A lovely homage to a universal human impulse radiating across time and space and cultures and civilizations.
By Maria Popova
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timely exhortation for presence over productivity. It may be an elemental feature of our condition that the more scarce something is, the more precious it becomes. Just as the shortness of life calls, in that Seneca way, for filling each year with breadths of experience, so the shortness of the day calls for the fulness of each hour, each moment. No day concentrates and consecrates its elementary particles of time more powerfully than the shortest day of the year. With our awareness pointed to its brevity by ancient rites and modern calendars alike, as we “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” something rapturous happens — a kind of portal into heightened presence opens up as every minute ticks with a supra-consciousness of its passage, pulsates with an extra fulness of being, while at the same time attuning us to the cyclical seasonality of time, reminding us of the cycles of life and death.
That is what writer Susan Cooper and artist Carson Ellis celebrate in The Shortest Day (public library) — an illustrated resurrection of Cooper’s 1974 poem by the same title, originally composed for John Langstaff’s beloved Christmas Revel shows, which fuse medieval and modern music in grassroots theatrical productions across local communities.
Cooper’s buoyant verses and Ellis’s soulful, mirthful illustrations bring to life, across time and space and cultures and civilizations, the ardor with which our ancestors have welcomed the winter solstice since long before the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the word orbit in an era when few dared believe that the Earth spins on its axis while revolving around the Sun. (It is a function of the tilt of Earth’s axis and the elliptical shape of its orbit — another radical contribution of Kepler’s, who debunked the millennia-old dogma of perfect circular motion — that when our planet’s axial tilt leans one pole as far away as it would go from our star, we are granted the shortest possible day and the longest possible night of the year.)
So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
In an afterword reflecting on the universal human impulse to celebrate light — its departure and its return — Cooper writes:
If you live on a planet that circles a sun, your time is governed by the patters of light and darkness, summer and winter, warmth and cold. And, of course, life and death. Once our forebears learned to farm, they planted and harvested at the equinoxes, but it was the solstices that caught their attention. The extremes. They watched their days shrink from the bright abundance of high summer to the bleak, dark cold of winter, and they invented rituals to make sure the light would come back again: to bring the new day, the new year, the rebirth of life.
The rebirth rituals have become traditions we still celebrate, whether or not we remember where they came from. Some of them are so old that only their monuments remain. On the morning of the winter solstice at the great earthwork Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland, the day’s first beam of sunlight shines in through a passage that Neolithic people built there five thousand years ago to catch it, and for seventeen minutes, a dark room deep within is filled with the sunshine of the shortest day.
“The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.”
By Maria Popova
“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poetRoss Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”
Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.
Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.
Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.
In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:
It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.
And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.
When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.
To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:
For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.
One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:
I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.
Perhaps the most charming category of delights Gay encounters throughout the year are what he terms “unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers.” One September day, wandering through a small town in Indiana where he had just given a poetry reading at the local college and where “Make America Great Again” signs glare from an auto-shop selling foreign cars, he records this:
While I was working, headphones on, swaying to the new De La Soul record (delight, which deserves its own entry), I noticed a white girl — she looked fifteen, but could’ve been, I suppose, a college student — standing next to me with her hand raised. I looked up, confused, pulled my headphones back, and she said, like a coach or something, “Working on your paper?! Good job to you! High five!” And you better believe I high-fived that child in her preripped Def Leppard shirt and her itty-bitty Doc Martens. For I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.
A few months ago, walking down the street in Umbertide, in Italy, a trash truck pulled up beside me and the guy in the passenger’s seat yelled something I didn’t understand. I said, “Como,” the Spanish word for “come again,” which is a ridiculous thing to say because even if he had come again I wouldn’t have understood him. He knew this, and hopping out of the truck to dump in a couple cans, he flexed his muscles, pointed at me, and smacked my biceps hard. Twice! I loved him! Or when a waitress puts her hand on my shoulder. (Forget it if she calls me honey. Baby even better.) Or someone scooting by puts their hand on my back. The handshake. The hug. I love them both.
And then there are his parenthetical meta-delights — parentheses applied, in proper Lewis Thomas fashion, as containers of delight, wherein the container itself is delightful. For instance, this:
(A delight that we can heal our loved ones, even the dead ones.) Oh broken. Oh beautiful.
Or this, nestled into his Indiana-small-town experience:
(A feature of the small-town Midwest: a city-hallish building in the center, always with some sad statue trumpeting one war or another. This one had a guy in one of those not-very-protective-looking hats they called a helmet during WWI. He’s carrying, naturally, a gun. Jena Osman’s book Public Figures alerted me to the ubiquity of the gun, the weapon, in the hands of our statues. A delight I wish to now imagine and even impose, given that beneficent dictatorship [of one’s own life, anyway] is a delight, all new statues must have in their hands flowers or shovels or babies or seedlings or chinchillas — we could go on like this for a while. But never again — never ever — guns. I decree it, and also decree the removal of the already extant guns. Let the emptiness our war heroes carry be the metaphor for a while.)
This transmutation of terror into transcendence haunts the book as a guiding spirit. In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:
I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.
Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.
It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?
A diagrammatic serenade to nature in primary colors.
By Maria Popova
On a recent visit with a friend and her newborn daughter, I was completely taken with an enormous scientific diagram of a snail hanging by the crib, aglow with the thrill of science and the unmistakable vibrancy of mid-century graphic design. I asked about it — she said it was a vintage French classroom poster she had acquired at the Oakland Flea Market. Determined to find out more about its creator, I had only the tiny inscription in the bottom right-hand corner to go on: “P. Sougy, 1955.”
This is what I discovered after weeks of trawling catalogs, libraries, antiquarian bookstores, and French government archives: In the 1940s, Paul Sougy — a curator of natural history at the science museum of the French city of Orléans, and a gifted artist — was commissioned by the estate of the pioneering 18th-century French naturalist and anatomist Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux to create a series of illustrations based on Auzoux’s work, to be used in textbooks, workbooks, transparencies, and large-scale educational charts for classroom walls.
Today, all that is remembered of Sougy is the tiny 270-meter street in Orléans named for him, as his gorgeous drawings — his life’s work — perish out of print, to be chanced upon by young twenty-first-century mothers at flea markets.
Having culled as many of these gems as I could find from various government repositories, vintage textbooks, and classroom posters — crinkled and worn, savaged by time and schoolchildren’s eager hands — I have endeavored to restore them and make them available as prints for the scientific edification and aesthetic delight of generations to come, with a portion of all proceeds going toward The Nature Conservancy in support of their noble, necessary work to preserve the living splendor and biodiversity of this irreplaceable planet.
“Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return.”
By Maria Popova
In her visionary 1826 novel The Last Man — an apocalyptic journey to the end of humanity, unfolding into a sublime philosophical meditation on how to live with unutterable existential loneliness — Mary Shelley, whose brilliant mother had died giving birth to her and who had buried three of her own children, her sister, and the love of her life by the age of twenty-five, poses to her autobiographically based protagonist the supreme challenge of existence: In a world made desolate by a plague that has snatched all his loved ones, all his compatriots, and eventually all his fellow human beings, leaving him the solitary endling of the species, how does he go on living? Where does he find sustenance not just for the biological process but for his mental, emotional, and spiritual survival?
Shelley sends him to Rome — the city where, after laying the body of her infant daughter in an unmarked grave, she herself had slowly been resuscitated from grief. Wandering the streets of the Eternal City, alone and alien, accompanied only by a loyal dog, her protagonist finds his first taste of consolation, his first glimmer of the will to live, in the verses of Virgil, in the books at the majestic library of Rome, containing the sum total of humanity’s wisdom — for the work of literature and philosophy, as Montaigne reminds us across the abyss of epochs, is to teach us how to live with death.
Reading The Last Man in a desolate season of my own life and finding in it the meta-solace Shelley’s protagonist found in literature, I was suddenly grateful anew for how books can so buoy us from the pit of being, and was reminded of Debbie Millman’s wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library).
I want to tell you that everything will be okay.
I want to tell you that it will get better.
I want to tell you that it all works out in the end.
But sometimes it doesn’t.
Most times it is hard and we usually end up getting used to it. But there is something you can do in response: read.
Read until your heart breaks and you can’t stand it anymore. Read until you have paper cuts from turning pages or blisters from swiping a screen.
You see, here’s the thing: even at their worst, books won’t abandon you. If they make you cry it’s only because they are that good.
You can depend on books. They will always be there for you. Their patience is infinite and they have been known to save lives. They can help you become a smarter, more interesting person. Books can probably help you get dates, though I don’t recommend you ask that much of them too often (you don’t want to limit their power).
Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return — until they are complete, their light and their wisdom and their hearts sputtering to an inevitable, lonely end.