Brain Pickings

Grace Paley on the Art of Growing Older

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“The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”

“For old people,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her sublime meditation on aging and what beauty really means, “beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.” But who is the person staring back at us from the mirror as the decades roll by? The mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of changes is, after all, one of the most interesting questions of philosophy. Perhaps the greatest perplexity of aging is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror.

That’s what beloved writer Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007) addresses with extraordinary humor and intellectual elegance in a 1989 piece titled “Upstaging Time,” found in Just As I Thought (public library) — the same indispensable nonfiction collection that gave us Paley’s astute advice to writers.

Paley, at sixty-seven, writes:

A couple of years ago a small boy yelled out as he threw a ball to a smaller boy standing near me, “Hey, dummy, tell that old lady to watch out.”

What? What lady? Old? I’m not vain or unrealistic. For the last twenty years my mirror seems to have reflected — correctly — a woman getting older, not a woman old. Therefore, I took a couple of the hops, skips, and jumps my head is accustomed to making and began to write what would probably become a story. The first sentence is: “That year all the boys on my block were sixty-seven.”

Then I was busy and my disposition, which tends to crude optimism anyway, changed the subject. Also, my sister would call, and from time to time she’d say, “Can you believe it? I’m almost seventy-eight. And Vic is going on eighty. Can you believe it?” No, I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone who talked to them or saw them. They’ve always been about fifteen years older than I, and still were. With such a sister and brother preceding me, it would seem bad manners to become old. My aging (the aging of the youngest) must seem awfully pushy to them.

[…]

I returned to my work and was able to write the next sentence of what may still become a story: “Two years later, two of the boys had died and my husband said, ‘Well, I’d better take this old-age business a little more seriously.’”

Illustration by Leonard Weisgard from a 1949 edition of Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

To manifest the needed seriousness, Paley considers some of the practicalities of that old-age business:

You may begin to notice that you’re invisible. Especially if you’re short and gray-haired. But I say to whom? And so what? All the best minorities have suffered that and are rising nowadays in the joy of righteous wrath.

[…]

You are expected to forget words or names, and you do. You may look up at the ceiling. People don’t like this. They may say, “Oh come on, you’re not listening.” You’re actually trying to remember their names.

While he could still make explanations, my father explained to me that the little brain twigs, along with other damp parts of the body, dry up, but that there is still an infinity of synaptic opportunities in the brain. If you forget the word for peach (“A wonderful fruit,” he said), you can make other pathways for the peach picture. You can attach it to another word or context, which will then return you to the word “peach,” such as “What a peachy friend,” or springtime and peach blossoms. This is valuable advice, by the way. It works. Even if you’re only thirty, write it down for later.

Paley returns to the subject thirteen years later, at eighty, in a magnificent short piece titled “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age,” originally written for the New Yorker in 2002 and included in Here and Somewhere Else: Stories and Poems by Grace Paley and Robert Nichols (public library) — a marvelous celebration of literature, love, and the love of literature by Paley and her husband, published a few months before she died at the age of eighty-five.

Paley writes:

My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kinds in time to come.

They said, Really?

My father wanted to begin as soon as possible.

[…]

Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.

That’s a metaphor, right?

Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.

Talk? What?

Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.

Complement Paley’s wholly rewarding Just As I Thought and Here and Somewhere Else with Meghan Daum on why we romanticize our imperfect younger selves, Henry Miller on growing old and the measure of a life well lived, and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at ninety-thee, on the secret of creative vitality.

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Rising Strong: Brené Brown on the Physics of Vulnerability and What Resilient People Have in Common

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“If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.”

“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Vladimir Nabokov famously proclaimed. Today, hardly anyone embodies this sentiment more fully than Brené Brown, who came of age as a social scientist in an era when the tyranny of facts trivialized the richness of fancy and the human experience was squeezed out of the qualitative in the service of the quantitative, the two pitted as polarities. But like Susan Sontag, who recognized how polarities limit and imprison us, Brown defied these dogmatic dichotomies and went on to become what she calls a “researcher-storyteller” — a social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”

In Rising Strong (public library), Brown builds upon her earlier work on vulnerability to examine the character qualities, emotional patterns, and habits of mind that enable people to transcend the catastrophes of life, from personal heartbreak to professional collapse, and emerge not only unbroken but more whole.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

To be sure, this isn’t another iteration of “fail forward,” that tired and trendy (but far from new) cultural trope of extolling failure as a stepping stone to success — Brown’s research is about what happens in the psyche and the spirit when we are in the thick of the failure itself, facedown in the muddy stream, gasping for air; about what those who live from a deep place of worthiness have in common; about the choices involved in living a wholehearted life and the consequences of those choices in rising from our facedown moments to march forward.

Brown writes:

While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for — love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.

Brown argues that we live in “a Gilded Age of Failure,” where we fetishize recovery stories for their redemptive ending, glossing over the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it. (Some time ago, I too lamented this cultural tendency in my seven most important learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings.) This, Brown points out, does a disservice to the essence of grit, which has been shown to be a primary trait of those who succeed in life. She writes:

Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.

Although we live in a culture of perfectionism where our idealized selves become our social currency, we know, at least on some level, that risk-taking, failure, and success are inextricably linked. Brown captures this elegantly:

If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of 'The Wizard of Oz.' Click image for more.

Brown considers the trifecta of resilience her research has uncovered:

The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.

Another common denominator Brown found across those able to rise strong from their facedown moments is an active engagement with the creative impulse, whatever the medium — a physical practice integrating the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual:

Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration — it is how we fold our experiences into our being… The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has a beautiful saying: “Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle.”

Yet another commonality among the resilient is some form of spiritual life rooted in love and belonging — be it communion with nature or a meditation practice or the reverence of art or the divinity of solitude. Brown, who comes from “a long line of folks who believe that fishing is church” and had her first taste of spiritual transcendence in the wilderness of Lake Travis as a child, writes:

Our expressions of spirituality are as diverse as we are. When our intentions and actions are guided by spirituality — our belief in our interconnectedness and love — our everyday experiences can be spiritual practices. We can transform teaching, leading, and parenting into spiritual practices. Asking for and receiving help can also be spiritual practices. Storytelling and creating can be spiritual practices, because they cultivate awareness.

In the remainder of Rising Strong, Brown goes on to explore the principles and practices of psychoemotional resilience through a tapestry of research findings and real human stories. Complement it with Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the wholehearted life, Cheryl Strayed on the art of living with opposing truths, and David Whyte on the true meaning of heartbreak, then treat yourself to this magnificent On Being conversation with Brown about her work and the insights it has furnished:

Hope is a function of struggle.

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The New Age of Wonder: Freeman Dyson on the Future of Science and Why Biologists Are the New Poets

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“A new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” William Wordsworth wrote as he contemplated the shared heart of poetry and science in 1798. And yet sometime in the two centuries since, poetry and science seceded from this shared kingdom of knowledge into wholly separate, if not warring, countries.

In one of the twenty-one excellent essays in his Dreams of Earth and Sky (public library), physicist, mathematician, and venerable sage of science Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) argues that bridging this rift between poetry and science holds some of the most thrilling and even life-saving possibilities for the future of our species and our world.

Dyson — one of the most blazing minds of our time, who enters his nineties as a kind of modern-day Bertrand Russell of science, with Buckminster Fuller’s daring genius, Einstein’s firm grip on science, and Goethe’s gift for enchantment — writes in a beautiful piece titled “When Science and Poetry Were Friends”:

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Byron saw a vision of darkness:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air…

Illustration by JooHee Yoon from 'Beastly Verse.' Click image for more.

It was during the Age of Wonder that science and poetry first began communing, perhaps nowhere more so than in Goethe’s poetry inspired by the then-groundbreaking science of clouds. Dyson contemplates the circles of influence during this singular epoch of creative cross-pollination:

The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.

The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles’s ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder.

Among the most substantive differences between that era and ours, Dyson points out, is the stark contrast between the “standing army of many thousands of professional scientists” today and the mere handful back then. But there is also one notable similarity — in both eras, ordinary citizens, or “amateurs,” were welcomed into the scientific world, be it the amateur meteorologist who classified the clouds in the eighteenth century or the DIY genetic test kits available to us today.

Indeed, Dyson suggests that the discovery of DNA and the bioengineering it made possible opened up the most exciting frontier of science — a remarkable opportunity to fully understand life and reimagine it at its highest potential, which ultimately requires an act of the poetic imagination. And because any technology of thought can be used toward both good and evil, this new frontier is one where we urgently need to reengage the poetic spirit with the enterprise of science. Nearly half a century after Ray Bradbury, perched on another major scientific precipice, remarked that “it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality,” Dyson envisions a renaissance of the Romantic spirit in modern science:

One feature of the old Age of Wonder is conspicuously absent in the new age. Poetry, the dominant art form in many human cultures from Homer to Byron, no longer dominates. No modern poet has the stature of Coleridge or Shelley. Poetry has in part been replaced in the popular culture by graphic art.

[…]

If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.

If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs [with] academic professionals … and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans.

Dreams of Earth and Sky is an immensely stimulating read in its entirety. Complement this particular thread of thought with sociobiologist E.O. Wilson and poet laureate Robert Hass’s beautiful conversation about science and poetry.

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Tiny Creatures: The Marvelous World of Microbes, in an Illustrated Children’s Book

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A vibrant ode to science inspired by folk art.

“You are mostly not you,” microbial ecologist Rob Knight wrote in his fascinating exploration of the human microbiome, in which he pointed out that only 1% of the genes in our bodies are human and the remaining 99% are microbial. It’s a staggering realization even for grownups, so how are tiny humans to grapple with these tiny organisms and their enormous impact on us and the rest of life? That’s what zoologist and children’s book author Nicola Davies explores in Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes (public library), with gorgeous art by English illustrator Emily Sutton — a marvelous addition to the best children’s books celebrating science.

The book is a clever exercise in scale, enlisting our human solipsism in understanding life-forms radically different from us by placing them in a comparative human context — for instance, a single drop of seawater can contain up to twenty million microbes, which Davies points out is about the same as the number of residents of New York State, and a teaspoon of soil can be populated by a billion microbes, comparable to the number of humans populating all of India.

Young readers are invited to explore the astonishing diversity of microbes in both form and function, not only relative to us — some make us sick, and some make us healthy — but relative to one another.

Sutton’s sensibility was greatly influenced by a single visit to the American Folk Art Museum in New York, which left her enchanted with the aesthetic of folk art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her vibrant illustrations call to mind beloved mid-century creative duo Alice and Martin Provensen, who honed their craft on countless folk tales and fables.

Complement Tiny Creatures with a grownup tale of how microbes are redefining what it means to be human, then treat yourself and the young human in your life to more stimulating science books for kids, including a coloring book about evolution, the story of how Persian polymath Ibn Sina shaped modern medicine, and an allegory of quantum physics based on Alice in Wonderland.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes 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.





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