There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5)
Alert readers of this blog may recall a post (“Everything Takes as Long as it Takes”) where I shared a sample of the stuff I scribble on scraps of paper which I then leave all over the house. This particular scribbling noted that One day you’re 30; the next, you’re 60, and yet 10 minutes can seem like forever.
Observations like this take up not inconsiderable real estate in my head. I call them “mysteries.”
I thought it might be a nice diversion from the current journey we seem to be embarked on—going to hell in a handbasket—to share some of these musings with you. Also, I’m packing for a trip and penning advance blog posts at a rate Stephen King would envy. I don’t have time to research, say, the validity of Einstein’s theory of relativity or to follow up on a CNN article Drinking more coffee leads to a longer life, two studies say. I’m willing to take CNN at its word. The press in NOT the enemy of the people, and coffee is our friend.
Excuse me, while I get a refill.
Okay, I promised you mysteries.
Mystery #1: How Can We See the Sky?
I was sitting out on the lawn at Tanglewood (summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) in July, sharing a picnic with Ed and listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor. As it was early evening in high summer, the sky above me was still amazingly blue, feathered with clouds that looked like someone just ran a comb through them. Cirrus clouds, I think (I’m a writer, not a scientist). They arced overhead, a perfect dome, the sky meeting the ground in a complete circle around the Tanglewood lawn, our chairs at the exact center. How cool is that?
It’s rare to have such an open vista without buildings or other debris clogging up the sightlines. I hadn’t quite realized before that wherever we are, it’s like we’re inhabiting part of a snow globe. That Earth appears to be a ball inside another ball (the sky) which encompasses it completely.
Actually, we never experience Earth as a ball. More like a plane, bisecting a sphere. (To clarify this gibberish, see illustration.)
The Boston Symphony Orchestra moved on to a Tchaikovsky symphony (the Fifth, in E minor—I was paying attention, more or less) while I jotted a note on my program: How can we see the sky?
I pondered this through the Andante-Allegro movement and soon realized that, like Pandora’s Box, this question opens up a slew of thorny conundrums:
If Earth is a ball inside the SkyBall, why can we never touch the sky, even with a very tall ladder or, say, from the roof of the Empire State Building? We can’t even touch the sky where it meets the ground at the horizon because, like a pesky older sibling, the horizon taunts us, moving away as we move toward it.
And where oh where is outer space? How does this blue, cloud-scraped sky—a visually opaque ceiling—obscure the cosmos of stars and planets that glitter and spin on a decidedly black background?
This is not as stupid a question as it may first appear. Recall the photos of Earth from outer space—there is no “sky barrier” in the way. Maybe a wisp of cloudy looking stuff but you can still see Earth—the oceans, the continents.
By the Finale (Andante, Allegro, Moderato), the SkyBall had vanished, leaving me to view a sprinkling of stars light years away. Where did that opaque blue barrier go? Is there a day-to-night transparency button somewhere operating on a timer? And when the night is overcast, does that mean the transparency gizmo is out of juice and needs new batteries?
Like I said, it’s a mystery.
Mystery #2: Are We Right-Side Up or Upside Down?
Okay, gravity is the stuff that keeps us sticking to the earth—our feet squarely glued as sure as Newton’s apple to whatever patch of turf we’re standing on—but are we right-side up or upside down?
Like most of us, I grew up with those cartoons of little kids holding hands encircling the globe, so popular on UNICEF holiday cards. Being from the northern part of North America, I wasn’t too worried because Michigan was fairly high on the top side of the EarthBall. But those kids in Algeria are living at a perilous slant, and the ones from New Zealand and Patagonia have blood rushing to their little skulls 24/7.
As my age advanced to double digits, I began to question such two-dimensional representations. Was north always up and south always down? Up compared to what? Down from where?
We are citizens of the universe, a multi-dimensional space without end, as scientists tell us (and questions within questions—how do they know this?). So, what exactly is “right-side up” in outer space? Does it change with the movement from day to night, the seasons, the place where we live?
And if there is no right-side up in space, are we always upside down or only sometimes?
Is it this constant switch in equilibrium that creates the need for Excedrin, Prozac, a lobotomy? Or just these constant questions?
I don’t know. Do you?
Mystery #3: How Do We Go to Sleep, and How Do We Get Back?
The word on the street is that even the most exciting things—chocolate, sex, bungee jumping—lose their allure, their mystery, if they are repeated routinely.
Well, it’s hard to find a more enduring routine in life than sleep, and yet sleep remains a great mystery. How do we get there? How do we get back? What exactly is there?
If you think this is just me inventing puzzlers in an effort to slap a blog together so I can get out of town on time, try this experiment: 1) Place a notepad and pen by your bed. 2) Tonight, write down the exact time you “go to” sleep.
Not as easy as you thought, eh?
We don’t consciously relinquish our consciousness. It just sort of “happens.” Like walking backwards unawares toward a steep drop-off. That last step… We don’t know what hit us. And we don’t know we aren’t awake wherever it is we “go to.” Except once in a while we realize, “Hey I’m in a dream. I can behave as badly as I like and it doesn’t count.” Which realization is almost as weird as going to sleep itself (though it does show a marvelous talent for taking advantage of unexpected opportunities).
When we’re in dreamland, how do we tune out the burps and beeps of the real world around us? While we sleep, life certainly continues on its merry, noisy way. Thunderstorms thunder. Fire engines siren past. But nothing registers unless it’s REALLY LOUD. Like the time I was awoken by the bedroom radiator CLANGING in a way it had never clanged before. The sweet oblivion of sleep dropped away in a heartbeat as I realized geysers of boiling water were shooting up from that radiator, at 5:14 a.m.
Do you know how hard it is to get a plumber at five in the morning? Those 24-hour emergency services listed online? Just phone check-ins that contact a plumber when he or she rises at a more civilized hour.
We surrender our consciousness each night never doubting it will mysteriously “return” in the morning. Now that’s the kind of deep faith most religious proselytizers would envy.
But how is it we do “return” to the real world each day? And why don’t we fall out of bed in our sleep? We certainly move around in our sleep, so why aren’t we hitting the floor in great numbers, regularly? This has never happened to me, but it did happen to Ed once when we were taking a weekend in NYC. Believe me, it was frightening—waking up suddenly to see him tumbling over the edge of the bed, with a nanosecond to hope he didn’t take his eye out on the corner of the nightstand (he didn’t, though he did suffer a nasty cut on his cheek).
Sleep—there’s a Gordian knot of mysteries involved here.
Mystery #4: How Do Cats Know Where to Go?
As mentioned in my August post (“I Always Wanted an Orange Kitten”), I have had many cats in my life. Most of them were indoor/outdoor creatures, which means there came a day in their young lives when I opened the back door and allowed them to explore the wide world beyond. Without exception, they all returned after a few hours. No one got confused about which house was theirs—the mock Tudor in need of a paint job, or the Cape with the sagging steps and the rusting swingset?
How do they do it—how do cats unerringly zero in on their house wherever they’ve wandered? I mean you wouldn’t want to try this with your three-year-old.
This mystery deepens as I recall an afternoon in my college days. I went with a carload of friends to a party, a cookout hosted by a couple who lived in the university’s married student housing.
Several hours into the event, my hosts asked if someone would ride down to the convenience store six blocks over to pick up some more drink mixers. They offered the use of their bicycle. I volunteered and off I went. Finding the Mini-Mart was easy. It was up on the main drag. Finding my hosts’ house again—that was the challenge.
Like cats released into freedom for the first time, I was operating on limited information. Having hitched a ride to the party with friends, I hadn’t bothered to check the house number. Or the street name. Married student housing was laid out in nothing resembling a grid, and all the houses were identical. All 500 of them.
I rode around for a while, Cokes and tonic water warming, bagged ice melting in the bike’s basket. I would probably still be riding if one of my hosts hadn’t chosen the moment I was circling his circle for the hundredth time to set out an empty keg on the front porch. I have rarely been so glad to see anyone.
Cats. Mystery is their milieu. The Egyptians held them sacred. Believed they guarded Egypt from invaders. Next time you see a cat, bow your head in acknowledgment of the inexplicable powers they hold, including the ability to always find home.
Mystery #5: What Are We?
Okay, one more.
Some years back, a friend invited me to an art exhibit at Smith College. I can’t recall exactly what the theme of the show was, but it included a photograph of the poet Tennyson taken after his death.
In the photo we see Tennyson’s head resting on a pillow, eyes closed, a peaceful expression on his face, as if he were just napping (recall Mystery #3). But he’s dead.
I stared and stared at that still face. Looked at some more of the exhibit. Returned to Tennyson. There he was—head, shoulders, torso—all of him except the thing that was him. The “Tennyson thing.” The thing that was a poet rather than a cab driver or a hip-hop artist. The thing that preferred Skittles to Milk Duds, or favored the Yankees over the Mets. Okay, I’m improvising here—well, fabricating wildly—but the question is: Where did the mind-personality-heart that was Tennyson go? How was it there one moment and—poof!—gone the next?
I relate all this as background to the greatest mystery of all: What are we?
The startling glimpse I had into this most amazing of riddles came while I was visiting London twelve years ago with my daughter. As well as enjoying galleries and museums, parks and pubs, Lauren was talking to admissions people at several UK universities. This particular day, she was talking to someone at King’s College London about studying microbiology (she wound up majoring in public policy in the States, but that’s a completely separate mystery and nothing to do with the topic at hand).
While she was chatting with the admissions folks, I wandered around and discovered a little anatomy “museum” on one floor. A kind of 19th century exhibit of spare parts—like a Victorian penny dreadful. Among the displays I recall were stomachs and brains, lungs and large intestines, hearts and kidneys. There was even a set of fetal Siamese twins. All floating in some murky preservative in voluminous glass jars.
It brought me smack up against all my assumptions about the species Homo sapiens, and changed my head 180.
Up to that moment, I thought of human beings in the lofty, ethereal way you might expect from a lit major/writer/daydream believer. We were ideas and dreams, philosophical meanderings and heart-throbbings. But as I stood, gazing at these jars of stuff that looked nothing so much as a lot of cruddy dilapidated hot water bottles and crusted tubing, I had to admit: That’s us.
And when that junk stops working, the game’s over.
The mystery is how something as mentally and emotionally complex, as creative and resourceful as us emerges from what appears to be about five dollars’ worth of spare parts.
You can see how a Hitler or a Trump might come out of this muck, but a Tennyson or a Van Gogh? A Nelson Mandela or a Frida Kahlo?
And yet it is the truth of us.
Mysteries. Life is full of them. I embrace them. I like the way they keep my brain on a Socratic buzz—asking and answering questions, which then generate more questions—as I puzzle out the oddities of this world.
It all comes down to this: When the SkyBall goes transparent tonight, giving way to a universe of stars, I’ll be thankful that whichever way my head is facing, I don’t fall off the planet. And when I come back from the land of sleep tomorrow morning, however that happens, I’ll be grateful for another day, crossing my fingers that the mucky parts and crusty tubing keep on ticking.