Complex and contradictory

In a sea of headlines, many promising far more than they deliver, Mars Rover Finds Stronger Potential for Life stands out for its understated directness. The headline writer was clearly confident that the story had no need for hype or embellishment. And they were right. The story reads like science fiction and boggles the mind with possibilities.

The author's clear and economical writing style is the perfect counterbalance to the out-of-this-world subject matter. One sentence in particular mesmerized me.

Curiosity does not carry life-detection instruments, in large part because there is no consensus on what such an instrument might be.

There are many twists and turns in those few words. First, a respected writer in a respected publication is chronicling the potential discovery of life on other planets. Second, there are the wonderful rewards of naming the rover "Curiosity", which toys with your understanding when you read the sentence quickly.

But the highlight is the discovery that there is a debate amongst scientists about how to detect life. As written, it reads less like a scientific question than a philosophical one.

How do we detect life? What are the signs? There are cells and breaths and heartbeats, of course, but when I search for life, I search for love.

It's found around every corner, in strange and obvious places. It shines through spontaneous conversations and shared playlists. It appears in huge, unexplainable smiles and huge, unexplainable dreams. We chase it when it's missing and share it when it's found.

The steadfast, unquestioning love of a friend or partner is the comforting safety to be who you are and a well-timed push to embrace the best version of yourself. It's a potent mix of security and adventure, freedom and grace.

This nourishing love is expressed in a myriad of ways, from a favorite song turned up with the windows down to sitting side by side in warm silence; hilariously ill-conceived texts exchanged at late hours and as many hours in waiting rooms as it takes. It's threaded through our unforgettable and entirely forgettable moments.

Above all else, it is not finite. Love lies undetected all around us. Our most profound friendships are often with the most surprising people, sparked by small acts of unexpected kindness.

There's another sentence that's become a favorite. It's found in a print by the artist Hugh MacLeod that hangs on our wall.

A story without love is not worth telling.

Prompted

The latest dispatch asked, What class had the biggest influence on the person you've become?

Samantha wrote:

My second year of college I took a class called Varieties of Feminist Theory. I had no idea what to expect and I soon would find out that this class would change my life. There was one particular day where we were reading about the intersectionality between feminism and disability. We specifically were talking about all the things that able-bodied people can do as well as disabled people and the stigma associated with disability that is unnecessary. I found this so interesting that I later approached the Professor and she worked with me on an independent study. While in school, I spent the next year researching the intersection between sex and disability. Why is it that when we see a disabled person, we don't think of them as a sexual object the way we view an able-bodied person? Why aren't they shown in commercials and sexualized the same way? It was a topic that shaped my following years in college.

Lara wrote:

Looking back, the classes that had the biggest impact on me were those that taught me to think for myself, and largely it had more to do with the teacher than the class.

My class teacher when I was about 9 who gave us a class on "Music Appreciation" that mostly consisted of listening to his favourite old tunes from the 60s. My high school Japanese teacher who was a total nut but taught me to love language study as an exploration of the culture it came from. My high school english teacher who taught us to love language just for its form and history, and not what it said. The two women who taught me in final year English and Literature were such clever kooky women, and really valued the way I thought about things, or at least made me feel like they did. My first year French teacher who was so patient, kind and generous with everyone that we eventually came to love his class so much and therefore love learning French.

I still think it is very rare to find anyone, yet alone a teacher, who has managed to retain an enthusiasm for the process of learning. It is so easy to lose, in fact sometimes it feels to me like it is beaten out of us in the process of growing up. Which is all the more reason to hold on to it I think.

Chandley wrote:

My first instinct on seeing this prompt was "oh, I have an answer for that!" And then I realized, I don't have a single answer, I have a multitude of answers. It turns out that I have been unaccountably blessed to know phenomenal educators. People who care about the material they teach and how it interacts with the world. People who love their ivory tower but who also understand that education must have a function and an outlet. Or, as Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler put it, "you just accumulate facts and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them."

Putting aside my general ode to educators, I would have to say that the teacher that had the most profound impact on the person I have become was my high-school french teacher, Madame Maness. I say this not because I still speak french particularly well (though I still, oddly, dream in french regularly) but because she turned me into a traveller. She taught me to be wherever I found myself and to appreciate it for what it is in its own space. She taught me to not be a tourist but to still appreciate the "monuments" for the story they tell of a culture. She taught me to seek out the overlooked and revel in it. She taught me to eat the food the locals eat, where they eat it and to take it back home with me to make it my own. We have never taken a single trip together but she pushed me to take the opportunities I was given to live abroad on my own at a ridiculously young age and turn that not into a "trip" but into an experience and a life.

Madame is the reason I could choose to move away from all that was comfortable and familiar and know that it wasn't just going to be alright, it was going to extraordinary.

Drew wrote:

Two classes, actually. The first was my high school Year 12 (Senior Year) 3 Unit English class (an AP class by USA standards) with Alan Whitehurst. Mr. Whitehurst (all our teachers were either misters or misses, regardless of marriage status) led an exploration of Shakespeare's "problem plays". I knew I liked Shakespeare, I loved the histories, Richard III being a favorite, and King Lear (above Hamlet) in the tragedies, but I don't think I had ever paid much attention to the comedies or the more problematic ones. We studied Measure for Measure, The Winter's Tale, and All's Well That Ends Well. There were no pat answers. People were revealed as complex and contradictory and beautiful and passionate. It made me open my eyes more fully to the relationships around me.

The second, a literary review of 20th Century authors as part of my graduate studies in education. In it I discovered writers from around the world, including a book by Michael Ondaatje that I consider one of my absolute favorites, In The Skin Of A Lion. I learned how to read widely and explore literature beyond my usual focus. This opened my eyes to being willing to throw myself into new cultures and experiences without the comfort of knowing what to expect.

Ryan wrote:

I attended a small Christian four-year college, and everyone took the same single Philosophy class in their junior year, from the same professor, Dr. W. Merwin “Skip” Forbes. No one called him Merwin. We always wondered what the W was for, and why it was worse than “Merwin”. (It must have been, right, or why else did he go by “Merwin”?)

Anyway, that class was okay, I guess. In a politically- and religiously-conservative school where most of the faculty believed their job was to tell you what, not how, to think, students tended to adore Dr. Forbes for his (comparative) liberalism and Socratic style. I don’t remember much of what I learned from him about Philosophy, though, except what I still think of as his most frequently-expressed idea, “There’s no such thing as a ‘raw fact’”. Instead, I remember the second class I took from him (he taught only a very few classes, and most people took only the one).

After completing my undergrad, I went back for one year of seminary, and in the first semester I took Dr. Forbes’ Theological Systems class. It was more of the same: lots of questions, no answers, and guidelines for writing papers that included instructions like “More than one page, less than a hundred, and it better be good.” But most importantly, everyone had to do a group project (ugggghhhhh) researching and presenting information about a specific system of Theology. My group landed Reformed Theology, and I volunteered to research its roots. I don’t remember many of the details now, but I do remember that Forbes’ lectures combined with my own research led me to realizing, by degrees, that much of what people believe about the teachings of the Bible is largely guided, if not determined, by factors other than the actual words of the documents themselves. This put me on the road to not only a re-evaluation of my own framework for interpreting the text and my own faith, but to trying to become the kind of person who sees beyond all words and actions to the motive forces behind them.

I’m still trying to become that kind of person, and I think that would make Dr. Forbes pretty happy.

Uncommon reads

Margaret Atwood's new work will remain unseen for a century by Allison Flood:

Margaret Atwood has just been named as the first contributor to an astonishing new public artwork. The Future Library project, conceived by the award-winning young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, began, quietly, this summer, with the planting of a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo. It will slowly unfold over the next century. Every year until 2114, one writer will be invited to contribute a new text to the collection, and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.

Paterson said that Future Library “has nature, the environment at its core – and involves ecology, the interconnectedness of things, those living now and still to come. It questions the present tendency to think in short bursts of time, making decisions only for us living now.”

How We Write About Love by Daniel Jones:

Writing about love can be similar to falling in love in that we must be as vulnerable on the page as we are in person when revealing ourselves to someone we hope will love us back. That means exposing our flaws and weaknesses and trusting we will be seen as more appealing, not less, for having done so.

Black Mirror and the Horrors and Delights of Technology by Jenna Wortham:

And perhaps that’s the true appeal of the series: It does more than blame technology for our woes. It deals with the reality that, no matter what gadgetry we may possess, our problems remain human.

Your turn

Do you have a favorite poem, song, film, or book about love?