Week 44. Random

She didnt believe it. She had thought it was another swimmer that bumped her, and when she saw the sleek gray tail in front of her, she told herself it was the back of an outrigger canoe. Later, on the boat she swam to that let down a rope ladder for her to climb aboard, she felt terror, but it was mixed with the excitement of having been so close to something so magnificent.

I tell her I accepted a long time ago that she might die swimming solo where others dare not.  I used similar rational to accept her attempt to deploy in Iraq as a social worker. My mother in a war zone, sixty-nine, actively shrinking, all muscle and extra skin from the five kids she bore. If you love something let it go.

“I didnt want to die out in the ocean eaten by a shark. I never thought I would see one. It was random.” She spits back.

When I pull a core of sediment from a lake I find a time series of forest turning to prairie and back again. There is no design to how a seed or leaf or pollen grain falls and where it lands. Yet a collection of random falls over time tells a story. Random moments organized by probability, the story of our galaxy, planet, the evolution of species.

Blame and gratitude switch from randomness to probability to god and back. My mom says that in her dreams she had always frozen, so in real life when she got away from the shark it made her feel more confident and also more willing to pretend there is a god.

Medium: Water, water color, sharpie, random number generator.

The Aiuaba Ecological Station preserves a desert forest in Brazil’s Caatinga biome. Though it lies in the planet’s tropical zone, Caatinga means xeric shrubland: thick-stemmed, thorny, waiting all year for rain.

Aiuaba hasn’t been managed since 2012, and since then, people have killed many animals and taken native trees from the preserve. This is according to the Wikipedia article, the first that popped up when I clicked “random article.” It includes the odd phrase that “the Aiuaba Ecological Station had been delivered to its fate.”

I like that my heart is so easy, that for the past several days, I’ve been thinking about Aiuaba, about the eared dove that lives there. I sometimes think that people and objects and animals are randomly assigned to be lynchpins at birth, that we’re each holding something to the earth, protecting it from being delivered to fate.

People once found atoms suspect because of how they were thought to move—randomly, without pattern. People though God was organized and purposeful, the opposite of random, but didn’t carry the idea through to imagine the horror of fate working toward greater and greater organization and predictability.

Look at our building blocks: cytoplasm, the solution and dissolution of blood. Even at our cores, we move to dissolve, to random distribution. I know little about God, really, but I know the universe has an easy heart.

Materials: acrylic (Golden Open). This week, I was secretly practicing brushstrokes for my rosemaling class. But there is so much chaos and precision to brushwork (bristles, angle, pressure, grip, motion) that painting has an underlayer of randomness.

Week 43. Color blindness

Someone once told me I behave like a playlist on random or shuffle. My mind leaps to and between random ideas and thoughts. It’s like living with a view of the world that looks like a partially completed tarot card reading, or like having all the ingredients for soup but no way to make it.

I once watched a fishing family inspect Dungeness crabs for sex and throw them back if they were female. You can tell the difference by markings on their undersides, and it’s illegal to eat the females when they’re preparing to mate. And I thought of spiny lobsters, which can only mate when the female molts, and then only with great gentleness, with great brutality. Like many dichotomies or overlaps, it’s easy to refuse to see one side. Maybe people who say lobsters don’t feel pain have neglected to understand the gentleness, to look at it fully.

Color blindness isn’t an absence or a darkness, but an inability to distinguish between colors. Spiny lobsters are dichromats—blue-green vision—created by anatomical acuity for blue and for violet. The colors of light on the sea; maybe some light remains in the mud.

The larvae of spiny lobsters are piecemeal waiting to be fused, which looks like some kind of grace. They are collections of nearly microscopic parts, hennaed ghosts.

Materials: watercolor, gouache

Blue is the most recent addition to our colors. Words for colors appear in stages in cultures, and blue is always last. There was no blue in the Odyssey. Ulysses saw the ocean as wine colored.

Are the sky or water or eyes really blue? Or is blue just a reflection of a reflection reflecting back?

Blue M&Ms and skittles and other sugary treats are died with aromatic hydrocarbons, originally a waste product from coal processing. Mars recently made a commitment to use only natural pigments: roots, seeds, and other plant parts. It hasnt gone well with blue.

For water, sky, ice, bird feathers blue is a trick of diffraction.

General Mills was unable to come up with a natural blue for Trix, so they left it out.

The most promising dye is an extract from algae spirulina, but natural compounds are unpredictable.  Sometimes this blue taste of pond scum, bog, natural rot.

Medium: Crayon and leaves.Hopefully I am not being too clever rifting off of last week in black and white – well a purple infused black and white

References:Radiolab and a New York Times article

Week 42. Front and back

It always bothers me when I notice that my perspective has been warped by the shape of my surroundings, by changing light. I noticed this first in churches and theaters—buildings that draw gaze almost toward a vanishing point, but really toward a captivating performance. The front of a church or theater—its outward face—becomes the back once inside, though your gaze hasn’t changed; it’s been given a trajectory, directed as if on a course.

When I studied blood flow, I became fascinated by how clotting evolved in many different lineages. How our cells hold potential for migration, for arduous journey. To migrate toward a wound, a cell has to behave like two people in a canoe, polarizing so that molecular activity at the back and front is different. The front moves toward. The back moves to allow the front’s towardness, contracting, suppressing, detaching, and the cell migrates toward distress.

The toward is always in the away, the away in the toward. Once I ran away from a terrible decision, and my dad said, “Sometimes the spirit moves you,” and that was that.

When I say “back,” I think “dorsal,” and of the live fish we dissected in 9th grade to watch its heart beat—something of ancestor heart there—and how I wanted to stop a million times and didn’t. The performance of cruelty always feels easy, impressive, and on a trajectory that must be finished. I think of that fish all the time when I think it’s weak to be compassionate, when I’m shaken, when I need to run away or toward.

Materials: Ink, Sharpie, pastels

I miss it every year – I expect all the trees to turn at once so I wait to look. Wait to say this is autumn.

My silver maples are green, but the rest of my street is gold or flames. Yet, I’m still waiting. I looked it up, did you know butterfly wings dont have the same pattern front and back? In the 2-D of a leaf drawing we never profile the leather and ribs of the back. When I used to identify pollen in lake samples I could focus on the grain’s top, middle, bottom to see 3-D in segments. Almost like analog animation.

But it is hard to hold a 3-D object in mind, the front and back pattern of a butterfly wing, the collective red, yellow, orange of fall that moves like a slow river through the neighborhood, the river bluffs, the forests on top of glacial moraines, the flat sand plains and into November.

Medium: Tracing paper, glue stick, crayon, leaves


Week 41. Boredom

I read in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel The Lola Quartet that people surround themselves with crumbling things—houses, cities, relationships—and call them beautiful and loved, because crumbling things offer escape routes.

Once, someone asked me if I ever feel safe, and I’d never thought about it, never thought of “safe” as something it were possible to feel. I feel bored often, if bored means stuck or a kind of restless, turning-on-itself comfort. To me, that is a distasteful safety.

My escape route as a child and teen was my basketball hoop in the dark. I created whole worlds in my head, new stories, bold paths and choices that could be abolished as quickly as they were made. I could inhabit everywhere as I shot baskets. My dog trying to steal the ball, barn owls, toads I rescued from my cats, moths like ash.

I remember the first time I realized people were supposed to choose only one life, a day or week repeated with little variation. I feel scared now that I’ve accepted this, boredom as simulacrum of safety.

Not all escape routes are bad. Science, in practice, and medicine especially, escapes from the horrific boredom of overarching narrative (once it eschews overarching narrative). It sees enough crumble in the absolutes. Once you get down to individual experience, to the practice of care, it’s all crumble, all girls with basketballs and injured toads creating new worlds in the dark.

Medium: ink, Sharpie

These words are like a virus. I hope by writing them down I don’t infect anyone else. I told them to a friend in college and ten years later she tells me, they still haunt her.

The words of a first grade teacher chased me through high school, to Italy, a college major in science, remote wilderness, graduate school burnout. They are likely the fire that keeps me writing through child rearing and busy jobs.

“A bored person is a boring person.”

I’ve never wanted to be boring, or worse to disappoint. I move through life in gulps, bug eyed and wanting to lick, hold, examine everything: galaxies, earthquakes, plant chemicals.

But I dont sleep. I am 36, mother of two. I have a serious day job, and yet, I can’t manage my participation with every second of the day to let my body relax at night. I track my heart rate to try and hold myself accountable, to see that anxiety, non stop meetings, vacations, petting dogs, that these are reflected in the parasympathetic system of my body.

I went to a meeting on Monday and was bored. I let myself be bored. My heart rate sank like it was laying down in a feather bed. The thought drifted by that perhaps the key to rest would be permission to be bored.

Medium – Pen, Fit Bit Charge data.

Week 40. Tradition

Old Roman soothsaying held that the gods left a mark on the liver when the spirit was snatched from it, that the left side of the body (the sinistra) was hostile, the right friendly. Doctors still tend to work from the right side. The sciences are so much about finding one’s place in a trajectory (beautiful, awful) of error.

All I offer is research, information. Does it mean anything? Does it add to a lineage? I used the word mortality—the language of my profession, the traditions I’ve taken on—about someone I love, and I caught myself. Though, actually, I didn’t catch myself. I didn’t have any feelings at all, only thinking I should feel guilty.

How you adhere to, or rebel against, a tradition illuminates a map to what you’ve lost.

Words form maps, create distance, which is not coldness, not a sub-level of humanity, but simply the space between two points, a way of getting from here to there. I never loved the traditions of my culture, my church, my profession, until I lost the people who’d been safeguarding them as I went my own way. I never understood lineage until it became a set of ghosts I wanted back.

There’s a tradition of wet cupping—slicing open the skin and cupping to suck out the blood, usually in a sauna—among some Finnish people where I’m from. It’s mocked sometimes as archaic, unscientific. But it’s easy to see why it could be desired, a forced loss of self that heals through connection.

Materials: Ink, gouache, wax paper (and I could feel the influence of a ton of liquid eyeliner tutorials)

Even after death his house is opened up Wednesday nights. The tradition borrowed from a college professor of his in the 1930s. We ate cheese and crackers and drank beer in his living room, a projector set up just to the left of the front door. We sat on brown corduroy couches and metal folding chairs.

We packed out our trash because no one knew what else to do with it. When I realized he burned his trash, I kept my mouth shut. What do you say to a ninety year old man, a member of the academy of science who keeps a fire going like it is the eternal flame of a temple?

I often volunteered for the task of shopping, the luxury of tasting and spending as a graduate student was obscene. I liked to buy nutty dry cheeses, bries that melted when cut into, anything with ash layers in it.

We gathered, geologist, limnologist, botanist, anthropologist, mathematicians – anyone interested in reconstructing earth history: the die off of the chestnut trees 3000 years ago, Lake Agassiz draining 8200 years ago, the cold snap 12000 years ago that stopped the retreat of the ice sheets, anything about mammoths or collapses of human civilizations. We squeezed into his living room like it was a theatre, leaving our crumbs on the floor and the energy of questions and debate in the air.

Without flavor and texture and sound to place an idea in our memory, what form does knowledge have? Even objective science needs grit to gain traction.

Medium: Label maker

Week 39. Infinity

I dont think of myself as a perfectionist: I shave my legs at random so they are never smooth all at once, just in strips; I wear the same red pants on weekends; I hang wool socks up as if time were equivalent to a washing machine; when I can, I wear Birkenstocks with suits.

But yet, for my field collections, my laboratory measurements, calculations of error propagation I focus every ember of spirit as if it were a ritual connecting me directly to god. It is only with work that my animal instinct of competition kicks in, a vibrating anxiety for perfection. I drove 8500 miles to hike, swim, and collect water and mud from 100 lakes in the Rocky Mountains. I ran from beaker to masher to digester in the laboratory to process samples, then slept on the floor running them through a mass spec.

The jingle that plays as an ear worm, arrives like Tinkerbell to save me, is the mathematical concept of approaching infinity but never arriving. Limits, edges, what is good enough. The aim is always perfection, but that isnt a place on a map.

Medium: Needle and thread, sharpie, water color

In my first university math class, my leather-miniskirted professor told us that calculus was the closest we could ever come to touching infinity. She said it was like robbing a museum in a movie, dangling by wires through a skylight, unable to contact the ground without disaster.

I’d rather come very close than touch. I’d rather be on the outside, watching.

I had a dream once that I was sitting with God and watching the Big Bang. The air was both calm and windy; everything was so flat. God was the shooting star emoji  – my favorite, though I can see why people would prefer the red balloon, the tulip bouquet, the snowcone.

The infinity symbol is a mathematical rose: connecting, continuing, converging, petals looping from a single point and returning. It doesn’t exist until you assemble it in your mind, and then it lasts forever.

Where eternity (time without end) is nightmarish, infinity has a sweetness to it. Space without end, or the potential to climb and add and unfold, to fling outward and become something wholly new. The way Patroclus says of his love Achilles, “I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”

Materials: Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen (super-fine, sanguine), colored pencil

Patroclus’ quote is from Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles

Week 38. Lexicon

There has been so much plague research out lately: tracing the bacterium back, giving it name and lineage, connecting the centuries into family. I look at medieval death records and am fascinated by their lexicon: kingsevil, the rising of the lights. I’ve diagnosed myself with a chronic case of “the frights.”

“The rising of the lights,” or croup, is my favorite phrase, the lights being lungs, catarrh of the throat experienced not as a dripping down, but as a rising up – how it truly feels. It sounds like being overtaken by spirits, which is sometimes how illness want to feel, with increasing loss. A visitation, agonizing, desired. People swallowed shot to keep the lights down.

West Nile Virus first appeared in the US as a noticing of dead birds. It must have looked like omen, untrustworthy and inescapable. I’ve never found the line between omen and epidemiology, between sign and sign. When HIV first appeared, it was called “gay-related immune deficiency,” or, simply “gay disease.” Being a part of public health feels like it’s about both saving lives and being a war criminal. I have to hold both legacies in mind to move forward, to help and atone. I have to do this, but I still don’t know how.

In looking for insomnia cures, I found people using the svefnþorn (sleep thorn) rune. Runic languages have been diluted until they are simple and heart-warming and helpful. The svefnþorn is a weapon! For putting your enemies to sleep. But – cure and weapon, medicine and poison. I know from listening to pharmacists that sometimes the body only listens to a bit of poison, enough of an omen to set things right.

Materials: gouache and a dead bird in the alley

I tried learning by force, listing words on one side of the page in Italian, the other in English. Conversation from the street floated up to my window. I practiced writing the same words over and over. Eventually the seeds took root, but it was only with the playfulness of talking in a bar, getting to know the family I worked for, running errands. Five years later, I went back, the words at first gummy then loosening. I added farm vocabulary: mucca, cinghiale, biologico.

A lexicon of italian, some dialect, some from textbooks, some learned translating the newspaper word-for-word.

I ran into a painter from Milan last month in the North Woods of the Midwest, on an island, the middle of nowhere. We spoke of Elena Ferrante, the evolution of feminism, his home town of Palermo where I had once been. I was fast and silly, just as I always am. Later, I played back the conversation and realized I had been flying in a time machine of past, present, future, and also mixing he, I, they, subjects.  Words without syntax, but with the long pom-pom needles of white pine all around and the sun off Lake Superior, it didnt matter. Somehow just throwing words up into the air was enough to start a game of catch. 

Medium – Ink and colored pencil.

Note –  I’m self conscious that some of my postcards are not sciencey enough. I read a lot about the science of grammar this week, but in the end I wrote what came to me. I see the science fibers in my writing, but they are more part of the fabric than the print.