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change, nostalgia, lightness
Aldous Huxley and D.H. Lawrence, 1928
All my friends are moving to the city. March disappears into April into May. I tell people that after a year spent mostly with S—mostly with my laptop and my bike, mostly reading with my screen brightness turned up too high under the comforter for hours because I can’t fall asleep and can’t stay asleep—I’ve forgotten how to make conversation. I’m nervous. I’m also grateful: I don’t like phone calls, I don’t like video chats, I prefer being in person. You can tell everything about someone from the quality of their silence.
Everyone says the summer will be wild and exuberant. What’s the word for this feeling? Newness, maybe. We’re allowed to make new friends, catch up with old friends, sit outside nursing a glass of wine as the dimming disc of sun disappears below the horizon. I know it’s too early to celebrate—Brazil and India, the vaccine pause, still enormous uncertainty. But I can feel the shift in the air here and the difference in how people are living.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how change unsettles me. How we can’t choose to pause at a particular moment and stretch it out a little longer. How it hurts to lose things, even if they’re replaced by something better. I still feel like I’m 21, sleeping on an air mattress in an overpriced room in the Mission. I still feel 18, standing on a roof holding cheap beer while the sky melts from cotton candy pink and blue to a faded orange. Wasn’t last March just a blink ago? Wasn’t it forever ago? Wasn’t I texting you about moving to Park City just yesterday? I don’t know how to brace myself against the flow of time. I’m being washed along a little too fast for my comfort.
Kundera: “The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.” Nostos, algos. The desire to return home. When the home no longer exists the desire still remains.
My favorite scene in The Recovering is the one in which Leslie Jamison describes a breakup with her boyfriend:
Once I was home, I noticed a dead leaf stuck to the wool of my leg warmers, from a walk I’d taken with Dave a few days earlier, and I turned to the trash can, ready to throw it away—then took it off carefully and put it in a drawer instead. There was something in Dave I’d never find in anyone else. I might get other things, things I couldn’t even imagine, but I would never get him. That felt unbearable.
The passage is a perfect articulation of how our attempts to replicate the past are inevitably corroded: we never get the same thing twice. Even so, we want to relive certain feelings and keep certain people. We make bargains, praying to return. Hoping it’ll feel the same way again.
Michael Singer writes that we suffer because certain experiences get caught inside us instead of passing through.
There’s a blockage, an event that got stuck. All the subsequent experiences are trying to pass through you, but something has happened inside that has left this past experience unfinished.
The Polish title of Flights by Olga Tokarczuck is also the name of a fictional sect of wanderers who believe that staying in motion is the only way to avoid the Antichrist. In it, she writes: Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves. She writes: whoever pauses will be petrified, whoever stops, pinned like an insect, his heart pieced by a wooden needle, his hands and feet drilled through and pinned into the threshold and the ceiling.
We don’t want to keep moving but we must. When I tell you that attachment hurts I mean that attachment makes me want to stay in the same metaphorical place forever—tethered always to you. But when we cling and resist change we fossilize. We’re caught in the past like flies in amber.
Island is Aldous Huxley’s utopian counterpart to Brave New World. It’s the story of a cynical journalist who washes up on an island where, as Huxley describes it, “science and technology would be used as though, like the Sabbath, they had been made for man, not (as at present and still more so in the Brave New World) as though man were to be adapted and enslaved to them. Religion would be the conscious and intelligent pursuit of man's Final End, the unitive knowledge of immanent Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahman.” In the book Susila has a conversation with Lakshmi about lightness:
It's dark because you're trying too hard," said Susila. "Dark because you want it to be light. Remember what you used to tell me when I was a little girl. 'Lightly, child, lightly. You've got to learn to do everything lightly. Think lightly, act lightly, feel lightly. Yes, feel lightly, even though you're feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.' I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig. Lightly, lightly—it was the best advice ever given me. Well, now I'm going to say the same thing to you, Lakshmi . . . Lightly, my darling, lightly. Even when it comes to dying. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic. No rhetoric, no tremolos, no self-conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Goethe or Little Nell. And, of course, no theology, no metaphysics. Just the fact of dying and the fact of the Clear Light. So throw away all your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That's why you must walk so lightly. Lightly, my darling. On tiptoes; and no luggage, not even a sponge bag. Completely unencumbered.”
To learn to feel lightly, even though you’re feeling deeply is the project of a lifetime. The fundamental lesson psychedelics teaches us is that there is absolutely nothing to hold onto. I know it—you know it too, my love. It still hurts to let go.