“I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow.”
By Maria Popova
As artists, Frida Kahlo (July 6, 1907–July 13, 1954) and Diego Rivera (December 8, 1886–November 24, 1957) each possessed boundless talent bolstered by an unbending will. As partners, they possessed each other with a ferocious love, intense and complicated and all-eclipsing — the kind for which, in Rilke’s immortal words, “all other work is but preparation.” They wed when Kahlo was twenty-two and Rivera forty-two, and remained together until Kahlo’s death twenty-five years later. They had an open marriage long before the term existed as a trend of modern romance — both had multiple affairs, Rivera with women and Kahlo with both men and women, most notably with the American-born French singer, dancer, and actress Josephine Baker and with the Russian Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky. Still, both insisted that they were the love of each other’s life — a deep conviction crystallized in Kahlo’s passionate love letters and Rivera’s affectionate account of their first encounter.
But nowhere does their uncommon love come more vibrantly alive than in Kahlo’s portrait of Rivera, written twenty years into their marriage for a catalog accompanying one of his major exhibitions and later included as an afterword to his autobiography, My Art, My Life (public library). In just a few wholehearted, wholebodied paragraphs, she captures the enormity of their love. Her sincere humanity radiates a testament to the enormity of all love as a transfiguring force, the ultimate wellspring of beauty and grace.
I warn you that in this picture I am painting of Diego there will be colors which even I am not fully acquainted with. Besides, I love Diego so much I cannot be an objective speculator of him or his life… I cannot speak of Diego as my husband because that term, when applied to him, is an absurdity. He never has been, nor will he ever be, anybody’s husband. I also cannot speak of him as my lover because to me, he transcends by far the domain of sex. And if I attempt to speak of him purely, as a soul, I shall only end up by painting my own emotions. Yet considering these obstacles of sentiment, I shall try to sketch his image to the best of my ability.
Under the wildly affectionate gaze of her sketch, Rivera — a man physically unattractive by our culture’s conventional standards of beauty — is transformed into an exquisite, magical, almost supernatural creature. We are left with a bone-deep awareness that the true splendor of a human being, as Ursula K. Le Guin so elegantly demonstrated a generation later, is something quite different from “beauty.” What emerges is ultimately a portrait less of Rivera than of Kahlo’s own astonishing capacity for love and beauty in the largest possible sense.
Kahlo sketches Rivera:
Growing up from his Asiatic-type head is his fine, thin hair, which somehow gives the impression that it is floating in air. He looks like an immense baby with an amiable but sad-looking face. His wide, dark, and intelligent bulging eyes appear to be barely held in place by his swollen eyelids. They protrude like the eyes of a frog, each separated from the other in a most extraordinary way. They thus seem to enlarge his field of vision beyond that of most persons. It is almost as if they were constructed exclusively for a painter of vast spaces and multitudes. The effect produced by these unusual eyes, situated so far away from each other, encourages one to speculate on the ages-old oriental knowledge contained behind them.
On rare occasions, an ironic yet tender smile appears on his Buddha-like lips. Seeing him in the nude, one is immediately reminded of a young boy-frog standing on his hind legs. His skin is greenish-white, very like that of an aquatic animal. The only dark parts of his whole body are his hands and face, and that is because they are sunburned. His shoulders are like a child’s, narrow and round. They progress without any visible hint of angles, their tapering rotundity making them seem almost feminine. The arms diminish regularly into small, sensitive hands… It is incredible to think that these hands have been capable of achieving such a prodigious number of paintings. Another wonder is that they can still work as indefatigably as they do.
Diego’s chest — of it we have to say, that had he landed on an island governed by Sappho, where male invaders were apt to be executed, Diego would never have been in danger. The sensitivity of his marvelous breasts would have insured his welcome, although his masculine virility, specific and strange, would have made him equally desired in the lands of these queens avidly hungering for masculine love.
His enormous belly, smooth, tightly drawn, and sphere-shaped, is supported by two strong legs which are as beautifully solid as classical columns. They end in feet which point outward at an obtuse angle, as if moulded for a stance wide enough to cover the entire earth.
He sleeps in a foetal position. In his waking hours, he walks with a languorous elegance as if accustomed to living in a liquefied medium. By his movements, one would think that he found air denser to wade through than water.
From this intimate portrait of the man emerges an intimate portrait of the artist as a wholly integrated being, a creature of unselfconscious and uncompromising authenticity:
He is eternally curious and, at the same time, an eternal conversationalist. He can paint for hours and days without resting, talking while he works. He talks and argues about everything, absolutely everything, like Walt Whitman, with all who want to listen to him. His conversation is always interesting. He says phrases that amaze you — sometimes they hurt you, other times they move you, but the person who listens is never left with a feeling of fruitlessness or emptiness. His words make one tremendously uncomfortable because they are live and true. His raw concepts weaken or disorient those who listen to him because they don’t agree with the already established morals; thus, they always break the bark to let new blossoms come out; they wound to let new cells grow.
At the very end of the piece, Kahlo addresses that gruesome yet all too common human tendency to judge other loves from the outside — a violent flattening of the nuance and dimension and enormous richness that exist between two people, perceptible to them alone. She writes:
Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow, nor does the earth suffer because of the rains, nor does the atom suffer for letting its energy escape. To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.
“When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world…”
By Maria Popova
All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware — an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living. But when this finitude is made acutely imminent, one suddenly collides with awareness so acute that it leaves no choice but to fill the shadow with as much light as a human being can generate — the sort of inner illumination we call meaning: the meaning of life.
That tumultuous turning point is what neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi chronicles in When Breath Becomes Air (public library) — his piercing memoir of being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of a career bursting with potential and a life exploding with aliveness. Partway between Montaigne and Oliver Sacks, Kalanithi weaves together philosophical reflections on his personal journey with stories of his patients to illuminate the only thing we have in common — our mortality — and how it spurs all of us, in ways both minute and monumental, to pursue a life of meaning.
What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of “us” when that possibility is suddenly snipped?
At age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.
And then the unthinkable happens. He recounts one of the first incidents in which his former identity and his future fate collided with jarring violence:
My back stiffened terribly during the flight, and by the time I made it to Grand Central to catch a train to my friends’ place upstate, my body was rippling with pain. Over the past few months, I’d had back spasms of varying ferocity, from simple ignorable pain, to pain that made me forsake speech to grind my teeth, to pain so severe I curled up on the floor, screaming. This pain was toward the more severe end of the spectrum. I lay down on a hard bench in the waiting area, feeling my back muscles contort, breathing to control the pain — the ibuprofen wasn’t touching this — and naming each muscle as it spasmed to stave off tears: erector spinae, rhomboid, latissimus, piriformis…
A security guard approached. “Sir, you can’t lie down here.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, gasping out the words. “Bad … back … spasms.”
“You still can’t lie down here.”
I pulled myself up and hobbled to the platform.
Like the book itself, the anecdote speaks to something larger and far more powerful than the particular story — in this case, our cultural attitude toward what we consider the failings of our bodies: pain and, in the ultimate extreme, death. We try to dictate the terms on which these perceived failings may occur; to make them conform to wished-for realities; to subvert them by will and witless denial. All this we do because, at bottom, we deem them impermissible — in ourselves and in each other.
Punctuating Kalanithi’s story are vignettes of those small yet enormous moments in which destinies pivot and the elaborate universe of priorities we’ve spent a lifetime constructing combusts into stardust. In those moments, there is a violent slamming shut of chapters we had naïvely thought would go on and on, leading to Happily Ever After and yet somehow not really ending there, for the endings we imagine for ourselves aren’t really endings. An ending is devastating and unsatisfying in its finitude, and the endings we imagine for ourselves are permanent states of ongoing, infinite satisfaction.
Kalanithi recounts one such moment of enormous smallness as he finds himself a patient at the very hospital where he works as a neurosurgeon, awaiting the news of his dismal prognosis:
A young nurse, one I hadn’t met, poked her head in.
“The doctor will be in soon.”
And with that, the future I had imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving, evaporated.
As a young man, Kalanithi bridged the lifelong love of reading instilled in him by his mother’s passion for literature with a sudden fascination with neuroscience — all thanks to a mediocre 500-page novel that, despite its questionable literary quality, posited an idea that turned his worldview upside down. He recounts how he found himself at the mesmerizing intersection of the life of the mind and the life of the brain:
The throwaway assumption that the mind was simply the operation of the brain [was] an idea that struck me with force; it startled my naïve understanding of the world. Of course, it must be true — what were our brains doing, otherwise? Though we had free will, we were also biological organisms — the brain was an organ, subject to all the laws of physics, too! Literature provided a rich account of human meaning; the brain, then, was the machinery that somehow enabled it. It seemed like magic. That night, in my room, I opened up my red Stanford course catalog, which I had read through dozens of times, and grabbed a highlighter. In addition to all the literature classes I had marked, I began looking in biology and neuroscience as well.
A few years later, I hadn’t thought much more about a career but had nearly completed degrees in English literature and human biology. I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful? I still felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values… Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection. My brief forays into the formal ethics of analytic philosophy felt dry as a bone, missing the messiness and weight of real human life.
Kalanithi reflects on his decision to continue his education with a master’s degree in English literature:
I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans — i.e., “human relationality” — that undergirded meaning. Yet somehow, this process existed in brains and bodies, subject to their own physiologic imperatives, prone to breaking and failing. There must be a way, I thought, that the language of life as experienced — of passion, of hunger, of love — bore some relationship, however convoluted, to the language of neurons, digestive tracts, and heartbeats.
For my thesis, I studied the work of Walt Whitman, a poet who, a century before, was possessed by the same questions that haunted me, who wanted to find a way to understand and describe what he termed “the Physiological-Spiritual Man.”
As his friends pursued careers in the arts, Kalanithi remained animated by the seemingly quixotic quest to locate the intersection of literature, biology, philosophy, and morality, and to mine it for the raw material of meaning in human life. Eventually, several of his professors suggested that a degree in the history and philosophy of science might come closest to his inquiry, so he applied to the program in Cambridge and set off for the English countryside. He recounts:
I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was merely confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience. It was only in practicing medicine that I could pursue a serious biological philosophy. Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action. I finished my degree and headed back to the States. I was going to Yale for medical school.
It was on the wings of this incisive idealism that Kalanithi soared through his life as a neurosurgeon, and it was on them that he rose to his death. He writes:
I had spent so much time studying literature at Stanford and the history of medicine at Cambridge, in an attempt to better understand the particularities of death, only to come away feeling like they were still unknowable to me… Such things could be known only face-to-face. I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal.
But facing these twinned mysteries as a participant rather than an observer upended his most basic beliefs. He reflects on his conflicted mental state midway through his treatment as the tumors shrink and the cancer is momentarily under control:
No one asked about my plans, which was a relief, since I had none. While I could now walk without a cane, a paralytic uncertainty loomed: Who would I be, going forward, and for how long? Invalid, scientist, teacher? Bioethicist? Neurosurgeon once again…? Stay-at-home dad? Writer? Who could, or should, I be? As a doctor, I had had some sense of what patients with life-changing illnesses faced — and it was exactly these moments I had wanted to explore with them. Shouldn’t terminal illness, then, be the perfect gift to that young man who had wanted to understand death? What better way to understand it than to live it? But I’d had no idea how hard it would be, how much terrain I would have to explore, map, settle. I’d always imagined the doctor’s work as something like connecting two pieces of railroad track, allowing a smooth journey for the patient. I hadn’t expected the prospect of facing my own mortality to be so disorienting, so dislocating. I thought back to my younger self, who might’ve wanted to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”; looking into my own soul, I found the tools too brittle, the fire too weak, to forge even my own conscience.
It was literature that brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I remember the moment when my overwhelming unease yielded, when that seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted. I woke up in pain, facing another day — no project beyond breakfast seemed tenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: I’ll go on. I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
That morning, I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.
Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.
With an eye to his baby daughter — parenthood was a deliberate choice he and his wife, Lucy, made in the wake of the diagnosis — he considers what message he would give to this brand new being, blessed and burdened with her own infinite potential for an inherently finite life:
There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.
That message is simple:
When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.
Now comes a most unusual addition to the menagerie of Gotham-lovers — a foreign cousin of Manhattan’s beloved creative canines. In Americanine: A Haute Dog in New York (public library), French illustrator Yann Kebbi takes us on an imaginative and infectiously enthusiastic tour of the city from the point of view of a dog, “a merry canine” — a creature full of goodwill and earnest wonderment at the world, wholly devoid of the petty cynicisms that blind us to the miraculousness of so much humanity compressed into such a small space. It is only through such eyes of fiery friendliness that we begin to add music and meaning — to New York, to any city, to life itself.
Kebbi’s illustrations, immeasurably delightful in their own right, bear a palpable kinship of spirit with this singular city itself — colorful and deeply alive, they bridge haste and purposefulness, simplicity and sophistication.
We follow the dog as he samples the usual tourist attractions — from staples like the Statue of Liberty and Grand Central to classic funscapes like the Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel to bastions of high-brow culture like the Guggenheim.
Tucked into his journey are treats to which tourists may remain oblivious but which locals will recognize with nostalgic delight — the Central Park saxophonist, the archetypal spoke-figure of the dog walker, the Domino Sugar factory by the Williamsburg Bridge, the city’s iconic water towers.
There also semi-hidden perplexities that wink at the reality of the story and the reality of the city simultaneously: Our dog-hero wanders the streets leashed, and yet the enigmatic leash-holder always remains out of the frame — both a source of mystery and a subtle layer of civic history, for it is illegal to let dogs off-leash in the streets of New York.
The playfulness of the canine perspective extends a warm invitation to pause and marvel at some of the absurd things we humans do, which we’ve come to take for granted in the rhythm of daily life. As the dog peers through the window of a giant gym and watches people run in place without getting anywhere, one is suddenly reminded of how silly much of what we do would seem to a rational observer.
What emerges is a loving portrait of a city ablaze with aliveness, one in which both tourists and locals will recognize themselves — their dreams and their realities, mirrored back at them with eager and nonjudgmental eyes full of wonderment.
“Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice … may be heard.”
That immutable inquiry is what novelist, short story writer, and journalist Melissa Pritchard explores with unparalleled luminosity in an essay titled “Spirit and Vision” from her altogether magnificent first nonfiction collection, A Solemn Pleasure: To Imagine, Witness, and Write (public library). The piece — a sort of open letter to writers and, by extension, all artists — bears that cynicism-disarming quality of a commencement address and enchants the psyche like an incantation.
Great writers are witnesses to the spirit of their age. They need not be accepted by their times; they rarely are. Speaking the truth, they may go unheard, be misunderstood or criticized. Later, posthumously, it is said they were ahead of their time.
This she illustrates with a supreme example of the posthumously anointed literary genius: Walt Whitman, whose exquisite serenade to the soul, Leaves of Grass, fell on deaf ears — the same unfeeling audience that had been wholly nonplussed by Thoreau’s wholly plussingWalden and had snubbed Moby-Dick, leaving Melville to die in embittered poverty. Where the public was indifferent, reviewers were downright hostile — one famously advised Whitman to simply commit suicide. Middle-aged and penniless, the poet was friendless in an artless world — save for Emerson, who alone found Leaves of Grass to be full of “incomparable things said incomparably well” and declared it “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
And yet Whitman didn’t give up writing, buoyed by the same mysterious force that has kept countless artists from throwing in the brush or pen or lyre when met with mockery or, worse, indifference. Pritchard considers his plight:
Walt Whitman had violated all the polite norms of his age, and Leaves of Grass was on a collision course with conventional literature. He had assaulted the institution of literature, had torn apart language and invented his own. In fact, Whitman laid the groundwork for much modernist writing from Kafka and Beckett to Borges.
With this, Pritchard arrives at the central inquiry, addressing writers with grounding yet elevating directness:
Why write? Why add to the tumult of the world? Your competition is fierce … from television, film, video, all social media, from the books of other writers living and dead. There currently exists in America an insidious numbness to literature. It is increasingly difficult to publish what is called “literary fiction”; even the best-seller market is not what it was. Stacks of books are returned to warehouses every day, even those blockbuster books publishing houses rely upon to finance more serious, less lucrative books. And how have we, as writers of that literature, become increasingly alienated from the soul of our culture? How have we become so nearly unnecessary? In other parts of the world, to be a writer is to place yourself in physical peril; your words might invite your own death. In other parts of the world, to be a writer is a heroic vocation, for which you may be imprisoned, tortured, “disappeared.” On the other hand, thousands of people may assemble to listen to you; as a poet you may be elected to the highest political office. In parts of this world, the power of language is still deeply connected to the soul of the people. Whitman’s work was initially met with indifference. By the time of his death he was regarded as a genius and a saint or a derelict and degenerate, depending on your stand. He was in no way dismissible.
We are in danger, I believe, of becoming accustomed to indifference, of being kept within writing workshops, conferences, and seminars where we write and read to a dwindling, closed circle of admirers. Nearly resigned to this peripheral fate, we are then tempted to take ourselves too seriously as far as ego recognition goes, in terms of literary prizes, grants, and publications in journals, yet not seriously enough as essential witnesses to our time.
But make no mistake — Pritchard’s is not a complaint but a clarion call, issued from the depths of a chest that cages a heart emanating uncontainable love for art and its spiritual rewards:
All great literature has an uncreeded and luminous theology behind it… Art [is] a form of active prayer.
For writers, Pritchard argues — especially writers like Whitman, who stay true to their art in the face of repeated rejection — literature is a “sacred vocation”; there is no preciousness or pretense about its sanctity — only earnest and inexorable purposefulness. She exhorts writers to contact this invisible theology of their craft and elevate it to its height:
Many of the tenets of sainthood are also to be cultivated in the committed writer: selflessness, the death of the little self, purity of spirit leading to intensity of vision, a suspension of judgment in regard to your fellow human beings, an intimate acquaintance with ecstasy, sorrow, and revelation. Consider for a moment your work as analogous to intimate prayer in which you address God, and thereby divineness, in all matter.
We can begin with a metaphysic that recognizes a divine reality substantial to the world of things, lives, and minds, a psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine reality, an ethic placing humanity’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent ground of all being. This is a universal, immemorial idea put forth by all religions, much folklore, and, uncounted times, by great artists. Whitman believed in the poet as agent of transcendent power; he was literal when he referred to his ecstasies, his illuminations.
This divine reality is of such a nature that it cannot be understood directly except by those who choose to fulfill certain conditions, making themselves loving, pure in heart, and rich in spirit. I am talking about mystics, saints, prophets, sages, enlightened ones, the Sufis of Islam, the gurus of India, the Catholic mystics, the Quakers’ tradition of inner light that so influenced Walt Whitman, the shamans, and medicine women and men of the Native American tribes. It is from these people and others that we learn of the detachment, charity, and humility essential to being immersed in the one divine reality. It is my assertion that as writers, we bring as many of these same qualities to bear in our work as we possibly can… This consciousness, supernatural consciousness, is what transformed Whitman from an ordinary hack writer to a composer of transcendent works.
The shining of this inner light onto the outer world, Pritchard asserts, is the task of the artist and the source of that mysterious force that carries the creative spirit forward, however glib the external reception of that art:
Enduring literature is suffused with compassion and love. And because we then act in the foolish, vain, mad, self-destructive, and sometimes criminal ways we do, all so characteristically human, this is much of what our stories and poems and novels concern themselves with. And just as the author labors in solitude but is never alone, so the artist, the author, is never poor.
Our one great Promethean labor is to reconcile humanity to itself and to reconnect, through language, humankind to the universe. If we begin with this ambition, then all the techniques, the seminars and workshops to promote confidence and craftsmanship make sense, are valid and valuable.
This, indeed, is Pritchard’s most piercing point — however radiant that source of inner light, it cannot exist in isolation from the rest of the universe and must be emanated outward, shone in the direction of universal Truth. With an eye to iconic champions of truth-telling like Nadine Gordimer and Grace Paley, Pritchard addresses the writers of our own time:
If your commitment isn’t to truth, then you are in the wrong line of work. The poetics of silence still exist in America, but as writers I feel we have a responsibility to engage in history, in painful history, to be responsible witnesses to our own time. We are not separate; we are not an indulgent elite. We are not blind to suffering. We are, in fact, aware of our intimate relation to all other beings, and are thus accountable, deeply responsible. We must connect the personal with the political, the political with the spiritual. And though we can only work from our particular place, our given spot in the world, the particular can be a place of great power — the cry of the human heart and the yearning of the human spirit are, after all, universal.
What you have chosen is a profound vocation of healing, and your stories and poems are as sacraments, as visible blessings. Be at the heart and soul of your time, not resigned to what is safe or peripheral. Try to free yourself from attachment to results, to awards, publications, praise, to indifference, rejection, and misunderstanding. Immerse yourself in the common ground of the universe so that your true voice — not the egoistic voice that clamors vainly for power (for it will ruin you if you listen to it) — your authentic voice, supported by sacred reality, may be heard. May your words illuminate your vision, find you compassionate, attuned to human suffering and committed to its alleviation.