Miracles

Carl Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, wrote the following piece in 2003 about her husband’s death. I think about it a lot.

What’s more beautiful than the (im)probability of existence? The chance of any one of us existing at all is approx 1 in 10^2,685,000. To clarify, that second number is a 10 followed by almost 2.7 million zeros.

Now double that number for every person you love. For every chance encounter, for every miraculous bond and companionship that enriches our time on this planet, that makes us forget the ultimate pointlessness of it all — of life — all the inertia and inevitably of inhabiting a giant rock hurtling towards oblivion. Borne of stardust and supernovas and 4 billion years of single-cell survival… To not only co-exist but to find each other in the cosmos, at this time and place, in spite of it all — we are so lucky! I am so grateful for the people I love, the people I have loved – without motive, without agenda (without, admittedly, sometimes, the slightest bit of self-composure). I am grateful that somehow — inexplicably, implausibly, incredibly — the universe found a way.

Maybe we came from the same star a billion years ago.

Sometimes, one thanks some people for merely existing at the same time as we do.

I know I do.

Living with thoughts of death

I dread the day that the monotonous equilibrium of those every day and simplistic certainties I take for granted — health, safety, the comfort of hearing my mother trudging down the stairs every morning, the expectant sound of gravel crunching under my sister’s tyres as she arrives home from work every day at 6pm — is jerked into cold, cataclysmic suspension.

Nestled in the pseudo-cocoon of ignorance and denial,

Pried open by a all at once distant and familiar sinister irony:

Time, fate, life, death.

I fool myself into thinking it’s a long way off, bury my head in the sand, try not to think about it, immersed in and distracted by the solace of structure and routine. Yet in the back of my mind it’s always there, silent and shrouded but lurking around every corner; the unwelcome guest at every family meal, inescapable as a shadow in the noon day sun. An ever-present reminder burrowing into the fine lines upon my grandmother’s face; the disquieting implication behind stiffing limbs, muscle tremors, and the passage of time: none of this will last.

Sometimes I look at the people I love — focus on their faces until my eyes sting, willing my retinas to burn their image into sacrosanct memory — every pore, scar, freckle, discolouration, stray hair. Saving the image for the day I absolutely know exists, somewhere in the lottery of the future, predetermined, pre-penned into every new calendar I buy.

I understand now why humans find so much comfort in conventionality, why they invent tradition, embrace familiarity: these things are merely weapons against that faceless, sinister fact closing in a little further each day we are alive, which promises but one thing; to disrupt beyond reparation everything about an existence we thought we once knew.

It circles. It stalks from afar. I feel it even in my happiest moments; a pang of dysphoria, the subtle dread of certainty. One day I will hug my mother for the last time. I stand in my garden. Take in the space I currently occupy. One day it will no longer be mine. I breathe, oxygen facilitated by trees who will outlive me. We are all nature’s tenants, I think to myself as I leave imprints in the grass of a thousand former footprints.

Constantly bracing, constantly preparing. For the horror I know, I know, I know — beyond all earthly comprehension — awaits.

Heidegger, in his magnum opus Being and Time, called this existential orientation “Being-towards-death” — he argued the only way to live authentically is to constantly acknowledge our own death. Sound morbid? Welcome to existentialism . I wrote my 10,000 word undergraduate thesis on it. I’m fun at parties, I swear.

“To love someone is firstly to confess: I am prepared to be devastated by you.”

Each time I am deeply, profoundly hurt there is an overwhelming, dread-filled sense of inevitability and resignation that feels something like: “Oh god, this is it. This is the one that’ll do it. This is the one that’ll finally break me. My heart just can’t take it again.” Each time I sit, crushed, inconsolable, waiting for the world to end — and each time it begins again in the morning. My fragile, bruised heart: a fox fleeing bloodhounds – stricken but stoic – carries on beating; blood keeps pumping; lungs keep inhaling, keep exhaling; tear ducts (which I am certain have well exhausted their function by now) spill anew once more. Ups and downs. Loss and adjustment. And yet, I – somehow – despite it all – do not, will not – lose the fundamental trust and faith I feel towards humans and nature and friendship and joy and love. To possess the capacity to love another person – without judgement, without agenda – is a gift. To own the capacity to feel deeply is a gift. Connectedness to another – passing or permanent – is a gift. Sometimes people shine their light on you only briefly: entering your life unannounced and unexpected, inspiring and enriching and emboldening your very soul, and then they are gone, it seems, as soon as they appear, vacating the home they made in your heart. It’s brutal, it’s unfair, but I refuse to let grief take the shape of anger; to demonise or vilify. I will cherish the memories and the lessons and the bond – the capacity to find fulfilment and joy and understanding and commonality in another human. To be able to love and love unconditionally – I am so, so lucky.

“Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it” David Foster-Wallace wrote once. To feel deep pain is to feel deep love – absence always denotes a presence. All I strive for anymore is the grace to accept and to let go – with dignity, with decorum – everything which does not (will not, can not) whole-heartedly choose me back.

(‘White Nights’ by Dostoevsky, p. 35)

the double bind of disenchantment

I seem to have discovered the optimism in cynicism:

it is both a blessing and a curse to have an untethered imagination,

for no event in actuality – good or bad – can ever quite match it.

Poetic beauty? Romantic devastation?

Always an illusion,

always an imitation.

A belated Fathers Day post. . .

Some days I just really miss my grandpa. He was the most humble, gentle, and kindest man I’ve ever known. Being from a working class family in London, when he came to Nottingham to do his PhD he was sneered at for not having come through Oxford or Cambridge. He went on to win a Nobel prize anyway. Despite the brilliance of his mind and the reverence of his peers — travelling around the globe to give speeches and lectures — at home he preferred to keep in the background, only contributing to conversation when he had something important to add, or, when my grandma – matriarchal and catholic and always speaking her mind – had to be told to “put a sock in it, Jean.”

He had a dry sense of humour – not really one for jokes or comedy, but prone to the occasional deadpan one liner: “What was the most romantic thing you ever did for granny?” “Marry her.”

I saw him get angry maybe once in my life. He was sensitive. Observant. Neurotic – something I think stemmed from having been separated from his mother at a young age during the war. He was always fixated on something. His mind was constantly working, constantly thinking. He would take apart electronic gadgets just to see how they were assembled so he could later make his own (and improve/adjust accordingly). He was the most determined person I’ve ever met. Failed his eleven plus exam and was advised not to pursue science. Pursued it anyway, became a professor of Physics, built rockets in his spare time, taught himself three languages, got his piloting license in his forties. Nothing stopped him once he’d set his mind on something.

I remember asking him once, how did it feel, knowing the impact MRI had — has — every single day; what did it feel like to indirectly help so many people etc, and, in keeping with the very essence of his nature (this perfectly summarises his personality and who he was), he thought about his answer very carefully before slowly replying something to the effect of: “for every success of MRI, there’s the patient for who it marks the beginning of the end” (in which the scan discovered some incurable, advanced, aggressive tumour for which prognosis was poor to non existent) “so I think about them too.” Literally nothing sums up my grandpa more than that answer: downplaying his incredible achievements by choosing to focus on the sobering reality.

He loved physics. Almost as much as he loved being a grandpa. He loved raspberry picking and making his own jam at home. When we were little, he loved freaking us out with that detachable thumb trick. He made us hot cocoa every night before bed. His stories of choice were educational but always first hand and personal; of the East End, Devon, of bomb shelters and doodlebugs. An air of quiet, dignified respect followed him – you couldn’t help but be in awe of him – and yet, he was the most unassuming person. The most consistent man in my life. I will always miss him.