Monday, June 16, 2008


Surely their actions might be something we'd do ourselves: the hand raised to strike could be your hand, the face that trembles to receive the blow your face. The finger on the trigger yours, afraid; the heart held in the gun sights yours also.

And that is close enough to forgiveness, to find that any character in the dream of your life might be you. But you don't know that until you tell the story; caught in the narrative yourself, how could you see from that height?

-- Firebird, by Mark Doty

Or at least, say, you need to see that a story is always already being told. That you're not seeing the thing itself, never seeing the thing itself. The most deeply misleading (and profoundly un-Buddhist) thing I've ever heard a Buddhist teacher say is that an enlightened being sees things as they are. It is the most fundamental, intractable foundation of Buddhist philosophy that no one, no one ever sees things as they are. We see them as they appear. People, places and things may or may not have intrinsic essence -- how could we ever know? -- but one thing we do know, is that if they do have intrinsic essences, we don't have direct access to them. There is an elaborate Buddhist analysis of perception, with the various stages of construction and interpretation that have to occur before we "see" something. Physics and biology confirm it, and add their own layers of indirection. What we see is light, bounced and quivering from things, making us believe that the color of things is a quality of the things, rather than a quality of their interaction with light. Our eyes deliver a crossed and upside down proto-image (not an image yet; how can there be an image that no one perceives? It's more like the source code, an HTML page before a browser interprets it) to the visual center of the brain; there it's prettied up, the missing pieces supplied, expected images filled in. And this is what's delivered to the thinking centers, where (brain scientists always speed up and slur over at this point, they know they have no clue about how this part happens) we become aware of the image. And we, pitifully credulous, say "I see a flower." No. We don't see a flower. We see an image we've constructed from a schema distilled from nerve impulses responding to patterns of light.

And this is the very simplest case, simple perception of a simple object. When we perceive that, for instance, our mother hates us, we are at an exponentially more complex level of perception; we have constructed an entire persona, entered into it, and become aware of its feelings vis a vis our construction of its construction of our persona. The complexity of the process is staggering, and it's riddled with error and supposition from start to finish. And yet these are the facts we are most sure of, the facts we build our lives around; acting on this information received, we are willing to stake everything we care about, take our own lives or the lives of others.

Anyway. Doty's Firebird is an incredible book: I'm grateful to Deb for recommending Doty to me. It's a memoir of growing up a sissy in the America of the fifties and sixties, a deeply moving one to this fellow-sissy. I didn't have being gay to deal with, but the experience is universal, sissy or not: of finding in ourselves desires that the world is determined not to acknowledge, but without which our lives simply will not run. We have no choice; we must negotiate it somehow; breaking the mainspring of our hearts is not an option.

For me? I wanted to look, and I wanted to touch; and I wanted to be able to express the tenderness that welled up in me towards people. I've written about all these things. It's pretty simple, in the abstract: as a practical problem it long seemed intractable, insoluble, something that simply could not happen in the world as it is. Hence the allure when I was young of other worlds: fantasy, science fiction, utopias. Anywhere but here.

Hard to know. Hard to know how the solutions started to seep into my life. Was it meditation that opened cracks in the walls? Art? Friends (meaning you)? Love, beyond my deserts or imagining? The raising of children? All those things, certainly, and more. Not that everything is solved, far from it, but the world I live in is transformed, and what isn't solved is workable, pliable.

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