There is a myth we live with, the myth of finding the meaning of life — as if meaning were an undiscovered law of physics. But unlike the laws of physics — which predate us and will postdate us and made us — meaning only exists in this brief interlude of consciousness between chaos and chaos, the interlude we call life. When you die — when these organized atoms that shimmer with fascination and feeling — disband into disorder to become unfeeling stardust once more, everything that filled your particular mind and its rosary of days with meaning will be gone too. From its particular vantage point, there will be no more meaning, for the point itself will have dissolved — there will only be other humans left, making meaning of their own lives, including any meaning they might make of the residue of yours.
These are the thoughts coursing through this temporary constellation of consciousness as I pause at the lush mid-June dandelion at the foot of the hill on my morning run — the dandelion, now a fiesta of green where a season ago the small sun of its bloom had been, then the ethereal orb of its seeds, now long dispersed; the dandelion, existing for no better reason than do I, than do you — and no worse — by the same laws of physics beyond meaning: these clauses of exquisite precision punctuated by chance.
Nebular by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)
And yet, somehow, against the staggering cosmic odds otherwise, we get to experience this sky, these trees, these colors, these loves we live. The recognition of this unbidden miracle of chance is the fundamental matter of meaning — the great awakening from the myth.
How to awaken to this miraculousness and begin to make meaning is, of course, the great creative challenge of life.
All of this — the dandelion, the insistence on wonder as the sieve for meaning — reminded me of a some passages by G.K. Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) — philosopher, impassioned early eugenics opponent, prolific author of several dozen books, several hundred poems and short stories, and several thousand essays — from The Autobiography of G.K. Chesterton (public library).
G.K. Chesterton at seventeen
A century after Baudelaire observed that “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” and a generation before Dylan Thomas insisted that “children in wonder watching the stars, is the aim and the end,” Chesterton looks back on his early life and how it fomented the animating ethos of his later life as a literary artist and thinker:
What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world.
With an eye to the absurdity of pessimism as a life-orientation, given the astonishing good luck of existing at all in a universe where the probability is overwhelmingly against it, he adds:
No man* knows how much he is an optimist, even when he calls himself a pessimist, because he has not really measured the depths of his debt to whatever created him and enabled him to call himself anything. At the back of our brains… [there is] a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life [is] to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he [is] actually alive, and be happy.
Once Chesterton found the art through which to channel this blaze of astonishment, he found his writing “full of a new and fiery resolution to write against the Decadents and the Pessimists who ruled the culture of the age.” He reflects:
The primary problem for me, certainly in order of time and largely in order of logic… was the problem of how men could be made to realise the wonder and splendour of being alive, in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead.
Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
And so we get to the dandelion:
I had from the first an almost violently vivid sense of those two dangers; the sense that the experience must not be spoilt by presumption or despair… I asked through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking at a dandelion… [or a] sunflower or the sun… But there is a way of despising the dandelion which is not that of the dreary pessimist, but of the more offensive optimist. It can be done in various ways; one of which is saying, “You can get much better dandelions at Selfridge’s,” or “You can get much cheaper dandelions at Woolworth’s.” Another way is to observe with a casual drawl, “Of course nobody but Gamboli in Vienna really understands dandelions,” or saying that nobody would put up with the old-fashioned dandelion since the super-dandelion has been grown in the Frankfurt Palm Garden; or merely sneering at the stinginess of providing dandelions, when all the best hostesses give you an orchid for your buttonhole and a bouquet of rare exotics to take away with you. These are all methods of undervaluing the thing by comparison; for it is not familiarity but comparison that breeds contempt. And all such captious comparisons are ultimately based on the strange and staggering heresy that a human being has a right to dandelions; that in some extraordinary fashion we can demand the very pick of all the dandelions in the garden of Paradise; that we owe no thanks for them at all and need feel no wonder at them at all; and above all no wonder at being thought worthy to receive them.
Dandelion by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane — a spell against the erasure of wonder from this world
Find some kindred thought in this epochs-wide meditation on the flower and the meaning of life, starring Emily Dickinson, Michael Pollan, and the Little Prince, then revisit Roar Like a Dandelion — poet Ruth Krauss’s lost serenade to wonder, found and turned into a modern picture-book by artist Sergio Ruzzier.
“Books feed and cure and chortle and collide,” Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her 1969 love-poem to reading, after the love of books — the reading of them, the making of them — had made her the first black poet to with the Pulitzer Prize. “Books are meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower.”
Meanwhile, seven hundred miles southeast, a seven-year-old girl with a flaming love of reading was asking her grandmother to tell again the story of the most daring dream that had animated her own childhood. That girl would one day become a poet herself — a poet who would one day welcome America’s first black president to the presidency with a stunning poem, only the fourth in the history of a young nation to be read at a presidential inauguration; a poet who would one day herself become president of America’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities, founded the year Brooks penned her poem — the first woman to preside over it and the first woman of color to preside over any large philanthropic organization.
Elizabeth Alexander tells the story of her grandmother’s literature-fomented dreams and their far-reaching tendrils of possibility in her lovely contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — that labor-of-love collection of 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us, composed by some of the most inspiring humans in our world, whose character has been shaped by their love of reading: poets and physicists, cellists and entrepreneurs, artists and astronauts.
Painting by R. Gregory Christie for Elizabeth Alexander’s letter in A Velocity of Being.
My grandmother Wenonah Bond Logan was the most beloved friend of my childhood. She grew up in the racially segregated U.S. South in the early part of the twentieth century, mostly in Alabama. Her family moved to Washington, DC, when she was a teenager; the nation’s capital was also then the segregated South.
Long before she was my grandmother she was a girl with two long, thick braids who used to roller skate to the embassies a few miles from her home and sit on the steps “to imagine the rest of the world was there,” as she’d one day tell me. She’d then continued to stoke her imagining of elsewhere, skating to the public library on Mount Vernon Place to take out stacks of books. She liked to read about other places so she could imagine them, she told me. Most of her friends stayed forever in Washington — nothing wrong with that. But my grandmother’s reading made her dream. Her girlfriends gathered at the train station and wept as they waved her off to storied points north and the hopes of further education, more books.
In the 1920s she wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.
My grandmother’s much older sister Carrie was given the privilege of choosing her baby sister’s name. She chose Wenonah because she had read it in a book, in Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha.” In that poem — which I most remember with the phrase, “On the banks of the Gitchee Goomee” — was found the name for the treasured baby sister who would grow to read books, imagine worlds far beyond her own, and then go out to find them. The unusual beauty of that most apt name was only to be found in the pages of a book.
For other voices from the choral serenade to the power and pleasure of reading that is A Velocity of Being, savor Rebecca Solnit on books as repair-kits for life, Anne Lamott on reading as the antidote to loss of perspective, Jane Goodall on how a book fomented the childhood dream that became world-changing reality, Alain de Botton on reading as an empathic bridge between othernesses, Debbie Millman on books as testaments to selflessness, Jacqueline Woodson on reading as a gesture of kindness, Ursula K. Le Guin’s playful and poignant poem about reading, David Whyte on reading to taste the thrill of discovery, and the 101-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a single book saved a dozen young women’s lives.
Twenty years ago today, Krista Tippett birthed the life-force that is On Being. It began as a small local public radio show and ended up as a beloved podcast making lives all over the world infinitely more livable and luminous. President Barack Obama gave her the National Humanities Medal for it. Millions gave her their hearts as she gave us the universe of hers.
It is a landmark moment for On Being as it shape-shifts into its next incarnation, and for Krista as a human being moving through the stages of a human life.
Reasons for Being by Maria Popova
To celebrate it, and to bow to the horizon of the next twenty years, I combed through the On Being archive to compose a twenty-line pastiche poem, made from the titles of episodes that have aired sometime in the past twenty years.
Below, find each line linked to the episode it came from:
TWENTY REASONS FOR BEING
notice the rage
notice the silence —
silence and the presence
and other surprises
what we nurture
how we live with loss
saved by the beauty of the world
a life worthy of our breath
when no question
seems big enough:
what if we get this right?
this tiny slice of eternity —
and the universe —
this fantastic argument
of being alive.