By Tom Ehrich
On Happy Pi Day, my youngest son baked a blueberry pie decorated with the Greek letter pi. We ate it around 9:26.53 when 10 digits of pi appeared on the clock.
I was reminded of the single most interesting magazine article I ever read: a 1992 New Yorker profile of the Chudnovsky brothers, who built their own super-computer to extend the decimal expansion of pi way beyond the 3.141592653 we celebrated yesterday.
"The digits of pi march to infinity in a predestined yet unfathomable code," wrote the author: "they do not repeat periodically, seeming to pop up by blind chance, lacking any perceivable order, rule, reason, or design -- 'random' integers, ad infinitum."
The brothers, who extended the digits well beyond 1 billion places, wonder if the infinite digits might eventually reveal the "mind of God."
"Physicists have noted the ubiquity of pi in nature," the author wrote. "Pi is obvious in the disks of the moon and the sun. The double helix of DNA revolves around pi. Pi hides in the rainbow, and sits in the pupil of the eye, and when a raindrop falls into water pi emerges in the spreading rings. Pi can be found in waves and ripples and spectra of all kinds, and therefore pi occurs in colors and music."
When I first read the New York article, I recall being awed by the "magnificent obsession" of two brothers devoting their lives to a single quest.
In reflecting on my 4,066-mile drive across the USA, I realize that I didn't have anything close to that obsession. My thoughts were scattered. My attention wandered. When I came within reach of an interesting sight, I sometimes pulled off the road to see, but other times was thinking about something else and let the moment pass.
This is true in my writing, too. I stay on task, but sometimes my mind goes elsewhere and I have to remember what I was engaged in writing.
I don't feel guilty about these wanderings. I suppose I am thoroughly modern in being scattered. I also am responding openly to what is happening around me.
But I realize that faith often is described as a singular obsession. We are invited to give our whole body, mind and spirit to God. Like a violinist practicing for hours on end, we are encouraged to pray "without ceasing" and to meditate so thoroughly that we lost touch with the world.
Sometimes I do that in writing. I get caught up in a single piece and keep working and working on it. When I come up for air, I wonder where I have been.
I notice, though, that the piece written in obsession isn't any better than the piece written while scattered. In fact, jumping in and out of a task sometimes keeps me fresh.
On my pilgrimage, I found my deepest insights came at dinner, of all places, when I sat with my iPad in a restaurant and wrote while waiting for my food to come. Something about that tight timeframe focused my attention.
I have no earthshaking advice to give to aspiring writers, thinkers, armchair theologians or pilgrims. Just be yourself. There is no right way to pursue your quests. Whether you are deriving pi or saying a prayer or thinking about life, I suggest following whatever thread presents itself, and see where it -- and the God behind it -- leads you.