Head full of numbers

Some days when I come to the page to write my hour, I have a definite idea or theme in mind: something I’ve been thinking over and want to write about. Other days, like today, I come to the page with nothing particular in mind, just the intention to put one word in front of the next. Writing is one way I make sense of the world, so whereas some people like to sit and think, I prefer to sit and write. Somehow, crafting one sentence then the next and the next helps me figure out what I’m thinking, even before I fully realize what it is that’s on my mind.

Number sculpture

The interesting thing about thinking is that it never stops: even when you sit down with “nothing to write about,” your head is never close to empty. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows how never-ending the river of thoughts is: whenever anyone asks me how to “quiet their thoughts” when they are meditating, for instance, I have to stifle a hearty laugh. Quiet your thoughts? You’d have better luck containing a cloud or stopping a river. Even if you could calm or quiet your thoughts, why would you want to? There’s nothing more precious than a new idea—something arising out of nothing—so why would you want to halt the perpetual motion machine that is your own consciousness?

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the sheer parade of thoughts in my head. In elementary school, I liked to climb atop the jungle gym during recess, while my classmates were running, shouting, and playing games, so I could sit quietly and think, alone and aloof like Saint Simeon. Later, after I was too old for playgrounds, I learned that sitting alone with a book or notebook served the same purpose: when you’re reading, writing, or sitting atop a jungle gym, people don’t bother you. Even though you aren’t doing much of anything, you presumably “look busy,” or at least you look like you don’t want to be bothered.

Made of numbers

I don’t remember, exactly, what I thought about when I was a kid perched atop a jungle gym: I think I just liked to watch my thoughts, fascinated by the way they arose, transformed, and gurgled away like globules in a lava lamp. Some kids can sit for hours with a magnifying glass studying ants or rocks or blades of grass: I liked to sit and watch my thoughts. When I was a kid, I liked to take some simple idea or question and explore it from all angles until I’d stumped myself with the sheer inadequacy of my own understanding. If God created the heavens and the earth, for instance, where did God dwell before that? How is it that my brain knows how to move even the smallest muscle in my hand, orchestrating complex gestures automatically, without the need for conscious thought? Or, what exactly makes “pain” painful? If a little bit of warmth feels good, why and at what point does “warmth” become “hot” then “too hot,” crossing the threshold from “comfortable sensation I seek out” to “painful sensation I flee from”?

Lots of bikes

You might say I was born to be a writer or philosopher, or you might say I was just a really weird kid, preferring to sit alone with my thoughts rather than playing with my peers. In retrospect, growing up in a neighborhood where there weren’t many children my age might have had something to do with it: given the ten-year gap between me and my older sisters, I learned at an early age how to entertain myself. Or perhaps my fascination with the process of thinking—the way one thought leads to another, and the way close observation easily transforms into wonder—means I was a natural meditator, cultivating an open attitude of awareness and curiosity even before I’d ever heard the word “meditation.”

All I know is that given an hour and a blank page to fill, I always seem to find something to say…at least if I can keep from distracting myself with email, Facebook, or the hydra-headed distraction of the Internet. Now that I think about it, spending an hour a day waiting for words—any words—to arise beneath my scribbling pen or typing fingers is the grown-up equivalent of sitting atop a jungle gym, watching my classmates race to and fro. Watching the world go by isn’t that much different from watching a river flow, or ants walking along a sidewalk, or the incessant parade of thoughts streaming through your own head. Given an expanse of time and the willingness to wait and watch, you never know what will show up on the page before you.

The sculpture pictured in this post is Jaume Plensa’s Alchemist, a figure made up of numbers and mathematical functions that stands in front of the student center at MIT. Perhaps mathematicians like to watch the numbers in their head as much as writers like to watch the words.