all at the same time and then everyone would be like, oh man, fuck. 

It’s all so self-involved. It’s all so thinky and talky and just shut up already. But I keep trying in these little yellow folders that only exist somewhere in the mind of my computer and at some point I start to hate myself because, really, just write some stuff and don’t worry about it. But I keep trying, and I keep watching myself trying even though I try to tell myself there’s no one else here. Seriously. It’s just you and computer, and computer doesn’t even like to read because he’s really into science. And sometimes, just for one page or maybe two, I can imagine no one else will ever read this, and I can write just as the blonde pony runs through a meadow of clover, or as the mother bunny hops to its lair of baby bunnies carrying in its mouth a wicker basket full of festively colored Easter eggs. I can write just as though it’s only me and computer and our sexy love notes to each other all about 0110100, 1100, and really 010101ing the 010 out of each other.

And then I can keep writing, about the mice and the experiments, and how they would condition the mice by blinking a light and then, each time the light blinked, giving them food. But then later, they would start to get all random with the mice, like maybe a light and some food, and the maybe a light and no food, and then maybe no food for a while and lights blinking on and off whenever. And then the mice would start to spin in circles, and they would give them food, and then the mice would spin in circles again because they think, hey, the food comes after the spinning. Or maybe the mice would scratch a wall and then the food would come and so, ever after, they would scratch the wall thinking this would make the food come. And what I think this proves is something about superstitions, and how they work, how we want to see the patterns, how this page gave us one thing, so the next one must give us something similar. And how we want the patterns to be there, and how perhaps we actually will them there, you and me both. How we have this sense that it all must converge, somehow, and so we stare up the chute and wait for the treat and maybe we start to do a bunch of downward-facing dogs because last time we did a whole bunch of those, afterward, a lady gave us this amazing cookie.

And then, by God, there it comes right down the chute, and it’s a smiling dolphin that leaps over top of us and paints in the sky a resplendent rainbow before it dives back into the water, where we are now floating. And what does superstition have to do with unity? What does tricking myself into thinking no one will ever read this matter? What does your deep desire for a pattern, for a purpose, for convergence, mean right now? We float in the brine and we think. We look at each other and wonder what each other are thinking. We hope the sharks do not circle before we can divine the answer.

 

 

Structure, or My Fifth Theory of Time

I never really thought much about time until I had a writing teacher who said he didn’t believe in it. When he said he didn’t believe in time, I thought he was probably just saying this to be difficult or interesting, since he was a difficult and interesting man. But then I read Speak, Memory and found out he was copying what Nabokov had said, about how moments didn’t organize themselves on a continuum but rather associated themselves freely around feelings or ideas. 

And then I started thinking about how maybe you could arrange time, at least on paper, but what about if you wanted to in real life? Could you somehow maneuver or manipulate time to work for you instead of the other way around?

As you might imagine, I had a lot of time on my hands during this point in my life and, what you might not imagine, I also had a lot of loneliness, both on my hands and on other places, too. My first theory of this era was that time and loneliness might be related in some way. I mean, scientifically.

My second theory posited that moments actually stacked up on top of each other, one by one, instead of stringing out in a long line, and that when I looked back down through them and saw a black blob of infinitesimally overlapping images, this was the truth, or at least felt like the truth. 

If a psychiatrist had held up the black time blob and asked me what I saw there, yes, I would have shouted “the truth!” even though I probably thought what I saw was a deformed butterfly or another equally puzzling object.

My third theory aligned time, loneliness, and truth in some lawful way, a way that, theoretically, could be included in a textbook.

I wondered how I could write something in which everything happened all at once and when you read this work, you would see all the moments stacked one on another and understand they were neither sequential nor linear but rather depthful, that they were supposed to be read as a sinking down in to one thing rather than cause-and-effect.

Sometimes, when I was lonely and sat in a comfortable chair and thought about the past, time ceased being something external to my self and instead became a sort of organ inside me. (I suppose we could call this my fourth theory, that time was not a constant but rather some sort of desperate, throbbing meat.) And I sat there wishing there were some way to come to terms with time, and by this I meant to control it or at the very least figure out a way to make it more enjoyable. I had only one cat back then, and he was not fluffy.

As I sat there in my loneliness with my unfluffy cat, a metal structure began to grow outside my window, breaking the earth like a beanstalk and then pushing all the way up into the night. And all around me I heard the voices of all the people I had ever met and these sounds crashed into a giant and cacophonous ocean that washed up around me, a sound almost as large as the structure, which was still sliding up and up and away. I wondered how tall it would grow before it all came careening back down on top of me, but who was I to care, there in my chair with my cat, and alone.

I had a friend who would say but don’t you ever wonder where the man you’ll marry is right at this very moment and, no, I never had. I thought it was such a strange thing to think, and not comforting at all, that I didn’t even know him yet and that he was as far away as the top of the tower and the blank white moon and all those horrible little stars. He was as far away as the future, which was interminably distant and airless and full of technology, and the only thing near was the warm silence and the warm night, pulsing loneliness that was using up all my time and turning it into something waxy and hard. 

Everything. Everything had turned unbeautiful. The tower and the ocean of sound and my cat who would not stop licking himself and I too had turned.

There in my chair with my cat, I sat beneath the ever-growing Eiffel Tower for many many years, eating a baguette. I became French by default, like how you can get into a common law marriage just by sticking around. The voices kept babbling, on and on and on, but grew more and more distant as the tower rose away from me. I thought a lot about Nabokov and associating images, one by one.

This is how I made it through, homeless beneath the Eiffel Tower with my cat on the brink of earth shattering revelations that would re-set time itself: I moved simply between objects. Chair to cat and cat to sink. Flower pot to door and then hand to metal. I climbed all the way to the top and, let me tell you, it was windy and the structure swayed precariously. There were terrifying birds. At the top, which was still moving swiftly away from the ground I’d left behind, I looked back down through all the height and there were no black butterfly blobs but rather a pale blue dot, precise and radiant, brilliantly defined.

It was then I was able to articulate my fifth theory, the theory of timeless time in which the future and the present converge under admittedly improbable and romantic circumstances and then Carl Sagan begins to narrate.

“Look again at that dot,” he says. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

It’s hard to know whether I wrote this theory before I met you, after, or at the exact moment we were falling in love.

 

 

Plot

Whenever I try to write about plot, nothing really happens. So I start thinking: what about just creating a really nice space in which to dance?

And then you show up with your thin black tie and short white sleeves and sweaty hands. Garlands of pink crepe paper twist away into the eaves of the gym and balloon bouquets bloom on backboards. Mother has made me a blue velvet dress from a blue velvet robe that used to hang on the back of her bedroom door. She worked the seams apart with a small metal claw and then sewed the pieces together again, differently. She attached two crystal buttons on the cuffs.

You force me to push an ink button near your knuckles, with the words Push Here written underneath. When you open your hand, the ink bleeds into wet creases and you back away slowly, studying the disappearance.

Nothing really happens, so I push my back against the cold yellow bricks in the gym, and the disco ball spins and its spinning makes me want to puke. Stairway to Heaven is the theme of the dance so little lights line the staircases of the bleachers and run all the way up to a place where you can’t walk anymore, where you just crouch in a tight space like an animal and hold your breath. I wonder what it would be like to stick my hands down in the DJ’s silver cummerbund, since the DJ is a full-grown person with pubes. 

Somewhere a canvas bin bulges with orange basketballs and broken shoes dirty corners. Somewhere a floor waxer sits dormant, imagining the honey color of wood. I smell of Ban Roll-on deodorant and hairspray from a fifty cent can. I smell boys, the terror of boys. I smell you growing your body beneath your clothes.

The velvet curtains on the stage release musk. My own velvet smells of Mother after baths. I keep thinking: white skin against dark cloth. A cake of worn soap. A round white moon and its gray craters. Distance and the warmly familiar. Sometimes I lie in bed at night and take on a feeling of everythingness, that the darkness is all I need to understand, its folds and even darker darknesses within itself. Nothing happens. Then nothing again.

Out on the dance floor, pairs of shining children move and the hems of cloth murmur stories too distant to comprehend. As I conjure the universe, as the future throbs, as the essence of time masquerades in rays of light as common dust, there is no plot. There is only a wide-open dark space and a sagging banner strung unenthusiastically between poles. Undramatic dramas happen here, it says. Or maybe it says Stairway to Heaven. Or maybe it’s blank.

How many places do you have where you can dance? I have a junior high gym on dance night and a room full of every-color kittens. I have star-studded deep space. I have the dark green forest in which unicorns eat the chocolate bark of trees and when it rains it’s because the fairies are so happy they couldn’t hold back tears. I have approximately forty-two rooms where I could really move, but you refuse my overtures because you think nothing has ever actually happened here except for uncomplicated soft steps.

Listen. The music plays. I pull you close and the unicorns lie down at our feet, folding their thin white legs beneath heavy bodies. You once told me this was how they worship. 

The pale color of your cheek, coolness, the way it is not so much we who sway but the earth itself, how golden pendulums drop down into our stomachs heavy like weights, how they move easily against breath, how we materialize, and dematerialize, the true color of moonlight. Nothing ever happens here except a slow dance in a dark space. We move and move and move again. If this is all we ever do with our lives, it’s enough.

 

These essays have been drawn from an unpublished collection titled The Hard Problem.