The Squirrel Is behind the Tree…

by Tom Jacobs

I have been thinking about memory quite a bit lately. More specifically, my memory and the objects of its interest and desires, and the ways that it fails or warps or enables me to see/hear/re-experience what actually happened in the past, whatever that phrase might actually mean.

I mean, whatever actually happened was obviously filtered through my body and mind, and so it’s always going to be incomplete, partial, and aggravatingly not quite the whole story. But all of that is fine to some extent. I understand it and I accept that these are the limitations that each of us face. It’s our condition. What aggravates me is that I want to fling myself carelessly and sometimes with full deliberation into the future, but the past always, always, seems to pull me back in some way, to weigh me down, to fuck up every attempt to experience the bliss of casting oneself thoughtlessly into the future. The past makes everything difficult. Nostalgia, the longing for what’s gone does too.

These are not bad things, or at least not exactly. We’re all hamstrung by the past. There are clear patterns and predictable outcomes that over time become ever more clear and predictable. It’s never too late, that’s true, but there is the sobering and unhappy bromide that, say, if you haven’t done what you really want to do by the time you’re 40, you’ll probably never do it. I think this is bullshit, but there is the faint ring of truth there. Most of us succumb to the quiet understanding that we’re not geniuses, that we will never quite arrive at the spot in the future that we had thought or hoped we might occupy, and then we go about our work accordingly, in whatever small way we know how.

And how do we know where to begin? How do we begin the project of remembering even as we seek to waft away the fog and smoke of the present?

I have such great hopes. But I am over forty now and because it hasn’t worked out just yet and I can see the patterns and repetitions in the rug of my life’s bedraggled course, it seems unlikely that it ever will. I can see it and there are no two ways about it. That’s just the way it is if one looks at it correctly. But who knows?

To live in this city, or any city, is to be lonely. That’s a damn fact. We are all together, alone. To walk down the streets of any city, to ride its subways or buses is to understand that there is an enormous, spiraling sense of longing and loss and hope and possibility. If you look closely, everyone bears the marks of solitude, of loneliness, of not-knowing. That’s part of what loneliness is.

But there are also moments that vibrate with the energies of redemption. Moments when, say, you see someone looking at a painting that you had just looked at, one that made you happy or that intrigued you, and one that some stranger is looking at and is visibly expressing something like the same sort of fascination that you had just privately and inwardly expressed. That’s enough to change the way you see things.


Thanksgiving just came and went, and it’s hard to know what it means or meant. One participates in the practice of making food, of opening oneself up to the social awkwardness of familial dinners or of trying to do something nice for one’s fellow man/woman. Like giving money or food to someone who lives on the street.

One feels a momentary sense of communion. It’s hard to know what it is that makes things matter, what it is that constitutes significance. The things that used to provide me the compass points that would orient me in the world no longer seem to. Literature and poetry used to be the most important things in the world to me. They represented the best that had been thought and said and it always seemed that one couldn’t go wrong spending one’s life examining that sort of thing. Now I’m not so sure. Literature and philosophy and poetry and so forth are wildly important, obviously. Even so, the booming bass of knowing that we are each of us connected by skeins we can never understand, that there are the six degrees of separation that bind us, that the way we live will ramify into the future, that we are responsible for and to each other…these are the silly and ridiculous but undeniably true background soundtrack is always playing just beneath what we perceive. And I think it has caught up with me.

We need people to make software and refrigerators and pharmaceutical cures for terrible diseases. We need those things and I’m grateful for them. But I have come to believe that I need to act and work in the world at a much more basic level. A level at which things like reading Faulkner or Joyce or writing a beautiful essay give way to something like showing kids who may or may not have much of a future ahead of them that they might have a bit of a future because you care about them. Just showing up and being there and expressing some small amount of concern and care.

Love expresses itself through each of us in strange and surprising ways. There is a love reverberating through the work of the accountant, the plumber, the cop. It might be hard to see or believe but it’s there.


I think of that moment at the beginning of William James’s “Pragmatism,” when he talks about the squirrel running behind the tree. No doubt I’m misremembering the passage, but as I recall it, he is interested in how we conceive of something that disappears. There is a squirrel on a tree and then it scurries behind it. Is it still there? It’s invisible now and may well have magically disappeared. How can we resolve this? Empirically? Rationally? Ontologically? Etc, etc.

The thing is…all of us know that the squirrel is behind the tree. And that makes all the difference.