I lived in an intentional community in Boston for a few years. Rooted in the principles of the Catholic Worker movement—social justice, simplicity, self-governance, spirituality, creative nonviolence, and radical hospitality—Haley House has stood in a brick row house at the corner of Dartmouth and Montgomery streets for fifty years. As part of the community, I ran the Wednesday food pantry and cooked breakfasts and elder meals at the unusually open soup kitchen in our home (often with this guy). I ran our volunteer program and helped host “urban immersion” weekends for students at Boston College, Harvard, and other schools. Along with the others, I practiced what we called “vibe managing,” or diffusing fights and other conflicts that split open those bleary early mornings in the kitchen. I drank a lot of coffee.
On Thursday evenings, our community stayed home and did what we called “faith sharing.” Each week, after we shared a meal together, we settled in the corner of our fourth-floor living space, usually armed with cracked mugs filled with tea. Katie and I might be knitting; Ali ripping strips of colorful cloth for one project or another; Dani feeding her infant son, Axé; Mark holding a notebook and pen on his lap. There’s Soula tying her long dark hair back, and Judy cleaning her glasses with the fabric of her shirt. And one of us would guide the others through some kind of activity, lesson, or discussion that connected to their idea of spirituality. Each week was so different from the others. Maybe we did a healing meditation. (I put down the knitting needles for this.) Maybe someone told an intimate story and then shared their art with us as they played guitar and sang. I remember doing one of my faith sharings on “Three Versions of Judas,” one of my favorite twisting stories by Jorge Luis Borges.
But the faith sharing I remember most is the one about infinity. Adam led this one. He was then a 27-year-old man with long brown hair, glittering brown eyes, a loud infectious laugh, and a beard that was growing to extraordinary proportions. Whenever he brought his mug of tea to his lips, he’d slide his thumb and forefinger over his mouth to open his mustache, as if it were a curtain, so he could sip cleanly.
Adam, post-beard, is the one holding baby Axé in this photo of our live-in community the last year I was there:
Adam was my assigned “buddy” when I first moved into Haley House, the one who showed me where to find the oatmeal and grits we got from the food bank, and who introduced me to the regular guys who came over at 5:30am each morning—Batman, Paul, Bethany, Louie, Bruce, Frank, Emilio, John Paul, and the rest. Adam himself found Haley House after hitchhiking from Alaska to Boston to say goodbye to a friend who was shipping out to serve in the Iraq war. While in town, he wandered into the Haley House bakery, then a closet-sized storefront on our corner and now this glorious shop in Roxbury. “What is this place?” he asked cheerily, cookie in hand and probably rocking back and forth in his sneakers. To his surprise, he found that it was everything he was looking for.
Not long before, Adam had talked with his mother about how he’d spent the years since graduating from the University of Missouri, where he earned degrees in English and mathematics. He’d lived a peripatetic life around the globe, carrying only what he needed. He began in Nepal, with no plan, and for the next few years, he curled his way to new places as only intuition guided him: Mexico, Eastern Europe, and on, and on. He paid attention; he journaled; he learned; he saw beautiful and terrifying things. Now, though, he was ready to be rooted in one place, he told his mother. And probably in a city, since he’d been in mostly rural places the last few years. And after so long traveling solo, it would be nice to cultivate community for change. And here he was, suddenly, at Haley House. This place became his home for the next several years.
At the faith-sharing, Adam used a whiteboard propped on a chair to talk to us about infinity. Actually, this was much more question-based and interactive, but the gist was this: In mathematics, the symbol ∞ is used to describe how an entity grows without bound. It is an idea that didn’t always exist. Plato and Aristotle hated the very notion of infinity, in all its irrationality, and the counterintuitive nature of ∞ still ignites disputes. And yet, the discovery of infinitely small numbers led to the revelations of calculus. Infinity is today essential in key equations—Adam demonstrated some of them with us—that are the foundation of, for example, physics. We use it to solve problems. Not philosophical ones. Concrete ones.
At the same time, though, even as we calculate ∞ as if it were a number, we don’t actually know what it is. Not really. It’s an abstract concept, as slippery as the ideas of “freedom” or “justice” or “liberty.” Any time you try to pin it down, it slides away from you. In green marker, Adam sketched out the most famous of Zeno’s paradoxes, the one that shows how a fast runner, starting from far behind, should theoretically never catch up with the slow one. On paper — or whiteboard, as it were—there should be an infinite number of gaps that the runner has to cover, so that he can never catch up. And yet, we know the fast runner catches up and passes the slower one, because that’s how it works in real life.
Sitting there on the couch with my knitting needles, I felt the hot and prickly discomfort that comes when faced with messy facts. I expect there to be a certain elegance, or narrative sense to the world. I might struggle to find my place in it, but the fundamental rules for how things work—that should have some stability. Shouldn’t it? So what’s up with Zeno and his paradoxes? And what’s up with this ∞ thing, which is sort of like a number, but is neither even nor odd?
But then: it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to understand what infinity is. We just have to know that it works. We can use ∞ to get to the right answer. One of the resolutions to Zeno’s paradox is to accept that infinity leads you to the finite. Moving through the unknown, in all its slipperiness, is necessary if we are to find our way into the boundless truth. It is a leap of faith, with a practical destination.
Adam’s unlikely path to the doorstep of Haley House dramatizes this. He hadn’t heard of intentional communities before, let alone Haley House. But giving up the control of trying to plan what comes next, and next, and next, in our lives creates space to recognize where we belong when it manifests before us, even when it comes in the form of something we couldn’t have imagined. Adam simply accepted the discomfort of uncertainty on that months-long journey from Alaska, where he relied upon strangers and acquaintances while hitchhiking. He endured long waits, rotten weather, numbing detours, and other sidesteps, and the journey still got him exactly where he needed to be.
And infinity is true in my life too. I moved into Haley House almost on a whim during a difficult period of my life, when I knew I just needed to go somewhere else. I thought I would stay six months. It turned out to be several transformative years. And when it was time to go, I recognized it. Suddenly, I was in Detroit, a city with which I had only a passing acquaintance. It was the fall of 2007, and it wasn’t yet cool to move here, especially if you were coming from Boston. “Why?” I remember people asking me, with what sounded like disgust. A friend from my writing program suggested that I was moving to Detroit because I felt sorry for it. I didn’t have much to say to them in response besides a shoulder-shrug. I had two friends from college here, and a nonprofit job that didn’t suit me, and an apartment in half an attic on East Ferry Street. I still think of those first three years here as an apprenticeship: I spent them being quiet and walking many, many miles through the city. It was uncomfortable and it was lonely. When you travel through infinity, it burns. But it still got me to what is true. Detroit, this city so alive and changing and strange, turned out to be the place where I could thrive as a writer and as a person.
Of course, who knows what will happen next.
Right now, I am reading the novel A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I have a lot of thoughts about it that I’ll save for later, but I want to note how the book describes another mathematics concept: the axiom of zero, otherwise known as the axiom of the empty set. “Math assumes there’s a concept of nothingness, but is it proven?” one of the characters says in the novel. “No. But it must exist.” He goes on, giving the eulogy at an MIT mathematician’s funeral:
“And if we are being philosophical—which we today are—we can say that life itself is the axiom of the empty set. It begins in zero and ends in zero. We know that both states exist, but we will not be conscious of either experience: they are states that are necessary parts of life, even as they cannot be experienced as life. We assume the concept of nothingness, but we cannot prove it. But it must exist. So I prefer to think that Walter has not died but has instead proven for himself the axiom of the empty set, that he has proven the concept of zero. I know nothing else that would have made him happier. An elegant mind wants elegant endings, and Walter had the most elegant mind. So I wish him goodbye; I wish him the answer to the axiom he so loved.”
While the idea of zero today feels ordinary, it has a fraught history. It’s not so easy to accept the absence of something as a concrete entity, it turns out. Europe resisted accepting zero for centuries. The Greeks outright banned it. But counting from “0, 1, 2, 3…” proved much more useful to the Babylonians and Mayans that “1, 2, 3…,” and, eventually, zero permeated the rest of the world. The void, after all, is real. We gotta reckon with it.
The concepts of infinity and of nothingness; of the boundless set and of the empty set; of all things and of zero—this is what is true, though it cannot be proven. But any sort of mathematics that leaves them aside is terribly stunted. And so it is in your life and in mine.
As high-minded as the idea of infinity can be, it is ultimately just a tool to solve practical problems. And so, here in the morning of the new year, let’s move fearlessly through the infinite. No signposts guiding our way. No clear instructions, no reassurances. A real acknowledgment of the dark shadow cast by the empty set. Let’s move into the endless sequence, and use it. When we see the right answer, we needn’t doubt that we will recognize it, and know we are home.