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Journal, Day Three

By Kay Ryan

This is a good question that reader Robin Yim poses: Can one court sensory deprivation
(which I mentioned on Monday in relation to the camera obscura photographer) or does one just have to be ready to take advantage of it when it happens by?

First of all, of course I’m not really talking about sensory deprivation. The phrase sensory deprivation should be understood as an amusing overstatement (though I suspect that it may read as unremarkably neutral in our culture of ambient overstatement.) What I really mean is sensory modulation, just some serious turning down of the knobs for bright, fast, and loud. Oh, and the pressure knob too, turning that down.

Maybe all of us who desire more of this have the mildly predefeated tone of Robin Yim, assuming we’ll just have to wait till things align. Perhaps we are a passive people, by nature doubtful of the worth of anything you have to struggle too hard for. We wonder, we People of the Dusk, what’s the use of yelling that we must have some quiet. If we did get some quiet that way, it would be a jangly, fraught, wholly useless quiet.

We do not prefer to wait, but we can’t think of anything else to do. I am reminded of the life of the tick, as described in the strangely empathetic brochure, Defeating the Tick, by Robert Brown Butler, which accompanied a tick removal tool my partner Carol brought home some years ago. My favorite line in it is, “With only three meals in two years, time goes by slowly for the lowly tick.” I kept it above my desk for a long time. Apparently the young tick instinctively crawls up something vertical like a stick until it reaches its furthest tip and then waits for months or years for something warm blooded to come within jumping-on distance. There must be occasions when nothing ever does. Other texts, by the way, document waits much longer even than Brown Butler describes. For example, John N. Bleibtreu, in a gorgeous essay titled “The Moment of Being,” describes how “In the Zoological Institute, at Rostock, prior to World War I ticks were kept on the ends of twigs, waiting for this moment [of feeding] for a period of eighteen years.”

Imagine the researchers at the Zoological Institute at Rostock watching the ticks for eighteen years. Perhaps, toward the end, the scientists began to wonder if they could hold out longer than their subjects. And what must the incremental psychic costs have amounted to from all those years of consciously denying satisfaction to the ticks? So much restraint for a bit of knowledge, so much endurance for a bit of blood.

Still I would like to think that there are, Robin Yim, some things one can do to bring the tick and its meal closer faster, or in our case to actively seek—what shall we call it—emptiness? For example, in my own life it was recently the case that my home—for many years mine alone to wander vaguely around in during the day as though it were my own skull—became more densely occupied. Therefore I decided (with the help of some outside coaching) not to just wait for things to change back to the way they had been (which they might or might not do) but to find myself a study elsewhere. In other words, I would recreate the sensory dampening that I require, using my own Initiative! I set about this, and within a few weeks had contracted to rent for a very modest fee a tiny travel trailer that sits in the yard of some friends. So see? It is possible to press against incursion, to fling oneself toward, in my case, a teardrop-shaped refuge from the knobs turned up. I have to say that it didn’t work and that I have abandoned poetry as a result, but it does show that you can try.


Emptiness cannot be
compressed. Nor can it
fight abuse. Nor is there
an endless West hosting
elk, antelope, and the
tough cayuse. This is
true also of the mind:
it can get used.


Thank you all for your comments. I hope you’ll continue to say your pieces. I count on them, including those to which I do not specifically respond.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, December 6th, 2006 by Kay Ryan.