Walt Whitman, You Were No Solipsist, and Neither, I Think, Am I

whitmanOr maybe you were. Maybe the reason you wrote so relentlessly, with such repetition, was just a way of reminding yourself that you were not alone.

Maybe this is one solipsist writing to another. I would explain solipsism, but really, what would be the point?

I was introduced to the concept at a developmentally inappropriate age. I researched the idea in junior high. My brother and a friend brought me to a college library. I had never been to a library with more than one floor; this added weight to the already heavy concept.

I was reading your poem to my students, modeling the active reading and noticing I expect of them. I tell them, listen to me think as I read. I invite them into my head.

In the second class, feigning again to read as if I had not just done the same before lunch, I was stopped at this one line:

“The certainty of others, the life, love, sight, hearing of others.”

And I was off on my solipsist rant.

How can it be that all those cars hold people going places I won’t go and coming from others I have not been? Looking out at all of them—this classroom, my mind—I tell them: I find it hard to imagine that each of you goes home at night and, unless you happen to have some work assigned from me, this home, this life, has nothing whatsoever to do with my life, that the four walls around you hold pictures of people I do not know, that the floors are dusted with dead skin cells of which none are mine.

And most of them, Walt, stare back at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

But in these stares I find relief.They don’t just nod their agreement: “We have our own minds and they are not like yours.” Their confusion confuses me; but my confusion at theirs is all the proof I need: I am not a solipsist.

And then one young lady says to the person next to her: he’s crazy, but he does make sense. And this, even now, writing, alone, makes me smile.

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Anxious at Night; Creative in the Morning; Rational by Day

I initially dismissed the idea that caffeine killed creativity. I like and need my morning coffee and thought I couldn’t write or function much without it. Plus, I had read that caffeine boosts cognitive health, not that I didn’t know that already because I had anecdotal proof, which is generally enough to convince me of anything I want to believe (such as the belief that caffeine’s effect kicks in with the first smell of coffee).

I know this much is true: coffee helps me focus.

Then I started experiencing nighttime panic attacks, the ones that wake you in the middle of the night out of a perfectly peaceful sleep—with its rapid eye movement and rhythmic breathing—and make it so that no position is adequately comfortable and everything seems wrong with the world. Breathing can also become something of a chore.

I hesitate to call them panic attacks, but this is about how they start: wake up about four, think about something I did or did not do or will have to do or should have done, fail to get into a comfortable sleeping position. That first thing is merely a trigger, because my brain then proceeds to the consequences of the thing or to related things, and from there, any number of things can concern me, from tooth decay to some aspect of being an inadequate son/friend/father/husband/teacher/neighbor.

Morning always offers a different perspective. I used to think that night was merely a metaphor and that morning merely represented a change, an end to whatever trouble or worry. While it does serve that purpose well, I now imagine people sleeplessly tossing and turning in caves, and not because of the poor sleeping conditions.

“weeping may stay for the night,
    but rejoicing comes in the morning”

                                     -King David of Israel

Night has always been hard, for two obvious reasons: loneliness and helplessness. Lying there, it is possible to believe that no one else in the world is awake, that even on the other side of the world, where it is daytime, everyone is enjoying a restful, midday nap. Plus, you can’t force yourself to sleep, and as long as you are worthlessly lying there, there isn’t anything you can do about that to do list or those worries. Except worry.

There is something else going on, I’ve come to realize: my beautiful, un-caffeinated, creative brain is hard at work, untethered by any of the day’s distractions.

Coffee helps to focus. Focus helps with problem solving, rationalizing. And convergent thinking. When I know what I want to write, coffee helps.

But without coffee, my brain is seeing possibilities, making random connections, developing random theories. Divergent thinking.

Even if I’m not writing first thing in the morning, many of my best ideas come then, before coffee and the daily grind steer my focus elsewhere. Of course, because I have less control, that is inevitably when my worst thoughts come as well. So now, when I lie awake at night, fearing the worst, I appreciate the terrible beauty of the human brain, steer my mind toward better things, and look forward to the light and coffee in the morning.