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06 May 2007

Let it be a barn

There are hundreds of paths up the mountain,
all leading in the same direction,
so it doesn’t matter which path you take.
The only one wasting time is the one
who runs around and around the mountain,
telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.

-Hindu teaching

BarnIt doesn’t take a long drive from home to go far away. Within twenty minutes up Route 19/23, we turned off on a road that held witness to its soily past, barns falling over, pitched roofs now crumbling, whole wooden structures wizened by sun and rain and time, now tilting at carnival angles.

“LOOK!” Tess screamed from the backseat, settled into her Britax Marathon Kryptonite baby seat, holding the little talking doll of Johnny Depp that she carries around with her. (Hey, I had nothing to do with that doll. I swear. Right, Diane?). “LOOK! There’s a building falling down!” she yelled.

“That’s a barn, honey,” Mr Brilliant said. “It’s a very old structure that was used to... "HEY!," she interrupted his fascinating lecture on our agrarian past. “HEY! There’s another one! A red one!”

We drove our country drive, barns by the dozens, each met with a decibel of excitement that increasingly irritated her worldly teenaged sister who responded by scrunching smaller and smaller into that corner where door meets seat, glaring out the window, then glaring at the front seat as if to challenge our very right to have brought this flailing screaming creature into the world. “There’s another one! A Barn! A Barn!” Tess screamed, pointing to a small shed where wheelbarrows and hoes lived.

“That’s not a barn,” Emma growled from her exile. “It is not a barn, Tess.”

Shed“YES! IT IS!” Tess wailed. “It’s a barn! A little barn!” A little teeny weeny barn!” she insisted.

“Not,” I heard Emma say. “Not. A. Barn.”

“A BARN! It is TOO a barn! It’s a barn! It’s a barn!”

I looked in the glove compartment for a pencil to stick through my eye.

Emma is as close to a 14-year-old attorney as you’ll find on the planet. “It’s time for bed,” I inform her each night. “What time is it?” she’ll ask. “9:30,” I’ll respond. “Actually, mom,” her rebuttal will begin, “it’s only 9:27.”

The constancy of certainty is change, I think to myself, looking wistfully out the car window at the barn-shed. Time brings new eyes, new advances, new theories, new discoveries—it reveals errors of judgment, errors of incomplete observation or faulty equipment, errors due to incomplete experience. The passage of time can speed up or slow down the very meter of our understanding, I muse in my vast internal universe, like the meter of a poem.

Fract4The closer we stand to something – like, say, a barn - the more different it can look.

The introduction of the word “fractal” by Benoit Mandelbrot came as the result of looking at a seemingly simple question: “how long is the coastline of Britain?" 

The answer began a new branch of mathematics, and the follow-up question – “how long do you want it to be?" – deals directly with what a barn is or isn’t. As it turns out, the coastline of Britain can either be measured exactly, or it can be infinite.

It is really a question of perspective, and of identifying your parameters, your yardstick. As are most things, I think. As Mandelbrot himself said, “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

If Einstein’s hated quantum mechanics does place us here and there at the same time, and there is no such thing as consciousness, and the only thing solid about applying labels is the glue that holds them on, then what does it possibly matter if a barn is a barn or “barn-like”?

The litany from the back seat continued, bringing me back to the moment, and escalating. “Barn!”


I muttered under my breath; Mr Brilliant heard. “What?” he leaned in toward me and asked. “What did you say?”

“Let it be a barn,” I said quietly again, plotting my escape to a small vineyard on Paper Road in Martinborough, New Zealand, where children speak in fancy accents, quietly tend to the sheep, and eat corn sandwiches.

“Let. It. Be. A. Barn.”

Barn3_2My head slowly rotated like that delightful Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." “Just let it be a barn, honey,” I said to Emma. “Just let it be a barn.”

“You mean it’s all a matter of perspective?” she asked. “Yes, Peanut,” I responded, so very proud of her brilliance and perception and ability to rise above the petty quarrel. “Yes, that’s it,” I continued.

“That’s so poetic, Mom. What a wonderful, enlightened, broadminded and interesting way to see the world!”

I smiled that satisfied smile mothers smile.

“But it’s still not a barn.”

PathA Hindu teaching came to mind. And if I hadn’t squandered so many brain cells pondering how to leap from a speeding car without anyone noticing, I might have been able to point it out to Emma at the time of The Barn Incident:

There are hundreds of paths up the mountain,

all leading in the same direction,

so it doesn’t matter which path you take.

The only one wasting time is the one

who runs around and around the mountain,

telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.

Physicist Hermann von Helmholtz once likened knowledge to an alpine climb—when you climb a mountain, you don't go straight from the bottom to the top, you zigzag, you go around and through, eventually getting to the top where you can then see both the top and bottom and the straight line between them. 

Let’s not squander that precious path, each our own, by name-calling and back-biting and the demonization of the Other, but learn how to navigate between “right” and “right.” To do that, we must first ask what we fear about hearing differing viewpoints and resist the temptation of simply pretending that the other is wrong.

When it’s easy to let someone be right, especially when they are right, why not indulge their truth, and leave yourself open to surprise?

Your reality is different from mine. What I see as racism, you see as an overreaction. What I see as bold, you see as dangerous. What I see as gorgeous, you see as disposable. Is it 2:40 or 2:50? Is it a barn or a shed? Is my reality any more real than yours? How long is the coastline of Britain?

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

FeetI recently read a quote by Buckminster Fuller that has stuck with me: “You were given a right foot and a left foot, not a right foot and a wrong foot.”

Stop arguing, start listening. When you find yourself insisting on a point, step off of it, tango to the left, to the right, do-si-do around it, dance with it instead of speak it. Your truth will wait, and sometimes grow or change by its proximity to someone else’s. Your barn might be my shed; surely both can coexist.

And sometimes, let’s just let it be a barn, okay?

[Image from here and here and here]
Last year this time, here's what I was pondering:  Shave with Ockham's Razor
Two years ago this time, I was thinking about this: Live an irresistible obituary


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oh what a great reminder! I struggle with this all the time...I learned growing up in my rather dysfunctional family that whoever yells the loudest and has the last say on any subject "wins"-- so I had some bad habits to unlearn and reprogram, and I still need all the reminders I can get. thanks.

"Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making."
John Milton
English poet (1608 - 1674)

Oh, I'm so very happy to have you back! I know you didn't go anywhere...and as much as I enjoyed the poetry you posted in April (and I did read...just didn't comment because I'm horrible at commenting on poems)...I'm so utterly, selfishly happy to have one of your posts in my Bloglines today. The exchanges with Emma? Priceless. I went through my own 'let it be a barn' moment a couple of days ago...the one that had me filled with rage at 4 am...the one that had me screaming inside my head, "Just let it go..." I could have just as easily screamed, "Just let it be a barn!" And from now on? I think I will.

P.S. Taylor came to our office a few days ago!!! (I posted about it.)

P.P.S. Have you read "The N Word?" Saw the author interviewed on CSpan2 yesterday...I've put a hold on a library copy.

This is a wonderful reminder that perspective is everything. Thanks for posting it.

Hey Patti,
I am adding this one to my list that I sent you.

What a gorgeous post. You write beautifully... made me laugh out loud at the pencil through the eye comment. Made me think, too.

Thank you for the thoughtful laugh....

I find myself saying things like, "Yes it is kind of like a barn, isn't it, honey?" We women will do anything to keep life on an even keel, sometimes, won't we?

I'm trying to get my almost-four-year-old to understand she doesn't need to burst into tears if she isn't "first" at whatever it is she and her friends are doing at the moment...

That's a really good one and well written !
I find myself arguing and fighting to insist my viewpoint often. Sometimes, i even cut off ties with people unable to accomodate their interests and conversations.

I think it is a question of ego and emotions. It is very difficult to get out of that cloud and see a silver lining of different perspective. Hope it comes through practise :-)

aaaaaaah. yes. that's better. tango. do si do. open up to a right and a right or a left... just not a wrong...
thank you.

Reminds me of conversations in our home. 3-y-o-boy is colour blind, 5-y-o-sister is constantly reminding ME that brother SEES things differently than the rest of us. And really, who doesn't?! lovely.

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