Between Math and Writing -- All Things Being Equal

By Janice Lynch Schuster
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 17, 2005

My college degree is in math, a subject that tortured me throughout high school -- the miseries of physics, the doldrums of trigonometry. I did love arithmetic, which pleased me because I got it, even when my answers were wrong. Numbers added and subtracted, multiplied and divided, provided a symmetry and order that were lacking for much of my adolescence. Manipulating figures, controlling them -- when so much of my life was out of control, comforted me. I liked geometry, too, with its axioms and theorems, the ways ancient minds made sense of my physical world: points, planes, lines, curves, arcs, circles. Basic, straightforward.

Non-Euclidian geometry upended all of that, but that was later, when I was getting my degree, and numbers -- most of which had been replaced by x's and y's and calculcus symbols, were no longer a comfort, just a challenge. The degree in math was simply stubbornness and a desire to prove something to myself, although I am not sure what. It seems to reflect my lifelong habit of pursuing the wrong thing: wrong boyfriend, wrong husband, wrong diet.

The poet Sonia Sanchez wrote, "I loved the words and they loved me in return." Me, too. I've been writing forever, it seems. One year, all I wanted for my birthday was a mechanical pencil, which stymied my father because Toys R Us did not carry them.

In any case, as I shepherd six children into adulthood, I find myself longing for numbers again, wanting to keep count, as if that might help me to keep order, track progress, map a route. There are so many things I'd like to count but never do: loads of laundry. Soccer practices. Rides to friends'. Calls from school. Bags of groceries. Flights of stairs. I think of how I could tally miles and sometimes reset the trip meter in my car, only to find that it has hit 500 and I have no idea where I've been. I think of how many meals I prepare each week (lunches for six, dinner for eight, each times seven).

Sometimes it seems that if only I could count these things, I'd somehow impress my family with just how much I do -- but I'm afraid the count would make me see how little I've accomplished in my own life: Articles published? Books? Poems written? Printed? These days, my creative writing goes into tardy notes: Please excuse Conor for being late. He had an appointment with the sandman.

With gas prices making my Ford Expedition the absolute bane of my existence, I think about slightly higher orders of math: Miles per gallon. Number of friends visited. Soccer practices and games attended. Forgotten lunches and cleats delivered. Groceries purchased. For my $80 per week and a full tank, I seem to get lots of mileage, although nothing really gets accomplished.

Perhaps I am counting the wrong things. I should track the less tangible moments: kisses from teenage boys, for instance; hugs from teenage daughters; sloppy, kissy-huggy "I love yous" from the 3-year-old. I should remember to track their growing sense of place in the world, for instance, their generosity and compassion. If I tracked these along with the annual height-markers on a kitchen doorjamb, perhaps I'd see more of what really counts and less of what looks like it should. This is so much like the abstractions of topology that my mind can hardly manage it.

The other night, my daughter was stuck on a homework problem: You have a recipe for five servings but need six. What computations are necessary to make it serve six? Aly asked me to help.

"I don't know, Aly, I hate those kinds of problems," I said. She fairly spat at me, "I thought you had a degree in math!" "I do," I answered, not taking her bait. "But I'm a writer, I'm a mom. If I had a recipe for five people and a sixth showed up, I'd double it so we'd have leftovers. Or I'd add a bit more. Or I'd make more salad and give everyone a little less of the entree. There are so many ways to solve that one, you know."

She sighed and tracked down her stepfather, who is good at math, and patient, and who sees things in black and white. There was a formula for her problem, but God knows if I could find it. I'll count on something else, I figure, creativity and making do.


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