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Memoir

Does the Universe Make Sense? Should We Care?

She held tight to the slowly rising rope. When it had hoisted her far enough, she bent her knees to lift herself off the ground. Everyone – family and servants – took a turn.  Holding up the rope, and below it, the round scale, was the family cook, and the strongest man in the compound, Shi Fa. Everyone was getting weighed.

Weighing a baby in Malawi – photo by Yagazie Emezi for NYT Magazine

In her St. Louis kitchen, 8,000 miles and fifty years from where she grew up in Shanghai’s French Concession, my mom recounted this annual occurrence. On the first day of the sixth lunar month, she said, everyone was weighed. Mom seemed to think that this was a national ritual, but I’ve been unable to Google confirmation of this. 

Why? I asked Mom. Why a public weigh-in? I can’t picture my dignified grandfather hanging off a rope! 

To find out your weight FOR THE YEAR, she replied. Her tone implied, Why else? 

I have a more intimate relationship with my scale. My scale and I converse EVERY SINGLE DAY. Most of the time, I’m relieved to be in an acceptable weight range. Sometimes, I gasp at an unacceptably high number. (First thought – water weight!) Once, I dropped five pounds overnight. I thought I had cancer. I weigh often because I feel more in control if I’m not blind-sided by some huge variance. 

I’m not alone in equating more data with better outcomes, more control and, dare I say, progress. Hence, scales that read out to one-tenth of a pound and Apple watches that track your heart rate and rhythm. It is a human tendency.  Lulu Miller, a science reporter and host with National Public Radio, has written a memoir that showcases this tendency to extraordinary ends. 

Miller seems young to be writing a memoir. In her photos – dark shoulder-length hair, dark eyes, wide grin – she may be pushing thirty. She tells her story in Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life.

Lulu Miller – photo by John Poole/NPR

As a child, she was chilled by her Darwin-influenced father’s pronouncement that everyone was equally insignificant from a cosmic point of view. (Her father found freedom in this schema; Miller found futility, which she calls Chaos.) Her mood worsened when a relationship went sour after college. 

She set out to find the meaning of life, or at least her life. What was the point of living? She decided to study the life of someone who seemed to have succeeded, or at least never lost faith, in his own ability to tame the Chaos, to organize the natural world.

David Starr Jordan, she tells us, was obsessed with catching and classifying fish. Every fish he hauled in and named was an addition to science, a lessening of Chaos: Progress with a capital P. His obsession and expertise brought him stellar rewards, such as the presidency of Stanford University. It also led him to make assumptions that might be called wacky had the social consequences not been so dire. 

David Starr Jordan – en.wikipedia.org

Miller is also obsessed – with David Starr Jordan. You wonder why she didn’t give up when it became clear that he was an unsuitable role model. But NO! She follows his career twists, his marriages, his travels, his disastrous advocacy of eugenics. She researches rumors of Starr being involved in a murder. She reads his scientific treatises, his children’s books, his philosophical tracts. She interviews experts on Jordan and ordinary people affected by his actions.

Miller is a lively narrator. It’s fun to follow her down the rickety lanes of her research into herself, into Jordan, into scientific theories. You are pulling for her. You want to believe that all those pieces of information she has gathered will click into place. That there is order in the universe. That our individual lives have meaning. 

The answer is right around the corner. She just needs more data.

Me in 7th or 8th grade

I share Miller’s existential angst. My place in history is embedded in preserving my family story. I am the tenuous connection between China and America, the mixture of two languages, two cultures, two customs. As a child in St. Louis, I ate lunch with chopsticks and then went to the park to play softball. My mom spoke to me in Shanghai Chinese. I replied in English.

My vision of Chaos is that, once I am gone, the connections between the faces in my parents’ and my own photos, slides, cassettes, and 8 mm tapes will disappear into the void. Stories like the one about the yearly weigh-in will be dust scattered into the Universe, unrecoverable. 

Both my parents come from large families. To identify my relatives in photos, to connect them to their Chinese names, and to sort out their exact relationship to me and to each other are formidable challenges. I remember one man as a relative my mother called “Loh Su.” I thought that was his name. From the Chinese, written on the back of one photo, I realized that all this time, she was calling him, “Sixth Uncle.” 

When I’m on the outside looking in, David Starr Jordan and even Lulu Miller’s quests seem quixotic, even delusional. They each built a theoretical structure of how the world works, and then assembled huge amounts of data to support it. Jordan used his data to bolster a flawed view of evolution. Miller kept studying Jordan in hopes that she could capture his drive and optimism – not his views! – for herself. 

Back of the photo
The nun is my great-aunt Sister Agnes de Jesus. I am related to everyone else in this photo

I want some of Jordan’s and Miller’s obsessiveness to keep me on track with my family-tracking task. Yet, a part of me wonders if my need to preserve the stories and photos of my family’s past is as insubstantial a belief as Jordan’s and Miller’s theories. 

I got a glimpse of an alternate approach to this need to order the Universe when talking with a new friend a couple of years ago. He was 94 years old and had embarked on a torrid love affair with a friend of mine. He had stories about fighting in WWII. I said, oh, you must write this down. He replied, I’m not interested in the past. I think about the future.  

Miller came to a grudging compromise that, even though our individual existence may not be important from a cosmic perspective, our lives are meaningful through our connections with the people around us. And maybe, that’s enough. Or, as my mom was wont to answer when anyone served her food, “More than enough.” 

Mom, in her 90s

Tell me: How do you feel about preserving family records? 

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

7 replies on “Does the Universe Make Sense? Should We Care?”

It’s lovely to see the beautiful photo of you, your mother and the big family! I’ve never seen them before when visiting your parents. The way for me to document my family’s memories is to write the Year in Review for each year. I have tried to encourage relatives in Shanghai to do so. Nobody has started writing, except for my sister-in-law who wrote just for two years. I think that writing the Year-in-Review is part of the American culture. Right?

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I think that we all like to feel connected to others (family) and you need a family tree to diagram those connections. But what I really enjoy is the little stories about different relatives, like that my uncle, as an altar boy in a 40 Hours procession was supposed to respond to the priest’s invocations with ” liberamus Domine”. Instead he mischeviously called out “Nigger on a stormy day”. This must have been about 1920. That uncle grew up to become a missionary priest in first, China, and post WWII, Ghana. One of my great aunts was an adopted Orphan Train child. I am trying to write these stories down for my own descendants as I remember them. For me, it has nothing to do with ordering chaos or my place in the grand scheme of life, but more just part of enjoying being alive and adding to the universal human experience.

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Not just family records! The other day, I found a page from a diary I kept in junior high school. I could remember every minor detail of that random day. The colors, the textures, the people, the intense adolescent emotions. Are thousands of other days also inside my head, but lost forever because I don’t have a diary page for them? And if I haven’t recorded the people or the joy or the lessons, do they count?

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I imagine having a last name like your maiden name of Wilson made it more difficult to pin down.
BUT, Nancy, you are now an elder. Louis and his kids will want to know about you and Bob and your parents!

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As I read your blog I am always impressed with the connections to your family in China. I envy this because I have no connections as far as I am aware.
The first day I went to a genealogy class at the historical society on the Irish, which my heritage is from. The researcher said the Irish were terrible at keeping records for they were too poor and they had no time.
Hence not finding any records of my family
has always been a disappointment in my life.

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