In 1908, Henrietta Swan Leavitt — one of the women known as the Harvard Computers, who revolutionized astronomy long before they could vote — was analyzing photographic plates at the Harvard College Observatory to measure and catalogue the brightness of stars when she began noticing a consistent correlation between the luminosity of a class of variable stars and their pulsation period, between their brightness and their blinking pattern.
At the same time, a dutiful boy cusping on manhood was repressing his childhood love of astronomy and beginning his legal studies to fulfill his dying father’s demand for an ordinary, reputable life. That young man was Edwin Hubble (November 20, 1889–September 28, 1953). Upon his father’s death, he would unleash his passion for the stars into a formal study of astronomy. After the interruption of a world war, he would lean on Leavitt’s data to upend millennia of cosmic parochialism, demonstrating two revolutionary facts about the universe: that it is tremendously bigger than we thought, and that it is getting bigger by the blink. The law underlying its expansion would come to bear his name, as would the ambitious space telescope that would give humanity an unprecedented glimpse of a cosmos “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”
Hubble’s Law staggers the imagination with the awareness that even our most intimate celestial companion, the Moon, is slowly moving away from us every day, about as fast as your fingernails grow. This means that at some future point, the greatest cosmic spectacle visible from Earth will be no more, for a total solar eclipse is a function of the glorious accident that the Moon is at just the right distance for its shadow to cover the entire face of the Sun when passing before it from our vantage point — a shadow that will grow smaller and smaller as our satellite drifts farther and farther away. Before Hubble, the study of astronomy had already stunned the human mind with the awareness that this entire drama of life is a miracle of chance, unfolding on a common rocky planet tossed at just the right distance from its star to have the optimal temperature and optimal atmosphere for supporting life. Hubble sent the human mind spinning with the swirl of gratitude and terror at the awareness that it is all a temporary miracle.
Author Isabelle Marinov and artist Deborah Marcero pay tender homage to Hubble’s life and legacy in The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble (public library) — a splendid addition to the finest picture-book biographies of revolutionary minds, and one particularly dear to my own heart in light of my ongoing devotion to building New York City’s first public observatory to cast the cosmic enchantment on future Hubbles and Leavitts, to make life more livable for the rest of us by inviting the telescopic perspective.
The story begins with the moment the young Edwin’s passion for stargazing is magnified by his first taste of astronomy when his grandfather gives him a telescope for his eighth birthday.
That night, all Edwin wanted was to stay outside, looking up at the stars. Not even a birthday cake could lure him back inside.
Out in the hills of Missouri, under the star-salted skies suddenly so much more proximate and alive, questions fill the wonder-stricken Edwin — questions that become a singsong refrain throughout the book as his life unfolds toward their answers.
One night, watching “the Moon turn into a tangerine” with his best friend, Edwin explains the basic cosmic trigonometry of the lunar eclipse — he is already devouring every astronomy book he can find.
But despite his ebullient passion for the science of the cosmos, Edwin bends to his traditionalist father’s will and trundles down the safe, standard life-path of a high school teacher and basketball coach in Middle America.
Only after his father’s death (the story omits the larger, grimmer dream-interruption of the world’s first global war) does Hubble pursue his dream to study astronomy, completing a degree and taking as his first job a position at Mount Wilson Observatory — home to the largest telescope in the world.
On some days, his fingers and toes grew numb and tears froze his eyelashes to the telescope’s eyepiece. But nothing could lure him back inside.
It is there, looking through the colossal instrument night after cold night, that Hubble becomes obsessed with the Andromeda Nebula, then believed to be a swirl of gas and dust within our own galaxy. He begins suspecting it is not.
With this powerful telescope, Hubble identifies previously unseen stars within Andromeda and, drawing on Leavitt’s technique for calculating their distance, suddenly realizes that they were much, much father than previously thought — so far that they could not be within the Milky Way. Which meant that there were other galaxies in the universe beyond our own — a staggering revision of the limits of knowledge.
At this point in the story, in a classic Enchanted Lion touch of thoughtful loveliness and delight, a gatefold expands into a paper spacetime of colorful swirling galaxies, rendering our Milky Way “no more than a small dot in an unimaginably vast universe.”
The story continues with an elegant primer on Hubble’s Law and its humbling, thrilling implications about the universe and our place in it, ending with the inquisitive refrain that had animated the young Edwin’s life and will go on animating the mind of the human animal for as long as we remain sentient creatures on an improbable living world amid a vast and wonder-strewn universe.
Hubble’s own words, evocative of Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy,” appear on the final page as an invocation and an invitation:
We do not know why we are born into the world, but we can try to find out what sort of world it is.
Complement The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars with What Miss Mitchell Saw — the lovely picture-book biography of Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer, whose epoch-making comet discovery helped her blaze the way for women in science — then revisit the astonishing true story of how Kepler laid the foundation of our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.
Illustrations by Deborah Marcero courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.
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Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Jan 2021 | 6:27 am(NZT)
“Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch wrote in her arresting 1972 address on art as a force of resistance. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin in their superb forgotten conversation at the close of that decade, “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”
A generation earlier, in the final years of his life, Albert Einstein sat down at his desk in Princeton, New Jersey, to compose a letter of consonant sentiment — a stirring letter of appreciation and assurance to the Polish Jewish artist Si Lewen (November 8, 1918–July 25, 2016), who had just quietly released a staggering work of art and resistance.
Born days before Armistice Day, Si was five when he decided to become an artist — or rather (as such elemental self-awarenesses tend to bubble up) when he knew that he was one. In those formative years, his family fled from place to place as the situation for Jews in Europe was darkening by the minute. During a period of refuge in Berlin, while ostracized and bullied at school for being Jewish, he began receiving his first formal art lessons from a disciple of Paul Klee’s. His young imagination and his understanding of the world were being imprinted as much by his refuge in art as by the thickening political atmosphere of animosity that would soon erupt into the world’s grimmest war yet.
Lewen was still a teenager when his family fled to America as Hitler usurped power. When he arrived in New York, he was at first elated at the prospect of a new life full of art and free of persecution. He began taking drawing classes and going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. But when an antisemitic policeman beat him nearly to death, the terrifying thought that he would never be free from bigoted brutality and that the life of art could never be separate from the troubled life of the world drove him to a suicide attempt. And yet, like Lincoln, Lewen rose above the self-destructive impulse and turned the darkness into a motive force for action, for revising this broken and brutal world with his particular light.
He enlisted in the American Army, in a secret intelligence unit of German-speaking immigrants who were flown into Germany for the invasion of Normandy that backboned D-Day, the liberation of France, and the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. There to do translation work and to illustrate posters and pamphlets rallying the troops, Lewen walked into one of the major concentration camps the day after it was liberated and saw what had happened to countless people who looked like him, who spoke the same language and dreamt kindred dreams — saw the would-be destiny he had narrowly escaped by making it to America as a refugee.
When he returned to New York with a wounded body and a scarred soul, he spent six months recovering at the VA hospital, then poured his surviving spirit into a stirring narrative suite of fifty-five drawings titled The Parade — a wordless, intensely emotional, consummately illustrated black-and-white charcoal meditation on the grim and abiding paradox of armed antagonism: that every war appeals to some primal part of the human spirit in order to gain its destructive momentum, and every war ends up destroying what is most buoyant and beautiful in that spirit.
Einstein, who had spent the years between the two wars making an emphatic case for the interconnectedness of our fates and corresponding with Freud about violence and human nature, saw The Parade — unclear how, but very probably through the trailblazing photographer Lotte Jacobi, who was soon to exhibit them in her New York gallery. Einstein had sat for her more than a decade earlier and remained in touch.
And yet despite how stirred those who saw it were by Lewen’s work, it fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered more than half a century later and resurrected in the final year of Lewen’s life in the stunning accordion volume Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey (public library), envisioned and edited by Art Spiegelman. It opens with the letter Einstein wrote to Lewen on August 13, 1951 — his most direct and impassioned statement on the political power of art:
I find your work The Parade very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. Furthermore, I find it a real merit to counteract the tendencies towards war through the medium of art. Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art — neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion.
It has often been said that art should not be used to serve any political or otherwise practical goals. But I could never agree with this point of view.
In consonance with his contemporary and fellow humanist Anaïs Nin’s ardent case for the centrality of emotional excess in creativity — “great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” she wrote to a seventeen-year-old aspiring author whom she was mentoring — Einstein adds:
It is true that it is utterly wrong and disgusting if some direction of thought and expression is forced upon the artist from the outside. But strong emotional tendencies of the artist himself have often given birth to truly great works of art. One has only to think of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daumier’s immortal drawings directed against the corruption in French politics of his time. Our time needs you and your work!
Lewen died days before Spiegelman’s gorgeous resurrection of The Parade was published, in the politically precipitous months leading up to the 2016 American election. He never lived to see the country that had given him refuge crumble into a republic of racism and xenophobia for four years, but also never lived to see the redemption of the republic in the subsequent election of a President who, in another time and another place, would have perished in a concentration camp.
Couple with another Nobel-winning Albert, Camus, on the artist as a voice of resistance and an instrument of freedom, then revisit Adrienne Rich on the political power of poetry.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 23 Jan 2021 | 9:13 am(NZT)
I noticed them first in my neighborhood — dots of paint hovering over the grate of the storm drain in a blue-green spectrum punctuated by white. I noticed them probably because I had been writing about the wondrous science of the color blue and my brain had formed, as brains tend to, a search image for its present preoccupation.
At first I took them for mindless spray-can tests by a street artist getting ready to graffiti a nearby wall. But no surface in sight was emblazoned with these colors.
And then I started seeing them all over Brooklyn: Red Hook, Greenpoint, even the alleys of the Green-Wood Cemetery — quiet ecstasies of color amid the bleak grey-brown of winter, chromatic macaw cries in the concrete jungle, the ghost of Alma Thomas risen from the dead through the New York City sewer system.
With some stubborn sleuthing through various city agency logs, street art blogs, conspiracy theory fora, and health department reports, I discovered that they are not surreptitious art.
They are science.
They are war paint on humanity’s countenance as we combat our great eternal enemy: the mosquito.
When it rains, when the city washes the streets, water rushes into the drain along with all the debris it carries. To prevent downstream clogging, a catch basin resides just beneath the metal grate to sieve the debris before releasing the water into the drainage pipe. Mosquitos love nesting in these cozy, soggy chambers, where the air is warm enough for the females to survive the winter and where the water doesn’t freeze, so that their eggs — around 200 laid by each female mosquito — can float freely while preparing to become a bloodthirsty army that goes on replicating the 1:200 reproductive ratio ad infinitum.
Mosquitos have always plagued cities, but when the deadly West Nile virus arrived in America in 1999, landing in Queens, cities grew serious about defense. The expressionist markings indicate catch basins where the war has been waged. Modeled on the inspired pedal-powered program the City of San Francisco pioneered in 2005, the colorful dots across Brooklyn signal the particular treatment applied to that drain, with each color corresponding to one of the larvicides administered by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. (Yes, that is its name — a curious poetic inversion of the more expected syntax “department of hygiene and mental health.”)
Having devoted two hundred pages of Figuring to Rachel Carson and her epoch-making exposé of the assault on the natural world with DDT — an act of courage and resistance she paid for dearly, not living to see it awaken humanity’s ecological conscience, lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and catalyze the modern environmental movement — I was naturally keen to find out what substances the city uses to attack those curbside mosquito mansions.
When Carson published Silent Spring, the ruthless forces she had unmasked — the $800 million chemical pesticide industry, the corporate interests of Big Agriculture, and a complicit government bankrolled by them — set out to tear down this scientist of uncommon courage and competence. Their commonest line of attack, launched everywhere from the pages of Monsanto Magazine to any national station that would give them share of voice, was based on a deliberate misconstrual of the book: Employing the classic tactic of the opinion-manipulator — refuting arguments the opponent hasn’t actually made — they disregarded Carson’s explicit caveat that there are certain lifesaving uses of chemical controls in typhoid and malaria outbreaks, accusing her of advocating for a total ban on pesticides that would cost countless human lives to malaria. Some warped the facts of biochemistry so egregiously that they called her work antiscientific. The grave irony is that Carson opposed not science but the most unscientific stance there is: the arrogance of false certitude unsupported by evidence and the dangerous delusion of pretending to have answers we don’t actually have — an arrogance radiating from the indiscriminate use of DDT, with which the government was hosing down acres of forests and which agricultural airplanes were raining down upon children lunching in the schoolyard amid cornfields.
But Carson’s most visionary proposition, decades ahead of science, was the development of biological controls that would curtail the reproduction of a particular species without harming other organisms. In consonance with her vision, the City of New York uses larvicide that relies not on toxic chemicals to vanquish mosquito larvae but on rod-shaped aerobic bacteria commonly found in soil. Bacillus sphaericus and Bacillus thuringiensis produce proteins toxic to mosquitos and harmless to mammals, for we lack the enzymes to activate and digest them. But when a mosquito larva ingests the bacterium, the protein in it catalyzes the release of a digestive enzyme in the larva’s gut that binds to a particular receptor, causing mortal damage to the cell membranes.
Because this entire drama of life and death unfolds in the catch basin beneath the drain grate, both the dead larvae and the bacteria never enter the human world overground — they vanish into the ductile catacombs of the city sewer system to land at the local waste treatment plant along with all the other sewer-stuff, leaving only the colorful expressionist markings on the drain as notation of this silent symphony of science.
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
Source: Brain Pickings | 21 Jan 2021 | 3:30 pm(NZT)
When I walk — which I do every day, as basic sanity-maintenance, whether in the forest or the cemetery or the city street — I walk the same routes, walk along loops, loops I often retrace multiple times in a single walk. This puzzles people. Some simply don’t get the appeal of such recursiveness. Others judge it as dull. But I walk to think more clearly, which means to traverse the world with ever-broadening scope of attention to reality, ever-widening circles of curiosity, ever-deepening interest in the ceaselessly flickering constellation of details within and without. In this respect, walking is a lot like love — for one human being to love another is to continually discover new layers of oneself while continuously discovering new layers of the other, and in them new footholds of love.
This renders the exchange of I love you’s — that coveted contract of mutuality — a strange sort of transaction, currency encrypted with change, with the loneliness and loveliness of change: In any love worthy of the name, the I and the you are ever-changing, so that the love binding the two is ever-renewing. But perhaps the strangest and most lonely-making aspect of I love you is that it traps the boundlessness of love in the limits language, as narrow and straining a conduit of love as the crack in the wall between Pyramus and Thisbe.
Thinking about this on one of my cemetery loops, because the act of walking is also a mighty machete for clearing the pathways of memory overgrown with life, I suddenly remembered a passage by the French semiotician and philosopher Roland Barthes (November 12, 1915–March 26, 1980) from his superb 1977 part-autobiography, part-rebellion against the conventions of life and of the telling of life-stories, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (public library) — the playful, profound, blazingly original self-interrogation that gave us his existential catalogue of likes and dislikes.
A hundred pages into the book’s larger meditation on the limits of language — our primary tool for narrating our inner lives so that we can understand ourselves and be understood — Barthes writes:
Does not this whole paroxysm of love’s declaration conceal some lack? We would not need to speak this word, if it were not to obscure, as the squid does with his ink, the failure of desire under the excess of affirmation.
With an eye to the limitation of these words — of all words — as “the primary and somehow insignificant expression of a fulfillment,” Barthes adds with a conspiratorial wink:
There’s no help for it: I love you is a demand: hence it can only embarrass anyone who receives it, except the Mother — and except God!
Unless I should be justified in flinging out the phrase in the improbable but ever hoped-for case when two I love you‘s, emitted in a single flash, would form a pure coincidence, annihilating by this simultaneity the blackmail effects of one subject over the other: the demand would proceed to levitate.
All (romantic) poetry and music is in this demand: I love you, je t’aime, ich liebe dich! But if by some miracle the jubilatory answer should be given, what might it be? What is the taste of fulfillment?
But then Barthes considers “a delicate way out of the maze.” In an allusion to the Ship of Theseus — the brilliant ancient Greek thought experiment exploring what makes you you — he intimates that the only thing which makes love love is its self-renewal in the consciousness of the lover despite the self-exhausting loops of its declaration:
I decide that [the declaration of love], though I repeat and rehearse it day by day through the course of time, will somehow recover, each time I utter it, a new state. 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, gradually dialecticizing the original demand though without ever dimming the incandescence of its initial address, considering that the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.
Complement with Robert Browning — one of those rare romantic poets who rose above Barthes’s indictment — on saying I love you only when you mean it and Rainer Maria Rilke — one of those rare post-romantic poets who refused to treat romance as a transaction of conveniences — on what it really means to mean it, then revisit philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Proust-fomented litmus test for how you really know you love somebody and Adrienne Rich on earning the right to use the word love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Jan 2021 | 1:34 pm(NZT)
Blue, Rebecca Solnit wrote in one of humanity’s most beautiful reflections on our planet’s primary hue, is “the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here… the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world,” a world of many blues — a pioneering 19th-century nomenclature of colors listed eleven kinds of blue, in hues as varied as the color of the flax-flower and the throat of the blue titmouse and the stamina of a certain species of anemone. Darwin took this guide with him on The Beagle in order to better describe what he saw. We name in order to see better and apprehend only what we know how to name, how to think about.
But despite Earth’s distinction as the Solar System’s “Pale Blue Dot,” this planetary blueness is only a perceptual phenomenon arising from how our particular atmosphere, with its particular chemistry, absorbs and reflects light. Everything we behold — a ball, a bird, a planet — is the color we perceive it to be because of its insentient stubbornness toward the spectrum, because these are the wavelengths of light it refuses to absorb and instead reflects back.
In the living world beneath our red-ravenous atmosphere, blue is the rarest color: There is no naturally occurring true blue pigment in nature. In consequence, only a slender portion of plants bloom in blue and an even more negligible number of animals are bedecked with it, all having to perform various tricks with chemistry and the physics of light, some having evolved astonishing triumphs of structural geometry to render themselves blue: Each feather of the bluejay is tessellated with tiny light-reflecting beads arranged to cancel out every wavelength of light except the blue; the wings of the blue morpho butterflies — which Nabokov, in his spree of making major contributions to lepidoptery while revolutionizing literature, rightly described as “shimmering light-blue mirrors” — are covered with miniature scales ridged at the precise angle to bend light in such a way that only the blue portion of the spectrum is reflected to the eye of the beholder. Only a handful of known animals, all species of butterfly, produce pigments as close to blue as nature can get — green-tinted aquamarines the color of Uranus.
In The Blue Hour (public library), French illustrator and author Isabelle Simler offers a stunning joint celebration of these uncommon blue creatures and the common blue world they inhabit, the Pale Blue Dot we share.
The book opens with a palette of blues strewn across the endpapers — from the delicate “porcelain blue” to the boldly iconic “Klein blue” to the brooding “midnight blue” — hues that come alive in Simler’s vibrant, consummately cross-hatched illustrations of creatures and landscapes, named in spare, lyrical words. What emerges is part minimalist encyclopedia, part cinematic lullaby.
The day ends.
The night falls.
And in between…
there is the blue hour.
We meet the famed blue morpho butterfly spreading its wings against the blue morning glory, the Arctic fox traversing the icy expanse in its blue-tinted coat, the blue poison dart frogs croaking at each other across the South American forest, the silvery-blue sardines glimmering beneath the surface of the blue ocean, the blue racer snake coiled around a branch, the various blue birds silent or singing in the gloaming hour.
Given my uncommon love of snails, I was especially pleased to find the glass snail gracing this menagerie of blue-tinted living wonders.
In the final pages, as the black of night drains the blue hour from the day, all the creatures grow silent and motionless, the hint of their presence consecrating the apparition of this blue world.
Couple The Blue Hour — a large-scale splendor of paper and ink untranslatable to this small blue-reflecting screen — with Maggie Nelson’s love letter to blue, then find a kindred painted celebration of the natural world in The Lost Spells.
Illustrations by Isabelle Simler; photographs by Maria Popova
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Jan 2021 | 2:33 pm(NZT)
“Tell me nothing of rest,” the young Beethoven bellowed when he began losing his hearing, resolving to “take fate by the throat” despite his disability. A century later, another trailblazing composer of uncommon artistic ability took her own fate by the throat as she faced the same embodied disability.
As a young woman, Ethel Smyth (April 22, 1858–May 8, 1944) had weathered her father’s wrath at the clarity with which she saw music as her life and the determination with which she pursued it, animated by one of her musical heroes’ credo that “to live by music, you must live in music.” And so she lived in it and by it, against the tide of her time — bicyclist, mountaineer, golfer, always with a large dog at her side, counterculturally clad in tweed suits and men’s hats, a woman of inconvenient genius and indecorous passions, writing staggering sonatas for violin, symphonies for cello, raptures for orchestra.
Still a self-described “half-baked neophyte,” she met Brahms (who dismissed her), Clara Schumann (who inspired her), and Tchaikovsky (who — perhaps because he was raised a proto-feminist and perhaps because he sensed another queer person of talent against an even greater tide of convention — actively encouraged her to find her voice).
Having perfected her craft in Florence, Smyth made her debut as a composer of orchestral music in London’s Crystal Palace with her soulful Serenade in D. She was thirty-two. But it wasn’t until late middle age, when she was already losing her hearing, that her work finally began gaining the commensurate recognition. Her 1911 choral suite “Songs of Sunrise” became the official anthem of the suffrage movement, known as “The March of the Women.”
Across the Atlantic, The New York Times did not hesitate to scintillate with reports of Smyth arrested and accused of arson for her activism. While they published no notable reviews of her music, they ran an obtuse review of her memoir under the headline “A Militant Victorian.” In the journalistic equivalent to the posthumous Royal pardon for the gruesome mistreatment of computing pioneer Alan Turing, the paper would make belated reparations a century later.
In 1922, Smyth became the first female composer granted damehood. Half a century later, long after her death, she was granted the more substantive honor of a seat at artist Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party project.
But although by the end of her life she was as highly regarded as Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Smyth was sidelined by the collective selective memory we mistake for history and was all but forgotten within a generation — partly because, unlike other queer women of her epoch and every epochs before and many epochs since, she refused to yield to the cultural pressure to marry a man anyway, thus leaving no heirs to steward her intellectual property and artistic legacy; partly because her music was never recorded in her lifetime — something conductor James Blachly and his inspired Experiential Orchestra set out to remedy a century later in the world’s first crowdfunded symphony orchestra reanimation of a previously unrecorded piece, triumphantly earning Smyth a posthumous Grammy nomination.
Virginia Woolf was smitten with Smyth, as one artist with another, smitten with her uncommon “gift for solidifying the connection between [the composer] and the audience,” and tried to procure for her via her Bloomsbury connections the era’s most admired gramophone — the handmade acoustic E.M.G. behemoth, with its enormous papier-mâché horn. Woolf was also smitten with Smyth as a woman, writing to the seventy-three-year-old composer after returning home from a visit with her:
Look dearest Ethel…. Please live 50 years at least; for now I’ve formed this limpet childish attachment it can’t but be part of my simple anatomy for ever — wanting Ethel — I say, live, live, and let me fasten myself upon you, and fill my veins with charity and champagne.
Smyth had dedicated her 1919 autobiography to the memory of Lady Mary Ponsonby — her great love of a quarter century, who had died three years earlier and who had once been Maid of Honor to Queen Victoria. She dedicated her final memoir to Woolf.
In the last stretch of winter in 1934, a Jubilee Festival celebrated Smyth’s seventy-fifth birthday with two of her most sweeping works — the orchestral masterpiece The Prison and The Mass in D, a choral enchantment — performed at Royal Albert Hall under the benediction of the era’s most influential conductor and music impresario, Thomas Beecham, who had just co-founded the London Philharmonic and who had previously politely snubbed Smyth’s work. It was a bittersweet triumph for her — by then, she was completely deaf, unable to register how the man whose musicianship she so admired, whom the world so admired, was rendering her work.
From across the hall, Woolf observed Smyth seated next to the Queen in the Royal Box and made a heartbreaking note in her diary of how the composer leapt to her feet at the wrong moment, thinking that the National Anthem was being played.
Despite her warmhearted confidence and exuberant vitality, Smyth sorrowed at the humiliation of her deafness and was always touched by those who simply treated her as a person and not as a person-sized disability to be set aside from ordinary life and managed. After visiting her friend Violet Gordon-Woodhouse — the visionary keyboard player who became the first person to record and broadcast harpsichord music — Smyth wrote in a letter:
I can never tell you how adorable it was of you having me — and letting me feel I shouldn’t wear you out by my deafness. It touched me to the marrow. And I think of all you made possible for me… It made my heart ache to think I am cut off from what is my most overwhelming musical joy — your playing — but I won’t dwell on that. Only don’t think that because I say nothing… well, you know.
In her late seventies, writing in the final memoir As Time Went On (public domain), Smyth notes that neither she nor anyone she knows dare class themselves with Beethoven in matters of his ability or disability, but she shares in his orientation to the creative impulse beneath the physical limitation. While recognizing that what helped Beethoven soar through his deafness was that it struck him when he was “a young man and in the full tide of inspiration,” Smyth declares with a defiant buoyancy that the musician in her “won through in the end,” for inspiration lives outside the bounds of time and age:
If you are still in possession of your senses, gradually getting accustomed, as some people do, to a running accompaniment of noises in your head; if instead of shrinking from the very thought of music you suddenly become conscious of desire towards it… why, then anything may happen… and once more you begin to dream dreams.
Complement with some of humanity’s greatest writers on the power of music and the legendary cellist Pablo Casals, writing at age ninety-three, on creative vitality and how working with love prolongs your life, then revisit What Color Is The Wind? — a most unusual serenade to the senses, inspired by a blind child — and the story of how the trailblazing queer sculptor Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art a generation before Smyth.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Jan 2021 | 12:46 pm(NZT)
A century-old annual report by one of the greatest public-good institutions our civilization has produced — New York’s Cooper Union, site of the speech that bewinged Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency, alma mater to some of the most visionary artists and thinkers of the past century and a half, founded by the inspired mechanic Peter Cooper the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species — begins with this plainspoken benediction of a mission statement:
For over half a century the Cooper Union has given, in order to advance Science and Art, education to over 180,000 men and women, regardless of race or creed, without money and without price.
In 1893, moved to aid this ennobling endeavor, the wealthy widow Mary Stuart established a $10,000 annual fund — close to $300,000 today — devoted to acquiring important, scrumptiously illustrated rare books for the Cooper Union library. Among them is the world’s first comprehensive illustrated encyclopedia of shell-dwelling animals: Conchology, or, The Natural History of Shells — a work I discovered by a sidewise research trail during my tender adventures in snailhood.
Born in 1771, the English naturalist and malacologist George Perry became the era’s preeminent scholar of shell-bearing mollusks. In 1811, he published his research in this exquisite 266-page treasure, featuring sixty-two color plates of strange and wondrous creatures, illustrated by the English artist and engraver John Clarke, “executed from the natural specimens and including the latest discoveries” — the mobile homes of marine creatures turned voluptuaries of geometry and color, elaborate living urns, lavish lampshades for the palace of some sea god, miniature Hindu temples, gorgeous drag queens of the deep, otherworldly amphoras from the bottom of this spectacular world.
Perry notes how deeply and widely shells have permeated the human cultural experience over the ages — from the drinking cups used in ancient religious rituals to the purple dye extracted from a delicate Mediterranean shell of the genus Polyplex, with which the early poets produced the oldest surviving writings, to the volutes gracing the iconic capital columns of Grecian architecture, which borrow their shape from the geometry of the ram’s horn squid, the only surviving member of the genus Spirula.
In an era when the chief purpose of science was seen as a confirmation of the perfection of a Creator-god, half a century before Darwin began shattering the brittle creationist mythology of unreason with the anvil of his elegantly reasoned evolutionary revelation, Perry opens the book with a poetic sentiment reverencing the aesthetic and spiritual rewards of shells beyond their science:
The study of Shells, or testaceous animals, is a branch of natural history which, although not greatly useful to the mechanical arts, or the human economy, is, nevertheless, by the beauty of the subjects it comprises, most admirably adapted to recreate the senses, to improve the taste or invention of the Artist, and, finally and insensibly, to lead to the contemplation of the great excellence and wisdom of the Divinity in their formation.
Working with the copy digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library, I have restored and color-corrected the finest, most beautiful, most otherworldly of these visual serenades to the diverse splendor of our irreplaceable world to make them available as prints and face masks — part of the growing collection of vintage science face masks, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Complement with some psychedelic fishes from the world’s first encyclopedia of marine life in color, some candy-colored corals from the world’s first encyclopedia of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, and the astonishing butterfly drawings of two nineteenth-century Australian teenage sisters who fomented one of the greatest conservation triumphs of the twenty-first century.
Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Jan 2021 | 3:33 pm(NZT)
In the 1850s, Emily Dickinson’s passionate first love shaped her uncommon body of work for a lifetime to come, shaped the spare and searing poems that would go on animating lives for generations to come.
In the 1950s, Rai Weiss fell in love with a pianist, fell in love with his lover’s passion for music, and went on to invent the colossal instrument that captured the sound of spacetime, revolutionizing our understanding of the universe and earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics.
In 1957, after becoming the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus hastened to send his childhood teacher a tender letter of gratitude for shaping the spirit and sensibility of the boy that made the man that made the work that won humanity’s highest accolade.
With uncommon insight into these joint fomentations of heart and mind, the great Spanish-American philosopher, poet, essayist, and novelist George Santayana (December 16, 1863–September 26, 1952) takes up the question of how our sensibilities are formed in a portion of Reason in Art — the fourth volume, nestled between Reason in Religion and Reason in Science, of his five-volume 1906 masterwork The Life of Reason; or, the Phases of Human Progress (public domain | public library).
Considering the formative infrastructure of our frames of reference and our standards, our likes and dislikes, our aesthetic and moral judgments — that colossal compass of sensibility we call “taste,” by which we orient ourselves to the world, for we only ever orient by our yeas and nays — Santayana writes:
Taste is formed in those moments when aesthetic emotion is massive and distinct; preferences then grown conscious, judgments then put into words, will verbal reverberate through calmer hours; they will constitute prejudices, habits of apperception, secret standards for all other beauties. A period of life in which such intuitions have been frequent may amass tastes and ideals sufficient for the rest of our days. Youth in these matters governs maturity, and while men may develop their early impressions more systematically and find confirmations of them in various quarters, they will seldom look at the world afresh or use new categories in deciphering it. Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves. Never being so deeply stirred again, we remain persuaded that no objects save those we then discovered can have a true sublimity.
In consonance with the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s observation that “whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” and with an eye to our criteria for beauty — which apply to beauty in the broad Robinson Jeffers sense of not only aesthetic beauty but intellectual and moral beauty — Santayana adds:
It may be some eloquent appreciations read in a book, or some preference expressed by a gifted friend, that may have revealed unsuspected beauties in art or nature; and then, since our own perception was vicarious and obviously inferior in volume to that which our mentor possessed, we shall take his judgments for our criterion, since they were the source and exemplar of all our own. Thus the volume and intensity of some appreciations, especially when nothing of the kind has preceded, makes them authoritative over our subsequent judgments. On those warm moments hang all our cold systematic opinions; and while the latter fill our days and shape our careers it is only the former that are crucial and alive.
More than a century later, The Life of Reason remains an intellectual lavishment. Complement this particular fragment with Joseph Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading, W. I. B. Beveridge on the cultivation of scientific taste, and Wordsworth on the artist’s responsibility of elevating taste.
Source: Brain Pickings | 8 Jan 2021 | 6:11 am(NZT)
“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in contemplating how to live with our human fragility. The monumental challenge, however, is that of sculpting such trusting openness from the messy elemental vulnerability of being human, at times too tender to bear the world with all the uncontrollable invasions of its chaos and uncertainty, invasions that so often make us feel like we are about to shatter beyond repair.
To be a complete human being is to befriend the fear of fragility, intimate and menacing as it is — the work of a lifetime that begins in those most formative and fragile years when we first become aware of a world separate from ourselves, a world we must live in, a separateness we must live with, and somehow remain whole.
How to befriend that fear is what Italian artist and children’s book author Beatrice Alemagna explores with great allegorical deftness and tenderness in Child of Glass (public library) — a long-belated addition to the loveliest children’s books of its year.
With its undertone of magical realism, the story, translated and published in English by the indefatigable Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion, begins in a small European village, with the astonishing birth of a child of glass — a baby girl named Gisele.
With her large, lovely eyes, the luminous Gisele learns to live with her strange condition of total transparency, blending into the landscape and the city, changing color with the setting sun “and shimmering like a thousand mirrors beneath the moon.”
As word of this living marvel spreads throughout the village and beyond, people make pilgrimages from all over the world — to see her, to touch her, to ask the well-meaning, rude questions about whether her parents have insured her and how she can be patented.
But Gisele’s own deepest fear is not about the fragility of physical breakage — it is the savage vulnerability of being completely transparent, her inner world completely unprotected from the ceaseless invasions of the outer world, her thoughts and feelings, even the most disquieting anxieties and most private terrors, visible like a colossal ever-changing collage.
Here, the genius of the physical book, untranslatable to a screen, steps in to magnify the sensitivity of the story with a syncopation of translucent and solid pages. Transparencies of Gisele’s face layer different mood-states to render the composite confusion of her being (as we all are) half-opaque to herself but her also being (as we only imagine ourselves to be) wholly transparent to the world.
Alarmed by the visible darkness flitting across her mindscape as it flits invisibly through all of ours, the villagers turn on Gisele, begin scolding and shaming her. Unable to take the abuse, Gisele, “sparkling and luminous, sensitive and transparent,” packs her suitcase, kisses her goodbye parents, and leaves.
But wherever she goes, carrying her fragile transparency and the unbearable cargo of the attendant vulnerability, she encounters the same.
Eventually, she realizes that her only salvation lies not in changing the world’s orientation to her but in changing her own orientation to her condition, which in turn changes her interchange with the world.
The story resolves in a soulful reminder that there is no cure for our fragility — there is only the courage of not merely living with it but embracing it as a wellspring of the tenderness that makes life worth living.
Couple Child of Glass, the touching and tactile loveliness of which the screen only diminishes, with Alemagna’s wondrous illustrated celebration of the rewards of nature and solitude in the age of screens, then revisit her visual serenade to the joy of reading accompanying Adam Gopnik’s letter to children in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Illustration by Beatrice Alemagna courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova
Source: Brain Pickings | 7 Jan 2021 | 7:20 am(NZT)
Thinking lately about what it means to have the right heart, which intimates the question of what it means to tend to one’s own heart rightly, I was reminded of a passage from what may be the loveliest, truest, most quietly transcendent thing ever written about the art of growing older: “The main thing is this,” Grace Paley wrote in 1989, “when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”
I was reminded, too, of a kindred passage penned two years earlier by another titan of thought and feeling in language: Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019), writing in her 1987 masterpiece Beloved (public library) — the novel that soon made her the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize, which she received with a speech of staggering insight into the human heart.
From within the story’s broader meditation on the deepest meaning of freedom and the body as the locus of liberation, Morrison unspools this splendid sentiment from the lips of her protagonist:
In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.
A century after Walt Whitman declaimed in Leaves of Grass that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul,” composing his reverent catalogue of body-parts — “head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears… mouth, tongue, lips, teeth… strong shoulders… bowels sweet and clean… brain in its folds inside the skull-frame… heart-valves…” — Morrison writes:
Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face… Love your mouth… This is flesh… Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms… Love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts… love your heart. For this is the prize.
Beloved remains the rare sort of masterpiece that gives the English language back to itself and your conscience back to itself. Complement this particular fragment with , then revisit Morrison on literature as rebellion and redemption, wisdom in the age of information, the artist’s task in trying times, and the little-known, lovely children’s book about kindness she wrote with her son.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Jan 2021 | 6:04 am(NZT)
Great children’s books move young hearts, yes, but they also move the great common heart that beats in the chest of humanity by articulating in the language of children, which is the language of simplicity and absolute sincerity, the elemental truths of being: what it means to love, what it means to be mortal, what it means to live with our fragilities and our frissons. As such, children’s books are miniature works of philosophy, works of wonder and wonderment that bypass our ordinary resistances and our cerebral modes of understanding, entering the backdoor of consciousness with their soft, surefooted gait to remind us who and what we are.
This is something I have always believed, and so I have always turned to children’s books — classics like The Little Prince, which I reread once a year every year for basic soul-maintenance, and modern masterpieces like Cry, Heart, But Never Break — as mighty instruments of existential calibration. But I never thought I would write one.
And then I did: The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story (public library) is a labor of love three years in the making, illustrated by the uncommonly talented and sensitive Ping Zhu, whom I asked for the honor after she staggered me with the painting that became the cover of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
While the story is inspired by a beloved young human in my own life, who is living with the same rare and wondrous variation of body as the real-life mollusk protagonist, it is a larger story about science and the poetry of existence, about time and chance, genetics and gender, love and death, evolution and infinity — concepts often too abstract for the human mind to fathom, often more accessible to the young imagination; concepts made fathomable in the concrete, finite life of one tiny, unusual creature dwelling in a pile of compost amid an English garden.
At the heart of the story, excerpted below, is an invitation not to mistake difference for defect and to recognize, across the accordion scales of time and space, diversity as nature’s fulcrum of resilience and wellspring of beauty.
Long ago, before half the stars that speckle the sky were born and before the mountains rose reaching for them, a giant ocean covered the Earth. One day, something strange happened in the giant ocean — a change so mysterious and magnificent that it was given a special name: mutation.
From this mutation, life was born from non-life: The first living creatures — tinier than a grain of sand, tinier than the tip of the eyelash of a mouse — came into being.
Time tended to them kindly —
they grew bigger and bigger,
curiouser and curiouser.
Soon — which in cosmic time means millions and millions of years — they crawled out of the ocean and onto the land. Not knowing whether they would find a home there, some of these brave early explorers carried their homes on their backs.
And so snails took to the Earth.
Soon — more millions and millions of years later — humans were walking the Earth alongside them.
One autumn afternoon a cosmic blink ago, a human — a retired scientist from the London’s Natural History Museum — stopped mid-stride on his walk when he noticed a most unusual garden snail in a pile of compost. It was smaller than the other snails. Its shell was darker than theirs. One of its tentacles had trouble unspooling. And because the snail’s tentacles are both its fingers and its eyes, this little snail didn’t feel and see the world the way most snails do.
But the strangest thing was something else still: The spiral of its shell coiled in the opposite direction from other snails — it spiraled left instead of right, the same direction the Earth crawls around the Sun.
The old man picked up the little snail tenderly and marveled at it.
It just so happened (isn’t chance lovely?) that a few days earlier, he had heard on the radio an interview with a snail researcher from an important university. Doctor Angus Davidson was his name. So he decided to send this unusual little snail to Doctor Angus’s laboratory. Maybe its strangeness held some beautiful secret waiting to be unlocked.
Carefully, the elderly scientist packed the little snail into a cozy box and sent it on its way.
When it arrived at the famous snail laboratory, Doctor Angus named it Jeremy, after the English politician Jeremy Corbyn. (Grownups believe that this big round world has sides, so they divide their politics into left and right, like shoes or gloves. Because Jeremy Corbyn belongs to the left, Doctor Angus thought it would be funny to name the little lefty snail after him.)
But although Jeremy the snail was given a boy name, Jeremy the snail was neither a he nor a she — Jeremy, like all land snails, was both.
Jeremy was a they.
One of the wonders of snails is that they can make babies without a mate, because every snail has a body that is both male and female. Such a wondrous body is called a hermaphrodite.
If a hermaphrodite makes babies alone, they are almost exactly like their parent. But when two parents make a baby together, the baby is partly like each of them.
And because diversity is always lovelier than sameness, and because it makes communities stronger and better able to adapt to change, snails prefer to make babies in pairs.
This is how it happens: When a snail finds a partner, the two face each other, gently touching their tentacles together to feel if they like each other. And if they do, they glide their bodies alongside one another in a slow double embrace, until their baby-making parts fit together like puzzle pieces. Then, they gently pierce each other with tiny spears called “love darts,” which contain their genes — the building blocks of bodies.
Genes are like tiny seeds your parents plant in the garden that becomes your body — your special combination of seeds is what makes you you, what makes your body-garden unlike anyone else’s. Genes are how life talks to the future. Your genes decide things like how tall you grow, what color your eyes are, and how your thumbs are shaped.
Many of your gene-seeds come abloom in your own body-garden — you get to see, to be the flowers they become. But not every one of your seeds will bloom — some only sprout when they are near other seeds just like them. These shy seeds may lay dormant in the soil and only bloom in generations of gardens down the line — in your children, or your children’s children, or your children’s children’s children. Those seeds are called recessive genes.
Jeremy was so unusual because in their body, a rare recessive gene came abloom — one of Jeremy’s great-great-grand-parents must have passed this dormant seed on, until it awakened to make Jeremy’s shell coil in the opposite direction.
Jeremy’s shell was just the most obvious expression of that mutation, but the entire soft body hidden inside was also a mirror-image of almost every other snail’s body — a condition known as situs inversus, Latin for “inverted internal organs.”
In his twenty years of working with snails, Doctor Angus had never before seen a lefty. He believes that situs inversus is rarer than one in 10,000, probably one in 100,000, possibly even one in a million.
Some humans, too, have such wondrous mirror-image bodies — it is just as rare in us as it is in snails. If you had situs inversus, your heart would be on the right side — which is the wrong side, because almost everyone’s heart is on the left side.
Jeremy’s heart was also on the right-wrong side, as were all his vital body parts — which meant that Jeremy could only do the double-embrace dance with another snail with situs inversus, or else the puzzle pieces wouldn’t fit together to make baby snails.
Life can be lonesome when your mate is one in a million. And Doctor Angus didn’t want Jeremy to be lonesome. He also knew that if Jeremy had babies with another lefty snail, scientists could study this very rare gene and better understand situs inversus not only in snails, but in humans.
So, he went on the radio again and made an appeal to the whole world to help find Jeremy a lefty mate.
Moved by Jeremy’s story, people far and wide got on their knees amid gardens and grasslands and compost piles, determined to find Jeremy’s inverted puzzle piece. Within weeks, not one but two potential mates were found — one by a young Englishwoman who kept snails as pets, and another by a snail farmer in Spain.
The whole round world rejoiced when Lefty, the English snail, and Tomeu, the Spanish snail, were sent to Doctor Angus’s lab to meet Jeremy.
But — that three-letter twist of fate that can so instantly take the trajectory of any story, any expectation, any life and coil it in the opposite direction.
Before the watercolor sun sets beneath the endpapers, the story ends the same way life lives itself through us — unpredictable, heartbreaking, and redemptive, forever planting dormant seeds to come abloom in some future garden, maybe tomorrow, maybe long after the stars that speckle this sky are gone and new stars are born to shine upon new hearts beating to the same primeval pulse-beat of cosmic chance.
The Snail with the Right Heart, out on February 2, came alive thanks to the invaluable stewardship of my longtime friend, neighbor, and collaborator Claudia Zoe Bedrick — the one-woman powerhouse behind Brooklyn-based independent children’s publisher Enchanted Lion.
I have chosen to donate all my author’s proceeds from the book to the Children’s Heart Foundation, whose quarter-century devotion to funding research and scientific collaborations is shedding light on congenital heart conditions to help young humans with unusual hearts live longer, wider lives.
Special thanks to my biologist pal Joe Hanson for assaying the solidity of the science, to my former partner and darling friend Debbie Millman for hand-lettering the cover text, and to the fine journalists at The Guardian for reporting the true story on which this labor of love is based.
Illustrations by Ping Zhu courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; story and page photographs by Maria Popova
Source: Brain Pickings | 3 Jan 2021 | 7:03 am(NZT)
What is it about the human animal that impels us to interrupt the elemental elegance and perpetual incompleteness of a perfect ellipse with an arbitrary point we call a beginning? And yet here we are, once every three hundred and sixty-some days, marking the start of a new year as gravity — a force outside time and outside space, acting instantaneously on each body across limitless distances, holding the universe together — goes on dragging our planet around an orbit with no beginning and no end. Here we are, childlike in our yearning for a fresh start, our future a thing with feathers perching on that arbitrary point in the ellipse.
Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was sixteen and already in university when she glimpsed Andromeda for the first time and was instantly besotted by our sister galaxy’s “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.” The daughter of a geologist, she had grown up exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake and becoming a penetrating, sensitive observer of nature, enchanted with the night sky of northern Canada and its bellowing intimation of an infinite universe, dark and mysterious and salted with wonders. By twenty-six, having completed her doctorate in astronomy at Newton’s hallowed ground in Cambridge, Elson received a fellowship to work with the first data from the Hubble Space Telescope at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s hallowed ground.
At twenty-nine, just as she began teaching creative writing at Harvard, stepping publicly into the private literary passion that had always buoyed her science, Elson’s blazing path of promise and possibility was dimmed by a terminal diagnosis — a rare form of lymphoma that typically afflicts the elderly. Full of life and full of wonder, she moved through the years of chemical brutality, remission, and more brutality by weaving her own parallel lifelines: She continued studying how stars are born, live, and die, and she wrote poetry — spare, stunning poems tessellating the grandest search for cosmic truth with the most humbling human search for meaning.
When she returned her borrowed stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, she left in her meteoric path 56 scientific papers and a slender, sublime book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — a reliquary of such uncommon treasures as her “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” “Explaining Relativity,” and “Theories of Everything.”
Among these delicate wisps of sensemaking is a meditation on the meaning of New Year’s Eve — on how we hold on to our tenderest humanity against the elemental austerity of this arbitrary point in our planet’s orbit. Composed at a time when Elson knew her store of new years had run out, the poem reverberates with a love of life larger than her own existence.
FUTURA VECCHIA, NEW YEAR’S EVE
by Rebecca Elson
Returning, like the Earth
To the same point in space,
We go softly to the comfort of destruction,
And consume in flames
A school of fish,
A pair of hens,
A mountain poplar with its moss.
A shiver of sparks sweeps round
The dark shoulder of the Earth,
Frisson of recognition,
Preparation for another voyage,
And our own gentle bubbles
Float curious and mute
Towards the black lake
Boiling with light,
Towards the sharp night
Whistling with sound.
For more symphonic affirmations of life and reality at the meeting point of poetry and science, lose yourself in the Universe in Verse archives.
Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Jan 2021 | 6:43 am(NZT)
Like every year, this annual glance over the shoulder of time is a composite of the essays that most resonated with readers and those I most enjoyed writing, the overlap being always significant but always the Venn diagram of a partial eclipse rather than a perfect totality.
Even more so than other years, in this particularly trying year, it has been curious to observe the patterns that emerge across those ideas, themes, and regions of being that most sustain us in times of crisis: love, trees, poetry, creativity, the stubborn insistence on life in the face of loss, the constancy of nature’s consolations, the revivifying passion to go on making, go on loving, go on living.
Read it here.
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Read it here.
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Complement with the year’s most nourishing books.
Source: Brain Pickings | 30 Dec 2020 | 8:58 am(NZT)
In the bleak winter of 1922, a “hurricane of the spirit” swept the ailing and downtrodden Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) into a rapture of creative vitality. Within a week, he had written his now-iconic Sonnets to Orpheus and completed the suite of ten elegies he had begun a decade earlier amid hollowing loneliness, alienation, poverty, and despair. “I didn’t know that such a storm out of mind and heart could come over a person!” the poet wrote to his publisher in an ecstasy of disbelief, not knowing that he had just composed one of the profoundest and most beautiful works in the poetry of feeling and the poetry of truth — a breakthrough translator Stephen Mitchell calls “the most astonishing burst of inspiration in the history of literature” in his introduction to the bilingual classic Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus (public library).
What makes Rilke’s elegies so powerful is the way he takes our elemental human sorrow — the sorrow of living as refugees from reality, of being what he calls “the knowing animals,” creatures “aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world” — and transmutes it not only into a gladsome acceptance of our limitations, but into a celebration of our capacity for self-transcendence and majesty of mind within those limitations. And so, with his lush verses branching into myriad vectors of possibility, he builds a timeless bower for our dwelling amid the dispossession of this interpreted world.
A century after Rilke, at the fourth annual Universe in Verse (now available as a limited-time weeklong hurricane of a rebroadcast in its entirety through January 1), the poetic astrophysicist and World Science Festival creator Brian Greene read an excerpt from the most poignant of Rilke’s elegies, translated by A.S. Kline — an English mathematician with a literary ardor and a gift for language, creator of the excellent open-access project Poetry in Translation.
Greene — who thinks deeply about science, mortality, and our search for meaning and has explored these questions with uncommon nuance in one of the year’s finest books — prefaced his reading with a beautiful reflection on how our limitation as ephemeral creatures fuels our passion for finding the eternal truths of nature so that we may feel more at home in the universe and in ourselves.
from “THE NINTH ELEGY”
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Why, if it could begin as laurel, and be spent so,
this space of Being, a little darker than all
the surrounding green, with little waves at the edge
of every leaf (like a breeze’s smile)—: why then
have to be human — and shunning destiny
long for destiny?…
Oh, not because happiness exists,
that over-hasty profit from imminent loss,
not out of curiosity, or to practice the heart,
which could exist in the laurel…
But because being here is much, and because all
that’s here seems to need us, the ephemeral, that
strangely concerns us. We: the most ephemeral. Once,
for each thing, only once. Once, and no more. And we too,
once. Never again. But this
once, to have been, though only once,
to have been an earthly thing — seems irrevocable.
Earth, is it not this that you want: to rise
invisibly in us? — Is that not your dream,
to be invisible, one day? — Earth! Invisible!
What is your urgent command if not transformation?
Earth, beloved, I will. O, believe me, you need
no more Spring-times to win me: only one,
ah, one, is already more than my blood can stand.
Namelessly, I have been truly yours, from the first.
You were always right, and your most sacred inspiration
is that familiar Death.
See I live. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows less… Excess of being
wells up in my heart.
For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astronomer Natalie Batalha’s reading of and reflection on Dylan Thomas’s ode to the limitation and wonder of being human, Patti Smith’s reading of Emily Dickinson’s serenade to the science and splendor of how the world holds together, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of and reflection on the staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, then revisit Rilke on the combinatorial nature of creativity, the lonely patience of creative work, and the most difficult art in love.
Source: Brain Pickings | 26 Dec 2020 | 2:34 pm(NZT)
Some years ago, at a gathering exploring our human search for meaning through a kaleidoscope of perspectives in the middle of the redwoods, I sat down for a conversation with an astronomer I had just met, who was about to become one of my dearest friends. Backstage, the bond became instantly clear as we each arrived giddy to surprise the other with an homage to the nexus of our worlds — we had both realized that it was the anniversary of the discovery of Pluto (both suspecting the other would not have); we had both endeavored to honor the occasion with a poem (both suspecting this might impress the other); we had both chosen the same poem: “Pluto” from Diane Ackerman’s forgotten treasure The Planets — a suite of breathtakingly beautiful, scientifically accurate poems celebrating the Solar System, which awed Ackerman’s doctoral advisor, one Carl Sagan.
We laughed rapturously, hugged amply, then stepped onstage for our public conversation, which inevitably turned to the question of spirituality — a term I have regarded with growing unease over the years, watching it become increasingly sullied with the dangerous antiscientific neo-mysticism of New Age ideologies. Asked about my own orientation to spirituality, I thought about the only two things that have always reliably given me the feeling of sublimity and transcendence, which religion promises: music and nature. I thought about Walt Whitman, this poet laureate of the natural world who might be the closest thing I have to a guiding spirit — about how he considered music the profoundest expression of nature, but only an expression of that largest reliquary of transcendence. I thought about the redwood cathedral near the auditorium — about how appropriate it is to call this living temple of time a “cathedral.”
I am thinking now about Ackerman herself — a poet who believes that “wonder is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart, [for] even a tiny piece of it can stop time”; a writer of dazzling prose about the science of nature, who rises to the rare level of enchanter — and about how she explores this very notion in a passage from her altogether wondrous book An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain (public library). Having subtitled her suite of poems for the planets A Cosmic Pastoral, Ackerman makes a bold case for reclaiming the reverence of nature and the language of wonder from the vocabulary of religion:
People often use religious terminology when they speak of the spiritual or transcendent. Our yearning to find whole-ness as holiness, and at-one-ment as atonement, fills a need ancient and essential as air. Because English vocabulary offers few ways to describe religious events, except in churchly terms, I often resort to such words as sacred, grace, reverence, worship, holy, sanctity, and benediction, which I cherish as powerful feelings, moods, and ideas. I’m an Earth ecstatic, and my creed is simple: All life is sacred, life loves life, and we are capable of improving our behavior toward one another. As basic as that is, for me it’s also tonic and deeply spiritual, glorifying the smallest life-form and embracing the most distant stars.
Ackerman elaborates on this lifelong conviction in her conversation with conservationist and science writer Connie Barlow, woven throughout Barlow’s Green Space, Green Time: The Way of Science (public library). Half a century after the poetic scientist Rachel Carson observed that “our origins are of the earth… so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Ackerman considers the restive swell of need in the modern breast — the need for a conviction that something larger than ourselves matters and that we finite creatures, “the small bipeds with the giant dreams,” can not only partake of its sanctity but steward it with our own actions. In a sentiment evocative of Denise Levertov’s splendid poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” Ackerman reflects:
There’s a terrible hollowness, an emptiness at the core of society right now that comes from our trying to exile ourselves farther and farther from nature. Nature is something that most people visit on weekends. Yet we evolved to be intimately tied to nature, to feel whole and natural when we belong to nature, and to respond to that ever-changing fantasia of the seasons. The harder that we try to deny that heritage, the more alienated we become.
With an eye to the root of the word holy — which shares its root with whole and has its Indo-European origins in the notion of the interleaving of all things — she tells Barlow:
I have no trouble using a word like holy to describe a place in the wilderness where I might feel an intimate relationship with the cosmos.
Ackerman hastens to temper this with something that has long troubled me, too, in the orientation of certain writers and thinkers in the spirituality industry — for it is very much an industry of marketable ideology — who eagerly appropriate fragments of science to illustrate certain beliefs, but stop at the threshold of the larger reality, before the fragments cohere into a fuller context that threatens those beliefs with incompatible evidence. Ackerman tells Barlow:
Liberal religious authors I encounter often show gratitude to science for providing not so much answers as more and more mystery. These authors revel in an enchantment with mystery and find much of their spirituality there. But at the same time I detect an underlying reluctance to be fully and completely open to everything that science may reveal. There’s a worry that some answers science might produce could bring spiritual discomfort.
Ackerman contrasts this orientation with her own “ecological spiritualism” and revisits the deep fulfillment of her “personal religion” as an “Earth ecstatic”:
I believe in the sanctity of life [in the ecological sense] and the perfectibility of people. I believe we should regard all life forms with dignity, respect, affectionate curiosity, and the kind of protectiveness family members feel for one another.
Complement with Lucille Clifton’s spare and sublime ode to the interconnection and dignity of all life (found in one of the finest books this year) and Mary Shelley on what gives meaning to our lives when all else crumbles, then revisit Ackerman on the evolutionary and existential purpose of play and the secret life of the senses.
Source: Brain Pickings | 24 Dec 2020 | 3:24 pm(NZT)
I have moved through this fourteenth year of Brain Pickings — a devastating year for the world we share, a discomposing year for my private world — by leaning on the writings and wisdom of the long-gone for succor, for calibration of perspective, for the beauty that makes life livable. Of the few books published this year that I did read — many fewer than ordinary years — here are twenty I trust would furnish such splendor and succor for generations to come. Think of the selection not as a hierarchy but as a bookshelf, organized by an internal logic that need not make sense to anyone outside the home and the mind in which the bookshelf is suspended.
I am not and have never been a reviewer of books — a person who surveys the landscape of literature with the goal of evaluating its features. I am and have always been a solitary sojourner who relishes curious excursions hither and thither, guided by a thoroughly subjective inner compass, wandering the wilderness of words by pleasant deviations from the common trail.
These are my footsteps.
Reading Zadie Smith is always a rapture, but it has been especially rapturous to press the mind’s ear to her Intimations (public library) this year — a slender collection of six symphonic essays spanning love, death, justice, creativity, identity — everything worth thinking about and writing about, everything we live with and live for.
The book was inspired by Smith’s first encounter with Marcus Aurelius’s classic Meditations, on which she leaned to steady herself in these staggering times but which failed to make of her a Stoic, driving her, as the world’s gaps and failings drive us restive makers, to make what meets the unmet need — a contemporary counterpart to these ancient private meditations of timeless public resonance. (We cannot, we must not, after all, expect a white male monarch — however penetrating his insight into human nature, whatever the similitudes of that elemental nature across cultures and civilizations — to speak for and to all of humanity across all of time.)
In the laconic foreword, Smith reflects on the essential insight the Meditations gave her in failing to give her practical succor:
Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.
These intimations she lets us overhear are blazing evidence that every artist’s art is their coping mechanism, their floatation device for the slipstream of uncertainty we call life — evidence that a great artist makes of it a raft large enough to fit more of us, robust enough to carry us across the cascades of time and understanding.
For a taste of the book, all the author’s proceeds from which go toward the Equal Justice Initiative and New York’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund, here is Smith on love, habit, and creativity.
Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life (public library) by Radiolab alum and Invisibilia co-creator Lulu Miller is a surprising book, an unclassifiable book — my kind of book. It appears to be, and to an impressive scholarly extent is, about David Starr Jordan — the founder of Stanford University, a brilliant ichthyologist and a deluded eugenicist. But while his strange and cautionary story backbones the book, it is ribbed with larger ideas: questions about the vain and touchingly human impulse to manufacture order out of elemental chaos, about the colossal blind spots that plague even the greatest visionaries, about the limiting yet necessary artifice of categories by which we attempt to navigate a world of continua and indivisibilia, about our pursuit of timeless truth against the backdrop of our own inevitable and heartbreaking temporality.
Miller writes in the splendid prose-poem of an introduction:
Picture the person you love the most. Picture them sitting on the couch, eating cereal, ranting about something totally charming, like how it bothers them when people sign their emails with a single initial instead of taking those four extra keystrokes to just finish the job —
Chaos will get them.
Chaos will crack them from the outside — with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet — or unravel them from the inside, with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories, topple your favorite cities, wreck any sanctuary you can ever build.
It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world. The master that rules us all. My scientist father taught me early that there is no escaping the Second Law of Thermodynamics: entropy is only growing; it can never be diminished, no matter what we do.
A smart human accepts this truth.
A smart human does not try to fight it. But one spring day in 1906, a tall American man with a walrus mustache dared to challenge our master.
His name was David Starr Jordan, and in many ways, it was his day job to fight Chaos. He was a taxonomist, the kind of scientist charged with bringing order to the Chaos of the earth by uncovering the shape of the great tree of life — that branching map said to reveal how all plants and animals are interconnected. His specialty was fish, and he spent his days sailing the globe in search of new species. New clues that he hoped would reveal more about nature’s hidden blueprint.
The dazzling scientific story — the story of why the very notion of fish as a category of creature is entirely invented, uncorroborated by nature — becomes a lens for questioning the broader binaries we have accepted as givens, as fundaments of nature rather than the human artifacts that they are. It becomes the framework for a tender personal story, part meditation and part memoir — an elegy for Miller’s father and everything he taught her about navigating the world, a reckoning with the dangerous detours she took in navigating her own heart, a love letter to its unexpected port in the woman who became her wife.
This is the precarious balance of a thriving society: exposing the fissures and fractures of democracy, but then, rather than letting them gape into abysses of cynicism, sealing them with the magma of lucid idealism that names the alternatives and, in naming them, equips the entire supercontinent of culture with a cartography of action. “Words have more power than any one can guess; it is by words that the world’s great fight, now in these civilized times, is carried on,” Mary Shelley wrote as she championed the courage to speak up against injustice two hundred years ago, amid a world that commended itself for being civilized while barring people like Shelley from access to education, occupation, and myriad other civil dignities on account of their chromosomes, and barring people just a few shades darker than her from just about every human right on account of their melanin.
Shelley laced her novels with the exquisite prose-poetry of conviction, of vision that saw far beyond the horizons of her time and carried generations along the vector of that vision to shift the status quo into new frontiers of possibility. A century and a half after her, Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) — another woman of uncommon courage of conviction and potency of vision — expanded another horizon of possibility by the power of her words and her meteoric life. Lorde was a poet in both the literal sense at its most stunning and the largest, Baldwinian sense — “The poets (by which I mean all artists),” wrote her contemporary and coworker in the kingdom of culture James Baldwin, “are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t… Only poets.” Lorde understood the power of poetry — the power of words mortised into meaning and tenoned into truth, truth about who we are and who we are capable of being — and she wielded that power to pivot an imperfect world closer to its highest potential.Nowhere does that potency of understanding live with more focused force than in her 1977 manifesto of an essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” which opens The Selected Works of Audre Lorde (public library) — the excellent collection of poetry and prose, edited and with a foreword by the unstoppable Roxane Gay.
Lorde, who resolved to live her life as a burst of light as she faced her death, and so lived it, writes:
The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.
With an eye to how poetry uniquely anneals us by bringing us into intimate contact with those parts of ourselves we least understand and therefore most fear, Lorde adds:
As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.
For more from the book, see Lorde on the courage to feel as an antidote to fear.
“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his classic 119-page essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else… is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.”
Sometimes, life asks this question not as a thought experiment but as a gauntlet hurled with the raw brutality of living.
That selfsame year, the young Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997) was taken to Auschwitz along with more than a million human beings robbed of the basic right to answer this question for themselves, instead deemed unworthy of living. Some survived by reading. Some through humor. Some by pure chance. Most did not. Frankl lost his mother, his father, and his brother to the mass murder in the concentration camps. His own life was spared by the tightly braided lifeline of chance, choice, and character.
A mere eleven months after surviving the unsurvivable, Frankl took up the elemental question at the heart of Camus’s philosophical parable in a set of lectures, which he himself edited into a slim, potent book published in Germany in 1946, just as he was completing Man’s Search for Meaning.
As our collective memory always tends toward amnesia and erasure — especially of periods scarred by civilizational shame — these existential infusions of sanity and lucid buoyancy fell out of print and were soon forgotten. Eventually rediscovered — as is also the tendency of our collective memory when the present fails us and we must lean for succor on the life-tested wisdom of the past — they are now published in English for the first time as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library).
In a sentiment that bellows from the hallways of history into the great vaulted temple of timeless truth, he writes:
Everything depends on the individual human being, regardless of how small a number of like-minded people there is, and everything depends on each person, through action and not mere words, creatively making the meaning of life a reality in his or her own being.
Read more here.
It is not often that one encounters a great love letter to a great love, composed by someone outside the private world of that love, serenading it across the spacetime of epochs and experiences. In my many years of dwelling in the lives and loves and letters of beloved artists, scientists, and writers, I have encountered none more splendid than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated (public library) by Maira Kalman — an artist who uses her paintbrush the way Stein used her pen, as the instrument of an imagination tilted pleasantly askance from the plane of common thought.
Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, when she was fifty-nine and Alice fifty-six. She had written it at an astonishing pace the previous autumn. Like Alice disguised her memoir of their love as a cookbook, Gertrude disguised hers as an “autobiography” of the beloved under the lover’s byline. It wasn’t, of course, Alice’s autobiography, or even her biography — rather, it was the biography of their love, of early-twentieth-century Paris, of the community of visionary artists and writers who orbited the couple and who came to be known as the Lost Generation — a term Gertrude Stein coined — as they found themselves, in every sense of the term, at Alice and Gertrude’s salons.
The book begins, naturally, not at Alice’s birth but at her fateful first encounter with Gertrude and her coral brooch the day Alice, thirty-three, arrived in Paris as an American expatriate — a moment she eventually recounted in such deeply felt detail on the pages of her slender actual autobiography, animated by a bereavement that never left her in the twenty “empty” years by which she outlived the love of her life.
Kalman introduces the book with her spare and singular poetics:
Alice met Gertrude.
Gertrude met Alice.
Gertrude with her big body.
Alice, a little bird
with a mustache.
And that was that.
A coup de foudre
as we say.
Gertrude wrote this book of
through Alice’s eyes.
And here it is (happily)
to illustrate how it was.
Savor more here.
“I see that the elementary laws never apologize,” Walt Whitman wrote in the golden age of observational astronomy. “The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place” — an astonishing sentiment by a rare seer who bent his gaze half a century beyond his era’s horizons of knowledge. Not long after Whitman’s death, the mind outpaced the eye to see, not with a telescope but with mathematics, those “dark suns” — those cinches in the basic fabric of reality that confound space, confound time, and confirm Whitman’s augury that “the celestial laws are yet to be work’d over and rectified.”
Denied and derided for decades by some of the most titanic minds of the century, black holes began as a mathematical reckoning — tentative, treacherous, transcendent. Suddenly, reality was broken and reality was beautiful.
The immense ripples of that reckoning are what astrophysicist Janna Levin explores in Black Hole Survival Guide (public library), dappled with gorgeous ghostly paintings by artist and fellow Whitman celebrator Lia Halloran — a poetic primer on relativity, pocket-sized like the second edition of Leaves of Grass, which Whitman redesigned to be carried on the breast and in which he declared that “the known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet.”
The cheeky title — we learn quickly that nothing can escape a black hole except the black hole itself, slipping out of the very reality its existence warps — is soon revealed as a clever conceit, a Trojan horse for some serious, scrumptious science that bends our basic assumptions. What emerges is a lyrical and authoritative story of strangeness as a portal to truth, tracing how black holes went from “the unwanted product of the plasticity of space and time, grotesque and extreme deformations, grim instabilities” to “a laboratory for the exploration of the farthest reaches of the mind,” things that are no-things and in their non-thingness “undermine notions of reality, but ameliorate the pain with a mind-searing vision of nature.”
Black holes are so magnetic largely because they defy our animal intuitions about reality, about the everythingness of everything. She writes:
When in pursuit of a black hole, you are not looking for a material object. A black hole can masquerade as an object, but it is really a place, a place in space and time. Better: a black hole is a spacetime.
Shed the impression of the black hole as a dense crush of matter. Accept the black hole as a bare event horizon, a curved empty spacetime, a sparse vacuity… A glorious void, an empty venue, an extreme, spare stage, markedly austere but, yes, able to support big drama when the stage is occupied. Black holes are a place in space and they barricade their secrets.
Undergirding the century-long quest to unravel those secrets is a testament to the fundaments of creativity — a celebration of deliberate constraint as the fulcrum of revolutions. In a sentiment evocative of the last line in the late, great astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s gorgeous poem “Explaining Relativity,” she writes:
The limits are the scaffolding enabling creativity. Limits can be worthy adversaries that galvanize our best, most inventive, most agile natures.
Radiating from this lyrical odyssey of science, from this savage passion for understanding, is the subtle and stubborn insistence that the elementary laws are not something separate from us, are not alluring abstractions, are not playthings of the mind, but are the making and unmaking of us sensecrafting creatures — creatures that cohered from particles that cohered into molecules that cohered into minds capable of parsing information, capable of wresting from it conjectures about the elementary laws, capable of writing poems and postulates about the nature of reality and our place in it. That we think, and how we think, is our only means of survival.
When the Voyager sailed into the unknown to take its pioneering photographic survey of our cosmic neighborhood, Carl Sagan petitioned NASA to indulge his inspired, entirely unscientific, entirely poetic idea of turning the spacecraft’s cameras back on Earth from the outer edges of the Solar System. That grainy, transcendent photograph of our “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” became the central poetic image of his now-iconic Pale Blue Dot meditation on our cosmic place and destiny, which in turn inspired Maya Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth” — the staggering poem that flew to space aboard the Orion spacecraft, inviting a fractured humanity to reach beyond our divisive ideologies and see ourselves afresh “on this small and drifting planet,” to face our capacities and contradictions, and finally see that “we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.”
A generation later, this spirit comes ablaze anew in If You Come to Earth (public library) by Sophie Blackall — one of the most beloved picture-book makers of our time and one of those rare artists, so few in any given generation, whose work of great talent and great tenderness is bound to be cherished for epochs to come.
Told in the form of a letter from a child to an alien visitor — a particular child named Quinn, whom Sophie met while traveling around the world with UNICEF and Save the Children, and whose uncommon imagination fomented hers — the story is populated by drawings of other real-life children she met on her travels in India, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a particular class of twenty-three kids she befriended in a Brooklyn public school, and her own real-life friends and neighbors. Animated by the children’s wild, wondrous, touching ideas about the most important things to communicate about our improbable, miraculous world to a visitor from another, the book radiates the spirit of the Voyager’s Golden Record — a poetic capsule of humanism and collaborative meaning-making, the true purpose of which is not to encode for some interstellar other but to decode for us who and what we are.
See more here.
The poetry of Jane Hirshfield — a poet of optimism and of lucidity, a champion of science and an ordained Buddhist, a poet who could write “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance,” a poet who can balance and steady us against those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another” — has salved and saved my life again and again across many seasons and epochs of being. Her collection Ledger (public library) has been nothing less than a lifeline this year.
For a taste, here is Hirshfield reading one of the poems from the book, “Today, Another Universe,” at the 2020 Universe in Verse:
TODAY, ANOTHER UNIVERSE
by Jane Hirshfield
The arborist has determined:
senescence beetles canker
quickened by drought
but in any case
not prunable not treatable not to be propped.
The branch from which the sharp-shinned hawks and their mate-cries.
The trunk where the ant.
The red squirrels’ eighty-foot playground.
The bark cambium pine-sap cluster of needles.
The Japanese patterns the ink-net.
The dapple on certain fish.
Today, for some, a universe will vanish.
then just another silence.
The silence of after, once the theater has emptied.
Of bewilderment after the glacier,
the species, the star.
Something else, in the scale of quickening things,
will replace it,
this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.
Five years after H Is for Hawk, which was among my favorite books of its year and remains among my favorite books of all years, Helen Macdonald returns with Vesper Flights (public library) — a cabinet of curiosities containing forty-one essays of kaleidoscopic subject range, from mushrooms to bird migration to Mars, focused by Macdonald’s singular sensibility of reverencing the natural world on its own terms and at the same time drawing from it illuminations of human nature and the human world — an essay about fungi and foraging exposing how the categories we superimpose on a complex world in order to comprehend it become blinders of understanding; an essay about the murmurations of starlings parlaying into a moving micro-memoir of Macdonald’s encounter with a young Syrian refugee; an essay about solar eclipses contouring questions of the self as a function of time and place rather than an inherent totality of being, casting a sidewise gleam of insight into the puzzling psychology of denial by which our species remains unwilling to course-correct its ecologically catastrophic course.
Macdonald writes in the introduction:
Someone once told me that every writer has a subject that underlies everything they write. It can be love or death, betrayal or belonging, home or hope or exile. I choose to think that my subject is love, and most specifically love for the glittering world of non-human life around us. Before I was a writer I was a historian of science, which was an eye-opening occupation. We tend to think of science as unalloyed, objective truth, but of course the questions it has asked of the world have quietly and often invisibly been inflected by history, culture and society. Working as a historian of science revealed to me how we have always unconsciously and inevitably viewed the natural world as a mirror of ourselves, reflecting our own world-view and our own needs, thoughts and hopes. Many of the essays here are exercises in interrogating such human ascriptions and assumptions. Most of all I hope my work is about a thing that seems to me of the deepest possible importance in our present-day historical moment: finding ways to recognise and love difference. The attempt to see through eyes that are not your own. To understand that your way of looking at the world is not the only one. To think what it might mean to love those that are not like you. To rejoice in the complexity of things.
What science does is what I would like more literature to do too: show us that we are living in an exquisitely complicated world that is not all about us. It does not belong to us alone. It never has done.
Rejoice in some of the complexity here.
“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured,” says Too-ticky, trying to comfort the lost and frightened Moomintroll under the otherworldly light of the aurora borealis.
A decade after Tove Jansson (August 9, 1914–June 27, 2001) dreamt up her iconic Moomin series — one of those works of philosophy disguised as children’s books, populated by characters with the soulful wisdom of The Little Prince, the genial sincerity of Winnie-the-Pooh, and the irreverent curiosity of the Peanuts — she dreamt up Too-ticky, the sage of Moominvalley, warmhearted and eccentric and almost unbearably lovable.
Too-ticky came aglow in Jansson’s artistic imagination from the same spark that galvanized Emily Dickinson’s poetry — her adoration of the woman who was already becoming the love of her life, the woman to whom she was already writing, “I long to read more in the book of you.”
At the 1955 Christmas party of Helsinki’s Artists’ Guild, Jansson found herself drawn to the record player, impelled to take over the evening’s music. Another artist — the Seattle-born Finnish engraver, printmaker, and graphic arts pioneer Tuulikki “Tooti” Pietilä — was impelled to do the same. They shared the jubilant duty. I picture the two of them at the turntable, sipping spiced wine in rapt, bobbing deliberation over which of the year’s hits to put on next — the year when rock and roll had just been coined, the year of Nat King Cole’s “If I May,” Elvis’s “Baby Let’s Play House,” and Doris Day’s “Love Me or Leave Me.” I picture them glancing at each other with the thrill of that peculiar furtive curiosity edged with longing, having not a glimmering sense — for we only ever recognize the most life-altering moments in hindsight — that they were in the presence of great love, a love that would last a lifetime. Tove was forty-one, Tooti thirty-eight. They would remain together for the next half century, until death did them part.
The tender delirium of their early love and the magmatic core of their lifelong devotion emanate from the pages of Letters from Tove (public library) — the altogether wonderful collection of Jansson’s correspondence with friends, family, and other artists, spanning her meditations on the creative process, her exuberant cherishment of the natural world and of what is best in human beings, her unfaltering love for Tooti. What emerges, above all, is the radiant warmth of her personhood — this person of such uncommon imagination, warmhearted humor, and stubborn buoyancy of spirit, always so thoroughly herself, who as a young woman had declared to her mother:
I’ve got to become free myself if I’m to be free in my painting.
Read more here.
Decades before Simone de Beauvoir contemplated how chance and choice converge to make us who we are from the fortunate platform of old age, the eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath — who never reached that fortunate platform, her life felled by the same conspiracy of chance and choice — contemplated these indelible forces in the guise of free will, writing in her journal that “there is such a narrow crack of it for man to move in, crushed as he is from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention.”
Two generations later, Maria Konnikova entered this eternal conundrum via an improbable path half chosen and half chanced into, emerging with insights into the paradoxes of chance and control, which neither strand alone could have afforded.
Having devoted five years of doctoral work, with the creator of the famous Marshmallow Experiment as her advisor, to designing and performing psychology experiments probing how people’s perception of control in situations dictated by pure chance shapes decision-making and outcomes, she was suddenly life-thrust into a much more intimate empiricism. A period of successive losses rendered her the sole bread-winner of a family as a mysterious malady savaged her body without warning, gnawing at the fundaments of consciousness.
In the midst of this maelstrom, she became interested in the world of poker. She entered it as a psychologist on a philosophical inquiry — how often are we actually in control when we think we are, how do we navigate uncertain situations with incomplete information, and how can we ever separate the product of our own efforts from the strokes of randomness governing the universe? She emerged an unexpected master of the game, master of her own mind in an entirely new way.
The record of that experience became The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win (public library) — an inspired investigation of “the struggle for balance on the spectrum of luck and control in the lives we lead, and the decisions we make,” partway between memoir, primer on the psychology of decision-making, and playbook for life.
Having previously written about the psychology of confidence through the lens of con artists and the psychology of creativity through the lens of Sherlock Holmes, she takes the same singular approach of erudition and perspicacity to the improbable test-bed of poker, lacing her elegant primers on probability and game theory with perfectly illustrative invocations of Dostoyevsky, Epictetus, Dawkins, Ephron, Kant.
More than half a century after W. I. B. Beveridge observed in the undervalued treasure The Art of Scientific Investigation that “although we cannot deliberately evoke that will-o’-the-wisp, chance, we can be on the alert for it, prepare ourselves to recognize it and profit by it when it comes,” she writes:
That’s the thing about life: You can do what you do but in the end, some things remain stubbornly outside your control. You can’t calculate for dumb bad luck… My reasons for getting into poker in the first place were to better understand that line between skill and luck, to learn what I could control and what I couldn’t, and here was a strongly-worded lesson if ever there were: you can’t bluff chance.
Real life is not just about modeling the mathematically optimal decisions. It’s about discerning the hidden, the uniquely human. It’s about realizing that no amount of formal modeling will ever be able to capture the vagaries and surprises of human nature.
Dive in here.
“Do you need a prod? / Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” Mary Oliver asked in her stunning love poem to life, composed in the wake of a terrifying diagnosis. “Let me be as urgent as a knife, then, / and remind you of Keats, / so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, / he had a lifetime.”
Think of Keats when you need that prod for living — Keats, who died at the peak of his poetic powers, already having given humanity more truth and beauty in his short life than most would give if they had eternity. Or think of Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) — another rare poet of life, who too pursued truth and beauty, if in a radically different medium; who too was slain by chance, that supreme puppeteer of the universe, at the peak of his powers; who too left a legacy that shaped the sensibility, worldview, and wakefulness to life of generations.
On the bench across from Bruce Lee’s tombstone in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, where he is buried alongside his son, also chance-slain in youth, these words of tribute appear: “The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” They are often misattributed to Lee himself — perhaps because of the proximity, perhaps because they radiate an elemental truth about his life. The animating ethos of that uncommon life comes newly alive in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee (public library) by his daughter, Shannon Lee, titled after his famous metaphor for resilience — a slender, potent book twining her father’s timeless philosophies of living with her own reflections, drawn from her own courageous life of turning unfathomable loss into a path of light and quiet strength.
Get a taste with Lee’s reflections on death and what it means to be an artist of life, nested inside the little-known story of how he fought, in the final year of his life, to make Enter the Dragon what it became.
“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” the young Whitman sang in one of the finest poems from Song of Myself — the aria of a self that seemed to him then, as it always seems to the young, infinite and invincible. But when a paralytic stroke felled him decades later, unpeeling his creaturely limits and his temporality, he leaned on the selfsame reverence of nature as he considered what makes life worth living:
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.
In span and in size, our human lives unfold between the scale of leaves and the scale of stars, amid a miraculous world born by myriad chance events any one of which, if ever so slightly different, could have occasioned a lifeless rocky world, or no world at all — no trees and no songbirds, no Whitman and no Nina Simone, no love poems and no love — just an Earth-sized patch of pure spacetime, cold and austere.
The moment one fathoms this, it seems nothing less than an elemental sacrilege not to go through our days — these alms from chance — in a state of perpetual ecstasy over every living thing we encounter, not to reverence every oak and every owl and every leaf of grass as a living benediction.
A century and a half after Whitman, writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris — two poets of nature in the vastest Baldwinian sense — compose one such living benediction in The Lost Spells (public library). A lovely companion to their first collaboration — The Lost Words, an illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature as an inspired act of courage and resistance after the Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped dozens of words related to the natural world — this lyrical invocation in verse and watercolor summons the spirit of the living things that make this planet a world, the creatures whose lives mark seasons and measure out epochs: the splendid “hooligan gang” of the swifts that have crossed deserts and oceans to fill the sky each spring, the ancient oak “stubbornly holding its ground” year after year, century after century.
A century after the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted that we need “a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” observing how “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Macfarlane and Morris bring us the mystery and wisdom of wild things as complementary and consolatory to our tame incompleteness.
I am Red Fox — how do you see me?
A bloom of rust
at your vision’s edge,
The shadow that slips
through a hole in the hedge,
My two green eyes
in your headlights’ rush,
A scatter of feathers,
the tip of a brush.
See more here.
Sparer than Dickinson, bolder than Whitman, and absolutely singular, Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936–February 13, 2010) has been a pillar for generations of readers and a progenitor to generations of writers. Toni Morrison found her poetry “seductive with the simplicity of an atom, which is to say highly complex, explosive underneath an apparent quietude,” poetry that “embraces dichotomy and reaches for an expression of our own ambivalent entanglements.”
How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton (public library), curated by poet Aracelis Girmay and funded by readers via Kickstarter, collects two hundred of Clifton’s most powerful poems, from hymnal classics like “won’t you celebrate with me” to several newly discovered poems never previously published.
For a taste of these subtle seductions of atomized complexity, here is poet Terrance Hayes reading one of my favorite Lucille Clifton poems at the second annual Universe in Verse, with a charming prefatory meditation that honors her for the “literary lion” that she was and captures just how profoundly she shaped the life of literature between raising six children:
by Lucille Clifton
curling them around
i hold their bodies in obscene embrace
thinking of everything but kinship.
collards and kale
strain against each strange other
away from my kissmaking hand and
the iron bedpot.
the pot is black,
the cutting board is black,
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and I taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
Growing up in Bulgaria, one of my most cherished objects was also one of the first fragments of American culture to enter our home after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Iron Curtain — a small square desk calendar in a clear plastic clamshell, containing twelve illustrated cards, each vibrantly alive with tiny black-contoured figures dancing in various jubilant formations amid a festival of primary colors. I would look up to savor its mirth between math equations and domestic disquietudes. However gloomy a day I was having, however sunken my child-heart, these figures would transport me to a buoyant world of sunlit possibility. I knew nothing about their creator beyond the name on the back of the clamshell: Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990). I knew nothing about the bittersweet beauty of his courageous life, nothing about the tenacious activism behind his art, nothing about the enormous uninterrupted chain of human figures bonded in kinship, which he had painted on the remnants of the very wall whose collapse had placed this miniature monument to joy on my desk.
Nearly three decades later, having traded Bulgaria for Brooklyn by some improbable existential acrobatics, I encountered Haring’s work again in a magnificent mural he had painted for a young people’s club in New York City in the final year of his twenties, not long before his death, which my friends at Pioneer Works had resurrected and brought to our neighborhood. The same rush of irrepressible gladness poured into the grownup heart from the twenty-five-foot wall as had poured into the child-heart from the five-inch calendar. I grew attuned to the echoes of his sensibility bellowing down the corridor of time, reverberating strongly in the work of established artists in my own community.
Long before he moved to Brooklyn in pursuit of his own calling, poet Matthew Burgess had a parallel experience of Haring’s world-expanding art, which he first encountered on the cover of a Christmas record at fourteen, living behind the Golden Curtain of suburban Southern California as a budding artist and young gay man trying to find himself. “For those of us who grew up before the internet became ubiquitous, a bright fragment from the outer world can feel like an important discovery — and a call,” Burgess writes in the author’s note to what became his serenade to the artist who opened minds and world of possibility for so many.
A decade into teaching poetry in public schools, Burgess encountered Haring’s work afresh in a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. After mesmeric hours in the galleries, he wandered into the museum bookshop and went home with a copy of Haring’s published journals, which he devoured immediately. On its pages, he realized that the special native sympathy between children and Haring’s art is not an accident of his line and color but at the very center of his spirit. In an entry from July 7, 1986, Haring writes:
Children know something that most people have forgotten. Children possess a fascination with their everyday existence that is very special and would be very helpful to adults if they could learn to understand and respect it.
Having previously composed Enormous Smallness, one of my favorite books of 2015 — the wondrous picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings, another artist who so passionately believed that “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” — Burgess was impelled to invite young people into Keith Haring’s singular art and the large heart from which it sprang. And so Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring (public library) was born — a splendid addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.
Burgess’s tender words, harmonized by muralist and illustrator Josh Cochran’s ebullient art, follow the young Keith from his childhood in small-town Pennsylvania, drawing at the kitchen table with his dad and dipping his little sister’s palms in paint to make her a mobile of handprints, to his improbable path to New York City.
See more here.
We might spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins, but we save them by experiencing ourselves — our selves, each individual self — as “the still point of the turning world,” to borrow T.S. Eliot’s lovely phrase from one of the greatest poems ever written. And yet that point is pinned to a figment — our fundamental creaturely sense of reality is founded upon the illusion of absolute rest.
On March 27, 1964 — Good Friday — thousands of selves in Anchorage, Alaska came unpinned from their most elemental certitudes about reality, about safety, about the thousand small sanities by which we bestill this turning world to make it livable.
At 5:36PM, as the afternoon sun was slipping lazily toward the horizon — that quiet daily assurance that the Earth moves intact on its steady axis along its unfaltering orbital path — street lights began swaying, then flying. The pavement beneath them accordioned, then gaped open, swallowing cars and spitting them back up. Walls came unseamed and reseamed before disbelieving eyes that had not yet computed, for it was beyond the computational power of everyday consciousness, what was taking place.
Buildings rippled “up and down in sections, just like a caterpillar,” in one observer’s recollection, before ripping apart and crumbling completely like the brittle simulacra of safety that buildings are. Inside them, books toppled from their shelves to take rapid turns levitating from the floor, flames engulfed school science labs as chemicals crumpled together, and cast-iron pots of moose stew jumped off kitchen stoves.
The city’s electric grid was snapped and uprooted — in the below-freezing cold, in the descending dusk, all power went out.
When people tried running for their lives, they found their basic biped function furloughed — the Earth hurled each step back at them, tossing their center of gravity like a marble around a child’s cupped hand.
Water levels jumped as far away as South Africa. I picture my grandparents’ well in Bulgaria undulating in the middle of the night as they slept heavily under their Rhodope wool blankets, having celebrated my mother’s second birthday in the hours before Anchorage came unborn.
At 9.2 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake was more powerful than any previously measured — so violent that, as one seismologist phrased it, “it made the earth ring like a bell.” Just as the collision of two black holes ripples the fabric of spacetime with such brutality that it rings a gravitational wave, two tectonic plates had been in slow-motion collision for millennia, building up pressure that finally, on that early-spring afternoon, rang the planet itself and discomposed Anchorage into a level of trauma that would devastate the community, then jolt it into discovering its own entirely unfathomed wellsprings of resilience, solidarity, and generosity.
Driving to the local bookstore with one of her three children was a woman who would emerge as the unlikely hero not only of the community’s survival but of its transformation through tragedy. As their world fell apart, she would magnetize people into falling together.
Genie Chance (January 24, 1927–May 17, 1998) is the protagonist of Jon Mooallem’s uncommonly wonderful book This Is Chance!: The Shaking of an All-American City, A Voice That Held It Together (public library). Driving the heart of this scrupulously researched and sensitively told story about a singular event at a particular time in a particular place is the timeless, universal pulse-beat of assurance, suddenly rendered timely to the point of prophetic — the assurance that comes from the lived record of communities surviving cataclysms even more savaging than our own and emerging from them stronger, more closely knit, more human.
Read more here.
“Praised be the fathomless universe, for life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,” Whitman wrote as he stood discomposed and delirious before a universe filled with “forms, qualities, lives, humanity, language, thoughts, the ones known, and the ones unknown, the ones on the stars, the stars themselves, some shaped, others unshaped.” And yet the central animating force of our species, the wellspring of our joy and curiosity, the restlessness that gave us Whitman and Wheeler, Keats and Curie, is the very fathoming of this fathomless universe — an impulse itself a marvel in light of our own improbability. Somehow, we went from bacteria to Bach; somehow, we learned to make fire and music and mathematics. And here we are now, walking wildernesses of mossy feelings and brambled thoughts beneath an overstory of one hundred trillion synapses, coruscating with the ultimate question: What is all this?
That is what physicist and mathematician Brian Greene explores with great elegance of thought and poetic sensibility in Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (public library). Nearly two centuries after the word scientist was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville when her unexampled book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences brought together the separate disciplinary streams of scientific inquiry into a single river of knowledge, Greene draws on his own field, various other sciences, and no small measure of philosophy and literature to examine what we know about the nature of reality, what we suspect about the nature of knowledge, and how these converge to shine a sidewise gleam on our own nature. With resolute scientific rigor and uncommon sensitivity to the poetic syncopations of physical reality, he takes on the questions that bellow through the bone cave atop our shoulders, the cave against whose walls Plato flickered his timeless thought experiment probing the most abiding puzzle: How are we ever sure of reality? — a question that turns the mind into a Rube Goldberg machine of other questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? How did life emerge? What is consciousness? What is the most important fact of the universe?
Although science is Greene’s raw material in this fathoming — its histories, its theories, its triumphs, its blind spots — he emerges, as one inevitably does in contemplating these colossal questions, a testament to Einstein’s conviction that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Looking back on how he first grew enchanted with what he calls “the romance of mathematics” and its seductive promise to unveil the timeless laws of nature, he writes:
Creativity constrained by logic and a set of axioms dictates how ideas can be manipulated and combined to reveal unshakable truths.
The appeal of a law of nature might be its timeless quality. But what drives us to seek the timeless, to search for qualities that may last forever? Perhaps it all comes from our singular awareness that we are anything but timeless, that our lives are anything but forever.
We emerge from laws that, as far as we can tell, are timeless, and yet we exist for the briefest moment of time. We are guided by laws that operate without concern for destination, and yet we constantly ask ourselves where we are headed. We are shaped by laws that seem not to require an underlying rationale, and yet we persistently seek meaning and purpose.
Dive in here.
One of the most bewildering things about life is how ever-shifting the inner weather systems are, yet how wholly each storm consumes us when it comes, how completely suffering not only darkens the inner firmament but dims the prospective imagination itself, so that we cease being able to imagine the return of the light. But the light does return to lift the darkness and restore the world’s color — as in nature, so in the subset of it that is human nature. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in one of the greatest essays ever written. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”
We forget, too, just how much of life’s miraculousness resides in the latitude of the spectrum of experience and our dance across it, how much of life’s vibrancy radiates from the contrast between the various hues, between the darkness and the light. There is, after all, something eminently uninteresting about a perpetually blue sky. Van Gogh knew this when he contemplated “the drama of a storm in nature, the drama of sorrow in life” as essential fuel for art and life. Coleridge knew it as he huddled in a hollow to behold “the power and ‘eternal link’ of energy” in his transcendent encounter with a violent storm.
The life-affirming splendor of the spectrum within and without is what Japanese poet and picture-book author Hiroshi Osada and artist Ryoji Arai celebrate in Every Color of Light: A Book about the Sky (public library), translated by David Boyd — a tender serenade to the elements that unspools into a lullaby, inviting ecstatic wakefulness to the fulness of life, inviting a serene surrender to slumber.
Born in Fukushima just as World War II was breaking out, Osada composed this spare, lyrical book upon turning eighty, having lived through unimaginable storms. I can’t help but read it in consonance with Pico Iyer’s soulful meditation on autumn light and finding beauty in impermanence, drawn from his many years in Japan. Arai’s almost synesthetic art — radiating more than color, radiating sound, a kind of buzzing aliveness — only amplifies this sense of consolation in the drama of the elements, this sense of change as a portal not to terror but to transcendent serenity.
See more here.
“Some dreams aren’t dreams at all, just another angle of physical reality,” Patti Smith wrote in Year of the Monkey, one of my favorite books of 2019 — her exquisite dreamlike book-length prose poem about mending the broken realities of life, a meditation drawn from dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.”
As I leaf enchanted through The Unwinding (public library) by the English artist and writer Jackie Morris, this quiet masterpiece dawns on me as the pictorial counterpart to Smith’s — a small, miraculous book that belongs, and beckons you to find your own belonging, in the “Library of Lost Dreams and Half-Imagined Things.”
Its consummately painted pages sing echoes of Virginia Woolf — “Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.” — and whisper an invitation to unwind the tensions of waking life, to follow a mysterious woman and great white all-knowing bear — two creatures bound in absolute trust and absolute love — as they hunt for wild dreams, “dreams that hold the scent of deep green moss, lichen, the place where the roots of a tree enter the earth, old stone, the dust of a moth’s wings.”
What emerges is a love story, a hope story, a story out of time, out of stricture, out of the narrow artificial bounds by which we try to contain the wild wonderland of reality because we are too frightened to live wonder-stricken.
While a spare, poetic story accompanies each pictorial sequence, partway between fairy tale and magical realism, the text is only a contour around one of myriad possible shapes and shadings each watercolor dreamscape invites — each years in the painting, each a consummate Rorschach test for the poetic imagination that confers upon our waking hours the iridescent shimmer that makes life worth living.
In the twelfth dreamscape, titled “Truth: The Dreams of Bears,” the enchanting woman whispers into the soft warm ear of the sleeping bear:
If I said that my love for you was
like the spaces between the notes of a wren’s song,
would you understand?
Would you perceive my love to be, therefore,
hardly present, almost nothing?
Or would you feel how my love is wrapped
around by the richest, the wildest song?
And, if I said my love for you is like
the time when the nightingale is absent
from our twilight world,
would you hear it as a silence? Nothing?
Or as anticipation
of that rich current of music,
which fills heart,
And, if I said my love for
you is like the hare’s breath,
would you feel it to be transient?
So slight a thing?
Or would you see it as life-giving?
A thing that fills the blood, and
sets the hare running?
See more here.
“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” Maya Angelou wrote in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had. “We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” In that same cultural season, from a college commencement stage, Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings that “true adulthood is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory.”
It is tempting, for it is flattering, to think of ourselves as trees — as firmly rooted and resolutely upward bound; as creatures destined, in Mary Oliver’s lovely words, “to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.” But even if the highest compliment a great poet can pay a great woman is to celebrate her as a human tree, we are not trees — we don’t branch and root from a single point, we don’t grow linearly; we disbark ourselves at will, at the flash and flutter of a heart, self-grafting every love and loss we live through; our growth-rings are often ungirdled by self-doubt, by regress, by the fits and starts by which we become who and what we are: fragmentary but indivisible. The difficulty of growing up, the hard-won glory of it, lies in the self-tessellation.
That is what Rebecca Solnit explores in a passage from Recollections of My Nonexistence (public library) — her splendid memoir of longings and determinations, of resistances and revolutions, personal and political, illuminating the kiln in which one of the boldest, most original minds of our time was annealed.
Three quarters into the book and half a lifetime into her becoming, Solnit writes:
Growing up, we say, as though we were trees, as though altitude was all that there was to be gained, but so much of the process is growing whole as the fragments are gathered, the patterns found. Human infants are born with craniums made up of four plates that have not yet knit together into a solid dome so that their heads can compress to fit through the birth canal, so that the brain within can then expand. The seams of these plates are intricate, like fingers interlaced, like the meander of arctic rivers across tundra.
The skull quadruples in size in the first few years, and if the bones knit together too soon, they restrict the growth of the brain; and if they don’t knit at all the brain remains unprotected. Open enough to grow and closed enough to hold together is what a life must also be. We collage ourselves into being, finding the pieces of a worldview and people to love and reasons to live and then integrate them into a whole, a life consistent with its beliefs and desires, at least if we’re lucky.
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Dec 2020 | 12:19 pm(NZT)
We live our lives by tidal forces — vast oceanic waves of change and chance sweeping us together, stranding us apart, washing over us with their all-subsuming totality of feeling, only to retreat and then begin anew before we have fully regained our breath and our footing. What buoys us is the awareness that, however distant and desolate the shore might appear, however dark and cold the waters of the night, there are other bodies swimming these waves, others so different yet so kindred — life itself swimming itself alive, as it did long ago in the primordial oceans that gave us feet and lungs and consciousness to live by. James Baldwin hinted at this in one of his least known and most beautiful meditations: “The sea rises, the light fails… The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
Water might well be the supreme meaning-making element of poets and poets may well be the original water nymphs — poets in the broadest Baldwinian sense of artists in any medium, makers of various life-rafts, who surface the deepest truth about us and mirror it back to us in their art.
With his deep-seeing poetic consciousness shaped by the spare solemn beaches of his native Long Island, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) always retained a profound relationship to the water, to its symbolism and its actuality. Throughout his poetry, he celebrated the ocean as the “old mother” of life. He cherished winter beaches as pastures for creativity. He imagined the living wonders of “the world below the brine” long before Rachel Carson invited the human imagination into the living reality of the marine world for the very first time, a world then more mysterious than the Moon. His daily ferry commute across New York’s slender tidal estuary became one of the profoundest and most penetrating poems ever composed.
It was in the solitude of the beach and the solitude of the night that Whitman felt most connected to the life of this world and the life of the universe — a transcendent sense of interleaving, which he reverenced in his poem “On the Beach Alone at Night.” At an intimate edition of The Universe in Verse I hosted for his bicentennial, the poem came alive in a singsong benediction of a reading by musician extraordinaire, Baldwin-champion, and poet of song and spirit Meshell Ndegeocello, accompanied by cellist Dave Eggar and guitarist Chris Bruce, inside a deconsecrated white chapel Whitman passed countless times on the Brooklyn ferry, newly transformed into a living artwork and sanctuary for contemplation by Governors Island artist-in-residence Shantell Martin. Words from this poem fomented the mission manifesto of the endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory, just across the water from the chapel.
ON THE BEACH ALONE AT NIGHT
by Walt Whitman
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.
Join me in supporting Governors Island’s wonderful public programming, green space, and other pastures for creativity with a donation and savor another highlight of this Whitman-themed miniature Universe in Verse on the island — poet Sarah Kay bridging Whitman’s astronomy with the astronaut’s lament — then revisit Whitman himself on what makes life worth living, what makes a great person, actionable optimism as a force of resistance, and how to keep criticism from sinking your soul.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Dec 2020 | 10:51 am(NZT)
“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” Elizabeth Gilbert reflected in the wake of losing the love of her life. “Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”
Like love, grief swells into an entire inner universe that comes to color the whole of the outside world. Like love — that rapturous raw material for most of the songs and poems and paintings our species has produced — grief lives itself through the grieving and can’t but speak its truth. Unlike love, our culture meets the voice of grief with an alloy of disquiet and denial. We want to make the sadness go away, to lift the sorrowing heart out of its sorrow immediately. Often, we mistake for personal failure our inability to salve another’s grief or mistake for their failure the inability to snap out of it on the timeline of our wishes.
When psychotherapist Megan Devine — creator of the excellent resource Refuge in Grief and author of its portable counterpart, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (public library) — watched her young, healthy partner drown, the sudden and senseless loss suspended her world. As it slowly regained the motive force of life, she set out to redirect her professional experience of studying emotional intelligence and resilience toward better understanding the confounding, all-consuming process of grief — the process by which, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his immensely insightful letter of consolation to a bereaved friend, the agony of loss is slowly transmuted into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before”; a transmutation in which skillful loving support can make a world of difference — support very different from what we instinctively imagine helps.
In studying how people navigate intense grief — the loss of loved ones to violent crime, suicide, disaster, infant death, and other abrupt catastrophic traumas — Devine arrived at an arresting insight. Again and again, she observed that our most intuitive impulses about helping those whose suffering we yearn to allay — by cheering them up, by reorienting them toward the lighthouses in their lives amid the darkness — tend to only deepen their helpless anguish and broaden the abyss between us and them. And so she began to wonder what does salve the immense sorrow we encounter in the world and experience in our own lives.
This is what she learned:
Complement with a soulful animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of being, an uncommon children’s book about that nonjudgmental place of permission for sadness where all healing begins, and Nick Cave on living with loss and the central paradox of grief as a portal to aliveness.
Source: Brain Pickings | 17 Dec 2020 | 6:29 am(NZT)
“My one reader, you reading this book, who are you?” Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913–February 12, 1980) asks with the large forthright eyes of her words in one of the most beautiful and penetrating books ever written on any subject. “What is your face like, your hands holding the pages, the child forsaken in you, who now looks through your eyes at mine?”
It is the summer of 1949. Her life is still only thirty-six years long but thirty thousand years wise. She has lived through two World Wars, has shared a small ship with fivefold the number of refugee bodies the vessel can hold, has been arrested for placing her own solid and unapologetic body on the right side of what is yet to be celebrated and capitalized as Civil Rights, has stood amid the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and traveled home to tell their story, has staggered the world with her debut poetry collection at only twenty-two and followed it with a thoroughly unexpected sidewise triumph of vision in her staggering more-than-biography of one of the most influential and misunderstood scientists who ever lived.
But it is this book, The Life of Poetry (public library), that is and would remain her elemental statement of belief — a humanistic document for the epochs, a reliquary of rapture, a blueprint for resistance to the thousand desultory derogations by which living can desecrate life.
Rukeyser writes in the introduction:
In times of crisis, we summon up our strength.
Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.
In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.
However slow or subtle the turning, the fulcrum by which we turn is love. “In time of struggle,” Rukeyser tells us, “all people think about love” — never more so than amid uncertainty, when the familiar terrain grows foreign and uneven, when the very ground beneath our feet fails to hold steady:
In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.
If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.
We have struggled to find this untapped potential, Rukeyser argues, because our standard modes of intellectual probing sidestep the life of feeling, which poetry — “this other kind of knowledge and love” — alone can access and allay:
Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember [poetry], which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these — the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives — the attitude of poetry.
A generation before Audre Lorde placed at the heart of poetry the courage to feel, from which all power and all change spring, Rukeyser distills the essence of poetry as “an approach to the truth of feeling,” insisting upon its clarifying and cohesionary power:
However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.
As we wade from the chaos without to the cohesion within, this is what we move through and move toward:
The images of personal love and freedom, controlled as water is controlled, as the flight of planes is controlled. The images of relationship… the music of the images of relationship.
Experience taken into the body, breathed in, so that reality is the completion of experience, and poetry is what is produced. And life is what is produced.
In the final pages of the book, Rukeyser returns to what is left as the bedrock of our strength when all falls apart and away:
As we live our truths, we will communicate across all barriers, speaking for the sources of peace. Peace that is not lack of war, but fierce and positive.
All the poems of our lives are not yet made.
We hear them crying to us, the wounds, the young and the unborn — we will define that peace, we will live to fight its birth, to build these meanings, to sing these songs.
Complement this fragment of Rukeyser’s uncommonly vitalizing The Life of Poetry with Maya Angelou’s poetic consolation for our crises and our contradictions, then revisit Rukeyser on the deepest wellspring of our aliveness.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Dec 2020 | 4:33 pm(NZT)
The polymathic British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (January 8, 1823‐November 7, 1913) is best known as the man evolution left behind. While Wallace arrived independently at the theory of natural selection and while the paper about it he jointly published with Darwin in 1858 fomented the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, it was Darwin — who had kept his controversial ideas under wraps for years, until Wallace gave him the courage to go public — that took the laurels of evolutionary theory. But Wallace holds a different, long overlooked distinction, the cultural impact of which might well shape the evolution of this planet’s living future more profoundly than the evolutionary history of its past.
Darwin became the face of evolutionary theory because, with his intensely focused autism-spectrum mind and its acute attention to this particular branch of knowledge, his science was just stronger. Russell, unlike Darwin, had a mind too fractal with ideas to stay within the bounds of any one discipline and a humanistic spirit too concerned with the social side of life to remain confined purely to science. And so he became one of the first scientists to seriously consider the ecological footprint of our species and caution against the environmental assault of human industry.
Writing not long after Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology in an obscure German scientific book and long before Rachel Carson made it a household word with the unexpected bestseller that awoke the modern ecological conscience, Wallace drew an unambiguous causal link between the economic and political decisions by which our society governs itself and the ecological consequences for our species, for all species, and for the planet itself — and then he considered what it would take for us to divert the catastrophic path we had just set out on then, and on which we still remain.
In the final years of the nineteenth century, with Darwin long dead and the Earth newly laced with train tracks and telephone cables, fogged with factory fumes, and cratered with oil wells, Wallace published an extraordinary 426-page reflection on the promise and peril of what we so blindly call progress, titled The Wonderful Century (public domain | public library) — a far-seeing cautionary yet ultimately optimistic vision for how to course-correct our civilization, so that the rise of capitalism as a global economic system based on exploitation and extraction would not corral our species into its own misery and threaten the survival of all species on an irreplaceable planet that is a miracle and not a resource.
Wallace, having lived far past his era’s life expectancy and watched generations claw at the rungs of so-called progress, writes:
One of the most prominent features of our century has been the enormous and continuous growth of wealth, without any corresponding increase in the well-being of the whole people; while there is ample evidence to show that the number of the very poor — of those existing with a minimum of the bare necessaries of life — has enormously increased, and many indications that they constitute a larger proportion of the whole population than… in any earlier period of our history.
Born in an era when there were only a handful of millionaires in the world, he adds:
This increase of individual wealth is most clearly shown by the rise and continuous increase of millionaires, who, by various modes, have succeeded in possessing themselves of vast amounts of riches created by others, thus necessarily impoverishing those who did create it.
The development of steam navigation, of railroads and telegraphs, of mechanical and chemical science, and the growth of the population, while enormously increasing productive power and the amount of material products — that is, of real wealth — at least ten times faster than the growth of the population, has given that enormous increase almost wholly to one class, comprising the landlords and capitalists, leaving the actual producers of it — the industrial workers and inventors — little, if any, better off than before.
Wallace observes that of the thousands of millionaires already in existence, most are in America — “a country having a much larger amount of natural wealth and of human labor to draw upon.” (For a sobering calibration of how this asymmetry has swelled, a century after Wallace’s death there were already tens of millions of millionaires in the world, so many of them in the United States as to dwarf the rest into a statistical irrelevance.) He observes, too, that this leap in income inequality has been paralleled by a doubling of mental illness and suicide in the same time frame — an increase in “the total mass of misery and want” that has far outpaced population growth.
More than half a century before Rachel Carson admonished that those atop the capitalist pyramid of extraction and exploitation maintained their position of power by feeding the rest of us “little tranquilizing pills of half truth” to conceal the fundamental malady ailing our civilization, Wallace writes:
This is exactly what we have been doing during the whole century, — applying small plasters to each social ulcer as it became revealed to us — petty palliatives for chronic evils. But ever as one symptom has been got rid of new diseases have appeared, or the old have burst out elsewhere with increased virulence; and
it will certainly be considered one of the most terrible and inexplicable failures of the nineteenth century that, up to its very close, neither legislators nor politicians of either of the great parties that alternately ruled the nation would acknowledge that there could be anything really wrong while wealth increased as it was increasing.
Epochs before humanity became ready to take the reins of its own catastrophic extractionism with actionable ecological resolutions like the Paris Agreement and the Green New Deal, Wallace weighs “the injury done to posterity” — that is, to us — and portends the inevitable end of the greedy industrialism just beginning, in the kiln of which our own modern lives were set into shape:
The struggle for wealth, and its deplorable results [in the human sphere] have been accompanied by a reckless destruction of the stored-up products of nature, which is even more deplorable because more irretrievable. Not only have forest-growths of many hundreds of years been cleared away, often with disastrous consequences, but the whole of the mineral treasures of the earth’s surface, the slow products of long-past eons of time and geological change, have been and are still being exhausted, to an extent never before approached, and probably not equalled in amount during the whole preceding period of human history.
At the dawn of the petroleum craze that would soon give rise to Big Oil and the world’s first corporate monopolies, whose magnates would swell the score of millionaires and swell our species’ carbon footprint to a size capable of stomping out all of life on this rocky world, Wallace adds:
In America, and some other countries, an equally wasteful and needless expenditure of petroleum oils and natural gas is going on, resulting in great accumulations of private wealth, but not sensibly ameliorating the condition of the people at large.
This rush for wealth has led to deterioration of land and of natural beauty, by covering up the surface with refuse heaps, by flooding rich lowlands with the barren mud produced by hydraulic mining; and by the great demand for animal food by the mining populations leading to the destruction of natural pastures.
In a passage that stuns with its tragic timelessness, bellowing down the hallway of time an indictment not only of his century but of every century that has followed it, Wallace writes:
The final and absolute test of good government is the well-being and contentment of the people — not the extent of empire or the abundance of the revenue and the trade.
Wallace questions why, in an era marked by “altogether unprecedented progress in knowledge of the universe and of its complex forces,” marked also by “the application of that knowledge to an infinite variety of purposes,” our knowledge alone has not improved our social harmony and individual wellbeing at a commensurate rate. (A generation before Bertrand Russell — easily the most lucid and luminous mind of his time — located the source of this disconnect in the astute distinction between “power-knowledge” and “love-knowledge,” Wallace writes:
The bounds of human knowledge have been so far extended that new vistas have opened to us in directions where it had been thought that we could never penetrate, and the more we learn the more we seem capable of learning in the ever-widening expanse of the universe… But the more we realize the vast possibilities of human welfare which science has given us, the more we must recognize our total failure to make any adequate use of them. With ample power to supply to the fullest extent necessaries, comforts, and even luxuries for all, and at the same time allow ample leisure for intellectual pleasures and aesthetic enjoyments, we have yet so sinfully mismanaged our social economy as to give unprecedented and injurious luxury to the few, while millions are compelled to suffer a lifelong deficiency of the barest necessaries for a healthy existence. Instead of devoting the highest powers of our greatest men to remedy these evils, we see the governments of the most advanced nations arming their people to the teeth, and expending much of their wealth and all the resources of their science, in preparation for the destruction of life, of property, and of happiness.
And then this stunning prophecy, vindicated by his future that is our history, haunting the unchanged reality of our own present:
When the brightness of future ages shall have dimmed the glamour of our material progress, the judgment of history will surely be that the ethical standard of our rulers was a deplorably low one, and that we were unworthy to possess the great and beneficent powers that science had placed in our hands.
And yet Wallace — a man who devoted his long life to science precisely because he believed in its humanistic potential — ends on a note of lucid optimism, to which we are yet to live up:
Although this century has given us so many-examples of failure, it has also given us hope for the future. True humanity, the determination that the crying social evils of our time shall not continue; the certainty that they can be abolished; an unwavering faith in human nature, have never been so strong, so vigorous, so rapidly growing… The people are being educated to understand the real causes of the social evils that now injure all classes alike, and render many of the advances of science curses instead of blessings. An equal rate of such educational progress for another quarter of a century will give them at once the power and the knowledge required to initiate the needed reforms.
The flowing tide is with us. We have great poets, great writers, great thinkers, to cheer and guide us… And as this century has witnessed a material and intellectual advance wholly unprecedented in the history of human progress, so the coming century will reap the full fruition of that advance, in a moral and social upheaval of an equally new and unprecedented kind, and equally great in amount.
While the vector of Wallace’s prophecy was correct, the predicted velocity of progress falls tragically short of reality — instead, the century that followed brought the world’s first two global wars, which hijacked hard-earned scientific knowledge for inhumane ends. It now seems touching, laughable with a bittersweet laugh, that Wallace estimated it would only take another quarter century of intellectual illumination to bend the arc of progress toward universal human flourishing. But wrong as he was about the timeframe, he was unassailably right about the mechanics of change: New world orders only ever come by once new knowledge exposes the corruptions of the existing order, then moral guidance from our poets — in the largest Baldwinian sense of the word — transmutes that knowledge into the wisdom necessary for navigating the inevitable upheavals of change toward new vistas of possibility.
It might just be that the impossible always takes a little while longer than we wish to give it — and yet give we must, for as Albert Camus so astutely observed in considering what it really means to be a rebel and in solidarity with justice, “real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Source: Brain Pickings | 12 Dec 2020 | 2:06 pm(NZT)