BOTH SIDES NOW
As a young girl, I was deeply drawn to the bittersweet lyrics of the folk song “Both Sides Now.” Neither tragic nor treacly, they simply portray the duality of human experience, acknowledging that “there’s something lost and something gained in living every day.” A few years before that, my father had died of a heart attack while my mother was in a mental hospital, so we three siblings had been taken to live with a faraway aunt and uncle whom we barely knew. Life suddenly made no sense. This bewildering break in our lives overwhelmed our feelings of shock and grief. As children do, we came to love the people taking care of us, but the emotional undercurrent of loss remained. I struggled to understand life from a new and different perspective.
The lyrics of “Both Sides Now” offered a possible path forward, encouraging me to seek both sides of every experience, good and bad, past and present. The repeated phrase, “I really don’t know life at all,” expresses my constant, inconclusive efforts to do so. Although that goal is a constantly moving target, I cherish the meaning it gives to my life. I became acutely aware of my drive to understand when writing a novel about a young woman who wanted to write. It suddenly struck her — and me — that maybe the true goal is not to write someone else’s story but to deeply experience and appreciate one’s own life.
A corollary to the duality of life is the concept of balance, like masculine and feminine, yin and yang. My father was wonderful; my mother was not. Her family was wonderful; his was not. My father seemed to favor us sisters; my mother seemed to prefer my brother. These realities were not exactly pleasant, but they did offer a rough version of equality. Our aunt and uncle were unable to have children of their own, an imbalance resolved by the unexpected addition of the three of us to their lives. The fact that they needed us as much as we needed them was an integral part of our story, making us feel like the answers to prayer rather than charity cases.
The concept of balance was crystallized for me at about the same time that I discovered “Both Sides Now.” We had joined my extended maternal family for a weekend at the lake, spending the nights in rented cabins. The days on the lake, swimming, and fishing off the shared pontoon, seemed perfect. My complete happiness was marred only by brief moments of impatience to get up and get going each morning. I paid the price for all that fun with the worst sunburn and double ear infection I had ever experienced. Amid all the pain, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the best time of my life followed by the worst: the concept of balance.
This incident was the spark for what would become my philosophy of the universal scale. On one side are all the problems of the world — floods, fire, famine, disease, injustice. On the other side is all the human potential to solve those problems. The scale fluctuates depending on current issues and the degree to which humanity uses its potential to address them. Humanity can never solve all problems, but I believe we can and do progress when we recognize our responsibility to and for each other and remember that every unrealized potential allows some evil to exist.
Another area in my life steeped in duality and balance is politics. I married someone from the “other” party. Although a lifelong Democrat, I was politically ecumenical. While growing up, I had relatives active in both parties who would sit together and discuss political issues, allowing me to hear and consider different points of view. My husband and I hold shared values, which are far more important than shared politics. However, I did consider him to be a little naive. As an intelligent, middle-class, straight, white male, the typical conservative prediction that hard work inevitably leads to success and respect had worked out just fine for him, so he assumed it would for everyone else. With the rise of the Tea Party and the decline of intellectually honest conservatism, he began to drift away from the party of his youth. By 2016, he had joined others in saying, “I did not leave the Republican party; the Republican party left me.” I join him and others in mourning the loss of a healthy, vibrant, worthy adversary to the Democrats. Our two-party system needs the balance of loyal opposition to thrive and reach its potential.
Despite its pervasiveness, duality does not apply to all aspects of life. The perceived split between a liberal arts education and an education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) is a false dichotomy. They are mistakenly seen as mutually exclusive, much as male and female temperaments have been.
I have traveled from engineering student to English major to teacher to computer professional and (finally!) to author during my academic and professional life. These travels between the two worlds confirmed that each enhances the other rather than negating it. STEM studies reveal the sometimes orderly, sometimes random beauty of the universe. Humanities studies encompass that universe in the even larger context of human experience and aspiration. Such differences come together to form the unity that far surpasses the sum of its parts --- the divine universe. I have decided that a better, more inclusive theme for my life would be All Sides Now.