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20 JANUARY, 2015

Mary Oliver on What Attention Really Means and Her Moving Eulogy to Her Soul Mate

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“Attention without feeling … is only a report.”

Mary Oliver is one of our era’s most beloved and prolific poets — a sage of wisdom on the craft of poetry and a master of its magic; a woman as unafraid to be witty as she is to wise. For more than forty years, Oliver lived on Cape Cod with the love of her life, the remarkable photographer Molly Malone Cook — one of the first staff photographers for The Village Voice, with subjects like Walker Evans and Eleanor Roosevelt, and a visionary gallerist who opened the first photography gallery on the East Coast, exhibited such icons as Ansel Adams and Berenice Abbott, and recognized rising talent like William Clift. (She was also, living up to her reputation as “a great Bohemian American,” the owner of a bookshop frequented by Norman Mailer and occasionally staffed by the filmmaker John Waters.)

Mary Oliver (b. 1935, right) with Molly Malone Cook (1925–2005) at the couple's home in Provincetown, Massachusetts

When Cook died in 2005 at the age of eighty, Oliver looked for a light, however faint, to shine through the thickness of bereavement. She spent a year making her way through thousands of her spouse’s photographs and unprinted negatives, mostly from around the time they met, which Oliver then enveloped in her own reflections to bring to life Our World (public library) — part memoir, part deeply moving eulogy to a departed soul mate, part celebration of their love for one another through their individual creative loves. Embraced in Oliver’s poetry and prose, Cook’s photographs reveal the intimate thread that brought these two extraordinary women together — a shared sense of deep aliveness and attention to the world, a devotion to making life’s invisibles visible, and above all a profound kindness to everything that exists, within and without.

Oliver — who refers to Cook simply as M. in most of her writings — reflects in the opening essay:

Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything — but a few things, which I will tell. M. had will and wit and probably too much empathy for others; she was quick in speech and she did not suffer fools. When you knew her she was unconditionally kind. But also, as our friend the Bishop Tom Shaw said at her memorial service, you had to be brave to get to know her.

[…]

She was style, and she was an old loneliness that nothing could quite wipe away; she was vastly knowledgeable about people, about books, about the mind’s emotions and the heart’s. She lived sometimes in a black box of memories and unanswerable questions, and then would come out and frolic — be feisty, and bold.

Amish schoolroom, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Oliver writes of the affair Cook had in the late 1950s, shortly before they met:

She had … an affair that struck deeply; I believe she loved totally and was loved totally. I know about it, and I am glad… This love, and the ensuing emptiness of its ending, changed her. Of such events we are always changed — not necessarily badly, but changed. Who doesn’t know this doesn’t know much.

The following year, Cook met Oliver and they remained together, inseparable, for more than four decades. That encounter — which calls to mind the fateful first meetings that occasioned such iconic literary couples as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes — took place at Steepletop, the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay, where Oliver had landed the day after her high school graduation at the age of seventeen and stayed for several years.

Inside the library at Steepletop, the home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

One evening in 1959, when Oliver was twenty-four and Cook thirty-four, the young poet returned to the house and found the photographer sitting at the kitchen table with a friend. She describes their encounter with her signature elegance of unpeeling the mundane to reveal the momentous:

I took one look and fell, hook and tumble. M. took one look at me, and put on her dark glasses, along with an obvious dose of reserve. She denied this to her dying day, but it was true.

Isn’t it wonderful the way the world holds both the deeply serious, and the unexpectedly mirthful?

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

It turned out that Oliver and Cook, in their regular lives beyond Steepletop, lived right across the street from each other in New York’s East Village. So they began to see one another “little by little,” and so their great love story began.

Chess players, Washington Square, New York City, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

But perhaps the greatest gift of their union was the way in which they shaped each other’s way of seeing and being with the world — the mutually ennobling dialogue between their two capacities for presence:

It has frequently been remarked, about my own writings, that I emphasize the notion of attention. This began simply enough: to see that the way the flicker flies is greatly different from the way the swallow plays in the golden air of summer. It was my pleasure to notice such things, it was a good first step. But later, watching M. when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the darkroom, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… I was in my late twenties and early thirties, and well filled with a sense of my own thoughts, my own presence. I was eager to address the world of words — to address the world with words. Then M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles. I think of this always when I look at her photographs, the images of vitality, hopefulness, endurance, kindness, vulnerability… We each had our separate natures; yet our ideas, our influences upon each other became a reach and abiding confluence.

[…]

I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have. And what a gift [that she] never expressed impatience with my reports of the natural world, the blue and green happiness I found there. Our love was so tight.

'My first clam,' 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

To lose the love of one’s life is something few have dared to live in public — the most memorable such bravery being Joan Didion’s — but Oliver brings to death’s darkness her familiar touch of emboldening light:

The end of life has its own nature, also worth our attention. I don’t say this without reckoning in the sorrow, the worry, the many diminishments. But surely it is then that a person’s character shines or glooms.

Oliver ends with a breath-stopping prose poem that brings full-circle her opening reflections on never fully knowing even those nearest to us — a beautiful testament to what another wise woman once wrote: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”

THE WHISTLER

All of a sudden she began to whistle. By all of a sudden
I mean that for more than thirty years she had not
whistled. It was thrilling. At first I wondered, who was
in the house, what stranger? I was upstairs reading, and
she was downstairs. As from the throat of a wild and
cheerful bird, not caught but visiting, the sounds war-
bled and slid and doubled back and larked and soared.

Finally I said, Is that you? Is that you whistling? Yes, she
said. I used to whistle, a long time ago. Now I see I can
still whistle. And cadence after cadence she strolled
through the house, whistling.

I know her so well, I think. I thought. Elbow and an-
kle. Mood and desire. Anguish and frolic. Anger too.
And the devotions. And for all that, do we even begin
to know each other? Who is this I’ve been living with
for thirty years?

This clear, dark, lovely whistler?

Boy with telescope, New York Cruises, late 1950s (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Our World is a sublime read in its entirety — the kind that enters the soul like a deep breath and remains there as an eternal exhale. Complement it with Oliver on how rhythm sweetens life and her beautiful reading of her poem “Wild Geese.”

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20 JANUARY, 2015

Peanuts and the Quiet Pain of Childhood: How Charles Schulz Made an Art of Difficult Emotions

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“[Charlie Brown] reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.”

J.R.R. Tolkien adamantly asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Neil Gaiman has repeatedly championed the notion that children shouldn’t be protected from dark emotions, and yet such voices remain rare radicals in a culture that continues to treat the child’s inner world as desperately fragile and childhood itself as a one-dimensional idyll. What made Charles Schulz’s iconic Peanuts series so beloved was precisely its dimensional and complex view of childhood — something Schulz achieved by thrusting his characters into such unpopular yet essential circumstances of the soul as boredom and uncertainty. In Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (public library), writer David Michaelis traces how this singular creative genius originated in the complex experience of Schulz’s own early life.

Charles Schulz in 1956 (Photograph by Roger Higgins courtesy Library of Congress)

Unlike classic cartoon masters who made distraction their medium, Schulz filled his comic strips with suspended action and deliberate empty spaces, in which the characters — as well as the reader — confront the uncertainties and protracted desperations of life. Michaelis writes:

[Peanuts] was about people working out the interior problems of their daily lives without ever actually solving them. The absence of a solution was the center of the story.

[…]

The American assumption was that children were happy, and childhood was a golden time; it was adults who had problems with which they wrestled and pains that they sought to smooth. Schulz reversed the natural order of [assumptions] by showing that a child’s pain is more intensely felt than an adult’s, a child’s defeats the more acutely experienced and remembered. Charlie Brown takes repeated insults from Violet and Patty about the size of his head, which they compare with a beach ball, a globe, a pie tin, the moon, a balloon; and though Charlie Brown may feel sorry for himself, he gets over it fast. But he does not get visibly angry.

Such emotional resilience is perhaps what Schulz would have wished for himself had he had a chance to rewrite his own story — a story driven by quite the opposite disposition. Sparky, as he was known, had just started high school when his kindly and loving mother became ill with the cancer that would eventually take her life. On Monday, March 1, 1943, Dena Schulz called her son into her bedroom, said a calm goodbye, and died. That Saturday, young Charles was drafted into the army.

Illustration from 'Love Is Walking Hand in Hand,' 1965. Click image for more.

For the remainder of his life, whenever he was asked to recount his biographical timeline, he would begin not with his birth but with the day his mother died, which he always held as his “greatest tragedy” — a tragedy compounded by the deep dissatisfaction that even though he far surpassed his wildest childhood dreams of success and became the highest-paid cartoonist in the world, his mother never lived to see him publish anything.

This quiet grief permeated his Peanuts. Embedded in Charlie Brown’s chronic blend of desperation and optimism is the rather adult realization that “being yourself is a very difficult game” — something illustrated by an exchange Michaelis cites:

“Would you like to have been Abraham Lincoln?” Patty asks Charlie Brown. “I doubt it,” he answers. “I have a hard enough time being just plain Charlie Brown.”

Being Schulz wasn’t easy, either. Friends, Michaelis found, felt that he “didn’t want to get too close to anybody” and described him as “hard to know, hard to understand.” But to Schulz himself — as to nearly all creators who suffuse their work with their whole selves — the best way to know him was to know his Peanuts characters. Michaelis quotes the cartoonist himself:

A cartoon is really a picture demonstrating one thought in the guise of another. If somebody reads my strip every day, they’ll know me for sure — they’ll know exactly what I am.

One of Schulz’s friends told Michaelis: “He liked to think of himself as a simple man, but he was not simple — he was enigmatic and complex.” To the dedicated reader, this was the charm of Peanuts — that from the simplicity of ordinary situations and mundane events springs the enormous complexity of life, and from the osmosis of the two comes the comforting assurance that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for satisfaction in our own mundane and manic lives.

For his part, Schulz was aware that his inner gloom was also the source of his outward light. Michaelis writes:

A more gregarious, more balanced person could not have created the long-suffering but unsinkable Charlie Brown; crabby, often venomous Lucy; philosophical Linus; tomboyish Peppermint Patty; single-minded Schroeder; and grandiose, self-involved Snoopy. “A normal person couldn’t do it,” [Schulz] had himself contended.

But to this I offer an important aside: It is essential that Schulz’s sentiment not be misinterpreted or warped by our era’s perilous “tortured genius” myth of creativity. Too often we infer a false causality in the ongoing cultural narrative on the relationship between creativity and inner demons — Schulz was able to create his cartoon universe not because of his deep unhappiness but despite it. Undoubtedly a great many people suffer daily the untimely and traumatic death of a beloved parent, and yet there is no other Peanuts; there are, however, countless people for whom such trauma turns into a lifetime of self-destructive anguish rather than one of tireless creation. That, perhaps, is the true gift of genius — to bring something meaningful to life despite how meaningless one’s own life may seem; to give some warmth to the world despite what the world may have coldly taken away.

Illustration from 'Love Is Walking Hand in Hand,' 1965. Click image for more.

Michaelis returns to Schulz’s genius of granting childhood its due dignity and, in doing so, offering a consolation for adulthood:

Children are not supposed to be radically dissatisfied. When they are unhappy, children protest — they wail, they whine, they scream, they cry — then they move on. Schulz gave these children lifelong dissatisfactions, the stuff of which adulthood is made.

Readers recognized themselves in “poor moon-faced, unloved, misunderstood” Charlie Brown — in his dignity in the face of whole seasons of doomed baseball games, his endurance and stoicism in the face of insults. He … reminded people, as no other cartoon character had, of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human — both little and big at the same time.

Complement Schulz and Peanuts with Ray Bradbury on what Snoopy taught him about facing rejection, then revisit the best biographies of last year.

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20 JANUARY, 2015

How to Merge Money and Meaning: An Animated Field Guide to Finding Fulfilling Work in the Modern World

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The six psychological pillars of a satisfying life.

“To not have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself,” wrote Charles Bukowski in his magnificent letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit a soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer. But the quest to find one’s calling is rarely easy — few people turn their childhood dreams into reality like Jane Goodall did or awaken one day early in life with Werner Herzog’s sense of “undivided duty” to propel them forward into a lifetime of fulfilling work. After all, even Van Gogh floundered to find his purpose.

When we find ourselves at the crossroads of safe and satisfying, we don’t always have the courage to let our inner life speak, much less to listen.

This terrific short animation based on philosopher Roman Krznaric’s How to Find Fulfilling Work (public library) — which I’ve previously covered at length — offers consolation to those who “have career crises, often on a Sunday evening,” by exploring the six pillars of finding a life-path that bridges money and meaning, sacrificing neither for the other:

A lack of confidence is at heart a misunderstanding of the way the world works. It’s an internalized feudalism, which imagines that only certain people — but not oneself — have the right, preordained, to get certain things.

Dive deeper here, then revisit the quirky vintage manifesto How to Avoid Work, the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer on how to define your own success, and this omnibus of ideas on how to find your purpose and do what you love.

For more such rapidly illuminating perspectives from The School of Life, see their excellent animations on what philosophy is for and what great books do for the soul.

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19 JANUARY, 2015

The Wisdom of No Escape: Pema Chödrön on Gentleness, the Art of Letting Go, and How to Befriend Your Inner Life

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“Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.”

Pema Chödrön (b. July 14, 1936) — a generous senior teacher in the Buddhist contemplative tradition of Shambhala, ordained Buddhist nun, and prolific author — is one of our era’s most tireless champions of a mindful wholeheartedness as the essential life-force of the human experience. For the generations since Alan Watts — who began introducing Eastern philosophy in the West in the 1950s and sparked a counterculture to consumerism seeking to transcend the illusions of the separate self — Chödrön has become the most widely beloved translator of Eastern ideas into Western life.

In the spring of 1989, she led a monthlong dathun meditation session at Gampo Abbey — the renowned Buddhist monastery of which Chödrön is founding director, founded in 1983 by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, her root guru. She began each day by giving a short talk aimed at emboldening participants “to remain wholeheartedly awake to everything that occurred and to use the abundant material of daily life as their primary teacher and guide.” On the monastery grounds, meditators kept five vows: “not to lie, not to steal, not to engage in sexual activity, not to take life, and not to use alcohol or drugs.” The rather singular combination of solitude, nature, meditation, and the vows made for what Chödrön calls “an alternatingly painful and delightful ‘no exit’ situation.” Thus, the collection of her morning talks from the dathun is aptly titled The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness (public library) — short, beautifully simple yet powerful reflections on various aspects of how “to be with oneself without embarrassment or harshness.”

In the fourth talk, Chödrön explores the related graces of precision, gentleness, and letting go:

If we see our so-called limitations with clarity, precision, gentleness, goodheartedness, and kindness and, having seen them fully, then let go, open further, we begin to find that our world is more vast and more refreshing and fascinating than we had realized before. In other words, the key to feeling more whole and less shut off and shut down is to be able to see clearly who we are and what we’re doing.

Pointing to the “innocent, naive misunderstanding that we all share, which keeps us unhappy” — the same well-intentioned but misguided impulse with which we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing — Chödrön writes:

The innocent mistake that keeps us caught in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness, and shut-downness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy.

Pema Chödrön (Courtesy of Pema Chödrön Foundation)

That gentleness of presence, Chödrön argues, is at the heart of meditation:

Meditation is about seeing clearly the body that we have, the mind that we have, the domestic situation that we have, the job that we have, and the people who are in our lives. It’s about seeing how we react to all these things. It’s seeing our emotions and thoughts just as they are right now, in this very moment, in this very room, on this very seat. It’s about not trying to make them go away, not trying to become better than we are, but just seeing clearly with precision and gentleness.

[…]

The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself. The other problem is that our hangups, unfortunately or fortunately, contain our wealth. Our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material. If you throw out your neurosis, you also throw out your wisdom.

Chödrön, however, is careful to point out that holding one’s imperfection with gentleness is not the same as resignation or condoning harmful behavior — rather, it’s a matter of befriending imperfection rather than banishing it, in order to then gently let it go rather than forcefully expel it. Whatever your folly — anger or fear or jealousy or melancholy — Chödrön teaches that freedom from it lies in “getting to know it completely, with some kind of softness, and learning how, once you’ve experienced it fully, to let go.”

And yet, in a sentiment that calls to mind the Chinese concept of wu-wei, “trying not to try,” she gently admonishes against seeing this practice itself as a source of compulsive striving:

Precision, gentleness, and the ability to let go … are not something that we have to gain, but something that we could bring out, cultivate, rediscover in ourselves.

She points to the simple exercise of following your unforced breath as a way of contacting the art of letting go:

Being fully present isn’t something that happens once and then you have achieved it; it’s being awake to the ebb and flow and movement and creation of life, being alive to the process of life itself. That also has its softness. If there were a goal that you were supposed to achieve, such as “no thoughts,” that wouldn’t be very soft. You’d have to struggle a lot to get rid of all those thoughts, and you probably couldn’t do it anyway. The fact that there is no goal also adds to the softness.

This practice, Chödrön points out, cultivates a nonjudgmental attitude and helps us learn how to, instead of succumbing to harsh self-criticism, begin “seeing what is with precision and gentleness” and develop “a sense of warmth toward oneself.” She writes:

The honesty of precision and the goodheartedness of gentleness are qualities of making friends with yourself… As you work with being really faithful to the technique and being as precise as you can and simultaneously as kind as you can, the ability to let go seems to happen to you. The discovery of your ability to let go spontaneously arises; you don’t force it. You shouldn’t be forcing accuracy or gentleness either, but while you could make a project out of accuracy, you could make a project out of gentleness, it’s hard to make a project out of letting go.

In the next talk, titled “The Wisdom of No Escape,” Chödrön explores well-being and suffering as two sides of the same coin which, when put together, define the human condition. She points to the practice of meditation — arguably our greatest gateway to self-transcendence — as the way to illuminate both sides of this duality:

We see how beautiful and wonderful and amazing things are, and we see how caught up we are. It isn’t that one is the bad part and one is the good part, but that it’s a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff. When it’s all mixed up together, it’s us: humanness.

This is what we are here to see for ourselves. Both the brilliance and the suffering are here all the time; they interpenetrate each other. For a fully enlightened being, the difference between what is neurosis and what is wisdom is very hard to perceive, because somehow the energy underlying both of them is the same. The basic creative energy of life … bubbles up and courses through all of existence. It can be experienced as open, free, unburdened, full of possibility, energizing. Or this very same energy can be experienced as petty, narrow, stuck, caught… The basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to accept and what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep. No one else can really sort out for you what to accept — what opens up your world — and what to reject — what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery.

[…]

This is the process of making friends with ourselves and with our world. It involves not just the parts we like, but the whole picture, because it all has a lot to teach us.

In the remainder of The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness — which shares with Alan Watts’s indispensable The Wisdom of Insecurity not only a similarity of title but also a kinship of spirit — Chödrön goes on to explore such related secular wisdom from the Buddhist tradition as joy, satisfaction, inconvenience, and the art of living with balance in a culture of extremes. Complement it with Sam Harris on the paradox of meditation.

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