“Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme,” Maurice Sendak wrote of the great children’s book author and poet Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993), with whom he collaborated on twoof the loveliest, tenderest picture-books of all time.
A quarter century after the end of Krauss’s long life, lost fragments of her daring poetic imagination coalesced into a manuscript that alighted to the desk of one of the great picture-book artists of our own time: Sergio Ruzzier. The resulting collaboration, across lines of space and time and life and death, is the wondrously imaginative Roar Like a Dandelion (public library), the dedication of which, penned by Ruzzier in a spirit of creative kinship and reverence, reads simply: “To Maurice.”
Though structured as an ABC book, in a succession of short sentences each beginning with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, the book is rather an alphabetic catalogue of Krauss’s quirky, free-spirited, infinitely playfully, subtly profound prescriptions for joy and existential contentment.
“Vote for yourself,” Krauss urges under V, as a Ruzzier piglet is seen pledging allegiance to herself — that ultimate act of self-respect, the pillar of character.
“Roar like a dandelion,” she exhorts in the line that lent the book its title, which sits like a Zen koan, to be contemplated from a thousand directions before it can be cracked, suggesting maybe that the mightiest roar is the silent roar; maybe that anger is corrosive to its host, for if a dandelion were indeed to roar, it would blow up its own delicate seedhead and lose all of its fluffy white parachutes of hope; maybe that the dandelion’s yellow burst of blossom, so plentiful if we only pay attention, is nature’s primal scream of joy.
“Make music,” Krauss beckons in consonance with Sendak, who ardently believed that the making of music is the profoundest and most primitive expression of our intrinsic nature.
Page after page, letter by letter, Ruzzier’s sweet, and stubborn creatures leap and tumble along the lines of Krauss’s imagination with their joyous, mischievous magic.
“To see the world beyond the skies, to know the mind behind the eyes…”
By Maria Popova
“You have got a boy mixed of most kindly elements, as perhaps Shakespeare might say. His rapidly and clearly working mind has not in the least spoiled his character,” a school principal wrote at the end of the nineteenth century to the mother of a lanky quiet teenager who would grow up to be the great English astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (December 28, 1882–November 22, 1944) and who would catapult Albert Einstein into celebrity by confirming his relativity theory in his historic eclipse expedition of May 29, 1919.
The centennial of that landmark event, which revolutionized science and united a war-torn humanity under one sky of cosmic truth, was the subject of the third Universe in Verse — the charitable celebration of science through poetry I host each spring at Pioneer Works — and as has been our annual tradition, we had the great honor of an original poem for the occasion by one of the great storytellers of our time: Neil Gaiman.
Born into a family descended from the first Quakers and stretching back four generations of farmers, Stanley — as his mother and sister always called him — learned the multiplication table before he could read and tasked himself with counting the letters of the Bible. By the age of ten, this unusual child who was and would remain very much his own person had observed most of the sky with a 3-inch telescope his headmaster had loaned him.
At twenty, after winning a series of mathematics competitions and scholarships, Eddington entered Trinity College, where he was immediately immersed in the cult of Newton. His peers would later remember him as extremely quiet and reserved, exuding formidable powers of concentration. (Later in life, his awkwardness and aloofness would make some of his students perceive him as arrogant.) In 1904, while Einstein was finalizing his special relativity, the 22-year-old Eddington became the first second-year Trinity student to rise to the top of the undergraduate student body in mathematics — a position known as Senior Wrangler and regarded at the time as “the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.”
At Trinity, Eddington met Charles Trimble. A classmate who also came from a working-class background, this pensive-looking youth with gentle features and neatly combed black hair soon became his most intimate friend. Eddington was an avid cyclist and usually rode alone, but he began going on long rides with Charles, talking about mathematics and literature. Only in Charles’s company, he deviated from his Quaker discipline and took the occasional cheerful drink, smoked the occasional cigarette, went to the theater and the newborn cinema.
Charles eventually took a mathematics post and spiraled into mental illness. Eddington never married, never had another intimate bond. He lived out his days with his sister, Winifred, who also never married. I picture him Turing-like — in his genius, in his misapprehended awkwardness, in his loneliness and heartbreak.
That invisible private side to the public genius is what Gaiman takes up with empathic perceptiveness and great tenderness in his poem, celebrating what he calls these “twin suns” of Eddington’s life and, through the diffraction that is all great art, celebrating the twin suns of the public self and the private self, of genius and loneliness, of intellectual heroism and emotional heartbreak, that shine in varying degrees on every human life.
IN TRANSIT (for Arthur Eddington) by Neil Gaiman
To find the many in the one
he sweated under foreign skies
to see the stars behind the sun.
So space and time were now undone
reality was undisguised.
We found the many in the one.
There is no photograph, not one,
that shows the mind behind the eyes.
He saw the stars behind the sun.
Not with a sword, or knife, or gun,
a simple picture severed ties.
He found the many in the one.
Light bends around us. So we run,
as gravity reclassifies
the stars we saw behind the sun.
To see the world beyond the skies,
to know the mind behind the eyes,
To find the many in the one
he showed us stars behind the sun.
Unfucked, or anyway retiring,
in the awkward sense. Retirement will never be an option.
The gruff gentleman with the cap who understands
what the numbers mean
remembers a bicycle ride when he was younger.
The smoke of the cigarettes he does not smoke kicks at his lungs
mixing with the buzz of the booze he doesn’t ever drink
a convivial pint after the ride into the country gave him such a thirst.
And afterwards they lay on their back in the stubble
staring up at the stars. Together. All the stars
Countable as the words in a Bible,
countable as the hairs on his friend’s head,
all accountable, and that is why they never truly touched.
The shadow of prison or disgrace perhaps moving between them
like the shadow of an eclipse.
And, in another life, at another time,
to see the stars behind the sun,
he takes his photographs
fighting the cloud cover. Becoming
the thing that happened in Principe.
when he proved that the German was right,
that light had weight,
half a year after the Armistice.
A populariser, but not courting popularity.
Somewhen a boy is counting stars.
Somewhen a man is photographing light.
Somewhen his finger strokes the stubble on another’s cheek,
and for a moment everything is relative.
Complement with Gaiman’s superb original poems from the first two years of The Universe in Verse — “The Mushroom Hunters” (2017), a subversive celebration of the history of women in science, which won the Rhysling Award for Best Long Poem; and “After Silence” (2018), a tribute to the life and legacy of Rachel Carson — then revisit the touching, improbable story of how Eddington confirmed relativity.
“I am the reason the birds are missing… I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen… I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order.”
By Maria Popova
“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” the visionary marine biologist and lyrical author Rachel Carson wrote as she was making ecology a household word and getting ready to awaken the modern environmental conscience with her epoch-making book Silent Spring.
Silent Spring was titled after the book’s most chilling chapter, detailing the gruesome mass deaths of songbirds in pesticide-assaulted habitats, inspired by a verse from a classic ballad of heartbreak by Carson’s favorite poet, John Keats — “The sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing!” — for she saw no greater heartbreak than the deadly silencing of Mother Nature. In her bittersweet farewell to the world — Carson never lived to see her work inspire the creation of Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency — she beckoned posterity, beckoned us, to face our “grave and sobering responsibility [which] is also a shining opportunity”; to “go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”
Playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler — who is perhaps as close as an artist can get to being a cultural superhero: redeemer of the unspeakable, voice of the unspoken, instrument not only of social change but of that “revelation in the heart” (to borrow Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase) where all change begins — lifts the blindfold in an extraordinary letter of apology to Mother Earth. Ensler composed the letter as an addendum of sorts to her altogether magnificent book The Apology (public library), read it at Bioneers, then kindly granted me the honor of premiering it to the Brain Pickings ecosystem.
Ensler contextualizes her courageous self-inspection in the disquieting mirror of personal responsibility, where any atonement must begin:
After I finished writing The Apology, a book in which I wrote a letter from my father to myself apologizing and exploring, explaining in detail all the ways he had abused and harmed me, I realized there was an apology I needed to make — an apology that would force me to confront my deepest sorrow, guilt and shame, an apology that I had been avoiding since I moved out of the city to the woods where I now live with the oaks, locust and weeping willows, Lydia the snapping turtle, running spring water, foxes, deer, coyotes, bears and cardinals and my precious dog, Pablo. It is my offering to you. It is my apology to the Earth, herself.
The letter, consonant with Whitman’s insistence that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” evocative of Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” is a masterwork of empathy, that highest measure of consciousness. Its gift is the selfsame gift for which the Trappist monk and teacher Thomas Merton thanked Rachel Carson in his gorgeous letter of appreciation after reading Silent Spring — the gift of civilizational self-awareness.
It began with the article about the birds, the 2.9 billion missing North America birds, the 2.9 billion birds that disappeared and no one noticed. The sparrows, black birds, and swallows who didn’t make it, who weren’t ever born, who stopped flying or singing or making their most ingenious nests, who didn’t perch or peck their gentle beaks into moist black earth. It began with the birds. Hadn’t we even commented in June, James and I that they were hardly here? A kind of eerie quiet had descended. But later they came back. The swarms of barn swallows and the huge ravens landing on the gravel one by one. I know it was after hearing about the birds, that afternoon I crashed my bike. Suddenly falling, falling, unable to prevent the catastrophe ahead, unable to find the brakes or make them work, unable to stop the falling. I fell and spun and realized I had already been falling, that we have been falling, all of us, and crows and conifers and ice caps and expectations — falling and falling and I wanted to keep falling. I didn’t want to be here to witness everything falling, missing, bleaching, burning, drying, disappearing, choking, never blooming. I didn’t want to live without the birds or bees and sparkling flies that light the summer nights. I didn’t want to live with hunger that turned us feral or desperation that gave us claws. I wanted to fall and fall into the deepest, darkest ground and be finally still and buried there.
But Mother, you had other plans. The bike landed in grass and dirt and bang, I was ten-years-old, fallen in the road, my knees scraped and bloody. And I realized that even then nature was something foreign and cruel, something that could and would hurt me because everything I had ever known or loved that was grand and powerful and beautiful became foreign and cruel and eventually hurt me. Even then I had already been exiled, or so I felt, forever cast out of the forest. I belonged with the broken, the contaminated, the dead.
Maybe it was the sharp pain in my knee and elbow, or the dirt embedded in my new jacket, maybe it was the shock or the realization that death was preferable to the thick tar of grief coagulated in my chest, or maybe it was just the lonely rattling of the spokes of the bicycle wheel still spinning without me. Whatever it was. It broke. It broke. I heard the howling.
Mother, I am the reason the birds are missing. I am the cause of salmon who cannot spawn and the butterflies unable to take their journey home. I am the coral reef bleached death white and the sea boiling with methane. I am the millions running from lands that have dried, forests that are burning or islands drowned in water.
I didn’t see you, Mother. You were nothing to me. My trauma-made arrogance and ambition drove me to that cracking pulsing city. Chasing a dream, chasing the prize, the achievement that would finally prove I wasn’t bad or stupid or nothing or wrong. Oh my Mother, what contempt I had for you. What did you have to offer that would give me status in the market place of ideas and achieving? What could your bare trees offer but the staggering aloneness of winter or greenness I could not receive or bear. I reduced you to weather, an inconvenience, something that got in my way, dirty slush that ruined my overpriced city boots with salt. I refused your invitation, scorned your generosity, held suspicion for your love. I ignored all the ways we used and abused you. I pretended to believe the stories of the fathers who said you had to be tamed and controlled — that you were out to get us.
I press my bruised body down on your grassy belly, breathing me in and out. I have missed you, Mother. I have been away so long. I am sorry. I am so sorry.
I am made of dirt and grit and stars and river, skin, bone, leaf, whiskers and claws. I am a part of you, of this, nothing more or less. I am mycelium, petal pistil and stamen. I am branch and hive and trunk and stone. I am what has been here and what is coming. I am energy and I am dust. I am wave and I am wonder. I am an impulse and an order. I am perfumed peonies and the single parasol tree in the African savannah. I am lavender, dandelion, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, chrysanthemum, pansy, bleeding heart and rose. I am all that has been named and unnamed, all that has been gathered and all that has been left alone. I am all your missing creatures, all the sweet birds never born. I am daughter. I am caretaker. I am fierce defender. I am griever. I am bandit. I am baby. I am supplicant. I am here now, Mother. I am yours. I am yours. I am yours.
On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. It was then, and continues to be, a labor of love and ledger of curiosity, although the mind and heart from which it sprang have changed — have grown, I hope — tremendously. At the end of the first decade, I told its improbable origin story and drew from its evolution the ten most important things this all-consuming daily endeavor taught me about writing and living — largely notes to myself, perhaps best thought of as resolutions in reverse, that may or may not be useful to others.
Now, as Brain Pickings turns thirteen — the age at which, at least in the Germanic languages, childhood tips to adolescence; the age at which I first competed in the European Math Olympics; the legal marriage age in my homeland; the number of British colonies that germinated the United States; the number of moons revolving around Neptune; a handsome prime number — I feel compelled to add three more learnings from the past three years, which have been in some ways the most difficult and in some ways the most beautiful of my life; the years in which I made the things of which I am proudest: created The Universe in Verse, composed Figuring, and finally published, after eight years of labor, A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken. Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?
When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.
Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.
And here are the three new additions, which refine some of the subtler ideas and ideals contemplated above:
A reflection originally offered on the cusp of Year 11, by way of a wonderful poem about pi: Question your maps and models of the universe, both inner and outer, and continually test them against the raw input of reality. Our maps are still maps, approximating the landscape of truth from the territories of the knowable — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.
Because Year 12 is the year in which I finished writing Figuring (though it emanates from my entire life), and because the sentiment, which appears in the prelude, is the guiding credo to which the rest of the book is a 576-page footnote, I will leave it as it stands: There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.
In any bond of depth and significance, forgive, forgive, forgive. And then forgive again. The richest relationships are lifeboats, but they are also submarines that descend to the darkest and most disquieting places, to the unfathomed trenches of the soul where our deepest shames and foibles and vulnerabilities live, where we are less than we would like to be. Forgiveness is the alchemy by which the shame transforms into the honor and privilege of being invited into another’s darkness and having them witness your own with the undimmed light of love, of sympathy, of nonjudgmental understanding. Forgiveness is the engine of buoyancy that keeps the submarine rising again and again toward the light, so that it may become a lifeboat once more.
And since Brain Pickings is the public record of what I privately think and feel and worry and wonder about daily, here is a time machine of thought and feeling via thirteen of the pieces I have most enjoyed writing these past thirteen years: