On Relativity

1 October, 2010

3 days til 30

A man can’t know where he is on the earth except in relation to the moon or a star. Astronomy comes first; land maps follow because of it. Just the opposite of what you’d expect. If you think about it long enough, it will turn your brain inside-out. A here exists only in relation to a there, not the other way around. There’s this only because there’s that; if we don’t look up, we’ll never know what’s down. Think of it, boy. We find ourselves only by looking to what we’re not. You can’t put your feet on the ground until you’ve touched the sky.  (Moon Palace, Paul Auster)

I’ve spent the past week trying to figure out the appropriate angle for a blog entry about this past week; something in my signature-style of vague if underhanded life lesson that’s disguising some deeper inner turmoil.

In trying to deal with that turmoil, I’ve also spent the past week immersed in a book; perhaps not the most amazing book, but an engaging story with a fast-paced writing style that allows for complete distraction. For that, Paul Auster, I am eternally grateful.

So there’s all this stuff going on in my life right now, and I’ve chosen to include “turning 30” as part of that stuff, because it feels, for some reason, like something to tackle, something that, come Monday morning, I can check off. I have no trepidation about this milestone, I’m simply excited for the next chapter. Yet, in matters that have nothing to do with my age, the past seven days have been fraught with an anchorless emotional anxiety that’s brought many questions and yielded precious few answers (the only answer so far, in fact, has been: Yes, you will get through this).

When I came across the afore-quoted passage in the book, suddenly everything before me was brought into a sharper perspective. I could read each sentence a hundred times over and be equally touched by its accuracy and simplicity each time. My brain was, indeed, beginning to turn itself inside-out. And I found that while my emotional burden was hardly lifted, it was no longer isolated, it was in a context now that brought comfort, too.

Because if we continue the thinking that Mr. Auster began, wouldn’t it be true that there is only happiness because we’ve known sadness, and, inversely, only sadness because we’ve known happiness? As Joni said, “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone;” we only have people and things to miss because we’ve had people and things. Even Tennyson says so. From here, my brain continues: we can only grow from an experience if it’s been profound enough to mark us, profound enough for us to care. Which means that without experience, we do not grow, we do not change. We can own our scars because they are proof of our humanity, of our progression. And that is the most positive spin I could possibly hope to put on this week-of-shittiness, because it says, simply: It was all worth it.

In the larger picture, too, the quote is no less relevant. For as my 30th year rapidly approaches, I am trying (probably too hard) to take stock of who I am, where I am and what I want. These questions exist every day, of course, but on birthdays, I actually try to articulate answers for them. And what gets me about the book’s quote is that this Theory of Relativity (for that is what it is), applies not only to the world around me; Earth to Moon, here to there, but it applies to me to me. I am, now, relative to myself, then.  What Auster writes is true, it’s been the axiom for the past twenty years of my life: “We find ourselves only by looking to what we’re not.” “What we’re not” can certainly apply to how we define ourselves by reacting to others, but, as I’m only now truly starting to understand, it can also mean “what we are no longer.” We can define ourselves in the present by looking at who we were in the past. We are not only amalgamations of our experiences, but we are reshaped by them, parts of ourselves are discarded, or eaten away, or re-molded to reveal an entirely new form, one that bears resemblance to previous forms, but is wholly unique.

And, in looking at things this way, both my recent emotional hiccup and my larger “Who Am I?” issues are addressed: Experience must sometimes break us down so we can rebuild ourselves, strengthened for the next time. We remember what’s passed as emotional and functional: memories, already tinged with bittersweetness, are also lessons, sometimes cautionary tales, sometimes exemplary models. They become notes for our playbooks, what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve for next time. We can look back to last week, last month, ten years ago or twenty-seven years ago (which is about where my memory kicks in). We can even reinterpret previous interpretations of the past. When I was 20, I reacted to my teenage years very differently than I do now. I am shaped by those teenage years, but also by the shape of myself at 20. We are glorious monsters of pastiche.

Every day of the past informs the present. Because of that, we can walk confidently on the ground knowing that our fingers have grazed the sky. We have looked down, and thus can safely look upwards again, knowing what exists in both the depths and the heights of ourselves. We can heal ourselves; we know that the present hurts only because the past didn’t. We can look forward because we know what’s behind us. We are here because we have been there. We are now, because we have been then.

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