Peering at books I received as gifts on Christmas morning, I happen upon A Treatise on Stars, a new collection by poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. Sarah brings word of a friend’s new novel dedicated to our daughter Frances. This same friend authored a book I’ve taught — one I plan to teach again this spring. Time to think about stars and cosmologies. Stars appear in the Berssenbrugge book, as they do in the new Star Wars series The Mandalorian, a show we watch with family. My nephews received a talking Baby Yoda doll for Christmas. Together let us explore together systems of stars. Establish communication among spinning galaxies across the distances of space and time. Listen to each star as it sings.
When I step outside after dark to sit on my front porch, I feel aware, suddenly, of my glasses. Sarah hung a pretty wreath with Christmas lights. Neighbors’ lights can be seen beyond the trees. Indoors afterwards, Sarah and I improvise, jam for a few moments with toy instruments. Piano and tambourine. Sarah and Frankie watch bits of Frosty the Snowman on Sarah’s iphone. Flash cards send me off thinking about the Tarot. The Alethiometer in His Dark Materials delivers symbols in response to questions posed by the show’s heroine, Lyra Belacqua. Tarot spreads can be read similarly. Let us trust these spreads for clues.
Ornaments adorn the Christmas tree — several beauties. Stars, birds, balls with bands of colored chrome. And out the window beside the tree, sunlight catches in the bare upper branches of a neighbor’s elm. We’re storytelling beings, you and I, as we wait for the arrival of another. In these next few days, we become parents — ontologically transformed.
I think about the practice of “time-sharing” from the early history of computing, when students gathered ’round campus labs, multi-programming and multi-tasking at terminals connected to a shared system. Machines are in our lives, buzzing all around us, as are people, plants, and animals. With them, we communicate, we interact. Perhaps because of all of that buzzing, I find myself reconsidering the value of the Christmas tree as ritual and pagan act of worship. A celebration of life, death, rebirth. Time spent in homes with family. This year will be a special one, a year of loving reinvention and change. New responsibilities, girl drummer. Life’s about to get really groovy. Sweet states of being. New friends, a new relation. A new mood to support learning and growth, bookmarks synced to devices, heads working in harmony. To prepare, I read about the launch of a new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Psychedelics are interesting well beyond the Center’s medical framework. If faculty connected with the Center are not yet collaborating with faculty in the Humanities, they should. Time to help bridge former disciplinary divides. (Judging from how it’s funded, however, the Center at Johns Hopkins isn’t likely to bridge these divides — so the work will have to happen elsewhere.) “Blue skies with pink clouds,” notes a neighbor. She and her brother circumnavigate and watch the sunset, riding their bikes in wobbly circles up and down the street.
With college basketball coverage silenced temporarily on my in-laws’ massive television, I settle in and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol. Gonzo the Great stars as the work’s author Charles Dickens. Christmas is a time of gift-exchange, the film reminds us. It ought to be a time of global Jubilee. In Leviticus, Jubilee is a time when slaves and prisoners are freed and debts are forgiven. But darkness is cheap, and the Scrooges of the world like it. Time for their minds to encounter chain-rattling dancing Marleys. Come, all ye Scrooges — there is much to see. I’m often deeply divided in my resolve regarding education and discipline. How does one make time for these meditations while parenting? It’s a matter to which mind is applied, I suppose, a gift of attention. Do it: wash some cookie trays and settle atop a bed in a pile of pillows and read hippie modernist poet and potter Mary Caroline Richards’s Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (1964), a book Richards published more than a decade after her departure from Black Mountain College. Through this book, Richards instructs us in how to materialize “as force in the world the unifying energy of our perceptions” (3). Discipline is something the book struggles “with, toward” (5). This is what allows it to express and convey a “whole person” — or as Richards translates, “mankind as many-membered being” (5). Richards asks us to contemplate a moral question: “How do we perform the CRAFT of life? How do we love our enemies?” (5-6). This craft requires discipline — though not a kind involving toughness, not a “tough love,” in the words of conservatives, so much as a “firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts” (9). I look forward to sharing Richards’s book in my course this spring and discussing her ideas with others.
I imagine myself as unconscious author of or at least central cause for all characters in my life narrative. This is the scene where we don’t know where we are. This is what it feels like to get yanked out of a tree. Reach out and touch a universe of signs predicting system shutdown, life finding its way amidst racing velociraptors. I switch on the light and laugh my way through a double-take of Laura Dern’s bizarre style of acting in the classic 90s fear-drug stimulator flick, Jurassic Park.
I imagine viewers of the film participating in a testosterone cult initiation ritual. Kids are taught here to believe in computer technology as part of the way they can rescue themselves from their parents. A few people get eaten — always — but always, the kids survive. I was from an early age not just a kid, however, but a kid who wandered off from his parents. What can I say? I have always despised Superego personas like Judge Judy. The Christmas season reiterates itself as a time of moralism and worry about parental accountability. Keep eyes unfocused, says the experience, and trust in closeness to family, and the healing power of psychedelics. Sitcoms like Seinfeld, I realize, are portraits of a cultural psyche: the apartment as interior of the skull, like the control room from Inside Out. Personas interacting within a single brain. The anxious one, the lackadaisical one, the clumsy one, the peculiar one — the whole of it unrehearsed and at least spontaneous-seeming. I am ready to dream the future, says the one who sits before the screen. I am ready to prospectively live out in my nervous system my imagination’s greatest, most optimistic hopes for the species as a whole.
From a small Dansk teacup I sip hot mulled apple cider, my head absorbed in idle abstraction, even when I act politely in accordance with convention. Experience vacillates between perception and performance, knowing and doing. With amazement, though, I arrive at the realization that there are ways to enjoy all of it. Cartoon eyes and mouths emerge from chrome shelving units covered in succulents. I contemplate the face of a playing card, a jack of clubs designed in the English pattern. Plug it in and the face transmits bursts of character, like a furnace breathing air into a home during a snowstorm. I listen from a basement as floorboards creak beneath the feet of my kith and kin. Refusing to be kept, I march up and out into the cold northeastern air, plying my boots atop snow-covered streets. One can be in a place without knowing where one is or what is going on, I conclude, for a bomb was dropped to stop heads from making sense of their condition.