To hold, as it were, a mirror up to Nature

Who am I? No, really -where do I stop and something else begins? That’s not really as silly a question as it may first appear. Consider, for example, my need to remember something -an address, say. One method is to internalize it -encode it somehow in my brain, I suppose- but another, no less effective, is to write it down. So, if I choose the latter, is my pen (or keyboard, for that matter) now in some sense a functional part of me? Is it an extension of my brain? The result is the same: the address is available whenever I need it.

Ever since my university days, when I discovered the writings of the philosopher Alan Watts, I have been intrigued by his view of boundaries, and whether to consider them as things designed to separate, or to join. Skin, was one example that I remember he discussed -does it define my limits, and enclose the me inside, or is it actually my link with the outside world? I hadn’t really thought much about it until then, but in the intervening years it has remained an idea that continues to fascinate me.

Clearly Watts was not alone in his interest about what constitutes an individual, nor in his speculations about the meaning of whatever identities individuals think they possess by virtue of their boundaries. There was an insightful article in Aeon by Derek Skillings, a biologist and philosopher of science at the University of Pennsylvania entitled ‘Life is not easily bounded’: https://aeon.co/essays/what-constitutes-an-individual-organism-in-biology

‘Most of the time the living world appears to us as manageable chunks,’ he writes, ‘We know if we have one dog or two.’ Why then, is ‘the meaning of individuality … one of the oldest and most vexing problems in biology? …  Different accounts of individuality pick out different boundaries, like an overlapping Venn diagram drawn on top of a network of biotic interactions. This isn’t because of uncertainty or a lack of information; rather, the living world just exists in such a way that we need more than one account of individuality to understand it.’ But really, ‘the problem of individuality is (ironically enough) actually composed of two problems: identity and individuation. The problem of identity asks: ‘What does it mean for a thing to remain the same thing if it changes over time?’ The problem of individuation asks: ‘How do we tell things apart?’ Identity is fundamentally about the nature of sameness and continuity; individuation is about differences and breaks.’ So, ‘To pick something out in the world you need to know both what makes it one thing, and also what makes it different than other things – identity and individuation, sameness and difference.’

What about a forest -surely it is a crowd of individual trees?  Well, one way of differentiating amongst individuals is to think about growth -a tree that is growing (in other words, continuing as more of the same)- and contrasting it with producing something new: as in reproduction. And yet even here, there is a difficulty. It’s difficult to determine the individual identities of any trees that also grew from the original roots -for example from a ‘nurse’ tree lying on the ground with shoots and saplings sprouting from it.’

But it’s not only plants that confuse the issue. If reproduction -i.e. producing something new– counts as a different entity, then what about entities like bacteria? ‘These organisms tend to reproduce [albeit] by asexual division, dividing in half to produce two clones… and, failing mutation and sub-population differentiation, an entire population of bacteria would be considered a single individual.’ -whatever ‘individual’ might therefore mean.

And what about us, then? Surely we have boundaries, surely we are individuals created as unique entities by means of sexual reproduction. Surely we have identities. And yet, what of those other entities we carry with us through our lives -entities that not only act as symbiotes, but are also integrated so thoroughly into our metabolism that they contribute to such intimate functions as our immune systems, our weight and health, and even function as precursors for our neurotransmitters and hence our moods? I refer, of course, to the micro-organisms inhabiting our bowels -our microbiome. Clearly ‘other’ and yet essential to the functioning person I regard as ‘me’.

And yet, our gut bacteria are mostly acquired from the environment -including the bacteria colonizing our mother’s vagina and probably her breast milk- and so are not evolutionarily prescribed, nor thereby hereditarily transmitted. So, am I merely a we –picking up friends along the way? Well, consider mitochondria -the powerhouse of our cells. They were once free-living bacteria that adapted so well inside our cells that they, too, are integral to cell functioning but have lost the ability to survive separately; they are transmitted from generation to generation. So they are me, right…?

Again I have to ask just who is me? Or is the question essentially meaningless put like that? Given that I am a multitude, and more like a city than a single house, shouldn’t the question be who are we? The fact that all of us, at least in Western cultures, consider ourselves to be distinct entities -separate individuals with unique identities- makes me wonder, about our evolutionary history.

Was there a time when we didn’t make the distinctions we do nowadays? A time when we thought of ourselves more as members of a group than as individuals? When, perhaps sensing that we were constantly interacting with things outside and inside us, the boundaries were less important? Is that how animals would say they see the world if they were able to tell us?

Does our very ability to communicate with each other with more sophistication, create the critical difference? Is that what created hubris? In Greek tragedy, remember, hubris -excess pride and self-confidence- led inexorably to Nemesis, retributive justice. Were poets in that faraway time, trying to tell people something they had forgotten? Is that what this is all about?

I wonder if Shakespeare, as about so many things, was also aware of our ignorance: ‘pride hath no other glass to show itself but pride, for supple knees feed arrogance and are the proud man’s fees.’

Plus ça change, eh?

Eternity Gazing at Itself

We see what we think others see; we see what the mirror sees. And yet, I prefer to see what Kahlil Gibran sees:  Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

Body image is such a mutable thing. So mood-dependent, so soul-laden, it sometimes seems to defeat all words and define us -despite our pleas for mercy, our hope for acceptance in a world gone mad with self. And beauty is what satisfies the fickleness of the group. There is no objectiveness to allure, no criteria to fulfil; it is a feather that flutters briefly through the landscape like a butterfly in the wind. “You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes,” says Alan Watts. You are the magic that is you –unique, and special.

But for some of us, the strangeness of our difference is hard to bear. It is something to be hidden, not celebrated. A BBC article I found a while ago told the story of a woman’s courage to change –she couldn’t alter the permanent damage from a previous life-threatening accident, so, instead, she decided to change who she’d become in the intervening years. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40862546

‘Sylvia had spent ‘most of her life trying to conceal the extensive scars which cover her body –the legacy of a childhood accident. […] at the age of 48, she decided it was time to stop hiding and come out into the open. […] My mum was boiling water in saucepans for our bath. She would pour the water into bowls and she put the bowls on the bathroom floor. We were just playing around, me and my siblings, and I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. We were told not to go in there. I went in there and my sister pushed the door, and that’s when I fell backwards into the bowl of boiling water, causing very bad burns.’

The scars from her third and fourth degree burns were extensive: ‘“There’s not actually any part of my body apart from my face that is normal. My burns start from the top of my neck all the way down to the top of my bottom, and then around the front of my stomach and down my left leg. And then on the rest of my body I’ve got lots of little pinprick holes all down my arms and my legs from where they took skin. […]I went into shock and was having fits. Then the ambulance arrived. They gathered my family together and told them that I wasn’t going to make it through the night. They baptised me and I had my last rites.

‘“When I was growing up a lot of people used to tell my mum, “Oh, she’s beautiful, she’s pretty.” But in my head I always thought, “Why are they saying, ‘You’re pretty’? I’m not. Underneath my clothes I’m burned.

‘I always felt ugly, so it’s affected me mentally as well as physically. Children would call me different names like “witch” and “snakeskin”, and they were really nasty. I was told that I would never have boyfriends, never get married, never have children. Showing my back was always going to be a negative thing.

‘I loved swimming – once I was in the water I was in a different world, it was great – but I was terrified about people seeing my body. When everybody got out of the water I’d wait until they went to change and be the last one to sneak out.

‘I got to a point where I was attacking everybody around me and it was the only way that I could deal with my emotions. I’d literally call people up, like my sisters, and be really nasty to them, a really vile, nasty, horrible person.”’

But Sylvia did eventually find a loving partner, and yet her fear of others seeing her scars persisted. One day, after being photographed at the swimming pool with her mother like an animal at the zoo, they decided to leave and go to the beach instead. But her mother seemed so upset, Sylvia decided to do something she’d always been afraid to do.

‘At that moment something just clicked in my brain and I decided that I was going to draw a line and make her happy. I took my dress off and I walked down to the edge. People were looking at me and I looked at my mum and I smiled, and I went, “Mum! Look! Look at me!”

And she started to smile. I put my hands on my hips and I started to pose on the water’s edge and she was so happy. I went over to her and I said, “From now on I’m going to let people take pictures, and every time they do I’m going to smile and I’m going to pose.”

‘I think that moment on the beach was just a turning point where I realised that no counselling, nothing on Google, was going to help me. It was time for me to help myself. I went out and bought a swimming costume – it had a big hole in the back – and then I set up my swimming classes at my local pool in Highbury, north London. I invite people with disfigurements to come and swim. When I’m in the water and I’m swimming I just feel at peace, I feel calm, and I can think of lots of wonderful things. […]

‘It’s been such a long journey. It’s like taking off a coat and saying, “This is me now, and I don’t care what people think.” I’ve noticed a big change in my life and I’ve been able to accept the way I look.’

As Jean Cocteau said, ‘Mirrors should reflect a little before throwing back images.’ And so should people. It seems to me that there are at least two types of courage. The first, and most obvious, is the type that risks bodily harm –soldiers in combat, firefighters, and so on. It’s the one we can all see, the one that makes newspaper headlines, and wins awards. Medals. Accolades… And yet perhaps that’s really just the outward trappings of the other type –the inward struggle to overcome the fear that we are not who we want to be –need to be, with whatever hand Fate has dealt. Both require bravery –and while one may confront an external challenge, the other, no less brave, defies far more nebulous and malicious ghosts.

But the triumph over unseen odds, however unfortunate they may have been to the recipient, is seldom met with applause, or acknowledged with praise. It is an inner contest, a silent war that few can see, let alone appreciate. It is an unrecognized philanthropy of self to self, and so perhaps its rewards are even greater, although they may pass, unnoticed in the larger scheme of things. The determination to act, and the bravery to succeed, need no commendation really. It is enough to have succeeded in accepting oneself, and reveling in the affirmation of all around. It is no small thing, although it may seem so.

Sylvia may never receive a decoration, nor mention on the local evening news, but in a way, she already has her medal –she can wear herself on her lapel at last.

To measure you by the smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam – Khalil Gibran again.

Presume Not that I am the Thing I Was.

We are all stories, aren’t we? But as I slip further down the years, I wonder about my story. Some of it I suppose I don’t remember, and yet what I do might still be suspect –a revision I make even as I think about it. Memory doesn’t reproduce the past so much as create it. And therein lies the problem. There was a time when historical validity was only accredited to its witnesses –a first-hand account told by someone who was actually there, someone who experienced it. But we’re long past that now…

When we are dead, we become fictions; when we can no longer speak for ourselves, what we might have thought, what we might have been, is merely interpreted, as the historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel has said. And even modern historians, scrutinizing the same evidence, will often differ in their explanations of the past. Who is to choose among them –and why?

So, history isn’t fixed, as we often assume, and it certainly isn’t static –it changes with new evidence, or transmogrifies according to the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Mantel sees it, history is not the past –it’s a method we’ve evolved to organize our ignorance of it. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.

I think that what occasioned this reminiscence was a short feature in the BBC news about a fifteen-year old toilet sign found in Italy at a farmhouse B&B: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40936110. The sign was attempting to use emojis to indicate that the toilet was not restricted to any particular sexual orientation. It had three symbols –one of a man, one of a woman, and one of a gay person. Unfortunately, the latter is depicted as a rather flouncy individual who is clearly neither male nor female, but rather an amalgam of them both, I suppose. Why it was felt necessary to suggest that ‘gay’ belonged to neither group is unknown. At any rate, the LGBTQ community reasonably complained of the sign’s confusion of sexual orientation with gender identity and the (new) owners obligingly removed it, even though it had apparently been covered up when they bought the property, and had remained so. They had meant no offence.

Things change. Sensitivities change. And signs are expected to reflect that… I, too, am caught up in the current ethos and find the sign unfeeling, and ill-informed, but things were different then, I think. The world was a different place for sure; the Umwelt itself was less evolved. But nonetheless, it makes me wonder whether we can ever understand the lived-world of another era. Whether even I can ever understand my own historical self, and so continually amend what I can remember of him –and continually rewrite the story…

I was waiting for a bus on the outskirts of town the other day, and sought the tiny shade afforded by a small wooden bench. Two older ladies arrived and seemed more in need of shade and rest than me, so I offered them the only gift I had –the bench. But it was in a covered structure and under a tree, so I stayed nearby in its cooling shadow.

They were both in their eighties, I would think, and both wore loose floral-print cotton dresses like I think my mother would have favoured. They wore their hair like her, too –short and manageable under almost identical blue hats. In fact, the more I looked, the more like her they seemed –they could all have been sisters, although my mother was an only child and died many years ago. It’s strange how often older women seem similar. Men do too, I suppose, but I notice the women more. Age homogenizes their faces, and memory standardizes their appearance… Blends them together into vague familiarity like apples in a crate. Fish in a tank.

I contented myself with leaning against the tree and staring idly down the street lost in thought… Okay, I was listening to them; I can’t resist an argument and they’d been going at it even before they sat down –some sort of family thing.

“You have to admit that father was ahead of his time, though, Thea…” The only difference between them I could detect was the colour of the flower pattern on their dresses. It was the red flower who was talking.

Thea, the blue-flower, sighed loudly. “What on earth makes you say that, Flo?”

Flo promptly crossed her arms and glared at her sister. It was hard to tell from where I leaned, but I think she rolled her eyes because it pulled her lip upwards and something rattled in her mouth. “Remember? He encouraged her to work outside the home, and told everybody about how women should have the same rights as men. Nobody thought like that in those days.”

“What house did you grow up in, Flo? He wouldn’t even let me work in that restaurant, remember?”

Flo shrugged at the memory. “You were too young, Thea. He was protecting you…”

“Then why didn’t he protect Ronny? He had a paper route when he was even younger.” Thea seemed pout for a moment. “And anyway, he didn’t encourage mom to work until he lost his job that time. And even then, she had to clean the house and cook the dinners for us when she got home.”  She stared at Flo. “That’s not equal rights and it’s certainly not ahead of the times…”

Flo stared at her sister with a slight tilt to her head. “Well, how about when Ronny came out? Father welcomed him back into our house…” I could sense that Flo was a bit hesitant to speak about her brother, though.

Thea sighed loudly again, but this time contemptuously. “Only after five years, Flo! And even then, it was because mom kept phoning Ronny and inviting him over. Father had nothing to do with it! And remember, the only reason Ronny agreed to come was because it was a family dinner –their anniversary- and yet, Father wouldn’t even speak to him at first. He totally ignored him at the table.” She shook her head sadly and looked at her sister. “Ronny was so hurt. Remember he even left the table and went to sit in the living room until mom convinced him to come back? And then, years later, Father had the gall to tell everybody that he’d never harboured any grudges against homosexuals? That he’d always accepted them?”

“Father’s last boss was a homosexual, wasn’t he?”

Thea glanced my way and her eyes strayed onto my face for a second, as if fleeing from her sister’s naïveté. “Father always pretended to move with the current, Flo. But deep down, he was a man of his time. That was the way things were when he was growing up. There’s no sense in applying today’s values to another era. It took slow and painful steps to get here…” She touched her sister gently on the shoulder. “It’d be like blaming the doctors in his day for not having discovered penicillin.”

Flo looked down the street and saw the bus approaching. “You certainly remember a different Father from me, Thea…”

Thea shrugged as she fished around in her purse for the fare. “We’ve always seen the world through our own eyes, Flo. It’s a puzzle, eh?” she added as they both boarded a bus that was not mine.

I moved to the bench, now in deeper shade, and thought about what Thea had said about their differences being a puzzle.  I remembered fragments of a thought Alan Watts, had written back in the sixties. It was something about there being a difference between puzzles and mysteries: puzzles are meant to be solved, but mysteries are meant to be enjoyed. Wondered about. Tasted. I think I’d prefer to think of the past as a mystery, you know. That we each taste the world with different eyes; there’s no one history that satisfies us all… And therein lies the wonder.