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?(Read on:)
He decides not to do it. It would require a lot of work for both of them, might not be welcomed, and may not even have an effect in her life. How is he to know the composition of the talents and interests at work in her and her destiny in the first place? Can he compete with God? He does not give her the assignments, asks nothing more of her, and they continue in love and affection in the time they have together as she gets older. She studies, she reads, she goes to University. He decreases in her life. She meets a good man, they marry, raise children, each special in their own right. She pursues many interests. She thinks of her father occasionally, sometimes tells her children stories about when she was young. One day, sometime after her father is gone, she sits at the table in her kitchen. She has the feeling that she has missed something, but she’s not sure what. On an impulse she makes coffee and for the first time in she can’t remember how long, she adds cream, chocolate and cinnamon.
In a second world, the man in the loud rugby shirt decides to offer the assignments. It will take a lot of work, may not be welcome, and he’s not sure if it will have any effect in her life whatsoever. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to try. Out of a sense of duty, or perhaps vanity, or both, he cannot resist doing what he sees as working with God. He gives his daughter things to read, and then asks her to write about it. He asks questions, they discuss, he praises and pokes. Is there more to every question? Is there more to every answer? Is the first thought the best one, or merely a step in the right direction?
Sometimes she is pleased, sometimes she is provoked, sometimes they both wonder why they’re doing this, but she is always stimulated. Through this exercise she finds herself looking at things in different ways, examining her assumptions. Words and imagination take on a new significance in her life. Somewhere in the process a gear within her shifts position, a door opens and she sees something in a new, more focused way such as when an image appears from within a magic eye picture. Better yet, she finds the lever that allows the door to open, and she uses it often, allowing her to see the same truth in newer, richer ways. At the same time, she is opening windows that let her father see glimpses into the way she thinks. He is amazed and riveted by both her practicality and inspiration and humbled by what has been set in motion.
In the third world, the man also decides to offer the assignments. It takes work, isn’t necessarily welcome, and it’s hard to tell if it’s making any difference. His daughter takes the assignments and responds dutifully, as if checking off items on a list of chores. She responds quickly, sometimes merely writing out the answers that she thinks he wants to hear. Like a playful dolphin she tail-dances across the surface, impressing many while waiting for someone to throw her a fish, even though she’s quite capable of diving longer and deeper and getting her own fish. When she’s older she looks back at this time as being something akin to the period when she had to wear braces; a time when she had to put up with, and out-live, an inconvenience while taking for granted any long-term effects. The man, meanwhile, returns to his basement and has the feeling that he has missed something, but he is not sure what and stares at the white eye of the computer monitor.
These three chains of events all indeed can happen, or portions of each can combine in unforeseen ways to create complete new events, because in the real world all futures are possible, while all pasts are immutable, though both the future and the past can be negated by decisions in the present.