Commusings: Who Am I by Jeff KrasnoOct 02, 2022
Hello Commune Community,
This newsletter is due for a good romp. I’ve done my damnedest to provide a screed equally reflective and entertaining. I am as much dedicated, in writing and life, to the hysterical as I am the historical, so I ask my family members for grace if I occasionally take creative license around the edges. My primary purpose here is to amuse you while also amusing myself. What a deal!
The essay is lengthy so I’ll keep this preamble tidy. I’m here at [email protected] and jabbering on IG @jeffkrasno.
In love, include me,
• • •
Who Am I?
In 1901, a young man was sitting on the holy mountain Arunachala in South India, when a scholar came to him with a burning question. It is the same existential question that every curious person has posed from time immemorial. The scholar was Sri M. Sivaprakasam Pillai. The young man was to become the renowned Saint Sri Ramana Maharshi. The question was, “Who Am I?”
There are many spokes from which to approach the hub of this inquiry – ranging from the prosaic to the mystical. I will start with the excavation of my own history, with the hope that you will be inspired to examine your own.
I am an unqualified mutt.
My maternal lineage is Scottish, English, Swedish and un petit peu Francais. Sensible and industrious, my mother’s family settled in the Midwest. My mother’s mother played the bells in the same Methodist church in Evanston, Illinois for ninety years. She died without a cavity at 104. Her longevity was certainly not attributable to the nutrient-rich diet about which I often prattle on. The Abbot’s supper table was prone to tuna casseroles, Oscar Meyer bologna and cheese sandwiches, and salads of iceberg lettuce and stiff un-ripened tomato tranches topped with bottled ranch dressing.
My Gramma Fran appeared to be the same age for the last seventy years of her life. You could peruse her photo albums dating from 1940 to 2010 and have little clue what decade you were witnessing. At 30 she swapped out flapper dresses for austere starchy blouses and Puritanical monochromatic ankle length skirts. Handy with a needle and thread, she darned her socks and sweaters. She wasted not and wanted not.
I don’t think I told her I loved her until she reached 100. In her time and place, both shirts and emotions were meant to be buttoned up. She outlasted three husbands, all of whom were indistinguishable in their Edwardian dress code and manner. I only really knew the last one, Art Johnson, and did my best to sidestep him. There was a certain John Birch Society coke-bottle glasses look to him. I remember that he once wore a thin black neck tie on a casual boating excursion. A tie on a boat ride. How humorless could one possibly be? While I never trust those who wear their religiosity on their sleeve, I will say that Art Johnson was the same man Saturday night as he was Sunday morning; dreary and severe – as if any moment he might wrap your knuckles with a hickory stick.
Gramma Fran was thrifty and assiduously avoided debt, which perhaps contributed to her long life. Through one great depression, two world wars and three spousal funerals, she never stressed a day in her life and valued the things she had – qualities I have tried to emulate with only moderate success.
My paternal heritage is a good deal swarthier. My great-grandparents were part of the massive migration from the dingy shtetls of Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century. Embarking from Odessa, Ukraine, Nathan landed at Ellis Island where he was supposedly bestowed the surname Glassman to reflect his vocation. Others, tattered and impecunious, came from Romania and Poland to the shores of America in pursuit of the promise of its dream. It is from this diaspora that my beloved Nana and Papa were eventually distilled.
During holiday time, all the various grandchildren descended upon their gilded, opulent, over-leveraged, absurdly mirrored apartment in North Hollywood, Florida. The Thanksgiving table was a surfeit of steaming noodle kugel, oil-drenched potato latkes, fat-dripping brisket, stomach-turning gefilte fish and home-baked rugelach. After dinner, Nana would clandestinely usher each grandchild, one by one, into her massive walk-in closet. She would open up her safe and grab a $20 bill that had been meticulously folded down to the size of a postage stamp. She’d put her lips softly to my ear as she stuffed the bill into my palm and whisper, “You know you’re my favorite.” She so relished and adored this ritual that it continued well into my manhood. After she went to bed, all five of her “favorite” grandchildren would pool our collective loot and laugh uproariously. Indeed, the dinner table was a confection of the characteristics of my Jewish side; sloppy and gossipy, brimming with the drama of love and money.
In a valiant attempt to split the difference, my parents chose to conduct their nuptials in a Unitarian church. This decision appeased everyone and satisfied no one – a recurring outcome in matters of religion. I grew up sporadically attending Unitarian services and Sunday school, which, to my best recollection, portrayed Jesus as a nice Jewish boy inspired to do good work. In other words, a hippie.
I don’t physically resemble my parents in the least. My olive skin color belies my genetics and suggests an extracurricular dalliance with a frisky postman. The balance of my family is pale as the moon, while I horde ultra-violet rays like a squirrel does acorns. I’m tan all winter.
I suppose the melting pot of my ethnicity is hardly unique among Americans. Unless you are native to this land or have been brought here against your will, you are an immigrant. Across multiple centuries, the insularity of most migrant groups has eroded and bred a multi-culture, a society of lovable mutts. This phenomenon doesn’t make our initial inquiry into the nature of self any easier.
I am a Scottish-English-French-Swedish-Ukrainian-Russian-Polish-Romanian-Methodist-Unitarian-Jew with a keen interest in Eastern religions.
My peripatetic youth only compounded the conundrum of self-identity.
As a young babe, I was perambulated through the lush landscapes of the Lake District of Northern England. My memory is about as foggy as the damp and dewy mornings but I do recall the endless bounty of fresh berries of every variety. As I got older, my mother and I would fill buckets with luscious and fecund mulberries, blueberries and blackberries and shuttle them back to kitchen where Mrs. Pat was baking fresh bread.
When I was four, we moved to Spain. I attended pre-school in Santiago de Compostela where I wore one shoe that had an additional block of cork affixed to the bottom to address my hip dysplasia.
My preternaturally chubby cheeks were the target of the wrinkly, bony fingers of street-strolling gray-haired Spanish abuelas. On more than one occasion, a dotty old bat on the sidewalk would unilaterally lunge at me to pinch my fleshy face only to be met with a block of cork swung swiftly into her shin. Yes, I was cheeky.
I went to kindergarten in Brazil. I have written previously about my torturous experiences navigating the savannah of the Brazilian schoolyard, but the stories are worthy of some redundancy. Repetition, after all, is central to art, particularly music. I remember Burt Koenigsburg, my erstwhile piano teacher, declare (over and over) that in every epiphanous passage of music “something changes while something repeats.”
Back to Brazil. I stood outside in the yard with the other kids. It was 1975, and I was at the American School in Rio de Janeiro. There was a mix of students at the American school, mostly Brazilian and a smattering of foreign nationals from the United States, Britain and other parts of Europe. English was predominant in the classroom. But, on the playground, the linguistic currency was Portuguese, specifically Carioca, the slangy dialect native to Rio.
My juvenile brain sponged up the language with relative ease. We had moved to Rio from Spain. The transition from Galician Spanish to Portuguese was simpler for the non-conceptual child brain. I was trading in sounds, language as music, not as vocabulary lessons. And, of course, I was heaved into fluency by a force greater than anything cognitive; the innate instinct to belong.
The yard outside the main building was sloped at one end. And it was a favorite pastime to run along the flat section and then jump onto your bum and slide down the slope. The grass had given way to dirt halfway down, forming a landing strip of sorts. This was a ritual that I assiduously avoided. My body wasn’t built for such nimble maneuvers. I was chubby. My ponchy belly hung over my jeans. My thighs chafed just enough to wear down the denim to a smooth, thread-bareness.
I stood on the sidelines listening to the school bully, Bobbito, direct traffic down the slope. The soundscape was chaotic. What possessed me I don’t remember, but a sudden surge of confidence thrust me into line, and I poised myself the best I could. My turn. I ran towards the slope, flinging myself awkwardly like a baby robin’s first flight. It wasn’t the smoothest landing, and no distance records were set, but I did it. I made it down the slope. A couple barks of “Americano” my reward.
Now more sure of myself, I trudged back up the hill back into the queue. I cinched my belt a notch, tugged on my polo. This approach had more verve. I launched up, landed on my butt. And heard the sound. Curious how the brain can immediately process sonic phenomena into material reality. It was a ripping noise that made all other elements of existence momentarily disappear. I had torn my jeans straight down the crack of my ass. What’s more, my tighty-whitey underwear, now available to the yard, had been stained by the dirt path.
This sent Bobbito into paroxysms of rapturous laughter and joy as he belted out, “The American shat his pants.” The refrain was repeated again and again. “The American shat has pants. The American shat has pants.” A catchy tune it must have been as it echoed across the yard. I stood at the bottom of the slope, naked, nowhere to hide, eyes welled, lip bit with nothing but self-hatred and embarrassment.
Fight, flight, freeze or, in this case, find the angle from which the least amount of people can see your stained underwear and shuffle back to the classrooms. Finally, off the Serengeti and back into the relative safety of the school, I found my backpack and did my best to sling it awkwardly behind me in attempt to camouflage my accident. I limped into the nurse’s office purporting an awful headache — one that apparently must have caused the nurse to think I shat my pants. “I must go home,” I told her. “I must go home.” My mother was summoned and dutifully arrived. I made my brisk walk of shame back across the yard, clumsily as if I was in a three-legged race with myself. One last lingering coda of the “The American shat his pants” faded into the distance.
This was the folklore of my youth, the polar opposite of the hero’s journey, with all its classic shadow archetypes; the bully, the nurse, the tender mother, the ego, the shame, the self-loathing.
The incessant bouncing from country to country that I bore as a child had its benefits. I was immersed in various cultures and enjoyed their trappings. The left hemisphere of my brain, the locus of language, was a flourishing garden. But every year, my social connections were erased and I was forced to begin again … wiggling my way like a fat worm into pre-existing cliques of friends in a new school, a new country, a new dialect.
And this struggle became the story of my life: The incessant need to fit in, to be liked, to assimilate, to seek the approval of others, to base my identity in what other people think of me.
It was what led me to get into a taxi cab 35 years later with my three daughters, recognize that the driver was Jamaican, and subconsciously muster a thick Rastafarian accent, “Take me uptown, Mon!” as if a giant dreadlock had sprung from my head. My girls looked at me horrified and embarrassed as the cabbie eyed my undeniable whiteness with confusion and pity.
This phenomenon presses on. If you listen to my podcast, you’ll quickly notice the accents I adopt with various guests; a southern drawl with Matthew McConaughey, a cockney brogue with Russell Brand, a thundering Viking-like Dutch burr with Wim Hof. This penchant is bottom-up. It emerges from below the crust of consciousness. It has become a biological imperative – an involuntary adaptive dance that I implement for the purpose of connection.
The social scientist Brené Brown makes an astute distinction between fitting in and belonging. Fitting in is changing who you are in order to be accepted. Belonging is being accepted while never compromising your authentic self. Of course, a five-year old isn’t equipped to make this delineation. The renowned addiction and trauma expert, Gabor Maté contends that people, especially children, will always sacrifice authenticity for attachment. In other words, the need for connection trumps our yearning to be our true selves.
The experiences of my childhood are, of course, reflective of something more profound and universal. Our natural state is one of connection — most literally in the womb. And we ache to return to this place of oneness and union. In the discomfiture of our separation, we’ll do almost anything to be loved, to be part of the something greater than ourselves.
I have compassion for that drawer-stained chubster. I was simply using the tools I had to survive. However, I now recognize all of my shortcomings: the lack of self-love that pushed me down that playground slope in the first place, the false pride not to cry, the lying to the nurse, the shame born out of an absence of empathy for myself. These are all deficiencies of the ego.
This is the spell under which so many of us live: we believe we are what others think of us; we are what we do or what we have. We are separate from others, in competition with others, separate from nature and, ultimately, separate from the divine.
Ironically, over time, my trauma has also become my superpower. If I am good at anything, it is fostering community. I so longed to belong that creating connection became the thread that weaves my life together. It makes me chuckle to think that I founded a festival company (Wanderlust) that grew to 68 events in 20 countries in large part as a product of childhood trauma.
Wanderlust and Commune are happy outcomes, but not all trauma manifests so sunnily. I wager that most of the world’s most salient problems, from genocide and homelessness to global warming and income inequality, to our personal biographies of inadequacy, have some form of trauma at the root.
At a recent gathering in Topanga, my friend (and marvelous vegan chef) Jason Wrobel asked Gabor Maté a question so simple yet so difficult to untangle.
“How do we recognize our true authentic self when it shows up?”
Is it a little voice with invisible eyes that hovers a foot above our heads and murmurs, “That’s not you. The real you would never do that.”?
Is this omniscient witness your authentic self? Or is this whisperer simply yet another projection of consciousness? Another story chalked temporarily upon the blackboard of awareness.
Perhaps there’s no empirical formula for identifying authenticity. Its essence is mystical. In other words, it must be felt, not said. When you are flush with confidence and effervescence or snuggled in serenity and at peace, well, then perhaps you know your true self through its sensory signatures.
It’s curious, though, because I feel most like myself when I am not any one thing. I am nattering on about Alan Watts with the Upper Received Pronunciation of British aristocracy and then the next moment I am speaking French. I visit my father (now settled unsurprisingly in Southern Florida himself) and I assume a certain Jewishness, but, back in my natural habitat, I gravitate to the Tao. I AM whatever serves connection. It’s at once philanthropic and self-loving to do so – a fulfillment of the Golden Rule to love thy neighbor as thyself.
And this points quite directly to the nature of quantum matter. There is no such thing as a thing. A thing is a thought. It’s a think. It’s an abstraction that enables us to cogitate and communicate. But reality is not fixed. Matter is energy – a dance of vibrating particles in a constant state of construction and destruction. And like a subatomic particle, I fill the electron shells of those around me – temporarily making both my tango partner and myself whole.
From a physiological perspective, we know there is nothing remotely stable or permanent to our being. You have experienced billions of cellular deaths and rebirths since you began reading this essay. Like a flame or waterfall or a whirlpool, there is a physical continuity to our form, but everything that makes it up has moved on. Given that consciousness likely results from a fortuitous combination of atoms in the brain, why should our psychology be any different.
We are anchored to our sense of self through a feeling of physical and psychological continuity. We look more or less the same day to day. A mere flip through a photo album, however, is enough to demonstrate that nothing about this physical organism is permanent. Am I the cherubic baby, the disheveled college student or the distinguished denizen of middle-age that types this note? Of course, I am none of these things. I am a process, spontaneously emerging moment to moment.
Psychologically, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves day to day also moor our self-identity. But, upon closer inspection, our personal folklore is as transient as our gut bacteria. Our opinions, priorities and affiliations are fickle over time. Even our most personal stories bend to comport to the human we want to be on a particular day.
True authenticity is letting go of the stories you tell yourself about yourself and simply being here and now in the river’s current – purposeless and impermanent.
Surely you have tasted the nectar of flow state, in which discursive thought dissipates and action yokes with intention? In this space that has no place, we sever the Cartesian conflation of thinking and being. Unshackled by the ego, the symbol we give ourselves, we inhabit of a lightness of being, a merger of self and the world. The true authentic self recognizes its oneness with the universe, its character as the delegated adaptability of foundational cosmic intelligence.
For being a separate self is playing a part, being an actor, a dramatis personae. Whether we know it or not, we are all mutts and chameleons. Because, moment to moment, we are nothing but fluctuating energy seeking connection.
Who am I?
It turns out that my authentic self is no self at all. Dammit … The Buddha was right again.
Cheerio. Ciao. Até Logo. À bientôt.
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