“The Basic Question” by Len Anderson

Len Anderson


Review by Sarah Bakewell of Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?, New York Times Sunday Book Review, August 2, 2012


There is a wisdom
in the taking up of difficult,
even impossible questions,
for we are reminded
that we are ever fools
and thirsty.


I am an avid admirer
of questions. Rumi tells us,
Only God. I strive
to answer my prayers
as best I can.
Every photon of light
sent out by a star
and not absorbed on its way
to the distant curved reaches
eventually swings back—
there is only so much,
even of nothing,
but there’s no end to it all.
Sometimes I take to chanting
quantum field equations,
for, apart from being a tool
of educated prophecy,
their chief value is the power
to take us deeper
into mystery. A day
without beauty and
pain is not complete.
Aren’t they two wings
of the same bird?
The greatest strength
of any theory
or any other
kind of question
is to bring us to our knees.


God is to be forgiven
the rending of eternity
into lowly time. Each day,
each gasp of air, only deepens the tear,
yet is a brushing against
the airless breath of eternity. This
is the cross on which Christ
hung and on which we dangle
and flail in our dance
with arms lifted
as a plane groans by,
neighbors bounce a basketball,
and a single leaf
of the Mexican orange tree
shudders in the wind,
starts to fall.


This flaw in everything—not
even nothing is perfect—we hear
so clearly from
the microwave chime
out beyond the stars
everywhere ringing
in perfect pitch an eternal
afterscream of the instant of
universal birth.

This helps me understand better
my own failings
of which I am also reminded
from several directions
with a certain frequency
such that now I invite
them to be my teachers,
to walk with me
in the neighborhood.
And before bed,
instead of prayer,
I bless one of my
weaknesses for all the help
it offers me and ask it
to guide me through the night
and the following day.


I was too big at birth
and my mother torn—blessing
comes from blood and yields
yet more. This Jesus knew
accepting the crown and cross,
sacrifice makes holy
what is offered, we
are a gift offered. I count
my gifts, a fool, knowing
I know not
what I am counting,
this blessing, drink deep
this stain, this blood
of the gods.


We don’t know what this world
is, for it is never enough
and filled with infinite longing,
arms thrown open wide
in every direction, bursting
in song that has no end.

We may foolishly call this
the Creation, the Big Bang
or just Nature,
yet we don’t know what
we’re talking about. The difference
between the worship of God
and astrophysics is really one
of musical notation, something
at which we are quite clumsy
because we hear
only part of the song.

Don’t despair, just listen
as attentively as you can,
and when you can’t help it,
burst into song,
write down what you can
in whatever notation you have,
and pass it on. You
are part of the song.

from Rattle #49, Fall 2015
Tribute to Scientists


Len Anderson: “I have loved tinkering ever since I became fascinated by the mystery of radio reception as a child. I have a PhD in physics from UC Berkeley and did research in experimental elementary particle physics there and in Europe. I also did research in air pollution for the U.S. Public Health Service and worked for sixteen years at Measurex Corporation, developing sensors for automation and quality control in paper manufacturing. Now my fascination with mysteries and my love of tinkering have found another outlet.”

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