Stephen and the Willow

When he was four, Stephen with the red curls and piercing eyes had no concept of risk, no understanding of consequences. His parents gave him copious amounts of love in an effort to understand how he could always find another cliff to jump from, but cliffness was not in Stephen's vocabulary. Bright and active, he seemed to seek out unmapped territories of the human experience.

We all share a human wiring that makes us related as creatures. And we all possess a unique set of inner instructions that sets us apart. Walt Whitman expressed it as, "I too am untranslatable". It is that effort to translate, to communicate, that accounts for the lure of sites like Facebook and My Space. Perhaps it also accounts for the phenomenal success of Twitter in Japan, a society known for its repression and conformity. In 2008 a Japanese language version of Twitter became available, and today Twitter estimates that the Japanese send over eight million tweets a day. Seminars teach "tricks of the tweet", and a new language of pseudo-twit is being constantly reinvented. Some have compared Twitter-speak, also called "mumble", to haiku.

We are transgressing old boundaries and creating new road maps. Borders of language and culture are being dissolved as we plunge, like Stephen, into unknown spaces of human interaction. Our inner diagrams of how the world works were illusory in any event, and now they are being crushed under an avalanche of new forms. Pavel Somov, Ph.D., talks about "pattern- interruption" in the context of architecture. He calls Frank Gehry's constructions "the Bilbao effect", an "architecture of awakening", and goes on to say, "Mind thrives on cliches, patterns, stereotypes and schemas. Mind likes the same reality cereal for breakfast. So when the mind stumbles upon the unfamiliar, it chokes up and wakes up."

Another Stephen, Fry the actor and author, writes of Twitter: "The press dreads Twitter for all kinds of reasons. Celebrities...can cut them out of the loop and speak direct to their fans which is, of course, most humiliating and undermining. But also perhaps the deadwood press loathes Twitter because it is like looking in a time mirror. Twitter is to the public arena what the press itself was 250 years ago - a new and potent force in democracy, a thorn in the side of the established order of things.".

This awakening can create powerful counter-rhythms. Entrenched ideologies find the new phenomena deeply disturbing. Leaders fail to speak the language of their populace. Politicians find their power-bases eroding. Tea-baggers resent the latte crowd, and shamans find their flocks wandering. From Burquas to Jihads, methods of control are dictated to the old faithful, and onerous restrictions imposed on the newly doubtful. Do you think I am speaking only of the world of Islam? Have you looked hard at the powers of the Transportation Security Administration in the United States lately? One misguided soul with an ineffective device in his underwear means that millions of people now have to be x-rayed at airports. Of course those images are not stored. Of course they are not unhealthy. Of course they are anonymous. Of course.

Old regimes topple as their assumptions are invalidated by the new. The young reinvent the world as they face the strait-jackets of elder-think. Can you remember what it felt like to be avid and impatient, to want to scream at the Model-T minds around you? The future is on a fast- track and you don't want to miss it. In fact, you want to make it, shape it, stir it around and see what happens.

Stephen of the laughing eyes and the red curls barely got to taste the future. He died last week, in his early twenties, of an unintended heroin overdose. In the end, he found himself "untranslatable", unable to adapt his troubled wiring to the rhythms around him. On his desk sat the fuzzy red puppy I had given him when he was born, still there to remind him that there were others like him in the world.

It is difficult to relate to the mumbles and jumbles of new technologies. It is painful to reach out to others whose inner languages resist translation. But the Stephens, and the techies, and yes the artists of this world all recognize that difference has its beauties. Did we fail to translate Stephen's personal haiku? Perhaps we should quote the Japanese poet Benseki:

"Child of the way,

I leave at last -

a willow on the other shore".

c. Corinne Whitaker 2010

Coda: The swift trajectory of Stephen's life is beautifully expressed in Benjamin Britten's Serenade for French horn, tenor and strings. The nocturne movement can be heard here.(Thanks to Natalie for this).

Notes on quotes: Benseki quotation available at Japanese Death Poems.

Stephen Fry's quote is from the First Post online.