I spent some time over breakfast cutting up a couple of Astronomy magazines. I’d found them in the Little Free Library up the street. I’m always on the hunt for magazines that can be transformed into fodder for my collage work. In the past I’ve found that (small-“a”) astronomy magazines are great for this. The colors, the *BANG,* the cosmos scale of it all. Just perfect.
Yesterday I cut up some old Dwell magazines. God I love Dwell, but also nowhere is there a more glossy temple to white privilege than exists in those pages. So, it will be good to mix them in with some universe-scale evidence of how inconsequential and banal we all are.
Astronomy is a really wonderful, oddly tactile alternative to Dwell. First, for the tactile aspect: Astronomy is printed on crappy paper that falls apart when you turn the pages; but you nevertheless know that these magazines will hold up over years in toilet-side baskets and in outhouses in some remote-ass places. Second, the low quality printing signals that this is a magazine that is absolutely imperative to the world. The publishers aren’t going to let their access to gloss and fancy advertisers hold up the import of getting this information into the hands of hungry backyard astronomers everywhere. Third, while both magazines would nominally seem to be about the search for the sublime, Dwell’s pursuit represents something extremely egocentric, exclusive, and destructive (inasmuch as all consumer fetishism is necessarily destructive on this limited planet of ours). Astronomy, on the other hand, seeks to situate us in a gigantic universe whose truth renders us utterly inconsequential. And it is that initiation that is sublime, and also so accessible to readers everywhere.
As often happens, the subject matter of my morning deconstructions coincidentally (or providentially: I let you choose) spilled into the next morning activity, reading Maria Popova’s weekly email letter, Brainpickings, which this week featured a lovely book called The Stuff of Stars.
Popova’s missive also included writings on 19th century Nantucket resident Maria Mitchell and her friendship with Frederick Douglass. From there I was carried on to her Universe in Prose project (which of course has a 2020 pandemic version available to all via her Vimeo channel), and from there to a beautiful reading by Roseanne Cash of a most beautiful poem by Lisel Mueller called Drawings by Children. I watched it twice with Auggie, and I wept. I tried to hide it from him, but no go. “Are you sad, Mama?” (Dammit, this kid nails me with that question nearly daily. He’s so damn right.)
Sometimes Popova’s writing is too much for me. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to follow her star-explosion thought processes, or I feel crushed by her intellect. And then sometimes she is exactly the thing that I need. The hunger and the million-thread curiosity that her writing and curating represents humbles me. Would that I could construct a universe of understanding and tangled meaning so beautifully.
The morning was capped by coffee on the porch with a dear friend and decade-long companion in the life raft of waking up to our absurd and tragic world. In our conversation I returned again and again to the reality that we are absolutely insignificant, and that we are called daily to service. Then the podcast I listened to while making lunch as Auggie fell asleep continued that theme this way:
“The humility is that you, an individual person, aren’t going to change the world in a day or even a lifetime. This is so much bigger than you. And at the same time each person needs to show up.”CTZN Podcast with Layla F. Saad, February 25, 2020. (Transcript on page.)
And now, in this moment, my little boy sleeps soundly and I get to write, to read, and to think in the company of this absurd cat. On this day, as the world burns down around our shoulders and the universe expands at an incomprehensible rate, I can say: life is good.