Monday, March 26, 2012

...fractals, fossils, and me

I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness-in a landscape selected at random-is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern-to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.

I encountered this cactus in Tempe, Arizona in January. The pattern, color and texture are enough to make an art major weep...or at least sigh. But, in my reverie, I still managed to point my iPhone and snap a photo. Of a fractal. 
Best simple definition I’ve found of a fractal is this, from Wired: 
From sea shells and spiral galaxies to the structure of human lungs, the patterns of chaos are all around us. Fractals are patterns formed from chaotic equations and contain self-similar patterns of complexity increasing with magnification. If you divide a fractal pattern into parts you get a nearly identical reduced-size copy of the whole.
The mathematical beauty of fractals is that infinite complexity is formed with relatively simple equations. By iterating or repeating fractal-generating equations many times, random outputs create beautiful patterns that are unique, yet recognizable. 
I repeat, this is a simple definition. Let’s bypass Dr. Math - “fractals possess a non-integer dimension” - and give short shrift to Mandelbroit sets and mathematical visualization. I am, after all, (refer to paragraph one) an art, albeit, a redundant one.
My inner geek, however, shifted into high gear on a recent hike at Point Reyes. On the long trek down to the lighthouse, I glanced at the rock formation to my right. I cannot recall the geological era but the exposed rock was once seabed many, many million years ago. After the trip, I found a field guide on the web ( that revealed this bit of interesting information: 
This rock (Point Reyes conglomerate) can be seen in exposures on the peninsula's headlands. Particularly good exposures can be seen in the exposures around the visitor's center for the lighthouse. These rocks are quite convincingly correlated with the Paleocene turbidites (Carmelo Fornation) found well exposed in the Pt. Lobos Marine Reserve south of Carmel, California and may well have been directly adjacent to Carmel during their formation some 50-60 million years ago. Recent studies...indicate that 60 million years ago Pt. Reyes was attached to the west of Monterey, California where similar Salinian granitic rocks are common. Fault movement along a large, largely offshore, fault of the San Andreas System is believed responsible for moving Pt. Reyes from this location.
I don’t know how familiar you are with California geography but Monterey is a far piece from Marin County. Once more, however, I digress...back to what caught my attention. Check this picture.

Yep, that’s a fossil. If you squint a bit, you can see a shape in the rock...a bit spirally, like the chambered nautilus in the photo to the left: pilfered from The moment took my breath away. I wasn’t in some museum, simply out for a Sunday stroll when I encountered this “hello” from the past. Standing on land that was once underwater somewhere between Carmel and Monterey. Thinking on such a thing makes me giddy.  A fractal fossil at eye level. 

I had encountered a more ephemeral reference to fractals several years ago in William Young’s book, The Shack. Mack, the central figure in the book, meets Sarayu (the Holy Spirit) in this passage:
Papa then arrives. Mack says how, though the garden is a mess, he somehow feels strangely comfortable in it. Papa and Sarayu smile at each other. Sarayu says, “And well you should, Mackenzie, because this garden is your soul - this mess is you! Together, you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart. And it’s wild and beautiful and perfectly in process. To you it seems messy, but to me, I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive - a living fractal.” Mack crumbled. He looked at his garden and it really was a mess, but incredible and wonderful at the same time.
Twenty years have passed since I first visited Point Reyes. The lighthouse was closed to visitors that day but I ventured down the path to a spot where I saw a plant. Just one, a determined lithophyte that grew out of the rock’s striated, polished surface. I took a snapshot and forgot about it until the film was developed. The image was lovely, a bit of abstract art. The swirly, smooth stripes behind the plant looked just like the ones I saw in a book about - you guessed it - fractals. The photo was lost in the Great House Debacle of 2002 but the memory hasn’t faded. 
I thought of that hardy plant on my latest trek. And encountered it again, two decades later. Here’s the latest photo:
The smooth surface is now cracked and crumbly, not the rock that I remember. The plant is a bit stalkier, its roots more exposed. Notice it’s a red-head: headstrong and sassy, suited for life on the edge of the Pacific headlands. 

The photo with it's busy backdrop lacks the abstract quality of the first. But one good polish and the fractal swirls will reappear. That polish will take eons, of course, and who knows what life will co-exist with the firmament. 

The whole cliff, which straddles the San Andreas fault, might once again rest underneath the ocean. Or perhaps travel farther north near Mendocino (at least, where it is now) or beyond. Time will tell...long after I am no longer a distant memory. 

All I know is that, like Mack, underneath my broken, messy bits and bobs lives “a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive - a living fractal.” I am a wonderfully made mess. Oh, what a beautiful morning!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

...same picture, different story

Look out the upstairs front window and check for clouds. 
Repeat process at back window. 
If sunny, clip clothes to line. 
Turn on the kettle and put tea bag in cup.
Reach for the biscuit tin. 
Run to back door as rain arrives unannouced. 
Unclip clothes quickly. 
Hang them in front of windows. 
Hang them in the hall. 
Hang them in the kitchen. 
Drink tea, eat an extra biscuit because rain has stopped. 
Repeat next Monday.

Yes, I've posted this photo before. But in an entirely different context. Here's the rest of the story. When I returned to the states after my Irish sojourn, I journaled. The tea bag had dropped into the cup in Kinsale. Once at home, the rich brew steeped within. I shared my journal with a friend who then carried it to Father Kelly, a young Irish priest, oldest of eleven children. He graciously plodded through the tome and returned it with a kind note. I saw him a week later and he said, "I really liked that laundry piece." This flippant, humorous memory was hardly one of the "deeper" thoughts I had committed to paper. Then he continued. [Before I write more, let me insert that Father Kelly is profoundly deaf. Had to get special dispensation from His Holiness to become a parish priest. He is also an outstanding harpist. The winner of the History award at university in Ireland. The master of the five to seven minute homily. A quiet, devout man. Now you have the picture.] 

"Our clothes were never dry," he went on. "Mother would hang the wash and the rain would come." He paused to greet someone, then picked up where he'd left off. "We had clothes everywhere all the time." I guess so, what with thirteen people living in one house. But he wasn't through. I must've struck a nerve. "Sometimes," he said, "we'd get ready for school and our clothes would still be damp." His eyebrows knitted together as he nodded his head.  I thought of my first impressions of him. Always immaculate. Lint feared him. And I feared that some of mine might glom onto his fastidious self. His vestments were handmade by his mother. Beautiful handwork with Irish lace, some from her wedding gown. As he talked about his laundry memories, I saw the birthplace of his fastidiousness. He ended with, "You understand. Clothes everywhere..." He shook his head as he shook my hand.

Ironically when I re-read that journal, I was drawn to the simple pieces - authentic, unconscious impressions - much more than the labored writings. Funny how life seems to work best when I relax. I have come to appreciate that the great truths can be found at the kitchen sink or around the table. Celtic prayer celebrated "the sacred in the commonplace". The mother who lit the morning fire prayed, "I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven...without malice, without jealousy, without envy, but the Holy Son of God to shield me. God, kindle Thou in my heart within a flame of love to my neighbor, to my foe, to my friend, to my kindred all." The milkmaid lifted her own prayer: "Bless, O God, my little cow. Bless, O God, my desire. Bless thou my partnership and the handling of my hand."

While in Ireland, I encountered unexpected links to my past in the daily routines: recalled my own childhood dashes to the clothes line when thunder rumbled suddenly; remembered freezing wet sheets as they hit my face on blustery winter mornings. When an older gentleman spoke of the "fillin' station" or when the ladies at the historical society wanted to know "what part of Ireland are your people from?", I felt right at home. I had grown up in Dublin, Georgia, a small town in the southern half of the state, settled by the Irish. We talked the same way, only with different accents.

I know that a geographic cure is no help at all if I'm running away. But if I'm moving toward a new chapter, a change of place can be rich. James Thurber wrote, "All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why." Sometimes sitting still is the deadliest choice, an avoidance, trapped by fear.

The desire to explore is universal. Annie Dillard recounts this story: "In Highland New Guinea, now Popua New Guinea, a British district officer named James Taylor contacted a mountain village, above three thousand feet, whose tribe had never seen any trace of the outside world. It was the 1930's. He described the courage of one villager. One day, on the airstrip hacked from the mountains near his village, this man cut vines and lashed himself to the fuselage of Taylor's airplane shortly before it took off. He explained calmly to his loved ones that, no matter what happened to him, he had to see where it came from." I am related to this gentleman.

When I've been privileged to travel, I've glimpsed the common thread that weaves us all together. We are both ultimately alone and intimately linked with others. Now, through the ether, I am linked to many countries that I can only hope to visit. [Carole, if you are reading this in Yorkshire, I hope you know how you have enriched my life with your notes: two mothers from opposite sides of the pond linked in serendipitous ways.] 

Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) wrote: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." Wherever I go, clothes have to be washed. And dried. Meals cooked. Sheets changed. For me, a wash-up abroad was good for the soul. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

...Adrienne, this slog's for you

My friend, Doug, calls this format a "slog"... a blog set to a song. 
Dear Moms everywhere, skip to the bottom and click on the song link.
Listen to Dylan's prayer as you read.
Think of your own children
in this life and beyond
and feel free to cry with me.

From three days ... three years

...all the way to the arms of the delightful young man in the red jacket: husband/best friend
Adrienne and Scott with friend...and our beloved Molly, the world's best Lab
a climb up one of the Fourteeners in Colorado

The day of my daughter's birth - March 18 - is borne on a thread of memory forever tied to my heartstrings. Adrienne arrived much as she has lived. Swooshed into this world quickly, three weeks early, eyes wide open. Some days and nights have been long but the years have sped past. Today, March 19, is the anniversary of our first car trip. She was barely twenty-four hours old when we strapped her into a car seat for the ride home from Brookwood Hospital. Thus began our journey. I cooked and vacuumed with her on my right hip. Pushed her through the mall as she spoke her third and fourth words (after Diddy and Mammy) to all who would listen: "new shoes". The first of many pairs that would carry her out into the world and away from me. I wouldn't have it any other way. 

She added another B to her monogram when she married Scott Burton. The joy grows. They are quite the pair. Both athletic, one laid back (sort of), the other not (sort of )...a good mix. He is an expert mountain biker. Ok, I admit, I'm dotty for him but expert, really...that's an actual classification. She is an architect, a runner (serious), a baker par excellance. They share incredible memories of Molly, pictured above. Now they love on Hatchet the Lab and Duke the Chesapeake Retriever. As well as Harley Cat the Calico and Snuggler (who is s-p-e-c-i-a-l, if you get my drift). Picture mountain bikes, skis, poles, a tent, sleeping bags, and a softball mitt (hers), two large dogs and two cat carriers: a car trip with the Burtons. 

She is in her element in nature...

And I am happy to have lived to see her make the journey we all wish for our children: she is at home within herself. 

Never dreamed we'd meet in Venice, but we did. (FYI, she is standing on the step above mine...we're close to the same height.)

Or in Boulder...

Dear God, for every intersection, thank you. For every memory, thank you. For protecting her, loving her, weaving your spirit into her, thank you. For all the broken places, thank you. For TODAY I thank you...all is finite and undeserved. All is gift.

To you, my sweet girl, I wish you many more celebrations. Whatever comes your way, remember how far we have all been carried...far beyond our individual means and abilities. You are joy. 

This is your journey to make. Choose wisely and wait upon the Lord. I wish you worthy dreams, honorable work, delicious play. 

After Adrienne's graduation from Auburn and subsequent move to Colorado, I played Emmy Lou Harris' "Boulder to BIrmingham" and  Susan Tedeschi's version of Bob Dylan's song, "Lord, Protect My Child" daily. I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment...bawled my eyes out every time. But I cherish these tunes. If the lyrics for the latter don't quite match (my child has much better than her mother's eyes and she is not a "he"), the truth of the prayer does. Note to Patrick: I play this for you too, but your slog will come in November so just hold your horses. 

Click the title below and give this a listen:

For his age, he's (she's) wise
He's (She's) got his mother's eyes
There's gladness in his heart
He's young and he's wild
My only prayer is, if I can't be there,
Lord, protect my child

As his (her) youth now unfolds
He (she) is centuries old
Just to see him (her) at play makes me smile
No matter what happens to me
No matter what my destiny
Lord, protect my child

While the world is asleep
You can look at it and weep
Few things you find are worthwhile
And though I don't ask for much
No material things to touch
Lord, protect my child

He's (She's) young and on fire
Full of hope and desire
In a world that's been raped, raped and defiled
If I fall along the way
And can't see another day
Lord, protect my child

There'll be a time I hear tell
When all will be well
When God and man will be reconciled
But until men lose their chains
And righteousness reigns
Lord, protect my child 

Saturday, March 17, 2012

...twas the day after St. Patrick's

In 2006, during my six month stay in Ireland, my friend, Jane, her family and I took a bus trip to Dublin the day after St. Patrick's. We strolled through the city, alert for Auburn University band members who had marched in the St. Patrick’s parade the previous day. As we turned the corner on Grafton Street, I heard Jane, an Auburn alumni, yell “War Eagle!,” the school rally cry. 

A cold day in Dublin town...I wore everything in my suitcase

These young people withstood our barrage with exuberance and good humor. We chatted and had a group photo taken, called out “War Eagle” once more in unison, as Irish shoppers laughed in passing. After we returned to Alabama, a box arrived with parade caps for each of us. To you, dear parents: your sons and daughters are good ambassadors, full of wit and good manners. To Auburn: for wonderful memories of these young people, for the lives you help shape, and for our caps, we thank you. To Melissa Humble, you delightful, talented Auburn photographer, I'll love you forever for treating some alums and Auburn parents with such grace.

While living in that beautiful country, I never tired of the green patchwork of fields stitched together with rock walls; stone cottages tucked in odd corners; old ruins regal in their deconstruction; sheep resting while lambs frolic; thoroughbred horses clad in winter turnout blankets. Some buildings wore paint older than our country. But six months in Ireland brought the occasional reminder of home. On the lane outside the door of our cottage, a car stopped one afternoon. The couple needed to find to a local bed and breakfast. We gave them directions, waved our arms, pointed up the hill. The husband said with a smile, “You’re not from around here.”

“No,” we drawled. “We’re from Birmingham, Alabama.”

To which he replied, “Are you familiar with the Copper Kettle?”

A couple from Detroit, Michigan met us in Kinsale, Ireland to inquire about a Birmingham, Alabama cafeteria. Small world. And I have the hat to prove it.

How much smaller my world would have been had I never ventured out.  

Our fears, not oceans, separate us. 


Your soul knows the geography of your destiny. 
Your soul alone has the map of your future, 
therefore you can trust this indirect, oblique side of yourself. 
If you do, it will take you where you need to go, 
but more important it will teach you a kindness of rhythm in your journey. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

...traveling through time

If ever a crypt needed a door knocker, this one does.
Detail of the tomb of William Rufus King, Vice-President of the United States,
Live Oak Cemetery, Selma, Alabama

from the Wiki: "King was a co-founder of (and named) Selma, Alabama. In recognition of this, city officials...and some of King's family wanted to move his body to Selma, where they believed King's remains should be interred. Other family members wanted his body to remain at Chestnut Hill [Plantation]. In 1882, the Selma City Council appointed a committee to select a new plot for King's body. There are different versions of how his body was taken from the plantation in King's Bend; however, after 29 years of interment at his former plantation, he was re-interred in the city's Live Oak Cemetery under an elaborate white marble mausoleum."
King was Vice-President under President Franklin Pierce for six weeks before his death from tuberculosis. 
Stories of the route the departed took prior to settling at Live Oak abound.
One thing's for certain: l
ongevity of any sort - in both life and death - wasn't his long suit.  

"If every life is a river, then it's little wonder that we do not even notice the changes that occur until we are far out in the darkest sea. One day you look around and nothing is familiar, not even your own face. 
My name once meant daughter, grandaughter, friend, ... Now those words mean only what their letters spell out; Star in the night sky. Truth in the darkness. 
I have crossed over to a place where I never thought I'd be. I am someone I would have never imagined. A secret. A dream. I am this, body and soul. Burn me. Drown me. Tell me lies. I will still be who I am."

― Alice Hoffman
Last week I read Douglas Coupland's review of the novel, Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru. The review which ran in the New York Times is as provocative as Kunzru's book. Coupland is a writer of fiction and non-fiction who draws upon his experience in design and the visual arts as well as his personal spiritual journey in his own books.
He began his review:
One thing that struck me about the 9/11 footage shown during last year’s anniversary was that in 2001, the people on New York City’s sidewalks had no smartphones with which to record the events of the day. History may well look back on 9/11 as the world’s last underdocumented mega-event. But aside from the absence of phone cameras, the people and streets of September 2001 looked pretty much identical to those of September 2011: the clothes, the hair, the cars. I mention this because it has been only in the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times.
I recall that the coverage of 9/11 was exhaustive. But I had not thought about the lack of smart phones. What followed this initial observation, though, really caught my attention:

This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present. Imagine traveling back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb. With Translit we get our very delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we’ll get off the ride intact, in our bold new perpetual every-era/no-era.
...the Translit reader knows [Coupland's premise] there is a spirituality lacking in the modern world that can only be squeezed out of other, more authentic eras. And why not? It’s all history and it’s all at our fingertips. Hello, YouTube. Thank you, Wikipedia. Oh, that Google!
I thought of my well-worn paperback book of meditations, Wherever You Go, There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn. This author’s credentials are also impressive: according to the Wiki, he is ‘the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, as well as professor of medicine emeritus”. Never in a millions years would I have expected the king of neuroses, Woody Allen, to capture so well the Zen concept heralded by Kabat-Zinn. In Allen's intelligent, witty film, Midnight in Paris, he employs time-travel with style and substance to bring both the protaganist and the viewer firmly into the present. 

No era has ever owned spirituality. Those times I wouldn't choose to visit - horrific, brutal - have stirred souls as no period of complacency could. My own take: live in the present...find context in the personal past as well as history...go beyond escape into a reality that exceeds both fact and fiction. Like Ms. Hoffman, wherever I go, I will still be who I am. Like it or not.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012 more perfect offerings, Mr. Cohen, indeed

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in
 from Anthem by Leonard Cohen

[NOTE: if I were you, I'd scoot down to the bottom, click on "Anthem" and listen to this glorious song while you read. Then, I'd probably listen to it again. Just a suggestion.]

Yesterday I strapped on snowshoes for the first time ever. At sixty. At long last, I can say that I have a winter sport. 

Dawn brought fresh snow...silent, soft, pristine. I watched from the sofa as Bill put on his skis, adjusted his goggles, and then glided down to the lift. Here's what he found at the summit.

At the end of the run, still the only skier in sight, he turned and took another photo.

One set of tracks - his - in the powder. He skied ten runs, each one magic. At one point he was joined by another resident, a seventy-six year old veteran of the slopes. Add another set of tracks and interesting conversation. When he finished his morning on the mountain, I heard a big plop at the window.

His best skiing ever, he said. A rhythmic ride on waxed wood (or whatever it is skis are made of now). And then he said, "Come on out and get on those snowshoes! A perfect day to start..."

So I did. Bill took a video of my first steps, before I graduated to the deep stuff. Pure joy. Finally, I have a winter sport of my own.


Not without a fall, however... 

A face-plant every now and then isn't such a bad thing. No more perfect offerings. What a gift to travel side by side with others who have fallen: shared grace. What a gift to travel side by side with Jesus: grace poured out. There's a crack - or two - in all of us. That's where the light shines in. And back out.

Leonard Cohen's beautiful song, Anthem, is playing as I write. I love the humility of his gracious opening and close. You can listen by clicking the title...and follow the lyrics below:

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.

I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, 
they've summoned up a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring ...

You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.
That's how the light gets in.