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Big Wolf & Little Wolf: A Tender Tale of Loneliness, Belonging, and How Friendship Transforms Us

A subtle meditation on the meaning of solidarity, the relationship between the ego and the capacity for love, and the little tendrils of care that become the armature of friendship.

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

Such a reminder radiates with uncommon tenderness from Big Wolf & Little Wolf (public library) by French author Nadine Brun-Cosme, illustrated by the always magical Olivier Tallec and translated by publisher Claudia Zoe Bedrick, the visionary founder of Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion. With great subtlety and sensitivity, the story invites a meditation on loneliness, the meaning of solidarity, the relationship between the ego and the capacity for love, and the little tendrils of care that become the armature of friendship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Wolf smiled. Little Wolf was small.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot of space.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where were you?” asked Big Wolf.

“Down here,” said Little Wolf without pointing.

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

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

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

Complement the immeasurably lovely Big Wolf & Little Wolf with Seneca on true and false friendship and astronomer Maria Mitchell on how we co-create each other in relationship, then revisit other thoughtful and touching treasures from Enchanted Lion: Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, The Paper-Flower Tree, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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The Great Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz on Love

“Who serves best doesn’t always understand.”

The Great Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz on Love

Perhaps the greatest trial of love, and its greatest triumph, is to unmoor yourself from your longings and refuse to constrict the other with the dictate of your unmet needs — to accept that love, to the extent that it is real, must come unbidden. It cannot be obtained by ultimatum or negotiation; it is not subject to demand; it must flow freely or it doesn’t flow at all. And yet, though befriending our neediness may be essential to happiness, how do we keep ourselves from constricting love with the cycle of insatiable need?

In tussling with this elemental question, I have found myself returning again and again to two complementary perspectives — the great Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” built upon his foundational teaching that “understanding is love’s other name”; and poet Nikki Giovanni’s insistence in her forgotten conversation with James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.” We might feel that such an understanding calls for crouching closer and closer to its subject, be it self or other, in order to examine it with narrow focus and shallow depth of field, but this is a misleading intuition — the understanding of love is an expansive understanding, requiring us to zoom out of our habitual solipsism so as to regard ourselves and the object of our love from a great distance against the backdrop of universal life.

Nothing articulates this notion more beautifully than a spare, profound poem by the Nobel-winning Polish poet, essayist, translator, diplomat, and dissident Czesław Miłosz (June 30, 1911–August 14, 2004), found in his indispensable New and Collected Poems: 1931–2001 (public library).

LOVE
by Czesław Miłosz

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Complement with Shel Silverstein’s lovely illustrated allegory for the simple secret of love, Rainer Maria Rilke on what it really means to love, and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how you know whether you love somebody, then revisit Miłosz’s compatriot and fellow Nobel-winning poet Wisława Szymborska on great love.

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Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.”

Walt Whitman on the “Meaning” of Art and How to Best Access the Poetic

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf observed in her diary. “Looked at, it vanishes.” The same could be said of the soul of art, or perhaps of anything of substance and complexity — to write or speak about the meaning of a painting or a poem or a symphony is to flatten and impoverish its essence in some measure.

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) addresses with poetic precision of insight in a passage from Specimen Days (public library) — the endlessly rewarding collection of his prose fragments and diaries, which gave us Whitman’s meditations on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, the essence of happiness, and optimism as a force of resistance.

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

In a diary entry immediately following his reflection on what makes life worth living on the morning of his sixty-fourth birthday in 1882, Whitman writes:

Common teachers or critics are always asking “What does it mean?” Symphony of fine musician, or sunset, or sea-waves rolling up the beach — what do they mean? Undoubtedly in the most subtle-elusive sense they mean something — as love does, and religion does, and the best poem; — but who shall fathom and define those meanings?

In consonance with what Rachel Carson would later term “experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves,” Whitman considers “the soul’s frequent joy in what cannot be defined to the intellectual part, or to calculation,” and writes of poetry what holds true of all art:

At its best, poetic lore is like what may be heard of conversation in the dusk, from speakers far or hid, of which we get only a few broken murmurs. What is not gather’d is far more — perhaps the main thing.

Grandest poetic passages are only to be taken at free removes, as we sometimes look for stars at night, not by gazing directly toward them, but off one side.

Specimen Days remains an indispensable read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Jeanette Winterson on the paradox of art and pioneering philosopher Susanne Langer on how art works us over, then revisit Whitman on how art enhances life and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

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King of the Sky: A Lyrical Illustrated Fable of Belonging and the Meaning of Home

A soulful sidewise gleam at the loneliness of the immigrant experience.

King of the Sky: A Lyrical Illustrated Fable of Belonging and the Meaning of Home

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their magnificent 1973 conversation. But what do freedom and belonging mean in an age when immigration — that is, institutionalized otherness, divisiveness, and exclusion — is remapping humanity’s geopolitical and emotional landscape?

That is what zoologist and author Nicola Davies and illustrator Laura Carlin explore with uncommon tenderness in King of the Sky (public library) — the lyrical story of a young immigrant boy, trapped in unbelonging after his family leave their native Italy for the gloomy and forlorn hills of Wales.

His hollowing loneliness spills from the pages under Davies’s poetic pen and Carlin’s soft, deeply alive illustrations:

It rained and rained and rained.
Little houses huddled on the humpbacked hills.
Chimneys smoked and metal towers clanked.
The streets smelled of mutton soup and coal dust.
And no one spoke my language.

All of it told me This is not where you belong.

Throughout the story, we see the boy’s family — his mother, his infant sister — only as a ghostly and fragmentary presence, further contouring his all-consuming sense of isolation. Dislocated and desolate, magnetized by nostalgia, he finds solace in the improbable friendship of his elderly neighbor — a retired coal miner who spends his days caring for and training racing pigeons.

Just one thing reminded me of home — of sunlight, fountains, and the vanilla smell of ice cream in my nonna’s gelateria.

It was Mr. Evans’s pigeons in their loft behind my house, cooing as if they strutted in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.

Every day, the boy visits Mr. Evans and watches his pigeons soar “above the chimneys and the towers, up to where the sky stretched all the way to Italy.” One day, Mr. Evans puts a grey pigeon with a head “whiter than a splash of milk” into his young friend’s hands — a pigeon he believes is going to be a champion, one whose “eye blazed with fire.” He asks the boy to name the bird. Re del Cielo, he replies in an instant — King of the Sky.

The boy begins accompanying Mr. Evans on train trips, releasing the pigeons at various stations along the line to let them race back home, taking them a little farther each time. Each time, boy and man return to the loft, eating Mrs. Evans’s Welsh cakes as they await the pigeons’ steadfast return.

It never took them long.

From places far away, places that they’d never been, the pigeons flew home straight and fast as arrows. But the pigeon with the milk-white head was always last.

Still Mrs. Evans said he’d be a winner.

Aged and frail, Mr. Evans grows weaker by the day. By racing season, unable to leave his bed, he entrusts his young friend with putting the race rings on the birds, taking them to the train station, and logging their return on his clipboard.

The pigeons’ winnings rake in, but none for King of the Sky. Still, Mr. Evans asserts with unfaltering confidence that the white-headed bird is destined for victory — if only they can find the right race for him. “He’s got the wings for distance,” he tells the boy.

One day, the perfect race for King of the Sky emerges — the bird would go all the way to the boy’s native Rome by train, then race more than a thousand miles back to the humble Welsh loft.

As the race commences and King of the Sky starts making his way back from Italy, rain and lightning envelop the land. For two days and nights, the boy awaits his champion’s return, but the pigeon is nowhere to be seen.

I sat beside y friend’s bed, and told him that perhaps the sunlight and the fountains and the vanilla smell of ice cream from a thousand gelaterie had made our pigeon want to stay.

“No!” said Mr. Evans. “That will only tell him… This is not where you belong.”

At last, the downpour ends and the boy runs outside to squint at the sky, into the clouds of fragile hope. And there it is — “a speck… a blob… a bird.” His King of the Sky — a soaring alter ego for the displaced boy trying to make a home in a new land, trying to fathom the depth and meaning of belonging.

Twelve hundred miles he’d flown, from somewhere far away he’d never been. Steered north and west, finding his direction from the sun and the force that guides a compass needle. Flown until he saw the shape of humpbacked hills, the lines of little houses and the chimneys, heard the clanking towers, smelled the soup and coal dust.

Flown down into the arms of the smiling, crying boy — the boy who knew at last that he was home.

Complement the soulful King of the Sky with The Blue Songbird — a very different but kindred avian-inspired parable of homecoming — and Carson Ellis’s illustrated meditation on the many things home can mean, then revisit physicist Freeman Dyson on how immigration effects a loneliness in time as well as space and Hannah Arendt on the immigrant plight for identity.

Illustrations courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova

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Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Great Love

“Great love is never justified. It’s like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves?”

Polish Poet and Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Great Love

“For one human being to love another,” Rilke wrote to a young friend, “that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

Two generations later, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) — another visionary poet with uncommon insight into the human psyche — examined the forbearance and hardiness of heart that love requires in a beautiful short piece simply titled “Great Love,” found in her Nonrequired Reading (public library) — a collection of Szymborska’s short, soaring essays inspired by various books she devoured during one voracious reading binge in the 1970s.

Wisława Szymborska

After reading the extraordinary memoir of the love of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s life, Anna — the record of one of history’s truest and most beautiful loves, in the course of which Anna buoyed Fyodor through an inordinate share of hardship that would have sunk most — Szymborska reflects on a particularly trying period in the couple’s life and considers how true love swathes its bearers with a superhuman resilience of spirit:

Anna was pregnant during this period, and it was an exceptionally difficult pregnancy, perhaps because of her perpetually strained nerves. But… she was happy, she wanted to be happy, she managed to be happy and couldn’t even conceive of greater happiness…

We’re dealing here with the phenomenon of great love.

With an eye to the unseeing cynicism with which people often view what they don’t understand — especially the private universe of any great love, incomprehensible to the outside observer and often incomprehensible even to the lovers who inhabit it themselves — Szymborska likens great love to the blind optimism of plants and adds:

Detached observers always ask in such cases: “So what does she (he) see in him (her)?” Such questions are best left in peace: great love is never justified. It’s like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves? But it does exist and it really is green — clearly, then, it’s getting whatever it needs to survive.

Complement this particular portion of the endlessly rewarding Nonrequired Reading, which also gave us Szymborska’s meditations on why we read, the necessity of fear, and our cosmic destiny, with Anna Dostoyevskaya on the secret to a happy marriage, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s compatriot Leo Tolstoy on love’s paradoxical demands, and Lebanese-American poet, philosopher, and painter Kahlil Gibran on weathering the uncertainties of love, then revisit Szymborska on how our certitudes constrain us, her ode to the number pi, and her stunning poem “Possibilities.”

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