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The Book of Delights: Poet and Gardener Ross Gay’s Yearlong Experiment in Willful Gladness

“The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.”

The Book of Delights: Poet and Gardener Ross Gay’s Yearlong Experiment in Willful Gladness

“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poet Ross Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”

Ross Gay in his beloved community garden

Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.

Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.

Photograph by Maria Popova

He writes:

Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.

In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:

It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.

He writes:

When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:

For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.

One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:

I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Perhaps the most charming category of delights Gay encounters throughout the year are what he terms “unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers.” One September day, wandering through a small town in Indiana where he had just given a poetry reading at the local college and where “Make America Great Again” signs glare from an auto-shop selling foreign cars, he records this:

While I was working, headphones on, swaying to the new De La Soul record (delight, which deserves its own entry), I noticed a white girl — she looked fifteen, but could’ve been, I suppose, a college student — standing next to me with her hand raised. I looked up, confused, pulled my headphones back, and she said, like a coach or something, “Working on your paper?! Good job to you! High five!” And you better believe I high-fived that child in her preripped Def Leppard shirt and her itty-bitty Doc Martens. For I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.

A few months ago, walking down the street in Umbertide, in Italy, a trash truck pulled up beside me and the guy in the passenger’s seat yelled something I didn’t understand. I said, “Como,” the Spanish word for “come again,” which is a ridiculous thing to say because even if he had come again I wouldn’t have understood him. He knew this, and hopping out of the truck to dump in a couple cans, he flexed his muscles, pointed at me, and smacked my biceps hard. Twice! I loved him! Or when a waitress puts her hand on my shoulder. (Forget it if she calls me honey. Baby even better.) Or someone scooting by puts their hand on my back. The handshake. The hug. I love them both.

Art by Simona Ciraolo from Hug Me

And then there are his parenthetical meta-delights — parentheses applied, in proper Lewis Thomas fashion, as containers of delight, wherein the container itself is delightful. For instance, this:

(A delight that we can heal our loved ones, even the dead ones.) Oh broken. Oh beautiful.

Or this, nestled into his Indiana-small-town experience:

(A feature of the small-town Midwest: a city-hallish building in the center, always with some sad statue trumpeting one war or another. This one had a guy in one of those not-very-protective-looking hats they called a helmet during WWI. He’s carrying, naturally, a gun. Jena Osman’s book Public Figures alerted me to the ubiquity of the gun, the weapon, in the hands of our statues. A delight I wish to now imagine and even impose, given that beneficent dictatorship [of one’s own life, anyway] is a delight, all new statues must have in their hands flowers or shovels or babies or seedlings or chinchillas — we could go on like this for a while. But never again — never ever — guns. I decree it, and also decree the removal of the already extant guns. Let the emptiness our war heroes carry be the metaphor for a while.)

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

This transmutation of terror into transcendence haunts the book as a guiding spirit. In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:

I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.

[…]

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.

[…]

It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement the infinitely delightful Book of Delights with poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s lovely picture-book about happiness as a daily practice of noticing and Michael McCarthy’s meditation on nature and the serious work of joy, then revisit Bill T. Jones’s spellbinding Universe in Verse performance of one of Ross Gay’s poems.

BP

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

“In much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.”

Kahlil Gibran on Silence, Solitude, and the Courage to Know Yourself

Something strange and wondrous begins to happen when one spends stretches of time in solitude, in the company of trees, far from the bustle of the human world with its echo chamber of judgments and opinions — a kind of rerooting in one’s deepest self-knowledge, a relearning of how to simply be oneself, one’s most authentic self. Wendell Berry knew this when he observed that “true solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation” — the places where “one’s inner voices become audible.”

But that inner voice, I have found, exists in counterpoise to the outer voice — the more we are tasked with speaking, with orienting lip and ear to the world without, the more difficult it becomes to hear the hum of the world within and feel its magmatic churns of self-knowledge. “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in in her superb poetic, philosophical, feminist more-than-translation of the Tao te Ching.

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait

Two and a half millennia after Lao Tzu, and a century before Le Guin and Berry, Kahlil Gibran (January 6, 1883–April 10, 1931) — another philosopher-poet of the highest order and most timeless hold — addressed the relationship between silence, solitude, and self-knowledge in a portion of his 1923 classic The Prophet (public library).

When Gibran’s prophet-protagonist is asked to address the matter of talking, he responds:

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

One of Andrea Dezsö’s haunting illustrations for the original, uncensored edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Echoing Hermann Hesse’s insistence on the courage necessary for solitude, Gibran’s prophet adds:

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

Complement this fragment of the The Prophet — an abidingly rewarding read in its totality — with sound ecologist Gordon Hempton on the art of listening in a noisy world and Paul Goodman on the nine kinds of silence, then revisit Gibran on the building blocks of true friendship, the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and what may be the finest advice ever offered on parenting and on the balance of intimacy and independence in a healthy relationship.

BP

Delight as a Daily Practice: A Poetic Illustrated Meditation on the Meaning of Happiness and Its Quiet Everyday Sources

A lovely countercultural invitation to savor the unpurchasable joys with which the world is strewn.

Delight as a Daily Practice: A Poetic Illustrated Meditation on the Meaning of Happiness and Its Quiet Everyday Sources

“What is your idea of perfect happiness?” asks the famous Proust Questionnaire. Posed to David Bowie, he answered simply: “Reading.” Jane Goodall answered: “Sitting by myself in the forest in Gombe National Park watching one of the chimpanzee mothers with her family.” Proust himself answered: “To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater.”

The touching specificity of these answers and the subtle universality pulsing beneath them reveal the most elemental truth about happiness: that there are as many flavors of it as there are consciousnesses capable of registering it, and that it is a universally delicious necessity of life, which we crave from the day we are born until the day we die. And yet, as Albert Camus lamented, “happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it.”

Half a century later, as we wade through a world that gives us ample reason for sorrow, as existential credibility seems meted out on the basis of how loudly one broadcasts one’s disadvantage, the savoring of happiness has become an almost countercultural activity — an act of courage and resistance, and one the practice of which is a whole life’s work, as George Eliot well knew when she observed that “one has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.” Why, then, not make the learning of happiness as essential a part of young people’s education as the learning of arithmetic? Or even stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in deeming it our moral obligation?

All of that — the personal nature of happiness, the daily practice of it, its centrality to participating meaningfully in the world — is what poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie explores in her vibrant and vitalizing picture-book debut, Layla’s Happiness (public library), illustrated by artist Ashleigh Corrin.

Like Sylvia Plath, who composed The Bed Book for her own children, Tallie — who describes herself in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader as “the mother of three galaxies who look like daughters” — has written the book for her youngest galaxy, the book she wished she’d had to read to the elder two.

Tallie constructs the story like a good poem, where the personal is the most welcoming gateway to the universal. We see seven-year-old Layla — whose name means “night beauty” — tally her exuberant everyday sources of happiness.

Happiness leaps at Layla from the color purple, from the succulence of fresh plums, from the constellations of the night sky, from the mischievous delight of slurping spaghetti without a fork. It unspools from her lips as she hums while feeding the chickens at the community garden and names all the trees and greets the neighbors at the farmers’ market where she sells the vegetable she has grown from seeds. It pours forth from the poetry her mother reads to her under a makeshift tent and from the tales her father tells her of his own childhood in the South.

There is a heartening countercultural undertone to the book — these happinesses are not things to be purchased at the store or attained with a click, but embodiments of what Hermann Hesse held up as “the little joys” at the heart of a rich life lived with presence, the simple delights Wendell Berry’s childhood friend Nick savored even amid his hardship.

The book ends with an open question to the reader — a gentle bow to the sundry, deeply personal meaning of happiness.

Complement the exuberant Layla’s Happiness — which comes from my friends at Enchanted Lion, makers of such largehearted and unusual treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — with Matt de la Peña and Loren Long’s illustrated celebration of the many meanings of love, then revisit Walt Whitman’s most direct reflection on happiness and Willa Cather’s delicious definition of it.

Page illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Wendell Berry on Delight as a Force of Resistance to Consumerism, the Key to Mirth Under Hardship, and the Measure of a Rich Life

“The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom… is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.”

Wendell Berry on Delight as a Force of Resistance to Consumerism, the Key to Mirth Under Hardship, and the Measure of a Rich Life

“I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead as they sat down together to reimagine democracy for a post-consumerist world. A generation later, the poet, farmer, and ecological steward Wendell Berry — a poet in the largest Baldwinian sense — picked up the time-escalated quarrel in his slim, large-spirited book The Hidden Wound (public library) to offer, without looking away from its scarring realities, a healing and conciliatory direction of resistance to a culture in which our enjoyment of life is taken from us by the not-enoughness at the hollow heart of consumerism, only to be sold back to us at the price of the latest product, and sold in discriminating proportion along lines of stark income inequality.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

Berry writes:

It occurs to me that, for a man whose life from the beginning has been conditioned by the lives of black people, I have had surprisingly little to say about them in my other writings. Perhaps this is justifiable — there is certainly no requirement that a writer deal with any particular subject — and yet it has been an avoidance. When I have written about them before I have felt that I was doing little more than putting down a mark, leaving an opening, that I would later have to go back to and fill. For whatever reasons, good or bad, I have been unwilling until now to open in myself what I have known all along to be a wound — a historical wound, prepared centuries ago to come alive in me at my birth like a hereditary disease, and to be augmented and deepened by my life.

Berry recounts growing up around a black man named Nick, who worked for Berry’s grandfather. Nick, to whom he dedicates the book, was a benediction of presence during Berry’s most formative years — a hard-working man with a buoyant imagination and an uncommonly cheerful mindset. The small child befriended the large fifty-something man with the ardor of kinship chosen and not dictated by blood. Berry recalls his love of Nick with sweetness undiminished by the flight of decades:

One of my two or three chief ambitions was to be with him… I dogged his steps. So faithful a follower, and so young and self-important and venturesome as I was, I must have been a trial to him. But he never ran out of patience.

This bond had a deep impact on Berry as a writer and a human being, shaping both his poetry and the personhood from which it springs. He reflects:

The great benefit in my childhood friendship with Nick… was not an experience of sympathy, though that was involved and was essential, but a prolonged intense contact with lives and minds radically unlike my own, and radically unlike any other that I might have known as a white child among white adults. They don’t figure in my memory and in my thoughts about them as objects of pity, but rather as friends and teachers, ancestors you could say, the forebears of certain essential strains in my thinking.

Art by R. Gregory Christie from Freedom in Congo Square by poet Carole Boston Weatherford

From Nick, who had been working hard since childhood for the smallest of wages and with the slimmest of prospects for living any other way, Berry learned one of the hardest, most beautiful truths about living a rich life — a kind of existential contemplative practice of inclining the mind, whatever the conditions of the body, toward delight. A century after Hermann Hesse placed attendance to life’s little joys at the center of living with gladsome presence, Berry writes:

There were two heavy facts that Nick accepted and lived with: life is hard, full of work and pain and weariness, and at the end of it a man has got to go farther than he can imagine from any place he knows. And yet within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all. There were the elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm again after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot. There was pleasure to be taken in good work animals, as long as you remembered the bother and irritation of using the other kind. There was pleasure in the appetites and in the well-being of good animals. There was pleasure in quitting work. There were certain pleasures in the work itself. There was pleasure in hunting and in going to town, and in visiting and in having company. There was pleasure in observing and remembering the behavior of things, and in telling about it. There was pleasure in knowing where a fox lived, and in planning to run it, and in running it. And… Nick knew how to use his mind for pleasure; he remembered and thought and pondered and imagined. He was a master of what William Carlos Williams called the customs of necessity.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

In a sentiment evocative of Kurt Vonnegut’s short poem about the secret of happiness and of Viktor Frankl’s hard-earned conviction that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Berry adds:

In these times one contemplates it with the same sense of hope with which one contemplates the sunrise or the coming of spring: the image of a man who has labored all his life and will labor to the end, who has no wealth, who owns little, who has no hope of changing, who will never “get somewhere” or “be somebody,” and who is yet rich in pleasure, who takes pleasure in the use of his mind! Isn’t this the very antithesis of the thing that is breaking us in pieces? Isn’t there a great rare humane strength in this — this humble possibility that all our effort and aspiration is to deny?

Berry takes great care to address the reasonable objection that, given his position as a white man of moderately comfortable means, his portrait of Nick may be misconstrued as romanticizing poverty. (Baldwin acknowledged a kindred objection in contrasting the warmhearted poor of Istanbul with the wealthy but unsympathetic Swiss he had encountered during his relatively privileged life in Europe.) “I am uncomfortably aware,” Berry notes, “of the dangers and difficulties in a white man’s attempt to write so intimately of the life of a black man out of a child’s memories a quarter of a century old.” And yet, across this vast ocean of time and difference, Berry lands on shared shore of tremendous, boldly countercultural wisdom:

This much is clear to me: insofar as I am capable of feeling such pleasures as I believe Nick felt, I am strong; insofar as I am dependent on the pleasures made available by my salary and the things I own, I am weak. I feel much more secure in those pleasures for which I am dependent on the world, as Nick was for most of his, than in those for which I am dependent on the government or on a power company or on the manufacturers of appliances. And I am far from conceding anything to those who assume that the poor or anyone else can be improved by recourse to that carnival of waste and ostentation and greed known as “our high standard of living.” As Thoreau so well knew, and so painstakingly tried to show us, what a man most needs is not a knowledge of how to get more, but a knowledge of the most he can do without, and of how to get along without it. The essential cultural discrimination is not between having and not having or haves and have-nots, but between the superfluous and the indispensable. Wisdom, it seems to me, is always poised upon the knowledge of minimums; it might be thought to be the art of minimums.

Complement this excerpt from The Hidden Wound — a powerful, tenderhearted, and increasingly necessary read in its entirety — with Baldwin and Mead’s contemporary E.F. Schumacher’s paradigm-challenging vision for Buddhist economics and Bertrand Russell on the relationship between work, leisure, and social justice, then revisit Berry on how to be a poet and a complete human being and Amanda Palmer’s reading of his stunningly prescient poem “Questionnaire.”

Thanks, Courtney

BP

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