Solstice

In the still of a long night.

In the dark hours, we came together by the fire, the St. Lucia’s girls crowned by candle wreaths, in honor of the flames that lit the way when she brought food to the persecuted in hiding, a trespass that got her killed by the law. Now, in the somber mist, in the places once wooded with dark trees, we wait by kindled light for the rebirth of the sun. There is a moment when it is still, and in the full dark, a pause, holding breath, and then then comes a long, cry, like mourning. That’s when you know it is here, the hour when it stops pulling away, and begins a slow return. Against our mourning, we keep watch until it comes. Look east. At first light, say the word. 

Shelter

Refuge during wartime.

It was a time of trouble, and people went around armed: holsters, knives, photos, pepper spray.  What were the terms? We weren’t sure, but they were loaded. Whispering among us, we approached the temple.  A woman waited at the top of the steps, veiled in underground pomegranates. She stood sideways between the pillars, one half in the shadows behind her.  Look, she said, raising her veil, and with the other arm beckoned Come. A hush fell over us. We surrendered our arms and went in.

Reading and the Ark

From contemplation to reason, against the storm.

A lesson in the voice of Hugh of St. Victor, adapted from his writings on education in the art of reading, and his interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark.

When it comes to knowing, logic is the last to be discovered. For learning, it is a good place to start. Just remember, real things do not always conform to the conclusions of reasoning. One needs to learn for certain, what forms of reasoning to trust, and which to hold suspect. Without such discernment, reasoning may mislead as often as it may lead. The ancients offer plenty of examples. Take Epicurus, for example, equating pleasure and virtue. Yikes, but he meant well.

Better to start with the true and whole nature of argument. Consider this: exposition includes the letter and the sense–– beyond both, the inner meaning. No study of a worthy text is complete until the last of these is reached, but most stop short. The great depths resound beyond the words, like strings resound toward music. And yet, the music is not the strings.  The pleasure of honey is enhanced by its enclosure in the comb.

It is one thing to understand words, another the meaning of phrases, passages. But what about the whole? That is another matter altogether. There is much confusion about the old texts, written in the idioms of an unfamiliar language. Many, professing with confidence, miss the point entirely. But the divine deeper meaning can never be absurd, and never false.

Now I want to tell you about the ark. It is the house of mystery within the heart, which each must protect against the world’s storms. You build a great ark, three stories, welcome inside all the creatures of the earth. Protect them, too. But we are not made to stay in contemplation. That’s why there’s a door and a window. The window offers a way out through thought, and the door a way out through action. But neither thought nor action will be right, unless it begins here, within the sacred ark. Let’s begin here.

***
Adapted and using borrowed phrases from Jerome Taylor’s translation of The Didascalicon, or On the Study of Reading (1125) and also The Mystic Ark as interpreted by Conrad Rudolph.

Beyond Optical Vision

Happy birthday, Paul Klee.

On this day in 1879, Paul Klee was born. This morning’s post is adapted from Klee’s “Ways of Studying Nature,” and uses found phrases from Klee’s writing.

How can an artist not study nature when they are part of it? The method is going to vary with changing perceptions of one’s position in space, time, and the cosmos. I don’t mean to disparage the delight of novelty, but a clear view of history should save us from seeking it at the cost of an honest view of nature. For yesterday’s naturalists, the focus was on the precision of optical appearance, but the art of seeing on other planes was neglected. Today’s artist is a creature on a star among other stars, with a sense of totality of space. To witness the appearance is to meditate on what is beneath it. Anatomy becomes physiology, but there are other ways to behold, as with contact through a cosmic bond. All ways meet in the eye to synthesize an inward vision vastly different from the original image, yet without contradiction. Those blind to nature will label such depictions degenerate, but here is a new naturalness, the image of divine work in translation. 

***

Paul Klee: The Thinking Eye. The Notebooks of Paul Klee, Vol.I, ed. Jurg Spiller, London and New York, 1961, pp.63-67.

Also featuring Paul Klee: What They Said While They Were Leaving

Matters of Transformation

Wisdom from the dung beetle.

If you are going to transform dung into treasure, it is best to act quickly and move in a straight line, away from the hordes. None of us move easily in straight lines unless we can see where we are going, but the beetles move backwards, each propelling a relatively massive ball with their hind legs, reading the shadows and the light. When the sun is directly overhead and there are no shadows, they read the wind. Nocturnal foragers take cues from the polarized light of the moon, and when the moon is not visible, they follow the Milky Way. These agents of transformation and rebirth tend to ignore cues from the ground, keeping their focus far above their grounded bodies. For their size, they are among the strongest creatures on the planet. Up here, we don’t like to touch what they treasure. We prefer to draw hopes for rebirth in soft pastel hues, and this may have something to do with the puzzlement of the researchers. Brain the size of a poppy seed, they say, but we still don’t understand.  

***

Inspired by “How Dung Beetles Steer Straight” in the Annual Review of Entomology

Sounding Branches

On phantoms, limbs, and being an instrument.

The phenomenon of the phantom limb, the doctor explained, was once regarded as a purely psychic hallucination, the sort of thing the mind does when it is grappling with loss, denial being a well-trodden pathway for managing grief. The sense of moving fingers even after the arm is gone was compared to the way that you might see a loved one in their bathrobe and slippers muddling down the hallway looking for the light switch, in the days and weeks after their death.

But it turns out there is more to it, they realized, as the tools for observation expanded what researchers were willing to see––and listen to, for that matter. A pianist long versed in playing music through the body will continue to do so even after the loss of an arm. The music runs through the musician as practiced, even as only some of it reaches the keys.

The discovery raises certain questions about the nature of what was considered phantom and suggests that the idea of limb might also deserve some expansion. I am wondering about the word instrument, too––how immediately we tend to assume that these are what the musician uses to create the art, that the point is somehow mastery of a tool and not instead the long practice of erasing the old ideas of the boundaries of a body, smoothing its distinctive forms and shaping hollow wells of space, tending it daily so as to leave it well enough and ready to be moved.

***

This post was inspired by something I heard over ten years ago on a radio interview with the late Oliver Sacks. I found a related anecdote in his chapter “Phantom Fingers: the case of the one-armed Pianist” in his Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

Relativity

What happened when the light changed.

The ants were marching one by two, hurrah, and from a chrysalis came particles of light. The old light waved from the shores we had left, and there was no going back. Clocks melted in these new sands at our tentative feet and soon after, the bodies on canvas began to separate from themselves and from any of the forms we thought we knew. It became possible to be neither in or out of being, but both at once, and above it as with dreams. The ants were going somewhere but here was another unknown among the unseen worlds, now in catch of our breaths.

Velocity Over Time

A diptych of amusement park memories and plutonium.

This morning over coffee, I came across a mention that on this day in 1926, the Tilt-a-Whirl trademark was registered. This was my favorite ride, and I like to be exact about these sorts of things, so I did a quick search to verify, and learned that also on this day (in 1940), scientists at UC Berkley discovered plutonium.

I did not discover the Tilt-a-Whirl until I was about nine or ten. Before then, there were other favorites, and they were never the roller coasters, which induced a terror that seemed a bit too true-to-life. The Spider was among these. It had eight arms extending from a segmented hub, a spinning pod at the end of each arm. I sat in a pod and when the ride began, it spun while the arm moved up and down in its rotation. It was an enjoyable spin, dreamy and relaxing, inducing bubbly rushes on the faster parts, but rarely terror.

My first time on The Spider was during an annual family trip to Playland, and my father was waiting just beyond the gate. My mother had taken my younger sisters to Kiddie Land. The year before, we had all gone together on the Kiddie Coaster, my father and my younger sister and I all in the same car while my mom stood with my baby sister. Now I was alone in the shiny black pod. It was my first ride outside Kiddie Land. 

Until that day, I had never looked at my standing father from such a height. How strange it was to be in the sky like that, suspended by metal arms encased in plastic. He looked far away in his white shorts and pastel t-shirt, steadfast with his tired smile. My sisters would have been moving between the carousel, the bumper cars, the gentle Kiddie Coaster, and the little train. I was suddenly alone on the dark side of the park in the shadow of the monster roller coaster. I don’t remember its name as I had no interest, ever, in being its passenger.

The ride started. There was no getting off. This was, after all, what I had wanted. I gripped the bar in front of me and shut my eyes and waited for it to end. I vowed not to not get into one of my thinking moods that would always confuse and worry the adults. I had, by then, heard more than enough concerned whispers about my episodes of seriousness. I didn’t have the words to explain the way I would suddenly feel gripped by some terrible momentum, but I was grateful that no one was pushing the roller coaster issue. I was supposed to be having a good time.

It was the mid-80s in suburban America. War, I was told, was over, and progress was a nonstop ride from here on out, and the cycles of history were ending, and it was up and up and up from here. One was expected to celebrate the good fortune of having arrived right in time for the happy ending to the march of progress. Pretty soon, they told us, we’d all be zipping around in flying cars. I wanted to believe, but there was this constant knot of tension aggravated by the vertigo of momentum. I had been listening and keeping watch, and there were more than a few things that didn’t add up. 

Plutonium, by the way, has more uses than some would think, the government-sponsored Nuclear Regulatory Commission website announces (“Protecting People and the Environment”). It creates energy and powers space missions and even human hearts when needed.  At the end of the page, almost as an afterthought, it is admitted that plutonium production is controversial. It can, the text acknowledges, be used for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The syntactic effect is that of an afterthought.

No one was allowed to talk about the discovery of plutonium when it happened on this day in 1940. The project was top secret, and it was going to be revealed in an act that would end not just the second great war but would, its champions announced, forestall future wars. It was the dawn of a new era, and we were in it.  

My first ride on The Spider was a terrible ride. After, I would claim it was my favorite, at least until I discovered the Tilt-a-Whirl a few years later. There was no way to explain the terror of being suspended alone in mid-air without seeming ungrateful for the care that had gone into bringing me there. My father, a giant by all prior standards, suddenly looked small and ordinary––quaint, even. 

It’s like this with disasters, isn’t it? The original terror always looks archaic in hindsight. It’s almost impossible to recollect it without shaking heads in disbelief at the idea that it was once possible to be so suddenly and irrevocably shocked, that there was––once upon a time––a time before the solid things were replaced with their pictures, when there were fortresses still left to crumble.  

To the Tiny Constant Voyagers

Here’s to you, intrepid seafarers.

To those ostracods playing in the moonlight, I had no idea you were so risqué in your movements, throwing off your cloaks of protective depths after sundown, dancing up to taste blooming krill, or that from your bean shaped carapaces you were extending sensate tendrils of yourselves like cat whiskers through gauzy shields, reading the waters as you undulated through and in and over, all traces of your nightly ecstasies vanishing by sunrise.

And you, copepods, have you been in these waters the whole time and I didn’t even see you? –––here or anywhere else, and you have been almost everywhere remotely wet, from underground caves to ground leaves, braving arctic interfaces and hydrothermal vents, you intrepid seafarers, propelling bravely by the whirls of your little oar feet where others fear to tread.

I hear that you are disappearing and reappearing nightly, deep scattering layers of you like a phantom seabed, and here I am, clothed and blanketed against the chill and still sighing with the quaking shift of the space that is no different from the space I was in yesterday, except that I am learning, thank you, about the futility of my constant attempts at holding it still.

***

This post is inspired by Hannah Seo’s recent Atlantic article about the diel vertical migration of creatures throughout the world’s seas.  

During the Apocalypse

We’ll see, we kept saying.

We baked bread and held the babies. We remembered bread and babies. We sat in parked cars and shook our heads, wondering about the others behind glass, shaking heads, and at the ones walking in circles in the intersection who waved their arms and shouted what we could not decipher, yet. We looked often to the creatures nearby. We kept them close in our homes, in our cars, in our beds. We studied their movements and tried to read their eyes and faces. We gave daily reports of their movements and kept watching, as with oracles. They were judging us, we knew. But how?

The children looked away and seemed to talk less, and the outside play we had once taken for granted now seemed fraught, as with religion and history and plans. Everywhere you looked, there were images over images, and they held us. Most of what we did was wait and watch. We’ll see, we said, we’ll see, but it was more of a question. We watched the sky, watched the bread, watched the ovens, watched the pets. 

We watched the children. There was something we wanted to tell them. We were waiting for the right words.