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Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt: Poet Ross Gay’s Subtle, Stunning Meditation on Learning to Live and Learning to Die

In praise of practicing the inevitable through the improbable, the mundane moments when we are “as delicate as we can be in this life.”

Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt: Poet Ross Gay’s Subtle, Stunning Meditation on Learning to Live and Learning to Die

Every act of living is an act of learning to die, of apprenticing ourselves to the loss of this moment, of this collarbone being touched, of this hand doing the touching. If we are thoughtful and tender enough with ourselves, the terror of the loss cusps into transcendence, the grief into gratitude, into a nonspecific gladness enveloping everything that ever was and ever will be, enveloping us in the sense of ourselves as nothing more than particles passing between not yet and no more, nothing less than particular, particulate miracles bewildered and bewildering in their passage.

That is what poet Ross Gay explores with his light and luminous touch in one of the highlights from the fourth annual Universe in Verse, the poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirit” from his altogether resuscitating and resucculating 2015 poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (public library) — the conceptual womb out of his which his prose miracle The Book of Delights was born.

ODE TO BUTTONING AND UNBUTTONING MY SHIRT
by Ross Gay

No one knew or at least
I didn’t know
they knew
what the thin disks
threaded here
on my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly
the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
slowly
top to bottom
or bottom
to top or sometimes
the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
anyway
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this
simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic
this and that
two maybe three
times a day
some days
I have the distinct pleasure
of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life
practicing
like this
giving the raft of our hands
to the clumsy spider
and blowing soft until she
lifts her damp heft and
crawls off
we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.

Couple with a gorgeous poem about how to live and how to die, read by the disparticled human miracle who first ignited my love of poetry and inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show: astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death” with original music by Zoë Keating, Pablo Neruda’s prose ode to the forest, Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about transcending our limiting frames of reference, a stunning tribute to Rachel Carson’s ecological legacy by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and the most beloved piece from all four years of the show: an animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s masterpiece “Singularity.”

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D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

“One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.”

D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

To walk among trees is to be reminded that although relationships weave the fabric of life, one can only be in relationship — in a forest or a family or a friendship — when firmly planted in the sovereignty of one’s own being, when resolutely reaching for one’s own light.

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us this foundation of integrity in his staggeringly beautiful love letter to trees — how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest, yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

A supreme challenge of human life is reconciling the longing to fulfill ourselves in union, in partnership, in love, with the urgency of fulfilling ourselves according to our own solitary and sovereign laws. Writing at the same time as Hesse, living in exile in the mountains, having barely survived an attack of the deadly Spanish Flu that claimed tens of millions of lives, the polymathic creative force D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) took up the question of this divergent longing with great subtlety and splendor of insight in his autobiographically tinted novel Aaron’s Rod (free ebook | public library), rooting the plot’s climactic relationship resolution in a stunning passage about trees.

D.H. Lawrence

At a tea-party, the novel’s protagonist meets the Marchesa del Torre — an American woman from the South, married to an Italian man and living with him in Tuscany; a woman of composure with an edge of beckoning aloofness, “sitting there, full-bosomed, rather sad, remote-seeming,” a kind of modern Cleopatra brooding from under her dark, heavy-hanging hair out of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. She strikes him as “wonderful, and sinister,” affects him “with a touch of horror.” He falls under her spell, drawn to her as we are so often drawn to danger by the magnetic pull of the sublime, with its dipoles of beauty and terror.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s revolutionary illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

When their affair collapses under the weight of its own impossibility, he finds himself — and finds his self, his sovereignty of soul — among the trees. Lawrence writes:

One must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.

[…]

He sat for long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had any trees seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now. As in clairvoyance he perceived it: that our life is only a fragment of the shell of life. That there has been and will be life, human life such as we do not begin to conceive. Much that is life has passed away from men, leaving us all mere bits. In the dark, mindful silence and inflection of the cypress trees, lost races, lost language, lost human ways of feeling and of knowing. Men have known as we can no more know, have felt as we can no more feel. Great life-realities gone into the darkness. But the cypresses commemorate.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane on how trees illuminate the secret to healthy love, Pablo Neruda’s breathtaking love letter to the forest, and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Lawrence on the antidote to the malady of materialism.

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John Lewis on Love, Forgiveness, and the Seedbed of Personal Strength

“Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul… Lean toward the whispers of your own heart… Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge… But when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice.”

John Lewis on Love, Forgiveness, and the Seedbed of Personal Strength

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic conversation about forgiveness. “To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” poet and philosopher David Whyte observed a generation later in considering the measure of maturity — an observation as astute on the scale of individuals as it is on the scale of society. How few of us are capable of such largeness when contracted by hurt, when the clench of injustice has tightened our own fists. And yet in the conscious choice to unclench our hearts and our hands is not only the measure of our courage and our strength, not only the wellspring of compassion for others, but the wellspring of compassion for ourselves and the supreme triumph of personhood. “As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time,” Anne Lamott wrote as she contemplated the relationship between brokenness and joy, “we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.”

Once in a generation, if we are lucky, someone comes about who in every aspect of their being models for us how to do that, how to be that — how to place love at the center, the center that holds solid as all around it breaks, the solid place that becomes the fort of what is unbreakable in us and the fulcrum of change.

John Lewis

Among those rare, miraculous few was John Lewis (February 21, 1940–July 17, 2020), who began his life by preaching to the chickens at his parents’ farm in southern Alabama and went on to teach a nation, a world how to step into that rare courage, that countercultural act of resistance in refusing to stop loving this broken, beautiful world. In every fiber of his being, he upheld that stubborn, splendid refusal as the crucible of justice, of progress, of all that is harmonious and human in us.

If Lewis’s legacy is to be summed up in a succinct way, if his immense and enduring gift to the generations is to be bowed with a single ribbon, it would be these passages from his 2012 memoir Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change (public library):

Our actions entrench the power of the light on this planet. Every positive thought we pass between us makes room for more light. And if we do more than think, then our actions clear the path for even more light. That is why forgiveness and compassion must become more important principles in public life.

A century after Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills” in their extraordinary forgotten correspondence about why we hurt each other and how to stop, Lewis writes:

Anchor the eternity of love in your own soul and embed this planet with goodness. Lean toward the whispers of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won. Choose confrontation wisely, but when it is your time don’t be afraid to stand up, speak up, and speak out against injustice. And if you follow your truth down the road to peace and the affirmation of love, if you shine like a beacon for all to see, then the poetry of all the great dreamers and philosophers is yours to manifest in a nation, a world community, and a Beloved Community that is finally at peace with itself.

Complement with the young poet Marissa Davis’s stunning love letter to the dual courage of facing a broken reality while refusing to cease cherishing this beautiful world, then revisit this lovely picture-book about the childhood experience that shaped Lewis’s character and courage.

HT Morley

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Viktor Frankl on How Music, Nature, and Our Love for Each Other Succor Our Survival and Give Meaning to Our Lives

“Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person and, roughly translates as, The fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and a life in it, meaningful.”

Viktor Frankl on How Music, Nature, and Our Love for Each Other Succor Our Survival and Give Meaning to Our Lives

Who can weigh the ballast of another’s woe, or another’s love? We live — with our woes and our loves, with our tremendous capacity for beauty and our tremendous capacity for suffering — counterbalancing the weight of existence with the irrepressible force of living. The question, always, is what feeds the force and hulls the ballast.

Viktor Frankl (March 26, 1905–September 2, 1997), having lost his mother, his father, and his brother to our civilization’s most colossal moral failure yet, having barely survived himself, Frankl takes up the question of what makes life not only survivable but worthy of living in what now lives as Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything (public library) — a slim, powerful set of lectures he delivered a mere eleven months after the Holocaust, just as he was completing the manuscript of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Tucked into Frankl’s immensely insightful meditations on moving beyond optimism and pessimism to find the deepest source of meaning is a passage of great subtlety and great splendor — a portal to a truth so elemental that it might appear trite if stated merely as an abstract truism, but one which rises titanic and majestic from the crucible of this human being’s unfathomable lived experience.

In a sublime sidewise testament to the singular power of music, which some of humanity’s vastest minds have so memorably extolled, Frankl writes:

It is not only through our actions that we can give life meaning — insofar as we can answer life’s specific questions responsibly — we can fulfill the demands of existence not only as active agents but also as loving human beings: in our loving dedication to the beautiful, the great, the good. Should I perhaps try to explain for you with some hackneyed phrase how and why experiencing beauty can make life meaningful? I prefer to confine myself to the following thought experiment: imagine that you are sitting in a concert hall and listening to your favorite symphony, and your favorite bars of the symphony resound in your ears, and you are so moved by the music that it sends shivers down your spine; and now imagine that it would be possible (something that is psychologically so impossible) for someone to ask you in this moment whether your life has meaning. I believe you would agree with me if I declared that in this case you would only be able to give one answer, and it would go something like: “It would have been worth it to have lived for this moment alone!”

Viktor Frankl

More than a century after Mary Shelley celebrated nature as a lifeline to sanity in considering what makes life worth living in a world savaged by a deadly pandemic, and decades before Tennessee Williams reflected as he approached his own death that “we live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love… love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend,” Frankl adds:

Those who experience, not the arts, but nature, may have a similar response, and also those who experience another human being. Do we not know the feeling that overtakes us when we are in the presence of a particular person and, roughly translates as, The fact that this person exists in the world at all, this alone makes this world, and a life in it, meaningful.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

In how we suffer and how we love, Frankl concludes, is the measure of who and what we are:

How human beings deal with the limitation of their possibilities regarding how it affects their actions and their ability to love, how they behave under these restrictions — the way in which they accept their suffering under such restrictions — in all of this they still remain capable of fulfilling human values.

So, how we deal with difficulties truly shows who we are.

Yes to Life is a slender, spectacular read in its totality. Complement this fragment with Borges on turning trauma misfortune, and humiliation into raw material for art and Whitman, shortly after his paralytic stroke, on what makes life worth living, then revisit Frankl on humor as a lifeline to survival.

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