The Wise

It’s rare that I post anything I think about that’s more religious than philosophical, in part because I don’t feel comfortable sharing my faith much outside direct conversation with other people.  There are certain pieces of myself that are not for public consumption, despite the fact that I typically share just about anything with people if I can do so directly at a place and time of my own choosing. However, at certain moments sharing is necessary, even if only in an online and therefore somewhat distant manner.

One appropriate occasion for sharing comes from my first visit to the church where my youngest sister is now working.  The church itself is not my focus, nor is the sermon from her senior pastor – instead it was the “children’s moment” that grabbed first my mind and then my heart with a single comment.  In speaking about the Christmas story, one of the groups of people mentioned along with Mary, Joseph, the cow, angels, and shepherds was the wise men.  Specifically, the astrologers or magi who brought three gifts.

What was most pertinent to my mind however was not any of that, but the mere statement made that although the Bible states three gifts were given, we have no idea how many wise men were actually present.  I was suspicious of this at first, because I seemed to remember that somewhere somewhen someone had named the individuals present and that there were three.  Perhaps we just think that wise men had figured out that things work better when each person chips in on the gifts.

It did make me think about just who the wise men were and what role they would have played in their societies at that time.  A person who can afford to drop everything and wander off following celestial movements is not a person tied down with everyday reality.  Such people are seekers, like me, who quite possibly will never be satisfied.  I struggle to find fulfillment, especially at this time of year, in my life choices and lifestyle, in my faith, in my sense of purpose, and in my relationships.  I remain often not quite satisfied, which can be a source of consistent frustration.

Yet it is also a gift.  My inner restlessness has prompted me to not settle for a mundane existence.  I have done many things that others have not and never will.  I have traveled, lived abroad and in various cities across the U.S., experimented with multiple professions, learned, taught, changed, and thrived in a variety of environments.  And while all that movement can chafe at times, it has also made me something greater than I would otherwise be, something I can’t quite see clearly from the inside.  It will continue to transform me, and even though I will continue to struggle with the amount of change and questioning and self examination and development I take into my life regularly, I embrace the fact that I will in some manner be continually unsatisfied with my life.

Most of all I hope that that seeking means I will be able to give my own gifts to others due to those experiences and that continuing search.

The Life of the Mind

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about brains.  Not perhaps in the Dr. Frankenstein sense of needing to collect some for a pet project, but still with a nod to my own mortality. In some sense that’s due to getting older and especially watching my parents get older and wondering what the future holds when my mind remains intact but my body can no longer respond to the mind’s commands.  But perhaps I’ll be fortunate and the mind will go first.

Regardless, I’ve been thinking regularly about the thinks I think because that patterning and association that goes on inside the head of myself and others is interesting to me.  I think differently than many people – that is, I process information differently.  My trains of thought are usually more grasshoppers than trains in the usual sense.  There may be an anticipatable trajectory or arc to them, but they change direction frequently and unexpectedly to those outsiders attempting to catch up or catch on.  Or perhaps they are more like teleporting insects of another type, that flit from here to there with no expected or regular results.  I occasionally wander around inside my own head, become bewildered and lost, and have to retrace my steps to figure out how I got here.  So far, I’ve always managed to find my way back out.

But are the thinks I think unique?  Probably not.  I would like to imagine that the stories I tell myself are ‘irrepeatable’ and will never again be known in this world. Language makes that unlikely however in that the words we use – in conversation, in written correspondence, in any spanning of that gap between two distinct minds – are all based on some sort of commonly accepted understanding of meaning.  And despite the fact that a gap of some sort remains – I am not you, and you will never be me – there is no certainty that as individuals, we are all so different from one another that I would not be at home if I could in some way merge myself into your thoughts.

This scares me.  I may be a unique snowflake, but the idea that the other snowflakes in this blizzard of humanity are equally unique and equally worthy in some way disrupts my independent pride.  The idea that I may have my own mind-self looking out from behind different eyes but thinking around the same sorts of well worn concepts and diligently pursuing the same formulaic ‘answers’ is depressing.  True, I may have new perspective or insight into a number of the great questions.  But is perspective enough?  Or do I want to be special enough to find my own new question?

Or perhaps there is nothing deeper for me to dig into unless I want to make a really big hole.  Perhaps I would be better off focusing on the path I’m taking, embracing the journey to find the same answers to the same questions once again.  Perhaps it is enough to identify, trace, preserve and make beautiful those still-shot images I recognized as some higher plane of Life through the words I use to bridge that emptiness between minds.  Perhaps writing as a craft is enough to give voice to the rambles undertaken by my ‘self’ due to unique neuron firing, genetic makeup, physical and environmental impacts, magnetic energies or lesser forces.

Or perhaps I demand something iconic that is my own.  Something more.

The Secret Hike.

Being without a car in Boston is not being without a car in Portland.  Sure, both cities are very bike-friendly.  Both have decent transportation systems.  Both could be better to pedestrians, but have at least some respect for the walker.  But the most glaring difference I’ve found is in the places outside the city I can get to easily without a car.  In Boston, I can get to the beach or to hiking trails.  Ok sure, even if I take the commuter rail the beach isn’t that great, but it’s ocean.  The mountains are not that far away, but for me it means renting a car or being reliant on others.  I hate reliance.

So when the vehicle I was relying on for my Labor Day hike fell through, I was in a bit of a quandry.  I could bus myself up to Forest Park and explore around a little, and that probably would’ve been surprisingly good.  But it seems so far to bus in order to walk.  I decided to ramble more locally.  This is what I found:

1) Random exercise signs that had been uprooted from who knows where and lovingly placed face down between tall pines.

2) Slugs.  Lots of slugs.  Brown, red, ridged, and green with blackish-brown spots.  Also a few pickle-colored ones.

3) Birches cut off at the roots and regrowing in thick bundles with multiple trunks.

4) An old aluminum clothesline, still shiny.

5) A trash heap or possibly a former resting place for squatters.

6) Access trails that ramble off into nothingness.

7) Trails made by goats.

8) Trails made by goats with really long legs and wearing boots.  Or humans.

9) A spider spinning a dandelion seed out of its web as the wind tugged and threatened the entire spanning structure.

10) The baking tops of ridges and the tinglingly cool depths of damp ravines.

More’s going up on the other blog as I add words to the pics to keep my writing hand in habit (and now that link is fixed…).

Boredom and Fear

Something I’ve noticed about growing older, as the decades turn, is my growing unwillingness to take risks.  This is not evident from my general life trends.  In the past ten years, I’ve lived in a foreign country, moved to a new city knowing practically no one and nothing, quit jobs, quit couplehood, and quit various support networks.  Still, I feel my life is generally ruled by fear.  I do small things in conformity with other’s expectations because I am afraid to disappoint.  I do large things with extravagant flamboyance to prove I am not afraid.  I think it is rare that I make a truly independent decision.  I hope at least some choices I make are in consideration of others, rather than in fear of their judgment.

There’s a quote somewhere out there, perhaps well-known but only vaguely outlined in my memory, about the majority of people living their lives bound either by boredom or fear.  In my case, I know the binding to be fear.  It is a main imperative.  But I don’t think this has always been the case.  My parents say that I was always an independent child, someone very self-possessed at a young age.  When I went to Australia in high school, they said this was an outward expression of my singular self, but not the origin of it.  Still, I don’t think I was ever aware of myself with the individuality others saw in me.  Perhaps what others see is more honest than my own inward perception.

I can remember an earlier time when my own worldview was predominant, and no fear would distract me from my own imaginings.  I can remember being wildly self-involved.  I can remember being stubborn and angry and feeling any variety of extreme and therefore negative emotions.  I have somehow slipped out of that mindset, and become someone who considers the world and my impact on it more broadly.  Is that wisdom, or the loss of something precious and wondrous?

The nose knows.

Late last night, I was having an in-depth conversation about Tycho Brahe.  Why?  Because that’s the sort of uber-smart super-cool person I am.  And because stars are cool, and measurements are cooler, and I’m the kind of nit-picky person who likes redundancy and repeated observations.  Of course, as all enlightened conversations do, ours eventually wound down into the mundane – Tycho’s fake nose (we’re appropriate conversationalists – we don’t get into mercury poisoning and UTIs).

Personally, I am all about the nose.  I love the smell of autumn, the smell of dew in the morning, and the not-quite-greasy smell of old metal.  I have allergies, so the consistent sneezing reminds me of my own nose.  In addition, my German heritage gives me the facial spine to judge other, lesser noses.  I get offended when people stroke my nose and firmly intend (at times) to knock other noses out of joint.  A nose is a terrible thing to lose, and I sympathize with Tycho.  In addition, carrying the weight of a plastered on metal fake-nose must have been a burden.

Still, the nose can occasionally get in the way.  When you’re peering out of a window, it restricts the angle of your vision.  When you’re smooching, it can be an awkward protuberance.  It’s one of the first things to get snapped ina  fist fight, and like ears (as Tycho can attest to) it can easily be lopped off.  One of my friends noted that making certain nighttime observations, the nose prevents a direct line of sight.  Of course, this little tidbit suggests the monumental question:  Did Tycho Brahe remove his nose to make celestial observations?  You be the judge.

In Augur

Words amuse me.  They describe and explicate, they illumine and obfuscate at the same time, they dance at the edges of our perceptions and linger in our ears and slide away from our tongues and memories.  They are shy, devilish creatures and I love them, as they are a reflection of ourselves.

While speaking of yesterday’s events, I was reminded of our past as well as our future.  I sat for about an hour yesterday, listening to the prayers of two men, the oaths of two others, the artful voices of two women, and the combined music of a skilled quartet.  For me, the event was moving not only because I believe the speech of one man and his ability to help better our world, but also because the entire ceremony was couched in the language of a faith I share.  If I were a Muslim or a Jew, I think the ceremony would have meant less to me.  If I were a Hindu or a Buddhist or a non beleiver, I feel I would have missed something of the connection I felt to the event.  And while I do not begrudge anyone their own faith, it is sad to me that something I see as exciting and wonderous cannot always be shared with others.  What I feel is not always meaningful to the world.

The definition of the word ‘inaugurate’, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “to induct into office by a formal ceremony”.  It seems simple enough.  By this definition, even the induction of a Boy Scout troop leader is an inaugeration.  But the word coems from Latin, from roots involving the word ‘augur’, or foretelling.  It means literally ‘to consecrate by augury’.  In the past, those called augers were officials with a specific civic duty – to divine omens for the public, so that the future of the state could be secured through these predictions.  These officials were guides, directors to general public life, attempting to keep public interest aligned with the wishes and dictates of the gods.

It is interesting, then, that our new president sees himself as just such a guide.  It is interesting that in everything he does he calls on the American people for support, direction, strength, and duty.  It is interesting that he sees himself more as a guide to the people, a shepherd as the prophets of old, a warning from God to the people to mend their ways.  It is interesting to see, couched in the language of a far more recent orthodoxy, that same bent of prognostication and new, corrected direction for the country.  I look forward to observing just which omens might come true – whether an adulthood for our young nation, or a return to some other, former state.

Unattributable cost.

I’m very close to my family.  Sometimes I like to say that we are psychically linked.  My mom calls me out of the blue to check up on me and see how I’m doing.  If I’m having a great day but feel sad and don’t know why, I may check to see if my dad is sick.  My knee hurts – I ask my sister Shelly if her knee (which she’s had surgery on) is bothering her, in case I’m picking up sympathetically on her pain instead of realizing my own.

It’s the same thing with economics.  Certain variables in the system of price and supply and why companies work cannot be calculated.  There’s the idea of customer service and customer loyalty.  There’s an idea of ‘giving back to the community’ by some businesses that results only in costs for them, and may or may not give them increased sales.  There’s benefits from a thriving main street area, whether or not an individual living in a community visits one particular storefront.  We subconsciously react to variables we cannot compute in our everyday purchases, as well as our interpersonal interactions.

A new study has shown that such reactions may come from a further remove than you might expect.  At up to three degrees of separation, there is a notable impact between people on happiness.  That means a friend of your friend’s friend could make you statistically more likely to be happy strictly through their own mood.

It’s something of a scary thought – somehow, we’re all picking up on each other’s vibes from a bit of a distance.  Your friend is glum, which makes you a bit unhappy, of course, since you want only the best for them.  Another friend reads that from you, and is slightly off because of it, and the sadness ripples outwards, decreasing with each successive link in the friend chain.  We can’t know exactly where these feelings come from, but we know they are real and meaningful things.

But at the same time, there remains a choice.  You can be happy, or unhappy.  You can spread joy, or leak regret.  So far (by 9% versus 7% in overall impact on others), it seems happiness is winning.

A few words…

It is odd to wake up to the sound of rain at the end of November.  It is odd at any time of the year to wake up to rain, the gloom of unvaried cloud cover, and the persistent annoyance of an early alarm and think, ‘At last!  A beautiful, wonderful, WARM day.’  But so I did, just this morning.  I do not mind the rain, and I hate the cold that glares down at us despite the sun when the sky clears.  It makes me feel a certain kind of joy, a certain loose, floating satisfaction that has nothing to do with the absence of need or desire.  I want many things and still need a few, and yet I am joyful, thankful, truly alive.  I cannot describe it as I want – I must rely on the words of others:

“Sometimes as I am falling asleep in a dark, quiet room I have for a moment a great and treasurable illusion of the past….We are inside, the two of us, in shelter, at rest, at the center of all things.  Outside, as always, lies the great darkness, the cold, death’s solitude.  In such fortunate moments as I fall asleep I know beyond doubt what the real center of my own life is, that time which is past and lost and yet is permanent, the enduring moment, the heart of warmth.  I am not trying to say I was happy….I certainly wasn’t happy.  Happiness has to do reason, and only reason earns it.  What i was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy.”

– Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

A thought. A moment.

Today as I was walking home thinking how lovely the world was and debating what I would do with my day off, I had the thought that it might be nice to do something related to veterans.  This was, after all, Veterans Day.  They were the entire reason I had the day off, and more indirectly the reason I’m here.  It might be nice to remember that.

I happened to be crossing the Cambridge Common at the time, and decided to examine several of the monuments there as a part of my resolution.  There were a few plaques commemorating the march from Watertown to the Battle of Bunker Hill, and one that I’d crossed many times commemorating Paul Revere’s midnight ride.  There was the Great Hunger memorial.  But the largest monument was set back from the sidewalk.  As I approached, i was surprised to see two figures on it, one atop the other.  The higher figure was robed, perhaps a bishop or something else religious.  The second was dark, and less clear, but it reminded me of Abe Lincoln (which, in fact, it was.)

Here are a few pictures:

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Lincoln

Lincoln

Unnamed figure

Unnamed figure

The monument was a commemoration of those from Cambridge who had fought in the Civil War.  Listed on each side were their names, in addition to a summary plaque, an engraving of the Gettysburg Address, and the correspondence that called these men to fight.  There was no mention of the upper figure, so I resolved to do more research at home.

Veterans Day is both a remembrance of military veterans in the US and a remembrance of the end of WWI abroad.  The holiday was originally celebrated as Armistice Day, but was eventually changed to include all veterans.  For those of you grammar buffs who may be wondering on the official placement of an apostrophe for the holiday, the US government has declared the official spelling to be apostrophe free.  It’s attributive, not possessive.   Sadly, I could not find specific information on the monument itself.  For now, I will have to remain puzzled on the identity of the upper figure.

The occasional fall day.

This morning dawned clear and unfortunately cold.  Not that I have anything against autumn – it’s my favorite season in fact – but the more icy portions of it I don’t find appealing.  I’d rather stay securely under the covers, thank you.  Today was one of those days that was just brisk enough to make me want to linger in warmth.

But at this time of year, the colder days are the clear ones.  Autumn provides some of the best times for stargazing.  In the colder air, without clouds to obscure and warm the earth, the heavens open up.  Amazement reigns.  And if we are lucky, we might gain a little perspective and understanding. Of course, most of the days are overcast, but I think this serves make the clear ones more stunning, more memorable.

For me it is often a time for reflection.  In particular this year it has been so.  The stress of applying to schools and deciding what I want (for the rest of my life) has been painfully coupled with the loss of a relationship which I thought was secure, throwing my choices even further into doubt.  I’ve felt very lost about many things, and regaining my balance has proved more difficult than I initially anticipated.  Friendships, more often than not, have felt the strain.

To remember who you are is to begin to know who you want to be and how to move forward.  I’ve spent time thinking about things I thought I’d left behind.  I’ve thought about the idea that making a life with someone else was a key towards what I wanted, that a steady companionship or a passionate love were the two options for where I wanted to be in my relationship with someone. I’ve begun to realize – emotionally, not just intellectually – that either option is not enough.  That even both combined is not enough.  I think of Tony, and him trying to do Teach for America after graduation, and his move into a job, any job, when that failed.  I think of Mike, and his one-time medical goals and his current doubts about what he will do with his life.  I think of Abe, lost somewhere in the wilds of West Virginia accomplishing – hopefully – something lasting.  And with sudden clarity, I feel balanced again, as if I begin to know what it is I want.

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