A subtle, stunning serenade to the lifelong hunger for self-love and self-forgiveness.
By Maria Popova
A generation after Walt Whitman declared himself “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul,” animated by an electric awareness of how interleaved the two are — how the body is the locus of “the real I myself” — the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James revolutionized our understanding of life with his theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, scientists have begun uncovering what poets have always known — that spirit is woven of sinew and mind of marrow. The body is the place, the only place, where we live — it is where we experience time, it is where we heal from emotional trauma, it is the seat of consciousness, without which there is nothing. And yet we spend our lives turning away from this elemental fact — with distraction, with addiction, with the trance of busyness — until suddenly something beyond our control — a diagnosis, a heartbreak, a pandemic — staggers us awake. We remember the body, this sole and solitary arena of being. The instant we remember to reverence it we also remember to mourn it, for we remember that this living miracle is a temporary miracle — a borrowed constellation of atoms bound to return to the stardust that made it.
That is what poet Louise Glück, laureate of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, explores in the short, stunning poem “Crossroads,” originally published in her 2009 book A Village Life, later included in her indispensable collected Poems 1962–2012 (public library), and read here by the poet herself for the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize.
CROSSROADS by Louise Glück
My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —
love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.
“It is very important to be in love with life… Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we ‘understand,’ there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.”
That spring, the teenage Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) — who would grow up to revolutionize not only art and activism, but the spirit of a generation and the soul of a city — grappled with the meaning of his own life and what it really means to live it on the pages of his diary, posthumously published as the quiet, symphonic wonder Keith Haring Journals (public library).
Five days before his nineteenth birthday and shortly before he left Pittsburgh, where he was attending art school, for a netless leap of faith toward New York City, he confronts the difficulty of knowing what we really want and writes:
This is a blue moment… it’s blue because I’m confused, again; or should I say “still”? I don’t know what I want or how to get it. I act like I know what I want, and I appear to be going after it — fast, but I don’t, when it comes down to it, even know.
I guess it’s because I’m afraid. Afraid I’m wrong. And I guess I’m afraid I’m wrong, because I constantly relate myself to other people, other experiences, other ideas. I should be looking at both in perspective, not comparing. I relate my life to an idea or an example that is some entirely different life. I should be relating it to my life only in the sense that each has good and bad facets. Each is separate. The only way the other attained enough merit, making it worthy of my admiration, or long to copy it is by taking chances, taking it in its own way. It has grown with different situations and has discovered different heights of happiness and equal sorrows. If I always seek to pattern my life after another, mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant… I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.
And then — in a testament to my resolute conviction, along with Blake, that all great natures are lovers of trees — he adds:
I found a tree in this park that I’m gonna come back to, someday. It stretches sideways out over the St. Croix river and I can sit on it and balance lying on it perfectly.
Within a decade, Haring’s resolve to “just live” until he dies collided with the sudden proximity of a highly probable death — the spacious until contracted into a span uncertain but almost certainly short as the AIDS epidemic began slaying his generation. A century after the uncommonly perceptive and poetic diarist Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant and sidelined sister — wrote upon receiving a terminal diagnosis that the remaining stretch of life before her is “the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Haring, having taken a long break from his own diary, returns to the mirror of the blank page and faces the powerful, paradoxical way in which the proximity of death charges living with life:
I keep thinking that the main reason I am writing is fear of death. I think I finally realize the importance of being alive. When I was watching the 4th of July fireworks the other night and saw my friend Martin [Burgoyne], I saw death. He says he has been tested and cleared of having AIDS, but when I looked at him I saw death. Life is so fragile.
In a sentiment evocative of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s memorable observation in his poetic and courageous exit from life that when people die, “they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death,” Haring adds:
It is a very fine line between life and death. I realize I am walking this line. Living in New York City and also flying on airplanes so much, I face the possibility of death every day. And when I die there is nobody to take my place… That is true of a lot of people (or everyone) because everyone is an individual and everyone is important in that they cannot be replaced.
But even as he shudders with the fragility of life, Haring continues to shimmer with the largehearted love of life that gives his art its timeless exuberance:
Touching people’s lives in a positive way is as close as I can get to an idea of religion.
Belief in one’s self is only a mirror of belief in other people and every person.
He returns to the love of life that charged his days with meaning and his art with magnetism — a love both huge and humble, at the center of which is our eternal dance with mystery:
I think it is very important to be in love with life. I have met people who are in their 70s and 80s who love life so much that, behind their aged bodies, the numbers disappear. Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we “understand,” there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.
Again and again, Haring declares on the pages of his journal that he lives for work, for art — the purpose of which, of course, if there is any purpose to art, is to make other lives more livable. As the specter of AIDS hovers closer and closer to him, this creative vitality pulses more and more vigorously through him, reverberating with Albert Camus’s insistence that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”
In early 1988, weeks before his thirtieth birthday and shortly before he finally received the diagnosis perching on the event horizon of his daily life, Haring composes a seething cauldron of a journal entry, about to boil with the overwhelming totality of his love of life:
I love paintings too much, love color too much, love seeing too much, love feeling too much, love art too much, love too much.
By the following month, he has metabolized the terrifying too-muchness into a calm acceptance radiating even more love:
I accept my fate, I accept my life. I accept my shortcomings, I accept the struggle. I accept my inability to understand. I accept what I will never become and what I will never have. I accept death and I accept life.
After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in a crash — a friend so close that Haring was the godfather of his son — he copies one of his friend’s newly poignant poems about life and death into his journal, then writes beneath it:
Creativity, biological or otherwise, is my only link with a relative mortality.
But perhaps his most poignant and prophetic entry came a decade earlier — a short verse-like reflection nested in a sprawling meditation on art, life, kinship, and individuality, penned on Election Day:
I am not a beginning.
I am not an end.
I am a link in a chain.
Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, barely into his thirties, leaving us his exuberant love of life encoded in mirthful lines and vibrant colors that have made millions of other lives — mine included — immensely more livable.
Art and science between the practical and the poetic.
By Maria Popova
A small, coruscating delight: I have made a series of face masks featuring wondrous centuries-old astronomical art and natural history illustrations I have restored and digitized from various archival sources over the years.
I originally made these masks just for myself and a handful of beloved humans, but they turned out so unexpectedly lovely that I decided to make them available to all who would delight in them. The manufacturer (society6, over whose production, pricing, and other practical elements I have no control — mine is only the conceptual element, fitted into their standard template; they print the fabrics, sew the masks, sell and ship them) is donating a portion of their proceeds to World Center Kitchen, helping to feed those most in need at times of crisis, and I am donating to The Nature Conservancy, stewarding the long-term sustenance of this entire improbable, irreplaceable planet, and the endeavor to build New York’s most democratic institution of cosmic perspective, the city’s first public observatory.
Because of the mask’s particular folding pattern, some of the artwork came alive in a wholly new and unexpected way. My personal favorite — the original design I made for myself and my most beloved human — is the total solar eclipse mask, evocative of the opening line of astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s magnificent “Antidotes to Fear of Death”:
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
“Try to accept this fat red hurt is your starting point.”
By Maria Popova
“Love your heart. For this is the prize,” Toni Morrison wrote in an exquisite passage from Beloved as she considered the body as an instrument of sanity, joy, and self-respect a century after William James asserted in his groundbreaking work on how our bodies affect our feelings that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” lending the fledgling credibility of a young science to Walt Whitman’s poetic insistence that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul.”
There is such fertile ground for sensemaking in this space between biology and metaphor that we have always used our bodies as sensemaking instruments for the soul. But no part of the body has taken on more metaphorical meaning than the vital organ depicted in millennia of literature and song as the seat of love.
When we speak of the heart breaking, we are speaking metaphorically, and yet anyone who has lived through heartbreak — that is, anyone who has lived at all — knows intimately the awful way in which the psychological condition of loss takes on the quality of physical pain. It is hardly surprising, then, that the body and the soul heal in consanguinity — the heart-as-metaphor heals the same way the heart-as-organ does.
In this enchanting animated poem, Ducker joins visions with artist Kate Sweeney to deliver a soulful prescription partway between science and metaphor, between organ and instrument, as palliating to the physiology of illness as it is to the psychology of heartbreak:
A SCIENTIST’S ADVICE ON HEALING by Christy Ducker
Try to accept
this fat red hurt
is your starting point,
in the way a pen must be put to paper
in one particular spot,
the globby flap
Change the subject,
before it’s too late.
you do possess,
what flotilla of cells
then draw yourself back
in a language
of your own.
Your body’s talk
is loose as lymph —
it’ll have you open out
as a tree,
or sneak up on pain
for healing won’t come at you
Embrace the lack of heroics —
this isn’t Hollywood,
in a plot
or may not resolve.
The poem appears in Messenger (UK edition) — a slim collection of Ducker’s poems exploring “how we wound and how we heal,” drawing on the science of immunology in a collaboration with York’s Center for Chronic Disease, and featuring visual poetics by Sweeney, who also animated poet Linda France’s magnificent “Murmuration.”