Ruh-roh… that’s me

The ways in which we are all susceptible to drowning ourselves into drama, and what it takes to float free, is what Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) explores in her subtle, splendid 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea — the story of a talented but complacent playwright approaching the overlook of life, who is ultimately overcome by his tragic flaw: Despite his obsessive self-reflection (or perhaps precisely because of it), his egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit — that brightest and most generous part of us, the part rightly called our gift, the part that extends the outstretched hand of sympathy and wonder we call art and invites, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

~ Maria Popova from https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/06/23/iris-murdoch-the-sea-the-sea/

I’m not a playwright—but the rest of that character seems too like me. “Drowning ourselves in drama…” “…obsessive self-reflection…” “…egotism ultimately eclipses his creative spirit…” Methinks this novel would be a good cautionary tale for me to consume forthwith.

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How did this get lost?

I have taken as my province to restore to the light the art of exercise, once so highly esteemed, and now plunged into deepest obscurity and utterly perished… Why no one else has taken this on, I dare not say. I know only that this is a task of both maximum utility and enormous labor.

~ Girolamo Mercuriale from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/05/10/sweat-bill-hayes/

That straight–up sounds like the opening of an Edgar Allan Poe novel about a man whose previously unheard of uncle bequeaths him a map to a dark continent . . . No wait. Giro there is talking about exercise. Enlightening installment from Popova, as usual.

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You had me at “tree”

“A tree is a little bit of the future,” Wangari Maathai reflected as she set out to plant the million trees that won her the Nobel Peace Prize. But a tree is also an enchanted portal to the past — a fractal reach beyond living memory, beyond our human histories, into the “saeculum” of time.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/04/07/peattie-giant-sequoia/

I recently flew from Philadelphia to Seattle. At one point in the journey I gazed down at the Cascade Mountains from the miraculous perch of technology that is an airliner, staring silently at countless trees in countless valleys.

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Logical conclusions

In its original Latin use, the word genius was more readily applied to places — genius loci: “the spirit of a place” — than to persons, encoded with the reminder that we are profoundly shaped by the patch of spacetime into which the chance-accident of our birth has deposited us, our minds porous to the ideological atmosphere of our epoch. It is a humbling notion — an antidote to the vanity of seeing our ideas as the autonomous and unalloyed products of our own minds.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/09/15/samuel-butler-darwin-among-the-machines-erewhon/

This is a delightful meander across time and authors.

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Saeculum

There’s an Etruscan word, saeculum, that describes the span of time lived by the oldest person present, sometimes calculated to be about a hundred years. In a looser sense, the word means the expanse of time during which something is in living memory. Every event has its saeculum, and then its sunset when the last person who fought in the Spanish Civil War or the last person who saw the last passenger pigeon is gone. To us, trees seemed to offer another kind of saeculum, a longer time scale and deeper continuity, giving shelter from our ephemerality the way that a tree might offer literal shelter under its boughs.

~ Rebecca Solnit from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/02/09/rebecca-solnit-trees/

Trees are simply magical. Carl Sagan made a point in the original Cosmos series that everything uses the same basic machinery to read, and write using the same four “letters” of DNA. In a very real sense, trees are us with some different initial inputs. (Setting aside the more ephemeral, yet critical ways where we differ starkly from trees, like degree of consciousness, self-awareness, spirit, soul?) Stand next to an old enough tree and one is invariably transported to a higher level of thinking about being.

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The price of the ticket

What a journey this life is! Dependent, entirely, on things unseen. If your lover lives in Hong Kong and cannot get to Chicago, it will be necessary for you to go to Hong Kong. Perhaps you will spend your life there, and never see Chicago again. And you will, I assure you, as long as space and time divide you from anyone you love, discover a great deal about shipping routes, airlines, earth quake, famine, disease, and war. And you will always know what time it is in Hong Kong, for you love someone who lives there. And love will simply have no choice but to go into battle with space and time and, furthermore, to win.

~ James Baldwin from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/31/james-baldwin-nothing-personal-love/

I’m not sure how many things I’ve linked to over on Popova’s Marginalian project. By now you should be directly following it and reading everything she’s publishing. I’m frozen by indecision; there are so countless many superlative books, and here’s another one. Drat!

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Three dots

Let me be clear that no part of me idealizes the bygone agony of waiting three weeks for a letter from your lover to cross the Atlantic—a letter that might never arrive from a lover who might be dead by the time it does arrive. But let me also be clear that, in another century or two, if humanity is wise enough to survive and reconsider its compulsions, posterity will look back on us gobsmacked that we put ourselves through the agony of the three pulsating dots.

~ Maria Popova

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Muffled

Nothing you create is ultimately your own, yet all of it is you. Your imagination, it seems to me, is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence, and is not intrinsic to you, rather it is a construction that awaits spiritual ignition.

~ Nick Cave from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/20/nick-cave-creativity/

This is a thought which seriously concerns me; What exactly, if anything, am I accomplishing in the totality of my life? In a very micro sense, I’m simply holding back entropy ever so slightly in one minuscule niche of the universe. I like to imagine this is like pushing the cuticles of my finger nails back: Comforting and aesthetically pleasing, but ultimately pointless because my nails continuously grow until they don’t at which point I won’t care any more. I’m not being morbid or pessimistic here. There’s nothing wrong with that micro-scale getting things done. I take comfort in the fact that pushing entropy back a bit is—quiet literally—all that anyone can do.

It’s when I shift to a much larger scale that things look quite rosy. I sleep well at night, (both literally and figuratively,) because I like who I am becoming, and I plan to keep at it. Along the way, a quite large number of people have said the equivalent of “what you did there made my life a little better.” What more could one attempt?

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whup

For millennia, we have considered language — the magic-box of words — the hallmark of our species. Only in the last blink of evolutionary time have we begun to override our self-referential nature and consider the possibility that other types of channels might carry the magical energy of creatures telling each other what it is like to be alive, in the here and now of a shared reality.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/22/cetacean-communication/

It never ceases to amaze me how my brain—I’d write “our brains” but I can only hope yours works at least slightly like mine does—finds salience in the chaos of everyday life. I found Popova’s short piece a couple of weeks ago, and more recently saw a special about humpback whales; the whales that save humanity in a Star Trek movie, if you recall.

In the documentary, one scientist is trying to understand exactly how Humpbacks use sound as language. She’s literally hoping her research enables the beginning of a conversation, (between humans and whales.) And she found this sound, she calls a “whup.” It seems that each humpback’s “whup” is unique the way our voices are said to be unique. So she composed a “whup”… and supposed it was how they say, “hey what’s up”. Seriously, it even sounds like a mumbled, “wassup.” Her question was, if whales say “whup” to announce themselves, what happens if I say “whup”?

Turns out, they say “whup” in response.

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