|This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — a tender painted poem celebrating the wilderness and our capacity for love, trust, and hope; Emily Dickinson’s uncommon life, illustrated; John Muir on the calm assurance of autumn as a season of self-renewal and nature as a tonic for mental and physical health — you can catch up right here. And if you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – I spend innumerable hours and tremendous resources on it each week, as I have been for fourteen years, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.|
A generation after Walt Whitman declared himself “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul,” animated by an electric awareness of how interleaved the two are — how the body is the locus of “the real I myself” — the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James revolutionized our understanding of life with his theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, scientists have begun uncovering what poets have always known — that spirit is woven of sinew and mind of marrow. The body is the place, the only place, where we live — it is where we experience time, it is where we heal from emotional trauma, it is the seat of consciousness, without which there is nothing. And yet we spend our lives turning away from this elemental fact — with distraction, with addiction, with the trance of busyness — until suddenly something beyond our control — a diagnosis, a heartbreak, a pandemic — staggers us awake. We remember the body, this sole and solitary arena of being. The instant we remember to reverence it we also remember to mourn it, for we remember that this living miracle is a temporary miracle — a borrowed constellation of atoms bound to return to the stardust that made it.
That is what poet Louise Glück, laureate of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, explores in the short, stunning poem “Crossroads,” originally published in her 2009 book A Village Life, later included in her indispensable collected Poems 1962–2012 (public library), and read here by the poet herself for the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize.
by Louise Glück
My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young —
love that was so often foolish in its objectives
but never in its choices, its intensities
Too much demanded in advance, too much that could not be promised —
My soul has been so fearful, so violent;
forgive its brutality.
As though it were that soul, my hand moves over you cautiously,
not wishing to give offense
but eager, finally, to achieve expression as substance:
it is not the earth I will miss,
it is you I will miss.
Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s staggering “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” composed as her own body was cusping over the untimely horizon of nonbeing, and poet Lisel Mueller, who lived to 96, on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives, then revisit physicist Brian Greene on mortality and our search for meaning and the fascinating history of how the birth of astrophotography changed our relationship to death.
|donating=lovingEvery week since 2006, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you’ve had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)monthly donationYou can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch. one-time donationOr you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7|
Every Color of Light: A Stunning Japanese Illustrated Celebration of Change, the Sky, and the Fullness of Life
One of the most bewildering things about life is how ever-shifting the inner weather systems are, yet how wholly each storm consumes us when it comes, how completely suffering not only darkens the inner firmament but dims the prospective imagination itself, so that we cease being able to imagine the return of the light. But the light does return to lift the darkness and restore the world’s color — as in nature, so in the subset of it that is human nature. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” Loren Eiseley wrote in one of the greatest essays ever written. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”
We forget, too, just how much of life’s miraculousness resides in the latitude of the spectrum of experience and our dance across it, how much of life’s vibrancy radiates from the contrast between the various hues, between the darkness and the light. There is, after all, something eminently uninteresting about a perpetually blue sky. Van Gogh knew this when he contemplated “the drama of a storm in nature, the drama of sorrow in life” as essential fuel for art and life. Coleridge knew it as he huddled in a hollow to behold “the power and ‘eternal link’ of energy” in his transcendent encounter with a violent storm.
The life-affirming splendor of the spectrum within and without is what Japanese poet and picture-book author Hiroshi Osada and artist Ryoji Arai celebrate in Every Color of Light: A Book about the Sky (public library), translated by David Boyd — a tender serenade to the elements that unspools into a lullaby, inviting ecstatic wakefulness to the fulness of life, inviting a serene surrender to slumber.
Born in Fukushima just as World War II was breaking out, Osada composed this spare, lyrical book upon turning eighty, having lived through unimaginable storms. I can’t help but read it in consonance with Pico Iyer’s soulful meditation on autumn light and finding beauty in impermanence, drawn from his many years in Japan. Arai’s almost synesthetic art — radiating more than color, radiating sound, a kind of buzzing aliveness — only amplifies this sense of consolation in the drama of the elements, this sense of change as a portal not to terror but to transcendent serenity.
The story traces the symphonic movements of a storm. The pitter-patter of a rainy day crescendoes into whipping wind and slanting rain as the blues grow darker and the greens deeper, suddenly interrupted by the electric kaleidoscope of lightning.
And then, just like that, the storm passes, leaving a shimmering light-filled sky in its wake, leaving the darkened colors not just restored but imbued with a new vibrancy as the setting sun blankets everything with its golden light.
The shadows grow longer, the birds go to roost, the Moon rises enormous and ancient against the clear star-salted sky, and the time for sleep comes like birdsong, like a moonrise, like a whispered poem.
Complement the subtle and staggeringly beautiful Every Color of Light with science-inspired artist Lauren Redniss’s wondrous Thunder & Lightning and artist Maira Kalman’s charming MoMA collaboration with author Daniel Handler, Weather, Weather, then revisit Little Tree — Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata’s uncommonly magical pop-up celebration fo the cycle of life — and Georgia O’Keeffe’s serenade to the sky.
“Do you need a prod? / Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” Mary Oliver asked in her stunning love poem to life, composed in the wake of a terrifying diagnosis. “Let me be as urgent as a knife, then, / and remind you of Keats, / so single of purpose and thinking, for a while, / he had a lifetime.”
Think of Keats when you need that prod for living — Keats, who died at the peak of his poetic powers, already having given humanity more truth and beauty in his short life than most would give if they had eternity. Or think of Bruce Lee (November 27, 1940–July 20, 1973) — another rare poet of life, who too pursued truth and beauty, if in a radically different medium; who too was slain by chance, that supreme puppeteer of the universe, at the peak of his powers; who too left a legacy that shaped the sensibility, worldview, and wakefulness to life of generations.
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
On the bench across from Bruce Lee’s tombstone in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery, where he is buried alongside his son, also chance-slain in youth, these words of tribute appear: “The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” They are often misattributed to Lee himself — perhaps because of the proximity, perhaps because they radiate an elemental truth about his life. The animating ethos of that uncommon life comes newly alive in Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee (public library) by his daughter, Shannon Lee, titled after his famous metaphor for resilience — a slender, potent book twining her father’s timeless philosophies of living with her own reflections, drawn from her own courageous life of turning unfathomable loss into a path of light and quiet strength.
In the final year of his life, Lee was in the last stages of a long negotiation with the Hollywood machine over what had long been his dream — a film that would introduce Eastern philosophy into Western culture through the thrilling Trojan horse of martial arts action. It was a dream he attained by his sheer force of vision and will, for the Hollywood studios had such a contrived initial template and such resistance to his deeper conceptual ideas that Lee, at the risk of losing his one great opportunity for reaching millions, refused to be a mere actor in a mindless, unimaginative, and stereotype-reinforcing action movie; he insisted that it be altered and elevated, then ended up radically rewriting the script — adding, among many other poetic-philosophical cornerstones, the now-iconic “finger pointing at the Moon” scene — and giving the film its now-iconic title: Enter the Dragon.
Bruce Lee (Photograph courtesy of the Bruce Lee Foundation archive)
Throughout the entire experience, which pushed Lee to step beyond the limits of his prior creative and existential imagination, he began drafting and redrafting a piece he titled “In My Own Process.” In it, a century after the young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary of self-discovery and moral development that “this is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?,” the young philosopher-king of martial arts aimed at a “sincere and honest revelation of a man called Bruce Lee.” He resolved:
I know I am not called upon to write any true confession, but I do want to be honest — that is the least a human being can do… I have always been a martial artist by choice and an actor by profession. But, above all, I am hoping to actualize myself to be an artist of life along the way.
He didn’t know that the way was soon to be cut short; he didn’t know that he was already an artist of life. “The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver would write decades later in an essay of staggering insight, “are those… who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” Bruce Lee felt his restive potential, and though chance interceded before he could give it due time, he gave it more than due power. His daughter quotes another passage from the notebooks he relentlessly filled with ideas, insights, and open questions to be answered in the act of living — a passage that bespeaks the wellspring of his existential and creative power beyond time:
Recognize and use the spiritual power of the infinite. The intangible represents the real power of the universe. It is the seed of the tangible. It is living void because all forms come out of it, and whosoever realizes the void is filled with life and power and the love of all beings.
It was this diffuse and integrated understanding of existence that conferred a rich sense of meaning upon Lee’s life and allowed him to face death, not knowing he was facing it, without regret, without fear, as a fully actualized artist of life. In another notebook entry, he writes:
I don’t know what is the meaning of death, but I am not afraid to die. And I go on, non-stop, going forward, even though I, Bruce Lee, may die some day without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I will have no regrets. I did what I wanted to do and what I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.
Complement with physicist Brian Greene on how our transience confers dignity and meaning upon our lives, astronomer-poet Rebecca Elson’s stunning antidote to the fear of death, and Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Lee on the measure of success, his previously unpublished reflections on willpower, imagination, and confidence, and the philosophy and origin of the famous teaching after which his daughter’s book is titled.
|donating=lovingEvery week since 2006, I have been pouring tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you find any joy and solace in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU. (If you’ve had a change of heart or circumstance and wish to rescind your support, you can do so at this link.)|