[This blog, like some other recent ones, should probably be put in the category of “insomnia musings” except I don’t want to give the insomnia that credence in the hopes it will crawl back into its agitated corner.]
On the cusp of turning six years old my grandson asked me what holds atoms, as in one single atom, together. “Why don’t the electrons, protons, and neutrons all fly away? Is it gravity? Or, . . . or maybe magnetism?”
I muttered something about the weak force or the strong strong.
Ben: “Yes, but is the force gravity or magnetism?”
Me: No, it’s different.
A couple minutes later, Ben: “Okay. Well, what holds atoms together, like atoms that are alike? Like why doesn’t that truck fly apart?” (We were at a stop light next to a furniture delivery truck. Many of our best conversations are in the car.)
Ben was not asking about nuts, bolts, and axles. He was asking how are we held together “. . . or a leaf, or a tree, or a house. Why don’t they all fly apart?” I have often asked myself the same question. I contend that the difference between humans and other species is that we are aware that only something unexplainable stands between us and oblivion.
By the time he was eight, my older brother would fish, sometimes with me, in the teeny creek through the north meadow where the cows pastured. Catfish. Ugly critters that ruined my taste for fish for decades.
Fishing is a silent endeavor, even putting the live earthworms on the hooks. He taught me how to do this, the curve and threading of it, and I tried not to show how squeamish I was. The memory of wet fat “night crawlers” with the grit of dirt on them is sealed into my sight and touch.
He had a red and white plastic bobbin that fulfilled its job description by bobbing in the muddy water until a fish on a hook pulled it under. Mainly you stared at the bobbin and kept your silence.
Les took me fishing again when I was in my mid-50s. We took his boat out on the Saylorville Lake north of Des Moines and used radar to sight the fish deep below. I don’t remember what kind of fish we caught that day, but they were larger and prettier by far than the fingerlings of our childhood.
My brother, who died too young, attended church, but he also believed in the religion of fishing during the summer and the winter. He and my sister-in-law took early retirement from teaching and moved to a small town in Minnesota where their home was a couple blocks up from the Mississippi River. He was a serious ice fisherman.
We try to hold ourselves together through systems of belief: morals, ethics, religion, cultural rituals.
We try to hold ourselves together through personal identity: conservative, liberal, entrepreneur, nerd, millennial, elder, sports fanatic, freedom fighter, intellectual, poor, rich, traveler, professional, artist, parent, lover, teacher, fisherman, blogger.
We try to hold ourselves together through rules: legal codes, constitutions, oaths, grammar, proper attire, contracts, marriages, manners.
That is, we try to moor ourselves to tangible things – and self-concepts – so we don’t fly apart. We try to hold ourselves together by saying we are our particulars: we are musicians rather than music, we are poets rather than poetry, we are eyes rather than sight, we are fishermen rather than the taste of fish.
It doesn’t work, and it is not accurate because we are the music and the poetry and the seen and seeing, the fisherman and the taste of fish. The experience of music and poetry and sight and taste do not exist without us – and they are nothing but experience.
There can be no words for the Thing of us – the force if you will – that holds us together because the Thing of us is the whole of us, while words are inherently separating and dividing. A word cannot define something without excluding everything else.
So we line up series of words in the attempt to comprehend who we are, but it is like describing cake as flour, sugar, eggs, and water that have been mixed together and baked.
Yet if we have not words – rules, beliefs, self-identity, rites – we get scared and can fly apart. We rely on descriptions of ourselves to keep us manageable to ourselves, to keep our minds from being blown. And it is okay. We need time, we need safety of belief, we need science for progress, we need to fish, we need to ask about atoms and be satisfied that the words “strong force, weak force, gravity, and magnetism” have meaning and bring order.
The red and white plastic bobbin tells us when there is a fish on our line. With time we bravely move to larger and larger lakes where we employ radar, attempting to penetrate the muck.
Sometimes we even land a fish. Sometimes we even catch a glimpse of why trucks don’t fly apart. On rarest occasion, if we are silent enough, we catch a glimpse of who we are beyond words.