“All is flux” – Heraclitus
Yesterday I started the move to a new office just down the hall. I’d been in my old office since I started teaching at UMass Boston in 2003, and when a new office opened up I was asked if I wanted it. It has some advantages. It’s (slightly) larger than my old one, it’s off the main hallway (i.e., a bit more private), and it has a better view. But another factor is that I simply felt like moving. Sometimes change is good for its own sake — a breath of fresh air.
To make the move easier, I did something I’m normally not too good at, which is letting go of things. I recycled a lot of old files and articles that I had held onto for years. Some of them I’ve kept since graduate school, even though I’d not revisited them in nearly 20 years. It felt good to dump them.
I’d like to say that I don’t need anything. At an intellectual level, I understand that everything is impermanent — organisms, mountains, relationships, nations, memories, jobs, planets. Time devours all things. On the other hand, when we’re in the present moment, some things appear to be really important and worth prioritizing and holding onto.
Maybe I don’t need anything. Except of course, the chair, the remote control, and the paddle game. And that’s all I need. So I do need some things.
We’ve gotten a lot of snow over the past week in our area, so after I got home from work this afternoon, I shoveled snow for my older neighbor down the street. As soon as I started, I heard someone yelling, trying to get my attention. It was yet another neighbor, an older woman I’d never met before, and she was unable to get her car up the steep, icy incline in her driveway.
She asked for my help, and detecting an accent, I asked where she was born. “Budapest,” she smiled. “If I had four-wheel drive, I could make it, but all I have is this shitty Kia. This driveway is terrible. When I bought this house, it was in September; if I had known how terrible it would be in the winter, I wouldn’t buy it. And I can’t leave the car here. It will slide back into the street. I also have a bad hip so it is hard for me to walk on the snow.” I chuckled at her forwardness and colorful language, especially for an older woman I just met.
I did my best to clear the driveway, chipping at the ice with a garden spade, and scattering some salt, but it didn’t work. She would attempt the climb, and then slide back down again. After several tries, she asked me to drive her car. I backed up into another neighbor’s driveway across the street to build as much momentum as possible, and it worked.
A few weeks ago, my infant daughter found a stash of old letters I’d written to my wife (longhand!) when we first started dating in college many years ago. With a big grin on her face, she pulled several of them out and scattered them all over the floor. As I began to clean up the mess, I pulled one out at random and started to read it. [Long story short: early romantic love is gross.]
The handwriting was instantly recognizable, but it had been so long since I wrote the letter that it almost seemed like I was reading someone else’s words. That would probably be true about anything I wrote that long ago, but given the tone of the letter, I assumed that it would all come back to me instantly. Some of it did, but with the passage of time, much has been forgotten. A quote from Joan Didion seems appropriate here: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” (But there is always room to become re-acquainted).
Today would have been my brother’s birthday, and I’ve been saving this passage from Boris Pasternik’s Doctor Zhivago to mark it. Here the title character, Yura Zhivago, is speaking to Anna Ivanovna who feared she was terminally ill. He offers what he thinks happens to us when we die, and the primacy of our social connections:
“So what will happen to your consciousness? Your consciousness, yours, not anyone else’s. Well, what are you? There’s the point. Let’s try to find out. What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself? Your kidneys? Your liver? Your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory, it is always in some external, active manifestation of yourself that you come across your identity–in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now listen carefully. You in others–this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life–your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you–the you that enters the future and becomes part of it.” (Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, p. 68)
I still haven’t mastered the ability to completely separate the academic and the personal, and I’m not sure I completely want to. Instead of an impenetrable wall between them, perhaps, for me, there is a wrought-iron fence with an open gate. What I mean is that I often go between the two, allowing them to inform each other. The passage from Zhivago is from literature, and is not a scientific statement. But it runs parallel to some aspects of science, which seems poetic to me, particularly on a day I’m thinking of my brother.
Every so often, some occurrence comes along that throws life into a new orbit. My trajectory was recently shifted by such an event – I fell in love with a girl. She’s much younger than me: not even a week old, in fact. And she happens to have half of my chromosomes, as daughters tend to do. She is healthy, and both she and her mother are doing well. I find myself carrying her around the house, just staring at her face. When she’s awake and looks back at me, which is mostly late at night unfortunately, it’s magical.
Obviously, we knew this day was coming. We’re not ready to plan her entire life out for her just yet (not until she’s at least a month old). But for a while now I’ve been thinking about what it will be like to be a father to a baby girl, and all the possibilities and challenges life has before her. She has two older brothers, who are crazy about her, but there are things that I worry about for their sister that I didn’t have to think about for them, at least not as much. Forgive me for how naïve this is about to sound because I know I’m behind the curve, but I’m trying…
“Be excellent to each other.” – Bill and Ted (20th century philosophers)
From a commencement speech by George Saunders:
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”
Saunders then describes a memory from the seventh grade, when he did not defend the new girl in school who was teased for being different. Forty-two years later, he still thinks of her occasionally, and even though he was not personally cruel toward her, he regrets not going out of his way to extend her kindness. He then questions why kindness is often lacking, and he looks for prescriptions to make it more common.
The speech is a good one, and it stirred up some personal memories of instances when I could have used some kindness from someone. Sometimes it came; others it didn’t. There were also situations that called for me to be the one to extend kindness to someone else who needed it. Sometimes I stepped up, although probably not as consistently as I should have. Fear can be a powerful deterrent. Like Saunders, I regret those missed opportunities.
Of course, the opposite of kindness is cruelty, and I’m often distressed by the latest story of human callousness, where someone is belittled for not conforming to another’s standards. For those of us who are not Rhodes Scholar Olympians (which is to say, nearly everyone), we all fall short of socially constructed ideals in some way. Either we’re not attractive enough, or not stylish, athletic, or smart enough (or too smart). Too red. Too blue. Too promiscuous or too chaste. Too tall. Too short. Too neurally atypical. Or, we’re the ‘wrong’ weight, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, or speak the wrong dialect. We can be incredibly creative at finding the holes in the armor to bring someone down.
For such an intensely social species, we often seem to go out of our way to make each other want to leave the group.
Today, my son told me he had figured out how to never make a mistake again. His solution: just never try or do anything anymore. He said it with a smile, but I think he half wishes this was an option. Unfortunately, he seems to have inherited a personality quirk (defect?) from me, which is that we are both incredibly good at self-flagellation when we make mistakes.
To cite a minor example, sometimes I’ll dwell for a couple of days on a student’s question that I couldn’t answer in class. Or if I forget somebody’s name who I am definitely supposed to know, I will swear at myself under my breath far too many times, more than most people would. And those are just minor examples. It can be a problem, one that I wish I hadn’t passed along. Dammit (see?).
To reassure my son, he is actually on the same wavelength as Alain de Botton, one of the better known modern philosophers out there. And he’s not even 10 yet. Good for him.