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Brain Pickings

Welcome Hello <<Name>>! This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Viktor Frankl on how music, nature, and our love for each other succor our survival and give meaning to existence, Virginia Woolf on reading, and more — you can catch up right here. And if you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, as I have been for fourteen years, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

D.H. Lawrence on Trees, Solitude, and How We Root Ourselves When Relationships Collapse

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To walk among trees is to be reminded that although relationships weave the fabric of life, one can only be in relationship — in a forest or a family or a friendship — when firmly planted in the sovereignty of one’s own being, when resolutely reaching for one’s own light.

A century ago, Hermann Hesse contemplated how trees model for us this foundation of integrity in his staggeringly beautiful love letter to trees — how they stand lonesome-looking even in a forest, yet “not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.” Celebrating them as “the most penetrating preachers,” he reverenced the silent fortitude with which “they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.”

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Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

A supreme challenge of human life is reconciling the longing to fulfill ourselves in union, in partnership, in love, with the urgency of fulfilling ourselves according to our own solitary and sovereign laws. Writing at the same time as Hesse, living in exile in the mountains, having barely survived an attack of the deadly Spanish Flu that claimed tens of millions of lives, the polymathic creative force D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) took up the question of this divergent longing with great subtlety and splendor of insight in his autobiographically tinted novel Aaron’s Rod (free ebook | public library), rooting the plot’s climactic relationship resolution in a stunning passage about trees.

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D.H. Lawrence

At a tea-party, the novel’s protagonist meets the Marchesa del Torre — an American woman from the South, married to an Italian man and living with him in Tuscany; a woman of composure with an edge of beckoning aloofness, “sitting there, full-bosomed, rather sad, remote-seeming,” a kind of modern Cleopatra brooding from under her dark, heavy-hanging hair out of an Aubrey Beardsley drawing. She strikes him as “wonderful, and sinister,” affects him “with a touch of horror.” He falls under her spell, drawn to her as we are so often drawn to danger by the magnetic pull of the sublime, with its dipoles of beauty and terror.

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One of Aubrey Beardsley’s revolutionary illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome. (Available as a print.)

When their affair collapses under the weight of its own impossibility, he finds himself — and finds his self, his sovereignty of soul — among the trees. Lawrence writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOne must possess oneself, and be alone in possession of oneself.

[…]

He sat for long hours among the cypress trees of Tuscany. And never had any trees seemed so like ghosts, like soft, strange, pregnant presences. He lay and watched tall cypresses breathing and communicating, faintly moving and as it were walking in the small wind. And his soul seemed to leave him and to go far away, far back, perhaps, to where life was all different and time passed otherwise than time passes now. As in clairvoyance he perceived it: that our life is only a fragment of the shell of life. That there has been and will be life, human life such as we do not begin to conceive. Much that is life has passed away from men, leaving us all mere bits. In the dark, mindful silence and inflection of the cypress trees, lost races, lost language, lost human ways of feeling and of knowing. Men have known as we can no more know, have felt as we can no more feel. Great life-realities gone into the darkness. But the cypresses commemorate.

Complement with Robert Macfarlane on how trees illuminate the secret to healthy love, Pablo Neruda’s breathtaking love letter to the forest, and Mary Oliver’s short, shimmering poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Lawrence on the antidote to the malady of materialism.

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Every week for fourteen years, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you've had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)

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Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt: Poet Ross Gay’s Subtle, Stunning Meditation on Learning to Live and Learning to Die

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Every act of living is an act of learning to die, of apprenticing ourselves to the loss of this moment, of this collarbone being touched, of this hand doing the touching. If we are thoughtful and tender enough with ourselves, the terror of the loss cusps into transcendence, the grief into gratitude, into a nonspecific gladness enveloping everything that ever was and ever will be, enveloping us in the sense of ourselves as nothing more than particles passing between not yet and no more, nothing less than particular, particulate miracles bewildered and bewildering in their passage.

That is what poet Ross Gay explores with his light and luminous touch in one of the highlights from the fourth annual Universe in Verse, the poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirit” from his altogether resuscitating and resucculating 2015 poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (public library) — the conceptual womb out of his which his prose miracle The Book of Delights was born.

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngODE TO BUTTONING AND UNBUTTONING MY SHIRT
by Ross Gay

No one knew or at least
I didn’t know
they knew
what the thin disks
threaded here
on my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly
the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
slowly
top to bottom
or bottom
to top or sometimes
the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
anyway
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this
simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic
this and that
two maybe three
times a day
some days
I have the distinct pleasure
of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life
practicing
like this
giving the raft of our hands
to the clumsy spider
and blowing soft until she
lifts her damp heft and
crawls off
we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.

Couple with a gorgeous poem about how to live and how to die, read by the disparticled human miracle who first ignited my love of poetry and inspired the inception of The Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show: astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death” with original music by Zoë Keating, Pablo Neruda’s prose ode to the forest, Lisel Mueller’s subtle poem about transcending our limiting frames of reference, a stunning tribute to Rachel Carson’s ecological legacy by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and the most beloved piece from all four years of the show: an animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s masterpiece “Singularity.”

An Illustrated Love Letter to Gardening

“I work like a gardener,” the visionary artist Joan Miró observed in reflecting on his creative process. It was in a garden bed that Virginia Woolf arrived at her exquisite epiphany about what it takes to be an artist. For poet Ross Gay, time spent in the garden is “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” Looking back on his life, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks recognized the healing power of gardens as one of only two non-medical interventions that have helped his patients, alongside music. “It came to me while picking beans, the secret of happiness,” the bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her gorgeous ode to gardening.

I too have healed, have honed my attention, have fine-tuned my artistic voice and purpose, have learned and practiced happiness in the garden, on my tiny patch of Brooklyn soil. I too have knelt on the frost-bitten ground to press into it the first seed of spring, have craned my neck by midsummer to meet the prayerful face of the sunflower, radiant and rueful in its solitary stature. I too have plunged my hands into the moist dirt, cupping the infant root system of a willow tree I know will outlive me, cupping with it the bewildering, consecrating knowledge that seed and sunflower and willow and I all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego, all the while remembering that humility comes from humilis — Latin for low, of the earth.

That — how gardening brings us into intimate contact with the rhythms and relational marvels of nature, with ourselves as humble notes in the rhythm and nodes in the marvel — is what artist Debbie Millman, my longtime former partner and now darling friend, explores in this wondrous illustrated love letter to the garden she started with her then-fiancé, now-wife Roxane Gay, part of a four-part series for TED, narrated in Debbie’s own lush and recognizable voice.

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Complement with this illustrated Victorian encyclopedia of poetic lessons from the garden and a lovely contemporary children’s book about how gardening teaches us to work with unselfish purpose, then savor more of Debbie’s splendid visual stories and meditations on her Instagram.

donating=loving

Every week for fourteen years, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you've had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start Now Give Now

Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7
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