“Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe. Thank the tree in your mind for showing us how to grow and stay.”
By Maria Popova
In 1964, artist Yoko Ono (b. February 18, 1933) published Grapefruit — a collection of her poems, drawings, and instructions for life, constituting a sort of whimsical activity book for grownups. Nearly half a century later, on the eve of her seventieth birthday, she released a sequel titled Acorn (public library) — a new set of “action poems” bearing the same sensibility of irreverence and earnestness, subversion and sincerity. Aswirl between them are Ono’s distinctive dot-drawings — abstract three-dimensional shapes reminiscent of Thomas Wright’s pioneering 18th-century depictions of the universe.
Fusing the playful and the philosophical, the pieces are grouped into sets according to the attentional focus of their particular activity — the sky, the city, the seasons, the home, the sounds and sights and sensations that surround us. Undergirding the poems is a robust optimism and a meditative quality that accomplishes the seemingly impossible — inviting deep reflection not through the weight of analytical reason but through the levity of intuitive insight.
SKY PIECE I
Towards the end of the Second World War, I looked like a little ghost because of the food shortage. I was hungry. It was getting easier to just lie down and watch the sky. That’s when I fell in love with the sky, I think.
Since then, all my life, I have been in love with the sky. Even when everything was falling apart around me, the sky was always there for me. It was the only constant factor in my life, which kept changing with the speed of light and lightning. As I told myself then, I could never give up on life as long as the sky was there.
Tell us when you first noticed the sky.
Tell us when you first noticed that the sky was beautiful.
WATCH PIECE I
Watch a hundred-year-old tree breathe.
Thank the tree in your mind for showing us
how to grow and stay.
EARTH PIECE I
Listen to the sound of the fire burning
in the center of the globe.
SKY PIECE V
Imagine running across a wheat field
as fast as you can.
Imagine your friend running towards you
as fast as possible.
Imagine the colour of the sky. If it’s clouded,
see if there are any blue spots.
If it’s clear,
see if there are any clouds.
If it’s stormy,
look out for thunder and lightning.
If it’s snowing,
take your coat off
so you can wrap it around your friend.
SOUND PIECE VI
Tape the sound of your baby son crying.
Let him listen to the tape when he is
going through pain as a grown man.
CLEANING PIECE II
Make a numbered list of sadness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone each time there is sadness.
Burn the list, and appreciate the mound of stones for its beauty.
Make a numbered list of happiness in your life.
Pile up stones corresponding to those numbers.
Add a stone each time there is happiness.
Compare the mound of stones to the one of sadness.
CLEANING PIECE III
Try to say nothing negative about anybody.
a) for three days
b) for forty-five days
c) for three months
See what happens to your life.
CLEANING PIECE IV
Send a note of appreciation to silent courageous people
you happen to have noticed: parents, teachers, shopkeepers,
street cleaners, artists, etc.
“The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”
By Maria Popova
In his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the Irish poet, playwright, and translator Seamus Heaney (April 13, 1939–August 30, 2013) celebrated poetry’s singular power to “remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values” and to “persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness.” It’s a task that poetry shares perhaps most directly with an unlikely cultural counterpart — the commencement address, aimed at equipping the young, most vulnerable in their consciousness, with values. This might be why poets make such fine commencement speakers — from Adrienne Rich’s beautiful case for the true value of education to Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life.
In May of 1996, months after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, 57-year-old Heaney took the podium before the graduating class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and delivered an extraordinary speech later included in Take This Advice (public library) — the compendium of timelessly rewarding commencement addresses that also gave us Toni Morrison on how to be your own story.
Between verses of poetry, Heaney observes:
Getting started, keeping going, getting started again — in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.
This rhythm … is something I would want each one of you to experience in the years ahead, and experience not only in your professional life, whatever that may be, but in your emotional and spiritual lives as well — because unless that underground level of the self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your make-up, you are going to be in danger of settling into whatever profile the world prepares for you and accepting whatever profile the world provides for you. You’ll be in danger of molding yourselves in accordance with laws of growth other than those of your own intuitive being.
The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.
Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you.
But this wasn’t Heaney’s first commencement address. Fourteen years earlier, he stood before the graduating class at Fordham University and delivered his speech as a 46-stanza poem in metrical verse. (Two years later, an Australian scientist published an astronomical paper as a 38-stanza poem in metrical verse — perhaps a mere coincidence, perhaps inspired by Heaney’s address, which had gone “viral” by pre-social-media standards.)
In the fourth stanza, Heaney offers a defense of the format:
For clarity’s what verse is good for.
It is a kind of aide memoire,
That ticks beneath the pace of talk
As feet convey you when you walk,
Shuttling on and shuttling back,
On speech’s loom.
Despite the playful form, the verses shuttle straight into the political and the profound. A lifelong voice for the working class, Heaney considers the implicit privilege of higher education:
Inspire me, then, didactic muse,
Beyond clichés and pompous views
Of Art and Science,
To be dulce et utile,
To speak sweetly and usefully
About the world and th’academy
And their alliance.
Or is it not a misalliance,
Ivory towers in a world of violence
And corporate money.
Are college walls perhaps a door
Shut to the working and the poor
While the privileged and the few ignore
The unwashed many?
Do we not mystify the facts
And milk the taxpayer of his tax
By the illusion
That our minds serve much higher ends
Than bending backs and blistered hands?
How much of common good depends
In other words, dear graduates,
How do we justify our fates
As an upper crust
With handfuls of credit cards and dollars
In hands as pale as our white collars?
OAll flesh is dust.
It makes me say such status symbols
Are trivial as sewers’ thimbles
And just as hard
For they can form a callous shell
Against the little pricking needle
Of other people’s needs, and kill
The feeling heart.
But here, perhaps, I should explain
I was the eldest child of nine
And I have brothers
Who barkeep, schoolteach — and don’t write.
One labors on a building site.
One milks a herd morning and night
And in all weathers.
My father bargained on fair days.
My mother’s father worked the railways
And linen mills.
One uncle drove a rural breadvan.
One aunt was more farmhand than woman.
One who became an enclosed nun
Worked in hotels.
So part of me half stands apart
Beyond the pale of books and art
And is not moved
Until they justify their place
And win their rights and can keep face,
Until their value for the race
Is really proven.
Heaney points out that the esteem of education alone is no guarantee of peace and justice — the highest-ranking Nazi leaders, he reminds us, were highly educated men and those who held down Galileo were esteemed scholars but were more concerned with keeping “the sum of knowledge static” than with advancing human thought. He considers, instead, the true sustaining force of the human spirit. Echoing Bertrand Russell’s ever-timely insistence on the role of “fruitful monotony” in a full life and Susan Sontag’s admonition against the false divide between intuition and the intellect, Heaney offers:
No co-ed dorm supplies the joys
Of an attic full of dusty toys
And old dolls’ houses.
No faculty of engineering
Repeats the joys of tinkering
With model planes, that hankering
To fly with aces.
It seems illiterate solitude
Is the first place where the true and the good
Awaken in us.
The later freedom we call leisure
Cannot supply that buried treasure
Which is the basis and the measure
And which we name imagination,
A word I cite with much elation
And some unease
Because it can sound slight and airy
An entry in the dictionary,
A bubble word. Yet while I’m wary
I still want to declare its great
Sustaining force, early and late,
From youth to age.
It does not just mean fancy thoughts.
Accountants, lawyers, graduates
In medicine, as well as poets
Using language —
All need its salutary power.
All men and women must beware
Who would deny it
And go against their childhood’s grain
And dry up like earth parched for rain.
They’ll grow mechanical and then
No drug or diet
No health-farm, clinic, yoga course
No mantra om, no Star Wars force
For what is lost when the mind divides.
Even science now concedes
The brain has two conjugal sides,
The left and right.
To have to marry intuition
To the analytic reason
For psychic balance.
Head sleeps with heart, begets a creature
Free yet cornered in its nature.
To be your whole self, you must mate your
Brains and glands.
So scholarship and art must be
Fragrant with personality
And moral feeling.
Distinction’s not an ego-trip.
Good luck helps many to the top
Yet once up there you can still slip
And keep on falling.
Everything flows, an old Greek said.
Nothing’s secure. Gold’s only lead
When you stop to think.
On your way up, show consideration
To the ones you meet on their way down.
The Latin root of condescension
Means we all sink.
Let self-will be anathema.
Let the hierarchy and Mafia
Join hand in glove
To doom and excommunicate
Whoever’s not compassionate,
Whoever will not contemplate
The world through love.
Speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, in May of 2000, Heaney begins by naming the perennial problem all successful speeches must solve — that of how a single person can “address a crowd of 25,000 and hope to establish any kind of worthwhile contact.”
And yet establish it he does, not only with the 25,000 people sitting on the Franklin Field bleachers that day but with millions more across time and space. In a sentiment that has only swelled in pertinence in the decade and a half since, Heaney offers:
Living in the world [of today] means that you inhabit several different psychic and cultural levels at the same time. And the marvelous thing about us as human beings is that we have been provided with a whole system of intellectual and imaginative elevators that whisk us from floor to floor, at will and on whim. This is the world of globalization where one thing can impinge unexpectedly and often drastically upon another; so much so that we no longer have any difficulty in entertaining the theory that the shake of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world is going to produce a tornado in another.
Considering the singular precipice of graduation, as the young part with their certain past and prepare to plunge into this uncertain world, Heaney counsels:
My advice to you is to understand that this in-between condition is not to be regarded as a disabling confusion but that it is rather a necessary state, a consequence of our situation between earthy origin and angelic potential.
A master of metaphor, Heaney illustrates this notion with the poetic image of Terminus, the Roman deity of boundaries:
The image of the god Terminus was kept in the Temple of Jupiter, at a point where the temple was unroofed, open constantly to the sky. In other words, even Terminus, the god of limits, refused to recognize that limits are everything. The open sky above his head testified to his yearning to escape the ground beneath his feet… We are placed, as individuals and as a species, between a given history and habitat and any imaginable future.
Remember that the anchor of your being lies in human affection and human responsibility, but remember also to keep swimming up into the air of envisaged possibilities.
“Perhaps we wouldn’t talk so much nonsense, tell so many lies, if we knew that they were echoing throughout the cosmos…”
By Maria Popova
In 1984, astronomer Jill Tarter founded SETI — an institute dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That year, Carl Sagan — a major supporter of the SETI project — began writing his novel Contact, which was published in 1985 and adapted into a major motion picture starring Jodie Foster twelve years later. In the most beautiful scene in the movie, Foster’s character, inspired by Dr. Tarter, peers out her spaceship window as she approaches an extraordinary alien world and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”
Several months before the launch of SETI, it was indeed one of humanity’s greatest poets — Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012) — who addressed the abiding allure of extraterrestrial life by way of its mirror image: the possibility that we might be alone in the universe, what it reveals about our most elemental fears, and how it can ennoble the human spirit.
In a beautiful 1983 piece titled Cosmic Solitude later included in her Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (public library) — a collection of short sketches, reflections, and “loose associations” inspired by books Szymborska was reading at the time — she writes:
Life is picky and demands a mixture of highly specific conditions; we’ve found their fulfillment on our planet and nowhere else so far. Which doesn’t mean that among all the billions and billions of stars there’s no chance of a similar combination.
With her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry wit, Szymborska offers an uncommon take on the implications:
I admit that I find the question of life beyond Earth quite interesting, but still I’d prefer not to have it settled too quickly and definitively. For example, I’m cheered, not disappointed, by the virtually certain fact that there is no life on any other planet in our solar system. I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth. Furthermore I’m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs. Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddis flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal. At the turn of the century, fashion called for rotating tables at which you could summon up the spirit of Copernicus to tell you who’d stolen your garnet ring or the spirit of three-year-old Sabina, who’d authoritatively predict when and where to expect the next European war. It was taken for granted that every spirit must know everything and be good at everything.
Setting aside the satire of the supernatural, Szymborska turns to the deeper concern undergirding our longing for celestial companions — our terror of solitude, extended from its acute manifestation in the human realm into our cosmic environment. In a passage all the more poignant today, as we stand perched on the precipice of her “imaginable future,” she writes:
[But] the belief in UFOs has its serious side: fear in the face of cosmic solitude. I don’t mean to make light of this, I’ll just try to ask a few questions. Would this solitude really be so awful? So unbearable? … Would we really be driven to darkest despair by the news that life doesn’t exist beyond Earth? Oh, I know, I know, no scientist will make such an announcement either today or tomorrow, since we have no data at this point and no way of obtaining data in the imaginable future. But let’s stop and think about such a revelation. Would that really be the worst of all possible news? Perhaps just the opposite — it would sober us, brace us, teach us mutual respect, point us toward a slightly more human way of life? Perhaps we wouldn’t talk so much nonsense, tell so many lies, if we knew that they were echoing throughout the cosmos? Maybe a single, other life would finally gain the value it deserves, the value of a phenomenon, a revelation, a specimen unique to the entire universe? Every stage manager knows that the tiny figure of an actor against the backdrop of dark curtains on a vast and empty stage becomes monumental in every word and gesture… And after all, would the solitude we fear so much really be so solitary? Along with all the other people, plants, and animals?
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