Brain Pickings

Anne Lamott on the Greatest Gift of Friendship and the Uncomfortable Art of Letting Yourself Be Seen

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“Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you.”

Beyond having written one of the finest books on writing ever published, Anne Lamott embraces language and life with equal zest, squeezing from the intersection wisdom of the most soul-stretching kind. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (public library | IndieBound) shines a sidewise gleam at Lamott’s much-loved meditations on why perfectionism kills creativity and how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing to explore the boundless blessings of our ample imperfections, from which our most expansive and transcendent humanity springs.

In an especially enchanting essay titled “The Book of Welcome,” Lamott imagines a scripture that was never written, a set of guidances and assurances that would avail us of haven from one of our most anguishing pathologies — the sense that we fall short, that we are undeserving of happiness, that we are unlovable and undesired; a sense instilled in many of us by “not having been cherished for who we are, by certain tall, anxiously shut-down people in our childhood homes.” She writes:

The welcome book would have taught us that power and signs of status can’t save us, that welcome — both offering and receiving — is our source of safety. Various chapters and verses of this book would remind us that we are wanted and even occasionally delighted in, despite the unfortunate truth that we are greedy-grabby, self-referential, indulgent, overly judgmental, and often hysterical.

Somehow that book “went missing”… We have to write that book ourselves.

Illustration from 'Hug Me' by Simona Ciraolo. Click image for more.

We write that book, Lamott suggests, in large part through our friendships — those delicate yet supremely secure embraces of welcome, woven of what Emerson memorably termed “truth and tenderness.” We nurture these voluntary relationships to heal from the involuntary ones that failed to nurture us when we were coming unto ourselves. Lamott writes:

The reality is that most of us lived our first decades feeling welcome only when certain conditions applied: we felt safe and embraced only when the parental units were getting along, when we were on our best behavior, doing well in school, not causing problems, and had as few needs as possible. If you needed more from them, best of luck.

[…]

They liked to think their love was unconditional. That’s nice. Sadly, though, the child who showed up at the table for meals was not the child the parents had set out to make. They seemed surprised all over again. They’d already forgotten from breakfast.

The parental units were simply duplicating what they’d learned when they were small. That’s the system.

It wasn’t that you got the occasional feeling that you were an alien or a chore to them. You just knew that attention had to be paid constantly to their moods, their mental health levels, their rising irritation, and the volume of beer consumed. Yes, there were many happy memories marbled in, too, of picnics, pets, beaches. But I will remind you now that inconsistency is how experimenters regularly drive lab rats over the edge.

Illustration from 'Little Boy Brown.' Click image for more.

And when “the system” does eventually drive us over the edge, we drop — if we’re lucky, if we allow ourselves to fall with grace — into the ungrabby, ungreedy, wholly welcoming arms of those we learn to call friends. Lamott recounts her own crash when, in her thirties, she got sober:

A few women in the community reached out to me. They recognized me as a frightened lush. I told them about my most vile behavior, and they said, “Me too!” I told them about my crimes against the innocent, especially me. They said, “Ditto. Yay. Welcome.” I couldn’t seem to get them to reject me. It was a nightmare and then my salvation.

It turns out that welcome is solidarity. We’re glad you’re here, and we’re with you. This whole project called you being alive, you finding joy? Well, we’re in on that.

Allowing that, Lamott observes, is a massive undertaking, a “big adjustment” that requires a “rebalancing of the soul.” But once we do, the book of welcome rewrites your story:

Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you. They see your upper arms are beautiful, soft and clean and warm, and then they will see this about their own, some of the time. It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble. It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened — me in your life, you in mine.

Two parts fit together. This hadn’t occurred all that often, but now that it does, it’s the wildest experience. It could almost make a believer out of you. Of course, life will randomly go to hell every so often, too. Cold winds arrive and prick you: the rain falls down your neck: darkness comes. But now there are two of you: Holy Moly.

A master of the touchpoint between wit and wisdom, Lamott adds to the poignant a wink of the playful:

The two nonnegotiable rules are that you must not wear patchouli oil — we’ll still love you, but we won’t want to sit with you — and that the only excuse for bringing your cell phone to the dinner table is if you’re eagerly waiting to hear that they’ve procured an organ for your impending transplant.

Small Victories is an enormously ennobling read in its entirety. Complement it with Lamott on how to handle those who refuse to welcome us, then revisit Aristotle on the art of human connection, Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than erotic love, and C.S. Lewis on true friendship.

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Artist Andrea Dezsö’s Enchanting Black-and-White Illustrations for the Little-Known Original Edition of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

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“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully.”

In December of 1812, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, then in their twenties, published the first volume of what would become the world’s most enduring and beloved fairy tales, which have raised generations of children and inspired endless reimaginings, most recently by Neil Gaiman. But what most of us know today — the most commonly known Grimm tales, those most continually reprinted, widely translated, and even more widely celebrated — is the 1857 edition, which has very little to do with the original. Over the forty-five years and six editions in between, the Grimm brothers refined, revised, and wholly rewrote the tales beyond recognition. But in the preface to the magnificent The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), translator and Grimm scholar Jack Zipes argues that “the first edition is just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments.”

The original tales were pioneering examples of elements of creative culture we celebrate today as modern inventions — desk-bound scholars and philologists, the brothers were visionary crowdsourcers and deft remixers of folktales they collected from oral storytelling traditions. To that end, the tales also bespeak the central but unsung role of women in literary traditions — several well-educated young women from two local families played a significant role in gathering the tales and reciting them for the Grimm brothers to record; but the most significant contribution came from a tailor’s wife named Dorothea Viehmann, who lived in a nearby village and told the brothers more than forty tales.

'The Frog King, or Iron Henry'

Most significantly, the tales as originally envisioned were beautifully blunt and unaffected, not moralistic or didactic — as Christian and puritanical ideology would later censor them into being — but celebratory of the ennobling effect of poetry itself. The Grimms capture this beautifully in the preface to the 1812 edition, where they also speak with great elegance to the notion — shared by Tolkien and echoed by Neil Gaiman — that children shouldn’t be shielded from the dark:

In publishing our collection we wanted to do more than just perform a service for the history of [poetry]. We intended at the same time to enable [poetry] itself, which is alive in the collection, to have an effect: it was to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it, and therefore, our collection was also to become an intrinsic educational primer. Some people have complained about this latter intention and asserted that there are things here and there [in our collection] that cause embarrassment and are unsuitable for children or offensive (such as the references to certain incidents and conditions, and they also think children should not hear about the devil and anything evil). Accordingly, parents should not offer the collection to children. In individual cases this concern may be correct, and thus one can easily choose which tales are to be read. On the whole it is certainly not necessary. Nothing can better defend us than nature itself, which has let certain flowers and leaves grow in a particular color and shape. People who do not find them beneficial, suitable for their special needs, which cannot be known, can easily walk right by them. But they cannot demand that the flowers and leaves be colored and cut in another way.

'The Three Sisters'

But what makes this newly released original volume especially enchanting are the breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes — intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known — illuminate scenes from the Grimms’ tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.

'The Wild Man'

'The Elves'

'The Godfather'

I had the pleasure of speaking with Dezsö about her creative process, the enduring enchantment of fairy tales, the singular allure of papercraft, the relationship between horror and whimsy, and the joy of making art at a public library.

MARIA POPOVA: Your artwork is so intricate, so delicately detailed. Where does each piece begin, both in your mind and on the paper?

ANDREA DEZSÖ: Images can arrive fully-formed as I read the text, if it comes this way then it just pops out. Images that don’t come to mind fully-formed begin vague and undetailed, like something seen from a distance at night. In those cases, I sketch on the margins of the text or in a small notebook using a thick, blunt pencil that does not allow for precision. Through the act of drawing the image gets clearer and clearer. I start from marking what I know, what I can already see taking shape.

I made most of the Grimm sketches at a public library in New Jersey that had sturdy tables, great light, lots of books, people reading — a quiet and uplifted environment that made it easy to focus. I love to work outside of the studio — at libraries, in meetings, on the subway, while waiting around. Since you’re not expected to create great artwork in those places, it’s easy to relax and let the mind wander and find unexpected images.

A lot of the creative work and visual thinking happen up front, in the sketch phase. Loose sketch, detailed sketch. I typically show clients only highly detailed sketches that very closely resemble the finished illustrations — that’s the first they see of how I’ve translated the text into imagery.

'The Twelve Brothers'

'Hans My Hedgehog'

MP: How did you choose which fairy tales and which particular scenes to illustrate?

AD: Jack Zipes asked that I illustrate the first and last tales (“The Frog King” and “The Golden Key”), and also suggested a group of other tales to consider, so I started by reading those. If I liked his suggestion, I illustrated it; if not, I picked another one. I chose tales to illustrate that gave me immediate, strong, clear mental images as I read them. The scenes to be illustrated popped into my mind, often fully formed — like the whale rearing from the water with a man sitting in a tiny boat in front of it. I love tales that feature the devil or other nonhuman creatures, so that influenced my choices, too.

'The Devil in the Green Coat'

MP: How long did each piece take, on average — both the mental incubation period and the physical crafting?

AD: This was a fast-paced project — I made the 20 illustrations and the cover over three months, working intensively. Each image took several days to complete. Some images took days just to conceptualize, while others popped into mind ready to be put on paper. Some of the sketch sheets are heavily worked-up, while others contain a single drawing which looks pretty much the same as the final image. Sketching takes hours, sometimes much longer. Once the publisher was happy with the direction of the sketches, I re-drew them from scratch, regardless of how detailed the sketch was, in order to get it perfect.

'Okerlo'

MP: Papercraft seems like a medium particularly well-suited to fairy tales — it is magical in and of itself. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Hans Christian Andersen was a paper-cutter himself.) Do you find that the magic of papercraft comes from the medium itself, or does the quality of immersive, patient attention imbue any medium upon which it is bestowed with magic? Or is it some combination of the two?

AD: I like the tension that arises from using a medium in a way that it’s not typically used. In the case of the Grimm book, these are ink drawings that I made to look like cut paper. This drawing technique presents a unique set of challenges, like solving a puzzle, so I didn’t simply cut paper to make these illustrations.

There’s an instinctive compatibility between folk and fairy tales and paper cutting, as you mention. When I first began cutting paper years ago, I cut and arranged detailed scenes into multi-layered tunnel books — cut paper sculptures of fantastical scenes from my imagination and nightmares in the guise of fairy tales. The initial impression of beauty conveyed by a delicate, lacy cut paper piece is challenged the moment the viewer realizes what’s actually taking place in the scene. The experience moves back and forth between the beauty of the medium and the edginess of the message.

This extends to media beyond paper, too. For example, I like to embroider images and words that subvert the notion of the feminine and domestic. These embroideries are decidedly outside the traditional sense of craft, though a superficial glance might signal quaint samplers.

'The Singing Bone'

MP: What drew you to papercraft in the first place?

AD: To me the perfect situation is when life and work are seamlessly integrated. I love the idea of working with everyday materials like pencils, papers, knives, thread and fabric, because those materials are always available, so nothing can prevent me from working. Paper is also just a perfect material in that way: ubiquitous, affordable and easy to work with. It’s versatile, physical, light yet strong, it folds flat but can also be made to pop up or built into three dimensional environments. It can be used large or small, cut, sewn, used as-is or painted, printed or glued, new or recycled, hand or machine made. A nice piece of paper never fails to inspire me.

My first notion of paper cutting came from Victorian toy theaters. From the start, I was interested in cut paper beyond its conveyance of narrative, and began experimenting with the possibilities of light and shadow and movement. After the initial tunnel book sculptures, I was invited to create gallery-sized cut paper installations and found it necessary to transition to laser-cutting in order to avoid destroying my hand from the repetitious act of cutting thousands of minutely-detailed figures. Making laser cuts involves drawing an image and digitizing it to send to the laser cutter; at that point the whole question of drawing and cutting has come full-circle. I started to play with that challenge.

'Herr Fix-It-Up'

MP: You, like myself, grew up in Eastern Europe, where the Grimm fairy tales weren’t sterilized out of their grimness. Many Western storytellers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, Maurice Sendak, Neil Gaiman, and Sophie Blackall, have argued that shielding children from the dark is a selfish act on behalf of grownups and that there isn’t really such a thing as writing “for children.” How do you, both as an artist and as someone with one foot in each culture of fairy tales, feel about the childhood/adulthood polarization and about the element of the dark in “children’s” storytelling?

AD: I don’t believe my grandmother, mother, or aunt left out any of the grimmer elements of the fairy tales they read to us as children. I guess there was a respect for the integrity of a tale — this idea that every story had a wholeness that should not be tampered with when it was told. I thought it entirely normal that scary things happened in fairy tales because scary things happened in the real world as well. Romania had serious food shortages when I was growing up and I remember thinking that my sister and I still had it pretty good compared to all those children in the fairy tales whose parents sent them off to the forest with a stale slice of bread when they could not feed them anymore.

The publishing industry has its conventions, but children like to be taken seriously sometimes. A few years ago I wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Mamushka, that appeared in Hungary. The book is a series of whimsical episodes, but is ultimately about a child working through her grief and finding consolation after the death of her grandmother. The illustrations are black-and-white graphite drawings. It’s an unconventional children’s book for Hungary, both because of the subject matter and the lack of color. Some readers indicated that they were ambivalent about giving the book to their children at first, but when they did the kids really took to the book and wanted it read over and over.

I guess it always depends on the individual child — some children may find some stories or characters disturbing, while others might find them relatable, and we as adults should be sensitive to that. There might be a cultural component at play — children raised in Eastern Europe might be expected to handle emotions provoked by folktales about betrayal and death, whereas in America maybe that’s considered challenging — though these same American kids see plenty of violence and death in popular culture, so there you have it. I think the right tale at the right time can be tremendously helpful, but tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully.

'The Golden Key'

You can see more of Dezsö’s enchanting work on her site. Complement The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition with the best illustrations from two centuries of Grimm tales, then revisit Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti’s illustrations for Neil Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel.

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Pico Iyer on What Leonard Cohen Teaches Us about Presence and the Art of Stillness

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“Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

“Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments,” Alan Lightman wrote in his sublime meditation on science and spirituality, “and at others to ride the passion and exuberance.” In his conversation with E.O. Wilson, the poet Robert Hass described beauty as a “paradox of stillness and motion.” But in our Productivity Age of perpetual motion, it’s increasingly hard — yet increasingly imperative — to honor stillness, to build pockets of it into our lives, so that our faith in beauty doesn’t become half-hearted, lopsided, crippled. The delicate bridling of that paradox is what novelist and essayist Pico Iyer explores in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully argued case for the unexpected pleasures of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it,” revealed through one man’s sincere record of learning to “take care of his loved ones, do his job, and hold on to some direction in a madly accelerating world.”

Iyer begins by recounting a snaking drive up the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles to visit his boyhood hero — legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. In 1994, shortly after the most revealing interview he ever gave, Cohen had moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to embark on five years of seclusion, serving as personal assistant to the great Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, then in his late eighties. Midway through his time at the Zen Center, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and given the Dharma name Jikan — Pali for “silence.” Iyer writes:

I’d come up here in order to write about my host’s near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who’d been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.

Cohen, who once described the hubbub of his ordinary state of mind as “very much like the waiting room at the DMV,” had sought in the sequestered Zen community a more extreme, more committed version of a respite most of us long for in the midst of modern life — at least at times, at least on some level, and often wholeheartedly, achingly. Iyer reflects on Cohen’s particular impulse and what it reveals about our shared yearning:

Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts.

[…]

One evening — four in the morning, the end of December — Cohen took time out from his meditations to walk down to my cabin and try to explain what he was doing here.

Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”

Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.

He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

Iyer beholds his encounter with Cohen with the same incredulous amazement that most of us modern cynics experience, at first reluctantly, when confronted with something or someone incomprehensibly earnest, for nothing dissolves snark like unflinching sincerity. For Cohen, Iyer observes, the Zen practice was not a matter of “piety or purity” but of practical salvation and refuge from “the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows.” Iyer writes:

Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.

“Nothing touches it,” Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still… Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

But the paradox thickens the closer we get to its source. The kind of stillness Cohen bows to is a capacity most reliably acquired through meditation. And yet even though meditation is our greatest gateway to everyday transcendence, most adults in the West don’t practice it. The second most common reason nonpractitioners have against meditating is that they don’t have the time to do it — not enough time to learn to live with presence. (The most common reason to resist, of course, is people’s protestation that they simply can’t do it or aren’t cut out for it, which is merely the time argument by a guise of greater denial — it simply means that they haven’t put in the time to get good at it; there is a reason it’s termed a meditation practice — mastering it obeys the same basic principles of attaining excellence as any skill.)

A century after Bertrand Russell admonished that the conquest of leisure and health would be of no use if no one remembers how to use them, Iyer paints an empirical caricature of the paradoxical time argument against stillness. Citing a sociological study of time diaries that found Americans were working fewer hours than they were 30 years earlier but felt as if they were working more, he writes:

We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

As most of us would begrudgingly admit, not without some necessary tussle with denial and rationalization, the challenge of staying present in the era of productivity is in no small part a product of our age itself. Iyer captures this elegantly:

Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.

Much like we find ourselves by getting lost, Iyer suggests, we inhabit the world more fully by mindfully vacating its mayhem:

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Annie Dillard’s memorable notion of “unmerited grace [that] is handed to you, but only if you look for it,” Iyer considers the rewards that beckon us from that space of stillness:

It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

With a wink of wisdom that would’ve made William James proud, Iyer adds:

It takes courage, of course, to step out of the fray, as it takes courage to do anything that’s necessary, whether tending to a loved one on her deathbed or turning away from that sugarcoated doughnut.

The Art of Stillness, which comes from TED Books, is a wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with Alan Watts on happiness and how to live with presence, Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent field guide to getting lost, Annie Dillard on presence vs. productivity, and some thoughts on wisdom in the age of information.

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