Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. -Viktor E. Frankl
Every time I start one of these essays I have to get through a kind of webby, sticky veil of resistance. I don’t know why. I don’t really have anything to lose. And it only takes a split second to get through it. But I can delay for hours, even days. This week I had the extra excuse that I have been working on the book review of The Great Image Has No Form. I wanted to try to use it as one of these essays but the truth is the flow is different for that kind of writing. It’s more like a puzzle, where this is an encounter, a relationship. I will post it, but it’s taking much longer than my allotted ninety minutes to write.
That split second is what I think I want to write about. I was once in Burn’s Lake, BC, with Joanna Ashworth, who was then the director of the WOSK Center for Dialogue in Vancouver. As part of her five year Imagine BC initiative we were running a hip hop-medium dialogue for young people. We had invited a rapper from one of the local native communities to come to facilitate and perform. I hadn’t met him, he was a contact of Moka Only. When he showed up in the morning he had a beer in hand and a woman clearly dressed for the night before on his arm. He was covered in tattoos. But he had a warm smile and sharp, smart eyes. Sorry, he said, lifting the beer, we’re celebrating. I got out last night. He’d spent the last ten days in jail, I didn’t ask why. I felt concerned, nervous, and a bit disoriented. The youth were already in the long narrow room we were using, it was kind of like a barn, open on both ends. And there were various people like the mayor and someone from the school district and some elders, and Joanna, and her assistant. Okay, I said, well, you’re here now. Maybe just follow my lead and we’ll talk at the break? Are you good to perform after lunch? Always he said. He tipped the last of the beer down his throat, kissed his girlfriend’s slightly streaky cheek and strode ahead of me into the room.
The morning went well. The mayor and other officials said what they had to say, and then we got started in small groups, talking about local issues and helping the thirty or so young people write rhyming verses about their desires, experiences, opinions and ideas. The tattooed rapper (I wish I could recall his name, I tried to look it up in my journals and emails but I just can’t find it) was really great with the youth. He was related to a number of them and they looked up to him. As lunch neared I sat down next to him. So right after lunch will you perform? Then I’ll kind of interview you a little, and they’ll ask you questions. Then we give them a little time to prepare and about five the adults and family will come and they’ll listen to the rhymes. Does that work? Works, he said with a grin. I liked our energy together, he was really easy to work with and treated me with a kind of light-touch respect that made me feel very welcome and familial, not at all a given when I drop into places to do these kinds of events as an outsider.
Lunch was pizzas and salad and pop dropped off by four grouchy-but-generous aunties. He was around, some of his friends came by, they were a loud and sketchy in the afternoon beer and joints kind of way, but I felt sure that he could be trusted, and the youth all seemed comfortable, and everyone was in eyesight of the building anyway. We had some music playing. The June air was fragrant and huggy. I was happy. Joanna was happy. The kids seemed happy.
After lunch I went around to the and invited everyone back in. But I didn’t see him anywhere. I could see his friend walking far down the road, but his girlfriend was still here, sitting on a car hood looking at her little red flip phone. I asked her where he was, she looked up and around as if she had just noticed he wasn’t here. She shrugged. He’s on now, I said. I went back in, stalled a bit, did some of my own verses, remembered a joke, and then said to the kids, well, if he gets back we’ll slot him in then, okay? For now, let’s play a game. I had them play the Opposite Game, which is a nice primer for freestyling and rhyme-writing. We hadn’t finished the first round of the game when he popped into the room with his toothy smile. He had a cigarette tucked behind each ear. Just needed these, he said softly to me. Helps me relax. Then he looked up at the youth. Don’t do these, he said to them. It’s not good for you. One of the older boys, I think a cousin of his, shook his head. But he had such lovely presence and energy you could just feel everyone lean in. What was he going to do next?
I went over to the speakers and started the CD he’d given me. He picked up the mic, and for the next fifteen or twenty minutes that weird, kind, odd young man freestyled the most complex, relevant poetry I’d ever heard live. He was like Common, but life-sized. I was stunned. He was teaching, he was joking, he was full of spirit and wisdom, but all of it had this edge, this hard kind of brutality, yet it never crossed the line into inappropriate for the youthful listeners. When he was done he wiped his forehead. Okay Oprah, he said to me, you said you had some questions.
I sat down next to him. We had a nice conversation about hip hop, its roots, and its relevance to rural native communities. The youth were unusually silent and focused. After some time I turned to them for some questions. That same young cousin of his raised his hand. How do you freestyle without swearing, he asked. It seemed like a strange question to me, I mean the man had such a crazy flow it seemed like not swearing would be the easiest thing for him. You swear a lot when you flow? He asked. I used to, too. He glanced at me, unreadably. Then he said, you want to know the truth? A bunch of years ago I was in for a whole year, thirteen months. Some of you know that. It was the first time I saw his bright smile dim, he looked down into his lap. When he looked up his face was different, lined, and longer. He said, that’s when I learned to rhyme. You know? And that’s when I learned a secret. That there’s this split second. Before you say anything. And in that teeny little second that’s where you decide what you’re going to say. But if you practice enough, that second gets longer and longer. And that’s where you live. You can live there. After that, I knew I’d never do anything I didn’t want to do, ever again. The kids were silent. Then his young cousin said, but you just got out. The smile flashed back. He shrugged. What I can tell you, he said. Just because you can choose, doesn’t always mean you choose right.
I’ve thought so often about that story in the ten years since then. What is that split second? And what does it mean to live there? In Dec 2014 I started a series of automatic drawings and that’s when it clicked. In those split seconds entire worlds can open up.
Time is funny in this way (in so many ways). What I think we’re talking about here is the difference between consensual and non-consensual time. Consensual time is kind of clock-bound, calendar-bound, moon-bound or sun-bound. These are all different. They have their differences, and they are important. Maybe we’ll talk about them too, someday. But non-consensual time doesn’t belong to any of them. Non-consensual times are like hunger and thirst. Or like waiting for a lover to call. Or dreaming. Any of those things that are relative to only your own frame of reference. This inner split second belongs to this category, but it’s even special in itself.
The inner split second, that moment before you speak, and the moment in between words and phrases is a very private thing. But it can easily be overtaken. It can be overtaken by memory, by fear, by habit and convention, by urgency, by education, by roles, and more. When it isn’t overtaken, though, when it is allowed to thrive and pulse on its own, it is a very potent “place.” (I’m reading in The Physics of Now about the link between space and time…more on that soon!) As I make my drawings I settle into that place. It’s like my awareness, instead of watching things the instant after I do them, has a chance to integrate into the action itself. The split second is like a stage where parts of myself, the executive, the dreamer, the memory, the actor, others, they all swoosh together and become this soupy place of imagination and creation. I don’t control it, but paradoxically, that’s where I am no longer controlled, either. It’s a radical freedom, and a place of deep, deep center.
One of the impulses I have traditionally found it very hard to control is not to phone someone I have a crush on. Or someone I’m angry with. Or not to correct something I think is wrong or unjust. Basically, to hold the tongue. Thoughts have seemed to leap into words without a chance for me to intervene. But since I started working with the drawings (and, to be fair, a very good therapist) this has begun to change. Slowly. Slowly I’ve been able to catch myself. I still do it for sure, say the thing and then wish wish wish I could take it back. But less. More often now I find myself noticing the thought and then putting it back, tucking it back into the pockets of my mind.
It’s strange. The flow of these essays, of the drawings, I have a feeling that it’s that constraint that lets them come out so easily. I don’t think about these before I say them, but they come out so neatly and easily, as soon as I break my way through the sticky veil. They just seem to emerge like waves from the ocean of my waking-dreaming self. When I am talking in a knee jerk kind of way, reacting, instead of flowing, I am ahead of the beat. I’m rushing it. But when I am leaned back, and not rushing, then this opening happens. So many of my parts can come to bear. Memory, poetry, dream, teacher, adventurer.
The split second. A sacred place. It’s as if you access it the way you might a holiday or a ritual. You prepare, but you also trust. You have to get yourself there, you have to choose, but once you are there the resonance of the place and time take over, and everything is as it should be. Time and self become one. Instead of fighting time, in the past, in the future, in a rush, lagging behind, instead of these I’m in a sweet state of communion with time.
I wonder what this has to do with the unconscious awareness of the turning of the planet on its axis, around the sun, and then of the sun around the galaxy. All that movement, all those relative frames of time, maybe that split second is the still point. The eye of the storm. The place where instead of what I was or what I will be I simply am.
I have to laugh. I still have ten minutes left for this essay, but it feels done. I’m trying to think of what else I can say about the split second. Well, there is this piece about how time slows down when things are scary or exciting. So it makes me ask, how connected is the sense of time to the endocrine system? If non-consensual time can be so drastically affected by outside events, perhaps they aren’t separate after all. Maybe consensual and non-consensual time are linked at the edges of that split second. As it expands you begin to feel the spaciousness. There is so much choice, infinite choice, within that near- timelessness. What snaps us in and out of it?
Practice, is one. Returning to creative practice, getting to know it, learning to recognize it. Also fear and adrenaline. Meditation can get you there, linking the sense of time passing to the movement of breath. Love can get you there, too, can’t it? That sinking, soaring feeling of timeless oneness, how so many hours can pass and it feel like barely one. Wonder brings you there. I remember three years ago when I saw an ostrich on an acreage in South Africa. That memory is so solid in my mind, even though it barely lasted three seconds of consensual time. It was as if I had an hour to stare. Prayer. Maybe any time you are absorbed completely in something you find yourself there. Time stretches, flows, winds, surprises. As if it had humor, generosity and grace.
One thing I notice is that schools and other institutions even hospitals often push against this split second, and this deep center. They are constantly pulling us off the deep center, and away from intuition. Maybe it is too powerful. Maybe the only way to keep us under control is to drag us off our center-well and into the on-rushing restriction of ticking time.