It was strawberry waffles that did it to me, the first time. On a sunny day in Seattle, only recently living on my own on Capitol Hill. It’s a busy place for people on sunny days with sidewalks crammed by the flow of bodies in all directions. And at that point in history, Capitol Hill had wildly diverse people. I was having breakfast with a book, near the large windows revealing the spectacle of an unremarkable day. The strawberries were fresh, sweet and juicy. Then suddenly, everything around me became like one enormously real thing, yet completely unreal. I stopped mid-bite terrified, yet somehow without fear, at all that I saw in the commonplace before my eyes and ears. The movement of people appeared like mathematics, and the sounds of everything mashed in upon my head like a deafening drone.
I made myself chew the strawberry and waffle in my mouth, and swallow. But nothing changed. I feared I might stand up raving like a lunatic. As a lunatic. I had to do something to find normality once again. I put money down on the table and left the little restaurant. The cars moved along the street as they always did. Throngs of people passed with hair and clothes, all so different, yet all the same. The building walls channeled all movement along straight grids. The gray sidewalk sat atop the earth under my feet while little decorative trees popped up, rising from little squares at perfect intervals along the way. The sounds were enormous. The light reflecting from the substantiative material of people and objects were caught by my eyes, and perceived, and I realized that I perceived. I didn’t know where I was going as I walked, and neither did they. I encountered two different people I knew who started speaking to me like a known equation, etched in what was and always will be. Both I told, I cannot speak now, and carried on.
Eventually I found myself sitting in a cafe with Ty, who I happened to see through a window. He was always very strange in a beautiful way. Immediately, without intimation, he asked me what was wrong. I told him that I suddenly felt crazy and described in a free flow of rambling impressions all that I was experiencing. He was grinning larger and larger until I finally asked, what’s wrong with you? And he laughed, asking me if everything seemed like it did, now. I thought about it, looking around and noticed that much had passed back down into the background. No, it’s not happening so much now, I answered him. And he told me, yes, it isn’t, but it is.
Artists are a different kind of people. Everyone has at least a bit of the artist within them. It is how we manage to see things differently than how we have always seen them. It is a wrecking ball and an erector set. It is a microscope and a macroscopic lens. It is fear and love, hate, passion and hope — or it is pain. It is a singular mirror showing what is there, or a group of mirrors aligned to reflect the infinite. It is an equation of physics and bowel movement of color. It is honesty, down to the core that we do not know — which transcends culture.
Late that evening I was with a small group of friends having dinner. I told them my story. The smartest among them informed me that I had experienced an anxiety attack. These were medically recognized and common. I could even take medication to stop them from happening again. After all, he did. I looked at him closely, examining every nuance I could find and asked, why would you want to stop something like that from ever happening? Yes, it was terrifying, but it was a life-altering experience, and honestly, still is. But I see paths now that were previously invisible, which I must take. Then it struck me — I realized that he was unable to take any new paths. Revelations without the will to change means that these revelations are dangerous and subversive and must be squelched. And at this same time I realized why art is attacked by more authoritarian mindsets.
A poet knows that a single word can be art. A word represents a conceptual object that we all share. We tie these objects together to construct ever more elaborate conceptual constructions that might reflect a “natural” perception of our experience, or might reflect a more artificial one, usually in the name of convenience. Sometimes we accept conceptual objects in a generalized sense without even knowing their meaning. For example, a man I recently met was telling me that he was growingly irritated by people who say they hate money. He reasoned that money is simply a measurement of the exchange between our efforts contributed to society, in exchange for what we need or want. As such, money is a measurement of what we do with our lives. Therefore, if we hate money, then we hate our lives. I’ll take this reasoning a tiny extra step forward, and say that for him, money equals life, or at least life is a subset of money. This was an extraordinarily reasonable man, and intelligent. Unfortunately, he is living in a state of error, caused grief as a result, yet he promotes that error to others.
Many things we believe, pursue and even promote, arise from conceptualizations we adhere to without fully questioning their validity beyond the sheer weight in numbers of the people similarly adhering. From our beginnings as children, open to any possibility and potential, we observe and make sense of our surroundings, from the most basic physical interactions to eventually the most complex abstractions. We rely upon those who know more than ourselves to determine oftentimes unknowable things for us. They do this because they are willing to do so, or feel a strong personal belief that doing so is beneficial in some way. These people have enormous power because they substantially define fundamental aspects of our lives. It is a power we give them. It is the reason art is often considered subversive to power.
Ideally, the conceptualizations of a society are intended to raise people’s lives and awareness to a level beyond our individuality so that we might all benefit from each other more than we could living entirely alone. The concept of money is one way to measure this. But it is also easily exploitable as an instrument of power over others. And it is exploited. At every possible turn. Since not everyone can be “winners”, this results in a sense of despair and futility for the vast majority of people who have seen beyond the promised land of monetary wealth for all. I have to wonder, might there not be another way to live? If despair, futility and the oppression of never having that promised dream were eliminated, what might we be left with? What might we contribute to each other, simply because we want to?
When the smart man told me my terrifying experience was simply an anxiety attack, he wrapped it up neatly within a conceptualization that boxed it into its proper place on a shelf within our current social structures. I was to leave it there, or be considered ill and needing drugs to maintain proper sensibilities. So, order is maintained, despite error. But to me, the revelation of error and even moreso the revelation of aspects beyond the current conceptualizations led me instead to revel in this experience that so unexpectedly brought me closer to my own humanity, and the precarious and precious humanity of so many other beings with whom I share this world.
In a sense, you might say that sweet strawberry brought on a long-running anxiety attack whose duration is now spanning nearly two decades. I recognize its effect and feel its force more acutely from time to time. Just as we all do. I have learned that it is nothing to fear. It only means that we are occasionally reminded that what we see and how we are living is not quite right. It only means that paths once invisible are now revealed, and perhaps we should take them, even though we may not know where they lead. This, more than tradition and rhetoric, is the fountainhead of hope — the first step in creating all new things. It is the wrecking ball, and the erector set. It is the soft wind that blew us forward, from behind. It is what we feel, and what we know. It is more than anyone can say. It is incredibly, not what we are, quite yet. But come on, you know…
Picture of mom with kind permission from Zane Mumford.
Strawberry from FreeDigitalPhotos.net