“We don’t know when, but those who arrive will leave one day as well.”
By Maria Popova
“What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” asked Walt Whitman in his iconic ode to the unstoppable succession of being as he contemplated the generations who, long after he has returned his borrowed atoms to the universe, would walk the same streets and traverse the same waters and burn with the same human passions. Half a century down this generational river, Rilke insisted that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” But even if, long after Whitman and Rilke have gone, the physicists have come to agree with the poets that our mortality is the wellspring of our existential vitality, it remains — and perhaps it shall always remain — a towering triumph for the human animal to view its own existence from this placid cosmic vantage point. To grow up is to learn to manufacture “antidotes to fear of death” — in marriages and mortgages, in products and possessions, in the various illusions of stability and permanence that allow us to go on averting our gaze from our finitude, from the fact that we too will one day be washed into the impartial waters of time.
This, perhaps, is why the not-yet-grown are the rare few in possession of an imagination spacious and porous enough to see the cycle of existence and non-existence as the basic mechanism of life, to see its beauty as that Rilkean portal to presence and love.
Reading more like a poem than a story, and feeling very much like one, this lyrical meditation paints life as a wonderland of possibility, to be visited and relished, all the more intensely for the knowledge that we are only temporary visitors.
Reminiscent of Jane Hirshfield’s spare and sublime poem “Jasmine,” the opening line is a subtle, tender reminder that we are but links in the chain of being, preceded by other links and, by inference, to be succeeded by others still: “Some have already left,” Valdivia writes, gently listing “the neighbor’s cat, Aunt Margarita,” and “the fish in yesterday’s soup” among the departed. “Others will arrive,” she adds. “Some were longed for, others come out of the blue.”
As vignettes of loss and life unfold across the pages, grief and delight take turns — a see-saw, a syncopation — and from that clam rhythm emerges the naturalness, even the loveliness of the cycle.
We are reminded, too, of how little we know, and how even littler we control — but even the passengers on Valdivia’s existential boat of uncertainty have curious, contented smiles as they bob on the ocean of life.
Those who leave don’t know where they’re going.
Their destination doesn’t depend on the wind or how old they are.
Those who arrive don’t know either.
Life’s just like that, it seems — up to chance.
We don’t know when, but those who arrive will leave one day as well.
What arises from these illustrated verses, more than the sense that we are born of a mystery and die into a mystery, is the wondrous awareness that we live a mystery — that the true wonder is the interlude between the two, the visitation, the mirthful miraculousness of existing at all.
“Pink sadness… is the sadness of shame when you have done nothing wrong, pink sadness is not your fault, and though even the littlest twinge may cause it, it is the vast bushy top on the family tree of sadness, whose faraway roots resemble a colossal squid with eyes the size of soccer balls.”
By Maria Popova
“There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos,” Paul Goodman wrote half a century ago in his taxonomy of the nine kinds of silence. Like silence, sadness too occupies a vast spectrum of hues; sadness too can be menacing — but it can also be beautiful, bountiful in its portality to other realms.
Such is the rare, rapturous awareness with which the poet Mary Ruefle paints the color spectrum of sadnesses speckling her slim, miraculous collection of prose poems, meditations, divinations, and deviations My Private Property (public library) — a title bowing to the inalienable sovereignty of the inner world, the place where we ultimately live out our entire lives, the world philosopher Martha Nussbaum exhorted the young not to despise in order to have a full and flowering life.
Nearly two centuries after Goethe contemplated the psychology of color and emotion, Ruefle’s chromatic taxonomy of sadness cracks open the eggshell of our fragility to reveal within it a kaleidoscope coruscating with irrepressible aliveness. What emerges is the feeling — something beyond the reasoned understanding — that sadness is not the tip of the Atlantis-sized iceberg of our hard-wired grief for life, but the blazing fire of life itself, of the love of life, burning with the elemental fact that there is no disappointment without hope, no heartbreak without love; in the shadows that sadness casts on the cave walls of our being is the delicious delirium of the life-dream itself.
Rising from the page as a creature belonging to some liminal world — a world between ours, which she inhabits with staggering erudition, and another, lightyears beyond the imaginative reach of the rest of us — Ruefle writes:
Blue sadness is sweetest cut into strips with scissors and then into little pieces by a knife, it is the sadness of reverie and nostalgia: it may be, for example, the memory of a happiness that is now only a memory, it has receded into a niche that cannot be dusted for it is beyond your reach; distinct and dusty, blue sadness lies in your inability to dust it, it is as unreachable as the sky, it is a fact reflecting the sadness of all facts. Blue sadness is that which you wish to forget, but cannot, as when on a bus one suddenly pictures with absolute clarity a ball of dust in a closet, such an odd, unshareable thought that one blushes, a deep rose spreading over the blue fact of sadness, creating a situation that can only be compared to a temple, which exists, but to visit it one would have to travel two thousand miles on snowshoes and by dogsled, five hundred by horseback and another five hundred by boat, with a thousand by rail.
In her stunning serenade to the color blue, Bluets, Maggie Nelson wrote: “I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.” The beauty may have eluded her because one ought to look beyond blue to become — to become not the servant of sadness, not even its master, but just to become. It is this vibrant and variegated becoming that Ruefle uncorks with her ecstatic spectroscopy of sadness:
Purple sadness is the sadness of classical music and eggplant, the stroke of midnight, human organs, ports cut off for part of every year, words with too many meanings, incense, insomnia, and the crescent moon. It is the sadness of play money, and icebergs seen from a canoe. It is possible to dance to purple sadness, though slowly, as slowly as it takes to dig a pit to hold a sleeping giant. Purple sadness is pervasive, and goes deeper into the interior than the world’s greatest nickel deposits, or any other sadness on earth. It is the sadness of depositories, and heels echoing down a long corridor, it is the sound of your mother closing the door at night, leaving you alone.
Gray sadness is the sadness of paper clips and rubber bands, of rain and squirrels and chewing gum, ointments and unguents and movie theaters. Gray sadness is the most common of all sadnesses, it is the sadness of sand in the desert and sand on the beach, the sadness of keys in a pocket, cans on a shelf, hair in a comb, dry-cleaning, and raisins. Gray sadness is beautiful, but not to be confused with the beauty of blue sadness, which is irreplaceable. Sad to say, gray sadness is replaceable, it can be replaced daily, it is the sadness of a melting snowman in a snowstorm.
Red sadness is the secret one. Red sadness never appears sad, it appears as Nijinsky bolting across the stage in mid-air, it appears in flashes of passion, anger, fear, inspiration, and courage, in dark unsellable visions; it is an upside-down penny concealed beneath a tea cozy, the even-tempered and steady-minded are not exempt from it, and a curator once attached this tag to it: Because of the fragile nature of the pouch no attempt has been made to extract the note.
Green sadness is sadness dressed for graduation, it is the sadness of June, of shiny toasters as they come out of their boxes, the table laid before a party, the smell of new strawberries and dripping roasts about to be devoured; it is the sadness of the unperceived and therefore never felt and seldom expressed, except on occasion by polka dancers and little girls who, in imitation of their grandmothers, decide who shall have their bunny when they die. Green sadness weighs no more than an unused handkerchief, it is the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.
In consonance with her credo that “we are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love — a connection between things,” articulated in her sublime and unclassifiable earlier book, Madness, Rack and Honey, Ruefle approaches her sadness-spectrum with the same soulful insistence on this quiet, invisible interleaving as the canopy of our inner life:
Brown sadness is the simple sadness. It is the sadness of huge upright stones. That is all. It is simple. Huge, upright stones surround the other sadnesses, and protect them. A circle of huge, upright stones — who would have thought it?
What makes Ruefle’s taxonomy so powerful, so colorful, so life-giving is that it explores not the bombastic, Byronic dolors we die for, but the neglected, gnawing desolations we live with:
Pink sadness is the sadness of white anchovies. It is the sadness of deprivation, of going without, of having to swallow when your throat is no bigger than an acupuncture pin; it’s the sadness of mushrooms born with heads too big for their bodies, the sadness of having the soles come off your only pair of shoes, or your favorite pair, it makes no difference, pink sadness cannot be measured by a gameshow host, it is the sadness of shame when you have done nothing wrong, pink sadness is not your fault, and though even the littlest twinge may cause it, it is the vast bushy top on the family tree of sadness, whose faraway roots resemble a colossal squid with eyes the size of soccer balls.
In a passage that calls to mind Van Gogh’s orange-haunted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, painted shortly after the fateful night when his existential anxiety erupted into self-mutilation, Ruefle writes:
Orange sadness is the sadness of anxiety and worry, it is the sadness of an orange balloon drifting over snow-capped mountains, the sadness of wild goats, the sadness of counting, as when one worries that another shipment of thoughts is about to enter the house, that a soufflé or Cessna will fall on the day set aside to be unsad, it is the orange haze of a fox in the distance, it speaks the strange antlered language of phantoms and dead batteries, it is the sadness of all things left overnight in the oven and forgotten in the morning, and as such orange sadness becomes lost among us altogether, like its motive.
Yellow sadness is the surprise sadness. It is the sadness of naps and eggs, swan’s down, sachet powder and moist towelettes. It is the citrus of sadness, and all things round and whole and dying like the sun possess this sadness, which is the sadness of the first place; it is the sadness of explosion and expansion, a blast furnace in Duluth that rises over the night skyline to fall reflected in the waters of Lake Superior, it is a superior joy and a superior sadness, that of revolving doors and turnstiles, it is the confusing sadness of the never-ending and the evanescent, it is the sadness of the jester in every pack of cards, the sadness of a poet pointing to a flower and saying what is that when what that is is a violet; yellow sadness is the ceiling fresco painted by Andrea Mantegna in the Castello di San Giorgio in Mantova, Italy, in the fifteenth century, wherein we look up to see we are being looked down upon, looked down upon in laughter and mirth, it is the sadness of that.
And then, in a tiny, dazzling author’s note tucked into the neglected endmatter of the book for the discovery of only the most devoted and sensitive readers, Ruefle names the unnamed subversion at the heart of her color wheel of the mind:
In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.
Delve into Ruefle’s My Private Property for more of her chromatics of feeling, including her black and white sadnesses (or happinesses), that pepper this altogether gorgeous collection of reflections ranging from the search for language and meaning in the forest to the hungry human mythos of immortality, then revisit the most beautiful meditations on blue from the past two hundred years of great literature, spanning from Thoreau to Toni Morrison.
“There is nothing behind the wall except a space where the wind whistles, but you cannot see that.”
By Maria Popova
We parse and move through reality as multidimensional creatures in a multidimensional world. The experience of dimensions, this living fact of spatiality, may be our most direct mathematical grasp of the universe — an understanding woven into our elemental sensemaking, into our language and our metaphors: We speak of our social circles, our love triangles, our spheres of influence, the depth of our feelings, the height of our intellect, the length of our lives. But we are also quite limited by our embodied frame of reference — our experience as three-dimensional creatures in a perceptually three-dimensional world with other spatialities on scales we can’t sense has always unmoored our common-sense perception from the fundamentals of reality; it is why the notion of a spherical world that turns beneath our grounded feet as it hurtles around the Sun at more than 100 kilometers per hour was so controversial for so long, why Einstein’s concept of spacetime was so radical and revolutionary, and why we find mathematical objects like Möbius strips and Klein bottles so deliciously disorienting.
In the final stretch of the 19th century, an English theologian with a mathematical bend named Edwin Abbott Abbott composed the brilliant allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions — the first time the science of dimensions was discussed in popular literature, folded into a clever social satire about how much our cultural frames of reference, around gender and class and other normative lines, limit our clear view of reality and limit us as fully conscious, capable agents in that reality.
Nearly a century after Abbott, the poet Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — another deep seer and scrumptiously original mind, who lived nearly a century — took up the subject with great subtlety and elegance of insight in her poem “Drawings by Children,” found in her altogether miraculous Pulitzer-winning collection Alive Together (public library), which also gave us Mueller’s lyrical wisdom on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives.
At the 2020 Universe in Verse — the annual charitable celebration of the science of reality through poetry — Grammy-winning musician and poetic songwriter Rosanne Cash brought Mueller’s “Drawings by Children” to soulful life, accompanied by one of her own children, Jakob Leventhal — a wonderful young musician himself, quarantined home from college.
DRAWINGS BY CHILDREN by Lisel Mueller
The sun may be visible or not
(it may be behind you,
the viewer of these pictures)
but the sky is always blue
if it is day.
the stars come almost within your grasp;
crooked, they reach out to you,
on the verge of falling.
It is never sunrise or sunset;
there is no bloody eye
spying on you across the horizon.
It is clearly day or night,
it is bright or totally dark,
it is here and never there.
In the beginning, you only needed
your head, a moon swimming in space,
and four bare branches;
and when your body was added,
it was light and thin at first,
not yet the dark chapel
from which, later, you tried to escape.
You lived in a non-Newtonian world,
your arms grew up from your shoulders,
your feet did not touch the ground,
your hair was streaming,
you were still flying.
The house is smaller than you remembered,
it has windows but no door.
A chimney sits on the gable roof,
a curl of smoke reassures you.
But the house has only two dimensions,
like a mash without its face;
the people who live there stand outside
as though time were always summer —
there is nothing behind the wall
except a space where the wind whistles,
but you cannot see that.
“Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.”
By Maria Popova
“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task,” the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in an existential exhale of a letter to his brother hours after his death sentence was repealed; in 1849, still in his twenties, Dostoyevsky had been arrested and sentenced to death for belonging to a literary society that circulated books the tsarist regime deemed dangerous.
Dostoyevsky lived to give us some of the most beautiful and humanistic literature our species has produced — literature laced with admonitions against indulging those murderous impulses of human nature, with invitations to choose again and again not to lose heart, not to lose faith in the human capacity for goodness.
A century later, amid a world that had failed to take Dostoyevsky’s heed, a person even younger took upon her slight shoulders that eternal task in one of the most powerful acts of resistance in the history of our civilization — powerful both for its courage and for its tragedy, outlining both what we are capable of as a human beings and how far we have yet to go to reach our highest potential as a humane society.
Born in a small German town as one of the local mayor’s five children, Sophie Scholl (May 9, 1921–February 22, 1943) was barely out of her teens when her conscience burst awake to the unconscionable inhumanity that had wormed her country’s soul. A month after she began her university studies in biology and philosophy in the nation’s capital, she co-founded the White Rose — a non-violent resistance group of students, artists, and scientists devoted to inspiring their compatriots to take a clear stance against Hitler, “to strive for the renewal of the mortally wounded German spirit,” as they impelled in one of their pamphlets.
On February 18, 1943 — eight months after the group’s founding — Scholl, her brother, and four other members of the White Rose were arrested, convicted of high treason for distributing anti-war pamphlets, and sentenced to death by the so-called People’s Court.
She was executed four days later.
Scholl is one of sixty-four heroes of resistance to Nazism profiled in Conscience in Revolt (public library) through brief biographies and a selection of their surviving writings that radiate the uncommon courage of living one’s values to the hilt — a 1957 out-of-print treasure that came into my life via one of those rare, improbable wonders that every once in a while reward those of us who mine the forgotten for the timeless: Tucked into my antiquarian copy of another our-of-print book on nonviolence, I discovered a newspaper clipping of a review by an English archbishop and anti-apartheid activist, lauding Conscience in Revolt as “a most moving and challenging pesentation of resistance to tyranny as a personal, individual, intensely human thing.” (Lest we forget, all of our pursuit and defense of truth springs from such a place, as astrophysicist Janna Levin reminds us in her beautiful reflection on science as a personal, “truly human endeavor.”) “It is precisely this we need to be reminded of now and always,” Father Huddleston writes in his review, “for there is no form of escapism more subtle or more general than the use of abstractions. And… there is no more certain way of losing the fight for human dignity and peace than the refusal to believe in the infinite value of the individual.”
The deeply personal nature of Scholl’s resistance and its seedbed in her singular individuality radiate from the previously unpublished private writings quoted in this book I was impelled to track down.
I am not entirely unhappy about it, because I still want to suffer, to share the suffering of these days… to be affected more directly… Sympathy is often difficult and soon becomes hollow if one feels no pain oneself.
One comes to such fearless lucidity only through the awareness, accepted without resistance, of just how intimately the life of the body and the life of the spirit are entwined — an understanding Scholl inhabited with absolute creaturely integrity. In a diary entry vibrating with the invincibility of youth, penned in the last summer of her life not long after her twenty-first birthday, she captures the animalistic pleasure of aliveness that is the wellspring of our strength, our humanity, and the poetry of existence:
The wind tears open the blue sky, out comes the sun and kisses me tenderly. I’d like to kiss him back, but my wish is forgotten in a moment as the wind grasps me. I feel the wonderful firmness of my body, I laugh aloud for the sheer joy of finding I can resist the wind. I can feel all my own strength.
After all, one should have the courage to believe in what is good. I do not mean that one should believe in illusions, but I mean that one should do only what is true and good and take it for granted that other people will do the same, in a way one can never do with the intellect alone. (That is to say — never calculate.)