During the pandemic, I’ve read many books that were welcome escapes but also quickly forgotten. A handful of stories, however, have resonated so deeply with me that they have taken root in my mind, growing a sort of mental garden through which all information must pass to be processed. One such story is called “Story of Your Life,” the sci-fi novella by Ted Chiang that inspired the 2017 film Arrival. The protagonist of the story is a linguist attempting to decipher the written language of an alien species that possesses a simultaneous mode of awareness. These “heptapods,” as the scientists call them, experience all of life’s events at once and choose the direction a path knowing its destination.
We humans, the protagonist notes, are limited by our sequential mode of awareness. We can only experience life one event at a time. Our inability to know the future allows us the power of choice and yet, I still try to project into a fictional, perhaps overly optimistic future. Especially when the present doesn’t feel quite like the proverbial gift.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (Vantage Books, 2016)
I was asked recently to describe my “happy place” and once again, this story popped into my mind. The exercise should have evoked an instant image but instead it took a lot of pondering: Where do I go to recharge? Where do I still feel safe? In a pre-pandemic life, ideas would have quickly poured forth: my mother’s kitchen, going out to dinner with friends, swimming at the beach with my kids, but now each of those activities comes with fine print about risks of exposure that I didn’t have to calculate two years ago.
Creative solitude has also been a space of respite for me, but these days, even outside the maelstrom, I’m always rushing towards the future. I’m managing through grocery lists, upcoming school events, gifts for the holidays, maximizing my time with didactic podcasts. Across different apps and inboxes, I’m tracking deadlines for the week, absorbing missed narratives and news events, and gathering fear from the near future that holds my children’s best years in a climate ransom. No time to waste, no time to be present.
When I think about my “happy place,” what comes to me is not exactly a place but those few enviable moments when I am anchored into the present by the phenomena around me: A joyful burst of children’s laughter. A first bite of a favorite meal. A sudden rainbow. And reading aloud to my kids. Especially reading aloud to my kids, all of us squished together on the couch at the end of a long day (probably running late for bedtime again), too tired, too exhausted to read.
In “Story of Your Life,” the protagonist begins to experience reality in a simultaneous awareness as she gains fluency in the heptapod language and this brings her to the challenge of a heptapod existence: knowing the totality of a life’s events doesn’t change the destination. Rather, the heptapod interprets a purpose connecting all these painful events, joyful events, and everything in between. Humans, by comparison, interpret reality causally, one moment affecting the next.
When I read to my children, I can only read a book one word at a time, in one direction just as we experience reality. The minutes passing feel like minutes. Occasionally, we read a new book and we all discover the story together, unable to anticipate, only able to watch the story unfold before us in a linear sequence. Most times, we read books with familiar plotlines. We start knowing an ending and I feel a bit like the heptapod, making meaning in how we get there, in actualizing the story’s events as we read together.
For a moment on the couch, I see the past and the future. I know these moments are fleeting because I see the days collected behind me, when my children’s hands were tinier and they held my hands tighter. And, as we read a book in this sequential human way, at some point between anticipating the future and carrying the past, I think I feel the present. The heartbeat of a moment.