Wednesday, April 19, 2017

An Evening with Jim Lehrer: Conversations about journalism, trauma and mental health

Oh that? That's just me hanging out with famed newsman Jim Lehrer,
hoping not to sound awkward or inadvertently start sharing stories of my 4-year-old's obsession with poop.
Thank God my amazing friend Melissa was there to offer more relevant topics of conversation. 

(Photo by Jason Plotkin)

Yesterday morning as I was out running errands I listened to the BBC Newshour on NPR. There was a report from Mosul by a journalist who was at the front lines of a battle between Iraqi forces and ISIS over a single street.

Just listening to the report while running errands in the safety of my car is frightening. The audio was a series of cracks, snare drum gun fire, explosions, whistles and pops. It's constant. The voice of Jonathan Beale from BBC News becomes increasingly strained as his report goes on. He's seeing the bloodied bodies of soldiers. The buildings surrounding him are pockmarked from gun fire and rubbled by bombs. On report he describes evacuating the battle because of safety concerns in a Humvee in which the seats were covered in blood. It was brave, effective reporting. Bringing the realities of war to my suburban enclave. 

You can watch video from this report here – though, unfortunately, you can't hear the same raw audio from his original report. His voice was trying to maintain calm during increasingly tense fighting. He was doing his job– witnessing a war and sharing about what he was seeing with a voice of authority and reason. A war, we here in the states are so far removed from. One we don't understand at such a visceral level– even though it has everything to do with the reach of our culture and our politics.

I found myself wondering about how the reporter fared after not only witnessing this violence, but also reporting while under fire. His life clearly at risk. How would he carry this moment– just one of the many in his career and in this long war– through the rest of his life?

It seemed appropriate then, that last night I was able to attend the inaugural event of the Trust for Trauma Journalism, whose mission is "to provide funding to advance innovative, exemplary reporting on violence, conflict, tragedy and their aftermath, and to sustain global initiatives preparing news professionals for the impact of covering traumatic events."

The night was a conversation with Jim Lehrer, anchor for PBS NewsHour and presidential debate moderator. My friend, York Daily Record enterprise editor Scott Blanchard, facilitated the event - asking Lehrer questions about his own experiences dealing with trauma. 

Lehrer described one moment that's haunted him for decades. When he was a young reporter in Dallas he was assigned to cover John F. Kennedy's motorcade on an overcast day in November 1963. Nearing deadline, his editors were asking whether the president would be using a bubble over his car in the event of rain. Lehrer asked someone working the security detail about the bubble. "No bubble!" the guy yelled back to him. And Lehrer prepared to write his story. 

Of course, later he'd learn the president had been shot. In covering that part of the story he ran into the man from the security detail who walked over to him, shaken and asked, "What if I hadn't said, 'no bubble'?" and Lehrer was left to wonder, "What if I hadn't asked the question?"

The anecdote speaks to the moments and stories that etch themselves into a journalist's brain. Affecting not only how they approach reporting a story, but their own mental health.

Every day journalists tell stories about the good and bad and all the in between of the world around us. Many put their own lives at risk– as those who report in conflict zones– and still more are confronted with the darkest moments of humanity and are forever shadowed by the events they witness on the job.

While they may not be the first responders rescuing children from a fire or the soldiers administering first aid to a comrade felled by an IED– they are witnesses to these horrors. Documenters of it. 

And listen, I know people love to hate journalists. Especially right now. But they are my former colleagues and current and future friends.

While journalists are often blamed for being biased muckrakers, liars or voyeurs, the reality is we're humans like anyone else. From my time in newsrooms, I can say there is no desire to do any harm, but simply to report truths as best we can, to document our short histories on this planet as best we can, to provide insight and understanding into complicated issues as best we can, to give voices to the voiceless and make sure those in seats of power are held accountable, as best we can. These stories are told by people who are passionate about their communities and the people in them. They affect us deeply.

Several years ago in York, there was a horrifying case of a 2-year-old girl who was beaten to death by her mother's boyfriend. My friend Jason Plotkin, a veteran photojournalist at the Daily Record, made a documentary interviewing the police, EMTs and others who responded to the call about the murdered child. We watched the documentary in the newsroom ahead of its release to the public. I can still feel the shock and despair that flooded the room as we all listened to the first responders talk about finding little Darisabel. We all knew the story, and still nobody could move or muster words in the long minutes that passed after the screening. The film was a powerful testament to the work of first responders, a painful reminder of how marginalized and vulnerable children can be, and an illustration for the power of strong community journalism. 

At the end of Lehrer's conversation, famed psychiatrist Frank Ochberg rose to speak. 

Ochberg is the founding father on the topic of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and has lead the charge on researching and discussing trauma science. He's also one of those rare journalism fanboys who first raised the question about the need for resources for reporters, photographers and editors who cover trauma (helping lead the charge to the creation of the Trust for Trauma Journalism). I can't quote him exactly, but I really connected with Ochberg's sentiment– the idea that how we help journalists are just an extension of the conversation of how we help our fellow humans cope with all manners of pain. 

I'm a journalist (well ... was a journalist ... maybe I'm an honorary journalist). I'm a sibling and friend to individuals who have struggled with PTSD. I myself have had my own mental health hiccups and have become a growing advocate of discussing the subjects of self injury, depression and anxiety candidly and freely. Because talking about these subjects candidly and freely opens up the door for others to do the same. 

Whether you have a colleague in a newsroom who's had to cover the story of a drowning child or you have a friend who's an abuse surviver or a neighbor who witnessed a fatal car accident– by  offering an ear or sharing your own pain, you can make it OK for them to share theirs. The path to better mental health and healing doesn't have to mean everyone is medicated and/or in therapy–though both can certainly help. It starts with each of us opening our hearts. And it's just as simple as making eye contact with them and saying I'm here to listen, not to judge, because we can all find connections with that primitive pain. 

I guess I kind of wandered off course there.

My point is that humans are also always trying to make connections with their life experiences and that of others. While the internet and social media has kind of broken the barrier for over-sharing about the mundanity of our day-to-day lives, we still throw up walls around the topic of mental health.

It's probably time to break down that wall. I'm proud of the work that Scott, Jason and others are doing to remove these barriers in newsrooms. We can all be chipping away at it in our own small corner of the world.

Before I went to the Trust's event last night, I was waiting for a friend at a bar across the street. (Sidenote, it was the first time I'd actually ever sat at a bar alone and ordered a drink ... which felt very far removed from suburban-mom-dom – but it was either that our stand outside the restaurant awkwardly for 20 minutes.) I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to me– Zach. He was in town from Cincinnati for a few days. I asked him how he was faring– he said the crowds and the noise were overwhelming. He told me he was an introvert and that he had anxiety and PTSD (he'd served in the Army and had tours in the Middle East, though he didn't go into detail about any of that). I told him I felt overwhelmed being downtown ... and I grew up in the area. All the noise– honking horns, sirens, people, people, people. I got why he'd prefer the country. I told him about the farm I'd worked at and how I preferred that to bustle of the city (I probably didn't use the word bustle ... cuz I didn't want to sound like a fussy grandmotherly sort. Not that I know any grandmothers who would use the word bustle, either). 

When I left I shook his hand and thanked him for his service (though I always feel trite about doing that). I looked him in the eye and told him to take care of himself. Hoping to relay all my sincerity and understanding into a few seconds of human connection. 

Who knows if he really felt heard or understood or less isolated in his worries. But I'm always going to try.

P.S. If you're interested in learning more about the Trust for Trauma Journalism visit their site and, of course, like them on Facebook.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Poemaday for National Poetry Month



Last week I got an email from Rosemary, one of Lily's teachers (who also happens to live in my neighborhood), asking if I wanted to participate in something called, Poemaday (created in honor of National Poetry Month). Here's what the email said:

"Old people:Who's in this year? 
New people:A small group of us participate in what we call 'Poemaday' during the month of April for at least 12 years now. Occasionally, we grow our group by inviting others to join us. What the heck am I talking about?
Here's the invitation as sent out in 2011 by Shannon:
"Write a poem every single day in April and send it to other group members that day. Don't write two every other day, etc.  The daily writing and exchange is a large part of the fun. 
If you don't write a poem on a given day, you are not allowed to read the poems others have sent that day. Stone cold serious about this, people. 
*If you quit, do so openly. If you need to keep a poem private or to skip a day, I think that should be stated. Quiet quitters are a thorn in the side of poemaday participants.)* 
Only group members may read the poems. This is probably our most important rule. If you would like to share one written by someone else, ask for permission.  If you have a shared email account, you must make sure the other person does not read the poems. 
Read and delete. We are cranking out tries, not only sharing revised works. The poems are not meant to live on in other people's email accounts indefinitely.
Comments are welcome but certainly not necessary. Don't expect them. Group members sometimes send out challenges to the group. Take 'em or leave ‘em. 
Poemaday is one word.*
(*Added in 2015.)
Let me know if you have any questions, and more importantly, if you'd like to join. :) 
C'mon! You know you're intrigued, right?" 
In fact, I was intrigued.

I hadn't considered myself much of a poet since I was in high school - though I've attempted to write poetry over the years (much of it sad and related to some heartbreak or another. So, you know, pretty much unreadable). 

"On Being" frequently features conversations with poets from around the world – and listening to these conversations, I'm awed by how these writers are able to distill truths and cut to the bone of complex histories, relationships and situations. That's what I'd love to do more of in my own writing. And I want to read more poetry, because it stretches the way I think and it's beautiful and often it shares the stories of the things we don't or can't speak of  in our day-to-day life.

So I wrote back. 

"I'm in." 

I have to say I'm hooked. 

Poemaday has given me an incentive to be more present in my day-to-day. To always be looking at the world around me with an artist's eye. To question, prod and poke at the things that I'm confronted with. To bathe in the moments that bring me delight to make sense of the moments that cause me pain. It's like literary therapy.

Not only has writing poetry been fulfilling, but reading the work of the seven other participants has been a joy. Every day I look forward to notifications in my inbox that tell me another poem has arrived. They're like miniature dioramas of the lives of these women  – most of who I don't believe I've met. They write about experiences I totally relate to, share ideas I wish I had thought of myself, paint pictures with words I feel as if I can touch – on everything from the aches of motherhood to the pain of modern life to reflections on their lives years ago. 

Some funny, some poignant, all poignant. 

With permission from the poets, I wanted to share some of my favorites from the first week or so of Poemaday. Here they are: 

The first one is by a poet who asked that I note use her name, and who claims that creative writing is not her strong suit – an assertion I completely disagree with. I love this poem. Love it for all that it says and all that we're left to reflect on.   

Untitled

After we're gone, our personal histories boil down to whatever partial set of facts those we leave behind know of us.  

This is what I know of him.  

His name was Seth. He was my brother. He was 40 when he died, the age I am now, of what we politely call a 'disease of despair'. He was curious, could be kind. He had girlfriends. He was magnetic. People cared about him. He felt lonely. He hurt himself. He died.

Between those facts there was a life. Real and rich. There were relationships and feelings and experiences. There was a fully realized man that I never knew. That now no one will know, because he is gone.  

What is left is what I remember, and some day even that incomplete picture will be gone.  Because I will be gone. What will survive then is data, raw: middle aged, White, unemployed, some college, suicide.  

Statistics in a spreadsheet. 

America in the twenty-first century.

***

This one is from Tina - I loved the imagery and how it reminded me of my own mother and my own childhood. I can smell the sheets on the line. Feel the warm sun through the fabric. Summertime. 

"The Clothes Line"

Hearing her hum the tune in her head
clothes pins tucked between her lips
the gentle sway of her hips
her rhythm as the sheets & towels
were stretched out, pinned up, 
to dry in the sun
the clothes line.

Our badminton “net” 
where we played all summer long
birdies soaring over
the clothes line. 

The place where we hid
between the billowing fabric
sharing our secrets
playing “Say Say My Playmate”
thinking we were invisible to everyone else
the clothes line.

The smell of crisp, bleached sheets
always bring me back
many fond memories
the clothes line.

***
Because I love Graham (of locked in the bathroom fame) Shel Silverstein and I have been Janna, oh so many times before. 

From Janna: A personalized adaptation of Shel Silverstein's "The Yipiyuk". In honor of my little guy who will not. get. off. me."

"The Grahammy Graham"

At the Patterson's months ago,
Where two other children grow
A Grahammy Graham saw his mother's toe ...
And climbed up to her hip, you know.
At first she kissed him
And cooed "Hello"--
The Grahammy Graham would not let go.
She wanted time to watch a show--
The Grahammy Graham would not let go.
The others cried, "Where's my grub, yo?"--
The Grahammy Graham would not let go.
Yes, that was several months ago,
And the Grahammy Graham still won't let go.
Though I gotta pee
Like a normal schmoe,
The Grahammy Graham will not let go.
I drag him 'round each place I go.
And now, my girls, at last you know
Why your grub is so freaking slow.

***
In just 12 lines, Rosemary kind of summarizes the questions and thoughts I've been mulling over the past year or two. She says in 12 lines what I can't say in a billion blog posts (though I've certainly tried). 

Untitled

If I had to choose again
I don't know what I would pick
A different path perhaps
But which would do the trick?
I wonder now what would be right
For the girl I used to be
So much of what I used to think
Is foreign now to me
Is it too late to make a choice
One different from the last?
Or am I to live this present life
While questioning the past?

***

I'll end with one of mine. Not to say it's my favorite of the poems or whatever, but just that it's only fair to share ... 

“Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick”

Inside the car it’s tense
As seconds pass.
Tick tick, tick tick.
We’re wound tighter and tighter
Like the gears of the clocks
my father made.
Her tiny frame is stiff.
There’s worry in her eyes.
She doesn’t trust me
When I tell her
We won’t be late.
I know this because she tells me
“I don’t trust you.”
“But you have to trust me,”
I tell her.
Her face so taut
In the rearview mirror.
“I’m your mother.
I love you.
I look out for you.
You need to trust me.”
I’m so earnest it hurts.
But it’s dismissed.
Because she’s six.
There’s just no time.
No time for sentiment.
Tick tick, tick tick.
“I only trust my teachers.”
She tells me.
No trace of tenderness.
No reassurance.
“The busses are leaving!
We’re going to be late!”
I say again, we’re not.
Wanting to diffuse her.
As my temper rises.
It’s not personal I know.
But it still painful.
The way she punches the bruise
Of all my old hurts.
She’s forgotten so quickly.
How I carried her in me.
How I loved her first
When she was just cells
And the promise of a person.
Did she know even then?
That I couldn’t be trusted?
Does she realize now
That the hand
of her anxiety
Fits so neatly
In the glove
Of my anxiety?
Before I can tell her
Once more how I love her
And to have a good day
And all that
The car door opens
And she’s gone.
It turns out,
I was late.

***

So that's what I've been up to for the past week or so. Why I'll probably neglect my blog for a bit this month. Writing over-long poems instead of over-long blog posts.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Let she whose child is perfect eat the first tortilla chip

More about this bag of tortilla chips later.

The other day, I went to pick Jovie up from a friend's house. As usual, I lingered a bit to catch up with Janna, her friend's mom. I'd been feeling a little lonely this week – the house extra quiet; I was desperate for some social interaction. So, while the girls served us torn up bits of pita ("Those are raspberries," Jovie told me. "They're made of ham.") and crushed tortilla chips from their basement "snack stand" (two upended kid's easy chairs pushed together to form a table) we embarked on a fragmented conversation about this and that. Because any conversation between two mothers is fragmented when the kids are underfoot. Not unlike crushed tortilla chips, in fact.


"Where's Graham?" I asked casually - hoping to steal a hug from her rosy-cheeked 2 year old, who was normally shuffling around in the vicinity of his sisters, trains or race cars in tow.


Janna paused. Glanced around the room. He wasn't there. And there were no sounds coming from overhead ... no tell tale little feet. No babbling or soft giggles. Only silence.


"Excuse me," she said running up the stairs.


Jovie told me all about the tortilla chips she was going to take home for Lily and I attempted to make the girls laugh by inventing weird nicknames for them. After a few minutes, I told Jovie it was time to get her shoes and we went upstairs, too. 


"Everything OK?" I yelled.


Janna appeared at the bannister on the second floor, deliberately unwinding a wire coat hanger and looking a bit flustered.


"I'm so sorry. Graham locked himself in our bathroom."


"Can I help?"


"No, no. He's done it before. I'll figure it out."


But I'm the mother of two small children who once locked themselves in their bedroom and used poster paint to decorate their carpet. I'm the mother of two small children who once pointed the garden hose into the sunroom and squeezed the nozzle. I'm the mother who has had to crawl through a bedroom window to break into the house my 4 year old had locked me out of. 


I am a mother who has witnessed some kid-induced bullshit. And as that mother, I wasn't about to leave another mom, who was frantically MacGyvering some sort of medieval door lever, on her own to just "figure it out."


I went upstairs. And took a deep breath and invaded my friend's privacy. 


"There's laundry all over the bed," she apologized. 


"I'm not looking at the bed," I said. "Let's figure this out." 


It turned out Graham hadn't locked himself in the bathroom, not really.


What he'd done was open a drawer in the vanity that prevented the bathroom door from opening more than an inch. In the small crack he left we could see a few things. 


The first was the bathroom sink, filled to the brim with various bottles of lotion and soap and toiletries and also toilet paper. The water was running, naturally. 


The second was the open drawer, which could've probably been closed with the unwound coat hanger, except for the fact that it contained a large pink bucket (as well as water, dripping from the sink).


The third was Graham. Who would periodically wander down the vanity countertop in striped footie pajamas to say hi and give us the cutest smile this side of baby harp seals.


"Grahammy," Janna sang. "Grahammy, can you close the drawer honey? Close the drawer!" 


And Graham would half-heartedly try to push the drawer closed. And then go back to whatever he was doing (which we mostly couldn't see, cuz we only had that inch of space).


The hullabaloo lured the girls to the bedroom. Where they proceeded to shriek at the drama of the situation, running around in circles between peeking through the door crack. 


Generally, just not being helpful at all.


I ushered them downstairs. Then returned to the bedroom.


"If you offered him a treat would he want to come out?" I asked.


"Grahammy, Grahammy," Janna crooned. "Do you want some chocolate? If you opened the door, you can have some chocolate."


Graham came back over to the door, babbling in glee. He tried to pull it open but couldn't. (Because drawer with pink bucket, obvies). 


"Take the bucket out Graham!" we urged. "Take the bucket out and you can close the drawer and have chocolate!" 


But Graham had given up on the drawer and his dreams of chocolate. 


"Do you have like, a stick or a dowel or something?" I asked "Maybe we could push the bucket out. Maybe a wooden spoon."


Janna continued working her hanger and pleading with Graham. I went to the kitchen and found a strainer with a long wooden handle. Back upstairs, I used the strainer and eventually hooked the bucket's handle causing it to levitate mysteriously in front of Graham. We heard laughter and exclamations from behind the door. Then the bucket fell. Back into the drawer.


But we were so close. I continued jabbing at the bucket. Soon, it fell to the floor. We pushed the drawer closed, flung open the door and turned off the water.


There was little Graham, playing with closed containers of various bathroom products. Not especially upset that he hadn't been able to get out. He was totally fine, save for maybe being a little warm (the bathroom was a bit muggy - he must've turned on the hot water.) 


And Janna and I? We had a long, luscious laugh. Because no one was hurt and because no property was really all that damaged (aside from some unsalvageable toilet paper) and because the situation was ridiculous and because we're moms and we know that day's ridiculousness was ripe fodder for tonight's dinner table conversation and for various parties, holidays and family parties for years to come. 


"Remember that time Graham locked himself in the bathroom and we had to rescue him with a wooden-handled strainer?" will be family lore. 


Just like that time I proudly announced to guests at an office party my dad was throwing that I had "buggies in my hair" and they all laughed and thought I was cute because they didn't quite grasp that they were chatting with a louse-infected 3 year old. Or, that time my little brother took a swim in the toilet fully clothed. Or, all the times Lily pooped in the bathtub when she was a baby. Or, the time my neighbor knocked on the front door and told me that "he got something" and by "he" my neighbor meant Snacks and by "something" he meant a dead squirrel that I had to wrench from his mouth. I will now never forget the sound squirrel bones make as they're being chewed.


As I was loading Jovie in the car, relieved that this time I wasn't the one who was going to have to clean up an absurd mess or discuss the appropriate consequence for unapproved bathroom activities, Jovie reminded me about the chips she'd wanted to give to Lily. I didn't see her bag in her hands and didn't want to bother Janna. 


I groaned, fearing another fire to have to put out. I was about to tell her we'd just give Lily some of the tortilla chips at our house when Jovie proceeded to reach down into her underpants and pull out ... wait for it ... her bag of tortilla chips.


"They taste better from my butt," she told me.


See, cuz that's the thing about being a mom. The second you feel like you've been granted a reprieve for the day – the second you start to feel safe and maybe even a little bit smug that you're not the one left to pick up the pieces of yet another kid-induced disaster – humility smacks you across the face with a bag of munchies stored in your 4-year-old's undercarriage for safekeeping.


In the oft-repeated, borrowed phrase of my own mother, who's witnessed the kid-induced bullshit of six children: "There but for the grace of God go I."


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What I learned from geese, lichen and coccolithophores

Bejeweled grass.

The other night I woke up at 4 a.m.. Jovie was snuggled in on one side of me as she often is early in the morning. The dog was squeezed in on the other. It was tight quarters. I wasn't ready to be awake, but couldn't go back to sleep.

I tried to focus on my breathing. Because via meditation and yoga, I'd heard that can help. Just concentrate on the in and out, in and out.


As I lay there in the dark, the room warm and still around me, I tried concentrating on my breathing. Only, instead of just following my breath, I found myself trying to control my breath. The rhythm of my breathing didn't seem calming enough – relaxing enough for sleep. So I focused on making it so. But that only made me more aware of how wrong my breathing was. How it was making me feel light-headed, but not sleepy. 


I put my hand on the dog's stomach, hoping his natural respiration would help guide my own. But his breathing was faster than mine, probably because he's smaller. So then I thought I'd listen to Brad – but he must've been dreaming – his was irregular (and maybe a little bit snore-ish). So I just lay there. Awake. Kind of angry because I couldn't even breathe right.


All it is, is breathe in, breathe out, right? Breathe in, breathe out.


But that's not quite right, I realized. Because there's a pause after breathe out, before breathe in. It's not a constant thing. It's breathe in, breathe out, pause, breathe in, breathe out, pause. 


Like the sound of ocean waves at the beach.



Otherwise, it's kind of like hyperventilating or the feeling I get after I walk up the stairs cuz I'm really out of shape. It's too much. Me assuming my conscious mind knew more about the right way to breathe than my unconscious mind. Me deciding that the solution was more doing, less pausing.


I need to just allow the waves to roll in, rather than control the current. Eventually, I drifted back to sleep.



***

Maybe it's not a mistake that we use the ocean as a tool for relaxation. That the sounds of waves are soothing to us. I just learned that the ocean is responsible for every other breath we take (we can thank the forests for the other half). During an episode called Epic Battles, RadioLab shared a story about these little one-celled marine plants armored by a unique limestone coating that live in enormous colonies on the surface of the ocean. They're called coccolithophores. Despite their tiny size, these organisms can be seen from space as milky turquoise swirls; they are responsible for the famous White Cliffs of Dover. And they produce oxygen, which is good for us oxygen-breathing sorts



Coccolithophores and other phytoplankton as seen from space.
Photo courtesy of NASA/Flickr
Currently, researchers are trying to get a better understanding of the impact of giant blooms of these tiny creatures – particularly the role they do or don't play in global warming. 

They can survive and actually thrive in nutrient-poor areas of the ocean, providing a food source where other phytoplankton might be scarce. In addition, their light color reflects visible light, that would otherwise be absorbed in the ocean and stored as heat. Given concerns about our warming seas, this is probably a good thing. 


They are made using carbon, so researchers believe in the long-term they might actually reduce the amount carbon in the atmosphere that could go on to form greenhouse gases and  contribute to global warming. Then again, the short-term picture is a bit foggier. With every new coccolith comes the creation of a CO2 molecule – the plant sucks back in most of the gas as food, but some of it does escape into the atmosphere. (By the way, don't quote me on the exact science of any of this ... I'm attempting to distill information with my painfully clumsy brain).


As with all life, coccolithophores are complicated and we don't understand the big picture yet. They have their good points and bad points, just like the rest of us.


They're really beautiful on a micro level. Here's one through an electron microscope:



Photo courtesy of Public Library of Science Journal
***

I was thinking about coccolithophores and respiration while walking the dog today and listening to Krista Tippett's interview with physicist Carlo Rovelli. Trying to draw connections between my experience and the world at large (and small I guess).

In the interview Rovelli discussed many fascinating things – among them, the meaning of time: 



"It’s not either there is time, or there’s not time; it’s what we mean by time. When we think about time, for instance, we think time is the same for everybody, and we know it’s not true. Time passes a little bit faster in the mountain, and a little bit slower near the sea. The more high you go, the more time passes fast. So it’s relative to how we move, where we are, and so on. I think that, in the fundamental equation of the world, as we have understood so far, we can forget about time. 
They’re not about how things evolve in time. It is about relations between — with invariables. I think that’s more or less we can understand. The real problem is, from there, to come back, and in this timeless world, to understand what is this thing that we experience as time. And that’s a problem in thermodynamics, and also, I think this probably is related to what we are as human beings. To a large extent, what we call time is our memory, our anticipation. I think we’re going to understand entirely what time is when we better understand what we are. So I think that time is an approximate thing, not a fundamental thing in the world. Like up and down. Up and down makes sense here on Earth, but not in space."
He went on later:
"We perceive reality not from the outside, but from the inside. And there is this little difference between each one of us, obviously. And we have to keep this into account."
This stuck out to me. The way we perceive reality.

See, we assume because we know what it's like to be ourselves, that we know what it's like to be a human in general.That we can look at another person and know them and understand them on a certain level just by virtue of the fact that they're also a human. But really, it's relative, right? Even for identical twins – conceived and borne from the same place, their experiences aren't exact. Not quite. So our experience in this life is just our own. Our partner's experience is his own. Our children's experiences are their own. 

So then, I think, it's essential that we stay curious. Stay curious about each other. Even the people we are closest with. Even with the people with think we know everything about. Stay curious like children. Stay curious about the world because our curiosity not only builds understanding, it creates joy. Like the little boy toddling along the sidewalk who, at the sight of Snacks, began giggling and pointing. Who spun his head around and grinned as we passed, hoping to watch more of this wonderful thing called doggy.


It will break your heart open.



My lichen specimen.

You'll start marveling at the world you've always thought you knew. Even in the mundanity of your own neighborhood, another patch in the endless quilt of suburban sprawl. You'll spot lichen flowering on a stick and marvel at how delicate and beautiful it is. Which makes you want to learn more about what lichen is, exactly. Where you'll learn that it's actually the result of two symbiotic organisms: a fungus and algae existing because of each other. The alga photosynthesizes food, providing nutrients for the lichen, the lichen offers a safe place for alga to be – protecting it from ultraviolet rays.

You'll look down, where your eyes will open to spring bursting around you – the emerald moss and the rain sparkling on greening grasses soaking in the sun and thaw.


And you'll look up to watch the birds.

As I headed home from my walk, I saw a flock of geese flying over head. An undulating "V" in the sky. I thought about how lucky it must be for the geese at the ends of the two legs of the "V". Long distance flying must be so easy when you're catching the draft from all the others up ahead. How tiring it must be for the ones at the front. Carrying the load of air resistance over miles and miles. 


The sky was a downy gray, and their movement felt like a dance just for me, so I stopped to watch them. I observed the geese periodically shifting positions. Sometimes the "V" became an "A". It occurred to me that maybe the goose at the front wasn't always the goose at the front. That the constant switching toward the front of the flock was to give the leaders a break.


When I got home, I did some Googling – and found this from the L.A. Times: Birds Flying in a V Take Turns in the Top Spot, Study Finds. Researches tracked flocks of Northern bald ibises and found that when flying long distances, there was no one bird that took the front spot for long periods of time; instead, they'd spend seconds or a minute in that position, before rotating with neighbors.


“All the birds contribute almost equally to the investment in leading the flock,” biologist Bernhard Voelkl said.


Watching the birds made me think about how dependent we are on each other. Like lichens. Like our dependence on this microscopic ocean creatures for breath. 


And how we're stronger when we work together. And how it's too wearying for any one of us to lead the flock for long periods of time. We each have to take our turn, then we each have to move aside for the next leader. 


As tumultuous as life feels in our country, in our world right now, it's hard not to feel as if we have to race to the front of the flock to take a stand – to be the tip of the spear of progress and change. I don't know about you, but I'm not so sure I have a clear picture about what I'd do up there in the front. Not yet anyway. But I think I'll know when it's my turn to take the lead. And in the meantime, the birds in the middle are no less critical. They provide draft for those behind them. And those birds help the ones behind them. We all carry each other that way. 


What does any of this have to do with the other thing? What does lying awake at night have to do with phytoplankton? What does phytoplankton have to do with relativity? What does lichen have to do with bird formations? Maybe nothing more than a jumbled compilation of the things that catch my attention in a day. You know how I love attempting to weave discordant things together into neat little packages. Hoping to find harmony where maybe there is none to be found. 


Maybe the only common thread is me and the next shiny thing.  


But maybe not. 


Maybe it's that we're better together. We're better as a species when we collaborate. Maybe it's that we really need each other to survive. And not only each other, but the other living things that surround us – even the tiniest organisms. The planet is this living, breathing thing that shapes us as we shape it. Symbiosis is beautiful. And we needn't feel so small and powerless in this vast universe. We all play a role. Even when we don't know what it is.


Maybe the thread is just to be curious. To observe the world around you. To be open to the lessons it's trying to teach you. Our daily existence as the classroom for the very meaning of who we are and why we are here.


Those answers that are so complex they require a lifetime to digest. The ones that you get when you come back to your breath. 

The answers to the things that keep you awake at night.