Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Kiss

Sacred Places

As the daughter of two atheist-leaning agnostics, I grew up largely ignorant of organized religion. As a family, we were not at all tied to religious holiday traditions, church or temple-going, or any form of worship.  My mother would simply put it:  "I believe somewhere, somehow, there is a high power. And that power wants us to do good in the world."

I've always believed in that: doing good in the world, but thanks to many welcoming friends I have also been able to attend a patchwork of religious events, ranging from services in the Episcopalian, Catholic, Unitarian, and reform Jewish traditions, to a Bat Mitzvah and an LDS baptism.  I have attended talks by the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel, and read books touching on a religious spirit by Anne Morrow Lindberg and Ursula Goodenough (who, coincidentally, is a cell biology professor I had at Wash U).  There have been many times when the words of the pastor, priest, author, rabbi, or religious leader have touched me and rung true, and I am sure that whatever recognizable religious beliefs that I, as an atheist-leaning agnostic myself, hold within me have been instructed by those experiences. I am grateful.

When I was a teenager, wrestling with the ideas of my own beliefs, there was one place I felt completely at home with God. I always thought of this place when I needed some quiet within. I would imagine myself in a field, a wide open space, where I could run and run and dance and spin under a starry night sky. A place where I would feel close to infinity, close to the endlessness of our universe, so quiet that I could hear the harmonies of all living souls, interwoven and beautiful.  I still think of that place, and remember the feeling of flight. Of joy.

Now that I am older, I know there are two "real" places I can go to experience the same elevation of spirit:  one place for me is looking down the double barrels of a powerful microscope, marveling at the tiniest of all things: the beating undulations of a paramecium's cilia, waving in a delicate dance, the developing muscle cells of a zebrafish embryo allowing it to writhe and squirm for the first time, as if to say in delight, "I am alive! I am alive!", the formation of cell membranes around grasshopper embryo nuclei floating in a sea of protective and nourishing yolk. I have spent hours in a darkened room, alone with the fluorescently stained mitochondria of neurons, silently watching as they yield up the secrets of what they do and where they go. Hours more, looking at the wing vein patterns of Drosophila, celebrating how a single fertilized egg can give rise to such intricacy and majesty. And lucky I get to see it all unfold, in that quiet, dark place, and in so doing, ask hushed, respectful questions of Nature. And, on rare and wonderful occasions, get an answer.

My other sacred place is the California coast: the wild and rough coastline from Monterey Bay, around the tip of Pacific Grove, along Carmel Bay, to Point Lobos. We hiked the rocky coastline trails here recently, from shady Cypress groves to pinnacles of rock that looked out to the sea, the wind whipping our hair, the gulls crying forlornly, the seals on their rock barking in spirited cacaphony.

Sea Lions were on this same rock when I visited 19 years ago!

We saw the tiniest of distant whale spouts. Harbor seals sunning themselves on the sand. Brown pelicans stretched their wings while perched on a sheltered outcropping below us, while a sea otter bobbed on its back, diving and playing with the seaweed.

Harbor seals

In recognition of my affection of tiny things, we poked around in the tide pools along Monterey Bay, finding snails and colorful anemone awaiting their engulfment by the waves again.

The expansive and the microscopic, are all here, united and interwoven in a fabulous fabric of the wild and free. This is a magical place.  A place where even a tired, old cynic as I can now be at times can find space in the spirit to take flight.

Monday, January 6, 2014

2013 Holiday Wrap Up

Before I get woefully behind on this blog, I think I'd better post a few photos of our recent holidays.

I did not realize how Martha-Stewarty I actually looked in this photo until I searched for it just now. I've always thought of Martha as my polar opposite, she a domesticated goddess, and I her domestically incapable and humorous counterpoint, the Wild Woman of West Virginia.  Here in this photo, however, when out of focus, I look pretty darn domesticated.  Amazing what combing one's hair for the holidays can do.  Berkeleyites, who tend to helpfully include the name of the chicken who produced the eggs you are buying in a pamphlet tucked inside each egg carton at the grocery store, will be so proud to know that no animals were harmed in the making of this Thanksgiving meal (pictured are vegetarian pot pie, artichoke and potato greek salad, and green beans and almonds.  Gingerbread cake and lemon curd topping, and pumpkin pie were the desserts):

And we have the children's initial reaction to the meal:
The sweet little girl running away from the table, the food, and/or the boys, is Suresh's cousin (Uma)'s daughter, Maya, who came with her family to spend a glorious week with us.  The children got along famously and it was very special for me to have this little girl, and her mom and dad, in the house.

Christmas Break
A special treat this year was the long holiday the children got off from school.  Thanks to the fact that Christmas and New Year's Day fell on a Wednesday, we had two full weeks to galavant around the Bay Area. And galavant we did.  Here are a few pictures from our roamings. I was especially delighted that my long time friend Melicent Peck, her son Noah, and her husband Dave Weber, were able to come with us on many of our outings.

Crissy Field

Rohan loves his pal Noah

A special treat: sculptures on loan from the SF MoMA on Crissy Field

 My dear friend Melicent, and her adorable son Noah, and my Wild Woman hair

California Academy of the Sciences

All decked out for the holidays, the Cal Academy had snow machines running, live reindeer out back, and special programming with holiday animations and Santa dives.  Their 'Evolution of Genetic Traits' exhibit is a must see!

A special visit from Scuba Santa, who fed the colorful fish for us in the CAS coral reef aquarium before leaving for the North Pole. He parked his live reindeer just outside the museum, which we also got to see.

The Exploratorium

Always a favorite spot for us, now moved to a new, larger spot on the San Francisco pier next to an artisanal chocolate factory!  Science and chocolate -- what more could anyone ask?!  The fruit flies and zebrafish embryo under the Zeiss microscopes were my favorites, reminding me of the reasons I went into developmental biology to begin with.  Suresh enjoyed the physics exhibits and the stunning, accessible ways in which the museum presents science and math.  The boys just soaked it all in.

Aditya's shadow painting (center)

Big Sur

A visit with one of Suresh's long time friends Muthu, his wife Vladimira and beautiful daughter Eira at their cozy home in the remote woods of Big Basin led to an idyllic walk amongst the California Redwoods, a fantastic meal, and a lot of good company with old friends.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

Karen's Happy Place
An animal that captures the awe and humor of nature best, every time we see it

Reaffirming to me that all the Earth's creatures are works of art


Christmas was a simple celebration this year.  We left all our decorations and holiday gear in our home in Salt Lake, so this year we strung up some lights on a coat stand, decorated a gingerbread house and gingerbread carousel, played Handel's Messiah on an infinite loop, baked two kinds of cookies (double chocolate peppermint cookies and glittery lemon sandwich cookies), and dashed out for a pizza feast on Christmas Day with Suresh's former graduate student, Parasaran Raman (who is beloved by our children), and his friend and fellow photographer/ artist Franzi.

Aditya's handiwork
Rohan's Christmas Carousel

No live trees harmed in the making of this makeshift contraption.
Presents! Santa found us!!
Despite the fact that a) we moved away from Salt Lake City and b) were in a house with no chimney, unlike our Salt Lake home, and c) there was NO SNOW anywhere to be found (all of which caused great consternation for Aditya and Rohan), Santa found us anyway.  The man is a logistical genius.