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The White Cat and the Monk: A Lovely 9th-Century Ode to the Joy of Uncompetitive Purposefulness, Newly Illustrated

A wonderful counterpoint to our culture of competitive self-comparison, reminding us that we can choose to amplify each other’s accomplishments because there is, after all, enough to go around.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Lovely 9th-Century Ode to the Joy of Uncompetitive Purposefulness, Newly Illustrated

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark counseled, “you should acquire a cat.” Long before the cat became a modern literary muse, a monk whose identity remains a mystery immortalized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Sometime in the ninth century, somewhere in present-day southern Germany, this solitary scholar penned a beautiful short poem in Old Irish, titled “Pangur Bán” — an ode to the parallel pleasures of man and feline as one pursues knowledge and the other prey, and to how their quiet companionship amplifies their respective joys.

The poem has been translated and adapted many times over the centuries (perhaps most famously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more delightfully than in The White Cat and the Monk (public library) by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Sydney Smith — one of four wonderful children’s books about the creative life, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times.

Smith, who has previously illustrated the immeasurably wonderful Sidewalk Flowers, imbues the ancient text with contemporary visual language through his singular, elegantly minimalist graphic novel aesthetic.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

We see the old monk poring over his manuscripts in search of wisdom as Pangur prances around their spartan shared abode, chasing after a mouse and a butterfly. Each is totally absorbed in his task.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

In a subtle story-with-a-story, one of the monk’s manuscripts contains an even more ancient depiction of another monk and another cat — a reminder that this creaturely communion is a primal joy of the human experience.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

At the end of each day, the two rest into their respective gladnesses in quiet camaraderie.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have brought us such treasures as The Menino, A Year Without Mom, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. Complement it with the vintage gem The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat by Lore Segal and Paul O. Zelinsky and the contemporary treasure Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton — two very different, equally wonderful stories about love and humanity enlarged by a feline friend.

Illustrations © Sydney Smith courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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David Whyte on Vulnerability, Presence, and How We Enlarge Ourselves by Surrendering to the Uncontrollable

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Vulnerability is a guardian of integrity,” artist and unheralded philosopher Anne Truitt wrote as she contemplated what sustains the creative spirit. Social scientist Brené Brown conveyed the same sentiment somewhat differently in considering what resilient people have in common: “If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.” However we may formulate it, the equation holds true — uncomfortably, devastatingly, often intolerably true. Although we may intellectually recognize how essential vulnerability is to our aliveness and every significant expression of it, we remain astonishingly averse to being vulnerable, expending tremendous resources on constructing elaborate and ultimately illusory defenses against this basic condition of being alive.

Why we do that and how we can transcend it is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a portion of his endlessly insightful Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library), which also gave us Whyte’s wisdom on aloneness, the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, and anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means.

In his recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Whyte reads his meditation on vulnerability:

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

In his beautiful poem “Sweet Darkness,” found in his collection The House of Belonging (public library) — which also gave us “The Journey” — Whyte unravels another aspect of our deepest vulnerability:

SWEET DARKNESS

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
It’s time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
The night
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

In his altogether spectacular conversation with Tippett — my favorite from the show’s fifteen-year archive — Whyte, who grew up bewitched by poetry but became a marine zoologist and naturalist before returning to his first love, reflects on the multiple dimensions of vulnerability, including our dance with control and surrender:

I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention. And in Galapagos, I began to realize that, because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour watching animals and birds and landscapes … my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself. [As] you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence. And I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you; that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it.

But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.

Complement Whyte’s Consolations, one of the best books of 2015, with Seth Godin’s marvelous children’s book for grownups, V is for Vulnerable, and Dani Shapiro on the creative rewards of being vulnerable.

Subscribe to On Being, one of these favorite podcasts for a fuller life, here.

Portrait of Whyte by Nicol Ragland Photography

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Spiderwoman’s Cloth Lullaby: The Illustrated Life of Artist Louise Bourgeois

A loving homage to one of the most extraordinary women in the history of creative culture.

“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer,” the great French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) wrote in her diary toward the end of her long and illustrious life. That perfect fabric metaphor is not coincidental. Psychologists now know that metaphorical thinking is the birthplace of the imagination, “essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent,” and it begins in childhood as young minds transmute the namable things that surround them into fresh metaphors for the unnamable things that they experience inside.

Born into a family that restored tapestries for a living, Bourgeois wove the world of colorful textiles into her imagination and into the very work that would establish her as one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century. It was in this family trade that she came to see her beloved mother as a deft, patient spider repairing broken threads — the metaphor at the heart of the iconic large-scale spider sculptures for which Bourgeois is best known and which earned her the moniker Spiderwoman.

In Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (public library) — one of four marvelous children’s books about the life of ideas I recently reviewed for The New York Times and a crowning curio among the loveliest picture-books celebrating cultural icons — writer Amy Novesky and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault trace the thread of Bourgeois’s creative development from the formative years of her unusual childhood to the pinnacle of her success as an artist.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Novesky, who has previously authored a children’s book about Billie Holiday, tells the story of Bourgeois’s life in a wonderfully lyrical way. Arsenault — whom I have long considered one of the most gifted and unrepeatable artists of our time, the kind whose books will be cherished a century from now — carries the story with her soft yet vibrantly expressive illustrations.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Louise kept diaries of her days. And in a cloth tent pitched in the garden, she and her siblings would stay till the dark surprised them, the light from the house, and the sound of a Verdi opera, far away through the trees.

Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.

The ever-flowing blue strand of the river becomes the thread of continuity across Bourgeois’s life. It flows into the Siene and takes young Louise along to Paris, where she attends university studying mathematics and astronomy.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Bourgeois’s studies are severed by her mother’s sudden death, the devastation of which drives the young woman to abandon science and turn to the certain uncertainty of art. She cuts up all the fabric she owns — her dresses, her bed linens, her new husband’s handkerchiefs — and spends the remainder of her life making it and making herself whole again, putting it all together into cloth sculptures, colorful hand-sewn spirals, cloth drawings, cloth books, and many, many, many spiders.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby. She wove the river that raised her — maternal pinks, blues in watery hues. She wove a mother sewing in the sun, a girl falling asleep beneath the stars, and everything she’d ever loved.

When she was done, all of her spiders beside her, she held the river and let it rock her again.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Complement the unbelievably beautiful and poetic Cloth Lullaby, bound in a perfect blue fabric spine, with the picture-book biographies of Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly, then revisit Bourgeois’s insightful diary reflections on art, integrity, and the key to creative confidence.

Illustrations © Isabelle Arsenault courtesy of Abrams Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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