Specular Reflections
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Thoughts on Life, Science, Writing and the Universe at Large

Sunday, September 17, 2006
An autumnal view of things...

The weather continues to be strange. Apart from death and taxes, it seems that global warming is also inevitable. Be that as it may, the leaves are slowly turning color, despite days like today that remind one of summer. It has been getting cooler on the average, and my dog has been trying to eat acorns. He sniffs one, takes it in his mouth, gives it an experimental, tentative sort of crunch, and then spits it out. Then, being eternally optimistic, he tries another one. I think he likes the smell of acorns and can't see why he shouldn't be able to eat them.

Autumn brings death to some things, sleep to others. Death is necessary to make room for new life and renewal. This autumn I, too, have tasted of death, and something in me, finding room at last, has begun to grow. I carry, in a manner of speaking, a sapling in my chest.

I predicted this (the thoracic arboretum part anyway) through a story I wrote many months ago, well before the events that precipitated this dying and renewing occurred. (Sometimes I am beset with apprehension that my stories are a foretelling of what will come in my own life). The story began as an image of a man lying in a grassy sort of place, an alpine meadow, perhaps, watching the sky. As he watches, shoots of grass begin to grow through his chest. I won't say more because I still have to work on the next draft, and it involves a city and a woman as well...

Autumn brings other things as well. My parents, who are visiting from Delhi, are able to behold the grandiosity of American pumpkins at country-side farm-stands. They will get to see the colors turn, a sight not available in countries like India, where seasonal changes are generally gradual for most of the country (except when the monsoons come, of course). In California, where my in-laws live, there are no such dramatic fall colors either.

One of the things I am trying this fall that is new for me is singing Western music in a choir. Currently renewing my classes in Indian vocal music is difficult for me, and since my tastes in music are fairly eclectic (I love Bach, for instance) I have decided to take the plunge, so that I will have *some* kind of music in my life. Today was the first time I joined this choir, and it was interesting and challenging, because they put me in the alto section since they had too many sopranos. I come from a highly melodic tradition where there is very little harmony, so I found that singing alto parts that don't make melodic sense (independent of the whole, which may be very beautiful) rather difficult. Still, I like a challenge, and I am determined to tap out the alto section for next week on the piano at home, so that it becomes familiar enough that I don't automatically lock on to what the sopranos are singing.

There's got to be a metaphor in there somewhere!

What else? Classes have begun at the college where I teach, and I have a keen lot this time. I keep them at the edge, keep them thinking --- the only way to teach a two-hour class without watching the kids fall asleep. Teaching motion and the difference between uniform and non-uniform motion, I have them get up and walk, and mark their positions every second with chalk. We work out some pretty basic relationships on the blackboard, then I throw a problem at them where they have to figure out the right length of a runway so the plane can take off. It is fun to see their minds working. Eventually I'll subject them to my imaginative science fictional problems (my earlier engineering physics students know I love coming up with these) which I hope they'll enjoy. Too many people think science is a boring compedium of facts, where imagination has no place.

A scientist must order.
One builds science with facts as a house with stones
But an accumulation of facts is no more science
Than a pile of stones is a house.

Jean-Henri Poincare, quoting from memory.

posted by Vandana 9:47 PM
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Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Do not go gentle into the good night...
Rage, rage against the dying of the light...

Dylan Thomas's famous lines can be applied as much to the current tragic situation in the Middle East as to one's personal life. Since this blog is neither political commentary nor personal memoir (being mainly reflections of a general nature) I will not say more precisely where and how those lines apply. But I've been thinking about how writing, at least, is simultaneously an act of hope and of defiance in times of political and personal trouble. So here's to the Muse that compels me to write, that saves me from extinction, that reminds me through my own words who I am in this sorry, troubled world.

Last week I was in New York city, visiting relatives for a couple of days. There's something about the rush and flow of a huge metropolis, the streams of people and traffic, that results in a comforting anonymity. There I was, standing at a subway station in the bowels of the earth, watching the trains flash by, watching the murals on the opposite walls through the windows of the trains, hearing live music from a black man with a guitar and a voice like gold. Times like these it is enough to simply be. To try loneliness on for size and to discover that it fits like an old shirt. To let the world blow through your senses as though you were nothing but an open window. To ponder stray facts like this one: that any city large enough is filled with metaphors ripe for the picking.

In the train there was a young man singing, his voice husky and occasionally rasping, but he did a good job. Coins rained into his battered hat. Then a woman came along, strident, her eyes bright and tragic, asking people for coins to help raise her children. I am raising them alone, she said. I have nobody. Her diction was polished, her address direct, but nobody stirred. People looked away. Embarrassed? I don't know. I don't know if she was just another youngish black woman looking for drug money, but her words hit me hard. I reached for my purse; she was some distance away, however, and before I knew it she was gone, leaving behind a muttered curse that seemed to hang in the air for quite a while later.

One another random note, I've been pondering the nature of pain, and how opening oneself up to it --- whether it is one's own pain or that of another --- opens the way to empathy. To suppress pain is to deny that opportunity. They go together like Siamese twins. A good friend of mine who is (apart from being a wonderful writer) a wonderful person, tells me of a trip to Poland, where among other things she visited Holocaust sites. She's Jewish. It was traumatic for her, but I can see the necessity of opening oneself up to that experience, the necessity of honoring and acknowledging what her people went through. Her eyes filled with tears as she talked (as did mine). But her tears were not only for the Jews who were killed; they were also for the other 6 million that Hitler had murdered, including the Romanys. This is a woman who, despite being Jewish (or perhaps because she is true to the precepts of her faith) opposes Israel's current actions against Lebanon (as much as she opposes the terrorists). This is a woman who has that attribute that so many lack: true empathy, divested of political or religious labels.

Sometimes it is almost too much to write about. Sometimes you wake up knowing that every day is a battle, not only in far-off lands where bombs may casually eliminate whole families, but here and now, in your own soul, your own little life. Every morning you lie there, persuading youself to rise and don your armor despite the pain that is like iron in your chest. You rage against the loss of hope and trust, the betrayals and hurts that the world inflicts, the infinite possibilities of damage and deceit that may still lie in wait for you in the course of the day. And then you get up. You get up, and you do what you have to do, and you don your armor and strengthen it in weak places, and you go off into the battlefield of the day.

So here I am, raging strong.

posted by Vandana 6:57 AM
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