The Best Dickens Novel You’ll Never Read

Maybe that title is a little risky. I mean, a lot of people don’t like Victorian literature, and maybe a lot of people haven’t read any Dickens novels, or maybe they hate every Dickens they’ve ever read, which means that there simply can’t be any “best” Dickens novel. Be that as it may, I often champion lesser-known books by famous authors (one day I’ll do a blog on why C.S. Lewis’s last novel is better than anything he ever wrote before it), so today I’m going to go to bat for Dickens’s fifth novel, Barnaby Rudge.

Few people have read this novel, even among Victorianists. It actually seems to have been a bit of a flop from the get-go. Dickens had planned this novel at the outset of his career, back in 1836. If he’d gone ahead and written it, it would have been his first novel; instead, he completed The Pickwick Papers, and then went on to write Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop first, and he didn’t get around to writing it until 1841. Incidentally, he actually wrote it concurrently with The Old Curiosity Shop as a serial novel, an incredible accomplishment. Perhaps this accounts for Rudge’s lack of popularity; The Old Curiosity Shop was extremely popular. Indeed, the first thing one reads about it in its Wikipedia entry is that New Yorkers stood on the docks of the city waiting for the final installment of the novel to be delivered by steamship. So it’s a real possibility that Barnaby Rudge was eclipsed by Dickens’s other, more popular creative work, its twin sibling, so to speak, from the moment of its birth.

And that’s unfortunate, because while The Old Curiosity Shop has not stood the test of time–most readers find it sentimental and melodramatic today–Barnaby Rudge is a novel for the present time. In fact, it’s been really interesting to read it as the January 6 hearings are taking place, because at the heart of the novel lies a riot, an insurrectionary movement perceived as so dangerous that it threatened the rule of order in England. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel (2002), John Bowen begins by saying that “Barnaby Rudge is the most untimely of historical novels.” However, perhaps it isn’t the novel that has to find its time, but rather the time that must find its novel. In other words, I’d argue that Barnaby Rudge may not have been the novel for its time, but it is the novel for our time, a novel whose time has, after nearly two hundred years, finally arrived.

Throughout his career, Dickens wrote only two historical novels–this one and, of course, A Tale of Two Cities, another novel that has eclipsed it, perhaps only because it’s shorter and easier to put on a high school syllabus. But instead of pitting Dickens’s novels against each other, let me just explain why Barnaby Rudge is worth reading:

  • As I’ve already indicated, it contains striking parallels with our own time. The central action of the novel (though not necessarily its focus) is the Gordon Riots, a period of anti-Catholic unrest in June of 1780, which resulted in anarchy in London for several days. Prisons were attacked and their prisoners released; stores, residences, foreign embassies and Catholic chapels demolished by frenzied mobs; and the army had to enter London to restore order. Trials and executions ensued. All this, mind you, a full nine years before the French tried the same thing–successfully–at the outset of the French Revolution.
  • The eponymous hero of the novel, Barnaby Rudge, is seriously mentally challenged. His mind is disordered and his development delayed. Although 23 years old, he is “simple,” something that almost everyone around him both understands and accepts. I am not aware of any author trying this before Dickens: perhaps my readers can shed more light on the depiction of the intellectually disabled in a somewhat positive light. Dickens’s portrayal of Barnaby is much more sympathetic, on the whole, than one would expect of a Victorian writer, and making him the centerpiece of the novel is an act of creative genius.
  • Barnaby has a pet raven named Grip (Dickens himself also had a pet raven named Grip) who so “gripped” the imagination of another writer across the pond that he wrote an entire poem about a raven. No kidding–quoth the Raven, nevermore.
  • Dickens examines the origins of the riots a little, but what he excels at most is in demonstrating that the people who participate in riots have their own individual aims and desires, few of which have have much to do with the general cause at hand. This is important because when we look at history, we tend to forget this; Dickens makes it clear in this novel that historical movements are created from many disparate people pulling together into one action for a limited period of time.
  • There are the usual loveable (or despised, depending on your view of Dickens’s work) plot points and characters: the thwarted lovers, the carping wife, the happy and bluff old father figure offset by several really rotten father figures, the sassy beauty, the wheedling servants. Dickens paints good portraits of them all.
  • In addition, there are a surprising number of physically disabled people in the novel (two), a fact with which I could do all sorts of things in terms of theorizing about amputation and the body politic, but since I’m retired, and since someone else probably has done it or is doing it better than I care to at the present time, I’ll just leave it at that.
  • There are all the usual themes about secrets: murders; survivals; illegitmacy; nature versus nurture; generational conflict. These are themes we see in other Dickens novels, and they’re all here, pretty much right on the surface. It’s as if Dickens wrote this as a blueprint for many of his other novels, which makes it all the more interesting for anyone who’s read them.

I could go on, but I want to end by emphasizing how reading this novel now, at this moment in U.S. history, has affected the way I’m watching the January 6 hearings. I think I understand better how small people can get caught up in large events, and how people who have nothing but a sort of odd charisma can get others behind them in such numbers that really frightening things can ensue.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about the novel is that in the world that Dickens creates, the story has a somewhat (but not totally) happy ending: people are punished, order is retored, and most of the good characters live somewhat happily ever after. Barnaby Rudge may not be a Bleak House, but I think it’s a better, more interesting novel than The Old Curiosity Shop. I predict that in about ten years’ time, we’ll see a brave soul who recognizes its value decide to stop working on endless re-makes of (something resembling) Jane Austen novels and try a film version of this novel, which would be a wonderful thing, in my opinion.

Finally, there are a couple of really good podcasts on the novel by Dominic Gerrard and guests. Look for Charles Dickens: A Brain on Fire on Apple podcasts. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/charles-dickens-a-brain-on-fire/id1599241462

A Speech

I’ve been absent from this blog for the past few weeks, but it hasn’t all been basking in the glory of my math prowess. In fact, I barely had time to celebrate the fact that I had actually passed my College Algebra course when I came down with Covid, despite getting all recommended vaccines and being oh-so-careful. At any rate, I’m just about back to normal now, but Covid is not a walk in the park. The initial symptoms aren’t too bad–pretty much the same as the side effects from the vaccine–but the aftermath of fatigue, lethargy, and depression lasted for a few weeks. My takeaway is that it’s definitely worth taking all the precautions now that most of the rest of the world seems to have blithely abandoned in order to avoid getting Covid.

At any rate, I emerged from my Covid quarantine a few weeks ago, just in time to address the local League of Women Voters unit at their annual meeting. My days of being a candidate are behind me, but that makes me all the more appreciative of the people who are still active and who are working to improve the political landscape of the United States. To be honest, I feel more than a little guilty at not joining in their efforts more actively, so the least I could do, I told myself, is to speak to them when they ask me to. Then I decided that my speech, such as it was, could make a good blog post, so here goes. The topic is, as the Belle of Amherst would call it, that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”

We face many problems in our world today: a lingering pandemic, mass shootings, long-standing prejudice, violence, partisan hatred… the list goes on and on. But perhaps the most serious one, because it affects so many others, is the decay of democracy in our country. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but for now, I just want to say that even though this is a humdinger of a problem, the message I’d like to give today is that there is good reason to hope for change, because change is always possible. Good things as well as bad things are happening in the world, and so optimism should not be banished from the range of emotions we feel as we confront our future. Hope, as author Rebecca Solnit points out in her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, is one of many viable responses to the dire problems that we face. We must not be afraid to hope. It’s easy to be attracted to pessimism when we are afraid to hope. Hope is frightening, because we realize that when we hope for the best, we might well be proven wrong when our hopes fail to materialize. And yet we must not be afraid of being proven wrong. Frankly, the world would be a much better place if we all were more willing to take a chance on being wrong. After all, fear of being proven wrong often prevents us from acting to make the changes we so desperately need and desire.

I also want to point out that the problems with democracy that we’re now experiencing should come as no surprise to us. There’s a kind of odd comfort in realizing that as far back as 1840, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville identified some serious issues in democracy in his book Democracy in America. He pointed out that while popular sovereignty (or democracy) could work very well at the local level, where people find it easy to be well informed on issues and where power is limited, three problems lie in wait at the national level to mar the democratic experiment:

  1. Competent people are willing to leave politics in the hands of less competent people;
  2. People’s belief in the idea of innate equality could give them a false sense of their capabilities and a dangerous sense of omnipotence;
  3. Excessive individualism and the pursuit of material wealth could result in apathy.

I think it’s fair to say that we have seen all three things come to pass in recent years. And I, like many other people, have often been tempted to throw my hands up in disgust and divorce myself from the political realm. But, as Naomi Klein says in her book This Changes Everything, “If we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy — the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.”

But here’s the interesting thing: that picture of humanity as innately selfish and greedy is beginning to change. We’re beginning to realize that it’s an imperfect picture, one that was built on a misunderstanding, or at the very least on an overemphasis, of a Darwinian belief in the survival of the fittest. We need to offset this view of human nature with Peter Kropotkin’s view, as he presented it in his work Mutual Aid, of evolution depending as much on cooperation as on competition. Scientists and philosophers are now working on amending our view of nature to correct this faulty emphasis on competition; for example, biologists like Suzanne Simard (Finding the Mother Tree) have shown that natural systems are much more physically connected than previously thought, just as primatologist Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society) has demonstrated that empathy and cooperation have contributed as much, if not more, to the survival of humanity through the ages.

So there is reason to hope for change, for a different perspective. What we need right now is enough hope, and determination, and endurance to get us through these rapidly changing times. We need to remember that while we ourselves might not be around to enjoy the things these changes will bring, our children will, and so will their children. And we need to be willing to lay the foundation for those changes right now.

Change is something that can be difficult to navigate. Back in 1952, Edna Ferber wrote a passage in her book Giant (so much better than the movie) in which the main character’s wise father talks to his daughter, who is troubled by all she’s seen and experienced in Texas:

“The world will [change]. It’s changing at a rate that takes my breath away. Everything has speeded up, like those terrific engines they’ve invented these past few years… Your [husband] won’t change, nor you, but your children will take another big step: enormous step, probably. Some call it revolution, but it’s evolution, really. Sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Horrible to be caught in it, helpless. But no matter how appalled you are by what you see…, you’re still interested, aren’t you?”

“Fascinated! But rebelling most of the time.”

“What could be more exciting! As long as you’re fascinated, and as long as you keep on fighting the things you think are wrong, you’re living. It isn’t the evil people in the world who do the most harm, it’s the sweet do-nothings that can destroy us. Dolce far niente–that’s the thing to avoid in this terrible and wonderful world….

So first of all, we need to buckle in for a wild ride while true change has a chance to occur. But we also need nurture a fierce belief in the possibility of this change actually happening. And for that, I’ll point to another writer who gives me the tools to hope: Rutger Bregman. In his book Utopia for Realists, he has this to say about the power of belief, which is closely linked to our ability to hope:

Those who swear by rationality, nuance, and compromise fail to grasp how ideas govern the world. A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.

If we want to change the world we live in, then, we need to apply that pressure constantly, relentlessly, until we begin to destroy those walls, that fortress of belief that prevents us from restoring the democratic values we believe in. As Bregman says, “if we want to change the world, we need to be unrealistic, unreasonable, and impossible.”

And yet, as important as it is to hope, to believe in this change, Robert Reich reminds us that “hope is not enough. In order for real change to occur, the locus of power in the system will have to change.” Nevertheless, Reich himself is hopeful about the future. In his book The System: Who Rigged It and How We Fix It, he explains why:

History shows that whenever we have stalled or slipped, the nation’s forward movement has depended on the active engagement and commitment of vast numbers of Americans who are morally outraged by how far our economy and our democracy have strayed from our ideal and are committed to move beyond outrage to real reform.

He goes on to remind us that we need to “be organized and energized, not just for a particular election but for an ongoing movement, not just for a particular policy but to reclaim democracy so an abundance of good policies are possible.” What we need, he argues, is “a common understanding of what it means to be a citizen with responsibilities for the greater good.” He ends the book with a rousing pep talk: “Your outrage and your commitment are needed once again.”

These are powerful words, and they are therapeutic in restoring a sense of hope. I can do little more than echo them. So I’ll just leave you with the following few thoughts.

For those of you engaged in the fight to restore our democratic values, I urge you to stay engaged, enraged, and determined to change the structure of American politics from the ground up.

On a personal note: Take care of yourself. Pace yourself. Do what you personally can, and don’t feel badly about what you cannot do. Don’t focus on the negative. And take time to remind yourself of the successes you’ve had, no matter how small. Be willing to celebrate and share them.

And most of all, have hope! We are all, in a variety of ways, fighting the good fight. And in this fight, hope may well be the most important weapon we have. In the words of the Welsh literary critic Raymond Williams:

To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.

Thank you for your commitment to democracy. Keep up the good fight, and keep hoping for positive change.

Adventures in (Senior) Learning

my math exercise book

I am happy to report that I have completed my math class, and that I passed it. But it wasn’t always pretty, and it often resulted in frustration, anger, and broken pencils. I may or may not have broken a few other small items as well, in the heat of working on homework problems that I should have been able to solve but couldn’t. But that’s all water under the bridge. It’s over now, and I made it. In my darkest days as a student, I promised myself that pass or fail, when I completed the class I would write about my experience here, and although summer is beginning and I have a host of tasks that I’ve put off during the last few weeks as I studied for my final, I am trying to fulfil that promise now.

And so here is my first discovery: All teachers should be granted time off (course load reductions) every few years to take a course that is completely out of their area of expertise. In other words, every teacher should experience what I did last semester, because learning something completely new provides a critically important window to show teachers how their students feel and what they encounter as learners. My greatest regret about the whole experience of taking math as a retiree is that I cannot put what I’ve learned to use in my own classroom. Would I have changed my teaching methods if I’d had this experience earlier? Perhaps not. But I would have been more sympathetic to students’ complaints and frustrations in learning new material. I would have worked harder to find alternate delivery methods to make sure that material was accessible. I wouldn’t have been so quick to shrug off my students’ inability to master content by assuming they simply weren’t taking the class seriously enough. I’m absolutely sure that the taking a class like this (assuming that it was not simply added onto my other duties, but rather that my teaching load was reduced to allow me adequate time to engage in the class) would have made me a better teacher.

Good teachers, those who are engaged with their subjects, tend to be intuitive learners in their area of expertise. But this is a problem for their teaching, because many students they encounter will not be intuitive learners in that area. Taking a class out of my area of knowledge forced me to pay attention to how I learn. Certainly we teachers have been aware of different learning styles for decades, but there is a real difference in awareness of a thing and direct experience of it. If we are really interested in teaching, in transmitting not only knowledge but critical thinking skills, then we teachers need to immerse ourselves in a fresh learning experience every so often to enable us to check our assumptions, to experience failures, and, when necessary, to adjust our techniques–and our expectations. And the closer that learning experience comes to our students’ experience, the better.

Another important thing I learned is that there is a difference between showing someone something and teaching them something. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what that difference is. I think it has to do with paying close attention to feedback from the student–and not just verbal or written feedback but nonverbal cues as well. This is an area that deserves more study and observation.

On a purely personal level, I believe I had a better chance of success in this class today, as a senior citizen, than I would have had as a young adult, and not just because I have much more free time at my disposal. Given that my most recent math class was in 1979 (it was called “Terminal Math” — not because it killed you, but because it was a curricular dead end), one would think that I might have struggled with memory problems. The truth, however, is that I was a much more experienced learner and was therefore able to contextualize information in a way that wasn’t possible for me in my twenties. I was aggressive in using YouTube videos for additional learning, and I was far more focused and determined than I had been in my younger years. In other words, whatever I have lost in terms of memory function, I have gained in terms of experience and critical thinking ability.

Pure bull-headedness helped me pull through as well. So, in addition to a larger reserve of learning experience and critical thinking skills, a greater store of patience also helped me to progress through the class (snapped pencils and crumpled paper notwithstanding). These assets are all important factors in student success. All of them are something that young adults typically lack, however, which makes you wonder about how successful college learning really can be.

I had one final asset that helped me make it through the class. A superpower, if you will: I was willing to fail the course and take it again if necessary. But most traditional college students do not have this option. The clock is running, and they just want to get through, tick off the class, and proceed to the next one. As long as education is seen as an economic good and learning institutions mere factories to produce workers (and, unfortunately, to produce debt as well–something that is inherent in the capitalist control of the state), education will be mistakenly conflated with job training, and we will limit our learning throughout life.

At points throughout the semester, frustrated by the frenetic pace of the class, which in turn is dictated by powers beyond the control of individual professors–because all math classes have to align to assure transferability, and if they don’t then the colleges that mess with course content stand to lose students, funding, and revenue–I declared that the community college or university is the last place a person should go for an education. Now, having gotten through the class intact, I see that this is a harsh judgment, but there is nonetheless some truth in it. Our institutions of higher learning have become, as I said above, factories, and if we stop the production line or try to slow it down, we risk gumming up the whole process. And we all know what happens when that occurs:

I’ve often told my students that education is wasted on the young. But we can remedy this if we want to. The tragedy is not that so few of us actually go back to complete our education when we finally have the time and resources to do so, but that we limit the amount of learning all students can achieve, even in the place that is supposedly the most conducive to learning: the university. I hope in the years to come we begin to see the limits of higher education as we’ve fashioned it, and remediate these ill effects.

As for me, I’m celebrating my success, such as it is, and picking up the threads of my life. More adventures in math to come next fall, as I proceed to Trignometry.

Random Thoughts about TV Shows

A few random thoughts about television shows this morning, since the end of a long winter is in sight, and I have survived it largely by knitting, reading, and–you guessed it–watching television shows and movies.

On Mindless Murder: Why do detective shows always, without fail, focus on murder? Based on the detective shows I watch (admittedly, most of them are British), it seems that all cases in which both police and private detectives are called are murders. Hence the Cabot Cove paradox: a small town, Cabot Cove, Maine, has the highest murder rate in the world, because Jessica Fletcher lives there and she must solve a new murder every week. (Don’t get me wrong–I love Murder, She Wrote, but I think that if a detective is good at solving murder cases, she ought to be good at solving other kinds of cases as well.) What about the cases in which no murder has occurred? Much of a detective’s job, after all, involves sitting and watching people, trying to get evidence of adultery, or perhaps finding a missing person (who often, I would hope, turns out not to be murdered). Even Sherlock Holmes occasionally worked on cases that did not involve a murder of any kind. I would love to see a detective show that doesn’t focus exclusively on that most brutal of crimes. In fact, I find it deeply troubling that so much of our entertainment comes from postulated murder, as if the only way we can amuse ourselves is by imagining the ultimate violence done to another human being. If detective shows would only sprinkle some non-murderous episodes in with their usual fare, I think it would be more realistic, for one thing, as well as more humane, and it would do those of us who watch them a lot more good.

On Evil Collectives: Why is a collective always represented as something bad? Take Star Trek: Voyager. While I find the Star Trek series creative and thoughtful, the Borg (a hive-mind collective that forcibly assimilates/absorbs all entities it encounters) quickly becomes a predictable and hackneyed antagonist. Of course, someone had the brilliant idea of “rescuing” 7 of 9 and integrating her into Voyager’s crew–kudos to whoever came up with that one–but the problem remains that we seem to be unable to imagine a collective association of human beings as anything but profoundly threatening to creativity, kindness, and mutual aid. Perhaps this stems from our Western distrust of collective societies and our American horror of communism. Yet this cannot be only an American issue, since Daleks–from the Dr Who series–are also portrayed as an evil, voracious collective society. My question is this: is it possible to imagine a non-threatening collective, one that is humane and caring? Why is it that we never see such a collective portrayed on television or in films? If we could imagine one (and of course non-agressive collective societies do indeed exist in nature, among bees, for example, and many other kind of animals so we needn’t go far for inspiration), perhaps we could aspire to replicate this kind of mutual aid society in our world.

On Emo SciFi: While I’m on the subject of science fiction, here’s a question that I’ve often pondered: Why are science fiction shows almost always dark? Of course, there’s a really easy answer to this question: it’s dark in outer space. I get that, but why is it that we can only imagine space travel as something in which disasters, emergencies, and threatening events occur? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to sprinkle some humor into the plot of a scifi show sometimes? I realize that we’re living in difficult times, as we move closer to tyranny and nuclear war threatens to erupt in Europe, but isn’t that itself a reason to provide entertainment that is uplifting and amusing as well as thoughtful? For that matter, why must “thoughtful” always mean “something dire is about to happen and the whole crew, or planet, or species could die?” I would very much like to see a science fiction show that occasionally has an episode focusing on disagreements between crewmates (because God knows that would happen on a long voyage–just ask any sailor who’s ever been on deployment), on equipment malfunctions, on anything but the mission ending in a fiery ball of disaster due to an out-of-control collective that is intent on committing murder.

In other words, it would be nice if someone out in TV Land got hold of a new blueprint for their plots instead of recycling the same old trite themes. But maybe that’s my own problem for expecting real creativity from an overburdened medium….

It’s pretty bad when one has to resort to doing math problems to get exposure to new ideas!

This is Your Mind on Math, or How I Got Hooked on Mathamphetamines

Picture from Wikipedia

Note: I enrolled in a College Algebra class this semester as part of my revisionist education project. One of the assignments is to read a book on mathematics and write about it. Being quite busy with learning all I’m supposed to be learning right now, I haven’t time to write much on this blog, so I thought I’d post my book review here as a short-term solution. I hope to post here at greater length about my mathematical journey in a few weeks.

FLATLAND, A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS by Edwin Abbott Abbott

Flatland, by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1838-1926), was the perfect book to start my mathematical journey, for several reasons. Abbott lived pretty much right in the middle of the Victorian age, which is the period of literature I know best. This means that while his book is mathematical in nature and seems strange and alien in its subject (at least to me), its wordiness and heavy, formal style are somehow comforting at the same time. Aside from the oddness of the subject itself (life in a two-dimensional world), some of the themes in the novella were essentially Victorian. Take, as one example, the upward mobility of shapes, going from triangles, to squares, to pentagons and hexagons as generations “improve” themselves, which reflects the Victorians’ belief in the perfectability of human nature over time, as well as the ability to move from one socioeconomic status to the next higher one. While we think of social mobility as a purely American invention, it was surely present in nineteenth-century England. One need only point to Patrick Bronte, father of the Bronte sisters, who was born in squalor in Ireland but managed to secure a scholarship to Cambridge University and become a clergyman, or to Charles Dickens, whose grandparents were servants in a rich household, to demonstrate that a Victorian might be born a square, or even a triangle, but could hope one day to have hexagonal grandsons.

In other words, while the things Abbott wrote about were unfamiliar to me as far as the two-dimensional world he created goes, many of the accompanying characterizations were not. Moreover, there were some really enjoyable surprises within the book as well. I was particularly amused by the portrayal of women as vicious lines who, through their raging fury or even simple inattention to their relative positions, could maim or destroy their more mild-mannered mates, offspring, as well as innocuous bystanders. (How any offspring was ever produced in this world, however, was never covered in Flatland. Some things, I suppose, are better left unimagined.) In addition, the power struggle between the chromatists and the opposition, the traditionalist, anti-color party, was reminiscent of all political struggles, and so quite familiar as well. In short, Flatland, while a bit difficult to read, was intriguing and creative, and I am glad I read the book to its conclusion.

To be clear, I ended up liking the book, and I give it four out of four stars, not for its plot, or for its characterization, and certainly not for its verbose and weighty style, but because it became a symbol for my own journey into the study of mathematics. As I began the course, I had to quickly relearn concepts and skills that had been buried for well nigh fifty years, beneath Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan sonnets, Victorian novels, and Romantic poetry. As soon as I had dusted off my meager mathematical skills, however, I was deluged with other, new concepts that demanded all the brainpower I had to digest them. Then, while I was busy learning these new concepts, I found I had forgotten the older ones that I should have known all along and had just re-learned. It was all very frustrating and, frankly, an embarrassing exercise in intellectual humility. To be honest, early in the semester, I had to make up my mind to stick with the course even if that meant failing it—something I’d never done in my life up to this point.

Enter Edwin Abbott Abbott with his two last names and his strange little book. Once I began reading it, I quickly came to realize that my journey as a reader and my journey as a student were similar. Look at it this way: In signing up for Math 130 (College Algebra), I had entered an unusual world, one that had rules and laws that I knew very little about. I had to immerse myself in them, barely understanding them, simply trusting that they would become clearer and more understandable as I proceeded through the course. The same was true of reading Flatland. The only way to get through this book, I’ll maintain, is to buckle up and settle back for a very strange ride. I’d say the same is true for studying College Algebra.

When, after a week or so of starting the book and concentrating on my math homework, I began to have dreams about equations, square roots, and graphing polynomials, I realized something very interesting was happening in my brain: I was changing my perception of the world. In fact, one night I dreamt that my husband, to whom I often go for help as he studied Electrical Engineering (albeit some 40 years ago), gave me an edible and a magic mushroom, both of which I ate without question and was immediately rewarded by understanding everything I needed to about math. Yet I’ll argue the dreams were not just amusing; I believe they were my brain at work, struggling to adapt to new information and new perceptions. Indeed, I take them as a sign that I was beginning, with oh-so-tiny baby steps, to see the world from a more mathematical perspective. It’s a lot like those three-dimensional pictures that you have to concentrate on not concentrating on to be able to see. It takes a bit of work to see an interesting scene rather than zig-zagging blocks and shapes, but the effort is well worth it in the end, when you are rewarded with a three-dimensional view somehow transcribed onto a flat piece of paper. I hope that the same will be true of Math 130.  

Learning math, for those of us to whom math is not second nature, demands that we forge new perceptions and that we learn to see and think in totally new ways. This is easy to posit, but very hard to accomplish. I suspect it’s easier the younger one is, but no matter one’s age, it is difficult to craft new perceptive tools with which to look at a changed world. In other words, studying math is a trippy experience—we might as well admit that—and Flatland is a trippy little book, and for this reason, it turned out to be the perfect start to Math 130 for me.

Searching for the Most Beautiful Word

Stephen Hunt/ Getty Images , from Redbook

I find it odd that J.R.R. Tolkien believed that the most beautiful sound in the English language was the words “cellar door.” To be honest, I just can’t agree with him: to me, at least, these words don’t sound lovely or inviting. Mysterious? Yes. Intriguing? Perhaps. But certainly not beautiful.

So I’ve tried my best to identify a word I do consider beautiful, and I think I’ve found one: “senescence.” I love the way the sibilant “s” sound eases through my lips. I had a serious lisp as a child, going to speech therapy throughout my early elementary school years, so maybe the word “senescence” has the attraction of forbidden fruit to me. Whatever the reason, I find “senescence” to be an elegant word, yet at the same time both humble and understated. It truly is a lovely word, with a soft, inviting sound that charms the ear.

The unpleasant reality rests in the meaning of the word: “the condition or process of deterioration with age.”

Oops. Looks like I’ve picked a word as fraught with problems as Tolkien’s “cellar door.”

But since I’m on the subject anyway (see how I did that?), let me discuss the most moving story about senescence I’ve ever encountered. Surprisingly, it’s not about human beings, but rather about octopuses. (And yes, the plural of “octopus” is “octopuses,” not “octopi.” This short article explains why, while cleverly pointing out the irony in the whole debate, since octopuses live as solitary creatures and so presumably one might never really need to use the plural of the word in a natural setting.)

Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus must be a good book, because I still remember it clearly, several years after I listened to an audio version of it. The part that I found most memorable is Montgomery’s discussion of the senescence of her octopus friend. It is one of the most beautiful, and one of the saddest, descriptions of the natural world I’ve ever encountered.

While octopuses don’t have a centralized nervous system or a brain, as we do, they seem to experience consciousness. Recent films, for example, have documented the friendships that certain octopuses have formed with human beings. Clearly, they have the capacity to make memories, as well as other complicated mental functions. For example, this video segment shows an octopus dreaming. The takeaway here is that despite its alien appearance, the octopus is much more than a scary-looking sea monster; it is a creature with feelings and opinions, at least as much as the other animals we live with, such as dogs and cats .

But an octopus has a very short lifespan, living only three or so years. And the last thing a female octopus does, as it enters this final stage of life, this period of senescence, is to produce a collection of lacy, bundled eggs and festoon her den with them. Below is an image of an octopus with her eggs from an NPR article:

Stuart Westmorland/Corbis

The octopus will then spend the rest of the time remaining to her caring for these eggs, and then, with her last bit of energy, her final breath, so to speak, she will launch these eggs into life, just as she herself leaves it.

Now here’s the thing about Sy Montgomery’s book: the octopus that Montgomery befriended was a female, so she produced eggs and draped them in her aquarium home, but they were never fertilized, because she was acquired too early in her life to have been able to fertilize them. Yet that made no difference to her. She cared for those empty egg sacs just as assiduously as if they had had baby octopuses within them.

Perhaps she just didn’t know the difference. But I choose to believe that there is a powerful lesson here. That octopus did what she had to do: her drive to create was inborn, and she could no more resist that urge to lay eggs and then to take care of them than she could resist the urge to eat, or to sleep, or, when the time came, to die. And here’s where I find an important parallel between the octopus and us, one that has nothing to do with our role as parents, but rather as creators.

Look at it this way: one of the functions of human beings is to create things, all sorts of things, depending on who we are and what kind of gifts we develop in ourselves. We might create stories, as Shakespeare did, or important bodies of research, as Jane Goodall has, or structures, like the Great Wall of China. We might create an epic poem, like Milton’s Paradise Lost, or we might make a baby blanket out of yarn and a set of knitting needles. We might build a beautiful bench, or craft a powerful speech. We might create relationships that continue into the next generation. It doesn’t matter what shape it takes; one thing that humans do, without fail, is create. The least talented of us cannot go through this life without having created something at some point during the time allotted to us on this earth.

The problem is, many of us don’t honor our creations. We don’t think our creations could possibly matter, so we fail to protect and nurture them. We throw them away, making them disposable, ultimately discounting their importance.

But the octopus teaches us a different lesson. She shows us that whether there are baby octopuses within the eggs or not, it’s important to treat them all with respect. She demonstrates that it’s the act of creation and our response to that act that matters, and not whether the product of our creative urge is a success or a failure.

This realization hit me powerfully when I first listened to Montgomery’s book. In fact, walking down a sunny street in Dallas, tears coursed down my cheeks, and I didn’t care whether the other people on the path around White Rock Lake noticed or not. I cried at first because the futility of the octopus’s gesture struck me like a gale-force wind. It all seemed so useless, so empty. Was life really so cruel and hopeless?

But within a few minutes I realized that the important thing here was the act of creation, not the product of creation, and there’s a big difference. It didn’t stop my tears, but it did change the cause of them. The octopus’s actions seemed so selfless, so beautiful, that her death made me ache as if I’d known her myself. Her senescence, her final actions, these seemed to me worthy of a Verdi opera or tenth symphony from Beethoven.

Because the beauty of the octopus’s dying gesture more than balances the tragedy of it.

And now, some years later, entering my own period of senescence, I realize what we human beings share with that octopus. Some of us create viable things that go on to have a life of their own; some of us create the equivalent of empty egg sacs. But it doesn’t matter. We all have engaged in the act of creation, and that’s what makes us alive.

I might never achieve an existence as beautiful as that of an octopus, but I can keep the memory of her–of her senescence combined with her act of creation–in my mind so as to give me a sense of peace as I go about my own small acts of creation, and as I proceed with my own decline into old age.

In short, I’ve discovered that senescence can be beautiful both in its sound and in its meaning as well. Take that, Mr. Tolkien!

Dream Novels

Communardes, Wikimedia

I’ve now been keeping this blog for about a decade, and I have to admit that I feel a sense of accomplishment for some degree of consistency in writing. True, I haven’t been consistent about my posts–indeed, sometimes long gaps stretch between them–but I have so far always returned to this site to write yet another mini-essay on a subject of my own choosing. It all began, I recall, when I realized that it wasn’t exactly fair of me as a composition instructor to ask my students to write on-demand essays for me when I wasn’t at least prepared to produce my own essays. So I set myself the task of writing, in a sort of public way, to honor the commitment I’d hoped my students would feel for their writing classes. After all, as Daniel Stern (the writer, not the actor) once told me, “A writer is someone who conducts their education in public.”

Over the last few years I have been doing that on steroids, so to speak. I’ve tested out strange and new ideas I’ve had here, and I’ve revealed my determination to put myself back to school in order to complete, or at least to remedy, what I consider a half-hearted education. (Hence my decision to take a math class at the local community college where I once taught English and Speech–a decision which accounts for my inconsistency in posting [as if I need an excuse!]. Algebra, it turns out, is quite time-consuming–but more on that and what I’m learning in a future post.)

Perhaps part of my original motivation in starting this blog was to try to garner readers for my self-published novels. Yet that motivation has fallen by the wayside; I’m no longer interested in trying to expand my reader base, and in fact, I’m not sure I actually want to write any more novels. I say this not from any kind of pique or bitterness, but more from laziness. If I can outline the story, in other words, and tell it to myself, what need have I to write it down and spoil it all? Yet there’s also an element of humility playing into this. The older I get, the less I feel compelled to throw in my two cents. Moreover, the older I get, the less certain I feel of anything, particularly my potential to contribute to the vast array of written works already out there. It seems just as good a use of my time to read more stories, stories that people have forgotten by obscure authors who haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve. (Perhaps this deserves a future post as well!)

And yet….

And yet there are stories I’ve thought of and have sketched out in my mind, and I hold them dear. They’re like unfinished sweaters I’ve knitted. I think I know what they’d look like if I finished them, but I’m not sure about all the intricate details. I don’t know how exactly they’d fit, either. So when I think of these “dream novels” (I’m adapting a term from the essayist Charles Lamb, from his essay “Dream Children: A Reverie,” a lovely piece of old-fashioned writing), it’s with a certain degree of wistfulness as well as some real curiosity, to see what they would become if I ever did write them. After all, as most writers know, one can never know exactly what one thinks until one sees what one has written.

Anyway, the rest of this post will be spent in listing my Dream Novels and sketching out their plots, just so that someday, when I have too much time on my hands and more confidence in my possession, I can consider coming back to one or two of these ideas. They are listed in no particular order below.

  1. A novel about Princess Charlotte–not the present one, but rather the daughter of George IV (1796-1817), the heir to the throne of England, whose early death in childbirth (along with her infant son) precipitated the hereditary crisis that would result in the the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne a generation later. Her death changed history. But she was also a really interesting character, and she married Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who would later, long after her death, become the first king of the Belgians. He was a huge influence on European politics, despite being a relatively unknown and unimportant German prince. And he was incredibly handsome, and was, to all appearances, heartbroken at the death of Charlotte. My twist on the narrative, however, would be that Charlotte’s life story is narrated by Cornelia Knight, who served as Princess Charlotte’s companion/governess, and who saw a great deal of the world, especially for a spinster in the early nineteenth century.
  2. A novel about one of the survivors of the the Paris Commune, an historical interlude about which most Americans know very little, if anything at all. At the end of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (disastrous for the French, that is), the victorious Germans were set to enter into Paris, but the citizens revolted against their own government and refused to surrender, at which point the French government declared war against the Parisians, who had decided to rule themselves. From March until May, 1871, Paris was under siege and existed as a Commune–an experiment in democracy that bears, at least for Americans, an unfortunate name. Women were essential to this experiment, and when it was defeated by the government, they were blamed for much of it. My story follows one of these women into anonymous exile in London, where she gets involved in another political movement, all while a journalist and his sister attempt to identify the mysterious French teacher who lives down the street from them in Bloomsbury.
  3. On the lighter side, a murder mystery involving a community band in a small town. One of the musicians gets himself murdered–it would be the first chair trumpet player, for obvious reasons. (If you don’t know what obvious reasons I’m referring to, then you have clearly never played in a community band.) The detective would be, naturally, a woodwind player (I’m partial to clarinets), and would weave in and out of the idiosyncrasies of the various musicians in order to solve the mystery.

That’s all I have for now. Any one of these stories could consume my creative life for the next several years, if I allowed it to do so, but I can’t quite convince myself that it’s worth the effort. After all, there’s so much to observe in this world, so much to study, so much to absorb, that I’m simply not sure that I should commit to work of this sort. And yet, while work of this sort is apparently self indulgent and ultimately pointless, I know well enough that the product of that work isn’t always the point, and it’s what one learns while undertaking it that matters.

There are so many ways of learning, and I find it sad that as a retired teacher I’m still learning so much about the whole process. Ultimately, when I’m ready for the learning that these projects offer–assuming I ever am–I’ll take a stab at it and perhaps come up with something worthy of posting here, in installments.

Until then, it’s back to studying Algebra!

Private Clavel: My Private Marathon

One of the things that kept me going through the dark days of following Trump’s election was translating an entire French novel, as I wrote about here. I started my translation at the end of November, 2016, and finished it in December of 2017, so it took slightly more than a year of work. Yet I never knew quite what to do with my translation. I made a few half-hearted attempts to publish it, submitting a chapter to several reviews, but nothing took, and so I put it high up on my shelf and tried to forget about it.

However, last summer I discovered that a translation of the book had been published, back in 2019. I greeted this news with mixed feelings, as can well be imagined. I had long determined that no one else was interested in Leon Werth’s Clavel Soldat, that it was too dated or obscure for publication. I also knew that I was a novice translator, and that my chances of publication were very slim. But seeing that someone else had managed to get their version into print still evoked a spasm of writerly envy–short-lived, true, but envy nonetheless–and made me, for the about a day or so, sullen and bitter.

Then, however, I did what any honest writer/translator would do: I ordered the book from its publisher, Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd. Then, in the brightest days of summer, I crushed my sour, envious attitude, and when the book arrived, I placed it on my desk, determined that when winter came and I wasn’t busy with gardening, hiking, mushrooming, and visitors, I would read Michael Copp’s translation (which he calls Private Clavel’s War on War) and compare it to mine, word for word. I was convinced that there would be much to learn from this exercise, and I felt that Mr. Copp, as well as Leon Werth, deserved this much attention from me.

For the last two months, I’ve been engaged in this activity, and I have indeed learned a great deal. True, there are times when I thought it seemed a pointless exercise, but then I realized that many people engage in pointless activities for fun and for health. As an example, consider running. Lots of people run several times a week, working to increase their endurance. What was I doing, if not working to increase my mental endurance, my ability to use every atom of intelligence and memory and reasoning I had in my poor, beleaguered brain in order to make it stronger? So I compared what I was doing to training for a marathon. After all, most runners never expect to win the marathon races they enter–merely finishing is the point. For me, finishing my translation of Clavel Soldat had to be the point, not publishing it, and reading Copp’s translation in conjunction with mine would prove that I had, indeed, completed my own private marathon.

I have indeed learned a great deal from this exercise. First of all, on a purely practical level, I learned to use the Immersive Reader / Read Aloud tab on MS Word. This function allowed me to listen to my version of the translation at the same time that I read Copp’s book, speeding up the whole process. I can see how the Read Aloud function would be a real benefit to anyone proofreading their own work and I’m sure I’ll use it again.

As far as the actual translation goes, here are a few things that I’ve learned. Most important, translation is an art, not a science. This is a truism, but it bears repeating here. I will just post two versions of the same passage from Chapter VII (page 182 of the original) to illustrate:

The next day, Clavel receives a package of newspaper clippings. He knows. Those who write far from the front lines fight in their logical citadels, everyone for his or her own lie. He knows now that there is nothing but an immense vertigo within a great cataclysm. He is in the midst of this cataclysm that the people look at from a distance, like a tourist watching the eruption of a volcano from several kilometers away.

The next day Clavel received a packet of newspaper cuttings. He knows. Those who write in the rear carry on their fight in their citadel of logic, each one supplying his own lie. He now knows that there is only a great frenzy in a great catastrophe. He is in the middle of the catastrophe that the people in the rear contemplate, as a tourist contemplates the eruption of a volcano from a distance.

And another, longer, passage, this one from the last page of Chapter XV (page 300) of the original:

The division headquarters, with its gleaming officers and its clerical workers. A field near the cemetery is chosen for the execution of Private P., from the colonial infantry.
“What did he do?...”
“He didn’t want to go into the trenches…”
It is dawn. Six hundred men are lined up: his company and parts of other units.
An ambulance wagon has been prepared in case Private P.  faints or resists.
The wagon is not needed. Private P. walks to his spot. Twenty men, bayonets at the ready, escort him. He has just as much the look of a soldier as the other men. The only difference is that he doesn’t have a rifle. He looks straight ahead. He has the face of a sick man being taken out of the trenches. 
Private P. and his escort come to the field where the troops are waiting at attention. 
Private P. is there with the other twenty men. No one has come yet to take him. 
A warrant officer orders: “Left side, line up…”
Then, “Right side, line up…”
And Private P., who is going to die, seems bothered only by not knowing how to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Private P. follows the order “Right side, line up” with the other soldiers.
Twelve soldiers have fired. Private P. is dead.
It's the division with its gleaming officers and its pen-pushers. A field near the cemetery has been chosen for the execution ceremony of soldier P.... of the colonial infantry.
'What did he do?'...
'He didn't want to go to the trenches'...
It is dawn. Six hundred men are drawn up; his company and parts of other troops.
An ambulance has been prepared in case soldier P.... should faint or resist.
The vehicle is not needed. Soldier P....marches to his rank. Twenty men, with fixed bayonets, escort him. He looks a soldier, just like the others. He has no rifle, that's all. He looks straight ahead. A sick man, coming back from the trenches, has this look. 
Soldier P...is there with the other twenty. They haven't yet come to take him. 
An adjutant gives the order: 'Left turn'...
Then: 'Right turn'...
And soldier P...., who is going to die, seems bothered by not knowing where to stand. He turns his head to the right, puts his left fist on his hip. Soldier P...., along with the others, carries out the order: "Right turn."
Two soldiers fired. Soldier P... is dead.

The differences are minimal, but they are there. The only major difference is a bona fide mistake in the second selection, where the French “douze” is translated as “two.” This is something I noticed by comparing translations: mistakes do happen. Sometimes words are mistranslated, and not only when there is debate or obscurity about what the word means. Even more unsettling, sometimes whole lines or short paragraphs are left out: both Copp and I are guilty of this error. Translating an entire novel is a laborious task, so it makes sense that such mistakes happen.

But this led me to another discovery, one that unsettled me more, if possible, than finding that someone else had beat me to the punch and had published an English translation of Clavel Soldat. Mistakes such as the ones I noted above are inevitable in a long scholarly work, but editors should be able to find and eliminate them; after all, that’s what they’re payed to do. Why had this not happened in Copp’s translation? The answer is simple: I believe Copp had no editors, because it turns out that Grosvenor House Publishing Limited is what was once called a “vanity press”: it is essentially the same as self publishing on Amazon (which I have done myself and, to a certain extent, now regret), and there appears to be little quality control. This discovery floored me, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. But regarding the errors in the text, I’d still argue that Copp did an excellent job on his translation. The fact that it differs from mine attests to the finesse and subtlety required in translation itself. Like so much in life, there are no right or wrong answers, and it is important to remember that diversity is a gift, not a curse. What this does mean, however, is that any time we read works that have been translated, the translator has made choices, most of them unconscious, that reflect how he or she sees the world, and this inevitably skews the purity, so to speak, of the original words. Again, that is not necessarily a problem; it’s just important to be aware of it when reading literature in translation. When a translator creates a translation, it’s as if all his or her past reading, thinking, even life experiences, work to color the words he or she chooses, and so it makes sense that each translation would be as individual as the person who produced it.

What more have I learned from this grand, marathon-like exercise of mine? I still think Clavel Soldat is a good book, and an important one. Leon Werth created a character who despised war and dared to write about it during the war. His depiction of life at the Front in 1914 is ruthless in its clarity and in the sense of betrayal Clavel feels as he witnesses both the horrors of war and the hypocrisy of those participating in it. I understood the First World War much better after reading the novel, and so I am despondent and, to be honest, disgusted about the fact that its translation appears to be unpublishable today and that self publishing is the only recourse for a novel of this type. Consequently, few English speakers will ever read it. My conclusion — which I hope is not the result of a sour-grapes attitude — is that publishing, like so many things today, is a grand game of popularity and attention-grabbing. In times past, there was room for less popular works, if they were deemed important. Now, however, we live in an attention economy, and important works are bypassed for those works that get a bigger, louder splash.

We lose so much by this. History fades away, covered up by the clamor of contemporary voices, all competing for the biggest slice of an economic pie that really doesn’t matter in the long run. What we lose by this is access to history, is the abililty to understand, so to speak, what the long run is and how it affects us. We become more provincial in our thinking and less capable of forming big ideas because we are only able to access those works deemed most liable to get the biggest bang for publishers’ bucks. It’s a tragic situation, and I’m not sure what we can do to fix it.

In the end, I have to be selfish and say that I’m glad I spent a year plowing through Clavel Soldat, as well as the six additional weeks comparing my translation to Michael Copp’s. True, it may be time that I’ll never get back, but it was time well spent, because it has enriched my knowledge of history, literature, and not least of all, the art of translation. All of these things are valuable, and because of that, I’m satisfied.

Zero and God

Warning: this is a philosophical, and deeply weird, post. If I’m lucky, it will go unnoticed in the holiday rush and I won’t have to answer any difficult questions; if not, I can just say that the end of the year has always been the time when I am most prone to consider deep and philosophical thoughts. (Of course, that is patently untrue; deep thoughts, ones about the meaning of life or the passage of time or the inexorable approach of death, come to me at the most inopportune times, such as when I’m watching repeats of The Mary Tyler Moore Show or when I’m ironing a shirt.) At any rate, the thought I’m about to articulate in this post is a doozy, even for me, so you might want to put on some heavy waders, because we’re about to plunge into some fairly deep shit.

First, a little background. Some months ago, I listened to an episode of the BBC’s fantastic radio show In Our Time that focused on zero. Full disclosure here: I have not really considered mathematics seriously in any capacity since, well, since ever. It has always been a tool for me, something that I have to do in order to cut a recipe in half, average students’ grades, or create a grading system with weighted assignments. So why I listened to this podcast, other than simple curiosity, is a bit of a mystery. But listen to it I did, and I have to admit it fascinated me. I learned all sorts of things about zero: when it was invented and who invented it and when it came into general use in the Western World. I mean, to start with, I didn’t realize zero actually had to be discovered; I always thought it just appeared, like the rest of the numbers, with all of its properties neatly attached to it. But apparently zero was invented, or discovered, by the ancient Babylonians, who needed it to keep track of tax records, as a place-keeper along with numbers that were set out in rows for easy and quick addition and subtraction.

You can listen to the podcast to find out more about the number zero, or you can read a book I just finished, Zero: the Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife, which provides a thoroughly understandable overview of the subject. I find it all interesting, intriguing even, but what got me really thinking was how useful zero is without actually being anything. Calculus and physics, for example (not that I know anything about them) are apparently impossible without a concept of zero. The ancient Greeks and early Christians were averse to considering zero, being terrified of the idea of nothingness; Babylonian and Indian culture had no problem dealing with the idea of a void, so they ran with the idea of zero. It would take the Western world until the middle of the Renaissance to really begin to experiment with the concept of zero, and the Industrial and Technological Revolutions simply couldn’t begin until zero became accepted as a legitimate number.

For the first time in my life, I could see that zero is really, really important. And here’s the interesting thing about zero: it means nothing–literally. It is nothing. But without the idea of it, things just don’t work right. We can’t achieve a level of mathematical knowledge that allows us to have computers, space travel, medical breakthroughs–almost anything we associate with the kind of lives we live today. Zero, while being nothing, is a critical idea around which the entire universe as we encounter it seems to hang.

So I began to think about this, and how intriguing it is that the our concept of the universe depends on something that isn’t there. Maybe my age is showing–I went to graduate school during the heydey of deconstructive criticism, after all–but I find this to be a really satisfying conundrum. Zero is nothing. Yet it is in fact incredibly important, and without a concept of it, we can’t really understand anything beyond elementary mathematics; without it, we can only make fairly simple and elementary natural observations. In short, the nature of zero is a puzzle, and it’s so contradictory that I find it pleasant and satisfying to consider it.

But thinking can be dangerous, especially if you have a lot of time on your hands and allow your mind to wander. Thinking about zero in this way led me to another idea, one that is heretical but at the same really intriguing, namely, what if the concept of God is analagous to the concept of zero? In other words, what if having God as a kind of moral placekeeper is more important than having God as a real entity? God, in this scenario, would be nothing–an evanescent, empty idea–but the concept of God would be all-important. Without this concept of God as simple place-holder, nothing works as it should. The idea of empathy, of ethics, of morals, of duty, or of simply “doing the right thing for the right reason,” these things are easily jettisoned without a belief in or a sense of a higher being. The concept of God as a placekeeper, though–that could be just as useful, and perhaps less prone to corruption and deviance, as the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful divinity.

Consider: God is zero. It seems like nothing, but without this zero, the entire trajectory of human existence simply doesn’t work right. Belief in God would then represent not a belief in a traditional deity with superhuman powers, but rather an acknowledgement of the role of God, which in turn grounds human experience in a meaningful way. I think Seife comes close to saying something like this early in his book when he writes: “Yet through all its history, despite the rejection and the exile, zero has always defeated those who opposed it. Humanity could never force zero to fit its philosophies. Instead, zero shaped humanity’s view of the universe–and of God” (p 3). My theory is similar but not exactly identical to Seife’s, however. Rather than suggest that our concept of God was shaped by our view of zero, I’m arguing that zero and God could, with a little bit of imagination, occupy the same location in their respective theoretical frameworks.

Ultimately this theory is important only to those people who, like me, struggle with a belief in God. It’s easier for me to think of God as a function or a place than as an omnipotent Being. But I think my theory might be fun for anyone to think about , even those with a strong traditional faith. It turns traditional religious ideas upside down, which, after all, is always fun.

At any rate, I’ve thought about this idea long enough to cause me to change my behavior in a real, and hopfully, a positive way. I’ve actually signed up for a college algebra class at the local community college this coming semester. That in itself is nothing short of a veritable Act of God, which I owe to a belief in the power of zero.

Thanks, Meredith, for encouraging me!

Forest Bathing Can Save Your Soul

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to transform myself from a retired academic to a smallholder. (A “Smallholder” refers to someone who owns or manages an agricultural plot that is smaller than a traditional farm. It is the term the British use; I prefer it to the American term, “hobby farmer,” which has a hollow ring to my ears.) The problem is, I’m essentially a city girl who was born in Brooklyn at the tail end of the Baby Boom, back when it was definitely not cool to be from Brooklyn. My knowledge of rural life is meager, and although I’ve been working on expanding it for the past twenty years, I have more to learn than I have time left to learn it in.

Why should I be invested in this self-transformation? That, in fact, is what I’d like to try to examine in this post. I have always been attracted to the outdoors; one of my earliest memories is of trying to make a fishing pole out of a paper clip and some string and tossing it into the shallow waters of a lake–perhaps it was just a fountain–in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Twenty years ago I opted out of urban living by moving from Houston, Texas, to rural Northern Michigan, a move towards my present state of mind. But several things have compelled me to reinvent myself during the last five years, a curious blend of events that left me forging a new path, and perhaps a new identity as well.

The first step towards my present state of mind occurred six years ago, when I retired from my job as a community college professor. It was an early retirement, but definitely a good time for me to go. Because of falling enrollment, I was able to teach fewer of the courses I really enjoyed, and I knew there were other people who wanted–and needed–the job more than I did. It seemed only right for me to move out of the way and let them have a go. So I did, and fairly quickly I found myself foundering. What was I, if not an English professor? My purpose in life seemed inextricably bound up with my identity as a teacher. With that identity receding quickly into the rear view mirror of life, I felt destabilized and adrift.

The next thing that happened was the election of 2016. Without going into details (you can find many posts on this blog from that period that reveal my state of mind), I’ll just say that I felt as if the entire world was falling to pieces. In the midst of political unrest and sorrow at the state of my country, I struggled to find something solid to hold onto. The world, I told myself at one point, had become a caricature of itself, something like the world of Voltaire’s Candide, a work I’ve never really felt comfortable with. But then I remembered the end of the story. Disappointed with life after all his adventures, dealing with his own sense of loss and languishing in what I’ve begun to call the “Peggy Lee Stage of Life,” Candide asks his teacher what he should do with the time remaining to him. The answer was simple: “Cultivate your garden,” says Master Pangloss. I decided then that this could be good advice, and I too, like Candide, began to work at gardening.

And there was yet another force at work as well. At this time, I was working on a novel that was set in southern England. I was trying hard to make the landscape a large part of the novel, as its effect on the protagonist worked its way into her psyche. To get myself into a frame of mind in which I could describe the trees and fields around my character, I tried to immerse myself in the forests close at hand, here near my home. It worked, to a degree, but gradually something unexpected happened. In the course of trying to drink in the feel and look of the forest in order to write about it and weave it into my story, I found that I had accidentally fallen in love with forests myself.

Within a couple of years, my husband and I found a piece of land for sale relatively close by our house and bought it. We had no plans to farm–we just wanted a change from our life in a small town. We were attracted by the hilltop house overlooking eight cleared acres abutting the winding front road; the hidden treasure, however, was the rich forest that stretched behind it. Old logging trails wound through a tangle of beeches, maples, hemlocks, and ironwood trees. In the first few years, it was quite possible for me to get lost back there. But during the last couple of years I’ve spent many days walking the paths, working on making new ones, and learning the smells, sounds, and general feel of the woods, and I don’t think I could get lost there now.

I have made a discovery. Owning a forest is like owning a cat. You don’t own it at all; rather, it owns you. You’re there merely to take care of it and appreciate it. You develop protective, nurturing feelings for it, while respecting its wildness and independence. Sometimes you watch from a distance, awed by its power and majesty; other times you simply want to gather it in your arms and hold it tight, protecting it from all harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have learned to love the trees and the wildlife they shelter with a devotion that I’d once saved for the works of literature I studied from my early adult years. And the things I’ve learned in this time! For example, I know now that the forest can look completely different from one day to the next, much less from one season to the next. In the last few years, I’ve thrown myself into reading books about ecology, about natural science, about biology–things I’ve not studied since I was a high school student. And I’ve learned to appreciate what the forest gives me: wicker baskets full of delicious mushrooms, colorful trillium and Dutchmen’s britches covering the hillsides in spring time, a rare glimpse of a deer’s back as it passes by, and chipmunks growing bolder in my presence.

My transformation is not yet complete. It may never be complete. I still have difficult days when I wonder what my purpose is. Often I feel useless. And, like Candide, I still have those Peggy Lee days, when I wonder if that’s really all there is. But the forest is always there, ready to pull me into its ageless world when I walk through it, no matter the weather, the season, or the time of day. And in the final analysis, while I can trace how I came to love the forest so deeply, I know that this rational exploration doesn’t stop me from counting myself lucky to have discovered such a sweet and pervasive passion so late in life.