Happy (belated) 51st anniversary of the first moon landing! Something I’ve always found intriguing about the journey to the moon is how many of the people who made it later reported having profound spiritual experiences. These astronauts are, of course science-minded, highly rational men and women. But a significant number have said that observing the Earth, the stars, the sun and moon induced in them a “sense of oneness with the Universe.” One writer, after interviewing astronauts, dubbed this transcendent experience “the Overview Effect.”
An astronaut named Rusty Schweickart was overcome by this sensation during a spacewalk, which he described as such: “Humanity has reached this point where we're moving out from the earth. I'm a small part of that but that's what's going on and how does that happen in history? And what does it mean? And when I say how did I get here, who am I? Am I me or am I us? That is very clear that you're there as a representative of humankind."
A vanishingly tiny number of human beings will ever have a chance to experience something like the Overview Effect, but I think as writers and artists we can also serve as representatives of humankind; at our best, through our work, we can share at once the personal and the universal.
Full Moon and Little Frieda
A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket
And you listening.
A spiders web, tense for the dews touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.
Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm wreaths of breath
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
Moon! you cry suddenly, Moon! Moon!
The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.
Who is this guy?
Born in Yorkshire in 1930, Ted Hughes came to be so infamous that for years, vandals would scrape his name from the gravestone of Sylvia Plath, to whom he was married. Before meeting her in 1956, Hughes served in the Royal Air Force and studied anthropology and archeology. It was Plath who encouraged him to seek publication of his poetry, and his work broke with literary trends of the time for its use of “nearly Shakespearean resonance to explore themes which were mythic and elemental,” Robert B. Shaw wrote. Hughes published a number of volumes of poetry, as well as children’s books. Of his marriage to Plath, her suicide, and the nature of biographers’ and the larger public’s relationship to their legacy, that’s perhaps best left to Janet Malcolm and her book, The Silent Woman.
The Distance of the Moon (excerpt)
At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth’s waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.
How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried,– the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there. But the whole business of the Moon’s phases worked in a different way then: because the distances from the Sun were different, and the orbits, and the angle of something or other, I forget what; as for eclipses, with Earth and Moon stuck together the way they were, why, we had eclipses every minute: naturally, those two big monsters managed to put each other in the shade constantly, first one, then the other.
Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high nobody could hold them back.There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s-breadth; well, let’s say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.
The spot where the Moon was lowest, as she went by, was off the Zinc Cliffs. We used to go out with those little rowboats they had in those days, round and flat, made of cork. They held quite a few of us: me, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, my deaf cousin, and sometimes little Xlthlx — she was twelve or so at that time. On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury, and the fish in it, violet-colored, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction, rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures — little crabs, squid, and even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants — that broke from the sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling, or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off, waving banana leaves at them.
This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon; that’s why there had to be so many of us (I only mentioned the main ones). The man at the top of the ladder, as the boat approached the Moon, would become scared and start shouting: “Stop! Stop! I’m going to bang my head!” That was the impression you had, seeing her on top of you, immense, and all rough with sharp spikes and jagged, saw-tooth edges. It may be different now, but then the Moon, or rather the bottom, the underbelly of the Moon, the part that passed closest to the Earth and almost scraped it, was covered with a crust of sharp scales. It had come to resemble the belly of a fish, and the smell too, as I recall, if not downright fishy, was faintly similar, like smoked salmon.
—Italo Calvino (read the rest here)
Who is this guy?
Born in Cuba in 1923 to Italian parents, Calvino and his family returned to Italy shortly after his birth. The working farm where he grew up in Sanremo later informed his early works, though at first, Calvino studied politics, science, and agriculture to please his parents. In 1944, he served as a member of the Italian Resistance; after the war, he moved to Milan and began pursuing the arts. He published his first novel in 1947; in 1952 he published a novella, The Cloven Viscount, that departed from narrative realism, and many more fantastical novels and story collections followed, including his classic “antinovel” If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. John Updike said of Calvino that he “took fiction into new places where it had never been before, and back into the fabulous and ancient sources of narrative.”
Bonus Musical Content!
Write about a time you felt a sense of “oneness with the universe.” And if you’ve never experienced that, use the image in this newsletter as a prompt to get you started on a story, poem, or essay.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org