The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars

“The stars awaken a certain reverence because though always present, they are inaccessible.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stars. These constant companions we frequently contemplate. They place us firmly on earth and lift us in transcendental transmogrification.

Maybe because we see them at night when we are at our most thoughtful. Or because we are made of the same elements, the same dust. Whatever the reason, we understand stars more than ever and yet they deliver such imagined greatness.

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
Starry sky over Snowdonia National Park, Wales. Captured by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

Biologist Rachel Carson spent her life uncovering the grim reality present in impossibly small stretches of life, yet she stood in simple rapture at stars.1

We lay and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars that blazed in darkness. The night was so still that we could hear the buoy on the ledges out beyond the mouth of the bay. Once or twice a word spoken by someone on the far shore was carried across on the clear air. A light burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of human life; my companion and I were alone with the stars.

Or consider this simple, poignant observation from neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who looked to the stars as he was dying to anchor his existence and provide a measure of time.2

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. […] 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.

Stars keep time preposterous to our own. Maybe that is why they speak eternity to us. And yet, they have materiality, they are made of elements (elements that came out of the stars and also form us).

Elements fascinated Sacks, elements were things he collected and held dear. In his last months alive, however, he didn’t see the materiality of stars, but rather their metaphor of light and life.

We now know stars to be turbulent, fraught with change. But only centuries ago – a blip in human time – we believed stars to be sentinels of heaven, part of a perfect celestial sphere occupied by gods.

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a heliocentric model of the universe. But it was only a theory. It wasn’t until 1610 when Galileo Galilei, aided by his own hand-fashioned telescope, conjectured that “stars” around Jupiter were not stars but moons that astronomers began to change their view of the heavens. He also noticed mountains and valleys on our moon.

Galileo’s findings meant earth was not the only body around which things orbited, and that our moon, situated in the perfect sky, wasn’t perfect.

Nighttime Activities Done in Solitude
Super wolf blood moon. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

The arrow of time and discovery tracks from Galileo’s brilliant use of instrumentation, which changed our conceptual notions of space, to the recent photographs of a black hole, which again changed our notions of space.

And yet, despite all of this knowledge, data, science, and understanding of what stars are, both themselves and in relation to us, we persist in giving stars human and even divine meaning.

We return them to their perfect spheres.

In 1836 American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (who would have known stars were material, not aspects of the gods) wrote in his essay, Nature:

If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. The stars awaken a certain reverence because though always present, they are inaccessible.

These “inaccessible stars,” formed the essence of Transcendentalism. Something that lifts us up and scatters us into an expanded feeling of wisdom, as well as knowledge of ourselves and the universe.

Emerson, standing on the ground in Massachusetts, saw the same stars as physicist and humanist Alan Lightman more than 150 years later. Lightman, a writer and academic forever in search of anchorage in an uncertain universe, stood on the Maine shore (just like Rachel Carson) and found infinite power in the scope of stars.3

I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the long distant future long after I will die – seemed compressed to a dot.

Lightman’s calm rapture triggered a sort of contemplative journey of life, death, and, much like Sacks, meaning. The stars lit the way.

Can a ball of gas do all this? Stars do possess virtuous qualities: they are bright (light has always meant knowledge, sometimes goodness), predictable, unaffected, relatively constant. They give us direction and security.

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
Starry sky folding into dawn in Snowdonia National Park, Wales. Captured by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

One of my favorite features of humanity is we allow meaning to exist apart from knowledge. Stars are a metaphor. “Metaphor is a way of thinking before it is a way of seeing” writes James Geary in his curious and methodical study of metaphor, I is An Other. Geary continues:

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things – jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike – and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.

We seek metaphor – and use metaphor – more than we realize, and have done so for thousands of years. We know what stars are and yet they both remain “inaccessible”. We cannot truly know a star – cannot see it close, touch it, taste it or feel it – thus, we turn it into metaphor.

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
Trees set against stars, creating illusions of size and space. Snowdonia National Park, Wales. Captured by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

My siblings and I have a star named after us. A gift from an imaginative relative. We have a certificate, our three names and the ampersands between them. One-third of a massive ball of gas is named after me. Delightful.

And yet… Will I consider it when I am dying?

“I would like to see such a sky again when I’m dying,” wrote Oliver Sacks. I wonder if he did. No doubt he imagined them in his mind.

No doubt he imagined them to be greater than he ever knew them to be.

The Space and Shape of Memory

“Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are.”
Gaston Bachelard

We carry memories with us, throughout life. I wonder, how are they transported? Or rather, if you were to localize memory, where would it be? Is memory something we enter? Carry? Is it something we can escape? Hold?

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska imagines memory as a place, a theatre, a show—something she can ‘leave and reenter:”1 From her poem “Hard Life With Memory”:

I’m a poor audience for my memory.
She wants me to attend her voice nonstop,
but I fidget, fuss,
listen and don’t,
step out, come back, and then leave again.

The Space and Shape of Memory
“Introspection II” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The beloved film critic Roger Ebert also saw memory as a performance, but unlike Szymborska, it was one he was eager to watch. The film of his life played to the older Ebert, when he was writing his memoirs, having had sections of his jawline removed due to cancer, leaving him unable to speak.2

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me. At first the frames flicker without connection, as they do in Bergman’s “Persona” after the film breaks and begins again.

Is your memory something you watch? Is it a space you enter? Is it something you experience, or something you hold? Can you set it down? How do you pick it up again? Through objects or things we make precious through caring, or in a room that reminds you of your past?

The Shape and Space of Memory
“Palisade” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Poet Rilke once wrote that he needed to write in the “Feeling of home.” Emotion plus memory equalled idea. It meant something useful. Rilke imagined home and, thus, felt home.

So much of memory is encapsulated by our concept of home. Not only because our formative time is spent there, but also because there is something about a home. It keeps things safe. Our homes contain so many of our memories that, at times, we fail to see a home as it is now. We return and become alienated by its reality.

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard considered the house one of the primary locals of memory.3 In his profoundly unique The Poetics of Space, Bachelard refers to this localization of psychoanalysis, this “topoanalysis” as

The systematic psychological study of sites in our intimate lives. In the theater of the past that is constituted by memory, the stage setting maintains the characters in their dominant roles. At times we think we know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability—a being who does not want to melt away, [a being who ] wants time to ‘suspend’ its flight.

“Theater.” There’s that word again. The same one Szymborska used.

Interesting how often we use similar metaphors to describe such personal things. Then again, that is why metaphors exist. To instantly express and connect impossibly personal experiences.

Memories, whatever they are, however they are, they affect us. I want to say they affect our metaphysical movement. Penelope Lively, in her fiercely vulnerable and honest study of memory, calls it a ballast. Something that rights us, buoys us, keeps us steady, and prevents us from sinking. And, as Bachelard believed, keeps us from falling into what Vladimir Nabokov called the “infinite darkness” that stretches out from the finiteness of our life.

Nabokov wrote much of memory, thought much of memory. His most famous novel, Lolita, might be considered a rumination about the (futile) idolization of youth.

Memory, for Nabokov, was the means of travelling through a sphere that contained his existence. A sphere bounded by the walls of time, a sphere inescapable until death.

The Space and Shape of Memory
“Occulus” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Memory is a motor of movement and an engine of accessibility. Without memory, we’d remain in what Lively called “the hideous eternal present.”

In his memoirs, Speak, Memory, Nabokov exists in memory, walks around it, stretches it out. Uniquely among memoirs, the man writing the book almost ceases to exist, and we simply accompany the young Nabokov through life.4

Now she has entered her room. A brisk interchange of light values tells me that the candle on her bed table takes over the job of the ceiling cluster of bulbs, which, having run up with a couple of clicks two additional steps of natural, and then supernatural, brightness, clicks off altogether. My line of light is still there, but it has grown old and wan.

Of course, what Nabokov is saying is memory doesn’t just allow us to travel through our existence; it is what gives us existence itself. Memory is consciousness.

When this all gets a bit too metaphysical, I reorient my thinking to the concrete, the real, the present, the now. I return to my senses. Literally.

My choice of media to accompany this piece is a selection from the work of Irish ceramist Isobel Egan. Egan works in porcelain because “it has its own memory.” Her work deals with fragility, memory and personal space that we create around ourselves.

It is my belief that memory must be protected as it is such an important thing in our lives, and in a sense many of us have to draw on our memories for the rest our lives. Subconsciously, I try to store memories, to keep them safe forever so that I can call on them when needed. I have always a fear of forgetting memories, or that my memories will become distorted.

Egan’s pieces are paralleled avenues, boxes with openings, opaque walls, corners, even sky. I self-delineate in her pieces. I unpack my mind and spread out. I walk around, place things in boxes, move on, select channels. Memory is something to enter, it is something to hold, and, mostly, it is something to hang on the wall and turn one’s back to.

Bachelard, a dynamic inspiration to Egan’s work, believed that the more fixed our memories were in space or objects, the more real they became.

By discussing the “shape and space” of memory, I am of course being biased towards sight. Sight is our primary sense. I am highly visual. In fact, something must be visible to me to exist.

I have a colleague who can’t picture anything in his mind. He hears memory, hears his thoughts. Memory to him is Ebert’s film without picture. Nabokov’s voice reading aloud. How does that change where he places the past? I must ask him.

The Space and Shape of Memory
Cityscape by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Rory Moore.

Poet David Whyte places memory outside all the senses and imagines it as “untouchable” and something that passes through us, something like a wave “constantly maturing, increasingly virtuosic, often volatile, sometimes overpowering. Every human life holds the power of this immense inherited pulse, holds and then supercharges it[.]”5

Like Nabokov, Whyte also believed “a full inhabitation of memory makes human beings conscious.” But this post is about space and shape, attributes of sight (although I am convinced I need to expand this further in the future).

My favorite visual capture of memory comes from German critic Walter Benjamin, who gave memory its due in both shape and space: his vast collection of books.

Benjamin wrote that a collection is “something bordering on the chaos of memory.” A collection of books is a collection of memory, it is also, quite literally, a library. A space we enter and exist in. It’s a beautiful metaphor.6

Benjamin was foremost a Jewish German critic and writer who was living in Paris when the Nazis invaded. Fortunately, Benjamin was out of Paris and crossing the Spanish border at the time, but an administrative hang-up detained him one additional night in France, and with his poor health coupled with the fact that the Nazis had closed in on his Paris apartment—all his manuscripts, books, and notes—Benjamin killed himself.

I write a lot about our connection to objects because I believe it is a form of communication, memory, witness, even existence. If memory is our consciousness and anchored in things, what happens when those things are destroyed?7

I’ll let Benjamin have the last word:

Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline

“At four o'clock you are going to write, come what may, and you are going to continue until the quarter-hour sounds. When you have made up your mind to that you are free to do whatever you like to do or must do.”
Dorothea Brande

Life unfolds in drudgery, not dreams. Our dreams fill the universe, but it’s action after action, word after word, and minutia done in sequence that makes dreams real. That make life happen.

The question is, then, how do we force ourselves to do that endless work, day after day, when dreaming and playing are more pleasant? Is there freedom in discipline?

This is the longest diary I ever kept. Not a diary of course but an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel. If a day is skipped it will show glaringly on this record and there will be some reason given for the slip.

When John Steinbeck set to write The Grapes of Wrath, he knew “the whole physical basis of the novel is discipline of the writer, of his material, of the language,” and he relied on a diary to place him under the thumb of discipline.

Steinbeck finished his great novel in the three intended months, but the mental and emotional cost of keeping a breakneck pace was significant.1

My hand writing is bad now. One more month—one more. And then I have it. I am just gibbering. And that is all right. I don’t care. At three o’clock. What strangeness. What strangeness. Can’t let things go.

And the next entry:

And now all of the foolishness and the self-indulgence is over. Now there can be no lost days and no lost time. Straight through to the finish now without loss. It must be that way.

As Steinbeck inhales woe and exhales his novel, he documents all. He must have known the diary would be published as he was already quite famous. And yet, he is unabashed about his unravelling. Truthful. Such was his commitment.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“The Lace-Maker,” Caspar Netscher, 1662. A study of domestic diligence. intent focus. Soft light falls on her back suggesting moral imperative. A resting broom and simple dress reinforce themes of focus and work. Learn more.

People respond to discipline differently. A more positive reception of discipline and its handmaiden, routine, comes from famed dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Tharp introduces us to her habits of creativity with this unassailable truth: “No one worked harder than Mozart.” Except, perhaps, Tharp, who rises every single day and hops in a cab to the gym and through that action launches her daily creative beginnings.2

First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up, stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, Gee, do I feel like working out today? But the quasi-religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.

Tharp then sits in the white room of her studio and fills a box with ideas that will eventually lead to a dance. From discipline curves a creative tendril.

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance […] notebooks, news clippings, CDs, […] videos of dancers rehearsing […]. The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet. It also represents a commitment.

Steinbeck used discipline as a motivator to keep writing and to keep going. Tharp uses it as containment, focus. There is nothing to be done but fill the box.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“The Lacemaker” by Johannes Vermeer, 1670. Domestic duties in 1700’s Netherlands were common depictions of moral values such as domesticity, hard work, and a pious life. Learn more.

I met a writer recently who quit a career as a professor of pharmacology and became a successful author of adult fiction. She credited her dissertation. “I know how to sit in a chair and write,” she told me. “Once you learn that, the rest isn’t hard.”

Ernest Hemingway expressed similar skills in his recollection of writing, The Moveable Feast. “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”

The gift of sitting still is something I lack and something I’ve spent time pondering. In my pre-writing life, I was an operations consultant. Which is to say, I spent a lot of time studying business systems and processes. Now, I manage the systems and processes of myself. Seeking the intersection of efficiency and freedom.

The Freedom and Energy of Discipline
“Mother Beside a Cradle” Pieter de Hooch, 1660. Learn more.

Discipline—however firm or gentle we make it—is something we give ourselves over to. It is some outside power that takes charge so we can relax and dig into the work itself.

But for all that passes under discipline, it has limitations. What do we deprive ourselves of by being disciplined? Can we really routinize everything?

Writer and memoirist Dani Shapiro sees discipline as a sort of hostile entity, much like Steinbeck’s diary. Something that punishes and demands confession rather than enables it.3

Discipline calls to my mind a task master, perhaps wielding a whip. Discipline has a whiff of punishment to it, or at least the need to cross something off a list […]. Rhythm, however, is a gentle aligning, a comforting pattern in our day that we know sets us up ideally for our work.

Virginia Woolf said a great pattern underscores life, ties us into something bigger. I think of Shapiro’s comments in that light—that through this gentle rhythm, we give ourselves over to something else. Shapiro writes:

Three pages a day, five days a week. When working on a book, this has been my pattern for my entire writing life. I spend most mornings writing my three pages, and I revisit them in the afternoon. I scribble in the margins thoughts about edits, I cross out paragraphs. Sometimes I reread them before I go to sleep. I cross out paragraphs, I rearrange sentences. These pages are where I begin the following morning because those notes give me a way in.

When Steinbeck wrote East of Eden a decade after Grapes, he returned to his daily writing habit but with a different approach. Rather than writing a journal, with his nonwriting self ostensibly his audience, he wrote a letter to his friend and publisher, Pascal Covici.4

Going well today. I am trying to hold it down to 1000 words a day for a while. I have always the tendency to hurry and I don’t want to this time. I want this book to be a very slow one. I must not let this book run away from me.

Steinbeck said he wrote the letters to “get his mental arm in shape to pitch a good game,” but it was more than that. Steinbeck was a man of extraordinary sensitivity who had to write from the correct emotion. Writing to a friend—being that open, vulnerable, generous person—allowed him to cradle his insecurities in a glow of positivity. Enfolded in Shapiro’s pattern, he shone.

At four o’clock you are going to write, come what may, and you are going to continue until the quarter-hour sounds. When you have made up your mind to that you are free to do whatever you like to do or must do.

Empathetic advice from creative writing teacher Dorothea Brande in her classic 1934 book Becoming a Writer a book that teaches genius through discipline and argues if we cannot sit still and write, maybe writing isn’t our calling.5

At the intersection of passivity, power, containment, and encouragement sit discipline and creativity. From this beautiful medley of inputs, however mixed, comes our most original thoughts and our greatest achievements. (And less great thoughts and mediocre achievements, but they still amount to something.)