March 30, 2020
"Controversy Makes Fools of Us All"

 

A Good Belief Is Hard to Find

 
 
 

Arguments with Benjamin had lessened lately. A verbal match was not what Ivy Lovell needed on this warm spring morning. She wished to grace the university with her lecture mentally packed and ready to unfurl for people more appreciative than he, so she pointed a sleek boot through the doorway of her son's small study and drew herself up to professorial height. They were Important Boots, to enhance the red cape encasing her ample shape. Ben was wearing his writer's personality, hunched intently at the keyboard, teeth clenched, fingers clicking. She could see he was engrossed in his latest great work, poetry for some church tract or other.

"So what are you working on today, Ben? Something for Blind and Faith?" She marveled at his thin frame draped in its wrinkled denim, so unlike her hearty plumpness. "What is it again, Blind Faith?"

He slumped inside the pile of denim. "Not Blind, mother, Mind. Mind and Faith."

Her only child, Ben had come scuffling home after a hiking tour in South America last year, towing duffel and dog. The trek for Ben and his best friend Peter Bruckner had been, she supposed, the 2006 equivalent of the Grand Tour for her and Claude twenty-five years ago. But she had not been seeking to 'find herself'. She had never been lost.

His dog lazed beside him, a saccharin creature with large wet eyes and a sloppy face. As far as she was concerned, the animal lacked utility. He called it "Moonglow." She seldom called the dog at all but when she did she would forget its name. It seemed to respond when she called it "Sunspot." Fitting, she reasoned, since the creature's lifespan probably equaled the sunspot cycle.

The dog arched half an eye at her, so she swung the cape around in a gesture she considered elegant and proceeded through the living room. Modest in size, she found her mid-Toronto home barely large enough for her own vibrant intelligence and it was made smaller by Ben's computer gadgetry and his endless scribbles. Assembled from the 'best halls of distinctive decor', the rooms contained not furniture but collections, a studied poise she had worked hard to attain. She nodded in satisfaction at the results: the gold couch where she had taught Ben his first words of German when he was a boy; a hand-knotted Persian rug; carved accent tables; precisely suitable reading lamps; a black piano as the centre piece. It was a small baby grand, shiny and closed.

Etageres displayed tomes of art and history ordered by genre: the Uffizzi with History of the Medici; Louvre Masterpieces beside Treasures of the Republic; Salisbury Cathedral with The National Gallery. This was her Ethan Allen room. As she passed the bookcases her chest clutched a bit when she brushed the last one. This one held the impressionist volumes just as Claude had left them. She had not altered the order of those books in over twenty years, making sure they were dusted each season and set firmly back in place like a solved equation.

She glanced at her wedding photos, taken in 1982 on the church lawn after the ceremony. In one of them, Claude wore a pinched look, as if his shoes were too small, and she stood a full head taller, perhaps an illusion of perspective. The church did not show in the picture.

She reached the front door and stepped into the spring morning. As there were no neighbors about, she restrained a pose and went to the car and climbed in. She aimed at the ignition, and then stopped, her leather glove frozen in mid air. The key rattled to the floor and she slammed the steering wheel with the flat of both hands as if summonsing nothingness. The careful makeup on her broad forehead stretched in a scowl.

The house had an attached garage, but the door was sealed shut. She had been after Ben for months to repair the pulley mechanism. For three seasons now, her car had taken up obedient watch outside, waiting to be let in. Last autumn, dead leaves had etched ugly stains into the car's glossy black hood. In winter, snow knifed at its tires. Two blizzards this year -- no three, she reminded herself -- and she had dug out each morning and eased back at night into crusted ruts. It was dangerous, she told him. Why, the thing could flip up and then snap down, trapping anyone instantly. It could even sever a limb. The day was rising warm and clear and he could fix it today while she went to work. Surely he could master such an easy task -- he could call upon divine providence to help.

She swung her shiny boots out of the car and marched back toward the house, just in time to see Ben's sleeve and the dog's tail disappear around the street corner. It would have to wait until evening. As she moved the car out, her sight line took in the tidy houses on the cul de sac, each a gleeful variation on the next, based on the same blueprint, some mirror images of the other. Through each driveway she saw identical garage doors of white plastic, molded to look like wood and exactly the same, except everyone else's door worked.

That evening when Dr. Lovell returned home, Ben was entertaining a young woman in the living room. From the logos on the paper bags strewn across her mahogany side tables, she could tell that they were drinking chicory with soy and honey.

"Meet Lauren, Mother. She's an artist."

Dr. Lovell thought she detected a smile worrying at his narrow face. "Oh? Which of the fine arts, Lauren?"

"I'm a homeopath, Mrs. Lovell." Lauren pushed long Medusa tangles away from her eyes. She was dressed in loose clothing, Dr. Lovell noted, probably natural fibers. A rough knapsack sat on the floor, featuring the faded words, "whole grain spelt." The girl wore ungainly cork-soled sandals with orange and lime-green socks.

"We met at the health food store, mum," Ben said. "Lauren knows all about alternative medicine and natural remedies."

Dr. Lovell stared intently at her son for a long moment then went away to the kitchen to bang pots and pans while she cooked chicken cordon bleu with lox and Emmentaler cheese.

No one could say for sure when Dr. Lovell became a legend at the university. Maybe it was because of the research she had published at twenty-three on spectrum theory. Or maybe it was becoming the youngest professor on the Physics faculty. She had a natural gift for discovery, even as a young child. Born of German parents who had escaped the horrors of Europe just before World War II, young Ivy Feine had shone as a precocious child who took top honors in all her science programs. Her father and mother had expected much of her and she did not disappoint. Nothing scientific escaped her intellectual powers. A resolute approach to life was perhaps her parents' greatest gift.

She met Claude Lovell at graduate school. An unassuming academic in the Fine Arts Department, he was an unlikely match for the brilliant physicist she was becoming. She knew by a certain light in her father's eyes, a certain smile in her mother's voice, that her parents were pleased: their daughter would enjoy elegant living. And indeed, Claude was like a wood carving to her steel, quiet etiquette to her bravura. Once they married, he kept the books and assembled the art pieces and she made the money and brought home the accolades.

And then one day he drifted out of her life as unobtrusively as he had entered. He simply hung up a dishtowel one evening when Ben was about a year old, neatly folding it first into crisp edges, then selected his favorite umbrella from the hall closet. She hadn't seen him since. Sometimes she would hear traces of him from friends -- someone thought they saw Claude in a tour group in the Metropolitan Museum in New York; someone else was certain it was Claude in natty hat on holiday in France; Claude hopping a ski tow in the Rockies -- but he never got in touch. The years went by; she handled both the child and her career, garnering honors. She didn't really notice he was gone.

On Tuesday morning Dr. Lovell raised the matter of the garage door. Ben's grey eyes went blank. "It's not nuclear physics, Ben," she said. "It's simple Newtonian mechanics." He frowned at his dog. "The manual tells you how," she continued, pointing toward the kitchen where the warranties box sat on the top bookshelf. "Read the instructions, then get out the step ladder, climb up and adjust the pulley. It's like plumbing, not like astrophysics." Perhaps she should have said not like poetry, in deference to the questionable challenge of his chosen vocation.

"Yes, mum. Not rocket science, mum," Ben intoned robotically, invoking an old refrain he and his friends liked to use when they were little, nudging each other at their cleverness, showing they knew his mother was a space scientist. But he didn't stir from his computer.

On Tuesday evening, Dr. Lovell made a decision. She was complicit in Ben's indolence, she thought, edging him to the personality of his father. He would dream-sleep his life. This she could not have. Just before dinner, she went to Ben's study, determined to speak to him. His coffee maker was like the eternal flame, bubbling its acrid spice throughout the house. He poured some, cupped the mug in both hands and brought it to her like an offering. It was dark and bitter and she recoiled at its bite on her tongue. Trying not to grimace, she handed the cup back and looked around for a place to sit. He grabbed scraps of paper from the armchair. She plucked up dried orange peels and picked at dog hair before sinking down. Wordlessly, she pointed out a dog biscuit under his desk and he leaned to find it, shag rug bunching under his bare feet.

"Ben, I have to be frank." She noted he had two cups of coffee in progress. "With the poetry and the inertia, I can't have it. You don't have a job, a real job" -- she waved toward the out tray of his computer printer -- "and you're not helping around the house. I host my annual salon for the post-docs this week-end. You have three days to clean up your rooms and get the garage door working. Three days, Ben. That's Friday night. When I come home from the faculty club on Friday evening, the door will be working. Or you'll have to go. I'll help you find a place, or you can share with Peter in his new apartment." Ben nodded, mute, submissive.

At seven o'clock that evening Peter's mother, Veronica Bruckner, arrived in a rush, flipping back her thick hair impatiently and clasping a stack of publications. She and Dr. Lovell were writing a graduate text together on physics and she was eager to resume.

"'Foundations', Ivy," Ronnie said, "we must have the word 'foundations' in the title. That's what we're mapping."

"I like 'essence of matter' better, Ronnie," Dr. Lovell said. She saw Ben watching them. "You'd appreciate that, Ben. What are you working on now?" She looked at Ronnie as she spoke. "A poem about angels and devils and gods?"

"Not gods, mother," Ben said with a slight spark of defiance, "God, the source of meaning in life."

"Ben is a believer, Ronnie. He believes that intelligent design is the origin of the universe."

"But mum, you and Dr. Bruckner believe. You believe in evidence. That's like a faith." The two professors exchanged glances.

"Why do you say that, Ben?" Ronnie asked him in a strained voice, the way overworked nurses speak in hospitals.

"Mum told me a long time ago that even Isaac Newton said there is an intelligent mind in the solar system, right mum?" Ben said. "Without it, he couldn't explain why the planets didn't collapse into the sun. He said there had to be a grand designer to keep it all in balance." Ben was speaking in full sentences, now, and the usual rising inflection in his voice had dropped out.

"Yes, but you forget the lesson we need to learn from that," Dr. Lovell said. "A century later scientists went further, to a purer model. I told you that Newton stopped looking when he based it all on God. He didn't advance after that. That's the lesson."

"But mum, you're always saying there are laws of physics." Ben pushed on, braver than she had seen him. "What if there is a universe outside the laws? Beyond space, beyond time? Beyond thought, even?"

"My son, the artiste." Dr. Lovell fluttered an exaggerated hand to her forehead and teetered. It was a theatrical gesture she liked to use for first year physics classes when any student made a particularly obtuse remark and it had the intended effect: Ben's face clamped and he called Moonglow for a walk.

"How did I accomplish this, Ronnie?" she said, watching him disappear out the back door. "He's starting to sound like that theoretical team from Stanford that came up last month. How could I have spawned progeny so deluded? I never brainwashed the boy to think such thoughts. What happened last summer in South America?"

"Not much. Peter said they hiked into the Andes and met some shamans, learned something about alternative religions. The usual nonsense of university kids."

"When Ben was growing up, I protected him from that. I taught him the power of empirical observation, not base primitivism."

"It's all around us, Ivy. Look at the debates in the media."

"But Peter didn't come back with such foolish notions, Ronnie. He plunged right back into engineering and applied himself. Ben, on the other hand, spends all his time typing dreams into his computer for church groups."

Ivy Lovell had never been one for grand schemes or mythologies. She was not an idealist, nor was she a member of the burgeoning school of theoretical astrophysicists. She disdained them, those enthusiasts who constantly upset the lab runs and introduced intrusive models at inopportune times. She never allowed the theorists into the observatory during an experiment. As far as she was concerned, that could only guarantee the sky would cloud over or the telescopes break down. She was an infrared astronomer, having entered the science when it was still new, when technology was improving lens acuity. She liked working with Ronnie Bruckner because they shared the same relentless rigor in their research.

By the time Ben returned with the dog, Ronnie was just leaving, a sheaf of the manuscript for tomorrow's typist under her arm. Dr. Lovell settled into her living room sofa and opened the Globe to the science section while Ben clicked away at his computer in the study across the hall. After a while he came in and leaned against the archway of the living room.

"Maybe, mum," he said slowly, "there is more than one universe. Maybe there's an infinite number of universes."

Dr. Lovell squinted over the newspaper at her son.

"Maybe," Ben's tremulous voice continued, "even trying to look at those universes could destroy us as human beings. Maybe we have to just believe that there are mysteries that we will never be able to explain."

He was now officially crazy, she said to herself. He reads some popular article about string theory adds the uncertainty principle or whatever and stirs it into his religious mythologies.

"It's not a matter of belief, Ben; it's the job of scientists to find out, to test, and to discover. And I wish you would discover how to fix the garage door." Dr. Lovell went back to her paper and flicked the broadsheet high so that she could not see him.

Wednesday morning crept in on a grey drizzle. Dr. Lovell stepped through the rain in her new boots to the car, holding her umbrella at a slant so she could open the driver's door. Her leather purse slipped down to the puddle at her feet and lay on its side like a pregnant cow. At lunch time, her wallet was still soggy.

That evening Dr. Lovell eased the car back into the driveway and stopped six inches from the closed garage door. She stared accusingly. It was a silent wall of white. In the back yard she heard the dog playing, probably yapping at bugs. Inside on the kitchen counter, Dr. Lovell found a note from Ben.

"Gone Harborfront w/ Lauren -- poetry reading -- Griffin prize," it said. "Will do door tomorrow." She began to stuff the note into the trash then looked more closely. It was a piece of scrap with coffee stains. The reverse side contained Ben's draft writing, some of it handwritten, some computer-printed.

"Ours is the age that has dared to dissect the mystery of existence," began the printed part of the diatribe. "Both the very small and the very large have yielded to the scientific method."

There was more. Crisscrossing on the diagonal, she read in Ben's handwriting: "The Pleiades: an open cluster of stars in the constellation of Taurus." And upside down at the bottom was her son's loopy writing, text she could barely decipher: "Science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God. People seek meaning and purpose in life, the most atheistic scientist as much as the devout. For all of us, a good belief is hard to find."

She poured a hefty glass of wine and stamped upstairs to her study. She would plan how to evict this fool from her life. From now on, theirs would be a respectful but distant relationship.

It was almost midnight when Ben came home. Dr. Lovell was making tea in the kitchen. He wandered in and stood for moment staring at the bookcase. She saw one thin hand reach around to scratch the back of his neck. Threads erupted from his frayed collar, the result of too many washings in cheap hostels on his hiking trip. After long contemplation, he stretched up and lifted down the box of warranties from the top shelf. He gazed inside as if it were a tray of puzzles. She watched in fascination as he held it at an awkward slant and, sure enough, the top layers flowed over the rim and fell to the floor. He frowned at the mess, as if bewildered by their self-locomotion, then bent down and fished for the Garage Door Manual. When he stood up, she looked over his shoulder.

"See what it says, Ben: 'Elmwood's Security Door System. Please read carefully!'" She quoted the thick lettering on the cover page. "'Proper installation is imperative. Persons, particularly small children and pets, could be seriously hurt if the reversal system malfunctions'."

She resisted the urge to nudge a toe at Moonspot, sleeping by the hot air vent. "Follow the instructions tomorrow when you do this. Don't be a maverick."

Ben padded glumly away. She knew what he'd do next. He would go back to his computer and type all night, adding metaphysical stanzas to his poems.

Drs. Lovell and Bruckner worked on their textbook in the evenings. On Thursday after supper, sharp yelps from the back yard broke through their concentration. Ben's dog seemed to have assumed the conceit of a guard. They could hear the thud of wood and the clatter of metal on pavement. Ronnie got up and went to the window. She brushed away a fat curl to see better and chuckled.

"Ivy, is this a rehearsal for a circus act?"

Dr. Lovell rose and went to look. She saw the step ladder thrashing about in Ben's hands. Whenever he attacked one side and tried to lock the hinge, the other half would kick away. It crashed to the ground a second and then a third time. She shook her head in disbelief and they both went down to help him.

"Now, Ben, if you stop and think this is quite simple," she told him. Slowly, methodically, she guided him through the process to set up the ladder properly. He seemed to understand, nodding every now and again. By the time he had it in place, it was too dark to see even with the yard light. So the Lovells went in for the night and Ronnie Bruckner went home.

Friday morning rose clear and warm, drawing breath from the earth in the yard. In the young spring sun she saw her car glowing like jewelry. With one finger, she slicked the leather of her glove along the finish, frowning at the wet twigs marring the hood. When she opened the door, the chemical scent of new upholstery excited the air. The interior was her favorite: jet black, silver trimming.

Even after twenty years, she still enjoyed the drive down Avenue Road at this time of morning. She steered with assurance past Forest Hill's mansions and through middle Canada's neighborhoods of low-rise apartment blocks. As she drove, she thought about her reading next month at the Conference Centre in Switzerland. This current paper was the best she had produced so far. If she could keep Ben's aimlessness from crowding her mind, she would amaze the profession with her latest findings. She imagined the press coverage. At University and Wellesley she turned into King's College Circle and found her special parking spot. Engineering and Applied Sciences was a sleek wonder of Plexiglas and steel.

Dr. Keith Knell, Chair of the Physics Department, winked at her over his reading glasses. "A big day for you, Ivy! My congratulations. You must be proud." She stared and he pointed to a pile of student newspapers on the floor in the corner. The headline on the top said, "Arts grad short-listed for President's award." She bent down and peeled off a copy, her cape draping in what she knew was a dignified pool on the floor. She glimpsed a small photo inset of Ben that looked vaguely familiar. When she stood up, she felt faint. All the way to her office she steadied herself along the hall, clutching the cheap newsprint in one hand and her brief case with the other. She was glad of the solid clunk of the door. For the moment, at least, she was sealed from the grins and sly looks, the moist congratulations. In this space she prevailed. Here in this book-lined office was where she held graduate seminars, drew models on the white board, jotted mathematical formulas, spoke curtly to students dutifully taking notes.

Well, she clucked to herself, Ben the poet. My son, the writer. She turned the words over and said them aloud, to test the feel. Yes, she could live with that. The learned Dr. Knell seemed to think it was a fine thing. The phone rang.

"Ivy, isn't it exciting?" Ronnie's soprano voice sliced into Dr. Lovell's ear and she held the receiver away. "The University President's awards at age twenty-one! Do you remember that picture? That's the one I took last year, remember, when he and Peter were leaving for their hiking trip?"

Dr. Lovell didn't remember. "Um, yes, Ronnie."

"They couldn't wait to cast off, but look what each of them did. Peter back to finish his engineering and Ben to being published."

"Published?"

"Sure, Ivy, even if he doesn't win, just being short-listed will guarantee he'll be published."

"Oh."

"What are you doing to celebrate?"

"Well, of course," said Dr. Lovell definitively, in the type of tone that flows from long planning, "I'm taking the boy to dinner at the Faculty Club. He can dress up for once."

"Wonderful. See you there." Ronnie went away after more congratulations, after more of you've been such a supportive parent, how could he not have been inspired by your example, and so forth. Dr. Lovell sat staring into the courtyard. Students strolled in the spring morning on their way to morning classes. Many were smiling, freed from heavy winter coats. Yes, thought Dr. Lovell, it wouldn't bruise his creativity to mingle with a few department heads, a few full professors, maybe the odd emeritus among them. She would gain back the promise of what she had always planned for this child. She had dreamed of honors in the world of science, but honors in the world of letters would do, she supposed. She must tell Ben tonight how proud she was. She must tell him she had always believed in him.

Finally she opened up the paper. The article was brief, just a few words about each nominee, with their remarks. Ben's views about intelligent design were quoted and his observation that, "every religion makes different claims about the way the world is." In the photo he seemed small, almost forlorn, and she pursed her lower lip. But it was the last sentence that made her gasp: "Ben Lovell says he plans to dedicate this collection to the person who has taught him the most about the infinite: his mother."

That night when Dr. Lovell turned into the little cul de sac, she could see from the street corner that the garage door at her house was open. She had won. She looked at the house with mixed feelings about having Ben continue to stay. But maybe he would go off with Lauren of the striped socks, now being a poet with promise. At any rate, she could park her car indoors, finally.

She turned into the driveway. The door was open all right, but her inept son had left the step ladder overturned in the entrance. His dog sat upright beside the ladder. A writer Ben might be, but why could he never finish one simple mechanical task, she wondered, or even feed his dog on time? She stopped the car and walked forward in the dusk, breathing the air. It tasted crisp and clean, almost like champagne long ago on holiday with Claude, except she never thought of him. The dog whimpered beside a dark bundle. It was a pile of baggy denim.

Ben lay flat on his back on the cement, his body still, his eyes opened wide in wonderment. Dr. Lovell bent down to touch him. Despite his thinness, this outline was her cheeks, her bones, her blood. She named the parts of his face in German. And when she had named them all, she looked into the blackness of the garage cavity and saw herself, a rotund figure in a red cape, extolling the virtues of modern rational thought. She saw the organizers next month, engraving her name on the podium. Then she looked beyond, to the vision of the rest of her life.

It was a very long time before she looked further, up where the glassy eyes of her son pointed. Pleiades was out tonight and she could discern in her mind's eye some distant galaxies. Beyond that she was blind.

Article © Gail Taylor. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-11-15


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In the same series:

A Good Belief Is Hard to Find

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