November 2019

For Small Creatures Such as We

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“My parents taught me that the universe is enormous and we humans are tiny beings who get to live on an out-of-the-way planet for the blink of an eye,” writes author Sasha Sagan in the introduction of For Small Creatures Such as We, a gorgeous collection of essays that reads like a memoir. 

The daughter of two of the 20th century’s most important contributors—astronomer Carl Sagan and producer Ann Druyan—Sagan began thinking deeply about the traditions and passages that shape life on earth after becoming a mother herself. Birth, anniversaries, fasting, atonement: She approaches these subjects with wonderment and a generous window into her extraordinary family history. A secular Jew who was raised by her famous parents to be an independent and deep thinker, Sagan demonstrates that rituals aren’t reserved purely for the religious.

“There is so much change in this world,” she writes. “So many entrances and exits and ways to mark them, each one astonishing in its own way. Even if we don’t see birth or life as a miracle in the theological sense, it’s still breathtakingly worthy of celebration.”

Sagan writes with stunning clarity and absolute joy. In the chapter on coming of age, Sagan connects puberty with the myth of the werewolf, before galloping through the rites of passage observed by the Amish, Mormons, Apaches, Japanese and her own family. When Sagan got her first period at age 13, her mother “took me in her arms and made me feel this was cause for celebration.” Contrast this with her mother’s experience as a Jew: Druyan’s mother slapped her across the face, as was the inexplicable custom in that time. 

For Small Creatures Such as We is a marvel. It dazzles and comforts while making us consider our own place in the vast universe. As Sagan writes, “We are, after all, someone’s distant future and someone else’s ancient past.”

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