milky way

Dr. Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and the author, most recently, of the memoir On the Move: A Life.

I wrote earlier here about the announcement that Sacks is dying and how he is dealing with it. Mostly, he is living. He is reading, probably writing, traveling when he can.

This morning I read a piece by Oliver Sacks in The New York Times titled “My Periodic Table.” He writes about what he has been doing in the past few months – treatments, visits, his reading and thinking. What caught me the most was this passage about simply looking up at the stars – something I do too much, if you really can ever spend “too much” time staring in wonder at the universe.

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

Joseph Campbell described the stars as “Eternity shining through the lattice-work of time.”

Annie Dillard described looking up one night as seeing “The tree with the lights in it”

After reading Dr. Sacks’ article, my next click brought me to The Writer’s Almanac, a daily online stop for me.  With the Sacks’ words in my mind, I read that it was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). This was a symphony written in the final years of Mozart’s life. It was a sad period of his life. His infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier. He was living in a cheaper apartment, and begging friends for loans.

In that sad summer of 1788, he wrote his last three symphonies: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony #40 in G Minor, and the Symphony #41 (often called the Jupiter symphony).

We have no evidence that Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.

I thought that I should listen to Symphony Number 40 and reread the article by Dr. Sacks. Might I hear something in the music that echoes in the words? Or perhaps, it is Symphony Number 41’s (Jupiter) finale that we might expect to be sad and slow, but instead shows power, that I hear it. Do not go gently.

Oliver Sacks has had a lifelong love of the periodic table of elements. He has collected examples of them and has associated the numbers with years of his life.

Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having “83” around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.

I almost certainly will not see my polonium (84th) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table — my periodic table — I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas


Pluto received a lot of attention this past week as we received all the new data from the New Horizons probe. It won’t be reclassified as a planet, but it is the largest dwarf planet we know, and one it is half of the first binary planet system.

I like Pluto and its moons but I was more interested that NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Telescope has spotted the first roughly Earth-sized world orbiting in the “Goldilocks zone” of another star. The Goldilocks zone is a habitable zone that is, as you might expect, not too hot, not too cold, but just right for life elsewhere in the universe.


Artist’s concept compares Earth (left) to the new planet, called Kepler-452b, which is about 60 percent larger in diameter. Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle

That planet, Kepler 452b, is about 1,400 light years from us in the constellation Cygnus. It has a 385-day year, with an orbit just a bit farther away from its star than our Earth is from our star.

It is far too far away to photograph, the data we have has told us a lot about this “New Earth.” For example, it has been the perfect distance from its star for many billions of years, which means it is possible that it hosts life on its surface, or at least could have at some point in its history.

Kepler 452b is also the right temperature to allow liquid water to exist on the surface. Unless there is more we don’t know about “life,” this is essential for supporting it.

No one is planning to head there and start a colony yet. The new planet is slightly larger than Earth, and is estimated to have twice the gravitational pull of our own planet. That doesn’t mean it can’t have life and humans could adpat to that and new generations would evolve that were “stockier” and better suited to the gravity.

Dr Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert at Nottingham Trent University, said: “Kepler 452b receives the same kind of spectrum and intensity of light as we do on Earth. This means plants from our planet could grow there if it were rocky and had an atmosphere. You could even get a healthy tan like here on holiday.”

Kepler 452b is 1,400 lightyears away. A lightyear is the distance that a beam of light can travel in a year. Light travels at over 670 million miles per hour. Light from our Sun takes around eight minutes to reach Earth. A trip to Kepler 452b would take an incredibly long time. Think about that New Horizon probe. It left Earth’s orbit faster than any other spacecraft before it, at around 36,373 mph. If we had a spacecraft carrying humans that could travel at this speed towards Kepler 452b, it would take them around 25.8 million years to get there. That might be a trip that Christopher Nolan could conceive of (see see: Interstellar), but no one will be selling tickets to anything but movies for a trip to 452b for a long while.

But it’s nice to know it’s out there. Now, if we can only get NASA to come up with better names for these celestial observations and discoveries. Gaiia (two i’s) might be a good one to hang on 452b.

There seem to be new stories every day in the news about rape.  Today, while reading a post about the Buddha, this story from 2600 years ago seemed like something that belonged on the evening news.

The Buddha challenged the commonly held view in India that sexual desire arising in a man’s mind was a woman’s fault. Desire, and by extension rape, was the result of the female’s temptation of the male.

Americans are often viewed as being the worst in this regard and are often criticized by other countries and cultures not only for the temptations but for the inappropriate actions based on those temptations. But we know that this outdated view on desire, especially sexual desire, is not relegated to America, and that it is accepted on a wider scale in other countries.

I remember when I started teaching in 1975 in a public middle school that when the weather was hot we would always have girls who were sent to the office for “immodest dress.”  I admit that at that time it made sense to me that what I didn’t need in my classroom half-filled with 13-year-old boys was a “provocatively” dressed 13-year-old girl. Now, it makes less logical sense to me, and yet the 13-year-old boy still living inside me isn’t entirely sure about right action.

As that blog post reminds us, “the Buddha may have issued the challenge, but far from all Buddhists heed it.”

Deflecting responsibility for our desires and our actions based on those desires means we do not have control over our own lives.

In the Buddha’s time, India’s caste system did not view morals as being the same for all castes or genders.

Buddha’s radical ethics are still radical.

The moral quality of an action is held in the intention that gives rise to the action. “Not by birth is one a Brahman, or an outcast,” the Buddha said, “but by deeds.” This teaching, in effect, declared the entire social structure of India, considered sacrosanct by many, to be of no spiritual significance at all. By pointing out to us the crucial importance of our own intentions, the Buddha was making clear that each of us is responsible for our own minds, and therefore for our own freedom.

Impressionistic field

Do you like to be alone? Being alone can mean feeling lonely, but it can also mean solitude and that is something many people enjoy, seek and often can’t find.

Maria Popova writes:

“The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bonds — even Emerson, perhaps the most eloquent champion of friendship in the English language, lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude, the very state that enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals. And yet that choice is one our culture treats with equal parts apprehension and contempt, particularly in our age of fetishistic connectivity. Hemingway’s famous assertion that solitude is essential for creative work is perhaps so oft-cited precisely because it is so radical and unnerving in its proposition.”

Solitude often conjures up a vision of a mountain retreat or perhaps a wide, empty island beach, but it can be found in almost any place.  It can be found in an empty room that is quiet and somewhat isolated.

I like the word “reverie” which means a state of being pleasantly lost in one’s thoughts. Daydreaming works best when you’re alone.

For myself, I prefer to be alone out in nature which seems to deepen consciousness of yourself. I’ve written enough here about being attuned to nature. You can read your Thoreau or Abbey if you need more information about developing a deeper relationship with the transcendent, the numinous, the divine and the spiritual. Also, I associate being out in nature with increased creativity and an increased sense of freedom.

But I know that all of us don’t have access to wilderness or even suburban woods or a nearby beach. You may need to find that solitude in a city park. In the book How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland, she addresses the idea that our current society does not really approve of solitude. Wanting to be alone can be viewed as antisocial. Being alone in the woods or on a big city street at night might be considered somewhat sinister.She claims that many people actually have a fear of solitude.

She wonders how we reconcile those attitudes with the competing ideas of autonomy, personal freedom, and individualism which also seem to be highly regarded these days. The book looks at the changing attitudes we have had throughout history about being alone.

While we are on the “M” bookshelf, look at two of her other books and you’ll see where her ideas come from. She has written A Book of Silence which, as with being alone, is a cultural history. She examines silence in fairy tale and myth, and in Western and Eastern religious traditions, She writes about its use in psychoanalysis and in the creative arts.

At the end of her story, she builds a hermitage on an isolated moor in Galloway.

dunes, fog, ocean
Maitland’s other book is From the Forest: A Search for the Hidden Roots of our Fairytales which seems to be the starting place for ideas in both of the other books.

These books and others make suggestions for exercises and strategies for developing a relationship with solitude. First, you might need to consider if you have a negative view of solitude and need to develop a positive sense of aloneness.

Finally, here’s an interesting example.  Pico Iyer is a lifelong traveler and travel writer. Why would someone who has sojourned from Easter Island to Ethiopia, Cuba to Kathmandu, write a book titled The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere? It is a book that contends that sitting quietly in a room might also be an adventure, Connecting it with Maitland’s books, I view it as one written in a noisy, crowded, accelerating world which cries out for slowing down to the point of stillness.

He does this not with a how to or a why approach but with the stories of people who have made a life seeking stillness. I wouldn’t have you read it because you will be able to give up your job and become a Tibetan monk (like the scientist Matthieu Ricard) or even just take a few years off to study to be a Zen monk (singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen). You may be more inspired by people like Marcel Proust, Mahatma Gandhi or Emily Dickinson who did find a way to build stillness into their lives. You can hear Iyer talk about stillness in a TED talk that was the starting place for his book.

You can read these book is a quiet, empty space – or just sit still in silence in your place of solitude and slip into a reverie about all this. The more ways we have to connect, the more we need to disconnect.


losing the light 2

“Words are like flies: you notice them when they’re buzzing; when they’re not, it’s as if they don’t exist at all, ” says in The New Yorker. She came upon a billboard with a single word – parbunkells – in black Apple Garamond typeface on a white background. An advertisement for a new product?

Some investigating led her to Julia Weist, an artist.  She came across the word (which means two ropes bound together with nooses [loops] on all four ends and merged in the middle) and thought it was “a nice metaphor for things coming together.” It is a real word with hundreds of year of usage. Just not on the Internet.

She had been looking for a word that did not appear in the results of a search engine. Not an easy task, though Weist also has a degree in library science.  I had my students one semester try to find a relevant course topic that was not in Wikipedia. Also a tough assignment.

Next, Weist went beyond normal curiosity. She decided to put the word somewhere easily visible in public, just to see what would happen. Weist got billboard space via 14X48, a group that fills empty billboards with work by young artists. It would stay up until someone placed a paid ad in that spot

When her billboard version appeared (June 12) in Queens, New York, if you did a web search on “parbunkelss” you would only find a website she created. That didn’t last long.

Her experiment in attention and reach began to appear all over the web on social media sites. Someone created a Twitter handle for the word. Someone bought the domain name and then offered it on eBay with a starting bid of $8000 and “Buy It Now” price of $20,000.

I did a Google search on the word today and came up with about 4200 search results for “parbunkells.” Given time, this post will be included in those results.

The experiment turned out to be an interesting way to study viewership and the way social media spreads memes. There is something to be studied in the eventual engagement with the word that occurred and also the engagement with Weist that emerged.  A “microcosm of the Web’s life cycle.”

“That which you believe becomes your world. ” – Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson is a fantasy, horror, and sci-fi writer whom I discovered through the episodes he wrote of The Twilight Zone. That was my favorite TV series as a kid. It scared me, amazed me, made me think and sometimes amused me.  I was happy to discover he was, like me, born in New Jersey (Allendale, 1926).

He also wrote for Star Trek and other shows. A good number of his more than 20 novels and 100 short stories became films.  Later, I discovered Matheson’s books, including I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, which was later retitled The Incredible Shrinking Man as a film.

Stephen King said that “When people talk about the genre, I guess they mention my name first, but without Richard Matheson I wouldn’t be around. He is as much my father as Bessie Smith was Elvis Presley’s mother.”

His 1978 novel, What Dreams May Come, is my favorite. The film that was made based on his novel stars Robin Williams. Along with The Fisher King, it is one of my favorite films with Robin.  In the book, Chris dies and goes to Heaven, but descends into Hell to rescue his wife.

Matheson stated in an interview, “I think What Dreams May Come is the most important (read effective) book I’ve written. It has caused a number of readers to lose their fear of death – the finest tribute any writer could receive.”

As far as the science in the fiction, Matheson says in an introductory note that the characters are fictional but almost everything else is based on research. He even included a bibliography.

The title comes from a line in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” speech: “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.”


The plot also makes several allusions to the journey through the underworld in Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy. Characters quote the 18th century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, theories from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Raymond Moody.

Matheson was struck with the stories told by revived suicides which were much more frightening tales than those near death experiences of others who came back. The references are often ones that might be termed “New Age.” For example, reincarnation is viewed as a choice rather than the automatic cycle found in Hinduism and Buddhism.  It is a subject that everyone considers at some point in their life. A new TV show, Proof, focuses on investigating supernatural cases of reincarnation and near-death experiences funded by a terminally ill man who hopes to find evidence that death is not final.

Trailer for What Dreams May Come (film)



“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

When I read that line in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, I was in ninth grade. I was 14. I looked about 12 years old. My life felt very unheroic. I would have told you then that other people would be the heroes in my life.

It would be a few years later – after my father died from a six-year illness – that I would decide that if I was ever to be a hero, I would have to plot my journey. It would not be found in books I was reading. No one else was going to show it to me.

I discovered Freud and Jung and Joseph Campbell the summer before my high school senior year. No one I knew was reading these books. There was no one I could talk to about these ideas. I discovered that I might be able to find my bliss. I began to believe that perhaps when I left home for college, there was the possibility of having a fulfilling life.

I had read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell’s seminal theory outlining the common journey of the archetypal hero. For Campbell, a thousand heroes across many ancient myths from around the world created a monomyth. At first, I thought I had no place in their stories. But the book took on a popularity and follow your bliss became a popular mantra that you could find on the t-shirts of my Rutgers classmates.

The monomyth was applied to popular literature, songs, the lives of artists and films. I studied it in an Arthurian literature class in college. (The pop-culture allusions to it got a big boost after I had graduated college and was teaching when Star Wars was released in 1977 and Campbell and George Lucas started doing interviews together.)

And I started to slide back to my 14-year-old self and believe again that I was not to be the hero of my life. I would never make it through the hero’s journey myself, though I tried many paths.

The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world. I did that throughout my teen years (as many people do) and through college. I tried to leave behind the places of the psyche where my difficulties resided after trying to clarify those difficulties. It is hard to eradicate them.

Campbell said, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Many of my contemporaries saw drugs as the way to explore that region. But I never saw anyone return with any new powers.

In my adult life, I believed I had made atonement with the father, been through trial and quest, and descended into the underworld. I literally tried a vision quest, but I never met the goddess. The caves I explored were dead ends.

I must have never died because there was no resurrection, no rebirth, no transformation. No need to find a road back.  I stay where I am.

I started to believe that I did not want transformation if it meant descending into the belly of the whale and death, even if it is figurative.  I am happier in this world than I have ever been, and yet I do not describe myself as “happy.”



Hero’s journey” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


It does not seem that I will be given an adventure to follow, like Theseus, or be carried abroad by some agent as was Odysseus. Maybe it will be some blunder, some casual strolling that reveals a flash to my often wandering eye. I am easily distracted these days.  I am almost afraid that something will lure me away from the paths of man.

Further reading into and about Joseph Campbell during my later life has uncovered aspects of his life that makes him far less heroic to me. It seems that every writer, athlete, scientist and artist I loved and looked to for guidance on the journey, was either mad, alcoholic, cruel, or unable to share a life with a husband or wife and love their children. They are all flawed.

I read about the “myth of the hero” and think that indeed it is a myth. There are no heroes. There is no pattern for the journey.

Lesson by Matthew Winkler, animation by Kirill Yeretsky.

What trials unite a Harry Potter or a Frodo Baggins, and what do we mortals have in common with them?

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