This post is to share the extremely exciting news that the wonderful people over at Phantasmagoria magazine have seen fit to include my piece ‘By Degrees’ in the third issue of their publication! It’s especially exciting as it’s the first time I’ve been published in an actual thing (online or otherwise). You can check it out either by clicking here or looking at the full text I’ve included below.
Sometimes, when I least expect it, reality is pulled out from under me.
I’ll be going along, doing my usual daily thing – riding a bus or having a conversation – when suddenly, this curious feeling of disconnection washes over me. I recall these moments of abstraction vividly, because they’re accompanied by the strangest thoughts. Like a meditation on the fragile mechanisms that somehow give me consciousness, or how anybody can think that a toe is normal. When these fits of introspection come over me, I freeze up and lose the thread of conversations I am in; instantly afraid to interact with the world using a body I’m no longer certain of. Inevitably, I end up reflecting on how lucky we are as a race to be able to forget the staggering odds stacked against our existence. Otherwise, we’d never have survived to contemplate the matter. It reminds me of an old Foxtrot comic whose punchline read, “more philosophers die in winter”.
I often wonder about the beginning. At some moment, 13 or 14 billion years ago, the universe happened. Just happened, bam, just like that. Except, they stress, it wasn’t a moment. Moments didn’t exist yet, because time didn’t exist until the moment when it did. It’s no use asking about ‘before’, or what the neighbouring dimensions thought about this whole accident of creation. Even if we do have neighbours, nothing can enter or leave the universe anyway, so what’s the point? Any physicist will tell you that conservation of energy has got the whole matter covered.
Then, I trace it all back to where I am now. There’s God – or whoever waves their magic wand and conjures up time and space. Then, in quick succession – at least, universally speaking – we get atoms, gases that form stars, and chunks of solid matter that coalesce into planets. Then, on one of these planets, a bunch of elements get together and make a cell. Or maybe it crashes in from space, and then we begin the long, unlikely chain of evolution that leads, billions of years later, to me, complete with toes and everything. I, like the 7 billion other souls on this planet, am trapped in what’s basically a really big room that’s slowly getting messier as energy spreads out and loses focus. Eventually, scientists claim, the universe will suffer a heat death where all that’s left is a rather cold and uninteresting slop of background radiation that’s only a little bit warmer than the coldest possible temperature anything can ever be. Fun times ahead, for all concerned.
Now, of course, none of us – me included – will be here to see that, but it features in my thought processes all the same in those abstracted moments. It’s fascinating how the human brain works, really: thousands upon thousands of synapses firing in a semi-chaotic fashion give rise to the conscious thought that allows me to dwell upon their workings. I’ve heard that our brains can never fully comprehend themselves, for to do so would require a machine of even greater complexity. It’s a Catch-22 with no solution. While the principles of its operation appeal to my scientific side, it’s the associative nature of thought that thrills my imagination.
If you have ever had a conversation, you know exactly what I mean. Starting off with pleasantries, you move on to the various happenings of each other’s lives and, before you know it, you’re deeply embroiled in a debate on the best way to sauté broccoli in a stir-fry and you have no idea how you got there. Every jump in the topic of conversation makes perfect logical sense to the person who suggests it, but when considered minutes later or viewed by an external eye, the connections become tenuous and opaque. There’s a certain satisfaction in recognizing that a connection made is uniquely yours: nobody else in the world, given the same situation and the same conversational prompt, would make exactly the same association as you have. The superb fluidity of thought that allows me to wriggle from moments, to universe, to mind and still maintain what I consider a reasonable and even logical flow of ideas never ceases to amaze me.
Incredibly, all of this occurs to me in the space of only a few moments when that abstraction comes upon me. I don’t know what instinct or flaw of consciousness it is that allows me to tear my attention away from the mundane and take stock of my existence, but I’m grateful that it’s there. Imagination’s a pretty groovy thing.