Thursday, January 21, 2010

Transcendental Metaworry

Last night, worrying about the storm and our old trees, my mother, Haiti, the Senate results in Massachusetts, and a half-dozen other things, I remembered Lewis Thomas’s essay on Transcendental Metaworry in his book The Medusa and the Snail.

His only half-joking premise was that worrying is a form of prayer, and that rather than avoid it, we should make it into a discipline and get really good at it.

After I found the book and blew the dust off it, I was once again drawn in to the mind of Lewis Thomas, who might have written the book yesterday instead of in 1974.

Most of the essays in Thomas’s books originally appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, but their subject matter was wide-ranging. He wrote about the United States health care system, about cloning, hypochondria, extra-terrestrial life, warts (“warts are wonderful structures”), music, meddling, language.

Lives of a Cell (Notes of a Biology Watcher, 1974) was the first Thomas book I read. Ann Woodlief’s Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 275, says that in this book Thomas “builds on the analogy between the workings of the cell and the workings of the earth and its lives, including man’s.”

Thomas’s point of view was Mozartean, a synthesis, an overview, expressed in optimistic terms without denying that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

By the time Thomas wrote Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, his point of view had become darker: He spoke about the possibility of nuclear war and called the nationalism which divides humans as “probably the most stupefying example of biological error since the age of the great reptiles, wrong at every turn, but always felicitating itself loudly.”

In The Fragile Species, 1992, Thomas’s final book, he expressed the need for some “powerful steadying cohesive force” to bring about what he called not peace, but rather “the comity of nations.” As in previous books, he spoke of the earth as a living organism whose cells include us, with a “vast wiring diagram that maintains the interconnectedness and interdependence of all its numberless parts, and the ultimate product of the life: more and more information.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula

(in memory of June Morrall)

“It’s as if someone

tore through the paper of the sky,

showing the light beyond.”

He has put away his telescope,

has come in with cold cheeks

and starry eyes.

He is describing the Orion nebula.

But I am thinking of her,

how she would greet you like a sister,

with such familiarity you might turn

and look behind you

to make sure it was you she meant.

What with the fog and the trees,

you can’t always see the stars here

and of course to see the nebula

the night must be quite dark.