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Stephen Jay Gould’s Charming Poem for Oliver Sacks’s Birthday, Read by Bill Hayes

In loving praise of “this man, who’s in love with a cycad but once could have starred in a bike ad.”

“Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood,” Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) wrote in looking back on his extraordinary life during what he knew would be his final year. For decades, he celebrated his dual love of chemistry and birthdays by acquiring a physical form of the chemical element with the periodic table number corresponding to the age he was turning that year.

On Sacks’s gadolinium birthday in 1997, the great science writer Stephen Jay Gould composed a very bad, very lovely poem celebrating his friend’s scientific loves and lovable eccentricities. This playful cascade of allusions to Sacks’s influential books and the singular enchantments of his personhood appears in On the Move (public library) — Sacks’s sublime memoir of a life fully lived, in which he recounts Gould’s warm generosity in hosting birthday parties, writing birthday poems, and always baking a birthday cake using his mother’s recipe.

Stephen Jay Gould (left) and Oliver Sacks (photograph by Bill Hayes from Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me.)

At the inaugural Universe in Verse, science writer and photographer Billy Hayesthe love of Sacks’s life and the author of the beautiful memoir Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me — read Gould’s charming poem and prefaced it with an affectionate remembrance of its subject. Please enjoy:

FOR OLIVER’S BIRTHDAY, 1997
by Stephen Jay Gould

This man, who’s in love with a cycad
But once could have starred in a bike ad
King of multidiversity
Hip! Happy birth-i-day
You exceed what old Freud, past head psych, had.
One legg’d, migrained, color blinded
Awak’ning on Mars, and hat-minded
Oliver Sacks
Still lives life to the max
While his swimming leaves dolphins behinded.

For more of Sacks’s extraordinary and irreplaceable spirit, revisit his wisdom on narrative as the pillar of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, and the paradoxical power of music, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse, including astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel, Rosanne Cash reading Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, poet Marie Howe reading her touching tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, generously composed bespoke for The Universe in Verse and a winner of the 2018 Rhysling Award for best long poem.

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An Illustrated Meditation on the Many Meanings and Manifestation of Love

“The man in rags outside the subway station plays love notes that lift into the sky like tiny beacons of light.”

An Illustrated Meditation on the Many Meanings and Manifestation of Love

“What is love?” Kafka asked in contemplating love and the power of patience. “After all, it is quite simple,” he answered his own question. “Love is everything which enhances, widens, and enriches our life. In its heights and in its depths. Love has as few problems as a motor-car. The only problems are the driver, the passengers, and the road.”

Behind the comical quip lies a common strain of cynicism. One need not be as profoundly defeated by love as Kafka to default to this achingly human form of self-defense — for cynicism is, after all, a maladaptive coping mechanism when we feel the threat of disappointment and heartbreak. I take a less cynical perspective and stand with J.D. McClatchy: “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.” And in those moments when the heart stands on the brink of breakage, I like to revise Borges’s timeless reflection on the nature of time, substituting love for time to produce a sentiment of equally exquisite profundity: “Love is the substance I am made of. Love 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.”

Perhaps the truest and most abiding thing about love is that it means different things to each of us, and presents itself in myriad different guises.

That splendid multiplicity of manifestations is what author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Loren Long explore with uncommon loveliness in a book simply titled Love (public library) — a testament to my long-held conviction that great “children’s” books are simply great books, imaginative and intelligible to young readers, replete with soulful wisdom that spills into what we grownups call philosophy.

In the beginning there is light and two wide-eyed figures standing near the foot of your bed, and the sound of their voices is love.

The book is as a mosaic of vignettes, each unfolding against the backdrop of the New York City skyline and capturing a particular tessellation of love, addressed in the second person to a child who transmogrifies across ages, genders, ethnicities, and faiths across the pages — a small black boy whose older brother hands him breakfast as they watch their father take the bus to work in the blizzard at dawn; a small Latina girl clutching her teddy bear as terrifying news streams into the family living room under the blessing glances of Frida Kahlo and Jesus Christ; a Muslim girl laying in an open field of flowers, drinking in the love of the trees and the wind and the universe; a little white boy curled with his dog under the grand piano of a lavish home, looking small and lonely and afraid as his father rages and his mother cries; a young black girl searching her own beautiful eyes in the bathroom mirror — all discovering the various meanings and manifestations of love, braided of sweetness and difficulty and simple gladness.

A cabdriver plays love softly on his radio while you bounce in back with the bumps of the city and everything smells new, and it smells like life.

Love is the embrace of a mother after a bad dream, and a grandfather’s creased face, and a father dancing with his daughter atop their mobile home overlooking a clothesline and the ocean sunset, and the old lady pointing to the sky with reverence for the steadfast stars.

Love, too, is the smell of crashing waves, and a train whistling blindly in the distance, and each night the sky above your trailer turns the color of love.

On the night the fire alarm blares, you’re pulled from sleep and whisked into the street, where a quiet old lady is pointing to the sky.

“Stars shine long after they’ve flamed out,” she tells you, “and the shine they shine with love.”

One day you find your family nervously huddled around the TV, but when you ask what happened, they answer with silence and shift between you and the screen.

And in time you learn to recognize a love overlooked. A love that wakes at dawn and rides to work on the bus. A slice of burned toast that tastes like love.

And the man in rags outside the subway station plays love notes that lift into the sky like tiny beacons of light.

Complement the throughly wonderful Love with philosopher Skye Cleary on why we love, John Steinbeck’s letter of advice on love to his teenage son, philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how you know whether you love somebody, and Jessica Strand’s enchanting illustrated collection of classic love poems, then dive into this growing archive of beautiful love letters.

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Pioneering Feminist Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on Loneliness, Friendship, and the Courage of Unwavering Affection

“Friendship… requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose.”

Pioneering Feminist Philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft on Loneliness, Friendship, and the Courage of Unwavering Affection

“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us,” Adrienne Rich observed in her exquisite meditation on the art of honorable human relationships shortly before we began commodifying the word friend by egregious misuse and overuse in the hands of so-called social media. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in contemplating how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship.

A century before Mitchell and two centuries before Rich, another trailblazing woman — the British philosopher and political theorist Mary Wollstonecraft (April 27, 1759–September 10, 1797) — considered the complexities of friendship and companionship in her 1796 book Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (public library | free ebook), composed four years after she ignited the feminist consciousness with her landmark treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman and shortly after she attempted suicide in the wake of heartbreak.

Part travelogue and part memoir, exploring subjects spanning from beauty and the sublime to divorce laws and prison reform, this collection of twenty-five pieces drawn from Wollstonecraft’s diaries and letters to her lover inspired readers to travel to Scandinavia and influenced the titans of Romantic poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge. A year after its publication, Wollstonecraft would die of complications from childbirth after bringing future Frankenstein author Mary Shelley into the world.

Mary Wollstonecraft shortly before her death. Portrait by John Opie.

In the twelfth letter, having left Norway’s Tønsberg for the next stop on her journey, Wollstonecraft considers how it is possible to arrive at a place with “a sort of emancipation” and yet suffer a hollowing loneliness in the absence of loved ones:

I dreaded the solitariness of my apartment, and wished for night to hide the starting tears, or to shed them on my pillow, and close my eyes on a world where I was destined to wander alone. Why has nature so many charms for me — calling forth and cherishing refined sentiments, only to wound the breast that fosters them? … Self-applause is a cold solitary feeling, that cannot supply the place of disappointed affection, without throwing a gloom over every prospect, which, banishing pleasure, does not exclude pain. I reasoned and reasoned; but my heart was too full to allow me to remain in the house, and I walked, till I was wearied out, to purchase rest — or rather forgetfulness.

From this paradoxical place of emancipation and loneliness, she laments the common pitfall of friendship and companionship:

Friendship is in general sincere at the commencement, and lasts whilst there is anything to support it; but as a mixture of novelty and vanity is the usual prop, no wonder if it fall with the slender stay.

Lasting relationships, Wollstonecraft argues, require a certain courage and tenacity of affection after the novelty and the flattery of the other person’s attention wear out:

Friendship and domestic happiness are continually praised; yet how little is there of either in the world, because it requires more cultivation of mind to keep awake affection, even in our own hearts, than the common run of people suppose. Besides, few like to be seen as they really are; and a degree of simplicity, and of undisguised confidence, which, to uninterested observers, would almost border on weakness, is the charm, nay the essence of love or friendship, all the bewitching graces of childhood again appearing… I therefore like to see people together who have an affection for each other; every turn of their features touches me, and remains pictured on my imagination in indelible characters.

She revisits the subject in the seventeenth letter. After noting that under Swedish law, both husband and wife can easily obtain a divorce if they can prove the infidelity of the other party — not the case in England, where divorce at the time was readily available only to the rich and of great difficulty for women — Wollstonecraft writes:

Affection requires a firmer foundation than sympathy, and few people have a principle of action sufficiently stable to produce rectitude of feeling; for in spite of all the arguments I have heard to justify deviations from duty, I am persuaded that even the most spontaneous sensations are more under the direction of principle than weak people are willing to allow.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark is a beautiful and at times harrowing read, replete with insight into such facets of existence as gender, identity, politics, death, the building blocks of character, and the essential elements of social change. Complement this particular portion with Seneca on true and false friendship, Aristotle on the art of human connection, and John O’Donohue on the ancient Celtic notion of soul friend, then revisit Wollstonecraft on the power of the imagination in human relationships.

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How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

“Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

“If you can fall in love again and again,” Henry Miller wrote as he contemplated the measure of a life well lived on the precipice of turning eighty, “if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical… you’ve got it half licked.”

Seven years earlier, the great British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) considered the same abiding question at the same life-stage in a wonderful short essay titled “How to Grow Old,” penned in his eighty-first year and later published in Portraits from Memory and Other Essays (public library).

bertrandrussell3
Bertrand Russell

Russell places at the heart of a fulfilling life the dissolution of the personal ego into something larger. Drawing on the longstanding allure of rivers as existential metaphors, he writes:

Make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river — small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.

In a sentiment which philosopher and comedian Emily Levine would echo in her stirring reflection on facing her own death with equanimity, Russell builds on the legacy of Darwin and Freud, who jointly established death as an organizing principle of modern life, and concludes:

The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.

Portraits from Memory and Other Essays is an uncommonly potent packet of wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with Nobel laureate André Gide on how happiness increases with age, Ursula K. Le Guin on aging and what beauty really means, and Grace Paley on the art of growing older — the loveliest thing I’ve ever read on the subject — then revisit Russell on critical thinking, power-knowledge vs. love-knowledge, what “the good life” really means, why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, and his remarkable response to a fascist’s provocation.

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