Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Story of My Life

I have so many thoughts right now that I need to get out before they all completely disengage and float away.  I feel like they're barely tethered together as it is.  I just finished chatting with Sean about this book I'm reading which delves into science and fiction and the universe and, therefore (for me), religion, all the perfect combination to make me cry a little when I've come to an understanding, and it was all highly enriching and productive and I had to write it down.

The book is a novella called  Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang.  It was for a book club and the specific story assigned was Story of Your Life, which is the short story the movie Arrival was based on. I really liked Arrival. I thought it was strange and trippy and provoked thoughts that I wasn't sure I'd ever have the time or capacity to really explore. I felt like I'd watched something that my subconscious needed a bit more time with, and it stuck with me.  Ever since I saw the movie and since I've begun reading the story (which I never finished for the book club but instead read another shorter one I loved so much, I was compelled to go back) it's been on my mind and I revisit it often. I may be reading something else or listening to someone speak or observe the actions of others, catch a quote or idea, and somehow I am always tying it back to Story of Your Life which I'm still in the midst of reading. And it's kind of giving me a very cerebral, transcendental experience.

I feel like I should give a hopefully brief synopsis for some background. In the movie, and so far in the book (spoiler?)  a linguist is contacted by the government to learn how to communicate with aliens in an alien ship that has newly landed on earth along with several others in various spots on the planet.  They don't know where to begin, each species seemingly so different in the way they communicate, and they can't ask the questions they want to or deliver any kind of message.  So she has to find some way to cross this great divide and communicatively start from scratch, without any precedent or any kind of specific plan.  She meets a mathematician who's working alongside her and they share their efforts and attempts, bouncing ideas off one another. Both sides (alien and human) using various methods, she eventually learns how to speak using their language in the way she can, in a way they might understand in return.  She comes to the conclusion that the way they think and speak ideas is not linear, with a beginning and an end, but that each part is a whole and what these "sentences" look like is what she calls a semasiograph, a circular image with facets and nodules that, through learned interpretation, can all be understood simultaneously, it seems to me. 

As she learns this new language, images, like memories, begin flashing in her mind of her daughter. In the movie I think they begin really early on, like at the beginning of the movie.  The birth of her daughter, her growing up, all memories.  But in the present moment we see her living alone, no spouse, no child, so we're assuming they are gone from her, that something happened.  But as she learns the language and becomes more fluent, it seems that these images increase. Her teenage daughter's diagnosis, her ultimate death, the heartbreak.  And then we see scenes where she's having a "flashback" to when her middle school-age daughter, working on a school project, asks her for a certain word and the linguist mother can't remember it. She can't help her out.  The linguist in the present day that we see is sitting there seeing this, recalling this memory.  Then she's interacting with the man, the mathematician, and he says the word her daughter was/is/will be looking for and the linguist mother in that "memory," in that moment at home with her daughter, has the word come to mind and she says it to her daughter. These two points overlap as if occurring simultaneously and she is able to recall the word.

Well then, again, spoiler, at the end we see her realizing more and more that her life, these memories, are not in the past but in the future but that to her, they all feel like now.  She sees what will be and chooses things accordingly but the way she looks at them, how they feel, are memories she currently has.  In the book these same flashes happen and (the story being told in first person) she talks to her daughter who actually hasn't been born yet using phrases like "I remember seeing you at fourteen. You will be...."   And I just love this crazy concept and what it does to my sci-fi-loving brain.  Using words like "I remember" and "you will be" in the same breath. What's more, there's something that feels very cognitively familiar to me about all of this, like it's tapping into something that goes beyond us now but may be what actually is.

In the book she is fascinated with this new language she's learning and she describes it,

"Over time, the sentences I wrote grew shapelier, more cohesive.  I had reached the point where it worked better when I didn't think about it too much.  Instead of carefully trying to design a sentence before writing, I could simply begin putting down strokes immediately; my initial strokes almost always turned out to be compatible with an elegant rendition of what i was trying to say. I was developing a faculty like that of the heptapods [aliens] (p 126)."

She then thinks about language as inner thought.  The way we speak silently in our heads. She remembers doing a Russian immersion program that made her think and dream in Russian. Different language, but it was always spoken, it was always phonological, a voice in her head. "Different language, same mode: a voice speaking silently aloud."   She tells of a friend who was born of deaf parents.  He grew up using ASL and, "he told me he often thought in ASL instead of English.  I used to wonder what it was like to have one's thoughts be manually coded, to reason using an inner pair of hands instead of an inner voice."

Now, as a linguistics and inner thought-lover and one who is constantly in search of any new way to express oneself, this delights me exceedingly.  Speech and cognition and expression and enlightenment and understanding, shifts of understanding, shifts of methods of understanding, have always fascinated me.  I took a class in college called Sensation and Perception and I loved it. It was half full of psych majors (me) and half full of neuroscience majors which I now realize also could have been me. I'm just so into this stuff.

She goes on,

"As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once.  My thought processes weren't moving any faster as a result, though.  Instead of racing forward, my mind hung balanced on the symmetry underlying the semagrams.  The semagrams seemed to be something more than language; they were almost like mandalas.  I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable.  There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no 'train of thought' moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence."

This is the quote I wanted to read to Sean which ignited our discussion and my ensuing emotion-filled moment of enlightenment.  Sean, ever with me, shared his views of things he's read that relate.  I had to tell him some background a bit, how the linguist and mathematician were at dinner discussing Fermat's Principle, which of course Sean already knew something about. I told him i thought it was something to do with light refraction, that light has to take the quickest route? You know what, let's just find out the real thing.  Here it is:

Fermat's Principle: light travels between two points along the path that requires the least time, as compared to other nearby paths.

The linguist in the story was having trouble with it and asked the mathematician some questions and ultimately she thinks to herself, the ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in.   

You can see how this would all connect with the language she's learning, the new abilities she's acquiring.  Sean offered some insight regarding quantum physics where (I really need to get him to come over here and explain it) wacky things happen that can't really be scientifically explained. Two points or quanta occurring simultaneously no matter where they are when they begin(?) Like time and space don't matter. He said Einstein called it "creepy" science.  I thought it was interesting and find myself, again, wishing I had a more scientifically-wired brain to grasp it as easily and as quickly as others do. But oh well, I guess that's why he's here. (This all sounds very sexist of me. "I need a man to explain it!" Ha ha. Again: oh well.  This time.)

I told him I felt like this is how things might really be, but for now in this existence, we live more linearly.  But why does it feel so familiar? So relevant to me now?  It seems evident as a real and a strong presence currently in my life in so many ways, so many important ways that are constantly on my mind.

One of them is Julian.  He's eight now and ever since he was born I've constantly thought about what I was going to do with his life. How mine would change, over time, in all the ways. How present I was going to be.  How aware would I make myself of what was happening.  I've already touched on my desperate goal of living in the moment for the past few years but I feel like this explains why.  Over and over I hear people talk about their children growing up, how fast it happens, how they mourn the end of the ______ phase or that one.  I feel it too, but I also have zeroed in on his being the only one and equating it with this being my only chance.   I love what she says up there about learning this new alien language. To requote:

"My thought processes weren't moving any faster as a result, though.  Instead of racing forward, my mind hung balanced on the symmetry underlying the semagrams."

I look at my life as a semagram, at present. A single sentence made up of all its parts simultaneously.  Sean and I both agreed that though it seemed that the future and the past were more simultaneously felt and overlapping for her, she still had a now.  And her understanding of this overlap affected her now, her present. Her thoughts were slower, her mind hung balanced on the symmetry underlying the semagrams, or what she wanted to express.  I feel like I hang in my own balance and the past and the future that-- though I know nothing about it-- create a symmetry for my present.  And that is why I don't feel like just like that, he's eight! Oh just the other day he was two, like I often hear from friends and which stumps me a little bit. I don't think I've missed anything.  I understand what they're saying but I just don't feel that way. He is what he's supposed to be and I feel a real calm about it. I've been around for all of it and have made so many efforts to be present for him, with him, that my now, the past, and what may be, feel very closely intertwined.

I told Sean it was why I constantly futurize. I learned this word when reading an article one day about how parents tend to futurize their children's bad behavior.  What will this look like when he's fifteen. What will this damaging effect I've supposedly caused have on later years? {nervous teeth} But instead of focusing on the negative, (which I can do) I choose instead to futurize a different way, by launching myself into the future and imagine all kinds of possible scenarios that might take place, conversations we might have that might be connected to the past. Moments where he might look back and pinpoint the most concrete memories from where we are now, his childhood, the things that stayed with him the most.  Moments where I will do that. I think about sending him off to college and imagine what memories I will go back to in conjunction. Simple things, like when we used to sit together at the table every morning in second grade. Having a conversation. The silly or profound things we used to talk about.  Reading together, the kinds of books we read. Playing together in ways that change as he ages. I imagine when he's learning to drive and branching out on his own. When he has his first child. When he's doing mundane tasks, living far away from me (us, far from us--ha) and picturing where his thoughts will take him as he thinks back. I find myself analyzing what kind of relationship we might have then based on this or that, wondering what I can do now to facilitate what i might want then.

Of course it is hypothetical because unlike the character in the story, I can't actually see future events lying before me like today's news, but it gives me a certain feeling of connection. And it greatly influences my present.  Because of this practice, I am much more deliberate and intentional (synonyms) in my behavior now or at least in how I process my thoughts. I try to pointedly make memories. I try to emphasize the good I can do now. The conversations we can have now. The bond we can create now with the time we have, the future never feeling very far away.   It is why I have chosen to stay home with him, though I've often struggled with the stay-at-home parent life, never really identifying as one, often claiming to be or at least feel like a "working mom who doesn't work."  (whatever a "working mom" looks like)

Because of this, the past never feels very far away, either. I think it's because I've trained my brain to look ahead so that I can facilitate my present, which will some day be the past.  So the feeling I have about my actual past keeps some semblance, some essence of the present for me.  It doesn't feel distant. In either direction.

I told Sean of something really interesting from a book club i attended the other day.  I hadn't read the book-hadn't attended all summer, actually.  So it's awkward since I can't really join in on the discussion but I try to glean what I can from the conversation.  The book was The Orphan Keeper, a novel based on the true story of a boy kidnapped in India at age eight, was sold to an orphanage, and then adopted to unknowing American parents.  It takes months for the boy to learn English enough to tell the adoptive parents he already had a family and thus begins the search for his birth parents.  The topic raised was the guilt (i think) felt by his birth parents.  His mother searching for him for years (it took years to find them, like over a decade? I probably should have read the book) and the feelings of guilt she had.  My friend responded with something I thought was so interesting and relates to this.  She is the mother of three children but the second one passed away as a toddler in a car accident about twelve or thirteen years ago.  She said she feels guilt for all kinds of things-- of course for what she could have done differently that day--taken a different route, whatever, to prevent it.  But the weird things she said she felt guilt for that would pop up in her head for years to come, maybe even now still, things she wouldn't have thought, were thoughts of, oh, I should have given her that cookie that one day.  I should have bought her new clothes. She only wore hand-me-downs from her sister.  Why didn't I buy her new clothes?    Trivial things that are still a presence in her mind, looking back.

These stories I hear from others, or read in strange and ingenious books that tap into my soul, are just examples to me of what I could be doing in my life and why I focus on living in the moment so much. It's really weird, too, because I feel like the more I read this book and the more I contemplate this concept of learning this linguist learning this alien language, the more I can imagine feeling what she's feeling.  The easier it is to contemplate the future and connect it, along with my past, to my now.

I feel like I'm having a Neverending Story experience (it's a thing). Bastian reading a story and finds himself incorporated in it.  I really feel like, eerily, I've begun reconfiguring my brain a little bit, that I've learned a certain language and acquired a certain ability from watching a movie and reading a story about a woman who learns a new kind of language and acquires a new ability and I feel very strange that somehow, Ted Chiang was writing the story of my life after all.


Alanna said...

One of my biggest fears (especially with having so many kids) is that I don't feel like I'm EVER living as much in the present as I ought to be. So thank you for this reminder-- it's important, and trying to actually create those memories and that relationship is ALSO so important.

And I LOVED Arrival.

And now I need to read these stories, too. And do better!

Also-- I meant to leave this comment this on your previous post (but now I'm too lazy to click on it), but you were talking about whether or not you should even keep blogging and I wanted to inform you that Craig and I were just discussing that whole idea that you introduced to us on your blog of the locking and unlocking as the seasons change. So your blog is generating interesting discussions in our household. Guess that means you better keep keeping on! ;)

Joel said...

I've read the book up through Story of Your Life (based largely on your recommendation). I thought it was fantastic, as was the movie. I do occasionally try to project a behavior of one of my kids into the future. If one is supremely stubborn, I wonder if it will help in resisting peer pressure later. When my girls fight, I picture them as teens and wonder what their relationship will be like then. I think the semagram is how God sees the universe, although I often picture it as the timeline from a film, and He can pull things out and put things in and rearrange them to give us all the best chance to return to Him. Deep thoughts.

)en said...

I'm so glad you read it! So good, right. Whenever I read about near death experiences, in reading their description of a certain afterlife, I always get this overwhelming feeling that time is not at all the way we experience it here. This immediate culmination of all the things suddenly making sense, perhaps a capacity to see the end from the beginning and vice versa. I dunno, it just feels more real to me than maybe I think it should.

)en said...

Haha, awwww. Well that makes me extremely happy, thanks buddy. Do you feel the locking already?? I was surprised to realize that there was a September rainstorm this year that finally broke the summer heat almost the exact same day last year. (A storm then as well) So it must be real. Or we're living in a time loop.

And- Alanna I've always remembered something you said about having so many kids and the hassle it is to do things sometimes. If I'm remembering right, when wondering if it's worth it you think back to times you bit the bullet and did it and you never remember the pain of gathering supplies/dressing kids/ getting them out the door but you remember the fun and the memories are positive. I always tell this to my overwhelmed, discouraged friend parents-of-many. 🙌🏼