Brain Pickings

Page 5

Gertrude Stein on Writing and Belonging

“Everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves to tell what is inside themselves.”

Gertrude Stein on Writing and Belonging

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic forgotten conversation about freedom. Beneath the surface of this paradoxical sentiment is a kind of koan, simple yet profound, replete with layered truth for those of us living expatriated lives — expatriated from a place or a culture, in space or in time.

Two generations before Angelou, Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874–July 27, 1946), living out her great love story as an American expatriate in Paris, addressed this paradox with uncommon insight and her own characteristic koan-like style in a passage from her 1940 novel Paris France (public library).

Gertrude Stein by artist Maira Kalman from her superb illustrated edition of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Stein — Jewish and gay, writing while the world was coming undone by warring nationalisms and gas chambers disbelonging human beings from life itself — observes:

Everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.

Stein notes that the Victorians found their romantic home in Italy, Americans found theirs in Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century and in England in the second, and her own generation found it in Paris. Prefiguring Angelou’s sentiment, she adds:

Of course sometimes people discover their own country as if it were the other… but in general that other country that you need to be free is in the other country not the country where you really belong.

I read this and think of Leonard Cohen’s lovely notion of poetry as “the Constitution of the inner country.” For me, living an unbelonging life in a country other than the one in which I was born and raised, poetry has been an increasingly vital portal to that inner landscape of freedom that Stein contours — a way of tending to and befriending the interior wilderness from which all creative work springs and which remains a sovereign territory of psychogeography, wherever one’s body may be located and whatever artificial borders may be drawn around it by outside observers.

Art by Maira Kalman from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Complement with poet and philosopher David Whyte on how to be at home in yourself and Toni Morrison on borders and belonging, then revisit Maria Kalman’s magnificent illustrated love letter to Gertrude and Alice’s love.

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Seeking an Aurora: A Wondrous Illustrated Celebration of Earth’s Most Otherworldly Spectacle of Light and Color

Transcendence and tenderness in the lacuna of awe between the creaturely and the cosmic.

Seeking an Aurora: A Wondrous Illustrated Celebration of Earth’s Most Otherworldly Spectacle of Light and Color

In 1621, already questioning his life in the priesthood — the era’s safest and most reputable career for the educated — the 29-year-old Pierre Gassendi, a mathematical prodigy since childhood, traveled to the Arctic circle as he began diverting his passionate erudition toward Aristotelian philosophy and astronomy. There, under the polar skies, he witnessed an otherworldly spectacle on Earth — our planet’s most intimate and dramatic contact with its home star, a chromatic swirl of the ephemeral and the eternal unloosed as solar winds blow millions of charged particles from the Sun across the orrery of the Solar System and into Earth’s atmosphere, where our magnetic fields carry them toward the poles. As they collide with the particles of different atmospheric gasses, they ionize and discharge energy as photons of different colors — red, blue, green, and violent — painting the nocturne with the waking dream of a pastel-technicolor dawn.

Awestruck with the natural poetry and the mythic feeling-tone of the luminous spectacle, Gassendi named what he saw Aurora borealis — after Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and borealis, the Latin word for “northern.” Eventually, as explorers braved the icy oceanic expanses to visit the polar regions of the Southern hemisphere over the following centuries, they adapted Gassendi’s etymology to name the Antarctic version of the luminous display Aurora australis, after the Latin word for “southern.”

From the land of Aurora australis comes Seeking an Aurora (public library) — a work of transcendence and tenderness by New Zealand author-artist duo Elizabeth Pulford and Anne Bannock, whose spare poetic prose and soulful paintings interleave to enlush an inner landscape of wonder, suspended between the creaturely and the cosmic.

Late one night, a father awakens his child — a child of ambiguous gender and ethnicity, a touching effort to approximate the universal in the human — to slip out of the house together, past the soundly sleeping mother and the baby in the crib, and out into the winter nocturne on a quest of wonder.

They walk with brisk excitation across the open field and through the skeletal trees as the warm humanity of their breath puffs into the cold night air, into the silence they share with the other breathing creatures that make this planet a world.

Outside everything was still.
Even the dogs were quiet, and the cows looked like prehistoric creatures, their noses streaming smoke.

The adventure unfolds from the narrative vantage point of the child, who turns around to look back at the house with its “warm, buttery light spilling from the kitchen window,” back at the two sets of “footprints in the silvery frost,” then up at the sky, “a ship of shivering stars.”

As the pair ascend the steep hill toward their lookout, the cows and the dogs recede into the distance, leaving only the stars, the Moon, and the swell of anticipation.

And then, suddenly, the aurora appears, its “wide wings of light” sweeping across the sky to widen the child’s eyes with wonder.

Dancing light, glowing and glimmering,
shimmering and shining.
Colored ribbons swirling and twirling,
lighting up the sky on the still, dark night.

Father and child are silent under the soft technicolor sky — an awed silence that evokes the works of the poet Diane Ackerman, who wrote long ago in her stunning Cosmic Pastoral of feeling “stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

On the walk home, back to the house with the warm buttery light, the father shares everything he knows about the aurora — a secret everythingness revealed on the last page of the book, in a brief science primer of an afterword, sweetly titled “Everything Dad Knew about the Aurora.”

Couple Seeking an Aurora with the inspiring picture-book biography of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, then revisit a literary titan’s account of the other great cosmic spectacle visible from Earth — Virginia Woolf’s arresting meditation on the total solar eclipse.

Illustrations courtesy of Blue Dot Kids Press; photographs by Maria Popova

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Secrets from the Center of the World: Poet Joy Harjo’s Reflections on Science and Meaning in Response to an Astronomer’s Otherworldly Photographs of Earth

“I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars, and know anything of meaning, of the fierce magic emerging here. I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past, and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars, in the shifting pattern of winds.”

Secrets from the Center of the World: Poet Joy Harjo’s Reflections on Science and Meaning in Response to an Astronomer’s Otherworldly Photographs of Earth

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote into the void of self-elected obscurity decades before her work was posthumously rediscovered as a rare masterpiece of landscape poetics irradiated by the human search for meaning. A generation later, another trailblazing woman of uncommon poetic sensibility and intimate relationship to the land echoed the sentiment in her own art, into her native canyons of the American Southwest: “It’s true that landscape forms the mind. If I stand here long enough I’ll learn how to sing.”

In 1989, long before she became Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo entwined visions with the astronomer and photographer Stephen Strom in Secrets from the Center of the World (public library) — a slender, splendid installment in the University of Arizona’s wonderful Sun Tracks series, celebrating Native American literary art long before Native representation rose to the fore of the American mainstream, long before the English language awakened to how deeply its etymological reliance on the Earth permeates words as mundane as mainstream.

Emerging from the lovely call-and-response between Strom’s photographs and Harjo’s short lyrical reflection is a subtle meditation on the interpenetration of place and mind, of landscape and the human spirit. Contemplating the ochre canyons and the golden valleys, the pleated sierras and the billowing mudhills, the frosty branches of the winter trees and the summer-blazed strata of sandstone, she unfolds the origami of deep time into a note some ghost-mother left for her ghost-child long ago on the edge of the kitchen table, on the edge of the world, inscribed with the meaning of being human.

Abandoned hogan south of Bluff, UT by Stephen Strom

This land is a poem of ochre and burnt sand I could never write, unless paper were the sacrament of sky, and ink the broken line of wild horses staggering the horizon several miles away. Even then, does anything written ever matter to the earth, wind, and sky?

Mudhills, Beautiful Valley by Stephen Strom

If all events are related, then what story does a volcano erupting in Hawaii, the birth of a woman’s second son near Gallup, and this shoulderbone of earth made of a mythic monster’s anger construct? Nearby a meteor crashes. Someone invents aerodynamics, makes wings. The answer is like rushing wind: simple faith.

Strom — who received his doctoral degree from Harvard, studied the formation of star and planetary systems at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, taught astronomy in Emily Dickinson’s hometown for a decade and a half, and spent three decades photographing the Southwest — renders Earth otherworldly in his photographs, spare and solitary, edged in by invisible implied horizons, the way the desert implies life, the way poetry makes life visible. Revealing the fractal patterning of nature, his subtle geometries of shape and color reach beyond the three spatial dimensions to intimate the dimension of time.

Near Burnham, Bisti Badlands by Stephen Strom

These smoky bluffs are old traveling companions, making their way through millennia. Ask them if you want to know about the true meaning of history. You’ll have to offer them something more than one good story, and need to understand the patience of stones.

Harjo — a member of the Creek Nation — meets the cosmological sensibility of the photographs with a private cosmogony drawn from that ancient human impulse to locate ourselves in relation to the universe, to make meaning in the sliver of spacetime on which chance has perched us to live out our lives between the scale of protozoa and the scale of galaxies. She envelops each photograph in a short prose-poem that takes the image as its origin point of contemplation, then radiates centrifugally into a miniature universe of metaphor and meaning-making — the mark of all great poetry.

Desert Floor near Round Rock, AZ by Stephen Strom

Near Round Rock is a point of balance between two red stars. Here you may enter galactic memory, disguised as a whirlpool of sand, and discover you are pure event mixed with water, occurring in time and space, as sheep, a few goats, graze, keep watch nearby.

Junction Overlook, Canyon de Chelly by Stephen Strom

My house is the red earth; it could be the center of the world. I’ve heard New York, Paris, or Tokyo called the center of the world, but I say it is magnificently humble. You could drive by and miss it. Radio waves can obscure it. Words cannot construct it, for there are some sounds left to sacred wordless form. For instance, that fool crow, picking through trash near the corral, understands the center of the world as greasy strips of fat. Just ask him. He doesn’t have to say that the earth has turned scarlet through fierce belief, after centuries of heartbreak and laughter — he perches on the blue bowl of the sky, and laughs.

Overlook, evening, Bluff, UT by Stephen Strom

This earth has dreamed me to stand on the rise of this highway, to admire who she has become.

Desert floor near Shiprock, NM by Stephen Strom

My cheek is flat against memory described by stone and lichen. The center of the world is within reach. It is as familiar as your name, as strange as monsters in your sleep.

Harjo looks at the Moon and sees “an ancient mountain lion who shifts his bones on a starry branch,” looks at the branches of the tamaracks and sees crows “leaning over the edge of the world, tasting the wind blown up from a pool of newly born planets,” looks at the land and sees its elemental poetry, sees how it humbles her own art, her own existence, every human existence and all of our art.

East of Nazlini, going up toward Fort Defiance Plateau, winter by Stephen Strom

In winter it is easier to see what my death might look like, over there, disappearing into the misty, spotted rocks.

Mudhills near Nazlini by Stephen Strom

I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars, and know anything of meaning, of the fierce magic emerging here. I am witness to flexible eternity, the evolving past, and I know we will live forever, as dust or breath in the face of stars, in the shifting pattern of winds.

Complement Secrets from the Center of the World with poet Mark Strand’s kindred collaboration with painter Wendy Mark around the landscape of the sky, 89 Clouds, then revisit painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan’s Journey to Mount Tamalpais — her stunning landscape-lensed meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

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Our Greatest Misunderstanding About Love: Philosopher-Psychiatrist Esther Perel on Modern Loneliness as Ambiguous Loss and the Essential Elements of Healthy Relationships

On the lifelong art of feeling worthy of wanting and worthy of receiving.

In his revelatory 1956 classic The Art of Loving, the humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) dared defy millennia of cultural distortion, setting out to heal our most damaging inheritance from the Romantics and to correct Freud’s limited, limiting theories with a new lens on love, radical and realistic: For centuries, our culture conditioned us to “see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving,” which in turn conditioned us to believe that the hardest thing about love is finding the right person to love us, but once we do, love is easy.

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

Fromm inverted this equation.

Drawing on his work with patients and on emerging ideas in humanistic philosophy that had only just begun revising the old narratives of religion and Romanticism, he observed that the key to love is to treat it not as a noun — a state to be found and possessed — but as a verb — a practice to be mastered. The difficult work is the mastering, which then confers ease upon love between those who have done this work — the work which Rilke well knew “is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

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

An inheritor to Fromm’s work born a century after the publication his masterpiece, the Belgian-American philosopher-psychotherapist Esther Perel — author of the modern classic Mating in Captivity, creator of the insightful and pleasantly disquieting Where Should We Begin? “podcast for anyone who has ever loved” — picks up where Fromm left off in this lovely animated adaptation of her On Being interview, exploring the essential elements of love as a practice, the delicate relationship between play and risk, the cyclical nature of passion, the osmosis of desire and self-worth, and how the concept of ambiguous loss illuminates the modern experience of loneliness:

Complement with Fromm on what self-love really means, his six rules of intimate listening, and Alain de Botton on remedying our central error of logic in love, then broaden the lens with an ancient Eastern perspective in the great Zen Buddhism teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s field guide to the skill of loving.

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