Last summer I sat at my table drinking coffee, when through the open door a pigeon came sailing in. Suddenly, it was there. A terrible scary noisy wild fluttering over my head, going round and round in the cramped space of the room. A few times it banged against the window glass. After a while it gave up and landed right before my nose on the table. It started randomly pecking about, apparently looking for food. Or was this a panic reaction? I grabbed my camera and shot a few photos:
Having concluded that here was nothing to eat, the bird made a few more tentative steps and then stood still, quietly and thoughtfully contemplating its new surroundings. Small shaky head movements showed the intensity of looking around and taking in everything. For a moment I tried to see the strange, unusual, alien environment in the same way as this lost pigeon was seeing it. Trying to comprehend. A bluish bowl of walnuts that normally belong under a tree; a coffee can shaped like a giant egg…
At times, a few times when very depressed, we are that pigeon. You are in your own room, but at the same time you are lost. Looking up from your hopeless thoughts, you suddenly seem to have landed in an alien place where you don’t belong, where you have been never before. Over there stands a chair but it doesn’t look like a chair: it’s a weirdly-shaped, harshly-colored obstacle standing there in its own right, brutally challenging you to guess what it is. Those sounds you hear – maybe you vaguely know it’s supposed to be music from a CD, but this is a random sequence of painfully loud cries and bongs and pings and pongs, with no beginning, no end, no order, screaming for what?
The outlines of walls and windows and things are so edgy and straight it hurts your eyes. And for some unfathomable reason your senses got hooked in another dimension, they must be, since suddenly you smell that sweet scent of crumble-cookies, those never-ever seen-again yellow… yes your mother used to bake them when you were a child, and you hear the voice of that nextdoor bully chasing you from… now what is that big black thing over there?
Good. Let’s step back for a moment and try to figure out what is happening at moments like this. Some kind of short circuit in your brain? Going crazy? Actually I think it is more a very primitive self-defense mechanism that jumps in when you are on the edge of self-destruction. A mechanism that changes your awareness and perception levels, a mechanism that starts pulling random rabbits from its hat, all just to protect you from yourself. A mechanism that not just sidelines what you were thinking before: it also deliberately tries to scare you, will make you afraid of no-matter-what, afraid of a chair or a coffee cup if it needs to. Why? Because being afraid is in fact safer than not being afraid anymore and doing what you were so destructively thinking about.
But this is only part of the answer. There is more to this. Even after your worst panic or fear has subsided and you have regained some presence of mind, you may still be asking yourself: “What the **** am I doing here?” For a while this pointless question may keep lingering in your mind: a remainder of feeling lost in a world where you do not belong.
Can you remember moments of intense alienation? Moments when nothing around you made sense anymore? Maybe you can even remember a moment when your best friend, in the same room, who a moment ago sat talking to you, briefly looked like a pink jellyfish with huge alien eyes and a strange flapping beak making weird hoarse sounds.
This is exactly how that pigeon must have seen me, when I tried to gently coach it back into the real world. Once I got it through the door opening, it immediately took wing and sailed away to its own horizon. And we?
I want to say more about these moments of alienation. But not now – sorry, it’s been enough.
• tip: Sorry again. Thinking of the old Herman’s Hermits hit: “No
milk tip today, my love has gone away.” Just for today.
Pink jellyfish footnote:
Portrait of Pablo Picasso’s girlfriend Dora Maar, ca. 1937.