Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Charles River

In a Maori mihi, which establishes an individual's key connections, it is customary to name one's mountain and river. I've never known what my mountain would be, but I'm spoilt for choice when it comes to rivers. From childhood memories of the Derwent and the Trent, to the ribbon-like Tutaekuri river in the Hawke's Bay, to the majestic, historic Thames, to the mighty Manawatu, rivers have settled deep in my bones.

I'm back in Boston now, gathering data at Northeastern University and MIT, and staying in the John Jeffries House, a shabby-yet-gracious guest house, built in the 1820s to provide a home for people coming to Boston from out of town for medical treatment .

It stands on the banks of the Charles River,and each morning I take a walk, marvelling at the soft colour of the skyline, the serenity of the river, the signs of the city waking.

Some days I've walked through misty morning rain, my only companions the squirrels and the Canada geese. Other times I've walked along with the joggers and the dog walkers as the sun has woken a perfect pink sky.

I find myself murmuring Wordsworth:

  Earth has not anything to show more fair:
    Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
    A sight so touching in its majesty: 

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
    The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
    Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
    Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.  

Never did sun more beautifully steep
    In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
    The river glideth at his own sweet will:

When I'm not quoting Wordsworth to the geese or pulling off my gloves with my teeth so I can take another photo on these soft morning walks, I'm thinking about my work. I haven't said much about my work in this blog, except as a kind of murmuring anxiety about whether I can get it done. I won't get it all done - at least not by the end of the year. But there's no real regret about that. Yes, it would have helped to have wrapped it all up while I wasn't teaching. But because I've taken the time to think and listen, and talk to the people who've hosted me and others, the book will be better for the delay.  I know the shape and purpose and tone of the book now, and I know with certainty  that I can and will finish it, because it's the book I want to write rather than the book I think I should write. 
What I probably don't tell people is how much I love this research. A decade ago I taught a life writing course, where I saw clearly for the first time that there were no ordinary lives and that everyone's stories were worth listening to. A decade before that, I became entranced by the voices in Studs Terkel's and Mary Loudon's books, voices of (extra)ordinary people talking about their lives. So what I'm doing for this research - and have been doing for over 4 years now - is recording scientists and mathematicians talking about writing, capturing their voices and their stories as writers.

It feels like a remarkable privilege to sit in someone's office and listen to their thoughts, and I'm almost always surprised by their generosity, by their willingness to explore territory they may not have thought about before - often by their vulnerability and humility. And the variability of the stories! I know, I know it's a cliche that everyone's life is unique - of course - but to listen to someone talk about that unique life is really something very special.

This week I have listened to a research chemist who is a competitive body builder and a reader of romance fiction, talking with gentle courage about her commitment to growth and learning. I sat in the book-lined office of a remarkably versatile writer of physics and history while he described decisions he had made as he wrote his book on quantum physics - the opening pages of which made me laugh out loud. I asked preposterous questions of a young mathematician ("do you think in numbers and figures or words when you're thinking about math..?") and was honoured by the care with which he explored possible answers and enjoyed his laughter as he came to unexpected conclusions.

I listened to a mathematician who also moonlights as a jazz musician talk about the differences between writing up and writing down, and an eminent physicist describe the fun of collaborating with a friend while hiking. He talked about how the science weaves in and out of their conversation, but how they always come back to the physics "because that's what we like talking about most." Another young mathematician and athlete explained to me the difficulty of turning equations into words - how sentences are linear where equations work in multiple dimensions.

At the end of my last interview today, another senior scientist, who works across several disciplines, and whose output is phenomenal, said to me "You are doing a very hard thing. You are asking us to be self-reflexive about things we don't normally think about. So thank you - I'm glad to have talked to you today."

Over dinner this evening, a colleague was saying that when, as a writing teacher, she first walked into a mathematics classroom, she breathed a deep and restful sigh, sensing that she had at last come home. I feel the exact opposite: I walk into an office where chalkboards, or sometimes whole walls, are covered in mysterious squiggles and think "What does it mean? Where are the words?? What does this person see and understand when they look at that wall?" And I'll never know the answers to those questions.

But what I do understand now is that these seemingly unfathomable symbols are filled with meaning that is both deep and precise. That equations and figures, as much as words, can be beautiful.and graceful. The Charles River is not my river.  But I can walk beside it for a season, paying attention to, and delighting in, its unfamiliar sounds and scent and light.

ps the Northeastern University science writer, Angela Herring, wrote a piece about my research on her science blog

1 comment:

  1. This is my favourite post of yours so far, Lisa! It's great to hear about your work. I can imagine that scientists would appreciate being able to talk about what they do - it may be their life's passion, but probably they wouldn't usually have the opportunity to talk about it to non-scientific people.

    [I know what you mean about the mihi. I have any number of rivers to choose from but I don't really identify with any mountain.]