Mind-Freak

9.16.19

We were six years old and lying companionably across a cellar door – the kind that ramps up diagonally, providing an ideal lean-backer for little kids taking a breather during a romp.

(You know – like the kind Auntie Em pulls open when the twister comes, only this one was on a quiet, sunny street in Old Town, Alexandria in 1966.)

Lisa Schumaier, lying next to me, spoke with the wisdom of six-year-old girls. “What if,” she said, “the color that I see as yellow is the color that you see as blue? How would we ever know?”

“What?” I asked, startled.

“Well, what if I look at the sky and I see a color that I call blue, but it’s actually the color yellow to you, but you’ve learned to call yellow blue?”

I was stumped, and a little horrified. “But the sky IS blue.”

“Yeah, but what if what I call blue is what you think is yellow?”

The sky loomed over me with sudden menace. “And the sun is really blue? In the yellow sky?”

“Exactly!” she said happily.

Half a century later, Stephen Colbert would look into the camera with a mischievous glint and ask “Did I just blow your mind?” But he was long decades away, and I spent an impossibly long time for a six year old – maybe five whole minutes – having my mind well and thoroughly rocked with uncertainty.

Then I decided it was a cool concept but unimportant, since we were all calling THAT color the same thing, even if we saw it differently, and we could let it go.

Of course, that was before I realized that a writer can sit down and think ‘er over, choosing exactly the right words to explain something so the other person could perceive it the same way. Me, I favor the analogy – you might have noticed. I love a good “this thing is like that thing, and here’s why.”

For example:

I lie in my bed having a lazy Sunday morning. (All right – a lazy Sunday afternoon. It’s been a tough week, and judge not lest ye be judged.) I revel in the lazy morning (afternoon) euphoria in my legs and feet.

A warm, benevolent sun is radiating gently in my feet and up my legs, all the way to the hip flexors. Every muscle is perfectly relaxed and at peace. If that’s what the afterlife is like, sign me up.

From the hip flexors up, everything is normal. I feel fine – but not basked in gentle warmth and relaxation. And I’m thinking this is the gift of exercise. You know – running is great because eventually you get to stop. And if I could just explain that to people – if they could somehow get inside my nervous system and experience this utter contentment – then no one would ever again roll their eyes when considering my slothful morning routine.

But what if my morning euphoria is what amazing trainer Barbara – a long-distance runner – feels all the time? What if wonderful neighbor Bob Gaylord, who can barely wait until he gets to run his next ultra-marathon, walks through life with this sense of delicious peace in every muscle AND THAT’S WHY HE RUNS?

What if the color they perceive as yellow is the color I think is blue?!

It’s a mind-freak.

We’re never really sure we understand what it’s like inside someone else’s skin or muscles or eyeballs or nervous system. I have not one but two friends who have recently received absolutely devastating news (the kind that makes you realize that maybe death isn’t the worst thing after all), and they’re both going through their days with the compassion to offer ME comfort upon the death of my mother and my dog.

We never know what’s really going on inside the entire universe that is the person right next to us.

Yes, this blows my mind.

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