Category Archives: Consciousness

Posts that address the issues raised when defining consciousness.

August Mornings

It’s August and I’m already starting to feel haunted.  While science may declare it nonsense, there’s a feeling in the air—particularly in the early morning—that tells us the seasons are changing.  While it may be different for everyone, for me it begins in the tip of my nose.  I can smell the change coming.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t have more hot days—a long string of them yet awaits—but the shift has begun.  Autumn is perhaps the season closest to the soul.  While I like all seasons for what they represent, fall has always put me in mind of melancholy rapture.  It’s a difficult concept to explain,  a kind of blissful evisceration.  A hitching of the breath in my lungs.  A sudden rush of joy followed by sadness.  The ease of summer living is ending.

Summer is the growth season when we look out and see the promise of provisions that will see us through long months of cold and chill.  The times we huddle down only to be blinded by the arctic beauty of the sun on a snow-covered day.  The indoors time.  Summer is when we can dash outside without a coat, giving no thought to whether we will be warm enough.  The scent of autumn is a slight chill.  It reminds me that while the crops have been growing, the monsters have too.  There’s a reason horror films are released in the fall.  I’m not the only one who knows they are coming.

Late summer is a liminal time.  While the calendar may tell us summer lasts until the autumnal equinox, traditional cultures marked time in a different way.  Equinoxes and solstices were closer to the middle of a season than its start.  Most years we begin to feel summer in May, or even April.  Winter cuts through November, and the thaw may begin as early as February.  When I step outside just after sunrise and breathe deeply, I can feel the monsters coming.  In a way I can’t explain, their lurking fills me with a frisson of anticipation.  Already the days are noticeably shorter.  Daylight itself seems to be fleeing before the ethereal chill that is still available in our rapidly warming world.  The seasons are all about feelings.  Emotions suffuse the changes of weather and human habits that accommodate to it.  There are shivers and then there are shivers that the creatures of autumn bring.  They’ve already begun to gather.

Temporary Id

Who am I, really?  I can’t help but ponder this whenever I apply for a new form of identification.  While at the Department of Motor Vehicles I observed a room full of strangers—if there’s a melting pot in the United States, it’s the DMV.  Outside those cloistered in the major cities, you must drive to survive in this country (or at least to thrive) and the ritual of waiting your turn by number at the DMV is part of it.  I glanced at my application while waiting.  I’ve held drivers’ licenses in at least four states, but I’ve lived in at least six—how do you count where you live, really?  I think I must’ve had an Illinois license at some point, but I could find no record of it.  Who am I?  Are the Illinois years lost?  Big brother will find out, no doubt.

To apply for a license in Pennsylvania, as in most states, you have to prove you are who you say you are.  Swapping in your old license just doesn’t work any more.  While the actual “who” depends on government-issue documents (social security, birth certificates, or passports) the where question is more financial.  To prove your residence you must present bills with your name and current address.  You’re defined by your money.  Bills demonstrate that you’re integrated into the system, the matrix.  I spent one day, as a temp with Manpower, working for Detroit Electric (no, I didn’t have a Michigan license; I kept the Massachusetts one), processing requests for new service.  Despite not being asked back because they had expected a woman (really!), I learned that to get service you had to prove you were part of this matrix, with a history of paying your bills.

None of these agencies ask the deeper, more philosophical questions of identity.  None seem to care that each day is a struggle to define our spiritual selves in a world hopelessly secular and financial.  Yes, my birth certificate “proves” I was born in Pennsylvania.  The DMV records “prove” I learned to drive here and had my first license in this state.  They show nothing of the real question of who I am.  A reasonable facsimile of my visage appears on the plastic card that certifies my citizenship within these artificial borders.  But now my home state stamps “Temporary” on the card so that a security check can be run.  They want to discover if I am who my records say I am.  What the powers that be don’t seem to recognize is that although where we are born influences us every day for the rest of our lives, no little plastic card, despite the amount of information it conveys, can say who it is I really am.  “Temporary” may be the truest word on it.

Animal Rains

We may have been to the moon—if not personally, collectively—but we still don’t control the weather down here.  It’s probably not news that the eastern part of the country has been getting a lot of rain lately.  One of the factors that led me to write Weathering the Psalms was the overwhelming tendency for humans to attribute weather to the divine.  It used to be that we couldn’t reach the sky, so placing deities there seemed a safe bet.  Now that we’ve shot through the thin membrane of atmosphere that swaddles our planet, we’ve discovered beyond a cold, dark space liberally sprinkled with stars and planets but mostly full of dark matter.  The deity we thought lived beyond the sky somehow wasn’t anywhere our probes flew and recorded.

Still, down here on the surface, we live with the realities of weather and still think of it in terms of punishment and pleasure.  When we don’t get enough rain, God is destroying us with drought.  Too much rain, and the Almighty is washing us away with flood.  The true variable in all of this is, obviously, human perception.  Sure, animals experience the weather too, and they sometimes look to be as disgusted as humans when it snows too early or too late, or when the rain just won’t stop.  I have to wonder if somewhere in their animals brains there’s the seed of an idea that the bird, or squirrel, or woodchuck in the sky is angry at them for some unspecified faunal sin.

While heading to the store yesterday, after weather reports assured us the rain was finally over for the day, the skies told a different story.  The vistas around here are never what they were in the midwest—or what they are in Big Sky country—but the approaching storm was pretty obvious.  An opaque drapery of precipitation was coming our way and although a rainbow would cheekily show up afterward, knowing that we’d been caught away from home with our windows open felt like punishment for something.  Perhaps the hubris of buying a house when all I really require is a corner in which to write.  Somewhere in my reptilian brain I translated a natural event into a supernatural one.  When we got home to discover the storm had gone north of us, it felt like redemption.  I spied the birds sheltering in shadows from the sun’s heat.  Were they thinking it was some kind of divine avian displeasure, and hoping for some rain to cool things off for a bit?  If so, was our religion correct, or was theirs?

False Memory

One of the reasons our recent loss of books hit me so hard is that each volume contains memories.  Among the more disturbing developments of memory studies in recent years is the fact that what we remember has a tendency to be unreliable.  In other words, our narratives about ourselves contains a good deal of fiction that we remember as fact.  Even if we write down our impressions shortly after an event, such scribbles are just that—impressions.  Lee Irby explores this dynamic in his novel Unreliable.  Now, since the narrator may be the most unreliable I’ve ever read, I don’t want to give away too much.  Irby knows what it’s like to be a professor (something that some of us share with him) and he has a good sense of Edgar Allan Poe.  It’s one of those books that touched on a number of things in my own life.  I think.

First of all, this was an impulse buy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York.  I soon discovered why they stocked it.  Edwin Stith, the narrator, teaches at a fictional college in Ithaca.  The story, however, is set in Richmond, Virginia, where Prof. Stith has gone for his mother’s second wedding.  With characters compellingly drawn, he meets his new step-family, runs into an old-girlfriend, and tries to both avoid and hook up with a student of his that he’s dating, more or less.  He claims from the start, however, that we shouldn’t believe him.  The largest part of the story takes place over one feverish day following a very late arrival in town, with plenty of Poe references sprinkled throughout the tale.

Apart from the Ithaca and former professor connections, the book also mentioned, rather spookily, meeting a girl from Slippery Rock University—a rather obscure school from my old neighborhood.  I had dated a Slippery Rock co-ed who’d proved about as unreliable as our narrator, so this single, brief reference managed to jump-start some of my own memories, reliable or not.  Our pasts, along with the books we read, make us who we are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of a scene I’d supposed I’d forgotten from a book I’ve read years ago.  Just the other day I recalled, completely out of of the blue, apropos of nothing, a scene from a Doc Savage novella I’d read as a tween.  Was it a reliable memory?  I have no way to judge, I guess.  And that’s the scary part, as I’m sure Poe would’ve agreed.

Final Leg

Travel is a form of education.  You won’t get college credit for it (unless some administrative footwork is involved), but it is a means of learning.  One of the things you pick up flying coast-to-coast is how exhausting a day on a jet can be.  Quite apart from jet lag itself, the weariness of occupying your minuscule allotted space in a pressurized cabin can be intense.  And like ocean travel by ship, you have to dock at a distance to use smaller and smaller forms of transportation to reach your destination until at last you walk inside.  This was the first year that such a trip ended by returning to a house rather than somebody else’s rental unit.  It’s an odd feeling.

Work starts again tomorrow, and since I’ve been pretty much unplugged for an entire week, I know chaos awaits.  I also have the task of learning what has happened in this off-kilter world for the last week.  And then I have to make an inventory of the books that were ruined in our own personal Noah event just days before our flight.  The changing of scenes feels rather like a jump-cut in a movie.  Suddenly you find yourself somewhere different, with circumstances that have their own set of parameters.  Vacation time, in a sense, is like a dream sequence.  None of the episodes from back home can reach your sleep-addled mind.  And then you wake up.  Bills are due.  The lawn wants cutting.  The unpacking must continue.

For all that, it feels as if something transcendent happened.  Like Elijah being whisked away in his own personal whirlwind, I was on a plane that took me to a different plane of existence.  A place where no matter what decisions were made the outcome would be pleasant.  Coming home involves what theologians like to call “metanoia,” a sense of transformation—memories that give you strength to carry on the quotidian tasks that make up the vast bulk of our lives.  Lakes in the mountains are all fine and good, but society demands its pound of flesh, and the way they get it is through productive employment.  Tomorrow it’s back to work, a chance to test just how successful the metanoia might’ve been.  This is the reason we traveled on a Saturday, for the sabbath should be a day of rest.  No one knows where that whirlwind set Elijah down, but it’s virtually certain that he had plenty to do once he got there.

Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.

Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.