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Deep Breath, Look Up
"Because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they will never see it."
Just a quick update from me, in the hope of finally sending you a newsletter that doesn’t trigger Substack’s “Your Email Size Is Too Big” warning when I try to send it.
Firstly, may you be feeling some of this right now…
…although you probably haven’t had the time, because of this:
However the holidays are hitting you, I hope you find a few moments of blessed sanity-reclaiming peace & quiet here and there. That was the weirdest year, and I reckon we’re allowed to take a minute to collect our thoughts. That’d probably be healthy.
I’ll be back in a few days with the last few pieces of Everything Is Amazing’s third season, with some paid-subscriber-only stuff and a final bout of bizarre optical trickery.
Regarding the latter, here are a couple of mindboggling images that didn’t make the final cut:
Colour constancy is yet another bizarre example of your mind telling you what it thinks things should look like, in defiance of what they actually look like. (Strawberries? They’re red! Any fool knows that.)
In this case, here’s the proof. Cover up the top half of the following picture and look at the solid rectangle at the bottom, and then uncover the top half again and watch that grey rectangle “change” back to red:
And, courtesy of Jodi - okay, this one isn’t really an optical illusion, but try telling that to your eyes:
It’s been eleven months since I started this whole curiosity project - and along with developing an over-reliance on pasted tweets, one of the greatest joys for me has been discovering how utterly unoriginal I’m being. At every turn, I’ve found someone much smarter and more articulate got there first and wrote about it so brilliantly that anything I’ll say will automatically pale in comparison…
This is actually great, because it saves me loads of hard work. Expect my quotations to get longer and longer, until I’m pasting over entire books and fighting off intellectual copyright lawyers. That’s the dream here.
And it happened again last week, when for the first time I read Rachel Carson’s posthumously published essay The Sense Of Wonder, a short guide to introducing children to the magic & beauty of the natural world.
By her account, this was a first outline of the book she most wanted to write - but her most famous & influential work, the pesticide-lambasting Silent Spring (1962), made such an impact & created such fierce opposition from major chemical companies that it swallowed up all her time until she ran out of it.
So, this is all we have. And it’s short: a few dozen pages, or barely half an hour’s worth if you listen to the Plus Catalogue version that’s currently free for Audible subscribers.
But what’s here burns so brightly.
Her point, again and again, is that adults need to learn from children as much as children need the guidance of adults. Each needs something of the other’s way of experiencing the world.
Take her point about the names of things:
“Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature—why, I don’t even know one bird from another!”
I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.”
The problem here isn’t that kids don’t know what they’re looking at - it’s that we adults have convinced ourselves we should already know a very specific way of knowing (eg. rattling off difficult-to-memorise names of things in that super-confident manner we’re taught is the pinnacle of demonstrating a hearty, worldly education)…
And any lack of skill at doing that creates guilt, shame and avoidance tactics which affect the way we behave with everyone, children included. I dunno, it’s just a tree, isn’t it? Um. What do you want for dinner?
The antidote, Carson suggests, is for adults to relearn the joy of asking “foolish” questions like kids do, and to stop pretending (to themselves and everyone else) that it’s their job to always have firm answers to everything. That would be an excellent place to start.
But the part of The Sense Of Wonder that resonated most strongly with me is this:
"I remember a summer night.... It was a clear night without a moon. With a friend, I went out on a flat headland that is almost a tiny island, being all but surrounded by the waters of the bay. There the horizons are remote and distant rims on the edge of space. 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 few lights burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of other human life; my companion and I were alone with the stars. I have never seen them more beautiful: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. Once or twice a meteor burned its way into the earth’s atmosphere.
It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they will never see it."
I started Everything Is Amazing at the end of January to share everything I was (finally!) learning about seeing the world as it really is.
At first glance, this statement is a bit odd. If I wanted to do that, why not write about current affairs, politics, business, the economy, the pandemic, all the important things in the news every day? Part of my answer to that question is here - but really, I’m just the wrong person for that stuff. For example, what could I possibly add to what Ed Yong has been doing so well that he just won a Pulitzer for it? Come on.
But with the unspoken idea that the news has the monopoly on what’s truly vital comes the emotional cost of following it every day. Who over the last half-decade hasn’t been tempted to do a Paul Miller and Waldenpond themselves completely off the Internet, because they were exhausted at the amount of infuriating awfulness out there? Who wouldn’t want to escape so much horror?
(This is how I felt in 2019, after half a decade of watching my late mother succumb to the cruelty of dementia, and a year of getting my family’s affairs in order in the wake of her death. I couldn’t even get a handle on all that, let alone the news as well. Not only did I want to run away from everything, I also thought I was done as a writer, because nothing I wrote sounded like myself anymore. Time to call it quits?)
Except…this reject the world to save yourself thinking is not what I’ve learned from my favourite writers. They’re the ones who lean in when they want the good, hopeful stuff that makes life feel like it’s worth living. They pay more attention, in a careful, selective, questioning-the-questions sort of way. They’re the ones who create hopefulness and joy through curiosity, awe and wonder, in the hope that it’s the fuel others need to go out and fix what’s broken in the world.
I liked the sound of that, so I decided to make a newsletter around it. If I could find an audience of perhaps a hundred or so people who felt the same way during my first year of writing, maybe it’d be worth building up further, while also helping me recover as a writer?
I definitely wasn’t ready for where things stand right now:
(That huge spike in late November? It turns out everyone loves a light pillar.)
Of the feedback I’ve got from you, I’ve been so gratified by…well, all of it (thank you), but one thing in particular, which I’ve heard dozens of times now: this newsletter, which is about looking harder at the world, made you feel a bit more hopeful. If that’s its legacy, that’d be more than enough for me. Job’s a good’un.
But - no. I feel like I’ve barely got started here. Since this is increasingly bigger than the thing I initially expected to build, I will be aiming a lot higher. If this turns into my fulltime job (and based on how it’s growing, that might happen sometime in 2022), I’d better get really good at this, and find all sorts of new ways to knock your socks off.
So I’d better go and start doing that. But for now, thank you. It’s been the wildest ride so far - and hell, I haven’t even got to [spoilers removed] and [spoilers removed] yet…
I’m properly excited about where we’re going next. I hope you will be too.
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