Let There Always Be Light: Dark Matter and the Mystery of Our Mortal Stardust

(Patti Smith Reads Rebecca Elson)

Here’s the link to this article.

“For this we go out dark nights, searching… for signs of unseen things… Let there be swarms of them, enough for immortality, always a star where we can warm ourselves.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

This is the fourth of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER FOUR

Months before Edwin Hubble finally published his epoch-making revelation about Andromeda, staggering the world with the fact that the universe extends beyond our Milky Way galaxy, a child was born under the star-salted skies of Washington, D.C., where the Milky Way was still visible before a century’s smog slipped between us and the cosmos — a child who would grow up to confirm the existence of dark matter, that invisible cosmic glue holding galaxies together and pinning planets to their orbits so that, on at least one of them, small awestruck creatures with vast complex consciousnesses can unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Night after night, Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928–December 25, 2016) peered out of her childhood bedroom and into the stars, wondersmitten with the beauty of it all — until she read a children’s book about the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who had expanded the universe of possibility for half of our species a century earlier. The young Vera was suddenly seized with a life-altering realization: Not only was there such a thing as a professional stargazer, but it was a thing a girl could do.

Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s
Vera Rubin as an undergraduate at Vassar, 1940s

In 1965 — exactly one hundred years after Maria Mitchell was appointed the first professor of astronomy at Vassar, which Vera Rubin had chosen as her training ground in astronomy — she became the first woman permitted to use the Palomar Observatory. Peering through its colossal eye — the telescope, devised the year Rubin was born, had replaced the one through which Hubble made his discovery as the world’s most powerful astronomical instrument — she was just as wondersmitten as the little girl peering through the bedroom window, just as beguiled by the beauty of the cosmos. “I sometimes ask myself whether I would be studying galaxies if they were ugly,” she reflected in her most personal interview. “I think it may not be irrelevant that galaxies are really very attractive.”

Galaxies had taken Rubin to Palomar, and galaxies — the riddle of their rotation, which she had endeavored to solve — became the key to her epochal confirmation of dark matter. One of the most mesmerizing unsolved puzzles in astronomy, dark matter had remained only an enticing speculation since the Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky had first theorized it when Vera was five.

A generation later, a small clan of astronomers at Cambridge analyzed the deepest image of space the Hubble Space Telescope had yet captured — that iconic glimpse of the unknown, revealing a universe “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back” — to discern the origin of the mysterious dark matter halo enveloping the Milky Way. Spearheading the endeavor was an extraordinary young astronomer back to work during a remission of a rare terminal blood cancer ordinarily afflicting the elderly.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Nursed on geology and paleontology on the shores of a prehistoric lake, Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was barely sixteen and already in college when she first glimpsed Andromeda through a telescope. Instantly dazzled by its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space,” she became a scientist but never relinquished the pull of the poetic dimensions of reality. During her postdoctoral work at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Elson found refuge from the narrow patriarchy of academic science in a gathering of poets every Tuesday evening. She became a fellow at a Radcliffe-Harvard institute for postgraduate researchers devoted to reversing “the climate of non-expectation for women,” among the alumnae of which are Anne Sexton, Alice Walker, and Anna Deavere Smith. There, in a weekly writing group, she met and befriended the poet Marie Howe, whose splendid “Singularity” became the inspiration for this animated season of The Universe in Verse.

It was then — twenty-nine and newly elected the youngest astronomer in history to serve on the Decennial Review committee steering the course of American science toward the most compelling unsolved questions — that Elson received her terminal diagnosis.

Throughout the bodily brutality of her cancer treatment, she filled notebooks with poetic questions and experiments in verse, bridging with uncommon beauty the creaturely and the cosmic — those eternal mysteries of our mortal matter that make it impossible for a consciousness born of dead stars to fathom its own nonexistence.

Rebecca Elson lived with the mystery for another decade, never losing her keen awareness that we are matter capable of wonder, never ceasing to channel it in poetry. When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe, a spring shy of her fortieth birthday, she left behind nearly sixty scientific papers and a single, splendid book of poems titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — among them the staggering “Theories of Everything” (read by Regina Spektor at the 2019 Universe in Verse) and “Antidotes to Fear of Death (read by Janna Levin at the 2020 Universe in Verse).

Permeating Elson’s poetic meditations, the mystery of dark matter culminates in one particular poem exploring with uncommon loveliness what may be the most touching paradox of being human — our longing for the light of immortality as creatures of matter in a cosmos governed by the dark sublime of dissolution.

Bringing Elson’s masterpiece to life for this series is Patti Smith (who read Emily Dickinson’s pre-atomic ode to particle physics at the 2020 Universe in Verse), with animation by Ohara Hale (who animated Emily Dickinson’s pre-ecological poem about ecology in Chapter One of this experimental season of The Universe in Verse) and music by Zoë Keating (who read Rita Dove’s paleontological poem at the 2018 Universe in Verse).

LET THERE ALWAYS BE LIGHT (SEARCHING FOR DARK MATTER)
by Rebecca Elson

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.

Previously on The Universe in VerseChapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers).

Achieving Perspective: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell and the Poetry of the Cosmic Perspective

Here’s the link to this article.

“Mingle the starlight with your lives, and you won’t be fretted by trifles.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

This is the third of nine installments in the animated interlude season of The Universe in Verse in collaboration with On Being, celebrating the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry. See the rest here.

THE ANIMATED UNIVERSE IN VERSE: CHAPTER THREE

To be human is to live suspended between the scale of glow-worms and the scale of galaxies, to live with our creaturely limitations without being doomed by them — we have, after all, transcended them to unravel the molecular mystery of the double helix and compose the Benedictus and land a mechanical prosthesis of our curiosity on Mars. We have dreamt these things possible, then made them real — proof that we are a species of limitless imagination along the forward vector of our dreams. But we are also a species continually blinkered — sometimes touchingly, sometimes tragically — by our own delusions about the totality around us. Our greatest limitation is not that of imagination but that of perspective — our lens is too easily contracted by the fleeting urgencies of the present, too easily blurred by the hopes and fears of our human lives.

Two centuries ago, Maria Mitchell — a key figure in Figuring — understood this with uncommon poetry of perspective.Portrait of Maria Mitchell, 1840s. (Maria Mitchell Museum. Photograph: Maria Popova)

America’s first professional female astronomer, she was also the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill.” After discovering her famous comet, she was hired as “computer of Venus,” performing complex mathematical calculations to help sailors navigate the globe — a one-woman global positioning system a century and a half before Einstein’s theory of relativity made GPS possible.

When Maria Mitchell began teaching at Vassar College as the only woman on the faculty, the college handbook mandated that neither she nor her female students were allowed outside after nightfall — a somewhat problematic dictum, given she was hired to teach astronomy. She overturned the handbook and overwrote the curriculum, creating the country’s most ambitious science syllabus, soon copied by other universities — including the all-male Harvard, which had long dropped its higher mathematics requirement past the freshman year.

Maria Mitchell’s students went on to become the world’s first class with academic training in what we now call astrophysics. They happened to all be women.

Maria Mitchell, standing at telescope, with her students at Vassar

Science was one of Maria Mitchell’s two great passions. The other was poetry.

At her regular “dome parties” inside the Vassar College Observatory, which was also her home, students and occasional esteemed guests — Julia Ward Howe among them — gathered to play a game of writing extemporaneous verses about astronomy on scraps of used paper: sonnets to the stars, composed on the back of class notes and calculations.

Mitchell taught astronomy until the very end of her long life, when she confided in one of her students that she would rather have written a great poem than discovered a great comet. But scientific discovery is what gave her the visibility to blaze the way for women in science and enchant generations of lay people the poetry of the cosmic perspective.

Art from What Miss Mitchell Saw

It was this living example that became Maria Mitchell’s great poem, composed in the language of being — as any life of passion and purpose ultimately becomes.

“Mingle the starlight with your lives,” she often told her students, “and you won’t be fretted by trifles.”

And yet here we are, our transient lives constantly fretted by trifles as we live them out in the sliver of spacetime allotted us by chance.

A century after Maria Mitchell returned her borrowed stardust to the universe that made it, the poet Pattiann Rogers extended a kindred invitation to perspective, untrifling the tender moments that make a life worth living.

Published in her collection Firekeeper (public library), it is read for us here by the ever-optimistic David Byrne, with original art by his ever-perspectival longtime collaborator Maira Kalman and original music by the symphonic-spirited Jherek Bischoff.

ACHIEVING PERSPECTIVE
by Pattiann Rogers

Straight up away from this road,
Away from the fitted particles of frost
Coating the hull of each chick pea,
And the stiff archer bug making its way
In the morning dark, toe hair by toe hair,
Up the stem of the trillium,
Straight up through the sky above this road right now,
The galaxies of the Cygnus A cluster
Are colliding with each other in a massive swarm
Of interpenetrating and exploding catastrophes.
I try to remember that.

And even in the gold and purple pretense
Of evening, I make myself remember
That it would take 40,000 years full of gathering
Into leaf and dropping, full of pulp splitting
And the hard wrinkling of seed, of the rising up
Of wood fibers and the disintegration of forests,
Of this lake disappearing completely in the bodies
Of toad slush and duckweed rock,
40,000 years and the fastest thing we own,
To reach the one star nearest to us.

And when you speak to me like this,
I try to remember that the wood and cement walls
Of this room are being swept away now,
Molecule by molecule, in a slow and steady wind,
And nothing at all separates our bodies
From the vast emptiness expanding, and I know
We are sitting in our chairs
Discoursing in the middle of the blackness of space.
And when you look at me
I try to recall that at this moment
Somewhere millions of miles beyond the dimness
Of the sun, the comet Biela, speeding
In its rocks and ices, is just beginning to enter
The widest arc of its elliptical turn.

Previously on The Universe in VerseChapter 1 (the evolution of flowers and the birth of ecology, with Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the age of space telescopes, with Tracy K. Smith).

Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”

Joan Didion is always worth a read, as is Maria Popova. Here’s the link to this article.

BY MARIA POPOVA

As a lover — and keeper — of diaries and notebooks, I find myself returning again and again to the question of what compels us — what propels us — to record our impressions of the present moment in all their fragile subjectivity. From Joan Didion’s 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem (public library) — the same volume that gave us her timeless meditation on self-respect — comes a wonderful essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which Didion considers precisely that. Though the essay was originally written nearly half a century ago, the insights at its heart apply to much of our modern record-keeping, from blogging to Twitter to Instagram.

Portrait of Joan Didion by Mary Lloyd Estrin, 1977

After citing a seemingly arbitrary vignette she had found scribbled in an old notebook, Didion asks:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

[…]

The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.

To that end, she confesses a lifelong failure at keeping a diary:

I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.

What, then, does matter?

How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there: dialogue overheard in hotels and elevators and at the hat-check counter in Pavillon (one middle-aged man shows his hat check to another and says, ‘That’s my old football number’); impressions of Bettina Aptheker and Benjamin Sonnenberg and Teddy (‘Mr. Acapulco’) Stauffer; careful aperçus about tennis bums and failed fashion models and Greek shipping heiresses, one of whom taught me a significant lesson (a lesson I could have learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but perhaps we all must meet the very rich for ourselves) by asking, when I arrived to interview her in her orchid-filled sitting room on the second day of a paralyzing New York blizzard, whether it was snowing outside. I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check counter in Pavillon; in fact I suspect that the line ‘That’s my old football number’ touched not my own imagination at all, but merely some memory of something once read, probably ‘The Eighty-Yard Run.’ Nor is my concern with a woman in a dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper in a Wilmington bar. My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.

It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. (‘You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,’ Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion; I copied that into my notebook because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear.) Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.

Once again, Didion returns to the egoic driver of the motive to write:

And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

Ultimately, Didion sees the deepest value of the notebook as a reconciliation tool for the self and all of its iterations:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

[…]

It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.

The rest of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is brimming with the same kind of uncompromising insight, sharp and soft at the same time, on everything from morality to marriage to self-respect. Complement this particular portion with celebrated writers on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.


Here’s a copy of Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook.

Looking back

I’m looking back fifty-four years. It’s Wednesday, January 8, 1969. I was fourteen and in the ninth grade at Boaz High School. I wouldn’t be fifteen until August the 13th. I was shy and had little confidence and was impressionable, probably easily manipulated. Girls were foreigners. I’d never had a girlfriend. I was a pretty good student because Mother wanted me to go to college. Church had always been a big part of my life. Again, Mother. She saw to it I believed what our Southern Baptist preacher said. Did I say I was impressionable?

Forty-five years, two months, and four days later–March 12, 2014–I was sitting in my bedroom chair having my early morning devotion and prayer time. Somehow, frustrated, I realized I had been mislead. I slung my Bible and Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest across the room. My prayers were nothing more than me talking to myself. There was no one listening. I was alone. There was no one coming to save me. It was time to ask questions.

It’s been a nine year reading, researching, relating and recording journey. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I no longer believe what the Southern Baptist preacher says. I’m no longer superstitious. I no longer believe in the supernatural.

It’s simple really. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence, more specifically, it’s belief in the face of contrary evidence. If there was credible evidence, I wouldn’t need faith, I’d have proof.

That’s the problem. There’s insufficient, credible evidence to support faith. Until its discovered, I’ll remain unconvinced.

However, I have to admit the Bible is a great work of fiction.


Read this and think about it.

Cheat Sheet

On January 1st I wrote “A New Year’s Challenge.” Let’s not make this more difficult than it is. Recall, the challenge isn’t to write a story every day, but a snippet every day (of course, you can do more).

When I think of story I typically think fiction with its standard three divisions: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Further, a fictional story will contain five basic elements: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution.

As for snippet, recall it’s simply a small part or piece of a story. For our purposes, it can be most anything. To name just a few: a snippet could be a sentence or two, even a paragraph, about a particular character, a certain setting or part thereof, something about an event, or a snapshot of conflict, such as an argument between two characters or a struggle between a character and a raging sea. Finally, it could be dialog that takes place during the story’s climax.

If you need a little nudge in writing a snippet, look at a newspaper or two (this is why I titled this post, Cheat Sheet). Granted, ‘story’ isn’t limited to fiction. We tell stories all the time that are true. For example, I’ve recently written two non-fiction stories: “The 2022 Orange Bowl,” and “A Plumbing Adventure.” Both are based on my own personal experiences.

Back to using newspapers. Start with a non-fiction story or two and use parts of both and fictionalize them. Of course, you don’t have to use two stories, you can fictionalize one of them.

Here’s two headlines I read earlier today: “New year, new babies,” and “Tragedy strikes twice.” I picked these at random and couldn’t help but notice that the first one reveals a happy, joyous occasion. The latter, is a heartbreakingly sad story of parents losing both sons to auto accidents in eight months.

When I say fictionalize, I obviously intend to change names and any fact (s) that would prevent someone from thinking I was writing about what actually happened to the people in the original newspaper accounts. Of course, you can do this but it comes with risks that I won’t address here.

My idea of combining the above two headlines into a fictionalized story is rooted in what a grandfather said of his newborn granddaughter. “She a gift from God.” My thinking is I could write a snippet, say of a grandfather at a funeral of his fifteen year old granddaughter who was killed in boating accident. As a song (name the song) is sung he thinks back to her birth and how he claimed she was a gift from God. He now, sadly, he questions himself. We obviously could go on from here.

Again, the purpose of this is to find a seed for a snippet (of course, seeds can grow into full blown stories). It’s simply a brainstorming exercise to get us writing. Again, for our challenge purposes, to write a snippet everyday during 2023.

I’ll close with a couple of snippets, one Lydia Davis’, and the other mine own. By the way, I’ve recently discovered Ms. Davis and her writing, a lot of which are mere snippets.

Here’s one titled, Ödön von Horváth Out Walking, from her book, Can’t and Won’t:

“Ödön von Horváth was once walking in the Bavarian Alps when he discovered, at some distance from the path, the skeleton of a man. The man had evidently been a hiker, since he was still wearing a knapsack. Von Horváth opened the knapsack, which looked almost as good as new. In it, he found a sweater and other clothing; a small bag of what had once been food; a diary; and a picture postcard of the Bavarian Alps, ready to send, that read, ‘Having a wonderful time.'”

Here’s mine. It’s actually a longer snippet but it meets our definition of being a small part or piece of the whole:

The afternoon had been a week long. So it seemed to Millie as she tossed her purse and computer bag into the back seat of the twenty-year old Sentra. The going away party was the only thing that had made today tolerable. Actually, it wasn’t a party at all, just a holdover gathering in the conference room after the weekly case review meeting. After the others left, Matt and Catherine had huddled around, wishing her the best. These two were the only ones at work who knew she was leaving. Both had been so nice, so sympathetic. Matt had even slipped her five hundred dollars in cash, and whispered, “I hate losing the best paralegal I’ve ever had, but know your secret is safe with me. Forever.”

Now, it’s your turn.

Delighted with Delight

It’s early, but I’m planning on being delighted today? This sounds like I’m fantasizing about the future. What’s wrong with being delighted now? Heck, I’ve just written thirty or so words. That, in itself, is something to be delighted about.

What does it take for you to experience delight? This begs a definition. Delight. “a feeling of extreme pleasure or satisfaction; something or someone that provides a source of happiness.”

Let me start with the word ‘satisfaction.’ Most all my life, especially my adult life, I’ve been dissatisfied, discontented. I always wanted more. I believed that if I accomplished one more thing, I’d be the person I was meant to be. In other words, I’d find my god-given purpose. I became adept at creating challenges for myself, and I would, as they say, “bust butt” to achieve the goal. Ultimately, all this changed once I realized no one (including God) had a plan for my life, that my life purpose wasn’t created before I was born. No, it was up to me to create my own meaning.

Now that I’m sixty-eight, it’s relatively easy to see the many wrong turns I made along life’s journey. I might say I’ve come full circle back to my early childhood. Then (at least that’s what I’ve been told), I would spend hours playing in the dirt with my toy army men, driving nails in an old wagon anchored by time to the back pasture, and exploring the woods and fields surrounding our place with my dog Laddie.

Better late than never, the saying goes. The words ring true, at least for me, today. What about you?

Whatever the path that got me here, I have a growing interest in the present. Some say that’s all we have, and we don’t have much of that. For example, I duplicated this writing at 5:23 AM and at 5:28 AM to measure my progress. Turns out, both drafts were the same. I hadn’t written a single word during that five minutes. But, you know what, it’s now 5:58 AM. Gone forever is that five minute span. So, time keeps marching on. I want to be satisfied, DELIGHTED, now. Forget, tomorrow.

I still remember Psalm 118:24: “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Although I no longer believe in anything supernatural, I draw meaning and encouragement from these words. Today is the day, now is the moment, to experience delight. And, the things that stir such feeling don’t have to be complex or expensive. The simplest pleasures are the best. Another saying I recall.

As a young boy I found hours of delight in playing in the dirt with my little green army men. It can be the same today, even now. It’s been two hours since I poured my coffee and it has grown lukewarm. But, it’s still tasteful, enjoyable, with its tad of milk and a little sweetener. I’ll rewarm it later, but this shouldn’t deprive me of delight right now. Another sip, another feeling of satisfaction.

Delight seems to spawn thankfulness. I could be that person who doesn’t have any coffee but yet wants a cup, or two. He doesn’t have any because he’s poor, or he’s facing some medical procedure that forbids coffee. This morning, I can have my coffee. I’m thankful.

One thing that used to drive me to the next challenge was that I was bored. Or, that’s what I thought at the time. Now, I know I was deluding myself. Sam Harris says that “boredom is simply the lack of paying attention.” I think he’s right.

Living in the now is all about paying attention. Could we say that finding delight in the ordinary things of life, the mundane experiences of the every day, depends in great part on paying attention?

We don’t have to go on vacation, or to a party, or orchestrate anything. Most of us are blessed with an abundance of ordinariness all around us. I suspect you might be a little like me. Paying attention (and feeling pleasure or satisfaction) is something that might take some effort, some self-training.

Trained or not, let’s begin. Find something to look at. I’m sitting at my desk writing this but, as I often do, I see a five inch by five inch plaque someone gave me. It has a saying by Theodore Roosevelt (I’ve since learned he, in his autobiography, attributed the words to Squire Bill Widener, of Widener’s Valley, Virginia). Here are the words: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I might simply add, do it now, or, start doing it now.

Isn’t life just a cumulative pile of individual moments? Whatever you’re looking at, it soon, very soon, will become a part of your pile. For some of us, our moments are gathered together into mountains, even ranges of mountains. I’d rather many of my moments stay buried, but they’re quite a few that bring delight.

Take time today to pay attention to the dripping faucet, the half-filled glass, your reflection in the window, the grandkids toys sitting idle awaiting their next visit.

Afterwards, think about the feeling you got from paying attention. Can you align it with delight? Are you delighted with delight?

Describe this feeling in words. Write a few of them down.

A Plumbing Adventure

Over the past few days I’ve noticed—somewhat subconsciously—water pooling on top of the ground next to the cutoff valve that controls the water to the barn. We’ve had little rain so that’s not the source. Here’s the picture: the PVC line and cutoff are around eighteen inches underground, with the valve accessible via an eight inch by two-foot vertical pipe. I keep a small bucket over the top end of this cylinder to keep out the rain.

Yesterday, it was sunny and warm and my cold was worse if anything. What better time to piddle outside? I donned my khaki Levi’s, tee shirt, hat, and work boots in the mudroom and walked outside. What a beautiful New Year’s Day. I was greeted by Eddie, the lab lookalike, AKA, the Black Tornado, who thanks me every day for rescuing him last May. I estimate he’s now twelve to fourteen months old. The two of us amble around the yard a while and fortuitously wind up staring at the pooling water by the barn. What better day will I have to address the issue and exercise my tenacity? I remove the bucket and notice water covering the valve a good five or six inches. I have a leak.

This wasn’t the first leak I’ve recently discovered. Thankfully, they’ve all been in the barn kitchen and not in the house. I’m confident all of them were caused by the recent cold weather. Several nights a week ago the temperatures plunged below ten degrees, two nights below five degrees.

Eddie strolls off to explore. I grab a shovel and wheelbarrow, and start digging. I’ll need to remove all the dirt and mud and pooling water in a two or three foot square to diagnose the problem. The ground is soft but heavy, saturated with water. After removing the top eight or ten inches the ground turns to a mixture of half-mud and half-slop. The wheelbarrow is almost full and I don’t want to add the messy mixture. I walk inside the barn and find a two-foot by six-foot piece of discarded metal roofing to serve as a holding place for the mud until I remove it in the days ahead.

I use the bucket to scoop the muddy slop and toss onto the metal I’d placed a couple of feet away. Ultimately I have to get down on hands and knees to reach inside the deepening hole. The bucket finally grazed the PVC pipe. I keep scooping and tossing until the water level is below the bottom of the piping. The sound of pressurized water escaping its confined space confirms my suspicions. I have a leak. What surprised me was the location of the leak. It was not from a split in the PVC pipe, but from a small hole in a Tee fitting, in the curve of one of the two sides that form ninety degree angles. It’s like a sixteen penny nail has bored a hole through the PVC creating an unobstructed pathway for water to escape.

By now, my clothes, hands, and arms are wet and slimy. And, I’m an inch taller because of the mud sticking to the bottom of my boots. Since it’s New Year’s Day, I doubt FarmTown or any other local hardware store is open. Thankfully, I have an inch-sized PVC cap I can use as a temporary fix. I walk sixty yards or so to another valve that controls all the incoming water to our place (the water meter is over a quarter-mile away on Cox Gap Road). I close the valve and return to the work-site.

Now is the perfect time to exercise my tenacity. I bucket out the water that’s filled the hole since the last bailing, then go grab a hacksaw. I have to lay horizontal on the ground to make the cuts, three are required to gain the needed access to easily install the cap. The first one is the main, the incoming line. With saw in my right hand I start making the cut but have to use increasing force to lift the PVC line on the left of the cut to provide just enough space for the saw to pass through the inch line and complete the cut. I maneuver my body enough to complete the two other cuts. To be clear, two years ago when we renovated the barnhouse we’d dug up this same area and connected a new line that carried water to a faucet at the carport. Now, both lines intersect prior to the cutoff. The third cut was somewhat optional but in order to remove the section of pipe and glued fittings, thus to make easier access to the to-be capped line, I opted to make it also. By now, I’m a muddy mess.

I bail the water that poured into the hole after the cuts, grab some dry rags and use several to wipe down the pipe. I use some rubbing alcohol to clean the end of the targeted pipe. Thankfully, I’d bought a new can of PVC glue last Thursday at FarmTown so that wasn’t an issue. I again maneuvered myself in position to apply the glue to the cleaned end of the incoming line and twisted on the cap. All this just for a temporary fix. Since I didn’t have the fittings needed to reconnect everything, the ultimate goal still lies in the future.

It’s time to wait. I know ‘they’ say PVC glue drys almost instantly but I always choose to give it a while. Unfortunately, I have other things my mind demands I do. Earlier, when attempting to move the heavy-laden wheelbarrow away from the job site I’d turned it over and half the load spilled onto the ground. True to nature, I had to pour it all out because it was too heavy to set upright half loaded. It wasn’t too difficult, but did take a while to re-shovel the water-laden dirt back into the wheelbarrow. When I finally finished, I carefully rolled the load a couple hundred feet to the edge of the woods along our south gorge and dumped it opting not to reuse it to fill the hole.

I greatly enjoyed the next ten minutes sitting in a lawn chair facing the sun. It was warm and fitting, an elixir for my bad cold, and aggravated sinuses. I closed my eyes and thought about what I’d spent the past hour or so doing, and how much writing is like plumbing. Both are arduous and messy. By messy, I don’t mean I get mud and watery slop all over me when I write. But, maybe there’s an analogy there. To create one we’ll need some figurative mud and watery slop. What could that be? Well, first, what function did the mud and watery slop serve in yesterday’s plumbing adventure? Weren’t they obstacles and barriers that huddled and hovered in the way of fulfilling the goal; they were warriors stationed at multiple lookouts, at every turn of the shovel, at every act of bailing. Their goal? To hinder, inhibit, or halt all progress?

You get the idea. Anything worth doing is difficult. There’s always an audience of excuses ready to be tapped. In my experience, plumbing does often require a high degree of tenacity, but, although it can be physically messy work, in a way it’s easy compared to writing. For me, the latter is something I literally hate doing and love doing at the same time. It is a battle every day I sit down to write. I can so easily be tempted by things pretty and ugly. The easiest thing to do is nothing, or to scroll Twitter, or watch a few YouTubes, maybe read an online newspaper article or two, or three. Writing is both physical and mental, but mostly mental.

I admit, I’m an elementary level writer and likely always will be, but there’s such power in having written. I normally start my daily writing time rereading what I wrote the day before. This does several things for me but one thing stands out. It reminds me that I was living in the moment when I wrote this. I wasn’t daydreaming, I wasn’t thinking of days gone by or days not yet seen. I was in the now, the place I yearn to be more and more every day.

As stated in yesterday’s post, writing, writing most anything, short or long, gives me a feeling of accomplishment, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Here’s something that has never existed before. I suspect it’s a similar feeling any artist gets when she does her own creating whether it’s a piece of music, a painting, or a clay pot. There’s another thing I suspect. No matter the artist, no matter the medium, tenacity is required. What is that? The dictionary says tenacity is “persistent determination.”

Back to my plumbing adventure. When I’d waited what I figured was long enough, I returned to the main cutoff and turned it counterclockwise. I could hear the water surging forward toward the barn. Thankfully, I’d waited long enough. The glue had done its job. The cap was anchored. No more leak.

One final thought before I end this rather long post. Travel with me to January 1st, 2024. What will it feel like to look back on 2023 and smile, smile heartedly at the ‘pile’ of snippets we’ve written over the course of the year? Could there possibly be 365 of these tasty and powerful morsels? But, even if the ‘pile’ isn’t what we’d hoped for, let’s start rereading. After a long while, we sense there’s a connection, currently undefined and mysterious, between the ones we wrote on March the sixth and September the twenty-fourth. Our minds sizzle, something snaps in place. Story? Could it be? Yes it is. We’ve discovered an idea for a story, whether short or long.

Oh well, this blog post is finished. It’s time to work on my novel in progress. Gosh, there’s mud and watery slop everywhere.

A 2023 New Year’s Challenge

I challenge you to write something every day during 2023. And, file it in some retrievable format.

For many—maybe most everyone who reads this post—this will not be a challenge at all. If this is you, then pass my challenge along to someone who you suspect doesn’t write everyday.

So, why write every day? I could quote a hundred writers in answering this question. But I won’t, except for the one who matters most to me. You guessed it, ME. I write mainly for myself, not for an audience even though I publish my work. On the days I write, especially if I write a scene or snippet for my current novel in progress, I feel alive. I feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful. If I’ve spent a few hours at my desk and penciled (or keyboarded) some words, my day is a success. If I do nothing the remainder of the day, I’m good. (I know. This is a psychological trick, but believe me, it works).

I relate accomplishment to production. Now don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t call myself much of a producer. I mostly consume. What about you? You may be like me in that during a typical day, you read something: articles, books (fiction and non-fiction), Twitter, Facebook (not me, I hate Facebook). Also, you watch TV, or, I should say the TV screen which now days includes a zillion streaming services. In addition, you may watch YouTube Videos and listen to audio books. There’s probably a thousand other ways we spend our time consuming what someone else has created. In other words, most of us consume a lot more than we produce.

My challenge is for us to change that, to start writing something every day. Now, granted, there’s many other ways to be creative, to produce something. You could use your mind and ear to score a new song, use your hands to paint a landscape, build a doghouse, or add a room to your own house. You could rebuild a car engine. You could design and create a robot to cook hamburger helper without guidance, one so smart it would wash the dishes afterward. I’m certain, you can quickly list a dozen other ways to produce.

Certainly, you might argue you’re not a writer. I beg to differ, at least for most of you. If you can talk, you’re a writer (or can be). If you cannot speak but can remember, think, or imagine, anything, then you’re a writer (or can be). I’m not saying you are, or ever will be, an Ernest Hemingway or a William Faulkner, or a John Grisham, or a Michael Connelly. I simply mean you have the ability, right now, to transfer some words from your mind, through your fingers, to a sheet of paper (or computer). And, don’t forget dictation. Simply say your words outloud and watch them appear on the computer screen (think WORD software).

Have you ever written a grocery list? Probably, even if it was simply, “buy milk, bread, and eggs.” You already have the memory of a trip to the grocery store. Write about it. Just write down what your memory is telling you. Don’t worry about grammar or format to start with. If your memory is foggy, that’s okay, just make something up. Hence, use your imagination. Add in some mystery. Questions are always helpful. You might write, “why was the 600 pound redheaded woman who was riding the motorized buggy buying all that Crest toothpaste?” If you want, answer your question, or attempt to. Write more than one reason.

Let me digress. You may not have noticed but I just did something no one else in the world has ever done (if you believe Google knows everything). I copied and pasted my 600 pound question into Google, including the quotation marks, and here’s the result.

This just proved (kinda) that I created/produced something unique.

Sorry for that. Notice that so far I haven’t said anything about creating stories. And, I won’t now other than to say you will decide if and when you want to enter that wonderful world. For now, it’s quite okay to stick with what I call snippets. Here’s the formal definition from Merriam-Webster: “a small part, piece, or thing.” And, here’s a few synonyms for snippet: bit, fragment, morsel, smidgen, scrap, and snip.” You get the idea.

I bet you’re already producing snippets. Things like this: “Call Howard at Snead Ag.” I wrote this one yesterday. It’s about reminding him to do what he promised—to send a rollback and haul my tractor to Wilks Tire to fix the right rear tire I’ve already paid for. You guessed it, the tire wasn’t properly repaired; it still goes flat. The above quote is all I penciled on the 3 by 3 inch paper square. But now, I’ve written more about that note. There’s a lot more I could write about it. Like the conversation I had with Howard on (I forget) where he made his promise.

It’s time I work on my current novel in progress, but I want to end with the second part of my challenge, “And, file it in some retrievable format.” This obviously depends on whether you write with pencil or pen, or using a computer. Either is fine, just store your snippets in a way you can return to them when you want. For a physical system, you could write on notecards and date and file them chronologically. For a digital system, you could use something like Evernote with the date written as the title. There’s a zillion ways.

I basically have two forms of writing. My blogging and my novel writing. For the later, I use Scrivener. It allows me to create a project for every book. Admittedly, I no longer keep up with my daily word count for my novel writing. I sensed such was producing unneeded/unwanted pressure. Further, I know I’m rewardingly immersed in my current project if I’m producing a book every year (and that’s another story since it’s now been a little over a year since I published my last book), but I digress.

For blogging, I use WordPress. Earlier, as I thought about what I would write today, I wanted to see if I’d written a blog post on January 1, 2022. Thankfully, I did. I wrote it in pencil, snapped a photo, and posted it to my blog. Here it is if you want to read .

I feel better now.

I’ll leave you with this. Dorothy Parker once said: “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Doesn’t this go for a lot of things in life? They aren’t all chocolate candy and pickle juice (I love pickle juice) when tantalizing our taste buds, but for one or more reasons, after the task, we feel good about what we’ve done. We might even say, the world is better off, at least our own little world.

For a better life, write. Write something. Write every day.

And, every once in a while, reread what you’ve written.

The 2022 Orange Bowl

“Maybe there’s a bowl game on.” I said out loud so J, the controller of the TV’s controller, would check.

At the time we were watching an episode of Blue Bloods and I’d just said, “I’m reminded why I never liked this program. It’s too dramatic. Actually, it’s melodramatic.” I guess I need to tell you why I said this.

Jamie had been shot. “The bullet got under his vest,” according to his brother Danny. The wounded Reagan was rushed to the hospital. The family gathers, all except Frank because he’s on recon with his priest buddy. The hospital scene is intense. The doctor announces the bullet is close to the spine and Jamie could become paralyzed when he attempts to remove it during surgery. The family is desperate as is normal. Danny leaves and goes hunting for the shooter. He’s successful. The doctor removes the bullet. There’s no paralysis. Jamie’s discharged, well, not that quick but in screen time only a few minutes. As Eddie (not the black tornado Eddie from yesterday’s post), Jamie’s wife, wheels him out of the hospital they’re met by a huge crowd of hospital personnel, police officers, and family members. Big Frank, in his three piece suit (another pet peeve) is standing front and center. He immediately salutes Jamie, who stands and returns the salute. The clapping begins and continues and continues. Too melodramatic. Just one reason I don’t like Blue Bloods.

J announces the results of his Google search: The Orange Bowl starts at 7:00; Tennessee vs. Clemson. It’s now 6:57. We wait.

I grab my iPad and open Kindle and read. At 7:00, J checks Hulu and learns the game starts at 7:10. We wait more. I read more.

The Cheez-It Bowl, Clemson vs. Iowa State. What’s going on? We watch for several minutes, voicing questions such as, “Where’s Tennessee?” and “I thought you said it was the Orange Bowl?” Why is Clemson playing Iowa State?

Finally, I do some investigating. Somehow, J selected a rerun, last year’s Cheez-It Bowl in Orlando. He maneuvers Hulu and gets us to this year’s Orange Bowl.

Sure enough, it’s Clemson vs. Tennessee.

Shortly after we start watching, Tennessee scores a touchdown. After their kickoff to Clemson I begin to notice something’s strange. Why all the background noise? The fans are yelling. The bands are playing. Loudly. I barely hear an announcer calling the game. It’s like being at a high school football game, actually present in the stands, too close to the cheering section. Noisy, stressful. “Where’s the commentators?” I ask. Even the visual angles of the game, the players, seemed off. I think this was an ESPN production. What happened? Are all future football games going to be like this?

I decide to check Twitter. I fully agree with Brian Cassady
@bcassady28, “Trying to watch the 2022
@OrangeBowl and hate the production quality. This Skycast camera is terrible. No announcers. Hard to follow the action. The PA announcer is boring. If this is the new way to watch the bowl games, it’s awful.”

After a few more plays I have my own announcement. “I’m going to bed. You guys can sit up as long as you want.” I take my nightly medications, brush my teeth, rub my chest with Vick’s, and head to bed. I’ll read until my little white sleeping pill closes my eyes.

I hate Blue Bloods. But, I love college football games, watching from my lazy boy, listening to great commentators, virtually oblivious to the stressful noise from the melodramatic bands and fans, which is nearly as bad as watching Tom Selleck’s facial expressions.

A Fun Trip to Dollar General

I drove to the nearest Dollar General–the one by Four-Way Express–last Tuesday for some cough drops and vapor rub. Eddie went with me (he’s the black lab I rescued May 24th). When we arrived I fastened his leash to his collar and opened the driver’s side door. As usual, he jumps out and I struggle to hold onto him. After coaxing him back into the car I walk inside the DG.

After I wander around a while I find the Hall’s Cough Drops but not the Vick’s–that’s the brand I want because that’s what Mother always used when I was a kid. I walk to the cashier, an older lady (defined by her long gray hair) with semi-thick glasses. I asked for the Vick’s. She offered to show me where it was.

Unsurprisingly, I’d missed it since it was with the other ‘Health Aids.’ She returned to her post and I pondered the purchase. Confused, I chose not to purchase this boxed item. It didn’t look like what I remembered Mother buying.

I kept the cough drops and returned to the Cashier. There were two customers ahead of me. The first transaction was quick and the thick girl departed. I asked myself if I looked as homeless as she did. Probably. I’d chosen comfortable and worn clothes to my new and stylish garments. Joke.

The Cashier was now dealing with the second customer, a man, maybe 6 foot 2, wearing blue-jeans, a dark sweatshirt, and a pair of well work cowboy boots. He looked as though he might have just gotten off a cattle drive. He laid his cell phone on the counter and removed a pile of cash from his front right pocket. He started to count the money, arranging it in stacks. I guessed, one hundred dollar stacks.

From the carefully selected screen showing on his cell phone and his methodical counting and stacking of cash on the counter I imagined he was attempting to transfer money to a prepaid debit card. Obviously, I could be wrong. Just as a guess, the Cashier could be his mother and he was repaying her for some old debt. I digress, this was not likely what was happening.

I continued to wait. The cashier, now, is recounting the money. One stack at a time. The fifth stack, or, it might have been the sixth, was trouble. She recounted it two times. I could tell this stack had some five dollar bills in it. The Cashier conducted the third count of the fifth (sixth?) stack backwards. The man reached into his left front pocket and pulled out a handful of coins and started laying them out in more stacks, actually not stacks, but circles, each coin laying on the counter and segregated into distinct categories.

The Cashier displayed her best confused look but didn’t give up. She plunged into a recount of all five (six?) stacks, for now ignoring the piles of coins. To me it seemed like hours had transpired. In truth, it had only been a few minutes. I decided I didn’t need these particular Hall’s cough drops after all. I turned and placed the small bag on the candy rack behind me and walked out. Eddie was waiting patiently in the driver’s seat.

I drove us to Walgreen’s in Boaz for a different bag of Hall’s cough drops and a container of Vick’s vapor rub, the type Mother bought and used on me as a kid, maybe sixty years ago.

During mine and Eddie’s ride home I realized how proud my dearly departed mother would be if she knew how patient and diligent I’d been taking care of my three-day old cold, and for rescuing this black tornado.