Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘love’

31 AUGUST, 2015

Love, Kindness, and the Song of the Universe: The Night Jack Kerouac Kept a Young Woman from Taking Her Own Life

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“I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge.”

In the late 1950s, a young woman named Lois Sorrells Beckwith did what many passionate book-lovers find themselves doing — she fell in love with an author through his work; not with the writing alone, but with the man. That man was Jack Kerouac and the book that tipped Lois over the edge of infatuation was his newly published novella The Subterraneans (public library), a semi-fictional account of a fervid romance.

But then Lois did something few ardent readers would dare to do.

A native New Englander then living in California, she moved back to the East Coast and, one fateful afternoon in 1958, mustered the timid brazenness to drive herself to Kerouac’s home in Northport, Long Island, hoping to meet him. She pulled up to the house and found him sitting under a tree in his front yard, meditating — a practice he had taken up some years earlier as he plunged into Buddhist philosophy.

So began a romance that lasted many years. Lois was twenty-three. Jack was thirty-six and had just published On the Road, the novel that would become a counterculture classic and catapult him into literary celebrity.

“I had fallen in love with the soul of this man,” Lois — the mother of my friend Sebastian Beckwith, whom I know through the wonderful and talented Wendy MacNaughton — tells me as she looks back on this unusual and electrifying adventure in love and literature.

The relationship continued, on and off, for years. The “on” phases were intensely beautiful — the two shared an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, an epicenter of the era’s creative culture, which they relished fully. Lois recounts:

We were drinking lots of wine and dancing and making love and listening to him read.

They went to poetry readings together and listened to music and led a life that Lois remembers as “pretty fast-paced and exhausting.” But it was also incredibly tender — every time he left the apartment, Jack wrote Lois a sweet note.

Writing, indeed, was not only what had brought them together but what kept them together. During the “off” phases, they wrote each other letters that sustained their romance. But marriage was never something either of them desired. Jack had already been married and divorced twice. Lois has fallen in love with his writing and respected it as his greatest commitment. She reflects:

I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge. And I loved being with him. But I never thought of marrying him — he was a writer, and he had to write.

And then Lois lost her mother, with whom she had been incredibly close. Gutted by grief and mired in a thick depression, she went to stay with her father for a while.

Late one night, there was a knock at the door. It was Jack, with an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his back. Already one of the country’s most famous writers, he had been away on a book tour when he received Lois’s letter about her mother’s death and her depression. Terrified that she might commit suicide, he had flown in, walked five miles from the other side of town with the giant device, and come to play Lois a song to lift her spirits.

This man, in whom the tender and the troubled always coexisted, had recognized in his beloved the wounded part of himself. He had extended to Lois the comforting care he was ultimately unable to grant himself. Lois recounts:

As he became more famous, he drank more — it was very sad.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Kerouac himself once wrote, and in this enormous gesture of kindness, he had transported himself to heaven, if only for a night.

Eventually, the couple parted ways as lovers but remained friends. In fact, it was Jack who introduced Lois to her husband, who became my friend Sebastian’s father.

And then, many years later, something unusual happened.

One day, when Lois was about to turn eighty and Jack had been dead for nearly half a century by the troubledness that eclipsed his radiant spirit, a piece of paper fell on her floor as she was moving some papers at home. On it, the phrase “universe — one song” was written in the handwriting of her youth.

Lois immediately remembered a vivid dream she had had all those years earlier, in that New York apartment. She recounts the dream:

I was just walking around on a very hot, sultry night — it was exciting, sensual — and I heard the most exquisite music. I asked someone what it was, and they said that it was the voices of all nationalities speaking. The dream was all about kindness — this huge love and kindness — so it made me think of Jack on the night of his heroic five-mile walk. And that’s still what I think about when I think about Jack.

Moved by the memory of the dream and Jack’s generous gesture, Lois penned a poem in remembrance of his kindness. Here she is, at eighty, reading it:

UNIVERSE — ONE SONG
    a letter to you Mr. Kerouac

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud
o my god it could be quick
tho i will not attend —

in the middle of the night
my father answered the door
with great annoyance
i followed

you were there with tears in your eyes
you had walked five miles
with a heavy reel-to-reel
tape recorder on your back

you said
“i brought
St. Matthew’s Passion for you to hear
so you won’t commit suicide”

you had walked five miles
in the middle of that long dark night
to bring me your passion —

how my mind was winter swept
bumped the spring time bud —

i am still here Ti Jean
but wonder where you are on cold starry nights
my eyes as ever, tear bright!

Complement Lois’s beautiful story with Kerouac on kindness and the “Golden Eternity,” the difference between genius and talent, and his “beliefs and techniques” for prose and life.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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19 AUGUST, 2015

The Rabbit Box: Unusual Vintage Children’s Book for Grownups Celebrates the Mystery of Life and the Magic of Falling in Love

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“i waited for you to fall in love with someone else … but you didn’t & now i’m faced with the biggest terror of my life, knowing i am enough even at my worst for you to love me all your life.”

In 1970, poet, playwright, and former priest Joseph Pintauro teamed up with artist Norman Laliberté on a marvelous limited-edition boxed set titled The Rainbow Box, containing four children’s books for grownups, each dedicated to a season and full of playful and poignant fragmentary meditations on love, loss, war, peace, loneliness, communion — in other words, the emotional kaleidoscope of life itself. Dedicated to spring was The Rabbit Box (public library) — a most unusual lens on themes both of the time (the dawn of the environmental movement, the anti-war movement) and timeless (love, peace, the meaning of the human experience), equal parts strange and spectacular.

What emerges is a poem, a love letter, an elegy for Mother Earth, an incantation against war, and above all a vibrant invitation to aliveness.

Laliberté’s art and design are as striking as Pintauro’s writing — haunting found photographs of children and lovers and soldiers become visual metaphors for the very polarities Pintauro explores in his breathtaking text, which Laliberté renders in beautiful hand-lettering.

The weirdness and wonderfulness of the story, at first so strange it renders one unable to understand where it is going, converge to remind us of Gertrude Stein’s memorable observation: “If you enjoy it, you understand it.”

The book is divided into several subtle “chapters,” each eulogizing — or perhaps elegizing — a particular object of wistful affection. Pintauro’s luminous lamentation for Mother Earth is especially moving — doubly so today, nearly half a century later, as we’re facing our part in the destruction of a benevolent planet that has given us nothing but unconditional nourishment.

But the most beautiful part of the book explores the transcendent magic of falling and staying in love:

Complement The Rabbit Box, which is long out of print but well worth the hunt, with The Magic Box, the part of the set dedicated to autumn and celebrating the invigorating beauty of the cycle of life and death.

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12 AUGUST, 2015

Anam Cara and the Essence of True Friendship: Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on the Beautiful Ancient Celtic Notion of Soul-Friend

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“A friend … awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

Aristotle laid out the philosophical foundation of friendship as the art of holding up a mirror to each other’s souls. Two millennia later, Emerson contemplated its two pillars of truth and tenderness. Another century later, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

But nowhere do the beauty, mystery, and soul-sustenance of friendship come more vibrantly alive than in the 1997 masterwork Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (public library) by the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue (January 1, 1956–January 4, 2008), titled after the Gaelic for “soul-friend” — a beautiful concept that elegantly encapsulates what Aristotle and Emerson and Lewis articulated in many more words.

O’Donohue examines the essence and origin of the term:

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Let's Be Enemies' by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

The kind of friendship one finds in an anam cara, O’Donohue argues, is a very special form of love — not the kind that leads us to pit the platonic against the romantic but something much larger and more transcendent:

In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul… This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.

But being an anam cara requires of a purposeful presence — it asks that we show up with absolute integrity of intention. That interior intentionality, O’Donohue suggests, is what sets the true anam cara apart from the acquaintance or the casual friend — a distinction all the more important today, in a culture where we throw the word “friend” around all too hastily, designating little more than perfunctory affiliation. But this faculty of showing up must be an active presence rather than a mere abstraction — the person who declares herself a friend but shirks when the other’s soul most needs seeing is not an anam cara.

O’Donohue writes:

The heart learns a new art of feeling. Such friendship is neither cerebral nor abstract. In Celtic tradition, the anam cara was not merely a metaphor or ideal. It was a soul-bond that existed as a recognized and admired social construct. It altered the meaning of identity and perception. When your affection is kindled, the world of your intellect takes on a new tenderness and compassion… You look and see and understand differently. Initially, this can be disruptive and awkward, but it gradually refines your sensibility and transforms your way of being in the world. Most fundamentalism, greed, violence, and oppression can be traced back to the separation of idea and affection.

The anam cara perspective is sublime because it permits us to enter this unity of ancient belonging.

O’Donohue borrows Aristotle’s notion of friendship and stretches it to a more expansive understanding:

A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.

[…]

The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit.

Anam Cara is a soul-stretching read in its entirety, exploring such immutable human concerns as love, work, aging, and death through the timeless lens of ancient Celtic wisdom. Complement it with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then treat yourself to O’Donohue’s magnificent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — one of the last interviews he gave before his sudden and tragic death.

If you realize how vital to your whole spirit — and being and character and mind and health — friendship actually is, you will take time for it… [But] for so many of us … we have to be in trouble before we remember what’s essential… It’s one of the lonelinesses of humans that you hold on desperately to things that make you miserable and … you only realize what you have when you’re almost about to lose it.

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11 AUGUST, 2015

Nikki Giovanni on What Amoebae Know About Love

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“We live in a world requiring light and Darkness … partnership and solitude … sameness and difference…”

“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote in contemplating what it really means to love, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” And yet we hardly know how to prepare, for we hardly understand what love is at all. We try to define it, we even try to calculate it, and yet it remains a mystery.

Both not so and very much so for writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943). From her altogether magnificent 1975 collection The Women and the Men (public library) comes a beautiful and unusual prose poem about the dualities with which we must live and the human conceits which we must relinquish in order to truly know love.

LOVE: IS A HUMAN CONDITION

An amoeba is lucky it’s so small … else its narcissism would lead to war … since self-love seems so frequently to lead to self-righteousness …

I suppose a case could be made … that there are more amoebas than people … that they comprise the physical majority … and therefore the moral right … But luckily amoebas rarely make television appeals to higher Gods … and baser instincts … so one must ask if the ability to reproduce oneself efficiently has anything to do with love …

The night loves the stars as they play about the Darkness … the day loves the light caressing the sun … We love … those who do … because we live in a world requiring light and Darkness … partnership and solitude … sameness and difference … the familiar and the unknown … We love because it’s the only true adventure …

I’m glad I’m not an amoeba … there must be more to all our lives than ourselves … and our ability to do more of the same …

I was particularly struck by the second verse: Four decades before marriage equality came to the forefront of cultural discourse and rose triumphant to the highest levels of legislature as a basic human right, Giovanni elegantly satirizes the absurd arguments with which bigots have historically tried to limit love. It makes one wonder how much faster we might have gotten to the golden age of “love is love” had we sent a poet, not a politician, to the Supreme Court.

The piece was later included in The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library), which assembles a lifetime of wonder and wisdom. Complement it with Giovanni’s marvelous poems about friendship and loneliness, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.

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