This post is the last installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

10. Space Junk. Early in 1962, I started work at Harvard College Observatory by setting up a photo lab that eventually expanded to become worthy of the Space Age. I started my fiefdom in a one-room darkroom with walls eight feet apart, which ultimately led to a fourteen-room photo lab suite near Fresh Pond on the outskirts of Cambridge. Apparently there was money for expansion available in those days.

Early on I was handed a remnant from a fallen Russian satellite that had landed piecemeal in northern Canada. No one knew what its function was, but as a novel piece of space junk, it deserved to have its picture taken.

That was a first for me, and the beginning of Harvard’s playing an active role, along with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, in lofting research satellites into orbit. With one click of my shutter, my mind went from a dark-wood kind of nineteenth-century awareness into a full-fledged, gold-plated, twentieth century engagement with the new world of space exploration and surveillance.

11. J.F.K. When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I was in the photo lab darkroom at Harvard College Observatory making prints with the enlarger under the glow of a red safelight. I had the radio tuned to WGBH. When the bulletin came that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, I called my assistant on the intercom and asked if he was listening to the radio. He was. The horror of that moment was implied in neither of us commenting on what was happening. Suddenly cut adrift from my everyday assumptions, I did what was familiar, so went on with what I knew how to do without thinking, my insides churning all the while. I never felt more cut off from the culture I lived in than I did contemplating that violent act in Dallas. Doubly sealed in my darkroom and in my own thoughts, bathed in red light, I got myself set to enter the new reality under the fluorescent lights beyond my lightproof darkroom door.

12. MIT Chapel. On a Wednesday afternoon in the spring of 1973, I drove my Humanities 3 class at Abbott Academy from Andover to Cambridge to see what we could discover in two hours exploring MIT. Starting on the steps of Building 10, we headed off in different directions to see what engagements we could have and sense we could make of a cultural institution devoted to science and engineering.

A chapel had been added to the campus since my days at the school, so I was curious about what sort of building could acknowledge the ineffabilities of faith in those stark surroundings. On the outside it resembled a red brick pillbox much smaller than I thought it would be. Without windows, which surprised me. Entrance was through a curved archway.

Passing into the interior, I left Cambridge, Mass., behind and entered another world. It was dark, almost black. I left my pupils to adjust at their own rate. Arcs of chairs spread across a circular floor. A larger space than I expected in a pillbox, almost infinite—like the darkness outdoors on a moonless night. Beautifully lit from above by a gentle shower of light descending from an off-center light tube onto a table below. Golden rectangles like leaves hung suspended in the glow as if falling through eternity. I was stunned by the aura of the place.

I sat and savored the ambience. Everything faded except for those golden leaves. I had not a thought in my head. Unlike the granite institution on the far side of Mass. Ave., here was no place for thought. Awe, comfort, and wonder were the currency in this space. Whatever I needed at that moment, there it was. Released inside, not outside of my body.

As my eyes adapted to the shadows, I sensed movement in front of me to the right of the table. I was not alone. A silent figure removing something from a case. Raising it up. Suddenly a burst of music. A violin. Bach. A solo sonata. The voice of that place on that day. Exactly what I needed to hear. What I had come for and didn’t know it. At MIT of all places.

I just sat, wholly open to the dark, the music, the falling golden leaves. I knew exactly where I was, who I was. I was meant for this experience. Nothing else mattered. There was nothing else.

After a time, the music stopped, the figure of a woman carrying a violin case passed up the aisle. Who could she be? Why had she begun playing in the dark after I sat down? But I already knew. She was kin. A fellow wayfarer. Making sense of her brief stay on Earth by doing what she had to do. As I had had to take my class on yet one last voyage of discovery before Abbott (oldest girls’ school in the U.S.) shut for good in a few weeks, to be swallowed by the boys’ school up the street, leaving me out of a job.

What these twelve cultural engagements share in common is that I remember them from the years between 1951 and 1973, each having made its mark on my mind and memory so that it is still available to me today in 2015. Available, I now believe, because of an element of surprise in that things turned out other than I had expected them to.

Each incident of engagement is based on a discrepancy between my expectancy on that occasion and what actually happened. The combination of discrepancy and surprise heightened the engagement itself, making it memorable, for either its positive or negative polarity in comparison to what I was ready for at the time.

These incidents are the stuff of my personal consciousness. The emotionally-charged high points between long hours of my flying on automatic pilot, between routine engagements leading up to the peak occasions marked by disparities such as these.

Why do I call myself a wayfarer? Because I love going beyond where I’ve been before. Exceeding my own expectations. For good or ill, trial-and-error is the name of my game. Taking the next step, and the step after that. Some would call it empiricism. Or experimentation. I call it being a wayfarer driven by heartfelt curiosity, and the conviction that wonders surely lie around the next bend in the trail.

Now, onward to the community level of engagement.

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I once spoke at a wedding, advising those assembled to lead an original life. I was addressing the happy couple, but spread the word more broadly. The couple had a child in short order, but she soon found out he was a druggie and of little use, so she divorced him. It is harder to be original when coupled with a demanding other than by yourself. Even so, it is never easy to deliberately and consciously live your own life.

 

In Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote: “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Which I wholeheartedly endorse. At first as well as last, your consciousness is your most valuable possession. Let others lead their lives while you tend to yours. They will be full of advice as to how you should go about it. Listen, but then trust your own judgment and inspiration. Yes, you will make mistakes, but the main thing to be sure of is they are your own mistakes so there’s no one else to blame. That way your learning will belong to you.

 

Which sounds like a retread of a moral tract worn smooth. But I intend it as a spur to creativity, not conformity. Our value to one another is in our originality, not our sameness. If we were composed of interchangeable parts, we would be robots and live interchangeable lives. But that’s not how it is. Each of us has something to add to the world. For proof, look to the blogosphere. All those voices in the wilderness, no two alike. Offering their wares, thoughts, opinions, feelings—whatever they care about. To dismiss them is to miss the point. They are trying to make it happen, whatever it is. Every blogger has his or her private agenda. Blogs are like sunspots: they erupt from the inside.

Which is why we are a mass of damp protoplasm run through with strands of sinew and muscle wrapped around a core of consciousness and unconsciousness. We are here to make things happen in our current situation, the circumstances that in practical terms make up our personal world. The world that counts for us because we are a part of it and it is a part of us.

In a world where others usually make things happen to us, how do we do that—make things happen inside-out? By using consciousness to our advantage. By pushing our mental worlds as far as they can go in framing our projects, whatever they may be. That is, laying the groundwork. Starting with the known and familiar of firsthand experience and heading toward the unknown and strange. Then letting go, trusting our mysterious unconscious to show us the way from there.

That is how I have written every blog in this series. I start with a small hunch or smattering of experience, and head out from there. I seldom know where I am going. There’s no outline, not even a goal. But I am heading somewhere for sure; it’s just I don’t yet realize my own destination. By jotting down keywords and phrases, then concentrating on filling in the gaps along the way, I get somewhere at least. Then I back off and let my other half take over—my unconscious mind. It already knows where I’m heading and helps me along, extending and completing what consciousness has been able to do on its own.

Consciousness and unconsciousness are flip sides of the same self. We are familiar with one; the other we don’t know, even though they are both flesh of the same flesh. The two work together, one in full view (on camera), the other in the shadows. You know this full-immersion approach is working once your project bubbles over into your dreams and dreamlike thoughts at 3:00 a.m. You’ve got to consciously prime the pump by throwing yourself into the project. Then let your unconscious carry you from there. One of life’s greatest discoveries is that it always will.

Before the Cuban missile crisis came to a head in October 1962, JFK carried on a secret, frank—and very unofficial—correspondence with Russian Premier Khrushchev, the two leaders comparing notes on their visions for what amounted to the future of the world. It was the mutual respect and understanding generated by this exchange that laid the groundwork of trust for the solution to the crisis when Russia removed its missiles from Cuba in exchange for removal of US missiles from Turkey. Without those backchannel letters that, once made public, outraged the military-industrial power structure so beloved of the CIA, the crisis likely would have festered into World War III and an exchange of nuclear missiles. (The full story is told in James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable, Orbis Books, 2008.)

Our conscious and unconscious minds work as a team, exchanging data and feedback by channels we are completely unaware of—until a full-blown solution is announced. When I wrote during my island retreat in 1986-1988, I would often come to a block, which I took as a hint to go for a hike. Walking on snowshoes through the woods, my attention kept pace with the rhythm of my legs, but I stayed clear of the blockage that send me out. Until, after forty-five minutes, I suddenly saw through the obstacle to the landscape beyond. I just had to give my unconscious mind time to sort through the problem and come up with the answer that lay just out of reach. Which it did, invariably.

Consciousness frames the problem; unconsciousness works it through. If I (my conscious self) does its part, my twin (covert self) will finish the job. That way, I somewhat control my own output. I make conscious suggestions based on experience and research; my silent twin rounds out the whole. Both are in the same loop; I’m the one who knows only half of what’s going on. My unconscious half knows the rest. It’s a great feeling to discover the full picture spreading before me. After my hike, I pick up where I left off as if there’d been no break at all.

You don’t have to hike to give your unconscious time to work. You can listen to music, dance, stretch—any nonstressful activity will do. You can even take a nap or go to sleep. Your unconscious twin will stay at the helm.

The key to living an original life is doing your part the best you can, then trusting your shadow self to carry on while you do something else. You’ve got to prepare, practice, rehearse, mull, write drafts, and so on. There is no way you can avoid doing your share of the work. And doing it again, and again. This is your life; your task is to live it. After a while, you will so internalize what your are striving for that your unconscious self—which is as original as you are—will pitch in and give you a hand.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is get out of the way. That is, forget what others are telling you and listen to what your mind and your body are trying to tell you. As Emerson put it in Self-Reliance: “Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

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