March 2, 2014.
I recently read an article about Carl Sagan, “Star Power”, by Joel Achenbach in the March issue of the Smithsonian magazine. The article discusses the revival of the show “Cosmos” as it coincides with availability of all of Carl Sagan’s papers—all 798 boxes—at the Library of Congress. The show “Cosmos” is back much in part to Seth MacFarlane, creator of the television show “Family Guy” because he believes most of the science available on mainstream television, if any, is “fluff”.
The article quotes a note from Carl Sagan’s 1981 file after “Cosmos” was a big hit, “I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding” (Achenbach, Joel. “Star Power”, Smithsonian. March 2014: 68. Print.).
This part from the article took me to the vast universe within myself. When it comes to certain things, especially people, time, and cities, there is so much I understand so quickly, that it makes no sense to others. This, trying to translate what I understand, has been a struggle for me ever since I was little. As I grew older, I realized it was better to allow the natural course of events “show” at the mercy of Time instead of “tell” based on my understanding. I don’t think it makes me or others like me “brilliant” per se, when it comes to higher math, I have to show my work to understand it. Moreover, some of us who do figure things out faster, regardless of previous experiences, do see the “mechanics of understanding”, it is just that there is no medium to per se communicate these mechanics. That being said, there are times when I am so convinced of the merits of what I understand that I am compelled to translate it all, step-by-step, to others.
Perhaps that is why music is a phenomenon. It transports us to the “mechanics of understanding”.
Despite not being an opera aficionado, I recently learned that Italian composer Giacomo Puccini of “Madama Butterfly” wrote, “The conscious, purposeful appropriation of one’s own soul forces is the supreme secret.” Puccini believed that he “would not have been given desire without also being given the ability to create whatever it was that would come forth” through him.
I shared this article, “Ten States Where Income Equality Has Soared” about the impact of gentrification with some friends. One friend replied, “Class division hurts my heart. This is NOT the land of the free.” This is where my “mechanics of understanding” fail me. I don’t understand why there are people who can only feel good about themselves at the expense of others not having enough. How do we fix this? Can we? It’s existed as long as we can trace back recorded history. Then I reflect about what is going on in Ukraine and Pakistan and I feel justified to say, “At least it is not that bad in the United States. Not yet, anyway.” Is that the new standard of freedom?
A fascinating article in The New Yorker titled “In the Sontag Archives” by biographer Benjamin Moser states that his recent research led him to discover that “Susan Sontag wrote seventeen thousand one hundred and ninety-eight e-mails, which will soon be available for consultation on a special laptop. I was given a special viewing at the library, and the experience gave me a queasiness that I have never felt during the years I have conducted historical research. [...] To read someone’s e-mail is to see her thinking and talking in real time.”
17,198 emails. That is nothing for most of us given the internet is only 20 years old. Most of us have many accounts and many more emails than that.
I think about this a lot. After I am gone, what of my emails? They are just a record of passing moments. What can a moment tell us? I was thinking about leaving California on February 9th and on February 15th I found a new sense of purpose here. All of a sudden I am invigorated by unprecedented opportunity for reforming education and closing the literacy gap. The emails before February 14th will give you a bleak picture that will make you question everything you knew about me. The emails since might reflect I am high on rosebuds. I think the more we digitally share, the less others really know us. I once wanted to tweet: “I am so spoiled by love.” I didn’t. That means so many different things to so many. I prefer communicating over explaining. Social media is no longer a platform for communicating authentically, even with the best of intentions.
The article continues, “Sontag wrote that photographs are as much about what they don’t show as what they do, that what we see depends on where the photographer places the frame. Her journals reveal a love of statistics and astonishing facts, but the moral center of her writing (about photography, about war, about politics) is an insistence that what we see is not always what we get.”
Benjamin Moser ends the article with this poignant thought which sums up our digital age:
“Now our lives are increasingly lived on the computer. The amount of data on our smartphones is far more than she could have imagined in her lifetime, though she died less than a decade ago. For anyone who believes in the value of historical research, hard drives, like those preserved at U.C.L.A., will be the locus of that research. Will they end up revealing more about our lives—or, by revealing too much, ultimately reveal less?”
I think they will reveal much less as we continue.
We do all sorts of things, and say all sorts of things, and listen to all sorts of things, for all sorts of reasons. We remain unpredictable. I never thought I would but I deleted my What’s App account after Fakebook bought it. This saddened me given it was my primary way of keeping in touch with friends overseas but it had to be done.
I don’t believe in seasons. I think a winter can last one whole year and there can be three summers in 365 days. March 2013 to yesterday was one such winter. I will just borrow Lemony Snicket’s series title to sum up the longest winter which lasted March to March: a series of unfortunate events. This past year, despite all the wonderful things that came my way, demanded so much out of me due to work. This will no longer be the case. It finally feels like a new year.
Despite everything, I still managed to finish Collection of Auguries. Not just that, also around February 14th, I learned that Publisher’s Weekly decided to review my book and gave me a review that made me feel like I had finally reached the shore. This is not just because it was a review from PW, it is because I could feel that whoever read it felt the life-force in the stories. It was an affirmation for me: stories are living things.
When the topography of the land of the free no longer feels familiar no matter where you go, freedom becomes a moment-to-moment undertaking. Freedom becomes standing up for truth in meetings; freedom becomes refusing work without compensation, freedom becomes sticking to your values in a digital age where “selfie” is part of the value-system. Freedom becomes praying for rain because geologists have given up on a solution to the drought-like conditions in parts of the southwest.
After a year of feeling that stillness may not exist in equal parts throughout the world, you finally land on the shore, bone-dry from being tossed in the ocean, ready to redefine stillness. You are humbled that all your previous definitions were such mechanical understandings and the very reason you made it, as you complained there is no stillness, is because of an infinite reservoir from where Stillness pours. You understand that the very reason you, or anyone, makes it through winter, is love. When we are grounded, we sense that love as stillness, quietude even. When we are not, it is always love that which carries us back to our human interpretation of stillness.
The horizon looks promising despite the uncertainty, bad news around the world, and empty-calories in most internet content. As long as there are those who want something more, the way will be carved by a love for something more than oneself, the very love that carries us to the shore.
If you have a desire to change the world, you also have the ability.
I leave you with “How to Be a Poet” by Wendell Berry:
Communicate slowly. Live/ a three-dimensional life;/ stay away from screen.
And words from “How to Write Poetry” by my good friend, poet, singer, artist, and kindred spirit, V. Shayne Fredrick:
live and give others the freedom of life.