(An excerpt from “The Prayer of the Elephant,” in Prayers from the Ark, by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold)
My son has been reading a light book entitled Capture Dynamics and Chaotic Motions in Celestial Mechanics. The other day I peeked inside it’s cover, ever desirous of a good story. The first sentence I could make out, though it wasn’t a particularly rousing one, went, “The basic differential equations are defined that we will use throughout the book.” That’s not a strong lead. And then there was something about the “n-body problem.” I then lost the thread of the story, such as it was. From then on there were sentences with strange letters and numbers like this: “a2x(6df/42.4) x (whatintheworldisthis)%€¥^x37.” Also, there were no pictures. I was a wee bit disappointed.
“Dad, what’s that you’re writing?”
“Limericks, son. A bit of haiku.” I lied.
“At least it’s not sad. . . It’s not sad, is it?”
“Oh no no. Just. . .tragedy, comedy, fairy tale. Life. You know.”
“I was afraid of that.”
I asked him to explain Chaos Theory one evening at bedtime; I genuinely wanted to know. I was familiar with a form of that theory from law school where it was the unstated but understood governing principle. Chaos is fundamental to legal practice--indeed, the profession depends upon it--but it went differently here.
I’ll say. Before my eyes got heavy, we had passed the moon and were somewhere in the hinterland of the universe, out beyond predictability, near chaos, where things come undone. Apparently, from what I recall, the goal is not to enter chaos with your spacecraft but navigate as close as possible in order to leverage its effect to propel you forward.
But these are, we agreed, lilliputian differences, of bare consequence. There’s not much difference between lawyers and rocket scientists. The delivery is different. Both can be combustible. Both find opportunity in near chaos.
“Is there a plot, some kind of narrative or story in your book?”
“Sure. It’s step by step, a description of a process.”
I nodded. I changed the subject. “We don’t know what gravity is, do we?” Or, for that matter, I thought, why a number divided by zero is undefined. Mysteries. Oddities. He acknowledged as much. We’ve ridden that horse before. I won't bring that up again.
“Let’s stick with chaos, ok?” he says.
I then left him there in his hibernaculum, returned to bed and book, to a story set by the River Thames, to a saturnine, traditionally built, and fulsome bedmate curled in a ball at my feet, eyes channeling the far reaches of the galaxy.
The book, Diane Setterfield’s novel, Once Upon a River, centers on a puzzling occurrence in pre-Industrial Revolution England, a young girl who dies and then comes back to life. Stories and deeper mysteries ripple out from that event. I alternate that story with poems from the Polish poet Anna Kamienska, collected in Astonishments. (I didn't know who she was either, until a week ago.) They too circle mysteries. I like this one:
How to depart and not thank
animals and most of all the cat
for being so separate and for teaching us
with its whole body the wisdom of focus
I extend my foot a bit, give the bit of fur at bed’s end a slight provocation. A bit of animal enrichment, I opine.
Just as before a wedding I’ll have no time to thank you
all corners and radiators
I thank every spoon
God bless you since who else would bless you.
I think of all that dark matter miles above my head, extending into infinity. All that stuff that we don’t know how to define. Thank you. All those planets spinning for who knows what, mostly unseen to our largest eyes on sky. Thank you. All the spoons in the drawer downstairs, even the bent ones. Thank you.
All those gray squirrels asleep in leafy nests high in the trees and the mental maps of all the places they have hidden nuts dancing in their wee brains. The fox and deer that move silently in the deep night. The owls who call out, the HVACs that hum and whirr, the street signs that name places for no one watching.
And you I thank for knowledge
you who taught me how to depart
There are things worth more than we ourselves
I did ask him what an “n-body” was during the bedtime story. I forget what he said. I was trying hard to listen, but. . .
“Are you writing a blog in your head again?” he said. “You know you can never fly a plane, don’t you? You'd be looking out the window dreaming up something and crash.”
I smiled. Flying is just a metaphor.
“Oh, and I didn’t actually say half that stuff you’re writing in your head.”
“That’s called literary license, son. Writers do that all the time. Besides, it’s my story.”
I left him with his book of formulas, returned to bed, readjusted the cat, switched off the light, and lay there in the dark matter considering chaos and other oddities.
And now depart all of you along with a crowd of holy statues
I've had enough of you and enough of thanking
The silent night looks at us with the eye of the abyss
What are we in that dark pupil
Thank you, light. Bed. People everywhere. Chaos. Oddities.