| In Cincinnati it’s a bright, sunny day as I walk along the tarmac to the small jet that will take me north to Cleveland. My window is no larger than a piece of writing paper, and as we sit waiting to take off, I see nothing more than the asphalt and concrete. Everything is straight lines and corners, and I’m reminded again of how travel numbs me with the sameness of airports and the colorless rituals of hotel living.
As we rise, I see the shadow of the plane along the ground. It reflects a slice of something I now occupy though I can’t be seen in it and I notice that it is distorted further as it climbs through the houses and trees below. The shadow reflects an invariant three dimensional object (which includes me), but like most things we measure in people, a lot of context and important detail are left out. After a few minutes, my shadow is joined by those of a few wispy clouds and I soon lose sight of it though I know it must still be down there somewhere. The light remains brilliant, and I must still be casting some darkness.
Though the window hasn’t changed size, at this altitude it allows me to see much more, and the complex landscape now includes both straight lines and undulant curves. A tributary of the Ohio River carries a barge south, and its shadow conforms perfectly to the water. It occurs to me that from here I can easily distinguish the man-made Euclidian shapes from nature’s fractal geometry. The fractals repeat their topography at various scales, branching and bubbling. They are more interesting than any building. In fact, the shadow on the water’s surface is far more intriguing than the barge.
I recall looking through a book called Powers of Ten (W.H. Freeman 1982) years ago. It displayed graphically what the universe looks like as we exponentially progress from the cosmos light years away toward the innermost environment of our body. As the pictures focus on a human hand, the skin at first appears smooth, but then it becomes as convoluted and “self-similar” as any fractal. This was confirmed by an article in a dermatology journal that I read a few years later.*
My jet breaks through the clouds, and again the sun is shining. A plane of white stretches to the horizon and its surface is essentially the same as human skin when viewed from a certain perspective. I know that this shape means that there is chaotic and random activity present, and that provocation will have no predictable effect. I’ve read that a little pressure in the atmosphere can produce a thunderstorm thousands of miles away. It’s called “the butterfly effect,” and the same nonlinear effect is present when I touch another’s skin. When I hear other therapists say that they can predict the response to their touching, I want to offer them a pile of literature to the contrary.
Descending through the clouds again, they grow more complex then less so again, my perspective changing everything though everything I see remains the same. I think about how this is like learning about things or treating patients. We fly near to them, and then above, our window the same size but rarely with the same view.
Cleveland appears. The regular shapes that we can control and alter predictably, like the bones of a body, dominate my view through the tiny window. Through the middle of this city the main thoroughfare is named Euclid Avenue. This is a cosmic joke I notice for the first time today.
As we swing a bit north for our approach, Lake Erie fills the window. It is notoriously rough and often dangerous to those daring to float a boat there. It reminds me more of my patients than the concrete breakwalls now coming into view.
Down the steep stairway I descend into the light, my shadow folding itself along behind me, a perfect reminder of the ways I avoid being, but can’t deny are within me.
* Goldsmith, “Chaos: To See A World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower” (Archives of Dermatology, September 1990)
Suggested Reading: “Fractal Geometry and Manual Care” by Barrett L. Dorko. Copies available from the author.