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21 Grams

I used to go to a Unity church here in Austin, where I took the orientation course prior to becoming a member. Also in the course was the long-time girlfriend of a good friend. In one session, the minister mentioned the concept of a soul weighing 21 grams. This notion was put forth in 1901 by Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who would put terminally ill patients on big ole scale-beds and weigh them immediately after death. 21 grams was the average amount of weight loss among this set of patients. (His work suggested that sheep had the weightiest souls, while dogs appeared to have no souls–clearly invalidating his methods, as any dog lover can attest.) So we were on the topic of souls and the minister briefly noted this dubious idea about the weight our essential essence amounts to. My friend’s girlfriend immediately quipped “so if you’re having sex, it’s 42 grams,” and I immediately knew she was cheating on my friend. The giggling enthusiasm she brought to the comment was absolutely the essential essence of a new sexual relationship, and she’d been with my friend for several years. (Yes, yes, we should always bring such giddy verve to our sexual relationships at all points in time, but realistically it ain’t happening 10 years down the line.) And indeed, they broke up a month later when she confessed to my friend.

The movie 21 Grams had come out that year, refreshing the public’s memory (well, the indie-film-watchers’ memory) of this idea of a soul’s weight. Once it hit Vulcan Video, I rented it right quick, because I will watch most anything with Benicio del Toro, and Naomi Watts is always fantastic. I couldn’t make it all the way through, though, because it was a bummer of a film. AV Club describes it thusly: “Watts, Del Toro, and Penn all occupy a horrific limbo somewhere between life and death.” Yep, that came through loud and clear; catch you next time, Benicio. Anyway, it has a scene where Sean Penn’s character quotes from a Eugenio Montejo poem that uses snowfalls and solstices as measures of time passing. Today is the winter solstice, so here is that poem as translated from the Spanish by Peter Boyle:

The Earth Turned to Bring Us Closer

The earth turned to bring us closer,
it spun on itself and within us,
and finally joined us together in this dream
as written in the Symposium.
Nights passed by, snowfalls and solstices;
time passed in minutes and millennia.
An ox cart that was on its way to Nineveh
arrived in Nebraska.
A rooster was singing some distance from the world,
in one of the thousand pre-lives of our fathers.
The earth was spinning with its music
carrying us on board;
it didn’t stop turning a single moment
as if so much love, so much that’s miraculous
was only an adagio written long ago
in the Symposium’s score.

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