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The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

A love story, a time story, an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to welcome, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature’s wellspring of resilience and beauty.

The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

Great children’s books move young hearts, yes, but they also move the great common heart that beats in the chest of humanity by articulating in the language of children, which is the language of simplicity and absolute sincerity, the elemental truths of being: what it means to love, what it means to be mortal, what it means to live with our fragilities and our frissons. As such, children’s books are miniature works of philosophy, works of wonder and wonderment that bypass our ordinary resistances and our cerebral modes of understanding, entering the backdoor of consciousness with their soft, surefooted gait to remind us who and what we are.

This is something I have always believed, and so I have always turned to children’s books — classics like The Little Prince, which I reread once a year every year for basic soul-maintenance, and modern masterpieces like Cry, Heart, But Never Break — as mighty instruments of existential calibration. But I never thought I would write one.

And then I did: The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story (public library) is a labor of love three years in the making, illustrated by the uncommonly talented and sensitive Ping Zhu, whom I asked for the honor after she staggered me with the painting that became the cover of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

While the story is inspired by a beloved young human in my own life, who is living with the same rare and wondrous variation of body as the real-life mollusk protagonist, it is a larger story about science and the poetry of existence, about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity — concepts often too abstract for the human mind to fathom, often more accessible to the young imagination; concepts made fathomable in the concrete, finite life of one tiny, unusual creature dwelling in a pile of compost amid an English garden.

At the heart of the story, excerpted below, is an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to recognize, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature’s fulcrum of resilience and wellspring of beauty.

Long ago, before half the stars that speckle the sky were born and before the mountains rose reaching for them, a giant ocean covered the Earth. One day, something strange happened in the giant ocean — a change so mysterious and magnificent that it was given a special name: mutation.

From this mutation, life was born from non-life: The first living creatures — tinier than a grain of sand, tinier than the tip of the eyelash of a mouse — came into being.

Time tended to them kindly —
they grew bigger and bigger,
curiouser and curiouser.

Soon — which in cosmic time means millions and millions of years — they crawled out of the ocean and onto the land. Not knowing whether they would find a home there, some of these brave early explorers carried their homes on their backs. 

And so snails took to the Earth.

Soon — more millions and millions of years later — humans were walking the Earth alongside them.

One autumn afternoon a cosmic blink ago, a human — a retired scientist from the London’s Natural History Museum — stopped mid-stride on his walk when he noticed a most unusual garden snail in a pile of compost. It was smaller than the other snails. Its shell was darker than theirs. One of its tentacles had trouble unspooling. And because the snail’s tentacles are both its fingers and its eyes, this little snail didn’t feel and see the world the way most snails do.  

But the strangest thing was something else still: The spiral of its shell coiled in the opposite direction from other snails — it spiraled left instead of right, the same direction the Earth crawls around the Sun.

The old man picked up the little snail tenderly and marveled at it.

It just so happened (isn’t chance lovely?) that a few days earlier, he had heard on the radio an interview with a snail researcher from an important university. Doctor Angus Davidson was his name. So he decided to send this unusual little snail to Doctor Angus’s laboratory. Maybe its strangeness held some beautiful secret waiting to be unlocked.

Carefully, the elderly scientist packed the little snail into a cozy box and sent it on its way.

When it arrived at the famous snail laboratory, Doctor Angus named it Jeremy, after the English politician Jeremy Corbyn. (Grownups believe that this big round world has sides, so they divide their politics into left and right, like shoes or gloves. Because Jeremy Corbyn belongs to the left, Doctor Angus thought it would be funny to name the little lefty snail after him.)

But although Jeremy the snail was given a boy name, Jeremy the snail was neither a he nor a she — Jeremy, like all land snails, was both.

Jeremy was a they.

One of the wonders of snails is that they can make babies without a mate, because every snail has a body that is both male and female. Such a wondrous body is called a hermaphrodite.

If a hermaphrodite makes babies alone, they are almost exactly like their parent. But when two parents make a baby together, the baby is partly like each of them.

And because diversity is always lovelier than sameness, and because it makes communities stronger and better able to adapt to change, snails prefer to make babies in pairs.

This is how it happens: When a snail finds a partner, the two face each other, gently touching their tentacles together to feel if they like each other. And if they do, they glide their bodies alongside one another in a slow double embrace, until their baby-making parts fit together like puzzle pieces. Then, they gently pierce each other with tiny spears called “love darts,” which contain their genes — the building blocks of bodies.

Genes are like tiny seeds your parents plant in the garden that becomes your body — your special combination of seeds is what makes you you, what makes your body-garden unlike anyone else’s. Genes are how life talks to the future. Your genes decide things like how tall you grow, what color your eyes are, and how your thumbs are shaped.

Many of your gene-seeds come abloom in your own body-garden — you get to see, to be the flowers they become. But not every one of your seeds will bloom — some only sprout when they are near other seeds just like them. These shy seeds may lay dormant in the soil and only bloom in generations of gardens down the line — in your children, or your children’s children, or your children’s children’s children. Those seeds are called recessive genes.

Jeremy was so unusual because in their body, a rare recessive gene came abloom — one of Jeremy’s great-great-grand-parents must have passed this dormant seed on, until it awakened to make Jeremy’s shell coil in the opposite direction.

Jeremy’s shell was just the most obvious expression of that mutation, but the entire soft body hidden inside was also a mirror-image of almost every other snail’s body — a condition known as situs inversus, Latin for “inverted internal organs.”

In his twenty years of working with snails, Doctor Angus had never before seen a lefty. He believes that situs inversus is rarer than one in 10,000, probably one in 100,000, possibly even one in a million.

Some humans, too, have such wondrous mirror-image bodies — it is just as rare in us as it is in snails. If you had situs inversus, your heart would be on the right side — which is the wrong side, because almost everyone’s heart is on the left side.

Jeremy’s heart was also on the right-wrong side, as were all his vital body parts — which meant that Jeremy could only do the double-embrace dance with another snail with situs inversus, or else the puzzle pieces wouldn’t fit together to make baby snails.

Life can be lonesome when your mate is one in a million. And Doctor Angus didn’t want Jeremy to be lonesome. He also knew that if Jeremy had babies with another lefty snail, scientists could study this very rare gene and better understand situs inversus not only in snails, but in humans.

So, he went on the radio again and made an appeal to the whole world to help find Jeremy a lefty mate.

Moved by Jeremy’s story, people far and wide got on their knees amid gardens and grasslands and compost piles, determined to find Jeremy’s inverted puzzle piece. Within weeks, not one but two potential mates were found — one by a young Englishwoman who kept snails as pets, and another by a snail farmer in Spain. 

The whole round world rejoiced when Lefty, the English snail, and Tomeu, the Spanish snail, were sent to Doctor Angus’s lab to meet Jeremy.

But…

But — that three-letter twist of fate that can so instantly take the trajectory of any story, any expectation, any life and coil it in the opposite direction.

Before the watercolor sun sets beneath the endpapers, the story ends the same way life lives itself through us — unpredictable, heartbreaking, and redemptive, forever planting dormant seeds to come abloom in some future garden, maybe tomorrow, maybe long after the stars that speckle this sky are gone and new stars are born to shine upon new hearts beating to the same primeval pulse-beat of cosmic chance.

The Snail with the Right Heart, out on February 2, came alive thanks to the invaluable stewardship of my longtime friend, neighbor, and collaborator Claudia Zoe Bedrick — the one-woman powerhouse behind Brooklyn-based independent children’s publisher Enchanted Lion.

I have chosen to donate all my author’s proceeds from the book to the Children’s Heart Foundation, whose quarter-century devotion to funding research and scientific collaborations is shedding light on congenital heart conditions to help young humans with unusual hearts live longer, wider lives.

Special thanks to my biologist pal Joe Hanson for assaying the solidity of the science, to my former partner and darling friend Debbie Millman for hand-lettering the cover text, and to the fine journalists at The Guardian for reporting the true story on which this labor of love is based.

Illustrations by Ping Zhu courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; story and page photographs by Maria Popova

BP

New Year’s Eve: Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Spare, Stunning Meditation on the Mystery of Being

The wonder of wading into the black lake boiling with light.

New Year’s Eve: Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Spare, Stunning Meditation on the Mystery of Being

What is it about the human animal that impels us to interrupt the elemental elegance and perpetual incompleteness of a perfect ellipse with an arbitrary point we call a beginning? And yet here we are, once every three hundred and sixty-some days, marking the start of a new year as gravity — a force outside time and outside space, acting instantaneously on each body across limitless distances, holding the universe together — goes on dragging our planet around an orbit with no beginning and no end. Here we are, childlike in our yearning for a fresh start, our future a thing with feathers perching on that arbitrary point in the ellipse.

Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was sixteen and already in university when she glimpsed Andromeda for the first time and was instantly besotted by our sister galaxy’s “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.” The daughter of a geologist, she had grown up exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake and becoming a penetrating, sensitive observer of nature, enchanted with the night sky of northern Canada and its bellowing intimation of an infinite universe, dark and mysterious and salted with wonders. By twenty-six, having completed her doctorate in astronomy at Newton’s hallowed ground in Cambridge, Elson received a fellowship to work with the first data from the Hubble Space Telescope at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s hallowed ground.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

At twenty-nine, just as she began teaching creative writing at Harvard, stepping publicly into the private literary passion that had always buoyed her science, Elson’s blazing path of promise and possibility was dimmed by a terminal diagnosis — a rare form of lymphoma that typically afflicts the elderly. Full of life and full of wonder, she moved through the years of chemical brutality, remission, and more brutality by weaving her own parallel lifelines: She continued studying how stars are born, live, and die, and she wrote poetry — spare, stunning poems tessellating the grandest search for cosmic truth with the most humbling human search for meaning.

When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, she left in her meteoric path 56 scientific papers and a slender, sublime book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — a reliquary of such uncommon treasures as her “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” “Explaining Relativity,” and “Theories of Everything.”

Among these delicate wisps of sensemaking is a meditation on the meaning of New Year’s Eve — on how we hold on to our tenderest humanity against the elemental austerity of this arbitrary point in our planet’s orbit. Composed at a time when Elson knew her store of new years had run out, the poem reverberates with a love of life larger than her own existence.

FUTURA VECCHIA, NEW YEAR’S EVE
by Rebecca Elson

Returning, like the Earth
To the same point in space,
We go softly to the comfort of destruction,

And consume in flames
A school of fish,
A pair of hens,
A mountain poplar with its moss.

A shiver of sparks sweeps round
The dark shoulder of the Earth,
Frisson of recognition,
Preparation for another voyage,

And our own gentle bubbles
Float curious and mute
Towards the black lake
Boiling with light,
Towards the sharp night
Whistling with sound.

For more symphonic affirmations of life and reality at the meeting point of poetry and science, lose yourself in the Universe in Verse archives.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2020

A glance over the shoulder of time to reveal the patterns, themes, and ideas that steady us and shelter us in the tempest of life.

Like every year, this annual glance over the shoulder of time is a composite of the essays that most resonated with readers and those I most enjoyed writing, the overlap being always significant but always the Venn diagram of a partial eclipse rather than a perfect totality.

Even more so than other years, in this particularly trying year, it has been curious to observe the patterns that emerge across those ideas, themes, and regions of being that most sustain us in times of crisis: love, trees, poetry, creativity, the stubborn insistence on life in the face of loss, the constancy of nature’s consolations, the revivifying passion to go on making, go on loving, go on living.

* * *

Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

Read it here.

* * *

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

Read it here.

* * *

Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything: Viktor Frankl’s Lost Lectures on Moving Beyond Optimism and Pessimism to Find the Deepest Source of Meaning

Read it here.

* * *

Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Read it here.

* * *

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

Read it here.

* * *

I Long to Read More in the Book of You: Moomins Creator Tove Jansson’s Tender and Passionate Letters to the Love of Her Life

Read it here.

* * *

Bloom: A Touching Animated Short Film about Depression and What It Takes to Recover the Light of Being

Read it here.

* * *

The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

Read it here.

* * *

Standing on the Shoulders of Solitude: Newton, the Plague, and How Quarantine Fomented the Greatest Leap in Science

Read it here.

* * *

Nick Cave on Living with Loss and the Central Paradox of Grief as a Portal to Aliveness

Read it here.

* * *

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

Read it here.

* * *

Singularity: Marie Howe’s Ode to Stephen Hawking, Our Cosmic Belonging, and the Meaning of Home, in a Stunning Animated Short Film

Read it here.

* * *

The Radical Act of Letting Things Hurt: How (Not) to Help a Friend in Sorrow

Read it here.

* * *

Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

Read it here.

* * *

The Spirit of the Woods: Poet and Painter Rebecca Hey’s Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations for the World’s First Encyclopedia of Trees

Read it here.

* * *

What It Takes to Grow Up, What It Means to Have Grown

Read it here.

* * *

The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

Read it here.

* * *

A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

Read it here.

* * *

How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

Read it here.

* * *

How to Live and How to Die

Read it here.

Complement with the year’s most nourishing books.

BP

How to Live with Our Human Limitations: Physicist Brian Greene Reads and Reflects on Rilke’s Profoundest Elegy

“Not because happiness exists, that over-hasty profit from imminent loss, not out of curiosity, or to practice the heart… But because being here is much, and because all that’s here seems to need us.”

How to Live with Our Human Limitations: Physicist Brian Greene Reads and Reflects on Rilke’s Profoundest Elegy

In the bleak winter of 1922, a “hurricane of the spirit” swept the ailing and downtrodden Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) into a rapture of creative vitality. Within a week, he had written his now-iconic Sonnets to Orpheus and completed the suite of ten elegies he had begun a decade earlier amid hollowing loneliness, alienation, poverty, and despair. “I didn’t know that such a storm out of mind and heart could come over a person!” the poet wrote to his publisher in an ecstasy of disbelief, not knowing that he had just composed one of the profoundest and most beautiful works in the poetry of feeling and the poetry of truth — a breakthrough translator Stephen Mitchell calls “the most astonishing burst of inspiration in the history of literature” in his introduction to the bilingual classic Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus (public library).

Art by Arthur Rackham from a rare 1920s edition of The Tempest. (Available as a print.)

What makes Rilke’s elegies so powerful is the way he takes our elemental human sorrow — the sorrow of living as refugees from reality, of being what he calls “the knowing animals,” creatures “aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world” — and transmutes it not only into a gladsome acceptance of our limitations, but into a celebration of our capacity for self-transcendence and majesty of mind within those limitations. And so, with his lush verses branching into myriad vectors of possibility, he builds a timeless bower for our dwelling amid the dispossession of this interpreted world.

A century after Rilke, at the fourth annual Universe in Verse (now available as a limited-time weeklong hurricane of a rebroadcast in its entirety through January 1), the poetic astrophysicist and World Science Festival creator Brian Greene read an excerpt from the most poignant of Rilke’s elegies, translated by A.S. Kline — an English mathematician with a literary ardor and a gift for language, creator of the excellent open-access project Poetry in Translation.

Greene — who thinks deeply about science, mortality, and our search for meaning and has explored these questions with uncommon nuance in one of the year’s finest books — prefaced his reading with a beautiful reflection on how our limitation as ephemeral creatures fuels our passion for finding the eternal truths of nature so that we may feel more at home in the universe and in ourselves.

from “THE NINTH ELEGY”
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Why, if it could begin as laurel, and be spent so,
this space of Being, a little darker than all
the surrounding green, with little waves at the edge
of every leaf (like a breeze’s smile)—: why then
have to be human — and shunning destiny
long for destiny?…

Oh, not because happiness exists,
that over-hasty profit from imminent loss,
not out of curiosity, or to practice the heart,
which could exist in the laurel…
But because being here is much, and because all
that’s here seems to need us, the ephemeral, that
strangely concerns us. We: the most ephemeral. Once,
for each thing, only once. Once, and no more. And we too,
once. Never again. But this
once, to have been, though only once,
to have been an earthly thing — seems irrevocable.

[…]

Earth, is it not this that you want: to rise
invisibly in us? — Is that not your dream,
to be invisible, one day? — Earth! Invisible!
What is your urgent command if not transformation?
Earth, beloved, I will. O, believe me, you need
no more Spring-times to win me: only one,
ah, one, is already more than my blood can stand.
Namelessly, I have been truly yours, from the first.
You were always right, and your most sacred inspiration
is that familiar Death.
See I live. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows less… Excess of being
wells up in my heart.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astronomer Natalie Batalha’s reading of and reflection on Dylan Thomas’s ode to the limitation and wonder of being human, Patti Smith’s reading of Emily Dickinson’s serenade to the science and splendor of how the world holds together, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of and reflection on the staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, then revisit Rilke on the combinatorial nature of creativity, the lonely patience of creative work, and the most difficult art in love.

BP

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