Mind and Sky
“J said, You don’t believe in God? And I said,
No. I believe in this connection we all have
to nature, to each other, to the universe.
And she said, Yeah, God.”
—Ada Limón, from “What It Looks Like to Us and the Words We Use”
We keep having these hail-like snow squalls ride the wind in to remind us that winter takes a long time to let go in Montana, and it makes a good excuse to hole up for a few hours with a book and a fire. Sometimes my days get so busy I forget how much I love just sinking into a book, but I managed to for a couple hours on Sunday.
Later, while doing the dinner dishes after sunset, I watched the light fade slowly slowly slowly. Like watching early in the morning with no other distractions, and reminding yourself that the sky grows lighter, or darker, as the planet spins around that enormous ball of fire and gases millions of miles away. It takes a long time for the sun to come up, and for the light to fade after it’s gone down but I don’t always notice the lingering. A reminder of the sun’s size and energy, the sky cooling and ticking over as its engine removes its heat.
I had a meeting with someone this week, just a casual friendly conversation to talk about his mindfulness practices because he has an intense job and has been practicing Buddhism since he was sixteen. At the end of our hour I asked him, “What do you think a mind is?”
He said something like, “It’s our consciousness at any given moment in time.” An embodied consciousness, with the mind affecting the body and the body affecting the mind in turn. When the body dies, the mind does, too, but the consciousness remains in some kind of smaller, unrecognizable form. He gave an analogy of the embodied mind consciousness being more like the space between dice if you stacked them up rather than linked like a necklace.
What is a mind? I’m big on the mind-body connection, but maybe the mind is simply the body and consciousness together. Maybe the mind is what is both.
It was an Elly Griffiths mystery novel I got to get lost in on Sunday. I like Elly Griffiths because her series protagonist is a slightly overweight forty-something forensic archaeologist. I like the landscape, the coast of Norfolk, which I can see and feel, with its marsh and lonely seascape and disconnected otherworldliness and the regular references to ancient henges in liminal lands.
Coincidentally, since I’d just finished Rory Stewart’s The Marches, the book of Griffiths’ I was reading was also about Roman ruins and ancient British history. Questions of what it means to be British/English/Briton. And Celt/Pict/Welsh. How the land shapes those senses of self.
Are minds shaped by their landscapes, too? What does it mean when your mind can watch the light fade after the sun disappears, and feel the wonder of it? What does it mean when you can’t?
Some stuff to read or listen to:
The Atlantic has launched a series about American wilderness, starting with an essay by editor Ross Anderson. I think it might be one of the most important series the magazine has run in quite a while.
The Futures podcast is still turning out unexpectedly interesting interviews, this time on humanistic artificial intelligence with the designer of Siri, Tom Gruber. There were many insights in here and I kept pausing the podcast to think. “[AI] has the ability to control human beings at scale. Four billion human beings are part of a system, being controlled at scale, to get them to do what? Stay online.”
A lovely piece on Montana’s hard right turn in the last election cycle by Flea Journal editor Paul Kim: “Democrats have a deep, existential problem in rural areas, made worse by an archaic Senate and electoral college. If democracy is to survive in this country, it must survive in Montana. If democracy perishes, let it be known that it made its last stand here, in the great Rocky Mountains, where decent people fought tirelessly against long odds for something far greater than themselves. I do not wear the cloak (the burden?) of whiteness and yet I still believe in Montana.” (I really liked the essay, though I don’t know if Montana is democracy’s last stand, and definitely know that the decent people fighting are not tireless.)
I just finished the sci-fi novel In the Quick, by Kate Hope Day. I think it was good, though it wasn’t really for me. I had too many questions about the logistics of things, and something about the lack of quotation marks for dialogue made me feel like the voices were underwater and not coming through clearly. I didn’t mind the lack of quotation marks in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, but maybe it takes a specific kind of narration to pull that off. But then again, a lot of people have liked this book, so it’s less of a critique than just a “not for me.”
These questions of mind and consciousness are ones I've wrestled with all my life, I think, except they have become more poignant and at times desperate as I've raised a daughter with severe cognitive and physical disabilities -- a mind racked by seizures, non-verbal, completely dependent upon others for every need, yet a piercing eye gaze that seems to know everything. "What does she know," people ask me, I ask myself. I think, "She knows everything or she knows nothing."
Thanks for another wonderful column. I was esp intrigued with the link you sent on the hard right turn in MT, and esp 'wealth' being the big distinction. Interesting for sure, and I'm not sure it's the major or only thing - look at the number of Repubs who still believe the election was 'stolen' (last I read it was north of 60%!), and other interesting 'facts' they get from news sources. I don't really understand it, but I guess part of it is 'Soldier' mindset (Julia Graf's WONDERFUL new book!) and believing something regardless of other facts, etc. All very discouraging relative to our elective process.