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The Blue Songbird: A Tenderhearted and Lyrical Parable About Finding Your Voice and Coming Home to Yourself

A lovely Japanese-inspired meditation on what makes us who we are.

The Blue Songbird: A Tenderhearted and Lyrical Parable About Finding Your Voice and Coming Home to Yourself

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Tolstoy wrote in his diary. A generation later on the other side of the Atlantic, pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in hers as she contemplated the art of knowing what to do with one’s life: “To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy.”

How we arrive at that secret and sacred knowledge is what Brooklyn-based artist Vern Kousky explores in The Blue Songbird (public library) — a lyrical and tenderhearted parable about finding one’s voice and coming home to oneself. With its soft watercolors and mellifluous prose composed of simple words, Kousky’s story emanates a Japanese aesthetic of thought and vision, where great truths are surfaced with great gentleness and simplicity.

We meet a a young blue songbird on a golden island, who listens to her sisters’ beautiful songs each morning. Unable to sing like they sing, she anguishes that there seem to be no songs for her in the world.

Her wise and loving mother counsels the blue songbird to “go and find a special song” that she alone can sing.

As though animated by Nietzsche’s proclamation that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” the blue songbird sets out to cross land and sea in search of her singular song.

After tireless and courageous flight, she reaches a faraway land where she meets a long-necked crane and asks him whether he might know what song she should sing.

The crane, bereft of an answer, points her to the distant mountains perched at the horizon, home to “the wisest bird,” who might know.

She soars over the peaks and finds the wise old bird in the depths of a dark forest. But the owl hoots unknowing, and the blue songbird flies forth on her quest.

Across varied landscapes and foreign lands, the young seeker inquires all she meets whether they might know where her song resides, but no one has the answer.

Kousky writes:

One wintry day, she met a bird who looked a little bit mean and more than a little bit hungry. Even so the songbird bravely chirped:

“Please don’t eat me, Mr. Scary Bird. I just wondered if you’ve ever heard of a very special thing — a song that only I can sing.”

The scary-looking stranger, who turns out to be a kindly crow, finally offers the glimmer of an answer — he doesn’t have her song, but knows where she will find it: She must fly West as far as she can.

And so she does, across the sea, past lighthouses and storm clouds, against mighty winds, until she sees the warm glow of an island “like a jewel on the horizon,” beautiful music flowing from it.

Elated to have made it to her destination, the blue songbird feels a surge of new strength that carries her faster and faster toward the yellow land. But as she swoops down, she realizes that she has returned home.

Just as disappointment is swelling in her chest, she sees her mother and is overcome with the urge to tell her of the crane, and the owl, and the crow, and all the stories of her journey.

But as she opens her beak, what pours out is a song — a song of her very own, about what she had seen and experienced — a testament to Werner Herzog’s conviction that all original art “must have experience of life at its foundation.”

Complement The Blue Songbird with a Pulitzer-winning poet on the trouble with “finding yourself” and an astrophysicist’s enchanting real-life story about the Möbius strips that lead us back to ourselves, then revisit The Fox and the Star — a very different yet kindred-spirited illustrated fable of self-discovery and belonging.

Illustrations © Vern Kousky courtesy of Running Press Kids

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The Trouble with “Finding Yourself”

“The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.”

The Trouble with “Finding Yourself”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” thirty-year-old Nietzsche wrote in his treatise on how to find yourself. And yet in the century and a half since, a curious dissonance has begun to reverberate across culture: On the one hand, we have grown increasingly fixated on the self as the focal lens for interpreting the world — a fixation which Ian McEwan so brilliantly satirized and which has precipitated today’s tragic epidemic of militant identity politics; on the other hand, the rise of neuroscience has demonstrated again and again that the self we experience as so overwhelmingly real — the psychophysiological raft of experience through which we float along the river of life — is a sensory-perceptual byproduct of consciousness, completely illusory in its solidity.

Nearly half a century ago, the Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905–September 15, 1989) cast a cautionary eye to the notion of “finding oneself” in Democracy and Poetry (public library) — his magnificent Jefferson Lecture about power, tenderness, and art’s role in a healthy society.

Robert Penn Warren

Decades before Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s witty and wise observation that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Warren challenges the cultural trend of young people taking “time off” from school or work in order to “get away from it all” and find themselves. He writes:

In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.

In consonance with my own deep belief in the ongoingness and fluidity of our becoming, Warren adds:

The self is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Academy of American Poets executive director Jennifer Benka’s beautiful observation that “poems are physical sites of discovery [and] sense-records of our humanity,” Warren considers the role of poetry as a locus of our evolving being:

How does poetry come into all this? By being an antidote, a sovereign antidote, for passivity. For the basic fact about poetry is that it demands participation, from the secret physical echo in muscle and nerve that identifies us with the medium, to the imaginative enactment that stirs the deepest recesses where life-will and values reside. Beyond that, it nourishes our life-will in the process of testing our values. And this is not to be taken as implying a utilitarian aesthetic. It is, rather, one way of describing our pleasure in poetry as an adventure in the celebration of life.

Complement this particular portion of Warren’s thoroughly transcendent Democracy and Poetry with Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person despite a lifetime of change, then revisit Elizabeth Alexander on what poetry does for the human spirit.

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The Courage to Be Yourself: E.E. Cummings on Art, Life, and Being Unafraid to Feel

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” wrote the thirty-year-old Nietzsche. “The true and durable path into and through experience,” Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney counseled the young more than a century later in his magnificent commencement address, “involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”

Every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs. Some of this belief stems from the habitual conceit of a culture blinded by its own presentism bias, ignorant of the past’s contextual analogues. But much of it in the century and a half since Nietzsche, and especially in the years since Heaney, is an accurate reflection of the conditions we have created and continually reinforce in our present informational ecosystem — a Pavlovian system of constant feedback, in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.

E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)
E.E. Cummings by Edward Weston (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography)

Few people in the two centuries since Emerson issued his exhortation to “trust thyself” have countered this culturally condoned blunting of individuality more courageously and consistently than E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962) — an artist who never cowered from being his unconventional self because, in the words of his most incisive and competent biographer, he “despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.”

A fortnight after the poet’s fifty-ninth birthday, a small Michigan newspaper published a short, enormous piece by Cummings under the title “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” radiating expansive wisdom on art, life, and the courage of being yourself. It went on to inspire Buckminster Fuller and was later included in E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised (public library) — that wonderful out-of-print collection which the poet himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays,” and which gave us Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess, an illustrated tribute to E.E. Cummings

Addressing those who aspire to be poets — no doubt in that broadest Baldwinian sense of wakeful artists in any medium and courageous seers of human truth — Cummings echoes the poet Laura Riding’s exquisite letters to an eight-year-old girl about being oneself and writes:

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

Page from Enormous Smallness by Matthew Burgess

Cummings should know — just four years earlier, he had fought that hardest battle himself: When he was awarded the prestigious Academy of American Poets annual fellowship — the MacArthur of poetry — Cummings had to withstand harsh criticism from traditionalists who besieged him with hate for the bravery of breaking with tradition and being nobody-but-himself in his art. With an eye to that unassailable creative integrity buoyed by relentless work ethic, he adds:

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

Complement the thoroughly invigorating E.E. Cummings: A Miscellany Revised with a lovely illustrated celebration of Cummings’s creative bravery, then revisit Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Penn Warren on what it really means to find yourself and Janis Joplin on the courage of being what you find.

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The Terror Within and the Evil Without: James Baldwin on Our Capacity for Transformation as Individuals and Nations

“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

“The self,” the poet Robert Penn Warren observed in his immensely insightful meditation on the trouble with “finding yourself,” “is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.” Indeed, if the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was correct, as I believe he was, in asserting that self-love is the foundation of a sane society, our responsibility to ourselves — and to our selves — is really a responsibility to one another: to know our interiority intimately and hold our darkest sides up to the light of awareness. But part of our human folly is that we do this far less readily than we shine the scorching beam of blameful attention on the darknesses of others.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a magnificent 1964 piece titled “Nothing Personal,” found in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Baldwin on the creative process and his definition of love.

jamesbaldwin
James Baldwin

A year after he contemplated “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” Baldwin writes:

It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.

Echoing Bruce Lee’s assertion that “to become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are,” Baldwin turns his critical yet uncynical intellect toward our capacity for self-transformation — the most difficult and rewarding of our inner resources comprising our collective potentiality:

It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly invigorating The Price of the Ticket with pioneering social scientist John Gardner on the art of self-renewal and Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön on self-transformation through difficult times, then revisit Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, the artist’s struggle, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, and his increasingly timely forgotten conversations with Chinua Achebe about the political power of art, with Margaret Mead about identity, race, and the experience of otherness, and with Nikki Giovanni about what it means to be truly empowered.

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