This is the third in a series of posts I wrote the week of June 19, when my wife and I were cruising to Bermuda on the Norwegian Breakaway. I intended to post these while onboard the ship, but the wifi package we had was not sufficient for that. So I saved them, and am posting them throughout this week.
Yesterday we took a tour around Bermuda. We enjoyed some typical souvenir shopping in city of Hamilton. We swam in what really felt like a wave pool. Hard to believe it was the same Atlantic Ocean that I’ve swum in at the Jersey shore. But I was inspired by something else…I was inspired by the story of Crystal Caves. I’ve been in caves before, and this one didn’t seem particularly special compared to others I’ve toured. But that’s like saying, “I’ve seen double rainbows before, and this one doesn’t look different,”or, “I’ve eaten sablefish before, and this one doesn’t taste different.” Of course it’s similar to other caves…but caves are amazing! Such intricate and magical structures, caused by nothing more than the slow, slow, ssslllloooowwwww deposit of calcium by millennia of rainwater. I won’t go into any more detail about the cave itself. If you haven’t been in a cave, go!
But I did find the story behind the discovery of this cave to be fascinating. In 1905, two twelve-year-old Bermudian boys were playing with a cricket ball, and it got lost in the bushes. In their attempt to retrieve it, they found a hole. A deep hole. A hole that kept on going. They got some rope, and lowered themselves into it. The hole kept going. They told their fathers about it, and the fathers got more rope and equipment, and lowered themselves into it. The hole kept going. Finally, they discovered the main portion of the cave, filled with stalactites and stalagmites (it’s easy: “c” is for ceiling, “g” for ground). This lair, this world, this dimension existing just below their feet. I mean, right now, I’m on Deck Eight with Ranald. And there are other worlds beneath my feet. The casino on Deck Seven. The art gallery on Deck Six. There are probably cave-like cabins for the crew on Deck Two. (The elevators I have access to only go to Deck Four, so everything below there is a mystery.)
But even the mystery of crew quarters is nothing like the mystery of the Earth’s crust. I boggle to think of the crystalline world of caves existing just below me, beauty that no one has ever seen. (Like the proverbial fallen tree, is a cave beautiful if no one has ever beheld it? If no light has ever penetrated it?) I wonder if there are cave-like cavities everywhere; most of them just don’t have connecting tunnels to the surface. Could my home be built atop a secret Fraggle world right now? Could every home I’ve ever lived in be? Could there be an entire sub-earth, just as vast as our surface world, just a few hundred feet down?
I think this is a metaphor for our minds. What is really going on in our minds? What causes us to make decisions? To prefer one flavor over another? To fall madly in love? To reel in disgust from a centipede? To be vulnerable to depression or anxiety? How does the passage of ionic chemicals across synaptic gaps lead to a sense of consciousness? I love learning about philosophy of mind, and pop neuroscience. One of my favorite ideas comes from Douglas Hofstadter, and in particular his book I am a Strange Loop, and if I understand him correctly, it states that consciousness arises from the complex structure of the brain; in fact, from complexity itself. But the more you think about it, the weirder it becomes.
When you’re thinking about your own thoughts, who’s the subject and what’s the object? When you think about what goes on when you think about your own thoughts, who’s doing that thinking? Consciousness, the mind itself, seems to me to be a subterranean cavern of increasingly intricate crystalline structures that build themselves out of nothing but the rainwater of our sensory input. Beneath the surface, we are all caves. Mostly caves that will never be discovered, mostly caves that will never have light shone upon them, mostly caves that exist beyond our ability to even detect.
But every now and then, a cricket ball goes missing. Every now and then, we find a rabbit hole.
(Oh…Lewis Carroll and Jefferson Starship obviously thought of this before me.) Every now and then, we can follow that bouncing ball, and find that it leads to something wondrous, something magical, something alien, something that seems to have no bearing on our regular, day-to-day lives. Something below. Something that, in a way, is the real us.
And I wonder if the only way to ever discover them is to play cricket. I mean, if my seven-year-old daughter had been with us on this tour yesterday, I can guarantee that the first thing she’d do when we got home would be to grab a shovel and start digging in the backyard, looking for a cave entrance. And when I was that age, I would have done the same. But the odds that we’d be able to find such a thing are so extraordinarily low. You can’t drill to find caves. (Okay, I know next to nothing about mining and fracking and so forth, so maybe you can. But in the metaphor, about the mind, you can’t.) A neurosurgeon doesn’t cut into the brain, and find the source of consciousness hanging around next to the hippocampus. (Okay, maybe they can. Emotions are regulated by the amygdala, right? But there’s still a chasm between understanding that and understanding how that translates into the experience of those emotions. It’s a glass onion, elephants all the way down. Elephants playing cricket)
But by playing cricket, by which I mean “by just living our lives,” sometimes we have the opportunity to follow a lost ball, to pull on a loose thread, and those things can lead to some fascinating things, things we’d never be able to experience otherwise. That is exactly the experience I have when writing essays, when writing blog posts. I start with a seemingly simple thing, and just keep following where it goes. I couldn’t do this without writing. Writing is my rope, my method of diving into the caves I discover. But I also can’t just be a hermit. I can’t just go digging without a map. I have to follow the clues, chase the balls, find the holes that are already there, waiting for a spelunker.
The boys never found their ball. That’s interesting, because it means that the ball was just the catalyst, the windmill they fought while accomplishing so much more. But it also means something else. The ball is still down there. Somewhere. Oh, God, there’s so much. Life is so deep. And we’ll never explore any more than just the tip of it. But what beauty there is in that tip.