Monday, August 15, 2016

Family recurrence map

There's a swirl of life that's a bit like a mathematical curve called the Lorentz butterfly attractor.  The shape (of your life, or of the curve) is stable, but tracking where the heck you've gone as you've traveled back and forth through the shape isn't always easy.

A mathematician named Poincare decided to look at a simpler version of the tracking question; instead of looking at the whole shape, he just put a kind of a toll-gate across one of the bands, with all the lanes of that particular loop passing through the toll-gate.  Then he looked at when and how you pass through that toll-gate again, and again, and again.  That's the Poincare recurrence map.

In a way, our annual family vacation is like a Poincare recurrence map.  Once a year, my dad, my sisters, and our families get together. It's a little glimpse into all that we're doing, how far we've come, where we're headed.

My dad and some of his grandkids work on a jigsaw puzzle,
or maybe on their cell phones.

The grandchild set, for example: they're growing so well.  My nephew -- who used to be a wild and unpredictable bundle of energy and noise -- is now buying his own home, has a job, and is halfway through a PhD.  A niece who spent her toddler years with a propensity to be whiny and picky has pushed herself hard into ecological endeavors, and is now amazing at caring for farm animals (her own and other peoples').  Seeing these kids go from pest to professional makes me optimistic about the chances for my own children.

My sons, who have had their own share of a-little-too-much exuberance in the past, impressed their aunts this week with their helpfulness and maturity.  I sort of see my sons' growth myself, but my sisters see the changes more starkly because my sisters get to see the boys only once a year.  And then, when I see my sons through my sisters' eyes, I can see the changes, too.

I like to stop and reflect on my life every once in a while.  I make New Year's resolutions twice a year (each winter at the turn of the new calendar year, and again each summer at the turn of the new academic year), and part of the reason I do this is because I like the chance to pause and reflect:  where have I done well?  What do I still need to work on? What parts of my life could use a bit of additional attention?

The family get-togethers give me a chance for an external reality check.  For example, I like that I've stayed in pretty good shape over the years.  The fact that my 80-year-old dad is still stooping down on one knee to help with a jigsaw puzzle, or that he volunteered to walk a mile to the grocery store and then back a mile with a bag of groceries, inspires me to stay active.  (My other elderly relatives provide the stick to my dad's carrot; they haven't made time in their lives for exercise; they're now having major trouble handling a single set of stairs; and getting up and down from chairs is almost more than they can manage.  It's sad to watch.).

But lest I get all high on my own fitness levels, running with my sisters reminded me that I've been letting the strength-building side of my workouts wane a bit.  Look at us: a bunch of 40- and 50-year old faces on top of some fairly pumped bodies.  My sisters impress me, and they make me want to step up my game just a notch.
Me and my two sisters.
These once-a-year gatherings come with other lessons that nudge me.  My sisters are massively organized and helpful.  As much as I like to think I am organized and helpful, too, they are the anti-tornados that blow into the vacation home, and wherever they touch down, things are set to rights.  My youngest sister arrived in New Mexico with three coolers worth of food, a list of family allergies and food preferences, and a chalkboard for writing up breakfast and dinner menus.  My middle sister flew in with the family napkins and a comprehensive list of local activities we might want to take part in.  And me?  I arrived with a pair of hungry teenage boys and a couple of big hugs.   Miser Mom the moocher. 

It was a fabulous week.  I'm glad to be back home again, what with the tomato vines groaning under the weight of their fruit and the fall semester looming over me like a tidal wave.  And I'm also glad that being back home means that for a week or so, I was away, looking in at my life from the outside.  It's a good thing to do, to pause and think about what I'm doing . . . and then to zoom forward and keep doing it some more.

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