Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Thoughts like a herd of reindeer on a cold December night

December 23, 2016

It is a dark night in December, a cold and dreary New England night. I am returning to this blog after a long absence, because the times we live in – such dark times! – compel even as reluctant a voice as mine to declare itself. To breathe is to be alive, but to inscribe with electrons on a screen is to be alive a little more loudly. So to speak.

So, to speak.

The thoughts going through my head are like a herd of reindeer on a frozen tundra. Questions arise. How does one survive this life? How do you reach out when the doors are shut? What separates truth from untruth? How do you know when something is true, or not true, or something in between? How do I know, hunched against the winter cold in a little wooden cottage, that there is anyone in the world outside? There are hints and intimations – an airplane flying overhead, the distant traffic on the highway making the road sing in a deep, soft, low tone. The creatures of the night all know to be silent, but I wish they would say something, just for conversation. An owl’s hoot would be a friendly thing to hear through the double-paned window, at least if one is not a rodent. But right now the existence of the world outside seems strangely hypothetical.

So I will take a few random steps outside my cottage and into this blog, simply putting one foot – one word – in front of another. You can follow the trail if you wish, or not, whoever you are. Assuming you exist of course.

Winter break is a day away now, and it is both welcome and unwelcome. So let me pick up the first crumb on the path – look, it’s a book, a tome. It’s called The Restless Clock, by Riskin. The first chapter is a treat. I didn’t know that Europe was populated by mechanical saints and toys and trickeries during Medieval times! No wonder the Newtonian paradigm with which we are still afflicted took such a hold! Another book – Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble – begins like a roll of multicolored wool – but the strands are woven together in strange ways – as I read the first chapter, I feel I am being woven into the book, into the strands. And there’s Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter. I imagine words being made into dough, shaped into stories, and the thought makes me hungry. For words and bread. Words are my matter too, as are equations. Certain equations are as beautiful as poems. A conversation with an astrophysicist reverberates in my mind, and I am distracted for a moment by blazars. Separated from an article of clothing by a mere vowel, these extraordinary celestial objects represent Nature at her spectacular and melodramatic best. Supermassive black holes in a feeding frenzy – only my late dog at his food bowl would be a worthy rival.

A prolonged exposure to undergraduate papers perhaps has a deleterious effect on the mind. There are so many huge and terrible things happening on our beleaguered planet, and amazing things too – but I am robbed of speech of those things for this moment. I will get to them soon, but not before the job is done. I wonder to what extent the job at hand has kept us sane, kept us from acting, kept us acting, kept us with or from each other. Right now for me the job at hand is a source of utter exhaustion but also the fire before which I warm myself before it is time to stare, once more, into the dark.

On the Kindness of Strangers

February 2, 2015

Ah, the kindness of strangers!  We are having a second snowstorm, too soon after last week’s blizard, so I trudged out into the whiteout to get started on the shoveling, despite my annoyingly persistent respiratory sickness.  To my surprise I found that somebody had already started carving canyons out of the snow behind my car.  Yesterday I had left a note with my neighbor, whom I barely know other than the occasional hello, asking whether she knew someone whom I could pay for snow removal.  So it must have been her, I thought, and then I saw her coming toward me, shovel over shoulder, like a modern day knight-in-winter-gear.  She’s a cheerful woman, one of my town’s many Brazilian immigrants, who lives with her husband and stepsons and dog in the house next door.  I got a lovely scolding to ‘get back inside so you won’t get sicker’ and that ‘we’ll take care of it, there are four of us!’  So I thanked her profusely and went back inside.

It’s not the first time that I’ve been at the receiving end of altruistic acts from people I don’t know, or don’t know well.  One of my most remarkable and humbling experiences was at a convention several years ago, when a particularly virulent stomach bug hit, laying low hordes of attendees.  I was afflicted particularly badly, lying in my hotel room with high fever, far from home.  My roommate, understandably concerned about her own health, moved out.  I contacted one of the organizers to request some dry crackers and ginger ale, and the result was extraordinary.  Not only did this woman come in with a bag of edibles, but she re-arranged my ticket, and, because the hotel didn’t want sick people staying on, took me to her house, where she took care of me as a sister would, for three days.  We may be used to the tender care of a daughter when we have the flu, or the comforting touch of a mother when we fell sick as children – but a stranger who would go to such lengths is a rare phenomenon.   I lay on her couch and we talked about life, the universe, and everything, while she cooked bland stuff that I could eat.  She herself got a mild version of the virus later on, but not for a moment did she complain, or indicate in any other way that my presence was anything other than a delight.  I will never forget her.  Sickness, or the threat of sickness generally brings out the worst in non-sick strangers.  But then there are people like her, to restore my faith in humanity.  One day I will write a story in her honor.  I’ve already started exploring the theme of the kindness of strangers in my fiction (my Project Hieroglyph story ‘Entanglement’ being the first), but so far I haven’t written anything deserving of a dedication to someone like her.

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Writing in a World of Sorrows

December 24, 2014

Living in modern urban culture, it is easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a world beyond one’s ‘narrow domestic walls’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s pithy phrase).  I am intensely interested in the world, but the daily circumlocutions of work and home, the breathless rush from one deadline to another, at times distances me from the wider reality we inhabit.  I know full well that the lives we live perpetuate the illusion that the tiny pocket universe of our daily existence is all there is, and all that matters.  We read of school shootings, police brutality, war, oil spills, and the heart clenches for a moment, and for that moment we are lifted out of that illusion.  We are helpless before the horrors of the world.  What’s the point of expending emotional energy on something we can’t change?  When there are jobs to do, and children to raise, and bills to pay?  It is so much easier to run back into the hidey-holes of our lives, especially if we are privileged enough to be far from the scenes of violence and destruction.  Privilege, after all, means we can afford to not think about it.

But I am a writer.  And I like to think of a writer – at least the kind I aspire to be – as a student of the world, immersed in the world.  I know there are writers who believe in cutting themselves off from the world so they can work on their art.  But the writers who have had the greatest impact on me have, in some form or another, been full participant-observers in this world of ours.  So when I am tempted to look away from various external horrors to my own concerns, I remember this — and I remember also what I’ve learned through orbiting the sun for over a half-century: that avoiding or denying painful truths has terrible consequences, personal and otherwise.

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On Listening to Mahler on a Rainy Night

May 26, 2014

It’s been a strange sort of day, with sunshine and rain alternating. I’ve been sitting in the breezeway working on a long post for this blog about diversity in science fiction. The topic makes me think about distances, literal and metaphoric, about solitude, about the difficulties of relating to the other, who may be an alien, your next door neighbor, or both. As I’ve been writing, dark has been falling, bringing rain. I love the sound of rain drumming on the roof. It makes me long for samosas and hot tea, and music from the likes of Lata Mangeshkar. But for some reason tonight the rain has brought me a desire for Mahler. So I’ve been playing this youtube video of one of my favorite lieder ever Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. The music is fabulous, soaring, somber. Since I first heard this in a little student flat over two decades ago with my Korean roommate, it has haunted me. It was sung in a remarkable French movie, Le Maitre De Musique. All these years later I find myself humming the melody under my breath at odd moments.

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Swimming Upstream

July 8, 2013

I was listening to an old Hindi film song not long ago in which a man addresses a woman thus.  “You, who are smiling so, what sorrow does your smile conceal?  Tears in your eyes, laughter on your lips…”  The original is much more elegant than my translation, but the idea is clear.  There are people who might be some of us, or all of us at some time or another, who are — despite appearances — swimming upstream through a river of sorrow. 

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And When That Dawn Will Come…

June 6, 2013

One of the best last lines I’ve read is from Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country.  I read it as a schoolgirl and have never forgotten it.

And when that dawn will come, the dawn of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why that is a secret.

That day did come, the day when apartheid became history.  It was worth the wait.  I’ve realized, after thinking about this for some months, that a certain kind of waiting has to do with love.

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Autumnal Thoughts

September 22, 2012

Summer is officially over in North America.  As of about an hour ago, autumn has begun.

I was born and raised close enough to the equator that the change of seasons was very gradual, and leaves did not all at once drop their leaves.  Many trees stayed leafed throughout winter.  The seasons edged, blurred and bled into each other, with the exception of the monsoons.  The monsoons!  After the mad, crackling heat of summer, the great armada of clouds assembled in the sky and loosed the torrent upon us, as suddenly as a magician’s snap of the fingers.  The coming of the monsoons meant instant relief, an abrupt lifting of the spirits.

Here in North America the seasons change nearly as suddenly.  Autumn is one of my favorite times, because it is not so cold yet, and there is a stark beauty to it that I can perhaps appreciate better now that I am myself in the autumnal stage of life.  But it also comes with a kind of melancholy that can descend abruptly.  One is not gentled into autumn here.  Leaves turn color and fall very quickly, and temperatures drop, so once again we know the struggle of mind over mattress, the difficulty of getting out of a warm bed, the shock of bare toes on a cold floor.  After all these years here I am not quite used to the sudden onset of autumn, the abrupt drop of temperatures and spirits, the hint of winter’s breath around the corner.  The change is too soon, too cruel.  This child of the sub-tropics seems unable to get used to it, although in past years I have always muddled through to the point where the beauty of the fall season becomes apparent: the colors of the leaves fallen against the dark asphalt are startlingly brilliant, and at last one can behold the fractal beauty of bare branches against the sky.  Death is in the air, death of the year, death of the old.  There is no hint yet of the renewal that follows winter, only the apprehension of cold and snow, and the turning inward, the cocooning of thoughts and rooms and fragile beings against the coming chill.  The sun, always so faithfully high in the sky of the tropics, is a low, skulking, sullen being, ember rather than bright fire, reluctantly bathing us in unearthly, beautiful, inadequate light.

In the fall I want to start building my winter nest, my burrow where I could hibernate through the long cold, or at least sleep through most of it like the bears.  But I am not a bear, alas.  I am a human who must venture out, and work, and grade papers, and give exciting lectures, and have responsibilities that preclude a winter sleep.  I feel myself as crisp and fraught and solitary as the leaf still trembling on the tree-branch, filled with apprehensions about change and gravity.  Perhaps there is only hope in the unreliable wind, which might, while blowing me to oblivion, show me places I have not seen before.

The Annals of Vladimir Ouch

August 5, 2012

Vladimir Ouch is my excuse, my justification, for not weeding my garden.

Who, you may ask, is Vladimir Ouch?  None other than the thistle growing near the door of my little house.  I have seen it grow from a prickly little thistlet to a spiky wonder taller than I am.  It was named in collaboration with friends who also enjoy a non-Euclidean way of viewing the world.

When you’ve named something, it is hard to uproot it.  I have a soft spot for thistles to begin with.  They are prickly, and to most eyes, ugly, and yet they produce flowers that are extravagantly purple and beautiful.  We saw a moth-like beast nestling in the swirls of one flower — the mothy one was colored just like a wasp, in dark brown and yellow (“Batesian mimicry,” whispered my daughter).  I am waiting for the local goldfinches to discover Vladimir, since I’ve seen them before on thistles.  Idly I wonder if the gold-and-brown creatures of the air have a special relationship with Vladimir Ouch.   Do they particularly like purple?  Does Vladimir exude a secret scent discernible only to such beings?

My neighbor’s garden is a complete contrast to mine.  His lawns are manicured, his bushes neatly trimmed, and you can smell the pesticide on spray-day even if you are a few blocks away.  Not a single dandelion raises its head on that lawn.  My garden has a shaggy shrubbery in the front, and the lawn behind is innocent of herbicide and pesticide.  This summer the rains have turned the front garden into a jungle, which is something I have to deal with quickly before it becomes impenetrable.  My idea of a garden is certainly much less civilized than my neighbor’s, but a jungle  is a bit much.  Sadly (or gladly?) I have neither the time nor energy to be a hardworking gardener, like certain of my friends.  😛

The trouble is that being an academic and a writer can be a disadvantage, in that it enables creative excuses.  I find myself interested in the greenstuff that comes up after the rains.  I enjoy the uncommon, unacknowledged beauty of the weeds, their defiant, celebratory, nonconformist existence.  I get curious about their lives.  Without lifting a trowel I find my creativity, not my hands, stained with green.  Here’s an extract from a work in progress.  The protagonist shares only two things with me: being female and being lazy about her garden (or fascinated by its wilderness potential, whatever you prefer).

And lately she had been distracted by the beauty of the weeds, bemused by their lust for life.  How quickly they had grown after that first rain!  She had thought: I really must pull that one out, it is so tall… I wonder how much taller it will grow?  And she’d let it stay there just to find out.  At the moment it was taller than her, its whorls of leaves like spread hands stacked vertically, holding the stem that seemed destined for the stars.  Then there were the thistles, so charming in their prickliness, promising those absurdly luxurious purple flowers.  I’ll pull out a few and leave one or two, she’d thought vaguely, but which few?  And who had appointed her executioner?  The little shrubs on the other side of the driveway were also aggressively full of life — a neighbor told her they would become trees if she didn’t pull them out.  But she had to let the leaves, coiled like green embryos on the stem, she had to let those leaves unfurl like slow banners.  She imagined the sap pulsing through the veins, straightening the folds and crenellations until the leaf stood out straight as an arrow.  She watched that happen over days while the weed forest grew madly around her. 

I’m not sure how Vladimir Ouch figures in this story but there is no doubt in my mind that he is much more than backdrop.

 

Emerging

November 13, 2011

I am wondering whether writing short, frequent posts will keep this blog alive, since long essays or ramblings don’t seem to do it.  I am having the busiest semester ever.  But I still want to keep a sort of record, incomplete though it may be, of my random thoughts.  Let’s see how long this experiment will last.

I’ve been grading papers, although not enough to make more than a scratch in the backlog, giving a large public talk where I teach, in which I “came out” as a science fictionwriter, working on a new version of a course that involves field trips, a very strange and fascinating experience for this theoretical physics person, wading through acres of legal papers for other stuff, and attending to child, dog and household in general.  Not necessarily in that order.  In fact, definitely not in that order.

So, random thought #1: I really want to go visit Occupy Boston and support them, but can only do so if I warp spacetime, which does not seem feasible at present.  My institution held a teach-in that was atended  by at least a hundred students and was very inspiring.  I am wondering if I dare to hope (since environmentalists have also joined the bandwagon) that ultimately this movement will take up climate change as well.

An interesting critique that came up was that the movement was too unfocused and didn’t have a few main issues to fight for.  I don’t know if this is a valid criticism but I do know that when you are fighting against an entire system and not just a certain manifestation of it, you might have to be multi-pronged.  If the mini-movements that constitute Occupy feed off and reinforce each other with positive feedback loops, we may yet get a tipping point toward the future we want.  The complex, multifaceted and systemic problems we face are very modern problems and I doubt that we can confront them with the old, tired, linear mindsets.  Or so it seems to me at this juncture.

Randon thought #2: I’m thinking of Ettore Majorana’s disappearance and wonder what really happened to him.  I hope that he stayed alive and ended up living the way he wanted to, as elusive as the neutrinos he studied.  Somebody needs to write a play about him.

So much for a short post!  This is at least short-ish.  Let’s see if I can write something soon.

Storycopia

July 31, 2011

Something rather strange has happened in the past few weeks.  Despite having a very busy summer, with just as little sleep as during the semesters, plus a number of things to stress over, I have managed to write 3 stories.  In the past 5 weeks.  Counting the short piece I wrote for the VanderMeer Bestiary anthology warlier this year, I have now completed 4 stories in 2011.  As though this largesse (by my standards) was not enough, I am about to embark on completing a 5th story.  I am completely amazed.

My record for stories is 4 a year, which is pathetic and only happened once about 7 years ago.  I can’t believe that at a time like this I am able to break that record!  The Muse is back!  And whatever has been holding back my creativity over the years has been swept away.  I don’t know how long this will last but I am more grateful than I can say.

Of the five stories I expect to complete this year, three are old pieces I’d written some 2-3 years ago but couldn’t complete.  They were not only incomplete but fragmented, messy, stuck, and I had no idea how to fix them.  Suddenly this summer they’ve come to reveal themselves in ways that are mostly satisfactory.

Apart from the short piece Yakshantariksh for the Bestiary anthology, I have the following:

1.  A global warming story that I’ve submitted but haven’t heard back from the editor for a while

2. My first alternate history story.  I read from it at Readercon this year.  At that point it was not really complete but it is as of a couple of weeks ago.

3. A very strange story about an old woman scientist-musician reflecting and waiting on the eve (sort of) of her death

4.  My fifth story, still working on it: A story about a woman who leaves her village to find her child, and discovers surprising truths about the place she lives; the geography of this culture is something I’m very thrilled about.

So now, on to more mundane stuff, like laundry.