Books for the Road: Einstein’s Dreams and the Desert Sky

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Kevin’s Grandpa had a Buick that he passed on to Kevin. In a wash of sunlight, as we rode it across Southern Utah between Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, my brother Eric and I tried to figure out why rural grandparents adopt nicknames like “Mee Maw,” “Bubba,” or “Pa Paw.” The conversation drifted to Kevin’s car, and its need for a name. 

Eric suggested calling the Buick “Pee Paw,” and we asked Kevin if that would be okay.

“I’m not sure…” Kevin replied nervously. His reluctance sealed the deal for the rest of us, and the Buick had a name, and that name was Pee Paw, and there was much rejoicing in the back seat.

That night, Pee Paw rested on a dirt road outside of Canyonlands National Park while Kevin, Jeremy, my brother Eric, my wife Ruthie, and I stared at a fire, watching the fluid movement of flames, feeling a chill sweep across the desert. Time was a change in temperature, a deepening of the night sky, a thing that cradled us in this night and redefined the desert between moments.

At our backs, bulbous giant rocks rose out of the desert sand, their black outlines cutting mushroom-shaped shadows against a screen of stars that grew brighter and more detailed as time did its work.

I suggested that we climb the rocks. Jeremy, his ankles still sore from a 50-mile race that he, Kevin, and I had run in Tucson a few days prior, declined. Kevin and Eric donned their headlamps, and we began the scramble to the top of the rocks. We stepped from the dust of the desert floor to the first ledge, followed a gap up to a jagged incline, found our footing, hopped between boulders, skirted edges, and climbed until we reached the top of the formation, where we could see neighboring campfires as tiny orange specks below.

I turned off my headlamp and lay down on the rock, staring at the stars. Kevin and Eric did the same. Our attention, once cleared of the noise of our conversation and the electric light, seemed to change their shape, to draw them out, to deepen their dimension.

I have no idea how much time passed, because from where we watched, to say that time passed at all would be a kind of lie. Time was quietly going about the work of making things better, offering us things to look at, and singing to us as it crafted the night.

Eric said that it was amazing how gravity was the only thing holding our backs to the rock, and he mentioned the sense of terror that comes with that realization. Kevin and I grunted in recognition, and I imagined writing a story where someone like me lies on a rock like this one, in a place like Canyonlands, and gravity lets go. I imagined the feeling of moving away from Earth and speculated that while the horror ran its course, this guy would feel a momentary wonder that took his imminent death into account, and still brought him joy.

Of course, as I write about this idea a week later, back at the laptop in front of a wall with a calendar on it, next to my bed in Atlanta, it’s hard to imagine that I thought the story would be anything other than flowery, detached, and way over the top. But that night, understanding my place as a small awareness attached to a rock in an incomprehensibly big universe, the idea seemed rich to me, worth exploring.

The next day, we broke camp, loaded Pee Paw with gear, and drove to Moab to get some lunch and begin the drive to Denver, where our desert sojourn would end in flights to other places. While he was waiting for his sandwich, Jeremy strolled over to Back of Beyond Books, where he came across a used copy of Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. We spent a good portion of the drive passing the book around and reading the short chapters aloud.

Einstein’s Dreams is a singular book. Lightman, an accomplished astrophysicist, writes a fictional series of dreams that Einstein has in 1905 while trying to develop an understanding of time. The dreams are interspersed with interludes from Einstein’s own life as a patent clerk surrounded by clocks and passing days, trying to understand the cosmic dimension of time even as it erodes his own family, steals recognition that would be his, and frightens his closest friend.

Each dream presents a world where time functions differently, and weaves a kind of fable, or several fables, into each world. Each bends the rules of the universe to draw out an idea, show its riches, and suggest a way of thinking about time and our own place within its movement.

We now know that Einstein understood time as a relative thing, not exactly under our control, but moving differently in regard to our place within it. Studies are now telling us that our sense of time interacts with our awareness and circumstances. It responds to our feelings of awe (Click here to read a great article about this), as mine did under the stars in Utah.

This whole Blinkpacking thing is about time. We see it ticking by, and we want to fit more life into its constraints. It’s about how we can take the time we’re given and really move around in it.

With a little awareness, with a sense of wonder, and maybe a good, thoughtful reading of Einstein’s Dreams, I think we can witness moments where time opens up, breathes, and invites us into its wonderful movement. There isn’t much more a Blinkpacker can ask for.

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