Friday, November 26, 2021

Thanks-Giving



In our lives, we are all the keepers of stories.  These narratives tell us where we came from and who we are.  They also hint, for the young, at who we will become.

Yesterday, we gathered with family for Thanksgiving.  We told stories, some old and often repeated down through the years, and some new and tinged with sepia sadness at those no longer present, who live on only in our memories.  They are our recent losses, those of blessed memory.  Of course, we were also creating stories in present tense, right then and there:  my grand-niece’s first Thanksgiving.  Stories multiply and branch out from other stories to become trees reaching down to the past and up to the future.

As I watched people, I could read them as stories.  Or, at the very least, I could imagine them as characters in a larger fabric of our existence:  a crazy quilt of many colors, a host of fall-colored autumnal trees, strong and true.

Then, last night, I dreamed I told too many stories.  I had revealed too much, giving away secrets and the keys to the kingdom.  I awoke before the consequences of my storytelling were known.

But to reach maximum velocity, a story must put someone at risk:  the characters, the narrator, the storyteller.  Conflict and jeopardy rule the day in a good story.  They are the building blocks, the central core of any narrative, in truth or imagination.  Therefore, a storyteller must be brave.  We cannot tremble in darkness, nor should we shun the light.  Stand tall and simply tell it straight and true.  Relish the recitation; revel in its revealing detail.  The story is us.  And the keeper of stories is a trust sacred to this world.  For the storytellers and the stories, we give thanks.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Dear Memory

 

In this haunting and luminous work, Victoria Chang gives us a series of epistles and found collages to address the melancholic remembrances of things past.  Dear Memory:  Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief (Milkweed Editions, 2021) is an elegy and lament for the dead and gone:  her ancestors, her teachers, and friends.  She quotes poet Mary Jo Bang:  “What is an elegy but the attempt / To rebreathe life / Into what the gone once was…”  The book is filled with light and shadow, the pneuma of humanity and the human condition.  More poetry than prose, the book is a connotative tour de force of what it means to be alive and to live with the breath of memory and regret.

Chang is a poet, a teacher, and program chair in the Creative Writing Department at Antioch University.  She believes in writing that puts language at risk, allowing words to build into something beyond the self.  She asks:  “Can I be the hawk and the storm that tries to murder the hawk?”  The question is fraught with danger.  She confronts and sifts through memory and goes directly to how our lives often play out in the blood, the DNA of who we are, and what we do with our brief time in this human epoch.  She documents the sorrow and grace of her existence, both visually and in words.  “Perhaps something never happened if no one remembers it,” she writes.  “Perhaps there’s no truth.  Just memory and words.”

Coupled with her words are these haunting collages, many composed of documents and paper fragments of her past.  She writes dialogue with her mother directly in the spaces on each picture as if conducting an interview.  Other collages are family photographs, some with faces etched out as if demonstrating how they dwell in the shadows of her history.  Collectively, the collages tell the parallel story; they weave into and out of the word-epistles.  The letters and the collages are rare jewels.  They both enhance and magnify the threads that bind the story together from word to image.  Her poet’s sense of the spare and lyrical is ever-present in the art and the words.

Often, Chang’s language stuns us with its beauty and insight.  “Maybe our desire for the past grows after the decay of our present, she writes.  “When the present is more than we can hold, it turns into history.  And the future turns into water.  The water between your countries.”  It is this water that her family journeyed over to find their destiny.  Chang feels her place in America, but the book she creates also pays homage to those who made that journey and who, in turn, made her a unique part of a new nation, a new home.  This is an immigrant story, and Chang pays artful attention to this most American of ideas.  She wonders if memory is different for immigrants, “for people who leave so much behind.  Memory isn’t something that blooms but something that bleeds internally, something to be stopped.  Memory hides because it isn’t useful.”  It is clearly the calling of the poet-artist to bring the memory forward, to shine light, muted or harsh, to illuminate the darkness of experience, of grief, of sorrow, of regret.

There are gaps in her family history that she does not fully understand and wants to explore.  Memories, dreams, reflections, all kaleidoscope together in the form of questions she did not ask at the time, or did not find the answers to later.  “The things that didn’t matter at the time are often the most urgent questions after someone has died,” she writes.

She devotes much to a discussion of silence and grief.  What is not said speaks volumes.  It is silence that cannot be undone, and in that way, Chang tells us, it is like death.  The story ends when no one remembers the words, the people in the photographs, the significance of things.  But the dead are wise.  They know things.  “By the time we die,” Chang writes, “we know everything we need to know.”  Those of us left behind must wonder what the dead have taken with them.  It is up to the living to remember the strands of the story and continue it.

Chang circles back to writing at the end.  She recognizes that dragging a “not-yet-ready memory” into the light is often painful.  It is difficult and lacerating.  “More and more,” she writes, “I think writing is not a choice but an act of patience.  An act of listening to silence, into silence.”  It is in silence that, paradoxically, we hear voices.  In silence, we communicate with the dead, with our own souls, and where the world is still enough to hear our own breath rushing in and out of our lives.  It takes bravery and courage to listen to the silences and become aware.  Victoria Chang models such heroism for us, and the result is a shimmering and beautiful book.


Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Anvils, Mallets & Dynamite

Jaime Weinman, in his book Anvils, Mallets & Dynamite:  The Unauthorized Biography of Looney Tunes (Sutherland House, 2021) takes a deep dive into the legendary and wildly popular Warner Brothers cartoons created between 1930 and 1963 featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester and Tweety, and the irrepressible Foghorn Leghorn among a host of others.  The cartoons were created to be the hors d’oeuvre to the main course of whatever Warner Brothers picture was scheduled at the local movie theater, but most of us of a certain age remember Bugs and company from Saturday mornings on one of the big three networks back in the day.

I have some specific memories of these beloved cartoons.  While my mother slept in, I would take some money from her purse and bike to the local Alta Dena bakery for a dozen chocolate and a dozen powdered donuts.  While my siblings and I munched away, we watched the Road Runner continually outwit Wile E. Coyote, leaving him smashed, bashed, and broken.  We watched while Bugs dressed as a woman to seduce the rather thick Elmer Fudd and send him off to hunt Daffy instead of Bugs, thoroughly convinced it was duck season instead of “wabbit” season.  No Beanie and Cecil for me, and Scooby Doo’s stoner act got old quickly.  Bugs Bunny, the trickster extraordinaire, never seemed tired.  Considering we were watching cartoons created in the 1940s and 1950s, our interest never waned even as we watched from the far future of the late 1960s and 70s.

Looney Tunes could be violent, and the popular characters rarely faced consequences for their actions, but we loved them.  Weinman theorizes that kids did not always connect with Looney Tunes characters “because we know that nothing has consequences for them, and they seem to know it too.”  I admired Bugs’ facility with words, his ability to con Porky or Elmer or Daffy, and always come out on top.  Rarely is he flustered or thrown off his game.  Weinman believes the cartoons adopted an “anything for a laugh” philosophy, which “isn’t what we expect of first-rate art.”  Is a cartoon first-rate art?  Arguably, yes!

Weinman goes on to write that “To celebrate the greatness of works of art, you have to acknowledge their limitations, the sides of the world that they don’t or can’t see.  Looney Tunes cartoons leave out a lot of human experience, and speak to only one kind of mood.  But what we ask of art is not that it tell us everything, but that it tell us something, that it have a style and a viewpoint that makes sense to us.  Every good Looney Tunes cartoon has that.”

The book offers a deep and well-researched history of the cartoons, along with how characters were perceived by the public, which ones became popular, and which ones were eventually phased out.  There were also several instances in their long history that characters were subtly, or even dramatically altered when different animation teams and producers took over.  Many of the most successful characters had speech impediments exploited for humor, something in our more careful age would not fly.  But these “vocal quirks” endeared them to audiences over generations.  It is also interesting to note which characters the studio thought would be the breakout stars.  For instance, they placed their faith in Daffy Duck as the definitive Looney Tunes cartoon character.  Of course, Bugs Bunny changed that.  The cartoons also attacked common themes in the culture, like hunting as a sign of manliness.  Porky Pig destroyed that fanciful notion, as did Elmer Fudd in his hunting cap, chasing both Bugs and Daffy with disastrous results.  However, Weinman points out that what makes Looney Tunes great is the ability of the writers and artists “to portray the maximum amount of comedy violence while still being charming, fun, family entertainment.”

Of course, the cartoons were produced during some of the most fraught times in the twentieth century, and they often reflected those crises specifically or tangentially.  When the cartoons were combined into packages and sold into syndication, several were removed for their overt racism.  They were singled out for their racist stereotypes and black-face gags, wholly inappropriate today and in the late 1960s and 1970s when they were a major block of Saturday morning programming for kids.

So what happened to Bugs and the gang?  Well, the syndication packages were divided and reassembled and then redivided again.  Many are available on YouTube.  Check your local listings, as the saying goes.  The characters did return to prominence in the Space Jam movies, the most successful project for Looney Tunes since the original Warner Brothers cartoon studio shut down.

If you are a fan of the cartoons, Jaime Weinman’s book is a must-have.  For the casual cartoon connoisseur, or someone who remembers the taste of chocolate and powdered donuts on a Saturday morning along with the telescoping concentric circles receding into the distance with “That’s all Folks!” that marked the end of each cartoon, this is an insightful and interesting book, as much about childhood and memory as American culture and a rabbit, who despite the odds, always came out on top, the trickster heading off into the sunset, on top of the world.

 


Sunday, November 7, 2021

Burning Boy

What makes American writer Stephen Crane unique, according to Paul Auster, author of Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (Henry Holt and Company, 2021), is the cinematic nature of his art.  It is “as if each sentence were a small work in itself, a separate photograph or drawing to be contemplated for a moment before the next one replaces it.”  This is “what one might call a cinematic style before the language of movies had been invented.”  This is not a style found just in Crane’s masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage; his cinematic style can be found throughout his work.

Auster attributes this to the way Crane saw his world.  “Every sound triggered off a color in his mind,” he writes, and he found it strange that others did not have a similar reaction.  Sounds could be colors, but he also found color in emotions and “various shades of thought.  These responses were felt deep within and absorbed into Crane’s body, which was the site of a constant inrush of raw sensation, and not only can traces of these collisions between the outside and the inside be found all over his work, it seems perfectly plausible that a man with such a finely tuned nervous system should have been known for his darting, restless, inconstant personality.”

Crane left behind no journals or notebooks to let us know what he was thinking and feeling when he wrote and lived.  Everything comes down to his writing—his journalism, novels, and most especially, his short fiction, albeit it an original story or a retelling of his life experiences.  So Auster relies on the letters, journals, recollections and unpublished memoirs of others to fill in the considerable gaps in Crane’s life.  He also devotes a sizable portion of the real estate in this comprehensive and exhaustively researched book to lit-crit analysis and evaluation of the writer’s oeuvre.  His audience is “the invisible army of so-called general readers, that is, people who are not academics or writers themselves, the same people who still take pleasure in reading old standbys such as Melville and Whitman…”  His concern is that Crane is no longer read by anyone anymore.  Crane has a place in the American canon, and although he is best known for The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets, Auster discusses the full range of Crane’s work, including his startlingly dark and beautiful poetry.

Crane also died young of tuberculosis and other ailments that robbed him of life at the age of 28.  “When an artist dies at such a young age,” Auster writes, “it is impossible not to wonder what kind of work that artist would have done later in life.”  Auster convinces the reader that Crane packed a full life into his years, but they were not always pleasant.  He battled constant financial jeopardy, and he wrote much of his work in a frantic effort to stave off the bill collectors and debts he accumulated.

Stephen Crane was born into a large family of fourteen brothers and sisters.  His hallmark traits were stubbornness and absolute truthfulness.  He did not take to college and found “Humanity was a much more interesting study.”  He read voraciously on his own and worked as a journalist to get more experience in the world and to practice his craft.  Auster sums up his style this way:  “Crane’s obsessions and stylistic trademarks:  an abundant use of color imagery to express both emotional states and sensory experiences, a gift for unexpected metaphors and jolting similes, an animistic view of the natural world (the trees, stones, and plants in the woods are alive), a dispassionate approach to character that posits the isolation of the individual in the face of an indifferent universe, and a close scrutiny of the metaphysics of fear, the same fear that runs through every paragraph of The Red Badge of Courage…”  He did his best work when “he was afraid, trembling in his bones and scarcely aware of what he was doing—or why he was doing it.”

When writing a biography, one can become an apologist for the subject’s bad behavior.  Auster does a little of this with Crane.  He claims that Crane did not “hate people who were not like himself.  He simply did not understand them, and rather than make the effort to penetrate their thinking or attempt to see the world through their eyes, he stood back and watched, either with indifference (immigrants) or fascination (Indians) but nearly always with a sense that the person he was looking at was alien to him, an inscrutable Other.”  One would expect Crane to observe and report, the twin responsibilities of a journalist.  He was also a product of his time.

Crane was a man with a strong creed to which he swore absolute fidelity:  “we are the most successful in art when we approach the nearest to nature and truth.”  Auster does an excellent job of getting to Crane’s “nature and truth,” even if the windows into the interior were limited to the work and his letters.  He recognizes Crane’s obsession with death and dying.  He offers up the central events of Crane’s life, especially when he nearly drowned off the coast of Florida, an experience that became the basis for his short story, “The Open Boat.”  We learn of his consorting with prostitutes and his battles to be with his companion, Cora.  He walks us through the final days as the writer slipped away, giving us his most poignant last words:  “I leave here gentle, seeking to do good, firm, resolute, impregnable.”

Paul Auster demonstrates the value and necessity of Stephen Crane’s work.  His writer’s philosophy to “strip it to the bone…” and “say as much as you can by saying as little as you can,” resonates today.  However, Auster also reflects on Crane’s larger importance to our culture as he writes the last sentences of this book in the early days of 2020:  “[Crane’s] books are being forgotten again.  It is a dark time for America, a dark time everywhere, and with so much happening to erode our certainties about who we are and where we are going next, perhaps the moment has come to dig the burning boy out of his grave and start remembering him again.  The prose still crackles, the eye still cuts, the work still stings.  Does any of this matter to us anymore?  If it does, and one can only hope it does, attention must be paid.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Land of Childhood

Claudia Lars, author of Land of Childhood (iUniverse, 2003), has constructed a memoir that evokes all the nostalgia, poignancy, and sheer joy of being a child in her native El Salvador.  It is a warm and beautiful place, a sensual feast for the reader.  Lars is one of the greatest writers to come out of Central America, and this book, along with her fourteen books of poetry, has been enjoyed by generations.  For English language readers, this book, translated by her granddaughter, conveys all the richness and beauty of the land along with a plethora of memorable characters who enrich the story with their presence.  Each one teaches the young Lars (real name, Margarita del Carmen Brannon Vega) about life and its truths.  This edition also includes a helpful glossary.

The book is constructed in vignettes, scenes of daily life in the small villages in the Salvadoran countryside.  Lars is a child of an Irish father and a Salvadoran mother, and her history is steeped in story.  Each vignette expands the narrative until the cataclysmic finale and the end of her childhood.

She opens the book with a meditation on the old family house, the strength of its foundations, its “comfortable simplicity.”  Guests come and go in addition to family members who have various roles to play in governing the land.  Her first character is her grandfather, a “primitive being” in his simple life.  His Indian blood makes him sensitive to those who have less, and he often opens his doors to wandering tribes looking for shelter.  From these guests, Lars learns a lot about life.  It is a peaceful, bucolic existence, with time for beauty and observation.

In juxtaposition to the slower-paced life of the old house is the smoking volcano, the rumblings, the lava-spewing in the distance.  It is a reminder that at the horizon, something is always bubbling and oozing and threatening.  The world is always changing.  For children, though, this is the land of adventures, where every day is summer, and fruits and traditional dishes are plentiful.  Lars learns the medicinal properties of plants and herbs.  She watches her aunts cook and clean and keep the old house going.  She studies her grandparents, the Indian grandfather with the more refined Spanish grandmother, a sort of yin and yang.

Her father is Patrick, an Irishman born in America.  He is restless and was a rebellious child, growing into adulthood sailing around the world on cargo ships.  He fell in love with tropical America, first in Panama, where he was given the title of “bachelor of the street,” and then in El Salvador.

This is a book about how children used to occupy themselves without screens and devices.  Lars has ample time in her young life for wonder and investigation.  She and her playmates find ways to entertain themselves.  She loves books but she also loves nature and beauty.  There are mysteries in her life, questions that will not result in clear answers, but the magic of the moment is appreciated for its own value.  She recounts dozens of stories, like the one where her sister gets her head stuck in a metal, helmet-like soup tureen while they are playing soldiers.  It is a moment of panic, but the episode offers its own logic and lesson.  Since Lars had a hand in the mischief, she sustains a spanking by her grandfather (how would that go over today?), but her sister comes into her room late that night to offer a bouquet of flowers.  “I didn’t want Grandfather to punish you,” she says.  Lars struggles with her pride.  She puts on a brave front and says the punishment did not hurt her.  “Maruca placed her cheek against my lips, silencing my words and, after gently stroking my hair, quietly said good-night.”  No one spoke about the incident in the morning.

Lars does not spare the darker nature of childhood, the bullying, the unfairness of things.  But these are the stumbling blocks on the path to wisdom.  Children must experience the dangers, the near-misses of childhood.  That is the only way to grow up and become an adult.  But this is an idyllic childhood, and the events as described lead to a resounding and frightening conclusion that takes her into adulthood.

Her final vignette is for her mother, a discussion with the dead.  “I want to tell you—my beloved dead mother—words I dared not speak before, but that vibrated in the depths of my secrets like little bubbles of love.  I regret not saying them sooner…Nonetheless, I know that silence, that guardian of dreams and songs, was never a cause for misunderstandings between us.”  Her mother was the tranquil, flexible sounding board for Lars’ more stormy, childish explosions.  She lauds her mother’s patience, and has come to believe that her mother embodied the “land of my first joys.”  Those joys are evident on every page of this memoir.  It is a gorgeous, heartfelt book by a great, underappreciated writer from a small country with big dreams.  It is time to share this book with the world and make it required reading everywhere.


Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Snake Pit

Mary Jane Ward began a movement in America to examine mental health facilities’ far from adequate care.  Her novel, The Snake Pit (The Library of America, 2021), did for those imprisoned in these facilities what Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, did for the meat-packing industry.  Her work influenced generations of writers who came after, including two who wrote the most famous novels of mental illness, Sylvia Plath’s, The Bell Jar, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  In its newest incarnation, the 75th anniversary edition published by The Library of America with an afterword by Larry Lockridge, readers once again have the chance to immerse themselves in the frightening world of this autobiographical novel complete with a Reader’s Guide and documents from the notable film version of the book in 1948 starring Olivia de Havilland.

Virginia is the central figure and narrator of the novel.  Other characters are shadowy ghosts on the stage of multiple wards.  Each is distinct in behavior and attributes, but they are not fully developed characters.  They flit in the shadows.  Their indistinctness is a hallmark of Virginia’s view, one clouded by shock therapy and drug-induced lethargy.  Larry Lockridge writes in the afterword that “In someone for whom the center doesn’t hold, other people…are insubstantial and disappearing.”  Even Robert, Virginia’s long-suffering husband is “shadowy.”  In consultation with the doctors, he is Virginia’s advocate, but we get only fragments of his life outside of the institution.  What is he up to?  Is he her advocate, or is he colluding with the doctors?

The book shifts the narrative with Virginia sometimes speaking in first person, sometimes in second or third person, often within a single paragraph.  Her mental state is constantly in flux, and her illness makes her an unreliable narrator.  Occasionally, she confuses her thoughts with her vocalization—is she speaking aloud or just thinking in her head?  The interior monologue might have been voiced or not; her shattering realizations about her condition may be limiting her speech or allowing her to speak all too candidly.  She is locked in the confusion of mental suffering, merging back and forth from clear light and a shadowy netherworld.  For the first fifty pages of the novel, she is unsure where she is:  a hospital, a school?  Only in a moment of clarity does she realize she is in a ward of “women who were insane and she was one of them.”

In this place, the patients wear the soiled rejected clothing of previous patients.  Virginia’s coat has a stain that appears to be vomit.  She asks for her things, her clothes, her glasses, but she is repeatedly denied.  When she is given her glasses, it is a reward she is told she has earned.  The patients have few rights, few privileges, no privacy, and little comfort.  They are treated like animals by the staff; the good nurse is an exception, never the rule.  Every evening, patients are forced to drink paraldehyde, a hypnotic with a strong odor that lingers in their pores and permeates the wards.  Each patient is assigned a job.  Virginia must mop the floor but continually confuses the wet, dirty mop with the clean, dry one.  She is too addled by her illness and treatment to remember which is which.  The patients must line up to use the toilet booths.  These are wooden closets with no toilet seats, toilet paper that must be requested from a nurse, and no privacy.  Virginia is literally afraid of falling in.  Time becomes fragmented in this surreal environment, and she is no longer sure when she arrived at Juniper Hill.  Often these gaps in memory are the result of electro-shock therapy.

Virginia empathizes with her fellow inmates in their shared plight, even as they take cigarettes and food from her.  She progresses from one ward to another, eventually landing in Ward One.  Is this the last stage before she is set free?  She is moved yet again to another ward.  Nothing is clear except that she is a prisoner.

One patient Virginia connects with is Gloria, a friend and companion.  But in the shifting of patients between wards, she loses track of Gloria until towards the end of the novel when she encounters her on the hospital grounds. She is changed, a gruesome shadow of the person she was.

In treatments and daily existence, the patients hope the nightmare will soon be over.  But the suffering feels endless, a prison of one’s worst fears.  Virginia comes to believe that “You could say anything here so long as you did not say the truth.”  The patients try to act and say what they think their custodians want to hear just to be set free.  Their efforts fail.

What has caused Virginia’s breakdown that leads to her incarceration?  The answers come in fragments of Virginia’s shattered psyche.  A fiancĂ© who died, Robert’s best friend:  did her substitute marriage to Robert lead to her downfall?  Was the death of Gordon Timberlake the cause of the psychic implosion?  Her treatment fails to get to the bottom of the situation.  Virginia must try to heal herself.

Ward has some beautiful writing in all of this darkness.  One night finds Virginia gazing at the night sky.  “And the stars had been shining for the first time since last February.  You can go along for weeks maybe months without thinking about the stars,” she says.  “They are there, on clear nights, and you can look at them and say there is the Big Dipper.  You may, if you are not in a hurry, hunt for the Pleiades; but you do not think much about the stars.  They are always there.”

Virginia was a published novelist before her hospitalization, but when she is finally allowed pen, paper, and a typewriter, she can only imitate others:  Hemingway and O. Henry.  She has lost her own words in a kind of internal aphasia.  She ponders the edge of the abyss upon which she stands, asking, “was there a time when you saw, as if at the end of a dark hallway, the light of the outside, a time when you knew you hung at a balance and that such a little push, one way or another, would determine your life?”

Mary Jane Ward’s summation of the plight of the mentally ill is so precise, so spot on.  They are excluded from a world “in which sanity was taken for granted.  In the world outside, people longed desperately to be millionaires, movie actors, club presidents and even…novelists.”  Virginia was somebody once, and she can only hope to return to that life again.  For now, though, she is trapped in the snake pit.  Ward includes the source for her title:  “Long ago they lowered insane persons into snake pits; they thought that an experience that might drive a sane person out of his wits might send an insane person back into sanity.”  Virginia has been thrown into such a pit of vipers, but the shock is her discovery that she could get well.

In such bleak darkness, hope.

 


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Time

Art courtesy of Dreamstimes

“Wonder is the source of our desire for knowledge.”                                                     Aristotle

Time is passing.  We know this.  We feel it in our bones.  We hear it in the work of great artists like Shakespeare.  Whenever I give a workshop on time management, the room, virtual or physical, is packed to the rafters.  Students want to know—how does one manage time?  How does one fit all of life into a twenty-four-hour day?

The bottom line:  we don’t manage time; we manage ourselves.  As Carlo Rovelli and Alan Lightman tell us in recent books, time is not constant and is not what it seems.  Time is part of “that vast nocturnal and star-studded ocean of all that we don’t know,” according to Rovelli.

 

In his book, The Order of Time (Riverhead Books, 2018), Rovelli presents the theoretical physics of time and the universe.  He is the head of the Quantum Gravity group at the Centre de Physique Theorique of Aix-Marseille University.  He begins his book with a simple fact:  time passes faster in the mountains than at sea level.  When the Apollo astronauts returned to Earth, they were older than the colleagues they left behind.  This difference might be measured in nanoseconds, but it is there nonetheless.

We do not need to go back to the past to find accelerated aging among astronauts.  A recent study utilizing Scott and Mark Kelly, twin brothers who are also astronauts, revealed that after a year in space, Scott was older than his Earth-bound sibling.  However, after the mission, he quickly reverted back to match Mark.  It took eight months.

Rovelli makes a key point that time bends with gravity or lack thereof.  The closer one gets to Earth, all processes, including aging, are slower.  If one were to travel to the edge of a black hole, the apotheosis of gravitational pull, time would appear to stand still.  Large masses, like planets, slow down time in their vicinity.  This leads to Rovelli’s next point:  planets far away have their own time.  However, it is more than just gravity.  Light travels to us at 186,000 miles per second.  If we were to look across the galaxy at a planet four-light years away from us, what we see through the lens of the telescope would be what happened four years ago.  The way time behaves on that planet would add an additional wrinkle to the scenario.  And this is not just a phenomenon of space; even across the room, we see the person waving at us nanoseconds after the wave because it takes time for the light to reach our eye and the messages to be sent to the brain, and only then is there recognition, and we wave back.

In pop culture, Star Trek, in all its iterations, is where most people encounter the narrative concept of time travel.  The original series began with the voice of Captain Kirk defining the ship’s mission:  five years to explore the galaxy.  But on a five-year journey to the stars, that means five Earth years.  On other planets in other systems, time might be faster or slower.  So an interstellar traveler might return after five years but be 100 years older or five minutes older.  We exist in our own bubble of time corresponding to Earth time.  The rest of the universe moves to its own dance party.  The conclusion is clear:  time is not a constant and not a reliable measure across the galaxy.  The whole question of when, meaning time, is more about where, as in location.  Location and gravity determine time.

Aristotle was the first to ask about the nature of time.  His conclusion was that time is the measurement of change and things change constantly.  Rovelli draws the line between Aristotle’s work and Sir Isaac Newton, who believed time was an entity that runs even when nothing happens.  In the end, what we know is that time is not definitive.  In fact, past, present and future are not clearly delineated in the equations of the universe.  Rovelli brings his thesis home like this:  “the entire evolution of science would suggest that the best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not permanence.  Not of being, but of becoming.”  And all of it seems to be moving toward entropy.  Clean laundry starts becoming soiled the minute it leaves the dryer.  A clean house will become dusty again.  It is the law of the universe.  Rovelli says Einstein questioned the concept of past, present and future.  Those designations might only be a persistent illusion.

To read Rovelli is to be both reassured that there is an order to the universe, and to be greatly disturbed at the immense size and complexity that eludes total understanding.  Late in the book, he quotes Hugo von Hofmannsthal:  “Everything slips through our fingers.  All that we seek to hold on to dissolves.  Everything vanishes, like mists and dreams…”

 

Alan Lightman is an American physicist who is both a scientist and a brilliant writer.  His book, Probably Impossibilities (Pantheon Books, 2021), dovetails nicely with Rovelli’s work.  He subscribes to the idea that the universe is moving toward entropy, and he discusses time’s arrow, the “forward direction of time is determined by the movement of order to disorder.”  However, Lightman leaves room for the metaphysical in his study of the cosmos.  He brings to the table the story of his own out-of-body experience where life is “a brief flicker in the vast chasm of time.”   He goes on to write that, “My fleeting sensation included infinite space.  Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space stretched on and on.”  He sees in this fever dream himself as a “tiny speck, insignificant,” a sensation that is both “liberating and terrifying” for him.

Lightman emphasizes that we are all composed of atoms.  Our minds are collections of atoms “fated to disassemble and dissolve” at the end of our days.  Yet after we are gone, we remain.  Our atomic components continue on to mix with other atoms and form new life, new structures, always renewing and rejuvenating the universe.  However, our consciousness ends.  Because of that, he has chosen to live in such a way “as to maximize my pleasure and minimize my pain.”  Science becomes life philosophy, and that the value of Lightman’s work in this book.  It is not just science, but a humanist view.  He breaks this down into two schools of thought: the Mechanists who believe that we are made up of processes subject to the laws of chemistry, physics and biology; and Vitalists who recognize a special quality of life, a spiritual force beyond analysis or explanation.  This, then, is the soul, or pneuma, as the Greeks named it, meaning “breath” or “wind.”  It is for the combination of science and spirit that I seek out Lightman.  His work is transcendent and deeply moving for his humanity.  I am comforted by the fact that everyone who has ever lived still remains present at an atomic level.  We are part of everything there is, and in a sense, our atoms are immortal even if our consciousness is not.

This does not stop Lightman from questioning where the dead are now.  This explanation of atoms free-floating through space-time does not assuage his sorrow and longing for those he has lost.  On many days and on many roads, he finds it hard to fathom that they no longer exist and he can no longer communicate with them.  Life is a dream, really, and Lightman cites no less an authority than Emerson:  “Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to the illusion.”

This is the dilemma of conscious beings:  we must witness and reflect on the spectacle of existence, even as our own light fades and consciousness dissolves.  This is human truth, but Lightman does not neglect his science.  If space goes on and on to infinity, he posits, there should be an infinite number of copies of us out there.  “Because even a situation of minuscule probability,” he writes, “like the creation of a particular individual’s exact arrangement of atoms—when multiplied by an infinite number of trials, repeats itself an infinite number of times.”

Alan Lightman is a scientist, a physicist, and man who deals daily with star dust and the laws of thermodynamics.  Yet, he is also a man, lying in a hammock, pondering the stars.  Every book he writes is a winner, and this one is no exception.  Following up on his book, Searching For Stars on an Island in Maine (Vintage, 2019), Probably Impossibilities again explores the plight of a human being in the universe.  Along with Carlo Rovelli, the two books give us the science and the humanity, and we are richer for the journey.