Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Yuletide daphnia

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

Jane Kenyon, from "Happiness"


My glass kettle of pond water sits on the windowsill, where it has for years. Were I an empiricist, I'd have deduced years ago that life springs spontaneously from water and light. Thankfully, I'm a 21st century mythologist, and glibly accept what others tell me.

It's the secret to success in my field.

It's easy to get cranky during Christmas. We have words, which tailor our memories, and our culture focuses on what we don't. Our economy depends on this.

We run and run and run and run and run, chasing what?

If we cannot grasp the cycles at the solstice, we are lost.
If we cannot feel the daylight shift, shadows changing, we are lost.
If we cannot take the time to share our stories with our families, with others, we are lost.

I saw an exuberant daphnia swim as the setting sun shed a ray through the tank. I waited a minute, then another. Another daphnia.

In a week or two, I may have hundreds, or thousands.


Daphnia can reproduce without sex. When life's fine, the females can clone themselves in a reproductive frenzy.

When things get a little tougher, the males appear. Sex begets variety. When things are good again, the males die out. Males are more trouble than they're worth when things are good.

This all happens in a 5 gallon tank that's been sitting on my sill for years.

I don't know what kind of lessons this teaches, but it does make Wall Street seem a bit silly.


I teach for a lot of reasons, and many of them are important, I think hope, but the primary reason I teach is pure selfishness.

How much time do you spend with young adults?

They're energetic, bright, skeptical, bundles of joy. That they continue to come to school, every day, no matter what nonsense awaits them, speaks to their optimism.

I'm no Pollyanna. Pediatrics teaches even the giddiest docs that much of life is phenomenally unfair. You try pumping adriamycin, big red, into the veins of a child, knowing you're destroying much of a child in hopes of destroying all of a tumor. I know what it is to kill hope. I left medicine, but the shadows of dead and dying children have not left me.

Still, my students skirt around ideas like daphnia in the solstice sunlight.

None of us knows why we like to dance anymore than the daphnia I watch jitterbugging in the dusk's light. Few of us dare ask. Fewer dare dance.

Humans have celebrated the return of the light for thousands of years.

Take a few moments to watch a starling, a squirrel, a sparrow, a daphnia. We share the same chemistry, the same dependence on light, and (I suspect) the same joy. Let the lights and the music and the joy wash over you.

Happy First Day of Winter. Merry Yule! The crocuses will be breaking through the earth in two months.

Until then, I'll share my joy with the daphnia and anything else that has a beating heart.

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