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On Permission

Your phone is off, Dylan is on. Let's get to work.

Originally published by: The Manual

One night I am watching Dylan.

Years ago I spent four nights and five days on a mountain south of Kyoto. We woke to the early cold and meditated, walked through the lush, moss-covered forest cemetery in the late morning sun, then rested come afternoon. We ate simple, meatless monk meals, meditated again in the evening, and slept just after dark. We breathed the mountain air and drank the mountain water and by the end of the trip our bodies smelled as if the moss and the slowness and meditation had seeped below our skin and changed us from within.

Dylan is wailing. Dylan is booed. Dylan is alive — as in, not dead (news) — I think to myself as the camera cuts.

This is the Scorsese Dylan. The Dylan of the documentary from the mid-naughts. Dylan far after the Dylan we think we know. It’s a long film, and I’m still on the first half, and I have never before given much thought to the man. As a child of the ’80s, I knew Dylan only as a phantom—a name, a piece of a soundtrack, a warbler, that song on the radio. His music never seemed to emerge from anywhere—as if the permission for it to be was always there.

These are our rules:

  • Your phone is in airplane mode
  • Your WiFi is off
  • You wake early and you shower and you make coffee
  • You grab whatever coffee you have; we have something from a small village in Ethiopia called Wato. We grind it and smell it and — as is so often the case with smell — we are gone, transported far from our kitchen, to a mountain in Ethiopia, even though we’ve never been to Ethiopia nor know the topography, know not even if there are mountains, landing, finally, back in our cramped kitchen with a tiny yelp of joy.
  • You open your music library and you pick something wordless, or maybe you pick nothing at all; we open our collection of Keith Jarrett live recordings and hit play randomly—or, somedays, choose a recording to complement our present location. Tokyo? Budokan, 1978. London? Testament.
  • You drink your coffee and you get to work
  • You are not allowed to use the internet before 5 p.m.
  • You are not allowed to have meetings before 6 p.m.

This dismissed phantom of another era is a total stranger to me.

And yet it makes sense—everything he’s doing. I’m fascinated by Dylan’s rules. Fascinated by Dylan’s endless attempt to sever himself from his past. He tries—and succeeds—at such a young age to be a vapor. All the permission for what he does feels beholden to this self-immolation.

How fascinating is his language of provenance. He’s from New Mexico. No, he’s from the midwest. No, he’s traveled long and far down the Mississippi. How hard he works, this Dylan, to make himself a nobody from nowhere and everywhere. And in doing this—this self-erasure and reinvention and re-reinvention and deliberate obfuscation—he finds the space, the permission, to create his sound.

The rules must be followed exactly. No cheating. You must follow these rules exactly as they’re laid out and you must do so for no fewer than five days in a row. The longer the better. Follow them for a month and watch what happens. See how they seep into you.

Maybe nothing happens, of course. There are no guarantees, no warranty that comes with rules. Maybe you didn’t have anything in you (just as you feared). Though, that’s unlikely. This is why you don’t follow the rules for only one day. The permission to do the work you need to do emerges slowly.

Our rules are a starting point, a sketch. If you follow these rules and keep your eyes peeled, an ear to your heart, maybe you’ll notice how to shift them ever so slightly to make them work even better for you. Or maybe you’ll come up with a set of rules your very own.

The everywhere rule. That’s his rule. Invoked for years, perhaps now still. The Dylan from everywhere. Corollary of which is his wherever rule. He’s from wherever—wherever he needs to be from to acquire the permission he needs to inhabit the necessary voice.

I love his rule. I love how inclusive it is. How it bleeds through his morning, day, and night. How it doesn’t stop at five or six in the evening. Looking at Dylan’s rule makes me think about how rare it is—if you’re operating in our networked world—to maintain outside rules, to experiment, willy-nilly, no matter what. How can you have permission to be no one from everywhere if everyone is watching?

It’s 4:45 p.m., and I feel the 5 p.m. rule creeping up. I feel the dopamine receptors opening like the gaping mouths of guppies, a looming flake-filled hand of five o’clock hovering above the fish bowl.

I wonder about the waterfall of tweets. I wonder about the @ replies. I wonder how much mail is sitting in my inbox—something I haven’t checked since I went to sleep the night before. I wonder what news has been plastered on Techmeme, how AAPL and AMZN and TSLA have done today. I wonder what’s happened on Facebook, what new photographs are waiting, what new trending tidbits chosen by the algorithm are sitting atop my newsfeed.

And then I think about the algorithm itself. I wonder if it’s sad. If she is sad. It’s been nearly twenty hours since she last saw me. Since my last visit. Suddenly, with my new rules, I wonder if her feelings have been hurt, even though I know this algorithm has no feelings, or certainly none for me.

The trick to following the rules is to be an actor. Or, perhaps, because of the rules you are allowed to act. I don’t think anyone would deny Dylan the label of actor.

Part of acting is bounding your characters. To only introduce some characters to some people. Before Dylan found the Dylan we know, he was many others. He was Guthrie and Odetta and Cash and more. He was all these folk, their sounds, their cadences, and he was able to be these things selectively. He was able to draw lines around them, show them to some, but not everyone. He was able to so fully inhabit them because he was no one. His rule of being nothing from everywhere allowed him to shapeshift to anyone always.

So totally connected are we that when we deprive ourselves the network, we feel our mind shift. What we feel, really, is a blanket of whitespace descend upon our world.

The network becomes a white noise. The no network a white space.

Similar to how the smell of moss seeps into our lungs, the absence of network—the presence of whitespace—seeps into our mind.

We fly to Wato, to our imagined Ethiopian topography, because we aren’t Letterpressing while coffeepouring. We notice the cheap binding on an old Sandra Cisneros book, because we aren’t Facebooking.

I bike down the crooked lanes of Ikejiri, slowly, taking in the faded typography on the Shōwa-era shops—the tobacco salesmen, the bookstores, the shoe repairmen. I bike slowly because I am stuck, because I have run out of things to write, because I have worn some corner of my brain to a nub, because I severed the connection to the teat to which I usually stick my brain at moments like these. The teat with the statistics and news and commentary all just right over there. So I augment my lack of infovision with biking down small back lanes observing faded typography. I notice that the old man selling tobacco lives above his shop, and has probably done so since before I was born—and that he really needs to tighten the space between the ‘A’ and the ‘C’.

Dylan inhabits his rules so fully, so unremorsefully that we begin to wonder if there is such a thing as following your own rules too strictly.

The longer you watch the more apparent it becomes: Dylan the isolate, lit well, sat in the studio before a black backdrop. There are many interviews with those who knew him, but it’s Joan Baez that we see over and over. Joan in her kitchen—probably in Northern California, although it’s never made clear—talking about Dylan, talking about the actor, the stone.

At the start of the film she is wistful in her remembrances. But sometime in the later half we see her facade shimmer—for an instant. Something surfaces—a wound, having been wronged—but as soon as it surfaces, it’s gone.

The film cuts back to Dylan, and we get the impression that he, too, knows of that shimmer. And that with any set of rules comes compromise.

Language is rules layered, often broken. Until you fully inhabit another language, you likely don’t notice these rules or how they’re bent. But once you understand the subtle shifts the mind goes through in switching tongues, you can observe it in others.

The difference in how the eyebrows move, the shape the eyes take on, points of focus, eye contact, the way someone holds their head on their shoulders—all things susceptible to change by tongue. You can use this material difference between Language A and Language B to try and extract some truth (C).

This muscle can be honed such that by simply watching the faces of passersby in a city such as Tokyo, you can see the language someone is speaking in their head. Or at least you tell yourself you can do this.

And yet rules themselves become language, they illuminate hitherto unseen language. There is the language of the mountain that becomes visible when we choose to listen—of the moss and the water and the walks. There is the general language we inhabit when networked. A language born from living in the endless stream, the pull-pull-pull-to-refresh.

Then, there is the language we inhabit in our self-imposed isolations. The language our lives become with waking and showering and flying to Wato and no network until late in the afternoon and no meetings until even later still. There is an experiential grammar and texture imposed by these decisions. And as you flip-flop back and forth, you can learn to read the differences and feel the mind wire and unwire and rewire itself. Born from those differences, the resulting awarenesses is itself a certain permission.

Dylan the no one, the vapor, the actor, was born off the network. Born in a time long before our sea of always-pushed-always-on devices. And yet, this doesn’t mean Dylan had to work any less hard to find his voice, didn’t have to work any less hard to pull himself from the din.

I watch this Dylan and see him systematically define his rules, inhabit them, draw from them a permission. As I watch I remember others and their rules—both from Dylan’s time and the present.

Susan Sontag banished books from her tiny apartment in Paris in the ’70s. Books were her white noise. The bookless apartment her whitespace. Watching Dylan I recall Pico Iyer’s yearly hermitage on the coast of California—two weeks of absolute permission. Stefan Sagmeister’s year-long sabbatical once every seven years. And on and on. The creators and their rules and their permissions tumble out from the screen.

There is no good network or bad network. No right disconnectivity or wrong connectivity. The best we can do—the most important thing we can do—is to cultivate awareness of the rules we inhabit. To understand the language they produce, and with that, the permissions granted.

One night I am watching Dylan, the next I am not. The next I am touching the moss or the mountain, I am flying to Africa, I am moving deliberately through the back alleys of a new city, I am doing whatever it takes to quiet the din, to lay a blanket of white space over the mind, to find the permission to do the necessary work.

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