Tag Archives: Meaning

A holy grail

For the first time in my life, I’m walking to my grandparents’ grave without either of them being buried today. My grandma was the second one, and she died six years ago. Haven’t given myself time to go there since. Did I become a martyr of my domineering mind?

I’ve received a fulltime job as copywriter, and am starting in a few weeks. I’m letting my thousands of little (and bigger) projects go for now, and take some time off. Walk. Visit friends. Let the losses slide of my back. Early this morning I decided to go for a walk to the north. Out of the city, into the land of my ancestors. Flatlands. A deeply manmade structure which scared me when we drove here during my childhood. Flat grass, straight, arranged ditches and many little houses packed in villages as far as the eye can see. We’re in one of the most populated countries of the world. Windmills.

I think it’s the first time that I so thoroughly enjoy it here. It may be the freedom of simply walking out of my door, into the fields. Or the cacophony of the birds, whose names I still don’t know. Their volume overrules the sounds of the roaring highway just behind us. Or perhaps it’s the red sun that is now at about 10° above the horizon, shining in my face as if to tell me to take off my new hat for it. Or maybe it’s the fact that I am sure that one day, when my grandpa felt like taking a detour, he crossed this little bridge here, in the middle of what was nowhere at the time, just for his enjoyment. Or the reflecting shadows of the water’s wrinkles on the moving straw, which combined mesmerize me into dreams. I’m amidst serene tumult.

That’s not to say that while I walk along the little path here, away from the deafening noise, my soul transcends along with the millions of glimmering dewdrops, slowly releasing themselves from the young blades of grass around. Or actually it is, now that I imagine it to. I’m liberated, even from myself. Especially from myself. Even if just for a little bit of time.

My grandpa was a kind, calm man when I knew him. His white hair surrounding his bald crown was long enough to be combed back. That looked pretty cool. So did the loose skin of his big thin hands, with thick blue veins meandering over them. I remember him sitting back on his couch, circling his thumbs around each other. He must have been furling his inner disagreements there. His lost memories. His missed chances. His incapacities. But I did not see that then. I was fascinated and he smiled gently. He always served us with chocolate, slices of sausage and other snacks. He limped a bit, when walking to the kitchen. His hip had been replaced.

Neither he nor I spoke much in company. What we would do, is hold each other’s gaze for a while. It told me I was his grandson, and that words aren’t always necessary to know you have a connection with someone. Still, I am not under the impression that I knew my grandpa that well. We lived about 400 km away from each other. Visiting them meant travelling hours and hours in the car. We slept there occasionally as kids, me and my sister, but most of what I remember from him were grownup visits where we did grownup things such as sitting at a table and eating and drinking. Though he did teach me how to play chess.

Once, he took me on a bikeride through these lands. I was a kid. Eight maybe? It was flat. And long. Kids from Luxembourg aren’t used to long bikerides. I think this one took several hours. I do remember enjoying following him on the bike, and stopping to have a chat once in a while, but there’s one memory that stands out. Somewhere near the end of the trip, he told me something about a bird around. My response? “I’m not very interested in that”. I possibly had to pee, or was tired, or was saturated with information. Maybe I was looking forward to a chocolate milk he promised me somewhere at the end of the road. I don’t remember his reaction, but today, a part of me feels guilty about it. Anyhow, years later, my grandparents were surprised to learn that I was going to study biology. And when it comes to bird species, they were right: I still don’t know that much about them.

“Grutto!” yells one of them from quite close. Hey. I can tell it’s panicking because of me. It probably has a nest. More interesting: I suddenly understand why it’s called Grutto in Dutch. I never knew, nor have I ever heard it that clearly. Was it trying to teach me his name?

When I visited my grandma after his death, I felt drawn by my grandpa’s encyclopedia. I walked there, took one of the 20 books of the shelve, opened it, and picked a random word. It was ‘dode hand’ (‘dead hand’). I had never heard of that word. It read something like this: “The dead hand is the property of the Church that is not inheritable by non-church members”. I was certain this was a message, related to him.

Moving to the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam was a personal declaration to look for my roots. My ancestor’s history. Figure out my family’s lives. In the meanwhile I have learned a bit about life in the city, before the war, during and afterwards. Things have changed quite radically. The past is gone, yet with a little bit of conversation and imagination, you can summon a vivid reconstruction of how life used to be. Walking in these wetlands is a similar attempt to reconstruct a forgotten past. Untangle a life of people who mattered little, yet stream forward in history through the very blood that rushes by my pen. Even if just for this moment, they are my entire world.

My grandpa grew up as a farmer, but through hard work became a manager in a company. He was the last one in my family lines to make that choice. Independence from the land. There were stories around him. Dreams. Meetings with deceased spirits. Predictions. At some point he developed automatic writing. He explained he would just lay down his hand with a pen in it, and then letters would shape themselves. Words, sentences, and new meaning would arrive without his conscious interference. He thought it was the input of a spirit, or a higher power. He once wrote something like: “Hendrik”, that was his name, “watch out what you do with your life”. He had a moterbike accident the next day.

Much has changed. Biodiversity dropped over here, electricity poles were built, the land is slowly being invaded by the ever growing civilization. Landprizes here have skyrocketed, and the farmers are slowly being replaced by rich people with big cars who spend the final decades of their life in retreat. Most I meet jog. They catch up with the sweat they failed to let to the land. I picture ghosts, hovering ahead of them, drawing them forward towards… what? What is it I am looking for? Which ghost precedes my steps? The tiny asphalt road bounces up and down when joggers come by. It is laid out over what used to be swamp. Utterly unreachable to man. But the Dutch built dykes. We showed them.

People would visit him to receive messages, until it suddenly stopped for ever. His explanation for the loss of his gift was that his ego started interfering. But by then he had already written what has always interested me most: a few pages in Latin. He did not know Latin. In an attempt to translate it, he discovered the text was about the evolution of the soul. That we all make steps forward, and then go back, and that we are all part of a slowly evolving collective consiousness, floating among us in the aether. That what we think of as our own awareness is merely a part of that bigger whole. A befriended priest offered to translate the manuscript for him. My grandpa gave him the papers, but never got them back.

After the incident with the encyclopedia, I’ve enjoyed imagining that those handwritings of my grandpa are still hidden in an occult library of some church in these lands. That they were in fact breathed into this world by some divinity or local spirit. That there is a holy grail somewhere, linking me back to something bigger and more meaningful. A unique message that would consolidate my spiritual quest and reveal the limits of the mechanistic paradigm. A proof. That the church was always aware that there’s more going on there, but that they shield us from it, because they want to remain in power.

The truth is that this fantasy inside me is slowly being overgrown by a sense that spirits in the west are dead, the document has disappeared and I’m perfectly fine without both. The transmission of lore is now all around us with the internet, and the format of film and imagery has made it more effective than ever. Oculus rift and hololenses are already catching up with our dreams. We are slowly immersing ourselves in representations that seem so real that it will be harder and harder to tell the difference. As opposed to believing in ghosts of the ancestors, which people all over the world have done for as long as they existed.

But what of reality? What is reality? Was the text of the manuscript really written in meaningful Latin? Or was my grandpa’s mind playing creative tricks on him? Did he, without knowing, gather some of his little knowledge on the language to create a sloppy text, imagining it was given to him? Did the priest simply forget it, given its insignificance? If so, what of the striking double, even triple meaning of the word ‘dead hand’? Was it a remnant spirit of the past, guiding me there, or was it just a lucky hit, short circuiting my sense of what is real? If it was true, am I making his same mistake by publically writing about it?

The grave has no answers. It is static, grey and silent. Both names are on it. There are freshly cut tulips here as well. White with red ones. Who put them here? A distant cousin? My uncle or aunt? Great unlce? I haven’t been in touch. And these grape hyacinths in the pot? How long have they been around? Did my grandma choose them? I vaguely remember them having these in the garden. I wipe some of the dead blossom of the smooth stone and have another look. A drawing of a hawk. Our name.

They are dead and I’m alive. There’s a world of difference between us. A world the nature of which I have never been certain of. Perhaps I’m here to remind myself that even if I do not know, I can still surrender to the stories. Accept them, like I would accept a film. I can dream a new truth. Revive the dead by recounting them. Let them live through me. How could I forget? How did I forget? Did I forget?

Am I here to accept that my own spiritual connection with nature was harmed with my grandpa’s choice to abandon the land? That in reality, I was always more interested in comfort, computer games and films, and that this was already written in the stars when I was born? That I am here to let go of these roots, and set the next step forward, into a virtual world of engineered redemption? Am I here to accept that humans will keep conquering these lands until even the tiniest patch is rid of its diversity, then recreate it in a different, imaginary world? Will there be life in that world?

No. This is not an end. There is no conclusion here. We can always go back. We can still go back. Nature can teach us. Nature will teach us. This is merely a meeting of life with death. Mysterious.

I don’t stay long, why would I? To find peace? I have more to do today. I’m a city boy now, living a civilized life in the great metropole that watched over us for generations. They are dead now, their memories gone. There is no reconciliation. The bird has flown.

There’s only one bus here per hour. Turns out I don’t have to wait long. No chance to go back. What would I expect to see anyway? In the shimmer of death, it’s still life that matters most. I’ll be back one day.

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Here’s the thing

If you want to sound cool nowadays, or sell some random shit, try to make use of the fresh and fashionable word combo “here’s the thing”. Use it as many times as you want, particularly if you’re called John Oliver.

Not unlike other epidemic soundbites, “here’s the thing” is catchy and rhythmical and it has a symmetrical assonance to it. Besides, it fits to a few contemporary trends while at the same time adhering to important marketing principles. To give you an example: in storytelling, it serves as a rock upon which you break the wave of your self-created wordflow in order open a void that urgently needs filling with the introduction of … your product!

Now, let’s cut the crap and get to the essence straight away. In other words, here’s the thing “here’s the thing” represents, or: here’s the thing. It’s about importance. Deep and meaningful. Whatever follows “here’s the thing” makes all the previous redundant. And what does that matter? It’s all in the past. While your audience dwells in their tweet-sized attention spans, this thing here is all that counts.

And here’s the thing: “here’s the thing” can also be interpreted as a gift by the speaker to the listener. Here’s my thing for you. You may be grateful that I share this valuable piece of information with you. I have given your life meaning. Subliminally, I am now in your favour.

In a New Age way, all the previous events in your death-life continuum have led to this thing here that I present to you now. All your mental worries and physical struggles disappear. Just sit back and relax, and you may let go and be influenced. There’s only the thing here. And now.

Early adopters are using it in abundance, and it wouldn’t surprise me if “here’s the thing” will soon resound all around us. People wielding it will first employ it strictly to the things they find meaningful. Then, long after John Oliver has stopped using it, “here’s the thing I just picked my nose” will be a normal sentence to hear on the street. The soundbite’s popularity will wear off, and here’s the thing: there’ll be another thing. May I advise you to buy that thing?

Battling Mediocrity

One of my worst fears is to be a mediocre writer. It wasn’t always like that. Ten years ago I was fearless. I thought I was one of the better writers. But the more I get to know about it, the easier it is to see my flaws. And the more flaws I see, the harder I have to work to fix them. What was once a free and joyful act, thus becomes a procedure of delicately finding ways around my imperfection.

I haven’t truly tested my market value as a writer so far. Sure, I’ve earned some money with it here and there, and yes, I’ve received some feedback, generally positive, I’ve even joined a competition or two (without success), but I never looked for agents or publishers for my work. This is partially because I’m quite busy, but it is also linked to the fact that what I’m trying to sell might be meaningless, or at least not meaningful enough to another.

As I grow older, I have invested more and more time and energy in writing, meaning my work takes an ever bigger place in my life. I hang on to it more and more. You would expect that the quality of the work keeps increasing, but I feel as if I’m hitting an invisible wall somewhere. Something I should pass if I am to improve further.

Perhaps I’m starting to feel the need of an external view by someone whose work I admire. Someone who can crush my self-comforting blindness and can really teach me something about writing. Someone who can force me into this fear of mediocrity and help me acknowledge that indeed, I’m not as good as I hoped I was. Someone who can show me my many areas of improvement.

Or maybe I need to really dig into a specific theme. Write a book, not just ramblings and short stories. Give myself the space to truly develop something that is worth the reader’s while. Create real, living characters who face each other in living situations. My characters always have something rebellious. I don’t know why that is. I don’t find other characters very interesting. Maybe I should broaden my scope.

The key to greatness, where can it be? Perhaps it’s in the struggle.

Parsimony

One of the basic rules of today’s science is the law of parsimony. It states that when there are two possible explanations for a given observation, the one that requires the smallest amount of assumptions should be selected as the true one. In other words: a good scientist always strives for the most conservative and simple explanations of the facts.

It makes a lot of sense to avoid needless complexity.  Not only does that make it easier to understand things, it also helps in the communication with other scientists, journalists or your grandma. Overcomplicating things is as exhausting as it is boring and it makes it harder to judge where illusion ends and truth starts. But by sticking too closely to this law, scientists become a self-assuring collective that drift away into a meaningless void, possibly leading exactly to the opposite of what a scientist strives for.

The law of parsimony obliges the trained scientific mind to focus on a problem and avoid looking at its surroundings for as long as possible. If, for example, one wants to study the effects of a medicine on lung cancer, one will not include father-son-relationships or religious beliefs in an experimental design, because they are unlikely to be of influence. Fifty years ago, eating habits, air quality and smoking habits would possibly also not have been included in such research. They are very important factors now.

Parsimony goes hand in hand with the reductionist vision of cause and effect. It has resulted in the rising of different disciplines such as economy, medicine or ecology, where they were once one thing. Even within those fields, there are endless specializations. They distinguish from each other not only by the aspect of life they study, but also by the assumptions they take for granted. The ones they no longer see. What seems obvious to a person from discipline A, may be very far-fetched to a person from discipline B. The result here, is that communication between disciplines becomes harder and harder.

By always looking for the fewest amounts of assumptions, the parsimonious scientist creates a mental island for himself. Our society as a whole is stuck in a construct of assumptions that, by the fact that they are repeated in the classroom, feed the part of our minds in which they seem so clear and logical that they are no longer understood as assumptions. In economy for example: growth is the base. Wouldn’t it help the world if we assumed that dispersal and equality are important, even if we seldom observe them? In medicine: diseases have a physical cause. How about the complex role of the mind? In ecology: plant and animal communities behave according to mathematical models. Isn’t that a disrespectful view?

Parsimony invites us to keep building our understanding on the world we know already. I think science could serve life better if it allowed itself to dive into the unknown.

Freedom

Today is Dutch liberation day. It is exactly 68 years ago that the Americans hunted the Germans of these lands. An occasion to contemplate what freedom means, if not “being able to live in peace”. It is an interesting concept about which I still think quite often. Is that typical for men?

Some say the West is free. Is that the same as saying that the people living in the West are free? If we are indeed free, then what does that mean? That we have money? That we are able to choose whatever we do with our lives? To be the navigator of our own ships? Reach our Dreams?

Okay, so one way to explain freedom, is by the extent to which we can reach our dreams. But we can go deeper. Who chooses our dreams? Say a person’s dream is to earn money. Then having a lousy job would make that person free, right? The boss would be the liberator. But often, when a person has money, he or she would like to have more. The same is true for meaning. There is a point when our dreams become our prison. At that point, freedom means letting the dream go. It means to be satisfied.

So is a satisfied citizen a free citizen? I wouldn’t always say so. I have met many people who slowly but gradually grew trapped in their satisfied lives. People on a comfortable position, whose light seemed to be dimming. They wouldn’t always admit it, but sometimes you can tell. Then again, how do you break out of satisfaction? By losing everything, perhaps?

I’ve personally always felt freest while hitchhiking. But I know that if I’d do that all the time, it would not feel the same. So I need balance. My girlfriend recently asked me what freedom means. To my own surprise, I answered quite quickly. “To not be guided by fears”. I think I’ll stick with that definition for now. Until it becomes my mask.