The Lost Summer

By Tim Walker

“La perception est une hallucination vraie.”

— Hippolyte Taine

I learned to see in three dimensions in my mid-twenties, when I was disabled by severe low back pain, and had lots of time on my hands. I noticed that, while driving, the focus I normally maintain on the road flattens my perception of the landscape. To remedy this, I would soften my focus, giving attention to the whole visual field, including peripheral vision, with the result that everything pops into three dimensions. This is enormously enhanced by movement. Perspective alters objects and their relation to me as I move toward them: a large tree beside the road grows from an insignificant blob at a distance to an overbearing presence. If the road traverses hills and blind curves, and is overhung by trees, these things all heighten the drama, and a routine drive on suburban streets becomes a dream-like progress through a world of enchantment.

In 1978, after years of chronic back pain, I saw an orthopedic surgeon, who ordered bed rest. I was confined to a hospital bed for a week. My back relaxed, but the muscles were left weak and irritable, as if they didn’t know what to do next, and were inclined to return to their usual rigor at the first provocation. No physical therapy was prescribed, and I didn’t like my chances of improvement. My first marriage had recently fallen apart, messily and irrevocably. Burdened with the chronic depression I’d suffered since high school, and the situational depression consonant with my crappy life, I emerged from seven days in the climate-controlled, fluorescent-lit rooms and hallways of the hospital into the stark clarity of a spring morning.

With all forward momentum gone, the brilliant air seemed a palpable and resisting medium that I would have to force my way through. But this initial hesitation was easily overcome. My true equilibrium state did not inhabit the entrance plaza of a hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut, but my apartment in the neighboring state of New York. Also, I had a ride. It was probably my father who drove, and there was probably a stop at my parents’ apartment in Rye to give what Dad liked to call a “gross report” of the state of my health. I don’t recall the conversation. No doubt I let them see more of my hopes than my fears.

I lived alone in the upper story of a duplex in a working-class neighborhood in New Rochelle. When I got there I took a hot bath, did some stretches, and lied down to rest. I have always liked being alone, and to be alone was a relief after all that time in the constant presence of strangers. I also like silence, and it was good to be in a quiet place. I didn’t know what kind of journey I had embarked on, but it was getting off to a good start. 

At the time, I was a college dropout. Perhaps to compensate for this, I was resolutely intellectual. I detested television and didn’t own or want one. I read a lot, and my reading was always highbrow, and often difficult. 

I had recently taken some night classes at Manhattanville College from philosophy professor Raymond Langley, in which we examined how historic philosophical viewpoints were reflected in literature, historiography, and the psychoanalytic movement. We read Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, and I was intrigued by the author’s attempt to reconcile the ideological systems of Marxism and Freudianism. 

In these night classes there were always a few students of my parents’ generation, and one evening I idly remarked to one of them: 

“I’m thinking of constructing a ‘Chinese menu’ with philosophical systems in A and B columns, then considering the consequences of ordering various ‘meals’ that would combine them in unexpected ways.”

He replied, with a tolerant smile, “The trouble with that kind of meal is that you’ll be hungry again an hour after you eat it.”

I conceded the point and took delight in the exchange. As I continued to think along these lines I felt that, while piecing together disparate ideological commitments could not satisfy me for long, I was intrigued by the paradoxical nature of such a project. 

In the unaccustomed leisure of disability, with so little in the real world to attract or engage me, I retreated into a world of abstractions, and found that the paradoxes that pleased me most were those that arise from the complex commerce between irrationality (raw sensory data, dreams, visions) and rationality (interpretation, argument, theory).

My invalid’s regimen soon settled into a daily round of hot baths and stretching, walking in the neighborhood several times a day, and reading while lying on my back with knees elevated by pillows, or on my side with a pillow between my knees. I sometimes had visitors, but everyone I knew worked during the week, so I was alone much of the time. Besides, I was sometimes not good company, and visitors became discouraged. I began to see more of my Italian-American landlady, who lived in the house next door, because she was alarmed by the increased water usage in my building. She could stand in the hallway downstairs and hear the water running, and sometimes when I drew a hot bath during the day she knocked on my door and demanded to know what I was up to and whether it was really necessary. Also, I often bumped into the neurotic stay-at-home mom who lived downstairs. Her husband was a stoner and tech college dropout who worked for the phone company. Their child, a toddler, usually seemed shell-shocked by their frequent loud arguments; and they had a dog that terrorized them and was often out of control. They were friendly, but I wanted nothing to do with their chaotic lives. These connections didn’t add up to a social life.

In addition to social isolation, my invalid lifestyle included self-medicating my back pain with booze. This enabled me to be more active, to sit up longer, and—oddly—to feel more “normal” because I was not such a constant slave to my disability. Before long, I was never sober. I drank persistently, but in moderation—carefully titrating so much pain and stiffness against so much blended scotch until they used each other up. 

But it wasn’t all derangement and morbidity. My daily walks were the high points of my day: I was entranced by all the signs of spring, the sights and sounds of nature, the behavior of the birds and squirrels in the park, and even the rats along the waterfront. I lived in an urban environment, and that made the persistence of wild living things all the more striking. I bought a field guide to the trees and taught myself to recognize them. I learned that oaks are among the last trees to leaf out in spring but can be recognized by the litter of acorns on the ground and the clusters of buds at the twig ends. I made mental notes of the locations of mulberry trees, so I could check them for berries later in the season. I learned that chestnut buds are so tightly packed with complexly folded leaves and flowers, when they open it’s like they’re puking their guts out.

Walking and observing nature filled me with wonder and contentment. Of course, it also tired me out. I sometimes had to struggle to keep from turning my attention to a resurgent backache as I returned home from a walk.

The relations between the irrational and the rational reveal a dual paradox: the irrational can’t make or defend claims of its own without resorting to rational means (thus being untrue to its essential nature), and the rational can’t make sense of the irrational without simplifying it and missing its most characteristic qualities. So neither can really bring the other within its own sphere. If there can be no resolution between them, the truth could only be seized from a continuous, dialectical movement of ideas. A favorite quote:

“[T]he truth of existential thought never lies in its content as such, but rather in what happens to me in the thinking of it.”

- Karl Jaspers, Reason and Existenz

Not being a fan of the Germanic, language-centered method of dialectic, which creates a swirling verbal fog inaccessible to direct understanding, I aimed to evolve a method of thought that appropriated ideas in the mind’s eye in a perceptual way.

I learned from Gestalt psychology that every visual perception is a compound of the irrational primitivity of the visual field and the rational meaning the mind spontaneously attaches to it. This is clearly seen in some parlor “illusions,” such as the familiar drawing that can be seen as either the silhouettes of two faces in profile separated by a white background, or as a white vase surrounded by a black background. In either case, the foreground object is called the gestalt—the German word for shape. We cannot see the faces and the vase both at once, and when we switch from one gestalt to the other, the new one “pops” into being, with a sense of seeing the image anew. 

Manipulating my perceptions to see the world anew was a form of philosophizing. The letting go of an old gestalt, the ability to consider only the pure, irrational sensory data, and the discovery of a new gestalt, was to me the schema of creativity and the engine of thought at the heart of my method. Just as every perception was provisional—a metastable equilibrium where meaning was created by selective attention to some elements of the sensory data while the unselected data remained in view, a constant threat to coherence—in the constant flux of thought, there could be no resolution. 

For a while, in any place with a wide view, I experimented with nullifying the everyday meanings of up and down. I’d try to see and feel the curvature of the earth, and dwell on the fact that the “up” direction is relative to my position on the globe, that all possible “up” directions are really “outward” directions, and I became a pointy thing stuck to a sphere and projecting into space, along with all the other pointy, stuck-on things like trees and buildings. My true dwelling-place was not the earth, which I touched with only the soles of my feet, but the space that enveloped me and spread itself into a welcoming blue vault of airy immensity. 

The novelty was exhilarating, but the loss of groundedness was too uncomfortable to sustain for long. 

In follow-up visits to the orthopedist, I reported steady improvement. I didn’t like to disappoint him by complaining that my back tired easily, that I still needed to rest often during the day. Before I knew it, my upbeat reports led to the presumption that I would return to work soon. I felt I wasn’t ready.

Being an academic underachiever and repelled equally by the social aspects of manual and office work, I had found my niche as a draftsman in a consulting engineer’s shop in White Plains. One day I dropped in to tell my supervisor that I could return to work if they gave me a chair and a low drafting table. I already knew his answer. Only a manager could get a chair; most engineers had to sit on stools, and I was just a lowly draftsman. So, I perched on a stool and worked for an hour or so, just to see if it was the same old feeling. Then I told the boss I needed more time to restore my stamina, and went home to rest. 

I hoped they would continue my paychecks for a while, but I soon received a weaselly letter from HR hinting that they might take me off the payroll soon, and that gave me something new to obsess about. I already spent lots of time obsessing about my physical frailty and daily setbacks—money worries allowed me to add a touch of paranoia to the mix. I wondered, irrationally: did I still have any friends at the company who might help, or were they all in a conspiracy to deprive me of my income? Who would make this decision, and what exactly was he up to while I was sitting at home fretting? I’m sorry to say that at times my febrile sense of persecution was acute. 

Soon the paychecks stopped, and that source of angst evaporated. I was able to meet my expenses on the reduced income of State Disability benefits, which afforded me another six months to improve my stamina. But that bout of paranoia had altered my conception of the idler’s life: my mental health seemed at greater risk than I had previously suspected. My private word games had taken an alarming turn. For instance: as an invalid (n.), I was an invalid (adj.) person. The only thing lacking that might have abetted my growing morbidity was a nice graveyard within the range of my daily walks.

As I developed my ideas about paradox, I found a kindred spirit in M.C. Escher, whose art is loaded with perceptual paradox. Some Escher prints embody weird schemes of circularity: mirror images that merge into the reflected reality; or a framed picture that merges into its setting. Others are like rhythmic repetitions of the faces/vase drawing. For instance, a pattern can be perceived as white ducks flying to the right against a dark background, or black ducks flying to the left against a white background, depending on which gestalt you choose to see. These kinds of patterns can always be made more complex: they can transform from ducks to fish (or any other nesting-tile shape), or they can transition from a representation in two dimensions to one in three dimensions, or they can do either or both in a circular way. 

Then there was the paradox of maya. The physical world’s attribute of “reality” is composed of sensory data—light reflected off the surface of things—plus meanings of form, texture, and distance that distinguish objects and their relations, plus meanings that endow objects with solidity, the quality of having unseen thickness and unfelt weight. By subtracting this second class of meanings I could perceive, not reality as we know it to be, but maya, the illusion or veil of reality. I felt that the thin, opaque surface of things, without all the usual inferences of their solidity, had something to teach me. Soon, instead of occasionally popping into view, I saw maya whenever I passively contemplated my surroundings.

One day, resting midway in one of my daily walks, I sat in a park overlooking the Long Island Sound. Maya, the fragile shell of appearances, lay before me: water and grass, foliage and stones, each with its own form, texture, color, and value, its own cinema-like changeability, like a magic painting on a substrate far less substantial than canvas or paper: on air, perhaps, or on nothing. I’d seen and enjoyed this spectacle before—but now I saw it perfectly, and I believed it. And if you believe in maya, then reality itself is the illusion. 

A view of the ocean on a summer day should have the cheering effect of Melville’s “blue, boundless, dimpled, laughing, sunny sea.” Yet, despite all its color and movement, it was as cold and alien as the surface of the moon. What blank nothingness lies behind it, I wondered? 

I was afraid—and I remembered Nature, that refuge of my spirit and source of what little peace of mind I had known lately. When had I seen her last? Where was she now, when I needed her comfort?

I wrenched myself away from maya with difficulty—it was so otherworldly, so beguiling, a part of me didn’t want to leave it. I never consciously tried to see maya again, though it haunted me for a while, like acid flashbacks. 

Eventually, on my parents’ advice, I made an appointment to see Dr. Hans Kraus in his Park Avenue office in New York. Dr. Kraus was famous for having been President Kennedy’s back doctor and had written a best-selling book about overcoming back pain. Before I saw him, I kicked my alcohol addiction. He referred me to a Greenwich doctor who had learned his methods, and I began a course of trigger-point injections and physiotherapy treatments that finally gave me some relief from my back pain.

My thoughts turned to the future. Without forsaking my love of philosophy, I felt called to become a scientist, to learn about the natural world I loved so much. I had forgotten any mathematics I once knew, except for geometry and basic arithmetic, so I enrolled in a pre-calculus class at the newly established SUNY College at Purchase. 

SUNY Purchase was so new then, it didn’t even have a campus. My class met at Manhattanville College, less than a mile from the tract of farm land where the new SUNY campus was under construction. When it opened, I was among the first students to take classes there. The natural sciences building would be finished a year later. One day I explored its shell, after-hours when the workers were gone, with some fellow science students. As I surveyed my surroundings at the back of the building, I realized I had had my first sexual experience with my first girlfriend while picnicking in a meadow on that very spot where the building was being erected.

This was a coincidence (of erections?) different from and more delightful than my paradoxes, and I enjoyed savoring it. Superstitiously averse to articulating a hope, I was careful not to examine it too closely; but that meadow and building site and place of learning was—not in the real world, but in the world of dreams and poetry—my own personal earth vortex, an intersection of the ley lines of love, knowledge, and all good things. 

I didn’t actually see it. It was enough to sense it was there.

About the author

Tim Walker read, for pleasure, the complete novels of Charles Dickens while earning a BA in Environmental Studies, and the complete novels of Anthony Trollope while earning a PhD in Geological Sciences, and has worked as a computer programmer, healthcare data analyst, used book seller, and pet sitter. He lives largely in his own head, while he corporeally resides in Santa Barbara with his son and their cat. His essays and poems most recently appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Rat's Ass Review, American Writers Review, Harpy Hybrid Review, Moss Piglet Zine, 3:AM, Fatal Flaw, and Alchemy Spoon.

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