Thinking about ontology

There’s a tree outside of my bedroom window in my new Harlem apartment. I’m not quite sure what type of tree it is. Its leaves will change colors come fall (sometime soon, fingers crossed). I counted eighteen leaves on one offshoot; there are several offshoots on one branch. The leaves are a middling green, perhaps a Kelly green. The sun shines through the leaves, a mixture of sun and shadow. I like watching it sway in the wind. I love the tree. It just–is. It is itself. Perfectly.

This tree was once a seed that I could’ve balanced on the tip of my finger, probably before I was alive. Now it’s taller than my pre-war apartment building. How many residents have stared at it just like I have? My guess would be many, since Manhattanites are moving ceaselessly, in and out, up and down.

I can’t help thinking about if this tree caught fire. It would be horrible, obviously. And it would make me question–how is it possible? That something older than I am (not saying much), that has sprouted from the tiniest of seeds, that has grown as tall as a five-story building, could disappear just like “that,” into ash?

I’ve been living in New York a little over a year now after graduating college. Many things are going well: my relationship is growing every day into a better and better foundation that I couldn’t be more thankful for, I have two stable jobs that pay the rent, and I have a solid group of friends that make me smile. I am lucky.

This past year has also brought with it anxiety and growing pains. The city is a place of constant change. The country is in political turmoil. The world seems unsafe and disconnected. And here I am, barely knowing how to do my taxes. For being a self-proclaimed “writer,” I’ve barely written anything in over six months. I don’t really know anything, just inklings of something here or there. My future has often felt like an open void, like I’m constantly stepping off a cliff into the unknown.

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My bedroom window

Death, for most of my young life a far-off dream, has become more of a reality for me. People die young. By accident. Or on purpose. You never know when all your life will simply just… stop. And when it does, just like “that,” you cease to be. There’s no trace of you left besides a corpse or a pile of dust.

I’m not trying to be heavy-handed or pessimistic. I swear!

But I’m reminded of the words of one of my beloved writing and spiritual gurus, Madeleine L’Engle. In her book A Circle of Quiet, she talks about “ontology,” a word about the essence of things, the word about “being”–our “is-ness.” It’s a hard thing to grasp. But she uses the example of the burning bush from Exodus in the Bible: the burning bush was alive with flame but was not consumed, the bush was perfect, it was, it was exactly as a bush is meant to be.

That strikes me. Something could burn, but not die?

I think that the part of us that has to be burned away is something like the deadwood on the bush; it has to go, to be burned in the terrible fire of reality, until there is nothing left but our ontological selves; what we are meant to be.

Madeleine (we’re on a first name basis) likens our “prickliness, selfishness, jealousy, in-turnedness” to parts of us that are consumed in the “fire of reality”–they are not who we are, they do not define us.

All I feel lately is prickliness, jealousy, and in-turnedness. I feel like I have to figure out myself, what I want, and who I am right now, otherwise I will die unknown and lost. I have trouble letting myself have fun, laugh, be and exist in the moment. My mind is always two steps ahead. I don’t fathom or enjoy the present moment. What does my existence mean? If I burn, will there be anything left?

I tend to ask more questions than state answers. I know we’ve been told that time and time again–that the answers do not exist. Or at least we cannot understand them. And to that: I frown, I grimace, I cry. I don’t want my life to be meaningless.

However, and perhaps paradoxically, since I spend so much time worrying about having an “important” life and losing my self in abstract longings, I forget to go outside. Talk to people. Laugh. Be. Some of my coworkers probably think I’m a bit “off,” because I become so overwhelmed by my thoughts and feelings, that I lash out or act antithetical to my values and how I view myself.

I love the tree outside of my bedroom because it just is. It is a beautiful thing simply by its very nature. It takes up space. It soaks up sunlight. It exists, joyfully. It will one day perish, either by an ax, a strike of lightning, or some other freak accident. But it will still exist in my mind. I will have seen it and appreciated it for being what it was.

Perhaps I should take a leaf out of its book.

Transitions are weird (I suck at blogging)

Scene: Myself, standing on a precipice, looking off into the distance, waves crashing against the jagged rocks below, gusts of cold sea air blowing about my hair and clothes… On the horizon, a spec, I see it, just barely, it’s… White, LED, a computer screen? Ah yes. It’s a blog post, my blog post, from June 29… Saying how I’m not so good at blogging. Seeing as how it’s been a month and a half since my last entry, it still stands to be true.

It’s been a strange month and a half.

Bullet points:

  • I moved out of my apartment in Berea
  • I lived at home for 3 weeks
  • I moved into an apartment in Manhattan
  • My cousin, Jodi, passed away suddenly in a car crash
  • My grandmother was in the hospital, with fluid build-up around her heart
  • My father was involved in a car accident

Transitional periods are weird on their own merits. I’ve often felt like I’m floating, and just kind of waiting for something exciting to happen. This feeling heightened especially after I moved out of Berea, my home for the past four years, back to the place where I grew up (in which I haven’t spent more than a week in the past two years). Now that school is over, my life going forward is a blank slate. Exciting, I can fill it with anything I want! Frightening, because what if the colors run or they don’t stick at all and I end up with a blank, ugly, stained, moisture-ridden ripped canvas of a life? Josh, you’re being dramatic. (Also, too many metaphors).

Simply graduating has made me doubt the things I want to pursue and dedicate my time to. Now I have other things to worry about, such as how I’m going to pay my rent every month, how I’m going to pay for groceries, how I’m going to make a living in general while also tying in the artistic work I’ve cultivated during my undergraduate. The structure of school is gone, along with that attitude of “well, I guess I may as well try this or that while I’m here and I’m offered this opportunity.” The arts make more sense to me in a school setting than they do in the “real world.” Outside of school there seems like less of a “pay-off.” And I’m not saying that you should make art with the expectation of money, but when your primary concern becomes supporting yourself, it’s not always practical to dedicate time to something that won’t support you in return. Also, the idea of getting something because you’re “talented,” doesn’t necessarily translate to the real world either, because out here it’s all about who you know and the connections you have. Which seems kinda… un-artsy.

But then again, who am I to sermonize on this issue? I’m fresh off the boat of the undergrad waters. There’s no reason to be disenchanted yet. I don’t know if there’s ever a reason to be disenchanted, really. Right now I’m just trying to figure out my priorities, which is never an easy thing for me to do. But, I AM writing this blog, so that’s something. That’s a form of expression…

Throw on top of this transition period, all of the above bullet points.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to have avoided the topic of mortality, mostly. However, as my (large) family grows older, it’s bound to come up more and more. This past month and a half has been one event strung up next to another.

It began with Jodi’s sudden passing on July 24. I didn’t know Jodi very well, she was about 20 years older than me. But she was family. She had a wife and a child. She was a life coach, helping countless of people live their own truth and find happiness. The number of people who have come forward with loving and supportive stories about Jodi is astonishing–she touched many lives. Even if she did not know it, she was an influence and a role model to me, too. Her Ohio memorial was the day before I moved to New York and many tears were shed.

That next week or so after Jodi’s passing, my grandmother was submitted to the hospital. My mom’s mother is the matriarch of that side of our family; she had seven kids (my mom, aunt, and five uncles), who have all had kids, and whose kids have had kids. She is essentially the axis off of which the family rotates. Thankfully, grandma is safe and well. I visited her in the hospital and she was still crackin’ the jokes like she always did. She kept repeating to me “Josh, never get old,” with a wry smile. I’ll try, grandma. Grandma also told me to keep pursuing what I love, because that’s what really matters. She has always been a big fan of my acting and writing, and whenever I see her, her usual exclamation is “I just can’t believe how you remember all those lines!”

Three days before I moved to New York, my father was involved in an accident. He is safe, as well as the passenger in the other car, but my mother waking me up to that kind of news was stunning, and not in the good way. I woke up to the news about Jodi in the same manner, too. Starting your day with news like that is… disorienting, to say the least. It’s so sudden, and quick. Your mind is waking up while also trying to comprehend potentially life-changing information. I repeat: it’s been a strange month and a half. (Also: I was kind of glad to sell my car before moving to the city).

But, I did it, I moved (finally). For a while there I was scared it was never going to happen. But I’m here, and have been for a week, and hopefully will be here for a while. It’s a large city but it’s beginning to feel smaller and easier to understand (navigation-wise, at least). I’m on the job hunt, and have had a few bites here and there, so we shall see. I know I have support if I need it, and many friends to talk to. It’s all starting to feel real.

Transition period, please be over soon. You have not been fun.

Hopefully this scene with me on the precipice does not end badly.