The face of the giant | Wallace Stevens

I thought, on the train, how utterly weI thought, on the train, how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.

-Wallace Stevens

Souvenirs and Prophecies, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1977), note of April 18, 1904, p. 134.

A Little Parenthesis in Eternity

 

NASA image

The last manned moon landing took place on December 11, 1972– nigh on 40 years ago. Whether or not you believe it was real, in the end, that wasn’t the point. The “Space Race” was the capstone of decades of a shared imagination of a future of unlimited promise and wholly unfamiliar, something that shaped literature,  architecture, automobiles, entertainment. Scientific advancement had already been used to kill millions in times of war, but the “atomic age” chose to imagine the positive potential of science, with shivers of recognition of the present moment’s historicity. It could not last, of course, and there may never be another movement like it. But it was beautiful.

“The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty… I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”
~Carl Sagan, Cosmos

“We are travelers on a Cosmic Journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is Eternal... We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to Love, to share. This is a precious moment.It is a little parenthesis in Eternity”
~Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success

Home sweet Milky Way (NASA image)

Initially, I found the second quote attributed to Paulo Coelho. Oh, the perils of seizing pretty quotes on the Internet. On searching around, I found that the exact quote belongs to Deepak Chopra, and that the idea of “parenthesis in eternity” is hardly new. Sir Thomas Browne said it in 1658. John Donne expressed a similar thought in 1624. It’s beautiful indeed to think that a convention of written English took on symbolism so early, before punctuation was even standardized in English. And symbols endure long after their referents have faded into antiquity, like debris floating in space. Speaking of, here’s one last space fact: Voyager 1 is more than 11 billion miles away, and it’s run off 64K of computing power and an eight-track tape deck.

 

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Of Aurora Borealis, Drunken Grandparents, and Boys of Lenawee County

Everyone was talking about seeing the aurora borealis this past week. It was a reminder that this thing I love and obsess about is something many other people love and obsess about as well.

I saw the northern lights when I was 6 years old, and I have never recovered. I will never rest until I see them again.

The circumstances which led me to them were far from ideal. How can one put this delicately…. one can’t. My father’s parents were horrible people. Had they lived in different times, they probably would have ended up on the news for how they abused their children, and/or on reality TV for how they drank, fought, and struggled with one another. But the downside of the fabulous, stylish, future-loving 50s was that tendency to look the other way on things that really shouldn’t have been tolerated.

An ugly digression about a topic so beautiful. Can’t be helped, I’m afraid.

Fast forward many years. My father had always tried to maintain a relationship with his parents, even as he became a miserable, violent alcoholic himself. There were some wild family barbeques, let me tell you. Anyway, my father’s father had a stroke when I was five, becoming paralyzed on one side and causing a kind of forced détente, at least temporarily. My father’s mother still wanted to go out to bars and bingo on weekend nights, so my father would take care of his father every Friday or Saturday evening. We didn’t have a washing machine in our tiny rental Cape Cod, so my mother would usually schlep the dirty laundry and me to spend the evening there as well. She often drove separately because my grandmother tended not to come home before one or two a.m., at which point my father could leave.

So it was on a winter night in 1989 that my mother and I were heading home from Zilwaukee to Midland along country roads unpolluted by light, and we saw them.

The Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis. A pink-and-green light show across the sky.

It was one of those moments where everything you sense becomes tied together. Belinda Carlisle on the radio. The aftertaste of root beer still in my mouth. The way our Mercury Capri (with its big bubble rear window) was always a little drafty and always smelled faintly of antifreeze. I couldn’t forget one part of it without forgetting them all, and that was impossible.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay–The Leaf and the Tree

Edna St. Vincent Millayleaf and tree

THE LEAF AND THE TREE

When will you learn, myself, to be
a dying leaf on a living tree?
Budding, swelling, growing strong,
Wearing green, but not for long,
Drawing sustenance from air,
That other leaves, and you not there,
May bud, and at the autumn’s call
Wearing russet, ready to fall?
Has not this trunk a deed to do
Unguessed by small and tremulous you?
Shall not these branches in the end
To wisdom and the truth ascend?
And the great lightning plunging by
Look sidewise with a golden eye
To glimpse a tree so tall and proud
It sheds its leaves upon a cloud?

Here, I think, is the heart’s grief:
The tree, no mightier than the leaf,
Makes firm its root and spreads it crown
And stands; but in the end comes down.
That airy top no boy could climb

Is trodden in a little time
By cattle on their way to drink.
The fluttering thoughts a leaf can think,
That hears the wind and waits its turn,
Have taught it all a tree can learn.
Time can make soft that iron wood.
The tallest trunk that ever stood,
In time, without a dream to keep,
Crawls in beside the root to sleep.

 

Ted Roethke–In a Dark Time

In A Dark Time
Theodore Roethke

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.