It started with crossword puzzles. I enjoyed working on them during my commute, to help my brain wake up in the mornings. I appreciated their quiet efficiency– making letters do double-duty to spell out two words at once was oddly satisfying. Nobody warned me that crosswords were a lure, a gateway leading to solving cryptograms, then to reading up on cryptology, which provides explanations and formulae for creating and solving ciphered messages. Formulae!? Before I knew it, I was solving polynomial equations for fun. For chrissakes, my degree is in theatre with a minor in classical voice, but now I’m a damn accountant, and I don’t hate it. How did this happen?
My crush on science has a murkier beginning, but I started actively cultivating it around the same time I was discovering math could be non-painful. This new-found zeal has had me leafing happily through textbooks (seriously?) and soaking up online lectures and tutorials (seriously). I’m only just surpassing the relearning of things I long ago forgot, but I am ever so steadily crawling toward shores entirely unknown to me: particle physics, quantum mechanics and calculus. I can’t wait.
It is in the pages of these textbooks and lectures that I have experienced discoveries and understandings that give me the same shiver of meaningful awareness I thought people could only get through finding religion. Physically, the experience feels the same as when I thought I’d had a brush with the Holy Ghost, as a young formerly church-going girl: The moment of unbreathing and the feeling that my heart is clenched, while my rib cage feels at the same time to be infinitely expanding, the tingles that cascade from my toes up to my neck and back down again, the sudden feeling that something much bigger than me is near. But. The spark that ignited a “spiritual experience” for me came from shuddering under the weight of what I perceived to be God’s mystery, the great unknown, the whole “leaving it to God because only God knows” mentality. In my recent recreational studies, the tingles come not from mystery, not from ignorance, but from discovery and knowing–mathematical logic that takes my breath away. I’ve had revelations in the middle of physics lectures that make me want to call somebody up and just yell about the universe and how vast and elegant it all is, and how the ripe, quivering instability of an atomic nucleus is unspeakably gorgeous.
So, why didn’t I latch onto this stuff when I first learned it all in high school? The short answer is ego.
I thought people had to be a geniuses to do math and science, and hoo-boy I was not one of those. All through grade school I struggled terribly in the subjects, but especially in high school. It didn’t help that there were people I looked up to outside of school who had, at one time or another, uttered versions of “girls just don’t do well in math and science.” I believed them. At the same time, I had been freshly diagnosed with an organizational & memory-related learning disability, which dealt a severe blow to my already battered confidence. Grasping abstract concepts and keeping them straight in my head was like running a circus where all the animals were bolting in different directions. I didn’t have any effective counter-measures for my disability yet, those would take me years to develop. I decided I just wasn’t smart enough; and focused on things that came more easily to me in order to save my pride. I didn’t give math or science a chance because I didn’t want to like something that I couldn’t do. I allowed this insidious idea to grow inside me so easily that it effectively blocked my pursuit of anything remotely related to these subjects until my early 30s.
I worried that if I only came to understand the world in terms of numbers, proofs, theorems and experiments, I would never be able to look at it for its simple beauty again; thus taking away its magic. I was so wrong. Learning that most rivers have a sinuosity ratio of pi doesn’t take away from the beauty of flying over the Mississippi and seeing the sun glint off of its enormous, journeying form. Knowing about that ratio makes the experience more perfect, more whole, because I can think of the Mississippi as a single river, and then think of how it has a mathematical relationship to all other rivers in the world. The hidden math–the hidden theories and equations–behind all the things I love are just as beautiful and elegant as the things themselves, sometimes more so.
I regret passing up on all this discovery earlier in my life but I’m thrilled and grateful to be discovering it now. Maybe it was just a case of bad timing–back then I didn’t have the tools I needed to work around my learning disabilities, so learning was much harder. It took years to find and hone the skills and compensating maneuvers unique to my needs. But coming to these subjects later in life I’m able to better grasp them and understand their depths in a way I just couldn’t before. It has also rekindled those feelings of wonder and awe that I thought had fallen away with the onset of adulthood, which is a hell of a blessing.
And now this accidental renaissance. An onslaught of all the things I’d told myself I wasn’t interested in, because I thought they were impossible for me to comprehend. I’m self-teaching for the most part, so it’s slow going. And not every moment has been a ground-shaker, but when breakthroughs do come I have to stop for a minute. I have to pause the lecture or put down the book and let the information sink in. Sometimes it’s a new idea or theorem that suddenly clicks; sometimes it’s information I already knew, not having realized that if I tilted my perspective, or viewed it through the lens of this theory or that one, it becomes a symphony of new interconnected meanings. And it blows my goddamn mind.
Take wind for example.
Wind is rushing air, ok got it. Knew that from when I was a kid. But when I feel the wind, calling it “rushing air” is like referring to a banana split as “a dessert”: that description tells you what it is without really telling you what it is. Everything’s made of molecules (which are made of atoms, which are made of electrons and various quark cocktails). When you feel the wind it is not just rushing air. It is a countless number of molecules–more than trillions, more than nonillions– crashing onto you like tiny raging oceans. It seems so obvious set down in writing. And really, it is. But next time you’re outside and the wind is blowing, imagine all those molecules, tumbling all over each other and colliding with your skin, careening through strands of your hair, thundering past your ears–and tell me you don’t feel a little fucking majestic in that moment.
Gwynn V. Fulcher is a writer, performer, live essayist (and yes, an accountant) living in Chicago. She’s a Staff Writer for WBEZ’s PleasureTown, a four-time WRITE CLUB CHICAGO competition champion and has been published online by Chicago Literati and Video Game Heart. This piece appears in an earlier incarnation on her website: gwynnoutloud.com.