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03 JUNE, 2015

Wanderlust: Rebecca Solnit on How Walking Vitalizes the Meanderings of the Mind

By:

“I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

“Of all ridiculous things,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” Just a few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, another sage of the ages considered a particularly perilous form of briskness — in 1861, Thoreau penned his timeless treatise on walking and the spirit of sauntering. Half a century later, Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser captured this spirit in his short story “The Walk,” which includes this exquisite line: “With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters.”

But no one has written about walking, its cultural history, and its spiritual rewards more beautifully and with more dimension than Rebecca Solnit in her 2000 masterpiece Wanderlust: A History of Walking (public library).

Walking is embodied presence in motion, presence at once with ourselves and with the world, inner and outer — an active presence of body and mind, which Solnit captures in the opening pages:

Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.

Art by Shaun Tan for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Indeed, the metaphysical wanderings that the physical act precipitates are what makes walking transcend its utilitarian purpose of bipedal mobility. Solnit, who has also contemplated how we find ourselves by getting lost, examines this higher-order function of wanderlust:

Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train. Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings. Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic. Here this history begins to become part of the history of the imagination and the culture, of what kind of pleasure, freedom, and meaning are pursued at different times by different kinds of walks and walkers.

Solnit readily acknowledges that the subjective experience of the walker is what shapes the route of this imaginative meandering through the various reaches of culture:

This history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur act. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field — through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies — and doesn’t stop in any of them on its long route. For if a field of expertise can be imagined as a real field — a nice rectangular confine carefully tilled and yielding a specific crop — then the subject of walking resembles walking itself in its lack of confines. And though the history of walking is, as part of all these fields and everyone’s experience, virtually infinite, this history of walking I am writing can only be partial, an idiosyncratic path traced through them by one walker, with much doubling back and looking around… The history of walking is everyone’s history, and any written version can only hope to indicate some of the more well-trodden paths in the author’s vicinity — which is to say, the paths I trace are not the only paths.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

With the hindsight of a decade and a half, Solnit’s book emerges as triply timely today, as we struggle to master that ever more precarious balancing act of living with presence in the age of productivity. She writes:

Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.

In a sense, the creative rewards of walking parallel the creative rewards of boredom, both culturally and developmentally. Although a toddler’s first steps are a more obvious and thus more loudly celebrated milestone, the capacity for boredom — the ability to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself” — is an equally monumental, if much more invisible, developmental achievement for the child. Walking, like the capacity for boredom, is a form of intimacy with oneself — with one’s thoughts, one’s world, one’s imaginative and bodily sense of being. Solnit speaks to this beautifully:

Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

[…]

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for more.

Indeed, the history of human creative endeavor is rife with artists and writers whose minds were propelled by rhythmic movement — something Solnit argues defines walking better than its purely transportational function:

Perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane. It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.

Movement is also an essential mode of dynamic interaction between self and other, self and world:

Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.

And yet it gives one pause to consider that Solnit (to say nothing of Thoreau) is writing before smartphones and podcasts existed — before we had portable interiors in our pockets, which now accompany us on all walks by default, to a point of even co-opting this notion of connectedness to mean the very opposite. These portable interiors are now infringing on our interaction with the outside world — not only by blunting our attentiveness to the natural world, diminishing our willingness to “study and observe every smallest living thing” with “the utmost love and attention” but also, in densely populated epicenters of urbanity, by tampering with our ability to perform the intuitive pedestrian dance known as “the slip-and-slide.”

Writing on the precipice of a major cultural shift — before the iPhone, before Facebook, before Wikipedia — Solnit articulates the peril of this productivity-fetishism with extraordinary prescience:

I found [an ad] in the Los Angeles Times … for a CD-ROM encyclopedia, and the text that occupied a whole page read, “You used to walk across town in the pouring rain to use our encyclopedias. We’re pretty confident that we can get your kid to click and drag.” I think it was the kid’s walk in the rain that constituted the real education, at least of the senses and the imagination. Perhaps the child with the CD-ROM encyclopedia will stray from the task at hand, but wandering in a book or a computer takes place within more constricted and less sensual parameters. It’s the unpredictable incidents between official events that add up to a life, the incalculable that gives it value.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'My Favorite Things.' Click image for more.

Artist Maira Kalman — a supreme patron saint of walking, who memorably urged: “Go out and walk. That is the glory of life.” — captures this beautifully in her notion of the “in-between world” full of “moments inside the moments inside the moments,” which Solnit speaks to in considering the immense and endangered value of this vibrant in-betweenery of place and time:

The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between. New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them. Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued — that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced… As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them — a truck, a computer, a modem — myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival. I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.

In the remainder of the wholly enchanting Wanderlust, Solnit goes on to explore the history of walking from antiquity’s spiritual pilgrimages to the acts of civil disobedience that shaped our modern world. Complement it with Thoreau’s foundational text on walking, then revisit Solnit on the color blue and what reading does for the human soul.

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02 JUNE, 2015

The Midwifery of Creativity: Denise Levertov on How Great Works of Art Are Born

By:

“Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.”

Few things gladden the heart, at least this heart, more than the immortal evidence of great friendships between artists — that mostly invisible scaffolding of goodwill and kinship of spirit upon which creative culture is built and without which the heavy lonesomeness of the creative life would crush the artist. An encouraging word from a friend or mentor can work, and has worked, wonders for the creative spirit — there is ample evidence in the epistolary friendship of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, young James Joyce’s correspondence with Ibsen, Mark Twain’s emboldening exchange with Helen Keller, Emerson’s career-making letter to Walt Whitman, and Frida Kahlo’s beam of compassion to Georgia O’Keeffe.

Among the most beautiful of these spiritually sustaining friendships is that between the poets Robert Duncan (January 7, 1919–February 3, 1988) and Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997). It began with a fan letter Duncan sent to Levertov in May of 1953 and continued for more than a quarter century, over the course of which they exchanged nearly 500 letters, now collected in The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov (public library) — a formidable 800-page tome containing these two literary titans’ views on life, love, poetry, politics, family, fame, and the intricate machinery of creativity.

In one of the longest and most revelatory letters in the volume, penned between October 25 and November 2 of 1971, 48-year-old Levertov articulates her most fundamental creative credos more directly than in any of her public writings.

She considers what lends a poem — and any great works of art — its power:

I have always had a strong preference for works of art in which the artist was driven by a need to speak (in whatever medium) of what deeply stirred him — whether in blame or in praise. I’d sooner read Dubliners than Finnegans Wake. Beckett bores me. Most of Gertrude Stein bores me — she’s nice for tea but I wouldn’t want her for my dinner. I love George Eliot…

I should qualify the “deep stirring” I mean: I prefer … works where need to speak (in whatever medium was theirs) arose from experiences not of a technical nature but of a kind which people unconnected with that medium also shared (potentially anyway).

Illustrating this with an example that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that “you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected,” Levertov writes:

A sculpture inspired by the potential of the piece of wood it is carved out of might move me by its beauty of proportion, texture, decorative qualities etc. but usually not as much as one behind which one can feel some other human experience, to which the artist-craftsman’s feeling for the wood contributes, so that the emerging inscape (the revealed inscape) is of the conjoining of some other life experience with the present experience of the wood, the material. Each grasped, revealed, by way of the other.

Elsewhere in the lengthy letter, she captures another aspect of this mutuality:

One can anyway only be shown something one knows already, needs already. Showing anyone anything really amounts to removing the last thin film that prevents their seeing what they are looking at.

Illustration by Ohara Hale for six rare recordings of Levertov reading her poetry. Click image to see more and listen.

But this “deep stirring” quality of great art, Levertov cautions, doesn’t arise from the rational appeal of the work’s subject matter, or what it is currently fashionable to call its “content” — a term I’ve long despised for implying the vacant filler of an unfeeling form. Rather, she argues in one of the most beguiling descriptions of the creative impulse, it comes from the artist’s sincere and insurmountable desire — need, even — to externalize a mysteriously moving interior experience, a private event of the psyche, into a public work of art:

I do not at all have a sense of luring anyone into the poetic by catching hold of them through my subject matter. The idea appalls me in fact. Some events — whether a tree in a certain light, a Mexican family looking at the movie stills outside the cinema, a dream, my own condition of being in or out of love, of some epiphany relating to husband, child, friend, cat or dog, street or painting, cloud or stone, a book read, a story heard, a life thought about, a demonstration lived through, a situation, historical and/or topical, (that’s to say known in the moment of its passing into history) — it doesn’t matter, the list is endless, but some events (selected by some interior mysterious process out of all the other minutes and hours of my life) begin to form themselves in my understanding as phrases, images, rhythms of language, demand to be further formed, demand midwifery is one way to put it. Not all that one feels most strongly makes this verbal demand, even if one is a poet — by poet here I mean prose writer too — … but whatever experiences do demand it are always strongly felt ones. That is my testimony.

She seals the sentiment with one final stab at the vanity of vacant form:

I understand that for some people something like problem-solving is in itself a stimulus — e.g. the challenge of how to tell a story as a poem, not prose, without sounding archaic or stilted, might stimulate someone to make up a story to see if it could be done. But I myself would never be interested unless I first had a story to tell.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly magnificent The Letters of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov with T.S. Eliot on the mystical quality of creativity and Jeanette Winterson on what grants great art its power, then revisit these wonderful archival recordings of Levertov reading her poetry.

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01 JUNE, 2015

The Light of the World: Elizabeth Alexander on Love, Loss, and the Boundaries of the Soul

By:

“Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.”

“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.

This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.

From the very opening lines, her writing flows with undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:

The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.

Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.

Art from 'The Heart and the Bottle' by Oliver Jeffers, an illustrated fable about love and loss. Click image for more.

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:

Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll marveled at this mystery, Alexander considers the boundary between the body and the soul:

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.

When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.

When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.

His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

She speaks to this evanescence beautifully, addressing Firce directly and in the same breath addressing everything that ever was and ever will be, the interconnectedness of all things, which is the very essence of the thing we call a soul:

Where are you? You are part of this storm, this wind, this rain, these leaves. Plants will one day grow from your bones in the Grove Street Cemetery, my empty dirt bed next to you.

I imagine your grave one day spontaneously covered with peonies, my favorite flower, the one you planted for me and which bloomed reliably on my birthday, May 30, every year.

[…]

Ficre in the bright leaves that have been falling from the trees in the afternoon light.

Ficre everywhere, Ficre nowhere.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox, and Me' by Fanny Britt. Click image for more.

The subject of the everywhere-and-nowhere soul reappears as Alexander recounts how Ficre’s mother exited her own life:

My mother-in-law’s last night on earth, a fox crossed our path in Branford, Connecticut, as we left the hospice. We knew somehow that it was her… Do I believe that? Yes, I do. Poetic logic is my logic. I do not believe she was a fox. But I believe the fox was a harbinger. I believe that it was a strange enough occurrence that it should be heeded.

Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”

The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

Among the most mesmerizing of these invisibilia is the irremediable enigma of nonexistence:

What a profound mystery it is to me, the vibrancy of presence, the realness of it, and then, gone. Ficre not at the kitchen table seems impossible.

It is in the silent solace of the peonies that Alexander finds the promise of reconciliation between this vibrancy of presence and the incomprehensible dullness of nonexistence. In a sentiment that calls to mind Thomas Mann’s assertion that “the perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life,” she writes:

This year, the peonies are magenta and white, and they blow open as big as toddlers’ heads, and soon they are spent and rotten, their petals brown and withered in the ground. Over and done until next year.

[…]

Flowers live, they are perfect and they affect us; they are God’s glory, they make us know why we are alive and human, that we behold. They are beautiful, and then they die and rot and go back to the earth that gave birth to them.

[…]

What is left of Ficre has a different form now. It is less sharp, more permeating, more essence, more distilled. It is less his body here, his body there, and more, he is the ground beneath us and the air we breathe.

This dance between the difference and sameness of forms comes alive in another aspect of the book: Sprinkled throughout it are recipes for Ficre’s favorite meals from his chef days, emanating a beautiful resonance with Alexander’s own craft — for the recipe form and the poetic form both effect something miraculously beautiful and nourishing with a great economy of language and proportion.

'Man as Industrial Palace,' a 1926 diagram by Fritz Kahn. Click image for more.

Embedded in Alexander’s memoir is also a subtle but unshakable reminder that we know almost as little about the machinery of the body as we do about the mystery of the soul. She cites one cardiologist who explained Frice’s death by asserting that “the stress of growing up in war and being a refugee affected his heart.” (The Eritrean War of Independence broke out in Ficre’s homeland shortly before his birth.) How jarring to consider that this much spiritual speculation goes into the supposed exact science of Western medicine — speculation that not only exposes how little we know but borders on superstition, invoking Wole Soyinka’s memorable meditation on Western medicine and African mysticism. With an eye to this vast expanse of unknowns, Alexander writes:

The earth that looks solid is, in fact, a sinkhole, or could be. Half of things are as they seem. The other half, who knows.

Perhaps Western medicine’s pathological reliance on euphemism, particularly in the face of death, is one symptom of our troubled relationship with the unknown and the unknowable — a tenuous hedge against the mystery of it all. Alexander speaks to this with aching elegance:

He was probably dead before he hit the ground, the emergency room doctor and the coroner and a cardiologist I later speak with tell me. That is why there was no blood on the floor, despite his head wound and the scalp’s vascularity. He might have felt strange, the doctors told me, before what they call “the cardiac event,” but not for more than a flash. One tells me he is certain Ficre saw my face as he died. We are meant to take comfort in this knowledge, if knowledge it is.

The knowledge of truth, Alexander suggests, comes in many forms and if there is a membrane between the practical and the poetic at all, between the scientific and the spiritual, it is porous and permeable. Although neither she nor her husband had religion present in their adult lives, she finds herself unexpectedly corralled into the spiritual path by the squeeze of sorrow:

Sorrow like vapor, sorrow like smoke, sorrow like quicksand, sorrow like an ocean, sorrow louder and fuller than the church songs, sorrow everywhere with nowhere to go.

[…]

I did not grow up in the black church, nor with the Negro spirituals. Now I understand them as never before. Their poetry feels pure and profound. I been in sorrow’s kitchen and done licked out all the pots. Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.

Art by William Blake for Dante's 'Divine Comedy.' Click image for more.

Half a century after Flannery O’Conner discerned the difference between religion and faith, Alexander considers the other role of religion — religion not as a public institution in the service of dogma but as a private institution in the service of the human quest for meaning:

What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture? … Art is certainly my religion. I believe in the chosen family, especially as I get older. I believe in some kind of encompassing black culture that I am part of — “syncretic,” to use the word Ficre liked — but I am also aware of the romance behind that sense of belonging. I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do: Rosh Hashanah. Days of Awe. Invite the dead to Sukkot. There seems to be a poetic ritual for everything… I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

She revisits the allure of the old gospel songs, particularly “How I Got Over” by Mahalia Jackson — one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites. In fact, it was Jackson who, during a momentary lapse in his iconic speech, famously prompted Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” (The daughter of politically active parents, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C., and at the age of one stood at the Mall of Washington alongside her parents as Dr. King heeded Jackson and told the world about his dream.)

As she recounts an exchange with her younger son, Alexander returns once more to the question of the soul, shining her sidewise gleam on yet another dimension of it:

I hope you’re not turning all Christian, Simon says, when he comes home and finds me uncharacteristically blaring gospel music. I am not, but I am listening to Mahalia Jackson in a whole new way. How I got over, My soul looks back in wonder, I hear it for the very first time. The gratitude in that song is what washes over me, the word thank repeated over and over. My soul does indeed look back in wonder; I had Ficre; I have Ficre; I have these extraordinary children; I have a village; I have an art-form; I am black; we are African; we come from survivors and doers; my parents are wise and strong; my body is strong; I was loved without bound or condition; I exist in time and in context, not floating in space; my troubles are small compared to some; my troubles are not eternal; my days are not through.

[…]

Who we are as a people and how we make our way through sorrows that feel so profoundly intimate and personal but in fact exist on larger continuums, is what I hear in the song today.

[…]

In the absence of organized religion, faith abounds, in the form of song and art and food and strong arms.

Perhaps because children are still free from the adult world’s tyranny of labels, it is her young son who best captures this function of faith — a function that transcends the unimaginative designations of fact and fiction, serving instead as sacred communion with the most intimate truths of one’s inner life. Alexander writes:

One night at bedtime, Simon asks if I want to come with him to visit Ficre in heaven.

Yes, I say, and lie down on his bed.

“First you close your eyes,” he says, “and ride the clear glass elevator. Up we go.”

What do you see? I ask.

God is sitting at the gate, he answers.

What does God look like? I ask.

Like God, he says.

Now, we go to where Daddy is. He has two rooms, Simon says, one room with a single bed and his books and another where he paints. The painting room is vast. He can look out any window he wants and paint. That room has four views: our backyard, the dock he painted in Maine, Asmara, and New Mexico.

New Mexico? I ask.

Yes, Simon says, the volcano crater with the magic grass. Ah yes, I say, the caldera, where we saw the gophers and the jackrabbits and the elk running across and Daddy called it the veldt.

Yes. Do you see it?

And I do. The light is perfect for painting. His bed in heaven is a single bed.

Okay, it’s time to go now, Simon says. So down we go.

You can come with me anytime, he says.

Thank you, my darling.

I don’t think you can find it by yourself yet, he says, but one day you will.

Illustration by André François from 'Little Boy Brown' by Isobel Harris. Click image for more.

The book borrows its beautiful title from a Derek Walcott poem, a line from which — “Oh beauty, you are the light of the world!” — was etched onto the bench by the side of Ficre’s grave, for Ficre was a man animated by “an unshakeable belief in beauty, in overflow, in everythingness, the bursting, indelible beauty in a world where there is so much suffering and wounding and pain.” But it is another poetic enchanter of the psyche that ultimately lends Alexander the closest thing to an answer in this dance with the unknown. With an eye to Rilke’s famous line — “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror” — she writes:

When we met those many years ago, I let everything happen to me, and it was beauty. Along the road, more beauty, and fear and struggle, and work, and learning, and joy. I could not have kept Ficre’s death from happening, and from happening to us. It happened; it is part of who we are; it is our beauty and our terror. We must be gleaners from what life has set before us.

If no feeling is final, there is more for me to feel.

The Light of the World is an absolutely luminous read, the kind full of incompressible dimension best experienced in its totality. Complement it with Joan Didion on grief and another poet’s moving memoir of love and loss — Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye — then revisit these intelligent and imaginative children’s books that help kids make sense of death.

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01 JUNE, 2015

Gaston Bachelard on the Meditative Magic of Housework and How It Increases the Human Dignity of Everyday Objects

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“Consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.”

When faced with a poetic image, writes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (June 27, 1884–October 19, 1962) in his 1957 classic The Poetics of Space (public library), “we are in the presence of a minuscule phenomenon of the shimmering consciousness.” Bachelard is himself the proprietor of a shimmering consciousness, but although he is one of the most wonderful — in the literal sense of “full of wonder” — minds of the twentieth century and a major influence for such luminaries as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, he remains thoroughly underappreciated.

Trained as a philosopher of science, Bachelard is palpably drawn to the Eastern spiritual traditions, his mind seemingly the self-contained scene of Einstein and Tagore’s famous conversation. There is a meditative quality to his writing, reflecting a deeply meditative mind. In his 1957 masterwork, he extends an invitation to embodied presence, triply timely amid our disembodied digital culture, and beckons the attention not by screaming but by seduction — nowhere more so than in the passages celebrating the enchantment of housework.

Three decades before Ursula K. Le Guin framed housekeeping as a “complex art [learned] only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice,” Bachelard writes:

[The] daydreams that accompany household activities … keep vigilant watch over the house, they link its immediate past to its immediate future, they are what maintains it in the security of being.

What confers this imaginative dignity upon housework, Bachelard argues, is the quality of attention we bring to its simple tasks:

How can housework be made into a creative activity?

The minute we apply a glimmer of consciousness to a mechanical gesture, or practice phenomenology while polishing a piece of old furniture, we sense new impressions come into being beneath this familiar domestic duty. For consciousness rejuvenates everything, giving a quality of beginning to the most everyday actions.

Perhaps because he came from a family of shoemakers, Bachelard finds especial allure in the tactile transcendence of menial work:

How wonderful it is to really become once more the inventor of a mechanical action! And so, when [one] rubs a piece of furniture — even vicariously — when he puts a little fragrant wax on his table with the woolen cloth that lends warmth to everything it touches, he creates a new object; he increases the object’s human dignity; he registers this object officially as a member of the human household.

It bears noting that Bachelard’s use of “he” is what Le Guin calls “the generic he” in her spectacular essay on being a man. Here, too, “he” really means “she,” for it is the housewife — an inherently feminine archetype by both etymology and demographic distribution, especially in his era — that Bachelard celebrates as the chief practitioner of this creative activity:

Objects that are cherished in this way really are born of an intimate light, and they attain to a higher degree of reality than indifferent objects, or those that are defined by geometric reality. For they produce a new reality of being, and they take their place not only in an order but in a community of order. From one object in a room to another, housewifely care weaves the ties that unite a very ancient past to the new epoch. The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep.

Illustration by Yaroslava from 'A Stocking for a Kitten' by Helen Kay. Click image for more.

Bachelard considers “women’s construction of the house through daily polishing” and writes:

If we attain to the limit at which dream becomes exaggerated, we experience a sort of consciousness of constructing the house, in the very pains we take to keep it alive, to give it all its essential clarity. A house that shines from the care it receives appears to have been rebuilt from the inside; it is as though it were new inside. In the intimate harmony of walls and furniture, it may be said that we become conscious of a house that is built by women, since men only know how to build a house from the outside, and they know little or nothing of the “wax” civilization.

[…]

We can sense how a human being can devote himself to things and make them his own by perfecting their beauty. A little more beautiful and we have something quite different.

By tending and attending to objects in this way, Bachelard argues, we reawaken to their beauty, essentially reimagining them and creating them anew:

Through housewifely care a house recovers not so much its originality as its origin. And what a great life it would be if, every morning, every object in the house could be made anew by our hands, could “issue” from our hands. In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh tells him that we should “retain something of the original character of a Robinson Crusoe.” Make and remake everything oneself, make a “supplementary gesture” toward each object, give another facet to the polished reflections, all of which are so many boons the imagination confers upon us by making us aware of the house’s inner growth. To have an active day I keep saying to myself, “Every morning I must give a thought to Saint Robinson.” … A dreamer can reconstruct the world from an object that he transforms magically through his care of it.

The Poetics of Space is an indispensable read in its entirety. Complement it with Bachelard’s followup, The Poetics of Reverie, then revisit the delightful 1935 proto-feminist children’s book The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework.

For a living testament to Bachelard’s faith in the worldbuilding capacity of housework, see Carol Devine and Wendy Trusler’s magnificent The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning.

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