Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

21 APRIL, 2015

Love After Love: Derek Walcott’s Poetic Ode to Being at Home in Ourselves

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“Sit. Feast on your life.”

The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written beautifully about why learning to love others begins with learning to love ourselves — a sentiment that the reactive modern cynic might dismiss as the vacant fodder of self-help books, but one which more considered reflection reveals to be deeply truthful and deeply uncomfortable. What, after all, does loving oneself even mean — particularly if we’re aspiring to be unselfish and generous, and to outgrow the illusory ego-shell we call a self?

That’s what Caribbean poet and playwright Derek Walcott (b. January 23, 1930) — a writer of such extraordinary poetic prowess that his 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature appears a wholly inadequate measure of his mastery and mesmerism — addresses with a luminous sidewise gleam in a poem titled “Love After Love,” found in his Collected Poems: 1948–1984 (public library).

On an archival On Being episode titled “Opening to Our Lives,” mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn reads Walcott’s masterpiece — undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written. Please enjoy:

LOVE AFTER LOVE

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This reading is part of On Being’s altogether wonderful Poetry Radio Project. Complement it with other poetry-lovers’ readings of favorite poems: Amanda Palmer reads Wislawa Szymborska, David Whyte reads Mary Oliver, Joanna Macy reads Rainer Maria Rilke, and my reading of Mark Strand

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20 APRIL, 2015

North Brother Island: Haunting Photographs of the Last Unknown Place in New York City

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An otherworldly portrait of the eternal dance between life and death, wilderness and civilization.

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to the city. In the middle of the East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island, in strange proximity to New York’s ample participatory excitements, there exists a glorious yet invisible pocket of privacy — an almost otherworldly twenty-acre islet, at once ghostly and full of life. Abandoned in 1963 and closed to the public since, it remains virtually unknown even to New Yorkers.

In North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City (public library), photographer Christopher Payne — who has previously documented the haunting world of 19th-century mental asylums — captures this striking parallel universe that exists just outside the world’s most exciting city.

The island was once the flat and bare hospital campus for treating smallpox victims, then became a juvenile drug treatment center, and is now a lush wildlife sanctuary with overgrown greenery taking its posthumous revenge on civilization. (A curious intersection, given Payne’s previous project: Riverside Hospital, the island’s original resident, migrated there from Blackwell’s Island, currently known as Roosevelt Island — the site of pioneering Victorian journalist Nellie Bly’s landmark 1887 exposé of asylum abuse.)

Taken over a period of years with the city’s permission, Payne’s photographs — a gutted house through which the forest peeks; a morgue in an overrun building; a boiler house engulfed in a thick coat of kudzu, the coiling perennial vine that has colonized the area — reveal the island as a kind of heavenly purgatory reconciling civilization and wilderness, death and life.

Complement Payne’s altogether enchanting North Brother Island with a history of New York in 101 objects and Jane Dorn’s haunting photographs of abandoned buildings in the South, then revisit the story of how a vintage children’s book saved New York’s little red lighthouse.

Photographs courtesy of Christopher Payne

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20 APRIL, 2015

The Virtues of a Wandering Heart: How External Crushes Fortify Your Relationship

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“The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.”

Even as we arrive at an actual mathematical formula for lasting love, we remain tragicomically unskilled at anticipating — to say nothing of domesticating — the unpredictable, nonlinear dynamics of the human heart.

That’s what novelist and Believer magazine founding editor Heidi Julavits, who joins the ranks of history’s notable diarists, touches on with equal parts gentleness and precision in a couple of related meditations from the kaleidoscopically illuminating The Folded Clock: A Diary (public library).

In one entry, as she comforts a friend suspecting spousal infidelity, Julavits relays the curious findings of a study she had recently come across:

The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.

This, of course, makes sense — we know that love is a mode of “interbeing” and a “dynamic interaction” in which the opportunity to choose each other over and over is what sustains the longevity of a couple’s bond.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' a vintage Danish guide to romance, which Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife. Click image for details.

In another entry a few months later, pondering the curious psychology of the TV show The Bachelorette, Julavits revisits this subject and corroborates the empirical with the anecdotal:

Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond positively when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves.

[…]

This has happened to me many times. It happened to me on a canoe trip; the minute we returned to civilization, I recanted my crush on the guy I’d angled to sit next to at the nightly campfires. I have been so cognizant of this phenomenon, and its inevitability, that I got nervous in college while waiting to hear where in France I was to spend my semester abroad, because I knew that a guy my friend was dating, someone I’d always found abstractly cute, was also going to France. Fortunately we were sent to different cities. Had we been in the same city, I am certain we would have fallen in love, or the sort of love that occurs in those situations, call it what you will, probably a mistake. This is also why I get nervous about going to art colonies, especially now that I am happily married to a man I met at an art colony. I don’t want to fall for anyone else — I am pointedly not looking to fall for anyone — but these situations conspire against our best intentions. Art colonies, often located in remote woods or on beautiful estates, are communities in which all the residents sever ties to the real world within hours of arrival; they are like singles mixers for the married or otherwise spoken for. (I was married when I met my now-husband, who was otherwise spoken for.) When I arrive at a colony these days, I take a measure of the room, I identify the potential problems, I reinforce my weak spots, and then I relax.

Illustration from 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,' Shel Silverstein's minimalist allegory of true love. Click image for more.

This kind of considered candor in the service of a larger truth is what makes The Folded Clock an immensely pleasurable read in its entirety. Julavits — who is at times self-deprecating to the point of tears that, having no other recourse in order to continue reading this undeniably marvelous text, eventually transmogrify into tears of delight — captures the book’s sensibility perfectly in one of the entires:

I’ve felt okay occasionally describing my diary as a “contemporary take on Walden.” Like Thoreau, I am pretending that I wrote this diary over the course of a year, when in fact I wrote it over the course of two years, two months, and two days (give or take). Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deliberately” and was worried that if I did not I might, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Unlike Thoreau, I have no fondness for sparse living. I do not covet hardship. I liked the idea of Walden, however, because it was written in a cabin in the woods. It’s a sort-of nature book that took place (at least the writing did) inside. Interiors are where I do my exploring. Interiors are my nature. I am an outdoorsman of the indoors… When I am there I am happiest. In my outbuilding I am sucking out optimum marrow.

Couple with some actual Thoreau, then fortify with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love, Dan Savage on the unsettling secret of lasting love, Wendell Berry on freedom and marriage, and Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.

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20 APRIL, 2015

The Sea: A Sweet Wordless Story about Pursuit and Surrender, Dread and Desire, Disappointment and Triumph

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From the compound to the cosmos, a playful celebration of life’s complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints.

French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Long before her masterwork The Lion and the Bird, one of the best children’s books of 2014 and among the very best I’ve ever encountered, Dubuc made her picture-book debut with another imaginative, insightful, bewitchingly illustrated wordless story: La Mer, “translated” and published in English as The Sea (public library) — a kindred tale that laid the foundation for The Lion and the Bird, and yet one that touches an entirely different part of the soul.

The cat casts a mischievous eye on the pet fish, which transmogrifies into a winged creature as it takes flight from the feisty feline. A playful pursuit unfolds — first in the house, then the neighborhood, then the forest, then the stars and the moon. Finally, the two emerge on the other end of town and the fish, no longer winged, plunges triumphantly into the sea as the cat peers wistfully into the sunset — perhaps disappointed to have lost, perhaps missing his unlikely playmate.

What emerges is a parable about complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints — pursuit and surrender, desire and dread, disappointment and triumph — and a reminder that there is a ground layer of existential kinship in even those relationships that appear most antagonistic on the surface.

Dubuc’s greatest point of genius is her mastery of rhythm. She is an artisan of silence as a storytelling device — punctuating the story are perfectly placed pauses and moments of stillness that only amplify the authority of the action.

Echoing Picasso’s incisive dictum that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Dubuc tells the wonderful Picturebook Makers:

When I’m searching for a new book idea, I usually write continuously in a notebook, as if I were talking to it. It’s a little bit like automatic writing, where you write everything that comes into your mind, without censoring yourself. That is how my brain feels free to create stories.

A master of wordless narrative, Dubuc sees her stories in pictures before she commits them to words in her notebook — in a way, language reverts to how it originally evolved and becomes a temporary translator between thought and image.

In the same interview, invoking what scientists know about why we think with animal metaphors, Dubuc reflects:

I don’t like to draw humans; I haven’t found a way to draw them that satisfies me yet. I think that when drawing animals, I give myself more freedom of interpretation than I do with humans.

The Sea is an absolute masterpiece from cover to cover. Complement it with Dubuc’s follow-up gem, The Lion and the Bird, then see this fascinating read on the psychology of why animal allegories enchant the human soul.

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