Mary Oliver on how books saved her life, Ursula K. Le Guin on writing, Alan Watts on the antidote to the loneliness of the divided mind, and more.

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Staying Alive: Mary Oliver on How Books Saved Her Life and Why the Passion for Work Is the Greatest Antidote to Pain

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully,” Proust wrote in contemplating why we read, “as the days we think we left behind without living at all: the days we spent with a favourite book.” And yet childhoods come in varied hues, some much darker than others; some children only survive by leaving the anguish of the real world behind and seeking shelter in the world of books.

Among them was the poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935), who recounts the redemptive refuge of reading and writing in her essay “Staying Alive,” found in Upstream: Selected Essays (public library) — the radiant collection of reflections that gave us Oliver on the artist’s task and the central commitment of the creative life.

Looking back on her barely survivable childhood, ravaged by pain which Oliver has never belabored or addressed directly — a darkness she shines a light on most overtly in her poem “Rage” and discusses obliquely in her terrific On Being conversation with Krista Tippett — she contemplates how reading saved her life:

Adults can change their circumstances; children cannot. Children are powerless, and in difficult situations they are the victims of every sorrow and mischance and rage around them, for children feel all of these things but without any of the ability that adults have to change them. Whatever can take a child beyond such circumstances, therefore, is an alleviation and a blessing.

Rebecca Solnit, in her beautiful meditation on the life-saving vanishing act of reading, wrote: “I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods.” Oliver disappeared into both. For her, the woods were not a metaphor but a locale of self-salvation — she found respite from the brutality of the real world in the benediction of two parallel sacred worlds: nature and literature. She vanished into the woods, where she found “beauty and interest and mystery,” and she vanished into books. In a sentiment that calls to mind Kafka’s unforgettable assertion that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Oliver writes:

The second world — the world of literature — offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

Oliver approached her new sacred world not just with the imaginative purposefulness typical of children aglow with a new obsession, but with a survivalist determination aimed at nothing less than self-salvation:

I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.


I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.

Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading

In literature, she had her fill of the “clear and sweet and savory emotion” absent from the reality of her ordinary world, until reading alone was no longer enough — writing beckoned as the mighty world-building force that it is. Oliver recalls:

I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.


I saw what skill was needed, and persistence — how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page — the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.

With an eye to how the enlivening power of this “passion for work” slowly and steadily superseded the deadening weight of her circumstances, Oliver issues an incantation almost as a note to herself whispered into the margins:

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.

Echoing young Sylvia Plath’s insistence on writing as salvation for the soul, Oliver takes a lucid look at the nuanced nature of such self-salvation through creative work and considers what it means to save one’s own life:

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.


And now my old dog is dead, and another I had after him, and my parents are dead, and that first world, that old house, is sold and lost, and the books I gathered there lost, or sold — but more books bought, and in another place, board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy — and mostly the shimmering shoulders of the world that shrug carelessly over the fate of any individual that they may, the better, keep the Niles and the Amazons flowing. And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it. And can do what I want to with it. Live it. Give it back, someday, without bitterness, to the wild and weedy dunes.

Complement the endlessly nourishing Upstream with Oliver on what attention really means, love and its necessary wildness, and the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Joan Didion on the wellspring of self-respect, Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit, and this animated oral history of how libraries save lives.

An Antidote to the Loneliness of the Divided Mind: Alan Watts on Our Integration with the Universe and How We Wrest Meaning from Reality

“All things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe,” the great theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler wrote in his influential It for Bit model of the nature of reality, adding: “Observer-participancy gives rise to information.”

Wheeler arrived at this notion that the universe doesn’t exist out there, independent of us, through the gateway of physics just as his British contemporary Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) was arriving at it through philosophy. In introducing Eastern thought into the West, Watts spoke and wrote with unparalleled lucidity about the way in which our self-referential awareness of an experience (or observer-participancy, in Wheeler’s words) shapes the experience itself, nowhere more elegantly than in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — his timeless and increasingly timely treatise on how to live with presence.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Watts argues that as long as we divide life into interior self-awareness and exterior experience, into life in here and life out there, we split our psyches asunder and doom ourselves to never attaining the wholeness at the heart of human happiness. With an eye to the inherent interconnectedness of the universe, he writes:

There is a world of difference between an inference and a feeling. You can reason that the universe is a unity without feeling it to be so. You can establish the theory that your body is a movement in an unbroken process which includes all suns and stars, and yet continue to feel separate and lonely. For the feeling will not correspond to the theory until you have also discovered the unity of inner experience. Despite all theories, you will feel that you are isolated from life so long as you are divided within.

But you will cease to feel isolated when you recognize, for example, that you do not have a sensation of the sky: you are that sensation. For all purposes of feeling, your sensation of the sky is the sky, and there is no “you” apart from what you sense, feel, and know.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

Like the physicist who builds models of how the universe works but remains completely blind to her own interior world, we risk being only half-human when we worship at the altar of the outrospective intellect to the exclusion of our introspective intuition, the seedbed of belonging to the integrated wholeness of the universe — that is, when we approach the world as separate experiencers of it rather than as participatory parts of it. Watts admonishes:

The sense of unity with the “All” is not, however, a nebulous state of mind, a sort of trance, in which all form and distinction is abolished, as if man and the universe merged into a luminous mist of pale mauve. Just as process and form, energy and matter, myself and experience, are names for, and ways of looking at, the same thing — so one and many, unity and multiplicity, identity and difference, are not mutually exclusive opposites: they are each other, much as the body is its various organs. To discover that the many are the one, and that the one is the many, is to realize that both are words and noises representing what is at once obvious to sense and feeling, and an enigma to logic and description.


When you really understand that you are what you see and know, you do not run around the countryside thinking, “I am all this.” There is simply “all this.”

Art by Gabi Swiatkowska from Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford, an illustrated parable at the intersection of science and philosophy

More than half a century before physicist Sean Carroll held up the beautiful notion of “poetic naturalism” as a counterpoint to the scientific contention that the universe is inherently meaningless, Watts inverts that common charge and writes:

If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so. If this world is a vicious trap, so is its accuser, and the pot is calling the kettle black.

In the strictest sense, we cannot actually think about life and reality at all, because this would have to include thinking about thinking, thinking about thinking about thinking, and so ad infinitum. One can only attempt a rational, descriptive philosophy of the universe on the assumption that one is totally separate from it. But if you and your thoughts are part of this universe, you cannot stand outside them to describe them. This is why all philosophical and theological systems must ultimately fall apart. To “know” reality you cannot stand outside it and define it; you must enter into it, be it, and feel it.

Watts argues that this impulse for description over experience, for attempting to make sense of reality by standing outside it rather than surrendering to it, is symptomatic of the divided mind — the mind that robs us of inner wholeness. He writes:

So long as the mind is split, life is perpetual conflict, tension, frustration, and disillusion. Suffering is piled on suffering, fear on fear, and boredom on boredom… But the undivided mind is free from this tension of trying always to stand outside oneself and to be elsewhere than here and now. Each moment is lived completely, and there is thus a sense of fulfillment and completeness.


When … you realize that you live in, that indeed you are this moment now, and no other, that apart from this there is no past and no future, you must relax and taste to the full, whether it be pleasure or pain. At once it becomes obvious why this universe exists, why conscious beings have been produced, why sensitive organs, why space, time, and change. The whole problem of justifying nature, of trying to make life mean something in terms of its future, disappears utterly. Obviously, it all exists for this moment. It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.

The Wisdom of Insecurity remains an indispensable read. Complement this particular portion with trailblazing physicist David Bohm and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard on how we shape what we call reality, then revisit Watts on what makes us who we are, the difference between money and wealth, the art of timing, and learning not to think in terms of gain or loss.

Ursula K. Le Guin on Writing as Falling in Love

Whosoever has endeavored to bring into the world something substantive that hadn’t existed before — something that adds to the world’s store of truth and beauty, be it a painting or a poem or an equation — naturally comes to see that something as a “labor of love.” (I certainly couldn’t fathom an apter term as I looked back on ten years of Brain Pickings.) Labor without love dooms one to the hamster wheel of productivity, that vacant counterpoint to creativity; love without labor begets infinite procrastination, the death kiss of ideation. “Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it,” Vivian Gornick wrote of the incomparable joy of consummate creative work.

No one has articulated this relationship between labor and love in creative work more elegantly than Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) in the introduction to her Library of America tome The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena / Stories and Songs (public library).

In discussing the inception of her iconic 1979 novel Malafrena, Le Guin — one of only two living novelist included in the Library of Congress series, alongside Philip Roth — quotes a passage from her daybook, penned in November of 1978, when the novel still had the befitting working title The Necessary Passion:

“Being in love — falling in love” — now I understand it — now I know what it means — what happens to me when I am writing: I am in love with the work, the subject, the characters, and while it goes on & a while after, the opus itself. — I function only by falling in love: with French and France; with the 15th Century; with microbiology, cosmology, sleep research, etc. at various times — I could not have written A Week in the Country without having fallen in love with current DNA research! … What it is I suppose is the creative condition as expressed in human emotion and mood — So it comes out curiously the same whether sexual or spiritual or aesthetic or intellectual.

And yet, perhaps because Le Guin is capable of synthesizing such intimate emotional satisfaction from the external world, she has never inverted the relationship and externalized her interiority in a literal way, through confessional writing. Instead, her work, as she puts it, “contains elements of direct personal experience so transformed as to be entirely fictional rather than confessional.” She captures this creative orientation with her characteristic splendor of expression:

Some writers can handle lava with bare hands, but I’m not so tough, my skin is not asbestos. And in fact I have no interest in confession. My games are transformation and invention.

Complement Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia with her abiding wit and wisdom on being a “man,” the magic of real human conversation, the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, and where good ideas come from, then see Julie Phillips’s fantastic New Yorker profile of Le Guin.

Roland: A Charming Vintage Illustrated Ode to the Imagination and the Animating Power of Kindness

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” Baudelaire wrote in his abiding case for the genius of childhood — “a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale.” What keeps the world ceaselessly fresh for the child is the tireless imagination — particularly, Baudelaire believed, the voraciousness with which children absorb and play with form and color, building entire worlds out of the smallest hint of curiosity.

And what more curious a creature of form and color than a zebra to unlatch that irrepressible imagination? That’s what French writer Nelly Stéphane and legendary graphic designer and illustrator André François cast as the protagonist’s whimsical sidekick in the 1958 gem Roland (public library) — the story of a little boy with the magical ability to dream up animals and animate them into life simply by uttering the incantation “Crack!”

Roland discovers his superpower while finding himself in various situations with “nothing to do” — a testament to the creative purpose of boredom, so gravely endangered in our age of distraction, and a lovely counterpart to How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself , that charming vintage field guide to self-reliant play published the same year.

François — who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of New Yorker covers, and made his American children’s book debut in 1949 with Little Boy Brown — renders Roland’s adventures in his distinctive style of largehearted scruffy tenderness.

We follow the young imaginator as he first dreams a benevolent beast into being — “Crack! — when the teacher sends him to stand in the corner and he brings an imaginary tiger to life. What makes the story so wonderful is the sincerity with which, just as in the child’s mind, the real world and the imaginary world are integrated. “We have no room for you here,” the teacher calmly says to the tiger, and the tiger simply exits. What could be more ordinary?

Next, bored in the classroom, Roland draws a zebra into his notebook and — Crack! — it leaps to life and disappears over the schoolyard wall.

In the street, Roland touches his friend Isabel’s fur coat and — Crack! — it turns into a menagerie of small furry animals, who run away. She accuses him of theft, so Roland is taken to prison. But one of the furry animals comes to find and rescue him.

Together, they trek across rooftops until they dive down a chimney and into the bedroom of a destitute little girl.

To cheer her up, Roland dreams up a dancing doll and — Crack! — she comes to life as the little boy and little girl watch together in enchanted silence.

The deliberate discontinuity between the vignettes winks at the wilderness the imagination with which the child fills what the adult sees as barrenness. The zebra reappears in the town square, pulling a cab over which two fancy ladies are arguing. They go on bickering as the zebra frees itself and runs to Roland, who leaps onto its back and gallops into town.

The zebra slips on a banana peel and Roland flies into the canal, where he catches a swordfish and glimpses a marvelous glowing fish, which he puts in his pocket before walking home. Again, what could be more ordinary in the child’s imagination?

Wistful about having lost his zebra, Roland draws a pair of donkeys and — Crack! — brings them to life to take home, where he receives a great big jug from his mother to house the glowing fish. But the fish has stopped shining and Roland still misses his zebra.

His mother encourages him to go visit Isabel and apologize. Roland finds her in bed, ill on account of her runaway coat. An affectionate gesture of apology is due.

After Roland gives Isabel the fish, it begins to glow again, and he goes home to discover that his zebra has returned and joined the two donkeys — a sweet and redemptive ending, celebrating the greatest animating superpower of all: human kindness.

The immensely delightful Roland comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, publisher of such imaginative treasures as What Color Is the Wind?, The Lion and the Bird, Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Pinocchio: The Origin Story, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.


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