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The Love of Life in the Face of Death: Keith Haring on Self-Doubt, the Fragility of Being, and Creativity as the Antidote to Our Mortal Anxiety

Friday 11th September 2020
“It is very important to be in love with life… Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we ‘understand,’ there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.”

“Life loves the liver of it,” Maya Angelou observed as she contemplated the meaning of life in 1977, exhorting: “You must live and life will be good to you.”

That spring, the teenage Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990) — who would grow up to revolutionize not only art and activism, but the spirit of a generation and the soul of a city — grappled with the meaning of his own life and what it really means to live it on the pages of his diary, posthumously published as the quiet, symphonic wonder Keith Haring Journals (public library).

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

Five days before his nineteenth birthday and shortly before he left his hometown of Pittsburgh for a netless leap of faith toward New York City, he confronts the difficulty of knowing what we really want and writes:

This is a blue moment… it’s blue because I’m confused, again; or should I say “still”? I don’t know what I want or how to get it. I act like I know what I want, and I appear to be going after it — fast, but I don’t, when it comes down to it, even know.

In a passage of extraordinary precocity, he echoes the young Van Gogh’s reflection on fear, taking risks, and how inspired mistakes propel us forward, and considers how the trap of self-comparison is keeping him from developing his own artistic and human potential:

I guess it’s because I’m afraid. Afraid I’m wrong. And I guess I’m afraid I’m wrong, because I constantly relate myself to other people, other experiences, other ideas. I should be looking at both in perspective, not comparing. I relate my life to an idea or an example that is some entirely different life. I should be relating it to my life only in the sense that each has good and bad facets. Each is separate. The only way the other attained enough merit, making it worthy of my admiration, or long to copy it is by taking chances, taking it in its own way. It has grown with different situations and has discovered different heights of happiness and equal sorrows. If I always seek to pattern my life after another, mine is being wasted re-doing things for my own empty acceptance. But, if I live my life my way and only let the other [artists] influence me as a reference, a starting point, I can build an even higher awareness instead of staying dormant… I only wish that I could have more confidence and try to forget all my silly preconceptions, misconceptions, and just live. Just live. Just. Live. Just live till I die.

And then — in a testament to my resolute conviction, along with Blake, that all great natures are lovers of trees — he adds:

I found a tree in this park that I’m gonna come back to, someday. It stretches sideways out over the St. Croix river and I can sit on it and balance lying on it perfectly.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Within a decade, Haring’s resolve to “just live” until he dies collided with the sudden proximity of a highly probable death — the spacious until contracted into a span uncertain but almost certainly short as the AIDS epidemic began slaying his generation. A century after the uncommonly perceptive and poetic diarist Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant and sidelined sister — wrote upon receiving a terminal diagnosis that the remaining stretch of life before her is “the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Haring, having taken a long break from his own diary, returns to the mirror of the blank page and faces the powerful, paradoxical way in which the proximity of death charges living with life:

I keep thinking that the main reason I am writing is fear of death. I think I finally realize the importance of being alive. When I was watching the 4th of July fireworks the other night and saw my friend Martin [Burgoyne], I saw death. He says he has been tested and cleared of having AIDS, but when I looked at him I saw death. Life is so fragile.

In a sentiment evocative of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s memorable observation in his poetic and courageous exit from life that when people die, “they leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death,” Haring adds:

It is a very fine line between life and death. I realize I am walking this line. Living in New York City and also flying on airplanes so much, I face the possibility of death every day. And when I die there is nobody to take my place… That is true of a lot of people (or everyone) because everyone is an individual and everyone is important in that they cannot be replaced.

But even as he shudders with the fragility of life, Haring continues to shimmer with the largehearted love of life that gives his art its timeless exuberance:

Touching people’s lives in a positive way is as close as I can get to an idea of religion.

Belief in one’s self is only a mirror of belief in other people and every person.

Art by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

He returns to the love of life that charged his days with meaning and his art with magnetism — a love both huge and humble, at the center of which is our eternal dance with mystery:

I think it is very important to be in love with life. I have met people who are in their 70s and 80s who love life so much that, behind their aged bodies, the numbers disappear. Life is very fragile and always elusive. As soon as we think we “understand,” there is another mystery. I don’t understand anything. That is, I think, the key to understand everything.

Again and again, Haring declares on the pages of his journal that he lives for work, for art — the purpose of which, of course, if there is any purpose to art, is to make other lives more livable. As the specter of AIDS hovers closer and closer to him, this creative vitality pulses more and more vigorously through him, reverberating with Albert Camus’s insistence that “there is no love of life without despair of life.”

In early 1988, weeks before his thirtieth birthday and shortly before he finally received the diagnosis perching on the event horizon of his daily life, Haring composes a seething cauldron of a journal entry, about to boil with the overwhelming totality of his love of life:

I love paintings too much, love color too much, love seeing too much, love feeling too much, love art too much, love too much.

By the following month, he has metabolized the terrifying too-muchness into a calm acceptance radiating even more love:

I accept my fate, I accept my life. I accept my shortcomings, I accept the struggle. I accept my inability to understand. I accept what I will never become and what I will never have. I accept death and I accept life.

After the sudden death of one of his closest friends in a crash — a friend so close that Haring was the godfather of his son — he copies one of his friend’s newly poignant poems about life and death into his journal, then writes beneath it:

Creativity, biological or otherwise, is my only link with a relative mortality.

But perhaps his most poignant and prophetic entry came a decade earlier — a short verse-like reflection nested in a sprawling meditation on art, life, kinship, and individuality, penned on Election Day:

I am not a beginning.
I am not an end.
I am a link in a chain.

Keith Haring died on February 16, 1990, barely into his thirties, leaving us his exuberant love of life encoded in mirthful lines and vibrant colors that have made millions of other lives — mine included — immensely more livable.

Couple with Drawing on Walls — a wonderful picture-book biography of Haring inspired by his journals — then revisit a young neurosurgeon’s poignant meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his own death, an elderly comedian-philosopher on how to live fully while dying, and an astronomer-poet’s sublime “Antidotes to Fear of Death.”

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Of Owls and Roses: Mary Oliver on Happiness, Terror, and the Sublime Interconnectedness of Life

Tuesday 08th September 2020
“The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.”

“Go to the limits of your longing… Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror,” Rilke urged in his Book of Hours, his poetic cadence assuring us to “just keep going,” for “nearby is the country they call life.” Rilke sensed that, as the great naturalist John Muir observed a generation earlier, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” In such a universe, beauty is not so easily unhitched from terror — they coexist in one of those essential batteries whose two poles, like fear and hope, charge life with meaning, with aliveness.

We see this everywhere in nature: Virginia Woolf captured it in her arresting account of a total solar eclipse, and Coleridge captured it in contemplating the interplay of terror and transcendence in a storm. And like all that is true of nature, this duality of beauty and terror is also true of the subset of nature comprising our experience — the subset we call human nature: When happiness comes at us unbidden and elemental, there is almost a terror to its coming — to the totality of it, to the way it submerges and saturates and supinates us with something vast and uncontrollable and sublime, thrusting us past the limits of our longing.

This essential battery is what Mary Oliver (September 10, 1935–January 17, 2019) — a Rilke for our own time: a rare philosopher-poet of immense and tender attentiveness to the living world and to our human interiority — explores in one of the pieces collected in the 2003 treasure Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays (public library).

Owls from Richard Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In an essay about owls — which, like all excellent essays, fans out fractally from its subject to become about something else, something elemental and existential — Oliver reflects on these mysterious and astonishing creatures as she wanders the woodlands of Provincetown near her home, searching for the nest of the great horned owl, “this bird with the glassy gaze, restless on the bough, nothing but blood on its mind.” She writes:

In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but of the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still. When I hear it resounding through the woods, and then the five black pellets of its song dropping like stones into the air, I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life — as, for example, my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry and endlessly on the hunt is the world in which I live too. There is only one world.

In this one world — a miraculous and irreplaceable world; a world in which, as the poetic scientist and nature writer Loren Eiseley so memorably observed, “we forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness… that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle” — the bloodthirst in the owl’s bosom is inseparable from the lifethirst in our own, as beauty and terror are inseparable from one another and from the fulness of being that is life being lived.

Red poppy by the self-taught 18th-century artist and botanist Elizabeth Blackwell from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a passage evocative of Willa Cather’s splendid definition of happiness, Oliver writes:

Sometimes, while I have stood listening to the owl’s song drifting through the trees, when it is ten degrees above nothing and life for any small creature is hard enough without that, I have found myself thinking of summer fields. Fields full of flowers — poppies or lupines. Or, here, fields where the roses hook into the dunes, and their increase is manyfold. All summer they are red and pink and white tents of softness and nectar, which wafts and hangs everywhere — a sweetness so palpable and excessive that, before it, I’m struck, I’m taken, I’m conquered; I’m washed into it, as though it was a river, full of dreaming and idleness — I drop to the sand, I can’t move; I am restless no more; I am replete, supine, finished, filled to the last edges with an immobilizing happiness. And is this not also terrible? Is this not also frightening?

Are the roses not also — even as the owl is — excessive? Each flower is small and lovely, but in their sheer and silent abundance the roses become an immutable force, as though the work of the wild roses was to make sure that all of us, who come wandering over the sand, may be, for a while, struck to the heart and saturated with a simple joy. Let the mind be teased by such stretches of the imagination, by such balance. Now I am cringing at the very sound of the owl’s dark wings opening over my head — not long ago I could do nothing but lounge on the sand and stare into the cities of the roses.

Owl from Lydekker’s 1893 natural history of owls. (Available as a print and a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement the altogether wondrous Owls and Other Fantasies with Oliver on how to live with maximal aliveness, the two building blocks of creativity, her advice on writing, her moving elegy for her soul mate, and her radiant ode to trees.

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Categories: Media

Coming Out in the Time of COVID: A 90-Year-Old Man’s Moving Conversation with His Daughter During the Quarantine

Sunday 06th September 2020
A touching elegy for what lives on the other side of lifelong heartbreak.

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings wrote in his magnificent forgotten manifesto for being unafraid to feel. It takes especial courage to “go the way your blood beats,” to borrow James Baldwin’s lovely phrase from his liberating advice on coming out, in which he observed that “loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility.”

But what we call courage — the courage to face the danger and rise to the responsibility — is so much less a function of character than a function of conditioning, a topographic feature of the landscape of permission and possibility in which a personhood forms.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

Ken Felts was born in Kansas at the outset of the Great Depression. The son of a railway worker, he was raised in an unrelentingly religious community. In the late 1950s, Ken moved to California, where he met the man who became the love of his life. It was an enormous love — and an impossible love within the landscape of permission and possibility Ken inhabited, closer in psychosocial space, even if further in time, to the landscape of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s love than to ours.

More than half a century later, at the age of ninety, Ken used the StoryCorps Connect platform during the COVID quarantine to speak with his daughter for the first time about his experience and what lives on the other side of his lifelong heartbreak.

Complement with Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, the love of her life, and the pioneering LGBT rights advocate Edward Carpenter’s extraordinary letter of gratitude to Walt Whitman for dignifying same-sex love, then revisit this animated love letter to how libraries change lives from StoryCorps’ living archive of human experience.

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Categories: Media

The Mountain and the Meaning of Life: René Daumal’s Alpine Allegory of Courage and the Measure of Wisdom

Wednesday 02nd September 2020
“There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.”

Since long before Dr. King proclaimed “I have seen the mountaintop!” mountains — like rivers — have been among our richest nature-drawn metaphors for making sense of our human lives and values. When the Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan was asked in a television interview who the most important person she ever met was, she answered without hesitation: “A mountain.” She meant a non-metaphorical mountain — Mount Tamalpais — out of which she carved her exquisite philosophical-poetic meditation on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence.

But no one has explored the existential through the metaphor of the alpine more elegantly than the French surrealist poet, philosopher, and novelist René Daumal (March 16, 1908–May 21, 1944) in his allegorical novel Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures (public library), posthumously published and translated into English by Carol Cosman — a novel quite possibly inspired by and almost certainly subtitled as a wink to Edwin Abbott Abbott’s iconic 1884 allegorical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, yet a novel entirely and uncommonly original.

René Daumal

Daumal — who taught himself Sanskrit, translated some of the great Buddhist texts into French, and saturated his writing with philosophical reflections drawn from the liminal space between the scientific and the spiritual, between physical fact and poetic truth — begins by defining his “analogical alpinism”:

Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence.

Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.

Upon this conceptual foundation Daumal builds his alpine allegory of life. In a passage evocative of that splendid Seamus Heaney verse — “On your way up, show consideration / To the ones you meet on their way down. / The Latin root of ‘condescension’ / Means we all sink.” — he writes:

You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again…

So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully.

There is something profound that the alpine shares with the telescopic: the gift of perspective — a gift that, once granted, cannot easily be revoked; once we have seen, once we have known, we cannot easily unsee and unknow, and so we cannot easily lose our position in space and sense. Daumal writes:

There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know.

Etel Adnan: Mount Tamalpais, 2000. (Callicoon Fine Arts, New York)

Echoing his equally brilliant, equally underappreciated compatriot and contemporary Simone Weil’s notion of the highest mountain-view of the mind, Daumal adds:

Keep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look at your feet. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you have arrived just because you see the peak. Watch your feet, be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.

In what may be the most elegant articulation of the essence of responsibility, applicable to everything from our smallest personal acts to our grandest generational choices that shape posterity’s social and ecological inheritance, Daumal writes:

When you take off on your own, leave some trace of your passage that will guide your return: one rock set on top of another, some grass pierced by a stick. But if you come to a place you cannot cross or that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead the people following you into trouble. So go back the way you came and destroy any traces you have left. This is addressed to anyone who wants to leave traces of his passage in this world. And even without wanting to, we always leave traces. Answer to your fellow men for the traces you leave behind.

“Tectonic Time” by Maria Popova

In an admonition against the twin hazards of hubris and self-pity, he adds:

Never stop on a crumbling slope. Even if you believe your feet are firmly planted, while you take a breath and looking at the sky the earth is gradually piling up under your feet, the gravel is slipping imperceptibly, and suddenly you are launched like a ship.

[…]

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory.

Couple Daumal’s strange and wondrous Mount Analogue with Rebecca Solnit’s indispensable Field Guide to Getting Lost, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd, writing at the same time as Daumal, on the life of the living mountain and Vita Sackville-West’s early love letters to Virginia Woolf about mountain-climbing and the meaning of life.

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Categories: Media

Artist Maira Kalman Illustrates the Extraordinary Love Story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Saturday 29th August 2020
“This is a love story. You know. How two people, joined together, become themselves.”

It is not often that one encounters a great love letter to a great love, composed by someone outside the private world of that love, serenading it across the spacetime of epochs and experiences. In my many years of dwelling in the lives and loves and letters of beloved artists, scientists, and writers, I have encountered none more splendid than The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated (public library) by Maira Kalman — an artist who uses her paintbrush the way Stein used her pen, as the instrument of an imagination tilted pleasantly askance from the plane of common thought.

Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, when she was fifty-nine and Alice fifty-six. She had written it at an astonishing pace the previous autumn. Like Alice disguised her memoir of their love as a cookbook, Gertrude disguised hers as an “autobiography” of the beloved under the lover’s byline. It wasn’t, of course, Alice’s autobiography, or even her biography — rather, it was the biography of their love, of early-twentieth-century Paris, of the community of visionary artists and writers who orbited the couple and who came to be known as the Lost Generation — a term Gertrude Stein coined — as they found themselves, in every sense of the term, at Alice and Gertrude’s salons.

The book begins, naturally, not at Alice’s birth but at her fateful first encounter with Gertrude and her coral brooch the day Alice, thirty-three, arrived in Paris as an American expatriate — a moment she eventually recounted in such deeply felt detail on the pages of her slender actual autobiography, animated by a bereavement that never left her in the twenty “empty” years by which she outlived the love of her life.

Kalman introduces the book with her spare and singular poetics:

Alice met Gertrude.
Gertrude met Alice.
Gertrude with her big body.
Big presence.
Alice, a little bird
with a mustache.
And that was that.
A coup the foudre
as we say.
Gertrude wrote this book of
their lives
through Alice’s eyes.
And here it is (happily)
with paintings
to illustrate how it was.

There is so much to delight in and marvel at in Kalman’s uncommon reanimation of this uncommon mausoleum of a love and an epoch. “Who did they know?” she asks, then exclaims: “EVERYBODY.” And then she draws everybody: James Joyce sitting at a table in Sylvia Beach’s Alexandrian bookstore, Hemingway with his fedora and his forthright gaze, Matisse slouched on a park bench, Cézanne, Picasso, Man Ray, all the artists who might not have been the stars they are to us, might not have found their own light, were it not for the hospitable universe of the Toklas-Stein household, for their devoted private patronage and public championship of these bold ideas and aesthetics that shook the plate tectonics of the status quo and formed the colossal landmass of modern art, of modern thought itself.

Captioning each of the paintings is a sentence or fragment from Stein’s narrative that captured Kalman’s curious imagination — sometimes a note of Stein’s subtle, fullhearted humor resonant with Kalman’s own, sometimes the shimmering surface of an amusing aside that whirlpools into the depths of loneliness and melancholy in which all pioneers swim, always an odd detail that compresses cosmoses of meaning into a miniature observation.

But of all the delights in Kalman’s tribute to the Stein classic, none is more delightful than the meta-masterpiece of her tender handwritten afterword — a love letter to Alice and Gertrude’s love. “I am loathe to leave them,” Kalman sighs on a near-blank page at the end, as blank as one feels inside upon leaving a book and the world of its making, then she writes:

This is a love story.
You know.
How two people, joined together,
become themselves.
They cannot breathe right
without each other.

With great subtlety, Kalman makes spare allusion to the ideas and ideologies animating Gertrude and Alice’s era, those ever-twining human impulses for beauty and for terror — the rise of Modernism and of Nazism; the birth of a new science with its delirious portal into the most fundamental building blocks of matter and the deepest, most beautiful realities of nature; the assembling of the building blocks of humanity’s deadliest weapon and ugliest war; and all the while, the lives being lived, the loves being loved, the meals being savored.

This most singular time —
literature, art, music, dance, architecture
EXPLODING into a new era.

The world reinvented. Modernism.
Problems. Furies. Betrayals. Alliances.

Preposterous notions. Malicious opinions.
Relentless drive. Enveloping beauty.
Many many many meals.

Nothing would have happened
without Alice. NOTHING.
It could be that Alice did write
this book. It could be.
Who holds the pen?
Who has the ideas?
What is the atmosphere of the
living room, kitchen, bedroom, salon?
What sharpness of vision. What relishing
of things big and small.
Great fame. A cozy home.
This is a singular story embedded
in a singular time.
That is enough. And more.

Complement Kalman’s impossibly wonderful The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Illustrated with Alice’s quietly stirring account of how their love began and a charming modern picture-book about their uncommon life together, then revisit Kalman’s illustrated catalog of unusual delights and her soulful love letter to dogs.

Illustrations courtesy of Maira Kalman

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Octavia Butler on How (Not) to Choose Our Leaders

Sunday 23rd August 2020
“To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.”

In 1845, as the forgotten visionary Margaret Fuller was laying the foundation of modern feminism, advocating for black voting rights, and insisting that “while any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” she contemplated what makes a great leader and called for “no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist,” for a person “of universal sympathies, but self-possessed,” one for whom “this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value.”

But how does a nation, a society, a world concerned with more than the shadowy spectacles of the present identify and elect such leaders to shape the long future?

A century and a half after Fuller, Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) — another rare visionary — offered a glimmer of guidance in her sibylline two-part series set in the 2020s: Parable of the Sower (public library) and Parable of the Talents (public library) — a set of cautionary allegories, cautionary and future-protective in their keen prescription for course-correctives, about the struggle of a twenty-first-century society, Earthseed, to survive the ecological collapse, political corruption, corporate greed, and socioeconomic inequality it has inherited from the previous generations and their heedless choices.

Octavia Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of women writers who have enchanted and transformed our world.

Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Butler straddled the timeless and the prophetic, saturating her fiction with astute philosophical and psychological insight into human nature and the superorganism of society. Also like Le Guin, Butler soared into poetry to frame and punctuate her prose. Each chapter begins with an original verse abstracting its thematic direction. She opens the eleventh chapter of the second Earthseed book with this verse:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

And yet our discernment in choosing wisely, Butler intimates in a chilling short verse from the first book, can so often be muddled by our panic, by our paralyzing fright and pugilist flight:

Drowning people
Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

With staggering prescience and perhaps with a subtle wink at James Baldwin’s assertion that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Butler lets us know that drowning people do not choose their leaders wisely:

When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must —
God is Change —
People tend to give in
To fear and depression,
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one,
Group against group,
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it.
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
A leader
Most will follow,
Or a tyrant
Most fear.

Again and again, Butler cautions against the blindness of choosing from a state of heightened emotion — the very blindness which political propaganda is aimed at blinkering over the eyes of the electorate with the constant stirring of our most reptilian fears:

When vision fails
Direction is lost.

When direction is lost
Purpose may be forgotten.

When purpose is forgotten
Emotion rules alone.

When emotion rules alone,
Destruction… destruction.

Total solar eclipse by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

In a short verse evocative of the closing lines of Jane Hirshfield’s stunning poem “The Weighing,” Butler beckons us to become Earthseed — to become “the life that perceives itself changing” — and to effect change with our conscientious choices:

There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.

A century and a half after Margaret Fuller’s admirer Walt Whitman peered at the democratic vistas of a thriving society and exhorted humanity to “always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote,” Butler leaves us with this central question of personal responsibility:

Are you Earthseed?
Do you believe?
Belief will not save you.
Only actions
Guided and shaped
By belief and knowledge
Will save you.
Belief
Initiates and guides action —
Or it does nothing.

The shortest verse in the book distills Butler’s largest message:

Kindness eases Change.

Complement with David Foster Wallace on what a “real leader” means and Hannah Arendt on loneliness as the common ground for terror and how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression, then revisit poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s magnificent ode to choosing kindness over fear and Audre Lorde’s magnificent ode to choosing creation over destruction.

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Neuroscientist David Eagleman on How the Physiology of Drug Withdrawal Explains the Psychology of Heartbreak and Loss

Sunday 23rd August 2020
“The difference between predictions and outcomes is the key to understanding a strange property of learning: if you’re predicting perfectly, your brain doesn’t need to change further.”

“Who is good if he knows not who he is? and who knows what he is, if he forgets that things which have been made are perishable, and that it is not possible for one human being to be with another always?” So wrote Epictetus two millennia ago, offering the Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak as he contemplated love and loss long before the birth of neuroscience, before notions of hormones and neurotransmitters, before the heretical idea that out of this perishable flesh and its enskulled synaptic command center arises all of who and what we are. In the epochs since, countless poems and songs and private journal pages have likened the effects of love to those of a drug and the effects of loss, of heartbreak, of the dissolution of the illusion of always, to the maddening, debilitating effects of withdrawal.

Such metaphors, it turns out, are not mere poetic fancy but an apt reflection of an underlying neurobiological reality. So argues neuroscientist David Eagleman in a portion of Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain (public library) — an altogether fascinating tour of the astonishing plasticity and interconnectedness inside the cranial cradle of all of our experience of reality, animated by Eagleman’s erudite enthusiasm for his subject, aglow with the ecstasy of sensemaking that comes when the seemingly unconnected snaps into a consummate totality of understanding.

Glial cells of the cerebral cortex of a child — one of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s stunning drawings.

Eagleman writes:

The difference between predictions and outcomes is the key to understanding a strange property of learning: if you’re predicting perfectly, your brain doesn’t need to change further… Changes in the brain happen only when there’s a difference between what was expected and what actually happens.

The brain’s constant labor at predictive modeling of the world, this ceaseless calibration of expectation to actuality, is how addiction sinks its fangs into the tissue of being:

Consumption of a drug changes the number of receptors for the drug in the brain — to such an extent that you can look at a brain after a person has died and determine his addictions by gauging his molecular changes. This is why people become desensitized (or tolerant) to a drug: the brain comes to predict the presence of the drug, and adapts its receptor expression so it can maintain a stable equilibrium when it receives the next hit. In a physical, literal way, the brain comes to expect the drug to be there: the biological details have calibrated themselves accordingly. Because the system now predicts a certain amount to be present, more is needed to achieve the original high.

Another of Cajal’s forgotten drawings — synapses carrying auditory information and contacting neurons in the brainstem.

Neurobiology and psychology converge in the common ground between drug withdrawal and heartbreak. Echoing poet Meghan O’Rourke’s observation from her stunning memoir of learning to live with loss that “the people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created,” Eagleman writes:

People you love become part of you — not just metaphorically, but physically. You absorb people into your internal model of the world. Your brain refashions itself around the expectation of their presence. After the breakup with a lover, the death of a friend, or the loss of a parent, the sudden absence represents a major departure from homeostasis. As Kahlil Gibran put it in The Prophet, “And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

In this way, your brain is like the negative image of everyone you’ve come in contact with. Your lovers, friends, and parents fill in their expected shapes. Just like feeling the waves after you’ve departed the boat, or craving the drug when it’s absent, so your brain calls for the people in your life to be there. When someone moves away, rejects you, or dies, your brain struggles with its thwarted expectations. Slowly, through time, it has to readjust to a world without that person.

That, of course, is the miraculous thing about the brain — that it has to, and it does; that is the thing which Abraham Lincoln captured in his soulful letter of consolation to a bereaved friend, and that is the thing which Nick Cave serenaded with such splendor of sentiment in his meditation on loss.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

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Sometimes: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Stunning Meditation on Walking into the Questions of Our Becoming

Wednesday 19th August 2020
An invitation into the transcendent disquietude of those stirrings “that can make or unmake a life,” “that have no right to go away.”

The role of the artist, James Baldwin believed, is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.” This, too, is the role of the forest, it occurs to me as I walk the ferned, mossed woods daily to lose my self and find myself between the trees; to “live the questions,” in Rilke’s lovely phrase — to let the rustling of the leaves beckon forth the stirrings and murmurings on the edge of the psyche, which we so often brush away in order to go on being the smaller version of ourselves we have grown accustomed to being out of the unfaced fear that the grandeur of life, the grandeur of our own untrammeled nature, might require of us more than we are ready to give.

Those disquieting, transformative stirrings are what the poet and philosopher David Whyte explores with surefooted subtlety in his poem “Sometimes,” found in his altogether life-enlarging collection Everything Is Waiting for You (public library) and read here by the poet himself as part of a wonderful short course of poem-driven practices for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit (which I can’t recommend enough and which operates under an inspired, honorable model of granting free subscriptions to those who need this invaluable mental health aid but don’t have the means).

SOMETIMES
by David Whyte

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,
breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,
who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,
you come to a place
whose only task
is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,
conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.
Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and
to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,
questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,
questions
that have patiently
waited for you,
questions
that have no right
to go away.

Complement with Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means, hardship as the ground for self-expansion, and his lovely letter to children about reading as a portal to self-discovery, then revisit other great poets bringing their own versed wisdom to life: Marie Howe reading “Singularity,” Marissa Davis reading her own “Singularity” in response to Howe’s, Jane Hirshfield reading “Today, Another Universe,” Ross Gay reading “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” Marilyn Nelson reading “The Children’s Moon,” and former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading from “My God, It’s Full of Stars.”

donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

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