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Here and Now: An Illustrated Guided Meditation Inviting the Practice of Noticing as a Portal to Presence

A sensorial serenade to the art of awareness.

Here and Now: An Illustrated Guided Meditation Inviting the Practice of Noticing as a Portal to Presence

Looking back on the most important things I have learned about life, I keep returning to a central paradox of our culture: We know that the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst, yet we crave stories of overnight success and spontaneous self-actualization, disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming, in the incremental ripening by which we become who we are, the innumerable tiny choices, the imperceptibly small steps by which we pave the path to our own destiny in the very act of walking it. We are each a continuous becoming, our future a rosary of presents strung along the strand of presence — presence with the smallest corpuscles of existence: the smell of a neighbor’s curry slipping through the window cracked in midwinter, the atlas of wrinkles on the hands of the cashier scanning the box of strawberries at the grocery store. Sensing, noticing — the raw materials of presence, and thus the elemental stardust of our becoming. Emerson knew this when he reflected on how to live with presence and authenticity in a culture of busyness and surfaces a century and a half before the Age of Haste:

Life goes headlong… 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.

That is what author Julia Denos and illustrator E.B. Goodale invite in Here and Now (public library) — a kind of illustrated guided meditation, tender and soulful, and a splendid belated addition to the loveliest children’s books of 2019.

The book begins where all presence must always begin — exactly where we are: The reader is invited to attend to the actuality of reading — the sensorial meta-reality of being with the book. Presence then radiates outward in widening circles of awareness — the floor under the feet, the grass and soil under the floor, the earthworms and fossils in the the hidden universe of the underland.

We are reminded that the Earth is spinning in the vast expanse of spacetime, and so are we, along with it; that during each now we experience here, countless things are happening in countless elsewheres — “rain is forming in the belly of a cloud,” “an ant has finished its home on the other side of the planet,” “an idea is blooming,” “grass is pushing up through cement,” “unseen work is being done.”

What emerges is a delicate reminder that we snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence. “Right here, right now, YOU are becoming,” Denos writes.

In a postscript, Denos explains that the book grew out of a poem she had written as part of her meditation practice — a kind of lyric breathwork. Two millennia after Seneca offered his Stoic’s key to living with presence and a generation after Wendell Berry began his formula for how to be a poet and a complete human being with “Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet,” she writes:

Meditation is just another way of noticing and a little bit like magic. It brings us, just as we are, into the present moment, just as it is. This freedom is a place I call “Here and Now.” It is a land well known by young children and plants and animals; it is a place and possibility root, a place where we feel connected to the greater unfolding story. Sometimes, when our minds and bodies are busy, we forget how to get back. But all we need to do to return again is to notice the world around us. We don’t need to sit down, or stop what we are doing. We don’t even need to close our eyes. Let’s open our senses instead.

Complement Here and Now with Be Still, Life — a kindred-spirited songlike illustrated invitation to living with presence — and Sidewalk Flowers — a picture-book serenade to the art of noticing — then revisit Annie Dillard’s timeless clarion call for choosing presence over productivity, Hermann Hesse on breaking the trance of busyness by learning to savor the little joys, and poet Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in training the delight muscle.

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Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

In praise of the manual-mental “loop-de-looping we call language.”

Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

The late, great neurologist and poetic science writer Oliver Sacks spent his entire life writing only by hand — an act he considered “an indispensable form of talking to [oneself].” In his wonderful reflection on the psychology of writing and what his poet-friend Thom Gunn taught him about creativity, Sacks observed how “ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.”

This singular interplay between the manual and the mental, between the mechanics and the magic of writing, is what Ross Gay — another poet with a playful spirit and an expansive mind, whom Sacks would have gleefully befriended — considers in a passage from his immeasurably delightful Book of Delights (public library) — one of the most satisfying books of 2019.

Ross Gay

Having written his “essayettes” on delight by hand, Gay reflects on the “surprising and utter delight” of this mode of composition — a courageously countercultural delight, I must add as my own fingertips press into the cold plastic with the blind faith that an invisible wizardry of ones, zeroes, and silicon will translate motion into meaning. Gay writes:

The process of thinking that writing is, made disappearable by the delete button, makes a whole part of the experience of writing, which is the production of a good deal of florid detritus, flotsam and jetsam, all those words that mean what you have written and cannot disappear (the scratch-out its own archive), which is the weird path toward what you have come to know, which is called thinking, which is what writing is.

In a passage evocative of Lewis Thomas’s splendid meta-illustrations of the subtleties of language, he adds:

For instance, the previous run-on sentence is a sentence fragment, and it happened in part because of the really nice time my body was having making this lavender Le Pen make the loop-de-looping we call language. I mean writing.

[…]

Consequently, some important aspect of my thinking, particularly the breathlessness, the accruing syntax, the not quite articulate pleasure that evades or could give a fuck about the computer’s green corrective lines (how they injure us!) would be chiseled, likely with a semicolon and a proper predicate, into something correct, and, maybe, dull. To be sure, it would have less of the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.

The evolution of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting across her thirties, forties, and fifties (Morgan Library & Museum; photograph: Maria Popova)

Couple with John Steinbeck on how the joy of handwriting helps us draft the meaning of life, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of analog human conversation and astronomer Maria Mitchell on the sewing needle as an instrument of the mind.

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Consolation for Sorrow from King Arthur’s Court: Merlyn’s Advice on What to Do When the World Gets You Down

“Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

Consolation for Sorrow from King Arthur’s Court: Merlyn’s Advice on What to Do When the World Gets You Down

In his wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Yo-Yo Ma tells children about how books helped him survive his own childhood, listing King Arthur among his three great heroes; as a young boy born in France to Chinese parents, trying to find his mooring as an immigrant in America, he reaped great consolation and inspiration from the tales of the legendary medieval leader — stories of “adventure, heroism, human frailty and accidental destiny” that emboldened him to believe in the power of the quest for holy grails and improbable dreams — dreams as improbable as a small boy with no homeland growing up to be the world’s greatest cellist.

And, indeed, buried inside the adventure-thrill of these Arthurian tales are treasure troves of wisdom on fortitude, courage, and the art of honorable living, nowhere richer than in the novels by T.H. White (May 29, 1906–January 17, 1964), one particular passage in which offers a meta-testament to the potency of reading in the character-formation of King Arthur himself.

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

In White’s 1958 Arthurian classic The Once and Future King (public library) — one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s lifelong favorite books — the mystic-magician Merlyn, aware of the young not-yet-king Arthur’s destiny, endeavors to sculpt the boy’s moral fiber and to teach him what it means to be a strong, kindly leader through a series of lessons from the animal kingdom, transforming him by turns into a fish, a hawk, an ant, a goose, and a badger. One day, the young Arthur comes to Merlyn in his ordinary human incarnation, sulking with an ordinary human disappointment — that small, merciless mallet for our fragility. Merlyn offers his advice on the mightiest antidote to disappointment and sorrow:

The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

In a sentiment evocative of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s observation that “we have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire,” Merlyn adds:

Look at what a lot of things there are to learn — pure science, the only purity there is. You can learn astronomy in a lifetime, natural history in three, literature in six. And then, after you have exhausted a million lifetimes in biology and medicine and theocriticism and geography and history and economics — why, you can start to make a cartwheel out of the appropriate wood, or spend fifty years learning to begin to learn to beat your adversary at fencing. After that you can start again on mathematics, until it is time to learn to plough.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit — a modern-day magician of storytelling — on how books solace, empower, and transform us, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, and poet Mary Oliver on the greatest antidote to sorrow, then revisit Bruce Lee’s philosophy of learning, Lewis Carroll’s four rules of learning, and Albert Einstein’s advice to his own young son on the secret to learning anything.

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What You Need to Be Warm: Neil Gaiman Reads His Humanistic Poem for Refugees, Composed from a Thousand Definitions of Warmth from Around the World

“Sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place, to hold out a badly-knitted scarf, to offer a kind word, to say we have the right to be here, to make us warm in the coldest season.”

“There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves,” the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote as he channeled ancient Celtic wisdom on belonging. But given this mooring is already difficult enough a triumph in the privacy of each personhood, given the abyss already gapes fathomless enough in each inner world, what happens when the outside world — a world in which, as Toni Morrison poignantly put it, “walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times” — begins to politicize and barricade belonging?

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

A century and a half after Walt Whitman wrote, in the middle of a civil war, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Neil Gaiman takes up the question of our shared belonging in a project of uncommon originality.

As an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he has been lending his voice to the catastrophe of inhumanity we call a “refugee crisis” since its dark dawn. One of the most beloved storytellers of our time, in recent years he has been turning his talents increasingly toward poetry. In 2019, as the cold season drew near and UNHCR launched its winter emergency appeal to help Syrian refugee families survive their eighth below-freezing winter away from home, he invited his sizable Twitter following to share memories and meanings of warmth. Fully aware of the general mediocrity of crowdsourced art, he approached the challenge with an artist’s soaring ability to see the larger pattern tessellated from the constituent parts. Out of the nearly one thousand responses from around the world, out of their cumulative 25,000 words, out of the cabinet of commonplaces — boiling kettles, burning stoves, grandmother-knitted scarves — he wrests something entirely original and beautiful and alive: the sensitive insight that memories of warmth spring not from a quantity of temperature but from a contrast in quality of feeling against the cold — a contrast most memorably kindled by the small kindnesses that make us human.

With his customary generosity of spirit, Neil kindly obliged my request to record himself reading for Brain Pickings the resulting free-verse poem, which stands as a testament to Ada Lovelace’s insistence that the hallmark of creativity is the ability to compose something cohesive, original, and symphonic out of disjoined, seemingly dissonant parts.

WHAT YOU NEED TO BE WARM
by Neil Gaiman

A baked potato of a winter’s night to wrap your hands around or burn your mouth.
A blanket knitted by your mother’s cunning fingers. Or your grandmother’s.
A smile, a touch, trust, as you walk in from the snow
or return to it, the tips of your ears pricked pink and frozen.

The tink tink tink of iron radiators waking in an old house.
To surface from dreams in a bed, burrowed beneath blankets and comforters,
the change of state from cold to warm is all that matters, and you think
just one more minute snuggled here before you face the chill. Just one.

Places we slept as children: they warm us in the memory.
We travel to an inside from the outside. To the orange flames of the fireplace
or the wood burning in the stove. Breath-ice on the inside of windows,
to be scratched off with a fingernail, melted with a whole hand.

Frost on the ground that stays in the shadows, waiting for us.
Wear a scarf. Wear a coat. Wear a sweater. Wear socks. Wear thick gloves.
An infant as she sleeps between us. A tumble of dogs,
a kindle of cats and kittens. Come inside. You’re safe now.

A kettle boiling at the stove. Your family or friends are there. They smile.
Cocoa or chocolate, tea or coffee, soup or toddy, what you know you need.
A heat exchange, they give it to you, you take the mug
and start to thaw. While outside, for some of us, the journey began

as we walked away from our grandparents’ houses
away from the places we knew as children: changes of state and state and state,
to stumble across a stony desert, or to brave the deep waters,
while food and friends, home, a bed, even a blanket become just memories.

Sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place,
to hold out a badly-knitted scarf, to offer a kind word, to say
we have the right to be here, to make us warm in the coldest season.

You have the right to be here.

Complement with Borderless Lullabies — a gorgeous compilation of music and spoken word, benefiting the legal defense of refugee children — and Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon — a lyrical illustrated meditation on otherness and belonging — then revisit Gaiman’s wondrous poetic tributes to the woman who catalyzed the environmental movement, the queer young astronomer who catapulted Einstein into celebrity, and the ancient, unheralded history of women as the original scientists.

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