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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Hello, For Now

After this long silence, it is fitting I think to begin with death.

On the first Friday in January, Tuppence, my husband's pet turtle for the past twenty-two years, swam into a dark corner of his tank and died. A week later, my husband's ninety-six-year-old grandmother died late at night of kidney failure while my mother-in-law sang a hymn to calm her fears. "See you in heaven," she'd told us the last winter we were there, and of course we said, "No, Grandma, don't talk like that. We'll see you many times before that." How cowardly she must have thought us, not to acknowledge that death was in the room, that death is always in the room.

Neither of these deaths was unexpected, yet they shocked me profoundly. I handled Tuppence's corpse, and I stood very close to Grandmother's body in the open coffin, almost touched the beautiful white and green embroidered shirt she was wearing, her stiffly folded hands. The stillness of death turned what had been familiar flesh and blood into strangers. I had to remind myself again and again that what I was touching, seeing, saying goodbye to was Tuppence, our turtle, and Grandma, our Grandma. For they looked nothing like what I knew them to be. I wasn't scared of their bodies for more than a moment, and that was an impulsive, irrational fear. What has stayed with me until now is bafflement. And no, what's incomprehensible isn't that we die, but that death is such an emptying, such complete stillness. I'm agnostic about the existence of the soul, but I saw, as I stood face to face with death, why the soul might be a necessary explanation for what happens to us once we stop breathing (and, for that matter, once we begin; birth is just as astonishing to me as death).

I find myself in a different relationship with these unknowns now that I've begun to study biology. I'm taking an introductory class at a community college and reading my textbook with a voracity that sometimes embarrasses me. The beginning of life on earth billions of years ago, the formation of the first cell, the chemistry of fermentation and photosynthesis, fill me with wonder in a way that the creation story never did. I find it difficult to understand what is lost by giving up on the literalness of the six-day-long jellying of darkness into galaxies and gardens, and by examining with reverent attention what biology and chemistry tell us about life in the universe. Lightheadedness and nausea seize me occasionally when I think about the trillion cells in my body doing their work; this is more miraculous to me than God listening in on my dreams. I know, I know, my head is high up in the clouds of science. But I won't apologize for that. Soon enough I'll plunk right back down to the ground; my anchor, pessimism, is always with me. Until then I want to marvel shamelessly, not least because I was afraid of science for so long, afraid that it was impermeable to my ability to understand. Some of it still is; but some of it isn't.

One field of biology that particularly interests me is systematics, which deals with the classification of living things, with their names and the way they are ordered in relation to one another. A curious intersection has occurred in the past few weeks (I find that now that I'm reading so widely this isn't so uncommon or so miraculous) between science and literature. Quite by accident I stumbled on Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, and in this book several characters are gardeners, one a botanist. The question of classification and order stands behind the words of this novel like a benevolent ghost. Of course it's a question asked not only about plants but about the bits and pieces that make up everyday life, which the imagination takes hold of and turns into a (sometimes deceiving) whole. This is the fallacy, the awful temptation: that a whole can be created out of what is disparate, that order can be imposed. My worries, my fears, my despair about what my life can be summed up as, all stem from this fallacy. I'm not able yet to give up its comforts. But I'm trying to wean myself from them, to come back to what is happening now, wriggle back inside the scrap of my life going on right now. Today this means taking up writing here again. Tomorrow will bring its own surprises.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Maven said...

I thought you might be back, so I kept you on my roll--welcome back. An intersection of science and literature (and music) you might enjoy: The Goldbug Variations, by Richard Powers. I once counted it among my very favorite books.

February 21, 2007  
Blogger John Mc said...

welcome back. I have lurked on your blog for a while without commenting.

Your post is on the money, I've been pondering this very topic myself. I recently finished Richard Dawkins book, "The Good Delusion". It's a polemic whose primary objective is to convince those of us who are agnostic that this is a somewhat cowardly position, and that really we are atheists but can't admit it. His arguments are eloquent and convincing, and very much aim to instill awe in the process of natural selection, but although I cannot believe in a personal god, or a being who created everything,I haven't quite made the jump to atheist. Conditioning maybe...

February 22, 2007  
Blogger Green Whale said...

I love Richard Powers' writing although its depth and intelligence also scare me more than a little bit. I've read Galatea 2.2 a few years ago and didn't recover from it for weeks.

I think being agnostic is more courageous than being an atheist because it forces you to be at home with uncertainty, with not knowing, and that's one of the hardest things about being human that I can think of. I admire Richard Dawkins and want to read The God Delusion but I have to confess that his (over)confidence makes me mistrust him a little.

February 22, 2007  
Blogger Rebel Girl said...

hey!

you're back!

cool.

February 28, 2007  

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