Only connect! They’re the words from one of my favorite novels—treasured for its humaneness and its forgiveness and emotional generosity towards humans. Only connect! Do not live divided within yourself, Forster urges; do not isolate your evaluation of others from the feelings and knowledge and history you have with them. Those two can’t, in fact, be separated. The lens of love and empathy and humility is the proper lens to truly draw people into their proper focus; to see them; to know them.
I fashioned my sister and brother-in-law’s wedding vows around this imperative. It means to me what it means in the book and is also a credo I take to be as expansive as the willer wills it. I think of it as a gift. As a prayer.
Ironically, of course, the whole notion of being connected has been co-opted by the idea of connecting cables, “staying connected” (but not keeping in touch, with its more sensory and personal imprecation)--availability as a little green light (Leah, that’s for you). Availability as an ephemeral state that is not crossed as a physical distance but rather crossed with the flag of a notification or the sound, like a pachinko parlor’s chime, interrupting what you’re currently connected to in order to connect you to the next byte of speech, the next compact morsel of text.
But I’m not on a screed about virtual connection so much as I’m thinking about real connection, Forster’s Connect!, and what it feels like.
In 2017, I visited Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum and left mostly struck with the idea of radical connection—the elimination of borders between people through sheer repetition and profusion. It’s a powerful thought—the idea of a collective humanity reached through an erasure of borders. A recognition that the self is itself a porous membrane that we are capable of extending, of obscuring, of transcending.
So there’s that connection. And there’s also connection that I’ve felt in such a solitary way; where the border of myself blurred even as I felt so profoundly, so gloriously, the barrier point of my human skin; the ample rooms of my own thoughts; the tender chapel of my silence.
I’ve written often about the meditative silence of snow and the spell it casts for me, the listening it compels. But today I’m thinking of something else. How, when I ski alone on a lonely trail, it’s the sound of my own bellowing breaths that accompanies me, too. There, the borders of the self are sharp; the breaths, one by one, piercing the cold. I’ve written about my breathing as accumulation; as the accretion of being alive. But today I’m thinking of them as an even more basic affirmation of me. How I delight to hear them, even somewhat melodramatically coughing and clearing my throat in the silence so that I can hear my own exertion as well as feel it. So I can amplify the sound of my living body, be that body intensely, even in the midst of this white landscape that treats me always as both stranger and guest. I listen to myself and I exist and that is all. I am both connected to the landscape and vitally connected to myself as a mammal—a creature of blood and sinew and movement.
How often as a child I retreated to mindscapes like these, stacking the verge of my top bunk with six journals and books. Writing down quotes and pasting photos of writers to my wall so that they could look down at me in all their benevolent Victorian-era knowledge. I’m thinking with longing of the time I gave myself then--without even thinking of time as something to be parceled—to daydreaming, recording thoughts of the day, to thought that produced no “product” but meandered through strange fields, returning with stranger fruits. In my head, I was always in the midst of a serial story of some kind. I adventured, honoring where the thread of the story had last been dropped before picking it up again. I longed to be in those spaces, so furnished with the self I continued to discover.
I long, too, for the letters I wrote more frequently. The aimless walks. The phone conversations with the mouthpiece warmed by my own breath. The friendships where no one had to be anywhere. For “hanging out.” For time unstructured and boundless, and what grew there, in all the luxury of that blank time. I see writing as related to these activities, to boundless space, to unceasing wander.
I have kept some moments for being and stillness. It’s the view of Rainier and the water I look at every day as I cross the 520 bridge. I have seen the water as shocking blue glass and imagined the sunset shadows of buildings and lights as a subterranean world where everything is flipped—where the buildings that seem to float on the water instead have a glimmering and quivering twin. And it is in my wandering thoughts, still, on walks. On the leaning trees and drooping iris tongues and merry windows of people I do not know and yet witness, just by walking through. In the sudden rounded stones that finish sentences for me, whisper towards the meaning of intuitions; finish the narrative arc of novels and their metaphors. And more and more, the last vestige of this connection, this presence, has been in the giving of my own time. While I have to be more conscious in the bestowing, I am aware that this is still a muscle of connection I have. Something I can give. Something I can receive. Something I can be. A friend. A listener.
Connection in the other sense I mentioned is what impinges on the deeper seeing; the deeper knowing of self and other—the other as perceived through the fullest sense of the self. It’s the scrolling and “checking in” that encroaches into commutes. The weightless popcorn of leisure. The day “getting away from me.” As if the day were a balloon I accidentally released and instead of retrieving it, I can only watch it as it ascends up up up, out of sight, unreachable. Being connected often stops me from connecting. All the wholesome and nourishing rituals of the self are starved of frequency. The wander stops, congeals. The body carries itself, in weariness, from place to place, appearing at appointed places at appointed times. Carries itself to repose that isn’t restful but merely blank. The balloon floating away.
Acutely, I’m aware that shallow connection inures us to the pain of others. My notice should shine truly onto the people who suffer in our world. It should love them more with its gaze, and put more energy into closing the gaps between us—gaps of knowledge, help, privilege. I know this, yet I still disappoint myself at times. On a surface level, I am keeping up with the suffering, tending it as one more flag and chiming reminder. But I know that truly acting towards a more just world requires not just spurts of action and resolve, but consistency. Hands that are callused. Muscles that must learn to do new things. Only connect! Do not live divided from others. Do not forget their pain. Do not forget to help; to know them; to go beyond comfort into unknown territories. Only connect. With that in mind, I am turning back towards finding a regular commitment that brings me back to the presence of real people, to be with them. To connect.
A month ago, a super blood wolf moon (say that three times fast) passed over Seattle on an unusually clear January night. A super blood wolf moon is a connection of its own, or more accurately, a confluence. The earth in its orbit interposes itself between moon and sun, bending the sun’s rays of light and causing them to appear red on earth. At the same time, the moon is at the closest point of its orbit to earth and appears significantly larger. Home alone that night, a friend sent me and another friend a message, reminding me to look at the moon. I went out to buy something mundane at the drugstore. Inside the store, a woman was on the phone to her mother, “I just saw it, mom. Look at the moon.” The buzz was around me. Look up. An imperative.
I did. A scarlet-orange smear appeared, smudged over the moon with a slice of pale brilliance still visible in its corner. I stared. Went back upstairs to my apartment. Go look at the moon, I texted boyfriend, friends, and family. Scanning the street below, I saw neighbors converging outside the front door of our building, propping up the legs of a telescope and gazing together. I felt a pang of envy commingled with shyness. I craned for a view from my window, but the moon had moved too far the southeast, and I couldn’t see it over the top of other buildings. I took a breath and went downstairs, presenting myself to the small group of strangers united in that common directive to look up.
One of them waved me over immediately. “Do you want to look at the moon?” he asked.
It turned out that he was one of my neighbors from across the way—the one with the curious cat in the window and the colorful prayer flags adorning the window. I’d often passed by his apartment window, but had never made eye contact or said hello. His father had joined him for the moon gazing, and it turns out that he lived just a block away. Peering through the telescope lens was spectacular—I could see the dark grooves of the moon’s face; the border where scarlet limned to garnet and then to carmine. The passage of light. Of time. Of orbits.
I drank from a flask of homebrewed whiskey and we chatted about why the moon had taken on its reddish hue, Norwegians in the Seattle area, and our Wallingford neighborhood. It was the first time I’d chatted with any of our neighbors for longer than a quick greeting in passing.
“Come look at the moon!” the pair beckoned to anyone who walked past. A young couple stopped. Another neighbor walking her dog stopped, too.
When I went inside, the red disc, that unearthly blemish, had begun to slide away from the implacable, shining face of the moon. The night remained cold and crisp. Father and son had packed it in, resolving to meet each other at an Orangetheory spin class the next morning, early. We said farewell, but now when I pass by the neighbor’s window, I wave.
Sometimes we meet people because of a celestial event.
Sometimes we are neighbors.
Sometimes we are nothing but humans, in thrall to the heavens, to the earth, to the atoms of our cells and the flecks of dew in another’s eyelash.
Sometimes we are quiet.
We look up.
The border dissolves.