A thought, embedded in a dream, wrapped in a fantasy

One of the most interesting parts of home educating my oldest daughter was when we worked on creative writing and composition. The textbook I used was Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. It’s a mind-bending book that imagines that Albert Einstein had a series of dreams leading up to the publishing of his theory of relativity, with each dream a view of a world where time operated in a different way, such as a world where the higher above sea level you went, the slower time moved; or a world where time moved like currents of water and where a person could be accidentally caught up and deposited in his or her past.

The way we approached it was for her to read a dream (they were generally only a few hundred words each) and then answer three or four essay questions I’d ask based on that dream, usually along the lines of how she’d cope with certain situations in that kind of a world. One of our favorites was the dream dated April 19 where a man tries to decide what he should do about pursuing a woman he has just met. Three possible futures are described, and the kicker is:

These three chains of events all indeed happen, simultaneously. For in this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real. At every point of decision, whether to visit a woman in Fribourg or to buy a new coat, the world splits into three worlds, each with the same people but with different fates for those people. In time, there is an infinity of worlds.

Some make light of decisions, arguing that all possible decisions will occur. In such a world, how could one be responsible for his actions? Others hold that each decision must be considered and committed to, that without commitment there is chaos. Such people are content to live in contradictory worlds, so long as they know the reason for each.

Inspired by Lightman’s imagination and my daughter’s answers, I offered a composition of my own in the same style as the original essay. I reproduce it here as an example of the objectives and pay-offs of home educating. And because it was fun to let the horses run.

It is a cold morning in a Minnesota winter, and a man sits in his basement wearing a loud rugby shirt colored as if attitude alone can defy the chill. He is staring at the white eye of a computer monitor, at the blank page in the screen that is ready to receive his typing. He knows that the blankness is an illusion, that what he sees is only the smooth representation of a myriad series of complex miracles that harness electricity, electrons, protons and light waves and leave them ready to be directed by his fingertips. He is not sure exactly how it all works, he only knows that with the knowledge he has he can put words and thoughts on the page and generally make them do what he wants.

In a way, the whole thing reminds him of his daughter. Fresh and unlined on the surface while beneath miracles even more complex and astounding than those that went into the creation of the machine course through her; here combining, there splitting, following a program he barely has wit enough to understand, let alone predict. He is pondering a series of assignments for her in the hopes of adding a catalyst to the program that may somehow improve or tune the instrument she is becoming. Should he do it? Should he do it?

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