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Julián Is a Mermaid: A Tenderhearted Story of Identity, Belonging, and the Courage to Be Yourself

A watercolor serenade to the transformative power of unconditional love.

Julián Is a Mermaid: A Tenderhearted Story of Identity, Belonging, and the Courage to Be Yourself

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings offered in his advice to aspiring artists. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin argued two decades later in his fantastic forgotten conversation about identity with anthropologist Margaret Mead. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” Both the vulnerability and the courage of that world-telling are in direct proportion to our sense of otherness — to how far the teller diverges from society’s centuries-old, dogma-proscribed, limiting ideas about the correct way to be a human being.

A lovely celebration of the courage to tell the world who you are comes in Julián Is a Mermaid (public library) by Jessica Love — a sweet story of loving acceptance and the jubilant inner transformation that takes place when one is welcomed to be and to dream beyond society’s narrow templates of being and dreaming.

Whenever Julián goes to the swimming pool with his grandmother, he dreams of being a mermaid.

One day, on the subway ride home, he glimpses three beautiful women dressed as mermaids. He is instantly entranced.

“Abuela, I am also a mermaid,” he tells his grandmother shyly, the way one whispers a closely guarded innermost truth.

When Julián’s grandmother goes to take a bath, an idea alights to his enchanted mind: He sheds his boy-clothes and fashions a headdress out of a fern. Like a miniature Scarlett O’Hara, he transforms the window curtain into a long skirt, tying its end to resemble a mermaid’s tail.

Just as he is rejoicing in his self-creation, grandma returns from the bath, frowns, and walks away.

But she quickly returns to unsink Julián’s heart by handing him the perfect finishing touch for his mermaid regalia.

Julián takes her hand and follows her out of the house, through the streets, wondering where she is taking him. “You’ll see,” she says.

When they turn a corner near the boardwalk, Julián gasps at the sight of mermaids — throngs of them, of every size, shape, gender, and color.

New Yorkers would recognize the glorious spectacle as the famous Coney Island Mermaid Parade, which celebrates the beginning of summer. Under the sunshine of his grandmother’s unconditional love, Julián celebrates a different kind of personal beginning as they join the mermaids in the parade and an ecstatic sense of belonging washes over him.

Julián Is a Mermaid makes a fine addition to the best LBGT children’s books. Complement it with the immeasurably wonderful Jerome by Heart, then revisit Oliver Sacks on how narrative shapes our identity.

Illustrations © Jessica Love courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova


How to Eat an Apricot: Diane Ackerman on Art, Science, and Wonder

“First warm its continuous curve in cupped hands, holding it as you might a brandy snifter, then caress the velvety sheen with one thumb, and run your fingertips over its nap…”

How to Eat an Apricot: Diane Ackerman on Art, Science, and Wonder

In his meditation on the complementarity of how art and science reveal the world, Schopenhauer likened science to “the innumerable showering drops of the waterfall, which, constantly changing, never rest for an instant,” and art to “the rainbow, quietly resting on this raging torrent.” Two centuries later, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid case for subjectifying the universe: “Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe.”

That cascading celebration of science through art animates the poetry of Diane Ackerman, who returned to The Universe in Verse for a second year to read her ravishing poem “The Consolation of Apricots,” found in her 1998 poetry collection I Praise My Destroyer (public library).

Prefacing her reading, Ackerman reflected on how the intuitive sense that art and science are complementary rather than contradictory shaped her life, her work, and her orientation of being:

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to be a nature poet — it’s just that what I meant by “nature” included everything from quarks to exoplanets to water bears and neurons. Science and art both seem to be throwing buckets of light into the dark corners of existence, and I was enthralled. It didn’t make sense that we would be separating science and art, or that we would be separating nature and human nature. It seemed like we should be taking the universe literally — as one verse.

Savor the full prefatory reflection on art, science, and wonder, along with this feast of a poem, in this recording from the show:

by Diane Ackerman

Especially in early spring,
when the sun offers a thin treacle of warmth,
I love to sit outdoors
and eat sense-ravishing apricots.

Born on sun-drenched trees in Morocco,
the apricots have flown the Atlantic
like small comets, and I can taste
broiling North Africa in their flesh.

Somewhere between a peach and a prayer,
they taste of well water
and butterscotch and dried apples
and desert simooms and lust.

Sweet with a twang of spice,
a ripe apricot is small enough to devour
as two hemispheres.
Ambiguity is its hallmark.

How to eat an apricot:
first warm its continuous curve
in cupped hands, holding it
as you might a brandy snifter,

then caress the velvety sheen
with one thumb, and run your fingertips
over its nap, which is shorter
than peach fuzz, closer to chamois.

Tawny gold with a blush on its cheeks,
an apricot is the color of shame and dawn.
One should not expect to drink wine
at mid-winter, Boethius warned.

What could be more thrilling
than ripe apricots out of season,
a gush of taboo sweetness
to offset the savage wistfulness of early spring?

Always eat apricots at twilight,
preferably while sitting in a sunset park,
with valley lights starting to flicker on
and the lake spangled like a shield.

Then, while a trail of bright ink tattoos the sky,
notice how the sun washes the earth
like a woman pouring her gaze
along her lover’s naked body,

each cell receiving the tattoo of her glance.
Wait for that moment
of arousal and revelation,
then sink your teeth into the flesh of an apricot.

Complement with physicist and novelist Alan Lightman on the sympathies between creative breakthrough in art and science and Hannah Arendt on the differences between how art and science illuminate the human condition, then revisit Ackerman’s lovely poem about our cosmic curiosity from the inaugural Universe in Verse.

For other highlights from the second annual event, see poet Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator and original star John Cameron Mitchell reading Walt Whitman’s serenade to the seas, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.


How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout

Tree-wrestling for resistance training, vigorous recitation for cardio.

How to Exercise Like a Poet: The Walt Whitman Workout

The question of whether we are minds in bodies or bodies with minds has animated philosophers for millennia. But whatever our cerebral orientation to the question, we must each answer it for ourselves — a kind of private embodied illumination.

My own accidental answer arrived long ago, when I began noticing that my morning workout provided the most fertile hours for reading and thinking. Every single morning for more than fifteen years, I have journeyed to the gym with a book, filling margins with motion-mangled notes and scribbling ideas sparked in the connective tissue of the mind as blood and electricity course through my muscles.

In the midst of a difficult year, I found myself unable to read anything but Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) during this morning regimen of body and spirit — perhaps because the poet himself so strongly believed in and enacted the relationship between the creaturely and the creative, the physical and the poetic.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

More than a decade after his experience as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the vital relationship between body and spirit, Whitman described his own physical regimen in Specimen Days (public library) — the indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries that gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art gives meaning to life, what makes life worth living, and his most direct reflection on happiness.

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

In an entry from the winter of 1877, still recovering from the paralytic stroke that had left him severely disabled five years earlier, the sixty-six-year-old poet describes his workout in the gymnasium of the wilderness:

A solitary and pleasant sundown hour at the pond, exercising arms, chest, my whole body, by a tough oak sapling thick as my wrist, twelve feet high — pulling and pushing, inspiring the good air. After I wrestle with the tree awhile, I can feel its young sap and virtue welling up out of the ground and tingling through me from crown to toe, like health’s wine. Then for addition and variety I launch forth in my vocalism; shout declamatory pieces, sentiments, sorrow, anger, &c., from the stock poets or plays — or inflate my lungs and sing the wild tunes and refrains I heard of the blacks down south, or patriotic songs I learn’d in the army. I make the echoes ring, I tell you!

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

The great nature writer John Burroughs — Whitman’s longtime friend, and his first and to this day foremost biographer — further described the poet’s workout in his superb and loving more-than-biography, Whitman: A Study (public library | free ebook), published four years after Whitman’s death.

Burroughs writes:

His exercise for an hour each day consisted in tossing a few feet into the air, as he walked, a round, smooth stone, of about one pound weight, and catching it as it fell. Later in life, and after his first paralytic stroke, when in the woods, he liked to bend down the young saplings, and exercise his arms and chest in that way. In his poems much emphasis is laid upon health, and upon purity and sweetness of body, but none upon mere brute strength.

Both Whitman’s Specimen Days and Burroughs’s Whitman: A Study are books of vigorous and timeless delight. Complement this particular portion with psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk on how our minds and our bodies converge in healing, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio on how our minds obscure our bodies, and Rilke on the relationship between the body and the soul, then revisit Whitman’s advice to the young on the building blocks of character and his timeless wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life.


William James on Consciousness and the Four Features of Transcendent Experiences

“Our normal waking consciousness… is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

William James on Consciousness and the Four Features of Transcendent Experiences

“Queer, in fact maddening, to think that ‘beauty’ in nature is for us alone: for the human eye alone. Without our consciousness it doesn’t exist,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her journal. “All of nature, all of the given ‘world,’ is in fact a work of art. Only the human consciousness can register it.” Four decades earlier, Virginia Woolf had recorded the selfsame sentiment in what remains the most stunning passage from her own journal; four decades later, neuroscientist Christof Koch would echo the sentiment in the unsentimental chamber of science: “Without consciousness there is nothing… Consciousness is the central fact of your life.”

Long before Koch and Oates and Woolf, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) examined the mystery and complexity of consciousness in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (public library | free ebook) — the 1902 masterwork based on his Gifford Lectures, in which James explored science, spirituality, and the human search for meaning.

William James

James considers the central function of human consciousness — to make sense of reality through abstract concepts:

The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims… in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that lend it its significance. As time, space, and the ether soak through all things so (we feel) do abstract and essential goodness, beauty, strength, significance, justice, soak through all things good, strong, significant, and just.

Such ideas, and others equally abstract, form the background for all our facts, the fountain-head of all the possibilities we conceive of. They give its “nature,” as we call it, to every special thing. Everything we know is “what” it is by sharing in the nature of one of these abstractions. We can never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in handling the real world we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as we might lose these mental objects, these adjectives and adverbs and predicates and heads of classification and conception.

Three decades after Nietzsche lamented how our abstractions blind us to the actuality of life, James adds:

This absolute determinability of our mind by abstractions is one of the cardinal facts in our human constitution. Polarizing and magnetizing us as they do, we turn towards them and from them, we seek them, hold them, hate them, bless them, just as if they were so many concrete beings. And beings they are, beings as real in the realm which they inhabit as the changing things of sense are in the realm of space.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

And yet our consciousness, James argues, is capable of states that radically disrupt its own neat model-universe of abstractions. He considers how these transcendent states discompose our constructed, concept-constricted experience of reality:

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question — for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.

A quarter century before quantum mechanics founding father Niels Bohr formulated the principle of complementarity and its corollary that, in the words of the Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” James offers the defining feature of these transcendent forms of consciousness:

It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself.

One of Arthur Rackham’s revolutionary illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

James had arrived at this conclusion not merely as a philosopher, but as an empiricist, using his own body-mind as a laboratory for experiments with nitrous oxide — a favorite of the visionary chemist and inventor Humphry Davy’s, who christened the substance “laughing gas” for its pleasurable euphoric effects. The mild hallucinogenic properties of nitrous oxide gave James a glimpse of a whole other side of his own consciousness, which he used as a springboard into understanding so-called mystical, or transcendent, experiences — “a group of states of consciousness peculiar enough to deserve a special name and to call for careful study.”

Governed by the conviction that “phenomena are best understood when placed within their series,” he morphologizes the four defining features of these experiences — the first two necessary and sufficient to qualify the transcendent state of consciousness as such, the remaining two subtler and not required, but often accompanying the experience:

  1. Ineffability. — The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect. No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one’s self to understand a lover’s state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd. The mystic finds that most of us accord to his experiences an equally incompetent treatment.
  2. Noetic quality. — Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.
  3. Transiency. — Mystical states cannot be sustained for long. Except in rare instances, half an hour, or at most an hour or two, seems to be the limit beyond which they fade into the light of common day. Often, when faded, their quality can but imperfectly be reproduced in memory; but when they recur it is recognized; and from one recurrence to another it is susceptible of continuous development in what is felt as inner richness and importance.
  4. Passivity. — Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power. This latter peculiarity connects mystical states with certain definite phenomena of secondary or alternative personality, such as prophetic speech, automatic writing, or the mediumistic trance. When these latter conditions are well pronounced, however, there may be no recollection whatever of the phenomenon, and it may have no significance for the subject’s usual inner life, to which, as it were, it makes a mere interruption. Mystical states, strictly so-called, are never merely interruptive. Some memory of their content always remains, and a profound sense of their importance. They modify the inner life of the subject between the times of their recurrence. Sharp divisions in this region are, however, difficult to make, and we find all sorts of gradations and mixtures.

More than a century after its groundbreaking publication, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature remains a fascinating read. Complement this particular portion with physicist Alan Lightman’s stirring account of one such secular, non-hallucinogenic transcendent experience in his encounter with a baby osprey and mathematician-turned-physician Israel Rosenfield’s pioneering anatomy of consciousness, then revisit Albert Camus on consciousness and the lacuna between truth and meaning.


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