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Anger and forgiveness, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life, and a very special musical treat

Anger and forgiveness, Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on complementarity and why reality is woven of opposing truths, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life, and a very special musical treat. Is this email formatted oddly or truncated?
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Ursula K. Le Guin on Power, Oppression, Freedom, and How Imaginative Storytelling Expands Our Scope of the Possible

“We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

The Magic and Logic of Powerful Public Speaking: TED Curator Chris Anderson’s Field Guide to Giving a Great Talk

How to master the generous art of inspiration and avoid the pitfalls of attention-hungry manipulation.

Either/Or: Kierkegaard on the Tyranny of Choice and How to Transcend the Trap of Double Regret

“True eternity lies not behind either/or but ahead of it.”

Urbanism Patron Saint Jane Jacobs on Our Civic Duty in Cultivating Cities That Foster a Creative Life

“People ought to pay more attention to their instincts.”

Probability Theory Pioneer Mark Kac on the Duality of the Creative Life, the Singular Enchantment of Mathematics, and the Two Types of Geniuses

“Creative people live in two worlds. One is the ordinary world which they share with others and in which they are not in any special way set apart from their fellow men. The other is private and it is in this world that the creative acts take place.”

Eleanor Roosevelt on the Power of Personal Conviction and Our Individual Responsibility in Social Change

“In the long run there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly. Action brings with it its own courage, its own energy, a growth of self-confidence that can be acquired in no other way.”

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WelcomeHello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – how music helps us grieve, the psychology of time and how it explains the paradox of impulsivity and self-control, the love letters of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, and more – you can catch up right here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation – I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

Duck, Death and the Tulip: An Uncommonly Tender Illustrated Meditation on the Cycle of Life

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating how befriending our mortality can help us feel more alive. Nearly a century later, John Updike echoed this sentiment: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” And yet however poetic this notion might be, it remains one of the hardest for us to befriend and reconcile with our irrepressible impulse for aliveness. How, then, are those only just plunging into the lush river of life to confront the prospect of its flow’s cessation?

The German children’s book author and illustrator Wolf Erlbruch offers a wonderfully warm and assuring answer in Duck, Death and the Tulip (public library) — a marvelous addition to the handful of intelligent and imaginative children’s books about death and loss.

One day, Duck turns around to find Death standing behind her. Terrified, she asks whether he has come to take her, but he remarks rather matter-of-factly that he has been there her entire life.

At first chilled by the notion of Death’s lifelong proximity, Duck slowly, cautiously, curiously acquaints herself with him.

Death gave her a friendly smile.

Actually he was nice (if you forgot for a moment who he was).
Really quite nice.

With great economy of words and minimalist yet enormously expressive illustrations, Erlbruch conveys the quiet ease that develops between the two as they relax into an unlikely camaraderie.

Duck suggests they go to the pond together, and although Death has always dreaded that, he reluctantly agrees. But the water is too much for him.

“Are you cold?” Duck asked. “Shall I warm you a little?”
Nobody had ever offered to do that for Death.

They awake together in the morning and Duck is overjoyed to discover that she is not dead. Here, Erlbruch injects the lightheartedness always necessary for keeping the profound from slipping into the overly sentimental:

She poked Death in the ribs. “I’m not dead!” she quacked, utterly delighted.

“I’m pleased for you,” Death said, stretching.

“And if I’d died?”

“Then I wouldn’t have been able to sleep in,” Death yawned.

That wasn’t a nice thing to say, thought Duck.

But since any friendship is woven of “a continued, mutual forgiveness,” Duck eventually metabolizes her hurt feelings and the two find their way into a conversation about the common mythologies of the afterlife central to our human delusion of immortality:

“Some ducks say you become an angel and sit on a cloud, looking over the earth.”

“Quite possibly.” Death rose to his feet. “You have the wings already.”

“Some ducks say that deep in the earth there’s a place where you’ll be roasted if you haven’t been good.”

“You ducks come up with some amazing stories, but who knows.”

“So you don’t know either,” Duck snapped.

Death just looked at her.

Having failed to resolve the existential perplexity of nonexistence, they return to the simple satisfactions of living and decide to climb a tree.

They could see the pond far below. There it lay. So still. And so lonely.

“That’s what it will be like when I’m dead,” Duck thought. “The pond alone, without me.”

Death sometimes read minds. “When you’re dead, the pond will be gone, too — at least for you.”

“Are you sure?” Duck was astonished.

“As sure as can be,” Death said.

“That’s a comfort. I won’t have to mourn over it when…”

“…when you’re dead.” Death finished the sentence. He wasn’t coy about the subject.

As summer winds down, the two friends visit the pond less and less, and sit quietly in the grass together more and more. When autumn arrives, Duck feels the chill in her feathers for the first time, perhaps in the way that one suddenly feels old one day — the unannounced arrival of a chilling new awareness of one’s finitude, wedged between an unredeemable yesterday and an inevitable tomorrow.

“I’m cold,” she said one evening. “Will you warm me a little?”

Snowflakes drifted down.

Something had happened. Death looked at the duck.

She’d stopped breathing. She lay quite still.

Stroking her disheveled feathers back into a temporary perfection, Death picks Duck up and carries her tenderly to the river, then lays her on the water and releases her into its unstoppable flow, watching wistfully as she floats away. It’s the visual counterpart to that unforgettable line from Elizabeth Alexander’s sublime memoir: “Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss.”

For a long time he watched her.

When she was lost to sight, he was almost a little moved.

“But that’s life,” thought Death.

As the river spills off the book and we turn to the last page, we see Death surrounded by other animals — a subtle reminder that he will escort the fox and the rabbit and you and me down the river of life, just as he did Duck. And perhaps that’s okay.

Complement the immeasurably beautiful and poetic Duck, Death and the Tulip with the Danish masterpiece Cry, Heart, But Never Break and Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, then revisit a Zen master’s explanation of death and the life-force to a child.

BONUS: Black Hole Blues-Blues

I gave my pal Ben Folds a copy of astrophysicist Janna Levin’s magnificent book Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, and he set it to song live at the Beacon Theater, complete with real-time orchestral improvisation. Please enjoy:

More about the book, which tells the story of a very different sonic feat a century in the making, here.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Anger, Forgiveness, the Emotional Machinery of Trust, and the Only Fruitful Response to Betrayal in Intimate Relationships


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