My Body is Written in Shorthand

One day last month, sitting on the couch and reading about how Space is more fundamental than anything that appears in it, an image floated into my mind.

I experienced myself as a feature in an open landscape, no more important than the couch, the walls, or the light illuminating all the surfaces.

It wasn’t as if everything had transformed, but rather I felt an intimation that nothing was more substantial than a gathering of light. I turned my face to one side, not in order to look elsewhere, but to feel this light from within.

In the midst of this openness and lightness, I felt an urge to articulate this experience, before my ordinary way of looking reasserted itself.

“My body is written in shorthand,” I said into the empty room.

And then, in line with the innate sociability of all expression, I imagined a college friend from Canada (one of his books was made into a film that won ten Academy Awards), turning toward me and looking intrigued by my enigmatic phrase.

I elaborated—it being impolite not to complete circles of communication, even with figments of your imagination– “It’s as if there are only surfaces, and even those surfaces aren’t all that material. If my body crumbled, fragments would fall downwards, and then there would be nothing on the ground.”

I added something about longhand, narrative arcs, and then stumbled on a thought that has stayed with me. “Listening is as important as what we say.

“In writing, there are many levels and kinds of expression. We need ideas to arise, but if we aren’t listening to ourselves, then no one else will. In translating the shorthand of ideas into the longhand of writing (or speech), we will secretly know if anyone—necessarily starting with ourselves–is listening. If not, chances are that our pages won’t be saying much the next morning (and our speech will fall leaden at our feet). We may still cling to our draft and tinker with it endlessly in an effort to salvage an idea that we expected to find there, but because its creator wasn’t really engaged in carrying the inchoate into the realm of language, it will be like a pod with no seed inside. Efforts to improve through editing what was constructed without care or inspiration are unlikely to ever ring with the sound of truth.

Does that mean we shouldn’t start until we feel inspired and in touch with some deeper purpose? Good luck with that. We need to start even when we don’t know what our first word will be–ready or not.

If we don’t start—with whatever part of us shows up willing to give voice to our impulses, our mistaken beliefs, and whatever baseless hopes may arise—we are in danger of getting stranded in the illusion that it is possible to perfect our dreams without acting on them. What is more important than the urge to get it right is to be willing to get it wrong. When we bring the one speaking into contact with the one listening, then together—in honest recognition of the other’s virtues and limitations—they may dare to collaborate on the only true adventure.

Narrative arcs—whether in fiction or life—are best realized when we can remain attentive along the way. The lifeless places we are likely to discover–time spent at a job that we resent; the thoughtless repetition of old habits—will probably hold us back. But perhaps that is yet another place for the one living outside to connect with the one inside.

But wait, if I am a surface of light falling like rain upon the ground, are inside and outside not two faces of one wholeness?

2 comments to “My Body is Written in Shorthand”
  1. I find myself thinking about that piece of furniture known as a couch potato! Do they see the light?

  2. Gilly,
    I’ve heard there are shorter roads to enlightenment that the couch potatoe path. I’ve heard that the image of the time it would take for a dove, flying once a year over a mile-high mountain carrying a silk cloth, to wear down that mountain was aimed at couch potatoes. But if you get up and do something–like go on a pilgrimage, become a vegetarian, or help “the least among us”–the dove gets to drag a piece of sandpaper over the mountain.

    But I can’t personally verify any of these stories, and if I’m now fumbling my last chance at enlightment, that’s OK, too. That might give the poor dove a break.

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