Notebook: Meditations

The Stellar Sphere

It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Last night I stepped away from the screen and looked at the stars, which is something I rarely do. But why not look at the stars every night? What could be more important? As I sought out the belt of Orion, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the desire to know the language of constellations and the location of celestial bodies. It seems a tragedy to go through life not knowing the names of the lights overhead.

Perhaps I’ve overlooked the sky because there is a touch of sadness whenever I watch the stars. I cannot help but search for my parents up there. Although I do not believe in heaven, I remember the people I lost each time I stare into the night, obeying a hardwired impulse rooted in the magical thinking of the ancients, a muscle memory beyond language or thought. Here is a sublime image of the afterlife from Posidonius, written two thousand years ago: “The virtuous rise to the stellar sphere and spend their time watching the stars go round.” This is a comforting image.

Hearts will be broken and cities may crumble, but the sky will always go about its business. This can also be a reassuring thought.

There is also consolation to be found in the words of Plotinus, who believed the soul is immortal and joins the stars because “the heavenly bodies naturally inspire and make man less lonely in this physical universe.” Plotinus was one of the last philosophers to celebrate beauty before it became coupled with temptation in the Western mind: “A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist,” writes Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy. “Plotinus is an admirable example of the second.” Living in the final days of the Roman Empire, Plotinus turned away from “the spectacle of ruin and misery in the actual world to contemplate an eternal world of goodness and beauty.”

Difficult times produce otherworldly philosophy.

To know the mind of God, said Plotinus, “we must study our own soul when it is most God-like.” Amidst the daily howl of opinion, snark, and outrage, these spiritualized encounters are often all-too-brief glimmers, fleeting moments of ecstasy in its strictest sense: ecstasy as a Greek loan-word that describes standing outside of one’s body. To be elsewhere. To escape the self. And once freed, where else would you go but towards the stars? Thus the painter and the poet’s fascination with nature, their desire to name a sensation that can only be described in terms of trees reaching for the sky and rivers pouring into oceans before joining the clouds.

“When we are thus in contact with the divine, we cannot reason or express the vision in words; this comes later.” Plotinus’s meditation on the heavens is one of the most elegant descriptions of the creative impulse that I have encountered. In our rare moments of communion with the stars, he says, the soul “contemplates the inward realm of essence and wishes to produce something as like it as possible,” something that can be seen “by looking without instead of looking within” such as “a composer who first imagines his music, and then wishes to hear it performed by an orchestra.”

Standing outside tonight, peering beyond the lights of the city, I do my best to tune in to these echoes from the philosophers who listened to the sky while contemplating their souls. I’d like to recover this sense of wonder in the digital age.

Chinese shadow puppets at the Museu da Marioneta, Lisbon

After the death of his beloved, Emperor Wu’s grief consumed him and he no longer wanted to rule. He could not bear to leave his bed, let alone tend to the nation’s affairs. As the country teetered on the brink of chaos, he offered a reward to anyone who would bring his lover back to him. Upon hearing this, a wise man carefully cut out a silhouette of the departed woman and displayed it behind a white cloth for the emperor, who smiled for the first time in years. The sight of his beloved restored his desire to live and prosperity returned to his people. This two thousand-year-old myth from the Han dynasty not only describes the origin of shadow puppets, it is a reminder that art can mitigate grief and even deny death.

An Installation Created From Tragedy

“In his fatal moment I didn't realize I was inferring to his angels.”

After a young man in his community died before his eyes, Noël Gaskin created a wall in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He was there for his last moments. Here’s his story:

On May 1st, a young man known in our Prospect Heights, Brooklyn neighborhood as a nice kid was gunned down on the block where we grew up, outside of a barbershop he frequented on Washington Avenue and St John’s Place. He was shot in the head and torso at 763 Washington Avenue, near St. John’s Place, about 9:51 p.m. He was taken to Methodist Hospital and pronounced dead.

I was in the barbershop on that night of the shooting. The barber gave me a shave while the young man swept and took the day’s trash out. Moments later, three gun shots rang out from behind the door. Frozen in my seat, I sat and turned slowly, recognizing the young man gunned down, lying across the threshold of the door he just crossed over. I managed to get up, to kneel at his head before his last moments. I said, “Take it easy, brother . . . don’t struggle . . . they will be here soon, just don’t struggle.” I didn’t know this young man personally, and in his fatal moment I didn’t realize I was inferring to his angels.

I grew up in Prospect Heights, before this neighborhood was dubbed its present name. I have been equal to challenges and learned how to live here, as well as prospered from obstacles I have overcome. I needed to engage members of my community to think about what they want in this life, what they were up to, and what was important to each of them, and to all of us.  Using the build-your-own-wall guide provided by Candy Chang, I was inspired to remix it and construct my own stencil titled Before I Die I Will.