Sunday, April 07, 2013

My Mother’s 84th Birthday/Science My Mom Taught Me

Entry to 7 April 2013:

I’ve been working late to finish a grant proposal, so it’s well after midnight in Scotland, Monday, the 8th of April.  In California, however, it’s still Sunday, 7 April, my mother’s birthday.  Last year, my siblings and I gathered at Anna’s house on this day to celebrate our mom’s 83rd birthday.  We knew something was wrong then, and we also knew at the time that she believed that she had reached her last year, her 84th, the completion of her 3rd Saturn Return.  What neither she nor we knew then was that she would be dead by the end of June, a few days past the summer solstice.  So tonight her children are marking what would have been our mother’s 84th birthday by reflecting on her passing.   A little while ago, my brother Conal and sister Louisa checked with poignant reflections about both of our parents.  This is my contribution to the process.

A year ago, on her birthday, I read her 75th birthday poem to her again and gave her a mobile of multi-coloured butterflies made from bird feathers to represent the final image in the poem.  After she died I brought this mobile back with me to Scotland to remember her by, and it’s in my living room now, a bit of her. 

I know that she and my dad are in my head and heart, a part of me.  They are my psychological and spiritual DNA and of course their actual DNA is in every cell of my body. (And my mitochondrial DNA?  That’s all my mom’s, matrilineal descent, you know?)  Nevertheless, I still miss her physical presence and the opportunity to experience the unpredictability of her continuing evolution.  So tonight it’s a kind of intermediate stop on the way to her year’s mind, an interim Kaddish at which I, along with my siblings, remember fondly, longingly, and with deep gratitude and joy for what she gave us.  Bittersweet, like the strong chocolate that she loved.

I can’t think of a better way for me to remember her than by offering again the poem I wrote 9 years ago for her 75th birthday:

Science My Mom Taught Me
(For her 75th birthday, April 7, 2004)

1. Science as Love and Relationship

A good place to start is that ancient photograph,
Recently rediscovered, from 1950:

There the two of you are, the same age
As the youngest of my grad students. 
Both of you are tall, almost toothpick thin.
He is looking at the camera, tight jeans and shirt,
Like a rebel with cause to smile.

But you are looking down, through large glasses,
Your face framed by billowing hair,
With toothy grin, and your arms
Awkwardly but carefully wrapped round
A very small bundle.

The two of you look like nothing
So much as a couple of computer nerds
From half a century in the future.
Code geeks, rolling out your first promising program,
Ready for beta-testing.

But the code is genetic,
The language is life,
And the program is … me.


2. True Science is Risky

Although I learned magic from my dad,
It now seems clear to me that it was you
From whom I first learned science,
To which I have now devoted so much of my life.

But yours was never the normal, safe kind,
Digging away at the coal face
In the mines of knowledge,
Like Disney’s happy dwarves.

No, not that kind, but instead
The one that goes off to Far Tortuga,
Toward distant Galapagos unknown,
In search of the evolution of the human soul.

For you, big ideas have never been too big:
The nature of reality; the journey of the soul;
Jung’s famous paper on flying saucers;
The archetype of the Mandala: As without, so within.

Instead of Aristotle … Plato’s forms;
Instead of Archimedes … Pythagorus’s numbers;
Instead of Moses’ law … the Kabbalah’s secrets;
Instead of chemistry …alchemy’s transformations.

Oh, you did chemistry, too, at least early on:
You would disappear for hours,
Into your laboratory at the back of the house,
Full of strange smells and odd bits:

Broken glass, mosaic pieces,
Rolls of wallpaper, bolts of cloth,
Cans of precursors and catalysts,
When plastics was new technology.

And you would emerge from your lair,
To confront your family with some new concoction,
Sometimes lovely, or quirky, or primitive;
At times, a disaster, but always something new.

No, for you, science has always been risky:
Working at the edge, making something new,
You have become an expert in the peril of experiment,
And I have followed you, where I could.

3. Science as Inspiration and Passion

Your mother (my grandmother) taught me many things:
How to travel and how to be in a new place;
The importance of hard work and getting up early;
The ninety-nine percent of sweat that makes up genius.

But you taught me a far more valuable lesson:
The one percent of inspiration that redeems all the rest,
The moment of epiphany, the pattern opening,
The intensity of the new connection breaking through,

The science of cutting to the center of the world,
Of seeing what others don’t choose to see,
Of waking to awareness when others sleep,
And the flow of following the spirit far into the night.

When I see these things in myself, I recognize you.
The passion of discovery is too powerful to resist,
Even if we wanted to; the daemon must be honored;
It is ours, and we must let it speak through us or die.

4. Science as Always Starting Anew

I find it odd that I describe my dad in a series of narratives,
But you as a set of ideas, a paradigm, a model.
There is, however, one story that is always you,
The story in which you are always re-inventing yourself:

Child of the Depression with a single mom;
Big city girl; prep school party-er;
Young, anxious mother and seamstress;
Small town society woman in a flat land.

But your life makes a strange turn: You take up philosophy;
You quit smoking just because you feel like it;
You return to religion and start teaching Sunday school;
You become a small business owner and a writer.

Years pass: You’re CEO of a large and raucous family,
With the habit of taking in strays (both human and animal);
And you’ve gradually evolved into a spiritual leader
Of a small but loyal group of friends.

Then, your life turns again:  Warned in a vision
Of the impending end of civilization, you become
A gentle survivalist and take your family
Into the mountains, like Noah waiting for her flood

You seal several tons of wheat into cans,
Which are still there after twenty-five years.
Well, we can’t get everything right, but now you live
In a beautiful little valley: Murray Creek.

Now you are matriarch to three generations and 60 acres.
A combination of Ariadne, Daedalus and Theseus,
You become a labyrinth designer and unwinder
Of ritual journey spaces of stones, words and image.

Reading widely and deeply, you map the interweaving
Stories of your own and humanity’s spiritual development,
Join a religious order, become a spritual director,
And finally, start a Crone Circle of wise women.

Curiously, all these things somehow fit together:
Clearly, you’ve never stopped starting over;
For you, science is leaving behind what no longer works,
A selfsame process of adding on, differentiating, elaborating,

Just as you are always the same person,
The passionate, intellectual adventurer, the one
Who keeps transforming herself, like an endless succession
Of butterflies, emerging one from the other. 

Photo by Conal Elliott, Upper House, Murray Creek, 27 March 2013, by permission.

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