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Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss

“What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.”

Autumn Light: Pico Iyer on Finding Beauty in Impermanence and Luminosity in Loss

Rilke considered winter the season for tending to one’s inner garden. A century after him, Adam Gopnik reverenced the bleakest season as a necessary counterpoint to the electricity of spring, harmonizing the completeness of the world and helping us better appreciate its beauty — without winter, he argued, “we would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.

So argues Pico Iyer, one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time, in Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:

I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.

We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:

Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.

It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.

Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:

“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.

Art from Wabi-Sabi — a picture-book about the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.

He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:

I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.

A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?

For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”

Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.

Spreads from Little Tree — a Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life.

Complement Iyer’s exquisite Autumn Light with physicist and poet Alan Lightman on reconciling our yearning for permanence with a universe predicated on constant change, Marcus Aurelius on the key to living with presence while facing our mortality, and Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s watercolor love letter to seasonality, then revisit Iyer on what Leonard Cohen taught him about the art of stillness.


The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

“…scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice…”

The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

“Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, envisioning his unborn self as the product of myriad potentialities converging since the dawn of time — “the nebula cohered to an orb” and “the long, slow strata piled” to make it possible.

A century and a half after Whitman, Ross Gay — another poet of uncommon sensitivity to our shared longings and largehearted wonderment at the universe in its manifold expressions — inverted the generational telescope and considered the future potentialities contained in his own self in his “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” found in his altogether magnificent 2011 collection Bringing the Shovel Down (public library). An act of imaginative projection, the poem is concerned not with the biological question of what makes a life — on that, I stand with Italo Calvino — but with the existential question of what makes life worth living: love, kindness, the devotion to justice, the unselfconscious surrender to joy, the willingness to do the difficult, delicate work of rising to our highest human potential.

Bill T. Jones at the 2019 Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

Legendary choreographer and New York Live Arts artistic director Bill T. Jones, subject of the inspiring forthcoming documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, stole the show with his electrifying performance of Gay’s poem at the third annual Universe in Verse — please enjoy:

by Ross Gay

       —after Steve Scafidi

The way the universe sat waiting to become,
quietly, in the nether of space and time,

you too remain some cellular snuggle
dangling between my legs, curled in the warm

swim of my mostly quietest self. If you come to be —
And who knows? — I wonder, little bubble

of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl
in my vascular galaxies, what would you think

of this world which turns itself steadily
into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?

Would you curse me my careless caressing you
into this world or would you rise up

and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat
which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,

scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice,
or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life

some roadkill? I have so many questions for you,
for you are closer to me than anyone

has ever been, tumbling, as you are, this second,
through my heart’s every chamber, your teeny mouth

singing along with the half-broke workhorse’s steady boom and gasp.
And since we’re talking today I should tell you,

though I know you sneak a peek sometimes
through your father’s eyes, it’s a glorious day,

and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs,
and they’re the most delicate shade of gold

we’ve ever seen and must favor the transparent
wings of the angels you’re swimming with, little angel.

And as to your mother — well, I don’t know —
but my guess is that lilac bursts from her throat

and she is both honeybee and wasp and some kind of moan to boot
and probably she dances in the morning —

but who knows? You’ll swim beneath that bridge if it comes.
For now let me tell you about the bush called honeysuckle

that the sad call a weed, and how you could push your little
sun-licked face into the throngs and breathe and breathe.

Sweetness would be your name, and you would wonder why
four of your teeth are so sharp, and the tiny mountain range

of your knuckles so hard. And you would throw back your head
and open your mouth at the cows lowing their human songs

in the field, and the pigs swimming in shit and clover,
and everything on this earth, little dreamer, little dreamer

of the new world, holy, every rain drop and sand grain and blade
of grass worthy of gasp and joy and love, tiny shaman,

tiny blood thrust, tiny trillion cells trilling and trilling,
little dreamer, little hard hat, little heartbeat,

little best of me.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and this lovely French picture-book imagining a better world from the perspective of a yet-unborn child, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

If you are, or would like to place yourself, in New York City on October 26, join me for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a very special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build the city’s first public observatory.


The Stunning Astronomical Beadwork of Native Artist Margaret Nazon

Celestial splendor bridging ancient tradition and modern science.

“I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell marveled in her journal when she first learned to notice the different hues of the stars, almost transgressively delightful to a woman who had grown up in the Quaker tradition with its customary ban on color. To the suddenly awestruck Mitchell, the stars appeared like “a collection of precious stones” or colorful beads. How she would have relished the celestial beadwork of Native artist Margaret Nazon.

Margaret Nazon: Milky Way Starry Night. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Glenbow.)

More than a century after Mitchell’s contemporary Ellen Harding Baker embroidered her stunning Solar System quilt to use as an astronomy teaching tool in an era when women had almost no access to formal education in science, and a generation after the great astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe, embroidered her supernova, Nazon began beading celestial objects after her partner showed her photographs of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 — those now-iconic images that have inspired some of our greatest poets and enchanted the popular imagination like no other visual document of science.

Margaret Nazon: Saturn.

Against the black velvet of pure spacetime, Nazon’s intricate beadwork reaches across abstraction, across incomprehensible expanses, to make galaxies, nebulae, and constellations tangible; to render the wilderness of an impartial universe domesticated and personable. Galaxies millions of lightyears away, hundreds of lightyears wide, become intimate emissaries of spacetime on her 25×25-inch beaded canvases.

Tadpole Galaxy, 420 million lightyears from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Bright Lights, Green City. Top: NASA composite of data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Tarantula Nebula, 160,000 lightyears away from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Margaret Nazon: Tarantula Nebula, detail. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

A member of the small First Nations community of Gwich’in, Nazon grew up on the banks of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwestern Territories, steeped in a crafts tradition. She started beading at age 10. The early decorative flowers that began on moccasins and clothing eventually blossomed, half a century later, into the dazzling objects of deep space, rendered using a variety of beading techniques and bead sizes to create a beguiling three-dimensional tactility.

Margaret Nazon, beadwork detail.

Nazon begins beading before dawn and often works all day, taking only short breaks between sessions, beading to the sound of classical music and jazz — Billie Holiday is a favorite. Her largest work, a triptych of the Andromeda Galaxy, took her some 200 hours.

Margaret Nazon: Milky Way spiral galaxy. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Robert Thrisk.)

Nazon marries integrity of representation with artistic interpretation, sometimes deliberately straying from the colors captured by the Hubble toward her favorite combination: blue and yellow, colors she associates with happiness and beauty.

Mask Galaxy. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.

With no background in science and only a rudimentary understanding of the astronomy she embroiders, her work celebrates not the cerebral but the spiritual allure of the cosmos — the way it beckons to the most elemental part of us, the part that possessed Ptolemy to scribble in the margins of his notebook two millennia ago: “I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies… I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”

Margaret Nazon: Old Star Gives Up Ghost. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

Complement with the stunning celestial art of the self-taught 17th-century German astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart, then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, on which her father worked as one of NASA’s first black engineers, and this Hubble classic composed by Adrienne Rich a generation earlier.


Lorraine Hansberry on Depression and Its Most Reliable Antidote

“I am sitting here… feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired.”

Lorraine Hansberry on Depression and Its Most Reliable Antidote

While I stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her exquisite admonition against the dangerous myth of the suffering artist, it has always seemed to me — both from a deep immersion in the personal histories of long-gone artists and from direct experience in contemporary creative communities — that artists are more porous to the world than other people and therefore more vulnerable to suffering. To be an artist is to be a human being who feels everything more deeply, the beautiful as well as the terrible, and builds of those feelings bowers where others can safely and sacredly process their own. Whitman intuited this when he observed that those capable of “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are also apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” Tchaikovsky articulated it in his touching resolve to find beauty amid the wreckage of the soul. Nietzsche knew it when he traced the wild oscillations of depression and hope.

Among the artists who plummeted to such depths of darkness while buoying the spirit of their times was Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — the visionary playwright and civil rights activist, who revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility and from whom generations of artists and ordinary people alike, including other visionaries like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, drew courage and inspiration.

Lorraine Hansberry, 1950s. Photographer unknown. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.)

For all her soaring intellect and trailblazing genius, Hansberry’s heart sank low with alarming regularity. In a diary entry from 1955, penned just as her star was beginning to rise and included in Imani Perry’s excellent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes her depression with that hollowing detachment so familiar to those who have been severed from themselves by this unforgiving malady:

It is curious how intellectual I have become about the whole thing… [about] what I apparently am. My unhappiness has become a steady, calm quiet sort of misery. It is always with me and when for a moment something or other stirs me from its immediate ravages (thank God that is still possible) — I wonder at its absence.

To be sure, much of Hansberry’s depression was rooted in the dissonance of her being a gay woman (“what I apparently am”) in a heterosexual marriage that was a great creative and intellectual partnership but not her great love. Even so, depression is an illness in which we can never speak of causality — only of contributing factors, of which there are always many, both psychological and physiological, present in varying degrees and intricately intertwined. But beneath the particulars of any life, there beats a common heart of experience, which Hansberry channels with devastating candor. From the pit of another depression, she writes to her husband:

I am sitting here in this miserable little bungalow, in this miserable camp that I once loved so much, feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired. The week past that I spoke to you about was the height of all those things to the point where I didn’t care too much a couple of times whether or not I woke mornings.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In a redemptive passage, she turns to nature for the most reliable, perhaps the only, salve:

Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries darling, even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.

Perhaps she was thinking of the poet Keats — another artist of towering genius, whose spirits often sank to unfathomable lows — who a century and a half earlier found kindred solace in his own experience of depression and the mightiest remedy for a heavy heart; or perhaps of Whitman, who pondered what remains when the world has lost its sheen and answered: “Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly inspiriting Looking for Lorraine with Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression, then revisit poet May Sarton’s cure for despair.


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