Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves

Physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman has added his own manifestoIn Praise of Wasting Time. Of course, the title is ironic, because Lightman argues that by putting down our devices and spending time on quiet reflection, we regain some of our lost humanity, peace of mind, and capacity for creativity—not a waste of time, after all, despite the prevailing mentality that we should spend every moment actually doing something. The problem is not only our devices, the internet, and social media. Lightman argues that the world has become much more noisy, fast-paced, and distracting. Partly, he writes, this is because the advances that have enabled the much greater transfer of data, and therefore productivity, have created an environment in which seemingly inexorable market forces push for more time working and less leisure time.

Lightman starts his book with an anecdote from his recent time in a rural village in Cambodia. When he asked a villager how long it took her to bike daily to the market ten miles away to barter for food and goods, she replied that she had never thought about it. Lightman is “startled” at this, and jealous. He points out that we in the “developed” world (his scare quotes) have carved up our days into minuscule portions, not a single one to be wasted. He admits that “from the instant I open my eyes in the morning until I turn out the lights at night, I am at work on some project. First thing in the morning, I check my email. For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers…” 

Lightman points to several productive, creative individuals who routinely had unstructured time in their days. A fellow physicist at MIT, Paul Schechter, used to sit for hours daydreaming on park benches, which he credited with helping come up with important ideas, including a formula for the number of galaxies with different luminosities. Gertrude Stein used to drive around in the country every day and find a place to sit and write; much of that time was not spent writing, but gazing at cows. Mathematician Henri Poincaré, after a few weeks of fruitless work on functions, drank coffee one evening and in his sleeplessness found that “[i]deas rose in crowds; I felt them collide under pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions . . . “

Lightman feels we are in a “dire” situation:

Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves. We are losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us. We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless and reflexive cog, relentless driven by the speed, noise, and artificial urgency of the wired world.

~ Anitra Pavlico, from “Alan Lightman On Wasting Time” (3quarksdaily, January 7, 2019)


Photo: Financial Times

What’s Your Spirit Bird?

 

I sit at the kitchen table preparing to read the NY Times. I separate the front section from the rest of the paper, and then pause.

I get up, go to the fridge and grab the remains of yesterday’s leftovers.

I turn to the Opinion Pages, my first stop, and scan the titles. My eyes spot an essay by Margaret Renkl.  I’m a fan-boy of Margarets. I see that her piece is titled “Spring is Coming“…well that’s a bit aggressive on January 5th, no Margaret? 

I read on.

“There’s a New Year’s tradition among bird-watchers: The first bird you see on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year. Your spirit bird, the bird that sets the tone for your encounters with the world and with others, the bird that guides your heart and your imagination in the coming year. It’s hardly a serious ornithological exploration, but there are plenty of birders who will wake before dawn anyway, no matter how late they stayed up on New Year’s Eve. They will drive off to some wild place teeming with avian life, all to increase the sunrise odds of seeing a truly amazing first bird. Who wouldn’t love to be matched for a year to the spirit of the snowy owl? What a gift to be guided for 12 months by the soul of a Bohemian waxwing!”

I pause.

Yea, OK, it’s January 5th, it’s well beyond New Year’s Day but there’s no reason I can’t find my bird now. I need my spirit bird Now.

I stop nibbling on my sandwich. Get up. Step out the back door, watch, and listen.

Silence.

I wait a few moments longer, in my short sleeve t-shirt, in 38° F temperatures.

Nothing. 

Perhaps some encouragement. Come on Red! Where’s that Red Cardinal? There are four bird feeders in the backyard. All hang on their poles silently. No breeze. They don’t swing. They are Still.

Nothing.

I step back into the house, pull the sliding door closed, and finish up Margaret’s essay.

No Bird. Wonder what that means.

I reach for the remaining quarter of my sandwich, and look down…

Chicken Sandwich…

What a gift to be guided for 12 months by the soul of a Bohemian waxwing!


Photo: Ostdrossel

Miracle. All of it. (This Year on Earth)

In 2018,

  • Earth picked up about 40,000 metric tons of interplanetary material, mostly dust, much of it from comets.
  • Earth lost around 96,250 metric tons of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, which escaped to outer space.
  • Roughly 505,000 cubic kilometers of water fell on Earth’s surface as rain, snow, or other types of precipitation.
  • Bristlecone pines, which can live for millennia, each gained perhaps a hundredth of an inch in diameter.
  • Countless mayflies came and went.
  • More than one hundred thirty-six million people were born in 2018, and more than fifty-seven million died.
  • Tidal interactions are very slowly increasing the distance between Earth and the moon, which ended 2018 about 3.8 centimeters further apart than they were at the beginning. As a consequence, Earth is now rotating slightly more slowly; the day is a tiny fraction of a second longer.
  • Earth and the sun are also creeping apart, by around 1.5 centimeters per year. Most of the change is due to changes in the sun’s gravitational pull as it converts some of its mass into energy by nuclear fusion.
  • The entire solar system traveled roughly 7.25 billion kilometers in its orbit about the center of the Milky Way. This vast distance, however, is only about 1/230,000,000th of the entire orbit.
  • There were two lunar eclipses and three partial solar eclipses, each a step in the long gravitational dance making up the roughly 18-year saros cycle. During one saros cycle, eclipses with particular characteristics (partial, total, annular) and a specific Earth–Moon–Sun geometry occur in a predictable sequence; at the end, the whole thing starts again. This pattern has been repeating for much longer than humans have been around to see it.

I like knowing these bits of cosmic context because they link me to a larger world. I can echo the words of Ptolemy: “Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.”

Mary Hrovat, from “This Year on Earth” (3 Quarks Daily, December 24, 2018)

Don’t miss the rest of her essay here: This Year on Earth


Notes:

  • Photo: Phys.org.
  • Related Posts: Miracle. All of it.
  • Inspiration: Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Stir the Soul


Notes:

  1. Attendees at Christmas Eve Mass in Surabaya, Indonesia. (Juni Kristwanto, wsj.com December 25, 2018)
  2. A man stands inside a damaged church in the village of Tel Nasri, Syria. (Rodi Said, Reuters, wsj.com December 25, 2018)
  3. An elephant wearing a Santa Claus costume performs for Thai students during Christmas celebrations at Jirasart school in Ayutthaya province north of Bangkok. (Chaiwat Subrasom, wsj.com December 24, 2018)

Come and Get Your Love

Volume Up! How great is this! ‘Tis the Season.


Notes: 1) Lori, thank you for sharing! 2) Post title from lyrics and music by Redbone: Come and Get Your Love (1974) (Don’t miss their video on Soul Train)

Sunday Morning

Until we can comprehend the beguiling beauty of a single flower, we are woefully unable to grasp the meaning and potential of life itself.

~ Virginia Woolf


Photo: Padma Inguva (via Aberrant Beauty). Quote: via Memory’s Landscape

Soul Crushing

@whs_worldheritagespecies: Soul crushing image of a rhino fetus whose mother had been poached the evening before. Poachers, those who benefit from selling a rhino’s horn, those who believe the horn is a “miracle” drug, and the courts that let poachers walk free are cancers of the planet!😡😡 It’s not very often that I post a photo of myself, but I thought I would share my experience at a rhino poaching incident I was working at in South Africa this year. I’ve been working closely with wildlife vets, particularly for my rhino photojournalism story. A few weeks ago we were called to a rhino who had been killed by poachers during the night. The vets performed an autopsy on her to find the bullet; a vital piece of evidence in the investigation. In this case the cow was shot badly by the poachers, she was hit in the stomach causing her to die a slow and extremely painful death during night. I was taking photos and helping the vets where I could as they cut through her to search for the bullets when I overheard one of the vets mention that she was pregnant. I ran to the back of the rhino just as they were slicing open the amniotic sack, exposing this foetus, which was close to being born. Conservation, particularly of rhino, is something I’ve been involved in for a long time. I’ve been to poaching incidents before, I’ve seen some gruesome things, but this is something that will haunt me for a very long time. His fragile skin was soft to the touch, and tore easily with the most gentle of brushes. His feet were underdeveloped, his lifeless eyes glazed behind the thick eyelashes that had started to grow. There in the grass he lay, next to his mother, who must have died slowly, agonisingly, and full of fear in the dark night. His opportunity to live torn away at the pull of a trigger, and at the greed of mankind. I’ll be revealing some of my work from this incident over the next few weeks. Photo credit: @lisa_vet_graham IG My Instagram: @benswildlife

That blank page…just laying there. Daring you to write on it.

Highly (Highly) recommended. (On Netflix now)

An excerpt:

She had these ethnic features, coal-black hair, Italian olive skin, and when she was young, she wore that red lipstick that was very fashionable in the 50’s. And she’d be looking down at me with a look that, for me, was like the grace of Mary, you know? Made me understand for the first time, how good it feels to feel pride in somebody that you love, and who loves you back. She let that town know that we are handsome, responsible members of this shit-dog burgh, pulling our own individual weight doing what has to be done day after day. We have a place here that we have earned. And we have a reason to open our eyes at the break of each day and breathe in a life that’s steady and good. Now, my mom was truthfulness, consistency, good humor, professionalism, grace, kindness, optimism, civility, fairness, pride in yourself, responsibility, love, faith in your family, commitment, joy in your work, and a never-say-die thirst for living, for living and for life.

~ Bruce Springsteen, describing his Mother

and another…

Your life laying before you like a blank page. It’s the one thing I miss about getting older, I miss that beauty of that blank page. So much life in front of you. Its promise, its possibilities, its mysteries, its adventures. 

That blank page…just laying there.

Daring you to write on it.

~ Bruce Springsteen, 69

A dog’s life

In deciding how far to go to save a pet with health problems, people fall on two sides – those who’d do whatever it takes, pay staggering bills, take leaves from their jobs, and those who see a broken animal as a costly nuisance, something that can be replaced…What role does suffering and quality of life play? And how do you navigate it when you’re in the middle of an emergency, swamped by uncertainty and unknowns? … “To look into [a dog’s] eyes and watch the lights go out as they go to sleep, it’s so heartbreaking I can’t imagine anybody apart from the toughest people can do that without being seriously affected. So the decision becomes let’s not do it, let’s give healing a chance.”

Scout came into my life in the middle of a January night in the parking lot of a Super 8 near Rochester, N.Y. A rescue worker plucked all 11 pounds and 12 weeks of her from a crate on the back of a truck and slipped her into my arms. It was raining and I tucked her inside my pea coat. She snuffled my neck. You’re home, I whispered. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, so was I…

I found her on the rescue website Petfinder and it really was love at first sight.  Her face was gentle and curious, with old-soul eyes. She had four white paws and a blaze of white the shape of Texas on her chest. In the litter’s adoption video, she was the one always at the bottom of the pile.

I’d wanted a Lab mixed with something smart and sweet and stumbled on a litter of Lab/Border collie pups in Mt. Airy, N.C., in December, 2015. The rescue pulled dogs from high kill shelters and adopted them to the northeast United States and Canada, employing a truck to deliver dogs to their new families every two weeks.

I hadn’t planned on getting a puppy. I’d never felt brave enough to try to take care of something that required so much attention. But I had wanted a dog of my own for as long as I can remember. I imagined that having a dog would be a good antidote to depression; it would get me out of my own head, serve as an anchor outside of work and make me feel safe. A dog would push me out of the house and into the world, and it would keep me home, too, when it was better to be there.

With Scout, I had something to focus on other than myself. Housebreaking alone was a full time job. On weekends, I was up by seven o’clock, because no one can sleep with the Looming Dog Alarm Clock. I made small talk with strangers, as long as they had a dog. I stayed in more at night, busy with belly rubs, teaching tricks and playing tug of war. Everything was nicer with her around. Reading books and watching movies. Sleeping. Walking. She followed me everywhere. Training her made me feel good at something. She was the best comfort and company, a mostly serious dog full of concern, unless there were squirrels to be chased, a ball to be thrown or a lake to be conquered. She made me laugh every day.

Love does find you.

~ Shawna Richer, from “A dog’s life: What would I sacrifice for the animal I love? (The Global and Mail, December 15, 2018)

Sunday Morning

baby-father

He said that after the third child, he told his wife, Enough! He felt too old to have any more, so he got a vasectomy. But in the years since, he’s had many moments of regret, because once the boys got a little older, he said he wanted it again—the experience of cradling an infant in his arms.

~ Sheila Heti, Motherhood: A Novel (Henry Holt and Co., May 1, 2018)


Photo: caz gordon with Father & 2 day old Son

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