Apollo- in Delfi

Apollo- in Delfi

I recently returned from a educational trip to Rome and Greece with my students and those of colleagues.  As I walked around the Plaka and every small town that we visited on our Classical tour, I saw endless shops with souvenirs: from cheap trinkets to pricey replicas and interpretative artistic renderings.  All the students–and I–took hundreds of photos. In fact most of the time we viewed the ruins through the lens of a camera, be it a phone or fancy SLR.

On returning home our suitcases bulged with objects acquired along every stop of the way.  And this got me thinking: have we replaced interior experiences and memories with exterior objects, things?  As a culture we own more stuff than any previous generation  in the entire history of the world.  Museum visits always end–sometimes start–with a visit to the museum store.  We start them young. Disney and Pixar movies are accompanied by merchandise, often before the movie is even released.  What does this all mean, apart from enterprising Capitalism?  DSCF0462

Have we replaced our memories with physical objects to record our lives?  Photos rather than recall?  Souvenirs rather than imagining walking through the ruins at Delfi, Olympia, Corinth?  We seem not to trust the transformative and enveloping experience itself and want some physical trace to represent our travels, both near and far.  We are our possessions, rather than our gathered thoughts, feelings, recollections.  As Plato noted in the Symposium, we are entranced by beauty, lulled by the glow of shiny things.  But we must also move beyond this level of simple understanding to a higher/deeper entrancement.

sunset in NauplioI spent one evening sitting on the pier in Nauplio watching the sun set behind the mountains, across the gulf.  Every other minute I was compelled to take a picure and I watched every passerby do much the same.  We could not but look at the beauty that radiated from the sunset through the clouds, illuminating the water and the small Venetian fort in the harbor.  We humans long for beauty in a deep and irrevocable way that translates into desire– a pure, simply, passionate desire to own and to have that beauty.

But what are we really seeking here? Johann Gottfried Herder captured this best in his poem , Ein Traum:

Ein Traum, ein Traum ist unser Leben
Auf Erden hier;
Wie Schatten auf den Wogen schweben
Und schwinden wir
Und messen unsere trägen Schritte
Nach Raum und Zeit
Und sind, wir wissen´s nicht, in Mitte
Der Ewigkeit.

We are indeed in the middle of eternity and the things we cling to will vanish.  Only memory  lives on.

Contemplations from the Oort Cloud

So it has been a while since I created a post here.  My bad.  But with teaching, working on conferences, committee work, and life in general, I find little time for blogging.  I have, however, discovered Cowbird and love the image/narrative cadence it offers.  I have posted a couple of modest contributions in recent days.

oortcloud2Today, however, I am reveling in the idea of the Oort Cloud.  This cloud of frozen rock is the source of comets that race by our planet in regular intervals. Nothing living/but multiplicity with motion, ‘goals’ or impetus to move beyond into our regions and towards the sun–the death of all that enters it. Or perhaps it is a cloud composed entirely of Oorts–little creatures with big red eyes and bat-like wings that flit around the solar system, looking for minds that have wandered into territories unknown.  Attracted by the chemical scent of curiosity and the glow of visions unseen, an Oort hovers over the unsuspecting being, watching, waiting… much as we used to imagine angels did.

What is outside over there (as Maurice Sendak captured so beautifully in his mysterious picture book) that invites us to look up at the moon, to seek out the stars?  And why does the Oort cloud image resemble Parmenides’ idea of Being?


The Salt Flats and the pioneers

So, at the very end of July, my daughter Alice and I drove her car from Boulder, Colorado up through Utah, through northern Nevada, over the Sierra Nevada mountains to northern California, land of plenty.

The great Salt Lake is indeed precisely that-great.  Wow, what a magical oasis of water in the middle of rocks and more rocks.  We stopped at Provo and witnessed a lovely sunset, all orange, pink and red on the huge mesa (or buttes?) to the east of that city.  But Nevada just went on forever with nothing but wide stretches of nothing.  No gas, towns, only the ribbon of highway 80 with trucks and cars moving through at speed, looking for the next gas station.

The dramatic shift occurs when you cross into California: trees!  huge Ponderosa pines lines the winding highway through the mountains.  Alice spent about a half an hour reading the story of the Donner party‘s hardships trying to walk across our route to get to California.  Many of them did not make it.  Whew.  Made our drive look way less onerous than it had seemed.

Arriving in Guerneville, California was delightful: vineyards, rolling hills, redwoods.  One can appreciate the astonishment that must have glowed on the settlers as they moved past those awful desert badlands into the beautiful of the state of promises.