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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Infinity, the Thanksgiving guest

Infinity: I intend to give thanks for it this Thursday. Let me put forward some arguments for why it deserves our gratitude.

Infinity, in its everlasting reach forward and outward, ironically takes me backwards. I remember standing on a road with my father the engineer, who sold the bulldozers that built the Interstate, a fact of which I was immensely proud. Thanks to my family, America would be tied together by one long ribbon. But, you have to imagine most of it, my father said, pointing me at the horizon. Do you see where the road ends? I nodded. Anyone could. Well, he said, it doesn’t end there. But you can train your mind to see beyond that point.

This is one of the most redeeming things about the human race: our ability to imagine things beyond the point where we can measure them. My son has been struggling to write an essay for school on knowledge, and he concluded, like so many before him, that we cannot know anything for certain. It’s easy to see this as negative, but it is really about infinity: just beyond that point at which we think we know something, lies the unknown, and we keep striving for it. Good for us!

I grew up in Iowa. The last Thanksgiving dinner I had in the United States was 26 years ago. It was always my favourite holiday, partly because I loved the trappings and the food and the ambience, and in part because it seemed to me to be the truest American holiday, the one everyone could celebrate. We were all born potentially festive and thankful, though some unfortunate people end up grumpy and disgruntled.

I left Iowa, then the Midwest, then the U.S. The first few years away, I missed family and friends sorely on that last Thursday in November, which was always an inconvenient time to go home. I went to great lengths to find turkeys in France, where they had to be ordered two weeks ahead in order to fatten them up properly. This was surprising news to someone who grew up on Butterball turkeys with their red buttons that popped out when they were done.

I remembered with great nostalgia the Thanksgivings of my childhood (search this blog: Pilgrim corn).

Two attempts at feasting in France on Thanksgiving Day proved rough: there was no hope of taking the day off to cook, the meal was started late and lasted long, and Friday was a work day. Even the French would not forgive missing work for a case of over-indulgence at the table.

I shifted the celebration to the weekend after the big day. When my children were little we put paper turkey name cards around the table and I had turkey candles shipped over from America, as we now called it. With no one else celebrating, it seemed a bit forced. Gradually, the weekend fetes faded away.

I don’t miss it because I have started my own celebration. It consists of pausing on Thanksgiving Day long enough to find one thing in the universe that has given me enormous pleasure over the years. I then do a bit of research and I think about it. I feast on it.

Last year it was clouds, prompted by the sudden recollection of vertical stacks of the white stuff that our airplane skimmed over just as we arrived in Zimbabwe on my first flight to Africa 20 years ago. I thought that in a country with such skittish politics today the only unchanging thing might be the clouds.

Sitting in Switzerland, I pointed my camera to the skies, reread weather lessons I must have known at the age of 12, looked at the clouds in my parents’ retirement hobby paintings and remembered them discussing what a challenge it is to paint these well. And I made the delightful discovery of England’s online cloudman.

So this year I will give thanks for infinity, not to be confused with The Infinite, which is a more religious notion.

One thing I love about infinity, defined very loosely as that which goes on and on, is that it is both beautiful and useful. I can dream about the vanishing point in art and I can argue about the mathematics of it, or more likely, traipse through other people’s learned efforts to do so. That will be my research. A green field with the rows neatly planted leads not to the end of the field but straight into the blue November sky. What magic!

I suddenly remembered today the first short story I wrote, not a very good one, but the teacher praised the imagination behind it, and that was enough to spark a writing career. It had little plot, but much color in its description of a road that never ends, that keeps pulling us along.
We can be philosophical about infinity and we can also just plain enjoy jousting with it, as my mother did in a painting of a crowd of bright umbrellas heading off into the distance. She cheated the vanishing point by making the people vanish into a funky blue fog as they were on the verge of being vanished by a mathematical formula.

I turn from that to a painting by my father, where two Spanish widows step gingerly down the stairs towards us, turning their back on the vanishing point and teasing us into forgetting it.

Maybe the best thing about infinity is that we always think we can capture it, or if not that, beat it or best it, and we keep trying. The number of ways to do so appears to be –

You guessed it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the infinity concept! And your writing is just wonderful! Thank you for making me think a bit.

6:49 PM  

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