Complexity & simplicity

I revel in complexity. Yet I seek simplicity.

Are the two incompatible?

I think not, if one is comfortable with paradox and ambiguity and remains willing to view experiences from various perspectives.

Anyway, if a person is not willing to encounter complexity, that person is essentially trying (hopelessly) to escape life. Exhibit A, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s delicious entry on “Life,” by Bruce Weber:

Living entities metabolize, grow, die, reproduce, respond, move, have complex organized functional structures, heritable variability, and have lineages which can evolve over generational time, producing new and emergent functional structures that provide increased adaptive fitness in changing environments. Reproduction involves not only the replication of the nucleic acids that carry the genetic information but the epigenetic building of the organism through a sequence of developmental steps. Such reproduction through development occurs within a larger life-cycle of the organism, which includes its senescence and death. Something that is alive has organized, complex structures that carry out these functions as well as sensing and responding to interior states and to the external environment and engaging in movement within that environment.

Interior, exterior, replication, variability…a look at computational complexity models shows us that the possibilities are indeed endless.

No matter how complicated the specifics become, however, there are these simple phenomena: birth, death; with (usually) some sort of transformation/transition or action occurring in the gaps. While I do not think that most of the questions human beings ask are “simple”–indeed, even the process of asking “do you want cake?” is more complicated at the physiological and cognitive levels than most of us would care to explore–it may be possible to quiet the mind and heart a bit to a level closer to simplicity.

The moment of awe offers, to my way of thinking, a kind of simplicity we can access on even the most ordinary days, even as we relish the amazing complexity of the phenomena of the physical world with its fractal tree branchings, its crystalline-structured cloud formations, and the elements in the atmosphere that, through the processing of light (about 4400 angstroms) through the rods and cones of human eyes, make up the quality we call sky blue.

Simply beautiful. Breathe in. Breathe out.

May Moon Ann E. Michael

Quiet earthiness

The beloved life partner of a long-time friend was interred in a green burial today, a glorious May morning full of flowers (she loved gardening…); and I find myself with little to say.

It’s been that way for the past two weeks. Not exactly writer’s block, as I have in fact drafted several poems, but an extreme sense of turning-inward. My nature is reflective–I’ve always fallen into the introvert category (INFP for those who are familiar with the Myers-Briggs assessment)–but my job requires pretty constant interaction with other people, students and colleagues for the most part, and quite a bit of listening and talking. I enjoy my job and find it rewarding; but the stressful weeks just before exams, when term papers are due, can be challenging for a person whose inclination is to read books and putter in the dirt.

I planted seeds in the earth, and picked flowers. And then placed flowers on a coffin woven of reeds which was lowered into the earth.

Returning home the quiet overcame me. I’ve been reading poetry today instead of the Sunday New York Times.

Also, I’ve been reading books on “good death” and “mindful dying,” and the guidance of some sensitive and experienced authors seems appropriate and grounded.

But grief is hard. It’s probably one reason we invented philosophy, religion, and poetry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

Shadblow, also known as serviceberry.

One of my go-to anthologies for sorrow is Pinsky’s The Handbook of Heartbreak, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. In addition, I opened Christian Wiman’s book Every Riven Thing at random and came upon his poem “From a Window“–

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving…

 

The poem comforted me (and I read other poems today, by other poets, that also comforted me). This one ends with the following stanzas:

 

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

 

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

 

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

 

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

 

~
The joy comes in, somehow, through the quiet and the dirt and the trees.

9th as new

Last week, I tutored a student on a music appreciation paper in which she was asked to review a concert-going experience. Her family background is culturally rich–but not rich in terms of the Western cultural canon. She had heard the name Beethoven; but until this class, as a sophomore in college, she had never listened to his music. She attended a concert that featured a Liszt sonata, two brief Schubert pieces (Ständchen and one other), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Because I cannot remember not knowing Beethoven’s music, I kind of envy this young woman’s revelations in the concert hall; what must it be like to hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony, for the first time, as a 19-year-old? I may not be familiar with all of the master’s works, but my parents had some of the symphonies on vinyl back in the 1960s. We listened to classical music on the radio and in church; even commercial television featured famous musical phrases. My sister and I liked dancing around the living room every weeknight to The Huntley-Brinkley Report’s closing theme (2nd movement Beethoven’s 9th).

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

~

Initially, she and I went over the structure of a review and how it resembles an analysis paper. She had used musical terminology reasonably well, and we had grammar and mechanics to work on. What she liked best, she said, was the part with the singers. She found the third movement “a bit boring. I kept wondering if this was the end.” But the fourth movement excited her: “It was really like a celebration or something, and you could see the expressions on the faces of the singers and the musicians, that they were so into it. Like, you kind of wanted to stand up for it, you know?”

Yes, I know–that’s how I have felt when I have heard the piece in concert.

~

Our discussion went on after our work on the paper’s mechanics had ended, though, because she asked me why courses like this one are required for college. Her major is early childhood education, and she says her parents asked her how a course on classical music has anything to do with teaching 4-year-olds.

It turns out I had more to say on that than I realized. Bless her heart, this student was eager to listen. [I have to admit that isn’t as common a response as one might wish.] Many of my friends, I said, are teachers or former teachers; they are among the smartest, most open-minded and curious people I know. They pay attention to contemporary culture and they read about history. They get allusions and references and make clever jokes and know all kinds of things and also, they admit what they do not know and are eager to learn about. They’d play Beethoven for kindergarteners and let them dance to the fast movements and ask them how it feels to hear the slower, sadder late quartets. They might have the children finger-paint to Beyoncé or twirl like leaves to Vivaldi’s “Autumn” or use round colored stickers to make their own “Starry Night” pictures or recite a poem that’s fun to say out loud. Culture is education.

And there’s more, I told her, that has to do with you as a person who understands the culture you are part of. You have to know about politics, especially local and state politics, because teachers need to understand how legislation and budgets can affect income and careers. You might feel uncomfortable in your job if you don’t get your colleagues’ allusions or feel you cannot participate equally in their conversations when the subject turns to culture, history, museums, music, art, policies and fiscal issues. It is fine to admit what you do not know or have not yet been exposed to–but it helps to know where you stand and to show you want to learn.

You’ll learn from your students, too. If you really want to be a good teacher, I said, you will never want to stop learning. Maybe you will reach a point where you don’t need to know a whole lot more about Beethoven, but you will want to explore other subjects. So when you take the required fine arts courses, the required literature courses, the courses in philosophy and math and all that other stuff, realize how all of it will get into your brain somehow, maybe touch a nerve here or there, and help you become a terrific teacher.

Besides, isn’t it beautiful? Even the boring parts…have you ever experienced anything like that before?

“No, honestly,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was up for it, but it was worth it.”

Written by a human

Here’s a controversy for National Poetry Month–there are an amazing number of controversies surrounding poetry–which takes up the idea of whether a “machine” can write poetry. A good introduction is this CCR interview with Oscar Schwartz, who developed Botpoet as an experiment that is not so much about artificial intelligence as it is about what humans consider to be poetry. And perhaps about what language really is. If you follow the link to the site, you can participate in his research by playing “Bot or Not,” a game in which the player reads a series of poetic lines and then chooses between written by a human or not written by a human.

If you’ve read a great deal of classic and contemporary poetry, you may recognize some of the poems (I did); I suppose that is a way to cheat the system, since I have insider information. Nevertheless, I was wrong embarrassingly often. What, exactly, was I looking for in those words?

I think Schwartz is correct in his assessment of the more general population (though literary types may disagree with general assessments) when he says:

People generally seem to associate rhyming, “Romantic” poetry as being human. And they consider highly abstract, non-traditional poems to be of human provenance. Investigating as to why this might be the case is the project of my PhD.

He points out that written language is arbitrary and abstract, “an artificial medium” to begin with, and may have less to do with being human than we might like to think. Maybe the qualities that make a poem a poem are qualities that reside in the reader/interpreter rather than in the poet, another individual’s aesthetics or sense of what seems “creative.” That might be an unsettling thought for many writers, though it rather appeals to me.

Schwartz continues,

“So the results of Bot or Not, rather than telling us what human really is, is actually telling us that the category of the ‘human’ is an ideological, political space…The Bot or Not project works not because it tells us about computer software, but because it reveals things about what we assume to be human. It destabilizes the category of the human.”

As it turns out, the study of consciousness also tends that way–destabilizing our long-held category of what-a-human-is or what, if anything, differentiates us from other animals. Some interpreters of Zen philosophy suggest that Zen consists in finding balance within the inherent instability of the corporeal world. Or, perhaps, acceptance that humanness may be something we cannot categorize; the challenge then is to learn to flourish in a state of destabilization.

Let me sing the body electric…and the mind (possibly) electronic.

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Online reading, online learning

I blog, therefore I am part of the digi-technological consciousness.

Here’s a situation Descartes might have had fun imagining…have we invented our own “evil genius” in Boolean or algorithmic forms? I won’t venture there, as I am not tech-savvy or social-media savvy enough to philosophize around tech aspects of modern culture; though, yes, I do use portal systems when I teach; I do use (limited) forms of social media for communication and to publicize my work; I do take part in the networks community online; my poems and essays appear in online journals; I read blogs and online journals although in general I prefer paper, especially for book-length works.

It isn’t as if I don’t consider the intellectual challenges these communication platforms offer. It would be silly to ignore them. They are not going to go away any time soon. One question is, however, to what extent should I employ or embrace them?

~

Recently, I’ve had a poem published in Carbon Culture Review, an online and print journal that states, as part of its mission, that the publication “advocates a creative, thoughtful and visually appealing dialogue about our complex relationship to technology. We strive to promote the work of those who employ technology and utilize technological designs and terms in art and literature.” The Intersection of Technology + Literature + Art, says the masthead; interdisciplinary in scope–that’s something I find fascinating, so I’m happy to report a rather atypical poem of mine has found a place in the new issue (“21st Century Research”).

I read Chronicle of Higher Education online and have linked to several of its essays in past posts. Lately, I find much of interest in Hybrid Pedagogy, a fairly new digital source about technology, teaching, radical re-thinking of the educational framework, and exploring the possibility of intentional, compassionate connections between teachers and students–even in the digital world. Here’s a recent essay that appeals to me: “Teaching as Wayfinding.” I am still wrestling with the challenges of how to create a genuinely interactive and personal learning space in the classroom, let alone via distance education. There is so much to learn, and welcoming interdisciplinary synthesis into the discourse of the humanities offers intriguing potential.

~

Speaking of the interdisciplinary: I am pleased to report that The College of Physicians of Philadelphia chose one of my poems, “How the Body Works” as an honorable mention in its Poetry Month contest celebrating medical/health themes in poetry. [You can also check my Events page for information and tickets.]

The College, a professional medical organization founded in 1787 (same age as the U.S. Constitution), is also the site of the Mütter Museum, which has a terrific slogan: “Are you ready to be disturbingly informed?” The College boasts a library of historic significance.

It’s a great venue for a reading, and if you are in the area, please join us. My brother says the food is really good, too–the ticket price includes a dinner. How festive is that!?

Poetry, awe

Welcome, National Poetry Month. This year’s poster was designed by one of my favorite cartoonists, author/artist Roz Chast. She illustrates Mark Strand’s famous poem. Click the link to order a copy! You can donate to Poets.org while you’re at it.

~

Apropos of my last post (here), it turns out that Berkeley Social Interaction laboratory (BSI) has done studies on…awe. Awe might be what Ehrenreich experienced in a fashion more ecstatic or charged than the more garden-variety awe that BSI’s Dacher Keltner writes about in this essay in Slate. Some of the early findings from social research suggest that awe, even more than compassion and joy, contributes to a sense of personal well-being and counteracts depression.

Possibly more surprising is the indication from respondents that awe is not as uncommon as we think:

[A] study from our Berkeley lab speaks to the promise of daily awe. Amie Gordon gathered people’s daily reports of awe for two weeks and found that it is surprisingly common in everyday living. Every third day, people feel that they are in the presence of something vast that they do not immediately comprehend. For example, seeing gold and red autumn leaves pirouette to the ground in a light wind; being moved by someone who stands up to injustice; and hearing music on a street corner at 2 AM all elicited such an experience. Intriguingly, each burst of daily awe predicted greater well-being and curiosity weeks later.

When I reflect on my own daily life, I realize that’s true–this sort of experience grounds me many days when I feel I am losing purpose or overwhelmed or simply sad. It might be the sight of a raptor in an amazing dive toward prey, or the shimmer of light on a bird’s feathers, or a particularly stunning sunrise. It might be a story a student tells me, something moving or courageous.

Every once in a rare while, awe is larger, encompasses more, displaces my sense of self, flames into ecstasy. That kind of experience exhausts, whereas “everyday awe” invigorates, calms, balances life toward the bearable. And often, reading a poem pushes me into the state of awe. For Poetry Month, I will grant myself the daily possibility of awe by reading poetry.

 

Unknowable

While reading up on some recent theories on evolution and reading for the first time (other than in excerpts) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin, I have returned to mulling over the problem of consciousness. What fascinates me is how this topic (consciousness) overlaps with philosophy, physiology, evolution–how and why we developed the brains we have with their attendant egos, theory of self, what-have-you–and with human constructs such as art and religion and morality, which I value for complicated reasons.

And out of curiosity, I took up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, which seemed to me a departure from her books until I realized that I was unfamiliar with her earlier work.

Ehrenreich’s book stems from her inquiry into a period of her own late adolescence when she experienced a kind of awakening that defied expression. For another sort of person, this might have been a spiritual encounter; but she was a self-described solipsist atheist who wanted explanations. The why of the world mattered to her–she was headed toward an education in science at Reed and Columbia University, though she did not know that yet when she had her ecstatic sensation. Reading Living with a Wild God reminded me of watching an animal tear and tear and worry at a carcass, not quite able to let go. The author fumes at her younger self for being so unforthcoming with details and suggests she may have been having a dissociative event, a small psychological break. Yet there were no symptoms of such a problem in her diary or in her memory.

She writes a bit about psychology, human consciousness, adolescent daydreaming, rational thinking versus imaginative beliefs, systematic or otherwise. After considerable wrestling and intriguing memoir, she admits that all she can do is speculate about what she felt:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive, beatific merger with “the All” as described by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe a fire really closely without becoming part of it…you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze…the only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

In the Bhagavad-gita, when Arjuna sees Krishna-manifest-as-All, the experience is not beatific, any more than Moses’ encounter with God as the burning bush relates an enmeshing with the One; the sense of merger with the energetic being remains absent–there is awe and a sensation that the human consciousness has been irrevocably rattled, altered, changed, but not that the human consciousness melds with that unknowable and indescribable Other.

What drew me to this book is that I had similar, though briefer, experiences when I was young. They tended to occur in flashes, and I associate them now with daydreaming and with a “losing of self”–I really have no words for it, though Ehrenreich’s “overflow” seems about right…one reason Bachelard’s writings on childhood and reverie resonate with me. It’s heartening to find another person, a well-known author, who also has found the experience impossible to formulate in language. I especially appreciate her suggesting “that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.” I identify deeply.

Some meditative practices aim to erase, temporarily, the boundaries that keep us from being truly in the world. Some religious practices aim to make the faithful “one with” the deity. Ehrenreich does not possess the kind of mind or personality that seeks answers in those ways. She’s frighteningly intelligent, well-educated, worldly, scholarly, sensible, socially and culturally aware, fiercely atheistic. Yet she cannot quite believe that what she felt, saw, knew, in her body and in her mind, was “simply” something her brain invented. After 50 years, she continues to wonder. I sense she is still tearing obsessively at the unresolved.

Maybe that is enough, to wonder. At any rate, wondering may be as far toward why as any of us human beings will ever get.