Talking about Trotsky who appeared as a character in a book you are reading, you set an empty wine glass on a thick tile coaster. The base of the glass hangs precariously over the edge like a gymnast who steps off the mat.
“Didn’t he get a hatchet thrown into his head?” I ask, remembering a funny play in which Trotsky walks about the stage looking and talking like a living character except that he has a hatchet in his head.
You want to set the record straight.
“It was a pickax.”
You reach for your empty glass and pause, your hand just above the rim.
“Trotsky was a good man. He wanted to help farmers.”
You make that face where you lift one corner of your mouth, shrug and give a quick sigh simultaneously, a face I love, and pull your hand away from the glass, back into your lap.
“Stalin killed them by the thousands.”
On the pretense of getting a cracker, I walk across the room and kiss your hair, setting the glass—the little gymnast fighting back tears—on the center of the coaster without your noticing, righting
the emptiness. The Chinese word for emptiness is wu, which sounds like a high, rising moan on the “uh” sound. It occurs 103 times in the Tao Te Ching, the ancient book of Taoist sayings by Lao Tzu who was himself a kind of emptiness since we know nothing about him really except his book. His name, which can be translated as “old boy,” is generic, reminding us that he was merely the vessel for ancient wisdom, and what is a vessel
but a spell cast on air. In the 1960s Cheever Meaders liked to kid customers who visited his pottery shop in White County, a spot not far from where I live in the north Georgia mountains. One couple from Clarksville had heard about the large pots that the Meaders family was famous for making and had traveled to see Cheever raise one on a wheel: “we’ve come fifteen miles to see how a fella gets his hand out of a jug,” the visitor said.
Meaders agreed to make one and began working as the couple’s attention turned momentarily to his finished pots in the corner of his shed, and while “they was a-looking at and taking all their time over there,” he quickly finished turning the new pot and announced, “here is that jug made.”
The customers “jumped around, it surprised them so,” and when they asked how he could throw a pot so quickly, he told them it was “magic,”
proud of his sleight of hand. At night before we go to bed you put a white cream on your wrists which takes about ten minutes to dry. While you wait, you hold your arms in the air, the robe cuffs flopping down to your elbows like the sleeves of a sorceress, and smile in ironic bewilderment. In the lamplight your hands, held aloft, fall open at either side, as if you had asked
a rhetorical question. In Japan, a university professor sought out a master named Nan-in, to learn the secrets of Zen. The Zen master filled the visitor’s cup of tea to the top and then kept pouring. When the professor protested, the master spoke. “Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless
you first empty your cup.” The astronomer William Herschel hammered horse dung into patties to mold the cup-shaped specula for his telescopes. According to autobiographical writings kept by Caroline, his sister and assistant, he hand-ground the lenses in a solution of emery and water and polished them with various substances such as putty and pitch. The polishing had to be done for hours at a time, and if in the final stages Herschel stopped for even a few seconds the metal surface would turn cloudy, ruining the mirror. To entertain her brother as he leaned into the distorted and enlarged reflection of his face emerging out of the polished emptiness, Caroline read books about oddballs, cranks, and dreamers: Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and
the Arabian Nights. When Cheever, kickstarts the potter’s wheel and “opens the ball” of clay, the magic begins. He uses his whole body to throw large pots, leaning back against a padded rail as his foot works the treadle bar which he has connected directly to the axel that turns the wheel. Using his arm and a “ball opener,” a curved wooden device that drills a hole in the bottom of the pot and regulates the thickness of the base, he begins “pulling up” the sides of the vessel with his hands, one hand inside the cylinder and one outside, keeping the diameter of the mouth small. “If the top of it ever gets larger than the bottom, you’ll usually lose it.” The trick is to get your “hand out of the jug,” leaving
nothing behind. In ancient China a nobleman riding into town on horseback spoke to a potter. “How are you able to form these vessels so that they possess such convincing beauty?”
“Oh, you are looking at the mere outward shape,” answered the potter. “I am interested in what remains
after the pot has been broken.” For more than a month, Sandra Faber, a consultant to a team of scientists at the Goddard Space Center, had been trying to figure out what was wrong with the Hubble telescope.
“This is the moment we find out that we are doomed,” she said as she chose a distorted stellar image nicknamed “smoke-ring” which showed up as a series of concentric circles, the beams radiating out from a point in the center. It looked more like the cross section of an oak tree than a star.
Her goal was to generate computer images based on various possible distortions in the Hubble lens until she came up with a match. If she found one, it would confirm her suspicion that Hubble, which had already suffered delays and budget overruns and had by this point cost at least $2.5 billion to build, was a failure. Faber and her colleague Jon Holtzman worked through the weekend until they recreated the image on the screen. When she showed her sketches to John Mangus, the optical expert at Goddard, he pulled a similar image out of his pocket.
“I was waiting for you to show up.”
The images proved that engineers at the Space Center had fashioned a perfectly polished mirror without enough
wu. A Buddhist named Subhuti meditated under a tree when flowers began to fall all about him. “The flowers celebrate your discourse on emptiness,” a voice whispered to him.
“But I have not given a discourse on emptiness,” Subhuti said.
“That,” the voice answered, “is
the true emptiness.” The cup of the primary mirror in the Hubble telescope was too shallow: light at the edges and light in the center could never be brought into sharp focus. That was the truth that the team at Goddard had to face. At a meeting of the project working group, Holtzman flashed the two smoke-ring images on the screen—one generated by a computer and one from Hubble—and the room full of experts fell silent. When Faber shared her information with colleagues through a teleconference, one of them said “my science
is dead.” After Ikkyu dropped an antique tea cup he heard his master approaching and hid the broken pieces behind his back. Facing the old man squarely, he asked, “Why do people have to die?”
“It is the natural order of things,” said the master. “All things must die.”
At this, Ikkyu held out
the broken cup. “My daddy died on this day,” you said, turning thoughtful, drinking coffee in the living room. It was snowing hard, and I had lit a fire, but the wood was wet so the flames were slow to catch.
“Daffodils were poking through, and Matt wore short sleeves,” you added, referring to our son when he was a boy. Together we watched snow tumbling down in large flakes.
That morning we stayed home from work. Eventually the fire blazed and we returned to our books. Snow filled the hollows and made caps—like inverted cups—on posts, and in the woods beech trees, leaning this way and that like so many awkward gymnasts,
held their golden leaves aloft. At a meeting in Garching Germany a strategy panel tasked with finding a solution to Hubble’s flat mirror entertained a host of improbable ideas, but none of them were simple enough to be promising. After a day of meetings, Joe Crocker went back to his hotel room for a shower. The European shower head was attached to a bar, and as Crocker lifted it on the pole to swivel it forward, he suddenly had the solution. With water pouring over his body and swirling into the drain, he realized that the astronauts could place the corrective devices on pre-installed arms in the same way that someone might switch out a shower head, and the arms would automatically unfold and do the rest.
“Oh yeah,” astronaut Bruce McCandless declared when Crocker presented his idea at the next meeting,
that’ll work.” During prohibition, jugs made by potters like the Meaders became famous for carrying moonshine. Whiskey jugs had to be fired so that they would not leak and Cheever reserved his best seals and hardest glazes for them. “Hell,” he said, “I made ’em until they held.” He liked to tell one story of an old boy who manufactured twenty large jugs of shine, so much that he could not haul all of them out of the woods at once. He “was back in the hollers there somewhere,” Cheever said, and “it was pretty hard to pack them out.” To protect his whiskey “he simply put ’em in a stump hole.” Unfortunately, the moonshiner contracted typhoid fever when he went home and had to wait eight weeks before he could pick up the rest of his haul while his jugs lay tumbled in a hole in the woods, exposed to the weather. When the moonshiner felt well enough to return he rode back to pick up the jugs and was surprised to find them all intact. The moonshiner never
“lost a drop out of them twenty jugs.” A roomful of anxious scientists leaned toward a computer screen to see the first picture from the repaired Hubble. When the image of the unstable supernova named Eta Carinae appeared the room exploded with cheers. The image was sharp enough to see individual stars glowing in a stellar system 8,000 light years away, and to celebrate, the scientists
broke open a bottle of champagne. One night while the Zen nun Chiyono carried a pail of water wrapped in bamboo, the sling broke and the bottom of her pail gave way spilling the water. Suddenly she felt liberated. It was not about moonlight playing on the water, as she had long believed. It was about getting the moon out of the pail. “No more water in the pail,” she wrote ecstatically in a poem afterward. “No more
moon in the water.” Housed in a wooden A-frame observatory on the side of a cliff in the forests of Vancouver, the Large Zenith Telescope sits on a primary support frame that looks like an enormous tinker toy construction painted blue. The roof of the A-frame opens exposing a pool of mercury to the stars overhead so that the mirror fills with light. As the pool spins the liquid sinks forming a parabola, bringing the light of distant galaxies into clear focus. Paul Hickson, the director of the Laval project, writes that a mouse once jumped into the rotating mirror and “ran in circles, breaking the delicate film of mercury,” its skittery movements
disturbing the universe. After his body guard subdued the assailant, Trotsky’s wife and others took the dying man to a hospital with the pickax lodged in his skull, and Trotsky remained conscious for a while.
“He spoke many languages,” you said, closing the book and running your hand along the cover which you do with books that you enjoy. “And he was able to talk, but as they rode to the hospital one by one he lost those languages and in the end, just before he died, he could only speak in Russian.”
You look up and smile.
of his childhood.” In her book Centering, M. C. Richards tells the story of approaching the studio of Robert Turner at Black Mountain College while he sat at his potter’s wheel giving a demonstration. He had centered the pot, and was pulling up on its sides, but instead of watching what he was doing he had his ear to the spinning clay.
As his fingers opened the ball, he said, “It’s
breathing.” Because the liquid mirror telescope relies on the earth’s gravity to shape the spinning liquid into a parabola, it must always point straight up, toward the zenith, limiting the amount of sky it can view. Once the cup forms, the scientists cannot change its position, so they wait on the earth’s rotation, and let the planet
tilt it for them. When I was a young man, I took a vacation alone in a cabin on a lake at Track Rock Gap. After writing and reading all day, I poured myself a glass of wine and sat on the deck watching the mountains as the sun set behind me. The shadow line slowly rose up the hillside of oaks and poplars, swallowing the glowing tops of trees, and I felt an impossible urge to right the tipping cup of the planet and slow the coming of evening, but watched helplessly instead as shade seeped into the hillside taking the last tree, and the luminous mirror of the lake that had gorged all afternoon on sunshine, settled into dusky dark.
The Broken Cup
I translated verse eleven of the Tao Te Ching based on a transliteration by Jonathan Star. The book on Trotsky that my wife Barbara was reading is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. The depictions of Cheever Meaders are from The Meaders Family by Ralph Rinzler and Robert Sayers, and the Zen stories are adapted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. Information about William Herschel is from The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, stories about the Hubble space project are from The Universe in a Mirror by Robert Zimmerman, and the description of the Large Zenith Telescope is from a feature article entitled “Liquid Mirror Telescopes” by Paul Hickson in American Scientist. The story about Robert Turner listening to his ball of clay is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person by M. C. Richards.