Brain Pickings

Rilke on What Winter Teaches Us about the Richness of Life and the Tenacity of the Human Spirit

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“What does living come down to but bringing about those changes in ourselves … which can free us to enjoy a richness and closeness with everyone?”

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the most prolific and poetic letter writers in history, a great master of what Virginia Woolf called “the humane art,” with more than seven thousand of his epistles surviving today. In 1929, three years after his untimely death, the best known compendium of them was published — Letters to a Young Poet, the source of Rilke’s memorable meditation on living life’s questions. A year later, his Letters to a Young Woman (public library) was published — a lesser known but no less rewarding collection of his correspondence with a young admirer named Lisa Heise, who reached out to Rilke in 1919 after her husband abandoned her with their two-year-old son and she found sole consolation in Rilke’s Book of Images. They corresponded for five years and although they never met, the letters between them brim with the warm nectar of mutuality that flows between two souls willing to hold each other’s truth with tenderness.

Writing in 1922, Rilke sends Heise a short but infinitely emboldening reflection on what winter teaches us about life’s riches, translated here by William Needham:

Tending my inner garden went splendidly this winter. Suddenly to be healed again and aware that the very ground of my being — my mind and spirit — was given time and space in which to go on growing; and there came from my heart a radiance I had not felt so strongly for a long time… You tell me how you are able to feel fully alive every moment of the day and that your inner life is brimming over; you write in the knowledge that what you have, if one looks at it squarely, outweighs and cancels all possible privations and losses that may later come along. It is precisely this that was borne in upon me more conclusively than ever before as I worked away during the long Winter months: that the stages by which life has become impoverished correspond with those earlier times when excesses of wealth were the accustomed measure. What, then, is there to fear? Only forgetting! But you and I, around us and in us, we have so much in store to help us remember!

Philosopher Joanna Macy’s soul-gladdening A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke — which also gave us Rilke’s magnificent letters on how befriending death helps us live more fully — includes an excerpt of this letter, translated by Macy herself thusly:

You might notice that in some ways the effects of our winter experiences are similar. You write of a constant sense of fullness, an almost overabundance of inner being, which from the outset counterbalances and compensates all deprivations and losses that might possibly come. In the course of my work this last long winter, I have experienced a truth more completely than ever before: that life’s bestowal of riches already surpasses any subsequent impoverishment. What, then, remains to be feared? Only that we might forget this! But around and within us, how much it helps to remember!

In his final letter to Heise in February of 1924, by which point she had gotten back on her feet, Rilke echoes this faith in the tenacity of the human spirit and our resilient capacity for joy. Needham’s translation:

Do you not have an increasing sense that underlying one’s own preparedness to accept whatever fate may bring there is a warm, sincere, frightened yet daring unchangeability? And what does living come down to but bringing about those changes in ourselves which we have daringly attempted and which can free us to enjoy a richness and closeness with everyone? After so much honest progress you have now come thus far: that you can live humbly and with the clear expectation that nothing untrue will, nor indeed can, ever find its way in to your heart, for you have that voice within you which merits your safe trust, your utmost faithfulness, and your joy.

Complement Letters to a Young Woman with Rilke on how private struggle fuels great art and the relationship between body and soul, then treat yourself to Annie Dillard on winter and wonder.

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Parents Talk to Their Kids About How Babies Are Made

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Impossibly charming revelations about the biological realities behind the birds and the bees.

Children’s tendency to ask questions so simple as to border on the philosophical is among their most endearing qualities — except when it comes to the question every parent dreads: “Where do babies come from?” Last year, artist and author Sophie Blackall addressed it with great elegance and charm in The Baby Tree, one of the year’s best children’s books. Now comes this absolutely disarming micro-documentary of parents telling their kids about the biological realities and scientific facts behind the “poetic truth” of the birds and the bees:

Complement it with The Little Red Schoolbook, a vintage Danish guide to teenage sexuality so radically honest that it was banned for decades, and sex educator Cory Silverberg’s inclusive modern-day reproduction primer What Makes a Baby, then revisit Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely tale of coming to terms with being an older sibling.

via Tina

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Thea’s Tree: An Illustrated Ode to Daydreaming, the Passage of Time, and the Gift of Human Imagination

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“Go plant this seed… And give it water and love and conversation.”

For the tellers of ancient myths, trees project the secret life of the spiritual world; for the great explainers of science, they remind us that we come from the sun; throughout history, trees have lent their shape to symbolic diagrams visualizing human knowledge. Humanity has always had a special relationship with trees — they are, after all, the oldest living unitary things in the world. Therein lies a potent metaphor that makes trees an exceptional storytelling device for some of the most difficult concepts with which the human mind tussles — notions like time, permanence, and impermanence. That’s precisely what author and illustrator Judith Clay explores with great gentleness and playful whimsy in Thea’s Tree (public library) — a belated but befitting addition to the best children’s books of 2014 by Indian independent publisher Karadi Tales, who bring to life wonderful and unusual stories from cultures around the world.

This particular masterpiece tells the story of a little girl named Thea, who lives in a city full of “houses, houses, and more houses,” and longs for nothing more than a tree — that exotic comrade in play and daydreaming, known to Thea only by her parents’ tales of their own childhood adventures.

As she dreams of “trees to climb, trees to hide in, trees to sit under and dream,” something unusual happens one late October day — a solitary leaf comes “floating gently and quietly past Thea’s window.”

Clay’s uncommonly imaginative and tender illustrations bring to life that delicate dance between desire and despair familiar to all who have yearned for something intensely and have been suddenly exhilarated by the faintest possibility of attaining it.

So uncontainable is Thea’s exhilaration that she rushes out to her friends, playing on the concrete street, and excitedly urges them to help her find the source of that hope-giving leaf. But they are unmoved, because “perhaps they didn’t even know what a tree was.” Indeed, implicit to the story is a subtle lamentation of how the legacy of the twentieth century has robbed children of essential childhood experiences like that vitalizing connection to the natural world.

Lulled by the precious leaf’s rustle, Thea drifts smoothly into a dream. The leaf carries her, by way of a giant moon — that quintessential patron saint of the child’s innocence — to the beautiful tree from which it came.

Once again, Clay’s subtle lament of how humanity has exploited the natural world comes to light as the tree speaks to Thea:

The tree saw right into Thea’s heart and found her deepest desire.

“Why do you want a tree, my dear?” the tree asked gently. “Do you want to build a hut or a boat or a fire with it? Do you want to make it into newspapers and books?”

Thea shook her head. Shyly, she said, “I want a tree for climbing and playing and to sit and dream under.”

“Then go plant this seed,” said the wise, white tree, “And give it water and love and conversation.”

When Thea awakes, she finds herself outside her house, seed in hand. She plants it into “a small patch of ground” and goes on to water it and love it and talk to it every day, until a tiny plant sprouts from the soil.

As Thea grows, so does the tree, which becomes a loyal dream-mate not only to her, and to her children, and to her grandchildren — a tender reminder that however much we may resist nature by replacing it with our houses and streets and treeless cities, the cycles of life are impervious to our resistance and peace only comes when we finally surrender to them and relinquish our vain resistance.

Thea’s Tree is absolutely magical from cover to cover. Complement it with The Farmer and the Clown, another belated addition to last year’s loveliest children’s books, then revisit a very different but equally rewarding Indian treasure celebrating trees, the breathtaking The Night Life of Trees.

Illustrations courtesy of Karadi Tales / Judith Clay

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