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Favorite Books of 2019

From the hidden universe beneath our feet to delight as a countercultural force of courage and resistance, by way of Patti Smith, Toni Morrison, and the Greek myths.

Long ago, when the present and the living appealed to me more, I endeavored to compile “best of” reading lists at the close of each year. Even then, those were inherently incomplete and subjective reflections of one person’s particular tastes, but at least my scope of contemporary reading was wide enough to narrow down such a selection.

In recent years, these subjective tastes have taken me further and further into the past, deeper and deeper into the common record of wisdom recorded decades, centuries, millennia ago, drawn from the most timeless recesses of the human heart and mind. Outside the year’s loveliest children’s books — a stratum of literature with which I still actively and ardently engage — I now nurse no illusion of having an even remotely adequate sieve for the “best” of what is published each passing year, given that I read so very little of it (and given, too, that this particular year I birthed the first book of my own — itself the product of a long immersion in the past). But of the books I did read in 2019, these are the ones that will stay with me for life.

YEAR OF THE MONKEY

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.

There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.

That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.

“Dream Inn. Santa Cruz.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.

Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching in all directions, star-salted and possible.

She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.

“Fortune cookie. Venice Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:

He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.

There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:

Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.

“Joshua Tree cactus” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:

Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.

I hear the voice of the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan whisper that “the logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake” as Ernest’s words become the soundwave of Smith’s unconscious mind:

There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.

Read more here.

THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS

“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poet Ross Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”

Ross Gay in his beloved community garden

Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.

Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.

Photograph by Maria Popova

He writes:

Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.

In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:

It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.

He writes:

When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:

For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.

One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:

I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:

I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.

[…]

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.

[…]

It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Read more here.

UNDERLAND

“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.

Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Macfarlane writes:

We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.

Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:

Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.

Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.

[…]

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).

Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).

Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:

“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:

When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.

To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.

Read more here.

HEALING THE DIVIDE

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Tolstoy wrote in looking back on his long and imperfect life. These words with which he encased the most immortal truth of the human heart open poet James Crews’s wondrous anthology Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection (public library) — a tender, truthful mirror held up to what is best in us amid a culture that so readily caricatures us at our worst, featuring soul-salving, rupture-suturing, sanity-resuscitating poems by virtuosos of verse like Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Tracy K. Smith, Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ross Gay, Rita Dove, Donald Hall, and Jane Kenyon.

WINTER SUN
by Molly Fisk

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.

The way we stand there, soaking in it,
mittened fingers reaching.

And how carefully we gather what we can
to offer later, in darkness, one body to another.

Radiating from the pages is a soulful testament to Adrienne Rich’s insistence that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire” and affirmation of Muriel Rukeyser lovely formulation of what poetry does for us: “However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.”

THE SOURCE OF SELF-REGARD

Among the colossal losses of this year was Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019) — one of the titanic thinkers and writers of our time, who received her Nobel Prize in Literature — the first black woman to be awarded the accolade — with what remains the most beautiful Nobel speech ever given. That speech, along with other invaluable remnants of this irreplaceable mind, appears in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library) — Morrison’s final nonfiction collection, replete with her wisdom on subjects as varied as borders and belonging, the singular humanistic power of storytelling, and our search for wisdom in the age of information.

Toni Morrison (Courtesy  Alfred A. Knopf)
Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)

At the center of the collection is Morrison’s insistence on the power of art as a humanistic force of transformation. Half a century after James Baldwin asserted 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,” Morrison writes in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech, which opens the volume:

Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

[…]

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

In another piece, drawn from her 1990 Massey Lectures at Harvard, Morrison echoes Ursula K. Le Guin’s astute observation that “storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” and probes deeper into the singular gift and responsibility of the writer:

Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.

A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:

I am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.

Read more from the book here.

AUTUMN LIGHT

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.

Read more here.

THE SCHOOL OF LIFE

The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) is the book companion, a decade in the making, to Alain de Botton’s wonderful global academy for self-refinement, a project born just a few years after Brain Pickings and tremendously kindred in spirit. At the heart of it is De Botton’s conviction that of all the species of intelligence, emotional intelligence is the one most vital to our sense of being, to our sanity, to our selfhood, yet our entire educational model omits it completely in favor of other, more reducible intelligences. He writes:

The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.

Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.

The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.

Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:

The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.

In 1983, the psychologist Howard Gardner devised his seminal theory of multiple intelligences, expanding our narrow cultural definition of intelligence as verbal and mathematical skill to include seven other modes of intellectual ability. A decade later, Daniel Goleman added a tenth form of intelligence — emotional intelligence — which quickly permeated the fabric of popular culture as hoards of humans felt suddenly recognized in an endowment long neglected as a valuable or even extant faculty of consciousness. Building on that legacy, De Botton brings his own sensitive perspicacity to a richer, more dimensional definition:

The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm… There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.

De Botton is careful to acknowledge that this line of inquiry might trigger the modern intellectual allergy to the genre of learning dismissively labeled self-help. And yet he reminds us that the quest for self-refinement has always accompanied the human experience and animated each civilization’s most respected intellects — it is there at the heart of the Stoics, and in the essays of Montaigne, and at the center of Zen Buddhism, and in the literary artistry of Proust (whom De Botton has especially embraced as a fount of existential consolation). He aims a spear of simple logic to the irrational and rather hubristic disdain for self-help:

To dismiss the idea that underpins self-help — that one might at points stand in urgent need of solace and emotional education — seems an austerely perverse prejudice.

Art by Corinna Luyken from My Heart — an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem.

Read more here.

OUR DOGS, OURSELVES

That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.

That question — along with myriad other auxiliary scientific and moral questions strewn across the lacuna between the canine consciousness and our projectionist, propertarian orientation toward it — is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).

Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:

As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?

Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!

Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.

Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.

Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.

And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:

As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).

I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.

In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.

Read more here.

WORDS IN PAIN

Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.

First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Whitman’s poems, published in the final year of Jacoby’s life. (Available as a print)

In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.

With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:

We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.

A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:

Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.

Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.

Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:

Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?

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

When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:

My Dear Doctor,

Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.

Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:

Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.

[…]

Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.

Read more here.

EATING THE SUN

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

See more of it here.

CINDERELLA LIBERATOR

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.

We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.

Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library), also among the year’s loveliest children’s books — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Governed by her conviction that “key to the work of changing the world is changing the story” and by her lifelong love of books as “toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart,” Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else’s story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.

In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:

Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.

Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.

But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.

There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.

On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.

Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:

I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.

I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.

Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:

My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.

Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.

Read more here.

A DREAM ABOUT LIGHTNING BUGS

“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “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.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.

All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.

Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

In the tradition of visionaries relaying a symbolic childhood experience that illuminated their creative path — Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Albert Einstein and the compass, Patti Smith and the swan with the blue sail — Folds opens with the first dream he remembers, dreamt when he was three:

It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.

[…]

At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Artists, Folds reflects, are as obsessed with the pursuit of luminosity as they are animated by the irrepressible impulse to share the light with others — a testament to Annie Dillard’s insistence that a generosity of spirit is the mightiest animating force of art. He writes:

As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.

We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.

Art from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:

My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.

But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:

She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.

Ben, age 6, at his turntable, with his brother.

Continue reading what Folds learned about creativity, empathy, and the courage to know yourself here.

THE APOLOGY

A century after the young Franz Kafka set out to hold his abusive, narcissistic father accountable in an extraordinary letter he never actually sent to the living perpetrator, playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler confronts her own monstrously abusive father, long after his death, in The Apology (public library) — a rare dual triumph of absolute self-possession and radical empathy, radiating Dostoyevsky’s hard-earned conviction that there are no inherently bad people despite the worst of human acts and James Baldwin’s insistence that “freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.”

Eve Ensler (Photograph: Paula Allen)

Ensler writes:

I am done waiting. My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.

This letter is an invocation, a calling up. I have tried to allow my father to speak to me as he would speak. Although I have written the words I needed my father to say to me, I had to make space for him to come through me.

There is so much about him, his history, that he never shared with me, so I have had to conjure much of that as well.

This letter is my attempt to endow my father with the will and the words to cross the border, and speak the language, of apology so that I can finally be free.

[…]

What is an apology? It is a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight.

Channeling her father’s voice — the voice he never used to speak the words of apology that every survivor of violence wishes to hear from the perpetrator of that violence — she writes:

An apology must be thorough and can only be trusted in its veracity and dedication to details. I have done my best. I have followed your very strict guidelines: Recognize what I have done as a crime. Face how deeply my actions and violations have impacted and devastated you. See you as a human being. Attempt to experience or feel what it felt like inside you. Feel profound remorse and regret over my actions. And finally, take responsibility for my actions by doing extensive work to understand what made me do what I did.

What emerges from these intensely beautiful and harrowing pages is the reminder that redemption for our suffering is not something we get from others but something we claim for ourselves — that most difficult, most rewarding pinnacle of personal responsibility. (The act of writing the book prompted Ensler to reflect on her own creaturely responsibility in a different light, which she channeled in a stunning letter of apology to Mother Nature — the single most beautiful and important thing I read all year).

MYTHOS

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.

So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths, illuminating the origins of so many of our cultural givens: the names of planets and constellations and chemical elements and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom” and “enthusiasm,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love.

“Chaos” by George Frederic Watts, circa 1875. (Tate Museum)

Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:

Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?

Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.

As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.

Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.

Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.

So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.

There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:

We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.

The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…

Read more here.

A THOUSAND SMALL SANITIES

Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.

In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”

Taylor and Mill

In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.

Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:

My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.

A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.

[…]

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.

They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)

Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:

What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.

They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.

Read more here.

ALSO: FIGURING

I’d be remiss not to mark 2019 as the year that greeted the book that took twelve years of Brain Pickings and the most beautiful, difficult, disorienting experience of my personal life.

Figuring (public library) — some excerpts from which I have published throughout the year — explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

Long ago, a kindly interviewer asked me why I routinely declined offers for the types of easy, marketable books I am frequently approached about doing. I told him (please suspend judgment: I was in my twenties) that I had no interest in putting into the world a book that has the shelf life of a banana. I hope Figuring has the shelf life of a shelf.

Here is the prelude — chapter 0 of 29:

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet’s letters in my friend Wendy’s backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision — that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution — pulls me toward a miraculous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no — it remains suspended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider’s web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.

Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider — and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry — intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth — not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of “biography” but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams. Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love? Two Nobel Prizes don’t seem to recompense the melancholy radiating from every photograph of the woman in the black laboratory dress. Is success a guarantee of fulfillment, or merely a promise as precarious as a marital vow? How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections — between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture, between faint figures who pass each other in the nocturne before the torchlight of a revolution lights the new day, with little more than a half-nod of kinship and a match to change hands.

Although fragments hardly serve a book so predicated on the cohesive interleaving of lives and ideas, you can read some excerpts here.

BP

Favorite Children’s Books of 2019

An emotional intelligence primer in the form of a tender illustrated poem, an empowered retelling of Cinderella, a meditation on what it means to have enough, a serenade to the art of listening as the gateway to self-understanding, and more.

Great children’s books are really miniature cartographies of meaning, emissaries of the deepest existential wisdom that cut across all lines of division, scuttle past the many walls adulthood has sold us on erecting, and slip in through the backdoor of our consciousness to speak — in the language of children, which is the language of unselfconscious sincerity — the most timeless truths to the truest parts of us.

Here are the loveliest such truthful, timeless treasures I savored this year. (And in this spirit of timelessness, here are their counterparts from years past: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW

“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) often told her Vassar students — the world’s first university class of professionally trained women astronomers — having herself become America’s first professional woman astronomer, thanks to her historic discovery of a new telescopic comet on October 1, 1847, after sixteen tenacious years of sweeping the sky night after night.

Mitchell (whose extraordinary life was the seed for what became Figuring and to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated) not only went on to blaze the way for women in STEM but used her prominence — she was arguably America’s first true scientific celebrity, welcomed in England, Italy, and Russia as a dignitary of the New World — to become one of the nineteenth century’s most ardent advocates for social reform, advancing women’s rights and abolition.

The epoch-making discovery that became the platform for Mitchell’s modeling of possibility and far-reaching influence is the kernel of the lovely picture-book What Miss Mitchell Saw (public library) by author Hayley Barrett and illustrator Diana Sudyka — a splendid addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Barrett’s lyrical prose opens with a clever and tender solution to the common pronunciation confusion — Mitchell’s first name is spelled like my own but pronounced the presently atypical traditional Latin way:

On the first day of August, in a house tucked away on the fog-wrapped island of Nantucket, a baby girl was born.

Like all babies, this baby was given a name.
Her parents whispered it to her like a gentle breeze, ma…RYE…ah

Names become a central creative trope in the book — the dignifying, truth-affirming act of calling all realities by their true names. We see the young Maria learn to recognize the ships of this whaling community by name and come to know the local shopkeepers by name.

Finally, after her father apprentices her as his astronomical assistant, she learns the stars by name — a testament to bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s astute observation that “finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

Sudyka’s beautiful gouache-and-watercolor illustrations weave together hand-lettered words from the story with the three great animating forces of Mitchell’s early life: the enchantment of the cosmos, the whaling culture of Nantucket, and her family’s Quaker values. (In Figuring, writing about the factors that fomented Mitchell’s unexampled ascent above the common plane of possibility for women in her era, I point to the original use of the word genius in the term genius loci — Latin for “the spirit of a place” — and wonder whether, despite her incontrovertible natural gift for mathematics, she would have so soared had she not grown up in a secluded whaling community, where matriarchs ruled while men spent months and years on whaling trips, where Quakers lived by the then-countercultural ethos of equal education for boys and girls, where a barren landscape and long winter nights turned astronomy into cherished popular entertainment.)

The book ends with the motto emblazoned on the gold medal Mitchell received from the King of Denmark for her landmark discovery — “Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars” — a sentiment that echoes the dying words of the great astronomer Tycho Brahe, which Adrienne Rich incorporated into her exquisite tribute to Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”

See more of it here.

LAYLA’S HAPPINESS

“What is your idea of perfect happiness?” asks the famous Proust Questionnaire. Posed to David Bowie, he answered simply: “Reading.” Jane Goodall answered: “Sitting by myself in the forest in Gombe National Park watching one of the chimpanzee mothers with her family.” Proust himself answered: “To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater.”

The touching specificity of these answers and the subtle universality pulsing beneath them reveal the most elemental truth about happiness: that there are as many flavors of it as there are consciousnesses capable of registering it, and that it is a universally delicious necessity of life, which we crave from the day we are born until the day we die. And yet, as Albert Camus lamented, “happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it.”

Half a century later, as we wade through a world that gives us ample reason for sorrow, as existential credibility seems meted out on the basis of how loudly one broadcasts one’s disadvantage, the savoring of happiness has become an almost countercultural activity — an act of courage and resistance, and one the practice of which is a whole life’s work, as George Eliot well knew when she observed that “one has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.” Why, then, not make the learning of happiness as essential a part of young people’s education as the learning of arithmetic? Or even stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in deeming it our moral obligation?

All of that — the personal nature of happiness, the daily practice of it, its centrality to participating meaningfully in the world — is what poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie explores in her vibrant and vitalizing picture-book debut, Layla’s Happiness (public library), illustrated by artist Ashleigh Corrin.

Like Sylvia Plath, who composed The Bed Book for her own children, Tallie — who describes herself in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader as “the mother of three galaxies who look like daughters” — has written the book for her youngest galaxy, the book she wished she’d had to read to the elder two.

Tallie constructs the story like a good poem, where the personal is the most welcoming gateway to the universal. We see seven-year-old Layla — whose name means “night beauty” — tally her exuberant everyday sources of happiness.

Happiness leaps at Layla from the color purple, from the succulence of fresh plums, from the constellations of the night sky, from the mischievous delight of slurping spaghetti without a fork. It unspools from her lips as she hums while feeding the chickens at the community garden and names all the trees and greets the neighbors at the farmers’ market where she sells the vegetable she has grown from seeds. It pours forth from the poetry her mother reads to her under a makeshift tent and from the tales her father tells her of his own childhood in the South.

There is a heartening countercultural undertone to the book — these happinesses are not things to be purchased at the store or attained with a click, but embodiments of what Hermann Hesse held up as “the little joys” at the heart of a rich life lived with presence, the simple delights Wendell Berry’s childhood friend Nick savored even amid his hardship.

The book ends with an open question to the reader — a gentle bow to the sundry, deeply personal meaning of happiness.

See more of it here.

CINDERELLA LIBERATOR

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.

We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.

Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library) — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.

Governed by her conviction that “key to the work of changing the world is changing the story” and by her lifelong love of books as “toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart,” Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else’s story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.

In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:

Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.

Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.

But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.

There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.

On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.

Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:

I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.

I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.

Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:

My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.

Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.

See more of it here.

THE FATE OF FAUSTO

In his short and lovely poem penned at the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut located the wellspring of happiness in a source so simple yet so countercultural in capitalist society: “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

A generation later, artist and author Oliver Jeffers — one of the most beloved and thoughtful storytellers of our time — picks up the message with uncommon simplicity of expression and profundity of sentiment in The Fate of Fausto (public library) — a “painted fable,” in that classic sense of moral admonition conveyed on the wings of enchantment, about how very little we and all of our striving matter in the grand scheme of time and being, and therefore how very much it matters to live with kindness, with generosity, in openhearted consanguinity with everything else that shares our cosmic blink of existence.

Inspired by Vonnegut’s poem, which appears on the final page of the book, the story follows a greedy suited man named Fausto, who decides he wants to own the whole world — from the littlest flower to the vastest ocean.

Building on Jeffers’s earlier illustrated meditation on the absurdity of ownership, the story is evocative of The Little Prince (which I continue to consider one of the greatest works of philosophy) and its archetypal characters, through whom Saint-Exupéry conveys his soulful existential admonition — the king who tries to make the Sun his subject; the businessman who, blind to the beauty of the stars, is busy tallying them in order to own them.

Perhaps Jeffers is paying deliberate homage to the beloved classic — the first two objects of Fausto’s hunger for ownership are a flower and a sheep.

One by one, he demands the surrender of sovereignty from all that he comes upon. The flower, being delicate and choiceless, assents to being owned by Fausto. The sheep, being sheepish, puts up no objection. Threatened, the tree bows down before him. (Oh how William Blake would have winced.)

When the lake questions Fausto’s self-appointed authority, he throws a tantrum to show the lake “who’s boss,” and the lake surrenders.

But when the mountain, grounded in her autonomy, refuses to move, Fausto flies into a fit of fury so menacing that even the mountain breaks down and submits to being owned.

Restless with not-enoughness, not content to own the flower and the sheep and the tree and the lake and the mountain, Fausto usurps a boat and heads for the open sea.

Alone amid the blue expanse, he bellows his claim of ownership. But the sea is silent. Fausto yells louder still, unsure quite where to aim his fury, for the sea stretches in all directions.

Finally, the sea responds, calmly questioning how Fausto can wish to own her if he doesn’t even love her. Oh but he does, he does, the riled Fausto insists. The sea, in consonance with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s observation that “understanding and loving are inseparable,” tells Fausto that he couldn’t possibly love her if he doesn’t understand her.

Anxious to stake his claim, Fausto scolds the sea for being wrong, barks that he understands her deeply, then swiftly demands that she submit to his ownership or he will show her who’s boss.

“And how will you do that?” asks the sea. By making a fist and stamping his foot, Fausto replies. With her primordial wisdom, having witnessed human folly since the dawn of humanity, the sea invites Fausto to show her just how he plans to stamp his foot, so she can understand. And Fausto, “in order to show his anger and omnipotence,” perches overboard and aims his foot at the sea.

Swiftly, inevitably, the laws of physics and human hubris take hold of Fausto, who disappears into the fathomless sea — a sinking testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s cautionary charge that unbridled anger “feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.” (How fitting, too, that Jeffers should choose the world of water — one of his supreme fixations as an artist, subject of some of his most haunting conceptual paintings — as the arena on which this final existential battle between the human animal and its ego plays out.)

Jeffers’s subtle, powerful message emerges with the tidal force of elemental truth: When all is said and done and sunk and swallowed, there is only the realization at which Dostoyevsky arrived in his stark brush with death: that “life is a gift, life is happiness, each moment could have been an eternity of happiness,” had it been lived with a sympathetic love of the world.

The sea, Jeffers tells us, feels sorry for Fausto, but goes on being a sea, as the mountain does being a mountain.

And the lake and the forest,
the field and the tree,
the sheep and the flower,
carried on as before.

For the fate of Fausto
did not matter to them.

We are dropped safely ashore to contemplate the fundamental fact that our lives — along with all of our yearnings and fears, our most small-spirited grudges and most largehearted loves, our greatest achievements and deepest losses — will pass like the lives and loves and losses of everyone who has come before us and everyone who will come after. Temporary constellations of matter in an impartial universe of constant flux, we will come and go as living-dying testaments to Rachel Carson’s lyrical observation that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.” The measure of our lives — the worthiness or worthlessness of them — resides in the quality of being with which we inhabit the interlude.

See more of it here.

OVER THE ROOFTOPS, UNDER THE MOON

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people,” Olivia Laing wrote in her lyrical exploration of loneliness and the search for belonging. Our need for belonging is indeed the warp thread of our humanity, and our locus of belonging — determined in part by our choices and in part by the cards chance has dealt us in what we were born as and where — is a pillar of our identity. For those who have migrated far from their homeland, and especially for those of us who have migrated alone, without the built-in social support structure of a community or a family unit, this rupture of belonging can be particularly disorienting and lonesome-making. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom — a freedom the conquest of which can be a whole life’s work.

Poet JonArno Lawson, author of the wondrous Sidewalk Flowers, and artist Nahid Kazemi take up these complex questions with great simplicity and thoughtful sensitivity in Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon (public library) — a spare, poetic meditation on belonging and what it means to be oneself as both counterpoint and counterpart to otherness, as a thinking, feeling, wakeful atom of life amid the constellation of other atoms.

We meet a melancholy young bird, lonesome even among the other birds, lonesome while soaring above the cityscape, above houses filled with innumerable lives that feel so impossibly distant and alien.

Lawson writes:

You can be far away inside,
and far away outside.

One day, something subtle but profound shifts in the bird — the gaze of a young girl sparks a quickening of heart, a certain opening to the possibility of belonging, a new curiosity about the nature of life — about what it means to be.

We see the bird’s plumage suddenly explode with color — the radiance of awakening, evocative of poet Jane Kenyon’s piercing line: “What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment?”

Color arrives,
sometimes when
you least expect it.

The story unfolds with a poet’s precision and economy of words, punctuated by Kazemi’s sprawling, stunning watercolors. What emerges is a gentle invitation to what Bertrand Russell so beautifully termed “a largeness of contemplation.”

The bird moves through seasons of change, floats wordlessly across landscapes of possibility, alighting at last to a vastly different world — more colorful, more alive. In this foreign-looking land, which Kazemi’s palm trees and Middle Eastern architecture contrast with the deciduous crowns and Western cityscapes of the melancholy world, the bird finds a homecoming among other birds — a newfound joy in being “alone and together, over the rooftops and under the moon.”

See more of it here.

MY HEART

“How is your heart?” I recently asked a friend going through a trying period of overwork and romantic tumult, circling the event horizon of burnout while trying to bring a colossal labor of love to life. His answer, beautiful and heartbreaking, came swiftly, unreservedly, the way words leave children’s lips simple, sincere, and poetic, before adulthood has learned to complicate them out of the poetry and the sincerity with considerations of reason and self-consciousness: “My heart is too busy to be a heart,” he replied.

How does the human heart — that ancient beast, whose roars and purrs have inspired sonnets and ballads and wars, defied myriad labels too small to hold its pulses, and laid lovers and empires at its altar — unbusy itself from self-consciousness and learn to be a heart? That is what artist and illustrator Corinna Luyken explores in the lyrical and lovely My Heart (public library) — an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem about the tessellated capacities of the heart, about love as a practice rather than a state, about how it can frustrate us, brighten us, frighten us, and ultimately expand us.

My heart is a window,
My heart is a slide.
My heart can be closed
or opened up wide.

Some days it’s a puddle.
Some days it’s a stain.
Some days it is cloudy
and heavy with rain.

Across the splendid spare verses, against the deliberate creative limitation of a greyscale-and-yellow color palette, a sweeping richness of emotional hues unfolds. What emerges is one of those rare, miraculous “children’s” books, in the tradition of The Little Prince, teaching kids about some elemental aspect of being human while inviting grownups to unlearn what we have learned in order to rediscover and reinhabit the purest, most innocent truths of our humanity.

Some days it is tiny,
but tiny can grow…
and grow…
and grow.

There are days it’s a fence
between me and the world,
days it’s a whisper
that can barely be heard.

There are days it is broken,
but broken can mend,
and a heart that is closed
can still open again.

My heart is a shadow,
a light and a guide.
Closed or open…
I get to decide.

See more of it here.

CRESCENDO

“Every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman,” the trailblazing psychologist Donald Winnicott observed in his landmark manifesto for the mother’s contribution to society. Inseparable from the psychological role of mothering is the biological reality of motherhood — a biology almost alien in its otherworldly strangeness as a cell becomes a being, with a heart and a mind and a whole life ahead.

That glorious strangeness is what Paola Quintavalle celebrates in Crescendo (public library) — an uncommon picture-poem about the science of pregnancy, evocative of Ursula K. Le Guin’s lovely insistence that “science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside [and] both celebrate what they describe.”

Unfolding across lyrical watercolors by Italian artist Alessandro Sanna — who painted the wordless masterpieces Pinocchio: The Origin Story and The River — the story follows the growth of an almost-being inside a mother’s womb over the nine months of gestation. As small as a sesame seed, it soon sprouts the buds that will blossom into arms and legs, grows its first organ — the heart — and develops its first senses, smell and sound.

By the third month, the fetus gets its fur coat, known as lanugo, and the first fragments of its miniature skeleton begin to form. By month four, fingerprints are being carved onto its tiny digits.

Visual metaphors drawing on the lives of other beings — a bird, a horse, a flower, a school of fish — populate Sanna’s watercolor score of Quintavalle’s spare, poetic chronicle of becoming, their geometry cleverly mirroring the curvature of the mother’s belly that frames the story.

What strikes me is that each of us has undergone this absolutely astonishing process, with no conscious memory of it at all, and yet somehow we don’t walk around in perpetual astonishment that this is how we came to be. Perhaps we should. I am reminded of the great poet and philosopher of science Loren Eiseley’s words: “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

See more of it here.

THE SHORTEST DAY

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timely exhortation for presence over productivity. It may be an elemental feature of our condition that the more scarce something is, the more precious it becomes. Just as the shortness of life calls, in that Seneca way, for filling each year with breadths of experience, so the shortness of the day calls for the fulness of each hour, each moment. No day concentrates and consecrates its elementary particles of time more powerfully than the shortest day of the year. With our awareness pointed to its brevity by ancient rites and modern calendars alike, as we “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” something rapturous happens — a kind of portal into heightened presence opens up as every minute ticks with a supra-consciousness of its passage, pulsates with an extra fulness of being, while at the same time attuning us to the cyclical seasonality of time, reminding us of the cycles of life and death.

That is what writer Susan Cooper and artist Carson Ellis celebrate in The Shortest Day (public library) — an illustrated resurrection of Cooper’s 1974 poem by the same title, originally composed for John Langstaff’s beloved Christmas Revel shows, which fuse medieval and modern music in grassroots theatrical productions across local communities.

Cooper’s buoyant verses and Ellis’s soulful, mirthful illustrations bring to life, across time and space and cultures and civilizations, the ardor with which our ancestors have welcomed the winter solstice since long before the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the word orbit in an era when few dared believe that the Earth spins on its axis while revolving around the Sun. (It is a function of the tilt of Earth’s axis and the elliptical shape of its orbit — another radical contribution of Kepler’s, who debunked the millennia-old dogma of perfect circular motion — that when our planet’s axial tilt leans one pole as far away as it would go from our star, we are granted the shortest possible day and the longest possible night of the year.)

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

See more of it here.

WHAT IF…

“The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote. At bottom, choice and action always begin with “what if” — the mightiest spring for the utopian imagination, the fulcrum by which every revolution rolls into being. What if this world were freer, more beautiful, more just? “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in weighing the transformative power of the speculative imagination. “We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

That chance to imagine a better world is what French author Thierry Lenain and artist Olivier Tallec invite in What If… (public library), translated by Enchanted Lion founder Claudia Bedrick — a lovely celebration of our civilizational responsibility, in the beautiful words of the cellist Pablo Casals, “to make this world worthy of its children” and a testament to James Baldwin’s sobering insistence that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

Although we don’t yet know it, the story begins with an unborn child imagining himself into being as he imagines a better version of the world to be born into. Where he sees war, he imagines turning the soldiers’ guns into bird perches and shepherd’s flutes. Where he sees drought and famine, he imagines pulling rainclouds over the desert like enormous kites.

He places his child-body between the “gorging, ordering, shouting, and decreeing” orange-haired politician on the TV screen and the people mesmerized before it. He sits on the ocean shore and imagines it clean of human-inflicted pollution, buoying colorful fish.

He falls asleep on a mossy patch in the forest, listening to the wisdom of the trees. He sees heartache and tears, and imagines them salved by love.

“We have to hug,” he decided, “and not be afraid of kisses. What if we start saying ‘I love you,’ even if we’ve never heard it before?”

See more of it here.

LISTEN

“To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote as she contemplated the art of seeing. To listen takes time, too — to learn to hear and befriend the world within and the world without, to attend to the quiet voice of life and heart alike. “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving, and for once could do nothing,” Pablo Neruda wrote in his gorgeous ode to quietude, “perhaps a huge silence might interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves.”

This inspiriting, sanctifying power of listening is what writer Holly M. McGhee and illustrator Pascal Lemaître explore in the simply titled, sweetly unfolding Listen (public library) — a serenade to the heart-expanding, life-enriching, world-ennobling art of attentiveness as a wellspring of self-understanding, of empathy for others, of reverence for the loveliness of life, evocative of philosopher Simone Weil’s memorable assertion that “attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”

Lemaître — who has previously illustrated the children’s book about kindness Toni Morrison co-wrote with her own son — brings McGhee’s buoyant words to life in his spare, infinitely tender lines and gentle washes of color.

Listen
to the sound of your feet —
the sound of all of us
and the sound of me.

The stars —
they are for you
and all of us.
They are for me.

The simple verses beckon the attention to envelop the whole world, from the immediacy of one’s own sensorial surroundings — the ground, the Sun, the air, the stars — to the widening awareness of our shared belonging and our intertwined fates. Radiating from them is Einstein’s notion of “widening circles of compassion” and Dr. King’s immortal insistence that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

Breathe.

Smell the air.
My air is yours and all of ours,
your air is mine.

Your heart can hold everything.

Including the world —
its darkness and its light.

Including your story,
including my story —
including the story
of all of us…

See more of it here.

ROAR LIKE A DANDELION

“Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme,” Maurice Sendak wrote of the great children’s book author and poet Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993), with whom he collaborated on two of the loveliest, tenderest picture-books of all time.

A quarter century after the end of Krauss’s long life, lost fragments of her daring poetic imagination coalesced into a manuscript that alighted to the desk of one of the great picture-book artists of our own time: Sergio Ruzzier. The resulting collaboration, across lines of space and time and life and death, is the wondrously imaginative Roar Like a Dandelion (public library), the dedication of which, penned by Ruzzier in a spirit of creative kinship and reverence, reads simply: “To Maurice.”

Though structured as an ABC book, in a succession of short sentences each beginning with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, the book is rather an alphabetic catalogue of Krauss’s quirky, free-spirited, infinitely playfully, subtly profound prescriptions for joy and existential contentment.

“Vote for yourself,” Krauss urges under V, as a Ruzzier piglet is seen pledging allegiance to herself — that ultimate act of self-respect, the pillar of character.

“Roar like a dandelion,” she exhorts in the line that lent the book its title, which sits like a Zen koan, to be contemplated from a thousand directions before it can be cracked, suggesting maybe that the mightiest roar is the silent roar; maybe that anger is corrosive to its host, for if a dandelion were indeed to roar, it would blow up its own delicate seedhead and lose all of its fluffy white parachutes of hope; maybe that the dandelion’s yellow burst of blossom, so plentiful if we only pay attention, is nature’s primal scream of joy.

“Make music,” Krauss beckons in consonance with Sendak, who ardently believed that the making of music is the profoundest and most primitive expression of our intrinsic nature.

Page after page, letter by letter, Ruzzier’s sweet, and stubborn creatures leap and tumble along the lines of Krauss’s imagination with their joyous, mischievous magic.

See more of it here.

ALSO: A VELOCITY OF BEING

It feels a little strange to include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) here, because it was originally published in the final days of 2018 and because, of course, it is my very own labor of love. But it would be as strange not to include it — not because I devoted eight years of my life to this charitable endeavor, but because the first edition vanished into eager hands within a day, leaving scores of sweetly disappointed readers to wave theirs with unslaked eagerness into the new year. Since most of the world didn’t meet the book until 2019, I too must consider it a baby of this year.

This collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, features contributions by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world, including Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Tim Ferriss, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Art by Ofra Amit for a letter by Mara Faye Lethem from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Olivier Tallec for a letter by Diane Ackerman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Shaun Tan for a letter by Tom De Blasis from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Cindy Derby for a letter by Rose Styron from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.
Art by Lia Halloran for a letter by Marina Abramović from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

See more of the art here and read some of the loveliest letters here.

BP

The Loveliest Children’s Books of 2018

A “new” Maurice Sendak treasure, James Baldwin’s only children’s book, a celebration of history’s heroic women illustrated by Maira Kalman, a stunning serenade to the wilderness, and more.

The Loveliest Children’s Books of 2018

Once a year, every year, I reread The Little Prince and manage to find in it new layers of loveliness and wisdom each time, always seemingly written to allay whatever my greatest struggle at that moment is. It is a special book, yes, but it is not singular in being a testament to something I have long believed: that great children’s books transcend both age and time. They are exquisite distillations of philosophies for living, addressing in the language of children — which is the language of absolute sincerity, so countercultural in our age of cynicism — the deepest, most eternal truths about what it means to live a meaningful, beautiful, inspired, noble life. Although written with children in mind, they speak to the eternal child that each of us lives with and answers to, but often neglects — something Antoine de Saint-Exupéry knew and articulated beautifully in dedicating The Little Prince to the little boy inside his grown-up best friend.

Here are the loveliest such timeless, ageless illustrated philosophies for living that I read in 2018. (And in this spirit of timelessness, treat yourself to their counterparts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

BEAR AND WOLF

Otherness has always been how we define ourselves — by contrast and distinction from what is unlike us, we find out what we are like: As I have previously written, we are what remains after everything we are not. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection — in slicing through the surface unlikenesses, we can discover a deep wellspring of kinship, which in turn enlarges our understanding of ourselves and the other. “The world’s otherness is antidote to confusion,” Mary Oliver wrote in her moving account of what saved her life. “Standing within this otherness… can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

That is what Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Daniel Salmieri explores with great thoughtfulness and tenderness in Bear and Wolf (public library).

On a calm winter’s night, Bear ventures into the forest in consonance with Thoreau’s love of winter walks and his insistence that “we must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day.” As she savors the touch of the sparkling snowflakes falling on her fur, she spots “something poking from the glistening white.”

At the same time, Wolf was out walking, then he spotted something poking out form the glistening white.

As the two solitary walkers approach, they see each other up close — a young bear, a young wolf.

She could see the wolf’s pointy snout, smooth gray fur, golden eyes, and wet black nose… He could see the bear’s big round head, soft black fur, deep brown eyes, and wet black nose.

In a testament to Anaïs Nin’s observation that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Bear and Wolf meet each other not with frightened hostility but with openhearted, compassionate curiosity. Their encounter is a shared question mark regarded with mutual goodwill and concern for rather than fear of the other:

“Are you lost?” asked Bear.

“No, I’m not lost. Are you?” asked Wolf.

“No, I’m not lost. I’m out for a walk to feel the cold on my face, and to enjoy the quiet of the woods when it snows. What are you doing?”

“I’m out for a walk to feel the cold under my paws, and to listen to the crunching of the snow as I walk.”

“Do you want to walk with me?” asked Bear.

“Sure,” said Wolf.

And so they head into the woods furry side by furry side, wet nose near wet nose, aware that they are “both creatures made to be comfortable in the very cold.” They savor the splendor of this forest world they share, smelling “the wet bark on the trees,” listening to “the small sounds” of the snowflakes falling on their fur, looking closely at the multitude of shapes.

Meanwhile, above them, Bird spots two tiny figures “poking out from the glistening white.”

As Bear and Wolf walk forth, they come upon a great white clearing in the woods — a place faintly familiar, for they have both been there before, but in the summertime. What is now a vast oval of white was then a vast blue lake.

They venture onto the frozen lake, clean a window of ice, and peer down to see fish floating, asleep.

And then the time comes for them to part ways and return to their separate lives, lived in parallel in this shared world.

See more here.

JEROME BY HEART

To love every fiber of another’s being with every fiber of your own is a rare, beautiful, and thoroughly disorienting experience — one which the term in love feels too small to hold. Its fact becomes a gravitational center of your emotional universe so powerful that the curvature of language and reality bends beyond recognition, radiating Nietzsche’s lamentation that language is not the adequate expression of all realities. The consummate reality of such a love is the native poetry of existence, known not in language but by heart.

The uncontainable, unclassifiable beauty of such love is what French writer Thomas Scotto explores with great tenderness in Jerome by Heart (public library), translated by Claudia Bedrick and Karin Snelson, and illustrated by the ever-wonderful Olivier Tallec — the story of a little boy named Raphael and his boundless adoration for another little boy, Jerome, which unfolds in Scotto’s lovely words like a poem, like a song.

He always holds my hand.
It’s true.
Really tight.

Jerome always sees Raphael from far away, shares his snacks with him, and pairs up with him on school trips to the art museum. Under Tallec’s sensitive brush, we see them standing side by side, peering into a painting together — a sweet embodiment of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s assertion that “love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

That’s why I love Jerome.

It doesn’t bother me at all.
Raphael loves Jerome.
I can say it.
It’s easy.

Jerome and Raphael share a love pure and infinite. It flows between them at its most buoyant and expansive, which means its most unselfconscious. But the grownups around them, caught in the tyranny of labels and classifications too small, are made uneasy by its largeness — a tragic testament to Bob Dylan’s observation that “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

Eventually, Raphael begins to feel the weight of their unease at so boundless a bond. He sorrows in his dad’s lament that Jerome isn’t strong because he doesn’t play soccer and in his mom’s impression of Jerome as merely “polite,” in her blindness to “how warm his smile is” and to the “secret hideout” Raphael has in it.

Against the smallness of his parents’ perception, Raphael takes solace in the largeness that fills his own heart.

See more here.

A VELOCITY OF BEING

Having devoted eight years of my life to it, and having a heart swelling with gratitude to the legion of writers and artists who contributed original letters and illustrations for this monumental labor of love, I must proudly include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault for a letter by Jacqueline Novogratz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Vladimir Radunsky for a letter by Ann Patchett from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion, for all of whom their letter is their last published work.)

Art by Marianne Dubuc for a letter by Elizabeth Gilbert from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Christoph Niemann for a letter by William Powers from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Brian Rea for a letter by Chris Anderson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Oliver Jeffers for a letter by Holland Taylor from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Julie Paschkis for a letter by Sarah Lewis from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Maira Kalman for a letter by Paul Holdengräber from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Read more here.

THE FOREST

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” When Walt Whitman beheld the singular wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic.” Philosopher Martin Buber insisted that trees can teach us to see others as they truly are.

Indeed, whatever the splendor, wisdom, and heroism of trees may be, it stems from the individual’s orientation to the whole — not only as an existential metaphor, but as a biological reality as science is uncovering the remarkable communication system via which trees feel and communicate with one another. Biologist David George Haskell recognized this in his poetic expedition to a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees: “The forest is not a collection of entities [but] a place entirely made from strands of relationship.”

That relational, existential mesmerism is what Italian author Riccardo Bozzi explores in The Forest (public library), illustrated by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali, and translated from the Italian by Debbie Bibo. Less a book than a tactile expedition into the existential wilderness, the journey unfolds across time and space, in “an enormous, ancient forest that has not yet been fully explored.”

The illustrations, minimalist yet luscious, peek through die-cuts and stretch across gatefolds, emulating the way one lovely thing becomes another when you look closely at nature with generous attentiveness to life at all scales.

Constructed in the tradition of Japanese binding, the book is wrapped in translucent velum that gives the lush cover illustration the aura of a mist-enveloped forest early in the morning.

The story begins when the forest is young — little more than a grove of small trees. With each page, it grows thicker and thicker, more impenetrable and more fascinating at the same time. We see the silhouettes of the explorers — white shadows cast of negative space against the vibrant forest — trek and kneel “to investigate its beauties and its dangers.”

It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless. Here is where the explorers can venture with enjoyment and curiosity.

As the forest grows, so does the explorer: Rising out of the crisp-white page are the subtly embossed faces of different genders and races, also progressing along the way of life — an infant, an adolescent boy, a young woman, an old man.

See more here.

LOVE

“What is love?” Kafka asked in contemplating love and the power of patience. “After all, it is quite simple,” he answered his own question. “Love is everything which enhances, widens, and enriches our life. In its heights and in its depths. Love has as few problems as a motor-car. The only problems are the driver, the passengers, and the road.”

Behind the comical quip lies a common strain of cynicism. One need not be as profoundly defeated by love as Kafka to default to this achingly human form of self-defense — for cynicism is, after all, a maladaptive coping mechanism when we feel the threat of disappointment and heartbreak. I take a less cynical perspective and stand with J.D. McClatchy: “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.” And in those moments when the heart stands on the brink of breakage, I like to revise Borges’s timeless reflection on the nature of time, substituting love for time to produce a sentiment of equally exquisite profundity: “Love is the substance I am made of. Love is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

Perhaps the truest and most abiding thing about love is that it means different things to each of us, and presents itself in myriad different guises.

That splendid multiplicity of manifestations is what author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Loren Long explore with uncommon loveliness in a book simply titled Love (public library) — a testament to my long-held conviction that great “children’s” books are simply great books, imaginative and intelligible to young readers, replete with soulful wisdom that spills into what we grownups call philosophy.

In the beginning there is light and two wide-eyed figures standing near the foot of your bed, and the sound of their voices is love.

The book is as a mosaic of vignettes, each unfolding against the backdrop of the New York City skyline and capturing a particular tessellation of love, addressed in the second person to a child who transmogrifies across ages, genders, ethnicities, and faiths across the pages — a small black boy whose older brother hands him breakfast as they watch their father take the bus to work in the blizzard at dawn; a small Latina girl clutching her teddy bear as terrifying news streams into the family living room under the blessing glances of Frida Kahlo and Jesus Christ; a Muslim girl laying in an open field of flowers, drinking in the love of the trees and the wind and the universe; a little white boy curled with his dog under the grand piano of a lavish home, looking small and lonely and afraid as his father rages and his mother cries; a young black girl searching her own beautiful eyes in the bathroom mirror — all discovering the various meanings and manifestations of love, braided of sweetness and difficulty and simple gladness.

A cabdriver plays love softly on his radio while you bounce in back with the bumps of the city and everything smells new, and it smells like life.

Love is the embrace of a mother after a bad dream, and a grandfather’s creased face, and a father dancing with his daughter atop their mobile home overlooking a clothesline and the ocean sunset, and the old lady pointing to the sky with reverence for the steadfast stars.

Love, too, is the smell of crashing waves, and a train whistling blindly in the distance, and each night the sky above your trailer turns the color of love.

On the night the fire alarm blares, you’re pulled from sleep and whisked into the street, where a quiet old lady is pointing to the sky.

“Stars shine long after they’ve flamed out,” she tells you, “and the shine they shine with love.”

See more here.

LITTLE MAN, LITTLE MAN

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote in his superbly insightful essay on Shakespeare, language as a tool of love, and the writer’s responsibility in a divided society. But while “the people” of sixteenth-century Europe were very different from the people of twentieth-century America, as were their lives, cultural representations of “the people” of our time and place — of what Whitman celebrated as “a great, aggregated, real PEOPLE, worthy the name, and made of develop’d heroic individuals” — have remained woefully stagnant and unreflective of diversity in the centuries since Shakespeare.

Fifteen years after Gwendolyn Brooks — the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize — released her trailblazing poems for kids celebrating diversity and the universal spirit of childhood, Baldwin set out to broaden the landscape of representation in children’s literature by composing a short, playful yet poignant story inspired by his own nephew — Tejan Kafera-Smart, or TJ. Originally published in 1976, with a jacket that billed it as “a child’s story for adults,” Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (public library) is Baldwin’s addition to the compact canon of sole children’s books composed by literary icons for their own kin, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss, and William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.

The book is less a story than a series of vignettes depicting African American life and childhood on a particular block on New York City’s Upper West Side — one that looks “a little like the street in the movies or the TV when the cop cars come from that end of the street and then they come from the other end of the street.” Baldwin, who considered the book a “celebration of the self-esteem of black children,” began working on it shortly after his historic conversation about race with anthropologist Margaret Mead and set out to find the right illustrator for it.

He chose Yoran Cazac, a white French artist he had met more than a decade earlier through a mutual friend — the African American painter Beauford Delaney, who had mentored the young Baldwin and had taught him what it really means to see. When Delaney was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a psychiatric asylum outside of Paris, Baldwin and Cazac rekindled their friendship in this hour of devastation and sorrow, and soon began collaborating on bringing Little Man, Little Man to life.

Cazac would complete the art — pencil and watercolor, vibrant and alive, evocative of children’s jubilant and free drawings — without having ever been to Harlem. Instead, Baldwin transported the artist by giving him books on black life, telling him stories about his time in New York, and sharing photographs of his own family there, including his nephew and niece, after whom the characters in the book were modeled. Cazac was determined to “imagine the unimaginable” through these telegraphic descriptions that became a form of artistic telepathy.

The story is written in the authentic colloquial language — children’s language, African American language — of its time and place. It is a creative choice that embodies poet Elizabeth Alexander’s notion of “the self in language” and evokes a sentiment from the stunning speech on the power of language Toni Morrison delivered when she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

See more here.

BE STILL, LIFE

“Life goes headlong,” Emerson lamented in contemplating how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, offering the antidote to our civilizational haste: “Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Half a century later, writing about the most important habit for living with presence, Hermann Hesse cautioned: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” Another century later, in the midst of an ever-accelerating cultural trance of busyness, Annie Dillard distilled the heart of the paradox in her sublime insistence on choosing presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

An uncommonly tenderhearted, wide-eyed invitation to fill our days with lively presence comes in Be Still, Life (public library) — a splendid illustrated poem of a picture-book by Ohara Hale, whose work I have long cherished and who has the loveliest back-flap author bio I have ever encountered:

Ohara Hale is a self-taught artist who works with many different forms and materials. She sings, writes, draws, and performs sounds, words, colors, and movements that are questions and ideas about love, life, nature, and all the unseen, unknown, and dreamed in between. Hale lives on planet Earth with her rescue dog, Banana.

From the slumbering snail to the purposeful gentleness of the honeybees at work to the dance of the leaves in the whispering breeze, Hale beckons eye, heart, and mind to drink in the glorious aliveness of the world with a generous curiosity, evocative of Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity.” What emerges is a mirthful modern-day counterpart to Thoreau’s celebration of nature as a form of prayer. Playful levity and vibrancy carry the deeper soulfulness of the message, which unfolds with a songlike quality — a sort of hymn in word and image. (Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for Hale is also a gifted musician, and we bring everything we are, our whole selves and all of our multitudes, to any one thing we do.)

See more here.

PRESTO & ZESTO IN LIMBOLAND

The Bulgaria of my childhood was bereft of the classics of American children’s literature. Instead, I grew up with the unsugared Brothers Grimm and the strangeness of Lewis Carroll. I discovered The Velveteen Rabbit and The Giving Tree and Charlotte’s Web only as a young adult, and found in them a shock of warmth and wisdom for my fledgling life as an immigrant. I still remember sitting on a Brooklyn rooftop and reading Where the Wild Things Are for the first time, well into my twenties, aching with dislocation from the world and a roaring sense of lack of control. I remember feeling suddenly awash in reassurance that the inconsolable loneliness of living is survivable, that love can be steadfast and belonging possible even amid the world’s wildness.

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak told Stephen Colbert in his last on-camera appearance, four months before his death in 2012. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” From his largely forgotten 1956 debut as the author-illustrator of a picture book, Kenny’s Window — a philosophically inclined parable of love, loneliness, and knowing what you really want — to his most beloved masterpieces, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, to his final farewell to the world, the beautiful and sorrowful My Brother’s Book, Sendak has enchanted generations with singularly illustrated stories that delight children and emanate existential consolation for the trauma of living.

Presto & Zesto in Limboland (public library), Sendak’s posthumously published collaboration with the writer and director Arthur Yorinks, is not one of those books. At least not at first glance. Rather, it is the playful story of two friends’ adventures in a topsy-turvy world, part Alice in Wonderland, part Grimm fairy tale, part prescient analogue for the nonsensical cultural moment we inhabit. “One day Presto and Zesto, good friends, took a walk and ended up in Limboland,” we read. “They didn’t mean to go there, who would go there, but they had a lot on their minds.”

In this uncanny world, two sugar beets are getting married, but their perfect wedding gift — a set of bagpipes, of course — is in the hands of the formidable Bumbo, a monster resembling a Wild Thing skinned of sweetness. As Presto and Zesto journey through Limboland to steal the bagpipes from Bumbo, they encounter visual strangenesses left unexplained — a rat holding a ruler, a goat’s rear sticking up from a pond — indulging the way children’s minds so naturally whisper This could be us at even the most bizarre and improbable vignettes.

The story is not so much a story as a narrative filmstrip reeled around Sendak’s art — ten drawings he created in 1990 as projections for a London Symphony Orchestra performance of a 1927 opera setting Czech nursery rhymes to music. Sendak resurfaced the art once more for a charity concert in 1997, then tucked it away for good. But Yorinks — a friend of Sendak’s for more than four decades who had collaborated with him on two previous children’s books, The Miami Giant and Mommy — had fallen in love with the drawings and never forgot them. He brought them up over a work lunch with Sendak and suggested that they might be a book — a book in need of a story. That afternoon, the two friends arranged the pictures on Sendak’s drawing table and, in a state of creative flow punctuated by wild bursts of laughter, began improvising the story. They refined the manuscript over the coming months and declared it a picture book. But then, as it happens in life, life happened. Presto & Zesto vanished in the shadow of other projects.

One day long after his friend’s death, Yorinks received a note from Sendak’s longtime assistant and now literary executor, Lynn Caponera, alerting him that she had discovered among the author’s papers a strange manuscript titled Presto & Zesto in Limboland. I imagine how difficult it must have been for Yorinks to revisit this story of two friends, named after the nicknames he and Sendak had for each other; how difficult and beautiful to see it morph into a private elegy — in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration — for a lost friendship.

And so, six years after Sendak’s death, this unusual picture book is finally being born. It is both like and unlike classic Sendak. At times, there are leaps in the narrative that strain the effort to stitch the drawings into a cohesive story. As a young man, when asked to illustrate a book of Tolstoy’s short stories, Sendak had confided in his editor — the visionary Ursula Nordstrom — that he admired the “cohesion and purpose” of Tolstoy’s narrative but feared that his art would fail to match it. Nordstrom, ever the nurturer of unpolished genius, assured him otherwise. He did illustrate Tolstoy. This formative storytelling ideal of “cohesion and purpose” became an animating force of his work. Perhaps Sendak put Presto & Zesto in a drawer because he was unsure the book had achieved this.

But I am glad it lives. In a story propelled by surprise after surprise in deliberate defiance of the expectations of ordinary reality, where logical discontinuity is a vehicle of joy, these leaps furnish rather than obstruct the whimsical world-building. The dialogue between image and story becomes essentially an act of translation, calling to mind the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lovely notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review on September 25, 2018.

BOLD & BRAVE

“While any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Margaret Fuller — one of the central figures in my book Figuring — wrote in her epoch-making 1845 treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century, insisting that the “improvement in the daughters will best aid in the reformation of the sons of this age.” It was indeed an age of transformation, in which Fuller’s book became the foundation of American women’s movement toward social equity and political power. Her writings empowered generations of leaders to fight for equality, ultimately winning women the right to vote seven decades after Fuller’s death.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand celebrates ten of these leaders (though, curiously, not Fuller herself) in Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote (public library) — an illustrated encyclopedia of courage and persistence, with art by the inimitable Maira Kalman.

Kindred in spirit to my long-ago project The Reconstructionists — a series of illustrated micro-biographies of women who have profoundly transfigured our world and our worldview — the book focuses particularly on American politics. Inspired by a lineage of politically daring women stretching back to her great-grandmother, Gillibrand highlights a diverse dectet of visionaries, ranging from schoolbooks staples like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth to icons like Harriet Tubman and Inez Milholland, whose famous last words open the book, to lesser-known heroes like Jovita Idár, who championed the rights of women and Mexican Americans, started a free kindergarten, and founded the League of Mexican Women, and Lucy Burns, who worked tirelessly on both sides of the Atlantic to win women political representation and power, co-founding the National Woman’s Party alongside her friend Alice Paul, also one of Gillibrand’s suffragists.

Most of these women were Thoreau’s contemporaries and embodied his ethos of civil disobedience to advance their cause, many of them at the price of arrest and assault.

Inscribed onto each of Kalman’s lovely portraits is a distillation of the central lesson the respective woman modeled in her life.

See more here.

THE BRILLIANT DEEP

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning contribution to The Universe in Verse. She imagined a time before we severed ourselves from “Nature,” a time when there were “no tests to determine if the elephant grieves her calf or if the coral reef feels pain.”

The living reality of coral reefs animated another visionary poet a century and a half earlier: In his ode to “the world below the brine,” Walt Whitman celebrated corals as some of our planet’s most wondrous creatures. A living example of non-Euclidean geometry, corals have graced Earth for hundreds of millions of years. They are as remarkable in their evolutionary longevity as they are fragile in their dependence on the health of the world’s oceans, from which springs the health of Earth itself — a physical embodiment of naturalist and Whitman biographer John Muir’s poetic assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” But under the combinatorial assault of climate change, overfishing, and pollution, coral reefs have been dying at a heartbreaking rate in the century and a half between Muir and Whitman’s time and our own — how, we must wonder, could they not feel the pain of such brutal demise?

One man set out to heal this ecological heartbreak with an ingenious remedy involving hammer and glue.

Ken Nedimyer grew up near the Kennedy Space Center as the son of a NASA engineer in the golden age of space exploration. And yet he fell in love not with the stars but with the depths — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — after seeing a television program about the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

This young love became a lifelong devotion.

Nedimyer’s story and immensely inspiring work come alive in The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs (public library) by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe — a lovely addition to the growing body of picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Like many scientific breakthroughs, Nedimyer’s radical marine remedy began with a stroke of luck.

Nedimyer had translated his childhood love of the oceans into a quiet life of farming live rocks — rocks covered with algae, sponges, mollusks, and other marine life, used as a handsome natural water purification system in saltwater aquariums. One day, he noticed that a colony of staghorn corals had spawned and migrated to his rocks from the nearby open waters of Florida.

Messner writes:

It starts with one.

One night, after a full moon, the corals begin to spawn — releasing first one, then millions of tiny lives — until the waters swirl like a snow globe.

As Nedimyer and his daughter observed these lovely interlopers, they noticed that if they cut pieces of living coral off and attached them to other rocks — literally gluing them on — the coral from the original colony would grow on this new blank canvas for life. So they wondered what would happen if they grew a coral colony and tried attaching it to a dying reef.

Nedimyer decided to return to the reef where he had learned to dive as a child — a reef that had begun dying when he was still young. He took six small coral colonies from his farm, each no larger than an outstretched hand, and glued them onto the bleached and barren limestone.

Month after month, Nedimyer and his team dove to check on this hand-mended reef. Month by month, the coral colonies grew larger and larger.

See more here.

JULIÁN IS A MERMAID

“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,” E.E. Cummings offered in his advice to aspiring artists. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin argued two decades later in his fantastic forgotten conversation about identity with anthropologist Margaret Mead. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” Both the vulnerability and the courage of that world-telling are in direct proportion to our sense of otherness — to how far the teller diverges from society’s centuries-old, dogma-proscribed, limiting ideas about the correct way to be a human being.

A lovely celebration of the courage to tell the world who you are comes in Julián Is a Mermaid (public library) by Jessica Love — a sweet story of loving acceptance and the jubilant inner transformation that takes place when one is welcomed to be and to dream beyond society’s narrow templates of being and dreaming.

Whenever Julián goes to the swimming pool with his grandmother, he dreams of being a mermaid.

One day, on the subway ride home, he glimpses three beautiful women dressed as mermaids. He is instantly entranced.

“Abuela, I am also a mermaid,” he tells his grandmother shyly, the way one whispers a closely guarded innermost truth.

When Julián’s grandmother goes to take a bath, an idea alights to his enchanted mind: He sheds his boy-clothes and fashions a headdress out of a fern. Like a miniature Scarlett O’Hara, he transforms the window curtain into a long skirt, tying its end to resemble a mermaid’s tail.

Just as he is rejoicing in his self-creation, grandma returns from the bath, frowns, and walks away.

But she quickly returns to unsink Julián’s heart by handing him the perfect finishing touch for his mermaid regalia.

Julián takes her hand and follows her out of the house, through the streets, wondering where she is taking him. “You’ll see,” she says.

See more here.

BP

The 7 Loveliest Children’s Books of 2017

Profound and poetic illustrated celebrations of solitude, self-possession, friendship, and our place in the cosmos.

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White asserted. “You have to write up, not down.” A generation later, Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Indeed, great children’s books — the timeless kind, which lodge themselves in the marrow of one’s being and seed into the young psyche ideas that bloom again and again throughout a lifetime — radiate a beauty and profundity transcending age. They are books for all of us and for all time.

Here are seven such books published or republished in 2017, to complement the year’s great science books.

BIG WOLF & LITTLE WOLF

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. There is a strange and sorrowful loneliness to this, to being a creature that carries its fragile sense of self in a bag of skin on an endless pilgrimage to some promised land of belonging. We are willing to erect many defenses to hedge against that loneliness and fortress our fragility. But every once in a while, we encounter another such creature who reminds us with the sweetness of persistent yet undemanding affection that we need not walk alone.

Such a reminder radiates with uncommon tenderness from Big Wolf & Little Wolf (public library) by French author Nadine Brun-Cosme and illustrator Olivier Tallec, originally published in 2009 and reissued in 2017. With great subtlety and sensitivity, the story invites a meditation on loneliness, the meaning of solidarity, the relationship between the ego and the capacity for love, and the little tendrils of care that become the armature of friendship.

We meet Big Wolf during one of his customary afternoon stretches under a tree he has long considered his own, atop a hill he has claimed for himself. But this is no ordinary day — Big Wolf spots a new presence perched on the horizon, a tiny blue figure, “no bigger than a dot.” With that all too human tendency to project onto the unknown our innermost fears, Big Wolf is chilled by the terrifying possibility that the newcomer might be bigger than he is.

But as the newcomer approaches, he turns out to be Little Wolf.

Big Wolf saw that he was small and felt reassured. He let Little Wolf climb right up to his tree.

“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Anaïs Nin wrote, and it is precisely the stark contrast between Big Wolf’s towering stature and his vulnerable insecurity that lends the story its loveliness and profundity.

At first, the two wolves observe one another silently out of the corner of their eyes. His fear cooled by the smallness and timidity of his visitor, Big Wolf begins to regard him with unsuspicious curiosity that slowly warms into cautious affection. We watch Big Wolf as he learns, with equal parts habitual resistance and sincerity of self-transcendence, a new habit of heart and a wholly novel vocabulary of being.

Night came.
Little Wolf stayed.
Big Wolf thought that Little Wolf went a bit too far.
After all, it had always been his tree.

When Big Wolf went to bed, Little Wolf went to bed too.
When Big Wolf saw that Little Wolf was shivering at the tip of his nose, he pushed a teeny tiny corner of his leaf blanket closer to him.

“That is certainly enough for such a little wolf,” he thought.

When morning breaks, Big Wolf goes about his daily routine and climbs up his tree to do his exercises, at first alarmed, then amused, and finally — perhaps, perhaps — endeared that Little Wolf follows him instead of leaving.

Once again, Big Wolf at first defaults to that small insecure place, fearing that Little Wolf might outclimb him. But the newcomer struggles, exhaling a tiny “Ouch” as he thuds to the ground on his first attempt before making it up the tree, leaving Big Wolf both unthreatened and impressed with the little one’s quiet courage.

Silently, Little Wolf mirrors Big Wolf’s exercises. Silently, he follows him back down. On the descent, Big Wolf picks his usual fruit for breakfast, but, seeing as Little Wolf isn’t picking any, grabs a few more than usual. Silently, he pushes a modest plate to Little Wolf, who eats it just as silently. The eyes and the body language of the wolves emanate universes of emotion in Tallec’s spare, wonderfully expressive pencil and gouache illustrations.

When Big Wolf goes for his daily walk, he peers at his tree from the bottom of the hill and sees Little Wolf still stationed there, sitting quietly.

Big Wolf smiled. Little Wolf was small.

Big Wolf crossed the big field of wheat at the bottom of the hill.
Then he turned around again.
Little Wolf was still there under the tree.
Big Wolf smiled. Little Wolf looked even smaller.

He reached the edge of the forest and turned around one last time.
Little Wolf was still there under the tree, but he was now so small that only a wolf as big as Big Wolf could possibly see that such a little wolf was there.
Big Wolf smiled one last time and entered the forest to continue his walk.

But when he reemerges from the forest by evening, the tiny blue dot is gone from under the tree.

At first, Big Wolf assures himself that he must be too far away to see Little Wolf. But as he crosses the wheat field, he still sees nothing. We watch his silhouette tense with urgency as he makes his way up the hill, propelled by a brand new hollowness of heart.

Big Wolf felt uneasy for the first time in his life.
He climbed back up the hill much more quickly than on all other evenings.

There was no one under his tree. No one big, no one little.
It was like before.
Except that now Big Wolf was sad.

“The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the paradox of closeness, “we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be.” But Big Wolf feels only the bitterness of having lost what he didn’t know he needed until it invaded his life with its unmerited grace.

That evening for the firs time Big Wolf didn’t eat.
That night for the first time Big Wolf didn’t sleep.
He waited.

For the first time he said to himself that a little one, indeed a very little one, had taken up space in his heart.

A lot of space.

By morning, Big Wolf climbs his tree but can’t bring himself to exercise — instead, he peers into the distance, his forlorn eyes wide with sorrow and longing.

He bargains the way the bereaved do — if Little Wolf returns, he vows, he would offer him “a larger corner of his leaf blanket, even a much larger one”; he would give him all the fruit he wanted; he would let him climb higher and mirror all of his exercises, “even the special ones known only to him.”

Big Wolf waits and waits and waits, beyond reason, beyond season.

And then, one day, a tiny blue dot appears on the horizon.

For the first time in his life Big Wolf’s heart beat with joy.

Silently, Little Wolf climbs up the hill toward the tree.

“Where were you?” asked Big Wolf.

“Down here,” said Little Wolf without pointing.

“Without you,” said Big Wolf in a very small voice, “I was lonely.”

Little Wolf took a step closer to Big Wolf.
“Me too,” he said. “I was lonely too.”
He rested his head gently on Big Wolf’s shoulder.
Big Wolf felt good.

And so it was decided that from then on Little Wolf would stay.

THE PAPER-FLOWER TREE

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake wrote in his spectacular 1799 defense of the imagination. More than a century and a half later, illustrator and designer Jacqueline Ayer (May 2, 1930–May 20, 2012) offered a beautiful allegorical counterpart to Blake’s timeless message in her 1962 masterpiece The Paper-Flower Tree (public library) — a warm and whimsically illustrated parable about the moral courage of withstanding cynicism and the generative power of the affectionate imagination.

As vibrant and vitalizing as the tales Ayer imagines in her children’s books is her own true story. Born to first-generation Jamaican immigrants in New York City, Jacqueline grew up in the “Coops” — a communist-inspired cooperative for garment workers in the Bronx. Her father, a graphic artist and the founder of the first licensed modeling agency for black women, taught her to draw. Her mother, a sample cutter, imbued her with an uncommon aptitude for pattern and color. In the 1940s, Jacqueline enrolled in Harlem’s iconic public High School of Music & Art, whose alumni include cartoonist Al Jaffe, graphic designer Milton Glaser, and banjoist Bela Fleck.

After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in fine art, she continued her studies in Paris, where she became a fashion illustrator and starred in a Dadaist film alongside Man Ray. Her singularly imaginative artwork attracted the attention of designer Christian Dior and Vogue Paris editor Michel de Brunhoff, who procured for her an appointment as fashion illustrator for Vogue in New York. There, she supplemented her meager salary — for those were the days before the Equal Pay uprising that revolutionized the modern workplace, and she was a woman of color — by illustrating for the department store Bonwit Teller alongside young Andy Warhol.

Jacqueline Ayer at work

Three years later, Jacqueline went back to Paris on vacation and fell in love with Fred Ayer — a young American who had just returned from Burma and had grown besotted with the cultures of the East. The couple got married and began traveling through East Asia until they finally settled in Thailand, where Ayer raised her two daughters and drew incessantly as she traversed the strange, hot, fragrant wonderland of Bangkok on foot along the sidewalks, on scooter in the streets, on boat via the canals. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, she launched the fashion and fabric company Design-Thai, which printed her vibrant designs onto silk and cotton using traditional Thai craftsmanship.

Jacqueline Ayer with her daughter Margot

Ayer spent the remaining years of her life translating her distinctive aesthetic into home furnishings for New York and London’s glamorous department stores, working for the Indian government under Indira Gandhi to help develop the country’s traditional textile crafts, and creating children’s books of uncommon beauty and emotional intelligence. She was only thirty-one when she won the 1961 Gold Medal of the Society of Illustrators, considered the Oscars of illustration.

Jacqueline Ayer’s 1961 Society of Illustrators medal

The Paper-Flower Tree, originally published in 1962 and now lovingly resurrected by my friends of Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, is one of four books about Thailand Ayer wrote and illustrated, like Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss, for her own children.

It tells the story of a little girl named Miss Moon, who lives under “the enormous blue sky” of rural Thailand and wanders the horizonless rice fields with her baby brother.

One day, a most unusual sight punctuates the noonday torpor of the village. Ayer writes:

Miss Moon saw a little man in the distance, puffing and blowing as he walked slowly along. He carried over his shoulder a bamboo stick, on which were tied colored bits of paper that fluttered in the wind.

Mesmerized by the burst of color, Miss Moon asks the elderly stranger, addressing him with the respectful and affectionate “grandfather,” where he is headed and what marvel he is carrying.

Returning Miss Moon’s affection, the old man addresses her as “little mouse” and explains that he is following the road to wherever it takes him, carrying a paper-flower tree. Ayer writes:

Miss moon smiled. She loved the tree. It was then she knew she had to have one.

“How pretty it is!” she said to the old man. “All those paper flowers twinkling in the sun. I wish I had a tree like that one.”

“One copper coin will buy you two flowers. If one of them has a seed,” the old man said, “who knows? Perhaps you can plant it — perhaps you can grow a tree for yourself.”

But Miss Moon’s heart sinks, for she has not a copper coin. The benevolent stranger meets her sadness with a smile and gives her a paper flower to keep — the smallest one on his tree, but adorned with a tiny black bead on a string — a seed.

He instructs her:

“Plant it — perhaps it will grow. I make no promises. Perhaps it will grow. Perhaps it will not.”

Miss Moon thanked the old man. “Thank you for my tree.”

“It’s not a tree yet; its only a flower, and a paper one at that,” he replied as he waved goodbye.

Much of what makes the story so wonderful is the magical realism of this deliberate interpolation between reality and make-belief — the characters themselves dip in and out of the river of consciousness on the shores of which they are co-creating the half-real, half-imagined miracle of the paper-flower tree, as if to assure us that splendor and delight are only ever the response of consciousness to the world and not a feature of the world itself, no less real, no less splendid or delightful, for being born out of the uncynical imaginations of kindred spirits.

When the old man continues on his open-ended journey, Miss Moon diligently plants the paper-flower seed, builds it a tiny roof to shield it from the unforgiving sun, then begins waiting and watching for it to sprout.

Days and weeks go by, seasons turn, the rice fields change color. Life in the village continues its usual cycle, until a whole year passes — with no paper-flower tree. The other villagers mock Miss Moon’s hopefulness. “You can’t possibly grow a tree from a bead,” they scoff. “You’re wasting your time,” they jeer — responses reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s thoughts on the failure of imagination at the heart of cynicism. But Miss Moon remains enchanted by the memory of the beautiful paper-flower tree and resolutely hopeful in her enchantment.

One day, a ramshackle truck rumbles down the road, tooting its horn and kicking up dust.

It rolled into the little village, and — rickety, rackety, crash bam — it came to a stop.

A strange little brown man, dressed in flashy, raggy tatters, hopped up like a bird to the top of the truck.

The odd fellow announces at the top of his lungs that his troupe of musicians and dancers will entertain the people of the village in exchange for a few silver coins.

But then Miss Moon spots amid the performers her old friend — the man with the paper-flower tree. She rushes over and asks “grandfather” if he remembers her. Of course he remembers the “little mouse.” When she laments the fate of her infertile seed, the old man’s face grows sad as he reminds her that he never promised it would grow:

I only said it might grow. Perhaps it won’t, and then again, perhaps it will.

As the spectacle of the circus unfolds into the warm night until the moon sets — drums and cymbals, dancers and clowns, flowing silks and tattered costumes — Miss Moon drifts off to sleep in her own bed and dreams of “bright-light colors and rice fields filled with paper-flower trees.”

When she rises with the sun, awakened by the smell of her mother’s cooking, she steps into the dawn to find aglow in the morning breeze a paper-flower tree.

Just then, she sees the rickety circus truck huffing and puffing away from the village. She runs after it, shouting excitedly at the old man that she finally got her paper-flower tree.

He smiled and waved as the old truck rumbled and roared away.

“Goodbye, little mouse!” he called.

When Miss Moon shows her treasured tree to the other villagers, they dismiss her enthusiasm with the same cynicism — it’s just the old man’s paper flowers on a stick, they say and hasten to remind her that it’s impossible to grow a tree from a bead. But Miss Moon’s radiant joy is undimmed by the cynics — their failure to see the tree as real is their own tragic limitation, and hers is a sovereign joy.

ON A MAGICAL DO-NOTHING DAY

Generations of great thinkers have extolled the creative purpose of boredom. Long before psychologists came to understand why “fertile solitude” is the seedbed of a full life, Bertrand Russell pointed to what he called “fruitful monotony” as central to the conquest of happiness. “There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” wrote the poet May Sarton in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude. But today the fertile sanctuary of solitude is a place more endangered than any other locus of the spirit, attesting more acutely than ever to Blaise Pascal’s seventeenth-century assertion that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Now comes a warm and wondrous invitation to remastering the art of fertile solitude in On a Magical Do-Nothing Day (public library) by Italian artist and author Béatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis.

The lyrical, tenderly illustrated story is told in the voice of an androgynous young protagonist who grudgingly accompanies Mom to a writing cabin in the lush, rainy woods — a place oozing boredom only alleviated by a videogame.

Eventually, concerned that this will be “another day of doing nothing,” Mom commands a break from the screen. She confiscates the game and hides it, “as usual,” only to have her discontented child find it, “as usual,” and rush outside in a bright orange raincoat, game tightly clutched as some kind of protective amulet against “this boring, wet place.”

But then, while trying to enact a scene from the game while skipping stones in the pond at the bottom of the path, the reluctant adventurer drops the console into the water and off it plummets to the bottom.

Devastation sets in — now there is nothing to do, nothingness utterly terrifying in thrusting the young protagonist into such sudden solitude with nature.

I was a small tree trapped outside in a hurricane.

The moment of despair is intercepted by a procession of four enormous snails, which offer unexpected delight with their jelly antennae and lead the way to a constellation of mushrooms — a scene that only amplifies the lovely Alice-in-Wonderland undertone of the story.

Small knees drop to the ground and small hands dig into the mud to discover “a thousand seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, roots, and berries” — an underground chest of tactile treasures, pulsating with aliveness that no screen could ever simulate. As though intuiting this awakening of awe, nature turns up the spectacle in a dramatic downpour, sunbeams piercing through the rainclouds to reveal a world seemingly reborn.

With terror now transfigured into newfound mirth, the raincoated explorer surrenders to this strange new wonderland, climbing a tree, drinking raindrops from branches “like an animal would,” marveling at bugs, talking to a bird, wondering:

Why hadn’t I done these things before today?

Upon the triumphant return, soaked to the bone and transformed to the marrow, the young adventurer takes mom’s hand and follows her into the kitchen, where they sit together looking at each other over cups of hot chocolate and savoring the quiet splendor of presence.

That is it. That’s all we did.

On this magical do-nothing day.

BERTOLT

Since long before researchers began to illuminate the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, the human imagination has communed with the arboreal world and found in it a boundless universe of kinship. A seventeenth-century gardener wrote of how trees “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.” Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” They continue to furnish our lushest metaphors for life and death.

Crowning the canon of arboreal allegories is Bertolt (public library) by French-Canadian geologist-turned-artist Jacques Goldstyn — the uncommonly tender story of an ancient tree named Bertolt and the boy who named and loved it. From Goldstyn’s simple words and the free, alive, infinitely expressive line of his illustrations radiates a profound parable of belonging, reconciling love and loss, and savoring solitude without suffering loneliness.

The story, told in the little boy’s voice, begins with the seeming mundanity of a lost mitten, out of which springs everything that is strange and wonderful about the young protagonist.

He heads to the Lost and Found and walks away with two gloriously mismatched mittens, which give him immense joy but spur the derision of the other boys.

“Sometimes people don’t like what’s different,” he observes with the precocious sagacity of one who knows that other people’s judgements are about them and not about the judged, echoing Bob Dylan’s assertion that “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

But the little boy is unperturbed — a self-described “loner,” he seems rather centered in his difference and enjoys his solitude.

Unlike the other townspeople, who are constantly doing things together, he is content in his own company — a perfect embodiment of the great film director Andrei Tarkovsky’s advice to the young.

Most of all, the boy cherishes his time with Bertolt — the ancient oak he loves to climb.

After seeing a smaller nearby tree cut down and counting its rings, he estimates that Bertolt is at least 500 years old, inching toward the world’s oldest living trees.

From Bertolt’s branches, which he knows with the intimacy of an old friend, the boy observes the town’s secret life — the lawyer’s daughter kissing the motorcycle bad-boy, the Tucker twins stealing bottles from the grocer and selling them back to him, Cynthia the sheep feasting on a farmer’s corn.

There above and away from the human world, he befriends the animals who have also made a home in Bertolt.

He especially cherishes taking shelter in Bertolt during spring storms. He nestles into Bertolt’s branches, which “sway and creak like the masts of a big ship,” and marvels at how the wind presses flattens the reeds against the ground.

In winter, as he rolls his solitary snowball up the hill, the boy dreams of spring and its promise of kissing Bertolt’s barren branches back to lush life. He relishes the first signs of the season and exults when the trees begin to bloom.

And bloom they do — the lime, the elm, the cherry, the weeping willow.

All except Bertolt.

The boy waits for days, then weeks, his hope vanishing with the passage of time, until one day, with the same precocious sagacity, he accepts that Bertolt is dead.

There is great subtlety in this confrontation with death — a death utterly sorrowful, for the boy is losing his best friend, and yet devoid of the drama of the human world, almost invisible.

He observes that while it is unambiguous when a pet has died, a tree “stands there like a huge boney creature that’s sleeping or playing tricks on us.” If Bertolt had been struck by lightning or chopped off, the boy would have understood. But that a loss so profound can be so undramatic, so uneventful, seems barely comprehensible.

It is this penetrating aspect of the book that places it among the greatest children’s books about processing the subtleties of loss.

Since a burial is impossible, the boy, longing to commemorate Bertolt in some way, eventually dreams up a plan in that combinatorial way in which we fuse our existing experiences into new ideas.

We see him running out of the Lost and Found with a box of colorful mismatched mittens, loading them onto his bike, and racing up the hill toward Bertolt.

With steadfast determination, he climbs the giant trunk, the vibrant load strapped to his back, and begins methodically clipping the mittens to Bertolt’s barren branches with clothespins.

In the final scene, amid the respectful silence of Goldstyn’s unworded illustrations, we see Bertolt half-abloom with mittens. Like Christmas ornaments, like Tibetan prayer flags, they stand as an imaginative replacement for the leaves and blossoms that Bertolt’s fatal final spring failed to bring — not artificial, but realer than anything, for they are made of love.

HERE WE ARE

When the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera back on the Solar System for one last look after taking its pioneering photographs of our planetary neighborhood, it captured a now-iconic image of Earth — a tiny pixel in a tiny slice of an incomprehensibly vast universe. The photograph was christened the “Pale Blue Dot” thanks to Carl Sagan, who immortalized the moment in his timeless monologue on our place in the cosmos:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Forty years after the Voyager sailed into space, we seem to have lost sight of this beautiful and sobering perspective, drifting further and further into our divides, fragmenting our fragile home pixel into more and more warring factions, and forgetting that we are bound together by the improbable miracle of life on this Pale Blue Dot and a shared cosmic destiny.

A mighty antidote to this civilizational impoverishment of imagination comes from Oliver Jeffers, one of the great visual storytellers of our time, in Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (public library) — Jeffers’s most personal picture-book yet, dedicated to his firstborn child. (The subtitle, Jeffers said, was inspired by The Universe in Verse, which he attended with his own father.) With expressive illustrations and spare, warm words, Jeffers extends an invitation to all humans, new and old, to fathom the beautiful unity of beings, so gloriously different, orbiting a shared Sun on a common cosmic voyage.

Taking an approach evocative of Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic Powers of Ten, Jeffers zooms from the Solar System to Earth to the city to its living kaleidoscope of inhabitants to the single home where a newborn is meeting the world for the first time, illustrating the intricate interconnectedness of life across all scales of existence.

On our planet, there are people.
One people is a person.
You are a person. You have a body.

[…]

People come in many shapes, sizes and colors.

We may all look different, act different and sound different … but don’t be fooled, we are all people.

In the final pages, we see the new father embrace his cocooned child as the whole of humanity stretches into infinity in a colorful waiting line of helpers, reminding us that it takes a village — our global village — to nurture any one life on Earth.

SUN AND MOON

“The dark body of the Moon gradually steals its silent way across the brilliant Sun,” Mabel Loomis Todd wrote in her poetic nineteenth-century masterpiece on the surreal splendor of a total solar eclipse. Nearly a century earlier, in his taxonomy of the three layers of reality, John Keats listed among “things real” the “existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare.” Indeed, the motions of the heavenly bodies precipitated the Scientific Revolution that strengthened humanity’s grasp of reality by dethroning us from the center of the universe. But, paradoxically, the Sun and the Moon belong equally with the world of Shakespeare, with humanity’s most enduring storytelling — they are central to our earliest sky myths in nearly every folkloric tradition, radiating timeless stories and parables that give shape to the human experience through imaginative allegory.

In Sun and Moon (public library), ten Indian folk and tribal artists bring to life the solar and lunar myths of their indigenous traditions in stunningly illustrated stories reflecting on the universal themes of life, love, time, harmony, and our eternal search for a completeness of being.

This uncommon hand-bound treasure of a book, silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who for the past decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai, producing such treasures as The Night Life of Trees, Drawing from the City, Creation, and Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.

Among the indigenous traditions represented in the book are Gondi tribal art by Bhajju Shyam (of London Jungle Book fame), Durga Bai (featured in The Night Life of Trees), and Ramsingh Urveti (of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail); Madhubani folk art by Rhambros Jha (of Waterlife); and Meena tribal art by Sunita (of Gobble You Up).

THE BLUE SONGBIRD

“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.”

* * *

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the loveliest children’s books of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

BP

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