What are your daily rituals? One of mine is a morning cup of coffee at Starbucks accompanied by a book that always reads better with highlighter in hand and the aroma of dark roast (acknowledging the strange look a book in print engenders these days from the Kindle/Nook crowd). It is rituals that Sasha Sagan explores in detail in her new work, For Small Creatures Such as We, and if her surname is familiar to you it’s no doubt because you’ve heard of her late father, the astronomer Carl Sagan. Aside from his books and documentaries, many of us came to appreciate Carl Sagan from his appearances in the media, such as the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Sasha writes: “I’ve more than once been in a situation where someone recognizes my surname, asks me if I’m related to my dad, and describes their admiration for him in the present tense.” In a New York magazine article, Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan, she previously revealed the very personal nature of what it was like to be the daughter of a cultural icon.
The title of Sasha’s book came from a line that appeared in Carl’s novel, Contact: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” In her introduction she writes that although the line is attributed to her dad, it was her mom that actually came up with those words, which served as a perfect crystallization of their family philosophy.
One might venture that collaborative writing was a ritual in the Sagan family household. Contact was originally conceived by Sasha’s parents as a movie, but in the intervening years that it took to get to the screen they tried the story out as a novel. The movie, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey finally appeared in 1997, the year after Carl died of complications due to bone marrow cancer.
In 1980, Carl co-founded the Planetary Society, which has played a significant role in space exploration. Sasha was seven years old at the time, and she indulges in some nostalgia on a recent visit back to Society headquarters, exhibiting the rapture that is so evident in her book.
Much of Sasha’s connection to ritual stems from her Jewish background. She notes: “I myself am only a few generations removed from some very religious people. My mother’s grandparents were Orthodox Jews … I see myself as a Jew even as I sit here writing a book about my lack of faith. It’s complicated.” Sasha hints at some of these complications in a charming recent interview at the Strand bookstore. Go to the 28:00 minute mark of the video, which brings Chapter 8, “Independence Days” to life.
Ranging through daily to weekly to monthly to yearly rituals and exploring cycles between seasons through the prism of various religions and cultures, Sasha treats a variety of ritualistic subjects in a breezy yet respectful way. She is disarmingly honest about the way doubt creeps in among people of faith as well as science. I draw no inferences in relating that four of her five upcoming appearances promoting the book are in Jewish Centers. 😉