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The 7 Loveliest Children’s Books of 2017

Profound and poetic illustrated celebrations of solitude, self-possession, friendship, and our place in the cosmos.

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White asserted. “You have to write up, not down.” A generation later, Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Indeed, great children’s books — the timeless kind, which lodge themselves in the marrow of one’s being and seed into the young psyche ideas that bloom again and again throughout a lifetime — radiate a beauty and profundity transcending age. They are books for all of us and for all time.

Here are seven such books published or republished in 2017, to complement the year’s great science books.

BIG WOLF & LITTLE WOLF

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. There is a strange and sorrowful loneliness to this, to being a creature that carries its fragile sense of self in a bag of skin on an endless pilgrimage to some promised land of belonging. We are willing to erect many defenses to hedge against that loneliness and fortress our fragility. But every once in a while, we encounter another such creature who reminds us with the sweetness of persistent yet undemanding affection that we need not walk alone.

Such a reminder radiates with uncommon tenderness from Big Wolf & Little Wolf (public library) by French author Nadine Brun-Cosme and illustrator Olivier Tallec, originally published in 2009 and reissued in 2017. With great subtlety and sensitivity, the story invites a meditation on loneliness, the meaning of solidarity, the relationship between the ego and the capacity for love, and the little tendrils of care that become the armature of friendship.

We meet Big Wolf during one of his customary afternoon stretches under a tree he has long considered his own, atop a hill he has claimed for himself. But this is no ordinary day — Big Wolf spots a new presence perched on the horizon, a tiny blue figure, “no bigger than a dot.” With that all too human tendency to project onto the unknown our innermost fears, Big Wolf is chilled by the terrifying possibility that the newcomer might be bigger than he is.

But as the newcomer approaches, he turns out to be Little Wolf.

Big Wolf saw that he was small and felt reassured. He let Little Wolf climb right up to his tree.

“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Anaïs Nin wrote, and it is precisely the stark contrast between Big Wolf’s towering stature and his vulnerable insecurity that lends the story its loveliness and profundity.

At first, the two wolves observe one another silently out of the corner of their eyes. His fear cooled by the smallness and timidity of his visitor, Big Wolf begins to regard him with unsuspicious curiosity that slowly warms into cautious affection. We watch Big Wolf as he learns, with equal parts habitual resistance and sincerity of self-transcendence, a new habit of heart and a wholly novel vocabulary of being.

Night came.
Little Wolf stayed.
Big Wolf thought that Little Wolf went a bit too far.
After all, it had always been his tree.

When Big Wolf went to bed, Little Wolf went to bed too.
When Big Wolf saw that Little Wolf was shivering at the tip of his nose, he pushed a teeny tiny corner of his leaf blanket closer to him.

“That is certainly enough for such a little wolf,” he thought.

When morning breaks, Big Wolf goes about his daily routine and climbs up his tree to do his exercises, at first alarmed, then amused, and finally — perhaps, perhaps — endeared that Little Wolf follows him instead of leaving.

Once again, Big Wolf at first defaults to that small insecure place, fearing that Little Wolf might outclimb him. But the newcomer struggles, exhaling a tiny “Ouch” as he thuds to the ground on his first attempt before making it up the tree, leaving Big Wolf both unthreatened and impressed with the little one’s quiet courage.

Silently, Little Wolf mirrors Big Wolf’s exercises. Silently, he follows him back down. On the descent, Big Wolf picks his usual fruit for breakfast, but, seeing as Little Wolf isn’t picking any, grabs a few more than usual. Silently, he pushes a modest plate to Little Wolf, who eats it just as silently. The eyes and the body language of the wolves emanate universes of emotion in Tallec’s spare, wonderfully expressive pencil and gouache illustrations.

When Big Wolf goes for his daily walk, he peers at his tree from the bottom of the hill and sees Little Wolf still stationed there, sitting quietly.

Big Wolf smiled. Little Wolf was small.

Big Wolf crossed the big field of wheat at the bottom of the hill.
Then he turned around again.
Little Wolf was still there under the tree.
Big Wolf smiled. Little Wolf looked even smaller.

He reached the edge of the forest and turned around one last time.
Little Wolf was still there under the tree, but he was now so small that only a wolf as big as Big Wolf could possibly see that such a little wolf was there.
Big Wolf smiled one last time and entered the forest to continue his walk.

But when he reemerges from the forest by evening, the tiny blue dot is gone from under the tree.

At first, Big Wolf assures himself that he must be too far away to see Little Wolf. But as he crosses the wheat field, he still sees nothing. We watch his silhouette tense with urgency as he makes his way up the hill, propelled by a brand new hollowness of heart.

Big Wolf felt uneasy for the first time in his life.
He climbed back up the hill much more quickly than on all other evenings.

There was no one under his tree. No one big, no one little.
It was like before.
Except that now Big Wolf was sad.

“The joy of meeting and the sorrow of separation,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the paradox of closeness, “we should welcome these gifts … with our whole soul, and experience to the full, and with the same gratitude, all the sweetness or bitterness as the case may be.” But Big Wolf feels only the bitterness of having lost what he didn’t know he needed until it invaded his life with its unmerited grace.

That evening for the firs time Big Wolf didn’t eat.
That night for the first time Big Wolf didn’t sleep.
He waited.

For the first time he said to himself that a little one, indeed a very little one, had taken up space in his heart.

A lot of space.

By morning, Big Wolf climbs his tree but can’t bring himself to exercise — instead, he peers into the distance, his forlorn eyes wide with sorrow and longing.

He bargains the way the bereaved do — if Little Wolf returns, he vows, he would offer him “a larger corner of his leaf blanket, even a much larger one”; he would give him all the fruit he wanted; he would let him climb higher and mirror all of his exercises, “even the special ones known only to him.”

Big Wolf waits and waits and waits, beyond reason, beyond season.

And then, one day, a tiny blue dot appears on the horizon.

For the first time in his life Big Wolf’s heart beat with joy.

Silently, Little Wolf climbs up the hill toward the tree.

“Where were you?” asked Big Wolf.

“Down here,” said Little Wolf without pointing.

“Without you,” said Big Wolf in a very small voice, “I was lonely.”

Little Wolf took a step closer to Big Wolf.
“Me too,” he said. “I was lonely too.”
He rested his head gently on Big Wolf’s shoulder.
Big Wolf felt good.

And so it was decided that from then on Little Wolf would stay.

THE PAPER-FLOWER TREE

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees,” William Blake wrote in his spectacular 1799 defense of the imagination. More than a century and a half later, illustrator and designer Jacqueline Ayer (May 2, 1930–May 20, 2012) offered a beautiful allegorical counterpart to Blake’s timeless message in her 1962 masterpiece The Paper-Flower Tree (public library) — a warm and whimsically illustrated parable about the moral courage of withstanding cynicism and the generative power of the affectionate imagination.

As vibrant and vitalizing as the tales Ayer imagines in her children’s books is her own true story. Born to first-generation Jamaican immigrants in New York City, Jacqueline grew up in the “Coops” — a communist-inspired cooperative for garment workers in the Bronx. Her father, a graphic artist and the founder of the first licensed modeling agency for black women, taught her to draw. Her mother, a sample cutter, imbued her with an uncommon aptitude for pattern and color. In the 1940s, Jacqueline enrolled in Harlem’s iconic public High School of Music & Art, whose alumni include cartoonist Al Jaffe, graphic designer Milton Glaser, and banjoist Bela Fleck.

After graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in fine art, she continued her studies in Paris, where she became a fashion illustrator and starred in a Dadaist film alongside Man Ray. Her singularly imaginative artwork attracted the attention of designer Christian Dior and Vogue Paris editor Michel de Brunhoff, who procured for her an appointment as fashion illustrator for Vogue in New York. There, she supplemented her meager salary — for those were the days before the Equal Pay uprising that revolutionized the modern workplace, and she was a woman of color — by illustrating for the department store Bonwit Teller alongside young Andy Warhol.

Jacqueline Ayer at work

Three years later, Jacqueline went back to Paris on vacation and fell in love with Fred Ayer — a young American who had just returned from Burma and had grown besotted with the cultures of the East. The couple got married and began traveling through East Asia until they finally settled in Thailand, where Ayer raised her two daughters and drew incessantly as she traversed the strange, hot, fragrant wonderland of Bangkok on foot along the sidewalks, on scooter in the streets, on boat via the canals. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, she launched the fashion and fabric company Design-Thai, which printed her vibrant designs onto silk and cotton using traditional Thai craftsmanship.

Jacqueline Ayer with her daughter Margot

Ayer spent the remaining years of her life translating her distinctive aesthetic into home furnishings for New York and London’s glamorous department stores, working for the Indian government under Indira Gandhi to help develop the country’s traditional textile crafts, and creating children’s books of uncommon beauty and emotional intelligence. She was only thirty-one when she won the 1961 Gold Medal of the Society of Illustrators, considered the Oscars of illustration.

Jacqueline Ayer’s 1961 Society of Illustrators medal

The Paper-Flower Tree, originally published in 1962 and now lovingly resurrected by my friends of Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion, is one of four books about Thailand Ayer wrote and illustrated, like Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss, for her own children.

It tells the story of a little girl named Miss Moon, who lives under “the enormous blue sky” of rural Thailand and wanders the horizonless rice fields with her baby brother.

One day, a most unusual sight punctuates the noonday torpor of the village. Ayer writes:

Miss Moon saw a little man in the distance, puffing and blowing as he walked slowly along. He carried over his shoulder a bamboo stick, on which were tied colored bits of paper that fluttered in the wind.

Mesmerized by the burst of color, Miss Moon asks the elderly stranger, addressing him with the respectful and affectionate “grandfather,” where he is headed and what marvel he is carrying.

Returning Miss Moon’s affection, the old man addresses her as “little mouse” and explains that he is following the road to wherever it takes him, carrying a paper-flower tree. Ayer writes:

Miss moon smiled. She loved the tree. It was then she knew she had to have one.

“How pretty it is!” she said to the old man. “All those paper flowers twinkling in the sun. I wish I had a tree like that one.”

“One copper coin will buy you two flowers. If one of them has a seed,” the old man said, “who knows? Perhaps you can plant it — perhaps you can grow a tree for yourself.”

But Miss Moon’s heart sinks, for she has not a copper coin. The benevolent stranger meets her sadness with a smile and gives her a paper flower to keep — the smallest one on his tree, but adorned with a tiny black bead on a string — a seed.

He instructs her:

“Plant it — perhaps it will grow. I make no promises. Perhaps it will grow. Perhaps it will not.”

Miss Moon thanked the old man. “Thank you for my tree.”

“It’s not a tree yet; its only a flower, and a paper one at that,” he replied as he waved goodbye.

Much of what makes the story so wonderful is the magical realism of this deliberate interpolation between reality and make-belief — the characters themselves dip in and out of the river of consciousness on the shores of which they are co-creating the half-real, half-imagined miracle of the paper-flower tree, as if to assure us that splendor and delight are only ever the response of consciousness to the world and not a feature of the world itself, no less real, no less splendid or delightful, for being born out of the uncynical imaginations of kindred spirits.

When the old man continues on his open-ended journey, Miss Moon diligently plants the paper-flower seed, builds it a tiny roof to shield it from the unforgiving sun, then begins waiting and watching for it to sprout.

Days and weeks go by, seasons turn, the rice fields change color. Life in the village continues its usual cycle, until a whole year passes — with no paper-flower tree. The other villagers mock Miss Moon’s hopefulness. “You can’t possibly grow a tree from a bead,” they scoff. “You’re wasting your time,” they jeer — responses reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s thoughts on the failure of imagination at the heart of cynicism. But Miss Moon remains enchanted by the memory of the beautiful paper-flower tree and resolutely hopeful in her enchantment.

One day, a ramshackle truck rumbles down the road, tooting its horn and kicking up dust.

It rolled into the little village, and — rickety, rackety, crash bam — it came to a stop.

A strange little brown man, dressed in flashy, raggy tatters, hopped up like a bird to the top of the truck.

The odd fellow announces at the top of his lungs that his troupe of musicians and dancers will entertain the people of the village in exchange for a few silver coins.

But then Miss Moon spots amid the performers her old friend — the man with the paper-flower tree. She rushes over and asks “grandfather” if he remembers her. Of course he remembers the “little mouse.” When she laments the fate of her infertile seed, the old man’s face grows sad as he reminds her that he never promised it would grow:

I only said it might grow. Perhaps it won’t, and then again, perhaps it will.

As the spectacle of the circus unfolds into the warm night until the moon sets — drums and cymbals, dancers and clowns, flowing silks and tattered costumes — Miss Moon drifts off to sleep in her own bed and dreams of “bright-light colors and rice fields filled with paper-flower trees.”

When she rises with the sun, awakened by the smell of her mother’s cooking, she steps into the dawn to find aglow in the morning breeze a paper-flower tree.

Just then, she sees the rickety circus truck huffing and puffing away from the village. She runs after it, shouting excitedly at the old man that she finally got her paper-flower tree.

He smiled and waved as the old truck rumbled and roared away.

“Goodbye, little mouse!” he called.

When Miss Moon shows her treasured tree to the other villagers, they dismiss her enthusiasm with the same cynicism — it’s just the old man’s paper flowers on a stick, they say and hasten to remind her that it’s impossible to grow a tree from a bead. But Miss Moon’s radiant joy is undimmed by the cynics — their failure to see the tree as real is their own tragic limitation, and hers is a sovereign joy.

ON A MAGICAL DO-NOTHING DAY

Generations of great thinkers have extolled the creative purpose of boredom. Long before psychologists came to understand why “fertile solitude” is the seedbed of a full life, Bertrand Russell pointed to what he called “fruitful monotony” as central to the conquest of happiness. “There is no place more intimate than the spirit alone,” wrote the poet May Sarton in her stunning 1938 ode to solitude. But today the fertile sanctuary of solitude is a place more endangered than any other locus of the spirit, attesting more acutely than ever to Blaise Pascal’s seventeenth-century assertion that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Now comes a warm and wondrous invitation to remastering the art of fertile solitude in On a Magical Do-Nothing Day (public library) by Italian artist and author Béatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis.

The lyrical, tenderly illustrated story is told in the voice of an androgynous young protagonist who grudgingly accompanies Mom to a writing cabin in the lush, rainy woods — a place oozing boredom only alleviated by a videogame.

Eventually, concerned that this will be “another day of doing nothing,” Mom commands a break from the screen. She confiscates the game and hides it, “as usual,” only to have her discontented child find it, “as usual,” and rush outside in a bright orange raincoat, game tightly clutched as some kind of protective amulet against “this boring, wet place.”

But then, while trying to enact a scene from the game while skipping stones in the pond at the bottom of the path, the reluctant adventurer drops the console into the water and off it plummets to the bottom.

Devastation sets in — now there is nothing to do, nothingness utterly terrifying in thrusting the young protagonist into such sudden solitude with nature.

I was a small tree trapped outside in a hurricane.

The moment of despair is intercepted by a procession of four enormous snails, which offer unexpected delight with their jelly antennae and lead the way to a constellation of mushrooms — a scene that only amplifies the lovely Alice-in-Wonderland undertone of the story.

Small knees drop to the ground and small hands dig into the mud to discover “a thousand seeds and pellets, kernels, grains, roots, and berries” — an underground chest of tactile treasures, pulsating with aliveness that no screen could ever simulate. As though intuiting this awakening of awe, nature turns up the spectacle in a dramatic downpour, sunbeams piercing through the rainclouds to reveal a world seemingly reborn.

With terror now transfigured into newfound mirth, the raincoated explorer surrenders to this strange new wonderland, climbing a tree, drinking raindrops from branches “like an animal would,” marveling at bugs, talking to a bird, wondering:

Why hadn’t I done these things before today?

Upon the triumphant return, soaked to the bone and transformed to the marrow, the young adventurer takes mom’s hand and follows her into the kitchen, where they sit together looking at each other over cups of hot chocolate and savoring the quiet splendor of presence.

That is it. That’s all we did.

On this magical do-nothing day.

BERTOLT

Since long before researchers began to illuminate the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, the human imagination has communed with the arboreal world and found in it a boundless universe of kinship. A seventeenth-century gardener wrote of how trees “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.” Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” They continue to furnish our lushest metaphors for life and death.

Crowning the canon of arboreal allegories is Bertolt (public library) by French-Canadian geologist-turned-artist Jacques Goldstyn — the uncommonly tender story of an ancient tree named Bertolt and the boy who named and loved it. From Goldstyn’s simple words and the free, alive, infinitely expressive line of his illustrations radiates a profound parable of belonging, reconciling love and loss, and savoring solitude without suffering loneliness.

The story, told in the little boy’s voice, begins with the seeming mundanity of a lost mitten, out of which springs everything that is strange and wonderful about the young protagonist.

He heads to the Lost and Found and walks away with two gloriously mismatched mittens, which give him immense joy but spur the derision of the other boys.

“Sometimes people don’t like what’s different,” he observes with the precocious sagacity of one who knows that other people’s judgements are about them and not about the judged, echoing Bob Dylan’s assertion that “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

But the little boy is unperturbed — a self-described “loner,” he seems rather centered in his difference and enjoys his solitude.

Unlike the other townspeople, who are constantly doing things together, he is content in his own company — a perfect embodiment of the great film director Andrei Tarkovsky’s advice to the young.

Most of all, the boy cherishes his time with Bertolt — the ancient oak he loves to climb.

After seeing a smaller nearby tree cut down and counting its rings, he estimates that Bertolt is at least 500 years old, inching toward the world’s oldest living trees.

From Bertolt’s branches, which he knows with the intimacy of an old friend, the boy observes the town’s secret life — the lawyer’s daughter kissing the motorcycle bad-boy, the Tucker twins stealing bottles from the grocer and selling them back to him, Cynthia the sheep feasting on a farmer’s corn.

There above and away from the human world, he befriends the animals who have also made a home in Bertolt.

He especially cherishes taking shelter in Bertolt during spring storms. He nestles into Bertolt’s branches, which “sway and creak like the masts of a big ship,” and marvels at how the wind presses flattens the reeds against the ground.

In winter, as he rolls his solitary snowball up the hill, the boy dreams of spring and its promise of kissing Bertolt’s barren branches back to lush life. He relishes the first signs of the season and exults when the trees begin to bloom.

And bloom they do — the lime, the elm, the cherry, the weeping willow.

All except Bertolt.

The boy waits for days, then weeks, his hope vanishing with the passage of time, until one day, with the same precocious sagacity, he accepts that Bertolt is dead.

There is great subtlety in this confrontation with death — a death utterly sorrowful, for the boy is losing his best friend, and yet devoid of the drama of the human world, almost invisible.

He observes that while it is unambiguous when a pet has died, a tree “stands there like a huge boney creature that’s sleeping or playing tricks on us.” If Bertolt had been struck by lightning or chopped off, the boy would have understood. But that a loss so profound can be so undramatic, so uneventful, seems barely comprehensible.

It is this penetrating aspect of the book that places it among the greatest children’s books about processing the subtleties of loss.

Since a burial is impossible, the boy, longing to commemorate Bertolt in some way, eventually dreams up a plan in that combinatorial way in which we fuse our existing experiences into new ideas.

We see him running out of the Lost and Found with a box of colorful mismatched mittens, loading them onto his bike, and racing up the hill toward Bertolt.

With steadfast determination, he climbs the giant trunk, the vibrant load strapped to his back, and begins methodically clipping the mittens to Bertolt’s barren branches with clothespins.

In the final scene, amid the respectful silence of Goldstyn’s unworded illustrations, we see Bertolt half-abloom with mittens. Like Christmas ornaments, like Tibetan prayer flags, they stand as an imaginative replacement for the leaves and blossoms that Bertolt’s fatal final spring failed to bring — not artificial, but realer than anything, for they are made of love.

HERE WE ARE

When the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera back on the Solar System for one last look after taking its pioneering photographs of our planetary neighborhood, it captured a now-iconic image of Earth — a tiny pixel in a tiny slice of an incomprehensibly vast universe. The photograph was christened the “Pale Blue Dot” thanks to Carl Sagan, who immortalized the moment in his timeless monologue on our place in the cosmos:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Forty years after the Voyager sailed into space, we seem to have lost sight of this beautiful and sobering perspective, drifting further and further into our divides, fragmenting our fragile home pixel into more and more warring factions, and forgetting that we are bound together by the improbable miracle of life on this Pale Blue Dot and a shared cosmic destiny.

A mighty antidote to this civilizational impoverishment of imagination comes from Oliver Jeffers, one of the great visual storytellers of our time, in Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (public library) — Jeffers’s most personal picture-book yet, dedicated to his firstborn child. (The subtitle, Jeffers said, was inspired by The Universe in Verse, which he attended with his own father.) With expressive illustrations and spare, warm words, Jeffers extends an invitation to all humans, new and old, to fathom the beautiful unity of beings, so gloriously different, orbiting a shared Sun on a common cosmic voyage.

Taking an approach evocative of Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic Powers of Ten, Jeffers zooms from the Solar System to Earth to the city to its living kaleidoscope of inhabitants to the single home where a newborn is meeting the world for the first time, illustrating the intricate interconnectedness of life across all scales of existence.

On our planet, there are people.
One people is a person.
You are a person. You have a body.

[…]

People come in many shapes, sizes and colors.

We may all look different, act different and sound different … but don’t be fooled, we are all people.

In the final pages, we see the new father embrace his cocooned child as the whole of humanity stretches into infinity in a colorful waiting line of helpers, reminding us that it takes a village — our global village — to nurture any one life on Earth.

SUN AND MOON

“The dark body of the Moon gradually steals its silent way across the brilliant Sun,” Mabel Loomis Todd wrote in her poetic nineteenth-century masterpiece on the surreal splendor of a total solar eclipse. Nearly a century earlier, in his taxonomy of the three layers of reality, John Keats listed among “things real” the “existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare.” Indeed, the motions of the heavenly bodies precipitated the Scientific Revolution that strengthened humanity’s grasp of reality by dethroning us from the center of the universe. But, paradoxically, the Sun and the Moon belong equally with the world of Shakespeare, with humanity’s most enduring storytelling — they are central to our earliest sky myths in nearly every folkloric tradition, radiating timeless stories and parables that give shape to the human experience through imaginative allegory.

In Sun and Moon (public library), ten Indian folk and tribal artists bring to life the solar and lunar myths of their indigenous traditions in stunningly illustrated stories reflecting on the universal themes of life, love, time, harmony, and our eternal search for a completeness of being.

This uncommon hand-bound treasure of a book, silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who for the past decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in a fair-trade workshop in Chennai, producing such treasures as The Night Life of Trees, Drawing from the City, Creation, and Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit.

Among the indigenous traditions represented in the book are Gondi tribal art by Bhajju Shyam (of London Jungle Book fame), Durga Bai (featured in The Night Life of Trees), and Ramsingh Urveti (of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail); Madhubani folk art by Rhambros Jha (of Waterlife); and Meena tribal art by Sunita (of Gobble You Up).

THE BLUE SONGBIRD

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Tolstoy wrote in his diary. A generation later on the other side of the Atlantic, pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in hers as she contemplated the art of knowing what to do with one’s life: “To know what one ought to do is certainly the hardest thing in life. ‘Doing’ is comparatively easy.”

How we arrive at that secret and sacred knowledge is what Brooklyn-based artist Vern Kousky explores in The Blue Songbird (public library) — a lyrical and tenderhearted parable about finding one’s voice and coming home to oneself. With its soft watercolors and mellifluous prose composed of simple words, Kousky’s story emanates a Japanese aesthetic of thought and vision, where great truths are surfaced with great gentleness and simplicity.

We meet a a young blue songbird on a golden island, who listens to her sisters’ beautiful songs each morning. Unable to sing like they sing, she anguishes that there seem to be no songs for her in the world.

Her wise and loving mother counsels the blue songbird to “go and find a special song” that she alone can sing.

As though animated by Nietzsche’s proclamation that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” the blue songbird sets out to cross land and sea in search of her singular song.

After tireless and courageous flight, she reaches a faraway land where she meets a long-necked crane and asks him whether he might know what song she should sing.

The crane, bereft of an answer, points her to the distant mountains perched at the horizon, home to “the wisest bird,” who might know.

She soars over the peaks and finds the wise old bird in the depths of a dark forest. But the owl hoots unknowing, and the blue songbird flies forth on her quest.

Across varied landscapes and foreign lands, the young seeker inquires all she meets whether they might know where her song resides, but no one has the answer.

Kousky writes:

One wintry day, she met a bird who looked a little bit mean and more than a little bit hungry. Even so the songbird bravely chirped:

“Please don’t eat me, Mr. Scary Bird. I just wondered if you’ve ever heard of a very special thing — a song that only I can sing.”

The scary-looking stranger, who turns out to be a kindly crow, finally offers the glimmer of an answer — he doesn’t have her song, but knows where she will find it: She must fly West as far as she can.

And so she does, across the sea, past lighthouses and storm clouds, against mighty winds, until she sees the warm glow of an island “like a jewel on the horizon,” beautiful music flowing from it.

Elated to have made it to her destination, the blue songbird feels a surge of new strength that carries her faster and faster toward the yellow land. But as she swoops down, she realizes that she has returned home.

Just as disappointment is swelling in her chest, she sees her mother and is overcome with the urge to tell her of the crane, and the owl, and the crow, and all the stories of her journey.

But as she opens her beak, what pours out is a song — a song of her very own, about what she had seen and experienced — a testament to Werner Herzog’s conviction that all original art “must have experience of life at its foundation.”

* * *

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the loveliest children’s books of 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

BP

7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

From trees to consciousness to black holes, an immersion into the glory of the knowable and the splendor of the unknown.

7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

The great marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson, who sparked the environmental movement with her 1962 book Silent Spring and who pioneered the cultural aesthetic of writing about science in poetic prose, believed that “there can be no separate literature of science,” for “the aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth,” which is also the aim of literature. I have written at length about what separates great science books from the merely good, but I keep coming back to the elegant criterion Carson both named and exemplified.

Since I find myself spending less and less time dwelling in the literatures of the present, and more and more in those of the past, I can’t speak to the “best” science books of the year in any ultimate and comprehensive sense. But I can and do have distinct favorites among those I did read — books which embody, in varying degrees, Carson’s example and which accomplish, in various ways, what all great science books accomplish, whether they do so from the perspective of microbiology or of astrophysics: They humble us into remembering that we are but a tiny part of a vast and complex universe operating on scales of space and time in which ours holds no special supremacy.

Here are seven such books.

THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS

In The River of Consciousness (public library) — a posthumous collection of essays, including many never before published — the warm genius of Oliver Sacks comes alive as he tackles everything from memory to Freud’s little-known contributions to neurology and Darwin’s love of flowers to the nature of creativity. In his signature Sacksian way, he explores the universal through the deeply personal — not only with case studies of his patients, as he has done so beautifully for nearly half a century across his classic books, but this time with the case study of his own self as his body and mind go through the process of aging and eventually dying. Sacks brings the friendly curiosity for which he is so beloved to this ultimate testing ground of character, emerging once more as the brilliant, lovable human he was.

Read more here.

THE SONGS OF TREES

“Trees speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” an English gardener wrote in the seventeenth century. “When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse rhapsodized two centuries later in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

For biologist David George Haskell, the notion of listening to trees is neither metaphysical abstraction nor mere metaphor. In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors (public library), Haskell visits a dozen of the world’s most beautiful trees to explore, in immensely lyrical prose and with an almost spiritual reverence, the masterful, magical way in which nature weaves the warp thread of individual organisms and the weft thread of relationships into the fabric of life.

Read more here.

CODE GIRLS

During WWII, when Richard Feynman was recruited as one of the country’s most promising physicists to work on the Manhattan Project in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, his young wife Arline was writing him love letters in code from her deathbed. While Arline was merely having fun with the challenge of bypassing the censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office, all across the country thousands of women were working as cryptographers for the government — women who would come to constitute more than half of America’s codebreaking force during the war. While Alan Turing was decrypting Nazi communication across the Atlantic, some eleven thousand women were breaking enemy code in America.

Their story, as heroic as that of the women who dressed and fought as men in the Civil War, as fascinating and untold as those of the “Harvard Computers” who revolutionized astronomy in the nineteenth century and the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration in the twentieth, is what Liza Mundy tells in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (public library) — a masterly portrait of the brilliant, unheralded women — women with names like Blanche and Edith and Dot — who were recruited into lives they never could have imagined, lives believed to have saved incalculable other lives by bringing the war to a sooner end through the intersection of language and mathematics.

Read more here.

WHY TIME FLIES

In Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (public library), New Yorker staff writer Alan Burdick presents a layered, rigorously researched, lyrically narrated inquiry into the most befuddling dimension of existence. From the temporal meditations of the ancient philosophers to the last hundred years of ingenious psychological experiments, he explores such aspects of his subject — a nearly infinite subject, to be sure, which makes his endeavor all the more impressive — as the temporal underpinnings of empathy, why time dilates and contracts depending on whether we are having fun or facing danger, how a mother’s hormones set a fetus’s circadian clock, and what we are actually measuring when we speak of keeping time.

Read more here.

THE GREAT UNKNOWN

In The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library), English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, who serves as chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores the puzzlement and promise of seven grand scientific questions that are as yet unanswered but are, in theory, answerable. He terms them “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see — from consciousness to the complexities of chaos to the nature of dark matter to whether the universe is infinite or finite, or whether it is even a universe or a multiverse. In this age of aggressive certitudes, how refreshing and needed to be reminded of the beauty and value of the unknown as our foremost frontier of civilizational growth.

Read more here.

THE DIALOGUES

In his revolutionary treatise Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo employed the ancient rhetorical device of dialogue to reconfigure our understanding of the universe and our place in it. Four centuries later, English theoretical physicist Clifford Johnson turns to the same device in The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe (public library) — a most unusual and original graphic novel (or, rather, book-length comic of cosmic nonfiction) exploring some of the most fascinating facets of modern science. Strikingly, Johnson took a semester off from teaching to learn to draw and illustrated the book himself, then populated his panels with refreshingly diverse characters of varied races, genders, and nationalities. Interpolating between the roles of explainer and explainee without any dominant pattern of presumed authority, they venture into illuminating conversations about black holes, quantum electrodynamics, relativity, the multiverse theory, and other thrilling puzzlements of science.

Read more here.

BONUS: BLACK HOLE BLUES

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library) by astrophysicist and novelist Janna Levin is one of those rare achievements where a science book enchants not only with the thrill of its subject, but with the splendor of its prose. Although it was originally published in the autumn of 2016, there are two reasons — quite apart from its being one of the finest books I’ve ever read — that merit its inclusion this year. The first is trivial: The paperback was released in 2017. The second is monumental: The book is the definitive chronicle of the discovery that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics — the landmark detection of gravitational waves, the pinnacle of the century-old quest to hear the sound of spacetime. One of the world’s preeminent astrophysicist, Levin is also a masterly novelist who brings her gift as a literary artist to the greatest astrophysical leap in our understanding of the universe since Galileo first pointed his crude brass telescope at the heavens.

Read more here.

* * *

I discussed some of these books during my annual visit to Science Friday:

And because great science books continue to illuminate and enchant long past their publication, do revisit the selections for 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the Women Cryptographers Who Fought WWII at the Intersection of Language and Mathematics

“Virtually as soon as humans developed the ability to speak and write, somebody somewhere felt the desire to say something to somebody else that could not be understood by others.”

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the Women Cryptographers Who Fought WWII at the Intersection of Language and Mathematics

During WWII, when Richard Feynman was recruited as one of the country’s most promising physicists to work on the Manhattan Project in a secret laboratory in Los Alamos, his young wife Arline was writing him love letters in code from her deathbed. While Arline was merely having fun with the challenge of bypassing the censors at the laboratory’s Intelligence Office, all across the country thousands of women were working as cryptographers for the government — women who would come to constitute more than half of America’s codebreaking force during the war. While Alan Turing was decrypting Nazi communication across the Atlantic, some eleven thousand women were breaking enemy code in America.

Their story, as heroic as that of the women who dressed and fought as men in the Civil War, as fascinating and untold as those of the “Harvard Computers” who revolutionized astronomy in the nineteenth century and the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration in the twentieth, is what Liza Mundy tells in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (public library).

The Navy transformed a girls’ school campus into housing for its female codebreakers.

A splendid writer and an impressive scholar, Mundy tracked down and interviewed more than twenty surviving “code girls,” trawled hundreds of boxes containing archival documents, and successfully petitioned for the declassification of more than a dozen oral histories. Out of these puzzle pieces she constructs a masterly portrait of the brilliant, unheralded women — women with names like Blanche and Edith and Dot — who were recruited into lives they never could have imagined, lives believed to have saved incalculable other lives by bringing the war to a sooner end.

Driven partly by patriotism, but mostly by pure love of that singular intersection of mathematics and language where cryptography lives, these “high grade” young women, as the military recruiters called them, came from all over the country and had only one essential thing in common — their answers to two seemingly strange questions. Mundy traces the inception of this female codebreaking force:

A handful of letters materialized in college mailboxes as early as November 1941. Ann White, a senior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, received hers on a fall afternoon not long after leaving an exiled poet’s lecture on Spanish romanticism.

The letter was waiting when she returned to her dormitory for lunch. Opening it, she was astonished to see that it had been sent by Helen Dodson, a professor in Wellesley’s Astronomy Department. Miss Dodson was inviting her to a private interview in the observatory. Ann, a German major, had the sinking feeling she might be required to take an astronomy course in order to graduate. But a few days later, when Ann made her way along Wellesley’s Meadow Path and entered the observatory, a low domed building secluded on a hill far from the center of campus, she found that Helen Dodson had only two questions to ask her.

Did Ann White like crossword puzzles, and was she engaged to be married?

Elizabeth Colby, a Wellesley math major, received the same unexpected summons. So did Nan Westcott, a botany major; Edith Uhe (psychology); Gloria Bosetti (Italian); Blanche DePuy (Spanish); Bea Norton (history); and Ann White’s good friend Louise Wilde, an English major. In all, more than twenty Wellesley seniors received a secret invitation and gave the same replies. Yes, they liked crossword puzzles, and no, they were not on the brink of marriage.

At Arlington Hall in Virginia, Ann Caracristi (far right), an English major from Russell Sage College, worked on developing an “order of battle” disclosing the location of Japanese troops.

Letters and clandestine questioning sessions spread across other campuses, particularly those known for strong scientific curricula — from Vassar, where astronomer Maria Mitchell paved the way for American women in science, to Mount Holyoke, the “castle of science” where Emily Dickinson composed her botanical herbarium. The young women who answered the odd questions correctly were summoned to secret meetings, where they learned they were being invited to work for the U.S. Navy as “cryptanalysts.” They were to take a training in codebreaking and, if they completed it successfully, would take jobs with the Navy after graduation, as civilians. They could tell no one about the appointment — not their parents, not their girlfriends, not their fiancés.

First, they had to solve a series of problem sets, which would be graded in Washington to determine if they made the cut to the next stage. Mundy writes:

And so the young women did their strange new homework. They learned which letters of the English language occur with the greatest frequency; which letters often travel together in pairs, like s and t; which travel in triplets, like est and ing and ive, or in packs of four, like tion. They studied terms like “route transposition” and “cipher alphabets” and “polyalphabetic substitution cipher.” They mastered the Vigenère square, a method of disguising letters using a tabular method dating back to the Renaissance. They learned about things called the Playfair and Wheatstone ciphers. They pulled strips of paper through holes cut in cardboard. They strung quilts across their rooms so that roommates who had not been invited to take the secret course could not see what they were up to. They hid homework under desk blotters. They did not use the term “code breaking” outside the confines of the weekly meetings, not even to friends taking the same course.

Women operated the machines that tackled the German Enigma ciphers Alan Turing would eventually crack.

These young women’s acumen, and their willingness to accept the cryptic invitations, would become America’s secret weapon in assembling a formidable wartime codebreaking operation in record time. They would also furnish a different model of genius — one more akin to the relational genius that makes a forest successful. Mundy writes:

Code breaking is far from a solitary endeavor, and in many ways it’s the opposite of genius. Or, rather: Genius itself is often a collective phenomenon. Success in code breaking depends on flashes of inspiration, yes, but it also depends on the careful maintaining of files, so that a coded message that has just arrived can be compared to a similar message that came in six months ago. Code breaking during World War II was a gigantic team effort. The war’s cryptanalytic achievements were what Frank Raven, a renowned naval code breaker from Yale who supervised a team of women, called “crew jobs.” These units were like giant brains; the people working in them were a living, breathing, shared memory. Codes are broken not by solitary individuals but by groups of people trading pieces of things they have learned and noticed and collected, little glittering bits of numbers and other useful items they have stored up in their heads like magpies, things they remember while looking over one another’s shoulders, pointing out patterns that turn out to be the key that unlocks the code.

The Army’s secret African American unit in Virginia, mostly female and unknown to many of their white colleagues, tabulated records of companies trading with Hitler or Mitsubishi.

But although codebreaking has entered the popular imagination through the portal of war, often depicted with a kind of intellectual glamor that aligns it with spies and superheroes, it spans a far vaster cultural spectrum of uses as a tool of communication and un-communication. Mundy examines its history and essential elements:

Codes have been around for as long as civilization, maybe longer. Virtually as soon as humans developed the ability to speak and write, somebody somewhere felt the desire to say something to somebody else that could not be understood by others. The point of a coded message is to engage in intimate, often urgent communication with another person and to exclude others from reading or listening in. It is a system designed to enable communication and to prevent it.

Both aspects are important. A good code must be simple enough to be readily used by those privy to the system but tough enough that it can’t be easily cracked by those who are not. Julius Caesar developed a cipher in which each letter was replaced by a letter three spaces ahead in the alphabet (A would be changed to D, B to E, and so forth), which met the ease-of-use requirement but did not satisfy the “toughness” standard. Mary, Queen of Scots, used coded missives to communicate with the faction that supported her claim to the English throne, which — unfortunately for her — were read by her cousin Elizabeth and led to her beheading. In medieval Europe, with its shifting alliances and palace intrigues, coded letters were an accepted convention, and so were quiet attempts to slice open diplomatic pouches and read them. Monks used codes, as did Charlemagne, the Inquisitor of Malta, the Vatican (enthusiastically and often), Islamic scholars, clandestine lovers. So did Egyptian rulers and Arab philosophers. The European Renaissance — with its flowering of printing and literature and a coming-together of mathematical and linguistic learning — led to a number of new cryptographic systems. Armchair philosophers amused themselves pursuing the “perfect cipher,” fooling around with clever tables and boxes that provided ways to replace or redistribute the letters in a message, which could be sent as gibberish and reassembled at the other end. Some of these clever tables were not broken for centuries; trying to solve them became a Holmes-and-Moriarty contest among thinkers around the globe.

Even in the context of war, even in the subset of women cryptographers, the history of codebreaking predates WWII. It stretches back to the world’s first Great War, to a strange haven under the auspices of a Mad Hatter character by the name of George Fabyan — an eccentric, habitually disheveled millionaire with little formal education, who built himself an elaborate private Wonderland complete with a working lighthouse, a Japanese garden, a Roman-style bathing pool fed by fresh spring water, a Dutch mill transported piece by piece from Holland, and an enormous rope replica of a spider’s web for recreation. On these strange grounds, Fabyan constructed Riverbank Laboratories — a pseudo-scientific shrine to his determination to “wrest the secrets of nature” by way of acoustics, agriculture, and, crucially, literary manuscripts.

Fabyan subscribed to a conspiracy theory that the works of William Shakespeare were actually authored by Sir Francis Bacon, who allegedly encoded evidence of his authorship into the texts. The millionaire acquired rare manuscripts, including a 1623 folio of one of Shakespeare’s plays, then hired a team of researchers — he could afford the best minds in the country — to prove the theory by analyzing the text in search of coded messages. Under these improbable circumstances, he incubated the talent that would become the U.S. military’s first concerted cryptanalytic force.

Elizebeth Friedman

Among Fabyan’s hires was Elizebeth Smith — an intelligent and driven young midwesterner, one of nine children, who had put herself through college after her father denied her the opportunity. In 1916, Fabyan recruited Smith to be the public face of his Baconian codebreaking operation. Soon after she moved to Riverbank Laboratories, Smith began to suspect that the Shakespearian conspiracy theory was just that, sustained by a cultish team of cranks who fed on confirmation bias as they searched for “evidence.” Among Fabyan’s staff was another doubter — William Friedman, a polymathish geneticist from Cornell, living on the second floor of the windmill. Elizebeth and William bonded over their dissent on long bike rides and swims in the Roman pool. Within a year, they were married — a marriage of equals in every way. But although they saw clearly the ludicrousness of Fabyan’s theory, they were too fascinated by the pure art-science of codes and ciphers to leave. Elizebeth moved into the windmill. The couple would soon become the country’s most sought-after codebreaking team as the government outsourced its cryptanalytic efforts to Riverbank. But although the Friedmans worked in tandem, when the Army set out to hire them, they offered William $3,000 and Elizebeth $1,520.

When the team began working for the government in Washington — both still in their twenties, heading a team of thirty — they were decoding every kind of intercepted foreign communication suspected to contain military information. Some did. Most did not — one turned out to be a Czechoslovakian love letter.

Elizebeth Friedman — who went on to have a formidable career in law enforcement, training men for a new codebreaking unit for the Coast Guard — is one of the many women whose stories, all different and all fascinating, Mundy tells in Code Girls, a thoroughly wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of the the unheralded women astronomers who revolutionized our understanding of the universe decades before they could vote.

BP

Hallelujah Anyway: Anne Lamott on Reclaiming Mercy and Forgiveness as the Root of Self-Respect in a Vengeful World

“Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.”

Hallelujah Anyway: Anne Lamott on Reclaiming Mercy and Forgiveness as the Root of Self-Respect in a Vengeful World

There are certain words — large, beautiful, buoyant words — weighed down by a heavy religious inheritance that make the nonreligious among us uneasy. Soul is one of them — a word whose secular redemption is more needed than ever. (Redemption, it occurs to me, is another — one which David Foster Wallace successfully secularized.)

But hardly any word is more unnerving yet more urgently needed today than mercy — a word steeped in scripture yet almost biologically encoded into human nature; a word deceptive in its seeming softness, for beneath its surface radiance lurks a dark core: the very concept of mercy only exists because of and as a counterpoint to our capacity for cruelty. Mercy is the conscious choice to be kind when one can be cruel — without cruelty, there is no mercy.

This is why the redemptive and rebellious practice of mercy is so immensely needed today, in a world that serves us evidence of cruelty daily, and its practice is what Anne Lamott sets out to reclaim in Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy (public library) — a slim, powerful book about the ways in which we harden against life and the ways in which we can soften through forgiveness, kindness, and all those splendors of spirit which, in denying others, we deny ourselves.

Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott

Lamott, the patron saint of our fallible humanity, writes:

There are times in our lives — scary, unsettling times — when we know that we need help or answers but we’re not sure what kind, or even what the problem or question is. We look and look, tearing apart our lives like we’re searching for car keys in our couch, and we come up empty-handed. Then when we’re doing something stupid, like staring at the dog’s mismatched paws, we stumble across what we needed to find. Or even better, it finds us. It wasn’t what we were looking or hoping for, which was usually advice, approval, an advantage, safety, or relief from pain. I was raised to seek or achieve them, but like everyone, I realized at some point that they do not bring lasting peace, relief, or uplift. This does not seem fair, after a lifetime spent in their pursuit.

In a testament to how trauma muffles our senses and sensitivity, she considers our greatest stumbling block to mercy and forgiveness. Echoing the beautiful opening lines of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness”“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing” — Lamott writes:

We’re so often rattled by lingering effects of trauma and paralyzing fear.

At first glance, they seem inextricable. Trauma, which is sorted differently in the brain than memory, seeps out of us as warnings of worse to come. Our self-centered fears whisper at us all day: our fear of exposure, of death, and that we will lose those we love most, that we will lose whatever advantage we hold, whatever meager gains we’ve made. We live in terror that our butts will show and people will run from us, screaming.

But let’s say we believe that mercy and forgiveness are in fact foundational, innate, what we are grown from and can build on; also that they are hard to access because of these traumas and fears. What if we know that forgiveness and mercy are what heal and restore and define us, that they are the fragrance that the rose leaves on the heel that crushes it?

What makes Lamott’s writing so wonderful is that her deep and nuanced wisdom comes not from a preachy place but from intimate contact with her own unconcealed human imperfection, which she acknowledges with unselfconscious lucidity and, in the act of acknowledging it, alleviates our own self-consciousness about the myriad small-spirited, begrudging tendencies by which we fall so woefully short of our ideal selves.

Once again extending that supreme “me, too” gift of unjudgmental recognition, Lamott writes:

So why today is it absolutely all I can do to extend mercy to myself for wanting to nip an annoying relative’s heel like a river rat? Forget extending mercy to this relative, who has so messed with me and my son — she doesn’t even know she needs my mercy. She thinks she is fierce and superior, while I believe she secretly ate her first child. Horribly, she is perfectly fine. I’m the one who needs mercy — my mercy. The need for this, for my own motley mercy, underpinned most of my lifelong agitation, my separation from life itself.

[…]

I came here with a huge open heart, like a big, sweet dog, and I still have one. But some days the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate, preferably if it went viral and the photo of the person showed hair loss and perhaps the lifelong underuse of sunscreen. My heart still leaps to see this. I often recall the New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.” This is the human condition.

Mercy, Lamott observes, can be difficult to conceive of, much less practice, in a world rife with “Rwanda, Nixon, ISIS, malaria, your father, and your wife’s god-awful sister, and what children did to you or your own kids in the playground.” And yet the musculature of mercy, she suggests, is what holds erect the skeleton of our humanity. She writes:

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves absolving the unabsolvable, forgiving the unforgivable. Mercy brings us to the miracle of apology, given and accepted, to unashamed humility when we have erred or forgotten.

[…]

Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves — our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice. It includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

With an eye to a central ambivalence of the human condition — the same ambivalence that accounts for the fact that “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us,” as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor have memorably observed — Lamott writes:

Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that?

I want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get a partial credit for that? The problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right. It’s mood-altering, and it covers up a multitude of sins… I know justice and believing that you’re right depend on cold theological and legal arguments where frequently there is no oxygen, but honestly I don’t mind this. I learned to live in thin air as a small child.

Reflecting on the tumultuous and traumatic environment of her childhood home, she adds:

I can be a hero in my storm, which is where I found a sense of value as a child, as the tense little EMT in a damaged family. Crisis, self-centered fear, and saving people were home for me, with a wet bar serving up adrenaline. The quiet, tranquil room of just being was boarded up. But love reaches out and reaches out and reaches out. It is staggering that it is always giving me another chance, another day, over and over and over.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Joan Didion’s abiding assertion that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Lamott returns to mercy and its irrepressible resilience even in the most battered of spirits:

When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves, we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp. It gives us the chance to rediscover something both old and original, the sweet child in us who, all evidence to the contrary, was not killed off, but just put in the drawer. I realize now how desperately, how grievously, I have needed the necessary mercy to experience self-respect. It is what a lot of us were so frantic for all along, and we never knew it. We’ve tried almost suicidally for our whole lives to shake it from the boughs of the material world’s trees. But it comes from within, from love, from the flow of the universe; from inside the cluttered drawer.

Complement the thoroughly fantastic Hallelujah Anyway with Lamott on how perfectionism kills creativity, the greatest gift of friendship, how we endure with sanity in a crazy world, and how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing, then revisit Ta-Nehisi Coates on choosing kindness over fear and Carl Sagan on meeting ignorance with compassion.

BP

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