I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Sheltering the Wild

"To love is to approach each other center to center." ~ Pierre de Teilhard de Chardin

It has taken me a long time to write this post, perhaps because it touches on the "heart" of things. I want to write about unconditional love, about revelations that allow the connection between two beings to ignite with wild lightning. This is about holding on in the storm, not because we are kind enough to pretend it is not that bad or we don't really feel the lash of the wind in someone else's pain.

Francoise Gilot (French, b.1921), Little Girl with Owl 1960
It is about joining in the roll of thunder, pairing each other's scars like kindling for a warmth we seek, because the wild heart in each of us deserves to be gazed upon with full acceptance. In my most honest love, there is a place for the safe unveiling of brutality.

“To love another another human in all of her splendor and imperfect perfection, it is a magnificent task...tremendous and foolish and human.” ~ Louise Erdrich, The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse

Our centers are full of divinity and light, yes. But there is also pain and fear, rage and hunger. To deny this in ourselves is to feel ashamed of our very natures. To deny this in others, or to judge it as diminishing the other, is to offer a cowardly love. We cannot fully love without the revelation of imperfections. So when we hide our ugliness, we are, in effect, refusing the chance to be known and loved.

Such a shrinking away from wholeness, and its concomitant lack of trust, has dire consequences in all aspects of life, not just in our most intimate relationships (as if this alone were not bad enough). John Warner recently wrote a self-proclaimed "preachy" piece on truth in Inside Higher Ed, entitled "A Column Not to Be Dictated to by Fact Checkers," in which he discussed this phenomenon in today's classrooms (and politics). I found the following excerpt particularly relevant:

Found here
"I sometimes read about how the current generation has been ruined by the self-esteem movement, but they can hardly be blamed with their role models, champions who cheat, politicians who lie, journalists who don't believe there is such a thing as truth.

Or a teacher who is worried about looking like a square when he says he believes in truth. All of us are signaling that there’s nothing much worthy of belief aside from our own “success,” our image, and how we’re perceived on some imaginary scoreboard.

These are all forms of cowardice, a lack of trust in ourselves and others, that we will not be judged of value unless we are perfect, if we are anything short of outstanding."

This is not to say that we should parade our scars in some sort of victim dance. But to cover ourselves in "goodness" is a kind of death: “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality” (John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice).

In some way, I approach this topic as a sociolinguist. I know that in language, like in all human systems, attainment of a "perfect" state cannot be achieved except through death (and yes, here, I am mindful of the spiritual implications of this). And even then, what is considered the "perfect" moment is debatable, not to mention a mere abstraction. In language, it is the variation, its very state of imperfection, of dynamic motion and persistent change in a world that never experiences the same moment twice, that allows it to flourish. Languages do not survive despite their imperfections, but rather because of their imperfections. I think this sheds a new light on our lives.

by minimaforms, 2008. “Minimaforms was invited by
Archigram’s David Greene to rethink and evolve his
seminal projects the Living Pod and High-Rise Tower
as part of a show called Imperfect works.” Exhibited at
Mega-Structures Reloaded, Berlin (2008) / Imperfect Works,
London (2008).
"The key to a rational conception of language change – indeed, of language itself – is the possibility of describing orderly differentiation in a language serving a community … It is absence of structural heterogeneity that would be dysfunctional." (Weinreich et al. 1968: 100–101)

A language that does not shift, bending rules and opening itself to "strange" new patterns, is soon a dead language.

On the spiritual question, Lacey Mosley discovered that she could see God's grace best through the lens of imperfection: “I've learned recently to love imperfection a lot because it shines such a big light on God's grace. And if someone has grace for you that's when you feel their love the most and they see you for who you are and they love you anyway.”

When I compare our "imperfection" to the "imperfection" of human systems like language and culture, it dawns on me that there is nothing to be forgiven. It is not that we must love "anyway," but that through this, we love. Through this wildheartedness that is our life force, we understand:

Louise Butler, Journey to Nimbus (2010), oil on canvas
“But those who seek only reassurance from life will never be more than tourists—seeing everything and trying to possess what can only be felt. Beauty is the shadow of imperfection.” ~ Simon Van Booy, Everything Beautiful Began After

So yes, we must shelter our wild (heart/tongue), but not because it is shameful. If we shelter it, it should be to save it for those who will know how to feed it. What a mess Einstein once was! But he did not shrivel away. And, I would argue, it was this very messiness that brought him to question everything, and to change our understanding of the world. I assure you, he is not the only example.

“You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking.” ~ Marianne Williamson

In disability, our mess is also our greatness. This is not because we are meant as inspirations to others, as some sort of epiphany-producing humanoid object. This is because the mess of disability itself is a question, which is a curiosity, which is a quest, which is a revelation. Love the imperfections, crawl into them and gaze from the inside out, and a rich new world will unfold.

Weinreich, U., Labov, W., & Herzog, M. 1968. "Empirical foundations for a theory of language change." In: W. Lehmann & Y. Malkiel, eds., Directions for historical linguistics. Austin: University of Texas Press. 95-198.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Today we witnessed the touchdown of NASA's rover Curiosity on Mars. It has already sent back its first pictures.

How exciting to glimpse other lands, other stones! I often thought as a deeply star-gazing child upon whom gravity worked harder than most, such that I dragged myself and later rolled and tumbled across the floor, that I would be the first to sign up to leave this planet, a first colonist.

Yet, as I age, I realize that am deeply attached to the earth, as echoed in Caetano Veloso's love song to Earth, "Terra."

Eu sou um leão de fogo                        [I am a lion of fire
Sem ti me consumiria                           without you I would consume myself
A mim mesmo eternamente                  myself eternally
E de nada valeria                                 and it would matter nothing
Acontecer de eu ser gente                   that I happen to be a person,
E gente é outra alegria                         and a person is another joy
Diferente das estrelas...                       different from the stars...]


This attachment goes beyond humanity. Anthropologist and primatologist Dawn Prince-Hughes, in her memoir Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey through Autism (which I recommend; see a good "non-review" here), writes of her experience of walking and standing, of pulling her body upright, as a painful separation:

Songs of a Gorilla Nation
Physically, I thought about how standing up on two feet leaves you exposed. One's naked belly and chest and genitals are all uncovered and laid bare, as if standing has lifted a great warm cover made of the sacred space between body and ground. Like a plant uprooted, with the last of its anchor and succor falling in abandoning clods, we stretch up to the sky and let the close and nourishing earth fall away. This standing had often been too much for me to bear, and when it was, I would go and curl up somewhere, nursing the raw wound that my upright front had sustained in the million-year tearing away that my ancestors had undertaken. (p. 121).

In explaining her affinity with the gorillas she studied and worked with and loved, she explained:

What I found I had always had with the gorillas was such vulnerability and ferocity and love. Our similarities were beyond perseveration, a need for space and a space for hiding; we were always drawing inward and exploding outward, sharing laughter out of fear and sharing a ferocious sense of justice, beyond mere caring. Our similarities also went beyond a difficulty dealing with the human race, sensitivities to the world around us and to the stereotyping in the face of the soullessness all around. Our affinity met in being filled with archaic darkness and persisting memories of a time when all things were one. (p. 122)
Sacred Rock. Machu Picchu, Peru.

We are earth beings. Now, perhaps always, as New York Times contributor Adam Frank somewhat sadly pointed out in his piece, "Alone in the Void."

Since time immemorial, the earth stones have been watching our growth. Do we not caress them and spill our tears and blood into this great rock? And our waste, too, and our bombs of rage? What better than the earth to serve as witness to all promises, all covenants made between living beings? Who better to know when we have forgotten ourselves?

Image found here.
Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I. And let it be a witness between you and me.” So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” (Genesis 31, 44-48)

For all it has seen, the stone, the earth, like a stillness we can create in our own spirited flesh, offers the relief of an energetic, living silence:

Thomas Aquinas said that beauty arrests motion. He meant, I think, that in the presence of something gorgeous or sublime, we stop our nervous natterings, our foot twitchings and restless tongues. Whatever that fretful hunger is, it seems momentarily filled in the presence of beauty. To Aquinas’s wisdom I’d add that silence arrests flight, that in its refuge, the need to flee the chaos of noise diminishes. We let the world creep closer, we drop to our knees, as if to let the heart, like a small animal, get its legs on the ground. (from Stirring the Mud by Barbara Hurd, © 2001 by Barbara Hurd, from Tricycle)

I do not think that have ever felt the earth so keenly, so close, as when I lived in Mexico. There, in Cholula, at the foot of the great volcano Popcatepetl, artifacts of tiny clay faces, rain gods and jaguar-men, surfaced around the edges of ancient dusty roads. When the volcano erupted, the ground would rock slowly, like being rocked in the arms of someone who has forgotten just how little you really are.

Cholula with an erupting Popocatepetl. From A Gringo in Rural Mexico
Here is a poem of mine about the land of Cholula. The title, Huellas, has several meanings, including footprints, fingerprints, traces, and tracks. (The story of Footprints was one of my favorites as a child, and I carry a hint of this into the poem as well.) (Trigger warning)



Five hundred years ago, a burned white man broke
ground for Catholic rites, the pyramid cradling
gold-spun idols. Today, a child crawls underneath mud
stone upon stone in small doorways, ancient
stories painted on the walls where her ancestors knew
one day she would laugh, remembering how
everyone always leaves a trace of what was, even
if it was not worth it. Even if we are lost in the end.


She is a cherub, round and brown
like the angel cheeks: they cried wax tears
where her mother knelt in a copal cathedral.
That whole month her knees were bloody
and she kept those flowers she picked
dried and thirsty among the saints
the day the youngest of her dozen
came home, defiled and married, but home.


At the market on Wednesdays, downy
chestnut-skinned fruit is split open to seduce
buyers who will suck out the burnt orange
dripping mamey, only to say it is not
yet ripe, let me try another, because
the uncut ones always taste best
and cherubs who do not run home fast
will most certainly get eaten alive.


The golden hour thickens in vapor,
lightening pouring red through woven cloth
windows. Just about any two bodies here
know each other to be sacred and hold
like a cross against the salted earth,
against the stumbling gait of those damned
by ancient pictures and buried ash. Volcanoes
boom and the ground, it breaks, it trembles. 

© 2010 J. Aaron

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mutable caress: On water, impermanence, and trust

I grew up with my toes in the Willamette River.

Willamette River
Crossing the Willamette River
Eugene, Oregon, February 21st, 2011
(from I'd rather be riding... )
I loved to stare at it, immerse myself in it, float down it in a passive stance that once sent my mother flying into the current screaming. I had shouted a contented "Bye!" as I floated past and away. At the ocean, I would stare out as far as possible, convinced I could see the curve of our planet, and then the sky as a dome above, and me so tiny there, seized by deep passion.

Why such love, such fascination?

In its nature, water teaches us impermanence, in the Buddhist sense of the term:

According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is comparable to a river. It is a progressive moment, a successive series of different moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, giving an outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, where as in reality it is not. The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. The river of this moment is not going to be the same as the river of the next moment. So does life. It changes continuously, becomes something or the other from moment to moment. (from Urban Dharma)

Loblolly Creek, Gainesville, Florida
© 2011 by Friends of Nature Parks
Impermanence goes beyond philosophy. It is a basic state of nature in physics as well. For a more technical discussion of this notion in both Buddhism and modern physics, see Victor Mansfield's 1998 article, "Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics," originally a talk given at the Physics and Tibetan Buddhism Conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The other day, on a rainy walk to the local creek with my dear friend and her dog, I witnessed such a lesson in very simple terms. The dog was thrilled with a tennis ball that we had discovered, and he was chasing it and carrying it around as he bounded up and down the creek. Spotting an interesting stick, he placed the ball in the shallow water. A few minutes later, tiring of the stick, he returned for the ball, only to find that it had disappeared downstream. He looked up to us, confused. Why is my ball gone? Who took it? In our grief and our loss, we often look skyward, confused. Why? But this is just the nature of the world, as gentle and as reasonable as the flowing creek. And we do not mourn each ripple as it flattens and disappears. We call such perpetual motion beautiful.

Yet this is not really about loss, but about change. In its nature, water also teaches us a kind of permanence. It is liquid, gas, or solid. It is internalized and externalized. It remains a continuous, dynamic entity, paradoxical in its changing faces. And it is in the continuity and connectivity that we find something akin to hope.

Ecclesiastes 1:7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

Conceptual Photos by Olaf Mueller
Systematic, apparently chaotic, and deeply faithful in its journeys, in its ebbs and flows, water offers us a territory of trust.

There is also another water we all know: the primal water of the womb. When else are we embraced so entirely and so safely? When else are we touched by another so completely? The healing, often magical power of touch is a taste of what we once knew: nearly total connection, before the first shock of becoming separated and, perhaps, feeling lost.

Camelia Elias, in her blog Taro(t)flexions, writes of the honesty evoked through touch and visualization:

Underwater: Photos by Erin Mulvehill
Whether imagined or not, touching is a participatory rather than an individual move. When we say, ‘I’m touched,’ about something, we first get the visuals in place and then the abstractness of the situation. Touching is therefore quite magical. For instance, there is a powerful relation between asking people to imagine things and physically touching them. Touch relating to visualization is the most complicit of acts. When people allow you to touch them in that way, they strip naked for you. Yet their nakedness only serves to give way to a translucent light right into their souls.

When water encircles our bodies, we are also vulnerable and touched. This offers another reminder of our erstwhile selfless selves, a vague yet urgent thirst for the unity we knew in a time beyond memory.

Yet the water out here is not insular. It carries us or it passes us by. It cannot bear to stay still. Still waters stink and fester. Stagnant, they invite diseases and no longer draw our loving gaze.

My Willamette is not a pretty opal shine, steady and posing for a grateful human eye. This is my Willamette:

"Nothing was, nothing will be, everything has reality and presence" (Siddhartha, Herman Hesse, trans. Hilda Rosner, 1951, p. 87).

And perhaps herein lies its true lesson: even in the constant flux of relationship, the objects carried away to unimagined lands, the memories that ripple as the wind and time transform their edges, and our own selves as we erode, nothing is really lost, and we are still safe. And we are greater than we think. Through all of this, the water embraces the life it carries, the rivers still find each other, the ocean still looks to the moon. And yet nothing is ever the same.

Siddhartha listened. He was now all ears, completely absorbed in his listening, completely empty, completely receptive; he felt that he had now learned all that there was to learn about listening. He had often heard this all before, these many voices in the river, but today it sounded new. By this time he could no longer distinguish the many voices, could not tell the gleeful ones from the weeping ones, the children’s voices from the grown men’s; they all belonged together, the lament of longing and the knowing man’s laughter, the cry of anger and the moans of the dying; it was all one, it was all interwoven and knotted together, interconnected in a thousand ways. And all of this together, all the voices, all the goals, all the longing, all the suffering, all the pleasure, all the good and evil, all of this together was the world. All of this together was the river of events, the music of life. And whenever Siddhartha listened attentively to that river, that song of thousand voices, when he listened neither to the sorrow nor the laughter, when he tied his soul not to any individual voice, entering into it with his self, but instead heard them all, perceiving the totality, the oneness, then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was om, the absolute. (Siddhartha, Herman Hesse, found here)

In what is left, do we find the soul of us, the divine spirit, the one sentience? Is that what we water-leaning, toe-dipping creatures truly seek?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Slow time

We must begin to think differently, perhaps: We have all the time in the worldOf course, this is a lie, and we know it. But pushing the egg out of the nest accomplishes little good.

Lottie and Minnie, from elevisions
A lesson delivered in tumbled syllables is not learned. Hurried intimacy is not intimate. Forced conversation does not build the relationship so desired. In the rush for bliss, bliss is lost. This is about restraint and purpose. In our work, it may be about making intellectual connections and diving into the depths of the springs with measured breaths. In our bodies, it may mean long walks and all-natural ingredients. (See, for example, the Slow Food movement.) In our relationships, it may be about listening and tenderness.

John Huckins, a blogger at God's Politics, contemplates the role of "wasting" time in Jesus's life:

As I walked the modern-day ruins of this site, I couldn't help picturing a 20-year-old Jesus working next to his dad while listening and living a radically submerged life within this context. While shaping rock that would act as foundations for buildings whose use he may or may not have agreed with, Jesus was present.

Jesus was not just present for a year or two; he was present for 30 years before entering his formal ministry.There is an element of lingering inherent with submerging. It is a willingness to be present to the point of feeling like we are wasting time, when in reality we are leaving ourselves open to be used by the Spirit in ways we be might otherwise have never been aware of. Lingering is not simply walking aimlessly in circles; it is knowing what we are looking for and being intentional with our time and presence.

Sigur Rós - Glósóli from Arni & Kinski on Vimeo.

In The Creativity Post, Michael Michalko notes that famed surrealist Salvador Dalí, in his search for the artistic visions that populated his works, had a certain technique. He wasted time, drifting in and out of sleep:

His favorite technique is that he would put a tin plate on the floor and then sit by a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate. He would then totally relax his body; sometimes he would begin to fall asleep. The moment that he began to doze the spoon would slip from his fingers and clang on the plate, immediately waking him to capture the surreal images. (more here)

How many spoons? How many hours? And yet, do we fault him for this? Should he have been out working harder, painting more, without spoons or tin plates? What kind of artist would he have been? Would our vision of the world have been the same without it?

Two of my favorite children's books talk about the value of giving your heart to the squandered moment: the wandered road or the accidental friendship. In Grasshopper on the Road (1978), an open-minded grasshopper on a walk encounters all sorts of characters: beetles who have political tunnel vision and only love mornings, a worm who is fastidious about his belongings, butterflies who cling to routine, a fly who cannot stop sweeping.

Cat's makeshift home
All of them live in the trance of daily life, without contemplation, filling their days in ways that will never be enough, never make them full. Ah, but the grasshopper, he alone seems happy.

The second book, J.T. by Jane Wagner, is about a young man who is struggling with bullies and with his own sense of morality discovers a half-dead cat. He builds it a makeshift house, feeds it, and visits it every day.Through patience and love for something that has been left to struggle on its own, obviously seen as a "waste of time" to all who had passed by the wretched (beautiful) creature, J.T.'s spirit is transformed. The photographs are by Gordon Parks, Jr. (more here on this and its relevance to black history and film, with spoilers). The book is from a movie, the first part of which I've posted here. I warn you, it is a very, very sad story. But it teaches us something about slow love.

I must admit here that my advocacy of slow living does include some self-interest. It is only with such a mindset that those of us with disabilities become truly equal. It is in the loss of preoccupation with routine and norms that we find space for the diverse physiology and neurology of the human species. Too often, those of us who have disabilities are discarded: our gaze is not met, our words are not heard, our love is not reciprocated. This is not a consequence of the disability itself, but of the social forces that tell us to avoid "wasting" time, that push us to reach our goals as quickly as possible. Indeed, if you spend time with me, things will go more slowly. I might "waste" your time. And the same might be said for the soft-spoken, the tangential thinkers, and those from distant lands. Do we really not have time to lift somebody's weak body out of a car, to wait for well-thought-out words to emerge from hesitant lips, to follow a roundabout path of cognitive connections, or to bear some of the communicative burden of a tongue that carries what we perceive as an accent? What exactly are we here to do?

A focus on the process draws our attention to a space of loving presence.

I admire gleaners, those who pick up odd things from the road because they are interesting, these things others have discarded, forgotten, or simply walked by, unnoticing. I value this because it means they can see as others cannot. It means that, in their eyes, I, too, might be good enough to keep.

French filmmaker Agnès Varda is a visionary, I believe. In the spirit of gleaning, I leave you with her full-length documentary on the idea, both in the history of French art and as a practice of survival in France today.

Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse from WDROTV on Vimeo.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


An orange and pearl sky, from the blog red.
Nicola Griffith's world of Jeep in Ammonite is a world that swims in a sky of pearl and tangerine, whose air is tinged with an alien nutmeg warmth. And perhaps just as strange are our own worlds, our eyes that may or may not perceive the same wavelengths in the same way. Indeed, you could be wandering right now under my tangerine sky.

This is just the beginning. We are alien worlds.

Do we not approach each other with that same trepidation that beats in the heart of the anthropologist on a planet with three moons and electromagnetic disturbances? So we say: I do not know how to tread on your land. I do not know what to accept with grace and what may be an unfamiliar poison. My language may babble in an inscrutable stream. I may starve or suffocate without special protection.

And in loving, are we not also this same anthropologist? I want to touch this alien leaf, though strange creatures may bite me. I will adjust my gait to your gravity. I breathe in your nutmeg air, trusting my lungs to the pleasure. I count the stars in this tangerine sky, though the patterns are unfamiliar. Please trust and carry my weight on your earth. 

In all of this, a recognition of shared sentience, of the oneness of us. But the love is also in the unique and strange, in the inhalation of new airs, in the caressing of our cosmic bodies, cubbyholes of history, held in the minute microcosms of our navels

Dr. Rob Dunn, in a study on the bacteria in our navels, has found entire life stories hidden within:

The data has since led Dunn to identify the associated factors leading to such a diverse bellybutton microbiome. He tried numerous factors, such as age and gender but nothing was even remotely close. Then came another possibility that seems to Dunn as though it may be the key. He decided to get more information from the participants, including their place of birth and where they had lived as children and beyond. That's when the data almost miraculously came together revealing something that was beyond incredible.
The navel bacteria were related to where the person has lived over the course of their lifetime. The tiny anatomical vestibule was actually a museum of lifetime experiences.
© Camille Seaman, The Atlantic
Dunn wants to see more data before he is totally convinced, but the preliminary data are exciting. "Our bodies are recognizing the universe in so many amazing ways," Dunn tells me. "While the brain fumbles to understand ourselves in our own world, the body is learning to adapt and co-exist with the environment around it. What we experience stays with us like a never ending microbial diary." (more here)

We Are Nature - Multiple Exposure Portraits Vol. II, © Christoffer Relander 2012

Howard Terpning, The Storyteller. From First People.
Even our tiniest places hold so much of us. Imagine, then, what else is to be found in these creatures around us, human and otherwise. What sky monsters lie emergent in your gaze? Does your thunder rumble, swirl, or crack? 
Even in silence, and even on other worlds, we carry our histories, in our eyes and in our flesh. In the way we look to and see the heavens, and in the shape of our storm clouds. So what better way to love than to seek out the stories, or perhaps simply to gaze at someone else's navel for a little while?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

At home with the cats

Numbus II, 2012. Cloud in room. More here.
The rain is falling heavily today, with thunder and a dark heat that reminds me of other homes: Oregon in the fall, Puebla in late summer afternoons. It is exhilarating when the sky cracks open.

Rainbow against warm-gray sky; Eugene, Oregon.
© Greg Vaughn

At least, stuck in my house like this, I will not make my cats angry over abandonment.

This poem captures it so well, the sorrow of the feline (warning: this is sad; also, enlarge it if you can, to see the words):

And now to cheer you, a cat poem, found here:

The cat's song
By Marge Piercy

Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.
My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, says
the cat making on your chest his gesture of drawing
milk from his mother's forgotten breasts.

Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.
I'll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,
to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.
Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.

You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,
says the cat, although I am more equal than you.
Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?
Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?

Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.
My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the mornings
walking round and round your bed and into your face.

Come I will teach you to dance as naturally
as falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.
I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.
Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a word

of fur. I will teach you to be still as an egg
and to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.

Marge Piercy, “The cat's song” from Mars & Her Children (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992). First appeared in Matrix 28 (Spring 1989). Copyright © 1989, 1992 by Marge Piercy and Middlemarsh, Inc. Used by permission of the Wallace Literary Agency, Inc.

Source: Mars & Her Children (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Venus and Ray

Francesco Clemente, Son (1983), oil on linen
I am a day or so late on all of this, but I wanted to pay homage to the great Ray Bradbury, who passed away the day of the transit of Venus, June 5, 2012. Bradbury was the first writer who took me to other possibilities. I remember in particular the yellow, wet, miserable world of Venus he imagined for us in "The Long Rain," interesting to read as a child in the interminable downpour of Oregon.

Goodbye to this wonderful imaginer of worlds whose reach into our lives, our children's lives, our grandchildren's lives, is exponential. His website recounts a story of his decision to reach for a kind of immortality:

Coraline and her cat
"Throughout his life, Bradbury liked to recount the story of meeting a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico, in 1932. At the end of his performance Electrico reached out to the twelve-year-old Bradbury, touched the boy with his sword, and commanded, Live forever! Bradbury later said, I decided that was the greatest idea I had ever heard. I started writing every day. I never stopped."

He inspired, for example, Neil Gaiman, who brought us Coraline, among others. Here is a short story he wrote, called "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury."

On this day unlike any other in our lifetimes, as Venus shows herself to the world, Bradbury's worlds endure.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Relating, refraction, and relationship

Ernst Haeckel. 1904. Kunstformen
der Natur, plate 51: Polycyttaria. 
Though my much-younger self would never had admitted to really loving anything having to do with math (though recently I have been accused of being "obsessed with numbers"), I have always loved fractals. I love them because they're pretty, sure. But I love them, honestly, for something else: they are heterogeneous and deeply connected. This is the kind of world I believe in.

In animal form, we see it clearly enough. A while back, the lovely blog subblue demonstrated the easy connection between biological forms, like this one from Heackel's early 20th-century depiction of art forms in nature, and mathematically enhanced images of biology, below.

Source: Artforms of nature
Not such a far cry from the mathematical:

So, what's so interesting? To me, refraction. The unity of what is not the same but is connected. It is like taking a step back from the universe, as if we could look from the outside. 

A tall steel cross is refracted in raindrops on a window in Joplin, Missouri, on May 7, 2012. The cross is all that was left standing of St. Mary's Catholic Church, which was destroyed by an EF-5 tornado that tore through a large swath of the city and killed 161 people nearly a year ago. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) (In Focus)
To simplify the idea, water drops offer another example. Does each cross, each flower know that it is not alone? Looking in, we certainly know.

Macroreflection by Harald Naper
How can we, in our separate notions of identity, see the refractions that surround us?

What do we see when we look into a friend's eyes? An other, a separate being? Yes, of course. And yet, we know this is not the whole story. This relation, this refraction of something else is there, and we relate. And if we allow ourselves to feel the density of connection, in space, in time, in the mere fact of living and the miracle of loving, in looking beyond our own small drop of water, there is healing in that.

Healers are those who can connect with others. Those who see themselves clearly enough to forgive themselves, and in this, judgment falls away. This is outlandishly idealistic, such clarity, such connection. But we have dreamt of it. And I would like to think that anything we can dream of in such a way must be at least to some extent represented by the truth of human experience. I turn to Zhaan of Farscape: anecdotal evidence that conscious connection can heal.

The possibility--indeed, necessity--of connectedness and relationship make sense from a scientific viewpoint as well. In his blog Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer interviews the author of the book The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood. On the notion of self, Hood explains:

"...for most of us, we consider our self as some essential core of who we are. Most of us feel our self is at the center of our existence responding to everything around us – that notion of an integrated entity is what I am challenging, not the experience of self. Must of us, including myself have that experience but that does not make it real. For example, most us think that we see the world continuously throughout the waking day when in fact we only see a fraction of the world in front of us, and because the brain blanks out our visual experience every time we move our eyes in a process called saccadic suppression, we are effectively blind for at least 2 hrs of the day. This is why you cannot see your own eyes moving when you look in a mirror! So conscious experience is not a guarantee of what's really true."

Indeed, we form this experience of life in and through relationship:

"In the book, I argue that because we have evolved as social animals, those around us construct a large part of our mental life that we experience as our self. We can see the influence of others but often fail to recognize how we too are shaped. I am not denying the role of genes and temperaments that we inherit from our biology. After all, children raised in the same environment can end up very different but even these intrinsic properties of who we are play out in a social world which defines us. If you think about it, many of the ways we describe each other, such as helpful, kind, generous, mean, rude or selfish can only make sense in the context of others. So those around us largely define who we are. I hope this book will remind us of this obvious point that we so easily forget."

So today, I am thankful for our connections.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Soft, yes. Weak, no."

In her well-known article on the traits of gifted adults, "Can you hear the flowers sing?", Lovecky writes of the trait of sensitivity:

Zhaan from Farscape
Zhaan from Farscape
"A depth of feeling that results in a sense of identification with others characterizes the trait of sensitivity. Gifted people form deep attachments and react to the feeling tone of situations; they think with their feelings. People who are highly sensitive make commitments to other people and to social causes. They can be enthusiastic and intensely single-minded about their dedication. Poets, Investigative reporters, Peace Corps workers, and political and religious leaders are often gifted in sensitivity. Examples of such people include St. Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Dickinson, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Virginia Woolf.

"People gifted with the trait of sensitivity find positive social and emotional benefit in their deep concern for the needs and rights of others, their empathy for the feelings of others, and their desire to help even at significant cost to themselves. These gifted adults may be unusually aware of the feeling tone of situations and of the more sensual aspects of the environment, such as color and shading. They are often aware of their own shortcomings. Some gifted adults feel a sense of unity with the cosmos, an experience of a universal sharing of self. Adults gifted with sensitivity tend to be highly moral people concerned with giving and with doing what is right for others."

rainforestUnfortunately, any sensitivity has the tendency to be viewed as somehow passive, fragile, or weak. Yet let us think in other terms for a moment. Psychologist (and my former teacher) Paula Prober refers to such minds as "rainforest minds": rich, vibrant, and, yes, sensitive. In the density of its riches, apparently small damages can create disproportionate harm. The plants heal, the animals are beyond compare.

So sensitive folks are simply densely rich. Does this come with a certain vulnerability? Yes. Does it mean weakness? No.

To turn to another world now, we may remember Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. She is small, female, and blind. Her hyper-sensitive feet "see" for her; they remain exposed to the world, easy to damage, far from impervious to the lash of any flame. Yet it is this that makes her powerful.

We must learn to move in new ways.