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Favorite Books of 2018

The anatomy of feeling, the science of psychedelics, Ursula K. Le Guin’s final poetry collection, arresting essays by Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, and Audre Lorde, a physicist’s lyrical meditation on science and spirituality, and more.

I treat my annual best-of reading lists as Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which frame aspirational priorities for the new year, they present a record of the reading that merited priority over the year past. In consequence, they are invariably subjective and incomplete — a shelf’s worth of books that I, one person, read and enjoyed in the time given, with the sensibility I have. Since this year I finished writing one book and putting together another, my reading time for new releases has been especially limited, which means these annual selections are especially subjective — no doubt I missed a great many worthy and wonderful books. But of those I did read, here — in excerpts from the pieces I originally wrote about them earlier in the year — are the ones I loved with all my heart and mind:

SO FAR SO GOOD

In November of 2014, the wise and wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) — one of the great losses of 2018 — accepted the National Book Award with a stunning speech that quickly became our era’s supreme manifesto for protecting the art of the written word from the assault of the market. In consonance with her conviction, Le Guin sent the manuscript of her final poetry collection to an independent nonprofit poetry publisher, Copper Canyon Press, who turned directly to her readers to bring it to life. And oh how alive So Far So Good (public library) is — a sort of existential atlas, traversing bordering territories of mediations, incantations, and divinations on subjects like time, impermanence, and the splendors of uncertainty. Undergirding the verses is Le Guin’s largehearted generosity of spirit — toward the reader, toward nature and reality, toward the intertwined natures of life and art.

One of the loveliest poems in the book serenades a theme recurring throughout Le Guin’s body of work as her central poetic preoccupation and an animating force of her philosophical fiction: time.

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME
Ursula K. Le Guin

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

FEEL FREE

In the superb essay collection Feel Free (public library), Zadie Smith applies her symphonic mind to subjects as varied as music, what writers can learn from dancers, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media.

In one of the most arresting essays, titled “On Optimism and Despair,” Smith takes on an eternal question that has bared its sharpest edges in our cultural moment — the question John Steinbeck tussled with when he wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being, as I wrote in Figuring, not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.

Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:

My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.

[…]

He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.

This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.

Continue reading here.

SEARCHING FOR STARS ON AN ISLAND IN MAINE

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she contemplated science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth. A century later, Carl Sagan tussled with the same question shortly before his death: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

It is, of course, an abiding question, as old as consciousness — we are material creatures that live in a material universe, yet we are capable of experiences that transcend what we can atomize into physical facts: love, joy, the full-being gladness of a Beethoven symphony on a midsummer’s night.

The Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr articulated the basic paradox of living with and within such a duality: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Nearly a century after Bohr, the physicist and writer Alan Lightman takes us further, beyond these limiting dichotomies, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — a lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Through the lens of his personal experience as a working scientist and a human being with uncommon receptivity to the poetic dimensions of life, Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and the luminous.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

Lightman, who has previously written beautifully about his transcendent experience facing a young osprey, relays a parallel experience he had one summer night on an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife have been going for a quarter century. On this small, remote speck of land, severed from the mainland without ferries or bridges, each of the six families has had to learn to cross the ocean by small boat — a task particularly challenging at night. Lightman recounts the unbidden revelation of one such nocturnal crossing:

No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical drawings.

Lightman — the first professor at MIT to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities — syncopates this numinous experience with the reality of his lifelong devotion to science:

I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I’d read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.

Yet after my experience in that boat many years later… I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes — ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.

Against our human finitude, temporality, and imperfection, these “Absolutes” offer infinity, eternity, perfection. Lightman defines them as concepts and beliefs that “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives” — notions like constancy, immortality, permanence, the soul, “God”; notions unprovable by the scientific method. Conversely, however, notions that belong to this realm of Absolutes fall apart when they make claims in the realm of science — claims disproven by the facts of the material world. With an eye to how the discoveries of modern science — from heliocentricity to evolution to the chemical composition of the universe — have challenged many of these Absolutes, Lightman writes:

Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.

Generations after Henry Miller insisted that “it is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Lightman adds:

From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.

[…]

On the one hand, such an onslaught of discovery presents a cause for celebration… Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief lifespans, stuck on our one planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature? On the other hand, we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still. If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.

Continue reading here.

HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE

“To be a good human being,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control” — to have, that is, a willingness to regard with an openhearted curiosity what is other than ourselves and therefore strange, discomfiting, difficult to fathom and relate to, difficult at first to love, for we cannot love what we do not understand. Out of such regard arises the awareness at the heart of Lucille Clifton’s lovely poem “cutting greens” — a recognition of “the bond of live things everywhere,” among which we are only a small part of a vast and miraculous world, and from which we can learn a great deal about being better versions of ourselves.

That is what naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, one of the most poetic science writers of our time, explores in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (public library), illustrated by artist Rebecca Green — an autobiographical adventure into the wilderness of our common humanity, where the world of science and the legacy of Aesop converge into an existential expedition to uncover the elemental truth that “knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

Looking back on her unusual and passionate life of swimming with electric eels, digging for mistletoe seeds in emu droppings, and communing with giant octopuses, Montgomery reflects on what she learned about leadership from an emu, about ferocity and forgiveness from an ermine, about living with a sense of wholeness despite imperfection from a one-eyed dog named Thurber (after the great New Yorker cartoonist and essayist James Thurber, who was blinded in one eye by an arrow as a child), and about what it takes for the heart to be “stretched wide with awe.”

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

At the New England Aquarium, Montgomery gets to know one of Earth’s most alien creatures — the subject of her exquisite book The Soul of an Octopus. She writes:

Reading an octopus’s intentions is not like reading, for instance, a dog’s. I could read [my dog] Sally’s feelings in a glance, even if the only part of her I could see was her tail, or one ear. But Sally was family, and in more than one sense. Dogs, like all placental mammals, share 90 percent of our genetic material. Dogs evolved with humans. Octavia and I were separated by half a billion years of evolution. We were as different as land from sea. Was it even possible for a human to understand the emotions of a creature as different from us as an octopus?

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

As Octavia slowly allows this improbable and almost miraculous cross-species creaturely connection, Montgomery reflects on the insight attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus — “The universe is alive, and has fire in it, and is full of gods.” — and writes:

Being friends with an octopus — whatever that friendship meant to her — has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.

Continue reading here.

A BURST OF LIGHT

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.

That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:

I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.

“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:

Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.

By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:

I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.

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CALL THEM BY THEIR TRUE NAMES

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might: “I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit writes in the preface:

One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.

That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:

To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.

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HIKING WITH NIETZSCHE

Chance and choice converge to make us who we are, and although we may mistake chance for choice, our choices are the cobblestones, hard and uneven, that pave our destiny. They are ultimately all we can answer for and point to in the architecture of our character. Joan Didion captured this with searing lucidity in defining character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and locating in that willingness the root of self-respect.

A century before Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) composed the score for harmonizing our choices and our contentment with the life they garner us. Nietzsche, who greatly admired Emerson’s ethos of nonconformity and self-reliant individualism, wrote fervently, almost frenetically, about how to find yourself and what it means to be a free spirit. He saw the process of becoming oneself as governed by the willingness to own one’s choices and their consequences — a difficult willingness, yet one that promises the antidote to existential hopelessness, complacency, and anguish.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The legacy of that deceptively simple yet profound proposition is what philosopher John J. Kaag explores in Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (public library) — part masterwork of poetic scholarship, part contemplative memoir concerned with the most fundamental question of human life: What gives our existence meaning?

The answer, Kaag suggests in drawing on Nietzsche’s most timeless ideas, challenges our ordinary understanding of selfhood and its cascading implications for happiness, fulfillment, and the building blocks of existential contentment. He writes:

The self is not a hermetically sealed, unitary actor (Nietzsche knew this well), but its flourishing depends on two things: first, that it can choose its own way to the greatest extent possible, and then, when it fails, that it can embrace the fate that befalls it.

At the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of eternal return — the ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity. Nietzsche illustrates the concept with a simple, stirring thought experiment in his final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…”

Continue reading here.

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “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.”

Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.

And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.

The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

This renaissance of psychedelics, with its broad implications for understanding consciousness and the connection between brain and mind, treating mental illness, and recalibrating our relationship with the finitude of our existence, is what Michael Pollan explores in the revelatory How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (public library). With an eye to this renaissance and the scientists using brain-imaging technology to investigate how psychedelics may illuminate consciousness, Pollan writes:

One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.

Pollan examines the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. He approaches his subject as a science writer and a skeptic endowed with equal parts rigorous critical thinking and openminded curiosity. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s elegant braiding of the numinous and the scientific, he echoes Carl Sagan’s views on the mystery of reality and examines his own lens:

My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.

Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?

The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.

Continue reading here.

ALMOST EVERYTHING: NOTES ON HOPE

We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.

That is what Anne Lamott, one of the rare sages of our time, reminds us with equal parts humility, humor, and largehearted wisdom in Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library).

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes in the prelude:

In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.

She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:

Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.

So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?

We just do.

To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:

There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:

We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.

Continue reading here, then here.

LITTLE PANIC

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in the early 1950s, nearly a quarter century before Thomas Nagel’s landmark essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” unlatched the study of other consciousnesses and seeded the disorienting awareness that other beings — “beings who walk other spheres,” to borrow Whitman’s wonderful term — experience this world we share in ways thoroughly alien to our own.

Today, we know that we need not step across the boundary of species to encounter such alien-seeming ways of inhabiting the world. There are innumerable ways of being human — we each experience life and reality in radically different ways merely by our way of seeing, but these differences are accentuated to an extreme when mental illness alters the elemental interiority of a consciousness. In these extreme cases, it can become impossible for even the most empathic imagination to grasp — not only cerebrally but with an embodied understanding — the slippery reality of an anguished consciousness so different from one’s own. Conversely, it can become impossible for those who share that anguish to articulate it, effecting an overwhelming sense of alienation and the false conviction that one is alone in one’s suffering. To convey that reality to those unbedeviled by such mental anguish, and to wrap language around its ineffable interiority for others who suffer silently from the same, is therefore a creative feat and existential service of the highest caliber.

That is what author, Happy Ending Music & Reading Series host, and my dear friend Amanda Stern accomplishes in Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (public library) — part-memoir and part-portrait of a cruelly egalitarian affliction that cuts across all borders of age, gender, race, and class, clutching one’s entire reality and sense of self in a stranglehold that squeezes life out. What emerges is a sort of literary laboratory of consciousness, anatomizing an all-consuming yet elusive feeling-pattern to explore what it takes to break the tyranny of worry and what it means to feel at home in oneself.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Part of the splendor of the book is the way Stern unspools the thread of being to the very beginning, all the way to the small child predating conscious memory. In consonance with Maurice Sendak, who so passionately believed that a centerpiece of healthy adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” the child-Amanda emerges from the pages alive and real to articulate in that simple, profound way only children have what the yet-undiagnosed acute anxiety disorder actually feels like from the inside:

Whenever I am afraid, worry sounds itself as sixty, seventy, radio channels playing at the same time inside my head. Refrains loop around and around my brain like fast jabber and I cannot get any of it to stop. I know there is something wrong with me, but no one knows how to fix me. Not anyone outside my body, and definitely not me. Eddie [Stern’s older brother] says a body is blood and bones and skin, and when everything falls off you’re a skeleton, but I am air pressure and tingly dots; energy and everything. I am air and nothing.

[…]

My breath flips on its side, horizontal and too wide to go through my lungs.

The grave paradox of mental illness and mental health is that, despite what we now know about how profoundly our emotions affect our physical wellbeing, these terms sever the head from the body — the physical body and the emotional body. A century after William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” Stern offers a powerful corrective for our ongoing cultural Cartesianism. Her vivid prose, pulsating with a life in language, invites the reader into the interiority of a deeply embodied mind that experiences and comprehends the world somatically. “I was born with a basketball net slung over my top ribs, where the world dunks its balls of dread,” she writes as she channels her young self’s budding awareness that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with her:

I am a growing constellation of errors. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, only that something is, and it must be too shameful to divulge, or so rare that even the doctors are stumped.

At the end of the book, Stern considers the centrality of anxiety in her own blink of existence and telescopes to a larger truth about this widespread yet largely invisible affliction that seems a fundamental feature of being human:

When did it start? It started before I was born. It started before my mother was born. It started when friction created the world. When does anything start? It doesn’t, it just grows, sometimes to unmanageable heights, and then, when you’re at the very edge, it becomes clear: something must be done.

Left untreated, anxiety disorders, like fingernails, grow with a person. The longer they go untended, the more mangled and painful they become. Often, they spiral, straight out of control, splitting and splintering into other disorders, like depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia. A merry-go-round of features we rise and fall upon. Separation anxiety handicaps its captors, preventing them from leaving bad relationships, moving far from home, going on trips, to parties, applying for jobs, having children, getting married, seeing friends, or falling asleep. Some people are so crippled by their anxiety they have panic attacks in anticipation of having a panic attack.

I’ve had panic attacks in nearly every part of New York City, even on Staten Island. I’ve had them in taxis, on subways, public bathrooms, banks, street corners, in Washington Square Park, on multiple piers, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, the East Village, the Upper East Side, Central Park, Lincoln Center, the dressing room at Urban Outfitters, Mamoun’s Falafel, the Bobst library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the main library branch, the Brooklyn Library, the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market, laundromats, book kiosks, in the entrance of FAO Schwartz, at the post office, the steps of the Met, on stoops, at the Brooklyn Flea, in bars, at friends’ houses, on stage, in the shower, in queen-sized beds, double beds, twin beds, in my crib.

I’ve grown so expert at hiding them, most people would never even know that I’m suffering. How, after all, do you explain that a restaurant’s decision to dim their lights swelled your throat shut, and that’s why you must leave immediately, not just the restaurant, but the neighborhood? If you cannot point to something, then it is invisible. Like a cult leader, anxiety traps you and convinces you that you’re the only one it sees.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Nikki Giovanni’s remark to James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” Stern adds:

For better or worse, we can only teach others what we understand… Each person begins, after all, as a story other people tell. And when we fall outside the confines of our common standards, we will assume our deficits define us.

[…]

My fear and my conviction were the same: that I was the flaw in the universe; the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world. This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.

Continue reading here.

THE STRANGE ORDER OF THINGS

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, breakthroughs in neurology, psychobiology, and neuroscience have contributed leaps of layered (though still incomplete) understanding of the relationship between the physical body and our emotional experience. That tessellated relationship is what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (public library) — a title inspired by the disorienting fact that several billion years ago, single-cell organisms began exhibiting behaviors strikingly analogous to certain human social behaviors and 100 million years ago insects developed interactions, instruments, and cooperative strategies that we might call cultural. That such sociocultural behaviors long predate the development of the human brain casts new light on the ancient mind-body problem and offers a radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures.

Two decades after his landmark exploration of how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience, Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis — the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect — why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Feelings, Damasio argues, are the unheralded germinators of human culture:

Human beings have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science.

[…]

Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them and stay on to check the results… Cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.

Continue reading here.

THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES

While computing pioneer Alan Turing was breaking Nazi communication in England, eleven thousand women, unbeknownst to their contemporaries and to most of us who constitute their posterity, were breaking enemy code in America — unsung heroines who helped defeat the Nazis and win WWII.

Among them was American cryptography pioneer Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980). The subject of Jason Fagone’s excellent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (public library), Friedman triumphed over at least three Enigma machines and cracked dozens of different radio circuits to decipher more than four thousand Nazi messages that saved innumerable lives, only to have J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI take credit for her invisible, instrumental work.

Elizebeth Friedman in her twenties.

Fagone writes:

The modern-day universe of codes and ciphers began in a cottage on the prairie, with a pair of young lovers smiling at each other across a table and a rich man urging them to be spectacular.

The two young lovers were Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, and the rich man, the eccentric textile tycoon George Fabyan.

The youngest of nine children raised in a modest Quaker home, Elizebeth was born in an era when fewer than four percent of American women graduated from college. Four years after earning her degree in Greek and English literature, she still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” The following year, 1916, she began her improbable career at Riverbank Laboratories — Fabyan’s Wonderland-like estate, where the billionaire had hired Elizebeth to work on the cipher at the heart of a literary conspiracy theory claiming that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. At Riverbank, she met William, a young geneticist living in a windmill — one of the many fanciful fixtures of Riverbank — and studying seeds in order to infuse crops with optimal properties as a kind of proto genetic engineering. Over long walks, animated by parallel intellectual voraciousness and shared skepticism of the Bacon cipher conspiracy, the two fell in love.

William and Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

William and Elizebeth were married at Riverbank, where they had begun collaborating on cryptographic work. The papers on the subject they wrote together — though always published under William’s name alone — soon spread their reputation beyond Riverbank. Cryptography was new then, new and thrilling and full of unmined possibility for government intelligence, and so the U.S. Navy eventually recruited the Friedmans. Fagone writes:

The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins on the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.

The room is dark but her pencil is sharp. An envelope of puzzles arrives from Washington, sent by men who have the largest of responsibilities and the tiniest of clues. With William she examines the puzzles. He is game, he looks at her with eyes like little bonfires, he is in love with her. She is not in love yet but she would not be ashamed to fall in love with such a bright and kind person. She stares at the odd blocks of text and starts to flip and stack and rearrange them on a scratch pad, a kindling of letters, a friction of alphabets hot to the touch, and then a flame catches and then catches again, until she understands that she can ignite whenever she wants, that a power is there for the taking, for her and for anyone, and nothing will ever be the same. The ribs of a pattern shine through. Something rises at the nib of her pencil and her heart whomps away. The skeletons of words leap out and make her jump.

Continue reading here.

THE MAKER OF PATTERNS

At twenty-two, physicist Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) ascended to a position Newton had held a quarter millennium earlier at Trinity College, where Dyson lived in a room just below Ludwig Wittgenstein’s. Nearly a century later, Dyson remains one of the preeminent scientific minds of our time and a rare witness of a great many cultural milestones, triumphs, and tragedies that have shaped modern life as we know it — landmark discoveries like cosmic microwave background radiation and the double helix structure of DNA, which have profoundly changed our understanding of the universe; the invention of the atomic bomb and the scarring brutality of a World War; the rise of the Internet. He has seen the stars of countless political regimes, scientific theories, and ideologies rise and fall. In Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library), Dyson unleashes his warm wisdom and unboastful wit on subjects as varied as politics, the enchantment of science, the vacuity of celebrity, the value of the immigrant perspective, his vibrant friendship with Richard Feynman, and the complexities of being human. He recounts “a flash of illumination” on the Greyhound bus that revealed to him the nature of creativity and composes a singularly delightful account of meeting the great, troubled logician Kurt Gödel at a farewell party for T.S. Eliot at the Princeton home of Robert Oppenheimer. What emerges is not only the fascinating memoir of an uncommon genius, composed of Dyson’s letters to his loved ones, but an invaluable time-capsule of collective memory.

Sample it here and here.

THE MOTH SNOWSTORM

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote in reflecting on our spiritual bond with nature shortly before she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.

McCarthy writes:

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

[…]

There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.

“Roots” by Maria Popova

In a sentiment that calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” McCarthy weighs the particular necessity and particular precariousness of joy in our cynicism-crippled world:

Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.

A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:

They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

Continue reading here.

*ALSO: A VELOCITY OF BEING

Having devoted eight years of my life to it, and having a heart swelling with gratitude to the legion of writers and artists who contributed original letters and illustrations for this monumental labor of love, I must proudly include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault for a letter by Jacqueline Novogratz

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik
Art by Vladimir Radunsky for a letter by Ann Patchett

Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion, for all of whom their letter is their last published work.)

Art by Marianne Dubuc for a letter by Elizabeth Gilbert
Art by Christoph Niemann for a letter by William Powers
Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte
Art by Brian Rea for a letter by Chris Anderson
Art by Oliver Jeffers for a letter by Holland Taylor
Art by Julie Paschkis for a letter by Sarah Lewis
Art by Maira Kalman for a letter by Paul Holdengräber
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman

Read more about the project here.

BP

Favorite Books of 2019

From the hidden universe beneath our feet to delight as a countercultural force of courage and resistance, by way of Patti Smith, Toni Morrison, and the Greek myths.

Long ago, when the present and the living appealed to me more, I endeavored to compile “best of” reading lists at the close of each year. Even then, those were inherently incomplete and subjective reflections of one person’s particular tastes, but at least my scope of contemporary reading was wide enough to narrow down such a selection.

In recent years, these subjective tastes have taken me further and further into the past, deeper and deeper into the common record of wisdom recorded decades, centuries, millennia ago, drawn from the most timeless recesses of the human heart and mind. Outside the year’s loveliest children’s books — a stratum of literature with which I still actively and ardently engage — I now nurse no illusion of having an even remotely adequate sieve for the “best” of what is published each passing year, given that I read so very little of it (and given, too, that this particular year I birthed the first book of my own — itself the product of a long immersion in the past). But of the books I did read in 2019, these are the ones that will stay with me for life.

YEAR OF THE MONKEY

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.

There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.

That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.

“Dream Inn. Santa Cruz.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.

Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching in all directions, star-salted and possible.

She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.

“Fortune cookie. Venice Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:

He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.

There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:

Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.

“Joshua Tree cactus” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:

Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.

I hear the voice of the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan whisper that “the logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake” as Ernest’s words become the soundwave of Smith’s unconscious mind:

There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.

Read more here.

THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS

“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poet Ross Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”

Ross Gay in his beloved community garden

Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.

Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.

Photograph by Maria Popova

He writes:

Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.

In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:

It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.

He writes:

When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:

For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.

One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:

I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:

I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.

[…]

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.

[…]

It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Read more here.

UNDERLAND

“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.

Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Macfarlane writes:

We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.

Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:

Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.

Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.

[…]

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).

Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).

Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:

“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:

When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.

To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.

Read more here.

HEALING THE DIVIDE

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Tolstoy wrote in looking back on his long and imperfect life. These words with which he encased the most immortal truth of the human heart open poet James Crews’s wondrous anthology Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection (public library) — a tender, truthful mirror held up to what is best in us amid a culture that so readily caricatures us at our worst, featuring soul-salving, rupture-suturing, sanity-resuscitating poems by virtuosos of verse like Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Tracy K. Smith, Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ross Gay, Rita Dove, Donald Hall, and Jane Kenyon.

WINTER SUN
by Molly Fisk

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.

The way we stand there, soaking in it,
mittened fingers reaching.

And how carefully we gather what we can
to offer later, in darkness, one body to another.

Radiating from the pages is a soulful testament to Adrienne Rich’s insistence that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire” and affirmation of Muriel Rukeyser lovely formulation of what poetry does for us: “However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.”

THE SOURCE OF SELF-REGARD

Among the colossal losses of this year was Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019) — one of the titanic thinkers and writers of our time, who received her Nobel Prize in Literature — the first black woman to be awarded the accolade — with what remains the most beautiful Nobel speech ever given. That speech, along with other invaluable remnants of this irreplaceable mind, appears in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library) — Morrison’s final nonfiction collection, replete with her wisdom on subjects as varied as borders and belonging, the singular humanistic power of storytelling, and our search for wisdom in the age of information.

Toni Morrison (Courtesy  Alfred A. Knopf)
Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)

At the center of the collection is Morrison’s insistence on the power of art as a humanistic force of transformation. Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Morrison writes in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech, which opens the volume:

Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

[…]

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

In another piece, drawn from her 1990 Massey Lectures at Harvard, Morrison echoes Ursula K. Le Guin’s astute observation that “storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” and probes deeper into the singular gift and responsibility of the writer:

Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.

A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:

I am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.

Read more from the book here.

AUTUMN LIGHT

Rilke considered winter the season for tending to one’s inner garden. A century after him, Adam Gopnik reverenced the bleakest season as a necessary counterpoint to the electricity of spring, harmonizing the completeness of the world and helping us better appreciate its beauty — without winter, he argued, “we would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.

So argues Pico Iyer, one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time, in Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:

I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.

We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:

Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.

It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.

Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:

“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.

Art from Wabi-Sabi — a picture-book about the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.

He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:

I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.

A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?

For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”

Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.

Read more here.

THE SCHOOL OF LIFE

The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) is the book companion, a decade in the making, to Alain de Botton’s wonderful global academy for self-refinement, a project born just a few years after Brain Pickings and tremendously kindred in spirit. At the heart of it is De Botton’s conviction that of all the species of intelligence, emotional intelligence is the one most vital to our sense of being, to our sanity, to our selfhood, yet our entire educational model omits it completely in favor of other, more reducible intelligences. He writes:

The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.

Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.

The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.

Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:

The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.

In 1983, the psychologist Howard Gardner devised his seminal theory of multiple intelligences, expanding our narrow cultural definition of intelligence as verbal and mathematical skill to include seven other modes of intellectual ability. A decade later, Daniel Goleman added a tenth form of intelligence — emotional intelligence — which quickly permeated the fabric of popular culture as hoards of humans felt suddenly recognized in an endowment long neglected as a valuable or even extant faculty of consciousness. Building on that legacy, De Botton brings his own sensitive perspicacity to a richer, more dimensional definition:

The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm… There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.

De Botton is careful to acknowledge that this line of inquiry might trigger the modern intellectual allergy to the genre of learning dismissively labeled self-help. And yet he reminds us that the quest for self-refinement has always accompanied the human experience and animated each civilization’s most respected intellects — it is there at the heart of the Stoics, and in the essays of Montaigne, and at the center of Zen Buddhism, and in the literary artistry of Proust (whom De Botton has especially embraced as a fount of existential consolation). He aims a spear of simple logic to the irrational and rather hubristic disdain for self-help:

To dismiss the idea that underpins self-help — that one might at points stand in urgent need of solace and emotional education — seems an austerely perverse prejudice.

Art by Corinna Luyken from My Heart — an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem.

Read more here.

OUR DOGS, OURSELVES

That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.

That question — along with myriad other auxiliary scientific and moral questions strewn across the lacuna between the canine consciousness and our projectionist, propertarian orientation toward it — is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).

Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:

As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?

Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!

Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.

Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.

Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.

And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:

As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).

I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.

In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.

Read more here.

WORDS IN PAIN

Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.

First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Whitman’s poems, published in the final year of Jacoby’s life. (Available as a print)

In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.

With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:

We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.

A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:

Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.

Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.

Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:

Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a the 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:

My Dear Doctor,

Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.

Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:

Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.

[…]

Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.

Read more here.

EATING THE SUN

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

See more of it here.

CINDERELLA LIBERATOR

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.

We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.

Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library), also among the year’s loveliest children’s books — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Governed by her conviction that “key to the work of changing the world is changing the story” and by her lifelong love of books as “toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart,” Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else’s story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.

In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:

Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.

Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.

But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.

There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.

On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.

Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:

I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.

I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.

Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:

My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.

Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.

Read more here.

A DREAM ABOUT LIGHTNING BUGS

“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “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.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.

All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.

Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

In the tradition of visionaries relaying a symbolic childhood experience that illuminated their creative path — Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Albert Einstein and the compass, Patti Smith and the swan with the blue sail — Folds opens with the first dream he remembers, dreamt when he was three:

It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.

[…]

At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Artists, Folds reflects, are as obsessed with the pursuit of luminosity as they are animated by the irrepressible impulse to share the light with others — a testament to Annie Dillard’s insistence that a generosity of spirit is the mightiest animating force of art. He writes:

As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.

We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.

Art from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:

My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.

But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:

She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.

Ben, age 6, at his turntable, with his brother.

Continue reading what Folds learned about creativity, empathy, and the courage to know yourself here.

THE APOLOGY

A century after the young Franz Kafka set out to hold his abusive, narcissistic father accountable in an extraordinary letter he never actually sent to the living perpetrator, playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler confronts her own monstrously abusive father, long after his death, in The Apology (public library) — a rare dual triumph of absolute self-possession and radical empathy, radiating Dostoyevsky’s hard-earned conviction that there are no inherently bad people despite the worst of human acts and James Baldwin’s insistence that “freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.”

Eve Ensler (Photograph: Paula Allen)

Ensler writes:

I am done waiting. My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.

This letter is an invocation, a calling up. I have tried to allow my father to speak to me as he would speak. Although I have written the words I needed my father to say to me, I had to make space for him to come through me.

There is so much about him, his history, that he never shared with me, so I have had to conjure much of that as well.

This letter is my attempt to endow my father with the will and the words to cross the border, and speak the language, of apology so that I can finally be free.

[…]

What is an apology? It is a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight.

Channeling her father’s voice — the voice he never used to speak the words of apology that every survivor of violence wishes to hear from the perpetrator of that violence — she writes:

An apology must be thorough and can only be trusted in its veracity and dedication to details. I have done my best. I have followed your very strict guidelines: Recognize what I have done as a crime. Face how deeply my actions and violations have impacted and devastated you. See you as a human being. Attempt to experience or feel what it felt like inside you. Feel profound remorse and regret over my actions. And finally, take responsibility for my actions by doing extensive work to understand what made me do what I did.

What emerges from these intensely beautiful and harrowing pages is the reminder that redemption for our suffering is not something we get from others but something we claim for ourselves — that most difficult, most rewarding pinnacle of personal responsibility. (The act of writing the book prompted Ensler to reflect on her own creaturely responsibility in a different light, which she channeled in a stunning letter of apology to Mother Nature — the single most beautiful and important thing I read all year).

MYTHOS

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.

So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths, illuminating the origins of so many of our cultural givens: the names of planets and constellations and chemical elements and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom” and “enthusiasm,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love.

“Chaos” by George Frederic Watts, circa 1875. (Tate Museum)

Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:

Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?

Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.

As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.

Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.

Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.

So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.

There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:

We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.

The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…

Read more here.

A THOUSAND SMALL SANITIES

Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.

In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”

Taylor and Mill

In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.

Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:

My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.

A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.

[…]

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.

They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)

Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:

What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.

They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.

Read more here.

ALSO: FIGURING

I’d be remiss not to mark 2019 as the year that greeted the book that took twelve years of Brain Pickings and the most beautiful, difficult, disorienting experience of my personal life.

Figuring (public library) — some excerpts from which I have published throughout the year — explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

Long ago, a kindly interviewer asked me why I routinely declined offers for the types of easy, marketable books I am frequently approached about doing. I told him (please suspend judgment: I was in my twenties) that I had no interest in putting into the world a book that has the shelf life of a banana. I hope Figuring has the shelf life of a shelf.

Here is the prelude — chapter 0 of 29:

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet’s letters in my friend Wendy’s backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision — that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution — pulls me toward a miraculous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no — it remains suspended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider’s web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.

Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider — and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry — intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth — not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of “biography” but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams. Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love? Two Nobel Prizes don’t seem to recompense the melancholy radiating from every photograph of the woman in the black laboratory dress. Is success a guarantee of fulfillment, or merely a promise as precarious as a marital vow? How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections — between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture, between faint figures who pass each other in the nocturne before the torchlight of a revolution lights the new day, with little more than a half-nod of kinship and a match to change hands.

Although fragments hardly serve a book so predicated on the cohesive interleaving of lives and ideas, you can read some excerpts here.

BP

The Book of Delights: Poet and Gardener Ross Gay’s Yearlong Experiment in Willful Gladness

“The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.”

The Book of Delights: Poet and Gardener Ross Gay’s Yearlong Experiment in Willful Gladness

“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poet Ross Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”

Ross Gay in his beloved community garden

Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.

Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.

Photograph by Maria Popova

He writes:

Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.

In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:

It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.

He writes:

When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:

For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.

One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:

I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Perhaps the most charming category of delights Gay encounters throughout the year are what he terms “unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers.” One September day, wandering through a small town in Indiana where he had just given a poetry reading at the local college and where “Make America Great Again” signs glare from an auto-shop selling foreign cars, he records this:

While I was working, headphones on, swaying to the new De La Soul record (delight, which deserves its own entry), I noticed a white girl — she looked fifteen, but could’ve been, I suppose, a college student — standing next to me with her hand raised. I looked up, confused, pulled my headphones back, and she said, like a coach or something, “Working on your paper?! Good job to you! High five!” And you better believe I high-fived that child in her preripped Def Leppard shirt and her itty-bitty Doc Martens. For I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.

A few months ago, walking down the street in Umbertide, in Italy, a trash truck pulled up beside me and the guy in the passenger’s seat yelled something I didn’t understand. I said, “Como,” the Spanish word for “come again,” which is a ridiculous thing to say because even if he had come again I wouldn’t have understood him. He knew this, and hopping out of the truck to dump in a couple cans, he flexed his muscles, pointed at me, and smacked my biceps hard. Twice! I loved him! Or when a waitress puts her hand on my shoulder. (Forget it if she calls me honey. Baby even better.) Or someone scooting by puts their hand on my back. The handshake. The hug. I love them both.

Art by Simona Ciraolo from Hug Me

And then there are his parenthetical meta-delights — parentheses applied, in proper Lewis Thomas fashion, as containers of delight, wherein the container itself is delightful. For instance, this:

(A delight that we can heal our loved ones, even the dead ones.) Oh broken. Oh beautiful.

Or this, nestled into his Indiana-small-town experience:

(A feature of the small-town Midwest: a city-hallish building in the center, always with some sad statue trumpeting one war or another. This one had a guy in one of those not-very-protective-looking hats they called a helmet during WWI. He’s carrying, naturally, a gun. Jena Osman’s book Public Figures alerted me to the ubiquity of the gun, the weapon, in the hands of our statues. A delight I wish to now imagine and even impose, given that beneficent dictatorship [of one’s own life, anyway] is a delight, all new statues must have in their hands flowers or shovels or babies or seedlings or chinchillas — we could go on like this for a while. But never again — never ever — guns. I decree it, and also decree the removal of the already extant guns. Let the emptiness our war heroes carry be the metaphor for a while.)

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

This transmutation of terror into transcendence haunts the book as a guiding spirit. In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:

I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.

[…]

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.

[…]

It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement the infinitely delightful Book of Delights with poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s lovely picture-book about happiness as a daily practice of noticing and Michael McCarthy’s meditation on nature and the serious work of joy, then revisit Bill T. Jones’s spellbinding Universe in Verse performance of one of Ross Gay’s poems.

BP

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

A prescient admonition against the infinite regress of “except.”

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

“The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic dialogue about identity, race, and belonging. “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.” Half a century later, this aspect of the Northern identity has become in a great sense the national identity of the country that calls itself by the name of an entire continent. Its rubric of exclusion has been mirrored across the world, in the various international nationalisms that have cropped up as the reactionary politics of regressive ideologies.

More than a century before Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued a prescient admonition against this epidemic of divisiveness and exclusionary identity in a short, stirring letter to a friend, cited in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterwork of poetic scholarship, chronicling the complex and conflicted history of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — a public triumph of human rights, and a private triumph for a man who had faced the artillery of brutal criticism for his idealism and his determination to make a willfully blind and belligerent nation see slavery for what it was: a “monstrous injustice.” Although his courageous approach to criticism helped him persevere in the public eye, privately he often despaired — never more bleakly than when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing people within the two states to decide for themselves whether they wish to perpetrate slavery. Lincoln saw it as a colossal backward step for progress and a supreme betrayal of the Declaration of Independence — “progress in degeneracy,” a travesty of basic civil liberty, a travesty of basic morality, casting self-interest as the only inalienable right.

“Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men,” he wrote in a note to himself. “Ours began, by affirming those rights.” Devastated, incomprehending of how far his nation had fallen from its founding ideals, Lincoln followed the slippery moral slope of exclusion to its only logical conclusion in a chillingly prescient letter to a friend, penned in the summer of 1855:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Complement with Zadie Smith on the see-saw of optimism and despair in cultural progress and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, then revisit Baldwin’s prophetic insight into divisiveness and its only cure.

BP

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