Not long ago, all school-aged children were expected to master cursive handwriting. In those days, the sky was clearer, and the stars stood out against the darkness.
Ironically, “progress” might be the cause.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definitions of progress include “a forward or onward movement” and a “gradual betterment” of our lives.
The French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) disagreed. For him, “The more humanity advances, the more it is degraded.”*
While polio vaccines and antibiotic medication would defeat Flaubert in an argument, I don’t think he’d give up. His notion of progress would look at what we’ve lost, not what’s been gained.
Perhaps no one should be surprised if values such as beauty created by human hands, artistic and detailed craftsmanship, and looking at the stars aren’t considered all that valuable. How could it be otherwise? We live in a country where profit and pleasure are widely applauded goals. Everything else takes second place, at best.
We are addicted to speed, productivity, and the things that work, be they techniques, machines, or thoughts. Because they work, we risk shutting off our brains and our awareness of something going wrong, eating away at the fabric of our lives. The esthetic element of existence is replaced by well-functioning objects no matter their form and how little those new forms please the senses.
Gadgets surround us, lawnmowers kill the silence, and highways and planes drone on like a boring speaker who always needs another hour to finish his talk. Do we risk becoming as automatic and unthinking as a toaster? The toaster doesn’t hear the din surrounding us. Those who never spent time in a quiet world don’t realize what they missed and are missing.
It is harder to recognize the worth of vanished practices if we never played the game of life by the old rules in the less industrialized circumstances of those times. If you were born surrounded by skyscrapers, you don’t remember walking downtown in the big-skyed sunshine of a world without their long shadows.
You applaud air-conditioning, right? Window air conditioners in homes only became popular in the 1950s; even then, not more than a few could cool their entire house. After dinner on hot days, people sat outside on the cement stoops leading up to their flats. They talked with neighbors every day. The sense of community grew. People slept in public parks to catch the breeze and escape the heat captured indoors.
Progress demanded efficient use of space, meaning taller buildings with more apartments. High rises didn’t bring us moral elevation; they delivered anonymity and discomfort around strangers who, a few decades before, wouldn’t have been strange.
A laptop will generate sentences faster than a college student with a pencil or pen. A notebook full of inked-in class notes carries no prestige. We must have the latest innovation in everything. Thus, old technology tends to lay dormant and unused.
Yet our computers offer us little esthetic fulfillment in their creation of letters and words. Anyone with graceful penmanship does. Another element displayed in longhand communication is to let the recipient know you cared enough to write it. You didn’t email, text, or use snail mail enclosing a machine-created message.
Yes, reliance on penmanship takes more time, of which we have less. That is the point. Our time-preoccupied way of spending our time has robbed us of some of the joy in it.
Those folks in the evening park could smell the grass on a lucky day and feel closer to their earthen bed. Looking up, the stars were present, lots of them.
The stars remain high overhead, but more of them are shrouded now. Like “progress,” the word “shroud” is supposed to tell us something. It is a burial garment employed as far back as the time of Jesus.
The ancients didn’t have light pollution to cover the heavens. We do. A new study published in Science measured what has happened to the darkness. “Trends in the data showed that the average night sky got brighter by 9.6% per year from 2011 to 2022, which is equivalent to doubling the sky brightness every eight years.”
The stars have always covered the sky, but now they have to contend with our blinding lights as if we were shooting at them. Have we scared them into hiding?
Our ancestors didn’t live by night. The sun governed their wakefulness and sleep. No wonder sleep disturbances proliferate today. Without intending it, humanity has manufactured a competition between the starlit romance and mystery of an indescribable summertime and the convenience of an unnecessary brightness no one requested.
“A child who is born where 250 stars are visible on a clear night will see only 100 in similar conditions by the time he turns 18,” study co-author Christopher Kyba told AP, according to Axios.”
How many love songs talk of the moon and the stars?
Enchantment can’t be found on a pharmacy shelf, no matter how many bulbs are on the ceiling. Will the singers of tomorrow fall into the spell left by darkness, beauty, and a gracefully written love note in a moment of stillness?
All I know is this. A lover’s kiss in such a moment is not progress or profit.
It is beyond words.
*Thanks to my friend AGA, who informed me of Flaubert’s statement, leading to an enjoyable discussion that prompted this essay.
The first photograph comes from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, “the globular cluster Messier 56 (also known as M 56 or NGC 6779), which is located about 33,000 light years away from the Earth in the constellation of Lyra (The Lyre). The cluster is composed of a large number of stars, tightly bound to each other by gravity.”
Next is a handwritten postcard sent by Langston Hughes, including his poem Youth.
This is followed by Laura Hedien’s Arizona Sunset ca. 2020, with her kind permission: Laura Hedien Official Website.