The Incident of the Party Crashers from Ohio: A Pantheacon Bartender’s Brief Regret

Last night while I tended the bar at the OSOGD party suite at Pantheacon two party crashers came in from an electricians convention which is also happening in the same hotel – or so I gather. I duly carded them and noted their Ohio driver’s licenses. They held out their hands to get the Anubis hand stamps like everyone did. Come a long way, I thought, just to be here. It took a few moments to realize they didn’t know what they had walked into and that they weren’t just baby pagans first time at the convention.

The first hint something was off was when they were having a hard time deciding what they wanted to drink and I offered them shots they asked if we would do shots with them. They were trying to be friendly but there was a culture misfit here.

Behind their backs, my friends madly mimed holding up their badges and saying these guys don’t have ‘em.

So my fellow bartender (our volunteer shifts were 2 folks at a time) asked them what groups they were affiliated with and what brought them here. They tried to play it cool. After a time of this charade I said, I’m so sorry guys, but you don’t have your badges and this is a convention party so you gotta have them. One said, Oh we left it in the room. The other said, Oh don’t you know, we aren’t wearing them this year, it’s the new thing.

I apologized again and said they’d be welcome to come back once they got their badges. They didn’t come back. I heard later one of them kicked the elevator.

In retrospect, I wish I had been more generous with them. I got a good vibe from both these men. They had come a long way and saw a bunch of weirdos having fun, and decided to see what it was about. That shows a certain open-mindedness which I like and like to encourage.

Unfortunately they decided to play it cool and lie, and pretend to fit in as best they could. By asking them about their affiliation and asking them to come back with their badges, we played along with that farce. It let them leave while saving face. It was an OK way to handle it, and no one was hurt except I suppose the fellow who kicked the elevator a bit.

Thing is, if they had said, hey, we’re here for something else and we saw you folks having fun and heard there was free booze, I would have said, hey welcome to Pantheacon, here’s what we are, and what would you like to drink (it’s free)? The problem was never that I didn’t want to serve them. It was just that I wanted to make sure they didn’t get into a bad situation with somebody due to a severe cultural misunderstanding.

If I had the presence of mind to act on my generosity, I would have cut through their lies and let them know what they walked into. And I wish I had done that. I wish I had said, hey guys, you seem like you’re not here for Pantheacon. I bet you saw a bunch of weird people in costumes partying and wanted to see what’s up. Let me give you a brief explanation of what’s up and what the general rules of politeness around here are. That’s what I wish I had said.

And maybe they would have thought that’s all too much and left anyway. Maybe I they would have accepted a shot each and wandered off. Maybe they would have stuck around and ate some of the cheese. There really was plenty of drink and food and hospitality, but they didn’t know how to ask for them, and I didn’t know how to be generous the right way in that moment.

Poems Published in 2018

In 2018, a number of my poems were published in literary journals. All of them have online versions, which I’ve linked.

“Crow stops on the lamp” Haiku Journal, Issue Number 58 https://haikujournal.org/issue.php?id=58&issue=58

“Airplanes Over the Bog” and “Like Two Dogs Dancing” (reprints), Little Rose Magazine, https://littlerosemagazine.weebly.com/home/two-poems-by-agnieszka-krajewska

“Ending April in Williamsburg, 1999,” Rogue Agent, Issue 41 https://www.rogueagentjournal.com/akrajewska

“Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” Riggwelter, Issue 14
https://issuu.com/riggwelter/docs/issue_14/20

“El Camino Del Mar at Dusk” and “The Gate of Pinecones,” The Coachella Review, Winter 2018
http://thecoachellareview.com/wordpress/archives-2/poetry/the-gate-of-pinecones-and-el-camino-del-mar-at-dusk/

Bad Air Days

Smoke-diffused sun and Sutro Tower

Afternoon sun in San Francisco, on Friday, November 9, 2018

I haven’t felt this cooped up since Chernobyl. I was a kid and hid from radiation behind the couch all summer. My parents told me there was a radioactive cloud, and I imagined an invisible but poisonous cloud beaming death at anyone who dared to go outside. As I understand it now, it was a plume of smoke with particles of radioactive dust. That’s what fallout is: radioactive dust.

The air went bad on Thursday evening, right after I got some bad professional news, which has been piling on since. Nothing out of the ordinary if you’re looking for a job or trying to get published in a literary journal. You get used to rejection. Or I thought you do. Or, I thought I had.

Normally, when it gets bad in my head, I walk it off. There are hills two blocks from my door steep enough to soak up any kind of fear or despair. And if one doesn’t do it, there’s another and another. It’s too steep to think while I climb, and when I get to the top, the city stretches out to the Bay, where sometimes I can read the names of container ships waiting to dock. I rarely have to walk for more than an hour.

The bad air came in from Butte County overnight. I was in the Richmond, a fog-prone neighborhood, and as I walked to catch my bus home, cones of light formed under the streetlamps as the light caught on the smoke, like it does on foggy nights. Except instead of the soothing taste of fog, I felt dust on my tongue. Overnight it got worse. On Friday morning the house smelled just like when the neighbors fired up a blazing charcoal barbecue in the courtyard right under my open bedroom window.

Air quality red. Unhealthy for everyone. Meanwhile, the Camp Fire in Butte County burned down the town of Paradise and killed, at last count 42 [2]. I wore my N95 mask when I went down to the Mission to meet a friend. It worked, in so far as I couldn’t smell smoke, but every breath felt labored, which makes sense. I was sucking air in through the filter. The rubber straps squished my face into sections, like a trussed up piece of meat. The sun hung over Twin Peaks, deep red and so smoke-diffused I could look right at it.

Saturday the air quality was Red again with a few hours of Orange. Sunday: Red. Monday: Red. Today is still Red. I cleaned the house a little but didn’t want to vacuum or use any cleaning product with a smell, because I couldn’t air out the place after. I played video games until I got sick of video games. I read two books. I stopped wearing the mask outside because one of the straps snapped and it doesn’t work very well. Besides, I think they’re supposed to be single use [1]. I can’t smell smoke anymore. I don’t know if that’s because there’s no more smoke to smell, or if my nose is exhausted. When I walk downhill, I tasted the dust but it seems OK to breathe. When I walk back uphill, I get winded like I’m out of shape, like I don’t live in one of the hilliest neighborhoods in San Francisco, like I’m not used to this.

I’m not used to this. No one is used to this. Fire season still going in mid-November is not how it’s meant to be. It should be raining. It should be sodden. If I feel cooped up, I should feel cooped up because it’s raining too hard to go for a walk without getting soaked to the bone, not because the air is poison.


[1] It turns out that’s not true. You can use N95 masks for quite a while. Source: No, you do not need a new N95 mask after [#] hours.

[2] It keeps going up.

From Composing on the Computer to Writing by Hand

Poetry Notebooks

One planning journal and four poetry notebooks

When I was young, I sometimes wrote poetry at my computer. That was when you could be on the computer without being online, and being online meant tying up the house phone line. Now I mostly compose new poems by hand, because it’s how I can get away from flow-breaking distractions. As a result I’ve been motivated to maintain a legible hand.

From the outside it might look like some kind of poetic preciousness. Ahh, she writes by hand, in a special notebook! But it’s all about the practical considerations of the work. If there is anything romantic about it, it arises out of the association the work gives the tools.

I write in a special notebook so poems don’t get lost in the mess of the discursive personal journal, or the business time of the planning bullet journal. Every once in a while I type them up. When I type up the poems, I make folders named after the notebooks. So, Blue Notebook, Pine Notebook, Birch Notebook, Red Notebook and so on.

It’s important that the notebooks don’t carry any inherent meaning so they don’t limit the possibilities of the poems I might write in them.

Recently I got a couple of white notebooks. To distinguish them, I gave them names, but I was careful to not be serious or significant. So the one I just finished is Birb is the The Word, and the one I’m using right now is DUCK.

I didn’t at any point sit down and think This Will Be My Process Now. I just sort of started writing poems in a notebook, and then started going to cafes to write and took the notebook, and when it filled up I started another notebook.

If I have any real (not joking learn dog language) advice for writers it’s that you have to figure out your own process. That process isn’t something that you can sit down and invent ahead of time. It will arise out of practices that work for you, that you elaborate on slowly, if you need to [1]. And that it might change depending on your circumstances.

Just keep writing. The rest will sort itself out over time. Keep writing and if you accidentally stop writing, start again. Do that as often as you need to.

[1] Sarah Perry’s recent post on ribbonfarm, “Deep Laziness,” talks about how iterative elaboration on simple forms gives rise to beauty. The principles and practices she outlines apply to the structure of the creative process itself, not just the output. Or at least they do for me.

A small terrier sitting on a Muni train

Advice for Aspiring Writers: Learn Dog Language

  • Take a walk every day.
  • Stop to smell the roses, jasmine, and angel’s trumpets.
  • But don’t bother to smell the camellias; they don’t have a smell.
  • Get a guidebook to local flowers and find out which ones are worth smelling.
  • Get to know people who aren’t like you.
  • Befriend them.
  • Eavesdrop on your neighbors.
  • Find out about your neighbor’s dog’s health problems.
  • Make friends with dogs.
  • Learn dog language.
  • Talk to your local dogs.
  • Learn what smells interesting to dogs.
  • Learn that your neighbor’s dog isn’t sick but is actually the victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
  • Confront your neighbor about dog abuse.
  • Get in a fist fight with your neighbor.
  • Get arrested.
  • Get bailed out by your new friends who are unlike you and therefore have the cash on hand to bail you out.
  • Make promises you can’t keep, like I will pay you back for bailing me out.
  • Represent yourself in court.
  • Discover the judge has a dog, Baxter, with emotional problems who sits at her feet in court to help with Baxter’s separation anxiety.
  • Violating all rules of propriety, talk to the dog instead of the judge during your closing statements.
  • Offer to talk his emotional problems through with Baxter.
  • Get sentenced to community service as the judge’s dog’s psychologist.
  • Help Baxter resolve his Oedipus complex.
  • Finish your community service but stay friends with Baxter and the judge.
  • Get another client for dog psychotherapy from people you meet at a potluck at the judge’s mansion.
  • Make business cards that say “Dog Psychologist and Writer.”
  • Start running seminars on dog psychology.
  • Cross out “Writer” on your business cards.
  • Become an Instagram-famous dog whisperer.
  • Really famous.
  • Treat Beyoncé’s sad pup for social anxiety.
  • Get on the late night talk show circuit to talk about how you cured Beyoncé’s sad pup.
  • Due to popular demand, write a book titled “How to Psychoanalyze Your Pup” with a jacket blurb by Beyoncé.
  • Get new business cards that say “Writer and Dog Psychologist.”
  • Take time to appreciate your success.
Plumeria (Frangipani)

We Have Come to a Mutually Beneficial Agreement

Image by Maciej Soltynski – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5819050

Some years ago, a plumeria I had bought on vacation in Hawaii started attracting ants. The active tip of the plumeria where new leaves grow seeps a honey-like ichor they crave. Since the plumeria kept me company at my computer desk, soon ants were crawling on my keyboard, walking between the buttons, investigating my tea, and even walking out onto my hands. It was a general nuisance. Even after I wiped down the desk with cinnamon oil and ceased drinking tea or eating cookies while in the study (a sacrifice), the ants returned, drawn by the plumeria. So I put it outside for a while, on the back deck. Some ants stayed on the plumeria and I couldn’t persuade them to leave.

There was a classic orb spider web on the upper crossbeam on the deck roof. In the middle presided a fat-bodied araneid with distinct yellow markings on her back.

“You could make yourself useful and move over closer to this plumeria and evict these ants for me. I don’t know if you eat ants, but I bet they don’t know that either,” then I thought I ought to be more polite since I was asking for a favor, and said “I mean, I’d really appreciate it if you could come over here and help me out.”

In the evening, when I went to take the compost out, the spider hadn’t moved and the ants were running amok. I made coffee for the morning in the automatic coffee machine, and went to bed with my husband. I mentioned the ant problem so he wouldn’t bring any cookies into the study.

In the morning I poured the coffee and opened the back door to smell the air. I could see it was sunny and I could smell it would stay that way. There was a new spider web stretched between the deck railing and the stem of my plumeria. In the middle of the rather stretched out orb web sat the araneid from the day before.

“Oh, well done! Thank you!” I beamed at her. The ants were somewhat reduced but still present in some numbers. “Well, bon apetit,” I said and went back inside to bring my husband his coffee.

I had talked to spiders for years, just as people talk to dogs, or computers, or babies, even though they don’t understand. This was the first time one had reacted by carrying out my wishes, however.

“Don’t go to the backyard today,” I said, “there’s a spider web blocking the way.” He said he wasn’t planning on it, anyway. After two days, the araneid ate her web and packed up camp. I saw her later in the garden near the bird bath.

Some weeks later, I spotted a big spindly Pholcus suspended in the corner against the ceiling above the shower spout. I saw her only after I finished showering because I have poor eyesight and it’s not my custom to wear eyeglasses in the shower, although I admit it happens occasionally by accident. There was no way I could reach the Pholcus to move her to a better location. Besides, even if I could, they’re called cellar spiders for good reason: she wouldn’t do well outside.

I stuck my head in the shower and said, “Listen, this isn’t a great spot. We shower almost every morning and there’s bound to be an incident one day. Why don’t you try behind the toilet? I hardly ever clean there. There’s a little condensation on the fixtures you can sip, and while you’re at it, maybe take care of some silverfish?”

I turned off the light and left. The next morning I forgot all about the Pholcus and showered on autopilot, as one does. While brushing my teeth I remembered and slid on my glasses and checked the corner: no spider. Feeling a bit silly, I nonetheless looked behind the toilet. And there she was, hanging in her nearly invisible web. Pholcus webs, unlike orb weavers’, are messy and hard to see. They like to hang with their body dangling down and legs in the air, very still. Often it’s hard to tell if one is alive or dead.

“I’m glad you found the spot I was talking about,” I said. The spider didn’t move or do anything to indicate it understood, or indeed, was even alive.

“Who are you talking to?” asked my husband. I explained the situation with the Pholcus. He said “hm,” and suggested I might ask some spiders to eliminate the moths in his closet. We had just discovered they had eaten holes in the trousers of his second best suit, and it would be a shame if they also consumed his best suit, which he had worn at our wedding and which still fit him quite well.

It took a few days before I saw a spider that didn’t seem otherwise occupied. It was a huntsman, quick-moving and furry, walking across the wall above the headboard of the bed. It froze in place when I approached. Understandable, since normally I put huntsmen outside. They have a disconcerting tendency to get in the way, even coming into bed, and someone is bound to get hurt when that happens.

“I’m not going to take you outside. I have a proposition. Go in the closet, the one on the left. It’s got moths. It’s a bit of a big job, so bring friends if you have them.”

Then I walked out of the room to give the huntsman privacy. I turned around in the doorway, feeling foolish, and I saw her walking across the wall, towards my husband’s closet. I stood transfixed, for a long time, minutes, I guess, which is how I saw the second huntsman, and the third, fourth, and fifth and sixth. I lost track of them. How many spiders were there in my house anyway?

We haven’t had a problem with moths since. I don’t even need to bag my knitting yarn. And the plumeria bloomed for the first time yesterday. The study smells sweet, and reminds me of Hawaii. We’re going again next month. I can’t wait. I’ve already told the spiders to keep an eye on the place while we’re away.

This short story was created following a prompt to introduce a fantastic element into an ordinary situation in the style of magical realism, from at a class I’m taking at The Grotto called Pushing The Boundaries: Experiments in Fiction and Poetry (with Jenny Bitner)

Meeting Dionysus in San Jose

Dionysus extending a drinking cup (kantharos), late 6th century BC

Seated Dionysos holding out a kantharos. Interior from an Attic black-figured plate, ca. 520-500 BC. From Vulci. Source.

A young woman in a white chiton sat on a chair in front of an entrance to a hotel room. “Would you like to meet Dionysus?” she asked me. A priestess, then. I wasn’t planning on it, not so literally, but why not? Catching up with old friends and meeting new ones is the best thing about Pantheacon, so why not say hello to a God who favors poets?

The priestess said Dionysus only sees one person at a time, so I had to wait until the previous supplicant or visitor or worshipper left. It wasn’t long. Another priestess opened the door and ushered me in.

It was just a hotel room but it wasn’t just a hotel room. Shrines were on every wall on tables, and a little table stood near a throne-like chair with a large bottle of wine placed on it. The room felt peaceful and dedicated to its purpose as a shrine. I didn’t look around too much though, because there he was, Dionysus, enacted by a long-haired and bearded, friendly young man who asked if I wished to hug. I did wish to hug.

“What can Dionysus do for you?” he asked. I paused for a moment. I’m not much of a God-botherer. “Actually, I’d like to read you a poem I wrote,” I said. Dionysus sat down on the throne-chair, and listened appreciatively while I read a poem on my phone. I was strangely nervous. It was all fun and games, but then again, it wasn’t. When I was finished he was effusive. I thanked him for inspiration. He said he was always with me, and loved my poetry.

words pasted onto paper

Home-Made Glue and the Creative Process Behind “Night-Time Skin Ritual”

After doing a cut-up last week using my own work and the WIPP nuclear waste warning poem, I decided I really enjoyed the cut-up process and the kinds of work it generated. I wanted to do something playful for Valentine’s Day using whatever advertising I could get my hands on. Unfortunately I didn’t come across any fliers or other paper ads in the wild, so my only source was the SF Weekly.

I hand selected the ads for events happening on February 14th in the SF Weekly and then cut out interesting phrases with scissors. I wasn’t satisfied with the variety of phrases and selected an advertisement for a beauty cream from the Tatler, and cut phrases I liked using a box cutter. I used a box cutter because I couldn’t find my little scissors and the big scissors didn’t have enough precision. All the cutting probably took almost an hour.

Then I put all the cut-outs on a big cookie sheet and used a variety of randomizing techniques. At first I arranged the cut-outs into little piles by size and chose from each pile in turn. I didn’t like the results. I removed a couple of cut-outs from the mix that I thought were too boring or repetitive. Then I tried stirring all the cut-outs together, and then sprinkling them gently onto the cookie sheet, to scatter them randomly. Some flew onto the floor. I then picked up the pieces that were on the outermost edge, clockwise, and put them down in a shoebox lid. After one turn around the clock I repeated the scattering process. Snippets that fell onto the floor were also deemed to be selected.

I modified the placement order for too un-random feeling randomness (like when two things appear in a row that used to be in a row in the original text), but mostly left the words and phrases as they came.

Once the shoe box lid was full, I decided to glue the phrases to a blank piece of paper. I couldn’t find any glue so I decided to make some paste glue using a little bit of flour and water and heating it up in the microwave. I added too much flour and made a gluey dough. When I tried to thin it out by adding more hot water, it just got lumpy. It turns out making glue is a lot like making French sauces, and once the flour has been activated with hot water, you can’t dilute it further. I put the bad glue in the compost.

I tried again with less flour in my paste mixture. It boiled over in the microwave and was too thin. I made some more very thick paste and added it bit by bit to the too-thin paste, which did work. I microwaved it again and it boiled over again. I had to transfer the glue to another container and wash the whole microwave.

Although the glue making was messy it probably only took about 15 minutes.

I got a piece of printer paper and attached it to a clipboard. I used a toothpick to spread glue on the back of each phrase and glued it down onto the paper.

There were more paper snippets left, so I repeated the process twice more. Then I transcribed and photographed the results.

People think that the worst that might happen with poetry creation is some spilled ink or accidental pencil stabbing, but I make much, much bigger messes as part of my poetic process.

And that’s how I wrote Night-Time Skin Ritual.

Photograph of a bust of Janus

Whom Am I? (Part One of I, You, He: Who Are the People in These Poems?)

Is the “I” of the poem the same as the “I” of the poet? Well, it’s complicated. Sometimes. And then again, sometimes not. And sometimes both. Let me explain.

In a fictional narrative written in prose, most readers quickly realize that “I” just means the author chose to write in the first person, and the narrator is just another character. In modern narratives, that’s also often a clue that we shouldn’t necessarily believe everything the narrator has to say. In non-fiction prose, like essays or memoirs, readers generally assume the “I” of the narrative voice is the same as the “I” of the author. The way we know if something is fiction or non-fiction is usually by its packaging. The jacket blurb says, for example “this memoir by X tells the gripping story of her youth in Y,” or “newest thriller by Z is sure to thrill readers of spy novels.” Or the book is shelved in Fiction at the library. I’m being a little obvious and a little obtuse here, because of course there are also a lot of clues inside a book about if it’s fiction or not, especially in contemporary works. (Historical or hagiographic works might frame themselves as non-fiction and yet describe events that to a modern reader seem very improbable and would normally be a hint that we’re reading fantasy)

The “I” in poetry is a little more difficult to suss out. First of all, the big meta hints about fiction and non-fiction are unavailable. All the poetry books are shelved together. Sylvia Plath’s confessional works and Beowulf sit in the same bookshelf in my local library. Sometimes, very rarely, a poetry book blurb will say that the poems are based on the writer’s own experience or on a specific historical incident. Most of the time though, poetry books themselves are very coy about their status as fiction or nonfiction.

If readers look at hints inside the text, poems are often unhelpful as well about the status of the “I”. Contemporary poetry tends to be quite naturalistic and describes events and images that seem like they could have happened. Sometimes a poem in the first person is very clearly from the point of view of a historical figure, or an animal, or some inanimate object, so it’s clear that it’s not the author. I am not an anvil, obviously. Oh but maybe the sad anvil represents me after all, like a stuffed animal speaking on behalf of a child? I’ll come back to this but first: confessional poetry.

Even people who don’t know much about poetry seem to know about confessional poetry, where poet draws upon very personal (often painful) experiences and writes in the first person. Confessional poetry has been such a force since the 1950s that it seems a lot of people have got the wrong idea that that’s all contemporary poetry is anymore. (But only people who don’t actually read a lot of contemporary poetry think this, because as soon as you open a literary journal or pick up an anthology, it becomes obvious a lot more is going on, and it’s been a lot of years since 1950.)

In confessional poetry, it would seem obvious that the “I” of the narrator is the writer. And well, sometimes, that’s true, but not always, and not exactly, and not entirely. For that matter, a poem could be written as though it is a confessional poem, but actually be fictional, and because of the lack of meta clues, the reader will never know.

Finally, you could ask the poet, assuming they’re still alive and you get a chance. But you probably shouldn’t ask. First of all, it’s considered dreadfully rude. Second of all, because you have just been rude, the poet might lie to you, leaving you knowing less than you did when you started.

So here we are, and I (that’s I, AK, the essayist, because this is a nonfiction essay) haven’t answered the questions I posed at the start and only talked about why they are difficult to answer. I propose we don’t bother to answer them at all, and instead do like poets do.

In workshops and at readings, poets get around the problem by saying things about “the narrator of the poem” or the “speaker of the poem”. We do it to a degree that might seem absurd at first. For example, the poet might give a little introduction about how she wrote this poem after the death of her child. She then reads the poem. And we, other poets, say to her: the imagery in your poem gave me chills, particularly when the speaker compared herself to a fault line along tectonic plates.

Thus, in workshop and in conversation, “you” is the person who wrote the poem, to whom we are now speaking, but “I” remains “the narrator” and “the speaker.”

Even in such a case where the poet says the poem is about a personal experience, we, poets, do this because it gives our fellow poet space to write about something personal without having to answer intrusive questions. We do it because it lets us all focus on the poem, instead of the poet. In workshop its lets us critique and improve a poem about something that is personally very important but might not be very good yet as an artwork, without undermining the personal importance of the thing behind the artwork. And we do it because the poem might have been written a while ago, or in a particular mood, and the narrator and the poet really aren’t the same person anymore. And we do it because although the poem might be based on real experiences that really happened to the poet, she might have chosen to fictionalize aspects of the narrator for dramatic impact and so “I” is a confusing mixture of her and not her.

I suggest therefore that you (that is you, the person reading this right now, not a fictional you, which I’ll get into in part two) treat every first person narrator in a poem as an ambiguously fictional narrator, sheerly out of politeness. Please.

Feature image by Loudon dodd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7404342

The Self is Continuously Formed from the Outside In

I have for years now observed that the person I am is determined by the place in which I am. To a distressing level, frankly. Certain ways of being seem inaccessible in some places, utterly. For example in the American suburbs, which is one of the places I least like the person I am, I can’t even access the sense of melancholy of longing for the wilderness I might feel in the city. Nor the vasty empty fear of the actual wilderness. In one neighborhood of San Francisco (Noe Valley) I can hardly enter the mood of another (the Presidio).

We, Westerners, think, or mostly like to think, that the self comes from within and finds expression through interactions with the exterior world. A soul, embodied. A self interacting with society. But I think that it’s not like that. I think the self is formed from the outside in. The brain forms the mind. The body forms the brain. Physical interactions form the body. Society regulates physical interactions and sometimes the body directly, as in judicial corporal punishment, medical regulations, restrictions on drug use, or prescriptions of drugs and treatment for those deemed insane, which is not always those who themselves suffer from their symptoms, as with the punitive psychology of the 1950s deployed against hysterical women in the US or political subversives in the USSR.

Ascetic meditating with fidget spinners London 2017

Art on the wall of the Regent’s Canal in London depicts an ascetic meditating with fidget spinners.

I make this sound all neater and more systemic than it really is. Beyond the premise that brain forms mind, body forms brain, I am quite uncertain of the chains of causation. I know there is neuroscience around this stuff and perhaps some parts of what we call personality are genetically predetermined, and no amount of societal pressure can really undo or alter them. For example the neurodiversity of autism spectrum or ADHD feels more like how tall you can grow[1], rather than something like how muscular you are which you can alter with diet and exercise and even, if you chose, external hormones–the use of which is regulated by society so here is a layer of abstraction above, acting on a layer of abstraction below.

Things at the level of neurological inclinations are much grosser and more general than what we normally think of as IDENTITY. Even around the constraints of our physical (which includes neurological) limitations we form an identity. That identity emerges from interaction with the entire embodied (and higher abstraction beyond) environment, instead of arising spontaneously from an inherent seed of self (e.g. a soul) that predetermines it. Though now that I say it, what even is the difference. Any soul which could manifest so variably is so undetermined or vast in potential it’s almost indistinguishable from non-existence.

And here by long-winded process I appear to have come around to Buddhist principles. No-self and form is emptiness.

This identity, moreover, is not formed once through one’s upbringing and then fixed, but changes continuously through ongoing interactions.[2] I don’t wish to posit a complete determinism. For example, I can choose to change my body through bodybuilding, and experience the world differently, because of my physical interactions with it. Suddenly a hill I avoided on my path is easy to climb. I see a different set of people on the new path. I can choose to talk to them, enter into new friendships and social relations, and start living under different norms. I can move to (or even just visit) a different country and be steered by the pressures of different geography, weather, and architecture to interact with different people, make other friends, and live under yet different norms, and start to think of myself as a new person, perhaps even without noticing the change as it is happening. But these dramatic changes can also happen entirely by accident. I might fall ill or have an accident and not be able to leave my house for months and lose my regular connections with friends and environment, become obsessed with the birds I see outside the window, research birds on the internet, join a forum for bird watches, and seemingly suddenly and almost by accident, I have a new identity of bird-watcher.

[1] But on revision, I wonder if this is even a good example of a predetermined constraint, since human growth hormone can change how tall you’ll grow, and tallness is determined by many factors, which while mostly outside of direct control of the individual who is or is not tall, are hardly all genetically predetermined.

[2] My friend and colleague Sara Klein reviewed an earlier draft of this essay and asked
“[I]f we are formed through the external, how do you account for stark differences such as a racist and an anti-racist who grew up in the same place at the same time with very similar circumstances.” The last paragraph attempts to address her question, although I can’t account for it from the outset, I can over time.