Is It Natural to Be Scattered?

Making sense of our multiplicity.

Posted Oct 21, 2019

Source: Pexels

It is Fall again, and as I rake the leaves, I find myself raking alongside the speaker of the poem “Totally” by Tony Hoagland. Mindlessly humming a tune to a song he thought he hated — "a mangled version of Madonna's 'Like a Virgin'" — he laments:

“That’s how it goes when your head and heart/ are in different time zones—/ you don’t often find out till tomorrow/ what you felt today.”

How curiously the self is built; how funny it is that it operates in a perpetual state of jet lag. It's what psychologists refer to as multiplicity, the strange capacity we all have to move back and forth between a maddening variety of self-states, including that earworm we didn't realize was still with us.  

Hoagland here is echoing a wonderful poem by Pablo Neruda (“We are Many”), which goes through a series of humorous surprises—the cowardly self coming out when the brave self is wanted, the arsonist coming out when the firefighter is needed—and what’s more, he is starting the poem where Neruda ends.

At the conclusion of Neruda’s poem, the speaker is so thoroughly intrigued and puzzled by the wild discrepancies of our inner selves that he decides that instead of talking about oneself, he is going to "speak of geography." That’s how vast and wide the states of self truly are: That's how multiple. 

Hoagland brings us here, too, but he takes us through the seasonal ritual of raking leaves instead. His speaker enjoys the beauty and order of leaf piles in their "glowing heaps of cadmium and orange"—how nice it is to be put together and golden—but yet he doesn’t understand the leaf removal process, identifying so much more with the "entropic gusts of wind."

Although he feels more at home in the seeming disorder of randomness, it also perturbs and puzzles him, leading to the first subversive turn of the poem, in which he wonders, as we all sometimes do:

“Is it natural to be scattered?”

There is an intimation here that he could be part of nature rather than disconnected from it and that, maybe, the process of putting leaves into neat piles is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe it is just natural for us all to be a bit scattered.

As he ponders this more, he arrives at alarming examples of his own fragmentation:

"When I look to the sky I am often dreaming/ of a television program I saw some months ago/ when I walk into a dinner party/ I am thinking of the book I mean to read when I get home."

This constantly shifting multiplicity becomes so disconcerting that he almost concludes: 

“My here is disconnected from my now, so never am I entirely anywhere.”

Lucky for us, Hoagland rescues his speaker with the consolation that this capacity is at the core of what makes him and us fully human. Referencing the sciences and the arts through Darwin and Keats, he reminds us that this capacity for division is also at the heart of the capacity for creation. Both of them could discover something new and creative while temporarily being somewhere else, playing poker, or doing surgery.  

It is the paradoxical propensity to be both "lost and found" that we find in life that gives it the ring of joy and hope, even in the most seemingly disconnected moments. It allows us to glide in and out of a diversity of emotional spaces and gives us a sense of depth and breadth.  

Within our own operating system is both the capacity to be separated and yet truly connected. And as Hoagland concludes, it is in this place, where we can have the "strange conviction" that we are going to be born. 

Maybe it'll make you look a little differently at the beauty of those randomly arranged leaves outside, and just maybe, it'll make you a little more appreciative of the multiplicity that comprises your selves too.