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, February 21, 2013

Setting our own conditions

Humans like categories. Structuralist thought, in which the world is divided into clear rules and sections, is to many a comforting idea. Newtonian physics, with its clear rules for the nature of physical reality, is equally appealing.

But what happens when Einstein comes along, and tells us that we can never see reality (which is out there) because it depends on our perspective? What happens when Proust shows us that time bends and stretches memory such that a taste of a madeleine opens up an entire lifetime, or when Monet shows us that our eyes take in the available light and make something fantastical?

What's more, what happens when Bohr and Schrödinger then come along and say that no such reality exists, that all is in flux, that the world is not just unknown but unknowable? The quantum world, our best understanding of "reality," is an open door. It is probabilistic, stochastic, our very own to perceive. We must make a choice, we must measure our world through our own experiences of it.

In Quirks of the Quantum, Coale describes the nature of the quantum realm and its implications for "reality":
"The quantum realm shivers and quivers in a state one might call an indeterminate pulsating flux or, as Amir D. Aczel describes it, 'the quantum fuzz' (251). For Brian Greene it's a 'fuzzy, amorphous, probabilistic mixture of all possibilities' (112). Within that realm, anything can happen, and we cannot predict how, when, why, and where things will occur. Particles/waves/fields/forces, all of which are essentially descriptions of the same quantum phenomena, since all modern elementary particle theories are relativistic quantum field theories, appear and disappear, each with its own description, each susceptible to imminent dissolution and transformation, created within what John Gribbin calls the 'holistic electromagnetic web' (Schrödinger's Kittens 226), in Kenneth Ford's continuous 'creation-annihilation dance' of 'perpetual motion' (242, 222) [...].
"In trying to describe this process, we come up against both the unknowable 'essence' of the quantum realm in all its quivering and erupting randomness as well as the metaphorical nature of language itself. When we choose to describe something as a particle, a wave, a field, a force, or a web, we necessarily exclude other possibilities and images. Similar to Bohr's notion of complementarity, if we describe something as a particle, we have chosen not to describe it as a wave. In language and logic, these appear to be mutually exclusive. In quantum theory, each is valid, depending on the nature of how we measure these glimpses and snapshots. Contradiction appears to be a product of choice and grammar, rather than of the actual quantum event, since in the quantum realm the images of particle and wave 'apply to mutually exclusive conditions; hence there is no contradiction between them' (Malin 161)."
It sounds like we can choose or own story, providing--at least to some extent--our own conditions. Atheism or faith, it seems to be argued in The Life of Pi, is a simple matter of making such a choice.

In another tale of learning how to set one's own conditions for survival while being tossed by the wind, Katherine Paterson writes in The Same Stuff As Stars:
"What is man—and of course the writer means all of us puny little insignificant creatures—what is a mere human being that God who made the immense universe should ever notice?' She chuckled. 'The sky does take you down to size.'
     'Not even big as bugs. Not even a speck of dust to the nearest star,' Angel agreed.
     'But the psalmist answers his own question. "Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor..."'
     'What?' Angel asked, not sure she had heard right.
     'A little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor.'
     'The real angels? Do you believe that?'
     'Yes, Angel, I do. When people look down on me, and these days'—she laughed shortly—'these days everyone over the age of five does. When people look down on me, I remember that God looks at this pitiful, twisted old thing that I have become and crowns me with glory.'"
The sky both takes us down to size, if you will, and pulls us together. Who would know this better than the astronauts? This video shows how seeing the earth for the first time changed several astronauts' view of our nature.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

If we are free enough to see how small we are and how grand, why choose to forget this? Every day, I hope we can remember to find the right conditions, so that our measurement of our lives will leave us content, and thirsty for more.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


“When a man in a forest thinks he is going forward in a straight line, in reality he is going in a circle, I did my best to go in a circle, hoping to go in a straight line.”
                                                                                         - Samuel Beckett, Molloy
Vasilis Avramidis, "Caretakers," 2012
140x100cm, oil on canvas
When you were a kid, did you ever dream of running away to live in the forest? To get lost? To go wild? To grow up? Would you be one of the beasts, bold and ferocious? Or another kind of creature, small and nestled spindly-legged in a bed of petals and thorns? Would you nest among hidden branches, migratory and ready to fly, collecting treasures only to leave them behind? Or would you plant yourself firmly in the dead leaves, sprout roots, nurture fungi in your shadows, and drink from what was hidden, always going deeper?

According to J. Crews in "Forest and tree symbolism in folklore," many cultures believe that trees function as "receptacles for spirits or souls." No wonder the forest can bring such company, offering fodder for so many childhood imaginings.

Yet the nature of the forest--and of the tree--is double-edged. The forest can be blinding, dense and frightening, endless and beguiling. The tree, though rooted, stands alone, often condemned to never touch another of its kind. Do we really wish to grow these kinds of roots? How do we know exactly where to cast our lot? At what point does the magic engulf us?

A lovely and painful song about what it means to decide to grow (roots) through love is "Tanglewood tree," by Dave Carter.

Tanglewood tree


Love is a tanglewood tree in a bower of green
In a forest at dawn
Fair while the mockingbird sings, but she soon lifts her wings
And the music is gone
Young lovers in the tall grass with their hearts open wide
When the red summer poppies bloom
But love is a trackless domain and the rumor of rain
In the late afternoon

Love is an old root that creeps through the meadows of sleep
When the long shadows cast
Thin as a vagrant young vine, it encircles and twines
And it holds the heart fast
Catches dreamers in the wildwood with the stars in their eyes
And the moon in their tousled hair
But love is a light in the sky, and an unspoken lie
And a half-whispered prayer

I'm walkin' down a bone-dry river but the cool mirage runs true
I'm bankin' on the fables of the far, far better things we do
I'm livin' for the day of reck'nin countin' down the hours
I yearn away, I burn away, I turn away the fairest flower of love, 'cause darlin'

Love is a garden of thorns
   Love's garden of thorns, how it grows
And a crow in the corn
   Black crow in the corn hummin' low
And the brake growing wild
   Brake nettle so pretty and wild
   And thistles surround the edge of the
Cold when the summer is spent
   Dim dark hour as the sun moves away
In the jade heart's lament
   Lamenting a lost summer day
For the faith of a child
   Who nurtures the faith of a child
   When nothing remains to cover her eyes?
My body has a number and my face has a name
   My body has a number, maybe my face has a name
And each day looks the same to me
   Each hour like each hour before
But love is a voice on the wind
   This longing is a voice on the wind
And the wages of sin
   She cultivates the wages of sin
And a tanglewood tree
   In a tanglewood tree

Yet the tree is not only of this earth. It is also of the sky: "The medieval Cabbalists represented creation as a tree with its roots in the reality of spirit (the sky) and its branches upon the earth (material reality)" (Crews, 43). So we are not condemned to suffocation. There must be other ways to grow.

Blue Christmas tree
The twisting of roots is only one kind of entanglement. Perhaps as humans, we must follow not the roots under the earth, but the entanglement of all that surrounds us, the entanglement of the stars:

"Quantum entanglement is one of the central principles of quantum physics, though it is also highly misunderstood. In short, quantum entanglement means that multiple particles are linked together in a way such that the measurement of one particle's quantum state determines the possible quantum states of the other particles" (read more here).

Apparently, this works across time as well as space. We are deeply entwined, yet this is not an overgrowth, or a distortion of something that was once comforting and beautiful. It is our very nature, and it is how we survive.

So if we look skyward instead, and grow our roots toward the heavens, will we find ourselves less tangled? Will the space that is not nothingness, because it is different from black holes, fill us with the room to breathe? Will the divinity of the stars anchor us as we stretch to understand how we connect? I cannot imagine we would be so different from the rest of the universe that we could not trust this. Whether we call it faith, spirituality, love, or just following our nature, it is in this expansive tangle that we root in each other, the earth, and the stars, all enmeshed in that which we cannot see.

"For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease." 

- Job 14:7, ESV

Monday, January 28, 2013


Hestia, Greek goddess of home and hearth

To Hestia
by Hesiod

Hestia, you who tend the holy house of the lord Apollo,
the Far-shooter at goodly Pytho,
with soft oil dripping ever from your locks, come now into this house,
come, having one mind with Zeus the all-wise
draw near, and withal bestow grace upon my song.

This weekend I watched The House (spoilers ahead), a Korean animated film in which old, traditional homes are guarded by and are one with spirits who must face their imminent deaths as new, modern condos replace old, dilapidated buildings that are full of  mold and cracks. (See photographs documenting this process here, along with some unfortunate sexist comments.) These building spirits harbor a certain affection and intimacy with home owners, so much so that a carefully kept home will respond kindly to the rhythms of its family. This is a sad story, so skip the next three paragraphs if you don't want to know.

The film makes a clear argument for valuing the soul over the bank account, and it offers a strong, if heavy-handed critique of classism in contemporary (Korean) society, the role of the government in exacerbating poverty and dependence, and the overvaluation of all that is modern. It is understood that the new buildings will have no spirits to guard them.

In "Modernization and contemporary culture in traditional Korea," Ito Abito explains:
Traditional Korean society manifested, as Takashi Akiba long ago pointed out, a rather sharp cleavage between the life-orientation of the upper-class yangban and that of ordinary commoners. The yangban, absolutizing Confucianism, looked down on or ignored folk religion, but the coexistence of the two strata was made possible by their division into two social ranks. The new life-orientation developed in the cities in connection with the rapid social change of recent years, however, has exercised a profound influence even on agricultural village society through the Semaeull movement and other media. Members of the rural elite, quick to respond to the modernization and industrialization policy of the central government, played a leading role in abolishing or discontinuing traditional belief and practice, some in token of symbolic support for modernization, others in token of loyalty to the Semaeull movement. This resulted, on the one hand, in the diffusion of the Semaeull movement throughout the country as a new spiritual movement and, on the other, in the rapid destruction of the basis for cultural identity that existed in the traditional culture.
In the film, as the houses are torn down, the spirits go with them, leaving only keepsakes: small trinkets in which their favorite memories are stored, visible only to those who hold the marble that connects the human and spirit worlds. In the end, this delicate glass ball is smashed by a government boot in the mud, and the spirits, in their dying moments, become invisible to our heartbroken protagonist, who had happened upon the marble in a brawl with a stray cat (who is, of course, the God of Land). She who once longed to live in a shiny new condo, is dragged silently away from the falling walls.

What struck me about this surprisingly—though accurately—pessimistic tale was its lovely portrayal of what it means to have a home. At one point, the girl and her house's spirit happen upon a homeless man in a box. The girl screams, taken aback by the man. The spirit looks and also screams, taken aback not by the man, but by the idea that a person should sleep somewhere where there was no house, no spirit to protect him.

Of course it went beyond the walls and ceiling: every little bit of the house, the old wallpaper, the worn floors, was infused with a sense of belonging, of safety. That, in my view, is why home matters so much. There are places that feel like that, and they are sacred. Buck claimed that "'home' in the full range and feeling of [Modern English] home is a conception that belongs distinctively to the word home and some of its Gmc. cognates and is not covered by any single word in most of the IE [Indo-European] languages" (Online Etymology Dictionary). In Spanish, the corresponding hogar has its roots in the Latin term for fire (compare modern Spanish fuego); indeed, the hearth was the old gathering place, the center of warmth and social life (Diccionario Etimológico).

We feel that way around certain people, too—at home, safe. In her article, "The orphans among us," Sarah Johnston contemplates what it meant to her to finally find a family, as an adult, when her own parents had never provided a safe place, a refuge:
It took a year and a half before I would see their daily call and not think, “Why are they calling?” I had no idea there were people who’d call you every day.
     Eventually I did. Eventually it became the most natural thing in the world. The Bible says that orphans are placed in families; and for a long time I believed in that and mistook having a family as the end, — the prize in and of itself.
     But what I have found — and what I pray the orphans among and inside us discover —is that being a part of a family, in time, stops erasing the pain of abandonment and starts being about the power of the future. It begins with an orphan and a family, but it ends with one trajectory being propelled into another.
The desire to be where we feel we belong is strong, and we are not alone among the species. Holly the cat recently became famous for her 190-mile journey on foot back to where she belonged.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Silence and hope

It would seem as [...] though we are surrounded by myriads of emaciated words. They limp about, wounded by their lack of silence, and wounding others as far as they go. Words that only come from other words are lonely,  but  also  hard  and  aggressive.  Words  not  coming  from  silence  are  automatic,  obstinate,  and desperate – and could be called orphans.  “The tongue we speak today is no longer a mother-tongue but rather an orphaned tongue.” (Picard 1948: 41) Indeed, we are surrounded by sounds severed from silence, as opposed to sounds saturated with silence. (Cilliers, 2008)

Recently I made the decision to leave social networking sites. I found that I was offering my energy to a void, where the limits to true human connection were simply too much. Sherry Turkle, in her NYT article "Flight from Conversation," made a strong argument for face-to-face connection, for being present in the silences--silences that cannot be transmitted or lived on media such as Facebook: "Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another."

I have decided, as my Tricycle newsletter this morning advised, to attempt to abandon futile endeavors. It seems to me that part of the attraction of social networks is that they can offer some sort of tangible evidence that others find us worthy (at least enough to "friend" us and maybe click on something we posted).

As somebody with a body that is perceived as so vastly different from others', I have spent much of my lifetime trying to prove my worth, trying to convince others who could not relate to me that I really was just like them, trying to help them see me, accept me, find a way to surmount the insurmountable beliefs about value and body, find true friendship in my company.
Harlequin woman

I am certainly not alone in this. Disabled blogger Carly Findlay writes, "Maybe I'm doing a metaphorical forward roll every day. To prove that I can do. To prove that I'm more than how I look. And to break down the assumptions people make about me and others with chronic illnesses and disabilities."

How much energy am I willing to spend to make myself human enough in another's eyes? Could this ever really lead to a mutually fulfilling relationship? It is a futile endeavor. I am not advising giving up hope. But what is of little value is not worth our time.

I seek the rare treasure, the silent understanding. I will do no song and dance. Connection is scarce, but that is okay. It is worth the effort, worth the wait.

What is scarce is not lost. Sometimes even the smallest spark of hope may be enough for the spirit. The whooping cranes are a lesson in placing one's heart in what matters. They are slowly recovering from the edge of extinction, with a population that has risen from a mere 15 birds to 600 with the help of Operation Migration and other groups. (If you are interested and able, you can contribute to the cause.)

Video streaming by Ustream

In human interaction, for me, the quiet spaces are my whooping crane. In these moments, there is a deep knowing and a presence. There is no question of worthiness, no painted mask, no juggling of truths and lies. I tend to this silence.

Professor of Theology at Stellenbosch University J. H. Cillers has written of the spiritual value of silence in our lives in his article, "Silence is Golden: Liturgy beyond the Edge of Language." I quote him here at some length:
Silence could of course be understood in many ways [...]. It may mean different things to different people. We know that there are different kinds of silence. The silence of sitting on the porch and watching as the setting sun winks her last light at you. The indescribable silence when moving from the house in which you stayed for thirty years, and you walk through the empty rooms for a last time, and the walls whisper the sum total of experiences that you had in this space and you know, deeper than words can express: there is a time to come, and a time to go. Or the strange silence that you experience in a graveyard, when the cooing of the doves in the trees deepens the silence and you know: our years pass by like a fleeting thought...

Willard differentiates between solitude - “being out of human contact, being alone, and being so for lengthy periods of time”- and silence (1998: 357). He concludes: “Silence means to escape from sounds, noises, other than the gentle ones of nature. But it also means not talking, and the effects of not talking on our soul are different from those of simple quietness.” (1998: 357)

Although silence is part and parcel of our genetical make-up (cf. further on), it is apparently also something that needs to be learned, a lost art that must be retrieved. The fact of the matter is that we normally react on an “epidermal” (skin-deep) level, automatically, following the usual stimuli of life. But in and through silence we escape the patterns of epidermal responses, with their consequences. This is however something that we find particularly hard to do. For us, the very idea of doing nothing could be absolutely terrifying – especially in our achievement-driven society. Indeed, it seems as if one of the greatest of spiritual attainments of humanity could be the capacity to do nothing. Because we do so much, we have so little of real value.
Togetherness in silence, a gaze, a touch, a shared view of the warm light hitting the trees--these alone tell me that we, imperfect and strange beings that we are, are more than enough.

A couple embrace in a park with snowy trees seen around, with the air temperature at about minus 8 degrees Celsius (17.6 degrees Fahrenheit), in Russia's southern city of Stavropol, on December 24, 2012. (Reuters/Eduard Korniyenko).
Cilliers, J. H. 2008. Silence is Golden: Liturgy beyond the Edge of Language. Paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for Practical Theology in South Africa, 14-16 January 2008, UNISA, Pretoria.
Picard, M. 1948. The world of silence. London: The Harvill Press. 
Willard, D 1998. The divine conspiracy. Rediscovering our hidden life in God. Harper: San Francisco.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Underwater breathing (when the trolls come)

Trolls in The Hobbit
Sometimes those who seem to love (or understand) only what is big and loud trample what they have never even noticed was there. Sometimes what they trample upon is the sensitive person's treasure, the tiny miracle the quiet visionary has been holding in her palm.
Carved Eggshells by Beth Ann Magnuson

She says in a whisper, too trusting, wanting so much to share the joy, "Look. Look at this little piece of me. It is the most beautiful thing I know to be mine." 

An excited troll lumbers over and smash--it is gone. He did not even know something could be that small, that intricate, or that holy. 

Her devastation is chalked up to childishness. "Bah!" says the troll. "I see nothing here! Why do you waste time?" 

When violence is caused by insensitivity, by a lack of perception of what one sees so clearly, who is to blame? How to cry foul?

In a gifted mind, where worlds are intricate and sensitive, this destruction can become the daily bread, simply a way of life:

One of the most common experiences of gifted children is a unique way of perceiving. They make more abstract connections, they synthesize diverse experiences, and they make sophisticated conclusions at an early age. Not that the gifted child's unique perceptions are always "true" to the rest of us, but they are powerful. The result is a child growing up with a reality somewhat different than the reality of her peers -- and often different from her parents, teachers, and allies.

Villa Epecuen, Argentina
Because they are different in other ways, gifted children are often isolated anyway. Somehow these multiple tendencies toward isolation reinforce one another to the point where the majority of gifted children feel lonely, left-out, or different.

This combination of unique perception and its concurrent isolation yield an emotional vacuum. After all, for most of us, our emotional selves develop by "bouncing off" of all those around us. (Joy and Loss: The Emotional Lives of Gifted Children, Joshua Freedman and Anabel Jensen, PhD)

As adults, we learn to live with it. Kind of. Despite the wreckage it will cause in our jobs and relationships, we go underground sometimes. It is sometimes at the bottom of the ocean, where sounds are muted and all is touch and flow, that we breathe best, and we remain unshattered.

In The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon writes, "Mild depression is a gradual and sometimes permanent thing that undermines people the way rust weakens iron. [...] Like physical pain that becomes chronic, it is miserable not so much because it is intolerable in the moment as because it is intolerable to have known it in the moments gone and to look forward only to knowing it in the moments to come. The present tense of mild depression envisages no alleviation because it feels like knowledge" (p. 16).

It seems to me that this is more than a feeling of knowledge. Instead, it is often linked directly to knowledge. In a world of trolls, knowledge is a liability. How to extol the virtues of complexity to a boss who demands that you create something "fun"? How to present the ecstasy of subtlety to an audience seeking more "pizzazz"? To them, their way is obviously better.

So we hold our tongues, and sometimes our breath. And sometimes we dive down for air.

Don’t Tell Anyone
by Tony Hoagland

We had been married for six or seven years
when my wife, standing in the kitchen one afternoon, told me
that she screams underwater when she swims—

that, in fact, she has been screaming for years
into the blue chlorinated water of the community pool
where she does laps every other day.

Buttering her toast, not as if she had been
concealing anything,
not as if I should consider myself

personally the cause of her screaming,
nor as if we should perform an act of therapy
right that minute on the kitchen table,

—casually, she told me,
and I could see her turn her square face up
to take a gulp of oxygen,

then down again into the cold wet mask of the unconscious.
For all I know, maybe everyone is screaming
as they go through life, silently,

politely keeping the big secret
that it is not all fun
to be ripped by the crooked beak

of something called psychology,
to be dipped down
again and again into time;

that the truest, most intimate
pleasure you can sometimes find
is the wet kiss

of your own pain.
There goes Kath, at one PM, to swim her twenty-two laps
back and forth in the community pool;

—what discipline she has!
Twenty-two laps like twenty-two pages,
that will never be read by anyone.