It often comes as a question where the things we like come from. And often the answer comes in the form of a reference to past events, which is a form of begging the question. To say that I like (for example) Star Trek because I have good memories of it begs the question: why were my initial experiences with it good? Perhaps then we can make reference to something else pleasant happening while I watched Star Trek, such as having pleasant company or enjoying a food item while watching it. But then the question becomes one of why I enjoy those things: and eventually we can trace our desires back to the most tiny of seeds, or disperse with them altogether. An equation with variables on both sides has an infinite number of solutions. And indeed, in recent times, I have almost felt that everything about me was fading or drifting away: perhaps everything I know is just a temporary combination of other things.
But the other week, when I was back in my old home of Portland, I had the complementary experience. I was walking around my old neighborhood: the neighborhood that I had moved into two months after turning 18. While I had plenty of Portland experience before, this was being turned loose, as a newly-minuted adult, on a city that was full of quirks and creativity, and was about to become more so. Being restless and young, I had walked up and down the streets, exploring across the city, walking from Southeast to Forest Park without a care. I also took place in the cultural life of the city, living 10 blocks from Powell's Books and Reading Frenzy, where I took part in the just-developing zine scene, but the biggest memory I have were just of the physical scenery around me, how the streets felt, the low hum of the city streets as I walked through a leafy park in Northwest. I have many memories from that time, many distorted by time. And time has distorted it: that was almost half my life ago, and the Portland I lived in has been subtly changed. It is hard, walking through the Pearl District now and seeing artisanal cupcake and stationary stores, to imagine when it smelled like a brewery, full of old brick buildings, and where getting a classic rock cassette tape at Everyday Music was a big thing for me.
But still, a three month period there, the summer of 1997, was in many ways like being born into an entirely new world. I formed associations and habits and memories that shaped who I was. But why? The apartment I picked out to live in was picked out when I (young and impatient) pointed to the first apartment on West Burnside street advertising vacancies, and insisted on taking it. So is my entire milieu and background formed by a haphazard choice? And it was this that I was thinking about when I was drifting through northwest Portland on a surprisingly clear January day a few weeks ago. Why had the world of Portland 1997 made me who I am? I was walking through the lower part of Forest Park, the trails that are easily accessible from the city. There were a lot of people there, but I knew that I could continue on these trails for hours, perhaps days, as they wound upwards and inwards. And somehow, in my foot, I felt the whole thing. Walking upwards, even at a pleasant pace, reminds you where you are, and where you are going. With every step, every slight exertion, every push off the ground below, I remembered what it was like to be 18, to be walking forward, heedless of the pass of hours as I wondered what was around the next bend. I remember the feeling of telling my feet that we weren't going to stop, that no matter how unknown and trudgerous the path ahead became, that we were going somewhere. And my feet believed me. And the revelation I had was that all of what I saw around me had made me real, had touched something inside of me. And not in a totally metaphorical way: it was the physical sensation of pressure and traction that told me who I was. And out of that sense of traction, that I was being showed the way ahead by its very resistance, I came to understand the trees and roads and buildings and people and culture around me.
Much like what I said about realizing the unreality of forms around me, the realization of their reality seems just as obvious, and perhaps even trivial. All I am saying is that a particular bit of sensory data entered my mind and helped me form a picture of the world around me, which I then later hung other things on. This is psychology and Buddhism 101. And yet, the actual realization that the very feeling of the world around me was the basis of who I was, and that these sensations could tell me something about who I was, was in no way trivial. I don't know if it is helpful to you, but just this experience of feeling the rock beneath my feet helped me reach a bit of enlightenment about who I am.