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Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart

“We are all navigating an external world — but only through the prism of our own minds, our own subjective experience… The majesty of the universe is only ever conjured up in the mind.”

Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart

It is our biological wiring to exist — and then not; it is our psychological wiring to spend our lives running from this elemental fact on the hamster wheel of busyness and the hedonic treadmill of achievement, running from the disquieting knowledge that the atoms huddling for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will one day disband and return to the “aloof stars” that made them. If we still ourselves for a moment, or are bestilled by circumstance, we glimpse that fact, then hasten to avert our gaze. We go on holding it as an abstraction, an unproven theorem; go on casting spells against the proof in stone and wood and promises; go on building houses and egos, signing thirty-year mortgages, trading the forged mint of forever as contractual currency in marital vows. And then one day, some certitude fissures — in the broken surface of a split lip, a split love, a split in Earth’s quaked crust; in the slow-burning wildfire of a pandemic, smoking its way across the globe until it blazes into a shared inferno; in the cold blade of a terminal diagnosis, sudden and close to the bone. We wake up to unalloyed reality with a scream, a silence, a hollow hallelujah.

The astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was twenty-nine when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that typically invades people in their sixties and seventies. Throughout the bodily brutality of the treatment, throughout the haunting uncertainty of life in remission, she met reality on its own terms — reality creaturely and cosmic, terms chance-dealt by impartial laws — and made of that terrifying meeting something uncommonly beautiful.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

When she returned her atoms to the universe, not yet forty, Elson bequeathed to this world 56 scientific papers and a slender, stunning book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — verses spare and sublime, drawn from a consciousness pulling the balloon string of the infinite through the loop of its own finitude, life-affirming the way only the most intimate contact with death — which means with nature — can be.

Elson’s crowning achievement in verse is the poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” beautifully brought to life here as a trailer of sorts for the 2020 Universe in Verse — our annual charitable celebration of the science and splendor of nature through poetry — by astrophysicist, novelist, Pioneer Works Director of Sciences, and devoted enchantress of poetry Janna Levin, with music by cellist, composer, and music revolutionary Zoë Keating based on her original soundtrack for The Edge of All We Know — the forthcoming documentary about the Event Horizon Telescope, which in 2019 captured humanity’s historic first glimpse of a black hole. (Janna works on black holes; Elson was among the select scientists tasked with studying the first images returned by the Hubble Space Telescope, that pioneering emblem of our most ambitious tool-making and our longing for intimate contact with the nature of reality.)

Janna prefaces her reading with a Bohrsian reflection on the relationship between science and poetry, between the objective and the subjective, concluding with an exquisitely insightful and exquisitely phrased observation of how the tension between these seeming dipoles can dissolve upon closer inspection:

We are all navigating an external world — but only through the prism of our own minds, our own subjective experience… The majesty of the universe is only ever conjured up in the mind.

Please enjoy:

ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH
by Rebecca Elson

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
Already there
But unconstrained by form.

And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Couple with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything” at the 2019 Universe in Verse and Janna reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity at the 2018 Universe in Verse, then join us for the livestream of the 2020 show for more beauty and consolation by calibration of perspective, featuring Neil Gaiman premiering another original poem, Patti Smith bringing Emily Dickinson to life, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Neruda’s love letter to Earth’s forests, and thirty other magnificent constellations of atoms celebrating the majesty of the universe and the irreplicable splendor of our Pale Blue Dot.

BP

Bruce Lee on Death and What It Takes to Be an Artist of Life

“The intangible represents the real power of the universe. It is the seed of the tangible. It is living void because all forms come out of it, and whosoever realizes the void is filled with life and power and the love of all beings.”

Bruce Lee on Death and What It Takes to Be an Artist of Life

“Do you need a prod? / Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” Mary Oliver asked in her stunning love poem to life, composed in the wake of a terrifying diagnosis. “Let me be as urgent as a knife, then, / and remind you of Keats, / so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, / he had a lifetime.”

Think of Keats when you need that prod for living — Keats, who died at the peak of his poetic powers, already having given humanity more truth and beauty in his short life than most would give if they had eternity. Or think of Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) — another rare poet of life, who too pursued truth and beauty, if in a radically different medium; who too was slain by chance, that supreme puppeteer of the universe, at the peak of his powers; who too left a legacy that shaped the sensibility, worldview, and wakefulness to life of generations.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

On the bench across from Bruce Lee’s tombstone in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, where he is buried alongside his son, also chance-slain in youth, these words of tribute appear: “The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” They are often misattributed to Lee himself — perhaps because of the proximity, perhaps because they radiate an elemental truth about his life. The animating ethos of that uncommon life comes newly alive in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee (public library) by his daughter, Shannon Lee, titled after his famous metaphor for resilience — a slender, potent book twining her father’s timeless philosophies of living with her own reflections, drawn from her own courageous life of turning unfathomable loss into a path of light and quiet strength.

In the final year of his life, Lee was in the last stages of a long negotiation with the Hollywood machine over what had long been his dream — a film that would introduce Eastern philosophy into Western culture through the thrilling Trojan horse of martial arts action. It was a dream he attained by his sheer force of vision and will, for the Hollywood studios had such a contrived initial template and such resistance to his deeper conceptual ideas that Lee, at the risk of losing his one great opportunity for reaching millions, refused to be a mere actor in a mindless, unimaginative, and stereotype-reinforcing action movie; he insisted that it be altered and elevated, then ended up radically rewriting the script — adding, among many other poetic-philosophical cornerstones, the now-iconic “finger pointing at the Moon” scene — and giving the film its now-iconic title: Enter the Dragon.

Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)

Throughout the entire experience, which pushed Lee to step beyond the limits of his prior creative and existential imagination, he began drafting and redrafting a piece he titled “In My Own Process.” In it, a century after the young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary of self-discovery and moral development that “this is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?,” the young philosopher-king of martial arts aimed at a “sincere and honest revelation of a man called Bruce Lee.” He resolved:

I know I am not called upon to write any true confession, but I do want to be honest — that is the least a human being can do… I have always been a martial artist by choice and an actor by profession. But, above all, I am hoping to actualize myself to be an artist of life along the way.

He didn’t know that the way was soon to be cut short; he didn’t know that he was already an artist of life. “The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver would write decades later in an essay of staggering insight, “are those… who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” Bruce Lee felt his restive potential, and though chance interceded before he could give it due time, he gave it more than due power. His daughter quotes another passage from the notebooks he relentlessly filled with ideas, insights, and open questions to be answered in the act of living — a passage that bespeaks the wellspring of his existential and creative power beyond time:

Recognize and use the spiritual power of the infinite. The intangible represents the real power of the universe. It is the seed of the tangible. It is living void because all forms come out of it, and whosoever realizes the void is filled with life and power and the love of all beings.

It was this diffuse and integrated understanding of existence that conferred a rich sense of meaning upon Lee’s life and allowed him to face death, not knowing he was facing it, without regret, without fear, as a fully actualized artist of life. In another notebook entry, he writes:

I don’t know what is the meaning of death, but I am not afraid to die. And I go on, non-stop, going forward, even though I, Bruce Lee, may die some day without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I will have no regrets. I did what I wanted to do and what I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.

Complement with Nobel laureate Louise Glück’s love poem to life at the horizon of death, physicist Brian Greene on how our transience confers dignity and meaning upon our lives, astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s stunning antidote to the fear of death, and Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Lee on the measure of success, his previously unpublished reflections on willpower, imagination, and confidence, and the philosophy and origin of the famous teaching after which his daughter’s book is titled.

BP

Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to Life at the Horizon of Death

A subtle, stunning serenade to the lifelong hunger for self-love and self-forgiveness.

Nobel Laureate Louise Glück’s Love Poem to Life at the Horizon of Death

A generation after Walt Whitman declared himself “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul,” animated by an electric awareness of how interleaved the two are — how the body is the locus of “the real I myself” — the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James revolutionized our understanding of life with his theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, scientists have begun uncovering what poets have always known — that spirit is woven of sinew and mind of marrow. The body is the place, the only place, where we live — it is where we experience time, it is where we heal from emotional trauma, it is the seat of consciousness, without which there is nothing. And yet we spend our lives turning away from this elemental fact — with distraction, with addiction, with the trance of busyness — until suddenly something beyond our control — a diagnosis, a heartbreak, a pandemic — staggers us awake. We remember the body, this sole and solitary arena of being. The instant we remember to reverence it we also remember to mourn it, for we remember that this living miracle is a temporary miracle — a borrowed constellation of atoms bound to return to the stardust that made it.

That is what poet Louise Glück, laureate of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, explores in the short, stunning poem “Crossroads,” originally published in her 2009 book A Village Life, later included in her indispensable collected Poems 1962–2012 (public library), and read here by the poet herself for the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize.

CROSSROADS
by Louise Glück

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —

love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —

My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,

not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:

it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.

Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” composed as her own body was cusping over the untimely horizon of nonbeing, and poet Lisel Mueller, who lived to 96, on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives, then revisit physicist Brian Greene on mortality and our search for meaning and the fascinating history of how the birth of astrophotography changed our relationship to death.

BP

The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety

“It is very important to be in love with life… Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we ‘understand,’ there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.”

The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety

“Life loves the liver of it,” Maya Angelou observed as she contemplated the meaning of life in 1977, exhorting: “You must live and life will be good to you.”

That spring, the teenage Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) — who would grow up to revolutionize not only art and activism, but the spirit of a generation and the soul of a city — grappled with the meaning of his own life and what it really means to live it on the pages of his diary, posthumously published as the quiet, symphonic wonder Keith Haring Journals (public library).

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

Five days before his nineteenth birthday and shortly before he left Pittsburgh, where he was attending art school, for a netless leap of faith toward New York City, he confronts the difficulty of knowing what we really want and writes:

This is a blue moment… it’s blue because I’m confused, again; or should I say “still”? I don’t know what I want or how to get it. I act like I know what I want, and I appear to be going after it — fast, but I don’t, when it comes down to it, even know.

In a passage of extraordinary precocity, he echoes the young Van Gogh’s reflection on fear, taking risks, and how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and considers how the trap of self-comparison is keeping him from developing his own artistic and human potential:

I guess it’s because I’m afraid. Afraid I’m wrong. And I guess I’m afraid I’m wrong, because I constantly relate myself to other people, other experiences, other ideas. I should be looking at both in perspective, not comparing. I relate my life to an idea or an example that is some entirely different life. I should be relating it to my life only in the sense that each has good and bad facets. Each is separate. The only way the other attained enough merit, making it worthy of my admiration, or long to copy it is by taking chances, taking it in its own way. It has grown with different situations and has discovered different heights of happiness and equal sorrows. If I always seek to pattern my life after another, mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant… I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.

And then — in a testament to my resolute conviction, along with Blake, that all great natures are lovers of trees — he adds:

I found a tree in this park that I’m gonna come back to, someday. It stretches sideways out over the St. Croix river and I can sit on it and balance lying on it perfectly.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Within a decade, Haring’s resolve to “just live” until he dies collided with the sudden proximity of a highly probable death — the spacious until contracted into a span uncertain but almost certainly short as the AIDS epidemic began slaying his generation. A century after the uncommonly perceptive and poetic diarist Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant and sidelined sister — wrote upon receiving a terminal diagnosis that the remaining stretch of life before her is “the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Haring, having taken a long break from his own diary, returns to the mirror of the blank page and faces the powerful, paradoxical way in which the proximity of death charges living with life:

I keep thinking that the main reason I am writing is fear of death. I think I finally realize the importance of being alive. When I was watching the 4th of July fireworks the other night and saw my friend Martin [Burgoyne], I saw death. He says he has been tested and cleared of having AIDS, but when I looked at him I saw death. Life is so fragile.

In a sentiment evocative of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s memorable observation in his poetic and courageous exit from life that when people die, “they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death,” Haring adds:

It is a very fine line between life and death. I realize I am walking this line. Living in New York City and also flying on airplanes so much, I face the possibility of death every day. And when I die there is nobody to take my place… That is true of a lot of people (or everyone) because everyone is an individual and everyone is important in that they cannot be replaced.

But even as he shudders with the fragility of life, Haring continues to shimmer with the largehearted love of life that gives his art its timeless exuberance:

Touching people’s lives in a positive way is as close as I can get to an idea of religion.

Belief in one’s self is only a mirror of belief in other people and every person.

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

He returns to the love of life that charged his days with meaning and his art with magnetism — a love both huge and humble, at the center of which is our eternal dance with mystery:

I think it is very important to be in love with life. I have met people who are in their 70s and 80s who love life so much that, behind their aged bodies, the numbers disappear. Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we “understand,” there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.

Again and again, Haring declares on the pages of his journal that he lives for work, for art — the purpose of which, of course, if there is any purpose to art, is to make other lives more livable. As the specter of AIDS hovers closer and closer to him, this creative vitality pulses more and more vigorously through him, reverberating with Albert Camus’s insistence that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”

In early 1988, weeks before his thirtieth birthday and shortly before he finally received the diagnosis perching on the event horizon of his daily life, Haring composes a seething cauldron of a journal entry, about to boil with the overwhelming totality of his love of life:

I love paintings too much, love color too much, love seeing too much, love feeling too much, love art too much, love too much.

By the following month, he has metabolized the terrifying too-muchness into a calm acceptance radiating even more love:

I accept my fate, I accept my life. I accept my shortcomings, I accept the struggle. I accept my inability to understand. I accept what I will never become and what I will never have. I accept death and I accept life.

After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in a crash — a friend so close that Haring was the godfather of his son — he copies one of his friend’s newly poignant poems about life and death into his journal, then writes beneath it:

Creativity, biological or otherwise, is my only link with a relative mortality.

But perhaps his most poignant and prophetic entry came a decade earlier — a short verse-like reflection nested in a sprawling meditation on art, life, kinship, and individuality, penned on Election Day:

I am not a beginning.
I am not an end.
I am a link in a chain.

Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, barely into his thirties, leaving us his exuberant love of life encoded in mirthful lines and vibrant colors that have made millions of other lives — mine included — immensely more livable.

Couple with Drawing on Walls — a wonderful picture-book biography of Haring inspired by his journals — then revisit a young neurosurgeon’s poignant meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his own death, an elderly comedian-philosopher on how to live fully while dying, and an astronomer-poet’s sublime “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

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