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Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love… Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly.”

Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

“Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous I don’t know,” the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska observed in her magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But a central paradox of making art and making life is that while uncertainty may be the wellspring of our creative vitality — what is best in life and art often comes into being by “making-not-knowing,” in artist Ann Hamilton’s lovely phrase — we are capable of creating only by hedging against the uncertainty with an arsenal of habits and routines that make it feel containable, controllable, workable. We simply cannot cope with the fundamental precariousness of it all. Every artist’s art is their coping mechanism — their makeshift raft for the slipstream of time and uncertainty that is life.

And so: When some cataclysm in the slipstream capsizes the raft, shatters it, leaves us gasping amid the flotsam, ejected from the familiar flow of time — do we sink or sing?

That is what Zadie Smith explores in one of the six symphonic essays from her Intimations (public library) — a slender, splendid book, all of her royalties from which Smith is donating to the Equal Justice Initiative and New York’s COVID-19 emergency relief fund; a book inspired by her first encounter with Marcus Aurelius’s classic Meditations, on which she leaned to steady herself in these staggering times but which failed to make of her a Stoic, driving her, as the world’s gaps and failings drive us restive makers, to make what meets the unmet need, a contemporary counterpart to these ancient private meditations of timeless public resonance. (We cannot, we must not, after all, expect a white male monarch — however penetrating his insight into human nature, whatever the similitudes of that elemental nature across cultures and civilizations — to speak for and to all of humanity across all of time.)

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

In the third essay, titled “Something to Do,” Smith contemplates the strange and inevitable species of essays in which writers examine their own motives for what they do, that is, examine the pylons of who they are — a genre perhaps not pioneered but popularized by Orwell’s iconic Why I Write and since swelled with specimens by such titans of literature as Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, and Smith herself. At the bottom of all such self-examination — which spares no maker, whatever the mode and material of their art, be it essays or gardens or equations — is the question of time, the raw material of making, something Marcus Aurelius’s fellow Stoic Seneca took up in his excellent meditation on the existential calculus of time spent, saved, and wasted, concluding that “nothing is ours, except time.”

With an eye to the capitalist commodification of time in a culture of utilitarian busyness, Smith considers how society ordinarily weighs the cultural and temporal responsibility of the artist:

Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do… Out of an expanse of time, you carve a little area — that nobody asked you to carve — and you do “something.” But perhaps the difference between the kind of something that I’m used to, and this new culture of doing something, is the moral anxiety that surrounds it. The something that artists have always done is more usually cordoned off from the rest of society, and by mutual agreement this space is considered a sort of charming but basically useless playpen, in which adults get to behave like children — making up stories and drawing pictures and so on — though at least they provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs… As a consequence, art stands in a dubious relation to necessity — and to time itself. It is something to do, yes, but when it is done, and whether it is done at all, is generally considered a question for artists alone. An attempt to connect the artist’s labor with the work of truly laboring people is frequently made but always strikes me as tenuous, with the fundamental dividing line being this question of the clock. Labor is work done by the clock (and paid by it, too). Art takes time and divides it up as art sees fit. It is something to do.

Art by Christoph Niemann from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Under such a premise, she observes, artists would seem to be most impervious to the cataclysmic disruption of labor that a global pandemic inflicts upon our species. But that is not what her experience — or my experience, or the experience of any creative person I know — has been. One is reminded of James Baldwin, insisting half a century earlier in his superb essay on the creative process that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.” Not even time, the artist’s own fulcrum of stability. Smith writes:

It seems it would follow that writers — so familiar with empty time and with being alone — should manage this situation better than most. Instead, in the first week I found out how much of my old life was about hiding from life. Confronted with the problem of life served neat, without distraction or adornment or superstructure, I had almost no idea of what to do with it. Back in the playpen, I carved out meaning by creating artificial deprivations time, the kind usually provided for people by the real limitations of their real jobs. Things like “a firm place to be at nine a.m. every morning” or a “boss who tells you what to do.” In the absence of these fixed elements, I’d make up hard things to do, or things to abstain from. Artificial limits and so on. Running is what I know. Writing is what I know. Conceiving self-implemented schedules: teaching day, reading day, writing day, repeat. What a dry, sad, small idea of a life. And how exposed it looks, now that the people I love are in the same room to witness the way I do time. The way I’ve done it all my life.

“Artificial limits,” of course, are how we contour and fill our sense of meaning amid the vast, empty boundlessness of being. That is why the artificial limits of those we deem to have meaningful lives — the daily routines of great makers and thinkers — are of such enduring and intoxicating interest to us, why we hunger for the cognitive science of the ideal daily routine.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

But much of our temporal anguish stems precisely from this artificial contouring of selfhood in the sand of time. We are essentially self-referential timekeeping devices. I noticed, for instance — how could one not? — that this book was published on my birthday. We mark up the year with the same artificial timestamps with which we mark up the hour. What we do with our days, how we itemize them into scheduled rhythms, is another twitch of the same ludicrous, helplessly human impulse — to own time, to turn into private property what may be the only truly public good. Eventually — perhaps in the time-warp of a pandemic, perhaps in that of private grief — something stops us up short and we face the absurdity of such artificiality. Smith recounts her own stumbling stop and the disquieting yet strangely life-affirming realization it made her step into:

At the end of April, in a powerful essay by another writer, Ottessa Moshfegh, I read this line about love: “Without it, life is just ‘doing time.’” I don’t think she intended by this only romantic love, or parental love, or familial love or really any kind of love in particular. At least, I read it in the Platonic sense: Love with a capital L, an ideal form and essential part of the universe — like “Beauty” or the color red — from which all particular examples on earth take their nature. Without this element present, in some form, somewhere in our lives, there really is only time, and there will always be too much of it. Busyness will not disguise its lack.

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

Ending where she began, Smith quiets the moral anxiety to make herself at home in that peculiar and inescapable place that makers inhabit by their very nature, the place between compulsion and consecration:

I write because… well, the best I can say for it is it’s a psychological quirk of mine developed in response to whatever personal failings I have. But it can’t ever meaningfully fill the time. There is no great difference between novels and banana bread. They are both just something to do. They are no substitute for love. The difficulties and complications of love — as they exist on the other side of this wall, away from my laptop — is the task that is before me, although task is a poor word for it, for unlike writing, its terms cannot be scheduled, preplanned or determined by me. Love is not something to do, but something to be experienced, and something to go through — that must be why it frightens so many of us and why we so often approach it indirectly. Here is this novel, made with love. Here is this banana bread, made with love. If it weren’t for this habit of indirection, of course, there would be no culture in this world, and very little meaningful pleasure for any of us. Although the most powerful art, it sometimes seems to me, is an experience and a going-through; it is love comprehended by, expressed and enacted through the artwork itself, and for this reason has perhaps been more frequently created by people who feel themselves to be completely alone in this world — and therefore wholly focused on the task at hand — than by those surrounded by “loved ones.” Such art is rare: we can’t all sit cross-legged like Buddhists day and night meditating on ultimate matters. Or I can’t. But I also don’t want to just do time anymore, the way I used to. And yet, in my case, I can’t let it go: old habits die hard. I can’t rid myself of the need to do “something,” to make “something,” to feel that this new expanse of time hasn’t been “wasted.” Still, it’s nice to have company. Watching this manic desire to make or grow or do “something,” that now seems to be consuming everybody, I do feel comforted to discover I’m not the only person on this earth who has no idea what life is for, nor what is to be done with all this time aside from filling it.

Complement this fragment of Smith’s solacing and vitalizing Intimations with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley on the necessary chaos of creativity, Borges’s timeless refutation of time, and Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, then revisit Smith, writing years ago as if of and to today, on optimism and despair.

BP

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly.”

How to Master the Ancient Art of Walking Meditation in Modern Life: A Field Guide from the Pioneering Buddhist Teacher Sylvia Boorstein

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic manifesto for the spirit of sauntering, before proclaiming that “every walk is a sort of crusade.” A century and a half later, Rebecca Solnit picked up the subject in her ambulatory classic: “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.” Perched partway in time between Thoreau and Solnit, Thomas Bernhard twined these sentiments in his exquisite meditation on walking, thinking, and the paradox of self-reflection: “There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking.”

Art from What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

But what if the peripatetic body could be an instrument not of moving the mind but of stilling the mind in order to apprehend reality, internal and external, more clearly? What if walking could be not a crusade but a consecration?

That, of course, is what Eastern traditions have been doing for millennia. How to do it — how to master the ancient art of walking meditation and incorporate it into a modern life, into your regular rhythm of being — is what the great Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein details in a portion of her funny, poignant, wholly revelatory 1996 field guide to mindfulness practice, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There (public library).

Sylvia Boorstein

Boorstein — who arrived at Buddhism through the portal of political activism in the 1960s and went on to help pioneer the ancient Eastern tradition as a spiritual and psychotherapeutic practice in the West, and whose teachings have transformed my own life — outlines the basic mental and material framework of walking meditation:

Pick a place to walk back and forth that is private and uncomplicated — one where the walking path can be ten to twenty feet long. If you walk outdoors, find a secluded spot so that you won’t feel self-conscious. If you walk indoors, find a furniture-free section of your room or an empty hallway. Then you can devote all your attention to the feelings in your feet as you walk.

Keep in mind that this is attentiveness practice and tranquillity practice, not specialty walking practice. You don’t need to walk in any unusual way. No special balance is needed, no special gracefulness. This is just plain walking. Perhaps at a slower pace than normal, but otherwise, quite ordinary.

Begin your period of practice by standing still for a few moments at one end of your walking path. Close your eyes. Feel your whole body standing. Some people start by focusing their attention on the top of the head, then move their attention along the body through the head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs, and end by feeling the sensations of the feet connecting with the earth. Allow your attention to rest on the sensations in the soles of the feet. This is likely to be the feeling of pressure on the feet and perhaps a sense of “soft” or “hard,” depending on where you are standing.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

From this mental launchpad commences the actual movement, the intention of which Boorstein takes care to protect from the momentum of our everyday biped habits:

Begin to walk forward. Keep your eyes open so that you stay balanced. I often begin with a normal strolling pace and expect that the limited scope of the walk, and its repetitious regularity, will naturally ease my body into a slower pace. Slowing down happens all by itself. I think it happens because the mind, with less stimuli to process, shifts into a lower gear. Probably the greed impulse, ever on the lookout for something novel to play with, surrenders when it realizes you’re serious about not going anywhere.

When you walk at a strolling pace, the view is panoramic and descriptive. When your walking slows, the view is more localized and subjective. If we could see running readouts, like subtitles, of the mental notes that accompany walking, they might look like this:

Strolling pace: “Step . . . step . . . step . . . step . . .

arms moving . . . head moving . . . smiling . . . looking . . .

stopping . . . turning . . . bird chirping . . .

stepping . . . stepping . . . wondering what time it is . . .

thinking this is boring . . . stepping . . . stepping . . .

swinging arms . . . feeling warm . . .

feeling cool . . . I’m glad I’m in the shade . . .

deciding to stay in the shade . . . smiling . . . stepping . . .”

Slower pace: “Pressure on feet . . . pressure . . . pressure disappearing . . .

pressure reappearing . . . pressure shifting . . .

lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . . lightness . . .

Hey! Now I’ve got it! Now I’m finally present!. . .

Whoops, I’ve been distracted . . . Start again . . .

Pressure on feet . . . pressure shifting . . . lightness . . .

heaviness . . . lightness . . . heaviness . . .

hearing . . . warm . . . cool . . .”

“Go out and walk. It is the glory of life.” Art by Maira Kalman from My Favorite Things.

Boorstein adds an essential disclaimer — a disclaimer and an assurance, necessary for us human animals so conditioned by modern life to overdo, so anxious to overachieve:

Slow is not better than fast. It’s just different. Everything changes, regardless of pace, and direct firsthand experience of temporality can happen while you are strolling just as much as while you are stepping deliberately and slowly. The speed-limit guide for mindful walking is to select the speed at which you are most likely to maintain attention. Shift up or down as necessary.

Aware, with Borges, that time is the substance we are made of, Boorstein ends with a similar antidote to our temporal anxiety:

Start with thirty minutes… Set the timer and begin… As you walk note how many times the impulse to check the time arises. Don’t do it. Just walk. This way, in addition to composure and attentiveness, you get to practice renunciation, a fundamental factor in awakening.

Complement with The Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame’s century-old meditation on walking as creative fuel and Lauren Elkin’s marvelous modern-day manifesto for peripatetic empowerment, then revisit the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to do hugging meditation and savor Sylvia Boorstein’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s splendid ode to silence.

BP

Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

A rhapsody of wonder between the scale of atoms and the scale of minds.

Patti Smith Reads Emily Dickinson’s Pre-Particle Physics Ode to the Science and Splendor of How the World Holds Together

When the sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) enrolled in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary — America’s first institution of higher education for women, the “castle of science” where she composed her exquisite forgotten herbarium at the intersection of science and poetry around the time the sole surviving photograph of her was taken — her immersion in language, mathematics, and astronomy began giving shape to the amorphous doubt about the claims of religion that had been gnawing at her since childhood. How she must have marveled at equations that could describe the splendor of galaxies. She would die before the discovery of the electron, but how staggered her pliant young mind must have been to learn that scientists had just proven the existence of atoms — those then-smallest conceivable constituents of matter first imagined by the ancient Greeks two and a half millennia earlier.

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, ca. 1847. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

Under the shimmering starscape of this new universe of knowledge, she found herself having “no interest in the all-important subject” of “becom[ing] a Christian.” Soon, she would write in her ravishing love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” The school’s founder and first principal, who divided her pupils into three categories along the spectrum of salvation — the saved; those for whom there was hope; and the “no-hopers” — placed Emily in the third. At the end of her first term, on the day of the Sabbath, she was among seventeen students — “the impenitent,” as the principal called them — who couldn’t readily proclaim that “they would serve the Lord” but instead “felt an uncommon anxiety to decide.” The following day, Emily reported the docility she’d observed, writing to a friend at home with removed reproof: “There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety.” She was far more interested in the arc of knowledge as science was just beginning to bend its gaze past the horizon of old certitudes. What lay there would come to animate a great many of her spare, stunning poems — poems that illuminate the eternal, the elemental, the inevitable through the pinhole of the surprising.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

A century before the advent of particle physics and its deliciously disorienting revelation that we are mostly restlessness and empty space, Dickinson pondered the strangeness of a world so seemingly solid and stable yet governed by such imperceptible precariousness in one of her greatest masterworks at that rare precipice of the surprising and the inevitable. Appearing in Figuring as a bridge figure between the visionary poet and the visionary physicist Lise Meitner — whose groundbreaking unraveling of one of nature’s deepest mysteries was hijacked in the making of the atomic bomb despite Meitner’s refusal to work on the project — Dickinson’s poem was animated into new life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by one of the great poetic voices and deepest seers of our own time: Patti Smith.

Like all of Dickinson’s work, this poem was composed untitled and is numbered 600 in her astounding body of work comprising nearly 2,000 known poems — scholars assign these numbers based on where they are best able to place each poem in the chronology of her life — but it was given a title by the poet’s early posthumous editors, who, in an effort to standardize her poetry into more marketable literature, also took the liberty of razing it of her singular punctuation and capitalization, so deliberate and inseparable from her subtleties of meaning; it took a century to reinstate Dickinson’s artistic intent and embrace her courage of breaking with convention in an unexampled way that atomized the matter of language into entirely new structures of meaning.

It troubled me as once I was —
For I was once a Child —
Concluding how an Atom — fell —
And yet the Heavens — held —

The Heavens weighed the most — by far —
Yet Blue — and solid — stood —
Without a Bolt — that I could prove —
Would Giants — understand?

Life set me larger — problems —
Some I shall keep — to solve
Till Algebra is easier —
Or simpler proved — above —

Then — too — be comprehended —
What sorer — puzzled me —
Why Heaven did not break away —
And tumble — Blue — on me —

Patti Smith as a child. (Photographs courtesy of Patti Smith.)

For other highlights of The Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of science through poetry, benefiting Pioneer Works’ endeavor to build New York City’s first public observatory and trouble generations of children into contemplating the cosmic perspective — savor Pioneer Works Director of Sciences and poetic astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of the stunning “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a breathtaking animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” and astronaut Leland Melvin’s reading of Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, then revisit Patti Smith’s uncommonly poetic meditation on dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of life.

BP

Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a ‘function’ of society.”

Chinua Achebe on Art as a Form of Citizenship: Lessons in Creativity as “Collective Communal Enterprise” from the Igbo Tradition of Mbari

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” James Baldwin wrote in his superb meditation on Shakespeare. “Art must be life — it must belong to everybody,” Marina Abramović insisted in her artist life manifesto. Since long before Abramović, since long before Baldwin, since long before Shakespeare, the Igbo culture of Nigeria has embodied and enacted the notion that there is poetry — there is art and artistry — in the lives of the people, the ordinary people, unleashed into communal belonging through their ritual of mbari — the ceremonial celebration of the creative spirit, dedicated to the Earth goddess Ala.

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe (November 16, 1930–March 21, 2013) explores what mbari can teach us about the crucial interleaving of art and society in a long-ago essay titled “Africa and Her Writers,” excerpted and discussed in Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children’s Literature (public library) — Jonathan Cott’s collection of erudite, sensitive, soaring conversations with such titans of feeling in word and image as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Astrid Lindgren, originally published just before I was born (and reprinted in 2020 with a foreword I had the joy of writing).

Achebe writes of the mbari temple as a spare but striking structure that, despite its simplicity, often becomes “a miracle of artistic achievement — a breathtaking concourse of images in bright, primary colors,” sculpted from Ala’s own material — “simple molded earth.”

Figure of Ala in an mbari. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe describes its making and makers:

Every so many years Ala would instruct the community through her priest to prepare a festival of images in her honor. That night the priest would travel through the town, knocking on many doors to announce to the various household whom of their members Ala had chosen for the great work. These chosen men and women then moved into the seclusion in a forest clearing and, under the instruction and guidance of master artists and craftsmen, began to build a house of images. The work might take a year or even two, but as long as it lasted the workers were deemed to be hallowed and were protected from undue contact from, and distraction by, the larger community.

What emerges from this tradition is the bold, unfussy affirmation that art is not only a form of consciousness accessible to all but a form of citizenship — that the responsibility for its making, the right of its enjoyment, and the dialogue between the two are an essential and natural part of our civic conscience. Achebe writes:

The making of art is not the exclusive concern of a particular caste or secret society. Those young men and women whom the goddess chose for the re-enactment of creation were not “artists.” They were ordinary members of society. Next time around, the choice would fall on other people. Of course, mere nomination would not turn everyman into an artist — not even divine appointment could guarantee it. The discipline, instruction, and guidance of a master artist would be necessary. But not even a conjunction of those two conditions would insure infallibly the emergence of a new, exciting sculptor or painter. But mbari was not looking for that. It was looking for, and saying, something else: There is no rigid barrier between makers of culture and its consumers. Art belongs to all and is a “function” of society.

Mbari depicting a maternity clinic with three uniformed nurses attending to a woman in the act of giving birth. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Achebe recognizes that while this notion may be a natural part of the “holistic concern” of traditional societies, it is “abominable heresy in the ears of mystique lovers” — the ego-pricked ears of those who exalt the artist as a special class of citizen, apart from and above the rest of society. With a wry wink, Achebe offers a necessary disclaimer “for their sake and their comfort.” Echoing Thoreau’s distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius, he writes:

The idea of mbari does not deny the place or importance of the master with unusual talent and professional experience. Indeed it highlights such gift and competence by bringing them into play on the seminal potentialities of the community. Again, mbari does not deny the need for the creative artist to go apart from time to time so as to commune with himself, to look inwardly into his own soul. For when the festival is over, the villagers return to their normal lives again, and the master artists to their work and contemplation. But they can never after this experience, this creative communal enterprise, become strangers again to one another. And by logical and physical extension the greater community, which comes to the unveiling of the art and then receives is makers again into its normal life, becomes a beneficiary — indeed an active partaker — of this experience.

“Spirit worker” pounding clay from anthills for the apprentice artist to sculpt with. (Photograph: Herbert M. Cole. University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.)

Complement this slender portion of Cott’s wholly magnificent Pipers at the Gates of Dawn with Achebe on how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches and his superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin, then revisit Baldwin on what it means to be an artist and Iris Murdoch on why art is essential for democracy.

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