From Zero to One, An Infinity

Numbers fascinate my grandson. He tries to grasp the concept of infinity. “Can we count to infinity? What is infinity plus one? Does the sum of infinite numbers produce a finite number?” The questions are endless, or should I say infinite.

Mathematics has never been my strong subject, and the concept of infinity is difficult to explain. But I too am fascinated by the concept of infinity, and at best, all I can offer is that there is a gap that exists between each number, and each gap contains it’s own infinity. Well that didn’t explain much to my inquisitive grandson. I finally found it easier to explain infinity that exists between Zero (a nothing) and One than trying to visualize the infinity in each gap. There is a gap between Zero and One, and the numbers that exist in that gap are an endless string of rational and irrational numbers. (There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and .113 and so on with an infinite collection of others.) In order to move from Zero (a nothing) to One, then, we have to pass through an infinite number of numbers.

So how do I explain it in simple terms? How do I explain the change that occurs when moving from complete absence to a single presence? How do I explain that we encounter “infinity” routinely in our daily lives? And that having Zero to having One can make an infinite difference in one’s world.

My father and I came up with a simple explanation years ago after we would share our thoughts on various episodes of “The Twilight Zone.” Some episodes left us thinking deeper into the philosophy of the known unknowns. Sometimes we tried to understand what it would be like to be the only survivor of a catastrophe that hit the earth. Assuming you, the survivor, had enough food, water, and breathable air, and could find some decent shelter, your greatest challenge would be loneliness. You’d wander around in search of other survivors, and gradually lose hope. But what if you did find another person? Just one. What difference would it make? Zero people, or one person? The difference would be enormous. In fact, the difference would be immeasurable. Infinite.

Or imagine that for some reason you are in solitary confinement. You’re in a cell, which consists of a cot, pillow, blanket, toilet, and sink. A single light bulb burns for a few hours a day. Your food is sent to you on a conveyor belt. There are no sounds. There is no mirror, no window to the outside. Nothing moves, except you. How long would you last before you became insane? Now add one item. A book. Would it matter whether it was a biography, or a fantasy novel? A chemistry or quantum physics textbook? A dictionary? Each of these would be infinitely better than no book at all. That single volume could keep your mind from disintegrating. You would read every word, every equation, slowly, repeatedly. The book would change your whole world. From Zero to One.

After our hypothetical discourse, my father and I would bring the discussion to home. He would point to the coat closet and say; “You have a coat closet in your house that’s filled with all kinds of jackets. Adding or removing one item will probably not make a difference. But what if you were outside in the middle of winter and you had no coat? One coat would make the infinite difference.” And we would continue to find examples in our daily lives that routinely made an “infinite” difference from Zero to One.

I continue the discussion with my grandson. You’re in the desert. You have no canteen of water or you have one canteen of water. A life changing difference. From Zero to One. There are people who own five homes. There are other people who have nowhere to live. To whom would the addition of one house make the greatest impact? The change from Zero to One is felt and appreciated infinitely greater.

But my grandson is at an age where larger numbers appeal to him. He says he wants to be the scientist who can change the world for more than just one. As for me, I’ll stick to changing one life at a time from having Zero to having One. And the difference for me would be just as great, because changing the world for someone would be infinitely greater than changing the world for no one. Zero to One, an infinity of numbers that fill the gap.

To the memory of my father who taught me to see the known beyond the unknown.

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Tuesday Nights With Nane

There are women in my life who are critically important to me in my circle of family, relatives, friends and co-workers. They range in age from teens to mid nineties. They are daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, oldest friend, newest friend, married, unmarried, gratefully single, remarried, mothers, childless (for a variety of reasons and emotions), homemakers, and professionals. They are Middle Eastern, American, Armenian, European and African. Some are devoutly religious, while others are absolutely not interested in the divine, but most all have questioned divinity at some point in their lives. Some are spiritually challenged, while a few have “negotiated” personal agreements with God. Over many years of coffees and teas and drinks (including much hard liquor) I have sat with these lovely individuals and have had conversations and discussions about family, responsibility, work, autonomy, marriage, men, divorce, intimacy, fidelity, love, sexuality, cultural stigma, traditions, faith, life and death. I have laughed with all and I have cried with all.

I could write a memoir or a tribute for each of these fine women built on the bones of those conversations. But today, when I piece together the pages of my life story I find a common denominator with an extraordinary woman, my aunt Nane. The first memory I have of my aunt is perhaps when I was 4 or 5 years of age. At the time she and her husband had no children of their own and I was to spend a couple of days with them for reasons unknown. I marveled at her slender body, her beautiful green eyes and her radiant smile whenever she looked at me. But what struck me tender was how she would bend her knees to come to my level when she helped dress me or speak to me. Over the years I established a habit of spending summer days with her and her family. During those times, between her daily chores of tending to home, three children, and a husband, we bonded. She, like many of the women of her time, has had her share of wrestling with her role as a loyal daughter, woman, wife, mother. With every motion and emotion, with every difficulty or trouble, I saw in her a frailty that over time began to gain muscle. My mother would say of her sister, “the ferocity of her human spirit comes from her faith driven stubbornness.”

She is a pianist. Music, (a love she instilled in all three of her children) is her friend. The notes rebound off the walls, invisible waves of sound making imprints in time and in my memory. I listen. She is also an avid reader spending hours among books, magazines, newspapers and the Bible always sharing reflections and insight. Being a middle child among 5 siblings she was the assigned “mediator” and “messenger,” the “peacemaker,” for family and friends when argument stirred among neighbors and couples; a gift she continued to spread through her benevolent volunteer duties for the Blue Cross in Lebanon. Yet the demon of guilt always makes her question whether what she does now in her life adds to anything worthwhile. I remind her that benevolence is how she continually gives of herself to her friends and family, with her strength, her faith, her care, and her unspoken love.

During my college years, in between Biology and Math classes, Tuesdays were spent in her kitchen or in the dining room with conversations over lunch. It became a ritual. We trusted that our thoughts were not only safe in each other’s presence, but that they were also positive influences to our sometimes-troubled souls. It was as though we replenished the parts of ourselves that were missing in the different stages of the lives we were living. There were good days and there were ugly days. In the 70’s and 80’s war in Lebanon landed a brutal blow to many who lost sons and daughters, and Nane was there comforting friends who suffered the agony. The memories stay in her mind’s eye for decades. It was years later when she would stand at her youngest daughter’s grave, stoically suffocating the torment in her afflicted heart. She believes in good and evil. She believes in God. Torn in so many places, she finds her footing. Her faith doesn’t falter. Nane is a woman of few words about her own feelings and emotions. Her world is private. She puts up a harsh front for herself, yet she is lenient with others, validating their existence and their thoughts and actions.

The ritual continues. I spend my Tuesday nights with Nane. We pour a glass and set the table to start our night of nibbling on our thoughts. The conversation shifts to current wisdom and the advantage of age, but behind the mask of her advancing years is the woman I knew as a little girl. She does not make excuses for who she is and what she feels. She has thrown away the censors and the cultural stigmas of the past. She is open and loving.

Life is finite and fragile. Which is why I want only to tell this dear woman that her spirit and soul are the most beautiful I’ve ever felt; that she is beautiful, too, in every important way. I’ll hold on to the memory of what she’s shared for as long as I live.

(Dear Reader, share with me one of the beautiful souls in your life whose spirit will linger in your memory.)

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Not As Planned

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”  Victor Frankl

I woke up this morning to the intermittent sound of a chirp. It wasn’t unusual. I often hear a chirp or a whistle floating through my bedroom window just before the early sunrise. Most of the time, the chirp becomes a melodious sequence of bird whistles and songs. A beautiful sound to wake, rise and shine to. I rolled out of bed and prepared myself to take on the day in uplifted spirits. A new month was already in progress and today was the start of another new day. It stretched ahead of me, waiting to be shaped. And I was the sculptor who would do the shaping. I was absolutely giddy with motivation and excitement for how I envisioned the day would develop. I identified little targets to hit by certain hours until dinner. At the end of each target reached I was to tick ‘done’ in my planned and bullet journal.

I had much to accomplish in terms of writing in the morning, and in the early afternoon, I programmed my mind to run a few errands, and nothing was going to stand in my way. First things first, a cup of coffee, a few early morning phone calls, a shopping list, responding to email, (tick, tick, done) and then I settled down to spend a couple of hours doing research for a speech preparation. The chirp escalated, becoming more intense. I followed the sound into the hallway leading to the other end of the home. Ah, there it was again. A chirp. Had a bird flown into the house? It had happened once before when I had left open the balcony door. I was excited to perhaps have a visitor from nature’s avian beauties if only for a moment before I would set it free to fly out to the open. I followed the rhythmic sound as it became louder. I reached the source. To my utter dismay, it was the smoke detector on the ceiling indicating batteries needed replacement! I checked the batteries and realized I didn’t have the correct replacement size available in the house. I would need to purchase one. No problem, I thought. I’ll just add that to my afternoon schedule of running errands.

I set to work on my writing, which soon became an exercise in futility as I realized that my internal unconscious bias had been turned on. In a matter of a few moments, what I had thought was the most pleasant chirp of a bird had become the most annoying, aggravating, repetitious dissonance. I needed to take care of it if I wanted my day to go as planned. I immediately shifted my schedule to run my errands in the morning.

In the car, I made a few stops, took care of essentials, dropped off some groceries to an older friend, picked up the batteries and headed toward home when a light in the instrument panel indicated that one of my tires was low or flat. I pulled over at a gas station and, true to the indicator, I had a nail lodged in the rear passenger side tire. Probably a slow leak which needed to be taken care of right away. I filled air in the tire and drove to the tire company to take care of the flat. It would be an hour before anything could be done. I waited. Tire fixed, I returned home to address the chirping smoke detector. I felt really smug about myself as I changed the battery. I waited. No chirp. Yes! Mission accomplished… I thought. In the midst of settling down to do my writing, to my surprise, there it was again. The chirp. This time I tried removing the entire detector and realized it was one that was electrically wired into the home system. I did my research and after a number of calls to professionals, I was told the entire system would need to be changed as this was an old one and not worth the repair. Could anything else go wrong?

Which made me think– how often in life we allow a word, a sound, a smell, or an event to transform our emotional state from happy to unhappy. With only an hour left to myself before my numbered planned hours would expire, I had no other control over this external situation; I did however, have control over my internal one. I would have to shift my perspective from thinking the day went “wrong” to “not as planned.”

“How was your day?” asked my husband.
“Not as planned,” I answered.
“Let’s go out for dinner,” he said.
Sometimes, the best moments happen unplanned.

 

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It’s Your Day, It’s My Day

“Today is your day and mine, the only day that we have to play our part. What our part may signify in the great whole we may not understand, but we are here to play it, and now is our time.” (David Starr Jordan)

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day to honor and celebrate the women in our lives and those whose work has paved the way for so many of us. We have all been raised on the shoulders of one or more women who have embraced bravery despite personal or professional obstacles. Their persistence has made a powerful impact in our lives and that of the world. Through their work in the arts, education, healthcare, STEM, law, public service, policy implementation and more, women have fought for rights, telling their own stories and advocating for others. They have and continue to break barriers and challenge discrimination based on gender, economic status, sexual orientation and race in the name of equality. They are –enabler, nurturer, motivator, entrepreneur, believer, supporter, leader, optimist, powerful, legend– women who deserve our praise. They possess the tenacity and drive to step up to the podium and raise their voices so that others may find their voice. I applaud the women.

As you celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD),  remember to also focus on innovative ways in which we can advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure. This year’s theme for IWD, “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change,” is crucial for all women to think and build on that understanding of change because the original aim – to achieve full gender equality for women in the world – has still not been realized. A gender pay gap persists across the globe and women are still not present in equal numbers in business or politics. Figures show that globally, women’s education, health and violence towards women is still worse than that of men. According to the World Economic Forum, the gender gap won’t close until 2186. It is an embarrassment for all women if we accept that as the status quo and not work harder to achieve the goals set in in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 24 years ago. (For further read please refer to my March 6, 2015 post Empowering Women).IWD BELONGS TO ALL WOMEN, EVERYWHERE, INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE.   The road is long, the journey tough. Together, we can change the world in which we want our children to live.

“Think equal, build smart, innovate for change,”

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I Am Woman

Dedicated To All Who
“Give us wings to open the horizon of ascent,
To break free from our confined cavern, the solitude of iron walls.
Give us light, to pierce the deepest darkness
and with the strength of its brilliant flow
we will push our steps to a precipice
from which to reap life’s victories.” (Excerpt from poem by Fadwa Tuqan )

Powerful women influenced my childhood. I had two grandmothers who had lost their spouses early in life and who singlehandedly and successfully raised their families while working and living in a man’s world. I had a mother who held her ground and tried hard not to allow the societal definition of woman define her place in life. I have a sister who continues to voice her professional and personal rights to champion for women and crush a needless compulsion of women to prove themselves worthy of respect. Growing up, I had a pretty good idea what being a woman meant. All the women I looked up to had a lot in common. They were educated, they were married, they were mothers, they were involved in their communities, and they were bold, proud and heard.

Grandma Marie was the only sister among 5 brothers. She was smart, observant and resilient in a world of men. She married a doctor, and together they had six children. Marie saw the death of her eldest who passed away from an illness at a very young age and then the death of her husband who passed away soon after their sixth child was two years of age. As a single parent, Marie knew the power she gained in raising 5 children on her own, and giving each of them, without gender discrimination, the opportunity to receive higher education and enter professional fields. A brave woman who rose to chair the Lady Volunteers of the Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, Marie had little patience for women who chose to remain victims of life circumstances. She spoke her mind and encouraged girls around her to do so fearlessly.

Grandma Victoria was stoic, disciplined and reserved. She was a woman of few words who had strength and determination that spoke volumes beyond her pursed lips. She was a no nonsense woman living in a brutal man’s world who preferred to depend on her own skills than to rely on an absentee husband. There was no room in her life to be less than righteous and principled in all her actions. Never a victim of self-pity, she tirelessly worked jobs in order to provide a stable life for her two boys whom she raised to become responsible, respectful and reputable gentlemen. At a time when women did not have the “authority” to take life into their own hands in the absence of “a man by their side,” both Marie and Victoria were women who relied on their own fortitude, and with matchless scruples they faced responsibilities in a patriarchal culture and society. They became their own authorities. They both taught me that a woman is not defined by her gender and the stereotype box that categorizes her but by the accomplishments that make her proud.

I am woman. Being a woman is about independence. It’s about standing my ground alone or with my peers and voicing my opinion on what matters. It’s about stamina and holding my head up high and my ideals even higher. Being a woman is about pride; to be able to look people in the eye and brush the dust off my suit every time I am knocked down. It’s about support and unity; standing together and building up my fellow women. It’s about carrying another emotionally, and cheering her on through even her smallest of successes. Being a woman is about taking responsibility for my life and for what I want from that life. I am my own authority. I cannot be put into a box.

I am solemn and I am mischievous. I am audacious and confident but terribly shy and awkward at other times. I am intelligent and I like to look good (but do not ask me to dye my hair). I can make an argument about controlling the use of modern technology to prevent a future of depressed and electronically addicted generation “Z” and “Alpha,” and I can follow that with a question about which dress goes best with my high heels and open toe shoes. I am traditional and I am modern. I am academic and I am activist. I am simple and I am complex. I am revolution and I am evolution. I am warrior and I am worrier. Laughter is my medicine, faith is my cure, and my tears are my humanity. I live purposefully, not perfectly.

Raised on the shoulders of the women before me, I carry their power and pride as wings that give flight to my strength—a woman’s strength that comes from within my heart, my mind and my body. And that cannot be put into a box.

International Women’s Day March 8, 2019 theme: “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change.”

 

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The Eyes Speak

The old saying that “eyes are a reflection of your inner self” holds true. The eyes have been regarded as the mirror of our mental states. The great Roman philosopher Cicero said, “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.” In the Bible, Matthew reveals, “The eye is the lamp of the body…” Descartes argued that there is no passion that some particular expression of the eyes does not reveal, and Shakespeare famously wrote, “The eyes are the windows to your soul.”

For one such as I who was taught to look people in the eye when speaking and listening, and for one whose eyes spoke before her mouth uttered the words, I find my eyes speak volumes about me… to the extent that if I wish to conceal my thoughts, I would have to block out the eyes. Eyes. They hold many revealing emotions that are expressed through eye contact. It can be a glaring look when a person is defiant or angry; a glazed over look when we are hopelessly enamored; a soft look, a hard look, the eyes can show compassion and empathy. They can reprimand, intimidate, or menace. They can question, and they can make a point. They show remorse, sadness, joy, happiness, hurt, fear, and uncertainty. They speak of desire, of want and need. They reflect our sincerity (or lack thereof), integrity and comfort when communicating with another person. And how can we ignore the non-verbal language of our eyes that speak of love? We convey our hearts most poignant picture through them. Yet, we have developed habits with our devices that interfere with our ability or even desire to interact and communicate on a face-to-face level.

I encounter the look in the eyes of a perky bank clerk carrying papers from her desk to another office. On the way, she greets customers with a cheery smile. She is truly happy. The eyes are the giveaway. She crinkles the corners of her eyes in a “crow’s feet” pattern showing a genuine passion, openness and receptiveness for her task at hand.

I find the look in a man sitting in front of his computer looking at pictures of his wedding day. The photo he stares at is one of a beautiful woman in white with a huge smile that spreads across her glowing cheeks as she looks into his eyes. There, his gentle eyes spoke of admiration and wonderment. In front of the computer his gentle eyes speak of deference, a passive resignation to love as though he is trying to remember what passionate love feels like. It isn’t the memory that fails him. It is the relationship.

I catch the look in the eyes of a store clerk who stops by the window and stares dreamily at the passerby’s. A father and child are holding hands waiting for the light to cross the street. The clerk likes what she sees. Her eyes dilate with tenderness for a few seconds before she furrows her brow making her eyes smaller. Is it remorse, or rejection? Definitely sadness.

I see the look in the eyes of an older man when I express condolences on the passing of his spouse of 55 years. He looks me in the eye with composure, and with an honest clarity his eyes express a light that springs from a deep void. The flame that once was is now a glow in the ashes of the memory of his love.

I perceive the look in the eyes of a dignitary, an accomplished woman who takes the first step on a staircase and with the utmost respect and humility, turns her gaze to her spouse while he steps up to follow. Her eyes hide nothing. They speak of equanimity, revealing a non-competitive love. It gives greater meaning to their intimacy.

I find compassion in the misty eyes of a man who is moved by the sight of a child rummaging through trash. His soft eyes resemble the early morning dew that clings to leaves before evaporating in the scorching sun. Care, concern and empathy are in his eyes as he hands his bagel to the rummager before he hides his true self behind his sunglasses.

The look of love is everywhere in the eyes of my fellow humans. Look at each other. It is the easiest and most powerful way to make a person feel recognized, understood and validated. Maintain eye contact. Find the true and silent language of love spoken through the eyes of your fellow humans.

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Transitional Time

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.  William Blake (Auguries of Innocence)

January is my birth month, and as I celebrate another year I start to think of how transitional time is. At the close of 2018 I wrote: “Another year has passed. A year with a thousand happenings, pleasant and unpleasant, long and brief all at the same time filling my days broken up into hours. Every hour seems so short and at the same time endless. And what about those minutes? In one minute, a thousand thoughts can cross my mind, and in a flash, it’s over. And in one second, every word spoken is already in the past. These fleeting moments, shorter than a second, a decisecond, or is it a centisecond? Oh how brief it is, that intangible millisecond which, as I speak is already in the past. But it is all that I really have…that intangible moment, the present, which is where I always am. And while my present is slipping into the past as I speak, I am at the same time transitioning into the future.”

Past, present and future are overlapping. The shortest of these is the present. It goes by swiftly, moving me forward into the unknown future. Whereas, having lived a good many years of my past,  I recall a great deal more of the it with memories that nourish and strengthen me. When I was a child, I thought time didn’t move fast enough. Even “tomorrow” was too far away for me to comprehend. “Tomorrow” was not within my vision and I could never get there fast enough. I’d ask, “Are we there yet?” Or “Is today tomorrow?” When I reached young adulthood, there were the big moments when I wanted time to stand still. Those were wonderful moments of exploring emotions of growing up into the world of books and romance, adventure and fantasy and of love. And because I still had not had much of a past, the future became more interesting; something to long for. It was unknowable, and the thought that I could affect or even cause the future was hard to imagine. I dreamed what could be and fantasized the outcome while living in the present fragment of my life. Now, as a mature adult, I recognize today as the future I couldn’t imagine. I am living in the “tomorrow” of my past. I have slipped into it, one moment at a time, yet it feels like I have leaped into it.

In the span of “short” decades, science and technological advancements have led me to change how I work, play, socialize, exercise and relax. I wake up to a smartphone, check email, and scan news headlines even before my first cup of morning coffee. I conduct meetings and conference calls between workouts and commutes, and finish my day by completing projects after the household is in bed. Like the world around me, I cyber communicate from home, coffee shop, office, airplane or beach, blurring the lines between professional and personal life. Advancements in science and technology have created and designed systems that were once a fragment of my imagination —imagine self-driving cars, artificial wombs, Artificial Intelligence –the tomorrow of my yesterdays has fast become my present reality. And while the present is where I always am, I look toward tomorrow, because forward is the only direction in which I can move in time.

The past, my past, travels with me. It is a history that is my heritage. And the longer the past, the sweeter my present becomes. I cannot bring back the past nor do I wish to, but I can unlock the emotions of moments lived and re-live them in the fragmented space of my present. Those endless moments—running through orchards intoxicated by the aroma of orange blossom; speechless, standing in the shadow of the pyramids or agape at the vastness of the Grand Canyon; wishing on a shooting star and being awed by the cosmos; losing a friend; falling in love; childbirth; hugging; laughing; crying — are endless emotions that travel with me to present time.

hourglasTime moves, and I transition with it. I live in the short moments that unfold in my present. They go by fast, but they add to the length of my life, while, simultaneously, I slip into the future. What was yesterday is not today. What is today will not be tomorrow. The present is all that I occupy. But time moves forward. And by the grace of life granted me, I transition with it one moment at a time.

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