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Brain Pickings

Welcome Hello <<Name>>! This is the weekly Brain Pickings newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — what it takes to grow up and what it means to have grown; Marcus Aurelius in love; physicist Brian Greene on our cosmic search for meaning — 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 more than thirteen years, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Bloom: A Touching Animated Short Film about Depression and What It Takes to Recover the Light of Being

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands,” the poet May Sarton wrote as she contemplated the cure for despair amid a dark season of the spirit. But what does it take to perch that precarious if in the direction of the light? When we are in that dark and hollow place, that place of leaden loneliness and isolation, when “the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” as William Styron wrote in his classic account of the malady — an indiscriminate malady that savaged Keats and savaged Nietzsche and savaged Hansberry — what does it take to live through the horror and the hollowness to the other side, to look back and gasp disbelievingly, with the poet Jane Kenyon: “What hurt me so terribly… until this moment?”

During a recent dark season of the spirit, a dear friend buoyed me with the most wonderful, hope-giving, rehumanizing story: Some years earlier, when a colleague of hers — another physicist — was going through such a season of his own, she gave him an amaryllis bulb in a small pot; the effect it had on him was unexpected and profound, as the effect of uncalculated kindnesses always is — profound and far-reaching, the way a pebble of kindness ripples out widening circles of radiance. As the light slowly returned to his life, he decided to teach a class on the physics of animation. And so it is that one of his students, Emily Johnstone, came to make Bloom — a touching animated short film, drawing from the small personal gesture a universal metaphor for how we survive our densest private darknesses, consonant with Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place… to make us warm in the coldest season.”

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Complement with Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression and Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, then revisit “Having It Out with Melancholy” — Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression.

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Every week for more than 13 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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Immortality in Passing: Poet Lisel Mueller, Who Died at 96, on What Gives Meaning to Our Ephemeral Lives

alivetogether_liselmueller.jpg?fit=320%2C534

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan observed as she beheld impermanence and transcendence at the foot of a mountain. “By the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws,” the poetic physicist Brian Greene wrote in his beautiful meditation on our search for meaning in a cold cosmos, “we are here.”

And then we are not.

We die. All of us — atoms to atoms, stardust to stardust, the mountain to the sea — you and I. The dual awareness of our improbable life and our inevitable death is what allows us to animate the interlude with love and beauty, with poems and fairy tales and poems, with general relativity and Nina Simone. It is what puts into perspective just how fleeting and vacant and self-embittering all of our angers and blames and resentments are in the end — what beckons us, instead, to “leave something of sweetness and substance in the mouth of the world.”

That is what the late, great Lisel Mueller (February 8, 1924–February 21, 2020) — one of the most original, deepest-seeing poets of our time — explores with great subtlety and profundity disguised as levity in the poem “Immortality” from her final poetry collection, the Pulitzer-winning masterpiece Alive Together (public library).

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIMMORTALITY
by Lisel Mueller

In Sleeping Beauty’s castle
the clock strikes one hundred years
and the girl in the tower returns to the world.
So do the servants in the kitchen,
who don’t even rub their eyes.
The cook’s right hand, lifted
an exact century ago,
completes its downward arc
to the kitchen boy’s left ear;
the boy’s tensed vocal cords
finally let go
the trapped, enduring whimper,
and the fly, arrested mid-plunge
above the strawberry pie,
fulfills its abiding mission
and dives into the sweet, red glaze.

As a child I had a book
with a picture of that scene.
I was too young to notice
how fear persists, and how
the anger that causes fear persists,
that its trajectory can’t be changed
or broken, only interrupted.
My attention was on the fly;
that this slight body
with its transparent wings
and lifespan of one human day
still craved its particular share
of sweetness, a century later.

(Two centuries earlier, William Blake explored the same eternal subject though the same creature in his short existentialist poem “The Fly.”)

In the front matter of this altogether miraculous book, where an epigraph would ordinarily appear, Mueller offers a short poem that becomes a kind of chorus line for the entire collection, but emerges as an especially harmonizing counterpart to “Immortality” in particular:

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIN PASSING
by Lisel Mueller

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.

Complement these fragments of the wholly transcendent Alive Together with physicist Alan Lightman on our yearning for immortality in a universe governed by decay, Pico Iyer on finding beauty in impermanence, and Marcus Aurelius on mortality as the key to living fully, then revisit Barbara Ras’s bittersweet, buoyant, perspective-calibrating poem “You Can’t Have It All” and Marilyn Nelson’s magnificent ode to how we fill our impermanence with importance, “Faster Than Light.”

Creativity as a Way of Being: Poet and Potter M.C. Richards on Wholeness, the Measure of Our Wisdom, and What It Really Means to Be an Artist

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“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his gorgeous Nobel Prize acceptance speech a lifetime after the boyhood revelation that to be an artist, to be a vessel of the creative impulse conveying one human essence to another, is to be the hand through the fence.

Around the same time, another literary artist who made art with her hands — the poet and potter M.C. Richards (July 13, 1916–September 10, 1999) — shone her mind of immense brightness and penetration on the elusive, mysticism-cloaked reality of what it actually means to be an artist in her 1964 counterculture classic Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (public library), exploring what the wheel teaches about inner wholeness and the poetry of personhood.

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Mary Caroline Richards at Black Mountain College (Getty Research Institute. Photographer unknown.)

Richards — who relinquished a tenure-track position at a major university to join the faculty at the experimental Black Mountain College, becoming the school’s most beloved teacher — writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present. With food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch. We are not craftsmen only during studio hours. Any more than a man is wise only in his library. Or devout only in church. The material is not the sign of the creative feeling for life: of the warmth and sympathy and reverence which foster being; techniques are not the sign; “art” is not the sign. The sign is the light that dwells within the act, whatever its nature or its medium.

Half a century later, artist and MacArthur fellow Teresita Fernández would echo this sentiment in what remains one of the most insightful and inspiring commencement addresses ever given.

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Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, 1876 — a labor of love seven years in the making, which she used to teach women astronomy in an era when they were barred from formal education. Available as a print.

In a splendid counterpart to John Muir’s insistence on the interconnectedness of the universe without, Richards draws on her potting metaphor of centering to consider the universe within:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAs our personal universes expand, if we keep drawing ourselves into center again and again, everything seems to enhance everything else… The activity seems to spring out of the same source: poem or pot, loaf of bread, letter to a friend, a morning’s meditation, a walk in the woods, turning the compost pile, knitting a pair of shoes, weeping with pain, fainting with discouragement, burning with shame, trembling with indecision.

Two and a half millennia after Pythagoras weighed the meaning of wisdom, and in consonance with philosopher-of-forms Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of creative work as “acts that amplify,” Richard places this creative integration at the heart of human wisdom:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWisdom is a state of the total being, in which capacities for knowledge and for love, for survival and for death, for imagination, inspiration, intuition, for all the fabulous functioning of this human being who we are, come into a center with their forces, come into an experience of meaning that can voice itself as wise action.

Centering is a magnificent, inspiriting read in its entirety. Complement this small fragment with James Baldwin on what it means to be an artist, in an interview conducted while Richards was composing her book, and E.E. Cummings’s irreverently insightful take on the same slippery question from the same era, then revisit Kahlil Gibran on why we create and Franz Kafka on the point of making art.

donating=loving

Every week for more than 13 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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