Samhain

This weekend was one of the first where I think I really felt settled — for once not running around on the househunting treadmill. This afternoon it was sunny and a very pleasant 19 C outside, which has demolished my faith in weather forecasting: just today I’ve watched the forecast change from “it’s going to rain until Tuesday” to “it’s going to rain all next week and freeze at night” to “it’s going to be quite pleasant thank you”. Trust your eyes, and a finger in the wind, I suppose.

Nevertheless, I did have some time to do necessary domestic things: straighten up around the house, pay my bills, get some traction on cash expenses since I’ve been here (not that I really wanted to see those), bake a zucchini slice big enough to give me breakfast all next week (and it freezes well!), catch up on email, drink a lot of tea, try Sfoglia’s sfogliatelle, read an article on transient astrophysical events in Aboriginal Australian oral traditions, walk aimlessly around the neighborhood in the sunshine, caption some more photos for later upload elsewhere, call Mom, IM a few friends for whom it was still Saturday evening. This evening I met Stuart, Philipp and Chiaki for dinner, Japanese-style; I’ll spare the food details, suffice it to say it was fantastic and my compliments to the chef.

Somewhere in there I got the impression that it should be that time of year when the veil is thin and spirits can pass freely between this world and the next. For the Australians, it’s comfortably springtime, think early May, so there are plenty of trees still in full blossom and bird calls in the air — ravens and magpies, graveyard birds to be sure, but also sweeter songs. Apparently there were a few costume parties this weekend, somewhere else (probably while I was compiling), but the more notable holiday being celebrated is the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, which for every Australian state but the ACT is in fact a state holiday, and from what I hear most people in the ACT usually don’t do much work either. It isn’t uncommon for everyone to just gather in some room at work and turn on the TV to watch the horse race and associated pageantry.

(Contrast this to Tuesday in the States, a grim-looking Election Day for the Democrats, where I imagine everyone will be at the polls. Looks like I can submit an absentee ballot only by mail, and I would have had to apply for one at least a month and a half ago. If I were indeed able to vote, I might have had some kind of impact on the Blumenthal vs. McMahon contest in Connecticut, but as it is: sorry all, good luck voting for your lives, come back with your shields or on them.)

My two thoughts this Celtic New Year for those assembled are as follows. One: There is at once nothing, and yet something, very special about being this particular human being in the particular time and place in which you find yourself. As I walked along in the afternoon sunlight I imagined all the other places or times I could have been: 17th-century Germany or England during the Scientific Revolution, 15th-century Wallachia rotting on a pike during the incessant wars between the Ottoman Empire and the proto-Romanians, the outback of 19th-century Australia, China or Tibet in the time of Bodhidharma, or indeed right here, in the future of yesterday which is still going on in New York. There were people much like myself in all of these times, with almost identical, in broad strokes, genetic makeup to myself, with similar evolved hopes and fears, desires and gut impulses, all wanting to avoid suffering and realize happiness, whatever that meant for them at the time. This is perhaps the meaning of the veil’s exquisite thinness — a time to reflect that we are not that unlike the departed, and that in our time our own moment will come.

The other thought is that after all this time, and given the constant striving of billions through the ages across the face of the globe, we don’t really have any better grasp on the ultimate mystery of the bare fact of our existence and eventual nonexistence than we did centuries ago. We know now much more about the structure of our universe, the evolution of our solar system, of life and of our own species, indeed of our own bodies and the mechanisms by which our processes of thought, our emotional landscapes, our personal teleologies branded deep in our blood, come about as a result of physical chains of cause and effect, of chemical currents on which it would seem we can but be swept along. We sense the commonalities, those aspects we all share in virtue of being made of meat, things where we can turn to each other and say, “oh of course, everyone feels that.” But each one of us ultimately remains isolated in the question of what it means to be ourselves, not even just to be authentic but what it means to be a first-person entity whose time and vital energy remain nevertheless circumscribed by a span of years much shorter than the age of the cosmos we inhabit. In order to have a hope of piercing even this thin veil with some measure of true understanding, we could sacrifice all we have, all that our society and our genes demand we accumulate in order to propagate our desires into the future — and there are still countless faithful who do all this and still may never know salvation (whatever that means) within their lifetimes. Admirable, perhaps, even only in the effort, but we’ll never really know. What awaits us then?

(posted on All Saint’s Day, Australian Eastern Time, shortly after midnight.)

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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