“Your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
So that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s words resonated in my mind as I looked up at the night’s sky on New Year’s Eve. Standing on a small wooden deck at my daughter’s farmhouse set on a vineyard in Northern California, the relative absence of light pollution allowed a clear view to an arching parade of constellated stars against a backdrop of lightdust spangled on the black sky-vault with openhanded extravagance. A brisk wind soughed somber as it combed the charcoal outline of a barren apple orchard and moaned across the wires holding the scraggly branches of vines.
I felt blocked-in; had written little in the past month, and feared I had done something to upset Polyhymnia, the Muse of eloquence, to the point of never again being favored by her gift. My life felt like a stone in me, pressing down on my embryonic aspiration to become a writer with a massive weight of implacable resistance. I panicked, wondering what would become of me should I never recover the power of my creativity. I was about to turn 57, relatively penniless, and had just received the thirty-third rejection to my Memoir. Like the horn of a Ram, I was wound tight in a Gordian-knot of anxiety and flailed in the searing soup of my laments while the stars looked down on me with frosty indifference.
Fixing my gaze on the constellation of Orion, I spotted Betelgeuse, the supergiant star pinpointing one of the shoulders of this giant hunter. At six hundred times the Sun’s radius, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in our galaxy. Trailing behind were the constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor: Orion’s hunting dogs. The former contains Sirius, the largest and brightest star ever discovered, and a billion times bigger than our Sun. In our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are over two hundred billion stars; there are over one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more stars than grains of sand on Earth.
Such sublime and staggering scale made my human tribulations seemed petty in cosmic terms. I had to laugh, feeling akin to Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa who once mocked his own trivial distress by recognizing he was shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in.
How true, I thought, what psychologist James Hillman said, that it is not our stories which affect us, as much as the way we choose to recount them. We often dull our lives, he said, by the way we conceive it. We should never accept that we are only the effect of the blows of hereditary and social forces. Otherwise we are reduced to only a result; our biography becomes that of a victim — the flip side of the hero.
Awe, humility, and perspective were the first lessons I learned on the eve of the new year.
It was good to know my affliction had less weight than a grain of sand, but not enough to dispel my anxiety and rouse me from my creative rut. I needed to read deeper into the night sky to wrest more practical wisdom from the stars.
From what my father had taught me about the cosmos when I was a young boy, I remembered that close to Orion’s sword is the famous Orion Nebula.
Stars begin their journey inside clouds of dust and gas called nebulas: a star nursery where millions of new stars are born. Turbulence deep within these clouds gives rise to knots with sufficient mass that the gas and dust begin to collapse under their own gravitational attraction. I equated turbulence with the excitement I felt writing my first stories when I was eight years old, and thought of the gravitational attraction as the allurement of love; Eros, or ardent desire, calling me onto the path of an artist.
As the stellar cloud collapses, the material at the center begins to heat up. Known as a protostar, it is this hot core that will one day become a star. If a protostar forms with insufficient mass, it will not burn hot enough for thermonuclear fusion to begin and will end its journey as a brown dwarf, halfway between a planet and a star. Was I destined, I wondered, for such an unimpressive fate?
Stars are fueled by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen which forms helium deep in their interiors. Every second, fusion at the core of a star generates the explosive force of a billion nuclear bombs. The reason it doesn’t blow apart is due to the dynamic standoff between Gravity, which wants to crush the star, and the energy of the fusion process that wants to blow the star apart. And that tension, that balancing act, creates a star, and keeps it creating heat and light.
What hydrogen is for stars, our deepest desires are the fuel only we can transform into light. If our desire is too weak, we will not burn hot enough, sharing the fate of a failed, brown dwarf star.
But having a desire (to be a writer, to heal the sick or the planet, to fight injustice or alleviate hunger, etc.) is not enough. The first dynamic of the Universe is resistance. The existence of stars arises out of the constraints placed upon the energy of its fusion process, i.e., its desire. If they could continue without meeting resistance (Gravity), no star would ever emerge. Mountains are formed by this same dynamic process. Fifty million years ago, the robust resistance of the Eurasian plate pushing against the colliding Indian subcontinent crowned the Earth with its highest tectonic achievement: Mt. Everest.
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies —
I recalled Emily Dickinson’s poem as I heard a flock of sheep bleating in the distance and the clang of tiny bells as they huddled closer together for warmth.
Two years ago, I thought I heard a call bell for me to rise; to move out of my humdrum existence and move towards a life of greater intensity. Fueled by my desire to give voice to my personal cosmology through writing, I shed my previous life and slid towards a new adventure like a snake sheds its scaly envelope to allow for further growth. Ever since, the resistance pushing against my desire has been formidable. I mentioned this to a stranger with whom I crossed paths on the first part of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore. He said the more urgent a call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Said it with such calm conviction, that I named him my Mexican Yoda, after the legendary Jedi Master from the movie ‘Star Wars.’
Very often though, as my dear friend Mary Reynolds wrote in her extraordinary book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul,’ one may need a cataclysmic event to crack open, just as Bishop Pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.
Could it be, I wondered on that cold starry night, that I was at the threshold of something momentous, about to crack open and spill my unique gifts on the world?
Like snowflakes…like you and I, each star is a one of a kind. What a stirring, but daunting realization! To know that upon birth, a new possibility is born with us, a new desire, a seed of potential that is up to us, and only us, to make sprout. An opportunity that is ours to actualize or deny according to our resolve.
Someone once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. The poet Annie Dillard offers one possible answer: “To give voice to your own astonishment,” she said. To astound, from Latin: “to thunder!”
At the stroke of midnight, nearby firework flashes and thunderous explosions heralding the birth of a new year reminded me of a Supernova: the single most violent event in the Universe.
I lifted my gaze back at Betelgeuse, the giant star many scientists predict will be our galaxy’s next Supernova and wondered what wisdom I could extract from its looming fate being broadcast by its light traveling at a hundred and eighty six miles per second.
Giant stars live fast, burn bright, and die hard. Once out of fuel, the epic battle is won by the crush of Gravity over their desire to keep expressing their radiant selves. But from their destruction come the seeds of life itself. We owe our existence to such a Supernova billions of years ago — our Cosmic Mother. Evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme named her “Tiamat” after the ancient Babylonian goddess of primordial creation and eulogized her in ‘The Universe Story’:
“Tiamat found herself pressed to the wall, exhausted by the effort, helpless to do anything more to balance the titanic powers. When her core had been transformed into iron, she sighed a last time as collapse became inevitable. In a cosmological twinkling, her gravitational potential energy was transformed into a searing explosion, a single flash of brilliance. When the brilliance was over, when Tiamat’s journey was finished, the deeper meaning of her existence was just beginning to show through. Out of the spectacular tensions in the stellar core, Tiamat had forged calcium, a new presence that would one day support both mastodons and hummingbirds. Tiamat had forged phosphorus which would one day enable the majestic intelligence of photosynthesis to appear. Tiamat had sculpted oxygen and Sulphur which would one day somersault with joy over the beauty of the earth. She vanished as a star in her grand finale of beauty, but the essence of her creativity went forth in wave after wave, tossed into the night sky with the most extravagant gesture of generosity.”
Without Supernovae, there would be no us. We are made of carbon, of oxygen; there is iron in our blood. All those elements were generated in the womb of a star. We are made of star stuff, said astronomer Carl Sagan, something Walt Whitman, the poet, already intuited a century before when proclaiming that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Every atom deep within the dormant soil of the dark fields extending in front of my gaze; those inside the apple trees, the grapevines, and the huddled sheep, as good belong to me. I had received a lesson of reception and kinship.
Perfect love, said ninth century Mohammedan mystic Sari-al-Sakadi, exists between two people only when each addresses the other with the words: “O myself!” On what grounds, then, dare I deny, discriminate, or diminish the life of a fellow human simply because his atoms choose to express themselves through a different color, language, or custom? In the presence of the ‘Other,’ the proper stance is celebration and curiosity, not disdain. I further realized that every violent act against Earth, or against any of its multifarious expressions, is a form of self-annihilation.
But those were not the only lessons I learned from a Supernova.
I sensed my desire to become a writer was not burning hot enough to prevent the implacable resistance from crushing it. I was allowing my fears — of rejection, poverty, ridicule, obscurity — to gain the upper hand, and, as Brian Swimme warned, someone who takes as a central life project the avoidance of suffering will lead an ephemeral life. Like our Sun, whose mass (desire) is not sufficient to become a Supernova, I risked exiting life’s stage with a whimper, not a bang.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” — Jack London
Throughout history, our firmament has been illumed by human Supernovae like Jack London, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Socrates, Nietzsche, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rachel Carson who wrote her revolutionary book, ‘Silent Spring,’ while dying from cancer – giants whose bursts of creative light still shine upon us today. Like our Cosmic Mother, they scattered the essence of their genius in wave after wave with the most extravagant gesture of generosity. I saw no reason why I could not emulate them. Like Orion, I needed to pick up the sword again and charge ahead, warrior-like, toward my chosen destiny. I had to look at my fears straight in the eye so they would feel afraid and run away.
Each beam of starlight makes an epic journey travelling at six hundred million miles an hour. Most stars are so far away their light takes hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach us. Light from Betelgeuse has been travelling since Columbus discovered America. The light we see today from Eta Carinae left that star when our ancestors first farmed the land eight thousand years ago. That from our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, began its journey at the time our ancestors had just begun making tools over two million years ago. For all we know, all those stars might have perished already.
This august scale of time and distance gave me comfort. The thoughts I consign to these pages might not touch anyone in the present, but one day, far in the distant future, might inspire someone, who, like me, will be contemplating the firmament.
As the New Year’s fireworks ended, I took one last look at the scattering of stars and remembered that the Universe will eventually run out of fuel and go dark. Sooner or later the stars will begin to blink out until the last star burns out. In the face of such bleakness, we are prone to nihilism or despair. What is the point of such exuberant creativity? one is inclined to ask.
“In music,” said philosopher Alan Watts, one doesn’t make the end of a composition, the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest [or] who only wrote finales.”
A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning. — David Steindl-Rast
The same with dance, Watts adds. “The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
“There is no goal,” wrote Nietzsche, “we are always already at it. The fulfilled moment does not lie in the future but is always there already. Life does not follow the principle of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement but revolves in a cycle of expiring and expanding. For this reason, life is always already at its goal.”
Our wish for security, immutability, eternity, or to arrive at ultimate meaning seemed to me at that moment but futile illusions. It is necessary to shake them off and yet remain passionately in love with life even after its great futility has been revealed. I learned that I am not here be consoled, but curious and enthralled by the unfolding story of the Universe, and to contribute my unique gifts to its dazzling, unfolding spectacle.
Coming back into the house, the only word I could think of to describe the goal of life was “Rapture,” and as I settled into bed on the first day of the new year, my life no longer felt like a stone in me, but like a star.
What about love? What do stars teach us about the affairs of the heart? Read Episode II
For future flashes of stellar inspiration join my mailing list.