Friday, September 17, 2004

Down the Rabbit's Hole

I'm sorry to those of you who are checking in to catch the next installment of the Dreaming story. This isn't it. It's coming --- probably this weekend --- but right now I have something else pressing for expression and since I seem to have abandoned my journal for blogging, I turn here. I don't need an audience. But I do need the possibility of one. Somehow, even the possibility of an observer changes everything.

Without question, it makes me a better writer. And, I admit, I want that. As frightening as it is to admit, because here, where I am known through my writing, you have material with which to judge me for this hubris: I think I am a writer. I mean, I think that's what "Phoebe" is supposed to be. I'm slow in accepting it and it's a little like, I think, a 35 year old woman who's been running 5 miles a day suddenly deciding that she's really always supposed to have been a marathon runner --- a full-time, possibly, Olympic marathon runner. So, it might very well be that I'm just crazy. Or it might be that I'm finally starting to see the ships in the harbor.


I heard a story last night that I'd never heard before. Supposedly, when Columbus' ships were approaching the Central American (obviously, not so-named at the time) shore where they ultimately landed, the Mayans did not see them, even though they approached for over a day, including in broad daylight. It's thought that the reason they didn't see them is that they had no reference for such a sight, and so did not absorb it. The ships were there -- their eyes were taking them in, but their brains weren't. It wasn't until the shaman, who noticing that the water was behaving as though something was moving at sea, was able to realize they were there that he could see them and point them out. Until they were able to make sense of such a sight, however, their brains had selectively disregarded it as meaningful.

Whether or not this is, strictly speaking, a true story, it illustrates a point that we do know is true, which is that we do not "see" everything that is actually around us. Our eyes take it in, maybe our noses smell it, or our ears hear it, or our skin registers air movement, etc... But unless our brains have selected the specific stimuli from among the millions of bits of information coming in as meaningful, it does not register with us, at least consciously. It is a reasonable hypothesis that there are things around us all of the time that we do not see or recognize as present or real because our brains have no reference points for them and don't treat the information as meaningful. This isn't spooky, necessarily. We experience it all the
time. For example, I often consider my office "quiet" even though I bet a decibel meter next to the air conditioning vent would suggest, objectively, that it is anything but. And add to that the whirring of my computer, the street traffic below, the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard, my breathing, noises in the office next door, the copier machine just down the hall, the fact that I am smack dab in the middle of heavily populated city, etc., and my perception of "quiet," seems more like deafness than fact. And yet, I know the difference between "quiet" and "not quiet." Further, I'd wager, that on those days when I think of my office as quiet, you could enter it and you'd find it "quiet" as well. It's just that our brains selectively disregard the other stimuli.

Or consider this: most of us have had the experience of combing an area for something we've lost, staring as intently at it and around it as we can, and then, suddenly, strangely, recognizing the object as having been right in front of us the whole time. Not creepy, just a blip in the mechanism of judging meaningful stimulus. Our eyes didn't fail us, it was our perception of what was in front of us that failed us.

I think this phenomenon is also in play in other realms -- where it is a little more disquieting to consider. There's the obvious: we used to be convinced that the earth was flat. Yes, telescopes and circumnavigation helped us confront that misperception, but our ability to perceive that the horizon line is not fixed, that things coming toward us from a great distance appear to be rising as they approach, which probably means that the surface is curved, not flat, did not develop with the telescope. We just didn't consider that information meaningful. We could have all along believed that the world was round -- we weren't obligated to perceive it as flat. For some reason, however, we ignored all the information our brains and bodies were receiving that might have challenged the perception that the world was flat until one of us finally had a breakthrough insight and could see it and point it out to the rest of us. Our "coming to consciousness" as a species is riddled with examples of our frequent convictions that things are one way, when they are not that way at all. And not because we are stupid -- just because we are not, for some reason, taking in all of the relevant or important information around us to recognize things "as they are" (which is often only just one more step toward recognizing things "as they are").

I've had other experiences I'd put into this category. For example, it tempting to be glib and say something snide about my having finally recognized my first husband rightfully as an ex-husband. But though there's truth in that, it isn't as interesting to me as D. and I having decided to spend the first year of our marriage traveling around the world. This is something that people don't do -- everyone knows that. Some people may think about it, or fantasize about it. But who leaves their successful careers, mid-career, while still on a climb toward greater success, while still paying down a mortgage, to travel for a year? I certainly hadn't considered it as a possibility for the course of my life -- and right up until the very strange moment when D. and I, both, for some reason suddenly saw it as one of a few very sane choices we could make, I would have said it wasn't possible. I still remember the sensation of the realization that we could go. It was like walking through a wall of glass. It was exhiliarating. It felt like we were making all new rules.

Now, D. and I hear frequently from people that they could never do what we did. And the thing is, they're wrong. Of course, they could. We were very lucky, in that we had an on-going stream of revenue from a rental property, and we found a tenant who covered our home mortgage, and thus even managed, crazily (it still doesn't make sense to me that we pulled this off, but we did), to make the trip without assuming debt. Also that we both got "good" jobs within 6 weeks of resuming our mortgage and bills, and thus managed to stick the re-entry landing with a fair amount of grace. I don't get that. We were Lucky in a capital "L" way (not deserving, just lucky). That part maybe not everyone could do. But that's not the part that people are talking about when they say they could never do it. What they mean is that they couldn't just step off the people-mover (career, home, family, kids, bills, chores, "responsibility," duty, routine, comfort, security, etc.) that most of us are on in our workaday world. And they believe it. They don't think about what it would be like to step off it it. They don't believe it is an option. That there would be a good life, or even life, waiting for them if they did.

And painfully, now that we're back, I sometimes I'm right back there myself. And I think D. is, too.

But today, for some reason, I'm aware that there are options I am not seeing. And while I'm not ready to go throwing myself through glass walls, exactly, I am wondering what those options are? What ships are approaching on the horizon that my brain is not perceiving as meaningful?

In a way, today, I'm looking for Alice's Rabbit Hole. I'm dressed for the occasion. I'm wearing an outfit for the first time since it was my favorite that year D. and I stomped around the world. It has inexplicably held up so well -- I wore it every 3rd day for a whole year -- that three people have asked me if its new today. It looks like a nice, conservative top and skirt, but really, it's built for travel. For seeing new things. For seeing in new ways.

I hope it helps.