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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

To Be an Earth Ecstatic: Poet Diane Ackerman on the Spirituality of Wonder Without Religion

Branchings of belief from the lovely common root of “holy” and “whole” in the interleaving of all things.

To Be an Earth Ecstatic: Poet Diane Ackerman on the Spirituality of Wonder Without Religion

Some years ago, at a gathering exploring our human search for meaning through a kaleidoscope of perspectives in the middle of the redwoods, I sat down for a conversation with an astronomer I had just met, who was about to become one of my dearest friends. Backstage, the bond became instantly clear as we each arrived giddy to surprise the other with an homage to the nexus of our worlds — we had both realized that it was the anniversary of the discovery of Pluto (both suspecting the other would not have); we had both endeavored to honor the occasion with a poem (both suspecting this might impress the other); we had both chosen the same poem: “Pluto” from Diane Ackerman’s forgotten treasure The Planets — a suite of breathtakingly beautiful, scientifically accurate poems celebrating the Solar System, which awed Ackerman’s doctoral advisor, one Carl Sagan.

We laughed rapturously, hugged amply, then stepped onstage for our public conversation, which inevitably turned to the question of spirituality — a term I have regarded with growing unease over the years, watching it become increasingly sullied with the dangerous antiscientific neo-mysticism of New Age ideologies. Asked about my own orientation to spirituality, I thought about the only two things that have always reliably given me the feeling of sublimity and transcendence, which religion promises: music and nature. I thought about Walt Whitman, this poet laureate of the natural world who might be the closest thing I have to a guiding spirit — about how he considered music the profoundest expression of nature, but only an expression of that largest reliquary of transcendence. I thought about the redwood cathedral near the auditorium — about how appropriate it is to call this living temple of time a “cathedral.”

Diane Ackerman at the second annual Universe in Verse, 2018

I am thinking now about Ackerman herself — a poet who believes that “wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart, [for] even a tiny piece of it can stop time”; a writer of dazzling prose about the science of nature, who rises to the rare level of enchanter — and about how she explores this very notion in a passage from her altogether wondrous book An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain (public library). Having subtitled her suite of poems for the planets A Cosmic Pastoral, Ackerman makes a bold case for reclaiming the reverence of nature and the language of wonder from the vocabulary of religion:

People often use religious terminology when they speak of the spiritual or transcendent. Our yearning to find whole-ness as holiness, and at-one-ment as atonement, fills a need ancient and essential as air. Because English vocabulary offers few ways to describe religious events, except in churchly terms, I often resort to such words as sacred, grace, reverence, worship, holy, sanctity, and benediction, which I cherish as powerful feelings, moods, and ideas. I’m an Earth ecstatic, and my creed is simple: All life is sacred, life loves life, and we are capable of improving our behavior toward one another. As basic as that is, for me it’s also tonic and deeply spiritual, glorifying the smallest life-form and embracing the most distant stars.

Benediction for the Lonely by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefiting the Nature Conservancy.)

Ackerman elaborates on this lifelong conviction in her conversation with conservationist and science writer Connie Barlow, woven throughout Barlow’s Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science (public library). Half a century after the poetic scientist Rachel Carson observed that “our origins are of the earth… so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Ackerman considers the restive swell of need in the modern breast — the need for a conviction that something larger than ourselves matters and that we finite creatures, “the small bipeds with the giant dreams,” can not only partake of its sanctity but steward it with our own actions. In a sentiment evocative of Denise Levertov’s splendid poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” Ackerman reflects:

There’s a terrible hollowness, an emptiness at the core of society right now that comes from our trying to exile ourselves farther and farther from nature. Nature is something that most people visit on weekends. Yet we evolved to be intimately tied to nature, to feel whole and natural when we belong to nature, and to respond to that ever-changing fantasia of the seasons. The harder that we try to deny that heritage, the more alienated we become.

Portal of Wonder by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefiting the Nature Conservancy.)

With an eye to the root of the word holy — which shares its root with whole and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things — she tells Barlow:

I have no trouble using a word like holy to describe a place in the wilderness where I might feel an intimate relationship with the cosmos.

Ackerman hastens to temper this with something that has long troubled me, too, in the orientation of certain writers and thinkers in the spirituality industry — for it is very much an industry of marketable ideology — who eagerly appropriate fragments of science to illustrate certain beliefs, but stop at the threshold of the larger reality, before the fragments cohere into a fuller context that threatens those beliefs with incompatible evidence. Ackerman tells Barlow:

Liberal religious authors I encounter often show gratitude to science for providing not so much answers as more and more mystery. These authors revel in an enchantment with mystery and find much of their spirituality there. But at the same time I detect an underlying reluctance to be fully and completely open to everything that science may reveal. There’s a worry that some answers science might produce could bring spiritual discomfort.

To Beleaf by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefiting the Nature Conservancy.)

Ackerman contrasts this orientation with her own “ecological spiritualism” and revisits the deep fulfillment of her “personal religion” as an “Earth ecstatic”:

I believe in the sanctity of life [in the ecological sense] and the perfectibility of people. I believe we should regard all life forms with dignity, respect, affectionate curiosity, and the kind of protectiveness family members feel for one another.

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse: The Astronomy of Walt Whitman. Available as a print, benefiting the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory.

Complement with Lucille Clifton’s spare and sublime ode to the interconnection and dignity of all life (found in one of the finest books this year) and Mary Shelley on what gives meaning to our lives when all else crumbles, then revisit Ackerman on the evolutionary and existential purpose of play and the secret life of the senses.

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