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Tag: Ellen Ullman

Raised By Word-Eaters

Moth and the flame

We seem to be drawn to the idea of origins, like a moth to the flame. It’s as though by understanding the beginning, one could make sense of all that occurred from that point to this.

Ellen Ullman wrote a beautiful new year’s day piece called ‘My Secret Life‘ for the New York Times. In it she embraces the mystery of her origins. The records of her adoption are sealed.

The woman on the phone said, “Those records are sealed.� I said, “I know I can’t see what’s in them, but can I find out the date from which I couldn’t see what’s in them?� She replied, “Even the outsides of the records are sealed� — a confounding statement, as I envisioned envelopes surrounding envelopes, all sealed into infinity.

As Ullman points out in her piece, it’s through ‘the miracle of natural genetic recombination that each child is conceived as a unique being.’ It’s the difference at the point of origin that allows life to grow and prosper. Difference is at the heart of what allows any species to adapt to our changing environment.

I got to know Ullman’s writing through her excellent novel called ‘The Bug,’ which describes the world of writing computer programs. Her book ‘Close to the Machine‘ is a thoughtful exploration of the relationship between humans and computers. Also, check out this conversation with Jon Udell.

A path through the woods

The longing for origins is a longing to belong. Perhaps it’s tribal, through a direct linkage to the tribe, we believe the paths of our ancestors will be revealed, and that we can trace their footsteps. Ullman imagines being raised by ‘word-eaters’ (instead of computer scientists and mathematicians).

Locating origins seems to be an answer to the question of becoming–and what will become of us. But while you can draw a line from that first fixed point to your last heartbeat. The next heartbeat is entirely mysterious and unpredictable.

From Samuel Beckett’s Endgame:

The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.


Perhaps I could go on with my story, end it and begin another.

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