“It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” ” – David Foster Wallace
Approaching this blog I feel very overwhelmed especially in relation to the context of the literature we are responding to. Each piece stirred up a particular concern, anxiety, obsession (I am not exactly sure to call them) that I have with life.
On the first day of class the beginning of Annie Dillard’s piece, “Seeing,” was read out loud and stopped on the last sentence of her introduction which read, “It is that simple, what you see is what you get.” While I admire her optimism and excitement, these feelings seem to be an innate part of her being, something she has impulsively felt and playfully cultivated from the time she was six or seven. “It is that simple, what you see is what you get,” is a calming, lovely statement that reads as easy as 1, 2, 3. But if a persons impulsive reaction to life is not as appreciative, or whimsical, or wonderfully simplistic, as those of Annie Dillard’s, noticing a penny, and allowing it to make ones day may be a little more difficult than her introduction would lead one to believe.
Achieving the ability to alter ones impulsive reactions to/perceptions of the world and ultimately making the choice to see the world as one desires, uninterrupted by outside forces or intruding influences takes time, and work. Of course, my own cynical perspectives and life experiences have intrudingly influenced the development of this opinion.
Freshman year of college, in creative writing 2, my class read a commencement address written by David Foster Wallace, which he gave to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. He begins the commencement with the opening, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” Basically, his speech proceeds onward to talk about cultivating free will, switching off autopilot, being conscious and aware of what and how we see the world.
When I first read this piece 3 years ago it felt awesome, and invigorating. When I read it again for the first time in 3 years a few weeks ago I felt that same awesome invigoration and inspiration. But when I made the regretful decision to do a little biographical research about whom David Foster Wallace was, my righteous buzz came to a dark and utter crash as I began reading and learned that he had lived with depression for at least 20 years of his life and committed suicide just 3 short years after making that commencement address. The reality behind the living, breathing tragedy (as I subsequently took it) that I now saw as David Foster Wallace was a smack to the face the childish, ideological, sense of comfort I had received from first reading and ultimately believing in his commencement address.
Wallace concluded his commencement saying, “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.” As I re-read these words again now, (and for that matter, the entire speech) I detect a sense of exhaustion, or sadness, mixed with a word similar to sarcasm but not really sarcasm, mixed with a suggested challenge for the audience, which prior to this moment, I had failed to notice.
Learning about David Foster Wallace’s life deeply saddened me, and admittedly shattered my spirit a bit but I now realize and appreciate his honesty. It can be easy to say things like, “life is what you make of it,” or to tell people to “live each day to the fullest,” but to actually embody these mindsets and approach life with this sort of courageous vigor takes a lifetime of commitment.
Annie Dillards tells the reader, “The secret of seeing is to sail on a solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff” (33). While this imagery is extremely beautiful, and romantic, and probably makes ecstatic sense to Annie Dillard (considering she wrote it) I, as a reader, start to feel hopeless, what in the hell does that even mean?! In another section of her book Dillard says, “hush the noise of useless interior babble that keeps me from seeing…The effort is really a discipline requiring a lifetime of dedicated struggle; it marks the literature of saints and monkey or every order…” (32) Okay, so, David Foster Wallace also said that “seeing” would not be easy, but he never made me feel like it was somehow out of my league, unattainable, an achievement that should be left to the specialist.
The idea of a world controlled by specialists scares me.
But at the same time…What if I never become “special”?
Take Mary Oliver for example, a specialist in poetry…….I found it interesting to compare Annie Dillard and David Foster Wallace’s work with Mary Oliver’s, “A Poetry Handbook.” Although she was talking about poetry I couldn’t help but apply her wisdom for poetry with more general thoughts about life. Initially she talks about “falling into a manner” of writing poetry. She describes it as “vaguely felt, not understood, not probably intended and never explored.” To me this sounds a lot like a life lost (if it is never cultivated.) Without the tools, or the know how, how does one take something like life, which is almost as difficult for me as poetry, and explore it.
I think Mary Oliver’s piece offers an interesting analogy, intended for poetry, but interpreted by me, as a rational, somewhat clear way to approach the first steps towards a successful life. First of all, Mary Oliver believes that in order to create a poem two parts of the brain, the consciousness and something she calls “the cautious” need to work together. Now her analogy goes as such, “Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches.” Meaning your “cautious”, waits and watches. “If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself- soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly or it will not appear at all” (8). This made me think of my battle with meat, sweets, and other such foods which I can not seem to genuinely cut out of my diet. I only make the decision not to eat meat, say, 6 out of 10 times, or only make the decision not to eat sweets 3 out of 10 times. I’m decisions are not reliable, I hardly stick to what I tell myself I am going to do, and thus my diet still contains far too much meat and sweets. Improving ones life can not happen unless, once again, one is vigorously committed.
Steve Jobs said something I found very insightful but again difficult to achieve. He talked about approaching life with a conscious reminder that “I’ll be dead soon.” With this reminder floating in bold letters on the forefront of our brains it is then that we can finally cultivate the life that we have always dreamed of. Confident and free of all trivial inhibitions.
“What’s the point of living if our minds are the physiological activity of the brain?” (Is Science Killing the Soul)
Recently, I have been given no choice but to repeatedly read and contemplate topics similar to the question above. The more literature, and studies I have read the more science points to biology. Is it nature? Or is it nurture? My mind began to formulate an opinion whether I wanted to or not. Like millions of others who feel a discomfort when confronted with the theory that the way our “minds” work is very much contingent upon the physiological activity or our brain, I began to feel a lack of control. Although I don’t believe this takes away from my “free will” or the “free will” of others I did begin to feel sad about the fact that I was feeling sad.
I denied responsibility for the sulky mood I had fixed myself into. I told myself, “I am being crabby, I am aware that I am being crabby, but this is how my brain works, and there is nothing I can or want to do about it (because once again, that’s just how my brain works.) Of course I can try to rationalize my concern that I have no control over my emotions by telling myself that I can work on having a better attitude and that maybe over time I will become a more positive person, but the fact that I even considered this alternative is a result of the physiological activity of my brain….
Morality and Responsibility. Although I may feel a bitter disdain for the people in the world who are racist, or believe they can blast off the tops of mountains without any remorse, I still have a hard time directly blaming these people for their actions.
Until recently I had no idea how easy it is to get hypothermia. If you are not dressed properly and not taking care of your body it can sneak up on you and have dire consequences. I recently read Into the Woods which talked about campers mysteriously dying, found naked outside there tents, turns out it was hypothermia. These stories momentarily scared the shit out of me. But each of these people had gone about something half assed and or uninformed. Despite everything that I have bantered with throughout this first dizzy blog, it is up to me to cultivate my life, and this means living for as long as I can, which means knowing my facts, being prepared, and not getting hypothermia!!