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Brain Pickings

Welcome Dear <<Name>>, welcome to this week's edition of the brainpickings.org newsletter by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's digest — what hope really means; futurist and digital optimist Kevin Kelly on reading and the singular power of books; a children's book about Maria Mitchell — you can catch up right here. And if you are enjoying this labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Lorraine Hansberry on Depression and Its Most Reliable Antidote

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While I stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her exquisite admonition against the dangerous myth of the suffering artist, it has always seemed to me — both from a deep immersion in the personal histories of long-gone artists and from direct experience in contemporary creative communities — that artists are more porous to the world than other people and therefore more vulnerable to suffering. To be an artist is to be a human being who feels everything more deeply, the beautiful as well as the terrible, and builds of those feelings bowers where others can safely and sacredly process their own. Whitman intuited this when he observed that those capable of “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are also apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” Tchaikovsky articulated it in his touching resolve to find beauty amid the wreckage of the soul. Nietzsche knew it when he traced the wild oscillations of depression and hope.

Among the artists who plummeted to such depths of darkness while buoying the spirit of their times was Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — the visionary playwright and civil rights activist, who revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility and from whom generations of artists and ordinary people alike, including other visionaries like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, drew courage and inspiration.

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Lorraine Hansberry, 1950s. Photographer unknown. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.)

For all her soaring intellect and trailblazing genius, Hansberry’s heart sank low with alarming regularity. In a diary entry from 1955, penned just as her star was beginning to rise and included in Imani Perry’s excellent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes her depression with that hollowing detachment so familiar to those who have been severed from themselves by this unforgiving malady:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIt is curious how intellectual I have become about the whole thing… [about] what I apparently am. My unhappiness has become a steady, calm quiet sort of misery. It is always with me and when for a moment something or other stirs me from its immediate ravages (thank God that is still possible) — I wonder at its absence.

To be sure, much of Hansberry’s depression was rooted in the dissonance of her being a gay woman (“what I apparently am”) in a heterosexual marriage that was a great creative and intellectual partnership but not her great love. Even so, depression is an illness in which we can never speak of causality — only of contributing factors, of which there are always many, both psychological and physiological, present in varying degrees and intricately intertwined. But beneath the particulars of any life, there beats a common heart of experience, which Hansberry channels with devastating candor. From the pit of another depression, she writes to her husband:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI am sitting here in this miserable little bungalow, in this miserable camp that I once loved so much, feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired. The week past that I spoke to you about was the height of all those things to the point where I didn’t care too much a couple of times whether or not I woke mornings.

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Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In a redemptive passage, she turns to nature for the most reliable, perhaps the only, salve:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngHills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries darling, even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.

Perhaps she was thinking of the poet Keats — another artist of towering genius, whose spirits often sank to unfathomable lows — who a century and a half earlier found kindred solace in his own experience of depression and the mightiest remedy for a heavy heart; or perhaps of Whitman, who pondered what remains when the world has lost its sheen and answered: “Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly inspiriting Looking for Lorraine with Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression, then revisit poet May Sarton’s cure for despair.

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The Stunning Astronomical Beadwork of Native Artist Margaret Nazon

“I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell marveled in her journal when she first learned to notice the different hues of the stars, almost transgressively delightful to a woman who had grown up in the Quaker tradition with its customary ban on color. To the suddenly awestruck Mitchell, the stars appeared like “a collection of precious stones” or colorful beads. How she would have relished the celestial beadwork of Native artist Margaret Nazon.

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Margaret Nazon: Milky Way Starry Night. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Glenbow.)

More than a century after Mitchell’s contemporary Ellen Harding Baker embroidered her stunning Solar System quilt to use as an astronomy teaching tool in an era when women had almost no access to formal education in science, and a generation after the great astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe, embroidered her supernova, Nazon began beading celestial objects after her partner showed her photographs of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 — those now-iconic images that have inspired some of our greatest poets and enchanted the popular imagination like no other visual document of science.

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Margaret Nazon: Saturn.

Against the black velvet of pure spacetime, Nazon’s intricate beadwork reaches across abstraction, across incomprehensible expanses, to make galaxies, nebulae, and constellations tangible; to render the wilderness of an impartial universe domesticated and personable. Galaxies millions of lightyears away, hundreds of lightyears wide, become intimate emissaries of spacetime on her 25×25-inch beaded canvases.

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Tadpole Galaxy, 420 million lightyears from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.

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Bright Lights, Green City. Top: NASA composite of data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.

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Tarantula Nebula, 160,000 lightyears away from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.

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Margaret Nazon: Tarantula Nebula, detail. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

A member of the small First Nations community of Gwich’in, Nazon grew up on the banks of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwestern Territories, steeped in a crafts tradition. She started beading at age 10. The early decorative flowers that began on moccasins and clothing eventually blossomed, half a century later, into the dazzling objects of deep space, rendered using a variety of beading techniques and bead sizes to create a beguiling three-dimensional tactility.

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Margaret Nazon, beadwork detail.

Nazon begins beading before dawn and often works all day, taking only short breaks between sessions, beading to the sound of classical music and jazz — Billie Holiday is a favorite. Her largest work, a triptych of the Andromeda Galaxy, took her some 200 hours.

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Margaret Nazon: Milky Way spiral galaxy. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Robert Thrisk.)

Nazon marries integrity of representation with artistic interpretation, sometimes deliberately straying from the colors captured by the Hubble toward her favorite combination: blue and yellow, colors she associates with happiness and beauty.

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Mask Galaxy. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.

With no background in science and only a rudimentary understanding of the astronomy she embroiders, her work celebrates not the cerebral but the spiritual allure of the cosmos — the way it beckons to the most elemental part of us, the part that possessed Ptolemy to scribble in the margins of his notebook two millennia ago: “I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies… I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”

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Margaret Nazon: Old Star Gives Up Ghost. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

Complement with the stunning celestial art of the self-taught 17th-century German astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart, then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, on which her father worked as one of NASA’s first black engineers, and this Hubble classic composed by Adrienne Rich a generation earlier.

The Universe in Verse: Bill T. Jones Performs Poet Ross Gay’s Ode to Our Highest Human Potentialities

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“Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,” Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, envisioning his unborn self as the product of myriad potentialities converging since the dawn of time — “the nebula cohered to an orb” and “the long, slow strata piled” to make it possible.

A century and a half after Whitman, Ross Gay — another poet of uncommon sensitivity to our shared longings and largehearted wonderment at the universe in its manifold expressions — inverted the generational telescope and considered the future potentialities contained in his own self in his “Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be,” found in his altogether magnificent 2011 collection Bringing the Shovel Down (public library). An act of imaginative projection, the poem is concerned not with the biological question of what makes a life — on that, I stand with Italo Calvino — but with the existential question of what makes life worth living: love, kindness, the devotion to justice, the unselfconscious surrender to joy, the willingness to do the difficult, delicate work of rising to our highest human potential.

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Bill T. Jones at the 2019 Universe in Verse. (Photograph: Maria Popova.)

Legendary choreographer and New York Live Arts artistic director Bill T. Jones, subject of the inspiring forthcoming documentary Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, stole the show with his electrifying performance of Gay’s poem at the third annual Universe in Verse — please enjoy:

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2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngPOEM TO MY CHILD, IF EVER YOU SHALL BE
by Ross Gay

       —after Steve Scafidi

The way the universe sat waiting to become,
quietly, in the nether of space and time,

you too remain some cellular snuggle
dangling between my legs, curled in the warm

swim of my mostly quietest self. If you come to be —
And who knows? — I wonder, little bubble

of unbudded capillaries, little one ever aswirl
in my vascular galaxies, what would you think

of this world which turns itself steadily
into an oblivion that hurts, and hurts bad?

Would you curse me my careless caressing you
into this world or would you rise up

and, mustering all your strength into that tiny throat
which one day, no doubt, would grow big and strong,

scream and scream and scream until you break the back of one injustice,
or at least get to your knees to kiss back to life

some roadkill? I have so many questions for you,
for you are closer to me than anyone

has ever been, tumbling, as you are, this second,
through my heart’s every chamber, your teeny mouth

singing along with the half-broke workhorse’s steady boom and gasp.
And since we’re talking today I should tell you,

though I know you sneak a peek sometimes
through your father’s eyes, it’s a glorious day,

and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs,
and they’re the most delicate shade of gold

we’ve ever seen and must favor the transparent
wings of the angels you’re swimming with, little angel.

And as to your mother — well, I don’t know —
but my guess is that lilac bursts from her throat

and she is both honeybee and wasp and some kind of moan to boot
and probably she dances in the morning —

but who knows? You’ll swim beneath that bridge if it comes.
For now let me tell you about the bush called honeysuckle

that the sad call a weed, and how you could push your little
sun-licked face into the throngs and breathe and breathe.

Sweetness would be your name, and you would wonder why
four of your teeth are so sharp, and the tiny mountain range

of your knuckles so hard. And you would throw back your head
and open your mouth at the cows lowing their human songs

in the field, and the pigs swimming in shit and clover,
and everything on this earth, little dreamer, little dreamer

of the new world, holy, every rain drop and sand grain and blade
of grass worthy of gasp and joy and love, tiny shaman,

tiny blood thrust, tiny trillion cells trilling and trilling,
little dreamer, little hard hat, little heartbeat,

little best of me.

Complement with Maya Angelou’s letter to the daughter she never had and this lovely French picture-book imagining a better world from the perspective of a yet-unborn child, then revisit other highlights from The Universe in Verse: astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Angelou’s “A Brave and Startling Truth,” Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie.

If you are, or would like to place yourself, in New York City on October 26, join me for The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a very special pop-up edition of The Universe in Verse, celebrating Whitman’s bicentennial and the endeavor to build the city’s first public observatory.

donating=loving

I pour tremendous time, thought, heart, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free, and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy, stimulation, and consolation 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.

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
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