Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The theory of relativity

This summer, when Holly and I were traisping around Europe, we visited the apartment in Bern, Switzerland, in which Albert Einstein conceived the theory of relativity. After reading over the panels of information hanging on the walls and even making shadow puppets on wall where a documentary of his life was being projected, I still don't understand the theory of relativity. I just put my trust in the knowledge that it has influenced our lives and that being in the room where it sprang into his imagination is something of an interesting experience.

Now that fall is setting in, I spend my days in a high school classroom extolling the wonders of literature to students, sometimes to receive only blank stares in return. One of those blank stares came back to me when, in a what-I-thought-was-explanatory moment, I said, "Well, everything is relative, right?"

For whatever reason, I didn't take that moment to explain myself, but something occurred to me. This understanding of general relativity that some of us enjoy isn't innate. Somewhere along the line, probably in a university humanities or philosophy course, someone pointed out to us that everything is dependent on everything else for its quiddity. ["Quiddity" is a word I recently learned. It means essence or thingness.]

To define a word, we need other words. To define ourselves, we look to the selves of others and differentiate for meaning. For instance, I am a daughter only relative to my parents. If someday I have children, I will be a mother relative to their being my offspring, but I will still be a daughter. It is the paradox we live in.

Like, right now, I am a student teacher. The term "student teacher" itself seems an oxymoron, but it is apt. I am teaching my students, but I am still learning from my own teachers. I pass seamlessly from one end of the spectrum to the other without notice. But I wonder, do we retain something in this liquid process, or are we just mutable, intangible somethings -- real only within our contexts?

Leave it to me to look to a tree for answers, but I think this example helps me know that I am more than my relative definition: When growing up, I liked to play under trees. I have yet to explain this kinship with them except that, through the years, I have drawn more analogies between human existence and the nature of trees than I can now name. However, in the years before I realized my very existence could be explained through dendrological metaphors, I played beneath the backyard hickory nut tree.

I could bound out the backdoor of our trailer and run diagonally to the right, at some indeterminate angle, and land within a few seconds under my favorite tree. It was a rather uncomfortable play place, what with all the sharp, broken hickory nuts poking out of the ground, but I put them to good use and collected the bits as currency in my make-believe economy. (See, money really did grow on trees...) Eventually, however, I outgrew the tree, and its attraction and (monetary) value faded with my age. We moved away, too, so visiting the tree every afternoon wasn't feasible, even if we still owned the land on which it stood.

Now, around thirteen years later, my parents are building a house on the farm, which is where our trailer used to sit. Interestingly, though, the house has been built farther back on the property. The trailer, were it still around, would now be in the front yard of the new house. The hickory tree, though, still stands, and it is in the front yard. My beloved tree stands sentinel to the left of the front porch steps. (Left, that is, if you're coming down the steps. See, relativity.) So now the tree that I always viewed as "the backyard tree" is now a "front yard tree." Who knew how much orientation colored my understanding...

But this backyard/front yard tree, though my concept of it has changed, is not really different. Putting a house behind it didn't change it. Sure, it has grown another year's worth of leaves, bark, and hickory nuts, but beneath that is all the growth that happened during the years when it was behind the house and during the years when there was no house around it at all. No matter what situation we put the tree in, it is still the same.

Doesn't that mean something? Does it mean that no matter what situation I am in, no matter what definition I acquire due to my surroundings, I am still me? Maybe it is a simple understanding. And maybe I don't even understand the implications of it yet, but I like it.

I wonder if, someday, adventurous twentysomethings will make shadow puppets on these walls. I doubt it.