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Her father’s daughter: Sasha Sagan brings an expansive perspective to rituals, belief and grief. Photo/background, Getty Images; foreground, Brian Seitz

Sasha Sagan's spiritual science

Sasha Sagan, like her famous astronomer father, Carl, is not religious, but her book about rituals is filled with the sense of cosmic wonder and awe she learnt from her dad. 

Sasha Sagan was brought up in a secular Jewish household. When she was 15 she begged her mother for Christmas presents and a tree. “Although I received a very flattering forest-green pullover… I felt like a fraud,” she writes. Now, she has a husband with a Christian heritage and a toddler daughter. “She has as much Christian ancestry as Jewish,” she writes. “I found myself thinking, ‘She has to have Christmas morning!’” So the family enjoys secular versions of Hanukkah and Christmas, plus a celebration – more candles, more gifts – of the winter solstice.

“The winter solstice is also the anniversary of my father’s death. He died in the early hours of December 20,” she writes, “when the stars shone the longest.”

Sagan’s CV includes writer, television producer, film-maker, editor… She’s also the daughter of astronomer Carl Sagan, who died on the winter solstice in 1996 and whose landmark 80s television series, Cosmos, made him the David Attenborough of the planets and the stars. Like her late father, Sagan is not religious. But her new book, For Small Creatures Such as We, reveals that she is big on rituals, even the less pagan ones. She sees no reason those without religious belief should have to throw out wonder, awe and even transcendence with the unproven metaphysical bathwater.

She learnt her expansive philosophy from her father and his close collaborator, her mother, film producer and writer Ann Druyan. “They had the ability to make science spiritual, for lack of a secular word, and thrilling; to give you that sense of goosebumps and awe,” says Sagan. The man who memorably declared “We are star stuff” underlined his point by becoming a star himself. He was 62 when he died, but his work lives on. “There’s this amazing footage of my dad on The Tonight Show in 1976 with Johnny Carson with a little model, almost like a toy,” Sagan says. He was explaining a solar sail or light sail, a small spacecraft propelled by sunlight. “He was saying, ‘I think this is the way forward.’ And, just recently, the Planetary Society launched one and the launch was successful.” Fortunately, the society ignored Carson’s advice to use it to advertise McDonald’s.

Sagan in the 1970s holding a globe of Mars. Photo/Getty

Sagan’s book takes its title from a quote ascribed to her father concerning the immensity of the cosmos: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” Actually, her mother wrote it. I tell Sagan someone on social media posted a photograph of that quote tattooed on her arm. She also had her dad’s famous “pale blue dot” (Earth as seen in a 1990 image from space probe Voyager 1) marked in the centre of her palm. Sagan is moved by these intimate tributes to her father, graphic evidence that he’s remembered. “A friend of mine has an image from the Voyager Record on his arm.”

That would be one of the two Golden Records, phonograph records sent into space with information about Earth’s life and culture just in case of an encounter with extraterrestrials. Carl Sagan was fascinated with, though not at all woo-woo about, that prospect. “People would come up to my dad all the time and say, ‘Do you believe in aliens?’ He would say, ‘I don’t know because I don’t have any proof.’ They would say, ‘But what do you think in your gut?’ and he would say, ‘I don’t use my gut for this kind of thing. I try to use my brain.’”

Sasha Sagan’s book is part brain, part gut. It’s a memoir and also a manual on tackling living, loss and the human need to mark birth, death, the passing of the seasons and the everyday mysteries of existence – even in the absence of faith.

Sagan was 14 when her father died. Why this book now? It started with an essay. “It was about how I was brought up to deal with the concept of mortality without any promise of an afterlife or anything beyond. The response made me realise how many people are secular or sceptical or classify themselves as spiritual but not religious and are grappling with these questions.”

Motherhood added urgency. “If you don’t have the religious framework as the infrastructure for how we mark time and how we celebrate and what we emphasise as important to our children, what do we have instead? You can’t really take something away that’s that central to the human experience and not fill it with something else.”

Her father taught her it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. But she is convinced that the verifiable facts of existence can be just as thrilling as the mythology that arose millennia ago to explain them. “I’m a part of something very ancient that now I’m passing on – passing on DNA, language, culture, traditions, all these things that all of a sudden feel like they’re going through you rather than ending in you.”

Sasha Sagan recalls a childhood of “secular lessons of the universe” with  father Carl, who died when she was 14. Photo/Sasha Sagan collection

Her father gave her no hope of meeting again those who have died but offered the consolation of just being alive against cosmic odds. She writes about a seventh-century Chinese way of honouring ancestors. A grandson of the deceased would take on his grandfather’s mannerisms, do a sort of impression. “In a world without photography, it was one last chance to see your dad.”

When your father was famous, the chance to see your dad again is as close as YouTube. “The more footage there was to uncover, the less he only existed in the past,” she writes. There are other kinds of time travel. Air particles stick around in Earth’s atmosphere for a very long time. “I can take a deep breath and know that some fraction of those particles were once breathed by my dad.”

Even so, Sagan has found herself regularly blindsided by grief. At a wedding rehearsal she attended, the bride’s father spoke of his love for his daughter. “I excused myself to the ladies’ room to weep,” she writes.

On her own wedding day, she goes to the cemetery, cries, talks to her father. “Not because I think he … can hear me. I don’t.” She invokes the brides of the Tujia people in China. “They are obliged by tradition to force themselves to cry in front of family … the bride practises for weeks, sometimes years.” They prepare to fully experience the joy of the occasion by embracing its opposite.

The book’s subtitle, “Rituals and Reflections for Finding Wonder”, might make it sound like it’s setting out to do for humankind’s need for rites of passage what Marie Kondo has done for folding: an attempt to extract order from existential chaos. She lights godless candles. She and her husband regularly sing the alphabet song together, thanks to advice from a taxi driver and amateur marriage counsellor. “Sing!” he advised, offering that unromantic song as an example. “When I moisturise my face before bed,” writes Sagan, “I imagine the legends of the Fountain of Youth.”

But she’s her father’s daughter. She also ranges across, if not the cosmos, then the planet, looking at the rituals from different times and cultures. One ritual, very powerful if you’ve seen it, she has earmarked for herself. It comes from her Jewish heritage. At a Jewish funeral, family and the community pick up shovels and bury the dead themselves. “In Islam, it is three handfuls of soil,” she writes. “As with so much, Jews and Muslims are more alike than different.”

You don’t have to believe, at least not in God. “There is something deeply reassuring about performing the specific steps, the exact motions, that your grandparents performed, and that they learnt from their grandparents,” she writes. You mirror them and thus see them, in a way. “Yes, so many of the rituals I researched just struck me as like performance-art pieces. Weddings are a perfect example. A white dress as a symbol of purity – I mean, I lived with my husband for six years before we got married. All of these things we do – it’s like this play we’re putting on, not because we necessarily totally buy into the origin of it. Lighting the menorah, I can feel connected to these people whose genes I carry around every day but who I know so little about.”

Even those with deep faith can struggle with the terrible mortal finality of death. Did her father’s secular philosophy, his way of seeing a miraculous continuity between finite human and the cosmos, help him and his family in the end? “Yes, I think so. If you do feel that you are able to live the life that you wanted, when it comes to an end it’s less difficult. We took a lot of comfort in the fact that he was a happy person who got to really live up to his childhood dreams and beyond. He was very lucky in a lot of ways, but he also really worked to make that happen. That helps a lot, if you know that the person really felt fulfilled.”

Photo/Sasha Sagan collection
Rituals. For those of us with obsessive-compulsive tendencies they can be a sort of replacement superstition. Not “I want to do it” but “I have to do it or else”. She laughs, not unkindly. “It’s interesting. Like lighting the yahrzeit candle, the Jewish custom, the candle of remembrance that you light on the anniversary of someone’s death – if I forget to do it it’s not as if I think, ‘Oh, my grandfather is going to be mad at me from beyond.’ I’m doing this for me, like a little meditation and this feeling of trying to experience change and process change. To understand someone who I love isn’t here any more and I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity of that emotional experience, even when it can sometimes be a difficult one,” she says. “I think about it that way rather than that something bad will happen if I don’t do this,” she says. “I mean, I get that, too.” Either way, perhaps it’s about trying to keep some control over the forces that run over us all, believers or not.

One of the last things her father said to her, Sagan writes, was, “I’m sorry.” There’s a sense that this collecting of rituals is a way of filling a great void.

Does she think of what life might have been like had he lived longer? “Everything would be different.” But there’s no way, she says, to reverse-engineer the narrative. “I’d be doing something else. I certainly wouldn’t have written this book because it was just so much about dealing with loss without religion. If I hadn’t had that experience at that age, I don’t know if that would be my area of interest.”

Certainly her childhood sounds enchanted. “After days at elementary school, I came home to immersive tutorials on sceptical thought and secular history lessons of the universe, one dinner-table conversation at a time,” she has written. In the end, her book is a voyage around her father and what he taught her. It’s also an exploration of the void he left in her life. “I love my life and I’m really happy, but losing my dad was the defining experience of my life. I really feel lucky that I had 14 years with him,” she says valiantly. “He was a wonderful dad and I feel like now, at almost 37 years old, I’m okay with all of this.”

There are always new ways to stay connected through time and space. Her mother, who helped write Carl Sagan’s 80s television series, has worked with comedian and film-maker Seth MacFarlane to produce two new series of Cosmos. One screened in 2014. In the second, yet to air, Sagan has a cameo as her paternal grandmother, Rachel. Photos reveal she looks a lot like her. “Yes, I do. I start the book talking about feeling very connected to her even though she died before I was born.”

She can see how those sorts of feelings once provoked supernatural explanations. “In a world before we understood DNA you see these physical characteristics, little idiosyncrasies of someone you loved, appear in another person. It makes perfect sense how we would get the idea that there was something supernatural going on.”

As far as she is concerned, something equally miraculous is going on. “I just wish we could learn how genes and alleles work in a way that gave us that thrilling feeling that other things, let’s say reincarnation, may be described.”

Loss. No number of rituals can entirely make up for it. “I miss him very much,” Sagan writes. “Sometimes, still now, so much that it feels intolerable.” But she holds tight to her dad’s big-picture cosmic perspective.

“The way in which it helped the most, during my dad’s life, during our lives, was the idea that this is not a dress rehearsal, that life is short and we must live up to this moment. Do what we think is important and enjoy it but also work to make the world a little closer to how we might hope it to be.

“It’s brief, compared to what’s on either side,” she writes, of the sliver of light between birth and death. Her book makes the case for embracing that with a sort of unreligious ecstasy. “Because it’s amazing,” she says. “It’s worthy of celebration.”

This article was first published in the December 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.