Saturday, March 28, 2015

Life Isn't Shaped Like a Baseball Bat. I hope.

I hope life isn't shaped like a baseball bat. A bat has a "sweet spot," the part of the bat a batter wants to hit the ball with to send it on a ride. The sweet spot is a small part of the bat, and if you are standing in the batter's box, you are using all the rest of the bat to try to connect the sweet spot with the ball.

If life is like that, then a whole lot of your life is spent trying to get to the sweet spot; the best part. This came up at dinner with friends the other night; not the baseball bat analogy itself, but the sweet spot. And why, when you find something great, a period of time at work, or life, does the sweet spot have to be finite? Why can't it be extended? Why are the best of days numbered? Looking back at 20-ish years working at the same place, one friend could pick out the best five or six years, which were towards the end of his time there, but didn't last beyond that time frame. Things change.

Life is not all about a job, I think many people will tell you--those with a family, hobbies, passions, a relationship. So maybe it is that careers are shaped like baseball bats? I don't know, I think we can all look back on our lives and find different times when things were cranking along as you'd want them. But invariably, life's sweet spots get superseded, or end, or maybe just change when we weren't looking.

Einstein was a pretty smart cat. Let's invoke him here:

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.

The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.

The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.

Maybe that's the rub. That we expect things to stay the same. We expect to keep doing the same things, which seem to be working at the time, but that is only for a time, and we don't see the change coming. What was the sweet spot becomes a rut, a habit, when we aren't paying attention.

What's a good change metaphor? Let's go with water. Mankind dealing with change is like being in water. If you want to get beneath the surface, you can emulate the diver. Per Pablo Neruda:

Time after time
he takes hold of the water, the sand,
and is
born again.
each day
to the hold
of the pitiless
Pacific and
the diver
must practice
birth again,
make  himself
and tentative,
displace himself
grow wise
in his slothful
mobility, like
an underseas
his thinking
must merge
with the water

Neruda was not kind to paper. But he was frequently on to things. His odes, love poems, and epic "Residence on Earth" are a man reckoning with life, existence, the Universe.

"Even his thinking must merge with water."  When the physicist and the poet say the same thing, it might be time to pay attention. Embrace change. Don't hold onto things for too long expecting them to stay the same. Merge our thinking with water.

Life doesn't have to be shaped like a baseball bat. If life is change, like water, maybe we can be the diver.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interstellar Cosmic Universal Randomness

As random as Bruce Willis in a pink Easter Bunny suit. That's pretty random. Where random is the root word in the phrase, "interstellar, cosmic, universal randomness." And when you frame it that way, it got me to wondering, how random is anything once you go cosmic?

Years ago I walked into the Newscenter in Easton, a book store not known for its poetry selection or for books beyond bestsellers and classics. And on the end cap was a book called "The Shadow of Sirius" by W.S. Merwin. I had heard of Merwin before, but never read him, and had no inclination to pick that book up--it was thin with a pale gray cover, no reason to notice it. But I picked it up, bought it, read it cover to cover. Merwin became a heavy for me. A short stretch later, a former boss/mentor and I went to see Merwin speak/read at the Folger Theater in D.C. In the audience was my former adviser from Washington College, who waited in line with me to go meet Merwin and get books signed. I have not met most of the writers I most look up to. Merwin is one of the few. Looking back, I don't think picking that book up was random.

Both of us understood
what a privilege it was
to be out for a walk
with each other.

I turned in Merwin's thin, gray book to those words yesterday. They wouldn't have meant anything different to me until recently, but they landed right where they were supposed to, cosmically speaking.

Sirius, the Dog Star, is the brightest star visible from any part of the Earth. An interstellar all star. It's easy to spot on winter and spring evenings. And I dig that it is described as "white to blue" in color.

Stars and birds have grabbed my attention a lot lately. Those sky dwellers that leave us at once feeling grounded, but knowing ours is not the only lot, and that we are somehow connected. A view from the back deck, accompanied by books, accompanied by pilsner, conversation, love, watching the birds move about above, or intuiting us moving about beneath the stars. Victor Hugo feels the intermingling of the soul and the stars:

He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown. In such moments, offering up his heart at the hour when the flowers of night inhale their perfume, lighted like a lamp in the center of the starry night, expanding his soul in ecstasy in the midst of the universal radiance of creation, he could not himself perhaps have told what was passing in his own mind; he felt something depart from him, and something descend upon him, mysterious interchanges of the depths of his soul with the depths of the universe.

The intermingling of the soul and the stars. The terrestrial and the heavenly. This universal scale, the cosmic perspective; it is from that balcony that random dissipates, gives way to the underlying pattern.

Merwin's big book of selected poems is titled, "Migration." He is a poet of the birds and the stars. And late in his Sirius book, he turns to the thrush,

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all memory waking into it

The song of the thrush brings the cosmos from the sky, from the night, into the now, waking with all memory. Timeless to temporal.

Random. Like Bruce Willis in a pink Easter Bunny suit. Chuck Palahniuk says of the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, that they, "seem like greater steps toward faith and imagination. Like cognitive training exercises."

Maybe that's how it goes. The Willis Bunny is a step toward faith and imagination. Or maybe, a dude in an Easter Bunny suit isn't random in the connected minds of those who conjured it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the Field

My mind works better when my legs are moving. Thoughts are terrain, felt and experienced. There are things to be learned in the field that can't be learned seated in the classroom, or behind a desk.

My reading of late has been sucked up by Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway." It's a bit like "On the Road," if Kerouac was a birder. Kaufman dropped out of high school at age 16 and spent a year hitchhiking and getting himself around the country to see as many birds as he could. It's a look into the obsessed birding culture, as it was taking shape in the 1970s. He is now known as one of North America's top birders. I'm not a birder, but I've been a bit taken by certain members of the feathered fliers in recent months. Kaufman's book chronicles his search for himself and how he found his place on the road; in the field.

I dig the notion of field guides. Where those who have taken their search out into the world, share what they have found. Some field books describe geography, or species, some describe the writer's inner landscape as influenced by its surroundings. For some reason in the spring, I seem to reach for Seamus Heaney's "Field Work" and Robert Hass's "Field Guide." Their words, their experiences don't give answers, they make me want to get off the couch and go find things out for myself.

Words come up necessarily short. Hass gets it. Sitting in the woods, checking out birds and flowers, he wants to get them down, capture them:

                                    But I had the odd
feeling, walking to the house
to write this down, that I had left
the birds and the flowers in the field,
rooted or feeding. They are not in my
head, are not now on this page.

Warm sun on still snow-filled, frozen yard, we were building snowmen, throwing snowballs, exploring, laughing. In the trees all around us, in a moment of recognition were Eastern Bluebirds. They were close, they were playing, they were darting between pine trees. In my life, I have never seen anything like it; it was a totally new and novel experience. But I can't recreate it here. I can't conjure it or make it real for anyone who hasn't experienced the same thing, in the field. And I couldn't have known it from a book, no matter how well written. Though I guess I can recall it, if prompted by someone else's experience.

Science and spirituality have the same shortcomings, when left to be found and learned in books. I can know that the Earth goes around the sun and the sun rises in the east, but that takes on a much more profound reality when running my first ultramarathon on a 15 degree February morning, when the warmth of the sun hits a group of us runners, headlamps are switched off, and the heart and body are warmed and lighter. And whether sitting in a church or walking through the woods, faith or a glimpse or intuition of something bigger than yourself, something not quite explainable enters the soul of its own accord, not through words alone.

Clearly I have some spring restlessness going on. The need to get out and explore. But one of the things I am digging the most these days, are how many new experiences, in the field, are right under my nose; in my yard; nearby. Birds I've never paid attention to. Remembering the shakiness of being on ice skates. Running with good friends. Neither Thoreau nor Annie Dillard had to go far afield to find themselves, nature, the Universe. They just had to look for themselves.