To the alchemist’s eye, water = emotion, and so it is that our moments can be marked by the rise and fall of feeling, a steady stream of anger-eager-joy-hope-faith devotion to emotion.
Days that pass without touching the interior of our mortal casings are deadlier than disasters. Moments that come and go unremembered, unmarked by impact on our souls, are the ones we most regret, when we consciously number our final breaths.
So let’s trade the customary tiny grains of rock, sifting down a narrow hole to peak beneath their ingress, for a steady liquid stream — drain water, drip drops. Let the pool beneath rise and w i d e n.
When the rain starts again, comes the relief. The relief of being loosed
from months of being careful-so-careful about how long
you let the water run at the tap
or linger in the shower.
When the rain starts at last in November,
you can forgive the desertlike stinginess of September,
thumb your nose at the fiery threats
You can smile at the sight of reclaimed waste
water spraying its broad horizontal arcs
through vertical winter showers.
And the cows look, well…
When the frogs start their horny chirping,
you all are.
You live close to my bones, you
with your soft eyes that can
hard in a turn,
your solid arms with their sure
embrace around my heart,
every bit of you, from ten solid
toes to strong-wide shoulders
forging through life
with your iron will — you
inhabit me in the nearest,
dearest of places, shedding light
on my most secret marrow,
in red cells and white, the flow
with every beat of my heart
What must be done,
Must Be Done.
I can procrastinate all I like, plumb
the depths of my lazy rationalizations
all I care to, excuse
my inaction with a chock-full
But what must be done,
Must Be Done.
It’s not like I didn’t know
it needed doing.
It’s not like
I could have gotten out of the commit-
signed up for.
Duty calls — but I called first.
The ancients trusted their guts — they knew
as well as we (but were braver in the saying) that
all we are,
all we have ever been,
all we will ever be, is made of
Breathe in… breathe out… there’s magic in that — the stuff of life
ingested from invisibility, the building
blocks of flesh and bone
into the palpable. Breathe in… breathe out… there’s magic in that.
They call it “stepping down”, that chain of commands
the pulling out of the atmosphere those invisible lessons that should make us brave
and kind, those traits all too rare that should make us
much more than animals and a little less
that are rarely measured, except
by the good wishes and good-bye parties and the sorrows of those left behind,
whether by job transfer
or dropped-body passing… all of us along the way
that life will give to student,
who will tell teacher,
who will show saint,
that this life dwelled among pulsing veins and moving fluids and the tyranny
of the anxious loveless and the rise and fall
affectionate ways amongst onetime strangers
is one of those things
that truly matter,
that really counts
How do we number the ways that we fall — for things, for people, for ideas, for all those qualities
we crave? In falling,
we rise —
to the ethers,
to the upper, purer air above us,
to the celestial realms that have meaning for us now
only in shadow
and unenunciated veneration for ritual and symbol that,
no longer in style, molder
among winsome monks and devoted nuns of every ilk. All of it,
is made of air,
that stuff that the ancients had full faith was the root of their existence, folding
over into their tolerance for mystery, much higher
than ours… their need of it,
their trust in it, exceeding the capacity of modern logic.
how we want,
how much we want. Putting
our fingers on what it is we really desire
for ourselves, is no more easy
than counting motes of dust aloft in a sunbeam, and half the time
we kid others
into thinking we want it for them, when truth
less noble, less
easily justified and quantified, but far
closer to bone and flesh and pulsing fluid than slips comfortably past our lips.
The ancients trusted
our guts — they said what we are
too cowardly to admit — that
all we are,
all we have ever been,
all we will ever be, is made of
I love when this happens. I woke up this morning with the solution to the sticky problem I’ve been having with a manuscript I’d all but given up on.
I started a novel back in 2015. This was for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) during that November. And I was making good progress with what I felt was a really interesting storyline. It’s basically the tale of a woman who meet one of her college friends after 30 years of almost no contact, and notices some striking difference in the way she behaves and interacts with everybody around her. It’s about how we connect (ha – no surprises there) and how we perceive others (and ourselves), when we learn new things about them.
Of course, I had to throw in some technology too… so the main character is one of the founders of a startup that’s struggling to finalize it working proof of concept for investors. There’s tension there, too — generational tension, programming languages conflict, even a bit of Emacs vs. Vi contention. How could I resist? 😉
Anyway, I was making really good progress with manuscript some four years ago, and I was sure I was going to be able to get it done by the end of November.
But, of course, life had other ideas, and I ended up getting stalled during the last third of the book. Actually, it wasn’t just life that stalled me, it was the technology piece that I was writing about. At the time, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the company’s fictional approach. I thought I understood the underlying issues the company was aiming to solve. But the more I got into it, the more I realized I didn’t know. And the less confident I felt writing about that whole piece of it.
It wasn’t something I could fake, without undermining the whole premise of the book.
It’s tricky, right? If you’re going to write about something, you’d better know more than a thing or two about it. You can’t write a novel about dogs if you really aren’t familiar with canine characteristics, behaviors, and all the things that make dogs… dogs. Likewise, you can’t really write about technology if you don’t understand it, especially if you’re writing about a company that’s developing an innovative product that’s going to solve a sticky problem for an entire industry.
That derailed me pretty well, so I tucked the manuscript and my notes into a couple of manila folders and put them on a book shelf where I wouldn’t lose sight of them, but they wouldn’t get in my way. Every now and then, I’d look over at the shelf with a sense of longing… and then get back to what I was doing.
But this morning when I woke up, I found a way through. I realized I could write much better about a completely different type of technology that’s much more familiar to me, and which I really doknow inside and out. I understand the ins and outs, the persistent issues, as well as the opportunities a better solution would provide. Heck, I even built a similar solution over 10 years ago, when I was noodling around with some ideas I had.
So now I can take a step back, rewrite the technical pieces, and really flesh out that part of the story in a muchmore satisfying manner.
The main thing is that I do justice to the story, as well as readers. The last thing I want to do is insult anybody‘s intelligence, and I also don’t want to overreach if I don’t know what I’m talking about it. Some people can fake it, but I’m a terrible liar, and anyway, I’d just as soon write about something I’m intimately familiar with.
So, now I can go back to work on my novel. I’m probably a lot closer to finishing it than I think I am.
Well, this is fun! I just checked my humble stats (not my full-featured analytics package) for a quick overview of how things are going over with Beloved Distance, and yes, people are taking me up on the offer of the free eBook for the rest of this month. So far, 64 people have downloaded the free ePub version, and that’s just in the last 2 days that it’s been available. At a rate of 32/day, that would come to 11,680 copies in circulation in a year’s time — not a bad run for a book by a (relatively) unknown author daring to venture into territory usually reserved for people with a lot more letters after their names, than I.
The thing is, I really believe this book speaks to so many of the issues we’re facing today — isolation, separation, alienation… and how to make sense of it all. And it deep-dives into what makes us how we are. That deep dive brings up some pretty reassuring facts: namely, that we may be full of separation, but by our very natures, we are built to connect. There’s no way around it. That’s just what we do. It’s who we are. It’s what we are. Full stop.
No matter who the messenger is, the message is critical, in these times of fragmentation and dissolution: We are built to connect. Our bodies do it billions and trillions of times, every waking day of our lives. We wouldn’t be alive, if they didn’t.
And that, to me, is a message of hope… From deep within our cells to the outermost aspects of our lives.
A new paper asks why neuroscience hasn’t had more “impact on our daily lives.”
The article, Neuroscience and everyday life: facing the translation problem, comes from Dutch researchers Jolien C. Francken and Marc Slors. It’s a thought-provoking piece, but it left me feeling that the authors are expecting too much from neuroscience. I don’t think insights from neuroscience are likely to change our lives any time soon.
Francken and Slors describe a disconnect between neuroscience research and everyday life, which they dub the ‘translation problem’. The root of the problem, they say, is that while neuroscience uses words drawn from everyday experience – ‘lying’, ‘love’, ‘memory’, and so on – neuroscientists rarely use these terms in the usual sense. Instead, neuroscientists will study particular aspects of the phenomena in question, using particular (often highly artificial) experimental tasks.
As a result, say Francken and Slors, the neuroscience of (say) ‘love’ does not directly relate to ‘love’ as the average person would use the word:
I’m personally intrigued by this rising question, because I’ve been studying neuroscience since 2007, when I accidentally/on-purpose came across the autonomic nervous system as an extremely elegant explanation for why so much stuff happens and why people do what they do.
I’ve personally been able to use my continuously evolving understanding of neurobiology and neuroanatomy to approach life in a very different way from most — and consequently, my experiences have differed substantially from what I see others experiencing. I’m probably one of the happiest, most self-directed, independent people I know, and I manage to find solutions to things that stump a lot of folks. And yes, neuroscience plays a significant role, informing my approach and giving me insights I can actually use to sustain my 26-year marriage, stay continuously employed even through brutal economic downturns, have a perfectly fine house in a lovely town, and basically have more satisfaction and purpose in my life than a lot of people dream possible.
I wish, quite frankly, that I could bottle what I’ve found/developed and make it widely available, but time… and energy… not to mention the fact that people manage to find enough solace in their devices and distractions, that it takes their minds off the troubles they could be otherwise solving (or avoiding in the first place). Ah, well… People make their choices, and there you have it. As for me, I’ve got… science! (Can you hear Thomas Dolby singing? I can.)
But this isn’t about me. It’s about neuroscience. And frankly, I really believe that anybody who’s willing to put in the work and learn and grow, can have the same — if not more. I haven’t even fully pushed the envelope on my own capacity. I have this constant sense that I’m capable of more, and in all honesty, I get a little impatient with myself for not taking things up as many notches as I’m sure I could.
So, that’s what I’m going to do with this blog — bump things up a notch and dive into territory that A) I’m supposedly not professionally qualified to expound upon, and B) the general public blithely ignores, to their own peril… not to mention to the detriment of us all. I’ve been studying the human system since I was in grade school, and I haven’t stopped, even when my work building technology (that you probably use on a regular basis: you’re welcome) ate into my time and attention.
I’m writing a book — Beloved Distance: The Separation that Connects us to All. It’s about our neurology. It’s about our world. Most of all, it’s about how we can join the two to make more sense of the lives we inhabit — and the connections we create.
It draws on the time-honored tradition of finding correspondences… analogies… metaphors… to build a framework of understanding where we’re at, how we get here, and most importantly of all, how we can get to where we really want to go — a world where we can feel like we belong, where we can know that we count, and where our differences aren’t liabilities, but assets.
Of all the nerve, I — a non-scientist, a non-neurologist, a non-medical person — am writing a book about the nervous system. To make matters worse (in case you’re not sure, I am being facetious), I’m taking the liberty of philosophizing about it — as a non-academic, an unofficial philosopher.
It’s tricky, to say the least. The field of neurology keeps changing. Our understandings of neurobiology are evolving at a rapid rate, as every month it seems someone discovers something new, or puts 2-and-2 together in ways that add up to more than 4. Or, for that matter, they realize there’s another hidden “2” in the equation that nobody noticed before, and they either add it in, or square the values that they’ve discovered before.
It’s tricky, even for people who are highly trained scientists, on the cusp of cutting-edge research. It’s tough to stay current — even (especially?) if you’re actively involved in research, yourself.
But I’m doing it, anyway. Because, when we look closely at the world around us, and we have even the most basic access to what we Do Know About Our Nervous Systems, it’s possible to use that knowledge as a springboard to better understand the world around us. In fact, it’s almost irresistably compelling.
Very few of us understand what exactly is going on inside the sun that produces all that light and heat and those amazing sunsets. But we do know how to reference that light and heat and color in our lives to add meaning and “texture” to our experience. We don’t understand the exact chemical compositions of water and air, but we constantly use them as metaphors, often without realizing it.
I think we can/should do the same with our nervous systems. Over the past 20 years, we’ve gained the ability to look more closely and understand more completely, just how it all works — as far as we can currently tell. That knowledge is continually shifting and changing, of course, and it could be that some (much?) of what I’m writing about will change in the next 20 years. But that shouldn’t stop me — or you — from considering how it all fits together, and how our understanding of it can enrich our lives.
Once upon a time, very distinguished scientists believed that the nervous system was a continuous network of uninterrupted connections — like the vascular system with its networks of veins and arteries. It seemed like just common sense, that the nervous system would also be uninterrupted, just like our veins, allowing the signals passing along our “wires” to get where they’re going in one piece.
People believed this so strongly, that Camillo Golgi, the scientist who figured out how to stain nerves so you could see them as individual pieces, rather than just another dark clump of organic stuff, devoted his entire 1906 Nobel Prize speech to explaining how it was impossiblethat the nervous system was made up of separate neurons.
His co-winner, Santiago RamónyCajal, was a proponent of the “neuron doctrine”, which held that nerves were separate cells that were connected by something, though people hadn’t figured that out, just yet. Turns out Ramon y Cajal was right — but it took decades before we had equipment that could give us a decent view of that.
Did this stop them, though? Did their obviously imperfect, partial knowledge of How Things Work stop them from moving forward in their work? Oh, no. And even when they stood the chance of being proven wrong, they just moved ahead, anyway. Even staked their reputations on it.
Looking back at the past hundreds of years of scientific discovery, as well as changes in how we view ourselves as individual humans in community with each other, I’m struck by just how dynamic our knowledge of science and self is. We are continuously changing how we think about life, how we relate to it, how we regard ourselves, and how we relate to each other. Nothing stays the same for long, but we seem to get in the habit of thinking that How Things Are Now is How Things Have Always Been. It’s not true, of course, but we tend to believe it. Especially now, when we’ve got our online echo chambers to reinforce our biases and support even our least defensible opinions.
But things change. Times change. Knowledge aggregates and opinions proliferate… and at regular (and irregular) intervals, there’s some knew “wrench” being tossed in the workings of our minds. And so we adapt. Science adapts. Society adapts. We shift and change along with our surroundings, no matter how firmly we may believe that we’re anchored in universal truths. Maybe Truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does.
And so it’s important — for all of us — to step out and take some chances in considering the facts of the world around (and inside) us… building an understanding of those facts that works for us and makes our lives more meaningful. Even if the science might shift in a matter of years, even if we don’t have all the answers or all the insight that more accelerated experts do, I think we have every right to avail ourselves of What We Know At This Point In Time, and use that to better appreciate and understand our world.
Even if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
Especially if we aren’t PhD-grade neuroscientists.
It’s our world, they’re our bodies. The science has been funded by our tax dollars. And I say we have the right to understand what’s going on in there, so that we can do better at what we do out here.