Brilliance with numbers is a curious thing. Paul Erdos, a Hungarian who died in 1996, used to travel the world and stop briefly at the offices and homes of fellow mathematicians. “My brain is open,” he would announce as, with uncanny intuition, he suggested a problem that, without realizing it, his host was already halfway to solving. Together they would find the solution. (“Let’s Talk About Figures” The Economist, March 22, 2008)
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24: 30-32)
I got lost when the numbers changed
to letters and Mrs. Gibbs refused to give
me directions: “I don’t answer stupid
questions,” she said, and closed my brain.
I can still hear her shouting down
my attempt to understand algebra,
or seeing it as a way of understanding.
I was on the other side of the desk
when a student said of Shakespeare,
“This is like algebra,” without closing
her brain or her heart. She was right
and I was already on the way to seeing
that “to be or not to be?” was not
a stupid question, nor a solitary one.
Jesus walked the Emmaus Road and
asked, “What are you discussing?”
and they began explaining the algebra
of resurrection, even though most
of the equation was still unsolved.
Jesus broke the bread in two and
their hearts open and on fire.
Conventional wisdom would assume
a poem should be a bit more algebraic
than this one, I suppose. It reduces
rather quickly to wonder what we
might find when we see questions
as serendipitous rather than stupid
and answer, “My heart is open.”