Early in November I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. WFC is a professional writers’ event to a significant degree, but even I, with no fantasy books out as of yet, had several attendees ask me for autographs at the Signature Event (with every writer in one big room signing autographs.)
The convention venue was adjacent to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. It’s one of my favorite places, an oasis in that city—though as cities go, San Antonio, with its ancient Hispanic roots, is its own kind of oasis in Texas.
The Riverwalk meanders for miles through downtown San Antonio, though on the river’s level you’d hardly know it. There are some shops and restaurants reaching all the way down to the water’s edge. There are also whimsical bridges and sculptures, birds, and even water taxis: it’s Venice in Texas!
There’s also the aquatic version of street sweepers.
Below the Southwest School of Art & Craft, people who walk or jog by are watched by miniature folk sketched on a wall of rough timbers. Here’s one of the watchers.
No visit to San Antonio, by someone who writes speculative fiction with spiritual angles, would be complete without paying respects to San Fernando Cathedral, or, to use the full name, the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe. Portions of this cathedral date to 1738. It is a major anchor in the Mexican-American life of San Antonio.
And then there’s this: the towering mosaic on the facade of Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. The artist is Jesse Trevino, a native son from the West Side of San Antonio, who when he was young saw a tombstone angel with a broken wing that he never forgot.
The image is fantastic – a kind of sacred fantasy that speaks to the hope of healing in the real world.
“The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
My science fiction and fantasy tends to have theological or spiritual angles, and this post is no different.
But first, meet SOFIA:
This is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a retired jetliner modified to carry an astronomical telescope. Originally built to service what the airline industry calls “long, thin routes”—ultra-long-range segments that attract relatively few passengers per week, the airplane is a specially shortened version of the ubiquitous Boeing 747. It was built for Pan Am and christened Clipper Lindbergh by none other than Anne Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff, destination Paris.
After service with Pan Am and United Airlines, the future airborne observatory was retired to a desert boneyard to await her date with the scrapper’s torch—but fate intervened. In 2008, after restoration, modification, and the installation of a German-designed and -built infrared telescope, the reborn aircraft was again christened Clipper Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, this time by Erik Lindbergh.
SOFIA is jointly funded by NASA and DLR, Germany’s national aeronautical and space research agency.
Here you can see SOFIA in flight with the telescope port fully open.
The reason for lofting the telescope to the base of the stratosphere is that water vapor strongly absorbs the infrared frequencies of greatest interest to astronomers, and by flying at 39,000-45,000 feet above sea level the observatory eliminates 99% of the atmospheric water vapor between the telescope and the celestial objects under study.
At the center of most, perhaps all, galaxies there is a supergiant black hole. Some are quiescent and some are quite active, and observations recently made by SOFIA enabled astronomers for the first time to calculate the median size of the dust particles being drawn into the active black holes; it turns out that they’re about the size of sand grains.
But where do these dust particles come from? Most of the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, not the more complex atoms that fill out the periodic table and make life interesting—and possible. It’s now generally known that the complex atoms are thrown, like grains of rice at a celestial wedding, across the galaxies by novas and supernovas.
Here’s SOFIA’s “before and after” portrait of supernova 2014J, the 10th supernova discovered in 2014, nestled in its galaxy.
At one time supernovas were believed to be simply more dramatic novas, but the more recent understanding is that they result from very different processes; in fact, they’re quite distinct.
Their gifts to the universe are, likewise, quite distinct. Supernovas provide us with the heavier elements that are the building blocks of the cores of rocky planets—and a single supernova can produce enough dust to form 7,000 Earths. Novas, by contrast, provide us with the middleweight atoms—the ones that are essential to all life as we know it.
Belief systems the world over are fond of telling us of one deity or another dying that we may live and be redeemed. We now know they’re almost right about this after all: let us reflect that stars died that we might live and that we might have a world on which to live . . . and that, in a very real sense, we and our Earth are, indeed, heavenly.
“The very hottest stars are a few tens of thousands of degrees. But when you see a total solar eclipse, that corona you witness is millions of degrees hot; it is the hottest thing the human eye will ever see in nature.” – Sun Moon Earth, The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets, by Tyler Nordgren
To see the 2017 eclipse of the sun, I went to Wyoming. This is where our group was: off Bridger Creek Road near Badwater Creek Road outside of Lysite WY – more or less the American outback. Our fearless leader, a geologist, identified these red rock bands as Triassic deposits with pale limestone layers that include fossils. There may be Eohippus fossils in there – stony remains of the dawn horse.
As the Moon began to cover the Sun, the air definitely got cool and the light weaker. Shadows looked oddly fuzzy on one side and sharp on the other side. The sunlight streaming through a woven straw pith helmet threw little crescents on a piece of paper.
Totality looked like sunset on every horizon. Security lights in various directions, and a refinery that lit up like a Christmas tree, made the point there this really wasn’t nowhere. There were human-made structures out there. Meanwhile the Sun was a black hole in the darkened sky, surrounded by the bright, pale, corona. The corona had structure.
The eclipse was the single most incredible astronomical sight I’ve ever seen.
It’s incredibly temporary: a few minutes of daylight darkness in a shadow that raced across the US in 90 minutes. And total eclipses will only last for a few geological eons while the Moon exactly covers the Sun. Long ago the Moon was nearer and covered more than the Sun’s disk. The glassy eyes of ancient trilobites may have seen eclipses without much corona. Long in the future, the Moon will spiral away and cover less of the Sun. There will be no more perfectly awesome eclipses with the bright pale crown of the sun so visible.
Eclipses seen by human eyes portended disaster to old civilizations. Now they’re wonders without terror and signs of orbital mechanics, not the end of the world.
I returned home to Houston and then came Harvey. By the time it hit Houston it was Tropical Storm Harvey, and wreaked great havoc. I was lucky that all I personally lost was my car (sob!). Some people in my condo complex had two or three feet of water in their homes. I spent the storm snug in my third-floor condo with power, water, Internet, and plenty of good food to eat.
Storm Harvey was an infinitely small disturbance in the astronomical universe. It unfolded in less than a flicker in geological time even though it made a lasting impact crater in this city and in human lifespans. It strangely ties us to some of those Triassic fossils, I think. A lot of the world’s fossil beds seem to have happened when a flood drowned a large number of creatures. Floodwaters washed them into expanses of mud where their bones fossilized and their softer body parts left impressions in sedimentary stone.
In the days after Harvey, the resurrection fern on the oaks on the Rice University campus flourished greatly. Ferns, by the way, date back to the Devonian period, even earlier than the Triassic.
I took these pictures while the Library was open limited hours and for Rice ID holders. The University and the city of Houston were still reeling. May all the other communities hit by Harvey have their own resurrection.
Last weekend I rode Amtrak’s California Zephyr across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the decommissioning ceremony of the lovely hilltop campus of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, where I studied many years ago. In the end, I earned an M.A. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, not an M. Div from PLTS. But the time I spent in and around PLTS was formative in my life and in my imagination.
I remember days when silent fog enveloped the campus and ice water trickled down the trees in this holy hill. There are three towering redwoods planted here almost six decades ago by eminent Lutherans. These redwoods were taller than I remembered: now, they tower.
With a welter of buildings and a lot of grounds, the campus had high maintenance costs and a decreased number of students studying for the ministry. A move downhill had been discussed for years. The decommissioning was bittersweet for everyone – current students, long-absent alums, staff, faculty, and Board members. It was wonderful to walk one last time the shaded paths between the buildings, to worship in the chapel where so many seminarians learned how to do liturgy. On the other hand, knowing it was the end of an era and that this spectacular location was going to to be forever lost to us cast a somber shade over the day.
Following the last worship service in the PLTS chapel, the altar was stripped and the school banner, processional cross, and other liturgical items carried by hand to the new PLTS downtown Berkeley campus – a downhill walk of 3.7 miles, less than that for some of us who set out later but caught up by the expedient of going straight down incredibly steep Marin Avenue. The procession looped along a less steep way lest anybody trip and arrive too soon downhill!
The Seminary is now housed on the second floor of an up-to-date office building in downtown Berkeley across the street from City Hall. Here it is near the center of gravity of the Graduate Theological Union consortium of seminaries, and close to urban challenges and opportunities and the front lines of social justice. The new space has been thoughtfully designed and appointed.
Encountering the new space after, we found each office and functional space, including the sacristy, the kitchen, the fire escape stairs, and a window facing City Hall, adorned with a heartfelt and quirky blessing. Like this one:
Areas of Potential Protest
Oh God of all activity,
bless those citizens
who exercise their rights of free speech
by protesting around city hall.
May they be as peaceful as possible
and may law enforcement officials
be as expeditious and as prudent as possible
in the carrying out of their duties.
Oh, and protect the glass windows of this building
In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas. I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.
When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.
We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep. My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree. Problem solved. I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.
And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.
At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape. We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith. From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country. After that we hiked around the Rock.
After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs. It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.
The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails. He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.
It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!
A few days after the November 8 election in the US, I found myself at El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Monument. This was after taking the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Houston to L. A. and arriving very early on a cool, clear California morning. So we walked across the street from Union Station to see this park. The colorful vendors mostly weren’t open, but the buildings and works of art were there to tell of the history of Los Angeles.
This spirited artwork caught my attention.
How amazing – this is Northern European and Mesoamerican pre-Christian imagery, wishing well and decorative skulls, intertwined just as these cultures are woven together in the Southwest.
All kinds of public fountains can turn into penny-strewn wishing wells, but that likely dates back to tossing coins into sacred springs as offerings to deities that live there – water being a source of life and a sometimes scarce necessity. The Day of the Dead abounds in sweet sugar skulls and lively skeletons, but that comes from Aztec religion which took death very seriously and graphically – with the skull an image of hope.
This decorated wishing well was an unforgettable reminder that our world has roots that are deep and dark and yet, though not optimistic, profoundly hopeful.
In the liturgical year, January 6 is the day of the Epiphany, and the days from now until Ash Wednesday, when the penitential season of Lent begins, are the Epiphany season. The imagery of Epiphany includes a new and portentous star and the arrival of foreign wise men. The meaning of Epiphany is a showing forth of something heretofore hidden but momentously significant.
This reminds me of my just-published novel Downfall Tide. But oppositely, like a photographic negative. The story opens with a new star in the night sky. It isn’t the kind of astronomical new star the colonists on Planet Green first guess it may be. It’s something else entirely. And soon the not-really-a-star brings the arrival of foreigners who are not only not wise men, but anti-wise men. What follows for my main characters is a time that could be considered a penitential season. And after that, the story parallels Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
The aspect of Downfall Tide that is a parallel to Good Friday is what made it the hardest book I’ve ever written. Some readers will find that part distressing to read.
But the end of the book mirrors Easter, the day that dawns with resurrected hope.
Memento mori was something of a Medieval motto. How could it not be? They had Black Death and other plagues, climate change and crop failures, and numerous wars including civil and Thirty Years’ and Hundred Years’. Modern American culture, on the other hand, denies death with all the might and main of the medical establishment and the advertising industry. Death denial has a really long run for many of us.
Death denial runs aground on the rocky shore of reality when you have a loved one in a nursing home. Assisted living has more or less graciously given many of the infirm elderly a safe haven. The people who have to remain in nursing homes are very sick, in ways that medicine can’t fix. If every day there isn’t the day of the dead, it’s close.
In that situation, sudden death starts to look good. I’ve heard people who have loved ones in nursing homes, or who themselves are in poor health, say as much. It’s been on my own mind . There is much to envy about people who die doing what they love, pass away in their sleep, or even die in the bosom of an assisted living facility. Less than before, though, and probably less than ever in human history, sudden death is not the norm for the aged in America.
Mom’s nursing home had a Halloween party for everybody in both the Assisted Living and the nursing care sides of the facility. The décor involved what you expect at Halloween and staff were in costume. In the back of my mind I wondered about the propriety of having that kind of party theme in that kind of place, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. One of the nurses told me that it always perks up the nursing care residents to get out of their usual floor to a different area with different people.
Maybe Halloween in a nursing home works like the skeletons in Mexico’s Day of the Dead. As I understand it, the dancing skeletons and sugar skulls reminded people of the inescapable truth, more like the Middle Ages than America, that death was part and parcel of daily life. The Roman Catholic church fused an Aztec death festival onto the Church’s own Days of the Dead – All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls. Those days existed on the Church calendar for good reason and had European Pagan roots as well. The paradoxical and vitally important effect is that remembering death affirms life.
There are times and there are places where you can’t deny death. A nursing home adds the twist that some of these frail, sick, demented, slowly dying elders seem to be neither fully alive nor finally deceased but some of both. Half dead is one way that can strike the visitor. Another way it can strike the visitor is halfway home. A year from today on All Souls’ Day, many of those old souls in Mom’s nursing home will be gone: out of pain and indignity, out of dementia, rejoined with Mother Earth, returned to the nearer presence of God – however you describe this ineffable hope.
This is a collect for the Commemoration of All Souls from the 1929 Scottish Book of Common Prayer:
ETERNAL Lord God, who holdest all souls in life: We beseech thee to shed forth upon all the faithful departed the bright beams of thy light and heavenly comfort; and grant that they, and we with them, may at length attain to the joys of thine eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Snowy Egrets are elegant shore birds with plumy white feathers and black bills and legs. Bright yellow feet pattern-interrupt the elegant impression only when said feet are visible, and they’re usually below the water. However, I came along behind two Snowy Egrets at the edge of Braes Bayou when they were avidly investigating whatever goodies the recent flood had churned up, and from that perspective the Snowies looked like the business ends of Q-tips balanced on oddly angled black wires!
The last six or eight months have been remarkable for shore birds on Braes Bayou, including White Ibises and a Tricolor Heron. For a while there was a Roseate Spoonbill in the vicinity of the Kirby Drive bridge. Roseate Spoonbills are usually Pepto-Bismol pink; they use their wide-tipped bills to forage in mud flats for little crustaceans, eating which makes their feathers pink. The one on Braes Bayou looked not very pink and rather misplaced. I’ve seen them in tidal marshes and on Clear Creek near Galveston Bay, never this far inland. The drought may have driven brackish water much further up the waterways than usual.
Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love