Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 6

Spring with Emily Dickinson

“Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try…”

Something strange blankets the city and the soul in the first days of spring. The weary, the rushed, even the dispossessed surrender to a certain nonspecific gladness. They smile at you, you smile at them — under the blessing rays of the vernal sun, we are somehow reminded of what we humans were always meant to be to each other and to this stunning, irreplaceable planet we share with innumerable other creatures. In attending to nature at its best and most buoyant, we suddenly attune to the best of our own nature. This, perhaps, is why the modern environmental conscience was jolted awake by the terrifying notion of a silent spring, bereft of birdsong and bloom.

That vernal exhilaration is what Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), poet laureate of nature, celebrates in a letter to her brother Austin, composed in the spring of her twenty-third year, just as she was falling in love with the love of her life, whom Austin would soon marry. (This beautiful, harrowing tangle of heartstrings occupies a large portion of Figuring.)

Emily Dickinson at seventeen. The only authenticated photograph of the poet. (Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, gift of Millicent Todd Bingham, 1956)

On a May Saturday in 1853, Emily writes to Austin:

Today is very beautiful — just as bright, just as blue, just as green and as white, and as crimson, as the cherry trees full in bloom, and the half opening peach blossoms, and the grass just waving, and sky and hill and cloud, can make it, if they try… You thought last Saturday beautiful — yet to this golden day, ’twas but one single gem, to whole handfuls of jewels.

Enraptured by nature, Dickinson spent her days in a sunny bedroom wallpapered with botanical patterns, in a house surrounded by flowerbeds and blooming trees. I wonder if she saw the magnolias the way I do, taken with their bittersweet beauty — for a week or so a year, their blossoms stun with a splendor that vanishes always too soon, as if to remind us that everything we love eventually perishes and yet this perishability is not reason for sorrow but reason to love all the harder.

Pages from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium.

This eternal dance of love and loss animated Dickinson since the earliest age. Most of the flower specimens in the astonishing herbarium of her girlhood — an elegy for time and the mortality of beauty at the intersection of poetry and science — were collected in the spring, then meticulously pressed and arranged onto the pages of this curious catalogue of imagined immortality and bulwark against impermanence. This inescapable interplay between beauty and perishability, which lends life so much of its sweetness, is at the heart of Dickinson’s vast body of work — nowhere more intensely than in this poem devoted to spring, composed in the autumn of her life:

A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period —
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn,
It shows the furthest Tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to you.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay —

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a Sacrament.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Complement with Dickinson on making sense of loss and her ode to resilience, then revisit Neil Gaiman’s stirring poem paying tribute to the ecological and cultural legacy of Silent Spring.

BP

A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time.”

A Stoic’s Key to Living with Presence: Seneca on Balancing the Existential Calculus of Time Spent, Saved, and Wasted

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her abiding insistence on choosing presence over productivity. But how do we really spend our days? In our era, the average human lifetime will contain two years of boredom, six months of watching commercials, 67 days of heartbreak, and 14 minutes of pure joy.

This devastating arithmetic of time wasted versus time meaningfully spent may seem like a modern problem, but while the nature of our cultural technologies has undeniably exacerbated the ratio, the equation itself stretches all the way to antiquity, with only the variables altered. (Lest we forget, books were derided as a dangerous distraction in 12th-century Japan.)

That equation, and how to balance it more favorably toward a life of substance and presence rather than one of waste and want, is what the great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined at the end of his life in Letters from a Stoic (public library) — a collection of 124 letters he composed to his friend Lucilius, which also gave us Seneca on true and false friendship, overcoming fear, and the antidote to anxiety.

seneca
Seneca

Fittingly, the first letter addresses the most urgent subject haunting human life: time, and more particularly, the existential calculus of how we spend or waste the sliver of time allotted us along the continuum of being. Fifteen years after he composed his timeless treatise on filling the shortness of life with wide living, Seneca, now in his final years, counsels his friend:

Set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands… Certain moments are torn from us… some are gently removed… others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness.

The most perilous carelessness, Seneca argues eighteen centuries before Kierkegaard bemoaned the absurdity of busyness and Walt Whitman contemplated what makes life worth living, is that of sliding through life in a trance of expectancy, always vacating the present moment in order to lurch toward the next — a kind of living death. He writes:

What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore… hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing… is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

Art by Ohara Hale from Be Still, Life

Reflecting on how he himself practices what he is preaching, Seneca writes with Stoic self-awareness:

I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man… I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask. Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Complement this particular fragment of the timelessly rewarding Letters from a Stoic with Ursula K. Le Guin’s gorgeous ode to time, Bertrand Russell on the relationship between leisure and social justice, Margaret Mead on leisure and creativity, and Emerson on how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, then revisit Seneca on what it means to be a generous human being and his Stoic key to peace of mind.

BP

Zadie Smith Reads Frank O’Hara’s Love Poem to Time via an Old-Fashioned Telephone Line

A bittersweet serenade to the bidirectional pull of existence.

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning ode to time in memoriam of Stephen Hawking. It is an elemental question that cuts to the heart of being human: Despite being creatures of time, or precisely because of it, we live suspended between two temporal antagonisms — the acute awareness, so pointedly articulated by Virginia Woolf, that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living” and the nostalgic longing for how we used to be and who we used to be when we used to be. Perhaps Meghan Daum captured the paradox most piercingly: “Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”

Nothing intensifies this sundering bidirectional pull of the arrow of time and the spear of nostalgia more than the hindsights of love — what was once a delirious present projecting into an imagined future of infinite bliss is now ambered into the bittersweet remembrance of a perished past.

That universal bittersweetness is what Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) explores in twelve perfect lines in his 1950 poem “Animals,” found in his Selected Poems (public library) and read here by Zadie Smith via an old-fashioned telephone line, part of Coudal’s lovely Poetry After the Beep series.

ANIMALS
by Frank O’Hara

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Couple with O’Hara himself reading his “Metaphysical Poem” in a rare 1964 recording, then revisit other great contemporary artists and writers reading great poets of yore: Meryl Streep reading Sylvia Plath, Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman reading Ursula K. Le Guin, Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton, and Patti Smith singing William Blake.

BP

Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

Jacqueline Woodson’s Lovely Letter to Children About Kindness, Presence, and How Books Transform Us

“It is we who are passing when we say time passes,” the Nobel-winning French philosopher Henri Bergson insisted just before Einstein defeated him in the historic debate that revolutionized our understanding of time. “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” his compatriot Gaston Bachelard wrote a decade later in contemplating our paradoxical temporal experience. Still, our most intimate relationship with time unfolds not in physics or philosophy but in storytelling — a miraculous technology of thought and feeling that allows us to both contain time and travel through it, to saturate the moment with absolute presence and to leap from it into other eras, places, and experiences.

That is what National Book Award laureate Jacqueline Woodson, one of our era’s most beloved writers of literature for young people, explores in her beautiful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Woodson writes:

Dear Young Reader,

In my memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, I write about “this perfect moment, called Now.” I am thinking about this as I lie beside my seven-year-old son, reading to him from a book I at first disliked but have grown to appreciate over the evenings of reading. Two floors up, my thirteen-year-old daughter is supposed to be doing homework but may be checking her Instagram or texting a friend or hopefully snuggled beneath her covers with her own book (The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — “Oh my God, Momm — I love this book SO MUCH!”).

It feels like such a short time ago it was her in the crook of my arm, wide-eyed and listening. I impulsively kiss the top of my son’s mohawked head (he wants us to let him dye it green — maybe we will — after all, you’re only seven once) and he looks up at me, brow furrowed.

“Why are you kissing me in the middle of the sentence?!”

“Because this moment won’t always be here,” I say.

“Mommy — just read… please.”

As the child of a single working mom, I didn’t have this moment. There were four of us and at the end of a long workday, my mother was exhausted. Sometimes, my older sister read out loud to all of us and those are some of my deepest memories. Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, The House On Pooh Corner, Harriet the Spy. While I never read any of those books to my own children — preferring to read from books where their young brown selves were/are represented on the page — my sister’s stories in my ear put me on a journey toward my own stories. I wanted to see myself in books, wanted to know that I existed… fully… out in the world.

The book I am reading to my son is about a troll who is despised in his small town, loves a girl who may or may not love him back. We’ve just found out the girl is the daughter of Little Red Riding Hood and now the story has my attention — a twist I didn’t see coming.

“I don’t know why the king is so mean,” my son says. “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?”

I refrain from kissing the top of his head again and try not to think that this moment of my youngest child beside me, the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here. This now is what matters, young reader. The moment we’re all living in is what counts — how will this moment, and the stories we’re living inside of change us… forever? The smell of my son’s hair, his laughter, his whispered “Oh man!” and now, him saying softly “That’s not kindness, right Mommy?” This is what reading does. This is what matters most. I smile and turn the page.

Sincerely,

Jacqueline Woodson

Complement with other wonderful letters from A Velocity of Being by Jane Goodall, Rebecca Solnit, Alain de Botton, and a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy.