Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Of Mice and Men

I’m sitting before this glowing screen and you are on the other side of this shimmering electronic mirror.

Still, we are connected.

You may be one of those who have followed my strange travels for several years. You may have just now stumbled into this odd corner of the blogosphere for the first time.

We are connected.

Sunday afternoon I, my wife and two kids found ourselves in a Chinese restaurant in Salem, Oregon. My wife’s father’s paternal uncle was celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary. There were he and his wife’s four children (who hosted the event) and their children, and grandchildren. Some of those offspring brought boyfriends and girlfriends, new wives, genetic relations and legal relations. Folks of nordic descent (family name: Nelson), hispanics, asians, my children from Haiti. All connected.

I did a fair job in remembering names, but could not possibly keep up.

In such a setting I see the world is connected.

Business, personal, faith, genetic, marriage... there are so many ways we connect to each other.

My great grandmother (maternal, maternal, maternal side) told me she was the grand daughter of President Ulysseus S.
Grant. How distant he is to me... yet connected.

My grandfather was adopted by a man who befriended his mother, Alice Louise Edstrum, a woman who survived a severely abusive husband, an explosion which deformed her hands, poisonous well water (which killed all but one of her children) and finally succumbed to tuberculosis.

That man who took my grandfather in was a down on his luck farm hand (much like George and Lenny in Steinbeck's novel) descended from John Greenleaf Whittier, the famous Quaker poet.

And Alice, my great grandmother, was born Alice Louise Gordon, of the Clan Gordon of Scotland. My friend and colleague across the hall at work is a descendant of Clan Gordon of Scotland.

We are all connected.

I’ve been thinking about connections, physical, theological, cosmological, genetic...

I was on the freeway today, following an 18-wheeler. It was carrying one of those cargo containers which get picked off the truck frame and set on cargo ships and moved about the globe.

Something moved along the corrugated metal, clinging to the slanting steel, ran to the vertical bars which lock those tall doors. I slid over to the lane to the right (it was my exit) and the mouse scurried back across to the container’s corner near me, desperate to find a way off that vibrating metal box rolling along at 60 miles per hour. I took out my camera to snap its picture, but it scurried back behind the locks again and all I could see as I went by was its tail.

Poor little guy. I hope he makes it out of that situation.

The smallest of connections between he and I, yet here I am, imagining him still. And now I have shared the vision of that frightened fluff of grey fur clinging to yellow metal on a busy highway in the northwest corner of a Oregon, a state in the northwest corner of the United States, with you, on your side of the mirror.

There were several pieces of news which caught my attention this past week. News I found startling, and beautiful. While I caught and tossed back a dozen emails from a parent concerned about her son’s failing grade in my class, while I coached a half dozen kids in organizing an end of the school year assembly, while I graded dozens of hastily finished projects, weeded my garden, tucked my children into bed, threaded the land mine-strewn conversations with my wife, I pondered several strange, startling, and beautiful pieces of news.

First piece of news: The tightness of the spiraling arms of galaxies are indicators of the mass of the black holes that lie hidden in nearly every galaxy. We can determine how many solar masses (the mass of our sun) make up those central black holes, those voracious, monstrous eaters of all things.

(Background: a galaxy is an island of stars, numbering in the billions [ours has about a 400 billion stars]. Early in the universe they tended to be smaller, made up of more massive stars with short lives. The latest editions of galaxies look a little like hurricanes gliding through the universe, unless they collide with another, in which case they can take on almost any shape as they swing through and around each other in a complex dance of mass and gravity.)


Colliding galaxies

More colliding galaxies

Second piece of news: Scientists have studied the orbits of the stars in our galaxy's halo (one can determine the material of a star by looking at it through a spectrometer, then determine its mass by its brightness, and its velocity by how much the image in the spectrometer is red/blue shifted) and so have determined the total mass of our galaxy. (Read this paragraph again if you didn’t get it the first time. I think its a little awkward and might need some editing.)

Turns out our galaxy contains the mass of a little less than a trillion times the mass of our sun. Wow! Cool work there, guys!

Third piece of news: The Spitzer-Hubble Space telescope has finished its survey of our galaxy and using primarily the light from the infrared portion of the spectrum which penetrates the dust lanes much better than visible light, scientists have mapped our galaxy! That’s right! We now have a map of our own galaxy. An amazing feat of detective work!

Please click to enlarge
(It's pretty cool)

So, our galaxy is typical of that latter sort, spiral, if a touch on the small side. We have thought for decades our galaxy, the Milky Way, was a typical spiral galaxy featuring four arms spiraling out from its glowing hub.

Turns out there are only two arms, and they are tightly wound. Remember news item two? Our galaxy has some VERY LARGE black holes in its heart, pulling its swinging arms in a tight grip like a ballerina who brings her arms in to spin ever faster (well, it takes about 250 million years to make a complete turn, but that is pretty quick if one takes the long view of things).

Fourth piece of news: We see into the future.

Sort of.

It takes about a tenth of a second for the image that hits our eyes to get passed along the optic nerves and then passed on to the brain. The problem with that is that if we are presented with an object moving fast toward us, how can we react in time?

A pitched ball should smack us in the face before we can determine where it is going, how to react, and get that catcher’s mitt into place.

The truth is... we see the ball coming before it is coming.

There have been a lot of theories on why we see optical illusions the way we do. There are about 52 types of optical illusions. Past theories have only been able to explain one or two of them at a time. A new theory predicts how and why for all 52!

Here it is: The brain is analyzing everything we see all the time. We can’t spend our time really looking at things, so it takes the memory of things and places them where they should go, so we feel comfortable walking along and don’t worry about the empty spots in our environment where we haven’t bothered to look closely. As we move along the brain predicts what we will see next and imagines that image as “real.” Then if the image that arrives is different than the one we are presuming on, it quickly adjusts and updates the image.

We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we imagine it is going to be in a moment.

When something is wrong with that image we do a quick double-take, look hard for what is different than what we believe was supposed to be there.

Say there are two objects in a room about the same distance from you but at ninety degrees from each other in terms of your perspective. If you suddenly move toward one of them, your brain will enlarge the image of the items it believes should get larger, blur out others, and shrink others, presenting you with a virtual real time image.

About fifteen years ago I was riding in a van with my brother Mike. He was driving. We were talking and as we passed a side street I saw a car coming out from that street too fast to make the turn.

My eyes widened, my mouth opened to shout a warning. The car went out of view behind Mike, on the other side of the wall of the van.

“What?” asked Mike.

I furrowed my brow. Why hadn’t the car hit?


The van gets shoved sideways. We had been in an accident.

How could so much time have passed between when I saw the car fly by heading into our vehicle, just behind Mike’s seat?

My brain was telling me about things that hadn’t happened yet.

In moments of crisis it can actually predict a second or two into the future!

Did you know that astronomers can see galaxies that are out of view by examining the lensing effect of massive galaxies which lie between? Gravity bends light waves and a distant object’s image can slip around another just the same way mirages in the desert are caused by the light slipping in strange ways through the shimmering variations of air.

The little arced streaks are galaxies further away than those they surround

Mirage on The Great Salt Lake
(where my dad attempts his speed records)

We can see things that aren’t there by using the slippery characteristics of gravity and light.

We can see things that aren’t there.

We do see things that haven’t happened yet.

After my little trip into town today I was pulling up to my house.

It has been my habit to cross the oncoming lane (if I am eastbound) into the parking area past my drive, and back into my drive. I believe it is safer to pull out again forward rather than backing out.

As I pulled over, there was a car coming, about a block away. I debated for a moment whether or not I should back up into the driveway before he arrived or after. I decided to wait to make him feel more comfortable, though I had enough time to get completely in the drive before he arrived.

It took only a few seconds, but he rolled through, going a touch fast, and gave me the one finger salute.

I had no idea what we was angry about.

I backed into my drive, watching him grow smaller in the distance.

What was he upset about? How had I angered him?

I wasn’t angry. I knew he must have some bad things going on and I was a convenient target.

“Talk to him. Be kind, be polite, don’t crowd him, but talk to him.”


It was a weird thought (or perhaps The Spirit?). Actually it wasn't so much a thought as a feeling.

I pulled back out, turned right. Kept the speed limit, followed.

A stop sign made him wait for me. I could see how angry he was in the reflection of his mirror. He turned north on Holly St. So did I. I kept a respectful distance.

Great. I’ve been thinking about how the things I see aren’t real, and now I’m hearing voices, or rather obeying a feeling in my heart.

He turned left on Territorial Rd. As he did his angry face glared at me in the mirror. He flicked a cigarette butt back in my direction.

A few blocks to the end of the road. A couple of turns, he pulled into a drive. I pulled in slowly as well. I stopped just inside the drive, I didn’t want to crowd him.

“Stay calm,” the voice/feeling said. "Smile. Be kind."

I stepped out as he pulled his pickup into the garage. An elderly woman got out of the passenger side. The driver got out, he looked about five years older than I.

“Stay calm, be kind. Smile sincerely,” my heart whispered.

His face was contorted in anger. The older woman spoke.

“What the Hell are you doing here? Go away! This is private property!”

“What is your problem with me?” he growled.

I smiled nervously. (Sorry Lord, that’s as close to sincere as I could manage.)

“I just wanted to know how I offended you,” I said softly. “You look angry, and I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry if I made you angry.”

“I’ll tell you what you did!” he shouted. “You cut across in front of me!”

“I’m sorry. I’ve been pulling into that driveway that way for over fifteen years and it hasn’t bothered anyone before, and you were a block away. But I knew you would be passing me as I was backing in, and I can see how that would make you feel I was putting my vehicle close to yours. I should have waited until you passed.”

A confused look came over his face.

The older woman huffed and went inside.

He walked up to me, his hands balled into fists.

I looked into his eyes, smiled.

He had tired eyes. There were wrinkles, sad wrinkles circling his eyes, creasing his forehead. They reminded me a little of the lines of stars around spinning galaxies.

"I'm sorry," I repeated.

He smiled weakly.

“It’s OK,” he said. “My mother has alzheimer’s and I had just picked her up from the nursing home and she yelled that you had cut me off and I reacted and I got mad. I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK,” I said. “Life is tough. I can see there are a lot of things going on in your life. I’m sorry about your mom. And I’m sorry I got in your way. I just wanted to let you know that I’m not upset or anything.”

We stood a moment. Both of us slightly confused by the situation.

“I’m Will,” I said, and stuck out my hand.

“I’m Jim,” he said. He took my hand.

“I hope things get better for you,” I said. “It must be hard dealing with your mom. Are you married?”

“She died last year. Alcohol and drugs.” His voice thickened.

“I’m sorry,” I told him.

“I don’t know what the Hell is the matter with the world right now!”

It was almost a shout.

“Gas is going up, I’ve been a trucker all my life, and now the company has gone, just disappeared, and how am I going to start over at 56 years old?!”

He looked close to panic.

“I’ll be damned if I go on welfare,” he said.

“Life is tough, I know,” I said.

“Are you married?” he asked.

“Yeah, but things are rough there too.”

“You got kids?”

“I have two. They are mentally disabled. I love them, but it can make things... interesting.”

“I’m sorry I got angry at you,” he said.

“Hey, it isn’t any big deal. Life is tough. I’m glad there aren’t any hard feeling between us.” I started to get back into my van.

He grabbed my right hand in both of his.

“God bless you,” he said.

I smiled, sincerely now.

“Thank you. You too.”

I drove home.

I love to think. I love putting ideas together, learning new things.

Sometimes what I see isn’t what is really there. And what is there isn’t always seen. Sometimes I think I know what is real.

Sometimes I feel I have righteous anger, a right to be indignant at the hurts others have inflicted upon me, sometimes intentionally.

But those thoughts feel wrong.

The mind is a strange instrument. It tells us what we see, and it creates conclusions out of nothing.

The heart is a more trustworthy organ. When it whispers, when it tells me what I am feeling is wrong, or when it tells me to do something, it is often more right than my mind.

I think about that man, walking into his house. His hand still feeling mine in his, minutes after he had used it to fling anger at me.

I think about that mouse scurrying on the back of that speeding truck, a tiny living thing in a whirling world it cannot see or understand.

I think about the coiled arms of our galaxy, hugging invisible, powerful singularities in its heart, and my little home, my little star, riding a bit of flotsam of stars, the Orion Spur (rather nice sounding, isn't?) coasting between those two arms.

I think about my eyes telling me about the world, and knowing that it may or may not be right, be true.

I think about the sadness in my heart resting beside the joy I feel for living in a world my Lord has made.

I think about how everything is connected. We are all related. We lean against each other, brace each other up in our lives. Sub atomic particles making up atoms, making up molecules, making up cells, making up organs such as my heart, making up people, such as myself, making up societies, cultures, making up a world, which swings around a star, tugging at other stars with the braces of gravity, swinging around a galaxy in a headlong journey with many other galaxies, all bracing each other in connections seen and unseen, imagined and unimagined.

I think about my friendships, and how I want to go off somewhere and pray.

I think too much.

But I don't think I feel too much.


wilsonian said...

I think of you hearing and responding to Spirit...
and I smile :)

Fred said...

It took a lot to connect in one case, but it was a situation that brought you closer to the individual. Yet, it's easier to connect with someone on the other side of your screen and you may never get close to them.

Felisol said...

Dear CS,
brilliantly explained, moving my heart and mind to tears.
Yours Felisol

Bad Alice said...

You showed such wonderful compassion, and courage, for that matter. You made a difference to him that day. What a blessing.

Anonymous said...

It is a moment like that which restores two. And makes me bawl. :'-) Thank you for putting it all into words.

becky said...

I too have that trouble--the disconnect of thinking too much and not feeling too much.

it is good to have you back


Poetikat said...

Dear Curious Servant,

I thank you sincerely for visiting my blog and taking the time to participate in my mini-meme. In doing so, you have led me to your thought-provoking and spiritual blog. (I maintain a Catholic blog on wordpress.)
Once again I find myself captivated by yet another fine writer and thus compelled to keep up with reading their work. I have a tough time keeping it all straight. I feel guilty when I don't manage to visit people enough. Now I have once more placed myself in the position of necessarily partaking of another's thoughts and ideas.

Thank you. I'll be back and I am linking to you from my blog Poetikat's Invisible Keepsakes.


Lynn said...


WOW.. Is all I can say and we are very small. We are connected through one giant Lord. :)

T. F. Stern said...

Very nice piece of writing, thank you for the insight you've shared.

On a side note, years ago I read an article in a scientific journal about some folks who took x-rays of plants and leaves. They found that the energy of some leaves "lingered", maybe not the right choice of words, any way when they would cut portions of the leaf away and expose the x-ray to only a portion of the leaf; the finished x-ray showed the whole leaf as if it had not been cut away.

Thought this would fit with what you had.

curious servant said...

Thanks T.F. Kind words. I like the way you write as well.

The X rays you are referring to were first done by the Russians.

Much was made of it during the 70s... mostly in reference to the Hindu concept of "auras."

I appreciate the visit and comment.

Marvin the Martian said...

Mr. Stern speaks of Kirlian photography. How nice that someone still remembers it.

Nice blog you have here! Thank you for visiting mine!

KAN said...

Wow! What an incredible post. I read it, then re-read it not wanting to miss a word.

Thank you for coming and visiting my blog. Thanks for the encouragement also. (I "retired" May 2007 from teaching. Miss the kids so much it hurts sometimes. Do NOT miss the parents or the bureaucracy.)

And thanks for the visual of the little mouse. I know that is me all too often...

Kim said...

Wow! That's Wow! What else can I say? Thanks, you always make me think in directs different from my own. Love it!

Fuschia said...

So glad you stopped by my blog..feel free to do so often!
If you are "thinking and comming across ideas, thoughts,comments, and expressions of The Spirit", you truly are on the right track!

I enjoyed this post immensely!!

RhoDelta said...

Thanks for stopping in. I really liked reading this post. Seeing the world through other's eyes is a great gift and the prompting of the Spirit is something we all have- whether we choose to listen is a different story all together. You're right, we're all connected. -Especially if we are following our hearts.

The Feathered Nest said...

Will! What an amazing post!!! I would love for you to use my bird's nest photo. If you have a message to deliver...and the bird's nest will contribute....please use it!! This post was wonderful. The way you took the time to actually feel someone else's pain, relate to them is just wonderful! Take care, Dawn

The Feathered Nest said...

Will, you are very welcome. I am a Christian and went to a Christian school. I am an artist too!!! You do feel and I think that's the purpose of your post...it truly has a message of communication and care. I would love for you to use the image of the nest because I know you will use it in a nurturing way..artistically and as a Christian...take care, Dawn

Lucy Stern said...

I think everyone needs to feel connected in some way or form....As children of God, we need that connection to feel the love of him that created us. To me it is a beautiful concept.

Maisie said...

Amrita mentioned you on her blog and so I wanted to wish you a Happy Father's Day. I noticed that you live in Canby. 35 years ago, when I was little, I lived in a house next to the airport in Mulino. I don't think that it's even there anymore. Every summer, our family would go to the Clackamas County Fair in Canby and enter our 4-H things, too.

Anonymous said...

happy father's day, will! may God bless you more each day.

Anonymous said...

Happy Fathers Day Will. thanks for visiting my old blog I thought I had commented before to let you know where I had moved.

Great post, you move my soul with your writing.

Interesting ending statement though I often think you seem to feel very strongly. Maybe you just don't sweat things too much. That's not a bad thing either. :)

Live, Love, Laugh said...

wow I haven't read your blog in awhile and I have been missing out on a huge blessing, I so enjoyed this post this morning. thank you for sharing your heart.

paul maurice martin said...

Interconnectedness, at every level, is so true and important. It seems to be a big theme of the Vietnames monk Thich Nhat Hahn, which is where I first came across the idea - in his The Miracle of Mindfulness.

Cinder said...

This is a very awesome post Will! Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving the comments you did. The words you left were very powerful...thanks for that. I hope your Father's Day was a blessed one!