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.

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?