Have you ever not killed a plant?

Have you ever not killed a plant? It was winter break 2014, and the university was closed for two weeks. According to a prof at the university, the heat was even turned off, and the temperature plummeted to nearly -40 degrees Celsius inside (not sure how true that is, as it wasn’t quite that cold outside). Andrew and I brought our plants to school namely because our cat viewed plants as a buffet, and some of our plants were pernicious to cats when consumed. Note that my husband and I are not adept at caring for plants (cats are actually easier, as they require daily routine care and communicate many of their needs through behaviors such as vocalizing and creating a ruckus by knocking perfume bottles off counters in the middle of the night).

I, in fact, am guilty of the death of my college cactus. My resident advisor issued to each of her charges our very own cactus. There is a tradition at Wellesley College that the greenhouse proffers all first years a plant to take care of and develop like the students as they grow into young women. My resident advisor’s first year plant did not survive to the second year, so she thought to remedy this for us she would issue us hearty cacti (is the plural of cactus cacti?). Unfortunately, my cactus kept adhering to my window shade. When I yanked on the shade each morning to activate the mechanism for it to roll up to the top of the window, I found the cactus had rolled up with the shade and could be found dangling from the top of my window, roots and all. My cactus didn’t actually die despite this trauma, but I eventually gave up on trying to take care of it.

Plants are hearty, resisting and recovering from trauma with some care. Andrew, my husband, watered our plants in his office thoroughly before bidding them adieu for the break. Upon our return two weeks later, they looked wilted, half corpses as they were. But after watering them, they began to salute the sun again, stretching like a yogi to meet the window. Their flowers even gained renewed life, obtaining strength from care every day.

In life we neglect many things including our health, old friendships, hobbies, and maybe occasionally our plants. But perhaps as with plants, these precious treasures can be nurtured again and return to health. Of course it is better to take care of all the living things, including the things which give us life like music and passions, but, as my aunt always says, it is never too late. It is never too late to change and to nurture those very dormant and broken parts of our selves to renewed vigor.

So what have you neglected recently?


Is it all Greek to you?

Is it all Greek to you? When I think of this phrase, the first thing that bubbles into my consciousness is my first day of graduate level quantum mechanics. You could probably make an argument that Greek is the lexicon, which is itself a word derived from Greek, on which physics is constructed. My memorable first day of this course was a blackboard sheathed in an alphabet soup of Greek and Latin letters, whose meaning at the time eluded me. With careful study, I learned to see the poetic physical meaning behind the symbols and letters, and the Greek symbols became dear friends.

But I digress. The subject of today’s discourse is “everything in moderation” and “discipline.” The Greek side of my family habitually makes references to these modes of living. The first derives apparently from an Oscar Wilde quote. The proclivity to discipline is, however, surely a reference to the Spartan mentality. Evidently Sparta was a militaristic state instilling its people with a sense of discipline. My dad once sent me an image of the shield of Sparta which displays the Greek letter Lambda. This excited me, since this is also the symbol for the elusive cosmological constant – the vacuum energy responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe. I asked my dad if the Greeks got it right thousands of years ago. He made the very rational argument, paraphrased here, that if an army of 10,000 shields sporting Lambdas were approaching you, you would not be so concerned about the expansion of the universe. I guess this speaks to the issues of urgency and priority. What a luxury it is for me to have the opportunity to spend time advancing knowledge in physics research rather than to be negotiating 10,000 ferocious warriors!

Again, I digress. If I were a role-playing character, my alignment would be chaotic. This wasn’t always the case. Until leaving for college, I was so disciplined my eleventh grade physics teacher called me a machine, although my propensity to spend all nighters completing homework beginning as early as junior high probably set the chaotic gears in motion. My friends say I have an artistic temperament because I become passionate about one activity (be it research, music, or writing, though rarely exercise since I moved to a climate ill-suited for running most of the time), and I commit my being to this sole activity until its completion before moving on to the next passion. This is a very undisciplined and immoderate way of living. I tend to binge on activities, cramming rather than having a routine. My piano teacher at the McGill Conservatory urged me to make piano practice part of a routine, like brushing my teeth. The only real constituent to my routine is my coffee consumption (I should really buy stock in a coffee company).

My new year’s resolution was essentially the second part of a Maya Angelou quote expressed to me on a card by my mother. The essence of this part of the quote was to dare to dare. The first part of the quote emphasizes the importance of discipline and creativity. I don’t really know if I can change my personality to be more moderate and disciplined to having a daily adult routine rather than the chaotic plunge in which I usually indulge. It is true, I have the luxury not to be on the wrong side of the Spartan army. But part of my DNA does derive from Spartan heritage (though apparently Spartan hill billies). Now that I no longer feel the pressure to be on the wrong side of the shields, perhaps I can get behind my own Lambda and live with some discipline to prepare for these music exams. My practice at present has been sporadic, though intense when I do commit those ten minutes here and there. Between my Grade 8 piano exam and me lie four to five months. I have two out of six pieces mostly completed but have made little progress in the technique or the other pieces.

Is discipline all Greek to me? Maybe, but since I am half-Greek and since everyone has inherited the legacy and heritage of the Greeks, maybe we can adopt some of their gems with a little Oscar Wilde mixed in. It is time to stand behind my letters and commit to a daily practice of piano and voice. A disciplined routine may not sound that seductive, but, frankly, if it is as good as my daily coffee, then I am in.

Are routine and discipline all Greek to you? Is there some other part of your life you resolve to change? How will you do it?

Who are you?

Reposted from http://news-centre.uwinnipeg.ca/all-posts/o-pen-wordshops-works/

Do you know who you really are? I wrote my “About” page for my blog last week. This is the place where an author concisely depicts who she is. This exercise grew into a question for me. Who am I? If I died today, what details would be included in my obituary? What would my epitaph be? Would the reality of these musings on my life be consistent with what I would desire my end notes to read? I recently wrote my bucket list, a laundry list of goals to complete before I die, including publications and novels to write, music exams to take, and a level of health and fitness I wish to achieve.

On Friday after Jennifer Still’s Carol Shields distinguished lecture, that all changed.

At the conclusion of the lecture, which served as the climax for Jennifer’s residency as the University of Winnipeg Carol Shields writer in residence, I realized that, at the end of the day, achievements don’t really matter. What matters is finding a voice and using it to sing, discovering, living a life of poetry, sharing friendship, humanity, and love with others, and awakening to who we really are. What matters at the end of the day is a beginning, as Jennifer emphasized in her lecture.

The creative writing workshop, led by poet Jennifer Still, began with a word. We all brought a word with us to explore. I brought the word “inflaton” which is the scalar field (or mechanism) theorized to be responsible for the early rapid expansion of the universe. I found within the word “inflaton” the word “flat”, which describes the current model for the shape of our universe. Jennifer noted that my word reflects on beginnings, on the beginning of the universe no less. So started the workshop for me: with a beginning.

The workshop, or “wordshop” as it was called, centered on words. I find words to expose my vulnerabilities, disrobing the electric cords of my naked thoughts in unedited fragments of consciousness. I feel naked and exposed in my writing which is counterpunctal to a primal need for self-expression, like a baby’s cries. Words are indeed fierce yet delicate and undress our defenses, leaving us shivering and naked.

During the second workshop we used words to encounter art. We used our internal sensors to explore artistic external works, including a Willow Rector exhibit. The Willow Rector exhibit contains a collection of purses embroidered with quotes from literature. On the outside, some of them look like generic women’s accessories, but within them lay concealed messages. One of the purses was entitled The Stone Diaries, named for the novel written by Carol Shields. This purse was constructed in part by barbed wire surrounding an embroidered bird, perhaps reflecting a cage imprisoning the image of the forsaken mermaid on the reverse side of the purse. I later investigated the story of The Stone Diaries, and it reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway served as a subject for another purse. Mrs. Dalloway is an externally perceived prosaic middle-aged woman throwing an every-day party, but internally she yearns to be connected with something special and unique. I think the exhibit centered on the deceptive extraordinary depth and fascinating narrative woven in a person’s innards, in contrast to outer appearances – the ordinary and the boring “old purses” that my friend saw. Even Mrs. Dalloway belies an extraordinary inner world and life. The purses centered on identity, the repression of women, and the secret words which might thrive dormant within. More words.

In the third workshop we erased and chopped words, playing with collages from the words of others. We were architects with words: words as structural elements. I chose the Lucky speech from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Words reeking of existentialism levitated above the page for me that I connected in new ways. The essence of the speech lies in its words such as the passage into nothingness with unfinished labors.

Will we live an unfinished life if we don’t complete that bucket list of achievements? My answer is no. Mozart never completed his Requiem, yet in its unfinished state lies a monument of beauty. We, like our words, might be transient as Beckett and Jennifer outline in their words, but perhaps that is, in itself, a monument to beauty which possesses meaning in itself, like Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s flower from Le Petit Prince.

In the final wordshop we edited a piece of work and discussed endings. We also played a poetry game in which one person wrote a word and passed it, concealed, to her neighbor. Then the neighbor wrote a question and passed it along to her right. The word I was passed was “hope”. The question passed to me was “How do we deal?” Poetry, it seems, is everywhere. From these workshops and meetings with Jennifer I discovered new words and new beginnings. I found new words that lie hibernating in crevices within myself. I still don’t know what my desired epitaph would be. I still don’t really know who I am. And I think I can live with the acceptance that I will never know. What I do know is that I do possess words in me and a voice which I long to use to sing. In the word “ending” is a resounding “I”. See it?

Do you know who you are? Will you ever know?

What will you do in the next six months?

What would you do if you were given only six months left to live? What if you were only given one or two weeks left to live? Would you take that trip to Paris? Would you reconcile with estranged loved ones? Would it give you the courage to be honest, truly honest with yourself and others?  What would you do?

Every year with each new birthday I am amazed at how old I have grown to be. I remember when I turned thirteen feeling a wizened novelty at my advanced age. I had become a teenager, no longer a child. I am an unabashed dream chaser and always feel an urgency to complete my dreams. I am constantly reevaulating my dreams and where and who I wish to be. Would I live differently if I were given only six more months to live? Or only two weeks? The day we are born we are dying, approaching death. Our life, unlike time, is finite, a segment. We occupy an infinitesimally small volume of space-time. But it is our space to explore.

I used to dream of making a real difference in the world, contributing to preserving the environment or to advancing science. When you are young and not yet wearied from obstacles, your eyes are wider and your potential and potential influence feels more expansive. I have been fighting my entire life for the survival of my dreams, to become a physicist, to not concede to my impediments. But now I question how to sculpt my days. I think the answer to this question about how to exploit a limited remainder of one’s life requires self knowledge. How well do you really know yourself?

In a recent piano lesson my teacher played for me Lyric Song by Heinrich Hofmann. I realized in that moment that I wish to be able to play that piece before I die. It was, as the title suggests, lyrical and evocative. It reminds me of a stroll through Parisian streets, rife with culture and the ghosts of deceased composers and great musicians and artists. A musical performance is as ephemeral as a walk through Paris or life itself, yet it possesses as much promise and value. Everything is ephemeral, as I am learning, even humanity and our words. The key is to appreciate the sunset before it ceases. I also knew today that with what remains of my insignificant life, I wish to compose and create evocative images with words. Maybe I have finally grown up to realize my deepest most secret self. Maybe I finally have learned to know myself. Or maybe not.

The ancient Greeks are credited as saying “know thyself.” How well do you know yourself? What will you do with your remaining days? What is important and profound to you?

Do you have an adopted family?

Does sharing the same DNA make someone family, or is family forged from the bonds of love and support?

The conception of my baby follows an interesting (at least to me) story. She is a 575 pound black beauty. And she is not a polar bear who just frolicked in mulch, but my baby grand piano.

My husband Andrew bribed me to move to what seems to a girl who spent her formative years in Boston and LA to the remote north — Winnipeg — by offering to acquire a baby grand piano. In the end I really saved up for this purchase with a significant portion of a year of my postdoc salary. Ahh, but baby was she worth it!

I started playing pianos in the piano show room about a year before I purchased her. I toyed with electric alternatives to an acoustic baby grand that our apartment might accommodate. I played all the pianos in the showroom regularly and became a familiar face to the salesman there. We started looking for a house around the time we started to search for my baby. Finally we found the perfect house to become home for baby with a long living/dining room combination (though this house turned out to have serious unanticipated problems) and six months later after hedging and hesitating, I purchased my shiny black baby grand. It was the only piano on which I could play Chopin’s Prelude in e minor No 4 without the repetitive chords sounding choppy but rather legato. Pedalling is tricky in that piece. The salesman stated that the piece brought him to tears, and this was my piano, but I think it was my frequent presence in his store without a purchase that precipitated any emotion. Before the piano was delivered, I showed colleagues at work pictures in the catalog of my baby, akin to a proud parent showing off ultrasounds.

Having lived a nomadic academic life, we have been forced to find friends in each new city and develop new relationships. Whatever loops and hills we have encountered, we have won the trials together, with the cats we have had since 1999, and with the support of friends. My husband, cats, and friends do not share DNA, but we have developed bonds and the unconditional support that defines what true family should be. We discovered deeper bonds in our Winnipeg friends after my baby settled in.

It turns out taking care of my baby became difficult as the dry Winnipeg fall progressed. I bought a hydrometer which said the humidity was dropping below 30% (a digital one purchased later indicated it was more like 20%). This instigated midnight trips to the local pharmacy for ultrasonic humidifiers. It became very challenging to maintain the humidity. In the end I had a collection of about six such humidifiers costing more than I’d like to admit of various degrees of technology and types.

Then there was this white dust collecting on my baby. She came with a strangely shaped long red cloth which I used to dust her daily. I later learned from my tuner that this rough cloth would eventually dull her polish. It was intended to cover and protect the keyboard.

I would dust my baby up to five times a day. The tuner informed me the ultrasonic humidifiers were releasing the mineral dust. That necessitated a trip for wick humidifiers. I ended up with two small such humidifiers and two giant ones (I nicknamed them the mother ships), one of which is enough to humidify the entire storeroom at a local piano store. I bought microfiber dusters and baby has been dust free since.

During this time, our furnace failed. Not what you want in November in Winnipeg. A friend answered a call after 9PM and kindly took us to a store to buy space heaters, not for our comfort but for baby’s. We later took her and her boyfriend out for lunch, but her kindness at answering our plea for assistance defines the true meaning of friendship to me. Our house might have been cold, but the hearts of our Winnipeg friends were warm.

Soon after the night time visits to purchase humidifiers and heaters, we departed on vacation. Twice a day our neighbors, who have since become dear friends, came to take care of my baby (and the cats) and refill the mother ships. I fretted that they might forget and fretted about the inconvenience I had inflicted on them, though of course they were extremely gracious and generous. Again, I felt the warmth of friendship and support.

Baby’s adventure was far from over. During the summer the perfect house manifested serious construction needs, and she moved to another generous and caring friend’s house where Andrew and I were staying. The move was difficult, and at one point she tipped. She suffered only a scratch and still sounded gorgeous once I played her, safe in my friend’s living room. My husband, baby, and I are now back home and ready to commence our next adventure, which is of the musical variety of Grade 8 repertoire in piano and Grade 7 in voice. Despite her trauma, when I play a chromatic scale on her, each note is as even as a string of pearls. Even the scratch was repaired and the whole ordeal of the moves, the humidifiers (now she has her own built-in humidifier), and the cleaning cloths are in the rear view mirror.

I learned that even my baby grand could be healed after trauma. Despite the fact that we were displaced, we had developed a friendship with our dear friend who would not only take us in but our piano as well. This and our other experiences with the house and baby in the last year is empirical evidence that we have some very good friends who are part of our family here in Winnipeg. The weather outside might be frigid, but as they say, it makes these Canadians have warm hearts.

I must admit I never wanted to depend on others. My express goal as a child was to mature into a self sufficient independent adult. As I age, I find myself depending more and more on others. Someone once suggested that perhaps dependence doesn’t have to be a dirty word. As I noted at a conference when I first saw Stephen Hawking being served his tea, everyone is dependent, even the best of them. So, perhaps instead of loathing what dependence I experience, I can embrace the fact that people care enough about me to help take care of me. These are the people I feel proud to consider among my family, in addition to the ones with whom I share odd traits despite displacements in time and space. And perhaps it is the family that chooses us, and loves us despite our quirks and eccentricities, that counts the most.