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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.

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Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

Read it here.

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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

Read it here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Read it here.

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

Read it here.

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

Read it here.

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

Read it here.

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

Read it here.

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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.

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

Read it here.

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Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

Read it here.

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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.

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

Read it here.

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

Read it here.

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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.

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

Read it here.

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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

As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse: Comedian Chuck Nice Reads Billy Collins’s Ode to the Quiet Wellspring of Gratitude

…with a funny and poignant meditation on the personal gravity of gratitude and why being grateful is “one of the most powerful things that any one person can do.”

As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse: Comedian Chuck Nice Reads Billy Collins’s Ode to the Quiet Wellspring of Gratitude

“I am grateful, not in order that my neighbour, provoked by the earlier act of kindness, may be more ready to benefit me, but simply in order that I may perform a most pleasant and beautiful act,” Seneca wrote two millennia ago as he contemplated gratitude and what it means to be a generous human being.

It is only from such a place of gratefulness that we can perform beautiful acts — from a place of absolute, ravishing appreciation for the sheer wonder of being alive at all, each of us an improbable and temporary triumph over the staggering odds of nonbeing and nothingness inking the ledger of spacetime. But because we are human, because we are batted about by the violent immediacies of everyday life, such gratitude eludes us as a continuous state of being. We access it only at moments, only when the trance of busyness lifts and the blackout curtain of daily demands parts to let the radiance in, those delicious moments when we find ourselves awash in nonspecific gladness, grateful not to this person, grateful not for this turn of events, but grateful at life — a diffuse gratitude that irradiates every aspect and atom of the world, however small, however unremarkable, however coated with the dull patina of habit. In those moments, everything sings, everything shimmers. In those moments, we are most alive.

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins shines a playful sidewise gleam on this realest and most serious wellspring of gratitude in his 1998 poem “As If to Demonstrate an Eclipse,” found in his poetry collection Nine Horses (public library) and brought to life afresh, with a corona of radiance and a perfectly calibrated performance partway between wink and wonderment, by constant comedian and sometime StarTalk Radio co-host Chuck Nice at the third annual Universe in Verse, prefaced by his funny and poignant meditation on the personal gravity of gratitude and why being grateful is “one of the most powerful things that any one person can do.” Please enjoy:

AS IF TO DEMONSTRATE AN ECLIPSE
by Billy Collins

I pick an orange from a wicker basket
and place it on the table
to represent the sun.
Then down at the other end
a blue and white marble
becomes the earth
and nearby I lay the little moon of an aspirin.

I get a glass from a cabinet,
open a bottle of wine,
then I sit in a ladder-back chair,
a benevolent god presiding
over a miniature creation myth,

and I begin to sing
a homemade canticle of thanks
for this perfect little arrangement,
for not making the earth too hot or cold
not making it spin too fast or slow

so that the grove of orange trees
and the owl become possible,
not to mention the rolling wave,
the play of clouds, geese in flight,
and the Z of lightning on a dark lake.

Then I fill my glass again
and give thanks for the trout,
the oak, and the yellow feather,

singing the room full of shadows,
as sun and earth and moon
circle one another in their impeccable orbits
and I get more and more cockeyed with gratitude.

Complement with Billy Collins’s homage to Aristotle, then savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse — my annual charitable celebration of the science and splendor of life through poetry: Patti Smith reading Emily Dickinson’s ode to how the world holds together, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astronomer Natalie Batalha reading Dylan Thomas’s cosmic serenade to trees and the wonder of being human, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” and a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity.”

BP

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