Life-Changing Magic of Navigating Books

I must admit to a bad habit. I love to read – but separate from this, I also love to horde library books. Not all books; just specific books during specific times. They seem to be a sort of talisman. Perhaps I will read them – perhaps not. Maybe I will only skim through, taking a word here, a sentence there, acknowledgements or bibliography. Sometimes it is enough just to have a particular title or cover design on my shelf. When their purpose is served, back to the library they go.  

Since late November I have continually renewed The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. I have read it every which way, forwards and backwards and piecemeal, multiple times. I find it extremely comforting. It appears to toute the hypnotic magic of order, but that is only superficial. Conceptually the book is driven by the process of acknowledging, examining and making peace between your past and present. 

My very favorite part – the part I look forward to every read through; the climax of the action, if you will – occurs at the beginning of Chapter 4. Ms. Kondo narrates how she comes home. 

She talks about unlocking her door, saying hello to her house that has been waiting for her. She puts on water for tea, changes clothes, returns the contents of her purse and tools of her day to their respective places. By this time the water has boiled; she makes tea, and sips while reading through her mail. 

It is a very simple progression of actions. She does not directly describe her space any more than necessary to explain, in precise terms, where each item comes from or returns to. 

Yet, based on her description, I have an extremely vivid sense of being invited into that space. I am able to map it, conceptually and emotionally. It’s the idea of home as a sort of labyrinth – a space which, as we navigate its physical boundaries, also helps us understand and navigate our internal boundaries and constraints. 

Fortunately, my own home – though small – is already a highly effective labyrinth. The library is closed, so my stacks of library books have acquired semi-permanent status. 

They form islands in the midst of the floor, and towers in the middle of tables. Some of them function as trays, laptop rests; some of them sprawl invitingly open around my chair. To move through my apartment is to enter into a physical interaction with these books, every bit as intense as the mental interaction of reading them. They now, literally as well as figuratively, shape my world. 

And they have indeed guided me towards new understanding. From now on, I’m only checking out e-books.

Out Of Nothing

“What can I make with this?”

It’s a question to which I return, over and over. It is a question, understood not so much as the first half of an answer, but as a tool to create better tools for living. 

Confidence says you can make anything out of nothing. Common sense quotes “you can’t get blood out of a turnip.” Knowledge says you had best pick the material to suit the purpose, or else reshape the expected outcome.

Somewhere, each of these viewpoints intersects to form something useful.

What sort of tool do you craft out of nothing?

What sort of purpose is the material suited for?

What are key characteristics of nothing?

  • It has space.
  • It is infinitely light (lacks mass).
  • It is characterized by absence of something expected.
  • It reveals, through that absence, what is expected.
  • It holds no distractions.
  • It is a tool for clarity.
  • It is characterized by lack of resources; lack of the things that remove barriers to work. 
  • It is a space in which your barriers are revealed or made clear.
  • It is a space in which your task is to confront your barriers. 

Nothing reveals what we need.

People are shaped by need.

Seek to understand what you need, what others need. Then you will begin to understand why and how people are shaped. So nothing is a worthwhile, fertile area of inquiry.

Let me be clear: need, unanswered, can be crippling. In a systemic or social sense, “having nothing” only holds potential when it is clearly defined as finite, an experience to be contemplated rather than something that is all-encompassing. Otherwise it quickly takes over a life. 

A month of nothing is enough to destroy a life. It will certainly cripple that life’s future for quite a while to come. Do we really need to go about the business of qualifying the state of having nothing as the news does – “through no fault of their own” and all such unexamined catch-phrases?1 

I don’t know about you, but when I see someone choking or drowning my first impulse is to ask – “Excuse me, but is this through any fault of your own?” (Not really.) 

If your only resource is “nothing,” fault is missing the point; it implies that there are other people who have nothing through every fault of their own. 

Why do we not instead say, “they have nothing through every fault of ours? We, as a system, have had a failure of empathy; that is the correct understanding of need within this context.” 

In a creative sense, I am determined to learn and create from nothing because that is the only space allotted for so many throughout this world. Each day I look for something that is less than what it could be, with the goal of understanding what it needs to become more than it is. 

In an intellectual sense, this action should be unnecessary. But maybe once I know the trick of creating out of nothing, or tricking nothing into becoming something, or perhaps just tricking the people who are busy saying “through no fault of our own” – I will have a chance at tricking other brains into refusing to accept nothing as an option. There may be a chance to say, look – nothing has become something, therefore nothing is no longer an option. Let’s instead turn our energy and attention to growing something into everything, something all can share. 

1 In the United States, much of the discourse surrounding the economic impact of covid-19 and associated shelter-in-place orders has focused on the fact that people are experiencing unemployment, debt, homelessness, and privation “through no fault of their own.” The fact is that, in absence of the epidemic, these same issues were bitterly divided along partisan assignments of blame just a few months prior. Yet the causes of economic vulnerability have not changed, only been magnified. “Through no fault of their own” has become the political excuse to avoid saying, we should have put in place greater workforce and wellbeing/safety protections all along.

Limited Understanding (Understanding Limits)

Show me slowly what I only know the limits of…” 

Leonard Cohen, “Dance Me To The End Of Love”

Limits are a strange, essential force within our lives. Most of us prefer not to examine them too closely; like a hundred dollar bill, if someone gives you one it is often best to simply try to pass it on as quickly and quietly as possible. 

But like counterfeit money, limits can frequently give more than they get1. They are an essential tool to build understanding. Once you have limits, you can begin to map what is inside those limits. In absence of limits, it is impossible to map anything.

Map (v): to create relational understanding. See Create.

Let’s step away from metaphor for a moment. In cartography, the process of mapping is one of using a given perspective or question to make sense of a set of data that includes a spatial component. Areas are defined by boundaries (or concentrations), and boundaries are defined by a process of repeatedly asking “true, or false?” regarding a given set of requirements. 

A given point is either within a boundary or not; New Jersey is either within New York, or it’s not. Otherwise – without discrete places – there’s no need for a map. A map, therefore, is a relational understanding between areas defined by limits. 

Within the realm of metaphor, limits form the boundaries around concepts, properties, desires, and needs. 

Create (v): to map between memory and unknown. See Map, Unknown.

When these limits are mapped in such a way as to discover connections or adjacencies, the result is philosophy or science. When these limits are mapped through personality and symbol, the result is a narrative. So a narrative can be understood as a progressive exploration of, and engagement with, limits. (Remember that – you’ll need it later.)

This is interesting because, although many people think in terms of narrative, people commonly talk about not being defined by their limitations. It is an inspiring idea, but not always a practical one. Without limits, there would be no reason for growth. Sometimes you must directly address your limitations. 

Of course, limitations are not necessarily fixed. They are frequently an attribute of a specific set of conditions. But to the extent that you must expend energy addressing those limitations, you are at least temporarily defined by or through them. 

Therefore it is often more useful to ask how you would like to be defined in relation to limitations. And in order to come to an answer, you must understand what limits represent. 

Unknown (n): the first thing to establish in a system. See System.

Remember the idea of a narrative as a progressive exploration of, and engagement with, limits? I say that because limits form the space between the known and unknown, the possibility for duality, the dynamic tension of differences. (Just try creating a good narrative without differences.)

Limits represent the potential for a thing to exist on its discrete own. Limits give identity and form to that which we would not otherwise recognize as unique. At the most basic level, limits give us the ability to understand one thing by juxtaposing it against another thing to discover what the first thing is not.

Light is defined as not-dark; night is not-day; spring is absence of winter; and death rises from the end of life. Humans seem to love this idea of juxtaposition. Duality is a very old story, one we tell about boundaries – about limits. It fits neatly alongside our entrenched love of patterns, and yields a cross-cultural penchant for narratives that display patterns of things understood in contrast.

System (n): framework composed out of entropy. Perfect or imperfect map of cause and effect. See Map.

Today, though we play with the idea of escaping the old mythologies, our modern world is built on boundaries and limits more than ever. In much of the code that surrounds our daily activities, everything is either a 0 or a 1, true or false. It is, literally, binary. It is a system made possible by the limits between 0 and 1, true and false. Limits create the framework upon which a world may be built. 

Now, after all of this – have I still failed to convince you to appreciate limits? It’s true, I am biased; I was busy convincing myself, the case decided before the evidence was in. One of my favorite songs is Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” (though I prefer the version sung by Madeleine Peyroux). 

It is a romance crafted entirely of limits: a binary hide-and-seek between lyrics, across boundaries – things hinted, secrets revealed, knowledge concealed, and underneath it all a keen appreciation for the space between opposites. So if none of my other cases ring true, consider this: without the limit between Self and Other, we would have no good love stories. 

Of course, love stories are also about bridging boundaries, finding the gaps in the limits – but that’s another story, because it exceeds this story’s limits. 

1 Disclaimer: to whatever federal agency may be reading this, I do not condone nor conduct money laundering or counterfeiting. I have my limits.


Those who take on battles
They know they may not win;

Those who see the world clear,
Yet give it their best;

Those whose final strength
Is memory.

May they know peace.

My mother grew up in Tennessee. Her childhood understanding of Memorial Day was to decorate graves with bundles of huge irises, the type known as “flags.” To this day my image of Memorial Day is a small child running through fields of graves, hugging a bundle of twilight-blue flowers.

There are many types of battles. To take on something bigger than yourself, with the understanding that you may be subsumed, is a hard path.

I cannot reconcile with remembrance stripped of context. But at the end of a struggle, when loss bites hard and the world will never be the same, sometimes memory is the hardest stand to take. It is easy to say “remember” – it is hard to experience memory. But if this day means something to you, let it be an act of memory that is honest and true. And within that memory, may you find seeds of peace, like flowers on a grave.

Don’t Wander Off

“Don’t wander off,” they said –

You already know. The path led
Anywhere, deeper by wider
As long as interest conspired
Distraction, while gloom gathered.

Shadows grew. Branches shattered
And drama flew. It was a squall,
Caught between sunshine. After all,
Here’s the plot: I didn’t get lost.

Just once – JUST ONCE – I’d like a fictional character to wander off the path and be perfectly fine. But I guess that wouldn’t be much of a story…

To Become A Ghost

I don’t mean to become a ghost
But sometimes I can’t help it. 

When the spaces I haunt begin to show,
The places that spread my spirit across the map;

This and that, too private, 
Become pain that makes me gasp –

The heart that holds the ribs
And the head; a haunt just out of place
With time.

May is the month I go home to visit. 

Home is neither a place I can stay too long, nor a place I can stay away from too long. That is the simple truth of it. 

When time has stretched a bit too much between visits, it gets to the point where the place won’t let me rest. It feels like something deep inside gasping for breath. It’s a ridiculous situation. 

It’s currently an unfixable situation. I’m not going home to visit this May. Perhaps August, perhaps October; at least then my haunting activities will be in time with the season.

Catch Phrase

My roommates have developed a catch-phrase. 

Or perhaps it is a verbal tic, or the beginnings of a vernacular; it is hard to tell. Linguistic classification aside, here is the newly-evolved word: “Ooooooof.”

It is the sound of dismay upon opening the laundry room door to discover that, yes, it still smells of dead bird. It is the sound of the power going out, 2 hours into a 3 hour Old School RuneScape online quest. It is the sound of a used lunch container discovered after a weeklong stint in one’s work bag. 

In short, it is a useful phrase that conveys a lot of emotion. As you might guess, the depth of said emotion may be further communicated by modulating the vowels. The laundry room situation, for example, has progressed from “ooof” – barely an exhalation – to “ooooooooooof” – a moan of horrified despair. 

What makes all this even more entertaining is that – at the right time, under the right circumstances – if you sit very quietly in the shared living room and listen carefully, you can hear “ooof”s echoing from four rooms at once. It’s magical. I like to envision them exploding like tiny dandelions gone to seed: “oof!” “oof!” “OOOF!” 

Quick, make a wish! – just be careful you don’t plant more.

“Inconceivable!” – A Dictionary

If you’ve ever watched The Princess Bride, you know the importance of a good definition. Hence, I present a brief, highly-subjective dictionary.

Answer (n): the second half of a question. See Question. (v): to map knowledge through communication. See Map.

Compassion (n): “do no harm” turned inside out.

Create (v): to map between memory and unknown. See Map.

Empathy (n): the active state of seeing Self in Other, Other in Self. See Self, Other.

Map (v): to create relational understanding. See Create.

Memory (n): tool for the growth of Self towards empathy. See Empathy.

Need (n): 1) the action of natural laws on biological systems; 2) (social sciences) failure of empathy. See Empathy.

Other (n): the cause of change within the Self. In thermodynamics, a system in equilibrium has no change. As long as the concept of Other exists against the concept of Self, change is driven by the interaction of the two seeking equilibrium. See Self.

Resource (n): that which removes barriers to work. See Work.

Self (n): an entity which, lacking other options, you must learn to live with. See Other.

System (n): framework composed out of entropy. Perfect or imperfect map of cause and effect. See Map.

Today (n): space for work. See Work.

Tool (n): physical or mental construct that applies some sort of leverage to a problem, question, puzzle, experience, or idea. Either reusable or recyclable. 

Toolbox (n): red, metal, latched; a mental construct. Lives on the floor of memory’s closet. See Tool

Unknown (n): the first thing to establish in a system. See System.

Question (n): 1) tool that develops new tools. See Tool. 2) the first half of an answer. See Answer. (v): to approach unknowns. See Unknown.

Work (n): action driven by need. See Need.

In other words – 

If a word is important enough to use repeatedly, it’s important enough to establish at least a working subjective definition, lest you discover that it does not mean what you think it means. After you’ve built an entire argument around it.

I look forward to hearing what definitions you might have discovered for your own most-used words!


What to create at world’s end?
Tuck in threads and rework the song,
Craft ends into hidden rebirth.

We are here to work, here to listen,
Tie off ends towards memory, towards forgetting –
Snip arteries, tie off the vein. 

In the needle, the weft – the warp and the hum
You may lose the art of beginning again. 

Let it go. Sometimes you must lose pain, 
But all artists donate themselves. Today I give you my heart. 

(Original version posted in Fragments, (c. 2020 PC)

What does it mean to complete your work? 

Or rather – what does it mean to undertake your work, when you are aware that it may remain incomplete?  

Memory and looking forward are both essential to living a human life. That is to say, humans – more than any other creature we have been able to determine – experience time as defined by that which falls either side of now. When tomorrow is no longer a certainty, we lose a handy mental compartment for all experiences labelled “not today – but someday.” We are forced to understand that some experiences are actually labeled “never.” 

This loss of infinite tomorrow is a defining moment for most humans. It shapes us, far more than the moments we’re supposed to remember – first bike, first day of school, first pet, first kiss. First understanding of mortality: now there’s one for the family album. It definitely has that Hallmark appeal. 

The reason this is such a defining moment is because of what follows. Almost immediately, the question becomes: what are you going to do about it? 

What are you going to make with this life that is not infinite? What are you going to craft out of precious minutes and uncertainty? Are you brave enough, humble enough, to begin what you may not see to completion? Are you willing to work with no guarantee of leaving a legacy?

Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Secret Miracle,” is one of the most concise and memorable explorations of these questions. (It is, incidentally, the piece I think of whenever I am feeling sorry for myself over a stubborn piece of writing – or my own excuses about said piece of writing. I digress.) This story stays in my mind for two reasons: first, its plot, and second, a burning question the plot raises for me. 

The piece begins with disaster and ends with a foregone conclusion. In between lies the story, the space where miracle is shaped. It has a certain amount of realism (magical or otherwise), and along with that realism goes a necessary fatalism.

The story’s protagonist, Jaromir Hladík, is a Jewish playwright in Nazi-occupied Prague; you see where the fatalism comes in. He has spent his life wrapped in his work, but has never achieved the artistic merit he is convinced he can produce. Yet his life seems to be ending. 

Seconds away from death, he is granted a divine intervention. He is granted one year to finish his last, greatest play. The year, however, occurs only inside his head. It is time secured by the suspension of everything else, including bullets poised in flight. Between the order to fire and the end of his life, Jaromir Hladík must decide what “complete” means for him and his work.

You see, Hladík is convinced that this is the play by which history will judge him. He is certain that this is his work of record, the achievement that will secure his name and memory among the great playwrights. That is the rationale given for his single-minded pursuit of the play’s completion, even in the face of a death sentence. He is determined his work will live on. 

But like many of Borges’ pieces, this story seems to fold inwards on itself. Hladík’s miracle directly contradicts his stated impetus. His chance to complete his play is contingent on circumstances that guarantee no outside validation. His masterpiece is completed in his head. In short – no one else will ever see it. It’s completion is literally between him and God. 

Why does Hladík continue to work under these circumstances? 

Why do any of us continue our work? We are all facing imminent death; not, perhaps, in such a dramatic or unsubtle fashion, but certain death. 

In Hladík’s case, the relationship between creator and created is repeatedly blurred and re-worked. He begins as a creator unsatisfied with his work – a creator stripped of satisfaction in his creation. His creative capacity is threatened by the Nazi forces of anti-creation (destruction, repression, conformity). 

The real struggle, however, is between Hladík and his wish for completion on his terms. It is the struggle of a Self trying to create an Other. 

It isn’t a comfortable process. Most Selfs don’t want to give life to Others – they only want to extend Self. But most Others are determined to exist – especially the ones trapped inside a Self. To paraphrase Barbara Kingsolver’s words on parenting (High Tide in Tucson, “Civil Disobedience At Breakfast”), the job of a Self is to make themselves redundant, by giving the Other the ability to survive without them. It is the job of a creator to make themselves irrelevant to their creation. 

Hladík’s struggle is resolved through the agency of a miracle which strips away the necessity of his Self. With no tomorrow, he can afford to release his ego. He can allow his expectations to become irrelevant to his purpose.

The final letter he envisions seals both his play and his demise: existence and eternity in a single point, erasure of the line between creator and created. 

It is not Hladík who completes the play, but the play who completes Hladík. 

While the world may judge his play and his body of work to be unfinished, Jaromir Hladík is complete.

Now – what are we to take from this?

Obviously this narrative – powerful though it is – is far more polished and refined than the real lives each of us grapple with. Hladík has the benefit of considered editing, an advantage denied most of us who live outside works of fiction. So what I say here is an intentional simplification of a complex thing.

Here’s an opinion. Self is not – itself – meaningful. 

Let me clarify – each life has value, but value is not quite the same thing as meaning. Lives acquire meaning through interaction with Other. Each interaction with Other forces a life to confront it’s Self. Each confrontation with Self – when resolved – yields a Self more prepared to assist the being of the Other. And the more a Self focuses on Other, the more prepared a Self is to work without assurance of completion. In short, a Self who makes peace with its need for posterity is much better equipped for the business of living a generous life. 

Yes, it’s almost a tongue-twister. Just wait till I put it in rhyme. 

I’m sorry it’s taken me this many words to say this simple thing: we work without assurance of completion because we are part of an existence that we cannot comprehend. We cannot comprehend what part we may play in that existence, what secret miracle we may be granted or grant others. The process of working in the face of no tomorrow is the process of returning our Self to Other, until – like Hladík – the line between creator and creation dissolves.