After this era of great pilots is gone, as the era of great sea captains has gone — each nudged aside by the march of inventive genius, by steel cogs and copper discs and hair-thin wires on white faces that are dumb, but speak — it will be found, I think, that all the science of flying has been captured in the breadth of an instrument board, but not the religion of it. One day the stars will be as familiar to each man as the landmarks, the curves, and the hills on the road that leads to his door, and one day this will be an airborne life. But by then men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to familiarity with labelled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge of the sky and the wind and the way of weather will be extraneous as passing fiction.
~ Beryl Markham from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/09/19/beryl-markham-west-with-the-night/
As if there’s anything I could write which would add to that.
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 The Sea The Sea would be a good cautionary tale for me to consume forthwith.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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 Nothing Personal is yet another one. Drat!
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?
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.
So begins her obsession with dominating the mind by dominating the body, which would follow her throughout her life in various guises — running, karate, yoga, cycling, skiing — always ambivalent and self-conscious, until it finally resolves into a glimpse of the larger truth beneath the mechanics of illusory perfectibility: that we exert ourselves so violently on keeping the package of the body intact in order to keep it from spilling its immaterial contents — the soul, the self — into oblivion.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2022/01/01/the-secret-to-superhuman-strength-alison-bechdel/
Ah yes, “oblivion.” Good stuff. Popova is referring to a graphic artist, and midway through the article is an exquisite cartoon example; the author drawing, figuratively and literally, a metaphor for life involving a hill and a bicycle. Reading that cartoon brought to mind my beloved practice of meditating on death. (Try this explanation.) Closely related I often call to mind the impermanence of things. Sometimes I mix the two, thinking…
This is my last sip from this [my favorite, morning coffee] mug. (Knowing it will one day be broken.)
This [regularly scheduled weekly] conversation with this person is our last one. (Imagining when priorities change and we’re no longer working together.)
This conversation I’m recording for a podcast is my last one. (Because I will die.)
This dinner with this person [my mom, my spouse, etc] is my last one. (Because one of us will die first.)
The goal is not to be morbid and depressed; The goal is to maintain a realistic perspective to enable wringing the absolute maximum enjoyment and appreciation from every single waking moment.
And so we get to the crux of our human predicament — the underbelly of our anxiety about every unanswered email, every unfinished project, and every unbegun dream: Our capacities are limited, our time is finite, and we have no control over how it will unfold or when it will run out. Beyond the lucky fact of being born, life is one great sweep of uncertainty, bookended by the only other lucky certainty we have. It is hardly any wonder that the sweep is dusted with so much worry and we respond with so much obsessive planning, compulsive productivity, and other touching illusions of control.~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/12/20/four-thousand-weeks-oliver-burkeman/
For years I’ve been finding myself judging my day, each evening as I go to sleep. I lie down, and try as I might, my thoughts go beyond simply reviewing. I tried to stop doing the judging part, to no avail.
There’s a Steve Jobs quote about asking himself a question each morning, and that’s great, (but not something I do.) I realized that I’m asking myself that question at the end of each day after closing my eyes to beckon sleep:
If that was the last day of my life, am I satisfied with what I did?
The universe makes a sound — is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul. And this silence can also be heard.~ Etel Adnan from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/11/16/etel-adnan-shifting-the-silence/
I am not a poet. Who knows, maybe if I were, I’d still be at a loss for words. On one hand, having read Popova’s short article I feel relieved; At the least, I’ve now noticed a person named Adnan has lived, and I’ve enjoyed a small sip of her writing. On the other hand, a gripping panic begins to rise up as it’s painfully clear that I will never make even the slightest progress in experiencing the totality of what this universe has to offer. Anyway, go take a sip.
A challenge arises when we make something over a long period of time. As we evolve — as we add experiences, impressions, memories, deepening knowledge and self-knowledge to the combinatorial pool from which all creative work springs — what we make evolves accordingly; it must, if we are living widely and wisely enough. Eventually, the name we once chose for it begins to feel not like a choice but like a constraint, an ill-fitting corset ribbed with the ossified sensibility of a former self.~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/10/22/brain-pickings-becoming-the-marginalian/
Popova changed the name of her project a while back, and this is a nice unpacking of her thinking. I’ve a lot of projects, and they have various names; Names that are public and names for them in my own mind.
With each project, I continuously struggle to balance the desire for concision and the desire for clarity. I drive myself mercilessly to find the simplest phrase that is something memorable and meaningful. And then I drive myself mercilessly to be ready and able to explain things as iterative layers of unpacking. That name. A few sentences. A few minutes of explanation. And so on, expanding to a fully dynamic conversation about the thing. On one hand, I know that this zooming in, (towards a concise name,) and zooming out, (toward a coherent and thorough explanation,) improves my thinking and understanding. But on the other hand. It’s really exhausting.
Don’t expect anything to happen. Just wait. This waiting is a deep acceptance of the moment as such. Nietzsche called it amor fati — unquestioning love of whatever has fated you to be here. You reach a point where you’re just sitting there, asking, “What is this?” — but with no interest in an answer. The longing for an answer compromises the potency of the question. Can you be satisfied to rest in this puzzlement, this perplexity, in a deeply focused and embodied way? Just waiting without any expectations?~ Stephen Batchelor
That’s a quote presented by Maria Popova within a much larger post… which you should totally go read. There’s a stillness, and perhaps even tranquility, which I very much hope you’ve experienced. I’ve mastered the walking meditation which is perambulation. But the fully engaged sense of simpy being, when there’s no sense of expectation, is still a surprise when I manage to get far enough out of my own way.
The Victorian love letter and the text message, the memoir and the Instagram selfie — they are all fragments of self-expression frozen in time, expressing a self fragmentary and discontinuous across the sweep of a life, fragments that can never reconstitute for posterity a complete and cohesive portrait of a person, because to be a person is to be perpetually contradictory and incomplete.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/09/09/aldous-huxley-island-universes/
Today was a good day. Any day wherein I stumble upon a word I do not know is a good day. I think it’s just right as rain that Huxley would be the source of the “salutary” which caused me to reach for my dictionary. (If it’s also new to you, I’ll give you a hint: It has nothing to do with “salutation,” as I had presumed.)
In addition to the unexpectedly salutary new word—a second hint—I was pleasantly held up in my light reading by Popova’s sentiment. I’m certainly not going to truly understand someone in one brief conversation. But I am definitely better off for each of those experiences spending time visiting another island universe. (That’s one of Huxley’s metaphors. Click thru already!)
To create anything of beauty, daring, and substance that makes the world see itself afresh — be it a revolutionary law of planetary motion or the Starry Night — is the work of lonely persistence against the tides of convention and conformity, often at the cost of the visionary’s aching ostracism from the status quo they are challenging with their vision.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/07/06/john-coltrane-creative-urge/
To be clear, I don’t feel I’m out to make the world see itself afresh. I am out to create better conversations to spread understanding and compassion. And while I understand, now having read a bit more about John Coltrane, how a certain type of genius might need a certain type of loneliness to do their work. That’s not me and my work.
I’m finding that I’m thriving on podcasting. It is a stupid amount of work; Yes, I’ve chosen to set things up, and to set challenges and goals, to create that amount of work. It’s even physically challenging, for example, I’m on a road-trip this week with multiple +4-hour driving days. But I know what I’m in for, and I know what’s going to happen once I press record. Magic. Obviously, a big part of that comes from me, but a critical part of it comes from the other people. I’ve always heard talk of how “creative types” can get lonely. I’ve come around to accepting the label of “creative type.” I recharge in alone time. But I think I thrive when creating in concert with others.
Those of us who visit wild places the way others visit churches and concert halls visit because we return transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled at the same time, enlarged and dissolved in something larger at the same time. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence, though its essence rarely lends itself to words.
~ Maria Popova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/05/25/thoreau-walden-nature/
I’d never thought of it that way. But, maybe it is just that. There’s a definite feeling of dissolution I occasionally experience out climbing. I have been far off the trail, and perhaps the feeling is more common farther off the trail. But I’ve also experienced it standing in a parking lot, say, next to Niagara Falls. It’s a feeling of deep stillness. A feeling that all is right as rain. All of our recorded history is less than a blink in geological time scale… so there’s certainly plenty of time, at my scale, to pause right here—wherever that is, be it a mountain or desk top.
We make art with everything we are, the doom and the glory of it. We make art to know ourselves, to locate ourselves in the web of being, to make ourselves more alive. We make art that, at its best, helps other people locate themselves and live.
~ Maria Papova from, https://www.brainpickings.org/2021/05/04/keith-haring-on-art/
I think that art is, among other things, a physical something which exists separately from the artist. Art can be ephemeral—chalk work that disappears, a dance performance—but it exists in reality. (As a counterpoint: Art cannot exist solely in one’s imagination.) We even acknowledge that property of art being something-which-exists within the word artifact. (As in art-i-fact, and facts are concrete things which can be known about reality.)
Artists. Art. Artifacts.
Until just reading Popova’s comment, I hadn’t thought of creating a community as art; But now I am wondering.
I’m certainly a creative person, and creativity is required to create—hey, look at that—a community. Clearly a community isn’t summarily disqualified from being art simply because it is ephemeral, both in the sense of its appearance changing over time, and that it will one day cease to exist. But is it art?
Because a community sure looks like something that fits within what Popova is saying up there.