Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter is Coming

    The wind blows hard, ruffling a loose piece of plastic on the other side of the balcony. I zip up my jacket, breathing in the bitterness of the night. I can still hear the faint roar of cars from the highway, but it seems muted by the cold. Everything is else is quiet. No loud music or shouts from below. No screeching tires or sirens wailing in the distance. Nothing but stillness and cold. The mug of coffee warms my fingers, and I sip it slowly, savouring the sweet tinge of hazelnut and cinnamon. It's been a month of inactivity and sameness, a month of grays and browns, all of which can mean only one thing: winter is coming.

     For a writer, gray is not a bad colour. It certainly beats blue or yellow or green, and it definitely beats black and white. Most writers live in gray, and prefer to work in it. That said, sometimes it's better not to have the colour of your thoughts mirrored in the world around you. During those times, it's hard to tell where one world ends and the other world begins. Not the "real world", because no such place exists, but the world we dwell in horizontally with others, the one where we exchange greeting cards and small talk and common cultural expressions. The one where we can or must find a reason for everything, and the one that many people claim to be "true" or more "true" than the others. As worlds go, it's definitely important, primarily because of the relationships we establish that give us our identity there. Unfortunately, too often it is the only world in which we spend time, the only one that we designate as important.

The question here, you understand, is not about Religion. Our temptation towards the Horizontal world is true of those who are both religious and those who aren't. This past month for example, I've engaged in discussions with many Christians who only spend time in the Horizontal world, and aside from perhaps a few moments of prayer, ignore the rest. The two groups are the same in that we both build our identity in the place our culture treasures above all else. Both sides may argue what separates them from the other at length, but in the worlds where silence reigns and the hum of culture drifts into the distance, the differences fall away. That the two groups disagree and argue the merits for their various constructs in the Horizontal world means nothing apart from our mutual fixation on building our portfolios of distinction. And when we do that, when we argue and march and yell and sigh at each other, as I've done here and on Twitter too many times to count, it means that we're in danger of losing our identity in the other worlds at the expense of this one. It is a warning, and one that most of us insist on ignoring, myself included. We don't want to acknowledge the other worlds. We don't want to hear from them or see them or even tacitly admit that they exist. Because when we do, we have an idea what will happen. Something deep inside tells us that the time we spent in the horizontal realm, the realm of the senses and relationships and activity, will have been largely wasted. Understandably, that is a pain we are hesitant to face. Throughout history however, there have always been those who have sought ways to address this idea of living in different worlds.

    In the 4th and 5th Century, there was a group of people who decided that the horizontal world was too shallow, that they needed to get away from the immoral culture to find God. Some of this was steeped in Greek Platonism, the idea that anything mortal was evil. That only the spiritual was pure. And so they did things, like moving into the desert, or in the case of one man, chose to live on top of a giant stone column. When I first started reading about these Aesthetics, I laughed and shook my head. Loons, I thought. All of them. These days I'm not so sure. What would happen if we could see all of the worlds in all of their complexity? What if we could see the complete narrative behind our own actions, or the realm of the spirit, or the realm of those who died? What if we could witness our actions from the perspective of somebody else fully and truly? Perhaps these people were merely running away from their responsibilities, or perhaps they were simply crazy, but who are we to judge, when we do the same thing, albeit in a different world?

    The truth is that over the course of our life, we will live many lifetimes. Most of us will switch jobs and friends and partners and locations, and for those of us who do not, our horizontal world will still change as we experience new things and grow older. And in a culture that prizes change and speed above all else, it necessitates that we spend as much time as we can there, if only to keep tabs on the construction of our identity. As a result, the vitriol and vehemence we find in politics and talk shows and blogs such as this one can sometimes get out of control. It's hard to step back when that step will only take you to the same spot you were a moment ago.

    And yet, even in a culture where Rationalism and Logic rule uncontested gods to the religious and non-religious alike, where Distinction and Uniqueness service us with knowing smiles, there are moments when the other worlds crash through the barriers of time and senses. They are dreams we cannot explain but yet haunt us. They are times of inexplicable kindness and felt love, when the look on our loved one's face or the happy gurgling of a baby make us swallow with an undefined sense of wonder. They are times when we are death's only witness, and as such, are filled with the undeniable sense that there are many things we will never understand. These moments are both comforting and discomfiting. Comforting in the sense that we can revel in the possibilities that exist, discomfiting because we don't fully understand what those possibilities entail. And so, we avoid these worlds, we avoid the pain, and we march back to the altars of Logic and Rationalism, content to build our identity in their shadow. In the haste and hustle of our world of choice, we do not realize what we're doing, and by the time we figure it out, by the time we work up the courage to spend time in the other worlds, it's too late. Twilight has faded, and winter has arrived.

    My fingers are white from the cold despite the fading warmth of my coffee. I put the mug down and rub my hands together before slipping them into my pockets. I have more than a few regrets in my life, but times like these, times of prayer and silence and exploration, have never made the list. They are all too rare, even for someone who spends most of his work days behind the quiet tapping of the keyboard. For as much as I like to dwell on possibilities and God and faith, I still prefer the horizontal world. I still prefer the world I see and hear most easily, the one where I can tell you what I know and why I know it, the one where I can disagree with you and still know that everything is as it should be. It's the other worlds I fear. The ones where Logic and Rationalism do not rule, the ones where Existence itself is questioned, where Purpose reveals its true self, and where Story is much more than a book. Those are the worlds I try to avoid. And yet, I know I do it at my own peril. Especially now. My dreams have been strange lately, my times with Bethany filled with a euphoric melancholy that I do not understand, and my writing has become steeped in black and white, the colours of Anger and Distinction. And so tonight at least, I'll brave the cold. It's time to visit the other worlds for a while. Winter is coming.

    -Steve