Sunday, October 27, 2013

A hot shower takes me right back to childhood


I love a hot shower; my husband likes it cool. Sometimes in the morning rush, my husband jumps in as I'm getting out. And every time he yelps, steps back, and reaches for the cold. 'How can you have it so hot?' he asks, looking at my bright pink skin.

Let me tell you, my dear. When I was a girl, we had an outdoor laundry; as well as the washing machine, it housed an ancient hot water system. My father would get up at six to light the boiler, and I, who had been mooching around since five, would often go with him and watch.

A brick bunker ran down the side of the laundry, full of hard black coal humped in hessian sacks from a Bedford truck. Mr Wright, the coalman, had twinkling eyes, a crinkly face, a snow white beard, and a big smile for me. Each morning, dad would fill the coal bucket from the bunker and I'd think of Mr Wright; then we'd go into the laundry.

There my father would kneel in front of the boiler, and open the metal door. His large brown hands would carefully lay the fire: first twists of paper, then firelighters, then a careful pile of coal briquettes. When it was built, he would strike a match, reach in, and gingerly touch it in several places. Very gently, cold breath wreathing, he would blow at the fire. Tentative flames would lick up once, twice, then, becoming more sure of themselves, take hold. We'd sit quietly and watch until we were sure the briquettes had caught. Then he'd close and latch the boiler door.

Hands black with cold dust, he'd run the water through a skinny folding spigot into the concrete laundry trough. The boiler was still heating up; the water was always freezing. My father would rinse his hands, then roll the yellow soap around and around. He'd rub his hands one inside the other, until his nails were clean and the ridges in his skin were clear; he'd send lather up to his elbows. Finally, he'd sluice his arms, and dry them on an old ragged towel.

More than anything, my father hated a cool shower. For all the care that he took, he was so anxious to ensure that his shower was hot that he'd sometimes overload the boiler. Twenty minutes later, it would boil over, rattling and shaking to waken the dead, shooting steam and scalding hot water all over the laundry roof, ready to take off like a rocket.

'Jooo-oooohn!' my mother would scream, a regular morning wail, 'you've done it again!'

On those days, the water was so hot that steam bumped through the pipes. Instead of warm water, we'd get jets of icy water interspersed with gusts of scalding steam. Impossible to wash in, we'd wait anxiously watching the clock, sniping at each other, until everything had cooled down a bit; then we'd rush through our showers and race out the door.

Whenever I remember this, my face cracks into a loopy grin – and there is my answer to my husband: a hot shower takes me right back to childhood.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Response: Mr g

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation

The creation wars. If you believe the newspapers – and some execrable American school boards – Christians believe that God is ‘up there’ somewhere tinkering away with the creation (one imagines some bearded whitefella fooling around with mud); and physicists believe that it all started with the Big Bang. Never, apparently, shall the twain speak except abusively, and without respect or understanding.

Me, I’m a Christian; I relate to the universe and my place in it through the lens of the Christian story. I also accept the Big Bang as the best scientific explanation of how the universe came to be, and evolution as the best explanation for how life began and takes the form it is now. I don’t see this as a contradiction, because I have faith in something bigger than can be encompassed by one religious framework, or one set of faith stories; any religion can offer only a partial glimpse. It is arrogant to the point of hubris to suggest that any human being or religious system has full knowledge, or can begin to fathom the size and extent of the universe, let alone the vastness and nature of what I, in my religion, call God.

And that is why I paradoxically loved the attempt of one human being to communicate the size and extent of the universe, and the vastness and nature of God. Mr g, by Alan Lightman, is a novel about the creation. After countless aeons wandering around the Void with Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, Mr g becomes a little bored. He is tired of nothingness; he feels like it is time for something. And so, in a playful mood, he dreams up Space. Out of this whim spin countless universes; and with Space, comes Time. Mr g and his relatives explore these new and interesting dimensions, until Mr g decides even more is needed. Therefore, in one universe, he invents matter – and then sits back and watches what happens.

As well as being an author, Lightman is a theoretical physicist, and the story of creation is beautifully described: the Big Bang, the expansion of matter, the development and collapse of stars, the slow movement of atoms into planets and solar systems, and, to Mr g’s surprise, the gradual development of animate matter out of inanimate particles. Even more surprising is the arrival of three new presences in the Void, particularly Belhor, a conversational sparring partner for Mr g.

These developments provoke many conversations in the Void. Will the animate matter have a soul? Will it experience suffering? What is the role of Mr g: to intervene, or to stay away from the creation? Animate matter longs for eternal life; can Mr g grant this? The conversations bring out different religious assumptions: Uncle Deva represents the Eastern; Aunt Penelope, the Greco-Roman; and Mr g, the Abrahamic faiths. Through all, Belhor plays Devil’s Advocate, arguing, for example, for the necessity of evil and ugliness now that goodness and beauty have come into being.

These thoughtful conversations are never turgid or heavy; rather they are brief exchanges interrupted by somersaulting demons and Mr g’s need for a long meditative walk to think things through – but they cut straight to the heart of the big questions. And just as the Christian scriptures tell stories of God evolving in response to human need, the eternal Mr g finds that he too is being affected, even changed, by his own creation.

Lightman is a beautiful and lucid writer, playful and evocative, and manages in this novel to convey, to some extent, the unimaginable vastness of Space and Time. If you are a rigid, conservative Christian, there is no question that you will find this book and the representation of God highly offensive, even blasphemous; you have been warned. But if you have a bigger idea of God, or if you are open to the idea of a curious, thoughtful, experimental supreme being, then you too might fall in love with this wonderful novel, and the way it allows scientific and religious stories of creation to lie not in opposition, but nested gently into each other, right where they belong.

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