Reflections: To Err Is Essential | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reflections: To Err Is Essential 

Obviously it was a messenger. I should have tested it, spoken to it, asked it for a lesson. Instead I squashed it.

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Whenever anyone used the word "funny" when I was little, my sisters and I would of course immediately ask, "Funny ha-ha or funny peculiar?" That distinction seems a bit artificial to me now: I think that to be funny ha-ha you must also be a bit funny peculiar, a bit off (maybe that's why when I'm leaving somewhere I say, "I'm off"). I'm a person who has always been funny (in both senses). As a child, like any child, I first made people laugh inadvertently, by making mistakes (growing alarmed, for example, after hearing some radio voice speculate about the possibility of red gorillas invading us). Then I realized that I could be consciously funny just by listening to the mistakes made in my mind, picking out the ones that struck me funny, then saying them out loud. Being funny became largely being aware of my own mistakes.

Dave Brubeck once said that he thought improvisation came originally from the musician hearing his own mistakes, then consciously repeating them, seeking out the nicer ones. Most of us don't like to admit our mistakes, so we teach ourselves not to notice them. But we all make mistakes every day, and in many ways these mistakes are our creativity, our improvisations off the standard theme, our uniqueness. Everyone is funny. (Freud of course suggested this, arguing that we are all by definition neurotic -- unless we are psychotic -- and that consciousness itself is a mistake leading inevitably to discontent.) We all do and think funny things every day, only most of the time we edit them out of our consciousness.

Of course, mistakes are usually to be regretted. One of the comforts of aging is to look back on the mistakes of our youth. Oddly, many young people today seem to be trying to avoid mistakes, working assiduously to avoid wasting their youth. This is no doubt a mistake on their parts. As one of the hippie generation, I have a wasted past to look back on almost as a matter of course. Indeed, one favorite metaphor for the euphoric state we sought was "wasted." To get really wasted seemed, for some odd reason, the appropriate thing to do.

I remember one such wasted day in the early 70s, when the spirit of the 60s had flowered but not yet wilted. Inspired by Carlos Castaneda, I had eaten several peyote buds. I was on the porch of my apartment, holding my less- than-one-year-old, Amy. For some reason I desperately wanted her to see a bird. I kept pointing them out to her, but she seemed not to notice them, so small, so far away. I turned to go in and as I got to the door, two birds suddenly swooped onto the porch, wings flapping, seemingly fighting. We turned around, staring at a blur of birds. Immediately I called to my wife and other daughter, Jenny. They came running, and, of course, as they ran onto the porch, the birds flew away. Only then did I realize this must have been Mescalito. Mescalito always appears when you eat peyote, Castaneda taught, but I, an amateur, had not been ready. Instead of speaking to the birds, asking for their teaching, I mistakenly (bourgeoisly!) had called to my family.

Much later, that night, I was tired but wired, lying in bed while my wife and kids slept. Unable to sleep myself, I started to reread Castaneda's A Separate Reality. I was reading very slowly, alternately thinking and spacing out. Ah, the brave new worlds open to the open and the daring. Suddenly, in the midst of my reverie, I noticed on the wall behind me, just above my shoulder, a large cockroach. In a flash, fueled by innate fear and hatred of insects, I slapped the book against the wall, squashing the cockroach into a vile, black mush.

After disposing of the body, and settling down with my book again, I began to regret. Doesn't Castaneda teach us to be open to Mescalito in whatever form he might appear? Didn't the Guardian (in the very chapter I had been reading) appear to Carlos as a gnat? And, I realized, this was the very first cockroach I had ever seen in my apartment. It had obviously been a messenger. I should at least have tested it, spoken to it, asked for a lesson. But instead, I acted like a fascist, with bigoted hatred of insects. After some minutes of self-recrimination, I went back to the book.

In a little while, there suddenly appeared on the wall above my shoulder another large cockroach. Without a moment's hesitation I slammed the book against the wall, squashing this second insect to death. Again I was filled with remorse. Had I squashed a guardian, or Mescalito himself? But now at least I knew that there was no hope for me to change, no point in any more spiritual cockroaches appearing to me again. Given the chance, I would make this same mistake eternally, would, like some dilettante spiritual Sisyphus, forever and ever squash any insect messengers.

Perhaps regret is my favorite contemplative mode. I love the fantasy that I learn from my mistakes -- that even if I don't always learn not to repeat the same mistake over and over, I learn, through regret, who I am. Our mistakes are what we are, are what defines our personalities. After a time I accepted my squashing of Mescalito as part of the definition of who I was -- married, a father of two, more an intellectual worrier than a spiritual warrior. And really, given my city life, it was more important to kill the first cockroach invaders to my apartment than to try to communicate with the other reality. So I learned, despite my spiritual inclinations, to accept and even be grateful for some of my obvious limitations.

Thus once, while visiting my family in New Jersey, I had a dream in which the Angel of Life appeared to me and revealed the three secrets of the Universe. Really. The Angel of Life clad in luminescent white told me the three secrets of the Universe! The dream stunned me awake. I meditated on the meaning of the three secrets, feeling their depth and profundity sear into my very being, and I wondered why I had been selected to be told. Finally, after what seemed like hours of thought, I was able to fall back asleep.

When I awoke in the morning, I had forgotten two of the Angel's secrets. Of course I regretted my foolishness in not writing down the three secrets (I had thought I could never forget them), but I eventually came to accept this mistake as, once more, an indication of who I am. Since the first secret was almost more than I could handle, it was probably for the best that I forgot two-thirds of the Angel's message.

The secret I remembered, as revealed by the Angel, was, "When the earth shatters, the atmosphere survives." The indecipherability only partially consoled me for my failure to remember the other two secrets (I was sure, of course, that they had made perfect sense). A few days after the dream, however, I made a mistake that revealed to me the meaning of the Angel's words, and almost cost me my life.

I was spending the day at the shore with my family. The ocean was very rough that day and no one had been able (or wanted) to swim beyond the point where the waves were breaking. I'm a fairly strong swimmer, so, leaving my brother behind, I battled the waves out into the deep. For a few minutes I floated free and alone. Then as the waves started breaking directly over me, I realized I had made a mistake in swimming out so far. I tried to swim in, but a strong undertow kept pulling me back out. Soon I was swallowing salt water, gasping for air, and getting very tired. Bobbing up between waves, I saw my brother on the shore and waved wildly, screaming above the surf, as loud as I could, "HEEELLLLP!" Our eyes met over the distance. I saw him lift his arm and wave hello. Here I was dying, and he thought I was just showing off.

Now I was in full panic, fighting, screaming, gagging, choking. But all my striving was useless. I moved no closer to the shore, and I knew I was drowning, that there was no hope. The waves seemed huge. A giant one washed over me and I screamed once more for help, but my body was no longer really fighting. As the wave washed over me, I heard a voice inside me, a part of my own self, say, very clearly, very calmly, "Oh, he's drowning now. I guess I'll be going." I was literally screaming in panic even as this voice within me was detached, calm, uncaring. Then another huge wave washed over and, having ceased struggling, I floated upon and within it toward the shore. I staggered to my feet, waded onto shore, trying to seem dignified, not wanting to admit what everyone could see immediately--that I had almost drowned.

Later that night I thought about this experience in terms of the Angel's message: "When the earth shatters, the atmosphere survives." As I was drowning, a part of me certainly thought that it was going to survive. Thus "when the earth shatters" would mean "when the body dies," and "the atmosphere survives" would mean "the spirit/soul lives on." So because I made the mistake of swimming out too far into a rough sea, I was able, perhaps, to decipher one of the secrets of the universe. But I could find very little consolation, somehow, in this voice that expected to survive after I had drowned. Here I was, about to die, and it calmly says, "Well, so long." I truly believed that if my immortal soul were about to perish, I'd be a little less detached, a little less like a rat leaving a sinking ship.

I was not on good terms with the spirit/soul part of me for some time after that. I'd tell myself that I only survived because my "soul" left me and I quit struggling (and so was washed to safety), but really I think it was the other way around: once I quit struggling and was ready to die, my soul decided it was time to cut out. I knew one was supposed to think kindly about one's immortal soul, but it surely hadn't seemed very concerned about me.

When I was a young man, there had been other times (like when I slipped on the waterfall) I had come close to dying, but this experience sort of woke me up. When the earth shatters, the atmosphere may survive, but I was still awfully fond of the earth, of life. One spiritual secret was more than enough for me. I was going to worry about number one for a while, and let my soul (number two) take care of itself.

A few months ago I had a dream that was, in fact, the genesis of this essay. I was in line with a bunch of other people to ask Carl Jung a question. Unfortunately, I never got my turn, but the woman directly in front of me did. She asked Jung, "When do you achieve your Self?" Jung answered, "When you're old and your face and eyes get a glittery twinkle and smile, and you look at everything as if it were a mistake."

To achieve your true self is to realize that everything is a mistake: every day is a mistake, civilization is a mistake, nature a beautiful mistake. To do something is a mistake; not to do anything is certainly a mistake. I remember hearing how the Navaho would always weave a mistake into their rugs. The commentators I read said this was so that they wouldn't be showing hubris, competing with the gods, but I think it was just a sign of their artfulness, their realism. There's always a mistake in everything, to make a perfect rug is just not the way things are. For me, part of Shakespeare's power is in his seeming mistakes, the parts of his plays that to scholars still (and no doubt to his contemporaries) don't quite make sense. Shakespeare didn't seem to bother with getting it perfect, with always getting the plot consistent and the language coherent: To eliminate mistakes is to eliminate life.

Gertrude Stein wrote: "The care with which the rain is wrong, and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain." It's all wrong, everything, beautifully and carefully wrong, and all these individual wrongnesses make up our incredible world of asparagus, fountains, dreams, justice, Gertrude Stein, music, etc.

Music is a good metaphor for our mistaken world. The beauty of music is not dependent on precisely following the perfect laws of acoustical physics. After all, any piano in the world is necessariily slightly out of tune, slightly off. If we are to have a circle of perfect fifths (C to G, G to D, D to A. etc), then the octaves will not match. So in order to have perfect octaves, our tempered scale has less than perfect fifths. and even more imperfect thirds. Hell, the earth's orbit around the sun is not a perfect circle, nor are the sun, the earth, and the moon perfect spheres. The earth in its beautiful spin wobbles just a bit. And as Wordsworth complained in a beautifully musical sonnet, "for everything, we are out of tune." Everything's off, and so am I.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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