“It’s always there. Just beneath the surface. You can try to run, but it will hunt you down. Tackle you. Turn you over, sink its claws into you, grab you by the throat, and demand that you speak. Its name is Beauty.”-Anonymous
The scene is Firestorm books, a small anarchist bookstore in Asheville North Carolina. A smorgasbord of unique and provocative material. A feast for any inquisitive reader. I see some familiar names like Chomsky, lots of new names, and categories not so much. All rainbows on every wall, the decor is a bit on the nose. Firestorm aims to be a catalyst for the next revolution and the friendly people behind the desk claim that is collectively owned. But it’s not. There is a manager and owner. He’s a sort of adopted father figure who lets them feel they have more sway than they do. I think he does this so they can feel cool dropping the fact that it’s an ‘anarchist’ bookstore when they’ve told their friends and customers.
My eyes break back and forth like waves over the shelves as the realization slowly hits me: I couldn’t care less. Reading was my life for such a long time, studying literature at the University. I was just so very tired. Tired of all of the false confidences, the downplaying of doubts. The carving out of micro-universes to boast of its gravity and grandeur. I was tired of convenient and confident truths. I wanted the off-the-cuff, unprepared, honest, vulnerable, and uncomfortable truths. So I fashioned a question and made a plan. I set my way out of the bookstore and down the street to the local freak show dive bar know as the Odditorium.
We called it the ‘Odd’ for short. It’s where you’d see your friends’ crappy garage band perform. Mannequin limbs protruding out of lampshades- that kind of thing. The bartender is loaded up with tattoos and she’s feeling friendly. I sit down next to a guy whose head is down in his beer with caved-in shoulders. He glanced up and around at no one in particular. I pull out my notepad and pen. He looks directly at me.
“Excuse me,” I say. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
I explain to him where I just came from. What I was thinking, and why I am here. “I’m starting a bit of an experiment and I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind being my first subject?” Curious, he skeptically agrees. “I’m going around and I’m asking strangers the same question and documenting their responses.” I ready my pen.
“What kind of question?” He sneers.
“What have you seen in recent history that’s left an impression on you? And when you close your eyes, imagine yourself there, what are you looking at?”
He looks off into the distance then looks down.
“I’m at a Phish concert.” He replies.
“Okay,” I begin to scribble. “Describe it to me.“
“Look, before we get into any sort of deep conversation I just want to let you know that I have only one rule.” He looks direct and intently.
“Don’t call me an asshole.” He says.
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
“I know, I know… It’s just with how everyone’s been on Facebook, I’ve just been called that a lot lately. I’m an atheist and I’m very logical. That doesn’t bode well for social media. People get their feelings hurt too easily by facts. I’m all about the facts and the numbers. Just don’t call me an asshole okay?”
“Sure. Fine.” I nod.
“Well like I was saying, I was at this Phish concert. It was a kind of spur the moment thing. It wasn’t supposed to be on their schedule, but they came through town and decided they just wanted to throw a party.”
“What is it about Phish that you like?” I ask. “Because honestly, I’ve never really been a fan. Jam band music to me is all about memorizing a bunch of scales, picking a beat, and just showing off. But I’m open to being wrong.”
“Well I guess what I like about the music, is that the band gets a reading on the room- the crowd, the energy that night, and feel for each other. And they make something that only will exist in that specific time and place and moment. Kind of like a musical photograph. It’s fleeting but beautiful. I feel like that’s how life is, and that’s why I like them.”
I scribble for a while and then look up from my pen. “That’s interesting. I think you might’ve just convinced me why I should like them.”
He smiles. I put down my pen and look at him.
“I have this theory, about left brain and right brain people.”
“I’m listening.” He says as he takes another swig.
“I think my left-brained friends, who mostly tend to be atheist or agnostic, are interested in things like fantasy and jam bands for the same reason my right-brained friends, who are religious, focus on musical genres and movements.”
“How’s that?” He raises an eyebrow.
“Well like you said, you are all about the facts and figures. My atheist friends focus on denotative data I think because they fear being taken advantage of and manipulated by all the fuzzy connotative intuition type data. Understandably so, there are a lot of people abusing that kind of information. Like Benny Henn and those religious wizard guys. “
He chuckles. “No kidding…”
“And my right brain friends are more connotatively minded, they tend to be religious, live in a world of interconnecting ideas. “
He looks a little bit tired. “What’s your point?”
“I can’t help but wonder if the soul longs for what the mind lacks. My left-brain friends seem to reflexively push out the mystery in their day to day, and therefore their soul longs for it. A lot of them are fans of fantasy lit, jam bands, experimental drugs to try to crack open their consciousness. Like their emerging soul is trying to crack out of the solidified shell of their understanding. My right-brained friends, on the other hand, are immersed in a world of interconnected ideas, there seems to be too much static and openhandedness when you surrender to mystery. Isn’t that what belief in the transcendental is? Too much mystery can be scary so their soul longs for order. I wonder if it’s why a lot of Christian artists get pigeonholed into movements and musical categories. Hence why the art tends to be about 10 years behind the rest of the culture. It’s like our whole being seeks equilibrium. That it knows intuitively that there has to be more than what our certainties tell us.“
My new friend was nice enough to entertain my theories and share his story a little further. We talked through the night and we were both pleasantly surprised to see that people, with vastly different ways of looking at the world, could be civil and generous.
“I think what we are talking about is our limited vantage point,” I say. “We are all missing something, but we all know instinctually that there is a complete picture out there somewhere.”
“I guess you’re right.” He reluctantly agrees. “That is after all why people argue.”
“And why people get so irritated. Because we know that no mere mortal could have all of the information. To pretend that you do is basically to pretend to be God.” I say.
“Yeah, maybe we all do kind of believe in God in our own way..” He says looking up at the stars by our outside table. “Maybe we just are all kind of jealous of his position.”
And I think to myself, “I think I like this asshole.”