“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.
That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).
Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:
I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.
“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:
Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.
By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:
I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.
Echoing Dr. King’s abiding observation that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” she adds:
I am saving my life by using my life in the service of what must be done. Tonight as I listened to the ANC speakers from South Africa at the Third World People’s Center here, I was filled with a sense of self-answering necessity, of commitment as a survival weapon. Our battles are inseparable. Every person I have ever been must be actively enlisted in those battles, as well as in the battle to save my life.
Audre Lorde from Literary Witches, an illustrated celebration of trailblazing women writers.
Two days later, as the opaqueness of her prospects thrusts her once again into madden uncertainty, she redoubles her resolve to let fear be her teacher of courage:
Survival isn’t some theory operating in a vacuum. It’s a matter of my everyday living and making decisions.
How do I hold faith with sun in a sunless place? It is so hard not to counter this despair with a refusal to see. But I have to stay open and filtering no matter what’s coming at me, because that arms me in a particularly Black woman’s way.
In a sentiment that parallels Rosanne Cash’s courageous navigation of uncertainty in the wake of her brain tumor diagnosis, Lorde adds:
When I’m open, I’m also less despairing. The more clearly I see what I’m up against, the more able I am to fight this process going on in my body that they’re calling liver cancer. And I am determined to fight it even when I am not sure of the terms of the battle nor the face of victory. I just know I must not surrender my body to others unless I completely understand and agree with what they think should be done to it. I’ve got to look at all of my options carefully, even the ones I find distasteful. I know I can broaden the definition of winning to the point where I can’t lose.
Echoing French philosopher Simone Weil’s bold ideas on how to make use of our suffering, Lorde writes three days later:
We all have to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboys’ world. I want desperately to live, and I’m ready to fight for that living even if I die shortly. Just writing those words down snaps every thing I want to do into a neon clarity… For the first time I really feel that my writing has a substance and stature that will survive me.
Signature from Audre Lorde’s correspondence with the Academy of American Poets
Beholding the overwhelming response to her just-released nonfiction collection, Sister Outsider — the source of her now-iconic indictment against silence — Lorde reflects:
I have done good work. I see it in the letters that come to me about Sister Outsider, I see it in the use the women here give the poetry and the prose. But first and last I am a poet. I’ve worked very hard for that approach to living inside myself, and everything I do, I hope, reflects that view of life, even the ways I must move now in order to save my life.
I have done good work. There is a hell of a lot more I have to do. And sitting here tonight in this lovely green park in Berlin, dusk approaching and the walking willows leaning over the edge of the pool caressing each other’s fingers, birds birds birds singing under and over the frogs, and the smell of new-mown grass enveloping my sad pen, I feel I still have enough moxie to do it all, on whatever terms I’m dealt, timely or not. Enough moxie to chew the whole world up and spit it out in bite-sized pieces, useful and warm and wet and delectable because they came out of my mouth.
Over the following year, Lorde continued asking herself the difficult, beautiful questions that allowed her to concentrate the laser beam of her determination and her purpose as an artist and cultural leader into a focal point of absolute clarity. In a diary entry from October of 1985, several months after her daughter’s hard-earned graduation from Harvard, she wonders:
Where does our power lie and how do we school ourselves to use it in the service of what we believe?
How can we use each other’s differences in our common battles for a livable future? All of our children are prey. How do we raise them not to prey upon themselves and each other? And this is why we cannot be silent, because our silences will come to testify against us out of the mouths of our children.
In early December, she resolves with magmatic determination:
No matter how sick I feel, I’m still afire with a need to do something for my living.
I want to live the rest of my life, however long or short, with as much sweetness as I can decently manage, loving all the people I love, and doing as much as I can of the work I still have to do. I am going to write fire until it comes out my ears, my eyes, my noseholes — everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!
Lorde lived nearly another decade after her diagnosis, during which she was elected Poet Laureate of New York State. In an African naming ceremony performed in the Virgin Islands shortly before her death at the age of fifty-eight, she took the name Gamda Adisa — “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”
Complement this particular portion of A Burst of Light, an explosive read in its totality, with Alice James on how to live fully while dying, Descartes on the vital relationship between fear and hope, and Seneca on overcoming fear, then revisit Lorde on the indivisibility of identity and the courage to break silence.
“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” Walt Whitman asked in his diary as he contemplated what makes life worth living after a paralytic stroke, then 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.”
A generation earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803–April 27, 1882) — Whitman’s great hero, whose extraordinary letter of encouragement made the young poet’s career — tussled with the same question in his own journal. In an entry from his Selected Journals: 1841–1877 (public library), the thirty-eight-year-old Emerson laments how a preoccupation with society’s charades removes us from the deepest source of creaturely fulfillment:
That Spirit which alone suffices to quiet hearts & which seems to come forth to such from every dry knoll of sere grass, from every pine stump & half-embedded stone on which the dull March sun shines will come forth only to the poor & hungry & such as are of simple taste. If thou fillest thy brain with Boston & New York, with fashion & covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses with wine & French coffee thou shalt find no radiance of Wisdom in the lonely waste by the pinewoods.
Two millennia after Seneca admonished against how living with haste and expectancy constricts our lives and more than half a century before Hermann Hesse made his case for the most important habit in living with presence, Emerson writes:
Life goes headlong. Each of us is always to be found hurrying headlong in the chase of some fact, hunted by some fear or command behind us. Suddenly we meet a friend. We pause. Our hurry & embarrassment look ridiculous. Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity. The moment is all, in all noble relations.
Mere months later, across the Atlantic, Kierkegaard would bemoan the absurdity of busyness, writing in his own notebook: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss
With a wistful eye to how our flight away from nature and toward the bustling superficialities of society has dislocated us from the most rewarding kind of presence, Emerson writes:
In New York lately, as in cities generally, one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces. Everything is external, and I remember my hat & coat, and all my other surfaces, & nothing else. If suddenly a reasonable question is addressed to me, what refreshment & relief! I visited twice & parted with a most polite lady without giving her reason to believe that she had met any other in me than a worshipper of surfaces, like all Broadway. It stings me yet.
This notion of surfaces would preoccupy Emerson for the remainder of his life, but he would mature into the recognition that while it may not be possible for a person living in society to eradicate these superficialities entirely, it is possible to navigate them with grace while maintaining a deeper, more authentic interior life. In his essay on how to live with maximum aliveness, he would write:
We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.
Complement Emerson’s immensely insightful Selected Journals with his wisdom on preserving your individual integrity in a mass society, the building blocks of genius, the key to personal growth, the two pillars of friendship, and what beauty really means, then revisit Hesse on breaking the trance of busyness and Annie Dillard on choosing presence over productivity.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life,” Toni Morrison asserted in her spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” We do language not merely with our words — which are themselves events — but with the lived and living presence behind them. “Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating the conscience of words. If words are the arrow, we ourselves — our interior landscapes, our outward actions, the authenticity of our lives — are the bow.
The elusive, essential art of not mistaking one for the other is what Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934–November 7, 2016) explores in a prose poem from his out-of-print 1978 book of poetry, Death of a Lady’s Man (public library).
Leonard Cohen, 1974 (Photograph: Michael Putland)
In consonance with James Baldwin’s insistence that “it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience,” Cohen — who began his career as a poet — writes:
Take the word butterfly. To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words.
Speak the words with the exact precision with which you would check out a laundry list. Do not become emotional about the lace blouse. Do not get a hard-on when you say panties. Do not get all shivery just because of the towel. The sheets should not provoke a dreamy expression about the eyes. There is no need to weep into the handkerchief. The socks are not there to remind you of strange and distant voyages. It is just your laundry. It is just your clothes. Don’t peep through them. Just wear them.
Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words
Four decades before poet Elizabeth Alexander contemplated “the revelatory and unguarded and surprising self in language,” Cohen writes:
The poem is nothing but information. It is the Constitution of the inner country. If you declaim it and blow it up with noble intentions then you are no better than the politicians whom you despise. You are just someone waving a flag and making the cheapest kind of appeal to a kind of emotional patriotism. Think of the words as science, not as art. They are a report. You are speaking before a meeting of the Explorers’ Club of the National Geographic Society. These people know all the risks of mountain climbing. They honour you by taking this for granted. If you rub their faces in it that is an insult to their hospitality. Tell them about the height of the mountain, the equipment you used, be specific about the surfaces and the time it took to scale it. Do not work the audience for gasps and sighs. If you are worthy of gasps and sighs it will not be from your appreciation of the event but from theirs. It will be in the statistics and not the trembling of the voice or the cutting of the air with your hands. It will be in the data and the quiet organization of your presence.
Complement with Virginia Woolf’s love letter to words in the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit Cohen on creativity, the art of stillness, and democracy and its redemptions.