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"When power corrupts, poetry cleanses," John F. Kennedy proclaimed in his touching tribute to Robert Frost, celebrating poetry as "the means of saving power from itself." And although poetry itself exerts a singular power over the human spirit, as one of the greatest poets of all time observed, it is hardly a power that comes easily to the poet: "Writing poetry is an unnatural act," Elizabeth Bishop wrote when she was only twenty-three. So how, then, does one come to master this unnatural power – how does one become a Poet?
That's what the wise and wonderful Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) – a man of great wisdom on solitude, love, and our "rugged individualism" – explores in a marvelous poem titled "How to Be a Poet (to remind myself)," found in his New Collected Poems (public library).
Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)
In this recording from the consistently transcendent On Being, Berry brings his beautifully aged voice to the poem – which is in many ways not only about how to be a poet, but also about how to be an artist of any kind. With its insistence on the vitalizing power of silence and stillness and self-refinement, it is perhaps, above all, about how to be a complete human being.
HOW TO BE A POET
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill – more of each
than you have – inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
For more of Berry's enduring wisdom, see his meditations on the two great enemies of creative work and what poetic form reveals about the secret of marriage, then treat yourself to Derek Walcott's stirring ode to being at home in ourselves and subscribe to On Being here.
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"Children ... are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth," E.B. White famously asserted in an interview, admonishing: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” And yet down we write still, deaf to White's wisdom and to Tolkien's insistence that there is no such thing as writing "for children" and to Gaiman's crusade against the spiritual disservice of shielding children from difficult emotions.
Nowhere is this disservice clearer than in how we address children's experience of life's darkest moments, as evidenced by the minuscule the pool of intelligent and imaginative books that help kids make sense of death and loss. And nowhere is there more heartening an antidote than in The Heart and the Bottle (public library) by the inimitable Oliver Jeffers.
Jeffers tells the story of a little girl, "much like any other," whose expansive and exuberant curiosity her father fuels by reading to her all sorts of fascinating books about the sea and the stars and the wonders of our world.
We witness the duo's blissful explorations until, one day, we realize that the father is gone – the little girl finds herself facing the empty chair.
With exquisite subtlety and economy of words, Jeffers – whose mastery of the interplay between darkness and light extends as much to the paintbrush as it does to the psyche – silently uncorks the outpour of hollowing emotions engendered by loss.
But if grief is so disorienting and crushing an emotion for adults, how are unprepared little hearts expected to handle its weight? The little girl cannot, and so she doesn't.
Feeling unsure, the girl thought the best thing was to put her heart in a safe place.
Just for the time being.
So she put it in a bottle and hung it around her neck.
And that seemed to fix things ... at first.
But as Simone Weil knew when she considered how resisting our suffering splits the psyche asunder, and as Rilke knew when he wrote that "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," the little girl soon finds out that locking away the pain also locks away her capacity for love and aliveness.
Although, in truth, nothing was the same.
She forgot about the stars... and stopped taking notice of the sea.
She was no longer filled with all the curiosities of the world and didn't take much notice of anything...
One day, while walking on the beach where she had once strolled blissfully with her father, the "girl" – now a grown woman – encounters another girl still little and still filled with the boundless and buoyant curiosity that had once been hers. Suddenly, she is reminded of all she lost when she locked away loss.
So she sets out to liberate her heart from its glassy prison – but the bottle has been fortified by years of self-protection.
The bottle couldn't be broken. It just bounced and bounced ... right down to the sea.
But there, it occurred to someone smaller and still curious about the world that she might know a way.
The heart was put back where it came from. And the chair wasn't so empty anymore.
Although such extensions typically tend to be gimmicky at best, if not a pure travesty of storytelling, the app version of the story is excellent beyond words.
Still, an app can never measure up to the tender, tangible magic of a book – and in a great book, even a detail as subtle as the endpapers never fails to enchant. E.B. White himself knew this and cared deeply about the endpapers of Charlotte's Web even as he acknowledged that "probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper.’" Jeffers clearly knows this as well – the book's endpapers are a treat in their own right. The front set celebrates the bond between a little girl and her paternal figure in its various permutations – a father, a grandfather, perhaps a kindly uncle – and the back set tickles the science-lover's curiosity with a minimalist illustrated anatomy of the human heart.
The Heart and the Bottle is an immeasurable delight from endpaper to endpaper. Complement it with other exceptional children's books about grief – including the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree and the Norwegian gem My Father's Arms Are a Boat – then revisit Jeffers's equally wonderful Once Upon an Alphabet, one of the best children's books of 2014.
Jeffers has also explored the subject of grief with equal subtlety and genius in a grownup project celebrating the art of bearing witness.
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"Attention without feeling," Mary Oliver observed in her magnificent memoir of love and loss, "is only a report." In Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (public library) – an extraordinary celebration of smallness and the grandeur of life, as humble yet surprisingly magical as its subject – botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer extends an uncommon and infectious invitation to drink in the vibrancy of life at all scales and attend to our world with befitting vibrancy of feeling.
One of the world's foremost bryologists, Kimmerer is a scientist blessed with the rare privilege of belonging to a long lineage of storytellers – her family comes from the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi. There is a special commonality between her heritage and her scientific training – a profound respect for all life forms, whatever their size – coupled with a special talent for rendering that respect contagious, which places her prose in the same taxon as Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard and Thoreau. Indeed, if Thoreau was a poet and philosopher who became a de facto naturalist by the sheer force of poetic observation, despite having no formal training in science, Kimmerer is a formally trained scientist whose powers of poetic observation and contemplative reflection render her a de facto poet and philosopher. (So bewitching is her book, in fact, that it inspired Elizabeth Gilbert's beautiful novel The Signature of All Things, which is how I first became aware of Kimmerer's mossy masterwork.)
Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart
Mosses, to be sure, are scientifically impressive beyond measure – the amphibians of vegetation, they were the first plants to emerge from the ocean and conquer the land; they number some 22,000 species, whose tremendous range of size parallels the height disparity between a blueberry bush and a redwood; they inhabit nearly every ecosystem on earth and grow in places as diverse as the branch of an oak and the back of a beetle. But beyond their scientific notoriety, mosses possess a kind of lyrical splendor that Kimmerer unravels with enchanting elegance – splendor that has to do with what these tiny organisms teach us about the art of seeing.
She uses the experience of flying – an experience so common we've come to take its miraculousness for granted – to illustrate our all too human solipsism:
Between takeoff and landing, we are each in suspended animation, a pause between chapters of our lives. When we stare out the window into the sun's glare, the landscape is only a flat projection with mountain ranges reduced to wrinkles in the continental skin. Oblivious to our passage overhead, other stories are unfolding beneath us. Blackberries ripen in the August sun; a woman packs a suitcase and hesitates at her doorway; a letter is opened and the most surprising photograph slides from between the pages. But we are moving too fast and we are too far away; all the stories escape us, except our own.
Illustration by Sís from The Pilot and the Little Prince
We, of course, need not rise to the skies in order to fall into the chronic patterns of our myopia and miss most of what is going on around us – we do this even in the familiar microcosm of a city block. Kimmerer considers how our growing powers of technologically aided observation have contributed to our diminished attentiveness:
We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor's gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can't see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we're seeing when we've only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.
5,500-year-old Antarctic moss. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from The Oldest Living Things in the World
But the rewards of attentiveness can't be forced into manifesting – rather, they are surrendered to. In a sentiment that calls to mind Rebecca Solnit's spectacular essay on how we find ourselves by getting lost, Kimmerer writes:
A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity an experience both humbling and joyful.
Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.
Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.
Echoing Richard Feynman's iconic monologue on knowledge and mystery, Kimmerer adds:
Knowing the fractal geometry of an individual snowflake makes the winter landscape even more of a marvel. Knowing the mosses enriches our knowing of the world.
Moss and air plant sculpture by Art We Heart
This knowing, at its most intimate, is a function of naming – for words are how we come to know meanings. Kimmerer considers this delicate dialogue between a thing's essence and its name:
Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.
Having the words also creates an intimacy with the plant that speaks of careful observation.
Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing, when visual acuity is not enough.
The remarkable diversity of moss varieties known and named only adds to the potentiality for intimacy with the world at all scales. But among this vast multiplicity of mosses is one particular species inhabiting the small caves carved by glaciers into the lakeshore, which alone embodies immense wisdom about the mystery and meaning of life. Kimmerer writes:
Schistostega pennata, the Goblins' Gold, is unlike any other moss. It is a paragon of minimalism, simple in means, rich in ends. So simple you might not recognize it as a moss at all. The more typical mosses on the bank outside spread themselves to meet the sun. Such robust leaves and shoots, though tiny, require a substantial amount of solar energy to build and maintain. They are costly in solar currency. Some mosses need full sun to survive, others favor the diffuse light of clouds, while Schistostega lives on the clouds' silver lining alone.
This singular species subsists solely on the light reflections emanating from the lake's surface, which provide one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy that direct sunlight does. And yet in this unlikely habitat, Schistostega has emerged as a most miraculous jewel of life:
Goblins' Gold (Photograph: Matt Goff)
The shimmering presence of Schistostega is created entirely by the weft of nearly invisible threads crisscrossing the surface of the moist soil. It glows in the dark, or rather it glitters in the half light of places which scarcely feel the sun.
Each filament is a strand of individual cells strung together like beads shimmering on a string. The walls of each cell are angled, forming interior facets like a cut diamond. It is these facets which cause Schistostega to sparkle like the tiny lights of a far-away city. These beautifully angled walls capture traces of light and focus it inward, where a single large chloroplast awaits the gathering beam of light. Packed with chlorophyll ad membranes of exquisite complexity, the chloroplast converts the light energy into a stream of flowing electrons. This is the electricity of photosynthesis, turning sun into sugar, spinning straw into gold.
But more than a biological marvel, Schistostega presents a parable of patience and its bountiful rewards – an allegory for meeting the world not with grandiose entitlement but with boundless generosity of spirit; for taking whatever it has to offer and giving back an infinity more. Kimmerer writes:
Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response.
Timing is everything. Just for a moment, in the pause before the earth rotates again into night, the cave is flooded with light. The near-nothingness of Schistostega erupts in a shower of sparkles, like green glitter spilled on the rug at Christmas... And then, within minutes, it's gone. All its needs are met in an ephemeral moment at the end of the day when the sun aligns with the mouth of the cave... Each shoot is shaped like a feather, flat and delicate. The soft blue green fronds stand up like a glad of translucent ferns, tracking the path of the sun. It is so little. And yet it is enough.
This tiny moss is a master of "the patient gleaming of light" – and what is the greatest feat of the human spirit, the measure of a life well lived, if not a "patient gleaming of light"? Annie Dillard knew this when she wrote: “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.” And Carl Jung knew it when we insisted that "the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being." The humble, generous Schistostega illuminates the darkness of mere being into blazing awe at the miracle of life itself – a reminder that our existence on this unremarkable rock orbiting an unremarkable star is a glorious cosmic accident, the acute awareness of which calls to mind poet Mark Strand's memorable words: “It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.”
To pay attention, indeed, is the ultimate celebration of this accidental miracle of life. Kimmerer captures this with exuberant elegance:
The combination of circumstances which allows it to exist at all are so implausible that the Schistostega is rendered much more precious than gold. Goblins' or otherwise. Not only does its presence depend on the coincidence of the cave's angle to the sun, but if the hills on the western shore were any higher the sun would set before reaching the cave... Its life and ours exist only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.
Gathering Moss is a glittering read in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on the art of seeing and the two ways of looking.
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"A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions," Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, "but through an act of will and love on the part of other people." Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt – aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach – still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice – like being alone, like living alone – is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.
A potent and sorely needed antidote to this toxic myth comes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (public library), edited by the brilliant Meghan Daum – a writer of rare aptitude for articulating the unspeakable. The contributions – sometimes witty, sometimes wistful, always wise – come from such celebrated authors as Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez, whose reasons for going not having children range from the personal trauma of difficult childhoods to political convictions about everything from reproductive rights to overpopulation and income inequality to the increasingly hard-to-meet requirement of undivided attention that is the hallmark of great parenting.
Illustration by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson
With an eye to Tolstoy's famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina – "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." – Daum writes in the introduction:
Of course, [Tolstoy's] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.
Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood ... are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.
Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one's truth as a nonparent – an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge – Daum writes:
For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else – a partner, a family member, the culture at large.
Illustration from Little Boy Brown, a vintage ode to childhood's loneliness
And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag's admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:
I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.
It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption – and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.
This begs the necessary question of gender balance – in the larger cultural conversation as well as in the particularity of this volume – which Daum addresses with no-nonsense elegance:
There are notably more women than men here – a thirteen to three ratio, to be exact. That ratio felt to me more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth. Still, I thought it was essential that the collection include male voices. Too often, this subject is framed as a women’s issue. But men who are disinclined toward fatherhood must contend with their own set of prejudices; for instance, assumptions that they can’t commit to a partner, that they wish to prolong adolescence indefinitely, or that they’ll be intractably (and gratefully) domesticated as soon as the right partner reels them in.
But for all its diversity of perspectives on and paths to nonparenthood, the anthology is underpinned by one obvious self-selection bias – all sixteen contributors are writers, and as Martin Amis memorably observed, "the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone." What's more, in addition to a greater need for solitude and higher tolerance for financial uncertainty, artists and writers have in common one other key differentiator from the general population: We tend to measure legacy in memetics rather than genetics – in the ideas rather than the infants we seed into society. (In one extreme, writers who do choose to procreate end up designating their children like they do their works – with a byline: Take F. Scott Fitzgerald and his daughter, Scottie.)
To be sure, Daum counters this disclaimer by pointing out that if the choice were as simple as “writing versus children,” writers "wouldn’t have much to say on the subject" – and they have a great deal to say, with a great deal of dimension.
Geoff Dyer (Photograph: Jason Oddy)
In one of the funniest essays, Geoff Dyer brings all of his wonderful, curmudgeonly, self-deprecating Englishness to the subject and writes:
In a park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand: Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)?
By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles. Man, you should have seen what happened a couple of years ago when a friend and I were playing tennis in Highbury Fields, London, next to the children’s area where kids were cavorting around under the happily watchful eyes of their mums. It’s quite a large area, but it is, needless to say, not big enough. A number of children kept coming over to the tennis courts, rattling on the gate, and trying to get in. The watching middle-class mums did nothing to restrain them. Eventually my friend yelled, “Go AWAY!” Whereupon the watching mums did do something. A mob of them descended on us as though my friend had exposed himself. Suddenly we were in the midst of a maternal zombie film. It was the nearest I’ve ever come to getting lynched – they were after my friend rather than me and though, strictly speaking, I was his opponent, I was a tacit accomplice – and a clear demonstration that the rights of parents and their children to do whatever they please have priority over everyone else’s.
Illustration by Tomi Ungerer from Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls
Summoning Virginia Woolf in her own most curmudgeonly Englishness – “A child is the very devil,” she wrote in a letter, “calling out, as I believe, all the worst and least explicable passions of the parents." – Dyer adds:
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