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April 18, 2020


Some years ago I wrote a story about a man who finds a tiny lizard-like creature living in a cut on his foot. The creature explains that it's there to help the man work through his demons, and that there will be pain involved. The man agrees but then immediately kills the creature and buries it in a matchbox in his backyard. Because better to do that than look honestly at oneself.

Two things made me think of that story this week. One is that I've been working through some demons of my own (more on that some other time, perhaps). The other is that I keep seeing a tiny gecko at my feet just after waking up most mornings. It's maybe half the width of a pencil at its thickest point, and the whole of it is no longer than my pinky, tail and all. I see it when I open the door to leave my bedroom and start my day. It's possible that it hangs out just outside the door, doing whatever lone little geckos might do in the night. But I've imagined a scenario where it rests in the little gap between the bottom of the door and the square blue floor tiles beneath it, perhaps to soak in some of the cool air from the air conditioner I run each night.

If you live in Thailand, you live with geckos. That's not unusual; they are everywhere (and in fact I just heard one chirping close by as I was typing this sentence). I've just never seen one this small, at least not that I can remember. And none of the many I've seen have ever brought to mind that story, which I'd written early one morning at a small table in a sterile apartment hung high over a sterile part of Chicago those five(?) years and some lifetimes ago. The inspiration at the time, as I recall it, was looking down at my feet and seeing a small cut on one of them that I hadn't seen before. Why a tiny being then emerged from it I do not know. But absent my knowledge was some deeper understanding and acceptance. That was just the story that had arrived that day. So I did my best to tell it, and I suppose it's no coincidence that I related very much to the man in it.

I'm claiming no great significance here. It's just something that struck me, an odd gift arrived recently but wrapped long ago in things familiar. I must admit, though, that I've begun to feel a strange kinship with the gecko. I want it to be there when I open the door. Because sometimes it's not. And this doesn't feel as good. I want it to like me. And I think it might. It never runs away. It just scurries a bit to the side, perhaps on-guard, perhaps with no memory of me or the previous day, or perhaps aware and respectful of me and my daily pilgrimage to coffee. I want it to know certain things, too. Things like, I don't want to harm or kill it. Things like, I'd even protect it if given the chance. Things like, I'm still working on it. I'm looking honestly in. All the way now. As deep as I can. I think that was the mistake I'd been making for so long before. I've almost always looked deep and often, but rarely all the way. And you have to go all the way. Glimpses won't do.

I work hard to think more rationally than I used to these days (sometimes to my own detriment), but I suppose imagined conversations with tiny four-legged reptiles remain one of my concessions. And I will have you know it's getting worse.

A friend suggested recently that I watch the series Dark. I started it a few weeks ago and paused it during one of the episodes to respond and tell her I was enjoying it, and to give myself an excuse to note and spend a few more moments with this question from it: "What if everything that came from the past were influenced by the future?" It would be an understatement to say that time and our relationship to it is very much a major theme in the series. But it's this particular question that I keep thinking about. There's something in the minor tilt in the phrasing that opens up certain channels in me, and I've been enjoying moving through them.

Maybe I'm just looking illusorily for warm shafts of light in the darkness of our current apocalypse, though. Because I've started entertaining ridiculous thoughts. Thoughts like, Maybe that little gecko sent now for the story I wrote then? Or maybe I did? And, in either case, what of it? And who or what from the future might be pulling us through this moment now? And to what end? Because being aware of the unlikely significance of things is not necessarily enough stop the mind from reaching for significance anyway. It's what we do. All of us. Every day. We try to name and define and arrange things that can't be named, defined or arranged. I'm doing it right now. And I think we are fated to keep doing it. And I don't think we should necessarily try to stop doing it. I just think we should also try to remember that it can't be done. Not totally. We are capable of so much, and incapable of so much, and our existence is, was and will always be beyond us.

Despite my more ambitious and reaching thoughts, the one I always end up back at, and the one I might even find the most raw beauty and significance of all in, is this: I am probably to some degree the same irrational and over-feeling fool I've always been, and that tiny gecko is probably just a tiny gecko, fond of the cool breeze that swings from up high in the early-morning darkness.

Brian Leli, April 2020

First Love

In all the world there has never been, there is not, and there will never be any such thing as time. There is only place. What people call time is only place after place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another.

Gerald Murnane, "First Love," Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane

Does Time Really Flow? New Clues Come From a Century-Old Approach to Math

Many physicists interpret quantum physics as telling us that the universe is indeterministic. “For Chrissakes, you have two uranium atoms: One of them decays after 500 years, and the other one decays after 1,000 years, and yet they’re completely identical in every way,” said Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. “In every meaningful sense, the universe is not deterministic.”
Still, other popular interpretations of quantum mechanics, including the many-worlds interpretation, manage to keep the classical, deterministic notion of time alive. These theories cast quantum events as playing out a predetermined reality. Many-worlds, for instance, says each quantum measurement splits the world into multiple branches that realize every possible outcome, all of which were set in advance.

By Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, April 2020

Being With What Is

I was on a meditation retreat once where a teacher told a story about a difficult time she had been through. And her teacher had come to visit her. And he said something very simple and profound in the midst of a particularly difficult moment for her. He placed his hand on her arm, and he said, "This is the way things are right now." He just spoke the simple truth, that we can't push reality away.

Annaka Harris, "Being With What Is: A Short Talk and Guided Meditation for Stressful Times," April 2020


Back in the blue chair in front of the green studio
another year has passed, or so they say, but calendars lie.
They’re a kind of cosmic business machine like
their cousin clocks but break down at inopportune times.
Fifty years ago I learned to jump off the calendar
but I kept getting drawn back on for reasons
of greed and my imperishable stupidity.
Of late I’ve escaped those fatal squares
with their razor-sharp numbers for longer and longer.
I had to become the moving water I already am,
falling back into the human shape in order
not to frighten my children, grandchildren, dogs and friends.
Our old cat doesn’t care. He laps the water where my face used to be.

Jim Harrison, "Calendars," In Search of Small Gods

Georgia, 1967

Vachtang Inashvili showed me his place of work: a great hall filled to the ceiling with barrels. The barrels lie on wooden horses, huge, heavy, still.
In the barrels cognac is maturing.
Not everyone knows how cognac comes into being. To make cognac, you need four things: wine, sun, oak, and time. And in addition to these, as in every art, you must have taste. The rest is as follows.
In the fall, after the vintage, a grape alcohol is made. This alcohol is poured into barrels. The barrels must be of oak. The entire secret of cognac is hidden in the rings of the oak tree. The oak grows and gathers sun into itself. The sun settles into the rings of the oak as amber settles at the bottom the sea. It is a long process, lasting decades. A barrel made from a young oak would not produce good cognac. The oak grows; its trunk begins to turn silver. The oak swells; its wood gathers strength, color, and fragrance. Not every oak will give good cognac. The best cognac is given by solitary oaks, which grow in quiet places, on dry ground. Such oaks have basked in the sun. There is as much sun in them as there is honey in a honeycomb. Wet ground is acidic, and then the oak will be too bitter. One senses that immediately in a cognac. A tree that was wounded when it was young will also not give a good cognac. In a wounded trunk the juices do not circulate properly, and the wood no longer has that taste.
Then the coopers make the barrels. Such a cooper has to know what he is doing. If he cuts the wood badly, it will not yield its aroma. It will yield color, but the aroma it will withhold. The oak is a lazy tree, and with cognac the oak must work. A cooper should have the touch of a violin maker. A good barrel can last one hundred years. And there are barrels that are two hundred years old and more. Not every barrel is a success. There are barrels without taste, and then others that give cognac like gold. After several years one knows which barrels are which.
Into the barrels one pours the grape alcohol. Five hundred, a thousand liters, it depends. One lays the barrel on a wooden horse and leaves it like that. One does not need to do anything more; one must wait. The right time will come for everything. The alcohol now enters the oak, and then the wood yields everything it has. It yields sun; it yields fragrance; it yields color. The wood squeezes the juices out of itself; it works.
That is why it needs calm.
There must be a cross breeze, because the wood breathes. And the air must be dry. Humidity will spoil the color, will give a heavy color, without light. Wine likes humidity, but cognac will not tolerate it. Cognac is more capricious. One gets the first cognac after three years. Three years, three stars. The starred cognacs are the youngest, of poorest quality. The best cognacs are those that have been given a name, without stars. Those are the cognacs that matured over ten, twenty, up to one hundred years. But in fact a cognac's age is even greater. One must add the age of the oak tree from which the barrel was made. At this time, oaks are being worked on that shot up during the French Revolution.
One can tell by the taste whether a cognac is young or old. A young cognac is sharp, fast, impulsive. Its taste will be sour, harsh. An old one, on the other hand, enters gently, softly. Only later does it begin to radiate. There is a lot of warmth in an old cognac, a lot of sun. It will go to one's head calmly, without hurry.
And it will do what it is supposed to do.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Imperium