“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her tiny, tremendous masterpiece The Living Mountain. A couple of mountain ranges south, a century and a half earlier, the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) captured the power of that interpenetration in a stunning letter, later included in The Complete Essays, Lectures & Letters of S. T. Coleridge (public library).
The letter, composed three days before his twenty-eighth birthday, begins with a terrifying, transcendent encounter with the grandeur of nature and ends with a humbling encounter with human nature — with the grandeur of the human spirit, its the capacity for dignity and generosity no matter one’s material circumstances.
Nearly a century before the young Van Gogh contemplated the enchantment of storms in nature and human nature while living in poverty in the Hague, the young Coleridge writes to his closest friend from the English Lake District on October 18, 1800:
Our mountains northward end in the mountain Carrock — one huge, steep, enormous bulk of stones, desolately variegated with the heath plant; at its foot runs the river Calder, and a narrow vale between it and the mountain Bowscale, so narrow, that in its greatest width it is not more than a furlong. But that narrow vale is so green, so beautiful, there are moods in which a man might weep to look at it. On this mountain Carrock, at the summit of which are the remains of a vast Druid circle of stones, I was wandering, when a thick cloud came on, and wrapped me in such darkness that I could not see ten yards before me, and with the cloud a storm of wind and hail, the like of which I had never before seen and felt. At the very summit is a cone of stones, built by the shepherds, and called the Carrock Man. Such cones are on the tops of almost all our mountains, and they are all called men. At the bottom of the Carrock Man I seated myself for shelter, but the wind became so fearful and tyrannous, that I was apprehensive some of the stones might topple down upon me, so I groped my way farther down and came to three rocks, placed on this wise 1 / 3 \ 2 each one supported by the other like a child’s house of cards, and in the hollow and screen which they made I sate for a long while sheltered, as if I had been in my own study in which I am now writing: there I sate with a total feeling worshipping the power and “eternal link” of energy.
In a passage evocative of Oliver Sacks’s near-death experience in a Norwegian fjord, Coleridge recounts nature’s sudden turn of temper — a turn from terror to transcendence, which then leads him to an unexpected encounter with the most transcendent qualities of human nature:
The darkness vanished as by enchantment; far off, far, far off to the south, the mountains of Glaramara and Great Gable and their family appeared distinct, in deepest, sablest blue. I rose, and behind me was a rainbow bright as the brightest. I descended by the side of a torrent, and passed, or rather crawled (for I was forced to descend on all fours), by many a naked waterfall, till, fatigued and hungry (and with a finger almost broken, and which remains swelled to the size of two fingers), I reached the narrow vale, and the single house nestled in ash and sycamores. I entered to claim the universal hospitality of this country; but instead of the life and comfort usual in these lonely houses, I saw dirt, and every appearance of misery — a pale woman sitting by a peat fire. I asked her for bread and milk, and she sent a small child to fetch it, but did not rise herself. I eat very heartily of the black, sour bread, and drank a bowl of milk, and asked her to permit me to pay her. “Nay,” says she, “we are not so scant as that — you are right welcome.”
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Source: Brain Pickings | 9 Jul 2020 | 4:11 am(NZT)
To make anything — a photograph, a theorem, a poem — is to toss a handful of wildflower seeds into the wind, knowing neither the type of soil they will land in, nor the location of the landscape, nor the type of flowers that will bloom. Sometimes, oftentimes, the seeds come abloom generations or civilizations later, in minds many disciplines or cultures or experiences apart. (For, lest we forget, all that survives of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.)
In the spring of 2018, shortly after Stephen Hawking returned his borrowed stardust to the cosmos, poet Marie Howe composed a poem inspired by his life’s work, a stunning poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, for the second Universe in Verse — the annual celebration of science through poetry I host at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. She titled it “Singularity (after Stephen Hawking)” and premiered it before a rapt audience of a thousand people suspended in wonder. The bit-blown wind then carried it to thousands more online. It has since came alive anew in a consummate animated short film savored by tens of thousands more.
In the spring of 2020, Howe’s poem planted its seed in the fertile mind of the young Kentucky-born, Brooklyn-based poet Marissa Davis and came abloom in a stunning poem of her own, which she titled “Singularity (after Marie Howe)” and premiered in poem-a-day — the lifeline of a newsletter by the Academy of American Poets.
I was so taken with the sweep and splendor of Davis’s quiet cataclysm of a poem that I invited her to read it for Brain Pickings, which she kindly did — a lovely voice that surprised and invigorated me with its audible youth, only amplifying the poem’s atmosphere of possibility and its wondrous, defiant commitment neither to look away from a broken reality nor to cease cherishing this astonishing world in its brokenness.
by Marissa Davis
(after Marie Howe)
in the wordless beginning
iguana & myrrh
magma & reef ghost moth
& the cordyceps tickling its nerves
& cedar & archipelago & anemone
dodo bird & cardinal waiting for its red
ocean salt & crude oil now black
muck now most naïve fumbling plankton
every egg clutched in the copycat soft
of me unwomaned unraced
unsexed as the ecstatic prokaryote
that would rage my uncle’s blood
or the bacterium that will widow
your eldest daughter’s eldest son
my uncle, her son our mammoth sun
& her uncountable siblings & dust mite & peat
apatosaurus & nile river
& maple green & nude & chill-blushed &
yeasty keratined bug-gutted i & you
spleen & femur seven-year refreshed
seven-year shedding & taking & being this dust
& my children & your children
& their children & the children
of the black bears & gladiolus & pink florida grapefruit
here not allied but the same perpetual breath
held fast to each other as each other’s own skin
cold-dormant & rotting & birthing & being born
in the olympus of the smallest
possible once before once
Relish more of Davis’s poetry in her chapbook My Name & Other Languages I Am Learning How to Speak and join me in supporting the life-giving work of the Academy of American Poets, offering stage and succor to young poets like Davis, then revisit the splendid seed that inspired this miraculous blossom.
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 | 6 Jul 2020 | 5:55 am(NZT)
“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men*,” the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote in her 1914 anthem against silence — a line Rachel Carson leaned on in summoning her epoch-making courage to speak inconvenient truth to power as she awakened the modern environmental conscience.
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality… what I most regretted were my silences… My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you,” Audre Lorde admonished a generation later in her blueprint to “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — her own courageous and catalytic manifesto for another vital awakening.
One hundred years before Lorde’s birth, Mary Shelley (August 30, 1797–February 1, 1851) — another woman of extraordinary vision, courage, and passion for justice — explored the actionable might of words in social change and the power of breaking silence in a tiny, potent fragment from her enormous penultimate novel, Lodore (public library | public domain).
In a sentiment spoken by a heroine modeled on her own young self — a young woman of radiant intellectual beauty, educated in the classics, a survivor of great personal losses and misfortunes, endowed with a “singular mixture of mildness and independence”; a woman whom one approaches “without fear of encountering any of the baser qualities of human beings, — their hypocrisy, or selfishness”; a woman whose father (like Shelley’s own famous father) had taught her “to penetrate, to anatomize, to purify [her] motives; but once assured of [her] own integrity, to be afraid of nothing” — she writes:
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; I never hesitated to use them, when I fought any battle for the miserable and oppressed. People are so afraid to speak, it would seem as if half our fellow-creatures were born with deficient organs; like parrots they can repeat a lesson, but their voice fails them, when that alone is wanting to make the tyrant quail.
Shelley herself built her remarkable life upon the foundational ethos that words are not only our best instrument of change, but our best conduit of the intimacy and understanding which bind us to one another and from which every actionable impulse toward sympathy and solidarity arises. Elsewhere in Lodore, she writes:
That existence is scarcely to be termed life, which does not bring us into intimate connexion with our fellow-creatures.
Complement with Rebecca Solnit on breaking silence as our mightiest weapon against oppression and some excellent advice to a young activist from Mary Shelley’s father, the great radical philosopher William Godwin, then revisit Shelley, writing in an earlier novel about a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living.
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 | 4 Jul 2020 | 4:37 am(NZT)
“Before I was born out of my mother,” Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, “my embryo has never been torpid… For it the nebula cohered to an orb.” Only by connecting our own birth, our own existence, to that of everything and everyone we know, to the birth of the universe itself, can we confidently and genuinely say with Whitman, who called himself a “Kosmos,” that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”; only then can we not only think but feel the elemental truth in his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A century and a half after Whitman and Muir, a century and a half after staggering leaps in our scientific understanding of the life of the universe and the universe of life, the great evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis moored this poetic truth in the reality of science by observing that “the fact that we are connected through space and time shows that life is a unitary phenomenon, no matter how we express that fact.”
That atomic interleaving of existence across the sweep of space and time and individual selves is what author Marion Dane Bauer and artist Ekua Holmes celebrate in The Stuff of Stars (public library) — a serenade to the native poetry inside the science of life, inspired by the iconic Carl Saganism that “we’re made of star-stuff” (itself inspired by the legacy of the trailblazing astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe against the odds of her time and place).
Opening with a narrative verse evocative of Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” the lyrical story begins before the beginning of time and unspools into the everythingness of everything. Bauer writes:
In the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
a speck floated,
invisible as thought,
weighty as God.
There was yet no time,
there was yet no space.
No Earth with soaring hawks,
trees reaching for the sky.
There was no sky.
Only the speck,
Holmes’s illustrations, nebular and alive and animated by marbling — a technique of rich symbolism and cross-cultural history — furnish the perfect visual metaphor for the book’s elemental reminder that we live in a universe of constant flow, flux, and metamorphosis, and that we ourselves are but a speck of color floating into shape for a brief moment before being washed into the perpetually repatterned marbling of existence; that any one life, including our own, is as precious as it is improbable and transient, and all the more precious for its improbability and transience.
With a poet’s concision and precision of thought-in-image, Bauer chronicles the formation of our Solar System and the chance miracle of our own Pale Blue Dot, so improbably hospitable to life against the odds of an austere cosmos — a planet that orbits its star “from just the right distance and with just the right tilt to be sometimes warm, sometimes cool”; a planet ideally poised to foment the astonishing diversity and splendor of the marbling of matter we call life, “perfect for turning that starry stuff into mitochondria, jellyfish, spiders, into ferns and sharks, into daisies and galloping horses.”
Again and against
Bauer goes on to trace the unstoppable rush of species and generations, fading in and out of the scene, restaging the next act with their own existence — the dinosaurs making room for the humans, our ancestors making room for us.
Leafing through the consummately illustrated story as it moves from the Big Bang with its near-instantaneous generation of all the matter that made everything we know to the slow, steady birth of stars and planets, of oceans and mountains, of all the creatures that tread and bloom and burrow and soar over and on and in them, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s immortally poetic observation that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change”; I am reminded of James Baldwin’s impassioned insistence that “nothing is fixed… the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock… the sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us.”
Bauer ends this vignette of the panorama with the birth of the reader, addressing the child directly as a child of the universe, with the Whitmanesque recognition of how “the nebula cohered” to manifest this singular existence:
Then one day…
in the dark,
in the dark,
in the deep, deep dark,
another speck floated,
invisible as dreams,
special as Love.
Until at last,
YOU burst into the world.
Reminding the young reader that each breath they inhale is air once breathed by the woolly mammoths and each tear they cry is water that once lapped in the primordial seas, Bauer ends the story by inviting the voice of the parent to place the child into this glorious singularity of being — a splendid message that not only enlarges once’s own sense of being but, in celebrating this interbelonging with the rest of the living world, is the only viable seed for any real sense of the ecological responsibility that must bloom in the coming generations if this precious, precarious, shimmering world is to go on cohering into beauty and being.
and the velvet moss,
and the singing whales,
All of us
the stuff of stars.
Couple The Stuff of Stars (not to be confused with the similarly titled grownup biography of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, about whom there also happens to be a wonderful picture-book biography) with a gorgeous animated short film of Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity,” then revisit Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, also inspired by Carl Sagan.
Reproductions courtesy of Candlewick Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.
Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Jul 2020 | 1:41 pm(NZT)
In 1742, more than a century before Darwin parted the veil of creationist mythology to reveal the reality of nature, an English theologian by the name of Charles Owen published An Essay Toward a Natural History of Serpents — a curious artifact from the museum of sensemaking, a fossil from the tidal zone between ignorance and knowledge where the primordial waters of superstition are lapping at the slowly emerging terra cognita of science.
Depicted as equally real alongside the common vipers familiar to every English child are the “poetick Griffins,” a “monstrous Serpent of four or five Yards long… very large and furious,” and the Ethiopian dragons, inherited from ancient Greek mythology and believed to kill elephants “by winding themselves about the Elephant’s Legs, and then thrusting their Heads up their Nostrils, fling them, and suck their Blood till they are dead.”
What emerges is a kind of natural history tinted by supernatural inheritance — while Owen was inspired by the symbology of reptiles in a great many of the world’s religious traditions, he brought the mindset of a naturalist or “natural philosopher” (the word scientist was yet to be coined) to the endeavor. While his prefatory note to the reader is trapped in the mind and language of its time, speaking of the “Almighty Creator,” the “Divine Wisdom in the works of Nature,” and the immutability of species in their “Eternal Design,” he also advocates passionately for acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and savoring the rewards of observation, especially of looking more closely at what is commonly overlooked. Although his motive is theological, its end and effect are almost scientific:
That there is not a wise Purpose in every thing that is made because we do not understand it, is as absurd as for a Man to say, there is no such thing as Light, because he is blind and has no Eyes to see it.
For the Illustration of this, we may take a short View of Creatures, in vulgar account too diminutive and despicable as a Species, to deserve a close Attention.
Even looking closely at the most “Noxious” of creatures, he suggests, brings us into more intimate contact with the consummate perfection of nature, for the more we consider them, the more we find not a particular reason why they should exist but no reason why they should not. A lovely notion to roll against the palate of the mind — a notion that sweetens a great many other contexts with its implications.
Nestled between the serpents are other poison-wielding animals — spiders, scorpions, frogs, wasps, hornets, the tarantula (“a kind of an overgrown Spider, about the Size of a common Acorn,” against the deadly bite of which “the most effectual and certain Remedy is Musick.”)
And then, in one of those glorious metaphysical meanderings lacing pre-scientific works of “natural philosophy,” Owen turns to the belief that music mitigates the effects of poisons, physical and moral, and adds a reverie to the canon of great writers extolling the power of music:
Musick appears to be one of the most antient of Arts, and of all other, vocal Musick must have been the first kind, and borrowed from the various natural Strains of Birds; as stringed Instruments were from Winds whistling in hollow Reeds, and pulsatile Instruments (as Drums and Cymbals) from the hollow Noise of concave Bodies. This is the Conjecture.
Musick has ever been in the highest Esteem in all Ages, and among all People. Nor could Authors express their Opinions of it strongly enough, but by inculcating, that it was in Heaven, and was one of the principal Entertainments of the Blessed.
The Effects ascribed to Musick by the Antients, almost amount to Miracles; by means thereof Diseases are said to have been cured, Unchastity corrected, Seditions quelled, Passions raised and calmed, and even Madness occasioned.
Musick has been used as a Sermon of Morality… The Pythagoreans made use of Musick to cultivate the Mind, and settle in it a passionate Love of Virtue… made use of it, not only against Diseases of the Mind, but those of the Body. It was the common Custom of the Pythagoreans to soften their Minds with Musick before they went to sleep; and also in the Morning, to excite themselves to the Business of the Day.
This Cure of Distempers by Musick sounds odd, but was a celebrated Medicine among the Antients. We have already considered, how those wounded by the Tarantula were healed by Musick; the Evidence of which is too strong to be overturned.
Couple with biologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer, writing a quarter millennium after Owen, on how the overlooked splendor of moss refines the art of attentiveness to all scales of existence, then savor other stunning scientific and natural history illustrations from Owen’s era: the consummate illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants, which the young self-taught artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the self-taught German artist and astronomer Maria Clara Eimmart’s haunting blue-and-gold renditions of the Solar System as it was then known; Sarah Stone’s paintings of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct species; and some wondrous illustrations of owls from Darwin’s century.
Source: Brain Pickings | 29 Jun 2020 | 3:31 pm(NZT)
Growing 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 — 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.
One fateful day, home for the holidays from Pittsburg, where he had gone to study commercial art but had grow disillusioned with the prescriptive form, hungry “to be spontaneous and free,” Haring chanced upon The Art Spirit — Robert Henri’s 1923 masterwork, which would go on to influence generation of artists as sundry as Georgia O’Keeffe and David Lynch. “Rise up if it kills you,” Henri had written to O’Keeffe’s best friend. “I’m for the person who takes the bit in his teeth & goes after what he believes in.” Henri’s book — an invitation, an incantation, to “do whatever you do intensely” — invigorated the young artist to take the bit of his own talent and unexampled creative vision in his teeth and go toward that intensity.
After hitchhiking across the country with his treasured copy of The Spirit of Art, he went to New York City.
At twenty, he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. (Cochran, whose illustrations bring Haring’s life to life in a rare acrobatic triumph of honoring another artist’s art in art that is both deliberately referential and thoroughly original, now teaches at the School of Visual Arts — a lovely testament to Robert Henri’s conviction that “all any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole.”)
One day, he foraged some rolls of paper lying in the gutter between the bustling New York sidewalk and the bustling New York street, and spontaneously “began making bigger and bigger pictures.”
Keith especially liked painting on the floor by the open door where the sunlight poured in.
People passing on the street would stop to watch or talk with him about what he was making. Keith loved it!
He didn’t believe that some people understand art while others don’t — or that art should be hidden away in galleries, museums, and private collections.
Keith wanted to communicate with as many people as possible. “The public has a right to art… Art is for everybody.”
Tracing Haring’s inviting self-discovery on vacant subway billboards and graffiti-populated walls, Burgess affirms this credo by spontaneously breaking into his own art-form — the delightful surprise of the book’s sole verse:
Maybe it makes them smile,
maybe it makes them think,
maybe it inspires them to draw
or dance or write or sing.
Meanwhile, we see the bower of the young artist’s imagination grow decorated with the experiences of a life fully lived — he falls in love, starts a club in a church basement on St. Mark’s Place with his friends, discovers the vibrant graffiti culture of Alphabet City, listens to his boyfriend’s music as he paints and they cook together.
Like artist Agnes Martin and the astonishing array of employments by which she sustained herself as she revolutionized art, he takes a series of odd jobs to survive in New York — bike messenger and sandwich-maker and gallery assistant in Soho and wildflower picker in Jersey and always, always his favorite: drawing with children at a Brooklyn daycare.
All the while, he keeps drawing on walls, savoring that small, enormous moment when a stranger pauses mid-stride in this unstoppable city for a colorful moment of unbidden wonder. Burgess writes:
For Keith, this was what art was all about — the moment when people see it and respond.
At last, four years after leaping into the glorious uncertainty of life as a young artist in New York City, his big breakthrough came — a major solo exhibition at a Soho gallery. It tipped a Rube Goldberg machine of opportunities and invitations, making the world his canvas — from the wall of an Italian monastery to the Berlin Wall to the wall.
But no matter how busy he became or where in the world he went, he always made time for children.
Keith understood kids and they understood him.
There was an unspoken bond between them.
And since children often asked him to draw on their t-shirts, skateboards, and jeans, he always kept a black marker handy.
In the remaining seven years of his life, as the art world grew to lavish Haring with recognition and plaudit, his drawings would come to cover the walls of orphanages and hospitals and daycare centers. When he spent five days painting the wall of a Chicago high school together with its 500 students, one walked up to him and said, with that special way children alone have of seeing into the heart of things and naming what is there without self-consciousness or pretense:
I can tell, by the way you paint, that you really love life.
Not long after that, Haring’s vivacity was stamped with the four letters that would spell certain death for so many young people of his generation. But even his AIDS diagnosis didn’t stifle his exuberant love of life — it only amplified it. Burgess quotes Haring’s diary:
I appreciate everything that has happened, especially the gift of life I was given that has created a silent bond between me and children. Children can sense this “thing” in me.
Drawing on Walls radiates that singular thingness with its sensitive, courageous homage to an artist whose short life cast a widening pool of light on so many, rippling across space and time. Complement it with Maya Angelou’s lovely verses of courage for kids, illustrated by Haring’s contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, and with the picture-book biographies of Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly, then revisit E.E. Cummings — the subject of Burgess’s first picture-book biography — on the courage to be yourself.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova
Source: Brain Pickings | 27 Jun 2020 | 3:52 pm(NZT)
In 1977, the poet Adrienne Rich exhorted a graduating class of young women to think of education not as something one receives but as something one claims. But what does an education mean, and what does claiming it look like, for lives and minds animating bodies born into dramatically different points along the vast spectrum of privilege and possibility which human society spans?
This question comes alive in a wonderfully unexpected and necessary way in one of the highlights of the the third annual Universe in Verse by another great poet, essayist, and almost unbearably moving memoirist: Elizabeth Alexander — the fourth poet in history read at an American presidential inauguration (she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her shimmering poem “Praise Song for the Day”) and the first woman of color to preside over one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations.
Two years after Alexander illuminated a disquieting shadow-patch excised from the hegemonic history of science with the stunning poem she read at the inaugural Universe in Verse, she returned to the stage to shine a beam of radiance on the beauty hidden in an umbral corner of the selective collective memory we call history. Following astrophysicist Janna Levin’s opening reading of a pair of short poems by two titanic contemporaries who never knew of each other’s existence — a short untitled exultation at the surreality of a solar eclipse by Emily Dickinson and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman — Alexander read a poetic antidote to history’s erasures, celebrating the invisible visionaries who also lived and marveled at the cosmos when Dickinson and Whitman lived and marveled at the cosmos, originally published in her collection American Sublime (public library) and prefaced in the show with some contextual connective tissue by yours truly:
by Elizabeth Alexander
In 1839, to enter University,
the Yale men already knew Cicero,
Dalzel’s Graeca Minora, then learned more Latin prosody,
Stiles on astronomy, Dana’s mineralogy.
Each year they named a Class Bully
who would butt heads with sailors in town.
“The first foreign heathen ever seen,”
Obookiah, arrived from Hawaii in ’09.
The most powerful telescope in America
was a recent gift to the school
and through it, they were first to see
the blazing return of Halley’s comet.
Ebeneezer Peter Mason
and Hamilton Lanphere Smith
spent all their free time at the instrument
observing the stars, their systems,
their movement and science and magic,
pondering the logic of mysteries that twinkle.
Some forty years before, Banneker’s
eclipse-predicting charts and almanacs
had gone to Thomas Jefferson
to prove “that nature has given our brethren
talents equal to other colors of men.”
Benjamin Banneker, born free,
whose people came from Guinea,
who taught himself at twenty-two (the same age
as the graduates) to carve entirely from wood
a watch which kept exquisite time,
accurate to the blade-sharp second.
Living in the same era as these astronomically enchanted men, whom Alexander so beautifully declipses from history’s shadow, was a young woman who blazed parallel trails for another section of humanity barred from higher education and discounted by the scientific establishment, and who would go on to stake her life on the conviction that equal opportunity for the life of the mind is at the center of social change.
Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated and whose life furnished the initial inspiration for Figuring (from which this portion of the essay is adapted) — was twelve when she observed her first solar eclipse through a brass telescope set up in the front parlor of her modest Quaker home on the island of Nantucket. The cosmos, with its mystery governed by immutable laws of poetic precision, staggered her imagination. By fifteen, she had mastered higher mathematics, which she supplemented with an ardent love of poetry. No institution — not on the island, not on the globe — had anything further to offer her in the way of higher education for a woman. And so, at seventeen, she founded a small school of her own.
The first children who approached the teenage teacher for enrollment were three “Portuguese” girls — the era’s slang for immigrants of color, whatever their actual nationality or race. Having just witnessed a vehement outcry when the Nantucket’s public school had attempted integration the previous year, Mitchell knew that admitting students of color would cost her the support of many parents, particularly the wealthy. But when the little girl representing the trio implored for a chance to learn, Mitchell made a decision with a clarity of conviction that would come to mark her life. The three “Portuguese” children became her first scholars, soon joined by others ranging in age from six to fourteen.
In a single large classroom, Mitchell stretched her students’ minds from Shakespeare to spherical geometry. But before she could savor the success of her school, she was offered the head librarianship of the Nantucket Atheneum — a new kind of cultural institution, named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, learning, and the arts, designed as a secular gathering place to discover and discuss ideas. She was eighteen. She would not relinquish her librarianship for two decades, despite the international celebrity into which her historic comet discovery catapulted her at the end of her twenties; despite her landmark admission into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the venerable institution’s first female member; despite becoming the first woman employed by the federal government for a “specialized non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” — a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.
During her tenure at the Atheneum, Mitchell hosted the institution’s regular public lectures by itinerant speakers. Among them was a young man who had escaped slavery three years earlier.
One August day in 1841, a nervous twenty-three-year-old Frederick Douglass — the same age as Mitchell — took the podium at the Atheneum to deliver his very first public address before the mixed-race audience of five hundred gathered at the island’s temple of learning for the first Nantucket Anti-Slavery Convention. “It was with the utmost difficulty,” Douglass would later recount, “that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering. I trembled in every limb.” He proceeded to deliver a speech so electrifying that at its conclusion, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was waiting to take the platform next, leapt to his feet, turned to the audience, and exclaimed: “Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?” The chamber of the Great Hall bellowed with a resounding “A man! A man!” The man was hired on the spot as full-time lecturer for Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society.
Four years later, by then one of the country’s most prominent public speakers, Douglass would write in his autobiography:
I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace.
Maria Mitchell echoed this sentiment in her own diary as she was doing for women what Douglass was doing for African Americans:
The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.
Mitchell and Douglass cherished their friendship for the remainder of their parallel pioneering lives — both world-famous before they were thirty, both liberators of possibility in their present, both role models of courage and tenacity for generations to come. The year Mitchell made her historic discovery of the world’s first telescopic comet, Douglass — who in that trembling dawn of his career had calmed his nerves by taking in the cosmic perspective through her telescope — began publishing his abolitionist newspaper; he titled it The North Star in homage to the key role astronomy played in the Underground Railroad — traveling at night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, an African name for the Big Dipper, for if they kept after the pole star, they would keep themselves moving north. In the final year of hers, the ailing Mitchell — whose childhood home had been a stop on the Underground Railroad — exerted herself to travel many miles via ferry, coach, and train for a reception given in her cherished friend’s honor.
Full recordings of the first three seasons of The Universe in Verse — a celebration of the meeting ground between science and the human spirit through the lens of poetry — are freely available to be enjoyed here.
Source: Brain Pickings | 25 Jun 2020 | 7:14 am(NZT)
A small, coruscating delight: I have made a series of face masks featuring wondrous centuries-old astronomical art and natural history illustrations I have restored and digitized from various archival sources over the years.
Among them are treasures like the Solar System quilt Ella Harding Baker spent seven years crafting in order to teach women astronomy long before they/we had access to formal education; the gorgeous 18th-century illustrations from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants that the young Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the astonishing drawings of celestial objects and phenomena the 19th-century French artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot saw through America’s first world-class scientific instrument, Harvard’s Great Refractor Telescope; the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s stunning illustrations of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct animals; some graphically spectacular depictions of how nature works from a 19th-century French physics textbook; Ernst Haeckel’s heartbreak-fomented drawings of the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish, and of course his classic radiolaria that so inspired Darwin; William Saville Kent’s pioneering artistic-scientific effort to bring the world’s awareness and awe to the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef; and art from the German marine biologist Carl Chun’s epoch-making Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of creatures of the deep, which upended the longtime belief that life could not exist below 300 fathoms. (Because as the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks well knew, “Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can.”)
I originally made these masks just for myself and a handful of beloved humans, but they turned out so unexpectedly lovely that I decided to make them available to all who would delight in them. The manufacturer (society6, over whose production, pricing, and other practical elements I have no control — mine is only the conceptual element, fitted into their standard template; they print the fabrics, sew the masks, sell and ship them) is donating a portion of their proceeds to World Center Kitchen, helping to feed those most in need at times of crisis, and I am donating to The Nature Conservancy, stewarding the long-term sustenance of this entire improbable, irreplaceable planet, and the endeavor to build New York’s most democratic institution of cosmic perspective, the city’s first public observatory.
Because of the mask’s particular folding pattern, some of the artwork came alive in a wholly new and unexpected way. My personal favorite — the original design I made for myself and my most beloved human — is the total solar eclipse mask, evocative of the opening line of astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s magnificent “Antidotes to Fear of Death”:
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
There is also the charmingly shy, sleepy, fold-nesting octopus; Haeckel’s perfectly positioned jellyfish, reminiscent of a plate from artist Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party project; the insurrectionist chameleon, extending a tongue where we may not; the holy coffee plant, daily deity to so many; the chromatically ecstatic spectra of various substances and the glorious double rainbow from the 1868 French gem Les phénomènes de la physique; the extinct poto-roo, reminding us with its sweet nonexistent face atop ours that creatures do perish and are forever erased; and the jubilant meteor shower, for another serving of life-affirming star-eating.
See them all here, and keep an eye on the collection as I might be adding more designs between reading, writing, partaking of protests, and gardening.
Source: Brain Pickings | 20 Jun 2020 | 11:37 am(NZT)
Nearly a century before Walt Whitman led us to see that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” Immanuel Kant proclaimed that there will never be a Newton for a blade of grass. There may not be a Newton, but there is a Leibniz.
One otherwise ordinary day in 1685, the lavish lawn of Princess Sophia’s palace in Hanover was strewn with the extraordinary sight of frocked, corseted, and coiffed aristocrats bending and kneeling and squinting at the grass, secretly relishing the childlike wonder beneath the grand grownup experiment they were conducting — the quest to find two identical leaves of grass in order to refute one of the seven fundamental ontological principles laid out by the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (July 1, 1646–November 14, 1716): the identity of indescribables, simply known as Leibniz’s Law, stating that there can be no two separate entities that have all their properties in common. A gentleman in the party had taken issue with Leibniz’s principle in the Princess’s presence, upon which she had simply challenged him to refute it by finding two blades of grass exactly alike.
Leibniz, who a decade earlier had developed calculus independently from Newton, watched with satisfaction as the gentleman “ran all over the garden for a long time” before finally giving up. This comical collision of empiricism and logic furnished one of the pillars of Western philosophy, fomenting our disquieting sense that however eagerly we may press our minds against physical reality, however eagerly we may lance our fingertips on its blade, we live mostly in a consensual imagined reality of abstractions. A year after the garden experiment, Leibniz himself affirmed this insight in an essay he titled “Primary Truths”:
Never do we find two eggs or two leaves or two blades of grass in a garden that are perfectly similar. And thus, perfect similarity is found only in incomplete and abstract notions.
A decade after philosophers Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman’s excellent inquiry into how we think with animals and a generation after John Berger’s landmark meditation on how looking at animals clarifies us to ourselves, philosopher Michael Marder explores how we clarify our own minds by looking at and thinking with plants in The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (public library). Reaching into the grass to wrest from it Leibniz’s broader “protest against the pretentious universal perspective without perspective that goes under the name of objectivity,” he examines the most elemental questions of individuality, incompleteness, diversity, and difference that color every aspect of our lives:
Only mathematical or geometrical notions differ in magnitude and in no other respect; matter, on the other hand, presupposes a predifferentiation and non-numeric determination well in advance of its concretization in things. At the threshold of the modern era, the garden is converted into the arena of valiant philosophical resistance to the mathematization of the world, where everything can be assigned its corresponding quantitative value on a uniform spatiotemporal grid of coordinates. And plants, despite being historically understood as incomplete or deficient things, are at the forefront of this struggle against the incompleteness of philosophical and mathematical abstractions.
Because Leibniz honored the absolute individuality of each blade of grass, and because he recognized that what makes it distinct from every other blade of grass is the particular location and confluence of conditions in which it grew, at the root of his principle is a bold defiance of John Locke’s model of the soul as a blank slate. Marder writes:
Acceptance of the conclusion that “no two individual things could be perfectly alike,” he argues, “puts an end to the blank tablets of the soul, a soul without thought, a substance without action, empty space, atoms, and even to portions of matter which are not actually divided,” among other things. The Leibnizian universe, much like his writing, resembles a Baroque garden or a Baroque painting, wherein space is saturated to the maximum, in an intricate imitation of vegetal excess. Emptiness and nondifferentiation — the mind as a blank slate — have no place there; their true home is the sterile sphere of mathematics and of modernity’s desire to force reality into quantitative molds.
Marder considers the blade of grass as the particular fulcrum for Leibniz’s ideas, its particularity itself significant, and proposes a branch of phenomenology specifically derived from the contemplation of vegetable life: phytophenomenology. In a passage evocative of the late, great physicist Freeman Dyson’s insistence that diversity is the ruling law of the universe, Marder explains:
Phytophenomenology may be encapsulated in the thesis that plants have their own take on life and on the world, their growth and reproduction being the lived and enacted processes of interpretation… Each species has its unique perspective, as does each individual specimen comprising the species and each part of any given plant. The difference between two blades of grass boils down to a divergence, however negligible, between embodied orientations to and lived interpretations of the environment. The world, moreover, is nothing outside of a nonmathematical sum, or a confluence of these differences. Assuming that two blades of grass were completely identical, they would have represented one perspective, one life, one piece of being, one blade of grass… In that case, the world would be poorer — or, better yet, it would not be — since it flourishes only in and as the variance among the beings that comprise it. Difference is at the origin of the world: it “worlds.”
Even two nearly identical (though not quite!) blades of grass present two faces of the world; they are the actual variations on the theme of a possible blade of grass, which, in and of itself, is abstract and incomplete, lacking in realization. The backbone of Leibniz’s monadology is this wedge of difference, responsible for the separation among perspectives on the world… Each blade of grass has its sufficient reason, elucidating the necessity of its existence just the way it is, despite the inexhaustible array of possibilities for it being otherwise.
Complement The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium, an intellectually coruscating and thoroughly original read in its entirety, with The Moral of Flowers — 19th-century poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s illustrated encyclopedia of poetic philosophies from the garden — then revisit the astonishing contemporary science of what trees feel and how they communicate.
Source: Brain Pickings | 19 Jun 2020 | 6:20 am(NZT)
The year was 1962 — the year The Beatles auditioned for the first major record label and were rejected, the year a NASA probe shot for the Moon and missed it by 22,000 miles, the year my mother was born. That year — a decade after the young Ronald McNair fought segregation at the public library, amid stacks of books with no children who looked like him, before becoming the second black human to launch into the cosmos — Ezra Jack Keats (March 11, 1916–May 6, 1983) published The Snowy Day — the first mainstream children’s book featuring a black child as the protagonist: the almost unbearably adorable, red-hooded, buoyant-spirited Peter, savoring the quintessential joy of a child’s first innocent encounter with snow.
Keats, born Jacob Ezra Katz on American soil at the peak of WWI into a family of immigrant Polish Jews, had changed his name during WWII to apply for jobs when many want ads thundered “No Jews Need Apply.” He had grown up in the poorest parts of Brooklyn, had lost his father the day before his high school graduation, and had spent his life making an improbable, barely sustainable, and, for its time and place, rather countercultural living as an artist: he painted for local businesses in the third grade; he made WPA murals in the wake of the Great Depression; he illustrated Marvel Comics backgrounds. In the gloaming hour of his thirties, when he began illustrating children’s books for other authors, Keats was troubled by how the monochrome imagination of mainstream publishing failed to represent the human panoply that colored the Brooklyn of his own childhood.
When he finally earned the opportunity to write and illustrate a book of his own, he pulled down the LIFE Magazine cutout pinned above his drawing table, which had traveled with him from studio to studio for two decades — a sequence of four photographs depicting a sweet black toddler as he receives a blood test, clad in a miniature coat and scarf, his body emanating that half-impish, half-unsteady loveliness of just learning to master gravity, his radiant face a Shakespearean theater of emotional expressions. That little boy became Keats’s Peter. “I can honestly say that Peter came into being because we wanted him,” Keats later reflected.
In the process of telling this culturally unexampled story, Keats also invented an artistically unexampled technique, blending painting and mixed-media collage, fusing elements of Japanese, Italian, and Scandinavian traditions with a style all his own, just like the America of his childhood had interleaved such variegated cultures into a shared canopy of possibility.
“As an African American child growing up in the 1960s, at a time when I didn’t see others like me in children’s books, I was profoundly affected by the expressiveness of Keats’s illustrations,” recounts Brooklyn-based author Andrea Davis Pinkney, born the year Keats’s trailblazing masterpiece won the Caldecott Medal — that Nobel Prize of children’s literature, which Keats received with the humble hope that Peter would “show in his own way the wisdom of a pure heart.” Half a century after her own childhood, Pinkney teamed up with Bay Area illustrator duo Lou Fancher and Steve Johnson to pay lyrical tribute to Keats’s courage in A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day (public library) — a lovely addition to these picture-book biographies of visionaries, part tribute poem and part conceptual peek-a-boo game in verse, a kind of imaginative shadow-play telling Klein’s story while addressing the “brown-sugar boy” as he emerges, born and blessed into being, from the snowy swaddle of his author’s imagination.
The story follows Ezra’s life from his hardship-haunted childhood in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn which Alfred Kazin captured so soulfully in his memoir of loneliness and the immigrant experience, to his young adulthood in the postwar years haunted by antisemitism, the unholy ghost prompting Hannah Arendt to observe that “society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” to his eventual entry into the world of children’s literature — the world he soon revolutionized by drawing on his own experience of exclusion to swing open the gates of empathy in the popular imagination and unlatch the bias-bolted human heart into affectionate inclusion.
Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man who saw you for you.
We see Ezra emerge and find himself — his parents, Gussie and Benjamin, alighting to America on an immigrant-crowded ship; Mama Gussie painting in secret but not daring to dream of being be a real fine artist (“she was forced to bite down on her dreams. This made her bitter, a way Ezra never wanted to be”); Papa Benjamin concerned about little Ezra’s artistic bend (“an artist was a strange, impractical thing to be”) but eventually letting his love prevail over his pragmatic concerns and chipping from his meager paycheck to buy tubes of paint for the young artist.
And meanwhile, the world around the family goes on being a world. A generation after the pioneering trans writer Jan Morris extolled New York’s summer heat as the ultimate equalizer of society, Pinkney eulogizes the opposite season’s equalizer — the backdrop of Ezra’s Brooklyn childhood and of Peter’s story:
But when it snowed,
oh, when it snowed!
Nature’s glittery hand
painted the world’s walls a brighter shade.
Snow made opportunity and equality
seem right around the corner.
Because, you see, Snow is nature’s we-all blanket.
When snow spreads her sheet, we all glisten.
When Snow paints the streets, we all see her beauty.
Snow doesn’t know who’s needy or dirty
or greedy or nice.
Snow doesn’t choose where to fall.
Snow doesn’t pick a wealthy man’s doorstep
over a poor lady’s stoop.
That’s Snow’s magic.
That is also the public library’s magic. Like the young Patti Smith, who found fuel for her own talent at the local public library of her impoverished childhood, we see Ezra discover art and science books and himself at the reference room of the Brooklyn Public Library — a lovely living testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s wisdom: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”
As Ezra’s life unspools across the tender illustrations and lyrical verses, we begin to feel the sweet ghost of Peter-to-be haunting his creator’s imagination as Pinkney elegantly coaxes the little boy out in a peek-a-boo tease. We see Ezra immerse himself in the delight of making art for children’s books, “but the delight was all white“; we see him calling out for Peter “like a daddy looking for his lost child.” When his chance finally comes to compose and illustrate his own story, the little boy who “had been waiting to be born,” who had been “there all along,” leaps out as “Ezra’s true jubilation.”
Peter emerges in the warm embrace of Pinkney’s verse:
Brown-sugar boy in a blanket of white.
Bright as the day you came onto the page.
From the hand of a man
whose life and times,
led him to you.
Yes, you, little boy,
were now in full view.
No longer a glint in Ezra’s eye,
but a curious child on a path
Like a snowflake you fell,
right into our hearts.
A little Snowy Day surprise!
Like a crystal flake form the clouds,
you fluttered down
with your own one-of-a-kind
Yes, you, Peter child, bubbled up
in this man,
now free to discover
the truth of your colors:
The here-I-am Red.
The look-at-me Yellow.
The proud-to-be Brown.
In the rhapsodic final pages, Pinkney turns her loving gaze wholly to Peter, to his “black-button eyes and hot-cocoa nose,” to his playful, dreamsome, snow-crunching “path in knee-deep wonder,” before she turns the same loving gaze back to his creator:
Ezra Jack Keats gave all of us a place.
Ezra Jack Keats gave us eyes to see.
Let us celebrate the making
of what it means to be.
He dared to open a door.
He awakened a wonderland.
He brought a world of white
suddenly alive with color.
when you and your hue
burst onto the scene,
all of us came out to play.
flapping our wings,
rejoicing in a we-all blanket of wheeee!
Thanks to Ezra Jack Keats,
we all can be.
As bright as Snow’s everlasting wonder.
Couple A Poem for Peter with Life Doesn’t Frighten Me — Maya Angelou’s courageous verses for kids, illustrated by Basquiat — then find more inspiration and courage for young hearts in the picture-book biographies of other trailblazers: Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.
Source: Brain Pickings | 18 Jun 2020 | 5:52 am(NZT)
“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem. When the dark patches fall on me also, I stand with Whitman in turning to the most reliable wellspring of light — the natural world, or what he so soulfully termed “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life” — the Moon seen through a telescope, so proximate and unassailable, this radiant orb of primeval scar tissue; the mossy trunk of a centuries-old cedar, ringed with the survival of wars and famines, a silent witness to countless human heartaches; the song of the thrush and the bloom of the magnolia and the lush optimism of that first blade of grass through the frosty soil — these bewilderments of beauty do not dissipate the depression, but they do dissipate the self-involvement with which we humans live through our sorrows, and in so unselfing us, they give us back to ourselves.
Here are several beloved writers from the past quarter millennium who have known the dark patches intimately and have written beautifully about this abiding antidote to the inner gloom, beginning, as we must, with the poet laureate of Nature himself.
Even as he was composing Leaves of Grass — that timeless gift of light — Whitman was wormed by the darkest self-doubt: “Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious,” he anguished in his diary. “I doubt whether my greatest thoughts…. are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me.” But on some elemental level, he knew that those capable of reaching “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are equally apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” He believed “that no artist or work of the very first class may be or can be without them.” It is a notion entirely different from the dangerous myth of the suffering artist — rather, it is the bold acknowledgement that in order for one to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, one ought to feel fully, to draw on the entire spectrum of being without repressing the darkest emotions.
In Whitman’s fifty-third year, life tested his credo — a paralytic stroke left him severely disabled. Under his brother’s care in the woods of New Jersey, he set about the slow, painstaking process of recovery. As he began regaining use of his body, he attributed the small, hard-earned triumphs to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars. He eventually recovered almost completely, having turned the woods into an outdoor gym, but the cataclysm left him existentially shaken into considering the most elemental questions: Where does one find meaning amid the precarious uncertainty of being? How does one maximize those little pockets of gladness that make it possible to go on living and making art through acute suffering? What, ultimately, makes life worth living?
His resulting meditations appear in Specimen Days (public library) — the altogether indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and journal entries that also gave us Whitman’s reflections on the spiritual power of music, optimism as a force of political resistance, and how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.
A decade after his stroke, Whitman looked back on what saved him — body and soul — and writes:
The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.
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 another entry, he considers the essence of happiness, locating it in absolute presence with nature and unalloyed attention with the rhythms of the Earth:
I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)
“Life must be undergone,” John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.” Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression. In another fragment of his excellent in his Selected Letters (public library), he writes: “I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence.”
Keats found only two remedies for the soul-stifling numbness: the love of his friends (“I could not live without the love of my friends”) and the love of nature. Another letter to his dearest friend stands as a beautiful, bittersweet testament to both:
You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.
It is impressive enough that Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — whom James Baldwin adored and described as “a small, shy, determined person… not trying to ‘make it’ [but just] trying to keep the faith” — revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility by becoming the first black playwright performed on Broadway and going on to furnish civil rights with a whole new vocabulary of action. It is triply impressive that she did so while the grey nimbus of depression hung low and heavy over vast swaths of her life. Hansberry kept the faith largely by turning to nature for its irrepressible light.
In a diary entry quoted in Imani Perry’s altogether magnificent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes with dispassionate remove that her unhappiness has taken on the shape of “a steady, calm quiet sort of misery”; sitting in a place she had once adored, now feeling “feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired” there, she turns her weary gaze toward the only salve she knows:
Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries… even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.
To those superficially acquainted with his life and work, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) might appear as a rosy-lensed optimist drunk on transcendentalist delusion, living in self-elected exile from the darker realities of the world. Such an estimation of his inner world — of anyone’s inner world — is not only impoverished of nuance, but orthogonal to the complex full-spectrum human begin who rises from the pages of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (public library) — that timeless fount of truth bathing us across the centuries in Thoreau’s wisdom on such varied aspects of aliveness as knowing versus seeing, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.
To be sure, living in such intimate proximity with nature, Thoreau was given to elations that evade the modern civilization-stifled mind. In an entry penned two days after his thirty-third birthday, he exults:
What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man! There can be no really black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has still his senses.
But his existential radiance was abruptly blackened when his best and at times only friend — his brother John — died of tetanus from a shaving cut when Thoreau was twenty-five. He watched in helpless horror as lockjaw warped his brother’s face and spasms contorted his body before the deadly bacterium claimed his life. He then sank into a deep depression that never fully receded, lapping at him in lifelong waves.
Again and again, Thoreau took solace in nature. In the high summer of 1852, a decade after his brother’s death and a decade before his own, Thoreau draws in the margin of his journal a sketch of the local hill crests, dotted with the tops of trees, then considers this natural vista as a life-saving calibration of perspective for the sorrow-blinded heart:
Even on the low principle that misery loves company and is relieved by the consciousness that it is shared by many, and therefore is not so insignificant and trivial, after all, this blue mountain outline is valuable. In many moods it is cheering to look across hence to that blue rim of the earth, and be reminded of the invisible towns and communities, for the most part also unremembered, which lie in the further and deeper hollows between me and those hills. Towns of sturdy uplandish fame, where some of the morning and primal vigor still lingers… it is cheering to think that it is with such communities that we survive or perish… The melancholy man who had come forth to commit suicide on this hill might be saved by being thus reminded how many brave and contented lives are lived between him and the horizon. Those hills extend our plot of earth; they make our native valley or indentation in the earth so much the larger.
In another entry penned in autumn — which, long before the diagnostic notion of seasonal affective disorder, Thoreau noted as a season when the human spirit tends to take a marked downturn — he draws from a particular creation of nature a living metaphor for how to move through the darkest seasons of the heart:
If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot!… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.
“Last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy Freeman, of that symphonic moment when she turned in the manuscript of Silent Spring — the courageous exposé that catalyzed the environmental movement, which had taken Carson a decade of incubation and four years of rigorous research to bring to life as she was dying of cancer. Dorothy had been her pillar throughout both of these superhuman parallel journeys — the only person in whom this brilliant, stoical woman confided the complexity of her inner world, her writing process and the loneliness of creative work, her silent battles. (Their tender relationship and how it shored up Carson’s scientific work and far-reaching cultural legacy animate the last two hundred pages of Figuring, from which this miniature essay is adapted.)
In early June 1963, a year after the release of Silent Spring, Carson climbed into the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and had her assistant take her from her home in Maryland to Capitol Hill — the pain in her back, spine, shoulder, and neck was by now too unbearable for Carson to drive even this short distance herself — to appear before a congressional committee on pesticides, summoned as a consequence of Silent Spring. Under the bright television lights, all traces of physical agony fled from the authoritative presence that took the witness stand in the windowless, wood-paneled Room 102 of the Senate building. 101 years after Abraham Lincoln greeted Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words “This is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” the presiding Senator greeted Carson: “Miss Carson… we welcome you here. You are the lady who started all this. Will you please proceed.”
Speaking calmly into the press posy of six microphones before her, Carson proceeded to deliver a stunning forty-minute testimony predicated on revealing the delicate interconnectedness of nature and tracing the far-reaching devastation inflicted by poisonous chemicals once they enter an ecosystem. She called for a “strong and unremitting effort” to reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides. While her testimony was strewn with facts, it was palpably poetic in its elegy for ecology. She gave her strong recommendation for establishing an agency tasked with safeguarding nature — a landmark development that would take the government another seven years to institute. Carson would never live to see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor its ban of DDT, both the direct result of her work.
Her congressional testimony, after which she was flooded by letters from citizens thanking her for having spoken inconvenient truth to power, was a crowning moment for the sense of duty that had propelled Carson through the arduous years leading up to Silent Spring. Having executed her responsibility as a citizen, scientist, and steward of life, she was free and restless to return to the sea, to her summer cabin on Southport Island in Maine, to Dorothy.
No record survives of the weeks containing Rachel and Dorothy’s last summer hours together — the absence of letters suggesting that they spent every precious moment in each other’s presence. Tide pool excursions were now a thing of the past — compression fractures in Carson’s spine made it difficult to walk, painful even to stand. Dorothy thought she looked like alabaster. They spent afternoons together in a little clearing in the woods near Carson’s cottage, watching the clouds float across the sky, listening to the avian orchestra in the trees, and reading to each other from their favorite books.
One shimmering day in early September, Dorothy took Rachel to their favorite spot on the tip of the island, where they had once watched meteors blaze ephemeral bridges of light across the riverine haze of the Milky Way. With their arms around each other, they slowly made the short, aching walk to the wooden benches perched atop the shore and sat under the blue late morning skies. Above the crashing waves, under the wind-strummed spruces, Dorothy and Rachel sat in intimate silence and watched a majestic procession of monarch butterflies flit toward the southern horizon on their annual migration — living meteors of black and gold. Half a century later, monarchs would take flight aboard the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, where Carson had begun her career, would call for their inclusion in the protections of the Endangered Species Act — one of several dozen environmental protection laws passed in the 1970s as direct and indirect consequences of Silent Spring.
That afternoon, Rachel sent Dorothy a lyrical “postscript” to their morning. Detailing the splendors that had etched themselves onto her memory — the particular hue of the sky, the particular score of the surf — she wrote:
Most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.
But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.
For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.
That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you.
I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.
Source: Brain Pickings | 15 Jun 2020 | 6:30 am(NZT)
“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.
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.
In a soaring letter penned in the first days of their first summer together, while Tooti was on mainland Finland for a residency and Tove was home on the small island in the Borgå archipelago where she spent her summers, she writes:
I miss you so dreadfully. Not in a desperate or melancholy way, because I know we shall soon be with each other again, but I feel at such a loss and just can’t get it into my head that you’re not around any more. This morning, half awake, I put a hand out to feel for you, then remembered you weren’t there, so I got up very quickly to escape the emptiness. And worked all day.
After sharing the mundanities that make a shared life — mundanities radiating her sweetness of spirit: reports of bringing home some mud for the swallows from the nearby bay, reports of using up all the raisins, “all our raisins,” on a batch of the home-brewed Finnish kilju — she loops back to the bittersweetness of Tooti’s absence:
It was a fine night, calm and quiet, and I still couldn’t take it in that you weren’t here, kept half turning round to see what you were doing or to say something to you.
Wherever I go on the island, you’re with me as my security and stimulation, your happiness and vitality are still here, everywhere. And if I left here, you would go with me. You see, I love you as if bewitched, yet at the same time with profound calm, and I’m not afraid of anything life has in store for us.
The following day — a gloomy, rainy day, with the encircling sea “grey and austere” — Tove tells Tooti that while hauling stones to build a fire terrace, she began conceiving of a new Moomin story — “a story about the sea and different sorts of solitude.” A decade later, that idea would become Pappan och havet, literally translated as “the father and the sea,” but published in English as Moominpappa at Sea — the most soulful and contemplative of the Moomin stories. (How much of the history of art and science is strewn with the private storms and solitudes of its creators, invisible to the eye that beholds the resulting creation — the echoes of Herman Melville’s unrequited love in Moby-Dick, the shadows of Ernst Haeckel’s staggering loss in his scientific obsession and its artistic halo, the ruddering role of Rachel Carson’s love for Dorothy in the making of the environmental movement.)
But even this grey solitude is aglow with Tove’s love for Tooti. In a passage from the same letter that begins with a poetic piece of koan-like logic, she writes:
It always tends to be easier to go than to stay — even if you’re happy being with the one you are leaving.
Waiting is a sheer pleasure when it’s for you — and the calm awareness that all I have to do is add together a number of days, and we’ll see each other again.
After a disarming veer into the pragmatic thoughtfulnesses that sweeten a shared life — “Thank you for the fly swatter my darling, it seems extremely effective.” — she adds:
I’m so unused to being happy that I haven’t really come to terms with what it involves. Suddenly my arms are heaped full of new opportunities, new harmony, new expectations. I feel like a garden that’s finally been watered, so my flowers can bloom.
A week later, as Tove patiently awaits her beloved but misses her more and more achingly, she echoes philosopher Simone Weil’s observation that “those who do not love each other are not separated” and writes:
Summer is moving on through its stages and sometimes I feel so melancholy that you aren’t here. But perhaps it’s good to have a bit of distance between us. I know now that I couldn’t possibly be more attached to you, in a harmonious and happy way that can only grow stronger and more tender.
But I’ve known that all along.
The following week, she composes a gorgeous letter aglow with the sentiment at the heart of every marital vow:
Now my adored relations have finally gone to sleep, strewn about in the most unlikely sleeping places, the chatter has died down, the storm too, and I can talk to you.
Thank you for your letter, which felt like a happy hug. Oh yes, my Tuulikki, you have never given me anything but warmth, love and good cheer.
Isn’t it remarkable, and seriously wonderful, that there’s still not a single shadow between us? And you know what, the best thing of all is that I’m not afraid of the shadows. When they come (as I suppose they must, for all those who care for one another), I think we can maneuver our way through them.
And then, in one of those touching Toveisms, she pivots on a happy heel from the breathtakingly romantic to the pragmatically, affectionately blunt:
If you write in Finnish, please could you be a dear and use the typewriter; your handwriting’s a bit tricky sometimes.
Then, just as nimbly and joyously, she pivots right back to the romantic:
I miss those quiet June days when you were piecing together your mosaic or whittling away at some knotty bit of wood and it was possible to listen, contemplate and explore how we felt.
Tuulikki, I long to read more in the book of you. I long for you in every way, and I’m more alone with all these people around me than when I was wandering about on my own, thinking of you.
She ends the letter with the first tentative drawing of Too-ticky, which she describes to Tooti as “a new little creature that isn’t quite sure if it’s allowed to come in!” before signing the letter “Your Tove.” The strange and wondrous creature did come in — into Tove’s heart, into the Moomin universe — and never left.
Complement this fragment of the thoroughly delightful Letters from Tove with other masterpieces from the canon of great love letters by luminaries of creative culture: Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokova, Iris Murdoch to Brigit Brophy, Hannah Arendt to Martin Heidegger, John Cage to Merce Cunningham, Kahlil Gibran to Mary Haskell, Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Oscar Wilde to Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
Source: Brain Pickings | 13 Jun 2020 | 2:51 pm(NZT)
This essay is excerpted from Figuring.
When the nineteenth-century sculptor Harriet Hosmer was blazing the way for women in art while living as an openly queer person in Rome, she took special care to use her visibility as a platform for making others visible, her success as an opportunity-broadening instrument for the success of others. The pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who was doing for women in science what Hosmer was doing in art and who met the sculptor while visiting Rome as America’s first international scientific celebrity, recounted that “if there came to any struggling artist in Rome the need of a friend, — and of the thousand artists in Rome very few are successful, — Harriet Hosmer was that friend.”
One of the young artists Hosmer took under her friendly wing was the sculptor Edmonia Lewis (July 4, 1844–September 17, 1907) — the daughter of a Cherokee mother and a black father.
After growing up among Native Americans, Lewis had attended Oberlin College — not only the first university to admit women, but the first to admit women of ethnic minorities. But the university was no unbigoted idyll — when two white classmates became ill after sharing spiced wine served by Lewis, they accused her of poisoning them, even though she herself had drunk the wine without harm. Word spread beyond the liberal Oberlin campus. One evening, as Lewis was walking home from class by herself, she was attacked and forced into an open field, where she was brutally beaten and left for dead. Having barely survived, she — rather than her assailants — was arrested, an analog across the centuries to the same warping of justice that had befallen Medusa and Beatrice Cenci, the mytho-historical figures which Hosmer had sculpted into the masterpieces that made her famous.
Lewis was charged with poisoning her classmates on evidence as logically consistent and factually compelling as that on which Johannes Kepler’s mother had been tried for witchcraft. A prominent black lawyer, himself an Oberlin alumnus, defended her successfully—she was exonerated and eventually moved to Boston, where she studied with a successful sculptor before following in Hosmer’s footsteps and moving to Rome in her early thirties, at the same age that Hosmer had migrated there fifteen years earlier.
From Rome, Lewis wrote to her friend Lydia Maria Child — one of the era’s most politically wakeful public voices, who had championed the young Hosmer when she had been Lewis’s age:
A Boston lady took me to Miss Hosmer’s studio. It would have done your heart good to see what a welcome I received. She took my hand cordially, and said, “Oh, Miss Lewis, I am glad to see you here!” and then, while she still held my hand, there flowed such a neat little speech from her true lips!… Miss Hosmer has since called on me, and we often meet.
Lewis went on to become the nineteenth century’s only African American artist of mainstream recognition. In 1876, her 3,015- pound marble sculpture The Death of Cleopatra — a pinnacle of beauty and tragedy in a daring direct portrayal of unglamorized death — became a crowning curio at the first official World’s Fair in America, lauded as the most remarkable piece in the American section of the exhibition.
Complement with Gwendolyn Brooks — the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, at the age Lewis was when she moved to Rome — on vulnerability as strength, then revisit the wondrous illustrated story of Wangari Maathai — the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize for her courageous endeavor to plant a million trees as an act of resistance and empowerment.
Source: Brain Pickings | 11 Jun 2020 | 3:16 pm(NZT)
“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin observed as he reflected on same-sex love and the courage to “go the way your blood beats” in his most personal interview. The danger, of course, is exponentially greater for those of us whose loves live outside the heteronormative mold, and it increases exponentially as we turn history’s dial back toward the countless generations who paid for our freedom with theirs — tried like Radclyffe Hall or jailed like Oscar Wilde or assassinated like Harvey Milk or obliquely murdered by the government like Alan Turing or, like Emily Dickinson, like Hans Christian Andersen, dying the slow death of living without the possibility of making their deepest love known in anything less coded than fairy tales and verse.
In the epochs before the term “LGBT” came into use, before the radical notion that taking “Pride” in it could replace living with shame about it, hardly any public voice has emboldened more hearts to love whom they love than Walt Whitman in his courageous, uncoded verses celebrating the freedom of the heart.
One dawning July morning in 1870, at the insomniac peal of 4 A.M. — which Baldwin considered the hour of despair, reckoning, and self-redemption — a young English man who would become the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) picked up his pen and his courage, and composed an extraordinary letter to Walt Whitman. Carpenter was twenty-five, Whitman fifty-one.
By then, a decade after the release of his epoch-making Leaves of Grass, the American poet was accustomed to adoring letters from strangers — none more beautiful than Anne Gilchrist’s love letters to him, none more surprising than Bram Stoker’s. Though Carpenter’s was laced with genuine artistic admiration and kinship of spirit, it was not a love letter — it was a letter of gratitude, stirring for its splendor of expression and doubly stirring for the palpable soul-depth of its sentiment.
Whitman found the letter, later quoted in Sheila Rowbotham’s excellent biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (public library), to be “beautiful, like a confession.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and fellowship.
At the time, Carpenter was working as a curate for the Church of England after graduating as a theologian from Trinity Hall two years earlier. After telling Whitman that he is leaving the stagnancy of Cambridge to travel north and lecture to working-class men and women, driven by the sense that they are longing “to lay hold of something with a real grasp,” Carpenter commends the poet for his unselfconscious celebration of working-class masculinity. He then relays that the day before, “a young workman with the old divine light in his eyes” had come to his door, and Carpenter had allowed himself to feel overcome by unselfconscious desire; the encounter had inspired him to thank Whitman for the courage to fully inhabit his love of other men. He writes:
You have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. (—And others thank you though they do not say so). For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but to some, there is that which passes the love of women.
Writing in an era when same-sex love was not only rejected but criminalized, Carpenter adds ruefully:
It is enough to live wherever the divine beauty of love may flash on men; but indeed its real and enduring light seems infinitely far from us in this our day… At the last, it is enough to know that the longed-for realization is possible — will be, has been, is even now somewhere — even though we find it not.
Across the Atlantic, across the cultural and generational abyss, Carpenter and Whitman met seven years later and remained in lifelong correspondence. Carpenter left the church to become a lecturer in astronomy and the music of ancient Greece, a pioneering LGBT rights activist, a correspondent of Gandhi’s, and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.” After returning from India in 1891, Carpenter met the love of his life — a younger working-class man, who became his partner for the rest of his life. The relationship inspired Carpenter to write beautiful works of uncommon insight into the dangers and triumphs of the heart, any heart — what he called “the drama of love and death.”
Complement with Albert Camus’s magnificent letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher, penned shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, then revisit Carpenter on how freedom strengthens togetherness in long-term relationships and Whitman’s deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem.
Source: Brain Pickings | 10 Jun 2020 | 11:15 am(NZT)
“Knowledge sets us free… A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating the sacredness of public libraries. “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be,” her contemporary James Baldwin — who had read his way from the Harlem public library to the literary pantheon — insisted in his courageous and countercultural perspective on freedom.
Ronald McNair (October 21, 1950–January 28, 1986) was nine when he took his freedom into his own small hands.
Unlike Maya Angelou, who credited a library with saving her life, McNair’s triumphant and tragic life could not have been saved even by a library — he was the age I am now when he perished aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger before the eyes of a disbelieving nation. But his life was largely made by a library — a life equal parts inspiring and improbable against the cultural constrictions of his time and place; a life of determination that rendered him the second black person to launch into space, a decade and a half after a visionary children’s book first dared imagine the possibility.
A quarter century after McNair’s untimely death, a contemporary children’s book set out to broaden the landscape of possibility for generations to come by celebrating the formative fortitude of his trailblazing life.
Ron’s Big Mission (public library) by lyricist, scriptwriter, and teacher Rose Blue and former U.S. Navy journalist Corinne J. Naden, illustrated by Don Tate — a lovely addition to these emboldening picture-book biographies of cultural heroes — tells the story of a summer day in the segregated South in 1959 when the young Ron, a voracious reader with a passion for airplanes and dreams of becoming a pilot, awakens with the daring determination to bring home a book from the library checked out under his own name. He knows this is not allowed — he has devoured countless books at the library, but he knows that only white people are allowed to check them out. He also knows, with the clarity that children have in seeing into the unalloyed heart of reality, that whatever justification the grownups in power might have for this rule, there is no justice and humanity in it.
On the wings of his purehearted enthusiasm to dismantle the hypocrisies of the system, Ron races past the local baker offering him a fresh-baked donut, past his friend Carl shooting hoops, and into the library as the day’s first visitor.
The head librarian greets him warmly, delighted to see the young reader who has become “her best customer.” Ron waves back and heads straight for the shelves. After the usual disappointment of finding hardly any books with children who look like him, he opts for the impersonal consolation of machines, pulling out a few books about airplanes.
When another regular patron of the library — a kindly older white lady — offers to check the books out for him, Ron thanks her but declines. He heads to the front desk and lays the books on the counter. The desk clerk doesn’t even look at him.
With a child’s benevolence of interpretation, he thinks at first that she simply hasn’t heard him. But when she continues to disregard him, he does the most logical thing, by the undiluted logic we adults have relinquished in favor of the polite pretensions we call propriety: He jumps on the counter, then calmly restates his wish to check out the books.
Everyone is aghast.
Ron is reminded of the rule.
Still polite but still standing on the counter, he simply restates his wish — a small boy’s enormous act that would have made Thoreau proud as America’s premier champion of civil disobedience and ardent lover of public libraries.
Other patrons are staring. The library staff are stumped. Finally, they call the police. Two policemen arrive immediately. “Let someone check out the books for you, son,” one of them pleads with Ron. Ron refuses.
The head librarian then turns to the ultimate authority — Ron’s mother.
When Mrs. McNair arrives, she too reminds Ron of the rule — the rule he has known all along, the rule that is not a matter of reminding but of resisting. When this nine-year-old revolutionary states simply that the rule is wrong and unfair, and asks why he can’t check out books like everyone else, all the adults look at each other and grow silent.
The head librarian stares into the empty space as pandemonium enfolds the empty rule, then looks at Ron — this largehearted, hardheaded, hungry-brained boy, her very best customer. And she knows instantly what she must do.
In a testament to Hannah Arendt’s superb contemporaneous inquiry into the only effective antidote to the normalization of evil and her insistence that “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not [and] no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation,” the librarian disappears into her office as Mrs. McNair and the policemen continue trying to sway Ron.
When she emerges a few minutes later, she hands Ron a library card with his very own name on it. Beaming with his triumph and with gratitude to his sole ally in this act of resistance on the small scale of the personal, with the colossal stakes of the political, he hands the card to the desk clerk as he politely restates his wish to check out the books.
She stamps it.
The rest is history, and it is the making of a future — Ron’s own future as a trailblazer who devoted his life to the ultimate unifying force, our shared cosmic belonging, and the futures of generations for whom he modeled the courage of rewriting the dominant narrative of permission and possibility. Today, a Space Shuttle graces the mural on the walls of the children’s room at the Lake City public library in South Carolina, where all children are allowed to check out any book they wish, including books starring children who look a lot like them.
Complement Ron’s Big Mission with What Miss Mitchell Saw — a lyrical picture-book about astronomer Maria Mitchell, who blazed the way for women in science — and a moving remembrance of Ronald McNair by his brother, then revisit astronaut Leland Melvin — the thirteenth black astronaut to leave Earth’s atmosphere, and among the fraction of a fraction of one percent of our species to have seen the splendor of our planet’s canopy from space — reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest.
For other picture-book biographies of visionaries who have changed the way we understand and live life, savor the illustrated stories of Wangari Maathai, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly.
Source: Brain Pickings | 6 Jun 2020 | 3:23 pm(NZT)
I came to this country not having inherited its sins, not being afforded many of its rights, but eager to share — and having by now devoted my adult life to sharing — in its responsibilities, its atonements, its healing. I came alone, barely out of my adolescence, into a country not yet out of its adolescence — that developmental stage when the act of taking responsibility is most difficult, and the impulse toward evasion and escapism most intense. “I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic, staggeringly timely conversation about race, forgiveness, and the crucial distinction between guilt and responsibility — historic also in speaking to Baldwin’s definition of history as “a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.”
These complex dynamics are what the great Mexican poet and political activist Octavio Paz (March 31, 1914–April 19, 1998) explores in the opening chapter of his superb 1950 book-length essay The Labyrinth of Solitude (public library), written in Paris months after the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation, while Paz was serving as a newly appointed Mexican diplomat, and shortly after he lived in the United States as a Mexican poet, having chosen to use his Guggenheim Fellowship to study at U.C. Berkeley in California.
Like me, Paz arrived to the United States as an other — as an alien of a different tongue, from a country scarred by centuries of violent invasions and decades of dictatorship, with a culture older than the American by epochs; unlike me, he arrived male, non-white, an adult, and an award-winning poet of cultural standing. It was with all of these multitudes that he observed and interpreted what he saw in his adolescent host country. In a sentiment his contemporary Louise Bourgeois echoed in her diary — “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.” — Paz writes:
All of us, at some moment, have had a vision of our existence as something unique, untransferable and very precious. This revelation almost always takes place during adolescence. Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone: it is the opening of an impalpable, transparent wall — that of our consciousness — between the world and ourselves. It is true that we sense our aloneness almost as soon as we are born but children and adults can transcend their solitude and forget themselves in games or work. The adolescent, however, vacillates, between infancy and youth, halting for a moment before the infinite richness of the world. He is astonished at the fact of his being, and this astonishment leads to reflection: as he leans over the river of consciousness, he asks himself if the face that appears there, disfigured by the water, is his own. The singularity of his being, which is pure sensation in children, becomes a problem and a question.
Much the same thing happens to nations and peoples at a certain critical moment in their development. They ask themselves: What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are? The answers we give to these questions are often belied by history, perhaps because what is called the “genius of a people” is only a set of reactions to a given stimulus. The answers differ in different situations, and the national character, which was thought to be immutable, changes with them.
In a sentiment of staggering timeliness today, as we face the challenge and discipline of reflection in order to respond — and respond robustly and effectively — rather than merely react to unbearably triggering events, Paz adds:
There is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth. It is a moment of reflective repose before we devote ourselves to action again… It does not matter, then, if the answers we give to our questions must be corrected by time. The adolescent is also ignorant of the future changes that will affect the countenance he sees in the water. The mask of an old man is as indecipherable at first glance as a sacred stone covered with occult symbols; it is the history of various amorphous features that only take shape, slowly and vaguely, after the profoundest contemplation. Eventually these features are seen as a face, and later as a mask, a meaning, a history.
The questions we all ask ourselves today will probably be incomprehensible fifty years from now. Different circumstances are likely to produce different reactions.
On this latter point, Paz may be wrong — or at least incomplete, neglecting the vital outliers, the rare far-seers who speak of their present and speak to the future, voices like Baldwin’s and Mead’s, whose questioning quickenings of mind and spirit remain not only comprehensible but acutely relevant fifty years later.
Before we go on, we must pause to remember that language is the supreme vessel of meaning-making, hulled with a history and masted with a future. It carries in its colossal careening body all the baggage of its culture. Paz uses man to say citizen, to denote universal humanity — a convention by which writers of his era, male or female, abided; a convention at the gendered Goliath of which Ursula K. Le Guin shot her perfectly aimed pebble in her exquisite civilizational service of unsexing the universal pronoun. It may be a useful exercise to note with disquietude the biases of language, but the exercise becomes distinctly unhelpful when the disquietude deafens us to the message inside the vessel. Paz’s message transcends the bounds of his time to speak to ours:
In the United States man… has built his own world and it is built in his own image: it is his mirror. But now he cannot recognize himself in his inhuman objects, nor in his fellows. His creations, like those of an inept sorcerer, no longer obey him. He is alone among his works, lost — to use the phrase by José Gorostiza — in a “wilderness of mirrors.”
Upon arriving to the United States — which, as a resident of a neighboring landmass the shared name of which a single nation has usurped as its own, he insistently and correctly refers to as culturally North American rather than “American” — Paz found himself “surprised above all by the self-assurance and confidence of the people, by their apparent happiness and apparent adjustment to the world around them.” Drawing on the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s distinction between uses and abuses in differentiating the revolutionary spirit from the merely reformist impulse, he dismantles the apparent with the hard actuality:
The revolutionary is always radical, that is, he is trying to correct the uses themselves rather than the mere abuses of them. Almost all the criticisms I heard from the lips of North Americans were of the reformist variety: they left the social or cultural structures intact and were only intended to limit or improve this or that procedure.
Two decades before he resigned his post as a Mexican diplomat to protest the massacre of hundreds of peacefully protesting unarmed citizens, mostly students, by his country’s armed forces, Paz adds:
It seemed to me then, and it still does, that the United States is a society that wants to realize its ideals, has no wish to exchange them for others, and is confident of surviving, no matter how dark the future may appear. I am not interested in discussing whether this attitude is justified by reason and reality; I simply want to point out that it exists… I found it in the actions, the words and even the faces of almost everyone I met.
Americans, he notes more with curiosity than with condemnation, consider this disposition realism — but it is only a pseudo-realism, sustained by a willful blindness to uncomfortable realities — a form of culturally condoned hypocrisy that has become part of the national character. He writes:
When hypocrisy is a character trait it also affects one’s thinking, because it consists in the negation of all the aspects of reality that one finds disagreeable, irrational or repugnant.
And yet, in consonance with Baldwin and Mead’s distinction between guilt and responsibility, Paz insists that the fruitful attitude with which to face those disagreeable realities is not guilt, for guilt is never “transformed into anything other than hatred, solitary despair or blind idolatry.” The fruitful response — the responsible response — has to do with refusing to see ourselves as islanded in the river of time, unaccountable to and for history:
Contemporary history invalidates the belief in man as a creature whose essential being can be modified by social or pedagogical procedures. Man is not simply the result of history and the forces that activate it, as is now claimed; nor is history simply the result of human will, a belief on which the North American way of life is implicitly predicated. Man, it seems to me, is not in history: he is history.
Paz terms his meditation on these immensely complex and interleaved issues his “testimony” — a lovely term and a subtle way of acknowledging that all of our perspectives, however informed by a wide and deep understanding of history, however enriched by experience and empathy, are still at bottom subjective witnessings that render any self-appointed authority over absolute universal truth a farce. It is with this reverence for the shared and the subjective that he ends the chapter, reaching across the millennia, across the panoply of cultures, to wrest an elemental human truth:
A study of the great myths concerning the origin of man and the meaning of our presence on earth reveals that every culture — in the sense of a complex of values created and shared in common — stems from the conviction that man the intruder has broken or violated the order of the universe. He has inflicted a wound on the compact flesh of the world, and chaos, which is the ancient and, so to speak, natural condition of life, can emerge again from this aperture… Man collaborates actively in defending universal order, which is always being threatened by chaos. And when it collapses he must create a new one, this time his own. But exile, expiation and penitence should proceed from the reconciliation of man with the universe.
We have not, he laments, achieved this reconciliation — and out of this unmet longing arises a terror that rattles the root of our humanity:
We have lost our sense of the very meaning of all human activity, which is to assure the operation of an order in which knowledge and innocence, man and nature are in harmony.
It is possible that what we call “sin” is only a mythical expression of our self-consciousness, our solitude. I remember that in Spain during the civil war I had a revelation of “the other man” and of another kind of solitude: not closed, not mechanical, but open to the transcendent. No doubt the nearness of death and the brotherhood of men-at-arms, at whatever time and in whatever country, always produce an atmosphere favorable to the extraordinary, to all that rises above the human condition and breaks the circle of solitude that surrounds each one of us. But in those faces — obtuse and obstinate, gross and brutal, like those the great Spanish painters, without the least touch of complacency and with an almost flesh-and-blood realism, have left us — there was something like a desperate hopefulness, something very concrete and at the same time universal.
In yet another resonance with Baldwin’s insistence that “we’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” Paz concludes:
The memory will never leave me. Any one who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes, among all kinds of men. And he will dream of finding it again someday, somewhere, perhaps among those closest to him. In every man there is the possibility of his being — or, to be more exact, of his becoming once again — another man.
The Labyrinth of Solitude is a resplendent read in its entirety. Couple the vital human issues Paz explores in it with an equally vital non-human counterpart in the great nature writer Henry Beston’s reflections on otherness, belonging, and the dignity of difference, then revisit Toni Morrison on borders, belonging, and the violence of otherness, Walter Lippmann’s tremendous century-old treatise on the psychology of and the antidote to prejudice, and Baldwin’s prophetic insight into race and reality.
Source: Brain Pickings | 4 Jun 2020 | 2:21 pm(NZT)
Bees hum the essential harmonics in the symphony of life — crucial pollinators responsible for our planet’s diversity, responsible for the flourishing of the entire food chain, responsible even for Earth’s resplendent colors. It is hardly a wonder that they have long moved poets, those essential harmonizers of human life, to rapture and reverie. Emily Dickinson reverenced “their velvet masonry,” Walt Whitman their “their perpetual rich mellow boom” and “great glistening swelling bodies,” and Ross Gay their murmured assurance, “saying everything is possible.”
And yet these tiny, tenacious creatures, older than us by millions and millions of years, now face the very real possibility of demise by colony collapse disorder — a direct consequence of the destructive choices we have made as a species. It is a terrifying thought, the possibility that the honey our ancestors took from them to tuck into the tombs of Egypt — a substance so miraculous that its deliciousness remains unspoiled by the passage of millennia — might outlast the entire species that makes the miracle.
It took another of humanity’s great poets to insist that against every choice of destruction, there is always the choice of creation; that against the extractionist, there is always the generative, against the exclusionary, always the inclusionary and the generous.
Half a century after Bertrand Russell observed that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) — a human miracle who catalogued herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and who became Poet Laureate of New York in the final year of her tragically truncated life — draws on these miraculous creatures for a delicate and powerful illustration of this counterbalance in her poem “The Bees,” originally written in 1974 and posthumously included the excellent anthology Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (public library) pollinated by poet and essayist Camille T. Dungy.
At the fourth annual Universe in Verse, Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — whose unexampled one-woman orchestral storytelling masterpiece Ogresse, a lyrical meditation on race, otherness, belonging, and becoming, is one of the most original and breathtaking works of art I’ve ever seen — brought Lorde’s poem to life in a spare, stunning reading:
by Audre Lorde
In the street outside a school
what the children learn
Little boys yell as they stone a flock of bees
trying to swarm
between the lunchroom window and an iron grate.
The boys sling furious rocks
smashing the windows.
The bees, buzzing their anger,
are slow to attack.
Then one boy is stung
into quicker destruction
and the school guards come
long wooden sticks held out before them
they advance upon the hive
beating the almost finished rooms of wax apart
mashing the new tunnels in
while fresh honey drips
down their broomsticks
and the little boy feet becoming expert
trample the remaining and bewildered bees
into the earth.
Curious and apart
four little girls look on in fascination
learning a secret lesson
and trying to understand their own destruction.
One girl cries out
“Hey, the bees weren’t making any trouble!”
and she steps across the feebly buzzing ruins
to peer up at the empty, grated nook
“We could have studied honey-making!”
For a conceptually kindred forgotten treasure, reach back across the epochs to George Sand’s only children’s book — a bee-inspired parable about choosing generosity and kindness over cynicism and destruction — then join me in supporting Cécile’s soulful art on Patreon and revisit Lorde on kinship across difference and the importance of unity in movements for social justice, the indivisibility of identity, and the courage to break silence.
For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor James Baldwin’s humanistic-scientific meditation on light and time set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Marie Howe’s poignant poem about our inter-belonging in an animated short film, and a breathtaking choral tribute to Rachel Carson’s courage by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and composer Paola Prestini.
Source: Brain Pickings | 2 Jun 2020 | 2:08 pm(NZT)
“When we come to it,” Maya Angelou beckoned in her stunning cosmic vision for humanity, “when the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate…” Then, she bent the mind in language to remind us, and only then will we have risen to our cosmic destiny — a destiny built on the discipline of never forgetting, never daring let ourselves forget, our shared cosmic belonging. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. Remember?” But we do forget, and so the minstrel show of hate remains with us; the curtain falls, only to rise again, as if to affirm Zadie Smith’s poignant observation that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
It is especially in times of uncertainty, in tremulous times of fear and loss, that the curtain rises and the minstrel show resumes — a show of hate that can be as vicious and pointed as the murderous violence human beings are capable of directing at one another, or as ambient and slow-seething as the deadly disregard for the universe of non-human lives with which we share this fragile, irreplaceable planet. “We don’t know where we belong,” Annie Dillard wrote in her gorgeous meditation on our search for meaning, “but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery.”
How to end the mockery and the minstrel show is what poet Jane Hirshfield — one of the most unboastfully courageous voices of our time, an ordained Buddhist, a more-than-humanitarian: a planetarian — explores in “Spell to Be Said against Hatred,” a miniature masterwork of quiet, surefooted insistence and persistence. Included in the anthology Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy (public library) alongside contributions by Jericho Brown, Ellen Bass, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Robin Wall Kimmerer, it is inhaled into life here by musician, activist, fellow more-than-humanitarian, and my darling friend Amanda Palmer.
SPELL TO BE SAID AGAINST HATRED
by Jane Hirshfield
Until each breath refuses they, those, them.
Until the Dramatis Personae of the book’s first page says, “Each one is you.”
Until hope bows to its hopelessness only as one self bows to another. Until cruelty bends to its work and sees suddenly: I.
Until anger and insult know themselves burnable legs of a useless table.
Until the unsurprised unbidden knees find themselves bending. Until fear bows to its object as a bird’s shadow bows to its bird. Until the ache of the solitude inside the hands, the ribs, the ankles. Until the sound the mouse makes inside the mouth of the cat. Until the inaudible acids bathing the coral.
Until what feels no one’s weighing is no longer weightless.
Until what feels no one’s earning is no longer taken.
Until grief, pity, confusion, laughter, longing know themselves mirrors.
Until by we we mean I, them, you, the muskrat, the tiger, the hunger.
Until by I we mean as a dog barks, sounding and vanishing and
sounding and vanishing completely.
Until by until we mean I, we, you, them, the muskrat, the tiger, the
hunger, the lonely barking of the dog before it is answered.
“Spell to Be Said against Hatred” was originally published in Hirshfield’s altogether soul-resuscitating collection Ledger (public library), which also gave us the wonderful “Today, Another Universe.” Complement it with Marie Howe’s kindred-spirited poem “Singularity” and a soulful reading of Hirshfield’s splendid succor for resilience, “The Weighing,” then revisit Amanda’s enchanting readings of “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich, and “Questionnaire” by Wendell Berry.
Source: Brain Pickings | 1 Jun 2020 | 5:31 am(NZT)
Great loves, like great works of art, live at the crossing point of the improbable and the inevitable. That, at least, has been my experience, both as a scholar of history and as a private participant in the lives of the heart. Such loves come unbidden, without warning or presentiment, and that is their supreme insurance against the projectionist fantasy that so frequently disguises not-love — infatuation, obsession, jealousy, longing — as love. But when they do come, with all the delirium of the improbable, they enter the house of the heart as if they have always lived there, instantly at home; they enter like light bending at a certain angle to reveal, without fuss or fanfare, some corner of the universe for the very first time — but the corner has always been there, dusty and dim, and the light has always been ambient, unlensed and unbent into illumination. For great love, as the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her splendid meditation on its mystery, is “never justified” but is rather “like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves?”
That improbable and inexplicable miracle is what Edward Gorey (February 22, 1925–April 15, 2000) celebrates with his signature faux-terse tenderness and soulful oddness in the vintage gem The Osbick Bird (public library).
Written in 1969 — several years after Gorey created his now-iconic Gashlycrumb Tinies, but well before his work for PBS and his fantastical reimagining of Dracula made him a household name — it was originally published under Gorey’s own Fantod Press, whose author list included such venerated names as Ogdred Weary, Madame Groeda Weyrd, O. Müde, Mrs. Regera Dowdy, Raddory Gewe, Garrod Weedy, and the Oprah-like first-name-only Om — Gorey’s delightful menagerie of pseudonyms.
This tiny treasure of a book, itself improbable and inevitable given its subject and its creator’s nature, lay dormant and forgotten for decades, until Pomegranate Press, heroic stewards of Gorey’s legacy, resurrected it twelve years after he became the posthumous author he had always lived as.
In spare lines and spare verses, Gorey tells the singsong story of the osbick bird — a creature of his wild and wondrous imagination — who alights one day to lonely, dignified Emblus Figby’s bowler hat, out of the blue, or rather, out of the sky-implying negative space of Gorey’s minimalist, consummately cross-hatched black-and-white worldscapes.
And then, just like that, Emblus Figby and the osbick bird commence a life together — as if life was always meant to be lived in this particular tandem; as if each of the two was written into being just to complete the other’s rhyme.
This charmingly eccentric shared life unspools in Gorey’s playful verses, evocative of Victorian nursery rhymes, and when the spool runs out, Gorey’s romantic realism takes over — the osbick bird flits out of the frame just like it had flitted into it, by that miraculous consonance of the improbable and the inevitable.
“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written a century earlier in the final passage of On the Origin of Species — in the view that death is the very mechanism ensuring the unstoppable ongoingness of life, the fulcrum by which ever shifts into after. There is grandeur, too, in Gorey’s subversive ending. There is beauty and bravery in its counterpoint to our incomplete happily-ever-after cultural mythos and its deep-seated denial of death as an integral part of life, and therefore of love; beauty and bravery in the reminder that the measure of a great love — as of a great life — is not in the happy ending, for all endings followed to the ultimate finality are the same, but in all the happy durings.
Complement The Osbick Bird with Shell Silverstein’s tender line-drawn allegory for the simple secret of true love, then revisit Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of its loss and W.H. Auden on what it means to be the more loving one.
Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust courtesy of Pomegranate Press. Photographs by Maria Popova.
Source: Brain Pickings | 29 May 2020 | 1:33 pm(NZT)
In 2019, the New York Philharmonic commissioned composer and force of nature Paola Prestini — co-founder of National Sawdust, that visionary locus of possibility for world-building through music — to compose an original piece for their multi-season Project 19 initiative, celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Inspired by the stories of the remarkable unsung women in Figuring, she reached out to me to write the words. I chose a moment that occurs some 485 pages into the book — a moment small and private, but enormous in its symbolic significance and cultural reverberations.
In January 1962, after a decade of incubation and four years of methodical research, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) turned in the manuscript for what would become Silent Spring — the epoch-making catalyst of the modern environmental movement, making ecology a household word and invitinig the human imagination to consider how intricately, vulnerably interleaved nature’s ecosystems are. Carson, by then savaged by cancer, knew that speaking such inconvenient truth to power would come at grave personal cost. It did: She was soon assaulted by government and industry, her scientific credibility attacked on the basis of her biology, with the crude weapon of gender. But she moored herself to what she had articulated to the love of her life, Dorothy Freeman, at the outset of her courageous endeavor:
Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.
When Carson turned in the manuscript that cold January night, she tucked her newly adopted son Roger into bed, kissed him good night, took her beloved black cat Jeffie into the study, shut the door behind her, and put on her favorite Beethoven violin concerto. “Suddenly,” she recounted the evening to Dorothy the next day, “the tension of four years was broken and I let the tears come.” She told Dorothy:
Last summer… I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could — I had been able to complete it — now it had its own life.
Carson never lived to see its life in the world, but her work inspired the creation of Earth Day and the led to the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Paola transfigured this moment into a gorgeous piece for soprano and orchestra, titled “Thrush Song.” After it premiered with the New York Philharmonic, I invited her to adapt it for a chorus of young people as part of the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating 50 years of Earth Day. (Days after David Byrne read a poem at the 2019 edition of The Universe in Verse, I had been awed by the National Sawdust performance of his countercultural hymn of resistance and resilience, accompanied by a coruscating chorus of young people; I was also haunted by Carson’s moving message to the next generations — to the Greta Thunbergs she never lived to meet.)
Paola reimagined “Thrush Song” as a wondrous harmonic serenade to Carson’s courage, working with a constellation of young women from the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, rehearsing and performing remotely in a world stilled and stunned by a global pandemic — a poignant meta-testament to Carson’s legacy: the revelation of how intimately connected we are to one another and to the rest of nature through the intricate, complex, delicate web of biological and ecological relationships weaving the tapestry of being.
The result, which many in the live Universe in Verse audience welcomed as the crowning glory of the nearly four-hour show, is now available for all the world to cherish, with a deep bow of admiration and gratitude to Paola and the remarkable women of the Young People’s Chorus, and special thanks to Debbie Millman for the lovingly hand-lettered lyrics.
Complement with a Carson’s birdsong notation set to music by singer-songwriter Dawn Landes and Neil Gaiman’s poetic tribute to Carson’s courage, written for the 2018 Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show’s four-year archive: a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, James Baldwin’s ecological-humanistic wisdom set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, and Neil Gaiman’s subversive feminist celebration of science and the human search for truth, in a tactile animated short film.
Source: Brain Pickings | 28 May 2020 | 5:09 am(NZT)