Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird

(a philosophical odd little post)

“Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”– Iris Murdoch

I was taking a bus back from Boston to New York today, watching the Connecticut landscape off I-95 go by through the window, and I caught sight of an apartment building with a window facing the highway. And I thought, Somebody lives in that apartment. I imagined that person—a man or a woman, not sure which—looking out the window at my bus as we shot by on our way to New York. And then he or she turned and looked back in the room, which I gave white-painted walls, beige wall-to-wall carpeting, a white-and-brass ceiling fan. I was conscious of imagining myself into this person’s head, looking out of his or her eyes, without choosing an identity other than the consciousness of being in someone else’s head; if I had looked in a mirror, I would have seen well-tanned skin, aviator-style glasses, short, curly, salt-and-pepper hair; or perhaps pale freckled skin, long, stringy auburn hair, a small nose and incongruously full lips. Either way, the me-in-this-imaginary-person’s head looked around for keys, turned off the lights, left and locked the apartment, and walked down the stairs to go outside to the parking lot, where a car was waiting. I imagined the view from this person’s eyes at every step, the fluorescent-lit hallway, the concrete steps down to the lot, the low chunk of the lock as it turned, the comforting support of the car seat.

And once this person was sitting in the car, I let him or her go and came back to myself in the bus. I didn’t know who that person really was, whoever lived in that apartment, but the act of imagining, of looking out through his or her imaginary eyes, had made that person exist for me. He or she had passions, tastes, a history, a personality, loved ones, ones they are loved by, responsibilities, hobbies, a mind that works according to a certain education and ideologies, feelings as strongly held and as complicated as my own. Whoever lived there was as real as I was; and that realization knocked me back, as it always does, whenever I allow it to intrude on my daily life.

Because it is so easy to go about my day thinking of all the random people around me as characters in a novel starring me, blips on the video-game screen of my life, and therefore as unimportant compared to me. But of course I am merely a blip on everyone else’s screen; and as I sat on the bus, I looked at the SUVs roaring along the highway next to us with drivers and passengers, then the people talking or sleeping or working all around me, and felt all those consciousnesses working away just as mine was, consumed with hopes and fears and dreams just like mine. I was reminded that everyone else is of as much worth and possibility to God or the universe as I am, and I find it profoundly humbling to sit and feel what that means every so often, my small place as one of the billions on this planet. And then to feel the empathy that grows out of that: for if everyone is like me, we are all uncertain, all damaged, all needful of kindness and mercy.

Not that I can sustain this feeling all the time: As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and I have to reassert my primacy in my universe in order to be able to function within it. But that meditative state has two useful applications for subjects often addressed on this blog. One, for fiction, I could create a character simply by turning those eyes inward toward the mind of the person I imagined in that apartment—to poke at that brain and see what secrets it held and who it revealed itself to be. Or to look out around the apartment, pick up the magazines and pick through the closets and open the medicine-cabinet door, and take all the clues those things offer as showing the soul that would choose them. The hard part is, of course, getting all those things on the page in an interesting way; but their creation starts with the pleasure of imagining and digging—of seeing this made-up person as real, and creating all the complications and contradictions that would support that.

And two, for politics, this reminded me why I am a liberal. I support the right of gays and lesbians to marry because their loves and romantic relationships are as real as my own; I support welfare and S-CHIP and Medicaid and Medicare because the pains of poverty and lack of health insurance and the hard choices those force are as real (or actually more real) as any pains I face, and the Republicans’ all-sainted market offers no empathy at all. And if I in my incredibly blessed and comfortable New York life have to pay a little bit more in taxes so that a single mother in Texas who works two minimum-wage jobs gets food stamps, and her child gets milk and orange juice and a doctor’s supervision—that’s not actually patriotic, pace Biden; that’s common human decency, and worth it.


I was in Boston for academic reasons of a sort: My friend Donna Freitas is a professor of religion at Boston University (and also the author of the excellent YA novel The Possibilities of Sainthood, in stores now), and because I knew she likes YA fiction that addresses religious questions, I gave her a galley of an upcoming novel I edited, Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork (due out March 2009). And she loved Marcelo so much that she put it on the syllabus of her Religion and Children’s Literature class at BU. Francisco (who lives in Boston) and I visited her class and enjoyed a terrific conversation about the book with Donna and her students.

The students delved deep into the religious questions the book raises, of course—actually about just these points, on the reality and suffering of others, and our responsibility towards them. And it was fascinating to go into these thematic questions with them, because as an editor I so often get caught up in the purely practical aspects of making a story work—not just making sure a character gets from point A to point B, but that the character’s motive for going to point B is sufficiently drawn, that the effects of this journey reverberate in the lives of the other characters as they should, that there aren’t any unnecessary words or repetitions in the sentences describing the journey. . . . Francisco and I talked a great deal about the larger philosophical points of the book in working on it—in fact, in our very first official editorial interaction, I asked him to write out what he wanted the book to be about and the larger questions he wanted to address, and he came back with a three-page essay that shaped all the work we did on it going forward. But the last six months or so have all been back on the practical level, so it was a pleasure to revisit that thematic level again, and of course a pleasure to discuss Marcelo with people who adore it as much as I do.


Finally, I strongly commend two things to you: One, this marvelous post by the Atlantic blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama’s grandparents, and the long history of people in our country who did the right thing when it came to race; and two, the BoltBus, which carried me to Boston and back again for less than $35 round-trip, and provided not just a clean bus and plenty of legroom but free Wi-Fi and a plug for my laptop. Bliss!


  1. I love this post.

    Thank you :)

  2. I had that thought and realization while sitting in Rome once, and it almost blew my mind.

  3. Hooray for MARCELO! If you haven't read it yet, read it NOW!!!

    It's the best book I've read all year, I think -- thoughtful, down-to-earth, lovely, tangy, heartbreaking, smart and vulgar (in parts -- to hilarious effect). And unlike anything you've probably read.

  4. Beautifully written! I wish there was more of this idea being talked about. That my reality is not everyone's reality. It really helps one care for another in much deeper ways.

    Thank you!

  5. I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi's blog and all the comments. Beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring, tear jerker, and must read are not adequate descriptive words for this posting. If you decide to read all the comments (and I do recommend it) - pack a lunch! There are tons of 'em!

  6. I've had a very similar experience in the half-real last miles of a marathon, when the race quiets and my mind quiets, and everything goes bright and clear and far away. When the road is lined with spectators and I lock eyes with some of them, the realization that each of them has dreams and disappointments, thoughts and depth of wonder on the same scale as me, is truly dizzying.

    Not to mention exhausting; I too can't imagine experiencing that richness all the time. But how lucky we are to be able to brush against it occasionally.

    Thanks for the inspirational post.

  7. This is a wonderful post. I was raised this way. It may seem odd, as my mother is an Obsessive Compulsive, but she always taught me to put myself in another person's "shoes."

    For some reason, my husband cannot do this, although he believes in all the things I believe in; as in the right to marry the person you love, and the right to equality in life. I feel sorry for him, as he is missing so much by not being able to see behind eyes other than his own.

  8. I loved this post!

    Can't wait to hear you in person at Prairie Writer's Day.

    Jim Danielson

  9. I love this post, also. Your parents raised you well.

  10. This post really touched me. I sent it to my boyfriend.

    Thank you for your beautiful thoughts, and words, and sharing them on your blog.


  11. I do that a lot, but because it happens so often, I usually don't get beyond, say, the person turning back to face his/her flat. The realization is crushing, and when you're sitting in a crowded Bombay train looking at people all around you, and you suddenly catch a glimpse of a person in a distant slum window, your head reels. You're giving shape to this person qand then they're gone in a flash. And you're back to looking at the faces of your co-passengers, and unconsciously forming stories about them. It's exhausting when you realize that you live in an over-populated country.

    Loved the post, btw. Salt-and-pepper hair; you have a way with words Cheryl, they listen to you.

    And well, Wi-Fi on a BUS? I'll stop at wow.

  12. This was in the NY Times this weekend. Charles Isherwood interviewing actor-director Simon McBurney.

    Here's the link, but this is the section I think is relevant to your post.

    "Watching Theater

    The only reality of the theater exists in the mind of the audience. That audience looks collectively at what is going on on the stage and collectively imagines that this is real. ... But what is more fundamental is the notion that when everybody laughs together or, last night, when I heard people around me collectively sobbing, at that moment we are bound together not by our bodies sitting in the theater but by a collective imagination. At that moment we understand the lie that what we think is only our own, that our internal lives are only our own. At that point our collective imaginations become one imagination and my internal life becomes the same as your internal life, which is what Aristotle understood when he analyzed tragedy. It’s a collective act in which we collectively understand something about being a community together. The moment we understand that, feel it, we feel a kind of responsibility in which we must collectively help and take responsibility for each other. That is part of the definition of our humanity and, if you like, if it’s not a contradiction in terms, our animal humanity. Of course, that is part of what “All My Sons” is about."

    You are my favorite blog-thinker.

  13. I love this post. I remember as a child (I was sitting in the car looking out at lawn-gnomes on someone's front yard) suddenly having the realization that I would never know what it was like to live as another person--and finding this realization unbearably sad. Maybe this is the reason I became such a compulsive reader and now writer, trying desperately, although it is impossible, to know from the inside what life is like for another person. On an only peripherally related note, Cheryl, I wanted to ask if you are now open to SQUIDS again. You had said you were closed "until October 1," but then later in that post you said: "until further notice." Is it OK to assume that since October 1 is passed you are now open again?

  14. What a lovely post. I must read MARCELO--fantastic cover, too!