Looking At Stars With Alan Lightman

Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.

I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.

When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.

Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.

In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.

Searching_Stars_Lightman“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”

Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.

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Portrait of Alan Lightman. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.

I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.

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Beautiful photo of the Southern Maine forest and the sky. Image Credit: USM/Southworth Planetarium – Thank you

Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.

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Little Writer With Big Kick: L. N. Holmes’s Otherworldly Collisions

Like many with and before me, one of my first compelling reads as a youth was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In the beginning chapters, there is a most enthralling moment – illustrated by an ant and a piece of string – where Mrs. Who, Mrs Which, and Mrs Whatsit explain how a clever loophole in time and space allows them to travel the universe.

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Illustration of ‘the wrinkle’ – Source: A Wrinkle in Time

We know it as “the tesseract”, or, “the fifth dimension”. In reality i.e. geometry, a tesseract is the four-dimensional analogue of the cube, consisting of 8 cells, 24 faces, 32 edges, and 16 vertices. It is, in short, a cubic prism. But at this explanation, the tesseract looses its mystique and magic. In the book we understand the tesseract only as this: The way to bridge the gap between worlds.

In reading L. N. Holmes’s too short but gripping chapbook Space, Collisions, I was hearkened back to this moment. The moment where somehow, incredibly, far flung worlds are brought together, and the canyon that once sat between them is closed.

Space Collisions“Across the water, I can see a mosque built from tan and green stones. Further along the shore, cruise ships and freighters have been plucked out of the water and deposited onto the sand, like beached whales. People dot the shoreline, mirroring us, waiting for us on the other side. […]

On our shore, one of the men with the guns shoots off a round toward the sky. I bolt inside my house. From the window, I see everyone scatter and disappear like crabs scuttling into their holes. I haven’t seen any crabs for days. The gunman stands alone on the beach, abandoned by friend and foe alike. Everything is afraid as we wait for the unknown.”

With publication by Ghost City Press, L. N. Holmes’s chapbook is a mere 14 pages, with only 9 pages of story material. It’s small. That being said, Space, Collisions is available for free download. And it is worth it. The book contains three stories: “When Continents Collide”, “Trace”, and “Spacefall”, and though all are good, it is really “When Continents Collide” that is the star of the show. In the story, a man living on the shores of North Carolina waits and watches the collision of the continents of North America and Africa. The tale is like origami, folding into shape; from the sands, he sees the country of Morocco steadily slouching forward from across the Atlantic, and the final moment before the tumultuous slamming of the land masses is so visually serene and moving, one almost forgets it’s a death. I found this story immensely emotive, and striking. There is not much explanation as to why this event is occurring, with the players in the tale themselves full of confusion and uncertainty; however, this is one of the great self-determinations of short story writing. The reader and writer know there is limited time, that things must proceed quickly, and this limitation allows a huge berth of creative freedom. The writer must get to the point, the message, and all other thoughts and burdens are caved into the purpose.

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Portrait of L. N. Holmes, winner of the Apparition Lit April Flash Fiction Contest. Photo provided by L. N. Holmes.

The other two pieces “Trace” and “Spacefall” take up little more than two pages. “Trace” is poetic and nebulous; “Spacefall” is equally poetic, but less nebulous, with a definite tale being told. They exist as a nightcap to the emotion and adventure. Both are finely written, and both leave a sense of more. Along that note, if anything is wrong with this chapbook it is simply that there’s not enough of it. L. N. Holmes has a talented pen and a great imagination, but this chapbook needs a little more meat on its bones.

It’s Four out of Five stars for Space, Collisions. L. N. Holmes is fresh off the boat in the writing world, but nonetheless is bending space and time. So, who knows, maybe by tomorrow she’ll be a best selling author.


Full Disclosure: I was contacted by L. N. Holmes and was asked to give an honest review. If you are a writer with a book and are seeking to get reviewed, click the Get Reviewed link, and maybe you’ll make the cut!


The featured image is a photo of the Andromedids meteor shower. In L. N. Holmes’s flash fiction “Spacefall” the Andromedids are present in two women’s sense of love and pining. Source/Photographer: from the International Meteor Organization, taken over East Point Lighthouse, NJ by Robert Lunsford – Thank You. 

“I Will Remember You”: Lessons on Suffering and Joy

I was thirteen when the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu first reached my ears.

“Nothing, no one, no situation is beyond redemption, is totally devoid of hope.”

This is not the exact quote I heard on a PBS program back in 2000, but a rendition of these words reached me, and it is a lesson Desmond Tutu has reiterated time and time again over his long life as a religious leader and advocate for peace. My adolescence was turbulent, and unhappy, and those words resonated inside me, like a bell being rung. I bought Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness that very weekend, and have been reading Desmond Tutu’s words ever since.

And so in 2017 The Book of Joy made it to my hands. A collaboration between His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, told through the genuine pen of Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy is much more than your typical self-help manual. It is a testament to Friendship, Perseverance, and perhaps most of all, to Hope.

Hope is the coalescence of our strengths and fears; it unifies all inner and outer complexities and molds them into a force for good. If we can hope, we can survive; if we can hope, we can still act; if we have hope, nothing’s lost, merely delayed. And though the book is titled The Book of Joy, I tend to think of it as ‘A Book of Hope’. It is a beacon of sure light in a dim, confusing time. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, with knowledge and intuition, mind and heart, gracefully navigate through the labyrinthine landscape of the modern world, producing simple, practical truths. In the deft hands of these two practitioners, Buddhism and Catholicism merge happily, and we are taken on multiple journeys, exploring existence along many angles, all in the pursuit of experiencing our highest emotion: JOY.

The Book of Joy“I feel there is a big contradiction,” the Dalai Lama continued. “There are seven billion human beings and nobody wants to have problems or suffering, but there are many problems and much suffering, most of our own creation. Why?” He was speaking now directly to the Archbishop, who was nodding in agreement. “Something is lacking. As one of the seven billion human beings, I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now. We must pay more attention to our inner values. We must look inside.”

How do we look inside? The inception of The Book of Joy I believe comes from that question. Back in 2015, the Archbishop traveled to Dharamsala, India, to be with his dear friend the Dalai Lama on his eightieth birthday. Desmond Tutu, now 86 years of age, has been in turbulent health since a diagnosis of Prostate Cancer nearly two decades ago. Despite the warnings from his doctors, Desmond Tutu took the 20+ hour flight. His Holiness, and the Archbishop, both knew that it was possible their week together in Dharamsala might be their last, so it had to count. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have spent their lives in adamant purpose. Both from early life set out to carve a path for others, to create methods in which we may use to reflect on ourselves and others in ways that are emboldening to our better selves, pushing us towards a higher meaning. This book does not deviate from those paths, and in a way it is a joining of their journeys. Both religious leaders know their lives are closing, slowly, they feel it. The Book of Joy is a culmination of their large and daring existences on this planet, and the lessons they most want to impart to us before they go are inside the pages of this book.

JOY is nourished through eight roots, what in the book are called “The Eight Pillars of Joy”. These steps are punched out succinctly and quickly. They are:

Perspective

Humility

Humor

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Gratitude

Compassion

Generosity

Here, with this framework, one can begin to cultivate JOY. But it does feel a bit ‘cookbook’; it all makes it seem so easy. Is this really all it takes to be happy? To be joyful?

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Fabulous picture of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (right) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (left). Image Credit: Science and Religion Today

Understanding the onslaught of skepticism coming, the two teachers are quick to admonish this ‘mix and bake’ mentality. From the words of Desmond Tutu: like any muscle, you’ve got to work it to make it stronger. From the Dalai Lama: like any skill, you’ve got to practice. Nothing will happen over night, and depending on external/internal circumstances, it might take longer then you’d like. And though very few of us are ever likely to reach the enlightened state of the Compassionate Powerhouses Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, we will, through time, begin to see results. Joy can come into our lives, it can be achieved, no matter who we are, no matter what we have done; Joy can be had, and the chief way to attain it, is by giving joy to others.

The premise of Ubuntu comes up multiple times in this reading. Ubuntu, a South African word meaning, “a person is a person through other persons”, sums up one of the overarching lessons of The Book of Joy, submitting a reality of life often neglected by the modern world: that we are interdependent. No one is an island, we all depend on each other, for food, for protection, for happiness. We need each other. The other lesson, which is of Buddhist teaching, is impermanence. Nothing lasts, everything moves on, all ends and all dies. This is how the world is.

And the world is not always pleasant. In fact it is often hard. Throughout The Book of Joy we are told stories of heartache, exhaustive struggle, awful pain. I found myself openly crying on many occasion, my chest clenched as I would have to place the book down, heat rushing to my face with tears. This would seem to be in contrast to the book. A book about joy should be full of the good times, no? As revealed, tragedy is often a necessary component to JOY. We cannot know joy without knowing sorrow, a lesson that feels as old as time. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu are no strangers to danger and heartache. They speak of their struggles openly, and their sincerity and acknowledgement of their pain nourishes their inner serenity rather than dispels it. There is a quietly spoken, resounding message in these pages: that living joyfully takes courage.

The end of this book was difficult for me. One of the greatest gifts this book brings us is the friendship between Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their love for each other really, really shines. The affection reaches you, their connection is soulful, deep, lovely, full of fun and comfort. As someone who is lucky enough to have exceptionally close friendships, friendships I have held since the cradle and the first days of kindergarten, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama’s friendship was perhaps the most important part of this book for me, and it touched me in ways few books have. The ending is as most endings go: with a parting, uncertainty, and bittersweetness. Bittersweetness, which is by far my favorite emotion to experience, hits hard in the last pages. These two friends know that they must say goodbye, for perhaps the very last time, and their final words address the specter that everyone is thinking but none can bring themselves to say.

All things end, even great human beings. Even spiritual leaders have a number. In their final hours together, the Dalai Lama so elegantly phrases his deep and profound friendship with the Archbishop, that it is worth sharing.

“Then the Dalai Lama’s playful tone changed as he pointed at the Archbishop’s face warmly. ‘This picture, special picture.’ Then he paused for a long moment. ‘I think, at time of my death…’ The word death hung in the air like a prophecy. ‘… I will remember you.'”

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Five out of five stars for The Book of Joy.


The featured image of His Holiness and Desmond Tutu was taken at Dharamsala, India, during the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday celebration. Witness the irrepressible boogie of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Photographer/Image Credit: Tenzin Choejor – Thank you. 

EJ Koh Brings The Gentle Thunder – A Chapbook Review

What moves us is already inside us. When we feel that shifting and churning in ourA Lesser Love_EJ Koh bellies and chests, brought to life by words, we are awakened. In EJ Koh’s Pleiades Prize winning chapbook, A Lesser Love, Koh doesn’t cut corners. She goes for the heart – the center of life – and rumbles the foundations. In all of this, somehow Koh manages to soothe, to bring peace, to initiate both tranquility and uncertainty. A Lesser Love was a fabulous read.

“He pointed to himself and then to a patch of weeds / to show the difference between Man & Plant. / He gestured at the space between his index & thumb, / and said, there has to be a middle point, which would be Animal.

In order: the root & the fox & the infant. / He looked at me then and said, / I will not live to know / if there’s a room between Man & God.”

55 stirring poems broken down into three segments: “Heaven,” “War,” and “Love,” I must say, after reading poetry nearly everyday for two decades, EJ Koh surprised me. After several years of stacking the chapbooks, wondering if I’ve read it all, right on time comes Koh, with new insights, new verses, new emotive subjects. Koh tackles everything on her mind, swerving around binaries and carefully building an intricate work of questions, theologies, fears, and ideologies. She embraces the blurring of time, taking the past, present, future, and compounds them together to reveal the whole. She wields both Korean and American life with ease, yet never the sugarcoat-er, tells the truth. Her truth. And her truth has doubt with grace, power with humility; EJ Koh swept me away in an afternoon.

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Portrait of EJ Koh, Winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Image Credit: Word Mothers

As expressed in several pieces, in particular Testimony Over Tape Recorder”, “South Korean Ferry Accident”, and “Retrograde”, Koh is not one to shy away from difficult events and matters. EJ Koh knows what she is doing. Assured, but not pompous. She has a message, a reasoning for what she is saying. Though her writing could be described as ‘flowery’, never do her words seem irrational; there is a solid logical framework around many, if not most of her poems. Even if EJ Koh didn’t know where she was going when she started writing, she certainly got there. All is smooth, point by point, moment to moment, like links in a chain.

There are a few great confessional poems in A Lesser Love as well. “Blurb” stands out strongly in this arena. Throughout this chapbook, I felt for Koh. Not in anyway that could be construed as sympathetic – no. Koh avoids these routes. I felt for Koh in a way that was intimate, and reflective. So many times while turning the pages of A Lesser Love I was startled by lines that seemed as though they were me; parts of myself constantly leapt out and caught me off-guard. And this, this sensation of ‘off-guard’, is the aim of poetry. We read poems to be comforted, yes, but more so, we read poems to be enlightened.

Would I recommend this chapbook? A resounding “Yes” sounds off. EJ Koh has hit the ground running with her first chapbook. I very much look forward to reading her work for (hopefully) years to come.

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Another portrait of the talented EJ Koh. Image Credit: Sundress Publications – Thank you.

Five out of five stars for A Lesser Love. 


The featured image shows the famous Pleiades cluster of stars as seen through the eyes of WISE, or NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. EJ Koh won the Pleiades Press Editors Prize For Poetry for her chapbook: A Lesser Love. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The Origins of Creativity: E. O. Wilson’s Search For A Third Enlightenment

While reading Edward O. Wilson’s latest book, The Origins of Creativity, a quote from a recent read by Abby Smith Rumsey kept coming to mind.

 “Scientists separate how questions from why and dwell exclusively on what is, not what ought to be. This is a moral hazard Socrates warned against—that by alienating our knowledge, making it ‘external to us,’ we have brought an immense measure of power over the world at the expense of having power over ourselves.”

Abby Smith Rumsey, from When We Are No More

It is these divisions between how and why, what is and what ought to be, that is the crux of the current clashing between the sciences and the humanities, which is the topic of argument in The Origins of Creativity. E. O. Wilson, for his part, attempts to remedy this poisonous conflict. The methods he uses are reason and (of course) scientific basis, and in doing so he seemingly accidentally pits the two against each other, plays favorites, and in a parental fashion portrays the two opposing parties as siblings who can’t get along: the sciences are the high-achieving older sibling who gets first picks, and the humanities are the younger sibling who doesn’t do the homework and has a ballooned head stuck in the clouds.

This, as you might expect, makes for a rather lopsided read.

Origins_of_Creativity“The humanities, particularly the creative arts and philosophy, continue to lose esteem and support relative to the sciences for two primary reasons. First, their leaders have kept stubbornly within the narrow audiovisual bubble we inherited happenstance from our prehuman ancestors. Second, they have paid scant attention to the reasons why (and not just how) our thinking species acquired its distinctive traits. This, unaware of most the world around us, and shorn of their roots, the humanities remain needlessly static.”

Peppered with images and classic art, The Origins of Creativity through a series of short chapters takes one on a logical anthropological dive into deep time and the buried instinctual underpinnings of human psychology. These scientific explorations are then used as the two oars E. O. Wilson paddles up the stream with in his personal observations of two notable and often very at odds subjects: sciences and the humanities. It’s a bit of slog, full of holes and fragmented musings, and instead of the top comes out the side, leaving the sensation of having experienced a horizontal fall. This book from the cover (and jacket) proposes to be about creativity in some vein or another. This is misleading, as the book rather meanders through this topic. Creativity is sometimes vaguely used as a referral to how the sciences and humanities will bridge the gap, but it’s a three legged table. Even so, after a couple days of mulling, I’ve decided this is a good book, despite its failings.

Yes, I didn’t like it. But it’s still a good read. I came to realize (or perhaps gave in), that this book is not about the past or the present, but the future. It should be pointed out that clearly this is E. O. Wilson’s goal, to have you peer ahead into the beyond and envision the world as he would like to see it – unified. But the scope he builds is muddy and speckled. This book seems incomplete, as though he had a grander work in mind but couldn’t cobble it together in time for the publishers. It reads more like a series of essays, or blog posts, and all this information and murmuring of his inner mind are stuffed together. With each page turn I kept giving Wilson the benefit of the doubt, that by the end all the pieces would be in place and he would unroll a marvelous patchwork quilt, a photomosaic of the proclaimed Third Enlightenment. Upon finishing, it’s just not there.

The book is broken down into five parts, and each part is (I imagine) suppose to act as a steppingstone to get to the matter at hand: the attainment of a Third Enlightenment. On this journey, E. O. Wilson takes jabs at everybody as to why we aren’t there yet, but humanities takes the brunt of it. The star students he openly lists: paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology. In E. O. Wilson’s opinion, organized religion has flunked. Organized religion has been in the hot-seat for some time now, so this is unsurprising.

E. O. Wilson is a naturalist, so the way living things came to be, how they operate, what they think and feel, and where they are headed is of particular importance to him. These are the bright parts of this book; his love of the natural world and the intricacies of the ever running earth inspire him, and Mother Nature’s endless forging of diversity and wellspring of creativity is Wilson’s rapture. Several chapters hearken back to other books authored by him, such as Half-Earth and many from what could be called his ‘ant days’, often co-authored with Bert Hölldobler. E. O. Wilson is in the twilit years, so his memories of the past he looks back on fondly. Wilson’s age might have something to do with the fragmented feeling of this book – but I don’t think so. In fact, I think his age is more a strength, and lends much to an otherwise empty read. Authors and writers who are on the way out have a particular taste in their writing that I’ve never been able to wholly put a name to. It’s a sense of settlement in their opinions. Conviction? It seems a bit stronger than the word I’m looking for. E. O. Wilson is a brilliant man who has lived a life with much wonder and discovery; he is a seeker, in heart and mind, and his journey has taken him far and wide and through all this he has developed his Truth. And we should pay attention. E. O. Wilson has made his decisions, knows what path he would suggest we take. This is the saving grace of the book, and makes it worth reading.

I debated long and hard how to rate this book, and in the end I’m giving it a good review. I disagreed with a good much of his presentation; it left me frustrated. But long after I closed The Origins of Creativity, I kept thinking about it. This alone is enough of a reason to give the book a decent rating, for a book that makes you think – even if it gets you thinking in the opposite direction – is a good book. (Most the time anyway.) The research is sound, and Edward O. Wilson’s accolades speak for themselves, and if they don’t impress for whatever reason, E. O. Wilson is still a damn good writer.

At the end, E. O. Wilson chooses someone else’s words to send us off. I would like to do the same, with words from Buckminster Fuller regarding to what I believe E. O. Wilson is trying to say.

“We are going to have to find ways of organizing ourselves cooperatively, sanely, scientifically, harmonically, and in regenerative spontaneity with the rest of humanity around Earth. […] We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.”

Buckminster Fuller, from Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

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A photo of the Earth taken during the Apollo 11 mission. Source: NASA/Flickr; NASA

Three out of five stars for The Origins of Creativity, and also, that I hope Edward O. Wilson has one more book in him. (Would it be selfish of me to ask for two?) 

Loving The Rain: A Natural and Cultural Journey

In August of 2017, the Western United States was on fire. In my Seattle apartment, I would wake up to the stifling scent of smoke, and going to the window I had left open – for hope of fresh air – I would find white ash covering the sill. One afternoon, I took my finger and wrote “WHY” in the brittle bleached soot.

Fires raged in British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon, and California. Air quality plummeted; some mornings were so shrouded in the sickly hue that the sun sat in the sky like a reflecting stone beneath a murky pool. I was, in a word, despairing, that month and more. Those days creaked by, and dragged on and on.

But my growing sadness through that summer didn’t so much stem from the fire – it was barely the fire, that made me so sad. It was that for 56 days there had not been a drop of rain. And when it at last did come – the moment it fell – it was gobbled up and gone. The departed rain left a hole inside me. My heartbreak felt spiritual. That horrible parched summer, was also the summer I read Cynthia Barnett’s rich and deeply reflective book, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. And it was Barnett’s winding and researched ode to the rains that got me through that dry summer.

A Pen Literary Award finalist, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History opens with genesis of sorts; Cynthia Barnett take us on a journey through deep-time at a breakneck pace. She paints a hellish dreamscape, angry and turbulent and hot, and through painstaking clashes and currents, that far and alien planet of distant past blossoms into a blue, rich world; we named her Earth, and it is our only home, and on this oblate ball that is full of life, it rains.

“Inside the fiery storms…was a lining better than silver. Virtually all of the rocks thatRAINcover made Earth had water locked inside. Water is a remarkable shape-shifter, able to change from liquid to solid – or to gas when it needs to make an escape. As meteorites crashed onto Hadean Earth and split apart, they spewed out water in the form of vapor. This was water in its gas form, no different from the steam rising from a boiling pot on the stove…

All that water vapor would prove an indivisible redeemer.”

Barnett in lyrical and poetic terms describes the rain as a liberator, raising Mother Earth out of her red, writhing infancy into wizened, calmed adulthood. From this point on, Barnett take us forward, breaking down this natural wonder into five parts: “Elemental Rain”, “Chance Of Rain”, “American Rain”, “Capturing The Rain”, and “Mercurial Rain”, before wrapping everything up in a heartfelt epilogue, where her thoughtful and compounding writing style reaches its peak.

This book is wonderful, stuffed to the gills with information both relevant and trivial. From how climate can affect the directions of nations, to Morton Salt’s ad turned adage, “When it rains it pours”, readers will surely be taken with something, and overall, through Barnett’s moving verse, the rain will take on new form. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History, really brings to the table the unrivaled importance of our planet’s rain. It is the lifeblood. The heartbeat. Without it, our beloved Earth would be a desert like Mars, or a runaway greenhouse like Venus. The rain gives us everything we have. Through these pages, Cynthia Barnett has one resounding message: Cherish the rain.

Today, as I type out this review in my apartment, the wind whistles. It has been raining hard on and off for several days now. The cloud fronts and storms blow in and out, unrelenting. I leave the deck door open at night, and hear the platter of drops in collective drumming. Petrichor, rain’s smell, spills in like a fog. It is a moment of being, felt in the chill and rhythm of a downpour. I can say, in my bones, I feel connected to rain. Its somber, ethereal body slips into my nooks – there is something about it that makes me stop: I stop to look at stars, I stop to gaze at trees, and I am stopped in my tracks whenever I feel the coming rain.

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Another rainy day in Seattle, Image Credit: MyNorthwest.com

Five out of five stars for Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. And a special thanks to Cynthia Barnett, for saving me that summer, and for helping me remember why every so often, I go outside, and stand in the rain.

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Russian Fairy Tale

It is medieval Russia, in Northern Rus’, in the cold late winter, and an old woman is about to tell a story. It is a story about frost and death; the old woman sits in the kitchen with the fire against her back, and the children of Pyotr Vladimirovich gather around her, eager to hear. As the tale is told, our heroine has not been born yet. Her life comes with a cost, as her mother, Marina, will die giving birth to her. When Vasya grows into the world, she, ugly and odd, with her wide eyes and shiny black hair, will love the wilderness, the horses and the household spirits, she will love freedom, and the story of Morozko, the demon of winter.

The death of Vasilisa’s mother sets off a series of events, and in a way, it is really Marina who is the catalyst of our story. For it is Marina’s will more than anything that brings Vasilisa and her destiny to life.

“It is done?” asked Marina. She laid her comb aside and began to plait her hair. Her25489134 eyes never left the oven.

“Yes,” said Pyotr, distractedly. He was stripping off his kaftan in the grateful warmth. “A handsome ram. And its mother is well, too—a good omen.”

Marina smiled.

“I am glad of it, for we shall need one,” she said. “I am with child.”

Pyotr started, caught with his shirt half off. He opened his mouth and closed it again. It was, of course, possible. She was old for it, though, and she had grown so thin that winter…

“Another one?” he asked. He straightened up and put his shirt aside.

Marina heard the distress in his tone, and a sad smile touched her mouth. She bound the end of her hair with a leather cord before replying. “Yes,” she said, flicking the plait over her shoulder. “A girl. She will be born in autumn.”

“Marina…”

His wife heard the silent question. “I wanted her,” she said. “I want her still.” And then, lower: “I want a daughter like my mother was.”

Rich in folklore, Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is really not so much a book about magic, but is a story of defying, and how we go to meet the truth of ourselves – our sense of identity and soul – with pursuit and bravery. Though Vasilisa is different, and is apart from her siblings, this is not the story. The story is how Vasilisa knows who she is and what she could become, what she wants to become, and against the grain, she pursues it ruthlessly.

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Some books resonate within us. This book was one of those for me. As a child who ditched school to go play in the woods, and pushed back against the walls of her world tirelessly, reading Vasilisa’s journey was like a memory. (Albeit, much more fantastical.) Katherine Arden’s prose in many instances seems as poetry, rolling hills carrying the characters and the harsh land. This is a book that washes over you. From the tortured stepmother, Anna, to the tyrannically pious Konstantin, the players of Arden’s fairy tale curl off the page like smoke, and you can breathe them.

And our heroine is courageous. Regardless that it is supposedly some 500+ years in the past, Vasilisa’s struggles still feel relevant today. Despite the forces against her, Vasilisa remains fearless and determined, both loyal to her loved ones, and to herself. The book builds well, crescendo-ing rather suddenly, making the last several chapters real page turners, and when the book is done there is a haunting sense of more and incompleteness, a bittersweetness, that I personally loved. When finished, I hugged The Bear and the Nightingale to my chest, and sighed.

I would absolutely recommend this novel. It is a wonderful read. Katherine Arden is kind to herself, and allows her inventiveness to take root and grow wild, not worrying too much about her historical accuracy or pulling her hair over transliteration and “the rules”. She plucks our leading lady, Vasilisa, straight out of a real Russian fairy tale, and takes the bit of fire and runs with it. The chill, vastness, and mystery of 1300’s Russia feels wholly complete, even though so much of its history has been lost.

So go on and read The Bear and the Nightingale. The gushing freeze and magnetism that is medieval Russia is captured, and Vasilisa is your guide. Myth is in the air, an oppressing disaster looms and dark omens crowd, but Vasya is strong, and her story will pull you out of the dark.

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Five out of five stars.