Within a few weeks, Max and I fell into the type of close friendship that happens between two very different people who find themselves gliding on very similar currents.
At the beginning of each shift, he greeted me with a hug and a friendly word.
“This is how I make a good day great,” he’d say, or something just as sweet.
I tried not to let on how that how much I savored these moment, though I’m sure, every now and then, he heard my unrestrainable sigh.
I started hanging out at the Culpepper during my off hours. It felt good to be around someone who always acted happy to see me, and I came to crave being listened to the way only Max can listen.
I’d been telling him about my novel. Writing it led me into dark places. “When tundra becomes forest, it spells doom,” I said. “We think of forests as vibrant places, full of songbirds and cute little mammals. But what of all the individuals that were displaced? Where do they go? What happens to the species? It’s genomic meltdown.”
I shared with him my theory that all the previous climate changes had laid the foundation for this one–I meant this literally. For what drove this current climate change? The burning of fossil fuels. And what created the vast deposits of petroleum? The mass extinctions of past climate change.
He didn’t laugh. He called my theory genius.
When he saw how mournful I became talking about this, he told me he had something he wanted me to read.
“I think you’ll find it useful,” he said, “and at the very least, it will make me happy if you read it.”
He wrote down the URL: 77truths.wordpress.com.
I looked it up that evening.
The first truth:
I am not my body.
My body forms a container for me. It helps to establish the context of my experience. When cared for, it can provide a good home.
But my body is not me.
I wasn’t sure I agreed. I had always held that everything I am, everything I feel, results from my corporal existence. I have sensations: from the nerves in my body. I can act: when my body does what I ask. I think: because my brain, which is part of my body, fires specific synapses. I am happy, sad, attracted, pleased, upset, angry, embarrassed, anxious, nervous, worried, joyful, blissed out: because specific hormones and brain chemistry flood my body. Even consciousness, my dad had taught me, can be reduced to a function of the brain in my body.
When my body ceases to exist, I cease to exist.
That’s what I believed then.
Still, if Max felt that this was important enough to share with me, I would continue to consider it. I could keep the foundation of my own experience firm and solid while still considering this perspective. Just because I considered something didn’t mean I had to believe it.
If I were going to consider this, I’d better know who wrote it. I clicked the “About” tab and scrolled down to find the author’s name and photo: Septemus Sevens. An alien.
What could an alien know about what it means to be a human on this planet?
I confronted Max about it when I saw him the next day.
“Hey, I checked out that website,” I said. “It’s written by an alien.”
“And that makes a difference how?” he asked.
Did it make a difference? My father was a bigoted man, and he’d raised me. His current prejudiced ire landed smack on the aliens. We hadn’t had any in our neighborhood, but everyday, in the years when I lived at home, he’d pull out some newspaper article talking about some wild conspiracy theory that featured aliens as the culprits.
I let my dad’s prejudice roll right off me. It was obvious, and so it was easy to avoid. My mother’s bigotry was harder to evade. She would make subtle comments, and it was only later–even years and decades later–that I finally unpacked them and set them aside.
At the time of this conversation, I hadn’t even begun to explore the layers of sediment that my familial and societal conditioning had deposited within me.
I’d decided early in my friendship with Max that I’d share my opinions freely. I didn’t want a conversational censor operating when we talked.
“OK,” I began. “One: the author is not from around here, not even remotely. Two: how does he even know what our bodies are like? He’s probably got like three lungs or something, and totally different hormones and synapses and all that. Three: just–if I’m going to take spiritual advice from somebody, I’m going to take it from somebody who knows what it’s like to be a person on this planet, with all our struggles and challenges. I’m not taking it from some blue alien.”
“The preferred term is extraterrestrial,” Max said.
“OK, then! From some extraterrestrial.”
“But what did you think of the words,” he asked softly, “before you knew who wrote them? Did you even consider them?”
I had to answer truthfully. “I’m still in the process of considering them,” I replied. “They go against everything I’ve studied, everything I’ve learned, and even all of my personal experiences. For example, if I didn’t have a body, how could I be here talking with you now?”
He chuckled. “It doesn’t say, ‘My body isn’t valuable.’ Or ‘my body doesn’t make it possible for me to have a physical existence.’ It just says, ‘I am not my body.’ If I’m not my body–just consider it–then who am I?”
Just consider it. I felt remorseful for having used a term he didn’t like, and then for have dismissed the author outright, when Max was so sincere.
“OK,” I said. “I have been considering it, and I’ll continue to consider it. I’ll take all afternoon to consider it. How does that sound?”
He laughed. “All afternoon sounds ample to process a truth that probably took six months to formulate and sixteen years to germinate!”
At least he was laughing.
“No hard feelings?” I asked.
“None!” he replied. “Of course not!”
“Good!” I shouted. “I wouldn’t want some blue alie–extraterrestrial to come between us!”
He chuckled. “I don’t think that will happen!”
I started clowning. “Beep! Boop! I’m from Planet Tricksidome! Take me to your nearest coffee shop!”
I decided to spend the afternoon walking. I’ve always done my best considering when walking under the sun.
I followed Mojo, a stray that had befriended Max, towards the path that circled the pond.
If Mojo is not his body, then what is he?
When Mojo’s body is gone, where will he be?
What of the calico cat? What of the man in the blue plaid? What of my coworker Anya?
What of the woolly mammoths? Their bodies never actually stopped being. They simply transformed into and through bacteria, becoming broken down into soil, plants, trees. Nothing ever ends.
I followed the low path along the cattails and took in the swamp smells.
What makes this scent? The sulfur and methane produced by the anaerobic bacteria that breakdown dead matter. This is the smell of bodies, plant and animal, transforming.
I’d always thought of it as the smell of death, but maybe it was also the smell of life.
I am not my body.
Then what am I? And what will I become? The smell of sulfur? The continual process of breaking down, transforming, becoming something else?
I walked in silence along the creek towards the sea. Around one curve, I passed the carcass of a calf, half-eaten by wild coyote-dogs.
The calf isn’t his body: he is, by now, the bodies of the members of a pack of canines.
But there is something more.
What fuels transformation?
What is it that is behind this continuing cycle of change? What creates the movement?
Light sparkled through the grasses–not the sunlight, but something else, some other light that shone through each blade of grass.
I sat on a log at the edge of the beach and listened to the waves. I looked towards the lighthouse.
I am not this cloud. I am not this flower. I am not these blades of grass, this spark of sunlight, this shine of wave, these shimmering birch trees. I am not the flock of sandpipers crossing the sands. I am not my body. I am everything.
I didn’t have an answer, but in the not-having-an-answer, my mind became still as I sat on the log and the waves rolled, after, after, one and the other, and none of us were anything in that particular moment.