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10 DECEMBER, 2014

Dial Up the Magic of This Moment: Philosopher Joanna Macy on How Rilke Can Help Us Befriend Our Mortality and Be More Alive

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“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”

Few people have stood at the gates of hope — through world wars and environmental crises and personal loss — with more dignity, wisdom, and optimism than Joanna Macy during her six decades as a Buddhist scholar, environmental activist, and pioneering philosopher of ecology. Macy is also the world’s greatest translator-enchantress of Rainer Maria Rilke, in whose poetry she found refuge upon the sudden and devastating death of the love of her life after fifty-six years of marriage.

Indeed, our mortality, as well as our quintessential resistance to it, is a subject Rilke unravels frequently and with deeply comforting insight in Macy’s A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke (public library | IndieBound) — a sublime collection spanning from Rilke’s early poems to the last sonnet he wrote days before his death from leukemia, alongside fragments of his letters, diaries, and prose. The project is reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, but instead of an elevating thought for each day of the year culled from a different thinker, every day features a short Rilke reading.

Macy and her collaborator, Anita Barrows, explore Rilke’s singular consolations in the preface:

Rilke’s grasp of the transient nature of all things is critical to his capacity to praise and to cherish.

[…]

In the face of impermanence and death, it takes courage to love the things of this world and to believe that praising them is our noblest calling. Rilke’s is not a conditional courage, dependent on an afterlife. Nor is it a stoic courage, keeping a stiff upper lip when shattered by loss. It is courage born of the ever-unexpected discovery that acceptance of mortality yields an expansion of being. In naming what is doomed to disappear, naming the way it keeps streaming through our hands, we can hear the song that streaming makes.

[…]

His capacity to embrace the dark and to acknowledge loss brings comfort to the reader because nothing of life is left out. There is nothing that cannot be redeemed. No degree of hopelessness, such as that of prisoners, beggars, abandoned animals, or inmates of asylums, is outside the scope of the poet’s respectful attention. He allows us to see that the bestowal of such pure attention is in itself a triumph of the spirit.

[…]

Rilke would teach us to accept death as well as life, and in so doing to recognize that they belong together as two halves of the same circle.

In the book, Macy highlights one particularly poignant 1923 letter to the Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy, in which 48-year-old Rilke writes:

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.

He adds:

I am not saying that we should love death, 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. This is what actually happens in the great expansiveness of love, which cannot be stopped or constricted. It is only because we exclude it that death becomes more and more foreign to us and, ultimately, our enemy.

It is conceivable that death is infinitely closer to us than life itself… What do we know of it?

In the same letter, he admonishes against our crippling compulsion to deny death, which only impoverishes life:

Our effort, I suggest, can be dedicated to this: to assume the unity of Life and Death and let it be progressively demonstrated to us. So long as we stand in opposition to Death we will disfigure it. Believe me, my dear Countess, Death is our friend, our closest friend, perhaps the only friend who can never be misled by our ploys and vacillations. And I do not mean that in the sentimental, romantic sense of distrusting or renouncing life. Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love… Life always says Yes and No simultaneously. Death (I implore you to believe) is the true Yea-sayer. It stands before eternity and says only: Yes.

Rilke captures this even more beautifully, at once with astonishing intellectual precision and astonishing spiritual expansiveness, in his poetry. In a recent conversation with Krista Tippett on the always soul-stretching On Being, Macy discusses Rilke’s emboldening views on mortality and reads some of his poems on death and consciousness. Here is Macy reading Rilke’s “The Swan” — coincidentally, the poem that appears as the day’s reading in A Year with Rilke on the date of this recording, July 13:

THE SWAN

This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying — releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood —
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.

In her book In Praise of Mortality, Macy writes:

Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible. It links us with life and all time. Ours is the suffering and ours is the harvest.

(Perhaps no text of Rilke’s captures this essential osmosis between Life and Death, light and darkness, better than his famous line, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”)

In another poem from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus,” found in Macy’s Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, the poet casts his luminous gaze not directly at death but at the larger world of dark emotions and suffering, which he believed were essential to the creative spirit:

LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELLTOWER

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

But the most emboldening wisdom of all — the most sorely needed consolation amid the daily darknesses we encounter both as individuals and, increasingly, as a society — comes from Macy herself. She affirms the idea that spiritual survival isn’t a matter of sheepish optimism or of eradicating our dark emotions but of simply showing up. Macy, at 81, tells Tippett:

I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope — it’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say, you know, feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out, so just be present… The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world — because it will not be healed without that. That [is] what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.

[…]

How is the story going to end? And that seems almost orchestrated to bring forth from us the biggest moral strength, courage, and creativity. I feel because when things are this unstable, a person’s determination, how they choose to invest their energy and their heart and mind can have much more effect on the larger picture than we’re accustomed to think. So I find it a very exciting time to be alive, if somewhat wearing emotionally.

Macy goes on to discuss what Rilke’s poignant 1923 letter taught her, in the wake of her husband’s death, about our shared tussle with mortality. Her words and the spirit from which they spring are nothing short of breathtaking:

I’m everlastingly grateful that we were in love and stayed in love. Particularly, it was like falling in love all over again in our later years, so there was a lot of cherishing. But I found that that quote that I just read you — and it’s really engraved in the inside of my head — is true. It’s true and that’s why we’re changing all the time. He’s part of my world now. You become what you love. Orpheus became the world that Rilke sang to, and my husband, Fran, is spread out in this world that he loved.

So … you’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more — but actually we’re made for that. There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us. We just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world. But in any case, there’s absolutely no excuse for our making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever. Those are just thoughts anyway. But this moment you’re alive, so you can just dial up the magic of that at any time.

A Year with Rilke is a sublime read in its entirety, as is Macy’s In Praise of Mortality. Complement Macy and Rilke’s shared wisdom on death with John Updike’s memorable insight and an unusual children’s book that embodies Rilke’s inclusion of death into life’s embrace, then listen to the full On Being episode and subscribe here for a steady stream of soul-expansion.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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05 DECEMBER, 2014

Vanessa Redgrave Reads Joan Didion’s Harrowing ‘Blue Nights’

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“Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934) wrote in her remarkable memoir of the year following her husband’s death after forty years of marriage. John Dunne died suddenly of a heart attack on December 30, 2003, as the couple’s only child, their daughter Quintana, lay comatose in a hospital ICU with complications from pneumonia. On October 4, 2004, Didion began writing her memoir and spent 88 days on the manuscript, completing it on New Year’s Eve. Midway through the author’s book tour and shortly before she received the National Book Award, Quintana died. She was thirty-nine.

It takes a rare person to retain the capacity — the desire — to be wise, let alone wry, in the face of such tragedy. And yet that is what Didion did in embarking on a second memoir, the spectacular Blue Nights (public library | IndieBound), rising above the uncommonly cruel cards life had dealt her to write with exceptional candor and grace about grieving her daughter, mourning her mistakes as a parent, and confronting her own mortality.

Few things could elevate Didion’s already exalted art of bearing witness to life and death. But one cold November night not too long ago, as I sat on a heavy wooden chair at St. John the Divine — the iconic New York cathedral where Quintana had spoken her wedding vows eleven years earlier — and awaited Vanessa Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights to the accompaniment of legendary jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens, I knew something unrepeatable was about to take place, something transformational and transcendent.

Redgrave and Didion have more than their decades-long friendship in common. Four years after Quintana’s death, the great English actor lost her own daughter Natasha, a childhood friend of Quintana’s, to brain injury after a skiing accident. Two years earlier, Redgrave had played Didion in a Broadway adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. But the grimly uncanny parallel of maternal loss brought a far deeper dimension of mutuality to Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights. As her graceful, coolly expressive voice spills from the altar into the nave and echoes, godlike, across the cathedral, one can’t help feeling — at least I couldn’t help feeling — a brush at once chilling and beautiful with the unanswerable questions that line the vaulted ceiling between life and death.

Time passes.

Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

In the introduction to Blue Nights, Didion explains the book’s title:

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming — in fact not at all a warming — yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

Complement with Didion on self-respect, why she writes, and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

01 DECEMBER, 2014

Our Fraught Relationship with Time, in Clever Minimalist Illustrations

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A witty visual meditation on our comical control strategies, the predictability of modern life, and our constant tussle with productivity and presence.

“I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular essay on time and language. “As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it.” And yet ever since Galileo invented modern timekeeping, the tyranny of the clock has not only bound but shackled us to the invisible dimension in everything from our internal rhythms to our ideal creative routines. Meanwhile, time, with its remarkable elasticity, continues to mystify us — unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that the capacity to imagine it made us human.

In About Time: A Visual Memoir Around the Clock (public library | IndieBound), French-Armenian graphic designer Vahram Muratyan — who gave us the 2012 delight Paris vs. New York — builds on humanity’s long history of visualizing time, exploring its enduring mesmerism with great humor, sensitivity, and insight into modern life.

From the predictable cycles of our routines, relationships, and our fashions to our psychological tussles with the flow of life, Muratyan captures the profound anticipatory anxiety that defines our relationship with time — the expectation that there is always something more, or more important, to do, that the next moment must bring what this one lacks. He pokes gentle fun at our preoccupation with productivity at the expense of presence and at the chronic civilizational busyness making us forget that, in the unforgettable words of Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

One can almost hear Alan Watts’s voice booming from Muratyan’s minimalist vignettes, admonishing once more that “hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

There is also a meta-element commenting on the cyclical nature of time and our resistance to its flow — Muratyan’s visual sensibility is intentionally reminiscent of mid-century graphic design, vintage children’s books, and the aesthetic of the Mad Men era, as if to remind us that nostalgia is our most stubborn and wistful hedge against time’s merciless forward motion.

Although his project is undeniably intended to delight with visual humor, Muratyan rewards those willing to attend to what remains after the initial chuckle — a number of his vignettes explore the darker reaches of our relationship with time, reminding us that despite all of our efforts to control and constrain it, time itself inevitably has the upper hand in that play-pretend power dynamic.

In our recent conversation at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, Muratyan and I dove deeper into the heart of the project by discussing how the tyranny of the clock has enslaved our capacity for spontaneity and presence, why the a-ha! moments of creative breakthrough arrive when we least expect them, the relationship between motion and meditative contemplation, and how life’s most challenging experiences demolish all of our defenses and control strategies, leaving time as our only master. Please enjoy.

Complement About Time with Alan Watts on the art of timing, a visual history of mapping time and the psychology of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped while we vacation, then counter the frantic modern rhythms Muratyan teases with a lesson in stillness from Leonard Cohen.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.