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Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

An ode to the eternal “let there be” between death and chance.

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating the paradoxical nature of time half a century before Einstein forever changed our understanding of it. As relativity saturated the cultural atmosphere, Virginia Woolf was tussling and taffying with time’s confounding elasticity, the psychology of which scientists have since dissected. We are beings of time and in time — something Jorge Luis Borges spoke to beautifully in his classic 1946 meditation on time: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

That riverine dimension of being is what Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) explores with spare words and immense splendor of sentiment in “Hymn to Time” from her final poetry collection, Late in the Day (public library) — a poem embodying her conviction that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside, [and] both celebrate what they describe.”

In this recording created as a warmup for our second annual Universe in Verse, astrophysicist Janna Levin — who has written beautifully about the nature of time herself — brings Le Guin’s poem to life in thirty-five transcendent seconds:

HYMN TO TIME
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on space, time, and our thinking ego, then revisit Le Guin’s feminist translation of the timeless Tao Te Ching and Levin’s splendid reading of “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich from the inaugural edition of The Universe in Verse.

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Anna Deavere Smith on the Importance of Bringing Light to History’s Shadows and Resisting the Destructive Patterns Handed Down to Us by Our Invisible Pasts

“A beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.”

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in reflecting on Jewishness, the immigrant plight for identity, and the meaning of “refugee.” A refusal to perpetrate such social murder is what led Leonard Cohen to leave out the verse about the relationship between Blacks and Jews from his now-iconic song “Democracy.” When asked about the decision, he offered: “I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”

The everyday bloodless murders that stand in the way of such revelations in the heart are what Anna Deavere Smith limns in a few stirring passages from Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (public library) — her remarkable memoir exploring the relationship between the personal and the political through the art of listening in a culture of speaking.

Anna Deavere Smith (Photograph: Mary Ellen Mark)

In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s assertion that “we live in the word,” Smith locates the seedbed of prejudice in the unwillingness to hear each other’s stories:

It may be that cultures with fewer words are in lass danger than we are. So many of our words are being contorted, mangled, stretched, distorted in public life. I’m surprised they survive. I’m surprised they mean anything.

So suspicious is the ear. Its structure has changed. We sit with only one ear toward the speaker, and the other is tuned to the nonexistent next beat.

A self-described “Negro girl from Baltimore raised in segregation,” Smith lived through integration at the age of eleven and attended a predominantly Jewish school in an era of raging antisemitism, in a culture she recalls as one with “no boyfriends and girlfriends across racial lines, or religious lines.” In a sentiment Zadie Smith would come to echo a generation later in observing that “things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” Anna Deavere Smith writes:

History always lurks, changing reality into shadowed moments that are haunted by a past.

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

She shines a disquieting beam of awareness on the lattice of shadows lurking in her own childhood:

Whites didn’t play with blacks, or Jews, for that matter, and Reform Jews didn’t play with Orthodox Jews, and Orthodox Jews didn’t play with Jews fresh from Europe who didn’t speak English. Even Jews made fun of a Jewish girl with a Russian accent who brought sandwiches made of meat with a strong smell and purple horseradish, despised her for being so not “of it.”

Children breathing in that cultural atmosphere came to understand, as the young Smith did, that bullying can take many forms — that the archetypal bullies who wield fists are not the only ones who “exploit our unspoken hostility for us.” Reflecting on the less obvious but often more pernicious forms of bullying, Smith recounts the story of a little Jewish girl from her class named Lila:

Perhaps beatings are subverted when “shoulds” appear in a group. Those subverted headings transform into another type of hostility… Lila was beat up with humiliation.

[…]

Our homeroom teacher was a black woman who was not particularly popular. She was also our science teacher. She had to fight to get control of the room. I can only imagine what it was for her, too, to be in integration for the first time, probably having been educated in segregation (I know, for example, that she had gone to a black college) and now having to teach in this “loaded” integrated school. By Christmastime, we calmed down. She “proved” herself to us and we actually felt warmly toward her. The class decided to buy her a Christmas present. A rumor started that Lila, who was the quietest person in the room, Lila, who never ever had to be told to sit down, to be quiet, to do anything, Lila, who simply came to school and went home, who never seemed to socialize with anyone . . . Lila was not going to chip in for the Christmas present. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. This became our headline for two weeks or so: what we were going to do about it, how we were going to vote in terms of ostracizing Lila.

A tall, beautiful black girl (who was pregnant and would soon be forced to leave school) began some of the mockery toward Lila. I remember that it pained me. I also remember how surprised I was that the Jewish kids (again, the predominant population) began to turn against Lila too. What had started as a sort of 50–50 vote about whether to buy a Christmas present at all, now turned into 99 percent for the present, and Lila on her own. No one took her to the schoolyard and threatened to beat her up, no one stuck her head down the toilet, but the daily vote would be taken, the vote toward unanimous for buying the present or not, and as the days went on Lila became stronger and stronger in her position. The teacher would be out of the room. The tall, beautiful black girl would take the vote.

Every day Lila would sit with no expression on her face as we lifted our hands. Her hands stayed firmly planted on the desk. Her parents did not celebrate Christmas, and they would not allow her to buy a present for the teacher. I did not know if the fact of the teacher being black complicated it on another level. Lila never cried, she simply sat quietly as all kinds of things were said, and she never explained anything further. In fact, I don’t remember her ever saying anything — it was simply known she would not be chipping in for the gift.

Finally, the teacher got wind of the whole thing and shamed us all by saying, as she should have, that in this spirit she didn’t really want a Christmas present, and that Lila should not be forced to participate if her religion wouldn’t allow it. I remember this story because it was the first time I saw that a beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.

Smith’s Talk to Me is a fantastic read in its entirety, mapping through the stories of people she talked to over the course of twenty-five years — people ranging from a YMCA lifeguard to an inmate in a women’s prison to Christopher Hitchens — the possible paths before us as we work to unstrike those history-shadowed blows. Complement it with Mark Twain on compassion and how religion is used to justify injustice, Albert Einstein on the interconnectedness of our fates, and Elie Wiesel’s superb Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech about our shared duty in ending injustice, then revisit Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you.

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Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

A centuries-old, timeless meditation on chance, suffering, and the improbable glory of life.

Esperanza Spalding Performs William Blake’s Short Existential Poem “The Fly”

All artists know that the deeply personal is the only real gateway to the universal; that we are only free to see to the farthest horizons after we have closely examined our most intimate landscapes. Some swing these doors of perception with virtuosity orders of magnitude greater than others, as did William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827). “It is the mark of a genius like Blake,” Alfred Kazin wrote, “that what is purest and most consistent in his thought burns away his own suffering and fanaticism, while his art speaks to what is most deeply human in us.”

Is it any wonder that the man who saw the universe in a grain of sand should see the improbable beauty and tragedy of human existence in the ephemeral life of a fly?

In this beautiful performance from The Academy of American Poets’ annual Poetry & the Creative Mind — which also gave us Meryl Streep reading “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath and Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — musician extraordinaire Esperanza Spalding performs Blake’s poem “The Fly,” originally published in his 1794 masterpiece Songs of Experience and later included in his indispensable Complete Poems (public library).

THE FLY
by William Blake

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

Spalding’s performance of “The Fly”” also appears on her album Chamber Music Society.

William Blake’s original illustration for “The Fly” from Songs of Experience, 1794 (Yale Center for British Art)

Complement with Blake’s most beautiful letter — a spirited defense of the imagination and the creative spirit — and his haunting illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost, then revisit other great performances of great poems: Amanda Palmer reads “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon, Janna Levin reads “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, Cynthia Nixon reads “While I Was Fearing It, It Came” by Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Boorstein reads “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, and Rosanne Cash reads “Power” by Adrienne Rich.

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Evolutionary Biologist Lynn Margulis on the Spirituality of Science and the Interconnectedness of Life Across Time, Space, and Species

“The fact that we are connected through space and time shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.”

Evolutionary Biologist Lynn Margulis on the Spirituality of Science and the Interconnectedness of Life Across Time, Space, and Species

“Our origins are of the earth,” marine biologist Rachel Carson wrote in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature. “And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” In the same era, the anthropologist, philosopher of science, and poet Loren Eiseley — a great admirer of Carson’s — offered a consonant sentiment in his lovely meditation on reclaiming our sense of the miraculous in a mechanical age: “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

The biological, geological, and ecological nature of that miracle is what evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis (March 5, 1938–November 22, 2011) reflects on a generation later in a passage from Jonathan White’s wonderful interview collection Talking on the Water: Conversations about Nature and Creativity (public library), which also gave us Ursula K. Le Guin on art, storytelling, and the power of language to transform and redeem.

Lynn Margulis

Margulis is known as the co-creator of the Gaia hypothesis, which holds that all life interacts with its inorganic environment to form a complex, self-regulating, symbiotic system responsible for sustaining and propagating life on Earth. Through the Gaia lens, Margulis considers the intricate interleafing of life across time and space:

The past is all around us. Darwin’s biggest contribution was to show us that all individual organisms are connected through time. It doesn’t matter whether you compare kangaroos, bacteria, humans, or salamanders, we all have incredible chemical similarities…. [The pioneering Russian geochemist Vladimir] Vernadsky showed us that organisms are not only connected through time but also through space. The carbon dioxide we exhale as a waste product becomes the life-giving force for a plant; in turn, the oxygen waste of a plant gives us life. This exchange of gas is what the word spirit means. Spirituality is essentially the act of breathing. But the connection doesn’t stop at the exchange of gases in the atmosphere. We are also physically connected, and you can see evidence of this everywhere you look. Think of the protists that live in the hind-gut of the termite, or the fungi that live in the rootstock of trees and plants. The birds that flitter from tree to tree transport fungi spores throughout the environment. Their droppings host a community of insects and microorganisms. When rain falls on the droppings, spores are splashed back up on the tree, creating pockets for life to begin to grow again. This interdependence is an inexorable fact of life.

One of Beatrix Potter’s little-known, pioneering drawings of fungi

Two centuries after the polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt insisted that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” Margulis adds:

The fact that we are connected through space and time shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact. We are not one living organism, but we constitute a single ecosystem with many differentiated parts. I don’t see this as a contradiction, because parts and wholes are nestled in each other.

Complement this particular portion of Talking on the Water with Terry Tempest Williams on our responsibility to the web of life, then revisit Carl Sagan, to whom Margulis was once married, on how chemistry illuminates our belonging to the universe.

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