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Saturday 7 November 2021: Running, Listening, Thinking, Understanding

Trapped under the ice, blinding white above, deep, endless, frozen dark beneath, struggling ever more weakly, knowing he is about to die, terrifed…

Understanding by Ted Chiang on BBC Sounds.

Leon finally emerges from his deep coma and the nightmares caused by the accident that almost killed him in hopsital. He’s been given a test treatment, Syndrome K. As he takes more of the drug, an unexpected side effect emerges: the startling increase in his intelligence.

Not particularly academic at school, Leon notices with astonishment how K opens up his mind and his perception. The drug makes Leon first notice and then begin to understand strange patterns, the interconnectedness of art, music, science, everything that surrounds us.

But the drug soon starts to take over and Leon becomes increasingly enmeshed inside his own consciousness, turning ever more inward while his brain searches restlessly for the ultimate Gestalt, the pattern that underpins the entire universe.

Award-winning US writer Ted Chiang’s sci-fi thriller was published in 1991 and explores with rich lyrical density, what it is like to become ever more self-aware. The sad irony: the more self aware and hyper intelligent Leon becomes, the more he’s becoming locked inside his own head, separated from the rest of humanity while seeing how connected we all are, the strands of energy that vibrate between person to person.

‘Benevolence’ muses Leon, ‘being able to bestow generosity on other people. How many emotions are required by the presence of another person….’

Leon creates his own language from all the languages of the world so he can express the inexpressible. He writes a poem ‘which is like combining Finnegan’s Wake and Pound’s Cantos…’

Ted Chang’s book is packed with rich descriptions: Leon’s search for the ultimate Gestalt and the struggle to describe what lies beyond the capabilities of human language – yet still having to use language to describe what lies beyond words and most mere mortals’ comprehension.

Gestallt – the patterns and the systems that underpin us, climb inside and understand the secret machinations of the universe…

After his third dose of K, Leon watches his mind watching itself working itself out, each time creating chemical reactions and interconnections. Leon’s watching himself watching himself fall into ever deeper understanding but the more understanding, the less that is understood as the universe expands out in a giant fractal. Soon, he’s using more of his brain than any other human in existence but his mind is getting too big for his brain, a mere piece of organic matter, to contain.

Exploring the nature of reality and existence – that life is an illusion, that life is just a dream – that the true reality is just out of reach. That to be biologically concious means we can never get to ultimate reality – our thoughts, our emotions, our attachments constantly getting in the way.’

Ladywell Fields, Saturday 7 November, 7:49am

Patterns everywhere. Life ending and beginning across the globe one second at a time. The condition inexorably changing as time moves constantly forwards one moment to the next. Steam rises from the subway, smoke curls up from the bonfire, the child laughs, the clouds chase each other across the sky.

Plane trails, leaves falling, people walking. The exhalation of my breath running on a cold Autumnal day.

The universe: zero point, one giant fractal. Half into half into half and back out again.

Further Thoughts and Reading

There was a definite mind expanding, examining theme to this weekend. The trailer at the end of Episode 3 was for The Haunting of Alma Field.

I discovered Gestalt Therapy – developed in the 1930s by Fritz Perls in Berlin: https://gestaltcentre.org.uk/what-is-gestalt/

And then explored the infinite expanding and contracting beauty of fractals:

https://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-are-fractals/

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/fractals/set.html

Autistc food for thought on Breakfast TV

The woman on the red sofa was being interviewed about the local food bank and how so many more people were using it because of the pandemic and the impact it had had upon families. And then she started speaking about her autistic son.

I think he’s loving this situation, she said thoughtfully.

He has me and his father and Ralf our border collie with him in the house all day every day except when I’m volunteering at the foodbank and he doesn’t have to go out unless it’s to walk Ralf which he loves, and he doesn’t have to go to school which he loves when he’s there but getting him there every day for 9am  can be a struggle…

Her son had spent the weeks since lockdown taking stuffing out of cushions so he could put the stuffing into sacks and replacing it with lego (only the round shapes, not the square ones) and then he’d ask her to sew up the cushions so a little later he could unpick the stitches and take the lego out so the game could begin again.

We don’t have much left stuffed in the house, she said, with a small laugh. But we do have two huge bags of stuffing that’s growing all the time. I suppose we could use them as replacement cushions…

His bed’s nearly off the floor with all the random bits and pieces he hoards underneath it.

Before the lego cushions, it was nuts and bolts – he spent hours dividing them into equal piles across the lounge carpet and we’d have to make sure Ralf, our border collie, didn’t run into them and knock them over because that could cause a meltdown.

For the two months prior to nuts and bolts, it was wrapping tins in cellotape and string. And then there was the obsession with rice in plant pots which he pushed under his bed.

Any little thing could cause a meltdown. Life with him was living on a hair trigger, you never knew what it could be that would set him off. There were certain key triggers – like  getting him ready for school and then on the way to school, if we didn’t see the 825 train to Birmingham go past the level crossing…but there were other things that I could never see coming at all. Something that made him really happy one day (e.g playing with a red balloon in the back garden) could  spin him over the edge the next…

Now there’s no set timetable, the meltdowns are far fewer…he seems happier…and so are we in some ways, we aren’t constantly trying to him fit in a world which is a different shape to the one he inhabits. And he loves sorting out the tines for the food bank.

The woman interviewing her,  sitting behind the desk, smiles and says it’s so good to hear some good news for a change…

A Talk by Anna Burns – Booker Winner 2018

Small, dressed all in black, hesitant, evidently nervous in the spotlight, Anna nevertheless provided an intense, captivating hour, speaking in a hushed, rushed Northern Irish accent:

‘Sorry. I forgot your question, was that what you asked? I’m used to writing down my thoughts rather than speaking them…’

The question was about her writing process:

‘There is no process. Some writers block everything out before they start, whereas I know how my sentences end but not how they will start. I went to a City Lit course for 2 years. I started writing in my 30s – piecing together notebooks and identifying themes and characters…’

Anna started reflecting on the relationship between location, identity and belonging:

‘I came to London 30 years ago. People ask me where I’m from. I’m from Belfast, I’m Northern Irish. I’ve lived in London for over 30 years but people assume I’m Irish first.’

Although it’s captured the zeitgeist, Milkman was written in 2014. ‘It’s Belfast in the 1970s and it’s everywhere at the same time,’ Anna said sadly, continuing, ‘I did try to give the characters in Milkman names but nothing fitted. The sisters, for example, I’d see them a little like puppies – bounding around, full of energy… a pack of interchangeable, joyful puppies…. it’s the lack of names that makes it universal but it wasn’t intentional.’

Milkman may be universal in its themes of division and but it’s very specific to one place and time in history – Belfast in the 1970s. A place where everybody is ‘other’ – from the other side of the road, the other side of the city, the other side of the water, of the political divide feels all too relevant in today’s polarised world.

‘The use of language to hide the real meaning….Brexit, Northern Ireland, they’re calling it a backstop – what does that mean? In Belfast, we say ‘sorry for for your trouble, we refer to it as the Troubles when it was murder, it was war….’

Writing started to unlock long buried traumas for Anna, memories she’d buried deep inside as a coping mechanism.

‘I didn’t make a conscious effort to write about Ireland, the Troubles, the divided city…but I started remembering many, many things….’

One of the more shocking images in Milkman is the mountain of murdered dogs

‘That was definitely a memory from my childhood. It might not have been as big as I remember but I was only around 8 at the time – their throats cut – it’s a hair trigger society – one wrong word, one false move…’

The paranoid society of Northern Ireland in the 1970s is vividly evocated throughout the book where fitting in is everything and being part of the wrong tribe in the wrong place can have disastrous consequences. Like the central character in Milkman, Anna was a bookish schoolgirl who walked down the streets where she lived with her head in a novel by Thomas Hardy. The book also captures the #me-too movement as the central character is stalked by the titular Milkman. Anna pondered;

‘Why didn’t she say no? Why didn’t she speak to her mother about what was going on? If she had done, would her mother have listened? I don’t think so…who will believe me, I will get through it, I will cope, I will not make a fuss. People would stop and stare and I’d be thinking why is this worthy of being looked at? I’m the girl that walks and reads? Why are they watching me?  Why is this worth remarking upon? I was expected to get married at 16. I always just knew I was not going to be doing any of that. I got through school. I existed. I distanced myself from what was going on around me….’

The Booker win is clearly a life changing experience for Anna, one she is still coming to terms with. Anna gives heartfelt acknowledgement to those who kept her going;

‘I was homeless and on benefits.  I couldn’t feed myself. I went to food banks… I’d have liked to have a different ending for the characters but I do what they tell me – I can’t help the way it ended.’

Small, dressed all in black, hesitant, evidently nervous in the spotlight, Anna nevertheless provided an intense, captivating hour, speaking in a hushed, rushed Northern Irish accent:

‘Sorry. I forgot your question, was that what you asked? I’m used to writing down my thoughts rather than speaking them…’

The question was about her writing process:

‘There is no process. Some writers block everything out before they start, whereas I know how my sentences end but not how they will start. I went to a City Lit course for 2 years. I started writing in my 30s – piecing together notebooks and identifying themes and characters…’

Anna started reflecting on the relationship between location, identity and belonging:

‘I came to London 30 years ago. People ask me where I’m from. I’m from Belfast, I’m Northern Irish. I’ve lived in London for over 30 years but people assume I’m Irish first.’

Although it’s captured the zeitgeist, Milkman was written in 2014. ‘It’s Belfast in the 1970s and it’s everywhere at the same time,’ Anna said sadly, continuing, ‘I did try to give the characters in Milkman names but nothing fitted. The sisters, for example, I’d see them a little like puppies – bounding around, full of energy… a pack of interchangeable, joyful puppies…. it’s the lack of names that makes it universal but it wasn’t intentional.’

Milkman may be universal in its themes of division and but it’s very specific to one place and time in history – Belfast in the 1970s. A place where everybody is ‘other’ – from the other side of the road, the other side of the city, the other side of the water, of the political divide feels all too relevant in today’s polarised world.

‘The use of language to hide the real meaning….Brexit, Northern Ireland, they’re calling it a backstop – what does that mean? In Belfast, we say ‘sorry for for your trouble, we refer to it as the Troubles when it was murder, it was war….’

Writing started to unlock long buried traumas for Anna, memories she’d buried deep inside as a coping mechanism.

‘I didn’t make a conscious effort to write about Ireland, the Troubles, the divided city…but I started remembering many, many things….’

One of the more shocking images in Milkman is the mountain of murdered dogs

‘That was definitely a memory from my childhood. It might not have been as big as I remember but I was only around 8 at the time – their throats cut – it’s a hair trigger society – one wrong word, one false move…’

The paranoid society of Northern Ireland in the 1970s is vividly evocated throughout the book where fitting in is everything and being part of the wrong tribe in the wrong place can have disastrous consequences. Like the central character in Milkman, Anna was a bookish schoolgirl who walked down the streets where she lived with her head in a novel by Thomas Hardy. The book also captures the #me-too movement as the central character is stalked by the titular Milkman. Anna pondered;

‘Why didn’t she say no? Why didn’t she speak to her mother about what was going on? If she had done, would her mother have listened? I don’t think so…who will believe me, I will get through it, I will cope, I will not make a fuss. People would stop and stare and I’d be thinking why is this worthy of being looked at? I’m the girl that walks and reads? Why are they watching me?  Why is this worth remarking upon? I was expected to get married at 16. I always just knew I was not going to be doing any of that. I got through school. I existed. I distanced myself from what was going on around me….’

The Booker win is clearly a life changing experience for Anna, one she is still coming to terms with. Anna gives heartfelt acknowledgement to those who kept her going;

‘I was homeless and on benefits.  I couldn’t feed myself. I went to food banks… I’d have liked to have a different ending for the characters but I do what they tell me – I can’t help the way it ended.’