Why I Write, and Why You Should Read (More)
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.” Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
by Allen Peacher
I write to share my curiosity about the world, and you should read (more) to keep your mind open and your own curiosity alive and healthy!
A major part of my self-narrative has always been my great desire to learn to read. I remember my mom reading to me when I was very young, and I have very distinct memory “snapshots” of looking through books not only for the pictures, but also because I was fascinated with the words themselves. The mystique and esoterism of ancient languages imagined in visual and print media (like Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit) is close to what I felt about the plain English words that filled the books scattered around our home. There were secrets there, there was some kind of magic hidden within, but you had to know the trick! I remember the intensely visceral desire I had to learn that trick and access the secrets.
The ancient Greek word for “treasure” was “thesaurus”, and this is exactly how I saw books. Each one was a treasure chest filled with gold coins and sparkling jewels and gemstones, but I did not have the key!
In one of these early memories I am on the kitchen floor with a book, a pencil, and some paper. I had no idea how to unlock the treasure, but I was trying, completely on my own and without outside encouragement. Although by then I knew the alphabet verbally and perhaps visually (although I remember thinking “elemenohpee” was one letter for a while!), I had not yet made the full connection between speech and the symbols on the page. I did not yet understand the concept of individual words; I was copying each letter from the printed page onto my paper, but without any spaces! I remember my dad seeing my masterpiece and (my memory insists) chuckling. But then my dad did the thing he had done before and would repeat a thousand times: he taught me. That was the day I learned that the unit of such magic was the word. It was a chimerical beast assembled from those strange and mysterious symbols called letters, but separated by another invention that wasn’t quite as empty as it appeared—the space. This was the first concrete progress I made after learning the alphabet.
I’m not sure which came first, the desire to learn or the desire to read. It’s hard to believe that the desire to read was separate from a general curiosity about this strange world I was discovering—examining every bug, every flower, every strange light in the sky. I touched, tasted, and tore apart everything I could find. Most little boys and little girls probably did, and we all found something tactile, something savory, and something mysterious.
When my sister started school, I was jealous. I longed to join that special academy designed to give me exactly what I wanted: information, facts, knowledge. Secrets. Soon after that she began to share her special knowledge with me. She began to teach the student, the learner, the scholar. Today my sister is a teacher with almost 30 years’ experience; and I am, well, still a voracious learner. One of my favorite pictures shows me in her lap with a picture book in front of us (I might be asleep though!). One of my fondest memories is her coming home from school and the two of us “playing school”. She wanted to teach and I was hungry to learn!
Increasing my knowledge has been both a tortuous path and a torturous one. When I started the journey, I thought knowledge of the world was composed of discreet facts and pieces of information. Every item within this finite set was established and existed out there in the universe for me to find. It would take patience and work, but someday I would collect them all like the 726 baseball cards I later tried to collect every year. I would master the secrets that had been discovered by other adventurers long before…
The acquisition of knowledge became more complicated as the years progressed. Adolescence brought with it the normal issues and angst. School and schoolwork were always easy for me, but the pressure of my peer groups and the torturous groping for acceptance colored my adventure with hues I had never experienced. I was educated and raised within the Catholic school and religious system. There were answers here, but there were many more questions as the years rolled on.
My neighborhood experience added to the spectral diversity of the world I was still discovering and within which I was attempting to navigate. My friends exposed me to new ideas and new paradigms. The idea that knowledge was some discrete set of “facts” was being challenged, even though I was probably still holding on to that simple idea of the world. Music entered the scene and presented new ideas and perspectives that I had never imagined. Prince challenged my ideas of sexuality and normality. Led Zeppelin blew me away with brand new sounds and a mysticism I had only newly discovered. Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, the Beatles, Duran Duran. Each one was a different flavor and a different color of the rainbow.
My best friend during these years (and today) was a very cool, very relaxed guy who exposed me to a lot of the music and ideas that were intruding into my small world. During these years we were both exploring ideas outside of our respective religious traditions, and nothing really seemed strange about the eclectic view of the world we were developing. We messed around with Tarot cards and music that was sexually charged and slightly sacrilegious. We read science fiction and fantasy and found many new ideas and views of the world that weren’t simple and discrete.
My innate curiosity about the world—combined with a need to find some special meaning and purpose to the universe--led me down the religious path about half-way through high school. My desire to find simple and discrete knowledge in the world convinced me that I had found a special version of “truth” that few could access. I threw myself into a very specific religious way of thinking and became extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and the teachings of the group I had found. I was consumed by my desire to know more about the Bible and the teachings of my leaders, to the extreme point of neglect: nothing else mattered very much to me; friendships, family, my diverse passion for knowledge, my passion for writing—all these things fell away from me, but I embraced the separation from the world because I was convinced the knowledge I had found was the only knowledge that mattered!
However, over time, this intimate knowledge of the Bible began to create a dissonance within me, because I started to see that the system I was being taught did not completely jive with what I read in the Bible, despite the sola scriptura claim: that it all came straight from the Bible. When I questioned the few places where I thought things didn’t quite line up, I was given pat answers, empty and lifeless. I saw a few other people who were looking at things differently and my mind began to swirl with fears and discomfort.
My doubts and what I saw as a dissonance between the Bible and my church’s teachings created an enormous pressure on my mind. Add to this repressed sexual desires, bad decisions, and internal maintenance of the idea of God’s will obtaining in my life, and I was ready to explode.
Things are much more complicated than I once believed. I had spent almost 10 years seeking knowledge within an extremely narrow framework. Looking back, I was waking up. Light was creeping in through the windows and I could only barely detect it through my closed eyelids. But it was undeniable—the morning was beginning. I could hear the birds singing, and as much as I wanted to stay asleep, because it was so warm and comfortable, I knew I had to open my eyes and let the light shock me into wakefulness. My long night was passing, and once my eyes were open, I jumped out of bed and faced an entirely new and fresh day!
I was starting to realize that much of the “knowledge” I had acquired about the world I lived in was just incorrect. Not that every piece of information was meaningless, but I saw that I had chosen to interpret everything I saw through lenses constructed by myself with a lot of help from other people who wanted me to believe their thing. This is not an attack on religion or belief, or Christianity, but on marrow-minded and closed thinking.
Suddenly (and it was very sudden), I was once again that little boy laying on the kitchen floor, trying to make sense of how all those symbols fit together to become a story. It was exciting and it was terrifying. In those first months I realized there was an enormous world of knowledge out there that I had been ignoring. I had thought my specs had given me super-vision, but once I threw them away I realized how intensely blind I had been all along. Thinking you understand the world can have the opposite effect: hindering you from seeing so much that is right in front of your face.
Although knowing that I knew nothing did not make me as wise as Socrates, it opened a world of a thousand doors. There were so many voices I had rejected or dismissed because of my beliefs, but now I tried to ingest them all, starving for new ideas.
I thought that now, finally, I could find the real truth. I had been blinded, so I thought, by a too-strong belief in the Bible and God, by a too-ready acceptance of things I had been taught. Now, I told myself, you can honestly look at the world for the first time and discover the true philosophy, the true way to look at life. This way of thinking was just as near-sighted as my previous approach.
It probably took me another 10 years to realize that this kind of approach to knowledge would always lead to frustration. The desire for real knowledge can be so strong that is soon leads you to anything you can identify as “truth”. If you have never been exposed to new ideas that challenge those ideas you already possess, it is easy to think, Oh, this is it. But none of it is it.
I’m not espousing a simple form of relativism or post-modernism. I’m not saying that all ideas have equal merit and can never be judged or discriminated against. What I am saying is that nothing is as simple as it seems with a casual glance. What I am saying is that the more you delve into any subject, topic, issue, etc., the more complicated it can become, because you might begin to see the subtilties, the nuances, other perspectives, biases, rhetoric, et al ad infinitum. Or you might not. Like I did, you might fall into the same pattern of “discovering” a new truth, become satisfied with that or convinced that after so many years of searching you have finally, arrived at the only logical, reasonable, or true belief, faith, perspective—and that everyone else just doesn’t get it yet. I think this is natural. It’s the way the human brain seems to work. In an imaginary “state of nature” we must constantly make decisions about the world around us, we must discriminate between things that are harmful and those that are helpful. In the wild, in nature itself, indecision is more likely to be harmful than helpful.
It is hard to embrace uncertainty and the mystery of the universe we live in. But not everything we face with requires us to decide what the “truth” is—there may not be one in every case. It might seem that choosing A over B is more psychologically safe than saying “I really don’t know”.
Several times in my life I have found that my thirst for knowledge has exposed me to the danger of belief. Belief is not a bad thing, but it can easily blind us to other important things. The more intensely you believe something, the harder it is to see beyond this belief and experience the diversity and mystery of the universe we all live in.
In high school I experienced this for the first time when my longing for truth and meaning led me to choose a very specific system of belief that over time had a very negative effect on me in many ways: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, sometimes physically. It affected my friendships, relationships, my jobs, and my family. It wasn’t the particular system, but the systemization itself. To take something as complicated as life, the universe, and everything, and cram it into the confined space of systematic belief, with no room for mystery, vagueness, and fuzziness, eventually drives most of us mad as we try to reconcile the system with our complicated life and experiences. However, this is one of the formative and foundational experiences of my life. I would not change it, because it is largely responsible for who I am today, and how I think about and approach this world.
Adolescence was for all of us a torturous time of searching, longing, and just trying to figure out what the hell is going on! No matter how hard our parents, teachers, and other mentors and influencers try to help us navigate this difficult phase of life, none of it really helped very much. For some reason, educators didn’t seem to think teenagers needed critical thinking skills—the ability to compare alternative sources of information and to be prepared to identify things like religious or political bias. Perhaps this is changing. But we all had to figure it out for ourselves, and I don’t think we did a very good job. I think we all tended to believe that there were answers out there and we just needed to find them! Then when life doesn’t work out the way we expected or wanted, we think something went wrong—we failed in our search for meaning, truth, reality, purpose, even if we were never able to even identify what we were trying to do!
I think the best lesson we could have possibly learned is that there is no fixed set of answers to discover. Many people find answers, but sooner or later our systems of belief break down or fail us—but we keep blaming ourselves for not being smart enough or wise enough. Or for not loving God enough or being selfish, etc. I think this approach has only led us to anguish and even despair. I’m not saying there is no room in our lives or minds for belief or for the attempt to make sense of the world. What I suggest is that if we want to navigate this thing we’re in (life, the universe) we have to see the world less like a video game with discrete and concrete rules to discover and more like the chaotic mystery that it really is. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any purpose or meaning or God, but that no matter how much we think we have certain things “figured out” there is always the reality that our figure is somehow ill-formed.
In the world we all live in now, there are too many voices shouting “It’s like this!!” Whether it’s politics or religion or philosophy or the right way to dance, as a society and as individuals in society, we seem to fall into that idea that the world is intimately discoverable—you just need to listen to the right podcast, read the right book, get your news from the right sources, etc. The corollary to this is that anyone that thinks differently than “me” must have went wrong somewhere. They don’t have the “true truth” because they are ignorant, or lazy, or haven’t read the right things.
I call bullshit, and many other voices agree. You might have information or facts that someone else doesn’t possess. Your philosophy of life might work well for you most of the time, but if you think you are a guru that can instruct others about the “only” way to live, eat, pray, or dance, please go on a “retreat” into the wilderness and rejoin society when you are humbled by life itself and your own failings and weaknesses! We don’t need your voice telling us how simple it is to figure out life, because ultimately that will only lead your “followers” to disappointment with themselves because your system doesn’t work for them! The wilderness is calling you!
Curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge can be an amazing, wonderful endeavor. That is why I write, to share my love of curiosity and the search for more, more, more information, knowledge, and wisdom. But this endeavor is also wrought with its own pitfalls—the human, all too human tendency to not only seek but also to find answers. This desire most often leads us to make unnecessary decisions within the mystery that is our universe—to decide and/or declare that the world is a, b, or x and that it most definitely is not non-a, non-b, or non-x. It is my belief/conviction that this kind of presentation of the world we live in is spuriously dichotomous; it forces us to judge or discriminate in unnecessary cases. And I believe this is ultimately harmful to us as seekers of knowledge (wisdom, understanding) because it shuts us off from the possibilities of what the universe contains.
This is why I write, and this is why you must read (more!). If you are passionate about learning, or passionate about a certain issue or topic, read. Read 100 books about it, talk to 100 people, and challenge yourself and your biases with every step and at every crossroad. Read, live, look, and listen, and maybe then you’ll have something to share worth hearing. But don’t ever lose your curiosity about the manifold possibilities out there.
Peach Tease (and my writing) is dedicated to this philosophy. This website is not about giving you answers, or simple “life hacks”, or promoting a defined agenda. Peach Tease is dedicated to instilling a love for the mystery that seeps from every pore of the universe. If you come away from Peach Tease with more curiosity about the world or a different perspective on something after reading an article, essay, or post on this website, I have accomplished one small part of its mission!
At the beginning of this essay I wrote about the Greek word “thesaurus” and one of its meanings, “treasure”. This word was adopted and adapted by Roget when he released his first work of synonyms and antonyms, his “Thesaurus” of 1852. But the ancient Greeks also used the word “thesaurus” for the storehouses where they collected the gifts dedicated to the gods. In translation we call these ancient spaces “treasuries” and continue to use the word treasury in a similar way. The words that I write, as well as all the words we read to get information, are in some way dedicated to the almost divine curiosity that leads a writer to write.
In my articles and essays I provide no answers. I have nothing to tell you, but perhaps I have something to show you: my own curiosity about the world and my passion for learning, always trying to remain open to possibilities!
One final word: If you are reading this, you should feel blessed that you were able to learn to read. More than 36 million adults in the United States cannot read, write, or do basic math above the third-grade level. Yet reading has become more important and necessary than ever before. There are more words in front of our eyes than ever before, and more demands on our ability to discern. If you are from Kansas City and have time to volunteer, please contact Lindsay Vaughn at LiteracyKC (816-753-0681). If you cannot volunteer, consider donating—LiteracyKC receives no federal funding and relies on contributions from businesses and individuals. LiteracyKC is networked with the National Literacy Directory, so if you aren’t in the KC area you can visit www.familieslearning.org or www.proliteracy.org for more information, or use your own computer literacy to find a program in your area! Don’t take your ability to read well for granted! Thanks!
this vast wild universe
soar sing celebrate
dance dazzle twirl
touch eternity with your soul
worship within the sacred
dance within the unknown
- Allen Peacher
In the words of the Walt (Whitman), from Leaves of Grass:
“My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision. . . . it is unequal to measure itself.
It provokes me forever,
It says sarcastically, Walt, you understand enough. . . . why don’t you let it out then?
Come now I will not be tantalized. . . . you conceive too much of articulation.”
. . . .
“My words are words of a questioning, and to indicate reality;
This printed and bound book. . . . but the printer and the printing-office boy?
This marriage estate and settlement. . . . but the body and mind of the bridegroom? also those of the bride?
The panorama of the sea. . . . but the sea itself?
The well-taken photographs. . . . but your wife or friend close and solid in your arms?
The fleet of ships of the line and all the modern improvements. . . . but the craft and pluck of the admiral?
The dishes and fare and furniture. . . . but the host and hostess, and the look out of their eyes?
The sky up there. . . . yet here or next door or across the way?
The saints and sages in history. . . . but you yourself?
Sermons and creeds and theology. . . . but the human brain, and what is called reason, and what is called love, and what is called life?”
. . . .
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. . . . I contradict myself;
I am large. . . . I contain multitudes.”