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Our Need for Each Other and Our Need for Our Selves: Muriel Rukeyser on the Root of Strength in Times of Crisis

“In time of struggle… all people think about love.”

Our Need for Each Other and Our Need for Our Selves: Muriel Rukeyser on the Root of Strength in Times of Crisis

“My one reader, you reading this book, who are you?” Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913–February 12, 1980) asks with the large forthright eyes of her words in one of the most beautiful and penetrating books ever written on any subject. “What is your face like, your hands holding the pages, the child forsaken in you, who now looks through your eyes at mine?”

It is the summer of 1949. Her life is still only thirty-six years long but thirty thousand years wise. She has lived through two World Wars, has shared a small ship with fivefold the number of refugee bodies the vessel can hold, has been arrested for placing her own solid and unapologetic body on the right side of what is yet to be celebrated and capitalized as Civil Rights, has stood amid the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War and traveled home to tell their story, has staggered the world with her debut poetry collection at only twenty-two and followed it with a thoroughly unexpected sidewise triumph of vision in her staggering more-than-biography of one of the most influential and misunderstood scientists who ever lived.

But it is this book, The Life of Poetry (public library), that is and would remain her elemental statement of belief — a humanistic document for the epochs, a reliquary of rapture, a blueprint for resistance to the thousand desultory derogations by which living can desecrate life.

Muriel Rukeyser

Rukeyser writes in the introduction:

In times of crisis, we summon up our strength.

Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.

In time of the crises of the spirit, we are aware of all our need, our need for each other and our need for our selves. We call up, with all the strength of summoning we have, our fullness. And then we turn; for it is a turning that we have prepared; and act. The time of the turning may be very long. It may hardly exist.

However slow or subtle the turning, the fulcrum by which we turn is love. “In time of struggle,” Rukeyser tells us, “all people think about love” — never more so than amid uncertainty, when the familiar terrain grows foreign and uneven, when the very ground beneath our feet fails to hold steady:

In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.

If there is a feeling that something has been lost, it may be because much has not yet been used, much is still to be found and begun.

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

We have struggled to find this untapped potential, Rukeyser argues, because our standard modes of intellectual probing sidestep the life of feeling, which poetry — “this other kind of knowledge and love” — alone can access and allay:

Now, when it is hard to hold for a moment the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear, it is time to remember [poetry], which has forever been a way of reaching complexes of emotion and relationship, the attitude that is like the attitude of science and the other arts today, but with significant and beautiful distinctness from these — the attitude that perhaps might equip our imaginations to deal with our lives — the attitude of poetry.

A generation before Audre Lorde placed at the heart of poetry the courage to feel, from which all power and all change spring, Rukeyser distills the essence of poetry as “an approach to the truth of feeling,” insisting upon its clarifying and cohesionary power:

However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.

As we wade from the chaos without to the cohesion within, this is what we move through and move toward:

The images of personal love and freedom, controlled as water is controlled, as the flight of planes is controlled. The images of relationship… the music of the images of relationship.

Experience taken into the body, breathed in, so that reality is the completion of experience, and poetry is what is produced. And life is what is produced.

In the final pages of the book, Rukeyser returns to what is left as the bedrock of our strength when all falls apart and away:

As we live our truths, we will communicate across all barriers, speaking for the sources of peace. Peace that is not lack of war, but fierce and positive.

[…]

All the poems of our lives are not yet made.

We hear them crying to us, the wounds, the young and the unborn — we will define that peace, we will live to fight its birth, to build these meanings, to sing these songs.

Complement this fragment of Rukeyser’s uncommonly vitalizing The Life of Poetry with Maya Angelou’s poetic consolation for our crises and our contradictions, then revisit Rukeyser on the deepest wellspring of our aliveness.

BP

If You Come to Earth: A Tender Illustrated Celebration of the Many Ways to Be Human and What Makes Our Miraculous Planet a World

A humanistic love letter to who and what we are, together on this lonesome, wild, and wondrous rock adrift around a common star.

If You Come to Earth: A Tender Illustrated Celebration of the Many Ways to Be Human and What Makes Our Miraculous Planet a World

When the Voyager sailed into the unknown to take its pioneering photographic survey of our cosmic neighborhood, Carl Sagan petitioned NASA to indulge his inspired, entirely unscientific, entirely poetic idea of turning the spacecraft’s cameras back on Earth from the outer edges of the Solar System. That grainy, transcendent photograph of our “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” became the central poetic image of his now-iconic Pale Blue Dot meditation on our cosmic place and destiny, which in turn inspired Maya Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth” — the staggering poem that flew to space aboard the Orion spacecraft, inviting a fractured humanity to reach beyond our divisive ideologies and see ourselves afresh “on this small and drifting planet,” to face our capacities and contradictions, and finally see that “we are the possible, we are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.”

A generation later, this spirit comes ablaze anew in If You Come to Earth (public library) by Sophie Blackall — one of the most beloved picture-book makers of our time and one of those rare artists, so few in any given generation, whose work of great talent and great tenderness is bound to be cherished for epochs to come.

Told in the form of a letter from a child to an alien visitor — a particular child named Quinn, whom Sophie met while traveling around the world with UNICEF and Save the Children, and whose uncommon imagination fomented hers — the story is populated by drawings of other real-life children she met on her travels in India, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a particular class of twenty-three kids she befriended in a Brooklyn public school, and her own real-life friends and neighbors. Animated by the children’s wild, wondrous, touching ideas about the most important things to communicate about our improbable, miraculous world to a visitor from another, the book radiates the spirit of the Voyager’s Golden Record — a poetic capsule of humanism and collaborative meaning-making, the true purpose of which is not to encode for some interstellar other but to decode for us who and what we are.

Page after page, what unspools is a joyful celebration of the dazzling diversity that makes our planet a livable world: the myriad kinds of climates we live in, the myriad kinds of homes we live in, the myriad kinds of bodies we live in, the myriad kinds of creatures living alongside us, the many of them that make music — birds, whales, humans — and the many kinds of music we make.

Emerging from the story is also a quiet catalogue of the discoveries and inventions that have continually expanded the limits of our creaturely imagination, bringing us closer and closer to one another, closer and closer to the reality of this beautiful, improbable, ceaselessly astonishing planet we are fortunate to call a home: fire, music, Braille, the bicycle, air travel, medicine, the fossils the discovery of which revolutionized our understanding of evolution and deep time, the dazzling creatures of the deep sea, thought to be a lifeless world until Carl Chun’s pioneering deep-sea expedition.

Drawn into the story are curiosities that have dappled Sophie’s imagination for years, decades, a lifetime. At the tip of a promontory on a spread about the water cycle, there perches a miniature version of her Caldecott-winning lighthouse. Blazing across another spread about the unknowns of life and death is a comet inspired by a sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript.

Enchanted by the color wheel in the forgotten vintage gem The Little Golden Book of Words, Sophie set out to paint a charming new vocabulary of colors “to paint everything in the world” — names drawn from the way colors wash our lives, the way they suffuse our remembered experience and embed themselves in the crevices of our emotional landscapes. She invited people in her world — friends, neighbors, readers — to suggest color names. Being the storytelling animals we are, this seemingly simple invitation unloosed miniature memoirs of soulful, funny, tender, profoundly human moments in human lives, concentrated and consecrated by a particular color-memory. Among those shared by readers on her Instagram — which is its own lighthouse of delight — was this story by an early childhood educator named Joey Chernila:

When I was in high school, my grandmother Nettie came to live at my father’s house. It was just the three of us. Nettie, who was immensely kind and very funny, had begun to show signs of Alzheimer’s. She always worked with her hands and was a wonderful knitter. She’d knit sweaters, scarves, and espcailly caps. Her favorite color was an unearthly pink. Somewhere between the flesh of a wild salmon and an anorak put on a child who we don’t quite trust not to run away into the woods.

As her attention span grew shorter, so too did her caps. They resembled yarmulke or the caps Marvin Gaye wore in the 70s. She could finish one in a day, and would give them out to all my teenager friends who were always about the house. Soon my small high school halls were dotted with people wearing these garishly colored tiny knit caps. Did the teachers worry that the kids were being pulled into a new kind of religious sect?

In a way, we were. Nettie would pull us aside and berate us with her fiercely humanist maxims. Chief among them was this:

Just be a human being.

We got to hear that one a lot, because she didn’t know if she had told us that before and was old enough to not really care too much. Anyway… “Nettie’s Cap” is a nice name for a color.

And so Nettie’s Cap became one of “the colors you need to paint everything in the world,” perched on the edge of the page just below the burnt-orange of Mars, opposite the forlorn algae-green of Second Place, and several chromatic continents northeast of Slug Belly.

In her author’s afterword about the making of the book, Sophie reflects on our place in the cosmic scheme — a rocky planet orbiting a single star in a particular solar system, within a galaxy populated by billions of stars, within a known universe populated by billions of galaxies — and writes:

There are lots of things I don’t know. I don’t know if there is life elsewhere in the universe, though I find it hard to believe we are alone. But I do know this: Right this minute, we are all here together on this beautiful planet. It’s the only one we have, so we should take care of it.

Complement If You Come to Earth with the story of how the Golden Record was born and astronomer Natalie Batalha, who led NASA’s Kepler search for habitable worlds outside our solar system, reading and reflecting on Dylan Thomas’s poignant cosmic serenade to the wonder of being human, then revisit the stunning drawings of the nineteenth-century scientist who coined the word ecology to weave the wildly diverse lives of our planet into a delicate tapestry of interbeing.

Illustrations courtesy of Sophie Blackall; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism

A painted dance in praise of the best we can do.

American Utopia: Maira Kalman’s Spare Visual Poems Drawn from David Byrne’s Masterpiece of Anticynical Humanism

In the final years of a long life animated by optimism as a catalyst of democracy and the spring of action toward justice, Walt Whitman’s aged baritone unspools from the only surviving recording of his voice to read a verse from one of his last poems, envisioning America as a “centre of equal daughters, equal sons, all, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old, strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.”

The paradox of progress is that the more of it we make, the higher the stakes and standards of justice become, and the more we slip into a kind of pessimistic ahistorical amnesia — we judge people and events of the past by the standards of the present and indict them as ignorant; we judge the deficiencies of the present without the long victory ledger of the past and fall into despair. Overwhelmed by all that remains to be done — which must be every epoch’s focus but not its paralysis — we forget all that has been done, and done at the cost of tremendous toil by generations who fought for the incremental triumphs with the totality of their lives. In the century and a half since Whitman’s day, much of what was to him a brave imagining — women’s suffrage, abolition, the birth of a global ecological conscience, the discovery of new worlds and new galaxies — has become a reality, unlatching larger vistas of possibility far beyond the horizon of even his most optimistic vision.

To raft an awareness of this amid the tragic tide of cynicism engulfing our culture is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance, for as Maya Angelou astutely observed, “there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.”

Numberless half-remembered revolutions after Whitman, after Angelou, David Byrne — a polymathic poet laureate of optimism for our own era — picks up the baton of anticynical humanism in his Broadway musical turned HBO film turned illustrated book American Utopia (public library), featuring the art his longtime friend Maira Kalman originally painted for the Broadway curtain, paired with lyric lines in a series of minimalist visual poems, designed and edited by Maira’s son and frequent collaborator Alex Kalman.

What makes her work such a burst of delight is that whatever extant reality she brings her brush to — be it the alphabet or the weather or The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas — the elements that have beckoned to her imagination from the immensity of the work become a meta-poem exuding a quiet philosophy of being.

So it is with American Utopia — spare lines from Byrne’s lyrics, spare gestural utterances from the body language of the choreography, spare micro-expressions on the faces of the cast come abloom as painted vignettes, tender and expressive, dancing with their own aliveness.

What emerges is not a recreation of the musical world in book form but a luminous satellite of that world, intimate yet separate, removed by a degree of artistic abstraction yet reflecting the radiance of the same guiding star.

Pair American Utopia with Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love, then revisit David Byrne’s buoyant hymn to optimism and his pencil diagrams of the human condition.

Artwork courtesy of Maira Kalman / Bloomsbury. Photographs by Maria Popova.

BP

The Love of Truth and the Truth of Love: Bertrand Russell on the Two Pillars of Human Flourishing

“Love is wise, hatred is foolish.”

The Love of Truth and the Truth of Love: Bertrand Russell on the Two Pillars of Human Flourishing

In the mid-1950s, as the icy terror of the Cold War was cloaking the embering rubble of two World Wars, the BBC producer and cartoonist Hugh Burnett envisioned an unexampled program to serve both as a cross-cultural bridge and a mirror beaming back to a dimmed and discomposed humanity the noblest and most beautiful ideas of its noblest and most beautiful minds. Face to Face — a series of intimate conversations with people of genius, influence, and exceptional largeness of spirit, interviewed by the British broadcaster and politician John Freeman — began as short-wave radio broadcasts to listeners in the Far East and soon became a BBC television program. Television was then a young medium, aglow as any young medium with the promise of its potential and blind to its peril — something reflected with chilling clarity in Burnett’s own idealistic vision for it, so starkly contrasted by the echo chamber and manipulation laboratory television has become in the half-century since:

One of the most important functions of television is the honest display of human beings to one another. When this happens, it becomes possible to judge whether the standards and beliefs being held up for approval are really as valid and generally supported as we are led to believe. Social progress is slowed by isolation, and one of the great advantages of good television is that people are exposed to wide varieties of views and attitudes quite different form their own.

This is the vision that shaped Face to Face, which set the template for what became, half a century later, the most popular manifestation of a new medium: the podcast. The best of these BBC conversations, accompanied by the great Polish expressionist painter Feliks Topolski’s live portraits of each subject, were later condensed and edited into what might best be described as first-person narratives fusing autobiography and existential reflection, and published as the out-of-print 1964 treasure Face to Face (public library).

Bertrand Russell by Feliks Topolski from Face to Face, 1964.

Among the thirty-five subjects included in the book, alongside Martin Luther King, Edith Sitwell, and Carl Jung, was the Nobel-winning English mathematician, logician, philosopher, and sanity steward Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970), whom I continue to consider one of the most lucid and luminous minds our civilization has produced, and by far the philosopher whose ideas — ideas at the rare and necessary nexus of science and humanitarianism — I most admire in totality.

Having lost his mother when he was two and his father when he was three, Russell fell in love with Euclid amid the loneliness of his childhood. In the loveliness of mathematics and logic, he discovered an instrument of thought that could have, were it more widely adopted, prevented the inhumanity of the world wars. Shortly before his remarkable response to a fascist’s provocation, he reflects on the greatest peril of and to our humanity:

Fanaticism is the danger of the world. It always has been and has done untold harm. I think fanaticism is the greatest danger there is. I might almost say that I was fanatical against fanaticism.

Bertrand Russell by Feliks Topolski from Face to Face, 1964.

When asked what, in nearly ninety years of living, he has learned about life that he considers most important to pass on to posterity, Russell offers two things — “one intellectual and one moral.” The first is a sentiment evocative of Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” for critical thinking:

When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only and surely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

Two world wars after Tolstoy asserted in his little-known correspondence with Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills” and a decade after W.H. Auden made what remains the single most poignant one-word revision in the history of the English language — the idealistic “we must love one another or die” before the Second World War to the disillusioned “we must love one another and die” after it — Russell adds his second vital learning:

The moral thing I should wish to say… is very simple. I should say: love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn the kind of charity and the kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Complement with Russell’s kindred-spirited contemporary Albert Camus on the three antidotes to the absurdity of life — the third of which is an exquisite affirmation of Russell’s moral bequeathal — and a poetic counterpart in Maya Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” and then revisit Russell on how to heal an ailing and divided world, our mightiest defense against political manipulation, what makes a fulfilling life, and his immensely insightful Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the four desires driving all human behavior.

BP

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