Odd and lovely consolation for despair and aloneness springing from that place of “defiance and melancholy and ecstasy.”
By Maria Popova
When the world came unworlded with a pandemic, beloved children’s book author and illustrator Sophie Blackall packed up her Brooklyn home, gathered her husband, her step-daughter, and her step-daughter’s girlfriend, and headed for Milkwood Farm — a centuries-old dairy farm she has been laboring to transform into a rural retreat for artists and writers. There, mastering the art of minimums amid still-rudimentary conditions, in between learning to build dry-stacked stone walls with her bare hands and rereading Moby-Dick, Sophie happened to buy the local store’s last sweet potato.
Being an artist and being in quarantine, she did what artists have always done — make wonder out of limitation, privation, and boredom; illuminate the universal through the tiny aperture of the deeply personal.
Sophie named the potato Philip, gave them a non-binary pronoun, sewed them a white silk scarf, and wrote them an improbable love story for the ages — in large part to hand-hold folks like her father through their struggle with “they/them. (Sophie’s own non-binary child, Olive, goes by “they.”)
The resulting short film, narrated with her largehearted erudition and Australian warmth, is part Orlando, part Monty Python, part something entirely its own — wondrously weird yet poetic, soulful, and tender, a sympathetic spell for our most elemental despairs and deepest longings cast through a root vegetable.
“To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”
By Maria Popova
“Anyone with any degree of mental toughness ought to be able to exist without the things they like most for a few months at least,” Georgia O’Keeffe, impoverished and solitary in the desert, wrote in considering limitation, creativity, and setting priorities as she was about to revolutionize art while the world was crumbling into its first global war.
There are echoes of Stoicism, of Buddhism, of every monastic tradition in O’Keeffe’s core insight — that only in the absence of our habitual comforts, without all the ways in which we ordinarily cushion against the hard facts of our own nature and our mortality, do we befriend ourselves and discover what is most alive in us. The contrast, uncomfortable at first, even painful, becomes a clarifying force. Without the superfluous, the essential is revealed.
In the chapter titled “Nightgown,” following one of the most sensual scenes in the novel — Queequeg “affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs” over Ishmael’s as the two lay in bed, “so entirely sociable and free and easy,” before rising naked into the unheated room — Melville writes:
To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.
For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.
“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.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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 poetryJanna 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.
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
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.
I really want you to hear what I am going to say, because I think it is the truth. Okay? I’ll make it fast.
If you love to read, or learn to love reading, you will have an amazing life. Period. Life will always have hardships, pressure, and incredibly annoying people, but books will make it all worthwhile. In books, you will find your North Star, and you will find you, which is why you are here.
Books are paper ships, to all the worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and — the most precious stunning journey of all — into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.
Out of these flat almost two-dimensional boxes of paper will spring mountains, lions, concerts, galaxies, heroes. You will meet people who have been all but destroyed, who have risen up and will bring you with them. Books and stories are medicine, plaster casts for broken lives and hearts, slings for weakened spirits. And in reading, you will laugh harder than you ever imagined laughing, and this will be magic, heaven, and salvation. I promise.