In the last blog I explored the defamiliarising area of writing from the uncentred perspective. To do this is perhaps what all art aspires to—making us see differently. It is what we do, too, when we put ourselves into unfamiliar spaces, whether for an extended stay or an international housemove, whether deliberately or through force of circumstance. And it is what we do when we have the grace and imagination to connect deeply to whatever appears ‘other’ to us, whether it’s the views or culture of other humans or a life form completely other, yet integrally connected, with our own species’ life on this planet.
It is what we do as writers when we unself and get out of our own way, allowing new perspectives to arise. And it’s what we do when we unhook ourselves from chronological time, whether in a moment of wonder or of loss and hauntology.
Of course, there is a rhythm to this. In our artistic practice as in life, we also need anchor points, a returning to the kind of centring that is the constant movement of finding and losing our personal still point. But this ability to shift perspective is vital to our ability to deeply connect beyond our own egos and minds.
And it comes to us sometimes when we are not looking for it.
Writing under the night sky
I’m a night owl. I’ve long since given up the battle to change my body’s clock. One of my wonderful yoga nidrā mentors tells me that there is a good evolutionary reason why some of us stay up at night—the one watching out for the wolves and predators so that others could sleep. Later the night watchers could sleep while the larks kept the tribe safe. Those of us who are night owls had our function replaced to some extent by the whizzy new fangled technology of fire some time between 700,000 years and 120,000 years ago. And the trait became more superfluous with developments in architecture and lighting.
But evolution is slow and around 10% of humans persist in being night owls. In our ‘new’ home the bedroom is in the loft and so far we haven’t installed blinds. There’s low light pollution and the ability to write under the night sky and keep track of the phases of the moon, or to watch the Lyrids exploding across the sky in late April, is wonderful.
I’m not suggesting that all those with 9-5 jobs stay up writing at night or that the larks should glue their eyes open to experience the night, but there is something soothing about sometimes experiencing deep darkness and there are often moments of awe simply looking into a star-filled sky.
And the night sky, even if we don’t write under it regularly, offers the possibility of a very different and healing perspective on our world.
Writing filled with stars
When Edwin Hubble’s father died he quit law school and immersed himself in astronomy, building on the work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt to show that our small view of the universe was wrong. Not only is it unthinkably enormous, but the universe is also expanding. A large and expansive principle is a gift of our universe, one that our thinking, writing and living needs after a global pandemic—to think and write with abundance and connection.
The boy whose head was filled with stars (the title of a wonderful children’s picture book by Isabelle Marinov and Deborah Marcero), was the first to realise that the universe has more than one galaxy when he worked out that Andromeda could not possibly be just another nebula in the Milky Way.
There is still so much we don’t know about this vast universe. The poet and astronomer Rebecca Elson, who died at the age of 39 after living with a rare blood cancer for a decade, was a researcher into the strangeness of dark matter and in her poetry explored the way in which humanity, fragile and fleeting, looks to the stars for a hint of immortality. Her only poetry collection, A Responsibility to Awe, collated after her death, is an exquisite journey through the stars and what they reflect of our deepest humanity. This is ‘Let there always be light (searching for dark matter)’:
For this we go out dark nights, searching
For the dimmest stars,
For signs of unseen things:
To weigh us down.
To stop the universe
From rushing on and on
Into its own beyond
Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,
Its last star going out.
Whatever they turn out to be,
Let there be swarms of them,
Enough for immortality,
Always a star where we can warm ourselves.
Let there be enough to bring it back
From its own edges,
To bring us all so close we ignite
The bright spark of resurrection.
What the night sky gave to Elson was an unshakeable belief in the persistence and value of life, even in the face of her own mortality. Our writing, our lives and our world could use more of the perspective of stars; the sense of the enormity of it all. The sense that we are minuscule in the scale of all of life and yet still matter—us and every other person and every other creature on the planet. In the cosmology of many nomadic people, every one of us is the centre of the world, the centre of the universe. And not one person or race or gender or species is more central than the next. Life itself is what connects, pulsing across this vast and inexplicable universe.
Writing filled with a hundred billion galaxies
Edwin Hubble’s research led to a chain of theories and discoveries and the telescope named after him has brought us more knowledge and more questions.
Former US Poet Laureate, Tracy K Smith, wrote about this wave of discoveries in her collection Life on Mars, in honour of her father. He worked on the telescope that initially had a terrible error ground into its main mirror so that the first pictures came back blurred and Smith’s father came home devastated. But the next pass brought back images that changed our thinking, expanding our perspective yet again—showing us that life on Earth is even more minute and more miraculous than we had imagined. Far from there being one other galaxy out there we are now looking at 100 billion or more galaxies, each of them swarming with 100 billion or more stars. This is an excerpt from Tracy K Smith’s ‘My God, it’s full of Stars’:
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.
He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled
To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is —
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
A few years ago when I had the privilege of an Art’s Council grant to travel to Hungary to do research a friend and fellow writer whose own matter has since returned to the unverse told me that as I walked around Budapest I should remember to constantly look up.
When I’m walking in the forest locally, my son often tells me something similar—don’t look at your feet or the track, look ahead, look up—your eyes are made healthier by looking into the distance (something we need to hear as more of us spend more time on screens).
After more than two years of social distancing during the pandemic, and living with our ongoing sense of uncertainty whilest facing a world that is full of inequities and horrors, it’s easy for our perspective as writers to narrow and implode. Constriction has been the energy of this unsettling period.
But the stars invite us to shift perspective—to look up and out and to realise that the reason these awful things matter and are worth caring about is because life is so awe-inspiringly amazing. As fragile and as transitory as you and me and that cat and this tree… are—what was the chance of any of it existing? And yet here we all are in this enormous universe that is ‘so brutal and alive it seem(s) to comprehend us back.’
And so we go on caring, go on living, go on writing…