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Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

A prescient admonition against the infinite regress of “except.”

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

“The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic dialogue about identity, race, and belonging. “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.” Half a century later, this aspect of the Northern identity has become in a great sense the national identity of the country that calls itself by the name of an entire continent. Its rubric of exclusion has been mirrored across the world, in the various international nationalisms that have cropped up as the reactionary politics of regressive ideologies.

More than a century before Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued a prescient admonition against this epidemic of divisiveness and exclusionary identity in a short, stirring letter to a friend, cited in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterwork of poetic scholarship, chronicling the complex and conflicted history of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — a public triumph of human rights, and a private triumph for a man who had faced the artillery of brutal criticism for his idealism and his determination to make a willfully blind and belligerent nation see slavery for what it was: a “monstrous injustice.” Although his courageous approach to criticism helped him persevere in the public eye, privately he often despaired — never more bleakly than when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing people within the two states to decide for themselves whether they wish to perpetrate slavery. Lincoln saw it as a colossal backward step for progress and a supreme betrayal of the Declaration of Independence — “progress in degeneracy,” a travesty of basic civil liberty, a travesty of basic morality, casting self-interest as the only inalienable right.

“Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men,” he wrote in a note to himself. “Ours began, by affirming those rights.” Devastated, incomprehending of how far his nation had fallen from its founding ideals, Lincoln followed the slippery moral slope of exclusion to its only logical conclusion in a chillingly prescient letter to a friend, penned in the summer of 1855:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Complement with Zadie Smith on the see-saw of optimism and despair in cultural progress and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, then revisit Baldwin’s prophetic insight into divisiveness and its only cure.

BP

13 Life-Learnings from 13 Years of Brain Pickings

More fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

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.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

Here are the initial ten learnings, as published in 2016, which I continue to stand and live by:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

  5. 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.
  6. 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.”
  7. “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. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. The More Loving One


  2. Big Wolf & Little Wolf: A Tender Tale of Loneliness, Belonging, and How Friendship Transforms Us


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


  4. The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage


  5. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen


  6. Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair


  7. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation


  8. The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power


  9. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers


  10. Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert


  11. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss


  12. Salvation by Words: Iris Murdoch on Language as a Vehicle of Truth and Art as a Force of Resistance to Tyranny


  13. A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan


BP

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “The Weighing” by Jane Hirshfield: An Ode to Resilience

A well to the groundwater of our strength.

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads “The Weighing” by Jane Hirshfield: An Ode to Resilience

“All you have is what you are, and what you give,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in a philosophical novel contemplating suffering and getting to the other side of pain. “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me,” W.H. Auden wrote in a philosophical poem contemplating the courage to love more, to give more, in the face of even the most heartbreaking and elemental disparity of passions.

Perhaps the deepest measure of our character, of our very humanity, is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, when the world withdraws its mercy. That is what Jane Hirshfield — herself a rare poet with a philosopher’s eye to existence, and an ordained Buddhist — explores in her stunning poem “The Weighing,” originally published in 1994, later included in her soul-salving poetry collection The Beauty (public library), and read here by astrophysicist and poetic thinker Janna Levin:

THE WEIGHING
by Jane Hirshfield

The heart’s reasons
seen clearly,
even the hardest
will carry
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.

As the drought-starved
eland forgives
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.

So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.

The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.

For more of Hirshfield’s resuscitory poetics, savor her wisdom on creativity and her poems “Optimism” and “On the Fifth Day,” then revisit Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Hymn to Time” by Ursula K. Le Guin, and “The More Loving One” by W.H. Auden.

BP

Year of the Monkey: Patti Smith on Dreams, Loss, Love, and Mending the Broken Realities of Life

“One cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.”

Year of the Monkey: Patti Smith on Dreams, Loss, Love, and Mending the Broken Realities of Life

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.

There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.

That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.

“Dream Inn. Santa Cruz.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.

Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching in all directions, star-salted and possible.

She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.

“Fortune cookie. Venice Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:

He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.

There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:

Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.

“Joshua Tree cactus” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:

Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.

I hear the voice of the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan whisper that “the logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake” as Ernest’s words become the soundwave of Smith’s unconscious mind:

There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.

Her daily routine at the motel is itself an existential allegory:

Every morning I’d make my coffee in a tin pot, rustle up some beans and eggs and read of the local occurrences in the newsletter. Just negotiating zones. No rules. No change. But then everything eventually changes. It’s the way of the world. Cycles of death and resurrection, but not always in the way we imagine.

“My trusty suitcase.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Dead friends travel with her as the Collected Poems of Allen Ginsberg — “an expansive hydrogen jukebox, containing all the nuances of his voice” — warm her pocket on a lecture tour. A book acquired in a thrift shop — Gérard de Nerval’s proto-surrealist novella Aurélia, the manuscript of which was found in the author’s coat-pocket when he hanged himself in 1855 — seems to speak to her directly: “Our dreams are a second life.” Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit from the radio in the wake of an election that uncorked the madness of hate and the madness of apathy.

Her voice, one of laconic suffering, produced shudders of admiration and shame. I pictured her sitting at the bar, a gardenia in her hair and a Chihuahua in her lap. I pictured her sleeping in a rumpled white skirt and blouse on a diesel-fueled tour bus, turned away from a white Southern hotel despite the fact that she was Billie Holiday, despite the fact that she was simply a human being.

Patti Smith pictures this while sitting in a late-night bar in Hell’s Kitchen, mourning for her friend and for her country, and I picture her silver braids falling to either side of the shot of vodka and the glass of water she has ordered, despite the fact that she is Patti Smith, aglow with the fact that she is simply a human being.

“Polaroids. New York City.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Again and again her thoughts return to her dying friend — the poet and music maverick Sandy Pearlman — and with him, inevitably, to death itself, to the finitude of being with which we all must live:

We met in 1971 after my first poetry performance, Lenny accompanying me on electric guitar. Sandy Pearlman was sitting cross-legged on the floor in St. Mark’s Church, dressed in leather, Jim Morrison style. I had read his Excerpts from the History of Los Angeles, one of the greatest pieces written about rock music. After the performance, he told me I should front a rock ’n’ roll band but I just laughed and told him I already had a good job working in a bookstore. Then he went on to reference Cerberus, the dog of Hades, suggesting I should delve into its history.

— Not just the history of a dog, but the history of an idea, he said, flashing his extremely white teeth.

I thought him arrogant, though in an appealing way, but his suggestion that I should front a rock band seemed pretty far-fetched. At the time, I was seeing Sam Shepard and I told him what Sandy had said. He didn’t find it extreme at all. He looked me in the eye and told me I could do anything. We were all young then, and that was the general idea. That we could do anything.

Sandy now unconscious at the ICU in Marin County. Sam [Shepard] negotiating the waning stages of his affliction. I felt a cosmic pull in multiple directions and wondered if some idiosyncratic force field was shielding yet another field, one with a small orchard at its crux, heavy with a fruit containing an unfathomable core.

“For Sam. Rockaway Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

The harsh reality of it all takes on a surreal air. She watches anime clips on a loop as she slurps flying-fish-roe spaghetti in San Francisco, waiting for visiting hours at the hospital. The Pied Piper haunts her days and dreams, until on her way to sit vigil with Sandy, she suddenly realizes that the story is “not essentially one of revenge but of love.” The prospect of imminent loss clarifies things in this way, reminding us that every story — no matter how enturmoiled by the surface confusions of jealousy and blame — is at bottom a love story and a time story.

“You don’t follow plots you negotiate them,” she wants to write with the candy-stripe pencil that rests on her dying friend’s bedside. Instead, exhausted with travel and grief, she drifts into another existential dream:

The pencil seemed far away, well beyond my grasp, and I actually watched myself fall asleep. The clouds were pink and dropped from the sky. I was wearing sandals, kicking through mounds of red leaves surrounding a shrine on a small hill. There was a small cemetery with rows of monkey deities, some adorned with red capes and knitted caps. Massive crows were picking through the drying leaves. It doesn’t mean anything, someone was shouting, and that was all I could remember.

“My room. New York City.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Yet, somehow, life tumbles on; somehow, we must make meaning. Watching the terrifying turn of her age — age in the sense of cultural era, age in the sense of the personal timespan one is allotted between the bookends of nothingness — Smith writes in the dead of New York City’s coldest winter on the record:

Across America one light after another seemed to burn out. The oil lamps of another age flickered and died.

[…]

The cat was rubbing against my knee. I opened a can of sardines, chopped up her share, then cut some onions, toasted two slices of oat bread and made myself a sandwich. Staring at my image on the mercurial surface of the toaster, I noticed I looked young and old simultaneously. I ate hastily, failing to clean up, actually craving some small sign of life, an army of ants dragging crumbs dislodged from the cracks of the kitchen tiles. I longed for buds sprouting, doves cooing, darkness lifting, spring returning.

Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes. Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy in the Year of the Monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I notice that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from a crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating… I try to be more aware of the passing hours, that I might see it happen, that cosmic shift from one digit to another. Despite all efforts February just slips away, though being a leap year there is one extra day to observe. I stare at the number 29 on the daily calendar, then reluctantly tear off the page. March first.

By springtime, the strangeness is no longer the Lewis Carroll kind but an outright collective insanity:

April Fool’s Day. A kind of madness swept the course of every action, magnifying every reaction. Balls of confusion rolled toward us, scores of steely shooters, tripping us up, keeping us off-balance. The news pounded, and minds raced to make sense of the campaign of a candidate compounding lies at such a speed that one could not keep up, or break down. The world twisted at his liking, poured over with a metallic substance, fool’s gold, already peeling away.

By summertime, as she wades through “an atmosphere of artificial brightness with corrosive edges, the hyperreality of a polarizing pre-election mudslide, an avalanche of toxicity infiltrating every outpost,” personal, political, and planetary realities entwine with overwhelming urgency. In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s poignant observation that “the grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect,” Smith writes:

It is the unprecedented heat and the dying reef and the arctic shelf breaking apart that haunts me. It is Sandy slipping in and out of consciousness, battling a run of bacterial infections, while mapping his own apocalyptic scenarios straight from the bowels of the Heart o’ the City Hotel. I can hear him thinking, I can hear the walls breathing. Perhaps a break is needed, an intermission of sorts, withdrawing from one scenario, allowing something else to unfold. Something negligible, light and entirely unexpected.

“Walking Stick. Ghost Ranch.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

Again, she converses with the Dream Inn sign in desperate search of clarity, of reassurance, of that inextinguishable flicker of hope:

I did not ask the sign how my husband fared in whatever space was allotted to him in the universe. I did not ask the fate of Sandy. Or Sam. Those things are forbidden, as entreating the angels with prayer. I know that very well, one cannot ask for a life, or two lives. One can only warrant the hope of an increasing potency in each man’s heart.

Slowly, methodically, the tapestry unspools from the enchanted loom of this uncommon mind, revealing the pattern Smith has been weaving all along, reminding us that dreams — that the secret lives of the unconscious — are not an indulgence or a plaything, but a vital vessel into which reality is poured, lifted to the lips, and tasted more intensely.

“My father’s cup.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In the final chapters, she writes:

I was never so hungry, never so old. I plodded up the stairs to my room reciting to myself. Once I was seven, soon I will be seventy. I was truly tired. Once I was seven, I repeated, sitting on the edge of the bed, still in my coat.

Our quiet rage gives us wings, the possibility to negotiate the gears winding backwards, uniting all time. We repair a watch, optimizing an innate ability to reverse, say, all the way back to the fourteenth century, marked by the appearance of Giotto’s sheep. Renaissance bells ring out, as a procession of mourners follow the casket containing the body of Raphael, then sound again as the last tap of a chisel reveals the milky body of Christ.

All go where they go, just as I went where I went… These were not ungraspable dreams but a frenzy of living hours. And in these fluid hours I witnessed wondrous things until, tiring, I circled above a small street lined with old brick houses, choosing the roof of the one with a dusty skylight. The hatch was unlocked. I removed my cap shaking out some marble dust. I’m sorry, I said, looking up at a handful of stars, time is running and not a single rabbit can keep up with it. I’m sorry, I repeated, descending the ladder, conscious of where I had been.

Reflecting on these clarifying dreams, vibrating with worry for our shared future, worry that “the blood of benevolence may not be infinite and will one day cease to flow,” Smith reminds us that the only remedy for a broken reality is more truth:

One cannot approximate truth, add nor take away, for there is no one on earth like the true shepherd and there is nothing in heaven like the suffering of real life.

Patti Smith, Rockaway Beach, from Year of the Monkey.

The book ends with “A Kind of Epilogue,” in which Smith fathoms the oceanic abyss of losses in the Year of the Monkey — Sandy’s death, the last white rhino’s death, the massacre of schoolchildren, the injustices against immigrants, “the flames engulfing Southern California the collapse of the Silverdome and men falling like chess pieces carved from the weight of centuries of indiscretions and the slaughter of worshippers and the guns and the guns and the guns and the guns” — and reaches, with a lucid and luminous hand, for the source of buoyancy that is our only lifeline:

This is what I know. Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. And my dog who was dead in 1957 is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow. A tomorrow following a whole succession of tomorrows… No one knows what is going to happen… not really.

Returning to Virginia Beach, that epicenter of her dreaming away from and into reality, she finds herself pacing the boardwalk in search of Eamsean telescopic perspective:

I knew there had to be a brass telescope mounted somewhere on the boards and I was determined to find it, not exactly a telescope but an instrument of beyondness, right on the esplanade… My pockets were brimming with coins so I set up camp and concentrated, first on a freighter, then on a star, and then all the way back to Earth. I could actually see that ball the world. I was in space and could see it all, as if the god of science let me peer through his personal lens. The turning Earth was slowly revealed in high definition. I could see every vein that was also a river. I could see the wavering illness air, the cold deep of the sea and the great bleached reef of Queensland and encrusted manta rays sinking and lifeless organisms floating and the movement of wild ponies racing through the marshes overrunning the islands off the Georgian coast and the remains of stallions in the boneyards of North Dakota and a fleet of deer the color of saffron and the great dunes of Lake Michigan with sacred Indian names. I saw the center which was not holding… And I saw the ancient days. There were bells tolling and wreaths tossed and women turning in circles and there were bees performing their life-cycle dance and there were great winds and swollen moons and pyramids crumbling and coyotes crying and the waves mounting and it all smelled like the end and the beginning of freedom. And I saw my friends who were gone and my husband and my brother. I saw those counted as true fathers ascend the distant hills and I saw my mother with the children she had lost, whole again. And I saw myself with Sam in his kitchen in Kentucky and we were talking about writing. In the end, he was saying, everything is fodder for a story, which means, I guess, that we’re all fodder.

BP

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