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Rebecca Solnit on Growing Up, Growing Whole, and How We Compose Ourselves

“Growing up, we say, as though we were trees, as though altitude was all that there was to be gained, but so much of the process is growing whole as the fragments are gathered, the patterns found.”

Rebecca Solnit on Growing Up, Growing Whole, and How We Compose Ourselves

“I am convinced that most people do not grow up,” Maya Angelou wrote in her stirring letter to the daughter she never had. “We carry accumulation of years in our bodies and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are still innocent and shy as magnolias.” In that same cultural season, from a college commencement stage, Toni Morrison told an orchard of human saplings that “true adulthood is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory.”

It is tempting, for it is flattering, to think of ourselves as trees — as firmly rooted and resolutely upward bound; as creatures destined, in Mary Oliver’s lovely words, “to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.” But even if the highest compliment a great poet can pay a great woman is to celebrate her as a human tree, we are not trees — we don’t branch and root from a single point, we don’t grow linearly; we disbark ourselves at will, at the flash and flutter of a heart, self-grafting every love and loss we live through; our growth-rings are often ungirdled by self-doubt, by regress, by the fits and starts by which we become who and what we are: fragmentary but indivisible. The difficulty of growing up, the hard-won glory of it, lies in the self-tessellation.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

That is what Rebecca Solnit explores in a passage from Recollections of My Nonexistence (public library) — her splendid memoir of longings and determinations, of resistances and revolutions, personal and political, illuminating the kiln in which one of the boldest, most original minds of our time was annealed.

Three quarters into the book and half a lifetime into her becoming, Solnit writes:

Growing up, we say, as though we were trees, as though altitude was all that there was to be gained, but so much of the process is growing whole as the fragments are gathered, the patterns found. Human infants are born with craniums made up of four plates that have not yet knit together into a solid dome so that their heads can compress to fit through the birth canal, so that the brain within can then expand. The seams of these plates are intricate, like fingers interlaced, like the meander of arctic rivers across tundra.

The skull quadruples in size in the first few years, and if the bones knit together too soon, they restrict the growth of the brain; and if they don’t knit at all the brain remains unprotected. Open enough to grow and closed enough to hold together is what a life must also be. We collage ourselves into being, finding the pieces of a worldview and people to love and reasons to live and then integrate them into a whole, a life consistent with its beliefs and desires, at least if we’re lucky.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. Available as a print

Complement this fragment of Solnit’s wholly vitalizing Recollections of My Nonexistence with philosopher Alain de Botton on the measure of existential maturity and poet Ross Gay on what it means to grow up, then revisit Solnit’s increasingly timely antidote to the defeatism of despair in difficult times and her wonderful letter to children about reading as self-creation and self-consolation.


Figuring Forward in an Uncertain Universe

Consolations from the cosmic scheme.

Figuring Forward in an Uncertain Universe

We make things and seed them into the world, never fully knowing — often never knowing at all — whom they will reach and how they will blossom in other hearts, how their meaning will unfold in contexts we never imagined. (W.S. Merwin captured this poignantly in the final lines of his gorgeous poem “Berryman.”)

Today I offer something a little apart from the usual, or sidelong rather, amid these unusual times: A couple of days ago, I received a moving note from a woman who had read Figuring and found herself revisiting the final page — it was helping her, she said, live through the terror and confusion of these uncertain times. I figured I’d share that page — which comes after 544 others, tracing centuries of human loves and losses, trials and triumphs, that gave us some of the crowning achievements of our civilization — in case it helps anyone else.

Meanwhile, someplace in the world, somebody is making love and another a poem. Elsewhere in the universe, a star manyfold the mass of our third-rate sun is living out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a black hole, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every datum we ever produced, every poem and statue and symphony we’ve ever known — an entropic spectacle insentient to questions of blame and mercy, devoid of why.

In four billion years, our own star will follow its fate, collapsing into a white dwarf. We exist only by chance, after all. The Voyager will still be sailing into the interstellar shorelessness on the wings of the “heavenly breezes” Kepler had once imagined, carrying Beethoven on a golden disc crafted by a symphonic civilization that long ago made love and war and mathematics on a distant blue dot.

But until that day comes, nothing once created ever fully leaves us. Seeds are planted and come abloom generations, centuries, civilizations later, migrating across coteries and countries and continents. Meanwhile, people live and people die — in peace as war rages on, in poverty and disrepute as latent fame awaits, with much that never meets its more, in shipwrecked love.

I will die.

You will die.

The atoms that huddled for a cosmic blink around the shadow of a self will return to the seas that made us.

What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.


Against Aloneness in the Web of Life: Ernst Haeckel, Charles Darwin, and the Art of Turning Personal Tragedy into a Portal to Transcendence

An antidote to isolation by way of tiny marine creatures and a broken Romantic heart.

In the waning winter of 1864, Charles Darwin opened a package that stopped his breath. “It is one of the most magnificent works which I have ever seen,” he exulted in his response to the sender — a young, still obscure German marine biologist by the name of Ernst Haeckel (February 16, 1834–August 9, 1919), who would go on to coin the word ecology a century before the great marine biologist Rachel Carson made it a household word in catalyzing the environmental movement. Haeckel would become a naturalist, a philosopher, and the greatest champion of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas; he would name and describe thousands of previously undiscovered animal species; he would coin and crown an entire kingdom, Protista.

Stephoidea by Ernst Haeckel. Available as a print.

Barely thirty, impelled by the peculiar boldness that comes from personal despair so grave that one feels one has nothing left to lose, Haeckel had decided to share with the esteemed and controversial Darwin the work to which he had devoted years: his studies of radiolarians — tiny single-cell marine organisms with mineral skeletons of striking geometries — in two handsome folio volumes, which Haeckel had illustrated with delicate, detailed, hauntingly beautiful copper-etched drawings.

Acanthometra by Ernst Haeckel. Available as a print.

Haeckel had come under the spell of radiolaria during his yearlong scientific studies and travels in Italy at the age of twenty-five — the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species — and had since diverted all of his scientific passion and artistic training toward these miniature masterworks of nature. “I had no idea that animals of such low organization could develope such extremely beautiful structures,” Darwin gushed. He ended his rapturous reply to Haeckel with these bittersweet words:

I hope you are able to work hard on science & thus banish, as far as may be possible, painful remembrances.

The painful remembrance: On the day of Haeckel’s thirtieth birthday the previous month, Anna Sethe — the love of his life, whom he was finally about to marry upon receiving his first gainful academic appointment, after a four-year engagement — died suddenly, of a ruptured appendix. Haeckel — who considered himself “decidedly a ‘Leptoderm,’ that is, ‘thin-skinned,’” and therefore susceptible to “much more suffering and, also, more intense joy than the run of men” — was unpeeled by grief. “Dark melancholy has replaced my former cheerful joy in life,” he confided in Darwin, aware of the elder scientist’s own devastating experience of loss.

Anna Sethe and Ernst Haeckel shortly before her death.

The search for transcendence became Haeckel’s survival mechanism for this fathomless personal tragedy — the transcendence he found in nature, in its breathtaking complexity and breathtaking simplicity, in its every microscopic detail magnified to reveal millennia of meticulous craftsmanship and refinement by the forces of evolution.

A century and a half after they so enchanted Darwin, French artist Zöe Almon Job has set Haeckel’s radiolaria drawings in motion and in thought in a lovely animated reflection on the relationship between aloneness and togetherness, on the delicate symbioses of nature and their subtler existential undertones illuminating the totality of being, in which even the most isolated existence is an emissary of our natural interconnectedness.

Complement with the great naturalist John Muir, a contemporary of Haeckel’s, on the transcendent interconnectedness of nature and poet Howard Nemerov’s Haeckel-like geometric-existential poem about the interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit these stunning and sensual illustrations of cephalopods from the world’s first encyclopedia of deep-sea creatures, by a contemporary and compatriot of Haeckel’s.


“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

Steadying solace for those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another.”

“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

It is our biological destiny to exist — and then not. Each of us eventually returns their stardust to the universe, to be constellated into some other ephemeral emissary of spacetime. Eventually, our entire species will go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo and the Romantics; eventually, our home star will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, taking with it everything we have ever known — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the guillotine and the perfect Fibonacci sequence of the pine cone.

Meanwhile, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we busy ourselves with survival and with searching for beauty, for truth, for assurance between the bookends. The feeling of that search is what we call meaning; the people who light our torches to help us see better, who transmit our discoveries from one consciousness to another, are what we call artists. Artists are also the ones who help reconcile us to the fragility that comes with our creaturely nature and strews our search with so much suffering. Suffering — biological and psychological, in private and en masse — has always accompanied our species, as it has every species. But we alone have coped by transmuting our suffering into beauty, by making symphonies and paintings and poems out of our fragility — beauty that does not justify the suffering, but does make it more bearable, does help the sufferers next to us and after us, in space and in time, suffer less, in ways the originating consciousness can never quantify in the receiving, never estimate their reach across the sweep of centuries and sufferings.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Few search-artists have served as greater agents of transmutation than Jane Hirshfield — a poet of optimism and of lucidity, a champion of science and an ordained Buddhist, a poet who could write “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance,” a poet who can balance and steady us against those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another” with her wondrous new collection Ledger (public library)

As we wake in another, searching for sense and stability, practicing the practice of life within chaos theory, I asked Jane to read for us one of the most beautiful and perspectival poems from this miraculous book — a poem of consolation by way of calibration; an invitation to broaden our perspective — scientific, temporal, and humanistic — and weigh the immediate against the eternal.

by Jane Hirshfield

The arborist has determined:
senescence      beetles      canker
quickened by drought
                           but in any case
not prunable   not treatable   not to be propped.

And so.

The branch from which the sharp-shinned hawks and their mate-cries.

The trunk where the ant.

The red squirrels’ eighty-foot playground.

The bark   cambium   pine-sap   cluster of needles.

The Japanese patterns      the ink-net.

The dapple on certain fish.

Today, for some, a universe will vanish.
First noisily,
then just another silence.

The silence of after, once the theater has emptied.

Of bewilderment after the glacier,
the species, the star.

Something else, in the scale of quickening things,
will replace it,

this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.

A quarter century later, the poem echoes Hirshfield’s short, stunning poem “Jasmine” from her indispensable 1997 collection The Lives of the Heart — one of the truest, most beautiful perspectives ever polished in language:

by Jane Hirshfield

Almost the twenty-first century” —
how quickly the thought will grow dated,
even quaint.

Our hopes, our future,
will pass like the hopes and futures of others.

And all our anxieties and terrors,
nights of sleeplessness,
will appear then as they truly are —

Stumbling, delirious bees in the tea scent of jasmine.

Complement this fragment of Hirshfield’s altogether re-saning Ledger with other poetic masterpieces of perspective — “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “A Brave and Starling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Immortality” by Lisel Mueller, “Cold Solace” by Anna Belle Kaufman, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, “The Everlasting Self” by Tracy K. Smith, “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson — then revisit physicist Brian Greene on the poetry of existence and the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives amid an impartial universe.


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