Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Finding meaning in patterns big and small

Close up of petrified tree, which kind of looks like nebula.
Photo courtesy of T. Scott Williams NPS Ranger/Flickr

I'm feeling a bit foggy these past couple days. We just returned from a week in Colorado visiting my parents so it's probably jet lag. But it's left me feeling quiet and closed off. Like I'm going dormant or something.

It was rainy yesterday, so I took the girls to this big indoor playground today so they could bicker with each other in public rather than in the privacy of our home. I found a couch to hole up on with a book – because I can do that now. 

There were tons of crawling and toddling babies with tons of parents trailing them. I'd smile at every baby that wandered by– because how can you not smile at a wandering baby? But when it came to striking up conversation with their weary-looking parents– parents I could see needed someone to tell them that it would get better, that they were doing just fine, that their children looked healthy and happy, that they didn't need to worry so much about the nap schedules or the fact that their kid refused to eat fish– I had nothing. It was if I'd forgotten how to speak.

My awkwardness was all the more surprising because in the wake of two children and momming it up mom's group style, I used to own this sort conversation. Trying to potty train a reluctant 3 year old? I got you. Worried that your 2 year old isn't speaking in full sentences yet? Don't stress! Can't get your 4 year old to put on their own socks? Neither can I!  

But today I had nothing. Nothing! Except for, "she's cute!" Which is not only generic, it's obvious. I mean, what pony-tail-sporting baby with a dimple wearing an adorable dress navigating with some sort of hybrid crawl-scoot isn't cute? Answer: None. They're all cute. No exceptions. 

I had this realization that I'm in a new phase. That which I'd once taken for granted, had changed somehow, without me even realizing it. 

It's painful to realize this person you thought you would always be (casual mom-versationalist) has become something else. It feels unsettling. Because it's not like you're conscious of the person you've become. Not like you can put a label on it. I guess you probably don't need to put a label on it. 

You know how many times I've told myself that it's OK that I'm not the person I thought I should be on any given day? Like, a lot. You know how many times I've actually listened to myself? Rarely. 

And to you, gentle reader, let it be known that it's absolutely fine and normal (I think) if you wake up one day and decide that you're just not yourself. Because chances are, it's true. We're allowed to change in the course of a lifetime. In the course of a year or month or week or day even.

***

While we were in Colorado, I got the chance to visit one of my cousins, Brian, who I only get to see, like, every five years. Not that those five years even matter because Brian is like me and my siblings in these really strange, intuitive ways. The best parts of being friends with your family. Brian is a high school English teacher and I asked what he'd read lately and he said he struggled with that question, because, while he loved books, he most read the same books over and over again as part of his job. 

We got to talking about how what you read a book changes over the course of a lifetime. How the characters you thought were awful when you were younger suddenly become people you understand as your life evolves. You know, things like getting married, having children. They change you. And even beyond that, just paying attention changes you.

I was thinking about all this while driving around Colorado. How time passes. How things evolve. It's obvious there. I mean, you can see it in the layers of rock that thrust themselves up through tectonic shifts. The rocks are red, then beige, then gray, then brown. One piled onto of the other. One epoch on top of the other. 

We stopped by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science one day. There you can see what's buried in all those layers: Trilobites, sea lilies, fish, dinosaurs. Evidence of how Earth has changed, set in stone (funny how we use the phrase "set in stone" to suggest a permanence that doesn't really exist). In these fossils and in these cross-sections of rock we'd drive through to get to my parent's house, you can see this. All the things that have come and gone and the things that have stuck around balanced precariously on the top layer.

I think we're like that, too. Made up of all the things that have come and gone and the things that have stuck around. The same and ever changing.

And it's not just about who we are in a lifetime. It's about what we've taken from other lifetimes.

The last night at my parent's house, my dad pulled out a box of photos, letters and clippings my grandmother had saved throughout her long life. 

At one point, I found myself staring at myself. It was my grandmother long before I knew her. But it was also me. The same eyes and smile. 

Nanny.

Small, pixelated
version of me for context.
There was a photocopied letter she'd typed to some cousins in the late 70s. In it, she writes about the weather and her cat. There had been some bad storms, she'd hoped her cousins hadn't experienced any blackouts. She writes about how she always made sure she had provisions on hand in case of an emergency (maybe a product of coming of age during the Depression). "I am always stocked with lots of canned things and a ham and rice and noodles for filling as well as lots of booze (the cup that cheers)." This last part made me laugh out loud. Nanny was seldom without a gin and tonic. At the hospital on her final days she asked my sister and I to sneak in some beer for her. Like I said, we change and don't change.

"I love Washington, D.C., with so many museums where I can have a 'mini-vacation' on my lunch hour looking at pretty things. Have twice seen the Faberge Russian egg collection at the National Geographic. Also take courses at the Smithsonian Inst. as a resident member ... It is fun and one always meets new people," she writes.

It was Nanny who helped inspire my love of art and music. We'd go to the National Gallery with her and my mom. She'd admire all the "pretty things" – both the art and the occasional "hunk" who wandered by (she also had a wandering eye.)

My good friend Becky invited me to see "The King and I" at the Kennedy Center with her family a couple weeks ago. Nanny was the first one to take me to the Kennedy Center. We saw "The Phantom of the Opera" together there when I was in fourth grade. She shared her opera glasses inlayed with mother of pearl so I could get a closer look at the performers. She was also the one who introduced my sister and I to "The King and I." We loved the opulent gowns Deborah Kerr wore in the movie. The stuff of little girl's dreams. She loved Yul Brynner. 

While neither Deborah or Yul were on stage in the Opera House last month– their modern counterparts were wonderful substitutes– I could feel Nanny as I peeked through her opera glasses. She was right there with me– swinging from the chandelier I think soaking in the music, the costumes and the sets. Getting whisked away from our world into another. 

Chandelier in the Opera House at the Kennedy Center.

***

I have this tremendous sense of searching lately. For what, I'm not exactly sure. My life's purpose? Maybe. A better understanding of my place here in this world? More likely. A desire to understand at a sub-cellular level how we are all connected to one another. The the ground we stand on. The air we breathe. The living and non-living things that surround us. The patterns among us. How we can commune with all these parts for a fuller life. It's the mystery of a lifetime, right? 

There's a feeling of melancholy that I think can be associated with searching. Like somehow if you're searching you're dissatisfied. But I'm not sure I see it that way. I feel like when I stop searching, I stop living. Not literally of course, but internally somehow. That's not to say that I'm landing on any life-altering, universe-shaking truths about our existence or my place in it. I'm not sure I'm wise enough. But the searching part– that's joy, I think. The opening the door to the possibilities of nature and design– all the sudden the world is your museum. A place of learning and discovery. A place full of pretty things.

And this is why I write. It's a place to sort out the searching.

Listening to the On Being interview with author and anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson last night while I was out for a walk offered some affirmation. 

“I like to think of men and women as artists of their own lives, working with what comes to hand through accident or talent to compose and recompose a pattern in time that expresses who they are and what they believe in, making meaning even as they are studying and working and raising children, creating and recreating themselves.”

There's relief in the idea that what we do in life can be improvised. That we allow currents to take us where we need to go rather than requiring an exact plan to follow from our first day to our last. That it's OK that one day you're neck deep in diapers and teething and then just like that, you're not. Your children have been potty trained for years and they're losing those teeth that kept you awake at night. 

There's comfort too in the knowledge that we've done this before. That the rhythms of our lives are tied the rhythms of our ancestors. That we're a part of these magnificent patterns repeating themselves at large scales and small scales.

How lucky we are to be observers in this beautiful universe.


Crab Nebula, which kinda looks like a petrified tree.
Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

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