On Being Immeasurable

Patricia O’Donnell, Author of VIGILANCE OF STARS

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to have dinner with the incomparable writer Elizabeth Strout, who read from her fiction at our small university in Maine just before she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge. She was speaking of her daughter, who was a graduate student at the time. Her daughter had applied for a grant and hadn’t received it. “There’s something immeasurable about her, though,” Elizabeth said. My colleague, also at dinner, laughed and said, “There’s a mother talking,” but the words took root in me and opened up a little space, an immeasurable space, if you will. I have thought about that often since then, the idea that we let our lives — our very selves — be defined by numbers, percentages, ranking. And yet I know there is something that cannot be measured and that is, perhaps, what is most important about each of us.

I was teaching a capstone class of Creative Writing majors, and they all felt the stress of contemplating the uncertain lives that awaited them. Some of them were applying to grad schools, feeling the pressure of the limitations of their GPA, their GRE scores, their bank accounts.

There are many things which can be measured. Hours, days, and years. The percentage of right answers on a test. Height, age, SAT scores, body mass, yearly income, number of publications, number of books published. A child knows that he or she is a magical, unique creature; without even thinking about it, she knows. As the child grows she learns that other people are better than she is at some things. It can be crushing to see ourselves measured on these lists, to see that we fit somewhere along a continuum and that, no matter how bright we are or how hard we work, there will always be someone, somewhere, who is better than we are. I wondered; given all these lists and percentage scales, what could there be about us which is immeasurable?

I remembered falling in love. The rush, the sense that I was touching on something larger and better than my small self. When I fell in love with my husband I was no longer captured inside the scope of my own measurement, but went beyond that, just as I saw something that was too large to be measured in him. The words amazing, fantastic, wonderful come to mind — all words which say “this person is just too good to be measured.”

The ability to empathize is another quality that can’t be quantified. To me this means the ability to imagine, or to feel, without trying to work hard at it, what it is like to be another person, or another living thing. It is a crucial requirement of writing fiction, and it’s something I saw in my students. It’s something which can’t be measured and for which there is no payment but it can be observed, can be sensed, and it makes relationships possible.

Creativity is often seen as the ability to make something new, something which has not been made before. But in its essence creativity is the ability to put things together in new and surprising ways — familiar words, for example, used in inventive ways in a poem; a common image paired with something totally unfamiliar to it in a short story or essay. It is as valuable in chemistry and business and politics and law and farming and parenting and biology and teaching and engineering as it is in art and writing, and it cannot be measured. As it is continually creating anew, like the earth, reusing and recycling material (paint, canvas, words, musical notes) to burst forth new plants and flowers, creativity cannot be measured. It is without space or form, yet it shoots forth energy immeasurably. It is what makes us fall in love with someone else, as we recognize what cannot be measured within another person, and it calls forth that same measureless place within ourselves.

I take my old dog, a shepherd/shiba inu mix, out walking nearly every day in open fields next to a lake in central Maine. I can let him off the leash, and he can romp uninhibited, at his own (slow) speed. This time is as important for me as it is for him. On some days as I walk, I come to a place in myself that feels as open and calm and growing as the field I am surrounded by. As I walk through the raggedy grass in the meadow, I think of nothing much at all, my mind lying fallow. Then suddenly a solution to a problem in a story I’m writing occurs. It seems so clear; why hadn’t I thought of it before? I stop to watch birds lift up from the trees next to the path, and I ask myself how they soar so far, holding so still, without moving their wings. I remember a bit of biology learned years ago: their bones are hollow. There are empty spaces within them, and they allow them to lift, to soar.

Things inside me settle down, open up, and I think nothing at all. That space inside me, unlike the meadow, unlike the work that I do all day, is open and boundless. It is a complete mystery. I go there, I stretch, I don’t exist. I find that emptiness, that hollowness, and I fly.

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