Mathematics Makes a…WHAT?!

More years ago than I care to remember, during the era in which the Sunday newspaper was a regular establishment and chock-full of information, I always enjoyed reading the small magazine that accompanied the paper. For several years one of my favorite features in that magazine was a column written by a woman acclaimed for her high I.Q. Much as I do with this blog, she simply discussed ideas and events that interested her, and, whether I agreed with her observations or not, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.

The topic of one such article was the necessity of teaching and learning mathematics. Since math has been my stumbling block since I got to the point of learning (uh, being unable to learn) my “seven plus” tables—I’ve since discovered that I may suffer from dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent to dyslexia–I read her column with real curiosity.

The author explained her point of view carefully, and her observations made great sense, until I reached a remark near the conclusion of her essay, in which (to the best of my memory; this was decades ago) she stated that “…mathematics makes a better poet”.

Say what?!

I put the article down and pondered. This being the pre-Internet era, I could not easily check my supposition, but I did not recall that anyone had ever mentioned or published Einstein’s shining examples of verse.  (I’ve looked them up since, and the few poems of his I was able to locate on-line were, at best, ordinary; certainly in no way comparable to notable poets such as Byron or Millay.)  I thought further on the subject and realized that, whether one believed that William Shakespeare was, in fact, Shakespeare, or any one of another half-dozen candidates for having written his works, I simply didn’t recall his equally-brilliant ventures into the field of mathematics.  Hmmm. That is, other than his ability to write in iambic pentameter—a feat which basically relies on tossing all the grammar books and rules out the window and brilliantly twisting language to fit emotion.  (In fact, most truly excellent poetry does just that.)  Da Vinci—certainly the ultimate Renaissance man and brilliant at mathematics, as proved by his engineering marvels—Da Vinci wrote quite an essay explaining why poetry simply did not measure up to painting.  He may have loved numbers, but he certainly had little enthusiasm for verse.

Pondering the article further, I mused that, having written several hundred poems myself–yes, most of them quite ordinary; I am admittedly not a Keats or  Dickinson or Millay–and even published a (pathetically) few, I did not ever recall needing any more mathematical a skill than that of counting out the syllables and establishing the rhythm of verses by tapping my fingers on the desk.  And this drumming occurred only when I was writing verse with rhyme and meter…a skill that wasn’t even necessary on the occasions when I wrote free verse.

Mathematics makes a better poet?

Nonsense. Despite the fact that my own I.Q. was obviously lower than that of the author, her contention was definitely pushing the point due to her personal bias.

The truth, I thought, lay more in the fact that mathematicians absolutely love math, finding it everywhere and searching for it in everything, while those who adore language do the same with words, from “Let there be light” right on down the freeway.

My personal bias is, of course, language. That may very well be why I toss the “mathematics makes a better poet” argument right out the window of the highrise to watch it shatter on the pavement below.  Introduced to poetry at an early age by a mother who loved it and who read it aloud with great skill, I was able to write competent verse by the third grade despite my compromised mathematical skills (and let me tell you right here and now that surviving elementary school while suffering dyscalculia, in an era in which the disorder wasn’t even recognized, was no picnic!)  But all I needed to compose poetry was the kindergarten skill of comprehending rhythm, the ability to count to no more than 14 or 15,  and fingers that could tap out a tempo—a feat that barely involved mathematics.

So while I respect those who regard numbers with the same worship and understanding that I extend to language, I do not share their perspective. I comprehend their view that the entire universe is mathematical…but I do not, cannot, see emotion as based on that theorem. And poetry is inherently emotional.

In any case, I know that there are just as many of us who, respecting mathematics, nevertheless want nothing more to do with numbers than we absolutely must deal with to get by on a daily basis in modern society. To that point, I’ve always recalled the comment of a brilliant young social worker I knew years ago.  He sat with a group of us, laughingly discussing all the courses he’d been forced to take in college that in no way contributed to either his work or the adult life that he actually led.  Having mentioned a laundry list of worthless instruction, he shook his head violently, flung his hands upward and rolled his eyes in an expression of utmost disdain, exclaiming with a bitter sarcasm that I completely understood, “Oh, and calculus!  I’m so glad I put myself through that!”

An Excellent Memory Is a…Defect?

According to an article I read recently, my excellent memory is not, as one might surmise, the result of careful training and good genes but is, in fact, due to a physical defect. Apparently I am lacking in a specific biochemical which is responsible for sorting and storing memories, relegating recent events to the dusty file cabinets at the back of the brain.  My file drawers hang half-open, it seems, the labeled manila folders within sticking up, where I can “see” many more of them than I should be able to do.

I’ve decided that the information from that article is probably true, for I’ve always had a strange and quirky memory. I can, for instance, recall most of the lines of a ridiculous song which we first graders were taught for a goodbye party, when the Roman Catholic school I attended was saying farewell to one of the parish priests.  “Me and my teddy bear/had no worries had no care/until we discovered Father Sciarria was going away…”  (These aren’t the only lines that I recall, either, but I will not inflict the other trite words on you, the hapless reader.)  I even recall that my mother put a fresh ribbon around the neck of my brother’s carefully refurbished teddy bear for me to carry on this momentous occasion.  Yet a friend who participated with me on that day has no memory of the occurrence, and certainly none of the song.

I also remember squatting with my older brother on the subfloor of the partially-built home my parents were viewing one weekend. My brother and I pushed a knothole out of the wood planks and then dropped nails through the hole to listen for the crash  as they dropped to the concrete of the basement floor below. As to why, in the name of heaven, I recall this, I have no explanation.  I could not have been much above two years old at the time, and it was hardly a stunning or memorable event.  But, there you have it: I remember it, and my brother, three years older than I,  once confirmed the silly recollection.

My fine memory has served me well on many occasions. The ability to recall minute details of specific events and conversations has saved me from many a misunderstanding, made my job easier, or made it possible for me to solve difficult problems.  And I have learned that to recall a joyful incident can be, for just an instant, to live once more in that moment of elation. But, in the converse, being able to recall, in tortuous detail, painful past events is in no way a blessing.  If recalling joy is to rediscover it, then a thorough memory of agonizing occurrences is to fully relive the anguish.

I’ve read, too, that each time we remember an event, we are actually remembering that we remember it.  The memory is, in essence, a watery, beaten carbon copy, growing more mangled and less precise with each repetition.  This causes me to wonder if the details that I recall—such as that fresh ribbon on the neck of the teddy bear—did, in fact, happen. It’s the sort of conundrum which makes eye witness accounts (as so many police departments and courts have learned to their dismay) totally unreliable.  What a witness remembers, may, in fact, not be borne out by the simple expedient of today’s everywhere-present videos.  People remember things oddly, or incorrectly, or that never even happened.

But the simple truth remains: if I remember the occurrence or event—if I recall it, and experience all the emotions surrounding it—then it is real to me. Whether or not I have added or lost specific details—whether or not I recall things precisely as they happened—they exist for me in the reality of my mind.

So I would not, not for any reason, and certainly not to be spared pain, give up one iota of my crazy, quirky, detailed memory. Not one sunset, not one touch of my daughter’s hand, not one friend’s face, nor one moment of awe or surprise or elation or even just simple, everyday life from my earliest childhood to this present moment.

It would seem that I’m not defective in that I have too little of whatever brain biochemical should relegate my sharp memories to the dusty file bins at the back of my brain. Indeed, it seems to me that those who have the “normal” amount of that compound must have far too much of it—and lose so much thereby.

 

 

One of the 7 Percent

I am not on Facebook.

I do not now have, nor ever have had, a Facebook page.

To many people, this is absolutely unfathomable. I have, when stating this fact,  received skeptical looks and even the snarky response, “Everybody is on Facebook!”  To which I respond with a shrug, and the reply, “I guess I’m nobody, then.”  Once, in response to the snotty-voiced remark, “You HAVE to be on Facebook”, my own retort was just a tad snarky: “Ex-cuuuuuse me! I fail to remember that line in the Constitution of the United States which states, ‘Every citizen will be required to have a Facebook page!”

If questioned more politely regarding my decision to eschew Facebook, I simply explain that I had a very bad experience with its predecessor, MySpace, and nothing that I have ever read or learned since regarding Facebook nor its originator, Mr. Zuckerberg, has made me lean toward establishing a Facebook account—especially all the most recent revelations regarding the misuse of user data and egregious violations of privacy.

Leaving entirely aside Facebook’s so-called privacy policy (longer than the aforesaid Constitution of the United States, but obviously not working even half so well), there is the memory of a young Mr. Zuckerberg referring to his customers as, “Dumb F***s”. And though he now claims to have matured beyond such belittling remarks, the recollection of the event does not endear him nor his platform to me.  Then there was the $68 million lawsuit payoff to the Winkelvoss brothers and Divya Narendra for what they claimed was intellectual property theft. Again, this fact does not encourage me to use Facebook.

But, if anything were to convince me to remain one of the anonymous 7 Percent—the Non-Facebook People of the world—it would be the laundry list of promised “I’ll get back to you on that” statements that Mark Zuckerberg made to Congress in the hearings held during the spring of 2018.  I understand that the New York Times noted 24 times–24!–in which Facebook’s originator replied to members of Congress with a remark along the lines of, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”  Some of those questions were extremely serious matters, such as how Facebook handles law enforcement requests, data tracking of minors even when they have logged off, investigation of unauthorized data access, and (most upsetting to me) data points on non-Facebook users.

Of course, I’m pretty certain I know how this works. Much like the biennial reports on vaccine safety that the pharmaceutical industry was supposed to have been producing and submitting to Congress since 1986 (a Freedom of Information lawsuit proved that not one—not even one!–such report had ever been produced, and no one has ever been held accountable for that failure), it’s highly doubtful that any of Facebook’s promised responses to Congressional questions will ever be submitted.  The smoke from this particular fire has dispersed and dimmed, and the public and their representatives have moved on to other, more enticing, matters.

A young acquaintance’s husband explained to me that he established a Facebook page solely for the purpose of looking at photos that friends post. He posts nothing himself, he explained; he makes no status updates; he accepts no friend requests other than his genuine personal friends;  he does nothing but look at family photos.  And considering my actual real-life status as a new grandmother, I’ve considered his viewpoint—especially after learning of  the collection of data on non-Facebook users, and thoroughly considering the general lack of privacy in any form in today’s society.  After all, I tell myself, I broadcast opinions and ideas and thoughts on this blog every week.  So perhaps I should, after all, create a Facebook page….

Nah.

Controlling the Rainbow

(This post was originally published on December 4, 2017, and is now rededicated to Amanda and John. Happy First Wedding Anniversary, my dearest children!  What an eventful year!  And, yes, little Morrigan Lynn, our magnificent miracle–yes, someday you will be a young girl counting on your fingers…but I assure you, your birth was a full ten and one-half months after your parents’ wedding day!)

There was a rainbow on my daughter’s wedding day.

As omens go, that’s hard to beat.

Neither she nor I actually witnessed this phenomenon, but were told about it afterwards by the relatives, smokers all, who had stepped outside to indulge their nicotine habit.

I’d been praying for days—weeks!—for lovely weather to grace the outdoor wedding ceremony of my only daughter. The venue she’d chosen had an excellent hall, and we knew that, if the weather didn’t cooperate, the ceremony could be moved indoors.  But she wanted an outdoor ceremony—wanted it desperately.

And things weren’t looking good.

I began scouring the weather reports two full weeks in advance of the ceremony, constantly checking on my phone, Kindle and computer, comparing predictions that somehow never quite seemed to mesh except for one thing: rain, rain, and more rain. I continually reminded myself that “weather forecaster” is the only job where one can be wrong 95% of the time and still remain employed, but that wasn’t convincing me. So I decided the best thing to do was gather all of my friends and family and issue a request (command!) for prayer.  Prayer and petitions to whatever deity, saint, deva or nature spirit they believed in.  If they didn’t have a favorite divinity, I supplied them with options, using my favorite search engine (NOT Google, but that’s  subject for another blog post).  I tracked down the names and antecedents of every saint, goddess, god or nature spirit said to have authority over the weather.  And there were a bundle of ‘em.

And so the prayers and petitions and appeals and entreaties went up from a dozen hearts and lips. But the weather forecast remained unswerving.  Rain.

However, the forecast began to alter slightly, from rain all day to “rain in the afternoon”. Raindrops, just wait until after 4:00 p.m., I prayed.  That would get us safely through the ceremony and all decamped to the reception hall.

Smaller Walking Up Aisle
Her Dad and I walking our daughter up the aisle at her outdoor wedding, October 7, 2017.

And, in the end, that is exactly what the deities, gods, goddesses, saints, devas, divinities and nature spirits (most likely, heartily sick of hearing so many desperate petitions) provided: The perfect early fall day. A temperature that rose to no more than 80, a light breeze lifting the brilliant leaves of the trees, and fluffy white cumulous clouds cruising through a blue sky…all of it lasting until just that last shutter click as the final formal portraits were taken.  Just at 4:00 p.m., a dark thundercloud rolled over to obscure the sun, and we all made tracks for the reception hall and food, music, drinks, dancing, cake and joy.

And, at some point during the proceedings, a rainbow.

And that was the one thing I’d forgotten about in my desperate need to control every last detail and thereby provide my daughter the perfect wedding day: the possibility of a beauty even greater than clear, warm weather. A rainbow.  The ultimate promise.

Let go and let God. I’m a great proponent of that saying…in theory.  Practice is an entirely different matter.  However, my daughter’s wedding day was a firm reminder to me of that concept.  Another was taught to me by a Hindu friend, who explained that rain on one’s wedding day is considered “a blessing of water”.  Sunshine, warm breezes, trees clothed brilliantly in green and gold and ruby, rain and a rainbow. Every possible good luck omen.  My daughter and new son-in-law got it all—more likely in spite of, rather than because of, all my desperate pleas to the heavens.

Now, though, laughingly thinking of omens, I’m forced to remember my own wedding day to her father, right here in my home state.  Omens indeed!

Indiana had an earthquake.

Assumptions Always Start With An Ass

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a young secretary working in an office directly outside the bank of elevators of our aging building. Sound from the foyer around the elevators seemed to funnel directly into our office; consequently, I was often privy to conversations that weren’t meant for my ears.

During the first weeks that I worked there, several of the conversations I overheard among the younger female staff centered around the behavior of another young woman in a nearby office. All of the comments were critical.  The remark I heard most often was, “She is so stuck up!”  Sometimes I heard elaborations on the theme, such as, “She never talks to anyone”, or, “She thinks she’s too good for us.”

After a few weeks, having gotten to know everyone involved, I ventured to speak up the next time these same old, tired comments were reiterated. “Actually, I don’t think she’s stuck up or a snob,” I remarked gently.  “I think she’s just really shy.”

The looks I received in return for this remark told me that, without doubt, my days as a welcome member of this group of women were distinctly numbered. Nevertheless, I pressed on; I’ve never been very bright about that whole “holding your tongue for social reasons” sort of thing.  Braving the laser-like eyes boring into me, I explained, “Well, you see, I’ve been shy for most of my life, and I think I see that in her.  She has trouble meeting your eye.  Her shoulders hunch up when you speak to her.  I don’t think means to come across as a snob.  I think she’s just really shy.”

I received a volley of protests from each woman present, pressing her point that the person I was defending was a snobbish prig rather than an introvert. I decided to back down; there was obviously nothing to be gained in continuing my unwelcome observations.  The group had made up its collective mind, and nothing I said was going to change that.

True to my supposition, though, I was also not often asked to lunch with that group again. My remarks had made them uncomfortable.  I hadn’t intended to be pointing the finger at them, but I’d nevertheless opened up a nasty can of worms in the possibility that they might be behaving in a judgmental manner – or, even worse, just plain wrong.  My viewpoint was distinctly unwelcome.

Those of us who have the bad taste to defend the underdog, or to profess a different belief than the commonly-held thought of the day, I’ve learned, tend to become persona non grata.

I’ve never forgotten that lesson, nor the others that I learned from that long ago incident, the first and most important being that our assumptions about a person—any person–do not constitute reality. I learned that we must be willing to relinquish those assumptions if we are going to truly come to know another person.  Most important of all, though, was that I came to realize that we all continually operate on the assumptions we’ve made about the people we’ve just met, or even those whom we’ve known for years.  We make snap judgments about behaviors and situations.  We categorize groups of individuals.  We make assumptions about our friends, family members, even our pets. Sometimes we call it instinct, such as when we decide, wisely, that there is something not quite right about that person who just approached us at the mall.  Most of the time, we don’t even realize that we are making an assumption; it is done without conscious thought or recognition.  Frequently our suppositions are right on target.  Often, though, they are built only out of our own experience; they have nothing to do with the reality of the person or situation with whom we are dealing.

I am ashamed to admit that I never really made the necessary effort to get to know my extremely shy coworker. Looking back at the situation through the lens of many years and acquired knowledge, though, I suspect that the very introverted woman may have suffered from disorder such as Asperger’s Syndrome.

But that, too, is just my assumption.

Epitaph in an Elevator

“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone…”  Those lyrics have been running through my head continually, because it was just yesterday I learned that a former coworker, a woman whom I’d worked with long ago, had died.  This is someone who, if I hadn’t known her well, I’d at least interacted with on a daily basis over the course of several years.  Hearing of her passing made me recall, uneasily, some experiences from the long years of my working life.

Working as an administrative assistant, it was often my sad duty to pass the hat and arrange flowers or a memorial gift for a coworker who had died.  At times, when the offices I covered were quite large, I barely knew the person for whom I was making the collection. But I came often to find that each member of the office, especially those who were better acquainted with the deceased, would take a moment to share their recollections when I came to dun them for what we euphemistically termed the “Flower Fund”.  In those brief conversations, I usually learned more than I’d ever before known about the coworker who had died.

In our large agency, I also often heard snippets and snatches of information about individuals in other divisions who had passed on—people whose names I vaguely recognized, knowing nothing else about them beyond that. And so it was that I stood one day at the back of the elevator, listening, as the group of people who’d just entered discussed a coworker who’d died unexpectedly.  Not once, but multiple times that day, I found myself nearby as employees gathered in corners, discussing a woman who had passed.  I found myself so saddened and disturbed by these conversations that, arriving home that evening, I exorcised the demons of my emotional reaction by turning some of what I’d heard into a poem–a simplistic poem, but nonetheless heartfelt.

Epitaph in an Elevator

She died, oh, a week ago Sunday.
Yes, I went, and it all was so sad.
She seemed like a nice enough person.
Well, the whole thing is really too bad!

Oh, you must remember her: short gal,
sort of plump, sort of plain—sort of dull.
She worked here forever and ages,
but I can’t say I knew her at all.

I wouldn’t have known, but I needed
all those files, and that room was a mob!
She always seemed smiling and helpful.
I just wonder who’ll cover her job.

She’s dead? Well, I’ll never pretend that
it upsets me one bit. Truth to tell,
I’m sorry she didn’t die sooner!
And I hope that she’s burning in Hell.

No, I didn’t know much about her.
I just heard that she died from a fall.
She seemed like a nice enough woman,
but I just didn’t know her at all.

I heard that she died—you recall her.
Sort of quiet and plain; not too bright.
It must be so sad for her family.
Takes some time, but then they’ll be all right. 

She couldn’t have died at a worse time!
What the hell will we do with her work?
The whole thing’s just plain inconvenient.
(No, I am NOT being a jerk!)

I can’t say that I really knew her.
She just wasn’t my type. Yes, she fell.
I daresay that someone will miss her.
But I just didn’t know her that well…

All too often, the very people with whom we interact on a daily basis are those who we, indeed, don’t even try to know too well.  It’s possible that we miss so much thereby.  And that is the core of greatest sorrow about any passing.  

Handshake, Schmandshake!

I’ve never quite gotten the point of the whole “a firm handshake” deal. Judging a person in this manner has always seemed to me like two little boys playing at arm wrestling.  Who cares whether one’s touch is quote-firm-unquote?  I personally suspect that the whole firm handshake concept (which for decades was an exclusively male prerogative) was just something devised in a homophobic era by men who felt a light touch also indicated someone who was “light in the loafers”.

As a young girl in parochial school, occasionally being taught lessons in etiquette (something which, by the way, I would highly recommend be added to the curriculum of every school today), I was instructed that a man did not reach to shake a woman’s hand unless she first extended her own hand.  This etiquette lesson has gone the way of the dodo, but I preferred it.  I dislike touching or being touched by complete strangers.  No, that’s wrong – I despise touching or being touched by complete strangers.  It feels invasive of my personal space, and it takes away my sense of control about a situation – my right to decide whether or not to be handled.  I wasn’t raised in the “good touch, bad touch” era, but not having the right to decide if I want to grasp the hand of a totally unfamiliar person has always felt “bad touch” to me.  After all, how do I know where that hand’s just been?  Is this a person who doesn’t wash after using the bathroom?  What if they have a cold or the flu? Blech.

For that reason, I’ve devised many a trick to avoid shaking hands. My favorite, when I can do it, is to sneeze.  Since allergies are my constant companions, this often isn’t difficult.  And turning aside to sneeze, carefully covering one’s face with one’s hand, is a wonderfully self-deprecating, “Ohmigosh, I can’t believe that happened, let me get a tissue,” moment.

If I’m unable to rustle up a realistic sneeze, I cough. Coughing is much easier, and it still requires turning away and covering one’s face with one’s hand, thereby making it unlikely anyone is going to immediately grasp that hand.  Both coughing and sneezing can include simple explanation and apology: “Sorry, I’m afraid I have a bit of cold; I certainly don’t want to pass it on to you!”, or, “So sorry; the ragweed is in full bloom, and I’m afraid I’m very allergic!”  All said, of course, with an apologetic smile, sometimes while dashing hand sanitizer over one’s palms – no one wants to shake hands with a glob of alcohol gel.

Actually, I rather enjoyed the terrible flu season of 2009, when experts were recommending that the handshake be foregone in favor of the fist bump. No one can judge the fleeting gesture of the fist bump, and the touch is so brief that it doesn’t feel invasive.  I only wish the fist bump recommendation was in place every flu season.

I might be happier, though, in a culture in which the bow was the gesture of choice for meeting. Besides being a refined and classic gesture, in those cultures in which people bow rather than shake hands, it’s possible, by the depth of one’s bow, to indicate anything from real pleasure in meeting to total rejection and insult.  Now there’s a custom I can appreciate!

But I am most taken with the classically graceful “Namaste” gesture, in which the head is bowed slightly over one’s steepled hands as the word is spoken. “I bow to the Divine within you,” the word and movement say, acknowledging the totality of the person standing before one, recognizing that they are both body and spirit, whole and perfect and complete.

Handshake, schmandshake. One should be judged by one’s stance (confident and self-assured?  Slouching, unable to meet the other’s eyes?) one’s smile (genuine or nervous?) and general neatness.  All the rest – clothing, accent, makeup, hair, and touch – are just window dressing.  In the long run, the immediate judgment we make of another is just that: a snap judgment.  Stop worrying about their handshake and take the time to know the individual.

Studying Geography

In the long-ago era during which I attended elementary school, the study of geography began in the fourth grade. To this day I recall some of what I learned that year, for the wide, fat textbook that we were given was filled not just with photographs but with stories—stories of the people, mostly family units, each in a different country of the world.  The tales described their holidays and customs, the foods they ate and the clothing they wore, how they attended school and worshipped, the strange animals that inhabited their countries and were kept as farm animals or pets, and even a touch of the history of their home territories.  I especially recall my awe in learning of those countries where the sun disappeared for months at a time, swathing the land in darkness, and the joy felt by the inhabitants when the light finally returned.

I absolutely loved it. Geography—how marvelous! I had never heard the song “Far Away Places”, but now I thrilled to them: far away places with strange-sounding names.  There was even a tactile element to studying geography, I found, for one of the globes that we were shown was three-dimensional, with mountain ranges one could touch, and oceans that were delineated with swells and currents.  I was enthralled and fascinated.

When fifth grade began, I couldn’t wait to see what we would learn in Geography class. I remember the anticipation as I opened the book and turned the first few pages of my new geography text.

And then the world, quite literally, crashed down about my ears. I found it hard to believe what I was seeing.  Instead of stories, tales of other lands that drew me in and caught my fascinated attention, there was a dry tome filled with information on imports and exports, language spoken, past rulers and present political tensions, oil and mineral reserves and rights….

I had never been so disappointed in my life. From that point on, I had no interest whatever in geography.  Oh, I studied it well enough; I was a decent student, and I memorized enough information to pass tests, putting forth the minimum of effort to keep a passing grade.  But I never again cared.  For me, the heart, the soul, of my geography lessons had been stolen.  Everything that made learning about the world fascinating—the people, the animals, the customs and foods and clothing and history—all of that had been taken from me, and with it, my curiosity and interest.

With all that we are now learning about the human brain, about its growth and function and development, I look back on my geography lessons and ponder why it should be that we haven’t yet figured out that all brains aren’t meant to learn the same things in the same way. Children are still taught in the manner of the 15 and 1600’s: sitting in rows, obedient (or not) to an authority figure, memorizing for just long enough to pass a quiz, or a test, or a state-sponsored exam.  Wonder, curiosity, creativity are rarely encouraged—are the exception, rather than the norm.

I recall virtually nothing of my geography lessons from the fifth grade onward; become confused, as an adult, as to the placement of countries on a map or a globe.  Yet I can still recall the cultural lore of a half-dozen lands that I absorbed in delight at the age of nine. Are there others of my long-ago classmates who learned nothing of the world during that first year of Geography class, but for whom the following lessons remain clearly embedded in their memories?  And why can we, progressive and innovative, not learn to teach each child in the manner best suited to her or his abilities?

Now, decades later, even the names of many of the countries I once studied are non-existent. Czechoslovakia, Burma, Siam—gone.  Transmuted. Erased from all but history.  The Earth turned on its axis, and those countries, those cultures, disappeared.

But not my memories of everything I learned in that first, delightful year of studying Geography.

The Screen Test

Years ago I read a slogan which has always stayed with me: “An open mind is like a window; you have to put up a screen for the bugs.”

As someone who has always been interested “fringe” concepts – conspiracy theories, New Age spirituality, holistic medicine, reincarnation, acupuncture, telepathy, numerology, homeopathy, precognition – I’ve looked into ‘em all – that slogan has been important, reminding me to keep myself centered with a healthy skepticism. I fully agree with Hamlet’s famous statement to Horatio, but I’ve still always examined each of my interests using the Screen Test.

As a result, the first time I encountered material that was supposedly channeled through a human from a “higher being” I hammered my skeptical screen tightly into the window of my mind.  The higher being was described variously as an evolved soul, an angelic being, or a spiritual master. Why, I wondered, would such a being need or even want to speak through a human voice?  I’d read extensively about the phenomenon of the subconscious mind producing alternate personalities, and was aware of just how easily this could happen, especially when the mind was in a trance or hypnotic state.  Nevertheless, I decided to read the book anyway,  wondering if it might convince me that channeled materials were actually teachings from higher source, and not just the product of someone’s untethered subconscious.

The book failed the Screen Test.

If this material was the revelation of an Evolved Master, I decided, I would just have to stay a spiritual amoeba. Decades later, I still recall some of the passages that set my teeth on edge. In one segment, the Teacher told a sort of parable about a married man who fell in love with another woman.  The two of them nobly refrained from an affair while he stayed with his  wife, whom the would-be lovers referred to as “the Vegetable”.  A few years later, the Teacher explained, their self-sacrifice and noble morality were rewarded when “the Vegetable” passed away, leaving the path clear for them to marry at last.

Now just a cotton-pickin’ minute! “The Vegetable”? This man mocked the woman whom he’d promised to love, honor, and cherish by referring to her using that scathing nickname?  His would-be paramour did the same?  Exactly how was it possible that his scornful attitude never affected his marriage – that his wife never felt his disrespect, never felt unloved or belittled? Exactly how was it better or morally right that she was never released from this sham of a marriage to possibly find happiness with someone who genuinely loved her?  How was it even decent that her death was viewed as convenient?

And this was an example of morality as taught by a spiritual Master?

In another paragraph, the Teacher referred derisively to “young men who refuse to fight for their country”. The Vietnam war was raging at the time this book was published, so this was clearly a reference to those who dodged the draft or protested the war.  But I personally had no quarrel with the courageous young people who protested and marched and held sit-ins and burnt their draft cards.  They had the courage to declare that this was an unjust war; an undeclared war forced on a generation of youngsters who, at that time, were underage to legally vote for the very leaders who were sending them away to die.

Right then and there I made up my mind that this material was representative of nothing but the personal prejudices of the supposed Channeler. This dreck in no way represented the teachings of an angelic being. Teacher, my right hind rump!

I’ve encountered other purportedly channeled material in the years since. Unlike that first encounter, much channeled material often seemed truly spiritual, wise, even beautiful.  So perhaps it is only owing to that first unhappy experience with channeling that I have never been able to accept channeled material to be other than the subconscious product of the Channeler. It saddens me that such sagacious people fail to trust their own wisdom and teach directly from it, but instead feel they must insist that it comes from a being beyond their own spirit.

I will never doubt that there are highly evolved spiritual beings on both sides of the Veil that separates human life from the hereafter, and I can even accept that those in spirit sometimes speak to us.

But I truly doubt that they speak through us.

Not a Fan of Funerals

In memory of Terry Robare
Member of Many Hearts, One Spirit
Who Made Her Transition September 13, 2018

Despite having written previously about attending them (A Tale of Two Funerals, March 5, 2018), I’m not a big fan of funerals, especially as they are conducted in modern American society.  I find them macabre and disturbing.  I despise the trite comments: “He looks like he could just sit up and start talking to us”. No, he doesn’t.  He looks dead. “The flowers are just lovely.” Does no one remember that the original purpose of flowers and candles by the coffin was to hide the scent of decay?

I scorn remarks which transmute the character of the deceased into saintly values.  Few of us are without personality flaws, and being dead does not erase a lifetime of bad temperament, nor confer sainthood.  I cringe when listening to a minister who is not just a stranger to me, but who often barely knew the deceased, turn from eulogizing to proselytizing.  (“Hey! Think about it, people!  The old so-and-so is lying here dead, and your time is coming! So, hie yourself back into the fold, pronto!”)  I’ve even been heard to say that if anyone holds a funeral for me, I will most definitely come back and haunt them. I mean it, too.

No, for many reasons I despise funerals and can rarely be persuaded to attend one, except for the sake of speaking to a few of those who are grieving the most. Even then, my appearance at any funeral calling is brief.  Open or closed, I frankly avoid the casket, contenting myself with signing the guestbook, examining photos, or watching the life-video the family has put together, perhaps hoping that from these I might glean in-depth knowledge of  or at least a sense the essence of the life lived by the person who has passed.

Memorial services or  celebrations of life–those are another matter. Those I attend gladly, and come away, if saddened, also refreshed and satisfied. I happily attend Talking Stick ceremonies (blog post December 10, 2017, Another Talking Stick) and wakes, where I can hear stories about the life of the deceased–little things that I might otherwise  never have known. For the same reason, I am pleased to write eulogies: to share memories of the one who has passed.

That is, I think,  the true essence of saying farewell to someone who has made their journey to the other side of the Veil: their story. The little memories of a lifetime, well-lived or otherwise, that comprise that person.  The rounded viewpoint given to us about an individual when someone other than an immediate family member or minister speaks of them, for those individuals often tell stories only of the deceased’s legend.  I want to see beyond the legend and the myth to the reality of the human being: flawed, wondrous, judgmental, open, accepting, confused, contradictory, thoughtful–complete.

The ancient Egyptians believed that if our names were forgotten, our souls ceased to exist, and therefore (although they preserved the body, believing it would reanimate in the afterlife) did all they could to ensure that their names would be spoken and remembered. They were, in a sense, correct, for our names are the heading at the top of our story. And perhaps that is why I despise modern funerals: for it is not the body of our loved one which needs to be remembered; it is their story.