“You will look at everything. And everything is really quite beautiful. Quite.”
By Maria Popova
“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be in his wonderful letter of life-advice, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.” Few things beckon our attention and awaken us to life more compellingly than color. “Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color,” Ellen Meloy wrote in her exquisite meditation on the chemistry, culture, and the conscience of color. And why else live if not to pay attention to the changing light?
In Daring Baby (public library), artist Maira Kalman, a poet of chromatic tenderness, composes an uncommon ode to aliveness, to the vibrant beauty of life, life that is very new and life that is very old.
As the teaches the baby to look at this color, this shape, this quality of light, we see the grownup relearn to see with those baby-eyes that are awake to the luminous everythingness of everything, undulled by the accumulation of filters we call growing up. What emerges is a celebration of attention as affirmation of aliveness, a vibrant testament to Simone Weil’s exquisite observation that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Page after painted page, a generous presence unfolds — presence with the new life of this small helpless observer of the world, presence with the ancient life of sky and sea.
There are people dancing and geese swimming in formation and “a thousand tiny silver fish” jumping over the water in an arc and a lightning-sliced night and a full Moon reflected in the gentle blue ripples and “a tree filled with yellow sparkly stars.”
Perfectly, it all takes place on the edge of the ocean — that singular place of existential reckoning, the perfect stage for Kalman’s classic dual serenade to life and death, to the mortal as the precious crucible of wonder.
One day, a summer party celebrates the baby’s birth “and everyone’s birthday with cheery cherry pie,” which a man takes home in his hat. “Everyone is born. That is true.” Another day, the grownup protagonist stumbles upon the still cool body of a “a big mossy-green turtle,” washed up from the ocean of life — a subtle, poignant intimation that everybody dies, too.
She tells the baby:
The water carried the turtle out to sea to be buried in the vast ocean. I think that is a good thing. At any rate, it is a thing.
I am telling you this because I know you will understand.
Yet always, always, there is an undertone of loneliness in even the most symphonic love — not the gladsome “neighboring solitudes” Rilke placed at the center of healthy companionship, but the hollowing loneliness of unbelonging, of never feeling fully and completely seen, which another great poet placed at the center of her poetry and her private anguish before she perished by that loneliness.
In an entry from the winter of her freshman year at Smith College, upon returning to her dorm room after a four-day blur with her family for Thanksgiving, she writes:
Now I know what loneliness is, I think. Momentary loneliness, anyway. It comes from a vague core of the self — like a disease of the blood, dispersed throughout the body so that one cannot locate the matrix, the spot of contagion.
This loneliness will blur and diminish, no doubt, when tomorrow I plunge again into classes, into the necessity of studying for exams. But now, that false purpose is lifted and I am spinning in a temporary vacuum… The routine is momentarily suspended and I am lost. There is no living being on earth at this moment except myself. I could walk down the halls, and empty rooms would yawn mockingly at me from every side.
Peering beyond the immediate situation, beyond this particular moment in life, she casts a darkly prognostic eye toward the rosary of moments stringing her uncertain future — a future that would soon include a passionate but damaging love, a future cut short by her lonely pain — and adds:
God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in it’s appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering.
It was Plath’s tragedy that after chance had dealt her neurochemistry and nurture far from optimal, and that the delicious illusion of choice had led her to a complicated love that deepened her art and deepened the pain from which it sprang. But her concrete tragedy — which is a common tragedy: so often our unhealed wounds lead us to people whose claws fit those wounds and deepen them — is contoured by the luminous negative space of the opposite possibility: Some loves can unseal, irradiate, and heal those small dark old places in us where joy has been compacted into a hard dense loneliness. This possibility is folded into a glorious, maddening Möbius strip of trust: The very relationships in which we can begin to grow those twin roots of the soul require a level of trust to begin the terrifying process of being known — a process Adrienne Rich placed at the heart of every relationship in which two people have together earned the right to use the word “love,” a truly honorable relationship shaped by “a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
In his thrice-revised and expanded autobiographies, Frederick Douglass, born Frederick Bailey, recounts changing his surname multiple times to cover his fugitive trail. When the time came to settle on a permanent name, he invited the man in whose home was taking refuge — a free black man devoted to helping fugitive slaves — to choose for him, as a token of gratitude. His host suggested Douglas — the self-possessed Highlander hero of one of the era’s greatest literary blockbusters, Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. In his retelling, Frederick Douglass brushes past the additional s, with the vague intimation that he added it for distinction.
But there is another probable possibility for the peculiar spelling. Here was an orphan with no sense of roots, an aching ambivalence about his parentage, and a longing for communal belonging. And here was the grown man of genius retelling his own story of becoming, aware — like all persons of genius — that a larger mythos of colossal cultural significance hangs upon their private myth.
Since the dawn of the abolition movement, women had played an active and ardent role in fundraising, organizing, and public advocacy — women who risked ostracism, or worse, for exercising the agency of stepping outside the narrow confines of the domestic sphere allotted them and into the cosmos of political activism. One of the movement’s leading women was the young Philadelphian Sarah Mapps Douglass (September 9, 1806–September 8, 1882), who at only twenty-five had organized a major fundraising campaign for the primary journalistic instrument of abolition — William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator, on the pages of which Frederick Douglass found and trained his own literary voice.
The daughter of two active abolitionists, Sarah was born into one of America’s most prominent black families and raised in the Quaker tradition — her grandfather, Cyrus, had been a slave to a local Quaker baker who liberated him and taught him the baking trade; Cyrus soon opened his own successful bakery, which allowed him to fund and operate a school for black children from his home, later becoming a founding member of the pioneering Free African Society seventy-five years before Abraham Lincoln staked his credo and his life on the Emancipation Proclamation.
Sarah was nursed on a love of literature and a love of nature, immersed in art and music, and lavished with painting lessons in a bubble of her privilege — provisional and relative, as all privilege is. Growing up amid the intellectual ferment of abolition, she grasped the terrors of slavery only abstractly, as an idea and not a felt reality, not fully imagining how other children who looked like her lived very different lives, how people who looked like her parents died gruesome deaths. Then, as a young woman, she performed one of those rare, triumphal acts that signify true maturity and grandeur of spirit: changing one’s mind as it expands to take in a broader perspective and publicly acknowledging one’s previously limited views.
In 1832, Sarah Mapps Douglass recounted her awakening to the urgency of abolition in a rousing speech at a gathering of the Female Literary Society of Philadelphia, of which she was a leader — the first specialty library for African-American women, literate and illiterate, free and enslaved, devoted to “the cultivation of intellectual powers” as the highest tribute to the sanctity of human nature. She told the women gathered before her:
An English writer has said, ‘We must feel deeply before we can act rightly; from that absorbing, heart-rendering compassion for ourselves springs a deeper sympathy for others, and from a sense of our weakness and our own upbraidings arises a disposition to be indulgent, to forbear, to forgive.’ This is my experience. One short year ago, how different were my feelings on the subject of slavery! It is true, the wail of the captive sometimes came to my ear in the midst of my happiness, and caused my heart to bleed for his wrongs; but, alas! the impression was as evanescent as the early cloud and morning dew. I had formed a little world of my own, and cared not to move beyond its precincts. But how was the scene changed when I beheld the oppressor lurking on the border of my own peaceful home! I saw his iron hand stretched forth to seize me as his prey, and the cause of the slave became my own.
The following year, in a friendship album compiled by her Philadelphian friend and fellow activist Amy Matilda Cassey, Sarah Mapps Douglass fused her twin loves of literature and nature with her artistic acumen in a series of consummate flowers she painted alongside selections from poems she transcribed in her lovely longhand.
No marvel woman should love flowers, they bear
So much of the fanciful similitude
To her own history; like herself repaying
With such sweet interest all the cherishing
That calls their beauty or their sweetness forth;
And like her too — dying beneath neglect.
Cassey would maintain and expand the album, now found in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia, for two decades, drawing contributions — poetry, prose, paintings, sketches — by some of the era’s most prominent abolitionists, including Garrison, Lucy Stone, and Frederick Douglass himself. The flowers Sarah Mapps Douglass painted in it are considered the first surviving artworks signed by an African-American woman.
To a similar album complied by one of her pupils, Mary Anne Dickerson, Sarah Mapps Douglass contributed a single, splendid painting of fuchsia — Fuchsia triphylla, so named in the last years of the 17th century by a French monk and botanist, after a German botanist and herbalist born in the first year of the 16th century — an uncommonly beautiful and fragrant flowering plant uprooted from its native habitat in Central and South America, so that an uncommonly gifted young woman of uprooted roots could tend to it and paint it in her native antebellum Philadelphia — a tender reminder that by whatever ugly and unchosen forces we might come into this world, into the dispensation of chance contouring our lives, there is always the choice to consecrate those lives and this world with the willful brush of beauty.
How our cosmic improbability confers dignity and meaning upon our shared existence.
By Maria Popova
“What exists, exists so that it can be lost and become precious,” Lisel Mueller, who lived to nearly 100, wrote in her gorgeous poem “Immortality” a century and a half after a young artist pointed the world’s largest telescope at the cosmos to capture the first surviving photograph of the Moon and the first-ever photograph of a star: Vega — an emissary of spacetime, reaching its rays across twenty-five lightyears to imprint the photographic plate with a image of the star as it had been twenty-five years earlier, immortalizing a moment already long gone.
And yet in a cosmological sense, what exists is precious not because it will one day be lost but because it has overcome the staggering odds of never having existed at all: Within the fraction of matter in the universe that is not dark matter, a fraction of atoms cohered into the elements necessary to form the complex structures necessary for life, of which a tiny portion cohered into the seething cauldron of complexity we call consciousness — the tiny, improbable fraction of a fraction of a fraction with which we have the perishable privilege of contemplating the universe in our poetry and our physics.
In Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sieves four centuries of scientific breakthroughs, from Kepler’s revolutionary laws of planetary motion to the thousands of habitable exoplanets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission, to estimate that even with habitable planets orbiting one tenth of all stars, the faction of living matter in the universe is about one-billionth of one-billionth: If all the matter in the universe were the Gobi desert, life would be but a single grain of sand.
Along the way, Lightman draws delicate lines of figuring from Hindu cosmology to quantum gravity, from Pascal to inflation theory, from Lucretius to Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble — lines contouring the most elemental questions that have always animated humanity, questions that are themselves the answer to what it means to be human.
As we have struggled through the ages to fathom this strange and wondrous cosmos in which we find ourselves, few ideas have been richer than the concept of nothingness. For to understand anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter.
Because we are self-referential creatures — the consequence of being creatures with selves, itself the consequence of consciousness and the ceaseless electrical storm of neural firings that gives rise to our sense of self — no void troubles us more than that of our own mortality: the notion of our absence from the scene of life. It is difficult enough to grasp how somethingness could have arisen from nothingness — how the universe can exist at all. It savages the mind and its animating selfhood to consider that everything — including the subset constituting the particular something of us — could dissolve to nothingness.
It is a discomposing notion — even for a physicist without delusion about the materiality of life, with a soulful reverence for the poetry of existence. Lightman closes his essay on the science of nothingness with a sentiment of touching, inescapable humanity:
What I feel and I know is that I am here now, at this moment in the grand sweep of time. I am not part of the void. I am not a fluctuation in the quantum vacuum. Even though I understand that someday my atoms will be scattered in soil and in air, that I will no longer exist, I am alive now. I am feeling this moment. I can see my hand on my writing desk. I can feel the warmth of the Sun through the window. And looking out, I can see a pine-needled path that goes down to the sea.
Another essay, titled “Immortality,” explores this irreconcilable dissonance between the creaturely and the cosmic — the dissonance from which we make our most symphonic art as we try to fathom our existence. Lying in his hammock one summer day, Lightman observes:
A hundred years from now, I’ll be gone, but many of these spruce and cedars will still be here. The wind going through them will still sound like a distant waterfall. The curve of the land will be the same as it is now. The paths that I wander may still be here, although probably covered with new vegetation. The rocks and ledges on the shore will be here, including a particular ledge I’m quite fond of, shaped like the knuckled back of a large animal. Sometimes, I sit on that ledge and wonder if it will remember me. Even my house might still be here, or at least the concrete posts of its footing, crumbling in the salt air. But eventually, of course, even this land will shift and change and dissolve. Nothing persists in the material world. All of it changes and passes away.
And yet, in an echo of one of the book’s subtlest yet profoundest undertones, Lightman challenges our binary view of life and death. With an eye to consciousness — “the seemingly strange experience” that furnishes “the most profound and troubling aspect of human existence” — he argues that death is not the life-switch in the off position but the gradual dimming of consciousness, of our experience of aliveness, through the deterioration of its physical infrastructure.
Ever since Cecilia Payne discovered the chemical fingerprint of the universe, we have known that the atoms we are made of — seven thousand trillion trillion atoms in each of us, on average — were forged in the furnace of faraway stars. We know, too, that every cell in our bodies — the tendons that stiffen our fists and the cortices that kindle our tenderness — is made of atoms. Lightman writes:
To an alien intelligence, each of us human beings would appear to be an assemblage of atoms, humming with our various electrical and chemical energies. To be sure, it is a special assemblage. A rock does not behave like a person… When we die, this special assemblage disassembles. The atoms remain, only scattered about.
The soul, as commonly understood, we cannot discuss scientifically. Not so with consciousness, and the closely related Self. Isn’t the experience of consciousness and Self an illusion caused by those trillions of neuronal connections and electrical and chemical flows? If you don’t like the word illusion, then you can stick with the sensation itself. You can say that what we call the Self is a name we give to the mental sensation of certain electrical and chemical flows in our neurons. That sensation is rooted in the material brain. And I do not mean to diminish the brain in any way by affirming its materiality. The human brain is capable of all of the wondrous feats of imagination and self-reflection and thought that we ascribe to our highest existence. But I do claim that it’s all atoms and molecules. If the alien intelligence examined a human being in detail, he/she/it would see fluids flowing, sodium and potassium gates opening and closing as electricity races through nerve cells, acetylcholine molecules migrating between synapses. But he/she/it would not find a Self. The Self and consciousness, I think, are names we give to the sensations produced by all of those electrical and chemical flows.
If someone began disassembling my brain one neuron at a time, depending on where the process began I might first lose a few motor skills, then some memories, then perhaps the ability to find particular words to make sentences, the ability to recognize faces, the ability to know where I was. During this slow taking apart of my brain, I would become more and more disoriented. Everything I associate with my ego and Self would gradually dissolve away into a bog of confusion and minimal existence. The doctors in their blue and green scrub suits could drop the removed neurons, one by one, into a metal bowl. Each a tiny gray gelatinous blob. Stringy with the axons and dendrites. Soft, so you would not hear the little thuds as each plopped in the bowl.
An understanding of death as “the name that we give to a collection of atoms that once had the special arrangement of a functioning neuronal network and now no longer does so” renders the boundary between life and death more like a shoreline redrawn by the receding tide pool than like a coastal cliff dropping off into the abyss. And yet even as a scientific materialist with no mystical inclinations and no belief in an afterlife, Lightman remains what we all are — fundamentally human in our special assemblage of atoms — and gives voice to that fundamental humanity with uncommon splendor of sentiment:
Despite my belief that I am only a collection of atoms, that my awareness is passing away neuron by neuron, I am content with the illusion of consciousness. I’ll take it. And I find a pleasure in knowing that a hundred years from now, even a thousand years from now, some of my atoms will remain in this place where I now lie in my hammock. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment. Some will once have been part of my hand. If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocean and then floated again to the air. Some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people. Some will become parts of other lives, other memories. That might be a kind of immortality.
As if it were not staggering enough how tiny a fraction of space life animates, Lightman observes that it also animates a fraction of time — not merely in terms of the transience of any one life, but in terms of all life occupying only a slender slice of the totality of time in the universe, as the discovery of cosmic acceleration has revealed. The cosmic brevity of “the era of life” is bookended on one end by the slow condensation of colossal gas clouds into the first stars that forged the first atoms large enough to form complex structures, after the universe had already existed for about one billion years, and bookended on the other by the eventual death of all stars when they burn out in several thousand billion years, leaving behind a dark lifeless expanse of pure spacetime.
Here we each are, each existence a summer day suspended in the hammock of spacetime.
And yet even in these cold unfeeling cosmic facts, Lightman finds reason to swell the brevity of existence with the warm feeling of kinship that makes life worth living. With an eye to his grain-of-Gobi-sand analogy, he writes:
Life in our universe is a flash in the pan, a few moments in the vast unfolding of time and space in the cosmos… A realization of the scarcity of life makes me feel some ineffable connection to other living things… a kinship in being among those few grains of sand in the desert, or present during the relatively brief era of life in the vast temporal sprawl of the universe.
We share something in the vast corridors of this cosmos we find ourselves in. What exactly is it we share? Certainly, the mundane attributes of “life”: the ability to separate ourselves from our surroundings, to utilize energy sources, to grow, to reproduce, to evolve. I would argue that we “conscious” beings share something more during our relatively brief moment in the “era of life”: the ability to witness and reflect on the spectacle of existence, a spectacle that is at once mysterious, joyous, tragic, trembling, majestic, confusing, comic, nurturing, unpredictable and predictable, ecstatic, beautiful, cruel, sacred, devastating, exhilarating. The cosmos will grind on for eternity long after we’re gone, cold and unobserved. But for these few powers of ten, we have been. We have seen, we have felt, we have lived.