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What It Takes to Grow Up, What It Means to Have Grown

A poetic antidote to despair by way of delight.

What It Takes to Grow Up, What It Means to Have Grown

“True adulthood,” Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings in her 2004 Wellesley College commencement address, “is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.” Four years later, in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had, Maya Angelou wrote: “I am convinced that most people do not grow up. We find parking spaces and honor our credit cards. We marry and dare to have children and call that growing up. I think what we do is mostly grow old. We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.”

Perhaps the most difficult beauty and the hardest-won glory of true adulthood is the refusal, vehement and countercultural and proud, to relinquish our inner magnolias as we grow older, declining to sacrifice them at the altar-register of a culture that continually robs us of our self-worth and tries to sell it back to us at the price of the latest product.

That is what poet Ross Gay intimates in the one hundredth “essayette” in The Book of Delights (public library) — the inspired yearlong experiment in willfully expanding the everyday capacity for joy and wonder that he undertook on his forty-second birthday, the record of which became one of the most wonderful and wonder-full books of 2019.

Ross Gay

In the entry for July 27 (the eve of my own birthday, as it happens), he echoes poet May Sarton’s life-earned observation that “sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination,” and writes under the heading “Grown”:

I suspect it is simply a feature of being an adult, what I will call being grown, or a grown person, to have endured some variety of thorough emotional turmoil, to have made your way to the brink, and, if you’re lucky, to have stepped back from it — if not permanently, then for some time, or time to time. Then it is, too, a kind of grownness by which I see three squares of light on my wall, the shadow of a tree trembling in two of them, and hear the train going by and feel no panic or despair, feel no sense of condemnation or doom or horrible alignment, but simply observe the signs — light and song — for what they are — light and song. And, knowing what I have felt before, and might feel again, feel a sense of relief, which is cousin to, or rather, water to, delight.

Complement this small fragment of the enormously delightful Book of Delights with Alain de Botton on what existential maturity really means and Mary Oliver’s life-affirming, light- and delight-giving poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Bill T. Jones’s stunning Universe in Verse performance of Gay’s “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be.”

BP

Marcus Aurelius in Love: The Future Stoic Philosopher and Roman Emperor’s Passionate Teenage Love Letters to His Tutor

“Those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.”

Marcus Aurelius in Love: The Future Stoic Philosopher and Roman Emperor’s Passionate Teenage Love Letters to His Tutor

“Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love,” a trio of psychologists wrote in their wonderful inquiry into limbic revision and how love rewires the brain. But whom we love equally depends on who we are and who we want to become. Love, like time, is as much a function of us as we are a function of it.

An especially striking illustration of this equivalence, both for its intensity and its unexpectedness, comes from the adolescent love letters the future Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) to his teacher, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, collected and translated by Amy Richlin two millennia later in Marcus Aurelius in Love (public library) — a most improbable addition to history’s greatest LGBT love letters.

Fatherless since childhood, Marcus Aurelius was raised by his wealthy single mother, Domitia Lucilla. In 139, she hired Fronto — an African immigrant to Rome who described himself as “a Libyan of the Libyan nomads,” by then one of the era’s preeminent orators — to teach her eighteen-year-old son the art of rhetoric in preparation for his political career.

Across caste and rank, across twenty-some years of age difference, the two Marcuses fell in love.

For six years, until Marcus Aurelius’s socially necessitated marriage, they lived in close proximity and exchanged letters of devotion and tenderness, laced with intellectual admiration and erotic longing. Although their love was edged with danger under Roman law, it was not its same-sex nature that imperiled them — a grown man charged with seducing an adolescent male could be charged with adultery, the penalty for which was exile or death. But the seduction, if the term applies to their case at all, flowed the other way: Marcus Aurelius inundated Fronto with ardor that at first received only a timorous echo.

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

In the preface to the collection, Richlin draws on the early Stoic philosophers’ forgotten axioms of sexuality to provide the deeper cultural context beneath the shallow reach of Roman law:

Zeno (335–263 BCE) and his successor, Chrysippus (280–207 BCE), argued that sex between human beings who have learned the proper principles of respect and true friendship is a good thing, and that the ideal society would be one in which sex was enjoyed freely, without propertarian bonds of marriage. In particular, the young person just turning toward philosophy, the prokopton, should be trained by his mentor first through a sexual relationship, which should grow into an understanding of philosophy.

And so it did for Marcus Aurelius and his mentor-turned-paramour.

It was through the portal of intellectual reverence that the young man marched his heart into love. By the end of 139, he had already become besotted with Fronto. After receiving one of his tutor’s essays, he exults:

Should I not burn with love of you when you’ve written this to me? What should I do? I can’t stop.

Soon, the young man began addressing his beloved as “my Fronto,” unselfconsciously calling him “my number one delight,” “my dearest and most loving,” “my biggest thing under heaven,” “breath of my life.” Fronto, at first, met this ardor with considerable reserve — self-restraint, perhaps — but it was an ambivalent reserve. Aware that Marcus was being courted by another man — not uncommon practice in their time and place — and that this suitor already considered him his “He-Sweetheart,” Fronto writes:

You seem likely, dear Boy, to want to understand… why, pray, I who am not in love strive so eagerly to gain the same Things that Lovers do. So will I tell you first how that may be. By Zeus, that Fellow who is so very a Suitor was not born with a sharper Pair of Eyes than I who am no Lover, yet I in fact am sensible of your Beauty no less than the rest; I might say, more acutely so than your Suitor.

[…]

Me you approach not at your Peril, nor at the Cost of any Harm will you keep Company with me; nay, ’twill do you every Good. Indeed, Beauties are help’d and benefitted more by those who love them not, as green Shoots are help’d by the Waters. For Springs and Rivers love not green Shoots, yet in their going near and their flowing past do they make them to flower and to bloom.

Fronto’s conflicted push-pull message achieved none of the push. With the same stubborn optimism and imperviousness to adversity that would one day make him a great Stoic and a great emperor, Marcus responds:

Go ahead, as much as you like, threaten me, accuse me… with whole clumps of arguments, but you will never put off your Suitor — I mean me. Nor will I proclaim it any less that I love Fronto, or will I be less in love, because you’ve proven, and with such strange and strong and elegant expressions, that those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more.

Two millennia later, W.H. Auden would echo this sentiment in his stunning poem “The More Loving One.”

Marcus accelerates the propulsion of his undeterred ardor:

God, no, I am dying so for love of you, and I’m not scared off by this doctrine of yours, and if you’re going to be more ripe and ready for others who don’t love you, I will still love you as long as I live and breathe.

[…]

Socrates didn’t burn more with desire for Phaedrus than I’ve burned during these days — did I say days? I mean months — for the sight of you. Your letter fixed it so a person wouldn’t have to be Dion to love you so much — if he isn’t immediately seized with love of you.

And then, in a touchingly innocent closing line, he adds:

My lady mother says hello.

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

On Fronto’s birthday, Marcus writes:

Because I love you next to my own self, I want to make a wish for myself on this day.

In an imaginative romp through the intellectual and spiritual epicenters of the ancient world, he gathers a posy of blandishments and beneficences for his beloved:

I go down to Athens, and on bended knee I beseech and beg Minerva that whatever I may ever learn about letters should above all journey from Fronto’s mouth to my heart.’ Now I return to Rome, and I call on the gods of roads and voyages with wishes that every trip I take may be with you beside me, and that I may not be worn out so frequently by such ferocious longing. In the end I ask all the guardian gods of all the nations, and Jupiter himself, who thunders over the Capitol Hill, to grant us that I should celebrate this day, on which you were born for me, along with you, and a happy, strong you.

Fronto did not remain unresponsive. “With good reason I’ve devoted myself to you,” he eventually writes, “considering your love for me, which I feel so lucky to have.” Whatever the nature and magnitude of his own feelings may have been, he makes no pretense of denying that he loves being so loved:

Good-bye, Caesar, and love me the most, as you do. I truly love to pieces every little letter of every word you.

Plucked from antiquity when the manuscript was discovered in 1815, and reanimated by Richlin’s painstaking scholarship despite missing pages, illegible handwriting, and untranslatable sentiments, the forty-six letters collected in Marcus Aurelius in Love radiate a testament to an elemental fact I have observed elsewhere: The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.

For a further testament across time and space, savor Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert and Herman Melville’s passionate epistolary longing for Nathaniel Hawthorne, then revisit the grown Marcus Aurelius, his wisdom having ripened under Fronto’s formative sun, on the key to living with presence and how to begin each day with unassailable serenity.

BP

The Poetics of Outer Toughness and Inner Tenderness: Gorgeous 19th-Century Engravings of Cacti

A succulent serenade to the elegant geometry of spiny splendor.

The Poetics of Outer Toughness and Inner Tenderness: Gorgeous 19th-Century Engravings of Cacti

Among the oddities of my childhood in communist Bulgaria was my mother’s collection of cacti. Against the chipped grey concrete of our apartment building, these improbable emissaries of another climate from another world stood as spiked sentinels of a fantastical optimism at the portal to another life.

Each winter, we brought the entire ensemble — dozens of them, all kinds of shapes and sizes and species — indoors; each summer, we carefully arranged them back on the tiny balcony overlooking the grey parking lot. My mother even tried her hand at grafting, without much success — but I vividly remember my astonishment at seeing the thick spiny skin open into the softest, most succulent flesh I had ever seen — softer than the inside of the cucumbers from my grandmother’s garden, moister than the vermillion interior of my thumb the time I pressed it into the knife’s blade accidentally flipped upside down.

I loved their geometric elegance, the splendid shock of their rare blossoms, their quiet resilience. I felt a deep affinity with these strange, otherworldly creatures — the child who also had to learn to thrive on being underwatered, the child longing for thick-skinned spiny armor to protect the inner succulence from the intemperate climate and violent dust-storms of its local environment. (Many years later, well into adulthood, I would discover and fall in love with a charming children’s book embracing this very metaphor.)

Mammillaria Elephantidens. Available as a print.

Imagine, then, my delight at chancing upon the forgotten 1841 gem Illustrations from a Descriptive Iconography of Cacti by the French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire (November 1, 1800–June 22, 1871), who spent his entire personal and professional life under the enchantment of cacti, dying in poverty and without renown despite his voluminous publications and the number of genera he named, including the famed Christmas Cactus. (A plant, as it happens, about a hundred million years older than Christ.) His successor at the horticultural journal Lemaire edited for the last seventeen years of his life lamented that “posterity will esteem M. Lemaire more highly than did his contemporaries.” May we so do.

Echinocactus sellowianus. Available as a print.

His 1841 classification of cacti features a dozen beautifully colored and detailed engravings of some of the most notable species, which I have restored, digitized, and made available as prints, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Echinocactus pentacanthus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus horizontalinus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus pectiniferus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus astrophytum myriostigma. Available as a print.
Echinocactus gibbosus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus concinnus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus coptonogonus. Available as a print.
Echinocactus hexaedrophorus. Available as a print.
Mammillaria Erecta. Available as a print.
Echinocactus horizontalinus. Available as a print.

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on how a rare night-blooming cactus reconciles us to the universe, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s gorgeous illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees, published in Lemaire’s era, and Elizabeth Blackwell’s trailblazing illustrated botany of medicinal plants from the previous century.

BP

Anne Gilchrist on Inner Wholeness, Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness, and the Body as the Seedbed of a Flourishing Soul

“One of the hardest things to make a child understand is, that down underneath your feet, if you go far enough, you come to blue sky and stars again; that there really is no ‘down’ for the world, but only in every direction an ‘up.’”

Anne Gilchrist on Inner Wholeness, Our Greatest Obstacle to Happiness, and the Body as the Seedbed of a Flourishing Soul

“So few grains of happiness measured against all the dark and still the scales balance,” Jane Hirshfield wrote in her stunning poem “The Weighing.” In how we chip from the monolithic weight of the world those osmian grains of happiness lies the promise of an answer to the abiding question: How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?

That is what Anne Gilchrist (February 25, 1828–November 29, 1885) — a woman Walt Whitman cherished as “a sort of human miracle,” whose “vision went on and on” and who “belonged to the times yet to come” — returns to again and again, each time quarrying new strata of insight, in the forgotten treasure The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (free ebook | public library). Radiating from the pages of her beautiful and heartbreaking love letters to Whitman is an uncommonly original and penetrating mind in dialogue perhaps even more richly with itself than with its half-attentive correspondent. (Whitman responded to a fraction of the letters; he could not, for the obvious reason, meet her romantic ardor — but he relished and responded to her exceptional mind.)

Anne Gilchrist

By the time Gilchrist encountered Whitman’s soul-salving poetry, which she helped popularize in England with her coruscating review, she had been widowed for more than a decade, raising her four children as a single mother and making a living by her pen in an era when very few women were published authors. On the second day of summer in 1869, in consonance with her contemporary and compatriot Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s insistence on happiness as a moral obligation, Gilchrist writes in a letter to William Michael Rossetti — Christina Rossetti’s brother and Whitman’s British publisher, who had boldly brought Leaves of Grass to England when it was scorned in America and who would eventually introduce Gilchrist and Whitman:

I used to think it was great to disregard happiness, to press on to a high goal, careless, disdainful of it. But now I see that there is nothing so great as to be capable of happiness; to pluck it out of “each moment and whatever happens”; to find that one can ride as gay and buoyant on the angry, menacing, tumultuous waves of life as on those that glide and glitter under a clear sky; that it is not defeat and wretchedness which come out of the storm of adversity, but strength and calmness.

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

Our greatest obstacle to happiness, Gilchrist intimates, are our illusions of finitude and fragmentation — a failure of imagination that becomes a self-imposed prison of smallness, from which we are liberated only when we learn to see the interconnected wholeness of the universe:

One of the hardest things to make a child understand is, that down underneath your feet, if you go far enough, you come to blue sky and stars again; that there really is no “down” for the world, but only in every direction an “up.” And that this is an all-embracing truth, including within its scope every created thing, and, with deepest significance, every part, faculty, attribute, healthful impulse, mind, and body of a man (each and all facing towards and related to the Infinite on every side), is what we grown children find it hardest to realize, too.

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

Fifteen years before William James devised his revolutionary theory of how our bodies affect our feelings and more than a century before our modern science shed light on how the mind and the body converge in the healing of trauma, Gilchrist makes a beautifully articulated, elegantly reasoned case for nondualistic wellbeing:

I feel deeply persuaded that a perfectly fearless, candid, ennobling treatment of the life of the body (so inextricably intertwined with, so potent in its influence on the life of the soul) will prove of inestimable value to all earnest and aspiring natures, impatient of the folly of the long-prevalent belief that it is because of the greatness of the spirit that it has learned to despise the body, and to ignore its influences; knowing well that it is, on the contrary, just because the spirit is not great enough, not healthy and vigorous enough, to transfuse itself into the life of the body, elevating that and making it holy by its own triumphant intensity; knowing, too, how the body avenges this by dragging the soul down to the level assigned itself. Whereas the spirit must lovingly embrace the body, as the roots of a tree embrace the ground, drawing thence rich nourishment, warmth, impulse. Or, rather, the body is itself the root of the soul — that whereby it grows and feeds. The great tide of healthful life that carries all before it must surge through the whole man, not beat to and fro in one corner of his brain.

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

Like Whitman, who both reverenced science and probed its limitations, Gilchrist bolstered her erudition and her philosophical ideas with an intense interest in astronomy, chemistry, and biology, keeping up with the latest discoveries of the time. Drawing on her respect for science, and echoing computing pioneer Alan Turing’s brokenhearted belief that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” she adds:

Science knows that matter is not, as we fancied, certain stolid atoms which the forces of nature vibrate through and push and pull about; but that the forces and the atoms are one mysterious, imperishable identity, neither conceivable without the other. She knows, as well as the poet, that destructibility is not one of nature’s words; that it is only the relationship of things — tangibility, visibility — that are transitory. She knows that body and soul are one, and proclaims it undauntedly, regardless, and rightly regardless, of inferences.

Complement with Gilchrist’s contemporary Mary Shelley on nature and the meaning of happiness and Whitman himself on what makes life worth living, then leap across epochs of scientific understanding to Harvard’s groundbreaking 75-year study of human happiness.

BP

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