• johnschengber

My Own Tabula Rasa

Inspired by John McPhee’s piece “Tabula Rasa” in The New Yorker, this is an ongoing series of free-writings that need not have much intent or ending. Whenever I free-write, I usually go for ten or fifteen minutes, and my mind collapses under the weight of thinking about itself. As a result, these pieces are rated NS for nonsense, or, not satisfying. They are edited only for clarity. Reader discretion is advised.

I. Meditation

It’s about time I learned to control my mind, now over a quarter into my life — if I’m to be 100.

Despite my storied journey thus far, full of accolade and clear decision making, immune to feeling unstable and utterly lost in the world, never once being hurt, I have not yet managed to a get a grip on the thing that named itself “the brain.”’ It has not been without my trying, however.

I’ve attended a meditation Meetup once or twice. That helped a lot, for a little. Subconsciously, I made sure to avoid building any relationships while I was there, allowing for easy abandonment. Easy it was.

I am well aware, of course, about the app inside my phone that is supposed to help me meditate. It’s featured as a candy-colored icon right next to my email, my rolodex, my social comparison and surveillance networks, and my bank. I haven’t yet found success using the app to meditate.

Alternatively, I have considered the transcendental medicine route. This morning I took a THC and CBD edible with breakfast because I shy away from consistently combusting plant matter in my lungs, but I am not quite studied-up on the ins and outs of intelligent psychedelic usage. Michael Pollan’s book on the resurgence of hallucinogens, especially in scientific and self-improvement arenas, “How To Change Your Mind,” is sitting upstairs unopened with at least six dollars of late charges accumulating like dust on the cover. Yet if Pollan writes about drugs like he writes about food, I’ll need only five pages to realize that we already agree on most things and I’m hungry.

Unfortunately, I find that hunger directly opposes reading.

And mind control, too.

II. My Favorite Phrase

Keep going!

Imagine all the different circumstances in which this phrase has been used.

In bed, when a romantic partner is not yet satisfied; in bed, when the child asks the mother for 5 minutes more backscratch; downstairs, when you’re being guided, blindfolded, out into the backyard to destroy a piñata. I could keep going.

I have told myself to keep going, on multiple occasions, when I wanted to end.

Even now, keep going is compelling me forward, and compelling my hand to not stop until this 5 minute free write is over or we get a new prompt. Except there is no prompt. We are to simply write and not stop, and that is precisely the opposite of everything we’ve been taught. Our brain reaches its wits end in a matter of minutes, when we lack structure and rationale and only the incessant scribble of life and time matters, which truly is a scribble despite our nicest titles, or our most earnest attempts to revise the scribble through editing, when we put our chicken scratch into italics. Keep going!

Where? Time is a circle, as is evidenced by the fact that when writing is left to be free, it rotates around and around like a machine with unavoidable repetitions, powered by the force of the unrestrained mind. It is occasionally susceptible to glitches of productive thought, or distraction. Then, outside, I notice the water molecules joining in the sky, collectively waiting for the one will lead their fall upon the earth.

III. The Wondering Mind

I wonder what it would be like to stop wondering. Finally stop wondering about where my life will lead, what Donald Trump will mean for this country in the long run, stop wondering if tomorrow will be actual rain or just puddles that my bike will splash through.

Then again, I am thinking this is a stupid, useless line of inquiry. Of course you can’t avoid wondering. I dare to say, in fact, that one should cherish wondering, a normative statement implying that wondering is valuable.

That’s what happens when you let wonder loose. You get either nonsense or normative statements. Both are quite unwriterly. Wonder, wonder, wonder. And then you’re stuck in the heart of a great desert.

The desert is a flat, cracked-ground kind of desert. There are no dunes of golden sand, nor camels and their shadows. It’s just you.

The man who walks up to you out of the mirage says nothing at first. You, too, are quiet. He is wearing a white robe and headdress. He cups his hand around his ear and leans toward you. You stand there, puzzled and skeptical, but find yourself leaning in and listening more intently, nonetheless.

You hear the sound of sand granules blowing invisibly across the yellow-white cracked earth. You hear the earth cracking. You hear the core of the earth gurgling underneath, like a simmering pot of thick chili.

“Will you come with me?” the man says.

You nod.

One hundred yards in the distance, you arrive at a doormat. There is no door. On the mat is a phrase in bold, capital letters: “Hi, I’m Mat.” It’s probably Helvetica.

“Do you think this is funny?” the man asks you.


“Good,” he says, turning to continue onward.

You walk together in silence for probably a mile, until the man turns around again.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks.

“Well, I’m wondering how that doormat got there,” you reply. “And also about what we might find next.”

“Why are you wondering that, of all things?”

“Why not?” you ask.

He puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head. “You’re in a desert with a strange man. You don’t know how you got here or how you’ll get out. You don’t know much of anything about the current situation, and those are the questions you’re mulling over?”

“Yes, that’s right,” you admit.

“Do you want to know what I’m wondering about?” the man asks.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Keep up, then,” he says, turning to walk into the distance.


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© 2020 by John Schengber

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