A couple weeks ago, a post-yoga library trip brought me face-to-face in this galaxy with Ella Frances Sanders’ new book, Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe. I stood in the library looking at this book sitting upon the New Books shelf, and it was the ponderous font upon the inspired cover that intrigued me, the hand-drawn and hand-painted quality of the book’s front art design that was endearing to me. Flipping through its new-book-smelling pages, the short installments and frequent illustrations led me further into the fantasy of what wonders this book may hold, and I made a judgment call as to the likelihood of me actually reading this whole book amidst my busy schedule: quite likely, and even pertinent.
Within a week, I had finished it, and I am delighted to affirm that this book is every bit as lovely and wonder-ful as I both expected and hoped. As I read, Ella Frances Sanders enlightened me with both new scientific knowledge and old scientific knowledge, dusting off some topics in my brain that hadn’t been unearthed since my college physics class—-planetary motion, elements upon the periodic table, evaporation… But with every curve of a fact, Sanders revealed the tender underside, the belly, of what these theories mean to us, by tying a string between these vast, cosmic spatial phenomena and the microscopic anxieties and excitements that mingle through our everyday routines. “Surely, we can laugh. Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical.”
Sanders’ narrative voice is such a delight to read, as her eloquent sentences wind across the page, twirling into one idea and then the next. Her poetic descriptions and concise explanations wed merrily, and the result is extraordinary. One of my favorite images she offers is from the introduction, where she writes, “The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars.”
This book is comprised of many vignettes, all offering a different musing for the reader to reflect upon, and even wonder about beyond what is written. Inspired by the thoughtful musings of Sanders, and delighted by my own fantasies on these topics, I am sharing my own musings—-my musings on musings.
I Am Made From Carbon
In case you weren’t aware, we as creatures of this blooming planet are made up of star dust. The truth behind this tragically romantic sentiment is that nothing in this universe is really ever created nor destroyed, but merely changes form and evolves into the next phase of its neverending cycle. That being said, when stars in space reach their final moment and release their roar, spastically shedding their outer layer—-a medley of star elements—-and collapsing inward, all those elements get shared with all of surrounding space. As time falls away, these elements transform and create new scenarios and before you can even believe that billions of years have transpired, the very carbon from fallen stars is the same carbon that, through some process, gives us the energy to get out of bed in the morning and open the window to this new sunrise. The stars have given their carbon to the universe and we have taken that and become what we are.
“You see, you are not so soft after all,” Sanders writes. “You are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.” I love how science is poetry, and life is so interconnected. Earlier this year I became very aware of this as I read Thich Hanh Nhat’s The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings, which illustrates the intimate ways in which we “inter-are” with everything around us—-the mountains, a rose, a glass of water… We take a bite of sweet, creamy yogurt, which was sold to us by a grocer, who obtained it after it was shipped from a warehouse across the country, which used materials and workers to produce it, and received the dairy from a cow, and the cow once fed upon the grass, which was watered by the rain, which has been cycling across this planet for millions of years… And for us to find ourselves together in this very moment—-it’s enough to stop mid-bite and be thankful for all that has led us here.
The Most Luminous Objects in the Known Universe
“Your luminosity is intrinsic, but your brightness will depend on who is looking at you.” We’ve figured this out about stars—-in the night sky, some stars shine brighter, but that doesn’t mean the star is inherently brighter than the other stars; that bright star could be just down the road from our star, and so seem brighter to us because it’s closer. It’s all relative.
When I read this, my feeling little human heart so eagerly related it to my own anxieties, as well as what I would presume millions of other humans are anxious about… Suddenly, after discovering this gem of information, I was bolstered and empowered by this beautiful stargazing metaphor: we are not inherently less-bright just because a person does not perceive our brightness. It’s always just a matter of who is looking at us, and where they are. They could be standing from their stupid rock far away and not see our star’s great brilliance, but this other planet closer by could see our light as the brightest twinkle in their sky. I decided to remember this cosmic analogy next time I’m in a situation where I feel like the dullest star in the room; maybe it’s just the wrong room. Our luminosity is in our soul.
You Are Not Yourself Today
Every musing in this book I consider “one of my favorites,” but this one is especially one of my favorites. You Are Not Yourself Today hinges on the idea that we are changing every day; all the tiny parts that make us up—-like cells and atoms—-are consistently cycling through their short lives, renewing themselves and changing over the reigns to the next generation. And with that, we decide every moment who we are, although most of the time we don’t recognize this power or autonomy. Identity and self are probably the most accessible realms of human exploration, yet we often have no idea who we really are, at core.
Sanders points out that the “self” is not a singular and identifiable element; we are not just our memories, or just our body, or just our brain. We tend to see ourselves as an individual by means of our story in life, our bundle of hair color and traumatic experiences and hopes and favorite t-shirts all going along together and encountering new events in our tale. But we also tend to think of ourselves as a permanent, unchanging entity that is “Our Name,” and so in a world that leaps and dances with impermanence, it is particularly inaccurate and even foolish that we could ever consider ourselves to be static and unmovable in a world that depends on movement and evolution. So when I look back at how, when I was fifteen and claimed I would never in my life get married, I can now laugh at that young me for feeling I had the authority to speak for all the next decades of myself, and laugh because now that I have looked into the eyes of the Love of My Life and felt in that moment a unique electric connectedness to another human being, I can no longer say that I would never get married.
Besides, many smart people throughout history have tried to stab at the true nature of self. And while we still don’t totally know what we mean by “self,” holding on to the concept of “self” is very important to our operations as human beings. Sanders writes, “But you are endlessly creating this ‘self,’ and it is not something that is just standing around waiting for you to find it. No matter how you want to consider this, however stuck you become in the questions that are inevitably kicked up, it can be perhaps faintly reassuring to remember that me, myself, and I, we contain multitudes.” We contain stardust, we contain the words of Walt Whitman, and we contain whoever we want to be each day we wake up.
Does Anybody Actually Know What Time Is
Time is another funny topic, and this chapter more or less reminds us that time is baffling, and perhaps the only reason it exists at all is so that our little human minds can use it to feign a perceptible order to things.
While this section reminds us that time is relative and practically impossible to clutch, it also demonstrates the various ways in which time is perceived through culture and language, which influences the ways our mind understands our experiences of time.
Sanders explains, “In some languages, the past is referred to as behind, and the future ahead, but in others, the past is ahead and the future behind, perhaps because the past can be seen, and in order to observe something, it needs to be in front of you, not behind. While some languages refer to time as a distance traveled, others refer to it as a growing volume—-a long day, a full day. In English we think of it in linear terms, from left to right, but Chinese speakers think of time in terms of over and under, and in Greek time can be large, small. So easily do we mistake a word for the thing or phenomenon it speaks of, that it represents.”
Often I think about how our language plays a role in how we view the world, and I’ve found that there’s a name for this idea: the Sapir Whorf Hypothesis, which states that “the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience.” Now, there’s some debate between if language actually determines or merely influences these things, but it’s pretty clear that the way we speak of the world around us can change the way we perceive time rushing by us, or time strolling hand-in-hand with us.
All At Once
Okay, so this one is another one of my especial favorites. Sanders so perfectly explains and illustrates the concept of synchrony that I’m tempted to quote the entire section and leave you with that, but I’m hoping you take my advice and read the entire book for yourself, and in that case, you will read what I mean. She elaborates that scientists have found that two objects in movement have a tendency to eventually “move at the same rate or interval.” When this happens it’s called “entrainment” and it occurs because nature finds it easier to synchronize movement of objects in close proximity, and why would nature fight what is easier? For example, Sanders mentions that even pendulums swinging on clocks at different initial intervals will fall in similar rhythm over time, due to entrainment. This is also seen in nature when it comes to flocks of birds, our heartbeat following the same rhythm as our breathing, and the synchronization between bodies—-ever notice how you tend to fall into the same step as the person with which you’re walking down the sidewalk? Ever notice how it kind of feels like the two of you are sort of gliding together when your steps match each other, and it feels a little easier to move along?
Perhaps this entrainment is why we feel sometimes so easily swayed by a group’s decision that we go along with it, even if we think better of it, and perhaps this is why when someone’s in a good mood, it feels contagiously simple to also perk up. Entrainment can have questionable social implications such as groupthink, but it can also unify our hearts.
I’ve recently rewatched The Matrix, so I am truly reminded of the bliss of ignorance. There are wonders in this world that we could simply enjoy and look no further, but if you feel the urge in your mind like I do, you understand the itch, the thirst for a dose of education. It might confuse you at first, you might not believe it initially, but learning about and trying to peel away the mysteries of our existence can satisfy our souls and reveal an art and purpose greater than we could have imagined. It’s an adventure of the mind… So if you’d like to take the red pill, and dive into the nature of our being in this widely vast celestial expanse, then meet me on the other side of Eating the Sun with your thoughts and dreams.
Thanks for reading.
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