Thine is the Transkingdom

SONY DSCJasmine Temple, laboratory technician at New York University Lagone Medical Center, Institute for Systems Genetics, won this year’s agar art contest for her creation “Sunset at the End.” The contest, held every year by the American Society for Microbiology, features images of landscapes, portraits, and conceptual art made by the arrangement of microorganisms grown on agar plates.

Temple’s image was unique not only because it was beautiful, but also because it showed the potential of transkingdom interactions—the exchange of genetic material between taxonomic kingdoms. Temple and her team made the image by engineering the yeast with plasmids that code for pigments normally made by bacteria, fungi, and some sea life forms. As the yeast colonies grew, colors and patterns emerged until a sailboat, Montauk oceanfront, and a red sky at night emerged.

We are never truly ourselves, and this fact has the potential for great healing.

Transkingdom interactions occur frequently in the gut and in the soil. Our identity as many different organisms sharing code and forming what appears to be a composite whole may lead us to new medicines and modes to honor all the ways we belong to and are formed by each other.

How do you make all thirty-seven trillion of your cells seen? my dance instructor Matthew asks.

I open my eyes in the ninety-degree rehearsal room. I look at the other dancers, and they look at me. We are making a dance about where we come from and the land that lives in our bodies and memories.

The innocence of dance is that it is lost the moment after it occurs. Dance is a haunting that you give yourself; performance an accumulation of ghosts. What does the audience see? Why do we need people to see us in order to express what our homes and our bodies mean and want? [Read more…]

Cutting Down the Butterfly Garden

When we bought our new house, a jungle of weeds marked the front yard. I was annoyed. The previous owners—moving out of the state—had obviously phoned in the upkeep in their last months of ownership and I wondered aloud what else they would abandon in their final nights. Would we come home to a clogged bathtub? A basement of mice?

Our realtor laughed and assured me this was not, in fact, neglect but actually a “butterfly garden”—a bonus! When I told her I intended to cut it down—every last stalk—she paused for a long time, finally asking: “Why do you hate butterflies, Bryan?”

I do not hate butterflies. In fact, I love butterflies. When I see a monarch flitting through the air, I stop and watch. There’s an elegance to its flight, an against-all-odds mode of travel that somehow carries them thousands and thousands of miles each year. It seems impossible. The stuff of parables.

This, of course, is the reason behind butterfly gardens. Intentional sanctuaries. A marked path dotting yards across the country, encouraging monarchs to make this awesome journey year after year, generation after generation.

When we first moved in, one of the neighbors—who had also recently purchased a house on the block—told me this particular neighborhood was known for its commitment to landscaping. He loved this. Throughout the summer, I would see him plucking single, rogue leaves from his lawn, his entire body beaming with a strange pride.

I didn’t tell him then, but my approach is decidedly different. Life is too short to obsess over weed-and-feed, aeration, or the sort of discipline it takes to keep the edges of your lawn manicured like a military flattop. If my grass is below six inches, if the leaves are up before the snow comes down, I’m doing my part.

But even to a horticultural derelict such as myself, this “butterfly garden” was an eyesore. [Read more…]

Movements of the Lord

I got up very early this morning to clean up dog diarrhea, and my husband was finally home from a week of travel for work, so I slipped out for a walk to what used to be the brick house. The brick house was a house just like ours, perched on a higher hill with orange poppies lining the driveway. It had a scenic barn and a windmill, until last week sometime, when I walked there, and discovered that the whole place had been bulldozed and pushed into a hole in the ground.

It made me feel sad, not only because there are so few of these ancient houses left in the county—but because the brick house has been my turning point for so long. I go for a walk, often feeling pent up, and at the brick house, I turn 180 degrees and come home. This exercise makes me feel better. [Read more…]

The Landscape of Grief

a purple tinted image of a little island in a lake surrounded by deep green, hilly land on the edges. the image is very foggy, hazy, looks wet. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I drag my three children outside for a walk. They are too young to understand how desperately I need to take advantage of the warm weather even if it’s a landscape of dormant fields, melting mud, brittle gray plants that line the bridge and sides of the road, a bright red barn against yellowed grass.

Lest I get too excited about the lack of snow and cold, my husband reminds me that this unseasonably pleasant winter in the Midwest is the result of global warming. I guess we both have our ways of grieving.

This is our first day back in Illinois after spending a week in Texas to grieve the loss of my father. We’ve eaten too much or too little depending on our body’s responses to stress. We’ve laid flowers on his coffin and wept over him in a gravesite service that he might’ve hated, but was one that his daughters and wife needed. Then we mourned him at a church memorial service that he planned before his death, writing his own obituary and the opening remarks he asked my husband to read, ones that unapologetically deflected attention away from himself.

But we three daughters inserted ourselves into his plan, a plan that didn’t necessarily include our grief. In this midst of his intellectual, cerebral, worshipful funeral, we spoke of him in ways that might’ve touched him but also might’ve confused him.

In his effort to plan his truly humble memorial, he didn’t sidestep our grief to be unkind; I’m sure he knew we’d miss him terribly. Maybe he thought that if he could deflect attention away from himself, we wouldn’t be so sad. But what he wouldn’t have guessed, or what might’ve annoyed him, was that most people that came to honor him wanted more of him. [Read more…]

How To Arm Yourself Against Irrationality

people-running-the-central-station-by-national-museum-of-denmark-on-flickr-no-known-copyright-restrictionsIf I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
—1 Corinthians 13: 1

My four-year-old enthusiastically agreed to another term of gymnastics with the parks and rec department. He’s not particularly athletic, but he enjoys climbing over obstacles, hanging from bars, and tumbling on mats, so we signed him up.

Nonetheless, one Saturday morning he was lying on his bedroom floor in a pile of clothes, crying and screaming because he didn’t want to go to gymnastics.

“There is no such thing as gymnastics!” he shouted. “I want to stay home forever!”

He’s been speaking in this way for several weeks, now. Normally I’d chalk it up to a preschooler’s creative logic. But these aren’t normal times. His absolute rejection of reality and his stated desire to accomplish absurdities remind me too much of the insane rhetoric of a certain world leader and many of the voters who are trying to justify their support of him.

Sure, that’s a little dramatic; if anything, it says more about the leader and his supporters than it does about the preschooler. It probably says something about me, too, like that I hold my children to unreasonably high standards of coherence and rationality.

My world leaders, too, apparently. [Read more…]