Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Traveling Tips: Across the Universe

As you read this, you are traveling 136 miles per second across the galaxy, a distance that would take around two hours by car, unless it's rush hour. And if you're reading this in a bullet train, you have to factor in the theory of relativity, in which time slows down the more you accelerate.

          After the thrill of this infomercial wears off, though, you might want to stop thinking about it for a couple of minutes, or maybe forever. Because not only unseen but also unknown forces are at work everywhere, always, and, because we are not really very intelligent, our ignorance is easily mistaken for bliss.  For a fraction of that secondabout 20 galactic milesyou wonder what else you don't know that's absolutely vital, because you probably don't have a clue.  How can you ever know?

          Here's a clue.

          My teenaged children and I moved in with my motherinto her houseseven months ago, after she had heart surgery and I needed to cut costs. Yesterday I hung a very large painting on the living room wall of my childhood home. To do so entailed removing several of my mother's smaller pieces, but I rationalized that since she rarely enters the living room, it makes sense to put something I like on the wall of a room where the rest of us spend a lot of time. Check.

          Today my mother rearranged the spices alphabetically in a little cubby above the stove, three rows deep and very snug. Although I do most of the cooking, she reasoned that it's impossible to keep order without a system; therefore, the top shelf is Nutmeg through Turmeric and the bottom is Allspice through Mint. I use cumin every day, but I can't see it unless I take out the cardamom and coriander first. Checkmate.

          No, really, here's the clue.
          I was lying next to my first wife in bed...you know, and I was irritated. She must have been going on and on about something and she'd gone to sleepand I kept hearing these words over and over, flowing like an endless stream. I went downstairs and it turned into a sort of cosmic song rather than an irritated songrather than 'Why are you always mouthing off at me?' or whatever, right?...and I've sat down and looked at it and said, 'Can I write another one with this meter?' It's so interesting. 'Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup/They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.' Such an extraordinary meter and I can never repeat it! It's not a matter of craftsmanshipit wrote itself. It drove me out of bed. I didn't want to write it...and I couldn't get to sleep until I put it on paper... It's like being possessedlike a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won't let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you're allowed to sleep. That's always in the middle of the night when you're half-awake or tired and your critical faculties are switched off.John Lennon, 1980

          Listen. It's not about statistics or science or facts. In a world that's constantly changing and where reality is always under suspicion, our greatest threat to awareness is certainty.

          If that's true, then our greatest teacher might not be a person but, instead, something more like faith or surrender. Jai guru deva om. Honor your divine teacher. Listen for that inner voice that is both you and not-you, and then just give in. 

Thoughts meander like a restless wind
Inside a letter box
They tumble blindly
As they make their way across the universe.

          You may even travel further than 136 miles per second across the universe and transform a pissed off exchange with your partner into pure poetry. Nothing's gonna change my world. So, my darling, just surrender.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Seawall

"My work always tried to unite the truth with the beautiful, but when I had to choose one or the other, I usually chose the beautiful."

Hermann Weyl, one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, whose research has had major significance for theoretical physics and number theory.

          At the far end of Melbourne Avenue, past the Ottery Inn and behind a yellow, crumbling wall is the Indian Ocean. No one swims there because the waves are too fierce. Charlotte sees the ocean through a gap in the wall. It must be high tide because the waves are nearer than she expects. They almost touch the train tracks and the tracks themselves are close to the wall. On either side of the tracks is a rocky margin of sand pitted with footprints and lost sandals.

          The spectacle of so many different sandals without mates is puzzling. She wants to ask someone about it, but isn't sure who to ask or how to phrase the question. Also, she's afraid the answer is obvious or is not a question worth asking and she doesn't want to feel foolish.

          Charlotte remembers the true story of a man who fell off a shipor did he jump?and the only evidence of his plunge was one slipper that remained on deck. Did he lean against the rail, suddenly feeling faint, and tip over the edge? Was he sleepwalking? Did he perch on the railing or was he pushed? She wonders where the slipper is now. It must be a cherished memento; either that, or one that evokes blinding terror.

          The other American students are still out somewhere and the houseboys can't unroll their sleeping mats by the front door until all the guests have returned to the inn. The boys gather out back behind the kitchen under a coconut tree and whisper to each other in Tamil to pass the time.

          Rajah appears on the balcony upstairs with two bottles of Lion Brand soda. No one must see him here. He is barefoot, still in uniform. The white shirt is too big for him, with the sleeves rolled up, and his black pants are held together with a safety pin. In the moonlight his shirt looks very white and his skin very dark.

          Charlotte and Rajah don't speak. They look over the balcony together, at the fronds waving over the rippling roof tiles, and listen to the wind. They hear the ocean, too; it can only be heard at night, and from this height they can see the ocean's moony glimmer to their left, beyond the rooftops and trees.

          At breakfast this morning Rajah had told Charlotte how to choose a sapphire. Don't let them cheat you. Too dark is no good, cornflower blue is best. Now he points at the most beautiful of all the stars and says, Shappeer. Sapphire. She is afraid to look at him, but she looks.

          I wish I could tell you more, but they go no further than that. They will always be 20 years old on that balcony, always poised at the edge, neither falling forward nor stepping back to safety.

          When she reconstructs this scene, Charlotte recalls that the wind lashing their faces is both harsh and soft, and that she surrenders to it. She remembers feelingnot thinkingfeeling this wind coming at them blindly across time itself. It has come such a long way to reach them, across the wild, ancient sea. They are two specks in an inhuman, elemental rush of tenderness and fury, and they are also a boy and girl standing on a red-tiled balcony in Bambalapitiya.

          Can we always write a balanced equation for truth and beauty? The Beautiful Truth that mathematicians and poets strive to discern, is it always this symmetrical balance of disparate things? Before Hermann Weyl, John Keats confounded readers with the last words of his Ode on a Grecian Urn,

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 

In our ignorance, we naturally seek this perfect this union, but in a pinch, we choose beauty over truth.

          Charlotte and Rajah don't think about it.

          Charlotte comes home. Ten, twenty, thirty years pass like a single moment while the American students continue to come and go. Every year they study, they eat rice and curry with their hands, they grow fond of their peers and their Sinhalese host families, and they bring home mementos and proceed with their lives.

          Charlotte comes home with a small brass bowl with a tight-fitting lid. In the bowl are petals from a bouquet of soft, dark, red roses Rajah gave her. She checks on them over the years, cautiously, when she's alone. The dried petals are swirled with black, which seems exactly right to her. Their fragile existence suggests the paradox of spoiled but enduring beauty.

         Rajah doesn't come home. He disappears because he is Tamil. The students keep coming, but he is gone. The truth is ugly. They have learned about the the widespread kidnappings, torture, rape, and killing of the Tamil people by the Sinhalese government and of the insurgency; they have studied it back in the States, before boarding the plane to Sri Lanka. The American students are honored to be uncritical U.S. ambassadors of good will. It is a sensitive topic and they wish to show utmost respect to their host country and reflect well on the United States.

          This is the little seawall we build to protect ourselves from a dangerous truth, an unbearable one. Scientific objectivity is a feeble defense against suffering, grief, horror, injusticeand it's no defense against death. To be objective is to be inhuman so let's admit we all want a happy ending, even if it means inventing one for ourselves.

          Rajah's glass of sweet, milky tea has gone cold while he plays outside with his little grandson. The little boy is getting over a cold, so they stay on the balcony overlooking the hills rather than going for their usual walk into the village. The evening breeze feels charged because the monsoons are coming. For a few moments, Rajah is 20, feeling the wind blowing on the balcony of the Ottery Inn.  Then the rain begins to tumble in fat, heavy drops and his grandson shrieks in excitement.

        Mathematicians, poets, and houseboys, we all know that the beauty of a happy ending is not the same as justice.