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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello <<Name>>! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — a 400-year-old remedy for melancholy, how Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh found himself and lost his self in a library epiphany, and old French fairy tales — you can catch up right here. If you missed the annual highlights-in-hindsight of my favorite books of the past year, those are here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for more than fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive (as have I) thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

The Light That Bridges the Dark Expanse Between Lonelinesses: James Baldwin on How Long-Distance Love Illuminates the Power of All Love

The longer I live, the more deeply I learn that love — whether we call it friendship or family or romance — is the work of mirroring and magnifying each other’s light. Gentle work. Steadfast work. Life-saving work in those moments when life and shame and sorrow occlude our own light from our view, but there is still a clear-eyed loving person to beam it back. In our best moments, we are that person for another.

In learning this afresh — as we must learn all the great and obvious truths, over and over — I was reminded of a passage by James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) from Nothing Personal (public library) — his 1964 collaboration with the photographer Richard Avedon, his high school classmate and lifelong friend, which contains some of Baldwin’s least-known yet most intimate writings, including his antidote to dog-hour despair and his counterforce to entropy. (In the years since I first wrote about this forgotten treasure, it has been unforgotten in a new edition by Penguin Random House — regrettably, without Avedon’s photographs, razing the spirit of collaboration between friends that occasioned the project in the first place; redemptively, with a foreword by the dazzling Imani Perry, who considers herself Baldwin’s “pupil in the study of humanity” and who writes splendidly about his enduring gift of reminding us how reading “allows us to recognize each other” and “makes everything seem possible.”)

James Baldwin

In the final of the book’s four essays, Baldwin writes:

One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light.

This light, Baldwin intimates, is most often and most readily found in love — that great and choiceless gift of chance.

Love becomes a lens on the world, on space and on time — a pinhole through which a new light enters to project onto the cave wall of our consciousness landscapes of intimate importance from territories of being we would have never otherwise known.

One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s 1920 illustrations for old French fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

He writes:

Pretend, for example, that you were born in Chicago and have never had the remotest desire to visit Hong Kong, which is only a name on a map for you; pretend that some convulsion, sometimes called accident, throws you into connection with a man or a woman who lives in Hong Kong; and that you fall in love. Hong Kong will immediately cease to be a name and become the center of your life. And you may never know how many people live in Hong Kong. But you will know that one man or one woman lives there without whom you cannot live. And this is how our lives are changed, and this is how we are redeemed.

What a journey this life is! Dependent, entirely, on things unseen. If your lover lives in Hong Kong and cannot get to Chicago, it will be necessary for you to go to Hong Kong. Perhaps you will spend your life there, and never see Chicago again. And you will, I assure you, as long as space and time divide you from anyone you love, discover a great deal about shipping routes, airlines, earth quake, famine, disease, and war. And you will always know what time it is in Hong Kong, for you love someone who lives there. And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.

Total eclipse of the sun by Étienne Léopold Trouvelot. (Available as a print, as stationery cards, and as a face mask.)

A master of metaphor — that handle on the door to new worlds — Baldwin takes the case of what we call long-distance love and finds in it a miniature of all love.

All love bridges the immense expanse between lonelinesses, becomes the telescope that brings another life closer and, in consequence, also magnifies the significance of their entire world.

All love is light’s battle against the entropy continually inclining spacetime toward nothingness, against the hard fact that you will die, and I will die, and everyone we love will die, and what will survive of us are only shoreless seeds and stardust.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) going. For fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor has made your own life more livable in the past year (or the past decade), please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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.
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For Warmth: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Poetic Antidote to Anger

“The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands,” the poet and storyteller turned activist Grace Paley’s father told her in what remains the finest advice on growing older. “You must do this every morning.”

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist turned poet Thich Nhat Hanh (October 11, 1926–January 22, 2022), just a few years younger than Paley, was channeling a kindred sentiment into one of his poems as he watched the world come undone by the oldest ugliness in the bosom of the human animal, in a war breaking countless hearts and robbing countless lives of the gift of growing older.

Upon learning that the city of Ben Tre had been bombed and hearing an American officer declare, in his recollection, “that he had to destroy the town in order to save the town,” Thich Nhat Hanh saw war clearly for what it is — a pinnacle of the anger with which we humans so often cover up our loneliness, the loneliness which tyrants so often use to flare up terror.

Thich Nhat Hanh. (Photograph courtesy of Plum Village.)

A salve, a self-consolation, a spare and powerful spell against anger — the most fundamental and fundamentalist war against ourselves — the poem calls to mind poet May Sarton’s exquisite conception of anger as “a huge creative urge gone into reverse.”

Published decades later in Call Me by My True Names: The Collected Poems of Thich Nhat Hanh (public library), as the world was coming undone anew in the self-redundantly named “war on terror,” it is read here by Thich Nhat Hanh himself in its original Vietnamese, then by Krista Tippett in English, as part of their altogether shimmering 2002 conversation about the practice of mindfulness and compassion at the heart of our humanity:

FOR WARMTH
by Thich Nhat Hanh

I hold my face between my hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face between my hands
to keep my loneliness warm —
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands to prevent
my soul from leaving me
in anger.

In his On Being conversation with Krista, Thich Nhat Hanh unpeels the poetic abstraction to reflect on the underlying practice the verse speaks to — mindfulness (which in 2002 was far from a mainstream notion in the West) as a practical antidote to anger:

The individual has to wake up to the fact that violence cannot end violence; that only understanding and compassion can neutralize violence, because with the practice of loving speech and compassionate listening we can begin to understand people and help people to remove the wrong perceptions in them, because these wrong perceptions are at the foundation of their anger, their fear, their violence, their hate.

[…]

We have to remain human in order to be able to understand and to be compassionate. You have the right to be angry, but you don’t have the right not to practice in order to transform your anger… When you notice that anger is coming up in you, you have to practice mindful breathing in order to generate the energy of mindfulness, in order to recognize your anger and embrace it tenderly so that you can bring relief into you and not to act and to say things… that can be destructive. And doing so, you can look deeply into the nature of your anger and know where it has come from.

Complement with Ursula K. Le Guin on anger and its antidote, then revisit Thich Hhat Hanh on the art of deep listening, the four Buddhist mantras for turning fear into love, and his lovely youthful account of the library epiphany in which he lost his self and found himself.

The Animated Universe in Verse, Part 1: The Origin of Life and the Birth of Ecology, with Emily Dickinson

The Universe in Verse was born in 2017 as a charitable celebration of the wonder of reality through stories of science winged with poetry — part resistance (to the assault on science and the natural world in an atmosphere of “alternative facts” and vanishing ecological protections) and part persistence (in sustaining the felicitous expression of nature in human nature, with our capacity for music and mathematics, for art and hope.)

For four seasons, it remained a live gathering — thousands of embodied universes of thought and feeling, huddled together in a finite space built in a faraway time when Whitman’s living atoms walked the streets outside.

In this interlude between gatherings, as we face the biological and ecological realities of life with widened eyes, I have entwined visions with my friends at On Being to reimagine the spirit of The Universe in Verse in a different incarnation, a year in the making: a season of stories about epoch-making events, discoveries, and unsung heroes from the history of science — this common record of our search for truth and the native beauty of reality — each illustrated in poetry’s lovely abstract language, with an animated poem.

The nine episodes follow a larger story-arc stretching between the beginning of life on our home planet and the end of our universe once all the stars burn out.(For more about the totality and the twenty-nine largehearted artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and other weavers of wonder who poured their time and talent into this improbable labor of love, see the project home.)

And now we begin:

The first episode tells the story of evolution and the birth of ecology, illustrated with an Emily Dickinson poem — untitled, per her unconventional choice across her entire body of work, but known, per literary convention, by its first line: “Bloom.”

Find the transcript, poem text, and the story of its making below.

Two hundred million years ago, long before we walked the Earth, it was a world of cold-blooded creatures and dull color — a kind of terrestrial sea of brown and green. There were plants, but their reproduction was a tenuous game of chance — they released their pollen into the wind, into the water, against the staggering improbability that it might reach another member of their species. No algorithm, no swipe — just chance.

But then, in the Cretaceous period, flowers appeared and carpeted the world with astonishing rapidity — because, in some poetic sense, they invented love.

Once there were flowers, there were fruit — that transcendent alchemy of sunlight into sugar. Once there were fruit, plants could enlist the help of animals in a kind of trade: sweetness for a lift to a mate. Animals savored the sugars in fruit, converted them into energy and proteins, and a new world of warm-blooded mammals came alive.

Without flowers, there would be no us.

No poetry.

No science.

No music.

Darwin could not comprehend how flowers could emerge so suddenly and take over so completely. He called it an “abominable mystery.” But out of that mystery a new world was born, governed by greater complexity and interdependence and animal desire, with the bloom as its emblem of seduction.

In 1866, the young German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel — whose exquisite illustrations of single-celled underwater creatures had enchanted Darwin — gave that interdependence a name: He called it ecology, from the Greek oikos, or “house, and logia, or “the study of,” denoting the study of the relationship between organisms in the house of life.

A year earlier, in 1865, a young American poet — a keen observer of the house of life who made of it a temple of beauty — composed what is essentially a pre-ecological poem about ecology.

She had awakened to the interdependent splendor of the natural world as a teenager, when she composed a different kind of ecological poem: In a large album bound in green cloth, she painstakingly pressed, arranged, and labeled in her neat handwriting 424 wildflowers she had gathered from her native New England — some of them now endangered, some extinct.

This herbarium — which survives — became Emily Dickinson’s first formal exercise in composition, and although she came to reverence the delicate interleavings of nature in so many of her stunning, spare, strange poems, this one — the one she wrote in 1865, just before Ernst Haeckel coined ecology — illuminates and magnifies these relationships through the lens of a single flower and everything that goes into making its bloom — this emblem of seduction — possible: the worms in the soil (which Darwin celebrated as the unsung agriculturalists that shaped Earth as we know it), the pollinators in the spring air, all the creatures both competing for resources and symbiotically aiding each other.

And, suddenly, the flower suddenly emerges not as this pretty object to be admired, but as this ravishing system of aliveness — a kind of silent symphony of interconnected resilience.

To bring Emily Dickinson’s masterpiece to life is a modern-day poet of feeling in music — also a keen observer of the house of life, also a passionate lover of nature, also an emissary of aliveness through art.

She is a composer, a multi-instrumentalist classically trained as a violinist, and above all a singer and writer of songs with uncommon sensitivity to the most poetic dimensions of life.

Here is Joan As Police Woman with Emily Dickinson and the centuries-old pressed flowers from her actual herbarium.

BLOOM
by Emily Dickinson

Bloom — is Result — to meet a Flower
And casually glance
Would cause one scarcely to suspect
The minor Circumstance
Assisting in the Bright Affair
So intricately done
Then offered as a Butterfly
To the Meridian —
To pack the Bud — oppose the Worm —
Obtain its right of Dew —
Adjust the Heat — elude the Wind —
Escape the prowling Bee
Great Nature not to disappoint
Awaiting Her that Day —
To be a Flower, is profound
Responsibility —

HOW WE MADE IT

Every true artist is a miniaturist of grandeur, determined to make every littlest thing the very best it can be — not out of egoic grandiosity but out of devotion to beauty, devotion paid for with their time and thought, those raw materials of life. When I invited the uncommonly gifted and uncommonly minded Joan As Police Woman to bring the poem to life in a typical Universe in Verse reading, this true artist instead transformed it into a soulful song — an homage that would have gladdened the poet, who in her teenage years took regular music lessons and practiced piano for two hours a day, and who grew up to believe that, in its most transcendent stillness, the world is “thronged only with Music.”

From the start, I envisioned using the teenage poet’s herbarium — a forgotten treasure at the intersection of art and science, one of my favorite discoveries during the research for the Dickinson chapters of Figuring — as the raw material for the animation art. Having collaborated on a handful of previous animated poems, I invited Ohara Hale — artist, musician, poet, illustrator, animator, maker of nature-reverent children’s books, choreographer of beauty and feeling across a multitude of art-forms — to work her visual magic on the poem-song.

In a small wood cabin at the foot of a Spanish volcano, she set about reanimating — in both senses of the word — Emily Dickinson’s spirit through her herbarium.

Ohara composed all the creatures — the bee, the butterfly, the caterpillar, the human hand — from fragments of the poet’s centuries-old pressed flowers: digitized, restored, retraced by hand, and atomized into new life-forms. Individual petals, leaves, and stamens make the wings, body, and antennae of each butterfly. Layers of petals, sepals, and anthers stripe and behair the body of the bee. A large leaf folds unto itself to shape the hand that wrote this poem and nearly two thousand others — poems that have long outlived the living matter that felt and composed them, poems that have helped generations live.

Strewing the animation are words from the poem, hand-lettered by the polymathic Debbie Millman (whose script graces the Universe in Verse titles throughout the entire season) in a style based on surviving museum samples of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting from the period in which she composed the herbarium.

In a lovely way, the art mirrors the music it serves. Joan’s composition is itself a time-traveling masterwork of layering: voice upon keys upon strings, feeling-tone upon feeling-tone, classical heritage beneath thoroughly original sensibility — all of it so consonant with the central poetic image, all of it “so intricately done,” all of it a triumph of that “profound responsibility” we have to the ecosystem of art and ideas abloom in the spacetime between Emily Dickinson and us.

It has been an honor to collaborate with these uncommonly gifted women on honoring an uncommonly gifted artistic ancestor and celebrating our common evolutionary ancestry with all life-forms in nature.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) going. For fifteen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor has made your own life more livable in the past year (or the past decade), please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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 NowGive Now

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

Need to cancel an existing donation? (It's okay — life changes course. I treasure your kindness and appreciate your support for as long as it lasted.) You can do so on this page.

A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT

Uncommon Presents from the Past: Gifts for the Science-Lover and Nature-Ecstatic in Your Life, Benefitting the Nature Conservancy

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