I have a final line of thought on “the territory” that’s a lot less tidy than what you’ve read so far. Everything else in this sequence is a distillation, an attempt to communicate large principles that I’ve brought into sharp focus over time. In this interlude, I’ll be doing something different.
Here, I’ll be sharing a thread of investigation that’s still very much open for me. I’m not entirely sure what it’s about, but I think it has something to do with what it feels like to lower the map.
If you’re so inclined, I invite you to approach this as a fellow naturalist/investigator/curious kitten. I invite you to puzzle with me over how you might tell when you’re heavily map-focused, and when you’re not. What does it feel like to lower the map, to have it knocked forcefully from your hands, or to suddenly encounter something that’s not mostly made of your own perceptions and interpretations? And how does that sort of thing happen?
It is very interesting to me that it’s possible for some things to feel especially real.
One morning in college, I was half-sleeping through a poetry lecture in a dim classroom, when I looked out the window and saw a tree branch covered in spider silk. The silk shimmered in the sunlight. Strands of it hung from the branch and wafted in the breeze, and as they moved, the sunlight seemed to drip down the strands in waves.
It caught me. I don’t remember anything about the lecture, but I’ll never forget the silk. Seeing it felt a lot like waking up from a dream. That tree seemed more real than anything in the classroom, and more real than anything else in my life from the previous month.
I’ve puzzled over this perception of “realness” off and on for years. I’ve collected a lot of reference experiences that are rich in this property, and I’ve tried to compare them to each other.
Here are a few quick examples:
- A person said, “I’ll be real with you,” and then began to say things that did in fact seem more “real”. My brain says they “stopped lying”, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
- Reciting the sentence “I have seen the smoke rising from the pipes of lonely men in shirtsleeves leaning out of windows” (and also much of the rest of “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock”)
- I was out for a walk in the early morning when I saw a patch of moss covered in dew.
- The main character Max in the Dave Eggers novel The Wild Things feels more real to me than any other character I've encountered in fiction.
- Once I was struggling with an essay, and had a feeling that I couldn’t stop saying “fake” things. So I decided to message a friend in text chat to tell him what I wanted to say in the essay. Talking directly to him, it was much easier for me to say “real” things instead.
- To’ak’s “Rain Harvest 2018” chocolate bar.
- (This one’s from my mom, a memory from when she was 6 or 7. She shared it when I asked whether some of her experiences seem more “real” than others.) “I was standing on a brick wall in my front yard with my arms held out and my face into the wind. That is all. The feel of the wind, the presence of it all around me.”
- A few moments when I decided to stop [something? ”trying for fake”?] and started “trying for real” instead.
My current best guess about what these experiences have in common is the absence of a strong map-focus, perhaps combined with engagement.
This is especially clear in the essay example. One of the hardest things for me about writing an essay that’s meant to be read by many other people is that I know many other people may read it. Indeed, one of the hardest things for me about writing a letter to a single other person is that I know another person may read it. It’s much harder than journaling.
In journaling, I say whatever I’m thinking, usually in whatever way it first occurs to me to do so. When I try to improve on the way that first occurred to me, I check alternatives against my sense of what seems right and good.
When I write to other people, though, I also check alternatives against my expectations about what their minds will do when they read it, what they’ll think I thought when I wrote it, and whether the world seems to them the way it seems to me. In other words, I’m less focused on whatever it is I’m trying to talk about, and more focused on maps (and maps of maps, and maps of maps of maps).
The more people there are, and the more I care about how they’ll respond to what I say, the deeper and more salient these layers of anticipated interpretation become. Sometimes I completely lose track of both “what I want to say” and “what seems right and good”.
And when I manage to get back on track—often by talking to one particular friend, or by “journaling” in another tab instead of “essaying”—it feels just like lowering the map. It feels like looking to the left and seeing an actual creek, looking ahead and seeing a hill that I could climb with my feet if I wanted. It feels like waking up from a dream.
I think all the other experiences on the list involve something that prompts a similar map-lowering motion.