“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.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
By Maria Popova
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.