I’d wanted to wake in the night to see the promised northern lights but for the first time in weeks—months—I slept through until 5:30. When I looked out the window, the beginning of morning was washing over the mountain but there were stars, so many of them, bright and singular. I watched them, silver in the coming morning, and cried a little before going back to bed. John and the cat were deeply asleep.
Last night I began a book I’d ordered after seeing an ad for in the New York Review of Books. At the time I was proof-reading “Blueprints”, one of the essays from Blue Portugal, a piece of thinking about house-building, fabric printing, and the beautiful cyanotypes of Anna Atkins. If you don’t know the work of Anna Atkins, you can find it here. When I saw the ad for Geometry of Grief: Reflections on Mathematics, Loss, and Life, by Michael Frame, with one of Anna’s cyanotypes on the cover, I knew I should read it.
I need to confirm that I am perhaps the last person to be drawn to a book with mathematics in its title. The last, and strangely the first. I’m the mother of a mathematician and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to learn something of the way he sees the world. The title essay of my book Euclid’s Orchard is an attempt to make a durable algorithm of love, coyote song, and quiltmaking. But in my own history, mathematics was a source of huge stress. From grade 9 until grade 12, I failed the course every year and had to repeat. I am 67 years old and I still have bad dreams about not being able to find the classroom on the day of the big test. In the dreams I ask myself, Why didn’t you just pay attention, why didn’t you come to every class instead of skipping out to sit on the beach at Cordova Bay with your friends? I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say this now but in grade 12 I was asked to sign a letter saying that I would never try to take a university course in math based on the pass that I was given for grade 12 math because in truth I didn’t pass. I had excellent marks in everything else and the teaching staff knew I would be a good candidate for scholarships but for that terrible math mark. I was the girl who could recite a Shakespeare sonnet, who could talk about the development of perspective in Giotto, and who’d read the Aeneid for pleasure. But calculus? Fractals? Oh good night.
In this book about mathematics, which I’ve only just begun, I find this:
At the top of a tall tree, leaves are still illuminated, even though the trunk is in shadow. We speak of darkness falling but see here how dusk rises (and, if we return in the morning, how dawn falls). The geometry of the sun and earth reveal simple things we may have missed about the world.
It’s me, at the bathroom window at 5:30 this morning, looking at the stars and weeping. There’s so much I’ve missed, and miss. I meant to learn more about botany, and maybe it’s not too late. (I’ve ordered a new hand lens with the hope that I will pay more attention to the fine particulars of pollen and sori.) A month ago I wondered about beginning a PhD programme (this was a very brief entertainment) to make me focus in a more disciplined way. I looked at the stars and saw in them a glittering distance. It is so late in human history and before the light fell over the mountain, the darkness of what we are, what we have done to the planet, to our own capacity for understanding, for the sheer horror of what a single man has unleashed upon the country of my grandfather’s birth (and we are not doing enough to stop him), the darkness took my heart into its tight fist and tightened.
Today I’ll rake the paths between my garden beds and weed the raspberry border. In the dailiness there is pleasure but also the shadow of grief. Last week I dreamed of my mother and I realized she was still alive (only in the dream) and I had a second chance. But was I willing to take it? Maybe I will learn an angle, a congruence, for what is so clearly a missed opportunity, a moment when I repeat the course, solve the formula, understand the relationships of all those surfaces, lines, points. Stars in a morning sky, shadows rising like smoke.
Beauty and grief are next-door neighbors, or maybe grief is beauty in a dark mirror… To see beauty is to glimpse something deeper; to grieve is to glimpse a loss whose consequences we will not unpack for years, and maybe never. The beauty of geometry likewise involves great emotional weight, irreversibly alters our perceptions, and is transcendent. For we don’t see all of geometry, only a hint, a shadow of something much deeper.