I was talking to our editorial staff yesterday and was reminded of a quote I saw 40 years ago by a writer -- I think it was G.K. Chesterton -- that amounted to a boast that he could write a lengthy essay about anything, even a ceiling crack. I’ve often taken that as a challenge.
About the same time as I read that, I had a friend who was, like me, a person who could be bored to death by other people pretty easily, but could always recover by turning his attention to the fascinating details of life and his immediate surroundings. So, for example, on one occasion in a coffee shop, after being bored by half a dozen people with one poor, frail, exhausted thought among them, he suddenly announced that he would count the ceiling. So he looked up and around at it, and said, “One.”
Then, it being the most interesting thing he had done so far that day, and far more interesting than listening to the half dozen friends’ thoughts squeak, he proceeded to do the count over and over again, verifying each time that the original count was correct.
I suppose what I’m trying to say by bringing that up is that I could pretty much write an extended essay on just the subject of a ceiling without a crack by beginning with a long, detailed discussion of its oneness, then gradually moving on to its cracklessness by stealthy steps and stages.
One of the tricks one may use when one sets about doing such a thing is the trick of bending to opposing forces. I mean, if there is a force pushing you to not write the thing or slowing you down, write about the force.
Here’s a force that could be operating: I might find myself nagged by doubt. Why, my brain may ask, should I write an extended essay on the subject of a ceiling?
I’ll get back to that momentarily, but first I would mention another technique -- that of the sidestep. At this point I will mention homelessness.
What does homelessness have to do with ceilings? Well, homelessness is something you get when there is a shortage of private ceilinged spaces. In fact, in some other countries the word for homelessness translates into English as “rooflessness,” and could as well be “ceilinglessness.”
So if you happen to have a ceiling above you as you read this, you may very well not be homeless. You probably aren’t if you rarely have to share that particular ceiling with anyone except close family and invited friends.
When you think of it that way, you begin to appreciate the ceiling you have, and even its cracks. If you were to have a totally crackless ceiling, you might even feel too close to having no ceiling at all. A cracked ceiling is a ceiling with a little extra substance you can hold in your thoughts and cling to, making the ceiling all the more real, reassuring you that you are housed. Assuming that you are.
Getting back to the question above: Why write about this particular ceiling at hand, versus ceilings in general or in the abstract? That’s the nagging thought.
Well, when I talk about homelessness, I think it usually is best to stick to my own experience of it. I shouldn’t try to even pretend to know what it is like for other people.
I think, in fact, that talking about anything at all in general and in the abstract is risky and liable to spill over into nonsense.
Here’s an extreme example. I actually had a two-day argument on the Internet with a man who said it was important to him that he existed. I said, “you have to be kidding me. Are you at all aware of how little information is conveyed by the observation that an entity exists? My opinion of the significance of your assessment of the importance of your existence exists. So does a brick. So does my ceiling.”
The ceiling above me matters. Its mere existence hardly matters. What it is as it exists is what matters, and that’s true of people as well. It’s not that they exist. It’s how they exist and for whom they exist.
Just the fact of writing about one ceiling endlessly, while sitting under it, can convey that principle by the practice of it, better than the saying of it.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd.
Read the full Dec. 5 - Dec. 11 issue.
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