Brain Pickings

Search results for “ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH”

Nothing Is Fixed: James Baldwin on Keeping the Light Alive Amid the Entropic Darkness of Being, Set to Music

“The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

Nothing Is Fixed: James Baldwin on Keeping the Light Alive Amid the Entropic Darkness of Being, Set to Music

“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Rachel Carson wrote in her poetic, unexampled 1937 essay Undersea as she incubated the ideas that would awaken humanity’s ecological conscience. “There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin had written in the closing pages of On the Origin of Species in the middle of the previous century, as though to offer preemptive succor for humanity to steady itself against as he dismantled our comfortable and complacent age-old certitude that we are the pinnacle of “creation,” finished and complete — a certitude applied to the evolutionary, but stemming from the existential, for what is true of the species is true of the individual. As the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert aptly observed, “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

But we are — as individuals, as a species, as a society — unfinished and incomplete, our story unwritten. Darwin and Carson both intimated that while there is disorientation in accepting ourselves as increments in advancement the arc of which far exceeds our lifetimes, there is also transcendence, for a story yet unfinished is a story with myriad possible endings — a story that forestalls despair by the sheer force of possibility; a story in which our individual lives matter not less but more, for they are the pixels shaping the panorama of endless change.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores a century after Darwin and a generation after Carson in the final essay from the forgotten treasure Nothing Personal (public library) — his collaboration with the great photographer and his former high school classmate Richard Avedon, which also gave us Baldwin on the ultimate lifeline for your hour of despair.

James Baldwin by artist Marlene Dumas for the 2020Solidarity project — a series of charitable posters by international artists to help cultural institutions around the world survive during the 2020 crisis. Available as a poster, benefiting Pioneer Works — birthplace of The Universe in Verse.

Baldwin considers how we “emptied oceans with a home-made spoon and tore down mountains with our hands” — a sentiment referring to the failures of human rights and social justice he had witnessed and experienced in his own life, but drawing on nature for a metaphor that renders it all the more poignant in the context of our present ecological undoing — and writes:

One discovers the light in the darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.

In consonance with Viktor Frankl, who upon surviving the Holocaust two decades earlier had written stirringly about the moral obligation to “say yes to life, in spite of everything,” Baldwin reflects on the stubborn light that must have blazed in his own parents’ eyes in order for them to survive what they survived, in order for him to exist, and adds:

This is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it whenever it is found — and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is.

[…]

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.

The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

In this highlight from the fourth annual Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the creation of which was inspired by Rachel Carson’s work — musician, activist, and light-filled human vessel of change Morley — the visionary behind the wondrous Borderless Lullabies project — set Baldwin’s transcendent words to music, with Chris Bruce (her sweetheart) on guitar in their quarantine quarters and Dave Eggar on cello, invisible across the spacetime of distanced digital collaboration.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, a stunning animated short film of poet Marie Howe’s ode to our cosmic belonging, Rosanne Cash reading Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about outgrowing our limiting frames of reference, and a lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, then revisit Baldwin on resisting the tyranny of the masses, the writer’s responsibility in a divided society, how he learned to truly see, and his advice on writing.

BP

One Fine Day: David Byrne Performs His Hymn of Optimism and Countercultural Anthem of Resistance and Resilience with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus

“I complete my tasks, one by one. I remove my masks, when I am done…”

In the spring of 2019, when David Byrne (b. May 14, 1952) took the stage at the third annual Universe in Verse to read a science-inspired love poem to time and chance titled “Achieving Perspective,” I introduced him as one of the last standing idealists in our world — a countercultural force of lucid and luminous optimism, kindred to Walt Whitman, who wrote so passionately about optimism as a mighty force of resistance and a pillar of democracy.

Two weeks later, Byrne took the stage at the National Sawdust gala to celebrate their largehearted mission of using music as an instrument of change, as a movement toward a more beautiful and inclusive world. Accompanied by Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco and the transcendent harmonics of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus — that bright young voice of the future — he performed a coruscating version of his song “One Fine Day,” originally released in 2008 on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, co-written with Brian Eno, and reimagined a decade later on Byrne’s Whitmanesque-spirited 2018 record turned Broadway musical American Utopia — one part of his wondrous multimedia project Reasons to Be Cheerful.

With poetic lyrics that feel both staggeringly prescient (“In a small dark room — where I will wait / Face to face I find — I contemplate,” “I complete my tasks, one by one / I remove my masks, when I am done”) and of sweeping timelessness (“In these troubled times, I still can see / We can use the stars, to guide the way / It is not that far, the one fine day”), this buoyant hymn of optimism ripples against the current of our time as a mighty countercultural anthem of resistance and resilience, worthy of Whitman.

ONE FINE DAY
written by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Saw the wanderin’ eye, inside my heart
Shouts and battle cries, from every part
I can see those tears, every one is true
When the door appears, I’ll go right through, oh
I stand in liquid light, like everyone

I built my life with rhymes, to carry on
And it gives me hope, to see you there
The things I used to know, that one fine

One fine day

In a small dark room, where I will wait
Face to face I find, I contemplate
Even though a man is made of clay
Everything can change that one fine —

One fine day

Then before my eyes, is standing still
I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done

Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —

One fine day

Complement with Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” in a tender stop-motion animation and astrophysicist and poet Rebecca Elson’s spare, exquisite masterpiece “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate and Universe in Verse alumna Tracy K. Smith performing her poem “The Everlasting Self” with an astonishing percussion ensemble at National Sawdust and join me in supporting their largehearted world-building through music.

BP

Ursa Major: Elizabeth Gilbert Reads a Poignant Forgotten Poem About the Big Dipper and Our Cosmic Humanity

A two-verse love letter to the night sky fixture which “our eyes must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.”

Ursa Major: Elizabeth Gilbert Reads a Poignant Forgotten Poem About the Big Dipper and Our Cosmic Humanity

For as long as we have been raising enchanted eyes to the night sky — that is, for as long as we have been the conscious, curious, wonder-stricken animals recognizable as human — we have marveled at seven bright stars outlining the third largest constellation in the Northern hemisphere, and humanity’s most beloved one. Ursa Major — Latin for “the great she-bear” — has enraptured the human imagination since before we had the words to call it the Big Dipper or the Great Bear or the Plough. In the second century, Ptolemy included it in his pioneering star catalogue — antiquity’s sole surviving major work of astronomy. In the nineteenth century, the Underground Railroad relied on it as a cosmic compass — traveling toward freedom under the cover of night, slaves were told to keep the river on one side and follow the Drinking Gourd, the constellation’s African name, for that would keep them moving northward. We have painted it on cave walls and in beloved picture-books; we have woven it into every major mythological tradition; we have seen it freckled on the forearms of our great loves. Its instantly recognizable asterism, spare and elemental, is an emissary of time itself — a blazing bridge between the ephemeral and the eternal, between the scale on which we live out our brief, impassioned human lives, and the vast cosmic scale of this unfathomable, impartial universe.

That is what the English poet, novelist, playwright, and LGBT visibility trailblazer James Falconer Kirkup (April 23, 1918–May 10, 2009) celebrates in his spare and elemental poem “Ursa Major,” included in the out-of-print 1955 treasure Imagination’s Other Place: Poems of Science and Mathematics (public library) by Helen Plotz, and brought back to life at the 2020 Universe in Verse by the fount of human radiance that is Elizabeth Gilbert.

URSA MAJOR
by James Kirkup

Slung between the homely poplars at the end
of the familiar avenue, the Great
Bear in its lighted hammock swings,
like a neglected gate that neither bars admission nor invites,
hangs on the sagging pole its seven-pointed shape.

Drawn with the precision of an unknown problem
solved n the topmost classroom of the empty sky,
it demonstrates upon the inky blackboard of the night’s
immeasurable finity the focal point of light.
For though the pointers seem to indicate the pole,
each star looks through us into outer space
from where the sun that burns behind and past us
animates immediately each barren, crystal face
with ravaged brilliance, that our eyes
must lean out into time to catch, and die in seeing.

Ursa Major collectible science patch by artist Andrea Lauer for The Universe in Verse.

Complement with other shimmering fragments of The Universe in Verse — astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, a stunning animation of Marie Howe’s poem “Singularity,” Rosanne Cash reading Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about outgrowing our limiting frames of reference, a lyrical watercolor adaptation of Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz’s ode to brokenness as a portal to belonging and resilience, and Amanda Palmer reading “Einstein’s Mother” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith — then revisit Elizabeth Gilbert’s radiant, universe-postulated, life-tested wisdom on love, loss, and surviving the thickest darknesses of being.

BP

And So It Goes: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on the Cycle of Life

“We don’t know when, but those who arrive will leave one day as well.”

And So It Goes: A Lyrical Illustrated Meditation on the Cycle of Life

“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.

That is what Chilean illustrator Paloma Valdivia celebrates with great soulfulness and sensitivity in And So It Goes (public library), translated into English by Susan Ouriou — a lovely addition to these uncommonly wonderful children’s books about making sense of death.

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.

Complement And So It Goes with Carson Ellis’s lyrical illustrated meditation on the eternal equilibrium of growth and decay and a subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then pair it with a grownup counterpart in Carl Sagan’s wisdom on how to live with mystery.

Page illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy.