Waves & relationships

I had planned to take a little “vacation” from difficult books this summer and read a bit of fiction, go to the movies, work in the garden. And while Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid covered the challenging topic of reading and delved into some neurological explanations for the process of how we read and how literacy changes our brains, Wolf writes in layperson’s terms and divides her text into easily understandable chunks. It was a relatively easy read on a complex topic and reminded me that I need to re-read Proust’s famous essay “On Reading Ruskin.”

Then my dad said I should read Reflection in the Waves by Pablo Bandera. Here’s a physicist with a philosophical bent who tries “reconciling the realism of Aquinas with the empirical evidence of quantum mechanics.” I like Bandera’s interdisciplinary approach, a blend of physics–his main area of expertise, a “true” science–and philosophy, anthropology, evolution, even theology. Does Bandera entirely succeed in persuading me that the observer effect of quantum physics is a human-based, perspective conundrum that may not be a problem at all? Not completely, but it is an intriguing theory about which I remain open-minded. The recognition that being human alters the observing mechanism seems sensible to me.

I would never suggest that Reflection in the Waves is an easy read for the average informed person. It contains a few fascinating observations and summaries, however, that relate to human relationships (our need to connect), to communication, literature, and art. He writes:

What distinguishes us humans from other objects around us, including other measurement devices, is not that our reality is not somehow irrelevant for the physical world, but that our relationship to this world is such that it transcends the mere subject-object relationship currently envisioned by the physicist.

Reality=relationship to others and the world. That’s a contemporary way of interpreting Aquinas. I’ve never before thought of myself as a Thomist, and the very idea makes me giggle. But as a writer, especially as a poet, the relationships and connections in the physical world are the stuff of metaphors that engage the conscious mind of abstract thought and help to put the poem across to other readers’ minds (thank you, Maryanne Wolf). Perhaps not so far from philosophy, or physics, or neurology, after all.

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Altered perspectives

One of the arguments Arthur W. Frank makes in his book The Wounded Storyteller–and in his subsequent books about “illness narrative”–is that there’s a compelling ethics for medical diagnosticians and caregivers involved in just listening to the other person’s story. The difficulty emerges when the storyteller cannot put his or her story into words or lacks enough objective distance from the illness to narrate the kind of story that others are expecting.

When people’s circumstances push into the chaos realm, they’re in the midst, overwhelmed; few of them can construct a cogent and concise narrative. In their pain, in their grief, everything seems equal–no beginning, no end, all middle.

The listener expects: a beginning. a middle. an end.

The listener expects: chronology. a goal. a desired outcome.

If the listener’s job means determining a course of healing, the listener requires history, onset, comparisons. Truly good diagnosticians therefore need more than sleuthing skills, experience, and education. They need to listen well in the midst of the storyteller’s chaos; Frank calls this listening with.

That often means taking a deep breath and endeavoring to change perspective.

~

[Which, by the way, is excellent practice for poets.]

Tibet-Mountains-Everest-Kailas-Tibet-tours-Tibet-travel-Tibet-trekking-Tibet-hiking-3-of-8-1024x676

Himalayas: view from a high lake plateau (Snow Lion tours)

natural_fractals_tibet

Himalayas from satellite: a fractal view

~
We cannot climb into an airplane and get an overview of a human being’s situation. Nor can we get into another person’s thought processes to determine what’s going on. Listening without rushing the person, without offering advice, without finishing the sentences with what we expect to hear–that’s a hard task.

In a previous post, I tried to replicate what it was I could hear when someone I cared for experienced cognitive damage.

It was very, very difficult to listen. For me, heart-breaking because of my previous understanding of who the person was. It was only in her final days that I started to realize I’d needed to change in my relationship with her in order to get some idea of what she wanted to say. And it was too late, really.

~

As another Best Beloved is now experiencing significant cognitive changes, I want to do better. I need to acknowledge the chaos narrative, the interruptions, the lacunae in the person’s story. It’s important that I develop a new perspective on what a conversation entails, too; my expectations surrounding a conversation no longer hold, and both of us will get frustrated if we stick to former habits.

If sometimes a visit feels a bit like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, so be it. There’s a story in that, after all, thanks to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

mad hatter tea party tenniel

Tenniel’s sketch for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

And, just as an aerial view of the Himalayas alters the perspective of what the mountains are and how they appear, an altered perspective of a loved one keeps the person, as a human being still in the world (no matter how changed), in view. True, perhaps with changed patterns and unexpected gaps that we who love them may grieve the loss of. The conversations may be interrupted and chaotic, or full of long pauses and grasping for words and concepts. It is just a different kind of human communication.

Not what I expect, but what I am given. I’m trying to listen with, before it is too late.

Lyric, narrative

I love hearing stories. Telling stories. Inventing stories. Often I choose to create a story using the first person perspective, whether the story is my own, someone else’s, or totally invented. In poetry this gets called the lyrical narrative.

~

A Toast to the Brown Bat

We are on the porch, drinking wine
late in the long summer day, dusk hovering
the way small storms of insects do
the day after a hard rain, and we’re talking
about something not especially dear to us,
no deep discourse, past that, watching
candles glow and the first wink of fireflies
when a brown bat flutters over like
an autumn leaf and my friend asks, “what
is it like to be a bat?” And as I’m somewhat
versed in philosophy I mention Thomas
Nagel, whose essay with that title is
justly famous but who does not really answer
the question; and she responds, “it must be
alternately stifling and soaring.” I think she
means that every flight’s like Christmas—
freedom and feasting—and every day an
imprisonment in the tightly-packed dark.
“But what if colony life is cozy?” I ask, imagining
small bodies light as sparrows breathing
together softly, fur-lined and snuggled,
fingers folded over the bellies, a generous
communion of sleep. “I can’t quite get over,
though,” she says, “that they sleep upside-
down.” “It might cure your migraines,” I say,
and we devote our next toast to the bat.

~

Poetic naturalism

I have been reading poetry, as usual, and also non-fiction about various aspects that could be deemed scientific, such as Michael Pollan’s Changing Your Mind and physicist Sean Carroll‘s book The Big Picture. 

On my way to work, I posed (in my mind) an argument with Carroll about his use of the word “poetic” in his definition of poetic naturalism, which he defines thus:

Naturalism is a philosophy according to which there is only one world — the natural world, which exhibits unbroken patterns (the laws of nature), and which we can learn about through hypothesis testing and observation. In particular, there is no supernatural world — no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings.

I like to talk about a particular approach to naturalism, which can be thought of as Poetic. By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world…

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms” … There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story… The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. But these moral and ethical and aesthetic vocabularies can be perfectly useful ways of talking about the world … We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.

Despite my doubts about his use of “poetic,”  it may be that Carroll’s term describes me; at any rate, his definition comes close to my own thinking about the world.

And hence, another draft for my poem-a-day challenge.

~

Brown leaves bouncing across Preston Lane
late afternoon, air currents swirling.

Road shoulder cradles raccoon carcass,
fur shudders, though body’s still, and sun

highlights the gray-white hairs as travelers
speed past. Chlorophyll greens local lawns

and ditches beside the creek, molecules moving,
nitrogen atoms taken up through root and rhizome.

Sudden, yellow, early–narcissus blooms near
the neighboring farmhouse–all of which

recommends itself as The World As It Is.
A reality for at least one universe,

even though there exist other possibilities
in the realm of Undiscovered.

daffodil photo Ann E. Michael

Book review, mind review

My book group chose to read Michael Pollan’s latest: How To Change Your Mind. The subtitle says a lot: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. That’s a bundle of complicated concepts Pollan takes on, but he recognizes his task looms large and that he can only make forays into the many overlapping arenas the book explores.

His approach–he uses this in his other books and articles, too–is a mix of serious research and journalism (interviews, mostly) and personal inquiry and experiences. If you have read Second Nature or The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you might find this one to be a more “difficult book.” It is heavily documented and features neuroscience (brain pathways and structure, mostly), psychology, pharmacology, and chemistry (tryptamine-related molecules). Not to mention mushroom biology and mushroom hunting, and serum produced by plants, toads, and ergot.

What attracted my book group members to this text is its chapters on dying; as a hospice volunteer myself, and having read articles on the potential value of psychedelics among people with terminal illnesses, this part certainly interested me.

Pollan writes: “The uncanny authority of the psychedelic experience might help explain why so many cancer patients in the trials reported that their fear of death had lifted or at least abated: they had stared directly at death and come to know something about it, in a kind of dress rehearsal.”

These outcomes seem significant enough that we ought to find ways to employ them in our palliative care work. In my own, somewhat limited, experience with dying people, those who are less fearful of death–for whatever reason that may be–stay alert longer, respond better to palliative efforts (pain medicine, massage, positioning, and so on), and are more likely to comfort their loved ones. They die more “easily,” if dying can ever be called “easy.”

~

Yet I found the parts of Pollan’s book which deal with the huge question of what consciousness is and where it resides most relevant to my own interests. Yes–that difficult neurobiology stuff. Pollan suggests, with the healthy pragmatism of the skeptic, that empirical approaches to consciousness based on the idea that “the brain is meat” (viz, medical science) are unlikely ever to explain consciousness fully or to anyone’s satisfaction. In other words, consciousness may possess a component one might name “spiritual.” Here is how he frames this concept:

“…it seems to me very likely that losing or shrinking the self would make anyone feel more ‘spiritual,’ however you choose to define the word, and that this is apt to make one feel better. The usual antonym for the word ‘spiritual’ is ‘material.’ That … is what I believed when I began this inquiry—that the whole issue with spirituality turned on a question of metaphysics. Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for spiritual might be ‘egotistical.’ Self and Spirit define the opposite ends of a spectrum, but that spectrum needn’t reach clear to the heavens to have meaning for us. It can stay right here on earth. When the ego dissolves, so does a bounded conception not only of our self but of our self-interest. What emerges in its place is invariably a broader, more openhearted and altruistic—that is, more spiritual—idea of what matters in life. One in which a new sense of connection, or love…seems to figure prominently.”

~~

When I was much younger, I considered myself “spiritual.” I stopped using the term once I began a more serious exploration of my life and began to study philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, phenomenology, and consciousness more intentionally. But the crucial components–connection, relation to and with others (sentient and not), and love–those I have always understood as necessary. Even though my ego has never “dissolved” quite the way Pollan describes.

So maybe I can go back to considering myself somewhat spiritual. At this moment in life, Nature and Others matter more than accomplishments and outcomes.

Welcome Spring, welcome Spirit. Namaste, Amen.

iris reticulata

iris reticulata

Biodiversity & storytelling

As I have mentioned before in many previous posts, telling stories matters to humans. It’s the best way to get a person’s attention: if a writer wants to bring a fact, claim, event, person, or history to light, the best way to reach a wide audience requires spinning a good story about it. I recently finished reading a book about so-called living fossils, including bacteria and worms (not my favorite subjects), because the author’s enthusiasm for his subject was scaffolded onto a story of world-travel and time-travel. In the process of learning about coelacanths, horseshoe crabs, and echidnas, Richard Fortey also makes an impassioned plea for biodiversity–and storytelling.

“…I am not in sympathy with the idea that what matters about a species is how we humans react to it, which seems allied to a view that nature is only validated by observation from this particular hominid…We don’t reckon the worth of a species by the “damage” its extinction would do to other ecosystems. We cannot rank the products of more than 3 billion years of evolution in utilitarian lists. The richness of the biological world is the most wonderful feature of the biosphere, and every story is worth telling no matter how humble, or indeed insular, is the the organism concerned.” [my italics]

–Richard Fortey, paleontologist and expert on trilobites, in his book Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants that Time Has Left Behind. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/54786/horseshoe-crabs-and-velvet-worms-by-richard-fortey/9780307275530/

The lyric, the epic, the myth, the story written in the genome or the geology or the great vast cosmos–all of the things we know contain mysteries–intrigue us when we hear a narrative. Who knew that microbes and bacteria and alga have stories? They cannot tell their own unless “the storytelling animal” interprets them, raising their stature and importance in the eyes of “particular hominids.” In 1971, Dr. Seuss invented The Lorax for such a purpose.

It takes all kinds of people to tell good stories. Keep reading!

Marvelous anomalies

“Human consciousness has at least as great an impact on the planet as any force of nature, yet its existence is in doubt because science does not know how to describe it.” —Marilynne Robinson

~

One of the things I most enjoy when reading Marilynne Robinson’s essays is her earnest yet delighted devotion to the preciousness of being a human on the Earth. “The sheer plenitude of things a mortal encounters is a marvel in itself,” she writes, and her prose illustrates how all that she encounters deserves attention and compassion. Humanity, in particular, is a marvelous anomaly (“What a piece of work…”) which she lovingly defends while noting our “propensity to error” leads us into great evils but also to the kind of wide-latitude indeterminancy within which “we construct our minds and our civilizations.”

With clear logic and complex ideas and sentences, Robinson dismantles the logic that dehumanizes us. She demonstrates “that much influential thought is fundamentally incoherent” (this thought includes philosophy, psychology, and scientific theory) but nonetheless informs our norms, our behaviors, the tenor of our beliefs and our entire lives. Too often we are reflexive rather than reflective. Too often we dismiss feelings as irrational, when they originate in our bodies and minds and often work to alter what we regard as facts, thus biasing our perspectives. Emotions are part of our beings as humans. So are questions, especially the unanswerable questions.

Robinson says science “exploits accidents and relishes surprise”–something that poetry does, too (my aside, not hers, though I doubt she would disagree). But scientific method does not “provide an all-sufficient test for the reality of everything.” By implication, the biblical texts and so-called creation myths offer people a method of grasping the awesome that science cannot answer for and may never yield to, as each marvel reveals new mysteries and new questions.

We cannot say that the stars were arrayed to instruct us in the glory of God, to dispose our minds to wonder, to make us feel our finitude within an order of Being for which millennia are more transient than breath. This, for all we know, is the accidental consequence of the accidental emergence of the constellations, the fortuitous interaction of our unfathomable brains and senses with dazzling reality…We must step back and acknowledge that any accounts of the initial moments that make the event seem straightforward and comprehensible are deeply wrong. Nothing else could be true, considering what it has yielded.

I have not mentioned the words theology or philosophy in conjunction with Robinson, because so many readers would be less inclined to read her work. She’s not afraid to use those words and to examine, often rigorously, what they have meant to societies. Don’t be put off. In the final chapter of her book What Are We Doing Here?, Robinson writes about slander. It’s a short essay I wish all of us would read and think about, especially relevant to our current moment.


“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.