Skip to content

The year I learned to fly

August 8, 2017

On a frigid night in January I knocked on the door of a nondescript brick bungalow and waited. A stranger answered the door; my friend who had brought me greeted her cheerfully. We stomped snow off our boots, divested ourselves of coats and sweaters and scarves, and trooped up the stairs to where the largest bedroom had been emptied of furniture, leaving a passable wooden dance floor.

My friend handed me a pair of large dinner napkins and nudged me into the middle of a set of six. “Just do what Laura does,” she said, nodding to the woman across from me. “She’s an old hat at this, she’ll take care of you.” An accordion bounced through the first few measures of a tune, the guy at the front waved a napkin in the air, and movement exploded around me as I fumbled through the steps of my first Morris dance.

Walk-throughs and explanations came later. There were plenty of words — the single and double steps, the heys and gyps and rounds, the forry capers and the splitters, the hook legs and galleys, each movement quickly illustrated like it was the most obvious thing in the world by a small grizzled fellow with bad knees. There were sticks, pounded on the floor in rhythm; there were songs whose words everybody knew; there were the names of a dozen welcoming teammates. And above all else there was the music, sprightly notes flinging us in the air and welcoming us back to earth. It filled the house, straining against the frosted windows as if to wake the frozen world outside.

It was like I had opened my eyes on the first day of autumn and seen the riot of blazing leaves and blue sky; I could not look away from the outbreak of life. I wanted to drink it all in, and have such an expression of joy for myself; I wanted to pour it all out, and slake the thirst of others. I came back the next week, and the week after that, and every week thereafter. As winter rolled towards spring, the dances crept into my bones. First I learned to be in the right place. Then I learned to step in time with the music. Eventually I got my hands coordinated with my feet, and my napkins (hankies, I learned they were called) snapped out precisely. I felt like I was discovering my body for the first time; the graceful flow in my arms, the spring in my legs, the power in my core.

By spring I danced like I had been dancing the Morris for years. They said I was born to it. “You see her dancing and you’re like, how?!” one of my teammates said when she introduced me to a friend at my first Ale.

I have never felt like I was born to athleticism.

My parents did not enjoy sports, and I only played them in gym class. Like a lot of nerdy kids, I was no good at them. It wasn’t so bad in elementary school, but in middle school I fell further and further behind. I couldn’t run as fast, or as far. I fumbled the basketball and missed my passes in soccer. I was sorted into remedial swimming. In softball I would swing the bat over and over before getting any chance to run. I tripped over my own feet, and I never managed a cartwheel. Athleticism, I thought, was an inherent property that some people had and I did not. My physical “education” grades were always based on effort — didn’t that mean that my teachers could expect no more from me?

But it turns out athleticism is a skill you can learn, and the structure of Morris dancing gave me a space where I could finally learn it. The sports I had failed to learn in school required a frustrating combination of techniques I would have needed extensive practice to master and split-second tactical decisions that always eluded me. By contrast, Morris dancing is choreographed, removing the element of panicked decision-making, and the physical skills involved are easy to prioritize. I had the support and encouragement of a team, without the fear of letting them down that comes with competitive activities. And all of this was packaged up in one of the most objectively ridiculous activities I have taken part in; I found it impossible to give in to my normal crippling restraint and self-consciousness when I’d already decided to do something so absurd as strapping on jingle bells and jumping around with napkins.

May 1st of that year dawned cold and foggy, with freezing mist blowing in off the lake. We danced the sun up with Morningstar, and summer arrived with a barely-perceptible brightening of the gray morning. As the summer waxed hotter and brighter, I began to dance upwards. My foot-together-jumps bounced as if on springs; my hankies, like wings, bore me aloft in capers. Even my double steps gained air, and I only touched the ground to propel myself towards the sky once more. I learned the trick of putting exactly the right amount of effort into my jumps, so that I only landed when the music said I could. It gave the most incredible illusion of flight — as if I, not gravity, were deciding when to come back down to earth.

I’ve since tempered the flinginess of my dancing to some extent. Morris dancing, at its heart, does not rely on individual physical prowess so much as team togetherness. The respected elders of my team can’t dance a foot in the air, and as the more adaptable dancer it’s my responsibility to match them. Besides, I want my knees to still be fit for dancing when I reach their age. But my discovery of the physical power with which I am embodied in the world will always be with me, and so will the gift of flight.

Fighting the long defeat

July 29, 2017

The Union of Concerned Scientists has put out a great interactive map that shows which coastal areas are likely to be flooded in the next hundred years under a variety of global warming scenarios.  Living far from the coast as I do, I started out just idly playing around with it. The ocean is enormous, and so is our continent; for all my thorough understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change, the spread of a handful of colored pixels on a map only felt like an abstract catastrophe until I started zooming in on the cities where my friends and family are from. Then it started feeling personal.

By 2100, my father’s birthplace will look out on the ocean.  That’s the one that really stood out. The town where my father was born is decently inland now, but it’s up against an estuary lowland. That lowland is packed full of homes, schools, and businesses. Without construction of massive levees it will be a drowned city in 2100, and my father’s birthplace will look out on the wreckage.

That is true regardless of how much we manage to reduce our fossil fuel use in the future. We have already locked ourselves into a certain amount of warming, and the area around my father’s hometown will be a casualty. I remember when climate scientists started being more public about that.  “We can’t avoid global warming,” was how some reporters spun it. “We had our chance, and now it’s too late.”

Pandora’s Box is open. Evil has been unleashed upon the world. We will not succeed at stuffing it all back in. So why keep fighting? Because it was never actually either/or — it’s all a matter of degrees.

One degree of warming would have been better than two.

Two is better than three.

Three is better than four.

Four, perish the thought, is still better than five.

Even if we fail entirely, in the end, any delay in fossil fuel consumption that we win buys more time for adaptation.

Degrees aren’t just measured in an expansion of mercury. They are measured in human suffering. They are measured in farms that turn to desert, rain that fails to fall, floods that wash out roads, heat waves that shut down cities, and seas that creep to your doorstep.  When it comes to rising sea levels, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ map illustrates this well; you can especially see it under the “Climate Choices” tab. Many communities, like the area around my father’s birthplace, are already doomed without robust water control engineering. Many others are not. Their fate is in our hands, and their lives are worth fighting for.


July 26, 2017

I just built a compost bin for my patio.  In a month or so I’ll let you know how it’s working — for good or ill! For now I’m feeding it my kitchen scraps and some handfuls of browns, and waiting for my friends the microorganisms to do their work.

I realize I haven’t written anything here in a long time.  The past four years have been a time of enormous change in my life.  My parents sold my childhood home and moved far away. I got to celebrate the arrival of nephews, and I’ve been trying to understand my newfound role of aunt. I learned to drive. I learned to code. I played music in public. I found my own dentist. I was heartbroken and then heart-healed. I passed candidacy. I lost a grandmother. I travelled thousands of miles for fieldwork. I did my taxes. I found new ways of dancing. In short, I have been embroiled in the work of growing up, of figuring out how to live in this world that I’ve been thrust out into on my own.  If this were a fairy tale, I’d be in the part where the youngest child packs up their knapsack and ventures out into the forest to meet their fate, and long before they get to even a provisional happily-ever-after.

At the same time, these past four years have also been a time of stillness. I’m in the same place as I was — same department, same neighborhood. My dissertation inches along at a geologically slow pace, and I know it will never blossom into the bright and exotic flowers that I ambitiously proposed (whose ever does, really?). Many of my hopes have not come to fruition; many of my dreams have been eaten by stress. I am in a muddle in the middle of things, with no clear direction to where I want to be, and many days it feels as though I am waiting for my life to happen to me.

So, back to compost. The thing about compost is that it stinks. They say it won’t if you do it right, but let’s be real — no one gets anything right all the time. And while you can optimize your composting conditions, in the end you still have to let it sit there decomposing until it’s done. Perhaps you need some compost for your tomatoes? Too bad. Your compost is full of eggshells and smelly apple cores. It is not done yet; you’ll just have to wait, and find some other way in the meantime. How frustrating!

But the other thing about compost is that it is magical. It takes the cast-off useless scraps from your dinner and transforms them into dirt. And from that dirt — Oh, what wonders! Juicy tomatoes, sweet peas, bitter kale, fragrant herbs, sharp chives. Billions of bugs, and millions of microbes. Trees, even, bearing fruits and flowers and shade on a hot summer’s day. So many of the marvels of nature have their home in dirt.

Here I am in this eternal moment of transformation.  My life is a compost heap full of fragments of my past, and I have no idea what may grow out of it in the future.  Will I become a weed, bright and fast-spreading? Will I become an oak tree, slow and solid? There will surely be some volition involved when the time of planting comes, but for now all I can do is decompose, and wait, and imagine.

On Falling into Holes

April 6, 2013

I have started attending my local Unitarian Universalist church.  It’s an experiment on my part – less to do with anything theological, and more to do with connecting to my new neighborhood outside of the ivory walls of academia.  In that respect, it seems to be working, for now; I get my one hour a week interacting with people of all walks of life, many races, many different backgrounds, all ages, and though I rarely see them outside of church, I find I feel much more grounded in this city – part of a larger community, and not just a visitor.

Back to that “all ages” thing.  This church, like (I understand) many churches, keeps the kids with the rest of the congregation for maybe the first twenty minutes of the service, before they go off to their religious education classes.  Just before we sing them off to their classes, they get their own special storytime.  The story typically shares a topic with the upcoming sermon, and the minister tends to conclude with a bit of commentary or discussion on the lesson of the story.

Some weeks ago, the sermon was about how letting go of our histories would free us from prisons of our own devising.  The story was about a little girl called Jenny and her walk to school.

It went something like: Once upon a time there was a girl called Jenny.  Jenny liked to walk to school, and she always took the same path.  One day, as she was walking to school on her accustomed path, not really looking where she was going, she suddenly fell into a giant hole in the sidewalk that had not been there the day before! And she was quite shaken up, and brushed herself off and climbed out and went on her way.  The next day, the same thing happened, wham, Jenny fell into the hole, and she brushed herself off and climbed back out and went on her way.  On the third day, she got to the hole, and she remembered it was there, and so she edged around it, and so avoided a tumble.  And then, on the fourth day, quite daring, she CROSSED THE STREET and arrived at school right on time and so avoided encountering the hole at all. And she thought how silly she had been, those first two days, just walking on her accustomed path and taking the tumble down into the unexpected hole when she could so easily have changed her ways.

The moral of the story was that we should not cling to our habits and histories when they conflict with a changing world.  I suppose that’s a fine moral; adapting to reality, rather than expecting reality to bend to our wills, is an essential skill for any person.  But I keep thinking about that hole.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time sitting in holes, you see.  I’ve sat in holes in the tundra and the moors, sheltering from wind as I ate my lunch.  I’ve sat in holes in the beach, digging through dry sand until I reached the wet, and building castles around the edges.  I’ve sat in holes in the dirt, scraping it away centimeter by centimeter, revealing the fragments of ancient civilizations.  I’ve climbed down into holes in forests to study the gradating layers of soil and rock, root and worms.  And I’ve sat in holes in rock delved by miners, measured fractures and folds, and collected fossilized leaves from the tree of life.

Holes, from my point of view, are very interesting places, full of puzzles and mysteries.  You might say that they’re a gateway to another world.

So if, like little Jenny, I happened to fall into a hole on my way to school one day, my first step would be to brush myself off and make sure I hadn’t broken anything; but my second step would be to take a look at the hole.  What had dug it – shovels, backhoes, trowels, geological processes? How long had it been there? What were its walls made of – brick, soil, sand, rock? What strata were revealed in its walls? What creatures inhabited its depths? What buried fragments of  life had it revealed?

It would be a terrible betrayal of curiosity, I think, to climb right out of that hole and go on my way.  I go to school every day – but how often does a hole throw itself in my path? If I immediately climb out of that hole and go to school, nothing has changed.  If I edge around the hole and go to school, nothing has changed.  If I cross the street to avoid it, perhaps some little thing has changed, if the other side of the street is new and exciting; but at the end of the day, I’m still at school.  Real transformation lies not in crossing the street, but in turning outward to the wonders and mysteries of the hole.


On Revelations

March 1, 2013

Suppose one day you had a revelation.

You were walking down the street, minding your own business, turning over the thoughts and events of your day, when bam! you woke up, looked around, and really understood your place in the majestic immensity of being.  You felt tiny, because you realized your life was only a grain of sand on the shores of the universe; you felt immense, because your mind could grasp it all; and you felt loved, because in the face of all that vastness, you still mattered.

Wouldn’t you want to run through the streets and sing hallelujahs?

Let me tell you about my revelations.

One semester I took on a full slate advanced earth science courses: stratigraphy, climate science, marine ecology, forest ecology, biogeochemistry.  They look, at first glance, like very different subjects: rocks, atmospheres, oceans, trees, chemistry.  But one hour in climate science we’d be talking about the atmospheric boundary layer of the earth, the layer of air that’s directly affected by the earth’s surface, and the next hour I’d walk into forest ecology and find that the exact same concept and equations applied at the scale of leaves.  We ran through the equations of ocean acidification in biogeochemistry one day and the next discussed their effects on corals in marine ecology.  And the bulk of sedimentary rocks, of course, were deposited in marine settings and record the history of life in the oceans. Going through a week of classes was like examining a many-sided die; one object, many faces, each revealing a little bit more of the interconnected web of existence.

So by the time exams rolled around, my mind was swimming in all this knowledge.  My exams and final projects and papers had all piled up on each other, as exams and final projects and papers are wont to do, and I had not gotten a lot of sleep. I was scrambling to get everything done, breaking my life down into manageable parts (I was so busy I put “eat” on my to-do list, because I knew I probably wouldn’t otherwise), and certainly wasn’t taking time to integrate all I had learned.

And then, as I was running across campus to turn in my final papers, I happened to look down into one of the gorges that cuts across campus. There was everything laid open: the strata laid down like pages in a book, trees growing out of the bones of an ancient ocean, wind in my hair, water below my feet, chemistry, ecology, rocks, life, time. I felt inside-out, I wasn’t sure where I ended and the world began – my molecules, after all, came from plants and rocks and stars – and just outside the edge of my vision, I thought, there was a great consciousness supporting me.

I fully acknowledge that exam-induced sleep deprivation played a significant role in producing this experience.  That doesn’t make it any less valuable to me, and I count that as the day I became whatever sort of quasi-theist I am.

The second time I was more awake, but rocks were again on my mind.  I had been learning to identify minerals and name rocks.  I walked out of the geology building and there was a piece of granite, born in fire and hewn into a pillar to keep cars from driving onto parts of campus they oughtn’t.  I could name every mineral in the granite, and I felt keenly that it had once been in the heart of the earth.  How odd, I thought, that we so cavalierly use our planet’s innards as construction materials.  I looked to my left, and there was a wall made of local shale.  I looked down at my hand and remembered a professor saying “Why do you have five fingers? You have five fingers because your parents had five fingers, and their parents had five fingers, and their parents had five fingers, all the way back to the first tetrapod that came out of the oceans with five fingers.”  We are clever fish to build such artifices of stone, but really, we would have nothing without this planet. Everything is a product of the past.

I wrote about these things in a personal statement for a fellowship application.  A friend who was helping me edit my essay commented, “You’re excited about what you do, and that’s great, but you need to tone down the …” At a loss for words, she made big wavy gestures with her arms.  It was fair criticism; with limited space, I needed to spend more time on past activities and future ambitions, and less on revelations.  And then she added, “Trust me; we all feel that way.”

Do we really? I have no particular reason to believe she’s wrong, but I have not seen the evidence that she’s right, either.  There are a few exceptions — Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson — but by and large, this is not stuff that most scientists talk about, not even with each other. We focus on numbers and neglect the numinous. To be sure, numbers are crucial to doing good science, and I do not want to see theories argued in terms of God; but why, in the pub after talks, or when discussing our work with relatives, do so few of us breathe a word of the ongoing revelation which we play a part in building?

Are we afraid of appearing unscientific to each other? Are we afraid of blurring the boundary between science and pseudoscience? Do we find ourselves unable to trust the general public to distinguish fact from feeling? I know I have feared all these things, at one time or another.  The people of my country seem to have enough trouble accepting the validity of science without scientists running around being ambiguous. The concept of non-overlapping magisteria may be false, but it certainly simplifies discourse.

Whether that’s enough reason for staying silent, I don’t know.  But I do think we are all impoverished by this silence.  We are impoverished scientifically, because so long as we hide from the public what motivates us, they will continue to distrust us and our results.  And we’re also impoverished spiritually, because so long as we hide one face of the divine, the whole will never be complete.