When you wrapped me
Tightly in your arms
Lips on my hair
No light or air
I. LIVE. AGAIN.
8.30am, one Sunday morning in December
When you wrapped me
Tightly in your arms
Lips on my hair
No light or air
I. LIVE. AGAIN.
8.30am, one Sunday morning in December
Excerpt from Chapter 10: A place where there are no stars
“Think of the biggest-ever room you can imagine,” she had said to him in her innocent, tantalising way. “And then think about the space outside that biggest-ever room.”
“∞ + 1,” Merlin taunted him with its digital dots, configured to needle him just so.
“How can mankind ever hope to rationalise and reconcile the biggest-ever and the smallest-ever, Alice?” He had despaired, pulling at his hair so that he looked like an angry, golden Mohican. She, the creator of Merlin, knew the answer, of course. It was in that damn book of hers.
“Because they are the same, silly!”
Oh, the blerrie English! How he hated their voices, the words they used! And he discovered, there was nothing worse than Oxford English. For instance, how can a person from Scotland go UP to Oxford? Didn’t they know their own geography, or the basic concept of up, down?
But unwittingly, he recalled the words of his Oupa from long ago:
If we were to turn the universe upside down, these stars would become grains of sand beneath our feet.
Excerpt from Chapter 10:
He had travelled so far from his homeland in the South African veld to this godforsaken city, where the blerrie clocks, church bells and gargoyles mocked and taunted outsiders, only to discover that his boyhood dreams were a fallacy: if you look at stars from outer space, they do not twinkle or glitter at all. The enchantment that had captivated him since he was an eight-year-old boy came solely from the earth’s atmosphere refracting millions of light particles raining down upon us from the rays of a dying sun. He remembered his Oupa’s words of long ago, which suddenly made sense after all these years: real magic is to be found here on earth. He had found it many summers ago, sitting inside the hollowed out trunk of his 1,000-year-old baobab tree.
And then in the light reflected in her kaffir eyes, he glimpsed what the universe and life truly were: the totality of the universe was just infinite light spheres blowing in and out of existence like ephemeral soap bubbles, each sphere having a different size but no total volume. Even when the spheres were compressed, this totality remained infinite. To try to catch it would be like catching infinity.
He gazed heavenwards, and up there, the sword of Orion blazed one last time in the afternoon Oxford skies, piercing the shimmering, iridescent moon.
“Catch the moon, my dear Professor,” Alice said. She watched the play of shadows across his face intently. “Let go of your stars.”
Photo: Fontvieille, April 2017
I want to put my lips
On your ribcage
Just a bit off to the left
Of your sternum
On your strong beating heart
The wings of a powerful hawk
On my mouth, my tongue
The turbulent flow
Of your life force
Whenever I do this to you
Clenching and unclenching
Contracting and expanding
Like the universe inhaling
“Jac”, you breathed
The content of your heart
And your whole existence
Years of waiting
Contained in that one word
O Potestatem, my Cambridge boy
It’s called Tadpole’s Promise, and it was written by Jeanne Willis and illustrated by Tony Ross.
In the story, a caterpillar and tadpole meet, fall in love and promise each other to never change.
But of course, we know that tadpoles and caterpillars have to change to progress in life. Like them, we too cannot afford to be stuck. Our relationships have to evolve with the years. What happens then?
Once the Tadpole breaks his promise to the Caterpillar three times the Caterpillar gives up on her prince. The irony in the story is that the Caterpillar herself changes too. She turns into a Butterfly.
But because they stubbornly hung on to their idealism of perfection, they lost touch with each other.
And here’s the surprising, masterful part of the story: One day, the frog eats the Butterfly. Neither one of them realize they were once the Caterpillar and the Tadpole, the big loves of each other’s life.
Here’s a youtube clip of this story:
May I never lose you, Jay Dazzles.
In 2006, at the height of my career and living in Knightsbridge, I took a three-month sabbatical to meander off the beaten track in India. The reason was that I was earning in excess of £100,000, yet I never seemed to have enough money to treat myself. And all around me, I was surrounded by equally “poor”, discontented, superficially successful professionals in their 30-40’s who were in the same boat as I. I didn’t want to wake up one day to find out that a large chunk of my life had passed me by and that I had spent it being discontent and searching.
I had no fixed plans about where I was going, but I ended up in Rameswaram, the holy place for pilgrimage, and here, by the temples, I found a beggar who taught me the Sutras. I just sat beside him on the pavement reading from morning till noon, and passers-by would give us coins. At night, I would return to my simple digs and whenever I was hungry, I ate what the temple volunteers fed pilgrims: mainly watery dhal and chapati. My sweet treat of the day would be the flavoursome little bananas that were found here.
And I was happy. I was away from my comfortable life, beautiful home and lovely family, but I was happy. I came back and wrote a book about being happy with nothing; it was more like a diary, really, about the thinking humans’ time-old quest for that illusive something called happiness.
The book became modestly successful and I returned to Rameswaram to find the old beggar. To my great joy, I found him! He was still begging in the same spot. The open sores in his legs had not gotten better. Nor had they gotten any worse. Everything was same-same. I wondered if he remembered me. I tried to give him money – spoils from the book – but he didn’t want it. For a while, I felt awful for exploiting him. I promised myself that someday, I would write a sequel to this book about the noble man in rags who had more wisdom in his little finger than the learned professionals I surrounded myself with.
I am revisiting this old road, this old topic, because I recently met a kindred soul on life’s rich journey. She – a businesswoman and mother of two – and I got to know each other when she came to the island I am currently living on for a week of peace, soul-searching, meditation and yoga.
We spoke about many topics. It started with the usual. Oh, how tough it is to achieve that work life balance. How difficult it is to keep everything together. The whole world is going crazy being overdosed on adrenaline. we don’t pause enough to connect with ourselves. We lose ourselves. We neglect our spiritual side.
This was when it got interesting for Nicola and I. What is spirituality? An overwhelmingly large number of people do not know (or can’t be bothered). “God”, “New Age”, “mung beans and lentils” or “sandals and socks”?
We talked animatedly round the subject, circling it, and coming back to it again and again. What is it? it’s the part of us that needs to be acknowledged, the knowing that there is something beyond the smallness of our everyday life. It could be something as ubiquitous as a beautiful scenery in front of your eyes or a piece of music that stirs your soul. Holding the hand of your loved one and feel the connection in your heart centre. In Nicola’s case, sitting on a boat with lots of tourists on a cheap day trip, with a bunch of folks eating potato crisps and a boy puking into a paper bag as the boat rocked her towards an island filled with tourists. Happy and at peace, despite the cacophony and mundane happenings.
For within that bustle and humdrum of living is to be found that nugget of bliss. Nicola told me about the book she is currently reading, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by Thomas L. Friedman about the author’s gratitude for being kept waiting for it gave him the opportunity for reflection.
It reminded me of an enlightening book I read a long time ago one freezing winter in New York City with the imaginative title Shovelling Snow With Buddha by Billy Collins.
So, where does one find one’s spirituality?
Travel. Be on your own for days on end. Embrace growth and don’t be afraid of where the growth takes you. Take the time to meet yourself without the excuses, old pain, conditioning, past histories. Yeah, go shovel snow with Buddha.
The Cardiologist told me this beautiful tale about our hearts. I love the stories he tells, because they are shrouded in Eastern esoteric knowledge, folklores from a bygone world and also cutting edge medical research. He tells these stories when we walk my beloved South Downs, the Itchen Valley of my youth, the magical New Forest, the streets of London and in distant countries by the sea.
Over the years, it seems to me that he straddles the realms and he seamlessly merges the knowledge together oh so beautifully, though in the beginning I doubted him. But I have seen his strange beliefs working, in me, in my beating heart: he had patiently rebuilt my heart muscles every single evening during the dark nights and days of 2015-2016, when I was too weak to climb the six flights of stairs up to my eyrie. We ran along the Embankment by Battersea Bridge every winter evening with my heart hooked to his. I still don’t know whether his contraption really worked, but it was a lifeline that I clung on to until I found my my own in my rebuilt heart.
When my heart went into difficulties, it sought his to find its life-saving rhythm again. It trusted his to lead it out of the infinite loop that it found itself in, that it was unable to escape from without help from somewhere, someone. My belief in him saved me.
He would put his ear against my chest with a frown on his face. “Ah,” he would say mysteriously. Sometimes, a smile would flit across his face. He told me that during his training in cardiology, he would tape the heartbeats of as many patients as he could find and play those heartbeats back to him on his Sony Walkman, permanently attached to his ears, until he was fluent in the language that hearts speak.
“That’s why I don’t always hear what you say, Jac, especially when you are nagging,” he often joked, and then with seriousness, “But I hear your heart all the time.”
This is something beautiful he told me a few evenings ago in rainy London, sitting in a pub near where we used to run every evening. He told me that when a person suffers emotional trauma, his heart shifts its position within the ribcage. It could be a few millimetres or even centimetres. I guess that’s why it feels like a physical pain sometimes, when someone or something hurts us deeply.
“Is it possible for a heart to move physically?” I mused.
He who held beating hearts in his hands many times said “Yes” with utter conviction. “The power of thought alone can move a robotic arm, so this is no different. Science will bear this view of mine out in a few years’ time.”
He said that his heart had shifted a lot in the year that his mother died (when he was eight) and the brutal years in an English boarding school that followed his mother’s early death. He grew up learning to live with his heart in a different place.
“But when I walked into your mother’s house for the very first time, when she opened her arms to me and smiled at me with that big smile of hers, I felt something move in me. It was my heart, Jac, going back to its original place.”
In Catching Infinity, I wrote about 14-year-old Alice biking all the way from Jericho in the city of Oxford to the village of Uffington, where the White Horse had danced for 3,000 years, so big that it is visible from the skies. Here, she had lain quietly, alone, looking at the stars and thinking about her love 8,272 miles away in Cape Town, South Africa.
Nobody knows precisely who or what civilisation created the White Horse of Uffington, only that every year, on chalking day for thousands of years, people had come here to clean the Horse. This tradition still goes on to this very day, with teams of volunteers turning up to clean and chalk this ancient monument of beauty. You can read the article on Smithsonian here.
I wrote this poem on May 16th, 2016:
ON BEING ENGLISH
When I close my eyes
And kiss your lips
I hear the winds
Of Uffington Castle
Singing in my ears
And the White Horse
Dances behind my eyelids
Hooves pounding in my heart
As the unmistakable taste of
strong on my lips
Each time I kiss you
Open your eyes
Show me your colours
Whatever you may say
Stop fighting me
Lay down your sword
Let go of
And love me
Don’t give away
Don’t give away
Together we are bound
By the heartbeats
Of our fair England
For Cross of St George
And my Englishman
My fire burns
If you are interested to become part of the white horse of Uffington’s chalking team, please click on the National Trust’s website to volunteer.
The world is so full of natural miracles and little pockets of magic, but we often don’t have the eyes to see them. Only a couple of days ago, my 17-year-old daughter mused why these humble clams have geometric patterns on their shells?
If markings have evolved for the purpose of camouflage (and hence protection from predator), then why geometric patterns? My friend from Borneo tells me that certain shells, chosen for their markings, are soaked in babies’ bathwater to soothe skin rash. The natural world is indeed miraculous and wondrous.
But we often don’t see beyond the first three spatial dimensions. As PW, the protagonist in Catching Infinity said, human beings cannot see higher dimensions because of a fault in evolution. As predators do not leapt out at our early ancestors from higher dimensions, we have not evolved the capabilities to see higher dimensions.
But that capability is there. It is in our brains. Researchers from the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss research initiative devoted to building a supercomputer-powered reconstruction of the human brain, using algebraic topology have discovered groups of neurons connect into ‘cliques’, and that the number of neurons in a clique would lead to its size as a high-dimensional geometric object.
According to the researchers, algebraic topology provides mathematical tools for discerning details of the neural network both in a close-up view at the level of individual neurons, and a grander scale of the brain structure as a whole.
By connecting these two levels, the researchers could discern high-dimensional geometric structures in the brain, formed by collections of tightly connected neurons (cliques) and the empty spaces (cavities) between them.
The full article can be accessed here.
In his inaugural lecture on the 26th dimension, PW talked about being free from the cages that restrict us. Only today, I was talking to a friend who was lamenting about the restrictions of her life. She is in her thirties, tired, weighed down and demoralised by her dead-end job and living in a grey high-rise. But as she is single and well-qualified, there are many other exciting options out there that she could pursue instead of being stuck. But she could not see any one of those options.
“Look up Teach Georgia!” I urged her. Go to Tbilisi and beyond, to the magical land in the remote Caucus mountains, live in the pure culture, discover a new world and find the unknown world within yourself. Be alive again. Georgia is the most magical country I know.
But perhaps we are too scared to let go of the known, safe world to look beyond the limiting confines of our everyday life. Here’s a beautiful call to opening ourselves up to live fully from Pema Chödrön. See the higher dimensions. Know that WE CAN.
If we knew that tonight we were going to go blind, we would take a longing, last real look at every blade of grass, every cloud formation, every speck of dust, every rainbow, raindrop—everything. Pema Chödrön
I dedicate this to my late friend Eva. Dear, I see you x
A nice, fun and easy introduction (illustrations by Kerry Robinson) to the universe, space-time, Einstein, life and being in love, written especially for my seventeen-year old daughter who asks difficult questions, and a fitting prequel to Catching Infinity.
The book is suitable for Young Adult readers and is adapted for workshop sessions in schools / libraries supporting Physics education in terms of poetry and literature. For An Evening In Wonderland: An A level/International Baccalaureate Book Reading & Experiential Workshop, please visit the section on Wonderland Workshops.
To listen to a short reading from the book, please click here.
WINNER OF THE PURPLE DRAGONFLY BOOK AWARD 2017/18!
To order An Evening In Wonderland on Amazon, please click here.