Sunday, February 20, 2011
The Order Of The Factors
I woke up this morning with a sense that it was too early to be up. It was a work day, but it wasn't time to work yet. I still had a couple of hours. I didn't want the night to end.
I had woken up at the wrong time but I was fully awake, all drowsiness had left me like water falling from a bucket, leaving it empty and ready for something new to come to fill it.
I looked at the clock and saw that it was an hour and half earlier than the time I usually woke up. A pain on the side of my hip had been bothering me for several weeks. It wouldn’t let me sleep for long no matter how hard I tried. I tossed and turned during the night, repeatedly pulled out of restless dreams by the recurring shocks of deep pain coursing through my body like tiny messengers wrapped in red flame.
I was wide awake but I didn't get up from the bed. Instead I lay there, vainly trying to understand what had just happened. My eyes were open but I just stared at the gray ceiling in a kind of dazed stupor. The questions that invaded my mind didn't have enough of a clear shape to require answers. Instead they just floated through my consciousness, mute witnesses to aftershocks of searing pain.
Without saying it to myself, I was making a last ditch effort to sleep some more, to find some remaining crumbs of restful peace before the day actually started. Maybe if I stared long enough, sleep would overtake me and I would recede into dreams for just a little longer, enough to let me flee the looming and unavoidable reality.
But my efforts were in vain. I was wrestled out of any remaining sleepiness by my insistent thoughts, by my shapeless questions, by my undefined images.
I looked out the window and saw that the sky was still dark, a dark blue fading into a lighter grayish color, a heavy night that was slowly but stubbornly changing into another ephemeral day. A touch of red was timidly showing up in the distance, over the roofs of the Victorian houses, all the way to where the very top of the Golden Gate Bridge could be glimpsed surrounded by white shining fog. A clear promise that the sun would be coming soon. Unusual for a city as foggy as this one.
I decided to get up and do something I hadn’t done in a very long time: I would watch the sun come out, I would watch it unfold its warm morning light over the city, a spectacle I once enjoyed in my youth but which had been nearly forgotten with the passing of time.
I stood up, went to the closet and picked some sweaters and shoes in case it was very cold. It's usually cold in this city where I live, very different from where I grew up. I'm still not quite used to it. Something inside of me still wishes it was different. As if the weather would follow my wishes, as if my wishes had a grain of objective truth hidden within their multiple subjective folds.
As I went through the choices in my closet, my memory went back to a particular day in the past. I couldn't remember the details of the day. I couldn't say what had happened or what I had been doing. I could only remember that I had been looking for something. It had been a day when, no matter how much effort I put into my search, I couldn’t bring myself to find that thing which I was looking for. I remembered that I eventually found a solution. The way I finally did find what I had been looking for was by sitting and contemplating the world around me for a long period of time. Quietly. Softly. Subtly. Without rush.
To contemplate in length seemed so easy, so simple. And yet I had not done anything like it in such a long time. Like waking up early, like looking at the rising sun. Things I had forgotten.
When I first moved into this apartment, I made sure I went out to the balcony early to sit and contemplate. I would do this for at least thirty minutes every day before engaging in my daily routine.
I kept this up for a while, until one day I suddenly dropped it. I couldn't really say why. I can't even say for sure that I noticed when it happened. Suddenly it was gone. Like so many things, it just fell out of rhythm, out of step. Maybe I didn’t get that much sleep the night anymore, so it was harder to get up early. Maybe I was just too lazy one day and I preferred the warmth of the bed sheets. For whatever reason, one day I didn't do it. And then one day turned into two, and two into three, and soon my thirty minutes of contemplation were gone and forgotten. Like old shoes or lost memories.
Today I once again remembered. Why did I remember today? I was struggling with pain all night, pain that wouldn't let me sleep. I couldn’t go back to sleep even when I tried with every trick I was aware of, every trick I had been taught.
It then occurred to me that it would a good idea to do that thing I used to do. The pain didn't allow me the easiest route so I had to pick the next option in its place, a route not so easy but full of its own rewards. As simple as that. So unpredictable. So completely beyond my conscious control.
I geared up and went to the balcony like I used to do.
Now the sky had more pinks and oranges than earlier, the darkness had disappeared rather quickly and had left behind a glowing whitish blue that suffused everything with its freshness and light. I heard a bird singing in the distance, I heard the honking of a bus coming from a few blocks away, I heard the tinkling of a little boy's laughter, I heard the murmur of a large sprawling city that was slowly waking up, maybe lost in its own city thoughts, maybe struggling with its own kind of urban pain that forced it to awaken from its concrete slumber even if it would have rather stayed asleep a bit longer, even if it wasn't quite finished with its strange city dreams.
I stood there looking and listening. I noticed my mind getting distracted, a stream of thoughts trying to explain what was happening, what I was trying to do, why I was doing it, how it would happen.
"Focus your mind on what you are seeing, don't worry about your tasks for the day, don't worry about what happened yesterday, don't worry about what will happen tomorrow, just place your mind on this that is in front of you, I just have to remember that one project that is due, I have to remember, I can't allow myself to forget. I just don't have to remember right now, right now I just need to look, look at all of it, but I should make a note, a mental note, but I have to set aside the mental note in order to look, look openly, look without thinking, just remember to get the laundry later, remember later but forget it right now..."
I slowly slid into disappointment. I was disappointed with myself, very disappointed, disappointed because I still remembered, I could still remember what it had been like once. I remembered that I didn’t use to do this before, I remembered that my mind had once been quiet, I remembered that I didn't have this long train of thoughts invading my sacred moments of open perception.
This didn't happen before. I used to contemplate and feel…feel and absorb all the beauty I could take into me, without getting distracted by explanations, without being pulled by responsibilities, without being shaken by running thoughts about obligations and random tasks. I could just sit and look and absorb. I got very disappointed and the dark disappointment just added to my struggles, a speeding downward spiral, a sliding avalanche of negative emotion I couldn't stop or set aside.
I opened my mouth to take a long, deep breath. I went back to a particular memory from my childhood, something I always wished for, something that always made me long to go back, even if it was only to live that one little moment, a tiny scene from a not so pleasant past.
I was probably 10 or 11. My father had promised to take us to the beach the next day, but only if we finished our homework in time. I loved the beach, I was really excited to go, but I had a lot of homework to do and I wasn't sure that I could finish it in time.
I made sure that I got up very early to do my homework before the trip. I jumped out of bed as soon as my eyes opened and I picked up my school notes, ready to start working. The homework was to fill a sheet of paper with the following phrase:
‘The order of the factors doesn’t alter the result’
The teacher wanted us to memorize this by writing it many times on a piece of paper. This was the way we were taught back where I came from. Repetition and repetition and more repetition. Rhythmic cycles of linguistic instruction, calculated to drill thoughts into a young mind overpowered by constant change.
I was getting ready to sit at my desk to do the homework, when I noticed that outside the window there were some extremely beautiful colors, shifting and shining and sliding and twisting just outside the glass.
I got on top of the desk so I could look at them. I stood up on the desk right in front of the window, my eyes wide open, my mind wide open, my attention wide open.
I saw the sky turning from deep black to shining orange and then to bright blue and white… I saw flocks of birds flying by, I heard the noise of some of the people in my house waking up, my father walking to the bathroom and yawning, my mother turning on the stove while whispering to herself. I heard a car passing by with the radio on, I heard distant footsteps coming from a block away, the sound of high heels tapping on cement.
All of it fit in perfectly. Like an enormous jigsaw puzzle made of sound and light, a puzzle I had never before been able to decipher. Everything fit with everything else. Nothing was out of place. Nothing was to be discarded, nothing was to be occluded, nothing was to be set aside.
I saw some black birds flying in perfect formation over the roof of the house across the street, I heard roosters announcing the coming of the brand new day, a new day which I was a part of, a day which I was meant to live.
I was taken away by all this perfectly coordinated beauty for what seemed like forever. I must have stood there on the desk, looking out the window, for at least a couple of hours. And yet it felt like nothing. No struggle, no effort, no pain, no purpose. I had completely lost track of time while I looked out the window, time had ceased to run in the way that I was used to. I forgot where I was or why I was there. I forgot everything except for the beauty that was all around me, the extreme and perfect beauty that surrounded me from all directions, the vibrant breathing beauty that called to me, that made me feel welcome, that made me feel alive.
I found myself standing on the balcony now, trying to do the same thing I had once done so easily, that thing I had done which I never meant to do, that thing which just happened on a morning so long ago.
But I was running into serious difficulty now, I was stumbling and crashing into intangible obstacles. I was having problems with this thing which once had been so simple, problems with something that had once seemed to flow unimpeded, soft and smooth and natural. It was not so easy anymore, not as easy as it once was, not easy at all.
Maybe I thought about it a bit too much, maybe the thoughts of loss were like dark clouds that prevented me from seeing openly. Maybe I had lost the gift of simple observation somewhere along the way and now I couldn't say where or how it had happened.
‘I used to have the experience and not the explanation. Now that I have the explanation I am looking for the experience. I can only find it if I get rid of the explanation that I once worked so hard to find. The experience, the direct experience, just like a child, just like the child I once was…just like the day I was working on my homework and the morning went away in a maze of colors and sound and light… the order of the factors does not alter the results… the order of the factors does not alter the results… it doesn’t matter what comes first, the experience, the explanation…the order of the factors doesn’t alter the results…'
And the morning opened up before me, slowly but surely, while I quietly did my homework, the homework I was finally understanding for the first time, the homework that spoke in a rhythm of simplicity and recurring sonic beats, the homework I still had time to finish.