Long time no blog... Holiday distractions, and then a flurry of work, has kept me away for awhile. But now some time has opened up...
First, a brief account of the holiday diversions. Christmas at home with family but then a short trip into New York City with my daughter. We saw the show, La Bete, which was great fun. I also made it over to the fabulous Khubilai Khan exhibit at the Met, which, alas, is now closed. Indeed, the image in my New Year's posting below comes from that exhibit (and is also a part of the permanent collection there): Fang Congyi's "Cloudy Mountains." We also saw Christine Pedi in cabaret at the West End Cafe - a lot of laughs. That, and a bunch of other New Yorky kinds of things - Strand Book Store, The Christmas Tree, Pearl River - made for a nice get away.
And there was snow. It snowed here before we left, and I had the pleasure of shoveling out my driveway, all 20 or so inches of the white stuff. The city was still recovering when we arrived there. Street corners were choked with slush and water and snow. We saw one young lady, in snow-inappropriate high heels, slip and fall right on her butt....
And there is still a healthy snow cover here in Williamstown. As it should be; it's January, after all.
So, I thought it quite apt, as I caught up with my reading, that I came across Adam Gopnik's reflection on snowflakes in The New Yorker, especially since it resonates with both Daoist and Confucian ideas.
He finds recent science that presses against the conventional wisdom that each and every snowflake is unique:
....Snowflakes, it seems, are not only alike; they usually start out more or less the same.
Yet if this notion threatens to be depressing—with the suggestion that only the happy eye of nineteenth-century optimism saw special individuality here—one last burst of searching and learning puts a brighter seasonal spin on things. “As a snowflake falls, it tumbles through many different environments,” an Australian science writer named Karl Kruszelnicki explains. “So the snowflake that you see on the ground is deeply affected by the different temperatures, humidities, velocities, turbulences, etc, that it has experienced on the way.” Snowflakes start off all alike; their different shapes are owed to their different lives.
In a way, the passage out from [19th century writer] Snowflake Bentley to the new snowflake stories is typical of the way our vision of nature has changed over the past century: Bentley, like Audubon, believed in the one fixed image; we believe in truths revealed over time—not what animals or snowflakes are, but how they have altered to become what they are. The sign in Starbucks should read, “Friends are like snowflakes: more different and more beautiful each time you cross their paths in our common descent.” For the final truth about snowflakes is that they become more individual as they fall—that, buffeted by wind and time, they are translated, as if by magic, into ever more strange and complex patterns, until, at last, like us, they touch earth. Then, like us, they melt.
That last paragraph, especially the notion that what we are is not fixed and unalterable has a Zhuangzi-esque ring to it. Our existence is processual; what I am is what I am at this very moment, not what I was yesterday and not what I will be tomorrow. The seasons of our lives ebb and flow, each day a bit shorter or longer than the others, each filled with its own particular pattern of sun and wind and rain and snow and night:
This life we're given comes in its own season, and then follows its vanishing away. If you're at ease in your own season, if you can dwell in its vanishing, joy and sorrow never touch you. This is what the ancients called getting free. If you can't get free, you're tangled in things. And things never overcome heaven...
There's also a Confucian vibe here: the idea that we all start out the same but grow into different individuals:
The Master said: "We're all the same by nature. It's living that makes us so different." (12.2)
But I suspect the Master would not have expected to find Humanity in snowflakes....