Friday, October 30, 2009

The Physics of Floating

One of the great gaps in my education is that I’ve never taken a physics class. (sigh) So I don’t know why the flowers in the big bowl by my front door refuse to float in the middle. Instead they wander off  to one side or another, sometimes huddling together, sometimes drawing apart in a huff, occasionally lining up like obedient school children along the rim. I  center, I straighten, I shove. Every time I change the water, I check again to make sure that the bowl itself is level in its stand. And all to no avail.

Sometimes it works, for a little while. For a brief instant the flowers float exactly in the middle. For that moment or two, everything looks picture-perfect. Peaceful. Calm. And then off they go again.

It’s a source of some small frustration and greater amusement to me. Kind of me vs. Zen.

At least I (mostly) don’t worry about setting them exactly in the middle of the bowl in the first place anymore.  Now I usually just drop them in and let them float away…and watch them move in strange, otherwise undetectable currents that I can’t control. (Who says I’m not making progress?)

But yesterday morning the bowl was empty. I’d taken out the last couple of flowers the day before and forgotten to replace them. So as I was dashing off to a slightly-too-early in the morning breakfast meeting, I broke a beautiful, incredibly fragrant yellow rose off the bush by the deck and dropped it into the bowl on my way out the door.

When I got home last night, I was through the hall and halfway to the kitchen before it registered that the yellow rose was still in EXACTLY the same place where I’d dropped it that morning. I backtracked to check. Yup: just a little off center, nearer the edge of the bowl closest to the front door.

I reached into the bowl to gently encourage the rose over to the middle.

I can’t help but keep trying.

And noticed two things.

1. The water in the bowl was a just a little low—just slightly shallower than normal. Certainly not enough for anyone else to notice.

2. Since I’d broken, rather than cut, the rose, it had a little bit of stem left on it…..

Just a little stem, not very strong, but just long enough to reach down and touch the bottom of the bowl. Just barely touching. Just enough to provide a tiny, tenuous, support to keep the rose in place. I stood there, with my hand in the water, cupping fragile petals, breathing in the sweet, old-fashioned scent, and let the realization wash over me in waves.

Just a little stem (and maybe slightly shallower water). Just enough to reach down and touch firm footing, provided all the support that rose needed to keep it EXACTLY in place.

Forget about physics, that may be the answer to LIFE.

We push, we shove, we try desperately to balance. Whenever we refill our bowl—whenever we adjust our schedules, take another meeting, add a commitment, or change an appointment, we check again to make sure that our bowls are level. And then despite our best efforts, we keep losing the center. We get shoved side to side, back and forth, by forces we can’t control.

When all we really need is a little stem to stand on.

For some it’s family, or faith. For some of us its a person we love, or a goal we strive for, or a cause we believe in. Sometimes it’s different things at different times in our lives.

What’s important is that we have one. Something to hold onto, something to provide that little bit of support, to keep us on our feet. To keep us centered. To keep our course steady, no matter what happens to, or around us.

To keep us from drifting away on currents we can’t control.

In the very strong shifting currents and uncertain riptides of the Monterey Bay, Giant Kelp grows as much as 15 inches PER DAY from a tiny base, called a holdfast, on the ocean floor. A holdfast: where the roots of the kelp wrap tightly—not down into the earth, not around a massive boulder—but typically around a rock about the size of a man’s fist. It’s enough. That’s all it takes. 

In the even more uncertain currents of our lives, that’s all we need.

Not an anchor—just a little stem. A lifeline, reaching down and touching our base. Remembering the why. The what’s important.

And maybe just slightly shallower water…maybe letting just a few of the things we fill our bowl with evaporate away. Not even enough that anyone walking by would really notice. But enough to make the difference, to make sure that we’re not in too deep.

Just a little bit of stem, touching firm ground. And slightly shallower water.

The physics of Center.