Hello, Terry Travers! If you missed last week's edition – Willa Cather on happiness, a breathtaking anatomy of sadness illustrated by Quentin Blake, Borges on success, and more – you can read it right here; if you missed my eulogy for the late, great Oliver Sacks, that's here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
"There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts," Vladimir Nabokov famously proclaimed. Today, hardly anyone embodies this sentiment more fully than Brené Brown, who came of age as a social scientist in an era when the tyranny of facts trivialized the richness of fancy and the human experience was squeezed out of the qualitative in the service of the quantitative, the two pitted as polarities. But like Susan Sontag, who recognized how polarities limit and imprison us, Brown defied these dogmatic dichotomies and went on to become what she calls a "researcher-storyteller" – a social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to "find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources."
In Rising Strong (public library), Brown builds upon her earlier work on vulnerability to examine the character qualities, emotional patterns, and habits of mind that enable people to transcend the catastrophes of life, from personal heartbreak to professional collapse, and emerge not only unbroken but more whole.
To be sure, this isn't another iteration of "fail forward," that tired and trendy (but far from new) cultural trope of extolling failure as a stepping stone to success – Brown's research is about what happens in the psyche and the spirit when we are in the thick of the failure itself, facedown in the muddy stream, gasping for air; about what those who live from a deep place of worthiness have in common; about the choices involved in living a wholehearted life and the consequences of those choices in rising from our facedown moments to march forward.
While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for – love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few – the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it's the process that teaches us the most about who we are.
Brown argues that we live in "a Gilded Age of Failure," where we fetishize recovery stories for their redemptive ending, glossing over the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it. (Some time ago, I too lamented this cultural tendency in my seven most important learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings.) This, Brown points out, does a disservice to the essence of grit, which has been shown to be a primary trait of those who succeed in life. She writes:
Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important – toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.
Brown considers the trifecta of resilience her research has uncovered:
The most transformative and resilient leaders that I've worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.
Another common denominator Brown found across those able to rise strong from their facedown moments is an active engagement with the creative impulse, whatever the medium – a physical practice integrating the intellectual, the emotional, and the spiritual:
Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we're learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration – it is how we fold our experiences into our being... The Asaro tribe of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea has a beautiful saying: "Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle."
Our expressions of spirituality are as diverse as we are. When our intentions and actions are guided by spirituality – our belief in our interconnectedness and love – our everyday experiences can be spiritual practices. We can transform teaching, leading, and parenting into spiritual practices. Asking for and receiving help can also be spiritual practices. Storytelling and creating can be spiritual practices, because they cultivate awareness.
In the late 1950s, a young woman named Lois Sorrells Beckwith did what many passionate book-lovers find themselves doing – she fell in love with an author through his work; not with the writing alone, but with the man. That man was Jack Kerouac and the book that tipped Lois over the edge of infatuation was his newly published novella The Subterraneans (public library), a semi-fictional account of a fervid romance.
But then Lois did something few ardent readers would dare to do.
A native New Englander then living in California, she moved back to the East Coast and, one fateful afternoon in 1958, mustered the timid brazenness to drive herself to Kerouac's home in Northport, Long Island, hoping to meet him. She pulled up to the house and found him sitting under a tree in his front yard, meditating – a practice he had taken up some years earlier as he plunged into Buddhist philosophy.
So began a romance that lasted many years. Lois was twenty-three. Jack was thirty-six and had just published On the Road, the novel that would become a counterculture classic and catapult him into literary celebrity.
"I had fallen in love with the soul of this man," Lois – the mother of my friend Sebastian Beckwith, whom I know through the wonderful and talented Wendy MacNaughton – tells me as she looks back on this unusual and electrifying adventure in love and literature.
The relationship continued, on and off, for years. The "on" phases were intensely beautiful – the two shared an apartment in New York's Greenwich Village, an epicenter of the era's creative culture, which they relished fully. Lois recounts:
We were drinking lots of wine and dancing and making love and listening to him read.
They went to poetry readings together and listened to music and led a life that Lois remembers as "pretty fast-paced and exhausting." But it was also incredibly tender – every time he left the apartment, Jack wrote Lois a sweet note.
Writing, indeed, was not only what had brought them together but what kept them together. During the "off" phases, they wrote each other letters that sustained their romance. But marriage was never something either of them desired. Jack had already been married and divorced twice. Lois has fallen in love with his writing and respected it as his greatest commitment. She reflects:
I felt his pain deeply, and his beauty, and his knowledge. And I loved being with him. But I never thought of marrying him – he was a writer, and he had to write.
And then Lois lost her mother, with whom she had been incredibly close. Gutted by grief and mired in a thick depression, she went to stay with her father for a while.
Late one night, there was a knock at the door. It was Jack, with an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his back. Already one of the country's most famous writers, he had been away on a book tour when he received Lois's letter about her mother's death and her depression. Terrified that she might commit suicide, he had flown in, walked five miles from the other side of town with the giant device, and come to play Lois a song to lift her spirits.
This man, in whom the tender and the troubled always coexisted, had recognized in his beloved the wounded part of himself. He had extended to Lois the comforting care he was ultimately unable to grant himself. Lois recounts:
As he became more famous, he drank more – it was very sad.
"Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you're already in heaven now," Kerouac himself once wrote, and in this enormous gesture of kindness, he had transported himself to heaven, if only for a night.
Eventually, the couple parted ways as lovers but remained friends. In fact, it was Jack who introduced Lois to her husband, who became my friend Sebastian's father.
And then, many years later, something unusual happened.
One day, when Lois was about to turn eighty and Jack had been dead for nearly half a century by the troubledness that eclipsed his radiant spirit, a piece of paper fell on her floor as she was moving some papers at home. On it, the phrase "universe – one song" was written in the handwriting of her youth.
Lois immediately remembered a vivid dream she had had all those years earlier, in that New York apartment. She recounts the dream:
I was just walking around on a very hot, sultry night – it was exciting, sensual – and I heard the most exquisite music. I asked someone what it was, and they said that it was the voices of all nationalities speaking. The dream was all about kindness – this huge love and kindness – so it made me think of Jack on the night of his heroic five-mile walk. And that's still what I think about when I think about Jack.
Moved by the memory of the dream and Jack's generous gesture, Lois penned a poem in remembrance of his kindness. Here she is, at eighty, reading it:
On August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered one of the most extraordinary speeches of all time – a sweeping meditation on the life of the mind, the purpose of education, the art of creative reading, and the building blocks of of genius. He was only thirty-four.
To the young mind, every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things, and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground, whereby contrary and remote things cohere, and flower out from one stem.
[A] great influence into the spirit of the scholar, is, the mind of the Past, – in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past... The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again... It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.
But books – like any technology of thought, indeed – aren't inherently valuable; we confer value upon them by the nature of our use. To deny ourselves the wealth of human genius contained in books, Emerson argues, is to rob ourselves of vital inspiration; but to rely on books as blind dogma is to blunt our own creative genius:
Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action, it is genius; not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every man. In its essence, it is progressive. The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they, – let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates.
Instead of being its own seer, let it receive from another mind its truth, though it were in torrents of light, without periods of solitude, inquest, and self-recovery, and a fatal disservice is done. Genius is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over influence
Genius, says Emerson, is best nurtured by a balance of reading books and "reading" life – in fact, even more important than being a scholar by the lamplight of the study is being a scholar in the luminous school of life:
Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading, so it be sternly subordinated. Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, – when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining, – we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak.
And yet the pleasure of reading, Emerson reminds us in a remark that applies perfectly to this very speech, is unparalleled in granting us a sense of communion with kindred spirits and likeminds long gone:
It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books... There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had wellnigh thought and said.
But since the fruits of reading are ones we must actively reap, Emerson makes a beautiful case for the art of creative reading:
I would not be hurried ... to underrate the Book. ... As the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge... I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, "He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies." There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Tom Wolfe's magnificent commencement address on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Emerson admonishes against mistaking the academic charades of knowledge for knowledge itself:
Colleges ... can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit.
And yet the true scholar, Emerson argues, is the person able to bridge ideas with actions:
Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action... Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.
I do not see how any man can afford, for the sake of his nerves and his nap, to spare any action in which he can partake. It is pearls and rubies to his discourse. Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructers in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products.
He who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.
If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, – in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank intercourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day.
Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think. Does he lack organ or medium to impart his truths? He can still fall back on this elemental force of living them. This is a total act. Thinking is a partial act... The scholar loses no hour which the man lives.
The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.
But doing that, he points out, is an act of creative rebellion – one not for the faint of heart or timid of conviction, for those who insist on maintaining appearances will always push back against the tellers of truth. Asserting that the scholar must "defer never to the popular cry" – a piercing and timely incantation in our era of catering to the lowest common denominator of culture, where entire industries are built upon indulging the popular cry – Emerson urges:
In the long period of his preparation, [the true scholar] must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept, – how often! poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society... For all this loss and scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world's eye. He is the world's heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history. Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies, in all solemn hours, has uttered as its commentary on the world of actions, – these he shall receive and impart.
In a remark particularly assuring amid the outrage culture of our time, Emerson admonishes against getting caught up in the fads of controversy:
The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom. In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach; and bide his own time, – happy enough, if he can satisfy himself alone, that this day he has seen something truly.
Free should the scholar be, – free and brave... Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance... The world is his, who can see through its pretension.
"One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated," poet Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936–February 13, 2010) told Poets & Writers Magazine in 1992. And celebrate she did – for more than half a century, Clifton was an unparalleled and unflinching celebrator of the African American experience, the female body, and the human spirit. A government clerk who became a self-taught poet, then the poet laureate of Maryland, she has influenced generations of writers and artists. Her work continues to envelop in radiance the hard edges of life.
"For old people," Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her sublime meditation on aging and what beauty really means, "beauty doesn't come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young... It has to do with who the person is." But who is the person staring back at us from the mirror as the decades roll by? The mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of changes is, after all, one of the most interesting questions of philosophy. Perhaps the greatest perplexity of aging is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror.
That's what beloved writer Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007) addresses with extraordinary humor and intellectual elegance in a 1989 piece titled "Upstaging Time," found in Just As I Thought (public library) – the same indispensable nonfiction collection that gave us Paley's astute advice to writers.
Paley, at sixty-seven, writes:
A couple of years ago a small boy yelled out as he threw a ball to a smaller boy standing near me, "Hey, dummy, tell that old lady to watch out."
What? What lady? Old? I'm not vain or unrealistic. For the last twenty years my mirror seems to have reflected – correctly – a woman getting older, not a woman old. Therefore, I took a couple of the hops, skips, and jumps my head is accustomed to making and began to write what would probably become a story. The first sentence is: "That year all the boys on my block were sixty-seven."
Then I was busy and my disposition, which tends to crude optimism anyway, changed the subject. Also, my sister would call, and from time to time she'd say, "Can you believe it? I'm almost seventy-eight. And Vic is going on eighty. Can you believe it?" No, I couldn't believe it, and neither could anyone who talked to them or saw them. They've always been about fifteen years older than I, and still were. With such a sister and brother preceding me, it would seem bad manners to become old. My aging (the aging of the youngest) must seem awfully pushy to them.
I returned to my work and was able to write the next sentence of what may still become a story: "Two years later, two of the boys had died and my husband said, 'Well, I'd better take this old-age business a little more seriously.'"
To manifest the needed seriousness, Paley considers some of the practicalities of that old-age business:
You may begin to notice that you're invisible. Especially if you're short and gray-haired. But I say to whom? And so what? All the best minorities have suffered that and are rising nowadays in the joy of righteous wrath.
You are expected to forget words or names, and you do. You may look up at the ceiling. People don't like this. They may say, "Oh come on, you're not listening." You're actually trying to remember their names.
While he could still make explanations, my father explained to me that the little brain twigs, along with other damp parts of the body, dry up, but that there is still an infinity of synaptic opportunities in the brain. If you forget the word for peach ("A wonderful fruit," he said), you can make other pathways for the peach picture. You can attach it to another word or context, which will then return you to the word "peach," such as "What a peachy friend," or springtime and peach blossoms. This is valuable advice, by the way. It works. Even if you're only thirty, write it down for later.
Paley returns to the subject thirteen years later, at eighty, in a magnificent short piece titled "My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age," originally written for the New Yorker in 2002 and included in Here and Somewhere Else: Stories and Poems by Grace Paley and Robert Nichols (public library) – a marvelous celebration of literature, love, and the love of literature by Paley and her husband, published a few months before she died at the age of eighty-five.
My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn't think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it's for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kinds in time to come.
They said, Really?
My father wanted to begin as soon as possible.
Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this – when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.
That's a metaphor, right?
Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It's probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don't yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don't be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.
Say anything, but be respectful. Say – maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.
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