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We Grow Accustomed to the Dark: Emily Dickinson’s Stunning Ode to Resilience, Animated

A timeless serenade to finding light amid the “Evenings of the Brain.”

How do we survive the unsurvivable? What is that inextinguishable flame that goes on flickering in the bleak, dark chamber of our being when something of vital importance has been lost? “All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched,” Seneca’s timeless insight into the key to resilience bellows from antiquity, echoed by the contemporary social science finding that psychological “grit” is the single most significant predictor of triumph over hardship and success in life. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” the Tibetan Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön offered in exploring how to thrive when things fall apart.

Loss visits every human life. The degree of our acceptance and the grace with which we adapt to the sudden descent of darkness — that is, to borrow the splendid term William James borrowed from Margaret Fuller, “the manner of our acceptance of the universe” — may be the greatest measure of skillful living.

That is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) addresses in a stunning poem titled — like all of her poems, which the poet herself always left untitled — after the first line: “We grow accustomed to the Dark,” composed during a time of personal loss and immense transformation for Dickinson, while the Civil War rages about her. Included in the indispensable Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (public library), it comes to life in this lovely short film animated by Hannah Jacobs and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Harvard’s eight-part series Poetry of Perception, exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts.

We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye —

A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —

And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —

The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —

Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.

Complement with Dickinson, the poet laureate of finding light amid the darkness of being, on making sense of loss and her stunning forgotten herbarium — an elegy for light at the intersection of poetry and science — then revisit other enchanting animated adaptations of great poems: “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes” by Charles Bukowski, and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” by Walt Whitman.

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The Only Story in the World: John Steinbeck on Kindness, Good and Evil, the Wellspring of Good Writing

“Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love.”

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) wrote as he contemplated good, evil, and the necessary contradiction of human nature at the peak of WWII. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

A decade later, and a decade before he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Steinbeck turned this abiding tug of war between good and evil into a literary inquiry in East of Eden (public library) — the 1952 novel that gave us his beautiful wisdom on creativity and the meaning of life, eventually adapted into the 1955 film of the same title starring James Dean.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck opens the thirty-fourth chapter with a meditation on the most elemental question through which we experience and measure our lives:

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?

At the most fundamental level, the triumph of good over evil presupposes an openhearted curiosity about what is other than ourselves and a certain willingness for understanding — the moral choice of fathoming and honoring the reality, experience, and needs of persons and entities existing beyond our own consciousness. Steinbeck, too, saw the centrality of empathic understanding in the choice of goodness. Perhaps unsurprisingly — since he used his private journal as a creative sandbox for his novels — this sentiment originated in a diary entry.

Decades before Annie Dillard contemplated why a generosity of spirit is the animating force of good writing, Steinbeck echoes Hemingway — “As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.” — and reflects in a journal entry from 1938, quoted in Steinbeck Center director Susan Shillinglaw’s introduction to a 1993 Penguin Classics edition of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

Complement with Hannah Arendt on our mightiest antidote to evil, James Baldwin on the terror within and the evil without, Mary McCarthy on human nature and how we determine if evil is forgivable, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people, then revisit Steinbeck on being vs. becoming, the difficult art of the fried breakup, and his remarkable advice on falling in love in a letter to his teenage son.

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Walt Whitman on Creativity

Wisdom “for strong artists and leaders—for fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians.”

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “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.” A large part of that power, and of its temporal dimension, is an openhearted curiosity about the world — a willingness to take in its varied and often contradictory aspects, in order to distill from them the concentration of truth we call art. Rainer Maria Rilke knew this when he contemplated the combinatorial nature of creativity: “One must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning… One must have memories of many nights of love… But one must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…”

A century and a half before Oliver and many decades before Rilke, another great poet and patron saint of truth turned his singular eye to the question of creativity. Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores this abiding mystery in a few verses some three hundred pages into Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) — the 1855 masterpiece that nearly broke his career before making it, then gave us his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Under the heading “Laws of Creation,” addressed to “strong artists and leaders… fresh broods of teachers… and coming musicians,” Whitman takes up the necessary risks and core elements of creative work:

All must have reference to the ensemble of the
world, and the compact truth of the world;
There shall be no subject too pronounced — All works
shall illustrate the divine law of indirections.

Art by Margaret Cook for a rare edition of Leaves of Grass

Echoing Emerson’s influential ideal of self-reliance — Emerson, after all, was Whitman’s great hero and the person largely responsible for his success as an artist — he adds:

What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the Soul, except to
walk free, and own no superior?
What do you suppose I have intimated to you in a
hundred ways, but that man or woman is as
good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Your-
self?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths
finally mean?
And that you or any one must approach Creations
through such laws?

Complement this particular fragment of the ever-giving Leaves of Grass with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley on creativity, E.E. Cummings on the courage to be yourself, and Rilke on the lonely patience of creative work, then revisit Whitman on the building blocks of character, optimism as a force of resistance, and his most direct definition of happiness.

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Japanese Artist Ryota Kajita’s Otherworldly Photographs of Ice Formation in Alaska

A visual serenade to one of the most beautiful and seemingly miraculous phenomena of the physical universe.

The pioneering naturalist John Muir held the poetic conviction that when we look closely at any aspect of our world, “the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” Phase transitions are among the most beautiful and seemingly miraculous phenomena of the physical universe — emissaries of nature’s magnificence and might that bear, in their stormy and almost alchemical transformation of substance, a certain metaphorical allure that borders on the existential. If matter can transform so radically from one state of being to another, perhaps so can we — under the fertile pressure of the right conditions, even the most radical change is possible.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

That material miraculousness is what Japanese-born, Alaska-based artist Ryota Kajita captures in his exquisite series Ice Formation — a series of photographs of various natural ice formations in the waters of Fairbanks, Alaska: otherworldly geometric patterns created by the bubbles that form as lake and river water freezes gradually from the surface down, trapping major greenhouse gasses like methane and carbon dioxide in the crystal lattice of ice.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Beneath the artful depiction of the phenomenon may lie a scientific key to climate change — scientists in Alaska are studying the frozen bubbles to better understand global warming.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

There is seasonal variation to the patterns, as snow and frost interfere with the ice formation in unique ways.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Kajita reflects on the project:

Wandering around looking for ice reminds me of boyhood treasure hunting. I used to run out into the woods after school, exploring places that made up my neighborhood. It was an adventure, and I enjoyed leaving my footprints on unknown areas. It was fun and uplifting, satisfying my young, innocent curiosity.

As an adult, photographing ice is rooted in those childhood adventures. It’s in that spirit that I strive to know the environment on a deeper level. Genuine curiosity propels me to actively involve myself in the place I live.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Echoing Muir’s assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” he adds:

That vital dialogue between yourself and your surroundings develops your thoughts on how you live in the place, and face bigger issues like global climate change. Everything — even if it appears to be insignificant — connects to larger aspects of our Earth.

Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita
Ice Formation by Ryota Kajita

Complement Kajita’s Ice Formation with artist Rose-Lynn Fischer’s stunning electromicroscopy photographs of tears cried with various emotions, then revisit Adam Gopnik’s love letter to the icy season.

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