The universe is an egg

We don’t usually look to newspapers for the transcendent, but often when I read one I come across an image, an occurrence, or a quote that makes me want to write a poem. Maybe this has to do with a way of thinking, with a turn of mind. Or maybe there is a lot more amazing stuff out there than we usually let ourselves take in.

Recently a New York Times article caught my eye. Astronomers had released an “exquisite” baby picture of the universe. That picture, sent back to us from a satellite, is what is called a heat map of the cosmos. It captures how the whole business looked way back when, a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang.

This image of the young universe, displayed prominently on the front page of the Times above the fold, is spectacular. It is a colorful oval on a black field. The oval itself, speckled blue, yellow and orange, looks to me like an Easter egg. And there it was, featured in the paper, just a week before the holiday itself.

The image, cosmologists say, is consistent with our emerging understanding of a universe that is controlled by mysterious dark energy that, we believe, is pushing space apart, while at the same time mysterious dark matter is pulling galaxies together. Anyone who has ever been in an intimate relationship would know of that push and pull.

The satellite image confirms much of what scientists thought they knew about the cosmos, but it also raises questions. It depicts the cosmos as bigger, lumpier and with more hot and cold spots than would have been expected. These surprises are very exciting, one scientist said, as “the universe is trying to tell us something.” I love the idea of physicists trying to listen, trying to figure out what the universe’s message is. Science and theology seem to overlap here.

And mythology. It turns out that in many creation myths the universe is hatched from an egg, according to my Book of Symbols. This cosmic egg has everything needed within it, but it does require brooding. Often in these stories a bird-like deity lays and broods the egg. So, according to this worldview, a supernatural bird and the bird’s heat created the world. I like that.

Egg forms were used in art to represent regeneration and rebirth as long ago as 12,000 B.C. This meaning is carried forward in our tradition of painting Easter eggs and rolling them on the ground to encourage the plants to come up again after their winter’s rest.

Human beings with an artistic bent have used the idea of the egg in yet other ways. In ancient healing rituals people would go into a dark cave or hole to incubate, waiting for a healing dream that would release them and allow them to be reborn into the world.

This process is similar to the chick hatching out of the egg, and reminds me of a technique recommended by the choreographer Twyla Tharp in her book on creativity, The Creative Habit. She writes that if you feel stuck or blocked, curl up on the floor so that your whole body is in the shape of an egg. Lie there like that, fully acknowledging just how stuck you feel.

Then kick out with one foot, like a baby bird breaking its way out of the egg. You, yourself, become the symbol, the art object. Doing this, taking the shape of a bird’s egg, makes me laugh, which opens up my channels.

When I took a photography course years ago, I got great joy out of taking pictures of the eggs in the rack inside my refrigerator door. There is something so right about the oblong shape, the curves. I am regularly reminded of this experience each time I place lovely brown eggs one by one in the carton at the co-op.

Maybe eggs speak to me so eloquently because, though I have a beloved stepdaughter, I did not give birth to a child myself. My own eggs ran through me and are gone. I am similarly, and for the same reason, fascinated by the resemblance between parents and their children. I look back and forth from mother to daughter. I marvel at the way the one produced the other. It seems like magic to me.

I guess we might see the universe as one big egg that holds many eggs within it. Creating art is often talked about with term like “incubation.” People say writing a book is like having a child. There are lots of reasons a person becomes an artist or a writer. That I didn’t use my eggs in the conventional way might be one of mine.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.