Cartography

When I first picked up the violin again after months without practice, it was painful and awkward, my fingers unfamiliar with their erstwhile places on the strings.  Now, after a few practice sessions, I fly through pages and pages of music in a frenzy, my eyes darting down the lines of black-marked notes, mapping them with my fingers.  It feels like reading a map of a familiar place, like coming home.  I drink up the black-dotted lines and long for more, more.  More music to sight-read, to return to that place, my black chair in the middle of the orchestra sailing through sheets of transcribed dream, a stage full of bows dancing like flags.

*

Yesterday I climbed a nearby peak, my first summit of a mountain in two years of living by this coastal range.  I sat on top of that high rocky spire, looking down over the ocean and land that I see every day.  The islands I have circumnavigated, the bays where I have kayaked and fished, the hills whose silhouettes I know like the curves of my body.

There, behind that small island mountain, that is where I spent a cold dark night steeped in wonder and silence, watching swirls of bioluminescent plankton streaming in the black waters.  It seemed so far from the crowded harbor that night, though city lights glowed embers beyond the tallest shadow.  And since arriving home, that snug anchorage has always been so far away, safely hidden from sight by the silhouette that reminds me of longing.  But now from up here, there it is, spread open what should not be seen.  A map of the place where I live, the places where I have lived.

*

Every few years, I return to visit the city in China where I was born.  It is a perverse kind of homecoming.  I hate the crowded, noisy streets full of sweaty strangers; the smog that clogs my nostrils with sooty mucus.  But when I hear the dialect that is only spoken in that city, I think: these are my people; this is my city.

Once as I flew in for a visit, the plane skimmed the lonely landscape for miles, a prolonged landing.  Below were scrawny treetops and avenues of dust, the rural desert just outside the metropolis.  A few empty highways.  The only person I saw was a man bicycling down a dirt lane, white shirttails flying behind him, pedaling as if to escape our 757.  It was a lonely, personal scene.  I like to imagine that I was that bicyclist, my mind superimposing that image against my own solitary daily rides along a deserted coastal road in Alaska, a series of curves mapped out from my perch on that rocky peak.  In my mind I am that solitary bicyclist, and I think, this is a personal moment.  But I was a passenger on an airplane filled with passengers, and in each window was a face, intruding, with a mind behind it thinking this is lovely or this is not.  To me, the bicycling man and the dirt road and the emaciated trees were the first signal of approaching; a glimpse of home, from a distance.

*

In that bay over there, I skewered squid on hooks for bait with my bare hands.  The smell lingered on my skin for days, no matter how much soap I used.  I grew to love the offending scent and missed it when it was gone.  Now sometimes when I catch a whiff of something stinky, sweet and rounded, I think of those squids’ smooth spotted bodies, punctured by my hooks.  And the halibut they caught, whose white flesh still fills my freezer.  When it sizzles in a pan and fills my kitchen with the aroma housewives loathe to harbor, I breathe deeply and revel in the scent of ripened memory.

*

The notes on the page fly by like lines painted on a highway, and my fingers fly with them.  I am approaching home, and for a moment I see the entire landscape laid before me, the trail I have followed from page to eye to hand to string.  In my ear are the sweet ringing overtones, and my fingertips are etched with the black footprints of their places.  How could I have been gone so long?  It is so good to be home again.

What is belonging, but familiarity?  There are homes I have lost that I cannot even remember, but their absence sits in my mind like the glare of a map on my retinas, taunting me: you have known belonging.

***

(September 2010)

[In the absence of writing new things suitable for public consumption, I’m going through old writings that never made it onto my blog.]

discovery

I have a huge geek-crush on theoretical physicist Lisa Randall.  I’m in Washington DC at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting and I saw her speak today.  She said this about LHC and the new frontier in particle physics, which I think could be said of science in general and other things as well:

“Is this the end of the story?  It would really be a coincidence if we just happened to live at the time when we discovered the end of the story.  We think there’s more.”

Lessons learned

At work I just finished writing a report summarizing some of the programs I led this year, including the summer program for high school students that ate my life.  One of the required sections in the report is a “lessons learned”.  One of the things I wrote was that students in summer programs need more unstructured time for personal reflection and independent exploration in order to integrate formal learning with meaningful experiences and personal values.  This is not a new realization.  It’s a lesson I have been taught for a long time, and one that I have been learning over and over again this year, but it didn’t really become integrated in my mind until today.

Whenever I talk to students about the learning experiences that are most meaningful to them, it’s the unscripted moments and moments outside of class that they remember and cherish most.  These moments connect with what they have formally learned, building the scaffolding for changes in understanding, attitude, and behavior.  My students learned a lot from the curriculum I developed this summer, but I believe their experience would have been even more impactful and personally enriching if I had given them more time for integration parallel to learning, and more freedom to explore.  Unfortunately, my approach to planning the program mirrored my approach to work this past summer.

Whenever I’m extremely busy, free time is always the first thing to go.  I hang onto sleep and food and cleanliness for as long as I can, but I had always seen free time as superfluous, expendable, and willingly sacrificed.  That’s what I did this summer, when I worked 100+ hours a week and gave up every other use of my time and my mind for work.  Not realizing that time for reflection and integration is vital to learning, planning, working, living.  I really need time to process things; after a meaningful experience, it usually takes a few days for my thoughts to catch up, and new realizations and epiphanies about past experiences will often leap at me in my leisure time.  It takes time for new experiences and knowledge to become rooted in my mind, and only after they become rooted can the tendrils of meaning begin to sprout and form connections with other thoughts residing in my mind.  It takes free time, time not spent in other strenuous mental tasks, for that to happen.

In the midst of this summer, I had some really epic experiences that could have been life-changing, could have inspired me to new artistic undertakings or intellectual passions.  They didn’t, because I had no time to reflect upon them and let my brain marinate in the juices of thought before diving into my next obligation or endeavor.  Those experiences are now cataloged in the back of my brain, still meaningful, but stunted from lack of aeration.  And there are many more experiences, little things that could have bloomed into enlightening trains of thought or small epiphanies, that I am not even aware of.  When I look back on the middle 50% of my year, it is a dense mass packed so tightly that the cells of experience are ruptured.

There was one other time I worked myself into a hole that deep.  One semester in college I exhausted myself by taking a demanding course load and working two jobs while going through my time-consuming deconversion process.  One day I suddenly realized that the reason I felt so physically sick was probably because I kept forgetting to eat; I had lost so much weight that my clothes hung baggily; and I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept or showered.  This summer, when stress seized me with stomach pain so severe I could barely walk, I looked around and wondered again how I had gotten there.  Lack of self-care, lack of sleep and food, yes, but the root cause was lack of time for reflection and integration.

I had thought I could plow right through this time because I had planned everything out at the beginning of the summer.  I knew what was coming, and mentally prepared myself for it, so I thought that time for reflection and re-assessment was unnecessary.  Without giving myself that time, I didn’t even realize what I was doing to myself.  This relates to another lesson learned in my summer program, which is not to over-plan.  I had planned every minute detail of every class and every day, forgetting that the best teaching moments are often spontaneous and unscripted.  There is a delicate balance between planning and spontaneity that leads to the most optimal teaching and learning experiences, and when I am not exhausted and thought-deprived I have often been able to find that balance, or at least stumble upon it accidentally.  With a stale mind, I was completely unable to adapt and seize onto teachable moments as they passed, nor did I leave time for those moments to flower.

At the end of the summer, my biggest fear was that I would allow this to happen a third time.  Because despite the exhaustion and pain and the feeling that I had lost myself and failed my students, the most immediate lesson I learned was that I could do the impossible, accomplishing an incredible amount of work in such a short time.  I thought that now that I knew I could do it, however painfully, I would be tempted to do it again in the future.  This time I feel confident that I have learned the real lesson, and it has been integrated with independent exploration and meaningful experiences in my mind.  Already this experience has led to the overturning of my priorities.  Work was kicked out of its top place, with the realization that however important or worthwhile or fulfilling it is, my life should not be subservient to my job.  Now I also know that whether learning or teaching something new, or working on a demanding project, it is a perfectly legitimate and necessary part of the process to go for a long walk and think about absolutely nothing.

Here’s to a New Year of new experiences, new ideas and new lessons learned through reflection and integration.

Not thinking

Sometimes the best way of thinking about something is to not think about it.  To put my mind at rest and simply let things float through it without trying to pin them down for focused pondering.  Not thinking is surprisingly hard; whenever I try to do it, I find that I invariably end up chasing down and interrogating some particular thought without even realizing it.  The most effective non-thinking happens when I’m half asleep, drifting off or just waking up while my mind strolls through backlogs of memories and fragments of thoughts.

I find myself thinking about work a lot in my spare time, but I almost never actually come up with solutions to problems while I’m pondering them.  The solutions come to me while I’m riding my bike and contemplating the shapes of the mountains, or immediately upon waking up to my alarm clock in the morning.  On a number of occasions, I have leaped up from my bed and immediately ran to write down a new curriculum idea or answer to a logistical problem, knowing that it would flee quickly once I was in pursuit.

Like seeing faint stars in the night sky by not looking directly at them, not thinking about things tends to bring them more closely into focus, as if there were a blind spot created by thinking too deliberately.  A few days ago I was dozing on a red-eye flight with my face squashed against the airplane window, thoughts galloping past my mind.  In the not-words, not-pictures, not-sounds way that passive thoughts have of presenting themselves, thoughts of a paper I’ve been editing for work surfaced.  In the clarity of fuzzy dreamlike thinking, I suddenly realized a glaring content error that I hadn’t noticed before.  Later, I also recognized a few long-forgotten memories that displayed themselves in surprising detail, somehow rescued from permanent loss.  I generally mourn the forgetting of vivid memories and cherished details.  While I’ve already forgotten what those resurrected memories are, I now know that they are still contained in the stream of my mind, and will be let loose sometime when I am not thinking about them.

Besides sleep, another harbinger of passive thinking is movement.  Walking, biking, driving, or sitting on a train, the stream of changing sensory input challenges the senses in the same way that a stream of passive thoughts challenges the mind.  Loosening my grip on individual details and letting the scenery pass by, my eyes are able to discern patterns and recognize motifs.  I often find that after encountering a deep work of art or a profound experience, the best thing to do is take a walk or a nap, to think away and let the tendrils of meaning take root slowly while my eyes and mind map other patterns.

Even as a Christian I recognized the importance of not thinking, although at that time I attributed it to the work of the Holy Spirit.  A few times upon returning from a spiritual experience such as a retreat, I knew that the experience itself was only the beginning of a deep undercurrent of spiritual work that would make itself known over weeks or months or years.  It would be the work of God shaping my heart and mind, sowing spiritual seeds that would take shape gradually.  Now, through memory and the surfacing of forgotten thoughts and details, I am still reaping patterns and motifs from those long-ago experiences.

Yesterday I was moving into my new apartment, carrying armloads of heavy boxes up and down stairs.  When my muscles are working hard to hold onto something, my mind is less able to do so.  Thoughts slipped through me in a frenzy, at pace with my quickened breathing and heart rate.  But when I took a break and sat down to transcribe the essay that had been composed in my mind, the words fell between my fingers and I was left with only a few syllables and the faintest shadow of an idea.  Sometimes ideas are just not ready to be captured; they must be allowed to wander, and take up residence in their own time.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day

At the core of every one of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books is a thread of innocence that is on its way to being broken.  Every story is the story of a character whose view is so unknowingly narrow, it is painful to witness.  But they are naive in such diverse ways, the breaking of innocence coming about through such diverse courses, that each Ishiguro story is refreshingly new and surprising.

The Remains of the Day has no big reveals, only an almost imperceptible unraveling.  There are no loud flourishes, no colorful metaphors, not even any passages that are so tangibly heartbreaking.  The beauty in this book is of a diaphanous quality, contained below the reflective surface of a deep, clear pool.  A tiny whisper that I can only hear through absolute silence, almost ungraspable, a filmy wisp of thoughts that have already been caught by the wind and taken flight again, only a few moments after I have closed the last page.

“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently?  One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way.  In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect.  Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had.  Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.  There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”

A sea of unknowing

Out in the open ocean, where there isn’t sediment or nutrient input from rivers or currents, the water is deep, inky blue.  Under a cloudy sky, it looks black.  Looking down into it, I try to see below the slightly glistening surface to the light-eating depths.  We lower instruments into the darkness and watch them disappear into the deep.  We collect water samples in little jars that magnify what we know and magnify what we don’t.

Sitting there on a boat with miles of ocean around and hundreds of meters below, being tossed around by powerful waves, it reminds me that my love for the ocean is also a kind of fear, but a fear that makes me love it even more, because the ocean is unknowable.  And it reminds me of other things that are unknowable.  Like the future.  Like the universe.  Like another person’s mind.  It is wonderful to know, but it is also wonderful to sit in a little boat on a vast sea of the unknown, gazing at the obstinate depths and shining down lights that will not be reflected back.

At night we are surrounded by darkness, pitch-black, above and below and all around.  And silence, except for the waves singing little notes as they hit against the metal hull a few inches from my ear.  It is the best sleep, to be a little point of light in the vast darkness, to be a warm, beating heart resting on a sea of unknowing.

Things that lift my spirits

I have a new favorite book: “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead.  It’s about friendship, science, love, family, loneliness, the search for meaning, prejudice, beauty, discovery, and time travel.  It also happens to be written for 8-to-12-year-olds.  Children’s books are a great antidote to cynicism and chaos.

The main character, twelve-year-old Miranda, has a favorite book: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.  She reads it over and over again and refers to it as “my book”, committing it to memory and contemplating its time travel paradoxes.  Then one day she’s contacted by a time traveler.

“When You Reach Me” is my book.  It’s one of those books that make me feel like I’m not alone in the universe, one of those rare works of art that really connect with me.  There are so many poignant threads that dangle from the main plot, that are not central to the story but spin out oh-so-beautifully and make me love this book.  Every character in the story is me.

I love this book so much that I read it three times in three days.  Here’s an excerpt:

I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart.  Okay.  Now life begins.  It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger.  And one day something crawls out of the water onto land.  There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike.  There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin.  But basically they are all the same.  They create shelters, grow food, experiment.  They talk; they write things down.

Now fast-forward.  The earth is still making loops around the sun.  There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes.  And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.

“Does it really matter?” I asked myself.

It did.