A thought experiment courtesy of the Stoics. If you are tired of everything you possess, imagine that you have lost all these things.
– Jenny Offill,
I saw, as if for the first time, the great beauty of the things of this world: waterdrops in the woods around us plopped from leaf to ground; the stars were low, blue-white, tentative; the wind-scent bore traces of fire, dryweed, rivermuck; the tssking drybrush rattles swelled with a peaking breeze, as some distant cross-creek sleigh-nag tossed its neckbells.
– George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
To maintain existing conditions. To improve existing conditions. To regain once-existing conditions. Could not all human activity and effort on the individual level be reduced to these three categories? Such were Jeeter’s thoughts as he washed the few remaining dishes. A sense of possibility buoyed him. Anticipatory excitement. Of not knowing exactly what came next, but a faith that the odds were in his favor. That he would be improving existing conditions. The hot water felt good on his hands and as he scrubbed the grease from the pan he used to make breakfast he thought a little further about his insights into the human condition… If one lived in the present, the now, then there were only two—not three—essential human efforts: To maintain or improve existing conditions. He smirked at this. Yes, let’s leave the past in the past. Trying to regain once-existing conditions was no different than trying to improve existing conditions, no? Yes! And he placed the last utensil in the drying rack with a little touch of pride. He wiped down the counters, drew the blinds shut, and checked that all windows and doors were locked. It had been beyond generous of Marlene to let him use her place for the past week. He had been able to gather all his paintings from storage, a year or more’s worth of potential income—and not just enough to get by on, but enough of which to theoretically enjoy life. He left her key under the heavy potted tree as agreed and nearly skipped like a schoolgirl down to the parking lot where the small rental moving truck awaited.
Smoke filled the sky above the parking lot in dark billowing puffs like an angry storm cloud defying gravity, ever expanding as it gained in height. He did not see any flames, but the instant it took him to locate the source was frozen in time. His thoughts were like falling dominoes in slow motion: smoke –> fire –> truck –> my paintings! As he was sprinting across the lot, a fire truck roared around the corner. A full inhalation of smoke knocked him to his knees as violent coughs jerked his entire body. His eyes stung and tears flowed. At some point, he was vaguely aware of being dragged away by unseen hands. It was over in mere minutes. Or not. Jeeter was no longer fully there. A littler later, he heard phrases like: “Lucky no one was hurt.” “Could have been much worse if the gas tank had caught.” “Looks like it was started by a cigarette butt…”
This last one stuck in his mind. Had he flicked his cigarette inside the truck just as he was finishing up? Surely, he had stamped it out with his shoe. It was practically second nature. He thought he might have remembered a sharp distracting sound—the clang of a tire iron being dropped as a driver tried to change his own flat not far from the parking lot.
He sat in the stairwell uncertain what to do next. His shoulders were slumped. His eyes and chest still ached. It felt like the smoke in his head was still clearing. He couldn’t quite bring himself to smirk as the first thought emerged: To improve existing conditions.
As a child, I liked to lie on my back on the bed and hang my head off the edge so that my vision was parallel with the floor and the whole house was essentially upside down. Then I would begin to imagine the ceiling as the floor and what it would be like to walk through this upside down house (all furniture being affixed in its original position, or, at least, not subject to gravity’s pull). A tiny curb-like hurdle stood between all passageways. What was once a stairway became a safety ramp with its less smooth cousin following overhead. Foyers or other, odd open spaces would sometimes create little open-topped box holes in which to rest or hide. It was as if the whole structure were new and all its accoutrements mere decorative stalactites. The familiar flipped into a more austere modernity full of flat planes and emphasized angles and lines.
So simple a means to change one’s perspective and yet time erodes this skill. Devours it slowly and invisibly like termites eating a whole house. Until you’re stuck. Your vision is locked. Your reality is a solid, unchanging structure to which you may or may not be enamored. You can no longer walk on the ceiling. Forever, the floor has claimed you as its own. Permanence. An illusion that has become your reality.
Maybe you give into this. Maybe, instead, you awkwardly mount the bed, roll to your back… You hang your head off the edge wanting to recapture something you can’t quite remember. But the vertigo kicks in. Nausea. No longer dependent on your nose, your glasses slip off and clatter to the floor. You can’t breathe. It feels like you’re drowning. You’re either dieing or it’s a panic attack. You roll back over and gasp for air. Slowly, things right themselves. Your heart slows back to its normal steady beat. The vertigo recedes. Your throat relaxes.
If your hearing were better, you could hear the humming chorus of a trillion satiated termites.