(Copyright © 2009)

 

My posts frequently begin as a shimmering in my consciousness, a kind of beckoning glow or maybe low hum from one direction or another. I can’t call it a thought—more a proto- or incipient presence that might, if I stick with it, evolve into a thought. Language usually isn’t involved from the beginning, but emerges sooner or later. I feel a kind of yearning to pursue something. Yes, to be engaged in an activity leading I don’t know where but fascinating from the start. You see, I can barely express how ideas come to me. Something latent within me wants to get out. I am not the agent, merely the channel.

 

I don’t know how ideas originate any more than where words come from. It just happens in some indeterminate way. I don’t make it happen, it happens to me. First I am drawn or excited by something, I know not what. I get a sense of its latency, then get out of the way so it can emerge on its own.

 

OK, so what started this off? A foggy sense that the function of territory (or its monetary derivative) is to promote sexual activity, sending sperm cells rushing toward egg cells, sparking embryogenesis, the mixing of genes, birth, and the onrush of life. Reproduction, like consciousness, is always situated in a specific set of circumstances. In this case, within a given territory shared by a wide variety of life forms all using it to the same end—to glean enough calories derived from solar energy to perform the creation dance and so kindle a new generation.

 

I keep coming back to this same shimmering kernel of awareness. I can gaze at the woods, contemplate the stars, indulge in sexual yearning, or track my own consciousness—and I end up at the same intersection in my mind where all life comes together. As if all thoughts were one thought, all consciousness one consciousness, all actions one act. Attraction and procreation are integral to everything we do, connecting us to ourselves, one another, our place on Earth.

 

I see that life keeps creating the same situations over and over. There is method in its diversity because its end is always the one end. Boy-meets-girl is ever the same story: Let’s match gametes and see what comes of it. What happens is life. With us, the object is to give the smallest human cell (sperm) access to the largest human cell (egg) at an appropriate time in a supportive environment rich in the necessities of life—food, drink, shelter, and a big enough sample of the social order to stack the odds in life’s favor.

 

I remember my friend Jan coming to Boston from Hungary in the early 1950s and taking up with an Irish girl from what some considered the wrong side of town. “Wrong” in that by prevailing custom their gametes weren’t supposed to get within range of each other. But Jan did it, as Thomas Jefferson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and just about every other person you can name did it in his or her time. If gametes that are not supposed to meet didn’t meet, what would humanity do for recreation in a world without soap operas, novels, movies, or gossip? Where would advertisers place their ads? Clearly, the economy would collapse if boys and girls always behaved as they were supposed to. At some level we are aware there’s little future in just saying “no.” I’m not advocating teen sex so much as taking precautions against conception and sexually transmitted diseases. As a thought experiment, picture your day with the sexy parts (real, imagined, sublimated) left out. In a very real sense, sex is life.

 

Earlier, I approached this topic through my winter appreciation of cleavage (Reflection 50, posted January 16, 2009), asking myself: Now where does that come from? There I wrote:

 

Cleavage is a way station to babies. I don’t have a lust to go that far, but I do enjoy the way station. A little bell goes off in my head when there’s cleavage in the neighborhood. I don’t see it so much as just know it’s there. By a kind of sixth sense. Which is reassuring. Beyond admiration, nothing is expected of me, much less required. I go about my business, the cleavage bearers about theirs. It’s a great arrangement with no strings attached.

 

Sex is right up there with the urge to eat, drink, breathe, be active, and sleep—all necessary to life. Consciousness is ever on the lookout, our autonomic nervous systems do the rest. Judging by our reproductive success, the system really works. But, strangely, it is often hard to appreciate our individual involvement in the life system because of the almost subliminal level at which we become aware of it. If it came at us in bold words, colors, shapes—like stop, caution, or yield signs—it would be easier for us to take responsibility for the results—and maybe even manage ourselves better than we do.

 

It all starts with that little inside shimmer or shiver. Nothing is spelled out, we just know something’s on. So we make our play to see if we can’t facilitate things a bit. Since it takes two to tango, we have to make sure that the other is keeping with us by stirring his/her desire to our level—or that we’re rising to theirs. We each help create a situation that encourages the other to complement our actions through mutual fulfillment. Done right, it’s a great game. As Richard Grossinger writes in Embryogenesis: Species, Gender, and Identity (North Atlantic Books, 2000): “In searching together for their individual identities, [male and female] collaborate across their gap of tissues in fathomless, transpersonal acts” (page 516). Well before chromosomes are merged in the fertilized egg, minds are merged as if that union of souls were the real thing. Evolution grants us the illusion that we know what we’re doing, when very often we have only the faintest of clues.

 

So what is sex all about? Reproduction, certainly, with as much gratification as possible strewn along the way. I view gay and lesbian sex as ancillary to reproduction in freeing same-sex couples from responsibility for the follow-through of sex so they can see to other vital matters for which active reproducers have little time or energy. Reproduction entails caring not only for the zygote, but its potential for developing into a blastula, a gastrula, an embryo, a baby, a child, a youth, an adult, who will go on to play the next round of the game her own way. All starting with a shimmer in someone’s awareness. Some dim little spark of pre-consciousness with the potential for carrying genes and life forward.  

 

Where does that spark come from, that glint of desire? Evolution tends it as carefully as the Chinese did the Olympic Flame in 2008. Everyone knows it matters. Richard Grossinger says this:

 

We must finally accept, in light of the harsh reality of being born and dying, that what we are is a continuation of what the universe is, so all our wishes and fears could not be irrelevant to cosmic process; else how could they have occurred? Our wild hopes for rebirth, our dread of hell and extinction are part of the universe too.

          The journey is unknown; the path is unknown; what will happen is unknown; what it all means is unknown. This is our only solace in a fathomless, cryptic universe.

          The inevitability of death is the same as the inevitability of birth. The forces that brought us here, that acknowledge and cling to life, are the forces that will take us from here. If we shun and vilify our certain deaths, then we must in some way deny the fact of our life.

          We are in the hands of the gods anyway and, if they are not able captains, we were in trouble long before dying; we were in fact in trouble before being born (page 724).

 

Which guarantees full employment for our left-brain interpreters. As mere motes in the universe, we are incapable of knowing how the material universe translates into sexual desire. Are genes or chromosomes alive? No, they are mere molecules. Is DNA alive? No, a long strung-out molecule, but matter nonetheless. Are proteins alive, the products of DNA? Well, they contribute to living bodies, but in themselves do not reproduce, so, no, they are not alive.

 

But somewhere along there in cells equipped with mitochondria, ribosomes and nuclei, DNA enables reproduction, protein replacement and repair, intake of food, and removal of waste. According to an arcane formula, matter is brought to life. And the potential for consciousness and sexual reproduction come along with it.

 

Picture sperm cells racing toward egg cells as if fully conscious of what they were doing (all but one rushing to their deaths; the one that hits the mark getting its genes past Go onto the board for another round). Picture the one egg cell consciously hoping for Mr. Right to make it on time. What are we but gametes up on two legs, walking around looking to get laid? “Our” consciousness is gamete consciousness. Ultimately, territory provides the energy and opportunity for sperms and eggs to meet up, for fertility, nurturance, growth, consciousness, life. All right here on our home planet. Which start to finish, sponsors the whole project.

 

Our consciousness is Earth consciousness. The shimmer and hum that first grab our attention are sights and sounds of ancient seas inviting the first beings to make the leap from an assemblage of molecules to animate life. It makes no sense to think ourselves off the Earth; we are its creatures, born and bred to this place. The spark has been passed for over three billion years. We are Earthlings in every intimate detail. Beyond that, we can’t know enough to ask how we got here. We have no choice but to take care of the territory that takes care of us. Anything else is unthinkable.

 

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Reflection 51: Memories

January 19, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Ten years ago I bought a hair drier to get the moisture out of a headlight that had been nicked by flying gravel so I could seal it and get my car through its annual inspection. I have hardly used it since, never think of it, yet know exactly what shelf it’s on buried between the sheets and towels in my bathroom closet. What a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. I know the pedigree of that drier, why I bought it, what I did with it, where it is now—even though it doesn’t play even a bit part in my daily activities.

 

Too, I have a pencil sharpener screwed to the end of a bookshelf in my living room. An old one. Full of shavings from every pencil I’ve used for fifteen years. It’s in full view and I must walk by it twenty or thirty times a day—without seeing it. Until I want to sharpen a pencil. Then I know right where it is. Here, too, is a strange mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. In plain sight, yet unseen until need arises, when it materializes right where it was last time.

 

I seem to possess a utilitarian memory that files the function, location, and pertinent history of these items in such a way to be readily retrievable on cue. No emotion is involved; this type of memory is purely functional. It covers the books on my shelves, tools, kitchenware, linens, and other items of practical, if infrequent, use. I include the Leatherman Tool in its sheath on my belt in this category. I seldom see it, yet reach for it when it would be useful, and there it is, right where I expect it to be. What time is it? I look not to my wrist but to the watch hanging from its caribiner on my belt. I know where I bought it, why I bought it (I don’t like the feel of straps around my wrist), where I’ve gotten its batteries replaced, that sometimes the stem unseats itself, and so on. All that is retained in my utilitarian memory, as if I were conscious of it all the time, which I’m not. Until needed, I never think of my watch.

 

Paperwork is different. I generate lots of it every day, and unless I deliberately file it away where I can retrieve it, I have great difficulty knowing which pile or piles I should look in. I seem to have no memory for paperwork—where it is, why I wrote it, even what it’s about. The process of writing down what’s on my mind is everything; once done, it simply disappears from my consciousness as if it went up in smoke. That’s true even of my posts to this blog. If I didn’t make a list of them, I would have no memory of what I said. I may have a vague recollection of dealing with that topic sometime, somewhere, but that’s about it. My utilitarian memory doesn’t do paperwork.

 

Yet it is somewhere within me. I keep having the same thoughts I had twenty or forty years ago—as if they were wholly new discoveries. Or I come across something I wrote long ago and find it accurately expresses something I thought I hit upon yesterday. It’s lodged in my unconscious mind in amorphous form, but not neatly placed or categorized.

 

I have a fair memory for faces, but not necessarily the names that go with them. When I search for a name, I can often come up with it, but it may take me an hour or even a day. When the face is a bit fuzzy, I often have a sense of the person—where I met him or her, maybe their profession, family, where and why we were together, and so on. You know, Whatshisname, the mustache. Such vague memories are not in the same class as the fixture memories of my hair drier and pencil sharpener. They are easy come, easy go memories, more like paperwork.

 

My autobiographical memory is usually punctuated by strong feelings. Like the time I raised my hammer over the last roofing nail when I built my camp—and whammed it down directly on my thumb holding the nail. Pain, sadness, happiness, any feeling will cement a particular episode in memory as long as it crosses a minimal threshold. Many memories are categorized by the feelings that accompanied them. Excitement—being outdoors during an earthquake in Seattle, seeing a manta ray leap out of the gulf, finding fifteen dollars blowing across the lawn, picking up an ancient stone knife at the base of a cliff. Shocking loss—crying in the assembly before school was let out when FDR died, working in the darkroom while listening to the news that JFK had been shot, being furious when Jack Ruby shot Oswald, the phone call from my mother when my father died unexpectedly, that other phone call 27 years ago from the police on the morning they found my son’s body in the park.

 

These emotion-based memories are not buried very deep. They fairly leap to mind at slightest provocation, making the then accessible to the now as if no time had passed. Such memories have greater clout than mere pencil sharpeners or paperwork. They are very much part and parcel of who I am, key constituents of my ongoing consciousness.

 

I don’t know much about conceptual memory, except that words and ideas seem to emerge from nothingness when called upon. I think of concepts as being distilled from similar experiences, and of words serving as labels that index them, making general summaries of experience available when a particular situation calls them to mind. Where do words come from? I don’t know. We have all had the tip-of-the-tongue experience of knowing a word is there, but not being able to retrieve it. We may have the meaning, number of syllables, first letter, or rhyme (it sounds like . . .), but the word itself remains elusive.

 

When I write, words flow from inner space, and quickly disappear, making room for others that follow. It is the process that is important, not the words themselves. I mean the meaning-making process by which a yearning to say something is coupled to particular episodes of experience within compass of a conceptual field given voice in the vocabulary and phraseology of one language or another. I am aware in myself that the entire process is underwritten by kernels of meaning—what I mean to say—that are more fundamental than the words I actually use. I often sense the presence of such a kernel just before I express it in words, realizing that words are redundant because the one kernel anticipated them all. I don’t know how it works, but the language kernels serve as seeds from which words themselves bloom.

 

Lastly, I rely on a kind of situational sense or memory to hold these different pieces (and many others) together in coherent form to produce the running script of my consciousness, the narrative of my life. Situations have specific locations, casts of characters, furniture and props, relationships, and ongoing actions. They are not scripted beforehand; but develop according to the active relationships which bind them together in one place at one time. Consciousness is always situated, so that it follows only the most relevant details as they unfold in the mind. Those details take on meaning and relevance because of their placement within a particular situation. This happens, then this, then this. All making sense because of the flow of events in a particular place among a specific cast of characters.

 

Consciousness is a kind of theater, for an audience of one, who acts all the parts, and imbues unfolding events with personal significance. Inner life is nothing if not dramatic in nature. Playwrights simply transcribe it into the idiom of some outer world. Which is why we can find ourselves in Shakespeare. He deliberately wrote us into his plays. As all great artists are sure to include each of us in her works.

 

Neuroscientists worry about the so-called binding problem: about how the myriad shards of experience fit seamlessly together in the one vessel from which the stream of consciousness flows. My thought is that the unity of experience is made possible by the situational nature of consciousness. If it is a stream, it is a stream through a particular landscape at a certain time under specifiable conditions. Where one part of the brain (the amygdala) appears to activates emotional aspects of memory, another part (the hippocampus) provides a map of the relevant landscape, while consciousness itself keeps track of meaningful events as they transpire within that setting.

 

That is conjecture on my part. What we know is that different parts of the brain are involved in storing and activating different aspects of memory. And that whereas the amygdala is activated in emotional experience, the hippocampus is activated in relational experience. My hunch is that men and women rely on the situational-relational aspect of experience in different ways, so the same area of the brain (the hippocampus) creates a detailed map of human connections and relationships in the female mind, while in males that area may generate a more utilitarian map of objects (hair driers and pencil sharpeners) distributed in space. I base this notion on my long years of interacting with men and with women under a great variety of circumstances. As my partner sums it up: women relate, men report.

 

Here I am, duly reporting on consciousness as I experience it on the inside of my skull. As I do so, I realize that there is not a single degree of separation between me and my chosen object of study. I am my consciousness; my consciousness is who I am. Put differently, consciousness is all. I, as a separate entity, do not exist.

 

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