On leaving and letting go. Issue #98.
Plus, frostbitten tails, pattern-making, and the possibility that we can see everything underneath it all.
I dropped my daughter off at the airport last Friday. She
goes to school lives in Montréal now and was visiting us for about a week. While I did not get a chance to spend a lot of time with her one-on-one, the moments I did have with her were meaningful, real, joyful and also tinged with a knowing that this was all-so-temporary. With the sudden loss of my mother four months ago, it has been a lot — a time of challenges and changes.
For so many years preceding this, I can say with great gratitude that my life was relatively steady and stable, held together by a chain of knowable actions and rejoinders that were more or less objectively good. Work, read, write, run, reveal, report, relate. Then rinse and repeat.
Since early February, I can honestly say that this has not been the case. It has been materially and psychically different — and often difficult — and coming to terms with the fragility of the chain that we call daily life has become a project in and of itself. I have always understood that any seeming stability was fraught and this year it proved to be so.
Since my mom’s passing so many things have broken. The car, the dryer, the washing machine, the bathtub, the gutters, plaster walls, the studio, the garage door, interior doors. My right arm was injured when I had an IV for a medical procedure. I threw out my back pushing a frozen toilet down the back lane (it was not our toilet, but still). Our poor cat got frostbite on her beautiful tail and about an inch and a half fell off (this was entirely our fault, believing she was indoors). Everyone I knew, including me, had Covid or near-Covid these past few months. People all around me fell sick.
Even my tinnitus has tended louder. Meanwhile, the weather between February and May was cold and dark, windy and snowy, and then rainy and cold and then dark.
If this sounds like a litany of complaints, it’s not meant to be. Moreover, all of this has not led me to despondency, though there were days and hours that I bottomed out.
Instead, it’s given me a greater appreciation of the randomness of forces that follow us during all of our hours — and an appreciation of my own experience of those forces. I am understanding these mostly very minor breakages and disruptions as not a bellwether but as a series of events essentially informed by a kind of PTSD. I don’t believe that there is any cosmic significance to them. There is no karmic dimensionality to this raft of troubles. Rather, with my mother’s passing, I am expecting things to go awry and then, when something happens, I see it as another notch, or another knock.
Sometimes this is referred to as patternicity — the process of creating meaningful connections and relationships among disparate events. Psychologists have a word for this mental pattern-making: apophenia, which is the tendency to find meaning in unrelated events or experiences. We actually experience this all of the time — and it informs so many of our daily observations that we may forget at just how good we are at pattern-making.
For instance, you may be interested in buying a new pair of Saucony running shoes. Perhaps a billboard caught your attention and you went online to look them up. Yes, search engine and social media ads will be shown to you in your internet travels because of your browsing history (and your acceptance of those horrid cookies). And that tracking of your search history is real.
But it is also likely the case that you will start to see many people wearing Saucony running shoes now. You are out on a run and every Tom, Dick and Harriet are wearing Saucony, for some reason. The reason is that your mind is noticing what it wants to notice.
Conspiracy theories are borne of this proclivity for creating meaning where meaning does not exist, too. Conspiracists believe that things are the way they are because deeper forces are at work and to perceive those relationships is to be knowing — or more knowing than others. Religions, of course, also cultivate pattern-making relationships. We are excellent meaning-making machines.
As a designer, I do tend to see patterns in nearly everything. What does the use of a particular typeface in a new brand mean for an organization? Why are gradients making a comeback? Why do those six shapes mean? Designers read signs like tea leaves. We are built to see signals through noise — even when the noise is confounding and confusing.
There are indeed patterns to be found and recognized all around us. Sometimes these are meaningful — the sirens of six firetrucks heading down a street means that something disastrous likely happened. Sometime these are not meaningful — the fact that no mail has arrived for three days does not necessarily indicate that you have been banned forever by the postal service.
But I might argue this: that our minds constantly seek patterns because the universe is made up of repeatable, consistent and regular elements that are either not knowable or are just outside of our perceivable grasp. As conscious beings, we are attuned to the delightful, exquisite and sublime beat of the cosmos as it unfolds before us. The world stands ready for our apprehension and we gain glimpses of the magnificence of those patterns without always being able to come to terms with it. In this way, we are taking in these short and long waves of all infinitude, witnessing that transmission, and making sense of them as best we can. In meditation, and in training the mind, we may have a higher propensity to ascertaining that unfolding — and yet our job as meditators is to appreciate the ineffable without clinging and without longing.
Like a cat looking in a mirror, we may see the vague outlines of our nature but we cannot know what it is. Beyond evolution’s preservation of our genetic pool, keeping us safe to protect ourselves and our communities, perhaps this is what underlies patternicity and our design-making activities. If this is true, I would bet that my wonderful cat, Cleo, whose frostbit tail hangs softly in the wind, has glimpses of the magical machine.
I recently completed the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training course at the Mindfulness Center at Brown. It was an intensive and interesting introduction to MBSR and its approach to becoming more aware of one’s thoughts, emotions and reactivity.
During the last class, a few of us brought poems or readings to share. One student shared this lovely paragraph by W. Timothy Gellwey in his book The Inner Game of Tennis:
When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as "rootless and stemless." We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don't condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.
On Friday, hours before saying goodbye to my daughter, I read this to her.
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