“In the ocean the silence / moves and moves / and so much is unnecessary…”
By Maria Popova
In her arresting poem “Renascence,” Edna St. Vincent Millay elegized “the ticking of Eternity.” But while the notion of eternity has animated artists since the dawn of art, its precise ticking did not come to the forefront of scientific interest until the discovery of the first fossils — those emissaries of eternity, which revealed for the first time that the Earth was much older than previously thought. Instrumental in this new way of thinking about the age and nature of our planet were the discoveries of a self-taught Victorian fossil hunter named Mary Anning (May 21, 1799–March 9, 1847) — the first person to discover and correctly identify the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, an enormous prehistoric marine reptile.
This eternal question of eternity and the larger questions it unlatches in us is what Pulitzer-winning poet and former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove explores in her poem “The Fish in the Stone,” found in her Collected Poems: 1974–2004 (public library).
At the second annual Universe in Verse, cellist, composer, and music revolutionary Zoë Keating — whose music has powered so much of my writing over the years and who has a personal connection to Mary Anning — read Dove’s poem, immediately following NASA astrophysicist Natalie Batalha’s electrifying reading of Millay’s “Renascence.” Enjoy:
THE FISH IN THE STONE by Rita Dove
The fish in the stone
would like to fall
back into the sea.
He is weary
of analysis, the small
He is weary of waiting
in the open,
his profile stamped
by a white light.
In the ocean the silence
moves and moves
and so much is unnecessary!
Patient, he drifts
until the moment comes
to cast his
The fish in the stone
knows to fail is
to do the living
He knows why the ant
engineers a gangster’s
and perfectly amber.
He knows why the scientist
in secret delight
strokes the fern’s
“It is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.”
By Maria Popova
“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,” Maya Angelou wrote in contemplating courage in the face of evil. Sometimes, evil comes in one of its deceptively benignant guises — everyday smallnesses of spirit like cynicism and the particularly virulent strain of unkindness disguised as cleverizing, which the golden age of social media has so readily and recklessly fomented.
In youth, when our solidity of soul is most precarious, when we most hunger for peer approval and are most susceptible to cultural reinforcement, we are most vulnerable to the easy payoff of being cynical or clever over the deep, often difficult rewards of being kind.
The great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand (July 1, 1804–June 8, 1876), set out to model a prescient antidote to a culture that rewards cynicism and selfishness over kindness and largeness of heart in her only children’s book, originally composed in 1851 but published in English for the first time in 1988, with stunning illustrations by the then-Soviet artist Gennady Spirin.
The author of some eighty novels and numerous plays, stories, and essays animated by her love of nature and her devotion to social change, Sand supported herself and her children by her pen in an era when women were rarely financially independent by their own work and hardly any were professional writers. During the 1848 uprising in France, she started her own liberal newspaper. She attracted great controversy with her outspoken advocacy of women’s rights, her habit of wearing men’s clothing and smoking large cigars, and her passionate convention-defying relationships with both men and women, most famously with the composer Frédéric Chopin. Dostoyevsky revered her as “one of the most clairvoyant foreseers” and one of his greatest influences. Margaret Fuller — who catalyzed American feminism and who appears as a central figure in Figuring — greatly admired Sand’s writing and the way she lived her values, and when they finally met in Paris, Fuller found in her “goodness, nobleness, and power that pervaded the whole — the truly human heart and nature that shone in the eyes.”
We meet Gentle Jack — the youngest of seven children, born to unkind, unscrupulous, and greedy parents who have managed to convert all the other children to their cynical worldview, except him. Instead, Gentle Jack has become the laughingstock of the family — his parents scorn him as too stupid, for he wouldn’t follow in their wicked ways, and his siblings tease and bully him, taking his boundless kindness for weakness.
Gentle Jack bears the abuse stoically. But he wishes from the bottom of his large, aching heart that his parents would love him as much as he loves them. Often, he takes his great sadness into the forest to find refuge by his favorite tree — an old, hollow oak hidden away by rocks and brambles.
One day, after particularly brutal abuse at home, Gentle Jack lies weeping beneath his oak when something stings his arm. Sand writes:
He looked up and saw a huge bumblebee, which sat there without moving and stared at him in a most insolent fashion.
Jack took hold of the bee by its wings and gently placed it on the palm of his hand.
“Why did you hurt me, when I have done nothing to hurt you?” he asked. “Go on, fly away and be happy.”
After releasing the bee, Jack tends to his sting with some forest herbs and dozes off, only to awaken and discover in astonishment “a tall, fat gentleman dressed in black from head to toe, standing in front of him.”
The gentleman stared at Jack with enormous round eyes and said in a loud booming voice, “You have done me a service I shall never forget. Come, child, ask for whatever you most desire.”
When Gentle Jack responds that there is nothing he longs for more than for his parents to love him, the mysterious man replies that it is “a very difficult wish to grant” but that he would do his best. He declares that Gentle Jack is kind, but he must become clever in order for his parents to love him, and he will make him clever. The boy responds true to his nature:
“Oh, Sir!” exclaimed Jack. “If, in order to become clever, I must also become wicked, then please don’t make me clever. I would rather remain stupid and continue to be kind.”
“And what do you expect to achieve by being kind in a world full of wicked people?” asked the gentleman.
“Alas, Sir, I don’t know how to answer your question,” said Jack, who was becoming more and more frightened. “I’m not clever enough for that. But I have never done anyone any harm. Please don’t make me want to, or give me the means of doing so.”
After proclaiming him a fool, the fat man sweeps his great black velvet cloak and disappears into the forest, promising to make the boy clever the next time they meet. Still jolted by the encounter, Gentle Jack reluctantly heads home, dreading another beating for being out so long. Upon his return, his mother scolds him, then tells him that he is the luckiest boy in the world, for a nobleman by the name of Lord Bumblebee had just stopped by the house. After eating an enormous jar of honey, for which he had paid handsomely, he had asked after the family’s youngest child. Upon hearing Gentle Jack’s name, he had exclaimed that this was the very child he had been looking for and that he would make his fortune. Then he had vanished without another word.
Gentle Jack’s mother, greedy for the nobleman’s riches, promptly shoves her son out the door, instructing him to find Lord Bumblebee’s castle.
And so the two meet again. This time, in addition to all his riches, Lord Bumblebee offers to make him clever by teaching him the “sciences” of magic and witchcraft if he would be his son. But Gentle Jack remains true to his nature:
“You are most kind, Sir,” said Jack, “but I have parents already, and although they have other children they love more than me, they might need me some day and it would be wrong of me to leave them.”
When Gentle Jack returns home, convinced that his loving loyalty would make his parents love him in turn, his mother roughly jilts his embrace, asking instead what bounty he has brought back from the nobleman’s castle. Upon discovering that not only has Gentle Jack brought nothing back, but he had refused to become “the heir of a man who was richer than the king himself,” his parents begin to beat him, then dress him in rags and send him back to the nobleman.
Woven of equal measures sweetness and severity, the story builds into an ever-accelerating test of character.
When Jack turns fifteen and Lord Bumblebee comes to terms with the disappointment that he would not have children from his own marriage, he offers once again to adopt the boy, but at a Faustian cost — Jack would inherit all the Lord’s riches, but he would have to fight endless, ruthless battles to keep them.
The evil nobleman sets out to instill in the boy his own cynical and selfish credo. After showing him the merciless combat and cunning by which those in power maintain their position, he tells him:
In this world, you must rob or be robbed, murder or be murdered, be a tyrant or a slave. It is up to you to choose: Do you wish to conserve wealth like the bees, amass it like the ants, or steal it like the hornets? The surest way, I believe, is to let others do the work and then take from them. Take, take, my boy, by force or by cunning; it’s the only way to achieve happiness.
If Jack were to choose to be a bumblebee like him, he too would be inducted into the order of magicians like Lord Bumblebee, but he would have to swear a terrible oath: “to abandon compassion and that virtue which men call honesty.” Incredulous of the proposition, the gentle boy inquires whether all magicians must take this oath.
“There are those,” replied Lord Bumblebee, “who swear to exactly the opposite and who make it their business to serve, protect, and love all living creatures. But they are just fools.”
“Well, Lord Bumblebee,” replied Jack, “you haven’t succeeded in making me clever, because I prefer those spirits to yours, and I have no desire whatsoever to learn how to plunder and to kill. I thank you for your good intentions, but I request your permission to return home to my parents.”
“Fool,” replied Lord Bumblebee. “Your parents are hornets who have forgotten their origins.”
“Well, then,” replied Jack, “I will go into the wilderness and join the good spirits.”
Enraged by the boy’s unrelenting goodness, Lord Bumblebee declares that he would not let him — he would sting him to death. At this utterance, he transforms into a hideous insect and begins chasing Gentle Jack through the forest. The terrified boy, leaping headlong into a brook for cover, begins calling on the “good spirits” for help.
Suddenly, a great blue dragonfly appears and, flying in front of him, beckons the boy to follow her. The skies open into a heavy downpour, impeding Lord Bumblebee’s pursuit.
But this is not salvation. Part II of the story, titled “How Gentle Jack Reached the Enchanted Island at Last and Why He Could Not Stay There,” presents the ultimate test of character.
Gentle Jack finds himself in a heavenly, sweet-scented fairyland — an idyllic world where “there were children, as sweet as cherubs, who chased each other and turned somersaults, and lovely maidens who sat plaiting flowers into each other’s hair,” a place where “young folk made music and danced while old folk sat and watched.”
He discovers that the blue dragonfly had been his fairy godmother in disguise — the queen of the good spirits. She had happened to be passing through the land of his birth — “a land like any other, a mixture of goodness and evil, of good and bad people” — at the very moment he was born and she had blessed him at birth with gentleness, honesty, and kindness.
Long ago, she tells him, Lord Bumblebee had ruled and ravaged Gentle Jack’s homeland by corrupting its inhabitants with greed. In punishment for his evil deeds, the godmother-queen had turned him into a common bumblebee, “condemned to crawling, hiding himself away, and buzzing around an old oak tree in the forest which he had originally planted with his own hands when he was master and tyrant of the country” — a punishment that could only be lifted by Gentle Jack’s hand, on the day he says to the bumblebee, “Fly away and be happy.” Only then would Lord Bumblebee regain his human incarnation, and only if he promised to make Jack very happy.
The spirit of greed and theft has stifled the spirit of kindness and generosity in every heart and has driven into oblivion the great knowledge which you alone, of all who were born on this unhappy earth, now possess.
Upon hearing this, Gentle Jack realizes that he is not stupid after all and that his loving kindness is the only cure for the small-spirited suffering of his people. (“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Tolstoy — who also admired and was influenced by Sand — would write to Gandhi half a century later.) But when the queen tells him that he must not worry about it any longer, for on the enchanted island he is immortal, impervious to sorrow, and protected from all evil, Gentle Jack can’t find contentment in this privileged comfort. He throws his arms around his godmother and speaks from his large heart:
Smile on me, dear godmother, so that I may not die of grief when I leave you — because leave you I must. No matter that I have neither parents nor friends left in my homeland, I feel that I am the child of that country and must serve it. Since I am the possessor of the most beautiful secret in the world, I must share it with those poor people who hate each other and who are to be pitied. No matter, also, that I’m as happy as the good spirits, thanks to your kindness. I am, nonetheless, a mere mortal, and I want to share my knowledge with other mortals. You have taught me how to love. Well, I feel that I love those evil, mad people who will probably hate me, and I ask you to lead me back among them.
With a kiss, the queen tells Jack that while her heart is breaking to see him go, she loves him all the more for having understood his duty:
The knowledge I have given you has borne fruit in your soul. I will give you neither a lucky charm, nor a magic wand to protect you against the wiles of the evil bumblebees, because it is written in the book of destiny that any mortal who dedicates himself to doing good must risk everything, including life itself.
Instead, she allows him to pick as many flowers from her meadow as he wishes — magical flowers that make every person who inhales their scent gentler, kinder, and more beneficent, flowers he could hand out in his country to aid him in what the queen knows will be “a terrible and dangerous struggle” against evil.
And so, stepping onto a rose petal boat, Gentle Jack returns to his land as a prophet of love, goodness, generosity, and beauty. When he is assaulted by angry, avaricious mobs, he waves his fragrant flowers at them until the entire population is “miraculously calmed.”
Lord Bumblebee eventually gets wind of Gentle Jack’s miracles and sends an ambassador to invite him to his court. Despite his new friends’ admonitions that the tyrant could be up to no good, Gentle Jack accepts the invitation, eager to convert even the evilest man in the land.
There is no sugary happy ending to the story, no lulling assurance that good always prevails over evil. Perhaps because Sand’s own country was still haunted by the grim specter of the French Revolution, she composes a sad, beautiful, cautionary ending — a realist’s reminder that good only prevails when we put all of our might and our ethic of love and our unflinching commitment to kindness behind it, for, as Zadie Smith would write nearly two centuries later in her spectacular meditation on optimism and despair, “progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”
An ode to the unsuspected gifts from the muse of sluggishness.
By Maria Popova
“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” There is something lovely about this notion of giving time — a generous counterpoint to our culture of taking time, snatching it from the river of being with the fist of disciplined demand, only to see it slip through. The discipline of showing up is an absolutely necessary condition for all creative work, yes, but it is not a sufficient one. Sometimes — often — we show up, only to find nothing happens. Whatever it is we are showing up for — art, love — cannot be willed, cannot be wrested from the hour or the soul. We learn then that the work is the work, but the work is also the waiting — the exasperation, the surrender to despair, and the swell of joy on the other side of the surrender.
That is what the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski explores with great subtlety and great warmth in his poem “The Early Hours,” found in his collection Without End: New & Selected Poems (public library), translated by Clare Cavanagh (also the translator one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, who lauded Cavanagh’s work as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”)
The early hours of morning; you still aren’t writing
(rather you aren’t even trying), you just read lazily.
Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if
it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,
just as earlier, in childhood, on vacations, when a colored
map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map
promising so much, deep ponds in the forest
like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning
or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared,
but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world,
their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed
(grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval
compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral;
the early hours of morning silence
— you still aren’t writing,
you still understand so much.
Joy is close.
Sweet consolation for the lifelong alienation that afflicts each of us at different times and in different measures.
By Maria Popova
There is hardly a more elemental human need than our need for belonging — in a place, in a heart, in ourselves. Perhaps this is why we are so susceptible to that particular kind of loneliness that begins in childhood, as we try to master the “fertile solitude” necessary for self-esteem, and can so often morph into a kind of existential homelessness as we grow older and slip into continually narrowing landscapes of possibility. “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place,” Maya Angelou told Bill Moyers in their fantastic 1973 conversation about freedom.
An invisible narrator addresses an invisible listener — perhaps a child, or the inner child that lives in each of us — with the assurance that the two belong together, no matter how far and across how many landscapes they may travel from one another.
The stars belong in the deep night sky
and the moon belongs there too,
and the winds belong in each place they blow by
and I belong here