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“The universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” the trailblazing astronomer and leading Figuring figure Maria Mitchell wrote in the second half of the nineteenth century as she contemplated science, spirituality, and the human hunger for truth. Every great scientist in the century and a half since has been faced with this question, be it by personal restlessness or public demand. Einstein addressed it in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray. Quantum theory originator Max Planck believed that “science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature [because] we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.” His fellow Nobel laureate and quantum theory founding father Niels Bohr defied the sentiment in his incisive distinction between subjective and objective reality, noting that religions have always addressed the former, while science addresses the latter, which is measurable and therefore knowable. Wolfgang Pauli, whose groundbreaking scientific ideas were greatly influenced by Bohr’s, concluded that the effort to reconcile science and religion “will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”

It takes a mind of rare courage and insight to address this abiding question without falling into the most pernicious trap of all — that of artificial compatibilism; to take a lucid stance without fright of offense, then to explain the basis of that stance thoughtfully and sensitively, systematically dismantling every reflexive argument against it.

That is what Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) does in his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (public library) — a collection of ten enormous questions Hawking was asked regularly throughout his life, by children and elders, by entrepreneurs and political leaders, by men and women young and old attending his prolific lectures and public appearances, with answers drawn from his extensive personal archive of correspondence, notes, drafts, interviews, and essays. The book — which was conceived during Hawking’s lifetime but finished only after his death with help from his family and academic colleagues, and proceeds from which benefit the Stephen Hawking Foundation and the Motor Neurone Disease Association — opens with the question that has bellowed in humanity’s chest since science first confronted superstition: Is there a God?

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

Hawking — whom many consider the greatest scientist since Einstein and whose residual stardust was interred between Darwin’s and Newton’s in Westminster Abbey — enlists his disarming deadpan humor in placing the query in a personal context, then uses the fulcrum of his magnificent mind to pivot into the serious answer to the universal question:

For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature. If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.

With an eye to the discovery, which began in antiquity and culminated with Kepler and Galileo, that “the heavens” are in fact a complex universe governed by discoverable and discernible physical laws, he builds upon his earlier reflections on the meaning of the universe and adds:

I believe that the discovery of these laws has been humankind’s greatest achievement, for it’s these laws of nature — as we now call them — that will tell us whether we need a god to explain the universe at all. The laws of nature are a description of how things actually work in the past, present and future. In tennis, the ball always goes exactly where they say it will. And there are many other laws at work here too. They govern everything that is going on, from how the energy of the shot is produced in the players’ muscles to the speed at which the grass grows beneath their feet. But what’s really important is that these physical laws, as well as being unchangeable, are universal. They apply not just to the flight of a ball, but to the motion of a planet, and everything else in the universe. Unlike laws made by humans, the laws of nature cannot be broken — that’s why they are so powerful and, when seen from a religious standpoint, controversial too.

[…]

One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.

I use the word “God” in an impersonal sense, like Einstein did, for the laws of nature, so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature. My prediction is that we will know the mind of God by the end of this century.

Illustration by Garry Parsons from George’s Secret Key to the Universe — Hawking’s children’s book, co-written with his daughter.

But even with the laws of nature conceded, Hawking recognizes that their existence still leaves room for religions to lay claim to the grandest question — how the universe and its laws began. He addresses the question both plainly and profoundly:

I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.

[…]

Despite the complexity and variety of the universe, it turns out that to make one you need just three ingredients. Let’s imagine that we could list them in some kind of cosmic cookbook. So what are the three ingredients we need to cook up a universe? The first is matter — stuff that has mass. Matter is all around us, in the ground beneath our feet and out in space. Dust, rock, ice, liquids. Vast clouds of gas, massive spirals of stars, each containing billions of suns, stretching away for incredible distances.

The second thing you need is energy. Even if you’ve never thought about it, we all know what energy is. Something we encounter every day. Look up at the Sun and you can feel it on your face: energy produced by a star ninety-three million miles away. Energy permeates the universe, driving the processes that keep it a dynamic, endlessly changing place.

So we have matter and we have energy. The third thing we need to build a universe is space. Lots of space. You can call the universe many things — awesome, beautiful, violent — but one thing you can’t call it is cramped. Wherever we look we see space, more space and even more space. Stretching in all directions.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s and a contemporary of Kepler’s, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

The instinctual question is where all the matter, energy, and space came from — a question we hadn’t been able to answer with more than mythological cosmogonies until the early twentieth century, when Einstein demonstrated that mass is a form of energy and energy a form of mass in what is now the best known equation in the history of the world: E=mc2. This reduces the ingredients of the “cosmic cookbook” from three to two, distilling the question to where the space and energy originated. Generations of scientists built upon each other’s work to deliver the answer in the Big Bang model, which holds that in a single moment around 13.8 billion years ago, the entire universe, with all its space and energy, ballooned into being out of the nothingness that preceded it.

Half a century after Nabokov’s poetic admonition against common sense, Hawking echoes Carl Sagan’s observation that common sense can blind us to the realities of the universe and addresses this deeply counterintuitive notion of generating something out of nothing:

As I was growing up in England after the Second World War, it was a time of austerity. We were told that you never get something for nothing. But now, after a lifetime of work, I think that actually you can get a whole universe for free.

The great mystery at the heart of the Big Bang is to explain how an entire, fantastically enormous universe of space and energy can materialise out of nothing. The secret lies in one of the strangest facts about our cosmos. The laws of physics demand the existence of something called “negative energy.”

To help you get your head around this weird but crucial concept, let me draw on a simple analogy. Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he’s not just making a hill — he’s also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out. This is the principle behind what happened at the beginning of the universe.

When the Big Bang produced a massive amount of positive energy, it simultaneously produced the same amount of negative energy. In this way, the positive and the negative add up to zero, always. It’s another law of nature.

So where is all this negative energy today? It’s in the third ingredient in our cosmic cookbook: it’s in space. This may sound odd, but according to the laws of nature concerning gravity and motion — laws that are among the oldest in science — space itself is a vast store of negative energy. Enough to ensure that everything adds up to zero.

I’ll admit that, unless mathematics is your thing, this is hard to grasp, but it’s true. The endless web of billions upon billions of galaxies, each pulling on each other by the force of gravity, acts like a giant storage device. The universe is like an enormous battery storing negative energy. The positive side of things — the mass and energy we see today — is like the hill. The corresponding hole, or negative side of things, is spread throughout space.

So what does this mean in our quest to find out if there is a God? It means that if the universe adds up to nothing, then you don’t need a God to create it. The universe is the ultimate free lunch.

This is where the wheels of our common-sense understanding screech to a frustrated halt — after all, in our daily lives, we can’t just manifest a cone of ice cream or a long-lost lover with the snap of our fingers. But on the subatomic stratum undergirding our physical reality, things work differently — particles pop up at random times in random places only to disappear again, governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, which seem downright mystical in their manifestation but are in fact discovered and calculable laws of the universe. Hawking explains:

Since we know the universe itself was once very small — perhaps smaller than a proton — this means something quite remarkable. It means the universe itself, in all its mind-boggling vastness and complexity, could simply have popped into existence without violating the known laws of nature. From that moment on, vast amounts of energy were released as space itself expanded — a place to store all the negative energy needed to balance the books. But of course the critical question is raised again: did God create the quantum laws that allowed the Big Bang to occur? In a nutshell, do we need a God to set it up so that the Big Bang could bang? I have no desire to offend anyone of faith, but I think science has a more compelling explanation than a divine creator.

Another painting by Francisco de Holanda from Cosmigraphics.

Once again he illustrates this assault on our basic common-sense intuitions with that supreme lever of understanding, the analogy:

Imagine a river, flowing down a mountainside. What caused the river? Well, perhaps the rain that fell earlier in the mountains. But then, what caused the rain? A good answer would be the Sun, that shone down on the ocean and lifted water vapour up into the sky and made clouds. Okay, so what caused the Sun to shine? Well, if we look inside we see the process known as fusion, in which hydrogen atoms join to form helium, releasing vast quantities of energy in the process. So far so good. Where does the hydrogen come from? Answer: the Big Bang. But here’s the crucial bit. The laws of nature itself tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.

This explanation, Hawking points out, rests on the shoulders of Einstein’s groundbreaking relativity theory — that daring leap of the imaginative intellect, which furnished the staggering revelation that space and time are a single entity comprising the basic fabric of the universe. Hawking writes:

Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.

To understand this mind-boggling idea, consider a black hole floating in space. A typical black hole is a star so massive that it has collapsed in on itself. It’s so massive that not even light can escape its gravity, which is why it’s almost perfectly black. It’s gravitational pull is so powerful, it warps and distorts not only light but also time. To see how, imagine a clock is being sucked into it. As the clock gets closer and closer to the black hole, it begins to get slower and slower. Time itself begins to slow down. Now imagine the clock as it enters the black hole — well, assuming of course that it could withstand the extreme gravitational forces– it would actually stop. It stops not because it is broken, but because inside the black hole time itself doesn’t exist. And that’s exactly what happened at the start of the universe.

[…]

As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole. And just as with modern-day black holes, floating around in space, the laws of nature dictate something quite extraordinary. They tell us that here too time itself must come to a stop. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.

Hawking concludes with his most direct, personal answer to the universal question:

It’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust. But there’s a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that I am extremely grateful.

Rather than dispiriting, this lucid awareness of our ephemerality can be the wellspring of our noblest, most deeply spiritual and spiritualizing impulses — a catalyst for finding holiness in the richness of life itself, in the splendor of this peculiar and irreplaceable planet, rooted in the awareness that, in the poetic words of naturalist Sy Montgomery, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.” Hawking channels this orientation of mind and spirit in a stirring passage from the book’s introduction:

One day, I hope we will know the answers to all these questions. But there are other challenges, other big questions on the planet which must be answered, and these will also need a new generation who are interested and engaged, and have an understanding of science. How will we feed an ever-growing population? Provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change? I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding, to implement these solutions. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be curious, be determined, overcome the odds. It can be done.

Complement this particular portion of Hawking’s altogether magnificent Brief Answers to the Big Questions with Carl Sagan on science and mystery, Alan Lightman on nonreligious divinity in the known and the unknowable, and Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of “The Lord’s Prayer,” then revisit poet Marie Howe’s gorgeous tribute to Hawking.

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A lovely illustrated serenade to a world strewn with “lines making patterns of beauty.”

“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe reflected in the spring of her visionary career. “The art of seeing has to be learned,” the great French novelist, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker Marguerite Duras — another artist of uncommon vision — wrote half a century later as she considered the essence of life in the winter of hers. And yet we move through the seasons of our lives missing the vast majority of what surrounds us. How, then, do we master the art of seeing — that elementary existential skill that furnishes our primary means of apprehending and befriending the world?

Partway in time between O’Keeffe and Duras, a lovely answer comes from the imaginative and prolific mid-century children’s book author and artist (and, later, Peabody-winning documentary journalist) Helen Borten in her 1959 picture-book Do You See What I See? (public library) — a poetic primer on the building blocks of the perceptual world: line, shape, and color.

Although the foundations of art rest upon these elements, Borten also shines a sidewise gleam at the foundations of science. In depicting a world strewn with “lines making patterns of beauty,” she suggests not only aesthetic beauty but mathematical beauty. There is a Euclidean splendor to her bold illustrations, combining woodcut, painting, and printing techniques, and her lyrical words. “Bend a line far enough,” she tells the reader, “it becomes a circle.”

Up and down lines pull me up, up, up with them, until I feel as tall as a steeple and as taut as a stretched rubber band. I think of lofty things — giant redwood trees a lighthouse rising above the sea, a rocket soaring high into the sky, noble kings in flowing robes.

At the heart of the book is a primer not only on what and how to see, but also on what and how to be. Two centuries after William Blake asserted that “as a man is, so he sees,” Borten invites the young reader to become the sort of person who sees the world with uncynical eyes of wonder and generous curiosity.

I see the world as a great big painting, full of lines and shapes and colors, to look at and enjoy.

Do you see what I see?

Couple Do You See What I See? with Borten’s 1968 gem The Jungle, which she created after becoming one of the first women to explore the wilderness of Guatemala, then revisit Ann Rand’s lovely geometry-driven concept book about how the imagination works from the same era. For a grownup counterpart, savor cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz’s magnificent On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes — a revelatory look at what we fail to see just by being ourselves and how we can lift the habitual blinders of our perception.

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“The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself… We need a new vocabulary of attention.”

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,” Carl Jung observed as he contemplated human personality in a BBC interview at the end of his life. But how do we wrest meaning from existence, or rather make meaning through the force of our personhood?

That is what another titanic mind of the twentieth century — the rare philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — took up in the year of Jung’s death, in an essay titled “Against Dryness,” originally published in the literary magazine Encounter and later included in the sublimely insightful posthumous collection Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (public library), which also gave us Murdoch on art as a force of resistance to tyranny and the key to good writing.

Dame Iris Murdoch by Ida Kar (National Portrait Gallery)

With an eye to how the landmark developments of the twentieth century — chiefly, the way scientific materialism has enfeebled the dogmas and precepts of religion — have left us triangulating uncomfortably between the traditions of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Liberalism, Murdoch writes:

We have been left with far too shallow and flimsy an idea of human personality… [The Anglo-Saxon] conception consists in the joining of a materialistic behaviourism with a dramatic view of the individual as a solitary will. These subtly give support to each other. From Hume through Bertrand Russell, with friendly help from mathematical logic and science, we derive the idea that reality is finally a quantity of material atoms and that significant discourse must relate itself directly or indirectly to reality so conceived. This position was most picturesquely summed up in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

[…]

This is one side of the picture, the Humian and post-Humian side. On the other side, we derive from Kant, and also Hobbes and Bentham through John Stuart Mill, a picture of the individual as a free rational will. With the removal of Kant’s metaphysical background this individual is seen as alone. (He is in a certain sense alone on Kant’s view also, that is: not confronted with real dissimilar others.) With the addition of some utilitarian optimism he is seen as eminently educable. With the addition of some modern psychology he is seen as capable of self-knowledge by methods agreeable to science and common sense. So we have the modern man*, as he appears in many recent works on ethics and I believe also to a large extent in the popular consciousness.

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

A century after John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s trailblazing partnership of equals shaped the scaffolding of Liberalism, Murdoch points out a crucial blind spot of this otherwise noble-minded and far-seeing tradition of thought:

For the Liberal world, philosophy is not in fact at present able to offer us any other complete and powerful picture of the soul.

[…]

Our central conception is still a debilitated form of Mill’s equation: happiness equals freedom equals personality. There should have been a revolt against utilitarianism; but for many reasons it has not taken place.

She considers what we have lost by blindly adopting this worldview and what we were never given in the first place:

We have suffered a general loss of concepts, the loss of a moral and political vocabulary. We no longer use a spread-out substantial picture of the manifold virtues of man and society. We no longer see man against a background of values, of realities, which transcend him. We picture man as a brave naked will surrounded by an easily comprehended empirical world. For the hard idea of truth we have substituted a facile idea of sincerity. What we have never had, of course, is a satisfactory Liberal theory of personality, a theory of man as free and separate and related to a rich and complicated world from which, as a moral being, he has much to learn. We have bought the Liberal theory as it stands, because we have wished to encourage people to think of themselves as free, at the cost of surrendering the background.

We have never solved the problems about human personality posed by the Enlightenment. Between the various concepts available to us the real question has escaped: and now, in a curious way, our present situation is analogous to an eighteenth-century one. We retain a rationalistic optimism about the beneficent results of education, or rather, technology. We combine this with a romantic conception of “the human condition,” a picture of the individual as stripped and solitary: a conception which has, since Hitler, gained a peculiar intensity.

Solitary. Photograph by Maria Popova.

Writing at a time when W.H. Auden — one of her great intellectual heroes — insisted that “the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act,” and in concord with her own lifelong insistence that art is essential for a democratic society, Murdoch considers the role of art and of literature in particular in furnishing a fuller, truer model of human personality, necessary for a thriving political conscience:

The temptation of art, a temptation to which every work of art yields except the greatest ones, is to console. The modern writer, frightened of technology and (in England) abandoned by philosophy and (in France) presented with simplified dramatic theories, attempts to console us by myths or by stories.

[…]

The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. Linguistic and existentialist behaviourism, our Romantic philosophy, has reduced our vocabulary and simplified and impoverished our view of the inner life. It is natural that a Liberal democratic society will not be concerned with techniques of improvement, will deny that virtue is knowledge, will emphasise choice at the expense of vision; and a Welfare State will weaken the incentives to investigate the bases of a Liberal democratic society.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

In a refreshing counterpoint to the contemporary critic, who tends to merely point out the flaw in a system, with varying degrees of self-satisfaction, without a lucid and largehearted vision for solutions, Murdoch considers what it would take to remedy this impoverished Liberal model of human personality:

We need a post-Kantian unromantic Liberalism with a different image of freedom.

The technique of becoming free is more difficult than John Stuart Mill imagined. We need more concepts than our philosophies have furnished us with. We need to be enabled to think in terms of degrees of freedom, and to picture, in a non-metaphysical, non-totalitarian and non-religious sense, the transcendence of reality. A simple-minded faith in science, together with the assumption that we are all rational and totally free, engenders a dangerous lack of curiosity about the real world, a failure to appreciate the difficulties of knowing it. We need to return from the self-centred concept of sincerity to the other-centred concept of truth. We are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy. Our current picture of freedom encourages a dream-like facility; whereas what we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons. We need more concepts in terms of which to picture the substance of our being; it is through an enriching and deepening of concepts that moral progress takes place. Simone Weil said that morality was a matter of attention, not of will. We need a new vocabulary of attention.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In consonance with the poet Mary Oliver’s lovely assertion that “attention without feeling… is only a report” and with Ursula K. Le Guin’s bold conviction that “literature is the operating instructions” for a noble and fulfilling life, Murdoch insists upon the power of literature to furnish a vocabulary of feeling with which to better express who we are and what we value — the supreme language of human personality, of our morality, of our personal and political ideals:

Through literature we can re-discover a sense of the density of our lives. Literature can arm us against consolation and fantasy and can help us to recover from the ailments of Romanticism. If it can be said to have a task, that surely is its task. But if it is to perform it, prose must recover its former glory, eloquence and discourse must return.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Since literature rests upon language, it is language that needs to be reinvigorated. A century after Nietzsche weighed how language can both conceal and reveal truth, Murdoch adds:

I would connect eloquence with the attempt to speak the truth.

[…]

Form itself can be a temptation, making the work of art into a small myth which is a self-contained and indeed self-satisfied individual… Real people are destructive of myth, contingency is destructive of fantasy and opens the way for imagination… Too much contingency of course may turn art into journalism. But since reality is incomplete, art must not be too much afraid of incompleteness. Literature must always represent a battle between real people and images; and what it requires now is a much stronger and more complex conception of the former.

In morals and politics we have stripped ourselves of concepts. Literature, in curing its own ills, can give us a new vocabulary of experience, and a truer picture of freedom. With this, renewing our sense of distance, we may remind ourselves that art too lives in a region where all human endeavour is failure. Perhaps only Shakespeare manages to create at the highest level both images and people; and even Hamlet looks second-rate compared with Lear. Only the very greatest art invigorates without consoling, and defeats our attempts, in W. H. Auden’s words, to use it as magic.

Every page of Existentialists and Mystics is saturated with Murdoch’s uncommonly eloquent insight into the richest, deepest strata of human experience. Complement this portion with Toni Morrison on the fullest meaning of freedom, Jeanette Winterson on how art redeems our inner lives, and Susan Sontag on storytelling and what it means to be a human being, then revisit Murdoch on language as a bastion of truth, how love gives meaning to our existence, and her almost unbearably beautiful love letters.

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“It is this, and the existence of limits.”

When Einstein radicalized science with his general theory of relativity, the fulcrum of which shifted our understanding of reality more profoundly than anything since the Copernican reordering of the universe, he had made several daring leaps of the informed imagination to demonstrate that space and time are interwoven into a single entity — the foundational fabric of the universe — and that both are not static absolutes, as it was believed for millennia, but dynamical quantities responsive to the energy and matter in the universe.

But Einstein’s boldest leap remains obscured by his theory’s name. At a time when other scientists believed that the speed of light was variable, Einstein took it as a fixed limit of nature and made it the absolute non-negotiable around which all other variables and parameters enfolded. Only in doing so — against every common-sense intuition — was he able to arrive at the relative nature of space and time, from which followed other previously unfathomed revelations: that gravity is a force caused by spacetime, that the universe is expanding, that black holes exist, that time ends in a singularity. Relativity was thus built upon this one absolute — a supreme testament to the generative power of limits, of deliberate constraints as a catalyst for creative breakthrough, consonant with Kierkegaard’s insistence that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”

That is what the Canadian astronomer, poet, and tragic genius Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) celebrates in a spare, stunning poem titled “Explaining Relativity,” found in her sole poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe (public library). Elson — who made major contributions to the understanding of galaxy formation, dark matter, and how stars are born, live, and die — died at only thirty-nine, leaving behind fifty-six scientific papers and this one slender, splendid book of poetry.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

At the third annual Universe in Verse, theoretical cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander — who belongs to Elson’s rare species of genius with immense scientific talent paralleled by a commensurate talent in an art — brought the poem to life, with a lovely prefatory reflection on his own improbable path, from the black magic tradition of his Aruban high priestess grandmother to his dual calling as a scientist and an artist.

EXPLAINING RELATIVITY
by Rebecca Elson

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet,
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

Complement with Regina Spektor reading Elson’s “Theories of Everything,” then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

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“Trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see.”

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. Walt Whitman found in trees a model of existential authenticity. Hermann Hesse saw them as the wisest of teachers. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her noble work of planting trees as resistance and empowerment.

But trees are much more than what they are to us, or for us, or in relation to us. They are relational miracles all their own, entangled in complex, symbiotic webs of interbeing, constantly communicating with one another through chemical signals dispatched along the fungal networks that live in their roots — an invisible, astonishing underworld only recently discovered, thanks to the work of Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.

In this lovely short animation from TED-Ed and animator Avi Ofer, Camille Defrenne — one of Simard’s doctoral students at the University of British Columbia, studying how the interaction and architecture of root systems relate to forest dynamics and climate change — synthesizes the fascinating, almost otherworldly findings of Simard’s lab:

The secret language of trees - Camille Defrenne and Suzanne Simard - YouTube

Simard, whose research was foundational to German forester Peter Wohlleben’s wildly popular book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, discusses her work and the improbable path that led her to it in her wonderful full-length TED talk:

How trees talk to each other | Suzanne Simard - YouTube

Yes, trees are the foundation of forests, but a forest is much more than what you see… Underground there is this other world — a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.

Complement with a wondrous picture-book about the forest, Annie Dillard on how mangrove trees illuminate the human search for meaning, and biologist David Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees taught him about the art of relationship, then revisit three other lovely animations by Avi Ofer: Neil Gaiman’s existentialist dream (also involving trees) narrated by Amanda Palmer; Jane Goodall on her remarkable life-story; and philosopher Skye Clearly on why we love.

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Revolutions in design and education technology, underpinned by the conviction that women “are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole.”

“The everywhere of thought is indeed a region of nowhere,” Hannah Arendt wrote as she considered time, space, and the thinking ego when she became the first woman to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. A century and a half earlier, another woman of uncommon genius and drive revolutionized the way we fathom and locate ourselves in the world by bridging space and time in wholly original cartographies of thought: Emma Hart Willard (February 23, 1787–April 15, 1870), America’s first professional female mapmaker.

The sixteenth of seventeen children, Willard grew up in an era when girls were barred from formal education beyond primary school. In her long life, far exceeding her generation’s life expectancy, she went on to become a pioneering educator, founding the first women’s higher education institution in the United States when she was still in her thirties. Willard understood that improving the future requires a robust understanding of the past, so that one may become an informed, engaged, and effective agent of change in the present. In her early forties, she set about composing and publishing a series of history textbooks that raised the standards and sensibilities of scholarship. In 1828, having just turned forty, she authored what would become the country’s most widely read history textbook: History of the United States, or, Republic of America.

Emma Willard

What made Willard’s textbooks so successful was her understanding that we are not mere intellects who cooly compress and compute facts and figures, but embodied creatures who yearn to locate themselves in space and time in order to make sense of the flow of existence. She taught herself mapmaking in order “to give the events of history with clearness and accuracy; with such illustrations of time and place addressed to the eye, as shall secure their retention in the memory; and, at the same time, with such an order of arrangement, as will enable the mind to recall, at need, what it thus retains.” Willard considered this approach a supreme means of “laying out the ground-plan of the intellect, so far as the whole range of history is concerned,” which would in turn empower people to become better citizens, “enlightened and judicious supporters” of democracy. In a passage of extraordinary pertinence today, she writes in the preface to her famed textbook:

There are those, who rashly speak, as if in despair of the fortunes of our republic ; because, say they, political virtue has declined. If so, then is there the more need to infuse patriotism into the breasts of the coming generation. And what is so likely to effect this national self-preservation, as to give our children, for their daily reading and study, such a record of the sublime virtues of the worthies of our earliest day, and of Washington and his compatriots, as shall leave its due impress? And what but the study of their dangers and toils, their devotion of life and fortune, can make our posterity know, what our country, and our liberties have cost?

In a diagram originally created in 1845 and later printed as the frontispiece in an abridged edition of the textbook, she draws on the long tradition of tree diagrams to depict America’s history as an organic development rooted in the Earth itself:

Willard’s Chronographer of American History. Buy print. Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History Detail from Willard’s Chronographer of American History

Many of Willard’s maps and diagrams were astonishingly ahead of their time. We have, of course, long used the language of space to refer to time (e.g., my ahead to denote the future, my long to denote duration). But a century before Einstein radicalized science by exposing the single entity of spacetime as the elemental fabric of the universe, depicting space and time in a unified image was the work of an inspired and daring imagination. Willard lived not in Einstein’s era but in Kant’s — shortly before her birth, Kant had shaken the world with his Critique of Pure Reason, in which he defined space and time as the purest intuitions of the transcendental self. Willard took these elemental intuitions and enlisted them in making history — the hindsight of civilizational time — comprehensible, a clear somewhere of thought rather than an opaque nowhere.

Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools. Buy print. Detail from Willard’s Guide to the Temple of Time and Universal History for Schools

Half a century before W.E.B. Du Bois (with whom she shared a birthday) created his modernist data visualizations for the 1900 World’s Fair, Willard’s 1846 chart Temple of Time won a medal at the 1851 World’s Fair in London and earned the praise of Prince Albert himself. In the poetic rubric accompanying the diagram, she summarizes her design philosophy a century and a half before the golden age of data visualization:

The attempt to understand chronology by merely committing dates to memory, is not only painful, but it is as useless as to learn latitudes and longitudes, without the study of maps. As in geography, the relation of any place to all other places is what is important to know; so in chronology, the relation which any given event bears to others constitutes the only useful knowledge… By putting the course of time into perspective, the disconnected parts of a vast subject are united into one, and comprehended at a glance; — the poetic idea of “the vista of departed years” is made an object of sight; and when the eye is the medium, the picture will, by frequent inspection, be formed within, and forever remain, wrought into the living texture of the mind.

Willard’s Temple of Time was an expansion upon a diagram she had drawn a decade earlier — a century before John Sparks’s famous Histomap — in which she depicted the ebb and flow of empires along the stream of time:

Picture of Nations or Perspective Sketch of the Course of Empire, from Willard’s 1836 Atlas to Accompany a System of Universal Geography. Buy print.

In the atlas accompanying her history of the United States, she used color to denote the settlement patterns of the pilgrims and the migrations of Native American tribes — an innovative effort to visualize movement in a spatial map.

While Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art and Maria Mitchell was doing the same in science, Willard was swinging the doors to historical scholarship and information visualization open to women. Undergirding her textbooks and her cartography was the broader conviction that, as Mary Wollstonecraft insisted a generation before her, “the mind has no sex” — young women have a life of the mind as worthy of being nurtured as that of young men. At twenty-seven, Willard opened her first boarding school for girls, in Vermont, but soon grew dissatisfied with the low intellectual aims of those types of institutions. She envisioned something greater, more ambitious, more on par with the education boys were receiving to prepare them for college — an avenue wholly closed to women at the time. (The founding of America’s first college for women was still four decades away.)

For the next four years, Willard surveyed the landscape of education and mapped out what worthy schooling for a young woman would look like. In 1818, she published a pamphlet titled A Plan for Improving Female Education, in which she set out “to convince the public, that a reform, with respect to female education, is necessary; that it cannot be effected by individual exertion, but that it requires the aid of the legislature; and further, by shewing the justice, the policy, and the magnanimity of such an undertaking, to persuade that body to endow a seminary for females, as the commencement of such reformation.” Decades before the pathbreaking feminist and cultural critic Margaret Fuller insisted that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Willard argued that raising the character of half of society raises the whole of society. She entreated politicians and legislators to put their pen and funding behind this obvious yet radical equation. Writing 100 years before American women earned the right to vote and thus to steer the course of their country, she appealed to the patriotic spirit by framing the advancement and empowerment of women as a pathway to progress and a means to attaining “unparalleled glory” for the nation:

Ages have rolled away; — barbarians have trodden the weaker sex beneath their feet; — tyrants have robbed us of the present light of heaven, and fain would take its future. Nations, calling themselves polite, have made us the fancied idols of a ridiculous worship, and we have repaid them with ruin for their folly. But where is that wise and heroic country, which has considered, that our rights are sacred, though we cannot defend them? that… we are an essential part of the body politic, whose corruption or improvement must affect the whole?

When the Governor of Vermont refused to fund such an institution, Willard took her plan to New York. In the spring of 1819, she opened the Academy for Female Education, soon the Troy Female Seminary — an experimental school in upstate New York, which New York’s Governor Clinton proudly lauded as “the only attempt ever made in this country to promote the education of the female sex by the patronage of government.” Willard immersed her pupils not only in geography and history, but in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, higher mathematics, and rigorous physical education. (A lifelong advocate of physical fitness herself — a rarity among women in the era — she saw the vitality of the mind as inseparable from the vitality of the body and exercised vigorously each morning, well into old age.)

Pupils at the Emma Willard School in the early twentieth century.

This bold experiment spread across the nation and became the model for a new breed of “female academies” (including Mount Holyoke, where the adolescent Emily Dickinson received her education and composed her stunning herbarium at the intersection of poetry and science). Eager to take her educational ideals beyond the classroom walls, Willard commenced her career as a textbook author and mapmaker. In her eighty-three years, she embodied her contemporary and kindred spirit Elizabeth Peabody’s insight into midlife and the art of self-renewal. In her forties, Willard taught herself mapmaking and wrote poetry and ran her school and labored tirelessly on the broader project of education reform in America. In her fifties, she continued publishing authoritative textbooks on history and geography, mentoring young reformers, and traveling the world to survey other educational enterprises. In her sixties, she wrote about astronomy and authored a groundbreaking book on cardiovascular health.

Diagram of diurnal rotation from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854 Climate zones by length of day from Willard’s Astronography, or, Astronomical Geography, 1854
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“We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston wrote in 1928 as he contemplated belonging and the web of life. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” The geologist Hans Cloos, a contemporary of Beston’s, complemented the sentiment beautifully in reflecting on our conversations with the planet: “We translate the earth’s language into our own, and enrich the already bright and colorful surface of the present with the knowledge of the inexhaustible abundance of the past.”

As we learn to translate the language of nature, there is more than mere astonishment at what we uncover; at the knowledge — nascent to science, ancient to native cultures the world over — of what trees feel and how they communicate, or of how other animal consciousnesses experience the world. There is magic — the realest, rawest form of magic we can access in an unsuperstitious world grounded in science but willing to soar beyond it, into other, non-materialist modes of perception.

That is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores with equal parts scientific curiosity and reverence for native wisdom in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library).

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane — a visual dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming nature’s language

Abram writes:

Magic… in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives — from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself — is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.

[…]

Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

And yet a defining feature of what makes us human — our imagination — is predicated on a recognition of this sensorial interrelation. Two centuries after William Blake wrote in his searing defense of the imagination that “the tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way, [for] as a man is, so he sees,” Abram writes:

That which we call imagination is from the first an attribute of the senses themselves; imagination is not a separate mental faculty (as we so often assume) but is rather the way the senses themselves have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given, in order to make tentative contact with the other sides of things that we do not sense directly, with the hidden or invisible aspects of the sensible.

Echoing naturalist John Muir’s poetic observation that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” and philosopher Alan Watts’s admonition that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Abram considers the relationship between perception, sensation, and reality beyond our isolated experience:

The “real world” in which we find ourselves, then — the very world our sciences strive to fathom — is not a sheer “object,” not a fixed and finished “datum” from which all subjects and subjective qualities could be pared away, but is rather an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience lived through from many different angles. The mutual inscription of others in my experience, and (as I must assume) of myself in their experiences, effects the interweaving of our individual phenomenal fields into a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or “reality.”

And yet, as we know from our everyday experience, the phenomenal world is remarkably stable and solid; we are able to count on it in so many ways, and we take for granted much of its structure and character. This experienced solidity is precisely sustained by the continual encounter with others, with other embodied subjects, other centers of experience. The encounter with other perceivers continually assures me that there is more to any thing, or to the world, than I myself can perceive at any moment. Besides that which I directly see of a particular oak tree or building, I know or intuit that there are also those facets of the oak or building that are visible to the other perceivers that I see. I sense that that tree is much more than what I directly see of it, since it is also what the others whom I see perceive of it; I sense that as a perceivable presence it already existed before I came to look at it, and indeed that it will not dissipate when I turn away from it, since it remains an experience for others — not just for other persons, but… for other sentient organisms, for the birds that nest in its branches and for the insects that move along its bark, and even, finally, for the sensitive cells and tissues of the oak itself, quietly drinking sunlight through its leaves. It is this informing of my perceptions by the evident perceptions and sensations of other bodily entities that establishes, for me, the relative solidity and stability of the world.

Illustration by Matthew Forsythe from The Golden Leaf

This recognition of the reality of other experiences calls to mind the distinction philosopher Martin Buber drew nearly a century earlier between the I-It and I-Thou orientations toward what is other than oneself. And this recognition, Abram argues, is the key to redeeming our connection to the rest of nature and the more-than-human world, so artificially severed in modern Western culture. “We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov captured this modern hijacking of our essence in her exquisite poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World.” Abram considers what it takes for us to heal the artificial severance into parallels and re-intersect our own experience with the manifold realities of that “other” world:

Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animistic, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies. And yet most of us seem, today, very far from such experience. Trees rarely, if ever, speak to us; animals no longer approach us as emissaries from alien zones of intelligence; the sun and the moon no longer draw prayers from us but seem to arc blindly across the sky.

[…]

We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and to experience, once again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world… This breathing landscape is no longer just a passive backdrop against which human history unfolds, but a potentized field of intelligence in which our actions participate.

In the remainder of the altogether enchanting The Spell of the Sensuous, Abrams visits with various native cultures to learn from their wisdom and mirror it back through the lens of a more-than-scientific understanding of the world. Complement it with a lovely illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature, then revisit the great marine biologist and poetic science writer Rachel Carson, who awakened the modern ecological conscience, on science and our spiritual bond with nature.

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“The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth… The perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth….”

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in one of her characteristic asides of immense insight as she considered the dying art of letter writing. This may be the most elemental paradox of existence: We yearn for permanence and stability despite a universe of constant change as a way of hedging against the inescapable fact of our mortality, our own individual impermanence. And yet this faulty coping mechanism results not in immortality but in complacency, stagnation, a living death. Emerson captured this paradox with sundering precision as he weighed the key to personal growth: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

That is what Emerson’s contemporary and collaborator, the great education reformer Elizabeth Peabody (May 16, 1804–January 3, 1894), explores in an 1838 letter to her friend Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister, included in Figuring. (Peabody’s own sister, Sophia, would eventually marry Hawthorne, living through his conflicted romantic attachment to Herman Melville.)

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

As a child, Peabody had taught herself Latin and Greek in order to access the world’s wisdom and cut off her curls in revolt against her culture’s preoccupation with young women’s appearance rather than their minds. She learned astronomy and geography in an era when higher education was not available to women and become the first woman allowed into Boston’s only lending library. (The exception only lasted a month, during which she borrowed twenty-one books.) In her ninety years, Peabody founded the first English-language kindergarten in America, translated the first American edition of Buddhist scripture, launched the country’s first foreign-language bookstore and circulating library, coined the term Transcendentalism to define the philosophical current sweeping New England, and introduced the king and queen of Transcendentalism. The epitome of intellectual restlessness and creative self-reinvention, she never married — she lived a life her younger sister described as one of “high thinking and plain living.”

Quoting advice a friend had once given her, Peabody writes:

The perilous time for the most highly gifted is not youth. The holy sensibilities of genius — for all the sensibilities of genius are holy — keep their possessor essentially unhurt as long as animal spirits and the idea of being young last; but the perilous season is middle age, when a false wisdom tempts them to doubt the divine origin of the dreams of their youth; when the world comes to them, not with the song of the siren, against which all books warn us, but as a wise old man counselling acquiescence in what is below them.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Peabody ends with the admonition that the path to complacency is paved with complacent companions:

No being of a social nature can be entirely beyond the tendency to fall to the level of his associates.

The antidote to stagnation, therefore, lies in surrounding oneself with people of creative vitality. The pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell — a contemporary of Peabody’s and a key figure in Figuring — would articulate this beautifully two decades later in contemplating how we co-create one another and recreate ourselves through friendship: “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware.”

Complement with the pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at age 93, on creative vitality and how working with love prolongs your life.

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A reading from “Figuring” with original music by Yo-Yo Ma, a stunning rendition of the 19-century parlor song “Beautiful Dreamer” by Esperanza Spalding, and a family of friends speaking out against injustice in the universal language of sympathy.

“You must cherish one another. You must work — we all must work — to make this world worthy of its children,” Pablo Casals, the greatest cellist of the first half of the twentieth century, counseled humanity in the final years of a long life filled with music as a conduit of beauty and cross-cultural understanding.

Casals’s words fall heavy on the heart in an era when the world’s children are not cherished but detained at national borders, treated not as radiant beacons of our shared future but as criminals. To any conscionable human, witnessing such inhumanity is at once utterly infuriating and utterly helpless-making — a devastating syncopation of feelings.

Moved by this injustice, my dear friend Morley — immensely gifted musician, U.N. Peace Ambassador, golden-hearted human being — set out to buoy the heavy, helpless heart with the universal language of sympathy and consolation: music. She summoned a family of friends to produce Borderless Lullabies — a compilation of twenty songs and spoken-word pieces, with 100% of proceeds benefiting KIND: Kids In Need of Defense, a wonderful nonprofit that partners with pro-bono attorney at law firms and law schools to represent unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in their deportation proceedings, ensuring that no child stands in court alone. Most of the kids KIND serves have fled severe violence in their home countries, and many have been abandoned, abused, or trafficked, only to find new traumas in wait when they arrive in the alleged land of freedom and possibility in search of safety.

When Morley asked me to read from the prelude of Figuring as one of the two spoken-word pieces on the record, I in turn asked Yo-Yo Ma — the greatest cellist since Casals, and one of the most generous, largehearted humans and humanitarians I have the honor of knowing, who has spent more than two decades building cross-cultural bridges of collaboration and understanding with his Silkroad project — to accompany the reading with something beautiful and thematically apt. He found the perfect sonic and symbolic counterpart — the vintage folk lullaby “Nana” by Manuel de Falla, one of the greatest composers of Casals’s era and culture — and beckoned it back to life on his enchanted cello, with Kathryn Scott on piano. Please enjoy the free stream below and join us in making a dent in the monolith of injustice by purchasing Borderless Lullabies.

BORDERLESS LULLABIES: "Figuring" by Maria Popova with Yo-Yo Ma - SoundCloud
(192 secs long, 4179 plays)Play in SoundCloud

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

[…]

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.

[…]

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

Also featured on the record is a stunning rendition of Stephen Foster’s 1862 parlor song “Beautiful Dreamer” by another titanic contemporary musician: the Grammy-winning jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who has a penchant for breathing new life into centuries-old classics and who cites Yo-Yo Ma as one of her key influences — a lovely reminder that, as Pete Seeger observed, “all of us, we’re links in a chain, and if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.” Here is to unlinking the artificial chains of bordered bigotry so that we may honor the most natural linkage of human to human, generation to generation, dreamer to dreamer.

BORDERLESS LULLABIES: "Beautiful Dreamer" by Esperanza Spalding - SoundCloud
(171 secs long, 2198 plays)Play in SoundCloud

“Beautiful Dreamer” sheet music, first edition, 1864

Other original music and readings on the record include Lizz Wright, Somi, Jacqueline Woodson with Chris Bruce, Cellogram with Arian Saleh, Elio Villafranca, Travis Knapp, Alejandro Urias, Jamia Wilson with Travis Sullivan, Chris Connelly, and Morley herself. Also included are recordings of previously released music by Draco Rosa, Martha Redbone, Rosanne Cash, Tendor Dorjee, Leni Stern, Karavika, Taína Asili, and Meryl Streep (who sings the Victorian lullaby her mother used to sing to her), generously donated to the project by the artists. Special thanks to my pal Shantell Martin for making the lovely cover art.

Borderless Lullabies is available on a pay-what-you-can model — from the at-cost minimum of $18 to anything more you feel this labor of love is worth, to you and the world.

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“The best of Men have but a portion of good in them — a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence — by which a Man is propell’d to act and strive and buffet with Circumstance.”

“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sings in the gorgeous song based on her father’s poem of the same title, “You do not know / What wars are going on / Down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” A generation earlier, the psychologist turned pioneering sculptor Anne Truitt wrote in her uncommonly insightful diary: “I have always been mystified by the speed with which people condemn one another… This seems to give them intense pleasure. Whenever I am tempted by this pleasure, I remember some impulse in myself that could have led me, granted certain circumstances, into the condemned position. This has caused me to distrust the part of myself that would relish self-righteousness.”

The saccharine pleasure of self-righteousness is, upon even the most cursory reflection, incompatible with compassion — with the ability to consider another’s foibles and mistakes with the same generosity of interpretation, in the same breadth of context and character, one would consider one’s own.

That is what the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) explores in one of the timeless treasures collected in his Selected Letters (public library).

Life mask of John Keats by Benjamin Haydon, 1816 (National Portrait Gallery)

In a letter to his dearest friend, penned in early 1818, just before a series of life-blows plunged the young poet into his most harrowing depression yet, Keats writes:

Men should bear with each other — there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye hashed to pieces on his weakest side. The best of Men have but a portion of good in them — a kind of spiritual yeast in their frames which creates the ferment of existence — by which a Man is propell’d to act and strive and buffet with Circumstance.

Only with such a compassionate orientation, Keats suggests, can we begin to care about and durably connect with another. In consonance with Hannah Arendt’s admonition against trying to change those we love, he argues that the healthiest, strongest connection is forged when we willingly face and accept the foibles and peculiarities of the other from the outset:

The sure way… is first to know a Man’s faults, and then be passive, if after that he insensibly draws you towards him then you have no Power to break the link.

Complement this fragment of Keats’s endlessly rewarding Selected Letters — which also gave us his precocious wisdom on the mightiest consolation for a heavy heart, what gives meaning to human existence, how solitude opens up our channels to truth and beauty, and his exquisite love letter to Fanny Brawne — with Carl Sagan on compassion and moving beyond us vs. them and historian Karen Armstrong on compassion and the true meaning of the Golden Rule, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the art of choosing empathy over vengeance.

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