The stream of consciousness experiment that I participated in last week lived up to its name: it started a current of thought. Letting my fingers follow the flow, I wrote about “shape” as a verb — to shape raw material into something finished, albeit flawed — and as a noun, with shape being a mold or other constraint giving form to something organic. The changeability of shape became my theme. But when LindaGHill’s prompt directed me to write about shape, the philosopher who came to mind first was not Heraclitus, with his theory of constant flux, but Plato, the champion of the ideal — the forms or shapes that are truly real.
Plato believed that the idea that the mind grasps is more real than the material objects that the eye sees. The tree, the man, the flower pass away and change, but the general idea, or concept, of the tree, man, and flower never changes. The idea alone has true being.
Every day, I am engaged in a struggle between two worlds: the tangible world, in which clothes, bills, dishes, and children cry out for my attention, and the unseen world of ideas, also clamoring for my attention. Strangely, those unhatched ideas sometimes seem more real to me than the pressing needs around me. (Not being a philosopher, I am adapting Platonic philosophy for my purposes, in that I am substituting my idea, the unrealized vision of the artist, for Plato’s ideal, the true essence of actual things.) How does one find a balance between giving shape to the idea that is in one’s mind — transforming an abstract concept or mental image into words or music, painting or sculpture — and discharging one’s duties in the material world? If I ignore the world of ideas, I feel downcast, cross, thwarted. But if I heed the sirens’ call, I will be dashed to pieces on the hard rocks of reality that, sooner or later, will wreck my craft.
If you haven’t experienced this tension yourself — this constant reprimanding oneself for giving priority over the immediate demands of daily life to the thoughts revolving and spinning and reshaping within one’s head — listen to the conversation that my youngest son and I had two days ago.
At almost 10, he likes to be silly. Lately, he expresses his sense of humor by wearing a pair of vivid yellow soccer shorts with his customary character T-shirt. The shorts, which came as part of a uniform, are now too short (surely it won’t surprise you to hear that it’s been a while since I sorted through the contents of my children’s closets). Even if the shorts still fit him, it’s late October, and shorts of any type are a questionable choice for clothing that will be worn outside the walls of our house.
When David walks into the kitchen, I’m sitting (where else?) on a child’s wooden chair, hunched over my laptop at the built-desk. “Is this okay for me to wear today, Mom?” he asks. “Sure,” I answer absently. “MOM,” says David, “you have to look at me first!” He even playfully dangles a set of metal measuring spoons in front of my typing fingers.
But his words have already pierced the thick skin that enshrouds me when I give myself over to an idea. Am I not even looking at him lately? Clearly, the pendulum that regulates the balance between my two worlds has swung way too far in one direction: towards my world of unrealized ideals, the world that seems Real with a capital R, and away from the world of the real with a little r, the tangible and the time-sensitive. The beautiful faces of my children, the stain on the kitchen counter, the lesson that I need to plan for Wednesday Kids Camp are more important than that germ of an idea which may or may not ever come to fruition in the form of a blog post. These unspoken requests must take precedence over the creative urge, because of something that J. K. Rowling returns to again and again in her Harry Potter books: love.
If I love the people around me, I will try to make the living environment better. (We’re not talking Martha Stewart here, folks: we’re talking, walking from one end of the family room to the other without tripping on a pair of shoes or a music stand or a DVD case.) It won’t be many years before my son is too old to think that yellow shorts are funny, before he fails to slip his hand into mine as we cross a street downtown. Yesterday, as we took a short-cut through the Grove Arcade on our way to his geography class, he noticed the coat-of-arms in the beautiful marble detailing over the doorway. “That makes me think of medieval times,” he said, looking hopefully at me for confirmation that he is on the right track. After his class had ended, as we walked back through the Art Deco building, he added, “And it reminds me of Hogwarts!”
He needs me to be fully engaged in his life, in this moment of space and time. My daughter needs me to wash her leotards and tights. My husband needs me to look him in the face when he tells me about an article that he read. If I love my family, I will let those unshaped ideas fester a while longer. Surely they will still be there, when I come back to them in a week or a month or years later? And, if not, surely there are a hundred other armchair philosophers, waiting to fill the void that is left by my silence? What matters is the practical problem of today. What matters is finding the missing parts to my son’s Ron Weasley costume before the Halloween chess tournament.
Sometimes I think that I would be better off living as my ancestors did: forced to wrest a living from the stubborn soil, to toil with my hands day after day. In our post-modern age, in the suburbs where I live, people do plant gardens but as a way of enriching life, not sustaining it. Unless we cut down a few trees, we won’t be growing any vegetables in my backyard. But l suspect that there is something inherently human in the act of cultivating the soil. My life is so many removes from the means of production that I have the luxury to spend my day at a desk, transforming the whirling words in my head into something that another person can connect to and consider. This is progress, we say, and it is an improvement in so many ways. But something real with a small r has been lost along the road.