Posted by: Robin | May 26, 2009

May-hem

I find it hard to believe I haven’t written for two months. It isn’t for lack of things to write about. I have been collecting quotes and reading books that have stimulated lots of thoughts and reflections. My personal life has continued to raise challenges that require the the shape of my life to be in a constant state of flux. All three of my children are facing major life changes, some good and in one case devastating. Our responsibilities for caretaking elderly relatives are intensifying. I can celebrate the end of my year-long saga of a visually impaired right eye, which as most things do, ended somewhat differently than I expected. Some of the reason for my lack of writing is that I am drained after a year of constant crisis and recurring chaos, but I think it is more that. I’ve reached a place where words are inadequate, a shocking place for a wordphile. They can only take me so far in helping me understand, express and face the changes this year has brought. I am in a time where silence serves best. I need to listen and be quiet and stop trying to fix what I am helpless to fix and receive my life as it is and whatever God is doing in it. I will write again because it is who I am. I can’t not write, but new seasons and new rhythms sometimes require new approaches. For once, I am listening.

Posted by: Robin | March 10, 2009

The Trouble with Dreams

I just read that on this date in 1876 (March 10) Alexander Graham Bell made his first phone call to his assistent Watson in the next room. When he wrote to his father he predicted that houses were going to be connected by wires, and people would be able to talk to each other whenever they wanted. Forty years later Bell was there in New York City for the dedication of the first transcontinental phone line, and called Watson again, this time in San Francisco instead of the  next room saying the same thing he had the first time: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” What a perfect moment! How great that Bell was still alive to see his dream come to fruition not once but twice. And that is the trouble with dreams, sometimes for some people they come true, and come true in spades.

I just finished one of those long overdue 20th-century classics I continually procrastinate reading because the ‘great novels’ of that century are pretty bleak. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck has at its core a dream. It is at a glance nowhere as ambitious as Bell’s and certainly not world-changing. It is the dream of owning a modest piece of land to farm and have a place where a trio of men can belong and live without being hostages of fate and other people’s whims. Every one who hears the dream reacts in one of two ways–they want to partake or they laugh at how every drifter wants that dream and none ever get it. At one time in the course of the novel the dream becomes tangible and the plan to reach it realistic and within their grasp. The reader can’t help but be caught up in the contagion of hope despite Steinbeck’s making clear from the advent of Lenny and George onto the stage that this story will not end well. Yet one tiny choice here, one tiny choice there, the reader can see that the dream was possible, as possible as it was impossible.

We are a culture that loves to hear about the underdog, about the person who defies the odds. We love to believe that all things are possible, and that hope is not unreasonable. It is one of the great quandaries of parenthood when our children at eighteen still aspire to be things when they grow up  that involve jobs where the stats are against them, whether it be the arts or a field where the ratio of jobs to applicants weighs heavily against them. Should we be realistic and discourage their dream, or insist on a plan B, or support them in it? Who can say they won’t be the one in a few hundred who gets that job and succeeds?

It is also a quandry for those of us who have pursued dreams. When do we let go? There are almost always human exceptions to every rule: the woman who gets pregnant after years of trying, the person who heals after being at death’s door, the artist or writer who after twenty or more years of rejection finally breaks through. It is very human to hope. It is what gets us up in the morning. It is a very good thing, but it can also, like most of the best things be destructively addictive if a particular hope becomes the end measure for our lives. I have no easy answers, except for measuring this dream against the cost. At the end of our lives, will all we invested be worth it if the dream we have spent our life chasing but never getting, also means we never lived and always neglected ourselves and others.

And yet dreams require seasons of sacrifice. If Bell hadn’t been willing to undergo those seasons of sacrifice I might not be writing a blog for anyone who wants to to read. It is a circular argument. I guess the real trick is making the choice and the sacrifice with our eyes open and taking responsibility for that choice when the price comes knocking. The one certainty is that dreams are never neutral. We drive them or they drive us.

I don’t think Steinbeck was saying we are stupid for dreaming, or that pursuing and hoping are a fool’s paradise. The striving brought out the best in the best of his characters and the worst in the worst. The facts are the facts. Our dreams depend on other people and on circumstances usually outside our control. Our dreams depend more on our capacity to be what is required than our capacity to imagine what might be. That being true, most of us will in one way or another live lives of “dreams deferred” as Langston Hughes wrote. Then the challenge is not to be bitter, but to learn contentment and appreciation of what we have.

We will always hear about the exceptions. For many of us they will inspire and justify. But it is important at times to read about the majority of us who have to figure out how to live with dreams that died. I for one think we must grieve, but then we get up and dust ourselves off and discover what good things are within our grasp. Faith, hope and love. A sunny, warm day. A good laugh. The touch of those we love. A child delighting in an empty box. Finishing something hard and doing it well. And then who knows? Maybe we dream new dreams.

Posted by: Robin | February 18, 2009

Bumping into History

I just read Tony Hoagland’s poem called “History of Desire” on the February 18, 2009, edition of Writer’s Almanac website. It gave me a fizzy stomach with another of those “ecstasy of perfect recognition” moments Stephen King wrote about. It is about a seventeen-year-old boy, who after talking late at night to his first girlfriend is so hyped up that he sneaks out and spray paints the water tower with their names. Ten years later on a trip home he drives by it.

“This is how history catches up

—by holding still until you
bump into yourself.
What makes you blush, and shove
the pedal of the Mustang

almost through the floor
as if you wanted to spray gravel
across the features of the past,
or accelerate into oblivion?

Are you so out of love that you
can’t move fast enough away?
But if desire is acceleration,
experience is circular as any . . .”

Recently I have been back in touch with some friends from high school. One of them suggested we plan to go to our next high school reunion together. The thought gave me the willies. When I go home once or twice a year and visit my father and grandparents’ graves I must face my own teenage insanity in the form of a hundred-foot water tower that I climbed with a group of friends, but I am saved from mortification by our anonymity. On the other hand, when I went to the three class reunions I now eschew, that was an entirely different story.

You see, I was famous in my day for throwing huge parties that anyone could attend (because initially I was afraid I’d forget to invite someone and their feelings would be hurt [she says rolling her eyes]). I hated these parties. The noise clamored in my head so loudly I couldn’t think straight, and people were hanging from the rafters, smashed shoulder to shoulder. It was a constant vigil for trouble and broken furniture (because of numbers rather than violence).

I did not provide booze, or allow it (except for the final BYO sr. year), or allow anyone to go upstairs except for the bathroom. The snacks all came out of a bag. All that happened was that lots of people came, and everyone had a great time that they couldn’t stop talking about it. It would take my close friends another three months or so to pester me into throwing another with promises of helping. It went on from 10th to 12th grade. They became so legendary that my niece who went to my high school thirty years later was still hearing about them. People come to my brother’s funeral home for funerals and mention these parties like they were Woodstock. It’s a profound mystery to me what made them so fun.

But boy, if I hated those parties then (which only got worse because as word got around the stories, as stories do, morphed the parties into orgies, and my reputation among kids who did not know me or who had never been to one tanked), every time someone at a reunion came up to joyfully reminisce about “my great parties” I’d have gladly hit the pedal to the metal and sprayed them and everyone around with gravel to escape the mortification.

I often ask myself why it infuses me with such shame and regret. I did no harm, except maybe short-term to myself. People smile ten-gallon smiles when they talk to me about the parties. Some of it is pride, and possibly sadness, that I am defined in their memories by those parties instead of by things I value more. But a lot of it is the sheer embarrassment that I was so stupid I did something I hated and that caused so much trouble my senior year just to please other people. I am embarrassed that I was a kid, doing dumb things that kids do.

Hoagland ends the poem with an exhortation: “You should stop today. /In the name of Doris, stop.” And so I stop. And see how ridiculous this reaction is, instead of appreciating that at one point in time I had a lot of friends who wanted to be together having a good time, and they like remembering it, and I was a part of that pleasure. At one point in time I had the capacity for a simpler, more passionate exuberance about life, when everything was new and either amazing or horrific, and I did things because I couldn’t not do them because I felt them so deeply. That girl had to be before I could be. It’s time to embrace her.

Hoagland, Tony. Sweet Ruin. “History of Desire.” The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Posted by: Robin | February 10, 2009

Anniversary

img_0052On February 20th, this blog will be one year old. I thank my daughter Sarah for inspiring me to try this despite my skepticism. My posts have lived up to the title, and for that competitive part of me who wants to break through in the world as a writer in one form or another, the randomness of subjects probably works against me in building up a readership. From limited observation, those blogs that gain the most readership have a consistent general topic that is of interest to a lot of people and a unique voice and perspective in writing about it. I have no idea, other than a handful of friends and family, that I have any consistent readership. The Red Welsh Dragon image I used in two blogs is still my biggest draw through Google searches (and the reason for one of my most treasured comments-to-date; thanks Carole), and my stats are averaging between 60 and 100 hits a day. However, the posts that get the hits fit no clear pattern (except the Welsh Dragon).

I began writing this blog because I had no outlet for expressing the variety of things that engage me, or my momentary passions and enduring curiosity. On a more practical note, it gave me an alternate outlet to practice my writing skills in a variety of voices and moods. Practice improves, if not perfects. I thought this blog might serve as my portfolio as I sell myself as a writer. In the end, though, I think the reason I will keep blogging is the occasional comments I receive from visitors who because of an internet search find a particular post and are moved enough to say so. The most recent of those was yesterday (and the reason I am jumping the gun on my anniversary post). It was in response to my “Entropy” post. Almost without fail, these comments come to posts that have been hanging out there in cyberspace for a while, dead and forgotten. Then someone, seemingly at random, finds them and something real happens in the exchange, possibly even the “ecstasy of perfect recognition” (Stephen King). That they touch strangers at levels whimsical, personal, and on rare occasions, profound is a wonder to me. Absurdly, it literally tickles my tummy. In that moment I feel connected to a larger world. And I am incredibly grateful and humbled.

In many ways the cyber world is still a miracle and a mystery to me. I did not grow up with it, but ten years ago I began to grasp some of its potentiality to connect, enlighten and serve. As it turns out my imagination was too limited.

Thanks to all. And Happy Valentine’s Day!

Posted by: Robin | February 7, 2009

Grace

I have been meditating on grace this morning. Though for me the concept of grace is rooted in Jesus Christ, it is the human variety that preoccupies me. A number of things lately have caused me to reflect on some of the choices I have made in my life as well as the choices my parents made, the ones that had consequences far beyond what was intended and proved the first falling domino choice that resulted in other choices that have carried the heartache or failure into the present day. I can think rationally enough to look back and see that most of the time I made the best choice I could based on what I knew at the time and usually made it with the best intentions. A few I made because I was at the breaking point, and I was desperate. A few were selfish and unconsidered, plain and simple. Unfortunately I am the type that beats myself with a cudgel for causing heartache and for not knowing better. I can pray for God’s grace and forgiveness, but I have enormous trouble giving it to myself. That is the human variety of which I speak.

I have known for a while that this is arrogance. I have known for a while it makes it harder to forgive others. I have known for a while that it wreaks havoc and hurts those closest to me. So why is it so hard to accept that I “hold these treasures in jars of clay” (II Corinthians 4:7)? Maybe with years wisdom does come. For the first time this morning I considered the countless other choices that don’t stick to me like burrs and bring balance to the choices that led to hurtful places I never intended to go (let alone take hostages with me)–the times I reaped but did not sow; the times I sowed but did not reap (even when I felt I should have); the times I sowed good choices and reaped bountifully; and maybe most importantly, the times I sowed choices that should have yielded a field of brambles and didn’t.

I need grace. I need to understand that our lives are so integrally tied to those of others that the best of our choices are not isolated with clear cause-effect outcomes. I need to understand that my vision is limited. I need to know I am human, and I will fail myself and others repeatedly. I need to understand that others fail, my body fails, and stuff just happens. Reason will not always be satisfied. Not all conflicts will be resolved. I need to live with these facts gracefully, for my sake and for the sake of those I love. There will be consequences, but if I can allow grace, Christ’s and my own, to enter and do its work, so will love, beauty and hope. This day, that is my choice. And maybe soon I can shed it around me.

Posted by: Robin | February 3, 2009

Aging

I am trying not to have another long lapse in my blogging, but my life consists of three major things right now. The joy is I am back to writing my novel, and I think I have solved the pacing issues some of my test readers have commented upon, though the difficulties of defining character in first-person narrative are still eluding me. The thing is when I’m writing it absorbs me and the external ideas of new reading, conversation and new viewing become almost non-existent making me boring unless I bore you with my latest adventures in writing

The other two major parts–well let’s just say not so much fun. The yeoman’s load of the work in not only taking care of my mother, but in being her acting Durable Financial Power of Attorney, is almost done, but I still have one time-consuming task in pursuing a Medicaid waiver for an Assisted Living facility.  If she qualifies after all the necessary hoops are jumped, then researching, visiting and deciding which of our options is best come next. This is what she has repeatedly said she wants, and for both of us, I hope it works. Meanwhile, I get her meals, run her errands, pay her bills and half a dozen miscellaneous items.

The third is the least welcome: the medical expressions of my own aging. Yes, one notices an increasing farsightedness and aches and pains and slower recovery, but this full-out laundry list of medical issues I’ve acquired in the last several months is getting ridiculous. I am running out of fingers for the different doctors who have used the preamble “with aging comes . . .”

First came my detached retina in May, which was followed by my sticky gel getting caught on my retina scar requiring a November surgery to unstick it followed five days ago with a continued retina thickening that resulted in a needle full of steroids in my eye that still obscures my vision. All this will speed up my natural aging onset of a cataract, probably in the next year. Then came the gastroenterologist for some issues resulting in an upper endoscopy and a colonoscopy and a boatload of images of my various internal organs. Turns out three out of the four issues (exception, hietal hernia) are the result of aging. I have slight diverticulitis (MORE FIBER), some motility issues in my esophagus that Sgogren’s Syndrome patients are more prone to with age, and gall stones, which everyone gets, with age. Then came the gynecologist who informed me I am no longer pink and fluffy inside, but white and stiff, due to age. Has anyone written a book on this? Because I’d certainly rather read about it than hear it repeatedly, and I wouldn’t be in this state of shock as one hit after another sneaks up on me.

But then there are the non-aging things like some troubling blood work results that may indicate my lupus is flaring up and will require my sixth separate doctor in three months, and the gathering of sticky calcifications in my breast that can be a warning sign for something worse and will involve a biopsy in the next week.

So, by not writing the past few days I am actually sparing you and myself–or is it denial–depressing musings on an aging body with increasingly sticky and unfluffy body parts, and who wants that?

Posted by: Robin | January 20, 2009

Inauguration

barach-and-lincoln

http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/01/inaugural_preparations.html

This is the last photo on the link above of pictures of Inaugural preparation. It was taken this past weekend at the Inaugural Concert on the mall. They range from whimsical to profound. Check them out!

I had a chill when I saw this. The symbol of Barach Obama under the eye of another son of Illinois whom he has invoked in his train trip east and repeatedly in reference and style. Maybe even more poignantly, invoking by his standing on the same spot Martin Luther King, Jr. and his “I Have a Dream Speech.” I was a teenager then and listened to the clips in awe. I watched and worked in restive inner-city neighborhoods during the civil unrest of the late 60s and early 70s. If a picture is symbolic, if it is worth a thousand words and dreams, this is it. It is an image of hope. The hope in many ways remains to be proven. But for this day it rings in the air. And I am grateful for my vantage of witnessing a critical fifty years of history that finds this moment of fruition for many. Today I set aside the qualifiers that reason demands. Today I am grateful.

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[Above another attempt at embedding, probably futile, but it is a day to invoke a little hope of my own.]

Posted by: Robin | January 19, 2009

A Side Trip to the Aegean Sea

capesounion_ayiomamitis

Today I took a trip to Greece . . . in my mind. My husband pointed out an ad for a cruise of the Adriatic and the Aegean sponsored by a college in Michigan complete with professors to guide and inform those taking the cruise. The stops were Venice, Corfu, Rhodes, Bodrum in Turkey, Istanbul, Mykonos and finally Athens. On a similar trip in 1973 with professors from Gordon College I climbed aboard the Adriatic ferry Poseidon out of Brindisi and steamed across the Adriatic at night, stopping at Corfu and landing near the ancient site of Corinth at dawn the next morning. By bus I went to Athens (soon after the terrorist attack). I spent a day at Cape Sounion (the photo above) on the Attica peninsula not far from Athens, and after crawling around the ruins of the Temple to Poseidon overlooking the sea, I snorkeled around the peninsula. It was an a perfect golden day.  As soon as I saw the ad I could feel the summer heat baking my skin and taste the dry clear air and see the golden browns of rocky landscape stretching to the horizon. The water was a shifting turquoise blue. I ran upstairs to study my World Atlas to pinpoint each location. I remembered the DK Eyewitness travel book on the Greek Isles I’d bought for researching one locale for the fourth novel in the series I’m writing. These are the most gorgeous travel books out there, with full-color National-Geographic quality photos and beautifully drawn maps and diagrams.  I soaked in the pictures and wonders of each island of the proposed tour. I could viscerally imagine myself there, basking in the unique quality of the light as well as the beauty, warmth and ancient mystery as far as my eyes could see. I relaxed, glorying in it, as the snow outside flurried to the ground and the anxieties of the day receded. It was enough.

I’m not sure how common this capacity to be immersed so fully in a place only through imagination is, but I have traveled like this since I was small. While other kids were into animals or princesses or sports, I was into geography. Not the boring kind I was taught in school full of statistics or geologic formations, but the kind that opened up to me through the monthly book on a different country I got in the mail. I pored over my collection for hours on end (and my collection of postcards from faraway places). Time disappeared. The books had pages of photos that were like stamps I could fill the book with as I took in every detail. That the world could be so large and different and full of wonders never ceased to lift me out of myself and launch me into the ether of amazing possibilities. I studied the maps and imagined what it would be like to be there. I imagined in 3-D where I would go and the people I would talk to–because of course, I would be fluent in a dozen languages as well as be a world traveler. It was never something I intended. Far away places drew it out of me without my being fully aware. I memorized cities, rivers and mountains. And it still happens the same way. It was a little more vivid today, painted with sensory memories, but I was no more or less there than I have been at other times I’ve traveled. And I am still smiling.

Posted by: Robin | January 18, 2009

Stairway to Seven: Go Steelers!

steelers-logo1

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Apparently it takes greater technological skill or a higher upgrade on Word Press than I have to embed or insert media files from the web, but at least the above will link you to the great “Stairway to Heaven” adaptation for today’s game on YouTube.

If I have my way the Super Bowl will be the Turnpike Bowl, my hometown vs. my adopted hometown, the STEELERS and the EAGLES, with the STEELERS winning! So far the Eagles-Cardinals game is not giving me hope, but I shall persevere.

Even though I’ve lived more years in the Philly area than I have in the Pittsburgh area, it is where I grew up, where I fell in love with football, where I watched my steel mill engineer grandfather at work, where I saw Roberto Clemente (yes it’s baseball) hit his 3000th hit against the Mets, where I spent the last night of my honeymoon at the Pittsburgh Hilton on the Point (where the BOO! HISS! Ravens are probably staying), where my two older children were born, where many of my family members still do. It is the home where I am rooted, in the hills and along the Allegheny River. The skyline of the city has changed dramatically, and the 28 Expressway now takes you the whole way downtown (I usually exit too soon and get lost in the Northside).  It is still home, the place that made me who I am. So I am a Steelers fan and always will be.

But these particular final four NFL playoff teams create some complications for me. The team of choice for my husband, children and all my friends and neighbors here is the Eagles, and it would be so cool to have the World Series and Super Bowl Champs in the same year. I follow the Eagles every week, too. And it is a Cinderella story. Then there is the Ravens. I live in the NJ suburb of Philly where the Ravens’ quarterback grew up and played high school football. My daughter and son-in-law went to college in Baltimore and lived there for the first three years of their marriage. He worked part-time at a sports bar near the stadiums. Many near and dear are rooting for the (GRRRRRRRRRRRR!) Ravens. And I have to admit, the lover-of-a-good-story in me can’t help but appreciate that Arizona, Philadelphia and Baltimore would all be great Cinderella stories, while the Steelers six appearances in the Super Bowl and five Super Bowl rings could seem a bit like overkill to anyone but a Steelers fan (or a Patriots, SanFrancisco or Dallas fan).

But call me the wicked stepmother. I want the Steelers at the ball (bowl) with both glass slippers and the prince, dancing up the “Stairway to Seven” and hailed by Terrible Towels and Myron Cope smiling down on them.

Posted by: Robin | January 17, 2009

Entropy

entropy

Entropy is a measure of randomness, a measure of disorder, an energy broken down, irretrievable heat. What might appear to be chaos, even decay, is really a system’s way of smoothing out differences, its search for equilibrium. Where language might fail us, the poetries of math and physics bring clarity, observing spontaneous changes in isolated systems. Entropy is our yardstick. measuring progress, defining the boundaries of a story, a beginning and an end. Entropy has a unique ability to choose a particular direction for time, the arrow of time. Uncorrelated parts interract and find their connections in an evolving system. So from one perspective, entropy is a clock, charting the irreversible.”
Charles Eppes’ character voiceover introducing the 1/11/09 episode of Numbers

This quote has haunted me for the past week, so much so that I had to go back to it ON DEMAND and laboriously go over it piece by piece, rewinding and replaying (ironically), to be sure I had it right, and I think I do. I regret immensely that I chose not to take advanced math or physics in high school and college because “I’d never use them.” One reason is that I covet the comprehension of truth, mystery, beauty and poetry that can be found in those disciplines, which reveal aspects of each which my discipline of words cannot. Another is that entropy gives me insight into subjects I have always cared about: social dynamics, psychological and spiritual growth, language and the creative process. It gives definition to how things work and why. Perhaps most of all it gives comfort amidst conflict and chaos, and maybe a greater sense of responsibility as “an uncorrelated part,” for me to find those connections that can only be found in chaos and that send the “arrow of time” toward constructive equilibrium.

While the character, math genius Charlie Eppes, is reading the words he has written as an introduction to a lecture, the viewer watches two different montages of action happening simultaneously: his brother Don sitting in a synagogue reading the Torah, trying to find meaning, hope and comfort amidst the chaos and apparent randomness he is immersed in daily as an FBI agent, and a teenage criminal Don arrested breaking out of prison with three other inmates with the intent of coming after Don. We watch as these individual choices, made in order to find resolution for their own lives, connect and set in motion a series of conflicting and chaotic events, that ultimately lead to a resolution of deeper truth than either man could have imagined.

One of the reasons I continue to watch Numbers is because its stories illustrate the patterns and connectedness I have intuitively sensed but do not have the tools to verify or quantify. I have no idea how accurate the math principles are or how much they lose in the dumbing down (which often still goes over my head in its abstract form). A psychologist friend once told me that my highest area of  intelligence was associative. While many think linearly or even linearly and horizontally, my thought process is more like a web, always seeking connections, even when things appear to have none. Sometimes this web-like thinking gives me an insight or idea that allows me to hit one out of the ballpark, but more often it leaves me muddled. When I hear and read mathematicians and physicists speak about what they do they speak in almost spiritual terms of the beauty and the patterns of their world, and I feel a sense of loss that I can’t see it, lacking both the tools and the right kind of conceptual intelligence. But more even than that is frustration because if I could understand how things work, understand their patterns, I might be able to help . . .

This post is another meandering of my mind born of hooking into something intuitively that I sense is true, powerful and even wise, but which cognitively I haven’t comprehended well enough to be sure what I mean, let alone how to express it. In another random connection, in today’s The Writer’s Almanac (http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/), a birthday blurb about an early 20th-century poet named William Stafford included the following lines of poetry:

In the winter, in the dark hours, when others
were asleep, I found these words and put them
together by their appetites and respect for
each other. In stillness, they jostled. They traded
meanings while pretending to have only one.

Connections in chaos. Below these words the Almanac says that Stafford said of his writing, “I have woven a parachute out of everything broken.” I have felt that way profoundly as I write, and that is the final reason I feel I need to understand entropy: so I can write in a way that rings true. Life, people, events–they are always changing and moving. We do not live in a closed system with boundaries of our own choosing. Other people’s choices, often ones we will never know but by their consequences, as well as seemingly random events, throw us into chaos. That chaos both destroys and creates on its way to a restoration of equilibrium. As a writer, if I don’t acknowledge that dynamic in my characters and my fictional world it will be false.

So the adage, “the more I know, the less I know” strikes again, but The Writer’s Almanac kindly gives me their trademark words to help me focus again as I grapple with ideas too big for my brain: “Be well, do good work & stay in touch.”

See hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/…/entrop.html for explanation of graph illustration.

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