Red Queen at Morning
A 4-Part Metaphysical Adventure
P. Orin Zack
Part 1: Red Queen at Morning
People sometimes get so wrapped up in the need for their answers to be right that they lose sight of the need for them to be useful. The ancient system of circular epicycles, which Claudius Ptolemy perfected in the 1st century, was eminently useful for predicting the motion of planets. When Nicolai Copernicus proposed a sun-centered scheme in the 16th century, he replaced an intricate answer with an elegant one, but both still worked. In the 20th century, Albert Einstein found situations where Isaac Newton’s laws of motion were not useful, and formulated others that were.
The existence of simpler or more precise answers shouldn’t stop us from considering others, but rather teach us to be conscious of which one is the most useful for a given situation. Sometimes, as Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen implied, the only way to really understand something is to hold more than one model of it in our thoughts at once.
There’s much research and debate about the nature of consciousness, and various models of how it works. Yet just as with epicycles, a model of it doesn’t have to be ‘right’ to be useful.
Like most people, I usually think of my ‘self’ as being in the same place as my body; in particular, behind my eyes and between my ears. Conveniently, that’s where our brains are located, and biology tells us that the brain is where all the activity happens when we think and dream. So the easy conclusion is that consciousness resides in the brain. But does it necessarily? All we can really conclude from this is that the brain is involved in consciousness, which is a good model to have, because it leads to all kinds of useful medical knowledge and techniques. But it doesn’t answer the bigger question of where, if anywhere, consciousness really resides.
A good reason to look for a better model is finding situations in which the existing one is not very useful, or at least gives suspicious answers. To Copernicus, it was the retrograde motion of planets; to Einstein, it was the world of the very small or the very fast. In studying consciousness, we need look no further than our dreams, where we seem to inhabit not only places we’ve never been to, but other people’s bodies as well.
What do we really know about our dreams, anyway? We have memories, when we awaken, of having been somewhere, doing something, as someone. But because the place and the people are usually different from what we believe to be real, we easily discard the experience as a fleeting fiction and return to reality. After all, we woke up to the same world we went to sleep in, even if it is several hours later. Yet, if we stop to examine the memory of our dreams, we almost always report them as if we were in some other world that we took to be real while we were there. Most of the time, our ‘dream-selves’ don’t realize that we’re dreaming. They believe that they’re in whatever place they find themselves in, accept whatever identity they appear to have in that place, and attempt to continue as before. Except, what was ‘before’? And where is ‘there’?
All of which means that either we’re actually experiencing some other pre-existing ‘reality’, or we are all a lot more creative than anyone had given us credit for. After all, it would take a lot of work to fabricate a complete world like those we dream we’re in. A model of consciousness that insists that every one of us has the talent and creativity to do just that is acting quite suspiciously. And that might mean we’re on the trail of something better.
* * * Cutting Class * * *
Unless you’re having a lucid dream — one in which you’re aware of being in a dream — you simply accept whatever situation you find yourself in as real. I don’t know about you, but I’m even more likely to do so if the situation I find myself in is threatening. To do otherwise would be just as foolish as insisting that a safe about to fall on me was a figment of my imagination. Suddenly becoming aware that the safe really is nothing more than an illusion — waking up to the ‘reality’ of the dream — would be a truly liberating experience. That realization would change your understanding of everything else. At least it did for me.
I was late for a lab session in a class I was taking at some kind of school. When I walked in, the students were queuing up behind a pair of parallel marks on the floor. As each student reached the first mark, they leaped to the other one, and then quietly returned to their seats. It didn’t make much sense to me, but as my turn approached, I noticed that halfway through each jump the student shimmered slightly. When I reached the first mark, I still had no idea what was expected of me, but I jumped anyway — and abruptly opened my eyes in bed.
There was no just-waking sensation, no bleary eyed return to reality. One instant I was jumping towards a mark on the floor, and the next I was staring at the ceiling of my room. I was startled, but still had no clue to what had happened. My sudden awakening, mid-stride of a dreamtime lab experiment, shed an unreal light on everything. The dream, if that’s what it was, refused to fade into memory as the day dragged by. Instead, the mystery of whatever lesson was being taught there made my mundane waking reality of bits and bytes feel pale beside it; I found I was more interested in what that place was about than in the program I was supposed to be writing.
That afternoon, when I finally realized what the lab was all about, I put my job duties on automatic and wandered around in a daze, furiously working through the implications. Halfway through my dream jump, at the instant when the others had shimmered, I woke up: I switched from being in the dream to being awake. I switched contexts. If I did the same thing that the others had done, then they also woke up halfway through their jumps. But each of them completed their jumps, which meant that they also returned to the dream after being awake — returned to precisely the same place, and at the same instant that they had left. Therefore, if I continued to follow that same pattern, when I went to sleep that night, I would re-enter the lab dream and complete my jump. The thought sent shivers down my spine.
Until that moment, the best difference between waking and dreaming that I could come up with was that there was continuity in reality: I woke back into it and picked up where I left off. In contrast, my dreams were always different. After that lab dream, I didn’t know what to think.
* * * Hacking Reality * * *
Realizing that my entire boring day could take place in the blink of a dream’s eye was unnerving, to say the least, but finding the same thought reflected in the process swapping of a computer gave me a place to hang my thoughts. Pursuing the metaphor, I imagined both dream and reality as pieces of program code, and myself as the processor running them. Each context would appear ‘real’ while I was in it, neither one needed to know or care about the other, and each had its own constants and variables, which could represent space and time. From that perspective, there really wasn’t any basis for claiming one context was more real than another.
To my warped sense of humor, it was like the M. C. Escher sketch of two hands drawing each other, since the dream was now affecting my reality. Well, except for the minor inconvenience of having only one waking reality and who knew how many different dreaming ones. Unless, or course, not all dreams were equally real – and that brought me right back to square one. Well, are they?
If all dreams were as real as waking reality, the only difference between a lunatic and a visionary would be the nature of their dreams and what they chose to do with them. If making dreams real were simply a matter of sharing them with others, then we would have far greater control over how our shared world turns out – for better or worse — than we might have imagined.
Now there’s a subversive thought.
Turning my attention back to the problem of many dreams and one reality, I wondered whether we all even lived in the same reality. After all, people’s concerns are so different from one another that they might just as well be in separate worlds. The idea of walking a mile in someone’s moccasins to know them might be a more important insight than I had anticipated. Still, what if you could experience the world through other eyes? I decided to wrestle with that thought later; my more immediate concern was what to make of all those dreams.
Since dreams are not only private, but also easily forgotten, we don’t generally talk much about them. Well, sometimes we try to interpret them, or have someone do it for us. But by and large, we wake, they fade, and life goes on. Some dreams, however, are memorable. Nightmares, like one I had about gargoyles climbing in the window of my 4th floor Chicago apartment, are like that. So are some of my flying dreams. Lots of books and movies probably started out as memorable dreams. Most forgotten dreams probably just rehash the day’s annoying moments, or let you fantasize doing something about them. The dream that was happily disrupting my workday seemed to be instructional. So maybe some dreams are just for entertainment, while others have some purpose. What if you couldn’t tell the difference? Might some people get lost in their dreamtime fantasies, forget how to switch contexts and wake up, and live their dreams here? What would a psychologist make of that, I wondered.
Okay, then. If even some dreams are as real as this, where do they take place? We have no physical evidence of their existence. But then, how could we? If all we can measure are things within our current shared context, like the computer’s processor being aware only of variables within the current program, then it’s logical to have no measurable information from other contexts. All we could know about is stuff from the current program – the reality of the moment. Obeying that rule makes it possible to run complex programs on computers, so perhaps a similar rule applies to contexts such as dreams and reality. Now there’s a thought: if there were an operating system for reality, how would you hack into it, and what would you do if you could?
Speaking of reality being like some kind of cosmic operating system, what did this model say about what happens when your consciousness executes an END statement: in other words, when you die? All we really know is that the body stops working. We can measure that much. What we can’t measure is what happens to the consciousness of the person who until then considered that body home. Sure, some people report near-death experiences, but they’re no different than any other dream. They could be as real as this, or not. With no information, all we can do is guess, and there have been a lot of guesses over the centuries. Heaven and hell, reincarnation — pick any model you’d like, they all have the same limitation: no facts, just faith.
So if I can live my entire boring day during a flicker of my dream’s reality, and time in one place has nothing to do with time in the other, why couldn’t I live an entire lifetime the same way? I mean, really, what’s to say that between the two ends of the flicker in my dream, I couldn’t be born, have a full life, and die? There really isn’t any difference between that and just spending a single day between the flickers.
From that perspective, the questions of where consciousness comes from before birth and what becomes of it after death both have the same answer: somewhere else. That intrigued me, because I might have just been there, and I wanted to know more about it. It certainly didn’t fit the description of heaven or hell, or of any other mystical realm I’d heard of. The closest I could come was the place where Edgar Cayce said the Akashic Records were stored. If my new model said anything, it said that some dream worlds were real enough to visit. I knew this one had classrooms, or at least one of them. And I wanted to go back.
Part 2: Forms of Expression
The problem with dreams is that they don’t generally take requests. After being sucked into one that turned my life into a lab experiment, I wanted to return the favor. Unfortunately, the only dreams I seemed to be having were the usual assortment of nocturnal diversions: flying, getting lost somewhere, stuff like that. Then, one night, I found myself standing by a bookcase, eye-level to three volumes propped up on an otherwise empty shelf.
My dream-self had come here for a reason, and was certain that those books held the answers. I examined the silver spine of the middle one, then slid it out and opened the cover. Instead of ink on paper, I found colored patterns moving across sheets of some kind of shiny material. At the time it was something out of science fiction, but now DARPA is working on flexible displays just like them. Since I hadn’t a clue how to read the morphing shapes, I slipped the book back onto the shelf and scanned the room.
Like some early-generation first-person shooting game, the details around me seemed to coalesce as I watched, and remained in place once they were rendered. In a way, it was like seeing the details of an ad-libbed story come to life. And as if that weren’t enough, when I looked back at the bookcase, it was now full of books. The ones lining that eye-level shelf broadened the topic that my dream-self been looking for, as if the shelf were implementing a search engine’s ‘find similar documents’ option. Thing was, this happened before the first browser was created, when the only people who knew about the Internet were tech freaks and researchers.
Needless to say, I was hooked, and decided to explore. The one door in that small room was on the wall behind the bookcase. I walked over to it, then, after staring at the handle for a moment, I took a deep breath and pushed. It swung out onto a typical institutional hallway. I didn’t see anyone, so I stepped through for a look around, and started following my nose. There were doors here and there, but after not encountering any intersections for an uncomfortably long time, I wondered aloud where the end of the corridor was. Before I’d finished the thought, one was suddenly staring me in the face. It just appeared out of nowhere, but felt like it had always been there – I just hadn’t noticed it. I don’t have to tell you how quickly that shut me up. Seeing that intersecting corridor suddenly appear had one other effect: it jarred me awake within the dream.
Suddenly, a new sense installed itself in my psyche. When I mouthed the question, “What is this place, anyway?” an answer presented itself: The Great Interdimensional Library. A bit overblown, perhaps, but at least now I had a name for it. On the other hand, I was beginning to feel like a lyric out of Pink Floyd, since the voice in my head wasn’t me. But what the heck, I thought, it’s just a dream. Let’s see where this other corridor goes.
Under the circumstances, that might not have been the best way to phrase my thought, because the only thing the place seemed to want to do was go. I could have been on some university campus for all the corridors, stairwells and carefully planted courtyards I wandered through. One thing it didn’t seem to have was a map that made any sense. Now, I can get lost pretty easily, but there was no way that floor plan could be built. The structure that the hallways implied seemed to intersect with itself without regard for where other parts of it were. Which may have been why the voice in my head called it an Interdimensional Library. Fortunately, I knew I was dreaming, so I let my interfering logic fly off like a little bird, and continued exploring.
As I got used to the place — and that took several more unplanned visits — I grew to understand how it worked. In a way, it was like dining in one of those impossibly proper restaurants where there’s never anything on your table that you don’t need right this moment, and nothing that you need right now is ever missing. Invisible stage ninjas make it all happen without being noticed, so you can enjoy the dining experience to the fullest without distraction.
I learned that if I were focused on finding an answer to some problem I was struggling with, like on my first visit, I’d experience the Library as a shelf with a few books, or a table with a game to be played. If I relaxed enough to look around, there would be lots of other books or games, arranged so that those most like my quarry would be closest to it. On the other hand, if I had no particular destination in mind, and was happy to wander, the place would dynamically rearrange itself to suit my passing interests. Over time, I found the latter approach to be more enjoyable, even if the results were dizzying at times.
In reflection of this, the world I woke back into started to look different as well, just not in quite the same way. This was more a change to my perceptions than anything else, but it had a profound effect on me. When I watched the news, or listened to an argument, I could almost feel the world rearranging itself to portray a particular reality as each side experienced it. If my experience was a useful insight, then I had to conclude that everyone was not sharing the same reality. No wonder they had so much trouble finding solutions to some problems. Unfortunately, although both sides thought they were not only speaking the same language, but also living in the same world, they were actually doing neither. Seen this way, I wasn’t surprised when what had previously seemed reasonable compromises were rejected out of hand. Working out solutions to some of those political and social problems would require a wholly different approach to satisfy anyone. At times, I felt like I’d just dropped in from Mars or somewhere.
As I grew more comfortable with the constant reframing needed to appreciate the gulf separating the parties to disputes in the news, something else fell into place. Lateral Thinking is Edward de Bono’s strategy for looking at problems in ways that logic doesn’t offer, so you can find solutions that only make sense in retrospect. Under the circumstances, it seemed that I might be exploring a realm that obeyed other kinds of rules, so I extended the reframing metaphor a bit.
* * * Dreaming in Class * * *
The next time I found myself in the Library, I was on my way to another class that my dream-self had signed up for. This one was on the Topology of StorySpace, whatever that was. When I walked in, the lecture was just getting underway, and the instructor had drawn some conic sections on the board, one each of a circle, ellipse, parabola and hyperbola. There was also a point, a straight line, and lots of literary references scattered about. Intrigued, I took my seat and listened.
We began by exploring the parallels between language and geometry, starting with some terms. When you make a statement, your thought could be represented as a geometrical point, in that it has a beginning, but doesn’t go anywhere. If you then describe one of the implications of your statement, but do not turn it into a narrative, your speech could be represented as a line. That is, unless you just kept talking, in which case it would be more like a ray, which has an origin and a direction, but no end.
Narratives make more interesting shapes. For example, you trace an ellipse by keeping the total distance to two fixed points (focuses, or to use the irregular plural, focii) constant. If the shape is not symmetrical, one of these is called the major focus, and the other one the minor focus. An ellipsis, usually denoted by three dots (…), is a literary form in which the reader intuits an omitted element. In this context, the omitted element would be the minor focus of our ellipse.
A simple elliptical story might describe the adventures of Joey, who sits down to watch TV, but soon gets up and starts searching for something. During the course of the tale, the storyline, or ellipse in this case, was first driven by one focus (Joey’s desire to watch Sesame Street), and then by his search for something, until Joey finds his teddy bear behind the TV and they watch Big Bird together. The minor (implied) focus of this story is Joey’s missing toy.
Understanding that much made it easier to grasp the relationship between a parabola and a parable, as well as that between a hyperbola and hyperbole. Parabolas were the more interesting ones. Their geometric form traces a path that remains equidistant to a point and a line. The literary equivalent uses a narrative, whose focus is a point that represents the protagonist, to express what might have been told less effectively as a line. Done well, this method of storytelling can hold onto an audience for thousands of years.
Going from two to three dimensions, however, was a whole different ballgame. As the instructor explained it, the reason some stories and characters seem flat is because they are, in StorySpace at least. A character or story that can be described with a single conic section has no depth. To make them more interesting, the writer would add other aspects of the character that describe shapes on different axes within StorySpace. These additional characteristics transform our flat conic section into a three-dimensional shape that bends and curves in different ways. (And just like space in our waking reality, StorySpace isn’t limited to three dimensions either.)
For example, if Joey’s favorite bear had been ripped to shreds by the neighbor’s dog last week, we’d understand why he was anxious about this one being lost, and his trip through StorySpace might end up looking more like an egg. He’d be a more ‘rounded’ character, and the story would be more interesting, but he’d still be fairly predictable. If the writer went on to add other textures to Joey’s character — say for example, that he’d been abducted by the aliens who had scared the dog, and was now watching TV in a UFO — our egg would stretch and deform into something even more interesting.
After a break, the class shifted gears and discussed the shapes created in StorySpace by a variety of events and characters from literature and history. Those that were the most memorable had a wealth of subtle deformities, while still retaining a strong overall structure that reflects strength of character or the overriding motivation behind the action. In a way, those conic sections were like Plato’s ideal forms, and the textures woven into them were like character lines on a weathered face. Identifying the shapes in existing tales and lives was easy compared to the homework challenge: draft a story that had a shape defined by a series of complex geometrical formulae.
That’s when I woke up, and realized that this shape stuff also applied to me. After all, if I can think of some person from history as a character in a story…
By then, I was resigned to the fact that I was going to be running around like a zombie again while I worked though the implications of this latest shock to my psyche. Sigh. By the end of the day, it was clear to me that the reason some people were leaders or role models was because the story of their lives made a strong shape in StorySpace, and that shape resonated with our own aspirations – the shapes we’d like our own lives to develop into.
Once again, stories in the news took on a whole new meaning. I was already used to seeing the different worlds that each side in a conflict was living in, thanks to my impromptu tours of the Library. Now, I was beginning to sense the shapes created by the people and organizations in those conflicts. Some of them felt more substantial than others, which I took to mean that I resonated more to those. I suspect that what I learned in that class was simply how to become aware of what we all experience every day when we get a feeling about someone of something.
And that started me thinking about ESP phenomena…
Part 3: Adding a Dimension
A brown stripe slid across the grassy picture fragment in my hand. I was so engrossed in wondering what it was that when I suddenly felt its shape change, I dropped it like I’d been stung and woke into the reality of the dream.
On my earlier exploration of the Great Interdimensional Library, I’d discovered all manner of things. Lining the halls and courtyards of its oddly mutable campus were innumerable rooms hosting a variety of activities. The first rooms I encountered were most like the small bookroom I’d woken into on that visit, though their content expanded the idea I had of books to include not only recorded words, sounds and images but also wholly immersible invented realities that put the best VR visionaries of my time to shame. As my understanding of the place grew, so did the variety of activities I encountered — lecture halls, theaters, laboratories and so forth. I was especially fascinated by the game rooms, but because I was still learning how to experience the Library, the only things there that I could make any sense of were the ones similar to what I already knew, such as the Brownian Jigsaw Puzzle before me.
I picked up the fallen piece and set it on the table among a host of others like it. They all held gently changing fragments of whatever picture the puzzle hid, and they all squirmed like the one I’d dropped. Judging from the colors and textures, I guessed it to be a picture of a horse in a meadow under a cloudy sky. A portion of the meadow had already been started. Looking closer, I found that the fragments from which it had been built seemed to have lost their individual identities, that the picture so far constructed was a seamless whole. I sat back to consider what this puzzle was and how to solve it, and was lost in that reverie when the voice in my head whispered, “It’s not a spectator sport, you know.”
Watching those pieces was like staring into a shattered mirror. If I was right about that horse, it was wandering around the meadow, pieces of it randomly jumping across the table onto whatever pieces held the place it wanted to be next.
I reached towards one of the greenish pieces and rested my finger on it. At my touch, it froze in place: the grass in the image stopped being ruffled by a breeze, and its shape stopped oozing. When I lifted my finger, it returned to life. I touched several other pieces, to the same result. Interesting, but how do you solve a picture puzzle when both the image and the shapes don’t sit still? Solving those I was familiar with only took matching image and shape to another piece, but here the only way to do that was to freeze the piece first. But which piece, and did I look for a matching picture, or a matching shape?
I settled on the former alternative for the sake of having something to try. After scanning my zoo of little puzzle life forms for a minute, I selected one and rested my finger on it. Once I’d confirmed that it had frozen, I slid it over towards the part of the picture that I wanted to add it to. I rotated the piece to align the image, but it was obvious that the shape was hopelessly mismatched. Yet as I sat there, finger on frozen piece, wondering what to do next, the thing began to ooze again, only this time, the picture stayed put. It seemed that the trick would now be identifying the right time to act, to slide the mutating piece into place just as its shape conformed to what I needed. And that’s exactly what happened: when I slid the piece home, it joined into the rest of the picture and became one with it.
With the method in hand, the rest would be simple mechanics. I stayed and put the rest of the puzzle together. I don’t know how long – in dream ‘time’ – it took, but it went quickly and the strategy grew more comfortable as I repeated it. First focus on what you want, then on where and when you want it. As I slid the final piece of cloud into place, the picture I was constructing seemed to change in a way I couldn’t quite understand. The horse, which had been wandering the meadow, idly nibbling on the grass, looked straight out at me for a moment, then galloped off into the woods and was gone.
I must have stared at the vacant meadow for quite some time, because thirst was the next sensation I remember. As I was getting ready to wander off in search of something to drink, a well-dressed stranger sat down across from me and slid a glass of iced tea in my direction. “Thirsty?” he asked.
“Thanks,” I said after a long drink. Whatever kind of tea that was, I’d never tasted anything like it, but it would probably sell well as a clarifying formula if the discussion that followed is any indication. We started out talking about the puzzle I’d just finished, but the topic soon galloped off into the woods like the horse in the picture had done.
It seems that my puzzle, and most of the other diversions here, had a dual purpose. Like the edutainment CDs hawked to parents of lagging students, it kept you busy while sneaking the lesson in under your RADAR. In my case, the lesson was that process I had to master in order to fit the pieces together: first what, then where and how. The sneaky part was realizing this lesson applied to normal, waking reality as well. Not that this was a blinding insight, by any means, but it was so easy to get hypnotized by the appearance of things, that you can forget how much control we each have over the course of our lives. Dream it, then do it. Literally.
After a lengthy pause and a slow drink, he asked me whether the StorySpace Topology class I’d taken was helping me understand my home context any better. Unsure of the terminology, I asked what he meant by it. I was expecting him to say that it was the reality I fell asleep in to come here, and to which I’d awaken when I left, but instead he asked if I recalled the lab session I participated in on my first visit. From the point of view of that class, it was the home context, because each student left it in mid-jump, and then returned to the same time and place to complete the leap. Mine, he said, was still the one I’d fallen asleep in, but that was starting to change. After all, I’d been looking forward to returning to the Library in my dreams, and any place you return to is home, after a fashion. Where you live is home, of course, but a summer retreat, your lover’s arms, or a parent’s house can be home as well.
“The Topology class…?” he prompted.
I had to admit that although I was pretty clear on how the shape a story makes affects our response to it, and had realized that our own lives could be looked at as stories, I was still in the dark regarding what to do with the insight. I could see how it explained why some historical figures had more staying power than others, that these people became role models through the resonance it caused, but how did that help me live my own life?
He tapped the puzzle I’d been working on, intermittently freezing and releasing the breeze ruffling the meadow. “It’s like this.” He said. “If you know what shape you’d like your life’s story to make, the choices will follow. Dream it, then do it.”
I wondered if he was reading my mind.
We got to talking about the larger stories that my life was a tiny part of, and those that I doubted my existence had any effect on: politics, large and small; the economy; terrorism of all flavors. Considering these things as stories being written as they happen offers a different perspective on the events and choices that drive their path through StorySpace. Identifying the foci behind the curves — recognizing the driving influences creating the shapes — helps to highlight actions and choices that are inconsistent, that don’t ring true to the claimed objectives of political parties, advocacy groups, or any other kind of social, economic or political organism. It’s not the only way to recognize incongruent events, but it does help to confirm the hints you gather from careful observation or logical analysis. The difference is that this method is something better felt than thought.
Games and puzzles here are crafted to help visitors learn how to better understand and deal with life in their home context, whatever that might be. The ones that you are drawn to, and in some sense the ones you can even recognize as games or puzzles, are those that are best suited to serve your needs at the moment. For me, that meant a puzzle to help me piece together an understanding of the new world I’d started to explore, because my waking world was growing in subtlety and complexity in reflection of my exploration of the Library.
In fact, I’d begun to count my visits here as part of my waking reality, even though they occurred while I was dreaming. So my home context now extended across a kind of waking/sleeping boundary.
When I refocused my eyes, I realized that my new friend was smiling, and asked why. He said that I was about to cross another of those boundaries, after which the world is forever changed, and that he enjoyed the experience when it happens to him. Then he clammed up.
Frustrated, I scanned the room for another diversion I could start on while we talked, and settled on what looked like a 3D jigsaw puzzle. I gestured towards it, and rose to walk, but as I took my first step, the Brownian puzzle noisily cracked into pieces and scattered itself across the table, a fragmented horse reappearing among the pieces.
“I see you’ve already added a dimension,” he said.
Ignoring him for the moment, I examined the pieces of this new puzzle, and concluded that they weren’t animated. I guessed it to be a sculpture of some kind, based on the easy distinction between the interlocking surfaces and the smooth ones. To learn its shape, I could use a technique that worked on the flat puzzle and assemble the matching surface pieces, then fill in the rest. But because this was a 3D puzzle, that would be impossible, as the remaining pieces would be inside the already constructed shell. Unfortunately, I had the uneasy feeling that this was exactly how the puzzle was to be solved.
While assembling the puzzle’s skin, I asked what my friend’s home context was.
Not getting an answer, I continued working in silence.
After a bit, he said he’d tell me when I could understand the answer. For now, I’d have to settle for further discussion. I guessed that he had something in mind when he said that, because we immediately launched into a survey of the kinds of contexts that people experienced. After exhausting the gamut of social, political, vocational and every other kind of specialized world that people surrounded themselves with, we looked inside to intensely personal worlds like dreams, nightmares and fantasies.
I’d run out of shell pieces, and had stopped to examine the interior parts to my puzzle, when I realized that in some way the discussion and my puzzle were one. I had more pieces to add, but no way to see the places to mate them. Now what?
My friend suggested that I reach inside the skin and feel around for the place to put my next piece. Having solved the other puzzle, this didn’t seem strange, so I gave it a try, but instead of sliding through the pieces I’d assembled as if they were mist, my fingers shattered the skin and turned my sculpture to rubble. Clearly, I’d need to learn some other technique to solve this puzzle.
Having exhausted my diversion, I fell back into the discussion. There were some other contexts that we hadn’t considered yet. I’d thought about them after the lab session, but hadn’t added them to the understanding I’d been building today. If there’s a place, a context, that we experience after what we think of as death, or before birth for that matter, what about that? If it exists, and there’s a perspective from which that place is home, then there’s also one that includes both it and our waking ones. What would that be like? Is that what we’ve called the soul? And what of it’s own home context, what does that include?
“In your case,” he said, “it includes me.”
Part 4: Tangent to Two Lives
He boldly looked me in the eye and raised his open palm into my line of sight. I was late for an appointment, and had no interest in supporting a lifestyle prohibited by the Seattle law against aggressive panhandling. The moment froze.
My world had been upended several times lately, first by my dreamside visits to the Great Interdimensional Library, and then by the realizations triggered by those visits. Jumping the three-foot lab floor chasm between dreaming and waking had shown me that reality was what you made of it: if you experience it, you would be wise to assume it was real. So whatever this fellow’s life was about, it was as real to him as mine was to me, and he was most likely doing his best to survive. I had experienced him as a derelict begging for a handout, and assumed the worst about him. But what was his life really about, and what might he have assumed about me?
If this were chess, such a surface analysis would be like assessing where the pieces were while ignoring what came before and what that meant about the kind of game my adversary was playing. Without an understanding of that, I could neither gauge his next move nor prepare to counter it: my own actions would not be founded on wisdom.
In a way, it was like the 3D puzzle I’d failed to solve on my previous visit to the Library. I had fit the outside surface together easily, but then couldn’t reach inside to add the remaining pieces without shattering the shell. But what if that failure was the lesson? I was now facing a similar problem: I’d built an image of what I thought this man was about, and wanted to know what lay inside. But to reach that awareness, I would have to destroy the easy picture I’d shown myself about him.
I looked quizzically into his eyes as the moment stretched, wordlessly asking permission to enter, and felt a boundary gently fade. It was as if I had fallen forward through the sudden absence of a wall, then caught my balance to look around. Our encounter was tangent to two lives, a single instant from the shapes made by our two very different paths through whatever realities we each inhabited; it felt like an exercise from the StorySpace Topology class I had taken at the Library. The instructor had said that you can’t tell much from a single point, a single instant in time, but if you can feel the meaning of the curve it is on, you can understand enough.
Seeking an Understanding
Before I woke from the game room, the stranger I had met there told me that my home context included him, that one of the curves in my own life’s story was a journey of personal exploration that in time would bend back and return to a context that he was also a part of. It felt more than that, though; more like he was that context and that I was somehow as much a part of him as my dream-self was a part of me — or rather, dream-selves. After all, I had lots of dreams, and each one seemed to be me while I was in it.
In a similar way, you could consider all the roles that a person plays during a lifetime to be lesser selves that together make up the whole person: child, sibling, parent, student, teacher, employee, employer, tourist, explorer, activist, authority, caregiver, care needer. If, at its end, you were to review your life, you could tell the story linearly, one day after another, or you could pull threads of meaning from it and make several stories that overlap and interweave. The latter would likely be more instructive; it would certainly be more entertaining.
I suspected that if I were to tell my own life story, I would not only leave out the boring parts, but also turn it into several pseudo-lives, one of which would be my dream life adventures in the Library. It would certainly be as real to me as one I might tell about writing software, or one about losing my lifemate and finding her again.
Reality twisted, and I blinked back a sudden glare of footlights. I felt something in my hands, and looked down at a familiar-looking book with flowing colors where words ought to have been. The darkened auditorium beyond the stage was packed, and I had a sense that I was in the middle of reading my own biography from the book, or rather a kind of meta-story of which my own life was a small part. I panicked, and found myself back on the street corner. I thought I saw an odd smile on a ghostly face overlaying the man’s features, but it faded as quickly as it had appeared.
I considered my quandary again, only now my imagined chess game had exploded like a kernel of popcorn into a skein of possible pasts and futures, with the only fixed point being the current arrangement of pieces. Each of us might have come to this moment in any number of ways, and could leave it in many more. The man with his palm out could be the derelict I had assumed him to be, or the mentor I needed to guide me through some impending crisis of consciousness; I could be the means to his next bottle of swill, or the person who would enable him to finally learn the one karmic lesson that had eluded him through countless living contexts. There was no way to know, no way to judge.
Something must have happened to me during that heart-pounding interlude on-stage, because my perspective abruptly altered. Instead of agonizing over the fate of two shallow lives on a street corner, I was now calmly observing the intersection of threads from two far more intricate and involving stories, ones that not only had multiple first-person selves, but a subtle intermingling of experience among them. Our various lives, like my many dreams, all seemed to be happening at once, each caught at some stage of his or her own complete story. Seen this way, my odd fascination with coriander began to make sense: one of those parallel lives was involved in the spice trade a few hundred years ago. Instead of a linear progression of lives that many people knew as reincarnation, this was a more complex web of co-incarnation. And there was also another perspective – the one experiencing those lives as if they were dreams.
If there was a parallel between my dreams and this strange new perspective, then what was the purpose of our lives? I had discovered that some of my own dreams were instructional, while others were simply for entertainment. Could that be true of these co-incarnating lives as well? Did some people lead lives of quiet desperation merely to entertain whatever being dreamed them up, or could their struggles actually have some deeper purpose? I had benefited from what I had learned in my dream classes at the Library, so perhaps the dreamer of our lives uses them in the same way. Indeed, just as people have different learning strategies, such a being might as well.
And that brought me right back to my earlier thought about whether each of us somehow needed a role to be played in our lives, a role that the other person might well be on this corner to play out. Still, the problem remained: you couldn’t tell.
None of this helped me to decide how to respond to the extended palm of the man I encountered on that street corner. I couldn’t know what his life was really about, but I could know about my own. So perhaps the solution was to look inward for an answer.
What was my own life about, and what was I in search of? Enlightenment, certainly; I was forever drawn to subjects and experiences that offered novel perspectives and ways to understand them. That was what had intrigued me about Escher’s sketches and Bach’s fugues; it was what led me through a succession of software and database contracts, then insisted that I spend my time writing about what I’d learned, frequently in the form of technical manuals, but also in complex fiction. Even my favorite form of humor reflected the same pattern: puns, after all, are based on setting up a linguistic expectation, then twisting it into something unexpected. The humor was based on surprise, as if you’d crept up behind yourself and shrieked.
It struck me that perhaps my street-corner encounter was a kind of performance pun. After bringing me to this situation with a set of carefully orchestrated assumptions, something would jump out from behind a parked car and change my life forever. When I became aware that I was dreaming, I could begin to direct the course of the dream and use it to explore the dream’s reality. Perhaps the self who was dreaming my real life was doing the same thing, becoming aware of his or her ability to direct the course of those lives while in them. But if that were true, who was this man, and what were we supposed to be doing? Was he another dream/life extension of the greater self I was becoming increasingly aware of, or part of another? For that matter, could it be that those selves were also just dreams in the life of an even more expansive being, all the way up to the cosmos itself? I had stepped into a house of mirrors, and had no way to tell where insight left off and imagination took over. None of this could be real, or all of it. Again, there was no way to know.
It seemed that all I could really do was guess, to take a chance on a fancy or reality that was comforting, or one that was intriguing and appeared to lead to interesting places. Just as when I awoke from the Library, I was again faced with the choice of whether to discard the experience, or accept it as valid, at least for a time, and see if it changed my life, the way I experienced things, and the way I understood them.
I shook off the distractions and focused again on the moment. Without thinking, I raised my arm and placed my palm on his, then slid it around and shook his hand.
“Thanks for the help,” I said. “By the way, what’s your name?”
He smiled, and quietly said, “Orin. Welcome home.”
Then, as if a spell had been broken, he shook his head, pulled back from my grasp and asked, “Thanks for what? Do I know you? Look all I was asking for was some change. Got any?”
I chuckled to myself. “Yes, more than enough for today. You can have some, too.” I crossed his palm with silver, payment for the lesson, really, and strode off to my appointment.