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The Handle on the Door to a New World: Poet Jane Hirshfield on the Magic and Power of Metaphor, Animated

“A metaphor is language that simultaneously creates and solves its own riddle; within that minute explosion of mind is both expansion and release… It is how the mind instructs itself in a more complex seeing.”

The Handle on the Door to a New World: Poet Jane Hirshfield on the Magic and Power of Metaphor, Animated

It is a marvel, though hardly a surprise, that children’s minds are machines for metaphor. We are meaning-making creatures — from the moment we begin trying to make sense of the world, and even as we face the terrifying prospect of its meaninglessness, the familiar becomes our foothold for the unfamiliar; the images that already carry meaning, already invoke felt feeling-tones, become mirrors and magnifying glasses for those that don’t yet. Our entire experience of reality, bent through the lens of our meaning-hungry consciousness, becomes, as Nietzsche memorably put it, “a movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms.” Out of that moving host, the entire ecosystem of meaning we call art is born.

That is what Jane Hirshfield — a poet capable of compressing a universe of meaning into a mouthful of words, a thinker of uncommon insight into how language concentrates and consecrates reality, and an ordained Buddhist whose contemplative practice animates her creative practice — explores in this lovely animated meditation on the magic of metaphor from my friends at TED-Ed:

A good metaphor… is a way to let you feel and know something differently.

[…]

Metaphors give words a way to go beyond their own meaning. They are handles on the door of what we can know and of what we can imagine. Each door leads to some new house and some new world that only that one handle can open.

What’s amazing is this: By making a handle, you can make a world.

She takes up the subject throughout her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (public library) — which gave us her soulful meditation on how art transforms us — and writes:

Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, alludes to the kinship between metaphor and riddle, calling each a source for the other. Not only does solving a riddle depend on the ability to think metaphorically, all metaphor preserves some flavor of a puzzle. A metaphor is language that simultaneously creates and solves its own riddle; within that minute explosion of mind is both expansion and release. Perhaps this is why riddles abound among the earliest poems in many traditions and why spiritual teaching so often partakes of the riddling: it is how the mind instructs itself in a more complex seeing.

Complement with her short, splendid poems “Optimism” and “The Weighing” — both masterpieces of metaphor — then dwell with this living metaphor for the riddle of life.

BP

Gardening as Resistance: Notes on Building Paradise

“Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil.”

“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer,” Derek Jarman wrote as he grieved his dying friends, faced his own death, and contemplated art, mortality, and resistance while planting a garden between an old lighthouse and a new nuclear plant on a barren shingled shore.

Jarman is one of the artists whom Olivia Laing profiles and celebrates in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (public library) — her superb collection of meditations on art, activism, and our search for meaning, drawing on the lives of artists whose vision has changed the way we see the world, ourselves, and others.

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Laing’s Jarman-fomented essay, titled “Paradise,” begins with the question of whether gardening is a form of art and ends with the question of whether art is a form of resistance — a necessary tool for building the Garden of Eden we imagine a flourishing society to be.

She writes:

Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity. A peony returns, alien pink shoots thrusting from bare soil. The fennel self-seeds; there is an abundance of cosmos out of nowhere.

To bridge Laing’s two questions, one must somehow reconcile these two temporal models: linear time, which the Greek called chronos and along which we plot the vector of progress, and cyclical time, or kairos, which is the time of gardens and, Laing intimates, the time of societies. We long for the assurance of steady progression, yet all around us the rest of nature churns in cycles. How do the cicadas know when to awake from their seventeen-year slumbers and rise up by the billions to make new life that will in turn repeat the cycle? And the migratory birds, “how can they know that it’s time to go?,” as Nina Simone asked in her serenade to time — Nina Simone, who also chose to cover Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” and who gave all she had to a movement the central concerns of which have returned a life-season later with redoubled urgency, its fruits only just beginning to ripen in our lifetime.

Therein lies the paradox — how do we practice resistance if time is the substance we are made of, as Borges so timelessly observed, and yet we live suspended between these two parallel versions of time as we try to build paradise?

Fig from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

“Resistance” has always been a funny word to me — one without direct translation in my native Bulgarian, in this particular context of constructive social change. It contours something necessary but not sufficient — while ennobling and empowering in its implication of defying wrongness, it limits its own power by ending at what is to be eradicated, without indication of what is to be grown in its place and how. In this respect, the resistance approach to human nature (and the consensual collective byproduct of human natures we call society) is like the pesticide approach to nature.

“Resistance” is a word especially limited by the elemental fact that there are certain things simply beyond the reach of resistance, impervious to our passions and protestations — spacetime, gravity, the fundamental laws that gave rise to our existence and will eventually return us to the stardust of which we are made. Your face will sag and your spine will bend under the twin assault of gravity and time, and so will mine, until our atoms disband altogether to become food for the worm and fertilizer for the mycelial wonderland from which bluebells will rise some future spring.

None of this we can resist.

But maybe — and that is what redeems and consecrates our finite human lives and our limited powers — within those parameters, there is space enough and spirit enough to resist what is poisonous to the ideological soil we call culture and persist in planting, for as long as we have to live and with as much generosity as we have to give, something lush and beautiful. That we might never live to see it bloom might just be okay. To have planted the seeds is satisfaction enough worth living for.

Hare-bell from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

Laing lands in a kindred place. A century and a half after Thoreau contemplated the long cycles of social change and an increment after Zadie Smith reminded us that “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Laing writes after a pilgrimage to Derek Jarman’s grave:

Is art resistance? Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time. It depends what you think a seed does, if it’s tossed into fertile soil. But it seems to me that whatever else you do, it’s worth tending to paradise, however you define it and wherever it arises.

The arc of the moral universe might not be so different from that of the stem bent with bluebells tolling their vernal reminder that change comes in cycles. Every arc, after all, is but a segment of a circle. What it takes to draw our share of it with a steady hand as we try “widening our circles of compassion” without the assurance of immediate results — that is the question we each answer with our lives.

Poet and gardener Ross Gay comes closest to my own answer in his life-tested conviction that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” As I roll in my palm six large seedpods of sea kale — a neglected flowering wonder I discovered on the pages of Derek Jarman’s journal — and thumb them into the moist Brooklyn soil where they may or may not sprout, I find more and more that attention is the elemental unit of time. Each moment we are fully paying attention is an atom of eternity. The quality of our attention measures the quantity of our aliveness — our sole generator of resistance and persistence.

This I know to be true: What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust.

Sea kale (Crambe maritima) by Carl Axel Mangus Lindman, 1901. (Restored archival art, available as a print benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with the poetic neurologist Oliver Sacks on the healing power of gardens, then revisit Laing on life, loss, and the wisdom of rivers.

BP

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end… Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.”

Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence

“In forty years of medical practice,” the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients…: music and gardens.”

Virginia Woolf, savaged by depression throughout and out of her life, arrived at her buoyant epiphany about what it means to be an artist while walking in her garden.

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process.

“It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her scientific-poetic serenade to gardening.

But if modern gardening has a patron saint, it must be the English artist, filmmaker, and LGBT rights activist Derek Jarman (January 31, 1942–February 19, 1994).

Derek Jarman

In 1989, shortly after his HIV diagnosis and his father’s death, Jarman left the bustling pretensions of London for a simple life on the shingled shores of Kent. He took up residence in a former Victorian fisherman’s hut between an old lighthouse and a nuclear power plant on the headland of Dungeness, a newly designated a conservation area. He named it Prospect Cottage, painted the front room a translucent Naples yellow, replaced the ramshackle door with blue velvet curtains, and set about making a garden around the gnarled century-old pear tree rising from the carpet of violets as the larks living in the shingles sang high above him in the grey-blue English sky.

At low tide, he collected some handsome sea-rounded flints washed up after a storm, staked them upright in the garden “like dragon teeth,” and encircled each with twelve small beach pebbles. These rudimentary sundials became his flower beds, into which he planted a wondrous miniature wilderness of species not even half of which I, a growing gardener, have encountered — saxifrage, calendula, rue, camomile, shirley poppy, santolina, nasturtium, dianthus, purple iris, hare-bell, and his favorite: sea kale. (A gorgeous plant new to me, which I immediately researched, procured, and planted in my Brooklyn garden.)

Red poppy from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As the seasons turned and his flowers rose and the AIDS plague felled his friends one by one, Jarman mourned loss after loss, then grounded himself again and again in the irrepressible life of soil and sprout and bud and bloom. The garden, which his Victorian ancestors saw as a source of moral lessons, became his sanctuary of “extraordinary peacefulness” amid the deepest existential perturbations of death, his canvas for creation amid all the destruction.

The record of this healing creative adventure became Jarman’s Modern Nature (public library) — part memoir and part memorial, a reckoning and a redemption, a homecoming to his first great love: gardening. What emerges from the short near-daily entries is a kind of hybrid between Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, Rilke’s Book of Hours, and Thoreau’s philosophical nature journals.

On the last day of February, after planting lavender in a circle of stones he collected from the beach under the clear blue sky, he writes:

Apart from the nagging past — film, sex and London — I have never been happier than last week. I look up and see the deep azure sea outside my window in the February sun, and today I saw my first bumble bee. Plated lavender and clumps of red hot poker.

It is a different garden of Eden he is building on these windblown shores, living with a deadly disease while his friends — his kind, our kind — are dying of it in a world too indifferent to human suffering, too bedeviled by millennia of religion-fomented homophobia. Gardening becomes not only his salvation, but his act of resistance:

Before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.

Honeysuckle from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

Acutely aware that he could finish any moment, that he could be the next to go, Jarman turns his garden into processing ground for grief — a personal grief, a cultural grief, a civilizational grief:

The wind calls my name, Prophesy!

[…]

Time is scattered, the past and the future, the future past and present. Whole lives are erased from the book by the great dictator, the screech of the pen across the page, your name, Prophesy, your name!

But the ultimate gift of gardening is the way it concentrates and consecrates time, grounding the gardener in a present both conscious of and undistracted by the ongoing cycles of seasonality stretching across all past and all future.

Iris by Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In the first week of March, Jarman arrives at what may be the greatest reward of gardening, evocative of poet Ross Gay’s lovely sentiment that time spent gardening is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” He writes:

The gardener digs in another time, without past or future, beginning or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours, lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden you pass into this time — the moment of entering can never be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured. Here is the Amen beyond the prayer.

I am reminded of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s insight about film, Jarman’s primary creative medium — that its raw material and its gift to the viewer is time: “time lost or spent or not yet had.” I am reminded, too, of Seneca, writing two millennia earlier about mastering the existential math of time spent, saved, and wasted — I have found few that better clarify the difference between the three than the quiet lessons of gardening.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

In the garden, Jarman discovers — or rather befriends — the most disquieting byproduct of time: boredom. Half a century after his Nobel-winning compatriot Bertrand Russell placed a capacity for boredom and “fruitful monotony” at the heart of human flourishing, Jarman contemplates his new cottage life away from London’s familiar “traps of notoriety and expectation, of collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune,” and writes:

I have re-discovered my boredom here… where I can fight “what next” with nothing.

His boredom, like all of our boredom, becomes a laboratory for presence — a nursery in which to grow the capacity for paying attention, a studio in which to master the vital art of noticing, out of which our contact with beauty and gladness arises — the wellspring of all that makes life livable. In an entry from the last day of March, Jarman shines the beam of his garden-honed attention directly at the poetics of reality:

Sun a pure white globe in a chalky sky, mist blowing across the Ness in milky veils, silent pussy willow woods the palest pastel yellow luminous in the silvery light.

Hare-bell from The Moral of Flowers by Rebecca Hey, 1833. (Available as a print.)

He finds again and again that the attention of presence and the attention of remembrance are one:

My garden is a memorial, each circular bed a dial and a true lover’s knot — planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.

And so this living temple of the present becomes a memorial of the future past and a monument to conservation. In one of the short poems punctuating his journal, penned as he records news of a government summit on global warming, Jarman addresses a visitor from the barely recognizable future:

to whom it may concern
in the dead stones of a planet
no longer remembered as earth
may he decipher this opaque hieroglyph
perform an archeology of soul
on these precious fragments
all that remains of our vanished days
here — at the sea’s edge
I have planted a stony garden
dragon tooth dolmen spring up
to defend the porch
steadfast warriors

Complement Modern Nature — which I discovered through Olivia Laing’s magnificent essays on art, artists, and the human spirit — with Debbie Millman’s illustrated love letter to gardening and poet-gardener Ross Gay’s yearlong experiment in willful gladness.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2020

A glance over the shoulder of time to reveal the patterns, themes, and ideas that steady us and shelter us in the tempest of life.

Like every year, this annual glance over the shoulder of time is a composite of the essays that most resonated with readers and those I most enjoyed writing, the overlap being always significant but always the Venn diagram of a partial eclipse rather than a perfect totality.

Even more so than other years, in this particularly trying year, it has been curious to observe the patterns that emerge across those ideas, themes, and regions of being that most sustain us in times of crisis: love, trees, poetry, creativity, the stubborn insistence on life in the face of loss, the constancy of nature’s consolations, the revivifying passion to go on making, go on loving, go on living.

* * *

Essential Life-Learnings from 14 Years of Brain Pickings

Read it here.

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Antidotes to Fear of Death: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Astronomer and Poet Rebecca Elson’s Stunning Cosmic Salve for Our Creaturely Tremblings of Heart

Read it here.

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Yes to Life, in Spite of Everything: Viktor Frankl’s Lost Lectures on Moving Beyond Optimism and Pessimism to Find the Deepest Source of Meaning

Read it here.

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Seasons in a Pandemic: Mary Shelley on What Makes Life Worth Living and Nature’s Beauty as a Lifeline to Regaining Sanity

Read it here.

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Creativity in the Time of COVID: Zadie Smith on Writing, Love, and What Echoes Through the Hallway of Time Suddenly Emptied of Habit

Read it here.

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I Long to Read More in the Book of You: Moomins Creator Tove Jansson’s Tender and Passionate Letters to the Love of Her Life

Read it here.

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Bloom: A Touching Animated Short Film about Depression and What It Takes to Recover the Light of Being

Read it here.

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The Cosmic Miracle of Trees: Astronaut Leland Melvin Reads Pablo Neruda’s Love Letter to Earth’s Forests

Read it here.

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Standing on the Shoulders of Solitude: Newton, the Plague, and How Quarantine Fomented the Greatest Leap in Science

Read it here.

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Nick Cave on Living with Loss and the Central Paradox of Grief as a Portal to Aliveness

Read it here.

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Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

Read it here.

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Singularity: Marie Howe’s Ode to Stephen Hawking, Our Cosmic Belonging, and the Meaning of Home, in a Stunning Animated Short Film

Read it here.

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The Radical Act of Letting Things Hurt: How (Not) to Help a Friend in Sorrow

Read it here.

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Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

Read it here.

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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

Read it here.

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What It Takes to Grow Up, What It Means to Have Grown

Read it here.

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The Osbick Bird: Edward Gorey’s Tender and Surprising Vintage Illustrated Allegory About the Meaning of True Love

Read it here.

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A Lifeline for the Hour of Despair: James Baldwin on 4AM, the Fulcrum of Love, and Life as a Moral Obligation to the Universe

Read it here.

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How an Artist is Like a Tree: Paul Klee on Creativity

Read it here.

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How to Live and How to Die

Read it here.

Complement with the year’s most nourishing books.

BP

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