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Drawings by Children: Rosanne Cash Reads Lisel Mueller’s Subtle Poem About Growing Out of Our Limiting Frames of Reference

“There is nothing behind the wall except a space where the wind whistles, but you cannot see that.”

Drawings by Children: Rosanne Cash Reads Lisel Mueller’s Subtle Poem About Growing Out of Our Limiting Frames of Reference

We parse and move through reality as multidimensional creatures in a multidimensional world. The experience of dimensions, this living fact of spatiality, may be our most direct mathematical grasp of the universe — an understanding woven into our elemental sensemaking, into our language and our metaphors: We speak of our social circles, our love triangles, our spheres of influence, the depth of our feelings, the height of our intellect, the length of our lives. But we are also quite limited by our embodied frame of reference — our experience as three-dimensional creatures in a perceptually three-dimensional world with other spatialities on scales we can’t sense has always unmoored our common-sense perception from the fundamentals of reality; it is why the notion of a spherical world that turns beneath our grounded feet as it hurtles around the Sun at more than 100 kilometers per hour was so controversial for so long, why Einstein’s concept of spacetime was so radical and revolutionary, and why we find mathematical objects like Möbius strips and Klein bottles so deliciously disorienting.

In the final stretch of the 19th century, an English theologian with a mathematical bend named Edwin Abbott Abbott composed the brilliant allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions — the first time the science of dimensions was discussed in popular literature, folded into a clever social satire about how much our cultural frames of reference, around gender and class and other normative lines, limit our clear view of reality and limit us as fully conscious, capable agents in that reality.

Nearly a century after Abbott, the poet Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — another deep seer and scrumptiously original mind, who lived nearly a century — took up the subject with great subtlety and elegance of insight in her poem “Drawings by Children,” found in her altogether miraculous Pulitzer-winning collection Alive Together (public library), which also gave us Mueller’s lyrical wisdom on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.

One of the drawings Darwin’s children left in the manuscript of On the Origin of Species.

At the 2020 Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of the science of reality through poetry — Grammy-winning musician and poetic songwriter Rosanne Cash brought Mueller’s “Drawings by Children” to soulful life, accompanied by one of her own children, Jakob Leventhal — a wonderful young musician himself, quarantined home from college.

DRAWINGS BY CHILDREN
by Lisel Mueller

1

The sun may be visible or not
(it may be behind you,
the viewer of these pictures)
but the sky is always blue
if it is day.
If not,
the stars come almost within your grasp;
crooked, they reach out to you,
on the verge of falling.
It is never sunrise or sunset;
there is no bloody eye
spying on you across the horizon.
It is clearly day or night,
it is bright or totally dark,
it is here and never there.

2

In the beginning, you only needed
your head, a moon swimming in space,
and four bare branches;
and when your body was added,
it was light and thin at first,
not yet the dark chapel
from which, later, you tried to escape.
You lived in a non-Newtonian world,
your arms grew up from your shoulders,
your feet did not touch the ground,
your hair was streaming,
you were still flying.

3

The house is smaller than you remembered,
it has windows but no door.
A chimney sits on the gable roof,
a curl of smoke reassures you.
But the house has only two dimensions,
like a mash without its face;
the people who live there stand outside
as though time were always summer —
there is nothing behind the wall
except a space where the wind whistles,
but you cannot see that.

For other highlights from the 2020 Universe in Verse, savor astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, artist Ohara Hale’s lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, and Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity” — a dimensional meditation on our cosmic belonging and the meaning of home, inspired by Stephen Hawking — in a stunning animated short film, then revisit the charming drawings Darwin’s children left all over the manuscript of their father’s epoch-making book and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie and the meaning of power, with a poignant personal reflection on the wellspring of creative might and how science saved her life, from the inaugural Universe in Verse in 2017.

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Conscience in Revolt: Sophie Scholl on Suffering, Strength, and the Deepest Wellspring of Courage

“Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.”

Conscience in Revolt: Sophie Scholl on Suffering, Strength, and the Deepest Wellspring of Courage

“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task,” the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in an existential exhale of a letter to his brother hours after his death sentence was repealed; in 1849, still in his twenties, Dostoyevsky had been arrested and sentenced to death for belonging to a literary society that circulated books the tsarist regime deemed dangerous.

Dostoyevsky lived to give us some of the most beautiful and humanistic literature our species has produced — literature laced with admonitions against indulging those murderous impulses of human nature, with invitations to choose again and again not to lose heart, not to lose faith in the human capacity for goodness.

A century later, amid a world that had failed to take Dostoyevsky’s heed, a person even younger took upon her slight shoulders that eternal task in one of the most powerful acts of resistance in the history of our civilization — powerful both for its courage and for its tragedy, outlining both what we are capable of as a human beings and how far we have yet to go to reach our highest potential as a humane society.

Born in a small German town as one of the local mayor’s five children, Sophie Scholl (May 9, 1921–February 22, 1943) was barely out of her teens when her conscience burst awake to the unconscionable inhumanity that had wormed her country’s soul. A month after she began her university studies in biology and philosophy in the nation’s capital, she co-founded the White Rose — a non-violent resistance group of students, artists, and scientists devoted to inspiring their compatriots to take a clear stance against Hitler, “to strive for the renewal of the mortally wounded German spirit,” as they impelled in one of their pamphlets.

Sophie Scholl. Painting by Allison Adams from her lovely grief-healing portrait series of heroic women.

On February 18, 1943 — eight months after the group’s founding — Scholl, her brother, and four other members of the White Rose were arrested, convicted of high treason for distributing anti-war pamphlets, and sentenced to death by the so-called People’s Court.

She was executed four days later.

Scholl is one of sixty-four heroes of resistance to Nazism profiled in Conscience in Revolt (public library) through brief biographies and a selection of their surviving writings that radiate the uncommon courage of living one’s values to the hilt — a 1957 out-of-print treasure that came into my life via one of those rare, improbable wonders that every once in a while reward those of us who mine the forgotten for the timeless: Tucked into my antiquarian copy of another our-of-print book on nonviolence, I discovered a newspaper clipping of a review by an English archbishop and anti-apartheid activist, lauding Conscience in Revolt as “a most moving and challenging pesentation of resistance to tyranny as a personal, individual, intensely human thing.” (Lest we forget, all of our pursuit and defense of truth springs from such a place, as astrophysicist Janna Levin reminds us in her beautiful reflection on science as a personal, “truly human endeavor.”) “It is precisely this we need to be reminded of now and always,” Father Huddleston writes in his review, “for there is no form of escapism more subtle or more general than the use of abstractions. And… there is no more certain way of losing the fight for human dignity and peace than the refusal to believe in the infinite value of the individual.”

The deeply personal nature of Scholl’s resistance and its seedbed in her singular individuality radiate from the previously unpublished private writings quoted in this book I was impelled to track down.

In a letter from February 10 — a fortnight before her execution, and a decade after her French kindred spirit Simone Weil modeled in her own triumph of resistance how to use our suffering as a portal to empathy — Scholl echoes the young Sylvia Plath’s longing “to be affected by life deeply” as she considers the possibility of being drafted for labor service the following summer:

I am not entirely unhappy about it, because I still want to suffer, to share the suffering of these days… to be affected more directly… Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.

One comes to such fearless lucidity only through the awareness, accepted without resistance, of just how intimately the life of the body and the life of the spirit are entwined — an understanding Scholl inhabited with absolute creaturely integrity. In a diary entry vibrating with the invincibility of youth, penned in the last summer of her life not long after her twenty-first birthday, she captures the animalistic pleasure of aliveness that is the wellspring of our strength, our humanity, and the poetry of existence:

The wind tears open the blue sky, out comes the sun and kisses me tenderly. I’d like to kiss him back, but my wish is forgotten in a moment as the wind grasps me. I feel the wonderful firmness of my body, I laugh aloud for the sheer joy of finding I can resist the wind. I can feel all my own strength.

Nearly a century after Walt Whitman, who had served as a nurse to the dying in the Civil War, wrote so beautifully about optimism as a force of resistance and shortly after Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl penned his impassioned insistence upon believing in human goodness, Scholl located her strength — the supreme strength of the human animal — in the unflinching refusal to succumb to the cowardice of cynicism. That refusal was at the beating heart of her courage and her resistance — an ethos she articulated most directly and most exquisitely in a letter penned when she was only eighteen. Nearly half a century before Maya Angelou observed that “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” this resolutely uncynical young woman writes:

After all, one should have the courage to believe in what is good. I do not mean that one should believe in illusions, but I mean that one should do only what is true and good and take it for granted that other people will do the same, in a way one can never do with the intellect alone. (That is to say — never calculate.)

Complement with Hannah Arendt, writing in the wake of the Holocaust, on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, Susan Sontag on moral courage and the power of principled revolt against injustice, Iris Murdoch on the power of literature to dismantle tyranny, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how books save lives.

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

“Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet. I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”

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

“Today, for some, a universe will vanish,” Jane Hirshfield writes in her stunning poem about the death of a tree a quarter millennium after William Blake observed in his most passionate letter that how we see a tree is how we see the world, and in the act of seeing we reveal what we are: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” he wrote. “As a man is, so he sees.”

If a single tree is home to a miniature universe of life, and if we are learning with wide-eyed wonder that a tree is not a self-contained world but a synaptic node in a complex cosmos of relationships in constant and astonishing communication with other nodes, relationships that weave the fabric of earthly life, what does it make us — what does it reveal about our character, as a planetary people and a civilization — to watch the world’s forests vanish in flames before our eyes, in wildfires so ferocious as to be visible from space?

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

A century after Walt Whitman turned to trees as our wisest moral teachers and a generation before Wangari Maathai defended them with her life in a movement of moral courage that won her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (July 12, 1904–September 23, 1973) — one of humanity’s furthest-seeing and lushest-minded artists — shone a gorgeous sidewise gleam at an answer by way of celebration rather than lamentation in a passage from his Memoirs (public library), posthumously published in English the year the Voyager spacecraft captured that poetry-fomenting first glimpse of our Pale Blue Dot seen from far away. (Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin, this treasure of a book is now — unfathomably, tragically, a civilizational embarrassment — out of print.)

At the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating fifty years of Earth Day, astronaut and poetry-lover Leland Melvin — one of a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of humans in the history of our species to have left this rare planet, to have seen its forests and its intricate living web of relationships from the cosmic perspective, and to have returned loving it all the more passionately — breathed new life into Neruda’s forgotten words with a soulful reading of that passage:

Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest… My feet sink down into the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the giant rauli trees rise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe… The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being… The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way… This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves… I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stares up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab… A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lightning… Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time… A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!… Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it… Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows… They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristling, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways… A gorge; below, the crystal water slides over granite and jasper… A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight… Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting… High up, red copihues (Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest’s arteries… A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law of the plant kingdom… The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off… The piercing interruption of a hidden bird… The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm chums up all the music of the earth.

Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.

I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Complement with poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s lovely illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, Mary Oliver’s radiant poem “When I Am Among the Trees” radiantly read by Amanda Palmer, the uncommonly wonderful picture-book The Forest, and the poetic nature writer Robert Macfarlane — who also read at the 2020 Universe in Verse — on how trees illuminate the secret of true love, then savor other highlights from this poetic celebration of the science and splendor of nature: a sublimely beautiful animation of Marie Howe’s stirring poem about our cosmic belonging and the meaning of home, inspired by Stephen Hawking; astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson; Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Universe in Verse alumna Tracy K. Smith; and artist Ohara Hale’s lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience.

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Physicist Brian Greene on Mortality, Our Search for Meaning, and the Most Important Fact of the Universe

“When you see all of those stories nested together in one narrative arc… it gives a deeper understanding of where we came from, and what’s happening at the moment, and ultimately where we’re going.”

Physicist Brian Greene on Mortality, Our Search for Meaning, and the Most Important Fact of the Universe

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in letter to his grief-stricken friend, the Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy, in 1923 — the year he published, after a decade of work, his miraculous Duino Elegies.

Nearly a century after Rilke’s death, the theoretical physicist and mathematician Brian Greene — who is reading and reflecting on the ninth of Rilke’s ten elegies at the 2020 Universe in Verse — brought the poetics of science to this life-expanding perspective on mortality in his equally miraculous book Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (public library), which he launched in dialogue with his Columbia colleague, Pioneer Works Director of Sciences, and poetry-performer Janna Levin.

Brian Greene. (Photograph by Michael Avedon for Pioneer Works Science Studios.)

In this fragment from their altogether revelatory conversation, Greene bridges Shakespeare and science to consider how facing the elemental fact of our finitude — facing it with the courage that only comes from lucidity, from “absolute and passionate presence with all that is here” — dilates our subjective experience of time and broadens our being, so that while we may not live any longer than we do, we may live wider:

Elsewhere in the conversation, and throughout his excellent book, Greene echoes the sentiment at the heart of Richard Feynman’s iconic Ode to a Flower, insisting that a knowledge of what we are made of, a knowledge of the fundamental laws — the laws that govern the atoms that make the molecules that make the cells that make the conscious, self-reflective beings that examine these laws in conversation and contemplation — helps us tell a fuller story of who and what we are. “When you see all of those stories nested together in one narrative arc,” he says, “it gives a deeper understanding of where we came from, and what’s happening at the moment, and ultimately where we’re going.”

He makes an elegant argument for this necessity of self-cohesion in another fragment of the conversation:

When you recognize that we are the product of purposeless, mindless laws of physics playing themselves out on our particles — because we are, all, bags of particles — it changes the way you search for meaning and purpose: You recognize that looking out to the cosmos to find some answer that’s sort of floating out there in the void is just facing the wrong direction. At the end of the day, we have to manufacture our own meaning, our own purpose — we have to manufacture coherence… to make sense of existence. And when you manufacture purpose, that doesn’t make it artificial — that makes it so much more noble than accepting purpose that is thrust upon you from the outer world.

This recognition, Greene reminds us, is the very thing that makes our humanity and the consciousness from which it springs such a wondrous triumph of nature, chance, and evolution:

If we’re used to thinking of consciousness as this pristine, spectacular quality that we are endowed with from something magical in the external world, to frame it in a reductionist way might feel like we’re flattening it. However, I think it’s utterly spectacular that the very same physical processes that are responsible for this pitcher of water or the structure of this table are what’s responsible for conscious self-awareness — how miraculous that collections of particles can do and think and feel what we do. That, I think, is the conclusion — it amplifies and elevates the wonder of it all, it doesn’t take away from it.

In the full conversation, in which Greene goes on to explore consciousness, free will, evolution, storytelling, and more, is well worth savoring and can be savored on Broadcast — the wonderful new digital initiative my friends at Pioneer Works have launched to open to the world their archive of uncommon treasures featuring some of the world’s fiercest and most fertile minds — scientists and artists, Nobel laureates and Pulitzer-winning authors — in conversation and contemplation at the edge of our search for truth, our longing for beauty, and our hunger for meaning.

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