Facing the Void with Gills (and a Zen Knock-Knock Joke)

I’m writing today without a clear idea of what it is I’m going to write about. This feels like an improvement of sorts, because the truth is, it’s very difficult for me to sit down and put fingers to keyboard if I don’t feel white hot — like there’s something critical inside me that needs to be said — and these days some combination of fatalism and wisdom and a heavy helping of physical zonkedness typically sees me having very little to say at all. So why write? Partially, I’m curious — to see what happens if I sit down and do something that runs contrary to my typical pattern of writing only when lightning strikes. This pattern and the assumption behind it seem so reasonable and imprisoning that flicking some grit in its gears seems a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself.

I notice how many words I already have down, and at the same time, feel that eerie, vertigo-inducing feeling of standing on the edge of a great void — going into this with essentially no structure, no thesis, no idea why it is I’m writing, other than perhaps some odd inclination to do so — I’m finding at the blinking-cursor end of each of my words something like a leap of faith that a new word, perhaps even the right word, will be there for me, emerging deus-ex-machina from that stomach-whirling emptiness on whose precipice I’m peering over as we speak. (We speak? Are we in dialogue together? A little smile comes up from my heart imagining it to be so. I really don’t want to lecture anyone. Of course some part of me has all kinds of ideas of how everyone else should think and act, but I don’t feel like indulging them right now. They are, essentially, void-killers — they know exactly what they’re going to say next, because they have an agenda, a collated, evidence-backed, well-notated and thoroughly argued screed for how I and everyone else should be.)

I miss the void all of a sudden, those last few parenthetical words a bit further down the line of mental construction, and its bracing, over-the-top-of-the-rollercoaster quality. They seem invigorating, an icy dunk, coming from the dusty, musty, dead-end halls of familiar, loopable thought. I feel an inkling of a point coming on, and wonder whether to follow it — letting that wonder spool off in its own whirlpool out into the dark. Yes. The void at the end of the cursor (and here again I feel pre-emptory shame at the perhaps didactic, perhaps obvious nature of the metaphor to come) feels awfully similar to the void I am peering into with my life.

Last night Stefania showed me a wonderful interview clip of Louis CK, a modern guru if I ever saw one, talking about “the nothing” he feels deep down (from which he recoils and tries to cover by going on his phone, one of my own pet distractions). He describes his nothing as the knowledge that he’s alone and nothing means anything, but I think to me that’s one more layer of interpretation on the greater nothing at the end of the cursor, the end of the sentence, the end of the scheduled program, the beginning of white-knuckled, and in my book, real life.

Nevertheless I think we might be talking about the same thing — he talks about that place in him, and the armor that surrounds it, being suddenly pierced by a Springsteen song on the radio, popped so suddenly that he simply has to pull over to the side of the road and cry. I don’t know what’s going to come onto the page, or into my life, and that very well may be sadness, or elation, or despair, or anything, truly. And it’s that anything that at least for me feels so terrifying, because anything could be really bad. Or at least that’s what my mind wants to say. When I plan, distract, execute, or otherwise do any of those wonderful void-avoidance strategies I’ve developed over the course of my life, I imagine there may be some kind of predictability to what will follow. That sense of control is intoxicating, and for me I mean that in the broadest sense of the word — soothing, numbing, addictive, sneakily unhealthy, relaxing, tremendously appealing. And now, sitting here, waiting for form to simply appear to me out of the void, I see the same precipice I’ll be facing when I close this computer — the wide open, unknowableness of life ahead of me, and the fact that I’ll be there anyway. This may be one of the “benefits” (I say it in quotations, to keep it out of the grasp of the part of me that wants to repurpose everything as fuel for achievement, often plasticizing more beautiful and subtle materials as a result), of facing illness at a relatively early age, particularly one tailor-made to disabling the core components of my reality-control system — mental acuity, executive function, ability to take on commitments in the future — peeling off that many layers between me and that void which can be faced only really with faith or avoidance.

Not everything is uncertain, clearly, the quote comes to mind (without attribution) that the universe seems to have just enough order to fool us into thinking we can predict it. The sun rises, sets, political systems blunder on more or less how you’d expect them to, things that are unsustainable eventually are no longer sustained. But none of that predictability, essential, it must be named, to things like feeding myself, extends to the woolier phenomenon of being, of facing the white page, of choosing, in one way or another, life. When I don’t allow myself to write because I don’t feel the electric gathering of a storm, of a charge in the void strong enough to blow out the circuits of my fear, I shortchange myself of the experience of being truly naked, alone in dark. If that sounds like the kind of thing you would forgive me for shortchanging myself on, I hear you, but the truth is (for me at least) that whether I face the vulnerability of being a squishy, squashable mayfly looking down the boot of history and the unknowably greater forces behind it, I am subject to its anxieties. I can sit, feeling tweaky and uninspired, or dive into the pool on which those feelings are mere surface ripples, down the well, into the dark, and thus be open to the surprise of opening my eyes to see the stars.

And not suffocate. That surprise I really like. I believe each of us is equipped with a set of gills we rarely use, to navigate waters our lungs tell us we will drown in. We run around (I run around, you might, I don’t really know) looking for meaning while trying to control for all the variables that might, left to their own devices, actually offer it to us. And to be clear, I like that more than might be coming through. I’m a big fan of a comfy couch, slush funds, predictable water, and coming home. I’m not really knocking predictability, or plans as such (trust me, very few people who know me would list over-planning as one of my issues). It’s about a fundamental orientation. It’s about being willing to put digital pen to digital page when I’m not sure I have anything to say. It’s about facing the anxiety that I’m not entirely sure how I’ll be paying rent nor that my body will be capable of gainful employment nor that gainful employment will exist in the near future given widespread ecocide and hoarding. It’s about letting myself feel things outside of their programmed slots, facing the ultimate unknowability of what life is about or what is yet to come, and entertaining the possibility, glimmering, somewhere off in that dark, that that wide open nothing is my soul’s native home. That all I think and feel is worth respecting and laughing at and feeling and letting go. That showing up to life is something I’m choosing today, rather than being dragged to it kicking and screaming. That nothing I’ve written today might make any sense, or have come together into a cohesive point after all, that it may be unsharable, inscrutable, certainly unhelpful toward finding clients who might be under the illusion I have my shit together, and that it was worth writing anyway. Worth living anyway.

I just thought of a zen knock-knock joke

Knock knock

Who’s there?

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That’s the joke.

I think I’ll open the door.