The Universe in Verse

This past Saturday, I watched a livestream. Perhaps my first ever. The event was The Universe in Verse, billed as “a charitable celebration of science and nature through poetry.” (Here’s a link with more info from Pioneer Works, the Brooklyn-based cultural center that puts on the show: The Universe in Verse.)

There were two names on the program that got me to tune in: Janna Levin and Rebecca Solnit. I saw Janna Levin speak at Tulane University several years ago, and picked up a copy of her book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space. And Rebecca Solnit is a writer whom I greatly admire.

Oh, and these other names helped sell me on the prospect of spending Saturday afternoon in front of my laptop: Kip Thorne, Brian Greene, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, and Jad Abumrad.

At over three hours, I was glad I was watching a livestream versus an in-person event. I could carry my laptop around with me as I did stuff around the house. And by the end, I was happy to have experienced it. It helped get my head in a better place.

Some highlights for me: watching Rebecca Solnit read a lovely poem (I don’t remember which one) in front of an oak tree, somewhere out in California, I think. I’d never seen her before, I’ve only read her, and she had a very compelling presence. And Janna Levin, who opened the event (she’s on the Board of Directors for Pioneer Works) got me thinking back to an inspiration I had, when I saw her here 4 years ago. She told a story about something that happened during the construction of LIGO (the two observatories that detected gravitational waves — one of them just happens to be here in Louisiana). I’ve only just started getting that inspiration out of my head and onto the page, and this event reminded me that I’ve got to make the time for it.

I’ll leave you with one of the poems that stood out to me — it’s a short one. It was read by Krista Tippett of the radio program “On Being.”

The Peace of Wild Things
Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.  I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Nine Years In

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

March 27 has significance to me. And not because it’s a nephew’s birthday (sorry, Matt.) Specifically, the date of March 27, 2010, is a date I note for very personal reasons.

It’s the day I became a writer.

But that’s an oversimplification. Big time. The process of “becoming” anything is more evolutionary than instantaneous. It’s more accurate to state that March 27, 2010, is “the first day I committed words to paper, with the intent of weaving those words into a long-form story.” Or, it’s “the day I began to write fiction.” But I think saying it’s the day I became a writer sounds more compelling.

I’ll set the stage. I was six months into my forties. I had run my third marathon about two months prior. It was a Saturday night, and I was in New Holland, Pennsylvania on a business trip. (I’ll save the details on that trip for some other post, that I may or may not ever write).

There was definitely a “what’s next?” question looming in my mind. And there had been amorphous story ideas floating around in there, too. But those were all laid atop a lifelong desire to write that I had managed to tamp down, or ignore, up to that point. I would tell myself, “I’m too busy trying to make a living,” or, “it’s not a practical use of my time.”

I was in need of a catalyst. And that quick, quiet, trip to New Holland provided it.

That weekend, I saw a lot of horse-drawn buggies like the one pictured at the top of this post. Add a covering, and a prominent caution triangle fixed at the rear, and you’ll get the idea. Perhaps it was an appropriate symbol for the speed of my nascent writing career. It would be three years before I’d share anything I’d written, and another three before I was ready to share with the wider world.

So, on this nine-year anniversary, do I have any regrets? Absolutely. There are plenty of things I would do differently, now that I have the benefit of hindsight. But things don’t work that way. And I have ZERO regrets about embarking down this path.

There’s a piece of writing advice I keep bookmarked on my phone. I go to it whenever I need encouragement, which is often. So I’ll conclude by sharing this excerpt — it’s an apt description of my beginnings:

Write a lot. Maybe at the outset you’ll be like a toddler—the terrible twos are partly about being frustrated because you’re smarter than your motor skills or your mouth, you want to color the picture, ask for the toy, and you’re bumbling, incoherent and no one gets it, but it’s not only time that gets the kid onward to more sophistication and skill, it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words. — From “How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit”

Solstice and Solnit

Sunrise / Moonset in San Luis Obispo. Around the time of summer’s end, last year.

Last night at 11:24 pm (Central Time), summer began. It feels a bit ironic that the point when we mark the most daylight in the Northern Hemisphere—the most we’re going to get in 2017—happens in the middle of the night here. I think this has something to do with New Orleans being five hours behind the prime meridian, but I could be wrong.

I wrote a few weeks ago about looking forward to the solstice. I’ve always been a summer person. Maybe the thing I like most about the summer is the sunlight. When things feel uncertain—and so much about everything feels uncertain right now—I’m grateful that abundant daylight can illuminate the shadows.

To mention a few geographically-specific uncertainties: there’s a tropical storm (named Cindy) currently headed for our coast. And one of southern Louisiana’s Congressmen lies in serious condition in a hospital in Washington, DC, after a horrific shooting. These are some bleak shadows. While I don’t need to hope that the sun will come out after this storm (because barring something catastrophic, it will); I am hoping that abundant light and goodwill will help Congressman Scalise to a rapid recovery.

There’s another thing I like about summer. It may be a holdover from my school days, but I still appreciate the freedom summer affords. To learn outside of textbooks or prescribed courses. I write this even though I’ve been out of school a really long time—by now, I’ve been out of school longer than I was ever in school. But I have a mighty long memory.

Speaking of learning and shining a light, an essay from the writer Rebecca Solnit popped up in my social media feeds last week. There’s a specific reason I hold Rebecca Solnit in high regard, but I’ll get to that in a bit. The piece that was making the rounds was a very eloquent essay on our President. Here’s a link to it, but fair warning: if you are pro-this-particular-President, it is not a complimentary assessment.

One of the reasons why I know of Rebecca Solnit: she co-wrote a book titled Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. I don’t own this book, but I have given it as a gift. But here’s the real source of my admiration: she wrote an essay last fall that I keep (permanently) on my phone’s browser. It’s called: “How to be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit.

I refer to it whenever I need to shine a light on my writing habits. Or just need a little encouragement. Every bit of advice in it is thoughtful, useful, and truthful. I’m hard-pressed to excerpt a “favorite,” but No. 9 feels particularly salient for a little-known writer with earnest intentions (guess who?)

What we call success is very nice and comes with useful byproducts, but success is not love, or at least it is at best the result of love of the work and not of you, so don’t confuse the two. Cultivating love for others and maybe receiving some for yourself is another job and an important one. The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.”

Illuminating words, indeed.