Sunday, December 12, 2010

Birth + Death = Life

Birth. Death.

My family finds itself poised on the very edge, waiting for both life and death at exactly the same moment.

My Grandma might draw her final breath sometime today. Or, we may still be waiting, watching while nature has its way with her for a little longer. At the other end of life's continuum, my cousin has been ready (since Friday) for labor to start and a new life to begin its own cycle. But for the last several days we've all been waiting. Waiting for death. Waiting for life.

The average annual world birth rate is currently estimated to be 19.95/1000.* That means about 370,317 babies will be born today. And tomorrow another 370,317 and then an entirely new batch of 370,317 babies will be born two days from now. Imagine how many people will be affected by those births each day. Even if you factor just five people anxiously awaiting each of these births, that would be over 2 million people personally affected every single day by births.

The average annual world death rate is currently estimated to be 8.37/1000.* About 155,366 people will die today. And again tomorrow. And another 155,366 or so the day after that. Think of how many people will be personally affected by those 155,366 deaths. If an average of even five people are affected by one of today's deaths, three-quarters of a million people will be involved with death somehow, each and every day.

So, if today you happen to find yourself: being born, dying, waiting for either of those two things to happen, or if you're mourning/rejoicing yesterday's occurrences or anticipating tomorrow's - you are not unique, you are not special. There are over 7 billion people in the world; each one born in a pretty similar way and each one heading toward a similar cessation of life. What could possibly be more mundane, more insignificant than one single instance of birth or death?

And yet, what could possibly be more significant or more unique? Birth is the capital letter at the start of a life's first sentence and death is the punctuation mark at the end of the last page. All the days in between become the story of a singular, unrepeatable human experience.

To the capital letter on the very first page and a full-stop at the end of the last chapter I dedicate all the pages in between.


*statistics from the CIA World Factbook

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Fall/Winter Reading List begins

Just in case anyone is sitting around thinking, "Gee, I wonder what Jen is going to be reading this winter?", here's the preliminary list. During the quiet hours at work this morning, I compiled a cohesive list from the pages of my favorite tiny marble notebook that is with me at all times for jotting down important things that would otherwise become lost in my brain stew. There's fiction and non-fiction both, and I also checked which of my two libraries has them and which ones I'm hoping to get through ILL. That's right...I'm ILLin' to read! Word.

Available at Brooks Mem. Library

Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (also available in Spfld!)

The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? Padgett Powell

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford (also available in Spfld!)

The Disappearing Spoon and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
by Sam Harris (when available)

For ILL:


Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life
(1996) by Nick Lane
Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution (2009) Nick Lane
Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World (2002) Nick Lane

Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations
by Mark Slouka

Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The Riddles of Culture
by Marvin Harris
Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris

Linked by Albert Laszlo Barbasi

The Machinery of Life
by David S. Goodsell


I Am Not Sidney Poitier
by Percival Everett
Lowboy by John Wray

Anyone got any good recommendations or books you've got your eyes on for the Fall/Winter?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shared Content*

And so there I was out for an evening walk, music plugged into my ears—a sonic buffer between me and the world. Like a camera’s soft filter, the right music can smooth the lines, soften harsh angles, tell the kind of lie we want to believe. The late summer sun blew around and between the clouds on an almost-crisp breeze. Tall roadside grasses going to seed looked like clusters of furry, golden caterpillars bobbing on delicate spindles.

And so she was sitting there minding her own business a little too much. Her leg extended from her body at an angle, propped on a metal folding chair—the kind you’d bring out when company came over and you ran out of places for them to sit. A worn-out couch cushion supported the weight of her swollen leg and signs nailed to the house in the distance said “NO SMOKING! OXYGEN IN USE!” in the neon orange color that means business. I could see that her knee-length housecoat was thin and covered with couplets of cartoon cherries ghostly with age. I smelled the sweetness of the freshly lit tobacco before I saw the smoke rise up from her head. She watched me pass by, lifted her hand and gave a slight nod. She didn’t look interested but she didn’t really look bored either.

Just before I reached the place where the old lady sat, I watched a loosely-spaced group of ravens soaring across the sky’s blue. Only after I’d stumbled awkwardly several times while trying to walk and gawk did I stop to watch them drift silently, expertly away—higher, farther. The music in my ears was new to me, experimental—found sounds, spoken word mixed with looped guitars and odd bits of lyrics sometimes spoken, sometimes sung. I barely noticed the distance I covered; I could have walked for hours lost in my private soundscape.

And so I walked past the old lady with her propped-up leg and raised my hand in response to hers. I wondered if she felt lonely. Or maybe she just needed a smoke.

I never listened to music quite like this before. Secrets whispered into my ears, just for me, paradoxes revealed nonchalantly, matter-of-fact statements and strange non-sequiturs unfolding within a space roomy enough to absorb it all. It felt like solitary beach-combing, pocketing secret treasures to keep in a quiet place for all time. It felt like wondering past warmly lit houses on a fall evening, peering in the windows as you drive by too fast to know what’s really going on. Somehow it felt like longing.

I turned around at the end of our road. Up the hill and around the bend I returned. She sat in the same position, still smoking. I walked up the driveway toward her. She looked interested but not surprised. A man in a bathrobe, with an oxygen tank next to him stood at the door far in the distance. He looked gray and slack — draining down into the slippers I imagined on his cold feet. He turned away before I could catch his eye.

She stubbed out her roll-yer-own in a sandy five-gallon bucket next to her chair.

-Hello there.

I waved to her from down near my hip. I pressed pause in the right spot. I asked her.

-Will you listen?

A nod.

I put the buds into her ears, stepped back and tapped play. A young man’s voice speaking over a pulsing but gentle and low guitar loop shared his secrets into her ears. She looked up at me and smiled when the last line happened.

“Expectation leads to disappointment. If you don’t expect something big, huge & exciting usually, uh........I dunno.........I’m jus’ not a…yeah.“

And that was it.

The shadow-shape of me shaded her right eye. I shifted a little farther to the right and both her eyes lit up for a moment and glowed like whiskey. She shielded her eyes from the sun that hovered over my shoulder and asked me if I might stay for a bit.

*fiction. partly.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Someone has to let go first.

Should I put my left arm over or under?

What about my right arm, where should that go?

Oh crap, our arms are on the same trajectory, we're gonna have arm collisions. Should I switch my approach? Or is the other person going to switch?

This person is so much shorter. I think I just gouged her in the throat with my shoulder. She's probably trying not to choke, I better let go now. But will that seem rude? Like I don't really want to give her a hug?

People with some meat on them are good for hugging.

I've never hugged this person before, but I want to, but what if a hug isn't appropriate in this circumstance? What if they don't want a hug?

It's hot and humid and I've been in the car for hours. I hope they can't feel how sweaty my shirt is in the back. They probably can. Gross.

I barely know this person, but here they come, in for a hug. Do they know how forced this feels? How many authentic hugs do we ever really get/give? Maybe fewer than we think. Hmmm...I don't think I like that thought.

Why does my heart always beat too hard when I hug someone? It embarrasses me. I know people can feel it beating away in my chest. I've had people mention it before. I don't want them to think it has any real significance. But it must mean something, right? It's easier just to avoid it and not hug people very much or else try to keep my heart area away from theirs or just keep the hug short.

When I visit my family and I hug my mom or dad and if I hold on extra long it always threatens to make me cry. And that makes me feel silly and childish so I don't hold on as long as I really want to. I think they do the same thing.

Sometimes hugging someone surprises me with how perfect it feels, physically, I mean. Some body shapes just fit together better than others.

Hugging brings two people together and yet you are still separate no matter how long or how hard you hug. It's kind of a metaphor for existence - the desire to know others/be known and the ineluctable solitude of our individual consciousnesses.

We can never know exactly how our hug feels to the person on the other side.

The implications of a hug's end are subtle and complex. Someone always has to let go first.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Small Fragments of Convergence

  • At Mocha Joe's I'm absorbed in a menatlly/emotionally heavy way by Sam Harris', The End of Faith. I'm reading about some of the difficult ethical/moral questions that are similar when considering the wartime topics of collateral damage and torture. Our collective acceptance of one and our (in general) abhorrence of the other is difficult to reconcile from a reasonable and logical perspective. It demonstrates ethical incoherence and inconsistency that is nearly impossible to reconcile.
  • At the same time I overhear the woman behind the counter comment that "writing 'balanced and nutty' to describe this coffee flavor seems kind of odd."
  • I'm killing time here before my cello lesson. Right at this moment the song playing in the background happens to be someone's version of "Hard Times Come Again No More". It happens to be this version:

    If only the singing were to make it so.

    To steal a phrase from a character in one of my favorite books: My boots are heavy.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

In the Face of Overwhelming Disaster

Haiti. Earthquake. Devastation. Response.

We could almost say it's an incomprehensible catastrophe. Except that we're all forced to comprehend the images we'd rather not see (but can't stop watching), the reports we'd rather not hear (greedy for the next sound bite to illuminate the scope of humanitarian response), and the as-yet-uncounted thousands who are right smack in the middle of the catastrophe. The nearly instantaneous, all-media access to global events forces not only those immediately affected by it, but also the entire world, to comprehend the devastation.

Those directly involved must respond. Viscerally. Their responses are immediate, physical, meaningful and without premeditation. They are life-saving measures. I can't imagine there's much thinking involved. It must be purely fear, hope and adrenaline driving the living forward. Forcing them to comprehend the incomprehensible.

For the rest of the watching, waiting world, we gnash our collective teeth, wring our collectively concerned hands, discuss how fast the U.S. is or isn't responding. We analyze, we discuss, we "oh" and "ah" in shock, we chastise governments for doing too little, too late. We internalize the sound bites and the media blitz and then out of our feelings of necessity we offer money to various organizations promising to give aid to the victims. This is how we try to comprehend the incomprehensible and assuage our guilt--subconscious guilt that we are relieved to not be on the receiving end of such a catastrophe.

There certainly seems to be a need within our collective humanity to assist during disasters. Long, ago in early human groups, we would have only known about relatively immediate disasters--those close in both proximity and relation. Therefore we would have been forced to respond in order to preserve our own lives or the lives of our family-group or tribe. So perhaps, from a biological perspective, it makes sense that we desire to offer some type of assistance in the face of disaster, even when, seemingly, it has nothing to do with us.

Today I was driving around my town, discovering streets I'd never been on before. The radio was tuned, for a while, to NPR like usual. I had a trunk full of bagged lunches and hot dinners and a map of my route drawn in blue ballpoint pen sitting next to me on the seat. The midday show was, of course, talking about the impossible chaos, panic and death in Haiti. Before I left my house, friends and acquaintances were posting updates on Facebook about how they felt regarding the devastation and to what groups they recommended giving money. I admit I felt a little odd that I didn't want to run right out and donate money to a charity because of the earthquake. It just didn't feel like enough to me. It wouldn't make me feel as if I'd really helped. How would I know who my measly contribution really helped? Or did it just pay for some stamps to send out letters asking for more donations? Did it just pay to alleviate my subconscious survivor's guilt?

It being my very first time delivering meals, I had to turn around a couple times after missing roads and/or driveways, despite my map. (I didn't know so many of the roads in Springfield were without signage. Who do we think we are? Boston?) Finally I pulled into my first stop. I opened my trunk and pulled out a brown-bagged lunch and a dinner from the hot bag--kept warm with an oven-heated piece of soapstone. My trunk smelled like a mobile cafeteria. I walked up to the door, gave a knock for formality's sake. I turned the knob and let myself in to a kitchen I'd never seen before, belonging to an elderly woman I'd never met until this moment.

"Hi, there! Meals on Wheels. I've got your food here. How are you?" I set the packages on her small kitchen table and noticed all the funny chotchkes she had arranged so perfectly around her home. It didn't smell like I thought it would. It didn't smell like the elderly. It just smelled like a home.

"Oh. Thank you so much! How wonderful. Oh, but it's cold out there, isn't it? You've got the right idea with your hat and mittens though! Broke my hip, ya know. I'll be better when I don't have to use this thing anymore." She directed her last comment dismissively to the walker waiting patiently in front of her. "Thanks so much for the food. Maybe I'll see you again?"

"I'll be seeing you next Thursday, probably. Enjoy your food. Stay warm." I said. I shut her doors tightly against the cold and hopped back into my car, surprised at how satisfying it felt to do such a simple thing for someone in my community. On the radio they were still talking about the disaster in Haiti. On the map, I located the residence of the next person on my list of about 10 people. I backed out of the driveway and shut off the radio.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Inspired by music

Ever since I first heard this song by Arms and Sleepers (off their fantastic new album - Matador) I've felt inspired to create something. I've been envisioning various ways to put together a video of a personal experience that would fit the way this song makes me feel. I didn't have a plan as to what it would be, but I knew that when it was right, I'd feel it and I'd know. This past weekend while hiking on a 5 degree day up at Jay Peak, VT with the trees impersonating creatures and clouds, I felt it. I knew. Here's the result.

And I'll plug the group again, since it's their music that inspired me. Arms and Sleepers. If you liked the sound of this piece of music, check out their other stuff. You won't be disappointed.