Brain Pickings

Pulitzer-Winning Poet Mark Strand on the Heartbeat of Creative Work and the Artist’s Task to Bear Witness to the Universe

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“It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”

In the 1996 treasure Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — the same invaluable trove of insight that demonstrated why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius and gave us Madeleine L’Engle on creativity, hope, and how to get unstuck — pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 prominent artists, writers, scientists, and other luminaries, seeking to uncover the common tangents of the creative experience at its highest potentiality. Among the interviewees was the poet Mark Strand (April 11, 1934–November 29, 2014) — a writer of uncommon flair for the intersection of mind, spirit and language, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and served as poet laureate of the United States.

For Strand, Csikszentmihalyi writes, “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.” He quotes the poet’s own reflection — which calls to mind Rilke’s — on how our sense of mortality, our awareness that we are a cosmic accident, fuels most creative work:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

Illustration by Bárður Oskarsson from 'The Flat Rabbit,' an unusual Scandinavian children's book about making sense of mortality. Click image for more.

But that response is not a coolly calculated, rational one. Echoing Mary Oliver’s memorable assertion that “attention without feeling … is only a report,” Strand describes the immersive, time-melting state of “flow” that Csikszentmihalyi himself had coined several years earlier — the intense psychoemotional surrender that the creative act of paying attention requires:

[When] you’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing, and you’re sort of swayed by the possibilities you see in this work. If that becomes too powerful, then you get up, because the excitement is too great. You can’t continue to work or continue to see the end of the work because you’re jumping ahead of yourself all the time. The idea is to be so… so saturated with it that there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re, uh, making meaning. And dismantling meaning, and remaking it. Without undue regard for the words you’re using. It’s meaning carried to a high order. It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication. When you’re working on something and you’re working well, you have the feeling that there’s no other way of saying what you’re saying.

Echoing Chuck Close’s notion that the artist is a problem-finder rather than a problem-solver — a quality recent research has emphasized as essential to success in any domain — Csikszentmihalyi adds:

The theme of the poem emerges in the writing, as one word suggests another, one image calls another into being. This is the problem-finding process that is typical of creative work in the arts as well as the sciences.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from 'Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People.' Click image for more.

Strand speaks to this himself:

One of the amazing things about what I do is you don’t know when you’re going to be hit with an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. I think it has to do with language. Writers are people who have greater receptivity to language, and I think that they will see something in a phrase, or even in a word, that allows them to change it or improve what was there before. I have no idea where things come from. It’s a great mystery to me, but then so many things are. I don’t know why I’m me, I don’t know why I do the things I do. I don’t even know whether my writing is a way of figuring it out. I think that it’s inevitable, you learn more about yourself the more you write, but that’s not the purpose of writing. I don’t write to find out more about myself. I write because it amuses me.

Like T.S. Eliot, who championed the importance of idea-incubation, Strand considers the inner workings of what we call creative intuition, or what Virginia Woolf called the “wave in the mind”:

I am always thinking in the back of my mind, there’s something always going on back there. I am always working, even if it’s sort of unconsciously, even though I’m carrying on conversations with people and doing other things, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m writing, mulling over. And another part of my mind is reviewing what I’ve done.

And yet too much surrender to this pull of the unconscious, Csikszentmihalyi cautions, can lead to a “mental meltdown that occurs when he gets too deeply involved with the writing of a poem.” He cites the practical antidotes Strand has developed:

To avoid blowing a fuse, he has developed a variety of rituals to distract himself: playing a few hands of solitaire, taking the dog for a walk, running “meaningless errands,” going to the kitchen to have a snack. Driving is an especially useful respite, because it forces him to concentrate on the road and thus relieves his mind from the burden of thought. Afterward, refreshed by the interval, he can return to work with a clearer mind.

Driving, coincidentally or not, is also something Joan Didion memorably extolled as a potent form of self-transcendence, and rhythmical movement in general is something many creators — including Twain, Goethe, Mozart, and Kelvin — have found stimulating. But perhaps most important is the general notion of short deliberate distractions from creative work — something more recent research has confirmed as the key to creative productivity.

Csikszentmihalyi crystallizes Strand’s creative process, with its osmotic balance of openness and structure, reveals about the optimal heartbeat of creative work:

Strand’s modus operandi seems to consist of a constant alternation between a highly concentrated critical assessment and a relaxed, receptive, nonjudgmental openness to experience. His attention coils and uncoils, its focus sharpens and softens, like the systolic and diastolic beat of the heart. It is out of this dynamic change of perspective that a good new work arises. Without openness the poet might miss the significant experience. But once the experience registers in his consciousness, he needs the focused, critical approach to transform it into a vivid verbal image that communicates its essence to the reader.

Csikszentmihalyi points out another necessary duality of creative work that Strand embodies:

Like most creative people, he does not take himself too seriously… But that does not mean that he takes his vocation lightly; in fact, his views of poetry are as serious as any. His writing grows out of the condition of mortality: Birth, love, and death are the stalks onto which his verse is grafted. To say anything new about these eternal themes he must do a lot of watching, a lot of reading, a lot of thinking. Strand sees his main skill as just paying attention to the textures and rhythms of life, being receptive to the multifaceted, constantly changing yet ever recurring stream of experiences. The secret of saying something new is to be patient. If one reacts too quickly, it is likely that the reaction will be superficial, a cliché.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird.' Click image for more.

In a sentiment that calls to mind one of Paul Goodman’s nine kinds of silence“the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts” — Strand himself offers the simple, if not easy, secret of saying something new and meaningful:

Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. For as long as possible.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity remains a must-read and features enduring insights on the psychology of discovery and invention from such luminaries as astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

For more of Strand’s genius in the wild, treat yourself to his sublime Collected Poems (public library), released a few weeks before his death.

The opening piece in the collection, which is one of my all-time favorite poems, offers a remembrance particularly befitting in the context of Strand’s lifelong serenade to mortality:

WHEN THE VACATION IS OVER FOR GOOD

It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,

And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,

When, in a flash
The weather turned, and the lofty air became
Unbearably heavy, the wind strikingly dumb
And our cities like ash,

And knowing also,
What we never suspected, that it was something like summer
At its most august except that the nights were warmer
And the clouds seemed to glow,

And even then,
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it
All over again,

And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.

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How Lewis Carroll’s Rules of Letter-Writing Can Make Email More Civil and Digital Communication Kinder

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“If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe.”

I have a friend who writes me wonderful letters. He sends them via email, but they are very much letters — the kind of slow, contemplative correspondence that Virginia Woolf termed “the humane art.” For what more humane an act is there than correspondence itself — the art of mutual response — especially amid a culture of knee-jerk reactions that is the hallmark of most communication today? Letters, by their very nature, make us pause to reflect on what the other person is saying and on what we’d like to say to them in response. Only when we step out of the reactive ego, out of the anxious immediacy that text-messaging and email have instilled in us, and contemplate what is being communicated — only then do we stand a chance of being civil to one another, and maybe even kind.

These values are what mathematician Charles Dodgson (January 27, 1832–January 14, 1898), better known as Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll, set out to celebrate in his short 1890 pamphlet Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing (public library; free download). Carroll is less concerned with the epistolary etiquette of letter-writing — the subject of another how-to book from that era — than he is with the higher-order ethics of correspondence as a form of civility. Although some of the nine rules are decidedly dated — such as his “rules for making, and keeping, a Letter-Register” of “Letters Received and Sent” — most offer wisdom of surprisingly civilizing value when applied to email and other contemporary textual communication.

Self-portrait by Lewis Carroll from 'The Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.' Click image for more.

Even the seemingly dated — those ideas that appear, on the surface, to apply strictly and solely to old-fashion letter-writing — contain ample wisdom to be gleaned for any modern medium. Take, for instance, Carroll’s opening exhortation:

If the Letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through, in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer… A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.

Of all the emails you regret firing off in a reactive fury, how many could have been abated by a deliberate pause for rereading your correspondent’s points and contemplating your own reply a little less hastily? Carroll, in fact, addresses this directly in his fourth rule:

When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!

His fifth rule furthers this agenda of abating reactivity by suggesting a sort of one-upmanship of civility in contentious exchanges:

If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards “making up” the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way — why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!

He later recommends a similar approach to the sentiment of the signature:

If doubtful whether to end with “yours faithfully,” or “yours truly,” or “yours most truly,” &c. (there are at least a dozen varieties, before you reach “yours affectionately”), refer to your correspondent’s last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his; in fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!

Page from 'How to Write Letters,' 1876. Click image for more.

The sixth dictum — which philosopher Daniel Dennett would come to echo more than a century later in his four rules for arguing intelligently — builds on the fifth. Lewis writes:

Don’t try to have the last word! How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy: remember “speech is silvern, but silence is golden”!

Carroll makes a related case against our stubborn self-righteousness — to which he brings a delightful touch of his mathematician’s wit — in the third rule:

Don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

The world's first use of emoticons in print, 1881, from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

His seventh rule is of particular interest in the context of today’s ambivalence about using emoticons in email. Even those unfazed by self-consciousness about the silliness of emoticons, to say nothing of emoji, remain exasperated by the general difficulty in conveying subtle emotional nuances in written communication — especially sarcasm and snark, the latter being Carroll’s own invention. Writing nine years after the first usage of an emoticon in print, Carroll counsels:

If it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences. I have known it to lead to the breaking-off of a friendship.

The remaining rules are, indeed, rather dated in the context of digital communication, but even among them there is the occasional pearl of timeless lucidity. In the ninth, for instance — which deals with the issue of having more to say in a letter than the paper on hand has room to accommodate — Carroll offers this eternally pragmatic aside:

A Postscript is a very useful invention: but it is not meant… to contain the real gist of the letter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about.

Ever the tactful diplomat, Carroll offers a counterpoint to such misuses of the postscript by pointing out one particularly appropriate use — the delicate assuaging of a friend’s anxieties by demoting them to the very bottom of the letter and thus the lowest order of concern. He offers as an example a friend who has promised to do something for you and is now writing, mortified, to apologize for having forgotten to do it; the conscientious correspondent, Carroll points out, would avoid making the oversight the main subject of his or her reply — for this “would be cruel, and needlessly crushing” — and instead writes a letter about entirely different matters, graciously adding: “P.S. Don’t distress yourself any more about having omitted that little matter…”

And now for a curious sidebar story: Although Carroll was a genuine lover of the letter form, the booklet was in part an exercise in “branded content”: The previous year, Carroll had patented a quirky little invention he called The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case — an offbeat solution to the delightfully quaint problem of having your written communication constantly stymied by running out of stamps — for which the pamphlet was essentially promotional material. Carroll had done nothing more than create a playful and somewhat better-designed alternative to the regular stamp case, but such subtleties are often the differentiation point of genius. The book even included a mock-testimonial:

Since I have possessed a “Wonderland Stamp Case”, Life has been bright and peaceful, and I have used no other. I believe the Queen’s laundress uses no other.

The case contained twelve separate pockets of stamps, each designated for a different stamp-value.

The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case, interior

(Image courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive)

Carroll took especial pride in what he called the two “Pictorial Surprises” gracing the cover: The outer slipcase depicts Alice holding the Duchess’s crying baby — not an illustration that appears anywhere in his Alice books — but inside it is the actual stamp case, on which the baby transmogrifies into a pig. In the book, Carroll winks at this playful trick:

If that doesn’t surprise you, why, I suppose you wouldn’t be surprised if your own Mother-in-law suddenly turned into a Gyroscope!

The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case, exterior

(Image courtesy of The British Postal Museum & Archive)

Complement Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing with Carroll’s four rules for digesting information, his tips on dining etiquette, his entertaining letter of apology for standing a friend up, and the best illustrations from 150 years of Alice in Wonderland, then revisit Virginia Woolf on what killed letter-writing and why we ought to keep it alive.

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Anne Lamott on How We Endure and Find Meaning in a Crazy World

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“The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm?”

We live in a culture of dividedness and fragmentation of the self. When we contemplate what it takes to live a full life, we extol mindfulness and wholeheartedness. But being wholehearted is only sufficient if your heart is your whole self; being mindful is only sufficient if your mind is all you are. We are, of course, so much more expansive than our hearts and our minds and our perfect abs, or whatever fragment we choose to fixate on. But we compartmentalize our experience in this way, divide it into fragments, as if to divide and conquer it. I’ve written before about our resistance to speaking of the soul, of which those of us who uphold secular ideals of rationalism are especially culpable. And yet I find, over and over, that the fullest people — the people most whole and most alive — are those unafraid and unashamed of the soul.

The soul has had no greater champion in this age of fragments than Anne Lamott — a writer of exceptional lucidity and enchantment, with a rare way of becalming our modern anxieties and ancient anguishes, from grief and gratitude to the perils of perfectionism to how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing. In Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair (public library), Lamott lays bare the deepest, most worn yet most resilient threads of the soul and laces out of the loose ends an extraordinary lattice of assurance and grace — assurance that there is hope for awakening in ourselves “a deeper sense of immediacy or spirit or playfulness” amid the slumber of ordinary life, and for those moments when we feel like all such hope is lost, the grace of trusting “that we do endure, and that out of the wreckage something surprising will rise.”

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

A century and a half after Tolstoy tussled with the search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, Lamott writes in the opening essay, titled “Beginning”:

We so often lose our way.

It is easy to sense and embrace meaning when life is on track. When there is a feeling of fullness — having love, goodness, family, work, maybe God* as parts of life — it’s easier to navigate around the sadness that you inevitably stumble across. Life holds beauty, magic and anguish. Sometimes sorrow is unavoidable, even when your kids are little, when the marvels of your children, and your parental amazement, are all the meaning you need to sustain you, or when you have landed the job and salary for which you’ve always longed, or the mate. And then the phone rings, the mail comes, or you turn on the TV…

What is the point of it all when we experience the vortex of interminable depression or, conversely, when we recognize that time is tearing past us like giddy greyhounds? It’s frightening and disorienting that time skates by so fast, and while it’s not as bad as being embedded in the quicksand of loss, we’re filled with dread each time we notice life hotfoot it out of town.

One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are… It somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin.

In a living testament to Faulkner’s assertion that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” and to E.B. White’s conviction that the writer “should tend to lift people up, not lower them down,” Lamott captures the precarious goodwill of the human spirit:

We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by major global sadness, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets…

We work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others. We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we are lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes…

We’re social, tribal, musical animals, walking percussion instruments. Most of us do the best we can. We show up. We strive for gratitude, and try not to be such babies.

And then there’s a mass shooting, a nuclear plant melts down, just as a niece is born, or as you find love. The world is coming to an end. I hate that. In environmental ways, it’s true, and in existential ways, it has been since the day each of us was born.

[…]

Where is meaning in the meteoric passage of time, the speed in which our lives are spent? Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering? I think these questions are worth asking.

But in asking these questions, Lamott observes — as Meghan Daum did in her eloquent defiance of the platitude industrial complex — that we rarely afford adversity anything more than the status of a complacent metaphor:

Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn. Life on earth is often a raunchy and violent experience. It can be agony just to get through the day.

And yet, I do believe there is ultimately meaning in the chaos, and also in the doldrums. What I resist is not the truth but when people put a pretty bow on scary things instead of saying, “This is a nightmare. I hate everything. I’m going to go hide in the garage.”

[…]

My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped-up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.

[…]

To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us.

Photograph by Mark Nixon from 'Much Loved,' a collection of people's childhood teddy bears loved down to bare threads. Click image for more.

Echoing Emerson’s notion that life is a series of surprises, which we mostly resist, Lamott considers the inevitable ebb and flow of the human experience — the same cycling of impoverishment and excess that Rilke memorably extolled — and writes:

No matter what happens to us — to our children, to our town, to our world — we feel it is still a gift to be human and to have a human life, as long as we ignore the commercials and advertisements and the static that the world beams at us, and understand that we and our children are going to get knocked around, sometimes so cruelly that it will take our breath away. Life can be wild, hard and sweet, but it can also be wild, hard and cruel.

The bad news is that after the suffering, we wait at the empty tomb for a while, the body of our beloved gone, grieving an unsurvivable loss.

It’s a terrible system. But the good news is that then there is new life. Wildflowers bloom again… They’re both such surprises. Wildflowers stop you in your hiking tracks. You want to savor the colors and scents, let them breathe you in, let yourself be amazed. And bulbs that grow in the cold rocky dirt remind us that no one is lost.

But nowhere are these surprises at their most acute, or their most unwelcome, than in loss. “Grief, when it comes,” Joan Didion wrote in her indispensable memoir of loss, “is nothing like we expect it to be” — a notion Lamott enlivens with her touch of poetic precision:

Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it… Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice…

We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears.

In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we are changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can.

[…]

A great truth, attributed to Emily Dickinson, is that “hope inspires the good to reveal itself.” This is almost all I ever need to remember. Gravity and sadness yank us down, and hope gives us a nudge to help one another get back up or to sit with the fallen on the ground, in the abyss, in solidarity.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from 'The River.' Click image for more.

That solidarity, Lamott argues in a sentiment that calls to mind Jeanette Winterson’s exquisite notion of “the paradox of active surrender,” is often what art gives us:

When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is. It’s an alchemical blend of affinity and focus that takes us to a place within that feels as close as we ever get to “home.” It’s like pulling into our own train station after a long trip — joy, relief, a pleasant exhaustion.

If a writer or artist creates from a place of truth and spirit and generosity, then I may be able to enter and ride this person’s train back to my own station. It’s the same with beautiful music and art.

Beauty is meaning.

But rather than a compendium of philosophical reflections suspended mid-air by the free-hanging laziness of aphorism, Lamott’s book is a tapestry of real stories — “real” in the rawest, most soul-shaking sense of the word — from which her firmly grounded yet elevating wisdom springs. In another essay, Lamott — a staunch champion of the uncomfortable art of letting yourself be seen — recounts her own journey from a difficult childhood to self-destruction to recovery and meaning. In a passage that evokes Henry Miller’s assertion that “it takes only one friend, if he is a man of faith, to work miracles,” she writes:

What saved me was that I found gentle, loyal and hilarious companions, which is at the heart of meaning: maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s tougher questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better. They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest possible version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all — they still love you.

[…]

I also learned that you didn’t come onto this earth as a perfectionist or control freak. You weren’t born a person of cringe and contraction. You were born as energy, as life, made of the same stuff as stars, blossoms, breezes. You learned contraction to survive, but that was then. You have paid through the nose — paid but good. It is now your turn to reap.

[…]

It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for a while. This takes great courage. But then, at some point, the better of two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again.

In the fourth essay, Lamott revisits this subject of how we embolden each other to go on living. Echoing Emerson’s unforgettable contention that “people wish to be settled [but] only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them,” she writes:

Alone, we are doomed, but by the same token, we’ve learned that people are impossible, even the ones we love most — especially the ones we love most: they’re damaged, prickly and set in their ways. Also, they’ve gotten old and a little funny, which can be draining. It is most comfortable to be invisible, to observe life from a distance, at one with our own intoxicating superior thoughts. But comfort and isolation are not where the surprises are. They are not where hope is… Only together do we somehow keep coming through unsurvivable loss, the stress of never knowing how things will shake down, to the biggest miracle of all, that against all odds, we come through the end of the world, again and again — changed but intact (more or less)… Insofar as I have any idea of “the truth,” I believe this to be as true as gravity and grace.

[…]

I’ve always loved funky rustic quilts more than elegant and maybe lovelier ones. You see the beauty of homeliness and rough patches in how they defy expectations of order and comfort. They have at the same time enormous solemnity and exuberance. They may be made of rags, torn clothes that don’t at all go together, but they somehow can be muscular and pretty. The colors are often strong, with a lot of rhythm and discipline and a crazy sense of order. They’re improvised, like jazz, where one thing leads to another, without any idea of exactly where the route will lead, except that it will refer to something else maybe already established, or about to be. Embedded in quilts and jazz are clues to escape and strength, sanctuary and warmth. The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning than helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm?

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag.' Click image for more.

Stitches is a soul-stretching read in its totality — the kind you revisit again and again, and find especially assuaging assurance in during life’s darkest moments. Complement it with Lamott on the greatest gift of friendship, Meghan Daum on how we become who we are, and Victoria Safford on what hope really means.

* Elsewhere in the book, Lamott explains that she uses the word “God” as “shorthand for the Good, for the animating energy of love; for Life, for the light that radiates from within people and from above; in the energies of nature, even in our rough, messy selves.”

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Cassandra Austen’s Drawings of English Royalty for Teenage Jane Austen’s Parodic History of England

By:

“By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian.”

“At fifteen, she had few illusions about other people and none about herself,” Virginia Woolf once wrote of Jane Austen. Indeed, the future author of Sense and Sensibility was an early master of dispelling cultural illusions through parody, satire, and general wryness. In 1791, decades before she offered writing advice to her own teenage niece, fifteen-year-old Austen penned The History of England — a short manuscript of 34 pages, subtitled “By a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring thirteen ink-and-watercolor drawings of English royalty by Austen’s sister, Cassandra. (Austen was not the only prominent writer with an artistically gifted, lesser-known sibling — Virginia Woolf’s sister was the prominent Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell, who illustrated some of Woolf’s work, and Jorge Luis Borges’s sister, Norah Borges, was one of the female pioneers of modern art.)

A play on Oliver Goldsmith’s 1764 classic of the same title, Austen’s book was a parody of the general trend toward reducing history to mere trivia and educational factlets designed for quick, easy digestion — in other words, a proto-parody of the listicle, Austen’s contempt for which one can only imagine.

Young Jane had a similar distaste for the reduction of complex stories into simple facts, another favorite trope of contemporary media. Her outrage over history’s demolition of nuance and dimension began in her marginalia on the pages of Goldsmith’s history. Next to a passage about the Stuart family, she scoffed in pencil: “A family who were always ill used Betrayed or neglected — whose virtues are seldom allowed while their errors are never forgotten.”

After Austen’s death in 1817, Cassandra kept her manuscripts until her own death in 1845. For more than a century thereafter, the notebooks were nearly forgotten and quietly made their way down the family tree, until they ended up in the hands of Cassandra’s great-granddaughter’s niece, who sold them at Sotheby’s in July of 1977. The British Library purchased the notebooks and Austen’s parodic history was published in facsimile for the first time as Jane Austen’s The History of England (public library), including all of the original drawings.

Cassandra’s depictions of English royalty parallel her sister’s parodic tone — there is a lumberjackish Henry VIII, a hipsterly bedraggled Henry VII, and a witchlike Elizabeth I.

Henry IV

Henry V

Henry VI

Henry VII

Henry VIII

Richard III

Edward IV

Mary Queen of Scots

Edward VI

Mary Tudor

Queen Elizabeth I

James I

Charles I

Complement Jane Austen’s The History of England with the author’s advice on writing and some delectable recipes inspired by her novels, then revisit Queen Victoria’s own drawings and Virginia Woolf’s quirky family newspaper, illustrated by her teenage nephews.

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D.T. Suzuki on What Freedom Really Means and How Zen Can Help Us Cultivate Our Character

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“The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow.”

Alan Watts may be credited with popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, but he owes the entire trajectory of his life and legacy to a single encounter with the Zen Buddhist sage D.T. Suzuki (October 18, 1870–July 12, 1966) — one of humanity’s greatest and most influential stewards of Zen philosophy. At the age of twenty-one, Watts attended a lecture by Suzuki in London, which so enthralled the young man that he spent the remainder of his life studying, propagating, and building upon Suzuki’s teachings. Legendary composer John Cage had a similar encounter with Suzuki, which profoundly shaped his life and music.

In the early 1920s, spurred by the concern that Zen masters are “unable to present their understanding in the light of modern thought,” Suzuki undertook “a tentative experiment to present Zen from our common-sense point of view” — a rather humble formulation of what he actually accomplished, which was nothing less than giving ancient Eastern philosophy a second life in the West and planting the seed for a new culture of secularized spirituality.

But by 1940, all of his books had gone out of print in war-torn England, and all remaining copies in Japan were destroyed in the great fire of 1945, which consumed three quarters of Tokyo. In 1946, Christmas Humphreys, president of London’s Buddhist Society, set out to undo the damage and traveled to Tokyo, where he began working with Suzuki on translating his new manuscripts and reprinting what remained of the old. The result was the timeless classic Essays in Zen Buddhism (public library), originally published in 1927 — a collection of Suzuki’s foundational texts introducing the principles of Zen into secular life as a discipline concerned first and foremost with what he called “the reconstruction of character.” As Suzuki observed, “Our ordinary life only touches the fringe of personality, it does not cause a commotion in the deepest parts of the soul.” His essays became, and remain, a moral toolkit for modern living, delivered through a grounding yet elevating perspective on secular spirituality.

Suzuki begins at the beginning, laying out the promise of Zen in our everyday lives:

Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. By making us drink right from the fountain of life, it liberates us from all the yokes under which we finite beings are usually suffering in this world.

[…]

This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving towards one another. All the struggles that we see around us come from this ignorance… When the cloud of ignorance disappears… we see for the first time into the nature of our own being.

One of Suzuki’s most overlooked yet essential points — and one particularly prescient in the context of what modern developmental psychology has found in the decades since — has to do with the crucial role of adolescence as a pivotal point in moral development. The teenage years, he argues, are when we begin “deeply delving into the mysteries of life” and when we are “asked to choose between the ‘Everlasting No’ and the ‘Everlasting Yea’” — a notion young Nietzsche intuited half a century earlier when he resolved, “I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yea-sayer!” At this fork in the road of existence, Suzuki insists, mastering the principles of Zen can make the critical difference in leading us toward a meaningful and fulfilling life. He writes:

Life is after all a form of affirmation… However insistently the blind may deny the existence of the sun, they cannot annihilate it.

Much of that blindness, he admonishes, comes from our attachment to the ego. Paradoxical as it may sound to any parent or teacher of a teenager, Suzuki suggests that adolescence is the time most fruitful for the dissolution of the ego:

We are too ego-centered. The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow… We are, however, given many chances to break through this shell, and the first and greatest of them is when we reach adolescence.

Illustration by Andrea Dezsö for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

And yet the “loss of the mental equilibrium” produced by the polar pull of “Everlasting No” and “Everlasting Yea,” which causes “so many cases of nervous prostration reported during adolescence,” can also derail and anguish us at any point in life. In a sentiment that once again calls to mind Nietzsche and his beliefs about the constructive role of suffering, Suzuki writes:

The more you suffer the deeper grows your character, and with the deepening of your character you read the more penetratingly into the secrets of life. All great artists, all great religious leaders, and all great social reformers have come out of the intensest struggles which they fought bravely, quite frequently in tears and with bleeding hearts.

Those ego-stripping struggles, Suzuki points out, can be of the intimate, most nonmaterial kind — the kind Rilke had articulated so beautifully two decades earlier in his letter on the burdens and blessings of love. Suzuki writes:

Love makes the ego lose itself in the object it loves, and yet at the same time it wants to have the object as its own… The greatest bulk of literature ever produced in this world is but the harping on the same string of love, and we never seem to grow weary of it. But… through the awakening of love we get a glimpse into the infinity of things… When the ego-shell is broken and the ‘other’ is taken into its own body, we can say that the ego has denied itself or that the ego has taken its first steps towards the infinite.

Although he takes care to note the invaluable role of the intellect in day-to-day life, Suzuki argues that the intellect is what keeps us from the infinite:

Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. The nature of one’s own being where apparently rages the struggle between the finite and the infinite is to be grasped by a higher faculty than the intellect… For the intellect has a peculiarly disquieting quality in it. Though it raises questions enough to disturb the serenity of the mind, it is too frequently unable to give satisfactory answers to them. It upsets the blissful peace of ignorance and yet it does not restore the former state of things by offering something else. Because it points out ignorance, it is often considered illuminating, whereas the fact is that it disturbs, not necessarily always bringing light on its path.

Illustration by Lizi Boyd from 'Flashlight.' Click image for more.

How poignant the latter remark is in the context of contemporary intellectual life. So much of our higher education is premised on the spirit of tearing things down rather than building things up — on how intelligently a student can criticize and counter an argument — which has, unsurprisingly, permeated the fabric of public discourse at large. We have a culture of criticism in which critics, professional and self-appointed, measure their merit by how intelligently they can eviscerate an idea, a work of art, or, increasingly and alarmingly, a person. We seem to have forgotten how to acquire what Bertrand Russell called, just a year before Suzuki’s essays were published, “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy” in his magnificent meditation on why construction is more difficult yet more rewarding than destruction.

Similarly, Suzuki’s point is that the intellect is best at pointing out what doesn’t work, and as such can be a force of destruction, but when it comes to what does work, to the art of moral construction, we must rely on a wholly different faculty of the human spirit. He points to the lineage of philosophy — a discipline that continues to rely heavily on Descartes’s ultimate slogan for the intellect, cogito ergo sum — as evidence of the intellect’s insufficient powers in illuminating the path:

The history of thought proves that each new structure raised by a man of extraordinary intellect is sure to be pulled down by the succeeding ones. This constant pulling down and building up is all right as far as philosophy itself is concerned; for the inherent nature of the intellect, as I take it, demands it and we cannot put a stop to the progress of philosophical inquiries any more than to our breathing. But when it comes to the question of life itself we cannot wait for the ultimate solution to be offered by the intellect, even if it could do so. We cannot suspend even for a moment our life-activity for philosophy to unravel its mysteries. Let the mysteries remain as they are, but live we must… Zen therefore does not rely on the intellect for the solution of its deepest problems.

While the intellect may portend to fight illusion, Suzuki argues, it often does the opposite, creating different illusions that take us further from the truth of life rather than closer to it. He writes:

As nature abhors a vacuum, Zen abhors anything coming between the fact and ourselves. According to Zen there is no struggle in the fact itself such as between the finite and the infinite, between the flesh and the spirit. These are idle distinctions fictitiously designed by the intellect for its own interest. Those who take them too seriously or those who try to read them into the very fact of life are those who take the finger for the moon.

John Cage visits ninety-two-year-old Suzuki in 1962, from 'Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.' Click image for more.

For anyone who has ever experienced the soul-squeezing sense of not-enoughness — and in a consumerist culture, most of us have, for the task of consumerism is to rob us of our sense of having enough and sell it back to us at the price of the product, over and over — Suzuki’s words resonate with particular poignancy:

Life as it is lived suffices. It is only when the disquieting intellect steps in and tries to murder it that we stop to live and imagine ourselves to be short of or in something. Let the intellect alone, it has its usefulness in its proper sphere, but let it not interfere with the flowing of the life-stream. If you are at all tempted to look into it, do so while letting it flow. The fact of flowing must under no circumstances be arrested or meddled with…

[…]

The great fact of life itself … flows altogether outside of these vain exercises of the intellect or of the imagination.

[…]

No amount of wordy explanations will ever lead us into the nature of our own selves. The more you explain, the further it runs away from you. It is like trying to get hold of your own shadow.

What Zen offers, Suzuki suggests, is a gateway into precisely that elusive nature of the self:

Zen … must be directly and personally experienced by each of us in his inner spirit. Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself. Freedom is an empty word until then.

In a sentiment that the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer would come to echo decades later in his courageous call for “inner wholeness,” Suzuki adds:

The ultimate standpoint of Zen, therefore, is that we have been led astray through ignorance to find a split in our own being, that there was from the very beginning no need for a struggle between the finite and the infinite, that the peace we are seeking so eagerly after has been there all the time.

Illustration by Taro Yashima from 'Umbrella.' Click image for more.

More than a century before Alan Lightman so elegantly assuaged our yearning for permanence in a universe of constant change, Suzuki writes:

We are all finite, we cannot live out of time and space; inasmuch as we are earth-created, there is no way to grasp the infinite, how can we deliver ourselves from the limitations of existence? … Salvation must be sought in the finite itself, there is nothing infinite apart from finite things; if you seek something transcendental, that will cut you off from this world of relativity, which is the same thing as the annihilation of yourself. You do not want salvation at the cost of your own existence… Whether you understand or not, just the same go on living in the finite, with the finite; for you die if you stop eating and keeping yourself warm on account of your aspiration for the infinite… Therefore the finite is the infinite, and vice versa. These are not two separate things, though we are compelled to conceive them so, intellectually.

Suzuki argues that the ultimate essence of Zen lies in its promise, both practical and profound, to “deliver us from the oppression and tyranny of these intellectual accumulations” and to offer, instead, a foundation of character at once solid and transcendent:

Zen may be considered a discipline aiming at the reconstruction of character. Our ordinary life only touches the fringe of personality, it does not cause a commotion in the deepest parts of the soul… We are … made to live on the superficiality of things. We may be clever, bright, and all that, but what we produce lacks depth, sincerity, and does not appeal to the inmost feelings… A deep spiritual experience is bound to effect a change in the moral structure of one’s personality.

And yet this “reconstruction of character”” is no cosmetic tweak:

Being so long accustomed to the oppression [of the intellect], the mental inertia becomes hard to remove. In fact it has gone down deep into the roots of our own being, and the whole structure of personality is to be overturned. The process of reconstruction is stained with tears and blood… It is no pastime but the most serious task in life; no idlers will ever dare attempt it.

[…]

Zen goes straight down to the foundations of personality.

In the remainder of Essays in Zen Buddhism, Suzuki goes on to equip us with the necessary tools of character and spirit for undertaking this task of a lifetime. Complement it with Alan Watts on life, reality, and becoming who you really are and the story of what John Cage’s journey into Buddhism reveals about the inner life of artists.

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How to Listen Between the Lines: Anna Deavere Smith on the Art of Listening in a Culture of Speaking

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“Some people use language as a mask. And some want to create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not.”

In his exquisite taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence, Paul Goodman included “the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear.” And yet so often we think of listening as merely an idle pause amid the monologue of making ourselves clear. Hardly anyone has done more to advance the art of listening in a culture of speaking more than artist, actor, playwright, educator, and enchantress of words Anna Deavere Smith, founder and director of Harvard’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “genius” fellowship and the National Humanities Medal.

Half a century after John Cage demonstrated that we only hear what we listen for, Smith set out to explore her intuition that in order to develop a voice, one has to “develop an ear”; that words can be as much “the most important doorway into the soul of a person” as “the doorway into the soul of a culture.” She spent twenty-five years traveling and interviewing, at first, anyone who would talk to her — from the YMCA lifeguard to the lady at the clothing store register to a convicted murderer in a women’s prison — and, eventually, public figures like Christopher Hitchens and Studs Terkel, all the way up to then-President Bill Clinton. Smith would later use these interviews to “perform” the person in her acclaimed one-woman plays. The singular, immeasurably rewarding record of Smith’s journey lives on in Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (public library), subsequently released in paperback under the title Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics — an unusual meditation on public life via private identity, an investigation of truth-telling and lying, and an uncommonly insightful manifesto for the art of listening and the power of words in the architecture of character.

Smith writes:

The creation of language is the creation of a fiction. The minute we speak we are in that fiction. It’s a fiction designed, we hope, to reveal a truth. There is no “pure” language. The only “pure language” is the initial sounds of a baby. All of us lose that purity, and as we get more “of” the world, we even lose sometimes the capacity to keep that breath moving in our language.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Adrienne Rich’s crystalline conception of the liar as someone who loses sight of “the possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people,” Smith adds:

Our ability to create reality, by creating fictions with language, should not be abused. The abuse is called lying. Perhaps we understand the precariousness of our situation. We as linguistic animals. At the very least language is currency as we create “reality.” To abuse language, to lie, is to fray reality, to tatter it. Those in public life who create our values are especially asked not to “lie.” Yet most of us say, at least, that we believe we are often being lied to.

As Smith undertook this experiment in “what happens when you dare to move out of the margins and into another place,” a pivotal point in her journey of listening came when she met a linguist at a random party. She recounts trying to articulate to her the intuitive seed for the project — this effort to listen between the lines in the hope of hearing the realness people conceal beneath the comfort of familiar words:

We can learn a lot about a person in the very moment that language fails them. In the very moment that they have to be more creative than they would have imagined in order to communicate. It’s the very moment that they have to dig deeper than the surface to find words, and at the same time, it’s a moment when they want to communicate very badly. They’re digging deep and projecting out at the same time.

[…]

The idea is that the psychology of people is going to live right inside those moments when their grammar falls apart and, like being in a shipwreck, they are on their own to make it all work out.

Smith was looking for a way to get at precisely that unrehearsed language, so the linguist suggested three questions to crack the shell of verbal habit: “Have you ever come close to death?”; “Do you know the circumstances of your birth?”; and “Have you ever been accused of something that you did not do?” Armed with a simple Panasonic tape recorder and dogged dedication to what was at first merely an intuitive insight, Smith made these questions the springboard for her interviews. She eventually stopped asking them, but the questions, she notes, taught her how to listen. She recalls:

After I asked the questions, I would listen like I had never listened before for people to begin to sing to me. That singing was the moment when they were really talking.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Ralph Steadman. Click image for more.

In the early 1980s, she began taking that recorder — which eventually evolved as the technology did — all over America, culminating with Washington, D.C., and the President’s office, where she listened “for the talk, the talk of the big talkers, to turn, if only for a moment, into a song that they and only they can sing.”

Reflecting on the countless messages with which contemporary culture bombards us, from political propaganda to mundanities like airline safety instructions, Smith asks:

Who’s listening anymore? What does it take to get people to listen? When do people feel they need to listen? When do they feel they have to listen? … We get so used to hearing things that they have no meaning… We live with the expectation that words mean very little, because we have seen it all before, heard it all before. And that is why I find myself going on a quest down memory lane for a time when words meant something in my family, in my church, in my city, in my world.

She turns a particularly scrupulous eye to the professional purveyors of such meaningless din:

The press gather the information. But they do a lot more than gather and disseminate information. At their best moments, they use their wit to make us question power in a way that we may not have. And they must get our attention in the first place. They have to creep into the brains of the readers, or listeners, and alter the flow of our ideas.

[…]

It’s like a constant drip that affects the way we think, and the way we see the world. They can change us without our full awareness. It happens slowly, bit by bit, that we take on attitudes that are perpetuated in the media. How can we as a public regain control of words?

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Leonard Weisgard. Click image for more.

The effort to reclaim the realness of words — of culture, of public life, of private truth — through acting may seem, at first, like a counterintuitive, even paradoxical approach. But Smith writes:

Acting is the furthest thing from lying that I have encountered. It is the furthest thing from make-believe. It is the furthest thing from pretending. It is the most unfake thing there is. Acting is a search for the authentic. It is a search for the authentic by using the fictional as a frame, a house in which the authentic can live. For a moment. Because, yes indeed, real life inhibits the authentic.

Citing the great director Joseph Chaikin’s formulation of presence as “the gift of the actor,” a “kind of deep libidinal surrender which the performer reserves for his anonymous audience,” she adds:

Presence is that quality that makes you feel as though you’re standing right next to the actor, no matter where you’re sitting in the theater. It’s the feeling you have that the performer is right in front of you, speaking to you and only you. It’s that wonderful moment when Jessye Norman sings in a quiet, so quiet you can hear a pin drop concert hall to an audience that is attentive like no other. It’s a moment when she seems to be singing as she’s never sung, and the audience seem to be listening as they’ve never listened. It’s the moment when it’s clear that everyone is there for the same reason… These moments have a kind of authenticity, because they reach the heart. They speak to us. They speak to us not because they are natural in the sense of normal. They speak to us because they are real in their effort to be together with a very large you, the you being all men and women.

Politicians and media manipulators, Smith argues, often try to borrow these skills, but the result is mere simulacra speaking to very few. More than a decade before the golden age of social media, Smith offers a perspective of extraordinary prescience and urgent timeliness today:

That genuine moment, that “real” connection, is no small thing. It is not something that happens every day. Is it rare because it calls for a special talent? Is it a moment that can happen only when we don’t know each other, when we have so much to learn about each other that we hang on every breath together? It is hard to find those moments in our culture because we think we know so much about each other. Perhaps it is a moment that is dependent not only on the performer or the leader, but on the audience as well. Does this era of focus groups and polls, this desire to get at and quantify the mysteriousness of that “deep libidinal surrender,” make it nearly impossible to find those moments of true engagement? Does the overdetermined nature of our time, and the inherent desire to control the public, to control their thoughts, particularly how they work those thoughts into actions that are favorable to the marketplace, create an atmosphere where only the predictable can occur? Those moments of deep libidinal surrender are in fact all about that which is not predictable. And there is no anonymous audience. At least that’s what the pollsters would like, what commerce would like. They would like to make the anonymous audience fully identifiable. With no anonymous audience, there can be no deep libidinal surrender.

[…]

We’re having a hard time connecting in public.

Photograph by Molly Malone Cook from 'Our World' by Mary Oliver. Click image for more.

At once a lament and a call to action, Smith’s observation rings even truer today:

We are in a communications revolution. Yet, as the great Americanist Studs Terkel tells us, “We’re more and more into communications and less and less into communication.” In this time of a global economy and business mergers happening as often as sunrise and sunset, where is the human merger? Where is real human engagement?

It’s interesting to note, here, that in the decade since Smith’s contemplation, the word “engagement” itself has been co-opted by the mass media as precisely the kind of marketable metric that dehumanizes how we connect in public. In the language of online media, “engagement” measures meaningless statistics about “user” behavior — and what better way to indicate that one is not listened to than being called a “user”? — that become simulacra for the genuine moments, those moments of “deep libidinal surrender,” which Smith so aptly identifies as the true measure of connection. “Engagement,” under the tyranny of this vocabulary, is interested in the very smallest you, not Smith’s large you of our shared humanity.

If there is any hope for us, it lies in relearning to tell the truth and hear it, in reclaiming ourselves as a listening species.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

Smith traces her love of words and her fascination with their power to her grandfather — a “tall, thin, and aristocratic looking” patriarch called Pop who, despite only having an eight-grade education himself, managed to send all six of his kids to college. “He and I were good friends, because he liked to talk, and I liked to listen,” Smith recalls. “He is the one who taught me the kernel of all that I understand about acting.” That kernel was contained in a single sentence her grandfather liked to repeat, which eventually became the lens for Smith’s art:

I take the words I can get and try to occupy them. Using the idea that my grandfather gave me — “If you say a word often enough it becomes you” — I borrow people for a moment, by borrowing their words. I borrow them for a moment to understand something about them, and to understand something about us. By “us,” I mean humans.

In these borrowed words, and in the act of borrowing itself — which is predicated on the act of listening — Smith found a rare gateway into the depths of the human experience:

Placing myself in other people’s words, as in placing myself in other people’s shoes, has given me the opportunity to get below the surface — to get “real.”

[…]

Some people use language as a mask. And some want to create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not. Yet from time to time we are betrayed by language, if not in the words themselves, in the rhythm with which we deliver our words. Over time, I would learn to listen for those wonderful moments when people spoke a kind of personal music, which left a rhythmic architecture of who they were. I would be much more interested in those rhythmic architectures than in the information they might or might not reveal.

[…]

I wanted to get people to talk to me, in a true way. Not true in the sense of spilling their guts. Not true in the sense of the difference between truth and lies. I wanted to hear — well — authentic speech, speech that you could dance to, speech that had the possibility of breaking through the walls of the listener, speech that could get to your heart, and beyond that to someplace else in your consciousness.

She contemplates what makes speaking from an authentic place so challenging for most of us and why we protect that place by shrouding it in all kinds of pre-learned patterns of packaged speech:

Speaking calls for risk, speaking calls for a sense of what one has to lose. Not just what one has to gain.

Talk to Me is a dimensional and immensely insightful read in its totality, perhaps even timelier today than when it was first released in 2001. Complement it with Smith on what self-esteem really means and how to stop letting others define us, then revisit John Francis on what the ragged edge of silence taught him about listening.

Donating = Loving

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