The Life and Death of a Teacher/Librarian

Today, on December 13, 2015, 1 p.m. at the Second Congregational Meeting House Society, I attended the memorial service for Karen Grace Kinder Borchert. She was born December 14, 1937 and died November 12, 2015.

Here is a poem/narrative constructed of things her family and those who knew her said today. Somethings that were said are included in quotes but not attributed. Others are left without quotes because they are paraphrased.

 

The Life and Death of a Teacher/Librarian

“She dedicated her life to kids and books. She loved us deeply and we never doubted that,” said her son Little Carl (Carl Kinder Borchert) towering above the microphone.

When her other children, her students, graduated from high school, she sent them cards. She taught kindergarten.

She was often quiet in public, even had low self-confidence at times, but fearless. She raised her son mucking the chicken houses. She was staunchly anti-nuclear. Her son grew up writing letters to prisoners of conscience and knowing the name Jacques Cousteau. After all, they lived on an island.

They put conservation restrictions on their properties. She made sure that they included the knoll with milkweed, for the continuation of the monarchs.

Her son joined 40 million other caretakers around the country when he moved in with her, right before she was diagnosed with Alzheimers.

“How did I get Alzheimers,” she asked simply, without complaint.

“Mom, mentor, friend, champion, sounding board…”

[I] promise to be present for my life, to remember you.

 

The microphone was passed around. The Unitarian Meeting House was packed.

“You’d think Star Wars was showing.”

“Or the Heart of the Sea.”

 

Karen loved her chickens, too, keeping them long after they had any economic value, long after they stopped laying. One day, she made some muffins, but used cayenne by accident instead of nutmeg. Realizing her mistake, she brought them on a tray to her family and friends at the table, watching their faces closely as they took a bite. Afterwards, they fed the muffins to the chickens. And those chickens, they started laying eggs again.

 

“I miss her sweet spirit.”

She never traveled without squares of dark chocolate. She always warmed the milk before adding it to her coffee. Her counter was filled with things drying.

“This is what makes up our lives.”

 

She traveled by ferry with a friend — before the internet, before the high speed ferry — to the mainland to take a class. So Karen and her friend spent a lot of time together, traveling. At the class, there was an ice-breaker, a round, everyone clapping and snapping.

“Hello everybody. Hello everybody. My name is… Cynthia!”

“Hello everybody. Hello everybody. My name is… Sarah!”

And when her time came, Karen said,

“Hello everybody. Hello everybody. My name is… Madonna!”

 

Someone who loved her, in preparation for the memorial service, cast about for something to read. He flipped open a book, to a fitting poem, as often happens when we are in need and searching. Fitting, as her partner’s favorite flower was an Iris.

“The Wild Iris” by Louise Gluck

 

“May we leave today more alive, confident, and loving, knowing that everyone we meet is a part of our extended family.”

“At Blackwater Pond,” by Mary Oliver, selected by Reverend Linda Simmons, the three lessons for living:

1. To love what is mortal.

2. To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it.

3. When the time comes, let it go.

 

n=1

[This is a post I typed up during the summer, after a talk at the Unitarian Church by astronomer Dr. Michael West. This post only peripherally touches upon his discussion, at least at first, but it was definitely prompted by it.]

I was chatting with biologist Ola Fink —  who studies ephemeral creatures, the mayflies — and she mentioned how one biologist she knows is a staunch Episcopalian. A very literal-minded one at that. For instance, he believes in The Virgin Birth. When she had worked up enough courage to ask him how he could possibly reconcile such a literal belief with his training as a scientist, he answered, “n=1.”

In other words, for him, if something happens only once, then something we don’t understand could be going on. Even a miracle.

I’d never heard that argument before, and although I found it dubious, I also found it captivating. Dubious because you could say n=1 about anything that doesn’t make sense, and dismiss an investigation into the underlying mechanism. Captivating because… well, perhaps because the n=1 argument touches on what we can know and how we can know it.

Parsimony is the simplest explanation for something. The more simple and elegant the explanation, the more likely it is to be the right one. Parsimony is embraced by science. But sometimes the simplest explanation isn’t the correct one. I’m oversimplifying parsimony here probably, not giving it the credit it deserves. Parsimony offers a great guideline for making elegant theories for how the universe works.

What can you say about something that only happened once? Well, not much… the sample size is too small to make any larger claims about how the world works.

But, according to Dr. Fink, one scientist actually went out to survey people to ask if virgin births occurred in the population. Okay, you might already be thinking, how could the survey tell whether people were telling the truth? Before, we cover that component, let’s look at some real life examples.

There is a phenomenon in biology called “parthenogenesis” in which a female essentially clones herself, giving birth to a female without ever having been fertilized. I have heard about this occurring in komodo dragons. (Perhaps people knew that the female was not fertilized by another komodo dragon because she was kept in captivity.) The sample size for parthenogenesis in komodo dragons is greater than one. Okay, but what about human beings?

In the survey, the scientist found many women who claimed to have had a virgin birth. Out of half of the women who claimed that, however, they had given birth to sons. Which doesn’t happen in parthenogenesis. The female always gives birth to another female. So clearly, according to what we know in modern science, people were lying.

But… whether a miracle occurred, or a metaphor, I still find this n=1 argument fascinating, kind of like Hume’s critique of induction: Just because the sun rose yesterday doesn’t mean it will rise again tomorrow.

What’s the word for climbing a mountain and looking from a higher perspective on the way something works, and then descending the mountain so you’re back in it? That’s the word I’m looking for to describe a kind of logic that transcends parsimony and induction. Is it deduction? Or something else? What about wisdom? If you know a word for this, let me know… for now, let’s call this wisdom of the hills, or misdom. Mountain wisdom. It’s got a touch of the mystical in it. Hill climber wisdom.

Wisdom is another discussion. Is there a concept of wisdom that is not anthropocentric? It seems that wisdom is almost always associated not only with knowledge but with compassion, which includes but is not limited to human beings. Kind of like the recognition Michael West touched on today in his talk that we are made from the ashes (or atoms) of stars, and that when we die, we diffuse back into the environment. We aren’t separate from it.

N = 1. Whenever there’s something that only happened once, it’s hard for science to tell us much about it. I’m not saying I believe in a literal Virgin Birth. But there’s something to the n =1 argument.

Two book recommendations from Dr. West’s talk:

Sum, by David Eagleman

Accepting the Universe, by John Burroughs

And a concept coined by Eagleman:

“Possibilianism”

From the NY Times article by Burkhard Bilger:

Eagleman was brought up as a secular Jew and became an atheist in his teens. Lately, though, he’d taken to calling himself a Possibilian—a denomination of his own invention. Science had taught him to be skeptical of cosmic certainties, he told me. From the unfathomed complexity of brain tissue—“essentially an alien computational material”—to the mystery of dark matter, we know too little about our own minds and the universe around us to insist on strict atheism, he said. “And we know far too much to commit to a particular religious story.” Why not revel in the alternatives? Why not imagine ourselves, as he did in “Sum,” as bits of networked hardware in a cosmic program, or as particles of some celestial organism, or any of a thousand other possibilities, and then test those ideas against the available evidence? “Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time,” he said. “As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”