How We Hold

On the ties that bind us.

Our long infancies make for long bonds, as with elephants, primates, and crows. Herodotus had a mind to study family ties, but he couldn’t find a set given when it came to what lines they might follow or what shapes they could take.  

The sheer helplessness of the infant explains a few things about the biological necessity for the strength of such long bonds, and yet. Isn’t it also true that most of us are walking around with at least one infant inside us, however carefully swaddled, who is bound unpredictably and for no reason––but their own––to cry out, Help! Hold.

Consider the etymology of family: one part property, one part servant, one part friendship. A prayer for the body collective: you are mine and I am for you; friend, take my hand––the original need, made and remade.

Consider the wide-ranging implications of the phrase to be heldholding. A hand is not a cell. A tie is not a cage. A friend knows that the hand may be stretched in any direction, across a table, Here; down into a dark recess, Pull! and up from another deep hole, Help! A body among friends will naturally do all of these again and again, unless prevented by some opposing force.

I love the way that in some contexts, almost every exchange is followed by an, I gotchou. How often, in these same places, you might rarely hear proclamations mentioning love or devotion specifically. But watch the hands of the men as they pass: fingertips, then palms, then full grip, knuckles, wrists, sometimes all the way up the arm to a full embrace, as if the point is to practice different ways to hold. To say with the body, I got you.

Enough

An interview with the curators of “Enough: an Exhibit of Curiosities.”

When did you first know you had it?

Had what?

Enough.

Enough what?

You know.

I’m in the dark.

The life, you know. Like that Scandinavian word that got big a few years ago, about warm socks and cocoa by a fire.

But I am in the dark when it happens. There wasn’t a fire. No light, no socks, no cocoa.

And then what?

I breathed anyway.

Fish Talk Over Coffee

Considering our aqueous ancestors.

Huh.

What?

Well, apparently, some species of sea slug take off their heads when the body gets infested with parasites.

Where do they put it?

They just crawl around on it until they grow a new body.

That’s convenient. What happens to the old one?

The parasites have at it. By the way, did you remember to call the dentist?

They’re still closed. You know, I read that the Pacific lingcod lose about twenty teeth a day and they grow them all back.

How many do they start with?

About five hundred, I think.

Well, you don’t have that many. So don’t forget the dentist.

You ever had that fish?

The lingcod? 

They’re supposed to be delicious. Sustainable, too.

Are those the ones with the fluorescent green meat?

Sometimes. It can be blue, too.

I’ll pass. But speaking of fish, look at this guy. Do you think he’s depressed?

He looks a little low, yeah. I told you when we were at the store you should get him some new leaves or something, make him his own little stocking, but you had tunnel vision about the cat food.

Well, that’s because she didn’t like the new kind and I wanted––

Apparently, you can tell the mental health of a zebra fish by how low it sits in a new tank. If it just hangs out by the bottom, it’s depressed.

Why?

They’re curious creatures. They like novelty. Plus, they’re apparently the closest to humans in terms of how brain chemicals function. 

I met this paleontology guy at the checkout. He said fish were the first to invent heads with brains. That and the whole phenomenon of having senses in sets: two eyes, two nostrils, two ears ––

Fish have ears?

On the inside. They have these little ear stones that detect vibrations. They help with balance, too.

Do you think he’s listening?

***

These two started talking when I was reading a number of articles from or linked to a feature in the New York Times about the sea slug and other discoveries. I started with 2021’s Most Fascinating Animals, and from there went on to lingcod teethfish depression, and some articles inspired by the work of paleontologist Neil H. Shubin, including What People Owe Fish: A Lot. Considering the debt, this morning’s post is admittedly a meager offering.

Bodies of Mystery

Witness to wonder

An imagined monologue in the voice of Johannes Kepler, born this day in 1571.

Okay, so my starting point was not data in the sterile manner so often preferred, but faith in harmony, the trinity’s perfection: here center, here a spherical surface, here the intermediary space, but who can separate one from the other without immersion in the deadly lie of separation? I took its unity for granted as a starting point. Poor method, some would argue, but you have to start somewhere, and I think too many scientists underestimate the value of our natural inheritance. I challenge anyone to notice the rhythm of these forms and tell me they aren’t true. There is symmetry through a quantity established at the start, first in Creation and then in the mind’s capacity to bear witness to its vast shape, these shapes our elements, these elements our incarnation, just beyond what we can fully know, and yet. Look, I say. Look!

Inspirations:

A contemporary of Galileo, Kepler was among the first to publicly validate Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric model of the universe. What strikes me about Kepler is the strong aesthetic and theological bent of his interests, which seem inseparable from his science. 

Kepler’s A Priori Copernicanism in his Mysterium Cosmographicum in: M. A. Granada / E. Mehl (eds.), Nouveau ciel, Nouvelle terre. L’astronomie copernicienne dans l’Allemagne de la Réforme (1530–1630), Paris, Belles Lettres, 2009 [collection l’Âne d’Or], pp. 283–317.

“We will Laugh at The Extraordinary Stupidity: Galileo to Kepler” in Science Backyard.

“An Astronomer’s Astronomer: Kepler’s Revolutionary Achievements. . .” in Scientific American.

Teasing Our Edges

Scratching toward the surface of an unknown.

An expansion of the universe invisible to the eyes, someone called it. Here is something to wonder about, scratching the surface of an itch to know about other life, other lives. But we haven’t even scratched it yet, someone is always saying, regarding the surface of knowing. Good point, considering how it’s piled thick with questions and hardware: scopes, coronagraphs, spectrometers, and I don’t know the names for the odds and ends you can hang off any of the little hooks and Velcro patches: soil samplers, wave detectors, and whatever that thing is that measures the acceleration of entropy or the relative distance between stars. Both of these are apparently on the increase, but so is the rate at which we can proliferate tools, such that it’s hard not to wonder if the question of the moment doesn’t have at least something to do with finding some limits, the way children looking for structure will push and push, looking for the moment when someone comes in to say, No, that’s enough, which is code, in certain contexts, for You’re safe. Stop here. Set those down. Rest.

Ideas Over Coffee

On fleeting visions of wondrous import.

Hey, here’s an idea. Do you think––

There it goes. 

What? 

This other thing I was noticing. Do you think if it comes back, I will recognize it, or do they change forms?

Well, did it have one when it left?

That’s not helpful. Not really. I mean, it was sort of, you know –– [stretches arms sideways, tilting. wiggles fingertips]

Well. There you go.

It was right there a minute ago. I was sitting here with this coffee, and there it was, in front of me.

On the space heater?

No, higher. Like, see? You have to look here. Come here.

Oh, through the window. Well, the cat’s there now. So you can’t see much.

Maybe the cat saw it, too?

Hmm. What now?

More coffee? Or do you want me to try to move this cat?

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. 

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.