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Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Be still, life, be still at the break of dawn, and you’ll feel the sun’s light when you hear the morning’s song.”

Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Life goes headlong,” Emerson lamented in contemplating how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, offering the antidote to our civilizational haste: “Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Half a century later, writing about the most important habit for living with presence, Hermann Hesse cautioned: “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.” Another century later, in the midst of an ever-accelerating cultural trance of busyness, Annie Dillard distilled the heart of the paradox in her sublime insistence on choosing presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

An uncommonly tenderhearted, wide-eyed invitation to fill our days with lively presence comes in Be Still, Life (public library) — a splendid illustrated poem of a picture-book by Ohara Hale, whose work I have long cherished and who has the loveliest back-flap author bio I have ever encountered:

Ohara Hale is a self-taught artist who works with many different forms and materials. She sings, writes, draws, and performs sounds, words, colors, and movements that are questions and ideas about love, life, nature, and all the unseen, unknown, and dreamed in between. Hale lives on planet Earth with her rescue dog, Banana.

From the slumbering snail to the purposeful gentleness of the honeybees at work to the dance of the leaves in the whispering breeze, Hale beckons eye, heart, and mind to drink in the glorious aliveness of the world with a generous curiosity, evocative of Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity.” What emerges is a mirthful modern-day counterpart to Thoreau’s celebration of nature as a form of prayer. Playful levity and vibrancy carry the deeper soulfulness of the message, which unfolds with a songlike quality — a sort of hymn in word and image. (Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for Hale is also a gifted musician, and we bring everything we are, our whole selves and all of our multitudes, to any one thing we do.)

The ending calls to mind Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem about our odd tendency to see the rest of nature as a separate world parallel to our own. “You are also a part of the wonderfulness of life,” Hale exults on the final page, inviting the reader — who can be any one of us, child or adult, nursed on a chronic civilizational delusion — to unlearn the artificial severance from the natural world that modern life has inflicted upon us and relearn the creaturely presence with life that radiates from our most elemental humanity.

Be Still, Life comes from the largehearted and singularly imaginative Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such uncommon treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, and Bertolt. Complement it with Sidewalk Flowers — another illustrated invitation to living with wakefulness to the world — and Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known, kindred-spirited Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Alan Watts on how to live with presence and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books © Ohara Hale; photographs by Maria Popova


Egon Schiele on What It Means to Be an Artist and Why Visionaries Always Come from the Minority

“Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world.”

Egon Schiele on What It Means to Be an Artist and Why Visionaries Always Come from the Minority

To be an artist is to have a particular orientation to the world — the interior world and the exterior world — the exact composition of which is somewhat like temperature, impossible to deconstruct into individual phenomenological components without ceasing to be itself. Perhaps this is why the question of what it means to be an artist has been the subject of myriad theories, even the most insightful of which are complementary to one another but inherently incomplete. For James Baldwin, being an artist meant serving as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian”; for Georgia O’Keeffe, it meant “making your unknown known…and keeping the unknown always beyond you.” For Albert Camus, the artist was a person endowed with the courage to create dangerously; for E.E. Cummings, with the courage to be oneself. Virginia Woolf believed it requires a certain “shock-receiving capacity.”

Adding to the richest meditations on the inner life of artists is the visionary Austrian painter Egon Schiele (June 12, 1890–October 31, 1918) — an artist whose uncommon genius and creative courage were cut short by his untimely death at twenty-eight in the grip of the Spanish flu pandemic that had taken the life of his young pregnant wife three days before it claimed his own.

Egon Schiele: Self Portrait with Physalis, 1912

In the spring of 1912, after several exhibitions that scandalized Europe with Schiele’s electric eroticism, the twenty-one-year-old artist was arrested for indecency and imprisoned for twenty-four days while awaiting trial — a trial during which the judge demonstratively burned one of Schiele’s drawings over candle flame. The charges were eventually dropped, but in the course of his arrest, the police raided his humble studio and confiscated more than a hundred drawings they considered pornographic. That summer, Schiele, still shaken by the experience, contemplated what it means to be an artist in a world so often hostile to new ways of looking that challenge the status quo and to the seers who invite the rest of us to view that world with new eyes.

In a letter found in Egon Schiele: Poems and Letters 1910–1912 (public library), he writes:

One needs to observe and experience the world with naïve, pure eyes in order to attain a great weltanschauung; — that is a living cult. — the proper tone is a book which, for some, may be nice to consult, but proves itself completely useless in the world; in other words, there are those who should live through books and those who exist through themselves; who are better? — that is clear. — Few see the sun and everyone else must read novels and novellas in order to finally realize that there is light.

Egon Schiele: Girl (Museum of Modern Art)

Decades after Kierkegaard insisted that “truth always rests with the minority… because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion,” Schiele considers the power of the visionaries, who are always in the minority:

The “many” are those who are dependent upon each other, — the people. — The “few” are the direct leaders of the world because they introduce only that which is new and are therefore repugnant; that should be clear enough. Beyond that are the fighters — leaders… — One battles against the capital and the philistines; the large spirit wishes to see the smaller one equally large whereas the small spirit forever wishes to overshadow every small spirit around him. — That is a lack of will and whatever else… — Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world.

Complement with Rilke, writing a decade earlier, on what it means to be an artist, and Kafka, writing a decade later, on why we make art, then revisit Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.

Thanks, Neri


Sojourners in Space: Annie Dillard on What Mangrove Trees Teach Us About the Human Search for Meaning in an Unfeeling Universe

“We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here… where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge.”

Sojourners in Space: Annie Dillard on What Mangrove Trees Teach Us About the Human Search for Meaning in an Unfeeling Universe

“We, this people, on this small and drifting planet,” Maya Angelou wrote in her cosmic clarion call to humanity, “Whose hands can strike with such abandon / That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living / Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness.” How is it that, adrift amid a vast and unfeeling universe, we live with our sundering contradictions and still manage to constellate our lives with meaning, with beauty, with the transcendent possibility of belonging with each other and of homecoming to ourselves?

Thirteen years before Angelou composed her gift of a poem, Annie Dillard — another writer of tremendous humanist insight at the intersection of the philosophical and the poetic — addressed these questions in a beautiful short essay titled “Sojourner” from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (public library) — the 1982 essay collection that gave us Dillard’s stunning account of a total solar eclipse.

Annie Dillard receiving the National Humanities Medal, September 10, 2015. (Photograph: Andrew Harnik.)

A century after Walt Whitman contemplated the wisdom of trees, Dillard turns to one particular, unusual tree as a teacher of life:

If survival is an art, then mangroves are artists of the beautiful: not only that they exist at all — smooth-barked, glossy-leaved, thickets of lapped mystery — but that they can and do exist as floating islands, as trees upright and loose, alive and homeless on the water.

She marvels at the improbable existence of these arboreal wonders — how hurricanes rip them from the shore and carry them into the ocean; how they defy the deadliness of salinity by exuding salt from their leaves, which even taste salty when licked; how they make their own soil in open water by trapping debris in their aerial roots, attracting bacteria and pooling fresh rainwater; how the mangrove plants its seeds onto this growing self-generated island, until it becomes a floating forest. A century and a half after the pioneering polymathic naturalist Alexander von Humboldt awakened humanity to the cosmos of connections by asserting that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” Dillard writes:

A society grows, interlocked in a tangle of dependencies.


The mangrove island wanders on, afloat and adrift. It walks teetering and wanton before the wind. Its fate and direction are random. It may bob across an ocean and catch on another mainland’s shores. It may starve or dry while it is still a sapling. It may topple in a storm, or pitchpole. By the rarest of chances, it may stave into another mangrove island in a crash of clacking roots, and mesh. What it is most likely to do is drift anywhere in the alien ocean, feeding on death and growing, netting a makeshift soil as it goes, shrimp in its toes and terns in its hair.

Red mangrove. Illustration by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié

Like Emily Dickinson, who drew from the rest of the natural world mighty metaphors for the central problems of human existence, Dillard draws from the drifting mangrove islands a metaphor for our civilizational and existential predicament:

I alternate between thinking of the planet as home — dear and familiar stone hearth and garden — and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners. Today I favor the latter view. The word “sojourner” occurs often in the English Old Testament. It invokes a nomadic people’s sense of vagrancy, a praying people’s knowledge of estrangement, a thinking people’s intuition of sharp loss: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers: our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.”

Echoing Denise Levertov’s lament about our strange habitual resistance to acknowledging our belonging to the universe, Dillard adds:

We don’t know where we belong, but in times of sorrow it doesn’t seem to be here, here with these silly pansies and witless mountains, here with sponges and hard-eyed birds. In times of sorrow the innocence of the other creatures — from whom and with whom we evolved — seems a mockery. Their ways are not our ways. We seem set among them as among lifelike props for a tragedy — or a broad lampoon — on a thrust rock stage. It doesn’t seem to be here that we belong, here where space is curved, the earth is round, we’re all going to die, and it seems as wise to stay in bed as budge. It is strange here, not quite warm enough, or too warm, too leafy, or inedible, or windy, or dead. It is not, frankly, the sort of home for people one would have thought of — although I lack the fancy to imagine another.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s groundbreaking astronomical drawings

Shortly after the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska contemplated how our cosmic solitude can make us better stewards of our humanity, Dillard writes:

The planet itself is a sojourner in airless space, a wet ball flung across nowhere. The few objects in the universe scatter. The coherence of matter dwindles and crumbles toward stillness. I have read, and repeated, that our solar system as a whole is careering through space toward a point east of Hercules. Now I wonder: what could that possibly mean, east of Hercules? Isn’t space curved? When we get “there,” how will our course change, and why? Will we slide down the universe’s inside arc like mud slung at a wall? Or what sort of welcoming shore is this east of Hercules? Surely we don’t anchor there, and disembark, and sweep into dinner with our host. Does someone cry, “Last stop, last stop”? At any rate, east of Hercules, like east of Eden, isn’t a place to call home. It is a course without direction; it is “out.” And we are cast.

These are enervating thoughts, the thoughts of despair. They crowd back, unbidden, when human life as it unrolls goes ill, when we lose control of our lives or the illusion of control, and it seems that we are not moving toward any end but merely blown. Our life seems cursed to be a wiggle merely, and a wandering without end…

Art by Lia Halloran from Your Body is a Space That Sees, a cyanotype celebration of women in astronomy

And yet these selfsame facts of the physical universe contain their own antidote to this hollowing sense of alienation — an antidote Virginia Woolf articulated exquisitely in recounting her existential epiphany about the beauty of life. Sixty-some drifting orbits after Woolf, Dillard writes:

Whether these thoughts are true or not I find less interesting than the possibilities for beauty they may hold. We are down here in time, where beauty grows. Even if things are as bad as they could possibly be, and as meaningless, then matters of truth are themselves indifferent; we may as well please our sensibilities and, with as much spirit as we can muster, go out with a buck and wing.

The planet is less like an enclosed spaceship — spaceship earth — than it is like an exposed mangrove island beautiful and loose. We the people started small and have since accumulated a great and solacing muck of soil, of human culture. We are rooted in it; we are bearing it with us across nowhere. The word “nowhere” is our cue: the consort of musicians strikes up, and we in the chorus stir and move and start twirling our hats. A mangrove island turns drift to dance. It creates its own soil as it goes, rocking over the salt sea at random, rocking day and night and round the sun, rocking round the sun and out toward east of Hercules.

Teaching a Stone to Talk remains one of the most poetic and profound books of the twentieth century. Complement this particular portion with the forgotten 19th-century woman who pioneered the art of astropoetics and Primo Levi on the spiritual value of space exploration, then revisit Dillard on the color blue, the two ways of looking, the greatest animating force of creative work, choosing presence over productivity, and reclaiming our everyday capacity for joy and wonder.


The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

A lyrical serenade to a world we barely dare imagine and to our kinship with those creatures most different from us.

The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

“Love the earth and sun and the animals,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) offered in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life from the original the preface to Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). This sense of kinship with and radiant respect for every element of the universe is what rendered Whitman the poet laureate of goodwill toward one and all, human and hummingbird and humpback whale. It is also what made him an indispensable part of The Universe in Verse and its animating ethos of celebrating the science and wonder of nature through poetry.

I dedicated the 2018 Universe in Verse to marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who thought and wrote about science and the natural world like a poet. Her career as a catalyst of the environmental movement began with her lyrical 1937 essay Undersea, which extended an unprecedented invitation to the human reader to consider the reality of life on our Pale Blue Dot from the perspective of marine creatures — creatures as unimaginably different from us as creatures can be.

Nothing like it had been done before in science — but something astonishingly kindred had been done a century earlier, in poetry.

Leaves of Grass contains a short, exquisite piece titled “The World Below the Brine,” which may well be Whitman’s least known published poem — in large part because before Carson rendered the marine world not only comprehensible but full of wonder to the human mind, it was so incomprehensible as to be almost alien, and one of our elemental human foibles is that we tend to scorn what we do not understand. And so Whitman’s stunning poem went underappreciated and practically unnoticed.

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

At The Universe in Verse, I enlisted the help of actor, writer, director, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell to change this. Prefacing his reading of this overlooked Whitman gem, Mitchell used my rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass to perform one of his “Whitman divinations” — existential questions flung across space and time at Whitman, answered by opening to a random page and imbibing the often surprisingly relevant wisdom found therein.

When Mitchell called out to the audience for one such question, poet Marie Howe offered: “How do we live brokenhearted?”

In this recording from the show, Whitman’s heart-stopping answer across the centuries appears before Mitchell’s charming reading of “The World Below the Brine.” Streaming behind him is artist Eric Corriel’s lovely site-specific video installation Water Will Be Here — a subtle, arresting reminder that unless we tend to our fragile planet far more conscientiously than we have been, the whole of it will sink below the brine as sea levels rise.

by Walt Whitman

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as
      so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Other highlights from The Universe in Verse include Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.

Complement with English artist Margaret C. Cook’s rare and sensual 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass, then revisit Whitman on the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, his most direct reflection on happiness, and his life-advice to the young.


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