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David Whyte on the True Meaning of Friendship, Love, and Heartbreak

“All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.”

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice. But words also belong to us, as much as we belong to them — and out of that mutual belonging arises our most fundamental understanding of the world, as well as the inescapable misunderstandings that bedevil the grand sensemaking experiment we call life.

This constant dialogue between reality and illusion, moderated by our use of language, is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a most remarkable book “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty.” Whyte — who has previously enveloped in his wisdom such intricacies of existence as what happens when love leaves and how to break the tyranny of work-life balance — constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace. And he does it all with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte chooses 52 such ordinary words, the same number as the playing cards in a standard deck — perhaps a subtle suggestion that words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin, chosen by what we ourselves bring to the duality. Indeed, dualities and counterpoints dominate the book — Whyte’s short essays examine ambition and disappointment, vulnerability and courage, anger and forgiveness.

Among the words Whyte ennobles with more luminous understanding are those connoting the most complex conversations between human hearts: friendship, love — both unconditional and unrequited — and heartbreak. Of friendship — which Emerson considered the supreme fruit of “truth and tenderness,” Aristotle the generous act of holding up a mirror to each other, Thoreau a grand stake for which the game of life may be played, and C.S. Lewis “one of those things which give value to survival” — Whyte writes:

FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Let’s Be Enemies’ by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Echoing Anne Lamott’s beautifully articulated conviction that friendship is above all the art of allowing the soft light of love to fall upon even our darkest sides, Whyte adds:

In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.

And yet friendship is a merited grace, one that requires of us the unrelenting commitment of showing up for and bearing witness to one another, over and over:

The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.

[…]

But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.

Whyte argues that friendship helps us “make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love” — two concepts to which he dedicates entire separate word-meditations. He writes of the former:

HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, and even an evolutionarily adaptive one, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:

Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.

[…]

There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.

Illustration by Roger Duvoisin from ‘Petunia, I Love You.’ Click image for more.

Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a fathometer for the depth of our desire — for a person, for an accomplishment, for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. Whyte captures this elegantly:

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.

[…]

Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.

One of the most common sources of heartbreak, of course, is unrequited love. But, once again, Whyte shines a sidewise gleam on the obscured essence of another experience we mistake for a failure rather than a triumph of our humanity — for unrequited love is the only kind of love there is, in any real sense:

UNREQUITED love is the love human beings experience most of the time. The very need to be fully requited may be to turn from the possibilities of love itself. Men and women have always had difficulty with the way a love returned hardly ever resembles a love given, but unrequited love may be the form that love mostly takes; for what affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? … And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?

[…]

The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from ‘Jane, the Fox and Me,’ a graphic novel inspired by Jane Eyre. Click image for more.

Indeed, most of our dissatisfaction with life stems from wishing for the present moment to be somehow different, somehow better-conforming to the rigid expectation we set for it at some point in the past. And yet nowhere is this rigidity of requirement more stifling than in love — that glorious “dynamic interaction” of souls responsive to one another, which requires a constant learning and relearning of a common language. Whyte considers what it is we really fear when we hide behind the merciless moniker of “unrequited” love:

We seem to have been born into a world where love, except for brilliant, exceptional moments, seems to exist from one side only, ours — and that may be the difficulty and the revelation and the gift — to see love as the ultimate letting go and through the doorway of that affection, make the most difficult sacrifice of all, giving away the very thing we want to hold forever.

Norwegian for ‘the inescapable euphoria experienced as you begin to fall in love,’ from Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders.

Paradoxically, our notion of “unconditional love” is beset by the same self-defeating absolutism of expectation. Arguing that the very concept of it is a “beautiful hoped for impossibility,” Whyte writes:

Love may be sanctified and ennobled by its commitment to the unconditional horizon of perfection, but what makes love real in the human world seems to be our moving, struggling conversation with that wanted horizon rather than any possibility of arrival. The hope for, or the declaration of a purely spiritual, unconditional love is more often a coded desire for immunity and safety, an attempt to forgo the trials of vulnerability, powerlessness and the exquisite pain to which we apprentice ourselves in a relationship, a marriage, in raising children, in a work we love and desire.

[…]

The hope for unconditional love is the hope for a different life than the one we have been given. Love is the conversation between possible, searing disappointment and a profoundly imagined sense of arrival and fulfillment; how we shape that conversation is the touchstone of our ability to love in the real inhabited world. The true signature and perhaps even the miracle of human love is helplessness, and all the more miraculous because it is a helplessness which we wittingly or unwittingly choose; in our love of a child, a partner, a work, or a road we have to take against the odds.

In the remainder of Consolations, which is immeasurably enlivening in its entirety, Whyte goes on to unpeel such concepts as shyness, vulnerability, honesty, and genius. Complement it with his equally ennobling writings on the three commitments of a fulfilling life, then treat yourself to these beautifully untranslatable words from around the world — a testament to those complexities we are yet to learn naming.

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

16 Overall Favorite Books of 2016

From loneliness to love to black holes, by way of Neil Gaiman, Annie Dillard, and Mary Oliver.

16 Overall Favorite Books of 2016

To look back on any period of reading with the intention of selecting one’s favorite books is a curious two-way time machine — one must scoop the memory of a past and filter it through the sieve of an indefinite future in an effort to discern which books have left a mark on one’s conscience deep enough to last a lifetime. Of the many books I read in 2016, these are the sixteen that moved me most deeply and memorably. And since I stand with Susan Sontag, who considered reading an act of rebirth, I invite you to revisit the annual favorites for 2015, 2014, and 2013.

THE LONELY CITY

“You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary at the end of a long and illustrious life as she contemplated how solitude enriches creative work. It’s a lovely sentiment, but as empowering as it may be to those willing to embrace solitude, it can be tremendously lonesome-making to those for whom loneliness has contracted the space of trust and love into a suffocating penitentiary. For if in solitude, as Wendell Berry memorably wrote, “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives,” in loneliness one’s inner scream becomes deafening, deadening, severing any thread of connection to other lives.

How to break free of that prison and reinhabit the space of trust and love is what Olivia Laing explores in The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (public library) — an extraordinary more-than-memoir; a sort of memoir-plus-plus, partway between Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk and the diary of Virginia Woolf; a lyrical account of wading through a period of self-expatriation, both physical and psychological, in which Laing paints an intimate portrait of loneliness as “a populated place: a city in itself.”

After the sudden collapse of a romance marked by extreme elation, Laing left her native England and took her shattered heart to New York, “that teeming island of gneiss and concrete and glass.” The daily, bone-deep loneliness she experienced there was both paralyzing in its all-consuming potency and, paradoxically, a strange invitation to aliveness. Indeed, her choice to leave home and wander a foreign city is itself a rich metaphor for the paradoxical nature of loneliness, animated by equal parts restlessness and stupor, capable of turning one into a voluntary vagabond and a catatonic recluse all at once, yet somehow a vitalizing laboratory for self-discovery. The pit of loneliness, she found, could “drive one to consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.”

She writes:

There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual, but also as a citizen of our century, our pixelated age. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people, particularly if we don’t find speaking easy? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty? And is technology helping with these things? Does it draw us closer together, or trap us behind screens?

Bedeviled by this acute emotional anguish, Laing seeks consolation in the great patron saints of loneliness in twentieth-century creative culture. From this eclectic tribe of the lonesome — including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Hujar, Billie Holiday, and Nan Goldin — Laing chooses four artists as her companions charting the terra incognita of loneliness: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, and David Wojnarowicz, who had all “grappled in their lives as well as work with loneliness and its attendant issues.”

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Laing examines the particular, pervasive form of loneliness in the eye of a city aswirl with humanity:

Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.

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. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.

There is, of course, a universe of difference between solitude and loneliness — two radically different interior orientations toward the same exterior circumstance of lacking companionship. We speak of “fertile solitude” as a developmental achievement essential for our creative capacity, but loneliness is barren and destructive; it cottons in apathy the will to create. More than that, it seems to signal an existential failing — a social stigma the nuances of which Laing addresses beautifully:

Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles.

Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind.

Dive deeper here.

HOPE IN THE DARK

I think a great deal about what it means to live with hope and sincerity in the age of cynicism, about how we can continue standing at the gates of hope as we’re being bombarded with news of hopeless acts of violence, as we’re confronted daily with what Marcus Aurelius called the “meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.”

I’ve found no more lucid and luminous a defense of hope than the one Rebecca Solnit launches in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library) — a slim, potent book that has grown only more relevant and poignant in the decade since its original publication in the wake of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, recently reissued with a new introduction by Solnit.

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

We lose hope, Solnit suggests, because we lose perspective — we lose sight of the “accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes” which constitute progress and which render our era dramatically different from the past, a contrast obscured by the undramatic nature of gradual transformation punctuated by occasional tumult. She writes:

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice — and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of… We need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.

Solnit — one of the most singular, civically significant, and poetically potent voices of our time, emanating echoes of Virginia Woolf’s luminous prose and Adrienne Rich’s unflinching political conviction — looks back on the seemingly distant past as she peers forward into the near future:

The moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginably magnificent things came to pass. There is a lot of evidence for the defense… Progressive, populist, and grassroots constituencies have had many victories. Popular power has continued to be a profound force for change. And the changes we’ve undergone, both wonderful and terrible, are astonishing.

[…]

This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.

Engage more fully here.

UPSTREAM

To read Mary Oliver is to be read by her — to be made real by her words, to have the richest subterranean truths of your own experience mirrored back to you with tenfold the luminosity. Her prose collection Upstream: Selected Essays (public library) is a book of uncommon enchantment, containing Oliver’s largehearted wisdom on writing, creative work, and the art of life.

In one particularly satisfying piece from the volume, titled Of Power and Time,” Oliver writes:

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

[…]

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

For a richer taste of this feast for the mind, heart, and spirit, see Oliver on how books saved her life and time, the artist’s task, and the central commitment of the creative life.

BLACK HOLE BLUES

In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library), which crowns the year’s finest science books, cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin tells the story of the century-long vision, originated by Einstein, and half-century experimental quest to hear the sound of spacetime by detecting a gravitational wave. This book remains one of the most intensely interesting and beautifully written I’ve ever encountered — the kind that comes about once a generation if we’re lucky.

Everything we know about the universe so far comes from four centuries of sight — from peering into space with our eyes and their prosthetic extension, the telescope. Now commences a new mode of knowing the cosmos through sound. The detection of gravitational waves is one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of physics, marking the dawn of a new era as we begin listening to the sound of space — the probable portal to mysteries as unimaginable to us today as galaxies and nebulae and pulsars and other cosmic wonders were to the first astronomers. Gravitational astronomy, as Levin elegantly puts it, promises a “score to accompany the silent movie humanity has compiled of the history of the universe from still images of the sky, a series of frozen snapshots captured over the past four hundred years since Galileo first pointed a crude telescope at the Sun.”

blackholes_einstein

Astonishingly enough, Levin wrote the book before the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) — the monumental instrument at the center of the story, decades in the making — made the actual detection of a ripple in the fabric of spacetime caused by the collision of two black holes in the autumn of 2015, exactly a century after Einstein first envisioned the possibility of gravitational waves. So the story she tells is not that of the triumph but that of the climb, which renders it all the more enchanting — because it is ultimately a story about the human spirit and its incredible tenacity, about why human beings choose to devote their entire lives to pursuits strewn with unimaginable obstacles and bedeviled by frequent failure, uncertain rewards, and meager public recognition.

Indeed, what makes the book interesting is that it tells the story of this monumental discovery, but what makes it enchanting is that Levin comes at it from a rather unusual perspective. She is a working astrophysicist who studies black holes, but she is also an incredibly gifted novelist — an artist whose medium is language and thought itself. This is no popular science book but something many orders of magnitude higher in its artistic vision, the impeccable craftsmanship of language, and the sheer pleasure of the prose. The story is structured almost as a series of short, integrated novels, with each chapter devoted to one of the key scientists involved in LIGO. With Dostoyevskian insight and nuance, Levin paints a psychological, even philosophical portrait of each protagonist, revealing how intricately interwoven the genius and the foibles are in the fabric of personhood and what a profoundly human endeavor science ultimately is.

She writes:

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics… So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms.

For a taste of this uncategorizably wonderful book, see Levin on the story of the tragic hero who pioneered gravitational astronomy and how astronomer Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars.

TIME TRAVEL

Time Travel: A History (public library) by science historian and writer extraordinaire James Gleick, another rare enchanter of science, is not a “science book” per se, in that although it draws heavily on the history of twentieth-century science and quantum physics in particular (as well as on millennia of philosophy), it is a decidedly literary inquiry into our temporal imagination — why we think about time, why its directionality troubles us so, and what asking these questions at all reveals about the deepest mysteries of our consciousness. I consider it a grand thought experiment, using physics and philosophy as the active agents, and literature as the catalyst.

Gleick, who examined the origin of our modern anxiety about time with remarkable prescience nearly two decades ago, traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century, including Stephen Hawking, who once cleverly hosted a party for time travelers and when no one showed up considered the impossibility of time travel proven, and John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole,” both key tropes of time travel literature.

Gleick considers how a scientific impossibility can become such fertile ground for the artistic imagination:

Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.

Wells’s Time Machine revealed a turning in the road, an alteration in the human relationship with time. New technologies and ideas reinforced one another: the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the earth science of Lyell and the life science of Darwin, the rise of archeology out of antiquarianism, and the perfection of clocks. When the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, scientists and philosophers were primed to understand time in a new way. And so were we all. Time travel bloomed in the culture, its loops and twists and paradoxes.

I wrote about Gleick’s uncommonly pleasurable book at length here.

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS

Neil Gaiman is one of the most beloved storytellers of our time, unequaled at his singular brand of darkly delightful fantasy. His long-awaited nonfiction collection The View from the Cheap Seats (public library) celebrates a different side of Gaiman. Here stands a writer of firm conviction and porous curiosity, an idealist amid our morass of cynicism who, in revealing who he is, reveals who we are and who we can be if we only tried a little bit harder to wrest more goodness out of our imperfect humanity. An evangelist for the righteous without a shred of our culture’s pathological self-righteousness, Gaiman jolts us out of our collective amnesia and reminds us again and again what matters: ideas over ideologies, public libraries, the integrity of children’s inner lives, the stories we choose to tell of why the world is the way it is, the moral obligation to imagine better stories — and, oh, the sheer fun of it all.

Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)
Neil Gaiman (Photograph: Amanda Palmer)

Among the many gems in the collection, which include Gaiman’s meditations on why we read and the power of cautionary questions, is a particularly timely short piece titled “Credo,” in which Gaiman writes:

I believe that it is difficult to kill an idea because ideas are invisible and contagious, and they move fast.

I believe that you can set your own ideas against ideas you dislike. That you should be free to argue, explain, clarify, debate, offend, insult, rage, mock, sing, dramatize, and deny.

I do not believe that burning, murdering, exploding people, smashing their heads with rocks (to let the bad ideas out), drowning them or even defeating them will work to contain ideas you do not like. Ideas spring up where you do not expect them, like weeds, and are as difficult to control.

I believe that repressing ideas spreads ideas.

Read more here.

HOLD STILL

“Memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation,” pioneering researcher Rosalind Cartwright wrote in distilling the science of the unconscious mind.

Although I lack early childhood memories, I do have one rather eidetic recollection: I remember standing before the barren elephant yard at the Sofia Zoo in Bulgaria, at age three or so, clad in a cotton polka-dot jumper. I remember squinting into a scowl as the malnourished elephant behind me swirls dirt into the air in front of her communism-stamped concrete edifice. I don’t remember the temperature, though I deduce from the memory of my outfit that it must have been summer. I don’t remember the smell of the elephant or the touch of the blown dirt on my skin, though I remember my grimace.

For most of my life, I held onto that memory as the sole surviving mnemonic fragment of my early childhood self. And then, one day in my late twenties, I discovered an old photo album tucked into the back of my grandmother’s cabinet in Bulgaria. It contained dozens of photographs of me, from birth until around age four, including one depicting that very vignette — down to the minutest detail of what I believed was my memory of that moment. There I was, scowling in my polka-dot jumper with the elephant and the cloud of dust behind me. In an instant, I realized that I had been holding onto a prosthetic memory — what I remembered was the photograph from that day, which I must have been shown at some point, and not the day itself, of which I have no other recollection. The question — and what a Borgesian question — remains whether one should prefer having such a prosthetic memory, constructed entirely of photographs stitched together into artificial cohesion, to having no memory at all.

That confounding parallax of personal history is what photographer Sally Mann explores throughout Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (public library) — a lyrical yet unsentimental meditation on art, mortality, and the lacuna between memory and myth, undergirded by what Mann calls her “long preoccupation with the treachery of memory” and “memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand.”

Sally Mann as a girl
Sally Mann as a child

In a sentiment that calls to mind Oliver Sacks’s exquisite elucidation of how memory works, Mann writes:

Whatever of my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.

I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through.

Photograph: Sally Mann
Photograph: Sally Mann

Nearly half a century after Italo Calvino observed that “the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” Mann traces this cultural pathology — now a full epidemic with the rise of the photo-driven social web — to the dawn of the medium itself. Reflecting on the discovery of a box of old photographs in her own family’s attic, she echoes Teju Cole’s assertion that “photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses” and writes:

As far back as 1901 Émile Zola telegraphed the threat of this relatively new medium, remarking that you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it. What Zola perhaps also knew or intuited was that once photographed, whatever you had “really seen” would never be seen by the eye of memory again. It would forever be cut from the continuum of being, a mere sliver, a slight, translucent paring from the fat life of time; elegiac, one-dimensional, immediately assuming the amber quality of nostalgia: an instantaneous memento mori. Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. As I held my childhood pictures in my hands, in the tenderness of my “remembering,” I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

Read more here.

ANGER AND FORGIVENESS

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their terrific forgotten conversation about forgiveness and the difference between guilt and responsibility. “To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” philosopher David Whyte echoed half a century later in contemplating anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means. And yet the dance of anger and forgiveness, performed to the uncontrollable rhythm of trust, is perhaps the most difficult in human life, as well as one of the oldest.

The moral choreography of that dance is what philosopher Martha Nussbaum explores in Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (public library).

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum, who has previously examined the intelligence of the emotions and whom I consider the most incisive philosopher of our time, argues that despite anger’s long cultural history of being seen as morally justifiable and as a useful signal that wrongdoing has taken place, it is a normatively faulty response that masks deeper, more difficult emotions and stands in the way of resolving them. Consequently, forgiveness — which Nussbaum defines as “a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition” — is also warped into a transactional proposition wherein the wrongdoer must earn, through confession and apology, the wronged person’s morally superior grace.

Nussbaum outlines the core characteristics and paradoxes of anger:

Anger is an unusually complex emotion, since it involves both pain and pleasure [because] the prospect of retribution is pleasant… Anger also involves a double reference—to a person or people and to an act… The focus of anger is an act imputed to the target, which is taken to be a wrongful damage.

Injuries may be the focus in grief as well. But whereas grief focuses on the loss or damage itself, and lacks a target (unless it is the lost person, as in “I am grieving for so-and-so”), anger starts with the act that inflicted the damage, seeing it as intentionally inflicted by the target — and then, as a result, one becomes angry, and one’s anger is aimed at the target. Anger, then, requires causal thinking, and some grasp of right and wrong.

[…]

Notoriously, however, people sometimes get angry when they are frustrated by inanimate objects, which presumably cannot act wrongfully… In 1988, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article on “vending machine rage”: fifteen injuries, three of them fatal, as a result of angry men kicking or rocking machines that had taken their money without dispensing the drink. (The fatal injuries were caused by machines falling over on the men and crushing them.)

Beneath this tragicomic response lies a combination of personal insecurity, vulnerability, and what Nussbaum calls status-injury (or what Aristotle called down-ranking) — the perception that the wrongdoer has lowered the social status of the wronged — conspiring to produce a state of exasperating helplessness. Anger, Nussbaum argues, is how we seek to create an illusion of control where we feel none.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King, James Thurber’s parable of the destructiveness of status-seeking

She writes:

Anger is not always, but very often, about status-injury. And status-injury has a narcissistic flavor: rather than focusing on the wrongfulness of the act as such, a focus that might lead to concern for wrongful acts of the same type more generally, the status-angry person focuses obsessively on herself and her standing vis-à-vis others.

[…]

We are prone to anger to the extent that we feel insecure or lacking control with respect to the aspect of our goals that has been assailed — and to the extent that we expect or desire control. Anger aims at restoring lost control and often achieves at least an illusion of it. To the extent that a culture encourages people to feel vulnerable to affront and down-ranking in a wide variety of situations, it encourages the roots of status-focused anger.

Nowhere is anger more acute, nor more damaging, than in intimate relationships, where the stakes are impossibly high. Because they are so central to our flourishing and because our personal investment in them is at its deepest, the potential for betrayal there is enormous and therefore enormously vulnerable-making. Crucially, Nussbaum argues, intimate relationships involve trust, which is predicated on inevitable vulnerability. She considers what trust actually means:

Trust … is different from mere reliance. One may rely on an alarm clock, and to that extent be disappointed if it fails to do its job, but one does not feel deeply vulnerable, or profoundly invaded by the failure. Similarly, one may rely on a dishonest colleague to continue lying and cheating, but this is reason, precisely, not to trust that person; instead, one will try to protect oneself from damage. Trust, by contrast, involves opening oneself to the possibility of betrayal, hence to a very deep form of harm. It means relaxing the self-protective strategies with which we usually go through life, attaching great importance to actions by the other over which one has little control. It means, then, living with a certain degree of helplessness.

Is trust a matter of belief or emotion? Both, in complexly related ways. Trusting someone, one believes that she will keep her commitments, and at the same time one appraises those commitments as very important for one’s own flourishing. But that latter appraisal is a key constituent part of a number of emotions, including hope, fear, and, if things go wrong, deep grief and loss. Trust is probably not identical to those emotions, but under normal circumstances of life it often proves sufficient for them. One also typically has other related emotions toward a person whom one trusts, such as love and concern. Although one typically does not decide to trust in a deliberate way, the willingness to be in someone else’s hands is a kind of choice, since one can certainly live without that type of dependency… Living with trust involves profound vulnerability and some helplessness, which may easily be deflected into anger.

Read more here.

UNFORBIDDEN PLEASURES

The English psychoanalytical writer Adam Phillips has written with beguiling nuance about such variousness of our psychic experience as the importance of “fertile solitude,” the value of missing out, and the rewards of being out of balance. In Unforbidden Pleasures (public library), he explores our paradoxical desires and the topsy-turvy ways we go about pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.

In the collection’s standout essay, titled “Against Self-Criticism,” Phillips reaches across the space-time of culture to both revolt against and pay homage to Susan Sontag’s masterwork Against Interpretation, and examines “our virulent, predatory self-criticism [has] become one of our greatest pleasures.” He writes:

In broaching the possibility of being, in some way, against self-criticism, we have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism; in which the alternatives of celebration and criticism are seen as a determined narrowing of the repertoire; and in which we praise whatever we can.

But we have become so indoctrinated in this conscience of self-criticism, both collectively and individually, that we’ve grown reflexively suspicious of that alternative possibility. (Kafka, the great patron-martyr of self-criticism, captured this pathology perfectly: “There’s only one thing certain. That is one’s own inadequacy.”) Phillips writes:

Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.

[…]

Nothing makes us more critical, more confounded — more suspicious, or appalled, or even mildly amused — than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism; that we should be less impressed by it. Or at least that self-criticism should cease to have the hold over us that it does.

Read more here.

THE COURSE OF LOVE

“Nothing awakens us to the reality of life so much as a true love,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp?” philosopher Martin Heidegger asked in his electrifying love letters to Hannah Arendt. “Because we become what we love and yet remain ourselves.” Still, nearly every anguishing aspect of love arises from the inescapable tension between this longing for transformative awakening and the sleepwalking selfhood of our habitual patterns. True as it may be that frustration is a prerequisite for satisfaction in romance, how are we to reconcile the sundering frustration of these polar pulls?

The multiple sharp-edged facets of this question are what Alain de Botton explores in The Course of Love (public library) — a meditation on the beautiful, tragic tendernesses and fragilities of the human heart, at once unnerving and assuring in its psychological insightfulness. At its heart is a lamentation of — or, perhaps, an admonition against — how the classic Romantic model has sold us on a number of self-defeating beliefs about the most essential and nuanced experiences of human life: love, infatuation, marriage, sex, children, infidelity, trust.

Alain De Botton
Alain de Botton

A sequel of sorts to his 1993 novel On Love, the book is bold bending of form that fuses fiction and De Botton’s supreme forte, the essay — twined with the narrative thread of the romance between the two protagonists are astute observations at the meeting point of psychology and philosophy, spinning out from the particular problems of the couple to unravel broader insight into the universal complexities of the human heart.

In fact, as the book progresses, one gets the distinct and surprisingly pleasurable sense that De Botton has sculpted the love story around the robust armature of these philosophical meditations; that the essay is the raison d’être for the fiction.

In one of these contemplative interstitials, De Botton writes:

Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness. If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are, the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.

For a richer taste of the book, devour these portions exploring why our partners drive us mad, what makes a good communicator, and the paradox of sulking.

THE GUTSY GIRL

In 1885, a young woman sent the editor of her hometown newspaper a brilliant response to a letter by a patronizing chauvinist, which the paper had published under the title “What Girls Are Good For.” The woman, known today as Nellie Bly, so impressed the editor that she was hired at the paper and went on to become a trailblazing journalist, circumnavigating the globe in 75 days with only a duffle bag and risking her life to write a seminal exposé of asylum abuse, which forever changed legal protections for the mentally ill. But Bly’s courage says as much about her triumphant character as it does about the tragedies of her culture — she is celebrated as a hero in large part because she defied and transcended the limiting gender norms of the Victorian era, which reserved courageous and adventurous feats for men, while raising women to be diffident, perfect, and perfectly pretty instead.

Writer Caroline Paul, one of the first women on San Francisco’s firefighting force and an experimental plane pilot, believes that not much has changed in the century since — that beneath the surface progress, our culture still nurses girls on “the insidious language of fear” and boys on that of bravery and resilience. She offers an intelligent and imaginative antidote in The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure (public library) — part memoir, part manifesto, part aspirational workbook, aimed at tween girls but speaking to the ageless, ungendered spirit of adventure in all of us, exploring what it means to be brave, to persevere, to break the tyranny of perfection, and to laugh at oneself while setting out to do the seemingly impossible.

gutsygirl4

Illustrated by Paul’s partner (and my frequent collaborator), artist and graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton, the book features sidebar celebrations of diverse “girl heroes” of nearly every imaginable background, ranging from famous pioneers like Nellie Bly and astronaut Mae Jemison to little-known adventurers like canopy-climbing botanist Marie Antoine, prodigy rock-climber Ashima Shiraishi, and barnstorming pilot and parachutist Bessie “Queen Bess” Coleman.

A masterful memoirist who has previously written about what a lost cat taught her about finding human love and what it’s like to be a twin, Paul structures each chapter as a thrilling micro-memoir of a particular adventure from her own life — building a milk carton pirate ship as a teenager and sinking it triumphantly into the rapids, mastering a challenging type of paragliding as a young woman, climbing and nearly dying on the formidable mount Denali as an adult.

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Let me make one thing clear: Throughout the book, Paul does a remarkably thoughtful job of pointing out the line between adventurousness and recklessness. Her brushes with disaster, rather than lionizing heedlessness, are the book’s greatest gift precisely because they decondition the notion that an adventure is the same thing as an achievement — that one must be perfect and error-proof in every way in order to live a daring and courageous life. Instead, by chronicling her many missteps along the running starts of her leaps, she assures the young reader over and over that owning up to mistakes isn’t an attrition of one’s courage but an essential building block of it. After all, the fear of humiliation is perhaps what undergirds all fear, and in our culture of stubborn self-righteousness, there are few things we resist more staunchly, to the detriment of our own growth, than looking foolish for being wrong. The courageous, Paul reminds us, trip and fall, often in public, but get right back up and leap again.

Indeed, the book is a lived and living testament to psychologist Carol Dweck’s seminal work on the “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets — life-tested evidence that courage is the fruit not of perfection but of doggedness in the face of fallibility, fertilized by the choice (and it is a choice, Paul reminds us over and over) to get up and dust yourself off each time.

But Paul wasn’t always an adventurer. She reflects:

I had been a shy and fearful kid. Many things had scared me. Bigger kids. Second grade. The elderly woman across the street. Being called on in class. The book Where the Wild Things Are. Woods at dusk. The way the bones in my hand crisscrossed.

Being scared was a terrible feeling, like sinking in quicksand. My stomach would drop, my feet would feel heavy, my head would prickle. Fear was an all-body experience. For a shy kid like me it was overwhelming.

Let me pause here to note that Caroline Paul is one of the most extraordinary human beings I know — a modern-day Amazon, Shackleton, Amelia Earhart, and Hedy Lamarr rolled into one — and since she is also a brilliant writer, the self-deprecating humor permeating the book serves a deliberate purpose: to assure us that no one is born a modern-day Amazon, Shackleton, Amelia Earhart, and Hedy Lamarr rolled into one, but the determined can become it by taking on challenges, conceding the possibility of imperfection and embarrassment, and seeing those outcomes as part of the adventure rather than as failure at achievement.

That’s exactly what Paul does in the adventures she chronicles. It’s time, after all, to replace that woeful Victorian map of woman’s heart with a modern map of the gutsy girl spirit.

gutsygirl3

Read and see more here.

HIDDEN FIGURES

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in American science, admonished the first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876. By the middle of the next century, a team of unheralded women scientists and engineers were powering space exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Meanwhile, across the continent and in what was practically another country, a parallel but very different revolution was taking place: In the segregated South, a growing number of black female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were steering early space exploration and helping American win the Cold War at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Long before the term “computer” came to signify the machine that dictates our lives, these remarkable women were working as human “computers” — highly skilled professional reckoners, who thought mathematically and computationally for their living and for their country. When Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon, his “giant leap for mankind” had been powered by womankind, particularly by Katherine Johnson — the “computer” who calculated Apollo 11’s launch windows and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama at age 97 in 2015, three years after the accolade was conferred upon John Glenn, the astronaut whose flight trajectory Johnson had made possible.

Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or "Celestial Training Device," 1960 (Photographs: NASA)
Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” 1960 (Photographs: NASA)

In Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (public library), Margot Lee Shetterly tells the untold story of these brilliant women, once on the frontlines of our cultural leaps and since sidelined by the selective collective memory we call history.

She writes:

Just as islands — isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity — have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life.

Against a sobering cultural backdrop, Shetterly captures the enormous cognitive dissonance the very notion of these black female mathematicians evokes:

Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.

Shetterly herself grew up in Hampton, which dubbed itself “Spacetown USA,” amid this archipelago of women who were her neighbors and teachers. Her father, who had built his first rocket in his early teens after seeing the Sputnik launch, was one of Langley’s African American scientists in an era when words we now shudder to hear were used instead of “African American.” Like him, the first five black women who joined Langley’s research staff in 1943 entered a segregated NASA — even though, as Shetterly points out, the space agency was among the most inclusive workplaces in the country, with more than fourfold the percentage of black scientists and engineers than the national average.

Over the next forty years, the number of these trailblazing black women mushroomed to more than fifty, revealing the mycelia of a significant groundswell. Shetterly’s favorite Sunday school teacher had been one of the early computers — a retired NASA mathematician named Kathleen Land. And so Shetterly, who considers herself “as much a product of NASA as the Moon landing,” grew up believing that black women simply belonged in science and space exploration as a matter of course — after all, they populated her father’s workplace and her town, a town whose church “abounded with mathematicians.”

Embodying astronomer Vera Rubin’s wisdom on how modeling expands children’s scope of possibility, Shetterly reflects on this normalizing and rousing power of example:

Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.

[…]

The community certainly included black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors, and contractors, black cobblers, wedding planners, real estate agents, and undertakers, several black lawyers, and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)
Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)

Read more here.

BECOMING WISE

“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her beautiful meditation on the power and magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Hardly anyone in our time has been a greater amplifier of spirits than longtime journalist, On Being host, and patron saint of nuance Krista Tippett — a modern-day Simone Weil who has been fusing spiritual life and secular culture with remarkable virtuosity through her conversations with physicists and poets, neuroscientists and novelists, biologists and Benedictine monks, united by the quality of heart and mind that Einstein so beautifully termed “spiritual genius.”

In her interviews with the great spiritual geniuses of our time, Tippett has cultivated a rare space for reflection and redemption amid our reactionary culture — a space framed by her generous questions exploring the life of meaning. In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (public library), Tippett distills more than a decade of these conversations across disciplines and denominations into a wellspring of wisdom on the most elemental questions of being human — questions about happiness, morality, justice, wellbeing, and love — reanimated with a fresh vitality of insight.

Krista Tippett
Krista Tippett

At the core of Tippett’s inquiry is the notion virtue — not in the limiting, prescriptive sense with which scripture has imbued it, but in the expansive, empowering sense of a psychological, emotional, and spiritual technology that allows us to first fully inhabit, then conscientiously close the gap between who we are and who we aspire to be.

She explores five primary fertilizers of virtue: words — the language we use to tell the stories we tell about who we are and how the world works; flesh — the body as the birthplace of every virtue, rooted in the idea that “how we inhabit our senses tests the mettle of our souls”; love — a word so overused that it has been emptied of meaning yet one that gives meaning to our existence, both in our most private selves and in the fabric of public life; faith — Tippett left a successful career as a political journalist in divided Berlin in the 1980s to study theology not in order to be ordained but in order to question power structures and examine the grounds of moral imagination through the spiritual wisdom of the ages; and hope — an orientation of the mind and spirit predicated not on the blinders of optimism but on a lucid lens on the possible furnished by an active, unflinching reach for it.

eucalyptus

Tippett, who has spent more than a decade cross-pollinating spirituality, science, and the human spirit and was awarded the National Humanities Medal for it, considers the raw material of her work — the power of questions “as social art and civic tools”:

If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.

Read more here.

THE ABUNDANCE

For decades, Annie Dillard has beguiled those in search of truth and beauty in the written word with the lyrical splendor and wakeful sagacity of her prose. The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New (public library) collects her finest work, spanning such varied subjects as writing, the consecrating art of attention, and the surreal exhilaration of witnessing a total solar eclipse.

In a beautiful 1989 piece titled “A Writer in the World,” Dillard writes:

People love pretty much the same things best. A writer, though, looking for subjects asks not after what he loves best, but what he alone loves at all… Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

And yet this singular voice is refined not by the stubborn flight from all that has been said before but by a deliberate immersion in the very best of it. Like Hemingway, who insisted that aspiring writers should metabolize a certain set of essential books, Dillard counsels:

The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial airplane flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

The writer as a consequence reads outside his time and place.

The most significant animating force of great art, Dillard argues, is the artist’s willingness to hold nothing back and to create, always, with an unflappable generosity of spirit:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful; it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Read more here.

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware — an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living. But when this finitude is made acutely imminent, one suddenly collides with awareness so acute that it leaves no choice but to fill the shadow with as much light as a human being can generate — the sort of inner illumination we call meaning: the meaning of life.

That tumultuous turning point is what neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi chronicles in When Breath Becomes Air (public library), also among the year’s best science books — his piercing memoir of being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of a career bursting with potential and a life exploding with aliveness. Partway between Montaigne and Oliver Sacks, Kalanithi weaves together philosophical reflections on his personal journey with stories of his patients to illuminate the only thing we have in common — our mortality — and how it spurs all of us, in ways both minute and monumental, to pursue a life of meaning.

What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of “us” when that possibility is suddenly snipped?

Paul Kalanithi in 2014 (Photograph: Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics)
Paul Kalanithi in 2014 (Photograph: Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics)

A generation after surgeon Sherwin Nuland’s foundational text on confronting the meaning of life while dying, Kalanithi sets out to answer these questions and their myriad fractal implications. He writes:

At age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.

And then the unthinkable happens. He recounts one of the first incidents in which his former identity and his future fate collided with jarring violence:

My back stiffened terribly during the flight, and by the time I made it to Grand Central to catch a train to my friends’ place upstate, my body was rippling with pain. Over the past few months, I’d had back spasms of varying ferocity, from simple ignorable pain, to pain that made me forsake speech to grind my teeth, to pain so severe I curled up on the floor, screaming. This pain was toward the more severe end of the spectrum. I lay down on a hard bench in the waiting area, feeling my back muscles contort, breathing to control the pain — the ibuprofen wasn’t touching this — and naming each muscle as it spasmed to stave off tears: erector spinae, rhomboid, latissimus, piriformis…

A security guard approached. “Sir, you can’t lie down here.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, gasping out the words. “Bad … back … spasms.”

“You still can’t lie down here.”

[…]

I pulled myself up and hobbled to the platform.

Like the book itself, the anecdote speaks to something larger and far more powerful than the particular story — in this case, our cultural attitude toward what we consider the failings of our bodies: pain and, in the ultimate extreme, death. We try to dictate the terms on which these perceived failings may occur; to make them conform to wished-for realities; to subvert them by will and witless denial. All this we do because, at bottom, we deem them impermissible — in ourselves and in each other.

Read more here.

PINOCCHIO

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties: “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”

This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.

As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.

In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), also among the year’s loveliest picture-books, Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.

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A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.

Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.

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The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.”

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It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.

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See more here.

BP

The Hum of the Universe: Shonda Rhimes on Creative Burnout, the Hamster Wheel of Success, and Reclaiming Who We Are from the Workaholic Grip of What We Do

“If the song of my heart ceases to play, can I survive in the silence?”

The Hum of the Universe: Shonda Rhimes on Creative Burnout, the Hamster Wheel of Success, and Reclaiming Who We Are from the Workaholic Grip of What We Do

“One must be something in order to do something,” Goethe counseled a young friend in 1824. But two centuries later, amid a workaholic culture in which we busy ourselves wresting who we are from what we do, we have completely inverted the relationship. We no longer know how to be without doing, having rendered notions of work-life balance vacant of meaning. For those fortunate enough to have a so-called “dream job” — more often than not, driven personalities animated by uncompromising motivation — the paradox can be even more disorienting: While being your own boss grants tremendous freedoms, it also means that in walking this path of your own making, you are taking marching orders from the most demanding, most critical, most merciless boss possible. If John Dewey was right a century ago in his memorable assertion that “to find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness,” why do we find ourselves so frequently unhappy, trapped in the hamster wheel of accomplishment and approval, even if it is one of our own making — especially if it is one of our own making? From behind the screen of hard work, good work, we come to feel hard and good ourselves. But when the screen is lifted, what remains? Forget grandeur — we are suddenly disabused of our delusions of adequacy.

That’s what writer, television titan, and overachievement patron saint Shonda Rhimes addresses in her spectacular TED talk based on her memoir, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person (public library). It’s a rousing meditation on the paradox of self-made success, how we synthesize our sense of self from our work, what happens when a dream job loses its dreaminess, and how we can save ourselves from the maze of productivity by getting lost in presence.

It’s talk all the more moving in the context of a central pillar of Rhimes’s identity — her self-admitted marrow-deep introversion. (I relate.) And yet here is a woman of confidence so crystalline — a rare thing indeed among artists, our culture’s most professionalized self-doubters — that when the humility comes, you know in your bones it isn’t false humility. You recognize it instantly as the other strand in the double helix of which a Real Person’s spiritual DNA is woven.

What do you do when the thing you do — the work you love — starts to taste like dust? … If the song of my heart ceases to play, can I survive in the silence?

Complement with German philosopher Josef Pieper’s magnificent and timely 1948 manifesto for why leisure is the basis of culture, Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the wholehearted life, and Anne Lamott on ending the tyranny of living by other people’s standards.

BP

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