Monday, November 18, 2013

Harley Essay reproduction

Many of you are familiar with J.B. Harley's 1987 essay from The Map Collector, "The Map as Biography." It discusses a 1904 1:10,560 ("six-inch") Ordnance Survey sheet of the town where he spent many years. The essay has been a touchstone to me, but I've never actually seen the map until now, except for the extract printed with the essay.

I've mentioned it several times on this blog and elsewhere:

I'm using Rockethub (similar to Kickstarter) to presell a short edition of the map and essay, printed on opposite sides of a 22 x 17 sheet. I have the blessing of Harley's estate (Paul Laxton, executor). 25% of anything I eventually make over out-of-pocket costs will go to the Harley Fellowships.

The maps will be printed on heavy paper (Mohawk 100lb text vellum, warm white), and the map image will be printed as black and white, NOT gray scale, so the details should be crisp and not fuzzy from the dot screen.

Folded maps are $10, with a $15 option to buy one for your self and one for your favorite map library. Rolled maps are $20.

Here's the site:

You only have until midnight, November 30, and as of today we're 28% of the way there!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wooden Testimonies

At a recent small gathering of Friends, the subject of Quaker testimonies was raised. Modern liberal Friends formulate these "fruits of the spirit" as Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality (SPICE). This formulation, as LA Quaker pointed out a few years ago, is Howard Brinton's, from 1943. Previous to that, Quaker Books of Discipline and Faith and Practice had a hodgepodge of advices (the word "testimony," prior to Brinton, was reserved for the Peace Testimony).

There's nothing wrong with the content of these formulated testimonies. They are all full of virtuous and productive models... but there's something missing from the fact of this formulation—the fact of their being, in fact, formulaic.

Formulas make remembering things easy. They give us a pattern to organize ourselves. They also give a sense of completeness which may or may not be justified.

The point of these testimonies, to me, is that they are the product of a faithful (dedicated) life in a certain way: they summarize statements from three centuries of Friends who live their life into their faith, and in living those lives, discovered these important things.

When we adopt these formulated testimonies, we are not necessarily growing and living in a way that will add to these fruits. We are not listening for new instructions, but settling for the perfectly good-sounding instructions already offered to us. And this, I think, is not what George Fox et al. had in mind.

This is the metaphor that occurred to me in this meeting: We need a house. And so we cut down trees, and if they are good wood, they make the beams of a good house. But they are no longer living wood. We can't live out under the trees, not entirely. Maybe in L.A. you could, but we need houses here in Minnesota. But we also need to be sure when we cut down that timber to build that house, that we replant and tend the grove that wood came from. Because sooner or later the beetles will come and infest the old wood, and then where will you be?

How does Brinton's formulation give us an excuse to avoid the living wood? Would we know good wood outside that formulation if we saw it? And how about those old beams in our house? Have we inspected them for rot or beetles lately?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Where is crazy?

It's easy for a liberal like me to conclude that there's something psychogenic in the water to my north. Michele Bachmann, one of the nuttiest nuts of the far right, a fact-challenged, mean-spirited demagogue, has been elected four times to the Minnesota Sixth Congressional District. It changed shape before the 2012 election, but she still pulled it out.

So I wonder about that place up there. And I wonder, where exactly is the crazy coming from? Here's the answer, more or less:

To be fair, this is also a test of the MaPublisher Web Author tool. I'm not as impressed as I hoped: you'll note that there are voting districts that you can't get data from on rollover, and there were issues with export from Illustrator. But it's good enough for here and now.

There is texture to the district: rural Cokato and Luxemburg Townships are up close to 70% for Bachmann, and the areas that include St Cloud State and the twinned College of St Benedict and the University of St John all track in the mid 20s. But there's a lot of 45-55, both in rural (lean toward Bachmann) and town (lean away) precincts.

Bachmann squeaked out an overall win in 2012 over Jim Graves, 180,131 to 175,923. So it's not as simple as "how can level-headed Minnesota keep sending that nutbar back to DC?!?"

So here's a bigger-scale question: why does farm country breed the kind of attitude that permits Bachmanns? And not just farm country but farms themselves: the small towns vs the townships are distinctly tilted further away. I'm a city boy, and I just don't get it, even when I talk with rural classmates. Is there something fundamental about farming that makes the kind of society I live in here in Minneapolis abhorrent in and of itself? Or does it work the other way around: the sort of person who thrives on egalitarian, diversity-driven-ness tends to flock to the city? In a mobile society, like finds like?

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Flying out of O'Hare, bearing southeast, the strict crosshatch of Chicago's streets and close-set houses gives way to more liquid suburban subdivisions, and then to Indiana's fields, green and tan and brown, sections and half sections and quarter sections and little rectagular subsubsections.
They call it a checkerboard, as if Jefferson's curse was a game. It's a game that doesn't end. There is no checkmate. Chess, checkers, Scrabble, go, the gridiron of the football field... each contains our ambitions to eviscerate the opponent, each outlines the field of play. We walk off th field, and the game is over. But we cannot walk off of Jefferson's gameboard without leaving home.

Ptolemy never meant his latitude and longitude to be inscribed back onto the ground, to guide roads and property lines. He wanted to create a guide, a system to transfer his sketch map of places and coastlines into the freshly-plastered wall. He wanted others to draw the same picture of the vast world he had recorded, over and over.

One and a half millennia later, transplanted rationalists saw in the New World a clean slate, and so city after American city rose, squared and aligned with the next. The people who lived here prior to these rationalists worshipped the four directions; the Europeans carved them over and over into the ground, they used them to worship their own dreams of empire.

Here's what I think we need: storytellers who walk new dreamlines, or find the old dreamlines, in our world. We need to unmap ourselves, ungrid the land. Then we can map lightly, the lines left imaginary. We can measure without cutting, and know without pretending to own.

With thanks to the Harrisons.

Maps for Strangers

My paper for NACIS, delivered October 10, 2013:

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding in how we view maps for land navigation—road maps, street maps, and topographic maps. This misunderstanding colors what we think the historical place of such maps is, and how we view the role of maps in the new mobile era.

Here's the problem: when we say a map is a travel map or a visitors map, we assume that the map itself—the laying out of the landscape—is the means by which a stranger will figure out how to get from point A to point B.  Are maps the best, most fundamental way to find a path? I want to argue that they are not, that the two-dimensional “mappiness” we take for granted is essentially irrelevant to that process, and that we are now witnessing the devolution of that idea—the idea that maps are how you ought to find your way—and its replacement by the resurgence of the itinerary as the foremost tool for wayfinding.

I grew up with this image, from Peter Spier's 1967 picture book London Bridge is Falling Down, illustrating the old nursery rhyme:

See-saw, sacradown, 
Which is the way to London Town?
One foot up, and the other foot down
That is the way to London town!

See-saw, jack in the hedge,
Which is the way to London Bridge?
Put on your shoes and away you trudge
That is the way to London Bridge

The rhyme, and some aspects of the scene pictured, are in fact spot on in showing how people traveled before stage coaches and railroads. People walked, or rode. But they didn't, as far as we know, customarily take a map with them until well into the nineteenth century, and even then it would be a topographic map to guide in hiking or bicycling, not more conventional town-to-town road travel. Instead people used a combination of an itinerary, a prepared list of points one should travel to in order, and, as here, asking people the best way to get to the next point.

Catherine Delano Smith tracks the emergence of European, especially British, maps that relate to travel from late Middle Ages through the eighteenth century in her chapter "Milieus of Mobility" in Cartographies of Travel and Navigation. What she finds are that while some maps that show travel information, they were not tools for travelers on the move. Early strip maps were parts of portfolios with their own agenda of promoting local prosperity, and purchased by wealthy collectors. Other early network maps may have been used to plot itineraries, but the itineraries themselves consistently form the heart of how travelers made sense of any specific, longer journey. They were the linear framework within which one customarily then made up the details of the journey along the way, by asking for local information.

The key point I want to emphasize here, is that it is not the two-dimensional sense of a whole landscape that travelers needed. What they were intent on was their path through that landscape. Any other information may have been potentially interesting or at least diverting, but with the exception of triangulating by distant landmarks, they were inconsequential for the purposes of navigating.

It's been demonstrated by a number of people, especially Jim Akerman, the editor of the book that Smith's chapter is part of, that modern American route networks developed in the early 20th Century as part of the improvement and development of roads. Thus the opening of the Lincoln Highway 100 years ago this year spurred improvement of the existing roadways it used and signing them in common. Back and forth, these three tasks—designation and signing, mapping, and physical improvement—created the American network of Interstate, US, state, county and local roads we live within today.

This iterative development in the US may have blinded us, at least somewhat, to the difference between a route and a road, a designation vs. a piece of pavement. Modern vehicles' dependence on paved surfaces—not as extreme as railways, but still pretty strict—makes drivers forget that the network of roads is a subset of possible routes, in a way that foot-travelers never did. As Smith notes, before the modernization of roads and fights over the commons in the 17th century, traveling out across meadows was not seen as trespassing, but as the usual way of things. This is still true in parts of the British Isles, notably in the highlands of Scotland, where there are few linear rights of way and the law generally favors the right to cross open land.

We can get a taste of the older way of thinking in terms of itineraries, by looking at early auto guides like The American Automobile Association's Blue Books, which were popular motoring guides before the First World War. This was how you got from city to city before routes were blazed—indeed many of the very earliest road markings were made by the publishers of such guides to help their buyers find their way. And note that it doesn’t work entirely without maps—but that maps are clearly subordinate information to the detailed directions.

So why do we use maps today? Part of it is that our idea of a destination changed along with the motorcar. One no longer rode from a railroad terminus in Milwaukee to a railroad terminus in Chicago, but from one house in one part of the state to another, over a road network where one had to make choices many more times than on a rail network. And those choices, in America, are mostly anonymous crossroads rather than named places, as in Europe. America’s road system, especially in the center of the country, is based on an artificial grid constructed before European settlement, rather than organic, point-to-point networking.

So, while American road development focused on routes, even down to the local level, European roads and mapping used an already well-developed system of ways between towns and named places. Today, American road signs emphasize the route numbers and names, while European road signs emphasize destinations. In Europe, topographic maps formed much more of the basis of early road mapping, as navigation was much more a matter of finding one's way over an existing network of roads and lanes that connected named villages and towns, and less on following a developing system of routes.

I think also that the idea of maps’ primacy comes out of a desire for efficiency on the part of information providers. If we are going to produce a product in large editions that aids navigation, it needs to serve everyone with every conceivable route. But this does not mean that maps are what people wanted. The popularity of routing services like the American Automobile Association’s Trip-Tik program, or this knockoff concept by Universal Printing for a competitor to AAA, should indicate that really what people wanted is a linear route. Maps provide useful information, but they require the extra step from users of extracting that linear route out of the web of lines across the landscape. We have used maps because they work acceptably in huge single editions, and that gave oil companies, and later map retailers, something cheap to give or to sell people.

No more. This spring, I got lost in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. I got to an intersection with a CVS pharmacy, a RiteAid pharmacy, a 7-11 and a BP service station. And in those four stores on three corners, there was one map—not one map for sale, but one map, period, and it was a ten year old county atlas in the clearance bin at RiteAid.

As cartographers, we look at the mapping in Google and Bing, but I think this isn't what people are choosing over paper maps. It's the itineraries, the turn-by-turn directions. That's my hunch, anyway. What I see from the centuries before the oil company map, as described by Smith, tells me that people really want and  need this, and that on our modern road network, what online map services and GPS direction can deliver in terms of custom point-to-point itineraries, delivered on a uniform, one-size-fits all background, is simply better. It certainly beats this, a 1952 map marked up by a AAA advisor.

The dominance of printed maps for land navigation was a detour, a really big one-time glitch on the way to improving the itinerary.

So. Where does that leave us, the map makers? I talked earlier about our having made a mistake in thinking about the place of maps, and you may think this finishes that line of discussion, but every mistake has two sides. Maps are not the central communicative medium for wayfinding, but they are a central tool for something else. They allow us to construct a more coherent sense of place.

Itinerary: line, journey. Map: area, place.

In 1983, I spent a month in London, and took a bunch of walks. I had destinations, but the process of exploring the city by winding my way through it, was wonderful. And I specifically remember back in the dorm room at night, going back over my route on this Bartholomew’s London Plan map, realizing connections I hadn’t realized I’d made—walking one day around the back of a building I’d been inside the day before; passing by a tube stop I’d rumbled through the week before. Approaching Admiralty Arch first from the front, then from the back. I used the map to get un-lost a few times, but what I remember most is constructing a two-dimensional memory of the city after the fact on top of this dense artwork.

When we travel—when I travel—I am aware of how I essentially ignore large swaths of territory I am traveling through. I don't think this is just a product of the motor age, though the hermetically sealed automobile has emphasized this phenomenon. The plain fact is, most of the time we don't care much about the space we travel through—we just want to get through it. But we have a different relationship with the places where we stop. When we stop travel for a rest break, we move around, even if it's to get a sense of the relationship between the car park, our motel room, and the office. This most rudimentary geography sets up an understanding of space in more than one dimension, giving us a field within which we can carry out our "settled" functions of eating, sleeping, eliminating, washing, and maintaining our physical goods.

This is the kind of territory which, if it is complex enough that we can't easily hold it in our heads, we want a map for.

J.B. Harley was right on top of this understanding when he wrote his essay, “The Map as Biography.” To him, the map in question, a 1904 topographic sheet of Newton Abbot in Devonshire, reveals familiar truths to him: the history of an English town in its layers of development; the history of British mapmaking in the surveyors and draftspersons who compiled and published the map; and finally his own history, memories of a long residence, a marriage, births and deaths and burials. He wrote the essay after he had left Newton Abbot to live in Milwaukee, so it truly was an aide memoire to him, a reminder of where he had deeply been from. When David Woodward memorialized his colleague and this essay in a broadsheet for the History of Cartography project, he went a bit further, and talked about maps, and this map in particular, as a repository for memory.

Strangers in a territory—true strangers—don’t have these memories, and so I want to suggest that maps are fundamentally not for strangers. They may call out aspects of a familiar place we did not realize. They may correct misunderstandings our limited ground-based perspective gave us. But their real value is giving us a framework on which to construct our own familiarity—not from ground zero, but from some pieces of already-existing memory or knowledge. One must be familiar with a place in some way to fully make use of a map.

There’s a chimera I've been chasing since I started making maps: the idea that a map could somehow transmit poetic, profound sense of place. I’ve made a variety of arguments why it just isn’t so, mostly centered around how the construction of the fine arts and of cartography are incompatible. So here’s another reason:

We are all strangers to our audience. It's not just us. Almost every piece of published, broadcast, or publicly performed work operates this way. But a lot of work in other forms—memoir or poetry or landscape painting—slips a little trick in, creating, for the duration of the audience’s experience, the illusion that something personal, even intimate, has been shared. The subject might be actually personal, as in a memoir, or it might be fictional. But this is not the default condition for mass-disseminated media: this illusion of familiarity must be constructed by the author and/or performer and then agreed to by the audience. Now, the creator of this personal work may in fact be speaking truth, and we may be reading something personal. But the connection, the actual relationship between any individual audience member and the artist, is illusory. Of this fact all sorts of awkward fan encounters are born.

What we makers of modern maps do generally avoids this: we present what users take as simple, impersonal facts. But as Harley notes, it is upon these facts that a profound sense of place can be constructed by the audience. This is what we potentially have to offer: not a million people with one text. Instead, a toolset on which a million people create their own texts.

And this is why I so loved Becky Cooper’s Mapping Manhattan project: a blank map, handed to people to draw their own relationship to the most important island in America. it’s simple, it’s brilliant, and to me it’s a template for where we recorders of our geography need to go. The book at first seems to show a series of maps, but I suggest we should better look at it without the assumption that each new image is a separate map. These are each examples of the placement of individual memory upon a common map—the visualization of the internal processes all of use when we use maps as repositories of memory. This is how people at root use and want to use maps. It’s up to us to create maps that most effectively allow people to do that.

That is where this paper ended on Tuesday, but after a day at NACIS, I want to add a postrscript.

When we assume ahead of time what our maps must be made of, we pass on to our users assumptions about what kinds of texts, what kinds of memories, are permissible in the stories they are going to tell. This outline of Manhattan gives permission for a huge variety of responses. If Becky Cooper had handed her New Yorkers a URL to a mashup site where they could pin responses in digital form on a detailed OpenStreetMap zoomable base, would we have ended up with nearly as interesting and rich a set of responses? 

If we build our maps, our bases for public conversation, on data—if we ground our understandings insistently on data-driven mapping, we end up excluding whole classes of memory, of communication. To me this is  real challenge: from a data-driven perspective, there are centrally important modes of human understanding that are just too sloppy and vague to be admissible. The way we cartographers have learned to think excludes sloppiness. And, yes, sloppy thinking within a precise, complex system has arguably gotten us into the political mess we're in right now. But only part of the problem is the sloppy thinkers insisting on equal standing. The other part of the problem is the insistence of non-sloppy thinkers that we don't have a fully legitimate place for this sloppiness. 

I think that's the root problem: our insistence that our human response to the world around us not be sloppy. When we insist on this, we have overstepped our place.

Monday, August 26, 2013

new essay in Aeon Magazine

A new essay in Aeon Magazine on being a Quaker and an atheist who really believes in magical stories. It's complicated. I originally titled it "In Praise of Gods That Do Not Exist," but I'm OK with the title they assigned to it: "I contradict myself."

As always, comments welcome, here or on the article itself. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Why decoration is important

There's a piece of Dalia Varanka's paper on the rise of the "Plain Style" in mapping around 1700 that has been gnawing at me. I referred to it in my recent essay on cartography and aesthetics in Cartographic Perspectives, but I think it deserves some deeper pulling-out.

[FYI, Varanka's paper is not available online: it's “The manly map: the English construction of gender in early modern cartography.” in Gender and Landscape: Renegotiating the Moral Landscape, edited by J. Carubia, L. Dowler, and B. Szczygiel. New York/London: Routledge.]

The piece that's bugging me is this: why is decoration trivial? I take it as a given, something that doesn't need further explanation: form follows function, and decoration is an add-on. Flourishes, trills, scrollwork and so on, are less "honest," in this view, than plain, unadorned, prose. Manly prose—you know, like Hemingway.

See what I mean? This thread of appearance being false, of truth being deep, runs to the bone in our culture. And it isn't true everywhere: saving "face" is seen crucial in many cultures. Even in our culture, there is a long and deep divide which has not been entirely settled, between those who think God cares about what we do and those who think what we are is essential: in Christian terms, works and faith.

Outwardness and inwardness were a part of my formative pop-psych thinking: I remember M&M's being a popular metaphor in high school: the hard exterior and the soft, delicate inside. The astrological notions of sun-sign (true inner self) and ascendant (what you feel the need to appear like) also made an appearance.

That latter, though I do not believe in the functional idea (that when you were born determines who you are) does I think provide a way to think of decoration as essential. Because it says that how you want (or even need) to be seen is itself an essential part of who you are. It's not a "fake" thing you can change at will. Some seemings will fit you better than others, just as your true inner self is what it is.

Adolph Loos' Ornament and Crime posited that ornament was a waste of time, because fashion changes. And we have come to see outward presentation as synonymous with fashion. Being changeable, fashion is not trusted. We want our truths to remain on a single, unwavering course. That's what faith is: sticking with your allegiance to a person or an idea no matter what. Even if, as with Mother Teresa, you never actually achieve that numinous moment, you still get counted as saintly if you stick with a strict goodness.

But some ornament is not especially prone to fashion. Traditions include ornament, whether it be in religious decoration, folk dances and music, or traditional costume. Even when radical technological change steps in (as with aniline dyes and many fiber traditions), there is seen to be a deep well of sameness and conformity that is valued, even as it is all about "unnecessary" patterning on functional objects.

So why is ornament important? I think of patterns of tile, or of geometric grillwork, that I see when passing time. I especially notice it in bathrooms. These provide a place for the mind to work and rest simultaneously. A field of play, perhaps. They are certainly better for the mind than an utterly blank slate (or tile). We like to play off of patterns. I do anyway. And so decoration, on surfaces and tools we use every day, give us something to work with.

It's the idea of play that I think is the stickler here. The arguments against ornament are mostly serious. Ornament is seen as silly, a distraction perhaps. And I suppose in places where total concentration is necessary, it is. The question is, should our lives be spent in that kind of concentration? I don't think that's very healthy-sounding. We need to build in play, just to keep ourselves sane. Our lives can't be built so thoroughly on importance and concentration; there's a reason U.S. Presidents seem to age so quickly.

Decoration, then, keeps us young. Perhaps. Or at least keeps us from getting too old, too fast.

What I see as a deeper problem, then, is not that we need decoration, but that we need to build our lives where decoration and underlying form come together inseparably. Again, the astrological model is one I hold up: that the healthiest approach to decoration is that form and function are in fact one, that the object and the patterns we see in it are the same, not a core and an add-on. That the M&M is one candy, not two parts adhered together.

And this doesn't mean (in maps for example) that every pixel must carry inward meaning. Some marks do not mean anything about the core structure of a place. Sometimes, they are texture. But that texture is part of what the place is about. That paisley print is not coded with instructions; it's an abstract design. But that design, if it fits, becomes part of what you are when you are wearing it. And that texture, that added noise, as it were, even though it is not consciously spoken by you or even understood by you, is part of what you are.

I think this is the root of our modernist discomfort with decoration: we want to be in control. Just like the English Empiricists who promulgated the Plain Style, we want to exercise our conscious power over as much as we can, and to eliminate that which we do not consciously control. This obsession with maintaining an order we can understand is arrogant in the extreme. And in the end it will kill what we love, which is not entirely under our command. That decoration, that patterning we make, turns out to be an imitation of the vast, intricate, impossible to entirely comprehend web of processes that keeps us and this world alive.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Function and Beauty (In Defense of Useless Maps) - new essay

In a new essay for Cartographic Perspectives, the journal of the North American Cartographic Information Society, called "Function and Beauty (In Defense of Useless Maps)", I discuss some potential pitfalls and opportunities in discussing maps in terms of aesthetics. It ends up dipping heavily into some wider issues. I hope you all enjoy! All comments welcome.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Climate and weather

It's become a commonplace in discussions of climate change that climate is not the same as weather. And yet, it remains so tempting to say "Summer's hot. Must be climate change." We want to relate ideas back to a scale we are directly familiar with, and when it comes to surface conditions on the earth, weather—what is it doing outside right now and what will it be doing outside soon—is a natural, instinctive way to think and talk. And so climate change people, over and over, have to emphasize that any given day's weather is not "because of climate change."

I was struck recently, in reading followup commentary about the verdict in George Zimmerman's murder trial of Trayvon Martin, how similar the relationship is between racism and any given incident informed by race. Zimmerman's trial, because it was a trial of a single person for a single alleged crime, had to be about his state of mind and motivation. That's how the criminal justice system works: you don't get charged individually for broad-based social injustices, but for acts you have performed yourself. But clearly there was an underlying climate, and Zimmerman's defenders have tried to deny this or avoid this question, by and large. The fact that this was an individual trial and not a trial of the stand-your-ground statute he used, made that disconnect easier.

We humans do this kind of thing all the time, and modern society has given us legal tools (like stand your ground) that make it easier to separate out weather from climate, to claim that all our actions are self-interested, and that in essence there is no such thing as climate, only weather that follows more weather. Consider, for example, how quarterly returns and share prices make it possible to govern a public corporation without regard to long-term consequences. Consider how gun laws relentlessly focus on individual rights instead of overall public safety. Consider how a retail-based model of spirituality ("if I don't like religious group X I can always go down the street") has changed the purpose of religious groups from group commitment to individual fulfillment. Consider education for specific skills vs education for the whole citizen.

I'm in Germany right now, which 70-80 years ago suffered the consequences of over-climatizing the population, and then turning that climate over to monsters. We've done this over and over in the last century or so: the emphasis on big-picture nation-states crushing individual experience under the ever-turning wheel. So there is reason to celebrate the opportunity of individuals to not have to be a cog, or a statistical point, but to be themselves. But we all also do live in a climate, and a society. We are all parts of larger wholes. Surely there is some simple, if difficult dance we can perform to balance these two. Surely we can wear a raincoat and prepare for the flash flood at the same time as we prepare for slowly rising oceans. And we can recognize the possibility that George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin "for being black," but that if he had been white, this almost certainly never would have happened.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A bowl filling with water

I had a lovely lunch the other day with Bob Schmitt, who has for some time been involved in Quaker circles around the topic of "eldering." Now, I've mostly heard this in terms of imposing discipline: lovingly reproving or correcting someone you believe to be headed off the rails. In a liberal context of people-can-believe-what-they-want-to-believe, it's kind of a touchy subject: one person's batpoop-crazy is another's touched-by-the-noodly-appendage.

What I had not understood, and what I got to understand in a fairly brief discussion at the end of our visit, was that among many Friends (early Friends and presently mostly Conservative Friends), "elders" are not just the disciplinarians. They are specifically a sort of yin to the yang of ministry (or maybe I got that backwards). Quakers do "record" or officially recognize ministers, who then may travel to speak and witness. Historically, traveling ministers were usually accompanied by an elder, whose job was specifically to "hold" that ministry in prayer, to offer a kind of grounding to the potentially wild electrical field generated by powerful ministry (I'm speaking metaphorically here—just want to be sure that's clear).

I find this sense of a counterbalance to ministry very intriguing. It goes along with the idea of discernment, which I've long found one of the most useful parts of Friends' practice: you aren't supposed to just follow every harebrained scheme you think God's tossed at you, but to be deliberate in following the fiery finger of command, to try and approach closer a grounded certainty that you are in fact being asked to do what you think you are being asked.

In meeting a few months ago, I asked (silently) what we were doing there, and the image that popped almost instantly into my mind was of a shallow bowl, designed to hold water. Our job was to support and pay attention to this bowl, into what would be poured what was needed. OK then, I thought. A week or two later, at a very raw-emotion-filled meeting, I found myself doing what I had heard of other Friends doing, really concentrating on listening to the whole, both said and unsaid. And it was a lot like holding that bowl. Apparently this is what is meant by "eldering" by "holding the meeting." Go figure.

For most of my time as a Quaker, I've been very focused on ministry: I speak in meeting, probably more than I ought. I'm interested in what people do and how they do it in a way that ministers to others and to the world, and I've thought of that for a long time as what being a Friend is largely about. And I've been frustrated by something just... off about how Friends, in particular liberal Friends, approach what it means to be a Quaker. Never been able to put a handle on it, but I think this is it: we are chronically out of balance between ministry and eldering.

It's like a gaggle of kids who have been sent out to fetch the water. Everyone wants to pull the pump-handle, and it gets so that people think "getting the water" means manning the pump. But what about the people holding the bucket to receive that water?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Old Books 4: The Bone People

I got this book in Cornwall in 1986, for no particular reason, and read it the peculiar haze of being a barkeep at a holiday resort on a bluff near Perranporth. It was an odd and stranded summer, and this is an odd and haunted book.

It is filled with fierceness: fierce humor, fierce love, and fierce violence. It concerns a trio of characters: Kerewin Holmes (an obvious counterpart to the author, Keri Hulme), a woman who won the lottery, and saw her talent for painting and life shrivel into the tower she built with the proceedings; Joseph Gillayley, whose beloved wife and son died, and who is left caring for Simon, who is autistic and prone to violent rage. Joe gives back in kind, savagely beating the boy.

You'd think with a set up like that you'd end up with a gothic abbatoir of a book. But it isn't. Love and violence are not mutually exclusive in this world—indeed, in reading bell hooks' Something About Love many years later, I found I simply couldn't stomach her calm assurance that "where there is violence, there is no love" precisely because the vision of Joe and Simon kept returning.

It's not that they like hurting each other. It's not S&M in family form. But they do enact their rages back and forth around the room. In what some critics say should have been the finale, Simon smashes Kerewin's beloved guitar, and she tells him to go to hell. Joe enraged, beats him senseless. Before losing consciousness, Simon pulls out a long sliver of glass he has saved away, and neatly inserts it into his stepfather's gut. So, yes, I guess it is an abbatoir.

But it isn't the finale. Broken—Kerewin with a cancer, Joe with time in prison and lost relationship with his family, Simon made deaf and permanently injured by the final beating—they each go to the land in one way or another, and are healed. And that's the message Hulme gives to us in the end: that the fires of fierceness that tie us to the land are the same fires of violence that are a part of Maori culture (did I mention that all of this takes place on the South Island of New Zealand, and that Kerewin and Joe are Maori?), and that it's not a matter of putting those flames out, but of turning them on to what needs the flame.

The whole thing makes me question the smug way we liberals often talk about violence as inherently, utterly wrong. It's not that any character in this book is happy about being violent towards anyone else (although Kerewin smugly puts Joe in his place once with advanced aikido moves). But I think Hulme is saying that neither is violence something we can cut out of ourselves. To me, this book is a puzzle. After more than 25 years, I'm still working on it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Old Books 3: The Lathe of Heaven

I remembered how much I loved this book, but on re-reading I realized that I had forgotten how much the main character, George Orr, had imprinted on me as a hero. Especially towards the end, I found myself saying, “Oh, so that's where I got this idea of that kind of Virtue from.”

George Orr is simultaneously a cypher, a man whose psychology tests come back exactly average in every respect, and a man who it turns out possesses enormous strength. At the opening of the book, he appears to be compared to a jellyfish in the ocean of sleep, who upon waking is cast up on the rocks to be torn to bits. At the end, his solidity and centered strength allowed him to save the world from a nightmare created by a power-mad psychiatrist.

Actually, it was the second time that happened; the book is framed by his saving the world. Orr's particular ability—if you can call what your unconscious accomplishes while you sleep an "ability"—is that certain of his dreams retroactively change reality. At the opening, his dreams unmake the nuclear war that had "burned away his eyelids" and pinned him beneath twisted concrete and steel. He tries to get the dreams to stop, tries to stop himself from changing things out of a sense of responsibility. He desperately wants to abdicate.

This sense of abdication, of consciously pushing away from consciously given position and authority, is a running theme in the stories I hold most dear. The Tattoo-Rhumba Man does it, the son of Croesus does it in a play I wrote in high school. It's like The Lion King, except in my versions of the story, the runaway monarch does not return to reclaim the throne.

George Orr also refuses the throne, the mantle of authority that Dr Haber tries to assume in his place and proves unable to maintain. George Orr's power is not to be king, but to be a humble channeler of the power he has, someone through whom Right Order in the world will be restored. It is not submission to his gift that he performs at the end, when he saves the world again, but the simple effort to press a single off button.

At the center of the book is the Taoist idea of strength through inaction, of virtue through inaction. The image of ocean creatures—jellyfish and later sea turtles—held and moved by ocean currents, is a running theme. One of Orr's dreams' creations is Aliens, mysterious creatures who at first appear to be a threat, but then turn out to be benign and kind of Taoist in their love of paradox and seeming self-contradiction. They are a bringing into the flesh of something missing from the nightmarish North America Orr dreams his way out of: the satanic Enemy. Orr's dreams first create the monsters as a diversion from seemingly impossible political divisions on earth, then convert these monsters into friends and neighbors—at the conclusion, one of the aliens is George Orr's benevolent employer.

Here's a moment in chapter 9, where Orr truly comes into himself:

Without premeditation and without timidity Orr said, “Dr Haber, I can't let you use my effective dreams any more.”

“Eh?” Haber said, his mind still on Orr's brain, not on Orr.

“I can't let you use my dreams any more.”

”’Use’ them?”

“Use them.”

“Call it what you like,” Haber said. He had straightened up and towered over Orr, who was still sitting down. He was gray, large, broad, curly bearded, deep-chested, frowning. Your God is a jealous God. “I'm sorry, George, but you’re not in a position to say that.”

Orr's gods were nameless and unenvious, asking neither worship nor obedience.

“Yet I do say it,” he replied mildly.

Haber looked down at him, really looked at him for a moment, and saw him. He seemed to recoil, as a man might who thought to push aside a gauze curtain and found it to be a granite door.
This passage speaks a great deal to me. It oddly pars up with the heroic ideal in Pullman's His Dark Materials, as neither a total abdication, nor a taking back of a kingdom. It's a denial of power as exercised by the conscious self—of “use”—and a restatement of that power as a slower, bedrock kind of stability: a rooted stillness. A conservatism not of habit and form, but of time and presence.

As I say, this speaks a great deal to me.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

False Appearances

With just one hand held up high
I can blot you out, out of sight.
Peek-a-boo, peek-a-boo, little Earth.
- Kate Bush, “Hello Earth”

In late December 1968, an astronaut on Apollo 8, Probably William Anders, became the first human to take a picture of the the earth in one frame. It wasn't the first photo to show the earth in one frame—unmanned satellites had created images at least two years earlier. Nor is this the iconic Blue Marble photo, which showed an entire illuminated face of the earth—that was taken four years later by Apollo 17. But I still like it, and tie it to the view of Earthrise from the Moon shown on the Apollo 8 commemorative stamp, which in turn ties to the reading from Genesis that was made by the crew on Christmas from the spacecraft.

The old spiritual goes "He's got the whole world in his hands" and when I heard Odetta sing that as a child, I thought of that new image of the world from space. It's become a cliche children learn from their youngest days: children entering the Barbara Petchenik Children's Map Competition often locate their version of the blue marble as an object of care, cared for by people... variants of the hands-around-the-world designs that in my growing up years symbolized the desire for world peace.

These derivative images, the logos and illustrations and photo-montages... they are all lies. Their intentions are good, and the message of an interconnected world, a world that can be polluted and made much less habitable by humans, has been a powerful one. But that picture of giant hands or giant people distorts the real scale of things. It makes it look like the planet could be crushed.

It's hard to visualize at the scale of a screen or a textbook page; even well-done, to-scale graphics still give the sense of a planet that can be held in hand, of a kind of fragility we could blot out with one mistake.

The planet, in fact, is staggeringly huge, especially compared to the way we commonly understand space directly, the way we make ourselves at home. There's a basic graphic in the Science Museum of Minnesota that brought this home to me last week: it shows a cross-section of a small arc of the Earth's surface, with the thin thin layer of atmosphere over the top. The distance from the top of Everest to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, a little over 12 miles difference in elevation, is about 3/1000 of the average radius of the Earth. Proportionally, it's less than the elevation distance between most people's worst pimple and the deepest scar on their skin. OK, I made that up, but it's miniscule.

 Why does this matter?

It matters because we tend to bring abstracted space into human scale, and it just isn't. We look at a map of the United States, and it's a friendly looking shape (or an unfriendly one, depending how you're thinking). We don't see "vast space it would take you more than a year to walk across." And so we make incorrect assumptions how things like nations and continents and the world as a whole are unified in ways they simply aren't, and or can simply be understood in toto in ways they can't.

This is not to say they cannot be understood, but our understanding of these big spaces is, by necessity, abstract. It is not direct and personal.

Which brings me to theology. This is actually where I've been heading all along—sorry if it feels like bait and switch. But the problem of mismatched scale is one that is frankly a big one for us as modern humans. We know there are supernovae and colliding galaxies and all kinds of stuff going on in an incomprehensibly vast universe, and yet we think the God of Everything cares about our petty pain? Or on the other hand, we experience grace and love and beauty, here on our very local and personal scale, and expect that to match up with the Crab Nebula? The scale differences in how we now understand the universe to be constructed, the impersonal hugeness and incomprehensible smallness of the subatomic world (not to mention the atomic world)—these things tend to make the universality of a single (loving) God really hard to reconcile. I think (anecdotally, talking to one of my relatives, and thinking about the "amazing universe" speech I keep hearing variants of from atheists) that looking at the stars and really thinking about them has made a lot of atheists in our world.

It's one of the things that makes me just stop cold at anything even remotely like Biblical literalism. I love the story of Adam and Eve and that tree of Knowledge. There's something really important that snakes its way up through it. And reading Lloyd Lee Wilson's
Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, I understand finally the shape of the early Friends' understanding of their place in history: restoring, through Jesus, Mankind's state before the fall, when the world was rightly ordered. Essentially, if humans could all join in that Gospel Order, the universe would all be right again.

That vision of right order is so powerful. And it's a beautiful thing to think about as we look around us, right here: our home, our friends and family, our life, all in order with what should be. I want that too. But our rightness won't make the next asteroid not hit the planet and make a giant tsunami that wipes out every coastal civilization on the planet. It won't make the eventual death of our planet as the sun expands disappear. It may not even prevent global warming from radically changing what we mean by "habitable planet."

Order is scalar. Right order among people is different from right order among planets, and right order among quarks. And this is OK. It needs to be OK. What I think our job is, living here in 2013, is to figure out how to make it OK, how to live rightly in a universe that we are not, after all, at the center of. We can be the center of something—that's important—but we cannot hold the world in our hands, and there are no hands that can. We're not actually blotting out the moon, or the earth, with one hand. We're covering our eyes.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Corlis Benefideo Award for Imaginative Cartography: call for nominations

May as well spread the word one more way:

I'm part of the committee for a new award by NACIS (the North American Cartographic Information Society):  

The Corlis Benefideo Award for Imaginative Cartography.

From the page describing the award:

This award recognizes imaginative cartography. Cartography is often seen by the public as work opposed to imagination, grounded entirely in established fact. While this devotion to reflecting what is forms the heart of cartographic thinking, cartographers and artists who use maps as a basis for their work can (and do) take that grounding in fact and use it to venture into the world of the possible. Some explore real places from perspectives that allow us to see it fresh and full of possibility, and some take our established traditions of mapmaking, and indeed take fully-constructed maps themselves, and turn them on their heads to make us see ourselves anew. This award is to recognize this work and the perspective it brings to the field of cartography, and the contributions it makes to the world as a whole.

Sound daunting? I hope not. I hope it sounds exciting. There's details on nominating here, and nominations are due March 15. I hope you'll consider submitting a nomination!

Also, please share and encourage your friends to submit a nomination.

Oh, and who is Corlis Benefideo? Click here if you don't recognize the name... and thank you Barry Lopez.

Storm Still: Comings and Goings in Ancient Britain

King Lear's Palace.
Enter Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund. Kent and Gloucester converse. Edmund stands back.
Edmund comes forward.
Sound a sennet.
Enter one bearing a coronet; then Lear; then the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall; next, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, with Followers.
Exeunt Gloucester and Edmund.
Lear lays his hand on his sword.
Exit Kent.
Flourish. Enter Gloucester, with France and Burgundy; Attendants.
Flourish. Exeunt Lear, Burgundy, Cornwall, Albany, Gloucester, and Attendants.
Exeunt France and Cordelia.

The Earl of Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Edmund the Bastard solus, with a letter.
Enter Gloucester.
Edmund puts up the letter.
Exit Gloucester.
Enter Edgar.
Exit Edgar.
Exit Edmund.

The Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Goneril and her Steward Oswald.
Horns within.

The Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Kent, disguised.
Horns within. Enter Lear, Knights, and Attendants.
Exit an Attendant.
Exit an attendant.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Exit Oswald.
Exit a Knight.
Enter Knight.
Exit Knight.
Exit an Attendant.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Lear strikes him.
Kent trips up his heels.
Kent pushes him out.
Lear gives Kent money.
Enter Fool.
Fool offers Kent his cap.
Enter Goneril.
Enter Albany.
Lear strikes his head.
Exit Lear.
Enter Lear.
Exeunt Lear, Kent, and Attendants.
Enter Oswald the Steward.

Court before the Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Lear, Kent, and Fool.
Enter a Gentleman.

A court within the Castle of the Earl of Gloucester.
Enter Edmund the Bastard and Curan, meeting.
Exit Curan.
Enter Edgar.
Exit Edgar.
Enter Gloucester, and Servants with torches.
Exeunt some Servants.
Tucket within.
Enter Cornwall, Regan, and Attendants.
Exeunt. Flourish.

Before Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Kent and Oswald the Steward, severally.
Kent beats him.
Enter Edmund, with his rapier drawn, Gloucester, Cornwall, Regan, Servants.
Edmund parts them.
Stocks brought out.
Kent is put in the stocks.
Exeunt all but Gloucester and Kent.
Exit Gloucester.
Kent Sleeps.

The open country.
Enter Edgar.
Exit Edgar.

Before Gloucester's Castle
Kent in the stocks.
Enter Lear, Fool, and Gentleman.
Exit Lear.
Enter Lear and Gloucester.
Exit Gloucester.
Enter Cornwall, Regan, Gloucester, Servants.
Kent here set at liberty.
Lear lays his hand on his heart.
Lear kneels.
Tucket within
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Enter Goneril.
Lear Points at Oswald.
Exeunt Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Fool.
Storm and tempest.
Enter Gloucester.

A heath.
Storm still.
Enter Kent and a Gentleman at several doors.
Exeunt severally.

Another part of the heath.
Storm still.
Enter Lear and Fool.
Enter Kent.
Exeunt Lear and Kent.
Exit Fool.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Gloucester and Edmund.
Exit Gloucester.
Exit Edmund.

The heath. Before a hovel.
Storm still.
Enter Lear, Kent, and Fool.
Exit Fool.
Enter Fool from the hovel.
Enter Edgar disguised as a madman.
Storm still.
Storm still.
Lear tears at his clothes.
Enter Gloucester with a torch.
Storm still.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Cornwall and Edmund.

A farmhouse near Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Gloucester, Lear, Kent, Fool, and Edgar.
Exit Gloucester.
Enter Gloucester.
Exeunt all but Edgar.
Exit Edgar.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Cornwall, Regan, Goneril, Edmund the Bastard, and Servants.
Exeunt some of the Servants.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Exeunt Goneril, Edmund, and Oswald.
Exeunt other Servants.
Enter Gloucester, brought in by two or three.
Servants bind Gloucester.
Regan plucks his beard.
Cornwall and servant draw and fight.
Regan takes a sword and runs at servant behind.
Servant dies.
Exit one with Gloucester.
Exit Cornwall, led by Regan.

The heath.
Enter Edgar.
Enter Gloucester, led by an Old Man.
Exit Old Man.

Before the Duke of Albany's Palace.
Enter Goneril and Edmund the Bastard.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Goneril gives a favour.
Exit Edmund.
Exit Oswald.
Enter Albany.
Enter a Gentleman.
Exit Goneril.

The French camp near Dover.
Enter Kent and a Gentleman.

The French camp.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, Cordelia, Doctor, and Soldiers.
Exit an Officer.
Enter Messenger.

Gloucester's Castle.
Enter Regan and Oswald the Steward.

The country near Dover.
Enter Gloucester, and Edgar like a Peasant.
Gloucester kneels. He falls forward and swoons.
Enter Lear, mad, fantastically dressed with weeds.
Enter a Gentleman with Attendants.
Lear exits running. Attendants follow.
Exit Gentleman.
Enter Oswald the Steward.
Edgar interposes.
They fight.
Oswald falls.
He dies.
Edgar reads the letter.
A drum afar off.

A tent in the French camp.
Enter Cordelia, Kent, Doctor, and Gentleman.
Enter Lear in a chair carried by Servants.
Exeunt Lear, Cordelia and Doctor. Manent Kent and Gentleman.
Exit Gentleman.
Exit Kent.

The British camp near Dover.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, Edmund, Regan, Gentleman, and Soldiers.
Exit an Officer.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, Albany, Goneril, Soldiers.
As Goneril and Regan are going out, enter Edgar, disguised.
Exeunt all but Albany and Edgar.
Exit Edgar.
Enter Edmund.
Exit Albany.
Exit Edmund.

A field between the two camps.
Alarum within.
Enter, with Drum and Colours, the Powers of France over the stage, Cordelia with her Father in her hand, and exeunt.
Enter Edgar and Gloucester.
Exit Edgar.
Alarum and retreat within.
Enter Edgar.

The British camp, near Dover.
Enter, in conquest, with Drum and Colours, Edmund; Lear and Cordelia as prisoners; Soldiers, Captain.
Exeunt Lear and Cordelia, guarded.
Edmund gives a paper.
Captain Exits.
Enter Albany, Goneril, Regan, Soldiers.
Albany points to Goneril.
Albany throws down a glove.
Edmund throws down a glove.
Exit Regan, led.
Enter a Herald.
A trumpet sounds.
First trumpet.
Second trumpet. 
Third trumpet.
Trumpet answers within.
Enter Edgar, armed, at the third sound, a Trumpet before him.
Edmund falls.
Albany shows Goneril her letter to Edmund.
Exit Goneril.
Exit an Officer.
Enter a Gentleman with a bloody knife.
Enter Kent.
Exit Gentleman.
Exit Edgar.
Edmund is borne off.
Enter Lear, with Cordelia [dead] in his arms, Edgar, Captain, and others following.
Enter a Captain.
Lear dies.
Exeunt with a dead march.

Friday, February 1, 2013

One Warm Line (Aeon Magazine)

A new essay for Aeon Magazine follows some of the threads begun on this blog.

I don’t think very far into the future. As far as I can tell, no destiny is calling my name from a distant mountain top. But it’s easy to see how the notion of a purpose lets people see their life as a single decisive line, like a thread in the capricious hands of the three Fates. Or, as Robert Frost has it in ‘The Road Not Taken’ (1920), a poem that countless American high school graduates have heard from valedictorians:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood…
The Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers sang of ‘One warm line, through a land so wild and savage’, and if you’re pondering your life as a single story, winding through the landscape, that image does make a lot of sense...

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Thank you, Diana Wynne Jones

Once upon a time, I was given a book. It was called The Ogre Downstairs, and it was about ordinary kids with the sort of problem a ordinary author would have given an earnest, well-intentioned plot to: they were a newly mixed family, and the two groups of kids hated each other on sight. It was more complicated that that of course, like life is: they liked each other in odd combinations that in real life might or might not be overtaken by their stories about how they hated each other. But in this story, there was a magical chemistry set, which made toys come alive, gave them the ability to fly, made you invisible, and all sorts of other things. And it caused misadventure after misadventure, like a fever-dream that keeps waking up into real life. Bathroom floods, strandings on rooftops, great heaps of toffee that threw themselves onto radiators to melt, a gang of ancient Greek toughs in motorcycle helmets who threatened to beat them up. Over and over, their dreams of Marvelous Things happening went bad.

It was a marvelous book, and the start of almost forty years so far reading Diana Wynne Jones' books.

Once upon a time, I met Diana Wynne Jones. Well, first I sent a letter to her, then bolluxed that up sending a second letter. Then I met her at two science fiction conventions, and I think I was the scary fan who might be mildly schizophrenic or otherwise just a little too much. Someone with the last name Kase, a Dutch SF fan who is a little overenthusiastic, showed up in one of her novels, and I know she put people she encountered into her books, not always in the most complimentary life. I have suspicions. She had a strange relationship with her stories: they kept coming around and coming true in one way or another, and biting her in the rear. She returned the compliment. In one of the pieces in her book of essays, which I'm reading now, she talks about how she drew on her life, but had to tone it back because "no one would be live it." Her life was too full of bizzarities to make a coherent plot (even a coherent fantasy).

Once upon a time, I read another book. It was the Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula Le Guin, and it was about a man, George Orr, whose dreams keep turning, upon his waking, into the way the universe always has been. His dreams change the world, and not in the metaphorical way we expect from Dr Martin Luther King Jr's speech. His unconscious does the most horrible things when he tries to make them stop, and trusts a psychiatrist to work on stopping his dreams. With Dr Haber's Augmentor (an enhanced EEG/biofeedback device), his dreams solve racism by making everybody gray, solve world war by creating invading aliens, solve overpopulation by killing off six out of seven people in a plague. Then one of the aliens his dreams created—a strange, sea-turtle-like Taoist alien who in his changed-upon-changed world is his boss—advises him how to regain balance by handing him a record of the Beatles' "A Little Help From My Friends."

Once upon a time, quite recently, I had a vivid dream where dreams (not mine specifically) came to life. It was enormous, like George Orr's dilemma. Lots and lots of people had died. There was magic elsewhere in the dream, and it was also scary: things catching on fire, and big books in sinister libraries. I don't remember how now, but I was working as a short-order cook and dishwasher, and there wasn't much left to do, because the world was suddenly so empty. So I got off work early and went for walk out in the hills, which somehow looked like an enormous diorama of hills, with little houses with electric lights flickering inside them. It was peaceful, and I felt greatly relieved by the thought of all those people in all those houses, just dealing with their lives.

Once upon a time, about an hour ago, I had a dream that Diana Wynne Jones had come back, in her full self, to visit from the dead. She said she didn't know why. I didn't know why. I realized I was supposed to ask her a question. We went round an round, chatting about other things than what we were there for, and then I half-woke in my real bed, and thought about her books, where dreams and ordinary life twine and twist around themselves, but (usually) all work out in the end. I thought to ask her, half awake, "should we live so that our life is as wonderful as dreams, and dream so our dreams are as vivid as life?" and she answered something like, "well, that would be a neat package, now wouldn't it?" And I remembered George Orr, and how trying to make his dreams follow orders turned out so poorly. That kind of balanced statement is like a bad reflection of the Tao.

No, you can write stories that make things come out in neat packages, but life is not like that. You fall in love and raise a family, but also get into horrible car-crashes and get cancer and die in real life, like Diana Wynne Jones did. And maybe you can make a neat, balanced package even out of that. Maybe your dreams will help you make sense, forget what you need to forget just to stay sane, create a narrative that lets you get on with what you need to. But if we're honest, the kinds of stories that deal with dreams don't end neatly in life itself: the neatness is window-dressing.

Life in and of itself doesn't make sense. Once upon a time I dreamed it did. It's not a coherent plot, and improbable things keep happening at inappropriate times. It's too much, and so we tell stories, to make it make sense. Those come out of us, a part of us that wants life to be fair, that wants to believe in karma and justice and balance. And there is balance in the universe, but not the balance of a judge weighing souls with certified scales. It's the balance of: here's where all the chaotic whirl of the universe has settled for now, every atom doing what it does because that's what atoms do. Plants creating out oxygen, animals breathing out carbon dioxide. Cold breathing out of the arctic, heat breathing out of the tropics. People waking up in the morning and seeing sense and nonsense whirling around them, then going to sleep at night and dreaming dreams.

Thank you, Diana Wynne Jones, for all the marvelous, maddening chaos in your books. Thank you for being alive. And thank you for the visit last night. It didn't end with a neat answer, like your books often went to convoluted ends to achieve. And that's OK. I think maybe that's what you came back to tell me.

I get by with a little help from my friends.