Other kinds of coding

Had I not studied mathematics, I would probably never have written the essay that follows. I wrote it 17 years ago but I decided to post it this holiday season. I hope you enjoy it.

We were on our way home from daycare on a dark December evening. “Gook, mommy.” my two year old daughter yelled out, startled and excited. She spotted a house, unexpectedly lit around the edges with white Christmas lights. “Wow,” she sighed when we passed the next one. Trees and bushes had a new trick. “Pri-tee,” she finally said with a big smile. “Yes, Aiyanna” I said, “pretty.” Then came the full recognition that she didn’t have any Christmas ideas yet, that my husband and I were going to be the source of her Christmas story. Could I make it a good story? I never really liked Santa Claus. And while I love the birth of a savior in a barn story, December 25th is not actually Jesus’ birthday. What is it about this ancient holiday that’s just true, that makes it so important? What are we all so happy about?

The next weekend, we took a shortcut to the imagination. We went to the movies and saw Polar Express. The dark theater closed my daughter’s eyes to the regular world, and mesmerized her with the rich, large, loud stimuli of some other one. I didn’t feel her move the whole length of the film. Still lacking the strength (or the need) to fully control her attention she freely took that ride to the North Pole and she loved it. When it was over, I was feeling pretty good myself and wondered what, exactly, had soothed me. An icy train ride in the dark with some interesting kids, a generous parental conductor, a ghost, caribou, wolves, eagles, a convincingly booming town called the North Pole, and Santa’s spectacular disappearance into the dark cold sky, all of these images woke me up, and made my mind eager to play.

Having been a student of psychology and then mathematics, I love the most abstract and general of ideas, big ideas that easily capture what look like unrelated specifics. I like finding what mathematics calls equivalence classes in my regular experience. Equivalence classes are groups of things that are the same from a particular point of view. I can say, for example, that a coffee mug and a donut are the same thing because they both have only one hole in their otherwise smooth contour. There is a branch of mathematics that contains exactly that idea. A particular kind of abstraction tells us, not that the mug and the donut are similar things, but that they are the same thing. They are topologically equivalent.

The weighty, loud, steaming Polar Express, easily muted the noise of my day-to-day list of things to do, and broke open space for blending ideas. The film was a dream, a really good dream. It was the way the dream was instructing the dreamer that caught my attention. It looked like one of Jung’s big dreams. The kind, this adventurous psychologist proposed, came not from a personal unconscious but from a collective human unconscious. They usually happened, he thought, during critical periods in our lives – like puberty, middle-age, or near death times. They’re there to inform us, to give us insight, to break through our tiny me-centered awareness, and make more room (something I believe mathematics does always).

When I gave this movie dream the import Jung proposed, the story on the screen triggered Christmas image after image in my memory. I skipped easily from thought to thought and enjoyed a sensory pleasure not unlike what you might feel watching the successful fall of an elaborate domino construction. There was a way to speak to Aiyanna about this holiday that could deepen with her development instead of wither away (as often happens when our world begins to shrink under the pressure of the rationalizations of adulthood). This holiday celebrated unexpected, unexplainable life.

I kept thinking about Santa in the car on the way home, and maybe I saw him for the first time. He rises out of the best of our imagination, the part that gives the hazy sensations of our intuition some form – a face maybe, a voice, and a story. This bearded icon has been through his share of transformations, but he settled, at some point, into the red-suited reindeer keeper we know, and took up residence at the North Pole – the coldest of places, a barren place in fact, where we say no life is possible. Yet there he lives, with an odd devotion to us.

His moment with us is one of those midnight moments where we split apart our time ordered days and give him the space to be everywhere in an instant. Out of the dark he flies. He laughs loud, walks through every single house in the world, and even eats in some of them. He gives us stuff, wants us to be happy, to not worry about the things that don’t matter. He’s alive after all – “ho, ho, ho!” We expect him to return year after year, like the sun’s life-giving power. We squint to find his silhouetted image across the moon, near the stars. But we’re not permitted to celebrate until we see the evidence of his return. He is our hope and the answer to our hope.

On the solstice, life hopes for life, and life celebrates life’s endurance. Our usual worries about small things, and our self-centered anxieties grow like bacteria – fast and easy – slowly killing our simple respect for the world that gives us life. It’s hard to control our worrisome nature. But we once took note of the sun’s retreat, and with the threat of approaching darkness, the vulnerability of our existence was exposed. On the edge of the sun’s availability, on the shortest of days, life looks at itself, and its reliance on a star. Somehow, out of the dark, cold space beyond our sky comes our warm- blooded selves. We will never find the reason we came to be, nor any definitive assurance that we will continue to be. But, with this admonition from our sun, we glimpse how remarkable our living is.

Placing Jesus’ birth on December 25 (the birthday of more than one pagan sun god) hooks stories up – the new deliverer of life is laid over our humble devotion to the sun. The focus of the new story is a man who says things like, “I am the way and the life.” What life is this? Lining up the birth of this man with our ancient devotion must be telling us where to start (regardless of the political motives satisfied by doing this). And after a couple of thousand years we still struggle with the rest of the narrative. This man is the myth, the hero and the god, in our history, in real time. He’s so fully alive, we’re told, that death loses its hold on him, so intimately tied to life’s source he becomes that source – he is the fullness of life in what has been called the fullness of time. We don’t really understand what these things mean, but churches tell this story year after year, through our thousands of trips around the sun.

Certainly, all of these Christmas images are manipulated, even contaminated by our greedy, power grabbing habits. But, just like the blood that can do what it’s there to do, despite the presence of things like alcohol, nicotine or some other drug, these images, despite our frequent manipulation of them, continue to do what they do. They continue to live.

Jung once said that consciousness itself is still in an experimental state (being a relatively recent product of evolution). He didn’t think we should rely on it so much. We rarely challenge its point of view because it seems to work so well, to give us so much control. But I trust dreams the way I trust my heart to beat or my lungs to take what I need from the air. They often direct me , like the crew of that mighty Polar Express, so that I can see better.

My husband was traveling just before Christmas. “Who’s coming home next week,” I would periodically ask Aiyanna. “Daddy!” she would say quickly and crisply. Then I would say, “And who’s coming after that?” Her eyes always widened and took hold of mine. They jittered a bit, excited, inquiring and uncertain. Hardly knowing what she was saying, she’d whisper the news. “Santa comin.”

1 comment to Other kinds of coding

  • John Golden

    Merry Christmas! Loved this post. Our family practice of advent also has – I hope – the strong whispered quality of ‘Who is coming?’