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Hello, Blue! This is the weekly email digest of brainpickings.org by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition – Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman's stunning love letter to his dead wife, the remarkable life and illustrated recipes of the forgotten pioneer who paved the way for women in design and publishing, and more – you can catch up right here. If you missed the special edition celebrating 11 years of Brain Pickings, that is here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
“The alternations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in contemplating how we know we love somebody. How unsurprising then, and how inescapably human, that we should try to steady ourselves through these oscillations — violent, beautiful, disorienting — on the armature of language, on poetry’s precision of sentiment.
To curate a corpus of poems that stretch across love’s vast spectrum of joy and suffering with resonance that edges on the universal is a Herculean task, but that is what editors Jessica Strand and Leslie Jonath have accomplished in Love Found: 50 Classic Poems of Desire, Longing, and Devotion (public library) — a collection plumbing the depths of the commonest human experience in the most uncommon and arresting of verses, alongside vibrant illustrations by artist Jennifer Orkin Lewis. Among the fifty poets, who span an impressive range of epochs, sensibilities, and cultural backgrounds, are Pablo Neruda, Adrienne Rich, Langston Hughes, Mark Strand, Wisława Szymborska, E.E. Cummings, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. (I was especially delighted to find Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love,” one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever encountered, among the selections.)
Here are a few favorites from this tiny treasure trove:
LOVE SONG FOR LUCINDA
by Langston Hughes
Is a ripe plum
Growing on a purple tree.
Taste it once
And the spell of its enchantment
Will never let you be.
Is a bright star
Glowing in far Southern skies.
Look too hard
And its burning flame
Will always hurt your eyes.
Is a high mountain
Stark in a windy sky.
Would never lose your breath
Do not climb too high.
(I CARRY YOUR HEART WITH ME)
by E.E. Cummings
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Love, if I weep it will not matter,
And if you laugh I shall not care;
Foolish am I to think about it,
But it is good to feel you there.
Love, in my sleep I dreamed of waking, —
White and awful the moonlight reached
Over the floor, and somewhere, somewhere,
There was a shutter loose, —it screeched!
Swung in the wind, — and no wind blowing! —
I was afraid, and turned to you,
Put out my hand to you for comfort, —
And you were gone! Cold, cold as dew,
Under my hand the moonlight lay!
Love, if you laugh I shall not care,
But if I weep it will not matter, —
Ah, it is good to feel you there!
THE HEART’S MEMORY OF THE SUN GROWS FAINT
by Anna Akhmatova
The heart’s memory of the sun grows faint.
The grass is yellower.
A few early snowflakes blow in the wind,
The narrow canals have stopped flowing —
The water is chilling.
Nothing will ever happen here —
The willow spreads its transparent fan
Against the empty sky.
Perhaps I should not have become
The heart’s memory of the sun grows faint.
What’s this? Darkness?
It could be!… One night brings winter’s first
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
by Joseph Brodsky
If you were drowning, I’d come to the rescue,
wrap you in my blanket and pour hot tea.
If I were a sheriff, I’d arrest you
and keep you in the cell under lock and key.
If you were a bird, I ‘d cut a record
and listen all night long to your high-pitched trill.
If I were a sergeant, you’d be my recruit,
and boy i can assure you you’d love the drill.
If you were Chinese, I’d learn the languages,
burn a lot of incense, wear funny clothes.
If you were a mirror, I’d storm the Ladies,
give you my red lipstick and puff your nose.
If you loved volcanoes, I’d be lava
relentlessly erupting from my hidden source.
And if you were my wife, I’d be your lover
because the church is firmly against divorce.
by Walt Whitman
A glimpse through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around
the stove late of a winter night,
and I unremark’d seated in a corner,
Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently
approaching and seating himself near,
that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of
drinking and oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking
little, perhaps not a word.
by Pablo Neruda
I love the handful of the earth you are.
Because of its meadows, vast as a planet,
I have no other star. You are my replica
of the multiplying universe.
Your wide eyes are the only light I know
from extinguished constellations;
your skin throbs like the streak
of a meteor through rain.
Your hips were that much of the moon for me;
your deep mouth and its delights, that much sun;
your heart, fiery with its long red rays,
was that much ardent light, like honey in the shade.
So I pass across your burning form, kissing
you — compact and planetary, my dove, my globe.
Complement the thoroughly resplendent Love Found with Anne Sexton’s stunning love poem “Song for a Lady,” then revisit the story of how young Vladimir Nabokov met the love of his life and won her over with a poem.
“It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” wrote Alice James, the brilliant and terminally ill sister of Henry James and William James, as she reflected on how to live fully while dying. (We are, after all, always dying.) “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 a generation later from the height of life.
This notion that death grants us a most singular and intimate perspective on life, much as love does, is what Zen Hospice Project co-founder Frank Ostaseski explores in The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully (public library) — a celebration of how the recognition that death comes to each of us, a recognition at once consolatory and conciliatory, brings us closer to one another and closer still to the innermost truth of our own being.
Illustration from Cry, Heart, But Never Break, a Danish meditation on love and loss
Orphaned as a teenager after growing up in a violent and abusive home, Ostaseski devoted his life to service and the work of healing. In his early thirties, he did volunteer work aiding Central American refugees. In the 1980s, he labored on the front lines as AIDS devastated San Francisco with incalculable losses of lives, many having only just begun. In 1987, he co-founded the city’s wonderful volunteer-run Zen Hospice Project. Decades into the endeavor, a heart attack followed by open-heart surgery thrust Ostaseski into a confrontation with his own mortality. Such palpable awareness of death, he observes, vitalizes and clarifies life with tremendous power. But his most impassioned insistence is that we need not wait until we ourselves hover on the precipice of death in order to apply its clarifying force to how we live our lives.
Reflecting on the profound transformations he has witnessed in his work with thousands of dying people and their living loved ones, Ostaseski writes:
Dying is inevitable and intimate. I have seen ordinary people at the end of their lives develop profound insights and engage in a powerful process of transformation that helped them to emerge as someone larger, more expansive, and much more real than the small, separate selves they had previously taken themselves to be. This is not a fairy-tale happy ending that contradicts the suffering that came before, but rather a transcendence of tragedy…. I have witnessed a heart-opening occurring in not only people near death, but also their caregivers. They found a depth of love within themselves that they didn’t know they had access to. They discovered a profound trust in the universe and the reliable goodness of humanity that never abandoned them, regardless of the suffering they encountered. If that possibility exists at the time of dying, it exists here and now.
Illustration from Duck, Death and the Tulip, a German meditation on mortality
Drawing on the ancient wisdom of Buddhism, Ostaseski considers the inseparability of life and death:
In Japanese Zen, the term shoji translates as “birth-death.” There is no separation between life and death other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.
We cannot be truly alive without maintaining an awareness of death.
Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.
That discovery, Ostaseski argues, is an active process — one which not only can but ought to be mastered well before we find ourselves before the eternal eclipse of existence. Four decades after physicist David Bohm contemplated how our habits of mind shape our reality, Ostaseski writes:
The habits of our lives have a powerful momentum that propels us toward the moment of our death. The obvious question arises: What habits do we want to create? Our thoughts are not harmless. Thoughts manifest as actions, which in turn develop into habits, and our habits ultimately harden into character. Our unconscious relationship to thoughts can shape our perceptions, trigger reactions, and predetermine our relationship to the events of our lives.
The single most powerful interior orientation that shapes our experience of events, he reminds us, is that of love — love in the largest possible sense, one which calls to mind the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful verse: “Love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light.” Looking back on his own awakening to the healing power of love, Ostaseski writes:
In the horror of my own suffering, I always had held out the hope that one day someone would rescue me. I had imagined that I would be saved by love coming toward me. Just the opposite. I was rescued when love came through me.
Death, he observes, can be an immensely powerful conduit for such an embodiment of love — something Alan Turing knew when he penned his stirring letters on love and loss. Ostaseski writes:
The boundlessness of love is made evident when the veils between this world and the invisible world are thinnest. At birth and death, love melts any division…. In such moments, we glimpse a love without limitation, a love unlike the commerce-like reciprocal exchange that characterizes many romantic relationships (as when someone else expresses love for us and we feel obliged to react in turn). This is an entirely different order of love, one that springs from the very source of our being. It recognizes and responds to the intrinsic goodness of the human heart. It is both profoundly receptive and dynamically expressive.
This facet of love… exists both before and beyond conditions. It is not something to be achieved by our personalities. It is not an idealistic love to be attained by following a certain path, nor is it the result of reaching a special spiritual state. It is always present. In a way, it is the background for all experience, the very essence of our being.
This love is the source that allows us to welcome everything and push away nothing. The sort of fearless openness required to turn toward our suffering is only possible within the spacious receptivity of love.
Art from The Magic Box, a vintage children’s book for grownups about life, death, and how to be more alive every day
Drawing on his work with the dying and on the healing of his own life, Ostaseski outlines the five central “invitations” — habits of mind, orientations of spirit — through which an untruculent acceptance of death can become a love-expanding, life-expanding force:
1. Don’t wait.
2. Welcome everything, push away nothing.
3. Bring your whole self to the experience.
4. Find a place of rest in the middle of things.
5. Cultivate don’t know mind.
In the remainder of The Five Invitations, Ostaseski delves deeper into each of these precepts to distill its vital lifeblood into insights and practices with which to enrich and ennoble our diurnal existence. Complement it with Oliver Sacks on death and the redemptive radiance of a life fully lived, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on how Darwin and Freud shaped our relationship with death, these seven unusual children’s books about mortality, and Seneca on the key to resilience in the face of loss.
In the final years of his life, the English poet, novelist, essayist, and social justice advocate Sir Stephen Spender undertook a playful and poignant labor of love — he asked artist David Hockney to draw each letter of the alphabet, then invited twenty-nine of the greatest writers in the English language to each contribute a short original text for one of the letters. The result was the 1991 out-of-print treasure Hockney’s Alphabet (public library) — a sublime addition to the canon of imaginative alphabet books, with all proceeds going toward AIDS research and care for people living and dying with AIDS.
The twenty-nine pieces — essays, poems, micro-memoirs — come from such titans of literature as Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, Martin Amis, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oats, Ted Hughes, Ian McEwan, Erica Jong, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Iris Murdoch.
X by David Hockney
“I have never liked the look of E,” Gore Vidal declares, “so very like a comb, unsnarling hyacinthine locks, taming Medusan curls — E — a cry!” Anthony Burgess writes a long elegy for X, the “unnecessary” letter that is also our mightiest cypher, “the great unknown.” Dorris Lessing takes P on a culinary adventure in pumpkin. “‘Why’ is the only question which bothers people enough to have an entire letter of the alphabet named after it,” quips Douglas Adams as he launches into an eulogy for the unanswerable. Norman Mailer alone declined to participate in the project, but his feisty rejection so befits the letter F he had been assigned that, with his permission, it appears in the book in place of an actual contribution.
B by David Hockney
One of the most beautiful, arresting, and nuanced entires comes from Joyce Carol Oats, for B — a roaming part-Aristotelian, part-Darwinian, wholly Oatsian meditation on existence, time, and the universe itself:
Of all Bs surely BIRTH is the most profound. The most mysterious. BIRTH. BEGET. BEING. BEGINNING. BEFORE. Nothing is so intimidating, so elusive. No riddle so haunting. If death is decomposition, and (mere) decomposition is death, the disintegration of BEING, still we can grasp its principle: the shattering of a pane of glass, the melting of a snowflake, the shredding of a flower’s perfect petals by a fool’s nervous fingernails, so idle, so purposeless, so common. But BIRTH? BEGETTING? BEGIN? Who can grasp such principles, such phantasmagoria? Out of what void can BEING spring? — not NON-BEING, surely. Is there a time BEFORE time? Are we BEGOTTEN out of nothing? at a point equidistant from various nowheres? How I wish, before I die, I could know how, still less why, a seemingly undirected flow of energy washes life, consciousness, particularity, BEING into the universe!
Our BIRTHS are double. The human, historical BIRTHDAY. A time, a place; a mother, a father. The BIRTHDAY to be linked, eventually, with a deathday. But there is also the BIRTH of the idea of us; the BIRTH of the species, excruciatingly slow, apparently blind, groping, relentless; the BIRTH of all animate matter, out of the inanimate materials of stars; the mysterious composition of disparate elements out of the singularity of time zero. Our collective BIRTH out of a single BEGETTING, how many billions of years ago.
Thus BIRTH, of all Bs the most profound. The most mysterious.
C by David Hockney
Iris Murdoch, who herself had once considered the interplay of causality and chance in human existence, takes a much lighter lens to the letter C:
I find the letter C a warm comforting friendly sort of letter, perhaps because I first came across it in action in the word cat. However, there is much to be said against it. It lacks authority. It is not interesting or imposing, certainly not self-assertive. When scrawled by hand it can be easily overwhelmed by its more prominent neighbors. It may even be described as a mean shadowy unattractive little sign, scarcely more than an enlarged comma. It is not elegant and comely to contemplate; by comparison, for instance, with A or M it lacks form, it cannot claim to be in itself a little work of art. (Esthetically, surely the handsomest of letters is the Russian Ж.) Moreover, a different charge, C may be said to be actually otiose. Some of our local languages do without it, leaving its tasks to unambiguous S and K signs, others persecute it almost to extinction or disfigure it with unseemly hats or tails. It suffers all sorts of bizarre pronunciations. Nevertheless, for the sake of that old friendship, I feel affection for the poor little letter. After all, who wants a kat?
D by David Hockney
Paul Theroux picks up where Oates left off — or, rather, where Emily Dickinson left off a century earlier — and takes on D for Death, that great consecrator of life:
Death is oblivion, the end of life. Sudden or slow, it is an impartial terror, respecting no one, visiting every being on earth, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the wise and the foolish, the innocent and the wicked.
We are dying every second and that unstoppable tick of our mortal clock can fill us with such anxiety that our fear may make us brilliant and ingenious. Throughout history people have invented ways to defy death, by creating works of art, imagining strange gods, taking risks, making sacrifices, attempting to appease its terror, even constructing a whole kingdom beyond death in order to bestow immortality on ourselves.
Death for some is a virus, for others a bullet, a dagger, an oncoming car. It can be a fatal dose of gas or water or fire. For most it is within, the age and decay of the body — struggle, then collapse.
Still death grins at us, omnipotent, godlike — often death is depicted as a fearless skeleton with no sex, a bony comedian wearing a lipless grin. Some see death as evil, a murderer, a revenger, because it is all-powerful. But why see death as a hangman when it is truer to see it as a harvester leveling the earth with its scythe?
Oddly, we take hope from the seasons — the rebirth of spring after the death of winter — or from the rising and setting of the sun. But no spring, no dawn beyond death, has ever been proven. Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.
G by David Hockney
Seamus Heaney contributes a poem for G — an ode to language itself, the riverine fluidity and richness of it:
Like breath being shunted.
The sound of the Gaelic
word for voice —
written as guth
and in the plural
having the sense
of vowels and rhymes.
voice is glór,
voice of the river, say,
voice of the wind
that shakes the barley in
gort, a cornfield.
And gort is the Irish
name for the letter:
field full of guh-grain,
granary of G-ness.
H by David Hockney
“H is for Homosexual” for Martin Amis, who relays a heartbreaking childhood memory of awakening to his difference, then writes:
I wish I understood homosexuality. I wish I could intuit more about it — the attraction to like, not to other. Is it nature or nurture, a predisposition, is it written in the DNA? When I think about it in relation to myself … its isolation and disquiet become something lifelong. In my mind I call homosexuality not a “condition” (and certainly not a “preference”), I call it a destiny. Because all I know for certain about homosexuality is that it asks for courage. It demands courage.
J by David Hockney
In a recollection that parallels Virginia Woolf’s epiphany about the interconnectedness of everything and echoes Willa Cather’s memorable passage about the essence of happiness, Ian McEwan chooses Joy for J:
When I was nine and living in Tripoli, Libya, I had an experience of joy, thirty seconds or so that count as the real beginning of my conscious life.
One early morning during the summer holidays my mother dropped me off at the local beach on her way in to work. I was to spend a few hours there alone. I had packed lunch and some piasters to spend on a fizzy drink.
It was probably seven-thirty when I stood at the top of a low cliff by a set of wooden stairs. The tranquility of the Mediterranean — a cleaner, brighter sea then — seemed inseparable from a sweetness in the air and the sound of small waves breaking. The beach of white sand was deserted. It was all mine. The space which separated me from what I saw sparkled with significance. Everything I looked at — yesterday’s footprints in the sand, an outcrop of rock, the wooden rail beneath my hand — seemed overpoweringly unique, etched in light, and somehow to be aware of itself, to “know.” At the same time, everything belonged together, and that unity was knowing, too, and seemed to say, Now you’ve seen us. I felt myself dissolving into what I saw. I was no longer a son or a schoolboy or a Wolf Cub. And yet I felt my individuality intensely, as though for the first time. I was coming into being. I murmured something like, “I am me,” or “This is me.” Even now, I sometimes find this kind of formulation useful.
The rest of that day is lost. As soon as I moved from where I stood, the memory fades. I suppose I must have run down the steps and across the sand to the water to begin…
W by David Hockney
Susan Sontag fills the twin trenches of W with her singular gift for wresting from the mundane the miraculous, the existential, the sublime:
W might be for the weather, an accordion topic of proven use in avoiding the not supposed to be mentioned or dwelt on… I usually don’t want to talk about weather… But why not have a white topic, one that carries as much or as little weight as we wish?
Weather is always happening, always changing. What’s going to happen? we ask fearfully. Whatever happens, it will be something else.
When we’re talking about the weather, well, we’re giving ourselves a break.
The wonder is that one thing does succeed another. Distracting us from the wound, from awareness of what coexists. I am walking in the woods or gulping fresh water or encircling a child with watchful tenderness. And at that very moment, at this very moment, in the final agonies of a torture session in the wicked war a nearby government is waging against its citizens, inside a cardboard box in the doorway of the windward corner of my street, someone is, someone has just…
I don’t know, it’s been explained, it’s called having a whole world.
I was sleepy. Id’ stayed up all night working on my book. But I went to the museum. It was the last day. It was worth it, the paintings were wonderful. Then came the news we were waiting for. She wept. He wept. I wept. What amazing weather we’ve been having. Then we wandered over to a bar (this is Berlin) very near where the wall was (how we had rejoiced) and drank some wine (and went on weeping). We move from one mood to another, giving due attention to each. (“Our moods do not believe in one another,” Emerson said.) There is no final mood. It is winter now.
Hockney’s Alphabet is magnificent in its totality, and perhaps its oblivion will not be total — perhaps someday, the publisher who mistook the temporal for the dated will bring its timeless splendor back into print. Complement it with David Hockney’s rare illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, then revisit other uncommonly wonderful alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Oliver Jeffers, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Quentin Blake, and Maira Kalman.
Thanks, Maria Konnikova