sleeping house, the last morning
For a week, our house has been full. Three children, their partners, a baby. Some mornings I woke, excited, and wondered why, having forgotten in my sleep that they were all here. And then joy, a universe restored, even temporarily, to its old form. Well, new-old, because who would have imagined the small children who grew up here would become such capable purposeful adults? Not me, not when I remember the diapers, the kitchen floor strewn with toys, the clamour for favourite meals, a swim, the old stories at bedtime. But wait — some things haven’t changed!
I finished a long essay this spring, one I’ve had in mind for some time, and I know I’ve written of it here. It’s called “Euclid’s Orchard” and it’s about math, love, horticulture, quilting, coyotes, and the patterns that unite all of these. Here’s the last section, an offering as I listen to Brendan, Cristen, and Kelly getting ready to leave in less than an hour:
I tried hard to understand the Joy of Mathematics and realized that I couldn’t, except in the broadest possible way. That at the heart of it is an attempt to relate concepts that might not readily suggest themselves to be connected. Number theory and harmonic analysis, for example. And I can only think of those by relating them to the figurative language I learned as a student of literature. Language departing from its logical usage to urge the reader to emotional and intellectual discovery. On that mid-summer night, listening to coyotes sing madrigals in our abandoned orchard, I should have remembered Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth,
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name. (V. i. 12-17)
They were our names, our bodies under the heavens, all of us singing together in different voices to tell the story of our orchard, our time here in this place we have inhabited since – for John and me – 1981, and the only way to shape the story is through connotation, not ordinary discourse, though I praise the literal, the specific, but by reaching up into the starlight to parse what lies behind it. A mathematician might see the strong-weak duality this way:
I’ve tried to puzzle through equations: the arrows, the lines and diacritics, the glyphs, the beautiful characters that look like Greek to me. Oh, wait, they are Greek, though not used to shape the yearnings of Sappho or the grand battles of the Iliad, but something else: a notation, a way of assigning symbolic value to constants, function, variables. A way of talking about equalities between variables. It’s the chicken and egg argument written in the ancient markings of Simonides in wax. Would math work in Chinese characters or the syllabics of the far north? Would flowers still smell sweet if their seed patterns were random? Was a baby ever born without the blue eyes or sturdy legs of a potato-farming ancestor near the Carpathian mountains? Would it matter?
Inside I am stitching a spiral into the layers of the orchard I have pieced together, a snail shell curled into itself. That’s what I’ll see when I’ve finished. I begin the spiral at its very heart, keeping my course as even as I can as it opens out and widens. Not the complicated pathways of the sunflower, some turning left, some right, so that an optimal number of seeds are packed in uniformly, or Romanesco broccoli, its arcs within radi resulting in something so intricately beautiful I wonder how anyone could cut into it to eat it. On windowsills, pinecones. The plump Ponderosas, brought home from the Nicola Valley, and a few long monticolas. They’re dry, open, but at the base, where their stalk connected them to their trees, two spirals are still visible, like a relaxed embrace, lovers asleep. My spirals are simple, my hands sewing to follow a path from its knotted source, around and around, until I’ve learned that my pleasure comes from the journey itself, a needle leading me outward, towards completion. A quilt elegant and sturdy, a sequence emptied of its numbers.
And listen: the coyotes are singing, the deep voice of the father, the rather more shrill voice of the mother – anxious that all her offspring eat well and learn to hunt, to care for their safety in the forest beyond the orchard – and the lilting joyous youngsters unaware that a life is anything other than the moment in moonlight, fresh meat in their stomachs, the old trees with a few apples and pears too small and green for any living thing to be interested in this early in the season.