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Of Owls and Roses: Mary Oliver on Happiness, Terror, and the Sublime Interconnectedness of Life

“The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.”

Of Owls and Roses: Mary Oliver on Happiness, Terror, and the Sublime Interconnectedness of Life

“Go to the limits of your longing… Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror,” Rilke urged in his Book of Hours, his poetic cadence assuring us to “just keep going,” for “nearby is the country they call life.” Rilke sensed that, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a generation earlier, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In such a universe, beauty is not so easily unhitched from terror — they coexist in one of those essential batteries whose two poles, like fear and hope, charge life with meaning, with aliveness.

We see this everywhere in nature: Virginia Woolf captured it in her arresting account of a total solar eclipse, and Coleridge captured it in contemplating the interplay of terror and transcendence in a storm. And like all that is true of nature, this duality of beauty and terror is also true of the subset of nature comprising our experience — the subset we call human nature: When happiness comes at us unbidden and elemental, there is almost a terror to its coming — to the totality of it, to the way it submerges and saturates and supinates us with something vast and uncontrollable and sublime, thrusting us past the limits of our longing.

This essential battery is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) — a Rilke for our own time: a rare philosopher-poet of immense and tender attentiveness to the living world and to our human interiority — explores in one of the pieces collected in the 2003 treasure Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (public library).

Owls from Richard Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay about owls — which, like all excellent essays, fans out fractally from its subject to become about something else, something elemental and existential — Oliver reflects on these mysterious and astonishing creatures as she wanders the woodlands of Provincetown near her home, searching for the nest of the great horned owl, “this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.” She writes:

In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life — as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.

In this one world — a miraculous and irreplaceable world; a world in which, as the poetic scientist and nature writer Loren Eiseley so memorably observed, “we forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness… that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle” — the bloodthirst in the owl’s bosom is inseparable from the lifethirst in our own, as beauty and terror are inseparable from one another and from the fulness of being that is life being lived.

Red poppy by the self-taught 18th-century artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a passage evocative of Willa Cather’s splendid definition of happiness, Oliver writes:

Sometimes, while I have stood listening to the owl’s song drifting through the trees, when it is ten degrees above nothing and life for any small creature is hard enough without that, I have found myself thinking of summer fields. Fields full of flowers — poppies or lupines. Or, here, fields where the roses hook into the dunes, and their increase is manyfold. All summer they are red and pink and white tents of softness and nectar, which wafts and hangs everywhere — a sweetness so palpable and excessive that, before it, I’m struck, I’m taken, I’m conquered; I’m washed into it, as though it was a river, full of dreaming and idleness — I drop to the sand, I can’t move; I am restless no more; I am replete, supine, finished, filled to the last edges with an immobilizing happiness. And is this not also terrible? Is this not also frightening?

Are the roses not also — even as the owl is — excessive? Each flower is small and lovely, but in their sheer and silent abundance the roses become an immutable force, as though the work of the wild roses was to make sure that all of us, who come wandering over the sand, may be, for a while, struck to the heart and saturated with a simple joy. Let the mind be teased by such stretches of the imagination, by such balance. Now I am cringing at the very sound of the owl’s dark wings opening over my head — not long ago I could do nothing but lounge on the sand and stare into the cities of the roses.

Owl from Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement the altogether wondrous Owls and Other Fantasies with Oliver on how to live with maximal aliveness, the two building blocks of creativity, her advice on writing, her moving elegy for her soul mate, and her radiant ode to trees.

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Coming Out in the Time of COVID: A 90-Year-Old Man’s Moving Conversation with His Daughter During the Quarantine

A touching elegy for what lives on the other side of lifelong heartbreak.

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings wrote in his magnificent forgotten manifesto for being unafraid to feel. It takes especial courage to “go the way your blood beats,” to borrow James Baldwin’s lovely phrase from his liberating advice on coming out, in which he observed that “loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”

But what we call courage — the courage to face the danger and rise to the responsibility — is so much less a function of character than a function of conditioning, a topographic feature of the landscape of permission and possibility in which a personhood forms.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Ken Felts was born in Kansas at the outset of the Great Depression. The son of a railway worker, he was raised in an unrelentingly religious community. In the late 1950s, Ken moved to California, where he met the man who became the love of his life. It was an enormous love — and an impossible love within the landscape of permission and possibility Ken inhabited, closer in psychosocial space, even if further in time, to the landscape of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s love than to ours.

More than half a century later, at the age of ninety, Ken used the StoryCorps Connect platform during the COVID quarantine to speak with his daughter for the first time about his experience and what lives on the other side of his lifelong heartbreak.

Complement with Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, the love of her life, and the pioneering LGBT rights advocate Edward Carpenter’s extraordinary letter of gratitude to Walt Whitman for dignifying same-sex love, then revisit this animated love letter to how libraries change lives from StoryCorps’ living archive of human experience.

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The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

“There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.”

The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

Since long before Dr. King proclaimed “I have seen the mountaintop!” mountains — like rivers — have been among our richest nature-drawn metaphors for making sense of our human lives and values. When the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan was asked in a television interview who the most important person she ever met was, she answered without hesitation: “A mountain.” She meant a non-metaphorical mountain — Mount Tamalpais — out of which she carved her exquisite philosophical-poetic meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

But no one has explored the existential through the metaphor of the alpine more elegantly than the French surrealist poet, philosopher, and novelist René Daumal (March 16, 1908–May 21, 1944) in his allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (public library), posthumously published and translated into English by Carol Cosman — a novel quite possibly inspired by and almost certainly subtitled as a wink to Edwin Abbott Abbott’s iconic 1884 allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, yet a novel entirely and uncommonly original.

René Daumal

Daumal — who taught himself Sanskrit, translated some of the great Buddhist texts into French, and saturated his writing with philosophical reflections drawn from the liminal space between the scientific and the spiritual, between physical fact and poetic truth — begins by defining his “analogical alpinism”:

Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence.

Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.

Upon this conceptual foundation Daumal builds his alpine allegory of life. In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of ‘condescension’ / Means we all sink.” — he writes:

You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again…

So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully.

There is something profound that the alpine shares with the telescopic: the gift of perspective — a gift that, once granted, cannot easily be revoked; once we have seen, once we have known, we cannot easily unsee and unknow, and so we cannot easily lose our position in space and sense. Daumal writes:

There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Echoing his equally brilliant, equally underappreciated compatriot and contemporary Simone Weil’s notion of the highest mountain-view of the mind, Daumal adds:

Keep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look at your feet. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you have arrived just because you see the peak. Watch your feet, be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.

In what may be the most elegant articulation of the essence of responsibility, applicable to everything from our smallest personal acts to our grandest generational choices that shape posterity’s social and ecological inheritance, Daumal writes:

When you take off on your own, leave some trace of your passage that will guide your return: one rock set on top of another, some grass pierced by a stick. But if you come to a place you cannot cross or that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead the people following you into trouble. So go back the way you came and destroy any traces you have left. This is addressed to anyone who wants to leave traces of his passage in this world. And even without wanting to, we always leave traces. Answer to your fellow men for the traces you leave behind.

“Tectonic Time” by Maria Popova

In an admonition against the twin hazards of hubris and self-pity, he adds:

Never stop on a crumbling slope. Even if you believe your feet are firmly planted, while you take a breath and looking at the sky the earth is gradually piling up under your feet, the gravel is slipping imperceptibly, and suddenly you are launched like a ship.

[…]

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory.

Couple Daumal’s strange and wondrous Mount Analogue with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Field Guide to Getting Lost, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, writing at the same time as Daumal, on the life of the living mountain and Vita Sackville-West’s early love letters to Virginia Woolf about mountain-climbing and the meaning of life.

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Artist Maira Kalman Illustrates the Extraordinary Love Story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

“This is a love story. You know. How two people, joined together, become themselves.”

Artist Maira Kalman Illustrates the Extraordinary Love Story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

It is not often that one encounters a great love letter to a great love, composed by someone outside the private world of that love, serenading it across the spacetime of epochs and experiences. In my many years of dwelling in the lives and loves and letters of beloved artists, scientists, and writers, I have encountered none more splendid than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated (public library) by Maira Kalman — an artist who uses her paintbrush the way Stein used her pen, as the instrument of an imagination tilted pleasantly askance from the plane of common thought.

Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, when she was fifty-nine and Alice fifty-six. She had written it at an astonishing pace the previous autumn. Like Alice disguised her memoir of their love as a cookbook, Gertrude disguised hers as an “autobiography” of the beloved under the lover’s byline. It wasn’t, of course, Alice’s autobiography, or even her biography — rather, it was the biography of their love, of early-twentieth-century Paris, of the community of visionary artists and writers who orbited the couple and who came to be known as the Lost Generation — a term Gertrude Stein coined — as they found themselves, in every sense of the term, at Alice and Gertrude’s salons.

The book begins, naturally, not at Alice’s birth but at her fateful first encounter with Gertrude and her coral brooch the day Alice, thirty-three, arrived in Paris as an American expatriate — a moment she eventually recounted in such deeply felt detail on the pages of her slender actual autobiography, animated by a bereavement that never left her in the twenty “empty” years by which she outlived the love of her life.

Kalman introduces the book with her spare and singular poetics:

Alice met Gertrude.
Gertrude met Alice.
Gertrude with her big body.
Big presence.
Alice, a little bird
with a mustache.
And that was that.
A coup de foudre
as we say.
Gertrude wrote this book of
their lives
through Alice’s eyes.
And here it is (happily)
with paintings
to illustrate how it was.

There is so much to delight in and marvel at in Kalman’s uncommon reanimation of this uncommon mausoleum of a love and an epoch. “Who did they know?” she asks, then exclaims: “EVERYBODY.” And then she draws everybody: James Joyce sitting at a table in Sylvia Beach’s Alexandrian bookstore, Hemingway with his fedora and his forthright gaze, Matisse slouched on a park bench, Cézanne, Picasso, Man Ray, all the artists who might not have been the stars they are to us, might not have found their own light, were it not for the hospitable universe of the Toklas-Stein household, for their devoted private patronage and public championship of these bold ideas and aesthetics that shook the plate tectonics of the status quo and formed the colossal landmass of modern art, of modern thought itself.

Captioning each of the paintings is a sentence or fragment from Stein’s narrative that captured Kalman’s curious imagination — sometimes a note of Stein’s subtle, fullhearted humor resonant with Kalman’s own, sometimes the shimmering surface of an amusing aside that whirlpools into the depths of loneliness and melancholy in which all pioneers swim, always an odd detail that compresses cosmoses of meaning into a miniature observation.

But of all the delights in Kalman’s tribute to the Stein classic, none is more delightful than the meta-masterpiece of her tender handwritten afterword — a love letter to Alice and Gertrude’s love. “I am loathe to leave them,” Kalman sighs on a near-blank page at the end, as blank as one feels inside upon leaving a book and the world of its making, then she writes:

This is a love story.
You know.
How two people, joined together,
become themselves.
They cannot breathe right
without each other.

With great subtlety, Kalman makes spare allusion to the ideas and ideologies animating Gertrude and Alice’s era, those ever-twining human impulses for beauty and for terror — the rise of Modernism and of Nazism; the birth of a new science with its delirious portal into the most fundamental building blocks of matter and the deepest, most beautiful realities of nature; the assembling of the building blocks of humanity’s deadliest weapon and ugliest war; and all the while, the lives being lived, the loves being loved, the meals being savored.

This most singular time —
literature, art, music, dance, architecture
EXPLODING into a new era.

The world reinvented. Modernism.
Problems. Furies. Betrayals. Alliances.

Preposterous notions. Malicious opinions.
Relentless drive. Enveloping beauty.
Many many many meals.

Nothing would have happened
without Alice. NOTHING.
It could be that Alice did write
this book. It could be.
Who holds the pen?
Who has the ideas?
What is the atmosphere of the
living room, kitchen, bedroom, salon?
What sharpness of vision. What relishing
of things big and small.
Great fame. A cozy home.
This is a singular story embedded
in a singular time.
That is enough. And more.

Complement Kalman’s impossibly wonderful The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated with Alice’s quietly stirring account of how their love began and a charming modern picture-book about their uncommon life together, then revisit Kalman’s illustrated catalog of unusual delights and her soulful love letter to dogs.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman

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