Consolation for the waves of sorry from the waves of the sea.
By Maria Popova
“Let us… seek peace… near the inland murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies,” Mary Shelley wrote two hundred years ago as she envisioned a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic and weighed what makes life worth living. “The setting sun will always set me to rights,” the melancholy John Keats wrote in the same era, a century and a half before Lorraine Hansberry considered the mightiest remedy for depression and observed that “hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries.”
That is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) offers in her spare, splendid poem “I Go Down to the Shore,” found in her 2012 collection A Thousand Mornings (public library) and brought to life by actor extraordinaire, my dear friend, and voice of FiguringNatascha McElhone at the 2020 Universe in Verse, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day — a hallmark awakening of our ecological conscience, inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — as Earth was being stilled and disdayed by a deadly pandemic that suddenly made the interconnectedness of life and lives viscerally real. Against this backdrop, Oliver’s poem sings quiet, powerful consolation for the fear- and sorrow-contracted pinhole of our perspective.
I GO DOWN TO THE SHORE by Mary Oliver
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
“Genius [consists] in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.”
By Maria Popova
The word empathy entered the popular lexicon in the early twentieth century as a term to describe the imaginative act of projecting yourself into a work of art, into the subjective world of the artist, where you encounter yourself afresh and emerge with your own world enlarged, your own experience enlivened. Every transcendent song or painting or poem that enchant us has sprung from some element of its creator’s life — some profound event or some mundane moment, which one subjective consciousness has endowed with a supranatural halo of meaning and encoded the meaning into music or color or image that staggers another with its beauty, its private resonance, its elemental truth. That, after all, is why art moves us, what art is — the transfiguration of the personal into the universal, of the mundane into the miraculous.
Genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power.
In a sentiment Charles Bukowski would echo decades later in his magnificent poem “so you want to be a writer,” Proust argues that genius is similarly not a matter of ideal conditions or optimal power, but of transformation by way of unselfing:
The men* who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.
“A total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality.”
By Maria Popova
Just when you begin rueing that nothing original could possibly remain to be written about the cosmic spectacle of a total solar eclipse — after astronomer Maria Mitchell’s pioneering essay detailing the science and enchantment of the 1869 eclipse, after Virginia Woolf’s arresting 1927 account of total darkness in the celestial lighthouse, after Annie Dillard’s 1979 classic of totality — Helen Macdonald comes along to remind you that the intersection of nature’s sublimity and the singular splendor of each human consciousness is vast and inexhaustibly vibrant.
In the thirteenth of the forty-one altogether tremendous essays in her collection Vesper Flights (public library), simply titled “Eclipse,” Macdonald recounts with abashed amusement her youthful notion that the ideal mode for beholding totality must be romantic solitude — a notion absurd to anyone who has actually savored the amplified sublimity amid a choir of gasping human consciousnesses. (Nor is it even a properly romantic notion — even Byron, the (mostly self-appointed) monarch of the Romantics, envisioned in his staggering poem “Darkness” how when “the bright sun was extinguish’d,” humanity sought not isolation but community as “men were gather’d round their blazing homes / to look once more into each other’s face.”) Macdonald’s own first experience of a total solar eclipse in 1999 — the same eclipse, though partial, in which I too dissolved as a child in Bulgaria — was instead a revelation of just how much “a total eclipse wreaks havoc on your sense of self, on rational individuality”; how it effects, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”
With her uncommon gift for dilating the pinhole of a specific and subjective experience into a wide lens on a universal human tendency, Macdonald writes:
It’s reassuring to view the world on your own. You can gaze at a landscape and see it peopled by things — trees, clouds, hills and valleys — which have no voice except the ones you give them in your imagination; none can challenge who you are. So often we see solitary contemplation as simply the correct way to engage with nature.
But it is always a political act, bringing freedom from the pressures of other minds, other interpretations, other consciousnesses competing with your own. There’s another way of escaping social conflict, of course, and that is to make yourself part of a crowd that sees the world the same way that you do, values the same things as you.
With an eye to the “Great American Eclipse” of 2017 — a collective experience qualitatively different from the nationalism-tinted mass pilgrimages to see monuments of territorial pride like the Grand Canyon or spectacles of national triumph like the Apollo launches — Macdonald adds:
The millions of tourists who flocked to the total eclipse of 2017 didn’t see something time had fashioned from American rock and earth, nor something wrought of American ingenuity, but a passing shadow cast across the nation from celestial bodies above. Even so, it’s fitting that this total eclipse was dubbed The Great American Eclipse, for the event chimed with the country’s contemporary struggles between matters of reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference. Of all crowds the most troubling are those whose cohesion is built from fear of and outrage against otherness and difference; they’re entities defining themselves by virtue only of what they are against. The simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way, for confronting something like the absolute, all our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn there can be no them, only us.
That selfsame recognition radiates from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot monologue — that iconic, almost unbearably tender meditation on how the cosmic perspective vanquishes our artificial lines of otherness, which inspired Maya Angelou’s stunning poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.” This is the recognition at which Macdonald arrived in an embodied way, far beyond the cerebral awareness, during her own first encounter with totality:
I was nervous of the people around me and still clinging to that sophomoric intuition that a revelation would only come if none of them were there. Depressingly, the sky was thick with clouds, and as the hours passed it became obvious that none of us would see anything other than darkness when totality came. But when the light dimmed, the atmosphere grew electric, and the crowd became a thing of overwhelming importance, a palpable presence in my mind. I felt a fleeting, urgent concern for the safety of everyone around me as the world rolled, and the moon too, and night slammed down on us. Though I could hardly see a hand held in front of my face, far out across the sea hung clouds tinted the eerie sunset shade of faded photographs of 1950s atomic tests, and beyond them clear blue day.
And then the revelation came. It wasn’t what I’d expected. It wasn’t focused up there in the sky, but down here with us all, as the crowds that lined the Atlantic shore raised cameras to commemorate totality, and as they flashed, a wave of particulate light crashed along the dark beach and flooded across to the other side of the bay, making the whole coast a glittering field of stars. Each fugitive point of light was a different person. I laughed out loud. I’d wanted a solitary revelation but had been given something else instead: an overwhelming sense of community, and of what it is made — a host of individual lights shining briefly against oncoming darkness.
A generation earlier, as Apollo 8 was launching into space to take the epoch-making Earthrise photograph that would soon awaken our species to its ecological responsibility, the Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi captured this singular gravitational pull of community around a shared cosmic enchantment as he contemplated how science and space exploration bind a fractured humanity back together by breaking our trance of separateness. This trance plays out in myriad ways and on myriad scales across our individual and collective existence. The habitual narrowing of perspective from which it arises is not a defect but a defining feature of our consciousness — the human animal’s central coping mechanism for parsing the incomprehensibly vast world beyond the boundaries of our individual experience. (We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins.). This narrowing extends most perhaps most perniciously to our perspective on and perception of time, which is our perception of change. Drawing on another eclipse she witnessed with friends on the Turkish coast, Macdonald writes:
It takes a long while between first and second contact — that is, when the sun is completely covered by the moon; it’s a long, steady diminution in the amount of light reaching the world. For a long while my brain tricks me. It has a vested interest in reassurance: Nothing is wrong, it says. It tells me I must be wearing reactive sunglasses, which is why I’m seeing the world changing through tinted glass. Why everything, the luggage-strap leaves of dune grass under my toes, the broken walls, bay trees, the sea in front, the mountains behind, everything’s still darkly fine. Then I remember I’m not wearing sunglasses, which hits me with the bad-dream force of an arm brought down hard across a piano keyboard, the psychological equivalent of that discordant crash as I have a fraught little struggle with my brain. Then I shiver. Surely it was absurdly hot here an hour ago? There’s a horrible old chestnut about boiling a frog to death. Put a frog in a pan of cold water and put it on the stove, and apparently the blithe amphibian will fail to notice the incremental rise in temperature until it’s dead. There’s something of that story’s creeping dread in what is now going on. I feel a strong need to warn people, to somehow jump out of the pan. Everything is changing, but our brains aren’t equipped to notice things on this scale.
As I read Macdonald’s essay, I am struck by something else — something both entirely unrelated and entirely relevant. (That, of course, is what an excellent essay is supposed to do — explode your comprehension with a fractal burst of quickenings fanning out to myriad elsewheres.) We have been regarding the environmental collapse around us — a drama not cosmic but human-made, not sublime but catastrophic — with the same insentience to incremental change, lulled by the brain’s same incapacity for noticing large-scale events, by the same nothing is wrong self-protective delusion. We are the amphibian in the seething cauldron. But we are also larger and more luminous, better capable of transcending the limitations of our minds by the force of our spirit — that, at least, is my hope.
Awakened from the trance, Macdonald begins noticing the otherworldly strangeness that totality brings:
On the ground, right by our feet, even stranger things are happening. Where I expect to see sun-dappled shadow cast on the sand through branches — as confidently as I expect any other unacknowledged constant of the world — I am confounded: amid the shade are a perfect host of tiny crescents, hundreds of them, all moving against the sand as a wind that has come out of nowhere pushes at branches.
Out of that noticing — that sudden wakefulness to the absolute strangeness of it all, the soul’s sudden cry of Everything is wrong over the brain’s lulling deception — arises a profound, humbling awareness of one’s own existence as both inseparable from and inconsequential to a larger cosmic inter-belonging with all other existences:
The backs of the swallows tracing their sinuous hunting flights over the ruins are no longer iridescent blue in the sun, but a deep indigo. They’re calling in alarm. A sparrowhawk is flying over, slipping down the sky, losing height, stymied in its search for thermals to soar upon. They’re all disappearing in the rapidly cooling air. The hawk shrugs its way north-west, falling all the while. I check the sun, again, through my eclipse glasses. All that is left of it now is a bare, fingernail curve of light. The landscape is insistently alien: short, midday shadows in a saturated world. The land is orange. The sea is purple. Venus has appeared in the sky, quite high, up to the right. And then, with a chorus of cheers and whistles and applause, I stare at the sky as the sun slides away, and the day does too, and impossibly, impossibly, above us is a stretch of black, soft black sky and a hole in the middle of it. A round hole, darker than anything you’ve ever seen, fringed with an intensely soft ring of white fire. Applause crackles and ripples across the dunes. My throat is stopped. My eyes fill with tears. Goodbye, intellectual apprehension. Hello, something else entirely. Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect cannot grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars, just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is barely contained terror. I’m tiny and huge all at once, as lonely and singular as I’ve ever felt, and as merged and part of a crowd as it is possible to be. It is a shared, intensely private experience. But there are no human words fit to express all this. Opposites? Yes! Let’s conjure big binary oppositions and grand narratives, break everything and mend it at the same moment. Sun and moon. Darkness and light. Sea and land, breath and no breath, life, death. A total eclipse makes history laughable, makes you feel both precious and disposable, makes the inclinations of the world incomprehensible.
And then something else happens, a thing that still makes my heart rise in my chest and eyes blur, even in recollection. For it turns out there’s something even more affecting than watching the sun disappear into a hole. Watching the sun climb out of it. Here I am, sitting on the beach in the underworld, with all of the standing dead. It is cold, and a loose wind blows through the darkness. But then, from the lower edge of the blank, black disc of the dead sun, bursts a perfect point of brilliance. It leaps and burns. It’s unthinkably fierce, unbearably bright, something (I blush to say it, but here it comes) like a word. And thus begins the world again. Instantly. Joy, relief, gratitude; an avalanche of emotion. Is all made to rights, now? Is all remade? From a bay tree, struck into existence a moment ago, a spectacled bulbul calls a greeting to the new dawn.
“It is very important to be in love with life… Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we ‘understand,’ there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.”
That spring, the teenage Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) — who would grow up to revolutionize not only art and activism, but the spirit of a generation and the soul of a city — grappled with the meaning of his own life and what it really means to live it on the pages of his diary, posthumously published as the quiet, symphonic wonder Keith Haring Journals (public library).
Five days before his nineteenth birthday and shortly before he left Pittsburgh, where he was attending art school, for a netless leap of faith toward New York City, he confronts the difficulty of knowing what we really want and writes:
This is a blue moment… it’s blue because I’m confused, again; or should I say “still”? I don’t know what I want or how to get it. I act like I know what I want, and I appear to be going after it — fast, but I don’t, when it comes down to it, even know.
I guess it’s because I’m afraid. Afraid I’m wrong. And I guess I’m afraid I’m wrong, because I constantly relate myself to other people, other experiences, other ideas. I should be looking at both in perspective, not comparing. I relate my life to an idea or an example that is some entirely different life. I should be relating it to my life only in the sense that each has good and bad facets. Each is separate. The only way the other attained enough merit, making it worthy of my admiration, or long to copy it is by taking chances, taking it in its own way. It has grown with different situations and has discovered different heights of happiness and equal sorrows. If I always seek to pattern my life after another, mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant… I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.
And then — in a testament to my resolute conviction, along with Blake, that all great natures are lovers of trees — he adds:
I found a tree in this park that I’m gonna come back to, someday. It stretches sideways out over the St. Croix river and I can sit on it and balance lying on it perfectly.
Within a decade, Haring’s resolve to “just live” until he dies collided with the sudden proximity of a highly probable death — the spacious until contracted into a span uncertain but almost certainly short as the AIDS epidemic began slaying his generation. A century after the uncommonly perceptive and poetic diarist Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant and sidelined sister — wrote upon receiving a terminal diagnosis that the remaining stretch of life before her is “the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Haring, having taken a long break from his own diary, returns to the mirror of the blank page and faces the powerful, paradoxical way in which the proximity of death charges living with life:
I keep thinking that the main reason I am writing is fear of death. I think I finally realize the importance of being alive. When I was watching the 4th of July fireworks the other night and saw my friend Martin [Burgoyne], I saw death. He says he has been tested and cleared of having AIDS, but when I looked at him I saw death. Life is so fragile.
In a sentiment evocative of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s memorable observation in his poetic and courageous exit from life that when people die, “they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death,” Haring adds:
It is a very fine line between life and death. I realize I am walking this line. Living in New York City and also flying on airplanes so much, I face the possibility of death every day. And when I die there is nobody to take my place… That is true of a lot of people (or everyone) because everyone is an individual and everyone is important in that they cannot be replaced.
But even as he shudders with the fragility of life, Haring continues to shimmer with the largehearted love of life that gives his art its timeless exuberance:
Touching people’s lives in a positive way is as close as I can get to an idea of religion.
Belief in one’s self is only a mirror of belief in other people and every person.
He returns to the love of life that charged his days with meaning and his art with magnetism — a love both huge and humble, at the center of which is our eternal dance with mystery:
I think it is very important to be in love with life. I have met people who are in their 70s and 80s who love life so much that, behind their aged bodies, the numbers disappear. Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we “understand,” there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.
Again and again, Haring declares on the pages of his journal that he lives for work, for art — the purpose of which, of course, if there is any purpose to art, is to make other lives more livable. As the specter of AIDS hovers closer and closer to him, this creative vitality pulses more and more vigorously through him, reverberating with Albert Camus’s insistence that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”
In early 1988, weeks before his thirtieth birthday and shortly before he finally received the diagnosis perching on the event horizon of his daily life, Haring composes a seething cauldron of a journal entry, about to boil with the overwhelming totality of his love of life:
I love paintings too much, love color too much, love seeing too much, love feeling too much, love art too much, love too much.
By the following month, he has metabolized the terrifying too-muchness into a calm acceptance radiating even more love:
I accept my fate, I accept my life. I accept my shortcomings, I accept the struggle. I accept my inability to understand. I accept what I will never become and what I will never have. I accept death and I accept life.
After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in a crash — a friend so close that Haring was the godfather of his son — he copies one of his friend’s newly poignant poems about life and death into his journal, then writes beneath it:
Creativity, biological or otherwise, is my only link with a relative mortality.
But perhaps his most poignant and prophetic entry came a decade earlier — a short verse-like reflection nested in a sprawling meditation on art, life, kinship, and individuality, penned on Election Day:
I am not a beginning.
I am not an end.
I am a link in a chain.
Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, barely into his thirties, leaving us his exuberant love of life encoded in mirthful lines and vibrant colors that have made millions of other lives — mine included — immensely more livable.