Indistinct shapes in almost total darkness. That’s what I saw last night as I watched episode number two of the second season of Ozark. One of the main characters, Wendy, was driving a car with another character, Buddy, as a passenger. They appeared to be on a highway. Wendy asked Buddy questions. He responded. The scene annoyed me because I could not see the characters well enough to make out any facial expressions. Just voices in the dark. Indistinct shapes. Their voices were not sufficiently clear, either. Indistinct shapes and indistinct voices. A winning combination.
As I sat there, watching and listening, it occurred to me that the writers and directors might have conspired to irritate the audience, just for fun. “Let’s make them strain to see and hear the action, but let’s make sure their efforts are to no avail.” I wonder whether my television is equipped with a camera that records my reactions and pipes the information to the originators of television programming? That’s probably it. I’m a subject in an experiment designed for the entertainment of bored television production staff. They push my buttons to see how I will react. When I perform as they expect I will, they double over in laughter, thrilled at my Pavlovian responses to their deviant stimuli.
Despite my low-level fury at the offending scene, I am impressed with and enjoy Ozark. The writing is good, the acting is generally first-rate, and the story lines interest me and keep me engaged. I may have said all of this before. If so, forgive me the tendency toward repetition that comes with human ripening.
If your life is equipped with Alexa, I suggest you ask her to define the word “stem.” She will offer a few definitions of the word as a noun and another one or two as a verb (I don’t recall the precise numbers). Then, she will mention that there are 31 more definitions and will ask if the listener wishes to have her speak them. When this experience occurred with Alexa this morning, I asked her to continue. She began speaking, but after a few more definitions, I said, “Alexa, stop.” And she did.
The reason I asked Alexa to define stem was that I was suddenly and inexplicably intrigued that I could see a stem on a blueberry and could hope we will find a way to stem the tide of COVID-19. Stem is such a short and simple little word, but its applications as noun and verb are so utterly different.
It is interesting to me that the word, stem, seems so simple but is, in fact, a remarkably complex combination of ideas that vary markedly depending on context. And the stem of a plant may look very simple, but beneath a relatively smooth exterior exists an incredibly sophisticated and intricate system that allows for the bidirectional flow of nutrients and products of photosynthesis.
Beneath the surface of each of us, labyrinthine webs of complexity hide from view; our eyes and our faces and our mouths offer glimpses, but they cannot expose the convoluted obscure framework within. Just like the bark of a tree obscures layer upon layer of experience that appear as rings when felled by a saw.
Several years ago, I bought a book entitled When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, written by Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist monk. Chödrön says many things that give me reason to pause and think. This quotation, which I used in a post more than a year ago when I wrote about her, is one of them:
When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is the time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself… In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things.
Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.
Wise words. Is there any place to hide from oneself? She answers the question.
What makes maitri [the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness toward oneself] such a different approach is that we are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart. This starts with realizing that whatever occurs is neither the beginning nor the end. It is just the same kind of normal human experience that’s been happening to everyday people from the beginning of time. Thoughts, emotions, moods, and memories come and they go, and basic nowness is always here.
I must still own the book; I quoted from it in the post I mentioned, so it must be here, hidden among all the other books. I will find it.
I wondered whether minds tend to wander more extensively, with more elaborate, winding bends, as they get older. You know, like a river. So I asked Father Google. His partner, Mother Google, answered by saying a “…river erodes soil from the outer curve and deposits on the inner curve. This causes the meanders to grow larger and larger over time. The bend gets more and more pronounced with time. The slower side of the river will continue to get slower and the faster side gets faster.”
I decided that response was a parable. The challenge, now, is to figure out how it applies to the aging human brain. I think I’m getting there.