Our minds are greater than our bodies can bear. I first encountered this thought during the seventeenth summer of my life, while sitting in the searing heat of the sun, in a classroom with the windows open but not a breath of air. I want to say this mind-body idea is mine because it’s a really great idea, but it’s not, and anyway, which great idea ever truly belongs to you? I bet every thought you’ve ever had has already been thought by someone else. Even the thought that your thought has been thought by someone else has already been thought by someone else.
Anyway, like I said those words aren’t mine: they were from someone we learned about called Byron. What Byron actually said was something about the soul wearing out the breast like a sword ruins its sheath, all metaphorical and that. He was talking about how the mind can drive the body further than the body can handle. All that I understood was that the page in front of me still had only one sentence on it even though I was supposed to have been writing an essay for the past twenty minutes. It wasn’t even a very good sentence. The teacher was walking up and down the room giving me impatient glances and although I had all the thoughts and ideas I would ever need to write a great essay, they all seemed somehow slightly wrong, like a skew picture frame or a puzzle that refused to fit. I just couldn’t get the ideas out: every time I wrote something down it was like the pen crumpled and mangled the thought and what ended up on the page was a sad illogical shadow instead of the clear reflection of my mind that I was looking for.
I could feel the tension rising and in a fit of impulsiveness I scrunched up the paper into a ball and chucked it on the ground. I tore a new sheet off the pad and started over, trying to funnel the luscious world I was imagining through my pen. The funnel ended up being more like a broken sprinkler and I crumpled up another page. How was one tiny piece of paper supposed to hold an entire brain’s imaginings? I heard in science class that the man who invented the light bulb failed a billion times or something; it’s not important. What he said was that doing well is 99% hard work and 1% inspiration. I’m pretty sure I had the 1% inspiration part, but I think I only had about 50% hard work. The writing wasn’t going well: I balled up a few more sheets of paper.
I turned to look out of the window. The air was dead calm outside. The only thing that moved was the shimmering space above the hot paved quad. The shifting mirage made me think of water, and I imagined the time when I was standing high on a rock far above a pool. That was the summer of my sixteenth year, and it was hot. Me and my friends had walked for an hour through the cloying air to reach these rock pools, following a thundering waterfall, and when we arrived we felt like travellers arriving at an oasis. It was so beautiful: the deep green water was churned violently, and the rocks looked climbable and so inviting. We excitedly undressed down to our swimming costumes, and started climbing to the top, preparing to jump.
When we got up there, I felt a nervous twinge in my stomach. I stayed at the top of the waterfall and watched while everyone else ran past, one after the other, and flung themselves from the rocks with wild whoops and screams and far down below, deep splashes. I really wanted to join them, and I stood there for ages, but I couldn’t get myself to do it. It wasn’t that I was scared of water: I could swim well. What scared me wasn’t even the jump, or the height, or the fall. I was scared of that tiny instant at the very peak of your flight that you realise you aren’t going up anymore. The moment just before gravity kicks in, and you start falling. You sit there motionless and weightless: stuck between the freedom of flying and the doom of falling. I often dream of that moment, and I imagine that’s what being dead would feel like. You would be stuck in the middle of nothingness, unmoving and unknowing, a tiny bright speck of a mind or soul or spirit or whatever just hovering for all eternity in the abyss.
But out of that endless abyss I heard a familiar clanging sound. It echoed. I started up and knocked my pencil case off the desk as I suddenly woke. The world blossomed around me as I opened my eyes and heard the flurry of noise that was people packing bags, meaning the bell had just rung. I looked at my desk and saw an empty page and beyond it, on the floor, my small pyramid of screwed up paper. My face felt rough where it had been lying on the desk, and my cheek felt slightly damp – I think it was drool. Hoping nobody would notice, I quickly wiped it off, grabbed my papers and pushed them into my bag. Embarrassment turned my face red as I stooped to pick up the pencil case and kick the papers under the next desk. The class droned, “Good afternoon sir.” I grabbed my blazer and hurried out of the room, the teacher calling out to me to not forget my essay tomorrow. I said I’d finish it tonight, but I knew that was wishful thinking. No matter how I tried to translate my infinite mind through my finite body and into words on a tiny page, I knew that those great castles that I built with my imagination would end up on the paper sounding like an ancient ruin. Not the adventurous, exciting kind of ruin, but the kind of messy disaster that I never want to think about. It makes me want to rip my page up, and rather take a photograph of what I see in my mind and hand that in instead.