Thoughts On Meaning, And Mountains, And Jelly Beans
It's Easter Sunday. I don't believe in God, and my family is scattered all over the UK so I don't really have a familial sense of "home" as applicable to a specific place I yearn to return to for bank holidays, except the one that applies to my own bed and my houseplants. Therefore, I am neither observing any religious rituals today, nor using the holiday as an excuse for a family get-together. Two of my housemates are off back home visiting their families, and the third is at Caledonia Road Flower Market with her boyfriend, so I am spending my Easter Sunday listening to King Crimson and eating soup and hiding from the sun because I am trying to recover from a very bad sunburn (one particular patch of skin on my chest has bubbled and warped and now resembles reptile skin, which I'm a bit worried about), and turning over some thoughts that have occurred to me over the last few days. The reason I have this bad sunburn is because I just got back from Morocco, where I climbed the tallest mountain in North Africa (the third-tallest in Africa as a whole, after Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya), and it's caused a flurry of thoughts I wanted to get down in words. Oddly enough, these thoughts begin and end with jelly beans.
I love jelly beans. I have always loved jelly beans, and at some point in my life I started to notice that I loved jelly beans, and it became something I knew about myself. The longer it went on being something I knew about myself, the more certain I became that the sheer fact that I love jelly beans meant something. Perhaps not on a cosmic level, but to myself, certainly. Every time I bought jelly beans, I was in some way reinforcing my own private narrative. It was a part of the story I told myself that represented my life and what it meant. The same goes for Sports Mix and Londis. I have always been enormously fond of a Londis, and was delighted to move in round the corner from one seven years ago. This Londis do big bags of Sports Mix for £1, and it would become one of my favourite go-to snacks to get in when we were doing a movie night or something, to the extent that, again, when I went and bought a bag of Sports Mix from Londis, I wasn't just buying some sweets I liked from the nearest shop, I was in some small way enacting a moment in a story that contained some sort of meaning only I could see, because it could never mean anything to anybody else. I have always struggled to put my finger on meaning - the moments in my life that feel like they mean something usually sneak up on me. Meaning will appear at the edge of my peripheral vision, and I'll turn my head and try to look at it, and it will disappear, and the moment will be revealed for what it is - a moment, nothing more. A moment that preceded another moment and followed on from yet another. Trying to crystallise why some things mean something, and why some things are important, is like trying to close your hand around smoke (I keep saying that about more or less everything at the moment. Again, if you cling to one phrase or one brand of sweets for long enough, then it becomes another part of your own private narrative and it helps you make sense of things. I guess that's what mantras are??). I always liked the idea of attaching meaning to things that couldn't possibly mean anything to anybody else, because I thought that made just as much sense as attaching meaning to a particular relationship, or a particular moment, or a particular place. All our inner lives are invisible, ultimately.
Last year I went through a bad time (I know, I know, I've banged on about it plenty already). One of the first moments where it became clear to me just how bad things were was when I was talking to a flatmate in our kitchen, and she asked me how my day had been. I mumbled that it had been ok. She said, off-handedly, "Did you go to Londis to buy a bag of Sports Mix?" and I immediately broke down crying. I couldn't bear the realisation that the things that felt so important in my head looked so small and trivial from the outside. I couldn't bear how far apart the inside of my head was from the outside. A couple of months later, on my birthday, I had dinner with my housemates. In the intervening time, things had got worse and worse and I had put a lot of my hurt and trouble onto them as though they were responsible for helping me fix it. I had caused damage, and I was trying to get better and repair it. One of the presents they bought me was a big tub of jelly beans, and I couldn't begin to express how much that meant to me. I felt like, even in the midst of all the confusion I'd been through, and all the hurt I'd caused, there were still some things in my head that were visible to other people. That other people could see meant something.
Last week, when I was in Morocco, my friend who I travelled with asked me whether I move primarily on the axis of happiness to sadness, or of peace to anxiety. I ultimately settled for peace-anxiety - I rarely feel ecstatically happy and, while I do get sad, most of my sadness is prompted by worry more than anything else. She asked me when the last time was that I felt ecstatically happy and I'm not going to go into detail about what it was because it involves somebody else and I fundamentally disagree with the principle that, in telling your own story, you become entitled to tell the stories of other people as well. But suffice to say, the realisation I made was that the cause for all the happiest moments in my life are the moments when the inside of my head becomes congruent with the outside. When what I thought was happening, or hoped was happening, is revealed to actually be what was happening. And all my greatest sadnesses come from an acute awareness of the distance between the two.
When I was climbing the mountain, just after dawn last week, about halfway up we paused and looked over at the opposite peak, and as we watched it the sun's light started to creep down the tops of the mountains.
I'd never seen anything like it. When we got to the top, it looked like this:
And I pretty much lost control of myself and went apeshit. Here's the thing - in both those instances, I was acutely aware of the presence of Meaning. Not as something flickering in the corner of my eyes that vanished when I looked at it, but as something that was very present. It was impossible to deny that being in that place, at that time, mattered and was important. And I spent all the time that I was on that ledge trying to work out why. I broke it down into four possible options:
1. The top of the mountain felt like it meant something because it did mean something, objectively. It contained something within it that communicated itself as Meaning, and I guess you can call that thing God, or spirit, or art, or love, or whatever you want to call it. The thing that exists that can't be called anything, and starts to mean less and less the more you try to name it.
2. The top of the mountain felt like it meant something purely because it looked very beautiful. It was an object, and it was a place, and it looked really great, so it felt like it meant something.
3. Being on top of the mountain felt like it meant something because human beings have spent thousands of years investing that sort of place and that sort of experience with meaning, and you can feel the weight of all that meaning and all that storytelling and all that mythmaking and all those ideas there when you sit there, and you can call that feeling God, or spirit, or art, or love, if you wanted to.
4. Being on top of the mountain felt like it meant something because I told myself it was going to, and I told myself that it did. And Meaning is just a story we tell ourselves, just like the ones about ourselves that nobody else can see.
It could well be all of those, or none of them, or some of them. I think it doesn't really matter. My friend said she found it so overwhelming because of how viscerally it reminded her that we are very small animals on a planet that has been here for far longer than us, and that will outlive all of us, and that ultimately doesn't care very much about what goes on in our heads. She said she found it quite humbling to remember that none of the things we worry about mean very much at all. Your jelly beans don't count for very much up there.