After reading Jacob’s post Creation Out of Givenness I remembered something that Gilda Trillim had written (whose life on an alternative time line has been detailed on these pages). After scouring her archives I found this. I include it here, again not to be read (it’s nearly 6000 words, far too long for a blog post, so please, please, remember that this was not put up to be read, I think my fellow bloggers would be quite put out if I left the impression that these long excursions into nonsense were to be thought of as one of BCC’s high quality offerings. Even their patience has its limits.), but rather this is placed here to archive her adventures because in our universe she has not existed but should have. The adventures of Trillim can be found here, here, here, here, here, and a recent book can be found here.
Notes for Gilda’s Novel Muskrat Trap
Gilda’s novel Muskrat trap was an unfinished minimalist work found among her papers, these notes were paper-clipped to that work:
Even when I was a cricket-sized child I wondered what it meant to be a free agent, for my mother often would advise as we left to play about the ditches and fields that supplied the spacious fairyland of our imaginative games, “Use your agency well.” I’d also been taught so in Sunday School by my mother’s friend, wide-hipped Sister Jackson, that this world was where God would spy out our use of this precious gift and weigh our individual application of the grace in his almighty scales. She would stretch her fleshy, freckled arms wide and indicate the length and breadth of eternity and with a stern voice enjoin us to act well, for our choices manifest in the flesh as free actors in the world would determine how our forevers would be spent. You are free, she would say, in any instant you can do whatever you will. Evil and good and all manner of in between grays were laid out for our selection and it was up to us to reach down and take that which would disclose our character. And it was freely chosen. A gift from God.
However, even at that young age, when I examined my life backwards, there always seemed to be a kind of inevitability in every decision I made, a determination based on where I stood situated in life at the time, which situation combined with some fixed nature of my personality that suggested a impress of who I was and what it meant to be me. As I inspected my relation to past decisions, I could construct an impression of well-mapped reasons, a set of bases that could be proffered to ground my choices, as if I were a spectator explaining a game of badminton to a foreign visitor—the reason she falls to backcourt is in anticipation of her opponents rush to the net, the reason she leaps up is to do an overhand smash—all actions in the game grounded in both what’s happening on the court stitched to the player’s individual style of play. Everything was explainable with well-determined reasons.
How was it that those things on which I staked my claim of freely owning, always seemed conditioned on who I was at the time? I could always point to ‘why’ I acted thusly, informed with reasons and explanations for the things I did. Was it free if what I was choosing was fully determined by the very stream of happenings? That whatever had marched forward from the past to the point just before the moment of my choice fixed my next action? To decide otherwise than what I did, given who I was and where I was situated in life, would have been irrational. Or so it seemed. Perhaps the resultant choice would have been different had I been better informed, say, or had more ken about all that would affect the results of that choice, but always, those things I did made sense in light of who I was. And by making sense, I mean they were explainable, and if explainable, then it had reasons, or factors that determined what I did. Determined. That was the rub. It all felt inevitable given who I was. Extrapolating backwards it appeared that I was just the result of a thousand fixed choices based not in freedom but in a long chain of priors, that had anchored and defined me since my birth. The me that had been forged in the now, was just based on all the antecedents that had clicked forward from the past. Those things fixed by whatever I was at the time. Where was the freedom? Where did it slip into this chain of tick-tocking determinism?
At about age fifteen this propelled me into a crisis of sorts. I could no longer get my head around the idea of free agency or free will. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had it. And that it was up to me what I did with it. When my room was a mess, I knew that it was I who was responsible for the mess and its cleanup and if I was the one who left it in that horrid condition to which it was inevitably drawn, my mother would point out that it was my responsibility to make it otherwise. (To be honest, I wondered sometimes if it were really me or the room that had free agency, for supposedly it could be otherwise than messy, yet it never seemed to venture in the direction of being clean and I seemed incapable of mounting a disturbance to its firm will on the matter of its state of uncleanliness.)
At this time I began an experiment to test the limits of my freedom in order to examine my actions, to see if in some sense I could cause something to happen without it being attributable to another cause. If something were a result of some freedom in me, I ought to be able to break the causal chain, or so I supposed. I wanted to impose my will purely and without reference to anything other than my will. After sacrament meeting, if we were reverent, and kept our fights, poking, fidgeting, and giggling, to a minimum, my father would take us out for an ice cream cone at the drug store. We could have it dipped in a chocolate shell or plain. I thought to myself, can there be any easier test of free will than this? For surely it will be I that will choose the one or the other. So I made up my mind to decide the matter of which ice cream to get, and then notice carefully through careful introspection what transpired in making that choice. So when we arrived I would close my eyes and with set jaw make my selection and afterwards examine the case to see if I could determine why I chose what I did. But there were always reasons that seemed to determine my choice. Perhaps, I had had two dipped cones in a row and to shake things up I would order a plain cone. Or perhaps, my sister or brother had both got a plain and wanting to buck the trend I would get a dipped. That decision presented as free always seemed to come from the situation at hand and was explainable by that situation. Does not an explanation imply a cause? And does not a cause imply another? Back and back until we are left with a long chain of events that rally the suggestion that I had nothing to do with it? I was simply stamping something as mine, but which really had its roots in many, many priors and precedents?
Once during my experiments when I realized that a host of reasons suggested a dipped cone would be what I wanted, I broke from it at the last second, determined to do otherwise than the causes had led me to choose. So having made up my mind to get a dipped cone I suddenly demanded an undipped cone. I surprised those around me with the vehemence of my determination and the boisterous force of will I expressed to avoid a dipped cone. As I was handed the naked ice cream, I felt a serge of pride and triumph that I had finally chosen differently than reason dictated. But just as I began to congratulate myself, I realized that it was my very desire to push forward a free choice that I had created a new set of causes and determinates. In my sudden change of mind I had just followed another cause, this time the cause of my wanting to grab a hold of a bit of freedom, a desire to do something pure as an agent in order to convince myself that agency made sense and was real. Sadly, even in this act I had just followed a script, an strict outlining as closely anchored in inevitably as the motion of the wooden bird in my grandmother’s cuckoo clock at the stroke of midnight. I was a victim of causes over which I had little say. I was greatly disturbed by the notion that even in as simple an act of choosing the kind of ice cream style I wanted, I could not tell if I had done it acting as a free agent. How could I hope that in the wild gyrations of more complex actions in the world that I could recognize freedom in the jumble of my situation—a mess of happenings that masked those determinate causes, but that in reality bent me to their will, not my own? I wallowed in self-pity. I was nothing but a puppet strung to forces that I could never understand. Nor ever fathom to any depth. For that summer I walked like a robot around the farm, firm in the conviction that I was nothing but a windup toy clacking to rhythms not my own.
My family had a cabin in Atlantic City Wyoming. Punctuating the tip of the Wind River Range, this near-ghost town embraced about twelve families that trapped for mink, otter, beaver, and muskrat, or mined for gold and silver. These lonely lands devised the upper reaches of what further downstream becomes the Sweetwater River. We usually rolled in during the Fall because school break was conveniently timed to coincide with the deer hunt, but for us it was a good time to relax. The alfalfa had been harvested, baled, sold or stored, and we could put our feet up a little. Often winter arrived with us.
I remember after the summer of taking on the burden of being an automaton, arriving to the cabin in what amounted to a full-blown Wyoming blizzard. Drifts were wafting across the road like the foam of a tumultuous ocean wave mounting a beach, and as the windshield wipers tried to push the snow from the front glass of our wood-panel station wagon, our worry rose in proportion to the shrinking visibility. To make matters worse the inside of the windows were fogging up from our breath and my dad had to roll down the window and stick his head into the storm to see where we were on the road. He try to clear the moist film from the windows with his bare hand as he navigated through the storm. Worse for us was that frigged air was pouring into the car like water from a broken sluice gate. When we pulled up to our cabin, our neighbor Phil, an old trapper about seventy years old or so, after hearing about our ride in, welcomed us kids into his home while my parents went next door to light and stoke the big cast iron stove, prepare the beds with warm blankets, and get something simmering hot cooking, all to drive away the cold frosting our bones.
Phil, set us on his couch and covered us in a sheepskin blanket and brought us coffee mugs filled with Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate. He was a grand storyteller and while we waited for our parents to ready the cabin, he filled our heads with tales about the early days of trapping when he was a boy. He told us about a raging wolverine he’d once fought after picking up a trap with the wily beast still attached by the leg and dangling but passed out cold. It revived just at that moment. Phil showed us a long white scar that stretched from his elbow to his wrist. He said the beast had gouged him a good one and then he pointed at me and said, “I weren’t much older than you!”
The storm was gone by morning and there followed three straight days of bright late autumn sunshine that melted the snow as fast as it had come. I told Phil I wanted to be a trapper when I grew up. Just like him. It seemed to warm him to me. He didn’t seem to notice that I was a girl and that maybe trapping was not the proper way for a young lady to occupy her time.
He took me to his shed and we picked out a set of traps to start my trapping career. He showed me how to set a spring foothold trap, but said if I really wanted to get a muskrat I ought to use the square conibear traps. He took me out along the edge of a pond not far from the cabins and showed me the muskrat holes and how to set the conibear trap over the top, sort of partially buried under the loose loam ringing the slight manmade ridge surrounding the pond. He taught me how to tell if a hole was actually in use or if it had been abandoned.
I was of two minds when it came to trapping. Part of me really wanted to catch a muskrat, take its fur and make something useful from it. Maybe like a purse or a wrap. I imagined myself coming to the trap and finding a muskrat with the trap folded over it, and running to Phil to show him what a grand trapper I had become.
However, part of me liked watching the little bare-tailed rodents swimming in the shallows, diving, and frolicking on the banks. I had no desire to do one of these creatures harm, nor did I want to find its crushed body, bloody and mangled, tangled in the cold metal of the spring-loaded trap.
My confusion manifest itself in setting the traps only in holes that looked neither quite abandoned nor undeniably in use. I found myself not burying the trap completely, but nevertheless setting it. I would be as stealthy as a ghost in approaching the hole, but as noisy as a heifer as I snuck away. It was as if my efforts were alternating between undermining the successful capture of a muskrat and trying really hard to be a trapper like Phil. The two parts of me were at war.
One day Phil came up unexpectedly to check my sets. When he saw what I was doing, he looked at me and shook his head and said, “I reckon you can’t teach an otter to build a dam.” And he walked away. I was not sure if this comment were a reference to my sex, my youth, or just a stubborn stupidity, but it cut me like a skinning knife would wide open.
I went back and after lunch knocked on Phil’s door. He answered and motioned me in. He had been sitting at his kitchen table cleaning some of his guns and so he sat back down and commenced with the job at hand.
I watched him for a while and then said, “I really want to be a trapper.”
He looked up and weighed me with his eyes and said, “Then do the things trappers do.”
“But at the same time I really don’t want to be a trapper.”
He looked at me for a while longer this time and said, “Well its up to you.”
Well that did it. Poor Phil. I unloaded all my worries about free agency on him like a pile of bricks empted from a dump truck. He listened, all the while cleaning his guns, running stiff round brass and copper brushes down the barrel, swabbing them out with fragrant oil that, when mingled with the spent gunpowder, gave off a pleasant earthy scent. After scourging them with the rod, he would slap all the parts that he had spread out on the table back together into a working rifle or pistol. It took me about all his guns to lay it all before him. The preexistence. The war in heaven. The stuff from the Book of Mormon about acting and not being acted upon. He was as patient as a saint, because I realize now that there was no reason to think he was a Mormon but he listened nonetheless. Since I was still telling him about my worries about not being able to tell if I was the one choosing to get my cone dipped or if it was just a long chain of events eventually leading to me doing one thing or the other, he put on a kettle, it boiled and he poured us a pair of chocolates although he threw in a spoon of Sanka instant coffee into his.
When I finished he shook his head and said, “That’s a poser.”
He took our cups back to the kitchen and came back with a tall glass of Kool-aid and a plate of Swedish almond cake that apparently someone brought over earlier because I knew from experience and word of mouth that Phil was not much of a cook.
He leaned back in his chair and put his hands on the back of his head and closed his eyes as if thinking hard about something. Finally he opened his eyes and said, “I think you’re looking at it bass ackwards. Freedom to do sumpin ain’t just to do some nonsensical thing there ain’t no reason to do. No, we always have reasons, if the reasons to do something are crystal clear and easy then there usually ain’t no decision to be made. But it’s when you got several things pulling at you and the reasons are mixed up and uncertain that decisions get hard and you have to be the one to make the choice. Being responsible means you make a choice always a little in the dark and that’s what shows what kind of character you got. Freedom don’t mean there ain’t a pile of stuff going into it, you usually got reasons aplenty. Like being on a river in a canoe, sure you are on a river, sure there are rocks and logs defining what you got to do, but there sure as hell ain’t one way to shoot them rapids, but if you want do it without sinking the damn thing you got make choices, sometimes bad ones and hopefully mostly good ones that are going to decide if you make it to calm waters. It ain’t about chosen between two things that don’t matter a lamb’s ass like if you want your cone dipped (though as for myself I can’t imagine choosing an undipped cone if’n you have a shot at a dipped one, but I suppose that bears to your point that I don’t have a choice in the matter), but it’s the ones that run you to the edge, that make you step into the darkness and hope you land that you get you jump into your freedom. It’s when the causes are thick about you that you have to hitch on to one. Now that’s agency. Not choosing betwixt things but figuring where to aim your craft through what rapids you find yourself in. And that’s done cause you choose what sort of person you want to be. Choose that and a pile of reasons sure do line up, dense and weighty. Seems to me you make a choice about who you are and what you are about, sure as we’s sittin here, but then that little stuff best be handled with a clear head, and good reasons. You following me, Muskrat?”
I nodded. Pleased at my new nickname.
It was quite a speech. Longest I’d ever heard or ever would hear from his mouth for he was gone when we came back the next summer. I eventually came down on the side of letting the muskrats go. I chose that. Cause that’s the kind of person I wanted to be.
I can tell.
Then apparently years latter the following is written on the back of this in pencil:
I think often of Phil’s words. That old Wyoming cowboy, a piece of driftwood, so smoothed by nature’s roughness that he attained the kind of wisdom usually reserved for bespectacled philosophers inhabiting dark grained wood desks and whose jaundiced eyes have peered into the depths of being with such ferocity that they can snatch something of their own making from other worlds to plant in this one.
I’ve thought long on agency and freedom and how it exists in a world made of atoms with set spin and charge and that prance though the world marching to cadences well described and circumscribed. And I cannot find place for both my sense of freedom and my sense that I follow paths outlined by those lively atomic bundles.
I think often of my Sunday School teacher and her claim that we came into this world from a heavenly one, not much different from this, except perhaps more spirit tinged and holy. That I was placed here to do and walk in a destiny outlined by a kind wise father whose will had set my fated circumstance to my soul’s best advantage.
Yet I don’t feel placed. Plato’s vision of souls wandering too close to the mystical nets this physical world drags behind it and by such being captured in an accident of proximity seems to be closer to the mark. Not saved for the last days so much as being more cautious and careful about peering into the bemattered world that I did not go early. But finally bending too near this glorious place and being sucked into this thick material like the others. And no less randomly.
I was recently given a new book to review by New Yorker Cartoonist William Steig, called Abel’s Island. It’s supposed to be a children’s book, however far from it. It is an apt exploration of existence and meaning.
The book opens with two Edwardian mice having a playful day picnicking and playing croquet. However, a storm arises and through a series of accidents Abel is lost in the ravages of a storm,
“Heaven knows how far he was hustled in this manner, or how many rocks he caromed off on his way. He did no thinking. He only knew it was dark and windy and wet, and that he was being knocked about in a world that had lost its manners, in a direction, as far as he cold tell, not north, south, east, or west, but whatever way the wind had a mind to go; and all he could do was wait and learn what its whims were.” p. 10.
Since I was meditating on preexistence and life’s relationship to freedom and determinism this passage struck me hard. Indeed, is not that our common predicament? Facing the storm that happens along and tosses us in a world not of our choosing?
He is marooned on an island in the middle of a river with a current too swift to be negotiated by a mouse. Early into his adventure he notices a star he had formed a relationship to,
“As a child, he would sometimes talk to this star, but only when he was his most serious, real self, and not being any sort of show-off or clown. As he grew up, the practice had some how worn off.
He looked up at his old friend as if to say, “You see my predicament.”
The star seemed to respond, “I see.”
Able next put the question: “What shall I do?”
The star seemed to answer, “You will do what you will do.” For some reason this reply strengthened Abel’s belief in himself. Sleep gently enfolded him. The constellations proceeded across the hushed havens as if tiptoeing past the dreaming mouse on his high branch.” p. 32.
Here juxtaposed are the elements of freedom and determinism. The star (God?) sees, but cannot help. Able has stepped out of its influence. “You will do what you will do.” Could be read as a claim about a determined course that might be said of a windup toy, but I read it by exiling as unnecessary the final ‘do’ and see it as an injunction toward freedom. That is why he finds his belief strengthened. He is out of the wind and into a world where he ‘will do’ unlike the constellations, which proceed on their course.
Days pass and after several failed escape attempts, Able realizes he may be here awhile, he wonders:
“Was it just an accident that he was here on this uninhabited island? Abel began to wonder. Was he being singled out for some reason; was he being tested? If so, why? Didn’t it prove his worth that such a one as Amanda loved him?” p. 34.
Why was he there? It was an accident. Nothing more. Tossed by a careless wind he arrived. He must do what he must do, like the canoeist in Phil’s description of freedom, we are free to face the river, or life, with what resources we have, to accomplish what tasks have presented themselves in our confrontation with meaning and life.
In the end Abel does escape the island by a bit of luck, a daring decision, and a continued resolve to find he way back to those he loves. But just as he escapes he is taken by a cat:
“Abel realized that the cat had to do what she did. She was being a cat. It was up to him to be the mouse.
And he was playing his part very well. A little smugness crept into his attitude. He seemed to be saying, ‘It’s your move.'” P. 112.
Determinism. Playing a part. Making a move. Resolving on a stratagem to escape (which he does). All in a mess of choice and causality. None of it clearly free. To me this gets at the heart of what Phil was saying. It’s not in the simple choices of this or that that makes freedom real, it’s in navigating these perplexities on a scale above that. The scale of existential weight.
And where does this freedom reside? I think is fundamental to the nature of the universe. One if its givens. I am reminded of the French Natural Philosophers trying to sort out gravity. They claimed that any explanation, should be an explanation of why bodies attract. Why when you drop an apple does it fall? So resolved to understand the fundamental attraction of things they created a system of vortices that spun like whirlwinds creating the gravitational tug with which we all are familiar. Newton’s genus was to shrug and say, who cares why, let’s catalog and quantify its effects. And so today, as yet why two things attract is just a thing matter does in the presence of other matter. Why? Who knows?
To me freedom is similar. We look for it bubbling out of the stuff of matter and in something akin to Descartes’ vortices want it describable in terms of causes and explicanda. Yet perhaps, since it is so necessary to our understanding of everything that happens, like Newton we have to accept that there it is, sitting in us. It just is. Apples fall on our heads. We must make choices.
There is one more thing I notice. Freedom, if it emerges like magic from consciousness (like the conjuring of consciousness itself!) seems best recognized in the choices made for love. Those acts of love (or acts of choosing not to love) seem to create the most powerful evidence that freedom lives in the world, or at least to me that is where it is most clear. And those things I believe about God, that He is love, seem to be the best use of agency for both He and me. I could entertain that that is the most necessary place for freedom to hide, and may the only place it does. If so. It is enough.