Hey, Which Way Is Up?

November 24, 2016

M.C. Esher, Relativity.

M.C. Esher, Relativity.

Okay, I admit I am feeling the whole world is topsy-turvy at the moment, (or should I say topsy-Trumpy?). It is as though Albert Einstein applied for a professorship at M.I.T but Americans gave the job to Sherman Klump instead (The Nutty Professor played by Eddie Murphy). Overnight, common sense and decency have been  replaced with an Orwellian double-speak (Truth is lie, lie is truth). But is this sense of disorientation in the world really anything new? If we are honest, the promised world-view of mothers, of teachers, and of preachers has been challenged routinely since grade school. Hard work and talent don’t always get rewarded; cheaters do prosper; crime pays, sometimes in the billions; and if you are honest and kind chances are good that you will be duped and used dozens of times. So utterly brainwashed are we by a Pollyanna world-view that we spend a lifetime trying to reconcile the reality we daily experience versus “what should have happened.”

I am a firm believer, however, that there has to be something of value to learn from all those disappointments.

I have been thinking lately of the times I unexpectedly lost a job, or when my family was uprooted by a similar wave of misguided jingoism. Sure, it was devastating in the aftermath, with no clear path forward. There was anxiety aplenty over paying bills, and the world seemed scarier because the map with which I navigated through the world was no longer valid. With hindsight I can now see that each of those shakedowns was followed by a of period deep reflection, intense insight, and of charting a new path forward that was better than the one I had been following.

Just the other day in my life drawing session I was reminded of the mechanics of this in a very succinct way. I was feeling very pleased with myself over a portrait I had just completed of the class model. Then a seasoned artist suggested I take that drawing of which I was so so proud, and turn it upside down. When viewed topsy-turvy, to my astonishment, I discovered severals major flaws to which I had been blinded by the good parts. Of course I immediately corrected them and ended up with a better work than I had before. Other artists might view their paintings through a mirror with the same affect. Oh, we do fall in love with the progress we have made in life, don’t we? Problem is, in our smugness we tend to filter out the flaws. The shock of turning things topsy-turvy makes the familiar seem unfamiliar again and we are able to review our social and spiritual progress in a fresh light. It challenges us to work harder, it shakes off complacency.

It made me rethink the way I was feeling about what is happening presently in the world.

As I mature, the brutality of the world accumulates in my consciousness but it shocks me less and less. I wonder if perhaps the wisdom of age owes itself to the same topsy-turvy perspective. I once met a young woman named Maya in the cancer ward, she was barely thirty years of age and still had the gleam in her eyes that only the young possess. She had just been handed a fatal prognosis with the proverbial six-months- to- live. She was struggling to comes to grip with it all. She pleaded, “Does anyone ever make peace with dying?”

Well yes, many elderly people look forward to a graceful exit from a world in which they feel increasing disoriented. A lifetime of accumulated disappointment at the unfairness of the world has permanently torn asunder the map by which they navigated the world in their youth. Now they see life through the rear-view mirror, and the view makes the familiar seem unfamiliar again. The good bits of life no longer obscure the unfairness of the world. Seen in upside perspective, the world appears as the asylum it really is. They are ready to move on. Only the young and foolish want to live forever.


cruise 049Some time ago I found an ornate, black stick on the stairwell of my building. It looked like one half of a pair of Geisha hair sticks. I kept it, intending to give it to someone. Months later I have taken up calligraphy and now my desk is full of nibs, penholders, and inks. Searching through a drawer I came across that Geisha hair stick, gathering dust at the back. I immediately recognized it for it is–a pen holder. And I was looking to buy myself another one! It made me wonder: was it just a random find? Or was this a sign from the Universe that I was pursuing what I was meant to do?

In Asian cultures people tend to believe in omens, signs and portents. They take comfort in this secret language which hints at order behind the chaos of the world. “Nonsense,” said Todd, “there is nothing rational behind it.” Todd fancies himself as a scientist because he studied chemistry in college, even though he is a pen-pusher for a big national bank. “The world is chaos and everything happens randomly, including life.”

One of my writing mentors, Wayson Choy absolutely believes is paying attention to signs. It is how his illustrious writing career got started. He was in a writing workshop taught by Carol Shields where the students were asked to pick a random piece of paper from a hat. Each chit had the name of a flower and the assignment was to write a short story using their serendipitous  flower. Wayson’s chit said peony. He was at a loss for a story with peony as its theme. Later that day he visited his aunt for tea. She handed him a gift, a jade peony that had once belong to his mother. In that instant the idea struck him he should write about his upbringing as the child of indentured Chinese labourers in 1930s Vancouver. The short story, titled “The Jade Peony,” so impressed Carol Shields that she submitted it for the UBC Alumni Chronicles. It has since been anthologized a dozen times and it spawned a full-length novel, The Jade Peony which won the Trillium Award for best fiction. “Be alert for signs,” he advised me with a knowing grin.

I appreciate Wayson’s ability to link seemingly unconnected events, it informs much of his writing, yet I struggled with it. Did this mean that whenever obstacles clutter my path, I am to read them as signs that I was pursuing the wrong thing? The writing life is fraught with rejections, some of them entirely random. I know from experience at a literary magazine that submissions are sometimes rejected wholesale because the reader was not in a good mood, perhaps she was hungover or just wanted to be somewhere else. If I or Wayson or any other writer were to give up because of these obstacles, then there would be no more writers left in the world. Sometimes obstacles are meant to be overcome, they teach us to improve ourselves. I believe in facing challenges by developing new character skills. I worry that reading signs can sometimes be an excuse for defeatism and weakness.

Whatever the logic or illogic behind signs, these facts are indisputable:

1) The  world is experienced ONLY through the medium of the mind. Take away the mind (as in sleep) and there is no world.

2) If the medium is chaotic (like that drunk editor), the information processed through it will be a confusing mess.

3) If the medium is uncluttered, then the information processed through it will be orderly and sensible.

So perhaps Todd and his kind, who experience the world as chaotic, do so only because their minds are confused and chaotic? (Todd’s personal life is as messy as his apartment). Then perhaps persons like Wayson who see omens and signs everywhere, do so because their minds are beginning to de-clutter? Hence for them the world has some purpose and order?

Perhaps. I don’t it is always clear-cut which obstacles are worth fighting, and which are signs that it is better to give up before you punish yourself further. While I don’t have all the answers, I find a clear mind does helps to distinguish when to fight and when to admit defeat.

Of course the whole issue of signs and portents leads to big questions about destiny versus free will. If signs are real than does that mean I am a mere puppet of the gods? If all is preordained than do I have any choice at all? I’ll save that question for next week’s post. Who would have thought a simple pen holder could raise such huge questions?

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