On Grief

Friday June 9 2017 in the early morning you left your home in Oakland, got a ride-share to the Golden Gate Bridge. You walked along the bridge taking photos. The tide was slack, the moon still full, the sky clear. It had been cool 63’. I guess you put down your backpack. With your camera dangling you climbed the railing and stepped out of our lives.

The scales of your heart have tipped below a certain register. The society of your mind arrives at a consensus of which nobody else knows the conclusion. The forces line up and you end up slightly below whatever bar it is that causes us to keep fighting.

What is it for me to presume to have any say on the world around me? Or what your last decisions are. We all do inexplicable terrible things, smash things around us in our frustration. Forgiving implies some kind of ownership. Letting go implies forgetting. Should we keep you chained?

*

Now I am at a cafe writing these thoughts.

My ex called me to tell me the news. Grief can be a dissociative, we don’t know how to respond, it can drive us deeply into parts of ourself that are rarely inspected. It takes time to integrate.

What was it you saw that we didn’t see? What view of the world let you take that step? Do you have any idea how many other people are just like you? Whom I see as beautiful, fragile, unique? How scared it makes me?

Your photos from your still current exhibit cover these walls — dozens of them, luscious, overflowing, some amateurish, but all speaking to trying to pry past some seal over reality, some hunger to get to something real. Your eye a study on each person. I thought in maybe 20 years you would be ok. You’d be one of those people who could take a photo that could steal a soul. Instead of this howling wasteland of empty stares, this inexplicable tomb. This place that should be smashed to pieces.

A few of your friends are in the photos. This space feels like being inside your mind, probing, desperate, your subjects transfixed frozen in time forever. Like you they will always be the same age now.

A few of your friends are here looking at the photos. You can tell who your friends are — they are the ones that are crying or holding others.

In this accidental church it feels like you are being held too. Comforted in your grief. Writing these thoughts is slow… but I loved you in a way I didn’t appreciate while you were alive. I found feelings I didn’t expect.

The beautiful people are always fawned over, and it’s their special loss that with so much praise it becomes impossible to know what is real. Every movement a shockingly brilliant work, lauded and celebrated. Our world cannot do anything but pluck out the most beautiful. For me I distrust and dislike beauty, I ignore it. I actively go out of my way to not be lulled by it. Your beauty was unavoidable. Your compassion for others, integrity, and lack of shame were a special insanity, a goofy crazy squint. You would have made a great wizened old lady; poking at others prejudices. You could step outside yourself to do things nobody else did — how you asked people in class to speak up, how you took risks of being ridiculed so that others could have more room for shame. You modeled behaviors.

*

It turns out that each person responds in completely different ways to grief. There’s no right way apparently. We’re not terribly good at it. It convulses the community. You have no idea do you?

You are loved for many reasons but one small reason is because you mirror people that were shy, private, at risk. You show us ourselves, you show us that we exist. Few people do this. It is as if we can suddenly see ourselves, each of our members, the aliveness of those members, the struggles, the limits of our flesh.

What was it that was going on in your head? What led you to this bridge? Let’s talk before you step off. I keep trying to see the world as you saw it. Maybe to avoid the same destiny, maybe to just understand. Maybe just to stop time. Whats the rush? Let’s talk a moment longer. Look at the sailboats.

There’s an image in my mind of you falling, distant, grainy, grey — as if caught on a camera. That falling blotch is your life. It feels like falling both literally and figuratively. And yet it’s a daily occurrence — on a golden merrily covered bridge that is like a monster, that eats our friends. The gallows humor is less funny when you actually do it, bart versus the bridge — people who hate others versus people who are artists.

I wonder how you think about the lens. Could we sit down, watch the seagulls, eat lunch and interrogate? Photos are curious. There is a cognitive parallax of seeing both the past and the present. And you must admit there is something absurd in trying to capture some kind of meaning in an ephemeral flow of time no? I tend to use software — making simulations and models of behavior. Maybe all of our tools are an attempt to capture some part of reality, that necessarily cannot be captured, that is not real, that is just an approximation. Each struggles to hold a world to vast to be contained. Sometimes the best photos are the ones not taken. It’s a conceit in some ways to think we can hold onto anything, or at least the things we care about. Let’s hurry we’re going to be late for afternoon session.

*

A mind is like a family in our heads. Sometimes different voices steer for a moment. Different parts have different fears or passions, and wrench the wheel away to avoid or pursue those fantastical creatures we perceive.

Psychology tells us that new experiences can be either distressing or rewarding because they remind us of past experiences. Some of us form “distress records” that replay scenarios we’ve experienced or witnessed — and that map new events in the present to those scenarios. We imagine outcomes based on what we’ve experienced, what we’ve seen, what we’ve had nightmares about.

Previous distress make us afraid. Sometimes enough that we do anything we can to avoid a situation. We lose flexibility, our range of options is diminished by anxiety. Fear itself is what hurts us. It takes skill and practice to be able to thread the kinds of needles we thread every day. It takes learned experience to know that one can ride out a situation.

Yet it is hard to peer inside our heads or even the heads of others. At the same time how our brains work is starting to yield to a combination of formal scientific analysis and philosophy. Software techniques such as Deep Learning (which are based on multiple layers of neural nets) are starting to provide impressive results in computer vision and voice recognition. Results that make us think we’re on the right track in understanding the brain. That perhaps the brain is just a collection of different subsystems, each complex but not impossibly complex. On the philosophy side there is a burgeoning technocratic buddhist idea that our minds are made up out of many small agents, and that by meditating and watching the various urgencies flit across our thoughts we get insight into the parts of our mind.

It feels so important to start to unlock how mind works. If we did or could understand ourselves better then we could perhaps steer our own internal choices. We could name our monsters, and choose to give them energy or not, or add new voices. A percussion of monsters hammering out our chorus.

One trait our entire community shares (a trait reflected in your work as well) was that Bay Area minds are neurologically diverse. We play with our heads. We’re constantly adjusting our perspective, looking once at the world, waiting and then looking again

Seeing you talk at the cafe on your work last week was a delight. Just to see one of us talking about something we love. So many of us get so excited by our ideas — is there anywhere else in the world like this? We study minds from within the puzzle box of our own minds.

But what if minds were not such puzzles? Perhaps it would be less romantic, perhaps we wouldn’t value them as much, but perhaps as well we might be able to think more clearly about some of these places our minds get into — perhaps we could protect people like you better.

I spoke at a conference in SF last weekend, the weekend you died. There were two very different talks about brain function that seemed especially meaningful. You may have liked them — I guess you didn’t know that community super well — they are good people. The talks hint at how we can understand minds better. Monica Anderson did a brilliant overview on Artificial Intelligence and the difference between “analytical engines” and “understanding engines”. Michael Morgenstern also spoke — on buddhism and meditation and watching the mind.

Monica started out by pointing out that historically we’ve formally modeled well defined problems. We use classical equations and algorithms that integrate the behavior of a system over time. In this approach the computation itself can be measured by criteria such as optimality, completeness, repeatability, efficiency, transparency. Basically science, math and other reductionist techniques have given us powerful tools for modeling the world in ways that are empirically reproducible over and over. This is the definition of the scientific method — to reduce to the core and to know that the destination was reached by a specific journey. Reaching the destination is not enough, we have to know how we get there.

Today we have a radically new way of solving problems — using neural networks. Neural networks are more like humans. The way they arrive at a conclusion is not as easily knowable. These systems also exhibit different traits. They exhibit generality, robustness, novelty and are inferential. Basically neural networks “understand” a topic more deeply. But in becoming understanding machines we lose the access to the reductionism of science. Neural nets do not use algorithms, they do not use math, they don’t solve physics problems using the Newtonian method. We’ve lost the ability to know how the destination was arrived at.

And here we reach to a buddhist philosophy. Any complex system such as the human mind is made up out of many many very small sub-networks. We see that there are a bunch of sense making systems that deal with raw input. Systems such as the olfactory, gustatory, somatosensory, visual, auditory, thinking, emotional, narrative layers. Each of these layers is taking inputs, digesting them, and delivering some refined output. On top of those bottom layers are other layers that perform sensor fusion between the different components. Our internal voices in fact are simply neural networks of their own, they are small stacks of thoughts and experience that reflect a bias, they get triggered when we see something in the world that matches their inputs, and they add their voice to the stack of messages moving upwards. Higher up the stack there are separate layers of neural networks that fuse together the product of lower level networks. We see a wing, and a hear a chirp, and we fuse that together into the idea of a bird. At this point the packet being delivered upstream is decorated with increasingly abstract derivations. The wing and the chirp may be unrelated, we may be fooled, but often they are related, and our sense making apparatus continues to aggressively filter as data climbs the stack. As we climb that deep stack of neural networks we arrive at a place where very high level stories are taking place. Those stories are logged over time as our conscious experience. In a sense there is a process of continual sensor fusion — and the end product is one story or one narrative that is the conscious record. Our poor conscious mind of course is a few moments behind the real world — living in it’s own cage, and creating a narrative out of the big blocks delivered to it. In fact consciousness itself may just be the end product of the fusion of all the subsystems of the mind.

Our sense-making is the product of not just observations but our memories, our stories, our internal narratives. How we organize our thoughts, how we relate to the world seems as much a product of our past as the present. For some of us a situation may seem completely routine, for others there is a gibbering fright, an unmanageable anxiety, hysterical in proportion.

We are all independent minds co-existing together. Doesn’t it make sense to start looking more closely at how our minds work? It feels like we are afraid to probe each others minds. We use ideas of respect, of trying to avoid projecting, of trying to protect neural diversity — but in some respects it is just fear. We’re afraid of each other and we don’t understand each other.

In your case you were ultimately frank about your depression, and frank about how you needed people around you. You built your life with safeguards to avoid those suicidal tendencies. You thought you were broken, and were so ashamed of that, wanted to hide — and then in choosing to come out, to be a model for others, finding a mission there. And flipping the narrative, finding what you were afraid of and putting it on stage. I saw that love for others, encouraging others show their minds even if they felt those minds were not ‘normal’.

Could we all go further? Actively look for our quirks, our traits, attempted to put names to them? Even if only transitory traits? If we decompose the parts of us into limbs — then it is no longer us who is broken but we just have a broken leg, or a broken tail. It is less personal.

Not to give undue praise but that was one quality — you look at people. The gaze, amateurish or expert, is something most of us are afraid to do. And it is one thing now I’d like to practice more. To name our demons in a sense.

Maybe perhaps if we can just name the parts of ourselves better, then we can see when those parts come to the foreground — and we can decide how to feed them or not.

*

We did Interchange together — a year long study of our minds. It was how to be a counselor, how to help people think, it turned more into a process of self-discovery. I liken Interchange to mental massage — we’re comfortable in our society massaging a friends sore back but we’re afraid to work over a sore experience.

In our cohort we practice creating space for others to speak. But you do something different, absurdly beautiful even risky, you call out people who spoke rarely and ask them to speak. Not entirely consensual but actually effective. It’s strategic and compassionate.

The terribly great and terribly stupid thing about Interchange is that you get to know your cohort about as well as you get to know yourself. I would have been perfectly fine not meeting any of you, poorer but safer. I didn’t need to be pruned and grafted to 20 other lives. Who would want that? Now if any one of you suffers it hurts me as well.

It may be terribly cruel and invasive to probe others minds, not consensual — but choosing to do that transcends an idea of consent because it speaks to protecting the system. I love the system of us.

*

Perhaps this grief is hardest when it touches people that I see as fragile, as artists, who take that terrible risk to see the world. It brings up memories of my own mom, my friends, people who died who shouldn’t have died, who still bounce around in my head.

September 9 2016. Newfoundland. “Hello Anselm. This is Brendan’s sister, Phyllis. I’m contacting you to let you know that Bren passed away last night. He fought a long hard battle with cancer. He passed away at the hospital surrounded by family and friends. He’ll be cremated tomorrow. the funeral home handling his funeral is Maher’s Funeral Home, Placentia, Newfoundland.”

May 1, 2013 · Sacramento. “My mom Anna Hook has died. She passed away peacefully at home surrounded by her family — we were all here. Also she got to see Tristan and her friend David over the last few days as well. Probably even more than her art we will remember her voice and wit.”

November 19, 2013 · “Well we can add another death to the list as of late: Stig Hackvan. Stomach cancer. Some may have know him via the Flaming Lotus Girls His long time love Haiping is currently expecting twins. He was smart, prickly, sometimes generous, and very, very smart. Stig took his own path. There is a memorial at Hacker Dojo in Mountain View 4pm to 8 PM on Saturday”

July 3, 2016 · Venice, Italy · “My beloved Rupert Page was killed riding his motorcycle this weekend. The vacation is over, and we are on the first flight home. We were to be meeting up in Greece in just a few days after a month apart. I’m wearing his dearly departed Mum’s ring. He gave it to me a few days before I left to have a piece of him with me throughout my travels until we met again. It takes on a very different meaning now. There are no words to describe my feelings. No words at all. 💔”

*

It hurt to lose you. It makes lives seem fragile. And I don’t even know where to put that grief. I see in hindsight we all have to save up joy to counter the dark. It’s more clear now that therapy is not enough. We have to face death and fight; not just try to avoid it.

For your polka dotty wedding I made a small present — a picture frame that played Conway’s game of life in multi-colored blinky dots. It was silly, bright, art. It was a metaphor of the fabric of this bay area community. We celebrate in order to have memories to push away the dark.

I learned a lot more about you yesterday at the memorial. I never appreciated you were so silly, so young. I didn’t appreciate how important joy was for you, how necessary. Now I wish I’d actually gotten you to to a warriors game as I’d offered, or had gone and had you photograph me too like the rest of your dolls. Not to change random outcomes in a game of life but to have held a little bit more. And it makes me want to reach out to others I know and hold them closer. I can’t imagine you not being here.

This grief gives me motive to want to try to find ways to think about how we think. Life randomly strikes us down at random for random reasons. I kinda respect individual choice maybe? Regardless of what law or society say we are always free. It is not possible to put a person in jail if they refuse to cooperate. A person cannot be held unless you physically restrain them, force-feed them, watch them 24 hours a day, make them breathe. Our powers of coercion are weak. We can do anything and often do. But perhaps there is a way to have more powers at the roulette wheel of inner choice.

Now I see anxiety better. So many of my friends are so afraid, so driven by fear, beyond all reason. But what are the consequences of even failing? Mild at best. We should celebrate more, take more risk, have great adventures together — even when we fail to accomplish our imagined expectations.

In a way our anxiety is our fault, or at least something we all own. We all mesh together like gears, the inner societies of each of our minds engages in a dialogue with aspects of each others minds as well. In super-tight networks such as this, these overlaps are sometimes so intense we don’t know where one person starts and the other person stops. It’s a strength and a weakness of this particular network.

Perhaps what it necessarily means is that we must cross-train. When we find things that scare us we must find a way to exercise in those areas in order to not be afraid. It feels urgent to start to see our minds as gardens that we groom, that we make strong and foster diversity within. We’ve always been afraid to peer into each others minds, respecting identity. We need to stop being afraid.

We know that giving advice is not the right thing, but there’s a way to let other people borrow your mental agents and visa versa, to have new sounding boards, to look at what rises to preeminence for them. It feels that we have to talk more and be more present for each other. Perhaps more dinner parties and frank discussions, more sharing, something more visceral is a way to start to explore these demons, inspect them and see what merits they have or not. Perhaps we need parties, situations that are made-up, and contrived, delightful — just to see each other. I’m not suggesting a New Orleans style wake as a prefix to inevitable tragedy, but simply playing more.

Sometimes people don’t even feel human to me, they are so focused on themselves and on trivial wealth collection — they feel more like automata, like animals or robots scooping up tokens. I noticed you were not that — you were the opposite of that — even as, yes crude, you killed somebody we loved.

If you were really still here I’d like to ask you some more questions.

It’s more in the asking than the answer — because answering ends the question and I don’t want the question to end. Now you live through us. You embodied some values. We will grieve for a while, but we have to keep living. And there is a question of how to choose to stay alive.

So how would you like to live now? Now that you are in us. How will you live through us? Our eyes, our skin are your eyes, your skin. We will remember you through our acts, by being unafraid for you, by reaching past our fears to the people we see being quiet, by laughing for you, by loving this world hard as it was.

From Joanna Burgess (via Forest):

My friends, let’s grow up
Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.
Or if we truly haven’t noticed, let’s wake up and notice.
Look: Everything that can be lost, will be lost.
It’s simple — how could we have missed it for so long?
Let’s grieve our losses fully, like ripe human beings.
But please, let’s not be so shocked by them.
Let’s not act so betrayed
As though life had broken her secret promise to us.
Impermanence is life’s only promise to us.
And she keeps it with ruthless impeccability
To a child she seems cruel, but she is only wild.
And her compassion exquisitely precise.
Brilliantly penetrating, luminous with truth,
She strips away the unreal to show us the real.
This is the true ride — let’s give ourselves to it!
Let’s stop making deals for safe passage:
There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.
We are not children anymore.
The true human adult gives everything for what cannot be lost.
Let’s dance the wild dance of no hope!

Appendum — A month later:

  • There’s something to be said about an idea of layers of grief.
  • At first dissociative
  • then eventually understanding that one has to let go to honor the fact that the other party would want you to live and love the world and not be suspended between worlds
  • then understanding ones own triggers; in my case memories of my own moms passing
  • then seeing ones own ego, trying to get over oneself — to actually see and remember and honor the other persons memory.
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