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Looking Up 9 min read

Looking Up

On the Northern Lights and family, plus nun urine helping IVF science, freedom of speech, facial recognition privacy concerns, memory, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

The cemetery where my dad is buried had its Decoration Day on Sunday. 

Sunday was, as you well know, also Mother’s Day. For families whose matriarchs were buried there, it probably seems like a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone confluence, but for me, it was a disorienting mix of purposes. It’s not to say that celebrating my mom and all she means to our family couldn’t happen because we’d taken time to decorate Dad’s grave anew nor could we not somberly decorate his grave because we were too busy celebrating Mom’s innate mom-ness. We could, as they say, walk and chew gum at the same time. 

But it was, on some level, a whipsaw of emotions. 

My mom is quite simply the best person I know, and there are few things in the world that could dull the shine of gathering to celebrate her. That’s not at issue. But Dad’s death is still painfully fresh; after just a year, it feels as if no time has passed at all some days. It could be the day after the funeral for my family, but the grass, trying so valiantly to grow through the dirt that covered his grave, tells us otherwise. 

We didn’t talk about the cross-purposes of the trip; it’s not really our way. She’s not the type to talk about the reason we were all gathering together in town; she needs no holiday accolades.

I know we both felt it, though. The surreality of it all: the grave, not looking new but not yet an established part of the cemetery; the headstone that we lovingly wipe down, the flowers carefully arranged and styled just so. Any bit of maintenance to his resting place reaches this uncomfortable moment of “What now?” when common sense indicates there’s not much left to do, task-wise, but to leave somehow feels wrong, rushed, insufficiently reverent. 

This was Friday evening for us, the scene golden from the setting sun. We shuffled off, in that awkward way, reminded that life doesn’t actually stop for such things; it had not, in fact, stopped for a single solitary second, not once, since April 2023, after which we’ve felt a silent desire for just a day, hour, minute, second of respite from this new normal on so many occasions.

Later that night, we’d get something close.

It was the night so much of the country got to glimpse what I never got to experience even living up in Wyoming: the Northern Lights. After my brother called to alert us to the phenomenon, we raced outside to stare into the night sky. There, no colors greeted us, only an unmistakable shimmer. It looked like a colorless firework display, raining down and spidering outward. Through the screen of my phone we could see the color, and I snapped countless photos to prove to myself I’d seen something.

But the sky and its shimmer, this clearly visible but almost ghostly outline of something spectacular, was more than enough. It was that movement and those shapes that caused me, more often than not, to point to the sky in amazement. It was dizzying, following the shapes as they spread out and leaked across the sky, all under a blanket of stars. The colors were just a perk, an added benefit for posterity’s sake. 

My mom’s older iPhone could not reveal the colors to the same degree my newer one could, but you’d never have known it to hear the wonder in her voice, as she looked up at this wonder of nature. 

The moment was etched in my mind for those sounds—her gasps and exclamations of awe—as much as the sights. They work in tandem now, stitched together and doubly strong, as a memory I won’t ever forget.

I know I felt lighter in that moment, as if I were floating through the experience more than carrying myself around on my own two feet. It felt otherworldly. It felt powerful and fleeting and yet quietly still and everlasting. It was this freak accident of the universe; the sun burped and 93 million miles away, we saw its effects. The sun burps constantly, yet this was the first time in my 36 years that I knew of it happening in such a way that we in West Tennessee could see it. 

But in this fleeting moment, these natural-yet-unnatural-seeming minutes, actually stopped time. These waves, dancing colorlessly on the sky with their rainbows just beneath the surface out of view, gave us that brief respite from reality that we’d been looking for for more than a year now. Because it couldn’t (and shouldn’t) last forever, it crystalized the experience, froze it for us to marvel at not just then but for the rest of our days. It was a distraction of the purest sort, and I got to experience it with my mom. 

Things, as they say, seem to be looking up.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. I loved Jon Allsop’s description of the Northern Lights because they seemed so close to my own experience. But I also loved the perspective he provided by reminding that the beauty, while a sight to behold, was not necessarily the most important takeaway from the solar storm that made the night sky light up. My brother put in perspective many of the same points as we enjoyed a round of golf the day after, rattled off from memory, which served as a testament to his deep love of all things astrophysics.
  2. I read this story in the print edition of Vanity Fair, and when I went to its website to look for the story, I was truly perplexed as to where it might be housed. The magazine’s regular categories of interest—Politics, Business, Hollywood, Style, Culture, Royals, Celebrity— did not seem like the place to find a story about the advent of fertility drugs and how copious amounts of urine supplied by nuns were the key to unlocking its mystery. The Vatican’s Secret Role in the Science of IVF. It’s a testament to the power of magazines, delivering something that you had no idea you wanted to read but can suck you in quickly. Loved the illustrations for the print edition as well.
  3. This piece from George Packer on PEN America and the boycott from its members that resulted in the cancellation of its literary festival is a great dissection of that incident in particular but it’s insightful reading on the nature of the “authoritarian spirit” here in America. [
  4. The New Yorker’s Jay Caspian King wrote, relatedly, about the First Amendment, and what free-speech support ought to look like.
  5. Kang’s article above makes a passing mention of Clearview AI, an incredibly powerful search engine for faces powered by AI. This episode of Search Engine, PJ Vogt’s excellent follow-up to Reply All, goes into the background of the tech and why it’s so troublesome for all of us when it comes to our conception of privacy.
  6. Slate created a wonderful package of stories related to the concept of originalism, the theory of legal interpretation that says the meaning of the Constitution based on the original understanding of the words and concepts as they were at the time they were written, instead of being allowed to grow and adapt with the changing standards of the times. It was an alluring way of thinking to me before I arrived at law school, but it simply couldn’t withstand critical evaluation that comes with a legal education. For me, at least. Survive it did, and even thrive now on a conservative Supreme Court. That’s the point of Slate’s package—to explore this mindset that’s so persuaded legal culture. Some favorites from the package include an excerpt from A.J. Jacobs latest The Year of Living Constitutionally: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Constitution’s Original Meaning(he’s famous for his immersion-intensive projects like The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World  (where he endeavors to read every word of the Encyclopedia Britannica)) and Jill Filipovic on how originalism makes America’s gun problem worse.
  7. This Baffler piece on former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s rise, after his court martial on murder charges and eventual acquittal and presidential pardon, as a social media influencer is a bummer. It made me think of how everyone is a self-promoter these days. He’s selling largely redundant or outright needless products to people who shop from him solely because of his macho-patriotism. It’s a whole cottage industry now, former Special Operation commandos selling the tools of their former trade to regular Joes who want to see themselves as similar to these men. There’s something profoundly sad about the whole thing, and this piece uncovers a lot of what makes it so sad.
  8. This essay from The Paris Review is ultimately about journaling and writers and the selves we create on the page, but it begins with a woman and a condition I’d never heard of—hyperthymesia, or highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). These terms refer to the same condition: that of excessive remembering. It’s incredible. “If you throw them any date from their conscious lifetimes (it has to be a day they lived through— hyperthymesiacs are not better than average at history), they can tell you what day of the week it was and any major events that took place in the world; they can also tell you what they did that day, and in some cases what they were wearing, what they ate, what the weather was like, or what was on TV.” I find it so interesting, in part, because I can feel myself distrusting my own memories, just moments after an event. That realization is surely what drives some of my renewed interest in keeping a journal and writing in notebooks.
  9. The story in that Paris Review essay stayed in my mind so much because it was so different from how my brain works. Which made me question: How does my own memory work? Which reminded me of an old Radiolab episode that I rediscovered (and so did the show) recently. From the show’s description: “Remembering is a tricky, unstable business. This hour: a look behind the curtain of how memories are made...and forgotten.The act of recalling in our minds something that happened in the past is an unstable and profoundly unreliable process--it’s easy come, easy go as we learn how true memories can be obliterated, and false ones added.”
  10. The film world lost a real one with news that Roger Corman passed away. Cinema would surely be poorer without the films and talent Corman nurtured along the way, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Peter Bogdanovich, and Ron Howard, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Robert DeNiro, and Robert Towne.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

The Potential Collapse of AMOC

When Technology Betrays Us

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film,  Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

5/6: Curb Your Enthusiasm, S1 (4) (Max); Jeopardy! Masters, S2 (Hulu)
5/7: Curb Your Enthusiasm, S1 (6) (Max); Jeopardy! Masters, S2 (Hulu); OFFICE SPACE (Max)
5/8:Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (4) (Max)
5/9: Top Chef, S21 (Peacock)
5/10: Jeopardy! Masters (Spectrum On-Demand)
5/11: Jeopardy! Masters (Spectrum On-Demand)
5/12: Happy-Go-Lucky, David Sedaris; Survivor, S46 (Paramount+); OCEAN’S ELEVEN* (Hulu)