Dark World

How have we come to live with the arrow of death in our collective heart, asks Elizabeth Dias in a recent New York Times essay. In the aftermath of the shooting of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, as well as the nearly 20 mass shootings that have occurred since then, the question is painfully relevant.

Yet, right now, we don’t need answers. We already know that Senators and Representatives, mostly Republican, insistover the will of most Americanson frictionless access to guns. We also know that gun manufacturers, gun lobbyists, and others who benefit from the easy access to guns work relentlessly to associate guns with a violent brand of freedom and protection.

There are other answers, too. But, right now, they don’t matter. Right now, all that matters is that we pull out the arrow.

To do so requires our collective action, which is hard. At its base, collective action asks us to recognize others as preciousprecious in ways we don’t understand, precious in ways we can’t articulateprecious beyond words.

Is it ironic that communal power depends on individual respect, even reverence? Maybe. But, according to Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, it’s a reflection of a simple spiritual truth: Each person, every one of us, contains the whole world.

We may not be aware of it, but we already understand this truth. Our feelings of wrenching despair, of agonized abandonment after such brutality testify to our recognition. We sense that we’ve squandered preciousness. We grasp, however lightly, that we’ve lost the whole world. 

We sense, too, that we cannot wrest it back. But if we pull out the arrow, we can at least start to heal.

So, vote for council members, local officials, state representatives, and national leaders who support real responses to out-of-control gun violence, including federal laws that regulate access to guns. Participate in local, statewide, and national conversations to advocate for gun regulation. Support initiatives like Wear Orange. Join groups like Moms Demand Action and Sandy Hook Promise. Acknowledge, out loud, the terrible burden on survivors of gun violence, who must remind usagain and again and againwhat has been lost.

In short, do everything you can, and even things you think you can’t, to pull out the arrow, so we can heal our heart, and begin the work of rebuilding the world.

Although he may be better known for his “2nd 4th grade” illustration skills, Tim Urban’s essays can be energizing. Exhibit X: His recent NYT editorial, in which he offers advice on how to approach time in a (near) post-Covid future.

The editorial is based on his “depressing math” posts from 2014 and 2015. There, Urban reminds us that although we tend to think we have all the time in the world, we don’t. Even if we’re very lucky and live a very long time, the experiences that define our lives—visiting friends and family, eating pizza, reading books—are not limitless. In fact, they’re depressingly countable. 

It’s gloomy. But it’s also galvanizing. When we realize that the life we (perhaps) passively live can be easily broken down into countable experiences, we can activate our agency to make different choices. Different choices can change the math, making the sum a little less depressing. 

Elsewhere, in Exhibit XX, Urban makes a similarly gloomy-but-galvanizing point about procrastinators. Based on his own rich experience, Urban argues that procrastinators frequently forget that, “No one ‘builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house.”

Urban here echoes Epictetus; indeed, the stoics have enjoyed a popular renaissance in Oliver Burkeman‘s and James Clear’s arguments on habit formation. Part of their message is that transformation is not the result of epiphany but the product of mundane persistence. (And persistence is most efficiently executed through habits.)

Taken together, depressing math and the procrastinator’s faulty memory can help us think about the mediating role we can play in our own lives. By intervening in the parts—whether in terms of the experiences that add up to a life, or in terms of the small steps that result in a transformative project—we can change the whole. From the perspective of the present, this kind of intervention requires a persistence that tethers it to the mundane. It’s often only from the vantage point of the future that we can see its bigger meaning.

Mass isn’t just “‘stuff’ that things can be made out of,” according to University of Copenhagen particle physicist, Matt von Hippel. Rather, mass is what “a high energy of interaction looks like.” 

Von Hippel has a provocative way with words. His claim that mass is energy you haven’t met yet refers to the surprise that, in particle physics, mass is less “stuff” and more a consequence of energy. A proton’s mass, for example, far exceeds the weight of its component quarks. It’s the energy of interaction, according to Von Hippel, that accounts for the extra weight.

His argument should certainly be isolated to its applied field, but it’s too provocative for detainment. When broadly considered against the relationship between parts and wholes, it offers interesting insights. Take, for instance, a book. Intense interactive energy is required to transmute letters, pixels, papers, and ink, glue, and binding into something as weighty as a story. The book in our hands barely compares to the narrative it provokes in our heads.

As in the relationship between a proton and its quarks, the relationship between words and story is not commensurate. Word count accounts for neither a book’s mass nor a story’s heft. Perhaps this is because a book is less a product of the stuff out of which it’s made than a product of the energetic interactions that result in its story.

Elsewhere, writing about the relationship between synchronization and the speed of light, von Hippel points out that our knowledge of the world depends entirely on the models we build to bridge perceptions and our memories. Another name for these models? Stories. Here again, insights from particle physics are relevant, but we already know how much the mass of such stories matters.

Stars

(Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA)

Although the American myth of meritocracy continues to crumble to smithereens, some of its fragments are worthy of consideration.

For instance, what does it mean when people who cannot succeed by virtue of their demonstrated abilities and merit, nonetheless continue to achieve? In this context (which is ours), what does success—or failure—even mean?

Success is typically communicated by signifiers of wealth, respect, or fame. It denotes achievement—which itself connotes effort—both of which confer the legitimacy collectively extended to success.

But when wealth, respect, and fame are gained without effort’s exertion, success becomes a more fragile, fluid word. It no longer refers to a meaning relatively fixed by the collective, and depends instead on the relative interpretation of a powerful few.

Failure is, or maybe was, different. Failure, denoted by lack rather than plenitude has always been fluid. We see this in the concept of failing up, where failure must be modified and fixed by its direction. The collective agrees, relatively speaking, that failure is not fixed.

To whom does it really matter if success and failure are now both fluid, relative terms? Well, for the collective seeking to award success and punish failure, it’s a problem. When we become less capable of consensus on what constitutes effort and exertion, we can no longer agree on who has won, and what, or who has lost, and how.

For the individual, however—for you—the responsibility of relativity can be a gift. Determining success and failure according to your own criteria is harder than it sounds, but it allows you to set a standard that matters to you. This is self-help at its most autonomous. Rather than reaching for a collective sense of success that appears increasingly empty, we can extend our efforts toward the kind of success toward which we want to strive. Of course, we can still fail. But, then again, we always could.

After the Locking, instructs Vonnegut, comes winter.

Here in Minnesota, winter has—emphatically—returned. As I marked the occasion with a frigid run, my mind wandered from the slippery but well-worn route, to the inscrutably repetitious new year, to the ominously redundant omicron variant.

It was surprisingly pleasant going, though, because I listened to Slate’s Political Gabfest. There, David Plotz, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson discussed a provocative conundrum: When is it okay to critique a friend’s creative efforts?

The initial, unanimous response? Never! 

But as they talked over variations on the theme, their answers began to shift:

Well, probably never…if you want to retain your relationship.

Perhaps sometimes…if they’re  particularly successful or are particularly solicitous.

Probably yes…if you’re a partner responsible for heading off potential embarrassment.

Definitely yes…in fact, you’re obligated.

The move from “you can’t” to “you must” depended both on the creative effort and on the relationship between creator and critic: Ultimately, critique was deemed necessary when the effort was writing and the critic an editor.

Writing requires a critical reader, argued Plotz, because writing is iterative

Iteration, a kind of repetition, makes iterative a felicitous adjective because writing requires repetition on both abstract and practical levels. When we write, we not only reproduce what we know; we also engage in mechanical reproduction—writing, reading, rewriting, rereading, asking others to read, rewriting, rereading, asking others to reread, then rewriting again.

It’s challenging, sometimes agonizing work, but modern iteration differs from rote repetition by its invocation of forward momentum. Iteration isn’t only repetition; it’s repetition toward refinement, toward a “desired result.”

Iteration is consequently an apt word for the work of writing. It’s also, possibly, an appropriate word for the work ahead.

In 2022, we face the same virus, the same intractable government and community responses, the same political rigidity, the same individual and collective challenges to childcare, school, and work, not to mention healthcare and other basic needs. The repetition itself feels like an inescapable, isolating trap. 

The language of iteration might help us conceive of a way out.

The gentle onomatopoeia in iterative means the word requires repetition for its completion. Like winter, like running, like writing, iterative work is repetitious work. However—and also like winter, like running, like writing—the repetition can reach beyond equivalence. Though 2022 is already a repetitive year, it doesn’t have to be the same as what preceded it.

Free-Notebook-clipart-png

Sometimes, the most mundane habits are the most useful. So it is with note-taking.

The note-taker spectrum is broad: You might be a distractible doodler, an ambivalent-but-obliged recorder, a hyper-efficient graphomaniac, or a steadfast abstainer. While the devoted declare themselves by proximity to a favorite notebook, the reluctant might log random dates in Notes.

(Almost) regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, note-taking is an important aid to comprehension and a surprising access point to power. You don’t have to adhere to the Cornell Method to gain these benefits. Even if your style is more jot-down-a-word-and-circle-it-three times, project-oriented note-taking serves important functions.

First, note-taking breaks down a subject into its parts, allowing a more intimate approach to analysis: When we take notes, we get a lot closer to our subject.

Second, and counterintuitively, note-taking forces us further from our subject: When we take notes, we insert ourselves between our subject and our sense of our subject. The resulting space offers—and sometimes forces—a broader perspective.

Although note-taking fosters both intimacy and distance, both close comprehension and prodigious perspective-taking, its most crucial function isn’t the taking but the notes

When we take notes, we accumulate records of the things that mattered enough to us to be retained. Our notebook or app becomes a storehouse of observations to be consulted, used as evidence,  or considered a provocation for current or future work. It doesn’t really matter if the notes are clear or confusing: The simple act of retention invests our fleeting observations with the potential for future meanings.

Consequently, taking and keeping notes is incredibly useful. It’s useful for everyone, but it’s especially useful for those of us working on big or complicated projects. The practice might be an aid to productivity, but it will also provide past evidence for future meanings.  

The phrase, “the map is not the territory,” was coined in 1931 by semanticist Alfred Korzybski. Ninety years on, it’s more relevant than ever, especially for writers, and most especially for writers of creative nonfiction, memoir, autobiography, and biography.

Why? Because the metaphor emphasizes the gap between our representation and what we seek to represent. This gap is necessary, but it’s also useful: A gapless map would reproduce territory in a one-to-one correspondence. It couldn’t provide a picture of relative position necessary for way-finding and would be a useless map.

This gap is also a consequence of selection. Whenever we represent something, we make choices. When, for example, we decide to make a map, we choose a certain point of focus and a particular point of view. We choose which of our needs we must meet and which to meet of our fellow wanderers.

In fact, the gap makes the map a product of form and a product of function—maps are representative and operative. Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther makes this point in When Maps Become the World: [Maps] also function within our behaviors, our institutions, and our conscious and unconscious understanding of phenomena. Maps are not solely static, general, and abstract.”

For writers striving to represent “the truth,” the map is not the territory can be a liberating, and comforting, expression. It reminds writers that there is—and should be—a gap between the territory they explore and the way-finding they offer in their book. 

Ultimately, there will always be space between what is and what is represented. There’s no need to eliminate it: The reader simply requires a bridge—and of course a guide—to this new territory.

The post may be old, but the book is a classic.

Golden Shoes

Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. The snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.

But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.

In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).

Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, but he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter. 

But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.

Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and Old Grandfather was to pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail brought her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.

Reader, she is chosen. Indeed, she displays such verve, such persistence, and such heart in her role that she is given the incomparable gift of the little gold shoes.

I love Cottontail’s story not only because it’s the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also (if I may), a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny not because of her steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her most challenging life experiences fostered the wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart required to fulfill her dream.

That, to me, is a believable (or at least aspirational) heroism.

The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the perennial cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.

Ferris Wheel

Against the black background of 500,000 lives lost to COVID, “vulnerability” feels like it has lost some of its millennial sheen. It’s no longer (just) Brené Brown’s shame, and an opportunity for open-hearted living. Today, it means feeling—and being—a persistent target for viral attack.

Although vulnerability can make us feel extraordinarily alone, “vulnerability” contains the roots of collective rescue. From Latin stock “to wound,” vulnerability once referred not only to our susceptibility to wounding but also to our power to wound. These referential foes–to be hurt and also to hurt–have flowered again during our pandemic year.

Now (as, in some ways, always), we’re vulnerable because we can be wounded, get sick, stay sick, die. We’re vulnerable because we love people who can also be wounded, get sick, stay sick, and die. And yet we’re also vulnerable because, in our vulnerability, we can wound and sicken others.

To be vulnerable means to carry an enormous weight, but its etymology suggests it’s not one we must–or even can–privately bear. Instead, the discomfort of our vulnerability can serve to remind us of our collective responsibility to safeguard one another.

As we pass the signpost marking a quarantine year, we can mark our progress not in days (ha.), but in terms of our ability to accept vulnerability as both weakness and strength. We now know the associated cost of denial: When we fail to accept our vulnerability, we relinquish the power we have to keep ourselves and others safe.

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”

Well–one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. “Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I  told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

-Naomi Shihab Nye