As I write, the year’s first crocuses are emerging. With them comes the sudden bloom of robin’s nests, beetles, and the crisp chirp of frogs — magical, yet precise as clockwork. “Nature shows that survival is a practice,” Katherine May writes in her book Wintering. “Sometimes it flourishes — lays on fat, garlands itself in leaves, makes abundant honey — and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living. It doesn’t do this once, resentfully, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever…We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical.”
This syllabus is a sampler of cycles, a glimpse at how their structure entangles with everything we know. I have broken it into seven domains: physics, language, memory, myth, trauma, love, and art. If you like, try one every day this week…you’ll be well-timed for next week’s Syllabus, ready to begin the next cycle of learning.
The natural universe is full of cycles: the orbit of planets, the circadian rhythms of organisms, the water cycle of precipitation and evaporation, the sound wave, the divisions of mitosis, the waxing and waning of the moon. Once I begin looking, it seems that nearly everything adheres to a cycle of some kind, creating great webs of cyclic systems nested inside one another. The Nobel prizewinning physicist Roger Penrose explores what is perhaps the most macroscopic possible iteration of the cycle: the birth and death of our universe.
In a video presented by the PBS series Closer to Truth, titled “Why Did Our Universe Begin?” Penrose explains his theory called “conformal cyclic cosmology.” The basic idea is that our universe’s deep past bears a similarity to its deep future, giving evidence for an infinitely cycling timeline. I am by no means a physicist, but it comforts me that our universe should follow a recurrent pattern, its ending twisted back on itself to create the next beginning. If you’re interested in reading more on physics and cyclical time, see the essay “Time After Time” written by physics professor Paul Halpern for Aeon.
The cyclical model of time isn’t restricted to astrophysics. Long before Penrose, many cultures envisioned time as a circle. In the words of Hehaka Sapa of the Oglala Sioux, “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle…the sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round…Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves.”
Despite the ubiquity of cyclical time in oral indigenous cultures, most populations today tend to view the construction of their lives as linear. Ecologist and philosopher David Abram writes about this phenomenon in “Time, Space, and the Eclipse of the Earth” (Part I: Abstraction), a section of his book The Spell of the Sensuous. He distinguishes broadly between how space and time are viewed in oral cultures and literate ones, focusing on the alignment between orality and a cyclical model of time. Abram contemplates how alphabets and writing might erode the power of place, affecting the way space-time manifests in the imagination — in his words, “to fully engage, sensorially, with one’s earthly surroundings is to find oneself in a world of cycles within cycles within cycles.”
In my culture, the year serves as the basic building block of time with the seasons like mental bookmarks within it. Poet and classicist Anne Carson describes an almost uncanny feeling of memory accumulating over time in “The Glass Essay”: “It is as if I could dip my hand down / into time and scoop up /blue and green lozenges of April heat / a year ago in another country,” she writes, “I can feel that other day running underneath this one / like an old videotape.”
Designer Ross Zurowski takes a deeper look at how we divide and mark time in his blog post “On Small Seasons and Long Calendars.” A resident of San Francisco, Zurowski finds it difficult to use the mental bookmarks I mentioned — seasons are not typically high-contrast, so time seems to blend together. He muses on different methods of dividing our memories psychologically. Working professionals whose lives run on the fiscal quarter are contrasted with a man who organizes his diary in organic “phases” following his living situation and activities. The essay is inspired in part by the sekki, short descriptive seasons used by farmers in ancient China and Japan — you can see a list of sekki (and subscribe to Twitter/iCal notifications to track them) in Zurowski’s other post “A Guide to Understanding Small Seasons.”
One of the most classic texts on cycles of all time, The Hero With a Thousand Faces is often used to teach the basic DNA of storytelling. Mythologist and literature professor Joseph Campbell describes his archetypical “Hero’s Journey” in-depth, outlining a basic multi-step plot cycle with three distinct stages. In the Departure stage, the hero experiences a call to adventure and crosses a threshold from the ordinary world into an unknown reality. Next, they undergo various trials and tests in the Initiation stage, which concludes with the achievement of their ultimate goal. The Return stage completes the circuit: the hero circles back to their origin point in the ordinary world, integrating new wisdom learned along the way.
Also called a “monomyth”, the Hero’s Journey is shared by myths and stories across many centuries and cultures. You can’t un-see it once you’ve seen it — everything from the Epic of Gilgamesh to The Matrix can be seen to follow its thread, showing that writers have been riffing on this structure through the ages. Although the narrative may not be as tidy, I often wonder how many of our own life stories map onto the Hero’s Journey: it seems to describe the architecture of personal growth. For a condensed version of the Hero’s Journey, see this diagram by Lisa Paltz Spindler designed for the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction.
Campbell illuminates how cycles can be vehicles for change, returning to our origins with a new degree of enlightenment as if climbing a spiral staircase. But “spiraling” more commonly denotes a downward trajectory, and other frames of reference like a “cycle of abuse” and “vicious cycle” reflect this as well. A cycle can be a nightmare, an elegant trap that returns us again and again to the same starting point as we struggle to break free.
Writer Alice Lesperance writes about how the cycle relates to trauma in her essay “Ouroboricisms,” using the ouroboros as a metaphor for the circular reconstruction of memory. She draws from the mystics and writers Julian of Norwich, Anne Carson, Margery Kempe, and Flannery O’Connor, cataloging their engagement with the repetition and recreation of wounds. “For me, the body of the snake is a traumatized body,” Lesperance writes. “The life lived after trauma ceases to be linear — spanning simply from birth to death — and instead becomes ouroboric.”
Wounds aren’t the only thing we fear repeating: some people believe that expressing love too often dilutes its value, like rubbing the shine off a new coin. Maria Popova writes about this in an installment of her blog The Marginalian called “Loops, the Limits of Language, the Paradoxical Loneliness of “I Love You,” and What Keeps Love Alive.” She begins by describing her daily walking route, where she retreads the same loops over and over, often within the same walk. She likens this to the repetition of speech and feeling — that familiar declaration, “I love you.” Popova draws from the writing of Roland Barthes: “though I repeat and rehearse [the phrase ‘I love you’] day by day through the course of time, I will somehow recover, each time I utter it, a new state,” Barthes writes in his autobiography. “Like the Argonaut renewing his ship during his voyage without changing its name, the subject in love will perform a long task through the course of one and the same exclamation.”
Though we may express love through the same repeated words, each time they transport us somewhere new. Our contexts, personalities, and experiences shift throughout our relationships like the parts of the Argo, renewing our love even when we describe it with an identical phrase. Every “I love you” gives us the chance to see our beloved through a new lens, revealing the magic within one of our most ordinary rituals.
The polyrhythm is a musical structure in which multiple instruments or voices follow separate rhythms. Each pair of voices will synchronize occasionally on the least common multiple, when the beat falls at the same time. Spotify user Jade Ping has created an impressive 10-hour playlist of African polyrhythms, though you can find examples in different genres — check out Polyrhythms in Club Music by Brandt Brauer Frick. Cycle-maniacs may also enjoy the harpist Joanna Newsom who is not only known for her polyrhythms, but whose album Divers loops perfectly from the last note back into the first.
Polyrhythmic music reminds me of the “nesting cycles” I mentioned earlier — I think of the circadian rhythms guiding the cells of my body through day and night, while new flowers and birds slowly change the landscape of mornings and evenings, my home planet’s dutiful orbit around the sun as the universe unravels toward decay and (possibly) rebirth. Cycles occur at different paces, but their overlapping arrangement gives a sense of unity. Mycologist Merlin Sheldrake writes about the emergent property of polyrhythms in his book Entangled Life: “The many songs coalesce to make one song that doesn’t exist in any one of the voices alone.” Both the parts and the whole are remarkable, each of them a distinct ode to looping, orbiting, repeating, returning.