Learning to Love Entropy

Love may seem like the wrong word for embracing the natural tendency to disintegrate. But I think of the way bones are constantly reshaping themselves in a living body, calcium depositing in stalactite ridges—but also dissolving, rebuilding, becoming something else.

"Christmas Tree 2013" © Martha Nichols

“Christmas Tree 2013”
© Martha Nichols

Three weeks ago, my eleven-year-old son jumped too hard down a hill and did temporary damage to the growth plate in one leg. I didn’t know about growth plates before I saw his X-rays—but there they were, ghostly lumps of soft tissue at the top and bottom of his femur. “Bone-building factories,” his orthopedist said, but they looked more like shadowy possibilities to me, as if growth and destruction could overlap each other at the same moment. As if I’d been offered a rare glimpse into the future.

He ended that day on crutches, sternly instructed to keep all weight off that leg and hip. The adventure quickly soured. As my fierce, jittery boy struggled to hold back tears, I held back my own ticking sense of life’s unfairness.

At the close of every year, entropy is always in the emotional background for me. Its dark shimmer feels more obvious as I grow older. Gathered with my family around the Christmas tree, I know the pretty gifts will all be opened in minutes, the wrapping shredded; the brown needles will fall; the much-loved ornaments will soon be stored away.

Last year, my husband set up his camera to take a time-lapse video of us decorating the tree, which, when replayed, condensed everything into a speedy couple of minutes. It’s fun to watch a time or two. But then that shimmer kicks in for the adults in the room, that sense that everything happens too fast.

My mother died in January, and since then, I’ve often felt like somebody strapped to the mast of a ship in a storm. Oh, I have been angry—as enraged as huge waves busting apart the timbers. I’ve tumbled into the slough of despond, lost myself in numbed sleep full fathom five, amid useless pearls and sand.

I’ve been all the things that psychologists dictate—a cursing monster chipping ice off my windshield, a sopping rag of tears on my husband’s shoulder—and I’ll continue to feel those things, but in no neat order, even if I could speed up the camera. Entropy isn’t neat.

I hate you, Life, with your sneaky promises that never last, the constant rug pulls, you thug, you demon, you goddamn faceless void. You EMPTINESS.

But here is where the love comes in, too, a hard love that’s stuck by me. After I’ve cried and sleepwalked through another work day, the meaninglessness can be a relief. I do what I can, but in the end, I can’t change a thing. I can only love and rage. I can love, terrified as I may be to expose what I feel, and that love will constantly rebuild and reshape itself.

"Christmas Tree 2012" @ Martha Nichols

“Christmas Tree 2012”
@ Martha Nichols

I love you, Life, with your sneaky promises that never last, the constant rug pulls, you thug, you demon, you faceless sweetness. You bright fire.

Last Christmas, I saw my mother smiling, as she struggled to thank me for her gifts and to tell her grandson she loved him. In less than a month, she was gone, and during her final week of life, when she couldn’t speak, I envisioned her molecules scattering like tiny mica flecks of light, blending into everything else.

Last week, I felt as if the inside of my skull were furred with the color of a morning glory: dark blue, midnight blue, the middle of a bruise.

Last week, whenever I tried to read in the afternoon, I would drift into sleep. I grabbed for that oblivion; I longed to blank out all feeling. And yet, I kept waking up, and something else would go wrong—I’d get into a fender bender, my car door banged in—then something else would go shockingly right—the driver of the other car accepting full responsibility, a blow for ethics in a corrupt world.

My son would get the doctor’s nod to abandon his crutches. He’d decide to cut off his beautiful long hair and look so different. He’d look so new.

Things fall apart. Things fall apart. But so what? The top of the sky is blue. Glorious mourning blue.

Today, I’ve started reading the poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, his 2012 “Meditation of a Modern Believer.” Much of this dark year, I’ve hesitated to begin his bracing take on the creative impulse, faith, and mortality. But now, every line of it speaks to me. Wiman evokes a kind of radical entropy, too—or a need to accept its shimmering, unexpected gifts. As he writes in the following passage:

Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting him lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable. This is as true in life as it is in art. Thus we love within the lines that experience has drawn for us, we create out of impulses that are familiar and, if we were honest with ourselves, exhausted. What might it mean to be drawn into meanings that, in some profound and necessary sense, shatter us? This is what it means to love.


5 thoughts on “Learning to Love Entropy

  1. So much of what we experience in life is that sense of emotional tension: sadness as the underside of joy; joy as the ember in darkness. Thank you for this, Martha. It speaks to me so much of my own experience — especially this time of year, when all things are turning…

  2. Thanks, Kim. There is something about the ritual turning from year to year that makes me feel both sides of that tension. In some ways, I crave it. I think much spiritual searching is born of that tension.

  3. Dear Martha,
    I consider you a friend, even though we don’t keep in touch much these days.
    I know you are a good writer but I haven’t read much of your stuff (I’m not big on science fiction). What you wrote here just blew me away.
    My condolences on the passing of your mother. Now you are in the club with the rest of us who have no living parents. There are days when I just need a Mom. Even though I am a Mom to my daughter, some how it is easier to be a Mom to a 13 year old then to be a Mom to myself. My deceased Mom could not do for me what I need to do for myself-which is of course to face and accept life and death and everything in between. I send my support to you through this e-mail. I feel like we are paddling in the same boat. I am going to look up the word entropy.

  4. Dianne, how good to hear from you and to learn that we’re paddling in the same boat. I know just what you mean about the difficulty of being a mom to yourself, especially if you need to be a mom to a tween or teenager. Lately, I’ve been thinking that the way a kid my son’s age needs a mom is pretty close to the way adults need moms—as the background foundation to all the emotional tensions and identity explorations, as the thing that doesn’t change.

    Of course, everyone does change (entropy, entropy), but believing that there’s one bright spark at the center that doesn’t is a lovely, protective, child-like thing. I want it more than ever now, even knowing at the same time that I never really did have it.

    My father is alive, although he’s so ill from Parkinson’s that he’s no longer really with me, either. Still, I feel like honoring the bright sparks I’ve had or once had, even if they only exist in my mind, is what it means to love and accept. My friends are also bright sparks of being, and please know that you’re in my heart, even if we haven’t seen each other for the last few years. Much love to you, Dianne.

  5. Sorry about the mistake. I thought your Dad had passed on for some reason.

    The spark (that acceptance of life and death and everything in between) is in you. It came through in the piece I responded to (Entropy). Remember the times of love between you and your Mom, or you and your Dad? If you can remember even one moment of love from either of them, it is there where you can find their spark- AND YOUR OWN. When all the grieving is done and all the letting go happens, love is all that remains. That is the only thing I know about grieving for a loved one or longing for good times that happened in the past. Thank you for reminding me of my own spark and for the note about being the mother of a tween. I need my friends to remind me because I get lost sometimes and I forget. Keep writing things like Entropy and it will keep your own spark in view. It has always been there.

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