The Examined Life

And why it's worth living

The Power of Unseen Presences

Why those flickering perceptions you’re avoiding are worth following

First a dropping. A dropping in the pantry beside the grains. I cleared the shelf and discovered a trail of them. A trail of traces but never a mouse.


The idea of a mouse had been present in me: I'd seen our cat sniff at the stack of grocery bags in the corner, choose to take her nap on the blanketless kitchen floor. For weeks after the sighting, before opening the pantry door, I would knock. "Is the wizard in there?" My four year old would ask, thinking I was invoking a character from our imaginative play.


"Let's see," I'd respond, and, together, we would open the door, look from left to right, up and down. Nothing.


The truth is, I was pleased. Even though I knew the mouse was there, I preferred not to see it. Instead of trying to lure and trap it, I cleaned the pantry shelves, put the dry goods in sealed containers, hoped to organize things so that the mouse would choose to forage elsewhere.


As a child, I took piano lessons at the apartment of my teacher, Mrs. Eisenstein. I'd step out of the elevator into the overheated hallway on her floor infused by the smell of boiling soup stock that seeped beneath doors. Once in the apartment, I'd enter into a foyer, the piano straight ahead in the living room across from a white couch and armchair, both covered with plastic. To the left was a bedroom, maybe two, and through the living room was a kitchenette and dining room with a table at which she sometimes invited me to sit and eat cookies. She was an older woman with a high-pitched voice, chatty but gentle. Her husband, who I'd been told had had a stroke, was always in the bedroom--or so I'd assumed, sensing his presence regardless of whether or not there was a sign of him.

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Never in my five years of lessons at their apartment did I set eyes on Mr. Eisenstein. But sometimes, as I was playing my arpeggios, I would hear what sounded like a moan. Mrs. Eisenstein would continue singing her word for the rhythm of triplets-tan-ti-vy, tan-ti-vy, tan-ti-vy-as though she hadn't heard a thing, but my entire being would halt even as my fingers went on without me.


Mr. Eisenstein's suffering was like the mouse--what I knew was there even though I only saw the traces, what the tap of my fingers on the piano keys, like my knocks on the pantry door, warded off. Without the droppings or the moans, it is possible to pretend not to sense what has been sensed, to override perception--like covering your ears and shouting, "La La La" when you don't want to hear what another person is saying.


How often do we go through life knocking, prompting the mouse to scurry away, protecting ourselves against an encounter with the incalculable, choose not to pursue a dropping--whether in the pantry or in the mind--because we are not sure we will like where it leads? Innumerable times I have seen a shadow dart across someone's face, like the rat light you catch from the corner of your eye. So quickly it passes that an attempt to follow it seems impossible and the response--the easy one--is to carry on.


The poet William Stafford once said that by following these tiny moments of perception, trying to track and understand them, you will discover "the self most centrally yours." He referred to these perceptions as threads, in reference to a poem by William Blake:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

The thread may not necessarily lead to a joyful place because, as Stafford says, "[t]ragedies happen/ people get hurt/ Or die; and you suffer and get old."


Whatever wall the thread leads you into--Jerusalem's wall, the wall of your pantry or a wall in your mind--it will offer revelation. In a recurring dream, I turn a corner in my house to find a new room and, as I scan the unrealized space, ask, "Why haven't I seen this before?" If, as Freud had it, every dream expresses a wish, the wish here is to be cognizant.


What was initially mouse to me--unknown and preferably preserved as unseen--was wizard to my daughter, a child who would like to learn, as she recently informed me, to fly. When we choose to engage with unseen presences, catch brief glimpses and pursue them like the ends of golden threads, we invite a transformative magic into our lives, the wizardry of a life examined.

Nuar Alsadir, Ph.D., a poet and essayist, teaches at New York University and is in The Scholars Program at New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute.

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