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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT YOU NEED TO BE WARM
by Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You have the right to be here.

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

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The Spirit of the Woods: Poet and Painter Rebecca Hey’s Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations for the World’s First Encyclopedia of Trees

From the weeping willow to the oak, a watercolor serenade to the science and poetics of our ancient silent companions.

The Spirit of the Woods: Poet and Painter Rebecca Hey’s Gorgeous 19th-Century Illustrations for the World’s First Encyclopedia of Trees

“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 most beautiful letter a quarter millennium before scientists began to see the molecular poetry of what trees feel and how they communicate.

Perched partway in time between Blake’s time and ours, and partway in sensibility between the poetic and the scientific, Sylvan Musings, or, The Spirit of the Woods (public library | public domain) is, as far as I am aware, the world’s first encyclopedia of wild trees.

The Bird Cherry. Available as a print.

Having resolved to face the new year like a tree, I came upon this forgotten treasure through the joyous gateway of serendipitous discovery — a bygone pleasure of atomic literature rarely accessible in our search-governed digital culture, always corralling us toward what we already know we are looking for: In the midst of a research project involving Mary Shelley, I acquired a rare surviving copy of the pioneering 1849 encyclopedia to which Shelley spent five years contributing short biographies of eminent scientists; one advertisement in the front matter of this fragile pocket-sized time travel device caught my eye, both for its subject matter, infinitely dear to my heart, and its authorship.

Of the very few female authors published in the nineteenth century, many appeared under male pseudonyms or ungendered initials. (This tradition would carry well into the twentieth century, leading the young Rachel Carson to publish her revolutionary marine masterpiece under the byline “R.L. Carson.”) Women publishing as women on scientific subjects were a particular anomaly.

“Mrs. William Hey” is Rebecca Hey — a poet, painter, and amateur naturalist. (Lest we forget, all women of scientific bent had to be “amateurs” by virtue of being excluded from both formal higher education and the scientific societies of the time. But there is something undeniably poetic and therefore redeeming in the etymology of the word, derived from the Latin amator — “lover of.” What greater portal to curiosity, what nobler means of understanding, than love?)

In her illustrated encyclopedia of trees, following one of flowers she had published fifteen years earlier to great popular success, Hey invites the reader to “partake the enthusiasm of the writer towards the whole leafy race,” highlighting thirty-six tree species found in British forests — from the oak, that most English of trees, iconic non-human protagonist of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, to the cedar, a cousin of which is now giving scientists new clues about ecological resilience. Each chapter opens with one of Hey’s handsomely hand-colored engravings of the tree’s leaves at the tip of a branch and closes with one of her original poems celebrating the species. Nestled between is the natural history of the tree, punctuated by thoughtfully chosen quotations from literary classics, both poetry and prose.

The Stone Pine. Available as a print.

Hey’s poems, while largehearted and aglow with enthusiasm for the trees she eulogizes, are no match for Mary Oliver’s sylvan verse. But her paintings — intimate, delicate, alive with color and tenderness, in the making of which “many an hour has been most agreeably beguiled” — are a treasure. Under her brush, the Common Maple becomes a miracle of uncommon splendor and the humble pine a tassel of mirth.

I have endeavored to restore and digitize a number of them, making them available as prints, with proceeds benefiting the Arbor Day Foundation, whose noble reforestation work and sylvan stewardship are more and more needed as we watch fires consume the ancient forests that have long been the lungs of this irreplaceable planet.

The Mountain Ash, or Rowan Tree. Available as a print.
The Oak. Available as a print.
The Ivy. Available as a print.
The Common Maple. Available as a print.
The Holly. Available as a print.
The Aspen. Available as a print.
The Birch. Available as a print.
The Common Alder. Available as a print.
The Weeping Willow. Available as a print.
The Wild Cherry. Available as a print.
The Yew. Available as a print.
The Hazel. Available as a print.
The Vine. Available as a print.
The Bay and Palm. Available as a print.
The Cedar. Available as a print.
The Mistletoe. Available as a print.
The Hawthorn, or May. Available as a print.
The Lime, or Linden Tree. Available as a print.
The Elm. Available as a print.
The Ash. Available as a print.
The Beech. Available as a print.

Complement with Art Young’s imaginative Rorschach silhouettes of trees from the 1920s, Walt Whitman on the wisdom of trees, modern-day poetic naturalist Robert Macfarlane on what trees teach us about healthy relationships, and the inspiring illustrated story of Wangari Maathai’s tree-planting as resistance and empowerment, which made her the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, then revisit the stunning celestial art of the self-taught 17th-century German astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart.

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Kahlil Gibran on Befriending Time

“The timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness, and knows… that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.”

Kahlil Gibran on Befriending Time

I have been thinking about time lately, as I watch the seasons turn and wait for a seemingly endless season of the heart to set; I have been thinking about Ursula K. Le Guin’s lovely “Hymn to Time” and its kaleidoscopic view of time as stardust scattered in “the radiance of each bright galaxy” and the “eyes beholding radiance,” time as a portal that “makes room for going and coming home,” time as a womb in which “begins all ending”; I have been thinking about Seneca, who thousands of seasons ago insisted in his Stoic’s key to living with presence that “nothing is ours, except time.”

And yet there is something odd about this notion of time as property. We are asked to give things time; we speak of taking time — time off of something, time toward something. But how do we give or take this fine-grained sand that slips through the fingers the moment we try to cup it? Perhaps time is not so much the substance in the hand as the substance of the hand; perhaps Borges was right in his sublime refutation of time: “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

How, then, do we befriend the thing that both destroys us and is us?

That is what poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) explores with great subtlety of sentiment in a passage from his timelessly rewarding 1923 classic The Prophet (public library), which also gave us his abiding wisdom on the building blocks of true friendship, the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on parenting and on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

When an astronomer beckons Gibran’s protagonist to speak of time, the Prophet responds:

You would measure time the measureless and the immeasurable.
You would adjust your conduct and even direct the course of your spirit according to hours and seasons.
Of time you would make a stream upon whose bank you would sit and watch its flowing.
Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
And that that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space.

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

In a sentiment that calls to mind Patti Smith’s elegant meditation on time, transformation, and the seasons of the heart, he adds:

And is not time even as love is, undivided and paceless?
But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons,
And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.

Complement with Gibran on silence, solitude, and the courage to know yourself, then time travel a century ahead with the fascinating contemporary neuropsychology of how time perception modulates our experience of self and a touching recording of Neil Gaiman reading Le Guin’s ode to timelessness to his 100-year-old cousin.

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The Art of Centering: Potter and Poet M.C. Richards on What She Learned at the Wheel About Non-Dualism, Creative Wholeness, and the Poetry of Personhood

“Centering is a verb… an ongoing process… a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination… an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness.”

The Art of Centering: Potter and Poet M.C. Richards on What She Learned at the Wheel About Non-Dualism, Creative Wholeness, and the Poetry of Personhood

Looking back on the first thirteen years of Brain Pickings, I termed my thirteen most important life-learnings “fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.” But how exactly do we locate our center and master its osmotic balance between fluidity and solidity?

That is what poet, potter, and manual philosopher M.C. Richards (July 13, 1916–September 10, 1999) explores in her 1964 counterculture classic Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (public library) — an inspired inquiry into “how we may seek to bring universe into a personal wholeness,” “to feel the whole in every part,” which popularized the now-commonplace notion of “both… and” as the non-dualistic, parallelistic alternative to the dualistic, perpendicularist “either… or” mindset.

After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Richards was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Chicago, but was soon disillusioned with the hyperfocus on standardized achievement, competitive and vacant. Just after World War II, just before her thirtieth birthday, she made a radical leap of faith and joined the English faculty of the experimental Black Mountain College.

Mary Caroline Richards at Black Mountain College (Getty Research Institute. Photographer unknown.)

One of the school’s most beloved teachers, she founded Black Mountain Press with her students, teaching them the fundamentals of typesetting and publishing, and soon rose to head of faculty. She forged close friendships with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the famed Black Mountain Poets. Many decades before neurologist Oliver Sacks extolled the healing power of gardening, she lived with mentally handicapped adults in a working community based on biodynamic agriculture — the precursor to organic gardening and farming.

In the 1950s, she returned to Black Mountain College not as a teacher but as a student — of pottery. The beautiful consonance she found between her two arts inspired a larger inquiry into the creative process, in a work of art and in the work of personhood.

M.C. Richards: Four Virgins of the Elk Dance (Courtesy of Black Mountain College)

Governed by her conviction that “poets are not the only poets” and that artists don’t leave their art at the studio, Richards explores the poetry of personhood through the metaphor of centering, drawn from the craftsmanship of pottery — a potter brings the clay to the center of the wheel, then begins the process of giving the amorphous spinning mass the desired shape. She writes:

Centering is a verb. It is an ongoing process… Centering is not a model, but a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination. It seems in certain lights to be an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness. It can be called to, like a divine ear.

[…]

Centering… is the discipline of bringing in (i.e., of sympathy or empathy) rather than of leaving out. Of saying “Yes, Yes” to what we behold. To what is holy and to what is unbearable. But my experience tells me now that there is an important crucial stage of saying Yes to a No. For resistance also must be embraced. Not only accepting resistance but practicing it.

This non-dualistic assent to other universe in all of its expressions is at the center of centering; it is also the lever by which we turn the negative into a generative place, in our individual experience and our collective aspirations. Richards writes:

The hardest and most rewarding lesson has been to learn to experience antipathy objectively, with warmth. For antipathy follows a gesture of separating, and the goal, which is to be both separate and connected, requires that one move inwardly in opposite directions. Toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice. It is this fusing of the opposites that Centering enables.

[…]

In centering the clay on the potter’s wheel, one centers down, yes, and then one immediately centers up! Down and up, wide and narrow, letting focus bear within it an expanded consciousness and letting a widened awareness (empathetic) have the commitment to detail of a focused attention. Not “either… or,” but “both… and.” You can perhaps feel the inner movement of a Centering consciousness that plays dynamically in the tides of inner and outer, self and other, in an instinctive hope toward wholeness.

Art by Bhajju Shyam from Creation — a collection of illustrated origin myths from Indian folklore.

In its active practice of non-dualism, centering is thus a deepening of our understanding of reality, consonant with Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s observation that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.” And yet, Richards cautions, centering must not become an item on the checklist of existential achievement — the moment it ceases to be a practice and becomes an object of striving, it becomes subject to corruption and distortion:

“Center” and “centered” have come to be fairly widely used. They tend to imply a connection with the navel, with one-pointedness, on the way to bliss, realization, and inner peace. But these are not the goals of the Centering process. For it is a continual engagement with experience, not a withdrawal from it. It begins with pain and ends with paradox. It wrestles with evil and the daimonic as it does with angels and repentance. It is an activity of consciousness, not a stage of spiritual achievement.

[…]

I have found that Centering, like clay, … bears the future within it. For it contains a space for ongoing development and differentiation. In other words, it proves to be an open image, a vessel, holding a content that is life itself.

Art by Olivier Tallec from This Is a Poem That Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Simeón.

Writing in the early 1960s — an era marked by the scar tissue of WWII and the new-growth optimism of civil rights and women’s emancipation, of space exploration and the decoding of life’s helix — Richards sees in the notion of centering an emblem of cultural evolution, as relevant to her own time as it is, after a half-century turn of the cultural wheel, to ours:

We find on so many fronts now, political and artistic as well as religious and economic, an imaginative thrust that goes not toward competitive violence and adversary motifs, but toward new social forms. Imagination is more and more recognized as a form of cognition.

Richards defines the creative mind as the “mind that makes connections between things ordinarily thought to be different” — an embodiment of “the highest human capacity”: the capacity for metaphor. Echoing the stunning speech on poetry, power, and freedom that John F. Kennedy delivered in 1963, just as she was finishing her book, she writes:

This is what fires our hearts, is it not? To feel ourselves free to love and to live. Unbullied and unbullying. Unhaunted by a conscience made guilty by social pressures and expectations. To act from source freely.

The moment we begin to act freely, we come into contact with the unknown — contact that can be a shattering shock if we are hardened, or a shape-shifting revelation if we are fluid enough to embody new forms of understanding, of meaning, of being. Centering thus becomes the locus of fluidity:

Centering… brings us what we don’t already know… We may find, yes, that yesterday is over, and we do not perpetuate old confusions. We do not cling to the savagery of nationalisms, or the shame we feel for being as we are. We stand on the shore of an ocean and the pure wind blows us fresh and we wake out of an anguish of inner conflict into a deep breath that lets us rise to our feet and in a new levity we dance. It could be said that fidelity to the processes of Centering is a path to full breathing, to a balance willingly at risk.

[…]

The deeper we go into these realms, the more contact we make with another’s reality. The sharper the sense of pain and bliss as they interweave through the heartbreak and luck of life, the more the line between self and other may dissolve.

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

In a sentiment evocative of Wendell Berry’s short and lovely poem about how to be a poet and a complete human being, Richards considers what drew her to the metaphor of centering and what it reveals about the poet in each of us:

I am an odd bird in both academic and craft worlds, perhaps because I am a poet, and thus, by calling, busy with seeing the similarities between things ordinarily thought to be different, busy with feeling the sense of relatedness grow through my limbs like a smoke-tree wafting and fusing its images, busy with the innerness of outerness, eating life in its layers like a magic cake made of silica sounds shapes and temperatures and all the things that appear to be separated stacked together in transparencies of color, and it is perhaps my vocation to swallow it whole. The expanding universe. The resilient appetite. The continuous play. The changing, changeful person, mobile and intact, finding his way on.

[…]

For life — I am sure of this — is not transforming energy, but transforming person. Energy is the means. Being is not what but whom. It is Presence in whom and before whom we show ourselves. Let us ride our lives like natural beasts, like tempests, like the bounce of a ball or the slightest ambiguous hovering of ash, the drift of scent: let us stick to those currents that can carry us, membering them with our souls. Our world personifies us, we know ourselves by it. Let us then speak to each other in our most intimate concern.

Centering is an intimate, universal, revelatory read in its timeless totality. Complement it with Susan Sontag’s astute distinction between being in the middle and being in the center, then revisit Richards’s close friend and collaborator John Cage on the inner life of artists and their contemporary E.E. Cummings on what it really means to be an artist.

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