When you can't think, write.
According to a Mexican tradition, there are the three kinds of death.
First comes the biological death. The organs refuse to go on, the brain gives up, it’s over. There’s nothing to be done. That is the first death in Mexico.
Then comes the funeral and the lowering of the deceased into the ground. People dig a hole, place the casket, and fill up the hole so that no one can see the dead (except the very interested ones). The space the deceased should occupy is empty, the people they should be around are now alone. That is the second death in Mexico.
The third… is a special kind. Monumental and insignificant. The third death in Mexico happens when no one’s left around to remember us. No more candles, memorial mass, or visits to the grave. Nothing remains. That is the third death, in Mexico.
Hard to think about, isn't it? To know that you've lived, breathed, dreamed, cried, tried, and laughed, only to vanish without a trace.
Without, eventually, someone even to say your name.
“All of those days that came and went — I didn’t realize those were life.”
I’d read the above line in Erling Kagge’s Silence: In the Age of Noise and closed it afterward. It was a dark thought, dripping in nostalgia and regret. It reminded me of the one Kazuo Ishiguro wrote in his masterpiece The Remains of the Day:
“…it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years […]; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”
Most people don’t discuss this. It’s something we tend to avoid, postpone, and altogether ignore — this thought that I might have lived my days better and that it may be late for certain things.
Our childhoods and younger years are full of youth and vitality. Life is a fountain, a fresh wind where the very air is thick with promise and hope. As time trickles away, this feeling changes. It doesn’t disappear — life is thick with promise and hope — but it does change. The hands of the clock move and, at some point, you and I realize they only ever move in one direction. There’s no backtracking. No second thoughts.
That’s what both Erling and Kazuo mean in their respective ways. Looking back at the days that came and went, realizing that those small bundles of minutes constitute an entire life. They come and go, each morning and evening, as steady as a clock, while we spend our time as if it has no end. It is an unnerving thought.
But you know this already and I do too. We’ve always been aware of it on some level. Like a half-forgotten dream, the awareness of our own transience hides beneath the surface. It hides in the shadows, while we do our best to ignore it. Days tick away.
Then something happens. Some raw infusion of awareness surges to the surface. The death of a loved one, or a personal brush with it, or something as simple as a broken wristwatch. As you look at the coffin or the immobile hands of the wristwatch, you remember.
Time has an end. We’re not in a play rehearsal. The theatre door is wide open, the audience is here, the curtain is drawn. This is, ladies and gentlemen, the real thing, yours truly, one and only — life.
Almost immediately, something in me wants to hurry up.
“Yes! I will write, I will create a podcast, yes I will make that app and start that company, I’ll be an entrepreneur, and learn to program, yes I’ll travel to Bali, and I’ll travel to Nicaragua and I’ll travel even more, and I’ll take hundreds of photographs without a filter that nevertheless look filtered, I’ll write the book, and the other book, I’ll climb the corporate ladder, and be the boss of a company, I’ll have a beach body, become an influencer, a Silicon Valley guru, I’ll open up a yoga studio, I’ll have a cooler life than all the Instagram people, and eat all the superfood in the world, I’ll read a hundred books a year, and I’ll…I’ll…”
Breathe. Yes, life is coming to an end and I might have lived it better, but that’s all the more reason to slow down. To do one or two things well instead of succumbing to the urge to spread myself thin, like too little butter over too much bread.
As the title of Kazuo’s book implies, there is the part of life that is over, gone, caput — but it’s not over. Not quite yet.
We still have what remains of the day.
Recently someone asked me whether I’m a feminist like them and I said no. Same goes for whether I’m a Christian, leftist, rightist, centrist, chauvinist, Calvinist, Muslim, a crossfitter, vegan, paleo, a yogi, a Trekkie, and whatever other labels you can think of, except maybe that of being human.
Each of these labels is an invitation to belong to a group. But, not all labels are created equal. Some, like being a Muslim or a Christian, you have most likely swallowed just by chance of being born in a Muslim or a Christian family. Same goes for political views or fervent nationalism. You were fed these labels, same as I was. There was no conscious choice on your part. There was no point during your childhood that you decided to subscribe to one — instead, it was imprinted on you, by your equally unconscious family and surroundings.
Most of us operate on these beliefs by default. It’s not a chance that the vast majority of people who profess Islam, Christianity, communism, capitalism, or outright chauvinism also happen to have been raised in those social circumstances. How we are nurtured does not define all we are, but it does define much of what we are.
Most people never think to question their beliefs and playact them from the cradle to the grave.
Everyone knows this but it’s difficult to admit to because the alternative forces us to offer our deepest beliefs up to scrutiny. And that is not easy for the human animal to do, because beliefs are how we operate in the world. We use labels and beliefs as filters to automatically weed out what we believe is irrelevant. If I believe in Yahweh, then Allah is immediately ruled out as irrelevant. If I subscribe to a right-wing party, then the left wing one is irrelevant. This mode of operating makes life easier because it allows us to avoid doubts, dilemmas, and thinking in general, leading up to much of what people are capable of — hate and intolerance.
The ironic thing about these beliefs is not that they’re evil or devilish — it is that they are not conscious. They are the spoon-fed, wholesale scripts that seem more potent than reality because they paint an easy, uniform picture that does not upset the stomach.
Maybe you managed too. At some point in your life, during adolescence or later, you realized you’ve been played the fool. So you convulsed and retched until you vomited out what was swallowed in, all those years ago.
Then, soon after the initial exhilaration, a sense of anxiety set in. Much like after vomiting, you’ve realized your stomach was empty. You become hungry for something to believe in, for a group to belong to again.
That’s where the obstinate believer becomes an equally obstinate atheist, the dedicated carnivore becomes a holy vegan Buddha, the couch potato buys all the crossfit gear, and disillusioned people become neo-fascists. They forget that the opposite of crazy is still crazy while they scream their new convictions on social media. Just think of the many Internet Warriors who crusade the comments section, screaming at things that are not aligned with their [INSERT HERE] views of the world. They have an emotional reaction to anything that does not fall under their chosen belief, which renders their reason unable to function.
Even though they’ve done it consciously now, they’ve landed in exactly the same place. They’ve slapped on a new label on their forehead, joined a new group – happy to belong again, without a thought toward what it all means.
To be clear and fair, labels are useful tools. They’re a way for us to convey complex ideas and many years of human insight in a relatively short amount of time. As such, they’re not something we ought to dispense with.
Think of labels as second-hand shops replete with an incredible amount of stuff. Going into the shop, you browse around and figure out what you want to buy, if anything, and you leave the shop eventually with a thing or two or ten.
Notice that you don’t leave the shop with all of the things, which would be the equivalent to accepting a label as is, without modification. Every time you accept a label as 100% true and appropriate is like going into a second-hand shop and buying everything inside, including that nineties multicolored tracksuit. It might feel good initially, but in the long run, it’s not good for you.
The way to break away is twofold.
First, slow down to realize that no label is entirely right, nor (most likely) entirely wrong. Once this is our perspective of the world, we can approach everything with a different kind of question in our minds:
Is there anything here, however slight, that can be of benefit to me?
If there is, take it, fit it into your inner landscape, and dispense with the rest. If you are drawn to the social antics of Christianity, take them. If the warmup routine crossfitters use makes you feel fantastic, take it, it’s yours. If you prefer a vegan dinner after the heavier meals of the day, eat a vegan dinner. You don’t have to call yourself vegan to sometimes eat vegan, you don’t have to call yourself feminist to see women as equal, and you don’t have to buy into the whole crossfit madness just because you like the warmup routine.
Second, understand that swallowing a belief wholesale entombs you into a Fortress of No Differing Opinions. This fortress keeps you sheltered from anything that goes against what you’ve been led to believe. History is a pomegranate of examples: book burnings, witch trials, public demonization, and the modern outrage culture. Highly emotional experiences replete with calls to purity, truth, and tradition, without ever considering individual thought, integrity, and healthy curiosity.
You have to consciously place yourself in the vicinity of people and content (books, movies, music, etc.) who will force you to see the borders of your beliefs. Not only that, but they will force you to realize that, beyond the borders, lies an entire world to play with.
None of this is easy, especially the first time around. We are trained to react with intense emotion to differing points of view. I know I am. This is a direct indicator that there’s shallow thinking behind our own point of view that causes us to ostracize opposing ideas, instead of debating them.
Labels, beliefs, and ideologies are constructs that can serve as useful tools. When swallowed whole, they limit your mind to what someone else was able to come up with, filtering out everything else. But the world is larger than any one idea or belief. Expose yourself to opposing ideas, especially the ones you have an emotional reaction to and sit with them for a while.
In meditation, there’s an exercise called mirroring. It calls for picturing someone or something you violently disagree with and just sitting with it for a while, slowly achieving what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a first-rate intelligence — an ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time while retaining the ability to function.
Don’t argue, don’t scream, don’t nod, and don’t agree — just sit with it for a while, until you’re able to think for yourself, deconstructing many beliefs and, most importantly, constructing your own.
There are times when your brain, your body, your very soul is on fire. This happens when you try to think about just how much there is to do and see and say in this world. All the wondrous things other people seem to be doing — on Facebook, on Instagram — and just how small your life seems in comparison. So you decide to do it all yourself, to say yes to it all:
“Yes! I will write, I will create a podcast, yes I will make that app and start that company, I’ll be an entrepreneur, and learn to program, yes I’ll travel to Bali, and I’ll travel to Nicaragua and I’ll travel even more, and I’ll take hundreds of photographs without a filter that nevertheless look filtered, I’ll write the book, and the other book, I’ll climb the corporate ladder, and be the boss of a company, I’ll have a beach body, and I’ll become an influencer, a Silicon Valley guru, I’ll open up a yoga studio, I’ll have a cooler life than all the Instagram people, and eat all the superfood in the world, I’ll read a hundred books a year, and I’ll do it all, I’ll do it all, I swear, you’ll see, I have to do it, others are doing it, or I’ll feel like…like what?“
Like you’re running out of time?
But…why? Yes, each breath we take takes us one step closer to the grave, but that’s not it, is it?
The world is a pomegranate and each seed a universe in itself. There is so much to do, to see, to try, but so little time. Hence we run, we race, we elbow each other and strive for the first place. The winner takes is all, the entire pie, leaving less and less for those of us who need a retry. Life is a zero-sum game, isn’t it? More for me means less for you.
Of course, that’s not true — as long as we don’t agree to it. There is a different way, a wiser path that teaches, shelters, and nourishes with each step.
That path is the path of enough. The path of choosing what to stick to and what to let go of. This world is a pomegranate, but a pomegranate too big for your jaws no matter how wide you can open them. You can eat any one of the seeds, any two, any three, but not all of them — no matter how much you fight for it, no matter how much you run for it. You cannot stuff it all down your gully.
It’s not a problem; it’s a blessing. If you could have everything, you’d value nothing. Stop running. Yes, you are running out of time. We all are, but don’t make that an excuse to waste said time rushing from A to B to C to Death by touching on a thousand different things, like a butterfly pollinating a thousand flowers. Slow down.
When you slow down, time slows down, too. Suddenly, there’s enough of it to do anything you want, provided you don’t try to do everything. Choose one thing, two, or three, and relinquish the rest.
You are running out of time only if you keep on running. Feel the depth of the world rush in through your eyes, your ears, your skin, through the very soles of your feet.
Imagine you’re in a desert and there’s an enormous green wall in front of you. You look up and to each of the sides. All you see is the green wall.
There’s another person in this desert some distance away. They see the same thing, only their wall is blue. The third person sees it as red, and the fourth as half red and half blue. As you can imagine, they all start bickering and arguing over the one true color of the wall.
After a while each person becomes so certain of their belief that they cannot change it even if they wanted to. They become terrified of the possibility of being wrong.
And so they bicker and argue.
Some kilometers away, there’s a writer sitting on a tall dune of sand with a journal and a pen in his hand. He opens the journal and writes a single sentence on the page:
“A multicolored brick cube sits in the desert and a bunch of people argue over it.”
It’s an exercise in recognising reality. A practice that helps call things out as they are, rather than as I’d want them to be. A lifelong journey in changing perspectives. Walking far enough from the wall that it bends into a cube and I learn about my illusions.
I write to avoid sleepwalking through life. To recognize reality. To open my eyes, you might say.
There are ways to do this other than writing. For some, it might mean long walks. Dance. Music. Conversation. Writing isn’t the only way, but it is my way.
I tell you this so that you might know what to expect of these Slow Letters. I’ve begun them three months ago out of sheer boredom. Boredom with Netflix, social media, political bickering, the chase after money, status, and the next gadget.
I’ve had enough of the walls. I want to learn to see the cube. Then, I want to journey the whole desert, the entire world, and into the great universe. I want to journey until the beauty becomes so great that even a writer puts down his pen, closes the journal and gazes in silence.
This essay is an attempt to find company on that journey.
I’m glad to have you here.
There’s a joke that goes:
“Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a hundred times.”
At first, people react with confusion, then a hearty laugh. I love the joke because it applies to anything. Like my writing.
I’ve always wanted to write. Every year or so I’d make up my mind to put pen to paper and write at least 3 pages a day. Or 5.
"Starting to write is easy. I’ve done in a hundred times already."
A week later I’d fail and forget about writing for another year, disappointed in my lack of perseverance. I was the smoker who sneaks out to inhale a puff or two after four days of going cold turkey.
It never occurred to me that I might have raised the bar too high. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I tried a different approach.
Instead of starting big, I decided to start.
I promised (to myself) to wake up, go straight to the desk and write a minimum of 250 words for an entire month.
Words, not pages. That’s less than half a standard page.
I also decided I wouldn't wake up to write well, only that I would write. As long as ink came out of my pen in the form of words and sentences, that was enough. I was writing. There was no one to impress, only a promise to keep.
The next morning I started. Ten minutes later, I was done.
A week later, I was still writing. Sometimes I’d write more than 250 words, but never less.
I held on to the promise.
Thirty days came and went and I burned to continue. First, I bought a few beers to celebrate my small success with a few friends. It's important. Then, I decided to write for another month, only this time it was to be 300 words a day. A small increase. Going from the atomic level to the level of bacteria.
Today, years later, I write about 300 - 600 words a day. Writing is a fundamental part of my life. Like a limb, or an organ.
Out of my pen came essays, novels, short stories, articles, essays adn poetry. I've had people thank me for helping them through a hard day and sleepless nights. To tell me they've shared something I wrote with siblings, parents, friends, partners and “enemies”. I made them laugh, or think, or curse out in disagreement.
It all grew out of a small promise to write 250 words a day.
Tiny, in fact. Smaller than that, even. Microscopic. Get in there with the bugs. Start on the scale of the bacteria, or the virus.
Baby, go atomic.
Someone recently claimed that the Chinese had invented and unleashed the Coronavirus. On purpose, to injure the non-Chinese residents of this blue planet we inhabit.
Is this possible?
Yes. The Chinese government could have devised and attempted such a plan. It falls within the scope of the behavior of a Homo Sapiens. After all, we’ve been killing each other in the most creative ways since we could pick up a piece of rock.
Cultivating a murderous virus is a logical continuation of the human tendency to beat the shit out of one another. Remember Cain and Abel? In other words — if it didn’t happen already, it likely will in the future.
Now, is it possible that the claim above is not true?
Yes. The virus could have sprung from a species of bat or mutated from an earlier, less dangerous strain of the virus. There’s no artist quite like biology. More than that, it is statistically much more likely that China had not done it. There’s no certainty but statistics does count for something.
Now, while both the first and second case is possible, the first one is much more satisfying. There is something in us that wants to pin the guilt on the big, bad, monstrous foreigner, especially one with morals as dubious as China’s.
“Fine,” I said, “let’s get into it then. What are the arguments?”
“China is a powerful economy. An ideological juggernaut hell-bent on brainwashing the entire species into speaking Chinese and getting a Mao Zedong haircut!”
While the above may conceivably be true, it says nothing about the origins of the virus. Non-sequitur. It does not follow. It would be like saying that, because the Nazis were killers, they must be at fault for all killings to have ever occurred.
“I read about an educated virologist, an eminent person, who claimed China was the mastermind behind the current crisis!”
Immediately, I used the godlike powers of Google to dig up other virologists who made no such claims. For every authority, there’s a rival authority.
“How can you even know your virologists are any good?”
“Excellent, appropriate question! Have you asked yourself the same?”
Then I was accused of trying to vindicate China and profess my adoration for the Great Leader and the glorious communist party. That’s the headache nowadays. Everything’s literal. No room for nuance. You’re either with us, or against.
Seeing how I couldn’t argue unreason with reason, I decided to switch tactics and stuck out my tongue.
It at least alleviated the tension.
Now, my point is merely this: don’t rush. Consider many perspectives without immediately choosing a side. Some topics are too complicated for quick judgment. The origins of the coronavirus, the existence of aliens, the harmfulness of 5G technology, secret societies running the world, global economic power dynamics…complicated, complex topics that have more theories than I did pimples back in high school.
Don’t give in to the urge to choose camp until you exhaust all ability to doubt and be skeptical. If a particular question has five theories, hold them all in your mind at once. Compare one to the other, see where they succeed and where they fail. Some of them will be similar, other diametrically opposed. It will be difficult to choose what to believe.
In the words of Scott F. Fitzgerald, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
The world is a radio, isn’t it?
Signal is not easy to come by and silence is an endangered species.
There’s this ancient Mesopotamian myth called the Enûma Eliš. It tells of the Old Gods, Apsu and Tiamat, who gave birth to a generation of noisy Young Gods. Frustrated, Apsu decides to kill them all so they can finally sleep in silence. I’m sure parents can relate, although I hope not entirely.
The Enûma Eliš is 3500 years old. What would the old mythmakers think of the modern Age of Noise?
I bring up the Enûma Eliš to show that it’s pointless to call for a return to the “good, old, noise-free times”. We’ve always been noisy. What’s changed is the scale. We can now produce more noise and so we do.
In the pre-industrial era, silence was a simple fact. It was everywhere while we were few and our means primitive. Only the privileged could amplify their vocal cords — in the Roman amphitheaters or European churches.
No one else.
Then the Industrial Era erupted into our collective consciousness, followed by the Information Age. Steam. Coal. Oil. Railways. Cars. Highways and speedways. Electricity. Telephone. Speakers. Airplanes. Microphone. Radio. Television. Megaphone. The Internet. Social Media. Smartphones. Open-floor-plan offices.
The unprivileged found their voice. Everyone can speak words into a microphone and have someone listen, miles away. The elites lost their monopoly. We stole the show. Silence has nowhere left to hide.
If that history trip sounds too fluffy, here’s a concrete example. A friend of mine works with the most powerful voice of the people — social media. Her job is to track what’s happening, where’s it happening, and how it reflects on her company’s brand. It’s a waterfall of noise, a downpour, in her own words. In a single day, she might go through twenty articles and a hundred posts. She remembers none of it the day after. How much of it do you remember?
Noise is now an integral part of our lives. It is indistinguishable from the modern city. Silence is the rainbow. Lovely, but no one knows where to find it.
All the kids know where’s Waldo, but where is silence?
It’s in the high-end, premium shops. Packaged and sold, like water. In a loud world, silence sells.
Think of your noise-canceling headphones and exclusive silent retreats. Meditation is the new black. Everyone’s doing yoga. All the vacation photographs show quiet beaches and solemn mountains.
It’s a need to get away from all the noise. You get on the airplane and make your way to a beach in Croatia or the Caribbean. You change into the summer clothes and lie down, ready to rest in silence.
Then you discover you can’t.
It’s been a long while since last you hung out with silence. You’re far removed from it. Where once you paid for silence now you’re ready to pay for noise and distraction. Spotify, Netflix, social media, instant messaging, endless surfing on the web. It doesn’t matter.
Just get rid of the silence.
Maybe the best example of this need for noise and distraction is the open-floor office plan. Who convinced us that endless noise and interruption foster better work? It might be that ‘management’ forced it on us. It might also be that we took it up eagerly. Endless noise, after all, means less silence.
It is a paradox. Yearning for silence while at the same time fearing it. I buy headphones to silence the noise, only to hit play the moment noise disappears.
Erling Kagge, a Norwegian polar explorer, calls it experiential poverty. It can be about the lack of experience, but also its abundance. If the answer to silence is absolute freedom to overdose on distraction then we’ll forever crave higher dosages. That is a kind of poverty in itself — never satisfied, always running. In the ocean of distraction, who will find me if I cannot find myself?
If I am to write about any of this it’s good to admit I’m as distracted as you are. Whenever silence comes visiting my mind gropes for distraction. What am I so afraid of?
I don’t know. The only thing that seems obvious is that life passes by while we crave more entertainment, more noise. How big of a TV do you need? As big as the ocean. Let it clutter every silence and drown the uncomfortable thoughts.
On occasion, I manage to run out of distraction to keep me occupied. A traffic jam, bad internet signal, forgetting my phone or just going to bed at night forces me to deal with silence. To peek inside the walls of my skull. There, instead of silence, I find an emotional rave party.
Where is this silence the oriental gurus talk about? All I hear on the inside is a madness of cyclical thought. Fear, regret, anxiety. Like boiling water, it all comes crashing against my willpower.
After a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is deal with all this crap. It’s easier to fire up Netflix and get on with it. That’s what most of us do anyway. Doesn’t that make it okay?
Maybe, if I buy into ‘okayness by numbers’. I don’t, on an intellectual level, but it’s hard to be conscious. It’s easier to do what others are doing. That’s got to be enough.
And it is.
It’ll get me through life like anybody else. I’ll drop off a little sooner or a little later, but I’ll get through it. Why bother with the onslaught of thoughts that comes with silence?
Why bother with even a single undistracted minute?
Look, you know the answer. No one has ever distracted their problems away. They come back, like unprotected sex. The thoughts, the emotion, the anxieties. Noise, no matter how addicting, can only ever repress the onslaught. It cannot resolve it.
The only way to resolve it is become friends again with silence. To remember that the onslaught exhausts itself if you hold out long enough. It cannot keep up, not when you’re watching. Kind of like shining a spotlight on a thief in the night. He blushes and, if you stare at him long enough, disappears. That’s all meditation is — being patient in silence and forcing the thief to blush.
None of this is fun, or easy, or cute. Having the courage to choose silence, every day, will exhaust you. There are no flashy rewards, no applause, only a whole lot of solitude. Over time, as you get better at it, the noise of your thoughts will settle. Stones on the ocean bottom. Undisturbed. Undistracted. Centered.
Not much more to say than that.
I realize you might disagree with the whole premise. That’s all right, of course. There’s nothing to prove here. None of it is about convincing you to do this or to do that. Whether you’ll invite more silence into your life doesn’t hinge on an essay from a guy in the online wilderness. It hinges on you.
And that’s the truth, as far as I can see it.
You wake up to a cold morning adorned with a clear sky. There is no better way to wake up. It’s the weekend. Finally. No work to do, not even a single obligation on the horizon. You can return to what’s important. Good food, exercise, a little meditation, reading, call a friend for a cup of conversation.
You even remember there’s fresh spinach and tomato in the fridge. After Friday night’s junk food you vow to let your intestines rest.
Your feet swing over the side of the bed. Skin touches the cold floor. A jolt of sensation shoots into your knees and you shudder. Toes search for the slippers.
Your eyes notice the brushed aluminum sheen of a Macbook on top of a pile of clothes. The machine sleeps but the sight of it brings up thoughts of Netflix. A little smile appears in the line of your mouth. Your feet abandon the cold floor and snuggle back under the covers. Blood red logo of Netflix fires up the screen. Wonderful. It’s an early Saturday morning and you’ll watch an episode or two.
Four episodes later it’s creeping midday. The Macbook runs out of battery and some part of you thinks:
You spill out of bed and into the bathroom. Splash water. Flush toilet. It’s time to begin the weekend with spinach and tomato and eggs. As you prepare breakfast your thoughts slither back to Netflix. Might as well watch while preparing breakfast. An episode or two. No more.
Five episodes later it’s late afternoon. You don’t remember what you had for breakfast but the stomach is growling. Your eyes are dry and you feel a slight pounding in your head. Outside, the sun will sink soon. You think it would be good to catch a ray of sunlight after a whole week of computer work and stark office lighting.
But first, the bathroom.
Splash water. Flush toilet. Then, you put the sneakers on. As you’re about to open the door you remember you’ve left the keys in the living room. You turn to get them. On the coffee table you see your Macbook charging. An episode, you think to yourself, and then you’ll go for a walk after sunfall. You’re a night owl, anyway.
Three hours later you’re starving. You manage to put on the jacket and tumble out of the apartment. Your mind doesn’t notice the darkness. It doesn’t even notice the firmament above, visible despite the light pollution. Your thoughts are on your dry eyes, the pounding headache and the idea of pizza. You’d think the narrative of your favorite show would swim around your head but it doesn’t. You don’t remember much besides the last episode or two. You’re not watching — you’re killing time.
The local store sells two frozen pizzas for the price of one. A steal. You get wine while you’re at it and a long bar of milk chocolate. It’s the weekend, goddamnit. You might as well splurge a little after, and before, a week’s worth of hard work. That’s what echoes in your head as you swipe the card on the 3rd pair of pizzas this week and the 5th bar of chocolate. Back out on the street, you hurry to the apartment. It’s uncomfortable to be outside, exposed, with nothing to distract you.
You unlock the door, fire up the oven, crack open the bottle of wine and break off a piece of chocolate. Hell, why not? You can’t think of a reason. It’s the weekend. Might as well live a little.
You’ve watched all the episodes of your favorite show but you still put on Netflix. In the “Recommended” section you find another show, figuring to pass the time until the food’s ready. The shows starts and you immediately know you don’t like it. Still, you watch, late into the night. Before you realize, the hands of the clock come together in prayer — it’s midnight.
How can that be? You’ve only just woken up, thinking of spinach, tomato and exercise. Tired, you undress and let the hot water run. You rub your temples and the dry eyes. It’ll be good to sleep, you think, and crawl into bed. You kill the light. Close your eyes. Then you wait.
Before long your thoughts begin to twist and rage. A hurricane of anxiety. Everything Netflix suppressed comes screaming back.
It’s three after midnight now. The room is quiet in the darkness. Below the covers, as if hiding, your bloodshot eyes await the bloody Netflix logo.
You choose an episode at random and hit play.
A chicken is a simple being. It wakes up, stretches its legs and wings, then goes about pecking at things the entire day long, has maybe a romp or two with the preening rooster, and sometimes manages one of those un-athletic looking attempts at flight, typical of chickens and ostriches. Then it’s time to hit the hay bed again. It may not sound like much of a life, but it’s a chicken’s life and the chicken is good at it. The chicken is content.
One day a swan appears, out of nowhere, blazing like the morning sun. The swan is in full heat and its plumes are a brilliant white that hurts the eyes. The chicken is dazzled. Even the swan is a little dazzled with himself. I mean, is it even fair to be this beautiful?
Leaving fairness aside, let’s return to the chicken who, after the swan has left, goes about its day as usual. Only this time, its thoughts are scattered. It cannot focus. The only thing it can think of is the magnificence of the flamboyant swan. The chicken realizes she doesn’t only admire the sparkling fellow. She realizes she wants to be the sparkling fellow. She wants to become the swan.
Ok, little chicken, ok. How will you do that?
Easy. The chicken remembers that a few of the swan’s resplendent feathers have fallen out right there by the brook. So she hops and fly-walks over to the brook, picks up the feathers, and decorates its chicken breasts. It’s a wonderful display and she puffs out her chest like a war general that’s never seen a war. She’s the envy of the neighborhood and life’s good.
There are a few problems though. The feathers keep falling out and dropping on the ground at the slightest move, so the chicken has to constantly pick them up and nest them back into her own brown plumage. Every time she does this, the swan feathers collect a little more dust and dirt, and their brilliance dims. Still, a swan’s feather is a swan’s feather. It’s classy and the chicken’s happy. It also helps that she’s the envy of the neighborhood. Goes a long way.
During the night, the chicken carefully hides her decorum, already dreaming of the wonderfulness of the next day as she, once more, dazzles the eyes of the other chickens. In the morning, she hides away behind some old crates, spending hours arranging the swan feathers so they’d be lodged firmly enough for at least one catwalk around the coop. Sometimes she has to pluck out her own brown feathers so the new ones can fit, but it’s a small sacrifice. Once she’s done, she takes a deep breath and swaggers out into the coop which she views now as her oyster. I don’t know how she knows what an oyster is.
In any case, as days go by, she notices that fewer and fewer of the other chickens pay her any attention. The novelty of it has passed, but our chicken thinks it’s the envy that keeps her comrades’ eyes peeled to the ground. She balloons out her chest, studded with now dirty swan feathers, trying to take up as much space as possible. She, after all, has become the swan.
On the other side of the brook, if you look carefully into the bushes, you can see the tip of a wet nose. It’s a fox, of course, because every story about chicken has to involve a fox. It’s terribly predictable but that’s where we are.
The fox eyes the chicken coop, trying to ignore its rumbling belly. It’s been a while since it had eaten anything and the thought of a throbbing chicken neck in its jaws is almost more than it can bear. The fox starts stalking the coop but the hunger makes it sloppy. The chickens are nervous. They sense there’a bad thing in the air and, as if by some unspoken command, they all hide inside the coop. The only one left on the feeding grounds is the browning swan, as proud as ever.
“Come! Run inside!”
“Hide in the coop!”
“Run, you fool!” yell the other chickens from the safety of the coop.
“I’m no chicken!” yells the swan back, its eyes terribly red and pulsating. “I’m a swan!”
The swan cranes its neck, sees the fox, and smiles…silly fox, what’s it going to do?
“Nothing! You can’t touch me!” screams the swan as it spreads its magnificent wings and takes flight.
Or, well, it tries too. Two things prevented it.
One, the sharp teeth of a fox sinking into its neck. It’s quite hard to fly like that.
Two, the fact that it wasn’t a swan. For all its stolen plumage, a chicken is a chicken.
It cannot fly.